Weekly commentary overview

  • Stocks resumed their slide last week with the major indexes all suffering significant losses.
  • Investors may have grown weary of the volatility, but the elements are in place for it to continue and the comfort of central bank accommodation is not as reliable as it once was.
  • But investors still have options available that can help provide at least some degree of insulation for their portfolios.
  • We continue to suggest that investors look for strategies and tools to minimize downside risk. Minimum volatility strategies—which, as the name suggests, historically offer lower peaks and valleys than the market at large—can help mitigate risk.
  • We would also suggest seeking income sources that can provide at least some cushion when the markets are gyrating. Specifically, preferred stocks are currently providing a mid-single-digit yield with more modest volatility.
  • While no asset class has distinguished itself year-to-date, these themes have at least helped to mitigate the downside.

Stocks slip and slide

Stocks resumed their slide last week with the major indexes all suffering significant losses. The carnage was particularly bad for U.S. technology stocks, with the Nasdaq Composite Index losing 5.41% to end the week at 4,363. The S&P 500 Index fell 3.09% to 1,880 and the Dow Jones Industrial Average was down 1.59% to 16,204. The selloff in riskier assets extended to bonds. The difference between the yield of corporate bonds and Treasuries of comparable maturity widened as investors sold the riskier corporates. High yield bonds once again experienced the largest losses as investors flocked into safe-haven assets, which included gold as well as Treasuries. Flows into both were positive on the week. The yield on the benchmark 10-year U.S. Treasury fell from 1.92% to 1.83% as its price rose.

Investors may have grown weary of the bleak midwinter volatility, but unfortunately, spring is still a long way off. The elements are in place for continued volatility, and the comfort of central bank accommodation is not as reliable as it once was. But investors still have options available that can help provide at least some degree of insulation for their portfolios.

Economic weakness and revised Fed expectations

The recent weakness in stocks can be attributed to several factors. To start, we saw further volatility in energy markets. However, investors were more focused on further evidence of economic deceleration in the United States. Last week brought poor ISM manufacturing and services surveys, although a rebound in new orders did offer one glimmer of hope. On the labor front, job growth remains strong but appears to have crested as employers are faced with difficulty finding qualified workers and uncertainty over financial market conditions.

Ironically, however, another problem for stocks is coming from rising wages. Higher wages are ultimately a positive for the consumer, but they put pressure on companies’ margins. In January, hourly wages were up 0.5%. If rising wages are not accompanied by faster productivity, profit margins will come under pressure.

Finally, a weaker dollar added to the pressure on international stocks. The dollar rebounded on Friday, but is still down more than 3% from its December peak. Investors are selling the dollar as expectations for U.S. growth and Federal Reserve (Fed) tightening continue to fade. Consensus forecasts for 2016 economic growth have fallen from 2.7% in early October to 2.4% today, and with that downgrade, investors are even less convinced that the Fed will hike rates four times this year, as it had implied. Investors place the odds of a March hike at 10% today––down from 50% at the start of January.

Meanwhile, the euro rallied, hitting a four-month high of 1.12 versus the dollar. With the euro strengthening, investors are questioning whether additional monetary stimulus by the European Central Bank (ECB) will have its intended effect. This concern is reinforced by the fact that, thus far, the introduction of quantitative easing (QE) in Europe has not been able to lift equities there. Since the ECB’s QE program began a little over a year ago, European equities are down and earnings estimates have fallen. If the euro remains resilient due to a more dovish path by the Fed, QE may be less effective in lifting European asset prices.

Ironically, the one market that proved resilient last week was China, with A-Shares traded in Shenzhen gaining more than 3%. Equities benefited from a further injection of liquidity by the central bank as well as some minor strengthening in the local currency. However, on the economic front, the picture remains broadly the same: weak manufacturing while the services sector continues to grow.

Investors may have grown weary of the bleak midwinter volatility, but unfortunately, spring is still a long way off. The elements are in place for continued volatility, and the comfort of central bank accommodation is not as reliable as it once was.

Buckle up

With central banks’ tools struggling to stimulate growth, markets are likely to remain volatile. Adding to the challenge: Asset sales by emerging markets central banks and wider credit spreads, both of which represent a tightening of financial market conditions despite the increasingly heroic efforts of the Bank of Japan and the ECB. Unfortunately, tighter financial market conditions typically coincide with equity market volatility.

Against this backdrop, we continue to suggest that investors look for strategies and tools to minimize downside risk. Minimum volatility strategies—which, as the name suggests, historically offer lower peaks and valleys than the market at large—can help mitigate risk. Another theme we would embrace: seeking income sources that can provide at least some cushion when the markets are gyrating. Specifically, preferred stocks are currently providing a mid-single-digit yield with more modest volatility. While no asset class has distinguished itself year-to-date, these themes have at least helped to mitigate the downside.

What do rising default rates mean for bond investors?

Commodity market declines driving an uptick in defaults. This means chasing yield comes with newfound risks.

Is your portfolio built for 2016?

Investment Outlook

The BlackRock List outlines what to know and what to do with your investments. Understand the dangers and opportunities to help you navigate 2016 safely.

This material is not intended to be relied upon as a forecast, research or investment advice, and is not a recommendation, offer or solicitation to buy or sell any securities or to adopt any investment strategy. The opinions expressed are as of Feb. 8, 2016, and may change as subsequent conditions vary. The information and opinions contained in this material are derived from proprietary and nonproprietary sources deemed by BlackRock to be reliable, are not necessarily all-inclusive and are not guaranteed as to accuracy. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. There is no guarantee that any forecasts made will come to pass. Reliance upon information in this material is at the sole discretion of the reader. Investment involves risks. International investing involves additional risks, including risks related to foreign currency, limited liquidity, less government regulation and the possibility of substantial volatility due to adverse political, economic or other developments. The two main risks related to fixed income investing are interest rate risk and credit risk. Typically, when interest rates rise, there is a corresponding decline in the market value of bonds. Credit risk refers to the possibility that the issuer of the bond will not be able to make principal and interest payments. Index performance is shown for illustrative purposes only. You cannot invest directly in an index.

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