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.

Investment Insights Podcast – July 18, 2014

Bill MillerBill Miller, Chief Investment Officer

On this week’s podcast (recorded July 16, 2014) the subject matter pertains to the Congressional Budget Office’s release of their long-term outlook. It’s important to note that this forecast is a 75-year time horizon; so focus should be on the near-term debate in Washington:

What we like: Raised the long-term growth rate of the economy; lowered healthcare costs and interest rate costs which is a positive in the near term

What we don’t like: Healthcare and interest rate costs in the long term; interest rates likely to rise eventually; Social Security likely to rise in the near future; defense spending cutbacks

What we are doing about it: As citizens, being thoughtful when exercising the right to vote; keeping an eye on higher interest rates and impact on fixed income

Click the play icon below to launch the audio recording or click here.

Source: CNBC

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.

Monthly Market and Economic Outlook: July 2014

Amy MagnottaAmy Magnotta, CFASenior Investment Manager, Brinker Capital

Equity markets continued to grind higher in the second quarter despite continued tapering by the Federal Reserve, a negative GDP print, and rising geopolitical tensions. All asset classes have delivered positive returns in the first half of the year, led by long-term U.S. Treasury bonds. There has been a lack of volatility across all asset classes; the CBOE Volatility Index (VIX) fell to its lowest level since February 2007.

Year to date the U.S. equity markets are slightly ahead of international markets. All S&P sectors are positive year to date, led by utilities and energy. Mid cap value has been the best performing style, helped by the double-digit performance of REITs. U.S. large caps have outperformed small caps, but after experiencing a drop of more than -9%, small caps rebounded nicely in June. Value leads growth across all market capitalizations.

Despite concerns surrounding the impact of Fed tapering on emerging economies, emerging market equities outperformed developed markets in the second quarter, and have gained more than 6% so far this year, putting the asset class ahead of developed international equities. Small cap emerging markets and frontier markets have had even Magnotta_Market_Update_7.09.14_1stronger performance. The dispersion of performance within emerging markets has been high, with India, Indonesia and Argentina among the top performers, and China, Mexico and Chile among the laggards. On the developed side, performance from Japan has been disappointing but a decent rebound in June bumped it into positive territory for the year-to-date period.

Despite a consensus call for higher interest rates in 2014, U.S. Treasury yields moved lower. The 10-year Treasury Note is currently trading at 2.6% (as of 7/7/14), still below the 3.0% level where it started the year. While sluggish economic growth and geopolitical risks could be keeping a ceiling on U.S. rates, technical factors are also to blame. The supply of Treasuries has been lower due to the decline in the budget deficit, and the Fed remains a large purchaser, even with tapering in effect. At the same time demand has increased from both institutions that need to rebalance back to fixed income after experiencing strong equity markets returns, and investors seeking relative value with extremely low interest rates in Japan and Europe.

With the decline in interest rates and investor risk appetite for credit still strong, the fixed income asset class has delivered solid returns so far this year. Both investment grade and high yield credit spreads continue to grind tighter. Emerging market bonds, both sovereign and corporate, have also experienced a nice rebound after a tough 2013. Municipal bonds benefited from a positive technical backdrop with strong demand for tax-free income being met with a lack of new issuance.

We approach our macro view as a balance between headwinds and tailwinds. We believe the scale remains tipped in favor of tailwinds, with a number of factors supporting the economy and markets over the intermediate term.

  • Global monetary policy remains accommodative: Even with quantitative easing slated to end in the fall, U.S. short-term interest rates should remain near-zero until 2015 if inflation remains contained. The ECB and the Bank of Japan are continuing their monetary easing programs.
  • Global growth stable: We expect a rebound in U.S. growth in the second quarter after the polar vortex helped to contribute to a decline in economic output in the first quarter. Outside of the U.S., growth has not been very robust, but it is still positive.
  • Labor market progress: The recovery in the labor market has been slow, but we have continued to add jobs. The unemployment rate has fallen to 6.1%.
  • U.S. companies remain in solid shape: U.S. companies have solid balance sheets that are flush with cash. M&A deal activity has picked up this year. Corporate profits remain at high levels and margins have been resilient.
  • Less Drag from Washington: After serving as a major uncertainty over the last few years, Washington has done little damage so far this year. Fiscal drag will not have a major impact on growth in 2014, and the budget deficit has also declined significantly.

