Stay the Course

In my days working at Fidelity, I recall legendary investor Peter Lynch saying that we have to be careful not to get scared out of our investments. Earlier still, at a talk at Columbia University in New York, where I went to school once upon a time, I heard Warren Buffett say two things that have stuck with me like a bad stain from lunch.  Buffett’s first memorable point was that “good investing is like driving a car on the wrong side of the road and hearing lots of people yelling at you to get back in line.” Buffett’s great, second point was that to be a good investor a person doesn’t need a high IQ or multiple degrees; he or she doesn’t need to be a genius, either.  What’s needed is the right temperament.

So beginning with those three, great points from two master investors – about being a contrarian, about holding to one’s convictions, and not letting emotions overwhelm you – lets look at where the market is today, my long-term investors, and what we long-term should and should not do.

In sum, we should stick to our knitting, keep on keeping on.

2018 continues to be a very different year from last year.  We’re not down for the year, but – holy cow! – it seems to be marked by one disappointment after another.  The investment landscape seems terrible, nerve-wracking. Our President, who is also our investor-in-chief, feels that a tariff war is like a walk in the park.   That stance, along with a Federal Reserve that has raised interest rates twice this year so far and appears intent on raising them two more times this year – and four times next year – have a lot of investors fretting. Is a recession coming soon? Is a trade war around the corner?

Calm is less interesting to reporters than tense, but tense is what we have too much of today yet what we have to invest through.

Let me share a few perspectives that may put today’s troubles in some prospective.  First, tariffs.

Tariffs are not good.  They are, essentially, a tax on consumers.  Government gets some revenue but gums up the efficiency of commerce in the process and interferes with competitive improvements. I really don’t think Trump wants a tariff war, but he wants to make a point that the press, which is so relentlessly negative on him, will not help the public hear. Facts tells us that other countries put higher tariffs on our goods than we put on theirs.  Recent World Trade Organization figures tell us that AVERAGE USA tariffs on other nations are 3.5%, compared to 4.1% for Canada, 5.2% for Europe (the EU), 7% for Mexico, and 9.9% for China.  Sound like small differences, I know, but with very big numbers at stake, large amounts of money is extracted from Americans.

These percentages are, again, averages. Individual products flowing between trading partners can be higher or lower than the WTO averages. For instance, cars going to the EU from America are hit with a 10% tariff, but cars from the EU into the USA are hit with only a 2.5% tariff.  Is that fair?

On the other hand, pick up trucks going between the EU and the USA are tariffed in the opposite way; that is, the EU hits US imported pick ups with a much lower tariff than America hits EU pick ups coming into the USA.

We don’t hear these nuances on our news.   We hear only that Trump is trying to force tariffs on nations.  Again, Trump is demonized. But the President’s larger point  – for all his bluster and exaggeration and too much tweeting – is, “Hey! guys, why don’t we  – all of us – do away with tariffs altogether.”

My guess is that, in time, Trump and the US, because we are so large a trading partner, will force others to accord the US better tariff treatment.  That’s my guess.  I don’t believe a tariff war is coming: it would hurt our trading partners so much more than it would us.  I commend Trump for his courage and fortitude to try to make trading fairer for our workers, for the USA, and for others. The fact that other US Presidents ignored this injustice makes it no more right than that those same Presidents ignored US laws governing illegal immigration.

As for the Fed, here, too, context is lost.  We see only higher rates and that spells recession is around the block.

I beg to differ. Interest rates are still low, by historical standards, but moving up slowly, reflecting a strong and improving economy after ten years of being on bed rest or trapped by a President who was not particularly interested in economic growth.  And economic growth is a key element here. As long as the Fed’s rate increases do not get ahead of economic growth, we’re probably fine with respect to avoiding a recession.  What that means is that the Fed’s short term rate (“the Fed funds rate”) is right now between 1.75% and 2%, and is still below the ten-year treasury note (about 2.9%) and the growth rate of the economy.  That last number is a key, and the Atlanta Federal Reserve Bank estimates that the economy, in this second quarter of 2018, is growing at 4.7% a year. We’ll know better in a month or so, but that Atlanta Fed number is a stunner.  In the Obama years, the economy was growing, on average, at about 2% a year, and we were told that our aging economy couldn’t grow faster, that we should get used to “a new normal” and more government intervention.

