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James R Derrick CFA Archives - Page 4 of 4 -

Escape Velocity: What Will Fuel Our Economic Breakout?

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Escape Velocity is simply the speed required to escape gravity’s pull. An object on earth’s surface would need an initial speed of 6.96 miles per second (Mach 34) to get out of the gravitational range of the planet.

As we continue to recover from the 2008 recession the question looms; “What will it take to escape the unseen gravitational pull of what is called the new normal economy?”

Slow economic growth has given Americans a feeling that the economy is destined to grow at 1 to 2 percent. The decades-long average prior to the 2008 recession was 3 to 4 percent.

Liftoff

Let us be clear. This article focuses on the economy, not the stock market. The market as measured by the S&P 500 formed a bottom 5 years ago. That index has reached around 50 all-time highs in the last 12 months. From January 1, 2009 to January 1, 2014 the S&P 500 went up over 100 percent.

Should it bother investors that the market has been making new highs? No, making new highs is normal for American stocks. Should we worry that five years is too long for a bull market? No, it is a healthy sign to have long periods of growth interrupted by smaller drops.

The question is “How long can the bull market in stocks last if the new normal continues?” Furthermore, what kind of rocket fuel will propel this economy beyond its current trajectory?

As the Federal Reserve stimulus winds down, something else will have to take its place. The U.S. economy needs to transition from a government-induced to a consumer-driven expansion.

Can consumers afford to spend any more? It has taken a long time, but unemployment levels are getting closer to pre-recession levels (currently 6.7 percent). Household debt payments are at an all time low as a percent of income, which is also really good. Unfortunately, the average income of American households is one economic measure showing no improvement over the last 5 years.

Household income may be the most important ingredient to current growth. It may improve soon. As unemployment numbers get stronger, the labor market will tighten. Employers will raise pay for their workers. When that begins to happen in the U.S. workforce, consumers will finally have more spending power to propel the economy.

While stock returns have been great in recent years, they cannot rise forever without better economic growth. The gravitational pull of the new normal is just too strong. Keep an eye on improving income in the United States. It may fuel the next breakout.

As the Sochi Olympics ended, many eyes turned to the other side of the Black Sea and the threat of war in Ukraine. With each successive turn of good or bad events, our U.S. stock markets1 seem to react in like manner. That begs the question, what impact do wars have on stock markets, and how should an individual react?

To see the impact of war, let’s first examine the most recent war that started on American soil. The impression that many people have is that the recession of the early 2000s started with the terror attacks on September 11, 2001. The reality is that stocks were already on a downward trend when September 11th happened. Yes stocks dropped sharply in the 10 days following that awful event, but once America grasped the reality of the situation, stocks rebounded, recovering the losses directly related to the shock of that event.2

There is a similar pattern for each conflict involving the United States. “In 14 shocks dating (back) to the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the median one-day decline has been 2.4%. The shocks, which also include the September 11th terror attacks and the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, lasted eight days, with total losses of 7.4%…The market recouped its losses 14 days later.”3

Similar patterns of decline occurred during several Middle Eastern conflicts such as Desert Storm in 1991, the Iraq War in 2003, and the Syrian Conflict in 2011. Leading up to each of these events, the market dropped, but recovery happened shortly thereafter.4
Mark Luschini, the Chief Investment Strategist for Janney Montgomery, put it this way, “It’s not that it’s welcome, but once it gets underway, you can quantify what the situation might look like. When you’re left in the dark about when it will start, what will be the result, it gives investors trepidation.”5

Short-term shocks to the system cause short-term consequences for the stock market and the economy. On the other hand, major periods of conflict can have more lasting effects on the economy and the stock market.

One of the most harmful economic effects of war is a supply shock. A major shock in the supply of goods or labor can severely impact economic productivity. Sources of these setbacks include economic sanctions, manufacturing destruction, infrastructure damage, etc. This has not been a factor of major concern within the United States as it has been a long time since there has been a war fought on American soil.

