Broker Check

7300 Wealth Connect – September 2021

Dodging COVID and Global Troubles

August is historically a weak month for stocks. Reviewing S&P data back to 1970, the average monthly return for the S&P 500 Index in August, excluding dividends, is just 0.21%. August ranks 11 out of 12. September is the worst month, with an average return of -0.65%.

Yet, the table of returns illustrates investors overlooked troubling developments last month. Notably, the S&P 500 and the NASDAQ Composite notched several record highs in August. Both are sitting on sizable year-to-date gains. Why?

The same powerful tailwinds that have been in place for much of the year—economic growth, very strong profit growth, and very low interest rates—remain in place.

But, you may ask, “What about the rise in Covid cases?” So far, investors don’t believe the jump in Covid will have a material impact on U.S. economic growth. In past surges, local and state
governments restricted economic activity to curb the spread. Today, the market is viewing the vaccines as an inoculation against a rapid slowdown in the economy.

While the highly contagious Delta variant or any future variants could eventually disrupt activity, investors are not currently concerned about an economic impact.

You may also ask, “What about troubling news spewing out of Afghanistan?” The tragedy unfolding in Asia is disturbing. Investors, however, view the world through a very narrow lens: will the unrest in Afghanistan affect the U.S. economy?

Put another way, will the crisis deter people from traveling, delay a big purchase, or prevent someone from dining at a restaurant? The short answer: very doubtful.

We have seen hourly and day-to-day volatility, which is common during any bull market cycle. But investors don’t see an impact on U.S. economic growth over the next six to nine months from a Taliban takeover and possible civil war. By month’s end, major market indexes were just off all-time highs.

The economy, Covid, and stocks

Let’s review three broad-based indicators.

Weekly first-time claims for unemployment benefits measure the number of individuals each week who make their first-time application for benefits following a layoff.

When business activity is slowing, we’d expect layoffs to rise, as falling sales and falling profits encourage business owners to cut staff. Conversely, if business activity is picking up, we’d expect layoffs to decline, since most businesses would be more reluctant to lose employees.

Today, we have yet to see an upturn in layoffs (Figure 1), suggesting economic growth isn’t being significantly affected by the rise in Covid cases.

The second indicator offers a unique peek at how individuals and families view Covid.

Lockdowns and social distancing restrictions have had a big impact on restaurants and bars. Note the sharp decline in early 2020, when the pandemic began, and late 2020, when cases accelerated in the fall (Figure 2)

Through August, sales at restaurants and bars have gained ground for five-consecutive months, including a strong 1.7% rise in August. If people are concerned, they are not avoiding crowded restaurants.

Let’s briefly review one more report, the Leading Index from the Conference Board. The Leading Index consists of 10 economic indicators that tend to signal future economic activity.

The index rose a strong 0.9% in July, which follows a 0.5% rise in June and a 1.2% rise in May. July’s reading was a fresh all-time high, signaling that solid economic growth is expected to continue in the near term.

As we enter September, investors will consider whether lofty valuations can hold up to the unwinding of fiscal stimulus and the potential for a reduction in Federal Reserve bond buys later in the year. A pullback is inevitable. For now, powerful tailwinds have been supportive.

7300 Wealth Connect – August 2021

Last Year’s Stock Market Rally Extends into 2021

Last year’s stock market rally was an explosive recovery that saw the major market averages set new highs. We’re well into 2021, and the major market averages have continued to push to new heights.

Figure 1 highlights the six longest running bull markets since WWII and compares them to the performance of the current bull run. Through the end of July, the current bull market, as measured by the broad-based S&P 500 Index3, takes the top spot. It exceeds the early performance of the long-running bull market that was born out of the 2008 financial crisis.

Before we get carried away and extrapolate today’s upward move, let’s also point out that the nearly 10-year bull market of the 1990s got off the ground slowly. In other words, let’s state something we already know, but bears repeating. Past performance is not a guarantee of future performance.

A review of the major themes driving stocks

If we step back and look at what is driving stocks, we can’t credit just one variable. Instead, several tailwinds have been responsible for the strong rally. These include:

  1. The Fed has provided super easy money. Interest rates are extremely low, which encourages investors to seek out stocks for more acceptable returns. The Fed has also been buying about $120 billion in bonds each month, which pumps additional cash into the financial system
  2. The strong economic recovery has been a tailwind. It’s expensive, and it raises the federal deficit, but strong fiscal stimulus puts cash into the hands of consumers, which helps drive economic activity.

    The U.S. BEA reported that Gross Domestic Product(GDP), the largest measure of goods and services, expanded at an annual pace of 6.5% in Q2, up from 6.3% in Q1. Consumer spending was an important component in the robust reports.

    In addition, the vaccines have accelerated the reopening. Notably, spending in Q2 was strong for service-related businesses tied to activities outside the home.

  3. Plus, the strong economic recovery has led to huge gains in corporate profits, which have far exceeded analyst forecasts in recent quarters, according to Refinitiv.

    As economic growth seems set to moderate in the third quarter, we’ll likely see profit growth moderate. However, analysts surveyed by Refinitiv continue to boost earnings forecasts in Q3 and Q4, which lends support to equities.

Looking at it as an equation, low interest rates + strong corporate profits tied to upbeat economic growth have led to a series of new highs in the major market indexes.

Yet, markets are never without risk. While there have been no major recent corrections, the risk we might see some type of pullback later in the year can’t be dismissed.

Economic growth is expected to continue this year, barring a sharp uptick in new Covid cases and related restrictions, which could create stock market volatility.

Inflation has been much higher than the Federal Reserve and many analysts had expected. If the surge in inflation isn’t temporary and proves to be more persistent than expected, we could see the Fed hit the monetary brakes faster than most anticipate.

For now, the Fed’s own projections released in June suggest the central bank may be penciling in two small rate hikes in 2023. Even if that occurs, rates would remain low by historical standards

Long-term perspective

Except for the 1987 stock market crash, bear markets (a 20% or greater decline in the S&P 500 Index), have been centered around recessions, according to S&P 500 data from the St. Louis Federal Reserve and Yahoo Finance. That streak has been in place since the mid-1960s.

Still, while long-term financial plans don’t eliminate risk, they help manage risk and take market volatility into account.

Following the big gains in stocks, it’s important to add that the investment plan is also designed to keep investors from taking on too much risk, when big market gains sometimes encourage individuals to dive too heavily into stocks.

7300 Wealth Connect – July 2021

House Price Explosion

The pandemic has created long-lasting distortions in the economy. Fiscal stimulus checks and generous jobless benefits have left many folks with extra cash. We have seen that play out in strong sales for home improvement and autos.

While distancing restrictions that had been in place have the travel industry, that may change amid pent-up demand and falling Covid cases. A shortage of rental cars has sent prices into the stratosphere in some locales.

One industry that has been met with unexpected demand is housing. Surging sales and the lack of supply have created bidding wars around the nation.

According to the National Home Price Index, prices are at a record level (blue line)—Figure 1. In addition, the acceleration in prices, which began in the middle of 2020, is up at the fastest pace on record (red line). The survey began in 1987.

In another survey, the National Association of Realtors said that the median price of an existing home hit a record $350,300 in May, up 23.6% from May 2020. The median price of a new home in May is up 18% versus one year ago to a record $374,400, according to the U.S. Census.

Yet, as any realtor will tell you, the three most important things in real estate are location, location, location. What is happening in one neighborhood may not be mirrored in another, but nationally prices have soared amid a shortage of inventory.

Making sense out of the madness

Rising prices can’t be pinned on one thing. There is plenty going on including:

  1. Mortgage rates fell to record lows. The 30-year fixed mortgage fell below 3% last July, according to Freddie Mac’s weekly survey. It held below 3% until March and has hovered near that mark since
  2. The pandemic discouraged potential buyers from listing homes last year. As a result, inventories fell sharply, limiting choices for buyers at a time low mortgage rates were encouraging fence sitters to start looking.
  3. New home builders were caught flat-footed by surging demand and have struggled to catch up. Moreover, soaring lumber prices have caused added delays. Notably, the price of lumber fell sharply in June but remains about double the pre-pandemic price (CNBC).
  4. The Wall Street Journal reported in April that the pandemic set in motion a furious scramble to buy vacation homes. In January 2020, 9% of mortgage applications came from investors and those wanting a second home. That rose to 14% last February.
  5. On a related note, investors chasing yield have snapped up houses, renting them and nibbling away at supply. These investors aren’t simply mom and pop landlords. The Wall Street Journal said pension funds are also buying homes they plan to rent.
  6. Mortgage forbearance has helped keep people in their home, preventing a flood of foreclosures.
  7. Potential sellers who want to move fear a quick house sale could leave them without a home to buy; therefore, they choose to stay put, further limiting the supply of houses.

Still, unlike the bubble during the 2000s, we aren’t seeing a building boom with large numbers of speculators chasing up prices. Just the opposite, there are not enough homes to satisfy demand.

Moody’s Analytics noted last month, “Stress lines are developing as… house prices have substantially outstripped household incomes, effective rents, and construction costs.”

But Moody’s added, “A bubble develops when there is speculation, or when buyers are purchasing homes with the intent of selling quickly for a profit. This isn’t what is happening in today’s housing market,” as house flipping remains low.

Nonetheless, the bubble question is tough to answer simply because forecasting the future involves inputting unknown future variables into an imperfect forecasting model.

The table of returns highlights the major market averages added to gains in Q2, as strong economic growth, strong profit growth, low interest rates, Fed bond buys, falling daily Covid cases, and the reopening of the economy aid stocks.

Notably, long-term Treasury yields fell in Q2, which suggests that investors may be accepting the Fed’s line that the recent burst in inflation is temporary. It could also suggest that economic growth is set to peak in Q2, as fiscal stimulus wanes.

7300 Wealth Connect – June 2021

A Four-Letter Word Called Inflation

Most have heard the question, “Is too much of a good thing, still a good thing?” Early in the year, Treasury bond yields were rising in reaction to congressional generosity. You know, trillions and trillions of dollars of stimulus cash being pumped into the economy.

The cash has aided the economic recovery, and stocks have reacted favorably. Today; however, too much money is generating a new concern: inflation.

The core Consumer Price Index (CPI), which excludes food and energy, rose at its fastest monthly pace in 40 years, up 0.9% in April—see Figure 1. Add food and energy into the mix and the CPI increased a worrisome 0.8%.

Admittedly, inflation worries have popped up before. Inflation Rears Its Ugly Head Once Again was a March 2008 Wall Street Journal headline.

Today, economists are debating whether the recent flare-up is temporary and tied to the reopening of the economy and pent-up demand or something more ominous that would eventually force the Federal Reserve to jack up interest rates.

Fed officials have repeatedly insisted that today’s jump in prices is “transitory,” their preferred word of choice. What does transitory mean? It simply means temporary.

