Markets were rattled last week.
The market hates surprises, especially when the surprise comes from a central bank. Last week, the European Central Bank (ECB) unexpectedly reversed course and took a more accommodative stance on monetary policy in an effort to encourage stronger European economic growth. Tom Fairless of Barron’s explained:
“Officials are seeking to shore up an economy that has been rattled by shocks ranging from a slowdown in China to mass protests in France and bottlenecks in Germany’s crucial auto industry. They are threading a careful path between providing sufficient support for the region’s softening economy while avoiding any appearance of panic, which could ricochet through financial markets.”
The Eurozone isn’t the only region feeling the pinch of weaker economic growth. China’s exports were down more than 20 percent in February, reported Investing.com. Analysts had expected a decline of about 5 percent. Concerns about the health of China’s economy have been growing since the publication of ‘A Forensic Examination of China’s National Accounts’ by the Brookings Institute. The authors concluded:
“First, nominal GDP [gross domestic product*] growth after 2008 and particularly after 2013 is lower than suggested by the official statistics. Second, the savings rate has declined by 10 percentage points between 2008 and 2016. The official statistics suggest the savings rate only declined by 3 percentage points between these two years. Third, our statistics suggest that the investment rate has [fallen] by about 3 percent of GDP between 2008 and 2016. Official statistics suggest that the investment rate has increased over this period.”
*Gross domestic product is the monetary measure of the market value of all goods and services produced annually in the country.
As if that weren’t enough, the U.S. jobs report for February reported far fewer jobs had been created than was expected.
It will come as little surprise to learn that major U.S. stock indices moved lower last week.
Is it a soft landing?
Economists use aviation metaphors to describe the results of central banks’ efforts to manage rapidly growing economies. If the Federal Reserve lifts rates enough to prevent the economy from overheating without jolting it into recession, then it has engineered a soft landing, according to Investopedia. (Rate increases that drop a country into recession are hard landings.)
Ben Levisohn of Barron’s thinks recent Fed actions may have produced the second soft landing in the history of the United States:
“…the Federal Reserve might have engineered a soft landing for the U.S. economy…When Chairman Jerome Powell abruptly decided that he would hold off on further rate hikes, the market responded as if a recession was no longer in the offing. And it probably isn’t…There are also signs that the Fed, simply by taking a breather, has eased monetary conditions. The evidence: The yield curve is steepening. The difference between 30-year and two-year Treasury yields – the spread most correlated to money supply – has risen to about 0.6 percentage point, the highest since June…”
Not everyone agrees.
Last week, Economist Robert Shiller told Bloomberg, “The economy has been growing pretty smoothly…There are some signs there might be things amiss. The housing market is soaring and the stock market is high. It’s been a long time that we’ve been in this recovery period and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if there was a recession.”
The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index and Nasdaq Composite delivered slight gains last week, while the Dow Jones Industrial Average was flat.
Investors were pleased with the Federal Reserve’s (Fed) new approach to its balance sheet.
The Fed delivered its semi-annual Monetary Policy Report to Congress last week. The report recapped the events of late 2018 and reiterated the Fed’s intention to “…be patient as it determines what future adjustments to the federal funds rate may be appropriate to support the Committee's congressionally mandated objectives of maximum employment and price stability.”1
In other words, rate hikes are on hold for now.
The Fed also addressed issues related to its balance sheet, which grew from $900 billion at the end of 2006 – about 6 percent of the United States’ gross domestic product (GDP) – to almost $4.5 trillion at the end of 2014 – about 25 percent of U.S. GDP. (GDP is the value of all goods and services produced in the United States in a given period.)2, 3
The balance sheet more than quadrupled during the past decade because the Fed began buying Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities, a policy called quantitative easing, in an effort to restore the U.S. economy to health, according to The Hutchins Center of the Brookings Institute.4
Friday’s report indicated the Fed will not shrink its balance sheet to pre-crisis levels, reported Erwida Maulia for Financial Times. Markets responded positively to the news:5
“U.S. stocks and Treasuries were comfortably higher at midday on Friday as the Federal Reserve signaled it will hold a much larger balance sheet in the long term than it did before the financial crisis, helping ease investor concerns about tightening financial conditions.”
Investors also remained optimistic about trade talks between the United States and China. Major U.S. stock indices finished the week higher.6
Why did the stock market do that?
The great mystery of stock markets reared its head last week. With no clear driver, the Dow Jones Industrial Average gained more than 3 percent, while the Nasdaq Composite and Standard & Poor’s (S&P) 500 Index moved higher by about 2.5 percent. It was a puzzler. Ben Levisohn of Barron’s explained:
“Given those gains, we’d expect a heaping helping of good news, but not much was forthcoming. Earnings reports from [two large multinational companies] left investors wanting. And economic data were either bad or terrible in the United States – industrial production declined in January, the first drop in eight months, while December’s retail sales fell the most for any month since 2009. But who needs good news when the United States and China are reportedly making progress on trade talks? Yes, the details remain a little fuzzy, but at least the tone is more constructive.”