My guess, folks, amid the heat and humidity of summer in the Midwest USA, is that we’ll get through the tariff stuff, after some threats and drama, with something better than we currently have in America, and that interest rates’ upward movements are not about to kill us or throw us into a recession. Not that we will never have a recession again, please know, but that we’re not about to have one yet.

So, as Lynch and Buffet told me I tell you: be a contrarian.  Stick to your convictions, and don’t let you emotions hijack your retirement.

God bless you all.

 

Posted in economic recovery, fear, investment myths, investment wisdom, market corrections, Market falls, retirement investing, stock rallies, Successful living | Leave a comment

Up, Down, But – Seemingly – Going No Where

At least, that’s what it seems like so far in 2018.

I can live with that, but I don’t know if you can. I hope you can. The market was up about 35% from Trump’s election night, Nov. 8th, 2016, up to the last week in January of 2018.  Since then, it has been churning in a period of digestion, or consolidation, of all those hefty gains. Since January 26th, 2018, American markets have been up at most about 7% and down about the same, all in the last four months. This could go on a while longer.  Right now, we’re up a little bit, between 1% and 2%, the kind of return you might get, or could have earned, from a nice ,on-line saving account, without any of the wretched volatility that we’ve lived through these last, four months.

Wait! Am I now subtly recommending that you turn your money over to an on-line saving account?

No, not at all.

However, I would strongly suggest that you have liquid assets, like checking and saving accounts, equal to several months of your needed expenses.  All your loot should not be in markets where values change all day long.

For your longer-term investments, I just hope you don’t lose heart with the amusement-park-like quality of the markets of late – up, down, all around, and going no where other than scaring you. If you’re an investor, you just have to learn to ride this kind of roller coaster.

Moreover, after a long weekend where many of us might have pondered more important matters, like the sacrifice of others for our collective liberty, our markets opened this morning in a hissy fit. It can be tough enough coming back to work after a long weekend, but this time we complicate things with a market noticeably in the red.

Hey, it happens. And it may go on for a while.

The immediate cause of today’s market challenges is Italy, that romantic playground in southern Europe where debt is deeper than the Adriatic Sea.

This morning, the Italians are struggling to form a government (yet again – almost 70 of them since WW II!). The two, extreme parties that polled best in the country’s recent election, parties seen as populist and hostile to the European Union and the euro, tried to form a ruling coalition.  But in Italy, unlike in America, the winners’ plans to form a coalition must be submitted to elites for approval. Well, the elites do not like the people of Italy questioning the EU or the euro, so the winners’ planned coalition has been nixed by the elites. (Can you imagine that happening in America?  Say, someone like a Donald Trump wins the Presidency, but an elite group – maybe, in America, made up of the press and opposing politicians, try to deny his elected legitimacy?  It could never happen in America, could it?).

So, these nasty, populist vs. elitist developments in Italy have fueled “risk-off” markets for now in Europe that have carried over to America and global markets, which are contending with their own already, basket full of ongoing uncertainties surrounding trade matters, diplomatic dealings with North Korea, and brewing challenges for emerging markets due to the strengthening dollar.

But of all these things, it is Eurozone matters that are the main driver of the feeling of market dis-ease this morning. Not surprisingly, yields for the 10-yr Italian treasury bond climbed almost overnight 39 basis points (or over 1/3 of a percent) to 3.08%.  Which to me, by the way, editorially speaking, still seems like a bargain.  We’re talking about Italy here, after all. America’s 10-year treasury early last week traded at 3.10% – two, one hundredths of a percent MORE than Italy’s treasury yield today!!! (America’s now at 2.88%, because of investors seeking a safe haven away from places like Italy). Would you rather own a ten-year Italian treasury or a ten-year US treasury? Which do you perceive to be the safer bet for the next ten years?  I’d put my chips on America, in spite of all our problems. But in Italy’s case, the more than a 1/3 of a percent rise so quickly is the ominous part.

