WCM Chart of the Week for December 6, 2019

This morning the Labor Department announced that payrolls expanded by 266,000 in November, well ahead of estimates.  Just as important, the previous month’s jobs were revised upwards to 156,000 and the unemployment rate matched the 50-year record low of 3.5%.  Average hourly wages also expanded 3.1% signaling that consumers’ wallets are gaining on the overall economy.  Hiring momentum is no doubt strong and is outpacing growth in the labor force.  While this is good for employees currently, continued wage inflation may cut into future corporate profits.  The low inflation environment may make it difficult for companies to raise prices as wage pressures may crowd out margins. [chart courtesy Bloomberg LP (c) 2019]

It’s beginning to look a lot like retail

As our esteemed Doug Wilde regularly points out, manufacturing isn’t the bellwether it once was of US economic output. We are a nation of users, not makers, now, and Retail is what matters. Unless you live in a well-stocked bunker, it is hard to avoid the focus on retail consumption this time of year. We will soon wrap up the big week of consumption capital in motion from “Black Friday” through “Small Business Saturday”, “Cyber Monday” and “Giving Tuesday”. That last one is of course about giving charity and not presents, but the relentless campaigns in person, by phone, and online have made it feel like one more consumption decision while rummaging through the wallet or purse.

From an investor’s point of view it is increasingly difficult to gauge retail activity because how people shop has shifted significantly in just the last few years. Reporters standing in shopping malls near the Santa villages breathlessly pointing to the crowds and bags does not tell the whole story. Even the viral mayhem videos at discount department stores when the throngs pummel each other to grab the BOGO Alexa-enabled combination teddy bear/espresso machine/lawnmower are entertaining yes, anecdotal mostly, informative not so much.

What we hear again and again is that online is killing traditional retail. For anyone who has walked this Earth for long enough there is actually a little bit of schadenfreude since today’s “traditional retail” killed local merchants and main streets a generation or two previously. We do agree that online shopping has been the weapon of choice to kill off department stores and shopping malls, but this is not some great innovation or revelation. Us oldsters remember Sears, JC Penney, Montgomery Ward and other catalogs where almost anything under the sun was a phone call or mail order away. For families that lived out in the boondocks, that was the only way to access a lot of products, not much different from today where significant portions of the population are not close to “traditional retail”.

So why do we care as portfolio managers? First, we do want to obtain a clean look at the American consumer as an indicator of the health of our economy. Second, consumption patterns tell us a lot about where growth can be found, and of course has a direct connection not just to the growth of equities of companies all along various supply chains, but to the growth of debt to finance making, selling and consuming. Employment patterns are also closely tied to consumption patterns, particularly during the holiday season.

We see the mix of retail venues changing. Other than automobiles, where the traditional distribution structure is consolidating but not really changing despite Elon Musk’s best efforts, with whom and when people shop is shifting. We can now do a lot of financial damage with an iPhone while wearing footy pajamas and binging The Office. And even through that little 5.5” window, the process of consumption is changing. An influencer on Instagram can hype a product, provide an in-app link, and voila, you are purchasing it with a couple finger taps. The reality now, as we have written before, is that America is simply over-retailed. There are too many places and ways to buy the same products. A lot of the factors that differentiated channels before have dissolved. Price differences have been arbitraged away because of comprehensive access to competitive pricing information. The quest for instant gratification can be satisfied as easily by clicking and waiting by the front door as heading to the mall. Expertise and consultation are more likely to be found online than with the teenaged clerk who is just counting the hours until the shift is over. And when those teenagers do get off work, they aren’t going to roam the malls and food courts themselves to socialize and maybe spend. They may be going home and meeting up with friends through MMO games and even spending those earned dollars leveling up their avatars with swag or new capabilities. How do you measure that in old retail terms?

If people are buying directly from manufacturers’ branded captive websites and catalogs, or through social media, or through major online portals, and of course through bricks-and-mortar stores, how do we get anything resembling a complete much less accurate picture of retail consumption? Some of that insight can come from looking elsewhere in the supply chain. We can consider raw materials, packaging, shipping and logistics, royalties and licensing fees. We can look at volumes through final mile services like UPS and Fedex. We can look at sales tax receipts (although the patchwork of rules around interstate tax collection means this gets you a massive undercount). We can look at hiring, particularly seasonal hiring, which is moving away from retail counters and towards fulfillment centers. We can also look at aggregate transactional data from consumer credit and newer virtualized and peer-to-peer payment methods.

