Highlights This Month
- 2014 was a good year for the capital markets.
- The dark side of lower oil prices.
- Will Greece abandon the Euro in 2015?
- Higher interest rates had traders on edge.
- What wild cards might constrict the U.S. economy
- Jobs, jobs, jobs — excellent news for US workers.
- Key factors that may push back an interest rate hike.
- Consumer confidence at an 8 year high.
- Our 2015 housing market predictions.
- Weak December payrolls for Canada.
- Retail spending in Canada beats 2010 record.
- Why did Canadian housing starts end 2014 on a down note?
- What’s the outlook for Canada’s economic growth?
The NWM Portfolio
Returns for NWM Core Portfolio were up 0.7% for the month of December and 9.4% for 2014 in total. The NWM Core Portfolio is managed using similar weights as our model portfolio and is comprised entirely of NWM Pooled Funds and Limited Partnerships.
Canadian equities were lower in December with the S&P/TSX down 0.4% (total return, including dividends), while NWM Canadian Equity Income (formerly NWM Strategic Income) was up 0.6%.
For 2014, NWM Canadian Equity Income was up 14.7% compared to the S&P/TSX being up 10.5%, though the fund did hold an allocation to U.S. stocks for a large part of the year before they were spun out into a separate fund.
During the month, we established new positions in Canadian Tire, Linamar, Canadian Western Bank, CCL Industries, and KP Tissue. We sold our position in George Weston and reduced holdings in Agrium, Dollarama, and Progressive Waste.
As for NWM Canadian Tactical High Income, the fund gained 0.7% in December and also gained 14.7% for the year. The cash position in the pool is currently about 2.7% and approximately 3% of our Canadian positions are covered.
With the Canadian Tactical fund, we were partially called away on our ATS, Progressive Waste, CAE, and Thomson Reuters, and were called away on our entire position of Agrium. We also continue increasing our exposure to the energy sector through naked put writing.
Foreign equities were higher in December with NWM Global Equity up 0.3% versus flat returns for the MSCI All World Index and +1.3% for the S&P 500 in Canadian dollar terms and -1.6% and +1.3% respectively in USD. For the year, NWM Global Equity returned 11.8% versus 15.4% for the MSCI and 24.2% for the S&P 500, all in Canadian dollar terms.
Of our external managers, all were in positive territory, with the exception of the BMO Asia Growth and Income Fund, which was down 2.2% in December. For the year, Carnegie led the way with a 21.2% return, followed by Edgepoint at 20.2%. BMO Asia Growth & Income returned 6.7% and Cundill +1.9%, while Templeton Global Smaller Companies was flat.
NWM U.S. Equity Income was up 0.3% in USD and NWM U.S. Tactical High Income was down 1.5% in December. For 2014, the U.S. Tactical was up 5.5% in USD (the U.S. Equity Income fund was only established in November). The S&P500 was up 0.3% for December and 13.7% for 2014 in USD.
For the U.S. Equity Income fund, no new positions were added, with the exception of the new positions in Delta Airlines and Limited Brands mentioned last month. The fund has 3.5% cash, and 12% of the fund is covered. As for the U.S. Tactical, we established a new naked short put position in Oracle.
The yield curve flattened in December, with 2-year Canadas rising from a yield of 0.99% at the beginning of the month to 1.01% at the end of the month, while 10-year Canadas declined from 1.86% to 1.79%. The flattening of the yield curve was even more pronounced when looking at the year as a whole, with 2-year Canadian yields dropping about 13 basis points while 10-years plummeted nearly a whole percentage point (100 basis points).
NWM Bond was flat in December with PH&N Short Term Bond up 0.3% (an estimate based on a similar mandate). Of our alternative bond managers, RP performed the best, up 0.1%, while Merritt was down 0.1% and Eastcoast declined 0.8%. For the year, the Bond fund was up 2.8%, with PH&N Short Term Bond, our largest holding, up 3.4%.
