On the heels of a September which was generally attractive, the markets entered October again looking spooky. In fact, like a year ago where the high for the year was observed on September 21, the S&P500 was off almost 4% between September 20 and October 2. That could be eerie for anyone paying close attention. In recent weeks, the US economic picture seems to be getting increasingly muddied by the sluggish international backdrop as fresh data ranging from manufacturing, services, inflation, and jobless claims all appears to be confirming a broad slowdown observable via downbeat readings coming in from abroad. Some meaningful market action reprieve arrived late last week as the US President offered a more optimistic narrative around current trade talks with China at the same time as reports of productive Brexit negotiations (a more than 2-year uncertainty at this point) we hitting the wires. Both domestic and international stocks jumped higher to end last week.
Despite persistent and worrisome headlines dominating the news flow all year, US Stocks enter the 4th quarter with their biggest YTD gains in more than two decades. In this quarter’s update, the article “September Crazy” discusses why the current bull market – which began 127 months ago and is now the longest in US history – could still advance further due to fundamentals and an anything-but-euphoric sentiment. “Big Fat Yields” (or the lack-thereof) shares several implications of low interest rates, the message from the yield curve, and the Fed’s likelihood to pursue additional cuts. The above themed titles taken together might also be a reason why the market leadership shifted abruptly in September; will we see the rotation wherein “Losers Win; Winners Lose” continue into the 4Q?
The newsletter also contains two brief Personal Finance themed notes: “Doing Diligence” and “Transitioning from a ‘Saver’ to a ‘Spender’ in Retirement” are related, but speak to the importance of discipline (be it with saving, investing, etc) as well as the emotional hurdles we observe for many individuals either at the doorsteps or in the early innings of retirement. These articles can be found posted separately.
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I carefully saved for most of my life… now you are telling me that I need to spend my retirement nest egg?
One of the most difficult transitions many individuals will face in financial life is moving from being a “person at work” (the accumulation phase where you are saving and building wealth) into someone now living off their “money at work” (the “decumulation” phase). A recent study by BlackRock Retirement Institute found that “instead of actively and systematically decumulating assets, retirees display a tendency across all wealth levels to retain assets and not spend down their initial principal.” The study also found that, “More than one third of current retirees actually grew their assets – leaving considerable potential consumption on the table.”
US stocks broke a multi-week winning streak, but did so with very “sleepy” daily moves. For the week ending September 20, the S&P500 gave up -0.5%, but remains +2.4% higher for the month. International markets also slipped, but likewise were controlled in their daily moves. Whereas the month of August was an alarmingly volatile period with 18 of the 22 trading days experiencing moves greater than ±1%, the S&P500 has closed up or down by less than 0.75% in each of the past 12 sessions – the longest such streak since the end of July. Such streaks appear common in 2019 when investors look uncertain about the direction of the global economic outlook.
Perhaps it’s just us, but we are struck with how surprised most clients are that the markets are very close to achieving full recovery of their all-time highs set in late-July. Maybe that’s because the media wasted no time in bringing focus to how adversely financial markets reacted to abrasive tweets (Trade + Fed) from the US President last month; or the reporting that the yield curve inverted – a somewhat technical concept that few mom & pop investors/savers understand beyond being told that it has a decent historical record of signaling economic recession. The overall mood can at best be described as sober.
The current global trade war concern first emerged 18 months ago; as recent as May it was generally believed a US/China trade deal could be negotiated. That deal on paper was reportedly 80% complete. At the same time, some trade progress occurred elsewhere (USMCA/NAFTA 2.0), but the US/China negotiations are unfinished and appear virtually collapsed. One even wonders if a US/China deal can resolve before the next US presidential election in 2020. The reality is China does not feel the same political urgency and is unlikely to back down quickly, instead they favor projecting a tough image. That means more economic pain will probably occur before meaningful talks resume. A major issue – Intellectual properties protection – is a complex subject to be resolved. In essence, it appears we are in the throes of a “New Cold War” with potential big influences on the domestic and global economic and financial outlook.
It was another roller-coaster ride of a week; one in which the most recent of market stress seemed to be attempting to mend. In fact, until Friday, the market was up a little more than 1% and the VIX, a widely watched measure of market volatility was beginning to appear calm. Investors appeared optimistic that Fed Chair Jay Powell would deliver a dovish and re-assuring tone during his speech in Jackson Hole, WY. In fact, most believe he delivered what the market was looking for: a conciliatory tone acknowledging that global economic conditions have continued to weaken since the late-July cut and monetary policy increasingly looks out of sync with the global situation specifically citing escalating trade friction.
If you watch the news today, it is almost certain you will learn the yield curve inverted (the 2yr/10yr spread) this morning for the first time since 2007. This will probably result in a challenging market experience today (and perhaps days ahead). You will also hear inversion – a condition where short term interest rates are higher than longer term rates – is significant because it sports a strong track record for correctly signaling that an economic recession develops at some point in the not distant future. With the curve flattening for the better part of 18 months, and some maturities first inverting earlier this year, we’ve discussed why we too believe the curve slope is relevant and worth monitoring. We do not dismiss the condition as insignificant; it signals that a policy mistake is being made and damage to the economy is building. It is evidence that monetary policy is too tight for the current economic situation as a whole and will become restrictive. The ongoing friction between the US and China over trade is part of that restrictive cocktail, and the Fed should not delay in responding further via additional rate cuts in the months ahead.
Almost as quick as the calendar flipped to August, the market’s backdrop and investor sentiment was altered. Just two weeks ago, the Fed made good on months of more dovish rhetoric by cutting its target for short-term interest rates by a quarter of one percent (25 bps). While some watchers were pining for a more aggressive move, the adjustment seemed all that was warranted given a stock market near all-time highs, low levels of unemployment, and trade talks between the US and China that were reportedly making progress following a late-June G20 meeting between Trump and Xi. But with a newspaper article and harsh tweet from Trump that fresh additional tariffs would be levied against China, the Fed’s easing move suddenly felt inadequate and behind the curve. Tensions between the US and China are again heightened, and some are calling the process of negotiation all but collapsed as China allowed their currency to depreciate in retaliation and appears to be slow-walking/stalling the process. They in no way seem urgent to strike a deal even as their economy is showing signs of stress as a result of tariffs. Chinese leaders instead appear of the perspective that in the “long-game”, a weakened global and US economy hurts Trump’s chance of re-election in 2020 – and their odds of a more favorable “deal” are higher when considering the stated positions of Democratic party hopefuls.
It’s pretty easy to hear the same investment theme these days “as many investors go to the same dinner”; hear the same story; and drink the same Kool-Aid. The huge world of investible assets is quickly shrunk down to just a few of the same companies owned by many. But years of tepid economic expansion and low returns cause many investors to be hesitant to broaden their holdings beyond the few stocks delivering eye-catching results. This includes index ETFs (passive strategies) that own outsize exposure to the same fast growing companies. Even today as global growth is slow there is caution to invest otherwise despite a record widening valuation gap between growth and value stocks. Additionally, money flows are more concentrated and could exasperate market volatility and drawdown for these heavily owned exposures. Did you know, the FAANG stocks provided 25% of the YTD2019 return for the S&P500? [FAANG stocks = Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Alphabet’s Google] Together they are a large portion of the S&P500’s total market capitalization, and their growth sizzled in recent years. Yet caution is warranted as they are priced to “perfection” – requiring close awareness to their rich valuations and being widely owned.