Client Note September 2020

Client Note                                                                                                                                                      

October 8, 2020

September saw the S&P500 slip approximately 3.8%, ending a streak of 5 positive months in a row.  While equity markets and precious metals (oddly) are moving together, our cash and bond holdings kept average portfolio declines to approximately 1.5% on the month. Year to date through September 30, the S&P 500 is up 5.6%, while our average Moderate Portfolio is up almost 10% year to date.  The fact that financial markets are up this year, despite 2020 being on track for the worst GDP contraction since 1946, is remarkable.

Estimates for 2020 GDP growth will come in around -4%, while the 2007/2008 era saw only a 2.7% contraction.  But this time markets are faring far better.  The key difference between today and 2008 is the emergency actions of the Fed.  The Fed acted far faster and far more substantially than it did in 2008.  The labor market bottomed out in February 2010 with total losses of 8.8 million jobs.  Not until May 2014 did the US recover all the jobs lost.  Currently, we have recovered half of the 22 million jobs lost.  IF, the now-slowing recovery is similar to post 2008, it could be 5 years before all jobs are recovered.  Fortunately, the S&P500 mirrors the Fed’s balance sheet growth more than the economic data.   

History shows us that markets recover more quickly than jobs or the economy.  As such, it appears equity markets have priced in a full profit recovery in the coming year.   In 2008, corporate profits bottomed almost the same time markets did.   Profits and markets grew alongside each other for several years. This time, markets have already recovered and are waiting on profits to back fill the massive valuation gap that now exists.  Because of this mis-match in timing, we could see a few more bouts of 20% gains and declines, as data/news shows economic activity slowing or increasing; as governments decide to add fiscal support or skip it; and as hot spots of the Covid virus spike and recede over the next year or longer.

Some analysts see rising inflation and higher rates coming because of economic growth.  In order to create the ‘good’ inflation (demand-pull), consumers need to spend.  They spend wages, new credit (loans/credit cards) and transfer payments (social security/welfare/stimulus checks).  Banks’ lending standards are increasing; lending is decreasing.  Aggregate wages have declined each month since May. Finally, in August the Cares Act $600/week stimulus ran out while 10 million remain unemployed, keeping pressure on consumer spending.  The Chairman of the Federal Reserve has asked Congress for fiscal stimulus to lift the economy.  As it stands now, there is no real impetus for market rates to rise, and may bode well for bond prices, as rates stay low or perhaps decline again.

My outlook for markets and rates remains the same as during the Summer.  Rates remain low and there is a good likelihood of large swings in market prices.  That outlook will remain until either a large stimulus package with money going right to consumers or control of the spread of the virus occur, maybe both.  I am expecting a post-election rally that may start mid to late October, simply because regardless of the winner, markets like certainty.  Precious metals appear to have completed their correction and a nascent rally may have started.

Adam Waszkowski, CFA

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Client Note June 2020

As we close June and the first half of 2020, financial markets continue their rebound from the first quarter’s corona-crash.  In very volatile markets there will be many “best/worst X since Y”.  The close at 3100 on the SP500 reflects the best quarter in the sp500 since 1987, with a gain of 19.9%.  After a 36% decline off the all-time high and subsequent 40% gain, puts the SP500 at -4% year to date and -9% below the all-time highs.  Our average moderate portfolio gained almost 15% for the quarter and is up 4% on the year.  While further upside is possible but in the short term, US equity markets are in a downtrend since June 23.  On a larger time, frame, we have downtrends since June 8 and off the highs on February 19thGetting over 3200 should open the door towards 3400+, but if we lose the 3000 level, my medium-term outlook will change.  Our individual stocks continue to do very well.

International equities continue to sorely lag US equities.  European shares gained 2.5% on the month, and currently sit at -14% year to date.  Japan gained 1% and China ebbed 1.6% on the month and both fall well short of the SP500 at -7% and -9%, respectively, year to date.  Emerging markets were the winner on the month at +6% but also have made far less progress recovering post-crash, coming in at     -11% year to date. We sold the last bits of emerging and international equities towards the end of the month.

