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

What’s Going on in the Markets January 30, 2022

With only one trading day left in the month, this January has seen the worst start to the year in the stock markets since 2008. Down just a tad under 10% year-to-date, after a stellar and steady 2021, could the auspicious start in the S&P 500 index portend a poor 2022 for the markets? After all, a popular market aphorism is “as January goes, so goes the rest of the year”.  Anyone who knows me well knows that I don’t ascribe much value to these popular sayings.

Much of the recent market volatility can be attributed to: 1) angst over COVID-19 variants; 2) worries about a federal reserve that has all but telegraphed 2-4 interest rate hikes in 2022; 3) the suspension of monetary stimulus (to combat inflation); 4) the absence of any significant fiscal stimulus expected from Washington; and 5) concerns over a potential Russian incursion into the Ukraine.

In this write-up, I’ll try to explain my viewpoint of what is going on in the economy and markets, and whether I think we’re heading for a much deeper pullback in the markets, or perhaps an economic recession.

Pullbacks, Corrections and Bear Markets

Enduring volatile markets is the price we pay for outsized returns that we ultimately earn for risking our money in the stock markets. Why even bother? Because cash and savings accounts pay us nothing, and bonds, which on average yield low single digit annual returns, ultimately lost a little money in 2021. Simply put, we need an alternative to stashing our money under the mattress. That’s especially true at a time when inflation is finally rearing its ugly head in a higher-than-expected way.

We need to invest in a way to at least overcome the depreciating effects of inflation on the buying power of our cash. Of course, we also need to be adequately compensated for taking the risk of investing in the stock markets.

In the media, you’ll hear about pullbacks, which is essentially any decline in prices of less than 10% from the last peak in the index, fund, or stock. Next, you’ll hear about a correction, which is a decline of 10%-19% in prices from the last peak. Finally, a bear market is a decline of 20% or more from the last peak.

2021 was such a smooth and steady uptrending year, where we barely had a couple of 5% pullbacks. By comparison, we generally experience between one and three 5% pullbacks a year. 2021 had no corrections, although we generally get one every 10-12 months. The last bear market we experienced came in February-March 2020 in the form of a 35% decline from peak to trough in the S&P 500 index, attributable to fears over COVID-19. We generally see a bear market every 3-7 years on average.

It seems obvious and unnecessary to state that the stock market is truly a “market of stocks”. Then why even say it? Because to understand what leads to pullbacks, corrections, and bear markets, you must drill down into the details of the indexes and see what’s really happening with individual stocks.

Despite an obvious uptrend in the indexes in 2021, digging into the details, you could see that there was trouble brewing under the surface. The number of uptrending stocks (stocks going higher) peaked in February 2021. So did the number of stocks making new 52-week (one-year) highs. At the same time, the number of stocks making 52-week lows bottomed and turned upward. A truly healthy market does the opposite of all this. But in fairness, after a very strong finish to 2020, the market was overdue in 2021 to take a “rest”.

In stock market parlance, we call the number of uptrending stocks relative to downtrending stocks, and the ratio of stocks making 52-week highs relative to those making 52-week lows, components of “market breadth”.

For most of 2021, despite the stock market indexes making new highs on a regular basis, it was doing so with fewer and fewer stocks participating. An estimated 10%-15% of all stocks, which were quite strong, were masking weakness in the other 85%-90% of stocks. Small capitalization stocks, which make up the largest sub-segment of the stock market (in terms of number of stocks, not company size), peaked in March 2021 (note that small stocks attempted and failed in a rally attempt in November 2021).

All throughout 2021, we also observed more and more stocks making 52-week lows, and fewer and fewer making 52-week highs. Many stocks were down 20%-70% or more from their peaks, and those new low counts were increasing almost daily. Some COVID related and stay-at-home stocks which were the heroes of 2020 were being smashed. How can that be? After all, we were still making new market index highs on a regular basis throughout the year.

Without going into a long-detailed explanation about the structure of market indexes, let’s just say that the biggest companies such as Apple and Microsoft (called large or mega capitalization stocks) have the biggest effects on the indexes, even if they are smallest in number. That’s how a cohort of 20-25 stocks could fool you into thinking that all was going great in the markets. Dig deeper–and you saw healthcare, industrial and communications stocks deteriorate as the year wore on.

If you wondered why your diversified portfolio didn’t return anywhere near the returns on the indexes, the above partially explains it. If you didn’t own enough of the chosen few outperforming stocks, your portfolio no doubt underperformed the market averages. That’s called stock investing for the long term, and it’s typical of many periods in the stock markets.

You’ll rarely if ever hear about the deterioration of market breadth on the evening news; you’ll only hear about new record highs in the indexes. Now you know a little better.

Pluses and Minuses

What does this mean for the market going forward? Are we headed for an economic recession? A bear market? Another double-digit return year? I’ll first discuss the pluses and minuses and then tell you what I see when I consult my broken crystal ball for the rest of the year.

Pluses

  1. The economy is quite strong and continues to exhibit growth, with estimates of 3%-4% gross domestic product growth expected for 2022. Before COVID-19, our economy was growing at an annual rate of 2%-3%, but due to unprecedented stimulus, we have temporarily skewed the economic picture. I would expect the economy to return to normal levels of growth in 2023.
  2. The job market continues to be robust and “tight”. Many more jobs are going unfilled than at any time in recent history, and that portends good starting wages for those looking for work. Companies that are expecting a recession would not be increasing posts for new and unfilled positions as they are right now. Higher wages mean that employees have more money to spend on goods and services, keeping upward pressure on the economy.
  3. Earnings estimates for companies, which are the primary driver of stock market returns, continue to impress and increase over 2021 levels. Consumers are still spending strongly.
  4. Many experts believe that the Omicron variant of COVID is the “swan song” of the disease, and that by mid-2022, the pandemic will be just another virus that is a part of our daily lives.
  5. Traffic, travel, hospitality as well as office occupancy are slowly showing signs of returning to pre-pandemic levels in many major cities around the world.
  6. Supply chain disruptions are easing around the world, taking inflationary pressures down with them.
  7. Used car prices, a leading contributor to inflation, could be easing as semi-conductor chip production ramps up and finds its way into automakers’ cars waiting for delivery on their lots.
  8. Consumer spending and demand for goods and services continues to be robust. Demand for travel and leisure services, considering the potential fading of COVID, can only be expected to increase.
  9. The recent market sell-off has shaved off some speculative fervor from the markets, and the market is oversold on many metrics, which portends at least a short-term bounce (which may have started on Friday, January 28th).

