2023 State Tax Changes

The Tax Foundation released a fantastic list of notable state tax changes for 2023. It was so good, I wanted to post it here, rather than just tweeting it out, since not everyone uses Twitter. Here’s the link to the site, which includes personal income tax rate changes, corporate tax changes, sales and use tax changes, and a host of miscellaneous new and changed provisions.

SECURE 2.0 Act

In late December, as part of budget appropriations for 2023, Congress passed and President Biden signed into law, the SECURE 2.0 Act.  For those interested in the full text, see Division T of HR 2617.  It can be found on pages 2046-2404 of the 4,155 page document.  SECURE 2.0 is an add-on to the original Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (“SECURE”) Act of 2019, most of which went into effect in 2020.  SECURE 2.0 is filled with a ton of tax, retirement, and other provisions, many of which are extremely complex and will require additional guidance from the IRS on implementation.  Below are the provisions I noted that are most likely to impact some PWA clients, now, or in the future (I tried to sort these in order of most interest to least for the average client, so the more important ones are listed first.  This makes the list NOT follow the sections of the bill at all).

  • Rollover of unused 529 plans to Roth IRAs – SECURE 2.0 allows for penalty-free rollovers from a 529 plan to a Roth IRA for the beneficiary of the 529 under certain circumstances.  The lifetime limit is $35k per beneficiary, but annually, can’t be more than what the beneficiary could contribute to a Roth IRA (that may or may not include the need to have earned income… we’ll need more guidance on that).  The 529 account must have been open for at least 15 years to make such a transfer and the transferred amount must have been in the account for more than 5 years (i.e. you can’t contribute and then immediately convert…  this is really intended for leftover education savings after school is complete).  Interestingly, there are no income limits to making these rollover contributions, so we have another “backdoor Roth” type opportunity.
  • RMD begin date – Required Minimum Distributions from pre-tax retirement plans must start in the year that a taxpayer turns 72 (up from 70.5 due to SECURE 1.0).  SECURE 2.0 extends this to age 73 starting in 2023 and to 75 starting in 2033.
  • Missed RMD penalty reduced – from 50% to 25%, or 10% if the correction occurs in a timely manner (generally, within 2 years).  Starts in 2023.
  • Additional 401k catch-up contribution – for those ages 60-63, the catch-up contribution amount is increased to $10k (from the current $7500) or 50% more than the regular catch-up contribution, whichever is greater, starting in 2025.
  • Catch-up contributions must be Roth – Currently, catch-up contributions to a 401k/403b can be pre-tax or Roth as decided by the plan participant.  Starting in 2024, all catch-up contributions must be Roth, unless the participant’s previous year compensation is less than $145k (indexed for inflation).
  • Matching contributions can be Roth – Currently all 401k/403b employer matching is done on a pre-tax basis to a Traditional 401k.  Starting in 2023, plans can allow participants to direct whether they want the match to be contributed to the Traditional or Roth 401k/403b.  If Roth, the match will be considered taxable income in the year the contribution is made.
  • Student loan payments will count for 401k matching purposes – when employers offer a 401k match, if the employee doesn’t contribute to the plan, they don’t get the match.  SECURE 2.0 changes that by allowing employers to count student loan payments as contributions to 401ks for the purpose of calculating how much matching an employee will get.  Starts in 2024.  Another seemingly difficult one from an administration perspective.  I’m sure there will be more guidance on how the employee proves the loan payment to the employer and by what deadline to receive the match.
  • SIMPLE and SEP plans can be Roth – starting in 2023, both SIMPLEs and SEPs can allow Roth contributions (would need a SIMPLE Roth IRA and SEP Roth IRA, respectively.
