In our last quarterly commentary, we cautioned not to get complacent, overconfident, or “too far out over your skis”. It’s ironic how just three months later, many investors’ emotions are just the opposite: unsure, cautious, and even scared. And rightly so, given the extreme up and downs for the first quarter of 2018. The stock market was in a classic “melt-up” state in January, only to quickly drop into correction territory in early February, then bounce and fall and bounce again from there. Yes, as I mentioned in my February 12th blog, volatility is back and here to stay (at least for the near future)!
Before looking ahead, let’s see how the major asset classes fared in 1Q18:
Equities: The S&P500 had its first quarterly loss since 2015, falling 0.76%. On the other side of the globe, developed countries also suffered, evidenced with the MSCI AC World Index registering a -0.88% return. Emerging markets were a stand-out, up 1.28%*. In a turn of events, smaller caps significantly outperformed larger caps. Much of this has to do with the trade war fears, i.e. many feel that smaller domestic companies will be less affected than some of the bigger domestic companies that rely on imports. Growth continued to outperform value. However, that gap narrowed in the last couple of weeks with some of the biggest cap-weighted tech names getting drubbed, including Facebook because of their user-data controversy and Trump’s monopolistic tweets at Amazon.
Fixed Income: Yields went up, powered by increasing expectations for growth and inflation in the wake of the recent $1.5 trillion tax cut. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note rose from 2.4% to 2.7%. When bond rates go up, prices go down. So not surprising the total return for the most popular bond proxy, the Barclays US Aggregate Bond Index, showed a 1.46% drop. Fortunately, for those with international exposure, you fared better. The Barclays Global Aggregate Bond Index rose 1.37%, helped by a weakening U.S. dollar (-2.59%**) pushing up local currency denominated bonds.
Alternatives: The Credit Suisse Liquid Alternative Beta Index, our chosen proxy for alternatives, was down 1.72%. Losers in the alternative arena include: trend-following strategies, like managed futures (-5.08%***), that don’t do well in whipsaw environments like 1Q18, and, MLPs, which were under duress primarily due to a tax decision which we think was overdone. Winners include gold****, which was up +1.76% for its safe haven status, and insurance-linked funds† (+1.60%), which have hardly any correlation to the financial markets.
In conclusion, most balanced investors are seeing quarterly losses, albeit small, for the first time in a while. So where do we go from here?
Inflation concerns were the main culprit to the February sell-off, but there are other concerns weighing upon the market now: fears of a trade war brought on by tariffs, escalated scrutiny of technology giants, new Fed leadership, increasing interest rates, stock valuation levels, and a bull market long in the tooth in its 10th year.
Opposite these worries is an incredibly hot economy right now, supported by the tax cut which should boost corporate earnings to big heights. In fact, FactSet has projected earnings for S&P500 companies to increase 17% in 1Q18 from 1Q17!
And, whereas there has been much dialogue regarding how the S&P500 has been trading at lofty valuations, the recent move of stock prices downward has really been quite healthy! It has put valuations back in-line with historical averages. In fact, the forward 12-month PE (Price-to-Equity Ratio) of the S&P500 at the time of this writing is almost identical to its 25-yr average of 16.1. International stocks, as represented by the MSCI ACW ex-US is even more appealing, trading at a 13.3 forward PE.
We don’t think inflation will get out of hand. Even with unemployment around all-time lows, wage growth is barely moving up. So we doubt that we’ll see inflation tick over 2¼%. That said, we do think the Fed will continue to raise rates. Frankly, they need to take advantage of a good economy to bring rates up closer to “normal” so that they have some fire-power in the event of future slow economic times. But that doesn’t mean they’ll be overly aggressive. The new Fed Head, Jerome Powell, like his predecessor, most likely will be easy on the brakes, keeping focus on how the Fed actions play off within the market.
Put it all-together and it seems like we’re in a tug-of-war of sorts between the positives and the negatives. At DWM, we feel like the positives will outweigh the negatives and are cautiously optimistic for full year 2018 returns in the black, but nothing can be guaranteed. The only couple things one can really count on are:
- Continued volatility. After an abnormally stable 2017 that saw little whipsaw, 2018’s volatility is more reminiscent to the historical average of the last few decades. Back to “normal”.
- DWM keeping its clients informed and embracing events as they unfold, keeping portfolios positioned and financial plans updated to weather what’s next.
Here’s looking to what 2Q18 brings us!
Brett M. Detterbeck, CFA, CFP®
DETTERBECK WEALTH MANAGEMENT
*represented by the MSCI Emerging Markets Index
**represented by the WSJ Dollar Index
***represented by the Credit Suisse Managed Futures Strategy Fund
****represented by the iShares Gold Trust
†represented by the Pioneer ILS Interval Fund