Public opinion supports the belief that war and its associated spending creates positive economic outcomes for the U.S. economy. This is mostly due to the higher GDP growth that was exhibited during conflict periods like World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Cold War. The only outliers have been the Iraq and the Afghanistan wars.6

8 Million

While war tends to generate some positive economic benefits, it is more of a mixed bag for stock markets. “During WWII stock markets did initially fall but recovered before its end, during the Korean War there were no major corrections while during the Vietnam War and afterwards stock markets remained flat from the end of 1964 until 1982.”7

Another typical impact of major conflicts is inflation. This is due to the increase in government spending through various financing methods. “While inflation may be good for reducing debt burdens, high inflation has many harmful effects, such as wealth redistribution and erosion of international competitiveness.”8

Short-term conflicts typically have a short-lived impact on the stock market. As such they shouldn’t change an individual’s investment philosophy or cause one to “abandon ship.”

A more prolonged conflict may cause an individual to take a more judicious approach by reevaluating his or her goals and making adjustments based on the current market environment. As always, it is prudent to seek advice from an experienced investment professional that can help you plan for and navigate your own voyage through our uncertain world.

*Research by SFS. Data is from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Investing involves risk, including potential loss of principal. The S&P 500 index is often considered to represent the U.S. market. One cannot invest directly in an index Past performance does not guarantee future results. The opinions and forecasts expressed are those of the author and may not actually come to pass. This information is subject to change at any time, based on market and other conditions, and should not be construed as a recommendation of any specific security or investment plan.

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Powerful Performance

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Economic growth in the United States was slow last year as the federal government dropped one potential bomb after another. However, none of these exploded and U.S. stocks had their best year since 1997. With all this positive momentum would it be too much to ask for an encore?

In January we escaped a close call with the fiscal cliff. Then came sequestration. By May, Ben Bernanke had dropped another bomb: tapering. Before the end of 2013 we endured a government shutdown.

Duds

Interest rates shot up last year with fear the Federal Reserve (Fed) would slow its bond-buying program. In 2014, this action is slated to become a reality.

Each month the Fed plans to slow its purchases by $10 billion. As it does, let’s keep in mind that any purchase is extra stimulus to the economy. The Fed is still flooding the economy with money. Some may compare this to pushing on a string, but the last few years have helped validate the phrase “Don’t fight the Fed!”

As the Fed becomes less involved as a driver of economic growth we may see more ups and downs in the stock market. In all likelihood, the coming year will be more volatile than last year.
When the next drop comes, let’s keep in mind that it is perfectly normal even in a healthy market to have some hiccups. A fall of 10 percent in stock markets occurs on average about once a year. These drops can even be healthy for long-term growth.

According to the Wall Street Journal, strategists believed the economy would slowly improve and the market would rise 8.2 percent in 2013. It rose 30.
This year, the economy is expected to grow faster, but predictions for stocks are more moderate.

The driving forces of growth should be similar. Domestic energy production is still rising. The housing recovery is underway. Employment is improving. Wages are expected to rise and changes in consumer spending are trending in a positive direction.

Improving economic growth does not necessarily mean more stellar stock returns. Sometimes the two can be out of sync as investors look to the future for something to get excited about. Nevertheless, stocks and the economy are closely related and the economy is still heading in the right direction for now.

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Shutdown Showdown Can’t Sink Stocks

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In October, the U.S. Government operated under a partial shutdown for 16 days. During that time only those federal employees determined to be essential were working. Up to 850,000 federal workers were sent home to wait for an agreement between Democrats and Republicans. National parks were closed. Economic reports were delayed. Consumers were worried. Investors were . . . optimistic?

From October 1st – October 16th, the time period when the federal government was shutdown, the S&P 500 gained 2.38 percent. This was a shockingly positive outcome in what might have been viewed as a dire financial situation. Let’s put the number in perspective. If it were somehow possible for the stock market to continue at that 2.38 percent rate for an entire year, the annual return would be 63 percent. We all know that would be absolutely crazy and it raises some questions.

