“Train Kept A Rollin’ All Night Long…” The US economic expansion continued on during the third quarter of 2017. It is the third longest expansion since World War II and is now closing in on 100 months. There were plenty of negatives that tried to slow it down. Politically, we had the debt ceiling deadline, a failed attempt to repeal Obamacare, and a war of words with North Korea. Even the lives and economic losses from the likes of Hurricane Harvey, Irma, Maria, western wildfires and two Mexican earthquakes – amounting to what could be the most expensive year for natural disasters ever - couldn’t slow this train down.
Thing is: the positives outweigh those negatives. At the end of the day, the market is powered by companies’ earnings. And those earnings have been robust and are expected to continue to be! And it’s not just domestically; growth is accelerating at a global level with Eurozone businesses and households more confident about their prospects than at any time in more than a decade. Japan has shown decent growth and inflation this year. And emerging markets are enjoying better fundamentals with more credible politics. Choo! Choo!
We are big believers in asset allocation which is why we showcase the major asset classes each quarter. Here’s how each fared:
Equities: The S&P500 rose 4.5% on the quarter and is now up 14.2% year-to-date (“YTD”). Sounds excellent, but actually a more diversified benchmark, the MSCI All Countries World Index, which includes US large cap stocks, US smaller cap stocks AND international stocks, did much better, up 5.3% quarter-to-date (“QTD”) and now up 17.3% YTD. We’ve been saying for some time that domestic large cap stocks in general look pretty “frothy” and hence it’s not surprising to see this rotation out of domestic large cap stocks into other cheaper equities. The other thing at play is the renewed interest in the so-called “Trump trade”. The areas that moved post-Trump Presidential Election, like small cap and value, have ‘steamed ahead’ in the last few weeks from the renewed hope of possible tax cuts. In just September, the Russell 2000 outperformed the S&P 500 by 4.2% and the Russell 3000 Value outperformed the Russel 3000 Growth by 1.6%.
Fixed Income: During the quarter, the Fed announced that they are pushing ahead with an aggressive schedule for rate increases. We are happy to see the Fed take this path toward “normalization” while the economy is strong. The US needs to get back to higher rates so that the Fed has “some coal for their engines” if things go bad. That said, this announced path has succeeded in boosting inflation expectations, which has pushed up yields in both the 2-year and 10-year US Treasury notes, with the latter closing the quarter at 2.3%, its first quarterly gain of 2017. For the record, the Barclays US Aggregate Bond Index gained 0.9% in the third quarter and is now up 3.1% for the year. The inclusion of global fixed income assets led to better results with the Barclays Global Aggregate Bond Index registering +1.8% for 3Q17 and +6.3% YTD.
Alternatives: Let’s take a look at a few ‘alts’ we follow. Gold gave back a little in September, but registered a +3.1% 3Q17 return represented by the iShares Gold Trust. With 2017 going down as one of the worst natural disasters year on record, the alternative exposure to reinsurance-linked securities (sometimes referred to as ‘catastrophe’ securities) took a hit. One would have thought oil would have suffered from the hurricanes as well, but demand was strong and with slowing US production, oil prices (WTI) ended the quarter up 12.2%. For the record, the Credit Suisse Liquid Alternative Beta Index, our chosen proxy for alternatives, was up 1.6% for the third quarter and 2.8% YTD.
For balanced investors, It’s been a pretty nice three quarters to start 2017. Looking forward, this bull market train can continue to roll, and a case can be made that returns can even get stronger given the great economic fundamentals around the globe. If Washington can get something done relative to a tax cut, look for stocks to accelerate into year-end.
Of course, there will always be (rail) road blocks. We are thrilled to see inflation measures move toward the Fed target range around 2%, but there are many out there concerned that inflation might ‘chug’ right through those target levels and create havoc on the back-end. Furthermore, the announced and about-to-start-very-soon Federal balance sheet reduction is an unprecedented experiment. And it’s not just the US attempting this. Global central banks at some point need to do some house-cleaning and will be reducing their balance sheets as well. There is a huge risk something can go wrong and send this train off track. Lastly, we don’t think the markets are adequately pricing in the geopolitical risk out there, which some would say is approaching multi-decades high. Frankly, when a small probability risk is hard to price in, the market usually just shrugs it off. With trading activity so light recently and little risk currently priced into the market, things could get ugly very quickly if anything goes wrong.
In conclusion, these are challenging times. It’s not easy to navigate the terrain out there. So make sure you have good direction and management. Don’t fall victim to a bad conductor and wind up like Ozzy Osbourne “going off the rails of a crazy train!” Make sure that your engineer is keeping you on track. At DWM, we engineer our clients’ portfolios to ride safely through the peaks and valleys that this train has and will travel through. With the right team at the controls, you can make your journey a pleasant one.
Brett M. Detterbeck, CFA, CFP®
DETTERBECK WEALTH MANAGEMENT