The Margin of Safety Quarterly Spring 2021

 In Client Bulletins, News

First Quarter 2021 Key Takeaways

  • Value stocks led the way during the first quarter of 2021
  • The S&P 500 gained 6.3% but large value returned 11.4%
  • Small cap value returned 21.5% vs. large cap growth, 2.2%
  • Overseas, developed international returned 4.5% and emerging market stocks added 4%, with value outperforming growth overseas as well
  • The violent turn around between growth and value illustrates that rebounds can be just as fast and surprising as sell offs
  • U.S. bonds declined 3.6% but floating rate and flexible fixed income did better
  • Our alternatives strategy returned 2.44%, better than U.S. bonds.

First Quarter 2021 Investment Commentary

Global stocks continued to power upward this quarter from their pandemic bear market low on March 23, 2020. The S&P 500 Index gained 6.3%, developed international stocks gained 4.5%, and emerging market stocks gained 4%. These benchmarks are now up an astonishing 80.6%, 74.8%, and 74.6%, respectively, since the bottom. The S&P 500’s one year trailing return, as of March 23, 2021, was its best since the 1930s. Clearly, it paid not to panic and get out of the markets last spring. Individuals without a disciplined investment plan unfortunately did just that and to the extent they re-entered the markets, they probably did so when prices were up significantly from the lower values. Time in the markets is what matters, as market timing is not possible to do consistently.

While the “meme” stocks (like GameStop) and the social media fueled speculation behind them caught the attention of speculators earlier this year, we think the recent “reflation rotation” will be the more enduring equity market trend: For a couple of quarters now, equity investors have been betting on more economically sensitive small caps and value stocks and eschewing large caps and previously highflying growth stocks. For our clients, we have been positioned in these areas of the markets already, as valuations were compelling as we have written about in prior newsletters. Asset allocation timing decisions are always difficult, but we believe valuation – whether for asset classes or individual securities – is one of the most important determinants of investment success. We want to buy assets when prices are lower, all else being equal (which of course it never is and that is what makes investing difficult).

The reflationary winds tore through the bond market as well. The prospect of higher growth and higher inflation caused interest rates to jump. The 10-year Treasury yield more than tripled from the historic low it set last August. Correspondingly, the core bond index fell 3.6%, suffering its worst quarter since 1981. On the flipside, floating rate loans (which we own in our more conservative portfolios), which benefit from reflation, gained 1.8%. And most of the flexible, active bond strategies we invest with delivered positive returns this quarter, despite higher rates (and all outperformed core bonds).

Investment Outlook

The primary variables that will determine the direction of the economy and markets remain COVID-19 developments and the fiscal/monetary policy response. These currently imply a base case for a strong economic rebound, particularly in the United States but also globally. This will support the fundamentals underpinning higher returning asset classes (stocks, credit sectors of the bond market)—as long as interest rates do not move sharply higher.

Substantial progress has been made on the vaccine rollout. Ninety-three million Americans have received at least one dose. At the current vaccination rate, experts estimate the United States could achieve herd immunity by late summer. Daily new cases, hospitalizations, and deaths from COVID-19 have plummeted. This is great news, but we are not out of the woods yet. There is still a risk that we will open up too early or that new infectious variants could prove resistant to the current vaccines. But overall, the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel certainly appears brighter.

Controlling the pandemic will enable us to start getting back to normal lives, boosting economic activity. Growth forecasts had already reflected a rebound. Now they are being revised higher with the massive American Rescue Plan Act fiscal stimulus signed into law. The Federal Reserve forecasts the U.S. economy will grow at its fastest pace since 1984. Economic growth should feed into company earnings. The Wall Street consensus expects S&P 500 earnings to grow over 40% in 2021.

Yet the Fed continues to reiterate that it will not preemptively raise interest rates. It intends to wait until it sees inflation above its 2% target for an extended period of time, a new policy that suggests this economic cycle has plenty of room to run. The Fed has to taper its asset purchases first, which are still going strong at $120 billion per month, before they even think about raising rates. We take the Fed at its word that it won’t be raising rates anytime soon.

So high economic growth, strong earnings growth, but low interest rates? Equity investors couldn’t ask for more. A bull market has roared to life. The main threat is our old friend valuation risk. However, shorter term, historically high valuations need not impede it with all the other positives in place. Stocks remain reasonably attractive relative to bonds.

Speaking of bonds, longer term interest rates have risen in anticipation of a higher growth, more inflationary environment. That has hurt bond investors this year. However, our clients have felt less of an impact as we were significantly underweight to core bonds to protect against just this occurrence. While rates could rise further leading to greater bond price declines, they should stay contained unless inflation spikes up and stays higher.

What About Inflation?

Inflation has been at the top of investors’ list of concerns lately. Governments all over the world have passed large fiscal stimulus packages in the wake of the pandemic. The United States takes the cake: Congress has spent the equivalent of 25% of GDP on the emergency in a single year and may spend even more with an infrastructure plan on tap. That is a lot of potential pent up spending. Add in an expected economic rebound from the pandemic, and the Fed doing everything it can to stoke a healthy level of inflation, and investors and consumers are understandably worried about maintaining their purchasing power. An inflation spiral would be bad for stocks, bonds, and pocketbooks.

