The Retired Investor: Roe v. Wade Versus Corporate America
|Washington, USA-June 27,2016. pro choice activists await Supreme Court ruling on abortion access march in front of Supreme Court in Washington.|
The impending Supreme Court decision to strike down Roe v. Wade will have enormous ramifications for American corporations. Legal issues, user data privacy practices, and workforce challenges will prove impossible to ignore.
Businesses of all kinds face the following facts: most Americans (53 percent), according to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, believe the Supreme Court is wrong and that the court should uphold the landmark ruling that established a constitutional right to abortion. Only 28 percent believe it should be overturned.
Nonetheless, if the Supreme Court hands down its expected decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, 13 states have trigger laws banning abortion that immediately go into effect. Another 14 states have more restrictive abortion laws that will kick in at the same time. Since about half of the U.S. workforce is comprised of women and given that one in four U.S. women will likely have an abortion by the age of 45, this will have legal ramifications for a vast number of companies.
How, for example, will companies domiciled or headquartered in one of those anti-abortion states contend with a female workforce who may disagree with the courts and their resident states' decision? What if a portion of a company's female workforce want to transfer out of these states?
And while some states will limit or make abortion illegal, other states such as Massachusetts, New York, and California will be moving in the opposite direction. They are planning on becoming sanctuary states for women who desire abortions but can't obtain them without travelling out of state. That could leave businesses in a political tug of war between various states. Companies such as Yelp, Amazon, and Citibank (among others) have already promised to reimburse employees who travel for abortions. Legally, that may fall into a gray area depending on a state's interpretation of their anti-abortion legislation.
Conservatives in Congress have already begun to retaliate against those companies that they perceive as pro-abortion companies. Citigroup, one of the largest banks in the U.S., has been targeted by conservatives who want the House and Sente to cancel the company's contracts to issue credit cards to lawmakers.
In Texas, a state lawmaker introduced a bill that would prevent companies who provide their employees with abortion-related benefits from doing business with local governments. In Florida, Disney has already felt the economic backlash of Gov. Ron DeSantis' campaign against the LGBTQ+ community. U.S. Sen. Mark Rubio introduced a bill, the "No Tax Breaks for Radical Corporate Activism Act," which would prevent employers from deducting travel expenses for their workers' abortions. This is in direct response to Citigroup, Apple, Yelp, Levi's, Match Group and Amazon, who have already announced they plan to reimburse travel costs to access abortion if their employees live in a state where it becomes illegal.
Technology companies have even more difficult issues to deal with. Dozens of large tech companies are headquartered in the states preparing to ban or restrict abortions. In the anti-abortion states, legal enforcement of the new laws may mean that user data could be a tool to enforce and pursue those who break those laws.
User data is often bought and sold by third parties who then use that information to effectively target advertising. This data normally includes the location of a person's phone, the applications they use, (for instance, ride-hailing), and the user's search history. There is also an array of health tech, femtech and other medical-based applications that track and target women, their menstrual cycles, medications, and sexual activity. All of these apps, while promising privacy, are not immune from law enforcement and a court's subpoena power.
Could a local sheriff's department subpoena the IP address of someone or some organization they suspect are violating or have violated the statutes of new anti-abortion laws? Could state authorities demand tracking data from a tech company like Facebook, Apple, or Google that may or may not show visits to an abortion clinic out of state?
I know this is beginning to sound like the workings of a police state such as one would find in China or Russia, but given the background, it is reasonable to at least plan for the worst. Companies may try to downplay the significance of this issue, but the end of Roe v. Wade will open up the question of protection of health-care access for their workforce.
As has been shown in the past, consumers identify with companies and their brands that support their causes, while an employees' identity can be tied to ethical positions of the companies they work for. About the only good thing one can say is that companies still have a little time to plan and decide their response. The clock is ticking.
The Retired Investor: Cryptocurrencies & Your Retirement Accounts
Investing in cryptocurrency has been legal in some retirement accounts since 2014. Few if any entities, however, have offered savers this option. That may be changing.
