REINVENT CAPITALISM?

Kraft Heinz (KHC) and Unilever (UL) have many things in common. Both companies own hundreds of global consumer brands- KHC includes not only Kraft foods and Heinz Ketchup but also Planter’s peanuts and Grey Poupon mustard. Unilever owns Dove soap and Hellmann’s mayonnaise, Lipton’s tea and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. Both have been in business since the 1920s. Both employ tens of thousands of employees.

In early 2017, KHC offered to buy UL for $143 billion. UL’s then CEO, Paul Polman, fended off the takeover attempt because of a “corporate culture that couldn’t have been more different from Unilever’s.” Since then, KHC’s share price has dropped 70% and UL’s has increased about 35%. If we look at some of the differences between KHC and UL we will see why Mr. Polman didn’t want to merge with KHC and why he would like to see capitalism “reinvented.”

After receiving his M.B.A., Mr. Polman joined Procter & Gamble which provided the foundations for his leadership approach. In his recent NYT interview, Mr. Polman indicated that “P&G has enormous values that permeate all levels and all places in the world that it operates. Ethics, doing the right thing for the long term, taking care of your community is really the way you want a responsible business to be run.”

Fast forward to 2009. After 10 years of decline, UL hires Mr. Polman as CEO. Annual sales had dropped from $55 billion to $38 billion. Mr. Polman felt UL had good brands and good people but had become too “short-term focused.” A change was needed.

Mr. Polman brought back values from the 20s that were at the roots of Unilever’s success. He felt a more responsible business model was needed. He came up with a bold plan to double Unilever’s revenue while cutting the company’s negative impact on the environment in half. And, he committed his entire team to focus on the long-term, not the short-term, in solving important issues.

In short, Mr. Polman believes “We need to reinvent capitalism, to move financial markets to the longer term.”  He felt that “KHC is clearly focused on a few billionaires that do extremely well, but the company is on the bottom of the human rights indexes and is built on the concept of cost cutting.”

This long-term vs. short-term focus is at the heart of a recent best seller, “Prosperity” by Colin Mayer, a former dean of Oxford’s Said business school. Dr. Mayer believes that a great shift in businesses, here in the U.S. and abroad, started about 50 years ago with the overwhelming acceptance of Chicago economist Milton Friedman’s simple doctrine that “the one and only responsibility” of a business is to increase its profits for the benefits of its shareholders, as long as it stays within the rules of the game.” This has been a “powerful concept that has defined business practice and government policies and has molded generations of business leaders.” It has resulted in a huge emphasis on quarterly reporting and quarterly behavior.

Dr. Mayer believes, on the other hand, that the purpose of a corporation should consider its customers, employees, suppliers, and communities as well as its shareholders. Historically, family-owned businesses were cognizant of and responsive to all the constituencies that compose a business and focused on the long-term. Today, almost all corporations in the UK and many US corporations are no longer owned by the founders or their families. This change has accelerated due to the focus on short-term profits, often by simply merging and cutting costs. Dr. Mayer also pointed out that corporations can also have dual-class share structures (typically voting and non-voting shares) which can allow the founders and their like-minded successors to control the company and therefore focus on its long-term purpose rather than quarterly earnings reports. Ford, Google, and Facebook all have this structure. This is a positive trend.

Robert Reich’s new book “The Common Good”, sums it up this way, “In the corporate world, the single-minded-pursuit of shareholder value has displaced the older notion that companies are also responsible for the well-being of workers, customers and communities they serve.” “The common good is no longer a fashionable idea.” He defines common good as “consisting of our shared values about what we owe another as citizens who are bound together in the same society.” Regardless of political party, all Americans should embrace contributions to the common good.

For 50 years, there has been a huge focus on financial capital with less attention paid to human capital, intellectual capital, material capital and environmental capital. All five of these components of capital should be considered for the overall long-term growth and common good of America and the world.

Reinventing capitalism would require companies to focus on more than quarterly profits. Consideration of all of its constituents- customers, shareholders, employees, suppliers, communities and the environment for the long-term-could certainly benefit the common good and likely produce even better stock market returns in the long-run as well.

ECONOMY CELEBRATES 10 YEARS OF GROWTH: IS IT TIME TO PARTY?