Risks facing the economy and markets remain, including:

  • Fed Tapering/Tightening: If the Fed continues at the current pace, quantitative easing will end in the fall. Risk assets have historically reacted negatively when monetary stimulus has been withdrawn; however, this withdrawal is more gradual and the economy appears to be on more solid footing this time. Should inflation pick up, market participants will shift quickly to concern over the timing of the Fed’s first interest rate hike. Despite the recent uptick in the CPI, the core Personal Consumption Expenditure Price Index (PCE), the Fed’s preferred inflation measure, is up only +1.5% over the last 12 months.
  • Election Year: While we noted there has been some progress in Washington, we could see market volatility pick up later this year in response to the mid-term elections.
  • Geopolitical Risks: The events surrounding Iraq, as well as Russia/Ukraine are further evidence that geopolitical risks cannot be ignored.

Risk assets should continue to perform if we experience the expected pickup in economic growth; however, we could see increased volatility and a shallow correction as markets digest the end of the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing program. Economic data, especially inflation data, will be watched closely for signs that could lead the Fed to tighten monetary policy earlier than expected. Equity market valuations look elevated, but not overly rich relative to history, and maybe even reasonable when considering the level of interest rates and inflation. Investor sentiment remains overly optimistic, but the market trend remains positive. In addition, credit conditions still provide a positive backdrop for the markets.

Our portfolios are positioned to take advantage of continued strength in risk assets, and we continue to emphasize high conviction opportunities within asset classes, as well as strategies that can exploit market inefficiencies.

Asset Class

Outlook

Favored Sub-Asset Classes

U.S. Equity

+

Large cap bias, dividend growers

Intl Equity

+

Emerging and Frontier markets, small cap

Fixed Income

Global high yield credit, short duration

Absolute Return

+

Closed-end funds, event driven

Real Assets

+/-

MLPs, natural resources equities

Private Equity

+

Diversified

 

Source: Brinker Capital

Brinker Capital, Inc., a Registered Investment Advisor. Views expressed are for informational purposes only. Holdings subject to change. Not all asset classes referenced in this material may be represented in your portfolio. All investments involve risk including loss of principal. Fixed income investments are subject to interest rate and credit risk. Foreign securities involve additional risks, including foreign currency changes, political risks, foreign taxes, and different methods of accounting and financial reporting. Past performance is not a guarantee of similar future results. An investor cannot invest directly in an index.

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)

Monthly Market and Economic Outlook: November 2013

MagnottaAmy Magnotta, CFA, Senior Investment Manager, Brinker Capital

The impressive run for global equities continued in October. While U.S. and developed international markets have gained more than 25% and 20% respectively so far this year, emerging markets equities, fixed income, and commodities have lagged. Emerging markets have eked out a gain of less than 1%, but fixed income and commodities have posted negative year-to-date returns (through 10/31). While interest rates were relatively unchanged in October, the 10-year Treasury is still 100 basis points higher than where it began the year.

After the Fed decided not to begin tapering asset purchases at their September meeting, seeking greater clarity on economic growth and a waning of fiscal policy uncertainty, attention turned to Washington. A short-term deal was signed into law on October 17, funding the government until mid-January 2014 and suspending the debt ceiling until February 2014. With the prospects of a grand bargain slim, we expect continued headline risk coming out of Washington.

The Fed will again face the decision to taper asset purchases at their December meeting, and we expect volatility in risk assets and interest rates to surround this decision, just as we experienced in the second quarter.  More recent economic data has surprised to the upside, including a +2.8% GDP growth rate and better-than-expected gains in payrolls. Despite their decision to reduce or end asset purchases, the Fed has signaled that 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.

