July 2015 Investor Letter

Active Asset Allocator Performance

Investment Philosophy and Approach

The Active Asset Allocator investment strategy is designed to deliver a consistent level of positive returns  over time with a strong focus on capital preservation. We follow a multi-asset investment approach, actively allocating between global equities, bonds, precious metals, currencies and cash. We always invest with the primary trend of the market and do not follow a benchmark. Instead, we manage the market risk for our clients. Our strategy has returned 12.4% per annum net of fees since inception. Our active asset allocation approach is best illustrated in the following chart.

 
AAA Asset Allocation.jpg
 
 

Executive Summary

Apple, Microsoft, Google, Amazon and Facebook together account for 35% of the Nasdaq 100 Index. Excluding Amazon, which despite its $227 billion market capitalization is losing money, the other four trade at an average P/E multiple of 41 times. Valuations are frothy and market breadth continues to deteriorate, while the Fear Index trades at record lows. Investors haven't been this confident in their outlook since 2007.

Meanwhile, gold has now retraced 50% of its +660% rally from 2000 to 2011 and sentiment is extremely bearish. Gold mining shares have collapsed and calls for sub-$1,000 gold are two a penny. During the 1970's bull market, gold rallied +457% from 1970-1974, corrected -49% from 1974-1976 before rocketing +750% from 1976-1980. What is in store this time around?

Stock Market Update

We began last month's Investor Letter highlighting the sharp -13% correction in the Chinese stock market, noting that "that could be it for the Shanghai stock market for 2015". It certainly appears that way now as the Chinese stock market has continued to plummet, declining -35% in four short weeks from the 12th June market top before a relief rally commenced last week. The reason for the bounce - a government initiative to ban the selling of shares; hardly a vote of confidence for the medium-term prospects of the Shanghai stock market. We anticipate the downward trend will resume shortly. 

 
 

Back in the United States, the stock market continues its relentless rise. The pace of the advance however is slowing and beneath the surface, fewer stocks are participating in the rally. The number of stocks trading above their 200 day moving averages, for example, continues to decline, from a peak of 94% in 2013 to just 58% today. Smart money is exiting the stock market while the strong performance of  just a handful of companies give the appearance that all is well. Appearances can be deceiving. 

 
 
 

Just four stocks for example - Apple, Microsoft, Google and Exxon Mobil - represent 10% of the market capitalization of the S&P 500. Together, these four companies trade at a valuation of 20 times annual net earnings. Three of the same four - Apple, Microsoft and Google - together with Amazon and Facebook account for a full 35% of the Nasdaq 100 Index. Excluding Amazon, which, despite its $227 billion market capitalization, made a net loss in 2014, the other four trade at a lofty average price / earnings multiple of 41 times. 

 
 

The next chart is one you have seen before and is probably the most important chart that equity investors should focus on at the present time. It is of course the global equity benchmark - the FTSE All World Index. Trillions of dollars of investor capital is invested in stock markets around the world with investment managers trying to beat or match this index every quarter for clients. The index is a proxy for global stock markets and it appears to be running out of steam. Relative strength is deteriorating and the trend is flattening out. The same setup happened in 2007 before the wheels came off in rather dramatic fashion. On average, stocks are more expensive today than they were in 2007.

 
 

Our own studies also continue to point to internal weakness in the underlying technical trend of the market. Our Technical Trend Indicator is now on a "Sell" signal for the first time in years, while the Advance/Decline Line, which captures the number of stocks in rising versus declining trends, has failed to confirm the recent highs in the S&P 500, another warning sign.

Our Large Cap Breadth Index is also breaking down. The majority of institutional investor capital typically flows in to the largest market cap stocks and our Large Cap Breadth Index suggests that a trend change is at hand. The six horsemen continue to charge (AAPL, MSFT, GOOG, XOM, AMZN, FB), but fewer stocks are leading the market higher. Our Most Active Stocks Index also suggests that stocks that attract the highest volume each day are starting to turn lower.

Despite the deteriorating technical condition of the stock market, investors appear quite confident about the market's future prospects. The Vix Index, also known as the Fear Index, measures the extent to which investors are concerned about future stock market volatility. When the index is low, investors are unconcerned about market risks; when the index surges higher, market volatility increases and stocks generally decline, sometimes significantly. A glance at the chart below suggests that investors are very confident about the future prospects for the shares they hold. The Vix Index currently trades at record lows. In fact, investors haven't been this confident in their outlook since 2007. Portfolio insurance is cheap and suggests a market of overly complacent investors.

 
 

We remain defensively positioned in the Active Asset Allocator holding 20% equities / 30% bonds / 30% gold / 20% cash.

