Markets

Summer 2020 Market Update

Our Thoughts on Investing Amid the Current Market Situation

 

Every year around this time, parents, grandparents, and guardians prepare for Back to School season.  This year is no different – except how they prepare may be very different indeed.  Due to the pandemic, parents now have some difficult choices to make.  Do they send their children back to school?  Do they choose online learning?  Should they homeschool for a year?  It’s a difficult question with no easy answer because there are so many factors to consider.  How many cases are in the area?  What options does the school actually provide?  What is the child’s health like?  What about the health of other family members?  How do parents balance their child’s education, social needs, and health with their other responsibilities?

Since the headline at the top of this letter says, “Summer Market Update,” you’re probably wondering why I’m talking about going back to school.  The reason is simple.  As you know, COVID-19 has completely upended our daily lives.  It has disrupted almost everything we used to think was “normal.”  And the problem is, there’s no playbook for how to adapt!  No cheat sheet that contains all the answers.  That’s certainly true for parents.

It's also true for investors.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot as I’ve studied the markets over the past few months.  There’s simply no cheat sheet – or even a roadmap – for how to invest in a period like this.  Think about it.  Even during “normal” times, it’s hard enough for institutions to know what to do.  But asking an investor who’s simply trying to save for retirement to navigate the markets during a recession and a health crisis?  Talk about dealing with uncertainty – the one thing investors hate most!

Just as parents have multiple options to consider, so do investors.  Be aggressive?  Be conservative?  Stay the course?  Get out of the markets altogether?  And again, there are so many factors and variables to consider – or at least, that’s what media pundits would have you believe.  So many, in fact, that trying to parse what matters and what doesn’t can feel like the world’s worst word search.

Those words are earnings, interest rates, COVID, second wave, vaccines, stimulus, China, oil, and elections if you don’t want to bother searching – and who could blame you?  If you believe the talking heads in the media, each of those words could signal either a glorious market recovery or a gloomy market pullback.  As a result, interpreting the markets can feel like looking at a blurry photograph and trying to guess what it shows.  That just leads to less clarity and more confusion.  Is the economy recovering, or is it still in decline?  Are the markets on solid ground, or the edge of a cliff?

The proof of all this can be found in how the markets have behaved over the past two months.  March’s bear market led to a sharp recovery, but since the beginning of June, the markets have been largely flat.  For example, on June 8th, the S&P 500 closed at 3,232.  On July 30, it closed at 3,246.1  There have been plenty of little bumps and shallow dips since then, but overall?  Flat.  And that’s with many investors staying out of the stock market altogether, with “nearly $5 trillion parked in money markets” as CNBC reported back in June.2

In school, we learned that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.  That’s Newton’s Third Law of Motion, and when he wrote it, he was talking about physics.  But lately, it can also describe the physics of the markets.  For example, here’s a short list of what’s been driving the markets lately:

Event Market Action/Reaction
Good news about vaccine development!
But a rising number of COVID cases…
Unemployment claims fall!
But unemployment is still high…
Consumer spending is up!
But the stimulus that drove it is all used up
Federal Reserve keeps interest rates near zero!
Congress can’t agree on more stimulus

You get the idea.  For every bit of good news, there’s news that’s equally troubling.  For every action, there is a reaction.

In short, there is still a lot of uncertainty out there about what type of economic recovery we’re actually experiencing, and where the markets will go next?  When you talk to investors and analysts, there’s a sense that most of them are just waiting for a sign, a development, for something that’s infallible, incontrovertible, unmistakable.  Something that helps them feel certain about what to do.  Essentially, investors are tired of trying to read tea leaves and want road signs.

But even during normal times – there’s that word “normal” again – the road to growth is rarely straight.  There is, and will continue to be, major uncertainty in the months ahead.  We don’t know what the coronavirus will do.  We don’t know when a vaccine will be available.  We don’t know whether the economy is recovering or stalling.  We don’t know who the next U.S. president will be.  We can have educated expectations, but we don’t know. 

So, what do we do?

We remember the most important things.

I have good news, We don’t need to know all those things.

