Category Archives: Economy

Foreign markets are soaring

The US markets are reaching new highs daily and many investors are happy with the returns their portfolios have generated.  According to the Wall Street Journal the S&P 500 is up 13.9% year-to-date.

 But some foreign markets are doing even better.

For example, the Hang Seng (Hong Kong) index is up 29.4%.

Chile is up 28%

Brazil up 27.3%

South Korea up 22.1%

Italy up 16.4%

Taiwan up 15.8%

Singapore up 14.7%

As part of our asset allocation strategy we always include a foreign component in our diversified portfolios.  Over long periods of time international diversification has had a positive effect on portfolio performance.  That’s because the US economy is mature.  It’s harder to generate the kind of economic growth that smaller, newer, and less developed economies can generate.

There is, however, a level of risk as well as reward to global diversification.  It’s said that when the US catches a cold, foreign markets get pneumonia.

The U.K. market is up only 5.8% this year, Shanghai +9.1%, Mexico +9.5%, Japan +9.6% and France +10.3%.  It’s difficult for the average investor to do the research to pick and choose their own foreign stocks.  So it’s even more important when investing overseas to use experienced portfolio managers with years of experience and an established track record.

We have done the research and we choose the best mutual funds with experienced managers to give our clients exposure to foreign markets.

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Monday Morning Outlook

Our favorite economist Brian Wesbury on the Economy:

GDP Growth Looking Good 

Brian S. Wesbury, Chief Economist
Robert Stein, Deputy Chief Economist
Date: 10/16/2017
Next week, government statisticians will release the first estimate for third quarter real GDP growth. In spite of hurricanes, and continued negativity by conventional wisdom, we expect 2.8% growth.

If we’re right about the third quarter, real GDP will be up 2.2% from a year ago, which is exactly equal to the growth rate since the beginning of this recovery back in 2009. Looking at these four-quarter or eight-year growth rates, many people argue that the economy is still stuck in the mud.

But, we think looking in the rearview mirror misses positive developments. The economy hasn’t turned into a thoroughbred, but the plowing is easier. Regulations are being reduced, federal employment growth has slowed (even declined) and monetary policy remains extremely loose with some evidence that a more friendly business environment is lifting monetary velocity.

Early signs suggest solid near 3% growth in the fourth quarter as well. Put it all together and we may be seeing an acceleration toward the 2.5 – 3.0% range for underlying trend economic growth. Less government interference frees up entrepreneurship and productivity growth powered by new technology. Yes, the Fed is starting to normalize policy and, yes, Congress can’t seem to legislate itself out of a paper bag, but fiscal and monetary policy together are still pointing toward a good environment for growth.

Here’s how we get to 2.8% for Q3.

Consumption: Automakers reported car and light truck sales rose at a 7.6% annual rate in Q3. “Real” (inflation-adjusted) retail sales outside the auto sector grew at a 2% rate, and growth in services was moderate. Our models suggest real personal consumption of goods and services, combined, grew at a 2.3% annual rate in Q3, contributing 1.6 points to the real GDP growth rate (2.3 times the consumption share of GDP, which is 69%, equals 1.6).

Business Investment: Looks like another quarter of growth in overall business investment in Q3, with investment in equipment growing at about a 9% annual rate, investment in intellectual property growing at a trend rate of 5%, but with commercial constriction declining for the first time this year. Combined, it looks like they grew at a 4.9% rate, which should add 0.6 points to the real GDP growth. (4.9 times the 13% business investment share of GDP equals 0.6).

Home Building: Home building was likely hurt by the major storms in Q3 and should bounce back in the fourth quarter and remain on an upward trend for at least the next couple of years. In the meantime, we anticipate a drop at a 2.6% annual rate in Q3, which would subtract from the real GDP growth rate. (-2.6 times the home building share of GDP, which is 4%, equals -0.1).

