Posts Tagged wealth management

2018: A Challenging Year Might Be Ahead

“Whatever has the nature of arising, has the nature of ceasing.” – The Buddha

 

First thing first: I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving with your family and loved ones, and wish you a great Holiday Season, Christmas, News Year….under whatever name, shape or form you enjoy celebrating. My usual attitude I have adopted from a longtime friend is: “Is there something to celebrate? What are we waiting for?”

If you have read my previous newsletter, you might recall the above quotation and might be wondering if I have forgotten something. No, I haven’t. When I sat down to produce this quarter’s letter, I realized that I couldn’t have found a better quote, so I kept it.

As we’re approaching a new year, following a period of strong performance, many of you are probably nervous or wondering if a deep correction is due. Common questions are: Is this time to sell? Is there more room for growth? Should I invest now or wait for a downturn?

For those looking for quick answers: not yet; probably yes; and what about dollar cost averaging?

It all depends on your goals, time horizon and risk appetite. To demystify my answer, let’s dive in.

Cry Wolf

The current market regime we are in might be best described as the “most hated bull market in history.” For years, many participants have been calling for a correction and yet here we are, with solid returns.

I can not tell you how many client meetings I have had since 2011, making a bullish case, settling a client’s nerves, who had just read a report suggesting that huge losses were ahead.

There is actual research showing that some republican leaning investors had missed out on the “Obama rally”. It looks like now it is the democratic and liberal leaning investors’ turn to sit on the sidelines and watch the market that they so “hate”, to run up.

Looking at valuations and extreme optimism, is this “the” time to go out and save the shepherd from the wolves? If we do so, will we look like fools, again? There is a third way.

Don’t Throw the Baby Out with the Bathwater

There is plenty of research that shows that the majority of portfolio returns come from asset allocation decisions. In other words, whether or not you will be invested in stocks, bonds, alternatives or stay in cash, is the most important decision. The effect of security selection, is miniscule compared to this very fundamental decision.

That being said, like most things, it is not black and white. You should make buy all, or sell all decisions. Better said, fine tune your asset allocation, to fit the current investment regime.

We are not bound to decide whether to fully get out of the market, or blindly stay in it. Instead, we need to keep our eyes on current market drivers, pay close attention to our time horizon and investment goals, and make adjustments accordingly.

Current Market Drivers

I am fortunate to serve many clients who are smarter and better educated than myself. One of them once told me “I don’t get what you’re doing, it seems so complex.” Coming from a man with a PhD in computer science, I was humbled, but to tell you the truth, it isn’t all that complex, it all boils down to:

  • Markets go up because there are more buyers than sellers.

 

  • Economies grow because more money is spent this year than last.

So, the two most important components are: 1 – How much money is out there? 2 – What is the investor/consumer sentiment? In short, it’s all about the FED and psychology.

How about valuations? Research shows that valuations are better indicators for long term (5-10 year) returns, but have a terrible record for shorter term (1-3 year).

The FED, crowd psychology, the economy and politics are undoubtedly interrelated but the end-result on investments has to be separately and carefully analyzed.

We still have a friendly FED, an overly optimistic crowd, a strengthening economy and a market friendly tax bill on its way.

Not too shabby, however the key word here is “overly”. In spite of Keynes’ famous quote “Markets can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent.” overly optimistic sentiment usually gets punished shortly after.

So…2018?

If you think I am giving mixed messages, that’s because I am. On one hand, I know that when the FED is friendly, the crowd is optimistic, the economy is strong and politicians are market friendly, fighting against this picture is foolish.

On the other hand, looking at historically high valuations, very little cash sitting on the sidelines, and extreme investor optimism, this might be the time to give the shepherd who cried wolf, the benefit of the doubt.

Action Items

How to reconcile these two sentiments?

  • Clarify the purpose of your investment. If you have a long-term goal, short term fluctuations shouldn’t scare you away from investing, but if you may need these funds within a year, this might not be the best time to get in.

 

  • Brace yourself for volatility. 2018 probably has one or two 5-10% pull back(s) built in to it. So, consider how to lower stock exposure, raise cash, or prepare yourself to ride the roller coaster, and have a 10% drop in US stocks as one of your what if scenarios.

 

  • Make sure you’re diversified. Usually, what went up the most, comes down the fastest. In the current case, it is the tech stocks. Make sure your tech stock exposure is in line with your risk appetite.

 

  • Have some international exposure. While the US FED is raising rates, European and Japanese central banks are still in their easing mode, most likely till the end of 2018. These countries, along with Emerging Markets may offer better value.

 

  • If you’re overly concentrated in any particular security, look for strategies such as put options.

 

  • Don’t be afraid of raising cash.

 

  • Watch for earnings because the market is priced for perfection and a negative surprise could be the black swan in the lake.

In Short

2018 will likely end up being a positive year, but returns may be muted and may come with volatility. So adjust your strategy accordingly.

Thanks for reading my commentary and as always, you can reach me at bbakan@shieldwm.com for questions and comments.

Disclosure

The strategies discussed are strictly for illustrative and educational purposes and should not be construed as a recommendation to purchase or sell, or an offer to sell or a solicitation of an offer to buy any security. There is no guarantee that any strategies discussed will be effective. The information provided is not intended to be a complete analysis of every material fact respecting any strategy. The examples presented do not take into consideration commissions, tax implications, or other transactions costs, which may significantly affect the economic consequences of a given strategy.

The information provided is not intended to be a tax advice. Investors should be urged to consult their tax professional or financial advisers for more information regarding their specific tax situations.