The big issue is that a lot of this data is scattered, not gathered and reported in a timely fashion, and has to be collated and interpreted. Joe the Weatherman reporting from the mall about how long the lines are and how full the bags is not going to do it. We will also look at but retain healthy skepticism about reports from trade groups like the National Retail Federation, which exists to promote the interests of its members. Useful information, but it has to be viewed in the context of its mission and stakeholders. That leaves us the government statisticians, who don’t necessarily have an axe to grind, but the data is lagged and the coverage has not always kept up well with how the retail landscape has changed. The US Census Bureau will be releasing the November 2019 Advance Monthly Retail report on December 13th.

Right now we see the US consumer as reasonably robust. The change in how consumption is taking place means looking elsewhere in the markets to participate in that growth. For instance, instead of REITs that own shopping malls, favor REITs that own warehouses. Look for themes like electronic payments. And of course, trends toward local, organic, fair trade, reclaimed, and other sustainability themes are driving retail flows and even countering the race to the bottom in pricing.

According to the New York Times, more than 90,000 packages a day go missing daily in New York City, and 1.7 million daily nationally. That is clearly a problem on a massive scale. But if that much can go missing or be stolen daily and not break the system or materially drive up costs, the scale of consumption outside of traditional retail store fronts is extraordinary. Maybe this number more than any other is the bellwether indicator we need to watch.

WCM Chart of the Week for November 25, 2019

Christine Lagarde has taken the helm at the European Central Bank from the highly regarded yet somewhat controversial Mario Draghi at the beginning of November.  While many view Draghi’s leadership as forcing the ECB to the limits of monetary policy, he was successful in maintaining the monetary union and the single currency at several critical points in time over the past decade.  Lagarde faces a formidable challenge inheriting a central bank that is divided in the direction of policy. Her legacy as a consensus builder may prove invaluable at this pivotal point in time.  In her debut speech last week, she emphasized the need for stronger domestic demand and fiscal policy in order to counter the evolving global trade balance.  If she is successful in convincing countries with budget surpluses to spend and invest through fiscal stimulus, the region may see stronger economic activity and a firmer Euro which has been in a downtrend versus the US Dollar since the financial crisis.  The world needs a stronger, more resilient Europe and we believe Christine Lagarde will be an ideal leader of the ECB. [chart courtesy Bloomberg LP © 2019]

WCM Chart of the Week for November 15, 2019

Large Cap stocks in the United States have outperformed the rest of the world for the better part of the past ten years largely because of superior demographic, economic and corporate conditions in America.  However, there have been several periods this decade when international bourses have gained ground on America and that has been the case since mid-August this year.  While US companies have tended to exhibit robust fundamentals compared to their international rivals, stock market valuations favor international equities. Can the rest of the world continue to outpace the US?  We continue to favor American stocks and bonds because economic conditions abroad continue to be challenging.  Eurozone economic activity is barely expanding, although the German economy did surprise on the positive side (thus narrowly avoiding a recession) and Chinese GDP growth may be slowing more than expected.  The headwinds international markets face may prove to be too much to overcome from a relative performance standpoint. [chart courtesy Bloomberg LP (c) 2019]

WCM Chart of the Week for November 8, 2019

The global rally in stocks and key US equity indices hitting all-time highs are again garnering the majority of the financial press’ collective attention. We however prefer to focus on government bond markets. Long-term interest rates may have bottomed towards the end of this past summer. 10-year government bond yields in key developed economies are on the upswing and may even have positive readings in Japan and the Eurozone before year end. We find the upward interest rate trajectory interesting in the context of the US Federal Reserve’s recent decision to lower its target rate. It is encouraging that yields are rising together which may be a signal that economic conditions across the globe are stabilizing and safe haven asset prices are falling. [chart courtesy Bloomberg LP © 2019]

WCM Chart of the Week for November 1, 2019

Growth stocks in the US have outperformed value stocks for the better part of the past three years with the exception of the US Fed induced sell off at the end of last year. However, since mid-August value stocks have outpaced growth stocks by a considerable amount rallying nearly 8% versus 3.5% according to S&P 500 Value and Growth indices.  If value stocks can continue to outperform or even keep pace with the overall market, we would view this as a positive development because it could mean that broader participation is developing.  That is important because the S&P 500’s largest the sector, Information Technology, continues to outperform, powering the market higher.  We find this interesting because usually technology stocks outperform with growth leading value. [chart courtesy Bloomberg LP © 2019]

