The Mighty Dollar

With tax cuts and tax returns on everyone’s minds, we think it is a good time to look closely at our favorite currency!  We might call it “dough”, “bread” or “cheddar”, we have “bean”-counters to keep track of it and we use simple, gastronomic valuations, like the Big Mac Index, to compare it to its peers.  Thinking about the US dollar and its’ value might just make you hungry!   The dollars’ worth is determined by the foreign exchange market, but investors and economists alike are always looking for ways to value the currencies and look for explanations or even monetary conspiracies, to explain currency fluctuations.

In 1986, The Economist came out with the Big Mac Index as a simple way to discuss exchange rates and purchasing-power parity (PPP), which compares the amount of currency needed to buy the same item in different countries, in this case a Big Mac. The Wall Street Journal came up with their own modernized version of this same idea with their Latte Index, which compares the price of a Starbucks tall latte in cities around the world.  For example, in New York City, the WSJ reporter could buy a tall latte at Starbucks for $3.45.  Other WSJ reporters would need to spend $5.76 in Zurich, $4.22 in Shanghai, $3.40 in Berlin (almost the same as the U.S.), $2.84 in London and $1.53 in Cairo.  These simple comparisons of the price of a good that is available in many countries can be an indicator of whether foreign currencies are over-valued or under-valued relative to the US dollar.

There are some criticisms of these simple tools.  Costs of these products can depend on local wages or rents, which are generally more expensive in richer countries and can add to the cost of the product.  The price for a Starbucks Latte can even fluctuate amongst American cities or specific locations, like airports, which may have higher rents.  And adjusting these indices for GDP will change the data and perhaps improve their accuracy.  Some also have pointed to the ingredients in these particular items as causing value differences.  McDonald’s, for example, must use strictly British beef in the U.K.  Starbucks can be a little more consistent, as coffee beans are not generally grown in most of the countries they operate in, so the imported price is pretty standard.

coffee.jpg

What these indices don’t tell us about the currency market is why fluctuations occur.  For example, why has the U.S. dollar hit a recent three-year low?  According to an article in yesterday’s WSJ, one simple explanation for a weakened dollar is that “the economies in the rest of the world are finally growing again, so their currencies are strengthening. The U.S. economy isn’t improving as fast—because it was stronger to start with—so the dollar’s falling.”  The Chinese yuan has gained 3.8% so far in January after gaining 6.7% in 2017, which has the officials at the People’s Bank of China concerned about their exports.  President Trump and the U.S. have been critical of any Chinese central bank policies that would devalue the Chinese currency and cheapen goods coming into the U.S.  This trade friction complicates China’s management of their currency, particularly as they attempt to make the yuan a more market-driven currency.

Adding to the currency gap with China and the drop in US currency values overall were comments made last week by the U.S. Treasury Secretary signaling Administration support for a weaker U.S. dollar as being “good for trade.”   Such overt comments are traditionally avoided by the Treasury Department, but may spotlight the Administration goals to reduce the trade deficit and allow currencies to float freely.  President Trump reiterated his stance on trade imbalances in his State of the Union address, pledging to “fix bad trade deals” and that he expects trade deals to be “fair” and “reciprocal”.  Another factor that may weaken the dollar is the belief that 2018 will bring a tightening of monetary policy by the international banks.  Some banks, like the Bank of Canada and Bank of England, have already raised rates.

A weaker dollar makes U.S. goods cheaper to foreign markets, but there is a risk of undermining confidence in an array of U.S. assets, like the U.S. Treasury market.  As the WSJ article explained, as the new tax law expands the federal budget deficit, the government will look to sell the debt to foreign investors.  Those investors may demand higher rates to compensate for the risks of a weaker currency and those costs could fall onto the U.S. taxpayers.

So, we should think about our American dollar today and perhaps look at our paychecks or tax returns to see what has changed.  At DWM, we are always careful to think about each and every one of your dollars – the ones you invest, the ones you save, the ones you spend and the ones you pay in tax.  Using the simple Big Mac or Starbucks Latte indices might help us remember all the factors that go into the value of a dollar around the world.  For me, I certainly prefer to imagine buying a tall latte in Zurich over a Big Mac!

 

 

DOW 26,000-WHEN’S THE LAST TIME YOU THOUGHT ABOUT YOUR RISK?

