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President & CEO
Masood Vojdani began his career in the financial services industry in 1981. From the outset, he was driven by the vision of a firm that was different from the industry status quo. At the heart... Full Bio
At the beginning of this year we foresaw the potential for a spike in volatility. For awhile back in February and March that looked like a prescient call. Now…maybe not so much. As the predictable humidity settles into the Potomac region it would seem that the only high-octane energy around here is coming from DC’s long-suffering sports fans, celebrating their hockey team’s recent Stanley Cup victory (go Caps!). Risk asset markets, on the other hand, would appear…well, not as risky as they did a couple months back. The chart below shows the CBOE VIX index, a popular measure of market risk, alongside the S&P 500 over the past two years:
Source: MVF Research, FactSet
As we have noted in other commentaries the VIX, as a tradable entity itself, does not necessarily portray an accurate picture of market risk, particularly those Andean spikes that appear out of nowhere when algorithms hit their tripwires and summon forth the legions of trader-bots. But stock indexes appear becalmed as well when looking at internal volatility measures like standard deviation. We’re not quite yet in the valley of last year’s historically somnolent risk levels – but we seem headed that way and not too far off.
Don’t Grumble, Give a Whistle
Why the complacency? Even as we write this, the vaunted group of developed economies that call themselves the G-7 appear to be having a serious failure to communicate. Trade war rhetoric has stepped up following last week’s imposition of steel and aluminum tariffs by the US on its supposed allies including Canada and the EU. Italy, as noted in our commentary last week, is grappling with a political crisis and potentially unstable financial situation. Geopolitics are on the front page with the US-North Korea summit in Singapore fast approaching, to say nothing of the uncertainty around the Iran nuclear deal, the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and growing evidence of China seeking to extend its economic clout in Southeast Asia, Africa and Latin America. There are headlines aplenty (even ones that don’t have to do with Trump’s Twitter account or the musings of some or other comedian) that could keep investors fidgety – and yet they calmly whistle past the bad news on the way to the sunny climes of the volatility valley. The latest bout of buying has lifted the S&P 500 comfortably above the 50-day moving average resistance level, as the above chart shows.
Nothing Else Matters (For Now, Anyway)
Actually, there is a reasonable justification for this midyear complacency, which is that for all the daily noise, not a whole lot has really changed in the macro picture. And what has changed – a little more inflation, a lot more growth in corporate sales and earnings – has largely been benign or downright positive. The tax cuts enacted at the end of last year may have a deleterious effect on the deficit, but such effect will likely not be felt for several years (“several years” being roughly equivalent to “an eternity” in Wall Street-speak). The trade war, should it come to pass, will also likely tend to have a gradual rather than an immediate effect, particularly on the domestic economy.
As for geopolitics – well, the market is extremely proficient in ignoring geopolitical concerns until they actually happen. That’s not a recent phenomenon. British merchant banks were happily extending loans to their German clients in the summer of 1914, even after the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo. The Great Trade War of 2018, so far anyway, is not conjuring up images of the Schlieffen Plan or entrenched battle lines along the Marne.
The S&P 500 is up about 3.5 percent (in simple price terms) for the year to date. Earnings per share for the companies that make up the index are projected to grow at around 20 percent for the full year, with top line sales coming in at a robust 7.5 percent. That’s pretty agreeable math, and a decent reason to think that a fairly low-vol summer may be in store.
2011, 2012, 2015…ah, memories of summertime Eurozone crises past. On the cusp of the summer of ’18 it would appear not entirely unreasonable to imagine that we are due for another languid spell of troubled waters across the Atlantic. Political dysfunction in the southern periphery was on full display this week, first with Italy’s fumbling attempt to form a new government and then with a no-confidence vote shoving Spanish PM Mariano Rajoy out of office in favor of Socialist Party leader Pedro Sanchez. Word is that Rajoy sat out the parliamentary hearings leading to his ouster, choosing to spend those eight hours in a Madrid restaurant instead. Respect.
Oh, and the US went ahead and imposed steel and aluminum tariffs on the EU, leading EU trade commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom to pronounce a “closed door” on EU-US trade liberalization talks. Abandon hope, ye bourbon drinkers of Europe. The euro continued its slide while investors hugged onto German Bunds like a Steiff bear, illustrated in the charts below.
The big drama this week, of course, came courtesy of Italian president Sergio Mattarella as he gave a Roman thumbs-down to the cabinet submitted by the recent populist partnership of the Five Star Movement and Northern League (see here for our analysis last month of the implications of this partnership). The move caught investors by surprise and Italian bond yields soared (the blue line in the leftmost chart above).
