The new blockbuster Star Wars movie, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” was so big, that it even eclipsed Donald Trump and the presidential campaign he is starring in. It also temporarily diverted attention away from many other worldly concerns.
Now that we have begun a new year, investors are again focused back here on Earth and the world around them.
Apparently, they don’t like what they see and have given in to the Dark Side, resulting in a nasty sell-off in financial markets to start the year.
China, oil, the Middle East, high yield bonds, weak economic data, Puerto Rico, North Korea: if you want to look for trouble you can easily find it.
We don’t think that things are as bad as many investors seem inclined to believe. We do see problems and challenges, but most of these are widely known and in some cases more than reflected in current prices.
The reality is that things are kind of “meh;” not nearly as good as they could be, and not nearly as bad either. But “meh” doesn’t generate headlines or sell advertising or create political buzz or followers on Twitter and Facebook. And, since there are so many self-proclaimed “experts” out there trying to create and maximize their own buzz, there is a tendency to use hyperbole to grab attention. The more outlandish and extreme the predictions and pronouncements, the more likely they are to get noticed and followed. This creates a more sensational and bipolar news cycle and can lead to greater levels of market volatility. The underlying reality is considerably less exciting and considerably more complicated and nuanced.
As usual, we think that it is always prudent to look through the near term noise and focus on one’s longer term investment objectives, choosing a strategy that one can stick with through the inevitable cycles and gyrations in economies and markets. Over the long term, the force of compounding is the strongest force we know.
Let’s start with a look back on 2015.
As Chart I above shows, 2015 was a difficult year for investors. There were few places to make money, and lots of places to lose it. The top performing asset class was Real Estate Investment Trusts (aka R.E.I.T.s), up an uninspiring 2.5%. U.S. stocks were only up 1.4% and U.S. bonds were up about 0.5%. Almost everything else was down, and many asset classes were down significantly, including international and emerging market stocks, precious metals, commodities, MLPs, global and high yield bonds. Diversification, the Prime Directive (equal opportunity for Star Trek fans) of prudent portfolio management did not work. A diversified portfolio containing an allocation to all of the asset classes was down 8%.
Underneath the hood of the global stock markets, there were some places that did well including technology, healthcare, and biotech stocks. And, interestingly, despite headlines about the crashing Chinese stock market, the Shanghai stock market still ended the year up over 4%, making it one of the top performing markets in the world. By contrast, countries, sectors and companies tied to energy and commodities suffered particularly steep losses. Brazil was down over 41%.
The global economy is continuing to grow but in a very uneven and patchy way. Some areas are doing well and other areas are not. There are a number of macro factors that are also dominating the headlines and driving investor sentiment and financial markets:
Energy: Oil prices continue to fall, leading to pain and suffering throughout the energy sector and energy-dependent economies like Brazil and Russia.
Normally, lower energy prices would be considered good news, as the majority of the world buys and consumes oil. But for the moment, investors are looking at falling oil prices as the harbinger of something dark lurking around the corner; leading to added stress in the debt markets and unrest in the global economy.
We think that oil prices will stabilize and that an excess of bad news has already been priced into the market price of many companies. The world has not stopped using oil and not all energy companies will go out of business. In fact, oil consumption is still growing, albeit at a slower rate. At some point, supply and demand will move back into balance, prices will stabilize and then begin to rise again.
Interest Rates and Currencies: The Federal Reserve (aka “the Fed”) is the first major central bank to raise interest rates. Meanwhile, Europe and Japan are aggressively trying to ease their borrowing costs and decrease the value of their currencies to make their exports more competitive. China is also aggressively working to devalue its currency to make Chinese goods more competitive.
The Fed’s move to end its extraordinary monetary policy and raise rates in 2015 was one of the most anticipated and talked about events on Wall Street in 2015. It should not have been a surprise to anyone, and fears that higher rates will derail the economic recovery are overblown. Interest rates are very low on an absolute level and the Fed has made it clear that they will be very slow and very measured in their actions going forward.
Higher interest rates do tend to lead to a stronger currency and the dollar rose significantly against most foreign currencies last year to reflect the divergent monetary policies of the U.S. versus the rest of the world.
The strong U.S. dollar has created a headwind for U.S. companies selling their goods and services abroad. Their products are relatively more expensive and less competitive, and foreign sales translate to lower revenues and profits when converted back into dollars.
Conversely, a cheaper Euro is good for European companies, which are more dependent upon exports than U.S. firms, resulting in higher sales and profits for them. This is one reason that we think European stocks have room for improvement.
We also think that divergent currency values will ultimately continue to reflect divergent monetary policies by major Central Banks, as well as global capital flows between markets and the economic health and strength of the underlying economy.
A concern many investors have is that the global industrial economy is in a slump, if not a full-on recession. This may be true. Manufacturing activity around the globe is shrinking in response to the slow-down in China and bust in the energy sector. Both are major buyers of capital goods, including heavy machinery and equipment.
