Lions, Tigers, Bears & Trade Wars – Oh My!

Volatility has returned to the markets. What to make of it and how to respond accordingly.

While it may seem like ages ago, the bull market was at historic highs earlier in the year (January 26th), but since then headwinds have picked up. It’s fair to wonder if things could get even worse from here on growing geopolitical tension.

2018 has been a whole lot different than 2017. Last year, stocks marched higher with only minor pullbacks; the largest peak to trough decline for the S&P 500 was less than 3%. 2017 was a year that lacked turbulence and rewarded investors handsomely.

Since early February, volatility has returned, taking stocks on varying swings of good days and bad. Many of those episodes were based on errant tweets that became de facto policy statements. Investors have had a hard time knowing how to respond to the daily barrage of tweets.

I’m sure I’m like most in that I abhor uncertainty, but every day we seem to be awaking to surprise policy moves that could start to harm the economy. I generally disdain discussing politics, so my thoughts aren’t political statements rather commentary on events that affect investors’ monies in the capital markets.

For long-term investors, we should all look past it, but I know that in the short-run discounting such hyperbole can be tough to do.

I like to look at more persistent measures that better gauge the markets. I consider them 3 legs to a bar stool – the nation’s overall economic situation (+); corporate profitability (+); and investor sentiment or crowd psychology (~).

National Economic Growth
We’re in the 3rd (very soon to be the 2nd) longest economic expansion in U.S. history, an expansion that’s broad-based across a full range of sectors with consumer spending, manufacturing activity and construction all showing robust figures as part of a global trend of stronger-than-expected growth. Looking ahead, U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) growth could well average 2.5% this year and next.

For now, there aren’t any real signs that the economy has fundamentally down-shifted. The expansion that started 9 years ago is still underway, buoyed by near record-level stock market performance, low unemployment, robust job growth and other key economic indicators heading in the right direction.

While job productivity has slackened, it’s made for an environment where unemployment is extremely low, allowing for wage gains to build as talent becomes increasingly scarce, forcing competition amongst businesses to bid for workers. While that’s good for workers finally getting their fair shake, it’s wage inflation that the Fed Reserve likes to tamp down so look for 2-3 more benchmark interest rate hikes over the remainder of the year.

1st Quarter Corporate Earnings Outlook
Corporate earnings, the primary driver of stock prices, still look great according to FactSet. For the first quarter, earnings growth rate for the S&P 500 is expected to increase by 17.1% (reports have started to come in, and we’ll get most throughout the rest of the month). The forward 12-month price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio for the S&P is currently around 16.5, above the 5-year average of 16.1 but down significantly from overstretched P/E valuation in January. While earnings are expanding, valuation multiples are contracting (at least until stock prices start to pick up again).

What’s driving a good amount of earnings-per-share (EPS) guidance is good end-demand growth, both domestically and abroad. Secondarily, this is the first earnings report where we’ll feel the impact of the new tax act in lowering corporate tax rates. While the statutory rate is now lower, many multinational companies’ effective rates are already much lower. The effects of lower individual tax rates on investments made are more indirect and probably won’t be felt in earnest until tax season next year.

Global Growth
Spurred on by higher profits and buoyant stock markets, companies around the world appear to be loosening up their purse strings as capital spending starts to tick up (barring growing worrisome protectionist trade friction). Hopefully as the global economic expansion gathers speed, capital investment will stoke not just demand, but ultimately higher wages and inflation, especially when employers have been reluctant to spend even amid an economic upswing.

Analysts’ S&P 500 Price Target
For the 1st quarter of 2018, the S&P 500 lost -1.2% in value, the first down quarter since the 3rd quarter of 2015. Since then, we’ve had a rocky start to April.

According to FactSet, industry analysts (bottom-up price targets) see roughly a 16% increase for the S&P 500 over the next 12 months. At the sector level, Health Care is expected to growth by 18.8%, Information Technology by 18.2%, and Energy by 18.0%. The Utility sector is expected to see the smallest price increase, +4.8%.

Corporate leaders, in their earnings announcements, will also give us guidance on how they expect their businesses to be impacted by the threat of tariffs. Economists and Wall Street analysts will also be chiming in as to the cost in terms of economic growth, jobs, and earnings.

