A growing theme in investing is to target and invest only in the least volatile stocks in the market. One simple example of this is take the S&P500, which is a representation of the 500 largest publicly traded stocks in the United States, and only invest in the 10% of companies with the lowest standard deviation of the 500. This would produce names such as AT&T, Coca-Cola, and Johnson & Johnson.
This simple concept traditionally would result in an investor owning a lot more safety, blue chip, and high dividend yielding stocks. Not a bad bet in a historic context. Looking forward however, we have an accelerating concern over the price of these types of companies, which may lead to them not being as safe as one would expect.
One metric we look at to value stocks is the Price to Earnings ratio, the easiest way to describe this is what price is an investor willing to pay for every dollar a company earns in profit? A higher P/E ratio implies more expensive, a lower one implies cheap. Comparing a stock, or an index, such as the S&P500 to its historical average P/E can give you a relative idea of whether something is expensive or cheap compared to historical standards.
Historically, going back to 1972, the companies in the lowest 10% volatility bucket in the S&P500 (as measured by standard deviation) produce a historical median P/E ratio of roughly 13. As is stands today that same low volatility class of stocks trades between a P/E ratio of 23 to 24.
Why is this troubling? Well, when prices revert to the mean, and investors are willing to pay less for those same dollars of earnings, it spells trouble for those who hold these assets, especially those who have been chasing the stability and dividends these stocks were expected to provide.
What is causing this? Let’s take a look at the major contributors:
Fed policy. While artificially low interest rate policy is intended to push investors into riskier assets, some investors still want safer assets. Low volatility stocks have higher dividend yields, making them bond proxies.
Sector attribution. The low volatility group is concentrated in Utilities, Financials, and Consumer Staples, which have high dividend yields and P/E ratios that are above their long-term averages.
High valuations for the broad market. The median P/E for the S&P 500 is 24.0, well above its historical norm, which has pushed investors into “safer” stocks.
Secular trends. Fear is a stronger emotion than greed, so investors have flocked to “safer” assets.
Industry innovation. ETFs have enabled investors to more easily buy themes like low volatility.
The first three factors are the most likely the first ones to threaten this crowded trade. The one that has me the most troubled is the fifth factor. Industry innovation has led to specialized investment products that make it very simple for retail investors to buy into this wave of low or minimum volatility assets. We’re seeing these assets recommended in droves to competitor’s clients, with little to no consideration given to how crowded or expensive the trade may be.
These assets in the broad context of a well diversified portfolio may make sense, but from my perspective every asset has a time and a place. Currently, I would not be overpaying for safety by using these low volatility factors we’ve explored above. There are other ways. Like always, when assets deviate from a historical valuation range, it can take quite awhile to be proven right and see them correct. We’re not yelling fire in a crowded theater but would like to see investors better educated on the risks ahead.
Thank you for reading!
Blake Street is an Investment Advisor Representative of Warren Street Wealth Advisors, a Registered Investment Advisor. The information posted here represents his opinions and is not meant as personal or actionable advice to any individual, corporation, or other entity. Any investments discussed carry unique risks and should be carefully considered and reviewed by you and your financial professional. Nothing in this commentary is a solicitation to buy, or sell, any securities, or an attempt to furnish personal investment advice. We may hold securities referenced in the blog and due to the static nature of content, those securities held may change over time and trades may be contrary to outdated posts.
Interest Rates, Inflation, and Monetary Policy: Why aren’t U.S. interest rates going up?
Our topic today is interest rates, inflation, and monetary policy. The question we will attempt to answer is: When are interest rates in the United States finally going to rise?
Defensive Strategies Depress Returns
If you’re like most bond investors, you’ve been expecting interest rates to rise for over 2 years now. As a prudent investor, you’ve been holding the duration, or interest rate risk, of your portfolios shorter than usual to protect against falling prices when rates rise. Unfortunately, the result of your prudent behavior has been to underperform standard indexes such as the Barclays U.S. Aggregate Bond index. And if your portfolio is focused primarily on safe assets such as U.S. Treasuries, all but the longest maturity funds struggled to provide a return even modestly better than inflation.
