Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Features Marietta Portfolio Manager

Marietta’s investment strategy often relies on broad economic themes that will push growth in specific regions, sectors, and industries. We explore stocks which will benefit from these trends and invest in the companies that have demonstrated an ability to consistently execute their business plans and grow earnings. Portfolio Manager, Mary Allmon, shared one of these themes that we are excited about with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Kathleen Gallagher this past Sunday. To read the article, please follow the link below:

Manager seeks growth from Chinese consumers and mobile strategies

John Evans named “Five Star Wealth Manager”

Marietta is pleased to announce that John Evans has been named a “Five Star Wealth Manager” for the 4th year in a row. Each year, Milwaukee Magazine partners with Five Star Professional – a market research firm – to publish a list of wealth managers who meet an objective set of criteria. The list is intended to assist individuals in selecting a service professional that other investors have indicated provides exceptional client satisfaction and service.

At Marietta, we take great pride in providing the best possible service to our clients. We are delighted to receive this recognition and look forward to continuing to serve you in the future.

Marietta Celebrates 15th Anniversary

February 7, 2015 marked the 15th anniversary of the founding of Marietta. Looking back over these years, we are especially grateful for the loyalty and support of our clients. At a gathering of the firm’s members to commemorate this anniversary, Managing Partner, John Evans provided an optimistic forecast for global markets and stated that “Marietta is now stronger and has a brighter future than at any time in its history.” As we confront the opportunities and challenges of the future, we rededicate ourselves to Marietta’s Mission: “to provide the highest quality client service.”

To all of our clients, we say thank you!

Marietta Attends University of Chicago Booth’s Economic Outlook 2015

On January 15, 2015, current Booth MBA student, Jonathan Smucker, and colleague, Mary Allmon attended the University of Chicago Booth’s Economic Outlook 2015. The presenters were dynamic speakers with impressive resumes:

The presenters collectively agreed that 2015 would be a year of slightly faster U.S. GDP growth, that European policy makers must act in order to fight deflation, and that India is on the right track. These statements are all consistent with Marietta’s 2015 Outlook. The presenters also agreed that the recent plunge in the price of oil was unexpected, but was a net positive to the economies of oil importers, the US included. They did not necessarily agree on the causes of the drastic price move: Goolsbee cited slowing demand in China while Tannenbaum mentioned geopolitical games being played within OPEC. Tannenbaum echoed a statement similar to Marietta’s Dec. 4 Oil Blog “Oil Spills: Winners and Losers” that while US oil production growth will slow in the short term, it is unlikely to be permanently damaged. The speakers also agreed that the Fed was likely to raise interest rates in the second half of the year, with fall being the median prediction.

Oil Spills: Winners and Losers

Summary: Oil prices have plummeted in recent weeks. There are many reasons why the downward pressure in prices is unlikely to stop anytime soon. The oil producers will likely be able to weather the storm, but will have to curb aggressive growth expectations. There are winners as well as losers, and investors should consider adding exposure to companies that benefit from lower gas prices.

WTI Crude Oil Trailing 6-mo Price Performance.” WTI Crude Oil (Jan’15). CNBC, n.d. Web. 05 Dec. 2014.

OPEC made headlines on Thanksgiving Day by refraining from cutting oil production, despite the price of Brent Crude oil declining over 30% year to date and over 25% in the fourth quarter alone. There are various reasons for this drop in prices, most notably rising oil production (especially in North America), decelerating global economic growth, a plateauing of demand for oil in China, and the multi-year trend towards increasing energy efficiency. Increased production and the move towards energy efficiency are long-term trends that will likely continue to keep downward pressure on the oil market.

The investment impact has been dramatic this quarter. The stocks of oil exploration and production, service, and equipment companies have slumped along with the price of oil. Seemingly any company with exposure to the booming oil production conditions in the U.S. has sold off as well. Investors are calculating that lower oil prices will curb growth in the oil producers. While the sharp reaction in oil prices may overshoot to the downside, a prolonged period of lower than $85 per barrel is not out of the question. This will temper the aggressive expansion in oil production in the U.S. but will not severely damage the industry. Existing wells will continue to pump oil profitably, but companies will likely delay or cancel new well projects if oil prices stay low. Many oil companies’ profit expectations are contingent on the creation of new wells and thus will be lowered. Investors should be wary of exposure to the industry for the next several months. Those who want to maintain long-term exposure should look to well-capitalized industry leaders with global assets. The price of oil will fully recover to over $100 per barrel once global growth picks back up, or suppliers cut production levels enough that prices rise.

On the other hand, there are companies that have received a stock price boost from lower oil prices. Companies in industries where fuel is a major cost (such as airlines and trucking) should post better than expected profits. Additionally, lower gas prices act similarly to a tax cut and put dollars directly into consumers’ pockets. This may well spur discretionary spending and make for a strong holiday shopping season for retailers. Investors should consider increasing exposure to companies that benefit from lower oil prices.

