Market Update – Part Two, “The Why” – What’s Causing Market Angst

This is part two of a two-part post on recent market declines. Part one contained what I call “The What”, defining the declines and trying to give some historical perspective. Part two contains “The Why” by trying to summarize, in layman’s terms, what is causing the market angst at the moment and what to do about it.

Trying to understand the stock market is like trying to understand a baby. Everything tends to be perfectly fine until suddenly, it’s not. Even when you can pinpoint the immediate cause of a meltdown, it’s often underlying issues that have been building (tired, hungry, getting sick… in the case of the baby) that are the root cause of the meltdown. There is little to no communication about the why… you just know it’s not good. I’m going to give you my opinion on what has caused the stock market to act like a baby over the past couple of months. Like the baby, the stock market hasn’t told me precisely what’s wrong… I just pay close attention to things that could be root causes so I know what’s going on when a triggering event occurs and causes a meltdown. While we can’t do anything about the meltdown, and we know it’s not abnormal (see Part one of this post), it’s reassuring to know the potential causes. I see six of these, with the last two being the most important:

1) Rising interest rates – the Federal Reserve has been raising the overnight lending rate by 25 basis points per quarter for about two years. It now targets 2-2.25% with markets expecting another quarter-point hike later this month. 2.5% is historically low and the Fed still considers it to be stimulative to growth. However, after nearly a decade of ZIRP (zero interest-rate policy) there is an anchoring effect that must be considered. Suddenly, investors can earn 2% (which is still just barely the rate of inflation) in a savings account or 3-4% in a fairly safe bond fund and it feels like a huge win vs. a decade of zero. On the margin, more may be choosing conservative investments over stocks. Mortgage rates climbing back to near 5% (historically very low) suddenly makes home purchases a lot more expensive when everyone was used to paying 3.5%. We’re seeing home sales decline and price increases halt as a result. Corporations borrowed massive amounts of money at low rates over the past decade and used it to invest in growth, pay dividends, and buy back stock. As those loans become due, where will the money come from to pay it all back? New loans at higher rates? That’s going to hurt the income statement. Secondary equity offerings? Not good for the stock. Then there’s the massive debt that governments, including ours, have taken on. At low rates, that debt is affordable. But as rates rise, the interest payments start to swamp the tax collections (especially after “mandatory spending”). This is how debt spirals to a point where it can’t be paid back. If the Fed stays on its current course to return rates to historically normal levels before the economy can anchor to non-zero levels, it will act as an economic shock and stop growth in its tracks. Last week, Fed chief Jay Powell indicated that the Fed isn’t on a pre-determined course, is close to “neutral”, and will be data dependent. This eased some market concerns, but a Fed policy mistake is still a big market risk.

2) Global trade issues – I think this one is pretty easy to understand. If the US and China are entering a long, drawn-out trade war with tariffs and other impediments to global trade issued on both sides, then there will ultimately be less global trade. Less trade means less growth and less growth means corporations make less money (or grow more slowly) while debt issues are exacerbated. Tariffs as negotiating weapons are ok to the market, especially for long-term gains like protection of intellectual property across borders. Tariffs as the end game will not be ok with the stock market. Every time it looks like there’s a path to easing of tensions, markets rally. Every time tensions increase, markets fall. Lack of communication as to the plan and inconsistent messages cast doubt on ultimate resolution. The stock market is only going to put up with that for so long before pricing in a higher probability of an extended trade war.

3) Strengthening US Dollar – the dollar has been on the rise vs. most other currencies as the US has been doing better economically than most other countries. As the dollar strengthens, US exports seem more expensive to foreign consumers, hurting US demand. US multi-national corporations lose on currency exchange when repatriating foreign profits (weak currency) into US dollars at home (strong currency), thereby hurting profits. Foreign debt issued in US Dollars becomes bigger to the foreign country that owes the money. This weakens the foreign currency further and can spiral into a currency crisis. All of these things are bad for US stocks.

