Market Update – 8/24/2015

Most of you know by now that when you see a “Market Update” post from me, something ugly is happening in the financial markets. This time, it’s the classic fear of a global growth slowdown, with China at the center of the action. There’s plenty of literature out there pointing to all of China’s problems, so I won’t bore you with a recap. Growth there is slowing, dramatically, and there’s little debate about that. For a long time, emerging market growth was thought to be enough to overcome the stagnation that has happened through much of the developed world. Slowing growth (maybe even a real recession?) in Asia, eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Latin America has left financial markets wondering what can drive global growth. Without it, it’s hard to imagine that corporate profits can continue to grow, hiring will increase, spending will rise, and the virtuous cycle will continue. Oil prices have plunged, partially due to the increase in supply led by the US shale revolution, but lately, I suspect it’s again due to demand slowdown fears led by China. While lower commodity prices are beneficial for consumers, it puts a halt on the growth of one of the sources of job gains in the US and provides even more basis for worrying about global growth. Add in fears of the Fed starting to raise rates soon (which almost certainly isn’t going to happen in September now thanks to the recent stock rout), and we have the makings of a meltdown.

[As I write this at 9:30am, the US stock market just opened and the market itself is not functioning properly. There are stocks and funds that opened down 20%+, were halted, and bounced back sharply. It looks a lot like the flash crash of a few years ago. I’d venture to guess that many of those trades will be cancelled by the end of the day. Many stocks did not open on time. Don’t believe what you’re seeing for quotes until that’s all resolved. I suspect the Dow was never really down the 1000+ points that were indicated shortly after the open.]

I don’t know how bad China will get. I don’t know how much fear will beget fear and cause stocks to fall. I don’t know how long it will take for everything to stabilize. What I do know is that China won’t be wiped off the map and that a billion people have a massive amount of productivity to deliver to the world as skills, technology, and resources move from other parts of the world to China. There is a massive portion of the developing world that is living in or on the edge of poverty. Technology is moving so quickly, making the world smaller and smaller and it seems impossible that the disparity in standard of living between the developing and developed worlds can continue forever. Emerging markets will drive growth eventually… It just make take a while to get through some of the policy mistakes their governments have made and to normalize some of the capital flows that have probably put too much of the developed world’s central bank provided liquidity into emerging markets in search of yield. While the media may try to convince you otherwise on a day like today, the world is not ending.

Take this as a gut check. After years without a major fall, there is a tendency to think that stocks go up in good times, and do nothing in bad times. We’ve forgotten that stocks also go down and they tend to go down much faster than they go up. This causes stress when portfolios have not been set up appropriately for your goals. Ask yourself this question: “If the stock market loses half its value as it did twice in the last 15 years, will I still be able to achieve my goals?” The answer to that question is dependent on what your goals are, how soon you need your money, and how much of your portfolio is in the stock market. If your goal is retirement in 20 years, then you’re going to have most of your money in the stock market and downturns are going to be painful, but you (and your portfolio) won’t even remember that this downturn occurred by the time your retire. If you’re looking to buy a house with most of your money in the next couple of years, then most of your money is in bonds, which actually do fairly well when stocks move lower allowing them to offset some of the stock fall and mute the impact on your portfolio. The real concern for investors should be whether or not you’ve really evaluated your goals and communicated them to your advisor. As long as we’re on the same page, your portfolio is allocated in a way that the stock market falling 10%, 20%, or even more isn’t going to ruin you. That doesn’t mean your portfolio won’t go down… I assure you it will and that’s a necessary risk in order for it to go up in the good times. It means that you should still be able to achieve your goals even if stocks fall sharply over the short term. As I posted on Twitter on Friday, “If it matters to you that stocks fell today / this week, you’re gambling, not investing.” If you feel like you’re gambling and you’re worried, please contact me. It means you’re letting your emotions get the best of you (and I’m happy to talk you off the ledge) or that your portfolio isn’t in line with your goals (which means we really need to talk).

I’ll conclude with something no one wants to hear while the market is falling, but everyone realizes is true eventually. Investing at lower prices actually increases long-term wealth and the probability of achieving your goals. In my most rational moments (which are admittedly hard when the entire world’s stock markets are down 10%+ over two days), I cheer when the market falls and get more nervous when it rises because I know your long-term goals (and mine) have a better chance of success when prices are lower and we can invest more money at those lower prices (see The Value Of Volatility post from 2013). Would you rather your next 401k contribution get invested at last week’s higher prices or this week’s lower prices? Buyers should always want prices to be lower, even if it doesn’t feel good at the time. On days like today, which definitely don’t feel good, please keep that in mind.