It may seem counterintuitive that Mattarella’s move sparked a negative market reaction. After all, his opposition to the cabinet slate was focused on the proposed finance minister Paolo Savona, an outspoken critic of the single currency union. The resulting impasse with the FSM/League coalition led to a proposed caretaker government led by Carlo Cottarelli, a former IMF official. That sounds awfully market-friendly…but no, investors read this as a resurgence of the “in or out” question that last reared its head with the Greek financial crisis of July 2015. The thinking was that Mattarella’s technocratic move would give a new tailwind to the Northern League (which indeed has seen a sizable bump in the polls this week) and could result in a more decisive victory for the “out” faction in another round of elections this fall. Suddenly “Quitaly” was the new “Brexit.”
Trouble Ahead, Trouble Behind
The Mattarella tempest resolved itself just in time for markets to breathe a tempered sigh of relief and not pay attention to the no-confidence vote brewing over in Spain. The FSM/League coalition came back with an “acceptable” candidate for finance minister, Giovanni Tria (a political economy professor), Mattarella gave the green light, and all appears ready to proceed apace. Italian assets recovered some lost ground. The can appears safely kicked down the road once again, and now we can all relax and start watching the World Cup, right?
Perhaps not. There are challenges aplenty for this new, not entirely stable coalition government in Italy – on domestic debt levels, on immigration, and – yes – on the general relationship with Brussels, which is hardly amicable to begin with. And while observers don’t see much in the way of market ripples coming from the recent events in Spain, the fact remains that the no-confidence vote there came about due to revelations of political corruption and a slush fund operated by senior members of former PM Rajoy’s Popular Party – another blow to Establishment credibility. The new government led by the Socialists includes an unwieldly array of coalition partners including nationalist Basque and Catalonian factions and the far-left Podemos Party – so there is hardly a unifying ideology there.
In fact, very little about Europe’s political environment looks stable. Nationalist and borderline fascist blocs control much of the eastern periphery of the EU, Germany’s “grand coalition” is struggling, and all the while thorny issues with Brexit persist on the western front. The economy has reverted to slow-growth mode, the ECB is trying to navigate its way out of its monetary stimulus obligations, and now Brussels needs to rally the troops around a united response to those ill-advised US tariffs.
It may be summertime, but the living would appear to be anything but easy.
It’s a very good thing for US large cap equity investors that consumer staples companies make up only 7.4 percent of the S&P 500’s total market cap, while the tech sector accounts for 25.4% of the index. The chart below shows why.
Tech stocks have outperformed the market for most of the year to date, while consumer staples have experienced a miserable couple of quarters. Here’s where those market cap discrepancies really matter: the fact that tech stocks make up a quarter of the total index means that their performance “counts” for more (we explained this in one of our commentaries a couple months ago). So, even though the magnitude of underperformance for consumer staples is greater than that of tech’s outperformance, the heavyweight sector pulls up the broad market (the dotted red line represents the total S&P 500) and, for the moment anyway, keeps it in positive territory.
So what’s going on with consumer staples? By one yardstick – market volatility – the sector might have been expected to outperform over the past couple months. Consumer staples has long been regarded as a defensive sector, i.e. one which tends to do better when investors get jittery. The logic is easy to follow. A volatile market signals uncertainty about the economy, which in turn leads to households tightening their budgets. So things like expensive vacations and designer labels (which would show up in the consumer discretionary sector) get the axe, but folks still have to buy toothpaste and breakfast cereal (which are manufactured, distributed and retailed by consumer staples companies like General Mills, Sysco and Costco).
But two technical corrections of more than 10 percent didn’t send investors flocking into defensive stocks. Other traditional defensives, such as utilities, also fared relatively poorly during this period. There is one driving variable common to a variety of traditional defensives, which is rising interest rates. But there are a couple others that are particularly relevant to the woes in consumer staples.
Hard Times for Dividend Aristocrats
The connection between interest rates and defensive stocks is fairly straightforward. These stocks tend to have higher dividend payouts than more growth-oriented shares. For example, the average dividend yield in the consumer staples sector is around 3.1 percent, compared to an average yield of 1.8 percent for the S&P 500 as a whole. The relative attraction of dividends diminishes when income yields on high quality fixed income securities (like Treasury bonds) increase. This relationship is then exaggerated to an even greater extent by the abundance of algorithmic trading strategies that mindlessly key off small changes in rates, sending cascades of buy and sell orders beyond what many would see as the actual fundamental value shift.
