The Independent Investor: Why Stocks Continue to Climb
As we approach the end of the year, most investors are both dumb-founded and pleased at the stock market's performance. President Trump and his followers would like us to believe it is all because of them. Hog wash.
There has been no substantive legislation since the new administration took office. Promises can only take us so far. Some say any further upside will be short-lived, because living on hope alone has already taken us too far. And yet, somehow the economy is still growing, even gathering momentum.
Recall, too, that Donald Trump and the Republican Party gained power on the promise of undoing many of the trade agreements the U.S. has forged over the past 40 years. This was perceived by foreigner leaders (and their people) as a huge negative for the world economy.
Despite the president's posturing and his actions to pull the U.S. out of the TPP and now NAFTA, nations like India, China, Japan, most European nations, as well as many emerging markets, have experienced stock market gains that have left the U.S. averages in the dust. This happened despite the President and his tweets.
So, if it isn't Trump, why are stock markets going higher? The truth is that 45 of the largest economies in the world are experiencing growth at the same time. This has not happened for over a decade. As that growth continues, global equities gather more steam. However, as time goes by, some will do better than others.
But before you give credit, make sure you know where and who to give credit to. Don't look to the world's elected leaders as the cause, despite their claims. Quite the contrary, most elected officials worldwide did nothing. Some, like those in the U.S., actually prolonged the crisis by cutting government spending, despite the pleas of our central bankers to do more, not less, in an effort to save the country.
The real heroes of the day were central bankers. Ever since the financial crisis, central bankers, who are appointed officials and not answerable to short-sighted politicians, saved our collective bacon. The U.S. Federal Reserve Bank, under the leadership of Ben Bernanke, single-handedly led the world, step by painful step, out of the worst economic disaster since the Great Depression. Other bankers around the world, after some hesitation, followed his lead and the rest is history.
Sometimes we forget this, especially when leaders who did absolutely nothing but hinder this effort, now take credit for the work of a handful of officials around the world. Here in the U.S., the Fed-engineered recovery has allowed corporations to not only build a huge war chest of cash in the event of another downturn, but also generate record profits and sales. Unemployment has also declined to historically low levels while inflation remains benign. The same thing is occurring (with a lag) around the world.
And now, we find the Fed once again taking leadership in its effort to normalize monetary policy. So far, they have been doing a bang-up job in that effort. Notice that they have done that while our politicians on both sides of the aisle continue to bicker, posture, but accomplish nothing.
So given the heated recriminations and political disagreements that are sure to crop up around the dinner table this Thanksgiving, why not raise a glass and toast the real heroes who have given us this year of prosperity and plenty. Hip, hip, hurrah to central bankers everywhere!
The Independent Investor: Cracks in the House of Saud
Over the weekend, the government of Saudi Arabia announced multiple arrests of royal family members as well as other governmental officials. The official explanation was a new campaign to root out corruption, but many believe the raid was a power grab by the reigning Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Corruption in Saudi Arabia is as common as sand. It is what makes the wheels run so global observers discounted that excuse. The assumptions ranged from a thwarted coup against the reigning family to a consolidation of power orchestrated by the heir apparent.
As a result, gold jumped over $10 an ounce, oil spiked 3 percent and investors held their breath expecting another shoe might fall in the days ahead. Police arrested 49 people, 11 princes, four ministers and dozens of former ministers in the pre-dawn hours of Sunday. There was a fatal shootout between police and one now-dead Saudi prince, while a mysterious helicopter crash killed several other ministers and a high-ranking member of the royal house.
As the smoke clears, it appears that the 32-year-old crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, is cleaning house, consolidating power, and eliminating any real or imagined rivals within the country. One of those arrested, billionaire Alwaleed Bin Talal, is a well-known global investor with large holdings in American companies.
King Salman elevated Prince Mohammed to heir apparent over other, more senior, princes in the royal line of succession, less than three years ago. That didn't sit well among numerous cliques or factions within and outside of the family. The grumbling grew louder when the young prince announced his "Vision 2030." A far-reaching economic policy which is pushing the Kingdom to explore new business opportunities outside of the country while seeking economic diversification away from its decades-old reliance on oil.
The prince wants to modernize the country's institutions, re-train the work force, and revamp the country's antiquated culture and attitudes to reflect more western ideals. His recent drive to liberate Saudi women from centuries of, at best, second-class citizenship has heartened his supporters, but created consternation among some traditional Saudis.
In any other third world country, a weekend action to consolidate power would barely register among global financial markets, especially within the Middle East. What is so remarkable about the Saudi situation is that it happened at all. Saudi Arabia has long been a pillar of stability in a region where death, violence and political turmoil is an everyday occurrence.
For over 70 years, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia have had a workable agreement. In exchange for guarantees of security, the Kingdom made sure that there would always be a free-flow of oil to global markets. We believed (and still do) that the flow of oil is essential to the stability of the international economy. That pact has withstood the tests of time from the 1973 oil embargo through the attacks of 9/11, where 15 out of the 19 passenger jet hijackers turned out to be Saudi citizens. But times are changing.
