Portfolio Mix

October 23, 2016

About 30 years ago, after a series of social security and income tax increases in the early ’80s, I had a spirited discussion with my dad about what I thought was a transfer of money from my generation to his.  Extremely low interest rates for the past eight years have reversed that process.  Millions of older Americans who have saved throughout their working years are getting paid almost nothing on that part of their savings held in safe accounts.  Older Americans take less risk with their savings and it is precisely these safer investments that have suffered under the ZIRP, or Zero Interest Rate Policy, of the Federal Reserve.  That money is implicitly transferred to younger generations who pay less interest for their auto loans, for their mortgages, for funds to start a business.

The chairwoman of the Fed, Janet Yellen, is at the leading edge of the Boomer generation born just after WW2.  No doubt she and other members of the FOMC are well aware of the difficulties ZIRP  has had on other members of her generation. Because the Boomers have been a third of the population as they grew up, they had a consequential effect on the country’s economy and culture.  Their income taxes have funded the socialist policies of the Great Society.  They have funded the recovery from the Great Recession.  Ten years from now politicians will regretfully announce that, in order to save Social Security, they must means test Social Security benefits to reduce payments to retirees with greater assets.  Once again, politicians will tap the Boomers for money to fund the policy mistakes that politicians have made for the past few decades.

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Portfolio Mix

Each year Warren Buffett writes a letter to shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway, the holding company led by Buffett.  His 2013 letter made news when Buffett recommended that, after this death, his wife should invest their personal savings in a simple manner: 90% in a low-cost SP500 fund, and 10% in a short term bond fund, an aggressive mix usually thought more appropriate for younger investors.  Earlier this year, a reader of CNN Money asked if that would be a practical idea for an older investor approaching or in retirement.

After running several Monte Carlo simulations, the advice was NO, but the reason here is interesting.  The 90-10 mix does quite well but has a lot of volatility, more than many older investors can stomach.  An investor in their late 40s or early 50s who is making some good money might relish a market downturn.  Could be twenty years to retirement so buy, buy, buy while stocks are on sale.  If they go down more, buy more.

The sentiment might be entirely different if the investor is ten years older.  Preservation of principle becomes more of a concern.  Why is this?  Let’s look at a sixty year old woman who plans on working till she is seventy so that she can collect a much bigger Social Security (SS) check.  During her retirement years she will have to sell some of the equities she has in a retirement fund or taxable account to supplement her SS check.  However, the majority of those sales won’t take place for 15 – 20 years.  Why then is she more concerned about a market downturn than she might have been at 50 years old?  Do we simply feel more fragile at 60 than we do at 50?  I suppose it’s different for each person but, in the aggregate, older investors are more cautious even if the probability math says they don’t have to be as careful.

With two weeks to go before the election, the stock market has lost some of its spring/summer fire.  Looking back 18 months, the market has had little direction and is now about the same price it was in January 2015.  Companies in the SP500 have reported five consecutive quarters of losses, and the analytics firm Fact Set estimates that there will be a small loss in this third quarter of the year, making six losses.  Energy companies have been responsible for the bulk of these losses, so there has not been a strong reaction to the losses in the index as a whole.

BND, a Vanguard ETF that tracks a broad composite of bonds, is just slightly below a summer peak that mimicked peaks set in the summer of 2012 and again in January 2015.  However, this composite has traded within a small percentage range for the past two years.  In fact, the same price peaks near $84 were reached in 2011 and 2012.  Once the price hits that point, buyers lose some of their enthusiasm and the price begins to decline.  Most of us may think that bonds are rather safe, a steadying factor in our portfolio.  Few people are alive that remember the last bear market in bonds because this current bull market is about thirty years old.

Oil has been gaining strength this year.  An ETF of long-dated oil contracts, USL, is up about 15% this year.  Because it has a longer time frame, it mitigates the effects of contango, a situation where the future price of a commodity like oil is less than the current price.  As the ETF rolls over the monthly contracts, there is a steady drip-drip-drip loss of money. Short term ETFs like USO suffer from this problem.  Of course, long term bets on the direction of oil prices have been big losers.  In 2009, USL sold for about $85.  Today it sells at about $20. Here is a monthly chart from FINVIZ, a site with an abundance of fundamental information on stocks, as well as charting and screening tools. The site gives away a lot of information for free and there is a premium version for those who want it.

These periods of low volatility may entice investors into taking more chances than they are comfortable with so each of us should re-assess our tolerance for volatility.  In early 2015 there was a 10% correction in the market over two months.  How did we feel then?  The last big drop was almost 20% in the summer of 2011, more than five years ago.  The really big one was more than eight years ago and memories of those times may have dimmed.  If you do have easy access to some of your old statements, a quick look might be enough to remind you of those bad old days when it seemed like years of savings just melted away from one monthly statement to the next.