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A Mixed Bag of More of the Same

“Thinking is difficult. That’s why most people judge.” – Carl Jung

Many observers are surprised with the current levels of US Stock Indices. There is so much talk about stretched valuations, Trump Trade being over, the potential damage of rising interest rates, trade/currency wars, political uncertainty, rising inflation and last but not the least, the aging economic growth cycle, that given all this, stock prices seem unjustified.

Looking at this wall of worry, one might conclude that “the winter is coming” and it’s time to run to the hills away from the White Walkers, short sellers and bearish bets.

In the past, I have seen how Republican leaning investors, commentators and strategists have allowed their political views to cloud their judgement, and how this led to misguided conclusions, most of which, have been proven wrong.

Unlike the popular rhetoric, the stock market rallied during Obama years, the dollar got stronger, inflation has been tamed, unemployment dropped like a rock, the economy grew and the US has become the safe house in a shady neighborhood.

The thorns of this rosy picture have been stagnant incomes, and stubbornly elevated public debt.

Learning from this experience, investors need to set aside their political views and think with facts in hand, not allowing their preconceived notions to get in the way.

I will address these concerns, and conclude that the stock market still has room to grow, pullbacks are likely and they should be used as buying opportunities.

Concern 1: Stretched Valuations

No matter how you slice and dice it, stocks are expensive. Questions to follow:

1 – How expensive?

2 – Can they go higher from here?

They are extremely expensive when you just look at absolute, traditional, isolated price to earnings ratios. If this is your only gauge, the answer to the second question is a short “no”, and they can’t get go much higher from here.

But when you look at relative factors, especially when compared to other investment vehicles like bonds, real estate, commodities and currencies, stocks still seem to provide growth potential. Roughly a third of US domestic stocks’ dividend payout rate is higher than the yield on 10 Year US Treasury.

In other words, when compared to especially low bond interest rates, stocks are only moderately expensive and the answer to the second question in hand is a “yes”, they can still go higher.

Also, from a purely investment strategy point of view, all we really care about is the asset price action and when we dive in to it, we get good and bad news.

The bad news is that high valuation is a pretty reliable indicator of investment returns in the following 10 years. The good news is that the same cannot be said about the following 3 years. So, if history is any guide, one can conclude that the investment strategy could be to ride the wave while it lasts, especially in the next 3 years but moot your expectations for the next 10 year returns.

Concern 2: Aging Economic Expansion and Bull Market

We are in the eighth year of a stock bull market and economic growth. On average, economic expansions last about 5-7 years and the longest has been 10 years (1992-2002). The stock market not only hasn’t seen a bear market since 2008, it also hasn’t seen a 10% correction for 287 market days as of 4/1/17. So justifiably, some argue we may be approaching a rest stop with a horrible vista point.

I will counter this argument and hope to offer some consolation with 3 supplemental sets of facts.

1 – First let’s get the 287 market days without a 10% pull back, out of the way. Assuming we are in a long-term bull cycle, this is well within historical averages.

2 – The US stock market hasn’t seen bear claws since 2008, but came pretty close with a 15% correction (Q2 2015 – Q1 2016). During the same period, global stock market did face the bear with many developed economies’ losses of well over 30%.

3 – If we expand the above-mentioned period to Q1 2014 – Q1 2016, we’ll see a stock market that was flat for two years (consolidation). Such periods can and do act like a bear market, especially when they last for two years.

On the topic of economic expansion, the key thing to remember is that in spite of its duration, the growth level is still well below past recoveries, and current indicators do not waive the checkered flag for the stop pit.

Concern 3: Rising Interest Rates

It is true that stocks struggle during rising interest rate environments. The reasons for that are plenty but the usual suspects are: 1 – Increasing cost of money, makes it costlier to do business and invest; 2 – Some fixed income securities’ yields start to look attractive compared to risk adjusted equity returns.

That being said, current levels are low enough to give us some time  before the danger zone. If you’d like me to be more specific, the 10 Year Treasury Yield is at approximately 2.5% and historical tendencies point to a 4% rate as the line in the sand in the tug of war. Based on FED actions, it may take us till the end of 2018 or into 2019 to reach that point. Since I try not to make predictions that far in advance, knowing what I know now is good enough to conclude that the current rising rate environment may not hinder equity returns.

Concern 4: Political Uncertainty

Markets have welcomed Trump’s presidential victory as they saw four arrows in his quiver:

1 – Tax cuts

2 – Lower regulations

3 – Fiscal expansion

4 – Trade wars.

Except for trade wars, the rest are deemed to be business friendly and hence will boost earnings. Well, this is a typical case of confirmation bias at least from the earnings point of view. As of 3/31/17, S&P 500 Operating Earnings Per Share has gone up 22.1% (Source: S&P Dow Jones Indices).

In other words, the earnings environment is the best in years and this is due to the pre-Trump economic environment, finally acknowledged by Republican leaning market participants, who for years have advocated a recession. (Sorry to sound speculative and like a sour cherry here.)

I welcome this development as it not only reflects domestic facts more accurately, but also global positive economic surprises.

For those curious minds, the biggest jump came in materials and technology sectors, 36% and 32% respectively, while the biggest loser was real estate by -32%.

In other words, given that a simpler tax code is better for business and the economy, smart deregulation can translate in to a more robust business environment and fiscal expansion is past due because of the FED’s inability to stimulate, setting politics aside, current stock levels may be justified.

