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MV Weekly Market Flash: Groundhog Day in December

December 1, 2017

By Masood Vojdani & Katrina Lamb, CFA

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Today is the first day of the last month of 2017, which means that predictions about asset markets in 2018 will be flying about fast and furious over the coming three weeks. As practitioners of the art and science of investment management ourselves, we know that quite a bit of work goes into the analysis that eventually finds expression in the “bonds will do X, stocks will do Y” type of formulations characteristic of these holiday season prognostications. A layperson might be excused, though, for concluding that all the market pros do is dust off last year’s report, or the year before, for that matter, and repackage it with the same observations. “Rates will rise because of the Fed, stocks will rise because of a stable economy and good earnings” worked for 2016 and it worked for 2017. Here’s visual proof: the price appreciation of the S&P 500 and the trend in the 2-year Treasury yield since December 2015: 

It wasn’t linear, of course. There was the technical correction in early 2016 when both stocks and rates pulled back. Still, though, investors positioned for rising short term rates and steady gains in large cap domestic stock prices would have had little about which to complain over the past two years. Which, of course, brings us to the point of today’s commentary: is it Groundhog Day again, or does 2018 have something entirely different in store?

Macro Boringness

At the heart of this curious Groundhog Day phenomenon over the past couple years is the remarkable sameness in the broader macroeconomic environment. “Moderate GDP growth, with a healthy labor market and modest inflation” is a phrase you could have uttered on literally any given day over this period and been right. The only thing measurably different about 2017 was that this “Goldilocks” set of conditions was true not just of the US, but of almost any part of the developed (and much of the emerging as well) global economy. Adding the word “synchronized” to “moderate GDP growth” gives the phrase a distinct 2017 flavor. Thus, the good news for equities disseminated into non-US markets and finally gave investors some measure of reward for diversification.
But, Inflation!

There is almost nothing in the way of macro data points today suggesting a deviation from this “synchronized moderate growth” mantra. The major question mark, as we have discussed in other commentaries, is whether inflation will ever get in line with what the Fed’s models call for and rise above that elusive 2 percent target. Now, if inflation were to suddenly go pedal-to-the-metal, that could change assumptions about risk assets and blow up the Groundhog Day framework. In particular, an inflationary leap would likely send shockwaves into the middle and longer end of the bond yield curve, where rates have remained complacently low even while short term rates advanced. The 10-year yield is right around 2.4 percent today, almost exactly where it was at the beginning of the year and in fact not far from where it was at the beginning of 2016.

The sideways trajectory of the 10-year, in fact, supplies the explanation as to why stocks could rise so comfortably alongside the jump in short-term rates. While short term rates are closely correlated to the Fed’s monetary policy machinations, longer yields reflect a broader array of assumptions – including, importantly, assumptions about inflation. The flatness of intermediate rates suggests that bond investors expect economic growth to remain moderate, and inflation low. The bond market is not priced for a high inflation environment – which is reasonable, given the scant evidence that such an environment is imminent.

Can Stocks Keep Going?

So far, so good: the economic picture seems supportive of another Groundhog Day. What about stocks? There are still plenty of alternative paths for equities to travel in 2017 (and they are going kind of helter-skelter today on some breaking political news), but a solid double-digit performance would be a reasonable prognosis (the S&P 500 is up just under 20 percent on a total return basis for the year thus far). The current bull market is already the second longest historically, and valuations are stretched. Is there more room to run?

As we write this, the tax bill which has riveted the market’s attention for most of the past two weeks has not formally passed the Senate, nor been reconciled with the earlier House version to a final bill to send to the White House. But the odds of all that coming to pass are quite good. As we have noted before, the market’s obsession with taxes has little or nothing to do with fundamental economic growth. The non-partisan Joint Committee on Taxation said as much in the report it released late yesterday on the proposed bill’s likely economic impact: at best, contributing no more than about 0.1 percent to annual GDP growth over the next ten years.

