In the game of sports and investing there are a lot of unanticipated dynamics that occur during the course of a game, season, or year. With the second quarter of 2014 now coming to a close, we have reached the half-way point of the year. Along the way, the coach (and investors) may need to make some strategic halftime adjustments. Reassessing or reflecting on the positioning of your investment portfolio once or twice per year in the context of your investment objectives, time horizon, and risk tolerance level is never a bad idea – especially when there are unforeseen events continually materializing during the game.
During the first half of the year, the financial markets have experienced numerous surprises:
- Declining Interest Rates: Under the auspices of a massive 2013 gain in stock prices, expectations were for an accelerating economy and rising interest rates in 2014. Instead, the 10-Year Treasury Note has seen its yield counterintuitively plunge from 3.03% to 2.52%.
- Geopolitical Tensions (Ukraine/Syria/Iraq): The stock market has ground higher this year in spite of geopolitical tensions in Ukraine, Syria, and now Iraq. These skirmishes make for great TV, radio, and blog content, but the reality is these conflicts will likely be forgotten/ignored in favor of other fresher clashes in the coming months and quarters.
- Unabated Tapering: It’s true the Federal Reserve signaled the reduction in its bond buying stimulus program last year, however the more surprising aspect has been the pace of the taper. From the beginning of the year, the $85 billion program has already been reduced to $35 billion and will likely be reduced to $0 by the fall.
- Polar Vortex/GDP: Weather is very unpredictable, and regardless of your views on global warming, the unseasonably cold weather on the eastern half of the country had a severely negative impact on first half GDP (Gross Domestic Product). In fact, first quarter GDP was revised lower to a contraction of -2.9%. The good news is expectations are for an improved second half of the year according toMerrill Lynch.
While it would be wonderful to live in Utopia, unfortunately for investors, there is always uncertainty and risk. These elements come with the investing territory. Of course, you can always compensate for that unwanted uncertainty by accepting low interest-paying options (e.g., stuffing your money under a mattress, in a CD, savings account, Treasury bonds, etc.).
Despite the unexpected first half events, the market continues to grind higher. During the first half of the year, the S&P 500 index rose 6.1% (+1.9% in June); the Dow Jones Industrials edged higher by +1.5% (+0.7% in June); and the Nasdaq climbed +5.5% (+3.9% in June). But stocks weren’t the only winning investment team in town – bonds tasted victory during the first half also, notching gains of +2.8% (AGG – Aggregate Bond), almost double the Dow’s performance.
Investor Psyche Pendulum Swinging in Positive Direction
As I have written in the past, investor psyches continually swing along an emotional pendulum (see alsoSentiment Pendulum article) from a state of “Panic” to “Euphoria”. While the pendulum has clearly swung in a positive direction, away from the emotional states of “Panic & Fear,” we appear to now be between “Skepticism & Hope.” The timing of when we get to the latter stages of “Optimism & Euphoria” is dependent on the pace of the economic recovery, risk appetites of consumers/businesses, and the trajectory of risky assets like stocks. Just because the ride has been fun for the last five years, does not mean the ride is over. However, as the pendulum continues to swing to the left, long-term investors need to fight the tempting urge to increase risk appetite just as the allure of high stock returns appears more achievable.
During the second half of this economic cycle, before the next recession, investors need to be more cognizant of controlling risk (the probability of permanent losses) by paying closer attention to valuations, diversification, and rebalancing too heavily weighted equity portfolios.
Besides rising stock prices and the beginning of positive fund flows, investors’ increasing appetite for risk is evidenced by the yield chasing occurring in junk bonds, which has raised prices of the lowest quality bonds to lofty levels. The chart below shows this phenomenon happening with the yields narrowing between high yield (HY) bonds and investment grade (IG) corporate bonds.
Even though I pointed out a number of disconcerting surprises in the first half of the year, as you consider making halftime adjustments to your portfolios, do not forget some of the underlying positive currents that are leading to a winning halftime score.
Here are some of the constructive factors supporting stock prices, which have nearly tripled in value from the 2009 lows (S&P 500: 666 to 1,960):
Record Corporate Profits: I constantly bump into skeptics who fail to realize the fundamental power of record profits driving stock prices higher (see chart below). As the late John Templeton stated, “In the long run, the stock market indexes fluctuate around the long-term upward trend of earnings per share.”
|Source: Dr. Ed’s Blog|
Improving Consumer Confidence: The University of Michigan consumer sentiment index increased to 82.5 for June from May. The confidence score came in above the consensus forecast of 82.0. Confidence has increased significantly from the 2009 lows but as the chart below shows, there is plenty of room for this metric to advance – consistent with the emotion pendulum discussed previously.
Source: Calculated Risk
Dividends & Share Buybacks Near Record Levels: A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Corporations have realized this investor desire and as a result companies are returning record levels of money (“capital”) to stock shareholders via increasing dividends and share buybacks (see chart below).
|Source: Dr. Ed’s Blog|
Housing on the Mend: The housing market has improved in fits and starts, but the most recent data point of new home sales shows significant improvement. More specifically, May’s new home sales were up +18.6% from the previous month (see chart below), the highest level seen since 2008. Although this data is encouraging, there is still plenty of room for improvement, as current sales remain more than 50% below 2005 peak levels.
|Source: Calculated Risk|
Record Industrial Production: Adding support to the improving economic outlook are the industrial production figures, which also hit a record (see chart below). This data also adds credence to why the U.S. stock market has outperformed the European markets during the economic recovery from 2009.
|Source: Calafia Beach Pundit|
Declining Federal Deficit: The federal deficit continues to narrow (i.e., tax revenues growing faster than government spending), so previous fiscally panicked screams have quieted down. We’re not out of the woods yet, but the trends are encouraging (see chart below):
|Source: Calafia Beach Pundit|
There have been plenty of bombshells during the first half of 2014 (no pun intended), and there are bound to be plenty more during the second half of the year. By definition, nobody can be fully prepared for a surprise, or else it wouldn’t be called a “surprise”. For those skeptical investors sitting on the