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2016 Newsletters

11-22-2016-header
The Volatile Path Back to “Old Normal”

After 2 weeks of absorbing the U.S. election results, watching the financial markets and reading countless market and economic commentaries, we offer the following condensed thoughts.

What was Expected?

While the election was thought to be close, the odds makers and thus the financial markets were clearly expecting a Clinton victory. That meant continued heavy entitlements, higher taxes, very low GDP growth, low inflation and a decent chance of a recession in 2017. All of this led to ultra-low interest rates and a relatively high stock market based on no real alternatives for positive risk based returns.

What Happened?

But Trump won. Now if, and a big if, Trump’s Republican-led houses get their way, we will see lower taxes (lower personal and corporate taxes and no 3.8% Obamacare tax), less regulation and all manner of fiscal stimulus that has so far been absent in our weak recovery over the last eight years. This would lead to higher GDP, higher wages, no recession and eventually higher inflation. The new premise is that we are headed back to the “old normal” of 3-4% GDP, 3%+ 10 year government bonds and higher corporate growth rates. Therefore, valuations multiples would also “normalize” with lower P/E ratios and higher cap rates for real estate.

4q16-newsletter-header

Financial Markets Review by Mark:

U.S. and World Economy

The calm before the storm. Developed world financial markets (U.S., Japan and Europe) have become numb to the long-term effects of unprecedented monetary stimulus. The companies in the S&P500 are now reporting their 6th quarterly drop in revenue and 4th quarterly drop in corporate profits. The labor recovery peaked 8 months ago (job openings and unemployment) as weak hiring is catching up to weak GDP growth. After a 1% revised first half U.S. GDP growth, the second half of the year was supposed to bounce back – it has not. Yet both stock and bond markets remain near all-time highs amidst very low (by historic standards) volatility. The developed world stock markets have benefited from very low cost borrowing to facilitate share buy-backs, artificially creating higher earnings per share; bonds have benefited from Central Bank buy-backs as well.

However, these monetary maneuvers may have peaked this summer. Since then, interest rates have moved higher and the stocks which moved highest the first half of the year have dropped the most in the second half (REITs, utilities, tech). In addition, near-term election cycles here and in Europe have raised the voice of nationalism, border and trade protection. There is talk of “Italeave” ala “Brexit”. We believe that the next major downturn will start in Europe where low and negative interest rates have pulled business forward as much as possible, bringing the weak economic expansion to an earlier than expected close. Initially, the U.S. will be the beneficiary of a flight to quality, but a stronger Dollar set against a falling Yen and Euro will hurt our exports and lead to our own recession.

3Q2016 Optivest Newsletter
Financial Markets Review by Mark:

U.S. Economy
The steep drop in financial markets early in the year aggravated fears of a near-term recession. Since then the markets have rebounded allowing fears to subside, yet we now have warning signs from the U.S. economy itself. Hiring is weak, sales are slipping and new business investments are dropping. Manufacturing remains weak and corporate profits have not gained ground in 3 quarters. All of these are classic signs of an impending economic downturn. Uneven economic growth throughout our 7-year expansion has given us several such scares in the past. The latest excuse is to blame slow growth on the rest of the world: i.e. America would be booming if not for China, which would be booming if not for Europe, which blames Japan, which in turn blames America. With uncertainty increasing from Brexit and U.S. election cycles, we continue to forecast a recession in the next 12 – 18 months.

Brexit
Much has already been written and read concerning the “Brexit” decision on June 23rd. It caught the financial markets off guard and sent equities and commodities down (except gold) as bonds and REITs went up; then we had a quick reversal. It is very hard to plan for binary outcomes (i.e. heads or tails scenarios), however our “all accounts composite” only dipped 5 basis points between the time of the vote and second quarter-end. Our low equity exposure and larger real estate and alternatives allocations resulted in continued gains for the year, despite a weak stock market. 

2016 Economic Update

Financial Markets Review by Mark:

First Quarter 2016 Review –
What a wild first quarter! After the stock and corporate bond markets had one of the steepest sell-offs during the first 7 weeks of the year (and the S&P 500 was down over 10%), the markets rebounded to end the quarter virtually unchanged for the year. As frustrating and scary as this was, Optivest clients were aided by our defensive start, purchases on dips and continued advances on our REIT holdings, which collectively resulted in one of our best quarters ever.

U.S. Economy –
The year started off with one of the biggest “false alarm” market scares in years. Worries increased about global slowing/recession, deflation, Chinese devaluation, falling profits, excessive emerging market debt and corporate defaults due to cheap oil. The usual “safe haven” investments – gold, U.S. Treasuries and Swiss Franc – rallied, gaining momentum born from fear. Finally, oil appeared to bounce at about $28/barrel enticing “bottom fishers” who first gave the equity and commodity markets a push, then a retest of the bottom, followed by a 7 week rally ending right back where they started the year. “Safe haven” price gains have held while all of the worries remain, indicating future volatility.

Optivest Economic Update

Financial Markets Review by Mark:

2015 Economic Review –
World markets have been caught between two strong forces: 1. the Federal Reserve’s desire to increase interest rates as a result of an improving U.S. job market, and 2. weakening economies in the rest of the world as a result of China’s deceleration, bringing commodity prices to multi-year lows. The result produced a volatile tug-of-war causing U.S. markets to deliver the worst year since 2008 after dealing with a soaring U.S. Dollar, sinking junk bonds, low yields and crashing oil prices.

Outside of the F.A.N.G.s (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, and Google), U.S. stocks struggled all year, commodities and emerging markets dropped in sync, liquid alternatives faltered (average hedge fund was down 3%), and old European markets advanced thanks to a devalued Euro and heavy Central Bank stimulus. Interest rates rose, leaving most bond funds with either small gains or losses (including income). 2015 was quite a frustrating year for investors as there were few winners and multiple losing asset classes.