Category Archives: Investment strategy

Scary Headlines and bad advice.

I was listening to the car radio the other day and hear an ad by someone who was predicting the end of the financial word. After listing the all the things that will go wrong, he promised that if you invested with him you could enjoy all the gains of the stock market but would not risk losing a penny.

Sound too good to be true? Of course it is, but it works by appealing to people who want to believe that there’s such a thing as a free lunch.

I was reminded of that radio commercial when I read this article by Gil Weinreich at Seeking Alpha:

All investors are looking for astute analysis, but in order to appreciate it when you see it, it is worthwhile considering what bad analysis looks like. Jeff Miller does just that, critiquing analysts who make spurious connections between long-term economic trends and specific portfolio recommendations. I’ve seen scary headlines to this effect offering “sell now”-type advice in 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 up until today. Even though such analysts had all kinds of valid concerns, investors following the serial bad advice have missed out.

When seeing representative articles from this genre, I ask myself what manner of benevolence prompts a writer to offer ever fresh warnings of doomsday. What’s going on with these analysts? Jeff hits the nail on the head. I quote in pertinent part:

Their business model seems to be one of supporting the insatiable appetite for confirmation bias from investors who have misjudged the market. Unfortunately, many average investors stumble on these sources and take the material seriously. They do not know about past errors or track records.

You never see a retraction or admission of an error. The only clue is that these sources monetize their audience with a ‘solution’ to fear – gold, annuities, a no-fail trading system, or some other seductive, high-commission product.”

The point is a critical reader must understand not just what an author’s main point is, but what is his interest in writing the article. This is not to say that someone with a point of view and a business interest should be ignored. Such a combination often prompts very good content. But understanding these elements can help you evaluate the analysis. Is it tendentious or is it instructive? Strong financial communicators educate; salesmen agitate.

There is so much bad advice generated by the media that it pays to ask what’s in it for the advice-givers. Too often it’s a fat commission on a product that is deceptive.

 

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Does Volatility Make You Nervous?

One of our favorite economists, Brian Wesbury, has some comments on recent volatility and the economy.

When Volatility is Just Volatility

Stock market volatility scares people. But, volatility itself isn’t necessarily bad. Only if there are fundamental economic problems, something that could cause a recession, would we think volatility itself is a warning sign.

So, we watch the Four Pillars. These Pillars – monetary policy, tax policy, spending & regulatory policy, and trade policy – are the real threats to prosperity. Right now, these Pillars suggest that economic fundamentals remain sound.

Monetary Policy: We’re astounded some analysts interpreted last Wednesday’s pronouncements from the Federal Reserve as dovish. The Fed upgraded its forecasts for economic growth, projected a lower unemployment rate through 2020 and also expects inflation to temporarily exceed its long-term inflation target of 2.0% in 2020.

As recently as December, only four of sixteen Fed policymakers projected four or more rate hikes this year; now, seven of fifteen are in the more aggressive camp. Some analysts dwell on the fact that the “median” policymaker still expects only three hikes in 2018, ignoring the trend toward a more aggressive Fed.

But all of this misses the real point. Monetary policy will still be loose at the end of 2018, whether the Fed raises rates three or four times this year. The federal funds rate is about 120 basis points below the yield on the 10-year Treasury (which will rise as the Fed hikes), and is also well below the trend in nominal GDP growth. Meanwhile, the banking system still holds about $2 trillion in excess reserves. Monetary policy is a tailwind for growth, not a headwind.

Taxes: The tax cut passed last year is the most pro-growth tax cut since the early 1980s, particularly on the corporate side. Some analysts argue that the money is just going to be used for share buybacks, but we find that hard to believe. A lower tax rate means companies have more of an incentive to pursue business ideas that they were on the fence about.

And there is a big difference between who cuts a check to the government and who truly bears the burden of a tax, what economists call the “incidence of a tax.”

