economy, income, interest rates, retirement, risk management

How to Guarantee Retirement?

Several years ago, I read a post on LinkedIn which sounded the alarm bells that the “time is running out” for your retirement account.

I found it offensive and in poor taste, playing on the fears of the public at large. Throughout most of 2021 there has been a palatable undercurrent of fear in the market… on the part of investors, on the part of money managers, on the part of economists… Inflation rocketing higher, talk of asset bubbles left and right, issues around hiring and employment, falling consumer sentiment, and all of these leading to a slowing in the economy

The 5% pullback in September 2021 in the market reinforced that fear for some.

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economy, interest rates, retirement, risk management, Taxes

Trick or Treat? Revisiting The Potential Downside of Tax Reform for Investors

There is an old story that goes “beware what you wish for…” Things don’t always turn out as expected. In 2017, President Trump proposed and Congress approved a huge tax cut plan… the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA). The results have been controversial.

Along those lines I watched a fascinating interview of Tom Lee, head of research at Fundstrat, on Bloomberg four years ago. His insight proved very valuable and accurate. (1)

His feeling is that a Tax cut, as it was being discussed, could be negative for investors long term. “There’s two reasons; First, when cutting tax rate you raise the after tax cost of debt. Leverage becomes a problem for a lot of businesses. Second, because you are cutting tax rates you are effectively giving cash to all businesses, even businesses where you want to reduce allocation.“

His observation was that companies that are currently struggling with cash flow will have a temporary life preserver tossed to them, but it will not change the fundamental issues facing a lot of industries. It will distort markets.

In fact, that is exactly what happened. Companies that were not profitable and not healthy continued to borrow and live off of debt instead of reforming their business models.

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economy, interest rates, retirement, risk management

2021 Inflation and Parallels to the Seventies

My most vivid memory of the Seventies is sitting in the car with my siblings and parents in a mall parking lot the week before Christmas and my mother crying because they couldn’t afford presents and had to file bankruptcy. For a 12 year old it made the challenges of real life… real.

The seventies were a traumatic time for many Americans… the end of the Vietnam war, the political chaos of Watergate and Nixon, the oil embargo, gas rationing throughout the decade, the suffocation of unions, the loss of jobs and industries as Japan and South Korea became exporters. Economic instability was an ever-present cloud.

Moving in waves through the decade, the economy suffered from bouts of inflation and deflation. It made policy decision-making challenging at best… boost the economy to keep it from slowing down, or is the economy running too hot?

When you drill down one sees many similarities between conditions that led to the “stagflation of the 1970s” and the situation we find ourselves in post COVID.

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economy, income, interest rates, retirement, risk management

“Rising Prices in the Economy”: Inflation Post COVID

In September 2020 Jay Powell announced that the Federal Reserve would adjust how it reacts to inflation, one of its chief mandates, and allow inflation to run hotter for longer. The expectation is that it will be several years before the Fed raises interest rates. Traditionally, elevated rates of inflation indicate the economy is operating at full capacity and may be in danger overheating. Following the COVID recession of 2020 the Fed is trying to create a positive environment for the recovery.

In the Spring of 2021 signs of inflation are abundant. Since the fall of 2020 commodity prices had risen dramatically. Lumber prices had soared as supply constraints limited what was available, especially as housing prices went up and building accelerated. Copper surged to new record highs. Wheat, corn and other food commodities went up as the economy reopened and supply couldn’t keep up with demand.

Among tech businesses a shortage of computer chips affected the building of everything from cars to exercise equipment. “Just in time” supply chains showed increasing strain.

To top things off, a gasoline pipeline was held hostage by a ransomware attack in early May 2021. The result was gasoline shortages and higher prices throughout the east coast US.

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economy, interest rates, retirement, risk management

The Impact of Financial Euphoria

On a recent rereading of John Kenneth Galbraith’s “A Short History of Financial Euphoria”, he outlines common characteristics from past financial bubbles including the Tulip mania of 1637, the South Seas bubble of 1720, the various booms and busts of 19th century America, the market crash of 1929, and the October 1987 market crash. While the financial instruments vary, the behavior of investors has many elements in common. Bubbles in financial markets have several characteristics in common.

