Covington Investment Advisors, Inc. Blog

News, Tips, Commentary, etc.

Evergrande & Debt Limit

A few weeks ago we sent out a letter followed by a note conveying that after an exceptionally strong 18 month stretch of performance in markets with little-to-no volatility we would be transitioning into a period where market price action would normalize and volatility would likely rise. However, we still see long term equity market performance remaining strong supported by the fundamental backdrop.

That volatility came to fruition as several cascading news headlines have come down in the last week beginning when Evergrande, a large property developer in China, announced that it would likely not be able to pay its financial obligations. Evergrande is widely reported to have around $300bn of liabilities, own 1300 real estate projects in 280 cities and is associated with 3.8million jobs per year. So it’s reach is wide and because of this the fear was that it would have a bleeding effect throughout markets. Because of China's opaqueness it is really hard for outsiders to gauge what is truly happening inside the country but I can give at least my view on what the fallout from Evergrande will be. I think the Chinese government will allow Evergrande to fail but use the country's trillions in reserves to limit the contagion of Evergrande’s liabilities. This will begin with containing the domestic financial risk in China to make sure the collapse does not become systematic. However, I doubt the Chinese government will be as benevolent with foreign holders of Evergrande debt. This view is supported as Chinese high yield bond indexes spiked but investment grade indexes barely moved on the Evergrande news. This indicates that investors in adjacent Chinese debt products do not expect the contagion to escalate into a widespread credit crisis. Also, the nature of China’s centrally planned economy limits the flow of capital outside the country and Chinese investors in Evergrande expect to be reimbursed...

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Where Do We Go From Here?

Incredible to think about, but the S&P 500 has advanced over 18% year-to-date and roughly 30% over the last 12 months. From the post-pandemic low last March equities have rallied over 100%. I made the graphic above before the recent 2% sell-off, but nevertheless equities have bounced back much faster than any post-recession period in history. What’s more is that this rebound has been absent of virtually any volatility. The S&P 500 has notched over 45 all-time high closings so far in 2021 while going over 10 months without a 5% pullback. 

Recently our President sent out a letter conveying our premonition that markets would be undergoing a “transition period” whereas they would adjust to peak growth rates & liquidity, and also to reinforce why our investment strategy and philosophy is well positioned to move into this new phase (His letter is available here). When stepping back and taking into account the big picture of equity markets performance in the last 18 months we think it would make sense for markets to digest this strong performance and for volatility to increase. But despite this, looking forward earnings are projected to be strong and while perhaps tightening, liquidity will still be abundant and characteristic of past early tapering periods (see our note on this here)...

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Market Update

In anticipation of heightened volatility, I wanted to touch base with you as I see the current economy and markets at an inflection point. Year to date global equities have continued their strong momentum from last year with many indices posting double digit gains so far in 2021. The S&P 500, the market index comprising of the largest US companies, has notched over 40 closing all-time highs in 2021 with one of the strongest recoveries coming out of a recession on record.

If you recall, early in this market rally from the March 2020 lows the central narrative surrounding the economy was that markets were disconnected from fundamentals and thus ripe for a “double-dip” sell-off. This did not end up being the case as economic data on almost every front has come in stronger than expected and 2021 corporate earnings are projected to come in 21% higher than 2019 levels. In fact, economic data has come in so strong that now inflation and overheating are a central risk to markets. And while the virus is still moving throughout the world, the vaccine rollout continues to progress, and the world is reacclimating to daily life.

Volatility has also been relatively tempered as the S&P 500 has gone over 200 days without at least a 5% drawdown from its peak. This market action has historically been an exception, not the rule...