Summary

For those readers who look for the blue or the red pill type of conclusion from all this, here is your takeaway:

  • Yes, the market seems moderately stretched
  • Therefore, a correction may be around the corner
  • “Sell in May, Go Away” strategy may prove prudent this year as we approach seasonally weak summer months
  • That being said, long term economic and market trends are in tact
  • Therefore, dips should be seen as buying opportunities
  • Volatility may increase, so tighten your seatbelts and keep your eyes on your long-term objectives

Thanks for reading my commentary and as always, you can reach me at bbakan@shieldwm.com for questions and comments.

 

Disclosure

The strategies discussed are strictly for illustrative and educational purposes and should not be construed as a recommendation to purchase or sell, or an offer to sell or a solicitation of an offer to buy any security. There is no guarantee that any strategies discussed will be effective. The information provided is not intended to be a complete analysis of every material fact respecting any strategy. The examples presented do not take into consideration commissions, tax implications, or other transactions costs, which may significantly affect the economic consequences of a given strategy.

The information provided is not intended to be a tax advice. Investors should be urged to consult their tax professional or financial advisers for more information regarding their specific tax situations.

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What is Wrong with the US Stock Market?

“Life is pleasant. Death is peaceful. It is the transition that is troublesome.” Isaac Asimov

 

A client and friend asked why the current US stock market was having a hard time finding a path and if I saw this lack of a path as a threat to the global financial stability.

I started my reply with “In short…”, only to realize I had promised in my last newsletter, to share reasons to be bearish in my next newsletter and Eureka! Without further adieu: “6 reasons why US stock markets are having difficulty forming an uptrend.”

Reason 1: Transition from the Industrial Revolution to Information Age

We are at a juncture where multiple trends are ending and are in transition to the next. The biggest one of these is the end of the Industrial Revolution, which started in the late 1800s in England and probably lasted until the end of the 20th century. I use caution here as trends and cycles are difficult if not impossible to define while in them. Most of the political and economic concepts we live in or with, were either born or have grown strength as a result of this mega step in human history. The world’s governmental and economic systems are built to support this industrial life style based on production, transportation and consumption of goods, while supported by the banking system whose function is to turn profits into investments for businesses and lending for consumers.

And then, there came the technological revolution and globalization. In this new world, information and ideas may have become more important than having access to capital, as money is easily and readily available to invest in marketable ideas. Labor markets are global and therefore more competitive. National borders are less meaningful, as resources move faster than ever. Education systems, at least here in the US, fail to prepare the youth for the skills needed in this new economy. Automation is taking over human participation in production. Productivity growth no longer equals income growth. Since 1970’s incomes haven’t been able to keep up with productivity growth and the gap has been widening (except in the last few years because of falling productivity). With the use of computerized trading systems and financial engineering, risks and returns have grown exponentially. The level of welfare and the income distribution policies are a discussion for a heated debate, as haves can reach resources globally, while have nots end up competing against poorer parts of the world who are willing to work for much less.

As a result of this mega shift, there are 5.5 million job openings in the U.S. that can’t be filled, which was 3.5 million only two years ago. The capital markets and investors are trying to adapt to this new wave of technologies, business models and get a better sense of the present and projected valuations, while seeking balance in risk/return relationships. This tug of war between the past and the future is forcing the global economic machine and its capital markets to give errors in the forms of global financial crisis, massive computerized trading errors, discrepancies in valuations and increased volatility. Are these new challenges? No. But their magnitude brings us to an uncharted territory and at times, the capital markets act like a deer in the headlights. This long period with a sideway trend we have been in since November, could be one example.

Reason 2: Global Economic Slowdown

Are we in a global economic recession? No. According to the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), there have been 13 global downturns since 1960, last one being in 2011, with average length of 22 months. It looks like every 4-7 years, we go through a global recession and it wouldn’t be outside of historical averages if we experience a slowdown in the next 3 years. According to IMF calculations, global economic growth rate was 3.4% in 2014, estimated to be 3.5% in 2015 and 3.8% in 2016. So there is no global downturn currently or in the projected near future. However, it is not robust growth by any means and so it’s vulnerable to shocks. The strongest headwind for growth is the debt hangover. Governments and consumers are trying to pay down their debt as opposed to investing and spending, a minus effect on growth.

In most cases, when the US joins the international community and contributes to negative growth, markets react with a sharp decline. However, when the US is in growth mode while the rest of the world slows down, US stock markets typically go sideways. Given the problems in the EU zone and Japan, the slowdown in the Emerging Markets and US growth rate at around 2.5%, the sideway trend can at least partially be explained by the state of the global economy as a whole.

Reason 3: The Federal Reserve (FED)

We are in a central bank driven, multiple expansion based bull market. (Multiple expansion is paying a higher price for given earnings). Once the FED starts the tightening phase, we will be in a different zone and the US stock market’s reaction will depend on the speed of the rate increase.

Usually market tightening cycles start during an uptrend. Going back to all tightening cycles since 1946, the S&P continues the uptrend for another 4 months after the tightening begins (average of 5 cases). In the case of a fast tightening cycle though (7 cases) a sharp decline immediately starts with the tightening, lasts for 3 months to fully recover in 6

months (Source: NDR). So the speed of the hike is more relevant than the hike itself. Will the FED push rates up at a fast or slower pace? Most likely at a slower pace because the economy is growing at an annual rate of 2.3%, and the inflation rate that FED considers is at 1.8%. Slow growth, no inflation and lackluster income growth doesn’t give FED enough room to push the paddle to the metal. Even so, the markets are trying to adjust to the fact that probably the tightening cycle is only a few months away and as Isaac Asimov noted: “Transition is troublesome.”