One of the elements Galbraith cites in the financial bubbles he analyzes is the introduction of new financial instruments. Such new instruments offer the “investment opportunity rich in imagined prospects…” (p51) Added to these new instruments is the element of leverage. Leverage allows investors to capture more profit than is normally possible. However, leverage also introduces fragility into the financial system when the value of investments start to fall and leverage needs to be unwound. The unwinding of leverage leads to additional sales and additional losses. The collapse of bubbles has an “inevitable and depressive aftereffect.” (p67) Such a depressive aftereffect is manifested in weakened consumer goods demand, shaken business confidence, a fall in business investment, and a rise in business failures. The bursting of bubbles has a “substantial and ultimately devastating economic effect.” (p89)

Another critical element in the development of bubbles is psychological. “Individuals were dangerously captured by belief in their own financial acumen and intelligence and conveyed this error to others.” (p51) In this aspect, bubbles not only develop from financial innovation but especially because of psychological behaviors and characteristics.

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economy, income, interest rates, retirement, risk management

“Data Dependent” Fed Changes Course and Markets React

In the Fall of 2018, equity markets sold off.

What was the cause?

Widespread view among economists was an expectation of slowing economic growth in 2019 and a Federal Reserve led by Chairman Jay Powell that was expected to continue to raise rates three more times in 2019.

As anxiety and stress built up in November and December, markets dropped. Between October 3 and October 29 the SP500 fell 9.7%. Between October 29 and December 7 the market bounced around rising 6.5% only to give it back and to fall .3%. However, in the weeks before Christmas, December 7 to December 24 the market fell another 10.7%. Showing the rapidness of the decline, on Christmas Eve the SP500 fell 2.6%.

On Bloomberg Surveillance on April 4th, Tom Keene asked Jim Paulson “Was December the mother of all cathartic events? It was so traumatic.” Jim Paulson responded, “I don’t ever remember a December like that ever in my entire career. It was original, and I think it shocked all of us, myself included that this happened in December… But it looks increasingly like the oddity, what was incorrect and inappropriate, was the December swoon… and we may be overdid the selling more than we should have.” (2)

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economy, interest rates, retirement, risk management

Market Risks and the Wall of Worry

For years, one of the biggest issues facing the economy has been excessive debt and leverage. Yet even with these problems, prior to COVID-19 it was commonplace to see headlines in the financial media that read…

“Current Bull Market Continues To Climb A ‘Wall of Worry’” (1)

The “wall of worry” is one of the phrases frequently used to illustrate the resistance or fear of investors to invest in a stock market that had earlier gone down.  Since the Great Recession of 2008 and the financial crisis many investors have worried about the possibility of another financial crisis.

In a 2018 conversation with clients I was asked about a recent stock market pull back and if a problem in the market… could cause another financial crisis. This was an issue that was on many people’s minds these days.

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economy, income, interest rates, retirement, risk management

Are Bond Yields Moving Higher?

On October 3rd, 2018 the 10-year yield moved dramatically higher increasing 3.3% in a single day. Pundits have listed many reasons for rates and bond yields to move higher… a strengthening economy, decreasing unemployment, rising oil prices signaling inflation, a Federal Reserve committed to further rate increases into 2019. (3)

These pressures had been building for some time and signaled a good economic environment.

However, there are a few factors that some view as critically important moving forward in deciding how much bond yields could move up as well as how quickly.

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economy, income, interest rates, retirement, risk management

Where to from here? July 2020

It has been a difficult year on many levels. Given the past few months I want to catch up in several areas… with what has transpired since the spring, where things currently stand in the economy, and what I foresee going into the second half of the year and beyond. This may take a while…

As a reminder, the current economic downturn did not occur spontaneously due to COVID. In September of 2019 Repo rates indicated problems in lending markets. For several year’s companies have been borrowing extensively, especially at lower levels of credit quality. In the Fall of 2019 Morgan Stanley noted that over 20% of corporate borrowers were “zombie companies”; companies with no positive cashflow, excessive debt, and borrowing to stay afloat. This was the situation when the economy was “healthy”.

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economy, interest rates, retirement, risk management

Fed Reluctant To Raise Rates While Raising Questions Around The Economy

On July 29th, 2020 the federal reserve committed to keeping interest rates pinned to the zero bound and stated their expectation to maintain this position for years to come.

In his meeting with reporters to discuss fed policy, fed chair Powell stated, “We haven’t even thought about thinking when we plan to raise rates.” The FOMC statement explained why; The path of the economy will depend significantly on the course of the virus. The ongoing public health crisis will weigh heavily on economic activity, employment, and inflation in the near term, and poses considerable risks to the economic outlook over the medium term. In light of these developments, the Committee decided to maintain the target range for the federal funds rate at 0 to 1/4 percent. The Committee expects to maintain this target range until it is confident that the economy has weathered recent events and is on track to achieve its maximum employment and price stability goals.” (1)

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