I say this all the time when dealing with a client who is nervous about the future (which is very rarely.)  Those who worry about what the markets do day-to-day, week-to-week, or month-to-month, are traders and short-term investors trying to make short-term money.  It’s a thrilling way to invest.  As a result, the media largely caters to that crowd, because that’s where the drama is.

What we must remember is that we are long-term investors.  That means we can deal with uncertainty better than anyone else by not trying to make decisions we don’t have to.  As the saying goes, it’s not timing the market, but time in the market that matters to us.  What happens over a month, a quarter, or even a year, is less important than what happens over a decade.

Here’s one way to think about it.  Imagine you were blowing bubbles into a glass of water.  If you looked at it up close under a magnifying glass, the bubbles would look like huge waves.  Take a step back, and they’re mere blips.  The same is true for the markets.  Waves in the short-term look like ripples in the long.  So, what’s the point in overreacting to each one?

When it comes to investing during this climate, we also must remember that, just as there’s no cheat sheet, there’s also no one right answer.  Just as parents must make the best decision for their situation, the same is true for us.  When it comes to our investment strategy, making sense of the word search above is simply not as important as asking ourselves: How much risk can we afford to take on?  What kind of return do your personal goals require?  How close are you to retirement?  Do we prioritize growing your money, or preserving it?  We’ll continue to let your answers dictate the decisions we do make, not how many COVID cases there are or when a vaccine will come.  That way, even when the market is flat, we’ll keep moving forward – secure in the knowledge that we’re doing what’s best for you. 

In the meantime, the markets will continue to act and react.  But we won’t.  There will be good weeks and bad days.  But we’ll continue to think in terms of years.  That’s why, when it comes to interpreting the markets, we don’t have to worry about being cleverer than everyone else.  We just need to worry about being more disciplined.

We hope you found this letter informative.  As always, please let us know if you have any questions or concerns.  We always love to speak with you.  Have a great rest of your summer!

The Bond Market

Interest Rates

The 30-year US Treasury Bond yields about 1.4% (Yield is calculated by dividing the annual interest paid by the bond by the price of the bond.)  The Federal Reserve (The central bank of the United States, which sets monetary policy.) has a long-held, clearly stated policy of inflating US currency by 2% per year.  Should the Federal Reserve succeed with this policy, the 30-year bond would provide a real yield (interest paid minus inflation) of -.6% each year.

 

However, 1.4% per year is taxable as current income.  To make my math easier, we will assume that you are in the 30% federal income tax bracket.  You would then pay about .4% per year in federal income taxes.  Combined with the .6% per year currency depreciation from inflation, the negative annual return is about 1% per year.  If the 30-year bond is held to maturity, then about 30% of the purchasing power of your money is lost.

 

If you are not planning to hold your 30-year Treasury bond until maturity - maybe you are just parking your money until markets settle down - you may find that interest rates have risen.  Since prices of existing bonds fall as interest rates rise, you may sustain a capital loss in what was supposed to be a risk-less asset.

 

Of course, you can decrease or eliminate the potential capital loss with shorter-term bonds. The 10-year US Treasury yields .9%, and money market funds are at .25%.  Essentially nothing.  To substitute Municipal bonds in this analysis, use a yield of about 2.27% per year (ETF: MUB).

Inflation reduces your return by 2% per year to .27% per year.  No adjustments have been made for the credit risk that some municipal bonds may not be paid in full.

 

Based on the stated policy of The Federal Reserve to generate 2% per year of inflation, the bond market promises negligible to negative returns per year.

 

What are your alternatives? If the bond holdings are part of the savings portions of your portfolio, we will recommend money market funds as a lower-risk alternative.

If the bonds are part of the wealth-building portion of your portfolio, we will recommend an increase in your allocation to quality common stocks.

 

As always, your comments are welcome.

Economic Recovery Outlook 2020

Coronavirus Economic Update

 

What will the economic recovery look like?  It’s the million-dollar question.