Our alternative managers did well in the first half of the year, but struggled in the second half as credit spreads came under pressure. Also hurting their relative returns were declining interest rates, as most were positioned to take advantage of rising rates.
High yield bonds were lower in December with NWM High Yield Bond down 1.9%. As with November’s decline, oil was the main culprit as energy comprises about 15% of U.S. High Bond Indices and approximately double this weight in Canada High Yield benchmarks. For the year, the NWM High Yield fund still managed a 3.9% return and is presently well positioned with yields and credit spreads at attractive levels.
Global bonds were lower in December with NWM Global Bond down 0.7%.
The mortgage pools continue to deliver steady returns, with NWM Primary Mortgage and NWM Balanced Mortgage both returning 0.5% in December. For 2014, the Primary fund returned 4.4% and the Balanced fund 6.5%.
Current yields, which are what the funds would return if all mortgages presently in the fund were held to maturity and all interest and principal were repaid and in no way is a predictor of future performance, are 4.4% for the Primary fund and 5.6% for the Balanced Mortgage, or 6.2% if fully invested.
Primary Mortgage had 0.4% in cash at month end while the Balanced Mortgage fund had 14.6%.
The overall preferred market was weak during the month of December with the iShares S&P/TSX Canadian Preferred Index ETF down 0.84% and the BMO S&P/TSX Laddered Preferred Share Index ETF down 0.72%, while the NWM Preferred Share returned -0.39%.
For the year the fund returned 6.02% which was in line with the overall market, but outperformed the rate reset market by 1.37%, which has similar interest rate sensitivity to the NWM fund. The end of year sell-off was due to a myriad of factors as rating concerns on Enbridge continued to loom along with the sharp drop in energy prices and tax loss selling of certain rate resets.
The large driver of performance for the month came from Talisman Series 1 shares, which sky rocketed from a low of $14.69 to $23.94. Talisman preferred shares traded at a significant discount to corporate bond spreads but more importantly, unlike Talisman debt, the preferred shares will be paid out at $25 plus accrued dividends along with the common equity from the Repsol takeover.
The REIT market was slightly weaker in December, with NWM Real Estate down 0.2%. For 2014, the NWM Real Estate fund was up 10.1%.
NWM Alternative Strategies was up approximately 2.5% in December and approximately 12.5% for the year (these are estimates and can’t be confirmed until later in the month). Altegris feeder funds Winton, Brevan Howard, and Millennium were up 2.4%, 2.0% and 3.7% respectively, while Hayman was down 1.2% in December.
SW8 was up 11.7% while RP Debt Opportunities was down 0.1%. For the year, all our alternative managers were in positive territory, with Winton leading the way with a 22.7% return. Millennium was also very strong, up 20.4%, while Brevan Howard, Hayman, SW8, and RP followed with returns of 8.9%, 5.8%, 6.3%, and 5.0%.
NWM Precious Metals was up 0.3% in December and 4.3% for the year with gold bullion up 3.3% in December and 7.9% for the year.
December In Review
By Rob Edel, CFA
December was a little shaky, but overall 2014 was a good year for the capital markets. The S&P/TSX returned over 10.5% while the S&P 500 finished the year 13.7% higher in U.S. dollar terms, but an astounding 24% when converted back into Canadian dollars.
Not bad considering strategists were on average forecasting only a 5.8% return (U.S. $’s and price only) at the beginning of the year.
In local currency terms, only Denmark and New Zealand topped U.S. equity returns in 2014. Measured in U.S. dollars, America had the highest returns among developed nations as the greenback gained against most currencies.
Forecasters might have missed the mark in correctly predicting the strength of U.S stocks, but at least they got the direction right. Not the case with bonds.
The average year-end estimate according to a WSJ survey called for 10-year treasuries to rise from 3% at the beginning of 2014 to 3.5% by year end. Instead, rates declined to just over 2%, handing investors an all-in return of just under 5% for the year.
Not bad given most expected fixed income to lose money in 2014. Incidentally, an investment in 30-year treasuries would have netted almost 27%.
