Economic And Financial Market Outlook 2016 Q1

As the New Year has gotten off to a dramatic start, we anticipate 2016 to be similar to last year as fundamental conditions remain largely unchanged. Our most probable scenario for 2016 is substandard global GDP growth, modest advances for most key stock markets, very low returns for bonds and money market funds, and a continuation of challenging conditions for commodities, including oil. We have noted, however, significant divergences of professional opinion, including sharply negative views, regarding the prospects of the world’s major economic and financial markets. The focus will be on U.S. Federal Reserve policy, the dollar, the ability of Chinese policy makers to bolster their economy, commodity prices, and the plight of developing countries. A surprising negative development in any of these factors could slow U.S. economic and profit growth, but we think a full blown recession and bear market is unlikely. Success in equity investing in 2016 will continue to depend on identifying companies able to sustain attractive growth in a difficult macroeconomic environment and resisting the temptation to bottom-fish troubled markets and industry sectors.

We project global GDP growth for 2016 to be about 2.9%, which is slightly above our estimate of 2.7% in 2015. The major advanced economies should expand modestly: we project 2.5% GDP growth in the U.S. with a possible upside surprise, a slight improvement in the Euro area and Japan to 1-2% in response to accommodative central bank policies, stabilized economic conditions in China around 6%, further strengthening in India to 7.5%, and continued recessions in the commodity-exporting emerging countries.

The U.S. economy could surprise on the upside. On the positive side, further employment gains, low energy prices, and a persistent housing recovery will boost consumer confidence and spending. The recent budget agreement in Washington will add a measure of fiscal stimulus. Further, many of the structural impediments to growth arising from 2008-2009 will continue to erode.

We expect the S&P 500 Index to rise 7-10% in 2016. We view the U.S. market to be fully but not overvalued and expect the S&P 500 Index to rise in-line with corporate profit growth, which we project will be 7-9%. That is, we think the correlation between market performance and profit growth in 2015 will extend to 2016. Stock prices will continue to be buttressed by unattractive prospects for bonds and money market funds and continued high levels of M&A activity and stock buybacks.

The U.S. market will likely experience increased volatility in response to news regarding key market influences. We advise investors to maintain a longer-term perspective and not be overly influenced by short-term developments.

Despite challenging economic headwinds confronting many international economies, we think there are pockets of opportunity and companies of considerable potential which are attractive to investors.

The three-decade long decline in bonds yields is probably over. The prospect of a U.S. economic surprise on the upside, the probability of an uptick in inflation, and the advent of the Fed rate hiking process should result in a modest rise in bond yields. The consequence is the likelihood that investment grade tax-exempt and corporate debt with maturities of less than ten years will return less than 2.5%. There remains the possibility of negative total returns if inflation rises, the Fed becomes more aggressive, and current bond investors head for the exit.

We thank our many clients for their loyalty and partnership and we wish all of our readers a prosperous 2016.

Economic And Financial Market Outlook 2015 Q4

“Fortunately, prospects for the U.S. economy appear solid.”

Fed Chair Janet Yellen (9/24/15)

Heading into the fourth quarter, there are growing concerns for the health of the global economy and the possibility that it may threaten the six plus year U.S. economic expansion and stock market advance. The S&P 500 Index, for example, has just endured its worst quarter in four years. Our view, however, is one of cautious optimism:

We recognize that the recent stock market turmoil reflects heightened risks to global financial markets, which we are carefully monitoring; further economic disappointments may require us to modify our views. At this point, however, one should not lose sight of the many positive factors that continue to support the global economy.

U.S. consumers, who represent about 70% of the economy, are supporting modest growth in domestic production. They are benefiting from reduced unemployment, falling energy prices, and rising real wages. Strong consumer confidence is evidenced by monthly car sales that reached a ten year high in September and a buoyant housing market.

FRED - Total Vehicles Sold (US)

FRED - New One Family Houses Sold (US)

Nevertheless, there are pockets of weakness in the U.S. economy. The energy sector is challenged by the collapse in oil and natural gas prices. U.S. exporters and manufacturers are threatened with soft international demand and the strong dollar. In sum, we forecast real GDP to rise from approximately 2.3% this year to 2.7% next year.

Our investment policy is to look beyond current conditions, which often are transitory, and to focus on the upcoming 6-12 month period. We have identified six fundamentals that historically have supported U.S. stock markets and that have been present since the beginning of the current bull market. We are optimistic that each of the following conditions will remain positive and will continue to support equity markets:

We recommend that investors favor growth companies that will continue to prosper in the current slow growth economic environment. In particular, consumer discretionary, consumer staples, select technology, and healthcare should perform well. We are currently less enthusiastic about commodity, energy, and multinational companies confronting a rising dollar and weaker international markets. We will continue to track key leading indicators that would warrant investment in these challenged sectors.

