HURRICANE SEASON 2017: SPOTLIGHT ON FLOOD INSURANCE

Water seems to be everywhere right now.  Hurricane season lasts until November 30th, but many of us in the coastal areas of the United States are already weary from this year’s active storm season.  Texas, Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas have seen widespread damage from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma and those in the East and Northeast are closely watching Jose and Maria to see what kinds of impacts they will bring.  As we watch the news and see the photos of flooded homes, streets turned into waterways and communities working to recover from the mess, the reported costs of these two storms seems almost unfathomable – estimates of the total economic cost for both storms range from $115 billion to $290 billion!  Many of those in need of assistance appeal to FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and, while FEMA can provide small assistance payments as a safety net, much of the flood damage assistance must come through FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) – and you must have a flood insurance policy to receive anything from them.

Premium rates for flood insurance policies are partially subsidized by the federal government and, without these subsidies, the cost for this type of insurance could be exorbitant.  Complicating the matter is that most banks won’t loan money to build or purchase homes in flood-prone areas without it.  Currently, flood insurance claims, partially paid-for by those premiums, will cover replacement costs for property of up to $250,000 and up to $100,000 for contents.  The average NFIP claim payment is around $97,000.  According to a September 10th Post & Courier article, in SC it is estimated that 70% of properties in the high-risk areas are insured.  Also, high-risk areas have a 1 in 4 chance of flooding during a 30-year mortgage, according towww.southcarolinafloodinsurance.org.   However, 30% of flood losses occur in flood zones that are not at high risk.  As the head of the SC Department of Insurance said, “our entire state is in a flood zone.”

The NFIP is now reportedly close to $25 Billion in debt, even before these most recent storms, and the program was set to expire on September 30th.  Last Friday, PresidentTrump signed legislation reauthorizing the National Flood Insurance Program until Dec. 8, 2017 and providing federal disaster assistance for the nation’s hurricane recovery.  This buys more time for Congress to consider reforms to the program, which, by all accounts, is drastically needed.  Reportedly, program costs overrun annual premium income, even without the catastrophic losses from natural disasters.  While a lot of communities have flood mitigation programs in place, there is much discussion that it is time for stronger flood-proofing standards – like making sure that all flood-prone properties are reinforced or elevated and redrawing outdated flood maps to properly assign risk to those properties.  Critics have claimed that the NFIP has wasted money rebuilding vulnerable homes when it would be cheaper to help homeowners move to higher ground.  There is also concern that “grandfathering” certain properties allows homeowners to pay subsidized rates based on outdated flood maps.

The National Flood Insurance Program was created in 1968 when private sector insurance carriers stopped offering the non-profitable coverage.  The idea was to transfer some of the financial risk of property owners to the federal government and, in return, high risk areas would adopt flood mitigation strategies to reduce some of that risk.  Some are now arguing that these subsidies mask the true risk of living in these high flood-prone areas and full actuarial rates for flood insurance premiums should be phased in, subsidizing only those truly in need.  In a Bloomberg article from September 18th, U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy (R-WI) and U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) are appealing for reform and suggest that “…the NFIP’s subsidized rates make flood-prone properties more affordable… and that for “ the sake of people’s health and safety”, it’s critical that we “stop paying to repeatedly rebuild flood-prone properties.”  They hope to encourage Congress to reform NFIP and to make bi-partisan recommendations to protect future flood victims.

At DWM, we recommend that you annually review all of your insurance, including property & casualty and flood insurance.  There are many ways coastal or flood-prone homeowners can mitigate their own risk with upgrades to roofs, windows, landscaping, hurricane shutters etc.  You should find out your home’s elevation and evaluate your risk.  You may also want to check on your flood zone and consider a flood insurance policy for added protection.  Flood insurance has a 30-day waiting period, so once there is a hurricane en route, it is too late to sign up and be covered in time.  For most policies not in high-risk flood areas, annual premiums range from $400-$700 under the current regulations – high-risk flood zones will be more.  We will continue to monitor the legislation as it approaches the next deadline of December 8th.  Luckily, our DWM office did not have to contend with any direct flooding issues, but we will most certainly be keeping an eye on the weather!

Please let us know if we can help review any of your insurance policies to make sure you have affordable and appropriate coverage on all aspects of your life and property.

Total Eclipse of the Sun

We all spend a lot of time thinking about our Sun.  In the summer, we want to know if clouds or rain will obscure the Sun’s heat and brilliance and perhaps impact our plan for outdoor activities.  We must think about the Sun’s intensity by protecting our skin and our eyes from the powerful UV rays with sunscreen, protective clothing and eyewear.  Sunrise and sunset mark the ebb and flow in our days with beautiful atmospheric displays.  The Sun, as we all know, keeps us alive on this planet!

