Monthly Market and Economic Outlook: April 2014

Amy MagnottaAmy Magnotta, CFA, Senior Investment Manager, Brinker Capital

The full quarter returns masked the volatility risk assets experienced during the first three months of the year. Markets were able to shrug off geopolitical risks stemming from Russia and the Ukraine, fears of slowing economic growth in the U.S. and China, and a transition in Federal Reserve leadership. In a reversal of what we experienced in 2013, fixed income, commodities and REITs led global equities.

The U.S. equity market recovered from the mild drawdown in January to end the quarter with a modest gain. S&P sector performance was all over the map, with utilities (+10.1%) and healthcare (+5.8%) outperforming and consumer discretionary (-2.9%) and industrials (+0.1%) lagging. U.S. equity market leadership shifted in March. The higher growth-Magnotta_Market_Update_4.10.14momentum stocks that were top performers in 2013, particularly biotech and internet companies, sold off meaningfully while value-oriented and dividend-paying companies posted gains. Leadership by market capitalization also shifted as small caps fell behind large caps.

International developed equities lagged the U.S. markets for the quarter; however, emerging market equities were also the beneficiary of a shift in investor sentiment in March. The asset class gained more than 5% in the final week to end the quarter relatively flat (-0.4%). Performance has been very mixed, with a strong rebound in Latin America, but with Russia and China still weak. This variation in performance and fundamentals argues for active management in the asset class. Valuations in emerging markets have become more attractive relative to developed markets, but risks remain which call into question the sustainability of the rally.

After posting a negative return in 2013, fixed income rallied in the first quarter. The yield on the 10-year U.S. Treasury note fell 35 basis points to end the quarter at 2.69% as fears of higher growth and inflation did not materialize. After the initial decline from the 3% level in January, the 10-year note spent the remainder of the quarter within a tight range. All fixed income sectors were positive for the quarter, with credit leading. Both investment-grade and high-yield credit spreads continued to grind tighter throughout the quarter. Within the U.S. credit sector, fundamentals are solid and the supply/demand dynamic is favorable, but valuations are elevated, especially in the investment grade space. We favor an actively managed best ideas strategy in high yield today, rather than broad market exposure.

While we believe that the long-term bias is for interest rates to move higher, the move will be protracted. Fixed income still plays an important role in portfolios as protection against equity market volatility. Our fixed income positioning in portfolios—which includes an emphasis on yield-advantaged, shorter-duration and low-volatility absolute return strategies—is designed to successfully navigate a rising or stable interest rate environment.

Magnotta_Market_Update_4.10.14_2We approach our macro view as a balance between headwinds and tailwinds. We believe the scale remains tipped in favor of tailwinds as we begin the second quarter, with a number of factors supporting the economy and markets over the intermediate term.

  • Global monetary policy remains accommodative: Even with the Fed tapering asset purchases, short-term interest rates should remain near zero until 2015. In addition, the ECB stands ready to provide support if necessary, and the Bank of Japan continues its aggressive monetary easing program.
  • Global growth stable: U.S. economic growth has been slow and steady. While the weather appears to have had a negative impact on growth during the first quarter, we still see pent-up demand in cyclical sectors like housing and capital goods. 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 6.7%.
  • Inflation tame: With the CPI increasing just +1.1% over the last 12 months and core CPI running at +1.6%, inflation is below the Fed’s 2% target. Inflation expectations are also tame, providing the Fed flexibility to remain accommodative.
  • U.S. companies remain in solid shape: U.S. companies have solid balance sheets with cash that could be reinvested, used for acquisitions, or returned to shareholders. 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, there has been some movement in Washington. Fiscal drag will not have a major impact on growth this year. Congress agreed to both a budget and the extension of the debt ceiling. The deficit has also shown improvement in the short term.
  • Equity fund flows turned positive: Continued inflows would provide further support to the equity markets.

However, risks facing the economy and markets remain, including:

  • Fed tapering/tightening: If the Fed continues at its current pace, quantitative easing should end in the fourth quarter. Historically, risk assets have 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 economic growth and inflation pick up, market participants may become more concerned about the timing of the Fed’s first interest rate hike.
  • Significantly higher interest rates: Rates moving significantly higher from current levels could stifle the economic recovery. Should mortgage rates move higher, it could jeopardize the recovery in the housing market.
  • Emerging markets: Slower growth and capital outflows could continue to weigh on emerging markets. While growth in China is slowing, there is not yet evidence of a hard landing.
  • Geopolitical Risks: The events surrounding Russia and Ukraine are further evidence that geopolitical risks cannot be ignored.