Reason 4: Strong Dollar

It is usually a good sign when a currency strengthens. It shows that a country’s stability, the value given to its promises and its credibility are rising. It is however a headwind in the short term for the exporters as it makes the exported goods more expensive. About half of all revenues generated by the S&P 500 companies come from overseas. A strong dollar shrinks those revenues and makes it harder to increase market share. It is however also making imports cheaper, lowers input prices and so mutes the inflation. Since the US doesn’t have an inflation problem, the dollar strength isn’t helping. In time, a better and more efficient allocation of resources can and will usually fix this problem (which is good to have), but it does hurt growth while adjusting to it.

Reason 5: Low Energy Prices

Similar to a strengthening dollar, lower energy prices can be a good thing only if those savings were allocated efficiently elsewhere. The reason why it is a negative for now is that the energy companies are the largest contributors to capital expenditures (capex). Low oil prices mean low revenues for energy companies and low revenues mean low capex. Since one’s expense is another’s income, lower spending subtracts from growth. Also, their profit decline lowers their stock prices, adding more pressure to the market indexes.

Reason 6: Stretched Valuations

Valuation is how much one pays to a security for expected returns (capital gains and income) at the risk level of that return to materialize.

Currently, the stock valuations are a bit stretched. Not so much that major indexes are in a bubble territory, but they certainly are not fairly or underpriced. One area that is in bubble territory is the dividend paying stocks. Those seeking yield have been discouraged by the bond market and have found refuge in dividend payers, which made that space a bit crowded.

The market is more vulnerable to shocks with stretched valuations. There is still upside potential…but the volatility in prices is harder to handle for many investors.

Summary:

The bottom line is that the bull market doesn’t end because it gets tired or it expires. It usually ends because of a recession, bubble type extreme valuations or extreme investor optimism. Currently, we are experiencing none of the above.

I have shared with you the reasons to be bullish and bearish in two market updates. Hope you have enjoyed – see you next time.

Disclosure

The strategies discussed are strictly for illustrative and educational purposes and should not be construed as a recommendation to purchase or sell, or an offer to sell or a solicitation of an offer to buy any security. There is no guarantee that any strategies discussed will be effective. The information provided is not intended to be a complete analysis of every material fact respecting any strategy. The examples presented do not take into consideration commissions, tax implications, or other transactions costs, which may significantly affect the economic consequences of a given strategy.

The information provided is not intended to be a tax advice. Investors should be urged to consult their tax professional or financial advisers for more information regarding their specific tax situations.

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An Irrational Stock Market?

“Don’t let your ego get too close to your position, so if your position gets shot down, your ego doesn’t go with it.” – Colin Powell.

There are many reasons why managing your own investments is a daunting task. The biggest challenge isn’t the lack of expertise or time…those can be attained. The ultimate challenge is removing your emotions from your money and investments. If you associate success, self-worth, security and future well-being with the balance in your bank account, then you need to be aware of the emotional roller coaster you are on. That’s not even the worst of it all. If you make decisions influenced by these emotions, that’s when you get hurt. Your ego gets in the way and sometimes, what your ego asks you to do in the short term, isn’t necessarily in your best interest in the long run. Your ego should carefully be excluded from your critical thinking. Makes perfect sense and sounds easy to do, but even step one – identifying your ego – is a long process, let alone excluding it from important decision.

So what can we put our trust in? Objective data. To find the right answers, one has to ask the right questions.

What are the most important and main macro drivers of capital markets?

  • Inflation (or deflation)

  • Economic growth or lack of it

  • Demographics (aging population)

  • Policy (FED – monetary and Congress – fiscal)

  • Trend (momentum) and prices

  • Sentiment (consumer and investor)

  • Debt burden (or lack of it)

  • Credit conditions

  • All of the above factors in international markets and geo-political conditions

Now clearly, getting into the details of all the above would be beyond the scope of this newsletter, but we can at least talk about the crème de la crème factors and decide for ourselves, whether or not there is more room for growth in stock values given we are at all-time highs. Ladies and gents, allow me to introduce: Inflation, the FED, credit conditions and the economy.

Inflation:

Research shows that, there is indeed a sweet spot for a market friendly inflation rate, which is somewhere between 1.5% and 2.5%.

Below 1.5%, the economy shows the signs of weakness and the risk of deflation becomes a reality. Here, probably the supply-demand balance is supply heavy. Above 2.5%, the economy starts heating up, borrowing rates start to climb, as a result the FED is pressured to raise rates to fight inflation and cool off the economy.

So in case of low inflation, excess supply slows down stock price appreciation. With high inflation, rising costs become the nemesis. A growing but not overly heated economy is where you want to be.

Current year over year inflation rate, (Consumer Price Index issued by the Bureaus of Labor Statistics) is 1.6%. Judging by weather related economic slow-down (more on this later) and its effects on inflation, high inflation is a low probability event for 2014, so you can add this as a plus.

Last note on inflation: low inflation also means low interest rates; low interest rates mean cheap money; cheap money means an investor friendly environment and relatively low fixed income (bonds) returns. When savings accounts and fixed income investors feel they are wasting time with low returns, they are forced to allocate a higher percentage to stocks. Even if these investors chose large dividend paying companies, this pushes valuation of these stocks higher, making growth stocks relatively cheaper and a preferable habitat for growth stocks as well.