Oil forecasters also got the direction wrong. Economists predicted oil would rise moderately, from just under $90 a barrel to about $95 a barrel by the end of 2014. In fact, oil ended the year at around $55, and continues to fall hard.
According to Birinyi Associates, forecasts compiled from 22 strategists have pegged 2015 returns for the S&P 500 at 8.2% — lower than 2014, but not bad given stocks have delivered three straight years of double digit returns averaging 20.7%, the highest since the late 1990’s.
The forecasted 8.2% gain is also higher than strategists were predicting this time last year, and none are currently predicting stocks will be down in 2015.
Interestingly, a recent survey by investment consulting firm Aksia of 200 hedge fund managers found about a quarter believe markets will end 2015 in the red. I guess that’s what makes a market.
An improving domestic economy and low interest rates helped push stocks higher in 2014 and could continue to fuel the rally, but market volatility increased near the end of the year as fears of deflation and political uncertainty in Europe were evaluated in an environment of rapidly declining oil prices.
All are likely to impact returns in 2015.
Most of the volatility is likely due to other factors that we will address below, but lower oil does have a dark side.
First off, no one can argue it is bad news for companies in the energy sector, and as such, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that energy stocks have traded sharply lower.
For the market as a whole, however, the exposure would appear relatively manageable. Energy comprises just 8% of the S&P 500 and MSCI Europe stock indices, and 9% of the MSCI Emerging Markets Index.
Granted, there are many companies that are not classified as energy stocks that also generated energy related revenue and will also see their earnings impacted. General Electric, for example, has recently diversified into the energy services industry.
By the same token, however, there are also many companies that will benefit from lower energy costs. For fixed income, energy is more of a factor, representing 12% of investment grade bonds and 17% of non-investment grade, which have justifiably taken it on the chin the past couple of months.
Then why are the broader equity indices falling, not just in the U.S. but in Europe as well?
Also under pressure are currencies. Namely any currency other than the U.S., but more specifically emerging market currencies that would normally benefit from lower oil prices.
The most likely explanation is traders are concerned that the decline in oil is due to softer demand and is, in fact, a sign the global economy is slowing.
Case in point, oil has traded down to levels last seen during the financial crisis. Hard to argue demand growth hasn’t weakened and concerns over slowing growth in China and Europe aren’t an issue.
Slower demand growth is part of the reason oil prices are correcting, but the biggest contributor to declining crude prices is increased supply from the U.S. and other non-OPEC countries.
This in itself is not a bad thing, but the abrupt manner in which oil has fallen and the havoc such a sharp correction can have, potentially is.
Yes, oil consumers around the World will benefit and their increased consumption should boost economic growth, but this impact will be felt gradually. The negative impact to companies and countries related to the energy sector, however, will be felt much more quickly.
As mentioned above, the high yield bond market is already seeing the impact with the future of overleveraged oil companies in increasing doubt.
The recent decision by the U.S. to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba, which in the past relied on handouts, not only from Russia, but more recently Venezuela, might be considered a good byproduct of falling oil prices. A bankrupt Russia would not, at least in the short term.
Russia and the Ruble are under tremendous pressure, not only due to the strain lower oil prices have put on government tax revenue and corporate balance sheets.
Economic sanctions levied by the U.S. and Europe in response to Russia’s incursion into the Ukraine have made the impact of lower oil prices particularly painful.
While the White House is likely enjoying the pressure President Putin is currently enduring, the political and financial fallout from a collapse of the Russian economy or the demise of President Putin would have serious implications for the global economy, particularly Europe.
For the time being, Putin remains widely popular in Russia. According to the Moscow Times, a purely unbiased and impartial news service, Putin was recently named politician of the year by the Russian people.
Pootie-Poot, as President George W. Bush affectionately refers to him, received the thumbs up from 68% of participants in a state-run survey. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov came a distant second at 4 %. (Probably not a contest Mr. Lavrov would have wanted to win, lest he wind up being sent to the gulag).