  • Use of 401k funds in Federally Declared Disasters – up to $22k can be withdrawn penalty-free (but not tax-free) from a 401k for a federally declared disaster.  The amount is taxable over 3 years, to allow the impact to be spread rather than potentially bumping the taxpayer up in bracket in the year of the disaster.  The amount can also be re-contributed within three years and then no tax is due.  In addition, loans from 401ks get a boost if you live in a Federally declared disaster area.  Instead of the max loan being 50% of the vested balance or $50k (whichever is less), it becomes 100% of the vested balance or $100k (whichever is less).  Effective for disasters occurring after Jan 25, 2021.
  • IRA Catch-Up – the extra amount that you can contribute to an IRA if you’re over age 50 will now be indexed to inflation (was previously a flat $1k).  Starts in 2024.
  • Qualifying longevity annuity contracts (QLACs) can be larger – the are annuities that start payment after age 72.  Previously limited to 25% of account value or $125k max, up to $200k can now be purchased and is exempted from Required Minimum Distributions (RMD).  Start is in 2023.
  • Qualified Charitable Distribution (QCD) easing – SECURE 2.0 indexes the $100k annual QCD limit to inflation, and allows a one-time $50k QCD to a charitable gift annuity, charitable remainder unitrust, or charitable remainder annuity trust.  Starts in 2023.  Note, QCDs can still be made by those over 70.5 years of age, despite the RMD begin date being pushed back from the year you turn 70.5 to 72 (by SECURE 1.0) and now 73 or 75 (by SECURE 2.0).
  • Roth 401k RMDs eliminated – While there has never been a Required Minimum Distribution for Roth IRAs, Roth 401ks did have an RMD.  SECURE 2.0 eliminates this starting in 2024.
  • Retirement plan distributions for Long-Term Care insurance – Up to $2500 can be distributed per year penalty-free (but not tax-free) to pay the premiums for LTCI.  Starts in 2026.
  • Penalty-free “emergency” distributions from 401ks – Can withdraw up to $1k per year as an emergency expense without penalty.  Tax is due unless the amount is repaid within 3 years.  No additional emergency withdrawals are allowed until the amount is paid back or the 3 years has passed.  Starts in 2024.
  • Emergency Savings Accounts – SECURE 2.0 allows (but does not require) employers to offer Emergency Savings Accounts to non-highly compensated employees, linked to their retirement plan.  These would function like Roth 401k accounts (after-tax) with a max of up to $2500/yr in contributions, would qualify for matching, and would allow up to 4 penalty-free withdrawals per  year.  At termination, the remaining amount can be rolled to a Roth 401k or Roth IRA>
  • 401k auto-enrollment – if you start a new job, you may find that more employers are auto-enrolling employees in their 401k, unless they opt out.  SECURE 2.0 mandates this as part of new plan setups, with initial contributions ranging from 3-10% and auto-increase annually up to 10-15%.  Starts in 2024.
  • SIMPLE plan changes – contributions limits will increase by 10% starting in 2024.  Additionally, employers contribute more to employee SIMPLE accounts (up to the lower of 10% of compensation or $5k).
  • Nannie SEPs – Domestic employees can participate in Simplified Employee Pension (SEP) plans.  Starts in 2023.
  • Starter 401k plans – Employers without a 401k (or 403b) can sponsor a starter 401k (or safe-harbor 403b) that doesn’t require any onerous non-discrimination testing.  Employees would be auto-enrolled and can contribute up to the maximum amount that would allowed to an IRA for the given year.  Starts in 2024.
  • Saver’s Credit becomes Saver’s Match – the current Saver’s credit provides a tax credit of 50% of the first $2k contributed to a retirement plan for low income individuals / families.  SECURE 2.0 changes this to a Saver’s Match which is deposited into the saver’s retirement plan account (seems like a much more difficult plan from an administration standpoint, but perhaps it will provide a bit better incentive to contribute as the Saver’s Credit was not a popular program.  Starts in 2027.