Government: Military spending was up in Q3 but public construction projects were soft for the quarter. On net, we’re estimating that real government purchases were down at a 1.2% annual rate in Q3, which would subtract 0.2 points from the real GDP growth rate. (1.2 times the government purchase share of GDP, which is 17%, equals -0.2).

Trade: At this point, we only have trade data through August. Based on what we’ve seen so far, it looks like net exports should subtract 0.2 points from the real GDP growth rate in Q3.

Inventories: We have even less information on inventories than we do on trade, but what we have so far suggests companies are stocking shelves and showrooms at a much faster pace in Q3 than they were in Q2, which should add 1.1 points to the real GDP growth rate.

More data this week – on industrial production, durable goods, trade deficits, and inventories – could change our forecast. But, for now, we get an estimate of 2.8%. Not bad at all.

I like the way he puts it: The economy hasn’t turned into a thoroughbred, but the plowing is easier.

 

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Time To Drain The Fed Swamp

The Panic of 2008 is widely misunderstood.  Part of this is due to the fact that financial issues are complicated.  How many people, after all, know what “mark to market accounting” is?  Part of it is due to politics.  Government policies encouraged home ownership by lowering lending standards, leading to NINA (“No Income No Assets”) loans.  At one time home prices were rising so fast that people believed that no matter what they paid for a house they could always sell it for more.

A thought-provoking article by Brian Wesbury of First Trust expands on this issue.

 Time To Drain The Fed Swamp

The Panic of 2008 was damaging in more ways than people think. Yes, there were dramatic losses for investors and homeowners, but these markets have recovered. What hasn’t gone back to normal is the size and scope of Washington DC, especially the Federal Reserve. It’s time for that to change.

D.C. institutions got away with blaming the crisis on the private sector, and used this narrative to grow their influence, budgets, and size. They also created the narrative that government saved the US economy, but that is highly questionable.

Without going too much in depth, one thing no one talks about is that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, at the direction of HUD, were forced to buy subprime loans in order to meet politically-driven, social policy objectives. In 2007, they owned 76% of all subprime paper (See Peter Wallison: Hidden in Plain Sight).

At the same time, the real reason the crisis spread so rapidly and expanded so greatly was not derivatives, but mark-to-market accounting.

It wasn’t government that saved the economy. Quantitative Easing was started in September 2008. TARP was passed on October 3, 2008. Yet, for the next five months markets continued to implode, the economy plummeted and private money did not flow to private banks.

On March 9, 2009, with the announcement that insanely rigid mark-to-market accounting rules would be changed, the markets stopped falling, the economy turned toward growth and private investors started investing in banks. All this happened immediately when the accounting rule was changed. No longer could these crazy rules wipe out bank capital by marking down asset values despite little to no change in cash flows. Changing this rule was the key to recovery, not QE, TARP or “stress tests.”

The Fed, and supporters of government intervention, ignore all these facts. They never address them. Why? First, institutions protect themselves even if it’s at the expense of the truth. Second, human nature doesn’t like to admit mistakes. Third, Washington DC always uses crises to grow. Admitting that their policies haven’t worked would lead to a smaller government with less power.

The Fed has become massive. Its balance sheet is nearly 25% of GDP. Never before has it been this large. And yet, the economy has grown relatively slowly. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, with a much smaller Fed balance sheet, the economy grew far more rapidly.

So how do you drain the Fed? By not appointing anyone that is already waiting in D.C.’s revolving door of career elites. We need someone willing to challenge Fed and D.C. orthodoxy. If we had our pick to fill the chair and vice chair positions (with Stanley Fischer announcing his departure) we would be focused on the likes of John Taylor, Peter Wallison, or Bill Isaac.

They would bring new blood to the Fed and hold it to account for its mistakes. It’s time for the Fed to own up and stop defending the nonsensical story that government, and not entrepreneurs, saved the US economy. Ben Bernanke and Janet Yellen have never fracked a well or written an App. We need a government that is willing to support the private sector and stop acting as if the “swamp” itself creates wealth.