On August 21st, our moon will pass between the earth and the Sun, throwing shade across a wide path of the United States that includes Charleston, SC.  Temperatures will drop, the sky will darken and animals will be confused about what to do. The Great American Eclipse of 2017 will begin in the Charleston area with the first phase at 1:17 pm, will hit the peak or “totality “ period at 2:46 pm and will finally end around 4:10 pm.  This is the first total solar eclipse to occur in the US since 1979 and is the biggest astronomical event that America has seen in years.

There are five stages to a solar eclipse and there are some interesting features to look for during each phase, for those of you getting ready to participate.  Here are the 5 phases:

1. Partial eclipse begins (1st contact): The Moon starts becoming visible over the Sun’s disk. The Sun looks as if a bite has been taken from it.

2. Total eclipse begins (2nd contact): The entire disk of the Sun is covered by the Moon. Observers in the path of the Moon’s umbra, or shadow, may be able to see Baily’s beads and the diamond ring effect, just before totality.  Baily’s beads are the outer edges of the Sun’s corona peeking out from behind the moon and the diamond ring effect occurs when one last spot of the Sun shines like a diamond on a ring before being obscured.

3. Totality and maximum eclipse: The Moon completely covers the disk of the Sun. Only the Sun’s corona, or outer ring, is visible. This is the most dramatic stage of a total solar eclipse. At this time, the sky goes dark, temperatures can fall, and birds and animals often go quiet. The midpoint of time of totality is known as the maximum point of the eclipse. Observers in the path of the Moon’s umbra may be able to see Baily’s beads and the diamond ring effect, just after totality ends.

4. Total eclipse ends (3rd contact): The Moon starts moving away, and the Sun reappears.

5. Partial eclipse ends (4th contact): The Moon stops overlapping the Sun’s disk. The eclipse ends at this stage in this location.

Historically, solar eclipses have been significant events and have been recorded dating back to 5,000 BC.  There are writings of mathematical predictions of eclipses from ancient Greece, Babylon and China.  Rulers and leaders often used the predictions of astronomical events to gain power or to offer reassurance to a fearful population.  George Washington was grateful for a heads up about a coming solar eclipse prior to a battle in 1777 so he could alleviate any superstitions that his troops may have.  And scientists have used the opportunity of an eclipse to study the Sun, measure distances and features in the universe and learn about the Earth’s atmosphere.  The discovery of hydrogen can be credited to a solar eclipse and a solar eclipse in 1919 provided observational data for Einstein’s theory of general relativity.  This year, NASA has set up many sites within the path of the eclipse to monitor, measure and capture data to further their knowledge.  There is much to be learned from studying these phenomena.

As we have seen throughout history, the science of astronomy can be used to predict and measure certain events and occurrences with regularity.  Wouldn’t it be nice if there could be more certainty in predicting the ups and downs of the stock market?  One study found that stocks around the world rise on sunnier days!  However, no one can predict the future.  We need to focus on what we can control, including an appropriate asset allocation, diversification and keeping costs low.  That is why actively managed funds underperform the benchmarks and why even the geniuses like Warren Buffet recommend using passive index funds.  At DWM, we think you should stick with your investing plan and not look for the latest fads or trends or even astronomical events to impact your strategy.

We hope that NASA and other scientists learn some spectacular new things from this years’ eclipse.  Here in Charleston, we will be avid, yet passive spectators to the historical occurrence and will use our ISO certified eclipse glasses to watch the once-in-a-lifetime event unfold.   Happy eclipse watching!

Next on the Agenda- Income Tax

Washington is moving on to tax reform. Earlier this week, the Senate Republicans made it clear that they want to focus on tax overhaul and critical fiscal legislation.  Republicans and Democrats have already outlined their plans.  Income taxes have always been a very important and often contentious subject. Before we review the key issues, let’s step back and review tax policy generally.

I remember my first tax class in Champaign, Illinois over 50 years ago.  We learned that income tax policy was more than simply raising money.  Taxes have always been an instrument of economic and social policy for the government, as well.

Income taxes became a permanent part of life in America with the passage of the 16th Amendment in 1913.  The first tax amount was 1% on net personal incomes above $3,000 with a surtax of 6% on incomes above $500,000 (that’s about $9 million of income in today’s dollars).  By 1918, at the end of WWI, the top rate was 77% (for incomes over $1 million).  During the Great Depression, the top marginal tax rate was 63% and rose to 94% during WWII.  The top rate was lowered to 50% in 1982 and eventually 28% in 1988.  It slowly increased to 40% in 2000, was reduced again from 2003 to 2012 and now is back at 40%. Corporate tax rates are 35% nominally, though the effective rate for corporations is between 20% and 25%.

