How Parsec Monitors Investment Securities

Parsec invests in a variety of securities for its clients.  These may include mutual funds, exchange traded funds or ETFs, and individual stocks, among others.  All of these investments can and do experience significant price pullbacks from time to time.  While Parsec’s Investment Policy Committee (IPC) focuses on investments it can hold for the long-term and performs significant research before adding any new positions, price declines still happen.  In this email we’ll discuss how the IPC monitors investment securities and we’ll share with you our process for when a stock or fund doesn’t perform as expected.

Investment security returns are driven by a number of factors.  For individual stocks, earnings growth, competitive environment, and exogenous events can significantly affect price performance.  For mutual funds and ETFs, the general capital market environment as well as portfolio management departures or changes at the parent company can influence both fund flows and price changes.  At Parsec, in addition to reviewing all covered securities at regularly-scheduled meetings, the Investment Policy Committee continually monitors client investments for these types of factors in between our ongoing investment reviews.

We do this by reading sell-side research reports, company government filings, and the news.  Likewise, the financial software we use alerts us to any new developments on our covered securities and helps us manage the large volume of news flow in order to focus on the most important stories of the day.  When a significant event does happen that negatively affects a security, we research the development by listening to a company’s conference call, reading industry reports, and conducting our own due diligence.  We review our thesis on the fund or stock and determine if and how the latest events could affect the security’s long-term prospects going forward.  In order to gauge an investment’s upside potential we adjust our growth assumptions to reflect the new information and evaluate the security’s risk/reward profile in light of its new price level.

Oftentimes when a major story surfaces there is minimal information on which to make a decision.  At the same time, the market has a tendency to overreact to news events.  For these reasons, Parsec’s Investment Policy Committee may intentionally wait before taking action when a stock or fund experiences a significant negative development.  Although it may appear that we are not responding to the event in question, we are in fact working diligently behind the scenes to gather as much data as possible while reviewing our thesis and assumptions.  This can be a frustrating time for clients who would, understandably, prefer us to take immediate action.  However, we have found that taking a wait-and-see approach allows us to collect more information and answer important questions before making an uninformed or premature decision.

Waiting for the dust to settle while collecting additional information also allows us to better understand how a development could affect a stock or fund’s long-term prospects.  If we determine that a company or fund can recover from an adverse event and the security has fallen significantly in price, it’s often an attractive buying opportunity.

However, on other occasions it may be clear that it’s time to sell a position.  This can happen when an investigation surrounding a security is new but affects multiple divisions or aspects of the underlying company’s or fund’s operations.  Another example may include an environmental disaster or a significant product recall that could take years to resolve.  In these instances the best action may involve taking a modest loss now in order to avoid a much larger loss in the months or years to follow.

While our bias towards higher-quality stocks and funds may mean we’re more likely to hold a security or even add to positions following a negative news event, we are closely monitoring client investments and performing in-depth due diligence as new developments arise.  Our intention is to make objective and thoughtful decisions that will benefit clients and their portfolios over the long-term.

Thank you,

The Parsec Team

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Mid-Year Market Update

Now that we’re half-way through 2017, it’s time to take a look at market and economic trends year-to-date. The big picture view is that asset classes across the board have delivered strong returns through June. This is despite interest rate hikes by the Federal Reserve’s Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC). In fact, Treasury yields have actually fallen in the face of two interest rate increases this year, pushing bond prices higher. International stocks and bonds have also risen in 2017, boosted by stabilizing global growth rates, depressed yields world-wide, and improving corporate earnings.

Looking a little more closely at the U.S., stocks continued their upward trajectory early in the year following the post-Presidential election results in November. While the new administration has not made much traction in passing new legislation, relatively healthy economic data – including good jobs growth, higher wages, and a strong housing market – have supported stocks. At the time of this writing (June 15, 2017), the S&P 500 Index is up 8.5% on a price-basis and up 9.7% on a total return basis (which includes dividends).