That may turn out to be the case, but let’s dig a little bit deeper. Policymakers are finding out that it is easier to fuel the demand side of the economy (consumers and businesses buying goods) than get the productive side of the economy, which generates that supply of goods, back on its feet.

Using a very broad overview, Figure 2 helps explain what’s happening. The demand for goods has surged thanks largely to fiscal stimulus, but the production of goods has lagged badly.

Imports have made up some of the difference, hitting a record high in March per U.S. Census data. Still, a tight supply of some goods is pushing up prices. It’s the classic case of supply and demand as the economy reopens.

Recent headlines shine a light on the problem. A May 13th story in the Wall Street Journal, Empty Lots, Angry Customers: Semiconductor Crisis (Shortages) Throws Wrench into Car Business, sums up what’s happening in the auto industry.

Or here is another look from a May 11th CNBC feature: U.S. Faces Major Shortages in Everything from Labor to Semiconductors, Lumber, and Packaging Material.

Problems are especially acute in housing.

The National Association of Homebuilders said that lumber shortages are leading to skyrocketing lumber prices, adding an average of $36,000 to the cost of new home in one year.

Where might we be headed? Congress is debating infrastructure and big new spending bills. There is still plenty of fuel in the tank to support consumer spending, and the Fed insists its easy money policy won’t be changed anytime soon,

Further, it is unknown when supply-side bottlenecks might clear or whether labor shortages may fuel wage increases that get tacked on to retail prices.

Yet, disinflationary demographic trends that predate the Covid crisis remain in place. The same could be said of globalization, though less so than in recent years. Plus, labor unions no longer have the power to exact inflationary wage hikes as they did in the 1970s.

Besides, a burdensome rise in inflation would probably be met by a quicker response from the Fed than what we saw a generation ago.

Inflation is not a four-letter word, but it might as well be. A repeat of the 1970s is an unwanted outcome. However, the low inflation of the last decade is unlikely to be matched over the medium term.

7300 Wealth Connect – May 2021

A Robust Economic Rebound

It’s been one year since the Covid pandemic pushed the economy off a cliff. Fast forward to today. What a difference a year makes. The economy has roared back. Some sectors have benefited enormously, while others have lagged.

Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which is the largest gauge of goods and services in the economy, slowed in Q4 from Q3’s record annualized pace of 33.4%, but it accelerated in Q1 to a 6.4% annualized pace – see Figure 1.

Successful rollout of the vaccines, fewer restrictions on businesses, and stimulus money contributed to Q1’s upbeat pace. Breaking down some of the numbers, consumer spending jumped 10.7% in Q1 versus a more subdued 2.3% in the final quarter of last year.

What the consumer does is important because consumer outlays account for nearly 70% of GDP, according to U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) data.

However, consumer outlays have been distorted by the pandemic, as Figure 2 illustrates.

Spending on durable goods, which is generally defined as purchases designed to last at least three years, such as autos or home appliances, surged in Q1. Big-ticket items have benefited enormously from stimulus checks.

Yet, services continue to lag. Note the steep decline in Q2 2020 for services amid widespread restrictions on sectors that rely heavily on person-to-person interactions. The cash was available, but the transmission mechanism between consumers and business was blocked.

Where might we be headed? Economic forecasting is inexact. While the strong stock market rally indicates investors sniffed out the economic rebound over the last year, most forecasters were far more pessimistic.

A resurgence in the virus could put a damper on the rest of the year, but “excess savings” may be set to drive activity for much of 2021. It’s one reason investors have pushed the major stock market averages higher.

Moody’s Analytics defines excess saving as savings “above what households would have saved if the pandemic had not occurred, and their savings behavior had been the same as in 2019.”

In other words, it’s the extra cash that was squirreled away as we curtailed spending amid lockdowns and social distancing restrictions on various businesses.

As of the first quarter of 2021, Moody’s estimates that excess savings around the world is over 6% of global GDP. The U.S. has the world’s highest rate of excess savings, equal to 12% of GDP, or $2.6 trillion. Stimulus checks, paycheck protection loans, and very generous jobless benefits have all contributed to the stockpiling of cash.

We see it in the elevated savings rate—see Figure 3.

Might the savings rate eventually settle at an elevated rate? It’s possible, but it’s cash that seems set to power growth as the economy reopens.

7300 Wealth Connect – March 2021

Too Much of a Good Thing? Treasury Yields Rise.

The Federal Reserve is in no mood to raise interest rates. The Fed’s Summary of Economic Projections suggests that its key short-term lending rate, the fed funds rate, could remain near zero through the end of 2023.

The Fed is not worried about inflation and continues to use a wide array of tools, including bond buys and low rates, to encourage economic growth and get people back to work.

Moreover, Congress is intent on passing another large relief package that will include putting more money into the hands of consumers and the unemployed via stimulus checks and an extension of generous unemployment benefits.

Is too much of a good thing a good thing?

Twentieth century film star Mae West playfully remarked, “Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.” But is it?

Interest rates are low, the economy is growing, and there is plenty of cash in the financial system. Further, Congress appears ready to pass another big package.

The combination has supported the economy and helped fuel gains in the stock market. However, Treasury bond yields are beginning to react. Since the Fed is pledging to keep rates low, why are longer-term Treasury yields moving higher as illustrated in Figure 1?

First, the Fed can control short-term rates, but can only hope to influence longer-term yields through commentary by Fed officials and its own guidance. But other factors play a role in long-term yields, too.

For starters,

1. While uncertainty persists, sentiment suggests that U.S. economic growth will accelerate this year, which reduces the attractiveness of safer Treasury bonds (Treasury yields and bond prices move in the opposite direction). The average 2021 forecast for Gross Domestic Product per a survey of economists by Moody’s Analytics is 6.1%.

2. Investors are beginning to fear that too much fiscal stimulus could push inflation higher, which reduces the appeal of fixed income investments. Money supply growth of 25% last year is the fastest in over 60 years (St. Louis Federal Reserve). It is also raising inflation concerns. It would be the classic case of too much money chasing too few goods.

3. The Fed’s insistence that it will keep short-term interest rates low for a long period may also be lifting inflation fears amid worries the economy could overheat and push up prices.

One gauge investors use to measure inflation expectations is the 10-Year Breakeven Rate, which provides an estimate as to the level of annual inflation investors expect over the next 10 years.

While a rate near 2.25% signals that inflation expectations have not become unanchored, the level has been rising, recently hitting a 6 ½ year high—see Figure 2.

While the rate of inflation probably has an upward bias this year, that doesn’t mean an unwanted rise in prices is on the horizon. Besides, accurately forecasting inflation over the long term is dicey at best since the inflation-forecasting equation has many moving parts.

Bottom line

Yields on corporate bonds have risen at a more modest pace so far. And both corporate and Treasury yields remain at an historically low level.

In some respects, the rise in Treasury yields is a sign of confidence in the economic outlook. But investors are also trying to discount an uptick in inflation amid a very easy monetary policy and very generous government stimulus.

Ultimately, the path of the pandemic will probably have the biggest influence on the economy. Uncertainty remains, but new vaccines and the decline in new cases are cautiously encouraging.

7300 Wealth Connect – February 2021

MONTHLY FINANCIAL MARKET UPDATE

The summary below is provided for educational purposes only. If you have any thoughts or would like to discuss any other matters, please feel free to contact me.

Drama on Wall Street

The major market indexes have had a very strong run since bottoming last March. We saw some uncertainty early in the fall heading into the election, but the bitter contest is over. With the announcement of vaccines and new fiscal stimulus, stocks roared to new highs.

Moreover, low interest rates, monthly Federal Reserve bond buys, better-than-expected corporate profits, and a growing economy have added to favorable sentiment.

Yet, euphoria can sometimes breed too much euphoria, which can create conditions that can lead to unexpected volatility.

Revenge of the nerds

Last week, a few stocks that had been heavily shorted by hedge funds (shorting is a risky way to profit if a stock falls in price), soared in price as young speculators used social media chat rooms to encourage purchases and snare professionals in a money-losing trap. It’s a populist and profit motive for these chatroom traders.

The stock that received the most attention was GameStop (GME), a struggling video game retailer that’s been heavily shorted (CNBC, MarketWatch) by the professionals. GameStop was selling below $20 per share in early January but peaked at over $480 on January 28, according to price data from Yahoo Finance. GameStop closed at $325 on January 29.

Why have a few names created volatility? There are fears that hedge funds being squeezed might be forced to sell other stocks and raise cash.

Fed Chief Jerome Powell was asked about market action at last week’s press conference, which followed the first Fed meeting of the year.

Powell declined to comment on specific firms, but opined that recent fiscal policy and vaccines were responsible for market gains since November, not easy Fed policy, i.e., low interest rates.

Low rates and Fed bond buys, economic growth, better-than-expected corporate profits, fiscal stimulus, and the new vaccines have all fueled the rally. Mix in social media, an Internet-driven insurgency, and zero-commission trading, and unexpected volatility surfaced last week.

Volatility can happen for any number of reasons. A 10% market correction can never be ruled out. Still, the economic fundamentals that lifted stocks over the last year remain in place.

How might the drama end?

Most professionals believe it will end when most short sellers have given up and have closed out their positions, or regulators or brokers intervene. At that point, we could see a sharp selloff in GameStop and other companies hyped by the chatroom crowd. But might young traders target new, heavily shorted stocks? Might this turn into a new phenomenon we must adapt to?

Longer term, economic fundamentals and economic activity determine stock prices.

As billionaire investor Leon Cooperman said on CNBC late last month, “At the end of the day, the stock market reflects economic progress or the lack thereof. Water seeks its own level.”

Growth moderates in the fourth quarter

The U.S. BEA reported that Gross Domestic Product, which is the largest measure of economic output, slowed from Q3’s record annualized pace of 33.4% to 4.0% in Q4—see Figure 1.

Historically, 4% is solid, but we saw a significant moderation in consumer spending, as the surge in new U.S. Covid cases late last year played a big role in restricting activity. Business investment and housing, however, helped drive overall growth.

In December, nonfarm payrolls fell by 140,000. This included a loss of 372,000 jobs in the restaurant industry, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In other words, one industry more than offset job gains in the rest of the economy.

Various surveys of manufacturing and the broad-based service sector suggest that economic growth sped up in January. In particular, Markit Economics, which surveys the economic landscape, said U.S. manufacturing in January accelerated at its fastest pace since it began publishing its index

Rising Covid cases late last year have hampered overall growth. While new cases have slowed per Johns Hopkins data, they remain elevated. And the risk from new strains is adding to uncertainty.

However, fiscal stimulus is in the pipeline, additional government stimulus is on the table, and a high savings rate seem set to send a mountain of cash into the economy this year.

Ultimately, the rollout and success of the new vaccines will play an important role in driving economic confidence in the months ahead.

One final note on last week’s action: When volatility strikes, even seasoned investors sometimes consider changes to well-diversified financial plans. Over the longer term, relying on timetested investment principles and avoiding decisions based on short-term market gyrations have historically led to the best outcome.

