Welcome to Wonderland
Adults and children alike are familiar with Lewis Carroll’s classic story, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, where the intrepid Alice ventures into a fantasy world that mixes the ridiculous with periodic insights into the human condition. The story is one of the most well-known examples of the “literary nonsense” genre, which combines elements that make sense with others that do not. In thinking about how to explain current events, certain anecdotes from the story offer some striking similarities. If we lived in Wonderland, we might accept a market that is optimistically rising in the middle of a pandemic. But given that we do not live in Wonderland, we are staying consistent with our investment philosophy of risk management, true diversification, and cash flow, which has shown its resiliency in the first half of 2020 despite the wild roller coaster ride in the broader markets.
As the magnitude of the pandemic started becoming clear in early March, the financial markets fell into a bear market. From its high in mid-February, the S&P 500 Index lost almost 35% in a span of five weeks, as volatility exceeded the turbulence of the Great Financial Crisis in 2008 and 2009. Both the Federal Reserve (Fed) and the federal government reacted to the market downturn with aggressive policy responses that exceeded any other historical response (more on this later). The extraordinary stimulus fueled a robust recovery in equity prices, though limited for the most part to larger companies in the United States. From its low in late March, the S&P 500 Index rallied close to 40% to close down only 3.1% for the year by the end of the second quarter. While other stock indices had a strong second quarter, most are still meaningfully negative on the year.
The table below summarizes the second-quarter performance for selected indices.
“Curiouser and Curiouser”
After tumbling down the rabbit hole, Alice invents the word “curiouser” to try and describe the simultaneously fascinating and nonsensical world in which she finds herself. Our reality today bears similar attributes to this world of make-believe. All the economic news pundits out there keep talking about the different letter shapes that the economic recovery could take. Will the precipitous drop in economic activity be followed by an equally strong rebound, creating the ideal V-shaped recovery? Will economic growth flatline for some time, creating more of an “L” or, ultimately, a “U”? While the debate is still rampant as it relates to the fundamentals of the global economy, stock prices are looking more and more like a “V” as illustrated in the below chart of the S&P 500’s recent performance.
Fastest Stock Market Fall and Recovery in History
There is a real danger of confusing this stock market rebound with an economic recovery. While many stock prices have had a V-shaped recovery, valuations and underlying fundamentals tell a completely different story. Corporate earnings have been almost cut in half from pre-crisis levels. While unemployment has slowed its rise, it remains meaningfully elevated. Though numerous cities in the United States started to reopen a few weeks ago, spiking virus cases are sending many back into lockdown. These challenging fundamentals have made us wonder whether the “V” in stocks will turn into a “W” and retest previous lows.
There is a general perception out there that all this economic damage is temporary and will be reversed as soon as there is a vaccine or we get the virus under control. Unfortunately, though, we are already seeing more permanent damage to the economy in the form of spiking bankruptcies—and we are only a few months into this crisis. Many of these bankruptcies are big-name companies that most of you likely know: Hertz, J.Crew, Neiman Marcus, JCPenny, Cirque du Soleil, Pier 1 Imports, and 24 Hour Fitness. Most of the bankruptcies so far have been consumer-related companies, which does not bode well since the consumer accounts for two-thirds of all economic growth! With so much bad news on the actual economy, it is definitely “curiouser and curiouser” that the stock market continues to march higher, day after day, almost in defiance of reality.
“The Stimulus Rabbit Hole”
In the absence of improving fundamentals, the U.S. government’s aggressive response to the COVID-19 crisis seems to be the driving force behind the stock market’s recovery. The below graph puts the current stimulus and policy response in context with spending that took place in previous crises.
These numbers are in today’s dollars, or, in other words, they are adjusted for inflation to make them apples to apples. And these numbers do not factor in the additional stimulus that is likely coming in the ensuing months. The CARES Act infused $2 trillion into the American economy and included assistance to businesses, states and localities; 159 million stimulus checks to individuals and families; and extra payments of $600 a week in unemployment benefits to tens of millions of Americans. The Fed entered the fray as well by employing their main tools designed to stimulate economic growth: lowering interest rates and buying bonds (with the goal of keeping long-term interest rates low). The Fed very quickly lowered short-term rates to zero and then launched a bond-buying campaign that is expanding its balance sheet to a parabolic degree. Already, the Fed has added $3 trillion to its balance sheet, pushing it up to an all-time high of $7 trillion, and it has all but promised to continue throwing money at the problem and do whatever it takes to get the economy back on track. The challenge is that with each economic bump in the road, it seems to be taking more and more extreme policy responses to keep the economy on track. As the Red Queen tells Alice, “It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”
By injecting massive stimulus, governments are once again contributing to speculative investor behavior that has further decoupled asset valuations from underlying fundamentals. This manifests itself in various forms, one example being the massive run-up in the stock prices of a handful of technology companies. The five largest stocks in the S&P 500 are Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, and Google. Toward the end of May, those five stocks were up 15% for the year while the other 495 stocks in the index were down 8%. While some of these companies have held up well or even prospered in the current crisis, their stocks are still escalating at a pace well beyond their current earnings growth trajectories. Not surprisingly, the increase in the stock market (coupled with Americans getting stimulus checks and no longer having professional sports to bet on) has corresponded with a spike in new accounts being opened at brokerage firms like Charles Schwab and E*TRADE. These new traders not only speculate on the darling tech companies, but have also jumped into distressed names. There has been very high trading volume in companies like Hertz, which declared bankruptcy in late May and subsequently saw a jump in its stock price from $1 up to $5, before it fell back down again, as these inexperienced day traders jumped in and out of a stock that is very likely worth $0 at the end of the day. Perhaps Alice would have been able to empathize with these traders when she declared, “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
“We Refuse to Play Croquet with a Flamingo”
Investing in broader markets today, we can relate to how Alice must have felt playing “croquet” with the Queen, where the balls were hedgehogs and the mallets live flamingos. The rules of the game keep changing, but rather than give into the nonsensical, we are more determined than ever to find investments where the fundamentals still make sense.