Q4 2022 Returns By Asset Class

This post contains the usual returns by asset class for this past quarter (by representative ETF), last year, last five years, last ten years, and since the covid low (3/23/2020).  While there is still no predictive power in this data, I’ll continue to post this quarterly for those of you that are interested. 

Last Quarter (10/1/22-12/31/22)
Last Year (1/1/22-12/31/22)
Since Covid Low (3/23/20-12/31/20)
Last Five Years (1/1/18-12/31/22)
Last Ten Years (1/1/13-12/31/22)

A few notes:

  • Q4 was a strong quarter (even stronger if we could erase December) that ended a terrible year for everything other than commodities. Developed foreign markets led the way (+17%) as the US dollar finally cooled. Emerging market stocks, emerging market bonds, US small caps, and US large caps all had solid performance of +7-9%. High yield (junk) bonds returned +5% with real estate just below at +4.3%. Commodities ticked slightly higher (+2.4%) and after a miserable year, bonds crawled ahead as interest rates finally took a breather. Short-term corporate bonds were up 2.2% with the aggregate bond index up 1.6%.
  • While many will remember 2022 as an excess of destruction in financial markets, it really was a destruction of excess. The areas that fared worst were those that saw substantial gains in previous years, leading to rich valuations by virtually every measure. I’ve mentioned Large Cap Tech multiple times in previous “market update” posts as an area of concern in an otherwise fairly priced market. 2022 brought it back to reality with the Nasdaq 100 falling more than 30% and individual well-known names falling much further. The ARK Innovation ETF (ARKK) closed the year down nearly 68%. The once-loved Tesla finished down 65%. Meme stocks like Gamestop (-50%) and AMC (-76%) also came back toward reality. And crypto, perhaps the most obvious representative of speculation, was also crushed with Bitcoin down 65%, Ethereum down 68%, and many of the smaller coins/tokens down substantially more. On the contrary, US Large Cap Value (perhaps the least representative of excess) held up quite well, down only 2.1% on the year. Destruction of excess is often a requirement of the start of a new bull market. Without a crystal ball, we can’t know when that will begin (or if it already has), but it would be very difficult to have one without cutting the excesses out of the market overall.
  • 2022 was the worst year for the aggregate bond index in history, closing down 13%, after being down as much as 17% earlier in Q4. Bond prices move in the opposite direction from interest rates and with the Fed raising rates at a pace never before seen (started the year near 0% and ended near 4.5%!), in hopes of bringing inflation back toward their 2% target, bond prices tumbled. The shorter the term on the bond or bond fund, the less impact the increase in rates has though, so short-term bonds outperformed longer-term bonds. This should intuitively make sense… the shorter the time to maturity, the less time you have to wait to redeem your low-interest paying bonds and reinvest in new higher interest bonds. The longer the time to maturity, the longer you’re stuck with the low interest rates, so if you want to sell those bonds, no one will pay anywhere near your principal amount (i.e. the price falls). The good news is that we’ve gone from a world of negative and zero interest rates everywhere, to one where we can now get 3.4% in a bank account, 4.75% on a 1-year treasury note, over 5% on many high-quality corporate bonds.
  • Commodities were the one bright spot in 2022, with the Bloomberg Commodity Index returning over 17%. Commodities still have a long way to go to catch up to other financial assets over the past 10 years though as you can see from the charts above. It feels like oil, gas, etc. are all high now, but remember that 10 years ago, oil was $120 vs. today’s ~$80.

Updated 2023 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 7% (higher than usual due to higher than usual inflation over the last year).  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 $2,000 to $22,500 (+$7,500 catch-up, up $1k, if you’re at least age 50).
  • Max contribution to a SIMPLE retirement account will increase by $1500 to $15,500 (+$3,500 catch-up if you’re at least age 50).
  • Max total contribution to most employer retirement plans (employee + employer contributions) increases from $61,000 to $66,000 (+$7,500 catch-up, again for those 50 or over).
  • Max contribution to an IRA increases from $6,000 to $6,500 (+$1,000 catch-up if you’re at least age 50).
  • The phase out for being able to make a Roth IRA contribution is $228k (married) and $153k (single). Phase out begins at $218k (married) and $138k (single).
  • The standard deduction increases by $1800 to $27,700 (married) and by $900 to $13,850 (single) +$1,850 if you’re at least age 65 and single or $1,500 each if you’re married and at least 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 remains at pre-2021 rules at $2,000 per child, phasing out between $400-440k (married) and $200-220k (single).
  • The maximum contribution to a Health Savings Account (HSA) will increase to $7,750 (married) and $3,850 (single).
  • The annual gift tax exemption increases by $1,000 to $17,000 per giver per receiver.
  • The lifetime gift / estate tax exemption increases to $12,920,000.
  • Social Security benefits will rise 8.7% in 2023.  The wage base for Social Security taxes will rise to $160,200 in 2023 from $147,000.
  • Updated mileage rates for 2023 are due out later this year.

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

Q3 2022 Returns By Asset Class

This post contains the usual returns by asset class for this past quarter (by representative ETF), year-to-date, last 12 months, last five years, last ten years, and since the covid low (3/23/2020).  While there is still no predictive power in this data, I’ll continue to post this quarterly for those of you that are interested. 

Last Quarter (7/1/22-9/30/22)
Year-To-Date (1/1/22-9/30/22)
Last 12 Months (10/1/21-9/30/22)
Since COVID Low (3/23/20-9/30/22)
Last 5 Years (10/1/17-9/30/22)
Last 10 Years (10/1/12-9/30/22)

A few notes:

