Category Archives: Economy

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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The Retirement Dilemma Facing American Workers

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The way Americans fund their retirement has undergone a fundamental transformation in the last 30 years. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the percentage of private-sector employees with a traditional defined benefit pension plan has dropped from about 45% in 1980 to a little over 20% in 2011. A defined benefit pension plan is one that provides the retiree with a guaranteed income for the rest of his or her life.

The guaranteed pension has been replaced by a defined contribution plan. Today, about 50% of the private workforce participates in one of these plans, which include 401(k) plans and 403(b) plans and allow the worker to set money from their paycheck aside to grow tax-deferred until they retire, at which point they can start pulling from it to fund their retirement. However, there is no guarantee that the amount saved will be adequate to meet their income needs once they retire.

Most government workers still have access to traditional defined benefit pension plans. However, most of these plans are severely underfunded and questions are being raised about cities and states being able to pay the benefits that were promised. A recent poll of people 25 years and older concluded that “Americans are united in their anxiety about their economic security in retirement.” Over 75% of those surveyed worry that economic conditions might hurt their chances for a secure retirement. (For related reading from this author, see: How Retirees Should Think About Retirement Income.)

Social Security and Medicare Concerns

The federal government provides a basic level of retirement income via Social Security, and provides a basic level of health insurance via Medicare and Medicaid. However, these programs are on shaky ground according to most actuaries. The Social Security Trust Fund will run out of money around 2034 unless it is reformed. That does not mean that checks will not go out to retirees, but it does mean that the amount going out will decrease.

Medicare is in even worse shape and, with the continued rapid rise in medical costs, may face a crisis even sooner. The costs of health care and increasing life spans are major issues for retirees, which explains the reason that so many Americans think they are facing a retirement crisis in the first place. Given the level of debt at the federal level and the rhetoric of the current administration, we do not see the government jumping in to fund the American worker’s retirement at levels above what it does now.

Even Denmark, an icon of the Welfare State, is proposing tax cuts, reducing welfare benefits and raising the retirement age.

“We want to promote a society in which it is easier to support yourself and your family before you hand over a large share of your income to fund the costs of society.”

Funding Your Own Retirement

If the government is not going to come to the rescue, and if corporations are going to continue to unload the financial risks and burdens associated with pension plans, what is the answer? Look to the old saying, “If you want something done, do it yourself.” Going forward, it’s increasingly going to be up to the individual American worker to fund his or her own retirement.

If people begin saving early, a large part of the retirement problem will be solved. The most valuable asset that people have when they are young is time. If workers begin putting money aside at an early age, it will grow and compound for 40 to 50 years until retirement, solving a large part of the problem. The compounding of returns is what makes so much of the difference.

Here is a little math exercise: assume you begin by saving $25 per month—much less than the cost of having one decent dinner at a restaurant—and invest it conservatively so that it grows at 5% per year. At the end of 45 years you will have $50,000. Now assume that you increase your savings by 10% each year—so that in year two you save $27.50 per month (still far less than the cost of just one dinner out)—at the end of 45 years you have $400,000 to use in retirement. These examples go to show that saving a modest sum for retirement does not require much cost or effort, just discipline, time and patience.

Financial Education is Key

The greatest asset that young workers have is time. Unfortunately, people rarely enter the workforce knowing much about saving or investing. That is one reason so many people live paycheck to paycheck. The solution to the retirement crisis is achievable by educating young people and raising awareness. Until schools and colleges begin having mandatory courses for our young people about managing money, parents should be doing this. If they are unsure, they can put their children in touch with a financial planner who will spend time to provide the education. Many financial planners are beginning to offer hourly rates to help people learn to plan and budget.

For most people, the retirement problem is the result of a lack of information. The solution is right in front of us, if we realize that times have changed and people must change with it.

(For more from this author, see: Are You Ready for the Retirement Challenge?)

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The Plow Horse is Dead – Long Live the Race Horse

Race horse

We have referred to the economy over the last decade as the “Plow Horse Economy.”  There has been a huge increase in technology available to the economy over that period of time.  “Fracking” has unlocked huge oil and gas reserves in the energy sector.  The “Internet of Things” is tying our appliances together, automating our homes, even allowing us to control them with voice commands.  Self-driving cars are becoming a reality faster than I believed possible.  3D printing is revolutionizing production processes.  Yet despite this dazzling technological revolution, the economy is only managing 1.2% GDP growth.

Why?

Many analysts believe that if we compare the economy to a horse, we have a thoroughbred economy that’s plodding along like a Plow Horse.  The problem is that the rider is too heavy.    That rider is the government.  It’s holding growth down.  In the year 2000 government was 17.6% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP).  In 2016 it was 21.1% of GDP, an increase of 20%.  That’s a big move from the private sector to the public sector.