The IRS issued Virtual Currency Guidance back in 2014. Since then, cryptocurrencies have been considered acceptable assets for self-directed IRAs (SDIRA) and Solo 401(k)s. A self-directed IRA, which represents less than 3 percent of all IRAs, is a type of Individual Retirement Account that can hold a variety of alternative investments normally prohibited from regular IRAs. It can invest in things like precious metals, real estate, private placements, and cryptocurrencies. It is directly managed by the account holder, thus the term "self-directed."
These SDIRAs are generally only available through firms that offer specialized custody services. There are additional fees involved as well due to additional compliance and IRA requirements. It is also your responsibility to abide by all the rules governing your investments, and if you fail to adhere to them, you could lose your SDIRA's tax deferred status.
You face the same annual contribution limits as traditional, or Roth IRAs, and you can roll over funds from a normal IRA or 401(k) to a self-directed IRA.
If you are buying Bitcoin or other currencies in your SDIRA keep in mind that doing so involves three components: A custodian holds your IRA and is responsible for its safekeeping, along with ensuring your accounts adheres to regulations set by both the IRS and government. This is the typical role financial institutions provide to holders of traditional IRAs.
An exchange, which is a different financial institution than regular stock exchanges, manages your cryptocurrency trades. In addition, a secure storage solution is necessary to protect your cryptocurrency purchases. This is necessary considering the number of hacking cases that have occurred in the cryptocurrency world. Many firms that offer SDIRAs also provide proprietary secure storage methods for Bitcoin.
If you are self-employed, you can use a Solo 401(k) to buy cryptocurrency. The Solo is a unique retirement plan designed for self-employed individuals and small business owners. If you are eligible, you can establish a self-directed Solo 401(k) along the same lines as a self-directed IRA. You are bound to the same rules on contributions, and withdrawals that govern traditional 401(k)s.
As for those who would like to invest in cryptocurrencies in their traditional 401(k)s, Fidelity Investments announced last week that it will begin allowing investors to do just that. It is the first large scale retirement plan provider to do so, but I expect it won't be the last. Fidelity is the largest player with more than $2.4 trillion in plan assets for 23,000 companies.
That is good news, but there is a catch. While Fidelity may offer this opportunity, it is up to your company, as the plan sponsor, to agree to it. That could be a tall order, since most companies that offer 401(k)s take their role as a fiduciary very seriously. The fiduciary must ensure that the plan is being run in the best interests of the participants. Plan fiduciaries tend to be a conservative lot at best. Some could call them stodgy. Most are seen as a sober voice of reason. As such, it may be a stretch to believe that your company is going to simply okay buying Bitcoin, or some other crypto offering, in your 401(k) anytime soon.
Fidelity recognizes this and has tried to reduce the risk somewhat by limiting crypto purchases to 20 percent of participant plan savings. It is an amount that plan sponsors can reduce further if they so choose.
The government may also provide a roadblock. The Department of Labor (DOL) is not convinced cryptocurrency is a good idea in retirement plans. The DOL is expected to open an investigation of plans that offer participants access to investments in cryptocurrencies. It is planning to ask fiduciaries to demonstrate how they meet their required fiduciary duties of "prudence and loyalty" when choosing a cryptocurrency option for their plan participants. That challenge may be enough to deter many companies from considering cryptos in their investment menu.
I asked Berkshire Money Management's Zack Marcotte, the best Certified Financial Planner I know, what he thought of buying crypto currencies in retirement accounts. Here is what he said:
"Traditionally 401(k) providers avoid such aggressive holdings out of fear of being sued. Adding crypto to a 401(k) is appealing for younger more growth orientated investors. Investors considering crypto in their retirement accounts should know transactions carry high fees (and should avoid frequent trading) and limit how much crypto is owned to no more than a few percent of your total portfolio. Remember, the most successful investors aren't those that know all the right investments, they're the ones that avoid catastrophic errors."