If you have any questions or concerns, feel free to reach out to me. Please stay safe.

7300 Wealth Connect – 01 – 21

MONTHLY FINANCIAL MARKET UPDATE

The summary below is provided for educational purposes only. If you have any thoughts or would like to discuss any other matters, please feel free to contact me.

Never Bet Against America

2020 tested America like no other year. It was as if the perfect storm made landfall and washed across the continent. The Covid pandemic, the shutdown of the economy, a presidential election, fires and hurricanes, and civil disobedience.

Yet, as the economy was near the bottom, investment legend Warren Buffett reiterated, “Never bet against America.” We won’t forget this year, but optimism is embedded in our DNA.

Let’s quickly look at some stats. The shuttering of the economy early in the year led to the steepest quarterly decline in U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on record, according to the U.S. BEA. Economic growth in the following quarter rebounded at the fastest pace on record.

Despite a vicious market selloff in March, stocks recovered and set new highs.

“For Many Big Businesses, 2020 Was a Surprisingly Good Year,” so said a December 18th story in the Wall Street Journal. We see it reflected in equities.

Figure 1 highlights the steep selloff in March, followed by the subsequent rally.

We counsel that market pullbacks are a natural part of the investing landscape, though we acknowledge that the 33.9% peak-to-trough decline in the S&P 500 occurred in only one month.

Yet, let’s take a moment to review Figure 2. Figure 2 highlights the annual return for the S&P 500 Index, including dividends, and the maximum pullback during each year.

Since 1980, the average annual intra-year pullback in the S&P 500 has been 14.2%; yet, the S&P 500 has averaged a 13% advance each year (including dividends).

Here are some additional data points. From 1980 to 2020 (41 years), there have been:
• 7 down years, with the average decline during a down year of -13.1%
• 34 up years, with the average increase during an up year of +18.4%

The only time we’ve had back-to-back declines was 2000-2002 (stock bubble bursting).
• 21 out of 41 years, we’ve had pullbacks of 10% or more, or an average of every 1.95 years.
• 6 of the 41 years saw pullbacks of 20% or more, or an average of every 6.83 years.

Figure 2 illustrates the long-term upward bias in stocks.

Changes in sentiment can force stocks lower over shorter periods, but favorable economic fundamentals have helped fuel longer-term gains.

A review

The economic shutdown triggered the first bear market since the 2008 financial crisis. But there were two important catalysts that helped fuel the subsequent rally.

First, the Federal Reserve went far beyond measures announced during 2008. Second, Congress passed the $2 trillion CARES Act, which provided generous benefits for the unemployed, while aiding households, and small and larger businesses.

The CARES Act and the Fed couldn’t prevent the worst quarterly decline in GDP we’ve ever experienced, but it helped set the stage for a sharp economic rebound in Q3.

Record low interest rates, coupled with economic growth, played a big role in the market’s rally.

Still, the pandemic created distortions in behavior. Technology performed admirably, and you see it reflected in the outperformance of the tech-heavy Nasdaq.

Autos, home improvement, online retailers, streaming services, housing, and big box retailers deemed to be essential did very well during the pandemic.

However, oil and gas, mom and pop outfits, and traditional department stores suffered.

The same could be said of businesses that rely on person-to-person interactions, including movie theaters, sporting events, restaurants, concerts, air travel, and hotels.

It has been the tale of two economies

A Look Ahead

While cautious optimism prevails, the path of the economy is likely to depend on the course of the virus. The likelihood that vaccines will be widely available by June could provide a significant boost to sectors hit hard by social distancing. But distribution of the vaccines must accelerate soon.

Just as investors sniffed out the robust Q3 economic recovery, record highs in December suggest we’ll see further improvement next year, though expect the recovery to be uneven.

Of course, there are always risks.

The Fed is unlikely to lift short-term rates in the new year. But could investors be too complacent regarding bond yields, which many believe are expected to remain low in 2021?

Could inflation unexpectedly rise amid the heavy injections of fiscal stimulus and cash into the economy? And when stocks are priced for perfection, unexpected bad news can create volatility.

Investor’s corner

That said, we can and should acknowledge there are unknowns beyond our control.

Therefore, control what you can control. You can’t control the stock market, and timing the market isn’t a realistic tool. But the one variable you can control is your financial plan.

Among other factors, your plan should consider your time horizon, risk tolerance, and financial goals.

Investors with a long-term time horizon that adhere to a holistic financial plan, which takes multiple economic and market cycles into account, are on the best path to wealth creation and their financial goals.

Finally, I want to wish you a Happy and Prosperous New Year!

I am thankful and humbled that you have chosen me to be your financial advisor, and I look forward to serving you in 2021! Always remember, we are here to assist you, and we are always as close as phone call or email.

7300 Wealth Connect – 06 – 20

MONTHLY FINANCIAL MARKET UPDATE

The summary below is provided for educational purposes only. If you have any thoughts or would like to discuss any other matters, please feel free to contact me.

Looking for the Ray of Light at the End of a Dark Tunnel

Businesses shed 20.5 million jobs in April. It was the largest number of job losses since monthly records began in 1939 according to the St. Louis Federal Reserve.

Figure 1 offers another vantage point – the percentage change versus the prior month. April’s 13.5% decline in nonfarm payrolls easily surpassed the 4.8% drop at the end of WWII.

While weekly first-time claims for unemployment insurance are slowing, they continue to exceed levels seen in every prior recession (Dept. of Labor).

In April, the unemployment rate surged to a post-depression high of 14.7% (U.S. BLS). Some analysts believe it could surpass 20% in May (Econoday).

Government enforced lockdowns designed to slow the spread of COVID-19 and “flatten the curve” have put tens of millions of people out of work. Beyond that, falling demand for most goods and services has spurred additional layoffs.

But we may be seeing some signs that the economy is starting to stabilize. Over the last 10 weeks, 40 million people have filed a claim for unemployment insurance (Dept of Labor through the week ended May 23).

Those who must continue to file to receive jobless benefits fell 3.9 million to 21 million in the week ended May 16 (data on continuing claims are one week behind), which suggests state reopenings are encouraging businesses to bring back furloughed workers.

High frequency data offers up hopeful signs, too. While unconventional, weekly and even daily data points suggest the economy is trying to bottom. We won’t quickly return to pre-COVID-19 employment levels, but early indications are cautiously encouraging.

Daily travel through TSA checkpoints is rising again – see Figure 2.

Hotel occupancy is ticking higher as lockdowns ease and leisure travel slowly rises (Figure 3).

The US MBA Purchase Index, which measures home loan applications, has risen for 6-straight weeks and had its fifth-best reading over the last 12 months (Figure 4). It suggests that housing sales are recovering at a faster pace than had been anticipated.

If we’re looking for a tangible sign that any economic recovery may be more robust than many expect, look no further than the money supply. Thanks to the trillions of dollars spent by the government and the massive monetary response from the Federal Reserve, money supply growth has soared beyond anything we’ve ever seen (Figure 5).

However, what might be called the transmission mechanism has been broken via lockdowns and shelter-in-place orders. The money is there, it just can’t be spent right now. But economies are slowly reopening around the country.

Where might we be headed?

Even in the best of times, economic forecasting can be difficult. Today, the outlook is clouded with a much greater degree of uncertainty.

Will the virus lay down over the summer? How will reopenings proceed? How quickly can a vaccine or effective treatment be developed that’s readily available? What might happen to COVID-19 next fall and winter? How quickly will consumers venture back in public and resume prior spending patterns? All are difficult to answer but will help determine the path and speed of an economic recovery.

Final thoughts

Given the severity of the downturn, the stock market has been incredibly resilient.

The S&P 500 Index is down just 5.8% year-to-date and down just 10.1% from its February 19 peak. The unprecedented response by the Federal Reserve has lent support and so has the $2.9 trillion in fiscal relief from the federal government.

More recently, talk of a vaccine and state reopenings have aided stocks against the backdrop of rock-bottom interest rates.

Analysts are divided as to how quickly the economy may recover, and the questions posed above may be used as a guide.

Though the outlook remains unusually uncertainty, investors collectively look to the future, and they are betting on a rebound later in the summer.

7300 Wealth Connect – 05 – 20

MONTHLY FINANCIAL MARKET UPDATE

The summary below is provided for educational purposes only. If you have any thoughts or would like to discuss any other matters, please feel free to contact me.

The Wall Street Main Street Disconnect

The economic data are rolling in. With few exceptions, we don’t have much of a read on April’s numbers, but March has been ugly.

Weekly first-time claims for unemployment insurance have exceeded 30 million in a 6-week period – see Figure 1. It’s disheartening and a number that would have been inconceivable a couple of months ago.

March’s 5.4% decline in industrial production was the biggest one-month drop since the end of World War II (St. Louis Federal Reserve). A 7.5% decline in March consumer spending was the largest ever recorded (dating back to 1959).

The Chicago Fed National Activity Index is a broad-based measure of economic activity. It is comprised of 85 separate monthly indicators.

In March, it registered its sharpest monthly decline ever – see Figure 2.

Preliminary Q1 GDP fell at an annualized pace of 4.8% – see Figure 3. The number is subject to revisions. Q2 is expected to be much worse as the full impact of the crisis is reflected in the economic data.

The monthly rally for the Dow and S&P 500 is the best since 1987 and the best April since 1938, according to Dow Jones Market Data.

Let’s explore the primary reasons for April’s rise.

  1. Don’t fight the Fed is an old Wall Street adage. Economic activity has fallen off a cliff, which suggests stocks should have followed.

    Through the near-term bottom of March 23, stocks were in a tailspin, but the Federal Reserve has acted with unprecedented speed.

    For example, the Fed began a torrent of bond-buying to stabilize markets. Between March 16 and April 16, the Fed bought nearly $79 billion a day in Treasury and mortgage-backed securities. By comparison, it bought about $85 billion a month between 2012 and 2014 per the Wall Street Journal.

    Further, the Fed has not only resurrected credit market programs used in the 2008 financial crisis, it is aggressively reaching out to Main Street.

  2. The federal government has reacted with uncharacteristic speed, doling out over $2.5 trillion in stimulus checks, jobless benefits, help to small businesses, and more. Some of the programs haven’t worked flawlessly, but the government’s efforts are well above the $787 billion in 2009 stimulus.

    Is it too much? Some will fret over the expected explosion in the deficit. However, the response to the economic crisis has had strong bipartisan support.

  3. Investors are forward-looking and are eyeing 2021. In 2019, S&P 500 profits hit a record $163/share (Refinitiv). While the range of uncertainty is very high and projections are subject to change, profits are forecast to fall to $131/share in 2020 and rise to $168/share in 2021 (as of Apr 30).

    $168 may still be too high, and much will depend on how the economic outlook unfolds. Nevertheless, talk of some type of economic recovery later this year and next aids sentiment.