Minuses

  1. The strength in the economy could be hurt in the 1st quarter of 2022 due to the Omicron variant disrupting production, increasing absenteeism, and reducing employee productivity.
  2. Job growth and employee shortages contribute to wage inflation, which is the leading contributor to overall inflation. This will continue to pressure the federal reserve to increase interest rates to cool the economy. Higher interest rates reduce corporate earnings via higher interest expense, and implicitly lead to reduced stock price multiples (price-earnings ratio).
  3. Although the recent sell-off has somewhat cooled the speculative fever in the stock markets, initial public offerings, special purpose acquisition companies, cryptocurrencies and non-fungible tokens, relative excess enthusiasm around speculation remains.
  4. Housing prices may be in a bubble. With a continued short supply of available housing, this could also continue to exert upward pressure on housing prices for some time to come.
  5. Monetary and fiscal stimulus, the prominent catalysts in one of the quickest recoveries from one of the shortest recessions in history (2020), looks to be notably absent given Congress’ failure to pass the Build Back Better stimulus bill last year. The likelihood of passing significant alternate stimulus legislation in a mid-term election year seems unlikely.

My Broken Crystal Ball Expectations

Normally, I try and avoid speculation about the future of the markets and economy, because I’ll just be guessing like anyone else.  But given that I manage million-dollar portfolios, and that I must make educated guesses about stocks, the markets, and the economy every day, I provide my thoughts for what they’re worth.

The weight of evidence points to a continuation of robust economic conditions that will lead to higher corporate profits. In other words, I don’t believe that 2022 will be the year we experience an economic recession.

This should lead to a stock market that’s higher at year-end than it is today. How much higher, if I had to guess, is probably less than 10%-12% from where we are today. That would mean we probably won’t make new highs in the markets for the rest of the year, which obviously means that I don’t think we’ll have a bear market this year.

Given uncertainty and angst over federal reserve short-term interest rate hikes and the ultimate lingering effects of COVID, I have near conviction that the volatility in the markets for 2022 will persist. That’s not saying much if I’m honest, because volatility is always expected in the markets. What I really mean is that the relative calm of 2021 won’t be repeated in 2022. But with volatility come opportunities to make new investments in stocks that become somewhat more fairly priced or undervalued.



As for the short term, Friday January 28th saw a robust market bounce after a very tumultuous week. While the bottom of this correction may have been seen at the lows made on Monday January 24th, we’ll only know that in hindsight in a few weeks. My best guess is that there may be one more re-test of that day’s low, but the real test right now is the robustness of the current bounce. If the recovery is solid and strong, then we may have seen the short-term lows for this correction.

Regardless, I don’t believe this means a straight up market and a full recovery of the immense damage done to tons of growth stocks, many of which won’t get back to old highs anytime soon, if ever.  If you’ve been nibbling on stocks into this decline, be ready to withstand a lot of back-and-forth action that will frustrate both the bulls (optimists) and bears (pessimists). “The secret to success in stocks is to not get scared out of them” – John Buckingham

If you’re stuck with poor performing investments, especially when you’re sitting on large losses, ask yourself whether it makes sense to sell them into the strength that any upcoming/current bounce ultimately provides. Don’t think that they’ll eventually and automatically come back, because many won’t. In general, I have a rule: if a long-term investment underperforms for 1-2 years after I buy it, it’s time to consider cutting it. Don’t be too hard on yourself about it; just be ruthless in letting go of stocks that may have their best days behind them. Deploy the cash in better opportunities. If you found yourself too heavily invested coming into this decline, you may want to take advantage of the bounce to lighten up your exposure and take some risk off the table. Disclaimer: This is in no way investment advice or a recommendation to buy or sell any securities; please consult with your financial adviser (or us) for help.

For our client portfolios, we remain invested along with our portfolio hedges, which we adjust to changing market conditions. In addition, by using options to dampen volatility, reduce overall risk and generate income, we are well positioned to profit from whatever the year decides to throw at us.

For 2022, I believe that after 21 months of unusually calm and one way upward markets, this year will prove to be a more “normal” year with two-way market action, and likely single digit positive returns. But my crystal ball is still broken, so take this forecast for what it’s worth.

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.

2020: Not Your Average Election Year

If you decided to take a long nap on New Year’s Eve and just woke up today, looked at your account statements, you might have yawned at how unchanged and boring the market must have been. You’d probably think, “on average, the market has been unchanged.”

But that’s the problem of averages when it comes to the stock market — they can wall-paper over a lot of painful experiences, like the tech bubble of 1999-2000, and the housing bubble of 2006-2007.

Considering the health catastrophe created by COVID-19, the strong rebound in stocks since the late-March low is astounding, especially given the deep economic damage. But given that the stock market is a forward-looking discount mechanism, it suggests that the collective wisdom of investors is more optimistic than the evidence that we hear and read about every day.

Stock markets continue to express little concern about the many uncertainties in this environment. Stock market valuations have met or exceeded their pre-crisis levels by most measures and continue to expand despite the major ongoing risks. Existing home sales in June of 4.7 million exceeded a record level on the back of falling interest rates, even as the number of unemployment claims ticked up last week for the first time in four months.

Federal Reserve support, rock bottom interest rates, the re-opening trade, and stronger economic data have helped. I also believe investors are looking past this year’s hit to corporate profits and are expecting an upturn in 2021.

The jump in daily COVID cases has created some renewed volatility, and it bears watching, but it has yet to knock the bulls off course. New all-time highs in the stock market in the weeks ahead would not surprise me one bit (the NASDAQ index has already done it). Even more surprising, it’s entirely possible that we’ve embarked on a new bull market.

While we are cautiously optimistic and giving this market the benefit of the doubt, we are maintaining our defensive allocation, primarily due to the persistent level of exuberance in the markets and resulting current overvaluation, as well as the uncertainty around possible rollbacks in re-openings.

Ultimately, the path of the virus will play the biggest role in how the economic outlook unfolds. Some folks are itching to get back to normal, while others remain on guard against the disease and are taking a more cautious approach. It may take time for some businesses to fully recover. Some never will.

