The Independent Investor: Time to Check Your Risk Tolerance
It is a good time to take a reality check on how aggressively you are invested. The 6.9 percent decline in the S&P 500 Index over October was gut-wrenching. But entirely within the realm of probability given the historical data. Here are some questions to ask.
Did you find yourself checking your investment portfolios every day? How about every hour? Did you have trouble focusing on other, possibly more important, things like your job, or your family and friends? Was it more difficult to sleep at night, or did you lay awake worrying about the markets?
How much time did you spend checking the averages and listening to the talking heads on television or in the print media? Did you call your broker or investment advisor and, if so, how many times? Did you want to blame someone for the market's decline? Did you need that money for something immediate?
If you answered yes to any of the above questions, you have probably invested too aggressively. That's not to say that a sell-off is in any way pleasant. Everyone feels the disappointment, the pain of losing money, and the fear that tomorrow will bring more of the same. And even though your losses are only on paper, you still feel some anxiety. The question is how you handle it.
By now, most of my readers understand that the stock market is not a one-way street. Investors should expect at least three declines of around 5 percent and one decline of 10 percent per year in the stock market. That's on average. There have been plenty of times when the averages have declined more than that. Over the course of the last several years that has occurred consistently, and it will continue to do so for the next several decades into the future.
And one's risk tolerance is both personal and financial. Only you can tell yourself what it is or should be. And the risk is not static. It changes over time. How much risk you are willing to take depends on many things; some, such as your health or your job are different than when you will need the money in your investment accounts.
Geopolitical events such as Brexit, the Trump election, North Korean conflict, stock market valuations, and the next recession will also impact your attitude about risk. None of the above remain static. What was a negative development last year (like the Trump vs. Kim double dog dare) may be a positive this year, such as North Korean nuclear disarmament.
We can try to break risk down into two concepts: risk tolerance and your capacity for risks. Capacity for risk is how much you can afford to lose. That is measurable and involves time and finances. If you are saving for retirement, which is decades away, you can afford to lose more in the short-term, because you won't need the money anytime soon. Over time, the stock market has been shown to be a good investment and will make up your losses and then some if you remain patient and don't panic.
For example, the pain and fear are real for someone in their forties or fifties, who holds a $5 million portfolio, which loses $500,000 in a 10 percent correction, over the course of two months. Yet, if that person plans to retire 20 years from now and has a good paying job that is secure, then they have the capacity to hang in there, even buy more, because they won't be needing to tap those funds for decades.
On the other hand, if that money were needed to pay next month's mortgage or car payment, the purchase of a house in two weeks, the first semester's payment on their kid's college education, then that capacity for risk is far lower.
Risk tolerance is far more connected with your emotions; fear and greed among the most prevalent. It is greed that drives an investor's desire to "beat the market," something that is as hopeless as winning consistently at the slot machines. Fear is what drives you to sell at the top (fairly easy) but also destroys your ability to buy at the bottom (almost impossible).
So how do you determine these risks and when they change? It's not easy. Start with the questions I asked, and if you answered yes to any of them, review your risk appetite, preferably with someone like an advisor or financial planner. I found that it is far easier to examine your risk tolerance after a market sell-off when the pain is still fresh than when the markets are roaring.
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@theMarket: October Lives Up to Its Name
It happened like clockwork. Earlier in the week, all three main U.S. averages re-tested their lows and then proceeded to bounce back, only to give it all back. That's what happens during corrections, but it is not over yet. After all, it is October.
Readers will recall that last week I wrote that nine out of 10 times markets will re-test their recent lows. Naturally, this is more of an art than a science, so prices can bottom somewhat above or below those lows. In this case, the Dow hit its lowest level in four months. The S&P 500 Index slipped below its recent lows while NASDAQ got hit the worst, wracking up a total 10percent decline from its highs.
This is how it should be since all year long the markets have been led by the advances in the tech-heavy NASDAQ. And by the way, there was no new news on Tuesday. There was no event that anyone can point to for the decline. That also makes total sense when you understand that this entire pullback has been technically-driven.
And it isn't over yet. We still have five days left in October and another six until the mid-term elections. The way the market has been acting this week, we could continue to see 1-2 percentage point-sized swings daily.
The fuel for these pyrotechnics is earnings results. Remember my warnings that earnings this quarter, although good, would not be "as good" as the past few quarterly results? As an example, Thursday evening, two of the big FANG stocks, Amazon and Google, reported after the close. Their top line revenue growth was less than expected, which came as a bit of a surprise to investors. No never mind that profits beat expectations since these days profits can be manipulated easily by simply buying back additional shares.
Index futures Thursday night dropped like a rock as a result, and Friday morning the Dow dropped 300 points on the opening. Earlier in the week, companies like Caterpillar and Boeing reported. Their announcements were enough to move the markets (up in the case of Boeing, and down on Caterpillar's results). Why, you might ask, do individual company results suddenly have the power to move markets like this?