The Worst of Times
Two other variables with a particularly pernicious effect on consumer goods companies are inflation and changing demand patterns. These variables are closely related. While inflation is still relatively low by historical standards, it has ticked up in recent months. Cost inflation – basically, higher input costs for the raw materials and the labor that go into the manufacture of consumer goods – puts downward pressure on profit margins. If companies can pass those cost increases on down the value chain – i.e. from manufacturer to distributor to retailer to end consumer – then they can contain the effect of cost inflation. But that means, ultimately, having consumers willing to pay up for the staple items they buy from week to week. And this is where that second variable – demand patterns – comes into play.
Simply put, consumers have become pickier about what they buy and how they buy, and they have a far greater spectrum of choices from which to curate their own particular needs and preferences. Time was, the weekly shopping cart was pretty predictable in terms of the packaged goods with which Mom and Dad filled it up, and also where the shelves containing those goods were located. Established brands carried a premium that was a predictable source of value for the likes of Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola or Kraft Foods. That brand premium value hasn’t disappeared – but it has become diluted through an often bewildering assortment of products, categories and messaging. The emotional tie between a consumer and a favorite brand dissipates when the products and the messaging are constantly changing, popping into and out of existence like quantum matter.
That dynamic makes it much harder, in turn, for companies to convince their customers to accept the passing on of cost inflation. The logical outcome is lower margins, which have been the wet blanket souring quarterly earnings calls this year. Unfortunately for the companies in this sector, these are not problems that are likely to disappear with the next turn in the business cycle. Even the elite leaders, such as P&G and Unilever, have daunting challenges ahead as they try to leverage their storied pasts into the unforgiving environment of today.
We came across one interesting little data point this week amid the usual news avalanche. The US birthrate reached a 30 year low in 2017: fewer babies were born here last year than any year since 1987. What caught our eye was the odd timing. Birth rates tend to be loosely, but positively, correlated with economic growth (rising during good times and falling when growth goes south). 2017 was the eighth year of what is now the second longest economic expansion in US history. And yet…fewer babies. The fertility rate has fallen from 2.1 kids per woman of childbearing age a decade ago to 1.8 today.
The Growth Recipe
Population data like birth rates don’t typically figure in to short term market movements; we would feel confident in opining that these latest reports, which came out yesterday, did not figure into the day’s movements of the S&P 500 or the 10-year Treasury yield or the price of a barrel of Brent crude oil. But they do matter for the bigger picture, which is why every now and then they will show up in one of our weekly commentaries. Population growth is one part of the long term economic growth equation, along with labor force participation and productivity. Right now, all three of these variables are either negative or stagnant, which puts a big asterisk next to that longevity record for the current recovery. What good is an expansion if the rate of expansion is, by historical standards, so low? And while there may not be much we can do about broad population trends, what is it going to take to bring back higher productivity? The chart below shows the long term trends (since 1950) for productivity and labor force participation.
This is a useful chart for understanding what we mean when we talk about “long term growth.” There are two notable dynamics here. The first was the remarkable burst of productivity that came in the immediate postwar era. This was the heyday of Pax Americana, when our factories and the goods they produced were the envy of the world. As the chart shows, the average rate of productivity (the thin blue vertical columns) was substantially higher during this period than it has been at any time since. Productivity stared to decline in the early 1970s as the economy globalized and other nations – notably a rebuilt Germany and Japan – caught up.
But another trend kicked in around the same time that kept the growth going. This was labor force participation, represented in the chart by the green line. The baby boom generation started to enter the workforce, and so did women, heralding the arrival of the two income household as mainstream. Labor force participation went on a massive surge that didn’t crest until the late 1990s. Then, another productivity boom (though less impressive than that of the 1950s-60s) happened in the late 1990s and early 2000s, this one driven mostly by the delayed impact of information technology in the office and new business processes, like just-in-time inventory management and enterprise resource management, that made efficient use of all that new computational capacity.
Alexa, Make the Economy Grow
Which brings us to today. The decline in the labor force participation rate appears to have stabilized at a level close to that of the late 1970s, while productivity for the last decade is the lowest since record-keeping began in 1948. Imagine for a moment that you are looking at the above chart in 2030, twelve years from now. Or even farther down the road, in 2040. What will it look like?
