Market Update (2/5/2018)

I had hesitated to send one of these out after the two-day pullback in the market because while it looks bad on a point basis (Dow, S&P, etc.), it’s far from exceptional on a % basis, which is what counts. After today’s fall, the S&P is down a little over 1% for the year. Some other assets classes are down a bit more, others are still up on the year. This is far from “Markets in Turmoil”, but that business news headline attracts attention, raises fears, and up go ratings. Because of that, I thought a quick note was warranted to both show there is not turmoil at this point and to give you my perspective on what’s going on. Here’s a quick look at year-to-date performance (including any dividends paid) by asset class (representative ETF) AFTER today’s “plunge”:

US Large Cap (SPY): -1.1%

US Small Cap (VB): -2.7%

Foreign Developed (VEA): -1.5%

Foreign Emerging (VWO): +1.7%

Real Estate Investment Trusts (VNQ): -9.9%

High-Yield Bonds (HYG): -1.3%

Aggregate Bonds (BND): -1.4%

Short-Term Investment Grade Credit Bonds: CSJ: -0.1%

Local Currency Emerging Market Bonds: +2.5%

Aggregate Commodities: +0.5%.

As you can see, with the exception of REITs, which are getting beaten up as interest rates rise, this is far from turmoil.

What happened today is concerning though. Stock markets behaved erratically. Futures liquidity dried up as this started to happen and liquidity in the S&P 500 futures contracts after-hours tonight are as low as they have been in a long time. That means it’s fairly easy to push the market around with relatively small orders, causing big moves in either direction. As a result, S&P futures have been moving 10+ points repeatedly over only a few minutes throughout the evening (this is the equivalent of the Dow moving in about 100 points per few minutes). The markets are down sharply overnight, with recent lows having Dow futures down another 1100 points from today’s close and S&P futures down a little over 100 points. This isn’t being caused by economic issues, bank liquidity issues, terrorism, recession, or anything that caused the last two major (-50%+) market falls. In my opinion, it’s being caused by large, leveraged bets on continuing low volatility which are unraveling in what should have been some mild profit-taking and re-pricing as interest rates moved a bit higher in January. Volatility has been running well below normal as I’ve pointed out in recent quarterly updates. Futures markets generally price in a return to normal volatility over time. Therefore, if one shorts future volatility in futures markets (or via multiple exotic ETFs and other financial products) and volatility remains low, money can be made over and over again very quickly. Hedge funds have been started that engage in this tactic and it has paid off massively over the past year as there has been virtually no volatility in the stock market. The longer the strategy pays off, the more money moves into it, chasing its success. People / funds begin to borrow money to invest in the strategy (leverage) because they can pay a few % of interest per year for their borrowing costs and make 10%+ per month if the strategy continues to do well. For all of history this has been a recipe for disaster and sure enough, it is beginning to unravel. An otherwise ordinary increase in volatility surrounding a few days of rising interest rates / declining stocks causes these bets on low future volatility to lose massive amounts of money very quickly. Fear that they won’t be able to pay back their loans causes margin calls which forces more selling of this strategy. Selling of short volatility funds is essentially buying volatility into a spike in volatility, which causes (of course) more volatility. Other hedge funds know this is happening and try to take advantage of the forced volatility buying (stock selling) causing even more. From there, it’s the same old vicious cycle that has fueled market drops like this in the past. Want proof that this is what’s going on? Today was the single biggest % increase in the VIX (the volatility index) in the history of the market on what wasn’t even in the top 100 down days on a % basis in the history of stocks. Want more proof? Here’s the after-hours chart of an exchanged traded note that tracks the inverse of the volatility index (I know that’s a mouth-full… it’s basically one of these short-future-volatility funds that is blowing up):

You’re reading that right… -86.04%, just since 4pm today! This is going to cause some hedge fund meltdowns. It’s going to cause some margin calls. It’s going to strain markets for a while. But I find it hard to believe an obscure greed-based strategy is going to bring down earnings growth, which is really starting to pick up around the world. That’s not to say there aren’t other factors playing a role here, but I think this short-volatility blow up is a big part of it. Another cue that this is probably a shorter-term event is that it’s not flowing through to currency markets at all (at least not yet). Despite futures being down 4% overnight, the dollar index, a normal flight to quality when there is a lot of fear in the market, is up only 0.1%.

