Written by Nathan White, Chief Investment Officer
After a tremendous start in January (and what seemed like a continuation of 2017), the markets finally hit some long-anticipated turbulence in February and March.
The stock market had been riding a nice wave. Last quarter, I suggested it was a prudent time to review allocations and risk exposure while the markets were doing well. Now that volatility has returned, let’s review current conditions and factors, as well as future considerations.
The current economic conditions are generally considered to be exemplary of the late stage of an economic cycle. However, cycles can run longer than anticipated, and there is no way to know exactly when they will end. The effects of the fiscal stimulus are helping to extend the economic cycle, but they could also increase the potential for inflation to finally rear its head. A characteristic of a late economic cycle is where the economy continues to do well, but asset price declines or increases only moderately.
A research report from NDR (Ned Davis Research, Economics/Global Comment March 2018) indicates that two-thirds of countries are growing above their long-term growth potential, which last happened in 2000 and 2007 before major recessions. However, the dangerous threshold could still be a year or so out, and the timing can be tricky. Does this mean we are bearish? No. We are just getting cautious. There are still a lot of positives, but it is our job to investigate the risks.
Our risk models are indicating a rise in risk. Our trend and breadth models, while still bullish overall, have deteriorated. We are monitoring these closely. Equity valuations are still broadly high, but earnings are forecasted to grow nearly 20% for the year. We will be watching for changes to these results and expectations. Another characteristic of a late economic cycle is a flattening yield curve. This occurs when short-term rates exceed long-term rates. The curve has been flattening as the Federal Reserve increases interest rates, but for various reasons, long-term yields have not moved commensurately. The following graphic on the next page helps put the current environment in perspective.
Investing is a long-term game, and trying to time exits can be hazardous to returns — especially if future returns are harder to come by (i.e. lower). You will need to keep exposure to get returns. Stay invested — but be flexible in the mix of those investments.
Remember, pullbacks are a normal part of market action and create opportunities. What is not normal is the absence of pullbacks (like we experienced in 2017). The trillions of dollars — pumped into the markets by global central banks since the Financial Crisis — has smoothed out volatility and market corrections. The latter should increase as central banks begin to reverse course. Keeping interest rates so low for so long has encouraged massive borrowing at cheap rates. Corporate borrowing has surged with U.S. companies’ debt reaching their highest levels since 2000. Many companies have been able to borrow at rates and amounts that wouldn’t
have been possible in a “normal” rate environment. As rates rise, the cost of servicing this debt will increase and could expose many weak hands. This is healthy in the long-term, though, as it discourages wasteful or inefficient use of precious resources. The real question is that as credit conditions normalize, what will be the effects on markets and the economy? I believe current market conditions to be exemplary of returning to a more normal environment.
The S&P 500 ended down for the quarter, and only two of 11 S&P 500 sectors posted gains and outperformed — Technology and Consumer Discretionary. Bonds were also down for the quarter as they face an uphill battle of rising interest rates. Within TopFlight, all three of the strategies (Fundamental, Momentum, and Seasonality) were up slightly for the quarter. Some of the best performers within our Momentum strategy were Nvidia, NetApp and Micron Technology. Our small cap momentum stocks generally lagged in the first quarter but closed the gap by quite a bit in March. Within our Fundamental stocks, the best performers were Northrup Grumman, Ruths Hospitality and Eastman Chemical. After a difficult 2017, our Seasonality strategy posted a gain for the quarter as well. We continue to like the valuation position of our current stock holdings. Their collective forward P/E (price/earnings) multiple is about 14.8 versus 17.4 for the S&P 500, which is about 15% less expensive. Many of these holdings are industrial and materials companies that could benefit more from the tax cuts and possible infrastructure spending.
Our Managed Income portfolio ended the quarter slightly down, primarily due to the slide in equities. We continue to maintain about 40% of the portfolio in short-term corporate bonds, which will allow us to capture the rise in interest rates without getting hit with significant capital losses. Another 15% of the portfolio is in intermediate Treasuries. We continue to avoid long-term bonds.
Going forward, our models still indicate a reasonable case for further stock market gains, but probably not on the level of past years. Inflation trends are still positive for now, and the strong economy and earnings growth outweigh the concerns I discussed earlier. But as the risks increase and the economic cycle matures, it is important to have a more flexible approach with your investments to control risks and take advantage of opportunities. This is exactly the way we like to manage investments.
If you have questions about your allocation and risk exposure, please give us a call. We are here and happy to help.
Disclaimer: 1. Investment performance reflects time-weighted, size-weighted geometric composite returns of actual client accounts. 2. Investment returns are net of all management fees and transaction costs, and reflect the reinvestment of all dividends and distributions. 3. The S&P Index is a market-value weighted index comprised of 500 stocks selected for market size, liquidity, and industry group representation The Barclays Aggregate Bond Index is a benchmark index made up of the Barclays Government/Corporate Bond Index. 4. Benchmarks are used for comparative purposes only. The Paragon Top Flight Portfolio is not designed to track the S&P Index and will have results different from the benchmark. The Paragon Managed Income Portfolio is not designed to track the Barclays Bond Aggregate Index. 5. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. Investments in securities involve the risk of loss. Paragon Wealth Management is a provider of managed portfolios for individuals and institutions. Although the information included in this report has been obtained from sources Paragon believes to be reliable, we do not guarantee its accuracy. All opinions and estimates included in this report constitute the judgment as of the dates indicated and are subject to change without notice. This report is for informational purposes only and is not intended as an offer or solicitation with respect to the purchase or sale of any security. Past performance is not a guarantee of future results.