Investor Discussions - Q1|2014 Commentary
Wealth & Pension Services Group
Matt B. Bailey, CFA - Portfolio Manager
The first quarter of 2014 was filled with a number of market moving headlines and reports. These events led to heightened levels of volatility which have not been seen very often over the last two years. A few notable news items included: the Federal Reserve beginning to “taper” it’s Quantitative Easing (QE) bond purchase program, unseasonably cold weather experienced by much of the US and political unrest within the Ukraine and the ensuing annexation of the Crimean region by Russia. All of this led to an interesting quarter for both stock and bond investors alike.
As expected, a steady stream of key economic data was released during the quarter including: Q4 GDP, employment figures, consumer confidence levels, housing numbers and manufacturing data.
The final Q4 GDP number for the US came in at a meager 2.6% on an annualized basis, up from the prior estimate of 2.4% released earlier in the quarter. Although this figure isn’t great compared to historical growth rates, this chart illustrates that the economy has continued to improve from the last dip we saw in late 2012 and is well off the lows of 2009.
This next chartshows how new jobless claims have remained in a down trend going back to late 2011, signaling new job creation. Additionally, we have seen the reported unemployment rate stabilize around 6.7% as of the March data. Consumer confidence also came in strong and is another data point trending in a positive direction, as seen here. This makes sense when considering that people who are employed tend to have a more optimistic outlook on the future.
The housing sector experienced mixed results as many indicators provided conflicting data. Much of weaker data has been attributed to bad weather and lack of supply, but the overall trend remains positive and looks to have recovered from the winter storms. Lastly, the manufacturing sector proved to be resilient even in the face of harsh winter conditions. Multiple indicators came in at encouraging levels and look to be picking up momentum.
As a whole, the economy appears to be moving in a positive direction. The severe winter weather caused near-term weakness in some areas, but the overall growth trend remains intact. We will continue to monitor the economic data as it is released in Q2.
The US stock markets saw significantly more volatility during Q1 when compared to the melt-up experienced in 2013. Both the S&P 500 large cap index and Russell 2000 small cap index made new all-time highs during the quarter and finished up 1.18% and 1.12%, respectively. Technology stocks, as represented by the NASDAQ Composite index reached levels not seen since the early 2000’s and finished the quarter up .83%.
These somewhat muted returns are not a complete surprise considering the advance stocks have experienced since the fall of 2012. In fact, November of 2012 was the last time any of the aforementioned indices tested their 200 day moving averages (A moving average is the average price of a security over a set amount of time and is plotted on a price chart. It is typically used to identify the overall trend) and it’s been even longer since any of them have had a correction of 10% or greater. To be clear, neither of these points is meant to suggest that a market correction is looming. Rather, they are meant to highlight the strength of the recent trend and the fact that the current bull market is becoming increasingly mature.
During the quarter, we slightly reduced equity exposure within our portfolios. This tactical decision was made due to a number of fundamental and technical indicators pointing towards the market being temporarily overvalued. Our belief was that the risk-reward ratio of being aggressively overweight equities had diminished and it was prudent for us to reduce overall portfolio risk.
We currently have a slight overweight to US equities and will continue to monitor our indicators and the markets for signs of deterioration. If necessary, we will make additional reductions to our allocation. Once valuations become more attractive, we will explore reallocating capital to opportunities within the space.
International stock market returns were mixed during Q1. Developed market equities within Europe, represented by the STOXX Europe 600, finished the quarter up 2.46%, while the Japanese Nikkei equity index was down 6.52%. Both of these indexes performed well during 2013 and mimicked the US’s lackluster returns during the quarter.
With that being said, specific areas within Europe performed very well, including Italy, Spain and Ireland, while others such as the UK finished down modestly. The outperformance of countries with relatively weaker economies reflects global investors becoming less risk averse and starting to prefer non-US investment opportunities. This preference comes at a time when the US bull market has entered its 5th year and may be starting to tire. Lastly, the weakness seen in Japan can be partially attributed to the strengthening of the Yen and an upcoming Japanese sales tax increase that will go into effect in Q2.
