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Category Archives: Risk Environment & Portfolio Construction Implications

Even A Wide Moat Won’t Save This Brexit

caerlaverock-castle-1220664-639x479In the weeks leading up to the Brexit referendum vote our assumption was that while the vote would be close the “remain” side would eventually prevail.  Our feeling was, I must admit, more based on our observation that under most circumstances electorates prefer to stay with the status quo.

My relatives in the UK had warned me against making such an assumption, but from a pure economic perspective the evidence seemed stacked in favor of remaining within the EU.

Now that we know the outcome of the vote and Brexit has become a reality it downs on me how out of touch we can sometimes be when dealing with unhappy electorates.  The evidence is scant for any positive economic benefit for separation from the EU, but the hope for change is sometimes so strong so as to overwhelm rational thought.  In my opinion, while the world may have recovered economically from the depths of the 2008 Financial Crisis the seeds of discontent are still alive within large segments of the population. 

The rise of nationalism in many countries is tied to the search for simple solutions for promoting adequate growth in the face of weak labor markets and rising income inequality.  These simple solutions are often expressed in the form of isolationist strategies with the underlying assumption being that inadequacies in economic growth are caused by outside forces.

But just as building a moat around one’s castle is a totally inadequate way in today’s world to keep outside influences at bay so are policies pretending that world economic forces can be neutralized at one’s door step.

Markets for goods and services today are truly global in nature and while pockets of every economy will remain domestically driven the vast majority of global economic activity takes place in the context of highly competitive supply and demand conditions involving companies frequently conducting business from multiple geographies.  Borders don’t matter as much as the ability to offer a value proposition to both producers and consumers.

The 52% of voters in the UK that voted for pulling out of the EU are betting that the UK economy will be better off long-term not being part of the larger economic union.  Stifling regulations imposed by the EU are one shackle that UK domiciled companies will no longer have to bear. Another, it is argued, will be removing the burden of subsidizing weaker members of the union.

But while the long-term ramifications of Brexit will not be known in totality for at least a decade or two the shorter-term issues are likely to wreak havoc with investor sentiment.  “Risk-off” is likely is to stay with us for a bit longer than expected!

Another Brexit casualty will be sterling denominated assets.  Not only will the British Pound depreciate significantly but the demand for UK domiciled stocks and bonds will decrease as well.  Sellers will remain highly incentivized so prices will need to drop for buyers and sellers to meet.  None of this is rocket science and markets on t+1 are already reflecting these negatives.

While the short-term implications for UK equity owners are negative we do not believe that Brexit will lead to the end of the world.  After all our belief is that company fundamentals drive long-term investor rewards and spikes in investor sentiment both positive and negative appear as mere blips in long-term performance charts.

Especially for companies not directly tied to the regulatory consequences of Brexit the news may be good in the short-term as investors express an increased preference for lower uncertainty situations.  Even for many UK companies the news does not constitute a death sentence as many already conduct operations in geographically diversified locales.  For some export-driven companies the depreciation of the pound will provide short-term competitive advantages.

UK-domiciled assets will not doubt remain under pressure for the foreseeable future.  Withdrawing from the EU bloc is fraught with technicalities and will require the negotiation of dozens of trade agreements.  Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty will have to be invoked which will then allow for a two year period of negotiation between the EU and the UK government.  Pro-Brexit politicians have openly discussed delaying invoking Article 50 leading to most likely a period of 4 to 5 years of uncertainty. While the Brexit side rejoices today the withdrawal from the EU will not be immediate.

Most times when a political event such as Brexit occurs the size of the overall economic pie does not change materially at least over short and intermediate terms. What tends to happen instead is that the pie gets splits up differently creating losers and winners. 

Capital markets are reacting post-referendum as if the size of the pie has permanently shrunk and everybody will go hungry. The reaction of global capital markets would suggest dire consequences for global growth. Risky assets are getting uniformly destroyed and investors are flocking to safe heavens such as the US dollar, long-term US government bonds and precious metals.

Our view is that while global economic growth will experience a hiccup the longer-term effect for global growth will not be significant. For long-term investors with multi-asset class portfolios we do not expect a lasting effect from Brexit but understanding the likely short-term winners and losers could actually yield some very rewarding tactical trades.

In many ways this crisis while most likely painful for the UK economy resembles other periods in history when political events led to a spike in capital market volatility and a rise in investor risk aversion.  Such periods were uncomfortable for investors but also yielded tremendous opportunities to add value.

