Investors had a whirlwind first quarter. Stocks burst out of the gate in January, then fell hard, with the S&P 500 losing 10 percent of its value in early February and ending the quarter down 1.2 percent. Now, with chatter about a “melt-up” behind us, the market is about flat for the year, and predictions of the demise of the long bull market in stocks are mounting. An April 3 Bloomberg News story summed up the mood: “Fear of missing out has turned into fear of getting caught.”
If the U.S. stock market is sobering up and calming down, investors will need to put additional energy into finding investments that promise a good return for the risk. Money taken out of the market to lock in profits will earn a little more sitting in cash now than it did three months ago, but that still won’t top inflation, which is expected to rise.
So where to invest $10,000 in a market being whipsawed by fears over trade wars and the pace of economic growth globally?
We turned to our eighth quarterly panel of investing experts with that challenge. Their suggestions have a distinctly defensive tone this time around. Recommendations range from venturing overseas to find sustainable dividend income to focusing on stock sectors that tend to outperform when inflation picks up, such as materials and energy, to prospecting for cheaper opportunities in emerging markets.
Some of the strategies outlined below are mirrored in mutual funds or investment portfolios that a panel member manages. After each expert shares his or her ideas on where to put $10,000 right now, Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Eric Balchunas offers ways to invest in the themes through exchange-traded funds, and tallies the performance of the ETF picks he made last quarter.
Before turning to the financial markets, invest some time in going over your portfolio and overall finances. With income tax season just past, you are likely more aware of where your finances stand and how you can improve them. Is your emergency fund adequate? Has your mix of stocks, bonds, cash and any other investments strayed from where you want it? Does your will need updating?
Take a quick read of “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Investors” to see how else you can shore up the parts of your financial life that are under your control. It’s about the only no-brainer investment there is.
Chief executive officer and fund manager, Causeway Capital Management
Go for Defensive Value
There’s a lot to be said for investment income, especially delivered via companies that are fully capable of sustaining that income for many years ahead. In sagging stock markets, some portion of an investor’s portfolio needs to produce returns now, not later. With plenty of dividend income, the wait for a market recovery shouldn’t seem quite so painful. Peer inside the global telecommunications sector and you will find many generous dividend payers also boasting financial strength far in excess of overall market averages.
These telecom stocks, unloved for their lack of recent growth and bland forecasts, have lost the interest of bull market investors. Mention Tencent or Alibaba and people will listen intently; refer to China Mobile or SK Telecom for yawns of boredom. Yet telecom behemoths offering mobile and fixed broadband services should grab our attention as ideal ballast for the inevitable bear markets. We need the services they offer—and will need them even more when fifth-generation wireless systems (5G) become commercially available.
The MSCI All Country World Telecommunications Services Index is made up of 81 constituents in developed and emerging-markets countries. By one valuation measure, enterprise value-to-Ebitda, it trades at a discount of more than 40 percent, compared with the aggregate equity market benchmark, the MSCI All Country World Index. (Enterprise value includes debt and cash when calculating company value, rather than just multiplying a company’s shares outstanding by its share price to arrive at market capitalization; Ebitda, a cash flow measure, refers to earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization.) The index also has a dividend yield almost 50 percent higher than the benchmark.
If sustainability of dividend yield makes you sleep better at night, focus on the companies with very low (or zero) net debt, defined as a company’s long-term debt less cash. In capital-intensive industries such as telecommunications, larger company size brings scale economies and cost advantages. Competitive, mature telecom markets typically cannot support more than three players, or returns on capital will decline for all participants. China, Japan and South Korea are three of the most attractive mature telecom markets globally.
Three-player telecom markets, in which competitors typically don’t engage in devastating price wars, often have stable participants generating reliable streams of cash. Companies rewarding shareholders by returning capital, through dividends and share repurchases, are less likely than growth-oriented peers to squander shareholder capital through overpriced acquisitions. Many telecom companies have learned that stability is one of their most attractive characteristics.
Way to play it with ETFs: There is no ETF tracking the MSCI All Country World Telecommunication Services Index, but Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Eric Balchunas says there is something very close: The iShares Global Telecom ETF (IXP) tracks 43 telecom stocks from about a dozen countries. It is notable for its high dividend yield of 3.5 percent, says Balchunas—and for its above-average fee (for a sector ETF) of 0.47 percent.
Performance of last quarter’s ETF plays: Balchunas chose the Vanguard Utilities ETF (VPU)and the Global X Lithium & Battery Tech ETF (LIT)
as ways to play Ketterer’s suggestion that investors consider global utility stocks. In 2018’s first quarter, VPU fell 4.1 percent and LIT tumbled 15.3 percent. LIT fell as analysts turned bearish on lithium, fearing a supply glut, as well as possibly less demand for electric vehicles in 2019.
Portfolio manager, BlackRock Global Allocation Fund
Emerging Markets May Be Cheap
Given that we’re in the 10th year of the bull market, the second-longest on record, investors are not inundated with investment bargains. Most asset classes are somewhere between reasonable and off-the-charts expensive. At the same time, volatility has returned with a vengeance, and an escalating trade dispute has the potential to disrupt what was supposed to be a year of synchronized growth. This combination does not immediately suggest adding to one of the riskier asset classes: emerging-market stocks. That said, given cheap valuations, a still-resilient economy and a stable dollar, emerging markets may represent one of the more interesting opportunities in 2018.
