March Client Note

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

Client Note December 2019

December was another strong month for US (+2.8%) and global equity markets (1.8%). Junk bonds gained 1.1% in price while treasury bonds were off, giving the Aggregate Bond Index a slight decline.   Federal Reserve intervention, beginning early September, as a result of the overnight inter-bank lending drying up, has totaled some $400billion.   The rate of additions to the Fed balance sheet, is faster than in QE 2 (Nov 2010-June 2011) which took 8 months to add a similar amount.  QE 3 was larger, adding $1.7 trillion, over 2 years.   Central bank liquidity is the primary driver of 4th quarter equity market gains.  Economic data and earnings growth remain slow and near zero.

Portfolios gained across the board in December averaging approximately 2%; owing largely to our individual stock holdings and exposure to gold and miners.  Bonds were muted and were a drag.  Bonds look best posed to gain in the near term. Gold can extend further, and stocks have hit a speed bump with the turmoil in Iraq/Iran and may be slightly choppy in the immediate term.

Gold and gold miners gained 3.6% and 8%, respectively, in December.  Both bottomed November 26th and earned most gains in the last week of December, prior to the assassination of the Iranian general.  International stock markets have outpaced US stock markets since 10/15 (as forecast in October’s Note).  Commodities, ex-US equities and gold have gained significantly since the US Dollar peaked October 1, and its most recent lower high, on 11/27.    The dollar has broken down and may find support another 1% lower, matching its level in late June, which would be 3% decline off its high on October 1.  A small change in the value and direction of the US $ can have large impacts on metals and other natural resources.

The decline in the US Dollar corresponds well to the Feds telegraphing its intentions to refrain from raising rates in 2020.  The dollar can fall/rise relative to other currencies for a variety of reasons.   The current decline is not getting much attention.  Most finance headlines are full of talk about “reflation”.  Given the SP500 is off its all time high by a mere .75%, its not a reference to stock prices.

Reflation, is the topic du jour.  This term refers to economic data.  Federal reserve interventions impact the markets first with a much longer lag to the general economy.  China’s recent modest liquidity injections are: 1) much smaller than in 2017 and 2014 and take about 6-9 months to impact the US/global economy. Positive economic data from central bank actions will take at least one quarter to begin to show up.  Easing amongst central banks is as significant today as during QE 2.  CBs have completely discarded the concept of ‘normalization’ over the next year.

The biggest risk I see in the immediate term is the start to earnings season.  Earnings estimates for the 4th quarter, as usual, have declined substantially over the past year.  IF stocks can ‘beat by a penny’ reduced earnings estimates, we should get through with only minor stock market fluctuations.  Conversely, if companies’ lower guidance and/or miss low estimates, we could see a more general ‘correction’.  Bonds appear to have completed a 4-month consolidation and any more gain will give it some momentum, while stocks consolidate 4th quarter gains.

Slow economic growth, questionable earnings growth and the ever present geo-political risk are risks to the stock market.  With bonds and gold looking up for a variety of reasons, diversifying across asset classes (into areas not correlated with the stock market) is always a prudent approach.

Adam Waszkowski, CFA

3rd Quarter Update: Earnings, GDP, U.S. Dollar All Higher

Earnings for companies in the S&P500 grew by more than 20% year over year during the second quarter, repeating first quarter’s Tax Reform-boosted performance.  Companies that beat estimates were rewarded, and companies that missed either on guidance or sales were pushed down, but not to the degree we saw in the first quarter.   The increase in earnings has taken the market (SP 500) trailing P/E ratio down from very expensive 24.3 to modestly expensive  22.6.   Sentiment remains constructive with investors mildly positive, but below average bullishness for stocks’ outlook over the next 6 months.

Economic data is coming in mixed.  While GDP for the second quarter (4.1%) came in at the 5th fastest pace over the past 9 years, a large portion of this can be attributed to increased govt spending and the ‘pull-forward’ effect the Trade War tariffs have had on areas affected by increased taxes.   Adjusting GDP for these areas to average still gives a GDP read in the upper 2% range which indicates growth in the second quarter was strong.    The last previous 4% reads were followed by sequentially lower GDP prints over the following year however.

Real wages have stagnated year over year as inflation has increased its pace.  Wages climbed 2.9% while inflation is running at 2.9% year over year.    Wages had been the feared cause of inflation arising from Tax Reform stimulus.   The 70% climb in oil prices, along with healthcare and housing costs and tariffs/taxes being passed along to consumers are the actual drivers over the past 12 months.