This is not the first time Putin has topped the list, but rather he has done so the last fifteen years in a row. Likely his recent decision to cap the price of vodka is an example of why Russians have a soft spot in their hearts for old Pootie-Poot.
For the first time in five years, consumer prices fell annually in the Euro-zone, contracting 0.2%. Lower oil prices were a major driver, but inflation has been trending lower for months, well before oil prices started their descent.
There are some obvious benefits to lower inflation, but only if economic growth is healthy, which it is not the case in Europe. Deflation is particularly problematic if government debt is high — which is the case in Europe.
The ECB has indicated quantitative easing is on the way and bond and currency markets have already started to discount lower interest rates and a weaker Euro. If ECB President Draghi is unable to deliver, markets will punish Europe and periphery country bond yields will correct sharply higher.
The once radical Syriza has softened their stance towards Greece remaining in the Euro-zone, but not towards debt relief from the Euro-zone and a reversal of austerity and reform measures Greece has been forced to undertake.
German newspaper Bild recently reported Germany is preparing contingency plans for a potential departure of Greece from the Euro-zone. Der Spiegel magazine commented that Berlin believes a “Grexit” is almost unavoidable if Syriza wins a majority, but not only would this be bearable, but could actually make the Euro stronger.
Sounds like Germany is not too keen on Syriza, or the idea of Greece reneging on their reforms.
Despite the comments, however, a Grexit would be very messy and it is unlikely Berlin would give up on Greece so easily.
According to recent polls, 74% of Greeks don’t want to leave the Euro-zone at whatever cost and Germany is likely trying to sway Greek voters into re-electing the current pro-austerity government.
Interestingly, however, a recent poll in Germany found 61% of respondents would want Greece to exit the euro if austerity measures were reversed.
Get used to the uncertainty and increased volatility, as Italians could also be forced to head to the polls in 2015 and Spain and Britain both have a general election this year.
More specifically, when will the Federal Reserve increase rates, and by how much?
Most are betting the Fed will wait until the second half of 2015 before raising rates, despite strong economic growth in 2014 and healthy job gains.
Just the prospect of higher rates has the dollar soaring, however, rising 13% against the euro and 15% against the yen since the end of June.
Exports only comprise 14% of U.S. GDP so the stronger dollar will hurt economic growth, but the hit should be manageable.
What might not be manageable is the $5.7 trillion in U.S. dollars emerging market countries have borrowed.
Because these countries have borrowed in a currency other than their own, namely U.S. dollars, they are effectively short the U.S. dollar. Not a good thing given the soaring greenback.
In addition, the strong dollar is a sign capital is flowing into the United States. Unfortunately for emerging markets, this means capital is not only no longer flowing into their capital markets, but it is actually leaving. Bad news if you are running a current account deficit like many emerging markets.
Just like a rapidly declining oil price, a rapidly appreciating dollar can wreak havoc for economies not positioned correctly.
But higher interest rates are not necessarily bad for stocks.
Van Andel Institute portfolio manager Ben Carlson recently observed that of the previous fourteen periods since 1957 when the Federal Reserve was in a tightening mode (when the S&P 500 index was launched), the S&P 500 averaged an annualized 9.6% total return – almost as much as the 10.1% annualized for the S&P 500 during all time periods.
In fact the S&P 500 only actually declined in two of the fourteen tightening periods, and both were during the early 1970’s.
Historically, it is only near the end of a rate tightening cycle that market returns are negatively impacted, and usually when rates move above 4 or 5%.
We are a long way from that, with rates presently hovering around zero. Valuations, another concern raised by strategists, are high, but not at extreme levels.
In fact if rates remain low and the economy continues to recover, one could make the argument for multiple expansions. We wouldn’t make this argument, but some could.
We still believe stocks will perform well in 2015, though volatility will be elevated.
Interest rates will increase, but only slowly. The U.S. economy is finally gaining take off velocity, and lower oil prices will give consumers a nice boost in disposal income.
Europe remains a concern, however, as does Russia, and the short term fall out from weaker oil and a stronger dollar could impact some emerging economies.