WCM Chart of the Week for October 18, 2019

Chinese officials announced year-on-year 6% GDP growth for the third quarter, which was slightly below consensus estimates of 6.1%. The main drag on the economy was slowing investment growth while factory output rose along with retail sales. Tightening credit conditions are also contributing to the moderation in growth as officials continue to address excesses in the financial system. The on again/off again US trade negotiations continue to be a source of uncertainty. The government’s target of 6-6.5% growth for 2020 is at odds with market forecasts. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is expecting Chinese GDP to fall below 6% to 5.8% in 2020 and continue to moderate in subsequent years, slowing to 5.5% in 2024. In the near term, Chinese officials have ample fiscal and monetary flexibility to manage the economy. However, in the long run, the adverse impact of the one child policy will cause demographic trends to deteriorate rapidly. The National Bureau of Statistics previously announced that births dropped to 15.2 million in 2018, representing a 12% annual decline following a decline in 2017. Some see China’s population beginning to shrink as early as 2027 and others argue that it had already begun in 2018. A rapidly aging population will place strain on social services and likely constrain China’s fiscal flexibility in years to come.

WCM Chart of the Week for Oct. 11, 2019

Volatility in US Treasury prices has been building for the past six months or so as measured by the ICE Bank of America Merrill Lynch Move Index. That is not all that surprising given the magnifying effect even small interest rate movements have on Treasury prices in today’s low rate environment.  The challenge investors face is that bonds, particularly longer-dated issues, offer anemic income streams and the likelihood of principal erosion as rates rise to more normal levels.  We continue to maintain lower duration within fixed income allocations than our benchmark because we believe that the long end of the yield curve, here and abroad, offers little investment merit and the potential for a great deal of volatility.

WCM Chart of the Week for October 4, 2019

A 1.5 degree Celsius rise in global mean surface temperature over pre-1900 levels is considered to be a critical threshold above which environmental systems start to break down and serious and durable damage from climate change to the world around us really takes hold. 2 degrees is recognized as a tipping point where the damage is both catastrophic and irreversible, at least in terms of human timelines. This week’s chart is from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and shows us where we have been, and a possible range of temperature outcomes 80 years out, if we reduce anthropogenic (human-caused) CO2 emissions to zero over various time horizons. Even the best case projections, assuming aggressive and immediate emissions reductions, have us only leveling off around 1 degree over 1900, more or less where we find ourselves today. From a capital markets point of view this tells us two things – first, a best case means a continuation of much of what we have been experiencing with extreme climate events and therefore climate resiliency must be factored into risk assessments and securities pricing for equities, real estate, infrastructure, natural resources and bonds in the public and private sectors. Second, if we don’t turn the corner, the system will run away from us, mitigation will no longer be an option and asset prices will be jeopardized globally. Even being motivated solely by profit and loss this challenge is existential to the capital markets and must be addressed.

WCM Chart of the Week for September 27, 2019

On the last day of Climate Week, we shift our focus from where we started with bonds to conclude with global equities. One of the tired old tropes that gets trotted out for people who have not looked at the data is that ESG-oriented strategies are structurally disadvantaged and destined to underperform. Of course, every strategy follows its own course based on benchmarks, PM decisionmaking, trading effectiveness, and a variety of other factors. But if we take the discretionary elements out and just focus on index comparisons, we do not find any persistent lag or advantage. Yes, performance varies somewhat in the short term.

Sometimes ESG leads, sometimes it lags. Over market cycles though, these small variations sort themselves out and you end up in the same place. MSCI, one of the world’s preeminent index authorities, has maintained an ESG Leaders series of equity indices that start in 2007.  According to Bloomberg, since the inception of the global ESG Leaders Index (on September 28, 2007) through September 26, 2019, the ESG index total return is 72.4% compare to 71.3% for the global equity index, or annualized total returns of 4.64% and 4.59%, respectively. This week’s chart shows this relationship graphically and there do appear to be cycles of outperformance as well as underperformance of the ESG index.  However, this is considerably exaggerated by the scale of the chart as the differences measure in fractions of basis points.

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