Handling ETFs at the Brinker Capital Trading Desk

Joe PreisserJoe Preisser, Portfolio Specialist, Brinker Capital

In light of the continued media attention focused on the performance of certain exchange traded funds, during the equity market selloff at the end of August, we thought it prudent to discuss the steps we take here at Brinker Capital to ensure that all of the client orders entrusted to us are handled with the utmost care.

The price action seen across the exchange traded fund (ETF) landscape in late August, and in particular on the 24th, was nothing short of extreme, and is something our trading desk makes every effort to protect our client’s orders from.  We use our trading expertise and depth of experience to ensure that we make every effort to achieve the best executions available for our client’s orders.  ETFs have truly changed the investment landscape through their unique construction and, as a result, require a thorough understanding of their characteristics in order to effectively trade them. We pride ourselves on having gathered a great deal of knowledge, insight and experience in trading these instruments over the past five and a half years, and on having developed strong relationships with a number of well-respected trading desks on Wall Street to further enhance our expertise.

As many of the articles in the financial press discussed, there was a historic level of volatility during the first hour of trading on Monday, August 24, with much of the drastic price swings caused by the exorbitant number of trading halts that occurred across equity markets.  As an ETF is predominantly a simple reflection of the average price of its components, if those underlying constituents are halted, the ETF will not be priced appropriately by the market makers transacting in the security.  This problem can also occur on more mundane openings as well, as an ETF’s components open for trading at slightly differing times.  As a result of this phenomena, unless we have a very specific reason for trading an ETF during the first few minutes of a trading session—an ETF with European exposure would be an example of an exception—we will generally avoid trading during the first fifteen to thirty minutes of the session in order to allow for all of an ETF’s underlying holdings to open and the initial volatility to abate.  Although we did not have any active orders during the morning of August 24, if we had we would not have been transacting until the volatility abated.

shutterstock_70010218The strong relationships I mentioned earlier, with several of the most respected trading desks on Wall Street, allows us to leverage their expertise whenever we are moving into or out of a large position. We carefully examine every instrument we are asked to trade, and make our decisions on an individual basis as to what the best approach would be in order to minimize our impact on that instrument and to attempt to achieve the best possible executions.  Often, when we have a large order in an ETF, which itself is relatively illiquid, we will utilize the expertise of one of our trading partners to transact directly in the basket of securities that comprise the ETF in order to access the truly available liquidity and to minimize our impact on the security we are trading.  This strategy of course would not have helped on the 24th because it was the temporary illiquidity of the underlying securities that rendered the ETFs themselves illiquid, but I feel this example is important as it highlights the efforts we undertake in an effort to seek the best possible prices for our clients. In addition, a number of the articles discussing this episode highlighted the importance of imposing price limits while avoiding the use of “market” orders and this is a guideline we strictly adhere to.  Whenever we have a meaningful trade, we always set an appropriate limit, and will closely monitor the trade until its completion to ensure that the price does not deviate from the parameters which we put in place.

While this article has discussed our approach to ETF trading, we certainly apply the same level of expertise, care and attention to all of the client orders placed in our care, regardless of the investment vehicle.

Brinker Capital, Inc., a Registered Investment Advisor. The views expressed are those of Brinker Capital and are not intended as investment advice or recommendation. For informational purposes only. Holdings are subject to change.

An End to Complacency

Joe PreisserJoe Preisser, Portfolio Specialist, Brinker Capital

Volatility abruptly made an entrance onto the global stage, shoving aside the complacency that has reigned over the world’s equity markets this year as they have marched steadily from record high to record high. Asset prices were driven sharply lower last week, as gathering concerns that the Federal Reserve Bank of the United States may be closer than anticipated to raising interest rates, combined with increasing worries about the possibility of deflation in the Eurozone, and a default by the nation of Argentina, to weigh heavily on investor sentiment. The selling seen across equity markets last Thursday was particularly emphatic, with declining stocks listed on the NYSE outpacing those advancing by a ratio of 10:1, and the Chicago Board Options Exchange Volatility Index (VIX), which measures expected market volatility, climbing 25% to its highest point in four months, all combining to erase the entirety of the gains in the Dow Jones Industrial Average for the year.

