What’s going on in the Markets June 20, 2022

With ten days to go in the 2nd calendar quarter and the end of the first half of 2022, we’ve witnessed one of the worst yearly starts in the markets since 1962 with a decline of about 23% in the S&P 500 index. This makes this year the 3rd worst start for the index in market history.  

The good news? Of the fourteen other worst starts to the year since 1931, ten of them went on to turn in positive returns for the rest of the year, although only five of those fourteen years turned things around and closed with positive returns for the entire year.

Mid-term election years (the 2nd year of a president’s term) have historically been lackluster, but that doesn’t entirely explain why this year has been so awful. Of course, the same culprits outlined in my What’s Going on in the Markets May 8, 2022 newsletter are still front and center today: 1. The war in the Ukraine; 2. Rising inflation; 3. Higher interest rates. A resolution in any of these three culprits could send the markets on a big trek higher.

To be fair, the markets were rife with speculation in all manners of stocks, special purpose acquisition companies (SPACs), initial public offerings, crypto-currencies, non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and other insane valuations of art, homes, antiques, etc. Most of this rampant speculation was fueled by the unprecedented fiscal and monetary stimulus unleashed in the markets by the Federal Reserve and Federal Government to combat a potential economic depression caused by COVID-19. As happens most often, a pendulum that swings too far in one direction must swing too far in the other direction to correct the excess. That’s the nature of cycles-both economic and markets.

From the pandemic low in March 2020 to the high in January 2022, the S&P 500 index more than doubled (+108%), so a market that moves that far in less than two years would historically be expected to give back (retrace) some of those gains at some point. To most students of long-term markets, giving back 50% or more of those gains would not be unusual at all before the uptrend might resume. At a closing level of about 3,678 as of last Friday, that would take the S&P 500 index to around 3,500, about 5% lower than Friday’s close. Nothing says it must stop there, but that level historically would be expected to generate at least a decent bounce or short-term rally.

Adding insult to injury, this has also been one of the worst starts in over 40 years in the bond markets. Long adding ballast to portfolios and a relative haven from the stock market storms, bonds on average are down over 12% year-to-date, with long term treasuries down over 24%. Even 1–3 year treasury bills are down about 3.7%, making even the safest and shortest of duration government bonds not immune from the carnage. Of course, when bond prices decline, their yields increase, so they become more attractive for new investments.

The perfect storm of a bond and stock market decline means that there have been few places to hide, other than energy and commodity stocks. Of course, energy and commodity stock outperformance mean higher prices for goods, which is at the heart of the inflation problem we now have.

Inflation Marches Higher

When so much stimulus enters the economy and markets in a short time, inflation inevitably rears its ugly head. Think of fiscal and monetary stimulus as money printing, and you can quickly understand how adding so many dollars to the money supply would tend to de-value those dollars. Indeed, when the inflation numbers were released for April and May (8.6% and 8.4% consumer price index respectively), they were higher than expected.  Relief in the supply chain logjam was not enough to offset the increased cost of labor, energy, and commodities (mostly raw materials and foodstuff).

Obviously, inflation at this level cannot be sustained longer term and needs to be tamed before it crashes the economy as consumers begin having trouble affording necessities, let alone discretionary purchases. It’s one of the two mandates of the Federal Reserve (The Fed): to reel in inflation using the tools at their disposal to prevent an economic crash.

Interest Rate Hikes

The dual mandates of The Fed are to:

1. Maintain price stability (by keeping inflation to 2% or less) and,

2. Ensure maximum employment.

With unemployment at historic lows, maintaining price stability is currently job #1 for The Fed.

When the pandemic hit, you may recall that The Fed immediately reduced short-term interest rates from 2.25% to 0% to counter the expected economic contraction effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. They also launched one of the biggest asset purchase plans (bond buying) in history as an emergency measure to ensure enough liquidity in the financial system to keep the economy and commerce from seizing up. The Fed kept these asset purchases up through March of this year (far longer than necessary in my opinion), thereby flooding the markets with stimulus.

Beginning in April, The Fed raised short term interest rates by 0.25% for the first time and announced that the bonds bought over the past several years would be sold off over time. Of course, if injecting the markets with all that stimulus and maintaining low interest rates props the markets up, withdrawing that liquidity and raising interest rates should have the exact opposite effect–and of course it has.

The Fed followed up with a 0.5% and 0.75% short term interest rate hike in May and June respectively, bringing the short-term rate to around 1.5%. During the June meeting, The Fed telegraphed that a further 0.5% or 0.75% interest rate hike could be forthcoming in July (and future months) if inflation doesn’t ease in the coming month. Of course, with inflation running over 8%, The Fed, with short term interest rates around 1.5%, is still woefully behind the curve. Many pundits and critics want them to move much faster to tame inflation.

Low interest rates (near 0% for over two years) represent “cheap money” to individuals and companies, encouraging investment, spending, borrowing, and of course speculation. All of that tends to make for an overheated economy, pushing prices higher. Raising interest rates tends to curb the demand for capital and overall spending, thereby reducing pressure on the supply of goods and services, and in turn, reducing pressure on prices. But by doing so, The Fed risks pushing the economy into a recession.

Recession or Soft Landing

The Fed has acknowledged that lifting interest rates may curb consumer and corporate demand enough to push the economy into a recession. Fact is, it’s possible that we’re already in a recession but don’t know it yet.

The textbook definition of a recession is at least “two consecutive calendar quarters of negative gross domestic product or GDP.” For the first quarter of 2022, the economy did register a negative GDP of 1.3%, and the second quarter could potentially register a similar small negative GDP. As of Friday June 16, the Atlanta Federal Reserve lowered GDP estimates for the 2nd quarter to about 0%, which means that it could easily turn negative by the end of the quarter, putting us into a an official recession.

Regardless of how the 2nd quarter plays out, textbook recession or not, I would expect that any recession would be another mild or short one (like the short-lived COVID recession of 2020) as we try and squeeze out much of the excesses brought on by the post-COVID over-stimulus. While you’re likely to be bombarded (and scared witless) by the news media about how the economy has officially fallen into a recession, it remains to be seen how long and how bad it might get. With housing and employment still strong, and corporate earnings holding steady, (albeit weakening somewhat with everything else), the recession should prove to be mild or moderate in my opinion.

What To Do Now

The market is currently in what I would characterize as “no-man’s land”. That’s to say that it’s too late to sell and yet probably too early to buy. As mentioned above, we have the potential to visit the 50% retracement level of S&P 500 at 3,500, 5% lower from here. But the selling was so intense last week, that could be considered somewhat exhaustive, or capitulatory as some refer to it in the business. While bad things tend to get worse in the markets before they get better, the proverbial rubber band to the downside is firmly stretched, meaning that a strong snapback rally could start as early as tomorrow, if not later this week or next.

In a mid-term election year, we tend to see a summer rally from late June into mid-July, with weakness or sideways movement persisting throughout the August-October period. But post-election, a year-end relief rally into the spring tends to be strong. So unfortunately, any relief rally in June/July may prove fleeting, with much better probabilities for a long-term rally coming in the 4th quarter. Of course, this is all crystal ball prognostication, relying on history to project future returns. This should not be relied on to make investment/portfolio decisions.

So, what about nibbling at stocks and stock funds (and even bonds) with the market down so much? While dollar cost averaging over time has a successful track record, the key is your own personal discipline to continue investing at regular intervals and knowing that it may take months or years to become profitable on new buys, especially if this market doesn’t find a bottom until late this year or next.

Those who bought in mid-2008 thinking that the bottom was in found out that they had to endure another 30% drawdown until the ultimate bottom in March 2009. In the end, this all turned out great for long term holders, albeit with a little pain.

If you are confident that you won’t sell everything if the market continues lower and reach your own capitulation point, there’s nothing wrong with nibbling on names that have come down to attractive levels. Personally, I prefer to see signs of strong demand returning from large institutions, something that is still absent at these levels. The path of least resistance, as of today, is unfortunately lower, but that could easily change in a day or two of strong buying.

