On Thursday, stocks fell for a fourth consecutive day as geopolitical issues re-emerged on the heels of mixed economic data and weak earnings reports.
Saudi Arabia led a coalition of ten nations including the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council in an airstrike campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen Wednesday night. We see heightened conflict and instability in Yemen having implications for capital markets for two reasons: (1) Yemen borders the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, a pinch point for transporting oil from the Middle East through the Suez Canal to western markets, and (2) the proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia is not limited to Yemen, so Iran could respond to this attack with disruption elsewhere in the region. It is noteworthy that Egyptian, Iranian, and now Saudi naval vessels have been involved with attempting to secure access to this key waterway.
A state television report that Saudi Arabia may send ground troops to Yemen suggests this campaign could continue for some time, as does the significant military assets controlled by the Houthis in Yemen, which include aircraft, missiles, and military bases. At the same time, challenges in nuclear negotiations between Iran and six world powers as a key March 31st deadline approaches are compounding the stress in the region. Both Brent and West Texas crude prices advanced 6% in the last two days as these events unfolded, while U.S. equities have sold off about 2%. Notably, growth and momentum stocks have generally underperformed, especially in the health care and technology sectors.
We are tweaking our domestic equity portfolio positioning in response to these events in two ways. First, we are modestly increasing the portfolio’s energy exposure to approximately equal weight versus the benchmark. Secondly, we are slightly reducing our momentum factor overweight in the healthcare and technology sectors. Altogether, these trades will take the portfolio’s cash position to approximately 5%, which we believe better reflects our concerns that geopolitical stresses could continue to pressure U.S. equities in the near-term. Should conditions revert to a more normal state, we would likely seek to reinvest some of this cash.
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