Introduction: Welcome to the Bryn Mawr Trust Wealth Management podcast, providing commentary on what’s moving the financial markets, financial planning, and other timely business and monetary topics. Please welcome your host, Jeffrey Mills, chief investment officer at BMT Wealth Management.
Jeff Mills: Yeah, well, welcome everyone to the first 2020 edition of the podcast. I’ve really been looking forward to this one in particular just because it was my first opportunity to work with the research team here on an annual outlook. I think there’s a lot of really important information here and we hope it is useful as you think about the economy and the markets going into 2020 and really how we’re going to be positioning portfolios as it relates to the best thinking here at Bryn Mawr Trust. But I always think that when you’re heading into a new year, it’s really useful to start with a little bit of perspective. I think especially at the end of the year, at the end of a decade in this case, you know, we had, we have a lot of time to reflect on the past as we think about the future and really the years since the financial crisis have been extraordinary in a lot of different ways.
Jeff Mills: I think just to think about a few, we have the longest U.S. Economic expansion on record. We had unusually slow economic growth, but we had unusually high stock market returns. We had some really unexpected political outcomes. We had negative interest rates, which are probably the strangest things that we’ve seen over the past 10 years. But I think all of these things in combination had a really big impact on the economy and the financial markets and very few if any investors actually anticipated them beforehand. So I think when thinking about the inability to predict some major things that are actually probably going to transpire over the next 10 years and have a big impact on the investment landscape I think it’s useful to think about how you deal with that and how you operate in a world where I think maybe the one thing that we know about over the next 10 years is that we’re probably going to have some uncertainty and a lot of these sorts of events transpire yet again, that are very difficult to to predict beforehand.
Jeff Mills: So I wanted to just before we get into some of the key points of the outlook, just review how we think about preparing for a year and just investing in a world where unpredictability is, is sort of always a feature. So first I think you always have to start with a rigorous analysis. I think that’s, that’s extremely important. You have to do that to try to determine the highest probability outcome. I think uncertainty is certainly no excuse for apathy. So we work really hard to develop a logical point of view that’s well supported by facts and data, and that’s always going to be a major part of our investment process. But I think looking beyond that process, it really helps to rely on certain rules and principles to help guide our investment decisions. Like I said, in a world where there’s sort of perpetual uncertainty so over the years we’ve collected a number of different things that we rely upon, but I wanted to lay out five before we jump into the outlook that I think sort of frames the way we deal with this constant uncertainty and just the realization that we can’t predict the future with precision.
Jeff Mills: So the first one is investing is all about probabilities and nearly all probabilities are less than a hundred percent. So what does that mean? That means we’re going to be wrong sometimes even when the odds were in our favor. And it really is about surviving over the longterm. That’s the best way to accumulate wealth over time. Number two is diversification. And asset allocation is really what protects us from our inability to protect the future. We want to have exposure to lots of different asset classes in different places because we don’t know the exact right place to be at exactly the right time. So you want to have a portfolio where exposures are diversified. This is a quote that I’ve, I’ve always loved from a very old book dating back to 1923 reminiscences of a stock operator. And it is, it was never my thinking that made the big money for me.
Jeff Mills: It was always my sitting. So what does that mean? It means being patient is really the key. Over time the stock market goes up timing, every single little market gyration is very difficult. So when we do experience volatility or we experience things that we did not anticipate beforehand, remembering that being patient is critical I think is very, very important. The fourth thing is reversion to the mean is the iron rule of financial markets. So this is another quote from a famous investor, Jack Bogle, the founder of Vanguard. And what he means by that is you know, things don’t last forever. And especially when they reach extreme levels they usually revert back to the center or oftentimes to the other side of center to Twitter, sort of recalibrate what’s been going on. So I think especially when you think about volatility or market sentiment those extremes don’t last very long.