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Taxing Times

 

Earlier this year stories started to break that the Biden Administration was planning to raise the capital gains tax rate on wealthy Americans to 39.6% and recently whispers are floating around that the new rate could be even higher. Rumors of rising taxes usually invokes an anxious response by markets especially after a strong run like we have had. But the effect to the overall market from the capital gains hike may not be as significant as people think as it will only affect a minority portion of today’s equity accounts. In 1965 80% of US corporate equity was owned in taxable accounts. Today only roughly 30% is owned in taxable vehicles with much of the US holdings shifting to tax deferred accounts which are not affected by capital gains taxes. Foreign investment has also eaten up a large share of domestic equity holdings as the US runs ever growing trade deficits...

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Government Spending & Mid-Year Economic Review

Inflation continues to be the hot topic in financial markets and is shaping up to be a defining macro story of the next decade. One aspect of the inflation debate which we did not touch on in our Inflation Fixation note is what about the monetary and fiscal stimulus? US Government spending in response to fighting Covid was the highest since World War 2 at over 30% of GDP with more spending in the pipeline. The spending is high in a vacuum but it is also coordinated throughout the World by both Central Banks and Governments. What’s more is we have a new Presidential regime which has made spending a pillar of its social policy signaling that austerity is probably not in the cards.

Could this combination of a hesitant Fed, aggressive stimulus injection, and ambitious future spending goals signal that the Fed will be behind the ball on curbing inflation? Or will the structure of the economy and a calibration of supply chains revert the World to the muted inflation regime of the last decade?..

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What Happens When the Punch Bowl is Taken Away?

 

Maybe some would say a good problem to have when considering where things were a year ago, but a primary risk to markets now is that the economy is overheating. We have made note of the inflation readings that have jumped meaningfully over the past several months, but why could this signal a risk for markets? Because it raises the possibility of Central Banks pulling back some of the stimulus which has helped support markets since last March. In response to the inflation jump Fed officials have been adamant about portraying the price spikes as transitory. But at the same time have begun to discuss the possible tapering of asset purchases leading many investors to bring forward their expectations for the first rate hike. In our view this will be the key source of volatility for markets in the second half of the year, particularly in August during the Feds annual Jackson Hole meeting where Chairman Powell is likely to signal a tapering of the Feds bond buying program...

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Inflation Fixation

If you have tried to buy something like a car or washing machine lately you probably know firsthand about the challenges of lean inventories & price pressures and are not surprised by the surge in inflation readings that have filled media headlines. Inflation is not only salient because it affects businesses/consumers but also because of its effect on interest rates, and therefore asset prices. But inflation is also an economic phenomenon in the sense that it is maybe the most discussed financial topic but also the least understood by forecasters when applied to real world developed economies. In our January 2021 Economic Outlook we highlighted runaway inflation as a key risk for the economy in the New Year, but also why the long-term picture is not as clear.

The view by the Federal Reserve and one which we largely share is that inflation will be transitory driven by supply chain bottlenecks …  but transitory can feel like a long time. When you essentially turn off & turn back on the World economy it will take some time to find balances. Just like the economic data stunned us during the lockdown, the same is happening now with reopening. Very aggressive fiscal and monetary policy has led to a burst in reopening and many parts of the supply-side of the economy are simply trying to keep up. The hope is that shortages will start to ease as supply catches up to demand, but this won't happen overnight. We think we are at least several quarters away from the economy feeling more balanced. If we had to step out and make a forecast on inflation it would be one of phases: 1.) temporary burst in inflation as shortages from shutdowns drive up goods prices and reopening supports services pricing 2.) softening of inflation as economic growth rate peaks in second half of year and supply chains relieve themselves of bottlenecks 3.) labor market pressures push core inflation modestly higher at a faster pace than pre-covid due to wage inflation...

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Market Commentary

The economic momentum continued its recovery from the pandemic induced lockdowns in the 1st quarter 2021 with real GDP expanding at an annual rate of 6.4% in the first quarter of 2021. Massive spending measures by the government, unprecedented Fed policy measures, overall strong employment recovery and greater vaccination rates drove strong economic activity, delivering strong S&P 500 operating earnings largely above expectations up 34.1% year over year trending at $187.43 from $139.00 at year end. Inflation reached 2.6% in the first quarter due to reopening demand along with material and product shortages. Consumer spending expanded 10.7% at an annual rate in the first quarter supported by strong household income as federal stimulus checks continue.

