Happy National Social Security Month!

Many Americans are worried about the state of Social Security and the possibility that benefits will be reduced or even disappear in the future. Even those already collecting Social Security benefits may be concerned that their monthly check could be impacted by the swelling population of beneficiaries and the inability of the taxes collected from the current workforce to keep up with the demand.

Every April, the Social Security Administration celebrates with a month of highlighting the agency’s mission to “promote economic security” and educating all of us on their programs and services. Social Security was originally created by President Roosevelt in 1935, as part of his New Deal plan, to develop a comprehensive social insurance program. There are three parts to the benefits in Social Security – retirement benefits, survivor and death benefits and disability benefits. This is a pay-as-you-go system, so the payroll taxes paid by the workers and employers today fund the benefits for the beneficiaries of the three SS programs.

Social Security is the single largest federal program and accounts for around 24% of all federal spending. According to the most recent report from the Social Security Administration, the benefits paid out by the Social Security retirement program will be more than what’s paid in, starting in 2020. When the program started in 1935, many workers paid into the program, but few lived long enough after retirement age to collect much in the way of benefits. The Social Security Trust Fund was created when the taxes collected surpassed benefits that were paid out. However, in 2010, the government starting dipping into these reserves to address the insufficient revenue. This trust fund is expected to be completely depleted by 2034 and benefits could be reduced to 75%-80% of current payments, unless something changes that will increase the money going into the trust fund or decrease the amounts being paid out.

We have all heard about Social Security benefits running out and have heard about the need for reform. We jokingly thank the Millenials for supporting something from which they may never recoup any income. But it really is a serious issue for the many Americans who have not saved enough on their own. As Investment News contributor, Mary Beth Franklin, notes, “By 2030, all baby boomers will be older than 65, meaning one in every five U.S. residents will be of retirement age”. This, of course, will put critical stress on the entire Social Security program.

So what can be done? Each year, the Social Security trustees use their annual reports to recommend that lawmakers address the projected trust fund shortfalls. We have heard about “means testing” for benefits, which already impacts Medicare Part B premiums. Means testing could take the form of more income taxes, a reduction in benefits, a surtax or some other method to correct the program shortfalls. Another possible solution talks about tying Social Security benefit checks to prices rather than wages, as price increases are slower than wage growth. This could correct shortfalls over time, but may present other undesirable effects. In a recent article, Ramesh Ponnuru, a Bloomberg View columnist, notes, “An implication of that change [using prices over wages] is that over time Social Security would replace a smaller and smaller portion of the income people made during their working lives.”

Congress is looking at a tactic to address the problem of insufficient retirement savings with a bi-partisan (remember that word?) bill, the Retirement Enhancement and Savings Act (RESA). This legislation would create a retirement savings program allowing access for workers who may not currently contribute to an employer-sponsored retirement plan. It would also offer a collective ‘multi-employer plan’ (MEP) that allows small businesses to share in the costs of plan administration and make it easier for them to offer retirement savings plans to their employees. The more that Americans can save on their own, the less of an impact SS benefit shortfalls will have.

We will continue to watch and wait for the legislators and administrators to solve this problem with Social Security. At DWM, we are all about helping you determine ways to save more, protect that savings and then invest it to have appropriate growth to achieve your goals. We work hard to help our “vintage” clients evaluate all of their options and strategies when applying for Social Security benefits. Benefits taken at the earliest age of 62 will reduce your lifetime benefits, while waiting to begin until the maximum age of 70 can increase your benefits by 8% a year after Full Retirement Age (FRA) is reached. We evaluate which is the most effective strategy for each client – whether waiting and maximizing your benefits or starting benefits at FRA and possibly avoiding any benefit changes that may occur. There is much to consider, but we are here to help navigate the sign-up, the strategy choices and all of the tax implications involved. Please let us know if we can help enhance YOUR retirement savings!

Signatures are Becoming Extinct

Later this month, Visa, Mastercard, Amex, Target will no longer require signatures to complete credit card transactions. Walmart and other credit card companies and retailers will soon follow. It’s a new ball game now that cards are embedded with computer chips. Signatures are becoming extinct. Personal checks are on their way out. Could genuine handwritten notes be next?