  4. Finally, the virus appears to be peaking, and investors are cautiously eyeing states that are set to slowly reopen their economies. It’s a delicate task, balancing the need to contain the virus with economic vitality.
  5. Possible treatments and a COVID-19 vaccine have also soothed nerves.

We can continue to expect stock market volatility in the near term. The economic outlook is uncertain as businesses slowly re-open, but there is talk of more support from the federal government and the Federal Reserve. Given what’s happening in the real economy today, stock market reaction has been cautiously encouraging.

Final thoughts

I don’t want to downplay the havoc created by COVID-19. We are living in a world that nobody could have possibly envisioned a few months ago. You may have friends and loved ones who are dealing with the disease. It’s incredibly unpleasant.

Yet, unexpected blessings have surfaced. People are reaching out to family and friends via texting, Zoom, and emails. Some are even connecting the old-fashioned way – by phone.

Activities and jobs around the country have been suspended but not ended. I am confident we will eventually see an economic recovery take root, and the pandemic will subside.

We are a resilient people. Together we will get through this dark night, and we will be stronger for it.

Stay safe, stay healthy, and please abide by government mandates designed to slow the spread of COVID-19. Remember, my door is always open.

7300 Wealth Connect – 04 – 20

MONTHLY FINANCIAL MARKET UPDATE

The summary below is provided for educational purposes only. If you have any thoughts or would like to discuss any other matters, please feel free to contact me.

The COVID-19 Recession and the Policy Response

The year began on a firm footing. Economic growth appeared to be accelerating and job growth was strong. Coupled with low interest rates and forecasts for accelerating profit growth, stocks repeatedly hit new highs.

At one point, the Atlanta Fed’s GDPNow model, which incorporates economic reports on a real time basis, placed Q1 economic growth at 3.3%. But that was yesterday’s news. The coronavirus epidemic has forced economic activity to a halt in many parts of the country. What we are seeing is far different vs. the more typical recession, if there is such a thing as a typical recession.

Recessions have their roots in various causes. Inevitably, consumer and business confidence takes a hit and spending declines. Today, however, many are simply unable to spend.

Social distancing and mandatory closures of businesses have placed a roadblock in front of our normal spending patterns. The service sector, with its person-to-person interactions, has been the hardest hit, and massive layoffs have begun.

The shift in the atmosphere has been incredibly abrupt. Aircraft carriers don’t turn on a dime. But the $20 trillion U.S. economy has. It’s unprecedented.

We are seeing an enormous amount of volatility in the stock market because investors don’t know how to forecast the depth and severity of the recession or what will happen to corporate profits.

The enormous amount of economic uncertainty is very difficult to model (to predict the eventual outcome) because we don’t have a modern precedent.

Imagine a ship near a rocky coast that’s socked in by fog, but the lighthouse isn’t putting out light. Or, you’re driving down the road at 40 mph and someone puts a blindfold on you. In a manner of speaking, that’s what’s happened to the market.

Today’s recession more closely resembles a natural disaster that affects an entire region. When a disaster happens, businesses typically treat such an event as transitory.

This time, the entire country is feeling the sting. The longer it drags on, the more businesses will fail and the more temporary layoffs will become permanent.

The Fed and the government step in

In order to soften the economic blow, the Federal Reserve has gone well beyond simply cutting interest rates to zero. It has implemented several programs designed to keep credit flowing in the economy and prevent a health crisis from morphing into a new financial crisis.

That said, banks are in much better shape today than 2008. The Fed has been proactive to prevent, not react to a major failure. In just three weeks, it has purchased nearly $1 trillion in assets to support various credit markets (Fig. 1). That number will likely go much higher.

Additionally, the Fed has focused on corporate and municipal bond markets, commercial paper markets (short-term unsecured loans by large companies), money market funds, and more.

Yet, its interest isn’t simply in Wall Street. It has also reached out to Main Street and is getting deeply involved in loans and grants to small businesses so that firms can maintain payrolls, at least for a time.

Put another way, its response has been far more aggressive and its scope has been much broader than during the 2008 financial crisis. The same can be said of the $2 trillion stimulus package signed by the president at the end of March.

The goal – ease what’s going to be a steep economic downturn in Q2 and put a foundation in place for an eventual economic recovery. If government mandates require we stay at home and require that businesses temporarily close, it only seems reasonable for the government to lend a helping hand.

Though volatility is expected to continue, it’s an important reason why stocks rallied near the end of March following a 34% selloff in the S&P 500 Index in just over a month (St. Louis Federal Reserve).

The average peak-to-trough decline in a bear market (defined as a 20% drop or greater) is 36.2% per LPL Research (back to 1929). But the speed of today’s decline is unprecedented.

Oil is pummeled

Cratering demand for oil and a price war launched by Saudi Arabia last month sent oil prices to the lowest level in almost 20 years. However, falling gasoline prices are likely to provide little support for spending as driving subsides and layoffs hit the energy sector.

Looking to history

There isn’t a modern precedent, but let me offer two past epidemics as guidance.

The deadly 1918 Spanish flu pandemic caused a 7-month recession in the U.S. (National Bureau of Economic Research). Going back to the 1850s, it is the shortest recession on record.

In Q1 1958, GDP fell 10.0% (St. Louis Fed). While the research available is sparse, the 1957-58 outbreak of the Asian flu appears to be the culprit behind the steep decline. GDP rebounded in the second quarter, and the length of the recession was pegged at 8 months (NBER).

Still, I recognize the economy today is much different. We’re much more service-oriented today. In the late 1950s, our manufacturing base was bigger. Yet, massive stimulus is in the pipeline.

Road to recovery

No one rings a bell on Wall Street sounding the all-clear sign. Collectively, investors attempt to price in future events. The 2007-09 recession ended in June (NBER), but stocks bottomed in early March (St. Louis Fed, various sources).

But here are some signposts to look for.

  1. A massive response by the Federal government and the Federal Reserve. I think we can check the box on this signpost.
  2. A peak in U.S. cases and subsequent decline in new cases.
  3. Removal of lockdowns and our confidence to go back in public rises.
  4. Effective treatments and/or a vaccine are developed.
  5. Economic clarity – how steep and how long might the recession be?

I recognize this is a very troubling time. What’s happening is unparalleled in modern history. We are facing an economic crisis, and one inspired by a health crisis. Historically, pandemics peak, and this one will peak, too. Further, underlying U.S. economic fundamentals are strong.

I’m confident that we will eventually see an economic recovery, furloughed workers will start going back to work, and you and I will patronize these businesses. In the meantime, I’m always available to take your questions and discuss your concerns.

Stay safe, stay healthy, abide by government mandates designed to slow the spread of COVID19, and remember, my door is always open.

7300 Wealth Connect – 03 – 20

MONTHLY FINANCIAL MARKET UPDATE

The summary below is provided for educational purposes only. If you have any thoughts or would like to discuss any other matters, please feel free to contact me.

Fears Spread Faster Than the Coronavirus

For much of February, traders acted on the ebb and flow of coronavirus headlines. When the virus was contained to China, investors looked past most of the risk.

Sure, anxieties were surfacing that an economic slowdown in China could ripple across the globe, slowing U.S. exports and crimping supply chains. But headlines of the spreading virus didn’t prevent the S&P 500 Index3 from recording seven all-time closing highs last month (through Feb., 19, St. Louis Federal Reserve).

That is, until the weekend of Feb 22/23, when reports surfaced the coronavirus had spread to Italy, South Korea, and Iran. Cases in South Korea have exceeded 4,000 (as of March 1) followed by Italy at 1,704. Iran is just behind Italy, but most believe the country is dramatically underreporting the spread of the virus.

The epidemic in China appears to have plateaued, and new cases are declining. Since China has recorded the lion’s share of infections, the plateau in China is cautiously encouraging

There are fewer than 100,000 cases worldwide and over eight billion people on the planet. Here’s another encouraging stat: the number of total active cases, which is total cases less recovered patients less those who have died, has been declining – see Figure 2.

What has spooked markets? The virus is no longer contained to China – see Figure 3.

Warranted or not, there are growing anxieties that the epidemic, which has yet to be officially declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization, will hinder economic growth at home and abroad and potentially tip the economy into a recession.

Why? Consumers stay inside and cut back on spending, and businesses put projects on hold as they seek clarity.

From an investment perspective, investors do not like heightened uncertainty.

You see, in this case, heightened uncertainty simply means the number of economic outcomes has widened, and that widening is to the downside. Connecting the dots, slower economic growth hinders profit growth, which adds to volatility.

Adding to the more tumultuous market, stocks have surged since October and were priced for perfection. When shares are priced for perfection, they can be more vulnerable to a pullback that is triggered by an unexpected event.

With the selloff in stocks, the 10-year Treasury yield (Figure 4) and the 30-year Treasury yield have fallen to all-time lows (Treasury bond prices and yields move in the opposite direction), as traders seek a safer haven in government bonds.

Perspective—pandemic of fear

The coronavirus is the latest in a series of events that have caused tremors in the stock market. We’ve seen pullbacks before, and we’ll see them again. Per CNBC, we’ve had 16 peak-to-trough declines in the S&P 500, ranging from 5% to nearly 20%, since the 2009 bull market began. February’s selloff is the latest.

What makes the coronavirus different from the flu or past epidemics? Great question and it’s one that’s hard to answer.

Could it be the 24-hour news cycle and its relentless coverage of the virus? Possibly. Or might the very cautious tone on Tuesday, February 25 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) be creating needless worry?

I’m not a medical professional and don’t want to downplay the health impact. Eventually, we’ll be able to Monday morning quarterback media coverage.

What we do know is that the virus is contagious and can be transmitted from person to person. But so can the flu.

Per the CDC, 32 – 45 million people in the U.S. have contracted the flu (Oct 1 – Feb 22), 310,000 – 560,000 have been hospitalized, and tragically, 18,000 – 46,000 have died. But we incorporate the flu season into our daily routine, and news coverage of the flu pales in comparison to the coronavirus.

The 2009-10 H1N1 flu was classified as a pandemic. It was responsible for approximately 60.8 million cases, 274,304 hospitalizations, and 12,469 deaths in the United States per the CDC.

Yet, we didn’t get wall-to-wall coverage, and investors brushed aside most concerns.

Maybe the media were focused on a new president and the financial crisis and Great Recession. As we move into March, the number of cases in the U.S. will probably rise, but like China, I suspect growth in the virus will eventually slow and plateau. The timing, however, is uncertain. Meanwhile, health officials don’t expect the virus to mutate into something similar to the Spanish flu in 1918.

As I mentioned, I’m not a medical professional, but we should all take common sense precautions. Wash your hands, keep your hands away from your face, and use the sanitized towels for the grocery cart.

Simple safeguards will reduce the risk of contracting any number of viruses, including the cold or flu.

If you plan to travel, consider travel insurance.