In credit markets, treasuries have dominated over all other areas of the bond markets.  The long bond/20-yr treasury ebbed by 2.25% during the month, is flat for the quarter and up a massive 20% for 2020.  Even with equivalent maturities, treasuries are outpacing investment grade and junk bonds by 5% and 17%(!) respectively.  The investment grade corporate bond etf, LQD is up 5.1% ytd, while junk bond etf, JNK is -7.7% ytd.   This disparity is due to the rapid credit deterioration seen during this severe recession.  Given this, and spike in covid19 cases, its unlikely rates will rise appreciably in the near term.  Our long treasury position was reduced late March at slightly higher prices.

Economic data released in June continue to show improvement over the April/May shutdown (naturally).    The pace at which the economy would rebound after reopening is a hot topic.  We are seeing rapid improvement in some areas but the estimates versus data are showing extremely poor forecasting ability by economists in the short term.  I am watching year over year data to see how much rebound we are getting.  If July and August data show similar growth as May and June, we could see 90% of more of the economy back by Labor Day.  The trend of economic recovery is far more important than the level.  Ideally, we will trend higher and higher until full recovery.   At the end of July, we will get the first read on GDP for the second quarter.  The Atlanta Fed current estimate has risen to   -36%. 

Looking forward, the recent spike in virus cases has opened the door to the risk that the re-opening of the economy will be slowed, as we are more likely to see county or regional shutdowns.  Continued support from the Fed and continuation of stimulus programs are critical.  A bit higher in equities may provide some momentum to get to 3400 and Fed intervention can keep rates low.

Adam Waszkowski, CFA

Yield Curve Inverts (again, and continuing)

Yesterday, and this morning, the yield on the 30-yr Treasury bond made its all-time historic lows.  This is extraordinary, especially given the vast amount of stimulus and low unemployment rate.

However, the news on the teevee seems to be harping on the Yield Curve Inversion regarding the 10-yr and 2-yr treasury rates.   This is old news.   Yield curve inversions have been everywhere over the past several months, yet barely a mention from the mainstream financial press.  What I was expecting when I turned CNBC on late in the day was the never-before-seen rate on the 30-yr going below the Fed Funds effective rate.   Additionally, the classic ‘inverted yield curve’ is when the 10yr treasury rate goes below the Fed Funds rate (which tracks closely to the 90-day t-bll), which almost occurred January 2019 and again in March.   This inversion first took place May 23rd well into the stock market swoon that began on May 1.

Below is a chart of the Fed Funds rate, 2-,5-,7-, 10-, and 30-yr rates.  In a normal environment the curve steepens from low short-term rates to higher long-term rates.  Inflation expectations and time value of money are what drives this structure.  So, when we see longer term rates move below shorter-term rates it is at a minimum, unusual.  Analysts generally agree that when this normal structure changes, that changes in the economy and markets are afoot.

Yield Curve Inverts - Rates below Fed Funds

As you can see, yields have been falling since late summer 2018.  This coincides with many data points (durable goods, autos, housing starts, etc.) that peaked and began to move down, indicating slower growth (still growing but slower and slower).   It was the last rate hike (light blue line) where the structure began to invert, and March 2019 when rates began to invert strongly.   There was very little reporting about the 2-/5-/7-yr rates going below the Fed rate.   The reason behind the lack of attention is that the stock market was doing well.   If stocks are up, any negative news is spun as “investors brush off X”.   Ignoring information that doesn’t agree with what we see or would like to see is a form of confirmation bias.

In 2007 Bernanke raised rates right through the 10-yr yield to slow down the real estate bubble.  Powell has raised rates and ended QE, making effective rise in the Fed rate much higher and faster than past, going against other central banks, leading to a very strong dollar.   Powell’s statement in July and fair economic data today, make a rate cut in September unlikely, despite market rates screaming to lower.

As I have mentioned before in my Observations, while there will be a recession again in the US, when it occurs is difficult to predict.  The last 3 recession were immediately preceded by a re-steepening of the yield curve.  Stay tuned!