While short-term rates have indeed risen with the Federal Reserve rate hike in December 2015, interest rates for Treasuries maturing in 10 years and beyond have actually fallen by an average of more than -0.50% over the past 3 years. Granted, this article was written the day after the British referendum to exit the European Union, which caused global stock markets to tumble and U.S. Treasury yields to fall. If we measure the change in yields as of June 23, 2016 when most experts expected the British to vote to remain in the E.U., long term interest rates have still fallen an average of -0.37% since January 2013.
In contrast to the lack of upward movement in nominal interest rates, real yields – nominal yields adjusted for inflation – have risen across all maturities in recent years, albeit from an extremely low starting point. As of January 2, 2013 real yields for 5-year Treasury bonds were nearly -1.50%, whereas by June 24, 2016 5-year real yields are only negative -0.50%. And if you were willing to invest for 20 or 30 years, you could earn the princely sum of approximately +0.35% to +0.75% real yield as of January 2013 and June 2016, respectively.
If we take a longer term perspective and look back 10 years, we observe an enviable real rate of approximately 2.5% across maturities from 5 years to 30 years! At today’s paltry real yields of less than 1%, it seems unsustainable to invest hard-earned funds for 5 years or more and barely keep up with inflation. Surely interest rates must return to more normal levels eventually.
But when will that long-awaited time finally arrive?
Building Blocks of Interest Rates
To gain some insight into the drivers of interest rates, let’s take a moment to review the building blocks using what I like to call my ‘interest rate birthday cake’.
Theory would have us believe that the minimum return investors will accept is a modestly positive ‘real return’, historically between 1.0% and 2.5%. If you add a maturity term premium and inflation expectations to the real rate, the result is the ‘risk free’ rate of interest, which we typically consider the U.S. Treasury yield curve.
The average annual inflation rate from 2006 to 2016 was 1.93%¹, so we could expect the risk free rate of interest over that time period to be approximately 3% to 4.5%. And yet 10-year Treasury yields are currently hovering below 2%, while 30-year yields stand at approximately 2.5%. In fact, 10-year Treasury rates have been falling ever since the ‘taper tantrum’ in mid-2013 as the U.S. economy continues to struggle to sustain momentum after the financial crisis of 2008-2009.
¹Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
Let’s not forget the aggressive monetary policy actions of the Federal Reserve bank since the financial crisis. The unprecedented amount of monetary stimulus has long been expected to cause inflation, and yet the only result to date has been to keep the U.S. economy from stalling.
Why Has Aggressive Monetary Policy Not Sparked Inflation?
In times past economists observed a fairly reliable relationship between ‘easy money’ and the ‘velocity of money’, or the amount of times a single dollar changes hands. It is the velocity of money that traditionally puts pressure on prices of goods and services.
But as bank lending standards and capital requirements remain strict, consumer debt levels low, and with the ‘shadow banking system’ taking the place of traditional lenders, the velocity of money has been on a steady decline. Consequently, the impact of monetary policy on the economy has diminished.
So if yields on Treasury securities remain stagnant, where else can we look for pressure on interest rates? One answer is the market appetite for risk – what Keynesian economists term ‘animal spirits’. The layers of my ‘interest rate birthday cake’ related to market risk appetites are default risk, liquidity risk, call risk, and others.
The term ‘animal spirits’ is used to describe human emotions that drive consumer confidence. Rising consumer confidence can increase the general level of economic activity if individuals feel wealthier and purchase more goods and services. If consumer demand grows sufficiently, prices of goods and services will increase, as will the general level of interest rates.
