2013 Review and Outlook

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

2013 was a stellar year for U.S. equities, the best since 1997. Despite major concerns relating to the Federal Reserve (tapering of asset purchases, new Chairperson) and Washington (sequestration, government shutdown, debt ceiling), as well as issues like Cyprus and Syria, the U.S. equity markets steadily rallied throughout the year, failing to experience a pullback of more than 6%.

Source: Strategas Research Partners, LLC

In the U.S. markets, strong gains were experienced across all market capitalizations and styles, with each gaining at least 32% for the year. Small caps outperformed large caps and growth led value. Yield-oriented equities, like telecoms and utilities, generally lagged as they were impacted by the taper trade. The strongest performing sectors—consumer discretionary, healthcare and industrials—all gained more than 40%. Correlations across stocks continued to decline, which is a positive development for active managers.

YenDeveloped international markets produced solid gains for the year, but lagged the U.S. markets. Japan was the top performing country, gaining 52% in local terms; however, the gains translated to 27% in U.S. dollar terms due to a weaker yen. Performance in European markets was generally strong, led by Ireland, Germany and Spain.  Australia and Canada meaningfully lagged, delivering only mid-single-digit gains.

Concerns over the impact of Fed tapering and slowing economic growth weighed on emerging economies in 2013, and their equity markets significantly lagged that of developed economies. The group’s loss of -2.2% was exacerbated due to weaker currencies, especially in Brazil, Indonesia, Turkey and India. Emerging market small cap companies were able to eke out a gain of just over 1%, while less efficient frontier markets gained 4.5%.

Fixed income posted its first loss since 1999, with the Barclays Aggregate Index experiencing a decline of -2%. The yield on the 10-year U.S. Treasury began rising in May, and moved significantly higher after then Federal Reserve Chairman Bernanke signaled in his testimony to Congress that tapering of asset purchases could happen sooner than anticipated. The 10-year yield hit 3% but then declined again after the Fed decided not to begin tapering in September. It climbed steadily higher in November and December, ending the year at 3.04%—126 basis points above where it began the year.

TIPS were the worst performing fixed income sector for the year, declining more than -8%, as inflation remained low and TIPS have a longer-than-average duration. On the other hand, high-yield credit had a solid year, gaining more than 7%. Across the credit spectrum, lower quality outperformed.

Magnotta_Client_Newsletter_1.7.13_5We believe that the bias is for interest rates to move higher, but it will likely come in fits and starts. Rising longer-term interest rates in the context of stronger economic growth and low inflation is a satisfactory outcome. Despite rising rates, fixed income still plays a role in portfolios, as a hedge to equity-oriented assets if we see weaker economic growth or major macro risks. 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 interest rate environment.

We 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 begin 2014, with a number of factors supporting the economy and markets.

  • Monetary policy remains accommodative: Even with tapering beginning in January, short-term interest rates should remain near zero until 2015. In addition, the European Central Bank stands ready to provide support, and the Bank of Japan has embraced an aggressive monetary easing program in an attempt to boost growth and inflation.
  • Global growth strengthening: U.S. economic growth has been slow and steady, but momentum has picked up (+4.1% annualized growth in 3Q). The manufacturing and service PMIs remain solidly in expansion territory. Outside of the U.S., growth has not been very robust but is still positive.
  • Labor market progress: The recovery in the labor market has been slow, but stable. Monthly payroll gains have averaged more than 200,000 and the unemployment rate has fallen to 7%.
  • Inflation tame: With the CPI increasing only +1.2% over the last 12 months, inflation in the U.S. is running below the Fed’s target.
  • Increase in household net worth: Household net worth rose to a new high in the third quarter, helped by both financial and real estate assets. Rising net worth is a positive for consumer confidence and future consumption.
  • U.S. companies remain in solid shape: U.S. companies have solid balance sheets that are flush with cash 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 turn positive: Equity mutual funds have experienced inflows over the last three months while fixed income funds have experienced significant outflows, a reversal of the pattern of the last five years. 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 seems to be some movement in Washington. Fiscal drag will not have a major impact on growth next year. All parties in Washington were able to agree on a two year budget agreement, averting another government shutdown in January. However, the debt ceiling still needs to be addressed.

However, risks facing the economy and markets remain including:

  • Fed Tapering: The Fed will begin reducing the amount of their asset purchases in January, and if they taper an additional $10 billion at each meeting, QE 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.
  • 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.
  • Sentiment elevated: Investor sentiment is elevated, which typically serves as a contrarian signal. The market has not experienced a correction in some time.

