Taxes and the urge to merge

Tax reform, in whatever final shape it takes, is likely to put lots of money into corporate hands. While these companies already have lots of cash — a record $1.8 trillion in nonfinancial companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 index — giving them more cash may give them an incentive to actually, you know, spend it. I talk about one likely option in my latest column, here. 

On another topic, the Baby Boom Generation spans the years 1946 to 1964. There’s a big difference between the early Boomers and their younger siblings: If you were born in 1946, you came of age with the Beatles, the Vietnam War, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. If you were born in 1964, you grew up with The Clash, gas lines, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. More importantly, older Boomers are more likely to have pensions and more likely to have taken a beating from the past two bear markets. Younger Boomers? They probably don’t have pensions, they face soaring college tuition costs for their children — and some will retire just as the Medicare Trust Fund runs out of money. You can read about it here.

By the sweat of your brow

“By the sweat of your brow
    you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
    since from it you were taken.”

One of the enduring mysteries of the U.S. tax code is why the system is harder on those who earn their income by the sweat of their brow as opposed to those who get money from their investments.

The tax code’s main purpose, of course, is to fund the activities of the government, and Americans have been having a lively discussion about the proper scope of government activities and how to pay for them for more than 200 years.

Over the years, however, the tax code has been used to encourage certain behaviors and discourage others. In its current incarnation, for example, we give deductions for contributions to some retirement savings accounts, because that’s a good thing. We levy tax penalties on early withdrawals from retirement plans, because that’s often a bad thing.

There are plenty of things to argue about with these types of tax incentives. What is curious, however, is the favorable treatment of investment returns over ordinary income. Currently, for example, employment income is taxed at a maximum 39.6%, while long-term capital gains are taxed at a maximum 20%.

Ostensibly, the lower tax rate for capital gains – the difference between your purchase price and sales price on a winning investment – is to encourage investment. As such, it has some merit: Congress cut the capital gains rate from 28% to 20% in 1982, and the stock market took off. (On the other hand, Congress returned the capital gains rate to 28% in 1987, and the stock market generally rallied until 2000).

Nevertheless, we as a nation tend to encourage hard work and look down on those who work as little as possible. And here we come to a paradox between the admiration for hard work and the tax code. Consider this comparison of two people, each with $300,000 in income, presented by Ben Steverman of Bloomberg.

Our first taxpayer is an emergency room surgeon. The other plays video games all day, thanks to his inheritance.

twogus

Now, as with all things taxable, there are some important caveats here. One is that under current law, if the heir’s parents gave him his capital in their will, the estate is liable for taxes under estate tax law. (Heirs don’t pay estate taxes.) That said, it’s unlikely that the parents paid estate tax: It doesn’t kick in until $11.2 million for a couple and $5.6 million for a single individual. About 11,300 estate tax returns were filed for people who died in 2013, of which only 4,700 were taxable, fewer than 1 in 550 of the 2.6 million people who died in that year, according to the Tax Policy Center.

This is largely an investment blog, so it’s useful to point out that lower corporate taxes in the new tax bill means that companies are more likely to increase dividends, buy back stock, or increase merger and acquisitions. All told, it’s hard not for investors to like the bill, because it will help returns from the money you earn while you sleep. But we’re a country that admires hard work. In the end, however, even with a tax break, those who earn their living by the sweat of their brow still wind up paying more.

 

The Three Percent Solution

When I was growing up, we had a lot of cats. I don’t mean three or four cats. We usually had upwards of ten, all descended from a single calico named Caroline. My parents underestimated both the gestation period of the common house cat, as well as the neighbors’ interest in adopting kittens, no matter how tri-colored and adorable. I thought little of it: I liked cats, and still do, and to me, having 10 or more cats in the house was perfectly normal. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized how peculiar that was.

