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.

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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.

Monthly Market and Economic Outlook – July 2013

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

Risk assets were off to a decent start in the second quarter but then retreated after Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s testimony to Congress on May 22 laid the ground work for a reduction in monetary policy accommodation through tapering their asset purchases as early as September. While the U.S. equity markets were able to end the quarter with decent gains, developed international markets were relatively flat and emerging markets experienced sizeable declines. Weaker currencies helped to exacerbate these losses.

After starting to move higher in May, interest rates rose sharply in June and into early July, helped by the fears of Fed tapering. The yield 10-year U.S. Treasury has increased 100 basis points over the last two months to a level of 2.64% (through 7/10). The increase in rates was all in real terms as inflation expectations fell. Bonds experienced their worst first half of the year since 1994, in which we experienced four short-term rate hikes before June 30.

7.12.13_Magnotta_MarketOutlook_2While we have seen these levels of rates in the recent past (we spent much of the 2009-2011 period above these levels), the sharpness of the move may have been a surprise to some fixed income investors who then began to de-risk portfolios. In June, higher-risk sectors like investment-grade credit, high-yield credit and emerging market debt, as well as longer duration assets like TIPS, fared the worst. With growth still sluggish and inflation low, we expect interest rates to remain relatively range-bound over the near term; however, we do expect more volatility in the bond market. Negative technical factors like continued outflows from fixed income funds could weigh on the asset class. 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.

After weighing on the markets in June, investors have begun to digest the Fed’s plans to taper asset purchases at some point this year. Should the Fed follow through with their plans to reduce monetary policy accommodation, it will do so in the context of an improving economy, which should be a positive for equity markets.

7.12.13_Magnotta_MarketOutlook_3We 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 move into the second half of the year. A number of factors should continue to support the economy and markets for the remainder of the year:

  • Monetary policy remains accommodative: The Fed remains accommodative (even with the scale back on asset purchases short-term interest rates will remain low), the ECB has pledged to support the euro, and now the Bank of Japan is embracing an aggressive monetary easing program in an attempt to boost growth and inflation. This liquidity has helped to boost markets.
  • Fiscal policy uncertainty has waned: After resolutions on the fiscal cliff, debt ceiling and sequester, the uncertainty surrounding fiscal policy has faded. The U.S. budget deficit has improved markedly, helped by stronger revenues. Fiscal drag will be much less of an issue in 2014.
  • Labor market steadily improving: The recovery in the labor market has been slow, but steady. Monthly payroll gains over the last three months have averaged 196,000 and the unemployment rate has fallen to 7.6%. The most recent employment report also showed gains in average hourly earnings.
  • Housing market improvement: An improvement in housing, typically a consumer’s largest asset, is a boost to net worth, and as a result, consumer confidence. However, a significant move higher in mortgage rates, which are now above 4.5%, could jeopardize the recovery.
  • U.S. companies remain in solid shape: U.S. companies have solid balance sheets that are flush with cash that could be reinvested or returned to shareholders. Corporate profits remain at high levels and margins have been resilient.

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

  • 7.12.13_Magnotta_MarketOutlook_4Fed mismanages exit: If the economy has not yet reached escape velocity when the Fed begins to scale back its asset purchases, risk assets could react negatively as they have in the past when monetary stimulus has been withdrawn.
  • Significantly higher interest rates: Rates moving significantly higher from here could stifle the economic recovery.
  • Europe: The risk of policy error in Europe still exists. The region has still not addressed its debt and growth problems; however, it seems leaders have realized that austerity alone will not solve its problems.
  • China: A hard landing in China would have a major impact on global growth. A recent spike in the Chinese interbank lending market is cause for concern.

We continue to seek high conviction opportunities and strategies within asset classes for our client portfolios. Some areas of opportunity currently include:

  • Domestic Equity: favor U.S. over international, dividend growers, financial healing (housing, autos)
  • 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 Returns
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Not Your Average Town

WilsonTom Wilson, CFA, Brinker Capital, Managing Director,
Institutional Investments and Private Client Group
& Senior Investment Manager

Midland, TX is not an average U.S. town. Midland is an oil town. Flying over the area, one will notice a landscape littered with oil pumps. Not surprisingly, the sizable impact of oil and natural gas continues to benefit the local economy.

As I ate lunch in town at a crowded restaurant on a Sunday afternoon, I witnessed a crew of “mudders” stop in to grab some food and then hastily jump back into their trucks, destined for the next oil pump.  The fact is, unemployment is not an issue in this town. Midland currently boasts a 3.1% unemployment rate, strikingly less than the U.S. average of 7.6% (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics).  In speaking with the locals, the demand for teachers, doctors, and construction workers is quite significant.  Everywhere I looked, it seemed like the town was flourishing.

