We hope you’ve had a restful holiday season with family and a pleasant start to the New Year.
The fourth quarter of 2018 saw steep declines in US stocks, with certain indices entering bear markets (20% below their highs). Amid these moves, the Federal Reserve followed through on broadly held expectations and raised its benchmark Fed Funds rate to 2.5%. Taking a longer view, it’s clear the post 2000 era has been unusual. From 1962 to 2000, the Federal Reserve had never lowered rates below 2.5%. Since 2000, rates have remained below 2.5% for 15 of the last 18 years. Extremely low interest rates were made feasible by the near disappearance of inflationary pressure in the US. Prices for most manufactured goods have been kept low for over two decades as manufacturing was outsourced and large Asian populations were integrated into global industrial production. This multi-decade trend has allowed US and European central banks keep interest rates at historic lows without triggering inflation. Absent a dramatic reversal in global trade policy, we do believe this long-term trend will continue. In the near term, the Fed chairman has signaled two more interest rate hikes are expected in 2019 which would take the benchmark rate to 3%. We believe the Fed is more likely than not to follow through on these hikes, for two reasons:
1. Q4 saw unprecedented pressure from the White House on the Federal Reserve to avoid a rate hike. This included rumors that the president had sought to dismiss chairman Powell in an attempt to influence interest policy. The White House does not have the authority to dismiss the chairman except for cause, and we believe the Fed will be keen to demonstrate its independence by following through on its previously broadcast intentions.
2. Fed governors are well aware that recessionary risks are high in 2019. If the Fed Funds peaked at 3%, the Fed would have more room to respond to a downturn using rate cuts alone. We believe Fed governors would prefer to use interest rates to respond to the next recession, rather than a revival of the unprecedented Quantitative Easing (QE) program put in place in 2008.
Normalized rates, trade disputes, a faltering Chinese economy, and concerns about asset valuations in a long-running US bull market combined to deliver a very volatile stock market in December. Stepping back to get a wider perspective, we are nearly ten years into an exceptionally long bull market. Several risks to economic growth materialized over 2018. Central banks globally have pulled back from the exceptional liquidity programs adopted after the financial crisis. These factors combine to create a less forgiving investment environment and makes a so-called soft-landing less likely. In our view, the underlying risks to the US and global economy advocate for continued caution on the part of investors. As always, long-term opportunities will present themselves in choppy markets and we intend to capitalize on them when they do.
We have enclosed our 2019 investment themes as well as a review of our 2018 themes. We hope to have an opportunity to discuss them with you in the near future.
Subir Grewal, CFA, CFP Louis Berger
2019 Economic Themes: Return of the Bear
- Bear Market Comes out of Hibernation. 2018 saw a major speed bump in the nearly 10 year global bull market run in stocks. We contend this reversal gains steam this year as stocks globally will finish 2019 in firmly negative territory. Trade wars, rising interest rates, inflated asset valuations, and a general slowdown in economic activity will contribute to a “risk-off” environment where investors prefer protection over speculation.
- Peak Interest Rates. In December of 2015, after seven years of 0% interest rate policy, the Federal Reserve shifted course and slowly began to raise interest rates in 0.25% increments. At the start of 2019, the effective target rate stands at 2.25%-2.50%. While the Fed has signaled a continuation of rate hikes this year and into 2020, we think rates will peak in 2019 and the Fed will pause before potentially cutting rates if/when a recession materializes. We do not think the Fed will raise past 3% in this year.
- Unemployment Rises. 2018 saw the US unemployment rate reach a 49-year low of 3.7%. The US economy has come a long way since unemployment peaked at 10% in October 2009. That said, this expansion cycle looks due for a reversal and we expect the unemployment rate will climb back over 4% in 2019.
- Investors Want Value. Since 2009, US growth stocks have outperformed US value stocks in seven of those ten years (including three of the last four). We believe value will outperform growth this year as economic expansion slows and investors shift investment capital into more defensive sectors.
- The Unwinnable War. Despite rhetoric from president Trump that trade wars are “easy to win” and a March 1 deadline to resolve the US/China trade dispute, we see no quick and easy resolution to this fiasco. We see 2019 ending with some measure of tariffs still in place, continued global hostility towards the Trump administration and ongoing damage to the US reputation and economy.
- Real Estate Reckoning. 2018 saw residential real estate prices finally eclipse the peak reached before the credit crisis. The S&P/Case-Shiller 20 City Composite Home Price index peaked in April 2006 and didn’t reach a bottom until March 2012. Since then, it has seen a nearly 7 year uninterrupted run-up of higher prices. We think this streak comes to an end in 2019 and the index will finish the year lower.
- Oil Prices Flounder. After peaking at $86.07 on 10/4/18, Brent Crude oil prices tanked in Q4, finishing the year at $51.49 per barrel. While there may be a short term bounce in prices to start the year, we believe Brent Crude will dip below $50 per barrel and finish the year under that level as global trade slows and energy consumption slackens.
- High Times for the Cannabis Industry. In recent years, marijuana has made a steady push into the mainstream as several US states and a few countries have passed legislation to legalize recreational consumption. A nascent industry has emerged to service this growing demand. Many of these companies are small, regional operators, but recently, larger and better-financed corporations have entered the space with many becoming publicly traded entities. While the road has been rocky and the sector has seen large price swings, we think this is an industry poised for long term growth. We expect 2019 will bring more legislation to expand the recreational market and more investments from multinational conglomerates (2018 saw Altria and Constellation Brands invest in the space). We expect publicly traded marijuana stocks will outperform consumer discretionary stocks in 2019.
- China Stumbles. Over the course of 2018, we saw several worrying signs that the Chinese economy is slowing. Property prices, which have propped up all other assets for years have slowed, and there are numerous reports that several non-bank lenders have halted redemptions. The trade war with the US has also been a major drag on the economy. 2018 was a terrible year for Chinese stocks — the S&P China Composite index returned -27.82% — and while some investors expect a bounce-back year, we believe 2019 will continue to be a flat to negative market for Chinese equities. The Shanghai Composite remains around 2,500. This is less than half the 5,178 level reached in 2015, which was lower than its all time high of 5,800 in 2007.
- Battery Power. A long-term trend we are highlighting in our thinking for 2019 is the growth of plug-in electric vehicles. Roughly 2 million four wheel electric vehicles were sold in 2018. US sales of EVs represented over 1% of total vehicle sales. In California, the largest passenger vehicle market, EV were 4% of all vehicles sold spurred by tax incentives and emissions targets. When we include plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, EV sales account for over 7% of all vehicle sales in California. These figures portend a long-term shift in the transportation industry, of the same degree as driverless cars. 10 years from now, we expect 25% of the world’s vehicle fleet to be battery powered. Over the long-term, this implies a very difficult environment for the oil and gas industry. We expect EV sales to continue to grow in 2019, and global liquid fuels growth to be below 1.3%.