Written by Nate White, Chief Investment Officer of Paragon Wealth Management
The era of QE has been a difficult environment for active managers. The last five years have been a heyday for the passive investor, aided directly and indirectly by the Fed’s Quantitative Easing (QE) programs, stocks and bonds have moved up in an indiscriminate manner. All one had to do was simply show up. Bonds have been directly aided by the trillions the Fed has purchased while equities have indirectly benefitted from the implied “put” or backstop inferred by these Fed actions. The Fed’s actions to keep rates artificially low have created market distortions that have interfered with many of our quantitative indicators.
When all equities or bonds generally get rewarded the same regardless of their quality or differences, it’s hard for the skilled manager to outperform. A rising tide of liquidity has lifted all boats making it easy for anyone to navigate in the harbor. But once the tide starts to recede, experience and skill are what matters. We have seen improvement with our models over the last year coinciding with the gradual reduction of QE. As markets return to “normal” we are better able to assess the risk and rewards of certain moves and strategies. We are seeing a number of opportunities develop that haven’t been available for years.
In the short run the market is looking tired. We have rejected the doom and gloom scenarios that have been so prevalent since the financial crisis and have caused many investors to miss out on the bull market. However, fewer stocks are hitting new highs and the breadth has been getting weaker. The uncertainty surrounding the end of QE and the timing of rate increases next year are factors contributing to the hesitancy. This is only natural and healthy in the long-run. As previously mentioned it also creates opportunities for us that have not been available for the last four years. Over the last few years we have held a cash position which has been a drag on performance. Going forward, this cash position is an advantage as it helps to cushion the downside and provide flexibility to take advantage of opportunities provided by any volatility and uncertainty.
Although the risks have risen, this doesn’t mean investors should get out completely. The market has been overdue for a correction for some time but it doesn’t mean that everything is ready to fall apart. Getting completely out now could cause you to miss crucial gains if stocks continue to rally as they have. The last four years have shown the futility of trying to time the market in an all in or out manner. It is still a bull market until proven otherwise.
The current economic data has been stronger indicating that the economic growth is picking up instead of getting weaker. Ultimately that is a good sign as it will support earnings growth that has been the key foundation for the current bull market. Any correction that comes will probably be more short-term and establish the next leg up for the market. Therefore, a correction would be viewed by us as an opportunity rather than a harbinger of doom. It is only natural after five years of market advances and ahead of interest rates starting to move up to get some market hesitancy or disruption. Our current exposures are to technology, energy, and materials which are late-cycle stocks and tend to do well in rising rate environments. We also continue to favor various segments of the healthcare sector such as medical device and healthcare providers. Several emerging market opportunities are also looking more promising than in the past and we have started to act in a few of these areas such as Mexico and Brazil.
It is no secret that we have been cautious on the bond market for some time. As the sun sets on QE the angst over when the Fed will begin to raise rates and by how much is growing. Markets always like to price actions in ahead of time and right now it seems the equity market is being affected to some degree by this interest rate uncertainty. However, the bond market has not moved much yet. Many thought that bonds would have a difficult year as they began to price in rate increases. So far, bonds have done the opposite and surprised many by having a good year. The inevitable is coming though and the window for bond gains is closing as we creep toward June of next year which is the most accepted time for rate increase to begin. Any equity market weakness will give bonds more time to put off the reckoning.
Although the potential for a bloodbath in the bond market is high, that doesn’t mean it will happen. It will probably be more like death by a thousand cuts. The Fed will be very slow and steady in raising rates as to minimize market disruption. After all, they do hold about $4.5 trillion of bonds! Even if interest rates rise in a slow and gradual manner (which is what I believe will happen) bonds will still produce negative or flat real returns at best.
For example, take a look at the interest rate sensitivity of a broad composite of investment grade bonds such as the Barclays US Aggregate Bond Index. If interest rates are a half to one percent higher a year from now, the index could be down 2.5 to over 5 percent respectively. The current yield of about two percent would still not offset the losses.
In preparation we have been making changes and getting ready for the coming environment. We have been early on this call which has caused us to underperform in Managed Income this year so far, but not by a lot and we are better positioned for what is to come. We believe this approach is the most effective from a risk/reward standpoint and will pay off in the environment to come. Now is the time to take a look at the risk in bond or fixed income holdings and make adjustments. The first one to two percent moves from the bottom will be the most painful.