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.

vantargetfundscomp

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.

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Notes:

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 

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.

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Notes:

  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.

Saving Simplicity

November 25, 2018

by Steve Stofka

Many individual investors understand the importance of saving something for retirement. In decades past, workers with mid to large companies were covered by defined benefit pension plans. The term “defined benefit” meant that a worker could expect certain income payments in retirement that would supplement Social Security. The “wizard” that made those pension payouts was hidden behind a curtain. Two employees working for the same company at the same job for the same amount of time were entitled to the same pension payout.

In the past thirty years, companies have transitioned to a “defined contribution” plan. The company puts some defined amount in a tax-advantaged retirement account for the worker. Each worker can choose from a menu of investment choices. Two employees working at the same job for the same amount of time will have different amounts in their retirement account.

Workers now have choices, but with choice comes clarity or confusion. There are so many terms to understand. The distinction between an account, a mutual fund, an ETF and a security is unclear. An account at a mutual fund company like Vanguard or Fidelity might contain several types of securities. On the other hand, the same security might be held under two different accounts at Vanguard or Fidelity. No wonder some investors throw up their hands and wish that the wizard would have stayed behind the curtain!

I’ll try to clear up the confusion and create a top down hierarchy. People belong to the group of legal entities. Those entities can be account owners. An account owner has an account with an account holder, a financial trustee or custodian. Vanguard, Fidelity, or Charles Schwab are included in this group. Accounts come in two flavors, tax-advantaged and taxable. Accounts have securities. There are two types of securities, equity and debt, but for simplicity’s sake, let’s deal with that another time.

Let’s go down the hierarchy like a person might do with their family tree, only it’s going to be much simpler. Mary Smith is a legal entity. She is on the top line. Mary Smith is an account owner with Vanguard, Fidelity, and U.S. Bank. That’s the second line.

On the third line or level, Mary Smith has two accounts with Vanguard. One account is tax advantaged – a traditional IRA, Roth IRA, SEP-IRA, 401K, and 403B, for example. The other account is taxable. She has a tax-advantaged 403B account with Fidelity, and a tax-advantaged traditional IRA with U.S. Bank.

Each of those accounts holds one or more securities. That’s the fourth line. Here’s a chart of the hierarchy.

InvestHierarchy
The Vanguard IRA has two securities – a SP500 index fund and a bond index fund. The Fidelity 403B employee retirement account has one security – a balanced fund. The IRA account at U.S. Bank has just one security – the CD.

Each of those securities except the CD holds a basket of securities. That’s the fifth line, but let’s put that off to avoid complications.

There are two type of accounts: tax-advantaged and taxable. Tax-advantaged accounts include traditional IRA, Roth IRA, SEP-IRA, 401K, and 403B. All accounts incur a tax liability for income payments or capital gains – changes in the value, or principal, of the securities in the account. For tax-advantaged accounts, the taxes are deferred or forgiven (Roth IRAs) on the dividend income and capital gains.

Almost anyone can open an IRA, traditional or Roth. If you have not opened one up, think about it. Account custodians often waive a minimum deposit to open an IRA as long as you make an initial commitment to a regular contribution schedule.

Changing Dance Partners

October 14, 2018

by Steve Stofka

This week’s stock market activity helps us remember some simple rules of investing. Many of us confuse mass and weight. Mass is the resistance of an object to a change in speed or direction. Weight is the force of gravity on that object. Using this model, let’s compare the masses of stocks and bonds. On Wednesday, when stocks fell over 3%, the price of a broad bond composite barely moved.

Bonds act like a big cruise ship, more resistant to changes in wind and wave than a sailboat. The cruise ship’s progress is ponderous but predictable. Stocks behave like a sailboat which moves in a zig-zag fashion, changing directions to cope with wind and wave. Sometimes, the sailboat makes a lot of progress in calm waves with a favorable wind. November 2016 through January 2018 was one such period when stocks made steady progress.

On the previous Wednesday, October 3rd, a “rout” – a half-percent drop – in the bond market indicated a global unease. A half-percent move in the stock market occurs weekly. The last half-percent drop in the bond market was on March 1st 2017, eighteen months ago. Let’s look at that incident to help us understand the pattern.