The FED:

 In a free market capitalist economy, there are two masters pulling the strings at the macro level: central banks (the FED) and law makers (the Congress). The FED controls monetary policies while Congress oversees fiscal policies. Together, they aim to provide just the right amount of incentives and limits to foster a healthy environment for economic growth and prosperity of all citizens.

The FED has more influence over the market in the short term. Easy monetary policies make it cheaper to borrow and invest, start or grow a business, refinance existing loans and stimulate the economy. Tighter monetary policies would reduce liquidity, raise interest rates and aim to cool off the economy.

Current FED policies are market friendly and accommodating (even with tapering = cutting bond purchases). Yes, the FED cut the amount of sugar but the candy jar is still out there kids. Just because it’s not all you can eat, doesn’t mean you are on a no-chocolate diet, so yes, add this on your list of pluses as well.

Credit/Lending Conditions:

Remember, we are going through the crème de la crème factors, so credit conditions are equally important and surprise: inter-related to the inflation rate and FED policies.

Ever since societies evolved from a barter economy to transacting with the means of an exchange that today we call money, along came banks and credit. In a healthy and well-functioning economic system, banks serve as institutions that funnel savings into investments and support economic growth. Almost no business today can operate without the help of credit. How many people do you know who bought a house with no mortgage? This is all good and dandy but like most things, human greed and lack of regulations to control that, brought us to an abused and over used borrowing conditions, which popped in 2008. When the lending bubble burst, it created a below-the-means response, which meant that we went from extremely loose lending conditions, to an extremely tight lending zone.

Tight lending conditions in a debt driven economy brings compressed economic growth. It is like having one foot on the gas pedal, one foot on the break. If I had more space, I would share with you charts showing the direct relation between lending conditions and market performance.

Today, we are back to less restrictive lending. We are nowhere near pre-2008 levels, but we don’t need to be. As I have noted earlier, we are in a low inflation, low interest rate environment and that’s a great place to start.

Businesses are awash with cash, which eventually would translate in to capital spending and hiring. One side note: one of the strong tailwinds of the stock market performance has been stock buybacks and mergers and acquisitions activity. So there isn’t much demand for business loans compared to previous recoveries, thanks to technological improvements and related efficiencies but that will change and when it does, we will find ourselves in an increasing demand for loans and banks eager to answer that call. If you were wondering, where the next waive for higher earnings will come from; this one will be a big help.

The Economy:

And last but not the least; the economy has to be in growth mode for stocks to appreciate. The only exception is when the economy is coming out of a recession as stocks are a discounting mechanism. In fact, this is when you get your best returns. Since we are almost five years past that point, without the economic growth, there is no tunnel or light.

The most recent real economic growth rate is 2.4% during the last quarter of 2013. This is slow compared to 50 year averages of 3.5%. Add the weather related slow down, this quarter result will probably disappoint. Then why do stocks celebrate? The expectation is a strong recovery in the second half of the year. I wouldn’t be surprised with a 4% growth during the second half of the year, since we have started seeing over 4% growth rates, like 4.1% during third quarter 2013.

Now there is a lot that can go wrong. The market at an all-time high is challenging to maneuver as it is hard for investors to find bargains when there are so many eager sellers to cash in their gains. Secondly, geopolitical threats can throw a serious punch. Russia, luckily alone in the Ukraine crisis, is contained for now but there is no limit to what Putin can and will do once he takes his shirt off and gets on his high horse. Iran is on the back burner right now but Syria is still a boiling pot. Thirdly, European economies can surprise us to the downside. Current expectation for previously troubled economies is to start or speed up with their recovery and this expectation is priced in. What if they don’t deliver? Or conversely, what if the EURO over appreciates and creates headwinds?

 IMF recently has issued a warning/recommendation to the European Central Bank President Draghi, to print more money. If they do, that would be a market positive move; if not, hard to tell at this point.

 Coming off of a very strong year, being a second year in presidential cycle, right at all-time highs, corrections can be fast and furious, case in point the 6-8% waterfall decline that started on Jan 21st. The challenge this year and task at hand is to handle these corrections with your risk appetite and investment objectives in mind.

 Summary:

 In a low interest rate, low inflation, easy FED, loose credit and with growing economy, stock values tend to move towards the right top corner of your charts. Risks are plenty and corrections are expected but for the cool and collected longer term investor, this year may bring positive returns. Summary of summary: Markets are driven by fear and greed. Do you see more fear or greed out there? I see greed.

 Hope you have enjoyed reading my market update. Please feel free to forward it to your friends and family and don’t forget to email your questions or comments to: bbakan@shieldwm.com

 Disclosure

The strategies discussed are strictly for illustrative and educational purposes and should not be construed as a recommendation to purchase or sell, or an offer to sell or a solicitation of an offer to buy any security. There is no guarantee that any strategies discussed will be effective. The information provided is not intended to be a complete analysis of every material fact respecting any strategy. The examples presented do not take into consideration commissions, tax implications, or other transactions costs, which may significantly affect the economic consequences of a given strategy.

The information provided is not intended to be a tax advice. Investors should be urged to consult their tax professional or financial advisers for more information regarding their specific tax situations.

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2014

“Teach your tongue to say I do not know, and you shall progress.” – Maimonides (1135-1204 Spain)

 Investment management is the combination of science and intuition, anticipating what others anticipate, about a future set of events that are inherently unknowable.

 That’s what I will attempt to do in this market letter: Anticipate what others may anticipate about capital markets performance and behavior in 2014. Before I progress any further, I do need to disclose that I do not know. Having established some faith and confidence here, let’s pay a quick visit to 2013.

