We are a little more than a quarter of the way through 2015. Now is a good time for a general review of what has transpired in the markets so far this year:
-Last year international equities were negative. This year, they are beating U.S. equities by about double.
-In the U.S. equity market, growth stocks are noticeably outperforming value stocks.
-Healthcare and biotech have been the best performing sector, exceeding both international and the overall U.S. markets.
-Energy has bounced back somewhat after last year’s dramatic pullback, up around 10 percent year-to-date.
-The worst-performing domestic sector has been utilities, down nearly 4 percent.
-Bonds have given a positive return in the 1 to 2 percent range.
In thinking about where we are and where we are going, there are some key factors we will monitor closely throughout this year. Three of the more prominent factors are oil prices, unemployment, and interest rates.
The energy sector cratered last year as oil prices fell over 40 percent. Oversimplified, the growth in U.S. shale production along with production from other non-OPEC countries created a large supply while demand slowed. According to Exxon CEO, Rex Tillerson, we could see lower energy prices for the next three or four years. Lower energy prices should help consumers and those businesses not in the energy sector. Hopefully, it will help stimulate manufacturers in Europe and emerging markets. Of course, we will need to see if three to four years of lower oil are priced into energy stocks. However, there is an opportunity on a longer-term basis.
Probably the most important factor to watch is unemployment. The economy will not recover fully if unemployment persists. Eventually, the market will reflect the true conditions of the economy since it is difficult to generate profits when consumers lack jobs. Much progress has been made since the Great Recession ended. Unemployment claims have continued to drop in March, hitting a 15-year low. However, the seemingly good 5.5 percent unemployment rate may hide the true jobs picture in America. That is the opinion of economists David Blanchflower and Andrew Levin. The two men published a paper on March 19, 2015 in which they propose that the true unemployment rate, factoring in the underemployed and those who have given up looking, is likely between 7.4 to 9.4 percent. High and persistent unemployment will hamper economic growth and market returns.
Finally, all eyes will be on the Federal Reserve Board (the Fed), anticipating when the Fed will raise interest rates for the first time. At the April meeting, the Fed left the door open to a June rate hike if the data warrants. However, disappointing first quarter gross domestic product (GDP) of 0.2 percent (annualized) and inflation that remained well-below target point to a fall rate increase instead. When rate normalization does begin, it will probably be slow and measured. Fixed income will likely suffer negative returns. However, the damage can be kept in check if rates rise slowly.
We should mention that the European Central Bank (ECB) has begun quantitative easing (QE), buying bonds by the billions. The QE will keep interest rates low. The 10-year German bund had an interest rate of under 0.1 percent a few weeks back (as compared to 2.2 for the U.S. 10-year Treasury). These low rates will keep downward pressure on U.S. Treasury rates and upward pressure on European equity markets.
These, and other factors not discussed, lead us to the following outlook:
-International equities in developed countries continue to look attractive with lower valuations, aggressive central bank action, and lower energy prices. We are concerned about Greece and the effect a Greek exit could have on European markets.
-While emerging market equities have very attractive valuations, we have concerns that rising interest rates in the U.S. could roil EM equity and bond markets. We are dealing with this uncertainty by holding funds that allow the manager to take emerging market exposure.
-Technology and healthcare long-term may underperform for a little, but they still have a solid long-term story.
-We are remaining underweight bonds because they are at all-time highs with an imminent (although maybe not too soon) rate hike on the horizon.