Risk assets should continue to perform if real growth continues to recover, even in a higher interest rate environment; 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. Markets rarely stop when they reach fair value. There are even pockets of attractive valuations, such as emerging markets. Momentum remains strong; the S&P 500 Index spent all of 2013 above its 200-day moving average. However, investor sentiment is elevated, which could provide ammunition for a short-term pull-back. A pull-back could be short-lived should demand for equities remain robust.

Asset Class Outlook

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.

Asset Class ReturnsAsset Class Returns

What About The Correction?

Jeff RauppJeff Raupp, CFA, Senior Investment Manager

Over the holidays, I spent a lot of time with some family members that I don’t often get to see. We got together, had a little too much to eat and drink, and gave each other updates on what’s happening in our lives. Between the updates on kids, new careers, and new houses (no new spouses or kids this year), we never miss the opportunity to get some free advice from one another.

My two sisters are both in healthcare and handle all questions related to our aches and pains. My cousin the mechanic will venture out to the driveway and listen to the ping in your engine for the cost of getting him a beer. You get the idea.

My contribution is on the investment side, fielding questions about 529 plans, IRA distributions, 401(k) plans, etc. But the biggest question is always some version of “where is the market going?” This year’s edition, fueled by the huge returns in stocks in 2013 (and a good dose of CNBC), was “do you think we’re going to get a market correction?”

Hello, My Name is Free AdviceI suggested that when you look at how far the market has run and the high levels of investor sentiment right now—indicating that a lot of good news is priced into the market— I could easily see the market pulling back 5-10% on some unexpected bad news. The natural response from my family was, “What should I do?” “Nothing,” was my presumably blunt response.

My rationale is this: From a fundamental standpoint, the market looks good. Companies continue to grow earnings at a steady, albeit slow, rate. The market isn’t cheap, but it isn’t expensive either, and rarely does P/E compress without a recession. Speaking of the r-word, GDP growth continues to be sluggish, but it’s positive and expected to increase in 2014. Housing, the root cause of the last recession, continues to improve in spite of rising rates. And the Fed launched the previously-dreaded tapering of its quantitative easing without any market hiccup.

Depending on the attention span of my audience, all of that might boil down to simply saying, “We could get a correction, but if you’ve got at least 6-12 months, I think the market will be positive from here.”

Now, let’s go check out that leak on my car…

Investment Insights Podcast – December 24, 2013

Investment Insights PodcastBill Miller, Chief Investment Officer

Last week, the Federal Reserve announced their new policy on tapering.  ISI Group calculates that if the Fed continues on this new track, they would buy $455 billion more of bonds in 2014 before the taper finishes.

  • Good news: New policy, gradual taper, means interest rates weren’t forced to spike
  • Bad news: Not likely of staying on track. Stronger employment data and economic growth early in 2014 would make the Fed taper at faster rate, driving interest rates up.
  • What we are doing about it: Product-specific, but tactics would include researching managers who perform well in a rising interest rate environment or utilizing inverse ETFs

Click the play icon below to launch the audio recording.

The views expressed above are those of Brinker Capital and are not intended as investment advice.

Monthly Market and Economic Outlook: December 2013

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

U.S. equities continued to climb higher in November, with major indexes gaining between 2% and 4% for the month. Year to date through November, the S&P 500 Index has posted an impressive gain of 29.1%, while the small cap Russell 2000 Index has fared even better with a return of 36.1%. The last five years have proved to be a very good time to be invested in equity markets, with a cumulative return of 125% for the S&P 500 Index.

International developed equity markets posted small gains in November, and have failed to keep up with U.S. equity markets this year. In Japan, Prime Minister Abe’s policies have spurred risk taking, but the currency has also weakened. The European equity markets have benefited from economies and a financial system that are on the mend. Emerging markets continued to struggle in November and are negative year to date. Concerns over the impact of Fed tapering on emerging economies, as well as slower economic growth, have weighed on the asset class this year.

Interest rates have remained range-bound after the spike in the summer in response to Bernanke’s initial talk of tapering. The 10-year Treasury ended November at a level of 2.75%, just 10 basis points higher than where it began the month. Fixed income is still negative for the year-to-date period; the Barclays Aggregate was down -1.5% through November. However, high-yield credit has had a solid year so far, gaining close to 7%. We believe that the bias is for interest rates to move higher, but it will likely come in fits and starts.