The latest Greek, or I mean, rather, Roman tragedies for the eurozone are not new. It is sort of like Mt. Kilauea, in Hawaii, which has been active for a long time, but is now erupting again and catching everyone’s attention.

There has for a long time been an active lava stream of concerns about the survival of the European Union and the euro.

From time to time, those concerns erupt and leave everyone wondering if the end is near. This is, again, now likely the start of one of those times, but like the tourists and residents of Hawaii taking photos next to a lava flow, things are still at a stage where there is more wonderment than true fear the European Union is cratering.

In any event, to shift to the brighter side of investing for a moment, what’s going on in Europe could also be seen as a positive for the U.S. market. America certainly has some nasty political hangups, but the U.S. already has, and lives by, a regular and peaceful transfer of power, has an economy that is running relatively well right now, and a stock market that is exhibiting relative strength versus many other developed countries’ markets.

So the year grinds on.  “Sell in May and go away” has not proven the best of advice for investors this year.  But it’s only May 29th, and the market has today and two more days to play out.  It could get better. Or worse. We never know. Last year, everyone wondered, “Where’s the volatility?” Well, it turns out we were saving it for 2018. It’s here. It’s now.  But don’t let it scare you into making foolish choices with your long-term investment funds. Yes, you need short-term liquid funds to pay your bills.  But longer-term, you need equity-oriented investments that will help you with inflation and in growing wealth for later life.

God bless you all.

 

Posted in elections, fear, investment myths, investment wisdom, market corrections, Market falls, market volatility, Personal Finance, retirement investing, spending, stock rallies, Successful living | Leave a comment

The Water Torture Continues and What to Do About It

The stock market has been driving a lot of sensible people crazy the last several months. And I’m not sure it’s done yet. After a great January, there have since been some wild swings up and down. No less than five times the Dow lost 500 or more points in a single trading session, plummeting by more than 1,000 points two of those times. Not to be ignored, the S&P 500 index closed 10% or more below its late January peak, not once, but twice.

And it all happened so fast.

That’s bad stuff. I hope, in spite of it, you are and continue to be able to focus on the long-term and not let your emotions take over amid these distressing, dramatic market moves. However, with trade war fears in the air, concerns about inflation, gas prices, rising interest rates, and debate around regulating the best performing sector of the market – the tech sector – you’re not the least bit crazy if you’re inclined to want to stop investing altogether. While there’s a lot of speculation as to what is causing these market hiccups, the reality is we just don’t know what it is or what’s ahead. In some ways that may feel worse because in so many ways, the economy looks so good. But what I do know is that the market is displaying some regularly-seen patterns, and we can learn something from them.

So then, first, what kind of advice can I give my worried or anxious investors?

The same advice that I often give you: Do nothing but try to stay calm.  If you or I were day-traders, then I’d have other advice.  But that’s not the point of this blog, and I find day-trading very dangerous business.

If there’s anything the day-by-day gyrations of the market teach us long-term retirement investors, it’s that slow and steady wins the race. Investors have long known that staying the course is one of the most important things to do – it’s just emotionally hard to do sometimes. Some of the best research on this topic comes from the so-called “Wizard of Wharton” – University of Pennsylvania professor Jeremy Siegel. In his 1997, New York Times best-selling book, Stocks for the Long Run, Siegel looked at the performance of equities from 1802 through 1997 – almost 200 years of investing.

His findings were, I think, astonishing: Despite the kind of day-to-day volatility that we have all been feeling the last few months, the actual long-run returns of stocks are remarkably consistent.

Here’s how he summarized his findings:

Source: Jeremy SpiegelTotal Return Index,” Stocks for the Long Run

What a chart!

Despite extraordinary changes in the economic, social, and political environment in this nation over the past two centuries, stocks have yielded between 6.6 and 7.2 percent per year after inflation, in all major sub-periods (or about 10% before inflation). The wiggles,dips, and bumps on the stock return line represent the bull and bear markets that equities have suffered throughout history. However, the long-term perspective the chart offers should radically change anyone’s view of the risk of stocks. The short-term fluctuations in the market, which loom, day-to-day, so large for investors, have little to do with the long-term accumulation of wealth.

