Amy Magnotta, CFA, Senior Investment Manager, Brinker Capital
After 2014 was dominated by the strong performance of the narrow S&P 500 Index, the first quarter of 2015 showed better results for diversified portfolios and higher levels of volatility across and within asset classes—both positive developments for active management.
The focus remained on the Federal Reserve and the timing of the initial interest rate hike despite U.S. economic data coming in below expectations. The S&P 500 gained just 1% for the quarter, while mid caps and small caps fared better, gaining 4%. Growth outperformed value across all market caps, and high-dividend-paying stocks lagged amid concern of higher interest rates. The strong dollar also hurt U.S. multinationals as a high percentage of their profits are derived from overseas. Despite a strong February, commodity prices fell again in March and were the worst performing asset class for the quarter.
While the anticipation of tighter monetary policy may have weighed on U.S. equity markets in the first quarter, looser monetary policy helped to boost asset prices in international developed markets. The MSCI EAFE Index surged 11% in local terms, but the stronger dollar dampened returns in U.S. dollar terms to 5%, still 400 basis points ahead of the S&P 500 Index. The euro fell -11% versus the dollar, the largest quarterly decline since its inception in 1999. Japan also benefited from central bank policy, gaining 10%.
Emerging market equities outpaced U.S. equities for the quarter, gaining 2.3%; however, dispersion was quite wide. All emerging regions delivered positive returns in local currency terms, although weaker currencies in Latin America had a significant impact for U.S. investors. For example, Brazil’s equity market gained 3% in local terms, but fell -15% in U.S. dollar terms. China and India posted solid gains of 5-6% for the quarter.
The 10-year U.S. Treasury yield bounced around in the first quarter, first declining 49 basis points in January, then climbing 56 basis points in February before declining again to end the first quarter at a level of 1.94%, 23 basis points lower than where it started. The Barclays Aggregate Index outperformed the S&P 500 Index for the quarter, with all sectors in positive territory. Credit spreads tightened modestly during the quarter and the high-yield sector outperformed investment grade. Municipal bonds were slightly behind taxable bonds as the market had to digest additional supply.
Our outlook remains biased in favor of the positives but recognizes that risks remain. We feel we have entered the second half of the business cycle and remain optimistic regarding the global macro backdrop and risk assets over the intermediate term. As a result, our strategic portfolios are positioned with a modest overweight to overall risk.
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, the ECB and the Bank of Japan have both executed bold easing measures in an attempt to support their economies.
- U.S. growth stable: U.S. economic growth remains solidly in positive territory and the labor market has markedly improved.
- Inflation tame: Reported inflation measures and inflation expectations in the U.S. remain below the Fed’s 2% target.
- U.S. companies remain in solid shape: U.S. companies have solid balance sheets are beginning to put cash to work through capex, hiring and M&A. Earnings growth outside of the energy sector is decent, and margins have been resilient.
- Less uncertainty in Washington: After serving as a major uncertainty over the last few years, Washington has done little damage so far this year; however, Congress will still need to address the debt ceiling before the fall. Government spending has shifted to a contributor to GDP growth in 2015 after years of fiscal drag.
However, risks facing the economy and markets remain, including:
- Timing/impact of Fed tightening: The Fed has set the stage to commence rate hikes later this year. Both the timing of the initial rate increase and the subsequent path of rates is uncertain, which could lead to increased market volatility.
- Slower global growth: While growth in the U.S. is solid, 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. Growth in emerging economies has slowed as well.
- Geopolitical risks: Issues in the Middle East, Greece and Russia could cause short-term volatility.
- Significantly lower oil prices destabilizes global economy: While lower oil prices benefit consumers, should oil prices re-test their recent lows and remain there for a significant period, it would be a negative not only for the earnings of energy companies but also for oil dependent emerging economies and the shale revolution in the U.S.
While valuations have moved above long-term averages and investor sentiment is neutral, the trend is still positive and the macro backdrop leans favorable, so we remain positive on equities. The ECB’s actions, combined with signs of economic improvement, have us more positive in the short term regarding international developed equities, but we need to see follow-through with structural reforms. We expect U.S. interest rates to normalize, but remain range-bound, and the yield curve to flatten. Fed policy will drive short-term rates higher, but long-term yields should be held down by demand for long duration safe assets and relative value versus other developed sovereign bonds.
As we operate without the liquidity provided by the Fed and move through the second half of the business cycle, we expect higher levels of market volatility. This volatility should lead to more opportunity for active management across asset classes. 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.
||Neutral vs. U.S.
||HY favorable after ST dislocation
||Benefit from higher volatility
||Oil stabilizes; interest rate sensitivity
||Later in cycle
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. Past performance is not a guarantee of similar future results. An investor cannot invest directly in an index.