Jeff Mills: So periods of low volatility are always followed by periods of high volatility and vice versa. And periods of pessimism are always followed by periods of optimism and vice versa. So that’s important to keep in mind. And the last thing is just to always be humble enough to admit when something that we wanted to be true simply isn’t. I think having a conviction in your beliefs is important to stick with something even when it appears like it’s not working. It’s that whole patient mantra. But at the same time, when evidence becomes irrefutable, I think we all have to be flexible enough to change course. I think that’s really important. So I wanted to start with that perspective before we dove into the outlook because again, I think it’s a really great way to orient our thinking in a world where we know we can’t predict everything perfectly.
Jeff Mills: But let’s jump into some of the key points of the outlook that I think really are framing the way we are thinking about the world. And again, it’s the way we’re trying to come up with the probabilities of what we think is the most likely outcome as we move into the new year. So I think when you think about 2020, it’s pretty obvious that there’s going to be some unique challenges. I think there always are in any given year. But when you think about 2020, we have a presidential election here in the U S we have China and us trade negotiations that are still going to be going on. Brexit has not been resolved. A corporate profit margins may be challenged because wages are rising. And then you have a financial market where asset classes are generally expensive relative to history. So these are all going to be challenges and risks.
Jeff Mills: And we’re closely monitoring all of them. But again, going back to the idea of probabilities, we think the highest probability outcome in each of these cases over the next year is relatively benign. And then I also think you have a combination of forces that are going to work in favor of financial markets in 2020. So we’re going to have accommodative monetary policy. We believe we’re seeing a bottoming in the global manufacturing sector. We think the U S consumer is still in a strong place. Corporate earnings are likely to continue to grow or I should say resume growth in 2020. Supported by strong economic fundamentals generally are improving economic fundamentals across the world. And then other things like a weakening U S dollar could help with the margin as well. And then we still have reasonably restrained investor sentiment. I think heading into any year, it’s important to realize sort of what investors are expecting.
Jeff Mills: And although I would say sentiment isn’t as negative as it was earlier in the fall of 2019, investors aren’t euphoric in any sense. And I think that that usually is an asset for the market. And I think that’s the backdrop as we head into next year. And I think maybe the most critical point, if I had to sum up our outlook sort of in a couple of sentences, it’s that we don’t believe a recession is going to occur in 2020. When you look at bear markets, the ones that coincide with recessions have historically been the most severe. So our portfolios are unlikely to reflect an overly defensive posture unless we really think a recession is likely in 2020 and we don’t think that’s the case. So let me dive in to just some of the specifics. I wanted to give a high level overview there, but I want to talk a little bit about politics.
Jeff Mills: I want to talk a little bit about equities both here and abroad and then jump into some stuff about fixed income as well. But obviously the election’s going to be front and center. It’s going to be on the news, we’re all going to be discussing it, and it’s very likely to cause market volatility on a day to day, week to week, even month to month basis. I think generally it’s not advisable to make dramatic portfolio changes based on an election forecast. I think sometimes it might feel good to try to make portfolio changes based on an anticipated election result. It might feel like the right thing to do. But at least our opinion is that it can be really disruptive to a sound well thought out longterm strategy. I think not only do you have to guess the outcome of the election correctly, but you also need to accurately anticipate the market’s reaction to that outcome and that that’s not easily done.
Jeff Mills: And we’ve seen evidence time and time again of investors getting it wrong on both counts. So with that in mind, we did pull some facts just to, to figure out what tends to happen during an election year, just to use history as a guide. So dating back to 1933 stocks have performed materially better in a year of an incumbent president victory versus an incumbent president loss. So I think that has to do with just the uncertainty aspect. If an, if an incoming incoming president is reelected, the market sort of knows what the backdrop is. It knows what to expect and it tends to do better. So a 10% annual return when the incumbent wins versus a 3% annual return when the incumbent loses. So very interesting there. And then in terms of trying to predict whether the incumbent in this case is going to win or lose, every president who was able to avoid a recession in the two years leading up to his reelection went on to win.
