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.

Eurozone Crisis Report Card

Ryan DresselRyan Dressel, Investment Analyst, Brinker Capital

In January 2013 Amy Magnotta wrote in detail about how the actions of the European Central Bank (ECB) finally gave the markets confidence that policy makers could get their sovereign debt problems under control.[1] The purpose of this blog is to measure the progress of the ECB’s actions, as well as other critical steps taken to resolve the Eurozone crisis.

Maintaining the Euro: A+
The markets put a lot of faith in the comments made by the head of the ECB Mario Draghi in July, 2012. Draghi stated that he would “Pledge to do whatever it takes to preserve the euro.” These words have proven to be monumental in preserving the euro as a currency. Following his announcement, the ECB still had to put together a plan that would be approved by the ECB’s governing council (comprised of banking representatives from each of the 18 EU countries)[2]. The politics of the approval essentially boiled down to whether or not each council member supported the euro as a currency. Draghi’s plan ultimately passed when Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel, endorsed it in September 2012.[3] The stabilization of the euro boosted lending and borrowing for European banks, and allowed governments to introduce necessary economic reforms outlined in the plan.

Since the plan was approved, the euro’s value versus the U.S. Dollar has continued to rise; reaching levels last seen in 2011. There is still some debate as to whether or not the currency will last over the long term, but for now its stability has helped avoid the worst possible outcome (financial collapse). There are several key elections coming up over the next month, which could renew the threat of breaking up the currency if anti-EU officials are elected.

Government Deficit Levels: B
The average Eurozone government deficit came in at 3.0% in 2013, which was down from 3.7% in 2012. Budgets will need to remain tight for years to come.

Corporate Earnings: B
The MSCI Europe All Cap Index has returned 27.46% in 2013 and 5.01% so far in 2014 (as of last week). The Euro area also recorded first quarter 2014 GDP growth at +0.2% (-1.2% in Q1 2013).[4] This indicates that companies in Europe have established some positive earnings growth since the peak of the crisis. On a global scale, Europe looks like an attractive market for growth.

Dressel_EuroZone_ReportCard_5.30.14

Unemployment: C
Unemployment in the Eurozone has stabilized, but has not improved significantly enough to overcome its structural problems. The best improvements have come out of Spain, Ireland and Portugal due to a variety of reasons. In Ireland, emigration has helped reduce jobless claims while a majority of economic sectors increased employment growth. In Spain, the increased competitiveness in the manufacturing sector has been a large contributor. Portugal has seen a broad reduction in unemployment stemming from the strict labor reforms mandated by the ECB in exchange for bailout packages. These reforms are increasing worker hours, cutting overtime payments, reducing holidays, and giving companies the ability to replace poorly performing employees.[5]

Dressel_EuroZone_ReportCard_5.30.14_1[6]

There are also some important fundamental factors detracting from the overall labor market recovery. The large divide between temporary workers and permanent workers in many Eurozone countries has made labor markets especially difficult to reform. This is likely due to a mismatch of skills between employers and workers. High employment taxes and conservative decision-making by local governments and corporations have also created challenges for the recovery.

Additional Reading: Euro Area Labor Markets

Debt Levels: D
Total accumulated public debt in the Eurozone has actually gotten worse since the ECB’s plan was introduced. In 2013 it was 92.6% of gross domestic product, up from 90.7% in 2012. The stated European Union limit is 60%, which reflects the extremely high amount of government borrowing required to stabilize their economies.

Overall Recovery Progress: B-
On a positive note, governments are finally able to participate in bond markets without the fear of bankruptcy looming. Banks are lending again. Unemployment appears to have peaked and political officials recognize the importance of improving economic progress.

Unlike the 2008 U.S. recovery however, progress is noticeably slower. The social unrest, slow decision making, low confidence levels, and now geopolitical risks in Ukraine have hampered the recovery. When you consider the financial state of Europe less than two years ago, you have to give the ECB, and Europe in general, some credit. Things are slowly heading in the right direction.

The views expressed are those of Brinker Capital and are for informational purposes only. Holdings are subject to change.

