A True Halloween Scare: Volatility Returns to the Marketplace

Recently, we here at DWM posted a blog discussing the phenomenon that “Bull Market Runs Come in All Lengths”. Within this article, we mentioned the idea that before our current bull run ends, we may see many more pullbacks and/or corrections.

Within the current month, we have seen these types of market downturns as investor fears of upcoming mid-term elections, tariffs, rising rates,  and international economic slow-down issues have spiked levels of consumer fear (measured by the volatility index, VIX), by nearly 50% .

While this data can’t tell us whether the current bull market run is coming to an end, it opens up the opportunity to better understand just what is happening in the economy, and how we should handle times like these.

To understand the severity of market moves, there are three unique distinctions: a pullback, a correction, and a bear market, which signify downward market moves of 5%, 10%, and 20% respectively.

Over the past month, securities within all asset classes – equities, fixed income, and alternatives – have experienced one of these. On October 23rd, in fact, over 40% of the stocks in the S&P 500 were considered to be in bear market territory. Since then, markets have continued their run of ups and downs.

What can this market data tell us about the future? Unfortunately, not much. While markets tend to be cyclical in nature over the long-term, the short-term is usually marred by emotions (herd mentality, greed, and fear) rather than by solid fundamental and economic modeling. Furthermore, the risk of attempting to predict these short-term outcomes can have a serious long-term effect on the performance of an investor. Studies have shown that by missing out on only a few days strong returns in a market cycle can drastically impact the portfolio’s overall return.

Thus, in order to stay on track with long-term financial goals, one of the most successful and least anxiety-inducing ways to manage investments is to generate a financial plan, assess and re-assess risk tolerance regularly, and continually stay disciplined to these values in order to avoid making emotional and poor decisions. In conjunction with these actions, an investment portfolio needs both an appropriate asset allocation based on a client’s financial plan and has to be made up of a well-diversified portfolio that can help provide exposure to market areas, such as fixed income and alternatives, that are arenas that may still produce returns even with stocks stuck in a slowdown. The combination of these strategies can work as shields to protect both an investor’s assets, and his/her mental health during times of volatility such as today’s challenging marketplace.

At times, corrections, pullbacks, and even bear markets can actually be good things! If certain areas of the market are being overvalued, or company valuations are getting ahead of their fundamentals, pullbacks and corrections can serve as a check and balance system, to get these more in line. This makes companies, sectors, and markets more stable as they can refresh a bull market that is verging on inflating itself beyond its means.

Furthermore, a pullback, correction, or bear market move down for a certain security can provide other opportunities. For example, this month, DWM will be creating value for clients by taking advantage of tax-loss harvesting options. Tax-loss harvesting is the process of selling out of a security that has lost value since an investor first bought it, and using that loss to offset any gains that an investor realized during a tax year. This upside can serve as a nice treat to offset the “trick”-y investment arena of October.

One other somewhat notable factoid is that in the mid-term election year of October 2014, the stock market took a noticeably similar look. That of the Dow Jones down nearly 3%, rebounding, and selling off throughout, ultimately dropping into correction territory. This was quickly followed by a November post-election market boom hitting record highs for the Dow and S&P 500. Once again, while interesting to see, take these numbers with a grain of salt moving forward and looking at future returns.

All in all, keeping in mind that while volatility and uncertainty in the marketplace can be scary, maintaining a balanced, disciplined portfolio and financial plan, and staying dedicated to that plan throughout all market cycles is the key to being financially sound and minimizing the number of sleepless nights. At DWM, we proactively discuss these matters with clients, and strive to keep our clients informed, motivated, and on-target to their financial plans to help them reach their long-term financial goals. Happy Halloween!

Your “Hidden Brain” Impacts Your Politics

Hopefully, all of us will vote in the midterms on 11/6 or before. Roughly half the country will vote for Republicans (conservatives) and half will vote for Democrats (liberals.). Did you know that your choices are not only impacted by your upbringing and experiences, but also very specifically by your genes? We’re hard-wired from birth for much of our political views.

Shankar Vedantam is one of my favorite authors and commentators. He is NPR’s social science correspondent and before that a journalist at The Washington Post. His 2010 book “The Hidden Brain: How our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars and Save our Lives” describes how our unconscious biases influence us. I highly recommend it.

Mr. Vedantam relates the story that on a regular basis, right before an election, someone will share an article with him about how science proves that the brains of a liberal are stunted or that Republicans are less intelligent than Democrats. While those claims likely have no merit, Mr. Vedantam contends that there are “genuine psychological differences between liberals and conservatives.”

