A Mixed Start to 2014

Ryan Dressel Ryan Dressel, Investment Analyst, Brinker Capital

With 2013 in the rear view mirror, investors are looking for signs that the U.S. economy has enough steam to keep up the impressive growth pace for equities set last year.  This means maintaining sustainable growth in 2014 with less assistance from the Federal Reserve in the form of its asset purchasing program, quantitative easing.  Based on economic data and corporate earnings released so far in January, investors have had a difficult time reaching a conclusion on where we stand.

To date, 101 of the S&P 500 Index companies have reported fourth quarter 2013 earnings (as of this writing).  71% have exceeded consensus earnings per share (EPS) estimates, yielding an aggregate growth rate 5.83% above analyst estimates (Bloomberg).  The four-year average is 73% according to FactSet, indicating that Wall Street’s expectations are still low compared to actual corporate performance.  Information technology and healthcare have been big reasons why, with 85% and 89% of companies beating fourth quarter EPS estimates respectively.

Despite these positive numbers, two industries that are failing to meet analyst estimates are consumer discretionary and materials.  Both of these sectors tend to outperform the broad market during the recovery stage of a business cycle, which we currently find ourselves in.  If they begin to underperform or are in line with the market, then it could indicate the beginning of a potential short-term market top.

S&P500 Index - Earnings Growth vs. Predicted

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There has been mixed data on the macro front as well:

Positive Data

  • Annualized U.S. December housing starts were stronger than expected (999,000 vs. Bloomberg analyst consensus 985,000).
  • U.S. Industrial production rose 0.3% in December, marking five consecutive monthly increases.[1]
  • U.S. December jobless claims fell 3.9% to 335,000; the lowest total in five weeks.
  • The HSBC Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) was above 50 for most of the developed and emerging markets.  An index reading above 50 indicates expansion from a production standpoint.  This data supports a broad-based global economic recovery.

Negative Data:

  • The Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan index of U.S. consumer confidence unexpectedly fell to 80.4 from 82.5 in December.
  • The average hourly wages of private sector U.S. works (adjusted for inflation) fell -0.03% compared to a 0.3% increase in CPI for December, 2013.  Wages have risen just 0.02% over the last 12 months indicating that American workers have not been benefiting from low inflation.
  • Preliminary Chinese PMI fell to 49.6 in January, compared to 50.5 in December and the lowest since July 2013.
S&P Performance Jan 2014

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The mixed corporate and economic data released in January has led to a sideways trend for the S&P 500 so far in 2014.  We remain optimistic for the year ahead, but are managing our portfolios with an eye on the inherent risks previously mentioned.


[1]  The statistics in this release cover output, capacity, and capacity utilization in the U.S. industrial sector, which is defined by the Federal Reserve to comprise manufacturing, mining, and electric and gas utilities. Mining is defined as all industries in sector 21 of the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS); electric and gas utilities are those in NAICS sectors 2211 and 2212. Manufacturing comprises NAICS manufacturing industries (sector 31-33) plus the logging industry and the newspaper, periodical, book, and directory publishing industries. Logging and publishing are classified elsewhere in NAICS (under agriculture and information respectively), but historically they were considered to be manufacturing and were included in the industrial sector under the Standard Industrial Classification (SIC) system. In December 2002 the Federal Reserve reclassified all its industrial output data from the SIC system to NAICS.

Housing Market a Reason for Optimism

Magnotta@AmyMagnotta, CFA, Brinker Capital

After detracting from economic growth for a number of years, the U.S. housing market is in a position to be a positive contributor to growth.  The supply and demand dynamics in the housing market are attractive.

Supply is at low levels.  According to the National Association of Realtors, the supply of available homes is currently 4.2 months, down from over 12 months at the worst of the market.  New housing starts have improved, but are still at levels last seen in the early 1990s.  There are also fewer foreclosed properties on the market. CoreLogic reported that 1.2 million properties were in some stage of foreclosure in January, a 21% year-over-year decrease.  Finally, investors (both individual and institutional) have been snapping up properties in previously distressed markets.

