2021Q1

Out with the old…in with the new!

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Happy New Year!  We are thankful for this year’s opportunities and for making it thru a very challenging chapter.  We are optimistic for the anticipated vaccine.  We look forward to returning to a life and community that is more open, and we are excited to rebuild.  We all hope 2021 is that new beginning.

In the world of financial planning, there is a calendar year reset that occurs as well.  It’s a new tax year.  Health care deductibles reset, and it is time for new contributions to IRAs, 401ks, and HSAs.  We look back on the returns for 2020 and strategize for the year ahead.

By investment standards, 2020 was a rollercoaster of change and volatility.  COVID-19 brought a swift decline in the financial markets.  The Fed produced trillions of dollars in stimulus and markets ultimately recovered.  By year end, most indexes ended the year in positive territory.

Facebook, Amazon, Nvidia, Google and Tesla led the U.S. stock market into a manic exuberance.  Investment professionals and individuals alike were excited by these tech giants and about their prospects of market dominance.  Let’s face it, the world has changed expeditiously in the past few years.  Tech companies are positioned to propel us into the future.  The question becomes, how much are you willing to pay for these future hopefuls.  Prices of these stocks are expensive.  In fact, all other investments, globally and domestically paled in comparison.  Even the other 490 stocks that make up the broad U.S. large cap market haven’t compared.  Take a look at the following chart.

YTD Tesla has risen 657% and approximately 1100% in the past 18 months.  Here are a couple of numbers to stew on.  Tesla market cap has increased by $500 billion in 2020.  According to the market, Tesla’s value has surpassed that of the nine largest car companies globally.  This includes Volkswagen, Toyota, Nissan, Hyundai, GM, Ford, Honda, Fiat Chrysler, and Peugeot. To bring these numbers into context, Tesla only made ~1% of the total vehicle sales in 2020 or approximately 500,000 vehicles.  We are of the firm belief that those returns won’t continue along the same upward trajectory forever.

We have recently been asked, “Why do we need bonds in a portfolio, especially now?”  Prevailing thought is that if interest rates go up, the price of bonds will surely go down.  Interest rates are almost at zero and inevitably they will go up.  We have had low interest rates for a decade and near zero rates for a year.  Stocks have beaten bonds by 90+% over the rolling average of the past 100 years.  Given where interest rates were, 30-year treasury bonds still produced a total return of 18.88% for 2020.  However, bonds play an important role in a portfolio’s stability.  When equities are bullish, the case for bonds is challenging, but when markets selloff, it is conceivable to experience a 60+% drop in a portfolio without bonds.  We like to think of bonds as an insurance policy.  This insurance policy also allows us to buy equities when markets sell off.

A few salient points that we like to remind folks: we can’t time the market and there isn’t a correlation between GDP and Equity returns.  Earnings look back and stock prices are an anticipation of what the stock earnings and company growth will look like in the future.  If we were to try and time the market this year, many investors would have taken money out when their portfolios plummeted and would have resisted putting money to work when the pandemic was saddling the world with depression like statistics.

So where is the opportunity today?  We see an opportunity in emerging market equities that have been underperformers for several years.  Specifically, we are focused on value categorized companies.  For the past 10 years, we have seen a stark disparity between the returns of value and growth companies.  Value names have experienced their worst decade in history and to further the pain they have just experienced their worst 12 months in history.  We see this underperformance as an opportunity to reallocate portfolios that were in favoring domestic growth equities and shift them towards more international and value-oriented names.  In regard to fixed income, we are favoring some credit risk in exchange for term risk. Currently, inflation remains tepid.  Although current spreads between conventional treasuries and TIPS have widened to 1.8% in the later part of 2020, this is well below the 2% fed target.  If inflation does increase, term risk will weigh more on the fixed income portfolio.

Current portfolio changes for 2021

In order to best position our portfolios and to take advantage of where we forecast returns to come from in the near future, we have made the following adjustments for the first quarter 2021. We exchanged our passive positions in MSCI EAFE Growth and Value for an active position in Oakmark International Value fund.  We added positions to the Sharepost 100, a late-stage private equity fund and the Columbia Dividend Income Fund.  We also increased our positions in Robinson Municipal Bond fund and the ATAC Rotation fund and decreased our positions in Fidelity Conservative Income.

2020Q3

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The markets remained resilient through the end of September.  Following four straight weeks of losses, all major market indexes are positive year-to-date.  Specifically, the S&P 500 remains at a positive 3.5% through the 3rd quarter.  The following sectors, Technology (26%), Consumer Discretionary (21%), and Consumer Services (7%), have all generated positive YTD returns.  Current unemployment has fallen to just below 8%. The economy has returned approximately half of the payrolls lost at the start of the pandemic.  Certain economic indicators such as consumer spending, manufacturing demand and durable-goods growth point toward an economy that is recovering.

The quarter was not without its challenges.  The Billy Joel song “We Didn’t Start the Fire” rings in our heads.  Government stimulus, Supreme Court nominations, elections, coupled with the COVID calamity continue to create commotion and noise.  One concern is that while some economic indicators are improving, they are experiencing it at a slower pace than we would like to see.  Although stock market indexes are positive, some sectors, Energy (-48%), Financials (-22%), and Real Estate (-8%), have suffered year-to-date.  Disney announced that 28,000 furloughed workers would permanently lose their jobs.  American and United Airlines cut more than 35,000 jobs.  Positive sentiments in the housing sector have waned.  Housing starts slowed to 0.9% below the July 2019 numbers and 0.01% below the August 2019 numbers.  Furthering the concern, lumber prices have slipped into backwardation pricing, where future bundles are being priced at discounts to current prices.  This may foretell weaker demand.  All the economic stimulus and early access to retirement accounts pushed CPI upward.  This data lends itself to the growing concern that inflation will rear its sleepy head.

Continuing coronavirus challenges persist as well.  The coronavirus has claimed more than 200,000 lives in the U.S.  Although the number of reported cases in the U.S. has leveled off, hotspots are reemerging in the Midwest and even in New York City.  The U.K. is planning for a second shutdown.  France recently reported its highest number of daily cases.  Many are still fearing winter flu season is upon us and the dreaded “second wave” will be inevitable.

Interest rates remain at historic lows and the dollar continues to weaken.  As we write this newsletter, the current 30-year mortgage rate is at meager 2.25%!  The debt markets are so starved for yield that investors have been willing to accept a 30-year bond with a paltry yield of 1.3%.  The demand is further illustrated by the +25% total return of the long bond.

We do believe there are pockets of the market that continue to signal opportunity.  We believe value-oriented companies, specifically in the international value sector, look to be positioned for strong positive future returns.  Antithetical to this, growth companies, globally, continue to price at historically high multiples.  It is our belief that returns will be more pronounced in the value sector in the near term.   Our investment portfolios currently reflect these sentiments.  Please feel free to reach out to us to review this unique situation.  Stay safe