Boniface A. ("Buzz") Zaino is a portfolio manager advising several of the high-profile Royce Funds, to wit, the Royce Opportunity Fund and associated funds. By any measure a veteran of the industry, Buzz has more than 40 years of experience in the financial services industry, the last 14 with Royce. I first met him when he was managing the Value Added Funds for Trust Company of the West more than 20 years ago, but prior to that he was president of the Lehman Capital Fund and a principal of the "original" Lehman Brothers. He went to school at Fordham, and took his MBA from Columbia. In 44 years, Buzz has seen enough economic cycles to offer an MBA from the University of Zaino.
Buzz agreed to talk about his 2013 outlook from his home in Aspen which, like much of the US snow belt, has seen little of the white stuff so far this year.
JA: It seems generally agreed that the US economy is growing at a slower pace than it has coming out of previous recessionary periods. What is your outlook for 2013? Will the economy continue to grow, and if so, will it grow at the same rate, faster or slower?
BZ: The reason that the US economy has had a slow lift-off has been that coming out of recessions in the past, the Fed has lowered interest rates, and people took that opportunity to buy houses and cars. This recession was different, because the banks were not giving out money, because money was scarcer and because bank lending standards were significantly more stringent. So there was a hiatus and it took a lot longer for the economy to recover. The recovery finally started this year, 2012, and it is finally beginning to give a boost to the economy, especially as construction gets going again. That boost is going to continue, and it will help us accelerate in 2013. But the recovery was complicated by the fact that Europe went into recession. American companies tend to be worldwide in scope, and caution at the top levels helped bring inventory levels down due to the European recession. That meant that capital spending was also muted. I think that capital spending is also constrained in anticipation of the budget settlement that is still out in the future. A "normal" recovery was delayed until 2012, and then delayed again by the European recession. But those delays now give us the opportunity to accelerate as 2013 progresses.
JA: Will we get a budget?
BZ: Sooner or later, yes. We will get a budget deal out of Congress. Once we have that deal defined, we can go forward from there. That will be a positive, and will be on top of the acceleration we can expect from normal factors like housing and auto sales. We could get a nice surprise in 2013. But we're cautious about January.
JA: Why is that?
BZ: Most managers will make their January decisions based on their December orderbooks, and we don't think the December orderbooks will be strong enough to give them confidence, but as we go into February and March, a lot of the inventory build-up will have started to occur, so the orderbooks will look better. And the trade between China and the US is expanding again, after a period of slower growth. We think that could have an increasing effect, especially after the Lunar New Year. By the end of the first quarter, growth could be looking quite good.
JA: The harsh talk by Washington DC and Beijing won't slow down that growth?
BZ: The China-US trade is too big a market for both sides, and politics will not interfere with it. Certainly the Chinese government's expansion plans are not going to be held back. There are Chinese hotel companies looking for hotel properties in the US - to build or to buy. Very smart people, and I don't think either side is going to let politics inhibit our trade relationships. Nothing is going to come of the yelling.
JA: Will the growth rate be higher going into the second quarter then?
BZ: I think we could have a weak-ish economy and market in January, like I said. Everyone will be paying higher taxes, at least with FICA deductions back in everybody's paychecks. With orderbooks in December that may not be strong, managers and consumers could still have their hands in their pockets. If we have a warm winter like we had last year, we could have more construction starts. If we have a cold, snowy winter, those starts could be delayed, and the weak period could extend through January. We are looking very favorably at housing. Housing is still somewhat depressed, but the housing stock is aging - and mortgage money is more available than it was a year ago. And the automobile fleet is aging and will need to be updated, as will the commercial truck fleet.
JA: Do you think the growth rate will exceed 2%?
BZ: Yes, better than 2%, but maybe not in January. But after that it could be substantially more than 2%. Four to five percent would not be out of the ballpark, although 5% would be at the high end of probability. And the market would react to that. If the market is down - and cheap - they don't want to buy, but if it goes up 15%, everybody wants to buy. If UPS starts to replace its fleet and buys trucks, all the others will update their fleets at the same time. It's much cheaper to run your truck or your fleet on CNG (compressed natural gas) too. A town near Aspen has converted their entire bus fleet to CNG, and although they can fuel up at the bus barn, there are additional CNG stations being built. Boone Pickens and his group are encouraging these new CNG fueling stations. We're surprised that trucking companies are not moving faster than they are toward natural gas. We have an investment in a building materials company and I asked them if they are considering CNG, and they said they had not looked into it, but they would. Conversions to CNG are not expensive. Ford and GM are now offering pickup trucks with CNG engines.
JA: Is there going to be a fiscal cliff solution?
BZ: Eventually. Whether or not it happens before December 31, there's no way to tell. But the congress can pass a continuing resolution to postpone the cuts and tax increases while they work on it. Eventually this Mexican standoff will be resolved. And by the way, the fiscal cliff does not seem to be a big motivator for the American consumer. They need to replace things, and they are not overly concerned with the big picture as long as the economy seems to be getting healthier.
JA: What sectors are going to do better as the economy improves?
BZ: IT spending will pick up. There is a big pent-up need factor here, and it has been a relatively easy way to postpone expenditures for the last couple of years. Windows 8 is very much under-rated. It takes a while for people and corporations to decide to make a big change like the change to Windows 8, but it will be very good for PC companies. Corporations need to have the latest and fastest. Technology in corporate environments needs to be the newest and most capable. Areas like IT are why you can think of higher growth rates. After this hiatus, there is enough pent-up need to start a new momentum.
JA: How about healthcare IT?
BZ: I went to see my physician in New York, and he is one of the best, highest-rated doctors in his specialty. He was really annoyed that he was going to have to convert my file, which is a manila folder with all kinds of paper and bits of paper in it - to computer files. I thought, hey, this is 2012, get with the plan.
JA: How about housing? Any areas there where investors ought to be looking?
BZ: We have had a good run with housing companies, and we think that will continue. One area that may have real potential is mortgage insurance companies. It is a fairly narrow field, and some people infer from the papers that these companies may not be able to cover their losses. The reality is that housing prices could be moving up at a rate of nearly 1% per month in the near future, and as a result those liabilities would be decreasing. Mortgage applications for refinancing were up last week 47% year over year. That's a meaningful number. Apparently not everyone is under water. Those areas that have dropped the most are improving the fastest in some cases. California is one of those.
JA: Any areas where you would be wary going forward?
BZ: Defense companies. We think there will be lots of cutbacks, lots of programs cancelled. Defense personnel contractors may do better as the armed services cut back their personnel. Company by company there may be some good bets in defense, but we believe the sector will be down.
JA: And in summary?
BZ: Other than defense, it is going to be a broad-based recovery. If we have a growing, recovering economy, interest rates would rise, and inflation would rise. Commercial banks will do better. They will use their asset bases to increase lending. The moderating factor will be that regulations will add some cost, but that will not be an inhibitor for the larger banks looking to expand regionally. If I were a larger bank and wanted to expand regionally, it would be attractive to me to buy a regional bank and expand my profitability without appreciably expanding my regulatory exposure.
JA: Thanks, Buzz.
Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.