Monthly Market and Economic Outlook: August 2014

Amy MagnottaAmy Magnotta, CFASenior Investment Manager, Brinker Capital

After pushing higher for most of July, the U.S. equity markets fell -2% on the last day to end the month in the red. Continued geopolitical concerns, a debt default in Argentina and a higher than expected reading on the Employment Cost Index could have provided a catalyst for the sell-off. Investor sentiment levels were elevated in July, so it is not surprising to have any bad news lead to a short-term pull-back in the equity markets. However, we believe equity markets are biased upward over the next six to twelve months and further weakness could be a buying opportunity.

U.S. small cap stocks have significantly lagged large caps so far this year. In July the small cap Russell 2000 Index declined -6.1%. The Russell 2000 is down -3.1% for the year-to-date period, compared to the +5.5% gain for the Russell 1000 Index. From a style perspective, value lagged growth in July but remains solidly ahead for the year-to-date period.

Developed Europe significantly lagged the U.S. equity markets in July, but Japan was able to deliver a positive return. Emerging markets continued their rally in July, gaining +2.0% for the month. Emerging markets have gained +8.5% through the first seven months of the year, well ahead of developed markets. Countries that struggled in 2013 due to the Fed’s taper talk, like India and Indonesia, have been very strong performers, while negative performance in Russia has weighed on the complex. The U.S. dollar has shown recent strength versus both developed and emerging market currencies.

New York Stock ExchangeU.S. Treasury yields edged slightly higher in July. The 10-year yield has fallen 56 basis points from where it began the year (as of 8/7/14), while the 2-year part of the yield curve has moved up eight basis points. As a result, the yield curve has flattened between the 10-year and 2-year tenors; however, it remains steep relative to history. While sluggish economic growth and geopolitical risks could be keeping a ceiling on U.S. rates, relative value could also be a factor. A 2.4% yield on a 10-year U.S. Treasury looks attractive relative to a 0.5% yield on 10-year Japanese government bonds, a 1.1% yield on 10-year German bonds, and a 2.6% yield on Spanish 10-year sovereign debt.

All taxable fixed income sectors were flat to slightly negative on the month. High yield fared the worst, declining -1.3% as spreads widened 50 basis points. Municipal bonds were slightly positive for the month and continue to benefit from a positive technical backdrop with strong demand for tax-free income being met with a lack of new issuance.

We approach our macro view as a balance between headwinds and tailwinds. We believe the scale remains tipped in favor of tailwinds, with a number of factors supporting the economy and markets over the intermediate term.

  • Global monetary policy remains accommodative: Even with quantitative easing slated to end in the fall, U.S. short-term interest rates should remain near-zero until 2015 if inflation remains contained. The ECB and the Bank of Japan are continuing their monetary easing programs.
  • Global growth stable: U.S. growth rebounded in the second quarter. Outside of the U.S., growth has not been very robust, but it is still positive.
  • Labor market progress: The recovery in the labor market has been slow but steady. The unemployment rate has fallen to 6.2% and jobless claims have fallen to new lows.
  • U.S. companies remain in solid shape: U.S. companies have solid balance sheets that are flush with cash. M&A deal activity has picked up this year. Corporate profits remain at high levels and margins have been resilient.
  • Less drag from Washington: After serving as a major uncertainty over the last few years, Washington has done little damage so far this year. Fiscal drag will not have a major impact on growth in 2014, and the budget deficit has also declined significantly.

Risks facing the economy and markets remain, including:

  • Fed Tapering/Tightening: If the Fed continues at the current pace, quantitative easing will end in the fall. Risk assets have historically reacted negatively when monetary stimulus has been withdrawn; however, this withdrawal is more gradual and the economy appears to be on more solid footing this time. Should inflation pick up, market participants will shift quickly to concern over the timing of the Fed’s first interest rate hike. Despite the recent uptick in the CPI, the core Personal Consumption Expenditure Price (PCE) Index, the Fed’s preferred inflation measure, is up only +1.5% over the last 12 months.
  • Election Year/Seasonality: While we noted there has been some progress in Washington, we could see market volatility pick up later this year in response to the mid-term elections. In addition, August and September tend to be weaker months for the equity markets.
  • Geopolitical Risks: The events in the Middle East and Russia could have a transitory impact on markets.

Risk assets should continue to perform over the intermediate term as we expect continued economic growth; however, we could see increased volatility and a shallow correction as markets digest the end of the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing program. Economic data, especially inflation data, will be watched closely for signs that could lead the Fed to tighten monetary policy earlier than expected. Equity market valuations look elevated, but not overly rich relative to history, and maybe even reasonable when considering the level of interest rates and inflation. Investor sentiment, while down from excessive optimism territory, is still elevated, but the market trend remains positive. In addition, credit conditions still provide a positive backdrop for the markets.

