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.
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.
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.
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.
On this convening day for the UN Climate Action Summit, we take a fresh look at the benefits of climate-centric fixed income investment strategies. There is a persistent myth that disciplined ESG investing dampens investment performance, which we believe is short sighted. This week’s chart examines the total return properties of the Bloomberg Barclays MSCI Global Green Bond Total Return Index versus the Global Aggregate equivalent index. The green bond Index is based on issuers that adhere to the Green Bond Principles which include energy efficiency, renewable energy, pollution prevention and control, sustainable management of land and natural resources, potable water and wastewater management, and clean transport among other critical green activities. What this relationship shows us is that there are periods when the green index underperforms and also periods when the index outperforms the broader aggregate index. This index started at the end of 2013, so we have nearly seven years of data to evaluate. According to Bloomberg, over that time frame (as of September 20, 2019), the green index is up 22.3% compare to 12.2% for the global aggregate or annualized total returns of 3.6% and 2.0%, respectively. Clearly, over the longer term, green-oriented fixed income investors have done well by investing in issues that are doing good as compared to the overall global bond market. [Chart courtesy Bloomberg LP (c) 2019]
As Friday the 13ths go, not so bad. Large Cap US stocks, as measured by the S&P 500 total return index, have broken out and are approaching all-time highs reached earlier in the summer. The index spent the better part of August consolidating after peaking in late July. The positive market movement has boosted investor morale as the American Association of Individual Investors Bull-Bear Spread has just turned modestly positive. Improved investor sentiment and further market advances could persist with dovish signaling from the US Federal Reserve, a more positive tenor in US – China trade discussions, and corporate fundamentals and equity market valuations which remain supportive. The US 10 Year Treasury Yield now stands at 1.7% (9/12/2019) after reaching 1.46% on September 3, 2019 indicating that, for now, the flight to safety trade may be off as well. Many reasons to remain watchful though. Mario Draghi’s transition out of his leadership role at the ECB leaves some uncertainty regarding the bank’s future commitment to strong monetary support. The onset of Brexit carries its own uncertainties and the economic slowdown in China may be deepening.
WCM Chart of the Week for September 6, 2019. Large Cap US stocks continue to outperform with the S&P 500 total return reaching 20.7% YTD through (September 5, 2019). This end of the US equity market, in particular, the Technology sector, contains the world’s strongest performers so far in 2019. US Small Cap equities however have lagged considerably, only gaining 13.2% over the same time period while global stocks as measured by the FTSE Global All Cap Index have advanced 15.8%.
Economic trends in the US are much more favorable than in
other key regions such as Europe and Asia. US Small Cap companies generally are
more domestically oriented while Large US companies earn significant amount of
revenue overseas. Intuitively, the global
environment should favor US Small Caps but that has not been the case. The key might be the low interest rate
environment enabling large companies to raise substantial amounts of debt
through the corporate bond market while smaller companies are more dependent on
regional bank financing. Another key factor explaining the performance
disparity between Large and Small Cap stocks may be sector representation. The financial sector of the S&P 500 represents
roughly 12% of the index while the Russell 2000 has about 17%. The financial sector has been a laggard
overall and a small financial service company’s revenue is generally more
dependent on lending which tends to struggle in low interest rate environments.
