The S&P began April on the right foot on the first day of trading. The sustained strength into the end of the week suggested that it was no April Fools' joke as investor sentiment was boosted by better-than-expected jobs data and progress on the U.S.-China trade front. As is, the S&P stands at a gain of 15+% for the year, and 1.5% from the all-time highs. Not too shabby given the calls of “this is the end” and “earnings have peaked” which led the market lower in December.
After a brief pause, global markets have resumed their up trends. Even if we look at the MSCI Emerging Markets ETF (EEM) it also remains in a healthy uptrend after the December sell-off with a series of higher highs and higher lows. Interestingly, this pattern is the same just about everywhere one looks around the globe. Worldwide equity markets are rallying, which may be signaling a re-setting of expectations from fear and gloom to cautious optimism.
The U.S. economy added 196,000 jobs in March, according to data released on Friday by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Economists polled by Dow Jones expected a print of 175,000. The U.S. unemployment rate, meanwhile, remained at 3.8%. However, wage growth expanded 3.2%, below an expected gain of 3.4%.
Overall, however, the March employment report has become the latest in a series of better data this week, including stronger home sales and a pickup in ISM manufacturing activity. Recession fears have been fading as economists have been nudging up their expectations for GDP growth, with some seeing over 2% in the first quarter from earlier forecasts closer to 1% or lower.
The demise of the U.S. economy has been greatly exaggerated. The unemployment rate is low, so that should have a positive impact on consumer confidence, but it’s not so low that wages are growing quickly. From the shareholder’s perspective, margins are expected to remain high. In fact, earnings expectations for Q1 2019 are low and upside surprises are likely to push equities higher. With 23 companies in the S&P 500 having reported actual results for the quarter, 19 have already reported a positive EPS surprise and 13 have reported a positive revenue surprise.
Funnily enough the pundits who were screaming recession in December are still beating their drums albeit less aggressively stating instead that there “is a risk of a recession next year.”
At the end of the day there is always “a risk of recession” in any given year, the question for an investor is whether the current investment environment and where a number of elements stand in their cycles suggest a re-positioning of one’s portfolio? Does the current environment demand a re-calibration along the continuum that runs from aggressive to defensive?
In our view, the current environment does not warrant excessive defensiveness. If we define risk as the likelihood of permanent capital loss (downside risk) as well as the likelihood of missing out on potential gains (opportunity risk) we should also view the future as a range of possibilities rather than as a fixed outcome.
Thus, investors - or anyone wishing to grapple successfully with the future - need to form probability distributions with regards to future outcomes. What are the range of possible future outcomes and what probability can we assign to each?
As Howard Marks has suggested: “it is useful to think of investment success as choosing a lottery winner. Both are determined by one ticket (the outcome) being pulled from a bowlful (the full range of possible outcomes). In each case, one outcome is chosen from among the many possibilities. Superior investors are people who have a better sense for what tickets are in the bowl, and thus for whether it is worth participating in the lottery. In other words, while superior investors - like everyone else - don’t know exactly what the future holds, they do have an above average understanding of future tendencies.”
As such, what sense do we have for what tickets are currently in the bowl? What insights do we have about future tendencies? Can we tilt the odds in our favor?
In last month’s newsletter we put out a call suggesting that we saw an opportunity in this market. We had put this call out to our limited partners in December. What did we see?
In short, we saw that global equity markets actually appeared to be cheaper, or less risky (downside risk) today than they’ve been over the last four years.
Without diving too deeply into the other factors we had been observing about the cycle/investment environment and are still observing today, the nature of the lottery (the tickets and bowl) as we saw it then and as we see it now are summed up nicely by Andrew Macken, Chief Investment Officer at Montaka Global Investments.
This perspective begins with the understanding that over the last 4 years global equities have delivered a real return of approximately zero.
The MSCI World Net Total Return Index has delivered +4.5 percent per annum over the four-year period to 31 December 2018. On its face this return above any global average rate of inflation suggesting real global equity returns have been positive over the period.
The problem is that the most substantial contributor to the MSCI World’s return was the +7.2 percent per annum return generated by US equities – as measured by the S&P 500, in this case. Now, the US accounts for approximately 54 percent of the MSCI World Net Total Return Index, so this substantial return drove more than 80 percent of the total return of the MSCI World over this four-year period.
What is sometimes forgotten is that US domiciled businesses benefited from a significant reduction in their corporate tax rate, from 35 percent to 21 percent, as part of President Trump’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. This reduction in the corporate tax rate effectively provided a one-time rebasing of US corporate earnings upwards.
The question is what US equities would have delivered absent the Trump tax cut? Montaka’s analysis suggests that approximately 70 percent of US equity returns over the last four years was driven by the Trump tax cut. Absent this tax cut, US equities would likely have delivered an average return of 1.9 percent per annum – exactly the same as the average yield of the five-year US Treasury Bond over the same period.
Now, upon adjusting the MSCI World Net Total Return Index for the Trump tax cut, the four-year annual return of +4.5 percent reduces to just +1.6 percent per annum. Arguably this return is in line with global inflation suggesting real global equity returns over the period have been approximately zero.
What are we to make of this? The implication of the above is: “as earnings grow without commensurate growth in total shareholder return, then equities are essentially becoming cheaper, absent some material change to the trajectory of future growth or cost of capital.”
Over the last four years, global equities have basically drifted sideways (absent the one-time Trump tax cut the effects of which will likely fade very soon); but pre-tax earnings have been increasing!