Read that last line again.

Prof. Siegel found that almost no matter what period you looked at – the Civil War, World War I, World War II, Presidential assassinations, even the Great Depression (marked by the second black vertical line) – were mere hiccups compared to the overall trend. Stocks delivered about 7%, after inflation.

The pattern Siegel highlights in the history of US stocks repeats itself in other countries, including those that have experienced catastrophic collapses. World War II, for example, sheared 90% off the value of German equities – 90%!!!! – but German stocks completely rebounded by 1958, rising 30% per year on average from 1948 to 1960. German stocks went on from there to new highs. Averaged out over the long haul, their return is a consistent 6.6% annual, a number not far from Siegel’s 7%, post inflation, a figure that continues through this day.

The same is true for Japan, the UK, and all other markets that Siegel studied. Overall, everywhere, and all the time, in the short-run, we get volatility, but in the long run, wealth building.

Why, at moments like we’ve been in for the past three months, we don’t hear much about the power of long-term investing – and the truth about the futility of trading – is that long-term investing is, for the financial media at least, boring, unsexy, and cheap. The financial media thrives on encouraging you to panic, and large parts of the financial industry make money only if you do. Big moves sell newspapers, and high trading activity means commissions for online brokers. The only people who don’t profit from that activity are investors themselves.

The last three months have not been pretty and it’s not been easy doing nothing. It’s hard to stare down such a quick and significant market correction that ignores the best corporate earnings in the last seven years and the most significant tax reform in 30.  It’s hard in such a climate to stick to your knitting.

When the US government shut down in September 2013 during one of several recent budget showdowns, lots of people panicked. The same was true during the Greek Crisis, Brexit, and the last U.S. presidential election. But people who left the market or who stayed on the sidelines have paid handsomely for missing out on the 35% market rebound following the 2016 election up to the end of January, 2018. Markets, on average, recover from corrections in less than 90 days once they’re over, but corrections can, on average, run about three-to-nine months.  Remember, too, that markets rise about 2/3rds of the time and fall only about 1/3rd of the time.  Right now, we’re in one of those latter times.

If you invest regularly at work or in your IRA and rebalance your portfolio periodically, you’ll end up benefiting from market corrections in multiple ways. It won’t be painless or easy. But over the long haul, it can really pay off.

Try not to fret.

Posted in economic recovery, fear, investment myths, investment wisdom, market corrections, Market falls, market volatility, Personal Finance, retirement investing, saving, Successful living | Leave a comment

Markets are so awful right now that it’s feeling rather promising

Come back with me to Davos, 2018, for a minute.

If you’re not familiar with “Davos,” it’s an annual gathering of the world’s high-powered, beautiful, and richest at an expensive retreat in the Swiss Alps.  It’s an great opportunity to rub shoulders with movers and shakers who gather in a gorgeous winter wonderland to survey the world they seem to own. Membership at Davos confab is not to be applied for. One has to be invited. Then, depending on your level of participation, you’ll pay anywhere between $60,000 and $600,000 for the privilege of being there.

I haven’t been invited, and that’s OK with me.

This year’s meeting wound up on January 26th, 2018.  Hoold onto that date for a few paragraphs. What was surprising about this year’s meeting was, for a change, how good the world economy looked to the Davos folks. Oh yes, Trump was in office, that was troubling. Trade matters were of concern, too (and still are,  because of Trump), climate change also was a focus, since Trump, head of the world’s largest economy, was ignoring it. And Trump was also ignoring the Iran nuclear deal, which generally troubled the Davos people

But over all, the world looked good. Better than it had in years.

In fact, the International Monetary Fund raised its global growth forecasts for 2018 and 2019 to 3.9%, expecting the global economy to continue to recover on the back of buoyant trade and investment, as well as then-recent US tax reforms.

Christine Lagarde, the IMF’s Managing Director, presented a bright outlook during one of the week’s early sessions. About half of the global revision was attributed to the impact of the US tax package (Oh, that Trump guy) , which is expected to boost growth in the United States through 2020, and have a positive knock-on effect on its trading partners.