Jeff Mills: So if we assume that there is going to be no recession in 2020 and if history is a guide, it would predict that president Trump will be reelected and that we will have a reasonably good year for stocks. There are no other judgments made in that prediction, other than what history would tell us. But when you have a hundred percent track record you, you at least have to pay attention a bit. And we do not expect a recession this year. So if Trump were to lose, he would be the first president in history to lose given no recession in the prior two years before reelection. So interesting there. Moving on, just to how we see things potentially playing out during the road to the ultimate election. Clearly lots of variables and lots of things that the market’s going to be trying to price in ahead of time.
Jeff Mills: But again, although we’re unlikely to make really dramatic portfolio changes based on an election forecast or who is leading in the polls or who’s not leading in the polls, I think it’s worth understanding the potential portfolio implications as we move closer to the ultimate election. So I think the ultimate democratic nominee is going to be a really important as it relates to how the market reacts. I think right now you have Biden leading in the polls. He’s a known quantity. So that would probably be the least disruptive outcome as it relates to the democratic nomination. But I think regardless of one’s politics, the market is interpreting the progressive agenda as unfriendly to business. So our view is that companies within the technology sector, financial services energy would probably be most at risk in that scenario. You could throw healthcare in there, but I really think when you’re talking about the likes of Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders, sort of the champions of that progressive movement, it’s really the driving force of their policy agenda is the reformation of capitalism.
Jeff Mills: So I think the healthcare stuff might take a back seat. So I would look toward those three sectors as potentially a most at risk. And there are certain policy items that would affect those sectors that could be accomplished via executive action. So in technology you could have a breakup of some of the big companies. You could have regulators from the FTC or DOJ be appointed stop certain mergers on the energy sector side. You could have new nuclear power plants, a ban on fracking, things of that nature. And then on the financial side, you could have a reversal of the Trump administration’s deregulation efforts. You can place limits on executive comp. You could prefer legal action against certain banks. So there are lots of things that could happen or at least that the market might try to anticipate if a candidate like that were to start to make headway in the polls as we move through 2020 it doesn’t appear as though Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren is going to become the nominee.
Jeff Mills: So none of that should be considered the base case forecast. So again, playing the probabilities, what is most likely, that’s probably not the base case, but I think understanding the potential market implications is worthwhile and we detail that a lot more in the actual outlook publication. Obviously China trade negotiations are going to be a part of the backdrop in 2020. I think we’ve seen it fall to the background a little bit as we’ve gotten a phase one deal. And I do think that as president Trump seeks reelection, a further deescalation of trade tensions probably should be the base case assumption. If you see how high the correlation is between positive trade rhetoric and Trump’s approval rating, you assume that Trump is aware of that. He wants to boost his approval rating as much as possible heading into the election. So he will pursue additional trade tension easing if possible.
Jeff Mills: And I think really that’s what the market needs. The market needs a credible ceasefire, no additional tariffs. I don’t think investors are expecting an all encompassing trade deal. So for us, again, although a risk, we think that the most probable outcome there is relatively benign. And then very finally on the politic side, you know, we have this whole impeachment thing going on in the background. You know, the president was impeached by the house and it’s now looks like it’s going to go to the Senate. So how do we think that that’s going to play out? Clearly the market hasn’t reacted to the initial, the initial impeachment. And if you look at Trump’s job approval rating as an example among Republicans, it’s just under 90%. So I think when you look at Senate Republicans and what they’re likely to do if they don’t necessarily have the support of their constituents, they’re probably going to tow the party line.
Jeff Mills: Trump probably won’t be removed from office. So again, I think that’s the most likely outcome and it probably won’t have a material impact on what the market ends up doing in 2020. So that’s politics in a nutshell. We could probably spend the entire podcast talking about that, but let’s move into the economic outlook. Obviously that’s incredibly important for stocks. So I think it’s important that everyone understand how we’re thinking about the economy, not just here in the United States, but globally as well. So we got the question all the time from clients. We debated here internally all the time. And the question is, how close are we to the next recession? I think it’s interesting when you look at business cycles over time, the duration has actually lengthened since the early 1980s. I think you’ve had corporations a little bit more efficiently. Central banks have become more active in terms of playing a role in administering monetary policy.