In the US, for example, S&P 500 pre-tax earnings have increased by 16 percent over the last four years. Said another way: global equity markets have actually become cheaper, or less risky (downside risk), over the last four years. The tickets in the bowl suggest participation in the lottery. Being overly defensive now suggests opportunity risk at a time when downside risk appears less pronounced.
As equity prices fall, the probability that they will be higher in the future rises.
But the conventional wisdom is that equities are heading for a prolonged “bear market” similar to the drawdown at the beginning of the century. Lets remember that recessions are relatively rare, so constantly forecasting them and positioning portfolios to prepare can be a risky proposition (opportunity risk). Furthermore, between 2000 and 2002, the S&P 500 Total Return Index roughly halved and we should note that the forward P/E ratio of the S&P 500 TODAY is the same as where it was at the bottom of the 2002 bear market – and roughly half of where it was at the top, in the year 2000...
Charts of the Month
Logos LP March 2019 Performance
March 2019 Return: 3.88%
2019 YTD (March) Return: 12.61%
Trailing Twelve Month Return: -6.94%
Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) since inception March 26, 2014:+14.34%
Thought of the Month
"To be a warrior is to learn to be genuine in every moment of your life.”-Chogyam Trungpa
Articles and Ideas of Interest
MTY Food Group: There’s Still Value In Food. An article by us looking at MTY one of our best ideas.
Picking stocks is hard. Josh Brown and Michael Batnick discuss diversification and portfolio concentration. In a recent study, Vanguard took a look at the last 30 years worth of data for the Russell 3000 index, which represents the total stock market. They found something remarkable - over the last 30 years, 47% of stocks were unprofitable investments and almost 30% lost more than half their value. They also found, and this is the big one, that 7% of stocks had cumulative returns over 1,000%.But imagine how hard it would have been to identify that winning 7% and concentrate only on those holdings in advance?
Is the yield curve inversion important? The 10Y-3M yield curve recently inverted, and market pundits are running around like their hair is on fire. Should we care? Contrary to popular belief, there is little theoretical or conceptual support for using inversion of the 10Y-3M Treasury yield curve as a leading indicator of recessions. Contrary to popular belief, there is little theoretical or conceptual support for using inversion of the 10Y-3M Treasury yield curve as an asset allocation signal to sell stocks.
The happiness recession. Today’s young adults are replacing church and marriage with friendships. But there’s one thing for which they have no substitute….the sex recession is in full swing.
Reality is delicious all on its own. A Zen teacher and chef says that the secret to appreciating life lies in accepting that nothing is perfect, but everything is useful. No food or experience should ever go to waste. Just as he saves the remains of today’s dishes for tomorrow’s meals, the chef suggests we relish everything life brings our way, or at least learn to resist less. Instead of always trying to control things, which is impossible, the chef argues that we can get better at dealing, making delicious recipes in the kitchen and in our lives by using limited ingredients and learning to savor the flavors that arise naturally.
How digital technology is destroying our freedom. Douglas Rushkoff, a media theorist at Queens College in New York, is the latest to push back against the notion that technology is driving social progress. His new book, Team Human, argues that digital technology in particular is eroding human freedom and destroying communities.
Andreessen Horowitz Is Blowing Up The Venture Capital Model (Again). Andreessen and Horowitz, who rank 55th and 73rd, respectively, on this year’s Forbes Midas List, intend to be disagreeable themselves. They just finished raising a soon-to-be announced $2 billion fund (bringing total assets under management to nearly $10 billion) to write even bigger checks for portfolio companies and unicorns the firm missed the first time. More aggressively, they tell Forbes that they are registering their entire firm—a costly move requiring reviews of all 150 people—as a financial advisor, renouncing Andreessen Horowitz’s status as a venture capital firm entirely. Why?
Different kinds of information. The amount of raw, accessible information we have is orders of magnitude more than it was 15 years ago, let alone 129 years ago. Yahoo has historical financial statements of every public company; 20 years ago you had to ask each company to mail you hard copies. Twitter spits out 200 billion tweets a year; it barely existed a decade ago. The firehose makes it easy to mirror the poor Oxford boy: since information is free and ubiquitous but adding context has a mental price, the path of least resistance is to know facts without a clue where they go or whether they’re useful. Morgan Housel suggests that one step to dealing with this firehose is acknowledging different types of information. When you come across a piece of information – any kind of information – I’ve found it useful to bucket it into different groups.
This Negative-Fee ETF Will Pay Investors to Invest. While the biggest exchange-traded fund shops such as BlackRock and Vanguard battle for fresh money by undercutting each other on fees, small and relatively new entrants of ETF-land are going whole hog. Salt Financial, an ETF shop with less than two years under its belt, filed on Tuesday to launch an ETF that will actually pay investors for investing in it, at least at the start. The negative-fee ETF is finally here, making online lender Social Financial or SoFi’s zero-fee ETFs old news.
It's not just corruption. Entrance into elite US colleges is rigged in every way. An FBI sting revealed that wealthy parents are buying their children a place in top universities. But they’re not the only problem: the whole system is rigged. But here’s the thing: the whole system is “rigged” in favor of more affluent parents. It is true that the conversion of wealth into a desirable college seat was especially egregious in this case – to the extent that it was actually illegal. But there are countless ways that students are robbed of a “fair shot” if they are not lucky enough to be born to well-resourced, well-connected parents. The difference between this illegal scheme and the legal ways in which money buys access is one of degree, not of kind. The mistake here was to do something illegal. Meanwhile, much of what goes on in college admissions many not be illegal, but it is immoral.
Our best wishes for a fulfilling April,