Investment Insights Podcast – January 14, 2014

Investment Insights PodcastBill Miller, Chief Investment Officer

On this week’s podcast (recorded January 13, 2014):

  • What we like: Global synchronized recovery
  • What we don’t like: Complacency (too much bullishness) associated with the global synchronization, making the market vulnerable to pullbacks.
  • What we are doing about it: Minor hedging in some portfolios; looking at underlying health of global synchronized recovery as central event, with sentiment as a secondary event.

Click the play icon below to launch the audio recording.

The views expressed are those of Brinker Capital and are for informational purposes only. Holdings are subject to change.

Market Commentary: Liquidity

Joe PreisserJoe Preisser, Portfolio Specialist, Brinker Capital

The powerful figure of the Federal Reserve Bank of the United States (Fed) continues to hold sway over the global landscape, as the collective eyes of investors around the world watch intently for any discernible hint of a shift in policy, which when detected, has radiated across the marketplace. During the course of the past five weeks, the American Central Bank has launched a veritable public relations barrage in an effort to stave off the steep sell-off in risk assets that accompanied comments issued by Chairman Ben Bernanke following the conclusion of a meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee on June 19.  During the ensuing press conference, Mr. Bernanke suggested that if the economic data from the U.S. continued in its current pattern of improvement, the time may be near for a measure of the support the Fed has provided to the U.S. economy. namely the $85 billion per month of asset purchases currently being made, to be curtailed.

7.26.13_Preisser_Liquidity_2Market participants reacted to the Chairman’s comments by throwing what has been called the “taper tantrum”(Bloomberg News), which culminated in a 4.8% decline in the Standard & Poor’s 500 over the course of five trading days, and a .35% rise in yields on the 10-year U.S. Treasury note during the same time frame.  The Central Bank’s officials, and especially the Chairman himself, have proven themselves particularly deft at quelling the market’s concerns in the day’s since, and in so doing have provided a catalyst that has sent stocks rallying around the world, and those listed in the United States to record highs. The volatility witnessed over recent weeks highlights the market’s continued dependence on the liquidity provided by the Fed, and further illustrates the difficulties surrounding its eventual removal, which may begin as early as September.

Reassurances from Fed officials—that the Central Bank remains committed to the continuity of its current accommodative stance for the foreseeable future—poured forth into the mainstream media as the selling pressure built within the marketplace. Beginning on June 25, the President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, Richard Fischer, and Minneapolis Fed President, Narayana Kocherlakota both issued comments designed to emphasize the fact that the Central Bank would keep in place its support of the economic recovery in the U.S. Mr. Kocherlakota was quoted by Bloomberg News on the 25th as saying, “The committee should continue to buy assets at least until the unemployment rate has fallen below 7 percent.  The purchases should continue as long as the medium-term outlook for the inflation rate remains below 2.5 percent and longer-term inflation expectations remain well anchored.” What have been categorized as unusually direct statements, of these two, non-voting members of the Committee (Bloomberg News), served to soothe concerns among investors, and were followed in short order by those of Richmond Fed President, Jeffery Lacker, who helped to further assuage any lingering uncertainty.  Mr. Lacker reiterated the fact that continued, substantive labor market improvement was necessary for the tapering of asset purchases to commence, and noted his confidence that deflation was not an issue (Bloomberg News), which helped to accelerate the rebound in risk assets.

7.26.13_Preisser_Liquidity_3The highly anticipated release of the June employment report was well received by the market. Although it revealed the creation of 195,000 jobs within the United States, which exceed the consensus estimate of 165,000 (New York Times), it fell short of the whisper number of 200,000 that had circulated, and the unemployment rate remained stagnant at 7.6%. The report buoyed the belief that the Fed would need to maintain its current pace of asset purchases for a longer period of time than many had feared as the pace of job creation, although improving, does not warrant tapering.  Jan Hatzius, the chief economist at Goldman Sachs, was quoted in the New York Times on July 5—“Beyond the headline numbers for job growth, it gets a little more mixed. There is still a lot of slack in the labor market.”