For our client portfolios, we came into the 2nd quarter with one of our lowest allocations to stocks and bonds in years. We continue to be hedged with cash, stock options and bear market funds, and we continue to harvest profits and raise cash. If we see further weakness and no return of demand from institutions, we will further increase our hedges and continue to sell underperforming positions into any rallies that “peter out” in short order.

If you find yourself stuck in positions that no longer meet your initial criteria for buying them in the first place, consider using upcoming rallies to sell them (even at a loss) and upgrade your portfolio with better performing companies at the right time. Instead of big bites, take little nibbles, and keep in mind that bear market rallies are very good at sucking in investors and convincing them that the selloff is over, only to roll over and make lower lows. This is not a recommendation to buy or sell any security.

No one knows how deep the market will pull back. Have we seen the lows, or do we have some ways to go? I personally think we may have seen the worst of it, but that’s just a gut feeling. That doesn’t mean that I believe that the sell-off is over. Similarly, we have no idea if the next rally will mark the bottom of this pullback or just be another “suckers’ rally”.

In the end, these somewhat painful periods always end, paving the way for a new long-term uptrend (a.k.a., a bull market). As I always echo, investing in the stock market is great for long term returns, as long as you don’t get scared out of it at the wrong time. After all, enduring volatility is the price we pay for outsized long-term returns. Be patient and stay small with buys to keep your risk in line with your own tolerance.

If you would like to review your current investment portfolio or discuss any other financial planning matters, please don’t hesitate to contact us or visit our website at http://www.ydfs.com. We are a fee-only fiduciary financial planning firm that always puts your interests first.  If you are not a client yet, an initial consultation is complimentary and there is never any pressure or hidden sales pitch. We start with a specific assessment of your personal situation. There is no rush and no cookie-cutter approach. Each client is different, and so is your financial plan and investment objectives.

What’s Going on in the Markets May 8, 2022

It was another down week in the stock markets, which, under the surface, was worse than the Dow Jones Industrial Average and S&P 500 indexes being down only about 0.25% might have suggested. Volatility continues to rule the markets daily as investors and traders try to discount the effects of inflation, interest rate hikes, a raging war, and the possibility of a recession in the coming months.

Speaking of interest rate hikes, the Federal Reserve (The Fed) met last week and raised short-term interest rates by 0.5% (bringing them to 0.75%-1.00%). The Fed signaled that more 0.5% interest hikes were likely coming and also mentioned that single day 0.75% hikes were not being considered. Although the markets breathed a sigh of relief on Wednesday and rallied about 3% from the day’s lows, that rally was short-lived as the markets gave it all back and more on Thursday and Friday.

As of Friday’s close, the S&P 500 index is down about 13.5%, while the harder-hit tech-heavy NASDAQ is down about 22.3% year-to-date. Those figures, however, don’t reflect the level of carnage under the surface, where some growth stocks are down as much as 80% from their prior peaks. Strength in the markets is found in energy stocks (where oil prices continue to float above $100 a barrel) and defensive stocks (consumer staples, some healthcare, and utilities).

Even bonds, long known to provide ballast to stocks, are down about 11% year-to-date and have not held up their end of the bargain. Bonds are having one of their worst starts to the year since the 1970s. Even if you’re hiding out in 1–3 year short-term treasury bonds, you’re still down about 3.1% since the beginning of the year. The typical 60/40 (stock/bond) portfolio has provided no shelter from the recent market storm.

When you see both stocks and bonds down in tandem, the usual culprit is an inflationary environment. Last month’s government report on inflation, the Consumer Price Index (CPI), showed inflation rose 1.2% in March, translating to an annualized rate of 8.5%. This coming Wednesday, we get the read on April inflation, which should see inflation easing from March levels (based on reports of declining used car prices, lower demand for homes, and supply chain improvements).

The Fed has two core mandates as its mission: 1) keep unemployment low and 2) maintain price stability.

At this point, The Fed has no choice but to raise interest rates to try and tame the inflation beast. Unfortunately, raising short-term interest rates has the side effect of slowing economic activity because capital becomes more expensive for both consumers and companies, thereby forcing a slowdown of discretionary purchases and capital improvements (and stock buybacks, which buoy the markets). We are already seeing a slight easing in housing market pressures as 30-year mortgage rates tick above 5%.

Inflation at the current rates is simply not tenable, and therefore The Fed must do what it can to keep the prices of goods and services at prices that consumers can afford.

Further taming of the inflation beast with short-term interest rate hikes can sometimes cause such a slowdown in the economy that we see negative growth in the gross domestic product (GDP), as was reported in the 1st quarter of 2022 when GDP unexpectedly contracted by 0.4% (which is an annualized rate of 1.4%).

As of the end of the 1st quarter, we had only experienced a single 0.25% short-term interest rate hike by The Fed, so that was not the proximate cause of the decline in GDP. More likely, the side effects of the ongoing war in Ukraine, a complete lockdown in parts of China because of COVID resurgence, and inflation worries all weighed on the economy in an otherwise environment of robust consumer demand.

The definition of an economic recession is two consecutive quarters of contracting GDP, so 2nd quarter 2022 GDP is pivotal in determining whether we’re already in an economic recession. Perhaps that’s what has the markets worried.

Also on the economic front, both the Institute for Supply Management’s (ISM) Manufacturing Index and the ISM Services Index remained at high levels last month; however, there is some weakness developing under the surface. The ISM Manufacturing Index has fallen in five of the last six months, while new orders for the services sector fell to a 14-month low. At the same time, prices have remained stubbornly high in both indexes, which raises the possibility of economic stagflation (inflation + slowing economy) in the coming months.

What About Now?

While the markets continue their correction (pullback), we have continued to get more defensive in our client portfolios by selling more (underperforming) positions, adding to our hedges, and tightening up our option selling. Unfortunately, in a rising volatility environment, the fruits of our option selling labor don’t begin to show up in client portfolio results until after the volatility subsides, or those sold options expire. That doesn’t mean we won’t continue to allocate to those strategies to reduce portfolio risk, but in the short term, they may not display the intended positive portfolio effects.

While I don’t have a working crystal ball, I’ve seen little evidence that the volatility is about to subside anytime soon. Though the markets are oversold (stretched to the downside) on a short-term basis, we have not seen any bounces that have lasted longer than a day or two, at least not since late March. We are certainly overdue for a robust bounce that lasts at least a few weeks or months, but I don’t see any evidence to believe that we’re at a durable long-term bottom yet.

Therefore, this back-and-forth choppy action may continue until after the mid-term elections, as is typical for this part of the presidential cycle. We may also need to shake out more weak hands in the short term and get to some level of capitulation or panic in order to get a sustainable rally.

One contrary indicator, investor sentiment about the markets, is at some of the lowest levels–some levels on par with sentiment during the great financial crisis in 2007-2009 and the COVID crisis, hinting that investors are not very exuberant about investing in the markets. Another contrary indicator, mutual fund flows, shows that investors of late are cashing out of stocks in recent weeks, which means at some point, many will be forced to buy back their stocks in the near future.

If you’re not a client of ours, I hope you have taken some action with your portfolio during the prior market rallies, to reduce your overall risk and exposure to the stock market. Whether selling some underperforming positions, buying some bear market funds, or just hedging your portfolio in one way or another, figure out a way to reduce your overall portfolio risk. Don’t wait until the market is down a lot before taking some action. You want to have some cash on hand to pick up some “bargains” once the market resumes its uptrend.

If you have not, or if you still feel overexposed, you should consider doing so during the next market rally to bring your portfolio more in line with your own personal risk tolerance. This is especially true if you find yourself worried about your investments more than usual these days. Remember, no one can control what the market does, but you and only you can control the risk you’re taking and the amount of the loss you wish to sustain. If you’re picking up anything on this downturn, keep it small and expect that you’ll have to wait some time to become profitable on these positions. Disclaimer: None of the foregoing should be construed as investment advice or a recommendation to buy or sell any security. Please consult with your own financial advisor or talk to us if you need help.