On a recent Hidden Brain telecast, Mr. Vedantam hosted political scientist Dr. John Hibbing to the show. Dr. Hibbing is co-author of “Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives and The Biology of Political Differences.” Dr. Hibbing pointed out that differences between partisans are not limited to politics. There are generally differences in food choices, living spaces, and temperaments. Conservatives generally like meat and potatoes; liberals are more likely to prefer ethnic food. Conservatives tend to have organized rooms with things like sports memorabilia, while liberals tend to have lots more books and may not be as tidy. As far as temperament, conservatives tend to favor order and tradition and liberals tend to be more comfortable with ambiguity and change.

Then, there’s a huge difference between conservatives and liberals when it comes to threats and danger. According to Dr. Hibbing, conservatives tend to see the world with its terrorists, home invaders, drug cartels, and immigrants as a very dangerous and threatening place.   Liberals tend to believe they live in a relatively safe society.   Conservatives therefore want and need the government to help them “protect themselves and their family, limit immigration, and put lots of money into defense and law and order.” Liberals, on the other hand, are reinvigorated by immigrants coming to our country, don’t see the need to spend so much money on defense and support gun control. Conservatives and liberals read about events of the world and they simply don’t respond to them in the same way.

Mr. Vedantam chimed in: “There is a very powerful illusion that we have that the rest of the world sees the world the way we see the world. And, if they come to a different conclusion, it must be because they’re being deliberately obtuse or somehow deliberately biased, as opposed to the idea that people are actually seeing the world the same way, but reacting to it differently.” Psychologists call it a case of “false consensus” that we assume others will see the world the way we do.

People are wired differently. Roughly 30-40% of our political views come from genetics based on research by Dr. Hibbing. 60-70% comes from our environment. Mr. Vedantam has described how researchers separate the effects of biology from those of the environment. They look at fraternal and identical twins. Both sets of twins have identical initial environments, but the fraternal twins have similar but not identical genes. Data from thousands and thousands of twin pairs supports the conclusion that political views are quite “inheritable.”

Finally, brain activation patterns of liberals and conservatives are different. Dr. Hibbing has conducted tens of thousands of experiments in which he showed various pictures to individuals whose brain was being scanned. Liberals’ brains would highly activate at times much differently than when conservatives’ brains were highly active. The brain scan results alone proved “incredibly accurate in determining whether an individual was a conservative or liberal.”

Frankly, I find it very helpful to learn that political views are at least, in part, biological. Years ago, left-handers (like both my mother and father) were thought to be lazy and had their hands hit with a wooden ruler to make them write “correctly,” using their right hand. People saw left-handers as a flaw, something that needed to be driven out. Now, of course, we understand that being left-handed is very biological. Similarly with politics. Dr. Hibbing concludes: “If we recognize that others, virtually half the country, are oriented to the world in a different fashion, maybe we would be a bit more tolerant to them. This is the only way we’re going to get anywhere if we at least understand where they are coming from even if we might deeply disagree with their conclusions.”

As we approach the midterms with the vitriol rising, let’s all remember our hidden brains and those of others, particularly family and friends and show tolerance and respect to all. We may see the same world differently: our unique genes, unconscious biases and life experiences may produce different conclusions and different political preferences. Yet, we’re all Americans and we and our country will all do better if we work together.

The Life Insurance Puzzle

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We read an article last month in Investment News that suggests that life insurance should not be used as a savings vehicle. As you might imagine, there was some uproar among the life insurance industry readers that heartily disagreed with the premise of the “Guestblog” by Blair Duquesnay.   Ms. Duquesnay believes that there are certainly appropriate purposes for life insurance, but saving for retirement is not one of them. She stated in a follow-up that “life insurance is an instrument of protection, not accumulation.” We wanted to look a little closer into this to understand both sides of the argument.

First, let’s start with some of the universally acceptable reasons for having a life insurance policy. As Ms. Duquesnay says, life insurance should be purchased, in general, “because there will be a financial impact” on a business or family if someone dies. Certainly, protecting our loved ones or business partners is prudent and responsible. If something happens to you, you might want to provide a benefit for regular or special spending needs, potential increased child care costs, a mortgage payoff or other debt relief. Similarly, a death benefit might help cover college costs or provide a lifetime of comfortable support to our dependents. Some policies can be used for estate planning, long-term care or asset protection. It is also true that, in general, the need for a life insurance death benefit may decline over time, as your life circumstances change.

