Tag Archives: stock market

Why unwinding QE is not a threat to the bull market.

Brian Wesbury has a new Monday Morning Outlook out that is worth considering.

On March 9, 2018, the bull market in U.S. stocks will celebrate its ninth anniversary. And, what we find most amazing is how few people truly understand it. To this day, in spite of massive increases in corporate earnings, many still think the market is one big “sugar high” – a bubble built on a sea of Quantitative Easing and government spending.

While passing mention is given to earnings (because they are impossible to ignore), conventional wisdom has clung to the mistaken story that QE, TARP, and government spending saved the economy from the abyss back in 2008-09.

A review of the facts shows the narrative that “Wall Street” – meaning capitalism and free markets – failed and government came to the rescue is simply not true.

Wall Street was not the driving force behind subprime mortgages. In his fabulous book, Hidden in Plain Sight, Peter Wallison showed that by 2008 Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and other government programs had sponsored 76% of all subprime debt – not “Wall Street.” Everyone was playing with rattlesnakes and government was telling them it was OK to do so. But, when the snakes started biting, government blamed the private sector, capitalism and free markets.

At the same time, Wall Street did not cause the market and economy to collapse; it was overly strict mark-to-market accounting. Yes, leverage in the financial system was high, but mark-to-market accounting forced banks to write down many performing assets to illiquid market prices that had zero relationship to true value. Mark-to-market destroyed capital.

QE started in September 2008, TARP in October 2008, but the market didn’t bottom until March 9, 2009, five months later. On that day in March, former U.S. Representative Barney Frank, of all people, promised to hold a hearing with the accounting board and SEC to force a change to the ill-advised accounting rule. The rule was changed and the stock market reversed course, with a return to economic growth not far behind.

Yes, the Fed did QE and, yes, the stock market went up while bond yields fell, but correlation is not causation. Stock markets fell after QE started, and rose after QE ended. Bond yields often rose during QE, fell when the Fed wasn’t buying, and have increased since the Fed tapered and ended QE.

A preponderance of QE ended up as “excess reserves” in the banking system, which means it never turned into real money growth. That’s why inflation never took off. Long-term bond yields fell, but this wasn’t because the Fed was buying. Bond yields fell because the Fed promised to hold short-term rates down for a very long time. And as long-term rates are just a series of short-term rates, long term rates were pushed lower as well.

We know this is a very short explanation of what happened, but we bring it up because there are many who are now trying to use the stock market “correction” to revisit the wrongly-held narrative that the economy is one big QE-driven bubble. Or, they use the correction to cover their past support of QE and TARP. If the unwinding of QE actually hurts, then they can argue that QE helped in the first place.

So, they argue that rising bond yields are due to the Fed now selling bonds. But the Fed began its QE-unwind strategy months ago, and sticking to its plans hasn’t changed a thing.

The key inflection point for bond yields wasn’t when the Fed announced the unwinding of QE; it was Election Day 2016, when the 10-year yield ended the day at 1.9% while assuming the status quo, which meant more years of Plow Horse growth ahead. Since then, we’ve seen a series of policy changes, including tax cuts and deregulation, which have raised expectations for economic growth and inflation. As a result, yields have moved up.

Corporate earnings are rising rapidly, too, and the S&P 500 is now trading at roughly 17.5 times 2018 expected earnings. This is not a bubble, not even close. Earnings are up because technology is booming in a more politically-friendly environment for capitalism. And while it is hard to see productivity rising in the overall macro data, it is clear that profits and margins are up because productivity is rising rapidly in the private sector.

The sad thing about the story that QE saved the economy is that it undermines faith in free markets. Those who argue that unwinding QE is hurting the economy are, in unwitting fashion, supporting the view that capitalism is fragile, prone to bubbles and mistakes, and in need of government’s guiding hand. This argument is now being made by both those who believe in big government and those who supposedly believe in free markets. No wonder investors are confused and fearful.

