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Neil Woodford Embraces A Top-Down Approach… But Should You?

It looks like Neil Woodford is paying more attention to macroeconomic trends and debt markets these days than ever before — and rightly so. Remember: a top-down approach is one key element that may determine the success or failure of your portfolio allocation strategy. 

Stocks Vs Bonds

In a newsletter published on Tuesday, the CF Woodford Equity Income fund pointed out that sovereign bond yields continued to decline in January, with UK 10-year Gilt yields falling to new lows towards the end of the month. The fund also noted that 10-year Gilts are now yielding well below 2.0%, while the proportion of UK stocks yielding more than Gilts has reached record highs.

“The threat of an entrenched deflationary mindset engulfing the eurozone appears significant enough to have finally convinced the Germans to reluctantly support a European Central Bank (ECB) programme of Quantitative Easing (QE),” the fund added in its latest update.

Bonds Vs Real Economy 

Falling bond yields are the “new normal” in this low-rate environment. So, does it mean that stocks are undervalued relative to bonds? The answer is not clear-cut. 

“Although this is a clear indication of the income attractions of the equity asset class, it is worth bearing in mind the reasons why bond yields are so low before becoming too enthusiastic,” the fund said. “The bond market is evidently worried about the health of the global economy.”

The bond market also signals that the real economy should look at ways to heal itself without the help of financial markets. A more challenging macroeconomic landscape in the West means that the equity markets are seriously running the risk of a big correction. If so, a target of 6,000 points — rather than 7,000 points — for the FTSE 100 becomes more likely, the bears argue.

Not so fast.

Ever since the credit crunch in 2008, institutional investors have kept a close eye on trends, while top-down analysis has dictated stock-picking strategies. In this context, companies with strong balance sheets, higher margins, stable cash flows and core free-cash-flow yield above 4% ought to be preferred to more cyclical entities. 

Europe, Oh Europe…

Indeed, if Europe’s troubles remain unsolved, bond yields will become even more volatile, particularly at the long end, and will continue to decline, possibly even at a faster pace, depending on the speed at which additional QE measures are implemented by central banks.

“The eurozone is now in outright deflation and whilst many economists expect inflation rates to remain negative only temporarily, we are not so convinced,” Mr Woodford’s fund added.

In this environment, investors need to be “as selective as ever and focused on dividend sustainability, rather than headline yield alone,” the fund also noted. This is a key message for investors, who should not be enticed by yields north of 5% or 6%, unless they have determined how high those yields are achieved and financed. 

Indeed, I am surprised Mr Woodford’s fund added exposure to Centrica in January, while it may make more sense to hold Imperial Tobacco, British American TobaccoGlaxoSmithKline and AstraZeneca, although I would not invest in any of these four companies right now. 

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Remember: a top-down approach must always be combined with financial analysis. That way, you can also get some extra income from dividends, of course. All you need to know is included in our latest report, which essentially will help you beat the market and several fund managers over the medium and long term. Please note that our report is completely free for a limited amount of time and comes without further obligations, so click here right away!

Alessandro Pasetti has no position in any shares mentioned. The Motley Fool UK has recommended shares in Centrica and GlaxoSmithKline. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors.