A Divided Market

There are clearly opposite views on the market right now.  After a fabulous day for all three indexes yesterday, not to mention the performance of many leading stocks, some commentators remain committed to the idea we are headed for a recession.

A week ago, recession fears were plastered on the front pages of all the major financial news services.  This week we witness a string of outstanding earnings from consumer-based retailers like Home Depot, Walmart, Lowes and Target.  Target hit the ball out of the park sending the stock up 20% on better than expected sales and earnings.

So which view is right?  The one where we are teetering on the verge of a recession or one with a robust consumer and generally constructive economic news?   If you have been following the recession fear story it is based on the bond market yield curve inversion where interest rates for short-term bonds rise above long-term bonds.  When this takes place a recession usually happens.  It is important to note that during ALL of the prior recessions following a yield curve inversion in the last 50 years, The Fed was in an interest rate tightening mode. Today they are easing.  The other thing to note is prior recession following an inversion is some recessions to nearly two years from the inversion to materialize.  A yield curve inversion is a noteworthy development, but like many aspects of the bond market, you have to put it into the context of this ultra-low rate environment.

The global economy is slowing, in part due to the trade war with China.  The president has decided the short-term pain is worth the long-term benefit of bringing manufacturing jobs back to the U.S., protecting American intellectual property and preventing China from spying on American citizens.  So far the U.S. economy has been very resilient.

The doom and gloom crowd seem to have a reasonable argument.  The rest of the word is having a tough time, The Fed appears confused about what to do with interest rates and tariffs are hurting global trade.

In the U.S. interest rates are on the decline, innovation is alive and well, labor markets are healthy and we had a fairly good Q2 earnings season.

Investors know the likelihood is very high, at some point we will enter a recession.  Right now, there is simply very little evidence a recession is pending.  Of course, if one happens in the next two years, which is always a possibility, some will gleefully point back to August of 2019 as evidence of the pending event.  The real take away, the timing of a yield curve inversion and a recession is unhelpful outside of a rising interest rate environment, in my opinion.

We are more likely to see massive monetary stimulus and possibly even fiscal stimulus as a method of avoiding the next recessions before it happens.   Policy makers have been telling us they already have their fingers on the money printing button.

The two biggest factors holding back the U.S. is interest rates and tariffs.  So far Tariffs have had little effect broadly but that could change as an agreement is delayed.  Interest rates are hopefully headed down, so we are more in line with the rest of the world, which should be good for U.S. investors.  We will know more this week as the Kansas City Federal Reserve host their annual meeting in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

One more factor about interest rates.  Investors know the Fed controls short-term rates.  But what about long-term rates, why are they so low?  Simply put, demand from foreign investors.  Negative interest rates in other parts of the world is causing money to flow into the U.S. bond market.  That demand causes prices to rise (see chart below) and yields to fall.  This dynamic also causes the Dollar to rise as foreigners have to exchange their Yen or Euros into Dollars to purchase U.S. bonds.

We could explore about what may be holding back Europe (high taxation, high regulation, liberal social programs) and Japan (immigration policy) in more detail.  In the meantime, we are fortunate to have many investment opportunities to choose from in the U.S.

Inspiring Podcast by Great Investing Minds

Check out this podcast by one of our top investment providers, ARK Investment Management.  In Episode 9 of FYI (For Your Innovation) you are going to hear from three people.  The conversation is led by moderator James Wang (ARK Analyst) as he facilitates a conversation between Catherine Wood (ARK CEO/CIO) and Dr. Art Laffer (Laffer Curve Economist).  During the 33-minute talk they cover innovation cycles, tax policy, global trade, genetics and cancer.  A truly inspiring, power packed podcast, on investing in disruptive innovation.

Now We Need A Follow-Through Day

True, some of the largest single-day stock market gains come during bear markets.  December 26th, 2018 marks the first time the Dow Jones industrial average gain 1,000 point in a single session.  Experienced stock market investors know, one big up day does not mark the end of a downtrend.

Investors should also note, Wednesday’s advance was the first day of a rally attempt.  If stocks can stage another meaningful advance in the next 7 trading days, preferably on day 4 through 7, the worst of the selling may be behind us.  Rally attempts followed by follow-through days are no guarantee, but they often signal the start of a new uptrend.

