Monthly Market and Economic Outlook: March 2015

Amy MagnottaAmy Magnotta, CFASenior Investment Manager, Brinker Capital

Global equity markets delivered solid gains in February, helped by a stabilization in crude oil prices, signs of better economic growth in Europe, and a short-term resolution in Greece. It was a “risk-on” environment for U.S. equities, with the S&P 500 gaining 5.8%, despite more mixed economic data. Cyclical sectors, like consumer discretionary and information technology, posted gains of more than 8%, while the more defensive utilities sector fell more than -6% during the month. In the U.S. growth outpaced value, but there was little differentiation by size.

International developed equities were slightly ahead of U.S. equities in February despite continued U.S. dollar strength. European equities in particular exhibited strength ahead of the ECB’s quantitative easing program. Emerging market equities had positive returns in February, but lagged developed markets. Brazil, India and China were all relatively weak, while emerging European equities fared the best. A ceasefire agreement with Ukraine, as well as the stabilization in oil prices, helped boost Russia’s currency and their equity markets, which gained more than 22% in USD terms.

U.S. Treasury yields rose in February, with the yield on the 10-year Treasury note climbing 32 basis points to 2.0%. In her comments to Congress, Fed Chair Yellen laid the groundwork for the Fed’s first rate hike this year, which could come as early as June. All sectors in the Barclays Aggregate were negative in February, with Treasuries experiencing the largest decline. High yield credit spreads tightened meaningfully during the month and high yield bonds gained more than 2%. Municipal bonds were slightly behind taxable bonds for the month.

Our outlook remains biased in favor of the positives, while paying close attention to the risks. We feel we have entered the second half of the business cycle, but 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: Economic growth has improved over the last few quarters. A combination of strengthening labor markets and lower oil prices are likely to provide the stimulus for stronger-than expected economic growth in the near-term.
  • 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. Earnings growth has been 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 first 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. The Eurozone is flirting with recession and Japan is struggling to create real growth. Growth in emerging economies has slowed as well.
  • Geopolitical risks: Issues in Greece, the Middle East 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 remain range-bound, but 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.

However, 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.

Asset Class Outlook Comments
U.S. Equity + Quality bias
Intl Equity + Country specific
Fixed Income +/- HY favorable after ST dislocation
Absolute Return + Benefit from higher volatility
Real Assets +/- Oil stabilizes; interest rate sensitivity
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.

An Update on Oil

Ryan DresselRyan Dressel, Investment Analyst, Brinker Capital

As of January 29, 2015, the price per barrel of West Texas Intermediate crude oil stands at $44, down just about 60% since its 52-week high in June 2014 (See chart below). For each 10% drop in oil, forecasters seemed to gawk at the possibility of further price decline, citing global demand projections, U.S. energy independence from The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), and increased consumption from emerging markets. What they omitted from their projections, however, was the impact that U.S. and Canadian production had on OPEC from a political standpoint.

Crude Oil WTI (NYM $/bbl) Continuous (CL00-USA)

Source: FactSet

OEPC has not adhered to an individual country production quota since 2011, but with oil prices around $100 per barrel in recent years, it was relatively insignificant news. These high prices actually worked against OPEC by encouraging too much competition from North America. During that time, North American energy companies were in the midst of ramping up production from shale, oil sands and other sources that were previously expensive to produce (refer to graphic below). In fact, United States domestic production has nearly doubled over the past six years[1]. Eventually in mid-2014, global demand for oil began to lag supply, caused by weak economic growth in Asia and Europe, which sent the price of oil plummeting.

Source: BofA Merrill Lynch Global Commodity Research

Source: BofA Merrill Lynch Global Commodity Research

Facing pressure from these new low prices, OPEC met on November 27, 2014 to discuss curbing production in an effort to support higher price levels. Since OPEC’s production quota was abandoned, each member country was unwilling to reduce its output.

The indecisiveness at this meeting signaled some very profound conclusions to the market. First, it re-confirmed that OPEC continues to become a disorganized collection of countries, rather than an organized cartel. This is important because it implies that OPEC is no longer acting as a balancing agent in global markets, which can significantly increase volatility. The second conclusion made by the market was that Saudi Arabia is unwilling to cede its crude oil market share (12.2% of global production as of September 2014[2]). In a bold statement made last December, Saudi Arabia’s oil minister, Ali Al-Naimi, confirmed these assumptions:

“If I reduce, what happens to my market share? The price will go up, and the Russians, the Brazilians, U.S. shale oil producers will take my share,” Al-Naimi told the Middle East Economic Survey last month. “Whether it goes down to $20 a barrel, $40 a barrel, $50 a barrel, $60 a barrel, it is irrelevant.”