As I referred to in my January Observations and Outlook, the US Dollar was destined to climb in 2018 after an incessant decline throughout 2017 (despite many factors that should have supported the greenback).   In January large traders were certain the US Dollar would continue to fall, and European and Emerging stock markets would do at least as well as US stocks.   Now seven months later, indeed the US Dollar has climbed dramatically while most stock markets outside the US are negative year to date.    The strong dollar has also taken its toll on precious and base metals.  Given the price declines abroad (and attendant airtime and print space) and US Dollar rapid increase, pundits are talking about ‘how bad can it get’, and reasons why the US Dollar will continue to strengthen, it may be time to again take the contrarian side of the dollar argument.

Valuations in emerging markets look much more attractive at lower prices, and no one seems to own gold anymore.  Vanguard recently shuttered one of its metals and mining mutual funds.  The price you pay for an asset has a tremendous impact on the return one sees, and currently prices are low.

Oberservations and Outlook July 2017

Selected Index Returns 2nd Quarter/ Year to Date
Dow Jones Industrials    3.95%/ 9.35%          S&P 500   3.09%/9.34%         MSCI Europe   7.37%/15.36%

Small Cap (Russell 2000)   2.46%/4.99%     Emerging Mkts  6.27%/18.43%     High Yld Bonds   1.37%/15.3%

US Aggregate Bond 1.45%/2.27%   US Treasury 20+Yr   4.18%/5.66%    DJ/UBS Commodity -3%/-5.26%

2017 and its second quarter continue to be kind to financial assets, with both stocks, bonds and gold all climbing year to date.    European and Emerging Market equities have been the strongest this year, rising smartly after falling by 10% during the second half of 2016.  Emerging Market equity funds are back to a price area that stretches back to 2009!

Bonds continue to vacillate in an upward trend since mid-December. The commodity index is down primarily due to oil, as agriculture and base metals are essentially flat on the year after a recent climb.

Correlations between stocks and bonds have increased recently, with equities being flat over the past 6 weeks as bond prices have declined over the last two weeks.   While this phenomenon is negative for investors, equities appear to remain well inside their uptrend while bonds (and gold) appear to be near medium-term support levels.  We may see both stocks, bonds, and gold again climb concurrently reflecting a continuation of the year to date behavior.

What has been driving stock prices?  Growing earnings, low interest rates, lack of inflation, and ‘moderate’ GDP growth are the most common reasons to explain how prices have gotten to these levels.  Earnings have been on the rise since the end of the ‘earnings recession’ that lasted from June 2014 through March 2016.   After a decline of some 14% we’re now growing again, even robustly, given the low base from the previous year.  Earnings are still one or two quarters away from hitting new all-time highs, yet the S&P500 is roughly 20% higher than in early 2015.  The chart below gives us a visual of what prices rising faster than earnings looks like. Anytime the ratio is moving up indicates prices climbing faster than earnings.

shiller cape 6 30 2017Source: www.multpl.com

By this metric (and there are many others) stocks are valued at a level only exceeded by the roaring ‘20s and the dot-com era.  Can earnings continue to grow to support valuations?  The continued lack of wage growth and continued generationally low labor participation rate are headwinds to growth in consumer spending.  Consumer credit growth has slowed dramatically over the past six months and without wage or credit growth it’s difficult to see how the consumer will spend more to support ‘moderate’ GDP growth.  Low interest rates, or the comparison of low rates to dividend and earnings yield have provided much support over the past several years to the reasoning behind bidding up stocks faster than their earnings growth.

Interest rates bottomed one year ago at 1.3% (10-year treasury) and then ran up to 2.6%, mid-range since 2010 and the upper range of rates since late 2013.  The jury is out still on whether this marks the end of the bond bull market that has lasted since 1981.  The problem is that if consumers and businesses must increase their interest expense, there is that much less left to expand their consumption and investment.   Low rates had been a key enabler of more borrowing, leading to more consumption, and higher profits.  Now, in some areas, analysts are saying that higher rates are ALSO good for stocks because it represents growth expectations.  Frankly we’ve been ‘expecting’ growth now for several years, and the only positive representation of growth (GDP) we have seen is due to a willful under-reporting of inflation.   Gains in expenses in housing, healthcare, and education have far outstripped the general inflation rate.  At the same time, official statisticians tell us our TVs, cell phones, and other tech devices are far cheaper, because we ‘get more’ for our money.  This is called hedonic adjustments.  Look this up and you will understand why one’s personal experience with the cost of living doesn’t mesh with the official inflation statistics.