Signatures have been part of our human identity and creativity for thousands of years, dating back to the Sumerians and Egyptians. The English Parliament elevated the status of signatures in 1677 by enacting the State of Frauds in 1677 Act which required all contracts to be signed. By 1776, when John Hancock signed the Declaration of Independence, the signature was in its full glory for binding a contract and exhibiting the signer’s creativity. Fast forward to 2000 when President Bill Clinton signed the E-Sign Act paving the way for eSignature technologies to use digital signatures to sign contracts.

Credit card companies, which cover the costs of credit card fraud, started adding microchips more than a decade ago to reduce fraud. Prior to chips, most retailers required signatures on all purchases and could be held liable (for a fraud) if they failed to notice that the signature on the receipt did not match the one of the back of customer’s card.

Then, with online shopping, card networks started the transition to eliminate signatures. Typically, purchases less than $25 or $50 did not require signatures. However, some card issuers continued to require signatures, so many merchants just kept getting signatures on all transactions. Now, with chip technology leading the way, the card networks are indicating that signatures are obsolete. This will speed up the checkout line, which will make everyone happy.

Some merchants may continue to ask for signatures. Some believe customers have the signature built into their muscle memory of the purchasing process. Further, they are concerned that eliminating signatures might impact workers’ tips. Lastly, some like to keep the signature as evidence that the customer received the services or goods when fighting fraud claims.

Even so, signatures are becoming extinct and will be likely be reserved for special situations, like a house purchase, a marriage license or birth certificate. Even celebrity autographs are now being replaced by “selfies.”

Which leads us to genuine handwritten notes. We know how important a handwritten “Thank you” or sympathy card is. Like homemade bread and hand-knitted socks, handwritten notes make a huge impact. Unfortunately, all of us are pressed for time. Not to worry, you can now fake a handwritten note using online services:

Handiemail. You type a letter, send it to Handiemail with the address of the recipient and $10. Within a couple of days, your letter, handwritten on specialty paper and hand-addressed in a premium envelope with a first-class stamp is delivered.
Inkly. With Inkly, you select a card design, type your message, snap it with your phone, upload to the app and Inkly sends it out for you.
Bond. Starting at $3, you can send an elegant handwritten note with a choice of five handwriting styles to be delivered to the recipient in a suitably classy envelope. Also, for $500 you can visit a Bond HQ where staff will help you improve your own handwriting.
Handwrytten. This is another app which offers a range of classy cards, which the company considers “hipster-friendly, limited-print letterpress designs.” Each letter created has “truly organic effect.”
Yes, keyboards seem to be replacing pens. A recent study showed that one of three respondents had not written anything by hand in the last six months. On average, they had not put pen to paper in the last 41 days. With information technology, handwritten copy is fast disappearing.

However, there is some pushback. Pens and keyboards apparently bring into play very different cognitive skills. “Handwriting is a complex task which requires directing the movement of the pen by thought,” according to Edouard Gentaz, professor development psychology at the University of Geneva. He continues, “Children take several years to master this precise motor exercise.” On the other hand, operating a keyboard is a simple task; easy for children to learn.

In 2000, work in the neurosciences indicated that mastering cursive writing was a key step in overall cognitive development. Studies have also shown that note-taking with a pen, rather than a laptop, gives students a better grasp of the subject.

IT continues to change our world. Yet, Professor Gentaz believes that handwriting will persist, “Touchscreens and styluses are taking us back to handwriting. Our love affair with keyboards may not last.” Time will tell.

DWM 1Q18 Market Commentary


In our last quarterly commentary, we cautioned not to get complacent, overconfident, or “too far out over your skis”. It’s ironic how just three months later, many investors’ emotions are just the opposite: unsure, cautious, and even scared. And rightly so, given the extreme up and downs for the first quarter of 2018. The stock market was in a classic “melt-up” state in January, only to quickly drop into correction territory in early February, then bounce and fall and bounce again from there. Yes, as I mentioned in my February 12th blog, volatility is back and here to stay (at least for the near future)!

