The first quarter picked up where the fourth quarter left off, with equity markets celebrating the surprise of a new U.S. administration that global investors perceived to be more business friendly than the previous one. During the quarter, stocks rallied around the world and along with a pullback in the U.S. dollar and signs that global growth was slowly reviving, many international stocks enjoyed gains in excess of the U.S. While the stock market roared, the bond and commodity markets were less enthused, as bonds bounced and commodities gave back some of the gains that accrued towards the end of the year. By the end of the quarter the equity markets were mostly calm, but with tensions that were beginning to build and signal that some of the election-driven luster was beginning to wear off.
2016 began with a thud and ended with a bang. After one of the worst-ever starts to a year, U.S. stocks managed to rebound and ultimately finish the year with solid gains. Much of the rise came in the final few weeks of the year, following the surprising results of the U.S. presidential election. Indeed, there has been an abrupt change in market sentiment, and asset prices have largely taken their cues from a recalibration of economic expectations in the wake of the surprising Trump victory and Republican sweep of Congress.
The third quarter was a fairly placid one for investors, though there was major diversity in return profiles depending on what asset class, sector, or country one was invested in. In the U.S., the leading sector was clearly technology stocks, while elsewhere, Japan, Emerging Markets, and European stocks also had positive returns for the quarter. Within fixed income, the broad bond market indices slowed down and posted flat returns, though credit related sectors performed well along with other risk assets. Commodities brought up the rear in the third quarter, as they cooled off from their torrid run in the first half of the year. Summing it up, returns by asset class were mixed, but most investors in globally diversified portfolios enjoyed modest gains during the period.
With the third quarter in the books, the focus now turns to assessing prospects for the fourth quarter and beyond.
After a tumultuous first quarter, the second quarter brought some relief as most assets were able to rebound to varying degrees. From a big picture perspective, U.S. stocks have been oscillating in a wide range that dates back to the fourth quarter of 2014. In other words, for the last year and a half, stocks have made almost no upside progress, while being subjected to several brief but vicious selloffs. This type of choppy, sideways action is frustrating for both bulls and bears as long as stocks remain within the current range. Global stocks are in a much more precarious state, with only modest recoveries that left many markets still well below their highs of a year ago (or longer).
The beginning of 2016 started in an emotional frenzy, as world markets dropped sharply out of the gates on fears of a sputtering world economy, plummeting commodity prices, a stubbornly hawkish Federal Reserve, and a decelerating earnings backdrop. The violence of the move in January was stunning, and by early February the number of world markets that had fallen more than 20% from their highs clearly argued that a bear market across the globe was taking place. But with share prices falling so fast, gloom quickly took hold and set the market up for a rally off the lows. What has unfolded since mid-February is a rally to the upside that has been just as violent and abrupt as the drop in markets that preceded it. The genesis of the rally was likely too much short term pessimism and oversold conditions, but it was also aided by more European central bank intervention and a Federal Reserve that was forced to pull back some of its hawkish rhetoric.
2015 had many twists and turns, but from a financial market perspective, it was effectively a road to nowhere when looking across a variety of asset classes. In U.S. equity markets, large company stocks (large cap) barely moved as just a few sectors and stocks were big winners. In the broad market, many stocks performed far worse than the large cap averages and gave investors the false impression that the market was generally flat. On the contrary, a broader measure of the market which consists of 1700 equally weighted stocks was down roughly 7% on the year, and helps to highlight how skewed the major indices were, due to just a few large companies that had good years.
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.
At the beginning of the year, we wrote about an aging bull market that we thought could be ridden, but with the caveat that one wouldn’t want to take too much risk given the magnitude of the move, current valuation levels in the U.S., and an overall evidence profile that was clearly mixed with pockets of both strength and weakness. When weighing the evidence, our dashboards offered no reason to reach for additional risk this late in the cycle, but instead we tried to focus on some big picture themes that could help us find attractive opportunities to position for.