The United States has relied on three assumptions in our dealings with Saudi Arabia: that the Kingdom would remain stable. This weekend's actions call that into question. Second: that despite the rampant corruption, atrocious human rights violations and its ongoing support of the war in Yemen, our government believes the House of Saud remains the optimal regime in relation to U.S. interests. Finally, the U.S. assumed that the royal family would continue to promote stability in the regime aligned with Western interests.
The emergence of Iran, its efforts to become the number one regional power in the Middle East, and the proliferation of various terrorists groups have altered the Saudi's response to regional geo-politics. The Saudi's new-found willingness to flex their diplomatic and military muscles in pursuit of a foreign policy that may no longer be aligned with ours has America on edge.
It is the risk that Saudi Arabia will not muddle through that has investors worried and global financial markets a bit tense this week. The sooner we know exactly what has transpired within the House of Saud, the better it will be for financial markets.
The Independent Investor: Are You Ready for a Down Market?
It has been some time since we have had even a tiny decline in the stock market. Human behavior is such that we expect what has come before to continue into the future. When it doesn't, a whole host of emotions arise and most of them will be detrimental to your financial health.
A new survey by E-trade Financial, a discount broker dealer, reveals that well-heeled investors (those with $1 million or more in equity investments) are as bullish as they have been all year. Almost 75 percent of million dollar players are now bullish as we enter this final quarter of the year. Most of these investors are 55 or older and are significantly more optimistic than younger investors.
Some of that bullishness is understandable given the fundamentals of the economy. Gross domestic product continues to grow slowly and some estimates (such as the most recent survey from the Atlanta Fed) indicate that we could see a greater than 4 percent growth rate in the fourth quarter. Couple that with a fairly consistent improvement in corporate earnings and we have an almost Goldilocks environment for stocks.
This is especially telling since many of the upside earnings surprises are coming from cyclical companies, which really do measure the pulse of the overall economy. The same sort of economic results can be found overseas to a varying degree, which works to improve the outlook for the world's economy in general.
The fact that we are entering the historically best period for the stock market all year has also fueled bullish sentiment. This rosy scenario has resulted in fewer and fewer investors (only 9 percent) who believe that the market will see a down quarter between now and the end of the year, while more than 17 percent believe the markets will gain 10 percent or more by New Year's Day.
But what if all this hype turns out to be wrong? How will you handle it if, instead, markets decline? What if all the great gains we have experienced since the beginning of the year are erased in a month or two? You can bet on one thing: the investments which have gained the most will be those with the most downside. It is not a reason to sell them necessarily, but it is a time to recognize how much loss you are willing to accept.
The range of emotions most of us will feel in a sell-off will range from panic, anger, dismay and the overwhelming need to escape (sell). Well, you might think, I will just sell out now and capture my gains before the decline. When the market declines far enough, I will simply buy back in. That's called timing and we all know that doesn't work. Usually, we sell too early and then buy back too late; resulting in more losses than if you had simply held on through the decline.
I know I can tell my clients until I am blue in the face that the markets will come back given enough time. I can remind them that stocks are much higher today even though the markets dropped 50 percent in 2008-2009, 20 percent in 2011, had a 12 percent sell-off in 2015 and an additional 10 percent decline in 2016. But it is little comfort when they are facing not only a loss of gains, but an actual loss to their portfolios.
One strategy you might want to think about is to reduce the risk in your portfolio. As I have written countless times in the past, markets usually decline 2-3 times a year with each decline averaging between 5-7 percent. We are overdue for a decline. No one knows when it will occur but it will. If you are an aggressive investor, and shouldn't be, maybe drop the risk down a notch or two. You can even raise some cash if you want. It depends on your risk tolerance.
How much risk you should take is directly correlated with how much loss you can bear. As an example, if you can't stomach a 20 percent decline in your overall portfolio, you have no business being an aggressive investor. A moderate investor should not even care if he or she experiences a 10 percent decline. There is an old saying, "if you can't stand the heat, you should get out of the kitchen." That's good advice. If you feel you have become too aggressive over the past year, the time to adjust the temperature is now, not when the markets are in the middle of a free-fall.
The Independent Investor: IRS Changes Tax Rules for Next Year
As politicians squabble over tax reform and cuts, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) continues to do their job. New tax provisions for 2018 are out and some of them may be of interest to you.
Right now, there are seven marginal tax rates (soon to be three or four, if tax reform happens). Each tax bracket applies to a different income range. The highest tax rate (39.6 percent) will apply to all those who make $426,700, or $480,050 (married). The lowest rate, at 10 percent, would apply to those making $9,525 as an individual and $19,050, if married. You can review the other five brackets at your leisure by going to IRS.gov.