Cutting the tax rate on Corporate America will lift the demand for labor, meaning workers and managers share the benefits with shareholders. Yes, some of the tax cut will be used for share buybacks, but that’s OK with us; it means shareholders get money to reinvest in other companies. Buybacks also move capital away from corporate managers who might otherwise squander the money on “empire building,” pursuing acquisitions for the sake of growth, when returning it to shareholders is more efficient.

Spending & Regulation: This pillar is a little shaky. On regulation, Washington has moved aggressively to reduce red tape rather than expand it. That’s good. But, Congress can’t keep a lid on spending. That’s bad.

Back in June, the Congressional Budget Office was projecting that discretionary spending in Fiscal Year 2018 would be $1.222 trillion. (Discretionary spending doesn’t include entitlements like Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid, or net interest on the federal debt.) Now, the CBO says that’ll reach $1.309 trillion, a gain of 7.1% in just nine months.

Assuming the CBO got it right back in June on entitlements and interest, that would put this year’s federal spending at 20.9% of GDP, a tick higher than last year at 20.8% – despite faster economic growth. This extra spending represents a shift in resources from the private sector to the government. The more the government spends, the slower the economy grows.

Trade: Trade wars are not good for growth. And the US move to put tariffs in place creates the potential for a trade war. We aren’t dismissing this threat, but a “full blown” trade war remains a low probability event.

The bottom line: taxes, regulation and monetary policy are a plus for growth, spending and new tariffs are threats. Things aren’t perfect, but, in no way do the fundamentals signal major economic problems ahead. The current volatility in markets is not a warning, it’s just volatility.

 

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Ten for 2018

1. It’s going to get complicated. The global economy is strengthening but there are crosscurrent including rising interest rates and changes on the way trade issues are addressed.
2. Central banks are winding down unprecedented levels of monetary stimulus. At the same time government policy and spending are stimulative.
3. The geopolitical climate remains unsettled. Elections are being held throughout the world and the electorate is looking at new faces.
4. China has confirmed that leader Xi will be in office as long as he wishes. His rule will impact China’s economic development and foreign policy.
5. The search for income will continue as the Federal Reserve has far to go before fixed income investment becomes appealing for the retail investor.
6. Current low default rates may change as public pension plans come under increased pressure as the elderly begin to outnumber the young.
7. Two-way markets return following the post-election bounce that saw a smoothly rising market with no meaningful interruptions.
8. Active management set to recover its value as some of the components of popular indexes become significantly overpriced.
9. Finding opportunities and avoiding “torpedo stocks” becomes a challenge for individual investors and fund managers.
10. Planning becomes critical as an aging population will be spending decades in retirement even as pensions and social security come under pressure.

If these issues trouble you, getting professional assistance and creating a financial plan may help you navigate the uncertainty of 2018.

 

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Clear Skies Ahead

Brian Wesbury of First Trust:

You know the old saying about every cloud having a silver lining? Well, if you listen to some of the financial press, you’d think their motto was that clear skies are just clouds in disguise.

Friday’s GDP report showed the economy grew 2.5% in 2017, an acceleration from the average rate of 2.2% from the start of the recovery in mid-2009 through the end of 2016. Notably, what we call “core” GDP – inflation-adjusted GDP growth excluding government purchases, inventories, and international trade – grew at a 4.6% annual rate in the fourth quarter and was up 3.3% in 2017.

However, some pessimistic analysts were calling attention to a drop in the personal saving rate to 2.6% in the fourth quarter, the lowest level since 2005. The pessimists’ theory is that if the personal savings rate is so low, consumers must be in over their heads again, so watch out below!

But this superficial take on the saving rate leaves out some very important points.

First, consumers don’t just get purchasing power from their income; they also get it from the value of their assets. And asset values soared in 2017 as investors (correctly) anticipated better economic policies. The market cap of the S&P 500 rose $3.7 trillion, while owner-occupied real estate looks like it increased about $1.5 trillion. That could be a problem if we thought stock market or real estate was overvalued, but our capitalized profits approach says the stock market is still undervalued and the price-to-rent ratio for residential real estate is near the long-term norm, not wildly overvalued like in 2005.

