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Market View

Here’s our halftime report for 2015, including outlooks from Lord Abbett Partners Milton Ezrati and Zane Brown for the economy, interest rates, and key asset classes.

So much for a summer lull on Wall Street. The first half of 2015 ended with a cascade of challenges for investors, including a worsening of Greece’s fiscal crisis, new concerns about Puerto Rico’s ability to repay its municipal bonds, and a surge in volatility for Chinese equities. These developments came as financial markets weighed the longer-term implications of an interest-rate “liftoff” by the U.S. Federal Reserve (Fed).

The uncertainty was reflected in returns for major asset classes in first half of 2015. (See Chart 1.) Treasuries fell, as signs that the U.S. economy would resume growth after stalling in the first quarter boosted expectations that the Fed would increase borrowing costs as soon as September. The broader bond market (as represented by the Barclays U.S. Aggregate Bond Index) also finished in negative territory.

Meanwhile, the S&P 500® Index posted only a small gain for the 2015 first half. The large-cap equity benchmark reached an all-time high on May 21, but its advance sputtered, as the Greece crisis worsened and Fed concerns came to the fore.

 

Chart 1. International Equities Outperformed Other Asset Classes in First Half 2015
Total returns (%) for equities, fixed income, and commodities, January 1–June 30, 2015

Source:  Morningstar.
The investment categories listed in this chart are represented by the following indexes: Gold & Silver, S&P GSCI Precious Metals Index; Agricultural Commodities, S&P GSCI Agricultural Index; 10-Year Treasuries, BofA Merrill Lynch U.S Treasury Current 10-Year Index; Value Stocks, Russell 3000 Value Index; Barclays Agg. (Core Bonds), Barclays U.S. Aggregate Bond Index; U.S. TIPS (Treasury Inflation Protected Securities), Barclays U.S. Treasury TIPS Index; Short-Term Corporate Bonds, BofA Merrill Lynch U.S. Corporate ‘BBB’ 1-3 Year Index; Large Cap Stocks, S&P 500 Index; EM Bonds (Emerging Market Corporate Bonds), JPMorgan CEMBI Broad Diversified Index; Mid-Cap Stocks, Russell Mid Cap Index; High-Yield Bonds,  BofA Merrill Lynch U.S. High Yield Master II Constrained Index;  Emerging Market Stocks, MSCI Emerging Market USD Index;   Floating Rate Loans, Credit Suisse Leveraged Loan Index; Convertible Bonds, BofA Merrill Lynch All Convertibles, All Qualities Index; Growth Stocks, Russell 3000 Growth Index;  Small Cap Stocks, Russell 2000 Index; International Large Cap Stocks, MSCI EAFE Index; International Small Cap Stocks, S&P Developed Ex-U.S. SmallCap Index.
Past performance is not a reliable indicator or a guarantee of future results.
The historical data are for illustrative purposes only, do not represent the performance of any Lord Abbett mutual fund or any particular investment, and are not intended to predict or depict future results.
Indexes are unmanaged, do not reflect deduction of fees and expenses and are not available for direct investment.

 

A closer look at the winners and losers in the 2015 first half reflects the divergence in global economic performance and central bank policy that we highlighted at the beginning of the year. International developed market equities took the crown, as the economies of the eurozone and Japan benefited from massive stimulus from their respective central banks. Equities and corporate bonds from emerging markets lagged non-U.S. developed peers.

Among U.S. equities, small-cap stocks outperformed their large- and mid-cap counterparts, likely reflecting smaller firms’ lower exposure to the stronger U.S. dollar and anticipation of a stronger pace of merger and acquisition (M&A) activity. Growth stocks outpaced value; growth has an historical tendency to perform better in a sluggish economic environment.

In credit, floating rate eclipsed high yield. Both categories posted solid returns for the half, as the income from higher coupons was enough to counteract adverse price movements on interest-rate concerns. Shorter-duration securities posted modestly positive returns, despite investor anticipation of rising interest rates.

