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.


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 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.


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

How Do the Markets Really Work?

We all do it.  But what do we really know about investing?  A recent post about investing wisdom features a lot of interesting (and often overlooked) facts and figures, plus some insights from Warren Buffett, Jeremy Siegel, William Bernstein, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and a few economists you may have heard of.

Regarding market predictions, the post had this to say: The phrase “double-dip recession” was mentioned 10.8 million times in 2010 and 2011, according to Google. It never came. There were virtually no mentions of “financial collapse” in 2006 and 2007. It did come. A similar story can be told virtually every year.

According to Bloomberg, the 50 stocks in the S&P 500 that Wall Street rated the lowest at the end of 2011 outperformed the overall index by 7 percentage points over the following year.

Many of the items offered insight into how our investment markets actually work.  For instance:

  • Since 1871, the market has spent 40% of all years either rising or falling more than 20%. Roaring booms and crushing busts are perfectly normal.
  • Apple increased more than 6,000% from 2002 to 2012, but declined on 48% of all trading days during that time period. (Investing is never a straight path up.)
  • Polls show Americans for the last 25 years have said the economy is in a state of decline. Pessimism in the face of advancement is the norm.
  • A broad index of U.S. stocks increased 2,000-fold between 1928 and 2013, but lost at least 20% of its value 20 times during that period. People would be less scared of volatility if they knew how common it was.
  • There were 272 automobile companies in 1909. Through consolidation and failure, three emerged on top, two of which went bankrupt. Spotting a promising trend and identifying a winning investment are two different things.
  • According to economist Tim Duy, “As long as people have babies, as long as capital depreciates, technology evolves, and tastes and preferences change, there is a powerful underlying impetus for growth that is almost certain to reveal itself in any reasonably well-managed economy.”

The post had a few zingers about some of the best-paid executives in the financial and investment community:

  • Twenty-five hedge fund managers took home $21.2 billion in 2013 for delivering an average performance of 9.1%, versus the 32.4% you could have made in an index fund. Hedge funds are a great business to work in — not so much to invest in.
  • In 1989, the CEOs of the seven largest U.S. banks earned an average of 100 times what a typical household made. By 2007, that had risen to more than 500 times. By 2008, several of those banks no longer existed.

And finally, if you want to understand the difference between daily fluctuation and the underlying growth of value in the markets, consider this:

Investor Ralph Wagoner once explained how markets work, recalled by Bill Bernstein: “He likens the market to an excitable dog on a very long leash in New York City, darting randomly in every direction. The dog’s owner is walking from Columbus Circle, through Central Park, to the Metropolitan Museum. At any one moment, there is no predicting which way the pooch will lurch. But in the long run, you know he’s heading northeast at an average speed of three miles per hour. What is astonishing is that almost all of the market players, big and small, seem to have their eye on the dog, and not the owner.”

If you would like to discuss your current portfolio or any financial planning matters, please don’t hesitate to contact us or visit our website at 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.


What, We Worry?

So far this year, the investment markets have held up pretty well, which doesn’t always happen after a year of big returns like we experienced in 2013.  But based on experience, you know that something will spook investors at some point this year, the way the markets took a dive when Congress decided to choke off the U.S. federal budget, or when investors realized that Greece had somehow managed to borrow ten times more than it could possibly pay back to its bondholders.

Professional investors have learned to create a mental “watch list” of possible market-shaking events, and they were helped recently when Noriel Roubini, chairman of Roubini Global Economics, former Senior Economist for International Affairs at the U.S. Council of Economic Advisors, compiled his own worry list.  Roubini said that we’re past the time when people should be fearful of a breakup of the Eurozone, or (for now) any Congressional tinkering with the debt ceiling.  The public debt crisis in Japan seems to be fading in the optimism of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s monetary easing and fiscal expansion, and the war between Israel and Iran over Iranian nuclear technology, once thought to be imminent, now appears to be on the back burner.