Second, the tax cut that’s taking effect is going to raise after-tax income. According to congressional budget scorekeepers, the tax cut on individuals should reduce tax payments by $189 billion in 2019, which is equal to 1.3% of last year’s after-tax income. So, consumers are going to be able to save more in the next few years, even if we don’t include the extra income that should be generated by extra economic growth.

Third, the personal saving rate doesn’t include withdrawals from 401Ks and IRAs, many of which are swollen with capital gains. So, let’s say a worker contributed $5,000 of their income into a 401K at the end of 1988 and kept that money in the S&P 500 ever since. Today they can withdraw more than $97,000 and spend it. When calculating the saving rate, the government counts every penny of that spending while not counting a penny of it as income. As the population ages and spends down wealth they’ve already made, the saving rate tells us less and less about the saving habits of today’s workers.

Sometimes good news is really just good news. Unfortunately, some analysts can’t look at clear skies without imagining clouds.

 

 

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Market Shakeout

Following a virtual non-stop rally in the stock market since the beginning of 2017, we are not particularly surprised that the stock market should stop and take a breather. What many people find disconcerting about this sudden drop is it’s steepness and breadth. We have not been exposed to a decline this steep for quite a while.

Some commentators actually blame good economic news for the market drop, claiming that a robust economy has triggered renewed inflation fears, which they assert will lead the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates faster than expected.

Our view is that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the economy, or with an increase in interest rates which has been widely anticipated. Long-time market observers have seen this movie before, it’s just been a long time since we last saw it. From what we have been reading, some large institutions are employing trading systems that trigger large sell orders at certain levels in the market, which in turn causes a cascading series of further drops.

On a fundamental level, the stock market responds to the economy, and we see no indications that anything has changed since the start of the year. Hiring is up, wages are rising, and millions of people are getting bonuses that they haven’t seen in years. Take-home pay will go up for millions more Americans beginning this month. Lower corporate tax rates should lead to higher corporate profits which should lead to higher stock prices. Still other corporations that have billions of dollars parked overseas, like Apple, are bringing a lot of that money home and are promising to invest it in the U.S. economy.

While the recent free-fall in the Dow has been spectacular, the markets have been abnormally placid for about eight years now. A healthy market sees run-ups and pull-backs, and in recent memory the pull-backs have been on the maximum order of maybe 3% total. While we certainly prefer the markets always go up, the reality of long-term market history is that to have corrections on the order of 5% – 10% in the midst of a bull market isn’t unprecedented or even that unusual. We don’t think this pull-back signals the end of the bull market run, but rather that we might be getting back to a more historical norm.

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Don’t Time a Correction

Brian Wesbury, Chief Economist, First Trust:

The stock market is on a tear. The S&P 500 rose 19.4% in 2017 excluding dividends, and is already up over 4% in 2018. It’s not a bubble or a sugar high. Our capitalized profits model, says the broad U.S. stock market, is, and was, undervalued.

We never believed the “sugar high” theory that QE was driving stocks. So, slowly unwinding QE and slowly raising the federal funds rate, as the Fed did in 2017, was never a worry. But, now a truly positive fundamental has changed – the Trump Tax Cut, particularly the long-awaited cut in business tax rates. With it in place, we think our forecast for 3,100 on the S&P 500 by year-end is not only in reach, but could be eclipsed.

Before you consider us overly optimistic, we did not expect the stock market to surge like it has so early in the year. In fact, we would not have been surprised if the market experienced a correction after the tax cut. There’s an old saying; “buy on rumor, sell on fact.” So, with tax cuts approaching, optimism could build, but once they became law, the market would be left hanging for better news.