Yes, we are due for a correction but we can never be really sure what will trigger it and these things don’t run on schedule.  On a final, dark note – price corrections are like our next illness. We know it’s coming.  We just don’t know when.

Income and GDP

March 30th, 2014

Business Activity

The Institute for Supply Mgmt (ISM) and Markit Economics are two private companies that survey purchasing managers and release the results in the first week of each month. Toward the end of each month Markit releases what is called a “Flash PMI”, an early indication of activity for the month.  This month’s flash index of manufacturing activity declined slightly but is still showing strong growth.  New orders are showing strong growth at a reading of 58.  The Flash reading of the services sector rose to over 55 but this is a mixed report, with only tepid growth in employment and backlogs actually in a slight contraction.  The most remarkable feature of this report was the 78.1 index of business expectations, an outstandingly optimistic reading. This Flash index gives investors a glimpse of the full survey reports from ISM and Markit that will be released in the first week of next month.

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On the other hand…

The monthly report of durable goods indicates a rather tepid 1-1/2% year over year growth.  This excludes planes, autos, and other transportation orders.  Including those components, there has been no yearly growth.

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Stick with the plan, Stan…

Rising equity and real estate markets have been good for a lot of people. A Bankrate.com blog noted the number of people entering the ranks of millionaires in 2012.  Toward the end of this report was an important lesson: “60 percent of investors worth $5 million or more say they’ll invest in equities this year, while 31 percent of those worth $100,000 to $1 million plan to do the same.”  Hmmm…rich people are not buying into the prophecy prediction analysis that the market will crash this year.  Could they be sticking with a plan that  allocates investments across a variety of assets, including stocks?

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Personal Income

This week, the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) released February’s estimate of personal income.  Real, or inflation adjusted, disposable personal income (DPI), rose 2.1%, a decline from January’s 2.75% increase but above the 1% that has historically led to recessions.

A few weeks ago I noted that annual DPI had dropped below 1% in 2013.  Contributing to the weak year over year comparison was the high spike in income in the fourth quarter of 2012 when many companies “paid forward” both dividends and bonuses in December in advance of tax increases scheduled for 2013.

While this may have been a contributing factor to the decline, it would be a  mistake to give it too much weight.  The growth in personal income has been relatively weak and it shows in the consumer spending index released this week.  The .1% year over year increase – essentially zero – indicates consumer demand that is too weak to put any upward pressure on prices.  Sensing this, businesses are less likely to invest in growth.  Less investment growth means that employment gains will be modest, which further reinforces modest economic growth.

The stock market trades on profit growth.  Standard and Poors reports that 4th quarter earnings for the companies in the SP500 rose 9.8%, accelerating from the 6.0% growth in the 3rd quarter of 2013.  A moderately improving economy and only modest growth in investment has helped boost profits.  Profits are expected to rise 11% in the second half of 2014.

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GDP

The third estimate of GDP growth in the fourth quarter of last year was 2.6%, in line with consensus estimates.  In her testimony before Senate Finance Committee two weeks ago, Fed chairwoman Janet Yellen noted that we may be in for an extended period of slow growth below the fifty year average of 3%.

Three weeks ago I looked at GDP and the personal savings rate.  This week I’ll look at per hour GDP.  Readers should understand that this is what some economists would call a messy data set.  I have made some assumptions about the number of hours worked per employee.  The BLS publishes average hours worked for manufacturing employees and I made a guesstimate that the average for all workers is about 90% of that.  The number of part time employees who do not work this amount of hours offsets the unreported hours of the self-employed.  I am less concerned about the absolute accuracy of the GDP output per hour worked but that any inaccuracies be fairly consistent.  The trend is more important than the actual numbers.  What can we learn when output per hour flattens or declines?  Below is a graph of sixty five years.

We can see that flat growth tends to precede recessions but there is no definite pattern where we can say with any confidence that a flattening or decline in per hour GDP necessarily precludes a recession.  If we zoom in on the past thirty years, we do notice that the preceding decade has been marked by long periods of flat growth.  More importantly, the recovery from this past recession is marked by the longest period of flat growth in the history of the series.

The summer of 2009 marked the official end of this past recession.  For five years there has been no increase in real GDP per hour worked.  For a few years following a recession in the early 1990s, per hour GDP flattened before taking off in the late 1990s.