Investor Sentiment
According to the American Association of Individual Investors (AAII) weekly sentiment survey, for the week ending April 4th, pessimism about the short-term direction of stock prices has spiked to its highest level in more than 7 months.

The reason for the dramatic change in mood? Tariffs, counter-tariffs and an escalating trade war with China, let alone a pending renege on NAFTA which would ensnarl all 3 of our largest trading partners, accounting for about $1.7 trillion of trade annually, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

If there’s a somewhat positive take-away, it’s that tariffs will take several months to implement, so there’s time to negotiate, find common ground, and curtail escalating the matter.

Détente will surely be at hand. But, ramifications of irreconcilable ideological and economic differences between an aging superpower and a rising superpower will linger on in some form or fashion (similar to the Soviet area).

Technology Stocks
Another concern weighing on investors is within the technology sector. Facebook is embroiled in a controversy over privacy and data sharing, and Amazon, up 50% in the past year, sank after the president renewed his attack on the online retailer.

Because of Facebook’s scandal, techlash has been gaining momentum. Since consumer data is the key competitive edge of social media firms, it means there’s always a heightened level of risk and uncertainty surrounding one’s personal information. I don’t think the Cambridge Analytica scandal even remotely compares to Equifax’s data breach in which Social Security numbers, names, addresses and even some bank information was stolen. And, nearly half of the nation has not taken any action to protect their data since the Equifax breach, according to a recent MagnifyMonyey survey. Wow!

While other tech companies fell in sympathy over Facebook’s problems, I don’t see that much follow-through collateral damage to other tech companies and industries. This whole issue may blow over just as quick as it started.

FAANG Stocks Bursting?
I don’t necessarily think so, but these stocks were/are ripe for profit-taking as investors have been increasingly risk-off and looking to lock in gains. Sure, some of the shiny veneer has come off, but tech stocks, specifically FANG stocks (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google) or FAANG (inclusive of Apple), or Fab 5 (inclusive of Microsoft, minus Netflix) have been some of the biggest bull market gainers, even after their recent price drops. These mega-cap tech stocks have lured investors with momentous gains more than triple the market since 2016.

Will technology, in general, be out of favor? Not likely, but there could be a rotation out of FAANG into more fundamentally sound growth stocks elsewhere in the space. There will still be money earmarked to the technology sector, especially big-cap names that offer ample liquidity.

As this rotation within the all-important tech sector transitions, it’s incumbent upon investors to identify where the next big moves are coming – artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, cybersecurity, financial technology (fintech), mobile computing, cloud computing, autonomous cars to environmental technology. Health care too will be a beneficiary as we witness genetics research break-throughs, which will hasten people living longer – and they’ll need income to support themselves in their golden years.

Should you lower your overall tech exposure? That depends. As a Bloomberg Businessweek article recently stated, “Investors comfortable with risk and who have years of earnings power ahead might be happy with their tech exposure. They can ride out market cycles. It’s more complicated for those approaching or in retirement, who have less time to rebuild savings. It’s important to know whether your retirement fund is heavy in tech and to be comfortable with the increased volatility that may bring. Panic selling rarely turns out well.”

Heightened Volatility Weighing on Investors
Investors seems particularly worried right now that a big change is under way. That’s at least what the financial news headlines would have you believe; these news outlets are media companies vying for your attention as much as Facebook.

There are important concepts to remember however. In every decline, no matter how severe, markets ultimately tend to stabilize, and so far, this correction is run-of-the-mill.

Cognitive Dissonance
Remember the last time stocks fell so hard? You probably don’t, and that’s making it all seem a little harsher than it is.

It’s a fact of life of the mind that things always seem worse in the present. But in fact, they’re not. Behavioral economist & Nobel prize winner, Richard Thaler, explored biases and cognitive shortcuts that affect how people process information.

[Read more here: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-10-27/how-to-profit-from-behavioral-economics].

In this bull market alone, there’s been 5 other corrections like this one, and it’s taken around 7 months on average for equities to climb out of their hole, data compiled by Bloomberg show. Based on that path, investors’ anxieties will linger until August.

At the same time, just because bouts of losses are normal doesn’t mean they’re painless, especially when momentum stocks (FANG) are leading the way lower. But the statistic is a reminder that it’s unrealistic to expect a market recovery to involve a straight line back up.

