WCM Chart of the Week for May 29, 2020

The Bloomberg Barclays Aggregate Bond Indices are widely considered to be the global standard for fixed income gauges. This week we compare the US Aggregate vs. the International Unhedged Aggregate. Over the long-term (12 years shown below) US bonds have outperformed significantly overall, with only brief bouts of underperformance in the short term. There are several reasons that explain US fixed income dominance — USD strength, interest rate spreads across comparable sectors and superior corporate fundamentals. The current phase of US leadership has persisted since early 2018 but may be showing signs of fatigue at the end of the longest period of outperformance over the past dozen years. The dollar remains elevated vs a basket of major currencies compared to pre-pandemic levels, although that appears to be normalizing in recent weeks. Our view is that, as long as comparable interest rates in other major economies remain negative, or spreads benchmarked against US interest rates remain wide, global investors will prefer US bonds. We currently hold little or no international fixed income and remain positioned in shorter duration instruments. [Charts and data courtesy Bloomberg LP © 2020]

WCM Chart of the Week for May 22, 2020

A key contrarian indicator sustains bullish readings, at least for the time being. The American Association of Individual Investor bull-bear spread survey continues to post negative readings, which is not surprising given the dire news on the US economic front. The labor market alone shows initial jobless claims approaching 40 million. Positive economic indicators are rare, yet US stocks continue to rebound, establishing higher highs and higher lows. Equity investors, for now, are looking past day-to-day bad news and towards the recovery as the country re-opens. There are still risks as new consumption patterns emerge and the potential for a second wave of COVID-19 looms later in the year, but the repatriation of American manufacturing and key service functions will likely lead to higher median wages, greater sustainability, and stronger national security. These long-term trends, in our view, will continue to attract the marginal global investment dollar to the US capital markets. [Chart courtesy Bloomberg LP (c) 2020]

WCM Chart of the Week for May 18, 2020

Stocks of companies that qualify for inclusion in the MSCI Global ESG Leaders Index have outperformed global peers for the better part of the past year and most importantly during the global health crisis.  The most recent few months have seen terrible loss of life and livelihood, sorely testing the resiliency of sustainably oriented companies. Based on full-market comparisons, it appears the environmental, social and governance focus of these companies has collectively contributed to outperformance relative to their less ESG-centric peers.  The avoidance of or minimal revenue related to the (old) carbon economy is certainly a factor, with world oil prices falling by over 50% in the last year and energy price volatility contributing to earnings uncertainty across a number of industries.  Our core thesis has been that investments that express better ESG performance will deliver market or better financial and market performance over the long term. Building on that, we have seen in the second global economic and societal crisis in a dozen years that these investments also have the potential to guard against risk and outperform in moments of peak stress as well. [Chart courtesy MSCI and Bloomberg LP © 2020]

WCM Chart of the Week for May 8, 2020

US corporate credit spreads are narrowing, but they are still quite wide by historical standards. Investment grade spreads appear to be stabilizing while high yield (junk bond) spreads are still volatile. Yields premiums in both segments of the credit market have contracted by about half-way from their recent peak on March 23rd compared to their pre-pandemic levels. What we find interesting is that volatility persists in the high yield market given the Fed’s disclosure that they intend to purchase issues and instruments including ETFs within this credit market segment. The volatility is likely a signal that investors expect defaults, insolvencies and bankruptcies. What intrigues us is the potential for Fed purchases of ETFs, because the Fed could opt to receive the underlying bonds, hold them until maturity and absorb any resulting defaults. That would in effect support distressed companies and potentially preserve jobs. It may prove to be a novel way for the Fed to support the labor market using the balance sheet to honor its mandate for full employment. [chart courtesy Bloomberg LP © 2020]

WCM Chart of the Week for May 1, 2020

This past week we witnessed two of the worst US economic reports many of us have ever seen. On Wednesday, it was reported Q1 GDP contracted 4.8% on an annualized basis, and Thursday’s unemployment report brought the total number of newly unemployed to over 30 million, consuming all of the jobs gains since the depths of the Great Recession. But, even with all the bad news on the economic front over the past several weeks, the US stock market as measured by the S&P 500 posted its strongest monthly gain since 1987. At least for now, the stock market is looking beyond the current rut to the potential for prosperity on the other side. That is certainly reasonable considering the amount of monetary and fiscal stimulus being injected into the economy and capital markets as we have been discussing for several weeks. Against this backdrop we are still compelled to ask ourselves what the trigger for re-testing the March equity drop might be. It could be an acceleration of virus cases, a state-level bankruptcy or two, or China-related backlash or retaliation. Current state of mind – hopeful but watchful. [chart courtesy Standard & Poors and Bloomberg LP © 2020]

WCM Chart of the Week for April 24, 2020

A positive development has surfaced within the US fixed income market — Investment Grade Corporate Credit spreads have narrowed relative to the 10-year US Treasury yield, yet still remain wide by historical measures. There may be some opportunity in that sector of the bond market. Even with that backdrop, oil price volatility unnerved many observers as the near-term WTI contract (for May 2020 delivery) priced with a negative sign Monday closing at a bizarre -$37.63. It has since recovered to about $17. Ongoing anemic demand combined with a lack of available storage to create a moment where there was no immediate bid for oil.  From an equity market standpoint, the impact was limited though as the major integrated energy companies continued to rebound along with the overall stock market. Importantly, the sector currently stands at only 2.9% of the S&P 500 while 10 years ago it represented nearly three times that share of the index.