In an environment where valuations have been pushed ever higher by an extended bull market, most emerging-markets countries stand out as cheap. The MSCI Emerging Market Index is trading at approximately 1.6 times its book value, a 27 percent discount to developed-markets indexes. The current discount compares favorably with the 10-year average discount of 15 percent.
A larger discount might be justified, given higher volatility and political uncertainty. The irony is that much of that uncertainty is emanating not from emerging markets but from the United States. And despite the lingering questions over trade, most indicators still suggest a year of solid growth, which has historically been a tailwind for emerging markets’ outperformance.
Finally, there is the U.S. dollar. While investors sometimes exaggerate the role of the dollar in emerging markets, a weaker dollar has generally been supportive of emerging markets assets.
To be clear, there are risks. An economic slowdown or a more abrupt tightening of U.S. monetary conditions, particularly in the context of a stronger dollar, would probably cause emerging market stocks to lag. However, to the extent that the global expansion continues, emerging markets is the rarest of things in a prolonged bull market: a cheap asset class.
Way to play it with ETFs: Balchunas points to a “cheap and deep” way to play EM in the iShares Core MSCI Emerging Markets ETF (IEMG). It serves up nearly 2,000 stocks across several countries, with China the largest weighting at about 24 percent of assets. It charges a 0.14 percent fee and has quietly grown assets to $50 billion since launching a little over five years ago.
Performance of last quarter’s ETF plays: Balchunas’s picks to play Koesterich’s previous recommendation to expand stock holdings internationally, the SPDR Euro Stoxx 50 ETF (FEZ)and the iShares MSCI Australia ETF (EWA)
, fell 1.7 percent and 6.2 percent, respectively, in 2018’s first quarter.
Chief investment strategist, Absolute Strategy Research
Sell the Rallies
Equity clouds may have a silver lining.
Many investors appear to be assuming that the equity volatility of early February and mid-March was largely technical. It was shallow, short-lived and lacked major contagion into other asset classes, prompting an apparent willingness to “buy the dips.”
We, however, view these bouts of market nervousness as part of an incomplete market correction and suggest that investors should “sell the rallies” and focus on more defensive assets and strategies.
Why so cautious? First, we believe that the global economic cycle has begun to slow. Our activity surprise measures, which track the extent to which economic data deviates from forecasts of investment professionals on a daily basis from the previous quarter, are negative for the first time since 2016. We doubt that the U.S. can “decouple” from a global slowdown. U.S. tax cuts may only serve to offset the impact of the higher U.S. bond yields and Fed funds rates seen in the last 18 months. With Chinese growth slowing, euro-zone activity decelerating and global real money growth decelerating rapidly, global “peak growth” is probably behind us, making U.S. and global earnings forecasts liable to disappointment.
Despite these signs of slowing growth, policymakers in the U.S. and other developed economies appear intent on “normalizing” monetary policy. The combination of rate rises and the reduction in the pace of monetary stimulus from the European Central Bank and the Bank of Japan, as well as the reduction in the Fed balance sheet in the U.S., will challenge the upside for global risk assets.
Slower growth and tighter monetary conditions are also a toxic combination for highly indebted companies or economies. That means U.S. high-yield debt will likely struggle, as will the banking sectors and currencies of highly indebted economies such as Canada, Australia and Sweden, which may unsettle markets more generally.
In such an environment, where are the investment opportunities? As economic growth disappoints, expect bonds to beat equities. We favor U.S. Treasuries over other developed-market government bonds. Slowing growth and easing inflation pressure also favor Chinese government debt. Options strategies that bet on a long-term higher level of market volatility or that hedge equity risk will also likely be rewarded.
Finally, many investors typically turn toward gold if global growth slows. However, silver has lagged behind gold by 17 percent in the last year and almost 50 percent in the last five years, suggesting that it may have more upside potential if the economic outlook becomes cloudier.
Way to play it with ETFs: For Chinese government debt, an asset class thought impossible for retail investors to get exposure to just five years ago, Balchunas points to the VanEck Vectors ChinaAMC China Bond ETF (CBON). It tracks fixed-rate, renminbi (“RMB”)-denominated bonds issued in the People’s Republic of China by Chinese credit, governmental and quasi-governmental issuers. While the fee of 0.50 percent is decent for such exotic exposure, Balchunas notes that the ETF is very small, at $4.8 million. Those wanting to buy the ETF should use a limit order to specify the price they are willing to pay.
Performance of last quarter’s ETF plays: The Guggenheim Defensive Equity ETF (DEF) was Balchunas’s pick as a defensive market maneuver. The ETF was virtually flat in the first quarter, down 0.1 percent. Two other picks, the PowerShares DB Agriculture Fund (DBA) and the VanEck Vectors Agribusiness ETF (MOO),
were both positive, if barely—up 0.2 percent and 0.1 percent respectively.
