Tag Archives: Fixed income

Even the “rich” can’t afford retirement.

Investment Approach

Registered Investment Advisors (RIAs) deal with people at all wealth levels but most are upper income even if they are not billionaires.  There is a retirement crisis and it’s not just hitting the working class.

The typical median wage earner making $50,000 a year and retiring at 67 can expect Social Security to pay him and his wife about $2400 per month.  To maintain their previous spending levels this leaves a gap of about $1000 a month that has to be made up from savings. But many of these middle income people have not saved for their retirement.  Which means working longer or reducing their lifestyle.

This problem is also hitting the higher income people.  How well is the person earning over $200,000 a year going to do in retirement?  The issues that even these so-called “rich” face are the same:  increased longevity, medical care, debts and an expensive lifestyle are all issues that have to be considered.

“The $200,000+ executive expects a fine house, two cars, two holidays a year, private schools, to pay for his kid’s university tuition, and so it goes on. And this is not to mention the tax bill he’s paying on his earned income. A bunch of all this was really debt-funded, so effectively the executive spent chunks of his retirement money during his working days.”

When high income people are working, they usually don’t watch their pennies or budget.  But once retired, that salary stops.  That’s when savings are required to bridge the gap between their lifestyle and income from Social Security and (if they’re lucky) pension payments.  At that point the need for advance planning becomes important.

Before the retirement date is set, the affluent need to create a retirement plan.  He or she needs to know what their basic income needs are; the cost of utilities, food, clothing, insurance, transportation and other basic needs.  Once the basics are determined, they can plan for their “wants.”  This includes things such as replacing cars, the cost of vacation travel, charitable gifts, club dues, and all the other expenses that are lifestyle issues.  Finally, there are “wishes” which may include a vacation home, a boat, a wedding, a legacy.  The list can be a long one but it should be part of a financial plan.

If the plan tells us that the chances of success are low, we can move out our retirement date, increase our savings rate or reduce our retirement spending plans.

This kind of planning will reduce the anxiety that is typically associated with the retirement decision making.

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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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Inflation Ready to Rise

Brian Wesbury is one of our favorite economists and market commentators.  One of the key indicators the Federal Reserve is watching is the rate of inflation.  The Fed wants the “core” inflation rate to be 2%.  We are not in favor of any inflation at all, but we are not the Federal Reserve so it’s worth looking at the numbers they are looking at.

Wesbury:

The consumer price index is up only 1.1% in the past year. The Fed’s preferred measure of inflation – for personal consumption expenditures, or PCE – is up 1.0%. The US doesn’t face deflation, but the overall inflation statistics are, and have remained, low.

But the money supply is accelerating, the jobs market looks very tight, and underneath the calm exterior, there are some green shoots of inflationary pressure.

The “core” measures of inflation, which exclude volatile food and energy prices, are not nearly as contained as overall measures. And before you say everyone has to eat and drive, realize that both food an energy prices are volatile and global in nature. They don’t always reveal true underlying price pressures.

The ‘core” CPI is up 2.3% in the past year, while the “core” PCE index is up 1.7%. In other words, a drop in food and energy prices has been masking underlying inflation that is already at or near the Fed’s 2% target. Energy prices have stabilized and food prices will rise again. As a result, soon, overall inflation measures are going to be running higher than the Fed’s target.

Housing costs are up 3.4% in the past year and medical care costs are up 3.4%.

Although some (usually Keynesian) analysts are waiting for much higher growth in wages before they fear rising inflation, the fact is that wage growth is already accelerating. Average hourly earnings are up 2.6% in the past year versus a 2.0% gain only two years ago. Moreover, as a paper earlier this year from the San Francisco Fed pointed out, this acceleration is happening in spite of the retirement of relatively high-wage Baby Boomers and the re-entry into the labor force of workers with below-average skills.

But we don’t think wages cause inflation – money does. Inflation is too much money chasing too few goods. The Fed has held short-term interest rates at artificially low levels for the past several years while it’s expanded its balance sheet to unprecedented levels. Monetary policy has been loose.

… M2 has expanded at an 8.6% annualized rate. More money brings more inflation.

None of this means hyperinflation is finally on its way. In the past, inflation has taken time to build, leaving room for the Fed to respond by shrinking its balance sheet and getting back to a more normal monetary policy.