Last month I opined, “I don’t expect a return to a pre-Covid jobless rate anytime soon. But investors are betting that an economic bottom is in sight.”

Try to look past continued volatility. With elections coming up this year, I expect more wacky market moves to go along with the typical wacky political moves we always see in a presidential election year. Regardless, based on recent economic reports, I think we hit bottom in April.

Those worried about a return to the March lows currently don’t have much evidence in terms of stock market action to support their worries. With so much money on the sidelines, it seems that every little dip is getting bought by those left behind in the panic.

If you liken the February-March stock market crash to an earthquake, then sure, you may feel some tremors and aftershocks for months, but the likelihood of another earthquake within a short period of time is highly improbable.

What to Do

None of us expected an economic upheaval spawned by a health crisis as the year began. But it pays to discuss some of the lessons and takeaways from the COVID-19 crisis.  And as I discuss them, you’ll probably recognize some of the themes (yes I do repeat myself frequently, like a nagging parent). Let’s not forget that the fundamentals—the core financial precepts—are always the building blocks of any credible financial plan.

1. Money at the end of your month

Saving for an emergency cannot be underestimated. Six to nine months of spending needs is optimal. But there is an added benefit—financial peace of mind.

It’s reflected in the proverb “The borrower is servant to the lender.” It’s not that I would counsel against a mortgage for a home or a reasonable loan for a car. But accumulation of wants (not needs) with (credit card) debt doesn’t bring contentment.

Instead, it brings stress. I have seen it over and over. You want money at the end of your month, not month at the end of your money.

A financial cushion eliminates one of life’s worries.

2. Wants vs. needs

Many of us have learned to do without certain things during quarantine. Whether we wanted to or not, we were forced to cut back on certain items.

Ask yourself this question, “As businesses re-open, are there things I can do without? Can I continue to cut back and still maintain my lifestyle?”

Many of our entertainment options have been curtailed. As we emerge from our homes and businesses reopen, are there items that can be trimmed from the budget?

It’s not a cold turkey approach, i.e. no more eating out, sporting events, travel or theater. But can we reduce expenditures on some items without sacrificing our overall lifestyle?

3. Diversification and tolerance for risk

We’ve just witnessed an unusual amount of stock market volatility. Calling it a roller coaster does not fully capture the experience (and most amusement parks are still shuttered!)

The major indexes have erased much of their losses. Yet, how did you fare emotionally when stocks took a beating? Now is the time to reevaluate your tolerance for risk. We’d be happy to assist and make any adjustments as they relate to your longer-term financial goals.

4. Expecting the unexpected

From its March 2009 low to the February 2020 high, the bull market ran for over 10 years (measured by the S&P 500 Index). We know bear markets are inevitable, but I recognize that the onset of a steep decline may be unnerving.

Nonetheless, a well-diversified portfolio of stocks has historically had an upside bias. That upside bias is incorporated into the recommendations we make, even as our recommendations are tailored to your individual circumstances and goals.

Further, a mix of fixed income and contra-funds helped cushion the decline. While we monitor events and the markets over a shorter-term period, let’s be careful not to take our eyes off your longer-term goals.

Be proactive, not reactive

The ideas above are a broad overview and individual circumstances may vary.

Taking inventory is critical. It’s half the battle. Be proactive, not reactive. You may find you are in a much better position than you realized. As always, we are here to help.

I hope you’ve found this review to be helpful and educational.

I understand the uncertainty facing all of us. We are grappling with an economic and a health care crisis. It’s something none of us have ever faced. We have addressed various issues with you, but I have an open-door policy. If you have questions or concerns, let’s have a conversation. That’s what I’m here for.

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 June 7, 2020

Over the past week, the stocks of American Airlines, United Airlines and Delta Airlines were up 77%, 51% and 35% respectively. In addition, the stocks of Norwegian Cruises, Carnival Cruises and Royal Caribbean Cruises were up 43%, 37%, and 34% respectively.

But none was more bizarre than the stock of Hertz Car Rental, which was up a whopping 157% on the week. Now it’s not unusual for a cheap stock trading for $1.00 a share to double or triple in a week. But it is unusual when the company has already declared bankruptcy, meaning that stockholders will likely receive nothing in the reorganization.

In what I can only describe as a bit of overexuberance in a world where many don’t plan to get on an airplane in the next 12 months, and others who say they’ll never step foot on a cruise ship in their lifetimes again, can I say that the recent rally is getting a little “bubblelicious”?

That’s all to say that I cannot remember a time when I’ve seen such a widespread disparity between what is happening in the economy and what is happening in the stock market.

Let’s take a few moments to briefly outline the situation using hard data.

  • The unemployment rate soared to a post-depression high of 14.7% in April, while the survey of businesses by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics revealed a loss of 20.5 million jobs in April, the worst monthly reading since records began in 1939.
  • In a single month, nearly all of the jobs created after the financial crisis disappeared, at least temporarily.
  • Then on Friday we got the May Jobs report and we were surprised that the economy had created 2.5 million jobs and the unemployment rate had actually declined to 13.3%. While 13.3% unemployment is a “depression-like” number, it was far better than numbers projected by economists: a loss of 7.5 million jobs and a 20% unemployment rate. To paraphrase Yogi Berra: “forecasting is hard, especially when it’s about the future”.
  • April’s 11.2% drop in industrial production, a metric the Federal Reserve has tracked since 1919 – is the biggest monthly decline on record. Furthermore, consumer spending in April fell 13.6%, the biggest decline ever recorded (U.S. BEA, data back to 1959).
  • The Institute for Supply Management’s (ISM) Manufacturing Index and the ISM Services Index both showed a slight improvement in May; however, both segments remain deep in contraction territory.
  • Record layoffs continue, with the number of first-time claims for unemployment insurance topping 40 million over a 10-week period ending May 23. Put another way, nearly one in four working Americans have experienced a job loss.

If there is any good news, it is that the number of first-time filings has been declining, and the number of individuals who re-certify on a regular basis in order to continue receiving jobless benefits is about half the number of first-time filings.

This would suggest that the economic injury disaster loans and payroll protection program loans are kicking in, and re-openings are encouraging businesses to recall furloughed workers.