[1] January 4, 2013. “Is Europe on the Mend?” http://blog.brinkercapital.com/2013/01/04/is-europe-on-the-mend/
[2]
European Central Bank. http://www.ecb.europa.eu/ecb/orga/decisions/govc/html/index.en.html
[3] September 6, 2012. “Technical features of Outright Monetary Transactions. European Central Bank.” http://www.ecb.europa.eu/press/pr/date/2012/html/pr120906_1.en.html
[4] Eurostat
[5] August 6, 2012. “Portugal Enforces Labour Reforms but More Demanded.” http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2012/08/port-a06.html
[6] Eurostat (provided by Google Public Data)

There’s a Reason It’s Cheap

Jeff RauppJeff Raupp, CFA, Senior Investment Manager

A few years ago when I was down the shore in New Jersey with my family, I decided it was time for my then nine- and six-year-old children to try one of my favorite childhood pastimes—boogie boarding. For those unfamiliar, a boogie board is a (very) poor-man’s version of a surf board; basically a short board that helps you ride waves either on your stomach or, if you’re really good, your knees. So we went to the store to buy a pair of boards and found a pretty wide price range— $10 for the 26-inch, all-foam board to $100+ for the 42-inch poly-something-or-other board with the hard-slick bottom. Being a bit of a value investor, and not knowing how much the kids would like riding waves, I went with something much closer to the bottom end of that range. To make a long story short, three hours later I found myself with a broken board (who knew a foam board couldn’t handle a 200+ lb dad demonstrating?), a broken ego, and a trip back to the store to purchase a new pair of boards—this time closer to the middle of the price range. A good lesson for the kids, but definitely a reinforced lesson for me, is often when something is cheap there’s a very good reason why.

8.22.13_Raupp_Cheap_1I’m reminded of this lesson when I look at global equity valuations, particularly those in Europe. Forward P/E ratios (stock price divided by the next 12 months of projected earnings) in most of the major Eurozone countries fall in the 10- to 12-times range, which is relatively cheap from a historical perspective. Compared to the U.S. at 14½ and other developed countries like Japan and Australia at close to 14, the region seems pretty attractive. Tack onto that that the Eurozone has just emerged from its longest recession ever, and the idea that markets are forward-looking, it would seem like a great opportunity to rotate assets into cheap markets as their economies are improving. And we’re seeing some of that in the third quarter, as the Europe-heavy MSCI EAFE index has outpaced the S&P 500 by about 3% quarter-to-date.

But, similar to low-priced boogie boards, buyers of European equities need to be aware of the risks that come with your “bargain” purchase. This past Tuesday, German finance minister, Wolfgang Schauble, admitted that there would need to be another Greek bailout next year even though they’ve been bailed out twice in the last four years and restructured (defaulted on) 25% of their debt in 2012. All told, about $500 billion has gone to support an economy with a 2013 GDP of about $250 billion, and it hasn’t been enough. And by the way, youth unemployment is approaching 60%, and 2013 has seen multiple protests and strikes over austerity measures.

8.22.13_Raupp_Cheap_2Beyond Greece, Portugal and Ireland are running national debts of over 120% of GDP and could need additional bailout money. Italy is operating with a divided government and a national debt of over 130% of GDP, and the Netherlands and Spain are still on the downward side of the housing bubble. Germany has been Europe’s economic powerhouse and has played an integral role in containing the debt issues on Europe’s southern periphery. But they’ve been grudging financiers, so much so that German chancellor Angela Merkel has gone to great lengths to avoid the topic of additional bailouts ahead of upcoming German elections.

Sometimes that bargain purchase works out. You get the right product on sale or you’re able to buy cheap markets when the negatives have already been baked into the price. But make sure you’re considering all the angles, or you could quickly end up back at the store.

