The Independent Investor: Health Care and the 3 Musketeers
Earlier this week, three of the country's most influential corporate titans sounded a call to battle. Given the inaction of our government, these modern-day musketeers are preparing to storm the battlements of sky-rocketing health care costs.
Jeff Bezos of Amazon may not have the swash-buckling prowess of Athos, nor does JPMorgan Chase's Jamie Dimon compare in physical strength to Porthos. And granted, Warren Buffet of Berkshire Hathaway would be a stretch in playing Aramis, but make no mistake, they do bring a combination of strengths that could revolutionize what I believe is the single greatest threat to our nation's economy.
Back in May of last year, I wrote a column bemoaning the fact that while our politicians continue to bicker over the symptoms — health care insurance — they lack the courage and expertise to address the cause —rising health care costs.
Back when I wrote that "Mr. Buffet, a Democrat, in his recent shareholder meeting, took time to address what he called the real problem for American business, and it wasn't taxes. The cost of health care, he maintained, now represents about 17 percent of this country's Gross Domestic Product (GDP). That's up from just 5 percent of GDP fifty years ago."
I also pointed out that other corporate giants, such as Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, had echoed Buffet's warnings in a TED Talk presentation as well. At the time, I believed my column had fallen on deaf ears, but lo and behold, here are these three champions announcing (in a deliberately vague press release) a partnership to address that very issue.
The companies said they will develop ways to improve the health of their employees, with the goal of improving customer satisfaction and reducing costs. The statement said that "they were going to bring their expertise to bear in a long-term effort through an independent company that is free from profit-making incentives and constraints."
While Warren Buffet is revered for his investment prowess, he also knows quite a bit about insurance, since his Berkshire Hathaway owns Geico Insurance among other financial subsidiaries. Clearly managing health insurance is a large part of the cost of health care. Then there is Jamie Dimon, the chairman of one of the largest banking goliaths in the world. He has a legendary knowledge of the financial and payment systems. He understands the role of middle-men (of which the health care system abounds). He is also an advocate of more, not less, competition. Jeff Bezos of Amazon provides a proven ability to bring health care into the age of the internet and beyond.
Other business owners have tried in the past to tackle this problem, or have beseeched government to solve the problem. But this is the first time that three modern-day, Queen's Guards have drawn swords. They will be personally ramrodding this effort.
Some discount the effort as mere publicity or simply unimportant since the three will be focusing on building a better system for their own employees and not the nation. Altogether, the three companies have one million workers, a good sample to work with. However, in my opinion, if they are successful, the business community would jump at the chance to mimic a system that lowered costs and improved benefits.
How serious is this effort? If the stock market is any indication, readers should pay attention. The entire health care sector in the stock market swooned on this announcement. The sector lost $74.5 billion in value in one day simply at the thought that there could be a better way to tackle this problem.
The Independent Investor: There's Nothing Sheepish About the Price of Wool
We humans have been using wool for thousands of years. It was the primary clothing material of the middle ages. But even today, new uses for wool are cropping up, driving prices to record highs.
The primary use for wool continues to be in clothing production. The newest demand for this natural material is coming from sport's companies such Nike, Puma and Adidas that are weaving it into sneakers. It appears that a new generation of consumers prefer natural over synthetic fibers. They want to know where their products come from and where they are going.
Even old codgers like me are not immune to this trend. Six months ago, I purchased my first pair of wool shoes. Not only are they the most comfortable shoes I have ever worn, but the wool is both warm in the winter and cool in the summer. A client reminded me that weavers are also using increasing amounts of wool in their products as well.
Actually, there are plenty of other uses for wool. Wool is the top choice for high-quality carpets, for example. You'll also likely find it in the padding underneath that rug as well. Furniture, such as seat upholstery, as well as stuffing and covers are also made from wool. Blinds, curtains, cushions, even wallpapers, are often made of wool, as are blankets and wool-filled duvets.
Wool is also coming into vogue in places like China. The growing affluence of its people and its manufacturing prowess make China an increasingly important market for wool. Australia is the world's largest supplier of apparel wool (90 percent market share). China consumes about 78 percent of their exports, but there are about 100 countries worldwide with at least some wool production.
New Zealand, Uruguay, the U.S. and China all contributed to the 1,161 million kilograms of wool produced in 2017, according to the International Wool Textile organization. That is a 70-year low.
The bad news is that wool is expensive to use and that situation won't be changing anytime soon. In Australia, wool production has been stable since 2010 and is forecasted to grow by a mere 4 percent this year to about 446,000 metric tons. Why?
Well, lamb chops explain part of the reason. Sheep production has been increasingly focused on meat production, rather than wool. Refocusing production to produce more wool and less meat is a multiyear process and cannot be accomplished over the short-term. The decision to switch may have more to do with demand here in the U.S. than anywhere else. Increased demand for wool in the United States represents the largest growth opportunity for Australia's wool products. An estimated 70 million sheep were shorn in the Down Under last year.