Changes in the tax structure can influence economic activity.  For example, take the deduction for home mortgage interest.  If that deduction were eliminated, the housing market would most likely feel a big hit and economic growth, at least temporarily, would likely decline.  In addition, an argument is often made that tax cuts raise growth.  Evidence shows it’s not that simple.  Tax cuts can improve incentives to work, save and invest for workers, however, they may subsidize old capital that may undermine incentives for new activity and growth.  And, if tax cuts are not accompanied by spending cuts or increased economic growth, then the result is larger federal budget deficits.

Our income tax system is a “progressive” system.  That means that the tax rate goes up as the taxable amount increases.  It is based on a household’s ability to pay.  It is, in part, a redistribution of wealth as it increases the tax burden on higher income families and reduces it on lower income families.  In theory, a progressive tax promotes the greater social good and more overall happiness.  Critics would say that those who earn more are penalized by a progressive tax.

So, with that background, let’s look at some of the key issues.

The Republicans and the White House outlined their principles last Thursday:

  • Make taxes simpler, fairer, and lower for American families
  • Reduce tax rates for all American businesses
  • Encourage companies to bring back profits held abroad
  • Allow “unprecedented” capital expensing
  • Tax cuts would be short-term and expire in 10 years (and could be passed through “reconciliation” procedures by a simple majority)
  • The earlier proposed border adjustment tax on imports has been removed

Also this week, Senate Democrats indicated an interest in working with Republicans if three key conditions are met:

  • No cuts for the top 1% of households
  • No deficit-financed tax cuts
  • No use of fast-track procedures known as reconciliation

The last big tax reform was 1986.  It was a bipartisan bill with sweeping changes.  Its goals were to simplify the tax code, broaden the tax base and eliminate many tax shelters.  It was designed to be tax-revenue neutral.  The tax cuts for individuals were offset by eliminating $60 billion annually in tax loopholes and shifting $24 billion of the tax burden from individuals to corporations.  It needed bipartisan support because these were permanent changes requiring a 60% majority vote.

With all that in mind, sit back, relax and follow what comes out of Washington in the next few months. It will be interesting to watch how everything plays out for tax reform, the next very important piece of proposed legislation.

What’s Ahead for the Global Economy and Financial Markets?

Last week, the Federal Reserve raised rates- the third increase since the financial crisis.  Yet, despite world economic growth and the stock markets surging since President Trump’s election (until yesterday), the Fed is still cautious about the future.

The world economy has been picking up.  The Economist reported last week that “today, almost ten years after the most severe financial crisis since the Depression, a broad-based economic upswing is at last underway.”  This is a big change from the early months of 2016 when stocks were down 10% or more due in part to anxiety about China’s economy and related plunging raw material prices.  Fortunately, China, through controls and stimuli, turned things around and by the end of 2016, China’s nominal GDP was growing again.

At the same time, global manufacturing has gotten stronger.  Factories are much busier in the U.S., Europe and Asia.  Taiwan and South Korea are rocking.  Worldwide equipment spending is up; growing at an estimated annualized rate of 5.5% in 4Q16.  American companies, excluding farms, added 235,000 workers in February.  The European Commission’s economic-sentiment index is at its highest since 2011.  Japan, whose growth has been anemic, has revised their 2017 forecast from 1% to 1.4%.

The stock markets have, until yesterday, risen dramatically based on both current economic growth stats and expectations about the future.  With Mr. Trump’s election, there has been hope that taxes and regulations will be reduced which would help businesses and increase corporate profits.  Further, the expected return of $1 trillion of untaxed cash held overseas by American companies could be coming back (repatriated) at new low tax rates.  These funds could produce a big boom in business investment.  And, then add to this the possibility of a $1 trillion private-public infrastructure push for America. Mr. Trump has been talking about growth of 3.5-4%.  There’s been lots of optimism.

Yet, Fed officials forecast growth of only 2.1% this year; about where it has been for 8 years.  So, what’s their cause for relative skepticism?

The list of concerns includes fears about protectionism stifling trade, political disruption in Europe, China’s ability to sustain strong growth, and closer to home, whether or not the White House and Congress can work together to get legislation passed.  If the repeal of Obamacare gets sidetracked, there is concern that tax reform and infrastructure will endure the same fate.  And, of course, we haven’t even talked about a black swan- an unexpected event of large magnitude and consequence.  All bets are off in the case of major problems such as war, terrorism or some other major catastrophe.

We could be on the precipice of a new era with the cutting of taxes and regulations and a huge infrastructure boom creating a turbocharged economy.   Or, we could have a repeat of the many times in the past decade when optimism at the start of the year faded as the year progressed.  No one knows what the future holds.