12.13.13_Magnotta_MarketOutlook_2The Fed will again face the decision to taper asset purchases at their December meeting, and we expect volatility in risk assets and interest rates surrounding this decision, just as we experienced in the second quarter.  The recent economic data has surprised to the upside; however, inflation remains below the Fed’s target level. Despite their decision to reduce or end asset purchases, the Fed has signaled short-term rates will be on hold for some time. Rising longer-term interest rates in the context of stronger economic growth and low inflation is a satisfactory outcome.

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

  • Monetary policy remains accommodative: The Fed remains accommodative (even with the eventual end of asset purchases, short-term interest rates will remain near-zero until 2015), the European Central Bank has provided additional support through a rate cut, and the Bank of Japan has embraced an aggressive monetary easing program in an attempt to boost growth and inflation.
  • Global growth strengthening: U.S. economic growth has been steady and recently showing signs of picking up. The manufacturing and service PMIs remain solidly in expansion territory. Outside of the U.S., growth has not been very robust, but it is positive.
  • Labor market progress: The recovery in the labor market has been slow, but stable. Monthly payroll gains have averaged more than 200,000 and the unemployment rate has declined.
  • Inflation tame: With the CPI increasing only +1% over the last 12 months, inflation in the U.S. has been running below the Fed’s target level.
  • Increase in household net worth: Household net worth rose to a new high in the third quarter, helped by both financial and real estate assets. Rising net worth is a positive for consumer confidence and future consumption.
  • 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.
  • Equity fund flows turn positive: Equity mutual funds have experienced inflows over the last two months while fixed income funds have experienced significant outflows, a reversal of the patter of the last five years. 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 seems to be some movement in Washington. Fiscal drag will not have a major impact on growth next year. It looks like Congress may sign a two-year budget agreement, averting another government shutdown in January. However, the debt ceiling still needs to be addressed.

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

  • Fed Tapering: The markets are anxiously awaiting the Fed’s decision on tapering asset purchases, prompting further volatility in asset prices and interest rates. Risk assets have historically reacted negatively when monetary stimulus has been withdrawn; however, the economy appears to be on more solid footing.
  • 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.
  • Sentiment elevated: Investor sentiment is elevated, which typically serves as a contrarian signal. The market has not experienced a correction in some time.

Risk assets should continue to perform if real growth continues to recover even in a higher interest rate environment; however, we expect continued volatility in the near term as we await the Fed’s decision on the fate of quantitative easing. Despite the strong run, valuations for large cap U.S. equities still look reasonable on a historical basis by a number of measures. Valuations in international developed markets look relatively attractive as well, while emerging markets are more mixed. Momentum remains strong; the S&P 500 Index has spent the entire year above its 200-day moving average. However, investor sentiment is elevated, which could provide ammunition for a short-term pull-back surrounding the Fed’s tapering decision.

12.13.13_Magnotta_MarketOutlook_1

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.

Asset Class Returns:12.13.13_Magnotta_MarketOutlook

Investment Insights Podcast – December 6, 2013

Miller_PodcastBill Miller, Chief Investment Officer

We are entering into a period where good news is bad news.On this week’s podcast (recorded December 5, 2013):

  • Good news: U.S. economy is better with many positive indicators (employment, housing starts).
  • Bad news: Markets are not reacting to the good news, drawing into question Fed policy.
  • What we are doing about it: Remaining bullish for 2014, keeping an eye on interest rates and Fed tapering.

Click the play icon below to launch the audio recording.

Demographic Changes Looming (Part One)

10.17.13_BlogRyan Dressel, Investment Analyst, Brinker Capital

This is part one in a two-part blog series.

In 2013, it seems the financial headlines have been dominated lately by policy changes of the Federal Reserve, dysfunction in Washington, China’s threat of a hard economic landing, or Europe’s ongoing sovereign debt crisis.  Lost in these headlines are some major demographic trends that are already under way, or are looming on the horizon over the next decade.  Many of these changes will have a profound impact on investors, governments and societies in the United States and abroad.

Aging Population

The world’s developed countries are aging quite quickly.  As of the most recent 2010 census, the median age in the U.S. is 37.1, compared to 28.2 in 1970.  This is actually fairly low in comparison to some of the world’s other developed nations.

10.17.13_Demographics_Part1

This is not a huge surprise as the baby boomer generation is reaching middle age.  It does, however, have some large implications that need to be watched closely by investors, companies and governments over the next decade.

