@theMarket: Fed Signals Equities 'All Clear' But Markets Don't Care
Investors were bolstered by the Fed's message this week. Low interest rates and monetary stimulus will remain pillars of the nation's economic recovery for as long as it takes. Investors were comforted, but not enough to materially move stocks higher.
It was indicative that despite bullish news on a variety of fronts, investors ignored the good and focused on the negatives. First quarter earnings results, for example, have been better than good, but not enough to satisfy the bulls. Apple smashed earnings estimates, sending its stock price higher in after-hours trade, but the next day it finished down. It has been the same story for many of the market's winners. What this tells me is that a lot of the good news in the market and in individual stocks may already be priced in.
Turning to the pandemic, the words we have all been waiting for "we have turned the corner," were spoken this week by President Biden in his first address to Congress. That should have sent markets shooting up, and it did for a moment or two. But investors choose instead to fret about the skyrocketing coronavirus cases in Brazil and India and what damage that might do to global trade.
On the economic front, this week's unemployment claims reached another pandemic-era low (553,000 claims), while first quarter GDP came in at a robust 6.4 percent. Many economists believe the numbers are going to get even better from here. The data was greeted with a mild yawn and little response other than to push the yield on the U.S. Ten-Year Treasury bond higher.
In the background, investors are keeping an eye on what most on Wall Street are calling President Biden's progressive agenda. The price tag on all this intended government spending (if passed) now totals in excess of $6 trillion. In order to pay for it, the president is seeking to raise the corporate tax rate, plus increase the income tax rate on the top 1 percent of taxpayers. In addition, the capital gains tax for millionaires would practically double in order to equalize the taxes on investment income and the tax rate for ordinary income. In another blow to the wealthy, the president would get rid of the so-called step-up in basis at death for any gains of more than $1 million.
Higher taxes are almost never good news for financial markets and might provide some of the concern that seems to have soured investors' moods. The fact that most Americans would not be hurt by Biden's tax increases may be tempering the potential damage of these tax initiatives as there is the plan itself.
If passed, investors know there could be an awful lot of fiscal stimulus on the way. Some economists are now comparing President Biden's plan to FDR's social programs during the Depression. If that were the case, a look at history would indicate a great leap forward in economic growth.
The three major indexes responded to all this good news, making new highs as the week progressed, but the bulls just couldn't keep up the pace. There was an increasing churn to the markets with individual stocks getting clobbered, despite favorable news across the board.
This is usually a precursor to some further consolidation that may be in store for us. An increasing number of Wall Street strategists have been sounding the alarm, predicting a 5-10 percent pullback at any time. Of course, several of them have been saying that for weeks or months and it has not occurred.
My own guess is that we spend the next few days digesting more earnings results, and then take a run at 4,240-4,280 level on the S&P 500 Index. At that point, let's see where we are. If there isn't still enough steam to move higher, than the ‘sell in May and go away' advice we hear every year might be in the cards. And May is only a day away.
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The Retired Investor: Empty Oceans
Oceans cover more than two-thirds of the earth's surface. For centuries, these bodies of water have supplied us with a bountiful harvest of ocean wildlife and millions of well-paying jobs. Unless something changes, however, the future of fisheries is in serious jeopardy.
The demand for fish is growing with aquaculture trends reaching a growth rate of 527 percent from 1990 to today. At the same time, fish consumption has doubled as well.
Declining fisheries, the destruction of the marine habitat, and the near-depression-like economic conditions of more and more coastal fishing communities, is no surprise to most of us. It has been going on for decades. And yet, the appetite for fish, especially among developing nations, keeps growing by more than 3 percent a year. Fish consumption accounts for one-sixth of the global population's intake of animal protein, and more than half in many emerging markets has doubled as well.
Since the 1980s, the global seafood catch has been falling. This is despite better fishing boats and improved underwater technology, such as GPS, fish finders, echo-sounders, and acoustic cameras. This has led to an annual 2 percent-per-year increase in a boat's capacity to capture fish. Thanks to this "technological creep," the 10-boat fishing fleet of a generation ago has the power of 20 vessels today.
