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.

Monthly Market and Economic Outlook: August 2013

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

The U.S. equity markets hit new all-time highs in July after investors digested the Fed’s plans to taper asset purchases.  The S&P 500 Index gained over 5% during the month while the small cap Russell 2000 Index gained 7%. So far 2013 has been a stellar year for U.S. equities with gains of 20%. Second quarter earnings have been decent with 69% of S&P 500 companies beating estimates (as of 8/5)[1]; however, revenue growth remains weak at just +1.3% year over year. We will need to see stronger top-line growth for margins to be sustainable at current high levels.

8.8.13_Magnotta_AugustOutlook_1Developed international equity markets also participated in July’s rally, helped by a weaker U.S. dollar. The MSCI EAFE Index gained just over 4% for the month in local terms and gained over 5% in USD terms. Japan’s easing policies have been celebrated by investors, driving Japanese equity markets 17% higher so far in 2013. Emerging markets were able to eke out a gain of just 1% in July as Brazil and India continued to struggle in the face of slowing growth and weaker currencies.

While interest rate volatility overwhelmed the second quarter, the fixed income markets stabilized in July. After moving sharply higher in May and June, the 10-year U.S. Treasury rose only nine basis points during the month and at 2.64% (as of 8/5), remains at levels we experienced as recently as 2011. The Barclays Aggregate Index was relatively flat for the month. Small losses in Treasuries and agency mortgage-backed securities were offset by gains in credit. The high yield sector had a nice rebound in July as credit spreads tightened, gaining 1.9%.

8.8.13_Magnotta_AugustOutlook_2With growth still sluggish and inflation low, we expect interest rates to remain relatively range-bound over the near term; however, the low end of the range has shifted higher.  Volatility in the bond market should continue as the Fed begins to taper asset purchases.  Negative technical factors, like continued outflows from fixed income funds, could weigh on the asset class. Our portfolios remain positioned in defense of rising interest rates with a shorter duration, an emphasis on spread product, and a healthy allocation to low volatility absolute return strategies.

The pace of U.S. economic growth has continued to be modest, but attractive relative to growth in the rest of the developed world. U.S. GDP growth in the first half of the year has been below expectations; however, there are signs that growth has been picking up in the second quarter, including an increase in both the manufacturing and non-manufacturing purchasing manager’s indices (PMIs) and a decline in unemployment claims.  The improvement in the labor markets has been slow but steady.  Should the Fed follow through with their plans to reduce monetary policy accommodation, it will do so in the context of an improving economy, which should be a positive for equity markets.

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 the second half of the year.  A number of factors should continue to support the economy and markets for the remainder of the year:

  • 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 has pledged to support the euro, and now the Bank of Japan is embracing an aggressive monetary easing program in an attempt to boost growth and inflation.
  • Fiscal policy uncertainty has waned: After resolutions on the fiscal cliff, debt ceiling and sequester, the uncertainty surrounding fiscal policy has faded.  The U.S. budget deficit has improved markedly, helped by stronger revenues.  Fiscal drag will be much less of an issue in 2014.
  • Labor market steadily improving: The recovery in the labor market has been slow, but steady.
  • Housing market improvement: The improvement in home prices, typically a consumer’s largest asset, boosts net worth and as a result, consumer confidence.  However, a significant 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:

  • Fed mismanages exit: 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.
  • Significantly higher interest rates: Rates moving significantly higher from here could stifle the economic recovery.
  • Europe: While the economic situation appears to be bottoming, the risk of policy error in Europe still exists.  The region has still not addressed its debt and growth problems; however, it seems leaders have realized that austerity alone will not solve its problems.
  • China: A hard landing in China would have a major impact on global growth.

We continue to seek high conviction opportunities and strategies within asset classes for our client portfolios.  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
8.8.13_Magnotta_AugustOutlook_3

Investment Insights Video: Responding to Rising Interest Rates

In May, Federal Reserve Chairman, Ben Bernanke, announced the possibility that they will begin tapering in the upcoming months. As that notion looms, so too does the prospective of rising interest rates.

We sat down with Bill Miller, Chief Investment Officer, and Jeff Raupp, Senior Portfolio Manager to discuss how Brinker is prepared to respond to the upcoming policy changes.  In this installment of Investment Insights, Bill and Jeff will give financial advisors and investors a clearer understanding of the tools available to Brinker Capital and how our portfolios can manage the impending environment of rising interest rates.