For that to increase, the Aussies want to see our consumption of wool on a per capita basis increase. Today we consume a mere 300 grams (11 ounces) per year. That compares with about one kilogram of consumption in China, Europe and Canada. I'm betting consumption will increase, but as it does, so will the price of wool, at least for the next year or two. So my advice is to buy those sneakers or that sweater now, because it is just going to get more expensive in the future.
The Independent Investor: Is Bitcoin Broken?
Bitcoin, Ethreum, Ripple and a number of other crypto currencies have had a terrible week. Some of these digital dollars have lost 25 percent overnight, if not more. Today Bitcoin, itself, is down almost 50 percent from that level. Those who warned that this mania would come to a tragic end are crowing now. Are they right?
Last July, I wrote my first column on the phenomena of crypto currencies. Since then, Bitcoin vaulted to historic highs, briefly touching $20,000 on Dec. 17. Since then clients, friends, relatives and yes, even my mother-in-law, have asked me if I thought crypto currencies were a good investment.
The answer will always depend on the price I'm willing to pay for something. Until now, I have simply sat back and watched as the mania unfolded. Today Bitcoin is down almost 50 percent from the highs. Many financial historians have compared the run-up (and decline) in crypto currencies to the great Tulip Bulb Mania of the 17th century. Back then, one tulip bulb in Holland was said to be worth 10 times the annual income of a skilled craftsman. The craze ended in disaster for one and all.
Since even I am not old enough to remember the Tulip Bulb craze, let's look instead at the Dot-Com boom and bust. I do see a lot of similarities between the insatiable demand for anything with Bitcoin, crypto or Block chain in the name today, and companies in the early 2000s that doubled and tripled simply by changing their name to something "techy."
The question to ask is whether or not crypto currencies represent anything more than "animal spirits." In a global market where just about every other investment vehicle is gaining ground, why not Bitcoin? In other words is it simply part of the "greater fool theory" where you're buying Bitcoin simply to sell it at a higher price to someone else?
The crypto cheerleaders will tell you that investments like Bitcoin are real. The currency can be used to purchase things, products, etc. Another argument-the scarcity of crypto currencies compared to the world's traditional currencies. Others say the block chain technology that drives Bitcoin and other crypto currencies is "secure" because the underlying technology records and verifies every transaction using exact copies of a database spread on computers all over the world.
Some of those arguments may hold water, but not all of them. The fact is that it is notoriously difficult to buy anything with this stuff. The currency network is slow and buying anything small takes a lot of effort and time. Besides, who would want to spend this electronic money on a television or cup of coffee when next week the price might be 20 percent higher than it is now?
The fact that more and more crypto currencies are popping up kind of flies in the face of the "scarcity" argument. There is nothing to prevent an inexhaustible amount of these currencies to flood the world over time. And just because no one has figured out how to hack the block chain technology doesn't mean that they won't.
There have been several cases already where millions in crypto currencies have been stolen or hacked throughout the world. Finally, various governments are bound and determined to either regulate this free-wheeling market, or shut it down completely. In this example, China and South Korea come to mind.
While the controversy rages, crypto currencies will continue to trade and plenty of money will be made on both sides of this market. It appears that as time goes by, technical analysis is beginning to work in assisting traders in determining which way these currencies are going, at least in the short term. Right now, the betting is that Bitcoin will bottom out around here, only a little below the price where it traded overnight ($9,969).
The Independent Investor: The Cost of MAGA
It is the guiding principle behind the Trump administration, but to "Make America Great Again" the U.S. may have to break some eggs. Are you ready for that?
"MAGA" is much more than a marketing gimmick. Almost every day, we uncover additional evidence of how the President and his supporters in Congress are dismantling regulations, taxes, and on the foreign front, trade deals.
For example, while the president professes to have "a great relationship" with China and admires its president, Xi Jinping, at the same time, he is working behind the scenes to apply more pressure to our sometime-friend, sometime-nemesis.
This week we will have surely upset China when the House passed two bills that will make it easier for high-ranking Taiwanese officials to exchange visits with counterparts in the U.S. The second bill would promote Taiwan's participation in the World Health Organization.
Mainland China has long held a policy of "One China" (since 1949). The Communist government considers Taiwan a rebel province, which will one day be reunified with the mainland, even if that means applying military force. The U.S. actions this week threaten that stance and could invite some kind of retaliation from the mainland. Certainly China does not separate trade relations from geo-political concerns. To them, it is all one and the same. Therefore their response could be in the economic sphere or in the political realm (less pressure on North Korea).
On the trade front, many global trade economists believe that 2018 will be the year when Trump takes the gloves off when it comes to China. In December, Trump unveiled his national security plan and identified Russia and China as rivals that are attempting to erode American security and prosperity. He specifically accused Beijing of unfair trade practices.