With U.S. stocks at all-time highs, now is the perfect time to review your risk profile and then make sure the asset allocation within your investment portfolio matches it.  Equity markets have been on a tear.  In 2017, the average diversified US stock fund returned 18%, while the average international stock fund returned 27%.  In the first three weeks of 2018, the MSCI World Index of stocks has increased 5.6%. With low interest rates and inflation, accelerating growth and the recent passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, it looks like this streak could continue in 2018.

During the current nine year bull market, investor emotions about stocks have gone from optimism to elation and many investors now are not only complacent, but overconfident. Yet, with valuations soaring, we are approaching the point of maximum financial risk.  Certainly, at some point, we will have a pullback, correction or crash.

It always happens.  It could be a conflict in N. Korea or Iran or somewhere else.  It could be a worldwide health scare.  It could be higher interest rates negatively impacting our rising national and personal debt.  It could be something none of us even consider today.  History shows it will happen.  We need to be ready for it by having an asset allocation in our portfolios that matches our risk profile.

What exactly is a risk profile?  There are three components of your risk profile.  First, your risk capacity, or ability to withstand risk.  Second, your risk tolerance, or willingness to accept large swings in investment returns.  It’s the way we are hard-wired to respond to volatility.  Third, your risk perception, or short-term subjective judgment about the characteristics and severity of risk.

We classify your risk profile into one of five categories of risk: defensive (very low), conservative (low), balanced (moderate), growth (high) and aggressive (very high).  As a general rule, younger investors are more willing to take on a higher level of risk.  However, that’s not always true.  Investors in their 80s and 90s who know that they have ample funds for their lifetimes and beyond, and who can emotionally handle high risk, may have an aggressive risk profile, particularly when they plan to leave most of their money to the beneficiaries.  Everyone’s circumstances and emotions are different.  Profiles can change over time, particularly when there are life changing events, such as marriage, birth of a child, loss of job, retirement, changes in health or other matters.  Therefore, it’s important to regularly assess your risk profile.

Here’s the process:

 

Step 1. Quantify your lifetime monetary goals and compare those with your expected lifetime assets. During your accumulation years, how much will you add to your retirement funds per year?  How many years until retirement?  How much money will you need to withdraw annually during retirement for your needs, wants and wishes?  What are your sources of retirement income?  What’s your realistic life expectancy?  What market return is required to provide the likely outcome of success- not running out of money?  Do the goals require a high rate of return just to have a chance of success or is the goal so low risk that even a bad market outcome won’t cause it to fail?

Risk capacity isn’t simply the amount of assets you have; rather it is the comparison of those assets to your expected withdrawal rate from your portfolio.  A low withdrawal rate from your portfolio, e.g. 1% or 2% a year, means you have high risk capacity. A high withdrawal rate, such as 6% or more, means you have low risk capacity.

Step 2.  Evaluate your tolerance for risk.  What’s your comfort level with volatility?  Are you aggressive? Moderate?  Defensive? How does that compare to the risk needed in your portfolio to meet your goals?  If the risk needed to meet your goals exceeds your risk tolerance, you need to go back and modify your goals.  On the other hand, if your risk tolerance exceeds the risk level to meet your goals, does that mean you need to take on more risk just because you can or because you can afford it? You need to go through the numbers and make important decisions.

Step 3. Compare the risk in your portfolio to your risk tolerance.  Separate your assets into all three classes: equities, fixed income (including cash) and alternatives and determine your asset allocation.  A balanced portfolio might have roughly 50% equities, 25% fixed income and 25% alternatives.  An aggressive (very high risk) portfolio could have 80% equities and a defensive (very low risk) portfolio might have only 10-35% equities.  If your portfolio is riskier than your risk tolerance, changes need to be made immediately.  If your portfolio risk is lower than your risk tolerance, you still need to make sure it is of sufficient risk for you to meet your goals, considering inflation and taxes.

Step 4.  Rebalance your portfolio to a risk level equal to or less than your risk tolerance and sufficient to meet your goals.  Make sure you diversify your portfolio within asset class and asset style. Diversification reduces risk.  Reducing portfolio expenses and taxes increases returns. Alternatives are designed to reduce risk and increase returns. Trying to time the market increases your risk. Set your asset allocation for the long-term and don’t change it based on feelings of emotion. Stay invested.