It probably wasn’t just optimism about China that pushed markets higher. Consumer Sentiment, which gauges Americans expectations for the economy, was up more than 4 percent month-to-month. One driver of consumer optimism was relief the government shutdown had ended. Another driver is a change in inflation expectations, which are at the lowest level seen in half a century. Americans think inflation will remain low and they anticipate wages will rise. The Federal Reserve’s newly accommodative attitude hasn’t hurt, either.
Investor sentiment was leaning bullish last week, too. Willie Delwiche of See It Market reported the Investor Intelligence survey of financial advisors showed 49 percent bullish and 21 percent bearish. The AAII Investor Sentiment Survey reported bulls (40 percent) edged bears (37 percent) by a neck. Those indicators were balanced by the Daily Trading Sentiment Composite from Ned Davis Research which suggested optimism was too high.
When markets rise, as they have during the past few weeks, it may be tempting to take a more aggressive stance and tilt your portfolio toward U.S. stocks. This may not be a good idea.
Central banks take a turn.
At its first policy meeting of 2019, the U.S. Federal Reserve changed direction. After four rate increases in 2018, Chair Jerome Powell announced interest rates were on hold. Last week, banks in the United Kingdom, Australia, and India followed suit by either reducing rates or cautioning rate reductions were likely, reported Sam Fleming and Jamie Smyth of Financial Times.
The dovish tone of central banks owes much to slowing global growth. January’s International Monetary Fund World Economic Outlook lowered global growth estimates for 2019 and 2020. Changing expectations were fueled both by factors that slowed momentum in the second half of 2018 and by issues that pose a potential risk to continued economic growth. These included:
These issues have had limited effect on the U.S. economy; however, global risks are affecting the performance of some U.S. companies. Financial Times explained:
“The U.S. domestic economy has continued to put in a robust performance, with the number of new jobs in January coming in well ahead of Wall Street expectations and wage growth running comfortably above inflation. But corporate giants in the S&P 500 index, which generate over a third of their earnings overseas, are sounding the alarm about faltering overseas demand in markets including China, where the government has been battling against a slowdown. Smaller U.S. firms are feeling the global chill as well.”
Randall Forsyth at Barron’s reported major U.S. benchmarks finished last week higher, while the yield on 10-year U.S. Treasuries hit a 13-month low. Outside the United States, some global stock markets moved lower.
And, U.S. stock markets celebrated.
Last week, the Federal Reserve put itself on hold. The Federal Open Market Committee met on Wednesday, January 30, 2019, to discuss the state of the economy and determine policy. After the meeting, Fed Chair Jerome Powell offered a positive assessment of U.S. economic strength that was leavened with a few concerns.
“We continue to expect that the American economy will grow at a solid pace in 2019, although likely slower than the very strong pace of 2018…Despite this positive outlook…Growth has slowed in some major foreign economies, particularly China and Europe. There is elevated uncertainty around several unresolved government policy issues, including Brexit, ongoing trade negotiations, and the effects from the partial government shutdown in the United States…We are now facing a somewhat contradictory picture of generally strong U.S. macroeconomic performance, alongside growing evidence of cross-currents. At such times, common sense risk management suggests patiently awaiting greater clarity…”
The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index (S&P 500) welcomed the news and delivered its best January performance since 1987, reported Reuters.
Earnings may have helped. Through the end of last week, almost one-half of companies in the S&P 500 had shared fourth quarter 2018 earnings. FactSet reported the blended year-over-year earnings growth – which includes earnings for companies that have reported and earnings estimates for companies that have not yet reported – was 12.4 percent. That’s lower than the 20-plus percent growth companies have delivered since late 2017, and it’s the fifth straight quarter of double-digit earnings growth.
There was good news to close the week, too. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported far more jobs were created in January than analysts had anticipated, although unemployment ticked higher for the month because of the government shutdown, reported Bloomberg.
Like competitors who’ve completed a difficult section in an endurance race, U.S. stock investors took a breather last week.
The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index, which has gotten off to its best start since 1987, ended the week with a slight loss, while the Dow Jones Industrial Average and Nasdaq Composite finished slightly higher, reported Ben Levisohn of Barron’s.
News the U.S. government shutdown would end, albeit temporarily, appeared to be of little interest to investors. Barron’s suggested the markets’ muted response to the government reopening was in balance with its response to the shutdown – there wasn’t much of one. In fact, the S&P 500 has gained 10 percent since the federal government closed.
Despite apparent disinterest, the shutdown could negatively affect sentiment, according to Sam Fleming and Brooke Fox of Financial Times. They reported:
“The record-breaking US government shutdown is triggering ripple effects across the US economy and risks denting confidence among companies that have already been fretting about trade disputes and stock market turbulence. Shutdowns have historically had only fleeting economic effects, but Jay Powell, the Federal Reserve chairman, warned last week that a dispute that outlasts past impasses could begin to change the picture for the worse.”