At least a billion people, if not more, rely on fish as their primary protein source and tens of millions of people around the world depend on the sea for their livelihood. As such, several foreign governments have traditionally provided massive subsidies ($35-40 billion a year) to their fishing fleets in order to increase their ability to compete and catch more of the world's fish. The top five nations include China, the European Union, the U.S., Korea and Japan.
Global fishing fleets are taking too much wildlife from the sea and the laws and regulations that are meant to manage and conserve fisheries are either ignored or only selectively enforced. The fact that wild-capture fish prices continue to increase and are projected to rise by 23 percent over this decade makes flouting the law an easy excuse. There is not a day that goes by without some new violation of existing fishing regulations somewhere, and those illegal activities are increasing.
We all know this, but few realize how bad the problem has become. Most scientists expect that if the present situation continues, by 2050 there will be a complete collapse of all wild seafood that is fished today. Ninety percent of all tuna, marlin and sharks will be gone. Of the top 10 species that account for 30 percent of all fisheries production, six of them (anchoveta, mackerel, pollock, Japanese anchovy, blue whiting and Atlantic herring) are fully exploited or overexploited today.
The World Trade Organization (WTO) is where government leaders meet to negotiate the dos and don'ts of commercial fishing. Six years ago, negotiations began on eliminating government subsidies that are behind the excessive and illegal depletion of the world's fisheries. It has been a game of good intentions, but broken promises. Deadlines come and go, but like so many things at the WTO, nothing has changed.
China, India, and other Asian nations account for 85 percent of the world's commercial fishing employment. Those governments have only been interested in gaining exemptions, rather than enforcing more discipline among their fishing fleets. But there may be hope yet.
For one thing, there is a new director-general at the WTO, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. She has moved a successful fishery deal to the top of her agenda for 2021. She is pushing member trade minsters to agree and sign a deal by July.
At the same time, President Biden has placed environmental concerns at the top of his agenda. His U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai seems focused on the problem of overfishing and is backing the WTO's efforts to finally get members to take some actions. Let's hope, for all our sakes, that the world can finally come to its senses before our oceans end up depleted.
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@theMarket: Stocks Hit With Possible Tax Hike
It was a losing week for stocks. Most of the blame can be pinned on a proposal by the Biden administration to double the capital gains tax on investments. It is not official yet, but investors are counting on an announcement next week.
Before you hit the sell button on all those huge capital gains you have accumulated over the last few years, know the facts. Right now there aren't any. What we do know is that Joe Biden ran his winning presidential campaign on increasing taxes on the rich and on corporations. He plans to do just that, so it should not be a surprise to investors.
This proposal, if true, would impact the top 0.3 percent of Americans. For those earning $1 million a year or more, he wants to increase the capital gains tax rate from 20 percent to 39.6 percent. That is on top of the 3.8 percent tax on investment income that presently funds Obamacare. If you add in state taxes, the overall capital gains tax would be as high as 52.22 percent for New Yorkers and even higher for California residents (56.7 percent).
That would clearly be a steep increase and one that would impact all the stock market, at least temporarily. Just think of the gains some have accrued in the FANG stocks over the past few years. Many high-growth stocks are in the technology space and wealthy investors may want to cash in some of their chips if they truly believe the capital gains proposal would soon be the law of the land.
Wall Street pundits, while concerned, are attempting to downplay the suggested tax risk to investors. The level of increase, they say, is simply an opening gambit, a trial balloon, meant to be negotiated downward, if it were to pass at all. The slim majority of Democrats in Congress might make it impossible to get any capital gains tax change to get through. And, even so, the timing of any tax hike is also in question. Would it be effective this year or next?
Market participants are also anxiously watching the global COVID-19 case levels. Countries such as India and Japan are seeing coronavirus cases skyrocket. Here in the U.S., spring coronavirus cases are surging. Back in February, during the last surge, the U.S. was averaging 65,686 new COVID-19 cases a day. Fast forward to today, and we are averaging 64,814 new cases daily. Some states, like Michigan, are breaking all-time records in new cases.