BondStockMoves201703

Post-election, the stock market rose for three months, then plateaued for two weeks following that bond rout. Bonds drifted slightly lower and then, on March 15, 2017, charged higher by .6%. Within a few days, stocks lost 2-1/2%. On May 17th, bonds again surged, and stocks fell 2%.

The gigantic size of the bond market dwarfs the stock market. An infrequent daily shift in the pricing of the bond market signals a long-term recalculation of future risks and profits in both the bond and stock markets. When large shifts in the bond market happen frequently, stock investors should pay attention. Between Thanksgiving 2007 and the end of that year, the bond market experienced ten days of greater than 1/2% price swings! It signaled confusion and was a warning to stock investors that rough times were coming.

The bond market’s YTD price loss of 4% marks the probable end of a multi-decade bull market in bonds. The bond market is so stable that a small loss of 4% can mark the largest loss in decades.

We are seeing a change in dance partners. As an example, the stocks of high growth companies rose 20% from February lows. That was almost twice the gains of the SP500 broader market. Many of these are small and medium size companies whose growth is hampered by the greater cost of borrowing money in an environment of rising interest rates. The owners of growth stocks wanted to take some profits this past week but could not find buyers at those high prices. In the past week, prices of those stocks fell 8%. Cushioning the fall of some stocks is the large stockpile of cash – $350 billion – that U.S. companies have stockpiled for buybacks of their own stock. Some of that money was put to work in Friday’s recovery.

The U.S. stock market has been the one of the few bright spots in a global marketplace that has turned down this year. This week begins the reporting for the 3rd quarter earnings season so we may see more price swings in the days to come.

Work

April 1, 2018

by Steve Stofka

This week I’ll look at several aspects of work, from cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, to the minimum wage.

What is work? In general science or physics, the subject of “work” pictured a horse hitched to a pulley lifting a weight (an example). In one minute, the horse could lift so many pounds a foot in the air and that equaled so much horsepower. Thus we could reduce our definition of work to three components: weight, distance and time.

Even this mechanical definition of work illustrates a problem. If the horse lifted the weight, then let it down again, how would we know that the horse did any work? Should we give the horse a few cups of oats, or have we got a lazy horse?

A variation on that problem – I cut my lawn. My neighbor looks at my lawn and sees that work was done. In a week or two the grass has grown and time has erased any sign that I did work.

Thus, we need a way of recording work done. The product of the work performed may serve as a record. A big pyramid sitting on a desert is a permanent record that work was done. If workers dig holes in the ground, then fill the holes, how do we know any work was done? If they have dug up gold from those holes.

Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies (crypto) are assets like gold. They recognize that some work was done. Equipment, technology and workers were needed to dig up gold. Likewise, electricity was an important resource needed to generate a bitcoin, and even more electricity will be needed to generate a replacement bitcoin if one were lost.

This Politico article is an account of a crypto mining boom in a rural area in Washington state. The electricity consumed is enormous. The mighty Columbia River nearby provides electricity at a fifth of the average cost in the country. By the end of this year, there will be enough electrical capacity in this small area to power the equivalent of a tenth of the homes in Los Angeles. Shipping containers house computer servers which generate so much heat that the exhausted air melts the snow around the containers. As gold records the digging of dirt, a bitcoin records the expenditure of some quantity of electricity.

Assets can represent past work, future work, or a combination of the two. Precious metals, jewels, books and artistic works represent work done in the past. On the other hand, a machine represents future work. Other assets include stocks and bonds, both of which are claims on future work. A bond is a fixed limit claim on a company’s assets. In contrast, a share of stock is an undying claim on a portion of a company’s assets.

The blockchain algorithm behind crypto requires agreement among many parties to confirm a property right to the crypto. The recording of property rights might seem rather ordinary to a reader in the U.S. In some countries, however, property deeds are more easily altered by those in power. In contrast, a blockchain system of recording property rights prevents forgery and alteration.

As a record of work done, money relies on a relatively stable value. High inflation damages the money record of work done. Consequently, high inflation can fracture the social bonds among people. As an example, I cut someone’s lawn on Saturday and am paid. When I spend the money on Sunday, it is worth half the amount. In effect, the money has only recorded that I cut half a lawn. Examples of this hyper-inflation are Zimbabwe in the 2000s, and Yugoslavia in the 1990s (Wikipedia article). Look no further than Venezuela for a current example of the destruction that inflationary policies can have on a society.