Stocks received a further lift from Chairman Bernanke who, in answering audience questions following a speech he delivered at the National Bureau of Economic Research conference on July 10, made an effort to stress the fact that the Central Bank remained committed to furthering the economic recovery.  Mr. Bernanke was quoted by the Wall Street Journal—“There is some perspective, gradual and possible change in the mix of instruments.  But that shouldn’t be confused with the overall thrust of policy, which is highly accommodative.” The Chairman once again reiterated this pledge in testimony before Congress on July 17—“Our intention is to keep monetary policy highly accommodative for the foreseeable future, and the reason that’s necessary is because inflation is below our target and unemployment is still quite high” (New York Times). These statements served to further the belief that has come to be known as the, Bernanke Put for the Chairman’s willingness to intercede when financial market’s struggle, which has been perceived to offer protection to investors, remains in place and provided further support to risk assets.

7.26.13_Preisser_Liquidity

Although benchmark indices in the United States have risen to record levels, a measure of uncertainty lingers beneath the surface as the inevitability of the scaling back of the Fed’s asset purchases remains, along with the question of who will succeed Mr. Bernanke as the next Chairman of the American Central Bank.  Despite no official word having been offered that his tenure atop the Federal Reserve will come to an end in January, this is widely considered to be the case.

Speculation as to who will replace Mr. Bernanke has risen to the fore with the two perceived leading candidates appearing to be the Fed’s current No. 2, Janet Yellen, and former Treasury Secretary, Larry Summers. According to the Wall Street Journal—“The race to become the next leader of the Federal Reserve looks increasingly like a contest between two economists: Lawrence Summers and Janet Yellen.”  In addition to the questions surrounding the identity of the next head of the Central Bank, a recent poll of economists, conducted by Bloomberg News, revealed the belief among a majority of those queried that the Federal Reserve would in fact begin tapering in September. With summer’s effusive glow illuminating Wall Street and the record gains of its equity markets, the cool winds of fall hold within them the possibility of bringing the unwelcome specter of volatility as these issues seek resolution.

Consequences Remain from Quantitative Easing

Andy RosenbergerAndrew Rosenberger, CFA, Brinker Capital

Despite the now numerous iterations of quantitative easing, the full effects of large-scale asset purchases aren’t fully understood by market participants or policy makers. After four years of experimenting in this new Petri dish, markets understand how liquidity is created, but not where that liquidity ultimately flows to. Arguably, as evidence by P/E multiple expansion, new highs on the major indices, high yield credit spread at all-time lows, and a still sluggish economy, many believe that much of this liquidity has found its way into risky assets as opposed to the broader economy.

If we take a step back for a moment, there are three potential adverse consequences from quantitative easing (QE):

  1. Future inflation
  2. Negative political and/or sovereign perceptions
  3. Asset bubbles

To date, two out of those three adverse consequences haven’t been a problem. On the inflation front, TIPS breakeven rates are range bound, precious metal prices are falling, and lagging measures of inflation via governmental statistics are tempered. Similarly, although there have been some negative headlines surrounding the risks of QE, by no means are these rumblings excessive or prohibitive to policy continuation. However, what may present an issue is the persistence of increasing asset valuations.

5.23.13_Rosenberg_QEWhile many members of the Fed believe higher asset prices create a “wealth effect”, two recent bubbles suggest that the last thing policymakers need on their plate is another asset bubble. Finding the delicate balance between boosting wealth and not creating a new bubble suggests that the Fed will ultimately need to pullback on quantitative easing should price trends continue at their current pace. Thus, in a circular reference type of thought process, I worry that the regulator to higher equity prices may ultimately be higher equity prices in and of themselves. Said a bit differently, higher asset prices has the potential to cause concern for the Fed, resulting in a tapering off of quantitative easing, ultimately translating to a pullback in equity prices. Hence, higher equity prices may ultimately be the reason that central banks have to ease off of the pedal. Thus, in a “reflexivity” sort of way, rapidly rising asset prices may be bad for assets in the back of 2013 or 2014.

