2013 Review and Outlook

Amy MagnottaAmy Magnotta, CFA, Senior Investment Manager, Brinker Capital

2013 was a stellar year for U.S. equities, the best since 1997. Despite major concerns relating to the Federal Reserve (tapering of asset purchases, new Chairperson) and Washington (sequestration, government shutdown, debt ceiling), as well as issues like Cyprus and Syria, the U.S. equity markets steadily rallied throughout the year, failing to experience a pullback of more than 6%.

Source: Strategas Research Partners, LLC

In the U.S. markets, strong gains were experienced across all market capitalizations and styles, with each gaining at least 32% for the year. Small caps outperformed large caps and growth led value. Yield-oriented equities, like telecoms and utilities, generally lagged as they were impacted by the taper trade. The strongest performing sectors—consumer discretionary, healthcare and industrials—all gained more than 40%. Correlations across stocks continued to decline, which is a positive development for active managers.

YenDeveloped international markets produced solid gains for the year, but lagged the U.S. markets. Japan was the top performing country, gaining 52% in local terms; however, the gains translated to 27% in U.S. dollar terms due to a weaker yen. Performance in European markets was generally strong, led by Ireland, Germany and Spain.  Australia and Canada meaningfully lagged, delivering only mid-single-digit gains.

Concerns over the impact of Fed tapering and slowing economic growth weighed on emerging economies in 2013, and their equity markets significantly lagged that of developed economies. The group’s loss of -2.2% was exacerbated due to weaker currencies, especially in Brazil, Indonesia, Turkey and India. Emerging market small cap companies were able to eke out a gain of just over 1%, while less efficient frontier markets gained 4.5%.

Fixed income posted its first loss since 1999, with the Barclays Aggregate Index experiencing a decline of -2%. The yield on the 10-year U.S. Treasury began rising in May, and moved significantly higher after then Federal Reserve Chairman Bernanke signaled in his testimony to Congress that tapering of asset purchases could happen sooner than anticipated. The 10-year yield hit 3% but then declined again after the Fed decided not to begin tapering in September. It climbed steadily higher in November and December, ending the year at 3.04%—126 basis points above where it began the year.

TIPS were the worst performing fixed income sector for the year, declining more than -8%, as inflation remained low and TIPS have a longer-than-average duration. On the other hand, high-yield credit had a solid year, gaining more than 7%. Across the credit spectrum, lower quality outperformed.

Magnotta_Client_Newsletter_1.7.13_5We believe that the bias is for interest rates to move higher, but it will likely come in fits and starts. Rising longer-term interest rates in the context of stronger economic growth and low inflation is a satisfactory outcome. Despite rising rates, fixed income still plays a role in portfolios, as a hedge to equity-oriented assets if we see weaker economic growth or major macro risks. Our fixed income positioning in portfolios, which includes an emphasis on yield advantaged, shorter duration and low volatility absolute return strategies, is designed to successfully navigate a rising interest rate environment.

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 begin 2014, with a number of factors supporting the economy and markets.

  • Monetary policy remains accommodative: Even with tapering beginning in January, short-term interest rates should remain near zero until 2015. In addition, the European Central Bank stands ready to provide support, and the Bank of Japan has embraced an aggressive monetary easing program in an attempt to boost growth and inflation.
  • Global growth strengthening: U.S. economic growth has been slow and steady, but momentum has picked up (+4.1% annualized growth in 3Q). The manufacturing and service PMIs remain solidly in expansion territory. Outside of the U.S., growth has not been very robust but is still positive.
  • Labor market progress: The recovery in the labor market has been slow, but stable. Monthly payroll gains have averaged more than 200,000 and the unemployment rate has fallen to 7%.
  • Inflation tame: With the CPI increasing only +1.2% over the last 12 months, inflation in the U.S. is running below the Fed’s target.
  • Increase in household net worth: Household net worth rose to a new high in the third quarter, helped by both financial and real estate assets. Rising net worth is a positive for consumer confidence and future consumption.
  • U.S. companies remain in solid shape: U.S. companies have solid balance sheets that are flush with cash that could be reinvested, returned to shareholders, or used for acquisitions. Corporate profits remain at high levels and margins have been resilient.
  • Equity fund flows turn positive: Equity mutual funds have experienced inflows over the last three months while fixed income funds have experienced significant outflows, a reversal of the pattern of the last five years. Continued inflows would provide further support to the equity markets.
  • Some movement on fiscal policy: After serving as a major uncertainty over the last few years, there seems to be some movement in Washington. Fiscal drag will not have a major impact on growth next year. All parties in Washington were able to agree on a two year budget agreement, averting another government shutdown in January. However, the debt ceiling still needs to be addressed.