The IRS has also increased the standard deduction to $6,500 (for singles) and $13,000 for married couples. That amounts to a $150 increase, and double that, if filing jointly. Your personal exemption also increases by $100 from last year and now phases out for those earning $266,700-$389,200 and, if married, $320,000-$442,500.
Single taxpayers whose adjusted gross income exceeds $266,700 ($320,000 if married and filing jointly), will now be subject to a limit on certain itemized deductions such as property tax deductions. The controversial Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT), which prevents high income earners from dodging individual income taxes, has also changed. The AMT exemption amount has increased from $54,300 to $55,400 for singles and begins to phase out at $123,100.
For married couples, filing jointly, the new total is $86,200 from last year's $84,500.
The estate tax exclusion has also increased from $5.49 million to $5.6 million next year and the gift tax exclusion has increased by $1,000 to $15,000 a year. This will also affect 529 education accounts. The contribution limit is equal to the annual gift tax exclusion or a once in five-year contribution of $75,000 up from $70,000. In the tax-deferred savings area, another $500
was added to the allowable contribution amount. Those under age 50 can now contribute $18,500 a year to their 401(k), 403(b) and most 457 and federal thrift savings plans. However, for those over 50 years old, the catch-up contribution remains the same at $6,000. There are not changes to IRA contribution amounts for next year.
Of course, all or any of the above changes could fly right out the window next week when Republicans roll out their tax bill on Nov. 1. The GOP is caught between a rock and a hard place right now in deciding exactly what to cut and what to save. On the one hand, everyone wants to cut taxes, but the key is to do so without triggering a revolt in their own party or worse still, hurt middle-class taxpayers.
The proposed Republican budget will allow them to cut taxes by $1.5 trillion, but at the same time, their plans to cut taxes for individuals and corporations would amount to $5.5 trillion.
That's a $4 trillion shortfall that would have to be made up somehow. That's potentially more in spending cuts (or tax increases) than Congress has approved in the last 25 years.
Readers are probably aware of the areas that are under study. Sharply lowering pre-tax contributions to tax-deferred savings accounts and eliminating state and local tax deductions are two proposals that have caused uproar among politicians and voters alike. President Trump has warned legislatures to leave tax-deferred accounts alone.
We will all know more next week about the details. Needless to say, few if any Democrats intend to participate in this tax-reform effort. There is also some doubt as to whether any tax changes will occur before next year. As such, pay more attention to the IRS changes for now then what comes out of Washington.
The Independent Investor: Taketh Care of Your Workers and They Will Taketh Care of You
Employers have had it all their own way for a decade or more. They have been able to freeze wages, cut benefits, force overtime and even deny vacations with impunity. Now, for many, it's time to pay the piper.
There is a saying, "what goes around, comes around," which means in this case that if you have spent years abusing your employees, the first company that offers them even the slightest uptick in benefits or salary will pick off your best workers in the time it takes to sign on the dotted line.
I can walk into a company and tell you within seconds whether or not its employees are well treated and happy. I'm sure you can, too. It shows on their faces, in their body language.
Spend a little time talking to them, and you can easily measure a worker's engagement, warmth and sense of shared purpose.
As unemployment declines, wages rise, and good workers become critical to your bottom line, you might want to consider that happy employees are critical to on-going productivity and talent retention. It has been shown over and over again that the better the corporate culture, the more a company will earn.
Don't just take my word for it. The 100 best companies to work for, according to Fortune Magazine, consistently outperform their competitors in sales and profits. They also add new employees at five times the rate of the national average. Fortune uses a "Trust Index" which measures employees' workplaces, including the honesty and quality of communication by managers, degree of support for employees' personal and professional lives, and the authenticity of relationships
While Fortune 500 companies, for the most part, strive to offer employee benefits such as retirement plans, healthcare insurance and the like, what really wows employees are the perks that many small and medium-sized businesses provide. Unlike the cookie-cutter benefits of mega-firms, these are a more tangible sub-set of service-oriented perks, each customized to address individual employees' everyday needs.
What, you may ask, are some examples of these kinds of perks? Take my company as an example. When I went into surgery for six hours for prostate cancer last year, the company's management team sat with my wife in the waiting room for the entire operation.
When our dog, Titus, required spine surgery this winter, both my wife and I were paid for the two days we were out caring for him. In addition to our 401(K) and health insurance, we also have a SEP IRA, dental insurance, unlimited time off, first class travel, company pets come to work (unpaid), unexpected bonuses, financial help for our parents in time of need, gifts, parties, presents etc. Naturally, everyone in the region wants to work for us.
But here's the point. None of us take off more than two-three weeks a year because we love it here. Prospective clients are struck by the attitude and team-work of our employees. This is no accident.
We have practically no turn over, despite constant offers from other firms.
The power of these perks cannot be understated. You may not be able to provide the level of personalized incentives that we enjoy here, but that does not mean your firm must settle for simply "me-too" kinds of incentives. Remember, aside from showing that you care, these efforts go right to the bottom line. And who among us would not want higher sales, profits and return on investment?