But the market’s interest in the fate of the tax bill has little to do with long-term economics, and much to do with shareholder givebacks. To the extent that the bill results in tangible cash flow benefits for corporations in the next 1-2 years (and the quantification of such benefits remains quite variable), precedent informs us that the vast bulk of such gains would flow right back to shareholders in the form of buybacks and dividends. Buybacks and dividends don’t help the economy, but they most assuredly do help shareholders. That fact, alone, could supply enough of a tailwind to keep the bulls running long enough to grab the “longest duration” mantle.

Everything’s the Same, Until It Changes

So if you read a bunch of reports over the next couple weeks that sound incredibly similar to what you read a year ago, don’t rush to the judgment that its authors are lazily phoning it in. There remain very good reasons for the Groundhog Day framework for yet another year. Gains in stocks, an increase in short term rates alongside monetary policy moves, and longer term rates tempered by modest inflation are all plausible default-case scenarios.

But never forget that any scenario is just one out of many alternative outcomes. Market forces do not pay heed to the calendar year predilections of the human species. There is no shortage of factors out there that could upend the benign sameness of today’s conditions, and they will continue to demand our vigilance and readiness to adapt.

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MV Weekly Market Flash: The Turkeys of 2017

November 22, 2017

By Masood Vojdani & Katrina Lamb, CFA

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In this holiday-shortened week, our thoughts easily start to drift towards all the delicious, rich food we will be ingesting between now and early January when we wake up with newfound determination to go out and conquer the next marathon, or the first triathlon, or just the first visit in months to the nearest fitness center. With these sentiments in mind, let us invoke the theme of turkeys for this week’s missive. The metaphorical kind of turkey, as an easy stand in for “seemed like a good investment idea at the time, but…” Now, the year has been a generally benign one for most asset classes. But there were turkeys aplenty that caught investors off guard. Here is a random selection of three of the gems that have caught our eye over the past months.

#1: The Reflation-Infrastructure Trade

In a sense, many of the year’s turkeys flow from the granddaddy of them all, the “reflation-infrastructure trade” theme that caught fire literally within minutes of Trump giving his election night victory speech. The idea behind this trade was that a new, Republican-controlled government was going to unleash a flood of new money into the world through a combination of hefty tax cuts and massive spending from both the public and private sectors on new infrastructure projects. It’s fair to say that this trade caught the vast majority of the investment world by surprise, since almost nobody expected the Republicans to capture the White House (their victories in the House and Senate were rather more predictable). But the trade dominated the last two months of 2016, with the key beneficiaries being financial institutions (net interest margins!), resource and industrial companies (lots of new projects!), the dollar and intermediate-long interest rates (because, reflation!).

The trade wasn’t a turkey for anyone who took a wager on it from November 9 through New Year’s Day and then sold out. But the fundamental rationale for the trade, which was never strong to begin with, proved wildly off base. Core inflation never breached, let alone smashed through, the Fed’s 2 percent target level. A year later, low inflation continues to exist right alongside 4 percent unemployment. In fairness, nobody including the Fed’s Board of Governors knows with assurance why this is so. As for infrastructure, anyone who has paid any attention at all to Washington politics for the last couple decades would understand that public infrastructure spending has never been a priority item on Republican policy agendas. As for taxes – again, a passing knowledge of GOP politics would lead one to conclude that, yes, tax cuts would certainly be up for legislative action, but complex, actual tax reform that broadened the base (i.e. killing off corporate loopholes) while lowering statutory rates might be a bridge too far for a party beset by fractious differences among its own members, let alone those across the political aisle.

In any event, most elements of this trade, led by the US dollar, had fizzled out by late winter. Periodically talk of the reflation trade recurs, mostly because financial news anchors love to say “the Trump trade is back!” while grinning foolishly into the camera. Caveat emptor.