Let’s Back Up Again for a Moment

  • In April, in just a three-week period, the number of first-time claims for jobless benefits totaled an astounding 17 million. For perspective, during the 18-month-long 2007-2009 recession…first-time claims totaled 9.6 million.
  • Yet the Dow Jones Industrial Average added 2,107 points over the three Thursdays when the massive number of new claims were released.
  • Since then (April 9), the Dow has added 3,600 points, or 15.0%. It is up 49% since its near-term March 23 bottom.
  • The broader-based S&P 500 Index eclipsed 3,000 by the end of May and has rebounded nearly 46% from its March 23 low to near 3,200.
  • Meanwhile the tech-heavy NASDAQ Composite has added 48%, is back above 9,800, and has already surpassed its all-time high.

Simply put, economic activity is falling with depression-like speed, but the major averages are in the midst of an historic rally.

Here’s one more piece of performance data:

  • During the financial crisis, the S&P 500 Index lost nearly 57% from its October 2007 peak to the bottom in March 2009. This year, in about one month, the S&P 500 Index shed 34% before hitting a near-term bottom on March 23.

The adage “stocks climb a wall of worry” has never been more appropriate amid economic devastation and an outlook that remains incredibly murky.

A Closer Look at the Wall Street/Main Street Disconnect

A combination of factors has fueled the rally since late March.

The response by the Federal Reserve has far outpaced its 2008 response, which has lent a tremendous amount of support to stocks. The same can be said of government fiscal stimulus.

Investors are also keeping close tabs on state re-openings, which will re-employ furloughed workers, help stabilize the economy, and set the stage for a possible economic rebound later in the summer. Talk of possible vaccines has also helped.

You see, investors don’t simply look at today’s data, which in many cases is backward-looking. Instead, they are forward-looking as they attempt to price in economic activity, the level of interest rates, corporate profits, and more over the next 612 months.

An Approaching Dawn

If we look at what is called “high-frequency economic data” (daily or weekly reports), we are starting to see signs of stability.

Daily gasoline usage has rebounded (Energy Information Administration), daily travel through TSA checkpoints is up, hotel occupancy is off the bottom, and the same can be said of weekly box office receipts (Box Office Mojo).

In addition, the weekly U.S. MBA’s Purchase Index (home loan applications) registered its fifth-best reading over the last year (as of May 22), suggesting that low-interest rates and some confidence that the U.S. economy is set to recover are lending support to housing.

Of course, these are highly unconventional measures of economic activity and are industry-specific. Outside of the Purchase Index, each remains well below previous highs, but the turnaround suggests we may be seeing some light at the end of a very dark tunnel.

Collective Wisdom

Any given level of a major stock market index represents the collective wisdom of tens of millions of stock market investors. It is not simply an opinion, but an opinion with money behind it. That’s an opinion worth listening to.

When stocks were in a free fall in March, investors were anticipating a devastating blow to the economy. Tragically, the data did not disappoint.

But has the rally been too much, too quickly?

Even in the best of times, economic forecasting can be difficult (refer to earlier Yogi Berra quote). Today, the outlook is clouded with a much greater degree of uncertainty.

  1. Will the virus lay down over the summer?
  2. How will re-openings proceed?
  3. How quickly can a readily available vaccine and treatment be developed?
  4. What might happen to COVID-19 next fall and winter?
  5. How quickly will consumers venture back in public and resume prior spending patterns?

These are difficult questions to answer.

I don’t expect a return to a pre-COVID jobless rate anytime soon. But investors are betting that an economic bottom is in sight or has already occurred.

I understand the uncertainty facing all of us and I don’t underestimate the enormous amount of work that has to be done or the difficulties we’ll encounter in getting back to “normal”. We are grappling with an economic and a health care crisis, not to mention recent civil unrest. It’s a combination none of us have ever faced.

A New Bull Market or the Most Epic of all Bear Market Rallies?

For our clients’ portfolios, I know that I will spend years analyzing the last few months and scrutinizing our moves. I’m pleased that we entered 2020 with a defensive stance that served us well. I’m also pleased that we followed our rules in further reducing portfolio risk and increasing hedges as we saw fit as the decline kicked into high gear. I’m very pleased that we held firm with our core holdings, never wavering from our belief that our core assets would ultimately be just fine, dividends would continue to accrue and that the foundation of our portfolios remained intact.

As we moved through the crash methodically with a steady hand and calm head,  I’m also pleased that not a single client panicked, and those that stuck with their investment plans and did not decide to tinker with their portfolio risk “on the fly” fared the best among our clients. Those that paid attention to the media (who regularly try their best to scare us witless), and who insisted on reducing their risk near the bottom and not follow their own investment plan still fared OK but cost their portfolios dearly. 

So I guess I’ll say it again: Neither they, you, or I know what’s going to happen next, no matter how smart we are. All we can do is watch the price action, put probabilities in our favor, and pay heed to risk. Ultimately, we’re in the risk management business, not the prediction business.

What I’m not as pleased about is that we didn’t more aggressively buy the panic that ensued in the market. Of course, this is easy to say in hindsight. It was my plan to do so, but the bounce proceeded too quickly and the shallow pullbacks did not allow for the necessary low-risk entries that I was planning for. While we bought some investments lightly on the way down and also on the way up, with the benefit of hindsight, we could have more aggressively reduced hedges and ramped up buying. 

I’m also not pleased that I underestimated the power of the Federal Reserve and found myself being overly moderate. Of course, the next few months could prove my current sentiment to be completely wrong and the gains quickly reverse. As it stands, it is my plan to increase our overall investment levels based on the “quality” of the next pullback.

Towards that end, if this is truly a new bull market, and the recession turns out to be one of the shortest ones on record, then the next pullback should be of the 5%-10% variety, and will give us a low-risk way to increase stock market exposure further.  If instead, this has been the “mother” of all bear market rallies, then our continued defensive stance will serve us quite well. Only time will tell.

Short-term, the market is a bit overheated, so a pullback could ensue any day now. For those who are phasing back into the market, or who need to rebalance their portfolio, it may be advantageous to wait for the pullback.

As we move forward from here, I’ll be the first to admit that I still have no idea how this all plays out into the remainder of 2020. From the coronavirus, we have now moved to national demonstrations and riots which are affecting cities all across America. In just a few months we’ll be heading directly into a presidential election. If that’s not a recipe for elevated volatility for the rest of the year, I don’t know what is.

