Follow the Leaders

January 27, 2019

by Steve Stofka

This week the investment community mourned the death of John Bogle, the founder of Vanguard, the mutual fund giant. He had the crazy idea that mom-and-pop investors should buy a basket of stocks and not attempt to beat the market (Note #1). In 1976, he launched the first SP500 index fund, VFINX, a low-cost “no-brainer” or passive fund. Because people did not want to invest in the idea of earning just average stock returns, the initial launch raised very little money. “Bogle’s folly” now has more than fifty imitators (Note #2).

Vanguard has over $5 trillion under management. Let’s turn to them to answer the age-old question – what percent of my retirement portfolio should be invested in bonds? Bond prices are much less volatile than stocks and stabilize a portfolio’s value. Several decades ago, people retired at 65 and expected to live ten years in retirement. An old rule was that the percentage of bonds and cash should match your age. A 50-year old, for example, should have 50% of their portfolio in bonds and cash. Few advisors today would be so conservative. Many 65-year-olds can expect to live another twenty years or more.

Vanguard, Schwab, Fidelity and Blackrock offer various life cycle funds that have target dates. The most common dates are retirement; i.e. Target 2020, or 2030 or 2040. These funds are composed of shifting portions of stock and bond index funds offered by each investment company. The funds adjust their stock and bond allocations based on those dates. For example, if a 55-year old person bought the Vanguard Retirement Target Date 2020 Fund VTWNX in 2005, it might have been invested 75% stocks and 25% bonds when she bought it. As the date 2020 nears, the stock allocation has decreased to 53% and the bond portion increased to 47%. The greater portion of bonds helps stabilize the value of the portfolio.

In the chart below, I’ve compared the stock and bond allocations of various retirement funds offered by Vanguard (Note #3). Notice that the stock portion of each fund increases as the dates get further away from the present.


A 46-year old who intends to retire in 2040 when they are 67 might buy a Target 2040 fund which is 84% invested in stocks. The bond allocation is only 16%. Using the old rule, the bond portion would have been 46%.

What happens after that target date is met? The fund continues to adjust its stock/bond allocation towards safety. Over five years, Vanguard adjusts its mix to that of an income portfolio – 30% stocks and 70% bonds (Note #4).

These strategies can guide our own portfolio allocation. I have not checked the allocations of Schwab, Fidelity and others in the industry but I would guess that they have similar allocations for their life cycle funds.


1. History of Vanguard Group
2. More than fifty funds invest in the SP500 index according to Consumer Reports
3. Vanguard’s Target 2020 fund VTWNX , 2025 Fund VTTVX , 2030 Fund VTHRX, 2035 Fund VTTHX, and 2040 Fund VFORX
4. Vanguard’s Income Portfolio VTINX 

Fault Lines

January 20, 2019

by Steve Stofka

If your twin brother went away on a spaceship a month ago and looked at the current price level of the SP500, he wouldn’t see much change. What a month it has been! A 7% drop in stock price the week of December 17th, followed by a Christmas Eve when Santa left a lump of coal in investor’s stockings, followed by a government shutdown.

Let’s say your twin brother went off to the Romulan Galaxy on a spaceship flying near the speed of light on October 1, 2007. He has just come back and has aged a few weeks. You have aged a great deal. The financial crisis, the housing crisis, the job crisis, the crisis crisis. No wonder you look older. There are too many crises.

Your twin brother notes a similarity in the behavior of the stock market the past few months and the fall of 2007 when he took his starflight cruise. What similarity you ask? He hauls out his Romulan graphing tool and shows you a plot comparison of SP500 prices (SPY) in the fall of 2007 and the fall of 2018. Not only does your twin brother look younger but he also got a Romulan grapher on his journey. It is not fair.


“In both periods, prices fell about 15% in 15 weeks,” your brother says.

“They happened to fall the same percentage in the same amount of time,” you answer.  “That probably happens all the time and we just don’t notice.”

“15-20% drops in as many weeks doesn’t happen all the time,” your brother says. “It happens when there are fault lines forming. It happened in December 2000, January 2008, again in August 2011 during another government shutdown, and now.”

“Sure, there are some trade problems and the government shutdown,” you protest, “but the economy is good. Employment is at all- time highs, wage gains were over 3% last month, and inflation is relatively tame.”

“Everything was still pretty good in December 2000 and January 2008,” your brother responds. “‘A healthy correction after a price boom,’ some said. ‘The market is blowing off the excess froth before going higher,’ others said. At both times, there was something far more serious going on. We just didn’t know it.”

“You got pretty smart in the time you were gone,” you tell your brother. “Can I get one of those Romulan graphers?”

“Yes, I bought one for your Christmas present 11 years ago,” your brother says and hands you a grapher from his spacesack. “Tell me, what are these picture phones that people are carrying around now? I don’t remember them from when I left. And what’s Facebook?”

Decline of Income Growth

January 13, 2019

by Steve Stofka

On the week before Christmas, the stock market fell more than 7%. I wrote about the historical trends following previous falls of that magnitude. The week opened on Dec. 17th with the SP500 index. Two months was the shortest recovery period after 7% falls in 1986 and 1989. In a previous budget showdown in 2011, the market recovered after five months, but shutdowns are just one component of a complex economic environment. If the outlook for corporate profits looks positive, the market will pause during a long showdown, as it did in October 2013.