What implications does this trend have for the U.S. and abroad?  For starters, an aging population will put a large strain on healthcare costs as the number of people who need access Medicare increases.  A study by Health Affairs cites aging population as a main driver of rising health care cost forecasts.  It projects national health care spending to grow at an average annual rate of 5.8% over the 2012 – 2022 period (currently near 4% in 2013).  By 2022 health care spending financed by federal, state, and local governments is projected to account for 49% of total national health expenditures and to reach a total of $2.4 trillion.[1]

Second, smaller subsequent generations (Gen X, Gen Y) will have to increase productivity to maintain the current low, single-digit GDP growth in the United States.  The responsibilities of the baby boomer generation upon retirement will naturally have to be absorbed by younger generations.  A 2013 study released by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW) indicates that this trend is already occurring. It cites that there are more job openings created as a result of retirements today than in the 1990s.[2] The U.S. can fuel this productivity by increasing competitiveness in manufacturing, and using competitive advantages such as low energy costs and technological advancements.

Third, an increased focus will be put on fixed income and absolute return investment strategies, especially if the U.S is entering a rising interest-rate environment as many economists believe.  As populations age, their risk tolerance will naturally decrease as people need to plan for their years in retirement.  In 2012, only 7% of households aged 65 or older were willing to take above-average or substantial investment risk, compared to 25% of households in which the household head was between 35-49 years old.  Despite a growing life expectancy, the retirement age is still 65. This has major causes for concern for social security, capital gains tax policies, and corporate pension plans.  Subsequent generations will need to place an increased importance on individual retirement saving should the program terms change, or disappear altogether.

Part two of this blog will look at two additional trends of urbanization and wealth inequality.


[1] Health Affairs.  National Health Expenditure Projections, 2012 – 22: Slow Growth Until Coverage Expands and Economy Improves. September 18, 2013.

[2] Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce.
http://cew.georgetown.edu/failuretolaunch/. September 30, 2013.

Monthly Market and Economic Outlook: October 2013

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

Developed market equities have had an impressive run so far in 2013, while fixed income, emerging markets and commodities have lagged. After telegraphing a tapering of asset purchases, the Fed surprised investors on September 18 with a decision to keep the quantitative easing program in place, wanting to see greater clarity on economic growth and a waning of fiscal policy uncertainty before reducing the level of asset purchases.

Asset prices moved immediately higher in response to the Fed’s decision; however that served to be the high-water mark for equities for the quarter.  Then concern over U.S. fiscal policy surfaced and has weighed on markets over the last few weeks. Unlike in previous years, deals to raise the debt ceiling and fund the government will result in limited fiscal drag; however, the headlines will serve to increase market volatility over the short term.

U.S. equity markets posted solid gains in the third quarter, led by small caps and growth-oriented companies.  High-yielding equities continue to lag. Developed international equity markets meaningfully outpaced U.S. markets in the quarter, with most countries generating double-digit returns.  As a result, the gap of outperformance for U.S. markets has narrowed for the year.  Emerging economies have been negatively impacted by the discussion of the Fed reducing liquidity, slower economic growth and weaker currencies.  While emerging markets equities rebounded in the third quarter, as a group they are still negative for the year with Brazil and India especially weak.

Interest rates continued their rise to start the quarter, with the 10-year Treasury note briefly hitting 3% in the beginning of September.  Rates then began to move lower, helped by an avoidance of conflict in Syria and the postponing of Fed tapering. All fixed income sectors were positive in the third quarter, led by high-yield credit.  Year to date through September, high yield has produced gains, while all other major fixed income sectors are negative. Outflows from taxable bond funds have slowed significantly in recent weeks, so the technical backdrop has improved somewhat.

We believe that interest rates have begun the process of normalization, and over the long term, the bias is for higher interest rates.  However, this process will be prolonged and likely characterized by fits and starts. The Fed will soon face the decision to taper asset purchases again later this year, with the earliest action in December.  Despite their decision to reduce or end asset purchases, the Fed has signaled short-term rates will be on hold for some time. Rising longer-term interest rates in the context of stronger economic growth and low inflation is a satisfactory outcome. Our fixed income allocation is well positioned with less interest-rate risk and a yield premium versus the broad market.

However, we continue to view a continued rapid rise in interest rates as one of the biggest threats to the U.S. economic recovery.  The recovery in the housing market, in both activity and prices, has been a positive contributor to growth this year.  Stable, and potentially rising, home prices help to boost consumer confidence and net worth, which impacts consumer spending in other areas of the economy.  Should mortgage rates move high enough to stall the housing market recovery, it would be a negative for economic growth.

We continue to approach our broad macro view as a balance between headwinds and tailwinds. We believe the scale remains tipped in favor of tailwinds as we move into the final months of the year, and a number of factors should continue to support the economy and markets.

