Noteworthy changes are affecting the economy and markets. The stronger dollar and the sharp drop in energy prices are impacting economic growth, corporate profits, and investment strategies.
DOLLARS AND CHANGE
The rising dollar hurts U.S. companies dependent on foreign earnings or on rising commodity prices. After a long streak of healthy employment gains, the jobs report on April 3 came in surprisingly weak — at about half of what was expected. Credit conditions — as monitored by the NACM’s Credit Managers’ Index — have experienced widespread deterioration with the first back-to-back declines since 2008. While we are not forecasting a recession, the near-term risks to the economy and markets have increased. For the first time since the financial crisis, S&P 500 profits over the next two quarters are set to drop on a year-over-year basis. In fact, many analysts are now estimating flat or slightly negative earnings growth for the year. With market valuations around the high side (at 19 times trailing earnings), it can be harder for equities to advance without earnings growth.
RATES ARE LOW AND SLOW
Another headwind with regards to earnings and market valuations is the coming interest rate increases — or “normalization” of monetary policy. The Fed still seems to be looking for any reason to make this process slow and gradual. Forecasts for the first rate increase have now been pushed to September from June, and the path of rate increases looks to be much shallower than previously estimated. As I’ve said in the past, the Fed will be very reticent to normalize policy, which could pose significant risks down the road at the expense of marginal gains in the present. Still, a slight increase in rates can make it harder for valuations to expand from already elevated levels. Adjustments to higher rates are actually healthy, as it lets the market and fundamentals align back together, ensuring a healthier market long term. The stronger dollar effectively tightens monetary policy and has thus given the Fed a pass on raising rates in the next few months. Stocks are cheap relative to bonds, but at these low yields that doesn’t mean as much.
THE VULNERABILITY FACTOR
On the sentiment side, the indicators are slightly negative. Margin debt is at a record high, and hedge fund managers are holding the highest positions in U.S. stocks since the financial crisis. We have also seen deterioration in market breadth back into a neutral zone, which could indicate that the market advance is a bit tired. These factors, along with the aforementioned risks, make equities look vulnerable, as many of these elements may not be fully priced into the market. This increases the likelihood of a long overdue correction in stocks. The last major correction was in the fall of 2011.
GROWING PAINS AND GAINS
Any correction would be an opportunity within the context of a continuing bull market. A continuation of weaker economic indicators would make us rethink this assumption, but for now the evidence indicates that any slowdown would be temporary. Even though there are some near-term headwinds, the economy is still set to grow and can benefit overall from lower energy prices and still low interest rates. The shape of the yield curve, which has been an effective predictor of stock market declines and recessions, is still moderately bullish. While the dollar could continue to strengthen, the majority of the move has already occurred. Once the markets and economy adjust, we should see moderate economic growth continue.
Now is a time for good risk management practices that will enable flexibility in upcoming opportunities. Managed Income has been in protection mode for some time now, and our current positioning will pay off as the year progresses. Many assets in the yield arena are becoming increasingly stretched and now contain too much risk. At this point, it is more advantageous to wait for better prices before owning many of these “safe” assets. Not being in Treasuries has been a drag on performance for Managed Income. Volatility has dramatically increased at these low rate levels and ahead of the projected rate increases by the Fed. While helping to protect the portfolio against an equity or bond market drop, our small hedge positions have also been a drag on performance. However, our reasons for holding the hedges have not changed. The price paid to buy this insurance is still worth the cost.
PROCEED WITH CAUTION
Our current strategy is caution. We have been repositioning our portfolios to reflect a more cautious approach and to take advantage of better, developing opportunities. The energy sector is a tug of war between short-term oversupply and a balancing out that is just over the horizon (as U.S. production finally starts to decline). Oil price is still a question of how long rather than how low — it’s a question of which companies will be able to endure. Current estimates are all over the map, and it will take time for the market to sort it out. New lows for oil prices would be an opportunity to add to investments in this area. Conversely, we also like areas such as consumer discretionary and retail that benefit from lower energy prices and a stronger dollar.
With regards to emerging markets, we are opportunistic. The headwinds faced by a stronger dollar could subside but still remain a stumbling block for many countries. Overall, emerging Asia still looks relatively better than other emerging markets. But we view the better prospects such as China and India as trading plays currently. Europe could get a boost from the ECB’s actions and economic growth could finally be turning up. The fly in the proverbial European ointment is still Greece. It now looks inevitable that Greece will have to leave the Euro. They simply have too much debt and not enough productivity to pay it off — no matter how much the debt gets restructured. It has been widely reported that they will run out of money (again!) and whenever the Germans decide to cut their losses the break will occur. When that happens, it will cause market disruption and uncertainty due to possible contagion effects. This would present a buying opportunity in the Euro and European equities. Again, retaining flexibility in portfolios is crucial to taking advantage of the volatility that could arise as the market adjusts to this new environment.
Written by Nathan White, Chief Investment Officer