On the investment horizon, I can tell you that this bust/ boom cycle we’ve just witnessed has solidified, more than ever, just how important it is to have a portfolio diversification not only in different asset types, but also across time-frames (i.e., short term, medium-term and long-term investments). It has solidified the idea that a client’s risk tolerance is much more important than age-based risk tolerance, and that I plan to spend more time in client meetings making sure that clients truly understand and accept their overall risk. As a firm, we’ll continue looking to do more of the things that have worked for us and less of the things that didn’t.

Bottom Line

Fueled by record amounts of stimulus in both monetary and fiscal policy, stocks have continued to move higher in spite of the ongoing economic damage. This disconnect between the economy and the stock market has confounded many analysts due to the fact that there is typically a tight link between the two. And while it’s key to understand the additional dynamics which affect the stock market, this divergence (between the economy and stock market) represents a high degree of risk which continues to warrant a defensive portfolio stance.

As always, I’m honored and humbled that you’re devoting time to read what I’m writing and/or given me the opportunity to serve as your financial planner/advisor. If you have any questions or would like to discuss any financial matters, please feel free to give me a call.

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 March 28, 2020

The unprecedented market volatility continued as Friday’s downside action capped off an otherwise strong week. A robust three-day bounce of about 20% from Monday’s lows saw us give back roughly 1/4 of the weekly gains on Friday.

Still, in all, it was a great week for the bulls. The stock market, as measured by the S&P 500 index, gained about 10.25%, reclaiming about 1/3rd of the bear market losses incurred over the prior four weeks. This doesn’t mean, however, that the bulls are out of the woods and ready to run free in the fields. Bear markets rarely end after only five weeks, especially when volatility remains as high as it currently is.

So far what we’ve witnessed this week seems to be classic bear market action. Whenever the markets get so far stretched to the downside, just like a rubber band, some sort of snap-back action is to be expected. Indeed, as I’ve described in previous postings, a “wicked rip your face off rally of 20-50%” was to be expected. So yes, we could get more upside in the short term.

What we have experienced in the markets over the past five weeks is a “waterfall” decline followed by a robust bounce that gets many investors to think that the worst may be over. Most of the time, after convincing many that it’s safe to jump back in, we get a reversal of the bounce. If, in turn, the reversal plays out in traditional fashion, then the lows that were hit this past Monday will eventually be revisited and tested to see if they’ll hold.

If the lows don’t hold, then anyone buying into the bounce will be holding “losers” and will likely join the selling with anything they bought into the bounce and then some. If the lows do hold, then we will likely see a more durable (lasting) rally which may confirm that the worst of the decline is over for the intermediate-term. That may be the “safer” time to make more meaningful additions to your portfolio (but check with your investment advisor or talk to us).

The optimists are hoping that the massive fiscal and monetary stimulus will backstop stocks and prevent that retest from occurring, or that Monday’s lows will hold. The pessimists are concerned that the uncertainty of the coronavirus and its economic consequences will keep buyers on the sidelines, and that more sellers will emerge.

The response of both the Federal Reserve and the federal government has been unprecedented. The Federal Reserve outright stated this week that it’s willing to provide unlimited monetary stimulus, announcing program after program, as its balance sheet exceeds $5 trillion for the first time. That’s $5 trillion with a “T”.  Yes, $5,000,000,000,000. Pause for a moment and let that number sink in. I’ll wait.

Similarly, the $2 trillion stimulus package passed by Congress and signed by the President on Friday is more than double the $800 billion package passed in 2009 to ease the Great Recession. These efforts will dampen the economic fallout that has already begun to take place, but the full impact that will be realized is still largely unknown. I believe that more stimulus is going to be necessary.

The somewhat expected explosion in jobless claims on Thursday to a record 3.3 million (it had been averaging about 220,000-230,000 for many weeks) coupled with Friday’s sharp drop in reported Consumer Sentiment (no surprise given what’s going on in the world) indicates that the ongoing economic damage will likely be significant.

While Monday may possibly have marked an intermediate-term bottom in the market, it remains to be seen if the risks which were identified in prior posts (e.g., stock market and real estate overvaluation, low-quality corporate debt levels at a record high, yield curve inversion) will be unwound or not. The excesses that have been built up over the course of this economic cycle in terms of stock market overvaluations, inflated housing prices, and low-quality corporate debt remain in place for the most part and are clearly risks going forward. The depth and duration of this recession will be determined primarily by what happens in these key areas of vulnerability.

As we navigate through this extreme volatility, we will depend on key technical indicators to confirm whether or not Monday’s low was the bottom. Because I have serious doubts that this is the case, we used the bounce this week to reduce our overall investment allocations to stocks and exposure to riskier corporate bonds for clients. The next several weeks should provide valuable insight into whether breadth (the number of stocks going up versus the number of stocks going down) and leadership are truly stabilizing, and just how much of the economic risk is actually behind us.

While we are seeing unprecedented government support, we are also experiencing an unprecedented event that will have ramifications for every single person in the world. It would be quite foolish to believe that this monumental event can be priced into the market very quickly or easily.

At some point, there will be exceptional opportunities and they will be even better if we remain patient and wait for sustained positive price action to develop. While this extreme volatility may be good market action for very short-term stock market traders, if you’re looking to build longer-term positions, it is still too early to put any substantial capital at risk.

Nibbling a little on stocks “here and there” is OK, but I recommend that you never buy a full position at once. Always ask yourself if you’re comfortable holding the position and adding to it if it went down by another 25-40%. If you’re not comfortable doing that, then it’s too soon for you to buy because you’ll likely sell at the worst possible time.

Enjoy the weekend and please stay safe. I am here to answer any questions you might have.

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 March 23, 2020

As if we didn’t have enough adjectives to describe the week before last’s market action (unprecedented, brutal, relentless), there must be no more words to describe the terrible equity markets again last week, as a massive 4000-point drop in the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) was second to only one other over the last nine decades.

The other indexes (S&P 500, NASDAQ, Russell 2000) didn’t fare much better either, as the losses posted by the average stock and every market gauge over the last month have been staggering. I’m not going to sugar-coat it: this has been one ugly market.