4) European Union Issues – I’ll lump Brexit and the overall fiscal fiasco of the EU into one major issue. If a Brexit deal can’t be reached with the EU and there is a “hard Brexit”, Great Brittan and the European Union essentially stop doing business with each other, resulting in massive job losses and other economic dislocations. The possibility of that happening has ramped up recently as deadlines approach. In the rest of the EU, budget issues continue to challenge the southern countries who need ongoing support from Germany and the wealthier, less debt-riddled countries. The threat of Italy losing its borrowing lifeline, potentially ditching the Euro, and maybe setting off a chain reaction with other countries doing the same is like the Greek issues of a few years ago times 100. It’s becoming more and more apparent that the European Union experiment, in its current form, has failed and it’s now just a matter of stretching out the unraveling for a long enough period so that it can be creatively redesigned or unwound in the least shocking way possible. If Europe can fix itself over the next decade, even if it involves some up-front pain, that would be a massive lift for the global economy. If it can’t and there is a financial shock as a result of unraveling, it certainly won’t be good for stocks.

5) Too much government debt – the world simply has taken on too much debt over time. Governments have promised too much to their people in return for votes (low taxes, high spending). Either defaults are going to happen or inflation is going to spike, thereby making those fixed rate debts seem smaller in future dollars. Either one is going to hurt. The more time that passes with already bloated debts growing faster than the economies they rely on, while interest rates rise, the closer the world gets to a point of no return. We don’t know where that point is, when the debt markets will turn on borrowers that can’t repay, or if / when governments would start the inflationary printing presses to avoid default. This risk moves in slow motion but is probably the biggest one for the long-term.

6) The self-fulfilling prophesy – we’re pretty far from this happening in my opinion, but this is the biggest short-term risk. If the stock market volatility goes on for too long or if the market falls too far, then consumer and business confidence will wane. Our economy is built on confidence. If companies stop hiring, expanding, and investing, and/or consumers stop spending, recession is right around the corner. Similarly, you may have heard about the inverting yield curve lately. Generally, long-term interest rates are higher than short-term rates (positive, upward sloping yield curve if you plot rates on the y-axis and term on the x-axis of a graph). This positive yield curve is an indicator of expected future growth. Lately, short-term rates (specifically the two-year treasury) have been approaching long-term rates (specifically the 10-year treasury). That 2-10 spread is closely watched as an indicator of future growth and it’s dangerously close to inverting. The last several times that happened after a period of normal rates, a recession has been on the horizon. Higher short-term rates than long-term rates are deadly for banks who borrow short (pay on deposits) and lend long (loans and mortgages). If banks can’t make money on that spread (“net interest margin”, their profits dry up and they may wind up with less money to lend or be unwilling to lend. Less lending can impact the ability for businesses and consumers to borrow, potentially leading to recession. This means that an inverted yield curve that predicts recession could actually lead to it… another self-fulfilling prophecy. Keep in mind though that even if recession happens, the typical one is a pause that refreshes, that brings valuations back in line, that scares off the weak hands, that kills the companies that took on too much leverage, that leads to the birth of the next growth cycle. A recession in a world with too much debt though could intensify and accelerate the debt issues described in #5.

Here’s the good news… when there are reasons for concern in the stock market, the eventual elimination of those concerns often leads to new growth. This is frequently called “climbing the wall of worry”. When the worries are all gone and everything is perfect, then perfection is priced into the market and there’s often no more room for prices to increase. No more wall of worry means nothing to climb. So, it’s highly possible that these worries will provide the legs for the next bull market to stand on. I have to admit, when the tax cuts went through, unemployment dropped near 4%, corporate profit margins hit all-time highs, inflation remained low despite low interest rates, I started to worry that there wasn’t much to worry about. Now there’s a real wall of worry to potentially climb.

If you’ve read this far, I know what you’re probably thinking… This is all well and good and thanks for explaining all that but… is this an opportunity to buy cheap, or a last chance opportunity to get out before a big fall? No one ever knows that answer in advance. What we do know for certain is that there are going to be big falls at some points in the future. I tell clients to expect a 50% decline in stocks at some point in life (we had two of them in one decade in the 2000’s). This of course doesn’t mean your portfolio will fall 50% because not all of your money is in stocks. Young clients with decades until retirement and only a small percentage of what they’ll ultimately need to retire have retirement money primarily invested in stocks. But, they actually benefit from a decline in prices because they have much more to contribute to their retirement portfolios (at lower prices if prices fall) than would be lost from a temporary decline in the value of existing assets. On the other extreme, clients who are well into retirement, or those with shorter-term goals where money is needed over the next few years, are not primarily invested in stocks. A portfolio that is 30% stocks / 70% bonds will experience about a 15% loss if the stock market falls 50% (generally less than 15% because bonds tend to do well when stocks fall dramatically). It’s essential to get the mix right, but once you do, it doesn’t matter what happens with stocks over the short-term. You’re either in stocks for the long-term or you’re not primarily in stocks.