Why is it important to look at the impact now that the shutdown is over? The current law, passed on October 16th, only keeps the government running until January 15, 2014. In other words, another shutdown could be right around the corner. (The debt limit is expected to be reached on February 7, 2014.)

Why were investors feeling so good during the shutdown? The main reason is likely to be that Wall Street always assumed that the shutdown would be temporary. Eventually politicians would come to an agreement. According to the Washington Post there were similar halts in government services in 1995, 1990, 1987, 1986, 1984, 1983, 1982, and 1981.

Did the shutdown save the government money? This one is simple: no. In fact, it cost extra. Furloughed workers were given pay for every day they did not work. That added up to around $2 billion. For example, national park employees were paid even though there was no revenue from visitors. Zions National Park in Utah missed out on approximately 72,000 visitors during the first ten days of closure.

Local governments also took a hit, Utah in particular. The state agreed to send $1.67 million to the federal government to reopen national parks inside the state. It was worth it since the local communities estimated revenue of over $100 million in areas around these parks. As of the time this article was written, the federal government had not paid back the state.

How did consumers react to the halt? Consumer confidence dropped significantly during the shutdown. However, they did not put their money where their mouth was. According to Thomson Reuters, retail sales increased by 3.7 percent in October (compared to October 2012). That would normally be considered good. In light of the shutdown, 3.7 percent seems strong.

Did the shutdown hurt the economy? The overall cost of the shutdown to the U.S. economy has been estimated at $24 billion (source: Standard & Poor’s). How bad is that? It is a little more than one tenth of one percent of GDP—just enough to show up in the numbers when quarterly annualized numbers get reported. However, the long term impact on economic opportunity seems muted. The energy renaissance in the United States continues. Consumers kept spending in October on homes, cars, iPhones, and whatever else they needed. They are likely to do the same in November and on into the future. All these will help job creation to continue just as it has all year.

Will we have another shutdown? The most likely answer is yes. Hopefully it does not happen in 2014. The political fallout alone may be incentive enough to avoid a February shutdown. Recent history tells us that the market will expect a deal and consumers will keep spending no matter what. Therefore, it is safe to conclude that while the possibility of another
shutdown is scary, a short shutdown may not be as negative in the long term to investors. Of course, there is no guarantee.

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The Federal Reserve Will Soon End its Easy Money Stimulus

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When Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008, all lending essential stopped. The U.S. Federal Reserve (Fed) feared that all five investment banks in this country would cease to exist. No one fully understood the financial calamity coming, but we were beginning to feel what the worst recession in 80 years would be like.

The Fed acted to stop the financial infrastructure from imploding. It believed cushioning the blow was necessary to help all Americans. It started the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). It added to that program over the years with Quantitative Easing (QE) one, two, and three.

Recent years may not have felt like easy money to us, but there is likely no organization more profitable in recent years than the Fed.

The Fed doesn’t literally print money (a responsibility of the U.S. Treasury). It doesn’t have to. Money is created electronically by the Fed and infused into the financial system through open market actions. Its effectiveness is questionable. Its impact is global. And at some time soon it may be ending.

What Is the Fed’s Impact?

Currently, the Fed is spending roughly $85 billion each month to buy treasury bonds in order to keep long term interest rates at historically low levels. The goal is to encourage risk taking. The Fed wants banks to lend, businesses to hire, and consumers to borrow.

If you have purchased a home, refinanced a loan, or bought a car with debt, then you have benefited from these unprecedented efforts of the Fed.

All this money the Fed is creating seems to be working to a small degree. The U.S. stock market* is on track for its fourth positive year in the last five. If you have invested in stocks or bonds consistently during this time, you have probably benefited from the Fed’s actions. Experts have been debating how well the Fed’s historic efforts have worked. One theory is that each time the Fed spends, it has less positive impact than the previous effort. This would explain the lackluster growth in the economy.

Why Is the Fed Still Involved?

Simply stated, the benefits still appear to outweigh the risks.

Low interest rates are meant to be enablers for businesses and consumers to increase borrowing. If the debt gets out of hand, then we will be facing similar problems to those that got us into this mess.

