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Letter to Clients

Q1 2024

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We Believe It’s Time to Prepare for a Less Forgiving Environment

Financial markets have changed dramatically since the 2008 Global Financial Crisis (GFC). Interest rates and inflation fell to historical lows while governments and central banks worldwide injected nearly $30 trillion into the economy. The tide turned in 2021 when inflation and interest rates began climbing, and central banks started tightening liquidity.

The post-GFC “new normal” that propelled markets for over a decade is giving way to a more normal environment of higher inflation and interest rates. Investors must ask what adjustments they should make if such conditions hold for the long term.

In hindsight, we can look at the period from the end of the GFC to the Federal Reserve’s (Fed’s) initial rate hike in 2022 and see that the odds were stacked in favor of risk-taking. There was so much money coursing through the capital markets due to low interest rates and easy access to capital that investors had little incentive to diversify. All that liquidity pushed asset prices higher and provided enough support to soften the blow of low economic growth and poor capital allocation decisions.

Today, credit is tight, interest rates are high, and the consequences of slower economic growth and capital allocation mistakes may be more severe. These changes represent a notable departure from the new normal investment landscape, and we think they may be lasting.

Navigating 2024: Rethinking Risk and Embracing Diversification

We think it’s time for a new mindset. First, we must come to grips with the idea that the risk-taking that worked so well for many of us after the GFC may not be as successful in this environment. Second, we feel we must embrace broader portfolio diversification to deal with greater uncertainty.

There’s nothing new about diversifying, but in 2024 and beyond, it may mean changing our approach to asset classes that have served us well over the last 13 years. For example, investors may have had no choice but to accept greater risk in their portfolios because cash and traditional fixed-income investments couldn’t generate adequate income when interest rates were nearly zero.

That’s hardly the case today. Indeed, increasing allocations to cash and bonds may be appropriate. With moderating inflation and a potential pause in the Fed’s rate-hiking, bonds may serve as a more effective hedge against stock market volatility.

We expect the U.S. economy to slow further in the coming year. Higher-risk assets could experience greater volatility in that scenario, so investors may need to build more buffers into their portfolios. Investors should assess their portfolio’s balance between lower-risk assets, such as cash and investment-grade bonds, versus riskier assets, such as high-yield bonds and equities.

Our 2024 Outlook: Recession Is Possible

Despite the Fed's dovish pivot, we think a recession is still a likely economic outcome in 2024. Though many observers are now calling for an economic soft landing, we think high interest rates and tight credit conditions will continue to wear down consumers and businesses, slowing economic growth and weakening the job market.

In this edition of our Investment Outlook, our chief investment officers share their views on investing in this challenging environment.

  • We believe bonds are attractive.

    Historically, bond returns have been positive during recessions due to declining interest rates and investors’ preference for less volatile investments.

  • Earnings still matter.

    Sustaining the equity market’s positive performance into the new year will hinge on investors emphasizing corporate earnings more than macroeconomic worries.

  • Rate-cutting is positive for emerging markets.

    Central banks in some economies have already begun easing, potentially creating a tailwind for emerging markets in 2024.

The late Dr. Harry Markowitz received the Nobel Prize for creating modern portfolio theory. The central thesis is that anyone can effectively manage risk through portfolio diversification. So much so, Markowitz once said diversification is the only form of free lunch he found in life.

Considering all the current economic and market conditions, we believe revisiting the benefits of diversification is now warranted.

Thank you for entrusting us with your capital.

Victor Zhang
Victor Zhang

Chief Investment Officer

Senior Vice President

Managing Money, Making an Impact

Let’s invest to make a difference in your life and the lives of others. Together, we can become a powerful force for good.

Agency mortgages

A form of securitized debt that represents ownership in pools of mortgage loans and their payments.

Asset-backed securities (ABS)

A form of securitized debt (defined below), ABS are structured like mortgage-backed securities (MBS, defined below). But instead of mortgage loans or interest in mortgage loans, the underlying assets may include such items as auto loans, home equity loans, student loans, small business loans, and credit card debt. The value of an ABS is affected by changes in the market's perception of the assets backing the security, the creditworthiness of the servicing agent for the loan pool, the originator of the loans, or the financial institution providing any credit enhancement.