Next week will mark the 121st month of the current bull market- the longest business cycle since records began in 1854. Based on history, a recession should be starting soon. Bond rates now form an “inverse yield curve” with shorter term rates above longer term, which typically signals a downturn. Business confidence is down. However, 224,000 American jobs were created in June and equities continue to soar, rising 16-20% year to date. Is it time to party or not?

The business cycle appears to be lengthening. The current expansion, coming after the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, has been unusually long and sluggish. Average GDP growth has been 2.3% per year, as compared to the 3.6% annual growth in the past three expansions. The workforce is aging. Big firms invest less. Productivity has slipped. And, Northwestern Economics Professor Robert Gordon continues to assert that American’s developments in information and communication technology just don’t measure up to past achievements including electricity, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, and the internal combustion engine.

However, the changing economy may now be less volatile for a number of reasons. 1/3 of American’s 20th century recessions were caused by industrial declines or oil-price plunges. Today, manufacturing is only 11% of GDP and its output requires 25% less energy than in 1999. Services are now 70% of our GDP. Furthermore, the value of the housing market is now 143% of GDP, as compared to a peak of 188%. Banks have lots of capital.

Finally, inflation has been very low, averaging 1.6% in the U.S. (and 1.1% in the euro zone) per year during the current expansion. In earlier business cycles, the economy would surge ahead, the jobs market would overheat, causing inflation to rise and leading the Federal Reserve to put on the brakes by raising interest rates. Today, it’s different. Even though the unemployment rate is at a 50 year low of 3.7%, wage growth is only 3%. As the Economist pointed out last week in “Riding High,” American workers have less bargaining power in the globalized economy and are getting a smaller percentage of company profits, keeping inflation down. The Fed recently announced that it is less concerned about rising prices and more concerned about growth slowing and, therefore, will lower interest rates at its meeting next week.

Changes in the economy to slower growth, more reliance on services and lower inflation all contribute to longer business cycles. Yet, the changing economy, particularly globalization and technology, has also produced new risks.

Manufacturing that was formerly done in the U.S. is now outsourced to global producers. These chains can be severely disrupted by a trade war. This could produce a major shock- imagine if Apple was cut-off from its suppliers in China. Also, take a look at the impact that the prolonged grounding of Boeing’s 737 MAX is having on the U.S. economy. It’s hurting suppliers, airlines, and tens of thousands of workers, while $30 billion of the MAX sit grounded. Global supply chains are extremely interconnected these days.

IT is significantly linked as well. Many businesses outsource their IT services via cloud-computing to a few giants, including Alphabet (GOOGL).  85% of Alphabet’s $100 billion annual sales comes from advertising, which in the past has been closely correlated to the business cycle. GOOGL invested $45 billion last year, 5 times more than Ford. In fact, the S&P 500 companies invested $318 billion last year, of which $220 billion was spent by ten tech companies. The big IT companies are now facing regulatory issues worldwide. What would be the worldwide impact if GOOGL, Facebook or others get their “wings” clipped?

Also, finance issues could disrupt the expansion. Although housing and banks are in decent shape, private debts remain high by historical standards, at 250% of GDP, or $50 trillion. And, if the prime lending rate continues to decline, banks’ profits and balance sheets will likely weaken.

Lastly, politics is a big risk. There are the threats of trade wars with China and physical war with Iran. The big tax cut that pushed markets up in 2017 could now produce lower year over year earnings for companies. On Monday, July 22nd, Congressional leaders and White House negotiators reached a deal to increase federal spending and raise the government’s borrowing limit. This would raise spending by $320 billion, at a time when the annual deficit is already nearing $1 trillion, despite the continuing expansion.

Conclusion: Changes in the economy have produced reasons why business cycles are longer, yet more sluggish. Those changes have also added new risks for a continuing expansion and bull market. No one can predict the future. Focus on what you can control: Make sure your risk level is appropriate for your risk profile. Make sure your portfolio is prepared for the next downturn. And, yes, stay invested.

Ask DWM: Should We Invest in Real Estate?

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Great question.

 

Let’s start with some basic concepts.  Real estate is an illiquid investment. You can’t buy or sell it in a day or two like liquid investments. It is somewhat uncorrelated to the stock market returns- which is good.  While it is smart to consider adding real estate as a portion of your overall investment portfolio, you don’t want to have too much in illiquid investments. We suggest a rule of thumb is that real estate, excluding your house, should be at the very most 40% of your overall investment portfolio.  So, if your investment portfolio (both liquid and illiquid) is $1 million, real estate should at most be $400k.