  • After spending the first half of Q3 building up significant gains, all asset classes struggled in the second half, closing down for the quarter, and, with the exception of Commodities, down for the year. International Stocks, both Emerging and Developed markets, as well as US Real Estate performed worst (-11% to -12%) for the quarter. “Best” performers for Q3 were High-Yield (junk) bonds, Short-Term Corporate Bonds, and US Small Caps (all down ~2%). US Large Caps (S&P 500), Commodities, Emerging Market Bonds, and US Aggregate Bonds finished the quarter in the middle of the pack, down 5-6% each.
  • The turning point for the market was the Federal Reserve’s annual meeting in Jackson Hole in August. There, chairman Jerome Powell reiterated a tough stance against inflation, indicating the Fed was poised to continue to raise rates considerably and willing to accept the “pain” (likely recession) that would result, in order to tame inflation.
  • As a result of the Fed’s action, bonds had another tough quarter too in Q3. Long-term treasuries (TLT, not shown above) were down another 11.6% in the quarter, now down ~31% YTD as rates spiked, and prices (which are inversely correlated with rates) sank. We generally keep the bond side of client portfolios much shorter in duration, and include inflation-protected bonds, both of which faired much better again. Short-term inflation protected treasuries were only down ~2.5% for the quarter., with short-term investment-grade credit down less than 2%.
  • On the bright side of the bond rout, higher rates means higher yields going forward. Short-term treasuries now yield ~4%, with junk bonds over 8%. Holding funds with bonds that mature soon means that those holdings are soon to be replaced by new bonds that pay today’s higher rates. Short-term losses are made up for quickly by higher yields going forward.
  • Interestingly, the ARK Innovation Fund (ARKK), which I’ve mentioned here in previous quarters due to it’s awful performance, did not make a new low for 2022 in Q3, despite the market as a whole doing just that. It’s still down 60% year-to-date though as the values of high-growth stocks have been destroyed by high interest rates.
  • Markets in general are still sharply up from the 2020 Covid lows and over the last 5 and 10 years. US Large and Small Caps have dominated global performance over the last decade.

The Inflation Reduction Act Of 2022

On August 16th, President Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 into law.  I’ll stay out of the debate on whether the Act will actually reduce inflation, but whether that’s true or not, the 273 pages of changes and additions to existing law will have some effect on many of our clients.  Many of the provisions of the Act impact corporations exclusively (including a new 15% minimum tax, and the new 1% excise tax on stock buybacks), so I’m going to leave them out of this summary.  The changes for individuals include the following:

1) Modifies the Non-Business Energy Property Credit (this is the credit for energy efficient windows, doors, roofs, etc.) starting in 2023 by extending it through 2032 and making it more robust:

  • The $500 lifetime limit is changed to a $1200 annual limit, though individual types of property have lower limits.
  • The rate increases from 10% of the cost to 30%.
  • Home energy audits (30% up to $150) are now included as eligible for the credit, as well as exterior doors (30% up to $250 per door, $500 total), windows (30% up to $600), insulation (30% up to $600), heat pumps (30% up to $2k, not capped by $1200 overall max), HVAC units /  water heaters / furnaces / boilers (30% up to $600), electrical panel upgrades to at least 200 amps as part of other energy efficient improvements (30% up to $600). 

Energystar.gov will have updated information on each credit by end of 2022.  That’s the most reliable site for ongoing energy credit information.

2) Extends the Residential Energy Efficient Property Credit (think solar panels on your roof) through 2034.  This 30% credit had started to phase out and was reduced to 26% for 2022, on its way to zero in the coming years.  Instead, 2022’s credit has been restored to 30% and that continues through 2032, phasing down to 26% in 2033 and 22% in 2034.

3) Replaces the old Qualified Plug-In Electric Vehicle credit ($7500 for qualifying electric vehicles but only for the first 200k vehicles sold by manufacturer) with the new Clean Vehicle Credit.  This new credit:

  • Runs from 2023 through 2032.
  • Remains capped at $7500 (lower, depending on vehicle sourcing and assembly).
  • Includes other alternative powered vehicles (e.g. hydrogen fuel cell)
  • Has income restrictions…  $150k single, $225k head-of-household, and $300k married filing jointly (though can use the lesser of the income in the year of purchase or the previous year to qualify).  These are cliffs meaning that if you are even $1 over the limit, you receive no credit.  It does not phase out slowly like most credits / deductions.
  • Has MSRP restrictions…  cars with MSRP over $55k and SUVs / light trucks over $80k are excluded.
  • Requires that final assembly of the vehicle occurred in the US and that a certain percentage of the minerals used to make the battery were sourced from North America or certain other countries that have trade agreements with the US.  These restrictions get tougher in later years (40% by 2024, 100% by 2029).
  • Does not have manufacturer sales caps (i.e. Tesla’s that meet the above requirements would qualify).
  • Allows purchasers to transfer their credit to the auto-maker starting in 2024 (means you get the credit as a discount off the purchase price, vs. having to pay full price and claim the credit on your taxes.  No details on how this will actually work.

For 2022, the old rules apply, except that the new assembly requirements are in effect as of the signing of the Inflation Reduction Act.  The Dept. of Energy has published a list of qualifying vehicles.  If you were in a contract for delivery prior to 8/16 and receive delivery prior to the end of 2022, a special transition rule allows you to treat the vehicle as delivered on 8/15 (i.e. no assembly requirements). 

The provisions of this credit are very complex.  The conclusion here is to check with the manufacturer before making the final decision on what kind of car you want to buy and assuming the credit will be available.  The sourcing / assembly restrictions, combined with the MSRP limits could make it tough for vehicles to qualify, especially early in the life of the credit.