I prefer to look at returns on investable indexes (Exchange Traded Funds) rather than benchmarks because they are more realistic in the sense that they reflect management fees.

  • So according to iShares, Nasdaq Biotechnology Index was the top global performer with 65.61% return, followed by DJ US Select Investment Services Index 65.37%. The bottom feeders were Gold Miners Investable Markets Index -52.21% and Silver Miners Index -51.46%. Wow! Gold itself (GLD) brought a whopping -28.32% loss. So much for being a safe investment.

  • As you can tell, best results came from the US, as its S&P 500 Index returned 29.6% (capital gains only). The rest of the developed world such as Germany and rest of the Europe were also mostly positive as the Eurozone got out of recession in Q2.

  • Even though it was a good year for the residential housing market, the same can’t be said for the returns on Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs).

  • Bonds? Ouch! 2013 was a markedly bad year for bonds. The 20 year treasury index lost over -15% due to the tapering and rate increase expectations.

I looked at my Jan 2013 market letter and the headline said it all; “A Ticking Time Bond?” In so many ways, it was anticipated, but the timing is always the toughest and the most important part of investment management. In 2011, most bond fund managers thought it would be a bad year for bonds, only to watch double digit returns to slip away. They were right, but early.

In short, the best performing capital markets in the world was the good old US equity markets with all else trailing it.

One hard to believe figure came from the Bureau of Economic Analysis on third quarter Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth over second quarter: 4.1%! This was surely unexpected and underlines the sustainability of the recovery. We still don’t have the fourth quarter results so we can only estimate 2013 GDP growth rate to be around 2.5%. This is still below averages but surely above recessionary levels.

Inflation has been tame at 1.2% through November. This actually gives mixed signals. A low inflation is a good thing, but too low will waive the deflation flag (prices coming down) and it is a serious risk to the health of the economy. With falling prices, investors prefer to stay in cash, consumers wait as much as they can to get a better price and the whole economy can get in to a grid lock. This is one of the reasons the FED (I speculate) hasn’t been as aggressive as some anticipated in cutting their bond purchase program that is now referred to as the tapering.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate dropped to 6.7%, yes another surprising result. A year ago it was 7.9% and most analysts didn’t expect it to drop to these levels until the end of 2015, we are two years ahead of schedule so it seems. Now…some surely will argue that this is due to less available labor pool, people giving up on looking for a job, it’s a flawed statistic and so on and so forth. True, can’t say no but this rate is still important to watch closely as it’s one key metric the FED  pays attention to while making interest rate related decisions. This figure, once below 6.5%, may start pressuring wages to the upside, great news for the individuals and consumer stocks and potentially bad news for the overall corporate profitability.

So much could go wrong in 2013 and yet we came through: an economic recession, military action on Syria, tensions with Iran, fiscal cliff, debt ceiling, fights on Obamacare and tapering were some big risks we had faced in 2013. Now what? After an approximately 30% return in US equities, what to expect in 2014?

As I have said, I don’t know, but please read on!  I do think that there are some possibly probable events ahead of us in 2014 that may or may not happen and here they are:

I think two big words to pay attention this year are seasonality and earnings. I anticipate positive returns in the US equities, but certainly nothing like the ones we had in 2013, with a pull back or two during seasonally weak summer months.

Where would gains come from? Earnings growth. Yes, there is still room for growth in company earnings and if you can find the sectors that may benefit from global macro trends or if you are a bottom up stock picker, find those companies with healthy earnings (low accruals), you’re golden. Oh, don’t forget to buy them low and sell high, so easy!

Bonds may have another tough year in 2014 as interest rates may face upward pressure due to the recovery in the US and Europe. So stay with high yields and low duration bonds.

A great comeback story may be seen in the emerging markets following an upsetting 2013. They have been trailing the developed markets and a catch up is due at some point. Remember, not all emerging markets are equal and this year, pay attention to Asia rather than Eastern Europe and Middle East.

Europe is two years behind the US with the central bank giving away free money game. So, its equity markets may have more cards to play as they were late coming to the table.

Commodities could also be a comeback story, as they have been an area of the markets we all loved to hate in the past few years. Global economic recovery can trigger a run on industrial commodities and transportation stocks. Watch for themes supporting global recovery until summer months or the end of the bull run whichever comes sooner, go defensive if the anticipated pull back occurs, and go back to your seats in fall or the bounce back whichever is first.

With fracking, the US is turning into an oil exporting country, which translates into low energy and overall industrial production costs. Add the fact that the employment costs are rising in China, you get a reversal of the trend that had shipped jobs to overseas. I sincerely hope fracking won’t have lasting environmental damages that will prove true an old adage from an Indian Chief: Money won’t mean anything after the last fish is caught, but the economic future of the US is surely promising as a result of this and the demographic trends similar to the post World War II era. While the rest of the developed world population has been shrinking, the US has been able to manage population growth with the help of immigration. The cultural implications may keep some folks out of their comfort zone but the economic implications have been favorable.

Iran is being pulled back to the global system. I am not an international political science expert but one can call me a political junky and as far as what I’ve gathered, it seems like Asad’s presence in Syria will be tolerated by the US, as the alternatives have proven to be even worse options, like Al Queada dominance for instance. Can someone say unintended consequences? It’s a reversal of the US policy in Syria. The agreement it seems will result with Iran stopping the progress on the nuclear warhead development and being more transparent about it. In return, it will be allowed to keep its 40,000 troops in Syria to help Asad win his war while Iran continuing to sell oil to the international markets. An interesting twist in the conflict between the Sunni camp with the Saudis-Kuwait-Turkey-Katar-US coalition against the Shia camp with Russia-China-Iran-Syria coalition.

