At the halfway point, 2018 is shaping up to be a good year for us. The first quarter was rough. In addition to the correction that dinged virtually all long-only portfolio managers, rising bond yields punished some of our more rate-sensitive positions, particularly REITs and MLPs. Though as yield fears subsided in the second quarter, the Dividend Growth portfolio recouped nearly all of its losses and entered the third quarter with strong momentum.
Through June 30, the portfolio returned 0.39% before management fees and -0.36 after all fees and expenses. Encouragingly, the returns for the second quarter were 7.92% gross of management fees and 7.17% net of all fees and expenses. [Returns figures compiled by Interactive Brokers and represent the real returns of a portfolio managed with firm capital. Returns realized by individual investor may vary based on account size and other factors. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.]
By comparison, through June 30, the S&P 500 index was up 1.67% through June 30 and up 2.93% in the second quarter.
So, while 2018 got off to a rough start, our portfolio has significant momentum behind it as we enter the second half. Our positions in energy — most notably midstream oil and gas pipelines — in real estate and in private equity managers have been the strongest contributors to returns. Our positions in European and emerging market equities have been the biggest drag on returns.
As a portfolio with a strong income mandate, the Dividend Growth portfolio is naturally going to have more interest-rate sensitivity than a broad market index such as the S&P 500. When yields are rising – as they were in the first quarter – this presents a risk. But when yields are stable or falling – as they were in the second quarter – it presents an opportunity.
The question we now face is this: What are interest rates likely to do in the second half of the year?
Ultimately, I expect that the path taken by interest rates will depend on two factors: inflation expectations and fears stemming from the nascent trade war.
I’ll address inflation expectations first. The unemployment rate has been hovering around the 4% mark for all of 2018. Traditionally, many economists have considered a 5% unemployment rate to be “full employment,” as there will always be some segment of the population that is either between jobs or not reasonably employable. Also, there are new would-be workers that come out of the woodwork (students, stay-at-home mothers, bored retirees, etc.) when the labor market gets sufficiently tight as it is today.
At 4%, we are significantly below “full employment,” which has led many economists to expect an uptick in inflation. Thus far, however, inflation has remained muted. PCE inflation (the rate used by the Federal Reserve in its decision making) has been running near or slightly above the Fed’s targeted 2% rate over the past six months, but it is not trending higher, or at least not yet.
If you’ve followed my research for any length of time, you know my view of inflation and the tools used to measure it. I don’t believe it is realistic to expect inflation at the levels seen in previous expansions due the demographic changes affecting the country. America’s Baby Boomers as a generation are well past the peak spending years of the early 50s. In fact, the front end of the generation is already several years into retirement.
The Boomers have been the economic engine of this country for over 40 years. As they retire, the borrow and spend less, taking aggregate demand out of the economy.
This isn’t purely academic. It’s been happening in Japan for over 20 years. Japan’s reported unemployment rate, at 2.8%, is even lower than ours. And Japan’s deficit spending and central bank stimulus absolutely dwarf those of America if you adjust for the relative sizes of the two economies. Yet Japan hasn’t had significant, sustained inflation since the early 1990s… when Bill Clinton was still the governor of Arkansas.
At the same time, automation technology and artificial intelligence is already eliminating jobs. Walk into a McDonalds today. You can order at a kiosk and never actually speak to a human employee.
At the higher end, Goldman Sachs reported a year ago that half of its investment banking tasks could viably be automated away.
While there are clearly exceptions in certain high-skilled jobs, the fact is that labor gets replaced by cheap technology as soon as it gets too expensive. It’s hard to imagine sustained inflation in this kind of environment.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that Mr. Market won’t decide to fret about it in the second half and send yields higher again. But I would consider any short-term weakness on higher bond yields to be a buying opportunity.
This leaves the fear of an economic slowdown. Right now, the economic numbers look healthy and there is no immediate sign of recession on the horizon. But unemployment tends to reach its lowest points near the end of the expansion. Furthermore, the Fed is aggressively raising rates, which is flattening the yield curve. A flat or inverted yield curve is a sign of economic distress and usually precedes a recession.
Does any of this mean a recession is “due” tomorrow? No, of course not. But it does suggest that we are late in the economic cycle, at a point when value sectors and higher-yielding sectors tend to outperform.
So, while I may make a few minor portfolio adjustments in the third quarter, I believe we are very well positioned at the half.
Looking forward to a strong finish to 2018,
Charles Lewis Sizemore, CFA