Navigating Market Turbulence with Sustainable Investing

A sharp reversal

Not long ago, at the end of September, US equities appeared on track for another year of double digit returns, as the S&P 500 Index returned 7.71% for the third quarter, its strongest quarter in five years. However, the fourth quarter provided a sharp reversal, with equities off significantly, and the S&P 500 Index nearly entered bear market territory with an intra-day low on December 26 that was slightly less than 20% below its September 20 high.

The exuberance at the end of the third quarter of 2018 seemed to lose cognizance of the fact that, in contrast to 2017, equity markets did not go straight up in 2018. Strong returns in the second and third quarters masked volatility that had stealthily crept back into the market.

The CBOE Volatility Index (VIX), a commonly referred to measure of perceived investor risk, hit its lowest level in more than 25 years during the fourth quarter of 2017 then spiked in early February 2018 and remained elevated through March 2018, before dissipating. While seemingly a distant memory, the equity market sell off in February, March and the latter part of June now appears to have been the harbinger of a renewed focus on risk that came into full focus with vengeance in the fourth quarter.

Figure 1: CBOE Volatility Index (VIX) – Trailing 1 Year Total Return period ending 12/31/18:

Source: Factset.
Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Analyzing fourth quarter returns

Equity markets sold off significantly in the fourth quarter, with the S&P 500 Index down -13.52% as investors reacted to concerns about the onset of the next recession, rising interest rates, disruptions from trade/tariffs, growing geo-political concerns and the prospect of slowing earnings growth in 2019. These risks have been apparent for the last few months, but really took hold in the fourth quarter.

Looking below the surface, the renewed aversion to risk is most apparent when considering the extent with which riskier stocks detracted from the S&P 500 Index return. Beta was the worst performing factor, and when combined with Residual Volatility (a measure of stock specific volatility), risk factors explained just over half of the Index’s negative return in the fourth quarter.

In this environment, riskier assets across the US markets underperformed. Small cap stocks trailed large cap stocks with the Russell 2000 Index falling -20.2%. High yield bonds as represented by ICE BofAML US Cash Pay High Yield Index were down -4.64%, underperforming investment grade bonds as the Bloomberg Barclays US Aggregate provided a positive return of 1.64%. High yield spreads widened significantly from 333 basis points (bps) to 539 bps, their widest level since the summer of 2016.

Non-US developed market stocks also were off significantly, with the MSCI EAFE Index down -12.54%, but in a reversal of recent results, they modestly outperformed US equities primarily due to a stronger December.

While investors fleeing riskier stocks is the headline, the outperformance of value stocks over growth stocks in the fourth quarter is also significant — the Russell 1000 Value Index outperformed the Russell 1000 Growth Index by 4.16%. While only one quarter, we see this as an indication that investors have a renewed cognizance that valuation matters, in contrast to the momentum-driven, risk-off markets of the past two years. Thus, many growth stocks that had become overpriced relative to their earnings prospects were prime contributors to the market downturn.

Investing during volatile markets

The silver lining amid the fourth quarter volatility is the potential for a better environment in which disciplined focus on risk and valuation are rewarded.

Successful investing boils down to thoroughly understanding risk, opportunity and assessing the price you are willing to pay for the risks and opportunities embedded in an investment. During so called “risk-off” periods when asset prices ascend unimpeded, there is muted volatility and little focus on risk and valuation. Conversely, heightened volatility is reflective of a sharp increase in investor concern that drives fluctuating asset prices. In this environment, patient investors can be rewarded if they properly assess risk and identify opportunities that have sold off beyond their longer-term intrinsic valuation.

Managing through volatility with a sustainable investing focus in equity portfolios

From a risk standpoint, we believe that higher quality companies, with sustainable business models, strong balance sheets and consistent earnings will be in a better position to weather an uncertain, volatile market environment. We also believe that to comprehensively assess a company’s risk, we need to have a thorough understanding of its ESG risks.

ESG risks have an indeterminate time horizon and may materialize anytime. A company with a poor and worsening safety record may fly under the radar for years until that one headline event shatters investor confidence, and its market value. In 2018, according to a report, extreme weather events linked to climate change caused ten events that cost more than $1 billion each, with four costing more than $7 billion each.

We believe that identifying which companies are better prepared to manage these ESG risks contributes to building a portfolio of stocks that are better positioned for the long term as well as during more uncertain times.

Volatility also presents opportunity. With the sharp sell-off, many companies that previously appeared overvalued relative to their long-term prospects, are now trading at more reasonable prices. One area of focus is Information Technology, where many higher quality companies with leading-edge products and sustainable competitive advantages are now trading at more attractive entry points.

Similarly, more cyclical companies that underperformed in the fourth quarter and are well-positioned to benefit from the transition to a more sustainable economy may now be more attractive. These companies have demonstrated leadership in addressing climate change, enhancing productivity and improving efficient use of scarce resources. These companies may be providing investors better valuations for investment.

For example, the long-term outlook for the internal combustion engine is growing ever less rosy, while projections of the global electric vehicle (EV) market are much more optimistic. In the fourth quarter, certain companies providing components to the EV market underperformed the broader equities. We believe this weakness is overdone, providing an attractive entry opportunity for long-term investors.

Addressing asset allocation

From an asset allocation perspective, the fourth quarter decline in the market brought equity prices to more attractive valuation levels. At year end, the S&P 500 Index price-to-earnings (P/E)1 was at 15.58x 2019 earnings, which is attractive both relative to its own history and investment grade bonds, particularly with the 10-year Treasury Note closing the year at a yield of 2.69%, significantly off its 2018 high of 3.24%. However, amid this volatility, we are assessing whether current valuations fully reflect a myriad of risks or if recent volatility overly discounted these risks.