Step 5.  Most importantly, regularly review and monitor your goals, risk profile and the asset allocation within your portfolio.  The results: Improved lifetime probability of financial success and peace of mind.

DWM 2017 YEAR-END MARKET COMMENTARY

Ah, winter…colder temps, snow (even in the Carolinas)…it’s a good time for the annual ski trip. But if there are words for caution when skiing, it’s always: “Don’t get too far out over your skis!” Something for investors to think about as we talk about how the markets fared in 2017 and where they might go in 2018.

Equities: “Fresh powder!” In concerted fashion around the globe, equities rallied in 2017, thanks to strong economic fundamentals and friendly central bankers. Almost like Goldilocks’s time, where the porridge is not too hot nor too cold, so is the pace of this economic expansion: fast enough to support corporate earnings growth, but slow enough to keep the Fed from putting the brakes on too quickly. This led to a magic carpet ride for equity investors, with returns of 5.1% for 4q17 & 18.3% YTD for the average diversified US stock fund* and a 4.1% fourth quarter return and a hearty 26.8% YTD for the average international stock fund*. “Gnarly!” Growth outperformed value, with a handful of tech stocks (Apple, Microsoft, Alphabet, and Facebook) leading the way. But it should be noted that this won’t last forever. In fact, a 2016 study** showed that the average annual price return for growth stocks to be only 12.8% vs 17.0% for value stocks. Another reason to be diversified.

Fixed Income: It was also a positive time for bond investors, as evidenced by the Barclays US Aggregate Bond Index gaining 0.4% in the fourth quarter and 3.5% for the year. The inclusion of global fixed income assets led to better results with the Barclays Global Aggregate Bond Index registering +1.1% for 4Q17 and +7.4% YTD. Yields on the ten-year bond pretty much finished the year where they started, with investors content with the Fed’s pace of raising rates.

Alternatives: The Credit Suisse Liquid Alternative Beta Index, our chosen proxy for alternatives, was up 1.7% for 4q17 and 4.6% YTD. Two of the most well-known alternative exposures, gold and real estate, had solid showings for both the quarter and the full year. Gold***: +1.6% and 12.9%, respectively. Real Estate****: +3.5% and 7.8%, respectively.

2017 proved to be another rewarding year for the balanced investor. But how do the slopes look for 2018? Will it be another plush ride up the mountain again? Gondola, anyone?!?

Indeed the same items – low interest rates, low inflation, accelerating growth, strong earnings – that propelled the global economy in 2017 should remain in 2018. The risk of recession seems nowhere in sight. Furthermore, the Republican tax overhaul is also expected to be a boost, at least in the near-term. But not sure if that represents “eating tomorrow’s lunch”. Moreover, two key drivers of economic growth, productivity gains and labor force expansion, have been on the downtrend. So is now the time to be thinking about the “vertical drop”???

With the bull market in its ninth year, many areas of the stock market at record highs, and volatility near record lows, it can be easy to become not only complacent but overconfident. Now is not the time to get too far out over your skis and take on more than you can chew! At some point, the fresh powder will turn into slush. Don’t be a “hot dog” or a “wipe-out” may just be in your future.

At DWM, we see ourselves as ski instructors, helping our skiers traverse the green, blue, and even black diamond runs by keeping them disciplined to their long-term plan, including the allocation and risk profiles of their portfolios. Rebalancing, the act of selling over-weighted asset classes† and buying underweighted asset classes in a tax-conscious manner, is part of our ongoing process and prudent in times like these. There are few signs of financial excess like ten years ago, but the market can only be predictable in one fashion: that it’s always unpredictable.

In conclusion, may your 2018 be a ‘rad’ one, with fresh powder on the slopes and fireside smiles in the cabin. Don’t hesitate to contact us if you want to talk or ‘shred’ the nearest run.

Brett M. Detterbeck, CFA, CFP®

DETTERBECK WEALTH MANAGEMENT

*according to Thomson Reuters Lipper

**study by Michael Hartnett of Merrill Lynch

***represented by the iShares Gold Trust

****represented by SPDR Dow Jones Global Real Estate

†versus your initial investment target

TAX REFORM: THIS YEAR’S CHRISTMAS GIFT OR A FUTURE CHRISTMAS COAL?