So what does today’s worry list look like?  Roubini starts off with China, which is trying to shift its growth away from exports toward private consumption.  Chinese leaders, he says, tend to panic whenever China’s economic growth slows toward 7% a year, at which time they throw more money at capital investment and infrastructure, creating more bad assets, a lot of industrial capacity that nobody can use, and a bunch of commercial and industrial buildings which sit empty along the skyline.  By the end of next year, something will have to be done about the growing debt at the same time that investors face a potential crash in inflated real estate prices.  Think: five or six 2008 real estate crises piled on top of each other, all of it happening in one country.

Numbers two and three on Roubini’s worry list involve the U.S. Federal Reserve, which could (worry #2) cease its massive purchases of real estate mortgages and government bonds too quickly, causing interest rates to rise and sending financial shockwaves around the world.  Or, on the other hand (worry #3) the Fed might keep rates low for so long that the U.S. experiences new bubbles in real estate, stocks and credit–and then experiences the consequences when the bubbles burst.

Roubini also worries about emerging market nations being able to manage their debt and capital inflows if interest rates go up, and of course the situation in the Ukraine has significant market-spooking potential.  Finally, he notes that China has significant unresolved territorial disputes with Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines, which could escalate into military conflict.  If the U.S. were drawn into a maritime confrontation, alongside Japan, with Chinese warships, investors might think it’s a good time to retreat to the sidelines.

None of these scenarios are guaranteed to happen, and some of them seem unlikely.  But these periodic, headline-related spookings come with the investment territory.  If and when one of these events grabs the global headlines, it might be helpful to remember that the stock markets have weathered far worse and have always come out ahead.  Think: World War II, a presidential assassination, two wars in the Middle East, 9/11 and a Wall Street-created global economic meltdown.  If we can survive and even profit, long-term, from a stay-the-course investment mentality through those events, then we might be able to weather the next big headline on (or off) the worry list.

If you have any financial planning questions you would like to discuss, please don’t hesitate to contact us at (734) 447-5305 or visit our website at We are a fee-only fiduciary financial planning and money management firm that always puts your interests first. Our first consultation is complimentary and free of any pressure or sales pitches.

Enjoy your weekend,

Sam H. Fawaz CPA, CFP
YDream Financial Services


Market Correction?

Last Monday, the U.S. markets dropped roughly 1% of their value (as measured by the S&P 500 index), and Europe and Asia were down by similar amounts the following day. The market then fell 2.1% on Friday in a sickening lurch. Today the S&P 500 fell another 0.5%. This combination was enough to cause pundits and investors to ask whether we are now in the early stages of a bear market or, indeed, if the past almost-five years should be considered an interim market rally inside of a longer-term bear market.

The answer, of course, is that nobody knows–not the brainiac Fed economists, not the fund managers and certainly not the pundits. A Wall Street Journal article noted that most of the sellers on Friday were short-term investors who were involved in program trading, selling baskets of stocks to protect themselves from short-term losses. Roughly translated, that means that a bunch of professional traders panicked when they learned that Chinese economic growth is slowing down on top of worries that the Fed is buying bonds at a somewhat less furious rate ($75 billion a month vs. $85 billion) than it was last year.

What we DO know is that it is often a mistake to panic sell into market downturns, which happen more frequently than most of us realize. A lot of people might be surprised to know that in the Summer of 2011, the markets had pulled back by almost 20%–twice the traditional definition of a market correction–only to come roaring back and reward patient investors. There were corrections in the Spring of 2010 (16%) and the Spring of 2012 (10%), but almost nobody remembers these sizable bumps on the way to new market highs. Indeed, most of us look back fondly at the time since March of 2009 as one long largely-uninterrupted bull market.

Bigger picture, since 1945, the market has experienced 27 corrections of 10% or more, and 12 bear markets where U.S. equities lost at least 20% of their value. The average decline was 13.3% over the course of 71 trading days. Perhaps the only statistic that really matters is that after every one of these pullbacks, the markets returned to record new highs. The turnarounds were always an unexpected surprise to most investors.

We may get a full 10% correction or even a full bearish period out of these negative trading days, and then again we may not. But history suggests an important lesson: if we DO get a correction or a bear market, we may not remember it a few years later if the markets recover as they always have in the past. The people who lose money in the long term are not those who endure a painful market downturn, but those who panic and sell when the market turns down. The facts are that the market is overdue for a reasonable correction after the torrid and virtually uninterrupted run up we’ve had since late 2012.

