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

Housing Market a Reason for Optimism

Magnotta@AmyMagnotta, CFA, Brinker Capital

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

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

Source: FactSet, National Association of Realtors

Source: FactSet, National Association of Realtors

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

Source: FactSet, U.S. Census Bureau

Source: FactSet, U.S. Census Bureau

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

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

Attitudes Towards Risk and Their Impact on Children

Sue BerginSue Bergin

An investor who is unaccepting of some investment risk limits potential opportunities for significant growth in their portfolio.  Even so, many such investors are satisfied as long as they remain in the black.  An argument of lost opportunity costs falls on deaf ears.  When you, as their advisor, point out that they are limiting their future growth potential, they are ok with it.  But, what if they thought that their risk aversion might have negative consequences for their children.  Might they look differently at their attitudes towards uncertain investments?

shutterstock_59441101A recent U.K. study shows that children of risk-averse parents scored lower on standardized tests.  They were also 1.34% percent less likely to go to college than children of parents who are more accepting of risk. [1]

According to the researchers, risk-averse people by their very nature may be unwilling to make inherently uncertain investments.  For example, they may be not be inclined to fund a private school education because they cannot be assured (guaranteed!) that it will result in greater successes for that child. Put another way, aversion to risk makes a person less likely to invest in their child’s human capital.

The researchers hint at another possible explanation for the phenomenon. They suggest that attitude towards risk reflects cognitive abilities.

For those of us who work with some incredibly bright, risk-averse clients, the first explanation seems more plausible.

[1]Parental Risk Attitudes and Children’s Academic Test Scores:  Evidence from the US Panel Study of Income Dynamics.

Solid Employment Report, but More Improvement Needed

Amy Magnotta, CFA, Brinker Capital

Friday’s employment report released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics was encouraging.  We added 171,000 payrolls in October, and previous months were revised upward by +84,000.  A majority of private industries added jobs during the month.  The unemployment rate ticked up to 7.9% as more people entered the workforce than could find jobs.

This report is consistent with sluggish growth and should not warrant any change in monetary policy.  The Fed is looking for a “substantial improvement” in the labor market, which includes an increase in labor force participation.  The labor force participation rate, which had been declining precipitously since mid-2008, moved up to 63.8% after hitting a record low 63.5% in August.  Consumer perceptions surrounding the economy have improved, which will draw more people back into the labor force.  However, the economy is not growing fast enough to absorb all of the new entrants.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

There remains considerable slack in the labor market, and as a result, wage growth has been dismal.  Friday’s report continued on that trend, with average hourly earnings growth falling to just 1.1% year over year.  With inflation running at 2.0% year over year, wages are contracting in real terms.  Weak wage growth will keep a lid on inflation.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

With payroll growth averaging 170,000 over the last three months, and the employment rate now below 8%, there are positive signs in the labor market.  However, we still have a long way to go.  Economic growth at 2% is not strong enough to bring down the unemployment rate substantially.  The slack in the labor market will continue to place downward pressure on wages, which will impact consumer spending.  The Fed has committed to remain accommodative until they see more progress.  Help from the fiscal and regulatory side – in addressing the fiscal cliff and then putting into place a longer-term fiscal plan – would be a big positive, providing companies with some certainty and the confidence they need to increase hiring plans.