4) Creates a new Previously Owned Clean Vehicle Credit that:

  • Runs from 2023 through 2032.
  • Is valued at the lesser of $4000 or 30% of the vehicle cost.
  • Applies to clean vehicles that are at least 2 years old.
  • Has income restrictions…  half those of the credit for new vehicles ($75k single, $112.5k head-of-household, and $150k married filing jointly (though can use the lesser of the income in the year of purchase or the previous year to qualify).  These are cliffs meaning that if you are even $1 over the limit, you receive no credit.  It does not phase out slowly like most credits / deductions.
  • Has vehicle value restrictions…  vehicles over $25k are excluded.
  • Has use restrictions…  Can only use the credit once every 3 years. The credit can also only be applied once per vehicle.

5) Creates the new High-Efficiency Electric Home Rebate Program.  This program provides qualifying low and middle-income families a total rebate of up $14k to purchase energy-efficient electric appliances.  This includes up to $8,000 to install heat pumps, $1,750 for a heat-pump water heater, $840 for a heat-pump clothes dryer or an electric stove, $1600 to insulate and seal a house, $2500 on improvements to electrical wiring, and $4000 toward upgrade of electrical panels.  The program will be administered by the states (states have to apply for their share of the $4.5B of Federal funding and there doesn’t seem to be any guarantee that all states will, or that their programs will exactly match those described above) and only those earning less than 1.5x the area’s median household income will qualify.  The rebate can’t exceed 50% of the cost of the project if the family income is between 80-150% of the area median income.

An additional, more generalized rebate program, also administered by the states is also available.  A retrofit that reduces a home’s energy use by at least 35% via insulation or other improvements is eligible for up to an $8k rebate, or 80% of the project cost, whichever is less.  For smaller projects that reduce usage by 20-35%, a $4k rebate is available.

6) Extends two ARPA provisions dealing with the ACA (“Obamacare”) through 2025.  As a result, those earning more than 400% of the Federal poverty line will still qualify for subsidies if their cost of purchasing a benchmark health insurance plan exceeds 8.5% of income.  Without this extension, in 2022, the income cap would have been $51,520 for an individual in most of the country, and $106,000 for a family of four.

7) Modifies Medicate Part D and Medicare Advantage Plans to:

  • cap monthly insulin costs at $35, starting in 2023.
  • eliminate additional out-of-pocket costs, starting in 2024, for enrollees who end up with enough covered prescription drug bills to qualify for catastrophic drug coverage.  This differs from today’s structure where enrollees still pay 5% of the bills even after they hit catastrophic coverage protections.
  • cap annual out-of-pocket drug costs at $2000, starting in 2025
  • allows Medicare to negotiate certain drug prices with manufacturers for the first time starting in 2026.

8) Increases funding for the IRS by $80 billion.  While this isn’t a provision directed at individuals, it’s possible it could impact you since a bigger IRS budget means more enforcement (i.e. audits), but, on the bright side, better taxpayer service.  Commissioner Rettig has written a letter describing what the IRS plans to do with the money, in case anyone wants his perspective.

Q2 2022 Returns By Asset Class

This post contains the usual returns by asset class for this past quarter (by representative ETF), year-to-date, last 12 months, last five years, last ten years, and since the covid low (3/23/2020).  While there is still no predictive power in this data, I’ll continue to post this quarterly for those of you that are interested. 

Last Quarter (4/1/22-6/30/22)
Year-To-Date (1/1/22-6/30/22)
Last 12 Months (7/1/21-6/30/22)
Since Covid Low (3/23/20-6/30/22)
Last 5 Years (7/1/17-6/30/22)
Last 10 Years (7/1/12-6/30/22)

A few notes:

  • Q2 was an awful quarter for stocks across the board. Emerging markets performed best out of the major asset classes (-9%), with foreign developed (-14%), US REITs (-15%), US Large Cap (-16%), and US Small Cap (-17%) lagging behind. Continued interest rate hikes by the Federal Reserve to battle continued increases in inflation have pressured asset values and sparked fears of a sharp economic slowdown as a result. Whether we’re technically in a recession now (two consecutive quarters of negative GDP growth) or not, it’s clear that the Fed is determined to slow inflation at all costs right now, both by raising rates and via Quantitative Tightening (QT), or selling assets from their balance sheet.
  • Bonds had another tough quarter too in Q2. Long-term treasuries (TLT, not shown above) were down 13% in the quarter, now down 22% YTD as rates spiked, and prices (which are inversely correlated with rates) sank. We generally keep the bond side of client portfolios much shorter in duration, and include inflation-protected bonds, both of which faired much better again. Short-term inflation protected treasuries were only down 1.2% for the quarter., with short-term investment-grade credit down 1%.
  • Even commodities turned in negative performance for Q2. After being up as much as 11% for the quarter in early June, a sharp downturn across the board, and especially in energy delivered a -6% quarter.
  • The worst performing areas of the market in Q2 were the same as in Q1. The ARK Innovation ETF (ARKK), down almost 30% in Q1, tumbled another 40% in Q2, and is now down almost 75% from its 2021 peak. On the flip side, US value stocks are still holding up relatively well, down only 9% YTD vs. the S&P 500’s -20%.
  • Markets in general are still sharply up from the 2020 Covid lows and over the last 5 and 10 years. US Large and Small Caps have dominated global performance over the last decade.