  • Monetary policy remains accommodative: The Fed remains accommodative (even with the eventual end of asset purchases, short-term interest rates will remain low for the foreseeable future), the ECB stands ready to provide additional support if necessary, and the Bank of Japan is embracing an aggressive monetary easing program in an attempt to boost growth and inflation.
  • Global growth strengthening: U.S. economic growth has been sluggish, but steady.  The manufacturing and service PMIs remain solidly in expansion territory. Outside of the U.S. growth has not been very robust, but it is positive. China appears to have avoided a hard landing.
  • Labor market progress: The recovery in the labor market has been slow, but stable. Initial jobless claims, a leading indicator, have declined to a new cycle low.
  • Housing market improvement: The improvement in home prices, typically a consumer’s largest asset, boosts net worth, and as a result, consumer confidence.  However, another move higher in mortgage rates 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:

  • Fiscal policy uncertainty: After Congress failed to agree on a continuing resolution to fund the government, we entered shutdown mode on October 1.  While the economic impact of a government shutdown is more limited, the failure to raise the debt ceiling (which will be reached on October 17) would have a more lasting impact. A default remains unlikely in our opinion, and there will be little fiscal drag as a result of a deal, but the debate does little to inspire confidence. The Fed continues to provide liquidity to offset the impact.
  • Fed mismanages exit: The Fed will soon have to face the decision of whether to scale back asset purchases, which could prompt further volatility in asset prices and interest rates. 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.  The Fed will also be under new leadership next year, which could add to the uncertainty.  However, if the Fed does begin to slow asset purchases, it will be in the context of an improving economy.
  • Significantly higher interest rates: Rates moving significantly higher from here could stifle the economic recovery.
  • Europe: While the economic situation appears to be improving in Europe, the risk of policy error still exists.  The region has still not addressed its structural debt and growth problems; however, it seems leaders have realized that austerity alone will not solve its issues.

Risk assets should continue to perform if real growth continues to recover despite the higher interest rate environment; however, we expect heightened volatility in the near term. Valuations in the U.S. equity market remain reasonable while valuations abroad look more attractive. We continue to emphasize high-conviction opportunities within asset classes, as well as strategies that can exploit market inefficiencies.

Some areas of opportunity currently include:

  • Global Equity: Large-cap growth, dividend growers, Japan, frontier markets, international microcap
  • Fixed Income: MBS, global credit, short duration
  • Absolute Return: closed-end funds, relative value, long/short credit
  • Private Equity: company-specific opportunities

Asset Class Returns10.9.13_Magnotta_MarketOutlook

The views expressed above are those of Brinker Capital and are not intended as investment advice.

Morning Comment from Tower Bridge Advisors

pic-meyerJames M. Meyer, CFA, Principal and CIO, Tower Bridge Advisors

Stocks finished mixed in a relatively quiet session the day after the Fed decided not to begin reducing its bond buying program.

If you never put a lid on the cookie jar, eventually your kids, and probably your dog, will get fat and sick. If your doctor prescribes an antibiotic every time you have chills or a fever, half the time there will be no benefit and eventually your body will develop a resistance to the antibiotics. If the Fed keeps dropping $85 billion every month out of helicopters, stock and bond prices will go up in the short run but eventually we will all have to face a set of unintended consequences.

9.20.13_TowerBridge_ComentaryWith that said, I don’t want to overstate any reaction to the Fed’s decision to keep its full bond buying program in place. Another couple of months of buying $85 billion per month instead of $70-75 billion won’t make a big difference. Stocks and bonds reacted Wednesday afternoon and that’s about it for the reaction. However, buying $85 billion of bonds every month is rather similar to persistently giving a strong antibiotic, whether it is needed or not. There may not be immediate harm but there will almost certainly be unintended consequences the longer the process persists. How long is too long? No one knows yet. But with the Fed’s balance sheet closing in on $4 trillion and the fact that soon it will own 40% of all government debt maturing five years out or longer, the problems in the future unwinding what it has created are only going to get more difficult if the Fed doesn’t stop adding to its balance sheet soon.