Instead of panic selling into the market downturn, you may choose to lighten up your equity weighting or re-balance some of your equity weight into other asset classes. After a long winning run, it never hurts to take some profits off the table, trim back your winners and leave the proceeds in cash to invest when the downturn ends. There are various inverse funds and other options available to partially hedge your portfolio if the uncertainty keeps you up at night. After a few days of selling, there’s usually a rally around the corner to counterbalance the weight of the selling and that’s a more opportune time to lighten up. None of this is a recommendation–they’re just some ideas to consider.

For our clients, we have raised and maintained a healthy level of cash and have used hedging to reduce our overall portfolio risk. If the correction becomes prolonged, we’ll do more of the same and await the next opportunities to re-invest. No one says that you have to stay 100% invested at all times.

If you have any questions or would like to speak to us about your portfolio needs or any financial planning matters, we’re here to help. We are a fee-only financial planning firm that always puts your interests first.

Scary Headlines, Remarkable Returns-3rd 2013 Quarterly Financial Review

The threat of a government shutdown virtually guaranteed that the investment markets would close out the third quarter with a whimper rather than a bang.  The S&P 500 index lost 1.1% of its value in the final week of the quarter as the U.S. Congress seemed to be lurching toward a political standstill that would shut down the U.S. government.  All the uncertainty has tended to obscure the fact that most U.S. stock market investors have experienced significant gains so far this year.
And the recent quarter was no exception.  Despite the rocky final week, the Wilshire 5000–the broadest measure of U.S. stocks and bonds–rose 6.60% for the third quarter–and now stands at a 22.31% gain for the first nine months of the year.  The comparable Russell 3000 index gained 6.35% in the most recent three months, posting a 21.30% gain as we head into the final stretch of 2013.
Other U.S. market sectors experienced comparable gains.  Large cap stocks, represented by the Wilshire U.S. Large Cap index, gained 6.24% in the second quarter, and are up 20.77% so far for the year.  The Russell 1000 large-cap index returned 6.02% for the quarter, up 20.76% for the year, while the widely-quoted S&P 500 index of large company stocks gained 5.32% for the quarter and is up 18.62% since January 1.
The Wilshire U.S. Mid-Cap index index rose 9.02% in the latest three months of the year, and is up 26.19% as we enter the final quarter.  The Russell midcap index was up 7.70% for the third quarter, and now stands at a 24.34% gain so far this year.
Small company stocks, as measured by the Wilshire U.S. Small-Cap, gained 9.68% in the third quarter; the index is up 27.53% so far this year.  The comparable Russell 2000 small-cap index was up 10.21% in the second three months of the year, posting a 27.69% gain in the year’s first nine months.  The technology-heavy Nasdaq Composite Index was up 11.16% for the quarter, and has gained 25.24% for its investors so far this year.