We know declines will happen. We just don’t know when they’re going to happen. When you invest, you accept that stocks are going to fall, and create a plan that works despite the stock market’s short-term swings. If a stock market decline scares you off your plan, you’re doing yourself an injustice by allowing that to happen. As I pointed out in Part one of this update, stocks are down at least 5% from recent highs almost half the time. So, should you buy, or should you sell? If your plan calls for adding money to your portfolio to target a future goal and you have free cash flow to do that, then add money (buy). If your plan calls for liquidation to support retirement expenses or to buy that next house, then withdraw money (sell). React to life events, not stock market events. Avoid the temptation to put your emergency fund in stocks during the good times or to pull your retirement money out of stocks in the bad times. In the meantime, we will be using the volatility, where appropriate, to rebalance portfolios back to target (sell what’s up, buy what’s down) and tax-loss harvest (sell securities with unrealized losses and repurchase similar securities to unlock the loss for tax purposes). Volatility fees bad, but without it, stocks would be risk-free. If they were risk-free, they’d be paying 2% like savings accounts. The risk has to be there in order to justify the long-term returns. I will continue to remind you that when the market is smiling, a tantrum is around the corner. When the market is throwing a tantrum, happier times and then more tantrums are ahead. It is the nature of being a parent… er umm… an investor 🙂

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Market Update – Part One, “The What” – Some Perspective On Recent Declines

This is part one of a two-part post on recent market declines. It contains what I call “The What”, defining the declines and trying to give some historical perspective. Part two will contain “The Why” by trying to summarize, in layman’s terms, what is causing the market angst at the moment and what to do about it (hint: stick to the plan).

There is an old investment adage which states that “risk happens fast”. From all-time highs in late September, the S&P 500 (US Large Cap Stocks) has declined about 7.5% over the past 2 ½ months. While the percentage declines aren’t anything out of the norm, the daily swings feel massive given the higher levels for each index than we’re all used to and the relative calm we’ve experienced over the past few years. Here are some stats to help get your head around what’s happening and why it’s not out of the ordinary:

  • Per Factset, over the last 40 years, the maximum yearly drawdown from peak on the S&P 500 has been:
    • 0-5%: 3 times
    • 5-10%: 15 times
    • 10-20%: 17 times
    • 20-30%: 2 times
    • 30-50%: 3 times

At 7.5%, we’re not even up to the typical downturn at this point.

  • Research by Robert Frey, expanded on recently by Ben Carlson, shows that while markets generally move up over the long-term, they’re in a drawn down state (down significantly from peak) nearly half the time. Specifically, looking at all the monthly closing index values, dating all the way back to 1927, the S&P 500 has been:
    • 5-10% below its most recent peak 12.8% of the time
    • 10-20% below its most recent peak 13.1% of the time
    • 20% or more below its most recent peak 23.1% of the time.

That means that in total, we’re living in a period where stocks are down at least 5%, 49% of the time!

  • Charlie Bilello of Pension Partners looked at daily moves in the S&P 500 (which seem extreme over the past few months… 3%+ down yesterday, 12/4 for example). Since 1928, the average number of days per year with 1%, 2%, and 3% moves are:
    • 1% Moves: 60 per year
    • 2% Moves: 17 per year
    • 3% Moves: 7 per year

In 2018, we’ve had (56) 1% days, (15) 2% days, and (5) 3% days… right in line with average. Why does it feel so much more volatile than average? Because, in general, we tend to weight recent history more strongly than extended history and in 2017, we only had (8) 1% days, and no 2% or 3% days. That kind of stability is what’s rare, not the moves we’ve seen recently.