Looking ahead

From an economic perspective, the Atlanta Fed’s GDPNow model is tracking Q1 GDP at a solid 2.6% (updated Feb 28). Job openings have come down (U.S. BLS), but the labor market continues to be tight, job growth has been strong (U.S. BLS), and weekly first-time claims for unemployment insurance are low (Dept of Labor).

On Friday Feb., 28, the Fed Chief Jerome Powell reiterated that fundamentals for the economy “remain strong.” But the Fed is “closely monitoring developments and their implications for the economic outlook. We will use our tools and act as appropriate to support the economy.”

That last sentence is the Fed’s way of hinting a rate cut or other action is likely in the pipeline. That said, an individually crafted financial plan that incorporates your goals and other factors, including your risk preferences and time horizon, has historically been the best path to achieve one’s financial goals.

The plan incorporates inevitable market declines and keeps one from making rash decisions when markets turn volatile. Or, for that matter, when stocks surge ahead, and one may be tempted to take a more aggressive but riskier posture.

I recognized that these are trying times, not simply from the vantage point of the investment community. No one likes uncertainty, especially as it relates to our health and the health of our loved ones.

Extreme uncertainty drains our most precious resource: our happiness. Turn off the news, get outside, and turn to what brings you peace. I am confident that this too shall eventually pass, and we will be better for it.

If you have any thoughts, questions, or concerns, feel free to reach out to me. That’s what I’m here for.

7300 Wealth Connect – 02 – 20

MONTHLY FINANCIAL MARKET UPDATE

The summary below is provided for educational purposes only. If you have any thoughts or would like to discuss any other matters, please feel free to contact me.

Investors Balance Fundamentals and Fear

The series of new highs we experienced late last year carried over into 2020. During the first month of the year, the Dow Jones Industrial Average1 recorded 5-new closing highs, and the S&P 500 Index3 notched 6 new highs (St. Louis Federal Reserve data). The peak: January 17.


Furthermore, the S&P 500 Index failed to record two-consecutive daily losses for 29-straight trading days, tying a streak that goes back to 1955 (LPL Research, St. Louis Fed).

However, when stocks are priced for perfection, any kind of surprise can create volatility. After a strong run, fears a surprise epidemic in China—the coronavirus—could slow global economic growth provided the perfect backdrop for short-term traders to book profits.

Market drivers—the fundamentals

Many of the themes that fueled the market’s rise during the past decade have been present during the latest rally.

While growth has moderated, the U.S. economy continues to expand. During the final quarter of the year, Gross Domestic Product, which is the largest measure of the value of goods and services, expanded at a 2.1% annualized pace–see Figure 1.

Interest rates remain very low and the Federal Reserve is once again expanding its balance sheet via T-bill purchases. Last year, the Fed cut rates three times (Figure 2), and the 10- year Treasury is yielding well below 2%.

With tailwinds being provided by economic growth, low-yielding, interest-bearing investments provide little competition for stocks. And with official measures of inflation below 2%, the Fed appears to be in no hurry to take back any of last year’s rate cuts.

According to Refinitiv, profit growth is forecast to accelerate in 2020 after being nearly flat in 2019.

The U.S. signed a limited trade deal with China, and Congress passed USMCA, which is a trade agreement between the U.S., Mexico, and Canada that replaces NAFTA.

Optimism is gradually rising that global growth may be stabilizing after slowing over the last two years. The coronavirus remains a wild card.

Priced for perfection

The latest upward leg in the long-running bull market is encouraging. But, when stocks surge and appear priced for perfection, any disappointments or surprises can leave shares vulnerable.

The coronavirus that originated in China has infected over 17,000 people, nearly all in China (MarketWatch as of Feb 2). Yet, we’ve seen epidemics hit the headlines before—SARS in 2003, the 2016 Zika virus, the 2009 H1N1 swine flu, and the 2014 Ebola outbreaks.

While we don’t know when or how quickly this virus may run its course, from an historical perspective, any damage to the global economy or markets was limited during prior epidemics.

Looking ahead

The Conference Board’s Leading Economic Index isn’t flashing red, but recent data suggest we may continue to see U.S. economic growth moderate in the first half of the year.

While trade tensions have diminished, President Trump has threatened to take action against European allies, which could create new uncertainty.

That said, conditions that typically lead to recession aren’t in place today, and low interest rates and an easy environment for accessing credit continue to support the U.S. economy. It’s an important reason stocks started on a positive note as the new year began. If you have any thoughts, questions, or concerns, feel free to reach out to me.

7300 Wealth Connect – 01 -20

MONTHLY FINANCIAL MARKET UPDATE

The summary below is provided for educational purposes only. If you have any thoughts or would like to discuss any other matters, please feel free to contact me.

A Banner Year, A Banner Decade

The decade began under a dark cloud. The U.S. was climbing out of the Great Recession, and many wondered whether the economy might flounder for years. However, as investment legend Warren Buffett likes to say, “Never bet against America.(NBER)”

The economy exited the Great Recession in July 2009 (NBER). As of July 2019, the expansion became the longest on record. The unemployment rate ended 2009 at 9.9% and fell to 3.5% as of November 2019. Over the same period, 22.4 million jobs were created (St. Louis Federal Reserve).

The S&P 500 Index3 bottomed on March 6, 2009 at 676.53, closed at 1,115.10 on December 31, 2009. Ten years later, it finished the decade at 3,230.78. Figure 1 provides a graphic illustration of the long-running bull market.

We see a bull market that can be roughly broken into three periods, interrupted by sideways action that lasted approximately 18 to 24 months.

We recognize that stocks don’t move up in a straight line, and Figure 1 highlights the hurdles that temporarily sidelined the bulls. Yet, powerful tailwinds provided by modest economic growth, profit growth, low interest rates, low inflation, and corporate stock buybacks helped power gains throughout the decade.

The two biggest periods of volatility occurred in 2011 and late 2018. During 2011, recession worries surfaced amid an expanding eurozone debt crisis.

During late 2018, growing trade tensions between the U.S. and China collided with anxieties that Fed rate hikes might push the economy into a recession. But rate hikes that began in late 2015 didn’t carry over into 2019. Instead, the Fed cut the fed funds rate three times, from 2.25- 2.50% to 1.50-1.75%.

2019

A look back at 2019 shouldn’t exclude the final quarter of 2018, when the S&P 500 Index lost nearly 20%. At the time, the Fed was on rate-hike autopilot, the global economy was slowing, and the U.S. and China were bickering about trade.

As the year unfolded, Figure 2 illustrates market action was dominated by U.S.-China trade headlines and Federal Reserve policy.

When volatility surfaced, trade was the epicenter of investor angst. Still, pullbacks during the year were modest by historical standards, with the S&P 500 Index falling by less than 7% during May and August.

As the calendar marched toward the end of the year, stocks recorded new highs as mid-year recession fears subsided, the U.S. and China finally agreed to a limited trade deal, and the Fed cut rates three times.

Further, optimism is slowly rising that the global economy may be stabilizing.

Collapsing yields

One of the biggest surprises of the year was the downturn in Treasury bond yields – see Figure 3. The drop in yields coincided with late 2018 stock market volatility but continued even as stocks recovered.

Several factors played a role.

The Fed shifted gears and cut rates, U.S. economic growth moderated, and key measures of inflation remained low.

Plus, yields around the world tumbled, which made Treasury bonds an attractive alternative.

As longer-term yields in the U.S. declined, the yield curve inverted, which means that the 3- month T-bill and the 2-year Treasury sported higher yields than longer-term bonds such as the 10-year bond.

The inversion between the 2 year and 10 year was very brief; nonetheless, inversions have historically preceded recessions. So, is it different this time?

Record highs in the stock market suggest that investors are optimistic as the near year begins. The steep drop in global yields may have distorted yields at home by artificially pulling them down and inverting the curve.


A look ahead

We began 2018 with unbridled optimism. Yet, stocks peaked in January, leading to the first decline in the S&P 500 Index since 2008.

Investors began 2019 in a somber mood, but the year recorded its best performance since 2013. Does that mean we’re in for another troubling year? Well, the S&P 500 Index posted a gain of 11% in 2014 after 2013’s banner year. So, let’s not read too much into the 2018-2019 pattern.

Many argue that the long-running bull market is living on borrowed time. A bear market must be lurking around the corner, right?

Economic cycles feed bull and bear markets

Since the mid-1960s, bear markets have centered around recessions. The one glaring exception: the one-day 1987 stock market crash.

Much will probably depend on the economy. While trade tensions created some worries, the consensus that economic growth wouldn’t stall likely cushioned the downside when volatility surfaced in May and August.

Taking a longer view, economists generally have an unenviable record of forecasting a recession. No one’s crystal ball is perfect, but conditions that have historically preceded a recession aren’t in place today.

1. Rising interest rates/rising inflation (recessions: 1974, 1980, 1982, 1990, 2001),
2. A credit squeeze that cuts off cash to businesses and consumers (recessions: 1980, 2008),
3. Asset bubbles (recessions: 2001, 2008). While we enter 2020 at highs, valuations in 2000 (earnings vs stock prices) were much higher. Interest rates were also higher.
4. Oil supply shock (recessions: 1974, 1990).

In addition, the decade-long economic expansion has been subpar by historical standards, i.e., it’s been boring. It hasn’t produced excess euphoria that generates excessive business investment and economic imbalances, as we saw in the late 1990s.

We’re in uncharted economic territory today, and the unemployment rate is low. Longer term, the stock market responds to the economic environment. We’ve seen that occur in previous expansions and recessions, we saw it during the last decade, and it seems likely to continue as we move forward.

Investor’s Corner

Control what you can control. You can’t control the stock market, and timing the market isn’t a realistic tool. But the one variable you can control is your investment portfolio.

Among other factors, your plan should consider your time horizon, risk tolerance, and financial goals. Investors with a long-term time horizon that adhere to a holistic financial plan, which takes various cycles into account, are on the best path to wealth creation and their financial goals.

Risks never completely abate, but they can be managed while taking advantage of the long term upward bias in stocks.

7300 Wealth Connect – 12-19

MONTHLY FINANCIAL MARKET UPDATE

The summary below is provided for educational purposes only. If you have any thoughts or would like to discuss any other matters, please feel free to contact me.

Christmas in November

November has been kind to investors, with multiple new highs for the major market indexes. Major milestones include: 28,000 for the Dow Jones Industrials, 3,100 for the S&P 500 Index (3,000 was eclipsed in July), and 8,600 for the NASDAQ Composite.

The fuel behind the rally

Q3 corporate profits haven’t been strong. In fact, Q3 S&P 500 earnings are down 0.4% versus a year ago (Refinitiv, 98% of companies having reported). However, 75% of S&P 500 companies beaten conservative estimates, which has lent support to shares.

Meanwhile, recession fears that surfaced during the summer months have subsided, encouraging investors to move into stocks.