Anything is possible, and as I’ve said many times, I’m certain that the stock market will eventually fall more than 50% again. We probably won’t see it coming in advance of that happening. But, if someone forced me to place a bet, I would bet that this will be a fairly short-term event that will allow the market to build again from whatever bottom that forms. To be clear, I’m not advising anyone to invest money they wouldn’t otherwise invest as a result of this. I’m not advising anyone to be more aggressive or conservative in their portfolio or to reposition assets in any way (other than usual rebalancing) as a result of this. Financial plans are designed to weather market moves, not predict them, and not time them. I know seeing your portfolio value fall hurts. For some of you, it makes you want to sell stocks. For others, it makes you want to aggressively buy stocks. But it is going to happen over and over again and is the price you pay for the kind of growth you’ve experienced over the past several years. Markets can’t only go up, despite what they’ve done in the past year. We’ll be rebalancing client portfolios on the way down (sell bonds, buy stocks), just as we rebalanced in the other direction (sell stocks, buy bonds) on the way up. And, it never hurts to have your planned contributions and 401k deposits go in at a lower level than they otherwise would have.

In short, expect that wild swings in either direction are possible over the next several days. I hope that with the explanation above, you’ll find what happens more interesting than traumatic. As always, if you’re reading this as a PWA client, feel free to contact me with any questions.


Market Update 10/15/2014

I don’t have a crystal ball and can’t tell you where the market is going, but I can tell you why I think it has fallen recently. Here are my top pain points in reverse order of concern/impact over the short-term (#6 having the biggest impact in my opinion):

1) Geopolitical Tensions / Civil Unrest – press on these has eased recently just because there seems to be worse news in other areas to take the headlines, but they’re still very present. Middle East, Russia / Ukraine, Hong Kong… all these sorts of issues threaten global economic growth through lower productivity and inefficient use of resources. Protests, sanctions, wars, fear, and loss of life around the world that seems like it will be ongoing indefinitely.

2) Central Banks – the US Federal Reserve is ending Quantitative Easing (QE), their bond buying program that essentially amounted to printing money to purchase treasury bonds (finance government debt spending) and mortgage backed securities (finance home purchases). Many worry that the end of QE and the ultimate beginning of an interest-rate hike cycle will put the brakes on a recovering US economy. So far, long-term treasury rates and mortgage rates have stayed low despite the Fed pulling back on QE as a potential economic slowdown tends to lower rates on its own. Other major economies of the world are also moving in the opposite direction, embarking on further monetary stimulus programs as the US pulls back. This forces their rates lower and acts as competition for US rates, dragging them lower as well. 10-year government bonds in Germany are paying less than 0.7% right now. US ending monetary stimulus while Europe and Japan extend stimulus tends to push the US Dollar up vs. the Euro and the Yen, making our exports less competitive which can also act to slow down the US economy. As one of very few sources of global economic recovery for the last few years, a lot is riding on continued US growth and the end of QE combined with a stronger dollar jeopardize that.

3) Europe – the majority of the continent’s economy is still a disaster and there aren’t any signs of improvements. Many suspect a QE-like program launching in Europe soon, but the legalities of such a program in a common currency with so many different jurisdictions involved make it difficult to pull off. There’s also no way of knowing how it effective it would even be given how low interest rates in the Euro zone already are. Additionally, some concerns from a few years ago are roaring back. Greece wants to end its participation in its bailout program, but doing so means it won’t be able to borrow at the low euro-zone rates, and potentially means it will need to exit the Euro completely which threatens the stability of the currency as a whole. If Greece reverts to its issues of a few years back, Portugal, Spain, and Italy (maybe even France) can’t be far behind.