Has Inflation Peaked?

As I’ve wrote back in May, inflation, leading to higher interest rates, leading to fear of a sharp economic slowdown, seems to be dominating stock/bond market performance of late (and not in a good way). I’ve been seeing some signs of inflation cooling of late and wanted to share a few, because you generally don’t get early/good signs of stuff like this on the news. Remember though, it’s very doubtful that overall prices will ever come back down to where they were. What’s were looking for is the increase in prices going forward to moderate back toward 2% per year. Below are some signs of actual price moderation, which would likely start to flow through the economy and ease the rate of growth of other prices. Has inflation peaked? No one has a crystal ball, but I’d say the below charts are a good sign for the short-term.

1) Baltic Dry Index – benchmark for the price of moving the major raw materials by sea. Moderating after the huge spike in late 2021.

Source: Trading Economics

2) US Natural Gas – a heavy input into the price of electricity in the US. Sharp decline from recent peak as exporting to Europe has been disrupted by facility issues.

Source: Trading Economics

3) Total Homes Currently For Sale – rising sharply after hitting all-time low levels that drove up prices over the last year. When combined with higher mortgage rates, this should slow down an overheated housing market.

4) Lumber – key input into new home construction costs, down over 60% from 2021 peak and more than 50% from winter 2022 just a few months ago.

Source: Nasdaq

5a) Gasoline Futures (RBOB) – we all know prices at the pump are a LOT higher over the past few months, but the price of gasoline futures is down pretty sharply from peak a few weeks ago. That takes a while to filter through the system since prices come down only a cent or two per day via competition between stations. But it’s a good sign. The current front month futures price of $3.55/gallon would generally translate to ~$4.35 national average at the pump.

Source: Nasdaq

5b) Gasoline Futures (RBOB) – In addition to the front month futures contract trending down, the shape of the futures curve is also down with Jan 2023 down to $2.70/gallon and Dec 2024 all the way down to $2.25.

Source: Chicago Mercantile Exchange

6) 5-year Breakeven Inflation Rate – by comparing the interest rate on Inflation Protected Treasuries (TIPS) vs. Non-Inflation-Protected Treasuries, we can estimate the inflation rate that the market has priced in over the next 5 years on average. After rising considerably (though still nowhere near the current 8%+ / year actual levels, the breakeven rate has fallen and is getting closer to the Fed’s comfort range ~2%.

Source: St. Louis Fed (FRED)

So maybe, just maybe, we’ve seen the worst, at least for the short-term. Much depends on both controllable factors like policy responses (hint: cutting the gas tax and handing out cash aren’t going to help increase supply or decrease demand) as well as non-controllable factors like the war in Ukraine. (global energy and food supplies this winter are going to be tight). Even if food/energy inflation stays high, if the “core” inflation moderates, it will give the Fed room to be a bit more dovish, and that’s likely to be taken positively by the financial markets.

Market Update (5/12/2022)

Reverting back to Q&A conversation format for this one… 

Q: Uh oh…  market update time.  I guess that means the stock market is in trouble?

A: I wouldn’t say it’s in trouble because that gives the sense that something bad is about to happen.  We don’t know what’s going to happen in the future.  It sounds like semantics, but it’s an important distinction. What we do know is that stocks have performed terribly to start 2022, especially over the last 6 weeks.  The Russell 2000 (small caps) and the Nasdaq are down ~30% from their highs and the S&P 500 is down 18.5%.  Here’s a quick look at how the major asset classes that we track have performed quarter-to-date and year-to-date (by representative ETF):

High-growth tech has really taken it on the chin with more than 50% of the Nasdaq down more than 50% from its all-time high now.  Stocks in ARK’s Innovation ETF (ARKK), perhaps the “growthiest” of growth stocks, are off even more, with the fund itself down 70%.  Some other high-profile names that were booming a year or two ago make even that look not that bad (Shopify -81%, Zillow -82%, Zoom -85%, Coinbase -85%, Robinhood -88%, Peloton -93%).  The market has woken up and remembered once again that price matters, and you can’t just put all your money in well-known, high-growth names at any price.