Let’s talk about the different types of life insurance:

1.Term Life, or annually renewable life insurance, offers an affordable premium to buy a particular level of insurance for a specific period of time. Maybe you use it, maybe you won’t and maybe you keep it going, maybe you don’t, but, either way, at the end of the term, the policy expires and, generally, there is no longer a need to have it. There is no additional value to the policy beyond the safety net of the death benefit.

2.Whole Life is the most common form of permanent life insurance, which means the benefit coverages will be around for your lifetime, as long as you pay the premiums. There are two parts to it – an investment portion (cash value) and an insurance portion (face value or death benefit). Premiums are fixed and are considerably higher than term policies, with high mortality charges for keeping the guaranteed death benefit. These products are designed to stay in force for your lifetime and come with steep surrender charges if you terminate the policy early. There are also substantial up-front commissions and fees for investing part of your premiums in a tax-deferred account. You can access your cash value by taking a loan out with the insurance company against the account value in the policy and they will charge you interest. If you stop paying the premiums, you may be able to switch to a paid-up policy that will be worth the existing cash value, but in general, these products are expensive to keep in place.

3. Universal Life is designed to also be a permanent insurance policy, but is considered adjustable because the policy offers the flexibility of changing premium amounts and having a fixed or increasing death benefit. If you need to stop paying or reduce premiums, your accumulated cash value can be used to keep the policy from lapsing. Once the policy value goes to zero, the policy and death benefit lapse forever. There can be steep surrender charges if terminating or withdrawing from your account, which will reduce any accumulated cash value. Like Whole life policies, your premium pays a portion to a high-interest cash value account and a portion for a death benefit. The growth is dependent on the performance in the accounts, on investment earnings (or losses) and on the amount of your premium contributions. The flexibility can be beneficial, but the policy value can deteriorate and lapse and the fees and costs are much higher than a term policy.

4. Variable Life – these are policies built like Universal life contracts (there are also hybrid Variable Universal Life policies, just to make it more confusing), but the investments are kept in managed mutual fund sub accounts with investments selected from a menu. This gives the policy holder more investment choice (and risk) for the cash value account in the policy. However, like Universal life, the same risk applies – the accumulation is dependent on the amount paid with your premium and the performance of the investments in the cash value account. The flexibility might be attractive, but it also increases the risk to the policy. Again, once the policy value goes to zero, the policy and death benefit lapse forever.

There are more insurance products and deeper complexities to the above definitions, but this is a basic outline of some of the life insurance choices. As you can see, the “permanent” life insurance policies and their saving (or investment) option can be costly and will allow for less flexibility in the growth of your investment savings than using standard investment accounts not tied to insurance. We generally find that the expensive fees, commissions and surrender charges keep us from recommending these products as a saving vehicle. “Buy term and invest the rest” is the motto of most fee-only advisors. The insurance industry is always working to improve these products and find the sweet spot for combining protection with accumulation. We certainly agree that there may be appropriate circumstances for using the more complex insurance products. At DWM, we don’t sell any of these insurance products, but we are happy to review your current policies or insurance needs to help you find the sweet spot for you and your family!

DWM 3Q18 MARKET COMMENTARY

Get yourself fit! A diversified portfolio is like a well-balanced diet. You need all major asset classes/food groups for proper nutrition. Think of the major asset classes (equities, fixed income, alts) as your protein, carbs, and fats. If you were to load up in one particular area (e.g. carb loading), you might feel better in the short-term, but it could seriously affect your health in the long-term. And it’s the same way with investing: if you “overindulged” in any one particular area for too long; you are bound to get ill at some point. Which is a good segway for this quarter’s market commentary. Yes, US stocks – those in the large cap growth area in particular – ended the third quarter near records, but now is not the time to be one-dimensional.

But, before we dive into a proper nutritional program, let’s see how the major asset classes fared in 3q18:

Equities: Let’s start with the spicy lasagna…the S&P500, the hot index right now, which climbed 7.7% in the quarter and up 10.6% for the calendar year. However, most don’t realize that just three companies (Apple, Amazon, & Microsoft) make up one-quarter of those year-to-date (“YTD”) gains. Besides these outliers, returns in general for equities are more muted as represented by the MSCI AC World Index registering a 3.9% 3q18 & 3.65% YTD return. Emerging Markets* continue to be the cold broccoli, down 1.1% for the quarter and now -7.7% for the year. In other words, even though the headlines – which like to focus on domestic big-cap stocks, like the ones in the S&P500 and Dow – are flashing big numbers; in reality, the disparity amongst equity benchmark returns is huge this year with some areas up sizably and some areas down sizably.