11.12.13_Magnotta_MarketOutlook_1However, we continue to view a rapid rise in interest rates as one of the biggest threats to the 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 macro view as a balance between headwinds and tailwinds. We believe the scale remains tipped in favor of tailwinds as we approach the end of the year, 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 are likely to remain near-zero until 2015), the ECB 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 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.
  • Labor market progress: The recovery in the labor market has been slow, but stable. Monthly payroll gains have averaged 201,000[1] over the last three months.
  • Inflation tame: With the CPI increasing only +1.2% over the last 12 months, inflation in the U.S. has been running below the Fed’s target level.
  • Equity fund flows turn positive: Equity mutual funds have experienced inflows of $24 billion over the last three weeks, compared to outflows of -$12 billion for fixed income funds.[2] Continued inflows would provide further support to the equity markets.
  • 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 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:

  • 11.12.13_Magnotta_MarketOutlook_2Fed mismanages exit: The Fed will soon have to face the decision of when 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.  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 current levels could stifle the economic recovery.
  • Sentiment elevated: Investor sentiment is elevated, which typically serves as a contrarian signal.
  • Fiscal policy uncertainty: Washington continues to kick the can down the road, delaying further debt ceiling and budget negotiations to early 2014.

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, especially as we await the Fed’s decision on the fate of QE. Equity market valuations remain reasonable; however, sentiment is elevated. 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.

Some areas of opportunity currently include:

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

Asset Class Returns

11.12.13_Magnotta_MarketOutlook

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

Sequestration Begins

Magnotta@AmyMagnotta, CFA, Brinker Capital

Sequestration, the automatic spending cuts that were agreed to as part of the debt ceiling compromise in the summer of 2011, came into effect on Friday, March 1. The Budget Control Act of 2011 established the bi-partisan “super committee” to produce deficit reduction legislation. As incentive for the super committee to agree to deficit reduction legislation, if Congress failed to act than the across the board spending cuts (sequestration), totaling $1.2 trillion over 10 years, would come into effect on January 2, 2013. The start date was delayed two months as part of the fiscal cliff deal. The cuts are split 50/50 between defense (which was supposed to get the Republicans to act) and domestic discretionary spending (which was supposed to get the Democrats to act).

As expected, Congress and the Administration have not been able to agree on serious deficit reduction so we now face the automatic budget cuts. The public does not seem to be as focused on sequestration as they were on the fiscal cliff. In a recent poll from The Hill, only 36% of likely voters know what the sequester is. The spending cuts are broad based, as the chart below from Strategas Research Partners shows; however, it will take some time for the cuts to come into effect.

3.4.13_Magnotta_Sequestration

Source: Strategas Research Partners, LLC

The drag on GDP growth from the sequester is estimated to be around -0.5% this year. This is not enough drag to push us into a recession if consensus estimates for 2013 growth are correct at 2-2.5%, but the effect is not negligible. The largest hit to GDP growth will likely be in the second quarter once a majority of the spending cuts have begun to take effect. If and when voters begin to feel the impact, there may be pressure on Washington to delay or eliminate the cuts.

We also face the expiration of the continuing resolution that funds the government on March 27, which, if not addressed, could result in a government shutdown. This could be a catalyst for another short-term fix. As typical in politics, whichever party is shouldering the most blame will be more likely to compromise to get a deal done.

The idea of real tax and entitlement reform that promotes growth and puts us on a long-term, sustainable fiscal path seems highly unlikely in this environment. Our elected leaders appear to lack the tenacity to make tough decisions. Sadly, kicking the can down the road is the path of least resistance and often the one that leads to reelection.

Bottom line: Fiscal policy in the U.S. will remain a risk throughout 2013. The spending cuts from the sequester alone are not enough to derail the economic recovery. However, tepid growth is likely to persist, especially in the first half of the year, as disposable incomes have fallen due to the expiration of the payroll tax cut. An accommodative Fed and an improving housing market are positives for growth.

U.S. Policy Update: Key Dates Ahead

Magnotta @AmyLMagnotta, CFA, Brinker Capital

I recently attended Strategas Research Partners’ public policy conference in Washington, D.C. It was hard to not come away with the feeling that our government will remain dysfunctional for the foreseeable future. But there is still hope. If we could just put politics aside, there are many smart, reasonable people on both sides of the aisle that could come together to devise an acceptable solution for our fiscal problems that does not stifle economic growth.