One of the peculiarities of the past decade – and it’s been a singularly peculiar decade – has been the exceptionally low level of interest rates. The average yield on the three-month Treasury bill the past 10 years has been 0.38%, according to the Federal Reserve. And that figure is inflated somewhat by the first 12 months of the series, when three-month T-bill yields averaged a whopping 2.14%. After that, the three-month bill yielded an average 0.18%. (For purists, this is the market yield, not the discount yield).

For anyone who has been investing the past decade, 0.18% seems about normal. Money market mutual funds, whose yields track the short-term T-bill, have yielded next to nothing – and sometimes actually nothing – for much of the past decade. The same is true for bank CDs. But this is not normal. The average yield for the three-year T-bill since 1934 is 3.5%. If we want to get rid of the very highest and very lowest yields, we get a typical yield of 3.18% over that 83-year period.

Why is this important? For large swaths of the nation’s history, you could get a yield of 3% or more by taking virtually no risk. But for the past decade, that 3% yield has been entirely elusive. To get even a modest 3% yield, you had to take unprecedented risk, either by investing in dividend-producing stocks, or by investing in corporate bonds.

Barring some unforeseen disaster, the period of rock-bottom rates is over. From October 2009 through October 2015, the three-month T-note yielded an average 0.07%, as the Fed kept rates low to stimulate the moribund economy. Today it stands at 1.26% and, should the Fed raise rates as expected, will rise to about 1.5%. Analysts widely expect the Fed to raise rates another half percent or more next year, bringing T-bill rates to about 2% to 2.25%.

While this is still low by historical standards, it holds some interesting implications for long-suffering savers. First, a 2.25% riskless yield could be enough to dull investors’ interest in dividend-producing stocks. Currently, the Standard & Poor’s 500 yields 1.9%. While companies are flush with cash – and get more so should corporate tax rates fall – a 1.9% yield is not a terrific reward for stock market risk when T-bills are sitting at 2.25%.

Yields on bank CDs are already rising. The highest yielding nationally available one-year CD, offered by online bank Banesco, weighs in at 1.75% with a $1.500 minimum, according to BankRate.com. Goldman Sachs Bank USA offers a one-year CD at the same rate. A five-year CD from Capital One 360 yields 2.45%, but it makes little sense to lock in for five years when rates are rising.

Money fund rates are rising as well. Vanguard Money Market Prime (VMRXX) currently sports a 1.20% yield. And Bankrate.com lists three bank money market accounts with yields of 1.5%. (Bear in mind that bank money market account yields are set by the bank, while money market accounts are set by the market).

Investors who decided to seek a bit more yield by investing in short-term bond funds may want to rethink that strategy. Vanguard Short-Term Bond Index fund (VBISX), for example,  has gained 1.39% the past 12 months, including reinvested dividends. Its 12-month yield is 1.54%, indicating that investors have taken a modest loss on principal. If the Fed continues to raise rates, investors will get higher yields, but also increased principal losses.

If you’re a long-term investor with reasonable risk tolerance, there’s nothing wrong with investing in a stock fund that aims for high or growing dividends. Members of the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index have record amounts of cash, the economy is growing, and they may get even more cash through proposed corporate tax cuts. And several funds offer a convenient way to buy dividend stocks. T. Rowe Price Dividend Growth (PRDGX), for example, has gained 17.35% the past 12 months and offers a 1.4% yield. Fidelity Dividend Growth (FDGFX) has gained 16.13% the past 12 months with a 1.47% yield. Vanguard Dividend Growth, alas, is closed to new investors.

If you’re simply looking for income, however, and you’re worried about the stock market, you may soon be able to put some of that worry to rest by going to cash. Any reasonable portfolio needs exposure to stocks for long-term growth, so don’t sell everything. But if you want to raise a little cash, you’ll get a bit more reward than you have for most of the past 10 years. And that’s one thing about our current investment climate that actually isn’t peculiar.

 

Lots of cash and animal spirits: What could possibly go wrong?