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Market Update 6/20/13

The Federal Reserve is eventually going to stop firing their Monetary Bazooka (“QE”, as its commonly known). We’ve always known that. Over the last month, culminating in yesterday’s post-FOMC announcement press conference, “eventually” became “soon”. Despite reiterating their promise to keep short-term interest rates near-zero into 2015, their plan to continue to QE program through mid-2014, and their resolve to support the economy through aggressive monetary policy for as long as it needs their support, the Fed has spooked the market by signaling the beginning of the end of monetary stimulus. First, let’s quantify the damage:

There are other factors at work as well including Japan’s unprecedented attempt to stimulate its economy through QE (makes ours look like child’s play) and the currency fluctuations that has caused, China attempting to pop its real estate bubble by extracting stimulus and causing domestic bank liquidity issues, recent protests in Turkey and Brazil, ongoing political instability in Syria, Egypt, and much of the rest of the middle east, inflation in India, Brazil, and some of the other emerging markets, massive unemployment and fiscal issues in southern Europe (Portugal, Italy, Greece, Spain, Cypress) while debating between austerity and trying to stimulate growth. I don’t want to minimize them, but here I want to focus on the Fed, which is really the only change in the past two days. Clearly, from the table above, there hasn’t been anywhere to hide but emerging markets have really taken the biggest beating as expected since they are typically the most volatile asset class.

In addition, mortgage rates have started to rise, following treasury rates. 30-year fixed rates have moved from 3.3% in May to an average of 3.93% last week according to Freddie Mac’s weekly survey, and likely well over 4% this week. Continued increases in mortgage rates will hurt the housing market which has been in full recovery mode for last 18-months and is the prime reason behind the economy’s strengthening.

So, should you be worried? I would be worried if any of the following are true:

1) If my financial plan was built on an expectation that I’d be able to borrow at absurdly low rates forever. I’ve been building 4.5% rates in for the near term and 6-7% rates for 2015 and beyond into all client plans. Higher rates are unfortunate, especially if you’re hoping to buy a home soon, but rates are still within the tolerances of your plan. It’s important to note also that if rates move much higher over the short-term, prices will most likely come down as buyers simply won’t be able to afford the higher monthly payment that comes along with higher rates on the same amount borrowed. In hot markets like the SF bay area, higher rates, if matched by an expected increase in supply thanks to higher prices, could stop the housing recovery in its tracks.

2) If my financial plan was built on an expectation that my investment portfolio would only go up, day-after-day, with no volatility forever. If you believe that’s possible, you haven’t been listening to anything I’ve said or written in the past. No portfolio (except maybe Bernie Madoff’s) will do that and your financial plan certain doesn’t have that expectation built in if I helped to create it. We’ve seen stocks relentlessly increasing since March 2009 and have to expect pullbacks / corrections from time to time. It’s the price you pay as an investor for the reward of higher long-term gains. As a general rule of thumb, you have to be prepared to lose 50% of the portion of your portfolio that’s in the stock market in any downturn. If you’re 50% stock / 50% bond, that means a 25% loss can be expected at some point (it’s happened twice in the last 13 years). As I’ve said before, if you’re uncomfortable with the potential for loss, then you must be more conservative and must accept lower long-term return expectations. There’s no way around this point.

3) If I was invested only in stocks and long-term bonds for my short-term goals and I needed every dollar I had invested for those goals. I coach all clients to invest conservatively for short-term goals, in some cases extremely conservatively, and to maintain cash for ultra short-term goals where you need every dollar you have. I’m not using long-term bonds in any client portfolios, favoring shorter-durations which will fare better in a slowly rising rate environment.

4) If I was investing for long-term goals primarily in stocks, but couldn’t get past short-term results, even though they don’t matter over the long-term. This one is psychological, but is key. Unless you think you have a crystal ball that can predict the short-term future of the markets, you just have to accept the short-term in favor of higher expected long-term returns. Hopefully you’re all on board. If you’re not, investing may not be for you.

5) If I hadn’t communicated my goals and plans with my financial advisor, or if I didn’t have a financial plan at all. Here’s there’s room for worry if things have changed in your life, you’re a PWA-client, and you haven’t communicated those changes or kept up with your annual reviews, or if you’ve never completed or kept up with a financial plan to begin with. To quote Yogi Berra as I’ve done in past posts, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you might wind up someplace else”. A similar result can be expected if you haven’t told your financial advisor where you’d like to go!

On the flip side, instead of worrying, remember that a falling market creates opportunity as long as you continue to add to your portfolio. You’ll be much better off with some dips along the way to your goal than you would in a straight line where the market only goes up, counter-intuitive as that might seem.