Location. Location. Location. Appreciation in value over time is key. This will impact the ultimate sales price when you sell your investment property and the rental income amounts while you hold it. Historically, US real estate has increased, on average, about 3% per year, similar to inflation. However, location can produce tremendous differences. Charleston real estate has done very well in the last ten years, though some areas of the Lowcountry haven’t done so well. Chicago’s market overall has been flat for the last ten years, yet there are areas that have done very well and areas in the suburbs that have lost significant value.  Investing in a piece of real estate is not like buying shares in an S&P 500 index, where your investment will rise as the market will rise. Rather it is a singular investment in one piece of property, subject to both the general market risks and the specific risks of the property.

Would you be prepared to self-manage the investment property? Do you have the skills, time and patience to handle phone calls or texts, perhaps in the middle of night, from an upset tenant?   If you decide to have someone else do the property management, it won’t be cheap- likely 10% of your rental income.

Let’s look at the key metric- your likely return on investment. We start by calculating the “net operating income” (“NOI”), which is the cash flow of the property, assuming there is no financing, and compare this to the purchase price.  For example, let’s say you think you can buy a property for $500,000 that will rent for $3,000 per month. You need to include an amount for estimated vacancies/rental commissions- let’s use 8%. So, the hypothetical annual net rent would be $33,120. Now, let’s look at expenses- taxes might be ½% to 1% or more of the property value. There may be homeowner association fees and/or repair costs. And, there will be insurance-perhaps an amount equal to the real estate taxes. Just for simplicity, let’s say all of those expenses combined are 1 ½% of the value of the property. Based on a $500,000 property, expenses might be $7,500, assuming you do the property management yourself. Therefore, in this example, NOI would be $25,620 ($33,120-$7,500) or 5% of the investment.

The hypothetical total return on the investment is NOI + expected appreciation. Let’s say this property would be sold in 6 years for $650,000. Assuming you sell it using a broker, there would be a 6% commission. So, net proceeds of $610,000. This would represent a 3.5% annual appreciation on the property. Therefore, your total expected return in this example would be 8.5% (5% net operating income + 3.5% appreciation).

We haven’t talked yet about financing and taxes. If you get a loan at less than your NOI (5% in our example), your total return will increase slightly as you are benefitting from leveraging. If the rate is higher than NOI, the total return would be a little less. Depreciation is a non-cash expense that can reduce the taxable income on the property during your ownership. Any depreciation taken has to be “recaptured” (given back) when you sell the property. Depending on your personal circumstances, you may be able to take losses on rental property and you may be eligible for a 20% Qualified Business Income Deduction. Financing and taxes are generally not the key determining factors in deciding to buy the property, but may have some impact on the total return.

We generally suggest a minimum threshold for expected total return on real estate investments to be 9% or more. If a balanced liquid investment portfolio is expected, over a long-term, to have a total return of 5-7% net of fees, a real estate investment should be at least 3% more. Real estate investments are illiquid, riskier (due to lack of diversification) and, if you self-manage, will require time, skill and patience.

Under the right circumstances, investment real estate can be a nice addition for a portion of your investment portfolio. At DWM, we are very familiar with real estate. We understand the pluses and minuses for a portion of your investment assets. In 50 years of marriage, Elise and I have purchased and sold over 40 properties, some of which were our home and some were investment properties. Real estate investment has helped increase our income and net worth.

If you think you might like to invest in real estate, or, if you already own real estate and wonder if you should be adding more or subtracting some or all of it, give us a call. Once you’ve assembled all the facts (cost, income, expense, appreciation), we’re happy to help you review the NOI and total return and discuss how investment real estate fits into your overall investment strategy. We don’t do property valuations and we certainly can’t guarantee your future results, yet we’re happy to provide competent, independent and valuable input as you determine whether or not you should invest in real estate.

 

 

 

 

 

Billionaire Investor Ray Dalio: “Capitalism Needs Reform”

 

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Ray Dalio is the founder of Bridgewater Associates, one of the world’s largest hedge funds. Bloomberg ranked him as the world’s 79 wealthiest person earlier this year. Like many of us, Mr. Dalio was “fortunate enough to be raised in a middle-class family by parents who took good care of me, to go to good public schools, and to come into a job market that offered me equal opportunity.” He has lived the American Dream. America created the first truly middle-class society; now, a middle class life is increasingly out of reach for many of its citizens.