If you’ve ever been to a particularly raucous New Year’s party, you know that there’s a logical progression from the first awkward arrivals and introductions until you’re sleeping in a car full of raccoons and empty Cheetos bags.  And, at the time, each step makes wonderful sense.

Right now, the markets are at a spot where spirits are high and cash is flowing like liquor at your broker’s annual Christmas party. Let’s take a look at the animal spirits first.

University of Michigan, University of Michigan: Consumer Sentiment© [UMCSENT], retrieved from FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/UMCSENT, January 1, 2017.

 University of Michigan, University of Michigan: Consumer Sentiment© [UMCSENT], retrieved from FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/UMCSENT, January 1, 2017.

As you can see, consumer sentiment has been rising since the dark days of 2009; it now stands at 98.2 — the chart is lagged by a month. Sentiment is now higher than it was in January 2015 (98.1), and the highest since February 2004.

Soptimism-graphmall business confidence is also up post-recession, but it jumped markedly after the election, presumably on the hopes of lower taxes and regulation by the new administration.

And that confidence — plus the 12% gain by the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index this year — has sparked optimism among investors. The American Association of Individual Investors sentiment survey now stands at 45.6% bullish, vs. its 38.5% historical average. Similarly, just 25.7%  of those surveyed said they were bearish, vs. a historical average of 30.5%. Bullish sentiment is at a five-week high, and its third-highest level of 2016.

At the same time, there’s plenty of money on the sidelines, and some of it appears to be returning to stock funds. In the last week of 2016, investors poured an estimated $118 million into U.S. stock funds. But that’s a piker compared to the previous week, when an estimated $18.6 billion flooded — more than the previous 24 months combined, according to the Investment Company Institute, the funds’ trade group.

As of the end of November, there was $2.7 trillion in money market mutual funds, earning approximately zilch. A roaring stock market provides a great deal of temptation for at least some of that money.  Stock funds had about 3.2% of their assets in cash, which is not particularly high, and that figure’s usefulness has been eclipsed somewhat recently.

Another potential source of cash: Companies in the S&P 500 have a record $1.5 trillion in cash cooling its heels on their balance sheets. They can use this for buying back stocks, paying dividends, or — and this is crazy talk — reinvesting in plants, equipment and their own employees.

The bad news is that the stock market is already expensive. The S&P 500 sells at about 24 times earnings, as opposed to a historical norm of about 17 times earnings. S&P predicts that earnings will rise through 2017, bringing down the PE ratio to about 18. Bear in mind that forecasts are notoriously unreliable, particularly when they’re about the future.

Bear in mind, too, that the Federal Reserve is likely to continue to raise interest rates, and at a faster pace if the economy grows faster than expected.

Right now, it looks like animal spirits and plenty of cash will keep the market party going, and that can be good, clean fun. Enjoy the ride. Just remember that market rallies always last longer than a sober person would think. But remember that many things must go right for the rally to continue. It’s probably a good time to readjust your portfolio back to your original goals. No one ever went broke taking a bit of profits.

 

 

 

 

They don’t ring a bell

According to hoary Wall Street lore, they don’t ring a bell when a bull market ends or a bear market begins. (Those would actually be the same thing). But Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen did all but that today when she spoke at the Kansas City Fed’s economic conference in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

“I believe the case for an increase in the federal funds rate has strengthened in recent months,” Yellen said, which is just about as close to skywriting “RATES ARE GOING UP!” as a Fed chair can get. Wall Street, which has anticipating higher rates since 2009, reacted predictably, selling off stocks and bonds at the same time. The Dow Jones industrial average fell 53.01 points, to 18,395.40, and the bellwether 10-year Treasury note yield rose to 1.635%. Bond prices fall when interest rates rise, and vice-versa.

Naturally, the case for raising interest rates soon is debatable. In terms of timing, the Fed is traditionally reluctant to raise rates in the months before a presidential election. If that reasoning still holds, the next opportunity to increase the key fed funds rate would be in December.

