Dear clients, friends and family:
Following is the 2017 first quarter performance for CMG’s Tactical Investment Strategies along with our thoughts on each strategy over the past quarter. Market index performance is presented at the bottom of the chart.
CMG Tactical Fixed Income Strategies
The CMG Managed High Yield Bond Program (“CMG HY”) returned +0.97% for the first quarter, net of fees. The strategy began the quarter in a long position as the equity market rally that began after the election lifted other asset classes, including high yield, to higher prices. The strategy remained long until early March when the model indicated a sell and moved to a defensive cash position for the most of the month. The strategy moved back into high yields at the end of March and the strategy has remained in a long position into the second quarter.
High yield bonds are reaching overvalued levels after shaking off concerns from the energy sector and the threat of higher default rates over the past year. As oil prices have stabilized and equity markets have rallied, high yield bonds have been bid up to levels that are overvalued short term. Not unlike the equity markets, high yield bond investors have priced in expectations for fiscal stimulus (tax cuts), infrastructure spending and deregulation. We believe that bullish sentiment has disconnected from reality. The sell-off in early March after the House’s healthcare vote failed was a sign that investors may not get the stimulus they want. However, investors have shaken off those concerns and the bullish trend has continued higher into the second quarter. From a valuation level, high yields look rich. Additionally, as the Fed has continued to tighten monetary policy, other credits look more attractive from a risk adjusted basis. In fact, the spread on high yields relative to Treasuries is now back to post-crisis lows. Whether investors get what they want from fiscal policy, the U.S. economy is strong enough without stimulus to continue grinding higher, providing a tailwind for high yields. However, given current price levels, we assign a high probability for a correction that would provide an opportunity for tactical investors to re-enter the market at more attractive prices and yields.
CMG Tactical Equity Strategies
The CMG Opportunistic All Asset Strategy (“CMG Opportunistic”) returned +3.08% for the first quarter net of fees. The Jefferson National Tax-Deferred Variable Annuity portfolio returned +3.16% for the first quarter, net of fees. The strategy began the quarter in a risk on position with a high allocation to equities. The post-election rally continued into 2017 and the portfolio exposure to equities was at the highest level in over a year. Performance in January was driven by exposure to small-caps, regional banks and technology. By the end of the month, the portfolio had rotated into telecommunications and also added exposure to international equities. The strategy further increased international exposure in February. The strategy moved out of small-caps, and regional banks and into additional allocations to international equities, including broad based emerging market positions and India. In March, the strategy continued its reallocation to international exposure by trading out of U.S. mid-caps and telecommunications and into emerging markets. Historically, during Fed rate tightening cycles, international equities have performed well; in many cases outperforming U.S. equity markets. By the end of March, the portfolio was allocated over 50% to international positions. Additionally, one of two fixed income positions was invested in emerging market high yield bonds. We were pleased with the performance of the strategy in the first quarter and in particular with the model’s rotation in to equities and out of bonds. The portfolio had no commodity exposure during the quarter. The strategy held the following allocations (individual portfolio allocations may vary) to fixed income, equities, commodities and cash at the end of January, February and March:
The Scotia Partners Dynamic Momentum Program (“Scotia Dynamic”) returned +5.57% for the first quarter, net of fees. Scotia Dynamic generated strong returns during the quarter benefiting from the upward trend in equity markets. In January, precious metals, healthcare and electronics were the primary drivers of positive performance. By the end of the month, the strategy was more heavily allocated to cash as most sectors were overbought. The strategy reduces risk exposure during overbought markets by limiting allocations to or avoiding allocations to overbought segments of the market. In February, the strategy was allocated primarily to basic materials, electronics and biotech. Equity markets continued their trend higher lifting most sectors and industry groups. The strategy was invested in biotech, healthcare, electronics and technology in early March. Technology detracted from performance early in the month while biotech, healthcare and electronics contributed to positive performance and a strong finish to the quarter.