It seems the main reasons we are given for buoyant stock prices appear tapped out or stretched.  The thing is, it’s been like this for a few years now.  So then, what really is driving prices?  Some of it has to do with FOMO, Fear Of Missing Out.  No one wants to get left behind as prices rise, even if said prices already appear expensive.   As fundamentals have deteriorated over the past few years what is causing or who could be that marginal buyer who always seems to have more money to put towards financial assets? Perhaps this chart has something to do with it.

Central-Bank-Balance-Sheets-Versus-MSCI-World-Index

As central banks have purchased outstanding bonds (and equities in the cases of Japan, Switzerland and Israel among others) the cash or liquidity provided has found its way back into the equity markets.  Additional effects have been to put a bid under bonds, increasing prices and lowering rates.  What many investors in the U.S. don’t realize is that the European and Japanese central banks continue to this day putting approximately $400 billion per month into the financial markets.  If this is the true reason behind stock and bond price levels today, any cessation, slowing or even anticipation of slowing will likely have negative effects on asset prices.  The chart below shows where the U.S. Fed ended its QE efforts while Japan and Europe picked up all the slack and then some.  The astute observer can see where the Fed tapered, while the ECB was not adding liquidity, from 2014 to 2015.  From mid-2014 to early 2016, the Vanguard FTSE Europe ETF dropped by 29%.

central bank buying 4 2017

Beyond central bank liquidity creation there is also the concept of growth in the private sector.  Here too we see that a phenomenal amount of debt must be created to sustain growth.   New debt creation in China dwarfs the rest of the world.  China has put up high growth numbers the past several years, more than 7% annually.

private sector debt creation qe

Going forward it will be crucial to watch for central banks’ behavior as to ending current ‘QE’ policies.  Japan is still committed to a 0% 10yr bond rate, yet the ECB has begun to state that its bond buying won’t last forever, and is likely to slow by mid-2018.  The U.S. Fed has indicated continued tightening via rate hikes (likely one more this year) and to begin to let ‘roll off’ maturing bonds.  The roll-off will take liquidity from the markets.  It will start small and gradually increase in 2019 and thereafter.  These cessation tactics are done under the current understanding that financial conditions are ‘easy’.  Put another way, the banks will start to slow new liquidity and then drain liquidity as long as financial conditions, which include stock market levels, don’t get to difficult.   What exactly is the Fed’s downside tolerance is unknown.  What is knowable, is that the decision-making process takes months to be put into effect and by that time, markets could move down and growth could halt.

Near Term vs Long Term

The concepts of credit creation and central bank balance sheets and their respective monetary policies are will have impacts on asset prices over the longer term.   Year over year earnings growth forecasts, specific companies’ ‘beats’ or ‘misses’ and monthly data on inflation, job growth, and wages all have short term impacts on the stock market.  Currently, earnings are expected to grow robustly, official inflation is subdued and official unemployment are all in the “very good” range.  Combine that with the Fear Of Missing Out concept and that should help keep the markets up and even higher for a while longer.  The problem is that simply because we want markets to move higher doesn’t mean they will.  At some point paying 30x earnings will seem too expensive and the markets will lose some marginal buyers and some will become sellers, for whatever reason.   Based on current valuation metrics and the business cycle, we know that equity returns over the next several years will be very low.  If rates go up, and/or credit (the ability to pay) worsens for individuals and businesses bond funds will likely suffer as well.  Over the long term, avoiding large losses or drawdowns, even while lagging the market on the upside, can have a dramatic positive impact over a full market cycle.

What Can Be Done

If one suspects returns will be lackluster, and prices volatile, should one endure it?  The solution is at once simple and difficult at the same time given our cultural of equity ownership and the media’s constant focus on one asset class: equities.

Diversifying amongst the other 6 asset classes is a start.  Most advice revolves around two classes, stocks and bonds.  If one truly wants to buy low and sell high, one must identify the other areas that are “low”, increase exposure there, and reduce exposure to “high” asset classes.  Not only does this smooth out volatility but can increase long term returns.   Given the outlook for more volatility in stock and bond prices; very low prices (historically and relative to other assets) in precious metals, agriculture and oil; there should be many opportunities to take advantage of short term swings to benefit and move some ‘eggs’ from the equity side into other, non- and lower-correlated asset classes that are currently much lower in price.

Easier said than done, yes.  This is exactly why investors should seek out Investment Advisors willing to do this difficult work and that have a strategy to deal with changing markets.  For more information on how I am doing this for my clients, please contact me.

Adam Waszkowski, CFA

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.