Keep in mind that while a diversified portfolio of cash, stocks, bonds, real estate and other asset classes may not provide you with the full returns shown above, you are also not taking on the risk of a 100% equity portfolio. That’s just smart money and risk management.
In the first half of the year, any diversification into investments other than U.S. stocks were dragging down returns.  That was no longer the case in the 3rd quarter.  The broad-based EAFE index of larger foreign companies in developed economies rose 10.94% in dollar terms during the third quarter of the year, and is up 13.36% so far this year.  The biggest surprise is Europe: a basket of European stocks rose 13.16% over the past three months, which accounts for virtually all of their returns this year; the index is now up 13.17% for the year. 
Emerging markets stocks are climbing out of a deep hole that they fell into earlier in the year, returning 5.01% in the past three months, even though the EAFE Emerging Markets index is still down 6.42% for the year. 
Other investment categories are not faring so well.  Real estate, as measured by the Wilshire REIT index, fell 1.98% for the quarter, though it is still standing at a 3.84% gain for the year.  Commodities, as measured by the S&P GSCI index, reversed their recent slide and rose 5.44% this past quarter, taking them to nearly even, just down 0.27% so far in 2013.  Gold prices perked up on the uncertainty over the government shutdown, gaining 9.26% in the recent quarter, though gold investors have lost 20.48% on their holdings so far this year. 
Bonds have continued to provide disappointing returns both in terms of yield and total return.  The Barclay’s Global Aggregate bond index is down 2.24% so far this year, and the U.S. Aggregate index has lost 1.87% of its value in the same time period. 
In the Treasury markets, the year has seen a bifurcated market; declining yields in bonds with 12 month or lower maturities, while longer-term bonds have experienced rising yields and a corresponding decline in the value of the bonds held by investors.  In the past year, the yield on 10-year Treasuries have risen almost a percentage point, to 2.65%, and 30-year bonds are now yielding 3.73%, up 86 basis points over the past 12 months.    
Municipal bonds have seen comparable rate rises; a basket of state and local bonds with 30-year maturities are now yielding 4.32% a year; 10-year munis are returning an average of 2.56% a year.  The rises, of course, have caused losses in muni portfolios.
Perhaps the most interesting thing to notice about America’s 20+% stock market returns so far this year–extraordinary by any measure–is that they were accomplished at a time when investors seemed to be constantly skittish.  Just a few weeks ago, everybody seemed to be worried that the Federal Reserve would end its QE3 program and let interest rates find their natural balance in the economy.  One might wonder why this would be such a scary event, since it is the Fed’s economists way of telling us that the U.S. economy is finally getting back on its feet.
All eyes are still on Washington, but now they’ve moved from the Fed to the Capitol Building.  The question everybody has been asking in the final days of the quarter is: what would be the investment and economic impact of a government shutdown?  This question might be one to consider going forward, since the two parties seem to have a lot of fundamental disagreements over spending priorities, and budget battles could become quarterly events.
An article in the Los Angeles Times says that most economists and analysts seem to expect a partial two-week government shutdown.  The lost pay for hundreds of thousands of furloughed federal workers would cut 0.3 to 0.4 percentage points off of fourth quarter growth–the difference between weak 2% growth annual growth that the economy is currently experiencing and an anemic 1.6% growth rate that would be flirting with recession.  An estimate by Goldman Sachs puts the potential lost GDP at 0.9%.
A longer shutdown could cause disruptions in private-sector production and investments, and would almost certainly lead to stock market declines.  The L.A. Times article notes that stocks lost about 4% of their value during the December 1995-January 1996 shutdown.  Job growth stalled, and the GDP gained just 2.7% in that first quarter. Interestingly, in all cases of past government shutdowns, the stock market recovered all of the losses and then some. That could be why the market is holding up well right now, but a protracted shutdown creates uncertainty and the markets hate uncertainty.
Interestingly, Congress has quietly moved away from the issue that has triggered the last few budget stalemates, focusing this time on whether or not to fully fund President Obama’s health care legislation.  In the past, the issue was budget deficits, but it turns out that the budget deficit has come down dramatically over the past 12 months.  The U.S. government posted a $117 billion surplus in June, and the Congressional Budget Office expects to run a surplus again in September–the result of revenue gains as a result of tax hikes plus the growing economy, coupled with a 10% reduction in spending. 
What does all this mean for your investments in the final 2013 quarter?  Who knows?  Nobody could have predicted, at the start of the year, with all the hand-wringing over the fiscal cliff and new tax legislation, that we would be standing nine months into 2013 with significant investment gains in the U.S. markets and a resurgence in global investments led by, of all places, Europe.
This much we can predict: the recent uncertainties–the paralysis in Congress, worries about the direction of interest rates and whether the Fed is going to stop intervening in the markets–will give way to new worries, new uncertainties, which will make all of us feel in our guts like the world is going to hell in a handbasket. With that said, the bull market that started in March 2009 is getting long in the tooth and is overdue for a longer period of rest (10% or more correction, or even a bear market)
Nonetheless, the headlines obscure the fact that investment returns are created the hard way, by millions of people getting up in the morning and going to work and spending their day finding ways to improve American businesses, generate profits, create new products and new markets, day after day after day. 
Whatever ups and downs you experience–and you WILL experience them, perhaps in the next quarter or the next year–that underlying driver of business enterprises and stock value is constantly working on your behalf.  That will be true no matter what the headlines say, no matter how spooked you feel about whatever scary thing is going on in the world.  Nobody enjoys the investment ride the way children enjoy the thrills of a roller coaster, but both seem to ultimately deliver their riders to a semblance of safety in the end.