2Q Earnings Season Results

In its July 3 Outlook, the Marietta Investment Team identified six fundamentals that historically have supported stock markets and continue to buttress the current bull market. One of the most important of these is healthy corporate earnings prospects. Because the market has approached what we consider the high end of fair value, a sustainable advance in equity markets should be accompanied by an increase in corporate profits. With the second quarter earnings season nearing an end, Deutsche Bank noted in a research piece on Aug. 25 that S&P 500 aggregate earnings surged 7.9% to a new record high. Excluding financial companies, the gain was an even more impressive 12.4%. Along with these healthy profit gains, companies also grew sales 4.7%, the most in 2 years, and expanded net margins 1.3% to a new all-time high. In the beginning of the year, Marietta’s Investment Team projected 7-9% growth in 2014 corporate profits which led us to forecast an equivalent 7-9% advance in the S&P 500 Index. Corporate profits are on track to reach or exceed this projection.

Earlier this week, the S&P 500 Index surpassed 2000 for the first time ever. The Index has advanced over 8% so far in 2014, in large part due to these strong profits. Wall Street analysts remain optimistic: Howard Silverblatt, senior index analyst for S&P Dow Jones Indices, reports that Wall Street analyst consensus estimates project a rise in corporate earnings of 11.9% for the year. We are carefully tracking the economy and profit margins to verify that these favorable forecasts are reasonable. If they are, a further advance in the market would be warranted.

Journal Sentinel Features Marietta Portfolio Manager

Marietta’s investment strategy often relies on broad economic themes that will push growth in specific regions, sectors, and industries. We explore stocks which will benefit from these trends and invest in the companies that have demonstrated an ability to consistently execute their business plans and grow earnings. Associate Portfolio Manager Robert Draper shared one of these themes that we are excited about with the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel’s Kathleen Gallagher this past Sunday. To read the article, please follow the link below:

The Positive Case for the U.S. Stock Market Revisited

We remain optimistic regarding prospects for the U.S. market, but with a more elevated level of caution.

Coming into the year, we forecasted 2014 U.S. GDP growth of about 3%, which we expected to result in Standard and Poor’s 500 (S&P 500) corporate profit growth of 7-9%. In a fairly valued but not overvalued market, we projected further that this profit growth would result in a corresponding 7-9% gain for the S&P 500 Index in 2014 (see Marietta’s Jan. 3 Outlook).

Since the beginning of the year:

We emphasize that there are many other factors influencing the market in addition to corporate profit gains and valuation. Among the offsetting positives are:

Our conclusion is that the positive case for stocks is still intact, but the rising valuation of the market increases its vulnerability to an economic or geopolitical surprise. Investors will need to be cautious and flexible.

Bond Fund Buyers Beware

Proposed Bond Fund Fee Highlights the Unappreciated Risk in Bond Mutual Funds

Readers of the Financial Times were confronted yesterday with a front-page article headlined, “Fed Fears Over Bond Fund Run.” According to the article, the Federal Reserve, increasingly concerned about the vulnerability of the bond market, particularly bond mutual funds, is considering an unprecedented move to impose exit fees on bond fund owners looking to redeem their shares.

The Financial Times highlights the problem facing the Federal Reserve:

“Officials fear that bond funds are becoming ‘shadow banks’, because investors can withdraw their money on demand, even though the assets held by the funds can be hard to sell in a crisis.”
“. . . U.S. retail investors have pumped more than $1 trillion into bond funds since early 2009. This has created a boom for fixed-income money managers, but raises the prospect of a massive disorganized flight of money should interest rates rise
sharply.”

The goal of the proposed fees is to discourage this mass exodus from the bond market and prevent a bursting of the bond bubble. This is an important acknowledgement of the significant risk that should have been apparent to investors who parked assets in bond funds for their perceived safety. We think the Fed’s fears regarding bond mutual funds, a favorite investment of many wealth management firms looking to safeguard clients’ “sleep-at-night money,” are warranted.

It is important to note the distinction between bond mutual funds and actual individual bonds. Mutual funds that invest in bonds, even the safest bonds, carry a risk that owners of individual bonds avoid. Under normal circumstances, if an investor in the bond fund wants to sell, the manager can use the money from a new investor to pay to seller without selling the underlying bond. However, when there are more sellers than buyers, the fund is forced to sell the bonds to make up the difference. Bond investors are accustomed to the two main risks in this sector: the bond may default and the value may decline if interest rates rise. But a run on bond funds is a particularly acute problem for those invested in them. The bond fund market has ballooned to over $10 trillion with an increasing proportion of those assets from retail investors. A sharp rise in interest rates, which many economists and financial commentators consider a matter of when rather than if, could trigger a panic and a rush of bond fund investors looking to sell. If this run on bond funds happens, fund managers will have to sell, potentially at steep losses, and fund investors will find that the value of their investments was far less secure than they thought. Unlike bond funds though, limiting fixed-income investments to individual bonds, which Marietta advises for clients, gives investors the option to hold the bond to maturity and receive the bond’s par value. Bond mutual funds never mature and during a run its investors are left to the mercy of the market.