Before looking ahead, let’s see how the major asset classes fared in 1Q18:

Equities: The S&P500 had its first quarterly loss since 2015, falling 0.76%. On the other side of the globe, developed countries also suffered, evidenced with the MSCI AC World Index registering a -0.88% return. Emerging markets were a stand-out, up 1.28%*. In a turn of events, smaller caps significantly outperformed larger caps. Much of this has to do with the trade war fears, i.e. many feel that smaller domestic companies will be less affected than some of the bigger domestic companies that rely on imports. Growth continued to outperform value. However, that gap narrowed in the last couple of weeks with some of the biggest cap-weighted tech names getting drubbed, including Facebook because of their user-data controversy and Trump’s monopolistic tweets at Amazon.

Fixed Income: Yields went up, powered by increasing expectations for growth and inflation in the wake of the recent $1.5 trillion tax cut. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note rose from 2.4% to 2.7%. When bond rates go up, prices go down. So not surprising the total return for the most popular bond proxy, the Barclays US Aggregate Bond Index, showed a 1.46% drop. Fortunately, for those with international exposure, you fared better. The Barclays Global Aggregate Bond Index rose 1.37%, helped by a weakening U.S. dollar (-2.59%**) pushing up local currency denominated bonds.

Alternatives: The Credit Suisse Liquid Alternative Beta Index, our chosen proxy for alternatives, was down 1.72%. Losers in the alternative arena include: trend-following strategies, like managed futures (-5.08%***), that don’t do well in whipsaw environments like 1Q18, and, MLPs, which were under duress primarily due to a tax decision which we think was overdone. Winners include gold****, which was up +1.76% for its safe haven status, and insurance-linked funds† (+1.60%), which have hardly any correlation to the financial markets.

In conclusion, most balanced investors are seeing quarterly losses, albeit small, for the first time in a while. So where do we go from here?

Inflation concerns were the main culprit to the February sell-off, but there are other concerns weighing upon the market now: fears of a trade war brought on by tariffs, escalated scrutiny of technology giants, new Fed leadership, increasing interest rates, stock valuation levels, and a bull market long in the tooth in its 10th year.

Opposite these worries is an incredibly hot economy right now, supported by the tax cut which should boost corporate earnings to big heights. In fact, FactSet has projected earnings for S&P500 companies to increase 17% in 1Q18 from 1Q17!

And, whereas there has been much dialogue regarding how the S&P500 has been trading at lofty valuations, the recent move of stock prices downward has really been quite healthy! It has put valuations back in-line with historical averages. In fact, the forward 12-month PE (Price-to-Equity Ratio) of the S&P500 at the time of this writing is almost identical to its 25-yr average of 16.1. International stocks, as represented by the MSCI ACW ex-US is even more appealing, trading at a 13.3 forward PE.

We don’t think inflation will get out of hand. Even with unemployment around all-time lows, wage growth is barely moving up. So we doubt that we’ll see inflation tick over 2¼%. That said, we do think the Fed will continue to raise rates. Frankly, they need to take advantage of a good economy to bring rates up closer to “normal” so that they have some fire-power in the event of future slow economic times. But that doesn’t mean they’ll be overly aggressive. The new Fed Head, Jerome Powell, like his predecessor, most likely will be easy on the brakes, keeping focus on how the Fed actions play off within the market.

Put it all-together and it seems like we’re in a tug-of-war of sorts between the positives and the negatives. At DWM, we feel like the positives will outweigh the negatives and are cautiously optimistic for full year 2018 returns in the black, but nothing can be guaranteed. The only couple things one can really count on are:

1.Continued volatility. After an abnormally stable 2017 that saw little whipsaw, 2018’s volatility is more reminiscent to the historical average of the last few decades. Back to “normal”.

2.DWM keeping its clients informed and embracing events as they unfold, keeping portfolios positioned and financial plans updated to weather what’s next.
Here’s looking to what 2Q18 brings us!

Brett M. Detterbeck, CFA, CFP®

DETTERBECK WEALTH MANAGEMENT

*represented by the MSCI Emerging Markets Index

**represented by the WSJ Dollar Index

***represented by the Credit Suisse Managed Futures Strategy Fund

****represented by the iShares Gold Trust

†represented by the Pioneer ILS Interval Fund