It was a rough start to 2016 for investors. Fears of weaker growth in the U.S. and China and volatile oil prices weighed on global equity markets. With signs of slower growth in the U.S., investors began to worry about the impact of additional tightening moves by the Federal Reserve. Global equities and commodities experienced mid-single digit declines and high-yield credit spreads widened further. U.S. Treasuries benefited from the flight to safety and yields declined. After strong gains in 2015, the strength in the U.S. dollar moderated to start the year.
The S&P 500 Index declined -5% in January. The more defensive sectors – telecom, utilities and consumer staples – were able to produce gains against the backdrop of weaker economic data, but all other sectors were negative on the month. Small caps lagged large caps, while microcaps experienced double-digit declines. Growth lagged value across all market caps, due to the underperformance of the healthcare, consumer discretionary and technology sectors.
International equity markets were in line with U.S. markets in local terms, but lagged slightly in U.S. dollar terms. Emerging markets finished slightly ahead of developed markets in January, despite continued weakness in the equity markets of China and Brazil. The equity markets of both Europe and Japan fell during the month; however, Japan was able to erase some losses on the last trading day of the month when the Bank of Japan moved to implement a negative interest rate policy on excess reserves held at the central bank.
Yields fell across the curve in January as investors preferred the safety of government bonds. The 10-year Treasury note fell 39 basis points to end the month at a level of 1.88%. The decline was felt in both real yields and inflation expectations, and long duration assets benefited. The yield curve flattened marginally. Municipal bonds continued their solid performance run with a 1% gain. Investment grade credit spreads widened, but the asset class was still able to eke out a gain. The high-yield index, on the other hand, experienced another 80 basis points of spread widening and declined -1.6% for the month. Technical pressures still weigh on the high-yield market; however, we have yet to see a meaningful decline in fundamentals outside of the energy sector, at an absolute yield above 9% today, we view the asset class as attractive.
We remain positive on risk assets over the intermediate-term as we view the current market environment as a correction period rather than the start of a bear market. The worst equity market declines are typically associated with recessions, which are preceded by aggressive central bank tightening or accelerating inflation, factors we do not believe are present today. However, we acknowledge that we are in the later innings of the bull market that began in 2009 and the second half of the business cycle, and, while a recession is not our base case, the risks must not be ignored.
A number of factors we find supportive of the economy and markets over the near term.
- Global monetary policy accommodation: Despite the Federal Reserve beginning to normalize monetary policy with a first rate hike in December, their approach should be patient and data dependent. More signs point to the Fed delaying the next rate hike in March. The Bank of Japan and the ECB have been more aggressive with easing measures in an attempt to support their economies, and China is likely going to require additional support.
- U.S. growth stable and inflation tame: U.S. economic growth has been modest but steady. Payroll employment growth has been solid and the unemployment rate has fallen to 4.9%. Wage growth has been tepid at best despite the tightening labor market, and reported inflation measures and inflation expectations remain below the Fed’s target.
- Washington: With the new budget fiscal policy is poised to become modestly accommodative, helping offset more restrictive monetary policy.
However, risks facing the economy and markets remain, including:
- Policy mistake: The potential for a policy mistake by the Fed or another major central bank is a concern, and central bank communication will be key. In the U.S. the subsequent path of rates is uncertain and may not be in line with market expectations, which could lead to increased volatility.
- Slower global growth: Economic growth outside the U.S. is decidedly weaker, and a significant slowdown in China is a concern.
- Wider credit spreads: While overall credit conditions are still accommodative, high-yield credit spreads have moved significantly wider, and weakness has spread outside of the commodity sector.
- Prolonged weakness in commodity prices: Weakness in commodity-related sectors has begun to spill over to other areas of the economy, and company fundamentals are deteriorating.
- Geopolitical risks could cause short-term volatility.
On the balance the technical backdrop of the market is weak, but valuations are back to more neutral levels and investor sentiment, a contrarian signal, reached extreme pessimism territory. Investors continue to pull money from equity oriented strategies. We expect a higher level of volatility as markets digest the Fed’s actions and assess the impact of slower global growth; however, our view on risk assets leans positive over the near term. Increased volatility creates opportunities that we can take advantage of as active managers.
*This entry was originally posted in Brinker Capital’s blog. Brinker Capital provides this communication as a matter of general information. Portfolio managers at Brinker Capital make investment decisions in accordance with specific client guidelines and restrictions. As a result, client accounts may differ in strategy and composition from the information presented herein. Any facts and statistics quoted are from sources believed to be reliable, but they may be incomplete or condensed and we do not guarantee their accuracy. This communication is not an offer or solicitation to purchase or sell any security, and it is not a research report. Individuals should consult with a qualified financial professional before making any investment decisions. Neither Glenn McKinney nor Lincoln Financial Securities are affiliated with Brinker Capital.