Winds of Change

Joe PreisserJoe Preisser, Portfolio Specialist, Brinker Capital

The winds of change have begun to blow through Washington, D.C. carrying with them whispers that the Federal Reserve Bank of the United States is contemplating a more immediate slowing of the unprecedented stimulus measures it has employed since the financial crisis than many analysts anticipate, which could have broad implications across the global landscape. Several signals have been offered by the American Central Bank in the past few weeks to prepare the marketplace for the impending reduction of their involvement, highlighting the delicate nature of this endeavor.

The Institution faces a daunting challenge in trying to scale back a program that has largely been credited with fueling a dramatic rise in asset prices, without interrupting the current rally in equity markets.  Although the U.S. economy has shown itself to be growing at a moderate pace, a measure of uncertainty lingers within investors as to whether this growth is robust enough to compensate for the paring back of the Bank’s historically unprecedented accommodative monetary policies.

As the depths of the ‘Great Recession’ threatened to pull the global economy into depression, the U.S. Central Bank undertook a herculean effort to bring the country back from the precipice of disaster. The tangible result of these efforts has been a deluge of liquidity forced upon the marketplace, which has given birth to a tremendous rally in share prices of companies listed around the globe, and helped to repair much of the damage inflicted by the crisis. The dramatic expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet, since the inception of these programs, has culminated in the most recent iteration of these efforts—an open-ended program of quantitative easing, comprised of the purchase of $45 billion per month in longer dated U.S. Treasury debt and $40 billion of agency mortgage-backed securities, undertaken in September of last year, that has brought the aggregate amount of assets acquired by the Bank to more than $3 trillion.


The chart above depicts the increase in the size of the Fed’s balance sheet (white line) versus the S&P 500 Index (yellow line).

As the economic recovery has gained momentum in the United States, with notable improvements seen in both the labor and housing markets, concern has been voiced that the flood of liquidity flowing from Washington should be tapered, lest it potentially result in the creation of artificial asset bubbles, which in turn could present risks to price stability.

The first broach of the possibility of the Fed varying the additions it is making to its balance sheet came in a press release from the Federal Open Market Committee on May 1 which stated that, “The Committee is prepared to increase or reduce the pace of its purchases to maintain appropriate policy accommodation as the outlook for the labor market or inflation changes.” This statement was followed by the May 11th publication of an article authored by Jon Hilsenrath of the Wall Street Journal, who is widely considered to be a de facto mouthpiece for the Central Bank, “officials say they plan to reduce the amount of bonds they buy in careful and potentially halting steps, varying their purchases as their confidence about the job market and inflation evolves. The timing on when to start is still being debated” (Wall Street Journal). Comments issued on Thursday by the President of the San Francisco Fed, John William’s, referred once again to the possibility of the Central Bank’s program being scaled back, potentially sooner than many market participants anticipate, “It’s clear that the labor market has improved since September.  We could reduce somewhat the pace of our securities purchases, perhaps as early as this summer” (Bloomberg News).

Though the Fed has stated that it will continue its accommodative monetary policies until the unemployment rate in the United States has been reduced from its current rate of 7.5% to a target of 6.5%, it appears that the pace of this accommodation may change in the near term.  While the consensus among market participants is for this gradual reduction in quantitative easing to begin sometime this year, no one is sure of the scale or the exact timing.  As the Central Bank has played such an integral role in helping to engineer the current rally in equities, it will be imperative to closely monitor the deftness with which they handle the extrication of their involvement.

Looking Past the Fiscal Cliff

Amy Magnotta, CFA, Brinker Capital

One of the major risks facing the U.S. economy and markets as we enter the final months of 2012 is the fiscal cliff.  The amount of expiring tax provisions and spending cuts is estimated to be over 3% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and with economic growth running below 2%, the fiscal cliff will put us into a recession.*

There will be no resolution on the fiscal cliff until after the election.  However, we are hopeful that a short-term extension of many of the policies will be agreed upon in the lame duck session of Congress. Some fiscal drag is likely – for example, neither party is in favor of extending the 2% payroll tax cut – but it should be closer to 1% of GDP.