Source: FactSet, National Association of Realtors

Source: FactSet, National Association of Realtors

Some owners are waiting for higher prices to put their homes on the market.  However, prices are firming by a number of measures.  The S&P/Case-Shiller National Home Price Index gained +7.3% in 2012.  CoreLogic’s Home Price Index gained +9.7% year over year in January, the eleventh consecutive monthly increase.
Tighter levels of inventory have likely led to higher prices in recent months.  However, rising prices will eventually encourage homeowners to sell and builders to build, adding to inventory and thereby slowing the rise in prices.

Source: FactSet, U.S. Census Bureau

Source: FactSet, U.S. Census Bureau

The demand side of the equation is also positive.  There is pent-up demand for new housing that has built up over the last few years as households have been formed.  Additional job growth will create more demand.  Affordability is still at very high levels with interest rates at record low levels.  If interest rates start to move higher, it could be a trigger for fence sitters to move. Guidelines are strict for obtaining a loan (I can attest to this with my personal experience over the last month), but credit is being extended.

The constructive dynamics in the housing market should be a positive for the economy over the intermediate term.  There are additional benefits to the economy that stem from an improvement in housing – consumers spend on appliances, home improvement (I’ve visited Home Depot or Lowes every other day in the last few weeks), contractors, architects, etc.  In addition, stable and rising home prices will also serve as a boost to consumer net worth and confidence.

One For The Muni

Magnotta@AmyLMagnotta, CFA, Brinker Capital

Municipal bonds have delivered very strong positive returns since Meredith Whitney famously predicted hundreds of billions in municipal defaults during a 60 Minutes interview in December 2010. Municipal bonds outperformed taxable bonds (Barclays Aggregate Index) by meaningful margins in both 2011 and 2012.

iShares S&P National AM T-Free Muni Bond Fund

Source: FactSet

Municipal bonds have benefited from a favorable technical environment. New supply over the last few years has been light, and net new supply has been even lower as municipalities have taken advantage of low interest rates to refinance existing debt. While supply has been tight, investor demand for tax-free income has been extremely strong. Investors poured over $50 billion into municipal bond funds in 2012 and added $2.5 billion in the first week of 2013 (Source: ICI). This dynamic has been driving yields lower. The interest rate on 10-year munis fell to 1.73%, the equivalent to a 2.86% taxable yield for earners in the top tax bracket. Similar maturity Treasuries yield 1.83% (Source: Bloomberg, as of 1/15). We expect new supply to be met with continued strong demand from investors.

*Excludes maturities of 13 months or less and private placements.  Source: SIFMA, JPMorgan Asset Management, as of November 2012

*Excludes maturities of 13 months or less and private placements. Source: SIFMA, JPMorgan Asset Management, as of November 2012

While technical factors have helped municipal bonds move higher, the underlying fundamentals of municipalities have also improved.  States, unlike the federal government, must by law balance their budget each fiscal year (except for Vermont).  They have had to make the tough choices and cut spending and programs.  Tax revenues have rebounded, especially in high tax states like California.  Last week California Governor Jerry Brown proposed a budget plan that would leave his state with a surplus in the next fiscal year, even after an increase in education and healthcare spending.  Stable housing prices will also help local municipalities who rely primarily on property tax revenues to operate.

While we think municipal bonds are attractive for investors with taxable assets to invest, the sector is still not without issues.  The tax-exempt status of municipal bonds survived the fiscal cliff deal unscathed, but the government could still see the sector as a potential source of revenue in the future which could weigh on the market.  Underfunded pensions – like Illinois – remain a long-term issue for state and local governments.  Puerto Rico, whose bonds are widely owned by municipal bond managers because of their triple tax exempt status, faces massive debt and significant underfunded pension liabilities and remains a credit risk that could spook the overall muni market.  As a result, in our portfolios we continue to favor active municipal bond strategies that emphasize high quality issues.