Sage advice. I think that it will take some time before the combination of government caution and fiduciary reserve can be overcome in most retirement plans. As for your own company plan, a trip to your human resources department to make your preferences known might be helpful, but don't hold your breath.
The Retired Investor: Shrinkflation
By now, you may have noticed that something doesn't look quite right on your grocery shelves. Could be that bag of chips, or maybe that roll of toilet paper seems to have shrunk? Let me assure you it is not your eyes; we have all come down with a bad case of shrinkflation.
Shrinkflation is an actual term, according to Wikipedia, which means "a rise in the general price level of goods per unit of weight or volume, brought about by a reduction in the weight or size of the item sold." I must admit that, until recently, the shrinkage that has now become commonplace in most grocery stores and supermarkets, thanks to a generational high in the inflation rate, went largely unnoticed in my weekly food shopping.
Most shoppers are like me in the sense that we tend to be price sensitive. The explosion in prices has caught my attention, and I have written about it at length. It's not hard when a pound of ground beef today now costs as much or more than a pound of sirloin steak did a year ago. But while I may keep track of the price, I don't usually notice the size or weight of the container, at least until recently.
My ignorance is commonplace among many consumers. We fail to realize we are paying more for some of our regular purchases since the price appears to be the same. That is because companies are reducing sizes on countless products, while keeping prices the same.
I use a certain brand of mouthwash, which arrives from Amazon automatically every few months. This month, I noticed the price has skyrocketed, while the size of the bottle was reduced by one third. I was shocked, angry, disappointed. Needless, to say, I canceled my automatic delivery.
I admit, my major weakness in shopping (especially for food) is that I do not bother reading the fine print on the size, or weight of a product. Unless the size of the container has drastically changed, I usually don't notice — until now. I mentioned toilet paper, but all kinds of paper from tissues to paper towels are not only going up in price, but also contain less sheets per package.
After decades of stable prices, the highest inflation rate in decades has companies scrambling to keep customers happy, but at the same time survive rising costs across their product lines, while staying competitive with companies selling similar products. As an illustration, when my favorite company brand of almond milk reduced their container size, while keeping its price the same, I switched to a competitor's product that offered better value.
"Family Size" can also be a concept you might want to re-examine. The average size of a U.S. family has been increasing, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. My assumption was that when I buy a "Family Size" package I am getting a discount off the price because I am buying more chicken or a larger portion of something. That is no longer the case in many supermarkets. The price might be the same, but the amount of product you get has been greatly reduced. Buyers beware.
In a world of escalating inflation, depending upon the company, profitability is being squeezed dramatically. Stock market investors are parsing through companies' income statements, looking to sell stocks in those companies that are having difficulty passing rising costs onto consumers. Equity investors are looking for profit margin expansion, not contraction.
Many corporations have three options: raise prices directly, take a little bit out of the product in separate shrinking waves and hope customers do not notice, or reformulate the product with cheaper ingredients. This practice has been going on for over a year.
Bounty paper towels, Doritos, Wheat Thins, Gatorade, certain brands of vitamins, among other well-known products, have all experienced shrinkflation in 2021. Many more have jumped on the bandwagon this year, as inflation continues to climb.
Downsizing products isn't cost free, however. Shrinkflation needs to be worth it. In many cases, reducing the weight and/or number of items in a product may require redesigning product packaging. That, in turn, may require purchasing the machines to make it. Business managers need to make cost analysis decisions on whether to spend millions of dollars to invest in new machines, approve new designs, and wrestle with supply chain issues just to make a package slightly smaller. Reducing the number of chips by five in a 9.25-ounce package of potato chips or shrinking a 4.1-ounce tube of toothpaste to 3.8 ounces may not be worth it without significant price increases tacked on as well.
I may not like it, but quietly downsizing products is legal in the U.S. Companies can generally price and package their products whenever and however they want. It is my choice whether to buy it or not.
Selling less of their product in the same packaging for the same, or even higher, prices without telling me borders on unethical in my book, but in the end, it is my responsibility (and yours) to remain an informed consumer, even more so in a world of rising inflation.
