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Federal Reserve

Higher Inflation is Here

By | 2021, Money Moxie, Newsletter | No Comments

In 1979, global oil production dropped roughly 4%, primarily due to the revolution in Iran. This triggered panic among Americans who still remembered the shortages of 1973. The price of oil doubled in 12 months as lines started to build at gas stations, sending prices for all kinds of goods through the roof.

Since World War II ended, U.S. inflation has averaged 3.9%. In the decade prior to 1979, prices averaged a 6.6% increase per year. America had not seen back-to-back double-digit inflation since 1920, but in 1980, prices rose another 13.5%, then 10.3% in 1981. We have not seen anything like this since.

Inflation has been incredibly low over the last 40 years, thanks to technology, globalization, demographics, and the Federal Reserve. During this time, inflation has averaged just 2.7%.

Demand and supply of goods are the basics of economic pricing. If either one rises or falls without the other, prices move. When panic demand for supplies hit in the spring of 2020, we did not see huge changes.

We did see a lot of changes in other areas. Oil demand fell around 10%, and the price of oil at one point went negative. On April 20, 2020, the prices of West Texas Intermediate oil fell to -$40 per barrel. Unbelievable! Companies could not give it away. Gas prices stayed positive (around $1.50 per gallon in Utah).

The U.S. government slammed on the economic brakes and then created around $12 trillion to keep things going. That is in an economy that produces less than $22 trillion in a year. It was massive, and it appears to have worked. Now, the government seems to have the economic tiger by the tail. It is hard to say what will happen if it lets go.

As stimulus efforts continue, prices will probably continue to rise. Official inflation came out on May 13, 2021, at 4.2%. That is a long way from 1979 levels, but it is the biggest number in decades. Many of these numbers are being compared to unusually low prices from a year ago. The Fed refers to this as a base effect.

Fed Chair Jerome Powell insists that these significant increases are temporary. If Powell is correct, then I expect we will begin to see price changes calm down by the end of summer. That does not mean prices will fall; it means they should stop rising so quickly. There is also a reasonable chance the Fed is wrong, so I will be keeping an eye on inflation.

*Research by SFS. Data from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Investing involves risk, including the potential loss of principal. The S&P 500 index is widely considered to represent the overall U.S. stock market. One cannot invest directly in an index. Diversification does not guarantee positive results. 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 upon changing conditions. This is not a recommendation to purchase any type of investment.

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Spiking the Punch Bowl

By | 2019, Money Moxie, Newsletter | No Comments

Why Federal Reserve Shouldn’t Lower Rates, But Will Anyway

I don’t remember a time when people have been more worried about a recession than they are now. Even the Federal Reserve has been so cautious that it has painted itself into a corner. It plans to lower interest rates on July 31st even though there is little need to do so.

The Fed cuts rates in order to stimulate greater borrowing and spending. It believes that the economy may have peaked in 2018 and may only be growing by 1.6 percent right now (Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta). That slowdown has the economists at the Fed worried. They have repeatedly implied they are looking to lower rates. Such action is likely to boost the economy by causing a domino effect in the interest-rate world–affecting everything from savings to mortgage rates.

However, lowering rates now does not seem like the Fed’s “style.” Justin Lahart, a writer for The Wall Street Journal, summed up the current situation with the Fed nicely:

“William McChesney Martin, the Fed chairman in the 1950s and 1960s, quipped that the Fed’s job is ‘to take away the punch bowl just as the party gets going.’ Today’s Fed plans to spike the punch instead.”

However, ignoring expectations of a rate cut after the Fed members have been so vocal in favor of such action could be shocking. So, it is possible that the Fed will make a change in July while emphasizing all the positive things going on. That would communicate to investors that more rate cuts are unlikely unless the data changes.

U.S. Unemployement

The Fed was created in 1913 in order to make this nation’s financial system more stable and more flexible. It seeks steady prices (inflation) and high employment. Right now, we have both. Inflation is currently at 2 percent–a goldilocks number that is neither too hot nor too cold. Unemployment is at 3.7 percent, which is the lowest level since December 1969.