Let’s turn from the recording of work done to the doing of it. New unemployment claims are at a 45 year low. A decade ago, job seekers despaired. In contrast, employees today are confident they will quickly find new employment. To illustrate, the quit rate is at the same pace as the mid-2000s, at the height of the housing boom. As a percent of the labor force, new unemployment claims are the lowest ever recorded. Last week’s numbers broke the record set in April 2000 at the height of the dot-com boom.

Equally important to the strength of a job market is the fate of marginal workers who are most vulnerable to the shifting tides of the economy. This includes disabled people who want to work. During the recession, the unemployment rate for disabled men of working age reached almost 20%. Today it is half that.

Let’s turn to another disadvantaged sector of the job market – those who work for minimum wage. The 1930s depression put many employers at an advantage in the job market. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA) enacted a wage floor, but many workers were not subject to the new law. In 1955, almost twenty years after passage of the law, “retail workers, service workers, agricultural workers, and construction workers were still not required to be paid at least the minimum wage” (article).

The minimum wage affects many lower paid workers who are making more than minimum wage. In some union jobs, starting wages for helpers are set by contract at a percentage above minimum wage. The understanding may be non-written in some cases. In 1966, the rate was increased from $1.25 per hour to $1.60 per hour. Non-union clerks at a NYC hospital who had been making $1.70 per hour now complained that they were making minimum wage. As a result of their pressure on management, they got a raise within a few months.

Here’s a chart showing the annual increases in the minimum wage for each period since 1950.

MinWagePctInc

In the three decades after World War 2, annual increases in the minimum wage exceeded inflation. Since 1977, the minimum wage standard has not kept pace with inflation.

MinWageLessCPI

If Congress truly represented all of their constituents, they would make the minimum wage adjust automatically with inflation. On the contrary, Congress represents only a small portion of their constituents, and the minimum wage is used as a political football.

Finally, there is the destruction of the record of past work by war. Every minute of every day, living requires calories, another measure of work. Therefore, each of us is a record of work done.  War destroys too many human records, and the unliving records of work like buildings, roads and bridges. Perhaps one day we will fight our battles in video games and stop destroying all those work records.

Smackdown

February 4, 2018

by Steve Stofka

We tell ourselves stories. Here’s one. The stock market fell over 2% on Friday so I sold everything. Here’s another story. After the stock market fell 2+% on Friday, the SP500 is up only 21% since 2/2/2017. Wait a second. 21%! What was the yearly gain just a few days earlier? 24%! Yikes! How did the market go up that much? Magic beans.

Here’s another story. Did you know that there has been a rout in the bond market? Yep, that’s how one pundit described it. A rout. Let’s look at a broad bond composite like the Vanguard ETF BND, which is down 4% since early September, five months ago.  The stock market can go down that much in a few days. Bonds stabilize a portfolio.

Two stories. Story #1. The Recession in 2008-2009 produced a gap between actual GDP and potential GDP that persists to this day. To try to close that gap, the Federal Reserve had to keep interest rates near zero for almost eight years and is only gradually raising interest rates in small increments.

Story #2. The Great Recession was an overcorrection in a return to normal. The GDP gap was closed by 2014. Here’s a chart to tell that story. It’s GDP since 1981. I have marked the linear trends. The first one is from 1981 through 1994. The second trend is an uptick in growth from 1995 to the present.

GDP1981-2018

What do these competing narratives mean? For two years the economy has been growing at trend. Should the Federal Reserve have started withdrawing stimulus sometime in 2015, instead of waiting till 2017? Perhaps chair Janet Yellen and other members were worried that the economy might not sustain the growth trend. A do-nothing incompetent Congress could not agree on fiscal policy to stimulate the economy.  The extraordinary monetary tools of the Federal Reserve were the only resort for a limping economy during the post-Recession period.

Ms. Yellen’s last day as Fed chair was Friday. She served four years as vice-Chair, then four years as chair. During her tenure, she was the most powerful woman in the history of this country. She was even-tempered in a politically contentious environment. She kept her cool when  testifying before the Senate Finance Committee.  A tip of the hat to Ms. Yellen.

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Performance

Vanguard recently released a comparison of their funds to the performance of all funds.

