Friday, March 18, 2011

Japan Earthquake and Market Volatility

The world equity markets have been rattled lately by the devastating earthquake in northeastern Japan. It’s not the earthquake itself that caused such an enormous disturbance. Rather, it was the tsunami that followed and its ensuing damage to the nuclear power facilities of the affected area. Headlines of possible meltdowns at those nuclear facilities have clearly spooked investors and some of the Japanese over the past week.

While the human impact on those in the region is permanently devastating for the families involved, the economic impact is probably less permanent. We have been closely monitoring the affected investments, especially those located in Asia and Japan. The uncertainty of the event is, in our view, causing the most impact on the markets. While the nuclear situation still does not appear to be completely under control, it does appear that the Japanese and the international community are devoting every possible resource to gaining control of the problem.

Natural disasters have been and will always be one of the risks to the economy. In almost every example, however, those risks are concentrated in the near term following the event. The economic disruption is definitely felt in the immediate aftermath, but in the long term, the rebuilding process can make up for – or even eclipse – much of the initial loss of economic activity. This seems likely this time also, as Japan has unleashed nearly unlimited resources to battle the situation.

Clearly, the near term impact will be felt by many Japanese and U.S. companies with a presence in Asia and Japan. Depending on how you look at the numbers, you could argue that the event may or may not have much of an impact on the world economy. Japan remains the third largest world economy at about $5 trillion in GDP and accounts for over 8% of the world economic activity, which is very significant. However, the affected area accounts for a rather small portion of Japan’s economy. Furthermore, Japan does not contribute to global economic growth as the Japanese economy has been stuck in the doldrums for over a decade.

Without a doubt, the financial markets have reflected the uncertainty in Japan. Social unrest in Libya and elsewhere in the Middle East have only added to the volatility as the Dow Industrial Average has frequently traded higher or lower by triple-digit margins on a daily basis. The major averages, including the S&P 500 Index, are currently trading just slightly positive for the year after starting out the year with gains of nearly 7% through late February. The markets would rather have quantifiable data to trade on; oftentimes the uncertainty causes more commotion than if there was a known negative impact.

The fundamentals of the U.S. economy continue to strengthen through all of these geo-political situations. Even the slow to recover job market is showing signs that some strengthening may be on the horizon. It’s our position that the global recovery remains intact. But, of course, that does not mean that occasionally the markets or world events will not cause us to question that thesis.

While we are mindful that the human tragedy is the greatest concern, we will continue to closely monitor the affected investments and our portfolios under management. As always, we are available to discuss our strategy during this time if you have any questions or concerns.

Eddie Wilcox

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