Amy Magnotta, CFA, Senior Investment Manager, Brinker Capital
A slowdown in China, which generated anxiety over the outlook for global growth, combined with the Federal Reserve’s decision to postpone the first interest rate hike, while warning of global developments, led to uncertainty and significant equity market volatility during the third quarter. The S&P 500 Index declined -12.4% from its May high through August 25 and ended the quarter with a -6.4% decline—the worst quarter since the third quarter of 2011. U.S. equity markets held up better than international equity markets, both developed and emerging. Longer-term Treasury yields declined during the quarter while credit spreads widened in response to the risk-off environment. Crude oil prices reached another low in late August, also weighing on global equity and credit markets.
Leadership within the U.S. equity market sector shifted in the third quarter. Utilities was the only sector to post a gain for the quarter. Healthcare gave back all of the gains it generated in the first half of the year, ending the quarter among the worst performing sectors with a decline of -10.7%. Energy and materials continued their declines, the former down more than -21% year to date. Large caps outpaced small and mid caps, but style performance was more mixed. Growth had a significant advantage within large caps; however, value led across small caps.
U.S. equity markets fared better than international developed equity markets in the third quarter, significantly narrowing the performance differential for the year-to-date period. The strength in the U.S. dollar moderated in the third quarter. Japan fell -14% in local currency terms on weaker-than-expected economic data, and the yen rebounded. The Europe ex-UK region was a relative outperformer, while commodity countries were relative underperformers. Emerging markets suffered steeper declines than developed markets. Fear of a hard landing in China and a weak economy and debt downgrade in Brazil weighed on the asset class.
High-quality fixed income held up well during the equity market volatility. The yield on the 10-year U.S. Treasury fell approximately 30 basis points to end the quarter at 2.06%. The Barclays Aggregate Index gained 1.2% for the quarter, with all sectors in positive territory. Municipal bonds also delivered a small gain. However, high-yield credit experienced significant spread-widening during the quarter, with the option-adjusted spread climbing more than 150 basis points to 630, and the index falling -4.8% in total return terms. While high-yield credit weakness is more pronounced in the energy sector, the softness has spread to the broader high-yield market.
Our outlook remains biased in favor of the positives, but recognizing that risks remain. The global macro backdrop keeps us positive on risk assets over the intermediate-term even as we move through the second half of the business cycle. A number of factors should support the economy and markets over the intermediate term.
- Global monetary policy accommodation: Despite the Federal Reserve heading toward monetary policy normalization, their approach will be cautious and data dependent. The ECB and the Bank of Japan have both executed bold easing measures in an attempt to support their economies. Emerging economies have room to ease.
- U.S. growth stable and inflation tame: U.S. GDP growth rebounded in the second quarter and consensus expectations are for 2.5% growth moving forward. Employment growth is solid, with an average monthly gain of 229,000 jobs over the last 12 months. Wages have not yet shown signs of acceleration despite the tightening labor market, and reported inflation measures and inflation expectations remain below the Fed’s target.
- U.S. companies remain in solid shape: M&A activity has picked up and companies also are putting cash to work through capex and hiring. Earnings growth outside of the energy sector is positive, and margins have been resilient. However, weakness due to low commodity prices could begin to spread to other sectors.
However, risks facing the economy and markets remain, including:
- Fed tightening: After delaying in September, the Fed has set the stage to commence rate hikes in the coming months. Both the timing of the first rate increase, and the subsequent path of rates is uncertain and may not be in line with market expectations, which could lead to increased volatility.
- Slower global growth: Economic growth outside the U.S. is decidedly weaker. It remains to be seen whether central bank policies can spur sustainable growth in Europe and Japan. A significant slowdown in China is a concern, along with slower growth in other emerging economics like Brazil.
- Washington: Congress still needs to address a budget to avoid a government shutdown later this year, as well as an increase to the debt ceiling. While a deal on both is likely, brinkmanship could impact the markets short-term.
- Geopolitical risks could cause short-term volatility.
While the recent drop in the equity market is concerning, we view the move as more of a correction than the start of a bear market. The worst equity market declines are associated with recessions, which are often preceded by substantial central bank tightening or accelerating inflation. As described above, we don’t see these conditions being met. The trend of the macro data in the U.S. is still positive, and a significant slowdown in China, which will certainly weigh on global growth, is not likely enough to tip the U.S. economy into contraction. Even if the Fed begins tightening monetary policy later this year, the pace will be measured as inflation is still below target. However, we would not be surprised if market volatility remains elevated and we re-tested the August 25th low as history provides many examples of that occurrence. Good retests of the bottom tend to occur with less emotion and less volume as the weak buyers have already been washed out. Sentiment has moved into pessimism territory, which, as a contrarian indicator, is a positive for equity markets.
As a result of this view that we’re still in a correction period and not a bear market, we are seeking out opportunities created by the increased volatility. We expect volatility to remain elevated as investors position for an environment without Fed liquidity. However, such an environment creates greater dislocations across and within asset classes that we can take advantage of as active managers.
Source: Brinker Capital. Views expressed are for informational purposes only. Holdings subject to change. Not all asset classes referenced in this material may be represented in your portfolio. All investments involve risk including loss of principal. Fixed income investments are subject to interest rate and credit risk. Foreign securities involve additional risks, including foreign currency changes, political risks, foreign taxes, and different methods of accounting and financial reporting.