Mr. Dalio “became a capitalist at age 12, using earnings from part-time employment to start an investing career.” Mr. Dalio has been a macro global investor (making predictions on large-scale world events) for 50 years, which required him to gain a practical understanding of how economies and markets work. (In 2007, Bridgewater predicted the coming global financial crisis that hit in 2008-09). Mr. Dalio has learned that capitalism can be an effective motivator to make money, save it, and invest it, rewarding people for their productive activities that produce a profit. “Being productive leads people to make money which provides capital resources, which when combined with ideas can convert them into the profits and productivities that raise our living standards.” Even communist countries, including “communist China” have made capitalism an integral part of their systems.

As part of his work, Mr. Dalio has studied what makes countries succeed and fail. In short, “poor education, poor culture (that impedes people from operating effectively together), poor infrastructure and too much debt cause bad economic results.” The best results come from more equal opportunity in education and work, good family upbringing, civilized behavior, and free and well-regulated markets.

So, how is the US doing?

“Capitalism Is Not Working Well for Most Americans” says Ray Dalio. His research looked at the differences between the haves and have-nots in American- those in the top 40% and those in the bottom 60% of income earners. He found the following key stats:

  • There has been little or no real income growth for most people (the bottom 60%) for decades.
  • The income gap is about as high as ever and the wealth gap is the highest since the 1930s.
  • Most people in the bottom 60% are poor- they would struggle to raise $400 in the event of an emergency.
  • The economic mobility rate is now one of the worst in the developed world- US people whose fathers were in the bottom income quartile have very little chance of moving up to higher quartiles.
  • Many of our children are poor, malnourished and poorly educated.
  • Low incomes, poorly funded schools and weak family support for children lead to poor academic achievement, which leads to low productivity and low incomes of people who become economic burdens on the society.
  • The US scores in the bottom 15% of developed countries on standardized educational tests. High poverty schools really push our average test scores down.
  • Poor educational results can lead to students being unprepared for work and having emotional problems which manifest in damaging behaviors, including higher crime rates.

And, most importantly, he found that the income/education/wealth/opportunity gap reinforces the income/education/wealth/opportunity gap.

 These gaps weaken us economically because:

  • They slow our economic growth because a large portion of our population doesn’t have money to spend
  • They result in suboptimal talent and human development and, in many cases, lack of having a job that honors the dignity of one’s work
  • They result in a large percentage of our population detracting from our GDP, not contributing to it.
  • In addition, these gaps can cause dangerous social and political divisions that threaten our cohesive fabric and capitalism itself.

In conclusion, Mr. Dalio suggests capitalism is now producing a self-reinforcing feedback loop that widens the income/wealth/opportunity gap to the point that capitalism and the American Dream are in jeopardy. Ray Dalio believes what is needed is a long-term investment program for America that achieves good “double bottom line” returns on investments; producing both good economic returns and good social returns.

The nice bump in economic growth brought on by tax reform has already started to fade. GDP growth is expected to be less than 2% next year. While capitalism has likely worked very well for most of us, who are in the top 40%, it hasn’t worked so well for the bottom 60%. Let’s hope our politicians, of both parties, focus on long-term investments for our country with double bottom line returns. That could really make a difference in long-term economic growth.

Ask DWM: What is an Inverted Yield Curve and What Does it Mean to Me?

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Great question. Historically, an “inverted yield curve” has been a signal that recession was on the way. As with so many things these days, though, the old “rule of thumb” may not apply. Here’s why:

yield curve is a graph showing interest rates paid by bonds. The chart is set up with the horizontal axis representing the borrowing period (or “time”) and the vertical axis representing the payments (or “yield”).   We all would typically expect that loans over a longer period time would have a higher interest. That’s “normal.”  For example, if a 30 year mortgage rate is 4%, a 15 year mortgage rate might be at 3.25%.   A one year Certificate of Deposit might earn 1% or less and a 5 year C.D. might be 2%. The situation is referred to as a “normal” or “positive” yield curve in that interest rates are higher as the borrowing period gets longer and the curve slopes upward, see below:

Normal

 

However, rates don’t always work that way. At the end of last week, the three-month Treasury bills’ yield 2.46% was higher than the yield (2.44%) for 10-year treasuries. This situation technically produced an inverted yield curve, since a shorter period had a higher rate. This also happened three months ago. Historically, “curve inversions” have tended to precede major economic slowdowns by about a year.