Among the risks investors need to assess in 2019:
  • What is the potential timing and severity of the next recession?
  • What will be the impact of the waning fiscal stimulus from the tax cut on US economic growth?
  • How will trade disputes with China be resolved and what will be the resulting impact on US and global economic growth?
  • How will the Federal Reserve respond to an evolving economic landscape? What are the lagged impacts of prior rate hikes on economic growth? How many more rate hikes will there be in 2019 and/or at what point may a rate cut be in the cards?
  • What will be the impact of the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet reduction plan?
  • What potential risks to 2019 earnings are not currently discounted in equity prices?
Assessment of these risks will help evaluate opportunities:
  • Current P/E levels on the S&P 500 Index imply little earnings growth in 2019. Is this overly pessimistic, and do current levels represent an attractive long-term opportunity for equities?
  • Non-US developed market equities have underperformed US equities for years and remain more undervalued relative to history. Do current valuations fully discount slowing global growth and provide an attractive long-term opportunity?
  • High yield spreads have widened considerably, with the BAML High Yield Index providing a yield of 7.9% in a secularly low yield environment. Do current yields accurately reflect default rates?

An opportunity to identify attractive investments

Volatility has returned, and we expect it to have continuing significance as we look out at 2019. In this environment, long-term investors who comprehensively assess risk, ESG factors and valuation have the potential to identify attractive opportunities at the asset class and security level.

1The price-earnings ratio (P/E ratio) is the ratio for valuing a company that measures its current share price relative to its per-share earnings. The price-earnings ratio is also sometimes known as the price multiple or the earnings multiple.

Index Definitions

The S&P 500 Stock Index is an unmanaged index of large capitalization common stocks.
The Chicago Board Options Exchange (CBOE) Volatility Index (VIX) shows the market’s expectation of 30-day volatility. It is constructed using the implied volatilities of a wide range of S&P 500 index options. This volatility is meant to be forward-looking, is calculated from both calls and puts and is a widely used measure of market risk.
Russell 2000 Index measures the performance of the small-cap segment of the US equity universe. The Russell 2000 Index is a subset of the Russell 3000 Index representing approximately 10% of the total market capitalization of that index. It includes approximately 2,000 of the smallest securities based on a combination of their market cap and current index membership.
ICE BofA Merrill Lynch High Yield Index tracks the performance of below investment grade, but not in default, US dollar denominated corporate bonds publicly issued in the US domestic market, and includes issues with a credit rating of BBB or below, as rated by Moody’s and S&P. One cannot invest directly in an index.
Bloomberg Barclays US Aggregate Bond Index represents securities that are US domestic, taxable and dollar denominated. The index covers the US investment grade fixed rate bond market, with index components for government and corporate securities and asset-backed securities.
MSCI EAFE (Europe, Australasia, Far East) Index is a free float-adjusted market capitalization index that is designed to measure the equity market performance of developed markets, excluding the US and Canada. The MSCI EAFE Index consists of the following 21 developed market country indices: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Singapore, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. Performance for the MSCI EAFE Index is shown “net”, which includes dividend reinvestments after deduction of foreign withholding tax.
Russell 1000 Value Index is a market capitalization-weighted index that measures the performance of those Russell 1000 companies with lower price-to-book ratios and lower forecasted growth rates.
Russell 1000 Growth Index is a weighted index that measures the performance of those Russell 1000 companies with higher price-to-book ratios and higher forecasted growth rates.
One cannot invest directly in an index.


Steve Falci, CFA®

Head of Systematic & Multi-Asset Strategies

Steve Falci is Executive Vice President and Head of Systematic & Multi-Asset Strategies at Impax Asset Management LLC, the North American division of Impax Asset Management Group and investment adviser to Pax World Funds.

Steve oversees the firm’s systematic equity, multi-asset and fixed income strategies, as well as the integration of Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) research into these strategies.

Steve has more than 30 years of experience in investment management. Prior to joining the firm in 2014, he served as Head of Strategy Development, Sustainable Investments, at Kleinwort Benson Investors, where he provided strategic direction, product development and identification of new market opportunities in the sustainable investment business. Before that, Steve served as Chief Investment Officer of Equities at Calvert Group and was a Principal and Senior Portfolio Manager at Mellon Equity Associates.

Steve serves on the board of directors for the US Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment (US SIF). He also serves on the board of directors for Mercy Investment Services and is the chairperson of their Investment Committee. Steve has a Master of Business Administration from the Stern School of Business at New York University, a Master of Arts from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and a Bachelor of Science in economics from New York University. He is a CFA® charterholder.

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Julie Gorte, Ph.D.

Senior Vice President for Sustainable Investing

Julie Gorte is Senior Vice President for Sustainable Investing at Impax Asset Management LLC, the North American division of Impax Asset Management Group and investment adviser to Pax World Funds.

She oversees environmental, social and governance-related research on prospective and current investments as well as the firm’s shareholder engagement and public policy advocacy. Julie is also a member of the Impax Gender Analytics team.

Prior to joining the firm, Julie served as Vice President and Chief Social Investment Strategist at Calvert. Her experience before she joined the investment world in 1999 includes a various number of roles. Julie spent nearly 14 years as Senior Associate and Project Director at the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment. Additionally, she has held the roles of Vice President for Economic and Environmental Research at The Wilderness Society, and Program Manager for Technology Programs in the Environmental Protection Agency’s policy office and Senior Associate at the Northeast-Midwest Institute.

Julie serves on the boards of the Endangered Species Coalition, E4theFuture, Clean Production Action and is the board chair of the Sustainable Investments Institute.

Julie received a Ph.D. and Master of Science in resource economics from Michigan State University and a Bachelor of Science in forest management at Northern Arizona University.

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