It seems even worse because of how placid markets have been since the last disruption. While individual stocks seem to be regularly rising and falling 5% these days, consider that in 2016 and 2017 the S&P 500 went through several long stretches without posting a single up or down day of more than 1%. Through April 10th, 1% daily moves in the S&P 500 has occurred 28 times this year. In 2017, we only had 8 such days.

“You had this incredible low-volatility environment, but markets are supposed to go up and down,” stated Michael O’Rourke, Jones Trading’s chief market strategist.

A move back to a normal market environment is usually hard to take. According to LPL Research, the average intra-year pullback (peak to trough) for the S&P 500 since 1980 has been 13.7%; half of all years had a correction of at least 10%; 13 of the 19 years that experienced an official correction (10%+ down) finished higher on the year; and the average total return for the S&P during a year with a correction was 7.2%.

The take-away? Turbulence surfaces more often than we recall and patient investors who don’t react emotionally have historically been rewarded. Don’t let short-term market volatility guide your allocation; your investments should reflect your time horizon.

Moving Forward
Springtime is here – a time of rebirth and regeneration, so while the weather may still be a bit cold or inclement, it offers up to evaluate the year so far, to review one’s long-term goals, and clean one’s minds (and homes) as we get ready for summer fun.

Your money life should never be ignored, but it shouldn’t be all-encompassing that it captures too much time away from what you love and care about. The idea is to find a workable balance between your money life and the rest of your life.

I have a hunch that most people would agree they should invest for the future. My second hunch is that many individuals don’t know how to start and are afraid of making serious mistakes, so initial impetus fades.

The work I do, and that of my fellow advisors, is about creating better outcomes for investors. I hope you find my communications informative and not too heady. Please contact me with any questions you may have, and if you or anyone you know is in need of advice, please send them my way.

Observations and Outlook April 2018

First quarter of 2018 turned out much differently than investors had been expecting at the turn of the New Year.  In January’s note, there were many sentiment indicators that had eclipsed their all-time highs. The highest percentage of investors expecting higher prices in twelve months was recorded.  Equity markets peaked on January 26 and fell 12%, followed by a large bounce into mid-March then subsequent decline that left us at quarter end about 4% above intraday lows from February.  We may be seeing the first stages of the end of the 9-year-old bull market.  Looking back at 2007 and 2000, the topping process can be choppy with market gyrations of +/-10%.   This is a complete 180 degree turn from the past two years where volatility was non-existent and equity markets went the longest period ever without a 5% decline.  Expect continued choppiness as the impact of Tax Reform filters through the economy and if corporations can continue the blistering pace of earnings growth going forward.  At the same time for mostly the same reasons, interest rates are likely to be range-bound.  Very recently the price of oil climbed on a news release that the Saudis would like to see $80/bbl oil.  Rising oil prices would be akin to a tax on consumers and hamper US growth.

Sentiment as seen by the AAII % bullish rolling 8-week average has declined from its euphoric high at 49% in January, down to 33%.  At the bottom of the last correction in early 2016 this average was 23%.  The current correction may be over and a lot of selling pressure has been exhausted there is room to the downside still. A reading in the mid 20% has been a good area to mark a low in the markets.  Sentiment is often a lagging indicator.  Investors are most enthusiastic after large price gains.  The opposite is true too in that sentiment numbers go low after a price decline.   It can be helpful to take a contrarian view as sentiment measures move to extremes.

aaii rolling bulls 4 2018

Blame for the downturn in January was due to a slightly hotter than expected print of Average Hourly Earnings (AHE), and the resulting concern over how quickly the Fed will raise interest rates.  The rapid change in AHE has not followed through into February and March, yet stocks remain well off their highs.  Analysts have been looking for wage pressures due to very low unemployment numbers for a long time.  The lack of wage growth is likely to the re-entrance of discouraged workers back into the labor force.  As a discouraged worker, who ‘hasn’t looked for work in the past month’, they are removed from the workforce.  When the number of unemployed decreases (the numerator) along with the total workforce (the denominator), the unemployment percentage rate goes down.  A low unemployment rate at the same time there is little wage pressure is due to the workforce participation rate being very low.  Focusing on the total number of people employed, which is still growing on a year over year basis, may give us a better read on employment situation without looking at the unemployment rate.  Any impact from Tax Reform should show up in an acceleration of year over year Total Employees growth.

total employed 4 2018

A more telling chart, and perhaps the real reason behind President Trump’s fiscal stimulus is the following chart. Using the same raw data that created the above chart, the chart below tracks the monthly, year over year percentage change in total nonfarm employees in the United States.  There are no seasonal adjustments etc.  While we are growing, the rate of increase in the total number of people working, is slowing.