With all of the above said, perhaps some of you are still worried that rates are going to soar, the market is going to plunge into an abyss, and we’re headed for the Great Depression v2.0. After all, the real danger in unstable markets is the circular feedback loop that they have on the economy and that the economy has on the market. If asset prices irrationally fall, consumer and corporate confidence tends to fall too, which can slow the economy and cause asset prices to fall. Normally, this kind of feedback loop has the potential to cause a catastrophic downward spiral where fear begets fear and markets crash. If the Fed was stepping away and saying, “we’ve done all we can”, I’d worry about that too. In this case though, the Fed hasn’t stepped away from the market. They haven’t taken the training wheels off the bike, given the child a push, and turned their back. They’ve told that precious child that they’re going to take the training wheels off when she’s mature enough and steady enough and they’re monitoring that regularly. When they do, they’ll be there running along with the bike keeping it steady until it has picked up enough speed that she can balance and pedal without falling. And, if by some chance she falls off that bike even with all the support, they may put the training wheels back on again, repair the damage, and try again later. Yep, there may be crying, there may be a sleepless night or two, there may be a scraped knee, but she’ll make it. There may be short-term dislocations in the market as selling causes margin calls which leads to more selling temporarily, but the economy and the markets will make it as well.

To summarize, don’t worry unless you don’t have a plan or you haven’t communicated your goals to your financial advisor. Market volatility is both normal, and even helpful over the long-term. Finally, realize that the Fed hasn’t spent 6 years trying to get the economy back in working order only to walk away and let it crash now.

Monetary Bazooka Fired

The Federal Reserve Open Market Committee (FOMC) today announced a new program of quantitative easing that goes above and beyond all previous actions they’ve taken to stimulate the economy. For the past several years, the Fed has been buying primarily long-term treasuries with essentially newly printed money, in an attempt to inject liquidity into the economy and keep long-term treasury rates (the rates that long-term loans like mortgages rely on) low. The new program announced today, which goes into effect starting tomorrow, has the Fed buying mortgage-backed securities in the amount of ~$40 billion per month with no fixed end date. The purchase of these securities should directly lower mortgage rates (all else being equal) and allow for another wave of refinances for those who qualify. The purchases themselves were mostly expected by the market given lackluster economic growth and an anemic job market. But, the open-ended nature of the purchase program is the bazooka of monetary weapons.

Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Fed, indicated that the Fed will continue the monthly purchases until economic conditions improve. Read another way, that means the Federal Reserve will continue print money until there is enough money to go around. That money will flow into the economy through lower mortgage and other loan payments for borrowers and through the reduced incentive to hold cash savings since interest rates are virtually zero. If $40 billion per month isn’t enough, they’ll do more. If mortgage-purchases aren’t enough, they’ll print money to purchase other assets too. It’s a commitment that essentially puts a floor under the economy and under asset prices, thereby removing the risk of deflation. Without the risk of deflation (think of housing prices falling), the desire to purchase assets can return (think of people in their early 20’s deciding to buy condos again instead of renting). While the ramifications of the commitment will take a while to filter through the economy, they should result in the following:

· Lower mortgage rates for those with good credit attempting to obtain conforming loans (loans for principal residence that are under the FHA loan limits for the county of residence – typically $417k)

· Another wave of refinancing reducing payments for existing borrowers and freeing up more for discretionary spending

· Reduced risk in house price declines leading to more buyer confidence leading to a bottom to the housing market

· Higher business confidence that the economy will not “double dip” back into recession (the Fed simply won’t let it happen)

· A very gradual improvement in the job market

· A continuing erosion in the value of cash (no interest paid and the cost of living will start to increase more rapidly, especially in volatile food and energy prices)

· Higher inflation (virtually a guaranteed byproduct in eliminating the risk of deflation), higher energy prices, higher food prices.

It’s that higher inflation that will be the next big economic problem in my opinion. How fast it happens is unknown, but when it does, the Fed will have to reverse course and start extracting stimulus or face a 1980s-like bout of hyperinflation. Their forecasts are for that to occur beyond 2015 (they currently promise to keep rates low through 2015 and wouldn’t do that if they didn’t think inflation would be in control through at least that year). I’m not so sure, since I think a promise for an unlimited amount of stimulus could very quickly cause inflation expectations to become unanchored. Either way, taking deflation, double-dip recession, and maybe even depression off the table is certain to be a short-term net positive on the economy in aggregate. It’s also virtually certain to make cash have less and less value over time. So, what should you do to take advantage of today’s changes:

1) Only hold enough cash to serve as an emergency fund and to pay for short-term upcoming lump-sum purchases.

2) Avoid long-term fixed-income commitments (long-term bonds, long-term cd’s, fixed annuities without an inflation rider).

3) If you own a house, look into refinancing or re-re-re-refinancing your mortgage.

4) If you’re renting, you live in an area where house prices are reasonable in relation to rent, and you have enough money for a 20% down-payment, consider buying a house. I’ve been very patient in delivering this message but my confidence is now fairly high that affordability (based on the mortgage payment you’d expect given home price and interest rate) will peak by Spring ’13.

Most of all, stay alert and stay flexible. Today’s announcement is unprecedented and therefore at least partially unpredictable. Bazookas are powerful, but they’re not the most precise weapon and they may have some collateral damage. If we’re using imprecise, extremely powerful, and somewhat unpredictable tools to try to control the economy, the result, well, let’s just say this is probably not the final chapter of this economic cycle.