Source: Investors Business Daily

There were other signs of optimism in Wednesday’s big advance.  Stocks from retails, software, internet and consumer spending led the market’s upside.  Growth stocks are preferred over mature, defensive sectors when leading the market out of its first bear-market correction in seven years.

The ratio of advancing stocks to declining stocks delivered wide breadth, another positive.  Nasdaq winners outpaced losers nearly 4-to-1.  On the NYSE, winners led by 5-to-1.

Also of note, there is a tiny but growing group of quality growth companies forming attractive chart patterns.  These companies feature strong fundamentals, especially in terms of sales and earnings growth.  Often, they are smaller, younger companies introducing new products and services.  It is one of the more encouraging signs given the renaissance of innovation and entrepreneurship underway, something we have not experienced to this degree since the 90’s.

If stocks can hold levels this week and deliver a strong rally on any day next week, that would deliver a perfect follow-though day and improve the odds of a new rally as we enter 2019.

2018 Investment Strategy Review

Stock and bond market performance has been more volatile in 2018.  After an amazing run in 2017 stocks have become more sensitive to interest rate hikes and potential disruptions in global trade because of ongoing trade negotiations by the Trump administration.

Bonds too have seen an increase in volatility as the Federal Reserve increases the Fed Funds rate and sell bonds from their balance sheet.

The start of the year was extremely volatile for both asset classes but over the last month U.S. stocks and bonds have settled down.  Other asset classes are still struggling.  Emerging market bonds are down over 4% and emerging market stocks have declined nearly 10% according to statistics from ETFReplay.com.

Over the years I have tracked the performance of 4 classical investment strategies from pillars in the industry. Here is a quick look at how they are doing so far in 2018.

Note:  This data is historical and does not reflect actual account performance.  Please see the performance disclosure below for additional detail.  The benchmark for each strategy is the iShares Moderate Growth ETF (AOM).  It is important to remember the CAGR (Compound Annual Growth Rate) for all these strategies are only  using approximately 6 months of data.  Year-To-Date (YTD) performance and volatility is provide below each summary.

We start with our baseline “Classic” Strategy Year-To-Date (YTD) performance.  This strategy is considered a blue-chip approach to investing by several well respected investors.  This mix of investments represents 60% U.S. stocks and 40% U.S. Bonds.

YTD:  Classic Return:  2.8% vs. AOM Return 0.0%     Volatility:  9.7% vs. AOM Volatility 6.0%

Next, we will look at the YTD performance 3-asset class strategy we call the “Cycle” strategy.  This strategy holds 5 investments from 3 asset classes.  It is the lowest volatility strategy I manage.  The benchmark for this portfolio is the iShares Moderate Growth ETF, AOM.

YTD:  Cycle Return:  0.6% vs. AOM Return 0.0%    Volatility:  5.5% vs. AOM Volatility 6.0%

Adding more asset class, next we feature a “risk parity” strategy YTD performance.  In this approach 7 asset classes are weighted based on their volatility (or risk) with lower volatility investments receiving a higher weight.  The benchmark for this portfolio is the iShares Moderate Growth ETF, AOM.

YTD:  Risk-Parity Return:  -1.7% vs. AOM Return 0.0%    Volatility:  4.1% vs. AOM Volatility 6.0%

Finally, the most diversified of the bunch, the 10-asset strategy YTD performance.  This approach invests equally in 10 asset classes.  The benchmark for this portfolio is the iShares Moderate Growth ETF, AOM.

YTD:  Ten Asset Return:  -0.4% vs. AOM Return 0.0%    Volatility:  5.8% vs. AOM Volatility 6.0%

It is clear 2018 has not favored highly diversified strategies.  Those strategies that focus on U.S. stocks have performed better.

For a real shocker, here is how 10 select industry groups I incorporate into my strategies have performed YTD.  This is an all stock selection, so the benchmark has been changed to the S&P 500 (SPY).

YTD:  Industry Group Stocks Return:  16.3% vs. SPY Return 5.6%    Volatility*:  19.5% vs. SPY Volatility 16.1%

*Note the significant increase in volatility associated with the portfolio of Industry Groups.  That is the trade-off for exposure to high-growth areas of the economy.

