Some volatility has crept back into the markets in the past few days, largely driven by negative news flow out of Spain (the latest country to come under pressure as a result of the European debt crisis). This probably didn’t come as a surprise to most professional investors, but it might have to Europe’s esteemed leaders, one of whom declared just a few days ago that the crisis is “almost over,” while another described it as “ebbing.”
A good 99% of Pinnacle’s assets under management come from our private wealth management business. However, we think this percentage is going to decline over time as a new kind of client is discovering Pinnacle Advisory Group. Institutional investors, including professional financial advisors who want to outsource their money management business, along with platform providers — those companies in the business of providing a variety of money managers to other institutional investors — are beginning to knock on our door. The interesting thing about this dynamic is that firms who are primarily in the business of providing investment services often have large and expensive sales forces whose job is to call on platform providers and “sell” the firm’s investment offerings. The Chief Investment Officers of platform providers spend their time trying to deflect the overwhelming amount of sales calls they get from investment companies. If you are in the business of making money by charging fees on assets under management, one of the best way to do it is to get your investment product offered on a platform where the provider essentially sells your services for you (and who often has a large number of investment advisors looking to them to do the due diligence on the investment managers). It’s a good system. Platform providers offer excellent money management firms to investment advisors and investment companies hire a sales force to get their product distributed on as many platforms as possible.
What a ride this year has been in the markets. Volatility has been sucked out like water through an unplugged drain, any bad news has been quickly absorbed and discarded, and equities keep gliding to the upside. During this Bull Run, the market has climbed an enormous wall of worry, and has found a way to look more constructive along the way (for example, the S&P 500 broke out of the 2010/2011 range, most global markets recaptured positive trends, and the much maligned financial sector is participating in the current uptrend).
“Let every man divide his money into three parts, and invest a third in land, a third in business, and a third let him keep by him in reserve.”
Financial stocks have been a controversial sector since suffering massive losses in 2007-08, much like Tech stocks were following the bursting of that bubble in 2000. Financials have also generally been out of favor during the recovery of the last few years. In 2011, they were the worst performing sector in the S&P 500, and apart from a vicious two-month bounce off the bottom in 2009, they’ve been underperforming for years. In addition, they’ve been battling increasingly negative public opinion in regards to business practices (most of which is probably deserved, and largely self-inflicted).
One of our clients recently asked what we thought about high frequency trading in regard to the risk embedded in markets. I responded that dark pools and high frequency trading are not well understood, and in my opinion exacerbate very short term volatility — sometimes at particularly stressful periods in the market. The question is, what to do with this risk? Maybe some of this will eventually be regulated away, but while it’s here the only thing we can do is understand it as part of the current structural environment, hedge our portfolios accordingly, and occasionally try to use it to our advantage.
Ed Yardeni is President and Chief Investment Strategist of Yardeni Research. He has been a leading commentator on the economy and financial markets for 25 years, and his daily column has been required reading for Pinnacle analysts for years. Yardeni (at least for the time we’ve been reading him) is known for being generally optimistic about financial markets, which is another way of saying he tends to tilt towards being bullish whenever he can. Dr. Ed wears this on his sleeve, and isn’t at all nervous about letting his readers know that being optimistic is a much better way of viewing the world then the opposite, which tends to be downright depressing. Just last week Yardeni referred to bearish analysts as “nattering nabobs of negativism,” which you may recognize as the famous phrase written by William Safire for Vice President Spiro Agnew to deliver at the 1970 California Republican state convention in San Diego. The full quote, referring to the liberal press, was, “In the United States today, we have more than our share of the nattering nabobs of negativism. They have formed their own 4-H Club… hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history.” Last year I actually wrote to Yardeni to take him to task for similar statements about his optimistic world view, letting him know that we didn’t subscribe to his research because we wanted to read an optimistic assessment of the economy, but because we expected an objective analysis of the facts as he sees them. He wrote back assuring me that he does have a realistic world view, but feels that the pessimistic view of the global economy tends to get more attention than it deserves.
In our Inside the Investment Committee presentation, I mentioned the great start to the year for high beta, domestic cyclical stocks (“high beta” refers to the volatility of the stock compared to the S&P 500). Small cap, semiconductors, miners, and energy stocks have more volatility when compared to the S&P 500 and therefore a higher beta. These areas tend to outperform when the economy is improving, which is why they’re called cyclical stocks — they ebb and flow with the economic cycle. This is exactly what we saw from the October bottom through January.
Last month a grandson of one of our clients called me with the sad news that his grandfather had passed away. I knew his health had been fading over the past year, so while I was sorry to hear it, I wasn’t entirely surprised. It was a difficult conversation, as those things are, and the only comfort to come out of it was the fact that the elderly man had prepared for this day through proper planning. By keeping all of his documents current and in good order, he was able to ensure that his assets would pass to his loved-ones according to his wishes.
Today marks the second time this year that the Federal Open Market Committee (Fed) will announce its decision on interest rates. On the surface the meeting looks to be somewhat boring: With jobs showing some strength and gas prices getting dangerously close to $4 a gallon, few analysts are expecting the Federal Reserve to announce a new quantitative easing program. At the last Fed meeting in January, Ben Bernanke and his colleagues did surprise the market with language about economic conditions being “likely to warrant exceptionally low levels for the federal funds rate at least through late 2014.” Since the Fed made that statement, many analysts and pundits continue to expect bond yield levels to stay contained, given that the Federal Reserve has assured us of being the primary anchor to the term structure of rates.