BB and BBB credit rating

Securities and issuers rated AAA to BBB are considered/perceived “investment-grade”; those rated below BBB are considered/perceived non-investment-grade or more speculative.

Beta

Beta is a standard measurement of potential investment risk and return. It shows how volatile a security's or an investment portfolio's returns have been compared with their respective benchmark indices. A benchmark index's beta always equals 1. A security or portfolio with a beta greater than 1 had returns that fluctuated more, both up and down, than those of its benchmark, while a beta of less than 1 indicates less fluctuation than the benchmark.

Central bank

Entity responsible for oversight of a nation’s monetary system, including policies and interest rates.

Collateralized loan obligations (CLOs)

A form of securitized debt, typically backed by pools of corporate loans and their payments.

Commercial Mortgage-Backed Securities (CMBS)

MBS that represent ownership in pools of commercial real estate loans used to finance the construction and improvement of income-producing properties, including office buildings, shopping centers, industrial parks, warehouses, hotels, and apartment complexes.

Commercial paper

Short-term debt issued by corporations to raise cash and to cover current expenses in anticipation of future revenues.

Commodities

Commodities are raw materials or primary agricultural products that can be bought or sold on an exchange or market. Examples include grains such as corn, foods such as coffee, and metals such as copper.

Consumer Price Index (CPI)

CPI is the most commonly used statistic to measure inflation in the U.S. economy. Sometimes referred to as headline CPI, it reflects price changes from the consumer's perspective. It's a U.S. government (Bureau of Labor Statistics) index derived from detailed consumer spending information. Changes in CPI measure price changes in a market basket of consumer goods and services such as gas, food, clothing, and cars. Core CPI excludes food and energy prices, which tend to be volatile.

Corporate securities (corporate bonds and notes)

Debt instruments issued by corporations, as distinct from those issued by governments, government agencies, or municipalities. Corporate securities typically have the following features: 1) they are taxable, 2) they tend to have more credit (default) risk than government or municipal securities, so they tend to have higher yields than comparable-maturity securities in those sectors; and 3) they are traded on major exchanges, with prices published in newspapers.

Correlation

Correlation measures the relationship between two investments--the higher the correlation, the more likely they are to move in the same direction for a given set of economic or market events. So if two securities are highly correlated, they will move in the same direction the vast majority of the time. Negatively correlated investments do the opposite--as one security rises, the other falls, and vice versa. No correlation means there is no relationship between the movement of two securities--the performance of one security has no bearing on the performance of the other. Correlation is an important concept for portfolio diversification--combining assets with low or negative correlations can improve risk-adjusted performance over time by providing a diversity of payouts under the same financial conditions.

Credit quality

Credit quality reflects the financial strength of the issuer of a security, and the ability of that issuer to provide timely payment of interest and principal to investors in the issuer's securities. Common measurements of credit quality include the credit ratings provided by credit rating agencies such as Standard & Poor's and Moody's. Credit quality and credit quality perceptions are a key component of the daily market pricing of fixed-income securities, along with maturity, inflation expectations and interest rate levels.

Credit ratings

Measurements of credit quality (defined below) provided by credit rating agencies (defined below). Those provided by Standard & Poor's typically are the most widely quoted and distributed, and range from AAA (highest quality; perceived as least likely to default) down to D (in default). Securities and issuers rated AAA to BBB are considered/perceived to be "investment-grade"; those below BBB are considered/perceived to be non-investment-grade or more speculative.

Debt security

A debt instrument, including bonds, certificates of deposit or preferred stocks.

Deflation

Deflation is the opposite of inflation (see Inflation); it describes a decline in prices for goods, assets and services, and is considered a highly undesirable economic outcome by economists and policymakers.

Downside protection

Occurs when the investor or fund manager uses techniques attempting to prevent a decrease in the value of the investment.

Duration

Duration is an important indicator of potential price volatility and interest rate risk in fixed income investments. It measures the price sensitivity of a fixed income investment to changes in interest rates. The longer the duration, the more a fixed income investment's price will change when interest rates change. Duration also reflects the effect caused by receiving fixed income cash flows sooner instead of later. Fixed income investments structured to potentially pay more to investors earlier (such as high-yield, mortgage, and callable securities) typically have shorter durations than those that return most of their capital at maturity (such as zero-coupon or low-yielding noncallable Treasury securities), assuming that they have similar maturities.

