Monthly Market and Economic Outlook: March 2014

Amy MagnottaAmy Magnotta, CFA, Senior Investment Manager, Brinker Capital

The U.S. equity market suffered a mild pullback in the second half of January, but resumed its trend higher in early February. The S&P 500 Index gained 4.3% in February to close at a record-high level. The consumer discretionary (+6.2%) and healthcare (+6.2%) sectors led during the month, while telecom (-1.8%) and financials (+3.1%) lagged. From a style perspective, growth continues to lead value across all market caps.

International equity markets edged out U.S. markets in February, helped by a weaker U.S. dollar. Performance on the developed side was mixed. Japan suffered a decline for the month (-0.5%), but Europe posted solid gains (+7.3%).  Emerging markets bounced back (+3.3%) as taper fears eased somewhat; however, they remain negative for the year.

Interest rates were unchanged in February and all fixed income sectors posted small gains. The 10-year Treasury ended the month at 2.66%, 34 basis points lower than where it started the year. Credit, both investment grade and high yield, continues to perform very well as spreads grind lower. High yield gained over 2% for the month. Municipal bonds have started the year off very strong gaining more than 3% despite concerns over Puerto Rico. Flows to the asset class have turned positive again, and fundamentals continue to improve.

While we believe that the bias is for interest rates to move higher, it will likely be a choppy ride. Despite an expectation of rising rates, fixed income still plays an important role in portfolios as a hedge to equity-oriented assets, just as we saw in January. Our fixed income positioning in portfolios—which includes an emphasis on yield-advantaged, shorter duration and low volatility absolute return strategies—is designed to successfully navigate a rising or stable interest rate environment.

We 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 2014, with a number of factors supporting the economy and markets over the intermediate term.

  • Monetary policy remains accommodative: Even with the Fed tapering asset purchases, short-term interest rates should remain near zero until 2015. Federal Reserve Chair Yellen wants to see evidence of stronger growth. In addition, the European Central Bank stands ready to provide support, and the Bank of Japan has embraced an aggressive monetary easing program.
  • Global growth stable: U.S. economic growth has been slow and steady. While momentum picked up in the second half of 2013, the weather appears to have had a negative impact on growth to start 2014. 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 stable. The unemployment rate has fallen to 6.6%.
  • Inflation tame: With the CPI increasing just +1.6% over the last 12 months, inflation in the U.S. is running below the Fed’s target.
  • U.S. companies remain in solid shape: U.S. companies have solid balance sheets that could be reinvested, returned to shareholders, or used for acquisitions. Corporate profits remain at high levels, and margins have been resilient.
  • Equity fund flows turned positive: Continued inflows would provide further support to the equity markets.
  • Some movement on fiscal policy: After serving as a major uncertainty over the last few years, there has been some movement in Washington. Fiscal drag will not have a major impact on growth this year. All parties in Washington were able to agree on a two-year budget agreement, averting another government shutdown, and the debt ceiling was addressed.

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

  • Fed tapering/exit: The Fed began reducing the amount of their asset purchases in January, and should they continue with an additional $10 billion at each meeting, quantitative easing should end in the fall. Risk assets have historically reacted negatively when monetary stimulus has been withdrawn; however, the economy appears to be on more solid footing this time, and the withdrawal is more gradual. The reaction of emerging markets to Fed tapering is cause for concern and will contribute to higher market volatility.
  • Significantly higher interest rates: Rates moving significantly higher from current levels could stifle the economic recovery. Should mortgage rates move higher, it could jeopardize the recovery in the housing market.

Risk assets should continue to perform if real growth continues to recover; however, we could see volatility as markets digest the slow withdrawal of stimulus by the Federal Reserve. Valuations have certainly moved higher but are not overly rich relative to history. There are even pockets of attractive valuations, such as certain emerging markets. After the near 6% pullback in late January/early February, investor sentiment is now elevated again.

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.

Magnotta_MonthlyUpdate_3.4.14

Data points above compiled from FactSet, Standard & Poor’s, MSCI, and Barclays. The views expressed are those of Brinker Capital and are for informational purposes only. Holdings subject to change.

Why Care About Housing Reform

QuintStuart Quint, Sr. Investment Manager & International Strategist, Brinker Capital

Housing is a major component of the U.S. economy and the largest source of wealth for many Americans. Despite the recent rebound, home prices in the U.S. have declined a cumulative -16% since 2006. That masks significant declines in Sunbelt markets hit by the housing bubble collapse (FL -37%, AZ -32%, CA -26%, NV -45%).
(Freddie Mac. September 2013)

Roughly 50% of the stock of housing in the U.S. is financed by mortgage debt. Consequently, the availability and cost of mortgage debt has a direct relationship on the value of housing. Indeed, the 2008 financial crisis exacerbated the downturn in housing as the financial system had sharply cut mortgage credit. The downturn in home prices also damaged consumer confidence for the two-thirds of Americans who owned their home. Many homeowners saw their savings reduced and consequently cut back on their consumption. Additionally, the housing downturn left nearly one out of five Americans underwater on their mortgage debt, (i.e. the resale value of their home in the current market would be less than the mortgage debt they owed). This resulted in higher credit losses for banks, which in turn reduced credit availability across the board.

One reason for sub-par economic growth following the 2008 financial crisis stems from the sub-par recovery in housing. Housing accounts for one out of every six dollars of economic output. (National Association of Home Builders)

9.27.13_QuintAdditionally, the housing downturn has impacted the job market. Approximately 2.5 million lost jobs between 2006 and 2013 were lost because of the housing downturn. Residential construction accounts for 1.5 million jobs including the financial sector and real estate. Housing-related employment amounts to as many as one out of every twelve jobs in the U.S. economy. (Bureau of Labor Statistics. September 6 and The Bipartisan Policy Center)

The issue of how to finance the largest asset for many Americans is of critical importance to future growth prospects for the U.S. economy.

Yield in the Time of Cholera

CoyneJohn E. Coyne, III, Vice Chairman, Brinker Capital

I recently reread the Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel from the 80s, Love in the Time of Cholera, and as I found myself being warped back to that decade, it naturally led made me reflect on the current municipal bond market! I’ll explain.

Because romance is nowhere near as risky as this market is today, it is easy to see how we can fall in love with the exciting, attractive yields in the after-tax world (around 8.5% on the long end). Nevertheless, there is something to be said for stability and safety in a time of incredible uncertainty especially with continuing interest-rate increases and, even more unnerving, a frightening credit risk landscape.

The rising-rate environment of the late 70s and early 80s played havoc on both the value and purchasing power of bonds held by individual investors. So whether for income or safety of principal, the holder was punished. And the credit markets were not nearly as challenged as today. Rates topped out in 1983, and we began the 30-year bond rally that has recently unraveled. I would imagine that during that extended period, an argument can be made that a passive-laddered approach might have been acceptable as opposed to active management—particularly in the bygone days of credit insurers like MBIA and AMBAC.

8.28.13_Coyne_Yield in the time of CholeraWell, not today. If investors want to navigate the treacherous credit markets while capturing these currently attractive yields they need a steady, experienced guide to help manage their portfolio. Advisors should be working with their municipal managers to craft strategies that can balance out their needs for income, safety and maintaining purchasing power.  Now that can make for a wonderful romance.

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.