Risk assets should continue to perform if real growth continues to recover; however, we could see volatility as markets digest the continued withdrawal of stimulus by the Federal Reserve. Economic data will be watched closely for signs that could lead to tighter monetary policy earlier than expected. Valuations have certainly moved higher, but are not overly rich relative to history, and may even be reasonable when considering the level of interest rates and inflation. Credit conditions still provide a positive backdrop for the markets.


Source: Brinker Capital

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.

Data points above compiled from FactSet, Standard & Poor’s, MSCI, and Barclays. The views expressed are those of Brinker Capital and are for informational purposes only. Holdings subject to change.

What is Investment Risk?

Jeff RauppJeff Raupp, CFA, Senior Investment Manager

One of the go-to formulas of horror movies is to try to avert the audience’s (and character’s) attention away from the real risk. Someone hears a noise in a (supposedly) empty room, they walk in and see an open window. The unfortunate character starts focusing on why the window would be open, maybe even leans out the window and starts looking around. At some point, the character is satisfied that the open window is no longer a threat (whew!), closes the window, turns around, and BAM! You find out the real risk came in through the window and was hiding in the room. Now, the settings and characters change (why don’t we try having a group of sharks caught in a tornado?), but the formula remains the same.

Similarly, investors can sometimes get caught focusing on certain risks, while it’s often the ones they’re not focused in on that cost them the most.

One of the most widely used ways that investors look at risk is the standard deviation of an investment. Harry Markowitz won the Nobel Prize largely on his work on Modern Portfolio Theory (MPT), which defines risk as standard deviation. The standard deviation gives you a basic measure of how volatile the return stream of an investment has been (or is expected to be), and is extremely useful in getting an understanding of what to expect in a normal environment.

11.22.13_Raupp_Whatisinvestmentrisk_2MPT took the concept of risk further in recognizing that the correlation of investments in a portfolio is also important, that the combination of investments with a low or negative correlation to one another can create an outcome where you can get a higher level of return for a given level of volatility. This enabled investors to create an “optimized portfolio,” which was the best possible mix of investments to maximize your return for a given level of risk.

The problem with this is that we don’t live in a normalized world, where return distributions are symmetrical and correlations between investments remain constant. 2007 and 2008 were shining examples of that. Quantitative strategies that had been effective in a “normal” environment collapsed when price moves that they had viewed as “once in a million year events” started occurring with regularity. Optimize all you want, but if you owned an investment vehicle backed by Lehman Brothers you probably didn’t have a good outcome, even if you were on the right side of the trade.  And not many people factored in the possibility of their money market fund breaking the buck, as happened to the Reserve Fund.

So, what’s the solution? Diversification. Inevitably you’ll find your investments adversely affected by some kind of risk; however, with proper diversification just part of your portfolio will be affected rather than the entire thing. But while the MPT concept of diversification starts you in the right direction, it doesn’t check all the nooks and crannies where danger might be lurking.

Thinking about how asset classes would react under different scenarios or events helps you to better protect your portfolio. Entering 2007 most investors would have thought commodities were good hedges against a stock market decline. Commodities had done very well in 2000-2002 when the tech bubble burst, and touted a negative correlation to stocks over most trailing periods, a huge consideration when optimizing a portfolio using MPT. But when a deep recession caused consumption and production to plummet, commodity prices dropped right along with stocks, leaving many investors scratching their heads. The credit crisis did that to nearly all asset classes with any level of risk associated with it, leaving the only winners investors in high quality bonds and a relatively obscure (at the time) strategy called managed futures.

11.22.13_Raupp_Whatisinvestmentrisk_1The lesson is clear. There are times when “normal” becomes abnormal and the way asset classes interact with one another changes. So while checking the open window in the empty room might be the right thing to do 99% of the time, it pays to be on the look-out for the monster in the closet.

Investment Insights Video: Responding to Rising Interest Rates

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

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

Behavioral Finance 101: Heuristics

DanielCrosbyDr. Daniel Crosby, Ph.D., IncBlot Behavioral Finance

While the field of behavioral finance has been around for 40 or so years (depending on who you ask), it truly came into its own in 2002 when Daniel Kahneman received the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics for his work around uncertainty and decision-making. Although he claims never to have taken an economics class, Kahneman’s work shed new light on the ways in which actual people behave under real-life circumstances, as opposed to the idealized assumptions of efficient market hypothesis, the theretofore ascendant paradigm for understanding investment outcomes.

