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

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.

Observations and Outlook January 2018

Maybe.  It is a reflection of investor expectations though.  One can infer this by assuming investors own what they think will go up in price and therefore is investors are very long, then they expect prices to rise.  The American Association of Individual Investors (AAII) recorded the highest level of optimism in 7 years, since December 2010.  The historical average is 38.5%.   In an article from AAII, dated January 4, 2018 they review how markets performed after unusually high bullish and usually low bearish sentiment readings.

From AAII:    “There have only been 46 weeks with a similar or higher bullish sentiment reading recorded during the more than 30-year history of our survey. The S&P 500 index has a median six-month return of 0.5% following those previous readings, up slightly more times than it has been down.   Historically, the S&P 500 has realized below-average and below-median returns over the six- and 12-month periods following unusually high bullish sentiment readings and unusually low bearish sentiment readings. The magnitude of underperformance has been greater when optimism is unusually high than when pessimism has been unusually low.”

This does not necessarily mean that our current market will decline rapidly.  Actually, AAII finds that while returns are below-median, they are positive.  Positive as in ‘above zero’.   Sentiment drives markets and when sentiment gets too extreme, either in bullish for stocks or bearishness for bonds or any other financial asset, returns going forward are likely to disappoint.  If everyone has bought (or sold) who is left to drive prices up (or down)?   What we need to recognize is that investors become optimistic after  large advances in the stock market, and pessimistic after declines.  UM-Probability-of-Stock-Mkt-Rise-Oct-2017-1024x705_thumb1

Again, this chart above does not mean we are about to enter a bear market.  It only shows the markets progress at points of extreme optimism.  We can see in 2013 into 2015 rising expectations and a rising market as well as from 2003 to 2007.   Now that we can visualize the mood of the market, lets review some other metrics from 2017 and what is in store for 2018.

2017 was interesting in several areas.  It was the first time in history the S&P500 had a ‘perfect year’ where every month showed gains in stock prices.  We are also in record territory for the longest length of time without a 5% pullback, almost 2 years.   Historically, 5% drawdowns have occurred on average 3-4 times each year.  In addition to price records, there are several valuation metrics at or near all-time records.    The ‘Buffet Indicator’ (market capitalization to GDP) just hit 1.4, a level not seen since Q4 1999.  “Highest ever” records are exceeded well into mature bull markets, not the early stages.  Stock markets generally spend most of the time trying to recover to previous highs and far less of the time exceeding them.    Momentum and priced-to-perfection expectations regarding tax policy are driving investors to be all-in this market, as reflected by Investors Intelligence Advisors’ (IIA) and American Assoc. of Individual Investors (AAII) stock allocation and sentiment surveys each at 18 and 40-year extremes.  Combined with the Rydex Assets Bull/Bear Ratio, at its all-time extreme bullish reading, it’s difficult to argue who else there is to come into the market and buy at these levels.

However, bullish extremes and extreme valuations can persist.  Their current levels do likely indicate that we are well into a mature bull market.   The bull was mature in 1998 too and went on to get even more extreme.  This is the case many perma-bulls trot out, that since were not as extreme as 1999, there is plenty of room to run, and ‘dont worry’.

The US Dollar and Quantitative Tightening

The current ‘conundrum’ is why is the US dollar so weak?  We have a Fed that is raising interest rates growth likely to exceed 3% in the fourth quarter.  Usually a rising currency would accompany these conditions.    The dollar declined throughout 2017.  This was a tailwind for assets outside the U.S. whose value in dollar terms increases as the dollar declines vs foreign currencies.   If the dollar begins to move back up this will be a headwind for ex-US assets and for sales/profits to large companies in the S&P 500 who do almost half their business outside the U.S.

In addition, central banks have given notice that, while the Fed ended QE in late 2015, other central banks are beginning to end their programs with the European Central Bank reducing its bond purchases from 60 billion euros per month to the current 30 billion, and down to 0 in September 2018.   The Bank of Japan (and the Japanese Pension Fund) have declared they are reducing their purchase of stocks, bonds, and ETFs.  Only China hasn’t formally announced and end to market interventions.   Most pundits are pointing to the bond market as the area that will be most affected.  Possibly, but to claim that bonds will get hurt and stocks will be fine is ignoring how global equities have performed hand-in-glove with banks’ liquidity injections over the past 10 years.  Both stocks and bonds will likely be affected.

Yield Curve Inversion (or not)

I102YTYS_IEFFRND_I30YTR_chart

The chart above shows in red the persistent decline in 30-year treasury rates.  This week Bill Gross called the bottom (in rates, the top in prices).  This may be premature as one can see dips and climbs over the past few years, all of which have been accompanied by calls of the end of the 35 year bond bull market.

What is more interesting is that in the past 3 recessions, the yield curve as seen through the 10-2 Year Treasury Yield Spread declines, through the zero level (aka inversion, 10yr bonds paying less than 2 year notes) before a recession.   Our current level of .5% is not far from zero.   Most people are waiting to see it invert before saying a recession in on the way, often adding it will be a year beyond that point.    If one looks very closely at the chart we can see said spread actually increase after bottoming out, just prior to a recession starting (which wont be officially recognized until 6-8 months along).   While there are different factors influencing the 2yr and the 10yr rates, a spread widening might be a more important development than continued compression.

Finally, what does all this mean for an investor.   In short, we must all recognize that a 24 month span without a 5% decline is extremely unusual, as there are often 3-4 in a given year.   Also that when investors are most optimistic, returns often lag with the more extreme readings leading to more significant changes.  Mature bull markets eventually end and investors with a longer term horizon need to have a strategy not only for growing their investments, but also protecting the gains one already has.

We all know how to deal with a bull market, but few people have a strategy on how to deal with a bear market.

Adam Waszkowski, CFA