The final conclusion from the November meeting was that smaller countries who depend on oil as a large part of their government revenue, cannot afford to cut production. These countries include Iran, Iraq, UAE, Venezuela and Nigeria among others. Due to the fact that Saudi Arabia’s reserves far exceed other OPEC members (See graphic below), they can afford to wait out low oil prices while others cannot.

Source: IEA, BofA Merrill Lynch Global Commodity Research

Source: IEA, BofA Merrill Lynch Global Commodity Research

What to Watch For:

There are many factors to watch as it relates to oil and its impact on various asset classes, interest rates, credit quality, and foreign exchange rates. The two most important factors are U.S. producer inventories and the Saudi production rate.

As of January 23, 2015, U.S. oil inventories reached their highest December levels since 1930 (383.5 million barrels)[3]. According to Bank of America Merrill Lynch, it takes U.S. shale producers 6 -12 months to react to rising or falling prices. If aggregate inventory levels remain near max capacity while the U.S. production rate falls, it would indicate that drilling projects are being cancelled and would likely have a large impact on small, highly-levered shale players. In turn, this could increase the number of defaults on energy company debt, which would have a negative impact on fixed income markets. The timing of these potential defaults could be accelerated as the foreign exchange rate of the U.S. dollar continues to rise. A stronger U.S. dollar makes it more expensive to finance debt levels[4]. As previously mentioned, it is clear that the Saudis want to retain their market share and continue to drive out production from their competitors.

Internationally, it will be important to monitor global economic growth (especially in China and India), which affects demand. If demand stays relatively low, it will put additional pressure on smaller OPEC members to plead with the Saudis to cut production or take unprecedented actions to support their economies. Those countries may have their patience tested, as the International Energy Agency forecast an annual demand increase of just 900,000 barrels per day in their January report (unchanged from December)[5].

Geopolitical risk is also an important factor to watch. The instability in neighboring Yemen could threaten Saudi Arabia’s production. Elsewhere, ISIS and the conflict between Ukraine and Russia add uncertainty to the global crude oil supply.

As the price of oil continues to decline, investors are attempting to take advantage. The four biggest oil exchange-traded products listed in the U.S. received a combined $1.23 billion in December, the most since May 2010, according to Bloomberg[6]. Regardless, the market may require patience as the Saudis’ political chess game plays itself out while crude oil prices continue to decline.

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.


[1] International Energy Agency, 2014

[2] U.S. Energy Information Administration, 2014. http://www.eia.gov/cfapps/ipdbproject/iedindex3.cfm?tid=50&pid=57&aid=1&cid=&syid=2010&eyid=2014&freq=M&unit=TBPD

[3] American Petroleum Institute, January 23, 2015

[4] Drilling, producing, and transporting oil is a very expensive process. As such, many U.S. energy producers require debt financing to fund capital investment. The total debt level of energy companies is approximately 16% of the U.S. High Yield Debt Market, which is almost four times higher than in 2004. Tudor, Pickering, Holt & Co. (TPH) has determined that at least 40 publicly held North American-focused E&Ps have reduced their 2015 capital expenditure guidance since December 8th by an average 31% from 2014 spending levels.http://www.naturalgasintel.com/articles/100977-domino-effect-of-lower-oilgas-ep-capex-now-hitting-offshore-midstream

[5] Oil Market Report, International Energy Agency. January 16, 2015. http://www.iea.org/newsroomandevents/news/2015/january/iea-releases-oil-market-report-for-january.html

[6] http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-01-07/oil-investors-pour-most-money-into-funds-in-4-years

Monthly Market and Economic Outlook: November 2014

Amy MagnottaAmy Magnotta, CFASenior Investment Manager, Brinker Capital

After a pullback that began in mid-September, the equity markets bounced back sharply in the last two weeks of October. The equity markets shrugged off the end of the Fed’s quantitative easing program and slower economic growth outside of the U.S., viewing the weakness as a buying opportunity. After being down -7% during the correction, the S&P 500 ended the month at a new high. Utilities and healthcare were the top performing sectors, while energy and materials were negative on the month. Small caps bounced back even harder than large caps with the Russell 2000 gaining +6.6% in October, yet small caps have not yet eclipsed their July highs. Year to date through October, mid cap value has been the best performing style, gaining +11.9% due to the strong performance of REITs and utilities.