Does this flat growth represent a pruning of the economic tree before a surge of new growth? Or does it presage an even worse recession? Is the economy locked inside a limbo of limp growth for years to come, echoing the two decades of little growth in Japan’s economy?  Whatever happens, we can be certain of one thing – the trend and pattern will be so much more obvious in the future simply because we will disregard some past data based on what happens in the future.

As we make investment decisions, we should remember that the “obvious” patterns we see when we look back were much less clear at the time.  Sure there will be investment gurus who tell us that they saw it coming.  We forget that they also saw the depressions of 1994, 1998, 2000, 2004, 2006 and 2011 – the ones that didn’t happen.

Let’s look a bit more closely at recent periods of flat growth.  The recovery from the recession of 1991 was marked by a painfully slow recovery in the job market.  After a 30% rise over three years, the market stumbled.

There’s a story to be told when we look at the growth in the market index and per hour GDP.  Whether it is by coincidence or not, there is a loose response of the market to changes in output.

After another slow recovery from the recession of 2001, the market began to climb in 2004.

But this time the market was not responding to the flattening growth in per hour output.

In the past four years, there has been little growth in output per hour.

But the market has doubled over that time.

Part of that recovery can be attributed to the market simply reversing the decline of 2008 and early 2009, but a good 40% increase in market value can be attributed to the greater share of output that companies have been able to convert to profit. (See last week’s blog)  How long that trend can and will continue is anyone’s guess but we know that it can not go on forever.  Flat revenue growth makes growing profits an ever more difficult task.

The flat growth in per hour output gives us perhaps another insight into the so-so growth in employment.  Without a clear vision of a stimulus that will spur growth, companies are reluctant to commit to plans for an expansion of their work force.

Winter Wonderland

December 8th, 2013

The Bureau of Labor Statistics rode down like Santy Claus on the arctic front that descended on a large part of the U.S. The monthly labor report showed a net gain of 203,000 jobs in November, below the 215,000 private job gains estimated by ADP earlier in the week, but 10% higher than consensus forecasts.  Thirty eight months of consecutive monthly job growth shows that either:

1) President Obama is an American hero who has steered this country out of the worst recession – wait, let me capitalize that – the worst Recession since the Great Depression, or

2) American businesses and Republican leadership in the House have overcome the policies of the worst President in the history of the United States. 

Hey, we got some Hyperbole served fresh and hot courtesy of our radio and TV!

The unemployment rate dropped to 7.0% for the right reasons, i.e. more people working, rather than the wrong reasons, i.e. job seekers simply giving up.  The combination of continued strong job gains and a big jump in consumer confidence caused the market to go “Wheeee!”

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A broader measure of unemployment which includes those who want work but haven’t looked for a job in the past four weeks declined to 7.5%.  This is still above the high marks of the recessions of the early 90s and 2000s.

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Construction employment suffered severe declines after the collapse of the housing bubble.  We are concerned not only with the level of employment but the momentum of job growth as the sector heals.  A slowing of momentum in 2012 probably factored into the Fed’s decision to start another round of QE in the fall of last year.

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Job gains were broad, including many sectors except federal employment, which declined 7,000. Average hours worked per week rose by a tenth to 34.5 hours and average hourly pay rose a few cents to $24.15.

Discouraged job seekers are declining as well.  The number of involuntary part time workers fell by 331,000 to 7.7 million in November.  As shown in graph below, the decline is sure but slow.

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There are still some persistent trends  of slow growth.  Job gains in the core work force aged 25 -54 are practically non-existent.

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The percentage of the labor force that is working edged up after severe declines this year but the trend is down, down and more down.

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The number of people working as a percent of the total population has flatlined.

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Let’s turn to two sectors, construction and manufacturing, which primarily employ men.  The ratio of working men to the male population continues to decline.  Look at the pattern over 60 years: a decline followed by a leveling before the next decline, and so on.  Contributing to this decline is the fact that men are living longer due to more advanced medical care and a fall in cigarette smoking.

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The taxes of working people have to pay for a lot of social programs and benefits that they didn’t have to pay for thirty years ago.  Where will the money come from?  A talk show host has an easy solution: tax the the Koch Brothers, cut farm subsidies to big corporations and defense.  Taking all the income from the Kochs and cutting farm subsidies and defense by half will produce approximately $560 billion, not enough to make up for this year’s budget deficit, the lowest in 4 years.  What else?

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In a healing job market, those aged 16 and up who are not in the labor force as a percent of the total population  continues to climb.