While all of the above considers the S&P 500, it is important to note that foreign stocks are off quite a bit more than the S&P 500. Foreign developed countries are down 16.5% in US Dollar terms from their most recent high early in 2018 and foreign emerging countries are down 19%. Of course we also have to expect more volatility in foreign markets (especially emerging markets), to go along with their higher expectation for future growth and future returns. In that light, even those drawdowns are far from extreme levels.

I hope that helps to put the extent of the recent market decline in perspective. As I type this message, futures are pointing to another down day tomorrow (currently a bit more than 1%, but as much as 2% earlier) as Canada has apparently arrested the CFO of one of China’s telecom equipment companies that is wanted in the US for alleged violations of US sanctions on Iran. Futures sold off on fears that this would drive a wedge between US/China trade talks that just recently gave the first glimmer of potential progress. More here from CNBC for those who are interested in the full story. Whatever the reason, just remember that an average year contains 17 days with 2% moves in the stock market. These are normal occurrences in response to short-term news that will barely be remembered a few years from now. Remember all the angst over Cypress a few years ago? I’d bet just barely, if at all, and that is exactly my point.

[tags  Perspective, Stocks, S&P 500, Historical Returns, Drawdowns]

Updated 2019 Tax Numbers

The IRS has released the key tax numbers that are updated annually for inflation, including tax brackets, phaseouts, standard deduction, and contribution limits.  Due to rounding limitations, not all numbers have changed from last year, but tax bracket thresholds have increased by just over 2%.  The notices containing this information are available on the IRS website here and here.  Some notable callouts for those who don’t want to read all the way through the update:

  • Max contributions to 401k, 403b, and 457 retirement accounts will increase by $500 to $19,000 (+$6,000 catch-up if you’re at least age 50).
  • Max contribution to a SIMPLE retirement account will increase by $500 to $13,000 (+$3,000 catch-up if you’re at least age 50).
  • Max total contribution to most employer retirement plans (employee + employer contributions) increases from $55,000 to $56,000.
  • Max contribution to an IRA will increase by $500 to $6,000 (+$1,000 catch-up if you’re at least age 50).
  • The phase out for being able to make a Roth IRA contribution is $203k (married) and $137k (single). Phase out begins at $193k (married) and $122k (single).
  • The standard deduction increases by $400 to $24,400 (married) and by $200 to $12,200 (single) +$1,300 if you’re at least age 65.
  • The personal exemption remains $0 (the Tax Cuts & Jobs Act eliminated the personal exemption in favor of a higher standard deduction and child tax credits).
  • The child tax credit is not inflation-adjusted and remains at $2,000, phasing out between $400-440k (married) and $200-220k (single).
  • The maximum contribution to a Health Savings Account (HSA) will increase to $7,000 (married) and $3,500 (single).
  • The annual gift tax exemption remains at $15,000 per giver per receiver.
  • Social Security benefits will rise 2.8% in 2019.  The wage base for Social Security taxes will rise to $132,900 in 2019 from $128,400.

You can find all of the key tax numbers, updated upon release, on the PWA website, under Resources.

Q3 2018 Returns By Asset Class

For the last several quarters, I’ve posted returns by asset class (by representative ETF), as well as year-to-date, last twelve months, and last five years. While there is still no predictive power in this data, I updated those charts as of the end of Q3 2018 for those of you that are interested (see below).

2018Q3 Asset Class Performance

A few call-outs from the data:

  • US stocks, especially large caps (+7.6%), led the way in Q3, with small caps a bit behind them (+4.9%).  International developed markets were slightly positive (+1.3%), with emerging markets lagging (-1.7% for both stocks and local currency bonds).  Commodities were the worst performers (-2.5%) for the quarter.  US aggregate and short-term corporate bonds finished around the flat-line, despite another hike in interest rates by the Fed (rising rates are a short-term negative for fixed rate bond funds because their value falls, though as those bonds mature, they are replaced with new bonds that pay a higher rate which makes that a long-term positive).  Overall, most diversified portfolios saw gains of a couple of percentage points with more aggressive allocations (more stocks) seeing a slightly more gains and more conservative (more bonds) being closer to flat on the quarter.
  • Over the last year, there is a wide divergence between the performance of US stocks, both large and small caps, and the rest of the world.  While it’s impossible to know the exact cause, we suspect it’s because the US tax cuts (corporate and individual) are providing a stimulus here that simply isn’t present around the globe.  The boost from those tax cuts and some deregulation has offset the negative impact of rising rates and economic uncertainty caused by building trade wars.  In other parts of the world, especially emerging markets, trade tensions and rising US rates are putting pressure on currencies and bloated budget deficits, leading to even more political instability which feeds a vicious cycle (Turkey, Argentina, etc.).  Valuations fully reflect this though, with emerging markets being the far cheapest equity asset class and fairly cheap by historical standards, and US large cap (especially growth) stocks, being the most expensive and fairly expensive by historical standards.   As I said last quarter, while everyone would love to see all asset classes moving up, a well functioning market has some dispersion in asset class performance.  The fact that US stocks can rise while emerging markets fall is a sign (at least for now) that a 2008-like meltdown is probably not on the horizon.
  • The Fed raised rates again in Q2 at their September meeting, continuing the once-per-quarter hike trend that they’ve set for the market.  The Fed Funds rate target is now 2.00-2.25%.  Futures markets show the market expecting the Fed to stay on that course for most of the next year, with an ~80% chance of one more hike this year and about a 50-50 chance of rates approaching 3% a year from now.  While increasing rates put pressure on bond prices, the advantage of shorter term bond funds is that they mature quickly and are replaced by new, higher paying bonds.  As a result, floating-rate bond funds are now yielding over 2%, with both US aggregate bonds and short-term US corporate bonds in the 3.25-3.50% range.  Emerging market bonds (in local currency) are now yielding over 7%.
  • Not much has changed from last quarter’s 5-year chart.  Commodities are still deep in the red due to big losses in 2014 and 2015.  US stocks continue to be the outperformers, with rest of the world lagging behind and trying to play catch up.  US stocks also continue to be the most expensive from a valuation perspective, with the rest of the globe, and especially emerging markets, looking cheap.

IRS Squashes Most State SALT CAP Workarounds

When the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (“TCJA”) was passed in late 2017, the standard deduction was increased and certain itemized deductions were eliminated or capped as an offset. One of the most noteworthy is the State And Local Tax (“SALT”) deduction, which allows taxpayers to deduct for Federal tax, what they pay in state/city income tax and property taxes on their residences. For many mid-upper income taxpayers in high-tax states, these deductions were already limited by the Alternative Minimum Tax (“AMT”) under prior law. Under the TCJA, SALT deductions are now limited to $10k per year for both single and married taxpayers. To give a real world example, if you make $150k and live in a state with a 6% effective tax rate, you’re $9k of state income taxes are still deductible, but only $1k of property taxes would be deductible on top of that.

Some states have taken action to try to circumvent the SALT limits by enacting laws that allow the creation of charitable funds to which taxpayers can donate money and receive a state income or property tax credit offsetting the amount “donated”. CT, NY, and NJ have passed laws that do this, while CA, IL, and RI had pending legislation as of June. Others are definitely looking into it. In late May, the IRS released a statement that they would be proposing regulations that would emphasize “substance over form” in these types of arrangements, essentially reminding everyone that a charitable contribution for which you get a tax credit is just really a tax paid and not a charitable contribution. Yesterday, the IRS released new regulations as promised. They also released a summary statement (below), which captures the essence of the regulations. That is, if you make a contribution to one of these charitable funds and receive a tax credit in return, the amount of the credit has to be subtracted from the contribution to determine your deductible amount. In other words, the work around created by these states won’t help.