Fixed Income: The Barclays US Aggregate Bond Index, was basically unchanged for the quarter and down 1.6% YTD. The Barclays Global Aggregate Bond Index fell 0.9% and now down 2.4% YTD. Pretty unappetizing. The shorter duration, i.e. the weighted average of the times until the fixed cash flows within your bond portfolio are received, the better your return. It’s a challenging environment when interest rates go up, but the Fed continues to do so in a gradual and transparent manner. Last week, the Fed raised its benchmark federal-funds rate to a range between 2% and 2.25%. We could see another four rate hikes, one for each Fed quarterly meeting, before they stop/pause for a while.

Alternatives: The Credit Suisse Liquid Alternative Beta Index, our chosen proxy for alternatives, increased +0.7% for the quarter and now off only 1.2% for the year. Alts come in many different shapes and forms so we’ll highlight just a few here. Gold** continued to drop, down 4.9% for qtr and now off 8.6% for year. Oil*** continues to rise, up 4.7% 3q18 & 27.5% YTD. MLPs**** jumped 6.4% on the quarter and now +5.0% for 2018. Whereas alts have not been “zesty” as of late, think of them like your morning yogurt: a great source of probiotics, a friendly bacteria that can improve your health when other harmful bacteria emerge.

So after a decent 3q18 for most investors, where do we go from here and what should be part of one’s nutritional program?

Let’s first talk about the economy. It’s been on a buttery roll as of late. The Tax Cut & Jobs Act of 2017 has created a current environment for US companies that has rarely been more scrumptious, as evidenced by earnings per share growth of 27% year-over-year (“YOY”). Unemployment clicked in at last measure at 3.9% and most likely will continue to drop in the near future. With the economy this strong, many may find it surprising to see the lack in wage growth and inflation. Wages are only up 2.8% and core inflation is up only up 2.0% YOY. Wages are staying under control as the Baby Boomers and their higher salaries exit the work field, replaced by lower-salaried Millennials and Gen Z. Part of the lack of inflation growth is because of the internet/technology that gives so much information to the Buyer at the tip of their fingers, keeping a lid on prices. Trade talk/tariffs, have been a big headliner as of late creating a lot of volatility; but that story only seems to be improving with the revised NAFTA taking shape with Mexico and Canada. Some type of agreement with China could be on the near horizon too.

This is all delectable news, but the tax stimulus effect will peak in mid-2019 and companies will have to perform almost perfectly to remain at their current record profit margin levels. With earnings a major component of valuation, any knock to them could affect stock prices. Further, the S&P500 is now trading at a forward PE ratio of 16.8x, which is north of its 16.1x 25-year average. This is not the case in other areas of the world – Europe, Japan, Emerging Markets – where valuations are actually lower than averages. If you haven’t done so already, time to put those on your menu.

It’s not only a good diet you want for your portfolio; you also want to make sure of proper fitness/maintenance, i.e. rebalancing back to established long-term asset allocation mix targets. Time to bank some of those equity gains and reinvest those into the undervalued areas if you haven’t already done so recently. Regular portfolio rebalancing helps reduce downside investment risk and instills discipline so that investors avoid “buying high” and “selling low”, a savory way to keeping you and your portfolio healthy.

In conclusion, we are in interesting times. The economy is peppery-hot, but incapable of keeping this pace. A slowdown is inevitable. The question is two-fold: how big will that slow-down be, and are you prepared for it? Now is the time to revisit your risk tolerance and compare that to how much risk is in your current portfolio. That spicy lasagna, aka the S&P500, has been a delicious meal as of late, but don’t let too much of it ruin your diet. Make sure your portfolio is diversified in a well-balanced manner. Stay healthy and in good shape by working with a wealth manager like DWM who can keep your portfolio as fit as a triathlete.

Brett M. Detterbeck, CFA, CFP®

DETTERBECK WEALTH MANAGEMENT

 

*represented by the MSCI Emerging Markets Index

**represented by the iShares Gold Trust

***represented by the Morningstar Brent Crude Commodity ER USD

****represented by the UBS AG London BRH ETracs Alerian MLP ETF