In a rising interest rate environment where inflation is not yet under control, and where The Fed is now a net seller of bond assets (instead of a buyer), stocks will have a hard time making it back to old highs, not to mention making new ones. While the 13-year-old bull market may not be finally dead, I don’t see this environment as friendly to investing as it has been in the recent past. Don’t assume that the “beach-ball” market that absorbed all manner of “meme stocks”, special purpose acquisition companies (SPACs), Ponzi stocks, a flood of IPOs, and additional stock offerings is going to come roaring back, because I don’t believe that it will anytime soon. Remember, if your favorite stock is down 50%, you need it to double just to get back to even. I don’t think you can count on that anytime soon either.

There’s a saying in the investing world that most have heard: “Don’t Fight The Fed.” That means when The Fed is accommodative with low-interest rates and is actively providing liquidity to the markets (as they mostly have for the past 13 years), you’re essentially investing with the wind at your back. In that environment, you want to be a net buyer, not a net seller of securities.

If you believe that saying is true during the accommodative periods, then trying to fight the Fed when they are withdrawing liquidity and raising interest rates and insisting that the market should go up in the face of those headwinds would not make much sense during the non-accommodative period we’re experiencing right now.  A time of Fed accommodation will return at some point but be patient and cautious with new investments until then.

If you would like to review your current investment portfolio or discuss any other financial planning matters, please don’t hesitate to contact us or visit our website at http://www.ydfs.com. We are a fee-only fiduciary financial planning firm that always puts your interests first.  If you are not a client yet, an initial consultation is complimentary and there is never any pressure or hidden sales pitch. We start with a specific assessment of your personal situation. There is no rush and no cookie-cutter approach. Each client is different, and so is your financial plan and investment objectives.

What’s Going on in the Markets February 27, 2022

Since our last post on What’s Going on in the Markets on January 30, 2022, the market has seen a flurry of volatility trying to come to grips with higher than expected inflation, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the coming interest rate increases by the Federal Reserve. Our hearts go out to those suffering in Ukraine because of yet another unnecessary war.

Since the beginning of the year, while the S&P 500 Index has seen a maximum decline of approximately 11% on a daily closing basis, the carnage under the surface in many stocks and sectors of the markets has been far worse with some stocks down more than 75% on the year. In this post, we’ll look at the factors that may call for further declines or for a coming rally.

The Good

We’ve previously written about how markets undergo a pullback greater than 10% on average every 10-12 months, also called a correction. Therefore, the current correction, which was long overdue by the time it arrived in January, is part of the normal course of ebbs and flows in the stock markets. No one really knows if a correction will devolve into a full-blown bear market until after the fact (a bear market is a decline of 20% or more from the last market peak). While bear markets tend to be harbingers of coming recessions, they don’t always forecast them with 100% accuracy (nothing does).

Historically speaking there are no bells rung at the start of a bear market. In fact, market tops are notoriously difficult to identify except in hindsight, as they are often quite volatile and take months to unfold. The good news is that we’ve been preemptively defensive in our portfolio decisions. The bad news is that a few bear market warning flags are starting to sequentially wave and resemble some of the ones we’ve seen in the most significant bull market tops in history. But it’s not yet a sign to sell everything.

Corporate earnings are the primary driver of the stock market. Simply put, the better the earnings, the higher the market can go. Towards that end, the corporate earnings reports for the 4th quarter of 2021 were better than expected from a revenue and net income perspective, and corporate guidance (forecasting) relating to 1st quarter 2022 earnings were equally positive. Earnings guidance for the rest of 2022 tended to be even more positive and points to a reacceleration of the economy in the back half of the year. That tends to indicate that a recession is off the table, which is consistent with my beliefs and would stave off a bear market.

From a COVID-19 standpoint, since we’ve tamed the Omicron variant, the country is starting to plan for a return to a bit of normalcy with the relaxing of masking requirements around the country and less onerous vaccination mandates. This alone ought to put a bid into the travel, entertainment and leisure industry, as pent-up demand picks up steam and drives further spending. This also adds to the “no recession on the horizon” narrative.

The joblessness and employment figures are surprisingly to the good side, with unemployment levels lower and jobs numbers steadily improving. And employees and new hires are seeing higher wages, which again, will drive higher spending that will stave off a recession (but unfortunately, also drive inflation higher).

While the effects of the Russian invasion of Ukraine may have some impact on the delivery timeline of various goods and services, the supply chain constraints that plagued the economy in 2021 seem to be subsiding, removing some inflationary pressure, and allowing more deliveries of materials and finished goods to factories and consumers respectively.

The Bad

With one trading day left in the month, the S&P 500 Index is down about 3% for the month and down 8% from the year-end 2021 close. While totally within the realm of normal expected volatility, especially for a mid-cycle election year, it’s never fun to experience that kind of decline. That’s because, as mentioned above, many sectors and stocks have been hit far harder. Fortunately, the last couple of days saw a robust bounce in the markets from the depths of fear at the start of the invasion of Ukraine.

Inflation continues its domination of headlines as the last consumer price index clocked in at an annualized rate of 7.5% for January. Energy prices continue to rage higher as we saw oil a touch above $100 a barrel overnight last Thursday as news of the Ukraine invasion started to hit the headlines (the price of oil settled slightly under $92 at Friday’s close, but is spiking again in the Sunday overnight futures market). Food and commodity prices don’t seem to have found a ceiling yet. While some easing of inflationary pressures is expected as supply chains get back to normal and as jobs get filled, it won’t be enough to stave off interest rate hikes by the federal reserve, which are needed to keep inflation in check. I believe that we may have seen the worst of the inflation fears in January.

Speaking of interest rate hikes, estimates vary widely as to how many hikes the federal reserve will have to implement to tame the inflation beast (economists estimate between three and nine 0.25% hikes in 2021 alone). Even if we get eight 0.25% hikes this year, which I consider unlikely, we’ll still be at a 2% federal funds rate, which is quite accommodative for the economy and is generally still quite favorable for the stock market. Unfortunately, higher interest rates have a negative impact on bond prices, which have not yet found a footing this year either (but haven’t collapsed either).

Investor sentiment/psychology (feelings about the stock market) and consumer confidence are somewhat worrisome as they continue to remain moribund in the face of an economy that’s firing on all cylinders and a job seekers’ market that puts them somewhat in control (versus employers) and favors continued robust spending. Highly confident consumers tend to spend more, which drives the economy.

There is convincing evidence today that housing prices are in bubble territory. This carries strong implications for financial markets and the economy given the importance of housing to consumers’ views of their personal balance sheets. Unlike the 2005 Housing Bubble, which was largely predicated on subprime lending and credit default risk, today’s bubble has far more to do with affordability and interest rate risk. Mortgage rates have been suppressed over the past decade by the Federal Reserve’s ultra-accommodative monetary policies, including direct purchases of trillions of dollars in mortgage-backed securities and near-zero interest rates.

Mortgage rates dropped to a record low of 2.7% in early 2021 after the Fed threw the proverbial kitchen sink at the economy in response to the pandemic. However, the recent rise in long-term interest rates, along with the Federal Reserve’s decision to taper their asset purchases, have caused mortgage rates to spike back to 3.7% – the highest level in nearly two years. The combination of rising rates and rising prices has made the average mortgage payment on the same property approximately 30% more expensive than just a year ago. Monitoring the state of the housing market will be crucial in the months ahead as the Federal Reserve is due to begin tightening monetary policy as discussed above.

The Ugly

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is without a doubt an ugly, if not a well telegraphed development. If there was a wild card for the world economic recovery from the pandemic, it’s this–which has the possibility of derailing the recovery by disrupting supply chains and the flow of essential commodities from the region. Economic sanctions unfortunately tend to affect citizens more than the leaders they target, and also have an indirect adverse effect on the countries imposing them. Wars are of course unpredictable, so predicting the outcomes or effects is crystal ball type of speculation.

As the war stakes are raised, so too are the risks to the markets. If calmer heads prevail and escalation to the unthinkable can be avoided, then this should be another one of those bricks in the proverbial walls of worry of the stock markets. A protracted war that draws in other countries will lead to a market that no doubt will sell first and asks questions later.