What can we reasonable expect over the next few weeks?

  • Investor risk aversion will remain elevated as investors seek to understand the long-term implications of Brexit
  • The US dollar, Swiss Franc and the Yen will strengthen at the expense of the Euro and the British Pound
  • Commodities apart from precious metals will face downward pressures as the US dollar appreciates. We, however, believe that oil will find its footing reasonable soon as supply/demand conditions seem to be close to equilibrium
  • Investors will increase the demand for high quality bonds leading to further interest rate decreases. Long duration bonds will benefit the most. Interest rate sensitive assets such as real estate will likewise benefit.
  • The US Federal Reserve will not raise rates in July and we would be surprised if they institute any hikes this year. The ECB and the Bank of England will cut rates and increase monetary stimulus. Global liquidity will remain plentiful.
  • Investors with short time horizons will flee risky assets en masse.  We should expect outflows from equities to accelerate in the short-term.  European and UK portfolios will see the sharpest outflows
  • Extreme contrarians will advocate buying into UK equities but there will be few takers. We would advocate passing on this trade for now
  • Contrarians will also advocate buying stocks domiciled in the US. Such a trade won’t require, in our opinion, as long as of a time horizon as buying UK stocks and it will thus entail less risk. Our two top equity tilts remain low valuation and above-average company profitability

 

In general, we would advocate making only small adjustments to multi-asset class portfolios.  The adjustments would be more driven by risk management considerations as we expect asset class volatility to remain elevated for the remainder of 2016.  Our risk aversion index (RAI) has also recently moved into the “extreme fear” zone thus calling for a more defensive risk posture.

From a tactical perspective we see opportunities emerging more from bottom-up stock selection activities rather than from sector or country allocation decisions.  When whole markets sells off as we saw on the day after Brexit the good gets thrown out with the bad.

In a crisis company fundamentals are often ignored as investors are forced to sell their most liquid holdings first.  Market turmoil tends to create attractive entry points for investments with robust long-term fundamentals.  We expect global equity markets to remain under pressure next week and we would thus advocate waiting a bit longer to put any excess cash to work.

 

Eric J. Weigel

Managing Partner, Global Focus Capital LLC

Feel free to contact us at Global Focus Capital LLC (mailto:eweigel@gf-cap.com or visit our website at http://gf-cap.com to find out more about our asset management strategies, consulting/OCIO solutions, and research subscriptions.

DISCLAIMER: NOTHING HEREIN SHALL BE CONSTRUED AS INVESTMENT ADVICE, A RECOMMENDATION OR SOLICITATION TO BUY OR SELL ANY SECURITY. PAST PERFORMANCE DOES NOT PREDICT OR GUARANTEE FUTURE SIMILAR RESULTS. SEEK THE ADVICE OF AN INVESTMENT MANAGER, LAWYER AND ACCOUNTANT BEFORE YOU INVEST. DON’T RELY ON ANYTHING HEREIN. DO YOUR OWN HOMEWORK. THIS IS FOR INFORMATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY AND DOES NOT CONSIDER THE INVESTMENT NEEDS OR SUITABILITY OF ANY INDIVIDUAL. THERE IS NO PROMISE TO CORRECT ANY ERRORS OR OMISSIONS OR NOTIFY THE READER OF ANY SUCH ERRORS

Feeling Unsettled – An Update on Investor Risk Aversion

New England Spring DayInvestors have been feeling a bit unsettled this year. Right off the bat risky assets fell off the cliff only to recover strongly in March. Since then financial markets have felt like a typical spring day in New England –at times warm and sunny followed by cold winds and clouds.

Investors have become highly sensitized to changing capital market conditions – one moment feeling upbeat and confident and the next being rife with doubt and stress.

Back in 2009 Mohamed El-Erian then at Pimco described the changing mood swings of investors using the risk on/risk off label.

While the risk on/off concept makes a lot of sense to truly grasp the investment implications of such mood swings one needs an objective yardstick to properly identify these periods of euphoria and sheer despair.

At Global Focus Capital we measure investor sentiment using our Risk Aversion Index (RAI).  The higher the RAI the more fearful investor are, or in other words the more risk averse.  As a reminder to readers we classify investor risk aversion into three zones – Extreme Risk/Risk Allergic, Neutral, and Risk Loving/Seeking.