#2 The Return of Volatility

The twin surprises of 2016 – the Brexit vote in Britain and the US presidential election – set the stage for much chatter about the political land mines in store for the year ahead. Mostly the prognosticators looked to Europe, where the springtime calendar included potentially explosive elections in the Netherlands and France, to be followed in early fall with the German contest. Then there were the ever-present concerns about central banks weaning dependent investors off the easy QE money, a hard economic landing in China, the possibility of trade wars with an ascendant hyper-nationalist contingent in the White House and even the possibility of actual wars as tensions ratcheted between the US and North Korea.

All these events – and many more besides – had their various days of reckoning. Each day came and went with asset price volatility barely budging from all-time lows. The CBOE VIX index, a measure of volatility dubbed the “fear gauge” by investors, had fallen below a level of 10 (the lower the VIX, the less risk) only a handful of times between its launch in 1990 and 2016. The index has closed below 10 a grand total of 40 times in the year 2017 to date, making this the “safest” year by the VIX measure in 27 years. Meanwhile the intraday volatility of the S&P 500 index is lower this year than any time since 1963. Anyone long VIX risk – and for defensible reasons! – will be ruing that bet.

Interestingly, the European election with potentially the most far-reaching consequences for 2018 may well be the one deemed the safest bet – Germany. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU/CSU party came first in the elections two months ago, but has since failed to secure a governing coalition with other representative parties. Political discord in Europe’s most stable power could signal much uncertainty ahead. So far, though, markets are as relaxed as ever.

#3 Another Bad Year for Emerging Markets

We finish out our gallery of turkeys with a look at emerging markets, a surprise 2017 darling. Now, the success of emerging market (both equities and debt) is in a way the flip side of that reflation-infrastructure trade. But we believe this to be a useful morality tale on the perils of asset allocation assumptions. Let’s consider the following. As portfolio managers were making their 2017 asset allocation decisions, late last year, two things about emerging markets were known to them.

First, the asset class had performed dismally, on a relative basis, for several years. While the S&P 500 went on a tear in 2012 and never looked back, EM equities had a very bumpy ride up and down, but mostly down. US large cap stocks passed their earlier historical highs in 2013, but emerging markets remained well shy of theirs in both dollar and local currency terms (they finally regained the high ground in local currency, but not dollar terms in 2017). In fact, on a risk-adjusted basis EM equities have produced negative value relative to blue chip US stocks on an annual average basis over the past 30 years. Any quantitative asset allocation model based on some variation of modern portfolio theory would have recommended deep underweights, or zero allocation, to emerging markets.

The second thing portfolio managers knew in December 2016 was that emerging markets were getting pummeled by the reflation-infrastructure trade. What reason would there have been to make a large allocation to this asset class? Well, to be sure, there are enough contrarians in the world who, at any given time, will put their chips on asset class X because asset class X has been out of favor for a while. Some managers did that, and were amply rewarded. But – and here is the key point – that decision boils down to a single variable: luck. Asset price trends will almost always exhibit mean reversion over time. But pinpointing the time – getting that inflexion point right – is a matter of luck. Emerging markets did well in 2017. They may well do so again in 2018 – or they may not. But questions about the long-term underperformance of this asset class are not answered by a single year’s outcome.

There will be much at stake in 2018. As always, we and our fellow practitioners in this industry will be diligently at work over the next several weeks to try and figure out how to be positioned for 2018 and beyond. Meanwhile we leave you with this sentiment: may the turkeys be on your dinner table, and not in your portfolios. Happy Thanksgiving!

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MV Weekly Market Flash: What’s Next for Emerging Markets?

October 13, 2017

By Masood Vojdani & Katrina Lamb, CFA

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One of the odder stories in a year of general strangeness in the capital markets is emerging markets. Contrary to the vast majority of expectations in the wake of last November’s presidential election, this asset class has been the darling of diversified portfolios in the year to date. The MSCI Emerging Markets index was up more than 28 percent YTD at the end of the third quarter – double the performance of the not shabby 14 percent logged by the S&P 500. Nor is the good news limited to equities; EM currencies have mostly risen against the dollar. Perhaps to underscore the weird irony of the situation the Mexican peso – the currency on the receiving end of all those nativist threats of security walls and trade wars and the like – has gained more than 15 percent against the dollar since January 1.