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Recovery of Emerging Markets

The MSCI Emerging Markets Index, up 28.09%, is the best performing major index year-to-date – better than the DASDAQ, better than the S&P 500, better than the DJIA.  That’s an amazing reversal.

Emerging Markets have lagged the other major indexes over the last decade.

  • 2.21% for 3 years (vs. 9.57% for the S&P 500)
  • 5.56% for 5 years (vs. 14.36% for the S&P 500)
  • 2.76% for 10 years (vs. 7.61% for the S&P 500)

Why do we mention this?  A well diversified portfolio often includes an allocation to Emerging Markets.  Emerging Markets represent the economies of countries that have grown more rapidly than mature economies like the US and Europe.

Countries in the index include Brazil, Chile, China, Colombia, Czech Republic, Egypt, Greece, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Korea, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Qatar, Russia, South Africa, Taiwan, Thailand, and the United Arab Emirates.  Some of these countries have economic problems but economic growth in countries like India, China, and Mexico are higher than in the U.S.

Between 2003 and 2007 Emerging Markets grew 375% while the S&P 500 only advanced 85%.  As a result of the economic crisis of 2008, Emerging Markets suffered major losses.  It is possible that these economies may now have moved past that economic shock and may be poised to resume the kind of growth that they have exhibited in the past.  Portfolios that include an allocation to Emerging Markets can benefit from this recovery.

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Hurricane Economics

With with the cleanup beginning from the effects of Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma threatening the East Coast, We wanted to share the commentary of Brain Wesbury, Chief Economist at First Trust.

The hits keep coming. Hurricane Harvey left destruction in its wake, and now, Hurricane Irma has Florida in its sights.

It’s been five years since Hurricane Sandy, nine years since Ike and twelve years since Katrina. As with all major weather events, personal tragedy, pain, suffering, and loss are left in their wake. We have prayed, and continue to pray, for those affected. But at the same time, in our job as economists we look toward rebuilding and economic restoration. This is where investors often make two different mistakes about how these massive weather events will affect the economy and markets.

Some might think that, as did Nouriel Roubini after Katrina, the damage itself will cause a recession. Others take the opposite tack and think rebuilding efforts might actually help the economy. Neither are correct. By themselves, the storms will not push the economy off its Plow Horse path.

In the face of disasters we should all be thankful for the (mostly) free markets that help the U.S. respond. These markets allow accumulated wealth and know-how to focus on recovery. The losses will never be fully replaced, but the sheer size and flexibility of the U.S.’s capitalist system allows resources to be shifted and directed toward recovery. The price system makes this happen. While some think no profit should be made from a disaster, it is those profits which allow overall “economic” recovery to occur in relatively quick order.

Some estimate that damage from Harvey could be close to the $108 billion estimate for Katrina (2005), certainly above the $75 billion cost of Hurricane Sandy (2012).

Neither of these previous storms caused a recession, and at the same time, the data show no real acceleration in growth either. Real GDP grew 4.9% at an annual rate in the first quarter of 2006 after Katrina, but never accelerated above 3% in the first two quarters after Sandy. For six and nine month periods before and after these storms, growth rates were similar. In other words, it’s hard to separate the impact of Katrina or Sandy from normal statistical noise. The U.S. grew over 4% annualized in Q1 2005 and in Q3 2014, with no major weather impact.

But even if the bump in real GDP growth in the first quarter of 2006 was due to Katrina, that doesn’t mean it was good news. It would be what Henry Hazlitt in his book “Economics in One Lesson” called the “fallacy of the broken window” – which we recommend all investors read.

Hazlitt told a story about a vandal who broke a shopkeeper’s window, which caused a glassmaker to get an additional order. But the shopkeeper was planning on eventually using that same money to buy a new suit, so the tailor lost an order. In other words, even though rebuilding appears to create new economic activity, fixing things that have been destroyed actually robs an economy over time of the benefits of growth. Repairing physical capital does not generate new wealth, it only replaces old wealth.