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A familiar refrain is the steady decline in manufacturing employment.  Recently the decline has been arrested and there is even slight growth in this sector.  Although construction is regarded as a separate sector, construction is a type of manufacturing.  Both employment sectors appeal to a similar type of person.  Both manufacturing and construction have become more sophisticated, requiring a greater degree of specialized knowledge.  Let’s look at employment trends in these two sectors and how they complement each other.

During the 90s, a rise in construction jobs helped offset moribund growth in manufacturing employment.

In 2001, China became a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) , enabling many manufacturers to ship many lower skilled jobs to China.  At the same time, a recession and the horrific events of 9/11 halted growth in the construction sector so that there was not any offset to the decline in manufacturing jobs.

As the economy began recovering in late 2003, the rise in construction jobs more than offset the steadily declining employment in the manufacturing sector.  People losing their jobs in manufacturing could transition into the construction trades.

As the housing sector slowed, construction jobs declined and the double whammy of losses in both sectors had a devastating effect on male employment.

In the past three years, both sectors have improved.

Although the Labor Dept separates two sectors, we can get a more accurate picture of a trend by combining sectors.

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In the debate over the effectiveness of government stimulus, there is a type of straw man example proposed:  what if the government were to pay people to dig holes, then pay other people to fill in the holes?  Proponents of Keynesian economics and government stimulus argue that such a policy would help the economy.  Employed workers would spend that money and boost the economy. Those of the Austrian school argue that it would not.  Digging and filling holes has no productive value.  Ultimately it is tax revenues that must pay for that unproductive work.  Therefore, digging and filling holes would hurt the economy.

So, let’s take a look at unemployment insurance through a different set of glasses.  Politicians and the voters like to attach the words “insurance” and “program” to all sorts of government spending.  Regardless of what we call it, unemployment insurance is essentially paying people to dig and fill holes – except that the holes are imaginary.  IRS regulations state that unemployment benefits are income, that they should be included in gross income just as one would include wages, salaries and many other income.

If unemployment is income, how many workers do the various unemployment programs “hire” each year?  Unemployment benefits  vary by state, ranging from 1/2 to 2/3 of one’s weekly wage. (Example in New Jersey)  As anyone who has been on unemployment insurance can verify, it is tough to live on unemployment benefits. I used the average weekly earnings for people in private industry and multiplied that by 32 weeks to get an average pay, as though governments were hiring part time workers.  I then divided unemployment benefits paid each year by this average.  Note that the divisor, average pay, is higher than the median pay, so this conservatively understates the number of workers that are “hired” each year by state and federal governments.

What is the effect of “hiring” these workers?  I showed the adjusted total (blue) and the unadjusted total of unemployed and involuntary part time workers.  The green circle in the graph below illustrates the effect that extensions of unemployment insurance had on a really large number of unemployed people.

At its worst in the second quarter of 2009, the unemployed plus those involuntary part timers totaled 24 million, almost 16% of those in the labor force.  8 million were effectively “hired” to dig imaginary holes.  In the long run, what will be the net effect of paying people to dig holes and fill them?  First of all, a politician can’t indulge in long run thinking.  In a crisis, most politicians will sacrifice long run growth so that they can appease the voters and keep their own jobs.

In the long run, ten years for example, paying people to do nothing productive will hurt the economy.  The argument is how much?   Keynes himself wrote that his theory of stimulus and demand only worked when there was a short run fall in demand.  At the time Keynes wrote his “General Theory,” the world economy was floundering around in a severe depression.  The severe crisis of the Depression birthed a theory that divided the economists into two groups: the tinkerers and the non-tinkerers.  Keynesian economists believe in tinkering, that adjusting the carburetor of the economic engine will get that baby purring.  Austrian or classical economists keep asking the Keynesians to stop messing with the carburetor; that all these adjustments only make the economy worse in the long run.

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The November report from the Institute for Supply Management (ISM) showed strong to robust growth in the both the manufacturing and services sectors.  As I noted this past week, I was expecting the composite CWI index of these reports that I have been tracking to follow the pattern it has shown for the past three years.  Within this expansion, there is a wave like formation of surging growth followed by an easing period that has become shorter and shorter, indicating a growing consistency in growth.  The peak to peak time span has decreased from 13 months, to 11 months to 7 months.  The index showed a peak in September and October so the slight decline is following the pattern.   IF – a big if – the pattern continues, we might expect another peak in April to May of 2014.

To get some context, here’s a ten year graph of the CWI vs the SP500 index.

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As the stock market makes new highs each week, some financial pundits get out of bed each morning, saddle up their horses, load up their latest book in the saddle bags and ride through TV land yelling “The crash is coming, the crash is coming.”  Few people would listen to them if they shouted “Buy my book, buy my book.”  They sell a lot more books yelling about the crash.