Reclaiming Lost Heights

In local currency terms, emerging markets equities reached all-time highs this year. In the dollar terms by which US-based investors measure their profits, though, EM stocks still have a bit of ground to make up from their peak during the great growth spurt of 2003-07. The chart below shows the MSCI EM Index (in dollar terms) for the past 15 years.

That 2003-07 run came courtesy of several factors unlikely to repeat themselves. These were the years of the great China boom: the country’s record-breaking surge to become the world’s second largest economy and largest producer / consumer of so many raw materials and finished goods happened in what seemed the blink of an eye. These years also witnessed what is likely to be the final phase of an extended commodities supercycle, which gave resource exporters like Russia and South Africa a few extra points of GDP growth to tack on. Emerging markets became synonymous with “growth” – often real GDP growth of the double digit variety.

Then it all came crashing down. The financial follies concocted in the quant labs of Wall Street and the City took down emerging and developed asset markets alike. The slow pace of growth in the ensuing global recovery has not been kind to many of those former growth market Wunderkinder. Brazil and Russia experienced deep recessions, South Africa and Turkey faced increasingly onerous repayment burdens on their outstanding dollar-denominated borrowings, and China has grappled with the complexities of managing stable currency and credit markets while still trying to hit their growth targets. Given all the challenges, perhaps the most surprising thing about that chart shown above is that this asset class didn’t fare worse than it did during those sideways years of 2010-16.

What Flavor Crisis This Decade?

So where do they go from here – and are investors wise or foolish to follow? One of the important things an investor should always keep in mind about emerging markets is their dynamism – in the sense that the composition of these economies changes more fluidly from year to year than their developed world counterparts. Their installed base of productive resources, their monetary policies and the consumption habits of their citizens are all vastly different today from what they were fifteen or twenty years ago.

That is important because it was precisely twenty years ago that emerging markets fell into one of their periodic traps that turn investors’ stomachs. A crisis in the baht, Thailand’s national currency, went viral and wreaked havoc on currencies and central bank balance sheets from Seoul to Jakarta and beyond. A year later Russia defaulted on its sovereign debt obligations, swallowing up local punters and rich world hedge funds alike. There is a “crisis a decade” school of thought among long-term EM observers, going back to the Latin American debt crises of the 1970s and 1980s to Asia and Russia in the 1990s, Argentina in the 2000s and on and on.

The practical effect of these crises is well-documented: never contained as a local affair, the pain spreads as investors treat their emerging market exposures as one asset class. Never mind if Argentina and Malaysia have almost nothing in common: they rise together and fall together in the capricious ebbs and flows of portfolio capital. For this reason, the asset class as a whole has been a long term loser. Since the beginning of 1990, the average annual return of the MSCI EM index has been about 1 percent lower than that of the S&P 500 – but the risk, measured by standard deviation, has been a full 8 percent higher. “No gain, lots of pain” sums up this portfolio contribution.

Traps Old and New

It would be unwise to project the failures of 1997-98 onto possible negative scenarios for the near future. EM central banks have become much more robust in terms of foreign exchange reserve defenses, and their vulnerability to developed market currencies is mitigated by a growing portion of local currency credit instruments to fund their domestic investment initiatives. Many emerging markets today look…well, less “emerging” and more mature than they did even a decade ago.

But with maturity comes a new set of challenges, and potentially new kinds of traps. Resource exporters like Russia and South Africa will remain vulnerable to a potential weak secular cycle in commodities. Countries whose primary source of competitive advantage is cheap labor are at risk in a world where AI threatens to upend traditional employment patterns in industry after industry. Technology is widening the gap between the handful of companies able to leverage leading-edge technology in their business models and the legions of stragglers struggling to keep up. These are all traps that could trip up countries and regions in that delicate transition from widespread poverty to wealth. And all of this is to say nothing of the lurking threat of protectionism and nationalist nativism from disgruntled voters and their political avatars in the US or the EU.

