2018 wasn’t great, but don’t sing the blues – the world keeps getting better

Holland_F_150x150Tim Holland, CFA, Senior Vice President, Global Investment Strategist

Hard to believe, but the calendar has turned on another year. And for those of a certain age, it’s even harder to believe we are living in 2019; after all The Blues Brothers was released in 1980!

On top of the calendar shock, we have to contend with the fact that 2018 didn’t seem all that great. From an investing perspective, most asset classes were in the red, while the S&P 500 Index (S&P 500) was exceptionally volatile toward year-end and produced its worst total return in 10 years. And, from a political, societal, and cultural perspective, the US seemed more divided than ever.

As always, a bit of perspective is important. The S&P 500 was off less than 5% in 2018 on a total return basis and remains 16.5% higher over the past two years. Meanwhile, the US economy grew 3%+ in 2018 while our unemployment rate sits at just 3.9% and most measures of national wealth and health are at a record high. So, while we must periodically contend with market drawdowns and bouts of economic weakness, it’s important to remember that over time, most economies grow, risk assets increase in value, and the standard of living for all of us on this big blue marble improves.

To put that final point in sharper relief we have two interesting charts from Our World in Data. The first chart speaks to the dramatic increase in life expectancy since 1900, with Africa seeing a particularly significant jump from 50 years in 2000 to 60 years in 2017.


While the second chart, below, speaks to an almost unfathomable drop in global poverty, with less than 10% of the world’s population living in absolute poverty today compared with 44% in 1981.


The new year will likely present its share of challenges and setbacks, yet, if history is any guide, we will see economic growth and rising asset values and wealth created globally.

The views expressed are those of Brinker Capital and are not intended as investment advice or recommendation. For informational purposes only. Brinker Capital, Inc., a registered investment advisor.

Investment Insights Podcast: When it comes to crude oil, why lower for longer is a good thing

Holland_Podcast_150x126Tim Holland, CFA, Senior Vice President, Global Investment Strategist

On this week’s podcast (recorded July 12, 2017), Tim addresses crude oil, what’s been weighing on the commodity as of late, and whether we should view that weakness as a net positive or negative for the U.S. economy.

Quick hits:

  • Any, and all, discussion of crude oil must begin with fracking. Fracking has enabled energy companies to tap long known, but historically inaccessible deposits of oil and gas across the United States
  • The impact on U.S. production of oil and gas – and on global energy markets – has been revolutionary.
  • U.S. crude oil production should hit 10 million barrels a day in 2018
  • If Texas were an oil producing nation it would rank among the top 10 producers in the world

For Tim’s full insights, click here to listen to the audio recording.

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

Trump’s free lunch: Avoiding a painful indigestion

Solomon-(2)Brad Solomon, Junior Investment Analyst

The aphorism “there is no free lunch” is one of those handy phrases used ad-nauseam in Economics courses. The seductively tasty platter currently set in front of investors is a lightning-fast reallocation of assets towards stocks that should “clearly” benefit from a Donald Trump presidency. Often, however, it pays to be a skeptic. I’m not critiquing the efficacy of the policies themselves towards promoting Americans’ well-being; I’m talking about the need to unhurriedly assess the second-level investment implications of policy and whether they have already been discounted into asset prices.

The ascendancy of the Trump administration and the degree to which President-Elect Trump will remain wedded to his campaign rhetoric have a number of moving parts. Now may be an opportune time to patiently exercise what Howard Marks of Oaktree Capital calls “second-level thinking”:

First-level thinking says, “It’s a good company; let’s buy the stock.” Second-level thinking says, “It’s a good company, but everyone thinks it’s a great company, and it’s not. So the stock’s overrated and overpriced; let’s sell.”[1]

At Brinker Capital, we believe that second-level thinking is best nurtured by asking questions. Trump’s vision is to “transform America’s crumbling infrastructure into a golden opportunity for accelerated economic growth.” The number touted by greatagain.gov is $550 billion, and a recent paper by senior Trump advisors, Wilbur Ross and Peter Navarro, calls for spurring $1 trillion in privately-financed infrastructure investment over the next decade through use of tax credits.[2]  Buy infrastructure seems to be the screamingly obvious investment implication, but here are a few less obvious questions:

Is our infrastructure actually “crumbling?”