I understand that the government could shut down in October for a few weeks and that Republican conservatives might create a similar debt ceiling crisis to the one it created two years ago. But the Fed isn’t going to solve that problem with an extra $10 billion in bond purchases. In fact, the Fed isn’t going to solve those problems at all. I get the possibility that the Fed was concerned that real interest rates were getting too high and wanted to scare the bond vigilantes with a surprise. It get the possibility of delaying the start of tapering until the Fed knows who the next Chairman might be to make sure he or she is on board with the game plan. So I am willing to give the Fed a couple of months grace period. But with that said, QE is a much more effective crisis policy than a policy designed to maintain economic growth. Flooding the economy with money doesn’t create demand. Certainly, recipients will gladly take the money but the choice of spending it or investing it depends on market conditions. Given the very slow velocity of money both before and during QE, the market has said rather loudly that it would rather invest than spend. That means investors benefit with much stimulation of economic growth or job creation. Here once again is an example of misguided policy whose unintended consequence is to widen the gap between the wealthy and middle classes.

9.20.13_TowerBridge_Comentary_1We are almost certainly not going to see economic data over the next 1-3 months that is going to move the needle enough by itself to change forward outlooks. Indeed, our economy has been adding about 180,000 jobs per month for almost four years and the pace has remained remarkably consistent if you look at a three or six month moving average. Jobless claims are back to pre-recession levels. Existing home sales, which are about 15x new home sales, are booming. So are car sales. Ladies and gentlemen, we are not in a sick economy and everyone who voted to maintain the status quo yesterday should know that. And those who were unsure yesterday are likely to still be unsure next month or next quarter. Economics is never an exact science and there isn’t a formula that will determine tomorrow’s rate of growth. Federal Reserve forecasts of future growth have been persistently too high since the recovery began. Every subsequent forecast adjustment has been downward, including the adjustment announced on Wednesday. Yet forecasts of job creation and unemployment rates have been pretty accurate. The missing ingredient has been weaker than expected productivity, a function of weaker than expected investment. Tax policy, regulatory policy, fiscal policy and uncertainty created by a dysfunctional government all contribute to lack of investment spending.

With that all said, the Fed didn’t move and that leaves us with the question, “What now?” First of all, there is no need to change any economic or earnings projections. There is no need to change outlooks for Europe or China. Interest costs might be marginally less but the economic impact will be negligible. Obviously, throwing more money at financial assets raises asset prices. The impact of Wednesday’s surprise was felt Wednesday afternoon. There isn’t likely to be much follow through. Again, does anyone really believe that a change of $10 billion in Fed bond purchases would move any needle by a whole lot? I certainly don’t. Just as so many government programs in recent years (e.g. first time home buyer credits or cash for clunkers) pulled benefits forward without creating long term value, Wednesday’s decision created a pop in asset prices that probably simply borrow from future gains. No more or no less.

The true facts are that this economy is what it is, an economy growing about 2% per year, despite significant headwinds created by fiscal policy and Congressional gridlock. The headwinds may be a bit less next year as we anniversary the payroll tax increase but housing growth rates will decline next year and one can’t count on the trickle down impact of a 15-25% growth in stock prices to continue indefinitely. As noted, the Fed has persistently forecasted future growth that was too high. As Fed Chairman Bernanke noted yesterday, the fly in the ointment has been weak gains in productivity. With capacity utilization below 80% and incentives to invest virtually non-existent, one shouldn’t expect productivity to improve until investment spending accelerates. Certainly the uncertainty the Fed created this week surrounding monetary policy won’t help in that regard.

The bottom line is that my near term economic and stock market outlook don’t change. By near term, I mean through 2014. I don’t even see a storm that is likely to hit in 2015 at this time, but no crystal ball is that clear looking two years out. Eventually, and that means within five years, as the Fed does exit and interest rates return to normal levels, there will be problems. Big ones. Government debt service costs are going to skyrocket. That will not only cause further cuts in government spending and entitlements.

9.20.13_TowerBridge_Comentary_2Let me make one point very clear. Nothing has been done about entitlements to date because Congress wasn’t forced to act. When debt service costs rise by $200-400 billion per year, it will be forced to act. Market forces can overwhelm politics. Just look back to 2008. When Congress is forced to act, it will raise the starting age and/or means test Social Security more than it does today and it will cost shift Medicare so that recipients must pay some of the costs. Congress won’t do this because it is the right thing to do or because it is good politically. It will do this because it will be left with no other option. Again, it will happen this decade and the timing will be directly tied to the sharp increase in costs to service our Federal debt. Parenthetically, every developed nation plus China will face the same dilemma; how do you offset rising debt service costs. The responses may differ but the problem is widespread.