However, one important historical insight is that most geopolitical crises or regional conflicts do not have a negative long-term impact on the stock market. In the few instances where geopolitical events have weighed on the market, it has been a result of either a broad-based global military conflict or a rise in energy prices (inflation) that puts upward pressure on U.S. interest rates (monetary policy). Of the last eleven crises/conflicts leading to war, only four of them led to a decline of 20% or more in the S&P 500 Index.

The current Russia-Ukraine conflict is likely to cause even higher energy prices, yet at the same time, might reduce the possibility of a full 0.50% rate hike from a concerned Federal Reserve in March.

The biggest concern from fighting a protracted war is a possible global slowdown, which forces us into a recession. Should that happen, I imagine it will be mitigated by a slowing of interest rate hikes and perhaps monetary stimulus. I consider this scenario unlikely at this time.

Now What?

We continue to expect volatility during this mid-term election year and remain cautious and defensive in our positioning. A deeply oversold market resulted in a big bounce on Thursday and Friday of last week, but the escalation in the rhetoric, a worsening of war tactics and increasing economic sanctions over the weekend are likely to trump any oversold markets, and we could see a big give-back of the gains of the last two days come Monday, the last trading day of February. The futures markets on Sunday night portend a very weak open for Monday morning.

There is no doubt that there is a higher-than-normal degree of risk in the market today, and there has already been a significant amount of damage under the surface.  While the S&P 500 Index is currently only 8% off its January high, virtually half of all S&P 500 stocks (and an estimated 80% of NASDAQ stocks) are already down over 20% from their highs.

The jury is out on whether this will be a protracted correction or a major bear market. However, we know that every bear market started out as a pullback, some pullbacks led to a correction, some corrections led to a small bear market, and every big bear market started out as a small bear market. And that makes the next 60-90 days perhaps the most critical in this market cycle stretching back to its start in 2009 (excluding the COVID-19 crash).

Like everything else in life, there is no crystal ball when it comes to navigating the eventual end of a market cycle. Rather, a disciplined assessment of the weight of the evidence allows us to proactively position client portfolios to be defensive when it really matters. Going forward, we are prepared to further increase portfolio defenses depending on how the events in the market unfold. Using options, inverse funds, reducing under-performing positions and harvesting profits are all ways we can reduce client portfolio risk without necessarily exiting the markets (Disclaimer: none of this is a recommendation to buy or sell any securities).

“In the end, navigating a [probable] bear market is not about putting your money under a mattress and waiting for the sky to fall. Instead, the focus should be on proactively managing risk to carefully navigate a wide range of outcomes and positioning oneself for that next great buying opportunity.”-James Stack, InvesTech Research

No doubt these can be scary times for your hard-earned nest egg, and no one enjoys giving back a chunk of market gains. But as we’ve said before, the best way to profit from the stock market is to not get scared out of it. Enduring volatility is the price we pay for the outsized gains we get from investing in the stock market, but if you find yourself losing sleep over your portfolio, talk to your financial adviser (or contact us) so you’re invested in a portfolio that has the right amount of risk for your personal temperament.

If you would like to review your current investment portfolio or discuss any other financial planning matters, please don’t hesitate to contact us or visit our website at http://www.ydfs.com. We are a fee-only fiduciary financial planning firm that always puts your interests first.  If you are not a client yet, an initial consultation is complimentary and there is never any pressure or hidden sales pitch. We start with a specific assessment of your personal situation. There is no rush and no cookie-cutter approach. Each client is different, and so is your financial plan and investment objectives.

Source: InvesTech Research

Did You Exit After Brexit?

The pundits had it all wrong with the Brexit vote (I too was wrong on the British vote to exit from the European Union).

With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that it would have been a bad idea to sell your stock holdings after the Brexit vote; you would have locked in a 5% to 10% loss in a market that has trended upward to new record highs.  The same is true of the aftermath of the World Court decision that slapped China in the face by declaring that man-made islands don’t transform an ocean into territorial waters, the attempted coup in Turkey, or, really, any other alarming headline which doesn’t materially affect a company’s ability to run its operations or earn a profit.

But the bigger issue is that, even if you knew the outcome of the vote, you still wouldn’t have known how markets were going to react.  How would you know whether quick-twitch traders would buy or sell the event?  After the Brexit vote, it took a weekend for investors and traders to realize that this was Britain’s problem, not theirs.  Realistically, it could have taken a month, or even a year to play out.

The same is true for the time period that we’re heading into now.  As you can see from the accompanying chart, the average return for various months of the year has been pretty much the same across the spectrum.  But August, September and October have seen bigger highs and (most alarmingly) also deeper lows, on average, than other months.  This additional volatility seems to be random, and is, once again, impossible to time.  People who decide to side-step the late summer and early fall would miss out on average yearly gains for September and October of 1.05% and 1.21%.  (Skipping August would have saved you modest losses of less than 1%, on average, but one suspects that this is a statistical anomaly.) The month of August in election years, even during the bear market of 2008, tends to have a positive bias; will this year be one of them?

CA - 2016-8-3 - Riding the coaster

Finally, biggest picture of all, the current bull market, which started March 9, 2009, has now become the second-longest bull market on record, beating the June 1949 to August 1956 rally.  It is second only to the December 1987 to March 2000 advance.  In terms of percentage change, we are experiencing the fourth strongest bull market on record.

Doesn’t that mean it’s time to take our chips off the table?  If we knew how to consistently time the market, if we could be sure that the market run won’t continue to run up for another few years, then the answer would be yes.  But with the economy continuing to churn out positive gross domestic product (GDP–the measure of our output of goods and services), with inflation low and unemployment continuing to fall, and central bankers supplying liquidity and stimulus to the markets, it’s hard to see what would cause U.S. stocks to be less valuable in the near future than they are today.

Meanwhile, once again, even if we did exit, how would we know when to get back in?  Investors who bailed during the 2008 downturn missed much of the surprise upturn that began this current bull run.  Those who hung on more than made up for their losses, even though it seemed like every year would be the bull market’s last. One thing that I’ve learned from doing this for so long, is that moves in the market (in both directions) usually go on far longer than most people can imagine.

There isn’t a day where some market “expert” or pundit comes out and says he likes nothing in this market and to sell everything? … Really?? Sell everything?! It angers me how reckless these statements are. Giving blanket advice to people is irresponsible. You don’t know the person’s goals, age, risk tolerance, time-frame, etc. But fearful headlines will always attract eyeballs, and most of these pundits have something to sell you. Don’t buy it. Maybe you should sell some things, but always do your own due diligence and always keep in mind your long-term goals.

It’s nearly certain that there will be a lot of scary headlines between now and the end of the year, and it’s quite likely that the investment roller coaster is about to get bumpy.  All of us wish that we had a working crystal ball to help us navigate through uncertainty, but all we have is the historical record, which says that after the next downturn, the market will eventually experience a new high (yes, this will happen regardless of who becomes our next president).  We want to be there to celebrate it.

If you would like to review your current investment portfolio or discuss any other financial planning matters, please don’t hesitate to contact us or visit our website at http://www.ydfs.com. We are a fee-only fiduciary financial planning firm that always puts your interests first.  If you are not a client yet, an initial consultation is complimentary and there is never any pressure or hidden sales pitch. We start with a specific assessment of your personal situation. There is no rush and no cookie-cutter approach. Each client is different, and so is your financial plan and investment objectives.

Sources: 

https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/get-there/given-the-brexit-brouhaha-how-did-your-investments-hold-up/2016/07/22/a7bc1198-4d03-11e6-a7d8-13d06b37f256_story.html

http://www.investmentnews.com/article/20160801/FREE/160809992/if-history-is-a-guide-market-volatility-is-about-to-spike

http://www.cnbc.com/2016/07/13/merrill-second-longest-bull-market-ever-has-further-to-run.html

The MoneyGeek thanks guest writer Bob Veres for his contribution to this post

Second Quarter 2016 YDFS Market Review

The official start of summer was only a few days ago, but the market already feels like it’s taken us on a wild roller coaster ride this year. It certainly makes us feel like we’re in a bear (sideways to down) market, what with the surprising “Brexit” vote in the UK, the dismal first few weeks of the year and increased volatility across the board.  So it may come as a surprise that the second quarter of 2016 eked out small positive returns for many of the U.S. market indices, and most of them are showing positive (though hardly exciting) gains over the first half of the year.

