Ever since I was a child, the Kentucky Derby has always been for me a symbol of the changing of seasons—winter is over, spring is in air, and, most importantly, summer is right around the corner. Back in 2009, at the time of the annual “Run for the Roses,” I wrote a memo to our clients using this analogy to explain where we are in the business cycle. The ravages of winter were over, I wrote, and we were headed for the warmth of summer with bright prospects for investors. Six years later, the summer sun continues to shine on credit and equities, but the question I am consistently asked—especially during times of heightened volatility, like this past week—is how much longer can it last?
I answered this question recently at the Milken Institute Global Conference. If the economic “summer solstice” was mid-2009, then today we are somewhere in “late-August.” The expansion is now over 70 months old and is entering its mature phase, having already exceeded the average length of prior cycles of 57 months. However, “late-August” means there still is time left in summer and room left in this expansion. The past three cycles have also been longer than normal, averaging 94 months. Additionally, growth has been abnormally sluggish in this recovery (which, as I’ve written, is a byproduct of macroprudential policy). Slower growth means the current expansion may have more headroom than is typically the case at this point in the cycle.
What can investors expect as summer draws to a close? Our view of the future is that the Federal Reserve will likely begin interest rate “liftoff” in September of this year, and will continue to tighten at a steady pace until it nears the terminal rate (or peak Fed funds rate) in the cycle. This will likely occur toward the end of 2017 or early 2018 in the range of 2.5 to 3 percent. Recent experience suggests that a recession typically occurs about a year after we reach the terminal rate. If this tightening cycle plays out as we suspect, the U.S, economy will face its next recession in late 2018 or early 2019.
While the best of the post-crisis returns are now behind us, the good news is that historically, until central banks remove the proverbial punch bowl of accommodative monetary policy, the party can continue for investors. As a matter of fact, our research shows that both the lead up to, and the first year after, the Federal Reserve begins a tightening cycle have been positive for both credit and equities. Historically, U.S. equities have returned close to 4.5 percent in the 12 months after a Fed tightening cycle begins, based on an average of the last 13 cycles, while bank loans returned an average 5.8 percent, high-yield bonds returned 3.9 percent, and investment-grade bonds returned 3.3 percent in the three cycles since 1994 (when the data for fixed-income asset classes became available). The 12 months prior to a Fed hike have proven even better for investors, with equities returning an average 16.4 percent, high-yield bonds returning 8 percent, and investment-grade bonds returning 9.9 percent.
I don’t want to sound overly bullish, however. My view is that it is prudent to start to recognize what stage of summer we are in, and to understand that long-term investors need to start planning for winter, even if winter is a couple of years away. This doesn’t mean there aren’t opportunities between here and there—the punch bowl is out, the party is still going on, and we should drink long and deep for as long as we can. The European Central Bank has told us that it won’t halt its quantitative easing program until September 2016 at the earliest, which is another positive for credit and equities, even as the Fed raises rates in the United States.
So let’s enjoy the end of this long summer party. There are still some golden, halcyon summer days ahead and it would be premature to put on our winter clothes just yet. Indeed, on the extreme end, the expansionary cycle of the early 1990s lasted over 118 months. However, when all is said and done, the easy money in this expansion has already been made and investors should be thinking about the winter to come.
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