That storm is at least 2-3 years away. It may be 4-5 years away. But it isn’t 10 years out. Problems ultimately get solved when markets force them to be solved. Look at the health of U.S. banks today. Markets forced that. Markets made railroads efficient after the Penn Central bankruptcy. Mini-mills saved the steel industry. Japan and German car makers forced the U.S. Big Three to enter the 21st century. The good news is that crisis not only forces change, it forces change for the good because that is the only path to survival. Politicians almost always lack the courage to make changes ahead of crisis. That point transcends both borders and political parties. It takes crisis to force change.

Futures point to a flat opening.

The views expressed above are those of Jim Meyer and Tower Bridge Advisors and are not intended as investment advice.

# – This security is owned by the author of this report or accounts under his management at Tower Bridge Advisors.
Additional information on companies in this report is available on request. This report is not a complete analysis of every material fact representing company, industry or security mentioned herein. This firm or its officers, stockholders, employees and clients, in the normal course of business, may have or acquire a position including options, if any, in the securities mentioned. This communication shall not be deemed to constitute an offer, or solicitation on our part with respect to the sale or purchase of any securities. The information above has been obtained from sources believed reliable, but is not necessarily complete and is not guaranteed. This report is prepared for general information only. It does not have regard to the specific investment objectives, financial situation or the particular needs of any specific person who may receive this report. Investors should seek financial advice regarding the appropriateness of investing in any securities or investment strategies discussed in this report and should understand that statements regarding future prospects may not be realized. Opinions are subject to change without notice.

Monthly Market and Economic Outlook: September 2013

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

The U.S. equity markets experienced a modest pullback in August, with a -2.9% decline in the S&P 500 Index, fueled by concern over the anticipated Fed tapering of asset purchases as well as a U.S.-led military strike on Syria. However, the index is still up +16.2% through August, the best start since 2003.

International equity markets fared better than U.S. markets in August despite the headwind of a stronger U.S. dollar.  So far this year, the return of developed international equities has been about half of the S&P 500 return while emerging market equities have declined -8.8%.  Both Brazil and India have experienced declines of more than -20.0%, suffering from significantly weaker currencies and slowing growth.

Fixed income outperformed equities in August on a relative basis, but the Barclays Aggregate Index still fell -0.5%.  Interest rates continued their move higher, and the yield curve steepened further. The yield on the 10-year U.S. Treasury note has increased 140 basis points from a low of 1.6% in early May, to 3% on September 5, fueled by the Fed’s talk of tapering asset purchases.  The technicals in the fixed income market have deteriorated markedly.  The rise in rates has not yet lost momentum, and investor sentiment has turned, causing large redemptions in fixed income strategies. 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.

Interest rates are normalizing from artificially low levels, but still remain low on a historical basis.  Despite slowing or ending asset purchases, the Fed has signaled short-term rates will be on hold for some time. Rising longer-term interest rates in the context of stronger economic growth and low inflation is a satisfactory outcome. In addition, the fundamentals in certain areas of fixed income strategies, including non-Agency MBS, high-yield credit and emerging-market credit, look attractive.

However, we continue to view a continued rapid rise in interest rates as one of the biggest threats to the U.S. economic recovery.  The recovery in the housing market, in both activity and prices, has been a positive contributor to growth this year.  Stable, and potentially rising, home prices help to boost consumer confidence and net worth, which impacts consumer spending in other areas of the economy.  Should mortgage rates to move high enough to stall the housing market recovery, it would be a negative for economic growth.

Outside of the housing market, the U.S. economy continues to grow at a modest pace.  Initial jobless claims, a leading indicator, have continued to decline.  Both the manufacturing and service PMIs have moved further into expansion territory. U.S. companies remain in solid shape and valuations do not appear stretched. M&A activity has picked up. Global economic growth is also showing signs of improvement, in Europe, Japan and even China.

However, risks do remain.  In addition to the major risk of interest rates that move too high too fast, the markets are anticipating the end of the Fed’s quantitative easing program.  Should the Fed follow through in reducing monetary policy accommodation, it will do so in the context of an improving economy.  Washington will again provide volatility generating headlines as we approach deadlines for the budget and debt ceiling negotiations.  However, unlike in previous years, there is no significant fiscal drag to be addressed.  In addition, the nomination of a new Fed Chairman and geopolitical risks (Syria) are of concern.  The market may have already priced in some of these risks.

Risk assets should do well if real growth continues to recover despite the higher interest rate environment; however, we expect continued volatility in the near term. As a result, in our strategic portfolios we remain slightly overweight to risk.  We continue to seek high conviction opportunities and strategies within asset classes.