The developed world is not growing quickly, and this pattern is likelier than not set to continue. If the combined heft of emerging markets can unlock a formula for higher sustainable growth then these markets are worth keeping in strategic asset allocations – and one would expect the risk-return composition to be more favorable than it has been in the past. But these are still significant ifs. We believe investing in emerging markets will call for more nuance going forward, starting with the practice of not treating this widely diverse collection of markets as one asset class.

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MV Weekly Market Flash: Sunny Skies and Swan Songs

October 6, 2017

By Masood Vojdani & Katrina Lamb, CFA

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Another week, another string of record highs for U.S. equities. But this wasn’t just your normal “upward drift for no particular reason” set of days. It was an “upward drift for no particular reason AND a 20 year record smashed!” sequence of new highs. Yes, the last time the S&P 500 recorded six consecutive all-time records was in June 1997, back when the Spice Girls were telling us what we want, what we really, really want. And while prices continued their inexorable ascent, volatility continued to plumb new lows. The CBOE VIX index, the market’s so-called “fear gauge”, suggests that times have never been safer for equity investors: the index has closed below 10 more times in 2017 than in any other year since the VIX first launched in 1990.

The Great Risk Conundrum

This presents a conundrum: while the S&P 500 is more expensive than any other time in the past hundred years (the heights before the market crashes of 1929 and 2000 being the exceptions), it is also serenely placid. Contrast today’s environment with the stretch of market history leading up to the 2000 dot-com crash. The chart below shows the VIX index price trend from 1998 to the present.

The contrast between today and the late 1990s is noteworthy. The S&P 500 reached a then-all time high of 1527 in March 2000. As the above chart shows, though, the final two years of that bull market came with exceedingly high volatility. A VIX price of 20 or higher is considered to be a high risk environment; the index remained above that level for much of the final stretch of that raging bull market. In the mid-2000s the situation was different, but the VIX still was consistently trading at elevated levels well in advance of the 2008 crash.

See No Evil, Hear No Evil

During both of those earlier periods (i.e. 1998-2000 and 2006-2007) markets were jittery for a variety of reasons. Periodic pullbacks in the stock market reflected these concerns – in particular, the Russian debt default of 1998 that led to the collapse of hedge fund Long Term Capital Management, and then, in early 2007, the failure of two Bear Stearns mortgage-backed funds that turned out to be the canary in the coal mine for the broader financial system meltdown. In both cases, investors would eventually buy the dip and keep the damage contained, but markets would remain in an elevated state of nervousness until the bottom finally fell out.

The message the market sends today is entirely different; namely, that there is literally nothing out there in the big bad world that could have an adverse impact on risk asset markets. Arguably, the one single issue able to move investors to action (in a positive direction) for the past twelve months has been tax reform. This trend, which we highlighted in last week’s column, continues with a vengeance despite a lack of hard evidence that any kind of truly meaningful, broad-base reform will emerge out of the current Congress and White House. Apart from taxes, though, the market seems content to channel its inner Metallica and proclaim that “nothing else matters.”

Swan Spotting

Even if the “reflation trade” that springs from tax reform hopes dies out again – like it did back in February – we think it more likely than not that the market would simply revert to form and drift ever so gently upwards. Why wouldn’t it? The global economy, if not particularly inspiring, is at least in relative harmony with growth occurring in most major regions encompassing both developed and emerging markets. Not a single piece of headline macro data suggests that the current recovery cycle has peaked. Quite the opposite: when economies peak they tend to overheat, in the form of escalating prices and wages. This simply has not happened. As long as it doesn’t happen, the Fed and other central banks will have a great deal of latitude in guiding their balance sheets and policy actions back towards some semblance of normal.