So, what is the Fed so worried about? U.S. manufacturing is going through a slump. According to Morgan Stanley, new orders for U.S. goods are at their worst levels in 5 years, and they are trending down. It should be mentioned that manufacturing represented just 11 percent of the U.S. economy in 2018.

American consumers, we drive nearly 70 percent of the U.S. economy. According to the Commerce Department, our spending jumped by 4.3 percent in the second quarter of 2019. That is being helped by a rise in wages, which just bounced higher. The Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta estimates that over the last year, wages have risen by 3.9 percent.

There may be some extra gyrations in the stock market as investors try to forecast the Fed. Hang in there. The good news, according to Ned Davis Research, is that if the Fed does lower rates and the economy turns out not to need it, the stock market has historically done well.

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Federal Reserve Is Expecting Winter In July

By | 2019, Executive Message, Money Moxie, Newsletter | No Comments

Last February, St. George, Utah had its biggest snowstorm in 20 years. Nearby, Zions National Park closed. Local schools did a late start. Motorists on the freeway were asked to use snow chains. The storm total? 3.8 inches! So, not that much . . . if one is prepared.

Without a doubt, the greatest risk in such a situation is overconfidence. The same could be said about investing. And even though it is summer, the Federal Reserve is going to start spreading salt on the roads for wintery conditions.

As I write, the Fed is preparing for its 5th meeting of 2019, which will be held July 30th–31st. The overwhelming majority of experts believes the Fed will lower interest rates for the first time in a decade. It would do this to encourage greater borrowing and give the economy a boost.

Celebrating a rate decrease this July is like increasing your speed on a sunny day while the snowplow drivers are starting their engines. Why are the plows heading out?

The U.S. economy has been growing at just over 2 percent for a decade. Tax cuts provided a short-term bump, but it looks like the growth is headed right back to the 10-year trend. That’s not so bad, but it has the Fed nervous.

If the Fed lowers rates at the end of this month, it is sending a signal to the rest of us that the experts believe there may be some rougher weather ahead. They will be dropping the salt on the roads in anticipation. Only time will tell how the forecast and driving conditions will change.

Are you driving too fast for the conditions with your investments? Stocks and bonds have been wildly positive this year, which has some investors too excited. Most of these gains just brought market prices back to where they were before a negative overreaction last December. That drop has had a lasting impact on how most investors feel. In other words, the market data is neither hot nor cold right now, but investors are too focused on one or the other. So, when it comes to your investments, I recommend going the speed you and your advisor decided on in your last review.

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From Investing FOMO to FEAR

By | 2019, Money Moxie, Newsletter | No Comments

My daily commute often leaves me sitting in traffic on State Street in Salt Lake City. Sometimes it can take 10 minutes to move 3 blocks. During these seemingly hopeless times, I often see a cyclist pass me. I consider the wisdom of selling my car and riding my bike. However, no matter how bad the traffic, I eventually pass the biker–no exception. (As a biking enthusiast, I regularly commute on a bike, but it is not faster.)

As investors, we faced similar thoughts in 2018. Should we make a short-term decision even though we know which vehicle will get us where we want to go quicker?

Investors entered 2018 with a Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO). The stock market had just completed a year where every month was positive. A tax cut had just been passed to stimulate greater consumer and corporate spending. Around the world, growth seemed synchronized, and expectations were rising.

Here is a review of my three predictions for 2018 with commentary on how things turned out.

U.S. growth exceeds 3 percent. The impact of the tax cut, which I referred to as a “sugar rush,” temporarily lifted U.S. growth to make the first forecast correct. The benefits of the cut were so short-lived that investor excitement quickly turned to concern.

The Federal Reserve finally has an impact. Interest rate increases by the Federal Reserve in recent years had largely been ignored by the stock market. This prediction also came true, especially in December when a rate increase was done despite all the problems going on in financial markets.

Investors would be disappointed with the market, but positive economic growth would help the market end the year positive. This prediction seemed to be correct for much of the year. However, it failed in the part that mattered most.

The stock market ended 2018 in an absolute panic! Oil prices were plummeting. The White House could not get a deal done on trade with China. The federal government had its third shutdown in just one year. And, despite all this, the Federal Reserve raised interest rates stating that nothing had changed; the economy was strong.