The Wilshire 5000 Total Market Index–the broadest measure of U.S. stocks and bonds—was up 2.84% for the quarter, and is now up 3.69% for the first half of the year.  The comparable Russell 3000 index gained 1.52% for the quarter and is up 2.20% so far this year.

The Wilshire U.S. Large Cap index gained 2.65% in the second quarter of 2016, putting it at a positive 3.94% since the beginning of January.  The Russell 1000 large-cap index provided a 1.44% return over the past quarter, with a gain of 2.34% so far this year, while the widely-quoted S&P 500 index of large company stocks posted a gain of 1.90% in the second quarter, and is up 2.69% for the first half of 2016.

The Wilshire U.S. Mid-Cap index gained 4.33% for the quarter, and is sitting on a positive gain of 6.67% for the year.  The Russell Midcap Index is up 1.54% for the quarter, and is sitting on a positive gain of 3.82% for the year.

Small company stocks, as measured by the Wilshire U.S. Small-Cap index, gave investors a 4.09% return during the second quarter, up 4.98% so far this year.  The comparable Russell 2000 Small-Cap Index gained 1.96%, erasing gains in the first quarter and posting a 0.41% gain so far this year, while the technology-heavy Nasdaq Composite Index lost 0.56% for the quarter and is down 3.29% for the first half of 2016.

When you look at the global markets, you realize that the U.S. has been a haven of stability in a very messy world.  The broad-based EAFE index of companies in developed foreign economies lost 2.64% in dollar terms in the first quarter of the year, and is now down 6.28% for the first half of the year.  In aggregate, European Union stocks lost 7.60% in the first half of 2016.  Emerging markets stocks of less developed countries, as represented by the EAFE EM index, lost 0.32% for the quarter, but are sitting on gains of 5.03% for the year so far.

Looking over the other investment categories, real estate investments, as measured by the Wilshire U.S. REIT index, was up 5.60% for the second quarter, with a gain of 11.09% for the year.  Commodities, as measured by the S&P GSCI index, gained 12.67% of their value in the second quarter, giving the index a 9.86% gain for the year so far.  The biggest mover, unsurprisingly, is Brent Crude Oil, which has risen more than 15% in price over the quarter.

Meanwhile, interest rates have stayed low, once again confounding prognosticators who have been expecting significant rate rises for more than half a decade now.  The Bloomberg U.S. Corporate Bond Index is yielding 2.88%, while the Bloomberg U.S. Treasury Bond Index is yielding 1.11%.  Treasury yields are stuck near the bottom of historical rates; 3-month notes yielded 0.26% at the end of the quarter, while 12-month bonds were yielding just 0.43%.  Go out to ten years, and you can get a 1.47% annual coupon yield.  Low?  Compared with rates abroad, these yields are positively generous.  If you’re buying the German Bund 10-year government securities, you’re receiving a guaranteed -0.13% yield (yes, that’s a negative yield).  The 5-year yield is actually worse: -0.57%.  Japanese government bonds are also yielding -0.3% (2-year) to -0.23% (10-year). Can you imagine paying someone to hold your money for you?

On the first day of July, the Dow, S&P 500 and Nasdaq indices were all higher than they were before the Brexit vote took investors by surprise, which suggests that, yet again, the people who let panic make their decisions, lost money while those who kept their heads in it, sailed through.  There will be plenty of other opportunities for panic in a future where terrorism, a continuing mess in the Middle East, a refugee crisis in Europe and premature announcements of the demise of the European Union will deflect attention away from what is actually a decent economic story in the U.S.

How decent?  The American economy is on track to grow at a 2.0% rate this year, which is hardly dramatic, but it is sustainable and not likely to overheat different sectors and lead to a recession.  Manufacturing activity is expected to grow 2.6% for the year based on the numbers so far, and the unemployment rate has fallen to 4.7%, which is actually below the Federal Reserve target.  Inflation is also low: running around 1.4% this year.  The unemployment statistics are almost certainly misleading in the sense that many people are underemployed, and a sizable number of working-age men are no longer participating in the labor force, but for many Americans, there’s work if you want it.  Historically low oil prices and high domestic production have lowered the cost of doing business and the cost of living across the American economic landscape.

Despite all this good news, the market is struggling to keep its head above water this year, and is not threatening the record highs set in May of last year. But we’re close, and I suspect that we will challenge and rally above the old highs soon.

Questions remain.  The biggest one in many peoples’ minds is: WILL the European Union break up now that its second-largest economy has voted to exit?  There is already renewed talk of a Grexit, along with clever names like the dePartugal, the Czechout, the Big Finnish and even discussion about Texas (Texit?) leaving the U.S.  How long before we hear about (cue the sarcasm) some localities declaring independence from their states?  With active political movements in at least a dozen Eurozone countries agitating for an exit, is it possible that someday we’ll view the UK as the first domino?

A recent report by Thomas Friedman of Geopolitical Futures suggests that the EU, at the very least, is going to have to reform itself, and the vote in Britain could be the wake-up call it needs to make structural changes.  The Eurozone has been struggling economically since the common currency was adopted.  It is still dealing with the Greek sovereign debt crisis, a potential banking crisis in Italy, economic troubles in Finland, political issues in Poland and, in general, a huge wealth disparity between its northern and southern members.  Is it possible that a flood of regulations coming out of Brussels is imposing an added burden on European economies?  Should different nations be allowed to manage their policies and economies with greater independence and focus?

Friedman thinks the UK will be just fine, because Europe needs it to be a strong trading partner.  Britain is Germany’s third-largest export market and France’s fifth largest.  Would it be wise for those countries to stop selling to Britain or impose tariffs on British exports?  And more broadly, with the political turmoil in the UK, is it possible that there will be a re-vote, particularly if the European Union decides to make reforms that result in a less-stifling regulatory regime?

You’ll continue to see dire headlines, if not about Brexit or the Middle East, then about China’s debt situation and the Fed either deciding or not deciding to raise rates in the U.S. economy (it won’t).  Oil prices are going to bounce around unpredictably.  The remarkable thing to notice is that with all the wild headlines we’ve experienced so far, plus the worst start to the year in U.S. market history, the markets are up slightly here in the U.S., and the economy is still growing.  The chances of a U.S. recession starting in the next nine months are 10% or less.  Yes, your international investments are down right now, but eventually, you can expect them to come to the rescue when the American bull market finally turns.

When will that be?  If we knew how to see the future for certain, we would be in a different business.  All of us are going to have to resign ourselves to being surprised by whatever the rest of the year brings us, headline by headline. That, however, doesn’t stop me from making my own prognostication about what the market might bring.  By the end of the year, I think we’ll see mid-single digit gains for the year, after some hand-wringing over the election, in what I expect to be a rough September and October in the markets. But then again, I thought the Brexit would be voted down, so don’t bet your chips on any predictions anyone has, including me. This keeps us mostly invested with good hedges to absorb whatever volatility the market throws at us.

If you would like to review your current investment portfolio or discuss any other financial planning matters, please don’t hesitate to contact us or visit our website at http://www.ydfs.com. We are a fee-only fiduciary financial planning firm that always puts your interests first.  If you are not a client yet, an initial consultation is complimentary and there is never any pressure or hidden sales pitch. We start with a specific assessment of your personal situation. There is no rush and no cookie-cutter approach. Each client is different, and so is your financial plan and investment objectives.