While one of the nagging critiques of behavioral finance is that it has no mutually-agreed-upon philosophical framework, most psychologists divide it into three pillars: heuristics, irrational behavior and framing. Over the next few weeks, we’ll take each of those three pillars and try and understand them a little more deeply. In so doing, we’ll also tackle the “so what” of behavioral finance for the average investor. Without any further adieu I give you Part One of our survey course on behavioral finance – Heuristics.

I’m not sure what time of day you’re reading this, but whenever it is I can be sure of one thing: you’ve already made a lot of decisions today. First of all, there was whether or not to hit the snooze button. Then, what to have for breakfast? Luffa with body wash or bar soap in the shower? Grey suit or navy suit? And so on and so forth. The point is, given the myriad decisions we all face every day, it’s no wonder that we end up relying on heuristics or experiential rules of thumb, when making even important decisions. To give you a little firsthand experience with heuristics, I’d like to ask you to do the following:

5.9.13_Crosby_BeFiBlog_1Quick! Name all the words you can that begin with the letter “K.” Go on, I’m not listening. (Insert Jeopardy theme song here). How many were you able to come up with? Now, name all of the words you can in which K is the third letter. How many could you name this time?

If you are like most people, you found it easier to generate a list of words that begin with K; the words probably came to you more quickly and were more plentiful in number. But, did you know that there are three times as many words in which K is the third letter than there are that start with K? If that’s the case, why is it so much easier to create a list of words that start with K?

5.9.13_Crosby_BeFiBlog_1_pic3It turns out that our mind’s retrieval process is far from perfect, and a number of biases play into our ability to retrieve data with which we’ll make a decision. Psychologists call this fallibility in your memory retrieval mechanism the “availability heuristic,” which simply means that we predict the likelihood of an event based on things we can easily call to mind. Unfortunately for us, the imperfections of the availability heuristic are hard at work as we attempt to gauge the riskiness of different decisions, including how to allocate our assets.

In addition to having a memory better suited to recall things at the beginning and the end of a list, we are also better able to envision things that are scary. I know this first hand. Roughly six years ago, I moved to the North Shore of Hawaii along with my wife for a six-month internship. Although our lodging was humble, we were thrilled to be together in paradise and eager to immerse ourselves in the local culture and all the natural beauty it had to offer. That is, until I watched “Shark Week.”

5.9.13_Crosby_BeFiBlog_1_pic5For the uninitiated, “Shark Week” is the Discovery Channel’s seven-day documentary programming binge featuring all things finned and scary. A typical program begins by detailing sharks’ predatory powers, refined over eons of evolution, as they are brought to bear on the lives of some unlucky surfers. As the show nears its end, the narrator typically makes the requisite plea for appreciating these noble beasts, a message that has inevitably been over-ridden by the previous 60 minutes of fear mongering.

For one week straight, I sat transfixed by the accounts of one-legged surfers undeterred by their ill fortune (“Gotta get back on the board, dude”) and waders who had narrowly escaped with their lives. Heretofore an excellent swimmer and ocean lover, I resolved at the end of that week that I would not set foot in Hawaiian waters. And indeed I did not. So traumatized was I by the availability of bad news that I found myself unable to muster the courage to snorkel, dive or do any of the other activities I had so looked forward to just a week ago.

In reality, the chance of a shark attacking me was virtually nonexistent. The odds of me getting away with murder (about 1 in 2), being made a Saint (about 1 in 20 million) and having my pajamas catch fire (about 1 in 30 million), were all exponentially greater than me being bitten by a shark (about 1 in 300 million). My perception of risk was warped wildly by my choice to watch a program that played on human fear for ratings and my actions played out accordingly. This, my friends, is heuristic decision making hard at work.

Hopefully by now the application to investment decision-making is becoming apparent. For so long, we have been sold an economic model that posited that we had perfect, uniform access to information and made decisions that weighed that information objectively. In reality, our storage and retrieval processes are imperfect, with recent and emotionally charged pieces of data looming larger than the rest.