International equity markets were mixed in October. Developed markets, including Europe and Japan, were generally negative, while emerging markets ended the month in positive territory, led by strong performance in India and China. The U.S. exhibited further strength versus both developed and emerging market currencies. International equity markets have significantly lagged the U.S. markets so far this year; the spread between the S&P 500 Index and MSCI ACWI ex USA Index is 1200 basis points through October.

During the equity market sell-off U.S. Treasury yields declined. The yield on the 10-year note fell almost 50 basis points to a low of 2.14% on October 15, then moved slightly higher to end the month at 2.35%. It was a good month for the fixed income asset class, with all sectors posting positive returns led by corporate credit. High-yield credit spreads widened out 100 basis points in the equity market sell-off, but recaptured 75% of that move in the last two weeks of October. High-yield spreads still remain 100 basis points wider than the low reached in June, and the fundamental backdrop is positive. Municipal bonds had another solid month, benefiting from a continued supply/demand imbalance and improving credit fundamentals.

Our macro outlook has not changed. When weighing the positives and the risks, we continue to believe the balance is shifted even more 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 remains accommodative: Even with QE complete, Fed policy is still accommodative. U.S. short-term interest rates should remain near-zero until mid-2015 if inflation remains contained. The ECB stands ready to take even more aggressive action to support the European economy, and the Bank of Japan expanded its already aggressive easing program.
  • Pickup in U.S. growth: Economic growth in the U.S. has picked up. Companies are starting to spend on hiring and capital expenditures. Both manufacturing and service PMIs remain in expansion territory. Housing has been weaker, but consumer and CEO confidence are elevated.
  • U.S. companies remain in solid shape: U.S. companies have solid balance sheets that flush with cash. M&A deal activity has picked up this year. Earnings growth has been ahead of expectations 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. Fiscal drag will not have a major impact on growth this year, and the budget deficit has also declined significantly. Government spending will again become a contributor to GDP growth in 2015.

Risks facing the economy and markets remain, including:

  • Fed’s withdrawal of stimulus: Risk assets have historically reacted negatively when monetary stimulus has been withdrawn; however, tapering was gradual and the economy is on more solid footing this time. Should inflation measures pick up, market participants will quickly shift to concern over the timing of the Fed’s first interest rate hike. However, the core Personal Consumption Expenditure Price (PCE) Index, the Fed’s preferred inflation measure, is up only +1.4% over the last 12 months and we have not yet seen the improvement in the labor market translate into a level of wage growth that is worrisome.
  • Global growth: While growth in the U.S. has picked up recently, concerns remain surrounding growth in continental Europe, Japan and some emerging markets. Both the OECD and IMF have downgraded their forecasts for global growth.
  • Geopolitical risks: The events in the Middle East and Ukraine, as well as Ebola fears could have a transitory impact on markets.

Despite levels of investor sentiment that have moved back towards optimism territory and valuations that are close to long-term averages, we remain positive on equities for the reasons previously stated. 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.

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 Favored Sub-Asset Classes
U.S. Equity + Large caps growth
Intl Equity + Emerging and frontier markets, small cap
Fixed Income - Global high-yield credit
Absolute Return + Closed-end funds, global macro
Real Assets +/- Natural resources equities
Private Equity + Diversified

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.

 

Monthly Market and Economic Outlook: September 2014

Amy MagnottaAmy Magnotta, CFASenior Investment Manager, Brinker Capital

After a mild 4% pull-back from July 24 through August 7, the equity markets continued to grind higher while global bond yields fell. The S&P 500 Index gained 4% in August and crossed the 2000 level for the first time. Markets shook off elevated geopolitical tensions in Ukraine and the Middle East, and focused on stronger earnings from U.S. companies, better U.S. macroeconomic data, and the anticipation that central banks globally will remain supportive.

In the U.S., small cap stocks outpaced large caps in August, but large caps have a lead of more than 800 basis points on small caps year-to-date. Growth was ahead of value in August. In both large cap and small cap, growth has closed the gap and now lags value by only 50 basis points year-to-date; however, mid cap value still has a significant advantage over mid cap growth due to the very strong performance of REITs so far this year.