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Inverted yield curves are unusual because they indicate lenders (or investors) are willing to earn less interest on longer loans. This is most likely to happen when the economy is perceived to be slowing down and faces a meaningful risk of recession. Historically, curve inversions have occurred about a year before the each of past seven recessions in the last five decades, though a recession doesn’t necessarily occur every time we see a yield curve inversion.

The U.S. economy has slowed already from the average growth rate of 2018; mainly as a result of the 35-day government shutdown and reaction to the Federal Reserve’s (“Fed”) reports of slower growth and a moratorium on interest rate hikes. Some economists feel the economy may slow even more due to the tax-cut stimulus being only a one year spike, headwinds from trade tensions with China, political uncertainties and global polarization and fragmentation.

However, other factors point to strong economic growth. We do have a solid labor market which drives consumption. Average monthly job creation is well above what might have been expected this late in the business cycle. Further, more workers have been attracted back into the labor force and wage growth has been 3%; a rate in excess of inflation. Business investment should rise and government spending is higher.

In short, an inverted yield curve is not a perfect predictor of recessions. A different portion of the yield curve inverted three months ago in December and the markets in early 2019 have rebounded sharply as fears subsided. Also, many economists believe the drop in 10-year Treasury yields is due to non-U.S. economic headwinds, like Brexit as well as the unwinding of the Fed’s balance sheet after Quantitative Easing. They believe it’s not because of serious weakening of U.S. economic fundamentals.

The current inverted yield curve may or may not be the bellwether of a coming recession. These days, there is not a simple cause and effect relationship between an inverted yield curve and recession. More likely will be the resolution or non-resolution of uncertainties such as Brexit, trade tensions, political matters and global peace. Stay tuned and stay invested for the long-term.

U.S. Housing Market: Not Hot Everywhere

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Zillow just reported that the U.S. Housing Market is up 49% overall since 2012. That’s roughly 6% per year in that time period-though, to be fair, 2012 was when the housing market hit bottom after the 2008-2009 financial crisis. The U.S. Housing Market is huge- $33 trillion (“T”). It’s larger than the value of all U.S. stocks and is about equal to the Gross Domestic Products (GDPs) of the U.S. ($19T), China ($12T) and Canada ($2T). Commercial real estate, including retail, hotels, office buildings, apartment buildings and industrial is about $6T.

The U.S. housing market has had some big winners and some big losers in the last 7 years. Almost 1/3 of the gain of $11T since 2012 has occurred in California. Four of the country’s 10 most valuable markets are in California; LA (5% increase in value in 2018), San Francisco (9.6% increase), San Jose (10% increase) and San Diego (3% increase). New York Metro itself has $3T of housing. The Washington, D.C. metro housing is worth $900 billion. DC itself has more housing value than 40 states, including Colorado, Arizona, Ohio and Oregon.

Unfortunately, housing in some areas hasn’t done so well. Illinois has many state-specific issues which makes it one of the worst housing markets areas. In fact, among the nation’s top 100 metro areas, Chicago is expected to be the weakest housing market of them all in 2019. With mortgage interest rates possibly causing a likely national homes sales slowdown of 2% in the U.S. in 2019, Chicago metro, including Naperville and Elgin, is expected to have an 8% decline in home sales this year. Taxes are a big problem in Illinois. Illinois homeowners are subject to the highest overall tax burden in the country, including the second highest property taxes in the U.S. Since 1996, Illinois property taxes have grown 43% faster than home values and 76% faster than home values in Cook County (Chicago). Worse yet, less than 50% of the tax increases have gone to pay for services. Most of the increase has gone for teacher and other governmental pensions and debt service on bonds.

In 2017, Illinois raised income taxes- the largest permanent state hike in history. Add in a sluggish state economy and outbound migration and the Illinois housing market is hurting. Even so, the Illinois Association of Realtors expects the median value of houses in IL to rise in 2019 by 4%, to roughly $196,000 for the state and $241,000 for Chicago.

The Lowcountry in SC is faring much better. Charleston Metro is now home to 700,000 people. Ongoing job growth means continued housing demand. The median home value in Charleston is now about $320,000 and Charleston home values went up 8% in 2018. The forecast for 2019 is 3% growth. Buyers outnumber sellers. A typical home in Charleston receives only one offer. However, homes sell for only 3% less of the listing price on average with 73 days on the market.