We don’t know what the future holds but as we embark on a new generation of product and service innovation, along with stronger economic performance in the U.S., I have been guiding clients to overweight U.S. stocks and incorporate industry groups from areas of the economy expected to grow faster than the general economy.  It has been working well and has the potential to add value for years to come.  In addition, I can include industry group exposure to any of the strategies above where risk-management characteristics should generally reduce volatility.

All the statistics provided by ETFReplay.com.

Past performance does not guarantee future results.  Investments and the income derived from them fluctuate both up and down.  Investments at Dightman Capital are subject to risks including loss of principal.  No specific investment recommendations have been made to any person or entity in this written material.  This presentation is for informational purposes only and is neither an offer to sell or buy any securities.  Benchmarks or other measures of relative market performance over a specified time period are provided for informational purposes only.  Dightman Capital does not manage any strategy toward a specific benchmark index.   A variety of sources we consider reliable have provided information for this presentation, but we do not represent that the information is accurate or complete.  Dightman Capital Group does not provide tax advice to its clients.  Conduct your own research or engage an investment professional before making any investment decision.  Investors are encouraged to discuss any potential investment with their tax advisors.  The material provided herein is for informational purposes only.  Data Sources:  IDC, Dightman Capital.

Stock Market Anxious & Vulnerable

This was one of the most fascinating weeks in my career as a portfolio manager. Stocks were under aggressive selling pressure most of the week but ended the session on Friday recovering most of the days’ declines. Especially encouraging was the impressive advance Friday from the tech sector and small caps. Overall trading on Friday was supportive but action for the week is another reminder to investors, we have entered a new phase of increased market volatility.

Here is how the S&P 500 traded on Thursday and Friday.

The biggest issue at hand is not President Trump’s steel and aluminum tariff announcement. Time will tell how the policy unfolds. The biggest challenge has more do to with the new Fed Chair, Jerome Powell, providing both houses of congress his first testimony. Unlike prior Fed chairs, Chair Powell appears less concerned about what Wall Street thinks and more focused on executing his monetary policy. Here is what one of my Wall Street trading contacts had to say about the Donny & Jay Team…

“If you think Donny is going to pull back on this major announcement just because the mkt sells off a bit – think again……Like Jay Powell – Donny will not be led around by the nose when traders on Wall St. throw a hissy fit.” Kenny Polcari, Oneil Securities

The market was already anxious and vulnerable so testimony from Chairman Powell on interest rates, which are headed higher, and import tariff policy by President Trump, is bound to rattle markets. From elevated levels in a prolonged bull market, stocks are vulnerable to steep corrections.

I would suggest the interest rate and inflation dynamic is what is driving markets today. My ongoing research has caused me to change my view of whether an increase in rates from current levels can negatively impact the economy and stock market. I have suggested that interest rates rising from such low levels are not likely to have a negative impact our economy or the stock market until they move past normal levels. Most rate hikes in the past that have slowed the economy have occurred at much higher levels. However, a closer look at three different factors facing most central banks in the world has changed my thinking.

Those factors are:

1- Refinancing costs by treasuries (issuing new debt to retire maturing debt)
2- Treasuries issuing new debt to fund budget deficits
3- Central banks selling bonds from their balance sheets

Collectively these three factors represent a massive impact on the bond market. Central bankers and treasury officials do have options for managing these challenges. The Fed will increase their available tools after a few more hikes in the Fed Funds Rate. The playbook seems pretty clear for 2018, the Fed lifts the Fed Fund Rate to around 2% while the economy strengthens on Trump’s economic policies. 2019 is where it will get interesting and the stock and bond markets are already anticipating the environment 6-9 months in the future.

For reference, here is a quick look at the Prime Lending Rate, Consumer Price Index and the S&P 500 over the last 20 years.

Much of the recovery from 2008 involved bond buying by central banks: Bank of Japan, European Central Bank and the Federal Reserve. The Federal Reserve was the first to start selling bonds from their balance sheet last fall. Keep in mind, the bonds on a central bank balance sheet are in addition to bonds a treasury department may issue to fund government operations. Central bank balance sheet bonds are already issued bonds, treasury bonds are newly issued bonds. As I have communicated many times, the world is swimming in debt from decisions made during the last financial crisis and a consumption driven economy.