Developed international equity markets meaningfully lagged the U.S. in August, in part due to weaker currencies. Europe was slightly positive, but Japan declined more than -2%. Year-to-date, U.S. equities are almost 700 basis points ahead of the MSCI EAFE Index. However, emerging market equities posted another solid month and, after a very weak start to the year, are now ahead of U.S. equities. Brazil and India have each rallied more than 25% so far this year, while China has lagged with a gain of only 8%.

Global fixed income rallied along with equities in August. The yield on the 10-year U.S. Treasury Note fell 22 basis points to 2.34%, which still looks attractive relative to yields in the rest of the world.

Magnotta_Client_Newsletter_9.8.14

All fixed income sectors positive for the month, led by credit and Treasuries. After high yield spreads widened in July and the asset class experienced significant redemptions, investors saw relative value and moved back into high yield in mid-August. The sector gained 1.6% for the month, and spreads still remain 40 basis points above the low reached in June.

We approach our macro view as a balance between headwinds and tailwinds. We believe the scale remains tipped in favor of tailwinds, and 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 remains accommodative: Even as we approach the end of quantitative easing, U.S. short-term interest rates should remain near-zero until 2015 if inflation remains contained. The ECB has taken more aggressive action to support the European economy by lowering interest rates even further and announcing the purchases of covered bonds and asset-backed securities. The Bank of Japan continues its aggressive easing program.
  • Pickup in U.S. Growth: U.S. economic growth rebounded in the second quarter. Capital spending appears to be recovering. The improvement in the labor market continues and job openings are surging. Leading economic indicators suggest the recovery has momentum.
  • U.S. companies remain in solid shape: U.S. companies have solid balance sheets that are flush with cash. M&A deal activity has picked up this year. Earnings growth has been ahead of expectations and margins have been resilient.
  • Less Drag from Washington: After serving as a major uncertainty over the last few years, Washington has done little damage so far this year. Fiscal drag will not have a major impact on growth this year, and the budget deficit has also declined significantly.

Risks facing the economy and markets remain, including:

  • Fed’s Withdrawal of Stimulus: Risk assets have historically reacted negatively when monetary stimulus has been withdrawn; however, tapering is more gradual and the economy appears to be on more solid footing this time. Should inflation pick up, market participants will quickly shift to concern over the timing of the Fed’s first interest rate hike. However, the core Personal Consumption Expenditure Price (PCE) Index, the Fed’s preferred inflation measure, is up only +1.5% over the last 12 months and we have not yet seen the improvement in the labor market translate into a level of wage growth that is worrisome.
  • Election Year/Seasonality: While we noted there has been some progress in Washington, we could see market volatility pick up in the next two months in response to the mid-term elections. In addition, September tends to be a weaker month for the equity markets.
  • Geopolitical Risks: The events in the Middle East and Ukraine could have a transitory impact on markets.

Risk assets should continue to perform over the intermediate term as we expect continued economic growth; however, we see the potential for increased volatility and a shallow correction as markets digest the end of the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing program. Economic data, especially inflation data, will be watched closely for signs that could lead the Fed to tighten monetary policy earlier than expected. Equity market valuations look elevated, but not overly rich relative to history, and maybe even reasonable when considering the level of interest rates and inflation. Investor sentiment, while down from excessive optimism territory, is still elevated, but the market trend remains positive. In addition, credit conditions still provide a positive backdrop for the markets.

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.

Magnotta_Client_Newsletter_9.8.14_2

 

 

Source: Brinker Capital

Brinker Capital, Inc., a Registered Investment Advisor. 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.

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.

Update on Impact of Russia/Ukraine Conflict on Financial Markets

QuintStuart P. Quint, CFA, Senior Investment Manager and International Strategist

A past blog in March had commented on several scenarios of how the unrest in Ukraine could play out and the potential implications of those scenarios on financial assets.  Given the crash of the Malaysian airliner over Ukraine, an update seems appropriate.

We remain of the view that the conflict in Ukraine should have a limited impact but likely a longer timeframe to play out, potentially with risks to the downside.  Downside risks would materialize in the event of an overt Russian invasion or further separatist activity in other parts of Ukraine.

We mentioned 3 areas of potential impact: (1) fixed income, (2) commodity prices (particularly energy), and (3) emerging markets.  European equities could also be affected if tensions were to spiral and/or more serious economic sanctions were taken.