Charleston has many reasons for its housing growth:

  • A booming job market with an unemployment rate under 3% and one of the least unionized states in the nation
  • Wages are low
  • South Carolina’s overall tax burden is among the lowest, particularly for retirees.
  • Huge Tourism industry including being the most sought after wedding destination in the country
  • Home Appreciation is strong- 31% over the last 10 years

Overall, the U.S. Housing market is strong for now. Many winners, but some losers. Mortgage rates, after jumping to 5% and more on 30 year mortgages just a few months ago, are now down in the low 4% range. If they stay there, 2019 could be a pretty good year again for the U.S. Housing Market. But, with many areas coming off a strong run overall the last several years, a cool-down on housing prices wouldn’t be surprising. We’ll continue to watch how the events unfold and keep our clients and readers informed as conditions warrant.

THE FINANCIAL CRISIS: 10 YEARS LATER

On September 15, 2008, Lehman Brothers imploded; filing a $691 billion bankruptcy that sent stock markets into a deep dive of 40% or more. The global financial crisis ultimately would destroy trillions of dollars in wealth- $70,000 for every single American. The deep financial trough produced the Great Recession.

Now, 10 years later, how are we doing and what lessons have we learned?

How are we doing?

Official economic statistics would say that the American economy is fully recovered. We are in a 9+ year bull market with a cumulative total return of 350%. The total combined output of the American economy, known as our gross domestic product (“G.D.P.”) has risen 20% since the Lehman crisis. The unemployment rate is lower than it was before the financial crisis. These key measurements, now a century old tradition, however, don’t tell the whole story. The official numbers are accurate, but not that meaningful.

For many Americans, the financial crisis of 2008-2009 isn’t over. It left millions of people-who were already just “getting by”- even more anxious and angry about their future. The issue is inequality. A small, affluent segment of the population receives the bulk of the economy’s harvest. It was true 10 years ago and is even more so today. So, while major statistics look good, they really don’t measure our country’s “human well-being.”

The stock market is now 60% higher than when the crisis began in 2007. While the top 10% of Americans own 84% of the stocks, the other 90% are much more dependent on their homes for their overall net worth. The net worth of the median (not the “average”) household is still 20% lower than it was in 2007, despite the record highs for the stock markets.

The unemployment rate, currently at 3.9%, does not take into account two major items. First, the number of idle working-age adults has swelled. Many of them would like to work, but they can’t find a decent job and have given up looking. Currently, 15% of men aged 25-54 are not working and not even looking; therefore, they are not considered “unemployed.” Second, many Americans are working at or near the federal minimum hourly wage- which has been $7.25 per hour since July 2009. Neither group is benefitting from low, low unemployment rates.

There is a movement to change these metrics to something more meaningful.   A team of economists, Messrs. Zucman, Saez and Piketty, have begun publishing a version of G.D.P. that separates out the share of national income flowing to rich, middle class and poor. At the same time, the Labor Department could modify the monthly jobs report to give more attention to other unemployment numbers. The Federal Reserve could publish quarterly estimates of household wealth by economic class. Such reports could change the way the country communicates about the economy. Economist and Nobel Laureate Simon Kuznets, who oversaw the first G.D.P. calculation in 1873, cautioned people not to confuse G.D.P. with “economic welfare.”

What lessons have we learned?

Mohammed A. El-Erian, the chief economic adviser at Allianz, the corporate parent of PIMCO, recently summarized, in the “Investment News,” some key lessons learned from the crisis.

Accomplishments:

  • A safer banking system due to strengthened capital buffers, more responsible approaches to balance sheets and better liquidity management
  • A more robust payment and settlement system to minimize the risk of “sudden stops” in counterpart payments
  • Smarter international cooperation including improved harmonization, stronger regulation and supervision and better monitoring

Still outstanding issues:

  • Long-term growth still relying on quick fixes rather than structural and secular components
  • Misaligned internal incentives encouraging some institutions who are still taking pockets of improper risk-taking
  • The big banks got bigger and the small got more complex through the gradual hollowing out of the medium-sized financial firms
  • Reduced policy flexibility in the event of a crisis because interest rates in most of the advanced world, outside of the U.S., are still near zero and world-wide debt is significantly higher than 10 years ago.

Yes, we’ve made some good progress in the last 10 years since the financial crisis. But, there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

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 theseto $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.