In the meantime, this will be the last year in a long while, where we see inflation below the Fed’s 2% target. Look for both higher inflation and interest rates in the years ahead.

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Negative Interest Rates – Searching for Meaning

We have mentioned negative interest rates in the past.  Let’s take a look at what it means to you.

Central banks lower interest rates to encourage economic activity.  The theory is that low interest rates allow companies to borrow money at lower costs, encouraging them to expand, invest in and grow their business.  It also encourages consumers to borrow money for things like new homes, cars, furniture and all the other things for which people borrow money.

It’s the reason the Federal Reserve has lowered rates to practically zero and kept them there for years.  It’s also why the Fed has not raised rates; they’re afraid that doing so will reduce the current slow rate of growth even more.

But if low rates are good for the economy, would negative interest rates be even better?  Some governments seem to think so.

Negative interest rates in Japan mean that if you buy a Japanese government bond due in 10 years you will lose 0.275% per year.  If you buy a 10 year German government bond today  your interest rate is negative 0.16%.   Why would you lend your money to someone if they guaranteed you that you would get less than the full amount back?  Good question.  Perhaps the answer is that you have little choice or are even more afraid of the alternative.

Per the Wall Street Journal:

There is now $13 trillion of global negative-yielding debt, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch. That compares with $11 trillion before the
Brexit vote, and barely none with a negative yield in mid-2014.

In Switzerland, government bonds through the longest maturity, a bond due in nearly half a century, are now yielding below zero. Nearly 80% of Japanese and German government bonds have negative yields, according to Citigroup.

This leaves investors are searching the world for securities that have a positive yield.  That includes stocks that pay dividends and bonds like U.S. Treasuries that still have a positive yield: currently 1.4% for ten years.  However, the search for yield also leads investors to more risky investments like emerging market debt and junk bonds.  The effect is that all of these alternatives are being bid up in price, which has the effect of reducing their yield.

The yield on Lithuania’s 10-year government debt has more than halved this year to around 0.5%, according to Tradeweb. The yield on Taiwan’s 10-year bonds has fallen to about 0.7% from about 1% this year, according to Thomson Reuters.

Elsewhere in the developed world, New Zealand’s 10-year-bond yields have fallen to about 2.3% from 3.6% as investors cast their nets across the globe.

Rashique Rahman, head of emerging markets at Invesco, said his firm has been getting consistent inflows from institutional clients in Western Europe and Asia interested in buying investment-grade emerging-market debt to “mimic the yield they used to get” from their home markets.

Clients don’t care if it is Mexico or Poland or South Korea, he said, “they just want a higher yield.” ….

Ricky Liu, a high-yield-bond portfolio manager at HSBC Global Asset Management, said his firm has clients from Asia who are willing for the first time to invest in portfolios that include the highest-rated junk bonds.

How and where this will end is anybody’s guess.  In our view, negative interest rates are an indication that central bankers are wandering into uncharted territory.  We’re not convinced that they really know how things will turn out.  We remain cautiously optimistic about the U.S. economy and are staying the course, but we are not chasing yield.

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Interest rates around the world.

And you think that interest rates are low here?  You should be Japanese.

The Japanese people are paying the Japanese government to buy government bonds.  The rate on 10 year bonds is minus 0.159%.  Lenders are willing to pay the Japanese government for the privilege of getting back their principal, ten years from now.

Things are just slightly better in Germany.  The German government bond is yielding 0.025%.  That means if you lend the German government $1000 today they will give you back $1002.50 in ten years.

UPDATE:  June 14th, the morning the rate on the German bond has dropped to zero.

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Stocks, Bonds, Currencies and Commodities at the End of the First Quarter

Markets at a Glance

Major Stock Indexes

9:22 AM EDT 4/1/2016

Last Change % CHG
DJIA 17685.09 -31.57 -0.18%
Nasdaq 4869.85 0.55 0.01%
S&P 500 2059.74 -4.21 -0.20%
Russell 2000 1114.03 3.59 0.32%
Global Dow 2285.09 -29.76 -1.29%
Japan: Nikkei 225 16164.16 -594.51 -3.55%
Stoxx Europe 600 329.64 -7.90 -2.34%
UK: FTSE 100 6086.65 -88.25 -1.43%

