The third quarter came in like a lamb and went out like a lion, as the return of volatility hit risk assets hard across the globe. As in previous quarters, emerging market stocks and commodities suffered double digit declines as markets continue to deal with the end of the commodity super-cycle and the mix of structural and cyclical problems reverberating throughout the emerging market complex. But the big news of the quarter was a catch up in developed markets that had previously appeared impervious to the problems that were festering in the developing world.
With markets moving and volatility picking up, the investment team has had some lively discussions recently. When turbulence breaks out there is often a tangled web of items to sort through in determining what is the major driver. Our summary view is that we’ve had a collision between complacent markets that have lost momentum as the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing program winds down, and a European growth scare that has moved to the forefront. Negative daily news headlines don’t help either (e.g., Ebola), though these are likely temporary factors.
The second quarter started in somewhat choppy fashion as small cap and other high flying momentum stocks continued to face pressure as investors decided to shed stocks with swollen valuation multiples. The major averages fared better than their risky counterparts, and after a brief dip stocks began their ascent towards record breaking highs on the back on improving economic data, decent earnings growth, and continuing liquidity support from global central banks.
Meanwhile commodity markets appeared to work off some of their overbought readings from earlier in the year as they treaded mostly sideways during the quarter. Within fixed income, the bond market also fared well as investors continued to flock towards anything with a yield, foreign bond markets bubbled, and a number of technical factors came together to keep bond investors satisfied despite meager nominal yields.
First quarter market performance was as whippy and volatile as the weather. Unusually cold temperatures in the U.S. not only froze much of the country’s population, but it also wreaked havoc on the quality of economic data, and kept markets on edge regarding how investors should be positioned. Geopolitical issues also rose from the ashes as various emerging markets had currency issues and Russia showed poor sportsmanship and invaded the Ukraine shortly after the conclusion of the Olympic Games.
By the end of the quarter, the markets showed mixed results, with U.S. stock and bond markets logging roughly equal returns, and international markets showing large variations depending on country and region. Commodities appeared to benefit the most from the weather and geopolitical environment, and they bounced to a very strong quarterly return.
If you are looking for a movie about power, money, sex, drugs, yachts, Lamborghinis, high-pressure sales tactics, stock manipulation, sex, and drugs (did I mention sex and drugs?) then go see the new Martin Scorsese movie, The Wolf of Wall Street, starring Leonardo DiCaprio. The film is based on the memoirs of Jordan Belfort, the founder of the brokerage firm Stratton Oakmont, which functioned as a boiler room selling penny stocks in the 1990s. I don’t want to give away the ending, but I will say that if you enjoy watching unimaginable amounts of corruption and debauchery, you are going to love it.
All of which gets me thinking about the admittedly boring world of our Pinnacle investment analysts.
Lately I have participated in several discussions about how to make money at “neutral vol,” or when Pinnacle portfolios are positioned to have roughly the same volatility as our benchmark portfolios. A good starting point for the conversation is to analyze the total equity positions we own in the portfolio versus the neutral allocation to equity in our benchmark portfolios. In Investment-Speak, changing the overall portfolio risk posture by underweighting risk assets is called a “beta trade.” We are reducing the portfolio allocation to market risk.
Over the past few weeks our proprietary quantitative model has experienced a significant decline, falling from an almost unequivocally bullish reading of 7.45/10 to a lower neutral reading of 4.33/10. The deterioration in the overall score was caused by a broad-based decline in several important variables including, among others, the relative momentum in early cyclical, late cyclical, and defensive sectors, the steepening of the yield curve, the growth-sensitive Australian dollar to Canadian dollar exchange rate, and implied volatility.
The overdue market correction analysts and pundits have been waiting for may have arrived with the breakdown of the S&P. It has been a two stage process, with Japan breaking first and the U.S. and the rest of the world following suit. One of the interesting aspects of this correction is that bond yields are moving higher as stock prices have been moving lower. In Japan the focus has been on a bond yield rising in a nation with very high debt levels. In the U.S. yields have been going up too, and the buzz has been that the Federal Reserve may start “tapering” down their $85 billion bond buying spree (known as QE Infinity).
How to determine the proper time horizon to evaluate portfolio performance is always a subject for an interesting conversation. In a recent client survey on investment issues, we asked our clients “What time horizon do you feel is the best time frame to evaluate portfolio returns?” The results varied: 16% said “Monthly,” 43% said “Quarterly,” 37% said “Annually,” and 4% said “Over a complete market cycle.” (As an investment professional, I would have selected the last option.)