For more information on our stock market analysis, please get in touch. You can reach Brian Delaney at brian.delaney@secureinvest.ie or 086 821 5911.

Bond Market Update

10 year government bond yields rallied sharply during the second quarter and bond prices fell accordingly. Typically, we hold a 60% allocation to government bonds when the Active Asset Allocator is defensively positioned. However, we have been concerned that a sharp rise in yields could occur over a short time period and have held an underweight 20% position in EU government bonds for some time now (with an additional 5% allocation to inflation linked bonds and 5% allocation to corporates). We will look to increase our bond allocation, particularly in the inflation-linked sector, later this year if real and nominal yields continue to rise. We do not anticipate the recent spike in yields to be the start of a strong persistent uptrend.  Sub-par economic growth and a multi-year debt deleveraging cycle should keep downward pressure on bond yields for some time to come.

A consequence of today's low interest rate environment has been the flood of money into high yield bonds as investors reach for yield to secure a reasonable income. High yield bonds carry significant risks relative to investment grade government and corporate bonds and yields today in this sector of the market are not pricing in the increased risk of default. The same case applies for emerging market debt. Yields are currently at historic lows for both. It will a while yet before we can consider including high yield bonds and/or emerging market debt in the Active Asset Allocator strategy.

High yield bonds have not in fact confirmed the recent highs in the S&P 500, another potential warning flag we are paying close attention to. In a healthy market, high yield bonds should trend higher in unison with other risk assets. This is not the case today.

 
 

For more information on our fixed income analysis, please get in touch. You can reach Brian Delaney at brian.delaney@secureinvest.ie or 086 821 5911.

Gold Market Update

Gold has now retraced 50%  of the entire bull market that began in 2000 at $253/ounce and topped in 2011 at $1,923. The 50% retracement level is $1,088, which I referred to in last month's update, was reached as futures trading opened on Sunday evening. Gold didn't spend long at that price and rallied back above $1,100 within minutes. Today (Wednesday 22nd July) gold is revisiting those Sunday night lows as I write. 

 
 

The last major bull market in gold occurred during the inflationary 1970's. Gold began that decade at $35/ounce and went on to rally +457% over the next five years. Then on 14th August, 1974, President Gerald Ford signed a bill lifting Executive Order 6102, which had banned gold ownership by US citizens. Gold rallied sharply in anticipation of this event and topped shortly thereafter at $195.

Next followed the big correction, similar to what we have experienced over the past three years (in USD terms). From 1974 to 1976, gold plunged -49% from $195/oz to $100/oz. Banks and economists in 1976 were queuing up with doomsday forecasts. Citibank called for $60 gold and encouraged gold holders to sell their metal in light of a strong recovery under way in the United States.

For the few that held on, what followed next was a sight to behold. Over the next four years, gold rallied +750% before topping out in January 1980 at $850/oz. Inflation was of course a significant problem in the 1970's and the Federal Reserve was behind the curve for years before Paul Volcker took charge on 6th August 1979, hiking interest rates to double digits and eventually killing inflation and the gold bull, dead.

Roll forward to today and we have quite a different set of economic and monetary circumstances to deal with, though much more problematic in our view. We expect gold will once again protect investors from the badly misguided policies of central banks around the world. It is just a question of timing.

The current gold bull market began in 2000 at $253/oz and rallied +660% for twelve years in a row before topping out in 2011 at $1,923. Over the next four years, gold has fallen by -44% in USD terms to an intra-day low this week just under the 50% retracement level of $1088. Sentiment in the gold sector is extraordinarily bearish and gold mining stocks have collapsed by -82% since 2011. By comparison, the miners fell by "just" -67% during the 1974-1976 gold price decline.

 

Relative to the metal, gold miners are now cheaper today than at any other time since the gold bull market began fifteen years ago. The mining companies have issued a lot of shares in the intervening period and have been poor capital allocators, but still, the level of bearishness in this sector is extreme. Either the entire industry is about to go out of business (bullish for gold as supply stops) or these shares, when they turn, have a LOT of upside.

 
 

For gold, we have experienced the multi-year rally from 2000 to 2011 and now the sharp correction from 2011-2015. What should follow is the final leg of the bull market, perhaps from 2015-2020. It should be a sight to behold. We are keenly watching for the turn but also may cut back our gold allocation if we don't like what we see in the near-term. When the gold miners turn higher, fortunes will be made in this sector. 

For more information on our gold market analysis, please get in touch. You can reach Brian Delaney at brian.delaney@secureinvest.ie or 086 821 5911.