Preisser_Complacency_8.4.14The looming specter of the termination of the Federal Reserve’s bond-buying program, which is scheduled for October, is beginning to cast its shadow over the marketplace as this impending reality, coupled with fears that the Central Bank will be forced to raise interest rates earlier than expected, has served to raise concerns. Evidence of this could be found last Wednesday, where, on a day that saw a report of Gross Domestic Product in the United States that far exceeded expectations, growing last quarter at an annualized pace of 4%, vs. the 2.1% contraction seen during the first three months of the year, and a policy statement from the Federal Reserve which relayed that, “short-term rates will stay low for a considerable time after the asset purchase program ends” (Wall Street Journal) equity markets could only muster a tepid response. It was the dissenting voice of Philadelphia Fed President, Charles Plosser who opined that, “the guidance on interest rates wasn’t appropriate given the considerable economic progress officials had already witnessed” (Wall Street Journal), which seemed to resonate the loudest among investors, giving them pause that this may be a signal of deeper differences beginning to emerge within the Federal Open Market Committee. Concern was further heightened on Thursday morning of last week, when a report of the Employment Cost Index revealed an unexpected increase to 0.7% for the second quarter vs. a 0.3% rise for the first quarter (New York Times), which stoked nascent fears of inflation, bolstering the case for the possibility of a more rapid increase in rates.

Negative sentiment weighed heavily on equity markets outside of the U.S. as well last week, as the possibility of deflationary pressures taking hold across the nations of Europe’s Monetary Union, combined with ongoing concerns over the situation in Ukraine and the second default in thirteen years by Argentina on its debt to unsettle market participants. According to the Wall Street Journal, “Euro-zone inflation increased at an annual rate of just 0.4% in July, having risen by 0.5% the month before. In July 2013 the rate was 1.6%” While a fall in prices certainly can be beneficial to consumers, it is when a negative spiral occurs, as a result of a steep decline, to the point where consumption is constrained, that it becomes problematic. Once these forces begin to take hold, it can be quite difficult to reverse them, which explains the concern it is currently generating among investors. The continued uncertainty around the fallout from the latest round of sanctions imposed on Russia, as a result of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, further undermined confidence in stocks listed across the Continent and contributed to the selling pressure.

ArgentinaInto this myriad of challenges facing the global marketplace came news of a default by Argentina, after the country missed a $539 interest payment, marking the second time in thirteen years they have failed to honor portions of their sovereign debt obligations. The head of research at Banctrust & Co. was quoted by Bloomberg News, “the full consequences of default are not predictable, but they certainly are not positive. The economy, already headed for its first annual contraction since 2002 with inflation estimated at 40 percent, will suffer in a default scenario as Argentines scrambling for dollars cause the peso to weaken and activity to slump.”

With all of the uncertainty currently swirling in these, “dog days of summer,” it is possible that the declines we have seen of late may be emblematic of an increase in volatility in the weeks to come as we move ever closer to the fall, and the terminus of the Fed’s asset purchases.

The views expressed are those of Brinker Capital and are not intended as investment advice or recommendation. For informational purposes only. Holdings are subject to change.

World Cup of Liquidity

Joe PreisserJoe Preisser, Portfolio Specialist, Brinker Capital

With the eyes of the world currently trained on Brazil, and the incredible spectacle of the globe’s most popular sporting event, there is another coordinated effort taking place on the world stage, albeit one with less fanfare and pageantry, but possessing a far greater effect on the global economy, and that is the historically accommodative policies of two of the world’s major central banks. The unprecedented amount of liquidity being thrust into the system by these institutions has helped fuel the current bull market in equities, which continues to push stocks listed around the world further and further into record territory.

World CupThe more powerful of these central banks, the Federal Reserve Bank of The United States, is attempting to gradually extricate itself from a portion of the record measures it has taken to revive growth following the Great Recession, which have caused its balance sheet swell to more than $4 trillion (New York Times) while not causing the economy to suddenly decelerate. “To this end, last week the Fed announced a continuation of the reduction of its monthly bond purchases by $10 billion, bringing the new total to $35 billion.” They also voiced their collective intention to keep short-term interest rates at their current historically low levels until 2015. Financial markets rallied following this news as investors focused largely on the Fed’s comments regarding rates, as well as the little-discussed fact that although their monthly purchases are being slowly phased out, the Central Bank continues to reinvest the proceeds from maturing bonds, thus maintaining a measure of the palliative effect. According to the New York Times, “Fed officials generally argue that the effect of bond buying on the economy is determined by the Fed’s total holdings, not its monthly purchases. In this view, reinvestment would preserve the effect of the stimulus campaign.” Although the American Central Bank is attempting to pare back its efforts to boost growth in the world’s largest economy, the accommodative measures currently in place look to remain so long after its bond purchases are concluded.