It's all about expectations. Investors have been fretting about Trump's trade war all year. So far, the fallout has only impacted a few areas. Farming, for one, and maybe some companies in the steel business. The fear is that over time more and more companies will pull back investments, lose sales, or be damaged by these tariffs. And what may happen to one, may happen to all.
If you believed, as I do, that this is an inaccurate and rather simplistic view of the world than the fact that one company might see some fallout if tariffs are imposed does not warrant taking an entire sector, or in this case, an entire market down with it. However, markets are not rational at times. This is one of those times.
Friday, it was announced that the country's economy grew by 3.5 percent in the third quarter, which was faster than expected. Fearful investors barely paid attention to the news. That should come as no surprise. You can search to doomsday for a solid fundamental reason why we are experiencing this sell-off. You won't find one. Bottom line: the markets were overbought and in need of a healthy pullback. Don't over think this one and stay invested.
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The Independent Investor: Textbooks Worth Their Weight in Gold
Forget the stock market, internet, and whatever you might think is worth investing in. The good old college textbook beats them all.
That boring first-semester hardcover and similar books have risen over 1,000 percent in price since 1977. Textbooks are a big business. Estimates for the total value of the textbook industry range from $7 billion to $9 billion. And just a handful of companies sell them. The five largest publishers are: Pearson Education, McGraw-Hill Education, Scholastic, Cengage Learning and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. They have been around a long time, carry deep pockets and usually acquire any startups or smaller competitors in quick order. Some analysts compare them to drug companies because they have similar economics.
In the pharmaceutical sales model, for example, drugs are marketed to the decision makers — doctors, hospital pharmacies and the like. The patient, at least those with health insurance, end up paying the price, but much of those costs are paid for by the insurance company or Medicare. Medical decision makers' criteria are usually not how cheap or expensive a drug might be; instead, they select those drugs that are the most efficacious with the least number of side effects for their patients.
In the textbook industry, teachers (mostly professors), are the decision makers at colleges, and like doctors, could care less about the costs of a textbook to the student. They demand the most up-to-date educational information possible since they strive for academic excellence in the classroom.
It doesn’t help that today the information advances occur at such a rapid pace that most books are out of date by the time they are printed and in the hands of students.
There is another wrinkle that boosts the price of textbooks. Today, one in four colleges bundle their textbooks with an access code, which expires at the end of each semester. All the materials that a given student needs to participate in the classroom are put behind this access code paywall. Once you pay for the access code, you get your login ID. In return, the student gains access to workbooks and tests, in addition to the new textbook. It becomes essential to have this access in order to pass the course.
Fast forward to the next semester. For a new student beginning that same course, all the materials will have changed again, along with a new access code. The student looking to resell their old course material is out of luck. There is no re-sale market. It is simply useless. Many of the introductory courses that are part of the general education requirements for all students function in this way. These codes force students to buy books at retail prices at campus bookstores while walling off any chance to recoup part of the costs through resale.
Textbook prices have increased four times faster than the rate of inflation since 2006. At least 30 percent of post-secondary students buy their textbooks with financial aid money. Community college students are twice as likely to buy textbooks in the same manner.
Today, the average costs of textbooks per year, per student is $1,168. It is a pinch shared by public, primary and secondary education as well. Books have begun to be a major expense for every grade level. The costs are even worse for low-income school districts since standardized test requirements are based on these private-label, high-priced textbooks.
How does that work? It is a vicious circle: the school can’t afford the newest books, so students don’t get the information needed to pass standardized tests. As a result, the school gets lower funding because of poor test scores, keeping the new textbooks unaffordable. And on goes the cycle. It would be hilarious if we, the taxpayers, were not paying the bills.
Some say the system needs to be changed. As it is, the end user remains the student who bears the brunt of the cost. But since the buyer is the institution or instructor, all the book publishers need to do is maintain a good reputation, a cozy relationship with the teacher, and comparatively up-to-date new textbook editions.
Textbook companies, therefore, can continue to act as a quasi-cartel, if the formula of higher textbook prices is based on expanding college attendance and thus increasing demand for textbooks. Price really doesn’t come into it.
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The Independent Investor: The Student Loan Crisis
Student loans have now become the second-largest pile of consumer borrowing, after home mortgages. What's worse, it is the fastest growing slice of American household debt and shows no sign of slowing down.
Young Americans are going to college in droves. At the same time, the costs of higher education are at historical highs. That combination has become a lethal cocktail that could hamstring young workers over their entire life and along the way damage the overall economy.
Since the financial crisis and Great Recession over a decade ago, student loans have grown by almost 157 percent. Compare that to auto loans, which have risen 52 percent. In the case of mortgage and credit card debt, we have seen a decrease by about 1 percent.
At this point, the total loans outstanding amounts to $1.5 trillion, almost the same as this year's tax cut. If students graduate and land a good-paying job, so the theory goes, they should be able to service that debt and ultimately pay it off, even if it takes half their lifetime to do so. But, if you ask the 44 million Americans with student debt, that is not what's happening.