Will it be V-shaped, with the economy bouncing back as swiftly as it fell?  Or will it be more like the Nike swoosh – a swift drop, with a long but straight road back to the top?  Or maybe it will be like a rollercoaster, with plenty of stops, starts, hills, and valleys before the ride comes to a stop?  As we continue battling the coronavirus, the answer will influence how soon life returns to normal – and what normal actually is.

Economists often use recession shapes to characterize recessions and their recoveries.  These shapes commonly take the form of letters in the alphabet, like V, U, W, and L.  Modern history provides many examples of each type of recovery.  Currently, there are good arguments to be made for each scenario.  That’s why, for the next several months at least, economists, investors, and analysts will all be looking anxiously at every bit of data they can find to determine which letter the recovery will resemble.

As part of my ongoing efforts to keep you up-to-date on how the coronavirus is affecting your investments, I thought it would be good to briefly cover each scenario.  We’ll look at why each shape may or may not happen and how each could impact us.   Before we begin, though, there’s one thing to remember.  As long-term investors, the long-term health of the economy plays a role in how we plan for the future.  Despite this, we must always remember that the economy and the markets are not the same.  They are related, but they don’t move in lockstep.  More often, the markets move ahead of the economy.  Investors are always looking towards the future, trying to gauge where the economy will go as opposed to where it is now.  That’s why, despite the spate of bad economic news lately, the markets have been fairly stable.  So, even if the economic recovery resembles a specific letter, that doesn’t mean the markets will look the same.

With that said, let’s begin with the most optimistic of letters:

The V-Shaped Recovery

V for victory, right?  In this case, victory over the pandemic’s effects on the economy.

Think of a V-shaped recovery like dropping a fully inflated basketball.  The fall will be swift and steep – but the ball will bounce back just as quickly.  In this case, the ball is the economy.  The pandemic caused a brutal drop in employment, stock prices, and GDP, but the recovery will be equally fast.  It’s probably the most optimistic scenario we can hope for.

The case for a V

There are three basic arguments for a V-shaped recovery.  First is that the U.S. economy was fairly strong before the pandemic.  Since the current recession was caused by external factors (like a virus) and not structural ones (like a change in fiscal policy or a credit crisis), the thinking is that the recovery will be equally strong.

The second argument is based on history.  V-shaped recoveries have happened before, with sharp drops often leading to equally sharp ascents.  One example is the recession of 1953.  America’s soaring post-war economy plummeted to earth thanks to skyrocketing interest rates.  Within a year, though, the economy recovered, with the country’s GDP returning near pre-recession levels.

The final argument for a V is the stock market.  On February 19, the S&P 500 was at 3,386.1  Roughly a month later, it had dropped over a thousand points to 2,237.2  That’s one of the fastest bear markets in history.  But by June, just over three months later, the S&P had risen 800 points.2  It’s not quite a V, but it’s close.  So, if the stock market can do it, why not the overall economy?

The case against a V

Unfortunately, the letter V also stands for “virus.”  So long as the virus continues to affect our daily lives, so too will it affect the economy.  That’s why many experts consider a V-shaped recovery to be overly optimistic.

Besides infecting over 1.5 million people3, let’s look at what the coronavirus has done in the United States.  Since March, over 38.6 million people have filed unemployment claims.4  The jobless rate has floated just under 15%, the highest since the Great Depression.5  Oil prices crashed due to plummeting demand.  Entire industries have seen business drop to drastic levels.

These kinds of effects don’t just get reversed overnight.

Again, the markets and the economy are not the same.  The markets have stabilized largely based on government stimulus, hope for a vaccine, and because all this economic pain has already been priced in.  Of these factors, only the first – government intervention – has any effect on the economy right now.  Most experts believe a widescale vaccine is still at least a year away.  And while government stimulus has helped, it’s only bandaging the wound, not healing it.

A V-shaped recovery would be wonderful, and it’s still a real possibility.  In fact, in May, the unemployment rate actually dropped to 13.3 percent!6  But even though the U.S. is starting to open back up, returning to normal could still take much longer.