Earnings per share (EPS)

The portion of a company's profits allocated to each outstanding share of its common stock. It is as an indicator of a company's profitability.

Eurozone

The eurozone is sometimes referred to as the euro area and represents the member states that participate in the economic and monetary union (EMU) with the European Union (EU). The eurozone currently consists of: Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Spain.

Federal funds rate (aka fed funds rate)

The federal funds rate is an overnight interest rate banks charge each other for loans. More specifically, it's the interest rate charged by banks with excess reserves at a Federal Reserve district bank to banks needing overnight loans to meet reserve requirements. It's an interest rate that's mentioned frequently within the context of the Federal Reserve's interest rate policies. The Federal Reserve's Open Market Committee (defined below) sets a target for the federal funds rate (which is a key benchmark for all short-term interest rates, especially in the money markets), which it then supports/strives for with its open market operations (buying or selling government securities).

Federal Reserve (Fed)

The Fed is the U.S. central bank, responsible for monetary policies affecting the U.S. financial system and the economy.

Fundamentals/fundamental analysis

Investment "fundamentals," in the context of investment analysis, are typically those factors used in determining value that are more economic (growth, interest rates, inflation, employment) and/or financial (income, expenses, assets, credit quality) in nature, as opposed to "technicals," which are based more on market price (into which fundamental factors are considered to have been "priced in"), trend, and volume factors (such as supply and demand), and momentum. Technical factors can often override fundamentals in near-term investor and market behavior, but, in theory, investments with strong fundamental supports should maintain their value and perform relatively well over long time periods.

Gross domestic product

Gross domestic product (or GDP) is a measure of the total economic output in goods and services for an economy.

High-yield bonds

High-yield bonds are fixed income securities with lower credit quality and lower credit ratings. High-yield securities are those rated below BBB- by Standard & Poor's.

Inflation

Inflation, sometimes referred to as headline inflation, reflects rising prices for consumer goods and services, or equivalently, a declining value of money. Core inflation excludes food and energy prices, which tend to be volatile. It is the opposite of deflation (see Deflation).

Inflation-protected securities

Debt securities that offer returns adjusted for inflation; a feature designed to eliminate the inflation risk.

Investment-grade corporate bond or credit

A debt security with a relatively low risk of default issued and sold by a corporation to investors.

Liquidity

Liquidity describes the degree to which an asset or security can be quickly bought or sold in the market without affecting the asset's price.

Mortgage-backed securities (MBS)

A form of securitized debt (defined below) that represents ownership in pools of mortgage loans and their payments. Most MBS are structured as "pass-throughs"--the monthly payments of principal and interest on the mortgages in the pool are collected by the financial entity that is servicing the mortgages and are "passed through" monthly to investors. The monthly and principal payments are key differences between MBS and other bonds such as Treasuries, which pay interest every six months and return the whole principal at maturity. Most MBS are issued or guaranteed by the U.S. government, a government-sponsored enterprise (GSE), or by a private lending institution.

MSCI World Index

A free float-adjusted market capitalization weighted index that is designed to measure the equity market performance of developed markets.

Municipal bonds

These are long-term municipal securities (defined below) with maturities of 10 years or longer.

Municipal securities (munis)

Debt securities typically issued by or on behalf of U.S. state and local governments, their agencies or authorities to raise money for a variety of public purposes, including financing for state and local governments as well as financing for specific projects and public facilities. In addition to their specific set of issuers, the defining characteristic of munis is their tax status. The interest income earned on most munis is exempt from federal income taxes. Interest payments are also generally exempt from state taxes if the bond owner resides within the state that issued the security. The same rule applies to local taxes. Another interesting characteristic of munis: Individuals, rather than institutions, make up the largest investor base. In part because of these characteristics, munis tend to have certain performance attributes, including higher after-tax returns than other fixed income securities of comparable maturity and credit quality and low volatility relative to other fixed-income sectors. The two main types of munis are general obligation bonds (GOs) and revenue bonds. GOs are munis secured by the full faith and credit of the issuer and usually supported by the issuer's taxing power. Revenue bonds are secured by the charges tied to the use of the facilities financed by the bonds.

