@AmyMagnotta, CFA, Senior Investment Manager, Brinker Capital
Financial market performance diverged in May. Despite selling off in the second half of the month as investors began to worry about the Federal Reserve tapering its asset purchases, U.S. equity markets delivered solid returns, with the S&P 500 gaining +2.1%. In the equity markets, high dividend oriented sectors (utilities, telecom, staples) delivered negative returns, as did interest rate sensitive sectors like REITs and MLPs. International equity markets declined in May and were negatively impacted by a stronger U.S. dollar. Emerging markets continue to lag developed international markets.
Interest rates moved higher in May, attempting to return to more normal levels. In the U.S., both the 10-year Treasury note and 30-year bond climbed over 40 basis points resulting in negative returns for all major income sectors. Year to date, U.S. fixed income markets (Barclays Aggregate Index) have declined -0.9% while U.S. equity markets (S&P 500) have gained over 14%.
The fear of the Fed tapering its stimulus as early as September has continued to weigh on investors as we move into June. While equity market indexes are just 3% off the recent highs, we’re experiencing more volatility. The last two occasions when the Fed has attempted to pare stimulus, the equity markets experienced double-digit declines. However, if the Fed does follow through with reducing the amount of asset purchases, it will do so in the context of an improving economy. More recent economic data has been mediocre, the recovery in employment will continue to be slow, and inflation is falling and now well below the Fed’s target. Market participants will be focusing on every data point in an effort to predict the Fed’s actions.
Interest rates have come down slightly from recent highs, but the 10-year note remains above 2%. We expect to see more bond market volatility as interest rates attempt to return to more normal levels. However, with growth still sluggish and inflation low, we expect interest rates to remain range-bound over the intermediate term.
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 through the second quarter. A number of factors should continue to support the economy and markets for the remainder of the year:
- Global Monetary Policy Accommodation: The Fed remains accommodative (even if they scale back on asset purchases), 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. This liquidity has helped to boost markets.
- Housing Market Improvement: An improvement in housing, typically a consumer’s largest asset, is a boost to net worth and, as a result, consumer confidence. However, a significant move higher in mortgage rates, which are now above 4%, 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.
- Equity Fund Flows Turn Positive: Equity mutual fund flows turned positive in 2013, and while muted compared to flows into fixed income funds, remain a tailwind after several years of outflows. Investors experiencing losses on their fixed income portfolios could also be a driver of flows to equity funds.
However, risks facing the economy and markets remain, including:
- Europe: The risk of policy error in Europe still exists. While the ECB is willing to act as a lender of last resort, the region has still not addressed its debt and growth problems.
- Sluggish Global Growth: Europe is in recession while Japan is using unconventional measures to create growth. China is showing signs of slowing further, as is Brazil.
- U.S. Fiscal Drag: While we achieved some certainty on fiscal issues earlier this year, drag from higher taxes and the sequester will weigh on personal incomes and growth this year.
Because of massive government intervention in the global financial markets, we will continue to be susceptible to event risk. Instead of taking a strong position on the direction of the markets, we continue to seek high conviction opportunities and strategies within asset classes. Some areas of opportunity currently include:
- Domestic Equity: dividend growers, housing related plays
- International Equity: Japan, small & micro-cap emerging markets, frontier markets
- Fixed Income: non-Agency mortgage backed securities, emerging market corporates, global high yield, short duration strategies
- Real Assets: REIT Preferreds
- Absolute Return: relative value, long/short credit
- Private Equity: company specific opportunities