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Ten Year Review

January 14, 2018

by Steve Stofka

To ward off any illusions that I am an investing genius, I keep a spreadsheet summarizing the investments and cash flows of all my accounts, including savings and checking. Each year I compare my ten year returns to a simple allocation model using the free tool at Portfolio Visualizer. Below is a screen capture showing the ten-year returns for various balanced allocations during the past several years.

10YrReturn20180112
The two asset baskets are the total U.S. stock market and the total U.S. bond market. A person could closely replicate these index results with two ETFs from Vanguard: VTI and BND. Note that there is no exposure to global stocks because Portfolio Visualizer does not offer a Total World Stock Asset choice in this free tool. An investor who had invested in a world stock index (Vanguard’s VT, for example) could have increased their annual return about 1.3% using the 60/40 stock/bond mix.

I include my cash accounts to get a realistic baseline for later in life when my income needs will require that I keep a more conservative asset allocation. An asset allocation that includes 10% cash looks like this.

10YrReturnStkBondCash20180112
In the trade-off between return and risk, a balanced portfolio including cash earns a bit less. In 2017, the twenty-year return was not that different from the ten-year return. From 2009 through 2011, ten-year returns were impacted by two severe downturns in the stock market.

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The Hurt

Falling agricultural prices for seven years have put the hurt on many farmers. This decade may turn out to be as bad as the 1980s when many smaller farms went belly up because of declining prices. Remember the Farm Aid concerts?

The Bloomberg Agriculture Index has fallen about 40% over the past five years. While farmers get paid less for their produce, the companies who supply farmers with the tools and products to grow that produce are doing reasonably well. A comparison of two ETFs shows the divergence.

DBA is a basket of agricultural commodity contracts. It is down 33% over the past five years.
MOO is a basket of the stocks of leading agricultural suppliers. The five-year total return is 31%.

The large growers can afford to hedge falling prices. For family farmers, the decline in agricultural prices is a cut in pay. Imagine you were making $25 per hour at the beginning of 2017 and your employer started cutting your pay bit by bit as the year progressed? That’s what its like for many smaller farmers. They work just as hard and get paid less each year.

Guessing the Future

April 23, 2017

Human beings have an ability to foretell the future, or at least some people think so.  A more accurate description is that we predict the likelihood of future events based on past patterns.  Index funds average the predictions of buyers and sellers in a particular market.

During the recovery most active fund managers have underperformed their benchmark indexes. Standard & Poors, the creator and publisher of many indexes, provides a quick summary in their SPIVA spotlight. In the past five years, 88% of active fund managers have underperformed the SP500.  In a random world, I would expect that 50% of active fund managers would beat the index, and 50% of managers would underperform the index because the index is an average of all those buy sell decisions.

The 1% higher fees charged by active fund managers contribute mightily to this underperformance. Using long term averages, we expect that a third of active fund managers would beat their benchmark index.  The current percentage is only 12%. It is likely that the law of averages will eventually exert its pull.

Index funds mechanically rebalance regularly. Let’s look at a real life example.  The pharmaceutical giant Johnson and Johnson is a member of both the SP500 and the smaller group of core stocks that make up the Dow Jones index.  This week the company  reported first quarter revenues that were below expectations, and sellers promptly knocked 3% off the stock price.  Because most SP500 index funds are market weighted, index funds that mimic the weighting of the stocks in the index would buy and sell stocks in the index to capture these changes.

Because index funds are averaging the decisions of all stock investors, they should underperform. After all, the index funds are buying those companies that everyone else is buying, and selling companies that everyone else is selling.  Index funds are buying high and selling low, creating a drag on performance that is overcome by the lower fees charged by these funds.

In an article last fall in the Kiplinger newsletter, Steven Goldberg makes the case for a mix of both index and active funds.  Research shows that active fund mangers do better when an index does poorly.  It’s worth a read.

The index fund giant Vanguard is featured in a NY times article. John Bogle founded Vanguard based on his thesis that a passive approach to investing and low fees would reward most investors over the long term.

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Correlation, not Causation

When the stock market crashed in 1929, the unemployment rate was less than 3%.  A booming economy during the 1920s lifted demand for labor, while severe immigration restrictions enacted in 1924 reduced the supply of workers.

Unemploy1929-1942

The unemployment rate was 6% when the market crashed in October 1987 and again in September 2008. There seems to be a weak connection between unemployment and severe market crashes.  However, there is a consistent correlation between the change in number of unemployed and the start of recessions.

