Category Archives: Government

Don’t Fear Higher Interest Rates

Here’s some weekly commentary from Brian Wesbury of First Trust 

The Federal Reserve has a problem.  At 4.1%, the jobless rate is already well below the 4.6% it thinks unemployment would/could/should average over the long run.  We think the unemployment rate should get to 3.5% by the end of 2019 and wouldn’t be shocked if it got that low in 2018, either.

Add in extra economic growth from tax cuts and the Fed will be worried that it is “behind the curve.”  As a result, we think the Fed will raise rates three times next year, on top of this year’s three rate hikes, counting the almost certain hike this month.  And a fourth rate hike in 2018 is still certainly on the table.  By contrast, the futures market is only pricing in one or two rate hikes next year – exactly as it did for 2017.  In other words, the futures markets are likely to be wrong for the second year in a row.

And as short-term interest rates head higher, we expect long-term interest rates to head up as well.  So, get ready, because the bears will seize on this rising rate environment as one more reason for the bull market in stocks to end.

They’ll be wrong again.  The bull market, and the US economy, have further to run.  Rising rates won’t kill the recovery or bull market anytime in the near future.

Higher interest rates reflect a higher after-tax return to capital, a natural result of cutting taxes on corporate investment via a lower tax rate on corporate profits as well as shifting to full expensing of equipment and away from depreciation for tax purposes.

Lower taxes on capital means business will more aggressively pursue investment opportunities, helping boost economic growth and the demand for labor – leading to more jobs and higher wages.  Stronger growth means higher rates.

For a recent example of why higher rates don’t mean the end of the bull market in stocks look no further than 2013.  Economic growth accelerated that year, with real GDP growing 2.7% versus 1.3% the year before.  Meanwhile, the yield on the 10-year Treasury Note jumped to 3.04% from 1.78%.  And during that year the S&P 500 jumped 29.6%, the best calendar year performance since 1997.

This was not a fluke.  The 10-year yield rose in 2003 and 2006, by 44 and 32 basis points, respectively.  How did the S&P 500 do those years: up 26.4% in 2003, up 13.8% in 2006.

Sure, in theory, if interest rates climb to reflect the risk of rising inflation, without any corresponding increase in real GDP growth, then higher interest rates would not be a good sign for equities.  That’d be like the late 1960s through the early 1980s.  But with Congress and the president likely to soon agree to major pro-growth changes in the tax code on top of an ongoing shift toward deregulation, we think the growth trend is positive, not negative.

It’s also true that interest on the national debt will rise as well.  But federal interest costs relative to both GDP and tax revenue are still hovering near the lowest levels of the past fifty years.  As we’ve argued, sensible debt financing that locks in today’s low rates would be prudent. However, it will take many years for higher interest rates to lift the cost of borrowing needed to finance the government back to the levels we saw for much of the 1980s and 1990s.  And as we all remember the 80s and 90s were not bad for stocks.

Bottom line: interest rates across the yield curve are headed higher.  But, for stocks, it’s just another wall of worry not a signal that the bull market is anywhere near an end.

 

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The Weekly Market Review

Week of 10/30/17 – 11/03/17:
Last week wrapped up the busiest part of the earnings season with most companies having now reported.  Large caps continued the recent stretch of gains extending the streak of new record highs for the S&P 500, Dow, and Nasdaq.
The Nasdaq led the way last week adding nearly 1% while the S&P and Dow a gained 0.29% and 0.45% respectively.  Small stocks didn’t fair quite as well, own 0.87% as benchmarked by the Russell 2000.
Global stocks recorded gains led by emerging markets, which rallied back from a couple lackluster weeks to add 1.45%.  The ACWI and EAFE closed the week up 0.67% and 0.92%
respectively.
While headlines were primarily focused on earnings releases, investors also continued to monitor the political landscape, especially the announcement of a new Fed chairman –
Jerome Powell.
Rates decreased for the first time in several weeks while the dollar added to it’s recent rally.
The 10 year closed just north of 2.3% while munis and corporates also rallied.  Energy and Technology stocks responded the best to last week’s earnings releases,
while telecoms saw a major decline.
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Can We Afford a Tax Cut?

 

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Our favorite economist, Brian Wesbury of First Trust says “yes.”:

Congress took a big step last week toward enacting some sort of tax cuts and tax reform.

That big step was the US Senate passing a budget resolution creating the room for ten years of tax cuts totaling $1.5 trillion with a simple majority vote. This procedure means there is no need to break a filibuster by getting to 60 votes.

So right about now is when self-styled “deficit hawks” will start to squawk. They will claim the federal government simply can’t afford to boost the federal debt, which already exceeds $20 trillion, with no end in sight.

Let’s put aside the issue that between 2009-12 many of these deficit hawks were supporting new spending, when annual federal deficits were $1 trillion plus. Let’s just take them at their word that they don’t think any policy that increases the deficit can be good for the economy.

One problem with their argument is that the $1.5 trillion is an increase in projected deficits over a span of ten years, not a definite increase in the debt. If tax reform focuses on cutting marginal tax rates, particularly on overtaxed corporate capital and personal incomes, and can thereby generate faster economic growth, the actual loss of revenue could be substantially less than $1.5 trillion or maybe nothing at all.

The estimate of a $1.5 trillion revenue loss is based on “static” scoring, which means the budget scorekeepers on Capitol Hill make the ridiculous assumption that changes in tax policy can’t affect the growth rate of the overall economy. Just a 1 percentage point increase in the average economic growth rate over the next ten years would reduce the deficit by $2.7 trillion, easily offsetting the supposed cost of the tax cut.