Preisser_Liquidity_6.23.17_2Mario Draghi, on June 5, made history when he announced that the European Central Bank (ECB) had become the first major Central Bank to introduce a negative deposit rate. As part of a collection of measures designed to spur growth and combat what has become dangerously low inflation within the Monetary Union, the ECB effectively began penalizing banks for any attempt to keep high levels of cash stored with them. In addition to this unprecedented step, Mr. Draghi unveiled a plan to issue four-year loans at current interest rates to banks, with the stipulation that the funds in turn be lent to businesses within the Eurozone, (New York Times). The actions of the ECB were cheered by investors who sent stocks listed across the Continent to levels unseen in more than six-and-a-half years, with the expectation that the Central Bank will remain committed to combating the significant economic challenges that remain for this collection of sovereign nations. To this end, Mr. Draghi suggested, during his press conference, that he is considering additional growth inducing measures, which may include the highly controversial step of direct asset purchases. Mr. Draghi gave voice to his resolve, and a glimpse of what the future might hold when he said, “we think this is a significant package. Are we finished? The answer is no” (New York Times).

The actions of both the Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank have directly contributed to the current rally in risk assets, but have also created a conundrum of sorts for investors; as though their historic measures have sent prices to record levels, the conclusion of these programs carry with them serious risks of disruption, as they too are unprecedented.

The views expressed are those of Brinker Capital and are not intended as investment advice or recommendation. For informational purposes only. Holdings are subject to change.

Stalemate

Joe PreisserJoe Preisser, Portfolio Specialist, Brinker Capital

The ongoing dysfunction in Washington D.C. reached a fever pitch this week, as the failure of lawmakers to agree on a bill to fund the Federal Government resulted in the President ordering its first shutdown since 1995.  The inability of Congress to effectively legislate has led to the furlough of more than 800,000 Federal workers, and a shuttering of all non-essential services.  Although equity markets around the world have remained relatively sanguine about the current state of affairs inside the beltway, the looming deadline to raise the debt ceiling, which the Treasury Department has declared to be no later than October 17, has heightened the stakes of the current impasse immeasurably, as a breach of this borrowing limit would have dire consequences not just for the United States, but for the global economy in aggregate.  It is the presence of this possibility that provides us with cautious optimism that a resolution might be forthcoming; as our belief is that the closure of the government and the subsequent pressure being applied by the electorate to end the stalemate has pulled forward the debt ceiling debate, which may result in a bargain that addresses both issues.  However, we intend to remain hyper-vigilant about the progress of these negotiations as we fully recognize the severity of the impact of a failure to honor our nation’s debts.

10.4.13_Preisser_Stalemate_1The current standoff has resulted from a multiplicity of factors, chief amongst which is a fundamental ideological difference between the parties over the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as “Obamacare”, which went into effect this week.  It is the vehemence of both sides in this debate combined with the extreme partisanship in the Capital that have made this situation particularly perilous.  Despite assertions to the contrary, the shuttering of the government comes at an exorbitant cost.  According to the New York Times, “ the research firm IHS Inc. estimates that the shutdown will cost the country $300 million a day in lost economic output…Moody’s Analytics estimated that a shutdown of three or four weeks would cut 1.4 percentage points from fourth-quarter economic growth and raise the unemployment rate.”  With consensus estimates for GDP currently at only 2.5% per annum, the present state of affairs, if not soon rectified will take an ever increasing toll on the nation’s economy.

Since 1970 there have been a total of 18 shutdowns of the Federal Government, including this most recent closure.  Although each situation was unique, what is common amongst them is that investors have, on average, approached them with relatively little trepidation.  According to Ned Davis Research, “during the six shutdowns that lasted more than five trading days, the S&P fell a median 1.7%.”In fact, optimism in the marketplace has tended to follow these periods of uncertainty.  Bloomberg News writes that, “the S&P has risen 11 percent on average in the 12 months following past government shutdowns, according to data compiled by Bloomberg on instances since 1976.  That compares with an average return of 9 percent over 12 months.”

Source: Ned Davis Research Group

Source: Ned Davis Research Group

There is one glaring difference between this year’s shuttering of the government and those of recent history, and that is the presence of the debt ceiling.  According to the New York Times, “the Treasury said last week that Congress had until Oct. 17 to raise the limit on how much the federal government could borrow or risk leaving the country on the precipice of default.”  Though we can look to the past as a guide to use to try and gauge the impact of a government shutdown, there is no way to accurately predict the effect of a failure of the United States government to fulfill its obligations, as this would be unprecedented. The need for Congress to raise the debt ceiling cannot be overstated, as the very sanctity of U.S. sovereign obligations depends upon it.  The importance of this faith to the global economy was captured by Nobel Prize winning economist, Paul Krugman, “Financial markets have long treated U.S. bonds as the ultimate safe asset; the assumption that America will always honor its debts is the bedrock on which the world financial system rests.”