Fixed income (as measured by the Barclay’s Aggregate Total Return Index) has rallied nearly 2% since that time.  One factor in the continued rally might stem from risk aversion driven by geopolitical tensions.  However, fixed income has lagged the rally in riskier asset classes such as domestic and international equities.

Energy has staged a modest gain from March to July in spite of ongoing tensions between Russia and Ukraine.  This modest impact comes in spite of not only Russian tension, but also ethnic tensions in Israel and Iraq, also a major oil producer.  Energy markets have been complacent about rising supply sources from elsewhere, including the United States, along with muted demand from many emerging markets and Europe.  Any increase in political tensions along with improved economic growth in the US and more energy-intensive emerging markets could presage an increase in energy prices.

Gold, another traditional safe harbor asset, has actually declined over -2% over this time period.

Emerging market equities have rallied strongly (over +12% during this time period), though Russian equities lagged this gain.  Select continental European equity markets such as Germany and France have been flat and lagged performance of other equity markets, suggesting a slight negative impact from uncertainty in Ukraine.

Barring a major spiraling in tensions, we would expect economic and market fundamentals to be the overwhelming drivers of asset performance rather than geopolitical tensions out of Ukraine.

Monthly Market and Economic Outlook: April 2014

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

The full quarter returns masked the volatility risk assets experienced during the first three months of the year. Markets were able to shrug off geopolitical risks stemming from Russia and the Ukraine, fears of slowing economic growth in the U.S. and China, and a transition in Federal Reserve leadership. In a reversal of what we experienced in 2013, fixed income, commodities and REITs led global equities.

The U.S. equity market recovered from the mild drawdown in January to end the quarter with a modest gain. S&P sector performance was all over the map, with utilities (+10.1%) and healthcare (+5.8%) outperforming and consumer discretionary (-2.9%) and industrials (+0.1%) lagging. U.S. equity market leadership shifted in March. The higher growth-Magnotta_Market_Update_4.10.14momentum stocks that were top performers in 2013, particularly biotech and internet companies, sold off meaningfully while value-oriented and dividend-paying companies posted gains. Leadership by market capitalization also shifted as small caps fell behind large caps.

International developed equities lagged the U.S. markets for the quarter; however, emerging market equities were also the beneficiary of a shift in investor sentiment in March. The asset class gained more than 5% in the final week to end the quarter relatively flat (-0.4%). Performance has been very mixed, with a strong rebound in Latin America, but with Russia and China still weak. This variation in performance and fundamentals argues for active management in the asset class. Valuations in emerging markets have become more attractive relative to developed markets, but risks remain which call into question the sustainability of the rally.

After posting a negative return in 2013, fixed income rallied in the first quarter. The yield on the 10-year U.S. Treasury note fell 35 basis points to end the quarter at 2.69% as fears of higher growth and inflation did not materialize. After the initial decline from the 3% level in January, the 10-year note spent the remainder of the quarter within a tight range. All fixed income sectors were positive for the quarter, with credit leading. Both investment-grade and high-yield credit spreads continued to grind tighter throughout the quarter. Within the U.S. credit sector, fundamentals are solid and the supply/demand dynamic is favorable, but valuations are elevated, especially in the investment grade space. We favor an actively managed best ideas strategy in high yield today, rather than broad market exposure.

While we believe that the long-term bias is for interest rates to move higher, the move will be protracted. Fixed income still plays an important role in portfolios as protection against equity market volatility. 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 or stable interest rate environment.

Magnotta_Market_Update_4.10.14_2We approach our macro view as a balance between headwinds and tailwinds. We believe the scale remains tipped in favor of tailwinds as we begin the second quarter, with a number of factors supporting the economy and markets over the intermediate term.