According to Strategas Research Partners, the United States is the second largest producer of oil in the world today with a 12% market share. We narrowly trail the Middle-Eastern country of Saudi Arabia, who enjoys a 13% share. Surprised? The International Energy Agency projects that the United States could become the largest producer by 2017. One can’t help but wonder about the immense potential we harbor as a country in the field of energy. The impact it could have on our nation in terms of growth, defense, employment, and tax revenue is profound. Let’s hope that in the near future thriving economic towns, just like Midland, won’t be so hard to come by!

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A horsehead oil pump in Midland, TX as seen first hand by our very own, Tom Wilson.

The Optimism for an Economy with a 7.8% Unemployment Rate

Dan WilliamsDan Williams, CFP, Brinker Capital

Currently, the U.S. unemployment rate stands at 7.8%, an improvement from the 8.5% a year ago and the 10% from the recent peak in October 2009. Still, compared to the consistent sub 6% rates we were used to seeing from the mid-1990s to mid-2000s, it is hard to feel good about this current state of employment and what this means for the health of the economy. There are those that argue that the “real” unemployment number is even worse (due to discouraged works exiting the equation and poor measurement methodology etc.). While it’s hard to show optimism for our economy, that is what I aim to do here.

A meaningful place to start is to define what an economy is. By its simplest definition an economy is a measure of the value of the goods and services the people of an area produce. Increase your number of people, increase the amount each person can produce, or produce more valuable stuff and the economy should grow. As you trade and cross-invest between economies, you can make further optimizations. In the short run, economies go through cycles and go by the whims of politicians, the media, central banks and consumer confidence. Still at its core, the economy is just a measure of what the people of a country are able to produce.

More Efficient Per EmployeeThe clear point here is that unemployment represents a failure to produce all we could. However, even with that fact, looking at GDP (expressed in 2005 dollars) we stood at $13.3 trillion at the end of 2011 (the highest year end number ever) and have seen continued growth such that 2012 will be even higher. So we have managed to become more efficient with what each employed person produces. This is the equivalent of a factory using fewer workers but producing more. If the real unemployment rate is actually higher than the 7.8% stated, that means we did it with even fewer workers. This seems like a good thing, right?

What makes the unemployment statistic different from a company having unused equipment is, of course, that people are not computers who can have their software updated over a lunch hour to be instantly redeployed to a new task. The fact is that many of those who are presently unemployed are trained for jobs that are no longer available. Also, people suffer when they are not able to work. There is no spin I can put on that other than to say things will get better given the time to retrain and redeploy. However, is this true?

A challenge to the idea of time healing this employment wound is the fear that technology efficiencies will replace more jobs such that even if the real GDP grows, maybe not all of us will get to be a part of it. Professor Andrew McAfee in a June 2012 TED Talk “Are droids taking our jobs?” echoes this sentiment when he references that in his expected lifetime, he believes we will see a “transition to an economy that is very productive but just does not need that many human workers.” He even notes that in the future an algorithm will be able to do writing tasks so a computer could author this blog. Basically, he sees no current job that we do as safe as these technologies accelerate.

This, however, does not mean that McAfee is pessimistic about our future employment. He is in fact quite optimist. He believes that these new technologies of efficiency represent the opportunity “to make a mockery of all that came before us”. (A phrase originally used by historian Ian Morris when he was speaking of the industrial revolution). What the industrial revolution did to magnify the productivity of our muscles, he feels the technology revolution is going to do to the productivity of our minds. To say differently, he expects we should expect an acceleration in our ability to innovate as technology improves.

A more skeptical reader would be right to ask that if innovation is accelerating, why are we still in the aftermath of the great recession? Thankfully Mr. McAfee is not alone in this technology optimism and has an economist among his group with an explanation. Joe Davis, Vanguard’s chief economist, in a December 2012 speech titled “Better days are in store” notes that the growth of industrial revolutions do not proceed in straight lines. The steam revolution of the late 1770s led to an economic overconfidence and collapse that occurred in the 1830s. The telephone revolution beginning in 1876 led to an economic overconfidence and collapse that occurred in the late 1920s with the Great Depression. In both cases Dr. Davis argues these tough times caused businesses to go through the required creative destruction to survive and took these technologies to a major inflection point of further growth. Today, we are in that inflection point of the microprocessor revolution that began in the 1970s. If history is any guide, this is the economic hiccup that will cause us to get to new technology heights.

Unused Human CapitalSo where does this leave us? Over the past five years, the U.S. has learned to do more with less, has additional unused human capital to deploy, and the efficiencies afforded to us by technology are likely to accelerate. While the near term may be messy, there is an undeniable potential for us to be so much greater and “make a mockery of all that came before us”. While the details of this future and what an economic blog of 2063 will read like are unknown, there does seem to be rational reasons for great optimism. With that let me say, Happy New Year!