Many graduating students can only blame themselves for their predicament. During the financial crisis and its aftermath, many students figured going to college would provide the skills that have now become the minimum requirement to land a well-paying job. What's worse, their parents -- who should have known better -- allowed their kids to pick and choose what they wanted to study. It turned out that many of those degrees (in liberal arts, for example), failed to provide enough money to even service their student debt load. Degrees that did, like post-graduate law and medicine, required much more study, money and effort to attain.
More alarming still is the rate of loan delinquencies. It is higher than all other household debt, if we measure it by failure to pay. Over 10 percent of student borrowers have now failed to make their payments in the last 90 days or more. To put that in perspective, the delinquency rate on home mortgages stands at 1.1 percent.
Another problem with student debt is rising interest rates, which makes the cost of borrowing increase. Since the Fed started raising interest rates two years ago, undergrads have seen loan interest rates rise to 5 percent. It is even more (6.6 percent) for those who are working on graduate degrees.
Even the Fed is worried about the problem. Jerome Powell, the Chairman of The Federal Reserve Bank, explained it back in March when he testified before Congress. He pointed out that failing to pay your bills under the student loan program damages your credit. As a young person starting out, your credit rating is already shaky. Delinquencies could put you in a credit hole for a large part of your working life.
As it is, 85 percent of college students work at paying jobs just to afford what their student loans don't cover. Many of them need to live with their parents because the costs of college are simply too high to manage on their own. As this debt mounts (and it will), it ultimately starts to crimp the overall economy.
Homeownership, for example, has declined because of student debt. "Household formations," as economists like to call it, among workers between 25 and 35 years old is stagnant, thanks to overwhelming debt payments. The entire generation of Millennials and beyond are loaded down with student debt, and it is limiting how much they can spend on goods and services.
The only good news is that, unlike the mortgage debt crisis, student loans do not present a risk to the entire financial system. However, that may be small comfort to those who face a mountain of student debt repayments. My advice to parents, as well as their children, is to think long and hard before making a college decision.
If, for example, your child is not willing or capable of graduating with a degree in the hard sciences that have great job prospects (triple digit salaries), it may be much better to attend a vocational school. At least that way, the costs and debt load will be much lower and prospects for a good-paying job are somewhat brighter.
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@theMarket: Will China Be Next?
After this week's trade deal between the U.S., Mexico, and Canada, investors are waiting to see if China will now come to the table. What would it take for that to happen?
Mid-term elections could be the trigger. It wouldn't surprise me to see a deal before November — since the polls appear to favor the Democrats. Trump's tariff offensives, while supported by most of his base, are deeply disturbing to those who are feeling the brunt of foreign-trade retaliation.
Farmers, for example, and blue-collar workers in certain steel-related industries, are suffering. Many of them are also part of the 39 percent minority of Americans who support Donald Trump and his presidency. These predominantly white, uneducated voters might be swayed to vote against the GOP because of these tariff issues. That could mean a drubbing for the "Grand Ole Party" come November.
A deal with China, even one that does little but save face, might be preferable to the president and his party than a big loss in the election booths. If one examines the successful deals the president and his men have negotiated thus far, we see some minor changes in the trade terms, but certainly not the massive overhaul in trade terms we have been promised practically every day for well over two years.
Minor fiddling around with auto manufacturing content and $40 million worth of reductions in Canadian barriers to milk imports (think American farm voters) is not a major overhaul of NAFTA. We have essentially cosmetic changes similar to those announced last week as part of the South Korea/U.S. trade agreement.
It appears to me that we are simply witnessing a continuation of Trump's U.S. foreign policy of "Speak loudly but carry a tiny stick." Why should we not expect the same treatment in our on-going negotiations with China, as well as the European Community? A similar deal with China would have little to no impact on our terms of trade but would allow Trump to claim he has "solved our trade problems." It might also improve Republican chances in November.
As for the market's reaction, we celebrated with all the indexes soaring at the open on Monday. The S&P 500 Index, at one point, was just five points away from making a new all-time high. The Dow Jones Industrial Average did make a new high on Tuesday and another one on Wednesday. The other indexes were more subdued as investors sorted through the potential winners and losers of Trump's new U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA).
Taking a 30,000-foot view of the markets, what I see are positive returns for six straight months. If we look back to 1928, there have only been 26 prior six-month periods with that kind of winning streak. In the month that followed these events, the S&P averaged a gain of 0.95 percent with positive returns 69 percent of the time.
Over the following three months, the index averaged a 3.92 percent gain with positive returns 85 percent of the time. There have been only five prior streaks where the index was up in each month from April through September. In those instances, the average gains were even better.
Next week, we begin the quarterly beauty pageant of earnings results for this year's third quarter. Depending on the results, we could see a continuation of the rally and a slow grind higher or, if earnings are disappointing, a sharp, short, pullback, so strap in and get ready.
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