On top of the regular holiday season’s festivities, this year we’re watching the proposed “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act” likely making its way to the President’s desk for signature. The “joint conference committee” announced yesterday that they have a “final deal” and Congress is scheduled to vote on this next week.  Before we review what we specifically know about the bill (not all details have been released as of this morning) and provide some recommendations concerning it, let’s step back and review it from a longer-term perspective.

Since last year’s election, stock markets have been on a tear- up over 20%, mostly driven by increased corporate profits, both here and abroad.  U.S. GDP is growing and unemployment is close to 4%.  Most economists believe that now is not the time for a tax cut, which could heat up an already expanding economy to produce some additional short-term growth and inflation. The Fed reported yesterday that the tax package should provide only modest upside, concentrated mostly in 2018 and have little impact on long-term growth, currently estimated at 1.8%.  So, tax cuts now will not only likely increase the federal deficit by $1.5-$2 trillion over the next decade, but will take away the possibility of using tax cuts in the future, needed to spur the economy when the next recession hits.  Certainly, we would all like lower ta

xes and even higher returns on our investments, but we’d prefer to see longer-term healthy economic growth with its benefits widely shared by all Americans and steady investment returns, rather than a boom-bust scenario and huge tax cuts primarily for the wealthy that may not increase long-term economic growth.

As of this morning, December 14th, here are the current major provisions:

Individual

  • Income Tax Rates.  The top tax rate will be cut from 39.6% to 37%.
  • Standard deduction and exemptions.  Double the standard deduction (to $24,000 for a married couple) and eliminate all exemptions ($4,050 each).
  • State and Local Income, Sales and Real Estate Taxes.  Limit the total deduction for these 

    to $10,000 per year.

  • Mortgage Interest.  The bill would limit the deduction to acquisition indebtedness up to $750,000.
  • Limitations on itemized deductions for those couples earning greater than $313,800.  Repeals this “Pease” limitation.
  • Roth recharacterizations.  No longer allowed.
  • Sale of principal residence exclusion.  Qualification changed from living there 2 of 5 years to five out of eight years.
  • Major items basically unchanged.  Capital gains/dividends tax rate, medical expense deductions, student loan interest deductions, charitable deductions, investment income tax of 3.8%, retirement savings incentives, Alternative Minimum Tax, carried interest deduction (though 3 yr. holding period required.)
  • Estate Taxes.  Double the estate tax exemption from $5.5 million per person to $11 million.

 

 

Business

  • Top C-Corporation Tax Rate.  Reduce to 21% from 35%.
  • Alternative Minimum Tax.  Eliminated.
  • Business Investments.  Immediate expensing for qualified property for next five years.
  • Interest Expense.  Limit on expense to 30% of business interest income plus 30% of adjusted EBITDA.  Full deduction for small businesses (defined as $25 million sales by House, $15 million by Senate).

Another key issue, the top rate on pass through organizations (such as partnerships and S Corps), is yet to be determined. However, it appears that a reduction of 20% to 23% will be available to pass-through income, subject to W-2 minimums and adjusted gross income maximums. This would produce an effective top rate of 29.6% on pass through income.

If all of that see

 

ms confusing, you’re not alone.  Lots of moving parts and lots of details still to be clarified. Even so, if the bill passes, you will have been smart to consider the following:

Recommendations:

1) Because the bill would limit deductions for local income, sales and real estate taxes, you should make sure that you have paid all state income tax payments before December 31, 2017. If you are not sure, pay a little extra.

2) Also, make sure you pay your 2017 real estate taxes in full before 12/31/17. Because Illinois real estate taxes are paid in “arrears” it will be necessary to obtain an estimated 2017 real estate tax bill (generally due in 2018) by g

 

oing to your county link and then paying this before 12/31/17.  Let us know if you need help on this.  In the Low country, while our CPA friends indicate that paying 2018 real estate taxes in 2017 should be deductible, as a practical matter, there appears to be no way to get an estimated tax bill for 2018 and prepay your 2018 real estate taxes in 2017.

3) Meet with us and/or your CPA in early 2018 to review the impact of the Act, assuming it becomes law, on your 2018 income tax planning. It will be important to review the various strategies that may be available to make sure you are paying the least amount of taxes. 

Yes, tax reform may be here before Christmas. Not sure what it will be: a wonderful gift for this year’s holiday or perhaps a lump of coal in our stockings for Christmases to come.  Stay tuned.