2018 Economic Outlook

2017 turned out to be a very attractive year in financial markets around the world.  Stocks were the story, but even bonds (Barclays US Aggregate index) were up +3.54%.  US large companies (as represented by the S&P 500 index) rose +21.83%, US small companies (Russell 2000 index) posted +14.65%, and international stocks (MSCI EAFE index) won the year at +25.03%.  The first year in 5, by the way, where Europe Australia and the Far East developed markets (EAFE) performed better than the S&P 500, and only the 2nd year in the past 8.  The S&P 500 had a positive total return (price + dividends) each and every month during 2017.  Remarkable.

So where from here?  What does 2018 hold for investors?  We’re side-stepping the direct question a bit as we paint a broader perspective.  Whether we credit Nostradamus, Mark Twain, or Yankee catcher/philosopher Yogi Berra, it is true; “It is difficult to make predictions, particularly about the future”. Certainly, that humorous quip does not keep mortal men from offering our honest and educated guesses about future events.  (Think politicians, economists and meteorologists).  But let’s have some candid reflection about our collective ability to do so.

Who would have predicted nine years ago that we would stand on top of mounting records in US equity markets?  That interest rates would still be near historic lows?  Or that Amazon’s market capitalization would easily eclipse that of Wal-Mart, Target, Kroger, Best Buy, Kohls, Macy’s, Dicks Sporting Goods, Under Armour, Dollar General, TJ Maxx, (plus others) combined?  A family can’t live in a virtual single-family home, but they certainly can shop for goods that way.  FYI…Target on its own made more profit over the past year than Amazon.

That nine-year reference is an important one.  2008 saw the S&P 500 drop by -37%.  The world was in the vice grip of financial system paralysis, and predictions of economic prosperity, lets be honest, were as scarce as home equity.  We all remember it.  How it felt.  Not to read about it from a 1929 history book, but to run our lives through it.  To make a forecast on January 1st, 2009, that the S&P 500 would increase on average more than 15% per year for the next nine would have come with a side of pixie dust.  Incidentally, the market would have been down nearly -25% to start that bold prognostication before ultimately coming true.

Backtrack even further to 1968.  The brightest minds from multiple disciplines were assembled in New York for the Foreign Policy Association’s fiftieth anniversary.  Within the throws of the Vietnam War and the cloud of Martin Luther King’s assassination, their charter was to look fifty years into the future, documented in a book called “Toward the Year 2018”.  Clear misses such as nuclear replacing natural gas and “the suppression of lightning” can be coupled with eerie accuracies like “large-scale climate modification will be effected inadvertently” from carbon dioxide.  Or, “a global communication system (of weather and communication satellites) would permit the use of giant computer complexes” with the revolutionary potential of a data bank that “could be queried at any time”.  Spooky.  So is “putting broad-band communications, picture telephones, and instant computerized retrieval in the hands of (humans)…is much too optimistic” to assume that these same technologies would entail the ability to use them wisely.
The biggest misses, however, were outlined recently by Paul Collins of The New Yorker in the current, real-life 2018.  “Not a single writer predicts the end of the Soviet Union – who in their right mind would have.  There’s also nary a woman contributor, nor a chapter on civil rights in sight.”  The 1968 book did ask the question: “Will our children in 2018 still be wrestling with racial problems, economic depressions, other Vietnams?” and then forgets to answer.

Today we sit in the comfort of hindsight.  Basking in the profits and prophesy.  But what did we really learn?  We learned that a forecast, if overtly relied upon, can miss the eventual truth considerably. A solid process, on the other hand, captures the “when”, not the “if”.  Process waits for the future patiently and
does not attempt precise calculation.

The Gilbert & Cook investment process shapes to each circumstance.  Future client events are planned for now and a diverse mix of tools are set in place to anticipate multiple forecasts. Near-term, mid-term, and long-term categories are matched to the risks and rewards fashioned together by our team and the client.  We spend our predictive power and experience on those issues that can be controlled.

We do still have thoughts around the obstinate big picture as the US economy has every chance to continue growing the next few years, thereby setting the record for the longest uninterrupted (by a recession) expansion in our nation’s history.  While stretched in terms of time, the dollars produced in this recovery trail past accounts so our view is toward sustainable growth.  New US corporate tax laws are favorable to company profitability and free cash flow providing a 2018 tailwind for stocks.  International equities may continue to outperform the US due to being earlier in their economic recovery cycle and more favorable in valuation and currency effect.  And our expectations for bond returns are muted, but continue to provide inevitable volatility control for stocks.

That’s the beauty, excitement, and reward of it; that no one can truly know in absolutes what lies around the corner.  Rely on process, not prediction.