The rotation into cyclical – value stocks which started last September continued in the first quarter which helped thrust the S&P 500 to new highs despite consolidation in the mega caps. Equity markets are priced to perfection, however, on the assumption rates will remain low for a long time. I think you could see a serious correction in asset prices if the Fed must tighten monetary policy to combat inflation. The Fed has warned asset valuations are high and vulnerable noting the economy is a long way from their goals. While high priced stocks could eventually earn the profit necessary to justify today’s valuations under a completely opened economy, what happens when the fiscal stimulus is turned off? And how will the markets react to the beginning of the Fed tapering? Additionally, while the virus remains the greatest threat to the economy, what Black Swan events are unforeseen due to the excessive liquidity in the economic system and how will current inflation pressures play out in the economy?

The pandemic lockdown induced recession appears to have ended May 2020 looking at the Leading Economic Index and the ISM Purchasing Managers Indexes. Now we are at the beginning stages of a new cyclical bull market exhibited by an acceleration after the economy troughs. In this phase of the business cycle, the Fed keeps rates low while credit conditions trough allowing stocks to advance sharply until interest rates rise. U.S. stock sectors that perform well in the early cycle are typically materials, financials, industrials, information technology and consumer discretionary stocks.While economic growth looks good short term and earnings have rebounded strongly recently what happens when growth moderates after a fully opened economy returns to trend line growth? Asset prices will have to correct under a reversion of the means representing historical multiples...

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For Stocks, Time Really is Money

One principle of investing that we constantly reiterate because we believe it is so foundational is the concept of keeping a long term mindset in the capital markets. This is especially difficult in today's world that is rife with instant transmission of information and fast money strategies revolving around SPACs, Crypto, and reddit “meme” stocks. In fact it almost feels inhuman to be indifferent to the constant hurling of strong opinions easily transmitted through social media and instead see the big picture. But history has proven time and time again that the most effective strategy to growing wealth is to purchase shares of strong businesses at reasonable prices and then simply let time and compound interest do its work. Most American fortunes were earned via ownership of strong businesses for many years. 

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Covington Advisors' Cindy Jones Becomes CFA Charterholder

Covington Investment Advisors, Inc. is pleased to announce that Cindy Jones has earned the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) designation.  This designation requires successfully completing a series of three exams covering a wide range of topics related to financial analysis.  In addition to passing the exams, other requirements include having relevant work experience, submitting professional references, and adhering to the Code of Ethics and Standards of Professional Conduct of the CFA Institute.  Additionally, she holds the Series 65: Uniform Investment Advisor Law license.

Cindy joined Covington in 2012 as Assistant Portfolio Manager and currently holds the positions of Portfolio Manager and Chief Compliance Officer.  She earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Applied Mathematics with additional studies in Computer Science and Statistics from the University of Pittsburgh. ..

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Preparing for 2021

Although we try each year to forecast and plan for what the market will hold for us, 2020 again proved that a new year almost always brings surprises in one form or another. Being prepared with a plan as we have for you, and sticking to proven investment principles including creating diversified portfolios has proven once again the keys to achieving long-term financial goals. Please find attached our Economic Outlook for January 2021. 

2021-Economic-Outlook.pdf..

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The Armageddonists

Market drawdowns and Bear Markets are a reality when it comes to investing in the equity markets. Part of the reason equity holders receive a higher long-term return over ‘safer’ investments such as bonds is that they take on additional risk and the likelihood that their investment will be negative over stretches of time. Of course no investor wants to experience their investment losing money but this year illustrates perfectly why sticking to a plan and staying invested while owning proven enterprises with strong balance sheets is the prudent approach. This fact of investing is nothing new but the rise of social media and the competitiveness for media headlines since 2010 have given way to a flood of negative market calls which naturally appeals to human negativity bias and our survivorship instincts. This appeal strategy has worked in part because the flood of calls followed two of the deepest bear markets since the great depression: The Tech Bubble & Global Financial Crisis.