The U.S. Economy
Third quarter GDP was once again revised higher, this time to 5.0%.
This is the strongest quarterly GDP growth rate for the U.S. economy since the third quarter of 2003 when GDP soared 6.9%.
Coming on the heels of 4.6% growth in the second quarter, only the weak start to the year, which was due to exceptionally cold weather (and saw Q1 GDP contract 2.1%), will prevent 2014 from being a blow-out year for economic growth.
Regardless, the Federal Reserve is estimating total year GDP growth will come in at 2.3% to 2.4%. Still pretty decent, though lower than the 2.8% expansion forecast by economists at the beginning of the year.
There are a few wild cards to consider, however, with the biggest being oil prices.
The 40% drop in crude prices and resulting lower gasoline price will leave consumers more money to spend on other things. As a result, consumer spending should increase and help boost economic growth.
The offset, however, is that energy companies were an important driver for U.S. business investment growth and it is likely to be severely curtailed going forward. The strong dollar will also hurt the manufacturing sector as U.S. goods become more expensive for foreign buyers.
One other area where we could see some upside is from the government sector. State and local governments had been cutting back on spending since 2011, but this reversed last year and government spending is likely to add to economic growth in 2015.
The U.S. added 252,000 jobs last month, capping off a year that saw 2.95 million workers find a home, the largest calendar-year increase in payrolls since 1999.
Continuing unemployment claims also moved back to pre-recession levels in 2014. The unemployment rate dropped to 5.6%, but part of the decline was due to a decline in the labour participation rate back down to a 36 year low.
While job growth was good in December, the wage inflation momentum we saw in November did not carry through to December as average hourly earnings declined 0.2%. This is disappointing.
While there are still nearly 1.5 million workers who have been looking for work for more than 27 weeks and nearly 2.2 million involuntarily working part time, these totals have been coming down and many employers complain of a skills gap and difficulty in hiring qualified workers.
One of the reasons wage growth has been disappointing is that many of the new jobs being created are in low paying industries.
Over the past year, the notoriously frugal leisure and hospitality industry added 374,000 positions and the stingy retail industry hired 260,000 workers. By comparison, the well-paying construction and manufacturing industries added only 231,000 and 186,000 workers respectively.
One high paying industry that has been hiring aggressively is the oil and gas sector.
Since the end of the recession, the pipeline construction and equipment manufacturing sector has increased its payrolls by 50%, adding 779,000 workers.
Not only are wages in this industry high, but they have been getting higher, increasing nearly 23% over the same time period versus 13% for all workers. Lower oil prices likely mean hiring will stop and layoffs are likely.
The numbers are low in a U.S. job market that totals over 140 million, but job losses could impact related industries. Manhattan Institute senior fellow, Mike Mills, estimates that since mid-2009, shale oil and gas has been responsible for creating more middle class jobs than any other industry and a total of 10 million jobs are associated with the energy industry.
Wage growth is one of the key statistics the Federal Reserve monitors in regards to timing an increase in the Federal Funds Rate. A lack of wage growth could delay an increase in the Fed Funds Rate past mid-2015, possibly into 2016.
A lack of inflation could also delay or postpone an increase in interest rates.
Inflation, as measured by CPI, contracted at its fastest pace in nearly six years, though lower oil prices accounted for most of the decline.
Core inflation, which excludes food and energy, moved marginally higher and is up 1.7% versus last year. This is still lower than the Federal Reserve’s 2% target and down from last month’s 1.8% increase.
The trend is poor and we could see inflation continue to trend lower over the next few months as weaker energy prices and a strong dollar keep prices in check.
We think this is a good thing, but headline risk may extract a different reaction from the market.
An eight year high, in fact. Even more encouraging is that the lowest third of households are seeing the largest increase in confidence. This is likely due to the fall in oil prices and the fact lower income households use a greater percentage of their disposable income on gasoline.
Retail sales hit an eight month high in November, but more importantly, preliminary reports indicate the all-important Christmas shopping season had its best growth in three years with the National Retail Federation estimating sales in November and December increased 4.1%.