“The Markets are going to Fluctuate”

Last Thursday, August 17, the equity markets took a hit of 1-1.5%.  In overall terms, it wasn’t a pullback (5% drop) or a correction (10%) yet some were concerned this might be the “start of the end” of the long-term bull market.  Yes, stock valuations have been high for some time, but many people wondered “Why now?” Various reasons were given to “explain” the causes of Thursday’s decline.  Let’s take a look at some of these:

“Terrorism.”  The first reports of the attack in Barcelona were posted in New York around noon last Thursday.  The markets were already in a decline and gold and bonds were moving higher.  Though the attack was dreadful and disgusting, it likely didn’t move the markets.

“Corporate America abandons the White House.”  Kenneth Frazier, CEO of Merck, resigned Monday, August 14.  Others followed and the major business councils disbanded on Wednesday, August 16.  However, participation on President Trump’s councils is voluntary and the first priority of each of the CEOs is their “day job,” which involves working with their customers, employees, suppliers and investors.  Their departure shouldn’t have been a surprise.

“All Donald Trump all the time has worn out people’s patience.”   Certainly, many may be exhausted by the almost singular focus of the news being the White House for the last seven months.  However, impatience is unlikely to cause the markets to move lower.  It was only two weeks ago that we all were worried about the possibility of a nuclear war starting in the Korean peninsula. And, that scare didn’t move the markets.  Therefore, it’s hard to believe the daily White House news would be a source of concern for the markets.

“The White House Economic Team is Leaving.”  Early last Thursday, a rumor floated through Wall Street that Gary Cohn, the Director of the National Economic Council, was resigning.  Mr. Cohn, along with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin are leading the all-important tax reform and infrastructure initiatives.  The S&P 500 began a sharp move down around 10 am last Thursday exactly the time the false tweet came out.  Fortunately, the rumor was squelched almost immediately but the markets, nevertheless, continued to fall.   Hence, the rumor seems not to have been the catalyst for the sale, though the loss of either Mr. Cohn or Mr. Mnuchin would, in fact, be a major concern.

In short, these “explanations” given after last Thursday’s market drop really don’t identify why it happened.  Even so, story lines will continue.  We humans want them.  We are wired to try to understand why and how things happen and use that information to guide our future.

Legend has it that about a century ago, an alert young man found himself in the presence of John Pierpont Morgan, one of the most successful investors of all time.  Hoping to improve his fortune, the young man asked Mr. Morgan’s opinion as to the future course of the stock market.  The alleged reply has become a classic:  “Young man, I believe the market is going to fluctuate.”

Yes, there are many things we cannot control and, fortunately, some we can.  At DWM, we focus on helping you to create and maintain an investment portfolio that is designed to participate in good times and protect in bad times by:

  • Identifying and implementing a customized asset allocation based on your goals and risk tolerance
  • Diversifying the holdings by asset class and asset style
  • Using the lowest cost investments wherever possible
  • Striving to make the portfolio tax efficient
  • Rebalancing regularly
  • Staying fully invested
  • Providing discipline to keep you on track and, for example, making sure you are not trying to time the markets or chase performance

Yes, the markets are going to fluctuate.  We can’t control that.  But, at DWM we can help you control those key metrics that, over the long run, can produce higher expected returns with lower risk.

DWM 2Q17 Market Commentary

“Let the Good Times Roll!” Yes, the 1979 song by Ric Ocasek and the Cars may describe the market’s attitude in the first half of 2017. “You Might Think” the markets are “Magic” or “All Mixed Up” – other classic Cars songs – but, nonetheless, investors should be pleased to see their mid-term results.

With the trading year half-way complete now, “It’s All I Can Do” to give you the major market stories in 2017:

  1. 1.All three major non-cash asset classes (equities, fixed income, and alternatives) are positive to start the year.
  2. 2.Large-cap equities have significantly outperformed small-cap equities, the largest outperformance to start the year in almost 20 years. Large caps, as represented by the S&P500, were up 3.1% for 2Q17 and up 9.3% Year-to-date (“YTD”) through June 30th. Small caps, as represented by the Russell 2000, were up 2.5% and 5.0%,
  3. 3.Growth is significantly outperforming value. In fact, it’s the biggest outperformance to start a year ever besides 2009. The S&P500 Growth Index was up 4.4% 2Q17 & 13.3% 1H17 vs the S&P500 Value Index, up 1.5% and 4.9%, respectively!
  4. 4.International stocks are outperforming domestic stocks. The last several years have seen the opposite, but now international is outperforming domestic in what may be a tidal change. The MSCI EAFE Index was up 6.4% for the second quarter and now 13.8% YTD!
  5. 5.Minimal volatility – Despite political noise and other headlines around the world, the equity market continues to move forward with little whipsaw. The CBOE Volatility Index, Wall Street’s so-called “fear gauge”, saw its lowest level in over two decades!