Should I Sell My Fixed Income?

Jeff RauppJeff Raupp, CFA, Senior Investment Manager

Now that we’re able to look back with the benefit of hindsight, it’s pretty easy to pick on the mistakes that investors made during the financial crisis of 2008. For instance, as equity markets sold off, emotion took over, and many investors that entered the crisis with a well balanced portfolio abandoned their plan and made wholesale changes to fixed income or, even worse, cash. At the time, it seemed like a rational reaction—Wall Street institutions that had existed for decades were insolvent, and each day seemed to bring a new, ineffective government program to stabilize the credit markets, along with yet another triple-digit loss in the stock market.

7.18.13_Raupp_FixedIncomeWe know now that what had started as an economic slowdown and then recession extended into a full-fledged market panic, where investors sold indiscriminately of price. In the years that followed, those that kept their heads recovered and reached new highs with their investments; those that joined the panic are, in many cases, still hoping to recover their 2008 losses.

Today, many investors are considering a question that could very much have the same negative long-term consequences, namely, “Should I abandon fixed income altogether?”

The question comes up after interest rates spiked in reaction to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s May testimony in which he outlined a scenario where, with the right economic growth in place, the Fed could start lowering the level of bond purchases they’re making as part of the quantitative easing (QE) program. Over a two month period, the yield on the 10-year Treasury jumped from 1.6% to 2.8% and at -2.3%, the Barclay’s Aggregate Index had its worst quarterly return since the second quarter of 2004 when it fell 2.4%.

To answer the question, first let’s look at the downside potential. It’s been a long time since we went through an extended rising rate environment. As our research indicates, from 1945 to 1981 the yield on the 10-year Treasury rose from 1.5% to over 14%. Over that 36-year period, the return an investor in the 10-year Treasury received was actually a positive 2.8%, with 75% of the calendar years in that period having positive returns. The worst one-year loss, 5.0%, was in 1969, and the worst multi-year losing streak happened twice—1955-1956 and 1958-1959 (1957 was a strong year and the five-year period 1955-1959 was close to flat). Compared to a stock market bubble, the downside on fixed income is extremely tame.

7.18.13_Raupp_FixedIncome_1Secondly, you have to think about the role fixed income plays in your portfolio. In heavy stock market sell-offs, fixed income is often the only asset class with positive returns and therefore can act as a hedge against market volatility. Since 1945, there has only been one year (1969) where both stocks and bonds had negative returns. In today’s world, a global flight to safety results in demand for high quality fixed income, driving yields down and bond prices higher. No other asset class plays the low volatility hedging role quite as well. Responding to the threat of low rates by greatly increasing equity, or even alternative exposure, can prove disastrous if markets crater.

Finally, fixed income comes in many varieties. At any given point in time, there are areas of fixed income that provide opportunity and/or protection. By broadening your universe beyond simple treasuries to take advantage of these you can get a better end result.

Let’s be clear, core, investment-grade fixed income doesn’t provide a great investment opportunity right now. With yields still at low levels and likely to rise in the coming five to ten years, we’ll likely see muted returns at best with fits and starts of performance along the way. Inflation is currently in check below 2%, but if we started to see it flare up, investors, especially those with longer horizons, would need to consider the impact rising prices would have on their purchasing power. But even in an adverse environment, fixed income still plays an important role in portfolios.

Finding Comfort Outside the Safety Bubble

Sue BerginSue Bergin

The late author Charles Bukowski once said that, “the shortest distance between two points is often unbearable.” The flight to safety that we have seen over the last few years is proof that this sentiment describes how many feel about investments.

The fixed income market has gotten a $700 billion boost in the last three years, and $300 billion yanked from equity markets.  These are sure signs that investors have found the volatility in markets unbearable.

While the comfort of the safety bubble might calm clients of their market jitters, it isn’t necessarily in their best long-term interest. While fixed income securities are generally “safer” than equity investments, they have a downside.  They may produce returns that do not keep pace with inflation.

safety bubble

There is, however, another option outside of the safety bubble.  By incorporating alternative investment strategies that are less correlated to the markets, clients’ portfolios may be protected from downside risk, yet still capture opportunities for growth.