One of the key tax provisions Congress needs to address this year is the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT).  The current AMT patch expired in 2011, so it can only be retroactively fixed in 2012.  If not remedied, 30 million Americans with annual incomes of about $50,000 will get hit with the AMT when they file their taxes in early 2013.  This would be a political and economic disaster, and as a result may act as a catalyst for a short-term deal.

In addition, the debt ceiling must be raised soon.  In a lame duck session, the Democrat-controlled Senate may agree to extension of all of the Bush tax rates for an increase in the debt ceiling, especially if President Obama is reelected.

While a short-term deal would again kick the can down the road, it will hopefully set us up for a real tax and entitlement reform package in 2013.  We don’t have any other option – our fiscal situation demands real reforms as our current path is unsustainable. The specific path we take will depend on the outcome of November’s election, but regardless, our approach will have to address both the spending and revenue sides of the equation, as well as entitlement programs.

We currently have the luxury of being the beneficiary of the global flight to safety so our borrowing costs are extremely low.  How long can that continue?  We should take advantage and make the reforms before the market forces our hand as we are now seeing in Europe. The environment in Washington does not inspire confidence; however, lawmakers have little choice when faced with our fiscal reality.  Let’s just hope they focus more on effective policy and setting us on the right long-term path, and less on their short-term reelection concerns.

The following charts from Dan Clifton, Head of Policy Research at Strategas Research Partners, tell the story.  The real work must be done in 2013.

*Source: Strategas Research Partners

Economic Headwinds and Tailwinds

Amy Magnotta, CFA, Brinker Capital

We continue to approach our macro view as a balance between
cyclical tailwinds and more structural headwinds. While we have
seen some cyclical improvement in the economy, helped by easy
monetary policy, we continue to face global macro risks and
uncertainties. The unresolved macro risks could result in bouts of
market volatility and as a result portfolios have a modest defensive
bias, and are focused on high conviction opportunities within asset classes.

Accommodative monetary policy: The Fed has become even more accommodative with the announcement of further quantitative easing, an open-ended mortgage-backed securities purchase program, and they seem determined to continue until growth picks up. In addition, the Fed has pledged to keep interest rates low into 2015. The European Central Bank has also pledged support to defend the Euro and has committed to sovereign bond purchases of countries who apply for aid. Emerging economies have room to ease further if growth slows to an unacceptable level. There is the expectation that China will ease further to attempt to engineer a soft landing.

U.S. companies remain in solid shape: U.S. companies have solid balance sheets that are flush with cash that could be put to work through M&A, capital expenditures or hiring, or returned to shareholders in the form of dividends or share buybacks. While estimates are coming down, profits are still at high levels.

Housing market improvement: There is evidence that the housing market has bottomed and could soon be in a position to contribute to economic growth. Prices have stabilized and sales have increased over last year. Homebuilder confidence is at levels last seen in 2007. Housing inventories have fallen. Low mortgage rates and rising rents have driven affordability to record levels; however, credit remains tight.

U.S. fiscal cliff / U.S. election / U.S. fiscal situation: The current U.S. political environment does not inspire confidence. We face a significant fiscal cliff in 2013 due to expiring tax cuts and spending measures. With economic growth in the U.S. at stall speed, the size of the fiscal cliff could tip us into recession territory. There will be no resolution of the fiscal cliff until after the election is decided, which will result in greater uncertainty. We hope for a short-term extension of some of the measures, setting up for a larger tax and entitlement reform package to be debated in 2013. Fiscal policy uncertainty has led U.S. companies to put plans for additional hires and/or capital expenditures on hold until it is clear what the rules are.

European sovereign debt crisis and recession: While the ECB and EU leaders have pledged support to the Euro, actions need to follow words. Bond purchases by the ECB will not solve the problems in Europe, but it can buy policymakers time to make real reforms. However, growth will continue to weaken in the region. High unemployment combined with planned austerity measures have led to more social unrest.