% change in total employed 4 2018

Forward guidance from companies will be critical.  Expectations are still quite high regarding full year earnings and end of year price target for the S&P500, currently about 3000, 15% higher than todays price level.  During the first quarter, when earnings from Q4 2017 were reported, companies beating earnings estimates were rewarded only slightly, while companies missing earnings had their stock prices pushed down.  It seems there is still a ‘priced to perfection’ hurdle that companies must overcome.

 

The largest macroeconomic driver for the remainder of the year is the now global shift from QE (quantitative easing) to QT (quantitative tightening).   This global liquidity spigot the Central Banks have been running on full blast for the past 9 years has begun to end.  The US Federal Reserve stopped buying bonds (adding dollars to markets) and began raising rates.  These are tightening liquidity.  While in 2017 the European and Japanese central banks more than made up for the Federal Reserves actions, both have been broadcasting plans to temper their liquidity injections.  China is tightening as now in preparation for increased stimulus to coincide with the Communist Party’s 100th anniversary in power in 2021.

Over the past 9 years global liquidity additions has been the key driver to global asset prices.  As these additions slow and become subtractions, one must assume it will impact financial markets.  Most importantly global US Dollar-liquidity is the most important as the Dollar is the global reserve currency.  Recently the LIBOR-OIS has been in the news, having risen dramatically over the past few months.  This index is a rate that compares the overnight cost of interbank dollar borrowing in the US vs Europe.  The cost to borrow US Dollars in Europe has gone up dramatically.  A low cost would reflect ample Dollars for those who need them, a higher cost reflects a shortage of dollar-liquidity.  The TED Spread compares the interest rate on 90-day treasury bills and the 90-day LIBOR rate.  The TED spread is 90-day rates and the LIBOR OIS is overnight rates, and they follow each other closely.    The crux of it that they both measure the availability of funds in the money markets.  If these rates go up, it is seen as a decrease in available funds.

ted spread and us dollar 4 2018

The chart above tracks the TED spread and the US dollar.  The relationship is loose but fits well over multiple quarters.  If this relationship is correct, the US dollar should dramatically increase in value in the coming months.  An increase in the US Dollar will push the prices of non-US assets lower, make dollar denominated debt widely used in emerging markets more difficult to pay back and have further repercussions in debt markets.  A weak US Dollar is the underpin of global asset prices, and a stronger dollar, along with Quantitative tightening will be a strong headwind to asset prices in the second half of 2018.  If earnings can continue to growth strongly and more workers can be added at a strong pace, both leading to more credit growth, this headwind may be able to be offset.

In addition to international money market rates, the slowing velocity of money has been a constant impediment to economic growth.  Or, rather, the low velocity of money is indicative of an economy that continues to languish despite massive amounts of new money put into the system.  If the pace of money flowing through the economy slows, GDP can be increased by putting more money into the system.  More money moving slowly can be like a small amount of money moving quickly.   If money is removed from the system via tightening measure from central banks, and we do not see an increase in the velocity of money, GDP will decline.  The slowing of VoM has been a problem since 2000 and is likely directly related to ‘why’ the Fed keeps rates extremely low for very long periods of time.  Of course, if VoM were to return to 1960’s levels, interest rates would be substantially higher, causing a re-pricing of all assets—which is a topic for another day.

fredgraph

Adam Waszkowski, CFA

awaszkowski@namcoa.com    239.410.6555

This commentary is not intended as investment advice or an investment recommendation. Past performance is not a guarantee of future results. Price and yield are subject to daily change and as of the specified date. Information provided is solely the opinion or our investment managers at the time of writing. Nothing in the commentary should be construed as a solicitation to buy or sell securities. Information provided has been prepared from sources deemed to be reliable, but is not guaranteed by NAMCO and may not be a complete summary or statement of all available data necessary for making an investment decision.  Liquid securities, such as those held within managed portfolios, can fall in value. Naples Asset Management Company, LLC is an SEC Registered Investment Adviser. For more information, please contact us at awaszkowski@namcoa.com

Was that the Top or the Bottom?