Nominal yield

For most bonds and other fixed-income securities, nominal yield is simply the yield you see listed online or in newspapers. Most nominal fixed-income yields include some extra yield, an "inflation premium," that is typically priced/added into the yields to help offset the effects of inflation (see Inflation). Real yields (see Real yield), such as those for TIPS (see TIPS), don't have the inflation premium. As a result, nominal yields are typically higher than TIPS yields and other real yields.

Non-agency commercial mortgage-backed securities (CMBS)

MBS that represent ownership in pools of commercial real estate loans used to finance the construction and improvement of income-producing properties. Non-agency CMBS are not guaranteed by the U.S. government or a government-sponsored enterprise.

Price to earnings ratio (P/E)

The price of a stock divided by its annual earnings per share. These earnings can be historical (the most recent 12 months) or forward-looking (an estimate of the next 12 months). A P/E ratio allows analysts to compare stocks on the basis of how much an investor is paying (in terms of price) for a dollar of recent or expected earnings. Higher P/E ratios imply that a stock's earnings are valued more highly, usually on the basis of higher expected earnings growth in the future or higher quality of earnings.

Quality

Nationally recognized statistical rating organizations assign quality ratings to reflect forward-looking opinions on the creditworthiness of loan issuers.

Quantitative easing (QE)

A form of monetary policy used by central banks to stimulate economic growth. In QE, a central bank (such as the U.S. Federal Reserve) buys domestic government securities to increase the domestic money supply, lower interest rates, and encourage investors to make investments in riskier assets such as stocks and high-yield securities.

Real estate investment trusts (REITs)

Real estate investment trusts (REITs) are securities that trade like stocks and invest in real estate through properties or mortgages.

Real yield

For most bonds and other fixed-income securities, real yield is simply the yield you see listed online or in newspapers (see Yield) minus the premium (extra yield) added to help counteract the effects of inflation (see Inflation). Most "nominal" fixed-income yields (see Nominal yield) include an "inflation premium" that is typically priced into the yields to help offset the effects of inflation. Real yields, such as those for TIPS, don't have the inflation premium. As a result, TIPS yields and other real yields are typically lower than most nominal yields.

Russell 1000® Growth Index

Measures the performance of those Russell 1000 Index companies (the 1,000 largest publicly traded U.S. companies, based on total market capitalization) with higher price-to-book ratios and higher forecasted growth values.

Russell 1000® Value Index

Measures the performance of those Russell 1000 Index companies (the 1,000 largest publicly traded U.S. companies, based on total market capitalization) with lower price-to-book ratios and lower forecasted growth values.

S&P 500® Growth Index

A style-concentrated index designed to track the performance of stocks that exhibit the strongest growth characteristics by using a style-attractiveness weighting scheme.

S&P 500® Index

The S&P 500® Index is composed of 500 selected common stocks most of which are listed on the New York Stock Exchange. It is not an investment product available for purchase.

S&P 500® Value Index

The S&P 500 Value Index is a style-concentrated index that measures stocks in the S&P 500 using three factors: the ratios of book value, earnings, and sales to price. It is not an investment product available for purchase.

Securitized debt

Debt resulting from the process of aggregating debt instruments into a pool of similar debts, then issuing new securities backed by the pool (securitizing the debt). Asset-backed and mortgage-backed securities (ABS and MBS, defined further above) and collateralized mortgage obligations (CMOs, defined above) are common forms of securitized debt. The credit quality (defined above) of securitized debt can vary significantly, depending on the underwriting standards of the original debt issuers, the credit quality of the issuers, economic or financial conditions that might affect payments, the existence of credit backing or guarantees, etc.

Senior-secured securities

A security that has a higher priority compared to another in the event of liquidation.

Sovereign debt

A country's own government-issued debt, priced in its native currency, that can be sold to investors in other countries to raise needed funds. For example, U.S. Treasury debt is U.S. sovereign debt, and would be referred to as sovereign debt when bought by foreign investors. Conversely, debt issued by foreign governments and priced in their currencies would be sovereign debt to U.S. investors.