Quagmire

Joe PreisserJoe Preisser, Portfolio Specialist, Brinker Capital

The drums of war, which resounded so strongly from our nation’s Capital during the past few weeks, have quickly been muffled by the possibility of a relinquishment of the Syrian government’s chemical weapons stockpile to an international force.  The hastily, cobbled-together diplomatic effort led by the Russian government is dangerously scant on detail, but has offered, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel observed on Wednesday, “a small glimmer of hope” that these weapons of mass destruction can be seized peacefully (New York Times). The delay, and possible aversion of a military strike by the United States, brought about by this development has temporarily allayed tensions around the world and added strength to the current rally that has brought equities in the United States back within sight of the historic heights reached earlier this year.

9.13.13_Pressier_Quagmire_2The long march of the United States back toward armed conflict in yet another nation in the Middle East began with Secretary of State, John Kerry’s emphatic denunciation of the heinous chemical weapons attack perpetrated by the Syrian Government on August 21, which killed an estimated 1,429 people including at least 426 children (New York Times).  Mr. Kerry was quoted as saying, “the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity…And there is a reason why no matter what you believe about Syria, all peoples and all nations who believe in the cause of our common humanity must stand up to assure that there is accountability for the use of chemical weapons so that it never happens again” (Wall Street Journal). The possibility of American intervention sparked a precipitous decline in stocks listed around the world, with those in the emerging markets having been sold particularly aggressively, as fears of a spillover into a broader regional conflict containing the potential to disrupt the price of crude oil, weighed on investors.

The unprecedented vote by the British Parliament on August 29 to decline the government’s request for an authorization of military force (Telegraph U.K.), began a tentative rebound in global equities, which was furthered by President Obama’s decision on August 31 to seek Congressional approval before embarking on an attack, as both decisions led to the ebbing of worries about any immediate action.  The recent emergence of the potential diplomatic solution to the crisis in Syria, brokered by Russia, has provided further fuel to the reversal in indices around the globe, as concerns of the unintended negative consequences which surround any military conflict have, for the time being, abated.

Chart representing MSCI Emerging Markets Index.

Chart representing MSCI Emerging Markets Index.

Though the President has requested that Congress delay any vote related to the authorization of force until this avenue of diplomacy is fully explored, the potential for United States military action lurks in the shadows and may have in fact been strengthened by this development.  Democratic Whip, Steny Hoyer of Maryland commented on the potential failure of Russia’s endeavor to Bloomberg News, “People would say, well, he went the extra mile…He took the diplomatic course that people had been urging him to take—and it didn’t work.  And therefore under those circumstances, the only option available to us to preclude the further use of chemical weapons and to try to deter and degrade Syria’s ability to use them is to act.”

The suffering in Syria, where the United Nations estimates the death toll to be in excess of 100,000 lives, with half of those lost being civilians and an untold number of injured and displaced, is a tragedy of unfathomable depth.  The fact that it has taken the use of some of the most hideous weapons on Earth to spur the international community to action in an effort to stop the slaughter is deeply regrettable, however it has brought with it the promise of an end to the conflict now in its third year.  Although a diplomatic solution is certainly preferable to military action, if the current negotiations fail to bring Bashar al-Assad’s store of chemical weapons, which is the largest active stockpile in the world, (Wall Street Journal), under international control, the use of force will be a necessary recourse, as the killing of innocents must be stopped.

9.13.13_Pressier_Quagmire_3It’s easy … to say that we really have no interests in who lives in this or that valley in Bosnia, or who owns a strip of brushland in the Horn of Africa, or some piece of parched earth by the Jordan River. But the true measure of our interests lies not in how small or distant these places are, or in whether we have trouble pronouncing their names. The question we must ask is, what are the consequences to our security of letting conflicts fester and spread. We cannot, indeed, we should not, do everything or be everywhere. But where our values and our interests are at stake, and where we can make a difference, we must be prepared to do so.” –William Jefferson Clinton

The views expressed above are those of Brinker Capital and are not intended as investment advice.

Market Commentary: Liquidity

Joe PreisserJoe Preisser, Portfolio Specialist, Brinker Capital

The powerful figure of the Federal Reserve Bank of the United States (Fed) continues to hold sway over the global landscape, as the collective eyes of investors around the world watch intently for any discernible hint of a shift in policy, which when detected, has radiated across the marketplace. During the course of the past five weeks, the American Central Bank has launched a veritable public relations barrage in an effort to stave off the steep sell-off in risk assets that accompanied comments issued by Chairman Ben Bernanke following the conclusion of a meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee on June 19.  During the ensuing press conference, Mr. Bernanke suggested that if the economic data from the U.S. continued in its current pattern of improvement, the time may be near for a measure of the support the Fed has provided to the U.S. economy. namely the $85 billion per month of asset purchases currently being made, to be curtailed.