Currencies

9:22 AM EDT 4/1/2016

last(mid) change
Euro (EUR/USD) 1.1379 -0.0002
Yen (USD/JPY) 112.04 -0.54
Pound (GBP/USD) 1.4210 -0.0150
Australia $ (AUD/USD) 0.7621 -0.0036
Swiss Franc (USD/CHF) 0.9607 -0.0010
WSJ Dollar Index 86.79 0.21

Futures

9:12 AM EDT 4/1/2016

last change % chg
Crude Oil 36.99 -1.35 -3.52%
Brent Crude 38.81 -1.52 -3.77%
Gold 1219.9 -15.7 -1.27%
Silver 14.980 -0.484 -3.13%
E-mini DJIA 17486 -109 -0.62%
E-mini S&P 500 2038.25 -13.25 -0.65%
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Social Security Benefit Changes

Changes in the Social Security law was signed into law November 2, 2015.  These changes affect certain strategies that were used to increase basic Social Security income for many people.

There are two major changes to Social Security benefits under the new law. The first is your ability to file a “restricted application,” which is now limited to filers who were at least age 62 at the end of 2015 (born in 1953 or earlier). A restricted application allows you to first claim benefits from a spouse for a time (typically between full retirement age and age 70) and delay your own retirement benefit until age 70 to earn delayed retirement credits of 8% per year. But for folks born after 1953, this option no longer exists.

If you were born in 1953 or before, to submit a restricted application you must be at least full retirement age. That would be age 66 for anyone born between 1943 and 1954.

The second major change affects those who planned to use a “file and suspend” strategy. This tactic has allowed workers, once they have attained full retirement age, to file for benefits but not actually receive anything. The result before now has been this: 1) The worker’s own benefits have continued to earn delayed retirement credits of 8% per year until the worker was age 70, and 2) Because the worker’s benefit record had been activated, any beneficiaries eligible to claim benefits (i.e., spousal) could have begun collecting those dollars.

The new law changes all that. Family members (other than divorced spouses) are no longer able to receive benefits based on the earnings of workers with a suspended benefit. This part of the law takes effect April 30, 2016. The good news is that anyone who was already taking advantage of this strategy before the deadline will not be affected. 

Who is affected?

For questions, contact us.

 

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Would You Make a 0% Interest Loan?

Did you know that the U.S. Treasury has sold $1 trillion (yes, trillion with a T) dollars worth of Treasury bills that pay no interest? Why would anyone lend out his or her money without charging interest? One answer might be because the alternatives seem worse. In fact, for a brief moment in 2008 investors were willing to earn negative interest and actually pay for a U.S. Government guarantee to get back less than they put in!

To understand the alternatives you have to realize that the people who do this are not mom and pop investors. They are the huge players who round to the nearest million and deal in billions of dollars. They don’t have the option of putting their money under the mattress.

These people don’t deal in physical dollars, so when they raise cash it has to go somewhere else. Not doing something with their money is not an option. When both stocks and bonds are going down, the only relatively safe haven is the U.S. Treasury market, and the safest part of that market is short-term Treasury notes. When there is not a big enough supply of notes but you need to buy anyway, you accept a negative interest rate.

Of course, individual investors have been willing to leave their “safe” money in money market accounts paying virtually zero percent for several years now. That’s a rational decision since literally putting your money under your mattress or burying it in the back yard leaves you vulnerable to thieves and robbers. But it may make the smaller investor feel better that the “big boys” with their billions are sometimes worse off than the retail investor when it comes to finding a safe haven.

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A Client Asks: What’s the Benefit of Inflation?

One of our retired clients sent us a question recently.

“I can’t understand the FED condoning and promoting any inflation rate. To me inflation means that the value of money is simply depreciating at the inflation rate. Further, any investment paying less than the inflation rate is losing money. A quick review of CD rates and government bonds show it is a rare one that even approaches the promoted 2% rate. It seems to me to be a de-facto admission of wanting to screw conservative investors and forcing them into riskier investments… Where is there any benefit to the financial well-being of the ordinary citizens?”

I suspect that there are a lot of people who feel the same way. It’s a good question. Who wants ever rising prices?

Here’s how I addressed his question.