It all looked so good on that last day of meetings at Davos, Switzerland, Friday, January 26th, 2018.

Back in New York, the stock market closed at a new high – again! There had been 17 days of stock trading up to that point in 2018, and the market closed at a new high on 14 of those 17 days.

Wow!

As the folks in Davos got on their planes, what could possibly go wrong?  Economies all over the world were humming.  Markets were up, up, and away.

Yet, when the markets opened on Monday, January 29th, they fell.  And they fell pretty hard and quickly for the next two weeks.  Since then there have been efforts to recover; several of them, in fact. But markets are still down about 10% from their 2018 highs.

Okay, folks, I have have given you a long introduction to a point I want to make, and I don’t want you to miss. Back in January, things were so good, and so many people were so convinced that they could only stay the same or get better that everyone who wanted to invest probably had already invested. So, with little money able to move into the market and lots already in it, moving money out became more likely.  And money powerfully moved out of stocks.

Lately, however – and this is part of the same point I want you to pay attention to – the “experts” in the media are again all preaching from the same gospel. Which is?  That the markets are ready to roar up again?

No!

The group-think message now is that markets probably topped in January. That tech and finance – the prior leaders – are dead, especially given Facebook’s grilling in Congress and likely regulation coming. That inflation is beginning to come back and interest rates along with gas prices are set to slingshot up.

In other words, we’re all toast and the economy is, too.

If things looked too obliviously good in late January, today, they look too uniformly awful. That does not mean we will rocket back to new highs soon.  But right now, I’d be more concerned about the uniformity of negative voices shouting “Run for the hills” than I would be concerned about markets falling much further. There’s so much pessimism out there right now that it almost makes my mouth water for the opportunities that may unfold.

Posted in economic recovery, fear, gas prices, investment myths, investment wisdom, market corrections, Market falls, market volatility, Personal Finance, retirement investing, Successful living | 1 Comment

How are you doing with this volatility?

Take a look at the chart below. Take a good look.

A bit of study of that chart may help any who are having anxiety attacks this spring over market gyrations understand why they are they are experiencing discomfort. We have been spoiled. Spoiled by generally lower volatility and steadily higher returns over most of the last five years. Certainly, feast your eyes on the pair of nine quarters of successively higher quarterly returns.  Wow! How wonderful it all was for us prudent, retirement investors.

And then all of a sudden – very suddenly, this winter, vicious volatility returned to the market along with disappointing returns. The returns have not been terrible, but they have been negative, something we have not seen for quite some time. Having started the year by going up about seven percent, the market, by early February had fallen about 12% to be down about 5% year-to-date. Since then, we’ve been up a bit, down a bit, ending the quarter down a couple of points and, as of last Friday, still down about 1% for the year. Not too bad, but again, by looking at the chart below quite a come-uppance from the sweetly regular higher and higher returns we’ve experienced in the recent past along with their darling lack of volatility.

We’ve just finished a week during which, yet again, we all rode the roller coaster that has become the stock market of late. Up nicely the first two days of the week, a day off in the middle, and then two days that cancelled most of the gains from the first two days. A roller coaster, for sure. It’s what markets do from time to time. And of course, over time, markets do rise twice as often as they fall.

But – sh-zaam! – it’s so hard to know what to tell people who are not used to this kind of market volatility. Intraday swings of 50 or more S&P points or 500 or more Dow points leave a lot of sensible people scratching their heads, breathless, or reaching for a tranquilizer. Even cool-headed professionals who are in the business of managing other people’s money become “frozen” in place because, if they make a “big bet” and they are wrong, not only do they have bad performance to explain, but they also risk their bonus and maybe their job, too.

It’s just that kind of year. There’s so much confusion and unhappiness, though the market is not off much.

Economists are also unhappy because they don’t know what to think about what’s going on and what’s causing all this market mayhem. True, there appears to be a recent softening of global economic data, but U.S. data is still on track for 3% GDP growth from recent tax changes and ongoing deregulation.