Global growth slowdown: There is evidence of a slowdown in growth not only in developed markets, but also in emerging markets. Growth in the U.S. continues to be sluggish, leaving the economy susceptible to shocks. Europe is in recession territory. Growth in China has slowed and continues to show signs of further weakening.

Tensions in the Middle East: Geopolitical risks in the Middle East are cause for concern. A sharp rise in oil prices will be a negative shock to the global economy.

This commentary is intended to provide opinions and analysis of the market and economy, but is not intended to provide personalized investment advice. Statements referring to future actions or events, such as the future financial performance of certain asset classes, market segments, economic trends, or the market as a whole are based on the current expectations and projections about future events provided by various sources, including Brinker Capital’s Investment Management Group. These statements are not guarantees of future performance, and actual events may differ materially from those discussed. Diversification does not ensure a profit or protect against a loss in a declining market, including possible loss of principal. This commentary includes information obtained from third-party sources. Brinker Capital believes those sources to be accurate and reliable; however, we are not responsible for errors by third party sources on which we reasonably rely.

Quantitative Easing Ad Infinitum?

Amy Magnotta, CFA, Brinker Capital

The Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) launched an open-ended quantitative easing program yesterday. The Fed will purchase $40 billion of Agency mortgage-backed securities (MBS) per month with no specified end date. The Fed will continue its Operation Twist program through December, which includes the purchase of $45 billion per month of longer-dated Treasuries.

The MBS purchases will continue indefinitely until the outlook for the labor market improves “substantially,” which is a different approach than previous easing programs. The Fed also used a communication tool, stating that short-term rates will remain zero-bound until at least mid-2015 (instead of late-2014).

The Fed did not express any concern with inflation, stating it will likely run at or below its 2% objective over the medium term. However, the market is not convinced and inflation expectations moved up significantly after the announcement.

U.S. 5-Year Breakeven Inflation Rate (Source: Bloomberg)U.S. 5-Year Breakeven Inflation Rate

Gold (white) and Silver (orange) Prices (Source: Bloomberg)

The equity markets reacted positively, with the S&P 500 Index gaining +1.6% on the day. An open-ended quantitative easing program may be even more supportive for equities. It is clear the Fed is not ready to stop easing until they see more meaningful and sustainable growth. They want to see more of an improvement in the housing and labor markets. Low rates are here to stay. While the Fed’s actions will increase the risk appetite of investors, we still need help from fiscal policy before year end.

The full FOMC statement can be found here and their updated economic projections here.

Central Banks Once Again Lift Stocks

Joe Preisser, Product Specialist

Stocks listed across the globe rose in dramatic fashion this week, carried on the wings of an announcement made by European Central Bank President, Mario Draghi that a program of unlimited buying of the distressed bonds of the Continent’s heavily indebted nations will be enacted. In a nearly unanimous decision, the ECB’s board endorsed Mr. Draghi’s proposal to reduce sovereign borrowing costs by making large scale purchases of short term debt, ranging in maturities from one to three years in a plan named, “Outright Monetary Transactions” (New York Times). As a means of countering German fears of increasing inflationary pressures through their actions, the money used by the Central Bank to buy the sovereign bonds will be removed from the system elsewhere, thus “sterilizing” the purchases. The bold action of the European Central Bank was characterized by its President as, “a fully effective backstop” for a currency union he deemed, “Irreversible” (New York Times).

The concern over the possible dissolution of the Continent’s monetary union, which has held sway over the global marketplace for the last two and a half years, was diminished by the resolute decision of the European Central Bank to embark on its latest plan to purchase the debt of its most heavily indebted members. Whether this action marks a decisive turning point in the struggle to end the crisis is yet to be determined, as obstacles remain, not least of which are the stipulations that the embattled sovereigns themselves must formally request aid from the Central Bank and adhere to strict conditions in order to be granted assistance. Despite the questions which continue to swirl around this collection of countries, the resolve of its policy makers to maintain their union has been affirmed. Doug Cote, the Chief Market Strategist for ING Investment Management was quoted by the Wall Street Journal, “it seems like there is a very clear and strong commitment that the euro will not only survive, but prosper.”