You would think that doubling the number of vaccinated Americans would have at least made a dent in the rate of new cases, but at best, all it has done is kept the level of new cases around 65,000 a day. What may be even more concerning is that a new COVID variant has been detected by scientists at the Texas A&M lab that show signs of antibody resistance and more severe illness among young people.
The more contagious variants of COVID-19, which have become the dominant strains within the U.S., seem to be the culprit in this case and in the high level of new cases, according to medical experts. However, the good news is that the present administration seems to be doing all it can to get more people vaccinated, provide additional stimulus to the economy, and expand global trade and relations.
All this news, as you can imagine, is having an impact on the financial markets. The three averages have pulled back a little this week, but the real story is in the Bitcoin trade. I warned readers last Friday, cryptocurrencies (Bitcoin specifically), were ripe for a correction. Saturday, Bitcoin dropped 15 percent and by the end of this week the price of Bitcoin was below $50,000. Other popular coins such as Ethereum and Litecoin have also declined. Some analysts are expecting as much as a 50 percent pullback in Bitcoin (to $30,000) before the correction is over.
It does appear that momentum is stalling in this space. As I have written in the past, cryptocurrencies are considered speculative assets and not currencies, according to The U.S. Federal Reserve Bank, and other central banks. As such, investing in this area is fraught with risk, no matter how convinced you are in its viability in the long-term. Only those with a strong stomach and staying power should be involved in this space.
As for the equity markets, despite a 1-2 percent decline, stocks are in a trading range. As we consolidate recent gains, I expect continued daily rotations between sectors and asset classes. I still think stocks will continue higher in the weeks ahead, but so will volatility.
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The Retired Investor: Our Hospitals Are in Trouble
COVID-19 effectively put a halt to most elective surgeries. As the nation gets vaccinated, however, medical authorities have given the all-clear to resume those surgeries. But will patients come back?
The answer to that question is important to the nation's hospitals, whose bottom line has suffered as much as, or even more than, most of their patients. Last year, hospitals were forced to shut down surgery in order to create capacity for skyrocketing cases of the coronavirus. But even after beds opened up again (as a result of the reduction in new, serious Covid-19 cases), most patients are still putting off surgery, concerned that they might catch the coronavirus during a hospital stay.
In 2020, the nation's hospitals' revenues declined by $320 billion. At the same time, drug expenses increased by 17 percent, labor by 14percent and hospital supplies by 13 percent. This year, hospitals are expected to lose another $53 billion to $122 billion, which amounts to 4 to 10 percent of their total sales. In the meantime, costs continue to rise.
A recent health-care market research survey by Becker's Hospital Review, found that fully 68 percent of respondents, who are considered health-care leaders, believed patient fear will delay or limit demand for surgery for at least the next six months. In response, hospitals are working overtime to turn the way they do business on its head.
Since making patients feel safe must be their top concern, hospitals have implemented a number of changes in the way in which they operate. For instance, 68 percent of hospitals surveyed have reserved operating rooms and/or intensive care units just for Covid-19 patients. About 23 percent of these organizations have allotted an entire building, including parking lots, to ensure coronavirus patients are isolated from other patients. That increases the feeling of safety but cuts down on the number of non-COVID patients that can be served at any one time. As a result, more than 70 percent of hospitals are running at less than 75 percent capacity.
That level of separation also incurs costs that would otherwise be saved. Additional cleaning, maintaining PPE, and conducting testing, as well as the need for higher numbers of employees to accomplish all of the above, hurt the bottom line. As readers might imagine, the demand for additional cost savings is of paramount importance. That is where virtual care solutions come in.
Virtual health care reduces cancellations, streamlines surgical operations, provides less time in the physical hospital setting, and reduces costs dramatically. Many hospitals had already been employing some level of virtual care, but it was mostly confined to information gathering and storage. The bad news is that few hospitals have the appropriate tools necessary to effectively deliver virtual care at the scale required.