However, risks facing the economy and markets remain including:

  • Fed Tapering: The Fed will begin reducing the amount of their asset purchases in January, and if they taper an additional $10 billion at each meeting, QE should end in the fall. Risk assets have historically reacted negatively when monetary stimulus has been withdrawn; however, the economy appears to be on more solid footing.
  • Significantly higher interest rates: Rates moving significantly higher from current levels could stifle the economic recovery. Should mortgage rates move higher, it could jeopardize the recovery in the housing market.
  • Sentiment elevated: Investor sentiment is elevated, which typically serves as a contrarian signal. The market has not experienced a correction in some time.

Risk assets should continue to perform if real growth continues to recover, even in a higher interest rate environment; however, we could see volatility as markets digest the slow withdrawal of stimulus by the Federal Reserve. Valuations have certainly moved higher, but are not overly rich relative to history. Markets rarely stop when they reach fair value. There are even pockets of attractive valuations, such as emerging markets. Momentum remains strong; the S&P 500 Index spent all of 2013 above its 200-day moving average. However, investor sentiment is elevated, which could provide ammunition for a short-term pull-back. A pull-back could be short-lived should demand for equities remain robust.

Asset Class Outlook

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 ReturnsAsset Class Returns

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.

Monthly Market and Economic Outlook: September 2013

Magnotta@AmyMagnotta, CFA, Senior Investment Manager, Brinker Capital

The U.S. equity markets experienced a modest pullback in August, with a -2.9% decline in the S&P 500 Index, fueled by concern over the anticipated Fed tapering of asset purchases as well as a U.S.-led military strike on Syria. However, the index is still up +16.2% through August, the best start since 2003.

International equity markets fared better than U.S. markets in August despite the headwind of a stronger U.S. dollar.  So far this year, the return of developed international equities has been about half of the S&P 500 return while emerging market equities have declined -8.8%.  Both Brazil and India have experienced declines of more than -20.0%, suffering from significantly weaker currencies and slowing growth.

Fixed income outperformed equities in August on a relative basis, but the Barclays Aggregate Index still fell -0.5%.  Interest rates continued their move higher, and the yield curve steepened further. The yield on the 10-year U.S. Treasury note has increased 140 basis points from a low of 1.6% in early May, to 3% on September 5, fueled by the Fed’s talk of tapering asset purchases.  The technicals in the fixed income market have deteriorated markedly.  The rise in rates has not yet lost momentum, and investor sentiment has turned, causing large redemptions in fixed income strategies. Our portfolios remain positioned in defense of rising interest rates, with a shorter duration, emphasis on spread product and a healthy allocation to low volatility absolute return strategies.

Interest rates are normalizing from artificially low levels, but still remain low on a historical basis.  Despite slowing or ending asset purchases, the Fed has signaled short-term rates will be on hold for some time. Rising longer-term interest rates in the context of stronger economic growth and low inflation is a satisfactory outcome. In addition, the fundamentals in certain areas of fixed income strategies, including non-Agency MBS, high-yield credit and emerging-market credit, look attractive.

However, we continue to view a continued rapid rise in interest rates as one of the biggest threats to the U.S. economic recovery.  The recovery in the housing market, in both activity and prices, has been a positive contributor to growth this year.  Stable, and potentially rising, home prices help to boost consumer confidence and net worth, which impacts consumer spending in other areas of the economy.  Should mortgage rates to move high enough to stall the housing market recovery, it would be a negative for economic growth.

Outside of the housing market, the U.S. economy continues to grow at a modest pace.  Initial jobless claims, a leading indicator, have continued to decline.  Both the manufacturing and service PMIs have moved further into expansion territory. U.S. companies remain in solid shape and valuations do not appear stretched. M&A activity has picked up. Global economic growth is also showing signs of improvement, in Europe, Japan and even China.

However, risks do remain.  In addition to the major risk of interest rates that move too high too fast, the markets are anticipating the end of the Fed’s quantitative easing program.  Should the Fed follow through in reducing monetary policy accommodation, it will do so in the context of an improving economy.  Washington will again provide volatility generating headlines as we approach deadlines for the budget and debt ceiling negotiations.  However, unlike in previous years, there is no significant fiscal drag to be addressed.  In addition, the nomination of a new Fed Chairman and geopolitical risks (Syria) are of concern.  The market may have already priced in some of these risks.

Risk assets should do well if real growth continues to recover despite the higher interest rate environment; however, we expect continued volatility in the near term. As a result, in our strategic portfolios we remain slightly overweight to risk.  We continue to seek high conviction opportunities and strategies within asset classes.

Some areas of opportunity currently include:

  • Domestic Equity: favor U.S. over international, financial healing (housing, autos), dividend growers
  • International Equity: frontier markets, Japan, micro-cap
  • Fixed Income: non-Agency mortgage backed securities, short duration, emerging market corporates, global high yield and distressed
  • Real Assets: REIT Preferreds
  • Absolute Return: relative value, long/short credit, closed-end funds
  • Private Equity: company specific opportunities

 Asset Class Returns9.6.13_Magnotta_MarketOutlook