Yesterday’s stock market declines of roughly 1% were, in large part, a concern about the ability of the White House and Congress to enact their legislative agenda, starting with the repeal of Obamacare.  People are nervous that if the health-care bill doesn’t pass or gets delayed, what will that mean for other policies.    Tax cuts could be delayed and even face a tougher fight in Congress.  Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin had earlier thought that tax reform would pass Congress by August and now he is hoping for early next year.  And, infrastructure would come after that.

With all of that in mind, the Fed understandably is cautious and we at DWM are as well.

Big Macs and Donald Trump

Big Macs are becoming a real bargain everywhere in the world… except for the United States. This is because most emerging market currencies have taken a big hit since the election of Donald Trump, whereas, the dollar is as strong as it has been in almost 20 years. Not only has Trump raised expectations of an increased strength of the dollar, but many foreign countries have had problems of their own as well, leaving emerging markets lagging behind.  The Turkish Lira, for example, is one of the worst performing currencies so far this year due to terrorist bombings, economic slowdowns, and a central bank reluctant to raise interest rates to defend the currency (The Economist, Big Mac Index of Global Currencies). Emerging market struggles paired with a surging US dollar has led the Lira to be undervalued by 45.7% according to the Big Max Index.

You may be asking yourself “what on Earth is the ‘Big Mac Index?’” At least that’s what I asked myself the first time I heard it. You may be surprised to hear the Big Mac index is exactly what it sounds like: the cost comparison of a McDonalds Big Mac burger from one country to another. It is a fun, educational, and interesting way to learn how the world is valuing cost of goods on a country by country basis. The Big Mac index is built on the idea of purchase-power parity, meaning in the long run currencies will converge and rates should move towards equalization of an identical basket of goods & services.

In the United States a Big Mac costs $5.06 versus 10.75 Lira, or $2.75, in Turkey. The Mexican peso is even more undervalued at 55.9% versus the US dollar, meaning, a Big Mac only costs $2.23 in Mexico as of January 15th, 2017. The Big Mac index allows us to take complicated subjects, such as international commerce, and make it relatable and understandable.

One drawback of the Big Mac index is it does not take account of labor costs. Of course, a Big Mac will cost less in a country like Mexico because workers earn lower wages than workers in the US. So, in a slightly more sophisticated version of the Big Mac index, labor is included. This typically devalues the US Dollar (USD) compared to other countries around the world because our income is higher. For example, in the traditional Big Mac index, the Chinese yuan is 44% undervalued to the greenback, but after labor adjustments, it is only 7% undervalued. When this adjustment of labor cost is made, it makes it nearly impossible for the USD to trade at a premium against the Euro. This is because Europeans have a higher cost of living and lower incomes than Americans (The Economist, Big Mac Index of Global Currencies). Typically, the Euro trades around a 25% premium against the USD according to the Big Mac index. However, since the election of Donald Trump, even with the labor cost adjustment, the Big Mac index currently finds the Euro UNDERVALUED to the dollar. The US dollar is so strong, it is currently trading at a 14 year high in trade-weighted terms.

 A strong dollar may sound great, but it has many disadvantages. In the United States specifically, a strengthening USD can lead to a widening trade deficit with decreased exports and increased imports. This has a negative result on domestic businesses that operate in foreign countries as well as anyone servicing debts tied to the US dollar. President Trump has publically stated he feels international commerce is rigged against the United States. Whether he is right or wrong, as the trade deficit grows, so does the likelihood of him imposing tariffs on imports from China and Mexico in hopes of bringing balance to trade. If we put a tax on imports, it will lead to something called “protectionism,” or the practice of shielding the United States’ domestic industries from foreign competition. Some feel this is a strong policy because it will keep businesses in the United States and, according to Trump, will prevent us from being taken advantage of. However, it is fairly accepted in macroeconomics that protectionism is a poor/outdated policy because corporate globalization has led to international supply networks that promote convergence and integration throughout the world. Simply put, the countries that are the best at developing goods, develop them, and other countries benefit from the best products at the lowest prices. When something like protectionism takes place, it disintegrates these networks and adversely affects trade-dependent states and the domestic country itself (in this case the United States). The import tax will ultimately drive up prices for domestic consumers who would otherwise benefit from world prices that are significantly lower. This will lead to an increase in trade of intermediate goods and inward investing into value chain niches.

The reason the Big Mac index is so interesting is because it can explain a complex subject like macroeconomics with something as simple as the cost of a hamburger. By knowing the price of a Big Mac on a country by country basis, we are able to understand a significant amount about the world economy and the repercussions the US will face based on the actions we take moving forward.

The Big Mac index is telling us one thing for certain: the US dollar is abnormally strong, which makes the near future uncertain. It is important to have a well-diversified portfolio with an appropriate asset allocation and a competent, experienced fiduciary like DWM to help guide you through times like this.