Before Harvey, the market consensus was that automakers would sell cars and light trucks at a 16.6 million annual rate in August. Instead, automakers reported late on Friday that they only sold at a 16.1 million rate. Harvey hit an area that represents about 5% of US auto demand and it did so for about 20% of August. This suggests Harvey cut roughly 1% off of August sales nationwide, or that autos would have sold at a 16.3 million annual pace in the absence of the storm.

Automakers should make those sales back up in the next few months. In addition, reports suggest the storms destroyed about 500,000 autos, which will also generate additional sales in the months ahead.

These sales might help make the GDP numbers look better late this year or early next year, but it just represents demand that would have eventually appeared elsewhere in other sectors.

The lesson is that these disasters, while a tragedy in so many ways, do not shift the fundamental path of the U.S. economy. Some think socialist economies can respond better, but this is not true; markets are the most efficient system for guiding resources to areas in need. Free people that get hit with a disaster will overcome and reach new highs, because that’s what people do when they’re free, disaster or not. Godspeed to all those affected directly, and to those helping in recovery.

Our clients and friends in Texas were spared from the worst effects of hurricane Harvey.  Pray for those who lost their lives, their homes and their possessions.  And we applaud those who selflessly came to the rescue of their neighbors.  This showed the best of America.

 

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Good News on the Economic Front

Our favorite economist, Brian Wesbury of First Trust has a new note out that we wanted to share.

While the Sunday morning talk shows discuss the number of Civil War monuments that can dance on the head of a pin…and a rare Eclipse grabs focus…investors might be shocked at how the economy has accelerated.

Although we still have more than a month left in the third quarter, and many more pieces of data to come, as of August 16th the Atlanta Fed’s “GDP Now” model, which tracks and estimates real GDP growth, says the economy is expanding at a 3.8% annual rate in Q3.  If correct, that would be the fastest pace for any quarter since 2014.

We usually take forecasts this early with a grain of salt.  After all, a lot can happen over the remainder of the quarter.  And, on some prior occasions, the Atlanta Fed has projected rapid growth for a quarter mid-way through, only to ratchet back the forecast by quarter-end to a more pedestrian Plow Horse growth rate near 2%.  But, in this particular case, we think the pick-up is real.  In fact, our own internal forecast suggests the exact same growth rate of 3.8%.

One thing more pessimistic analysts are focusing on is that “inventories” are adding about 1% to the third quarter growth rate.  It looks like businesses are stocking shelves at a more normal pace after the lull in the first half of the year.  Excluding this inventory boost, First Trust models have real GDP growing at a 2.4% annual rate in Q3, while the Atlanta Fed model has it at 2.8%.

It’s hard to remember that the original report for Q1 real GDP was less than 1% growth.  That report worried many investors, and doom and gloom stories abounded.  But the foundation for continued economic growth remains in place.

It’s true that the US is unlikely to see tax cuts or real tax reform (or both!) anytime this year.  And this will make sustaining GDP growth at a 3.8% rate very difficult.  But we expect favorable changes in tax policy by early next year.  All that said, the best news is any threat of growth-harming tax hikes remains virtually nil.

Meanwhile, the one area of clear improvement in economic policy under President Trump has been regarding regulation.  The issuance of new rules that slow growth has basically stopped, while harmful old rules are getting rolled back or being reviewed for reform.  This alone can help push growth up by ¼ to ½ percentage point on an annual basis.

In addition, monetary policy remains very loose.  Short-term interest rates are still well below “normal” and there are over $2 trillion in excess reserves in the banking system.  We still expect another rate hike this year, and it seems clear that the Fed will begin slowly reducing the size of its bloated balance sheet.  Assuming the Fed starts balance sheet normalization on October 1st, their $4.4 trillion-dollar balance sheet would shrink by a measly 0.7% by year-end.  This takes the Fed from running a super-easy monetary policy to a very, very easy monetary policy.  In other words, any threat from tight money is remote.