The good news is that QE did not lift the economy. Markets, technology and innovation did. And this realization is the key to understanding why unwinding QE is not a threat to the bull market.

 

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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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Market Commentary by Bill Miller

Here are some selected comments by highly regarded portfolio manager Bill Miller:

The year 2017 surprised most pundits in several ways. It was the only year since good records have been kept where stocks were up every single month. It was the lowest volatility year on record. It had no correction of even 3%, which was unprecedented. Economic growth accelerated globally as the year progressed and the US economy enjoyed a couple of quarters of 3% growth.

Earnings grew double digits. Stocks were up over 20%, and the OECD indicates that the 45 largest economies in the world are all growing, something not seen in over a decade. The consensus appears to be “more of the same” in 2018. Strategists and investors generally are bullish on the economy, most also seem to be bullish on stocks.

There is growing concern that the great bond bull market that began in late 1981 is over (this is surely correct in my view), but divergence on what that might mean for stocks…….

In the Barron’s Roundtable, several commented that rising rates could compress valuations if yields went above 3% and that stocks could end the year down. I think that is wrong.

I believe that if rates rise in 2018, taking the 10-year treasury above 3%, that will propel stocks significantly higher, as money exits bond funds for only the second year in the past 10, and moves into stock funds as happened in 2013. Stocks that year were up 30%, mostly as result of that shift in fund flows. …

I think we are also likely to see inflation begin to stir, perhaps in a year, as labor force slack and excess manufacturing capacity both decline. Finally, I think the effects of the tax cut are only partially in the stock market. The market appears to have discounted the earnings boost to companies whose profits are mainly domestically sourced. It is not clear that a potentially material pickup in consumption has made its way into stock prices.

Many US companies have already announced special bonuses to employees or increases in their minimum wage as a result of the business tax cut and the ability to repatriate the trillions of cash currently held overseas. The employees getting such bonuses likely have a marginal propensity to consume approaching 100%.

Very little will be saved; almost all will be spent, which could add significantly to growth. I think we could print 4 quarters of 3% growth or better of real GDP. If inflation hits the Fed’s target of 2%, that would imply 5% nominal GDP growth. In a “normal” world 10-year rates would tend to be around the same as nominal GDP, yet another reason to be wary of investing in bonds.

Overall, I continue to think, as I have since the financial crisis ended, that the path of least resistance for stocks is higher.

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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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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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Market reacts to French election, tax cuts and earnings

The stock market had two back-to-back days with the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) up over 200 points.  On Monday the market was reacting to the first round of elections in France.

The French election for President is often a two step process.  If a candidate gets over 50% of the vote in the first round of voting he or she is declared the winner and becomes President.  If no one gets to 50%, the two top vote getters face a run-off election which decides the Presidency.

In the first round that just ended, the candidates of the major French parties that had run the country for decades did not make it to the run-off.  Instead, Marine Le Pen (usually described as “Far Right”) and Emmanuel Macron (usually described as a “centrist”) were the two top vote getters.  They will face off on May 7th with the winner becoming President of France.

Macron, age 39, received 23.8% of the vote while Le Pen scooped up 21.4%.  Macron formed his own party, splitting off from the Socialists.  Macron is best known for marrying his teacher, a woman 25 years his senior.

It is generally assumed that Macron will win the next round with the French establishment uniting against Le Pen who wants to stop immigration and wants France to pull out of the EU.  The results of the balloting caused a relief rally in expectation that France will stay the current course and remain in the EU.

The Tuesday market action was driven by exuberance over the Trump administration announcement that they were proposing a reduction in the corporate tax rate from 35% to 15%.  If this passes, next year’s corporate earnings would be higher.

On the earnings front some of the big names in the DJIA reported better-than-expected earnings.  Caterpillar, McDonald, Du Pont and Goldman Sachs were the biggest beneficiaries.

Stay tuned.

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Are you taking more risk than you should?

