Market Commentary: 2Q 2018

The second quarter reinforces the random nature of short-term performance.

As we pause to reflect at the midpoint of the year, 2018 has served as another reminder to investors that over the short term, markets are driven by innumerable and often random factors that are impossible to consistently predict. In the first quarter, US stocks experienced their first major losses since 2016 and a return to more “normal” market volatility. Many market prognosticators speculated that this could indeed be the end of the nearly decade-long US bull market.

Fast-forward through three more eventful months and US stocks have been the net beneficiaries, gaining 3.4% on the back of a surging dollar while the rest of the world has slowed. The dollar’s 5% appreciation translated into a meaningful return headwind for dollar-based investors in foreign securities as foreign currencies depreciated against the dollar. Developed international stocks fell 1.8% and European stocks declined 1.6% for the quarter. Emerging market (EM) stocks fared the worst, dropping 9.6% in dollar terms. 

In bond markets, the benchmark 10-year Treasury yield pierced the 3% level in May, hitting a seven-year high. Yields then fell back, ending the quarter at 2.85%. The core investment-grade bond index had a slight loss for the quarter and remains in negative territory for the year. 

Here are the broad index returns through the Second Quarter of 2018*:

U.S. Large Cap Stocks 2.9% U.S. Aggregate Bonds -1.6% Allocation 30%-50% Equity -0.7%
U.S. Small Cap Stocks 7.7% International Bonds -6.0% Allocation 50%-70% Equity -0.1%
Overseas Stocks -6.7% Commodities 10.4% Allocation 70%-85% Equity 0.4%
Emerging Market Stocks 5.9% U.S. Real Estate 1.4%

Economic Outlook

It was a difficult quarter for equity holdings, particularly in the emerging markets.

In 2016, as the global economy began firing on all cylinders for the first time since the financial crisis began, EM stocks surged, gaining 12% in 2016 and 32% last year. EM stocks then bolted out of the gates in 2018, with an additional 11% return through late January. Since then, however, these holdings have declined sharply, and returns are now in negative territory for the year. The selloff in EM stocks appears to have been driven by a combination of investor concerns about 1) a potential trade war with China, the European Union, Mexico, and Canada; 2) how EM economies will manage a deceleration in global growth outside the United States; and 3) a stronger US dollar coinciding with rising US interest rates and tightening Fed monetary policy. 

These macro developments, specifically the risk of a US trade war with China and the rest of the world, are indeed risks to EM stocks in the shorter term. However, these are not new risks and are not likely to overwhelm the attractive fundamentals, valuations, and potential longer-term returns of EM stocks. Analysis suggests that emerging markets are fundamentally better placed today than in past cycles. The sector composition of EM indexes has changed meaningfully over the past decade, from traditional heavy-cyclical industries like materials and energy to more growth-oriented technology and consumer-driven sectors that are less sensitive to shifts in global growth.

It is understandable that fears of a global trade war are rattling financial markets.

Any resolution of the current trade tensions is a meaningful uncertainty—our relationship with China being the most fraught—with the potential to seriously disrupt the global economy at least over the shorter to medium term. President Trump’s unconventional negotiating approach adds an additional wildcard dimension. The process is likely prone to several more twists and turns before things become clear. It is in the best interest of both the United States and China to negotiate a resolution and prevent trade skirmishes from becoming an all-out trade war. However, the potential for a severely negative shorter-term shock to the global economy and risk assets (like stocks) can’t be dismissed. Even absent an actual trade war, the negative impact on business and consumer confidence from the uncertainty and fear of a trade war is a risk to the remaining longevity and strength of the current economic cycle.

Globally diversified portfolios are structured to perform well

Globally diversified portfolios are structured to perform well over the long term while providing resiliency across a range of potentially negative short-term scenarios.Should the current trade tensions resolve and the global economic recovery continue, outperformance should come from international and emerging market stock positions and flexible bond funds. Alternatively, should a bear market strike, “dry powder” in the form of lower-risk fixed-income and alternative investments should hold up much better than equities. This capital will be put to work aggressively following a market downturn by reallocating to equities at lower prices. The portfolios are built to weather the volatility.

We truly appreciate the opportunity to work with you and look forward to talking with you again soon!

*U.S. Large Cap=Russell 1000, U.S. Small Cap=Russell 2000, Real Estate=Dow Jones US Real Estate Index, Overseas Stocks=MSCI EAFE, Emerging Market Stocks=MSCI Emerging Markets, Commodities=S&P GSCI, U.S. Bonds=Barclays Aggregate Bond Index, International Bonds=JP Morgan EMBI Global Core: Data Source: Blackrock Benchmark Returns Comparison June 2018. Economic Data: Litman Gregory Analytics. Allocations=Morningstar® U.S. Fund Allocation Categories: Data Source: Morningstar®. Index returns are for illustrative purposes only and do not represent actual performance of any investment. Index performance returns do not reflect any management fees, transaction costs or expenses. Indexes are unmanaged and one cannot invest directly in an index. Past performance does not guarantee future results. Long-term care data: Genworth 2017 Cost of Care Survey, conducted by CareScout®, June 2017, genworth.com/aging-and-you/finances/cost-of-care.html