We would never forecast a correction, because we’re not traders. We’re investors. Anyone lucky enough to pick the beginning of a bear market never knows exactly when to get back in. In 2016, it happened twice and we know many investors are still bandaging up their wounds from being whipsawed.

The market got off to a terrible start in 2016, one of the worst in years. The pouting pundits were talking recession and bear market, only to experience a head-snapping rebound. Then, during the Brexit vote, the stock market fell 5% in two days – which was seen as another indicator of recession. But, it turned out to be a great buying opportunity, like every sell-off since March 2009.

The better strategy for most investors is don’t sell. Some sort of correction is inevitable but no one knows for sure when it will happen and few have the discipline to take advantage of the situation.

This is particularly true when risks to the economy remain low and the stock market is undervalued, which is exactly how we see the world today.

Earnings are strong (even with charge-offs related to tax reform), and according to Factset, since the tax law passed analysts have lifted 2018 profit estimates more rapidly than at any time in the past decade. Even the political opponents of the tax cuts are saying it will likely lift economic growth for at least the next couple of years.

Continuing unemployment claims are the lowest since 1973, payrolls are still growing at a robust pace, and wages are growing faster for workers at the lower end of the income spectrum than the top. Auto sales are trending down, but home building has much further to grow to keep up with population growth and the inevitable need to scrap older homes. Consumer debts remain very low relative to assets, while financial obligations are less than average relative to incomes.

In addition, monetary policy isn’t remotely tight and there is evidence that the velocity of money is picking up. Banks are in solid financial shape, and deregulation is going to increase their willingness to take more lending risk. The fiscal policy pendulum has swung and the U.S. is not about to embark on a series of new Great Society-style social programs. In fact, some fiscal discipline on the entitlement side of the fiscal ledger may finally be imposed.

Bottom line: This is not a recipe for recession.

It’s true, rising protectionism remains a possibility, but we think there’s going to be much more smoke than fire on this issue, and that deals will be cut to keep the good parts of NAFTA in place.

Put it all together, and we think the stock market, is set for much higher highs in 2018. If you’re brave enough to attempt trading the inevitable ups and downs of markets, more power to you, but as hedge fund performance shows, even the so-called pros have a hard time doing this. Stay bullish!

 

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A prediction for 2018 from Brian Wesbury of First Trust

Last December we wrote “we finally have more than just hope to believe that this year, 2017, is the year the Plow Horse Economy finally gets a spring in its step.” We expected real GDP growth to accelerate from 2.0% in 2016 to “about 2.6%” in 2017. Our optimism was, in large part, based on our belief that the incoming Trump Administration would wield a lighter regulatory touch and move toward lower tax rates.

So far, so good. Right now, we’re tracking fourth quarter real GDP growth at a 3.0% annual rate, which would mean 2.7% growth for 2017 and we expect some more acceleration in 2018.

The only question is: how much? Yes, a major corporate tax cut (which should have happened 20 years ago) is finally taking place. And, yes, the Trump Administration is cutting regulation. But, it has not reigned in government spending. As a result, we’re forecasting real GDP growth at a 3.0% rate in 2018, the fastest annual growth since 2005.

The only caveat to this forecast is that it seems as if the velocity of money is picking up. With $2 trillion of excess reserves in the banking system, the risk is highly tilted toward an upside surprise for growth, with little risk to the downside. Meanwhile, this easy monetary policy suggests inflation should pick up, as well. The consumer price index should be up about 2.5% in 2018, which would be the largest increase since 2011.

Unemployment already surprised to the downside in 2017. We forecast 4.4%; instead, it’s already dropped to 4.1% and looks poised to move even lower in the year ahead. Our best guess is that the jobless rate falls to 3.7%, which would be the lowest unemployment rate since the late 1960s.

A year ago, we expected the Fed to finally deliver multiple rate hikes in 2017. It did, and we expect that pattern will continue in 2018, with the Fed signaling three rate hikes and delivering at least that number, maybe four. Longer-term interest rates are heading up as well. Look for the 10-year Treasury yield to finish 2018 at 3.00%.

