The monster under the bed

Alfred E. Neuman

One of the fun things about being a personal finance writer is the number of “Dear idiot” letters you get. Stories about the Federal Reserve Bank tend to get them. (“You idiot! Don’t you know the Federal Reserve is evil?”). So do stories about taxes. (“You idiot! Don’t you know that Girl Scout cookies are deductible?”)*

Inflation is another source of contention, particularly if you note that inflation has been moderate, which it has been, whether you’re using the Consumer Price Index, the GDP Price Deflator, or even the Billion Prices Project. But your perception of inflation depends on what you spend the most on. If you have kids in college or if you rely on prescription drugs, your personal inflation rate is pretty high.

Those who grew up in the 1970s and early 1980s recall when a 5% inflation rate was considered moderate, as opposed to the most recent 2.2% rate. And they fear a resurgence of inflation, with good reason: It erodes the value of retirement savings and pensions.

The consumer price index has averaged a 1.7% annual gain the past decade, and actually dipped into deflation — a period of falling prices — during the Great Recession. And the forces of deflation are still all around us: The favored tactic of technological disruptors such as Amazon, Uber and others, is to drive prices down and drive competitors out of business. This was a favored tactic of the Gilded Age, aided even further by the gold standard, which tends to favor deflation over inflation. I go on at some length about the subject here.

The Federal Reserve traditionally raises interest rates to slow the economy and cool inflation, and it lowers rates to stimulate the economy and encourage inflaton. The Fed has already nudged short-term interest rates higher five times since 2015, but rates are still extraordinarily low by historical standards. Most think the Fed is acting not out of fear of inflation, but out of fear of not having any ammunition to fight the next recession, whenever that may be.

Tomorrow’s Consumer Price Index report hits the headlines at 8:30: The consensus forecast is for a 2.1% year-over-year change for 2017. Anthing higher, particularly for the core CPI (less food and energy) is likely to make for an upsetting day in the bond market, where yields have been creeping higher and prices lower. The iShares Core U.S. Aggregate Bond ETF (AGG), a useful proxy for the bond market’s total return, has already fallen 0.57% this year, according to Morningstar.

Right now, there’s a balance between inflationary forces — a strong economy and fiscal stimulus — and deflationary ones. In the normal course of events, the Fed tightens too much during inflationary periods, causing the economy to slow, earnings to fall, and stocks to tumble. So there’s reason to watch inflation warily.

Is it time to panic? Well, no. It never is. If you’re particularly concerned about inflation, you might consider a fund that invests in Treasury Inflation Protected Securities, whose price is keyed to changes in the CPI. The current yield on TIPS shows that Wall Street expects inflation to remain at 2% the next 30 years. If you think they’re wrong, then one good pick would be Vanguard Inflation-Protected Securities Fund Investor Shares(VIPSX).

It may well be that technological changes have redefined the upper bound of inflation in the economy. Tomorrow’s CPI print is no reason to go running from the room in terror. But it’s worth keeping an eye on the monster under the bed this year.

* They aren’t, if you eat them.

The busy season for outlooks

Economists and money managers give forecasts because people ask them to, and this is the time of year when people like me ask people like them for their forecasts.

You have to take all forecasts with a grain, if not a block, of salt. Nevertheless, I got the chance to interview some smart people, such as Will Danoff, manager of Fidelity Contrafund, who’s bullish on the U.S. and technology. And then there’s Jerome Dodson, manager of Parnassus, who has the crazy notion that companies that treat employees well will prosper.

Anyway, here’s their outlooks for 2018, along with Mark Mobius of Franklin Templeton, Robert Doll of Nuveen and Joe Davis of Vanguard.

http://www.investmentnews.com/article/20180106/FREE/180109962/2018-outlook-in-equity-investing-is-mostly-bright?issuedate=20180108&sid=outlook20170108

A change of heart

A Christmas Carol is about a change of heart — in this case, the heart of Ebeneezer Scrooge: 

Oh!  But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grind- stone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!  Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.  

The spirit of Scrooge — pre-haunting Scrooge — has been alive and well in American business for a good many years. Just as Scrooge rolled up the profits of his lending business while his clerk froze, U.S. companies have only grudgingly doled out wages. The chart, left, shows average weekly wages, adjusted for inflation, the past decade. Annual rate of increase: 0.52%.

At the same time, profits, cash and profitability at major U.S. corporations have been hitting new highs. This isn’t terribly unusual: Companies typically don’t raise wages unless they have to, and they don’t have to until unemployment falls below 5% or so.

Nevertheless, workers’ share of corporate fortunes have been unusually small, especially in light of productivity improvements. Workers have produced more, but received far less of that improvement than in the past. (Keep scrolling past the graph, because I can’t figure out how to decrease the white space that follows).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The tax reform bill passed by Congress assumes that corporations will pass on their massive tax savings to workers, and also use that extra money to reinvest in other businesses. Will it work? It depends on who you ask, which means that no one really knows. A few companies have already announced bonuses and cited the tax reform measures as their reason for doing so.

Some, such as Wells Fargo, have waffled on whether the increase was because of the tax bill or not. Others, like AT&T, have also announced layoffs at the same time.

Nevertheless, it’s entirely possible that at least some of corporate tax savings will, indeed, make it to employee salaries, new hires or even new factories. Alas, there aren’t many funds that specialize in employee happiness. But here are a few suggestions on what might make a good investment in light of tax reform:

  • Parnassus (PSRNX). This fund takes the position that companies that treat employees well tend to do well in the long run. It’s not infallible — awful companies prosper sometimes, too — but the fund has gained an average of 10.5% a year the past decade, vs. 8.3% for the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index.
  • Financial funds. Tax breaks plus looser regulation generally should benefit banks. SPDR Capital Markets ETF (KCE) is a good low-cost choice, as is iShares U.S. Financial Services ETF (IYG).
  • KKR & Co. LP. The private equity and real estate manager specializes in merge and acquisitions. Should companies use their newfound cash to buy other companies, KKR is a logical beneficiary.

A cynic would observe that companies have long had the ability to give their employees a raise, and have simply decided to keep most of that cash in the CEO suite. A big infusion of cash from the tax bill could simply increase those tendencies. On the other hand, we can all hope for a change of heart — although, as was the case with Scrooge, the proof was in actions, not theory.

 

 

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.