Trade protectionism was the biggest threat to the economy as the new Trump Administration took office, but so far, there’s been a great deal more rhetoric than action on this front.  We remain confident that President Trump realizes a true lurch into protectionist policies would risk a drop in the stock market and would make it harder to meet his goal of faster economic growth.  Protectionist promises are much easier to break (or just ignore), when the unemployment rate is moving toward 4%.  Instead, expect the president to pivot toward trying to get better enforcement of intellectual property rights from China and an open market in oil and gas exports.

We constantly warn investors that one quarter, or one month, of economic data is meaningless.  So far, the Plow Horse has not morphed into a thoroughbred.  However, good news tends to lead to more good news and momentum is building.

Better economic growth means better profit growth and better profit growth will help push stocks higher.  Our 2017 end-of-year forecast of 2,700 for the S&P 500 and 23,500 for the Dow Jones Industrial Average remains in place.  Risks to growth remain low, and the chance of an acceleration remains positive as third quarter data is suggesting.

 

 

 

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The Fate of Social Security for Younger Workers – And Three Things You Should Do Right Now

We constantly hear people wonder whether Social Security will still be there when they retire.  The question comes not just from people in their 20’s, but also from people in their 40’s and 50’s as they begin to think more about retirement.  It’s a fair question.

Some estimates show that the Social Security Trust Fund will run out of money by 2034.  Medicare is in even worse shape, projected to run out of money by 2029.  That’s not all that far down the road.

So how do we plan for this?

The reality is that Social Security and Medicare benefits have been paid out of the U.S. Treasury’s “general fund” for decades.  The taxes collected for Social Security and Medicare all go into the general fund.  The idea that there is a special, separate fund for those programs is accounting fiction.  What is true is that the taxes collected for Social Security and Medicare are less than the amount being paid out.

What this inevitably means is that at some point the government may be forced to choose between increasing taxes for Social Security and Medicaid, reducing or altering benefits payments, or going broke.

Another question is whether the benefits provided to retirees under these programs will cover the cost living.  Older people spend much more on medical expenses than the young, and medical costs are increasing much faster than the cost of living adjustments in Social Security payments.  If a larger percentage of a retiree’s income from Social Security is spent on medical expenses, they will obviously have to make cuts in other expenses – be they food, clothing, or shelter – negatively impacting the lifestyle they envisioned for retirement.

The wise response to these issues is to save as much of your own money for retirement as possible while you are working.  There is little you can do about Social Security or Medicare benefits – outside of voting or running for public office – but you are in control over the amount you save and how you invest those savings.

As we face an uncertain future, we advocate that you take these three steps:

  1. Increase your savings rate.
  2. Prepare a retirement plan.
  3. Invest your retirement assets wisely.

If you need help with these steps, give us a call.  It’s what we do.

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Our Government Needs to Start Doing its Job

It’s probably not news to anyone that our country faces some serious problems.  However, members of Congress don’t seem to care enough to do anything but grandstand and argue.  The U.S. government is running a $700 billion deficit this year, but the last time Congress sent a real budget to the President’s desk was 2002.  That was 15 years ago!  Since that time Federal spending has largely been on autopilot via a mechanism called a Continuing Resolution (“CR” in Washington-speak).

The role of Congress is to make laws and decide how tax revenues should be spent.  Instead, they act as if they think their role is pretending to act as detectives.  This is not a commentary solely on the current kerfluffle in Washington.  As we noted, Congress has been abdicating its responsibility for 15 years.  Our elected officials would rather posture in front of the cameras than actually do the jobs we sent them to Washington to do.

 Brian S. Wesbury, Chief Economist at First Trust, commented:

 

At eight years, the current economic recovery is the third longest on record. Personal income, consumer spending, household assets, and net worth, are all at record highs. Stock markets are at record highs. Corporate profits are within striking distance of their all-time highs. Federal tax receipts are at record highs.