UnemployChange

A yearly increase in the number of unemployed on a percentage basis indicates a fundamental weakness in the economy.  Sometimes, the change reverses as it did in early 1996, at the start of the dot com boom, or in the mid-eighties after a downturn in oil and housing exposed a banking scandal. These two periods are circled in blue in the graph above.

Often the economy continues to weaken, more people lose their jobs, GDP falters and the economy slides into depression.

Because we cannot rely on just one indicator as a warning signal, we can chart the amount of production generated by each person in the labor force.  The civilian labor force includes both those who are working and those who are actively looking for work.  A growth rate below 1% indicates some weakness.  Using both the change in unemployment and the change in production helps filter out some of the noise.

While production growth may be faltering, the current unemployment level is not worrying.

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Pay Attention to the Pros

Institutional buyers and sellers of Treasury bonds will usually let the rest of us know when they are worried about a recession.  In a middling to healthy economy, Treasury buyers will demand a higher interest rate for a longer dated bond.  Subtracting the interest rate on a shorter term two year bond from a long term ten year bond should be positive.  In a “normal” environment, a 10 year bond might have an interest rate of 3% and a two year bond an interest rate of 1%.  The difference of 2% would be expected.  However, a negative result indicates that buyers want more interest from short term bonds because they are more concerned about short term risks.  As we can see in the chart below, a negative result precedes a recession by 12 to 18 months.  The current difference shows no indication of concern.

Guessing the future is not divination, nor is it perfect.  Retail investors may not have the time or expertise to estimate future risk, but we can study those who make it their business to manage risk.

U.S.S. Obamacare Sails On

In March 2000, I cursed myself as I watched the SP500 cross the 1500 mark for the first time. Almost a year earlier, I had given in to my conservative instincts and paid off the mortgage with some savings. In 1999, my choice had been partially driven by a suspicion that the stock market was a bit overvalued. In 2000, I could see I was wrong; that I just didn’t understand the new economy. Had I invested the money in the stock market, I would have made 15% in less than a year.

When I set the time machine to election day 2016, I see that the index stood at about 2130, 40% higher than the 2000 benchmark. But wait. An asset is only worth what I can trade it for. Year by year, inflation erodes the real value of that asset. When I compare real values (BLS inflation calculator), the SP500 index on election day was almost exactly what it was in March 2000.

As the year 2000 passed into 2001 and the stock market fell from its heights, my decision to invest in real estate exemplified a golden word in investing: diversify.

Since the election, the SP500 has risen about 10%, as investors speculated that Republicans will usher in a new era of de-regulation and lower taxes. By mid-March, banking stocks had shot up over 25%. This past Monday, the 20th, the Freedom Caucus confirmed that they had the “no” votes necessary to block Thursday’s scheduled House vote on the Republican health care bill, AHCA. Banking and financial stocks, thought to be the biggest beneficiaries of less regulation, higher interest rates, and infrastructure spending, lost 5% over several days.

The Freedom Caucus is a group of 30-40 Republican House members who came to office in 2010 on the Tea Party wave. Led by North Carolina Representative Mark Meadows, the Caucus adheres strongly to conservative principles as they define them. They are chiefly responsible for driving out the former House Speaker, John Boehner. While strict adherence to principle – “my way or no way” – worked well as an opposition movement when Obama was President, the Caucus’ unwillingness to compromise is problematic under the current one-party rule. Can Republicans govern?

Paul Ryan, the current Speaker of the House, delayed the vote until Friday. House leadership and the White House tried to come to some compromise that would bring the Freedom Caucus on board without alienating the more moderate Republican members. With no support from Democrats, the additional no votes from the Freedom Caucus meant that Ryan could not muster the majority needed to pass the bill. Shortly before the scheduled vote at 4 PM on Friday, Ryan called off the vote.

The stock market is a herd attempt to predict and price what the world will be like in six months. As events catch up with forecasts, stock prices correct. Passage of the bill was supposed to be a key step toward tax reform if the Republicans want to pass a tax bill using Reconciliation rules, which require only a majority in the Senate.