Technology stocks have led U.S. equity markets this year. Within the S&P 500 Index, the sector is up over 17% year-to-date given healthy earnings growth expectations for the group. The more tech-heavy NASDAQ Index is up a whopping 14% this year, almost 6% ahead of the S&P 500 Index. However, we’ve started to see some signs of weakness among tech stalwarts recently and are watching the group closely. On the flip side, energy and telecom stocks have lagged the index, with price declines of 13% and 9%, respectively. Of note, energy and telecom stocks were two of the three best-performing sectors in the S&P 500 Index last year, with prices returns of +24% and +18%, respectively. This marked turnaround in performance provides a cautionary tale on the pitfalls of market timing: last year’s leaders may well become this year’s laggards. In general we’ve found that it’s difficult, if not impossible to predict which sectors or industries will outperform in any given year. As a result, we recommend maintaining a diversified portfolio through all market cycles and rebalancing regularly.

Another wide disparity arose among growth and value stocks. Year-to-date, growth stocks (as measured by the Russell 3000 Growth Index) are up almost 14% on a price return basis versus a 3% return for value stocks (as measured by the Russell 3000 Value Index). Much of the outperformance by growth stocks stems from strong returns among technology stocks – many of which are growth-oriented and trade at higher valuation levels.

After years of underperforming U.S. stocks, international equities have outperformed year-to-date. In aggregate, developed stocks from Japan, Europe, and Australia are up 14% on a price return basis through June. While this group has lagged U.S. stocks over the past four consecutive years, improving economies in most of these regions, positive consumer sentiment, and accommodative central banks are starting to turn the tide. Likewise, Emerging Markets stocks are up over 17% on a price return basis so far this year. The marked turnaround comes as corporate earnings growth for many of these countries is starting to improve and global growth is stabilizing.

Other interesting observations for 2017 include record-low stock volatility levels, lower yields despite higher interest rates by the FOMC, and an eventful (if unproductive) six-months in Washington.

Looking forward, we see risks and opportunities. The Federal Reserve is set to reduce its bloated balance sheet later this year which could pose a risk to above-average stock valuation levels. Despite the potential for unintended consequences, we view the move as a vote of confidence in the U.S. economy and as a much needed step towards more normalized monetary policy. While a more restrictive Federal Reserve is a headwind to asset prices, interest rates remain very low (with no signs of rising) and the U.S. economy remains on stable footing. These factors, along with improving U.S. corporate earnings growth, bode well for continued stock gains over the long-term.

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March Update – Trading

Trading is an important, albeit often underappreciated part of investment management.  In this email, we’ll share with you our investment philosophy and how it drives our trading approach.  While Parsec uses both funds and individual securities across client accounts, this blog applies more to those portfolios with individual stock holdings.  In general, we use funds for smaller-sized accounts because of the immediate diversity it provides, at a relatively low cost.  We generally use individual securities for larger client portfolios as these portfolios offer economies of scale that can overcome trading costs.  Over the years, we have fine-tuned our trading approach with an eye towards minimizing costs and maximizing efficiency.

As you’ve heard us say time-and-again, Parsec does not engage in market timing.  Instead of trying to determine when one asset class will underperform and another outperform, we select our securities using a bottom-up fundamental research approach.   Using individual equities as an example, this means that we first screen any new stock ideas for attractive financial characteristics and then perform additional due diligence to determine its total return potential over the next several years.  Once a stock is added to a Parsec portfolio, we monitor the company regularly for changes in its competitive environment, its growth drivers, and valuation levels.  However, we do all of this in light of our long-term thesis on the stock, as opposed to the market’s near-term noise.

Taking a long-term investment approach in which we focus on a security’s total return potential often allows us to buy and hold securities for many years.  This keeps our portfolio turnover – a measure of how frequently assets are bought and sold – low, and in turn keeps our trading costs low.  When we do trade we use block trades whenever possible.  By aggregating all of our trades into one large transaction we can better assure that clients receive the same price when a given security is bought or sold.

In addition, our focus on a security’s long-term potential largely circumvents the need for specialized trade orders.  Typically short-term traders, and not long-term investors, utilize limit orders, stop orders, or other types of non-market orders.  These specialized trades often come with additional costs, including higher transaction fees for retail investors and various opportunity costs.

One such opportunity cost can arise when setting short-term price targets.  For example, using a limit order to purchase a security requires an investor to set a price target.  However, without thoroughly researching a security using fundamental analysis, price targets are often based on “a gut feel” or are knee-jerk reactions to an investor’s past experience with an asset.  In effect, unconscious emotions can drive the trading decision and lead to even higher costs.  These can come in the form of missed opportunities, as when a stock declines but doesn’t quite reach an investor’s price target to buy.  In this case if the stock then continues higher an investor may have missed-out on significant upside potential.