Asset Class Outlook

Our portfolios are positioned to take advantage of continued strength in risk assets, and we continue to emphasize high conviction opportunities within asset classes, as well as strategies that can exploit market inefficiencies.

Source: Brinker Capital

Brinker Capital, Inc., a Registered Investment Advisor. Views expressed are for informational purposes only. Holdings subject to change. Not all asset classes referenced in this material may be represented in your portfolio. All investments involve risk including loss of principal. Fixed income investments are subject to interest rate and credit risk. Foreign securities involve additional risks, including foreign currency changes, political risks, foreign taxes, and different methods of accounting and financial reporting. Past performance is not a guarantee of similar future results. An investor cannot invest directly in an index

An End to Complacency

Joe PreisserJoe Preisser, Portfolio Specialist, Brinker Capital

Volatility abruptly made an entrance onto the global stage, shoving aside the complacency that has reigned over the world’s equity markets this year as they have marched steadily from record high to record high. Asset prices were driven sharply lower last week, as gathering concerns that the Federal Reserve Bank of the United States may be closer than anticipated to raising interest rates, combined with increasing worries about the possibility of deflation in the Eurozone, and a default by the nation of Argentina, to weigh heavily on investor sentiment. The selling seen across equity markets last Thursday was particularly emphatic, with declining stocks listed on the NYSE outpacing those advancing by a ratio of 10:1, and the Chicago Board Options Exchange Volatility Index (VIX), which measures expected market volatility, climbing 25% to its highest point in four months, all combining to erase the entirety of the gains in the Dow Jones Industrial Average for the year.

Preisser_Complacency_8.4.14The looming specter of the termination of the Federal Reserve’s bond-buying program, which is scheduled for October, is beginning to cast its shadow over the marketplace as this impending reality, coupled with fears that the Central Bank will be forced to raise interest rates earlier than expected, has served to raise concerns. Evidence of this could be found last Wednesday, where, on a day that saw a report of Gross Domestic Product in the United States that far exceeded expectations, growing last quarter at an annualized pace of 4%, vs. the 2.1% contraction seen during the first three months of the year, and a policy statement from the Federal Reserve which relayed that, “short-term rates will stay low for a considerable time after the asset purchase program ends” (Wall Street Journal) equity markets could only muster a tepid response. It was the dissenting voice of Philadelphia Fed President, Charles Plosser who opined that, “the guidance on interest rates wasn’t appropriate given the considerable economic progress officials had already witnessed” (Wall Street Journal), which seemed to resonate the loudest among investors, giving them pause that this may be a signal of deeper differences beginning to emerge within the Federal Open Market Committee. Concern was further heightened on Thursday morning of last week, when a report of the Employment Cost Index revealed an unexpected increase to 0.7% for the second quarter vs. a 0.3% rise for the first quarter (New York Times), which stoked nascent fears of inflation, bolstering the case for the possibility of a more rapid increase in rates.

Negative sentiment weighed heavily on equity markets outside of the U.S. as well last week, as the possibility of deflationary pressures taking hold across the nations of Europe’s Monetary Union, combined with ongoing concerns over the situation in Ukraine and the second default in thirteen years by Argentina on its debt to unsettle market participants. According to the Wall Street Journal, “Euro-zone inflation increased at an annual rate of just 0.4% in July, having risen by 0.5% the month before. In July 2013 the rate was 1.6%” While a fall in prices certainly can be beneficial to consumers, it is when a negative spiral occurs, as a result of a steep decline, to the point where consumption is constrained, that it becomes problematic. Once these forces begin to take hold, it can be quite difficult to reverse them, which explains the concern it is currently generating among investors. The continued uncertainty around the fallout from the latest round of sanctions imposed on Russia, as a result of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, further undermined confidence in stocks listed across the Continent and contributed to the selling pressure.

ArgentinaInto this myriad of challenges facing the global marketplace came news of a default by Argentina, after the country missed a $539 interest payment, marking the second time in thirteen years they have failed to honor portions of their sovereign debt obligations. The head of research at Banctrust & Co. was quoted by Bloomberg News, “the full consequences of default are not predictable, but they certainly are not positive. The economy, already headed for its first annual contraction since 2002 with inflation estimated at 40 percent, will suffer in a default scenario as Argentines scrambling for dollars cause the peso to weaken and activity to slump.”

With all of the uncertainty currently swirling in these, “dog days of summer,” it is possible that the declines we have seen of late may be emblematic of an increase in volatility in the weeks to come as we move ever closer to the fall, and the terminus of the Fed’s asset purchases.

The views expressed are those of Brinker Capital and are not intended as investment advice or recommendation. For informational purposes only. Holdings are subject to change.