If spending and demand increase too much, then inflation could rise to levels considered too high for a developed economy (greater than 4 percent). At that point, the Fed will have to react to try to slow down the economy even if it means job losses.

At this point, official inflation is tame and private debt levels do not appear inflated like in 2007.

As long as the risks appear low and unemployment is above 7 percent, the Fed is likely to keep spending.

What Will Happen When the Fed Slows Stimulus?

Interest rates will rise from the unusual levels where they currently are to a more natural rate determined by investors. We experienced a taste of what this will feel like this spring and summer. Rates on the 10 year treasury almost doubled in just a few months. Investors saw an increase in volatility.

Where Is the Silver Lining?

Don’t fight the Fed is a common phrase for investors. The Fed is powerful and it is working for what it believes is best for Americans. It plans to cut stimulus only after it determines that the U.S. economy is strong. If rates rise that should bring better yields for savers.

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“The Most Powerful Force in the Universe”

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Those who understand interest, receive it. Those who don’t, pay it. As investors, we believe this and we strive to go one step further. We seek to get paid interest on our interest. We call this compounding interest.

Albert Einstein called compounding interest “the most powerful force in the universe” and “the eighth wonder of the world.”

It is this mathematical force that has driven the Dow Jones Index to new highs and to over 15,000 this year.

Like everything in life there is a catch. It takes time to achieve compounding interest and it involves uncertainty.

Time

One of the first questions we ask investors is “What is your time horizon?” In other words, “When do you plan to spend this money?”

This is critical because it may take some time to realize the benefits of compounding interest. On June 30, 1993 the S&P 500 was at 450. Fast forward one year and the return was negative 1 percent. Move forward ten years and the total return was 116 percent. Twenty years later, in 2013, the total return was 256 percent!

It pays to be patient with investments. It pays to keep a long-term perspective.

Uncertainty

The stock and bond markets do not travel in straight lines.  There are days when they rise and there are days when they fall. If we don’t accept the uncertainty, then why would we expect to receive a reward.

As investors, we must accept some risk and we believe that over long periods of time, these markets will reward us.

In the last 50 years, the S&P 500 has gained 2,215 percent. Despite this fact, the market was positive only 42 percent of the months. That sounds like a frightening outcome, but the average return for all months was still a positive 0.6 percent.

The good news is that the longer the time period, the more likely an investor is to achieve growth. Positive returns occurred in 53 percent of the years, in 60 percent of 5-year periods, in 80 percent of 10-year periods, and in 100 percent of 20-year periods.

What can we expect in the future?

I believe there is still room for growth. I believe potential for improvement in technology, housing, energy, and employment could fuel this growth.

I expect that the further we look in the future, the more likely we are going to see opportunities to compound returns.

I believe the Dow Jones Index, which currently is flirting with the 15,000 level, is likely to reach 30,000. In my mind it is not a matter of if, but when.

What does all this mean? As we like to say at SFS, “Now is always the best time to invest.”

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Lessons of the Bitcoin

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Bitcoin is a new form of money. It is 100 percent electronic and it just exploded in popularity. In just 6 weeks a Bitcoin went from $25 to $250. What an exciting time for Bitcoin speculators. Why even question it? This is a new electronic age and the possibilities are endless.

Not so fast! On April 10, 2013, the Bitcoin imploded. In just a few hours the value of a Bitcoin fell from $266 to $76.

What is the problem with Bitcoins? Where do we begin? The synthetic currency has no intrinsic value. It represents ownership of nothing. It is not backed by any government. It is not a commonly accepted form of payment. Its owners could be hacked and robbed, or it could be replaced by a more popular made-up currency. The Bitcoin mania may turn out to be one of the most spectacular bubbles of all time.

The term bubble was first used in the early 1700s to refer to wild price fluctuations associated with the “South Sea Bubble.” Another famous episode was the Dutch tulip mania of 1637. In recent history, we have survived the dot com bubble, the real estate bubble, the oil bubble, and possibly the gold bubble.