Developed country economies and markets on balance are promising. Economic prospects for Euro Area countries are looking up. The Greek Crisis has faded and the European Central Bank continues to implement accommodative policies. Similarly, Great Britain’s economy is solid and the Japanese policy makers have the political capital necessary to initiate additional stimulus measures to promote growth. All of these countries are benefiting from currency weakness relative to the dollar, as newly attractive exports are seeing stronger demand. Further, valuations for these developed equity markets are attractive. On the other hand, countries which are heavily dependent on commodity exports, such as Canada and Australia, are expected to continue to experience challenging conditions.

There is also a mixed outlook for emerging economies. On the positive side, India most likely will enjoy the strongest GDP growth of the world’s major economies and our forecast calls for over 7% growth in 2016. Slowing growth in China has worried investors and was a trigger for recent downward pressure on global equity markets. We recently addressed this problem in more detail (see our August 24 blog “A China Correction”), concluding that while manufacturing and export related industries will continue to contract, the Chinese consumer remains a source of strength and is becoming a major driver of the global economy. Similar to Canada and Australia, many of the emerging market countries are reliant on commodity exports which have plunged in price. We do not foresee a lasting recovery that supports investments in these countries. However, some companies in emerging markets have significant prospects for growth, especially those that benefit from the long-term economic developments in China and India.

The bond market continues to provide low yields and trade near all-time high prices. Treasury yields fell across the board last quarter as investors sought a safe haven amidst equity market turmoil. The demand for high-quality bonds remains strong. Junk bond yields have risen from multi-year lows due to concerns about the oil sector’s ability to pay its debts, but the yields are at best close to their long-term average. We do not recommend that investors take undue risk in this area. The Federal Reserve remains poised to raise rates sometime in the next six months and we expect this to slightly elevate bond yields, but strong demand for high grade fixed income will likely keep the benchmark 10-year Treasury yield under 3%.

Economic And Financial Market Outlook 2015 Q2

Our intermediate term (6-12 month) forecast for the U.S. and International economies and stock markets remains positive, but we continue to be cautious on the U.S. bond market.

The U.S. economy has entered a soft patch brought on by a combination of debilitating east coast blizzards and a west coast port shutdown. Nevertheless, the labor market has continued to make significant gains with the unemployment rate falling to 5.5%. While a March report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics confirmed the existence of the first quarter soft patch with nonfarm payroll employment growth well below expectations, it still represented a year-over-year increase of over 3 million jobs. We think employment gains and improving economic data will prompt the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates in the second half of the year, but we also think the rate increases will be too modest to negatively impact the recovery from the current slowdown.

The U.S. stock market will be challenged in coming months. One obstacle will be a projected year-over-year 6% decline in S&P 500 earnings in the first quarter at a time when the market itself is, arguably, modestly overvalued. This profits shortfall will, in part, be the consequence of disappointing energy earnings, which are expected to fall 63.5% year-over-year in the first quarter, and the sharp rise in the dollar, which will derail the earnings progress of many U.S. multinational companies. Excluding energy, the estimated earnings decline for S&P 500 companies that generate more than 50% of their sales from outside the U.S. is -1.3% (source: Factset). In addition, many investors are concerned that Federal Reserve rate increases will be a major negative for the stock market.

Despite the economic soft patch and the onset of the above headwinds, the U.S. market will continue to benefit from M&A activity, dividend increases, stock buybacks, and unattractive money market and bond yields. Further, there is a silver lining in the earnings picture. Companies which are outside the oil sector and have reduced international exposure are expected to grow earnings in the first quarter at a 5.9% rate, with more gains projected for the rest of the year (Factset). A gap may well open up between the winners and the losers in the market.

Going forward, we think investors will continue to focus on five salient trends that strongly impacted stock performance in the first quarter:

The combination of a strengthening U.S. economy, which brings with it the prospect of declining unemployment, rising real wages and tightening moves by the Federal Reserve, most likely will lead to a rise in bond yields. The increase, however, is likely to be limited by what we expect to be a cautious rate increase program by the Fed (we project a 0.50% – 0.75% Federal funds rate by year end) and by shockingly low yields in European bonds. As a consequence, we think the benchmark 10-year U.S. treasury yield will rise gradually from its current 1.9% to about 2.5% by the end of the year. We thus recommend short and intermediate maturities and, as always, investment grade quality.