Figure 1 highlights the ebb and flow of economic activity using a broad-based gauge called the Chicago Fed National Activity Index. It’s far from a household name, but the index is quite comprehensive and includes 85 separate monthly economic reports.

A reading above zero suggests economic growth is faster than the historical average; below zero would suggest growth is below the historical average.

A soft manufacturing sector has been a drag on the economy. While growth this year has not been as robust as 2018, an expanding economy has softened the blow during periods of volatility.

Another variable—low interest rates. The Fed has cut rates three times this year, with the fed funds rate falling to 1.50-1.75% from 2.25-2.50%. While other factors have played a role, a more accommodative Fed has helped pull the yield on the 10-year Treasury down sharply– see Figure 2.

Bottom line—lower interest rates offer up less competition for stocks.

The 800-pound gorilla

Trade tensions with China have dominated trading in 2019.

Optimism early in the year powered gains, increased tensions in May and August created volatility, while renewed optimism in the fall lifted stocks.

Prior to Thanksgiving, China’s Commerce Ministry said the two sides have “reached a consensus on properly resolving related issues (Wall Street Journal).” It’s a generic remark, but positive comments have encouraged investors.

If a deal proves to be elusive, tariffs that are scheduled to go up on December 15 could lead to retaliation by China and renewed volatility.

Still, both sides would like to conclude some type of agreement, even as public posturing is likely to continue. We won’t get the kind of comprehensive agreement hoped for earlier in the year. But it would translate into incremental progress that reduces tensions going forward and sets the stage for a possible phase 2 agreement between the two countries.

7300 Wealth Connect – 11-19

MONTHLY FINANCIAL MARKET UPDATE

The summary below is provided for educational purposes only. If you have any thoughts or would like to discuss any other matters, please feel free to contact me.

In Like Lion, Out Like a Lamb

In like a lion, out like a lamb is common folklore that refers to weather in March. It’s also an appropriate reference to how the broader market performed in October—volatility at the top of the month and calmer conditions and new high for the S&P 500 Index near the end (MarketWatch data).

One needs to go no further than the soft manufacturing economy and a weak manufacturing report that sparked a rocky start to October.

We have seen upbeat consumer spending, which makes up over two-thirds of the economy, but the smaller industrial side shouldn’t be discounted by investors.

Figure 1 highlights the close relationship between manufacturing activity and the S&P 500 Index since 1995.

The blue line (left side) is the change in industrial production versus a year ago. The red line (right side) is the change in the S&P 500 Index versus a year ago.

It’s not a perfect correlation, and we have seen times when the two variables have diverged. But for the most part, manufacturing has had an influence on stock market performance.

What’s dogging manufacturing?

The International Monetary Fund issued its World Economic Outlook in October. It runs 188 pages and dives deep into the inner workings of the global economy. For our purposes, we’ll touch on the highlights and keep to the matter at hand—manufacturing.

The IMF sited —

1. A sharp downturn in global auto production and sales,
2. Weak business confidence amid growing tensions between the United States and China on trade and technology, and
3. A slowdown in China’s economy, which is being driven by needed regulatory efforts to rein in debt and the consequences of increased trade tensions.

Further, growth in Europe has been weak, with Germany, which is more dependent on trade, teetering on the brink of a recession. Germany is Europe’s largest economy.

Let’s add two more factors.
1. Boeing’s (BA $340) well-documented troubles with its 737 MAX have hindered airplane sales and production, which may be moving the needle on manufacturing at home.
2. Activity in the oil patch has softened as oil companies focus on profitability in the shale fields vs costly all-out production. We can see the downturn in oil-related activity in the GDP data (U.S. BEA), including the most recent release on October 30.

It’s something that may not have mattered 10 years ago. Today, however, the U.S. is the world’s largest oil producer. Therefore, what happens to energy will have an impact on the economy at the margin.

In both cases, the slowdown ripples through to related industries.

A peek into the crystal ball

U.S. GDP, the largest measure of the economy, slowed from an annualized pace of 2.0% in Q2 to 1.9% in Q3, per the preliminary reading from the U.S. BEA. It’s not as robust as 2018, but U.S. growth has been enough to push the jobless rate to a 50-year low (U.S. BLS).

While the Conference Board’s Leading Economic Index is suggesting further moderation, it’s not signaling a near-term recession. Investors who are pushing stocks to new highs aren’t expecting a recession either.

Although the economic expansion has entered its 11th year and trade issues aren’t settled, economic conditions that might force the economy into a recession are mostly absent.

No two economic expansions are exactly alike, but inflation and interest rates aren’t soaring (1980/82 recessions), businesses and consumers have access to credit (1980), and we don’t appear to be in the middle of an asset bubble (2000 and 2008).

Yes, stocks are near or at new highs and we can never discount the potential for volatility. Still, valuations are much more reasonable today (vs 2000) when using earnings and today’s interest rates as our yardstick for valuing equities.

7300 Wealth Connect – 10-19

MONTHLY FINANCIAL MARKET UPDATE

The summary below is provided for educational purposes only. If you have any thoughts or would like to discuss any other matters, please feel free to contact me.

Trade Headlines and the Federal Reserve

Corporate earnings, Federal Reserve policy, and the economy have historically played a big role in influencing stocks.

While Fed policy factored into market activity in Q3, earnings and the economy took a backseat to trade headlines and geopolitical issues

It’s not that the economic data had no influence. An expanding economy cushioned August’s decline, which was a modest peak-to-trough drop of 6.1% for the S&P 500 Index (St. Louis Federal Reserve data).

If the data had signaled a sharp slowdown or a possible recession, stocks would likely have had a much weaker quarter. Instead, most major indices eked out a gain.

Still, investors took their cues from trade headlines for much of the quarter. In some respects, that’s been the case for the entire year.

Talk that China and the U.S. would agree to comprehensive trade deal fueled gains early in the year. That is, until the train leading toward an agreement ran off the tracks in early May.

China backed away from previously agreed-upon terms, President Trump retaliated with new tariffs, and a tit-for-tat escalation between the economic superpowers ensued.

In early June, the Fed shifted gears and hinted rate cuts might be needed as a buffer against trade uncertainty. Mix in a de-escalation of tensions and stocks recovered.

Enter August, and the Fed reduced the fed funds rate (Figure 1), but unsettling trade headlines created stiff headwinds. In September, the Fed cut again.

But sentiment improved when more comforting headlines revealed both sides would engage. A new round of negotiations between the U.S. and China are on the calendar.

Drama hits a fevered pitch in the nation’s capital

Meanwhile, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she would support an impeachment inquiry against President Trump, which adds another layer of uncertainty into the stock market equation. Yet, the initial reaction from investors has been muted.

Likely reason—the economic fundamentals are favorable. Still, many investors are asking what the political turmoil may mean for stocks.

Past impeachment proceedings may offer some clues – see Table 1

During President Nixon’s second term, inflation and interest rates were high, and the economy slipped into a steep recession. In other words, the economic fundamentals were terrible.

While Nixon resigned from office without being impeached, the House impeached Clinton but the Senate failed to convict. Despite the political brouhaha, stocks performed well amid a favorable economic backdrop.

Although no economic cycle follows the exact same path, today’s economic environment is more closely aligned to the late 1990 than the mid-1970s.

Final thoughts

As we enter Q4, uncertainty abounds. Investors will continue to grapple with trade, a possible European recession, Brexit, and a soft manufacturing sector.

Yet, an expanding economy, low interest rates, an accommodative Federal Reserve, stability in bond yields, and cautiously upbeat trade headlines have lifted the major indices.

We have seen volatility on a short-term basis, and we may see more.

However, the two 2019 selloffs—one in May and one in August—amounted to less than 7% each (St. Louis Federal Reserve). And shares subsequently recovered. For the longer-term investors, 2019 has been relatively calm, and stocks and bonds have performed well.

7300 Wealth Connect – 9-19

MONTHLY FINANCIAL MARKET UPDATE

The summary below is provided for educational purposes only. If you have any thoughts or would like to discuss any other matters, please feel free to contact me.

Cross-Currents in August

August can be hot and muggy and it leaves one pining for a fresh autumn breeze. Since 1970, August has, on average, been a lackluster performer for stocks (St. Louis Federal Reserve S&P 500 data). Last month was no exception – hot and muggy.


While August’s historically weak numbers are difficult to explain (September is the weakest), last month’s volatility and modest selloff can be traced to a couple of factors: escalating trade tensions with China and rising concerns about the global economy.

Last month, President Trump upped the ante in the trade war with China. Not surprisingly, China retaliated, and the U.S. responded in kind. But what might be the president’s strategy?

China has benefitted from the status quo for over 20 years. China has had no incentive to change its behavior.

Its economy has grown rapidly, in part, due to its ability to sell cheap goods to U.S. consumers. It has also obtained technology via theft and forced technology transfers from its U.S. partners doing business in China.

Up until now, China has had no incentive to play by the rules. Why should it? Crime pays.

There’s a new sheriff in town

Agree with his methods or not, Trump’s goal has been to change the calculus by ratcheting up pressure on China so that the status quo becomes increasingly painful. It’s a high risk/high reward strategy designed to level the playing field.

While China can ill-afford slower growth, Chinese retaliation comes at a price – volatility in financial markets and higher costs for U.S. businesses and consumers.

How long volatility may last is anyone’s guess. Sometimes, a well-timed conciliatory statement or tweet from the president sends stocks higher.

Will economic pain force China to negotiate in good faith? Or, will China wait out the 2020 election? Both sides are feeling the heat, and China is being incented to deal.

Plunging bond yields

Several variables affect bond yields. Expected inflation, expected economic growth, the Fed’s posture, and what is happening to the global economy and global bond yields.

Today, inflation is low, the global economy has slowed, the Fed is cutting interest rates and global bond yields have tanked. All of these factors have attracted cash into longer-term U.S. Treasuries (bond prices and yields move in the opposite direction).

Heightened uncertainty can also encourage investors to sell stocks and place the proceeds into Treasury bonds. The latest decline in yields began when President Trump announced new tariffs on Chinese goods at beginning of August – see Figure 1.

Further, rock bottom yields are creating anxieties that the Treasury bond market is telegraphing a recession.

Yet, there may be exogenous factors that are pressuring yields at home.

There is over $15 trillion (yes, trillion – that’s not a typo) in government debt around the world that yields less than zero (Bloomberg). That’s right, you’ll receive less than your investment if held until maturity.

A 10-year bond government bond in Switzerland sports a yield of -1.02%. Germany’s 10-year government bond yields -0.70% (Bloomberg as of Aug 30).

In comparison, U.S. Treasuries are attractive and may be drawing overseas cash, which artificially depresses yields at home.

Final thoughts

By itself, shorter-term volatility isn’t unusual. We see it from time to time when heightened uncertainty creeps into sentiment.

Still, peak to trough, the S&P 500 Index was down 6.1% between July 26 – August 14. By August’s close, the S&P 500 Index was off just 3.3% from its peak (St. Louis Fed/Yahoo Finance).