An example of one such investment is the allocation that we made during the second quarter to a mutual fund that invests primarily in bonds backed by real estate. At the height of the volatility this year, these bonds traded down dramatically as certain holders were forced to sell to generate liquidity. The fundamentals, however, did not justify such dramatic price declines. When we dug deeper, we found that many of the bonds were backed by seasoned home mortgages that were outstanding prior to the 2008 crisis. These loans survived that crisis and now have 12 to 15 years of payment history, lower balances since they have been amortizing over time, and typically higher home values since real estate prices have appreciated. Pools of these mortgages had average loan-to-value ratios of approximately 55-60%, meaning that home prices would have to take major hits before the loans would be at risk of impairment. Because of the dramatic price declines these bonds saw earlier this year, they now yield income in the mid-single digits and have the potential for double-digit total returns as prices recover in the future.
Another example of sticking to the fundamentals is our allocation to gold. We have had an allocation to gold for some time but increased our target to this asset in late 2019. While we, of course, had no insight into the upcoming pandemic, we were increasingly concerned with the lack of discipline being exhibited by governments. This lack of discipline has only been magnified in the current environment, increasing our conviction in gold as a true store of value in an environment where more and more money is being printed every day. We think that this is an environment where the fundamentals support a strong outlook for gold.
We continue to look for other opportunities with solid fundamentals, but many of the investments that are currently on our radar are less liquid than those found in public markets. Even prior to the recent crisis, we were finding that willing investors could trade market risk for some degree of liquidity risk (i.e., an inability to immediately sell for cash). We believe these less liquid assets have the potential for more consistent long-term returns based on the fundamentals and offer investors an alternative to exposing themselves to the irrationality of investing in Wonderland. However, the amount of liquidity risk that is appropriate is going to vary for each individual’s portfolio. As we pursue a number of these new strategies in the coming months, we would strongly encourage you to revisit your financial plan. Your plan is essential in determining how much liquidity risk is appropriate for your personal situation. It is also a great time to revisit your risk tolerance and ask yourself how much volatility you are comfortable within your portfolio. We just went through a roller coaster ride in the stock market; if you found yourself nervous and losing sleep over it, it may make a lot of sense to take some risk off the table now that asset prices have had a strong recovery.
Please do not hesitate to contact your Morton Capital wealth advisory team if you have any questions or would like to review your portfolio or financial plan in more detail. As always, we appreciate your continued confidence and trust.
Morton Capital Investment Team
This commentary is mailed quarterly to our clients and friends and is for information purposes only. This document should not be taken as a recommendation, offer or solicitation to buy or sell any individual security or asset class, and should not be considered investment advice. This memorandum expresses the views of the author and are subject to change without notice. All information contained herein is current only as of the earlier of the date hereof and the date on which it is delivered by Morton Capital (MC) to the intended recipient, or such other date indicated with respect to specific information. Certain information contained herein is based on or derived from information provided by independent third-party sources. The author believes that the sources from which such information has been obtained are reliable; however, it cannot guarantee the accuracy of such information. Any performance information contained herein is for illustrative purposes only.
Certain private investment opportunities discussed herein may only be available to eligible clients and can only be made after careful review and completion of applicable offering documents. Private investments are speculative and involve a high degree of risk.
The indices referenced in this document are provided to allow for comparison to well-known and widely recognized asset classes and asset class categories. Q3 returns shown are from 06-28-2019 through 09-30-2019 and the year-to-date returns are from 12-31-2018 through 09-30-2019. Index returns shown do not reflect the deduction of any fees or expenses. The volatility of the benchmarks may be materially different from the performance of MC. In addition, MC’s recommendations may differ significantly from the securities that comprise the benchmarks. Indices are unmanaged, and an investment cannot be made directly in an index.
Past performance is not indicative of future results. All investments involve risk including the loss of principal. Details on MC’s advisory services, fees and investment strategies, including a summary of risks surrounding the strategies, can be found in our Form ADV Part 2A. A copy may be obtained at www.adviserinfo.sec.gov.