Investors wanting to contribute to their retirement plans can do so in a measured manner. The uncertainties that produce tumultuous markets take some time to resolve. Although the market rose for five straight days in a row this week, it was not able to reach that opening level of 2600 three weeks ago.


Let’s turn to a persistent problem: the lack of income growth. Beginning in the early 1970s, the annual growth rate in real personal income began to decline (Note #1). I calculated ten-year averages of annual growth to get the chart below. 5% annual inflation-adjusted growth during the 1960s became 3% growth during the 1980s and early 1990s. The dot-com and housing booms of the late 1990s and early 2000s kicked growth higher to 3.5%. In 2008, annual growth (not averaged over ten years) went negative and reached as low as -4.9% in May 2009. Following the Financial Crisis, the ten year average is stuck at 2% growth.


The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) tracks total employee compensation costs, including benefits and government mandated taxes (Note #2). I compared ten-year averages of both series, income with (blue line) and without (orange line) benefits. The trend over five decades is down, as before. When the labor market is tight, employers have to offer better benefit packages and the growth in total compensation is higher than income without benefits. When there is slack in the market, employees will accept what they can get, and the growth of total compensation is less.


Beginning in early 2008, we see the dramatic effect of the last recession and the financial crisis. Income growth went negative, but income with benefits plunged 19% by January 2009. With unemployment stubbornly high, employers could attract employees with rather skimpy benefit packages. The ten-year average growth of income with benefits (blue line) sank to 1%, a full percent below income without benefits. In the last two years, the two series are starting to converge but the trend is below 2% growth.

The data contradicts those who claim that income growth is low because employers are spending more in benefits.


1. Real personal income series at Federal Reserve. An explanation of various types of personal income at Federal Reserve
2. Fed Reserve Series PRS85006062 Less PCEPI Chain Type Inflation Index.

Place Your Bets

January 6, 2019

by Steve Stofka

This will be my tenth year writing on the financial markets. As I’ve written in earlier posts, we’ve been sailing in choppy waters this past quarter. In 2018, a portfolio composed of 60% stocks, 30% bonds and 10% cash lost 3%. In 2008, that asset allocation had a negative return of 20% (Note #1). We can expect continued rough weather.

If China’s economy continues to slow, the trade war between the U.S. and China will stall because a slowing global economy will give neither nation enough leverage. Will the Fed stop raising interest rates in response? If there is further confirmation of an economic slowdown, could the Fed start lowering interest rates by mid-2019? Ladies and gentlemen, place your bets.

Thanks to good weather and a strong shopping season, December’s employment reports from both ADP and the BLS were far above expectations (Note #2). Wages grew by more than 3%. Will stronger wage gains cut into corporate profits? Will the Fed continue to raise rates in response to the strong employment numbers and wage gains? Ladies and gentlemen, place your bets.

The global economy has been slowing for some time. After a 37% gain in 2017, a basket of emerging market stocks lost 15% last year. Although China’s service sector is still growing, it’s manufacturing production edged into the contraction zone this past month (Note #3). Home and auto sales have slowed in the U.S. What is the prospect that the U.S. could enter a recession in the next year? Ladies and gentlemen, place your bets.

The partial government showdown continues. The IRS is not processing refunds or answering phones. If it lasts one more week, it will break the record set during the Clinton administration. Trump has said it could go on for a year and he does like to be the best in everything, the best of all time. Could the House Democrats vote for impeachment, then persuade 21 Republican Senators (Note #4) to vote for a conviction and a Mike Pence Presidency? Ladies and gentlemen, place your bets.

When the winds alternate directions, the weather vane gets erratic. This week, the stock market whipsawed down 3% one day and up 3% the next as traders digested the day’s news and changed their bets. Interest rates (the yield) on a 10-year Treasury bond have fallen by a half percent since November 9th. When yields fell by a similar amount in January 2015 and January 2016, stock prices corrected 8% or so before moving higher. Since early December, the stock market has corrected by a similar percentage. Will this time be different? Ladies and gentlemen, place your bets.

Staying 100% in cash as a long-term investment (more than five years) is not betting at all. From a stock market peak in 2007 till now, an all cash “strategy” earned less than 1% annually. A balanced portfolio like the one at the beginning of this article earned a bit less than 6% annually. Older investors may remember the 1990s, when a person could safely earn 6% on a CD. Wave goodbye to those days for now and place your bets.



  1. Portfolio Visualizer results of a portfolio of 60% VTSMX, 30% VBMFX and 10% Cash
  2. Automatic Data Processing (ADP) showed 271,000 private job gains. The Bureau of Labor Standards (BLS) tallied over 300,000 job gains.
  3. China’s manufacturing output in slight contraction
  4. The Constitution requires two-thirds majority in Senate to convict an impeached President. Currently, there are 46 Democratic Senators and Independents who caucus with Democrats. They would need to convince 21 Republican Senators to vote for conviction to get a 67 Senator super-majority. 22 Republican Senators are up for re-election in 2020 and might be sensitive to public sentiment in their states.