By: Katherine Brown, Research Associate, Castle Rock Investment Company
The end of the 2nd quarter of 2014 left the global banking sector bracing from the fallout of a weak quarter. In moments of weak growth, we are reminded of the need to diversify our portfolios. Just as it is important to eat a balanced meal, it is important to balance your investment plate.
The US economy grew only 2.9% during the second quarter, which was a result of costly weather conditions, negative global trade relationships, and state and local government spending habits (often due to the extreme weather conditions). An investment portfolio is challenged – but not inherently devastated – by this kind of quarterly strife. For our purposes, more reliable data come from cyclical indicators because they provide more dependable data on economic behavior and trajectory. Capital spending, consumer confidence, orders vs. inventory and PMI indices all indicate good conditions for the economy to pick up. In other words, our markets are doing well, despite the special difficulty in the second quarter.
The Federal Reserve reoriented its goals to respond to the significant gain in jobs this past quarter. Unemployment, which reached 6.1%, is ever-nearing the long-run full employment waterline of 5.4%. While we should expect that economic growth is consistent with unemployment, if we push past full employment at 5.4%, we could face inflation. Instead, the government will work to improve total factor productivity in addition to the labor market’s full employment. This means more capital equipment and greater output per worker.
Since we have already attained 6.1% unemployment, the unemployment goal for 2014, the Fed downgraded the growth forecast for the next year to 2.2% from 3%. The comparison between Inflation and Core Inflation indicates pressures for wage growth and an increase in rental cost that creates a condition where a shift in policy will be necessary. Core inflation is at 1.95%, while bond yields are 0.6%. The economy is tightening and inflation is rising, so long-term rates should go up.
Concerns in the bond market are that Owners of US Treasury Bonds are not as concerned with the pricing of bonds as natural actors would be in an unimpeded market. The Federal Reserve adjusts investments in the bond market monthly through Quantitative Easing (QE2), which is anticipated to end in October 2014. The tapering out of Fed bond purchases means that bond rates will go up. Other distortions in the market will be due to major investors such as the Bank of Japan, which maintains excessive bond holdings that can destabilize the market should it sell off a significant amount. However, these behaviors are unlikely because of the impact it would have on their own economies, not to mention on diplomatic relations.
The bond market is a good place to invest as a defensive structure since a sharp rise in bond yields is unlikely in the future. Quantitative Easing is designed by the Fed to keep bond rates low for the long term, approximately 2% interest rate goals for this coming year. The bond market should be a reliable part of your portfolio this year, but as the economy grows, the equities market will likely exceed bond market growth.
The equities market has the best potential for year-to-year growth, despite holding the greatest risk to investors. The returns and valuations by style indicate the year-to-year earnings remain strong. The fourth quarter has the greatest potential to be the strongest of all this year. Overall recovery from 2009 market lows indicate continued recovery as the expanding data available to research stable market activity show greater returns, but do not indicate bubbles similar to the boom and bust of the last recession.
The rise in interest rates and confidence show that both should rise even further over the next 12 – 18 months, although cyclical sectors are best offset by investment in 10-year treasury bonds as a stabilizing measure to varying performance in equity markets.
Other economies spent the last quarter dealing with their own problems. In a unique twist, the EU’s growth was softened by France’s macroeconomic strife, while the European periphery provided the hopeful signs for growth. China picked up market growth after a rough first quarter, as Japan similarly indicated recovery from the sales tax increase, though neither will likely overcome the first quarter’s poor growth unscathed.
As we approach full employment, traditional investment strategies generally begin to hedge against inflation by including investments in commodities and real estate where GDP growth is perceived to be less influential than in other sectors. Quantitative Easing provides some “carbohydrates” to the US economy, thus allowing bond and equity markets to both grow in the short run. However, this promise is impermanent and may lead to trouble ahead. For a balanced meal, we turn to the foreign bond and equity markets. Thus, we foresee that the most robust investment palette will diversify not only across markets, between American equities and bonds, but across borders to take advantage of equities and bonds abroad.
Katherine Brown completed a Master’s degree in Global Finance, Trade, and Economic Integration from the University of Denver. Her research and writing focus on international monetary economics and central banking. She can be reached at Katherine@castlerockinvesting.com.