The Wall Street Journal had a very good article detailing one of the root causes of the February decline.  A classic ‘tail-wagging-the dog’ story about derivatives and how they can impact other markets that are seemingly unrelated.  While the outlook for global equities informs the level of the VIX, we have just seen an incident where forced trades of VIX futures impacted futures prices of equity markets.   Its as though the cost of insuring against market declines went up so much that it caused the event it was insuring against.

Even with that being known, the impact to market sentiment has been dramatic.  Most sentiment indices went from extremely optimistic to extreme fear in a matter of days.  This change in attitude by market participants may have a lasting impact.  A rapid decline like we saw in February will reduce optimism and confidence (which underpin a bull market rise), and increase fear and pessimism, which are the hallmarks of a bear market.   Short term indicators turned very negative and now are more neutral, but longer-term sentiment indicators will take a longer decline to move negative.

Often the end of a bull market is marked by a rise in volatility, with equity prices falling 5-10%, then climbing back up only to get knocked down again, until finally prices cease climbing back up.  This can take several weeks or months.  We can see this in the market tops in 2000 and 2007.  This may be occurring now.  Many of the market commentary I follows the approximate theme of ‘markets likely to test the 200-day moving average’.  This is the level the February decline found support.  This would be about 7% below current prices, and have the makings of a completed correction, finding support once and then retesting.

Since the market highs in late January the major stock indices fell 12%, then gained 6-10% depending on the index.  Since that bottom and top; markets moved down about 4.5%, then again up into yesterday (3/13/2018) gaining 4% to 7%.  Tech shares and small caps have outperformed large cap along the way, rising more, but falling the same during this series.   Recognizing the size of these moves and the time frame can help manage one’s risk and exposure without getting overly concerned with a 2-3% move in prices.  But if one is not aware of how the 3% moves are part of the larger moves, one might wait through a series of small declines and find themselves uncomfortable just as a decline is ending—contemplating selling at lower prices as opposed to looking to buy at lower prices.  Hedging is a process to dampen the markets impact on a portfolio in the short term while looking for larger longer-term trend turning points. The high in January and current decline and bounce are likely a turning point over the longer term and in the near term provide investors with parameters to determine if the bull trend is still intact.

February Correction: VIX and XIV

Markets in February saw the end of a 499-day (almost two years) winning streak, when the S&P 500 had avoided even a 5% pullback.   At the end of that period equity markets were climbing at a parabolic fashion, with gains quickening into January 26th top.   From December 26th to January 26th saw a gain of 7.2%, or an annualized pace of 132%, capping a two-year gain of more than 55% for the S&P500.

The current correction, has given back almost 12%.   The cause has widely been attributed to a climb in interest rates and finally a larger than expected print in Average Hourly Earnings.  While this data point coincided with the turn, rates had been climbing since early September and accelerated along with stocks in January.  There were a few weeks where rapidly climbing rates occurred at the same time as rapidly climbing stock prices, and then when prices fell, the fall was attributed to those same rising rates.

Todays Wall Street Journal finally had a decent article on another cause of the rapid decline in stock prices.   Over the past few years, “selling volatility” via a few inverse-VIX etp’s had been a huge winner. The largest vehicle, ticker XIV, had gone from $20/share in early 2016 to $146/share in January 2018.  This ETP’s price would go up an equal amount, in percentage terms that the VIX (aka ‘fear index’) would decline. As long as volatility stayed low, XIV’s price would climb.

There were two big problems with this product.  As it grew to several billion in assets, it became so large that that it dwarfed the underlying derivatives market in which it participated.  If the VIX moved a little more than it had in recent weeks, it would cause the fund to overwhelm the derivatives market.   In early February the fund owned 42% of all the outstanding March VIX futures contracts.  Any disturbance in the VIX could require the fund to purchase more than half of all the contracts, that it had originally sold in a very short period of time.

The second problem was that its returns were 100% of the opposite of whatever the VIX did in one day.  That means if the VIX moved from 10 to 20, a gain of 100%, then XIV should lose 100% of its value.  The kicker is that this indeed has happened a few times over the past 10 years.

