Investors facing growing uncertainty in the sixth year of a bull market finally saw the long anticipated correction in the third quarter, with a ten-plus percentage point drop unfolding in one tumultuous week in late August. Though the market recovered in Q4, the last day of trading for the year pushed both the Dow and S&P 500 into slightly negative territory before dividends, the first down market since 2008. (The indices’ total returns for Q4 were positive, including dividends).
In 2015, oil prices fell to their lowest level in more than a decade, the dollar continued to strengthen against other currencies, Europe remained weak and economic growth in China slowed. These factors resulted in persistent underperformance in the Industrial,
Energy and Materials sectors. The collapse in oil prices led to a sell off in high yield energy debt, putting fixed income markets on edge. Even in the face of this pressure, the U.S. economy continued its steady improvement with Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth inching above two percent. Nominal unemployment fell to near pre-recession levels, buoying consumer confidence and spending which drove solid performance in the Consumer Discretionary and Consumer Staples sectors as well as the Information Technology and Telecom sectors. We exited 2015 with signs of a modest recovery in Europe, unprecedented negative interest rates in several industrialized countries and continuing concerns about the impact of slowing growth in China on the global economy. Late in the year, the U.S. Federal Reserve (Fed) increased rates for the first time in a decade, reversing a six year run of near zero interest rates.
The New Year has started off badly for the stock market. While the Fed communicated the likelihood of a series of rate increases in 2016, that doesn’t seem quite as likely now given concerns over global economic conditions. The U.S. markets have reflected this uncertainty early this year.
The dividend yield is back above the yield on 10 year treasuries, favoring income stocks as an attractive asset class. Small cap stocks are trading in line with large caps on an earnings basis, essentially erasing the historical premium that faster growing small caps typically have enjoyed. This positions them to potentially perform well relative to large caps as they regain that premium. In another historical perspective, Industrials start working when things look most grim for the sector and well ahead of any evidence of improvement. We don’t pretend to know when that turn will happen but, in our pinion, investors get paid for being patient.
2015 was a year of two markets engaged in a tug-of-war, where consumer-facing companies did well while energy, commodities and export-oriented manufacturing companies struggled. The big question for U.S. investors in 2016 is: Who wins this tug-of-war? Will the pressure felt by the industrial sectors overwhelm the economy and push us into a slowdown or will strong job growth, low interest rates and persistently low oil prices buoy consumer confidence and spending, extending the current cycle? We remain positive, viewing the latter as more likely, with potential upside if some of the current headwinds begin to abate.
Balanced Fund Performance Review
The Balanced Fund gained 3.25% in the quarter and declined 2.54% for the year compared with its benchmark Composite Index (60% S&P 500 Total Return (TR) Index and 40% Barclays Government/Credit Bond Index), which gained 3.94% and 1.13% for the three month and full year respectively.
Performance data quoted represents past performance and does not guarantee future results.
Major positive factors on equity performance for the year included an overweight position in the Health Care sector and performance of certain stocks in the Consumer Staples sector.
Negative factors included an underweight position and under performance of certain stocks in the Information Technology sector as well as overweight positions in the Energy and Industrials sectors which detracted from performance.
Top performers for both the fourth quarter and full year included Hormel (HRL, Financial), up 24.91% and 51.79%, General Electric (GE, Financial), up 23.51% and 23.27% and Home Depot (HD, Financial) up 14.51% and 25.99%, respectively. United Parcel Service (UPS, Financial) was among the bottom performers in both periods, declining 2.49% and 13.44%, respectively.
Home Depot is one of our portfolio companies that illustrates the importance of a company’s management focus and strategic vision. In an environment buoyed by an improving housing market and rising consumer confidence, Home Depot has gained share from its primary competitor, Lowes, while also benefitting from the ongoing struggles at Sears. In addition, it has benefited from continued industry consolidation as smaller regional players have retrenched or folded following the housing market crash in 2008 – 09. Management has not simply taken these share gains and sat back. The company has invested in building what it describes as an interconnected retail operation between suppliers, stores and customers which will link the customers’ in-store and on-line shopping experiences. Operational improvements, including a “lights out” warehousing and distribution capability and enhancements to its in-store customer experience, are designed to drive cost efficiencies while tightening customer relationships.
While Home Depot (HD, Financial) is an example of a stock we expect to hold for the long-term, over the past year we have eliminated nine smaller positions where we did not see similar evidence of a stable or improving durable competitive advantage. It is fair to say we are concentrating the portfolio in stocks where we have greater confidence over the long-term.
On the fixed income side of the Fund, the big news was the Fed’s action late in the year, finally raising short-term interest rates for the first time in a decade. While we did get a 25 basis point (0.25%) hike in rates, we remain skeptical that the central bank will repeat that action more than once or twice in the coming year, as had been suggested earlier by Fed officials. Both investment grade and high yield corporate bonds performed poorly in 2015, posting losses for the year. High yield bonds in particular were under pressure because of that market’s heavy exposure to issuers in the stressed energy sector. The market adjusted, widening spreads as we saw ratings downgrades. We expect this to continue as the ratings agencies have signaled their intentions to remain aggressive.
Ronald L. Kaliebe
Kevin V. Earley
The Fund’s investment objective, risks, charges and expenses must be considered carefully before investing. The summary prospectus or full prospectus contains this and other important information about the Fund, and they may be obtained by calling Shareholder Services at (800) 304-7404 or visiting www.mairsandpower.com. Read the summary prospectus or full prospectus carefully before investing.
The stocks mentioned herein represent the following percentages of the total net assets of the Mairs & Power Balanced Fund as of December 31, 2015: Baxalta Inc. 0.77%, Baxter International Inc. 0.75%, CH Robinson 1.19%, ConocoPhillips 1.21%, Eli Lilly & Co. 0.56%, Emerson Electric Company 1.85%, Exxon Mobil Corp. 2.31%, General Electric 1.93%, Home Depot, Inc. 1.45%, Hormel Foods Corp 1.30%, Lowes Companies, Inc. 0.00%, Medtronic, Inc. 2.93%, Sears Holding Corp. 0.00%, Target Corporation 1.42%, United Parcel Service, Inc. Class B 2.96%.
All holdings in the portfolio are subject to change without notice and may or may not represent current or future portfolio composition. The mention of specific securities is not intended as a recommendation or an offer of a particular security, nor is it intended to be a solicitation for the purchase or sale of any security.