Monthly Market and Economic Outlook: January 2015

Amy MagnottaAmy Magnotta, CFASenior Investment Manager, Brinker Capital

Despite geopolitical tensions in Russia and the Middle East, the end of the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing program, weakness in growth abroad, and a significant decline in oil prices, U.S. large cap equities posted solid double-digit gains in 2014. International equity markets lagged U.S. markets, and the spread was exacerbated by the major strength in the U.S. dollar. Despite consensus calling for higher interest rates in 2014, yields fell, helping long-term Treasuries deliver outsized returns of more than 25%. The weakness in energy prices weighed on markets in the fourth quarter, with crude oil prices falling by almost 50%, the type of move we last saw in 2008. However, it wasn’t enough to prevent the S&P 500 from hitting all-time highs again in December. Volatility remained relatively low throughout the year. We did not see more than three consecutive down days for the S&P 500, the fewest on record (Source: Ned Davis Research).

In the U.S., the technology and healthcare sectors were the largest contributors to the S&P 500 return; however, utilities posted the biggest return, gaining more than 28%. Large caps significantly outperformed small caps for the year, despite a big fourth quarter for small caps. The spread between the large cap Russell 1000 Index and small cap Russell 2000 Index was 760 basis points. Growth outperformed value in large caps and small caps, but value outperformed in mid caps due to the strong performance of REITs.

BRICU.S. equities outperformed the rest of the world in 2014. The S&P 500 Index led the MSCI EAFE Index by more than 1,800 basis points, the widest gap since 1997. In local terms, international developed markets were positive, but the strength of the dollar pushed returns negative for U.S. investors. Emerging markets led developed international markets, but results were mixed. Strength in India and China was offset by weakness in Brazil and Russia.

As the Fed continued to taper bond purchases and eventually end quantitative easing in the fourth quarter, expectations were for interest rates to move higher. We experienced the opposite; the yield on the 10-year U.S. Treasury note fell 80 basis points during the year, from 3.0% to 2.2%. Despite a pick-up in economic growth, inflation expectations moved lower. In addition, U.S. sovereign yields still look attractive relative to the rest of the developed world. As a result of the move lower in rates, duration outperformed credit within fixed income. All sectors delivered positive returns for the year, including high-yield credit, which sold off significantly in the fourth quarter due to its meaningful exposure to energy credits.

Our macro outlook remains unchanged. When weighing the positives and the risks, we continue to believe the balance is shifted in favor of the positives over the intermediate term and the global macro backdrop is constructive for risk assets. As a result our strategic portfolios are positioned with an overweight to overall risk. A number of factors should support the economy and markets over the intermediate term.

  • Global monetary policy accommodation: We anticipate the Fed beginning to raise rates in mid-2015, but at a measured pace as inflation remains contained. The ECB is expected to take even more aggressive action to support the European economy, and the Bank of Japan’s aggressive easing program continues.
  • Pickup in U.S. growth: Economic growth improved in the second half of 2014. A combination of strengthening labor markets and lower oil prices are likely to provide the stimulus for stronger-than-expected economic growth.
  • Inflation tame: Inflation in the U.S. remains below the Fed’s 2% target, and inflation expectations have been falling. Outside the U.S., deflationary pressures are rising.
  • U.S. companies remain in solid shape: U.S. companies have solid balance sheets that are flush with cash. Earnings growth has been solid 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. Government spending will shift to a contributor to GDP growth in 2015 after years of fiscal drag.
  • Lower energy prices help consumer: Lower energy prices should benefit the consumer who will now have more disposable income.

However, risks facing the economy and markets remain, including:

  • Timing/impact of Fed tightening: QE ended without a major impact, so concern has shifted to the timing of the Fed’s first interest rate hike. While economic growth has picked up and the labor market has shown steady improvement, inflation measures and inflation expectations remain contained, which should provide the Fed more runway.
  • Slower global growth; deflationary pressures: While growth in the U.S. has picked up, growth outside the U.S. is decidedly weaker. The Eurozone is flirting with recession, and Japan is struggling to create real growth, while both are also facing deflationary pressures. Growth in emerging economies has slowed as well.
  • Geopolitical risks: The geopolitical impact of the significant drop in oil prices, as well as issues in the Middle East and Russia, could cause short-term volatility.
  • Significantly lower oil prices destabilizes global economy: While lower oil prices benefit consumers, significantly lower oil prices for a meaningful period of time are not only negative for the earnings of energy companies, but could put pressure on oil dependent countries, as well as impact the shale revolution in the U.S.

While valuations are close to long-term averages, investor sentiment is in neutral territory, the trend is still positive, and the macro backdrop leans favorable, so we remain positive on equities. In addition, seasonality and the election cycle are in our favor. The fourth quarter tends to be bullish for equities, as well as the 12-month period following mid-term elections. However, we expect higher levels of volatility in 2015.

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.

Asset Class Outlook Comments
U.S. Equity + Quality bias; overweight vs. Intl
Intl Equity + Country specific
Fixed Income +/- Actively managed
Absolute Return + Benefit from higher volatility
Real Assets +/- Oil stabilizes in 2H15
Private Equity + 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.

 

Investment Insights Podcast – July 25, 2014

Bill MillerBill Miller, Chief Investment Officer

On this week’s podcast (recorded July 23, 2014), we alter the format to provide commentary on a recent publication from the Ned Davis Research Group.

The article references an old adage that when the public gets in the stock market, it’s too late. While that’s a bit cynical, the public is not always wrong. Recently, the bond market seems to show that over the past five years, the public is pretty smart. Here are some additional takeaways:

  • The allocation to stocks is on the high side, but not excessive
  • Cash allocation seems low
  • Flows into equities and bonds have been good

This, and other measures, lends itself to believe that the public is in (the market), but not excessively in. However, are they in because they want to be in or because the have to be in? The Fed’s zero interest rate policy seems to drive behavior of investors towards stocks–creating a feeling that the public is not in.

The takeaway is that we have to be mindful if the allocations get too big. A defense for that is diversification across different asset classes.

Click the play icon below to launch the audio recording or click here.

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.”