Jeff Mills: You’ve had globalization, which has muted inflation. All of these things has led have led to a, an increased average length of a business cycle. So I think when you hear recession predictions that are based solely on the idea that we’re quote unquote due for a recession, I think those types of predictions are destined to lead to subpar investment outcomes. It’s our opinion that a recession is, is very unlikely in 2020. There are lots of different ways you could try to proxy the economy or the business cycle. One of the things that we have found that does a really good job historically, just because of its consistency, has been the conference boards, composite index of 10 leading economic indicators. So this is a great way to take a lot of different economic variables, put them all into one index and take a look at how that how that forecast the economy and economic growth going forward.
Jeff Mills: So between recessions you tend to have multiple little mini cycles within the economy. So what you’ve seen since the financial crisis is this index of leading economic indicators. We’ll call it the LEI just for short cause it’s a little bit of a mouthful. It’s slowed three times since the last recession, but it’s never turned negative. When you look at the year over year growth of that index the LEI turning negative has always been a precondition of recession. You always see that LEI index the year over year growth of that index flip negative before entering a recession. We have not seen that yet. However, beginning in about mid 2018, you saw that index start to turn lower and we’ve gotten dangerously close to zero when we were in 2019. So really determining whether we think that LEI is going to continue lower and go below zero or begins once again to Hoke higher as it has twice before, during this business cycle.
Jeff Mills: It’s an extremely important component of our overall market forecast. One of the reasons why we believe it’s actually going to hook higher and not fall below zero is because of the interest rate environment. We have a chart in the outlook that shows the relationship between the change in interest rates and this LEI economic indicator. And what you see is, is that with a lag, interest rates have a really, really high correlation with the movement in this index. So what we’ve seen over the past 24 months is interest rates fall fairly dramatically. And what we’re likely to see is those lower interest rates continue to work their way through the economy and the LEI will likely hook higher as a result. If history is any guide and the correlation remains what it has over the past number of years and multiple business cycles.
Jeff Mills: So that’s really what we’re expecting. We think we’re in the early stages of a bottoming and the leading economic index and a recession is unlikely in 2020. So, you know, recessions are typically caused by a central bank policy error. So rising rates too quickly and excessive build up an some sort of asset or credit bubble, high inflation, some sort of black Swan event, like a commodity spike or military conflict. Obviously black Swan events are sort of definitionally unforeseeable, but the other traditional causes of recession don’t appear to be a major threat in 2020. And we think this interest rate backdrop is likely to further support the economy as we move into the year and we see this index hook higher. Which again, we would sort of avoid a a precondition of a recession, which be a negative reading in that index. You know, in the interestingly kind of as we transition from the economy into the stock market as leading economic indicators such as the LEI index re-accelerate, the market typically behaves a certain way.
Jeff Mills: So as we all know, growth stocks have done exceptionally well for this entire business cycle for the better part of the last decade. And although growth stocks have dominated value stocks throughout the entire expansion, we’ve had two consistent periods of value stock outperformance. And they both began just prior to a bottoming in this leading economic index. So our belief is we are once again approaching this inflection point where you’re going to see a bottoming in the LEI and that we could also see a sustainable outperformance in value stocks in both of the previous cases in this business cycle value outperform growth for about a year’s time when the leading economic index bottom. So we are anticipating a similar environment moving into 2020 and just just transitioning more broadly into our view on domestic equities, I think it can be summed up in, in really one sentence. It’s low interest rates, it’s no recession and it’s positive earnings growth.
Jeff Mills: And I think that’s the backdrop. And when that’s the backdrop, I think playing the odds, I think you should assume that stocks are probably more likely to rise than they are to fall. I think the interest rate backdrop is especially important and it’s really explains a lot of how the market’s behaved in 2018 and 2019. So when interest rates remain, quote unquote easy, so below the Fed’s estimated neutral rate of interest. So the fed estimates a sort of middle ground of interest rates that they assume as neither stimulating the economy nor cooling the economy off. So right now interest rates remain below that level as the fed initiated three interest rate cuts throughout 2019 so stocks do considerably better when interest rates remain below that neutral rate and they obviously do considerably worse when the fed pushes interest rates above neutral. And we often see recessions at that point in time.
