On Thursday, July 16th, the US Census Bureau released Retail Sales figures and month-over-month growth registered a nice surprise — 7.5%, well above the consensus estimate of 5.5%. The prior month’s figures were also revised upward. We see this as an obvious reflection of the reopening of the US economy and pent up demand. But, we don’t read much into the positive monthly gain versus the consensus estimate because economists have never had to forecast under conditions that can be considered “lock-down uncertainty”. What we do find encouraging and more interesting is that the reported annual growth rate was 1.1%. At this time last year the US economy was on firm footing, and yet Retail Sales are modestly above those levels today. While the trajectory of sales growth is a relief, we would not be surprised to see some sluggishness emerge as we collectively digest the flurry of initial purchasing pre-quarantine and new virus spikes elicit further lockdown measures. [chart courtesy US Census Bureau, Bloomberg LP (c) 2020]
Equities in the US have been rallying since late March. The total return of the S&P 500 is 41.7% from the crisis trough on March 23 through July 9. The recovery in stocks has been among the swiftest in history and has caught many market participants underinvested during this uncertain pandemic period. Even with tremendous stress in the labor market, the overall economy and current corporate earnings, the S&P 500 price level has produced a widely followed bullish technical pattern know as a “golden cross” after Thursday’s close. This formation occurs when two key trend lines, the 50-day and 200-day moving averages, intersect while trending upwards. Generally, this condition needs to be supported by other factors, such as the powerful fiscal and monetary stimulus which we have been highlighting for the past several months, as the main reason markets have been rebounding. Another positive development is influential investment research organizations have begun to increase corporate earnings expectations for 2021. There are still well-known risks including the ebb and flow of the global pandemic and China-related tensions with the rest of the world. We expect volatility in the capital markets emanating from these and other factors, but equities, particularly in the US, will grind higher. Chart courtesy Bloomberg LP and Standard & Poors (c) 2020.
We are very proud to announce that we are joining forces with HealRWorld, Angels.Inc., and the SDG Impact Fund as the lead advisor for two new donor advised funds (DAF). Each DAF is driven by a specific mission to direct capital in pursuit of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. The first DAF, the HealRWorld SDG Impact Fund, is focused on improving access to financial resources to fuel business and capital formation and catalyze growth for women- and minority-led small businesses. According to MPAC Solutions, a scant 1.3% of $70 Trillion of institutional capital is allocated to women and diverse management teams. The HealRWorld fund is raising capital through the charitable structure to make mission- and program-related investments in these small businesses that demonstrate strong ESG attributes and an orientation toward attaining one or more of the SDG targets. HealRWorld’s proprietary data and analysis has demonstrated that small businesses with strong ESG attributes are up to 3X more credit worthy than the typical small business, making them both good businesses and good risks.
The fund will also make strategic investments in community- and small business-oriented targets, both through lending and taking equity stakes, in order to further align investment with mission and amplify the potential outcomes from capital raised in the DAF, as well as bring coinvestment capital to the table to multiply the available resources for these businesses.
Equally exciting is the Angels.Inc SDG Impact Fund. The Angels.Inc fund is focused on funding media projects and ventures that are contributing vastly to innovation for the betterment of society and our future as well as contributing to our well-being, mental health and amplifying the positive messages and goals of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The investment mandate for the Angels.Inc. fund is more expansive than the HealRWorld fund, committing to investing in the same small businesses, but will also invest in and fund media-related targets consistent with Angels.Inc’s “Media For Good” mandate.
Every member of an eco-system, from vegetation to predator species, plays an integral role in the sustainability of that system. When one player is removed from the hierarchy, whether by result of climate change, pollution, human development, or natural occurrences, the effects are cascading. An often overlooked and yet essential vulnerable group of species is pollinators. Although bees and fruit bats are not the poster children for endangered species like tigers and elephants, their role in pollination facilitates an ecological process critical for the reproduction of wild flora and agricultural crops.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than 150 crop species in the United States, including blueberries, tomatoes, apples, bananas, and peaches, rely on pollinators annually. Alfalfa and other grain crops necessary to sustain livestock also rely upon pollination. Furthermore, more than half of the world’s diet of fats and oils are produced from animal-pollinated plants (sunflowers, almonds, canola, avocados). Honeybees alone are responsible for pollinating $15 billion in crops for the U.S. economy each year (Main, 2020). Plainly speaking, without pollinators, the globe’s future food security collapses.
Without pollinators, you can drop the dinner table conversation because there quite literally won’t be a dinner
So, where does the issue reside? According to Penn State University’s Center for Pollinator Research, since 2006, the honeybee population in the United States has declined 30-42 percent each year largely due to the impacts of climate change, habitat loss, and toxic pesticide use. Of the 65 species of flying foxes (fruit bats), 31 are threatened with global extinction (Vincenot, 2017). Protecting species of pollinators is not just the “right thing” to do; it’s compulsory for human existence.
As managers of sustainable and responsible investment portfolios, our passion lies not only in providing ethically sourced returns for our clients, but in supporting positive impact-driven organizations. Conscious investing is achieved through avoidance of institutions that harm ecosystems, in conjunction with focus on institutions that provide regenerative and resourceful solutions. [artwork (c) 2020 P. Sorgi]
Economic fault lines run deep across America. Many of these lines have been laid bare as a consequence of the economic crisis unleashed by the COVID-19 outbreak, but the lines were there long before, and will continue long after. Those sitting on the bottom rungs of the prosperity ladder not only were among the most vulnerable as business, trade and service ground to a halt, they are in the worst position to participate in the recovery. Access to capital is critical to household and business formation, maintenance and growth. As recently as 2017, the last time the FDIC released its biennial national survey, 18.7% of American households were underbanked (relying on payday lenders, rent-to-own, pawn shops, refund anticipation loans, and other non-bank resources), and a full 6.5%, or nearly 8.5 million households, were completely unbanked. Without access to the financial infrastructure enjoyed by nearly 70% of the population, the road ahead will be difficult if not impossible, and investing in community financing through CDFIs and other non-traditional conduits will be critical to an inclusive recovery.
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]