7.26.13_Preisser_Liquidity_2Market participants reacted to the Chairman’s comments by throwing what has been called the “taper tantrum”(Bloomberg News), which culminated in a 4.8% decline in the Standard & Poor’s 500 over the course of five trading days, and a .35% rise in yields on the 10-year U.S. Treasury note during the same time frame.  The Central Bank’s officials, and especially the Chairman himself, have proven themselves particularly deft at quelling the market’s concerns in the day’s since, and in so doing have provided a catalyst that has sent stocks rallying around the world, and those listed in the United States to record highs. The volatility witnessed over recent weeks highlights the market’s continued dependence on the liquidity provided by the Fed, and further illustrates the difficulties surrounding its eventual removal, which may begin as early as September.

Reassurances from Fed officials—that the Central Bank remains committed to the continuity of its current accommodative stance for the foreseeable future—poured forth into the mainstream media as the selling pressure built within the marketplace. Beginning on June 25, the President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, Richard Fischer, and Minneapolis Fed President, Narayana Kocherlakota both issued comments designed to emphasize the fact that the Central Bank would keep in place its support of the economic recovery in the U.S. Mr. Kocherlakota was quoted by Bloomberg News on the 25th as saying, “The committee should continue to buy assets at least until the unemployment rate has fallen below 7 percent.  The purchases should continue as long as the medium-term outlook for the inflation rate remains below 2.5 percent and longer-term inflation expectations remain well anchored.” What have been categorized as unusually direct statements, of these two, non-voting members of the Committee (Bloomberg News), served to soothe concerns among investors, and were followed in short order by those of Richmond Fed President, Jeffery Lacker, who helped to further assuage any lingering uncertainty.  Mr. Lacker reiterated the fact that continued, substantive labor market improvement was necessary for the tapering of asset purchases to commence, and noted his confidence that deflation was not an issue (Bloomberg News), which helped to accelerate the rebound in risk assets.

7.26.13_Preisser_Liquidity_3The highly anticipated release of the June employment report was well received by the market. Although it revealed the creation of 195,000 jobs within the United States, which exceed the consensus estimate of 165,000 (New York Times), it fell short of the whisper number of 200,000 that had circulated, and the unemployment rate remained stagnant at 7.6%. The report buoyed the belief that the Fed would need to maintain its current pace of asset purchases for a longer period of time than many had feared as the pace of job creation, although improving, does not warrant tapering.  Jan Hatzius, the chief economist at Goldman Sachs, was quoted in the New York Times on July 5—“Beyond the headline numbers for job growth, it gets a little more mixed. There is still a lot of slack in the labor market.”

Stocks received a further lift from Chairman Bernanke who, in answering audience questions following a speech he delivered at the National Bureau of Economic Research conference on July 10, made an effort to stress the fact that the Central Bank remained committed to furthering the economic recovery.  Mr. Bernanke was quoted by the Wall Street Journal—“There is some perspective, gradual and possible change in the mix of instruments.  But that shouldn’t be confused with the overall thrust of policy, which is highly accommodative.” The Chairman once again reiterated this pledge in testimony before Congress on July 17—“Our intention is to keep monetary policy highly accommodative for the foreseeable future, and the reason that’s necessary is because inflation is below our target and unemployment is still quite high” (New York Times). These statements served to further the belief that has come to be known as the, Bernanke Put for the Chairman’s willingness to intercede when financial market’s struggle, which has been perceived to offer protection to investors, remains in place and provided further support to risk assets.

7.26.13_Preisser_Liquidity

Although benchmark indices in the United States have risen to record levels, a measure of uncertainty lingers beneath the surface as the inevitability of the scaling back of the Fed’s asset purchases remains, along with the question of who will succeed Mr. Bernanke as the next Chairman of the American Central Bank.  Despite no official word having been offered that his tenure atop the Federal Reserve will come to an end in January, this is widely considered to be the case.

Speculation as to who will replace Mr. Bernanke has risen to the fore with the two perceived leading candidates appearing to be the Fed’s current No. 2, Janet Yellen, and former Treasury Secretary, Larry Summers. According to the Wall Street Journal—“The race to become the next leader of the Federal Reserve looks increasingly like a contest between two economists: Lawrence Summers and Janet Yellen.”  In addition to the questions surrounding the identity of the next head of the Central Bank, a recent poll of economists, conducted by Bloomberg News, revealed the belief among a majority of those queried that the Federal Reserve would in fact begin tapering in September. With summer’s effusive glow illuminating Wall Street and the record gains of its equity markets, the cool winds of fall hold within them the possibility of bringing the unwelcome specter of volatility as these issues seek resolution.

Winds of Change

Joe PreisserJoe Preisser, Portfolio Specialist, Brinker Capital

The winds of change have begun to blow through Washington, D.C. carrying with them whispers that the Federal Reserve Bank of the United States is contemplating a more immediate slowing of the unprecedented stimulus measures it has employed since the financial crisis than many analysts anticipate, which could have broad implications across the global landscape. Several signals have been offered by the American Central Bank in the past few weeks to prepare the marketplace for the impending reduction of their involvement, highlighting the delicate nature of this endeavor.