Indeed, we are now in Bear Market #26 over the last 90+ years, and though the speed of this sell-off has been unparalleled, the magnitude of the decline (at least for the S&P 500 index) at present is a bit less than average. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean it can’t get worse, but it also doesn’t mean it can’t get better.

Over the past year, as I met with clients for our annual reviews, I sheepishly explained the large cash positions and growing hedges (options sold against the portfolio and bear market funds), why I and other portfolio managers felt that there were very few good values in the market and that we were under-invested for good reasons. Heck, even the most seasoned of portfolio managers weren’t buying the best value stocks out there, and growth stocks trounced the returns on value stocks for years. Stocks like Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, Tesla, Google, Amazon, Netflix all marched higher on a seemingly daily basis, while great blue-chip value stocks like Haliburton, Schlumberger, CVS, and IBM languished in the bargain bin.

As I met with prospects over the past year, I know that I lost the business of at least two of them that had 90%+ exposure to the stock market. When I was asked what my plan would be for their portfolios, I explained that their portfolio risk far outweighed their personal risk tolerance and that I would immediately and significantly lighten up on stocks and stock funds. Needless to say, when I heard back from them, they said my approach was too conservative and decided to “go in a different direction”. I can only hope that they heeded my warning.

Day after day, week after week, month after month (after the December 2018 low), the markets would question my defensive stance, and no doubt quite a few clients were unhappy being under-invested and not making as much money as the markets were. Every market pullback from a new record high was aggressively bought up, and we had no choice but to nibble here and there, knowing that we might have to stay close to the exits on those purchases. I’ve been doing this a long time, and as I’ve said before, I’ve not witnessed such persistent selling without a robust bounce ever in my career, making unscathed exits nearly impossible.

What’s Next?

That’s enough about what’s happened. Most are interested in what’s ahead. More pain or gain?

Unfortunately, the market loathes uncertainty, and with the COVID-19 shutdown of most swaths of the nation’s economy, uncertainty is what we have in droves. Stocks trade on corporate earnings forecasts, and to-date, most companies have withdrawn their forecasts because of so many unknowns.

The stock market is what’s known in portfolio management vernacular as “a forward-looking discounting mechanism”, where the crowd sniffs out what’s to come 6-12 months in the future. Everything you know as fact today is already factored into the market, or so goes what’s known as “Modern Portfolio Theory”. When the markets are rising, they’re looking ahead 6-12 months out and forecasting what’s to come, and they must be positive on the intermediate-term future. The opposite is true as well.

What we’re witnessing in the daily “thrashings” up and down in the stock markets is the manifestation of the uncertainty as everyone tries to price stocks for “what’s next”. My best guess is that we’re still in for a rocky bottoming period with new lower lows likely ahead.

But it’s not all gloomy. While last week’s markets closed on the lows, we did see some “green shoots” to indicate that the volume of selling was waning, and there was some risk appetite returning to the markets. The small-capitalization stocks, often the riskiest of stocks, outperformed their “peers” on Friday. The volatility index did not make a new high on Friday. The number of stocks hitting their 52-week lows did not expand into the end of the week. And the number of stocks going up versus those going down got better (it’s called breadth in this business).

When Should We Buy?

I’m heartened and encouraged that, among the calls and e-mails that I received last week, the preponderance of them were asking, “when should we buy?” It’s the right question now, as we continue to navigate this volatile bear market, of when it will be safe to start buying.  In that regard, history can provide valuable guidance.

The 1987 bear market is one historical precedent that is perhaps most like today’s. Major indexes came off an equally frothy rally (as we’ve seen since December 2018) with the S&P 500 showing a strong year-to-date gain leading up to the August 25, 1987 peak. The bear market unfolded quickly after the top, losing 20% in just 38 days (this one in 2020 took 19 trading days). The bear market bottomed in December 1987 as selling pressure abated significantly and buying pressure took over. That led to one of the longest-running bull markets in history.

The Financial Crisis from 2007 to 2009 was a more protracted downturn that lasted 18 months. The lessons from that bear market include the observation that there are often enticing rallies on the way down which are called “bull traps”, such as the rebounds in March and July of 2008. Don’t get sucked into them.

As market losses deepen, it’s crucial to remember that headlines are the gloomiest near the market bottom, so paying attention to the media in March 2009 would have kept you out of the market for months, and you would have missed out on a 50% rally within just a few months. This time it’s no different — the fear mongers are out in full force with their 50% negative growth forecasts and S&P 500 index going to 1100 (down 75%) prognostications.

Stock market leadership is one of the most reliable indicators that a bear market bottom is in place. As a new bull market emerged in 2009, abating selling pressure and emerging buying pressure again provided the timeliest signal to start buying. Our client portfolios back then were defensively allocated with an invested position of about 50% (of maximum risk) at the March 9 bottom. As the selling abated and buying pressure ramped up, we quickly stepped up to 77% and then moved to 97% invested in June 2009 as other proprietary indicators confirmed the buying opportunity of a lifetime.

The important lesson is: Don’t try to second guess the bottom and don’t try to anticipate it. With no evidence of selling pressure abating and buying pressure pretty much absent currently,  I will let the weight of evidence tell me when the time is right to start increasing our invested allocation. Now is not that time; it’s far too soon to buy in my opinion (and that could change, tomorrow, next week or the week after).

Today, unfortunately, every indication is that this bear market probably has further to run as the economy comes under increasing pressure. As I wait for the evidence to drop into place, our high cash and hedged positions are now two of the most valuable assets in our portfolio as we approach that future buying opportunity, probably the best one we’ve seen in over ten years. Meanwhile, try not to get sucked into bear market rallies-use them to lighten up on positions if you’re overallocated to the stock market.

Never lose sight of the Warren Buffet quotation, “Unless you can watch your stock decline by 50 percent without becoming panic-stricken, you should not be in the stock market,” and we know that bear markets are not an unusual part of the investment process. It’s the price we pay for superior returns over the long term.

Of course, legendary investor Peter Lynch said it best: “The real key to making money in stocks is not to get scared out of them.” I’ll add, as I paraphrase well-known TV host Jim Cramer, no one ever made money in the markets by panicking.

Please be safe and stay healthy during this difficult period of time in our lives. Don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any questions or if I can be of any help.

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

What’s Going on in the Markets March 19, 2020

What a day. What a week. What a month.

