As the second quarter came to an end, investors were barraged with troubling news, ranging from Greece’s default to Puerto Rico’s debt woes to China’s market retreat. Volatility jumped, but in the end, the S&P 500 eked out a 0.3% increase, marking its tenth quarterly advance in a row. Domestic small-cap and overseas stocks also produced fractional gains. All retreated in June on the news of the Greek debt standoff, erasing more significant advances from earlier in the quarter.
In the ongoing Greek debt crisis, the country defaulted on a payment due to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), shut down its banks and scheduled a referendum on austerity for the first weekend in July. That shook equity markets and prompted a flight to safety in the form of U.S. Treasuries and German Bunds. The demand helped bonds recover some of the losses from earlier in the quarter as rates rose (bond prices move inversely to yields). By quarter end, the 10-year Treasury note was yielding 2.35%, up from 1.94% on March 31. The Barclays Aggregate bond benchmark lost 1.7%. Weak June employment numbers left some doubt as to the timing of future Fed rate hikes, and corporate earnings rose only 0.8% in the first quarter.
There was little differentiation in domestic equity performance this quarter; the Russell 2000 Index of small-cap stocks edged up 0.4%. While value and growth stocks had similar results in large cap, growth (+2.0%) continued to outpace value (-1.2%) in small cap. Within the S&P 500, Health Care (+2.8%) and Consumer Discretionary (+1.9%) stocks were the leaders, as they were in the first quarter, and utilities brought up the rear with a -5.8% return in the rising rate environment.
International stocks also had slightly positive returns. Developed-country stocks rose 0.6% in US$ terms, but had a 1.8% loss in local currencies. The dollar fell against most currencies during the quarter, boosting returns for U.S. investors overseas.
Emerging markets rose 0.8% (US$). China posted a 6.2% gain for the quarter, but entered bear market territory on the last day of June after falling 22% from its mid-month high, which was achieved after a sharp rally in the first part of the year.
High-yield bonds, which are less sensitive to interest rate moves, managed to turn in a flat quarter. Municipal bonds also gave back less than their taxable counterparts, falling just 0.5%. Puerto Rico’s governor announced at the end of the month that the commonwealth would be unable to pay its approximately $72 billion in debt outstanding. Bonds overseas also sold off during the quarter, with the German 10-year bond yield closing at 0.77%, up from 0.05% in mid-April. The Barclays Global Aggregate ex-U.S. Index (Unhedged) had a 0.8% decline, and unhedged emerging-markets bonds fell 1.0%.
The events of the quarter underscored some important investment lessons.
The situations in Greece and Puerto Rico remind us again that risk and return are related. There is no free lunch in investing, and the higher yields that may have attracted investors also reflected tenuous fiscal situations. Solid credit analysis is essential, and diversification is key — diversified, global exposure mitigates the fallout from events like this in any one country and allows investors to continue on the path to achieving their financial goals. A broadly diversified portfolio stood up quite well in a quarter that saw both a rise in interest rates and financial upheaval in pockets of the world.