Economic And Financial Market Outlook 2015 Q1

From all of us at Marietta, we wish you and your families a happy and healthy 2015. As we look ahead to the coming year, we highlight the main themes from our Outlook:

The U.S. economy enters 2015 with its strongest momentum in over a decade. GDP growth of 5% in the third quarter is the largest increase since the third quarter of 2003, and the fourth quarter could mark the third consecutive quarter with growth above 4.5%. Our projection of 3.5% growth in 2015, which would be the largest annual increase this century, may prove too conservative. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, total non-farm payroll employment rose by 321,000 in November, and comes on top of an average monthly gain of 224,000 over the prior 12 months. The unemployment rate has declined from 7.0% in November 2013 to 5.8% in the latest survey. We expect monthly jobs gains above 225,000 in 2015 to lower further the unemployment rate to levels resulting in wage gains, thereby increasing middle class participation in economic growth. The dramatic plunge in the price of oil will provide an additional boost to consumer spending and also contribute to a broader social base for growth.

There are downside risks to our otherwise positive U.S. forecast. Three possible developments are most noteworthy. First, the Federal Reserve may be too aggressive in raising rates. Our view remains that the Fed, and in particular Chair Yellen, is committed to preserving the recovery and will be very cautious in raising short-term rates to only about 1% by the end of 2015 (see our blog “All Eyes on the Fed,” 9/12/2014). Rather, we think it is more likely that the Fed will be too hesitant rather than too aggressive. Second, the sharp drop in oil prices, which will benefit consumer spending, may severely hurt the U.S. oil industry, a key factor in supporting the economic recovery the past 5 years. We do not think the industry will be irreversibly damaged, but we do not forecast a significant oil price recovery in the near future (see our blog “Oil Spills: Winners and Losers,” (12/4/2014). Third, the recent slowdown in the international economies, especially Europe, Japan, and China, could intensify and hamper U.S. growth. Such a downturn, coupled with the strong dollar, would surely have a negative impact on U.S. exports, which accounts for about 13% of GDP. To the contrary, our view is that these slumping economies will recover rather than deteriorate in 2015.

Our key observation regarding the U.S. stock market is that it is poised for a sixth straight year of gains. The economy is accelerating and broadening, corporate profits are strong and above consensus expectations, inflation and interest rates are low, money-market funds and bonds are relatively unattractive, huge corporate cash coffers will continue to fund dividend increases, stock buybacks and M&A activity, the strong dollar is attracting foreign money into U.S. stocks, and valuations are reasonable. We expect the US market to rise 6-9%, in-line with corporate earnings. Our second observation is that the stock market will be more volatile. We anticipate a correction of at least 10% at some point during the year; we advise patience, discipline, and a 6-12 month perspective in responding to momentary market disruption. Third, we expect the economy-sensitive stocks of companies that provide goods and services to the domestic economy to outperform the multinational exporters.

The major international economies were disappointing in 2014, which contributed to disappointing equity markets. As the year came to a close, Europe was on the brink of recession and threatened with deflation, Japan’s recovery had faltered, and China’s growth had decelerated to its lowest level in 15 years. The vibrant U.S. economy and the weak euro and yen will help stabilize these second, third, and fourth largest economies in the world, but what is really needed is more growth-oriented policies from politicians and central banks. The ECB is prepared to embark on a massive quantitative easing program, likely to be announced in the first quarter, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has indicated that he will delay a sales tax hike and will continue with Japan’s unprecedented monetary stimulus program.

In recent years, international stock market returns have trailed the gains of U.S stock markets. We do not expect this pattern to shift in 2015 as the U.S. economy is very strong. However, there is a compelling case to continue to invest in international companies. Valuations of international companies are more attractive than their U.S. counterparts. The Japanese yen and the euro have weakened against the dollar, improving prospects for exporters. If policy makers come through with pro-growth initiatives, international stock markets could revalue at higher multiples which would result in strong stock market gains. While the road to recovery in international markets is likely to be bumpy, we think investors will be rewarded for having exposure to foreign companies, as there are many outstanding international growth companies whose stocks are very promising. We especially favor those that export into the U.S.

From May 1, 2013 through December 31, 2013, the yield on the benchmark 10-year U.S. Treasury note soared from 1.63% to 3.03% after then Fed Chair Ben Bernanke announced that the Fed would soon begin slowing the pace of quantitative easing. The near-unanimous forecast last year was that bond yields would rise further in 2014 as the Fed carried out its tapering policy of cutting back on its $85 billion per month bond purchasing program. Instead, the 10-year yield at the end of 2014 fell to 2.17%. A major contributor to this surprise was the collapse in the yields of European sovereign bonds as their economies weakened and deflation risks arose; the strong dollar was an additional reason for foreigners to buy U.S. bonds. The Fed rate hikes, a strengthening economy, and a moderate pickup in inflation should push yields up in 2015, but the strong dollar coupled with accommodative foreign central banks will likely continue to limit the increase. We expect the yield on the 10-year Treasury note to rise slightly from current low yields with the result that 2015 will be another year in which stocks outperform bonds.