 

Sources:

Wilshire index data.  http://www.wilshire.com/Indexes/calculator/

Russell index data: http://indexcalculator.russell.com/

S&P index data: http://www.standardandpoors.com/indices/sp-500/en/us/?indexId=spusa-500-usduf–p-us-l–

Nasdaq index data: http://quicktake.morningstar.com/Index/IndexCharts.aspx?Symbol=COMP

International indices: http://www.mscibarra.com/products/indices/international_equity_indices/performance.html

Commodities index data: http://us.spindices.com/index-family/commodities/sp-gsci

Treasury market rates: http://www.bloomberg.com/markets/rates-bonds/government-bonds/us/

Aggregate corporate bond rates: https://indices.barcap.com/show?url=Benchmark_Indices/Aggregate/Bond_Indices

Aggregate corporate bond rates: http://www.bloomberg.com/markets/rates-bonds/corporate-bonds/

http://useconomy.about.com/od/criticalssues/a/US-Economic-Outlook.htm

http://www.marketwatch.com/story/first-quarter-us-gdp-raised-to-11-2016-06-28?siteid=bulletrss

The MoneyGeek thanks guest writer Bob Veres for his contribution to this post

You Only Brexit Once (YOBO)

Not even a month ago, I wrote to you and shared my thoughts on Britain leaving the European Union (EU).  I guess I was wrong.

Thursday’s 52%-48% vote by the British electorate to end its 43-year membership in the European Union seems to have taken just about everybody by surprise, but the aftermath could not have been more predictable.  The uncertainty of how, exactly, Europe and Britain will manage a complex divorce over the coming decade, sent global markets reeling.   London’s blue chip index, the Financial Times Stock Exchange 100, lost 4.4% of its value in one day, while Germany’s DAX market lost more than 7%.  The British pound sterling is getting crushed (down 14% against the yen, 10% against the dollar).

Compared to the global markets, the reaction among traders on U.S. exchanges seems muted; down roughly 3%, though nobody knows if that’s the extent of the fall or just the beginning. I think after a bit of a hangover on Monday, Wall Street will move on to the next brick in the Wall of Worry that builds bull markets.

The important thing to understand is that the current market disruptions represent an emotional roller coaster, an immediate panic reaction to what is likely to be a very long-term, drawn out, ultimately graceful accommodation between the UK and Europe.  German companies are certainly not 7% less valuable today than they were before the vote, and the pound sterling is certainly not suddenly a second-rate currency.  When the dust settles, people will see that this panicky Brexit aftermath was a buying opportunity, rather than a time to sell.  People who sell will realize they were suckered once again by panic masquerading as an assessment of real damage to the companies they’ve invested in.

What happens next for Britain and its former partners on the continent?  Let’s start with what will NOT happen.  Unlike other European nations, Britain will not have to start printing a new currency.  When the UK entered the EU, it chose to retain the British pound—that, of course, will remain.  Stores and businesses will continue accepting euros.

On the trade and regulatory side, the actual split is still years away. One of the things you might not be hearing about in the breathless coverage in the press, is that the British electorate’s vote is actually not legally binding.  It will not be until and unless the British government formally notifies the European Union of its intention to leave under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty—known as the “exit clause.”  If that happens, Article 50 sets forth a two-year period of negotiations between the exiting country and the remaining union.  Since British Prime Minister David Cameron has officially resigned his post and called for a new election, that clock probably won’t start ticking until the British people decide on their next leader.

After notification, attorneys in Whitehall and Brussels would begin negotiating, piece by piece, a new trade relationship, including tariffs, how open the UK borders will be for travel, and a variety of hot button immigration issues.  Estimates vary, but nobody seems to think the process will take less than five years to complete, and current arrangements will stay in place until new ones are agreed upon.

The exit agreement also requires obtaining the consent of the EU Parliament.  When was the last time the EU parliament got anything done quickly? The answer is never. Heck, even Prime Minister David Cameron’s splashy Friday morning resignation is not effective until October. For the foreseeable future, despite what you read and hear, the UK is still part of the Eurozone.

An alternative that is being widely discussed is a temporary acceptance of an established model—similar to Norway’s. Norway is not an EU member, but it pays EU dues, and has full access to the single market as if it was a member.  However, that would require the British to continue paying EU budget dues and accept free movement of workers—which were exactly the provisions that voters rejected in the referendum.

Meanwhile, since the Brexit vote is not legally binding, it’s possible that the new government might decide to delay invoking Article 50.  Or Parliament could instruct the prime minister not to invoke Article 50 until the government has had a chance to further study the implications.  There could even be a second referendum to undo the first.

The important thing for everybody to remember is that the quick-twitch traders and speculators on Wall Street are chasing sentiment, not underlying value, and the markets right now are being driven by emotion to what is perceived as an event, but is really a long process that will be managed by reasonable people who aren’t interested in damaging their nation’s economic fortunes.  Nobody knows exactly how the long-term prospects of Britain, the EU or American companies doing business across the Atlantic will be impacted by Brexit, but it would be unwise to assume the worst so quickly after the vote.

When I want to gauge the intermediate-term economic outlook, I often look at how the large commercial traders are positioned in copper. Being the most basic component of the home/commercial building engine, how they’re positioned in copper tells me how optimistic they are on the economy. As of this week, they’re positioned more bullishly in copper than they have been in the past few years. I would say that offers us some degree of hope about the future of the global economy, even if one country amounting to less than 1% of the global population decides that it doesn’t want to be in an economic union anymore with the rest of Europe.

But you can bet that, long-term, everybody will find a way to move past this interesting, unexpected event without suffering—or imposing—too much damage.  My guess is that the market will get back to its normal course of business by Tuesday or Wednesday and will have moved past this event. Meanwhile, hang on, because the market roller coaster seems to have entered one of those wild rides that we all experience periodically.

Sources:

https://www.yahoo.com/news/brexit-shows-global-desire-throw-142925862.html

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/global-opinions/after-brexit-what-will-and-wont-happen/2016/06/24/c9f7a2f6-39f1-11e6-8f7c-d4c723a2becb_story.html

http://www.businessinsider.com/global-market-brexit-reaction-2016-6

http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/f0c4f432-371d-11e6-9a05-82a9b15a8ee7.html#ixzz4CVixCz25

http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/f0c4f432-371d-11e6-9a05-82a9b15a8ee7.html?ftcamp=traffic/partner/brexit/dianomi/row/auddev#axzz4CVide1Sz

http://www.newser.com/story/227149/brexit-now-what-happens-welcome-to-article-50.html

The MoneyGeek thanks guest writer Bob Veres for his contribution to this post

Is the Weak Jobs Report Foretelling a Recession?

In case you hadn’t heard on Friday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Employment Report for the month of May was disappointing.  Economists who follow job growth in the U.S. economy were expecting 123,000 new jobs to be created.  The actual number, according to the BLS, was 38,000—the smallest gain since September of 2010.

What’s going on?  On a scale of 1 to Lehman, how worried should we be?  Is an 85,000 shortfall in job growth, in a single month, telling us that the U.S. economy is about to plunge into a deep recession? The short answer is no.

CA - 2016-6-3 - That Jobs Report

As it turns out, the investment markets largely shrugged off the surprising number—for a variety of reasons.  First of all, a strike affecting 35,000 Verizon employees was somehow factored into the data, so unless all the striking workers are never coming back to work, a real count would have put the job-adding number at around 73,000.  Second, the employment data comes with a huge asterisk: these are estimates with a margin of error of 100,000 jobs.  That means we won’t actually know how many jobs were created until sometime in the future. There are at least two revisions to be made in the future.

Third: despite the low job creation figure, the Bureau of Labor Statistics also told us that the unemployment rate is dropping, currently to 4.7%, the lowest rate since November 2007.  How can that be?  BLS statistics say that people are leaving the workforce at a faster rate than previously, but the economy has also been adding 180,000 to 200,000 jobs almost every month for the past five years.  Is it possible that it has finally given a job to most of the people who want one?

As evidence, the BLS has reported that hourly earnings by workers are up 3.2% for the first five months of 2016, which suggests that workers have a bit more pricing power than they did, say, last year.  That suggests that we are experiencing a tighter labor market, not one where jobs are falling off the table and many people are too discouraged to apply for a job.

Finally, the uncertainty over jobs has almost certainly delayed the rise in interest rates that had, before the report, been widely expected from the U.S. Federal Reserve Board in June or July.  You can expect the Fed to be more cautious about adding any costs to the economy until its economists can get a handle on what that odd job statistic means for the overall health of U.S. businesses.  That would give the economy a slight boost, and might lead to higher jobs growth figures in the future.