So the set up was a parabolic price advance, and then a concern that maybe rates were going up too fast, which may push central banks to tighten monetary policy more quickly, which caused the VIX to rise from all time lows, forcing XIV to overwhelm the underlying markets, creating a vicious circle of selling that spilled over into equity futures, exacerbating the stock market decline.  XIV stopped trading on February 21st, closing at $6.04.

Adam Waszkowski, CFA

Rising Inflation Expectations, Rising 10-Year Treasury Yields (Reason to Worry or Not?)

Last week the S&P 500 rallied 4.3% after a quick downdraft at the end of January and into the first week of February that zapped gains on major indices for the year and sent the S&P and the Dow intocorrective mode (down 10% from recent highs), albeit briefly.

That rally from early February lows made for the biggest S&P weekly gain in more than 5 years and got the stock indices back in the black for the year (+1.0% YTD for the S&P 500 through Feb. 21st). The 3 major indices (S&P, Dow & Nasdaq) have now gained back nearly half of their losses from earlier in the month.

The February 5th drop of 1,175 points for the Dow was the largest single-day point loss ever, but in percentage terms that was a -4.6% decline, one that doesn’t register in the top 100 largest single-day losses.

It seems as if a lot of records are being broken as of late, except at the winter Olympics. It looks like the U.S. haul of 37 medals in 2010 in Vancouver will stand. We’re at 19 in PyeongChang as I write this (Feb. 21st evening). In the end, hopefully we appreciate witnessing exciting competition by great athletes regardless of their nationality as the modern Olympics’ aims are for “better world through sport practiced in a spirit of peace, excellence, friendship and respect.”

I won’t speculate on the rationale for lower overall medals for U.S. Olympians but as for the recent equity market sell-off it’s mostly tied to inflationary expectations which feeds through to interest rates, particularly those on the 10-year Treasury note, the most popular debt instrument in the world.

For borrowers, the 10-year is the benchmark for fixed-rate mortgages and the pricing of other credit assets (such as corporate bond rates which trade at a spread over Treasury yields). Overall, think of the 10-year as a gauge of domestic economic growth.

With a tight labor market showing some wage growth and a recent higher-than-expected consumer price inflation (CPI) report, we’re seeing upward pressure on interest rates. Those types of inflationary signs ultimately work their way through to companies as cost pressures, thus potentially hurting profit margins – that’s when stocks start to get roughed up.

Right now, the 10-year Treasury yield is near 2.94%, up from 2.41% at the beginning of the year (a 22% rise).  Some investors like to look to technical measures as a red line be it 3.0% or 3.5% or 4.0% on the 10-year Treasury as the magical switch to reduce their stock exposure.

As we’re starting to flirt with 3.0% on the 10-year, I don’t see it as the indicator to jump ship from one’s longer term goals (one that probably entails having a fair amount of stock exposure). All in all, rates steadily rising isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

As corporate earnings go up, stocks go up, interest rates go up, and bond yields rise. It’s all OK if it’s in balance. It’s a 3-legged stool – corporate earnings, interest rates (influenced by inflation expectations), and investor sentiment (demand for stocks and the ability/willingness to put money to work). Investors need this trinity to work. Similarly, your own body – physical, mental, and spiritual/emotional well-being – needs to be in-sync to feel at your best.

Fourth quarter 2017 earnings have wrapped up for the most part (with 80% of the companies in the S&P 500 reporting, according to FactSet). FactSet calculated the blended earnings growth rate for the S&P 500 is +15.2%. If 15.2% is the final number for the quarter, it will mark the highest earnings growth since the third quarter of 2011 (+16.8%).

We continue to see positive corporate earnings per share (EPS) growth for 2018. Why? The decrease in the U.S. corporate tax rate due to the new tax law is clearly a significant factor (going from 35% to 21%). Other factors include an improving global economy and a weaker U.S. dollar (which helps U.S. exports). Corporate growth and in turn EPS growth should continue to support share prices. For now, we’re not seeing undue profit margin stress across a large swatch of corporate earnings reports. When we do, it may be time to tactically rebalance one’s investment assets.

So, is the worst over? Is the correction done? Is the market no longer concerned about inflation? Many investors and market watchers may not be so quick to jump back on the bullish bandwagon after such a stunning pullback disrupted one of the most epic market upswings in history; it’s certainly shocking to suddenly see the Dow plunge by more than 1,000 points twice in one week.