The CMG Tactical Rotation Strategy (“Tactical Rotation”) returned +0.23% for the first quarter, net of fees. Tactical Rotation began the quarter positioned 50% to domestic equities (SPY) and 50% to commodities (PDBC). Equities were the best performing asset class in January with international equities outpacing U.S. equities. Commodities posted a modest decline while bonds and REITs were flat. In February, the strategy remained allocated to U.S. equities and commodities. Equities continued to move higher during the month albeit with domestic equities outpacing international stocks for the month. Commodities posted a slightly positive return as did bonds. In March, the strategy remained invested 50% in domestic equities (SPY) and rotated out of commodities and into REITs (VNQ) for the remaining 50% of the portfolio. REITs were the second best performing asset class in February and showed a strong positive trend heading into March. REITs declined in March after the Fed raised interest rates. International equities outpaced domestic equities during the month as the global equity market rally pushed values higher. Bonds were flat for the month and the strategy was able to avoid commodities, the worst performing asset class during the month. For April, the strategy remained 50% allocated to domestic equities (SPY) and rotated the remaining 50% of the portfolio into international equities (EFA).
Market Commentary and Outlook
Global equity markets continued their post-election rally to start the year posting strong performance across all major market indices. Fixed income markets were mixed as the Federal Reserve raised its target range a quarter point to a range of 0.75% to 1% in March. The euphoria that gripped investors in November of last year carried markets higher and macroeconomic data strongly suggests that the global economy is primed to grow more comprehensively (more countries expanding in concert) than in previous years. The U.S., Eurozone, Japan and China all show positive economic growth trends. However, as we wrote in our fourth quarter update, there is a risk that equity markets, in particular, have gotten ahead of themselves.
SOFT VS. HARD DATA
In the first quarter, we started to see a divergence in “soft” and “hard” economic data. Soft data refers to reports based on sentiment or investor behavior, i.e. consumer sentiment and consumer confidence that are typically done via survey. In contrast, hard data is about actual results, such as retail sales, construction spending and home sales. Soft data measures how people feel about the economy and hard data tells us how we are actually doing. Both are important and they have now reached a large divergence. Morgan Stanley released the chart below highlighting what they see as a “record gap.” Without digging into all of the indicators, here are three data points that further illuminate this conundrum:
- Expectation of higher stock prices in 12 months: Investors are more optimistic about equity returns than they have been in nearly 20 years.
- Economic data is now surprising to the downside: Both Citigroup and Bloomberg track the deviations in the measures of economic news (actual releases vs. surveys). We are now seeing more surprises to the downside indicating a higher level of optimism amongst professionals.
- The Fed revised GDP forecasts down leading into the first quarter release. The Atlanta Federal Reserve’s GDPNow forecasting model consistently revised its first quarter GDP estimate down from their initial forecast of 2.3% on January 30 to 0.20% on April 27, the day before the first quarter GDP number was released. The GDPNow model is updated daily as new economic data is released. The Blue Chip range of forecasts (a survey of leading business economists) was 2% on the high end and just under 1% on the low end. This was significantly lower than the range of 2.75% to 2% at the start of the year. Notice the correlation to the economic surprise index – both are pointing down. The first estimate for Q1 GDP came in at 0.70%, surprising to the downside.
Now this does not mean that we are on the verge of a recession or a stock market crash, but the lights are flashing yellow and it might be time to pull some chips off the table after a good equity market run. At some point, there will be a reversion in either the soft or hard data. If hard data picks up, then we could see a macro tailwind for stocks and the Fed will continue on course with rate hikes. However, if the soft data is revealed to be irrational exuberance, the likelihood of an equity correction rises significantly, especially as we enter seasonally difficult periods (Sell in May and Go Away – Summer Doldrums).
After a failed attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Congress and Trump have moved on to cutting taxes. Although there is a rebooted attempt to pass another healthcare repeal / replace bill, the chances do not look good. The release of a tax outline (it’s difficult to call it a plan at this stage) by Treasury Secretary Mnuchin gave us a preview of what type of tax cuts to expect in the next couple of months (according to officials). The last time Congress passed a sweeping tax reform was under President Reagan. The Tax Reform Act of 1986, known as part two of Reagan’s tax cuts, was a bipartisan effort that took almost a year to pass after it was introduced into the House. The process started earlier, in 1981, when part one, the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981, was passed; the largest tax cut in U.S. history. A year after its passing, the deficit rose significantly, driving interest rates higher (from 12% to 20%) and the U.S. economy into the second dip of a double-dip recession that started in 1978. The point is not that we are destined to repeat history but to highlight the difficulty of passing smart “tax reform” and not just “tax cuts.” The effort in 1986 was bipartisan – today’s is not even close. In 1986, Democrats voted 176 to 74 in the House and 33 to 12 in the Senate, along with a majority of Republicans (believe it or not it was not a unanimous vote) to pass reform. To really get a sense of the times, both Democratic Senators from Massachusetts, Ted Kennedy and John Kerry, voted yea.