The Institution faces a daunting challenge in trying to scale back a program that has largely been credited with fueling a dramatic rise in asset prices, without interrupting the current rally in equity markets.  Although the U.S. economy has shown itself to be growing at a moderate pace, a measure of uncertainty lingers within investors as to whether this growth is robust enough to compensate for the paring back of the Bank’s historically unprecedented accommodative monetary policies.

As the depths of the ‘Great Recession’ threatened to pull the global economy into depression, the U.S. Central Bank undertook a herculean effort to bring the country back from the precipice of disaster. The tangible result of these efforts has been a deluge of liquidity forced upon the marketplace, which has given birth to a tremendous rally in share prices of companies listed around the globe, and helped to repair much of the damage inflicted by the crisis. The dramatic expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet, since the inception of these programs, has culminated in the most recent iteration of these efforts—an open-ended program of quantitative easing, comprised of the purchase of $45 billion per month in longer dated U.S. Treasury debt and $40 billion of agency mortgage-backed securities, undertaken in September of last year, that has brought the aggregate amount of assets acquired by the Bank to more than $3 trillion.

5.17.13_Pressier_WindsOfChange

The chart above depicts the increase in the size of the Fed’s balance sheet (white line) versus the S&P 500 Index (yellow line).

As the economic recovery has gained momentum in the United States, with notable improvements seen in both the labor and housing markets, concern has been voiced that the flood of liquidity flowing from Washington should be tapered, lest it potentially result in the creation of artificial asset bubbles, which in turn could present risks to price stability.

The first broach of the possibility of the Fed varying the additions it is making to its balance sheet came in a press release from the Federal Open Market Committee on May 1 which stated that, “The Committee is prepared to increase or reduce the pace of its purchases to maintain appropriate policy accommodation as the outlook for the labor market or inflation changes.” This statement was followed by the May 11th publication of an article authored by Jon Hilsenrath of the Wall Street Journal, who is widely considered to be a de facto mouthpiece for the Central Bank, “officials say they plan to reduce the amount of bonds they buy in careful and potentially halting steps, varying their purchases as their confidence about the job market and inflation evolves. The timing on when to start is still being debated” (Wall Street Journal). Comments issued on Thursday by the President of the San Francisco Fed, John William’s, referred once again to the possibility of the Central Bank’s program being scaled back, potentially sooner than many market participants anticipate, “It’s clear that the labor market has improved since September.  We could reduce somewhat the pace of our securities purchases, perhaps as early as this summer” (Bloomberg News).

Though the Fed has stated that it will continue its accommodative monetary policies until the unemployment rate in the United States has been reduced from its current rate of 7.5% to a target of 6.5%, it appears that the pace of this accommodation may change in the near term.  While the consensus among market participants is for this gradual reduction in quantitative easing to begin sometime this year, no one is sure of the scale or the exact timing.  As the Central Bank has played such an integral role in helping to engineer the current rally in equities, it will be imperative to closely monitor the deftness with which they handle the extrication of their involvement.

Trouble in the Mediterranean

Joe PreisserJoe Preisser, Investment Strategist, Brinker Capital

Blue-chip stocks listed in the United States stumbled on their quest to reclaim the historic heights they recently attained, as a renewal of concerns from the European continent served to unsettle investors. Proverbial wisdom contends that markets will climb a, “wall of worry”, and this statement has rung particularly true this year as the Dow Jones Industrial Average has marched steadily higher amid a torrent of potential pitfalls. Up until this week, market participants have largely disregarded the political gridlock ensnaring Washington, D.C. and the possibility of a resurgence of the European sovereign debt crisis, instead clamoring for risk assets, and in so doing, have driven stocks into record territory. The current rally has, however, paused for the moment with the increased possibility that Cyprus may become the first member of the Eurozone to exit the currency union, once again casting the shadow of doubt across the Mediterranean Sea and onto the sustainability of this collection of countries.

A decision rendered by leaders of the European Union last weekend—to attempt to impose a tax on bank deposits within the nation of Cyprus in exchange for the release of rescue funds the country desperately needs—sent tremors through global financial markets. Although the Cypriot population stands at slightly more than one million citizens, making it one of the smallest countries in the Eurozone, the repercussions of this decision were felt across continents. Policy makers representing the nations of their monetary union hastily gathered to decide what conditions would need to be met in order to disperse the necessary financial aid to Cyprus, totaling ten billion euros, and in so doing, made a significant policy error. According to The New York Times on March 19, “Under the terms of Cyprus’ bailout, the government must raise 5.8 billion euros by levying a one-time tax of 9.9 percent on depositors with balances of more than 100,000 euros. Those with balances below that threshold would pay 6.75 percent, an asset tax that would still hit pensioners and the lowest -income earners hard.” Although the intentions of the European leaders making this decision were to target large foreign depositors, who have historically used the country’s banks as a tax haven, the proposed inclusion of those on the lower end of the spectrum has created widespread uncertainty.