Japan has even hinted they may stop purchasing government bonds soon. Once a central banks shift to selling bonds from their balance sheets, while government treasuries continue to issue new bonds to fund operations, the supply of bonds very well may push prices down further and interest rates higher. Some traders are expecting the U.S. Treasury to issue substantially more 30-year bonds around this time next year. Combined with ongoing sales from The Fed (which holds several trillion dollars’ worth), some traders believe bond prices will have to be much lower to get new bonds sold, driving interest rates higher. Higher interest rates mean government debt servicing costs are going to rise which will increase the deficit (which shows no end in sight). As I have said before, I would not be surprised if the next crisis comes once again from the bond market. What policy makers are dealing with now is the other side of Quantitative Easing, the strategy used to address the last financial crisis.

The White House is hoping economic growth accelerates and tax revenues increase to cover costs and reduce the deficit. If the economy grows too fast The Fed will be under pressure to raise short-term interest rates, where most of government debt is financed. This will cause debt servicing costs to shoot up. This is another concern I have mentioned in prior commentary. Debt servicing costs as a percent of the Federal Government expenditures is a risk to the economy. Unfortunately there are not many good options for policy makers.

Markets have pretty much priced in 3-4 increases in the Fed Funds rate for 2018. Now the attention is focused on 2019. It should be clear President Trump and Fed Chair Powell have a very delicate balance to maintain but their style of communicating their policy is decidedly different than previous administrations. They can’t really afford to let markets dictate their moves (many analysis and commentators believe The Fed waited to long to raise rates). They have to take actions based on what they believe will be the best path for navigating the U.S. economy through the current challenges.

The key appears to be maintaining a steadily improving economy of moderate GDP growth around 3%. Here is where Economic Cheerleader Trump may run into problems. The harder he pushes for 4% growth the more trouble he may create in debt markets. The good news here is innovation is alive and well at a time where money is plentiful, financing relatively cheap and government policy is generally favorable.

From a portfolio management perspective, there are clearly better areas of the stock market to be invested in right now and even some undervalued assets to consider bringing into portfolios to reduce risk levels. 2018 appears to be delivering a market where investors may be rewarded for making the right changes to their portfolio. Let me know if you are interested in discussing how I handled the 2008 bear market and how I am addressing the current set of challenges and opportunities.

North Korea Threat

There is no question the North Korea (NK) situation has deteriorated and could very well be headed to a conflict.  Outside of an offer of asylum for the Kim Jong Un regime there appear few options.  It is clear the current NK leadership is antagonistic and their arsenal now represents a clear and present danger.  President Trump has already demonstrated militarily he is not satisfied with appeasement in geopolitical negotiations.

When evaluating the potential impact on U.S. stocks it helps to look at these developments in context to the overall economy and stock market.  The economy continues a slow growth path with little threat of a rapidly rising interest rates, which combined represent a constructive environment for the stock market and helps explain its continued upward trend.  Corporate earnings are also healthy (Q2 earnings growth for the S&P 500 came in at 10.3% and projected earnings and revenue growth for Q3 are currently around 5%).  In addition, any positive developments on a Trump Tax Plan would most likely be viewed as bullish.  Taken as a whole, the market is going into this potential conflict in a positive environment.

The last time we experience a conflict like this was the Iraq ground war in March of 2003 (see chart below).  You may remember we were just coming out of a nasty recession and the market had started rallying as we moved into the new year.  2003 ended up being a strong year for the stock market.  Iraq did not represent a significant global economic component and the market was at the early stages of a recovery.

On the other hand, the 9-11 attack in 2001 hit the U.S. during a contraction in the economy and stock market after the dotcom bust (see chart below).  Because of the already weak state of economy and the direct hit to a global financial center, the implications were likely to be longer lasting and more severe.

Investors have to be very careful with defensive moves and a long-term perspective needs to be the dominant factor when making investment decisions.  Corrections are often short and markets can bounce back aggressively.  That being said, there are numerous periods historically where markets have not only sold off aggressively, they have done so over long period of time (multiple years).  Having a strategy in place for this type of environment will be helpful as you start to rely on your investment accounts for income.