Speculation that the Federal Reserve Bank of The United States will enact additional measures designed to bolster growth in the world’s largest economy, following next week’s monetary policy meeting, increased in the wake of the release of a disappointing report of job growth for the month of August. According to Bloomberg News, “the economy added 96,000 workers after a revised 141,000 increase in July that was smaller than initially estimated…The median estimate of 92 economists surveyed by Bloomberg called for a gain of 130,000.” The case which Chairman Bernanke made for possibly employing additionally accommodative monetary policies, after the Jackson Hole Symposium on Aug. 31, included language which categorized the current rate of unemployment as a, “grave concern” (New York Times). The lack of progress made toward improving payrolls in the United States, as reflected by the weakness of this report, greatly increases the chances of the Central Bank taking action, which will be supportive of risk based assets. Michelle Meyer, senior U.S. economist at Bank of America was quoted as saying, “The Fed will not stand idle in the face of subpar growth, we expect additional balance sheet expansion before year-end, with a growing probability of an open-ended QE program tied to healing in the economy” (Wall Street Journal).

Investment Commentary From Brinker’s Joe Preisser 6-11-12

As investors across the globe continued to grapple with the uncertainty on the European continent, the prospect of additional, accommodative monetary policies being enacted by several of the world’s major Central Banks sent share prices higher across indices this week.  In Europe, on Wednesday, stocks rallied to their best single day performance in more than seven months following a meeting of the European Central Bank(ECB).  Although the rate setting committee elected to maintain the current level, the President of the ECB, Mario Draghi signaled that measures designed to stimulate the euro-zone’s economy would be forthcoming if growth were to falter.  According to Bloomberg News, “Global stocks rallied the most this year, the euro strengthened and commodities jumped on speculation policy makers will take steps to revive the slowing economy.” Mr. Draghi’s sentiments were echoed on this side of the proverbial ‘pond’ by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke in an appearance before a Congressional budget committee in which he reiterated that the Central Bank, “remains prepared to take action as needed to protect the U.S. financial system and economy” (New York Times).

Stocks rose across continent’s in the wake of an unexpected decision by the Central Bank of China on Thursday, to cut interest rates for the first time since 2008, in an attempt to stimulate growth in what has been a slowing economy.  According to the New York Times, “China cut its benchmark lending rate Thursday, for the first time in nearly four years, adding to efforts to reverse a sharp economic downturn.” The nation’s policy makers are once again demonstrating their continued resolve to act in an effort to thwart the negative effects of Europe’s sovereign debt crisis, which have rippled through the global economy. Dariusz Kowalczyk, an economist at Credit Agricole was quoted by the New York Times as saying, “The biggest impact of the move is likely to be on sentiment, both among businesses and consumers domestically by showing Beijing is bringing out the big guns to support growth…investors know that they have more ammunition if need be and a good track record in using it.”

Through the confusion the nations of the European Union face as a result of the precarious state of affairs in the nation of Greece, where the rapidly approaching national elections to be held on June 17th will serve as a referendum on the country’s membership in the euro zone, the Continent’s leaders have drawn closer to an accord on a rescue package for embattled Spanish financial institutions.  In an effort to halt the flight of capital still rattling the country and mitigate the dangers facing what is the fourth largest economy in Europe, the possibility that emergency funding could be made available to the banks themselves has come to the fore.   Throughout the current crisis Spain has strongly resisted attempts by its European partners to encourage the country to accept a rescue package, as the disbursement of these funds in the past has come laden with broad conditionality that has meant the need for additional austerity.  The most recent proposals, to lend directly to the troubled institutions themselves, have been designed with terms limited to the financial sector in an effort to make them more palatable to the government, thus displaying the resolve of Europe’s leaders to combat the current crisis and offering hope for a successful resolution.