The stock market sell-off intensified, and the bull market arguably came to an end on Christmas Eve. December performance of the S&P 500 stocks was the worst since 1931. Historically, that makes some sense. The Great Depression began in 1929.

But we were not in the midst of a depression — quite the opposite. Corporate earnings were at record levels. The real GDP growth in this country was around 3 percent. Consumer spending, which represents 70 percent of the U.S. economy, rose in December by 4.5 percent!

What is an investor to do when the economic data is positive, and the market is so negative? At times like this, it is critically important to stay focused on your long-term goals.

It is our job at SFS to help you develop these goals and keep you on track to achieve them. We have tools to provide the necessary clarity and strategies to implement to help you keep moving forward.

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Buy a home now or wait for a recession?

By | 2018, Money Moxie | No Comments

The U.S. housing market is hot and home prices are going through the roof. This is due to a growing economy. Utah is especially impacted by Silicon Slope companies that are bringing in a lot of high-paying tech jobs; i.e. high demand compared to supply.

With home prices continuously increasing, people are questioning if this is the right time to buy a home or if they should wait for a time when the housing market cools off.

There are always ebbs and flows to the economy and markets, including the housing market. Many people remember all too well the housing collapse that we had in 2008, even though that was a decade ago.
We don’t expect another housing collapse like that one in the next few years, but we do expect the overall market to soften up. Maybe we will have a smaller recession in 1-3 years. When that recession happens, housing prices will come down. The question for potential home buyers is, “How far will they come down?”

If housing prices in the area you are looking do become cheaper than they are now, then you may be better off to wait. This is a probability, but there is a chance that even though house prices decrease at that time, they will still be higher than they are today.

The other piece of the equation that many people frequently forget to consider is interest rates.
A 1 percent move in interest rates means you can afford roughly 89 percent of the home you could before. If you were looking at $400,000 homes before, now you can only afford to buy a $356,000 home for the same monthly payment.

The Federal Reserve has indicated that they plan to raise the fed funds target interest rate by 0.25% several more times this year and in 2019 as well. These are short-term rates, but they will impact the longer-term rates that determine your mortgage interest and payment.
We have been at historically low-interest rates for the last decade and once that ship sails I don’t expect to see interest rates this low for a very long time. However, an economic slowdown could bring rates lower again.

If you are moving, at least you have the increase on your existing home to help offset the increase on the home you are buying, unless you are moving from a depressed area to a hot area.

If you are buying for the first time and plan to stay longer than 3 years, now might be the right time to buy just to lock in low-interest rates. However, you still need to seriously consider your financial situation and whether you can afford the home you want. Don’t jump into something that is too much money just because you feel the pressure to get a deal done. Know your limits and be willing to back out if the deal gets too hot.

Renting may feel like you are throwing your money away, but it also provides flexibility. If you only do it for a few years you won’t be that far behind financially. In a few years, you may even be in a better financial situation. Who knows? You might be able to buy a home at a cheaper price than you can today.

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Payment calculation based on a 30 year mortgage, loan of $400,000, principal and interest payment of $1,961 and interest rate of 4.25% vs. 5.25%. Data in graphics and tables from Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis.

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Will Good be Good Enough?

By | 2018, Money Moxie | No Comments

Confirmation Bias: The tendency to only accept the facts that support what we already believe.

By virtually every measurement, the U.S. economy is growing–and so it is in just about every other country in the world! That means that even though stock prices are near all-time highs, they are also supported by real economic growth.

The question is, “How long can the stock market continue to grow before cracks begin to form?” The answer: Small cracks are already appearing and most people don’t see them, yet.

How could corporations disappoint in such a good economy? No way . . . unless expectations are too high and investors realize this 3, 6, or 12 months from now.

That’s exactly what this graph is showing: an inability to exceed high expectations. And the market in 2018 is more likely to be affected by expectations than by economics. After all, the growth that everyone expects is already priced into the market. The bar has been set high for 2018!

The Federal Reserve has a new chairman, Jerome Powell, and he seems determined to get interest rates back to more normal levels. This makes borrowing money more expensive and could, at some point, have a negative impact on stocks.

Consumers could turn the tide in a negative way! Consumers represent 69 percent of economic growth. They have been driving growth upward for two years by spending more than they can afford. How long can this continue?