In the near term, policy uncertainty remains. The deal to avoid the fiscal cliff dealt primarily on the tax side, making the lower rates permanent except for those in the top tax bracket. However, they continued to kick the can down the road on the spending side. While Congress has agreed on a short-term extension of the debt ceiling, the issue will return mid-year. Washington will continue to be a focus for markets this year.

Below are some key items to watch for on the policy front:

  • The sequester, which consists $1.2 trillion of mandatory spending cuts over 10 years, half of which coming from the defense budget, is set to go into effect on March 1. At this point there is a high probability the cuts will happen. This will result in immediate negative headlines, but the impact of these spending cuts will not be felt for a few more months. Sequestration will also put some pressure on state and local governments as $37 billion of federal aid will be cut. A couple of months of cuts may force President Obama into a deal with the Republicans that would include some entitlement reform.
  • The continuing resolution that currently funds the government expires on March 27. No resolution could result in a complete or partial shutdown of the federal government.
  • The debt ceiling was extended until May 19, but the Treasury could stretch it out until July or August with extraordinary measures. Also included in the legislation is a requirement that both the House and the Senate produce a budget in April or their pay will be withheld.
  • The CBO will release their outlook on February 4.
  • Momentum is building for tax reform as Chairmen of the House Ways and Means Committee (Camp-R) and the Senate Finance Committee (Baucus-D) have hired dedicated staff. However, there is a lack of consensus on why we should do tax reform.
  • Ratings agencies are looking for a plan to stabilize our debt to GDP ratio at 70%. To do this we would need spending cuts closer to $2 trillion over ten years.

The Optimism for an Economy with a 7.8% Unemployment Rate

Dan WilliamsDan Williams, CFP, Brinker Capital

Currently, the U.S. unemployment rate stands at 7.8%, an improvement from the 8.5% a year ago and the 10% from the recent peak in October 2009. Still, compared to the consistent sub 6% rates we were used to seeing from the mid-1990s to mid-2000s, it is hard to feel good about this current state of employment and what this means for the health of the economy. There are those that argue that the “real” unemployment number is even worse (due to discouraged works exiting the equation and poor measurement methodology etc.). While it’s hard to show optimism for our economy, that is what I aim to do here.

A meaningful place to start is to define what an economy is. By its simplest definition an economy is a measure of the value of the goods and services the people of an area produce. Increase your number of people, increase the amount each person can produce, or produce more valuable stuff and the economy should grow. As you trade and cross-invest between economies, you can make further optimizations. In the short run, economies go through cycles and go by the whims of politicians, the media, central banks and consumer confidence. Still at its core, the economy is just a measure of what the people of a country are able to produce.

More Efficient Per EmployeeThe clear point here is that unemployment represents a failure to produce all we could. However, even with that fact, looking at GDP (expressed in 2005 dollars) we stood at $13.3 trillion at the end of 2011 (the highest year end number ever) and have seen continued growth such that 2012 will be even higher. So we have managed to become more efficient with what each employed person produces. This is the equivalent of a factory using fewer workers but producing more. If the real unemployment rate is actually higher than the 7.8% stated, that means we did it with even fewer workers. This seems like a good thing, right?

What makes the unemployment statistic different from a company having unused equipment is, of course, that people are not computers who can have their software updated over a lunch hour to be instantly redeployed to a new task. The fact is that many of those who are presently unemployed are trained for jobs that are no longer available. Also, people suffer when they are not able to work. There is no spin I can put on that other than to say things will get better given the time to retrain and redeploy. However, is this true?

A challenge to the idea of time healing this employment wound is the fear that technology efficiencies will replace more jobs such that even if the real GDP grows, maybe not all of us will get to be a part of it. Professor Andrew McAfee in a June 2012 TED Talk “Are droids taking our jobs?” echoes this sentiment when he references that in his expected lifetime, he believes we will see a “transition to an economy that is very productive but just does not need that many human workers.” He even notes that in the future an algorithm will be able to do writing tasks so a computer could author this blog. Basically, he sees no current job that we do as safe as these technologies accelerate.