When clients express an aversion to the equity markets, perhaps it’s time to talk about alternative strategies like absolute return.  Absolute return strategies seek to deliver a positive return regardless of market behavior.  Because they typically have low market correlation, they offer some shelter to the volatility that clients find disturbing.  While not right for everyone, a good absolute return fund can add balance and consistency to a portfolio.

Beginning of a ‘Great Rotation’?

Joe PreisserJoe Preisser, Brinker Capital

As the share prices of companies listed in the United States rose this week, to heights last seen in October of 2007, speculation has run rampant that a so called ‘Great Rotation’ from fixed income to equities may have commenced.

The continued easing of Europe’s sovereign debt crisis, combined with positive corporate earnings surprises and the temporary extension of our nation’s borrowing limit, has helped to quell a measure of the uncertainty that has plagued market participants during the course of the last few years. Tangible evidence of this phenomenon can be found in the marked decline of the Chicago Board Options Exchange Market Volatility Index (VIX), commonly referred to as the “fear gauge”, which is currently trading far below its historical average. The steep drop in expected market volatility suggests that investors believe to a large degree that many of the potential problems facing the global economy are already priced into current valuations, and as such have set expectations of the possibility of any external shocks to be quite low. This state of affairs has led directly to an increased appetite for risk within the market, which has culminated in strong inflows into equity funds. According to the Wall Street Journal, “For the week ended January 16, U.S. investors moved a net $3.8 billion into equity mutual funds. That followed the $7.5 billion inflows in the previous week, along with another $10.8 billion directed to exchange traded funds. Add it up and you’re looking at the biggest two-week inflow into stocks since April 2000” (January 24, 2013).

Although the movement of money into equities this year has been quite strong, whether or not this is the beginning of a significant reallocation from fixed income remains to be seen. Despite the flight of dollars into stocks, yields, which move inversely to price, on both U.S. Treasury and corporate debt have risen only moderately, and bond funds this year have not experienced the type of drawdowns that would be expected if investors were truly rotating from one asset class to another. In fact, what has transpired speaks to the contrary, as although inflows to the space have slowed from last year, they remain robust. According to an article in Barron’s published this week, “Bond funds, meanwhile, attracted $4.63 billion in net new cash. Bond mutual funds collected $4.21 billion of that sum, compared to the previous week’s inflows of $5.45 billion” (January 18, 2013). One possible explanation for the hesitation to exit the fixed income space is the lingering concern among investors over the looming fiscal fight in Washington D.C. and the potential damage to the global economy if common ground is not found. According to a recent Bloomberg News survey, “Global investors say the state of the U.S. government’s finances is the greatest risk to the world economy and almost half are curbing their investments in response to continuing budget battles” (January 22, 2013).

If begun in earnest, a rotation by investors from fixed income to equities would certainly present a powerful catalyst to carry share prices significantly higher; however caution is currently warranted in making such an assertion, as a potentially serious macro-economic risk continues inside the proverbial ‘beltway’. If the budget impasses in the United States is bridged in a responsible way, and the caustic partisanship currently gripping Washington broken, the full potential of the American economy may be realized and this reallocation truly undertaken. David Tepper, who runs the $15 billion dollar Apoloosa Management LP was quoted by Bloomberg News, “This country is on the verge of an explosion of greatness” (January 22, 2013).

The S&P 500 in 2012

2012 was definitely a better year than it felt, with the S&P gaining over +13.0% on a price basis and +15.9% on a total return basis.

It was a great year to be invested in the global equity markets despite investors pulling out over $139 billion from equity mutual funds. Investors continued to pour into fixed income funds, adding over $300 billion during the year. (Source: ICI) The Barclays Aggregate gained +4.2% in 2012.

Below is a great snapshot of S&P 500 performance in 2012 from Bespoke Investment Group:

1.2.13_Magnotta_S&P_2012Perfromance

Insights: Fixed Income Scenario Analysis with Tom Wilson and Andy Rosenberger of Brinker Capital

Tom Wilson, Senior Investment Manager and Andy Rosenberger, Senior Investment Manager, discuss fixed income investments and the potential impact that interest rates would have on these investments.