It seems like Putin has saved Obama from the Syrian dilemma by arranging this deal with Iran, which of course the neo-conservatives along with the Israelis are all up in arms about. I will leave politics to the experts but lower oil prices and a more stable Middle East in the short term are logical conclusions. Remember my thoughts on commodities? Well, keep oil out of that potential comeback story and if you are looking into buying baskets, make sure oil allocation is low.

Put your trust in the market itself more so than forecasts. Monitor market moves and be ready to react because 2014 will not be as easy as 2013, but again who thought 2013 was going to be easy? Just remember how troubling the fiscal cliff alone was, or fights on Obamacare and yet sometimes things did turn out to be better than expected.

One final thought before a suggestion for your New Year’s resolution. In my last market letter, I have suggested that a bull run is a possibility until the fiscal negotiations in February. I am reversing that statement as the Congress, thanks to Republicans’ realization of how damaging this can be to their political careers, has already shown signs of a much easier tone and some agreements have already been made. A pull back is still a possibility in that period but not as much as I have previously anticipated. The other big risk I have also talked about was tapering, FED’s reversal of the bond purchase program. This too is appearing to be of less concern as the FED has been doing a great job managing expectations around this issue. A decent part of this action is already priced in the markets. Tapering may slow the markets this year no doubt, but probably not as heavily as previously thought. Also, say hi to your new FED Chairwoman, first woman in that post, San Francisco’s own Janet Yellen.

2014’s Financial Resolution:

I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions because I think meaningful change happens instantly when you’re ready and it’s impossible to schedule for it. Once you have had enough of the unwanted and you can’t accept it anymore, once the conditions are ripe for a change, that moment instantly shifts your gears towards the wanted.

All that said, I do think every year, you should have at least one financial goal to accomplish and I suggest you look into your estate planning this year.

Estate planning involves finding answers to questions such as: “If something happens to me, are my assets going to be handled exactly the way I want them to be and in the most tax efficient way? If I get into a coma, what happens then?”

I am a Certified Financial Planner and I understand estate planning enough to talk about them, but ultimately you should meet with a trust attorney and put everything in writing until it feels right. A good trust attorney will walk you through different kinds of scenarios and help you make the right decision. If you have further questions on this, I would be happy to answer or point you to the experts in this field.

Hope you have enjoyed reading my Newsletter. Please feel free to forward it to your friends and family and don’t forget to email your questions or comments to: bbakan@shieldwm.com

 Disclosure

The strategies discussed are strictly for illustrative and educational purposes and should not be construed as a recommendation to purchase or sell, or an offer to sell or a solicitation of an offer to buy any security. There is no guarantee that any strategies discussed will be effective. The information provided is not intended to be a complete analysis of every material fact respecting any strategy. The examples presented do not take into consideration commissions, tax implications, or other transactions costs, which may significantly affect the economic consequences of a given strategy.

The information provided is not intended to be a tax advice. Investors should be urged to consult their tax professional or financial advisers for more information regarding their specific tax situations.

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Is Good News Actually The Bad News

“It’s quite exciting” said Sherlock Holmes with a yawn. – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet

As I was looking for a quote to start October’s market letter, I have stopped yawning when I saw this one liner from my favorite fictitious character, Sherlock Holmes. It captures the current market mood perfectly as I have never seen a market rally that is much hated, and much ignored.

Let’s look at the S&P 500 Index growth as of Oct 31, 2013:

Since March 9, 2009 bottom: 159.64%

Year to Date: 23.16%

Since 2012 Year High: 23.78%…and 12.74% above last all-time high.

Has there been a severe correction since March 2009? Nope, the deepest correction since then came in the summer of 2011 with a 17% loss. We have seen no 20% or more correction in the last 4.5 years.

Then have the markets been very volatile? The VIX index (one measure of volatility) sky rocketed to 60 in 2008, than spiked once more to 40s in the summer of 2011, which was during the above mentioned correction. Other than that, it has been hovering within the trading range of 10-20.

So you are saying we have seen a 159% percent gain in the last 4.5 years, without a correction of 20% or more, while one measure of volatility, the VIX index was within the 10-20 range for the most part?

Yes.

Then why is everybody yawning and not excited?

My guess is that most investors are still heart-broken from the 2008-2009 trauma, and most of them rightfully so. If you haven’t kept faith and stayed invested (in risk managed portfolios), your investments still haven’t recovered from that period’s waterfall decline.

I never get tired of throwing this fun little fact out there: when you lose 50% in year one, you have to make a 100% gain in year two to break even.

This is why Warren Buffet says “There are two rules to investing: 1 – Don’t lose money. 2 – Don’t forget Rule #1.”

If you generate 10% growth every year for 8 years and then lose 5% percent for 2, (assume a simple return with no compounding), then your average return for the 10 year period is 7%.

So what I am trying to get at is, that even after 4.5 years, you may still be feeling the heat.

One other reason that may explain why many professionals haven’t been active in this rally, and why most mutual funds and hedge funds have been underperforming broad indexes is this: This uptrend entirely driven by the FED.

For many investors, this liquidity-driven rally of the FED has been creating a bubble and it is about to burst any day. It is not real, because it is not supported by economic fundamentals and so it can’t be trusted. According to them, the FED has been devaluing the dollar, which will create inflation; it will expose us to an alien attack, and therefore hard assets are the way to go (gold, commodities, real estate).

