Greetings from the Northwest.
It looks like this year’s take on summer has arrived, and we’re seeing a noticeable surge in the number of people mingling, dining out, shopping, and pursuing their outdoor passions, despite the higher costs that have been lightening wallets. The basic human need to live our lives and move beyond the virus is driving this burst of social activity. We’ll see how long this can survive in the face of the higher prices we’re experiencing. I’m sure glad I don’t have air travel planned any time soon, as that appears to be an unpredictable and expensive mess.
So here we are, officially in a bear market, having just completed the worst first half experienced in our stock markets since the 1970s, with more clouds in the distance, as historically, the second half is the rougher. We’re probably in a recession, but a strange one. The economy is trying to burst forth from our COVID-induced lull, while at the same time the Fed is dousing the flames of the stimulus bonfire; and there’s a war and a lingering virus. The stock market has been overpriced for some time, so it’s not surprising to see a pull back, and Patrick will point out that overall, it’s still not cheap, despite some huge drawdowns in the more speculative asset classes. Housing is due for a correction of sorts, and it’s probably in the early stages of one.
Depending on who you talk to and where you get your news, you could get the impression that the sky is falling and that we’re in a complete and total market meltdown. To be sure, it has been tough to find shelter in this storm, but I find comfort in our process, imperfect as it may be, believing that we’ll come out of this better than the broader markets, and well prepped for whatever’s next. Your actual experiences will vary, but I believe that what you have seen so far with your investments is distinctly less frightening than the shrill alarms being heard on many media outlets.
On another, somewhat related note, I’m proud and excited to share with you that Cairn Investment Group was honored this last month as one of Oregon’s fastest growing private companies by the Portland Business Journal, the result of much hard work by the entire team.
With that, on to Patrick and some specific and useful thoughts:
Equity and fixed income markets continued their march lower during the 2nd quarter, as investors continued to absorb rising inflation, tighter monetary policy, corporate profit margin pressures, and still high equity valuations. There were very few places for investors to hide during the first half of the year as large cap stocks, measured by the S&P 500, are down -19.96% and the Bloomberg US Aggregate Bond Index down -10.35%. I pointed to this as a risk in our Q1 2021 letter:
As we’ve discussed with many of you during meetings and reviews, stocks are not a very good inflation hedge when they are combined with high valuations. It’s only after valuations return to a more reasonable level that stocks offer a good hedge against inflation. The actual best hedge (short-term) against inflation is cash, which is why we have been holding a higher-than-normal cash allocation in portfolios for the last 18 months. The chart below shows inflation (vertical scale) and valuations (horizontal scale). As it illustrates, generally when you have 8.5% inflation, valuations are much lower than where they currently stand. So even though valuations have fallen from their historical extremes that investors were witnessing to start the year, they are still well above normal given the current inflationary backdrop.
To combat the steady rise in inflationary pressures the economy has been experiencing, the Fed has become more aggressive in raising interest rates and tightening financial conditions. During their June meeting they raised the fed funds rate by 0.75% and have been hinting that another 0.75% hike might take place in July. As the chart below indicates, historically, when inflation is over 8% the fed funds rate is higher, not lower, than the inflation rate. So, if inflation stays high, then the fed has a way to go in raising rates.
The biggest argument that we hear about why the Fed should slow their pace of interest rate hikes is the problem with the toolkit the Fed has to cool inflation. The options available are useful in decreasing the demand side of the inflation, not the supply side. Lyn Alden, of Alden Investment Strategy, said it best in her most recent monthly newsletter:
By raising interest rates, the Fed is in essence trying to raise unemployment and cool consumer demand. These actions could slow inflation for a period of time but, unfortunately, the price paid might be an economy that goes into recession. We are not in the business of predicting recessions, but we do have to be aware of the environment we are in and manage through it appropriately. With that said, we have a hard time believing that if the Fed continues down its current path, a soft landing they are hoping for is the most likely outcome.
Through all the negativity there are some silver linings. Though the S&P 500 is down over 20% from its highs, many companies and asset classes have fared far worse. Many of the high-flying growth stocks that helped fuel the market bubble we were in, are now trading like beaten up value stocks. Overall, portfolios continue to hold higher than normal cash positions and are defensively positioned based on what the data is showing us. This provides us plenty of flexibility to change course when opportunities present themselves across the investment landscape. Combined with our cash allocation, we continue to hold a portfolio consisting of high quality, value-oriented stocks and bonds across asset classes that can weather market turbulence and provide the ability for capital appreciation, once the market environment eventually changes course. Thank you again for your continued trust and feel free to reach out to me to discuss any topics in greater detail. —Patrick Mason
Here’s a reminder that the office is open, the coffee is fresh and hot, so please, don’t be shy about requesting an appointment or giving us a ring.
Tim Mosier, President
Cairn Investment Group, Inc.
To say that there have been a lot of moving parts, in capital markets and economy, would be an understatement. Though equity and fixed income markets both finished down for the quarter, March provided some reprieve. Having both stocks and treasury bonds decline at the same time is a rare phenomenon. Over the last 100 years, it has happened four times during a calendar year. I guess we will see how the next nine months go. Many of the headlines being written, and market pundits’ comments, have been blaming the volatility that we have been witnessing in stocks on geopolitical concerns. While we are appalled at the conflict in Ukraine, we continue to believe the main drivers of equity and fixed income price movements are inflation, interest rates, and monetary policy. We have written about these topics many times over the last couple of years, and our opinion, based on data, has not changed. Inflation is here, and it is not going away anytime soon. Interest rates, and the Fed’s reaction to inflation, have been behind the curve; so now monetary policy makers are forced to play catch-up by raising rates into a slowing economy. A term that you might start to hear more over the next few quarters will most likely be “Stagflation.” Stagflation is the ugly combination of high inflation and declining economic activity, which the US has not witnessed since the 1970s. As I spoke about last quarter, rising inflation has affected consumer expectations about their future and that continues to show up in the data. The bond market has also started to take notice as the US treasury bond yield curve is the most inverted since the financial crisis.
The yield curve has a strong track record of predicting a slowdown in economic activity. There will be plenty of talk about how “this time is different.” We would take those arguments with a huge grain of salt. We are not predicting, just observing the conditions and responding appropriately. If the environment changes, we will change our mind.
On a positive note, there have been arguments over the last couple of years justifying the strong performance in equity markets as being driven by having no other alternative (TINA) due to interest rates being at historic lows. With the recent jump in treasury bond yields, this is no longer the case.
Investors now have some options to earn income in relatively safe investments, which should impact decision-making at some point. This positive development will allow investors options for investing and provide competition for capital, which is beneficial to determine fair prices for many different asset classes.
Overall, we have been pleased how portfolios have reacted during this shift in market behavior. Having a value bias during this rising interest rate environment has been helpful, as we have talked about previously. We continue to focus our equity allocation on companies and asset classes that generate consistent free cash flow, have resilient operating performance, and returns on capital that trade at attractive valuations. The main detractor to performance has been our allocation to international stocks. We continue to view international equities to be much more attractively valued than US stocks, so we are willing to be patient. Bonds have not been spared the volatility in capital markets. We manage your fixed income to be short-term in maturity and with lower credit risk than the broader bond market. Our focus on risk management, the willingness to hold cash, and be patient provides your portfolio flexibilities that are well positioned to navigate this challenging market environment.
Thank you again for your continued trust. I have had many great talks with you over the last few months and continue to invite a conversation on anything you find needs further discussion.