Let me answer your inflation question first. My personal opinion is that 0% inflation is ideal, and I suspect that you agree. However, lots of people see “modest” rates of inflation (say 2%) as healthy because is indicated a growing economy. Here’s a quote from an article you may want to read:

Rising prices reflect a growing economy. Prices typically rise for one of two reasons: Either there’s a sudden shortage of supply, or demand goes up. Supply shocks—like a disruption in the flow of oil from Libya—are usually bad news, because prices rise with no corresponding increase in economic activity. That’s like a tax that takes money out of people’s pockets without providing any benefit in return. But when prices rise because demand increases, that means consumers are spending more money, economic activity is picking up, and hiring is likely to increase.

A case can be made that in a dynamic economy you can never get perfect stability (e.g. perfectly stable prices) so it’s better for there to be more demand than supply – driving prices up – rather than less demand than supply – causing prices to fall (deflation). Of course we have to realize that “prices” here includes the price of labor as well as goods and services. That’s why people can command raises in a growing economy – because employers have to bid for a limited supply of labor. On the other hand wages are stagnant or even decline when there are more people than jobs.

But for retirees on a fixed income inflation is mostly a negative. Your pension is fixed. Social Security is indexed for inflation but those official inflation numbers don’t take food and fuel costs into consideration and those have been going up faster than the “official” rate. The stock market also benefits from modest inflation.

Which gets us to the Federal Reserve which has kept interest rates near zero for quite a while. It’s doing this to encourage business borrowing which is supposed to lead to economic expansion but the actual effect has been muted. That’s because other government policies have not been helpful to private enterprise. In effect you have seen the results of two government policies in conflict. It’s really a testimony to the resilience of private industry that the economy is doing as well as it is.

The effect on conservative investors (the ones who prefer CDs or government bonds to stocks) has been bad. It’s absolutely true that after inflation and taxes the saver is losing purchasing power in today’s interest rate environment. The FED is not doing this to hurt conservative investors but that’s been the effect. The artificially low rates will not last forever and the Fed has indicated they want to raise rates. They key question is when, and by how much.

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Are Retirees Focused on the Wrong Thing in Their Portfolios?

According to a recent study, a middle class couple aged 65 has a 43% chance that one of them will live to age 95. The challenge for this couple is to continue to enjoy their lifestyle and have enough money to live worry-free. Once you stop working you are dependent on income sources like pensions, annuities, social security payments and withdrawals from the savings you have accumulated over the years.

Most of these retirement income sources are fixed once we retire and are out of our control. It’s the retirement savings component that has people concerned. Most retirees don’t want to run out of money before they run out of time. For many they, themselves, are the income source that makes the difference between just getting by and enjoying life. Many retirees focus on the dividends and interest that their portfolios create. That may not be the best answer. Let’s examine the problems associated with this approach.

For the last five years the interest rate on high quality bonds (and CDs) has been close to zero. People who have chosen the “safety” of U.S. Treasury bonds or CDs have actually lost purchasing power after you take inflation and taxes into consideration. The same holds true for owners of tax-free municipal bonds. Those who bought bonds 10, 15, even 20 year ago when interest rates were higher have realized that bonds eventually come due. And when bonds mature, new bonds pay whatever the current interest rate is. That has meant a huge drop in income for many people who depend largely on interest payments.

Dividend payments are also subject to disruption. The financial crisis of 2008 was devastating for many investors. Those who owned bank stocks were particularly impacted. Bank stocks were a favorite for many income investors at that time because they produced lots of dividend income. Most banks slashed or eliminated their dividends, and some went out of business completely. Even companies that were not considered banks, like General Electric, were forced to cut their dividends. Dividends are nice income sources, especially in a low interest rate environment, but they are not guaranteed and you have to be careful about having too much of your portfolio concentrated in any one stock or industry.

The preferred method of planning for withdrawals from retirement savings is to take a “total return” approach. Total return refers to the growth in value of a portfolio from all sources, not just dividends and interest but also capital appreciation. In many cases, capital appreciation provides more return than either dividends or interest.

So how does one go about taking an income from a total return portfolio? Many advisors use 4% as a good starting point for withdrawals. That means for every $100,000 in your portfolio you withdraw $4,000 (4%) per year to live on while investing the rest. The goal is to invest the portfolio is such a way that over the long term, the growth offsets the withdrawals you are taking. It’s like a farmer harvesting a crop, leaving enough so that your portfolio has the chance to actually grow a little over time.

Of course, as we age other factors enter into our lives and the retirement equation, often headlined by medical problems related to aging. We will deal with these issues in another essay.

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