How frothy is the market?  I took the log of the SP500 index since January 1980 and adjusted it for inflation using the CPI index.  I then plotted out what the index would be if it grew at a steady annualized rate of 5.2%.   Take 5.2%, add in 3% average inflation and 2% dividends and we get the average 10% growth of the stock market over the past 100 years.  The market doesn’t look too frothy from this perspective.  In fact, the financial crisis brought the market back to reality and since then, we have followed this 100 year growth rate.

Now, let’s crank up the wayback machine.  It’s November 1973.  Despite the signing of the Paris Peace accord and an act of Congress to end the Vietnam war, thousands of young American men are still dying in Vietnam.  The Watergate hearings continue to reveal evidence that President Nixon was involved in the break in of the Democratic National Committee and the subsequent attempts to cover it up.  Rip Van Winkle is disgusted.  “This country is going to the dogs,” he mutters to himself.  He lies down to take a nap in an alleyway of the theater district of New York City.  The SP500 index is just below 100.  Well, Rip doesn’t wake up for 20 years.  In November 1993, he wakes up, walks out on Broadway and grabs a paper out of nearby newspaper machine.  The SP500 index is 462.  Rip doesn’t have a calculator but can see that the index has doubled a bit more than twice in that time.  Using the rule of 72 (look it up), Rip estimates that the stock market has grown about 8% per year.  Which is just about normal.  But normal is what Rip left behind in 1973.  “Normal” is SNAFU.  So he goes back into the alleyway and goes back to sleep for another twenty years, waking up just this past month.  He walks out on Broadway and reads that the index has passed 1800.  “Harumph” Rip snorts.  That’s two doublings in twenty years, a growth rate of a little over 7%.  Rip reasons that eventually he’ll wake up, the country will have mended its ways and Rip will notice a growth rate of 9 – 10% in the market index.  He goes back to sleep.

In the 40 years that Rip has been asleep, we have had three bad recessions in the 70s, 80s and 2000s, a savings and loan crisis in the 80s, an internet bubble, a housing bubble, and the mother of all financial crises.  Yet the market plods along, slowing a bit, speeding up a bit.  Long term investors needs to take a Rip Van Winkle perspective.

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And now, let’s hop in the wayback machine – well, a little ways back.  Shocks happen.  During periods when the market is relatively well behaved as it has been this year, investors get lulled into a sense of well being.  From July 2006 through February 2007, the stock market rose 20%.  Steadily and surely it climbed.  Housing prices had already reached a peak and the growth of corporate profits was slowing. Some market watchers cautioned that fundamentals did not support market valuations. At the end of February 2007, the Chinese government announced steps to curb excessive speculation in the Shanghai stock market (CNN article).  The stocks of Chinese companies tumbled almost 10%, sending shocks through markets around the world.  The U.S. stock market dropped more than 5% in a week.

“Here comes the crash” was the cry from some. The crash didn’t come.  Over the next six months, the market climbed 16%.  Finally, continuing declines in home sales and prices, growing mortgage defaults and poor company earnings began to eat away at the market in October 2007.  Remember, there is still almost a year to the big crash in September and October of 2008.

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Next week I’ll put on a different shade of glasses to look at inflation.  Cold air, go back to the North Pole.

Investing, New Orders, Small Business

December 4th, 2013

This will be a mid-week post of various items I thought were interesting.  The private payroll processor ADP is showing private employment growth 215,000, about 15% above expectations.  This weekend, I’ll cover the employment situation and some long term trends.

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When we buy bonds, we are buying someone’s debt. Really what we are buying is the likelihood that they will pay that debt.  When we buy stocks, we are buying someone’s profits – or the future prospects of those profits.  The S&P500 is an index of the 500 largest domestic corporations.  The BEA tracks the profits of all domestic corporations, not just the 500 largest, before tax adjustments. It is rather interesting to look at the ratio of the SP500 index to corporate profits, in billions.

Using this metric, the exuberance of the internet bubble is striking, far surpassing the housing bubble of the 2000s. It was a time when investment was high in the new digital economy.  The ingenuity of man had finally overcome the business cycle.   The ratio of stock prices to profits didn’t matter because profits were about to go through the roof, man!

Well, it would take a while but eventually profits did go through the roof.  It took a few years.  As a percentage of the nation’s GDP, corporation profits are near 11%.

So pick the story you want to tell.  1) Stocks are undervalued based on historical ratios of prices to profits.  2) Stocks are going to crash because corporate profits are too much a percentage of the economy, an unsustainable situation.  Both narratives are out there in the business press.