The likelihood of a conflict with NK has increased significantly.  Kim Jong Un’s threats and acts are unacceptable and he seems unlikely to change his course.  NK economic impact globally is very limited and their military capabilities are antiquated.  I am not suggesting the possibility for significant damage resulting outside of NK doesn’t exist.  Each situation is different and the ICMB and nuclear capability of NK is a game changer, not to mention all their artillery on the DMZ aimed at Seoul.

The biggest issue now may be the U.S. having to calculate whether future ICBM “tests” are actually loaded with a nuke.  I won’t be surprised if we start shooting them down.

In summary, normally stocks have responded well to conflicts they believe will be resolved quickly and with little global economic impact when conditions are stable.  At present that appears how the market is responding to the NK situation.

Q1 Earnings Surprise

Q1 earnings are expected to come in much better than expected and upside revisions and upside earnings surprises are the primary drivers for Q1’s earnings growth rate.  The blended rate (combines actual results with estimated results not yet reported) of 12.5% as of Friday, April 28th for the S&P 500 is coming in well ahead of the 9% expected at the end of March.  Take a look at the report from Factset for more details.

Q1 earnings reports contrast with economic data for Q1 which remained soft in some areas.  The Big Four Economic Indicators was updated Monday, May 1st with the most recent (and very important) Personal Income data.  After adjusting for inflation the real number for Personal Income during March rose 2.8% year over year, which is near the high end for the last year.  The biggest improvement in the Big Four Indicators over the last year, however, has come from Industrial Production.  After peaking just over two-years ago the indicator entered a prolonged slide that flatlined 13-months back.  Only in the last 4-months have we seen it reverse course and move higher.

There was no question the economy was at risk of slipping into a recession as we approached the fall elections and it is reasonable to point out the economic improvements have been mild.  A soft Q1 real GDP growth of just 0.7% was disappointing.  It wasn’t all bad, looking at Core GDP which removes inventories, government spending and trade with the rest of the world, grew at 2.2% in Q1 and is up 2.8% from a year ago.

In terms of stock market performance, the last week of March was the strongest since January which sent the Nasdaq index to a new all-time high which is now over 6,000.  The race may be on for the Nasdaq to break-through the 10,000 level or the Dow to top 30,000. Maybe it will be the S&P hitting 3,000 first.  It will take some time and there is a chance we will have a recession or some other surprise event that will send stocks much lower before we reach the next big milestone for these indexes; it is also entirely possible that market will only experience normal corrections between now and new target levels.

We are also hearing a lot about an expensive and “toppy” stock market.  For those that hold this view they may find themselves watching this market move much higher before prices fall to “attractive” levels.  There is little evidence suggesting we are on the verge of a 2000 or 2008 type event.  There are issues with credit markets to be mindful of and there is always the risk a black swan event could materialize but a big market correction does not appear imminent.  That does not mean there aren’t clouds on the horizon.

What is apparent is the inability for Washington DC to get its act together.  There are huge problems with the U.S. Federal debt level and ongoing deficit spending is unsustainable.  Eventually something is going to give unless they get their house in order which seems more unlikely with each passing congress.  The percent of federal expenditures needed to make interest payments is an important area to watch.  The Wall Street Journal recently published an article highlighting how rising interest payments are already showing up in the federal fiscal year.  We are a long way from them being problematic but with ongoing deficit spending and interest rates slowly moving higher the clock is counting down.

Negligent politicians aside, one of the more exciting driving force in today’s economy and stock market is the amazing array of new innovation and scientific discoveries.  Entrepreneurs are busy delivering new solutions to our health, travel, and entertainment needs and creating new business in the process.  There is a new innovation index out that may be a promising investment for those looking to invest in companies targeting high-growth areas like web-based data & services, IT infrastructure software, consumer data and services, finance software & services, specialized semiconductors and more.  The investment currently holds 100 companies delivering a nice combination of diversification and focus and has a weighted market cap of only $30 billion which, compared to the $169 billion weighted average market cap of investments tied to the S&P 500 index, represents much smaller companies but still primarily in the large cap category.   Let me know if you are interested in learning more.

While the stock market is rising some categories of stocks might represent better long-term opportunities based on structural changes in the economy.  If this is something you have thought about but not acted on, let’s have a conversation.