Another problem for the deficit hawks is that despite a record high federal debt, the servicing cost of the debt is still low relative to both the size of the economy and federal revenue.

Late last week, we got final numbers for Fiscal Year 2017 and net interest on the national debt was $263 billion – that’s just 1.4% of fiscal year GDP. To put that in perspective, that’s lower than it ever was from 1974 to 2002. The peak during that era was 3.2% of GDP in 1991. The lowest point since 1974 was 1.2% in 2015, not far from where we are today.

The same is true for interest relative to federal revenue, which was 7.9% in Fiscal Year 2017, lower than any year from 1974 to 2013. The high point during that era was 18.4% in 1991 and the recent low was 6.9% in 2015. Again, we’re still pretty close to the recent low.

Yes, interest rates should move up in the years to come, but it will take several years to rollover the debt at higher interest-rate levels. Even if interest rates went to 4% across the entire yield curve, the interest burden would remain below historical peak levels relative to GDP and tax revenue.

The US certainly has serious long-term fiscal challenges. The US government has over-promised future generations of retirees and should ratchet back these spending promises to encourage work, saving, and investment. Meanwhile, we need the US Treasury Department to issue longer-dated maturities like 50-year and 100-year debt to lock-in low interest rates for longer.

However, the absence of these changes should not be an obstacle to boosting economic growth by cutting tax rates and reforming the tax code. Plow Horse economic growth is certainly better than no growth at all, but turning the economy into a thoroughbred would make it easier to handle our long-term budget challenges, not harder.

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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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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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Fixing the Public Employees’ pension crisis

Public employee pensions are time bombs set to explode.  The State of Illinois finances are in such a state of crisis that its comptroller, Susana Mendoza, has told the legislature that over 90% of its monthly revenue is now being commandeered for court-ordered payments, primarily to pay current pensioners.  If Illinois does not pass a new budget within a few days there will be a financial crisis.

According to Forbes:

Public employee pension plans around the country are facing a shortfall of at least $1 trillion, and some of the largest plans are beginning to radically cut promised benefits because they have not stashed away enough to meet their obligations.

There is only so much money to go around.  Promises that can’t be kept won’t be kept … and that includes pensions.

One sign of things to come is a bill signed by Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf.  It reforms the state pension system that makes it more sustainable.

 “Let’s be clear: This plan addresses our liability in the only real and responsible way possible, by changing the structure of pension benefits,” said Mr. Wolf. “The fact is, we cannot accelerate the shrinking of our liability on the backs of our current employees, and this bill recognizes this in a real, concrete way.”

The bill moves new workers not in high-risk jobs such as state police and corrections officers into a hybrid retirement system.   Half of their retirement benefits will come from pensions paid for by the taxpayer and the other half will come from a 401(a) defined contribution plan.  A 401(a) is similar to a 401(k) but for public employees.  There are differences, but both transfer responsibility for retirement income to the employee and away from the employer.

The law is projected to save more than $5 billion and shield taxpayers from $20 billion or more in additional liabilities if state investments fail to meet projections, said a news release issued from the office of Republican Sen. Jake Corman, the bill’s chief sponsor.

We suspect that Pennsylvania is just the first state to adopt a system that transfers the responsibility for public employees’ retirement income away from the taxpayer and toward the employee.  It levels the playing field between public and private employees.

It will also make financial planning increasingly important for everyone.

Click HERE for questions about financial planning.

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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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Getting ready to file your taxes? Pay attention!

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As we head into tax season, many of you have received tax reports – commonly referred to as “1099s” – from your investment firm.

The IRS requires that 1099-MISC forms must be mailed by January 31st,  but issuers are not required to file copies of all 1099 Forms with the IRS until the end of February.

We frequently advise our clients to delay filing their taxes until March at the earliest.  That’s because the tax code is so complex that errors are inevitable.  As a result, investors often receive “corrected” 1099 forms after the February deadline has passed.  This may result in a change in the tax owed.  Those who use tax preparers or CPA firms may need to have their tax re-calculated, increasing the cost to the investor.

We note that Morgan Stanley has admitted to providing erroneous information to its clients.

Apparently Morgan Stanley’s reporting system sometimes generated an incorrect cost basis for its clients’ stock or bond positions, which threw off capital gains tax calculations following the sales of the securities, the paper reports. The errors affected a “significant number” of the firm’s 3.5 million wealth management clients for tax years 2011 through 2016, according to the paper. But around 90% of the under- or overpayments were less than $300 while more than half were less than $20, a Morgan Stanley spokesman tells the Journal.

It is always a good idea to check the accuracy of the statements you receive from your custodian.  There may be erroneous or missing information.  In many cases where securities were purchased years ago, the custodian does not have the cost basis of stocks or bonds that were sold.  In those cases the investor is responsible for providing that information.  If you do not provide that information, the IRS may assume that the cost basis is zero and tax you on the full amount of the proceeds of sale.

On a final note, many clients have asked us how long they need to keep records for tax purposes.  The primary IRS statute of limitations was three years. But there are many exceptions that give the IRS six years or longer. Several of those exceptions are more prevalent today, and one of them has gotten bigger.  The three years is doubled to six if you omitted more than 25% of your income. “Omitted” can mean to not report at all, or it can mean that the amount of income was under-reported by 25% or more.

If you have questions about your tax forms, or wonder where you can get assistance to determine the cost basis of securities bought or gifted long ago, give us a call.

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