In today’s market environment, the name of the investing game is investing alongside the Fed. Naturally, one can then understand why the Federal Reserve “tapering” their quantitative easing is such a big deal. When the rules of the game change, it takes time for markets to understand the paradigm shift and transition from the easy liquidity from central banks. Our belief is that the Fed is well aware that it greatly influences markets and thus will try to make this transition as smooth as possible without pushing markets into bubble territory.

Balancing Act

Joe PreisserJoe Preisser, Brinker Capital

Concern lurched back into the market place last week, as the specter of an eventual withdrawal of the extraordinary measures the U.S. Central Bank has employed since the financial crisis, served to temporarily rattle markets around the globe. Although stocks rebounded smartly as the week drew to a close, from what had been the largest two-day selloff seen since November, the increase in volatility is noteworthy as it spread quickly across asset classes, highlighting the uncertainty that lingers below the surface.

Equities listed in the United States retreated from the five-year highs they had reached early last week following the release of the minutes of the most recent Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting as the voices of those expressing reservations about continuing the unprecedented efforts of the Central Bank to stimulate the U.S. economy grew louder. The concern of these members of the Committee stems from a fear that the current accommodative monetary policy may lead to “asset bubbles” (Bloomberg News) that would serve to undermine these programs. “A number of participants stated that an ongoing evaluation of the efficacy, costs and risks of asset purchases might well lead the committee to taper, or end, its purchases before it judged that a substantial improvement in the outlook for the labor market had occurred. The minutes stated.” (Wall Street Journal).

Tangible evidence of the unease these words created in the marketplace could be found in the Chicago Board Options Exchange Volatility Index, or VIX, which measures expected market volatility, as it leapt 19% in the aftermath of this statement representing its largest single-day gain since November 2011 (Bloomberg News). The reaction of investors to the mere possibility of the Fed pulling back its historic efforts illustrates the continued dependence of the marketplace on this intervention and highlights the difficulties facing the Central Bank in not derailing the current rally in equities when it eventually pares back its involvement.

A measure of the uncertainty surrounding the timing of the Federal Reserve’s withdrawal of its unprecedented efforts to support the U.S. economy was dispelled by St. Louis Fed President, James Bullard, in an interview he gave late last week. Mr. Bullard, currently a voting member of the FOMC, was quoted by CNBC, “I think policy is much easier than it was last year because the outright purchases are a more potent tool than the ‘Twist’ program was…Fed policy is very easy and is going to stay easy for a long time.”

Reports of statements made by The Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, earlier this month, which downplayed the potential creation of dangerous asset bubbles through the Central Bank’s actions, released Friday, helped to further assuage the market’s concerns. “The Fed Chairman brushed off the risks of asset bubbles in response to a presentation on the subject…Among the concerns raised, according to this person, were rising farmland prices, and the growth of mortgage real estate investment trusts. Falling yields on speculative-grade bonds also were mentioned as a potential concern” (Bloomberg News). Although the rhetoric offered by these members of the Federal Reserve in the wake of the release of the minutes of the FOMC was offered to alleviate fears, the text of the meeting has served as a reminder to the marketplace that the asset purchases currently underway, which total $85 billion per month, will be reduced at some point in the future, and as such, has served as a de facto tightening of policy.

Though investors appeared to be appeased by the words of Mr. Bullard as well as those of Mr. Bernanke, the steep selloff that accompanied the mention of a pull back of the Central Bank’s efforts is a reminder of the high-wire act the Fed is facing when it does in fact need to extricate itself from the bond market.

The Implications Of The 2012 Presidential Election

This Tuesday marked the end of the 2012 Presidential Election campaign, with Barack Obama heading back to the White House.  In a campaign marked by elements of vitriol and an astronomical amount of money spent, most experts ballpark it around $6 billion in total, the results were status quo.   Republicans maintained their majority in the House, while the Democrats, after picking up a few surprise seats, remain in control of the Senate and Presidency.