As I’ve said before, control what you can control – the financial plan. Much goes into crafting your plan. While it can be tweaked and it doesn’t eliminate risk, it helps manage risk, and it is designed with both up and down economic cycles in mind.

Ultimately, it is also designed with your financial goals in mind.

7300 Wealth Connect – 8-19

MONTHLY FINANCIAL MARKET UPDATE

The summary below is provided for educational purposes only. If you have any thoughts or would like to discuss any other matters, please feel free to contact me.

A Rate Cut in an Expanding Economy

The economy is expanding, consumer spending and consumer confidence are strong, job growth is respectable, layoffs are low, and the Federal Reserve just cut the fed funds rate by a 1⁄4% to 2.00-2.25% – see Figure 1.

It was a well-telegraphed rate cut. Only the magnitude of the cut was in question.

While the broad-based service sector is doing just fine, the manufacturing sector is in the doldrums, and business spending is soft.

A quarter-point rate cut won’t solve what ails manufacturing, nor will it jumpstart the global economy. Fed Chief Powell acknowledged such.

But he argued the shift in policy supports business confidence, and simply talk of a rate cut or cuts supports financial conditions.

Looking ahead, the Fed wasn’t as dovish as some had anticipated. Powell didn’t commit to a “lengthy cutting cycle,” nor did he say the Fed was one and done. Guidance was vague.

He said the Fed would be carefully reviewing the economic data, which suggests that stronger economic numbers could prevent further rate cuts. Yet, he acknowledged that trade tensions could still impact the decision-making process.

If you’re thinking he was playing his cards close to his vest, he was. Powell didn’t provide specific criteria for the next rate cut. He’s required to do so, but the initial, knee-jerk reaction wasn’t positive.

The most important ingredient in the stock market pie

Ultimately, it’s about economic and corporate profit growth. Today, the economy is expanding. It’s not rock-solid growth, it has moderated since 2018, but the economy is growing at a modest pace – see Figure 2.

In addition, we’re not seeing economic signals that would suggest a recession is looming.
• Key gauges of inflation and interest rates aren’t rising (1980/1982 recessions).
• We aren’t in the middle of a credit squeeze that could snuff out borrowing and the economic expansion (1980 recession).
• We’re not seeing significant asset bubbles (2001 and 2008).

Further, were not experiencing the kind of euphoria that leads to: “This economic joy ride will last forever.”

Yet, worries never completely cease. An economic shock can’t be ruled out, but odds are low.

Final thoughts

You can’t control the stock market and you can’t control the Fed.

From time to time, the Fed will shift gears. For example, we’ve seen shifts in the Fed’s language and guidance in recent months.

So, control what you can control – the financial plan. Much goes into crafting your plan. While it can be tweaked and it doesn’t eliminate risk, it helps manage risk and is designed with up and down economic cycles in mind.

It is also designed with your financial goals in mind.

7300 Wealth Connect – 7-19

MONTHLY FINANCIAL MARKET UPDATE

The summary below is provided for educational purposes only. If you have any thoughts or would like to discuss any other matters, please feel free to contact me.

The Fed and Trade Keep Investors on Their Toes

The Fed and international trade – these are the two headlines that dominated action in Q2.

Longer term, profits and profit forecasts are the leading driver of equities. Shorter term, sentiment can be influenced by various factors.

For much of the year, favorable headlines highlighting progress toward a trade deal between the U.S. and China aided equities. In addition, the Federal Reserve shifted gears, no longer talking about gradual rate hikes.

Coupled with modest economic growth, stocks have performed admirably.

In early May, the rally hit a roadblock when the president tweeted he would impose additional tariffs on China, injecting a new layer of uncertainty into the economic and stock market equation.

An unexpected tweet by the president in early June threatened Mexico with debilitating tariffs.

Yet, the peak-to-trough decline in the S&P 500 Index from April 30 thru June 3: a modest 6.8% (St. Louis Federal Reserve data). It’s nothing out of the ordinary.

Since 1980, the average annual maximum peak-to-trough pullback for the S&P 500 Index has been 14% (JP Morgan, LPL Research).

But shortly after Trump threatened Mexico, Fed Chief Powell shifted his stance. No longer was the Fed on hold. Instead, Powell implied the Fed would cut rates if the need arose, sparking a turnaround and lifting the S&P 500 Index to a new high.

The economy and Treasury yields

The steep drop in Treasury yields has surprised nearly everyone – see Figure 1.

In part, yields have fallen in developed nations, which encourages overseas investors to buy into higher-yielding U.S. Treasuries (bond prices and yields move in opposite direction).

Worries about a protracted trade war have increased economic uncertainty, which has encouraged a flight into safer U.S Treasury bonds.

And, odds of a rate cut or cuts this year have gone up significantly (CME Group FedWatch Tool), which also encourages investors to place cash into Treasury bonds.

If we read the tea leaves, the Treasury bond market is foreshadowing an economic slowdown. The same could be said from the Conference Board’s Leading Economic Index (LEI).

But the LEI isn’t suggesting the economy will contract this year. A quick peek at investment grade debt or yields in high-yield debt (junk bonds) aren’t suggesting a recession either.

You see, junk bonds are sometimes referred to as the canary in the coal mine. If investors expect a steep economic slowdown or recession, yields in junk debt can spike higher as investors flee shakier firms. That’s not happening right now. Investment grade debt can also come under pressure, though we typically see less volatility.

While the rally in stocks during June as not been as broad-based as we might like to see, action in the S&P 500 Index also suggests growth isn’t about to stall.

Rate cuts and stock market reaction

Since 1974, there have been nine rate-cut cycles by the Fed. Figure 2 illustrates the S&P 500’s reaction, from 1-month after to 12-months after the first rate cut in the cycle.

Over the last 45 years, a pattern has emerged, with stocks performing well when the economy side-stepped a recession, such as the mid-1980s, mid-1990s and the late 1990s. When the economy slid into profit-killing recession, rate cuts did little to bolster investor sentiment.

Ultimately, steady economic growth has historically been an important ingredient for stock market gains.

7300 Wealth Connect – 6-19

MONTHLY FINANCIAL MARKET UPDATE

The summary below is provided for educational purposes only. If you have any thoughts or would like to discuss any other matters, please feel free to contact me.

The Tweet Heard ‘Round the World

The U.S. and China were moving toward an historic trade agreement. It seemed as if the missing pieces of the puzzle were about to fall into place.

Then came a surprise tweet by President Trump on Sunday May 5th. Trump said he would raise tariffs on Chinese imports into the U.S.

Odds were low such an event would happen, but May’s Market Insights alluded to the possibility. “The U.S. and China have yet to reach a new trade agreement, and a setback could create unwanted volatility.” Unfortunately, that is what happened.

What came as a complete surprise – a month-end announcement by the president of new levies on all goods imported from Mexico, the 2nd largest U.S. trading partner (U.S. BEA), until “the illegal immigration problem is remedied.”

Investors are now grappling with the fallout of new trade tensions and the possible impact on the U.S. and global economy.

What happened with China? An apparent miscalculation by Chinese negotiators.

Here’s a May 9th headline in the Wall Street Journal: China Hardens Stance as Chinese Negotiators Emboldened by Perception U.S. was Willing to Compromise. A May 8th story by Reuters: China Backtracked on Almost All Aspects of U.S. Trade Deal.

From the vantage point of investors, renewed acrimony and ramped-up rhetoric on both sides have created a new round of volatility, though recent declines have been modest.

What might it mean for investors? Let’s review three possible scenarios.

1. The U.S. and China quickly come to terms – an enforceable trade deal is achieved. It’s the best outcome. Exporters benefit, U.S. intellectual property is protected, and any improvement in business confidence could translate into a new round of capital spending and hiring. Stocks likely rally. But look for Trump to set his sights on Europe and Japan.

2. Talks completely break down and we see more tit-for-tat retaliation – a full-blown trade war. Investors aren’t expecting this outcome. It’s the worst scenario. We would likely see more volatility as investors attempt to price in heightened economic uncertainty and any downside to U.S. and global economic growth.

3. Negotiations drag on for months, maybe through year end and beyond. The two sides appear to be far apart right now. Still, talks are better than no talks.

By month’s end, worries about the global and U.S. economy pushed longer-term Treasury bond yields to the lowest level since September 2017. (St. Louis Federal Reserve)

Yes, housing activity is down (Natl Assoc of Realtors, U.S. Census, U.S. BEA) and manufacturing has softened. But the economic slowdown isn’t as pronounced as the slowdown in 2015-16. And most leading economic indicators aren’t signaling a recession.

While short-term moves are difficult to precisely forecast, there are some important differences between today and the late 2018 selloff.

Risks never completely abate

The flare-up in trade tensions is the latest in a long list of risks and events that have buffeted stocks. Yet, shares have climbed the proverbial wall of worry – see Fig. 1.

The biggest risk to the bull market would be a profit-killing recession. Yet, the historical recipe for a recession isn’t in place – a credit squeeze, higher inflation that prompts higher rates from the Fed, or an asset bubble fueled by easy credit. Still, investors aren’t sure how to price a trade war’s impact on the economy. There isn’t a recent historical precedent.

Control what you can control. You can’t control the stock market, and timing the market isn’t a realistic tool. But, you can control the portfolio. Your plan should consider your time horizon, risk tolerance, and financial goals.

Risks never abate. The investment plan doesn’t eliminate risk but helps manage risk. Further, the plan is designed to capture the long-term upward market bias. It helps put you on a path towards your financial goals.

7300 Wealth Connect – 5-19

MONTHLY FINANCIAL MARKET UPDATE

The summary below is provided for educational purposes only. If you have any thoughts or would like to discuss any other matters, please feel free to contact me.

Green Grass and High Tides

On April 23, the S&P 500 Index3 finished the day at 2,933.68, eclipsing its prior all-time closing high of 2,930.75. That was achieved on September 20, 2018 (St. Louis Federal Reserve).

We’ve experienced an impressive turnaround from the gloomy sentiment that pervaded the market late last year. It also marks an official milestone for the long-running bull market that began in March 2009.

Officially, the bull market, as measured by the S&P 500 Index, has extended its run past 10 years. Lengthwise, but not performance, it exceeds the 1990s (Figure 1). Note – bull markets come to an end when the index declines by 20% or more from a prior high. The three-month selloff in late 2018 came up just shy of 20% – down 17.77%.

Over the last 50 years, bear markets have coincided with profit-killing recessions. The one notable exception – the 1987 one-day selloff. It topped 20%.

Coincidently (or not), 1998 and 2011 came up just shy of the arbitrary 20% figure. In both cases, a recession did not materialize. While a bear market is inevitable, we’re not yet writing the obituary on the current bull market.

The latest rally to a new high has been marked with low volatility, similar to what we saw during 2017.

While the lack of a sharp downdraft is welcome, let’s also recognize that selloffs aren’t unusual.