Jeff Mills: And when the fed is decreasing rates, which where they were in 2019 it’s usually an expansion in valuation that is the major market driver. And that’s really the exact pattern that we’ve seen over the past two years. In 2018 we had huge earnings growth, but the fed was hiking interest rates. So valuation multiples actually contracted and the market was unable to make any progress. And last year was the exact opposite. We had no earnings growth, but because the fed was cutting interest rates, valuation multiples again re expanded and the market was up, you know, just about 30%. So I think where does that leave us for 2020. If you listen to fed chairman Jay Powell, he’s explicitly stated that we need to see a significant and persistent rise in inflation above the Fed’s 2% target rate for them to move rates higher. We think that that’s unlikely in 2020 so that ultimately perpetuates an environment where the fed funds rate remains below neutral and that’s extort historically been supportive of stocks.
Jeff Mills: So just from that very macro perspective, thinking about interest rates were likely to remain an environment where stocks typically do fairly well. And thinking about valuations, obviously that’s important. You have to think about the price you’re paying when you’re talking about a stock market outlook. But it’s also important to keep in mind that valuations have a very high correlation with expected to stock returns over the next 10 years. But there’s very little relationship between valuations and how stocks are likely to perform over say the next 12 months. So I think when we’re talking about a 12 month market view as we are here, I think valuations have to be assessed relative to other investment options. And when you’re thinking about other investment options, bonds is really the ultimate alternative for for stock market dollars. And when you have interest rates as low as they are, that differential between what you’re getting for bonds and what you’re getting for stocks is, is at a point that’s historically wide.
Jeff Mills: So when you’re talking about relative attractiveness, stocks actually remain relatively attractive versus bonds. So again, another tick in the positive column for a, the likelihood of the stock market rising in 2020 so I think when you take the interest rate outlook, when you take the idea that valuations generally are high in stocks, but compared to bonds, still somewhat attractive, I think it translates to a year where earnings growth really is likely going to be the primary driver of equity market returns. I think valuation sort of expansion and contraction, it was so important in 2018 and 2019, we think that’s going to be a less significant factor when looking at 2020. It really is going to be earnings growth and right now the consensus for earnings growth is about 10% for 2020. Now typically you see that figure come down by about 40 or 50%. You also have operating margins that are kind of high, so you can see profitability contracts some.
Jeff Mills: But we think that earnings growth in sort of that mid to high single digit range is sensible. So if that’s the primary driver of returns, we could see a market return right in that range is where as well. I think interestingly, it’s actually unusual for the stock market to return something in the mid single digits. Typically you have sort of a, a big year or a not so great year, but it doesn’t mean it can’t happen and we think that that is the most sensible outlook for this year. And sort of taking the economic outlook and the market outlook in combination. In terms of positioning. Again, value stocks, probably a better environment there. We like sectors like industrials and financials and I think smaller cap companies they have some room to catch up to what large cap companies did in 2019.
Jeff Mills: So we would focus in those areas as particular areas of interest within the U S equity markets. International markets. You know, we think there’s really an opportunity there to outperform internationally. International stocks have had such a difficult run over the last 10 years, but, you know, take it in combination. You have what we believe to be a bottoming in the global manufacturing cycle. Usually when you see a bottom and global manufacturing, you see a bottoming in international earnings and you see international earnings growth recover. So if we are correct and you see better economic data as it relates to manufacturing globally, we think you’re starting to see it now, but you’ll probably will probably become more obvious as you move into the first quarter here. If you see that recovery, that could really be the catalyst for closing this now unusually wide valuation gap that we have between the U S and international stocks.
Jeff Mills: You know, you’ve had this serial underperformance in international stocks over the last decade, so you have valuations that are attractive not only relative to the U S but really relative to themselves historically as well when looking at international equities. So in a lot of ways we would favor these markets and we think that broadly investors are under-invested in that particular asset class. So we think that that’s a particularly interesting area of the market heading into 2020 and we will look at emerging markets and very much the same way. You know, if you look at the valuation difference between emerging markets and us stocks, it does make emerging markets a really compelling asset class. Like I said, over the next 10 years, if you’re just talking about valuations, emerging markets almost always carry a lower price to earnings ratio to compensate investors for the added risk of investing in that asset class.
