The collapse in prices is the fastest decline of 20%, off the market highs, ever.   Looking into the immediate future, the economic/unemployment/earnings data will be horrible.  GDP for Q1 will come in at -15%, Q2 may see -20%.  These should be expected given we’ve shut 1/3 of the economy down.  In a ‘normal’ recession, this data accumulates over several weeks and months, not all at once.  Most of the bad data were going to see is going to be front-loaded, and we will see this throughout April and into May.   Over the same 8 weeks, sentiment will change much more rapidly as the light at the end of the tunnel becomes more/less apparent.   Prices of financial assets will react even more quickly.  Those 3 elements (econ data, sentiment, market prices)  work together but at different paces, and appear to contradict at times (like the day the Fed announced all the backstop measures, markets fell—not because stimulus is bad but probably due to the increasing alarm over the virus).

As of March 31st, the SP500 is down 20%; the Dow is off 23%; US small cap stocks -31%; Nasdaq -14%; eurozone stocks -25%; long treasury bond (TLT) +21% and gold +4%.    The average moderate portfolio is down about 9% year to date.

During the quarter, we hedged the equity side of portfolios during the early decline (not changing actual positioning, just owning the hedge then removing it).   The idea is always to buy low/sell high and removing the hedge was akin to buying/gaining exposure at lower prices.   Long treasury bonds have done very well, and we have sold some into strength, locking in some gains.  Technology has been one of the stronger areas and have increased this area substantially.    In addition, we’ve added equity exposure via SP500 etf, IVV, at the 2550 SP500 level.  I plan to add more, once the pullback eases and prices are constructive again.

As it stands now, most portfolios have increased equities compared to the beginning of the quarter, with less exposure to bonds.  Gold still has some potential, but as I’ve mentioned before gains will be more gradual and believe $1700+ is attainable.  The near-term market movements will likely be tied to the general expectations of when the US can get back to work.   The past couple of days’ weakness, I believe, is tied to the extension from April 12 to April 30 of guidelines established to slow the spread of covid19.

My expectations (given the truly massive and quick stimulus) are that we are now in the pullback from the initial bounce in stock prices.  I believe it is likely to see another leg up over the next couple of weeks.   Staying over 2400 on the SP500 is very important.  The combination of several trillion dollars of stimulus, both fiscal and monetary, combined with the concept that the covid19 crisis will end, does set the stage for possibly, a very substantial rally in stocks in the coming months.  Very generally, if there is now (or soon will be) $2-5 trillion (new money) in the financial system and we get back 90% of GDP that has been lost,  prices could go much higher even if fundamentals don’t recover–that’s post-2009 in a nutshell.   Before that we need to turn the corner on the virus.

The past couple months has been a lesson in which is more difficult:  to sell high or buy low?   Buying high and selling low are easy choices.   “Everyone” is doing it and it feels better to be a part of the crowd, ‘getting a piece of the action’ when in bull market; and conversely ‘stopping the pain’ in a bear market.   Believe me, it is much more difficult to lean into the market in early stages than to jump on the bandwagon once most of a move has already occurred.   This is weighed against market outlook and risk tolerance.       The other lesson is basic financial planning:  do you have 2-6 months of living expenses on hand in case of financial disruption?  And is your at-risk money truly a multi-year holding period.    It’s no fun to be forced to sell into a weak market to raise cash for living expenses.

Adam Waszkowski, CFA

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