I hope you’re having a great week and I welcome your questions, feedback and comments. If you or someone you know is looking for a fee-only fiduciary advisor or money manager who puts your interests first, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me.


Wilshire index data:
Russell index data:
S&P index data:–p-us-l–
Nasdaq index data:
International indices:
Commodities index data:
Treasury market rates:
Aggregate corporate bond rates:
Government shutdown impact:,0,155302.story
Budget surpluses:
My thanks to Bob Veres, publisher of Inside Information for his help with this article.

The Rollercoaster Effect

There are two kinds of investor in this world.  One type pays close attention to the daily (and sometimes hourly) flood of information, looking for a reason (any reason) to jump in or out of the markets.  The other kind of investor is in for the long haul, and recognizes that the markets are going to experience dips and turns.  If these people are particularly wise, they know that the dips and turns are the best friend of the steady, long-term investor, because as you put money into the markets, as you re-balance your portfolio, you gain a little extra return from the occasional opportunities to buy at bargain prices.

Last week, the investment markets made an unusually sharp turn on the roller coaster, and showed us once again the sometimes-comical fallacy of quick trading.  See if you can follow the logic of the events that led to last week’s selloff.  Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke and the Federal Open Market Committee issued a statement saying that the U.S. economy is improving faster than the Fed’s economists expected.  Therefore (the statement went on to say) if there was continued improvement, the Fed would scale back its QE3 (quantitative easing) program of buying Treasury and mortgage-backed securities on the open market, and ease back on stimulating the economy and keeping interest rates low.

Everybody knows that the Fed will eventually have to phase out its QE3 market interventions, and that this would be based on the strength of the economy, so this announcement should not have stunned the investing public.  Nothing in the statement suggested that the Fed had any immediate plans to stop buying altogether; only ease it back as it became less necessary.  The statement said that this hypothetical easing might possibly take place as early as this Fall, and only if the unemployment rate falls faster than expected.  At the same time, the Fed’s economists issued an economic forecast that was more optimistic than the previous one.

The result?  There was panic in the streets–or, at least, on Wall Street, where this bullish economic report seems to have caused the S&P 500 to lose 1.4% of its valueon Wednesday and another 2.5% on Thursday.

In addition–and here’s where it gets a little weird–stocks also fell sharply in Shanghai and across Europe, and oil futures fell dramatically.  How, exactly, are these investments impacted by QE3?

The only explanation for last week’s panic selloff is that thousands of media junkie investors must have listened to “we plan to ease back on QE3 when we believe the economy is back on its feet again,” and heard: “the Fed is about to end its QE3 stimulus!”

It’s possible that the investors who sold everything they owned on Wednesday  throughFriday will pile back in this week, but it’s just as likely that the panic will feed on itself for a while until sanity is restored.  If stocks were valued daily based on pure logic, on the real underlying value of the enterprises they represent, then the trajectory of the markets would be a long smooth upward slope for decades, as businesses, in aggregate, expanded, moved into new markets, and slowly, over time, boosted sales and profits.  The roller-coaster effect that we actually experience is created by the emotions of the market participants, who value their stocks at one price on Wednesday, and very different prices on Thursday and Friday.

The long-term investor has to ask: did any individual company in my investment portfolio become suddenly less valuable in two days?  Did ALL of their enterprise values in aggregate become less valuable within 48 hours–and at the same time, did Chinese and European stocks and oil also suddenly become less valuable?  Phrased this way, the only possible answer is: no.  And if that’s your answer, then you have to assume that eventually, people will eventually be willing to pay the real underlying value of the stocks in the market, and the last couple of days will be just one more exciting example of meaningless white noise.

With all that said, it’s prudent to be cautious about going “all in” on this pullback in the market and to perhaps take some hard-earned partial profits on positions you’ve been holding. In our clients’ portfolios, we’ve upped our hedges and taken partial profits on short-term positions, but are still holding the majority of our equities and bonds.