While the Fed is concerned about the effect such a sharp rate rise will have on the broader economy, its targeting of bond mutual funds should serve as a warning to bond fund investors. Bond mutual funds carry unique risk in a time of historic, artificially inflated bond prices. Wealth managers who view these investments as secure based on the quality of the bonds in the fund ignore, to the detriment of their clients, the market risk inherent in these investments. Marietta aims to protect clients against the traditional risks of bonds by holding short maturity, high-quality bonds, and we have consistently advised against holding bond funds rather than actual bonds because of the potential illiquidity of the fund shares. That the central bank is even considering such an extraordinary control over the bond fund market reinforces our conviction that bond mutual funds expose investors to heightened and inappropriate risks, especially those investors looking to reduce risk by investing in bonds.

Emerging Economy Stocks Rebounding

12 months iShares MSCI Emerging Markets (EEM) vs. S&P 500 Index. Source: Yahoo! Finance, May 29, 2014.

Emerging economy stocks as a group are booming. In the week of May 21, emerging market stocks attracted another $1 billion of inflows even as U.S. equity funds saw withdrawals of $10.9 billion. This data comes from EPFR, a company that tracks the flow of money into and out of world stock markets. The firm adds that this weekly addition marks the seventh week of net inflows in the past two months. From February 3 through May 23, the iShares MSCI ETF for emerging markets (EEM) has soared 16.2% whereas the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index has risen 9.1%. Leading the emerging markets higher has been India, where the expectation of favorable national elections propelled its market to a gain of 32.2% during this period. The popular ETF for Brazil (EWZ) rocketed 25.8%. The question for investors is whether these emerging markets will continue to advance and to also outpace U.S. stocks.

This surge in emerging markets has surprised many investors due to the widespread assumption that the Federal Reserve’s “tapering” policy, now in its sixth month, would damage emerging markets. This view goes back to the announcement on May 22, 2013 by then Chairman Bernanke that an expected pickup in the U.S. economy would permit the Fed to wind down its policy of purchasing $85 billion of bonds per month, which had been designed to put downward pressure on long-term rates and support the mortgage market.

Bernanke’s statement had an immediate and dramatic impact: U.S. bond yields rose and the dollar strengthened against many emerging currencies. This in turn led to fears that currency, inflation, and interest rates would rise, economic growth would slow, capital outflows would increase, and equity markets would decline in some key emerging countries. In the month following Bernanke’s remarks the EEM plunged 14% whereas the S&P 5900 Index declined only 4.7%. Conditions continued to deteriorate during the summer, which in late August prompted Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), to warn the Fed to be highly sensitive when initiating its tapering policy to a possible adverse reaction within emerging countries.

At this point, the EEM has managed to recoup all of the losses incurred since Bernanke’s speech a year ago, yet the EEM’s gain of 1.2% trails the 15.1% advance of the S&P 500 Index over the last twelve months. It seems obvious that the Fed’s tapering policy, on its own, is no longer sufficient to cripple emerging markets. On the other hand, it appears that it is when tapering combines with other developments to drive the yield on the benchmark 10-year U.S. Treasury notes and the dollar up, as was the case in mid-2013, that there is a negative causal impact on emerging markets. Since February 3, the opposite has happened. The yield on the 10-year Treasuries has fallen slightly from 2.58% to 2.53%. Also, the net asset value of the PIMCO Emerging Markets Currency Fund (PLMIX) has risen from 9.87 to 10.37, a gain of 5.1%.

The Marietta economic outlook includes a probable rise in the 10-year Treasury yield as the U.S. economy continues to strengthen in the second half of the year. If this occurs, and is accompanied by a rise in the dollar vs. emerging currencies, there will likely be a sterner test for emerging stock markets. This would especially apply to those countries with a recent history of inflation and currency woes (India, Brazil, Indonesia, South Africa, Turkey, et al.). On the other hand, from a fundamental perspective, a stronger U.S. economy and rising U.S. stock market may well be viewed as a positive for emerging markets in that it will increase investor confidence in the global economic growth scenario and boost their willingness to invest in the perceived higher risk associated with emerging markets. This is what happened in the booming markets from 2003 through 2007.

Our conclusion is that it is appropriate for investors to increase modestly their exposure to emerging country stocks in the currently more favorable conditions. If the U.S. economy strengthens and longer term interest rates rise, as we expect, and key emerging market stocks continue to rise, then a larger commitment is justified. An important caveat: not all emerging economies will react similarly to propitious conditions. China, for example, has a unique set of conditions such that Federal Reserve policy changes and interest rate fluctuations will likely have a reduced impact on its more insulated economy and markets. We recommend countries which are expected to experience an improved mix of accelerating GDP, stable or rising currencies, stable and preferably declining inflation and interest rates, and a growth-oriented government and central bank.