And on a relative basis, interest rates are pretty high already. The fed funds rate is 0.25% to 0.50%. The European Central Bank’s rate is zero, as is the Bank of Japan’s. The Swedish central bank’s rate is -0.25%, and the Swiss government rate is -0.75%.

The Fed doesn’t control long-term interest rates, but the picture there is just as grim. Germany’s 10-year yield is -0.07%. France’s decade note yields 0.17%, albeit with a certain je ne sais quois. Italy’s 10-year rate — Italy’s! — is 1.17%.

What is starting to make the Fed uneasy, however, is rising wages. The Fed has been able to flood the world with easy money for nearly a decade without fear of a wage-price spiral because wages have been flat for more than a decade. You just can’t have a wage-price spiral without higher wages.

Oddly — and somehow justifiably — those at the lowest end of the wage spectrum have been seeing the biggest wage increases, thanks in large part to state-mandated minimum-wage increases. But that’s not the only reason. Many companies, such as Walmart and McDonald’s, have come to the realization that they rely heavily on those who face the public. Those people are almost invariably on the lower end of the wage spectrum.

Perhaps Lily will get a raise.
Perhaps Lily will get a raise.

Service companies are also discovering, to no one’s surprise than theirs, that people who don’t make much don’t feel a lot of loyalty to their employers. Low-wage employees will often gladly jump ship to another company that pays better wages. In the recession, companies could simply say, “Be glad you have a job.” But many of the new job gains have gone to low-income employees — so much so, in fact, that there’s a relative shortage of people willing to take low-wage jobs.

“Wage acceleration has been concentrated in low-pay sectors, such as restaurants and retailing,” says Bank of America Merrill Lynch. “In our view, the increase in low-pay wages is due to state-level minimum wage increases and a shortage of younger, less-educated workers. We see sharp increases only in low wage sectors: broader wages should rise more gradually as joblessness falls.”

The Fed raises interest rates to slow the economy and reduce the threat of inflation. But bear in mind that interest-rate increases take a long time — 18 months or so — to fully take effect on the economy. Furthermore, a more or less normal fed funds rate, which is neither accommodative nor restrictive — is somewhere between 3% and 4%. It will take many more quarter-percent rate hikes to get back to normal.

The big danger is that the economy isn’t exactly boiling over. Current estimates for third-quarter gross domestic product are a 1% increase or less.

If you’re looking for a rate shock, you probably won’t see one any time soon. You may start to see better rates on bank CDs: The top ones now yield about 1%, according to Bankrate.com. But you should start to be wary of interest-rate sensitive stocks, such as utilities and preferred stocks. And if you’re thinking of loading up on bonds, you might want to wait a bit.

 

 

 

 

Greetings from Lacunaville

SDSC_0368tarting in January, I’ve been writing full-time for InvestmentNews, doing a monthly column for Money magazine, and studying for the Certified Financial Planner mark. (This, apparently, is also a test of your prowess with a hand-held calculator). And I went to Africa.

The blog, as you may have noticed, has, um, languished. I’m hoping to revive it on a somewhat irregular basis, which, come to think of it, is pretty much its usual schedule.

I’ll be updating my links pages in the next week or so. In the meantime, here are some things to watch for today, as well as some things I’ve found interesting or peculiar.

This week, all eyes are on the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ employment situation report, out at 8:30 a.m. Friday. But the stock market seems to be resigning itself to an interest rate hike, probably in June or July. (A later hike would give the impression of a political motivation, and the Fed generally doesn’t like to do that). The current consensus estimate for new nonfarm jobs is 158,000, according to Bloomberg, with the unemployment rate falling to 5%. (And, yes, the total unemployment rate is still high, but it’s the nonfarm payrolls number that Wall Street watches.)

Wages also seem to be firming up, and it should be interesting to see if traditional summer employers, such as ice cream vendors and lawn mowers, have a hard time finding help this year. All of these would seem to give the green light to the Fed to raise rates.