Chasing Yield – Investors Look to Corporate Bonds
If we look to Treasury yields for the risk-free interest rate, corporate bond yields should reflect a risk-adjusted rate of interest for various levels of default risk. In recent years, investors with an appetite for risk had found opportunities in low-quality corporate bonds, only to be traumatized in late 2015 and early 2016 as the precipitous drop in oil and gas prices put extreme pressure on the profitability of the energy sector of the U.S. economy. Because the credit quality of many smaller oil and gas producers was below investment grade, the high-yield sector of the bond market was particularly hard hit.
Option-adjusted yield spreads for BBB-rated corporate bonds – the additional yield above the yield of a matched-maturity Treasury – averaged approximately 1.75% in 2006-2007, prior to the financial crisis. In 2015-2016, BBB spreads averaged 2.31%. It seems investors are being fairly compensated for default risk at the current level of yields, despite a rather bumpy ride along the way.
Traditional Drivers of Inflation Are Absent
So with this understanding of the building blocks of interest rates, can we answer the question of why Treasury yields remain stubbornly at levels barely above inflation?
The answer lies in the middle block of the interest rate pyramid: inflation. More precisely, the market’s expectation for future levels of inflation.
As you may recall from your Econ 101 course in school (assuming our readers stayed awake during class!), inflation typically occurs when either, 1) input prices are rising, causing manufacturers and service providers to increase their finished goods prices to the extent possible, or 2) consumer demand for goods and services exceeds the current supply, enabling manufacturers and service providers to increase their prices.
Though employment and consumer sentiment in the U.S. have certainly improved since the financial crisis of 2008-2009, the persistent trend of lower employment participation is thought to dampen the impact of the current, nominally low, unemployment rate relative to previous economic cycles.
Even though the recent drop in oil and gas prices has stabilized, these essential commodities remain at historically low levels enabling manufacturing, transportation, and leisure travel firms to keep prices low.
So when are these competing forces going to settle out and the long-awaited inflation pressures manifest themselves? Not any time soon, if the forward inflation rate expectations published by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis are any guide.
If inflation pressures are indeed muted on both the supply and demand fronts, and risk appetites are being satisfied with the current level of yield spreads, it is difficult to see where inflation pressures, and therefore interest rate increases, are likely to arise in the near term.
And yet investors cannot endure miniscule real yields indefinitely. Surely there must be something else keeping interest rates low?
As Long as U.S. Treasury Bonds Remain a Safe Haven, Treasury Yields will Remain Low
The final piece in the interest rates puzzle comes from outside the ‘birthday cake’; in fact, outside the U.S. entirely. The final piece is the capital ‘flight to safety’ as international investors seek positive returns amid a global economic slowdown and negative interest rates elsewhere in the world.
Given the economic uncertainty caused by the British referendum to leave the European Union, and the dearth of alternative ‘safe haven’ investments, we should expect demand for U.S. securities to remain strong over the near term. Continuing demand for U.S. Treasuries, even at historically low yields, coupled with muted economic activity dampening inflation pressures, means U.S. interest rates can remain low for the foreseeable future.
Eventually, foreign economies should recover and demand for U.S. Treasury securities should fall, pushing yields up to more normal levels as global economic activity strengthens.
But as long as the U.S. is ‘the only game in town’, prudent investors can legitimately maintain the maturities of their portfolios near- to above the standard market index to capture a positive inflation and term premium while awaiting calmer global markets sometime in the intermediate future.
Marcia Clark is an Investment Advisor Representative of Warren Street Wealth Advisors, a Registered Investment Advisor. The information posted here represents her opinions and is not meant as personal or actionable advice to any individual, corporation, or other entity. Any investments discussed carry unique risks and should be carefully considered and reviewed by you and your financial professional. Nothing in this commentary is a solicitation to buy, or sell, any securities, or an attempt to furnish personal investment advice. We may hold securities referenced in the blog and due to the static nature of content, those securities held may change over time and trades may be contrary to outdated posts.