In the coming months, we will in fact see year over year inflation increase, most likely to the 3% plus range. But this is largely due to prices rebounding from the pandemic lows. However the market reacts to this well  expected data, we want our clients to know that what really matters is meaningful, sustained inflation. That could be the catalyst to raise inflation expectations further. And fear of inflation can work like a self fulfilling prophecy. If consumers think future prices will be higher, they will increase their spending today. Increased near term demand raises prices for goods and inputs across the economy. Eventually workers will demand higher wages to compensate for higher inflation. Then businesses must raise prices to offset higher labor and input costs and off the wage price spiral goes. It’s critically important that the Fed anchors inflation expectations before price trends get out of control.

The jury will still be out even after the next couple of months as to whether this higher inflation will be transitory or the beginning of a longer term trend. Research firms we respect are leaning towards this not being an imminent concern because:

  • GDP growth will sharply rebound this year, but we won’t be close to full employment for at least a few years. Wage spiral inflation can’t really take hold as long as there is slack in the labor market.
  • The size of the fiscal stimulus that’s been issued is staggering, but it is a one time injection. The fiscal impulse will turn into a fiscal drag next year.
  • Also, not all of it will be spent or spent right away. A meaningful portion will be saved and some will go to paying down debt.
  • Finally, offsetting structural disinflationary forces such as demographic trends and technology adoption have not gone away or, in the latter’s case, have accelerated during the pandemic.

Alternatively, there is the prospect that at the backend of the next five years, a potential broad, long lasting shift to stimulative fiscal and monetary policies could trigger a return to an inflationary “regime” we haven’t seen since the 1970s. If that comes to pass, we could see the negative correlation between stock and bond prices that has been so beneficial to investors switch to a positive correlation, as happened back then. In that world, stocks and bonds move up and down together; bonds don’t provide the diversification they normally do, challenging asset allocators.

Closing Portfolio and Market Thoughts

As the macroeconomic regime evolves, we will tactically, but prudently, adapt and adjust our portfolio exposures based on our assessment of risks and potential return, as we have for almost twenty-five years. But today, we believe the most likely scenario over the next year at least is a reflationary one.

This reinforces our strong belief that what has worked so well for decades—simple portfolios consisting of U.S. stocks and bonds—won’t work nearly as well over the next five to ten years. We expect many of the asset classes and market sectors that have been laggards over the past five to ten years to continue their rebound. Reflation favors non-U.S. stocks and more cyclically sensitive or value equity sectors – areas of the market that we are invested in. Reflation also increases the potential for rising rates and inflation, both negative for core bonds. We are already accounting for this in our portfolio positioning. Our portfolios tilt toward non-U.S. stocks and cyclical/value stocks. Floating rate loans have a natural inflation protection component with their resetting coupons, for our more conservative clients. And we have diversified into flexible bond strategies that, with their yield advantage and active management flexibility, should handily outperform core bonds.

Partnering With Our Clients

Tax season for 2020 will still be under way as you read this. We have been assisting clients who work with our affiliated CPA firm, Smoak, Davis & Nixon, LLP, to deal with the IRS decision to not extend the due date for first quarter 2021 estimates, which is April 15, while moving the 2020 tax filing deadline to May 17. The IRS also did not change the due date to file 2020 gift tax or trust returns, which remained April 15. This has caused confusion and added complexity to the 2020 tax filing season. Cash flow planning is a little more important due to this, as clients could have tax payments due April 15, May 15 and June 15. We work closely with clients to assess their financial  situation, long term goals and help determine what actions to take that best balance securing their financial situation today with taking advantage of tax sensitive investing strategies and long term saving opportunities. We thank everyone for sending referrals to us – we know we are not the right advisor for everyone but we will always meet and talk with individuals about what they are looking for in a financial advisor. Even if we are not the right firm, we always share our thoughts and comments, to hopefully help them in their financial life.

The recently passed American Rescue Plan (“ARP”) Act has provisions that are most likely to impact our clients and newsletter readers. The bill includes more than a new stimulus check. It adds new money and expands eligibility for the Paycheck Protection Program launched by last year’s stimulus package. Money has also been directed toward a new small business grant program targeting eating establishments that meet certain requirements. For families, ARP expands the child tax credit and a portion should be paid in advance later this year (exactly how is still up in the air). ARP also included provisions on cancelled student loan debt, extended unemployment benefits and depending on income levels, excludes a portion of unemployment benefits received from taxation.

River Capital Advisor News

We continue to live in interesting times. Now more than ever it is important to have a well thought out, disciplined investment plan to keep emotions out of the investment process. It is also important to have a financial plan that guides the investment plan and implements the family philosophy. Most advisors focus on today, what you should do right now, and what stocks look like good buys today. For our firm and based on our decades of financial planning experience, most of the time today is not that important. Over the course of an individual’s lifetime as an investor, the decisions made today, tomorrow or next week will not matter nearly as much as the decisions made during emotional times such as a year ago, in 2008-2009 or 2000-2003. How someone behaved during those time periods will likely have more impact on their financial returns than the years leading up to those dates. For our clients, we want to have in place a financial and investment plan to avoid emotionally driven decisions.

We have updated our ADV and are including with our client quarterly performance package a Summary of Material Changes. Please contact us if you would like a complete copy of our ADV.

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