The Retired Investor: U.S. Dollar Hits Two-Year Highs
The Federal Reserve Bank's tightening of monetary policy has driven up interest rates, while causing investors to sell stocks. It has had another impact — a steep rise in the U. S. dollar.
The U.S. bond market has already priced in a 96 percent chance of a 50 basis-point rise in the Federal funds rate at the next FOMC meeting in May 2022. The fixed income markets are expecting a cumulative 2.15 percent rise in interest rates by the end of 2022. In the meantime, the U.S. 10-year Treasury yield hit 2.90 percent this week on its way to 3 percent.
As interest rates continue to rise, so does the U.S. dollar. It climbed to a new, 20-year high of 126.98 against the Japanese yen. As the U.S. Fed becomes ever more hawkish, the Japanese central bank remains uber-dovish, keeping interest rates low. Against six major currencies, the greenback surged to its highest level since April 2020 at 101. Suffice it to say that both bond and currency traders are in the middle of panic buying the U.S. dollar, while dumping U.S. bonds.
Historically, a stronger dollar is considered a plus, at least politically, and a mark of American economic prowess. Politicians often pointed to a strengthening greenback as a symbol of the nation's might and pride. After all, it is the world's de facto reserve currency. As such, a stronger dollar only heightens its reserve status. Foreigner currency traders, according to the textbooks, want to buy more of an appreciating asset like the dollar.
A strong dollar can also help consumers when purchasing imported goods. Products manufactured abroad and imported to the U.S. are cheaper under this scenario. The greenback can buy more imported goods at the same, or lesser price, from exporters. Given the rise in prices in almost everything we buy (thanks to inflation), our stronger currency is keeping a lid on import prices. That helps alleviate some of the pain we feel at the checkout counter, while leaving more disposable income in the pockets of American consumers.
If you are travelling overseas, your buying power is enhanced as well. Hotel stays, restaurants, and even curio shop prices are suddenly cheaper for American tourists. Now your dollar can buy more goods in a variety of countries when converted into the local currency.
From a business point of view, those multinational companies that have plants, or have other businesses domiciled in the U.S. (think Germany, Japan, and South Korea) will benefit. That foreign-owned auto plant in Alabama, for example, can still sell its vehicles in the local market and maintain its profit margins at competitive prices. The overseas parent company will experience balance sheet gains when they translate their subsidiary's' dollar-income back into their local currencies.
Unfortunately, a stronger dollar cuts both ways. American exporters and companies conducting business abroad are hurt by a strengthening dollar.
Many S&P 500-listed companies, for example, receive at least half, if not more, of their sales from overseas. Cigarette and fast-food companies are high on that list. The income they earn from foreign sales will fall in value on their balance sheets. Profits could disappoint and investors might want to sell their stock.
For equity investors, a stronger dollar will hurt their investments in foreign markets, especially in emerging markets where negative currency translations will hurt overall returns. From a macroeconomic point of view, many emerging markets that require U.S. dollar reserves will end up paying more to obtain dollars.
At this stage of the game, investors are wondering how high the U.S. dollar can go before coming back down to earth. To a large extent that depends on the Federal Reserve and its tightening cycle. The more hawkish they become, the higher the dollar can go. Over the long term I believe the dollar will climb higher. In the short-term, however, I expect some profit-taking will set in against the greenback since it is really extended in price.
The Retired Investor: Food, Famine, and Global Unrest
More than a decade ago, the Arab Spring roiled the Middle East from Tunisia to Egypt to Yemen. Massive protests demanding freedom, equality and bread were met with repression and conflict. Could today's growing scarcity of food spark another spring of discontentment?
The origins of the name "Spring," whether Arab or otherwise, was a term historians used to describe the Revolutions of 1848, known as the "People's Spring." It was a series of upheavals that swept through Europe at that time. Republican revolts took place first in Sicily, spreading to France, Germany, Italy, and the Austrian Empire. They all ended in failure and repression and were followed by widespread disillusionment among liberals.