Last week, stock investors weren’t all that impressed by earnings, either. Earnings indicate how profitable companies were in the previous quarter. At the end of last week, 22 percent of companies in the S&P 500 had reported earnings and, overall, they were 3 percent above estimates, according to John Butters at FactSet.
However, indications the Federal Reserve may decide to keep more Treasuries on its balance sheet than originally anticipated gave U.S. stocks a boost late in the week, reported Nick Timiraos of The Wall Street Journal. The Fed began shrinking its balance sheet in 2017 by letting Treasury and mortgage bonds mature. We’ll know more after this week’s Fed meeting.
We’re off to a good start.
Investors who remained steady during December’s wild ride are probably pleased with their decision as stocks have gotten off to a strong start in 2019. Unfortunately, those who reduced their exposure to the asset class may be feeling the sting of missed opportunity.
Last week, the Dow Jones Industrial Average gained about 3 percent. The Index is up 5.9 percent year-to-date, which is its best start in more than a decade, according to Ben Levisohn of Barron’s. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index (S&P 500) and NASDAQ Composite also moved higher last week.
Barron’s reported investors were encouraged by positive news about trade talks between the United States and China, as well as stronger-than-expected fourth quarter earnings. Eleven percent of S&P 500 companies have reported so far and, altogether, their earnings have beaten expectations by 3.2 percent, according to FactSet. (Quarterly earnings indicate how profitable a company was during the period being reported.)
The FTSE All-World Index also moved higher last week. It is up almost 8.5 percent for the year.
Richard Henderson, Emma Dunkley, and Robin Wigglesworth of Financial Times offered the opinion investors could have been overly pessimistic during December, and their change in attitude might be attributed to a more dovish tone at the U.S. Federal Reserve, as well as evidence the U.S. economy remains strong.
While investor confidence appears to be strengthening, consumer confidence wavered. The University of Michigan Survey of Consumers showed consumer confidence was lower in January 2019 than it was in January 2018. The Survey’s Chief Economist Richard Curtin wrote, “The loss was due to a host of issues including the partial government shutdown, the impact of tariffs, instabilities in financial markets, the global slowdown, and the lack of clarity about monetary policies.”
People love rules of thumb.
Sometimes, mental shortcuts are helpful. Other times they are not. When it comes to investing, seasonal shortcuts are not uncommon. In fact, January boasts two:
The January Effect explains why U.S. smaller company stocks tend to outperform the market in January. The original theory held that tax-loss harvesting pushed stock prices lower in December, making shares more attractive to investors in January. An article published in International Journal of Financial Research explained the effect could also owe something to the optimism that accompanies a new year, as well as year-end cash windfalls.
In his book, A Random Walk Down Wall Street, Burton Malkiel described the January Effect this way, “…the effect is not dependable in each year. In other words, the January ‘loose change’ costs too much to pick up, and in some years it turns out to be a mirage.”
The January Barometer suggests the performance of stocks during the first month of the year offers insight to the direction of stocks for the year as a whole.
Last week, the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index (S&P 500) was up 2.5 percent. If the Index finishes this month higher, then the January Barometer suggests it should finish the year in positive territory.
Of course, you need look no further than 2018 to see the January Barometer is not completely accurate. In January 2018, the S&P 500 gained 5.6 percent, and it finished the year in negative territory.
According to Fidelity, the theory is flawed because, while stocks move higher for the year a significant percentage of the time after gaining value in January, they also move higher for the year a significant percentage of the time after losing value in January.
This is why mental shortcuts are often poor investment guides.
There is one rule of thumb investors may want to consider adopting: A well-allocated and diversified portfolio that aligns with long-term financial aspirations to help meet goals along with periodic reviews with their financial professional.
Investors will think of the last quarter of 2018 for years to come, but they won’t remember it fondly. The Economist described it like this,
“After a rotten October and limp November, the S&P 500 tumbled in value by 15 percent between November 30th and December 24th. Despite an astonishing bounce of 5 percent the day after Christmas, the index finished the year 6 percent below where it started...”
Last quarter’s volatility and the slide in share prices owed much to uncertainty about economic growth. Investors were concerned about a variety of issues, including:
As anxiety rose during the fourth quarter of 2018, some investors rushed to the perceived safety of bonds. High demand pushed the yield on 10-year Treasury bonds lower. It dropped from 2.99 percent to 2.69 percent during December, according to Yahoo! Finance.
While increasing bond exposure may have been a prudent portfolio adjustment for investors who were taking more risk than they could bear, those who moved out of stocks on fear missed out. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index and the Dow Jones Industrial Average posted their biggest one-day point gains on record on December 26, reported Emily McCormick for Yahoo! Finance.
At this point, some investors feel overwhelmed and worried about their ability to reach personal financial goals. If you’re one of them, please give us a call. Sometimes, reviewing life and financial goals, and the reasoning behind portfolio choices, may be reassuring. We look forward to hearing from you.