Q: That sounds awful. I know that individual stocks carry much bigger risks than the indexes, and that you don’t generally recommend individual stocks, and that PWA clients don’t own any of those names (or ARKK), so I’m not too worried about those. But, how does the decline in the S&P 500 compare to other historical declines?

A: It’s just slightly worse than the average case. Looking at the all the times since WWII that the S&P has dropped by more than 10% from its previous high, on average, it has fallen 14.3% and it has taken 133 days from top to bottom. We’re currently down 18.5% and its been 130 days since the high. So really, this is pretty routine behavior for the S&P.

Another way of looking at this, courtesy of JP Morgan, is shown below:

You can see there are quite a few years where stocks are down significantly at some point during the year, but actually finish the year much better off. In fact, in the 23 years since 1980 that the market has been down more than 10% during the year, it finished up in 14 of them.

Q: You’ve often reminded me that there’s a nearly 100% chance that stocks are going to fall 50% from their highs, in aggregate, during my lifetime.  Is this going to be one of those times?

A: While I’m very certain it’s going to happen eventually, there’s no way to know when it’s going to happen.  That’s why we don’t try to time the market, moving money in an out of stocks pretending we have a crystal ball. Instead, we plan for it in client financial plans and incorporate it as a likely outcome in risk tolerance discussions. That lets us construct portfolios that can achieve client goals regardless of when (not if) the stock market temporarily declines.

Q: From the index returns table, it looks like even bonds are having a tough time. Aren’t they supposed to be the conservative, more stable part of a portfolio?

A: Bond returns can be negative from time to time. But they’re much less negative than their stock counterparts. Additionally, our client portfolios lean toward short-term bonds and incorporate inflation-protected bonds, both of which are down less than long-term or even aggregate bond funds. The long-term US treasury bond fund is down 20% so far this year. Short-term bonds are down 3.5-5.5% and short-term TIPS (treasury inflation protected securities) are actually up 0.3%. When interest rates rise, existing bond prices fall because they’re paying older/lower fixed interest rates, and are less appealing to investors. The shorter the term of the bond (or bonds in a bond fund), the less they’ll fall when interest rates rise because the bonds mature fairly quickly, investors get their principal back, and they can reinvest in new, higher interest rate bonds. With rates as low as they have been, we’ve tilted client portfolios toward short-term bonds, feeling like there’s an asymmetric chance of rising rates over falling rates. Short-term bonds are now paying nearly 3%, vs. the ~1% they were paying a year ago. The good news in rising rates is that while they temporarily depress bond prices, the interest they pay increases (quickly if the bonds are short-term), and eventually you are made whole and then some. Incorporating TIPS into portfolios also helps in times like these because TIPS pay a fixed interest rate + an inflation adjustment. When rates rise due to higher inflation, the higher inflation adjustment increases the interest payment and helps to offset the impact of the higher rate on fixed interest bonds prices. So, while this has been an ugly period for bonds, it’s within the bounds of what we expect for this type of environment and is going to lead to higher interest payments over the next couple of years a result.

Q: Understood. So what’s causing all this financial market stress?

A: It’s hard to know with certainty, but I’d say a combination of fear of rising inflation and fear of slowing economic growth around the world. Inflation had been running stubbornly below the Fed’s 2% target for quite some time and has recently accelerated substantially (see table below). As world demand for goods and services came back online after covid, supply was unable to keep up. Supply chain issues led to goods shortages and rapid growth in open job positions led to employee shortages. This combined with seemingly endless money printing to support the post-financial crisis / post-covid economy and large fiscal stimulus resulted in too much money in the system chasing shortages of goods and services. People had savings and didn’t want to go back to work in a restaurant. Everyone wanted to travel at the same time. There was suddenly worldwide demand for energy at a pace that made negative oil prices of two years ago seem like a lifetime ago. It started with energy, then travel / tourism, then hospitality / dining, and now is impacting just about everything. The war in Ukraine caused another jump in energy and food prices and put more pressure on inflation. China’s latest bout with covid has also further increased supply shortages on various goods imported around the world.

As a result, the Federal Reserve and other central banks are pulling back on the liquidity they’re providing via Quantitative Easing (money printing to buy government debt and finance spending more than we’re collecting in tax revenue) and starting to raise interest rates. This month, the Fed raised interest rates by 50 basis points, taking overnight rates up to 0.75-1.00%, following a 25 basis point hike in March. They’ve signaled much more on the way.  

Q: How much more?

A: Fed Funds Futures markets tell us (see derived probabilities below) that the market is currently forecasting nearly 3% rates by the of 2022 with potential of higher than that into 2023.

Q: Wow. That’s a pretty big change from what the economy is used to right?