Why are we so prone to pricing bubbles? Will they ever end?

Greed: The idea that $100 could turn into $150 tomorrow creates fans. That excitement leads them to forget that it is one of the most volatile ways to gamble. Given that it has no real value, it may be more likely to fall 50 percent than rise 50 percent.

Conformity: When opinions converge on an incorrect idea, we call it groupthink or herd mentality. When money is involved, we call these bubbles, and they are dangerous because they can be costly.What should we watch for when trying to detect a bubble?

(1) Insane predictions (with or without good explanation)

(2) Excessive attention as too many people discuss and act like experts

(3) Repeated use of the phrase “this time is different”

(4) Deviation from normal supply and demand because of manipulation

The U.S. stock market has had a string of new highs over the last few months. This in and of itself is no cause for alarm. Hitting new highs is exactly what stocks are supposed to do. That is how investors make money. (Read “Patience is a Rewarding Virtue” from the  previous issue of the Money Moxie.)

How do we know if stocks are in the process of forming a bubble? There are a few simple reasons why investors should not be overly concerned at this point.

(1) Stocks represent ownership of real companies that have value and can grow in value

(2) Valuations of companies compared to earnings are near historical averages

(3) Fundamental improvements in the economy are taking place that support a rise in the market

Bubbles involve a high degree of risk. One way to avoid unnecessary risk is to watch out for investments that don’t have real value or have deviated too far from their true value. Those values are derived from how much the next person is willing to pay.

On the other hand, stocks market gains can benefit everyone who participates. Stocks represent ownership of something real. Time has shown that carefully investing in a diversified portfolio can yield positive results over time.

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Patience is a Rewarding Virtue

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What 50 Years of New Highs Looks Like

We have all been taught that the way to make money investing is to “buy low and sell high.” This makes perfect sense, but it is so much easier said than done. The danger in “buy low and sell high” is that it encourages investors to take active risk that may be contrary to their long-term goals. Most investors would do better following a more patient mantra.

Consider the recent highs in the market. On March 5th, 2013, the Dow index closed at a record level: 14,253. The S&P 500 index hit its high on March 28th, 2013, with a close at 1,569. These highs are only exciting to those participating in the growth of the market.

Some may see new highs as a signal to increase risk, others as a reason to decrease it. Keeping in mind that past performance does not guarantee future results, here are some answers to questions asked by the media when such events occur.

Do the new highs matter?
Yes! How else will investors make money? Making new highs is exactly what the market is supposed to do. Sure it doesn’t happen every day or even every year. It took these stock indexes 5½ years to reach their previous highs set on October 9, 2007.

Over the last 50 years, the S&P 500 hit new highs 714 times. It falls frequently, but the long-term trend is up and that is the way it should be.

Can we say that what goes up must come down?
There is always a reason for a rising market, and so a new high is often followed by more highs. The positive momentum and good news often have continued. The average return following a new high is positive for 1, 2, 3, 6, and even 12 months following the high.

Is this time different?
The current bull market is celebrating a birthday this month. (The current bull market began on March 9th, 2009.) It is turning four, which is a long time for a bull to run on Wall Street without interruption.

What could stop the bull?
Consumers are once again financing spending through debt. Their savings have fallen to just 2.6 percent of their income. (See cover story for details.)

Low savings equate to high spending. This is only good over short periods of time. A market rise that goes with it cannot be sustained forever. Eventually, consumers will reach a limit on how much they can borrow and spend.

Human nature is also a constant in the investment world, and it often leads to an over-inflated market as investors become overly optimistic. If it leads to inflation, the Federal Reserve may choose to send interest rates higher on debt.

Are there signs of overheating?
Consumer spending trends may be headed in the wrong direction right now, but they seem far from overextended. In fact, household debt is at historically good levels—the best in over 25 years.

Inflation could become a major concern, but it isn’t right now. North America is on its way to energy independence, possibly by 2020. Take a look at the price of natural gas on your winter heating bills. Prices have been low for energy.