So how much did Friday’s employment news change the fundamental picture of economic growth or the prospects for stocks?

Not very much.

If you would like to review your current investment portfolio or discuss any other financial planning matters, please don’t hesitate to contact us or visit our website at http://www.ydfs.com. We are a fee-only fiduciary financial planning firm that always puts your interests first.  If you are not a client yet, an initial consultation is complimentary and there is never any pressure or hidden sales pitch. We start with a specific assessment of your personal situation. There is no rush and no cookie-cutter approach. Each client is different, and so is your financial plan and investment objectives.

 

Sources:

Wall Street Stunned!

http://www.businessinsider.com/wall-street-on-may-2016-jobs-report-2016-6

http://www.businessinsider.com/us-jobs-report-may-2016-2016-6

http://www.forbes.com/sites/samanthasharf/2016/06/03/jobs-report-u-s-adds-just-38000-jobs-in-may-unemployment-rate-down-to-4-7/?linkId=25155735#22a015b216da

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/06/03/what-just-happened-with-jobs-in-america/?tid=sm_tw

http://www.ft.com/fastft/2016/06/03/us-markets-shake-off-grim-jobs-report/

The MoneyGeek thanks guest writer Bob Veres for his contribution to this post

 

 

What’s Going on in the Markets January 18 2016

Wow! There’s no diplomatic way to say this: the global stock markets are in panic mode right now. In two weeks of trading, the U.S. S&P 500 index is down 8% on the year, which brings us close to correction territory (a 10% decline), and has some predicting a bear market (a 20% decline).

On top of that, we’ve been hearing a widely-publicized, rather alarming prediction from Royal Bank of Scotland analyst Andrew Roberts, saying that the global markets “look similar to 2008.” Mr. Roberts is also predicting that technology and automation are set to wipe out half of all jobs in the developed world. If you listen closely out the window, you can almost hear traders shouting “Sell! Head for the exits! We’re all gonna’ die!!!”

When you’re in the middle of so much panic, when people are stampeding in all directions, it’s hard to realize that there is no actual fire in the theater. Yes, oil prices are down around $30 a barrel, and could go lower, which is not exactly terrific news for oil companies and oil services concerns—particularly those who have invested in fracking production. But cheaper energy IS good news for manufacturers and consumers, which is sometimes forgotten in the gloomy forecasts. Chinese stocks and the Chinese economy are showing more signs of weakness, and there are legitimate concerns about the status of junk bonds—that is, high-yield bonds issued by riskier companies with high debt levels, and many developing nations. These bonds have stabilized in the past few weeks, but another Federal Reserve interest rate hike could destabilize them all over again, leading to forced selling and investors taking losses in the dicier corners of the bond market.

If you can think above the shouting and jostling toward the exists, you might take a moment to wonder about some of these panic triggers. Are oil prices going to continue going down forever, or are they near a logical bottom? Is this a time to be selling stocks, or, with prices this low, a better time to be buying? Are China’s recent struggles relevant to the health of your portfolio and the value of the stocks you own?

And what about the RBS analyst who is yelling “Fire!” in the crowded theater? A closer look at Mr. Roberts’ track record shows that he has been predicting disaster, with some regularity, for the past six years—rather incorrectly, as it turns out. In June 2010, when the markets were about to embark on a remarkable five year boom, he wrote that “We cannot stress enough how strongly we believe that a cliff-edge may be around the corner, for the global banking system (particularly in Europe) and for the global economy. Think the unthinkable,” he added, ominously.   (“The unthinkable,” whatever that meant, never happened.)

Again, in July 2012, his analyst report read, in part: “People talk about recovery, but to me we are in a much worse shape than the Great Depression.” Wow! Wasn’t it scary to have lived through, well, a 3.2% economic growth rate in the U.S. the following year? What Great Depression was he talking about?  Taking his advice in the past would have put you on the sidelines for some of the nicest gains in recent stock market history. And it’s interesting to note that one thing Mr. Roberts did NOT predict was the 2008 market meltdown.

Since 1950, the U.S. markets have experienced a decline of between 5% and 10% (the territory we’re in already) in 35.5% of all calendar years—which is another way of saying that this recent draw down is entirely normal. In fact, our markets spend about 55% of the time in this range (pulling back).  One in five years (22.6%) have experienced draw downs of 10-15%, and 17.7% of our last 56 stock market years have seen downturns, at some point in the year, above 20%.

Stocks periodically go on sale because people panic and sell them at just about any price they can get in their rush to the exits, and we are clearly experiencing one of those periods now. Whether this will be one of those 5-10% years or a 20% year, only time will tell. But it’s worth noting that, in the past, every one of those draw downs eventually ended with an even greater upturn and markets testing new record highs.

Many investors apparently believe this is going to be the first time in market history where that isn’t going to happen. The rest of us can stay in our seats and decline to join the panic.

Without a doubt the market picture looks dour, and it’s hard to see red on our screens and declines on our monthly statements. A disciplined approach that takes into account your goals, risk tolerance and time horizon remains the best way to approach when and how you’ll sell. There’s always a better day to sell since strength always returns to markets after a panic. Your patience is always rewarded in the markets, though I acknowledge that it’s easier said than done. If investing in the stock markets was easy, then returns would not be anywhere near as rewarding as they are.

In our client portfolios, we continue to look for opportunities to add to positions in good funds and companies at the appropriate time. We continue to maintain a healthy cash position, and have increased our hedges. While we may see additional selling to start the week (which starts on Tuesday due to the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday), I suspect that the selling is somewhat exhausted in the short term, so I’m expecting a robust bounce as early as this week (I saw signs of selling exhaustion on Friday January 15). The quality and duration of that bounce will tell us more about what’s to come, and whether more defensive measures are warranted.

Nothing in this note should be construed as investment advice or a recommendation to buy or sell any security. If you would like to review your current investment portfolio or discuss any other financial planning matters, please don’t hesitate to contact us or visit our website at http://www.ydfs.com. We are a fee-only fiduciary financial planning firm that always puts your interests first.  If you are not a client yet, an initial consultation is complimentary and there is never any pressure or hidden sales pitch.

Sources:

http://finance.yahoo.com/news/why-the-heck-are-the-markets-tanking-165146322.html

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/comment/ambroseevans_pritchard/7857595/RBS-tells-clients-to-prepare-for-monster-money-printing-by-the-Federal-Reserve.html

http://www.publicfinanceinternational.org/news/2012/07/economic-crisis-%E2%80%98worse-great-depression%E2%80%99

http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2016/01/the-author-of-the-rbs-sell-everything-note-has-been-predicting-disaster-for-the-last-five-years/

http://www.marquetteassociates.com/Research/Chart-of-the-Week-Posts/Chart-of-the-Week/ArticleID/140/Frequency-and-Magnitude-of-Stock-Market-Corrections

The MoneyGeek thanks guest writer Bob Veres for his contribution to this post

Rate Hike Hype

While I’m still a tad skeptical, we will almost surely see the U.S. Federal Reserve Board (Fed) start the long process of ending its intrusion into the interest rate markets, by allowing short-term rates to rise starting on Wednesday. It will be the first time the Fed has raised rates since 2006, and for some it will mark the beginning of the final chapter of the Great Recession.

Since 2008, as most of us know, returns on short-term bonds have been at or near zero percent, which is a consequence of the Fed keeping the Federal Funds rate—the rate at which it will lend banks virtually unlimited amounts of money, short-term—at 0.125%. The average Fed Funds rate has historically been 3.5% to 4.0%, so this is a considerable amount of stimulus.

At the same time, the Fed has purchased more than $3.5 trillion worth of Treasury securities and home mortgage pools as part of its quantitative easing (QE) programs, bidding aggressively against much smaller buyers, which is another way of saying: forcing the rates on these bonds down closer to zero.