The savings rate, once at 10 percent, is now approaching an all-time low of 2 percent! The risk is not that Americans have overspent, but that they cannot continue to overspend in the next two years like they have in the last two years! How will American consumers continue to lift the American economy when they run out of money?

What will be the next crack in the economy? It will probably not be in housing this time. Mortgage debt seems low compared to 10 years ago and there is a shortage of homes around the country.

Any further cracks may be in credit card defaults. That’s one area we will be watching.

For now, economic growth looks solid. We will keep an eye on things because we know that investments become over-priced while the data is still positive. What we know is that 2018 is already more interesting than 2017!

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Confidence is up, but will it lift the economy higher?

By | 2017, Money Moxie | No Comments

Looking at performance of the stock market over the last 12 months, one might assume that the economy is exploding upward. The rise has been driven mostly by a boost in consumer sentiment, which has taken off since the U.S. elections in November.

In 2017, consumer sentiment hit its highest level in more than 10 years!

Consumers represent 70 percent of the U.S. economy. Their confidence is crucial to future growth. Business spending is much smaller, but it is also much more volatile. So, when businesses are increasing their spending, the economy really has potential to move up. The good news is that optimism is also up for business executives.

Confidence data is nothing more than opinion polls. This is why they are referred to as soft data. Hard data represents real action. Typically, these go hand-in-hand: A change in one leads to a corresponding change in the other.

After inflation, consumer spending is up, but just by 2.8 percent.
The trend in the hard data does not match that of the soft data. The Federal Reserve does not seem concerned.

The Fed raised rates last December and March. Expectations are nearly 100 percent that it will raise them again in June–despite first quarter economic growth of 0.7 percent.

How does one reconcile the gap between opinion polls and actual improvement? What is likely to happen?

The U.S. economy is still improving. Unemployment is down to 4.4 percent. Corporate profits are up. Energy prices are down. Finally, global growth appears to be entering its first synchronized period of growth in two decades. According to BlackRock, European earnings are up nearly 20 percent in the last year.

Add to this good news the potential for positive surprises and it becomes more clear why a glass-is-half-full perspective is better.

  • Soft data could finally lift hard data
  • Increased global trade will help U.S. companies
  • Wages should rise with tight labor market
  • Deregulation could create more opportunities
  • Corporate tax reform may boost profits
  • Infrastructure spending could boost productivity

Any one of these surprises could help convert optimism into action. The timing is the greatest uncertainty, but that is no reason to be overly concerned. With so many positive economic changes occurring in the world right now, we believe there are plenty of opportunities
in 2017.

 

*Data from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. The S&P 500 index often represents the U.S. stock market. One cannot invest directly in an index. Investing involves risk, including potential loss of principal. 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. SFS is not affiliated with any companies mentioned in this commentary.

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2017 Predictions

By | 2017, Money Moxie, Newsletter | No Comments

Market movement since Election Day has been massive and investors see this as confirmation of just how good Republicans are going to be for the economy. How could so many investors be wrong? Actually, fairly easily.

Right or wrong, investors should be careful not to get carried away. There is a high amount of uncertainty and no way to know what the future will bring.

(1) Trump Rally
The big move in stocks in November and December has been an acceleration of the positive momentum already taking place in the economy. It has been characteristic of many presidential election years with a good economy.

It is completely normal to get excited, but don’t let it lead to overconfidence. Few things last forever and most years have their ups and downs.

It is not unusual to see inauguration day (Friday, January 20, 2017) mark a change for investors as they realize the new president does not have a magic wand.

(2) Dow 20K
The Dow stock index has been flirting with 20,000. It just could not quite get there in 2016. In 2017, I believe it will! And it will likely cross that mark many times.

The first time the Dow reached 10,000 came in March of 1999. Over the next 11 years, it crossed that level on 34 days until it surpassed it a final time in the summer of 2010.

It’s hard to fight gravity and it’s hard to turn a large ship. There is so much positive momentum right now that I expect it to continue. Unemployment is falling. Wages are rising. Confidence is climbing.

One unknown is the impact of policy changes on global trade, which may decline this year as the United States turns its focus inward.