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave America’s infrastructure a “D” in its 2013 report card.[3] But coming from a professional trade organization of civil engineers, that’s probably akin to asking the cows from the Chic-fil-A commercials whether they prefer beef or chicken. Policy analyst Mark Scribner calls this the “Great Infrastructure Myth” and notes that the number of structurally deficient bridges has been declining for over two decades while pavements have become smoother in aggregate.[4]  A recent piece by Deutsche Bank Research[5] argued that infrastructure spending in the U.S. is not, as commonly assumed, lacking:

  • When using infrastructure-specific price indices, the share of real government investment to output has been stable for much of the last three decades.
  • After taking into account compositional changes in private capex, business investment has also remained steady as a percent of output.

How much “leakage” is there to the transmission mechanism by which government spending boosts profits in the private sector?

Investors would be wise to examine the intended and realized consequences of President Obama’s $840 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of February 2009, much of which was directed towards infrastructure. Michael Grabell’s 2012 piece “How Not to Revive an Economy” provides a sobering look at what led President Obama to admit that “there’s no such thing” as a shovel-ready project.[6]

Which subsectors are winners of increased public spending on infrastructure?

Infrastructure is a blanket term that encompasses a large array of systems: energy, transit, ports, aviation, levees, dams, schools, roads, inland waterways, public parks, rail, bridges, drinking water, and waste treatment. Twelve of the 16 sectors reviewed on the ASCE’s 2013 report card received a grade of “C” or worse. Narrowing in on two subsectors, what evidence exists that Trump will favor oil and gas over renewable energy, for instance, and will he possess the means to undo the renewable energy investment tax credit (ITC) that was recently renewed in December 2015?

Okay, you’ve decided to buy an infrastructure fund. What’s under the hood?

There are 18 open-end funds focused on infrastructure and 15 ETFs with “infrastructure” in their name. Let’s say that you’ve set your sights on one of the larger ETFs in the group focused on income-generating infrastructure equities. By sector, utilities comprise 49% of the ETF, not uncommon for other members of the group. Is that an allocation you’re comfortable making? The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget projects that the Trump administration’s plans will increase the national debt by $5.3 trillion, to 105 percent of GDP by 2026.[7] Profligate deficits tend to have the effect of raising benchmark interest rates, and high-yielding utility stocks have traditionally been rate-sensitive instruments.

The investment world lends mythical status to the “contrarian” who takes out-of-favor positions. But standing out from the crowd is also possible simply through exercising patience and requiring a fully fleshed out view as precedent for making a judgment.

Our founder, Chuck Widger, provides timeless advice in his New York Times best selling book entitled, Personal Benchmark: Integrating Behavioral Finance and Investment Management, that helps advisors and investors stay the course in times such as these:

What this boils down to is that advisors must develop and oversee the execution of an investment strategy that anticipates the inevitable potholes and stays the course of efficiently compounding the investment portfolio to create purchasing power. This requires both the management of the investment portfolio and the management of investor behavior. Skilled, experienced advisors know that one of their most important responsibilities is to help investors avoid making emotional decisions when volatility is high or when markets are irrationally exuberant.

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

[1] Marks, Howard.  “It’s Not Easy.”  Oaktree Capital Management.  September 2015.

[2] Ross, Wilbur & Peter Navarro.  “Trump versus Clinton on Infrastructure.”  October 2016.  Specifically, the paper assumes projects are funded by debt and equity at a ratio of 5:1 and proposes to award a tax credit to the equity investor at 82% of the equity contribution or 13.7% of the project cost, and then tax the labor component of construction and the contractor’s pretax profits to bring the program towards revenue neutrality.

[3] American Society of Civil Engineers.  “2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure.”  March 2013.

[4] Scribner, Marc.  “The Great Infrastructure Myth.”  Competitive Enterprise Institute.  November 2016.