5.9.13_Crosby_BeFiBlog_1_pic4Investors and financial services professionals that understand these imperfections are better positioned to understand the limitations of their knowledge and try to intervene accordingly. At times this may mean taking a more tentative position to circumvent undue risk. Other times this may mean digging a little deeper on what may initially appear to be a foolproof trade. Whatever the case, it is only after we free ourselves from the myth of homo-economicus, that we are able truly become our best investing selves. Making decisions based on subjective logic needn’t be your undoing as an investor, but assuming that you’re a perfectly logical decision maker just might.

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.


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.

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.

Find Out What Clients Want to Avoid

Sue BerginSue Bergin

Sometimes the risk tolerance question is difficult for clients because it involves using terminology that is not part of their daily vocabulary.  Next time you ask a client about their tolerance for investment risk, try a different track.   Find out the conditions they want to avoid.

Ask the client what routing preference they use when mapping out a trip.  Do they always choose the fastest route, the shortest distance, most fuel-efficient route, or do they try to avoid highways?

Route selection is based on a number of things. The client might have a strong personal preference that outweighs other factors like current traffic conditions, or whether they are in a rush.  Clients are also willing to accept a certain level of risk if they think that their selection will meet some of their criteria, for example, to save on gas.

Most often, however, the choice is driven by the desire to avoid certain conditions or risks inherent with those paths e.g., traffic, Sunday drivers, scenery, etc.

Routing preferences are one of the key differentiators among global positioning systems on the market today.  Consumers want to customize their maps according to their preferences and the conditions they seek to avoid.

By the same token, investors want to have control over the route that they will take in their financial journey.  They want to make a choice that allows them to avoid certain conditions.

“The fastest routes,” or “shortest distance” route might be too bumpy for their liking.  Similarly, clients might want to avoid the rough terrain that goes along with stock investments.  Instead, they might enjoy a “smoother ride” option, one that is marked by steady progress instead of wild fluctuations in speed.  These are the types of investors who could be most interested in absolute return fund strategies.  Clients interested in a “fuel efficient” option might do so because they want to avoid doing more damage to the environment than necessary. If so, these clients might also be interested in socially responsible investment alternatives.

Avoidance is a powerful motivator in determining what route a client will chose, whether it is on the road to Grandma’s, or the path to financial security.

Staying Ahead of the Curve Despite Recent Volatility

After a strong surge in global financial markets in the first quarter of 2012, risk assets – equities, commodities, corporate credit – have sold off thus far in the second quarter. Uncertainties over global growth and Europe have reentered markets. At Brinker Capital, we are not surprised that some of the euphoria is being worked off. We would not be surprised to see further consolidation.

Several of our fundamental and technical indicators were showing signs of concern earlier this spring. At the end of the first quarter, the various Brinker discretionary portfolios reduced exposure to risk assets. Future signposts suggest the volatility could continue.

For those of you who follow our market outlook and quarterly portfolio calls, this might be familiar material. Some of the indicators we monitor were flashing warning signals:

  • Event risk – European elections, particularly in France and Greece, along with stalling reform initiatives in Spain and Italy.
  • Market fundamentals – economic indicators such as consumer and CEO confidence and economic surprises appeared to be peaking. The S&P 500 appeared to have discounted a lot of good news in valuations.
  • Sentiment – though investors maintained bullish sentiment (low levels of short interest), corporate insiders were selling stock in 2012, a change from insider purchases seen last fall.

As a result, we reduced risk exposures across our various discretionary portfolios.

  • Destinations and Personal Portfolios reduced exposure to risk assets and were positioned underweight risk compared to a neutral positioning.
  • Crystal Strategy I reduced its portfolio beta from positive to now a modestly negative beta by reducing risk and adding inverse exposures designed to rise in falling markets.

We will continue to monitor the following signposts over the near term and actively manage our broadly diversified portfolios as appropriate.

  • U.S. – Fed meetings later in June and prospects for further Quantitative Easing. Later this summer, we need progress on addressing the massive fiscal cliff to be reached early in 2013, regardless of the outcome in November elections.
  • Europe – second round of Greek elections on June 17 and progress (or absence thereof) regarding further European integration (bank deposit guarantee, adding capital to weak banks, stabilization in bond yields).
  • China – further, but moderate, monetary and fiscal stimulus, enough to avert a hard landing, but not enough to bail out weak global growth or produce sizzling China growth. The government is happy to see cooling in property markets.