  • Global monetary policy remains accommodative: Even with the Fed tapering asset purchases, short-term interest rates should remain near zero until 2015. In addition, the ECB stands ready to provide support if necessary, and the Bank of Japan continues its aggressive monetary easing program.
  • Global growth stable: U.S. economic growth has been slow and steady. While the weather appears to have had a negative impact on growth during the first quarter, we still see pent-up demand in cyclical sectors like housing and capital goods. Outside of the U.S. growth has not been very robust, but it is still positive.
  • Labor market progress: The recovery in the labor market has been slow, but we have continued to add jobs. The unemployment rate has fallen to 6.7%.
  • Inflation tame: With the CPI increasing just +1.1% over the last 12 months and core CPI running at +1.6%, inflation is below the Fed’s 2% target. Inflation expectations are also tame, providing the Fed flexibility to remain accommodative.
  • U.S. companies remain in solid shape: U.S. companies have solid balance sheets with cash that could be reinvested, used for acquisitions, or returned to shareholders. Corporate profits remain at high levels, and margins have been resilient.
  • Less drag from Washington: After serving as a major uncertainty over the last few years, there has been some movement in Washington. Fiscal drag will not have a major impact on growth this year. Congress agreed to both a budget and the extension of the debt ceiling. The deficit has also shown improvement in the short term.
  • Equity fund flows turned positive: Continued inflows would provide further support to the equity markets.

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

  • Fed tapering/tightening: If the Fed continues at its current pace, quantitative easing should end in the fourth quarter. Historically, risk assets have reacted negatively when monetary stimulus has been withdrawn; however, this withdrawal is more gradual, and the economy appears to be on more solid footing this time. Should economic growth and inflation pick up, market participants may become more concerned about the timing of the Fed’s first interest rate hike.
  • 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.
  • Emerging markets: Slower growth and capital outflows could continue to weigh on emerging markets. While growth in China is slowing, there is not yet evidence of a hard landing.
  • Geopolitical Risks: The events surrounding Russia and Ukraine are further evidence that geopolitical risks cannot be ignored.

Risk assets should continue to perform if real growth continues to recover; however, we could see volatility as markets digest the continued withdrawal of stimulus by the Federal Reserve. Economic data will be watched closely for signs that could lead to tighter monetary policy earlier than expected. Valuations have certainly moved higher, but are not overly rich relative to history, and may even be reasonable when considering the level of interest rates and inflation. Credit conditions still provide a positive backdrop for the markets.

Magnotta_Market_Update_4.10.14_3

Source: Brinker Capital

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.

Data points above compiled from FactSet, Standard & Poor’s, MSCI, and Barclays. The views expressed are those of Brinker Capital and are for informational purposes only. Holdings subject to change.

Investment Insights Podcast – Unrest in Ukraine and Investment Implications

Stuart Quint, Investment Insights PodcastStuart P. Quint, CFA, Senior Investment Manager and International Strategist

Stuart joins us this week to share some comments on the developing situation in Ukraine and its impact on investors.  Click the play button below to listen in to his podcast, or read a summarized version of his thoughts below.

Podcast recorded March 3, 2014:

Ukraine’s struggles are overwhelming. Political, economic, and now military challenges confront the country. Politically and militarily speaking, the U.S. and the European Union (EU) have few tools at this time and modest willpower to oppose Russian intentions in Ukraine. And given that the ruling government is merely a caretaker for the May elections, it seems unlikely there will be a bailout package offered by the International Money Fund (IMF) any time soon. Default on existing international and local obligations appears likely in the near term.

Russia is not without its own constraints, though, as the Russian economy is directly tied to Europe. Three out of every four dollars of foreign direct investment in Russia come from Europe.[1]  The EU also remains Russia’s most important trading partner with 55% of Russian exports destined for Europe.[2]

Let’s take a look at the potential scenarios: (1) Russian annexation of the Crimea, (2) negotiated settlement with later elections that would most likely bring about a grand coalition government, probably with leanings toward Moscow, and (3) military escalation (civil war, Russian forces occupy eastern Ukraine, either of which results in a smaller Ukraine or outright disintegration as a sovereign state).

So what investment implications might this have? (1) The near term is helpful for fixed income, with commodities benefiting from any disruption of supply (oil, gas) and flight to safety (gold), and (2) negative impact most of all for European (Russia supplies 30% of European gas supply[3]) and emerging markets (mainly Russia, but also other markets with the need to import capital could suffer from currency weakness and higher interest rates demanded by investors).

A negotiated settlement involving recognition of Russian claims in exchange for a roadmap to stabilize the rest of Ukraine would reverse many of these trends.  Indeed, a similar situation occurred when Russia invaded Georgia in August 2008, but the crisis in Ukraine has potentially more serious implications given its proximity to Western Europe and that it carries a large population of over 45 million people.[4]

The views expressed are those of Brinker Capital and are for informational purposes only. Holdings are subject to change.