The movement in the Middle East has had slightly better results, at least temporarily, in places like Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt where regime changes did occur. But for the most part, the same oppression, civil wars and tyranny exists today. Are we ripe for a reoccurrence either within the Arab world or elsewhere?
In the past, I explained how climate change, including the growing scarcity of water, has created a crisis in global food production. The coronavirus pandemic and the Ukraine war have made an already precarious situation worse. Sickness, supply chain shortages, inflation, and now war have decimated food production in every step of the agricultural process.
The farming labor force has been decimated by the coronavirus. Inflation and supply chain issues have forced cutbacks in everything from transportation to agricultural materials and equipment. Fertilizer has skyrocketed in price and supplies of it have become increasingly scarce. A variety of infections from swine to bird flu has assaulted herds and flocks throughout the world, while drought, flooding, and ice storms continue to batter crops worldwide.
The United Nations recently released a table that showed that food prices in January 2022 reached their highest level since 2011. The prices of meat, dairy and cereals climbed, while edible oils reached their highest level since tracking began in 1990. Consumers only need to compare prices today for coffee, pasta, butter, all kinds of grains, and protein to know that food prices have catapulted far past those January 2022 price levels.
Making a bad situation worse, the fighting in Ukraine and unrest in Russia threatens to reduce the world's availability of important food staples which the two countries export. They account for a large market share of the world's sunflower oil (64 percent), wheat (23 percent), barley (19 percent) and corn (18 percent).
Ukraine has already lost $1.5 billion in grain exports since the war began, according to Ukraine's agricultural ministry. Shortages of fuel and fertilizer, Russia's blockade of the Black Sea (Ukraine's main export route), the drain of labor as farmers enlist in the military, and the enemies mining of farmland in the north have conspired to make it all but impossible to farm in certain areas of Ukraine.
Planting season starts at the end of April. Ukraine's Agriculture Minister Roman Leshchenko, believes the country's spring crop sowing area may more than halve this year from 2021 levels (of some seven million hectares). If the war continues, and all indications are that it will, even less will be planted. The result appears to be a continued rise in food, fuel, and possible famine. The impact of rising food price increases affects different countries. Until recently, Asia, for example, has been spared the worst in food price rises due to a bumper rice crop. But that may change.
China, a nation that needs to feed 1.44 billion people, is facing deepening challenges in its production of rice, soybeans and corn. Exploding prices in fuel, combined with the price rise and scarcity of fertilizer have hamstrung farmers in the Northeast regions. In addition, China's Covid lock down policies have impacted the plowing of fields and sowing seeds. This area produces more than a fifth of China's national grain output. The only alternative is to increase imports, which only compounds the existing worldwide food crisis as demand outstrips supply.
The shortfall in expected exports from Ukraine and Russia would primarily impact the Middle East and North Africa as it did back in 2011. Egypt, Libya, and Lebanon import more than two-thirds of these food staples from Ukraine and Russia. Some assume that governments in this region will resort to price controls on food, rather than face the possibility of another Arab Spring. However, most governments are already cash-strapped from fighting the coronavirus pandemic.
In Africa, conflicts in Sudan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, combined with long-standing drought, the coronavirus, and the high price of oil have disrupted transportation and food production.
In Latin America, many people spend as much as 50-60 percent of their income on food. Inflation is higher as is the price for food and fuel. An ongoing wave of violent protests in Peru last week could be a sign of the future. The demonstrations were originally triggered by rising fuel costs, but quickly morphed into large, anti-government demonstrations and highway blockades.
Peru President Pedro Castillo was forced to declare a state of emergency, while placing Lima, the capital, under a curfew. Inflation in March 2022 was the highest in 26 years. Prices of food and fuel spiked almost 10 percent since last year. And Peru is not alone. Discontent is spreading. Leaders in Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, among other developing countries, are facing increasing public pressure over the same issues. My bet is that we see more of the same as the year progresses.