Investors were faced with a perplexing question as we entered the second quarter of 2004. How could the economy continue to grow if the unemployed
The first quarter of 2004 provided a clear example of why diversification is so important to any long term investor. Portfolios allocated across several asset classes in the first quarter produced strong returns despite tame performance in portions of the US equity market. Returns for real estate, bonds, and international and small cap equities significantly outpaced modest declines in the Nasdaq and Dow. Those with even small allocations in the strong market sectors realized healthy performance for the quarter despite the late quarter fade in technology and large-cap industrial stocks.
Past performance is no guarantee of future results
Best among the class of positive performers was real estate with the Wilshire REIT Index posting a strong 12.07% for the quarter. Small-cap equity followed with the Russell 2000 Index returning 6.26%. Morgan Stanley’s International Equity EAFE index gained 4.40%. These returns, when combined with the gain of 1.69% for the S&P 500 or the –0.35% return of the Nasdaq, left the diversified investor in good shape at quarter end.
Several factors combined to support most market segments during the quarter. One major factor was the decline in interest rates for bonds maturing in 10 years. Many lenders set long-term mortgage rates around the 10 year US Treasury yield. As this yield declined during the quarter we saw a pick-up in real estate values as more people became eligible to own property. The increased demand to buy property pushed prices up. The return for the Wilshire REIT Index is evidence of this. Also benefiting directly from the drop in rates was the bond market with bond prices and interest rates moving up as rates declined.
The drop in interest rates was brought about by slow growth in employment during the quarter, low inflation and what is called a “flight to quality” in the markets. The term “flight to quality” is used to describe a rush to the US Treasury markets when events take place that cause temporary market uncertainty. We saw this following the bombings in Madrid in March. The desire to own the safety of US Treasury Bonds increased after the Madrid terrorist attacks and this pushed rates still lower.
As we enter the second quarter the economy continues to look fundamentally solid. Year over year CPI remains below 2% despite the spike in fuel prices. Housing construction and home sales remain robust, durable goods orders have turned positive and the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) seems content leaving interest rates low for now. The forces remain intact for continued economic growth and this should have a positive influence on the US equity market.
Counter to data received during the first quarter, the second quarter opened with a strong employment report posted on April 2nd. Job growth of 308,000 far exceeded the consensus forecast of 123,0001. This is a shift from the first quarter and should support second quarter retail sales. Since the consumer represents 67% of Gross Domestic Product in the US, the economy can really heat up when the consumer has more money to spend. The interest rate setting arm of the government, the FOMC, will keep a keen eye on this. If month-to-month employment growth should continue above 200,000 going forward, the FOMC may look to hike rates sooner as opposed to later.
The investment environment over the past 12 months has been quite robust. We see little over the near-term that should change these conditions. The November Presidential election is several months away so any concern over a change in the political landscapeshould be slow to develop. Although terrorism will continue as a wildcard, we remain optimistic that any market influence from another event will be much like the Madrid impact, short-lived. In any event, we remain confident in the strong capabilities and resources dedicated to the ongoing monitoring and management of your portfolio.
i Source: Bloomberg