Keep in mind that government doesn’t manufacture anything.

On top of that, government today regulates virtually everything, generating a hidden cost to producers and consumers.  Some analysts think it’s a miracle that the economy actually grew despite increased borrowing, taxes and regulation.

The incoming Trump administration has a staunchly pro-business agenda.  The focus on jobs and economic growth is front and center.  A new executive order instructs federal agencies to halt the issuance of more regulations, and the new President has indicated a desire to reduce them by 75%.   Another executive order has frozen hiring of federal employees, opening the door to replacing government employees with technology, something that has happened in the private sector.  Yet other executive actions advance the approval of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access oil pipelines – using American steel – creating new high-paying construction jobs and indicating an interest in making America energy independent.  Reducing tax rates, especially the high corporate tax rate, is another Trump administration objective.  It’s the carrot to encourage companies to build here, even as he waves the stick of high tariffs for goods brought in from overseas.  It’s getting a respectful hearing from otherwise skeptical business leaders.

These actions are not going to be enough, but they are indications that the new administration is determined to streamline government and incentivize private industry to grow.  According to Brian Wesbury, Chief Economist of First Trust, the earning per share of the S&P 500 is estimated to be $130, an increase of 20% in 2017.  Growth in earnings of that magnitude can justify an increase in market valuations and add a few percentage points to the annual GDP.

To get back to our horse analogy, it looks as if the jockey riding the horse will be put on a diet.  If that happens the thoroughbred who was a “Plow Horse”  may become a “Race Horse.”

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Dow Breaks the 20,000 level

The Dow Jones Industrial Average reached another milestone today.  The Dow broke through 20,000 as traders cheered.

For a little perspective here’s how the market reached past milestones.

dow-jones-milestones

A few points to remember.  There have been long periods when the Dow treated investors like riders on a roller coaster:  lots of swoops and slides only to end up where you began.  During those periods people made money with astute stock selection, not by buying “Mr. Market.”  We believe that those times will come again.

  • It took from 1929 to 1954 for the Dow to regain its previous high.
  • It took ten years – from 1972 to 1982 – for the market to break through the 1,000 level.

Keep in mind that the 1,000 point move in the Dow at the current level is just a little over 5% and is therefore not nearly as meaningful as a move from 1,000 to 2,000, a move of 100%.  But it’s still an important psychological barrier that had to be broken for the market to move higher.

The move makes sense from both a technical and fundamental standpoint.  Both retail and institutional investors are positive, as we have noted in the past.

The incoming Trump administration has moved with amazing speed to demonstrate their desire to increase the level of economic growth as a way of increasing job and wage growth.  They have expressed policy preferences for lower taxes, reducing regulations that stifle business development, and have been encouraging companies to build their businesses in the United States rather than overseas.

The trend is clear.  The only thing that could derail this train is a massive change in consumer sentiment or an external factor such as a war or other calamity.  The latter are known as “Black Swan” events and we must always keep in mind that they can occur.  We manage our portfolios with those possibilities in mind.

Eventually, valuations will get too high and the inevitable correction will occur.  In the meantime, we enjoy the ride while keeping a close eye on events.

Market Perspectives and Outlook

In 2016, the general election dominated the news headlines while the economy continued its slow slog for most of the year.

Stocks began the year in a slump, losing 10% in the first six weeks and then meandering sideways until July.  The markets rallied in the third quarter, followed by another decline until the election.  That’s when Trump’s surprising win started a rally that has carried the market to nearly 20,000 on the Dow.

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U.S. equities have held their gains since the election, while definitive sector rotations indicate more confidence among investors.  We believe the bull market will continue, although the sharp gains seen recently may give way to more sideways movement and/or potential pullbacks.

Improving economic data alongside a perception that the incoming Trump administration will be more business-friendly has bolstered both stock and Treasury yields.

The Federal Reserve raised interest rates in December and indicated that they expect further rate increases in 2017.

While it remains to be seen how much of Trump’s populist agenda will be embraced by the Republican Congress, a survey of 177 fund managers the week following the elections found they were putting cash to work  at the fastest pace since August 2009.

We always want to be good stewards of our client assets.  As such, we are participating in the market’s growth while at the same time remaining aware that the future holds many uncertainties, especially with the change in government direction and policy as we head into 2017.

As always, we value our relationship with you and welcome your comments and suggestions.

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Tectonic Shifts – Looking Ahead to 2017

The election has created tectonic shifts in government and promises to make bold changes in the economy.  We have been gathering consensus views from some leading financial analysts for 2017

  • Global interest rates are going up.
  • Global inflation is going up.
  • Global growth is going up.
  • Recession risk is going down.