As the new(ish) regime begins to game-plan for the next four years, a number of issues to address lay in wait.  The first, and potentially most significant, is the fiscal cliff the government must face before January 1, 2013.  With the Bush-era tax cuts expiring in conjunction with spending cuts, the U.S. economy will see about a 4% drag on GDP, forcing policymakers to address the looming recession.  The most likely scenario is an extension of most of the provisions already in place, which would result in a drag on GDP closer to 1%.

A key proponent in all of this is a compromise of tax increases on high-income earners—a significant area of compromise for President Obama. It would seem that the majority of investors are anticipating such a short-term deal to take place, but if no deal is signed before the end of the year, the market will react to the disappointment.

Next on tap for the President is a defined, long-term fiscal package. And while it will be a difficult task with a split government, it has been done before.  It is important for investors to have a roadmap to address our fiscal issues as it would reduce uncertainties, provide businesses and consumers with a higher level of confidence, and ultimately spend and contribute to positive growth. One strong point here is our high demand for U.S. Treasuries, even at current low rates.

With possible changes facing the Federal Reserve and tax increases, we are faced with a number of uncertainties.  We’ve crossed the election off our list of concerns and now turn our heads to the fiscal cliff. So as we head into year end, we will prepare for market volatility while keeping a close eye on what Congress is planning.

Economic Outlook and Monetary Policy

Andy Rosenberger, Brinker Capital

Recently, I had the pleasure of attending a speech by Charles Plosser, the President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia.  Mr. Plosser’s remarks were credited by many in the press as the reason for that afternoon’s sell-off in the markets, which resulted in a -1.04% decline on the S&P 500.  Although not currently a voting member of the FOMC, as President of a regional Federal Reserve branch, his opinions and influence are important to monetary policy decisions.

While Mr. Plosser still believes that growth will be 2% in 2012 and 3% in 2013 and 2014, the financial press was principally focused on his comments that quantitative easing is not effective at helping the broader economy.  His belief is that too little focus is placed on the potential future costs of printing money and that the Fed actions carry with them ‘significant risks’ with ‘meager’ benefits.  Honestly, I was somewhat surprised by the frank comments from Mr. Plosser.  After all, it’s not all that often Federal Reserve officials are completely candid with their outlook (can you remember the last time the Fed called for a recession?).  Nonetheless, the straightforward opinion was a nice change from the normally overoptimistic Federal Reserve comments.

During the Q&A session, I was able to sneak a question in for the President.  Specifically, I asked if Mr. Plosser could comment on the channels in which Quantitative Easing (QE) is effective (through lowering rates, depreciating the dollar, and increasing asset prices).  Covertly though, my intention was to get his view on QEs ability to increase equity prices.  Similar to his comments regarding the cost and benefits of QE, his frank answer was that quantitative easing should not increase the value of asset prices.  Mr. Plosser’s explanation was that asset prices are simply a discounted value of future cash flows.  Although QE lowers the rates at which equities are discounted, he had a strong view that “quantitative easing does not create wealth.”  My guess is that Mr. Bernanke and Wall Street would disagree with Mr. Plosser here.  Time will tell who is ultimately correct.

Source: Brinker Capital and FactSet

To read Mr. Plosser’s speech, please click 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).

Economic Data Lifts Stocks, Market Commentary by Joe Preisser

Global equities resumed their upward march last week, reclaiming levels unattained since April, following the issuance of economic data from both the Eurozone and the United States, which largely exceeded expectations. The release of gross domestic product figures from Germany and France offered encouragement to investors as they revealed more favorable readings than analysts had forecast. Alexander Kraemer, an analyst at Commerzbank AG was quoted by Bloomberg News, “while not great in any way, German and French GDP numbers were better than expected, which adds to the scenario that there is no risk of an imminent euro break up. It shows that global growth is not collapsing, which also helps reduce investment risks.”

