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.

 

 

The season for giving

Most people who invest are periodically troubled by the actions of the companies whose stock they buy. While you probably won’t see a headline like “Equifax Sought in Bar Stabbing,” you probably have seen headlines like “Equifax CEO Richard Smith steps down amid hacking scandal.” You may also have noted that Mr. Smith left the company with an $18 million pension. Heck, I would have run the company into the ground for half that.

It’s no wonder that funds that screen for environmental, social and governance factors are becoming increasingly popular. Of those three factors, I’d argue that governance is the most important. (In fact, I did, right here in my latest column for InvestmentNews). Funds like Parnassus (PARNX) have fared extremely well by investing in companies that treat employees well, don’t cut corners to save costs, and don’t pay CEOs gargantuan salaries.

It’s the social part of ESG investing that gets sticky. Just this morning I got a press release for the eVALUEator Biblically Responsible Index (BIBLX). According to the announcement, “The index is designed to invest solely in companies with activities and practices consistent with Christian values. These standards allow BIBLX to limit portfolio exposures to practices related to abortion, pornography, alcohol, tobacco, gambling and anti-family entertainment.”

You may not be surprised to learn that the world isn’t in agreement on all Biblical principals. Mennonites, for example, would object to defense stocks; others cite an obligation to be good stewards of the earth and would avoid polluters. And, of course, there are those who don’t use the Bible as the basis for their faith.

If you can’t find a social fund that fits your specific views, it might be more effective to invest in a broadly based index fund or other fund and simply donate the proceeds to a charity that addresses your favorite cause. If you donate appreciated shares of a stock or fund, you can also sidestep any taxes on capital gains. And there would be a certain symmetry in selling shares of a major polluter and donating the proceeds to The Nature Conservancy or cashing in shares of a tobacco company and giving the money to The American Cancer Society.

 

Awash in cash

People who like dividend stocks might find that technology stocks are the type of stocks that they like.

For one thing, they have enough cash to buy several small European countries. “Companies have enough money to do whatever they want, and that’s before potential reparations” from the tax bill, noted Howard Silverblatt, senior index analyst for S&P Dow Jones Indexes. And how. All told, about $1.8 trillion is cooling its heels on corporate balance sheets, and much of that is on tech balance sheets. Here are the 10 companies with the biggest cash stashes:

Apple has another $195 billion in “long term investments” on its balance sheet, which skeptics might label as “pretty darn close to cash.”  And overall, IT is the second-largest dividend payer, behind financials.

Why does IT have so much cash, aside from being immensely profitable? One reason might be that IT went through a near-death experience in 2000-2002, and they have learned the lesson that cash is your best friend in hard times. (Banks, which have gone through several near-death in the past 50 years, never seem to learn that).

Another is that IT companies rely on innovation to survive, and innovation doesn’t come cheap. Either you have to hire top people (and pay them well to keep them) or you have to pay up to buy innovative companies. That requires cash, too, although having an extravagantly valued stock price is good, too.

What’s interesting is that many of these stocks aren’t insanely priced. Apple sells for 14.4 times its estimated 12 months’ earnings, and pays a 1.45% dividend, too. Cisco sells for 14.4 times earnings and pays a 3.0% dividend. Oracle pays a 1.48% dividend and sells for 15.3 times earnings. Only Facebook, which sells at 26.8 times its expected earnings (and doesn’t pay no stinking dividend) fits the profile of the gunslinging tech company of yore.

(The two biotech companies in the chart, Amgen and Gilead, also rely on heaps of cash to continue innovation, are cheap, and pay good dividends. Coca-Cola is, well, Coca-Cola).

During the 2007-2009 bear market, and for some time thereafter, technology was the sector with the highest dividends, precisely because it had the cash on hand to do so. Banks were too busy staving off bankruptcy. For investors who like dividends and dislike bankruptcy, large-cap IT seems to be a reasonable bet.

Naturally, there’s an ETF for that: The First Trust NASDAQ Technology Dividend Index Fund (TDIV), which currently yields 2.14% on a trailing basis. The fund doesn’t have the sizzling returns that an all-tech fund has — it’s up a mere 21% this year, vs. 36% for the technology sector — but that’s not why you buy a dividend fund. Assuming these companies don’t waste their money on something foolish, like buying several European countries, they could be a good long-term investment for dividend investors.

Provide, provide

Sooner or later, the nation’s eye will turn to Social Security. Advocates of reducing benefits say, “We can’t afford it.” The question then becomes “Can afford it?”

The average monthly Social Security benefit is $1,348, or $16,176 a year. That’s not much, and Social Security was never meant to be a full-blown pension. On the other hand, Social Security is a vital part of most retirees’ lives.

Ida May Fuller, first recipient of Social Security.

According to the government, 48% of married couples and 71% of unmarried persons receive half or more of their income from Social Security.  Twenty-one percent of married couples and 43% of unmarried people rely on Social Security for 90% or more of their income.

Social Security has two features that are particularly important to retirees. First, it’s a guaranteed lifetime income. Your Social Security payments last as long as you do.

Second, Social Security payments are protected against inflation, which is the enemy of anyone who lives on a fixed income. The effects of inflation are cumulative: After 10 years of 3% inflation, a $1,348 payment has the buying power of $10,148 – a 24% decline.

If the nation no longer wants to fully support Social Security in its present form, you will have to make up the slack. And it’s not cheap.

How much money would you need to replace the average Social Security payout? We can get a rough indication from the annuity industry. When you buy a basic immediate annuity, you get an insurance company’s guarantee of income for life, just as you do from Social Security. An immediate annuity is a bet with the insurance company. If you get hit by the 9:15 southbound Cannonball Express a week after you buy the annuity, the insurance company keeps your money and you lose. If you live to 115 while smoking cigars and drinking whiskey, the insurance company pays out more than you invested, and you win.

Most annuities aren’t adjusted for inflation. The Vanguard Group does offer an annuity whose payout raises 3% a year – roughly the inflation rate since 1926. To get a monthly starting payout of $1,300, here’s what a person born in Pennsylvania on 3/8/1952 would need:

 

Female life only $256,960.37
Female life only with 2% graded payment $317,264.07
Female life only with 3% graded payment $355,450.39
Male life only $240,346.76
Male life only with 2% graded payment $293,254.43
Male life only with 3% graded payment $326,409.49

Male policies are cheaper because we die earlier than women. It’s just the way it is.

Bear in mind that Social Security offers other benefits, such as disability payments and payments to surviving family members.

The bottom line: Let’s say you were counting on an income of $50,000 in retirement, and that $16,000 of that was from Social Security. Conventional wisdom says that you can only safely withdraw 5% of your investment kitty each year if you want to adjust your payout for inflation. To get $34,000 a year in investment income, then, you’d need $680,000. To make up for the loss of Social Security, you’d have to add another $326,000 to $355,000.

No one is talking seriously about abolishing Social Security – which, as a reminder, has its own stream of tax revenue for funding. But every reduction in benefits means that you have to make up for it. Provide, provide!

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.