RAI MAY 2016Thus far in 2016 we have spent most of our time in the Extreme Fear/Allergic and the higher end of the Normal Zones.  Investors are clearly nervous.

The chart shows the ten day moving average of our daily risk aversion index.  During the early part of the year risk aversion was in the very high end as global stock and commodity markets were tumbling.

As risky assets found their footing in mid to late February so did investor risk aversion.  After almost reverting back to the Extreme Fear/Allergic Zone in mid-April, investor risk aversion has been trending down while still remaining in the high end of the Neutral Zone. Investor sentiment remains fragile.

What does it mean to be in each one of these risk zones?  Without going into all the portfolio construction issues let us just focus on returns.  A separate note will explore the risk management aspects of each risk regime.

We illustrate average monthly returns since 1995 for the major asset classes typically part of our asset allocation strategies at Global Focus Capital. Among equities and fixed income we split the asset classes into domestic and international and also include alternatives such as real estate and commodities.

RETURNS ACCORDING TO RAI.png

Periods of capital market stress such as those when the RAI is in the Extreme Risk/Allergic Zone (red bars) are difficult for investors holding risky asset classes such as equities.  In line with conventional wisdom the higher the perceived risk the more negative the average returns. When the RAI is in this zone all equities suffer but emerging markets takes the biggest hit (down 2.3% on average). Our two alternatives (Real Estate and Commodities) also take a hit but the overall negative effect is dampened due to their exposure to non-equity risk factors.

Fixed income on the other hand tends to exhibit positive average returns during this high risk aversion phase. In fact, the highest average returns of all asset classes correspond to government bonds (US and Non-US developed market).  US Government bonds for example show an average monthly return of 1% in the Risk Allergic Zone.

Let’s see what happens when the RAI falls in the Risk Loving/Seeking Zone (green bars). Here the situation is reversed. Asset classes with higher perceived risk tend to do better. Emerging market equities do best on average and small caps outperform large cap stocks. Real estate also does well. Within fixed income emerging market bonds do best, but in general the performance of safer assets lags significantly behind that of riskier investments. 

When in the Risk Loving/Seeking Zone it pays to be aggressive, but one must also be mindful of taking on too much risk in exchange for less and less potential reward.  Both the Long Term Capital Management implosion in 1998 and the 2008 Financial Crisis debacles occurred on the heels of investors being highly dismissive of the risks involved.  In both cases investors were taking on a disproportionate amount of risk for smaller amounts of potential return.

Finally when evaluating returns in the Neutral Zone (orange bars) it is interesting to note that, on average, equities tend to exhibit the best monthly returns when in this risk phase. All four equity classes show this tendency. Likewise real estate also shows the highest average returns in the Neutral Zone. Interestingly, the highest perceived risk asset within fixed income – Emerging Market Debt – also shows this characteristic.

Where is the RAI now and what should we be doing? Our barometer is currently entrenched in the Neutral Zone with a reading in the 59th percentile.  The RAI has been trending down (becoming a bit less risk averse) but remains in the higher end of the Normal Zone.  Pick your poison – low global growth, negative policy rates, disappointing corporate earnings, Brexit, a Greek default – investors are finding lots of reasons for remaining nervous.

ACTION PLAN ACCORDING TO RAI

In looking at the pattern of how investor risk aversion typically evolves our research has found that investor risk aversion tends to be sticky over the short-term

There is about a 65% probability of remaining next month in the current risk zone, a 25% chance of moving to the contiguous zone (say from Neutral to Extreme Risk) and only a 10% chance of moving from one extreme to the other (say Risk Seeking to Risk Allergic).

Our current reading of 59th percentile is on the high side for the Neutral Zone.  Coming off the Extreme Risk/Allergic Zone at the beginning of the year the portfolio implication is a lowering of tracking error and an increase in investment volatility.  We are thus advocating becoming less dissimilar from the benchmark if a relative return orientation is applicable.

When investor risk aversion is in the Normal Zone, low volatility strategies lose their effectiveness and we, therefore, do not recommend a low volatility tilt anymore.

Should investors get spooled again and our RAI return to the Extreme Fear Zone our recommendation would be to tilt toward lower volatility investments and sectors.  Such a set of moves would increase deviations relative to the benchmark and we would expect to observe higher levels of strategy tracking error.