There are no easy answers to the dilemma hospitals face, outside of more aid from the federal government. The Provider Relief Fund, which was included in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act is currently helping hospitals to stay afloat. But the $100 billion fund is not nearly enough, according to the American Hospital Association. Given the present trend, I have to agree that it won' t be enough to keep the doors open in many emergency rooms, let alone surgical centers.
What's worse, most medical experts believe that we should expect additional coronavirus-type threats in our future. Prior to the pandemic, we already knew that our healthcare system was broken. It is clear to me that we can no longer deny the obvious. The hospital system may be the wakeup call that we all needed to finally overhaul the healthcare system in the U.S.; at least I hope so.
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The Retired Investor: A Highway of Opportunity
Most Americans seem excited and hopeful about the prospects for the Biden Administration's infrastructure plan. Local politicians as well as their construction buddies are salivating at the possible promise of getting their share of this multi-trillion-dollar prize. But looking beyond the pork barrel, we might want to consider how innovation and technology could help America regain its first-class status in infrastructure.
As of 2019, the United States is ranked 13th in the quality of its infrastructure after countries like Singapore, Japan, Germany, and the United Kingdom among others. Of course, it may not be a fair comparison since the U.S. has to rebuild and maintain 4 million miles of roads, streets, tunnels, bridges and other structures, while a nation like Singapore is smaller than New York City.
The sheer size of our infrastructure is made even more difficult by how many fingers are in the nation's pie. All of this infrastructure is essentially owned, operated, and maintained by state and local highway agencies. At the local level, about 40,000 individual governmental units of varying sizes and populations are responsible for 75 percent of the nation's highway mileage.
In turn, these agencies contract with thousands of private companies that furnish products, services, and equipment to build, maintain, and operate the system. This private sector portion is comprised of highway contractors and consultants, material and equipment manufacturers and suppliers, plus all the professional, trade, and industry assortations that proliferate at the national, state, and local levels. We are talking about many thousands of individual businesses from the largest multinational corporations to single-person operations.
Over and above this vast public and private sector army sits the federal government, which provides funding in the form of financial assistance to the states, as well as certain regulations, policies and guidelines.
As one can imagine, like in every army, there are traditional ways of thinking and doing and when it comes to infrastructure, even more so. When thinking about infrastructure, more often than not, familiar terms like "shovel ready," "pothole repair," and "black topping," accompanied by long traffic delays and detours comes to mind.
But while we have largely delayed or ignored our infrastructure, other countries have been achieving technological breakthroughs and new innovations for years. My hope is that the U.S. will be able to take advantage of some of these advances in our own infrastructure plan in the coming decade.
Software programs, for example, are changing the way infrastructure projects are being designed. New building information modeling programs enable three-dimensional, computer-generated designs that allow professionals at all stages, from architects to engineers to building managers, to collaborate on a project. Among other things, using these state-of-the-art programs decreases errors, gives much greater predictability when it comes to costs, and would help to deliver projects that are on time and on budget.
Another innovation is the application of 3D printing to construction and design. 3D printing is poised to totally disrupt the construction site, according to many construction experts. A Dutch company, for example, designed and built the world's first 3D-printed steel bridge recently. The use of 3D technology not only can reduce costs, but aid in constructing safer, more durable projects.
Plastic roads is another concept that promises to replace traditional asphalt as a primary material in road construction. Advantages over asphalt include quicker installation time, triple the service life, and an effective way to recycle the plastic that is filling up our oceans and landfills.
Blockchain technology can also be applied to infrastructure long before the first 3D blueprint is drawn up. Remember that army of private and public sector entities? Imagine how long it usually takes the government to actually contract out and procure all the processes involved in even one project. That's where blockchain comes in. The technology would be ideal in its ability to eliminate the layers and layers of contracts and middlemen that sit between the conception and delivery of just about any infrastructure project.
These are just some of the advances that are available to the U.S. The challenge will be to overcome the skepticism and resistance to change that confronts all of us. I'm hoping that with the correct approach, our effort to rebuild America could be the envy of the world.
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