Another opportunity cost is possible when a security pays a dividend, but because an investor was waiting for a slightly lower price before buying, he or she inadvertently forfeited the added income.  In some cases the dividend payout might have amounted to more than the savings associated with buying at a lower price.

While there are many types of trades, and some that do add value, in general we’ve found that specialized trade orders often come with more costs than benefits.  This is why Parsec identifies assets using fundamental research and takes the long-term view on a security’s total return potential.  Doing so inherently reduces security turnover in a portfolio and thus trading costs.  It also avoids incurring hidden opportunity costs and, we believe, increases the likelihood of reaching your longer-term financial goals.

Thank you,

The Parsec Team

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What’s Ahead for Fixed Income?

After more than thirty years of falling interest rates and thus rising bond prices, yields may be moving higher.  While trends are often short-lived, this new trajectory could persist into 2017 and beyond given recent changes in the political landscape as well as a less accommodative Federal Reserve (Fed).  We’ll take a look at what this new monetary and political environment may mean for bonds and how to best-position your fixed income portfolio for the long-term.

A proxy for the bond market, the 10-year Treasury note yield hit an historical low of 1.36% in July 2016 only to jump 100 basis points (or 1%) by the end of November.  The move came as investors responded favorably to the surprise U.S. Presidential and Congressional election results, in anticipation of higher growth levels in the years to come.

Part of the optimism stemmed from the new administration’s promise to cut consumer and corporate taxes and spend on infrastructure projects.  This picture presents a mixed bag for bonds, however.  Increased fiscal spending and lower taxes are positive for economic growth and a healthy economy is generally good for lending and credit activity.  But stronger economic growth would push yields higher and thus bond prices lower.  On the other hand, higher yields would provide investors with higher current income, acting as a partial offset to lower bond prices.  Rising interest rates or yields would also allow investors to reinvest into higher-yielding bonds.

Duration is an important characteristic to consider when reinvesting at higher yields.  A bond’s duration is the length of time it takes an investor to recoup his or her investment.  It also determines how much a bond’s price will fall when yields rise.  Longer duration bonds such as Treasury or corporate bonds with long maturities experience sharper price declines when yields rise.  Likewise, shorter duration bonds are less volatile and will exhibit smaller price declines, all else being equal.  Because we can’t predict the exact direction or speed of interest rate changes, it’s important to have exposure to bonds with a mix of durations.  In this way an investor is able to respond to any given environment.  For example, when yields are rising, an investor can sell her shorter-duration bonds, which are less susceptible to prices changes, and reinvest into longer-duration bonds with higher rates.

Another factor that affects bond prices is inflation.  Inflation expectations have started to heat up in light of low unemployment, wage growth, and expectations for increased government stimulus.  Higher inflation could also put upward pressure on interest rates and thus downward pressure on bond prices.  While inflation can erode the real returns of many bonds, some bonds, such as Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS), stand to benefit.  TIPS are indexed to inflation and backed by the U.S. government.  Whenever inflation rises, the principal amount of TIPS gets adjusted higher.  This in turn leads to a higher interest payment because a TIPS coupon is calculated based on the principal amount.

Finally, the Federal Reserve’s shift away from accommodative monetary policy will have an impact on bond prices.  Although higher interest rates from the Fed will likely pressure fixed income prices, overall we view this change favorably.  This is because a return to more normal interest rate levels is critical to the functioning of large institutions like insurance companies and banks, which play a key role in our society.  Likewise, higher interest rates will provide more income to the millions of Baby Boomers starting to retire and would help stabilize struggling pension plans at many companies.

Taken altogether and in light of an uncertain environment, we believe a diversified bond portfolio targeted to meet your specific fixed income needs is the best way to weather this changing yield environment.  In addition to considering your specific income objectives, our Investment Policy Committee meets regularly to assess the current economic, fiscal, and monetary environment.  We adjust our asset allocation targets in order to take advantage of attractive opportunities or reduce exposure to higher-risk (over-valued) areas.  While we may over-weight some areas or under-weight others, in the long-run we continue to believe that a well-diversified portfolio is the best way to weather any market environment.

Thank you,

The Parsec Team

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Brexit: What is it and what are the investment implications?