What could sour the mood of global investors leading to a jump up in risk aversion? Potentially a whole host of issues frequently best understood in hindsight.  But on a more practical note we would highlight three areas of concern. First, should the UK vote to withdraw from the European Union we would expect a large spike up in investor risk aversion.  Risky assets such as stocks and commodities would likely take a big hit should this event occur.  We think that investors will react extremely negatively to Brexit especially in terms of their European stock and bond holdings.

The second concern involves contagion effects should a Greek default occur.  At the very least the interest spread between safe and riskier debt should jump up.  This would lead to a higher RAI and riskier investments will likely bear the brunt. Haven’t we seen this movie before? Yes, too many times but unless debt relief is in the cards we will we seeing another re-run this summer.

Finally, a Chinese growth scare could also trigger investor fears and bring about very negative consequences for emerging market equities and commodities.  The official target growth rate is between 6.5 and 7% with a focus on internal consumption and services growth.

The wildcards remains the health of the real estate market and the credit worthiness of off-balance sheet financing.  According to the IMF China currently accounts for over 16% of Global GDP when adjusted for purchasing power parity. The US accounts for a similar fraction of global growth. A significant negative revision to growth in either country would no doubt roil equity and commodity markets while leading monetary authorities to expand their loose monetary policy further into the future.

At Global Focus Capital we continue to believe that investment risk has been underpriced for a while and that there is no better time than now to evaluate one’s willingness to trade off risk in relation to potential reward.

Monetary authorities have provided investors with a nice safety cushion and allowed aggressive investors to benefit disproportionally.  Lackluster global growth and seemingly high absolute valuation levels for stocks and bonds are likely to lead to a decade of lower than average capital market returns where many investors will struggle to meet their stated target portfolio returns.

A proper understanding of realistic sources of potential returns and associated risks together with a willingness to remain tactically flexible with a portion of the overall portfolio will reward investors with a higher likelihood of achieving their goals without going too far out on the risk curve.

 

Eric J. Weigel

Managing Partner, Global Focus Capital LLC

Feel free to contact us at Global Focus Capital LLC (mailto:eweigel@gf-cap.com or visit our website at http://gf-cap.com to find out more about our asset management strategies, consulting/OCIO solutions, and research subscriptions.

DISCLAIMER: NOTHING HEREIN SHALL BE CONSTRUED AS INVESTMENT ADVICE, A RECOMMENDATION OR SOLICITATION TO BUY OR SELL ANY SECURITY. PAST PERFORMANCE DOES NOT PREDICT OR GUARANTEE FUTURE SIMILAR RESULTS. SEEK THE ADVICE OF AN INVESTMENT MANAGER, LAWYER AND ACCOUNTANT BEFORE YOU INVEST. DON’T RELY ON ANYTHING HEREIN. DO YOUR OWN HOMEWORK. THIS IS FOR INFORMATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY AND DOES NOT CONSIDER THE INVESTMENT NEEDS OR SUITABILITY OF ANY INDIVIDUAL. THERE IS NO PROMISE TO CORRECT ANY ERRORS OR OMISSIONS OR NOTIFY THE READER OF ANY SUCH ERRORS.

A Marriage of Necessity but with Benefits

1000785262One of the key underpinnings of modern-day investing is the concept of diversification.  Adding assets to a portfolio will almost universally lower the overall volatility of a portfolio assuming that the correlation between the investment in question and the portfolio is lower than one.  As the correlation falls the greater the drop in the volatility of the portfolio, i.e. the greater the diversification benefit.

Investors often fret about the lack of diversification opportunities in capital markets.  The sentiment is especially pronounced during equity market selloffs such as what we have experienced this year.

Investors have been often discouraged by the high correlations observed among investments in the same asset class.  For example, the early day (70’s and 80’s) arguments for increasing exposure to international equities hinged on the portfolio diversification benefits accruing from the low correlation between US and international stocks.

Sometimes expectations need to be re-adjusted. Unfortunately, as US investors increased their exposure to international investments and both US and foreign domiciled companies became more globally integrated the net result was a significant upward drift in correlations and a loss of diversification benefit.

The same story can be told about emerging market and even domestic small-cap investing.  Investors looking for significant divergent behavior among equity sub-asset classes have been generally disappointed.  Our latest estimates of the correlations of the S&P 500 to US Small Caps, International Stocks and Emerging Market Equity are all north of 0.7.

CORR TO US STOCKSThe long-term performance of these equity sub-asset classes will naturally gravitate towards their fundamental value, but over shorter holding periods the pull of the broad equity market factor will be unmistakable.  Style, market cap and sector membership are secondary to what happens to the broad equity market.  The market effect dominates.

