The S&P 500 Index returned +2.5% during the second quarter of 2016. There was wide performance dispersion across sectors, with the best-performing sector (energy) outperforming the worst-performing sector (technology) by more than 14 percentage points. Despite the partial rebound in energy this quarter, over the last 12 months we have observed a massive flight away from cyclical market segments in favor of non-cyclicals. Pundits have described this trend as “risk off”, “flight to safety”, “low volatility”, “bond proxy” etc., but the reality is that non-cyclical businesses now appear to trade at an unusually high premium to cyclical businesses. Macroeconomic shocks like Brexit have only exacerbated the divergence. True to Benjamin Graham, we view stocks trading at discounts to intrinsic value as having a margin of safety. Ironically, it has become difficult to identify a margin of safety in businesses currently perceived as “safe” because their valuations have become stretched. Accordingly, our modest overweight allocation to cyclicals reflects the risk-adjusted valuation opportunities available and not a macroeconomic outlook. The most attractive individual opportunities reside within financials and energy, though we remain slightly underweight both sectors relative to the Russell 1000 Value as only select segments within the sectors offer compelling risk adjusted valuations—albeit highly compelling. Relative to the Russell 1000 Value Index the portfolio is overweight consumer discretionary and technology, underweight consumer staples, and relatively equal-weight other sectors. We do not know when value dislocations will revert, nor are we certain that these dislocations will not widen further before reverting. We have learned from past experience, however, that these cycles inevitably do normalize and we believe that our portfolio is well-positioned to benefit.
Interest rates declined during the quarter, largely influenced by investors’ flight to US Treasuries in the aftermath of Brexit. The low rate environment has been a stubbornly persistent macroeconomic headwind for most financials, with banks disproportionately affected because their net interest margins are pressured. From a bottom-up fundamental perspective, however, the strengthening posture of US banks has been quite encouraging. Profitability has been solid and capital ratios are at/near all-time highs. All companies subjected to the Fed’s stress test have passed, which improves the potential for increased returns of capital to shareholders. Buying back shares at/below book value can be highly accretive and this group’s payout yield (dividends + share repurchases) currently stands at 8%1. Financials represent the portfolio’s largest sector, though the weight is about equal to that of the Russell 1000 Value—we are overweight banks and underweight REITs. Continue Reading »