This week’s chart shows the total return relationship of US Large relative to Small Cap Equities. Large Cap stocks are trading at their highest levels relative to Small Caps in at least the past 15 years and are clearly extended. This is highly unusual but may persist at least until the US Federal Reserve ends its current rate cutting path and other monetary stimulus activities. [chart courtesy of Bloomberg LP (c)2019]
As we end the month of August US stocks have contracted 1.7% while US bonds have advanced 2.5% (through 8/29) and it seems like we have been in a tug of war between the asset classes since at least last fall. Could we be at a pivot point when investors rotate back into equities? The chart below shows the total return relationship between the S&P 500 and the Bloomberg Barclays Aggregate indices and it appears that large cap US stocks may be bottoming relative to bonds. The bond market has been supported by a benign interest rate environment as the yield on the US 10 Year Treasury Bond has fallen from 2.68% at the beginning of the year to a low of 1.47% on August 27th. There are several reasons why rates have fallen — no real inflationary pressures and lower and even negative interest rates in the rest of the developed world. If rates stabilize around current levels, equities should regain leadership given that corporate fundamentals remain solid, market valuations are not elevated, and the US economy is still expanding. [Chart courtesy Bloomberg LP (c) 2019]
The US fixed income market has had a tremendous run so far in 2019. The Bloomberg Barclays US Aggregate has risen 8.4% through August 22nd. That performance is not surprising given that the 10-year US Treasury yield has fallen by roughly 50% from November 2018 to current levels. The overall fixed income market is overextended based on several fundamental metrics and it is overbought relative to its long-term trend. This week’s chart shows the aggregate index plotted with the 50 and 200-day moving averages in the top panel while the lower panel shows the ratio of the index to its long-term 200-day moving average. The arrow on the top chart highlights the significant spread between the current level of the benchmark and the long-term trend. Usually, when the index reaches elevated levels versus long-term trends, a consolidation or even modest correction follows. What concerns us is the ratio of this relationship (bottom panel) currently registers 1.057, the highest reading we have seen in the past five years. Forward 6- and 12-month total returns were mostly positive over the past 20 years when this ratio reached or even surpassed the current level largely because interest rates were higher than they are now. With current interest rates so low, the ability of yield to overcome principle loss if or when rates rise is nonexistent in our view. This is the main reason why we continue to allocate towards shorter duration instruments with the fixed income portion of portfolios.
It will take some time to unpack both the intent and the implications of the Business Roundtable’s redefinition of the purpose of a corporation, but a quick meditation on their announcement on August 19th leads to a very confusing place for a sustainability-minded stakeholder.
On the surface, the “Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation”, co-signed by 181 CEOs, seems like a tectonic shift in the alignment of stakeholder values. At long last, corporations are committing to prioritize something beyond unadulterated capitalism. The points they made and the rhetoric they used could have been taken right off the vision boards of a thousand responsible and sustainable investors. The five central principles they outlined are (direct quote from the Business Roundtable, August 19, 2019):
Delivering value to our customers. We will further the tradition of American companies leading the way in meeting or exceeding customer expectations.
Investing in our employees. This starts with compensating them fairly and providing important benefits. It also includes supporting them through training and education that help develop new skills for a rapidly changing world. We foster diversity and inclusion, dignity and respect.
Dealing fairly and ethically with our suppliers. We are dedicated to serving as good partners to the other companies, large and small, that help us meet our missions.
Supporting the communities in which we work. We respect the people in our communities and protect the environment by embracing sustainable practices across our businesses.
Generating long-term value for shareholders, who provide the capital that allows companies to invest, grow and innovate. We are committed to transparency and effective engagement with shareholders.
That all business ought to be conducted as if people and place mattered.
That, through their products, practices, and profits, businesses should aspire to do no harm and benefit all.
To do so requires that we act with the understanding that we are each dependent upon another and thus responsible for each other and future generations.
So where’s the fly swimming in the punchbowl? The sub-heading for the Roundtable’s press release said the following – “Updated Statement Moves Away from Shareholder Primacy, Includes Commitment to All Stakeholders”. Again, at face value this is a good thing putting aside profit and shareholder value as the priority above all others. But, this announcement lands almost contemporaneously with an announcement that the SEC would be holding meetings to discuss a plan on the table to reign in proxy advisory firms (a prior discussion of this move from Cydney Posner, Cooley LLP on the Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance and Financial Regulation can be found here), and during a period where the SEC has been increasingly lining up with companies to brush back shareholder resolutions and keep them off the proxy ballots. This move to limit the shareholder franchise has taken the form of questioning the materiality of the resolution to the overall business, as well as inching toward requiring a minimum percentage of ownership in order to sponsor a resolution.
The danger here is that the confluence of disenfranchising shareholders with this new announcement from the Business Roundtable could actually mean a net setback if sustainable business behavior is defined almost exclusively by what management says it is without the input from and the natural corrective of the shareholder. That fifth principle is the linchpin to whether this will work or not – being “…committed to transparency and effective engagement with shareholders.” If the SEC defangs the shareholder, what does that actually mean in practice? We have seen repeated examples from aerospace to pharmaceuticals where self-supervision and fast-track regulation lead to bad outcomes for all stakeholders.
The Roundtable is on the right track if these principles are pursued in a regulatory environment that preserves an appropriate level of governance and accountability for shareholders, who are ultimately the only ones that have the ability to hold managements fully responsible in a free market. Employees can quit, customers can boycott and suppliers can freeze their pipelines, but boards and C-suite executives work for the shareholders.