The same applies within other asset classes.  For example, in fixed income markets the most significant pull comes from the interest rate on sovereign bonds.  Other factors such as credit are often secondary in explaining return movements. Again the market effect dominates especially over shorter holding periods

So where does that leave investors looking for a little zig when their portfolio zags? The answer is so simply and obvious but the message is often ignored.  Bonds, bonds and more bonds.  In recent times investors have shown a strong dislike for fixed income especially in light of the low prevailing interest rates.The same applies within other asset classes.  For example, in fixed income markets the most significant pull comes from the interest rate on sovereign bonds.  Other factors such as credit are often secondary in explaining return movements. Again the market effect dominates especially over shorter holding periods

From a prospective return perspective we agree, but, in our opinion, investors are forgetting about the diversification benefits of bonds.  Bonds (especially high quality) represent the most direct and least expensive form of portfolio risk reduction available in todays’ markets.

Our current estimates of the correlation of US stocks to high quality domestic and developed international debt markets are south of -0.3. Ok, correlations have been lower in the past, but they have also been higher. In fact the average correlation of US stocks and bonds over annual holding periods is indistinguishable from zero.

ROLL CORR STOCKS BONDS

Is it a free lunch?  No, not given the low interest rates on bonds today, but compared to the costs of using other forms of portfolio protection plain old bonds seem to offer the lowest opportunity cost with the lowest execution risk. The way we look at it is that the below normal yields are the premium you must pay to protect your portfolio.

Let’s look at a simple case using a portfolio composed 60% of the S&P 500 and 40% of the Barclays Aggregate. We are assuming that stocks have a volatility of 16% and bonds of 6% (these are currently our long-term normalized estimates).

The benefits depend on the volatility of stocks and bonds as well as their degree of co-movement. Historically, the correlation between stocks and bonds in the US has been about zero.  Under such a scenario, the 60/40 portfolio would have a volatility of 9.9%.

60 40 VOL

There have been long periods of time, however, when the correlation has actually been positive. Stocks and bonds moving in the same direction either up or down.  Let’s assume a modest correlation of 0.2. Under such a scenario the diversification benefits still accrue but at a lower rate.  The 60/40 mix now exhibits a volatility of 10.4%.

What happens when the correlation between US stocks and bonds is actually negative?  The simple answer is that the diversification benefits are significantly enhanced.  Let’s assume a correlation of -0.2.  This estimate is in line with our current estimate from our proprietary multi-asset class model.  Now the 60/40 portfolio has a volatility of 9.4%, a full point lower than the earlier case.

Why stop there? Let’s push the envelope and assume a stock/bond correlation of -0.6.  Quite dramatic for sure but not out-of-bounds from previous capital market experience.  Now the benefits are further enhanced with the portfolio exhibiting a volatility of 8.4%

The role of bonds should be seen from the perspective of the total package of benefits. Historically, the role of fixed income has been income generation, but in today’s environment investors should focus as well on the diversification benefits created by mixing bonds with equity-like assets.

Bonds (especially high quality) represent the most direct and least expensive form of portfolio risk reduction available in todays’ markets. Incorporating bonds into the mix will be especially important in risk on/off markets such as those we expect to prevail over the next few years.

Let us hope that the marriage between stocks and bonds which at times has been a bit awkward remains beneficial as we transition into a low capital market return environment.

Sincerely,

Eric J. Weigel

eweigel@gf-cap.com

Managing Partner and Founder of Global Focus Capital LLC

 

DISCLAIMER: NOTHING HEREIN SHALL BE CONSTRUED AS INVESTMENT ADVICE, A RECOMMENDATION OR SOLICITATION TO BUY OR SELL ANY SECURITY. PAST PERFORMANCE DOES NOT PREDICT OR GUARANTEE FUTURE SIMILAR RESULTS. SEEK THE ADVICE OF AN INVESTMENT MANAGER, LAWYER AND ACCOUNTANT BEFORE YOU INVEST. DON’T RELY ON ANYTHING HEREIN. DO YOUR OWN HOMEWORK. THIS IS FOR INFORMATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY AND DOES NOT CONSIDER THE INVESTMENT NEEDS OR SUITABILITY OF ANY INDIVIDUAL. THERE IS NO PROMISE TO CORRECT ANY ERRORS OR OMISSIONS OR NOTIFY THE READER OF ANY SUCH ERRORS

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