Baseball is America’s favorite pastime. It’s the scrawny schoolboy playing catch with his dad in the front yard. It’s a hotdog and a Coke in the bleachers before the big game. It’s a present day Babe Ruth swinging for the upper deck or players making that critical double play. THAT’s baseball. It’s two or three hours of the best escape from the rest of the world known to man. It is a great game that a select few are athletic enough, skilled enough and fortunate enough to play professionally. The greatest of them learn the importance of preparation and the need for calm patience between crucial decision-making moments. Successful investing requires much of the same qualities. Investors that are willing to prepare, have the patience to wait for those crucial decision-making moments, and realize that yesterday’s home runs don’t win today’s games are the most successful.
That’s what makes investing enjoyable, much like baseball. It’s assessing where we are and preparing for what we will do next if we get a fast pitch, or better yet a fat pitch. The outcome of yesterday’s game is irrelevant to today’s game.
“Who’s on first, What’s on second.”
– Abbott and Costello
Let’s start by taking a quick assessment of what has happened recently to the markets and the economy and what may lie ahead. It’s been just over two months since the citizens of the UK threw a backdoor slider and surprised the markets with a vote to leave the EU. Contrary to the initial widespread concerns of a severe impact to the UK economy, expectations of a severe downturn have diminished. Below is a chart of forecasted GDP growth produced by leading independent macro research firm, Fathom Consulting.
As the chart shows, Fathom’s central view is the Brexit decision will not trigger recession in the UK. The latest economic forecast from credit ratings agency Moody’s concurs with this view.
Some of the reasoning for the improved outlook is driven by pronouncements of more monetary stimulus designed to support the global expansion in the aftermath of the vote. Both the Bank of England (BOE) and the European Central Bank (ECB) increased stimulus, while the Fed so far has taken a cautious wait and see approach to tightening pending better economic visibility. These factors have helped strengthen investor confidence and have encouraged a continuation of the positive global economic trends in place before the vote.
As one of the first official data points on consumer demand in the UK following the Brexit vote, retail sales rose 1.4 percent month-on-month in July and 5.9% year-on-year. There are no clear signs of a significant downturn in consumer spending patterns yet. Euro area economic confidence has shown resiliency so far, too. This is positive in terms of the continuing prospects for global growth.
The UK must now renegotiate trade agreements with the EU and other individual countries that have been in place in many cases for decades. It does not appear this process will lead to severe economic contagion. In fact, the significant sterling depreciation since the vote is presenting UK exporters with an opening to grow market share, while discouraging Brits from buying increasingly expensive foreign goods. This currency adjustment is moderating Brexit’s impact to the UK economy.
The global markets seem to be embracing these more benign views and have risen nicely over the course of the year. Equities have fully recovered their losses resulting from the initial negative reaction to the Brexit outcome. The S&P 500 is trading near an all-time high and the MSCI Emerging Markets Index is positive on the year for the first time in three years.
In spite of the surge in risk assets, strong demand for safety and income continues to be supportive of bonds and other income oriented investments. Global sovereign bond yields are near all-time lows, as shown below.
Considering the recent advance, the S&P 500 Index is trading at 17.1 times 12-month forward earnings according to FactSet. There are emerging signs that growth in the U.S. may be picking up along with the PE multiples. The 2nd quarter will show the first positive quarterly increase in revenues for the S&P 500 after five consecutive declines. Earnings appear to be recovering, too. After relatively flat expectations for the full year 2016, FactSet reports that improving trends point toward earnings growth of 13% next year. About the same is anticipated for global earnings measured by the MSCI World Index that are expected to rise only 1% for 2016 but accelerate to 13.1% for 2017 (I/B/E/S consensus).
The U.S. economy appears to be on pretty solid ground. Job growth and retail sales have been healthy while manufacturing inventories have been declining. This appears to be a recipe for an improvement in manufacturing activity and economic growth over the coming months. The housing sector of the economy is also performing well. Sales of new single-family homes in the U.S. surged in July by 12.6%, the highest figure since October 2007.
All of this good economic data means there is an increasing chance the Fed may increase interest rates in the near future. This could happen as early as their September 20-21st meeting, but will more likely take place in December after the elections. The Fed is expected to move rates very gradually and deliberately higher over time in an effort to avoid disrupting U.S. growth.
Domestic equities do not usually peak until well into a Fed tightening cycle and a gradual increase in rates may extend that time even longer. Low bond yields and an improving earnings outlook should be supportive for equity prices as we move forward. After the presidential election, increased fiscal spending may also contribute to growth. While positive sentiment doesn’t appear excessive, generous valuations and a maturing investment cycle do mean that a surprise earnings curve ball could rattle the markets. Increasing hints by global policymakers that fiscal stimulus may be used to complement existing monetary stimulus may provide additional fuel to keep equity markets advancing.
Another encouraging sign is that volatility has remained low recently for both the stock and bond markets. This is positive because low volatility is much more characteristic of bull market advances than bear market declines. It is also reflective of the low yield environment that embodies very accommodating central bank monetary policy across much of the developed markets. The search for yield is compressing credit spreads and enhancing cross asset correlations across the global landscape. Because of this and due to historically low rates, bonds are not as anchored by their credit strength anymore, but overwhelmed by the potential impact from central bank policies. A small increase in rates could easily spark a sell-off in bonds that could quickly turn total returns negative and bring about greater selling.
This leads to the realization that in this environment it is no longer about the number of bonds versus stocks you have in your portfolio, but much more about the kind of stocks and bonds you hold. Paul Singer, the manager of the $28 billion Elliott Management Fund framed it well last year in his letter to investors by suggesting that a safety warning should be attached to the $12 trillion government bond market now trading at negative yields. The warning was, “Hold such instruments at your own risk; danger of serious injury or death to your capital!”
In the eight years or so since the Great Recession, the markets have been driven almost as much by the liquidity wave created by central bankers as by earnings growth. There are growing signs that we may be reaching the limits of what this aggressive, unconventional type of central bank policy can achieve. Negative interest rates in the EU and Japan seem to be producing diminishing results in their efforts to revitalize their economies in spite of their burgeoning balance sheets. European and Japanese investors are increasingly searching for yield in the U.S. and other countries, thereby reducing the desired domestic affect and suppressing yields worldwide. Both the ECB and the Bank of Japan are increasingly having difficulty finding enough bonds to buy to achieve their goals. And now Japan, already a top-five owner of 81 companies in the Nikkei 225 Index, owns more than 60% of the nation’s ETF market.
“Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”
– Yogi Berra
In spite of these extraordinary times and unprecedented measures, many investors will continue to invest as if the same assets that have ridden this wave of liquidity higher will continue to do so indefinitely, often referred to as a crowded trade. That is tantamount to a batter expecting another fast ball rather than a change-up, simply because the previous pitches were all fast balls. We all know an assumption like that can lead to a strike-out and maybe even to the loss of the game.