Four Investment Themes for 2017

Each November and December, I undertake a complete review of our Premier Wealth Management Portfolio Models and make tactical adjustments for the year ahead. We have five risk levels: Conservative (roughly 35% equities / 65% fixed income), Balanced (50/50), Moderate (60/40), Growth (70/30), and Aggressive (85/15).

Our investment process is tactical and contrarian. Each year we look for those market opportunities which have attractive and low valuations, and increase our weighting to those segments, while decreasing those categories which appear more expensive. We include Core positions, which offer broad diversification and are the essential and permanent foundation of our portfolios. And we purchase Satellite positions which we feel offer a compelling current opportunity in a more narrow or niche investment category. Typically, there are 12-15 positions in total, consisting of Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) and Mutual Funds.

While we are not afraid to make changes to our models, we believe that when it comes to trading, less is more. We want to minimize taxable sales and especially to avoid short-term capital gains. That’s why we only change the models once a year, although we also believe that more frequent trading would be likely to be detrimental rather than return enhancing.

For 2017, our portfolio changes will be based on three considerations:
1) Relative valuations (reducing expensive stocks and adding to the inexpensive segments).
2) Replacing our holdings in a few categories, where another fund appears to offers a better risk/return profile.
3) Our world view of the markets in 2017, which is more focused on identifying risk than trying to predict the top performing investments. No matter what, diversification remains more valuable than our opinions about investment opportunities.

Here then are our four investment themes for 2017:

1) Low for Longer
Although interest rates may have bottomed in 2016, it does not appear that there will be a V-shaped recovery. We think interest rates, inflation, Domestic and Global GDP will all remain quite low for 2017.

2) Full Valuations
US Equities are no longer cheap. Years of central banks holding interest rates near zero (or actually negative in some countries this year) has forced investors into risk assets. This has driven up PE multiples. And while I would not call this a bubble, you can’t say that the US market is cheap today. That means that equity growth going forward is likely to be tepid.

Low bond yields pushed investors into dividend stocks, specifically to consumer staples and utilities, which are perhaps the most “bond-like”. These categories seem to be especially bloated and could underperform.

Turning to bonds, the yield on the 10-Year Treasury has increased from 1.6% to 2% in the past three months. Time will tell, but could this summer have been the peak of the 30-year bull market in bonds? I don’t know, but when yields are this low, prices on long-term bonds can move dramatically. We invest in bonds for income and stability and to balance out the equity risk in our portfolios. We’re not interested in using bonds to speculate on the direction of interest rates.

While there may not be an equity level of risk in bonds, it is safe to say that the price of bonds globally is higher in 2016 than it has ever been before. Bonds are much less attractive than five years ago, although we find some pockets that interest us and may at least give us a chance of exceeding inflation and earning a positive real return on our money.

3) Leadership Rotation
I believe we are going to see a very gradual shift in three areas:

A) From Growth to Value. Since 2009, growth stocks have dominated value stocks. This tends to be cyclical, but over the long-term, value has outperformed. We see a widening valuation gap between popular growth stocks, some of which are trading at PEs of 100 or higher, and out of favor value companies. Value is showing signs of life in 2016, and we think that there will be mean reversion at some point that favors value.

B) From Domestic to Emerging. Over the past 5 years, US stocks have reigned. Boosted by a strong dollar and a global flight to quality, US stocks have outperformed others and become more expensive than international stocks. Emerging markets have languished and are now trading at a big discount to developed markets. But emerging economies have higher growth rates and overall, have less debt and more favorable demographics than developed markets. While volatility will be higher, Emerging markets could greatly outperform if you are looking out 10 or 20 years from now.

C) From Bonds to Commodities. In 2016 we have already seen a rebound in oil, gold, and other commodity prices. After years of commodity prices falling, have we put in a bottom? We don’t have commodities in our models currently, but when inflation and interest rates start to pick up, I expect to see commodities gain and bonds suffer. That’s why the bull market in bonds may well end at the same time as the bear market in commodities. 2017 may be a good year to start diversifying for long-term investors.

4) High Risk, Low Return
With full valuations in equities and very low interest rates in bonds, expected returns for a Balanced or Moderate allocation are likely to be noticeably lower than historical returns. While volatility has been actually very mild for the past several years, investors should not be lulled into thinking that their portfolios will continue to grind higher without the possibility of a 10% or 20% correction.

Unfortunately, in today’s global economy, it seems less likely that a traditional diversification, for example, adding small cap and international stocks, will provide any sort of defense in the next bear market. We are expanding our investment universe to look for alternative strategies which can offer a true low correlation to equities. When the market is booming or even just recovering (like 2009), equities are often the top performers. But in a high risk, low return environment, we want some positions that offer the potential for positive returns with lower, different, or uncorrelated risks. If you want to explore these in greater detail, see our new Defensive Managers Select portfolio model.

These four investment themes are important considerations for how we position for 2017. You can get investments anywhere and they are becoming a low-cost commodity. However, what you cannot get anywhere is insight, personal service, and a custom-tailored individual financial plan. Investments are interesting, but we view them as a means to an end. Investments should accomplish your financial goals with the absolute least amount of risk necessary. The more interesting angle is how we can use investments to fulfill your plan just for you.