EurosThe imposition of a tax on deposits that would include those of 100,000 euros and less, which had been guaranteed by insurance provided by the European Union, has created concerns over the stability of the banking system in Cyprus and by extension, that of the Eurozone in its entirety. By negating the very guarantee that had been put in place to strengthen this vital portion of the Eurozone’s financial system, policy makers have increased the risk that large scale withdrawals will be taken across Cyprus, which is exactly the type of situation they had hoped to avoid. The New York Times quoted Andreas Andreou, a 26-year-old employee of a Cypriot trading company, who gave voice to the feelings of the populace when he said, “How can I trust any bank in the Eurozone after this decision? I’m lifting all my deposits as soon as the banks open. I’d rather put the money in my mattress.” In order to forestall such an event, and protect against the possibility of contagion to the other heavily indebted members of the currency union, the country’s banks have been shuttered and are scheduled to remain so until Tuesday.

Uncertainty continues to swirl in the warm Mediterranean air as the Cypriot Parliament on Wednesday rejected the original terms of the bailout, casting the nation’s leaders into direct conflict with those of the European Union. With the deadline for
the country to propose a viable plan to raise the requisite 5.8 billion euros,
set by the Continent’s Central Bank for Monday, fast approaching, the stakes of
this game of brinksmanship have been raised, as the possibility of the country
leaving the euro zone has been broached. Eric Dor, a French economist who is the head of research at the Iéseg School of Management in Lille, France offered his opinion on the rationale of Europe’s leaders in The New York Times on Thursday, “They are saying we can take the risk of pushing Cyprus out of the Eurozone, and that Europe can take the losses without going broke.” Although the raising of the possibility of Cyprus being expelled from the monetary union, is most likely a negotiating tactic designed to goad Cypriot leaders into adopting the reforms the E.U. has deemed necessary, with the more likely outcome of a compromise being reached, the current impasse serves as a reminder of the difficulties facing the Continent as it continues its unprecedented experiment in democracy.

Balancing Act

Joe PreisserJoe Preisser, Brinker Capital

Concern lurched back into the market place last week, as the specter of an eventual withdrawal of the extraordinary measures the U.S. Central Bank has employed since the financial crisis, served to temporarily rattle markets around the globe. Although stocks rebounded smartly as the week drew to a close, from what had been the largest two-day selloff seen since November, the increase in volatility is noteworthy as it spread quickly across asset classes, highlighting the uncertainty that lingers below the surface.

Equities listed in the United States retreated from the five-year highs they had reached early last week following the release of the minutes of the most recent Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting as the voices of those expressing reservations about continuing the unprecedented efforts of the Central Bank to stimulate the U.S. economy grew louder. The concern of these members of the Committee stems from a fear that the current accommodative monetary policy may lead to “asset bubbles” (Bloomberg News) that would serve to undermine these programs. “A number of participants stated that an ongoing evaluation of the efficacy, costs and risks of asset purchases might well lead the committee to taper, or end, its purchases before it judged that a substantial improvement in the outlook for the labor market had occurred. The minutes stated.” (Wall Street Journal).

Tangible evidence of the unease these words created in the marketplace could be found in the Chicago Board Options Exchange Volatility Index, or VIX, which measures expected market volatility, as it leapt 19% in the aftermath of this statement representing its largest single-day gain since November 2011 (Bloomberg News). The reaction of investors to the mere possibility of the Fed pulling back its historic efforts illustrates the continued dependence of the marketplace on this intervention and highlights the difficulties facing the Central Bank in not derailing the current rally in equities when it eventually pares back its involvement.

A measure of the uncertainty surrounding the timing of the Federal Reserve’s withdrawal of its unprecedented efforts to support the U.S. economy was dispelled by St. Louis Fed President, James Bullard, in an interview he gave late last week. Mr. Bullard, currently a voting member of the FOMC, was quoted by CNBC, “I think policy is much easier than it was last year because the outright purchases are a more potent tool than the ‘Twist’ program was…Fed policy is very easy and is going to stay easy for a long time.”