A new consensus is also building.  The rise of nationalistic self-interest is upsetting the old order the world over.  For the past decade central bankers have been in control of economic policy throughout the world.  It has resulted in low or even negative interest rates in an effort to stimulate economic growth.  The result has been like pushing on a string.  Growth has been slow (the string as a whole hasn’t been moving) and the middle class in the developed world has seen their wages stagnate and their jobs disappear (the middle of the string) while those at the top (the far end of the string) have been virtually unaffected.  It’s part of the reason for the change in political leadership in the U.S. and the re-emergence of economic nationalism as evidenced by the Brexit vote in Britain.

As central bank leadership takes a back seat to aggressive fiscal policy, we can expect political leadership to focus on job growth and economic relief for the long-neglected middle class.  Domestically, here is what we expect to see:

Tax reform:  Trump’s campaign promised corporate tax reform.  To make American companies more competitive globally, he has proposed reducing corporate tax rates from 35% to 15%.  A special 10% rate is designed to repatriate corporate profits held offshore.

Individuals will be taxed at three rates depending on income: 12%, 25% and 33%.

Fiscal policy: The Trump administration wants to spend new money on infrastructure: transportation, clean water, the electric grid, telecommunications, security, and energy.

Health care: Trump wants to repeal and replace Obamacare.

Trade: The new administration has vowed to withdraw from TPP (Trans Pacific Partnership) and renegotiate NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement).  They also intend to challenge China regarding currency manipulation and unfair trade practices.

Immigration: President-elect Trump intends to establish new, tougher immigration controls to boost wages, build a wall along the U.S./Mexico border, deport criminal aliens and end sanctuary cities.

Economy: 25 million new jobs over the next decade is the goal of the incoming administration.  They aim to boost economic growth from 1.5% to 3.5% or 4.0% annually.

The Trump administration will focus on job creation, economic growth, infrastructure spending, reduced regulation, and energy independence while reducing governmental efforts to prevent climate change.  The people that Donald Trump has chosen for his cabinet are largely from the private sector; people that have backgrounds in running successful businesses and creating jobs.

These things are the primary reason that the stock market has reacted well to the election of Donald Trump.  Corporate earnings have been essentially flat for the past three years.  Professional investors see opportunities for renewed economic growth, which will increase corporate profits.  While we view this development with optimism, we always remain cautious.  We expect increased market volatility, especially if terrorist attacks continue throughout the globe.  We also expect interest rates to rise as the Federal Reserve brings rates to a more historically normal level.

We also see opportunities for the creation of new companies.  The number of publicly traded companies has dropped by nearly 50% since 2000.  At the same time, the number of companies that are held by private equity firms has grown explosively – by a factor of six!  This provides a great opportunity for privately held companies to go public and provide yet another opportunity for greater market growth.

As always, we remain cautious in keeping with our philosophy of preserving our clients’ capital.  Over the long term, we see the potential for a new American renaissance.

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Greedy Innkeeper or Generous Capitalist?

During the Christmas season we are reminded of the story of Jesus being born in a stable because there was no room in the inn.  We wanted to share this story with our readers because it says something about Christmas and also about the economy.  It comes from Brian Wesbury of First Trust Advisors

The Bible story of the virgin birth is at the center of much of the holiday cheer this time of year. The book of Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem because Caesar Augustus decreed a census should be taken. Mary gave birth after arriving in Bethlehem and placed baby Jesus in a manger because there was “no room for them in the inn.”

Some people believe Mary and Joseph were mistreated by a greedy innkeeper, who only cared about profits and decided the couple was not “worth” his normal accommodations. This version of the story (narrative) has been repeated many times in plays, skits, and sermons. It fits an anti-capitalist mentality that paints business owners as greedy, or even evil.

It persists even though the Bible records no complaints and there was apparently no charge for the stable. It may be the stable was the only place available. Bethlehem was over-crowded with people forced to return to their ancestral home for a census – ordered by the Romans – for the purpose of levying taxes. If there was a problem, it was due to unintended consequences of government policy. In this narrative, the government caused the problem.

The innkeeper was generous to a fault – a hero even. He was over-booked, but he charitably offered his stable, a facility he built with unknowing foresight. The innkeeper was willing and able to offer this facility even as government officials, who ordered and administered the census, slept in their own beds with little care for the well-being of those who had to travel regardless of their difficult life circumstances.

If you must find “evil” in either of these narratives, remember that evil is ultimately perpetrated by individuals, not the institutions in which they operate. And this is why it’s important to favor economic and political systems that limit the use and abuse of power over others. In the story of baby Jesus, a government law that requires innkeepers to always have extra rooms, or to take in anyone who asks, would “fix” the problem.

