Monthly Market and Economic Outlook – July 2013

Magnotta@AmyMagnotta, CFA, Senior Investment Manager, Brinker Capital

Risk assets were off to a decent start in the second quarter but then retreated after Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s testimony to Congress on May 22 laid the ground work for a reduction in monetary policy accommodation through tapering their asset purchases as early as September. While the U.S. equity markets were able to end the quarter with decent gains, developed international markets were relatively flat and emerging markets experienced sizeable declines. Weaker currencies helped to exacerbate these losses.

After starting to move higher in May, interest rates rose sharply in June and into early July, helped by the fears of Fed tapering. The yield 10-year U.S. Treasury has increased 100 basis points over the last two months to a level of 2.64% (through 7/10). The increase in rates was all in real terms as inflation expectations fell. Bonds experienced their worst first half of the year since 1994, in which we experienced four short-term rate hikes before June 30.

7.12.13_Magnotta_MarketOutlook_2While we have seen these levels of rates in the recent past (we spent much of the 2009-2011 period above these levels), the sharpness of the move may have been a surprise to some fixed income investors who then began to de-risk portfolios. In June, higher-risk sectors like investment-grade credit, high-yield credit and emerging market debt, as well as longer duration assets like TIPS, fared the worst. With growth still sluggish and inflation low, we expect interest rates to remain relatively range-bound over the near term; however, we do expect more volatility in the bond market. Negative technical factors like continued outflows from fixed income funds could weigh on the asset class. Our portfolios remain positioned in defense of rising interest rates, with a shorter duration, emphasis on spread product and a healthy allocation to low volatility absolute return strategies.

After weighing on the markets in June, investors have begun to digest the Fed’s plans to taper asset purchases at some point this year. Should the Fed follow through with their plans to reduce monetary policy accommodation, it will do so in the context of an improving economy, which should be a positive for equity markets.

7.12.13_Magnotta_MarketOutlook_3We continue to approach our macro view as a balance between headwinds and tailwinds. We believe the scale remains tipped in favor of tailwinds as we move into the second half of the year. A number of factors should continue to support the economy and markets for the remainder of the year:

  • Monetary policy remains accommodative: The Fed remains accommodative (even with the scale back on asset purchases short-term interest rates will remain low), the ECB has pledged to support the euro, and now the Bank of Japan is embracing an aggressive monetary easing program in an attempt to boost growth and inflation. This liquidity has helped to boost markets.
  • Fiscal policy uncertainty has waned: After resolutions on the fiscal cliff, debt ceiling and sequester, the uncertainty surrounding fiscal policy has faded. The U.S. budget deficit has improved markedly, helped by stronger revenues. Fiscal drag will be much less of an issue in 2014.
  • Labor market steadily improving: The recovery in the labor market has been slow, but steady. Monthly payroll gains over the last three months have averaged 196,000 and the unemployment rate has fallen to 7.6%. The most recent employment report also showed gains in average hourly earnings.
  • Housing market improvement: An improvement in housing, typically a consumer’s largest asset, is a boost to net worth, and as a result, consumer confidence. However, a significant move higher in mortgage rates, which are now above 4.5%, could jeopardize the recovery.
  • U.S. companies remain in solid shape: U.S. companies have solid balance sheets that are flush with cash that could be reinvested or returned to shareholders. Corporate profits remain at high levels and margins have been resilient.

However, risks facing the economy and markets remain, including:

  • 7.12.13_Magnotta_MarketOutlook_4Fed mismanages exit: If the economy has not yet reached escape velocity when the Fed begins to scale back its asset purchases, risk assets could react negatively as they have in the past when monetary stimulus has been withdrawn.
  • Significantly higher interest rates: Rates moving significantly higher from here could stifle the economic recovery.
  • Europe: The risk of policy error in Europe still exists. The region has still not addressed its debt and growth problems; however, it seems leaders have realized that austerity alone will not solve its problems.
  • China: A hard landing in China would have a major impact on global growth. A recent spike in the Chinese interbank lending market is cause for concern.

We continue to seek high conviction opportunities and strategies within asset classes for our client portfolios. Some areas of opportunity currently include:

  • Domestic Equity: favor U.S. over international, dividend growers, financial healing (housing, autos)
  • International Equity: frontier markets, Japan, micro-cap
  • Fixed Income: non-Agency mortgage backed securities, short duration, emerging market corporates, global high yield and distressed
  • Real Assets: REIT Preferreds
  • Absolute Return: relative value, long/short credit, closed-end funds
  • Private Equity: company specific opportunities

Asset Class Returns
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The State of Municipal Bonds

 Amy Magnotta, Brinker Capital

In December 2010, analyst Meredith Whitney made a prediction of hundreds of billions of defaults in the municipal bond market. While we have experienced defaults, we have not yet seen anything close to the magnitude of that statement. Prior to that statement, in October of that same year, Brinker Capital released a paper that discussed our positive view on the municipal bond market due to technical factors and improving municipal credit. Because we invest in municipal bond managers with strong, deep credit research teams and a focus on high quality issues and structures, we encouraged our investors to remain invested in municipal bonds. Investors have been handsomely rewarded with close to 20% cumulative returns in municipal bonds since they bottomed in January 2011.

The financial health of municipalities is again hitting the headlines. Moody’s has warned of more problems for California cities after San Bernardino, Mammoth Lakes and Stockton have each sought bankruptcy protection. Scranton, Pennsylvania, which made the news after the mayor cut the pay of all city employees to minimum wage this July, is now seeking help from hedge funds in an effort to delay a bankruptcy. Even Puerto Rico municipal bonds, widely held by municipal bond strategies because of their attractive yields, are being seen as a greater credit risk.

We don’t believe the headlines are representative of the broader municipal bond market. There are more than 50,000 municipalities across the country, each with their individual issues. This makes municipal credit research in this environment extremely important, especially without the fallback of bond insurance. A positive corollary of these types of headlines is that it forces change. Many state and local governments have made the necessary changes to their budgets to set them on a sustainable path, but many still have more to go. Often, the largest owners of a municipality’s bonds are their own constituents – they need to maintain a good relationship with these investors in order to access financing in the future.

We feel the technical factors in the municipal bond market remain positive. Demand is very strong. While supply has been higher in recent years, most of it is refinancing, so net new supply remains at low levels. The budgets of state governments continue to improve while local governments remain under pressure. Rates are low, offering the opportunity for refinancing. The fights over pension and healthcare benefits for public workers will continue, but these issues do not present an immediate cash flow problem. However, this is a broad characterization of the municipal bond market. We will continue to invest with managers that have deep credit research teams and focus on high quality issues, seeking to avoid the problem issues as a result.