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New orders for non-defense capital goods excluding aircraft has been declining of late.

Below is a chart showing the year over year percent gains in new orders and the SP500 index.  There is a loose correlation.  The stock market is usually responding to predictions of future activity as well as political and financial news.   I modified the changes in the SP500 by a little more than half to show the overall trend.

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In 2012, households finally surpassed 2007 levels of net worth.   In the past five years, household assets have risen by a third, more than $14 trillion dollars. More than half of that increase is the rise in stock asset values. In that same period, liabilities have decreased slightly from the $20 trillion.  All of the decrease and more is in mortgages.  This table shows the unsustainable growth in net worth during the housing boom.

Check out the growth in household debt during the housing boom.  Over 10% per year!  Now look at the growth in Federal debt.  There are only two years where it falls below 5%.  Someone once said something like “What can’t go on forever, won’t”.  How long can a government increase its debt 4x, 5x, 10x the rate of inflation or the rate of economic growth?

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A short and very informative book on investing by William Bernstein.

Deep Risk: How History Informs Portfolio Design (Investing for Adults)
William Bernstein

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Words of caution:

“A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have.” – Gerald Ford

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Gallup’s survey of consumer spending in November was the strongest November in 5 years.  On the other hand, early reports of the y-o-y gains in retail spending over the 4 day Thanksgiving weekend indicated a meager 2.3%, barely above inflation.  Same store sales at department stores declined -2.8% in the Thanksgiving/Black Friday week, although they are up 2.5% year over year.  As I wrote about two weeks ago, online shopping is now a significant portion, 20%, of total retail sales.  A more complete feel for the consumer’s mood must include sales on Cyber Monday, the Monday after Thanksgiving.  These showed exceptional gains of 17% over last year’s numbers.

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ISM’s Manufacturing index was 57.3, the strongest in 2-1/2 years.  I’ll update the CWI after I input today’s numbers from the non-manufacturing report.  I was expecting a slight tapering in the composite.  As we saw a few weeks ago, there has been a positive wavelike action and it appeared as though the economy had hit a crest in October.

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In 2010, the Census Bureau reported that there were 5.7 million employers (those with payroll, as opposed to sole proprietors), a decrease of 300,000 from the 6 million employers the Census Bureau counted in 2007.  About 5.1 million employers had less than 20 employees and accounted for 14% of the $5 trillion in payroll. Those small to mid-size companies with 20 to 99 employees accounted for another 14% of payroll.  Mega-employers, those with 500 or more employees, paid out about 57% of total payroll in 2010 and constitute a little more than half of private employment.  These large employers naturally have more influence on policy makers in Washington and in state capitols throughout the nation.

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The National Federation of Independent Businesses’ (NFIB) recent monthly survey reported a fairly sharp decline in sentiment among small business owners. A hopeful sign in this report is the improvement in expectations for future sales.  Sentiment was particularly depressed over the shenanigans in Washington and pessimism towards the regulatory environmnent is near all time highs. A blend of small cap stocks has risen about 36% in the past year.  Small cap value stocks have soared 40%.

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An interesting historical note from the Social Security administration.  As  preamble, Social Security taxes are collected and put in a “separate” accounting fund before they are immediately “borrowed” for the general spending needs of the Federal government.

 President Roosevelt strenuously objected to any attempt to introduce general revenue funding into the program. His famous quote on the importance of the payroll taxes was: “We put those payroll contributions there so as to give the contributors a legal, moral, and political right to collect their pensions and unemployment benefits. With those taxes in there, no damn politician can ever scrap my social security program.” 

In 1937, the Supreme Court ruled that the Social Security Act was constitutional.  The majority opinion, penned by Justice Cardozo: “The hope behind this statute [the Social Security Act] is to save men and women from the rigors of the poor house as well as from the haunting fear that such a lot awaits them when journey’s end is near.”

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Quite often, our auto or homeowner’s insurance company changes insurance plans on us.  The insurance company sends us a notice that, due to legislative changes or revised company policy, there is a new codicil to all insurance contracts.  Premiums may go up.  The insurance company’s liability may be reduced. Your old plan is being cancelled and reissued with a “-1A” after the policy number. Some of us may skim read the new changes, most of us shrug and sign the new contract and that is the end of the story.  Imagine the headlines: “MINIMUM DEDUCTIBLE RAISED TO 1% OF HOME’S VALUE.  ALL HOMEOWNERS’ INSURANCE CONTRACTS CANCELLED.”  This is what happens.  The old insurance contract is no longer available.