Thus the “sunny skies” portion of today’s column title. The “swan songs” bit refers to the black swans – the unexpected events that can suddenly emerge from the murky sea of risk factors and knock Ms. Market off her game. We know from observing market behavior this year that the bar is high indeed for the kind of black swan that could have an impact. But the very definition of a black swan is something you can’t name because you have never seen it before – so you have no way of quantifying what it is before it happens. Presumably there will be such swans in our not too distant future. One or two such events could even be of such import as to keep market volatility elevated for longer, akin to that stretch of bull market between 1998 and 2000. Then – and perhaps only then – do investors’ thoughts turn seriously to questions of more defense in their allocation strategies.

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MV Weekly Market Flash: The Reflation Pony Returns

September 29, 2017

By Masood Vojdani & Katrina Lamb, CFA

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Gentle reader, please indulge us our seeming obsession with the subject of inflation. Yes, we know that other macro metrics matter as well, but inflation is both the big mystery – as we discussed in last week’s column – and arguably the heavy hand pushing and pulling the market to and fro. Today we focus more on this “actionable” aspect of inflation. Or, to perhaps be more precise, we focus on the curious case of a market with the stars of an imagined reflationary surge sparkling in its eyes – in the very same week when yet another month’s reading informs us that a pick-up in inflation is nowhere to be seen in the real world.

Not Dead Yet

It really doesn’t take much, even after all this time. The so-called “reflation-infrastructure trade,” which financial pundits necessarily rebranded as the “Trump trade,” died an unofficial death back in the first couple months of the year. That’s about the time when the US dollar swooned at the feet of a soaring euro and Aussie dollar, and value stocks in sectors like financials and energy ceded the high ground to their growth counterparts in tech.

But 2017 is, if nothing else, the year of endless lives, whether it be multiple attempts to repeal and replace healthcare policy or the renewed insistence that hypergrowth-fueled inflation is just around the corner. “The Trump Trade Is Back!” screamed Bloomberg News on Wednesday, joined by a chorus of like headlines from Yahoo! Finance, Business Insider and others. Once again financial institutions and resource companies were the market darlings. Bond yields perked up. Even the beleaguered dollar took a victory lap or two. Mr. Market was ready to party like it’s late 2016.

A Framework of an Outline of a Plan

The catalyst for this week’s effervescence, of course, was the release on Wednesday of a tax reform framework. It wasn’t really a plan, because plans generally contain details about specific sources of revenues and costs over a defined time frame, grounded in plausible assumptions. The major assumption made by the authors of this framework is that it will somehow deliver anywhere from 3 to 6 percent (depending on whom in the administration you care to believe) in long-term sustainable growth.

Now, given that we have not experienced real GDP growth of that caliber for many decades, it would be reasonable to believe that a boost of that magnitude would beget more inflation, hence higher interest rates, hence the improved fortunes of banks and oil drillers and the like. Unfortunately for the credibility of the proposal’s framers, the plausibility of sustained growth at those levels is vanishingly low. The Fed’s median estimate of US long-term growth potential is 1.8 percent. Earlier this year the Congressional Budget Office estimated that if all the fiscal stimulus measures proposed at one time or another by the new administration (tax reform, infrastructure spend and all the rest) were successfully implemented, it could add one tenth of one percent to long term growth. So the Fed’s 1.8 percent would become 1.9 percent, hardly reason to break out the Veuve Cliquot.

Back in the Real World

Meanwhile Friday morning delivered yet another Debbie Downer data point to the market’s Pollyanna. The personal consumption expenditure (PCE) index, the Fed’s preferred inflation measure, came in for the month of August below consensus expectations at 0.1 percent. That translates to a 1.3 percent year-on-year gain, matching its lowest level for the past five years and well below the Fed’s elusive 2 percent target. We imagine this reality will likely show up again soon enough in the bond and currency markets (which also were the first to ditch the Trump trade back in February). But the stock market is a different animal. Is there enough wishful thinking to keep the reflation trade alive long enough to get through the tricky month of October and into the usually festive holiday trade mindset? Perhaps there is – money has to go somewhere, after all. At some point, though, reality bites back.

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