Is this just a global pause or the start of a bigger issue? Is inflation coming back? Or, is it just a normal response to an increasingly robust economy? Are interest rates going through the roof, with the FED about to push them higher and higher? Or, is this just part of a healthy economic recovery that is still well contained?

We simply don’t know, none of us.

Market technicians are unhappy, too, because the market hasn’t tipped its hand – are we going much lower? Or, are we leveling off before a run to new highs?

So if all the pros are confused, the average investor is unhappy, too, because, for the most part, he or she has been spoiled. That recent, unrelenting upside performance momentum, with little or no givebacks, has given way to the daily roller coaster ride, instead of the sunny smoothness and profit from investing in stocks.

This is even more evident in the past five years – again, see the chart. Just about every calendar quarter since 2013 has generated a positive return. That was not the case prior to 2013, please note. Nor is it normal.  Investors may now just have to learn to deal with a more normal environment that will challenge their investment patience and strategies.

But rather than wring your hands over Washington’s political climate or from wondering what the Fed will do next or inflation, or a myriad of other concerns, the thought that I would like to suggest you play in your head over and over runs along the lines of “This is what stocks do.”

Stocks go up. Stocks go down. Sometimes, they do it quickly, and sometimes, it takes quite a while. Sometimes, they go down a little, and sometimes, they go down a lot. Sometimes, it’s because of a recession, and sometimes, it’s not. But rest assured, especially if you’re one of those who has the misfortune of watching cable financial news, that every time this process, up or down unfolds, someone will appear on air, someone you’ve never heard of will get credit for predicting it. And every time the market falls, someone who has been bearish for the entire bull market will be on air to pound their chest and claim they predicted it.

Still, for the patient investor, a time will come when stocks shake off whatever it is that ails them, and they will go up again. What’s going on now is one of those cautionary tales that serves to drive home to all investors that we need to stay with our plan. Things will come around.

During times like these with this maddening whipsaw action, investors seem to be easily swayed from their plan or their strategies. It is an ongoing battle for some to maintain their fortitude and calm their nerves. As I have written many times, the ultimate challenge for investors isn’t how brilliant your economic sense or your understanding of investments are or how much you need to find a great investment guru; no, it’s none of that. It’s much more often learning to control your own self-destructive, nervous emotions. The challenge for any investor, large or small, professional or newby, is to remain calm enough through the turbulence – as you should on a long distance flight – sticking to your strategy through thick and thin. The big mistake too many make is telling ourselves, amid the turmoil, that it’s time for a change our plan because of outside influences that affect our stock market judgment and patience.

Cable news, in particular, seems to feed its viewers an endless array of voices and stories, carefully constructed, to persuade us that our long-term, rational plan is no longer valid. Pessimism and doubts are stoked, and negative but intellectually seductive arguments suddenly sound smarter, especially when they dovetail with our own worries and insecurities.

In a sense, like it or not, ready or not, investors are always testing their market plans against current results. Market participants who are constantly looking for falsifying evidence are likely to find it – especially on cable financial news. So many can’t grasp the concept that a market has to climb “a wall of worry.”

We fall into this trap because our strategy undergoes a period of under-performance, or more broadly speaking, a draw down, a temporary loss of value – a loss on paper, not realized. That’s perfectly normal. But if one has a valid strategy to start with, then these draw-downs should be met with a strong dose of “do nothingism.”

The challenge for every investor, new or very experienced, is to know if his or her strategy is the correct one to employ. This is where the well-diversified, equity-oriented portfolio is particularly helpful. Most of the time, it is and will remain so; but all investors need to check their emotions at the door and exercise patience. Panic is not an investing strategy. Understand that all portfolios will go through periods of under performance.

The message you should repeat to yourself over and over again during a corrective period like this is to keep your focus on your strategy, your plan, and on what is important. And right now, what’s important is the earnings picture. Earnings are coming in now, and they look very good. So, maybe the sky isn’t falling. And you don’t need to do anything drastic, just have patience.

God bless you.

Posted in economic recovery, fear, investment myths, investment wisdom, market corrections, Market falls, market volatility, Personal Finance, retirement investing, stock rallies, Successful living | Leave a comment