Amy 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-momentum 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.
We 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.
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.