Lower gas prices were likely a strong contributor, as auto club AAA estimates the decline in gas prices is saving consumers more than $450 million a day.
While November is typically a slow month, it was a lot slower than normal this year as sales declined a more than expected 6.1%. Even prices, which have so far been pretty resilient during the recent soft patch in the housing market recovery, have started to weaken.
New home sales are of particular interest to us as they drive economic growth, and building activity remains disappointing.
Still, we hold to the belief the housing market will get back on track in 2015.
The market is merely transitioning from institutional investor led buying back to the more traditional retail market – especially first time buyers.
Household formation has been historically low as youth employment has been slow to recover. The percent of 18-34 year olds living with their parents spiked after the financial crisis and only now is starting to reverse.
As with wage growth, sustained progress on the job front should lead to more first time buyers and a recovery in the housing market. Or that’s the theory anyways.
The decline in the trade deficit in November, which hit its lowest level since December of last year, can mainly be attributed to the dramatic decline in the price of oil.
Net petroleum imports fell nearly 25% versus the previous month with imports hitting their lowest level since April 2009. Unfortunately, exports also declined, indicative of a weak global economy.
A weaker trade deficit bodes well for GDP growth and forecasters will likely need to move their Q4 estimates higher in light of November’s trade numbers.
The U.S. economic recovery is still on track, but we need to see wage growth and a better housing market.
The Canadian Economy
October GDP growth was stronger than expected, but consistent with economic growth tracking about 2.5%, less than the U.S.; reasonably strong in a weak global economic environment.
Weaker oil prices will hurt future growth but should be partially offset by a stronger manufacturing sector that will benefit from a weaker loonie and strong U.S. economy.
December payrolls came in weaker than expected with Canada losing 10,400 jobs. More than all the losses were part-time jobs, however, as full-time employment actually increased 54,000 and has been positive for the past four months.
Unlike the U.S., wage growth was also higher, further brightening what was a fairly negative headline number. For the year, Canada added just over 140,000 jobs, the weakest annual increase since 1996, but stronger in the second half of the year.
Core and headline inflation moved back down to the Bank of Canada’s target level in November. Going forward, inflationary pressures from the weaker loonie should be offset by weaker oil prices.
On a year over year basis, retail spending was well above long-run growth rates, putting 2014 on track to record the highest growth in retail sales since 2010.
Lower oil prices will put more money in consumer pocket books, but a contraction in the oil and gas industry could hurt employment income, particularly in Alberta and the West.
Also weighing on consumer spending will be elevated consumer debt levels.
Housing starts ended the year on a weak note, but at 189,000 for the year, construction activity was above levels seen the previous year and higher than the approximately 180,000 forecasters feel is required to keep up which population growth.
The fall in oil prices will likely dampen demand in Alberta, one of Canada’s hottest housing markets, but low interest rates and steady job gains should keep the rest of the country relatively stable.
The housing market has been running above trend for several years and some kind of moderation should be expected – and in fact, welcomed.
No surprise Canada’s balance of trade took a turn for the worse in November given the sharp decline in oil prices. Hopefully the weak Canadian dollar can mitigate some of the decline by making Canadian goods more attractive to U.S. importers.
Low oil prices and elevated consumer debt levels will be partially offset by a weaker currency and a strong trading partner south of the border.
A soft landing for the housing market will also act as a headwind for economic growth. A hard landing would result in a hurricane.
Let us know your thoughts on December’s market activity in the comments below!This material contains the current opinions of the author and such opinions are subject to change without notice. This material is distributed for informational purposes only. Forecasts, estimates, and certain information contained herein are based upon proprietary research and should not be considered as investment advice or a recommendation of any particular security, strategy or investment product. Information presented here has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but not guaranteed. NWM fund returns are quoted net of fund level fees and expenses but before NWM portfolio management fees. Past performance is not a guarantee or a reliable indicator of future results. All investments contain risk and may lose value.