2015 Investment Themes: The bells that toll

 

  1. If not now, when? If not the Fed, who?: We expect the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates in 2015. We expect rates to gradually rise to a 1.0%–1.5% target, which would still be historically low. Short term rates after the tech wreck and 9/11 were kept below 2.0% for 3 years. For one of those years, rates were at 1.0%. Since the financial crisis of 2007/2008, rates have been kept below 0.25% for over 6 years. Both the level of the rates and the duration of the rate cut is extraordinary.

 

  1. No one rings a bell at the top of the market: US stock markets ended the year at almost three times the lows reached at the bottom of the market less than six years ago. We expected sharp corrections last year that failed to materialize. We are renewing our call this year and urge equities investors to exercise caution. And while we recognize the US stock economy looks healthier than those overseas, we expect major US indexes (S&P 500, Dow Jones, Nasdaq) to finish the year in negative territory.

 

  1. Emerging troubles: Emerging economies will continue to stumble in 2015, this includes resource dependent countries such as Russia and Brazil which have run into roadblocks as energy prices have fallen dramatically. The challenges are different, but as impactful for economies with internal imbalances created by over-investment in infrastructure such as China, and those facing enormous upheaval and political instability like Turkey. In the Chinese case, we are particularly concerned about the state of local and provisional government finances. We expect emerging market stocks and bonds to underperform developed markets this year.

 

  1. Commodities weighed down: With a slow-down in emerging markets and the global economy in general, we expect commodity prices to continue to come under pressure. While prices in certain commodities may stabilize, we do not expect a bounce back to levels seen in recent years.  We see commodities finishing the year flat to negative.

 

  1. The trouble with oil: We do not expect oil prices to substantially recover in 2015. It is clear that major OPEC participants in the middle-east are keen to minimize the profitability of oil as a source of funding for rebel groups in the region. They are also responding to medium-term strategic threats from unconventional oil producers (shale, deep sea, and tar sands) by forcing prices to levels that makes investment in such projects unprofitable. Continued unrest in major oil producing regions (Middle East, Russia, Venezuela) does not seem to have impacted supply or prices. We expect brent crude prices to remain under $60 by year’s end.

 

  1. Playing defense: For US equities, we believe defensive sectors, including healthcare and utilities will outperform others over the course of 2015. In any sort of correction, we expect enterprises providing essential goods and services to maintain profitability and revenues. Over-levered companies that have benefitted from speculative euphoria in recent years are particularly vulnerable to sell-offs in our view.

 

  1. Euro Crisis, back to the future: The Euro and Greek debt crises have faded from world news headlines over the past three years. A series of loans by the EU and IMF have succeeded in bringing down interest rates on Greek debt. In the past two months, however, a confluence of factors have roiled European markets. An impending election and veiled threats to renege on prior commitments by the party leading in Greek polls (Foriza) weigh heavily. We also expect court rulings on whether the European Central Bank can follow in the Fed’s footsteps with quantitative easing . Depending on outcomes, another round of brinksmanship will likely begin between Greek politicians, the markets and EU officials. Over the past few years, attitudes have hardened and we believe there is a real chance that Greece may be forced to, or choose to leave the Euro.

 

  1. Junk bonds get kicked to the curb. If, as we expect, interest rates rise over 2015, the long winning streak of high yield bonds will likely come to an end.  Junk bonds have benefitted from the Fed’s zero interest rate policy as savers have been forced to invest in increasingly lower quality bonds in order to find yield.  With rates rebounding (even marginally), we believe investors will find the reward that comes with high yield bonds no longer worth the risk.

 

  1. Growth in Renewables: 2008 saw high flying clean energy stocks taken to the wood shed when oil prices collapsed.  The thinking then was that renewables were not viable in a world flush with cheap energy.  While that thesis made sense seven years ago, the renewable industry has grown in leaps and bounds since.  Utility scale solar and wind projects have proven to be viable sources of energy as costs have come down and demand for renewable power has increased globally.  With oil prices falling again, we’ve seen many renewable stocks follow suit, as sort of a knee jerk reaction by investors.  We think this provides a tremendous buying opportunity, particularly in the YieldCo space where, like utilities, companies own a portfolio of newly constructed power projects with long term power purchasing agreements in place.

 

  1. The Russian question: 2014 has been a disorienting year for Russia. Ukraine, a neighboring state with long historical ties to Russia saw enormous unrest leading to a revolutionary change in government and the potential breakup of the country into Eastern and Western factions. Russian forces occupied and appear to have annexed the region of Crimea. Meanwhile, declining oil prices have placed substantial pressure on Russian public finances and may begin to erode support for Mr. Putin among both the grassroots and his oligarchic supporters. It is difficult to see non-traumatic paths out of the morass. Under Putin’s leadership, Russia’s structural problems (declining population, aging industrial base, and undiversified economy) have become worse. We are bearish on Russia and expect the Russian market to underperform in 2015.