Of course, we’d be talking about a lordly fed funds rate of 0.5% to 0.75% after a Fed hike, an increase that will be promptly reflected in your credit card bill and eventually in your money market mutual fund account. For those who still watch their money fund account, the average money fund now yields 0.10%, nearly triple its rate at the start of the year.

DSC_0353The stock market typically dislikes interest-rate hikes. Higher rates mean bonds become more competitive with stocks, and increase short-term borrowing rates. On the other hand, higher short-term rates mean that companies will earn somewhat more on their cash, and that savers will earn slightly more on their cash.

The old adage about Fed rate hikes — three steps and a stumble — meant that the stock market takes the first two hikes as a sign that the economy is improving, and rallies. At the third hike, stock investors realize the Fed wants the economy to slow, and stocks sell off. Bear in mind that the adage originated when a normal fed funds rate was 4% to 5%. It would take a stairway, not a few steps, to get us back to the traditional stumble level, assuming the Fed raises rates at a quarter-point a pop.

I’m an optimist, and think that rising earnings are a good thing — in fact, the one thing that the economy desperately needs for sustained growth. Most companies, despite their complaining, have nice profit margins, good balance sheets, and plenty of cash. They might even be surprised to learn that when their employees get raises, they spend more — and even on the products their employers sell.

DSC_0488The one caveat: Stocks aren’t cheap, at least by the price-to-earnings ratio of the Standard and Poor’s 500 stock index. The current PE, based on forward earnings estimates, is 17 — a tad feverish, although nothing like the levels during the technology bubble. Nevertheless, at these levels, it’s a bit like driving a bit too fast on old tires. If the market takes a rate hike really badly, investors could find that both bond and stocks slide off the road. And in that case, having a bit of cash in a money fund might be a good safeguard.

 

The week ahead

Only two things matter in this first week of the new year: China and jobs. And China, frankly, isn’t looking too good.

The market plunged at the open Monday on news that Chinese manufacturing was far worse than Wall Street expected. The Chinese purchasing managers’ index fell to 48.2 last month, vs. 48.6 in November, it’s 10th consecutive decline. When the index is below 50, the manufacturing sector is in recession.

The Chinese stock market took one look at the numbers and promptly plunged 7% before circuit breakers kicked in. Wall Street took a sober look at the Chinese market’s reaction and promptly panicked. The Dow Jones industrial average is down 318 points, or about 1.8%, as I write this.

China takes these things seriously: So seriously that Chinese CEOs are starting to mysteriously disappear. If I were a Chinese CEO today, I’d be hastily packing my bags.

The stalling Chinese economy will weigh heavily on the U.S. market, since so many U.S. companies have been counting on China for increased sales and growth. So today, the stock market will be digesting this news, and discounting stocks across the board.

fredgraphAfter that, Wall Street will spend the rest of the week fretting about jobs. And there are all sorts of indicators to watch in the run up to Friday’s jobs report. (Which, for the record, is expected to show 200,000 new jobs in December, vs. 211,000 in November.)

  • Tuesday is motor vehicle sales, which should show fairly robust growth in what was once the nation’s largest employers. Analysts are expecting fairly robust gains in December, thanks to low gas prices and the prospects of modest raises in 2016. Another factor: The average U.S. auto is more than 11 years old. Cars age better than they used to, but there’s a lot of pent-up demand for new cars.
  • Wednesday is the ADP Employment report, which is a pretty good predictor of how the Friday jobs report will turn out. The consensus on the report, which excludes government jobs, is for 190,000 new jobs in December.
  • Thursday is the volatile weekly unemployment claims report, has ticked up to the highest levels since July, when the numbers flirted with lows unseen since the Nixon administration. Another important report is the Challenger Job Cut Report, which measures mass layoffs. Many companies choose to lay off employees just in time for the holiday season, so it should be an interesting report.