Trouble in the Mediterranean

Joe PreisserJoe Preisser, Investment Strategist, Brinker Capital

Blue-chip stocks listed in the United States stumbled on their quest to reclaim the historic heights they recently attained, as a renewal of concerns from the European continent served to unsettle investors. Proverbial wisdom contends that markets will climb a, “wall of worry”, and this statement has rung particularly true this year as the Dow Jones Industrial Average has marched steadily higher amid a torrent of potential pitfalls. Up until this week, market participants have largely disregarded the political gridlock ensnaring Washington, D.C. and the possibility of a resurgence of the European sovereign debt crisis, instead clamoring for risk assets, and in so doing, have driven stocks into record territory. The current rally has, however, paused for the moment with the increased possibility that Cyprus may become the first member of the Eurozone to exit the currency union, once again casting the shadow of doubt across the Mediterranean Sea and onto the sustainability of this collection of countries.

A decision rendered by leaders of the European Union last weekend—to attempt to impose a tax on bank deposits within the nation of Cyprus in exchange for the release of rescue funds the country desperately needs—sent tremors through global financial markets. Although the Cypriot population stands at slightly more than one million citizens, making it one of the smallest countries in the Eurozone, the repercussions of this decision were felt across continents. Policy makers representing the nations of their monetary union hastily gathered to decide what conditions would need to be met in order to disperse the necessary financial aid to Cyprus, totaling ten billion euros, and in so doing, made a significant policy error. According to The New York Times on March 19, “Under the terms of Cyprus’ bailout, the government must raise 5.8 billion euros by levying a one-time tax of 9.9 percent on depositors with balances of more than 100,000 euros. Those with balances below that threshold would pay 6.75 percent, an asset tax that would still hit pensioners and the lowest -income earners hard.” Although the intentions of the European leaders making this decision were to target large foreign depositors, who have historically used the country’s banks as a tax haven, the proposed inclusion of those on the lower end of the spectrum has created widespread uncertainty.

EurosThe imposition of a tax on deposits that would include those of 100,000 euros and less, which had been guaranteed by insurance provided by the European Union, has created concerns over the stability of the banking system in Cyprus and by extension, that of the Eurozone in its entirety. By negating the very guarantee that had been put in place to strengthen this vital portion of the Eurozone’s financial system, policy makers have increased the risk that large scale withdrawals will be taken across Cyprus, which is exactly the type of situation they had hoped to avoid. The New York Times quoted Andreas Andreou, a 26-year-old employee of a Cypriot trading company, who gave voice to the feelings of the populace when he said, “How can I trust any bank in the Eurozone after this decision? I’m lifting all my deposits as soon as the banks open. I’d rather put the money in my mattress.” In order to forestall such an event, and protect against the possibility of contagion to the other heavily indebted members of the currency union, the country’s banks have been shuttered and are scheduled to remain so until Tuesday.

Uncertainty continues to swirl in the warm Mediterranean air as the Cypriot Parliament on Wednesday rejected the original terms of the bailout, casting the nation’s leaders into direct conflict with those of the European Union. With the deadline for
the country to propose a viable plan to raise the requisite 5.8 billion euros,
set by the Continent’s Central Bank for Monday, fast approaching, the stakes of
this game of brinksmanship have been raised, as the possibility of the country
leaving the euro zone has been broached. Eric Dor, a French economist who is the head of research at the Iéseg School of Management in Lille, France offered his opinion on the rationale of Europe’s leaders in The New York Times on Thursday, “They are saying we can take the risk of pushing Cyprus out of the Eurozone, and that Europe can take the losses without going broke.” Although the raising of the possibility of Cyprus being expelled from the monetary union, is most likely a negotiating tactic designed to goad Cypriot leaders into adopting the reforms the E.U. has deemed necessary, with the more likely outcome of a compromise being reached, the current impasse serves as a reminder of the difficulties facing the Continent as it continues its unprecedented experiment in democracy.

Is Europe on the Mend?

Magnotta@AmyLMagnotta, CFA, Brinker Capital

We have spent so much time focusing on the U.S. fiscal cliff that the concerns regarding Europe seemed to have been pushed to the sideline. On the positive side there has been progress in Europe. Mario Draghi, head of the European Central Bank, can take some credit for the progress. The Financial Times even named him their Person of the Year.