Spreads (aka "interest-rate spreads", "maturity spreads," "yield spreads" or "credit spreads")

In fixed income parlance, spreads are simply measured differences or gaps that exists between two interest rates or yields that are being compared with each other. Spreads typically exist and are measured between fixed income securities of the same credit quality (defined above), but different maturities, or of the same maturity, but different credit quality. Changes in spreads typically reflect changes in relative value, with "spread widening" usually indicating relative price depreciation of the securities whose yields are increasing most, and "spread tightening" indicating relative price appreciation of the securities whose yields are declining most (or remaining relatively fixed while other yields are rising to meet them). Value-oriented investors typically seek to buy when spreads are relatively wide and sell after spreads tighten.

Spread sectors (aka "spread products," "spread securities")

In fixed income parlance, these are typically non-Treasury securities that usually trade in the fixed income markets at higher yields than same-maturity U.S. Treasury securities. The yield difference between Treasuries and non-Treasuries is called the "spread" (defined further above), hence the name "spread sectors" for non-Treasuries. These sectors--such as corporate-issued securities and mortgage-backed securities (MBS, defined above)--typically trade at higher yields (spreads) than Treasuries because they usually have relatively lower credit quality (defined above) and more credit/default risk (defined above), and/or they have more prepayment risk (defined above).

Spread widening, tightening

Changes in spreads that reflect changes in relative value, with "spread widening" usually indicating relative price depreciation and "spread tightening" indicating relative price appreciation.

Stagflation

Stagflation describes slowing economic growth combined with high inflation.

Subordinated security

An unsecured loan or bond that ranks below more senior loans in terms of claims on assets or earnings.

Treasury inflation-protected securities (TIPS)

TIPS are a special type of U.S. Treasury security designed to address a fundamental, long-standing fixed-income market issue: that the fixed interest payments and principal values at maturity of most fixed-income securities don't adjust for inflation. TIPS interest payments and principal values do. The adjustments include upward or downward changes to both principal and coupon interest based on inflation. TIPS are inflation-indexed; that is, tied to the U.S. government's Consumer Price Index (CPI). At maturity, TIPS are guaranteed by the U.S. government to return at least their initial $1,000 principal value, or that principal value adjusted for inflation, whichever amount is greater. In addition, as their principal values are adjusted for inflation, their interest payments also adjust.

Treasury note

A treasury note is a debt security issued by the U.S. government with a fixed interest rate and maturity ranging from one to 10 years.

Treasury yield

The yield (defined below) of a Treasury security (most often refers to U.S. Treasury securities issued by the U.S. government).

Valuation

A quantitative estimate of a company or asset’s value.

Yield

For bonds and other fixed-income securities, yield is a rate of return on those securities. There are several types of yields and yield calculations. "Yield to maturity" is a common calculation for fixed-income securities, which takes into account total annual interest payments, the purchase price, the redemption value, and the amount of time remaining until maturity.

Yield curve

A line graph showing the yields of fixed income securities from a single sector (such as Treasuries or municipals), but from a range of different maturities (typically three months to 30 years), at a single point in time (often at month-, quarter- or year-end). Maturities are plotted on the x-axis of the graph, and yields are plotted on the y-axis. The resulting line is a key bond market benchmark and a leading economic indicator.

Diversification does not assure a profit nor does it protect against loss of principal.

References to specific securities are for illustrative purposes only, and are not intended as recommendations to purchase or sell securities. Opinions and estimates offered constitute our judgment and, along with other portfolio data, are subject to change without notice.

International investing involves special risk considerations, including economic and political conditions, inflation rates and currency fluctuations.

Investment return and principal value of security investments will fluctuate. The value at the time of redemption may be more or less than the original cost. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Historically, small- and/or mid-cap stocks have been more volatile than the stock of larger, more-established companies. Smaller companies may have limited resources, product lines and markets, and their securities may trade less frequently and in more limited volumes than the securities of larger companies.

Diversification does not assure a profit nor does it protect against loss of principal.

Generally, as interest rates rise, bond prices fall. The opposite is true when interest rates decline.

Past performance is no guarantee of future results. Investment returns will fluctuate and it is possible to lose money.

The opinions expressed are those of American Century Investments (or the portfolio manager) and are no guarantee of the future performance of any American Century Investments' portfolio. This material has been prepared for educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide, and should not be relied upon for, investment, accounting, legal or tax advice.