That brings us to today. From election night to the present, there has been a widespread belief that the economy will get all of the stimulative goodies it wants (deregulation, infrastructure spending, etc.) with tax reform being the cherry on top. The probability of success on tax reform goes down by the day (not many days left in the Congressional calendar and mid-term elections are on the horizon), ultimately leading to temporary tax cuts since they are not likely to be revenue neutral. The size of the cut being debated blows a hole in the Federal budget and balloons the national debt. How fiscal conservatives come to terms with this exploding debt, a concept that was anathema for the past eight years will, along with Democratic participation (or lack thereof), be critical to if and how a bill passes. Finally, if a debt financed tax cut is passed, it is likely that the Fed will become more hawkish in the face of market bubbles and increased inflation.
A DANGEROUS G-ZERO WORLD
Ian Bremmer, President and Founder of geopolitical consulting firm Eurasia Group, coined the term “G-Zero World” in 2012 along with fellow political scientist David F. Gordon. Their view is that we are in a vacuum of global leadership. That leadership vacuum coincides with rising global populism that is pushing world leaders to look inward, towards domestic commitments. Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has been the sole superpower, serving as policy leader for the global economy through the IMF, World Bank and WTO and underwriting security through NATO and the UN. With the election of Donald Trump, the U.S. is pulling back from such prominent commitments and seeking more transactional bilateral relations.
The problem with a transactional approach in the absence of an articulated policy is that it is very difficult to keep track of where actions are relative to stated principles. Since the end of the Cold War, the Washington Consensus has been the economic policy the U.S. has prescribed and espoused across the globe. As a result, the promotion of capitalism and democracy have been key tenants of U.S. administrations, both Republican and Democrat over that time. This philosophical approach guided policy in a relatively consistent and predictable way. The departure from this view, one that embraces protectionism and a more tolerant or indifferent view towards regional politics, increases uncertainty in capital markets as countries across the global will reassess their relations with the U.S. and China. Undermining global intuitions that have served the U.S. well is Russia’s strategic objective, which in turn drives its global disinformation campaign.
There is a nuanced, yet significant, difference between how risk and uncertainty are understood and priced into markets. As asset managers, we are tasked with quantifying and managing risk every day in an uncertain world. While we don’t know what will happen next, we have a sense of the probabilities and the statistical distribution of possible outcomes. However, we are at a point in time where the global order is changing (in many ways paralleling what happened before World War I) and where there is more uncertainty. It is a period of time where risk cannot be quantified because we simply don’t know what the probabilities are or what choices are even on the table. From North Korea to Syria and from the French elections to Brexit, there is a lot of uncertainty from political outsiders and also from an absence of any coordinated policy and leadership. The fact that volatility remains muted, suggests that markets are oddly comfortable with what they view as the risk of certain outcomes. If the past year has proven anything, it’s that uncertainty and Black Swan events happen more often than we think and when markets reassess risk, it can be quick and painful. This brings us back to the divergence between sentiment and economic data and output. While the mood amongst investors and consumers is positive regarding stimulus, there remains a high degree of uncertainty about timing and actual policy. With expectations set so high, markets should prepare for some surprises to the downside and to quote Art Cashin, investors should “stay wary, alert and very, very nimble.”
With kind regards,
IMPORTANT DISCLOSURE INFORMATION
Investing involves risk. Past performance does not guarantee or indicate future results. Different types of investments involve varying degrees of risk. Therefore, it should not be assumed that future performance of any specific investment or investment strategy (including the investments and/or investment strategies recommended and/or undertaken by CMG Capital Management Group, Inc. (or any of its related entities, together “CMG”) will be profitable, equal any historical performance level(s), be suitable for your portfolio or individual situation, or prove successful. No portion of the content should be construed as an offer or solicitation for the purchase or sale of any security. References to specific securities, investment programs or funds are for illustrative purposes only and are not intended to be, and should not be interpreted as recommendations to purchase or sell such securities.
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Performance Disclosure: Performance results from inception to the present are net of a 2.50% management fee through February 2017 and net of a 2.25% management fee thereafter, paid quarterly in arrears. Performance is not net of custodial fees. The performance results shown include the reinvestment of dividends and other earnings.
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