Everyone is beginning to love stocks again. This is a good sign and a reason for caution. Just remember, patience is a rare virtue in the market, and if you have it then you should expect to do better than average. Of course, there are no guarantees.

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Elections Over. Fiscal Cliff in Focus.

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Stocks started 2012 with solid gains and then added to them during the year. Most major asset classes made money during the year.
Despite being three years into the current economic recovery, stocks and many other risky assets started 2013 with a bang. Small cap stocks, international stocks, and high yield bonds have been particularly good thus far. Resolution of the Fiscal Cliff was clearly the initial factor, but there are other fundamental contributors to current optimism as well.  The following data points are available from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.
• Oil production continues to grow within the United States thanks to hydraulic fracturing or “fracking.” Natural gas production, which is growing from the same process, is also likely to continue at its elevated levels. This industry has provided jobs to approximately 50,000 workers in the last three years and is still increasing its employment numbers at a rate of 6.5 percent.
• The growth in the supply of natural gas and oil has also provided lower energy costs for consumers and manufacturing. After 10 straight years of job losses in manufacturing, this industry is now experiencing three years of employment growth around 2 percent.
• Consumers are in a better position to increase spending and saving. Household debt is 10.5% of disposable income, which is the best level since the early 1980s.
• The housing market is improving. Prices of existing homes rose over 4% (Case-Shiller 20 City Index) in the last year. Housing starts and permits are each up 20%.
• Even after the recovery began in 2009, state and local governments were reducing their work force. This placed a short-term drag on the economy by reducing consumer confidence and spending. Half a million workers lost their jobs. Now it appears that many of these governments have their fiscal house in order.
The hemorrhaging may have run its course. The negative factors may now turn positive.
• Inflation, measured by CPI, is just below 2 percent. This will provide the Federal Reserve the flexibility to continue to focus on stimulating the economy in order to create more jobs. The efforts of the Federal Reserve are certainly a large part of the current recovery and will likely continue to play a role in 2013.
Of course, all this opportunity for growth comes with a price. Investors don’t have to love risk, but they do have to live with it. It is a tool to be managed carefully in order to participate in the long-term benefits of investing.
Many of the positive factors that drove the market upward last year are still in place this year. Indeed, the current year started off with a similar jump as that in 2012. While history will not repeat itself exactly, hopefully it will rhyme.
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Celebrating 100 Years of Taxes!

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Dear Valued Clients,

Motivating the citizens of the United States to pay their Federal Income Tax has always been a struggle. Various strategies have been implemented over the years to improve tax collection. Some meant to force tax payers and others to encourage them.

The first income tax in our nation was enacted by Congress in 1862 to help support the Civil War. (Blockades against the ports of the North limited supplies and cut off tariffs.) President Lincoln himself paid $1,296 in 1864 for his income tax. In order to encourage ordinary citizens to pay the government made tax returns public. Americans were encouraged to turn in those they suspected of not paying their fair share.

This Civil War Era income tax was removed ten years after it began, only to be brought back in 1894 until the Supreme Court voted in 1895 that it was unconstitutional.

In 1913, Congress passed the 16th amendment of the U.S. Constitution. This new law created the first permanent income tax in our country. At that time, the highest rate was 7 percent. Five years later the top bracket was at 77 percent. (See the full history of the top brackets in the graphics on pages 3 and 4.)

By the time World War II came, the nation had a serious problem with deficits. Congress was not about to make tax returns public. Instead, the nation turned to Donald Duck who explained to Americans their duty to pay the government: “Taxes to bury the Axis.”

Today, most of us might relate more to Arthur Godfrey who said, “As an American I am proud to pay my taxes. But I’d be just as proud for half as much.” Nevertheless, our nation needs us and so, taxes are here to stay. I hope you enjoy this issue of the Money Moxie® as we “celebrate” the 100th anniversary of the U.S. Income Tax.

James R. Derrick
SFS Chief Investment Strategist

Source: David Kestenbaum, “From Abe Lincoln to Donald Duck: History of the Income Tax,” NPR, 3/22/2012.

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