What is the response when the same thing happens to private health insurance  plans under Obamacare?  “Obamacare Forces over 800,000 in N.J. to change insurance plans” is the bold caption of one news story.  People who are unsympathetic to the new health care law will not make the distinction between “insurance plan” and “insurance carrier.”

200 Day Nudges Higher

The market is a reflection of hope and fear, of world events that affect each of us, our jobs, our families, our schools, churches and neighborhoods.  The 200 day moving average moves through the minute gyrations of the daily market like a great leviathan, changing its course only gradually.  If you are a Star Wars fan, think of the 200 day as The Force.

For the long term investor, it is wise to buy or sell as this average changes direction.  When we compare a month’s (21 trading days) average of the 200 day to the previous month’s average, we can see these changes in direction.  At the onset of the recession in 1990, the S&P 500 index dropped about 17%.  The recession was fairly short but it was a jobless recovery.  From the October 1990 trough to the end of 1993, the index climbed 60%, then paused and stumbled.

Almost 3 years after the recession had officially ended in March 1991, the unemployment rate was still a lofty 6.5%.

Due in part to the jobless recovery, the federal debt had risen 50% in the four years of 1990 through the end of 1993 and would continue it’s relentless march upwards for several more years.

 

In 1994, the 200 day average waggled in indecision, barely moving during that summer before nudging upwards in August, then falling again in November, before making its decisive move upwards in 1995.  In six years, the index would more than double.  When the 200 day began to roll over in the fall of 2000, the wise long term investor listened to that slow heartbeat and headed for the exits.  In the middle of May 2003, the 200 day began another 4-1/2 year climb up before rolling over in Jan. 2008.  18 months later, the 200 day began yet another climb after the steep descent of the financial crisis of 2008.  Just this past September, the 200 day signaled exit after a tumultuous summer and before continuing unrest in the fall.

A person investing in the S&P500 index who turned when the 200 day average turned would have made 460%, including dividends, on their money since 1994, 81% in the past ten years and that doesn’t include money that could be made in interest while their money sat safely outside of the market mayhem. 

In the last quarter of 2011, the 200 day moving average had been slightly declining but largely flatlining – unchanged – since the beginning of August. A week ago, it nudged higher.  Will this be like the nudge higher in August 1994 that may reverse in a month or two?  Could be. Although the signals of the 200 day average are relatively few, a prudent investor would monitor the situation every week in case this is a “waggle” and not the beginning of a move up.

Convergence

There are four commonly used moving averages used to gauge stock prices.  The 20 day (20MA) average is about a month’s market activity.  Common longer term averages used are 50, 100 and 200 days.  Why these particular numbers?  Why not a 60 day moving average or a 65 day average – about 3 months of market activity? In a high frequency trading environment of one minute intervals, a 200MA is about half a trading day. 

Whatever the reason, the movement of these averages triggers buying and selling decisions.  A long term investor may sell a stock when the price falls below the 200 day MA (9 months of market action), hoping to avoid a catastrophic crash in the stock’s price.  The reasoning is that something has fundamentally changed in either the company or the market if a stock falls below its 9 month average.  After a period of rising prices, a long term cautious investor or the manager of a pension fund who does not want to be whipsawed by daily price changes might wait till the 20 day MA crosses below or comes close to touching the 200 day MA before selling some holdings.  If the 20 day MA crosses back above the mid term 100 day MA, the investor or manager then re-enters the market.  They may have lost a few percent of profit but it is a relatively small “insurance” fee to protect against a more severe downturn and loss of value.

When these four common averages converge, it indicates that there is an underlying argument between short term and long term investors.  It marks a time of indecision, of conflicting economic indicators, and signals an impending move, either up or down.  These averages for the S&P500 index converged or clustered in September 2010, in December 2007, in August 2006, October 2004, April 2003, April 2002 and October 2000.

In September 2010, the market headed up after a summer of turbulent price swings.  This was precipitated by the Federal Reserve’s decision to introduce more stimulus by buying $600 billion of Treasury bonds over the following months.

December 2007 marked the end of a 4 year bull market and a gradual decline into the shock of the financial crisis.

In August 2006 another less turbulent summer ended and the bull market resumed its rise.  In October 2004, the market finally shook off its herky jerky range bound price action of the entire year and continued the rise that had started in April 2003, which was another convergence.  In April – May 2002, it started becoming apparent that the recession had not ended the previous October and the market started its descent after rising from the previous 9/11 lows. 

September – October 2000 marked the end of the strong bull market of the 90s.