Reports of statements made by The Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, earlier this month, which downplayed the potential creation of dangerous asset bubbles through the Central Bank’s actions, released Friday, helped to further assuage the market’s concerns. “The Fed Chairman brushed off the risks of asset bubbles in response to a presentation on the subject…Among the concerns raised, according to this person, were rising farmland prices, and the growth of mortgage real estate investment trusts. Falling yields on speculative-grade bonds also were mentioned as a potential concern” (Bloomberg News). Although the rhetoric offered by these members of the Federal Reserve in the wake of the release of the minutes of the FOMC was offered to alleviate fears, the text of the meeting has served as a reminder to the marketplace that the asset purchases currently underway, which total $85 billion per month, will be reduced at some point in the future, and as such, has served as a de facto tightening of policy.

Though investors appeared to be appeased by the words of Mr. Bullard as well as those of Mr. Bernanke, the steep selloff that accompanied the mention of a pull back of the Central Bank’s efforts is a reminder of the high-wire act the Fed is facing when it does in fact need to extricate itself from the bond market.

A Tale of Two Currencies

Joe PreisserJoe Preisser, Brinker Capital

As the global marketplace continues to recover from the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, two of the world’s major currencies, the yen and the euro, have embarked on remarkably different paths of late in a reflection of the efforts of the Central Bank’s, which guard the levers of these economies, to achieve growth and stability. The responses of the nations ‘ respective policy makers has led directly to a steep decline in the value of the Japanese Yen, while the European continent has seen its common medium of exchange rise to heights unreached since 2011. Although the nature of the challenges facing what are two of the largest economies in the world differ significantly, the efficacy of the monetary policies employed to combat them will have a profound effect on markets across the globe.

In Japan, newly elected Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, has grabbed headlines after only a few weeks in office, through his advocacy of aggressive measures designed to foster growth within a nation that has been mired in stagnation. Dubbed “Abenomics”, the plan is a multifaceted approach to economic stimulus whose centerpiece is a desire to devalue the nation’s currency, in an effort to support its exporters by rendering the goods and services they provide less expensive on the world stage. According to the Wall Street Journal, on February 6th, “Analysts at Goldman Sachs Inc. estimate that for every 10 yen the currency weakens against the dollar, profits of exporters would rise by 7% to 10%.” Mr. Abe has professed his aim to achieve this through a controversial limiting of a measure of the Bank of Japan’s (BOJ) autonomy in an effort to effectively force the reflation of the economy through a program of unlimited monetary easing and large scale stimulus. In addition, the Prime Minister has pledged to fill the recently vacated position at the helm of the BOJ with an appointee who shares his commitment to revitalizing the country’s economy through all available means (The Economist, Jan 26th). The efforts undertaken thus far, combined with Mr. Abe’s emphatically-stated focus on combatting the deflation that has plagued Japan for more than a decade, have resulted in a sharp fall in the value of the yen, and a steep rise in equity prices listed on the nation’s exchange, which should be sustained as long as this endeavor proves successful. “The Nikkei has surged 32% since mid-November…The yen has declined 14% against the dollar over the same period…The gains in Tokyo have made Japan the world’s best-performing major stock market over the past three months ”(The Wall Street Journal, February 6th).2.8.13_Preisser_Currencies

On the Continent, the nearly four-year-old struggle to maintain its union in the face of a perilous debt crisis that threatened the world economy, has led to an unprecedented effort by the European Central Bank (ECB) to support the common currency. The fear of a possible dissolution of this unique collection of countries led directly to the widespread selling of the euro, as well as large scale liquidations of bonds issued by its sovereign members. As the cost of repaying the debt of a host of the European Union’s members rose to unsustainable levels the President of the ECB, Mario Draghi elected to act pledging to do, “whatever it takes to preserve the euro”(Bloomberg News July 26,2012). This statement manifested itself in a series of massive sovereign debt purchases by The Central Bank in September of 2012 which was dubbed, “Outright Monetary Transactions.” Mr. Draghi’s effort brought stability back to the euro-zone, and as a result led to an appreciation of its currency. As investors have become more confident that the worst of the crisis has been averted, the euro has risen further, and is now back to levels untested in two years. The sequence of events on the Continent stands in stark contrast to those in Japan, as Europe’s exporters have seen the cost of their products increase, thus making it more difficult for them to compete in the global marketplace. The threat that this state of affairs poses to the recovery of the region’s economy is such that it was directly and repeatedly addressed by Mr. Draghi this week during a press conference in which he suggested that the Central Bank may take steps to counter the effects of the currency’s rise. The ECB President was quoted by Bloomberg News as saying on Feb 7th, “The exchange rate is not a policy target, but it is important for growth and price stability…We want to see if the appreciation is sustained, and if it alters our assessment of the risks to price stability.”

The historic measures undertaken by both the European Central Bank, and the Bank of Japan in the interest of maintaining stability and fostering growth have thus far been largely successful, however it will be the ongoing maintenance of the consequences of this success that will ultimately determine the fate of these economies.