Pulling back out of these interventions is going to be tricky, in part because shifts in interest rates have a direct impact on a still-fragile U.S. economy (higher rates mean higher borrowing costs, potentially less corporate investment and lower profits), and even trickier because we don’t know how investors will react. In the past, the markets have panicked at the mere mention of a cutback in Fed involvement, and (more recently) have also risen on the same news, presumably because people drew encouragement from the confidence the Fed was showing in the strength and resilience of the U.S. economy.

There are also some tricky mechanical problems. The central bank will try to control the extent that short-term rates rise and fall by raising the interest it pays to banks for the reserves held at the Fed, and also cautiously raising the amount it pays money market funds for short-term trades known as “reverse repurchase agreements.” The mechanics are highly technical and complicated—and still unproven, although there are reports that the Fed has been conducting tests for the past two years.

As the markets react, either upwards or downwards, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, despite the headlines soon to be blaring from every financial section of every newspaper in the country, the rate is expected to move very modestly from .125% to .375%—clearly a small first step in a long journey toward the long-term average. After each step—prominently including this one—the Fed will evaluate the consequences before deciding to make future changes. If the economy slows, or if there are signs that inflation is falling below the Fed’s 2% annual target, it could delay the next move by months or even years. That caution greatly reduces the danger of any kind of serious economic pullback.

It’s also worth noting that the Fed has announced no plans to sell the nearly $4.2 trillion worth of various bonds—including the aforementioned Treasuries and mortgages—that it owns. At the moment, the bank is simply rolling over the portfolio, meaning it reinvests $21 billion a month as bonds mature. Eventually, most observers expect the reinvestment to stop and the Fed to allow the huge bond holdings to mature and fall off of its balance sheet. The fact that this is not being done currently reflects the exquisite degree of caution among Fed policymakers, who don’t want to rock the boat too fast or too hard.

Finally, some have wondered about the future of mortgage interest rates as the Fed begins a cautious exit from the bond markets. Interestingly, recent history shows that mortgages haven’t been especially influenced by changes in the benchmark rate. The last time we saw extremely low interest rates, after the tech bubble burst in the early 2000’s, the Fed brought its Fed funds rate down to 1%. It began raising rates by 0.25% a quarter starting in the summer of 2004, but over the next four months, the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage actually fell from 6.3% to 5.58%. By the time of the last increase in the summer of 2006, mortgage rates were running at 6.68%, just a half-percent higher than they had been at the previous Fed funds rate low.

Nobody knows exactly what to expect when the announcement comes on Wednesday, but you can look for the investment markets to bounce around a bit more than usual, and economists—including the teams employed by the Fed—to examine every scrap of data about the impact on the economy over the next quarter. At that time, Fed policymakers will face another decision, and there is no reason to expect them to be less cautious than they have been recently. For many of us, the rate rise should be reason for celebration, a sign that the long recession and period of economic uncertainty is finally starting—carefully—to be put in our rear view mirror.

If you would like to review your current investment portfolio or discuss any other financial planning matters, please don’t hesitate to contact us or visit our website at http://www.ydfs.com. We are a fee-only fiduciary financial planning firm that always puts your interests first.  If you are not a client yet, an initial consultation is complimentary and there is never any pressure or hidden sales pitch.

Sources:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/where-we-live/wp/2015/12/14/what-a-fed-rate-hike-could-mean-to-mortgage-borrowers/

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/12/14/the-federal-reserve-will-likely-raise-interest-rates-this-week-this-is-what-happens-next/

http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/2015/12/14/this-week-december-13/77155714/

The MoneyGeek thanks guest writer Bob Veres for his contribution to this post

Is America in Decline?

In 1945, the U.S. made up more than half of the world’s total gross domestic product (GDP), which basically means that half the world’s economy took place inside U.S. borders. Today that figure is just under 22%.

Does that mean America is in decline?

There seems to be a bull market in doomsayers these past few years, as we’re all reading arguments that the U.S. is slowly losing its grip on global preeminence. The rhetoric today sounds a lot like the hand-wringing back in the 1980s when Japan was allegedly taking over the global economy, and before that, when the Soviet Union had more missiles and a Sputnik circling over our heads.

There’s no easy way to define the overall quality of an economy, but probably the most thorough assessment comes out each year via the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Rankings. The most recent report ranked 144 countries around the world, including Qatar (16), Moldavia (82), Namibia (88), Lesotho (107) and the unhappy states of Chad (143) and Guinea (144), whose citizens eke out their lives on per capita incomes of $1,218 and $564 a year, respectively.

The survey looks at 12 “pillars” of economic competitiveness, including labor market efficiency, the quality of primary education and higher education, infrastructure, the strength of institutions, innovation, business sophistication, technological readiness and the sophistication of the financial markets. Each of these categories are broken down into dozens of subcategories, which are separately evaluated. For instance, when looking at the strength of each country’s public institutions, the World Economic Forum researchers consider whether people in a given country have strong property rights and intellectual property protection, whether there is corruption and the routine payment of bribes, whether the citizens enjoy judicial independence and a solid legal framework, and how well investors enjoy shareholder protection.

In the most recent survey, the U.S. ranked third overall, with an overall rating of 5.5 on a scale of 1-6. Ahead of it were Switzerland (5.7) and Singapore (5.6). China, the country that you most often hear cited as the all-powerful up-and-coming economy, ranked 28th, two rungs below Saudi Arabia, one rung above Estonia. Brazil and India, which are sometimes mentioned as powerful competitors to U.S. economic hegemony, are ranked 57th and 71st, respectively.

The point of the rankings is to show which countries have created the healthiest (or, in the cases of Chad and Guinea, the least-healthy) economic climate for future growth. But of course there are other ways of measuring competitiveness, including the bottom line (as mentioned at the top of the article) of percentage of the world GDP, and whether you’re moving up or down.

US and Global GDP through 2014

By that standard, the U.S. is indeed moving down. If you look at Figure 1 above, which shows the size of the overall global and U.S. economies since 1991, you see that the U.S. has enjoyed steady economic growth, while the world at large has essentially taken off like a rocket. The years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, when several billion people were suddenly allowed to become capitalists, have been good for world growth. When China shifted from a communist to a capitalist economic posture, this added fuel to the rocket. The democratization of computer technology and the global Internet has empowered value creators everywhere.

The U.S., Europe and Japan, in other words, no longer have a monopoly on capitalism. And that’s a good thing.

Is there a better way of evaluating how the U.S. economy is holding up in an increasingly competitive world? Figure 2 below looks at the first chart from a slightly different angle. Since 1991, what percentage of all the world’s business has been happening in the U.S., vs. Europe, Japan, China, India, Russia and Brazil?   How much of the total global economy did each nation claim in each year, and how has that balance changed over time?

US GDP Market Share through 2014

What you see there is that the U.S. is still in the lead by a pretty wide margin, and in recent years has actually stabilized its percentage of total global GDP. The decline has come mostly because a lot of smaller emerging markets, plus China and, to a certain extent, Brazil, India and Russia, have all been growing. At the same time, America’s traditional competitors—Europe and Japan—have been sinking. If you want to point a finger at decline, perhaps that’s a better direction than the U.S.

Does the U.S. face economic challenges? Of course. Is our political system a mess? Sure. Could things be better? Certainly. But if you sift through a lot of variables with a fine-toothed comb, you discover that the U.S. has created a better environment to grow and prosper than almost anywhere else, and it has held its own with the roaring growth of the emerging markets while the other developed nations are losing ground. More than a fifth of all economic activity still happens in the U.S., and the long, slow decline in that figure is not due to stagnation at home, but abundant growth all around the world. That’s not something to worry about; it’s something we should be celebrating.

If you would like to review your current investment portfolio or discuss any other financial planning matters, please don’t hesitate to contact us or visit our website at http://www.ydfs.com. We are a fee-only fiduciary financial planning firm that always puts your interests first.  If you are not a client yet, an initial consultation is complimentary and there is never any pressure or hidden sales pitch.

Sources:

http://reports.weforum.org/global-competitiveness-report-2014-2015/rankings/

http://www.economywatch.com/economic-statistics/year/1990/

http://theamericanscene.com/2008/05/07/a-post-american-world

TheMoneyGeek thanks guest writer Bob Veres for writing this post.

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