Monthly Market and Economic Outlook: September 2013

Magnotta@AmyMagnotta, CFA, Senior Investment Manager, Brinker Capital

The U.S. equity markets experienced a modest pullback in August, with a -2.9% decline in the S&P 500 Index, fueled by concern over the anticipated Fed tapering of asset purchases as well as a U.S.-led military strike on Syria. However, the index is still up +16.2% through August, the best start since 2003.

International equity markets fared better than U.S. markets in August despite the headwind of a stronger U.S. dollar.  So far this year, the return of developed international equities has been about half of the S&P 500 return while emerging market equities have declined -8.8%.  Both Brazil and India have experienced declines of more than -20.0%, suffering from significantly weaker currencies and slowing growth.

Fixed income outperformed equities in August on a relative basis, but the Barclays Aggregate Index still fell -0.5%.  Interest rates continued their move higher, and the yield curve steepened further. The yield on the 10-year U.S. Treasury note has increased 140 basis points from a low of 1.6% in early May, to 3% on September 5, fueled by the Fed’s talk of tapering asset purchases.  The technicals in the fixed income market have deteriorated markedly.  The rise in rates has not yet lost momentum, and investor sentiment has turned, causing large redemptions in fixed income strategies. Our portfolios remain positioned in defense of rising interest rates, with a shorter duration, emphasis on spread product and a healthy allocation to low volatility absolute return strategies.

Interest rates are normalizing from artificially low levels, but still remain low on a historical basis.  Despite slowing or ending asset purchases, the Fed has signaled short-term rates will be on hold for some time. Rising longer-term interest rates in the context of stronger economic growth and low inflation is a satisfactory outcome. In addition, the fundamentals in certain areas of fixed income strategies, including non-Agency MBS, high-yield credit and emerging-market credit, look attractive.

However, we continue to view a continued rapid rise in interest rates as one of the biggest threats to the U.S. economic recovery.  The recovery in the housing market, in both activity and prices, has been a positive contributor to growth this year.  Stable, and potentially rising, home prices help to boost consumer confidence and net worth, which impacts consumer spending in other areas of the economy.  Should mortgage rates to move high enough to stall the housing market recovery, it would be a negative for economic growth.

Outside of the housing market, the U.S. economy continues to grow at a modest pace.  Initial jobless claims, a leading indicator, have continued to decline.  Both the manufacturing and service PMIs have moved further into expansion territory. U.S. companies remain in solid shape and valuations do not appear stretched. M&A activity has picked up. Global economic growth is also showing signs of improvement, in Europe, Japan and even China.

However, risks do remain.  In addition to the major risk of interest rates that move too high too fast, the markets are anticipating the end of the Fed’s quantitative easing program.  Should the Fed follow through in reducing monetary policy accommodation, it will do so in the context of an improving economy.  Washington will again provide volatility generating headlines as we approach deadlines for the budget and debt ceiling negotiations.  However, unlike in previous years, there is no significant fiscal drag to be addressed.  In addition, the nomination of a new Fed Chairman and geopolitical risks (Syria) are of concern.  The market may have already priced in some of these risks.

Risk assets should do well if real growth continues to recover despite the higher interest rate environment; however, we expect continued volatility in the near term. As a result, in our strategic portfolios we remain slightly overweight to risk.  We continue to seek high conviction opportunities and strategies within asset classes.

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

 Asset Class Returns9.6.13_Magnotta_MarketOutlook

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
8.8.13_Magnotta_AugustOutlook_3

Finding Comfort Outside the Safety Bubble

Sue BerginSue Bergin

The late author Charles Bukowski once said that, “the shortest distance between two points is often unbearable.” The flight to safety that we have seen over the last few years is proof that this sentiment describes how many feel about investments.

The fixed income market has gotten a $700 billion boost in the last three years, and $300 billion yanked from equity markets.  These are sure signs that investors have found the volatility in markets unbearable.

While the comfort of the safety bubble might calm clients of their market jitters, it isn’t necessarily in their best long-term interest. While fixed income securities are generally “safer” than equity investments, they have a downside.  They may produce returns that do not keep pace with inflation.

safety bubble

There is, however, another option outside of the safety bubble.  By incorporating alternative investment strategies that are less correlated to the markets, clients’ portfolios may be protected from downside risk, yet still capture opportunities for growth.

When clients express an aversion to the equity markets, perhaps it’s time to talk about alternative strategies like absolute return.  Absolute return strategies seek to deliver a positive return regardless of market behavior.  Because they typically have low market correlation, they offer some shelter to the volatility that clients find disturbing.  While not right for everyone, a good absolute return fund can add balance and consistency to a portfolio.

Thought of the Week, from J.P. Morgan Asset Management

The following commentary has been posted with the consent of J.P. Morgan Asset Management.

When markets become volatile, it can be easy to lose perspective. Since the November 6th U.S. election, the S&P 500 has fallen nearly 5% as concerns have shifted from who will be the next U.S. President to how the fiscal cliff will be resolved. We continue to believe that Congress will come up with a solution – the biggest question is when. Thus, as uncertainty continues to plague markets, investors should remember that markets rarely move higher in a straight line. Since February 2009, the S&P 500 has fallen by more than 5% in 6 different months, but has risen more than 5% in 10 different months, and is up over 100% since the March 2009 low. Given that this market volatility will likely continue until the fiscal cliff is resolved, it will be important for investors to stay balanced and not panic in the face of a choppy market.

When Markets Become Volatile, Keep Things in Perspective

Source: J.P. Morgan Asset Management

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.