There have been many headlines recently about the so-called “Brexit”, or the possibility of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union. There is a referendum on the subject coming up on June 23 in the UK, with current polls showing 47% in favor of staying and 40% in favor of leaving. This is not to be confused with the “Grexit” fears from a few years ago about the possibility of Greece leaving the European Union as well as the Euro currency. The UK is different in that it is a member of the EU, but continues to use the Pound as its currency rather than the Euro. Therefore, the UK maintains its own central bank and monetary policy. The main effect of such an exit has to do with trade agreements within the EU.

Potential negatives of an exit include a possible slowdown in the UK economy, short-term local stock market volatility and\or depreciation in the Pound. The EU represents about 50% of UK exports but only about 10% of imports, so if trade agreements are less favorable as a result of the exit then the UK stands to lose.

There are also positive factors to consider with regard to the UK. According to Goldman Sachs, the economy (as measured by Gross Domestic Product) in the UK is projected to grow faster than that of the US or the other Euro area countries in both 2016 and 2017. The Pound has already fallen 9% against the dollar over the past year, and the UK stock market has underperformed both the S&P 500 and the MSCI EAFE index over the same period. A vote to remain in the EU would remove the current uncertainty, and could be a catalyst for UK stocks to reverse their recent underperformance. If the vote is to leave the EU, many trade agreements will need to be renegotiated. This process will likely take years to complete, while UK stock market volatility should be short-lived.

To quantify our clients’ potential exposure to the UK, in a typical portfolio our target weighting for international stocks is about 26% of the overall allocation to equities. Of this amount, approximately 1/3 is emerging markets and about 2/3 developed markets. The UK is considered a developed market, and makes up about 20% of the MSCI EAFE index, which is the primary benchmark for most actively managed developed international mutual funds. This would imply that roughly 3-4% of our typical stock portfolio has exposure to UK equities through mutual funds, plus any additional exposure through individual stocks we might buy that are headquartered in the UK.

Since the outcome of the Brexit vote is impossible to predict with certainty, portfolio exposure to UK stocks is low and the effect of the vote on stock prices is indeterminate, we are maintaining our current target weights in international stocks.

From a diversification standpoint, investing in international stocks reduces overall portfolio risk since foreign stocks do not move exactly in tandem with US stocks. Sometimes international investing improves portfolio returns and sometimes it does not. In recent years international stocks have underperformed relative to the US, but historically there have also been periods of significant outperformance. While there will be more hype and headlines as the June 23 vote approaches, we remain committed to long-term investing in a globally diversified portfolio.

William S. Hansen, CFA
President
Chief Investment Officer

Bill

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32nd Annual Economic Crystal Ball Seminar

Each year we co-sponsor the Annual Economic Crystal Ball with UNC Asheville.  This is a great opportunity to hear Parsec’s Chief Economist, Dr. James F. Smith, and Nationwide’s VP and Chief Economist, Dr. David W. Berson, discuss the economic and financial outlook through 2017.  To register please email Kimberly Moore at kmoore@unca.edu or call at 828-251-6550.   A copy of the brochure can be found here.

  • Location: Lipinsky Hall Auditorium (Next to Ramsey Library)                                               UNC Asheville Campus
  • Date: Thursday, April 28, 2016
  • Reception: 6:15 p.m.
  • Economic Outlook:  7:00 p.m.
  • Financial Outlook: 7:30 p.m.
  • Q & A: 8:00 p.m.

The Economic Outlook will focus on inflation, employment, interest rates, the strength of the dollar and the housing market. The Financial Outlook will explore the implications of Federal Reserve policy for the financial markets. Various investments will be addressed, with an emphasis on interest rates and the bond market.

About our Speakers

David W. Berson, Ph.D                                                                                                              Dr. Berson is Senior Vice President and Chief Economist at Nationwide Insurance, where his responsibilities involve leading a team of economist that act as internal consultants to the company’s business units.  His numerous professional experiences include Vice President and Chief Economist at Fannie Mae from 1989-2007, past president of the National Association of Business Economists, and senior management position with Wharton Econometrics Forecasting.

James F. Smith, Ph.D.                                                                                                              Dr. Smith is the chief economist at Parsec Financial.  He has more than 30 years of experience as an economic forecaster. Dr. Smith’s career spans private industry, government and academic institutions, and includes tenures with Wharton Econometrics, Union Carbide, the Federal Reserve and the President’s Council of Economic Advisers.

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