[5] Tierney, John.  “America’s Fiscal Consensus—A Bridge Too Far.”  Deutsche Bank Research.  October 2016.

[6] Grabell, Michael.  “How Not To Revive an Economy.”  The New York Times.  February 2012.

[7] Committee for a Responsible Budget.  “Promises and Price Tags: An Update.”  September 22, 2016.

Investment Insights Podcast – The World of Negative Interest Rates

Rosenberger_PodcastAndrew Rosenberger, CFA, Senior Investment Manager

On this week’s podcast (recorded February 2, 2016), Andy discusses what the world of negative interest rates looks like and how it impacts investors:

  • Japan surprised markets by entering the world of negative interest rates, joining Sweden, Denmark, and the European Central Bank.
  • Just a few years ago it seemed that negative interest rates were impossible; but, today there is over $5.5 TRILLION dollars of government debt with negative yields.
  • Long-term impact to investors is, candidly, unknown. Short-term impact seems to lean towards lower yields globally, including the U.S.
  • Large yield differentials between developed countries (Germany, Japan, U.S.) are a major reason why the U.S. dollar continues to appreciate.
  • Demand created by large yield spreads is why we believe we won’t see meaningfully higher yields in the United States anytime in the near term and why we believe the Fed will back off their initially suggested pace of raising interest rates, perhaps even holding off overall.

For Andy’s full insights, click here to listen to the audio recording.

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

China Currency Admitted to IMF Major Leagues: The End of U.S. Dollar Supremacy?

Stuart QuintStuart P. Quint, CFA, Senior Investment Manager & International Strategist

On November 13, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) gave a preliminary indication that it would include the Chinese currency, the RMB, for the first time in its basket of approved reserve currencies, or Special Drawing Rights (“SDRs”). Undoubtedly, China has gained international prestige due to its partial liberalization of its capital accounts as well as its position as the second largest economy in the world after the U.S.

Does this mean the end of the supremacy of the U.S. Dollar?

60% of reserves of foreign central banks are held in U.S. Dollars.[1] Chinese RMB comprise less than 1%. While foreign central banks are likely to accumulate more RMB over time, there remains some questions as to how quickly it could rise in the near term.

First, Chinese bond markets would need to develop deeper liquidity. In order to invest in a currency, central banks would demand liquid investments denominated in the currency. Today, the U.S. bond market is magnitudes deeper than that in China.[2]

Second, it’s not in China’s best interest to immediately go to fully-free capital accounts. Exports are in decline due in part to weak global demand. The last thing the Chinese government would want to do is to put further pressure on exporter margins with a strong currency buttressed by sudden foreign capital inflows. One case in point is the August devaluation of the Chinese RMB that spooked financial markets.

While China has made progress in financial reform—partial liberalization of interest rates and opening up access to its stock markets—China has not opened up its currency to full convertibility and free capital flows.

Furthermore, recent government intervention in the stock market and economy does not provide investors assurance on long-term governance. Neither the Chinese nor the IMF can simply legislate a track record of responsible governance overnight. Time and consistency are needed to win investor confidence.

[1] http://worldif.economist.com/article/6/what-if-the-yuan-competes-with-the-dollar-clash-of-the-currencies , accessed on November 13, 2015.

[2] See http://www.wsj.com/articles/why-investors-shy-away-from-chinas-6-4-trillion-bond-market-1437593482?alg=y , accessed on November 16, 2015.

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. Brinker Capital, a Registered Investment Advisor.

Investment Insights Podcast – January 27, 2015

Bill MillerBill Miller, Chief Investment Officer

On this week’s podcast (recorded January 23, 2015):

What we like: ECB announces stimulative policies; developed markets (Spain, Italy, France, etc.) to benefit; hopeful for positive impact domestically

What we don’t like: U.S. economy slowing; investors nervous about current and future growth rate; some fallout from drop in oil prices

What we’re doing about it: Holding tight and looking for the benefits of the ECB stimulus and lower energy prices

Click here to listen to the audio recording

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.