February 12, 2016 by Marcia Clark, CFA
On January 26, 2015, I wrote an article questioning the relationship between falling oil prices, slowing Chinese GDP, and the precipitous decline in the U.S. stock markets. I counseled readers to take a breath, that the stock market turmoil was overdone and the U.S. economy was secure.
Shortly after my article, the S&P 500 index rebounded from 1903.63 to 1949.24 as on January 29th the Bureau of Economic Analysis announced 4th quarter GDP growth at a modest 0.7%, slightly below analyst expectations of 0.8%.
U.S. Real Gross Domestic Product and Civilian Unemployment Rate
Stock Markets Stabilize with 4th Quarter GDP Report
Why did the stock market react so well to such modest GDP growth? Perhaps because, if you look deeper into the GDP components, the slow growth was primarily due to weak exports and low oil prices, while consumer spending and residential construction remained strong. When considered in light of positive trends in disposable income and job growth, investors seemed fairly content with the 4th GDP results. Concern about specific sectors of the economy are well-founded, however, as low oil prices are indeed causing an increasing number of shale oil drillers to default on their debt obligations. But lenders prepare for this type of risk by diversifying their investments, and there is little evidence that distress in the oil patch will spread throughout the broader economy.
S&P 500 Stock Market Index, February 2015 – February 2016
Do Stock Markets Really Predict Economic Recessions?
To twist a common phrase, every silver lining has a cloud, and in the days following the GDP announcement oil prices continued their downward trend and talk of an economic slowdown began to circulate in the financial press. By February 11, the S&P 500 index had plummeted to a low of 1829.08, before recovering a bit to end the week at 1864.78. Clearly, the turmoil was not over!
But does a falling stock market really foretell an economic decline in the U.S.? Let’s take another look at the evidence. The Brookings Institute published an article by George L. Perry on February 2, 2016[i] reviewing the relationship between stock market declines and economic recessions. Mr. Perry concludes that significant stock market declines – say 20% or so – do indeed tend to precede economic downturns. However, more moderate declines in the stock market happen much more frequently than do recessions. And when such declines are accompanied by decent economic figures, the predictive power of the stock market is unreliable.
In fact, the most recent Conference Board Leading Economic Index published January 22 shows a strong positive trend, despite the U.S. stock market being a component of the index. It’s important to note, however, that the index fell slightly in December due to weaker growth in housing and manufacturing. Also of note, the latest Leading Indicator Index does not include January’s stock market decline.
Leading Economic Index as of December 2015
So, Where Do We Go From Here?
As articulated by Fed Chairman Janet Yellen in her testimony to Congress on February 11, the U.S. economy remains on an upward trend at present, though the future is uncertain. On the positive side, employment gains, low interest rates, and falling oil prices provide consumers with more disposable income to support domestic businesses. On the negative side, slowing Chinese and commodity-based economies, combined with the strong dollar, continue to depress U.S. exports.
On balance, I reiterate my earlier advice. Stay strong, hold on tight, and wait for smoother sailing ahead. Investors with a tolerance for volatility might even consider buying into the distressed oil and gas sector. Be warned, however! A risky endeavor such as this requires an abundance of fundamental analysis and healthy skepticism when forecasting future earnings. Such a venture is best left to the boldest among us with the ability to withstand the choppy voyage ahead.
Marcia K. Clark, CFA
Warren Street Wealth Advisors
Senior Research Analyst, Wealth Advisor
Why is the turmoil in China and the drop in oil prices depressing the U.S. markets?
Marcia Clark, CFA, MBA, Senior Research Analyst & Wealth Advisor, Warren Street Wealth Advisors
January 25, 2016 10:43am Pacific time
In case you’ve been enjoying an extended holiday season, you may not realize that January 2016 is on track to become the worst January for the U.S. stock market since 2009. How worried should you be? Based on my analysis, my opinion is that the stock market has over-reacted to both the turmoil in the Chinese stock market and the drop in oil prices. Investments in companies other than oil producers, particularly those that benefit from cheaper oil prices, may deliver good results in the coming year.