Some areas of opportunity currently include:

  • Domestic Equity: favor U.S. over international, financial healing (housing, autos), dividend growers
  • 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 Returns9.6.13_Magnotta_MarketOutlook

The Next Chairman of The Federal Reserve Is…

Andy RosenbergerAndrew Rosenberger, CFA, Senior Investment Manager, Brinker Capital

In the study of various sciences such as physics, biology, or even economics, we often create models to help us better understand the world around us.  These models often start out simple and usually only account for a few variables at a time.  For example, when solving a physics problem, we may assume that friction doesn’t influence the movement of an object.  That may be an okay assumption if you were calculating the movement of an ice skater along the ice, but ignoring friction could have a devastating impact when discussing vehicle safety or sending a spaceship to the moon.  So too is the case with investments.  As investors, we often create models to try and explain the economic world around us.  For example, to explain the price of a stock or asset class, we may look to the future earnings power and discount rates to calculate a fair value.  But too often these models fail.  Just as many came to believe in the efficient market hypothesis theory, the 2008 financial crisis proved to be a wake-up call that the world of sociology and investor behavior is more complicated than even the most sophisticated models of today.

Since the failure of many traditional valuation models, many investors have shifted from a bottom-up-only view of the world to one that incorporates a more top-down approach.  Thanks in part to massive amounts of liquidity in the form of Quantitative Easing, Fed-watching has become a main source of the new top-down approach.  Unfortunately, leadership at the Federal Reserve remains in question and a seat change may be afoot again.  During an interview on June 18 with Charlie Rose, President Obama stated, “He’s [Ben Bernanke] already stayed a lot longer than he wanted, or he was supposed to.” The statement was a clear signal that new leadership will begin February 1 of next year.

Source: Zeorehedge.com via Paddy Power

Source: Zeorehedge.com via Paddy Power

Over the past month, the search for a new Fed Chairman has narrowed to an apparently short list of two candidates: Larry Summers and the current Vice Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Janet Yellen.  While many influential members of the economic community were quick to vocally support Yellen, the pendulum of consensus now appears to be forming around Larry Summers.  In fact, the nomination has garnered so much momentum in the financial community, that Paddy Power, a United Kingdom-based gambling site, is taking wagers on the outcome.  The current odds are fascinating, with Larry Summers a 1:2 favorite over Janet Yellen, with 2:1 (against) odds.  Amazingly, as charted by Zero Hedge, in less than a month’s time, Summers has moved from having an outside chance to being the favorite.  If you’re skeptical of foreign-based online gambling websites, even reputable sources such as Bloomberg put the odds of a Summers nomination at 60%[1].

What does this mean for investors?  Whereas the investing community largely expects a Yellen nomination to represent a continuation of the current monetary policy as directed under Chairman Bernanke, a Summers nomination is far more uncertain.  However, I’ll quote from one of our trusted research providers, 13D Research:

We have read everything that Summers has written in recent years and we suspect his views coincide very closely with that of President Obama. What makes this all so interesting is that Summers is a vocal supporter of fiscal expansion. It is highly possible that if he is nominated and confirmed by the Senate that he will push for a form of Overt Monetary Finance…Today’s Financial Times carries an article on Summers that quoted remarks he made about the effectiveness of quantitative easing at a conference last April. “QE in my view is less efficacious for the real economy than most people suppose…If QE won’t have a large effect on demand, it will not have a large effect on inflation either.” Summers also gave a highly optimistic outlook for the U.S. economy. “I think the market is underestimating the pace at which the Fed will alter its current course and the consequences of that for interest rates.” This means a radical change in the markets’ expectations. The article also emphasized the following: “People who have discussed policy with him say Mr. Summers regards fiscal policy as a more effective tool than monetary policy.” What has been lacking at the Fed is a strong personality and intellectual leadership. Summers is brash, intelligent and self-confident, traits which may enable him to take charge of the FOMC. A regime change of this order of magnitude would be a game changer of the highest order, impacting inflation, economic growth, wages, gold, and the U.S. dollar….

8.13.13_Rosenberger_NextFedChairman_1The jury is still out as to who will ultimately be the next Fed Chairman and what their policies will be.  Similarly, given that Summers represents a shift away from the status quo, his recent surge in garnering the nomination may partially be why markets have decided to take a breather.  After all, markets prefer predictability and quantitative easing has been a major tailwind for investor confidence.  Thus, we wouldn’t be surprised to see higher market volatility as investors adjust their models and conceptual frameworks to reflect the possibility of a new Federal Reserve paradigm led by Larry Summers.


[1] Bloomberg, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-08-12/the-fed-race-heats-up.html