Of course, just as there is inherent risk with being invested in the equity markets, there is also risk in not being invested.This is through the opportunity cost of trying to time the markets by jumping in and out of investments or dramatically drifting away from asset allocations due to “Armageddonist” media headlines. For example, $1 shifted from equities to bonds in 2014 in response to mega-bearish commentary would have underperformed equities by roughly 40% as the S&P 500, propelled more by earnings growth than by multiple expansion, rolled on...

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Promising Vaccine Data

Early last week Pfizer announced data on the clinical trial of their COVID-19 Vaccine candidate which was followed up this week by results from Moderna. It’s easy to see why there is so much excitement over the news as the reported 90 and 94.5 percent effectiveness would put the vaccine on par with the Chickenpox, Mumps, Polio, and Whooping Cough vaccine, and much further ahead than our typical flu vaccine. The logistics of distributing the vaccine will be difficult and likely take months but progress in the development aspect is hopeful.

The news comes at the same time that daily cases and hospitalizations are reaching all-time highs. We now have more clarity on what the end destination looks like (vaccine rollout and distribution in second half of 2021) but perhaps less clarity on the path as the spike in cases will weigh on consumer spending in the near-term. At the same time, with news of a vaccine we are likely to see economic growth accelerate going to into 2021. In short, this may end up being a W-shaped recovery. ..

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What to Take Away from Election Night

 

Although a presidential winner may not be determined until potentially the end of the week, one takeaway from election night is that the Republicans will likely keep control of the senate, meaning congress will be divided. This could be partially responsible for the large rally in equities following last night’s initial election results. Historically, equity markets have performed well in this environment with stocks being higher in the last ten years with a split congress. Although this election is far from over with a recount/legal challenge likely, a split congress actually adds some clarity as any significant legislative bill for either party will be difficult to pass. This includes a repeal of the 2017 Tax Cuts & Jobs Act which we wrote about in June and can be found here. ..

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Who's Winning the War on Cash?

Is cash still king? In the world of global payments, not so much anymore. Cash usage is at an all-time low giving way to the transformation to card/digital. According to the latest Nilson report, cash made up less than 20% of US payment volume in 2019 (by total reportable $ value), and is forecasted to fall to less than 15% by 2023. The demise of cash is one of the trends that has been in place for decades but has been accelerated by circumstances arising from COVID-19. The ability for card payments to now be administered in a contactless manner via ‘tap-to-pay’ has been a useful tool for consumers that want to avoid contact at the checkout aisle. Pair this with most consumer spending shifting to Ecommerce channels during quarantine and the demise of cash has been expedited.

The scale of the large pure-play payment networks, Visa and Mastercard, is staggering. Visa alone processes over 160 billion transactions per year totaling trillions of dollars in network spend. It may seem trivial to us as consumers to just swipe at checkout or place an online order using our debit/credit card but the logistics of what goes on behind the scenes is astonishing. The ability to instantly connect millions of cardholders to thousands of banks and merchants in 200+ countries is almost an impossible network to replicate. This decreased payment friction has also allowed cards to be used for smaller purchases that were once dominated by cash. Consumers in the past were hesitant to use their credit/debit cards on small ticket purchases but with the increased convenience of today's payment mediums that is no longer the case. ..

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Market Rotation

A historical blend of events in 2020 including the COVID-19 pandemic, shift to a work-from-home economy, and record low interest rates, created the perfect storm for large-cap US tech to structurally outperform the broader market. This outperformance has reversed in recent days with the S&P 500 falling 2.27% and the tech-heavy NASDAQ falling 3.25% last week. This sell-off might have been unavoidable given how stretched some of the valuations for the headline growth names have become relative to their historical ranges and profits began to be taken. It is difficult to see how operationally these tech companies will not continue to benefit as they have for so long, but in the near term a “catch up” rotation could be taking place in the market as the reopening of the economy accelerates, and those industries that have been decimated revert to the mean. In our previous blog post "Air Traffic Data Update" we highlighted how some industries were not seeing a stable recovery and that polarization still remains true today. However, recent economic data has come in better than expected boding well for those depressed industries to at least slightly ‘bounce’.