 

We often take risks without knowing it.  There are some risks that are well known; things like texting while driving or not fastening your seat belt.  But there are other risks that are less well publicized and that can hurt you.

As financial professionals we often meet people who are not aware of the financial risks they are taking.  While there are countless books written about investing, most people don’t bother studying the subject.  As a result, they get their information from articles in the press, advertising, or chatting with their friends.

Many people have told us they are “conservative” investors and then show us investments that have sky-high risks.  This is because investment risks are either hiding in the fine print or not provided at all.  No one tells you how much risk you are taking when you buy a stock, even of a major company like General Electric.  GE is a huge, diversified global company, yet lost 90% of its value between 2000 and 2009.  Norfolk Southern is another popular stock in this area.  Do you know its “risk number?”   You may be surprised.

We have analytical tools that can accurately quantify your risk tolerance and give you your personal “Risk Number.”  We can then measure the risk you are taking with your investments.  They should be similar.  If not, you may find yourself unpleasantly surprised if the investment you thought was “safe” loses its value because you took too much risk.

We have no objection to daredevils who know the risk they are taking by jumping over the Grand Canyon on a motorcycle.  But we would caution the weekend cyclist not to try the same thing.  Contact us to find your personal “Risk Number” and then determine how much risk there is in your portfolio.

 

 

 

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The most common investment mistake made by financial advisors

Bill Miller beat the S&P 500 index 15 years in a row as portfolio manager of Legg Mason Capital Management Value Trust (1991-2005), a record for diversified mutual fund managers.  He was interviewed by WealthManagement.com about active vs. passive management.

We have written a number of articles about the mistakes individual investors make.  But what about mistakes that financial advisors make?  We are, after all, fallible and make errors of judgment.  And like all mortals we cannot predict the future.

Here’s Bill Miller’s assessment about traps that financial advisors fall into:

One problem is how they deal with risk. There is a lot more action on perceived risks, exposing clients to risks they aren’t aware of. For example, since the financial crisis people have overweighted bonds and underweighted stocks. People react to market prices rather than understanding that’s a bad thing to do.

Most importantly, most advisors are too short-term oriented, because their clients are too short-term oriented. There’s a focus on market timing, and all of that is mostly useless. The equity market is all about time, not timing. It’s about staying at the table.

Think of the equity market like a casino, except you own it: You’re the house. You get an 8-9 percent annual return. Casinos operate on a lower margin than that and make money. Bad periods are to be expected. If anything, that’s when you want more tables.

We agree.  That’s one of the reasons we are choosy about the clients we accept. One of the foremost regrets we have is taking on clients who hired us for the wrong reasons.  One substantial client came to us as the tech market was heating up in the late 1990s.  He asked us to create a portfolio of tech stocks so that he could participate in the growth of that sector.  We accepted that challenge, but it was a mistake.  When the tech bubble burst and his portfolio went down and we lost a client.  But it taught us a valuable lesson: say no to clients who focus strictly on short-term portfolio performance.  Our role is to invest our clients’ serious money for long term goals.

Like Bill Miller, we want to have the odds on our side.  We want to be the “house,” not the gambler.  The first rule of making money is not to lose it.  The second rule is to always observe the first rule.

To determine client and portfolio risk we use sophisticated analytical programs for insight into prospective clients actual risk tolerance.  That allows us to match our portfolios to a client’s individual risk tolerance.  In times of market exuberance we remind our clients that trees don’t grow to the sky.  And in times of market declines we encourage our clients to stay the course, knowing that time in the market is more important than timing the market.

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The Biggest Myth About Index Investing

Reader Mailbag: Dividend Investing vs Index Investing

John Bogle has done a great job of “selling” index investing.  He started the Vanguard group with the promise that you could invest in the stock market “on the cheap.”  It’s the thing that made the Vanguard group the second biggest fund family in the country.

Selling things based on price is always popular with the public.  It’s the key to the success of Wal Mart,  Amazon, and a lot of “Big Box” stores.

