Amy Magnotta, CFA, Senior Investment Manager, Brinker Capital
The severe rotation that began in the U.S. equity markets in early March continued throughout April. Investors favored dividend-paying stocks and those with lower valuations at the expense of those trading at higher valuations. Large caps significantly outpaced small caps (+0.5% vs. -3.9%) and value led growth. From a sector perspective, energy (+5.2%), utilities (+4.3%) and consumer staples (+2.9%) led while financials (-1.5%), consumer discretionary (-1.4%) and healthcare (-0.5%) all lagged. Real assets, such as commodities and REITs, also continued to post gains.
International equity markets finished ahead of U.S. equity markets in April, eliminating the performance differential for the year-to-date period. In developed international markets, Japan continues to struggle, while European equities are performing well, helped by an improving economy. After a strong March, emerging markets were relatively flat in April. There has been significant dispersion in the performance of emerging economies so far this year; this variation in performance and fundamentals argues for active management in the asset class. Valuations in emerging markets have become attractive relative to developed markets.
Fixed income notched another month of decent gains in April as Treasury yields fell slightly. At 2.6%, 10-year Treasury note yields remain 40 basis points below where they started the year and only 60 basis points higher than when the Fed began discussing tapering a year ago. All fixed income sectors were in positive territory for the month, led again by credit. Both investment grade and high yield credit spreads continue to grind tighter. Within the U.S. credit sector fundamentals are solid and the supply/demand dynamic is favorable, but valuations are elevated, especially in the investment grade space. We favor an actively managed best ideas strategy in high yield today, rather than broad market exposure. Municipal bonds have outpaced the broad fixed income market, helped by improving fundamentals and a positive technical backdrop.
While we believe that the long term bias is for interest rates to move higher, the move will be protracted. Sluggish economic growth, low inflation and geopolitical risks are keeping a lid on rates for the short-term. Despite our view on rates, fixed income still plays an important role in portfolios, as protection against equity market volatility. 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 through the second quarter, with a number of factors supporting the economy and markets over the intermediate term.
- Global monetary policy remains accommodative: Even with the Fed tapering asset purchases, short-term interest rates should remain near-zero until 2015 if inflation remains low. In addition, the ECB stands ready to provide support if necessary, and the Bank of Japan continues its aggressive monetary easing program.
- Global growth stable: U.S. economic growth has been slow but steady. While the weather had a negative impact on growth in the first quarter, we expect growth to pick up 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 we have continued to add jobs. The unemployment rate has fallen to 6.3%.
- Inflation tame: With the CPI increasing just +1.5% over the last 12 months and core CPI running at +1.7%, inflation is below the Fed’s 2% target. Inflation expectations have also been contained, providing the Fed flexibility to remain accommodative.
- U.S. companies remain in solid shape: U.S. companies have solid balance sheets that are flush with cash that could be reinvested, used for acquisitions, or returned to shareholders. 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, there has been some movement in Washington. Fiscal drag will not have a major impact on growth this year. Congress agreed to both a budget and the extension of the debt ceiling. The deficit has also shown improvement in the short-term.
- Equity fund flows turned positive: Continued inflows would provide further support to the equity markets.
However, risks facing the economy and markets remain, including:
- Fed Tapering/Tightening: If the Fed continues at the current pace, quantitative easing should end in the fourth quarter. 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. The new Fed chairperson also adds to the uncertainty. Should economic growth and inflation pick up, market participants will shift quickly to concern over the timing of the Fed’s first interest rate hike.
- Emerging Markets: Slower growth and capital outflows could continue to weigh on emerging markets. While growth in China is slowing, there is not yet evidence of a hard landing.
- Election Year: While we noted there has been some progress in Washington, market volatility could pick up in the summer should the rhetoric heat up in Washington in preparation for the mid-term elections.
- Geopolitical Risks: The events surrounding Russia and Ukraine are further evidence that geopolitical risks cannot be ignored.
Risk assets should continue to perform if real growth continues to recover; however, we could see volatility as markets digest the continued withdrawal of stimulus by the Federal Reserve. Economic data will be watched closely for signs that could lead to tighter monetary policy earlier than expected. Equity market valuations are fair, but are not overly rich relative to history, and may even be reasonable when considering the level of interest rates and inflation. Credit conditions still provide a positive backdrop for the markets.
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.
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.