(3) Fed Does Its Job
The Federal Reserve is likely to “take away the punch bowl just as the party is getting started.”

For two consecutive years I have accurately predicted that the Fed would be more cautious than its own forecast. This year, I am accepting the Fed’s forecast that it will raise rates 3 times in 2017.

Of course, no one knows with certainty because with each rate hike, I expect investors will become more concerned.

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2016 Review

By | 2017, Money Moxie, Newsletter | No Comments

“If you want to see the sunshine you have to weather the storm.” In its first 3 weeks, 2016 delivered investors more than a 10 percent loss–the worst start in 80 years. Our natural human instinct at such moments is to feel that it will continue, but predicting the markets is extremely difficult.

In a dramatic turnaround, the U.S. stock market rose in February and March–recording the best recovery in 83 years.

(1) Fed will move slowly. The Federal Reserve planned to raise rates 4 times in 2016. This aggressive forecast in combination with falling oil prices spooked investors. Then came the uncertainty of Brexit and the U.S. elections. By year end, the Fed raised rates just once (in December).

(2) Election years are not recession years. I expected the economy to grow and for the market to continue to rise as our bull market entered its 8th year.

This positive outlook proved beneficial in the early days of 2016 when the resolve of many investors was tested. The market turned positive and remained there for most of the year.

(3) United States grows and the dollar slows. A strong U.S. dollar is not as good as it sounds. Sure, it’s great for Americans traveling overseas, but it presents challenges for large U.S. companies and investors.

The year began with too much strength: From July 2014 to January 2016, our dollar rose against every major currency around the globe! It gained 20 percent versus the euro and 54 percent versus the Russian ruble!

Fortunately, the U.S. dollar spent 9 of the last 12 months below January 2016 levels. That gave investors more opportunity as we invested globally.

This international diversification helped a great deal until a great divide formed in November.

These investments have taken a break as U.S. stocks rose in November, but I believe the worldwide economy still looks positive and may offer benefits to investors again in 2017.

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The Virtuous Cycle of Rising Prices

By | 2014, Newsletter, Viewpoint | No Comments

Imagine waking up tomorrow to discover gasoline prices have dropped in half. What if milk, eggs, and all your groceries cost less as well? Suddenly, your money would be worth more. Sounds great, right? It wouldn’t take long for the heavy weight of reality to hit you.

Consider how knowledge of tomorrow’s pricing might affect today’s behavior. Assuming no shortages, we would be crazy to buy today what would cost less in 24 hours. While falling prices (deflation) sound nice on the surface, they can have disastrous consequences.

Deflation's Destruction

Deflation has been present in most economic depressions in history, including the Great Depression. The initial causes may include productivity increases, oversupply of goods, or scarcity of money.
A rise in productivity has been occurring for centuries with greater education and technology. In fact, a U.S. worker today, on average, can produce twice as much as a worker in 1975 and 50 percent more than a worker in 1995! Outsourcing to cheaper foreign labor has a similar effect on productivity as technology.

Supply of goods fluctuates, especially with food and energy. For example, a drought in 2012 led to a rise in grain prices like corn, which made feed cattle more expensive in 2013, which led to higher dairy and beef prices in 2014 (see Price Changes table).

Price Changes

Scarcity of money is where the U.S. Federal Reserve (Fed) comes in. The Fed encourages low unemployment and low inflation by managing the money supply.

The Fed cannot control the weather in the Midwest, extract more oil from Saudi Arabia, or raise the minimum wage in China. But the Fed will do everything it can to avoid deflation. Since 2008, it has spent over three trillion dollars to stabilize falling prices.

Rising prices are normal in a healthy economy. The 50 year average for inflation is 4.1 percent. This reasonable rate encourages spending and creates a virtuous cycle of economic growth (see Inflation’s Value graphic).

Inflation's Value

All the current numbers in this cycle are good, but below average. Over the last twelve months inflation has been 1.7 percent, wage increases averaged 2.8 percent, and consumer spending grew 3.6 percent.
The most recent U.S. growth rate showed an increase of 4.2 percent. That is a great number. If it is followed by another increase in another category like wages the growth cycle could pick up speed. The result could help the current bull market continue.

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