For the stock market, get ready for a continued bull market in 2018. Stocks will probably not climb as much as this year, and a correction is always possible, but we think investors would be wise to stay invested in equities throughout the year.

We use a Capitalized Profits Model (the government’s measure of profits from the GDP reports divided by interest rates) to measure fair value for stocks. Our traditional measure, using a current 10-year Treasury yield of 2.35% suggests the S&P 500 is still massively undervalued.

If we use our 2018 forecast of 3.0% for the 10-year yield, the model says fair value for the S&P 500 is 3351, which is 25% higher than Friday’s close. The model needs a 10-year yield of about 3.75% to conclude that the S&P 500 is already at fair value, with current profits.

As a result, we’re calling for the S&P 500 to finish at 3,100 next year, up almost 16% from Friday’s close. The Dow Jones Industrial Average should finish at 28,500.

Yes, this is optimistic, but a year ago we were forecasting the Dow would finish this year at 23,750 with the S&P 500 at 2,700. This was a much more bullish call than anyone else we’ve seen, but we stuck with the fundamentals over the relatively pessimistic calls of “conventional wisdom,” and we believe the same course is warranted for 2018. Those who have faith in free markets should continue to be richly rewarded in the year ahead.

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Me and my spouse are approaching retirement; how should we allocate our investments so that we can protect some and grow some?

This was a question asked by a visitor to Investopedia.
Several other advisors responded.  Here’s my contribution to the discussion.
 

You have gotten some good advice from the others who have responded.  The only advice I would add to theirs is that the years just prior to retirement and the first few years of retirement are the most critical years for you.  These are the years when significant investment losses have the biggest impact on your retirement assets.

That’s because of something referred to as “sequence of returns.”  “Sequence of returns” refers to the fact that market returns are never the same from year to year.  For example, here are the returns for the S&P 500 from 2000 to 2010.  That was a dangerous decade for retirees.

2000 -9.1%
2001 -11.9%
2002 -22.1%
2003 28.7%
2004 10.9%
2005 4.9%
2006 15.8%
2007 5.5%
2008 -37.0%
2009 26.5%
2010 15.1%

When you are accumulating assets, the sequence of returns has no impact on the amount of money you end up with.  But when you are taking money out, the sequence becomes very important.  That’s because taking money out of an account exaggerates the effect of a market decline.

If you retired in the year 2000 with $100,000 and took out 4% ($4000) to live on each year, by 2010 your account would have shrunk to about $66,200 and, if you continued to withdraw the same amount each year you would now be taking out 6%.  If you have another 30 years in retirement, that rate of withdrawal may not be sustainable.

For that reason, most financial advisors recommend creating a portfolio that can cushion the effect of poor market performance near your retirement date.

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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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Why market timing does not work

stock-market-timing

 

A paper published by a business professor ten years ago made this point emphatically.

The evidence from 15 international equity markets and over 160,000 daily returns indicates that a few outliers have a massive impact on long term performance. On average across all 15 markets, missing the best 10 days resulted in portfolios 50.8% less valuable than a passive investment; and avoiding the worst 10 days resulted in portfolios 150.4% more valuable than a passive investment. Given that 10 days represent less than 0.1% of the days considered in the average market, the odds against successful market timing are staggering.”

The odds of getting out of the market at just the right time and then getting back in at just the right time are roughly the same as winning the lottery.

This points out the reason why creating a portfolio that will allow you to invest for the long term is essential to creating wealth.  You can achieve a decent return and sleep well at night.  But in order to do this your portfolio has to match your personal risk tolerance (your Risk Number), one that differs with different people.

We are in a long-term Bull Market, but Bear Markets follow Bulls as night follows day, and some day the Bear will return.  That’s when having a properly diversified, risk-tolerant portfolio pays off.  Big time.

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