With more than a half hour left in the trading day, the market had time to sell off 2 – 3%. And? Nothing. Did the bulls and bears cancel each other out in a flurry of trading? Nope. There was no unusual surge of volume in stocks. Either the market had already priced in the defeat of the AHCA, or buyers and sellers were left undecided.

Investors take a “risk off” approach during periods of uncertainty, moving toward gold (GLD) and long dated treasuries (TLT). Both have risen a few percent in the past two weeks but each is short of their January and February highs. Since mid-March, the SP500 (SPY) has lost a few percent. This tells me that investors had already adopted a more cautious stance.

President Trump has indicated that he wants to move on to tax reform and an infrastructure bill as well as the building of some type of defense perimeter on the border with Mexico. Perhaps investors hope that the lack of cohesion among Republicans on the health care bill will not sidetrack them from passage of these other bills.
The defeat of this bill is sure to empower the Freedom Caucus on further legislation. They were a thorn in John Boehner’s side and will no doubt frustrate Paul Ryan as well.

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Existing Home Sales

We had a warm February in most of the country. Realtors reported good foot traffic but, but, but…a lack of affordable housing has turned away many first time home buyers. Home prices have been rising at double the growth in wages. While Feb’s numbers declined from a strong January, YTD existing home sales are more than 5% ahead of last year’s pace.

Regional declines varied: the northeast at -14% and the midwest at -7% led the list. The decline in the west was almost -4% but cities in California and Colorado report the fastest turnaround times from listing to sale. The San Jose region reported an average of 23 days.

Here’s February’s report from the National Assn of Realtors

Money Flows

Since the election, the SP500 index has risen about 10%. A broad bond composite has lost about 3%. Investors are clearly willing to take on a bit more risk. Prices are generally a good indicator of trend, but let’s take a few minutes to look at the flows of money into various investment products to understand the shifts in sentiment and confidence.  In the first two weeks of February the flows of money have been staggering.

The Investment Company Institute (ICI) tracks (Stats) the money flows into long-term equity and bond mutual funds as well as hybrid funds that contain both stocks and bonds (Target date funds, for example).  ICI also includes data on ETFs that can be bought and sold like stocks during the trading day. To avoid confusion, I’ll use “products” to describe combined data of mutual funds and ETFs. These long-term products reflect investors’ broader outlook on the market and economy rather than a short-term trading opportunity. For most of 2016, investors withdrew money from equities. Since the election, there has been a surge of $45 billion into equity products, causing a surge in prices.

icifundflows2014-2016

Financial advisors recommend some combination of both stocks and bonds for most investors. Let’s look at the money flows into bond products over the past year. When investors withdraw money from stocks, they tend to put them in bonds or money market funds, a shift from risk to safety.

Older people are more cautious and have more of a preference for the price stability and dividends of bond products. The aging population and the painful memories of the financial crisis prompted a rush into bond mutual funds. The cumulative money flows into bond funds has increased from $500 billion in the summer of 2008 just before the financial crisis to over $2 trillion in 2015. (ICI chart)

icibondflows2005-2015

In the chart below we can see inflows into bonds during 2016, counterbalancing the outflows from equities. Since the election, investors have shifted $17 billion from bonds to riskier equity products. Not shown here was a further outflow of $20 billion from balanced hybrid products containing both stocks and bonds.

icibondflows2014-2016
Let’s review those totals. In November and December, there was a net INflow of $8 billion. Compare that with the $43 billion OUTflow in November and December 2015. Clearly, there was an increased appetite for risk. In 2015 and 2016, inflows into stock, bond and hybrid products declined rather dramatically from 2014’s totals.

icistockbondhybrid2014-16

In the first six weeks of this year, that lack of confidence has disappeared. Investors have pumped $63 billion into stock, bond and hybrid products, almost as much as the $74 billion invested in ALL of 2016. Should that pace continue – unlikely, yes – the inflow would be about $550 billion, far outpacing the inflows of 2014.  Over $40 billion of that $63 billion has come in during the first two weeks of February.  That is a $1.1 trillion annual pace. Where has this 2 week surge of money gone?  Half into equity – about $20 billion – and half into bonds -about $20 billion.

Had that money surge gone mostly into equities or mostly into bonds, I would be especially worried of a mini-bubble.  As I wrote last week, I am concerned that anticipated profits have already been priced in. Somewhat reassuring is the Buddha-like balance of flows – the “middle way.”

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Tools

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