With the action in the markets last week, we officially have the beginnings of a downtrend, but that can be very short-lived in this QE environment, so we remain on our toes. Be sure to consult with your advisor if you’re uncomfortable with your holdings or have trouble sleeping at night because of your positions. Nothing in this message should be construed as investment advice or suggestions to buy or sell any security.

If you have any questions or comments, please don’t hesitate to contact us or post them here. We are a fee-only fiduciary financial planning and investment advisory firm that always puts your interests first.

Have a great week!


Sam H. Fawaz CFP™, CPA
Registered Investment Adivsor Representative
NAPFA Registered Fee-only Advisor
Financial Planning Asssociation Member
(734) 447-5305
(615) 395-2010

TheMoneyGeek thanks Bob Veres, publisher of Inside Information for his help with writing this guest post.

Stock Market and Economic Update August 21, 2011

The past week hasn’t been particularly kind in the stock markets as we saw little follow-through on the previous week’s rally. My upside target of 1230-1260 in the S&P 500 index was not even approached before selling resumed at around 1208.
A few economic reports from last week have me a bit more concerned about the possibility of a recession within the next twelve months.  Although the economic leading indicators that I’ve come to rely on from the Economic Cycle Research Institute turned up again this past week, the only components to rise were financial ones, namely the money supply (with the stock market selling being a contributing factor) and the steep yield curve (ultralow interest rates on short duration debt versus higher rates on longer duration debt made possible by the Federal Reserve’s low interest rate policy). Without these two components, the index would have been down 0.5%, which is down three of the last four months.  Weekly unemployment claims came in at 408,000 whereas they were starting to trend below 400,000 in the last few weeks.
So the volatility in the market right now is at least partially attributable to concerns about whether a recession is on the horizon or not. If one is not, then the market is undervalued. If one is, then the market is overvalued. So far, the weight of evidence of a recession is still inconclusive, but it appears that institutional buyers are starting to “discount” that possibility as they demonstrate through selling in the markets.  The research I read is split about 50/50 about whether a recession is coming, with convincing cases made on both sides.  My feeling is that we have a bit further to go on the downside if economic factors or confidence measures don’t start pointing up real soon.
Accordingly, I am becoming increasingly concerned about the behavior of the markets and the economic numbers coming out lately since they haven’t been particularly encouraging. Accordingly, this past week I increased my clients’ hedges and continued to slightly reduce exposure to equities just to be on the safe side. 
This week will be critical since the Federal Reserve Chairman (Ben Bernanke) will be speaking on Friday and will reveal any further measures they may take to ease recession concerns and restore confidence to the markets.  More information about how the Eurozone will handle its debt crisis should help calm the markets.  But based on the market action on Thursday and Friday, it seems that many institutional and retail investors are not waiting to hear what the Chairman has to say or what solution the Eurozone might propose to avoid a deepening debt crisis.  They have therefore been selling and may continue doing so into this week.
I will continue to monitor the markets day to day and make further adjustments to portfolios and increase hedges as conditions warrant. Since the market is heavily oversold, we should expect some level of a bounce this week, if only for folks to prepare for any surprise announcement the Federal Reserve Chairman might offer to help propel markets higher.

Bottom line, it’s too early to reach conclusions about whether or not the April high was an important top in the market. If it was, it was unlike any market top of the past 50 years, with both the LEI and market breadth still hitting new highs after the top. When panic selling spreads across the board – good quality companies go down along with the overvalued speculative stocks.  I can say that barring some type of financial Armageddon, I believe the downside valuation risk in this market is far less than in 2007-08. 

My major equity allocation decision is to give this market more time before making any major adjustments. What is needed –more than anything else– is stability and confidence. Only time and stability can calm the emotional extremes and fears, which still come out of the woodwork on a daily basis. But as I’ve said, if the retest (of the S&P 500 index lows of 1100) is able to hold above the lows of last week, then it could provide a strong market base if evidence of a recession does not increase in coming weeks.