A wide range of investor concerns was reflected in the most-viewed Market View articles year to date, including determining the asset classes that performed best during Fed rate-hike cycles; positioning taxable and tax-free fixed-income portfolios for coming increases in interest rates; contending with fundamental changes in the muni market, including ownership patterns and credit-rating profiles; and finding the equity strategies best suited to weather a prospective market correction.

Now that the first half of 2015 is in the books, what can investors expect for the rest of the year? We asked Lord Abbett Partners Milton Ezrati, Senior Economist and Market Strategist, and Zane Brown, Fixed Income Strategist, for some insights.

U.S. Economy
Ezrati believes there likely will be “some catch-up” from the temporarily depressed first quarter, but fundamentally, “the plodding recovery will remain.” Though there are no pre-recessionary signs, “all that has kept growth substandard remains in place.” Ezrati expects that cautious corporate managers will keep capital spending subdued, while households, still deleveraging after the 2008–09 financial crisis, will keep their spending in check as well. Budget constraints will keep federal as well as state and local spending contained, he figures, while a strong U.S. dollar should restrain any expansion in exports. 

One bright spot for the economy should be housing, with a faster growth pace than other major sectors; however, Ezrati says that “a reserved attitude among lenders should keep a lid on the pace of expansion.” Slack in the U.S. and global economies should subdue any inflationary pressure for now, he notes, with any risk in this area in the longer term.

The Fed
Brown says interest-rate normalization by the U.S. central bank will be the dominant theme driving asset prices in the U.S. markets in the second half of 2015. He believes continued U.S. jobs growth of 200,000–250,000 per month should be adequate to reduce the unemployment rate toward 5.2% by the fourth quarter. Meanwhile, he believes continued growth in job openings should combine with lower unemployment to push wage gains even higher than the pace of 2.3% during May. Collectively, Brown concludes, “such information should be adequate to justify at least ‘lift-off’ and possibly a second 25 basis-point hike by year-end,” as long as consequences from the Greek vote are contained. 

Eurozone/Greece
If the core eurozone economy continues to improve, says Brown, its gross domestic product (GDP) could exceed 1.5% in 2015. This pace of expansion likely will support global growth and may create concerns in the United States that inflation will develop momentum in 2016, he adds.

But the big question remains Greece. In the second half of 2015, markets will be subject to volatility following the Greek referendum on July 5 to reject bailout terms, says Brown. His other main concern is the likely spillover consequences of €60 billion in monthly bond purchases by the European Central Bank (ECB); Brown points out that net eurozone sovereign debt creation is one-quarter of that amount.

The United States likely will benefit from concerns about the long-term viability of the eurozone and/or Greece, which should produce a longer-term preference for quality and stability, including U.S. assets, says Brown. 

U.S. Equities
According to Ezrati, equity gains are likely over the 2015 second half, though they will not be “quite as robust as last year and the year before.” Though valuations are “less impressive” than they were 12 or 24 months ago, Ezrati says equity pricing remains attractive, especially compared to cash and bonds. The Fed’s plans to raise interest rates could cause short-term market disruptions, he adds, but “valuations are sufficient to absorb anything the Fed is likely to do.”

As to specific categories, Ezrati says that because investors have favored safer names and sectors thus far in 2015, “growth equities offer more upside than value, economically sensitive sectors more than stable areas.”

Fixed Income
The combination of the consequences of Greek uncertainty, the ECB’s quantitative easing program, relatively strong U.S. growth, relatively attractive U.S. interest rates, and the safe haven nature of the U.S. markets (and currency) should translate into continued U.S. dollar strength, according to Brown. While the dollar is not likely to advance at the rate it has over the last 12 months, dollar strength “will still represent a headwind for the Fed’s pursuit of rate normalization.”

If the ECB is successful in producing both an improvement in growth and an increase in inflation, consequences to U.S. investments may result in less yield-curve flattening than many investors now hope for, Brown says. Even with a “lower and slower” approach to rate hikes from the Fed, he believes lower credit-quality and shorter-maturity securities “seem poised to provide a better investment experience” than those of higher credit quality and longer maturities.

 

MARKET VIEW PDFs


  Market View
  U.S. Market Monitor

THE BIG FIRST-HALF WINNERS?
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