The €1 trillion Long-Term Refinancing Operation (LTRO) put in place in late 2011 helped fund the banking system. In July, Draghi pledged to “do whatever it takes to preserve the euro.” His words were followed up by the ECB’s open-ended sovereign bond buying program called Outright Money Transactions (OMTs) designed to keep yields on Eurozone sovereign bonds in check. The next step could be establishing the ECB as the direct supervisor of the region’s banks.

Source: FactSet

Source: FactSet

These actions have brought down borrowing costs for problem countries such as Italy and Spain, helping to change the trajectory of the crisis and prevent an economic collapse. Yields on 10-Year Italian and Spanish bonds have fallen over 200 basis points to 4.4% and 5.2%, respectively. The Euro has also strengthened versus the U.S. dollar since July, from a low of 1.21 $/€ to 1.32 $/€ today.

Source: FactSet

Source: FactSet

I wonder how long this lull in volatility in the region can continue in the face of a weak growth in the region. Seven Eurozone countries fell into recession in 2012 — Greece, Portugal, Italy, Spain, Cyprus, Slovenia and Finland. The Greek economy experienced its 17th consecutive quarter of contraction, while Portugal completed its second year of recession. There remains a stark difference in the economic performance of Germany and the rest of the Eurozone. Unemployment rates are at very high levels and continue to increase. Youth unemployment is above 50% in both Greece and Spain, a recipe for social unrest.

The ECB’s actions have bought time for the Eurozone economies to get their sovereign debt problems under control. However, continued austerity measures implemented in an attempt to repair the debt crisis have only served to further weaken growth in the region and exacerbate the situation by pushing debt to GDP ratios even higher. While some confidence has been restored to the markets, policymakers should attempt to implement more pro-growth measures to pull the region out of recession.

12.28.12_Magnotta_Europe_ChartCombo

Europe’s equity markets have rebounded nicely in 2012, leading global equity markets on a relative basis since the second quarter; the rally helped by the ECB’s actions. I remain concerned that the ECB’s measures, while improving confidence, do not address the underlying problems of weak to negative economic growth combined with deleveraging. Weak growth in the region should weigh on corporate earnings and keep a ceiling on equity valuations. The deleveraging process takes years to work through. Because the situation remains fragile, we are likely still prone to event risk and periods of increased volatility in the region.

Source: FactSet

Source: FactSet

Economic Data Lifts Stocks, Market Commentary by Joe Preisser

Global equities resumed their upward march last week, reclaiming levels unattained since April, following the issuance of economic data from both the Eurozone and the United States, which largely exceeded expectations. The release of gross domestic product figures from Germany and France offered encouragement to investors as they revealed more favorable readings than analysts had forecast. Alexander Kraemer, an analyst at Commerzbank AG was quoted by Bloomberg News, “while not great in any way, German and French GDP numbers were better than expected, which adds to the scenario that there is no risk of an imminent euro break up. It shows that global growth is not collapsing, which also helps reduce investment risks.”

Following closely on the heels of the positive news from the Continent was a report of retail sales from the United States which surpassed expectations. In a sign that consumer spending may be on the rise, all of the major categories surveyed rose to post the largest increase in five months (New York Times). Adding to the optimism already present in the marketplace were better than expected readings on industrial production and consumer prices, as well as continued signs of stabilization from the labor and housing markets in the U.S. (Bloomberg News) released during the latter portion of last week.

The concern with which the Israeli government views the threat of the nation of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon was on full display last week as a marked increase in bellicose rhetoric as well as highly publicized preparedness measures for its citizenry emanated from the country. Comments made by the Israeli Ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, during a Bloomberg Government breakfast in Washington last Wednesday served to highlight the rapidly rising tensions. “Diplomacy hasn’t succeeded. We’ve come to a very critical juncture where important decisions have to be made.”