This, however, does not mean that McAfee is pessimistic about our future employment. He is in fact quite optimist. He believes that these new technologies of efficiency represent the opportunity “to make a mockery of all that came before us”. (A phrase originally used by historian Ian Morris when he was speaking of the industrial revolution). What the industrial revolution did to magnify the productivity of our muscles, he feels the technology revolution is going to do to the productivity of our minds. To say differently, he expects we should expect an acceleration in our ability to innovate as technology improves.

A more skeptical reader would be right to ask that if innovation is accelerating, why are we still in the aftermath of the great recession? Thankfully Mr. McAfee is not alone in this technology optimism and has an economist among his group with an explanation. Joe Davis, Vanguard’s chief economist, in a December 2012 speech titled “Better days are in store” notes that the growth of industrial revolutions do not proceed in straight lines. The steam revolution of the late 1770s led to an economic overconfidence and collapse that occurred in the 1830s. The telephone revolution beginning in 1876 led to an economic overconfidence and collapse that occurred in the late 1920s with the Great Depression. In both cases Dr. Davis argues these tough times caused businesses to go through the required creative destruction to survive and took these technologies to a major inflection point of further growth. Today, we are in that inflection point of the microprocessor revolution that began in the 1970s. If history is any guide, this is the economic hiccup that will cause us to get to new technology heights.

Unused Human CapitalSo where does this leave us? Over the past five years, the U.S. has learned to do more with less, has additional unused human capital to deploy, and the efficiencies afforded to us by technology are likely to accelerate. While the near term may be messy, there is an undeniable potential for us to be so much greater and “make a mockery of all that came before us”. While the details of this future and what an economic blog of 2063 will read like are unknown, there does seem to be rational reasons for great optimism. With that let me say, Happy New Year!

Parable of the Broken Window

Neil Dutta, Head of U.S. Economics, Renaissance Macro Research

In thinking about the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy, I’m reminded of the Parable of the Broken Window.  In the 19th century, French classical liberal economist Frederic Bastiat tells a story to draw the distinction between what is and what could have been. We can see how the money is spent to repair a broken window, however, we do not see how the money would have been spent otherwise.

The dilemma that is faced in Bastiat’s parable is one to ponder as we assess the economic fallout of Hurricane Sandy.

We do not believe that billions of dollars in property damage is a good thing. Still, damage to roads and bridges does not shave GDP while rebuilding activity helps boost GDP and employment. Dramatic weather events act as a temporary shock, weighing on growth in the immediate term then boosting growth over subsequent quarters. Economic activity is delayed or shifted. Taking a two quarter view, the entire event is essentially a wash.

A few quick points:

  • Recall the fallout from Hurricane Katrina. Growth moderated in Q4 2005 and then rebounded sharply in Q1 2006. Hurricane Sandy hit the most populated area of the United States during the workweek. The flooding the Hurricane has left in its wake suggest a more persistent drag on activity. A 0.5ppt hit to Q4 GDP growth would not surprise us though we would expect the activity to be made up in subsequent quarters. It may well be possible that the recovery is faster, spanning months, limiting the impact to quarterly GDP. Time will tell.
  • Some retailers will see sales decline while others will see sales improve. When a tree is blocking you from leaving your neighborhood, it is relatively safe to say that you will prioritize buying things you need immediately over things you don’t. Auto dealers, apparel retailers, and restaurant sales will likely weaken while spending on grocery stores and home renovation stores pick-up. The broader story is that consumers have already drawn down their savings quite a bit over the last three months, raising the risk to discretionary spending beyond the immediate aftermath of the Hurricane.
  • Residential construction and utilities production will likely moderate in the Northeast. There are a number of reports that refineries in this part of the country have been idled, and that means higher gasoline prices at the pump.

It is all about your time horizon. The near-term effect of the storm will be to make a weak economy that much weaker. Thereafter, we would expect the data to look strong relative to the underlying trend in the economy.