The S&P 500 index lost another 5.2% yesterday – which is somewhat of a relief because it was down over 9% at one point during the day. The index did manage to close above Tuesday’s low. That is potentially bullish. It’s somewhat funny to say, but the NASDAQ 100 (QQQ) was the best performing of the major indexes, losing just over 3%. As daily swings of 3-5% become the norm, we become somewhat numb to them. Not fun.

Although there was no direct catalyst for the sell-off Wednesday, stocks erased nearly all of Tuesday’s big gains. Energy was massacred by another big drop in crude oil prices following reports that Saudi Arabia has said it will continue record-high oil production “over the coming months,” accelerating its price war with Russia. Oil prices have been sinking as the Covid-19 pandemic reduced demand, and Russia in recent weeks failed to agree to an OPEC proposal to reduce oil production. West Texas Intermediate crude on Wednesday plunged a shocking 22.7% to trade at $21 per barrel. It is now at the lowest level since 2002! The good news? Lower prices at the pump….if you can leave your home.

Stocks found no relief from reports that the White House is urging lawmakers for $1 trillion in stimulus to cushion American workers and the economy from the impact of the coronavirus. Lawmakers were warned by the Trump administration that US unemployment could jump to 20% if no financial aid measures were passed. Lawmakers aren’t wasting time getting stimulus to the markets and taxpayers, which is good news.

With the dual plight of an oil production glut and the coronavirus global pandemic, global commerce has been left at a virtual standstill and has undercut the lives and financial balance of millions of people who work in the service industry.

I have to say, this is one of the worst times I’ve ever seen in my 30-years in the markets.  Why? Because of the velocity and relentlessness of the selling. The Financial Crisis offered many opportunities to buy in, even while the market was falling overall.  Today’s market has been a one-way street. Fifteen of the last twenty days have been down. Back-to-back up days haven’t taken place since early February. Household names that would typically be the last ones to drop, have taken big hits.

On a positive note, all of the ingredients are in place for a large, multi-day oversold bounce. I’m not trying to paint a bright picture. Indeed, it is likely to take months of choppy or declining stock prices to work through the problems that have been exposed by the action over the past three weeks. But we will find a bottom, and I’m thinking sooner than later. All of the government stimulus and federal reserve easing being put out there is going to find its way into stocks one way or another.

Even during the worst bear markets, there are always very strong “rip your face off” rallies that work off the oversold conditions. We are on the cusp of one of those rallies.

At the lows yesterday, conditions felt worse than they did on the ugly markets of Christmas Eve, 2018. They also felt a lot like they did in October 2008. Back then, the S&P lost about 1/3 of its value in just three weeks. Then it exploded almost 20% higher in one week. In this market, we could get that in a day!

Of course, that wasn’t the end of the decline. That didn’t happen until March 2009. And, there were multiple swift declines and violent oversold rallies in the months in between. So, we’re probably in for something similar for the next several months.

But, for the next few days, the market is set up for a “rip your face off” oversold bounce. We could see a 20-25% “pop” from here – which would boost the S&P 500 index back up towards 2,900 or so. A really wild move could get the index back up to 3150.

The bigger point is that yesterday certainly felt like a seller’s exhaustion. That sets us up for an oversold bounce, which could be quite substantial. Following that, we’re in for a several month-long period of big declines and big bounces as we carve out a bottom. Be ready for it if you’re overexposed to the markets and have been “losing sleep”. Use the bounces to reduce exposure or hedge your portfolios. We can help.

Whatever you do, this is not a market to chase big moves in stocks or funds. You will surely get another chance to get into this market if the rally is sustainable, so if you miss an initial move, be patient. You’ll get many chances to buy back in. You don’t need to be the first one into the foxhole.

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 – March 17, 2020

If you took a long hibernation nap starting on Christmas Eve 2018, woke up yesterday and looked at the markets, you’d think that nothing happened. As it turns out, the entire market rally since that day has been re-possessed in what has been the fastest 20%+ sell-off in history.

The Coronavirus infected market continued its downward ways as panicky investors dumped stocks in droves yesterday because of a feared economic recession. With the exception of treasury bonds, all stocks, sectors, industries, commodities (including gold and silver) were hit hard in yesterday’s trading.  We are now officially in a bear market, with a mild recession (two consecutive calendar quarters of negative growth) hitting in the next few months being a much stronger possibility.

We have seen a lot of bear markets unfold over the past 40 years, but this one is unique in several aspects:

1.     First, the trigger came from an external event (i.e., Coronavirus) that is totally unrelated to monetary policy. In fact, the Fed has been aggressively “supporting” the market since its policy reversal in December 2018.

2.     Second, there were virtually no confirmation flags of a probable or imminent recession. Instead, consumer confidence was holding near 50-year highs, and the Leading Economic Index had just broken upward to a new all-time high.

3.     Third, the selling has been extraordinarily intense and indiscriminate. In some aspects, this reflects the type of selling panic normally seen near the END of a bear market instead of at the beginning.

The bad news is that we do not have many –or any– historical precedents upon which to rely with respect to the Coronavirus pandemic. The good news is that our client portfolios were defensively positioned with a high cash reserve and bear market funds prior to this panic selling, and has successfully protected against over 30-50% of the downside loss. And with our more conservative sector weighting, it would have been more resilient if not for the universal selling.

With yesterday’s market closing on the low, the volatility is clearly not over. History indicates it would be a mistake to sell additional holdings into this waterfall decline – at least at this time and without any solid warning flags of recession. Nonetheless, if you’re worried about your portfolio and are losing sleep, then you probably have too big of an allocation to equities, and it would therefore be prudent to consider lightening up into any bounce that the market offers (which thus far have not lasted much more than an hour or two).

On Friday, President Trump declared the Covid-19 Coronavirus a national emergency, opening the door for an infusion of federal funds to ease the effects of the outbreak at home. In response, the DJIA (Dow Jones Industrial Average index) rallied more than 1400 points in the final 30 minutes of trading, erasing much of Thursday’s record down day.

Despite that positive reaction on Wall Street on Friday, this past weekend saw an escalation of Coronavirus impact and particularly of fear – with travel restrictions and business closures. Although this effect could still be transitory, it’s possible that the unwinding of the Fed’s moral hazard (false investor confidence) on Wall Street could have a more lasting impact on the economic and stock market outlook. Even a 1% emergency rate cut and $700B of stimulus offered by the federal reserve could not stop another record decline in the stock market yesterday.