But Bogle based his sales pitch not just on price, but also the promise that if you bought his funds you would do better than if you bought his competition.  He cites statistics to show that the average mutual fund has under-performed the index, so why not buy the index?

The resulting popularity of index investing has had one big, unfortunate side-effect.  It has created the myth that they are safe.

A government employee planning to retire in the near future asked this question in a forum:

“I plan to rollover my 457 deferred compensation plan into Vanguard index funds upon retirement in a few months. I currently have 50% in Vanguard Small Cap Index Funds and 50% in Vanguard Mid Cap Index Funds and think that these are somewhat aggressive, safe, and low cost.”

The problem with the Vanguard sales pitch is that it’s worked too well.   The financial press has given index investing so much good press that people believe things about them that are not true.

Small and Mid-cap stock index funds are aggressive and low cost, but they are by no means “safe.”  For some reason, there is a widespread misconception that investing in a stock index fund like the Vanguard 500 index fund or its siblings is low risk.  It’s not.

But unless you get a copy of the prospectus and read it carefully, you have to bypass the emphasis on low cost before you get to this warning:

“An investment in the Fund could lose money over short or even long periods. You should expect the Fund’s share price and total return to fluctuate within a wide range.”

The fact is that investing in the stock market is never “safe.”  Not when you buy a stock or when you buy stock via an index fund.  There is no guarantee if any specific return.  In fact, there is no guarantee that you will get your money back.  Over the long term, investors in the stock market have done well if they stayed the course.  But humans have emotions.  They make bad decisions because of misconceptions and buy and sell based on greed and fear.

My concern about the soon-to-be-retired government employee is that he is going to invest all of his retirement nest-egg in high-risk funds while believing that they are “safe.”  He may believe that the past 8 years can be projected into the future.  The stock market has done well since the recovery began in 2009.  We are eventually going to get a “Bear Market” and when that happens the unlucky retiree may find that has retirement account has declined as much as 50% (as the market did in 2008).  At some point he will bail out and not know when to get back in, all because he was unaware of the risk he was taking.

Many professional investors use index funds as part of a well-designed diversified portfolio.  But there should be no misconception that index investing is “safe.”  Don’t be fooled by this myth.

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What does “diversification” mean?

 

Diversification is key - Wealth Foundations

To many retail investors “diversification” means owning a collection of stocks, bonds, mutual funds or Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs).  But that’s really not what diversification is all about.

What’s the big deal about diversification anyhow?

Diversification means that you are spreading the risk of loss by putting your investment assets in several different categories of investments.  Examples include stocks, bonds, money market instruments, commodities, and real estate.  Within each of these categories you can slice even finer.  For example, stocks can be classified as large cap (big companies), mid cap (medium sized companies), small cap (smaller companies), domestic (U.S. companies), and foreign (non-U.S. companies).

And within each of these categories you can look for industry diversification.  Many people lost their savings in 2000 when the “Tech Bubble” burst because they owned too many technology-oriented stocks.  Others lost big when the real estate market crashed in late 2007 because they focused too much of their portfolio in bank stocks.

The idea behind owning a variety of asset classes is that different asset classes will go in different directions independent of each other.  Theoretically, if one goes down, another may go up or hold it’s value.  There is a term for this: “correlation.”  Investment assets that have a high correlation tend to move in the same direction, those with a low correlation do not.  These assumptions do not always hold true, but they are true often enough that proper diversification is a valuable tool to control risk.

Many investors believe that if they own a number of different mutual funds they are diversified.  They are, of course, more diversified than someone who owns only a single stock.  But many funds own the same stocks.  We have to look within the fund, to the things they own, and their investment styles, to find out if your funds are merely duplicates of each other or if you are properly diversified.

You need to look at a “portfolio x-ray” which will show you how much overlap there is between two or more mutual funds.

Only by looking at your portfolio with this view of diversification can you determine if you are diversified or if you have accidentally concentrated your portfolio without realizing it.

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