Following closely on the heels of the positive news from the Continent was a report of retail sales from the United States which surpassed expectations. In a sign that consumer spending may be on the rise, all of the major categories surveyed rose to post the largest increase in five months (New York Times). Adding to the optimism already present in the marketplace were better than expected readings on industrial production and consumer prices, as well as continued signs of stabilization from the labor and housing markets in the U.S. (Bloomberg News) released during the latter portion of last week.

The concern with which the Israeli government views the threat of the nation of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon was on full display last week as a marked increase in bellicose rhetoric as well as highly publicized preparedness measures for its citizenry emanated from the country. Comments made by the Israeli Ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, during a Bloomberg Government breakfast in Washington last Wednesday served to highlight the rapidly rising tensions. “Diplomacy hasn’t succeeded. We’ve come to a very critical juncture where important decisions have to be made.”

The distribution of gas masks to the public, as well as the testing of other civil defense measures last week accompanied the strong warnings from Mr. Oren and further revealed the precariousness of the situation. As the potential for a preemptive Israeli military strike continues to mount, and with it the possibility of a major disruption of the supply of crude oil to the global marketplace, the risk premium assigned by traders around the world to the per barrel price has contributed significantly to the twelve per cent rally seen since June, which if unabated will hold negative repercussions for the world economy.

As the data released last week continues to outpace expectations, the belief has grown within the marketplace that the economic improvement seen, although still only incremental, may reduce the chances of the Federal Reserve enacting additionally accommodative monetary policies in the near term. In a reflection of this growing sentiment among traders, prices of U.S. Treasury debt have moved significantly lower over the course of the last several weeks, sending yields, which rise when prices decline, to levels unseen since May as the bond market has begun to adjust to the changing environment.

Byron Wien, Vice Chairman of the Blackstone Group’s advisory services unit gave voice to an increasing belief among investors, in an interview with Bloomberg News, “housing is bottoming, gasoline is down from the beginning of the year. The European situation is getting better, not resolved, but getting better…there will be more good news than bad.”

Brinker Capital Market Commentary –July 5, 2012 by Amy Magnotta

After the “risk on” environment to start the year pushed risk assets sharply higher, we experienced a pull-back in the second quarter. The deepening crisis in the Eurozone and evidence of slower global growth weighed on the global financial markets and drove investors to the relative safety of the U.S. government bond markets.

Some positive factors remain, but the macro risks continue to dominate. We expect
continued sluggish growth in the U.S. because of ongoing deleveraging, regulatory
uncertainty and the looming fiscal cliff in 2013. While U.S. corporations are in good
shape with strong earnings and high levels of cash on their balance sheets, they are hesitant to put it to work because of the uncertain environment. We still lack sustained growth in real personal incomes, which is key to greater levels of consumption and stronger economic growth going forward. While the Federal Reserve remains accommodative and stands ready to act further, the effectiveness of their monetary policy tools is diminishing.

The Eurozone has begun to take steps toward addressing their sovereign debt crisis, but more needs to be done. Policymakers must also contend with a deepening recession in the region, which will send debt/GDP ratios even higher. The need for a bailout of Spanish banks prompted leaders to announce somewhat more aggressive measures at their recent summit. It remains unclear whether these policy options will actually be put into place; however, it appears that Europe is beginning to lay out a path forward, which is a positive.

While growth in developed markets is weak, growth in emerging markets has also slowed. Investors continue to watch China’s actions to see whether a hard landing can be averted. One positive corollary of a slowdown in global growth is receding inflationary pressures and lower commodity prices. Lower retail gas prices are a boost to the disposable incomes of consumers.

The unresolved macro risks will keep the markets susceptible to bouts of volatility as we enter the second half of the year. The U.S. Presidential election will likely add to that volatility. Because of massive government intervention in the global financial markets, we will continue to be susceptible to event risk.
Amy Magnotta, Portfolio Manager
Brinker Capital Inc., a Registered Investment Advisor