4) Oil – the price of oil has been plunging in the past few weeks. While this is good for global economic growth in general (lower prices at the pump, lower heating oil this winter, lower costs for airlines, etc.), a portion of the US recovery has been led by the energy sector and our progression toward oil independence from the Middle East though domestic production and Canadian imports. It appears that OPEC is putting on a sort-of price war now with the US, keeping their production high despite falling prices because their drilling costs are lower than our more complex ways of extracting oil (oil sands, fracking, etc.). If they can push the price down for long enough, they may be able to force a reduction in US / Canadian production and maybe even put some US / Canadian companies out of business which will ultimately push prices back up with a larger share of oil production coming from the Middle East again. As energy prices dramatically fall, hedge funds that are dedicated toward energy investments, sometimes in a leveraged way, are forced to liquidate which causes further drops in energy prices and ultimately in other assets as well. Forced selling begets forced selling and the price of everything tends to fall in a whoosh until leverage is managed, markets clear, and price stability resumes. If oil continues to fall, it’s likely the rest of the market will fall with it until oil stabilizes. The good news is that once the forced selling is done, we’ll be left with lower energy prices overall and as long as the US / Canadian producers survive, that will be a stimulus to the economy in additional discretionary money in the pockets of consumers.

5) Ebola – this is one of those very low probability of extreme catastrophe events that makes it very hard for financial markets to price risk. When markets can’t price risk, then tend to avoid it, and that means short-term traders selling just about everything other than the safest assets (treasuries). Ebola has been around for a long time and there have been other outbreaks. There will be other outbreaks after this as well, since it is carried by animals that can transmit the virus to humans, without illness by the animals. If contained, as it has been in the past, it will come and go again as any other flare up of disease (remember SARS?). If not controlled, given a 70% mortality rate with the latest outbreak, it threatens large sections of the population. The concept of confident long-term market growth is based on population growth and productivity increases over time. If a disease eliminates substantial portions of the population, that premise fails and even over the long-term, economies will shrink and equity markets will shrink with them. Even if the most likely scenario happens (a minor breakout with no epidemic-like results), fear of the disease can temporarily cause fear of being out in public, traveling, shopping, etc. Each time more negative ebola news comes out, stock markets take another leg down. With a 10-14 day incubation period, It could take several weeks to see that the breakout is controlled before some confidence is restored. As I write this, details have emerged about a 2nd healthcare worker in Dallas having ebola and having flown on a commercial jet the night before her symptoms began. Sure enough the market fell to new lows shortly after the news. The US CDC needs to instill confidence soon or ebola will take the economy down in the short-term (best case) and could take it down in the long-term if it truly does become an epidemic. Again, very low probability of extreme catastrophe, but until it’s a zero probability, it will have an impact in financial markets.

6) Fear / Self-Fulfillment – Fear of all of the above having a negative impact on the economy causes markets to fall which causes confidence to fall which causes spending to drop and layoffs to begin, which causes the economy to contract. It can be self-fulfilling and can happen very quickly. The more the stock market falls and the longer the fall drags on due to fear of a recession, the higher the potential that the recession occurs as a result. This is the biggest concern for the stock market short-term. This correction, so far, has happened quickly and hasn’t taken market levels to a point that the fall will impact the economy. That doesn’t stop the market from starting to worry about though.

Remember, markets tend to climb the wall of worry. As long as there are reasons to worry, there’s room for the market to go up. New worries will push it down temporarily (no one was talking about ebola a year ago), but the lower prices go, the better the price you get if you’re using a consistent plan of buying over time. This is why people are so successful with 401ks. Volatility creates wealth for those who don’t fear it (see While we can’t control the aggregate market going through a fear-cycle, I hope that understanding the reasons that cause the fear helps you avoid it.

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.