A: Exactly. And it’s happening very fast. In anticipation of the higher overnight rates, longer-term rates have been climbing. Mortgage rates which were in the mid-3% range last year are suddenly over 5.5%. This puts pressure on housing and other activities that depend on financing. Q1 GDP came in negative (i.e. the US economy shrank in the first three months of 2022) and so the Fed is planning on substantial more tightening into a rapidly slowing economy.

Q: This is starting to sound really bad. Where’s the good news? There’s always good news isn’t there?

A: There is good news. Rising rates and a slowing economy should bring inflation back down. Eventually, higher prices tend to also bring more supply online (more people come into the workforce if they’ll get paid more, more oil drilling projects if the price of oil is ~$100/barrel, more crops planted if wheat/corn/etc. prices are high). The faster supply increases and demand decreases, the more dovish the Fed can be. While prices will likely remain high, it’s their year-over-year change that matters to the Fed. They don’t want a wage-price spiral to begin and take prices endlessly higher in a self-reinforcing cycle. Now, the market has already priced in massive interest rate increases. Either the economy withstands those increases and continues chugging along (means better than expected growth), or the economy puts on the brakes (means no need to take rates much higher than that, if at all). Either scenario would help stocks find a bottom and start to recover. The real danger is that the Fed raises rates too quickly in its attempt to break inflation and really hurts the economy or they don’t raise rates quickly enough and inflation accelerates from here, causing rates to ultimately have to go even higher in the future. The higher that terminal rate, where the Fed stops hiking, looks to be, the harder it temporarily is on stock and bond values. There are some signs that inflation may start to slow soon though. Using TIPS vs. non-inflation protected treasuries, we can look at what the market is pricing for future inflation. Below is a chart of the 5-year breakeven between the two, a measure of future inflation expectations. The red box shows that inflation expectations have started to decline in recent days.

Q: Ok, here’s the million dollar question…  when is this all going to get better.

A: Timing is impossible and no one has a functioning crystal ball (though many in the financial industry will try to sell you one!).  I wouldn’t expect an immediately turnaround. But, every time stocks have fallen in the past has turned out to be a buying opportunity in hindsight.  Coincidentally, every time stocks have fallen in the past has looked like impending doom.  If you’re a net saver, then the lower stocks go, the better for you as your purchases are being done cheaper than if the market never dropped.  If you’re a retiree, and a net spender, then much of your portfolio isn’t in stocks and your portfolio has been stress tested to endure well beyond the current drop (if you’re a PWA client that is). I can’t reassure you as to when it will get better. I can reassure you that the timing doesn’t really matter. It will get better eventually and we’ll be in an even better place financially when it does.

Q1 2022 Returns By Asset Class

This post contains the usual returns by asset class for this past quarter (by representative ETF), last year, last five years, last ten years, and since the covid low (3/23/2020).  While there is still no predictive power in this data, I’ll continue to post this quarterly for those of you that are interested. 

Last Quarter (1/1/22-3/31/22)
Last 12 Months (4/1/21-3/31/22)
Since Covid Low (3/23/20-3/31/22)
Last 5 Years (4/1/17-3/31/22)
Last 10 Years (4/1/12-3/31/22)

A few notes:

  • Q1 was the first down quarter for US stocks since the start of covid. All asset classes shown above except commodities, ended the quarter down between 3.8% (Short-term corporate bonds) and -6.5% (Emerging market stocks). Causes of the poor performance include the Russia/Ukraine war, spiking energy prices, high overall inflation, the Federal Reserve’s plan to raise interest rates over the next 2 years, and a re-emergence of covid in China, likely causing more supply chain disruptions. The bright side in all of that is the performance of commodities, which returned (in aggregate), over 28% for Q1. After being down and out since the financial crisis and pummeled again by covid, commodities have come roaring back over the last two years the top performer over that period.
  • Bonds had their worst quarter since the 1980s. Long-term treasuries (TLT, not shown above) were down 11% in the quarter as rates spiked, and prices (which are inversely correlated with rates) sank. We generally keep the bond side of client portfolios much shorter in duration, and include inflation-protected bonds, both of which faired much better. Short-term inflation protected treasuries were only down 0.4% for the quarter.
  • The worst performing areas of the market in Q1 were the high-flying US growth stocks with the ARK Innovation ETF (ARKK), down almost 30% for the quarter. On the flip side, US value stocks actually had a positive 1% return for the quarter. Higher interest rates are generally viewed as a headwind for growth stocks since much of their future earnings is far off in future years. The higher interest rates are, the higher the opportunity cost of investing in distant earnings rather than current earnings (more value-oriented). Growth has outperformed value for much of the last 15 years, which is a trend that may finally be reversing.