Look at Figure 2. Since 1980, the average annual gain in the S&P 500 Index, including reinvested dividends, has been 12.6%. The index has finished in positive territory 32 times, or 82% of the time. Yet, the average intra-year pullback totaled nearly 14%.

If history is our guide, a pullback this year can’t be ruled out. But, we see that broad-market indexes have historically had a long-term upward bias. Keep in mind that the average annual change can vary by a substantial margin.


A look behind the rally

  1. The first read on Q1 Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which is the largest measure of U.S. economic activity, came in at an annual pace of 3.2% (U.S. BEA). The headline number may not reflect the underlying trend for the quarter as consumer and business spending eased, but it’s still a solid start to the year. More importantly, near-term recession fears have subsided.
  2. In addition, economic growth overseas appears to be stabilizing.
  3. And, the Federal Reserve has said it doesn’t expect to hike interest rates this year.

    It’s not that rate hikes, in response to stronger economic growth, will automatically trip up the bulls. Eight rate increases between December 2015 and September 2018 didn’t prevent new highs. But in October, investors began to suspect the Fed was on rate-hike autopilot.

    At the time, the Fed seemed less concerned with the economic data and more concerned about getting interest rates back to a more normal level.

    I get it. Money that’s too cheap during strong economic growth can create economic imbalances that rarely end well.

    However, the Fed’s posture appeared to be too aggressive. As growth slowed late last year and stocks fell, the Fed took a much more cautious stance. A slowdown in inflation is also helping reinforce the central bank’s more flexible attitude.

  4. The U.S. and China have yet to reach a new trade agreement, and a setback could create unwanted volatility. But cautiously upbeat headlines have aided sentiment.
  5. Finally, Q1 earnings are topping a low hurdle (Refinitiv). We’ve seen this before. Companies issue conservative forecasts, analysts pare back estimates, firms top a low bar, and investors react favorably.

Risks never completely abate. When the grass appears to be too green and lush, and the high tide covers what lurks on the ocean’s floor, reality usually returns. But, when that occurs, keep Figure 2 in mind.

7300 Wealth Connect – 4-19

MONTHLY FINANCIAL MARKET UPDATE

The summary below is provided for educational purposes only. If you have any thoughts or would like to discuss any other matters, please feel free to contact me.

A Strong Start to the Year

The first quarter feels as if it has been the mirror image of the final quarter of 2018. Economic conditions are far from robust, but investors have jumped back into stocks, brushing aside fresh concerns. In fact, the S&P 500 Index 3 turned in its best quarter since Q3 2009, per the Wall Street Journal.

The Fed’s newfound flexibility has played a big role in supporting the market, in my view. In December, the Fed was talking about two rate hikes this year. That has changed. The Fed is no longer on rate-hike autopilot. Instead, it is carefully looking at the economic data as it contemplates its next move.

Crosscurrents have developed at home and the global economy has slowed. We’re seeing it in the trade data and specific sectors of the economy, including housing and autos.

The latest Fed forecast projects no rate hikes this year, and Fed Chief Powell pushed back against talk of a 2019 rate cut at his March press conference.

Cautious optimism about a U.S.-China trade agreement has also lent support. Despite favorable headlines, the two economic powers have yet to conclude an agreement that opens Chinese markets to U.S. goods, protects intellectual property of U.S. companies, and prohibits forced technology transfers. Most reports suggest the enforcement mechanism of any deal has been the sticking point.

Yielding to the curve

While the data are not pointing to an economic contraction, the economy has entered into a slower orbit of growth. Coupled with slower economic growth around the globe, we witnessed an inversion of the yield curve for the first time in over a decade.

What is the yield curve? The yield curve plots the yields of a bond with the same credit quality (such as Treasuries) over various maturities. It’s illustrated in Figure 2.

A year ago (3/29/18) the curve was “normally” sloped – longer-dated maturities offered a higher yield. Today, we see a “kink” in the curve. As of 3/28/19, the 10-year bond yielded less than the 3-month T-bill.

Why do we care? Should we care? An inverted yield curve may restrict bank lending, but by itself, it does not cause a recession. Instead, it’s the bond markets signal that short-term interest rates may eventually fall in response to an economy that is expected to weaken.

Importance: the 10-year/3-month has inverted prior to each of the last seven recessions, according to data provided by the St. Louis Federal Reserve. The one glaring exception – the curve inverted in 1966 without an ensuing recession. But growth did slow considerably (St. Louis Fed GDP data).

On average a recession has occurred 11 months following the inversion of the 10-year/3-month T-bill.

That’s the bad news – any good news?

While the 10-year/3-month has inverted, not all signs point to a recession.

  • The Conference Board’s Leading Economic Index® has been flat since October, but it has not turned lower. Historically, it declines in front of recessions, with an average lead time of 7 to 20 months (Advisor Perspectives). That’s quite a range and highlights the difficulty in predicting and timing a recession. But we’re not currently getting a recessionary signal from the LEI.
  • During the last seven recessions, the 10-year/2-year Treasury yields inverted an average of 20 months before a recession (St. Louis Federal Reserve, NBER). It has yet to invert in this economic expansion.
  • Low yields around the world may be encouraging bond buys in the U.S., which could be artificially pushing U.S. yields lower (bond prices and bond yields move in the opposite direction).
  • Today, the Fed is on hold. Moreover, financial conditions have eased in the first quarter, according to the St. Louis Fed Stress Index and Chicago Fed National Financial Conditions Index. I get these aren’t household names, but they are followed closely by economists and Fed officials. Today’s levels signal access to credit isn’t restrictive and there is ample liquidity in the financial system.
  • Finally, the steep drop in longer-term Treasury yields has pushed mortgages rates down sharply. In October, the average 30-year fixed rate mortgage was 4.90%, according to Freddie Mac’s weekly survey. As of March 28, the weekly survey placed the average rate at 4.06%. It supports the struggling housing market.

Final thoughts

Let’s not dismiss what’s happened to the yield curve. It’s been a long-running economic expansion and U.S. growth has slowed. But other warning signals aren’t pointing to a contraction. Throw the government shutdown into the mix and Q1 is unlikely to deliver impressive results.

Historically, we have seen a bounce in the second quarter. The St. Louis Fed notes that in recent decades, Q1 GDP has been “substantially weaker than growth in other quarters.”

Recessions have typically been preceded by major economic imbalances, such as a stock market bubble or housing bubble. Or, a sharp rise in inflation forces the Fed to aggressively respond with rate hikes.

For the most part, neither conditions are currently present, lessening odds a near-term recession is lurking. Further, recent market action has been impressive. It’s not as if we haven’t seen some volatility, but year- to-date performance isn’t suggesting an economic contraction is imminent.

7300 Wealth Connect – 3-19

MONTHLY FINANCIAL MARKET UPDATE

The summary below is provided for educational purposes only. If you have any thoughts or would like to discuss any other matters, please feel free to contact me.

A Rising Stock Market, Housing’s Doldrums, and Animal Spirits

It’s been a strong start to 2019. In researching this month’s piece, I came across these stats that illustrate market strength.

Through Friday, February 24 —

  • The Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500 Index are off to their best starts in over 30 years, according to Dow Jones Market Data (MarketWatch).
  • We’ve had 8-straight weekly gains for the Dow in 2019, which is the best start since 1964 when the granddaddy of market averages logged 11-weekly gains.
  • The Russell 2000 Index^ has rung up its longest-ever weekly win streak to start a year – 8 in a row.

^The Russell 2000 Index is an unmanaged index of 2,000 smaller companies. The index cannot be invested into directly. Past performance does not guarantee future performance.


What’s behind the rally?

In part, the market was extremely oversold in late December, and markets tend to eventually bounce when the economic fundamentals don’t line up with a significant selloff.

But the snapback from oversold levels doesn’t completely explain recent gains.

  1. For starters, the Fed’s new-found flexibility is aiding shares. No longer are investors worried the Fed might push rates up too high and kill the economic expansion. Instead, the Fed said it can be patient as it eyes any changes in interest rates. While the Fed hasn’t defined exactly what it means by “patient,” broadly speaking, it means the Fed isn’t planning any near-term rate increases.

    Though sentiment can shift quickly, one measure of rate expectations published by the CME Group places odds the Fed won’t raise the fed funds rate this year at 90% (as of Feb 28).

  2. Continued progress on the trade front with China has also lifted spirits. And there have been no
    shortage of encouraging headlines.

    One from Reuters on February 20: Exclusive: U.S., China sketch outlines of deal to end trade war – sources. These included: forced technology transfer and cyber theft, intellectual property rights, services, currency, agriculture, and non-tariff barriers to trade, according to two sources familiar with the progress of the talks.

    As the month continued to progress, President Trump postponed a sharp increase in tariffs on Chinese imports, which had been scheduled for March 2. Still, sticking points remain. Reduced barriers to U.S. exports would be welcome. However, enforcement provisions that relate to forced technology transfers and structural changes that cut subsidies for state-owned businesses must be hammered out.

    The abrupt end to the U.S./North Korean summit adds an interesting wrinkle. Did China play a role in the failed talks. Or was Trump’s decision to walk out a signal to China that he could do the same on a trade agreement if it wasn’t to his liking? Early market reaction suggests it is not an issue.

  3. Though economic data have been mixed, the U.S economy continues to expand, albeit at more moderate pace. Note that GDP slowed from 3.4% in Q3 to 2.6% in Q4 (U.S. BEA). The path for housing and consumer attitudes is indicative of the mixed reports.

Housings shaky foundation

Housing has been in the doldrums. Prices have been rising for several years, inventory has been limited, especially for starter homes, and mortgage rates spiked last year.

Sifting through the data tells us that this leading economic indicator has fallen into a recession. Existing home sales and new home sales are down (Natl Assoc. of Realtor [NAR] and U.S Census Bureau). And the same can be said for housing starts and building permits – see Figure 1.

Single-family housing starts are clearly more volatile, but the trend has been to the downside. Permits, which are more forward-looking, have also floundered.

Lately, however, we may be seeing some stability amid the decline in mortgage rates (Freddie Mac weekly survey). Homebuilder confidence has improved per the NAHB monthly survey, and January’s NAR’s index of pending home sales rose at its fastest monthly pace since early 2017.

Animal Spirits

Mixed data is another way of saying that some reports are strong while others are weak. So, let’s end this update on a more favorable note. After sliding three-consecutive months, consumer confidence surged in February.

The end of the government shutdown and rising stock prices appeared to bolster sentiment.

This is a soft measure of the economy as sentiment isn’t a direct component of GDP. But it is a gauge that measures the “animal spirits” that can drive economic activity. A low level of confidence suggests animal spirits are dormant, while a high level suggests they are stirring.

While the level matters, the trend is just as important. Note in Figure 2 that confidence typically peaks in front of a recession, which makes February’s sharp gain encouraging as we push into 2019.