Let’s drill down into the various asset classes.

Equities: Obviously, we can see from above that returns in ‘equity land’ were quite decent. In general, stocks rallied on strengthening corporate earnings, improving economies both here and abroad, and continued support from central banks. Earnings from S&P500 companies increased 14%, the best growth since 2011.

Fixed Income: The Barclays US Aggregate Bond Index gained 1.5% in the second quarter and is now up 2.3% for the year. The Barclays Global Aggregate Bond Index produced even better returns, +2.6% 2Q17 and +4.4% YTD, thanks to stronger results overseas. Many bond investors, including DWM, have been surprised at the falling US government bond yields. The 10-year Treasury Note started the year at 2.45, peaked in March at 2.61, only to close the quarter at 2.30. Why aren’t rates going up? Much of it has to do with skepticism about the passage of Trump’s fiscal agenda. Amongst other things, there has not been the promised major tax reduction nor a flood of fiscal spending yet. As such, inflation expectations weakened in June. However, hawkish comments in the last several days from major central banks, including our US Fed indicating a strong chance that they will announce in September a decision to start shrinking its balance sheet, has caused a reversal in bond yields to start the third quarter. We see the Fed continuing to unwind the past years of stimulus via rate hikes or balance sheet reductions in a well-announced, controlled fashion.

Alternatives:  The Credit Suisse Liquid Alternative Beta Index, our chosen proxy for alternatives, was up 0.4% for the second quarter and 1.1% YTD. This benchmark gives one a good feel for what alternatives did in general. Of course, there are many flavors of alternatives so drilling down into the category can reveal very different results. Furthermore, alternatives can take the form of either alternative assets and/or alternative strategies. “Traditional” alternative assets like gold* and real estate** fared well through the first half, up 7.8% and 3.2%, respectively. However, another “traditional” alternative in oil (a commodity) suffered, falling back into bear territory. US fracking companies continue to pump at lower prices frustrating OPEC’s goal of price stability via OPEC member supply cuts. A couple of alternative strategies fared differently: managed futures*** have shown losses in the first half, down -5.6%; whereas merger arbitrage**** has had a decent gain of 2.2%. These examples show how alternatives behave independently, thereby providing the ability to reduce the volatility of one’s overall portfolio.

It has been a solid first half for most balanced investors. Looking forward, it’s hard to say what path the markets will take. They could continue this nice trajectory upward – did you know that US stocks were up in January, February, March, April, and May? This is significant because, historically, when US stocks are up in the first 5 months of the calendar year, the average return for US stocks for the full calendar year was +28.8%! This first-five-months-up event has only happened 12 times and in all 12 times, the year ended up in double digits!

However, domestic stocks are getting expensive. The S&P500 now trades at 18x projected earnings over the next 12 months, its highest level in 13 years. Overseas stocks are still a relative bargain compared to the US and one of the reasons for their recent and expected-to-continue outperformance. Furthermore, where the US has raised short-term interest rates four times since the end of 2015, international central banks have been and will remain relatively more accommodative for the near future.

The other scary thing is that the equity and bond markets are sending mixed signals. If bond yields stay down, that would tell us that the bond market sees tepid economic growth, which could be true if all of the pro-growth Trump agenda plans do not come to fruition. For now, the equity markets are signaling otherwise – that this bull market has legs based upon strong corporate results and improving fundamentals. No, Mr. Ocasek, the signals from the bond market and equity market are not “Moving In Stereo.” Only time will tell to see what market is signaling correctly. In the meantime, the goal is to have a portfolio in place that can weather any storm. At DWM, we think our clients’ portfolios are well-positioned for what the markets will throw at us. We look forward to the journey. In fact, and finishing with one last Cars’ classic, “Let’s Go!”

Brett M. Detterbeck, CFA, CFP®

DETTERBECK WEALTH MANAGEMENT

*represented by the iShares Gold Trust

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

***represented by the AQR Managed Futures Strategy Fund

****represented by the Vivaldi Merger Arbitrage Fund