We are optimistic about US capital markets, but the health crisis will continue to generate grim news and adversely impact the labor market and the overall economy.  This week’s first-time unemployment claims brought the running total to 26.5 million American jobs, essentially wiping out all job gains since the Great Recession. The US is far from out of the woods, but the market is handicapping a positive outcome in the long term.

WCM Chart of the Week for April 17, 2020

We continue to see encouraging signs in the US stock market as the three main indexes, the Dow, S&P 500 and the NASDAQ Composite have come off of their recent lows on March 23 and are making higher highs and higher lows – a key bullish technical pattern.  Wednesday was interesting because the S&P 500 closed at a higher low even though it fell 2.2% for the day, and Thursday we had a modest follow through gain of 1/2 of a percent or so.  The Nasdaq Composite was even more consequential because we continue to see higher highs after higher lows as well.  And, in this week’s chart, the Nasdaq 100, laden with many of the US’ most innovative companies, is now positive in 2020 (still below its Feb peak) and at levels above its long-term trend lines. 

We are optimistic about US stocks but the recovery in our capital markets remains fragile.  As we have discussed previously, we have to separate the market outlook from the very real emotional human and economic toll this pandemic has taken across the world and in our communities. We believe that a great reawakening will occur that makes us all realize the we need key elements of our economy to be permanently secure and sustainable. US companies stand to benefit, as do American workers, from repatriation of productive capabilities in vital areas like medicine and protective equipment.  Long term, we expect the marginal global investment dollar will likely be invested here in North America. [Chart courtesy NASDAQ and Bloomberg LP © 2020]

WCM Chart of the Week for April 10, 2020

Over the past week we have witnessed encouraging signs in US equities as the three main indexes, the Dow Jones Industrial Average, the S&P 500 and the NASDAQ Composite have come off of their recent lows on March 23 and are making higher highs and higher lows – a key bullish technical pattern.  We are optimistic about US stocks but also understand that we are quite far from containing this health crisis and the recovery in our capital markets remains fragile.

The rout that began in earnest late February has arguably been exacerbated by State and Federal government-led virus containment efforts — business, school, recreational closures as well as encouraging social distancing — that have effectively suppressed the economy.  Throughout history recessions, depressions and bear markets were caused by bubbles bursting like Asian currencies, Dotcom companies, US mortgages, and not by intentional government economic restraint.  Government intervention normally supports economic activity.

Along with roughly $1.8 trillion in asset purchases and other stimulus from the Federal Reserve, The US Federal Government has approved and is now implementing the $2.3 trillion CARES Act directly supporting American families, small businesses and larger corporations. An important aspect of the package is the speed that funds will be sent directly to citizens, anticipated to be just a few weeks.  This is critical considering that over 16 million Americans have filed for first-time unemployment assistance in the past three weeks alone.

Taken together, monetary and fiscal policy stimulus surpasses $4 trillion being injected into the American economy which could represent greater than 20% of GDP.  At the same time, large swaths of the US economy remain virtually frozen as COVID-19 infection rates peak.  There is nothing in modern history like this tension between top-down support and restraint to compare and judge an outcome, but in the longer term we believe support will win out. [Chart courtesy S&P and Bloomberg LP © 2020]

WCM Chart of the Week for April 3, 2020

The US Federal Reserve has taken several powerful steps in recent weeks ranging from lowering policy interest rates, intervening in credit markets to provide stability and re-engaging in asset purchases, also known as QE. The amount of monetary stimulus is unprecedented and staggering. Since March 4, the Fed’s balance sheet has expanded nearly $1.6 trillion through their asset purchase plan, accumulating Mortgage Backed Securities, Treasuries and Corporate Credit. That is an incredible amount of expansion in such a short period of time considering that it took some 15 months during the financial crisis from when the QE program began to reach an equivalent level of assets. Some are concerned that the Fed has expended all of its monetary tools and that is a real concern given policy rates are at or near zero. The balance sheet now stands near $5.9 trillion, a level that just a few years ago would have seemed unimaginable. But it could become even larger. The Fed’s balance sheet represents nearly 27% of US GDP. By contrast the European Central Bank’s balance sheet stands at over 42% of European Union GDP. The Bank of Japan stands at over 100% of GDP. The Fed’s asset purchase program could even become more active and remain manageable, especially considering the relative vibrancy of our economy compared to Europe and Japan. [chart courtesy Bloomberg LP © 2020]

WCM Chart of the Week for March 23, 2020

Economists are forecasting in some cases severe contractions in US GDP through the next quarter due to the impact of the COVID-19 virus. We believe that the US economy started decelerating at the beginning of March and it is extremely difficult to estimate the extent of the slowdown. America has likely never before experienced as abrupt an economic disruption. In this week’s chart (table) we have enumerated the National Bureau of Economic Research list of recessions beginning with the Great Depression. The average contraction in GDP since the Great Depression is 5.9% and lasted 13 months. Post WW II in the industrial rebound-fueled era the average contraction was 2.3%, lasting 11 months. Economists’ current forecasts range from declines in GDP growth in the mid-single digits to close to 10% from current quarter to Q2 2020. America has not realized that level of contraction in economic activity for over 70 years.

The American economy is vastly more modern and resilient than in the past and the US Federal Reserve and federal government have pledged as much as $1.7 trillion in monetary and fiscal expenditures to buttress the economy. That extraordinary amount is nearly 8% of nominal GDP. We could experience a sharp rebound as this injection of liquidity stimulates spending, a temporary wealth effect, and pent-up demand stemming from service-sector employees returning to the labor force when this crisis subsides.

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