Jeff Mills: But when it becomes extreme, that difference between the U S and an emerging markets, we definitely take note. We have a chart in, in the outlook that shows that the current difference between the price to earnings ratio between the S and P 500 and emerging markets, it’s now one standard deviation above average. So with, with emerging markets being on the cheaper side. So we actually saw a similar valuation difference back in 2003 and that was a mid, the last long stretch of emerging market outperformance. So again, emerging markets is also highly leveraged to what happens in global manufacturing. You see a very similar relationship between a recovery in manufacturing and better earnings 12 months later in emerging markets. So again, that combination of better value and a recovery earnings driven by manufacturing I think also makes emerging markets a compelling asset class. We would be, we would be careful in overweighting emerging markets.
Jeff Mills: I think in, in other cases we might actually want to be more exposed to emerging markets than what would be considered our baseline. But interestingly, you’ve seen the asset class move up a little bit. I think mostly driven by what’s going on with some of the, the progress in China trade. So you’ve seen emerging markets actually perform quite well over the last month or so before what might be predicted by the recovery of manufacturing and earnings. So although we think the asset class can do well, I think we’ve pulled forward some of those returns there just because of some of the optimism around trade. So very finally, just a, you know, last but not least on fixed income I think the, the headline there is fundamentals are solid. We talked about the economy. But return expectations should probably be managed. Some fixed income had such a big year in 2019 largely because interest rates fell and credit spreads tightened.
Jeff Mills: So you got a lot of price of perceived appreciation in the fixed income asset class. I think that’s unlikely in 2020. But just to sum up our view on fixed income, you know, we think that the U S treasury curve is probably going to steepen because you have longer, longer term interest rates increasing a little bit and then you have short term interest rates that are anchored by the fed funds rate that we feel like is unlikely to rise as we move through the year. We think the fed basically sits out the entire year and not doing anything with policy and we expect positive economic growth combined with this inactive fed to lead to some inflationary pressures, which I think might be more reflected on the long end of the curve. So you could see a re steepening there and that sort of flat or inverted yield curve that we saw at times throughout 2019 really caused a lot of anx among certain investors.
Jeff Mills: So I think that’s going to that’s going to correct itself and it will be a one less red flag as it relates to potential economic problems. I think you have continued global economic growth that should probably be supportive of the credit markets. It should probably be supportive of emerging market debt as well. So you know, when we think about what fixed income is likely to do this year, we think most of the returns are probably going to come from the yield or the interest rate. And you’re going to get a lot less price appreciation just because of what you saw in 2019. Valuations in fixed income. You know, our, our lofty as we just talked about, especially relative to equity, so it’s unlikely you’re going to see credit spreads tighten more. They’re already quite a bit tighter than average. It’s unlikely that interest rates are going to fall.
Jeff Mills: So price appreciation, much harder to come by in 2020. So as it relates to positioning and fixed income portfolios you know, in our sort of core strategies, we’re going to remain below benchmark duration because we think interest rates probably do tick higher. So we want to protect a little bit from rising interest rates and on the credit side, you know, although we think fundamentals are good, we want to be sensitive to the fact that we do think weaker credits are going to be sensitive to any early signs of economic weakness or if we get any type of re escalation of trade tensions. So we don’t anticipate any major problems in those areas, but we want to be overweight investment grade credit with a focus on higher quality. You know, that’s really our, our preference in fixed income. So with that I will wrap up the outlook should be published on January six so by the time this podcast comes out, it will probably already be available to everyone. I hope everyone enjoys reading it and we are certainly always available for questions or comments. We always look forward to hearing feedback on our pieces. We enjoyed writing the piece. And as we’re meeting with all of our clients, as we start the year, we look forward to talking more about the outlook. So thank you always for listening and look forward to being back next quarter. Thank you.
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