When these averages converge, the prudent long term investor might do well to wait a few weeks to a month to see where the market is headed before making any portfolio shifts.  That initial move after the convergence usually signals where the market is going over the next year or several years.  Many sites have stock charts.  A free site with good charts is stockcharts.com.  They allow 3 moving averages overlaid on the price chart.  An ETF that captures almost all of the S&P500 index is SPY.

Convergences of 3 of these averages may accompany or occur near a convergence of 4 averages.  These usually signal a shorter term shift of sentiment that is not yet confirmed by economic and company earnings data.  A recent example was a minor cluster of the shorter averages in April 2009 when optimism about a stimulative recovery prompted some optimism that faltered slightly in June 2009 before the shorter term averages moved decisively above the longer 200 day MA.  An investor taking a long position (buying) at these minor convergences should be ready to exit their position if optimism proves unfounded. After the rescue of Bear Stearns in March 2008, a similar cluster of 3 rising shorter term averages in late May – early June of 2008 was not able to cross the long term 200 day MA in the weeks after the cluster.  This failure to confirm was a sign to the investor that something was amiss.  The following months proved the point.

The three shorter term averages of the S&P500 converged this past week, the shortest term averages shifting down toward the 200 day MA.   Stay alert during the coming weeks.

Sell In May Revisited

Last month I compared three approaches to IRA investing and found that the “turtle” strategy of steady investments produced better returns.

Sell in May and Go Away is a mantra repeated in those years when the stock market experiences a summer roller coaster ride as it did in 2010.  May and June of this year have seen a progressively steady decline in the market, prompting market commentators to repeat this time worn refrain.

Is it true?  I looked at the S&P500 Composite for the past 11 years, running a “What If” scenario in which an investor bought the S&P500 index on the first trading day of September and sold on the first trading day of May.  In the four months that the investor is out of the market, the money is invested in a CD, bond fund or Treasury bill that pays 2% on average.   The scenario started in September 2000 and ended on May of this year.  Prices are adjusted for dividends and splits.

This approach (purple bars in the graph below) produced a modest 36% profit over 11 years but it beat the “Buy N Hold” (maroon bars) approach simply because the inital investment of $10,000 was made at a relative high mark for the market over the past decade.  John Bogle, the founder of Vanguard Group, has long been an advocate for a steady investing approach – that regular investments in the market produce better returns. 

I ran a scenario (green bars) in which an investor invested only 20% of his cash balance (initially $10,000) each September, earning the same 2% interest on the remaining money.  This strategy earned slightly more than the “Sell In May” approach but the “drawdown” (reduction in principal or value) remained consistently lower than the “Sell in May” approach.

This past decade has been a particularly tough one, including a recession in the beginning of the decade and the Mother of All Recessions starting in 2008.  Will the next decade bring hubris or heartache?  Who knows.  This comparison of scenarios may justify a more measured approach when adjusting our portfolios.  An advisor may tell us that we are too much in stocks and not enough in bonds.  What do we do?  Sell some stocks or stock mutual funds and buy bonds.  It might be more prudent in the long run to make that adjustment gradually, averaging our way out of one allocation model as we transition into another.

Money Machine

Investors who consider themselves to be conservative will sometimes keep a relatively small amount of money aside for riskier assets to “juice” overall returns.  This riskier pool may be 5% or less of a total portfolio and can be targeted toward smaller companies with higher growth rates and potentially higher returns.

What could be more enticing than investing in a Chinese natural resources company that is listed on the Nasdaq global exchange?  China is a fast growing economy, a growing middle class and a major manufacturing center which uses natural resources.

A Yahoo Finance article and video reviews one particular pitfall of investing in a company whose “home” is in a country that has less stringent financial oversight of publicly listed firms.  As on a “wet vac”, money machines that entice investors with the promise of higher returns have two ports, one for suction and one for blowing.

Trends

A few trends that have caught my attention in the past month:

Credit card offers in the mail are down 77% in the past year.
Gold, bonds, commodities, and stocks are up. It is unusual for all of these asset classes to rise at the same time.
Women now account for 50% of workers, up from 35% thirty years ago.
Only 25% of workers aged 55+ have saved more than $250K for their retirement (excludes house equity and pensions)
On average, the Employee Benefit Research Institute reports that Americans aged 65+ get almost 40% of their income from Social Security. In 2007, the median income for those 65 and older was $18K.
If you had 60% of your portfolio invested in a mix of stocks and 40% in bonds before the banking crisis, you have lost nothing in the past year.
In the past ten years, the Federal Reserve reports (click on debt) that consumer debt has increased 63% and mortgage debt has shot up 135%. Debt in the public sector has almost doubled. Both federal and state debts have risen 95%. For perspective, the Consumer Price Index has gone up on 30% in the past ten years.