With market conditions as they are, a robust multi-day rally is expected. Indeed, after a lock limit down on the markets again yesterday at 7% down, we had a 5% lock limit up rally in the overnight futures market (Monday night). That could provide for a nice turnaround Tuesday if the bounce carries through the trading day.

While I’m getting calls and e-mails from clients concerned about how far this decline has gone, I’m also getting a lot of calls and e-mails about buying into this decline. Based on what I’m seeing, it seems to be a bit too early to buy, and probably too late to sell. While I thought we might have seen investor capitulation to the downside on the open yesterday morning, that thought proved fleeting as we briefly bounced and came back to close on the lows. That is not encouraging price action. And the fact that so many people are still anxious to buy this “dip” leads me to believe that the bottom is not yet in.

Nibbling on some stocks or funds at these levels isn’t a terrible idea, but I prefer an approach that sees us bounce, see where the bounce runs out of steam, and watch for a re-test of yesterday’s lows (to see if they hold) at some point in the near future. If the re-test succeeds, then it might be “off to the races” for the markets. If it fails, then look out below.

For that reason, I tend to be patient in buying back into a vicious bear market that will fool you into thinking that the selling is all over, only to drop your recent stock or fund purchase by 20-25% in less than a day.  Averaging down sounds like a great idea until you’re down 25-50% on a position in a day or two. It’s often better to wait for the re-test of the lows rather than jumping in with both feet too soon. Sure, the market could make you whole and profitable in a matter of months, but if you’re looking to compound your annual returns at the highest rate possible, shortening the recovery period to get back to even makes patience essential.

In my opinion, it’s probably better to use short-term market strength to trim some positions if you’re overexposed to the markets and need to reduce overall risk. If you’ve been stressed out about your portfolio, IRA or 401(k), then use the bounces to reduce stock and bond exposure. It never hurts to reduce your risk, but please consult with your advisor (or me) before taking action.

According to Andrew Thrasher, CMT, comparing the current S&P 500 index decline to past bear markets, there hasn’t been a time in history that a bear market has begun with such a severe and speedy decline. Not the Great Depression. Not Black Monday in 1987. But out of every bear market before this one, a new bull market was born. This one will be no different. Just be patient as there will be plenty of time to jump into the next bull market.

Meanwhile, I hope you’ll stay safe and healthy during this health crisis. Take every precaution you can to keep your family and you as healthy as possible. Like every crisis before this one, this one too shall pass. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me.

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

 

 

What’s Going on in the Markets – March 8, 2020

On Monday, March 9, the market celebrates its 11th anniversary of this long bull market with the bull appearing quite tired, coughing and wheezing into that milestone. Yes, believe it or not, we are still in a bull market.

Despite the wild swings in the markets last week, the major indexes managed to close positive on the week for a change. Unfortunately, it was a somewhat hollow victory given that the worries over the Coronavirus have not subsided and an oil price war was started on Friday (read more below).

Volatility in the major indexes continued last week following the worst week of this bull market. Every day last week had a move of greater than +/- 2% as bullish and bearish investors fought for control.

The latest economic reports started out on solid footing with the ISM Manufacturing Index unexpectedly remaining in expansion territory. Likewise, the ISM Services Index beat expectations by rising to the best level in over a year. Mortgage rates have hit a new all-time low in a continued benefit to the housing market, with construction spending growth accelerating to the fastest pace in nearly three years. In a show of strength in the economy, the labor market remains resilient. Employers added 273,000 jobs in February, while jobless claims are near the lowest level in 50 years.

Nonetheless, from a market technical standpoint, it continues to indicate an elevated level of risk as evidenced by the recent volatility.  Dismal market breadth (the number of stocks that are up versus those that are down) over the past week suggests that there will likely be a continuation of this period of high volatility. On a positive front, the short-term selling pressure has put the market into oversold territory, indicating that there should be another attempted rally in the days ahead.

The Federal Reserve (the Fed) flew into action last Tuesday, cutting interest rates by 50 basis points (0.50%) in the first emergency cut since the Financial Crisis of 2008. Despite this move from the Fed, the strength in the U.S. economic data at this time does not suggest that this is the start of a recessionary bear market. The markets are expecting a  further rate cut when the Federal Open Market Committee meets on March 17-18.

As I write this on Sunday night, the futures (overnight) markets indicate a rough opening for trading on Monday, as fears of the overall economic impact of the Coronavirus continues to be priced in. In addition, a major oil price war appears to be breaking out as Russia and Saudi Arabia failed to come to an agreement on reductions in oil production, causing a plunge in the price of oil on Sunday. That will no doubt have a negative effect on stock prices this week, especially energy shares.

Regardless, it appears that the market wants to re-test the lows that we saw on February 28th. This is a normal technical progression, and hopefully, the lows will hold this week and we kick off a multi-week, if not multi-month rally.

According to the folks at Sentimentrader.com – who keep track of such statistics – “The last 10 times pessimism towards US equities was this extreme, the S&P 500 rallied 100% of the time over the next two months.” That’s a pretty solid statistic.

It is going to be hard, perhaps painfully so, to watch as your portfolio holdings get hit with selling pressure along with the broad stock market. In this environment a little bit of selling pressure can do a lot of harm – especially when there isn’t much buying pressure to balance things out.

But this is a temporary condition. Think back to Christmas Eve, 2018 – the last time the market’s proverbial rubber band was this stretched so far to the downside, stocks snapped back within just a few weeks. And, selling into the downside panic was proven to be a mistake. We were back to record highs in a matter of months. As harrowing as this sell-off has been, by almost any measure except velocity, it remains a pipsqueak through Friday compared with the battering investors took at the end of 2018. In that episode, the S&P 500 plunged almost 20%.

I can’t say for sure the market will snap back now just as it did back then. Nothing is ever guaranteed in the stock market. But it’s probably too late to sell right now if you haven’t lightened up already. If you’re too heavily invested, wait for a market rally to do so. And if your favorite fund or stock has declined enough to make it attractive, you can consider lightly “nibbling” on some here. Of course, if I’m not your advisor, then you should consult with yours, as this is not a recommendation to buy or sell any securities.

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.

 

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