The distribution of gas masks to the public, as well as the testing of other civil defense measures last week accompanied the strong warnings from Mr. Oren and further revealed the precariousness of the situation. As the potential for a preemptive Israeli military strike continues to mount, and with it the possibility of a major disruption of the supply of crude oil to the global marketplace, the risk premium assigned by traders around the world to the per barrel price has contributed significantly to the twelve per cent rally seen since June, which if unabated will hold negative repercussions for the world economy.

As the data released last week continues to outpace expectations, the belief has grown within the marketplace that the economic improvement seen, although still only incremental, may reduce the chances of the Federal Reserve enacting additionally accommodative monetary policies in the near term. In a reflection of this growing sentiment among traders, prices of U.S. Treasury debt have moved significantly lower over the course of the last several weeks, sending yields, which rise when prices decline, to levels unseen since May as the bond market has begun to adjust to the changing environment.

Byron Wien, Vice Chairman of the Blackstone Group’s advisory services unit gave voice to an increasing belief among investors, in an interview with Bloomberg News, “housing is bottoming, gasoline is down from the beginning of the year. The European situation is getting better, not resolved, but getting better…there will be more good news than bad.”

Central Bank’s Sway Stock, Market Commentary by Joe Preisser

Aided by a broad based reassessment of comments issued by European Central Bank President, Mario Draghi on Thursday, and the release of better than anticipated employment figures for the month of July in the United States, stocks rallied strongly on Friday to reverse the losses suffered earlier in the week and reclaim their upward trajectory.

Following a meeting of the American Central Bank’s policy making committee this week, the decision to forbear enacting any additionally accommodative monetary policy at present was announced in tandem with indications that measures designed to stimulate the world’s largest economy may be forthcoming.  The Federal Open Market Committee said in its official statement that they, “will provide additional accommodation as needed to promote a stronger economic recovery and sustained improvement in labor market conditions.”  As the recovery in the world’s largest economy has continued at a frustratingly slow pace, hope has pervaded the marketplace that increased liquidity will be provided by policy makers in order to encourage growth should they deem it necessary.  In its most recent communiqué, the Federal Reserve has reinforced this belief thus offering support for risk based assets.  Brian Jacobsen, the Chief Portfolio Strategist for Wells Fargo Funds Management was quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying, “They probably are closer to providing, as they say, ‘additional accommodation as needed’, but I still think that they want more data before they actually pull the trigger.”

Investors across the globe registered their disappointment on Thursday with the decision rendered by the European Central Bank, to refrain from immediately employing any additional measures to support the Eurozone’s economy, by selling shares of companies listed around the world.  Hope for the announcement of the commencement of an aggressive sovereign bond buying program, designed to lower borrowing costs for the heavily indebted members of the currency union, which blossomed in the wake of comments made by Central Bank President Mario Draghi last week were temporarily dashed during Thursday’s press conference.  Although Mr. Draghi pledged to defend the euro, and stated that the common currency is, “irreversible” (New York Times), the absence of a substantive plan to aid the ailing nations of the monetary union was disparaged by the marketplace and precipitated a steep decline in international indices.

Friday morning brought with it a large scale reinterpretation of the message conveyed by European Central Bank President, Mario Draghi the day before, as investors parsed the meaning of his words and concluded that the E.C.B. is in fact moving closer to employing the debt purchasing program the market has been clamoring for.  The release of better than expected news from the labor market in the United States combined with the improvement in sentiment on the Continent to send shares markedly higher across the globe.  According to the New York Times, “on Friday, stocks on Wall Street and in Europe advanced as investors digested the announcement alongside data showing the U.S. added 163,000 jobs.”  Although the absence of immediate action served to initially unnerve traders, further reflection upon the President’s comments revealed the resolve of the Central Bank to support the currency union and fostered optimism for its maintenance. A statement released by French bank Credit Agricole on Friday captured the marked change in market sentiment, “Mr. Draghi’s strong words should not be understated, in our view.  The ECB President made it perfectly clear that the governing council was ready to address rising sovereign yields…Overall, notwithstanding the lack of detail at this stage, we believe the ECB will deliver a bold policy response in due time”(Wall Street Journal).