Timing a switch away from an area of the economy that has performed so well to those weakened alternatives is difficult. Still, an eventual mean reversion among valuations across the market is inevitable. Central Banks around the Globe have purchased over $1 Billion of financial assets every hour since the government lockdowns in March. This massive stimulus has coincided with a $1.5 billion increase in the Nasdaq 100’s market cap every hour. As long as this primary support pillar remains intact, owners of financial assets will continue to be the primary beneficiaries of monetary stimulus. ..

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Small Business Optimism Shows Quick Recovery

Although our investment holdings at Covington consist mainly of large multinational corporations, small businesses make up the backbone of the US economy. The most effective policies for defeating the virus are also the worst for small businesses (absent a vaccine). The mandatory shutdowns created a record number of “temporarily unemployed”  workers who were laid off but expected to return to work quickly. To help small businesses deal with this the government developed the PPP program to maintain their employment levels. This program was certainly not without its flaws, but all things considered, helped cushion the blow at least partially. The $600 additional unemployment benefits was also established. This did help buoy consumer spending but not in a proportional way to benefit small businesses as in lockdown most spending had to go through online shops. The $600/week supplement also created the problem of trying to rehire workers quickly as some low wage workers were now making more from unemployment benefits than they were while working.  

The good news is that these conditions are starting to dissipate as the economy slowly reopens. The NIFB recently released their June print for the Small Business Optimism showing a quick snap back from its plunge in March and April. This is encouraging but small businesses will continue to be dictated by the course of the virus and responses by our government.

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Covington Welcomes MaKenzie Maust as Operations Associate

Covington Investment Advisors, Inc. is pleased to announce that MaKenzie Maust has joined its full-time staff effective July 1, 2020.  MaKenzie will be the Operations Associate responsible for Office Management including accounts payable and accounts receivable and will also train and assist with Compliance and Client Services.  She is a 2020 graduate of Indiana University of Pennsylvania with a Bachelor of Science degree in Accounting.

We feel MaKenzie will be a great asset to our company.

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How Much Case Growth is Due to Increased Testing?

Cases continue to rise with the US registering its new daily record of over 70,000 cases on Friday. Deaths have also increased, but not with the same magnitude as case growth. The disconnect in deaths and cases is partially attributed to the continued ramp in daily testing. The US is now testing over 700,000 citizens a day. One of the attached charts shows the positivity rate (daily new positive tests divided by daily total tests) overlapping daily cases to show the relationship. The positivity rate gives a clearer picture of what the true infection growth is.  

Lawmakers look at this positivity rate in their respective states/counties as one of the key metrics to decide whether to relax, or tighten social distancing measures. If the infection rate is not tamed, it could mean that those industries most affected by shutdowns (Leisure and hospitality) will not be able to open. 

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Economic Fallout in Europe

The European Commission recently released their ‘Summer Forecast’ for the EU/Euro Area economy where they downgraded their own projection from earlier in the year. The original -7.4% GDP contraction expected for the EU economy has been reassessed to -8.3%. Even despite the swift and comprehensive policy response from the European Central Bank and EU governments, the lack of resilient technology giants like the US possesses, along with less diversified economies has hurt the European bloc proportionally worse. Also, social distancing measures were stricter in most EU countries meaning better virus control but worse economic damage to this point. Italy has shouldered the brunt of damage with GDP projected to fall 11.2% in 2020, while Sweden and Denmark are so far the least scathed projecting a < 5.50% decline.

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Covington Investment Advisors, Inc.
301 E. Main Street
Ligonier, PA 15658
Phone: 724-238-0151
Fax: 724-238-0148
Email: covington@covingtoninvestment.com

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