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.
The year has begun in roller coaster fashion, and our team has been busy reading and digesting the many 2015 outlooks that come across our desks. But reading is the easy part, and now it’s our turn to distill the many facets of our process into a workable thesis that allows us to generate attractive risk-adjusted returns in this maturing market cycle. As tactical managers, we’re well aware that forecasts are always fraught with risk, but we also realize that in order to look forward, we need to have views that set the tone for the portfolio in the coming year. Below is our best articulation of how we see the investing world shaping up over the next year or two. Our aim is to inform you of our views, and to explain how they affect current asset allocation decisions.
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.
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.
When we decided to ride the central bank liquidity wave in 2013, we knew there was a chance the market could have a pretty good year, but like most investors we were pleasantly surprised with the gains that the U.S. stock market delivered. Including dividends, the S&P 500 Index soared by 32%, well in excess of what even the most optimistic prognosticators envisioned at the start of the year.