As for labor force participation, we have some clues in those population trends we observed in the opening paragraph of this commentary; namely, the US population is ageing and the fertility rate is moving farther away from the replacement rate (where each new generation has enough children to replace the outgoing generation). We are not likely to see another phenomenon akin to the sudden surge of two-income households in the 1970s and 1980s to boost participation rates.
That leaves productivity as the only variable with potential energy. If our kids and their kids are looking at this chart and remarking on the great growth cycle of the 2020s, it will be due to a new wave of productivity that we have not yet seen but that may well be lurking under the surface. Artificial intelligence, immersion reality, quantum computing…these are technologies that are known but that have not yet shown themselves to translate to economic growth. But that may be simply a matter of time. The computer technologies developed in the vast mainframe labs of the mid-20th century didn’t flex their commercial muscles until much later, after all.
Or maybe our grandkids won’t care about this chart at all. “Economic growth” didn’t become the go-to proxy for “quality of life,” with all the attendant statistics like GDP, inflation and labor productivity, until after the Great Depression (which is why all the official records for these numbers didn’t start until the 1940s). Maybe some other metric will matter more to them…and to us, in our advanced years.
In the meantime, though, a healthy dose of productivity would be a nice antidote to those baby blues.
You may recall, dear reader, that there was a national election in Italy back in March that proved to be highly inconclusive. We’ll give ourselves a modest pat on the back for prognosticating ahead of that event its most likely outcome – a non-decision with power hanging in the balance as ascendant populist parties try to figure out a workable cohabitation while the previous center-left government – here as elsewhere throughout Europe – fades into oblivion. That election returned to occupy market attention this week.
Not This Time
The string of recent elections in Europe that started with the Netherlands and France around this time last year, and continued on into Germany last autumn, managed in each case to avoid a decisive populist surge into power while at the same time underscoring just how unpopular traditional parties there are – particularly those of the once-dominant center-left. At some point, the run of dumb luck was due to come to an end. That seems to have happened. It remains to be seen, though, whether the increasing likelihood of a government variously hostile or (at best) indifferent to the EU and the single currency will unnerve investors. Despite a bit of a hiccup on the Milan bourse (shown in the chart below) and a slight widening of the spread between Italian benchmark bonds and German Bunds, the answer so far is – not much.
Voi Volete Governare?
The question left pending after the March election was whether any such “workable cohabitation” for governing would be possible between the party platforms of the Five Star Movement (FSM) – the creation of a popular comedian, Beppe Grillo, the unifying message of which seems to be nothing more than “throw all the bums out” – and the more ideological Northern League, an ethno-nationalist party with roots in a movement for Italy’s prosperous north to secede from the rest of the country. As early as Tuesday this week that question appeared unresolved, and the chatter turned to the embarrassing possibility of a second election just months after the first.
Send In the Clown
Then, on Wednesday, the contours of Italy’s next government became clearer. Former prime minister and walking evidence for why the #MeToo movement exists, Silvio Berlusconi, gave his tacit blessing to a League-FSM governing union. Berlusconi’s own Forza Italia party underperformed in the March elections, but retained enough clout to give its still-politically viable leader a kingmaker role. The respective leaders of the League and the FSM, Matteo Salvini and Luigi di Maio, have instructed their key staff to reconcile platform positions by the end of the weekend. There is still the possibility that these will not bear fruit, but the consensus among insiders familiar with the process is that the next government of this G-7 nation will be run by a coalition decidedly at odds with Brussels on many important issues ranging from immigration to Eurozone fiscal policy to the need for sanctions against Russia (like many other European populist movements, both the FSM and the League are generally pliant towards Russia and Putin).
Nothing to See Here…Yet
There is a grain or two of rationality in the market’s relative complacency towards Italy. On the bond side, the ongoing presence of the ECB is a strong counterweight against wild fluctuations in yields. The central bank holds about 15 percent of the total float of Eurozone sovereign debt, which creates stability. The return to stagnation in the Eurozone economy (see last week’s commentary) reduces the likelihood that the ECB will move soon in any drastic way to curtail its QE program.
In equity-land, the large cap Italian companies that account for the lion’s share of total tradable market cap are largely multinationals with a diverse geographic footprint and thus less directly exposed to a potential economic downturn in their home market.
The current sense of calm notwithstanding, investors have long wondered whether a populist/nationalist government at the head of one of the major Eurozone nations poses a critical threat to the viability of the single currency region. An answer to that question, one way or the other, may be forthcoming in the months ahead.