So, how is it possible that the federal budget, along with some state and local budgets, still look like they’re in the middle of a nasty recession?

The answer: Government fiscal management is completely out of control. Politicians find time to fret about Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods and won’t stop bashing banks, but they’ve lost their ability to deal with their own fiscal reality.

… Illinois and the City of Chicago are running chronic deficits, while New Jersey and New York are fiscal basket cases.
Businesses and entrepreneurs create new things and build wealth. Politicians redistribute that wealth. And while some of what government does can help the economy, like providing defense or supporting property rights, the U.S. government has expanded well beyond that point. Politicians have never been this reckless or fiscally irresponsible.

Whenever we say this, people ask; “what would you cut from the budget?” And then, if you are actually brave enough to answer, you get attacked for “not caring.”

This needs to stop. Illinois is in a death spiral. Tax rate increases will chase more productive people out of the state, while ratchetting spending higher. And just like Detroit and Puerto Rico, the state will go bankrupt.

The U.S. government is on this path, but, because it has the ability to fund itself with the best debt in the world, a true fiscal day of reckoning is still 15-20 years away.

Government spending needs to be peeled back everywhere. It’s no longer a case of picking and choosing. And until that happens, the fiscal irresponsibility of the government is the number one threat to not only America, but the world.

No matter what politicians tell us, any pain caused by private sector greed will pale in comparison to the mayhem that collapsing governments can create. Just look at Venezuela or Greece! It’s time to reset America’s fiscal reality. And if that means debt ceiling brinksmanship, shutting down the government, or moving to a simple majority on spending decisions, so be it. It’s time to get serious!

 

We agree.  We should all tell Congress that it’s time to get serious.

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Don’t believe the doom and gloom about the economy.

The invaluable Brian Wesbury, Chief Economist of First Trust, recently made some interesting comments about the economy.

First, there are the employment statistics:

The best news for the consumer is that the labor market continues to heal. At 4.4%, the unemployment rate is the lowest since 2007. Some watch what they call the “true” unemployment rate, which includes discouraged workers as well as part-timers who claim they’d prefer full-time jobs – that’s 8.6%, also the lowest since 2007. Meanwhile, wages and salaries are up 5.5% in the past year, outstripping inflation.

Meanwhile the average American has reduced his debt burden to levels not seen since the early 1980s.  While student loans have reached record levels and auto loans delinquencies have grown, consumer debt has dropped by 50% since the end of 2009.

Finally, consumers have changed their buying patterns.  They are shifting their buying to the Internet and away from brick-and-mortar stores.  Some of the old-line retailers are experiencing sales and profitability problems even as a company like Amazon is building physical stores.

We remain in the midst of a technological revolution.  Stay alert and very nimble.

If you want to learn how to navigate your way through the shoals and rapids of the investment river, give us a call and we’ll be happy to help.

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The Trump Trade after three months.

The election of Donald Trump was followed by what many called “The Trump Trade.”  Based on the promises made by Trump during the campaign: to lower taxes and reduce regulations – two factors that inhibit economic growth – the stock market rose sharply.  But it’s going to take time and a lot of hard bargaining to actually get to the point where real economic benefits result.

Brian Wesbury, Chief Economist at First Trust:

As we wrote three months ago, it’s going to take much more than animal spirits to lift economic growth from the sluggish pace of the past several years. Measures of consumer and business confidence continue to perform much better than before the election. But where the economic rubber hits the road, in terms of actual production not so much.  It looks like real GDP growth will clock in at a 1.3% annual rate in the first quarter.

He says that we still have a “Plow Horse Economy” and it will take time to unhitch the plow and saddle up the “Racehorse.”

Trump has signed a number of executive orders that will have an impact on regulation, but the bureaucracy is still staffed with the last administration’s appointees and the pace of approving new appointments is glacially slow.

Waiting is the hardest part.

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