The regulations go into effect on 8/27/2018, though the IRS points out that they’re not really a change of prior law (one was always required to subtract the benefit received from a charitable contribution to arrive at the deduction), but just a clarification. Technically though, you could make the argument that the law was previously unclear and that if one made a contribution pre-8/27 to one of these funds, it should be treated as a charitable contribution. The odds of audit increase in doing so, and there’s a decent chance that the IRS would nix the contribution, but for those who want to take a shot, that shot is probably available. Of course before doing so, you should of course check with a CPA, EA, or tax attorney to get a qualified tax opinion on the matter. The point is moot in most locations, because most states haven’t enacted laws that allow these types of funds to be set up. Even NJ and CT, who have enacted laws, have not, to my knowledge, set up the funds administratively. Why some municipalities in NY may have set them up (Scarsdale being one), most don’t seem to be available there either. If you have the option of making a contribution to one of these charitable funds in your state (meaning they passed legislation allowing the funds and the state or municipality actually set one up to receive money already), AND you’re comfortable making the claim that the limits imposed by the IRS regulations are new rather than clarifying existing law, then it would benefit you to make the contribution before 8/27. For all others, I don’t believe there’s any action to take on this.

You should also be aware that NY, NJ, MD, and CT have sued the Federal government over the SALT deduction caps as being unconstitutional. A few states have also threated that they will fight any IRS regulations that attempt to limit workarounds (e.g. the regulations that were released yesterday). I’m definitely not a legal expert, but it feels like this one is going to drag on for a very long time until we have a firm answer. With that said, the law of the land as of 8/27 (and probably before) is that if you make a charitable contribution and receive a tax credit in return, your Federal deduction is limited to the difference (in most cases, see below for details).

Lastly, existing programs that allow contributions to education or medical charitable funds in exchange for tax credits (e.g. GA’s GOAL program) are also impacted by this. The IRS has stated that it previously let those go because if the charitable contribution wasn’t made, then the state income tax paid would be higher and that was previously deductible for most tax payers (except those in AMT) anyway. You can still contribute to those funds and get a state tax credit for doing so, but the Federal charitable deduction is no longer available, at least starting 8/27.

From the IRS:

Treasury, IRS issue proposed regulations on charitable contributions and state and local tax credits

WASHINGTON — Today the U.S. Department of the Treasury and the Internal Revenue Service issued proposed regulations providing rules on the availability of charitable contribution deductions when the taxpayer receives or expects to receive a corresponding state or local tax credit.

The proposed regulations issued today are designed to clarify the relationship between state and local tax credits and the federal tax rules for charitable contribution deductions. The proposed regulations are available in the Federal Register.

Under the proposed regulations, a taxpayer who makes payments or transfers property to an entity eligible to receive tax deductible contributions must reduce their charitable deduction by the amount of any state or local tax credit the taxpayer receives or expects to receive.

For example, if a state grants a 70 percent state tax credit and the taxpayer pays $1,000 to an eligible entity, the taxpayer receives a $700 state tax credit. The taxpayer must reduce the $1,000 contribution by the $700 state tax credit, leaving an allowable contribution deduction of $300 on the taxpayer’s federal income tax return. The proposed regulations also apply to payments made by trusts or decedents’ estates in determining the amount of their contribution deduction.

The proposed regulations provide exceptions for dollar-for-dollar state tax deductions and for tax credits of no more than 15 percent of the payment amount or of the fair market value of the property transferred. A taxpayer who makes a $1,000 contribution to an eligible entity is not required to reduce the $1,000 deduction on the taxpayer’s federal income tax return if the state or local tax credit received or expected to be received is no more than $150.

Treasury and IRS welcome public comments on these proposed regulations. For details on submitting comments, see the proposed regulations.

Updates on the implementation of the TCJA can be found on the Tax Reform page of IRS.gov.

Withholding Checkup

The IRS recently launched a campaign urging taxpayers to conduct a paycheck checkup and review their withholding settings in light of the new tax law. To quote from the IRS:

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, passed in December 2017, made significant changes, which will affect 2018 tax returns that people file in 2019. These changes make checking withholding amounts even more important. These tax law changes include:

  • Increased standard deduction
  • Eliminated personal exemptions
  • Increased Child Tax Credit
  • Limited or discontinued certain deductions
  • Changed the tax rates and brackets

Checking and adjusting withholding now can prevent an unexpected tax bill and penalties next year at tax time. It can also help taxpayers avoid a large refund if they’d prefer to have their money in their paychecks throughout the year. The IRS Withholding Calculator and Publication 505, Tax Withholding and Estimated Tax, can help.