There are plenty of areas ranging from steel to intellectual property where America has expressed their trade grievances. Politicians like to use the trade imbalance with China as justification (now about $309 billion in their favor) for additional tariffs on Chinese goods, but that line of discussion is too simple and ignores the vast and tangled economic relationships we have with that country.
Our withdrawal from the TPP Southeast Asian trade agreement has also left us with less clout when negotiating with China. In many ways, we are now on our own, as opposed to being the lead player in a multi-country, Asian trading bloc, when dealing with the Chinese. In fact, China is trying to replace the U.S. in that particular trade group, which could strengthen their position and cause us even more difficulties.
As of today, we have yet to feel any real fallout from our MAGA moves, but they are coming. Just this week, the markets tumbled worldwide when an unnamed Chinese official intimated that China might slow down, or stop purchasing altogether, our U.S. Treasury bonds. The concern was understandable, since China is the largest foreign purchaser of our debt. Other officials quickly denied the statement, but it reveals how dependent global financial markets are on maintaining the status quo in world trade.
And it is not only China that we need to contend with. This week, according to some Canadian trade officials, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is reported to be on the rocks. If that is true, the implications would be huge. No one can predict what would happen as a result of the dissolution of NAFTA, but suffice it to say that it would not be good for the stock markets of Mexico, Canada or the U.S. The three currencies involved have already seen some wild gyrations. When long-standing trade deals change, dislocations should be expected. There will be winners and losers, some obvious but others may take years to discover.
An enormous number of companies on both sides of our borders would be impacted. Hundreds of thousands of jobs would also be affected in ways that analysts are only just beginning to study. The same downside (and upside) exists in our relationship with China and every other country where our MAGA policies will impact trade agreements.
Financial markets hate uncertainty. Financial markets at historical highs dislike uncertainty even more. Aside from backing out of the TPP and bowing out of the world's climate change initiative, nothing substantial has come out of the president's first year in regard to trade. That doesn't mean it won't. As 2018 gets going, be aware that there are trade risks out there that we are only beginning to comprehend. Let's hope the president gets it right.
The Independent Investor: Beware the Tax Hit From Mutual Funds
Plenty of investors will be faced with an unpleasant surprise. Any day now, one or more of the mutual funds that you own will be sending out their capital gain distributions for the year.
The tax hit could be quite large this year.
Many investors are not aware that mutual fund companies are required to distribute at least 95 percent of their capital gains to investors each year. Given the double-digit gains in the stock market last year, those gains could be an unwelcome liability when tax time rolls around.
At this late date, there is little one can do about it, other than pay the piper, but this year you can take steps to minimize 2018's potential tax liability. Since the tax reform act did not change capital gains taxes, you can expect that short-term capital gains (less than 12 months) will be taxed at the same rate as your income tax bracket. Long-term capital gains, however, will continue to be taxed at 15 percent.
The job of most mutual fund managers is to buy low and sell high. That's what creates track records, which, in turn, attracts investors to their funds. But mutual funds are just like individuals when it comes to capital gains. Anytime a mutual fund sells a security, no matter what the asset, that gain is taxable. And since mutual funds are considered pass-through entities, they are required to pass along to you any of these taxable gains.
In the grand scheme of things, capital gains distributions could be considered a luxury problem since we want the mutual fund we are invested in to turn a profit for us. So producing capital gains (as opposed to capital losses) is a good thing. But some caveats do apply.
Distributions reduce the fund's net asset value, regardless of whether they are long-term, or short-term capital gains, qualified dividends, or a return of capital. The problem might be in the timing of your purchase. If, for example, you purchased such a fund after all the gains were made, but before the distribution, you will be sent the capital gain (plus the taxes you will owe) while the mutual fund you purchased would decline by the amount of the distribution. You would be left with an after-tax loss on that mutual fund investment.
So the morale of this tale is if you are going to stay invested in mutual funds in a non-retirement account you better start tracking the upcoming capital gains distributions on the funds you own or are considering purchasing. In general, most mutual funds pay one or two capital gain distributions each year, normally sometime during the summer, and the last one toward the end of the year (late November or December). Try to avoid buying mutual funds at those times.
The mutual fund industry is aware of how these sudden taxable events impact shareholders. Most managers try to avoid dumping huge gains on investors, especially short-term gains, which are taxed at a higher rate. However, at certain times, they are forced to do just that.
During market declines, for example, when they are faced with unusually large redemption requests, then fund managers may be forced to liquidate positions that they would have preferred to hold, but can't.
Today a shareholder of mutual funds can easily find out when and what upcoming distributions will be made by simply accessing each mutual fund's website. There, you will find a wealth of information concerning distributions. Many fund websites will give you distribution guidance several months before the event. That makes it easier for you to make informed investment decisions.