My hope is that the market has finally found some balance amid higher inflation, rising rates, and increased volatility. Perhaps this was the long-awaited correction that so many investors said we needed, and now the market can resume its upward trajectory.

What’s the tipping point for investors to step away from equities for higher return that may be available elsewhere? Given recent stock performance as the 10-year has moved closer to 3.0%, I’d speculate that stock bulls will turn worried once rates close in on 3.5% and become outright bearish once rates close in on 4.0%. The catch here is the pace to which we get to these higher yields – a steady move up is fine, but a jump to 4.0% (as an example) by the end of this year on the 10-year would surely be perceived as bearish.

I remain constructive on global stocks given solid growth fundamentals in the U.S. and internationally, but see further gains punctuated by bouts of volatility with higher magnitude than the markets have seen in the past few years. Historically, higher volatility has been able to coexist with upward-trending stocks.

It’s understandable that you may be worried about your investments and seeing the vagary of month-end statement values. If that is distressing to you, let’s talk about your long-term goals, your investment mix, and how I may help you stay on course in volatile times.

“It’s waiting that helps you as an investor, and a lot of people just can’t stand to wait. If you didn’t get the deferred-gratification gene, you’ve got to work very hard to overcome that.” ~ Charles MungerVice Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway

Wall Street veterans remind us of the adage, “Trees don’t grow to the sky.” The markets had a well-deserved break, spooked by rising interest rates. Markets go up and down. Over the long run we all know they go up a lot more than they go down. But in these times of market volatility it can be stressful on all of us. The key to managing stress from fluctuations in the market is to ignore the noise.

Me and my firm create investment portfolios based on clients’ long-term goals and to make sure they are well diversified, so as not having to worry about occasional market dips which newspapers and other media tend to sensationalize. Investing is about long-term returns not short-term ratings.

Please let me, or one of my fellow advisors, know if you want to discuss anything at all, from current market news to specifics about portfolio construction to preparation for the upcoming tax season. Happy to help out.

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“Good” Inflation: Rising rates and falling stocks

Over the past week, the Dow fell by 4%, more than halving its ytd gains through Friday 1/19 (all time high).   Bonds continued the decline started in mid-December, bringing losses during the current ‘bond rout’ to -5.7% year to date.  That is a one week decline in the Dow of 4% and a four-week decline in long-bond prices of 5.7%.  Balanced investors have seen stocks gain and bonds lose, putting most investors (moderately conservative to moderately aggressive) at a mild gain or loss so far this year.  Generally, diversification across asset classes reduces volatility when bonds go up, stocks generally are weaker and vice versa.    When the classes move together differentiation across risk profiles diminishes.  Stocks remain in a strong uptrend and given the substantial gains over the past few months, equity centric investors should be able to take this in stride (or they shouldn’t be equity-centric) as 4% is a small blip in a strong multi-quarter uptrend awash in investor optimism, all-time low cash levels, all-time high exposure to stocks and financial assets and expectations of higher wages, earnings and GDP growth.   In this light, a rebound, or ‘buy the dip’ would not be surprising.  The new feature though is that volatility has returned.

The ‘bond rout spilling into equities’ explaination has to do with relative attractiveness.  If rates keep rising, bond prices are hurt, while becoming more attractive (due to higher yields) to equity investors, putting pressure on equity prices.  At some point, earning safe interest attracts enough investors from stocks to weaken stock prices.  The S&P 500 dividend yield is now 1.8%, similar to what can be found offered on 18 month CD.

Rate have climbed due to rising inflation expectations.  Inflation is expected to, finally, exceed the 2% goal set by the Federal Reserve ‘in the coming months’.  Current thinking is that a tight labor market is pushing AHE (average hourly earnings, +2.9% Jan ’18 vs Jan ’17), combined with more take home pay (via tax reform), will result in more spending from consumers and investment from business.  This will take time but markets have already priced it all in.  Just like the stock market has priced in exceptional earnings growth to match its exceptional valuations.  The chart below shows us that we’ve been in a tightening labor market for years without being able to hold above 2.0% inflation but briefly.

infl vs unemplmnt

Given the new feedback loop between stocks and bonds, perhaps we shouldn’t be so excited about inflation, even if its ‘good’.  On the bright side, the past few years has seen 3.25% as a top in 30yr bond yields and perhaps a decline in rates near term may help both bond holders and stock investors alike.