S&P 500 February 1st, 2015 – January 2nd, 2016
And the bond market hasn’t been immune. Yields on below-investment grade bonds in particular spiked to levels not seen since 2012.
But why have the U.S. markets reacted so strongly to the Chinese market and oil prices? Has the U.S. economy encountered an unexpected pothole? Have an excessive amount of U.S. businesses or homeowners declared bankruptcy? Have scandals erupted in key corporations? Has the U.S. Congress threatened to shut down the government rather than pass a budget? No, none of these things has happened. Yes, industrial production and corporate profits have hit a bit of a slump. But the U.S. job market – probably the best indicator of imminent recession – continues to rebound with 292,000 new jobs in December and 2.7 million new jobs for the past year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
To recap the past few months in the Chinese stock market, as reported by The Economist (January 25, 2016), in early July 2015 China’s stock market crashed with share prices dropping by a third, wiping out some $3.5 trillion in wealth (more than the total value of India’s stock market).
A further plunge on August 24 followed by a fall of similar proportions the next day sent share prices down over 40% below their 2015 peak.
Since the summer, the Chinese stock market had rebounded approximately 20%, so one hoped that the worst was over. Unfortunately, on January 4th and again on January 7th the CSI 300 index of ‘blue chip’ Chinese stocks fell approximately 7% and fears of a serious economic decline were renewed.
Given that that Chinese stock market has indeed experienced a challenging 6 months, how can we extrapolate the severity of the problem to U.S. investors? Ultimately, the value of any stock market should reflect the profitability of domestic businesses.
On January 19th, China reported its official annual GDP growth figure for 2015 at 6.9%, just a shade lower than 2014’s 7.3%, and much stronger than average global forecast GDP of 2.8%, reported by the Conference Board.org in November 2015.
The worry seems to be that the official GDP figure may be manipulated by the Chinese government and that much worse lies ahead.
But how much of the decline in the Chinese economy should legitimately be reflected in the U.S. economy? It is difficult to calculate a precise figure, but for context see the table below.
|Country||Exports||Imports||Total Trade||Percent of Total|
As of November 2015, China was indeed the largest trade partner with the U.S., so changes in their economy could definitely impact ours. However, note that exports – which bring profits to U.S. businesses – are much smaller than imports. This should buffer the impact of the Chinese decline somewhat. So troubles in the Chinese economy can indeed impact the U.S., though by how much is very difficult to say.
But what about falling oil prices?
As an input to so much of what we consume, lower oil prices depress final goods prices – including gasoline – which leaves more money in consumers’ pocket to buy other things. Yes, a severe drop in oil prices driven by a lack of demand would definitely indicate a recession, but that’s not what’s happening these past months. The problem is an overabundance of supply.
With the widespread use of hydraulic fracturing in the U.S., crude oil production in the U.S. has spiked to levels not seen in the last 30 years. With OPEC countries maintaining production near historic levels, and global demand growth increasing only modestly, basic laws of economics indicate that the market price of oil must fall.
So where does that leave us? Yes, we should be concerned about the market turmoil in China as that country adjusts to a slower, but still strong, growth rate of their economy. Declining oil prices caused by excess supply is a good thing for consumers, but will depress profits of oil producers which can be a large component of stock market indexes.
On balance, the U.S. economy remains on an upward trajectory. Recent declines in the stock market should be viewed as a buying opportunity. But be selective! Companies whose revenues are strongly tied to the price of oil may continue to struggle until supply and demand reach a new equilibrium.
The Fed Raises Interest Rates… And Bond Markets Yawn By Marcia Clark, CFA, MBA Warren Street Wealth Advisors December 17, 2015 Finally, after months of anticipation, on December 16, 2015 the Federal Reserve Open Market Committee raised the target overnight lending rate from 0.0% to 0.25% – where it has been for nearly a decade […]
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