Special Alert: Taxpayers who should check their withholding include those who:

  • Are a two-income family.
  • Have two or more jobs at the same time or only work part of the year.
  • Claim credits like the Child Tax Credit.
  • Have dependents age 17 or older.
  • Itemized deductions in 2017.
  • Have high income or a complex tax return.
  • Had a large tax refund or tax bill for 2017.

Withholding doesn’t seem like it should be complicated, but it really is. You may think that your employer could just apply your tax rate based on your fully year salary to your pay each period and voilà, done. But your employer doesn’t know your mortgage interest or property taxes for deduction purposes. They don’t know your bonus in advance (and by the way, they use a completely different rate on bonus income in most cases too!). They don’t know what tax credits apply to you. They don’t know your spouse’s salary. They don’t know your investment income or any other special circumstances that lead to an increase in income, deductions, or credits. We account for all those things by setting the “allowances” and the extra amount withheld per pay period on your W-4 so that it MacGuyer’s the system into something close to the right amount of tax over the course of a full year. With all the changes to the tax rules this year, the mid-year implementation, and some still unclear tax rules that are awaiting IRS guidance, well… it reminds me of MacGuyver without access to duct tape.

Here’s the good news… In most cases, underwithholding will simply lead to delaying the same amount of tax you would have paid during calendar 2018 to the time you file for 2018. That is, the total tax you’ll pay will be the same whether you pay it during the tax year or at the time of filing. Partial interest could be charged if you owe a substantial amount and the total amount that you had withheld during the year is less than 110% of your total tax liability for 2017. Overwithholding will of course result in a refund at the time of filing. In other words, getting withholding exactly right is not a huge deal for most people. We just want to get it close so that we’re not surprised by a large tax bill in April or a large refund (which means you provided the government with an interest-free loan all year),

If you are concerned about your withholding and want help conducting a paycheck checkup, please contact your advisor. Send a recent paystub for each earner in the family, the final paystub for any employment that may have ended earlier in the year, and an estimate of the regular pay and (if applicable) bonus pay that you’ll receive for the remainder of the year. Using last year’s deductions, the new tax laws (our understanding of them), and the pay information, we should be able to figure out if you’re in the ballpark on withholding, or if you should make some adjustments to avoid a big shock in April.

Q2 2018 Returns By Asset Class

For the last several quarters, I’ve posted returns by asset class (by representative ETF), as well as year-to-date, last twelve months, and last five years. While there is still no predictive power in this data, I updated those charts as of the end of Q2 2018 for those of you that are interested (see below).

2018Q2 Asset Class Performance

A few callouts from the data:

  • Q2 was led by REITs (Real Estate Investment Trusts) (~+9%) with weakness in emerging market stocks and bonds (~-10% and ~-12% respectively) on weak currencies, fiscal issues (too much debt), the impact of a potential trade war with the US, and political instability.  This is par for the course with emerging markets…  when they’re hot they’re hot as that’s where much of the world’s growth comes from.  But when unstable political systems and fears of a slowdown hit, they can take a hit quickly.  Notably, Q1 performance was the exact opposite of Q2 with respect to emerging markets and REITs.  EM stocks and bonds led all asset classes and REITs were the worst performers.  Yet another signal that past performance, especially over the short-term, is not indicative of future results.
  • While everyone would love to see all asset classes moving up, a well functioning market has some dispersion in asset class performance.  The fact that US stocks can rise while emerging markets fall sharply in a quarter is sign (at least for now) that a 2008-like meltdown is not on the horizon.
  • The Fed raised rates again in Q2 at their June meeting, continuing the once-per-quarter hike trend that they’ve set for the market.  The Fed Funds rate target is now 1.75-2.00%.  Futures markets are pricing in a ~90% chance of at least one more hike this year and a ~55% chance at two.  While increasing rates put pressure on bond prices, the advantage of shorter term bond funds is that they mature quickly and are replaced by new, higher paying bonds.  As a result, US aggregate bonds are now yielding ~3.25%, with short-term corporate bonds not far behind at just over 3%.  Emerging market bonds (in local currency) are yielding a whopping 6.5%.
  • Not much has changed from last quarter’s 5-year chart.  Commodities are still deep in the red due to big losses in 2014 and 2015.  US stocks continue to be the outperformers, with rest of the world lagging behind and trying to play catch up.