Contributed by: Angela Palacios, CFP®, AIF®
I love this time of year. In Michigan, the sun starts shining, and we slowly start to come out of our winter hibernation. It is only this time of year when wearing shorts on a sunny, 45-degree day seems completely logical.
I am always surprised by how different March can be from beginning to end; the old saying I learned in first grade, “March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb,” is rarely wrong. It makes me think about how the first quarter of 2019 has come in like a lion and ended like a lamb.
Much volatility marked the end of 2018. During the last quarter of the year, markets experienced a very sharp correction, pulling back almost 20% from peak to trough for the S&P 500. Then as 2019 ramped up, markets quickly recovered, and the 2018 correction became a distant memory nearly erased from our statements, melting away like the ice from all of those winter storms.
Through the first quarter of the year, the S&P 500 rallied over 13.5%, the MSCI EAFE returned nearly 10%, and the Barclay’s Aggregate US bond index earned a respectable 2.94%.
While the downside in most cases has been nearly recovered for a diversified portfolio, some scars remain and red flags of a weakening economy are popping up (no, they aren’t the kind of flags you see on the golf course).
Yield Curve Inversion?
You may have seen headlines debating the inversion of the yield curve. This is a highly watched recession indicator. Throughout 2018, the yield curve flattened as The Federal Reserve raised interest rates. This year, the flattening has slowly morphed into a potential inversion. In the yield curve chart below, on the left, you can see that very short term rates are higher than even the 10-year treasury rate. However, longer-term rates are still higher, and the two-year yield is not yet more elevated than the 10-year yield, which is the true definition of the inversion. The chart on the right shows how the yield curve looked leading into the 2008-2009 recession. You can see that the long-term rates were no longer upward sloping, but rather flat-to-downward sloping.
The yield curve isn’t a perfect indicator, as it does from time to time give false signals that are not followed by a recession. However, the flattening and inversion of the yield curve do indicate a shaky economy that is more susceptible to outside shocks.
Many argue this is not a true inversion, and only time will tell. But this indicator does cause us to think a recession could be coming. If the inversion increases, caused most likely by long-term rates falling farther, that would increase our certainty. However, a recession generally follows an inversion by nine months to a year.
The delay happens because an inversion causes banks to tighten their lending standards. Banks make money by lending at a higher long-term rate, paying us on our short-term cash at a lower rate, and keeping the difference as profit. Paying us at a higher rate and loaning at a lower rate makes loans far less profitable. With no room for error in making a bad loan, bank standards become very strict. This alone slows the economy in many ways.
Raymond James Chief Economist Scott Brown recently cited the chart below: “In a simple model of recessions, the current spread between the 10-year Treasury note yield and the federal fund’s target rate implies about a 30% chance that the economy will enter a recession in the next 12 months. At this point, a broad-based decline in economic activity does not appear to be the most likely scenario, but the odds are too high for comfort and investors should monitor the situation closely in the months ahead.” (Source: http://beacon1.rjf.com/ResearchPDF/2019-03/a514efab-1484-4425-9c7a-9db0e0689423.pdf)
Auto loans showing signs of concern
Auto loans, which hit us close to home in Michigan, have shown early warning signs of trouble. Despite a low unemployment rate and growth in the economy, many people still struggle to pay their bills. As of February, seven million Americans were at least three months behind in their car payments. While the government shut down may be a contributing factor, that is still a shocking statistic and one million consumers higher than in 2010, the last peak coming out of the great recession. The loans in arrears based on percentage don’t look quite as shocking, but the numbers are creeping higher.
While these and other red flags signal an economic slowdown, we are not yet ready to confirm they signal a recession. Our investment committee is discussing areas of concern within portfolios and where we may want to make adjustments. Areas considered ripe for change include the bond positions.
We have an overweight to what we call “strategic income”, higher yielding positions that carry more credit risk than interest rate risk. While this overweight has worked for many years, we may soon reduce it back to our long-term target and add this into the Core bond portion of the portfolio. Core bonds tend to behave positively in turbulent markets and benefit from the “flight to safety” trade.
Within the core bond space, we have held shorter duration bonds which, during a rising interest rate environment, have less downside pressure as rates rise. Now that the Fed has signaled an end to raising rates for the time being, we have also looked at taking on more duration risk in that portion of the portfolio. When equity markets correct, longer duration bonds tend to perform more positively.
Brexit receives an extension as Parliament in Britain seized control of the process when the Prime Minister failed, yet again, to put forth a plan lawmakers could support. This resulted in an extension until April 12; in all likelihood, another will be granted.
The Mueller investigation results have come to a close. According to Ed Mills, Raymond James Managing Direct of Washington Policy, “The conclusion of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation finding no coordination or collusion with the Trump campaign related to Russian election interference, and a Department of Justice verdict seeing no case for obstruction, offers a significant near-term political boost to President Trump, alleviating one of the big unknown DC policy risks on the market. It also has the potential to have a real impact on the President’s remaining first-term agenda, particularly on trade negotiations with China or domestic issues such as the budget or infrastructure.” (Source: http://beacon1.rjf.com/ResearchPDF/2019-03/e0fc4341-4031-486e-a5fa-bcf05d9d7c2b.pdf)
The Federal Reserve officially paused its rate-hiking cycle through 2019. The Fed also has decided to slow, and eventually stop, reducing its balance sheet by selling off the Treasuries it owns. Low rates for longer terms seems to be the theme for the near future. This affects how we will position our bond portfolios. The investment committee will this month discuss the potential of adding more duration to our core bond portfolio. This area also tends to behave positively during market pullbacks and recessions and, usually, the more duration, the better.
Trade talks with China seem to be moving in the right direction, with very slow progress. This will likely continue to hang over the markets for months to come. The next leg up of the equity markets could depend on progress here.
Negative yields around the world again, still? As of the end of February, 17% of the world’s investment-grade debt is trading with negative yields. In Europe, as of the end of March, more than 40% of government debt was trading at a negative yield – making U.S. bonds still the best kid on the block. (Source: Natixis)
If you are interested in learning more about our process, please don’t hesitate to reach out with a phone call or email or visit the investment management page of our website. We thank you for your continued trust in us!
Angela Palacios, CFP®, AIF®
Director of Investments
Angela Palacios, CFP®, AIF®, is a partner and Director of Investments at Center for Financial Planning, Inc.® She chairs The Center Investment Committee and pens a quarterly Investment Commentary.
Any opinions are those of Angela Palacios and not necessarily those of Raymond James. The information contained in this report does not purport to be a complete description of the securities, markets, or developments referred to in this material. There is no assurance any of the trends mentioned will continue or forecasts will occur. The information has been obtained from sources considered to be reliable, but Raymond James does not guarantee that the foregoing material is accurate or complete. The case study included herein is for illustrative purposes only. Individual cases will vary. Prior to making any investment decision, you should consult with your financial advisor about your individual situation. Any information is not a complete summary or statement of all available data necessary for making an investment decision and does not constitute a recommendation.
The S&P 500 index is comprised of approximately 500 stocks and is widely seen to be representative of the U.S. market as a whole. The MSCI EAFE index is designed to measure developed market equity performance, excluding the United States & Canada. The EAFE consists of the country indices of 22 developed nations. The Bloomberg Barclays US Aggregate Bond Index is a broad-based index that measures the investment grade, US dollar-denominated, fixed-rate taxable bond market. These indexes are unmanaged and cannot be invested into directly. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.