The Emerging Markets, as represented by the MSCI EM index, experienced much of the same volatility seen in 2013, but finished down only .43% after being down nearly 10% during the quarter. This volatility was sparked by economic instability seen within a few isolated countries and highlights the importance of understanding the unique makeup of all the Emerging Markets constituents. Many still remain heavily dependent on rich commodity prices and demand from developed world economies. Overall, many Emerging Market countries continue to take the steps needed to evolve their economies and are headed in the right direction.
We remain overweight international developed equities and maintain our neutral weighting to EM. International developed equities are trading at reasonable valuation levels when compared to the US and this has led many investors to believe the momentum of 2013 can continue. In addition, the European Central Bank’s (ECB) accommodative monetary policy should help support asset prices in Europe. The recent weakness seen in Japan’s equity market may be temporary as their economy has continued to expand since the start of Abenomics in late 2012. Lastly, we see the Emerging Markets as having significant long-term growth potential, but we understand and accept the risk of additional near-term volatility. If and when these markets regain positive momentum, we will consider moving to an overweight allocation within our portfolios.
The 2013 theme of interest rates only moving higher was proved wrong during Q1, at least temporarily, as the 10-year US Treasury rate finished Q1 at 2.72%, down from around 3% at the end of 2013. This positively affected US bonds as the Barclays US Aggregate Bond Index, finished the quarter up 1.81 %. This upbeat performance came as a surprise to many as the index was down just over 2% in 2013. These contrasting returns exemplify the volatility seen throughout the US stock and bond markets during the quarter.
Other areas of fixed income performed equally as well. High yield and global bonds, as represented by the Barclays US Corporate High Yield index and Citi World Government Bond index, both finished up 2.98% and 3.22%, respectively. The continued strong performance by high yield bonds lends credence to the argument that economic growth is a reality in the US. This is due to high yield bonds typically performing well during economic expansions as companies raise money in order to grow. Additionally, positive performance by global bonds points to investor’s willingness to take on additional risk by investing outside the US.
We continue to underweight both domestic and international fixed income in our portfolios, as we think that interest rates will likely normalize over the coming years as the Federal Reserve removes liquidity from the markets. This normalization should benefit less interest rate sensitive investments as rates rise. Within the space, we favor credit focused managers with shorter duration (less interest rate sensitive) portfolios. Additionally, we like managers who have the flexibility to hedge risk within their portfolio as rates can be volatile and are not likely to rise in a linear fashion. This includes investment strategies that can tactically invest in less risky bonds such as Treasuries and Agency MBS and managers who can actively short (sell) high-risk areas of the market when they see fit.
Commodities as a group performed well during the first quarter with a few isolated exceptions. The Dow Jones UBS Commodity Index finished the quarter up 6.99%. A few highlights include gold and agriculture related commodities, which both finished the quarter up 6.69% and 15.7% respectively, while copper lagged the group and finished down 10.87%.
This asset class has been beaten down over the last few years as China’s demand for a number of key commodities has waned due to slowing economic growth. Additionally, the fear of inflation spurred by the Federal Reserve’s QE program diminished as inflation has been all but non-existent since the Financial Crisis ended. Historically, investors have turned to commodities and commodity related companies during inflationary periods as a hedge. During the first quarter, we started to see hints of this as select commodity prices increased, but failed to be supported by positive inflationary data.
We currently have no assets directly allocated to commodities or commodity related investments within our portfolios. Instead, we allow the index funds and investment managers we utilize to provide us exposure. If the commodity markets continue to gain momentum, we will revisit them as a potential investment opportunity.
We remain optimistic about the future and think the US and global economy is headed in the right direction. Our long-term outlook for domestic and international equities remains bullish but with nearer term volatility. Within fixed income, we see pockets of opportunity and plan to be as nimble as possible by overweighting tactical investment managers. Lastly, commodities have been Wall Street’s punching bag over the last few years, but may have finally turned a corner. If inflation starts appearing in economic data, commodity related investments will likely come back into favor and begin seeing positive inflows.
As always, please feel free to contact us with any questions you may have.
Matt B. Bailey, CFA, CMT