I have been writing against this trend ever since I have started publishing market letters in 2010, and so far I have been sleeping quite well. The defenders of the above faith has first turned blue waiting for this apocalypse, then black…that’s when I stopped watching. I can’t stand blood, except when it’s on Dexter.

The only real asset that has been a good investment lately has been residential real estate and apartment buildings. If you bought a house in the last couple of years, you have done well, and REITs had been going up until recently. A few months ago REITS topped and now it’s the residential real estate market that is blowing smoke from the exhaust pipe.

There are two big market forces you can’t fight against; one is the market itself, which doesn’t care if you are right or wrong, and the second one is the FED, whose mandate is low inflation and full employment. In case you missed it, “YOU” are not on that list, and thus no one cares if you win or lose. As my grandfather used to say: “The bus won’t wait for you, so you have to go early and wait for it. After all, it’s bigger than you.”

Another saying is: “The mountain doesn’t come to you, you come to the mountain.” So if the FED and the market are the mountains, it is better to watch when and where they are going, not so much what you hoped to see. As famously said: hope is not a strategy.

While stocks have been rallying in spite of not getting much love, bond values have been dropping since late last year. In the short term, they may see a bounce back and possibly be oversold but the longer term trend is stocks’ likely outperformance of bonds to continue.

For some investment strategies, this rally has been a complete lost opportunity. If you allocate funds based on economic numbers, you have been sitting on the side lines or have been in bonds while waiting for the economy to turn around. Unfortunately for six years in a row, the growth rate of the US economy has been below the 1947-2013 average of 3.23% a year. Here is what real annual US GDP growth looks like:

2008    2009    2010    2011    2012    2013 Q1    2013 Q2    2013 Q3

-0.4      -3.1      2.4       1.8       2.2       1.1                2.5          2.8

The interesting thing, and most likely most frustrating for these folks waiting for the economy to turn, is that each time we got good news about the economy; it has caused a drop in the broad US stock market indexes. Case in point, as I am putting this letter together (11.7.13), the S&P 500 Index is down 1.32% precisely because unemployment and growth numbers came strong, which means the FED’s QE might be coming to an end. That has been the real threat to the Market. Quantitative Easing has been fuelling the markets and like any other sugar candy, it has to stop at some point. We need to get back on the veggie, fruits, nuts and fish diet (red meat ok here and there).

Good news becomes bad news for the markets, as it indicates possibly tapering; an end to the FED’s bond buying program.

So here comes the big question: Is good news really the bad news? If we won’t invest when the economic news is good, then when should we?

For those nervous types, who watch the market every day, yes it is bad news because of the reasons mentioned above: FED taking away the punch bowl is a sign that the party is over.

But IF this will result in the economy improving, after the initial sugar low, which may last a quarter or two, we may start seeing the Earnings (E) portion of the P/E ratio expand. This would make the Price (P) portion look relatively smaller and cheaper, and attract more buying. At the end, the only for sure right answer to the question, why do stocks go up, is: because there are more eager buyers than sellers.

This, moving from the sugar to veggies, won’t be fun. It never is. But it is, a necessary correction and for long term investors, the ideal case scenario. Because if the economy doesn’t improve and Earnings don’t expand, I don’t know how much more the stock market can sustain this uptrend solely relying on the FED.

Currently, margin debt levels are high (borrowing and investing – bearish), mutual funds are invested (low cash – bearish), investors are optimistic (bearish) and early next year we will wake up to yet another debt ceiling and government shut down dog and pony show. All this may point out to a rally to the year-end…AND cut!

September and October are seasonally softer months of the year and broad stock indexes were up this year same period. This happened only 13 times before and 11 of those 13 cases; the following November and December were both positive months as well. So seasonality favors the stock market, but it never hurts to start keeping your investments a bit closer in the next couple of months.

One last thought before I send it to my good friend and Editor in Chief Greg Bronshvag. Are we due an economic recession?

Short answer is yes, we are always due a recession. You can’t grow to perpetuity, at least not in an economy governed and driven by earthlings.

But the 5 year growth, 2 quarter recession model (there is no such model but it is true that on average, every 5 to 7 years, the US economy dips into a recession) has happened over and over again in the past with one characteristic we have missed this time: a jump and above average economic growth right after recession. Yes we are in the 4th year of economic growth but they have all been sub-par years, heavily relied on the FED punch bowl (running out of analogies here) and yes it does make many people yawn. So I predict, the recession won’t come as scheduled and we will have a year with economic growth in 2014.

Hope this was an enjoyable and informative read. Always, please feel free to reach out for questions and comments. Before now and my next market letter, you will be enjoying your family time around the Thanksgiving table. I wish you a great Thanksgiving and safe travels.

 

Next on Shield Wealth Newsletter

Hope you have enjoyed reading my Newsletter. Next month we will discuss investment opportunities outside of the US. Please feel free to forward this email to your friends and family and don’t forget to email your questions or comments to: bbakan@shieldwm.com

Disclosure

The strategies discussed are strictly for illustrative and educational purposes and should not be construed as a recommendation to purchase or sell, or an offer to sell or a solicitation of an offer to buy any security. There is no guarantee that any strategies discussed will be effective. The information provided is not intended to be a complete analysis of every material fact respecting any strategy. The examples presented do not take into consideration commissions, tax implications, or other transactions costs, which may significantly affect the economic consequences of a given strategy.

The information provided is not intended to be a tax advice. Investors should be urged to consult their tax professional or financial advisers for more information regarding their specific tax situations.

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