Chief investment strategist, the Leuthold Group
Brace for Inflation
Rising inflation and higher bond yields will likely be common during the balance of this recovery. While the bull market does not appear to be over, neither is its current, corrective phase. Therefore, expect a difficult bond market and a stock market poised for additional volatility—or even a further decline this year—without losing sight of the potential for additional gains during the next few years.
Bond exposure should be at a minimum, and a barbell approach may prove best in the stock portfolio. Own sectors that outperform if inflation worries intensify (the materials, energy and industrial sectors) or if yields keep rising (financials) but also have some defensive stocks (utilities, telecoms and consumer staples) which can buoy the portfolio should the market suffer a further decline.
International stocks offer a better risk-reward profile, compared to the U.S. stock market. They are relatively cheaper, do not face as intense overheat pressures, have younger economic and earnings recoveries, benefit more from a weak U.S. dollar and will likely benefit from more supportive policy officials. A tilt toward small-cap stocks also looks attractive. They tend to outpace during periods of rising inflation and higher yields and are currently under-represented in most portfolios.
Investors may also consider adding a few additional dimensions to their portfolios. Thanks to the Federal Reserve, cash finally has a yield, which should keep rising this year. A small allocation to cash may prove opportunistic should the stock market suffer a further decline. A direct allocation to commodities (via a commodity ETF) could also help diversify your portfolio. Commodity investments should perform well if inflation worries intensify, while both the stock and bond market may suffer declines.
Finally, consider a small allocation to a hedge fund. The best of this bull market is already past and for the rest of its duration, stock market returns are likely to be far lower and probably more volatile. A true hedge fund—one that aims to provide a return across all kinds of market environments—that offers stable, mid-single-digit returns is compelling and should help manage risk.
Way to play it with ETFs: Several hedge fund strategies are now available in ETFs, says Balchunas. Many of them, like real hedge funds,provide uncorrelated streams of returns. The JPMorgan Diversified Alternatives ETF (JPHF)is actively managed like a hedge fund but comes at about half the cost, with a fee of 0.85 percent.
Performance of last quarter’s ETF plays: The Vanguard Total International Stock ETF (VXUS)
lost 0.7 percent in the first three months of 2018, and the SPDR Dow Jones Industrial Average ETF Trust (DIA) slid 2.5 percent. Balchunas’s third suggested ETF, the iShares Short Treasury Bond ETF (SHV), eked out a 0.1 percent gain.
Principal and global head of Vanguard’s Equity Index Group
Make Your Cash Work Harder
If the past few months’ wild market volatility teaches us anything, it’s that diversification is as important as ever. With a $10,000 windfall, now may be the opportune time to re-balance your portfolio to ensure you have the appropriate allocation of stocks, bonds and cash that meet your long-term goals and appetite for risk. If you find that your portfolio is stock-heavy, direct the new cash to bonds to bring your portfolio to its target allocation.
If you’re investing longer-term in your portfolio and are nervous to go all-in, consider parking the money in cash short term and setting up a systematic investing plan ( i.e., using dollar cost averaging on a regular basis). Cash accounts come in many flavors: bank savings accounts, CDs and money market mutual funds, among others. The good news is that yields are increasing on these vehicles.
With interest rates rising—Vanguard expects rates to continue to rise over the next few years—yields should grow more bountiful. Money market funds are worth considering for yield, convenience and flexibility. You may earn the same as, or even more than, most banking products while enjoying a bit more flexibility than you’d have with some products such as CDs. For example, a number of prime money market funds, which invest mostly in short-term corporate debt securities, offer yields of more than 1.5 percent.
Money market funds can be used at any time to fund unexpected costs, such as a health emergency or new car. And unlike CDs, withdrawals from a money market fund won’t result in an early withdrawal penalty. Additionally, depending on the money market fund you select and the tax bracket you’re in, some funds provide the opportunity to seek a competitive, tax-free yield. Finally, if and when you decide to add exposure to stocks or bonds, money market funds at your fund provider typically offer automatic investing programs to enable you to dollar-cost-average into stock and bond funds.
With today’s rising interest rates, keeping your cash in a zero-interest-rate account is the modern equivalent of stashing it under your mattress. If you’re interested in keeping some cash on hand as part of your diversified portfolio, money market funds may be a good option.
Way to play it with ETFs: Balchunas’s suggestions of ETFs to place cash in include the Vanguard Short-Term Treasury ETF (VGSH), which holds Treasuries maturing in one to three years. It has a fee of 0.07 percent and yields 1.24 percent. Other options are the iShares Short Treasury Bond ETF (SHV), which holds Treasury bills maturing from one month to one year, and the SPDR Bloomberg Barclays 1-3 Month T-Bill ETF (BIL), which holds Treasuries maturing from one to three months. Both are very liquid and charge 0.15 percent and 0.14 percent in fees, respectively.
Performance of last quarter’s ETF plays: Balchunas chose iShares Core Conservative Allocation ETF (AOK) and the iShares Core Aggressive Allocation ETF (AOA) as ways to act on Brennan’s advice to rebalance portfolios if they had fallen out of whack. The ETFs fell 1.1 and 0.6 percent, respectively, in 2018’s first quarter.