But these laws would also have unintended consequences. Fewer investors would back hotels because the cost of the regulations would reduce returns on investment. A hotel big enough to handle the rare census would be way too big in normal times. Even a bed and breakfast would face the potential of being sued. There would be fewer hotel rooms, prices would rise, and innkeepers would once again be called greedy. And if history is our guide, government would chastise them for price-gouging and then try to regulate prices.

This does not mean free markets are perfect or create utopia; they aren’t and they don’t. But businesses can’t force you to buy a service or product. You have a choice – even if it’s not exactly what you want. And good business people try to make you happy in creative and industrious ways.

Government doesn’t always care. In fact, if you happen to live in North Korea or Cuba, and are not happy about the way things are going, you can’t leave. And just in case you try, armed guards will help you think things through.

This is why the Framers of the US Constitution made sure there were “checks and balances” in our system of government. These checks and balances don’t always lead to good outcomes; we can think of many times when some wanted to ignore these safeguards. But, over time, the checks and balances help prevent the kinds of despotism we’ve seen develop elsewhere.

Neither free market capitalism, nor the checks and balances of the Constitution are the equivalent of having a true Savior. But they should give us all hope that the future will be brighter than many seem to think.

Merry Christmas.

 

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Is the Trump Rally Real?

Our favorite financial economist, Brian Wesbury, has some hopeful thoughts about the market following the election.

Since the presidential election, the S&P 500 is up 8.4%, the Russell 2000, a small cap stock index, is up almost 20% and the Dow is closing in on 20,000. Financial stocks have surged.

This “Trump Rally,” just like the entire 2009-2016 bull market – which pushed up stocks more than 200% – has its detractors. We heard it over and over in the past eight years, and now we are hearing it again – “the market has moved too far, too fast.”

Wesbury thinks that there’s a real reason for the market’s rise.  “Hope and faith” has nothing to do with it.  His model indicated that the market was undervalued before the election, and he has attributed that to government policies.

We believe the reason it was undervalued was because government policy was constantly making it more difficult for free markets to operate. Higher taxes, higher spending and more regulation increase the risks to future growth. It’s why we have had a Plow Horse economy. At the least, these policies are now stopped, at best, they will be reversed.

He expects that a Trump administration will be much more market friendly.  At the current rate, perhaps he will soon begin talking about a “Race Horse” economy.

Of course, like any prediction about the future, events can get in the way.  That’s why we are always cautious and focused on protecting our client’s investment assets while participating in the market’s advance within the constraints of prudence, knowing that our vision of the future is never guaranteed.

In the meantime, we are enjoying the ride and are getting ready for a very Merry Christmas.

The New Trump Economy

We have been talking about the “Plow Horse Economy” for quite a while now.  Low interest rates designed to spur economic growth have been offset by other government policies that have acted as a “Plow” holding the economy back.

Market watchers have assumed that the November election would see a continuation of those policies.  The general prediction was for slow growth, falling corporate profits, a possible deflationary spiral, and flat yield curves.

What a difference a week makes.  The market shocked political prognosticators by standing those expectations on their heads.

Bank of America surveyed 177 fund managers in the week following the elections who say they’re putting cash to work this month at the fastest pace since August 2009.

The U.S. election result is “seen as unambiguously positive for nominal GDP,” writes Bank of America Merrill Lynch Chief Investment Strategist Michael Hartnett, in a note accompanying the monthly survey. 

The stock market has reached several new all-time highs, moving the DJIA to a record 18,924 on November 15th, up 3.6% in one week.

Interest rates on the benchmark 10-year US Treasury bond have risen from 1.83% on November 7th to 2.25% today (November 17th), a 23% increase.  Expectations for the yield curve to steepen — in other words, for the gap between short and long-term rates to widen — saw their biggest monthly jump on record.

 WealthManagement.com says that

Global growth and inflation expectations are also tracking the ascent of Trump. The net share of fund managers expecting a stronger economy nearly doubled from last month’s reading, while those surveyed are the most bullish on the prospect of a pick-up in inflation since June 2004.

Investors are now also more optimistic about profit growth than they have been in 15 months.

Whether this new-found optimism is justified is something that only time will tell.  In the meantime to US market is reacting well to Trump’s plans for tax cuts and infrastructure spending.  Spending on roads, bridges and other parts of the infrastructure has been part of Trump’s platform since he entered the race for President.  It’s the tax reform that could be the key to a new economic stimulus.

According to CNBC American corporations are holding $2.5 trillion dollars in cash overseas. That’s equal to 14% of the US gross domestic product.  If companies bring that back to the US it would be taxed at the current corporate tax rate of 35%.  The US has the highest corporate tax rate in the world.  The promise of lower corporate tax rates – Trump has spoken of 15% – could spur the repatriation of that cash to the US, giving a big boost to a slow growth US economy.

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