But the developed world economies and even the Chinese economy are more driven by the consumer and services sectors than the industrial and energy sectors. A slowdown in the manufacturing sector does create a drag on overall economic growth but does not necessitate a slowdown in the rest of the economy. Barring a more significant deterioration in overall economic fundamentals, we think that the consumer and services sectors of the global economy will continue to show growth, with pockets of strength and weakness.
We also think that the energy sector will eventually bottom out, probably this year, and stop detracting from global growth. This should also help to stabilize emerging markets and the industrial sector.
China and Emerging Markets:
As we have written in the past, it is important not to think of China and Emerging Markets monolithically. China is the second largest economy in the world and is far more diversified and resilient than it is given credit for being.
It is also important not to view the volatile Chinese stock market as a proxy for the overall Chinese economy.
Although the industrial part of the Chinese economy is slowing, the consumer sector is growing. With over 300 million people in its middle class, the Chinese consumer economy represents a major market for cars, clothing, electronics, coffee and other consumer goods and services. The Chinese government has enormous resources at its disposal to stimulate growth, backstop markets, and smooth the economy’s metamorphosis from manufacturing and exports to services and consumption. China is well on its way to becoming the largest consumer economy in the world. It is important for investors to keep their eyes on this longer-term prize.
India is another large, consumer and services driven “emerging market” economy that is also doing well. Like China, India is an importer of oil and so cheap oil is a good thing for Indians. Unlike China, the Indian economy is much less reliant on exports and is therefore less impacted by the slowdown in the rest of the emerging markets.
Conversely, unlike India and China, countries like Brazil and Russia are major exporters of oil and are hurt rather than helped by low oil prices.
Therefore, it is critical to be discerning and discriminating when thinking about investing in emerging market economies, or anywhere else for that matter.
The Presidential election represents a potential wild card for the markets. The election year and transition from one party to another have typically been difficult periods for markets with the exception of the transition from Bush to Clinton in 1990.
In general, election years represent pivotal periods of uncertainty. This year, the potential for uncertainty seems especially high given the current histrionics and dysfunction within the Republican Party. Voters may like the entertainment value it affords, but investors and markets dislike uncertainty.
The World seems to be a particularly challenging place from a foreign policy perspective. The Middle East is a morass, and seems particularly messy now, with no easy answers. North Korea, is testing bombs, and we have seen terror attacks around the world including in Paris and San Bernardino.
Although all of these things are reasons for concern, it is important to note that geopolitical risks have always been present throughout the history of the markets. Over the last 50 years, every day you could pick up the newspaper and find troubling headlines and reasons to panic and sell your portfolio. And yet, over the years, through all of it, economies inevitably continued to innovate and grow and markets have compounded a return of over 10,000%.
Current Investment Outlook:
Putting it all together, we continue to see a global economy that is growing at a suboptimal pace of around 2% a year. There are notable pockets of weakness, including energy and commodity related countries and companies. Manufacturing and capital goods related industries are also weak and appear to be deteriorating further.
But, there are also larger and more important areas of strength including technology, healthcare, consumer and housing sectors. And, employment is quite robust, with the unemployment rate down to 5%. If you take a balanced view of the economy, there is more good than bad to be found.
Central banks around the world, including the Federal Reserve, are still highly supportive of economic growth. Interest and inflation rates are low. Deflation is more of a risk than inflation. The dollar is expensive relative to most major foreign currencies with the exception of the Chinese Yuan. We would expect China to devalue the Yuan further.
Overall valuation levels for stocks are fully priced especially in the U.S., but not overly expensive, and certainly less so after the recent decline. Europe, Japan and parts of the developing world look even more attractively valued relative to the U.S.
But there are attractive pockets of quality and value to be found throughout global stock markets. Stocks are still the most attractive asset class for long-term appreciation and we want to benefit from the compounding power of owning the greatest companies in the world for as long a time as possible.
We have made a few adjustments to our strategic portfolio models to make them slightly more defensive overall. We have also moved their global equity allocations to be more focused outside the US, with higher exposures to Europe and Japan.
As always, we focus and invest for the long term, and design and manage client portfolios to endure economic and market cycles. In particular, we balance diversified investments focused on areas of long-term growth and innovation with more defensive equity, alternative and bond strategies to mitigate risk.
At the outset, we noted that the mood on Wall Street is quite negative. Investors seem much more inclined to give in to the Dark Side. We actually see this as a positive. Markets are far riskier when investors are giddy and complacent than fearful.
The dark side is always there. And, bad news and sensationalism may generate ratings and buzz but it is driven more by farce than fact. Reality, consisting of darkness, light and the shadows in between is more complicated and, is usually much less exciting. But over the longer term, reality provides a far better backdrop for intelligent and profitable investing.
As always, we welcome your questions and comments.
Jurika, Mills & Keifer, LLC