Again, please do not take this message as advice to buy or sell any securities; please consult with your investment advisor (or us!) This message is not intended to forecast what will happen in the market since no one (including me) can do that. My objective is to share what I’ve been hearing, reading and researching, the end result of which is one of cautious optimism.
Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you need any help with your personal financial situation or investments.  I welcome your feedback and questions always.

Why I Don’t Trust This Rally

We finally strung together three up days in a row in the stock markets today and that’s a good thing. Volatility is ratcheting down and folks are stepping in to scoop up bargains.  Unfortunately, for the first time since we bottomed back in March 2009, I don’t trust this rally and believe that we are headed back to test last week’s low of 1,101 on the S&P 500 index in the short term.  If the market doesn’t hold at that level, our next stop is likely 1060. Let me explain why this rally has a lot to prove before I believe that this correction is over:
1.  Other than relieving an oversold condition, not much has changed fundamentally between last week and today. Uncertainties are abound about the possibility of a recession starting or already started (which I don’t believe), how we’re going to deal with raging federal deficits, and the Eurozone debt crisis. A meeting between German and French officials tomorrow will shed some light on how they will deal with the debt crisis in Europe.
2.  The three day rally that began last Thursday has occurred on light volume, reflecting very little institutional participation.  Institutions often wait for retail investors to bid up the market after a severe selloff to set it up for more selling.  The selling has been coming in on very heavy volume while buying is coming in on light volume, a bearish sign.
3.  Consumer confidence, as measured by the University of Michigan survey released last Friday, was at a record low.  These levels have not been seen since the great recession (but do reflect the recent anxiety over the recent U.S. debt ceiling debacle and stock market sell-off last week).
4.  The main stock market sentiment indicators showed an increase in bullish sentiment last week. This is considered a “contra” indicator. After the recent stock market beating, there seems to be more complacency than fear in the markets. Folks are still in “buy the dip” mode. They might have buyer’s remorse if they’re short-term holders.
5.  The kind of technical damage to the markets caused by last week’s sell-off takes weeks, if not months, to repair.  After-shocks and re-tests of lows are the norm after such a severe sell-off.
The positives that point to a better economic environment and stock market include a better than expected weekly jobs report last week, improved July retail sales figures, good corporate insider buying, and more big corporate mergers announced today.
While I believe that the markets could bounce for a few more days, unfortunately, I feel that we are headed lower over the short-term. The S&P 500 index closed at 1204 today, and we may even climb as high as 1240-1260 before the markets “roll over”.  That is 3-4% from here, and it’s only an educated guess on my part since 1250 is approximately where the markets fell apart.  I’d like to take advantage of this short-term rise, but only if more volume confirms the move higher.  Otherwise, it’s easy to get whip-sawed in this low volume environment. 
This is why I continue to hold onto hedges and have refrained from putting available cash to work at this point.  I’ve continued to selectively cull positions and rebalance accounts to take advantage of the recent strength in the market. Nonetheless, we remain heavily weighted long in the equity and bond markets despite our cash and hedges.  If the S&P 500 index closes above 1290 convincingly, then I’ll re-evaluate my stance, consider pulling in my hedges and invest more cash.
But aren’t we investing for the long term? Why should short-term market dynamics control our investing decisions? While we do invest for the long term, it’s prudent to protect capital when the market is in a well-defined downtrend, especially when a near-term recession is a possibility, albeit a remote one.  Markets around the world are factoring in a global slowdown, and the U.S. won’t be immune.  Sure central banks may pull a rabbit out of their hat and stimulate the economy and markets once again, and I’ll be ready for that.  But for right now, unless I see some institutional “power” behind this rally, I just don’t trust it.  As I’ve mentioned before, I expect near-term market weakness until sometime in October.
No part of this message should be considered a recommendation to buy or sell any securities, and you should not act on this without consultation with your financial planner or money manager (better yet, talk to us!)  My position will change if the facts change, so I am not married to this position. That could be tomorrow, next week or next month. I don’t have a crystal ball, so my prognostication should not be taken as true fact (I could change my mind or worse, be wrong!)
Please let me know if you have any questions, concerns or feedback. I’d love to hear what you’re thinking.

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