The U-Shaped Recovery

Ah, the letter U.  Visually similar to the letter V, but more rounded, less dramatic.  That’s a perfect way to think of a U-shaped recovery.  Think of it like a V, except the recovery takes longer.  In this case, the nation’s GDP would shrink for 2-3 quarters in a row, and then slowly return to normal.  A good example of a U-shaped recovery occurred back in 1973.  After contracting sharply, the U.S. economy remained in the doldrums for roughly two years before rebounding to pre-recession levels.

A quick note about GDP

You probably learned about GDP in high school or college, but here’s a quick refresher in case you find it helpful.  A country’s gross domestic product, or GDP, is a measure of the total value of all goods and services produced in a specific time period.  Consumer spending, government spending, business investment, and national exports are all components of GDP.  While it has limitations, GDP is important, because it serves as a useful vital sign of our economy’s health.  Higher GDP signals both higher wages and more jobs, as businesses need more production to meet growing demand.  A declining GDP reflects layoffs, falling revenue, and lower consumer spending.

The case for a U

In a recent survey, nearly 45% of the economists who participated predicted the U.S. recovery would be U-shaped.7  It makes sense.  Remember above, when I said that so long as the virus affects our daily lives, it will affect our economy?  The U-shaped recovery reflects that.  Back in April, the World Health Organization warned that the coronavirus would likely “be with us for a long time.”8 Some experts think it will only go away once we have a widely available vaccine that helps us achieve herd immunity. So, in this scenario, the recovery will be slow and gradual. Only when we have a vaccine will it accelerate.

The case against a U

Economists and epidemiologists will both be hoping for the same thing here: No major surge of cases, especially in the winter.  If social distancing measures and increased testing are enough for businesses to reopen and bring back furloughed workers, a U is likely. But if the country reopens too fast, too soon or if the virus resurges with a vengeance in the winter, there may be no choice but to bring back stricter quarantine measures.  If that happens, the single-U recovery will likely devolve into…

The W-Shaped Recovery

The letter W – it looks more like a double-V than a double-U, doesn’t it?  And there lies the insidious nature of this type of recovery.  It’s essentially two recoveries…for two recessions.

Most of my clients probably remember the recession of the early 1980s.  In many ways, it was two recessions in one.  A weak economy devolved into a bad one.  Then, the recovery started – only for the economy to plummet again.  This is why a W-shaped recovery is also known as a “double-dip recession.”  What initially looks like a quick turnaround turns into something much longer.  Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water…

The case for a W

It’s simple.  If we are hit with a second, or even third wave of infections, all our efforts to flatten the curve will be undone.  Should that happen, more lockdown measures will likely have to be enacted.  The result?  More economic pain, as our country rides a rollercoaster of good quarters and bad.

The case against a W

The good news is that W-shaped recoveries are relatively rare.  By some estimates, we’ve only had two in modern history: in the late ‘30s and early ‘80s.9  Both of these cases occurred largely due to internal factors.  Careful management of both our economy and our epidemiology should hopefully prevent a W from happening.

The L-Shaped Recovery

You have to tilt your head to see the L in this scenario, but in any case, it’s the least ideal letter.

In a sense, an L-shaped recovery is no recovery at all.  Because here, the economy takes years, sometimes even decades, to return to pre-recession levels.  Instead, a new normal sets in, and the economy’s baseline becomes lower than it used to be.  Certain jobs that were lost never come back. Certain spending habits never resume. Business investment is irrevocably altered.  In other words, the pandemic’s effect on our nation’s GDP is enduring, not temporary.

One of the most famous L’s in modern history occurred in Japan.  This was the so-called “lost decade” of the 1990s – and some economists think it was really two decades!  Closer to home, the United States experienced an L-shaped recovery of sorts after the financial crisis.  While the Great Recession is generally thought to have ended in 2009, it took over six years for the unemployment rate to drop below 5%.  (The GDP growth rate, meanwhile, is still lower than what it used to be.)

The case for an L

As of this writing, few economists seem to be forecasting an L-shaped recovery.  But it’s worth noting that a paper released by the National Bureau of Economic Research takes a gloomier view.  According to their data, a high unemployment rate is likely to stick around for some time.  That’s partially because some industries have been hit particularly hard, and likely won’t recover until the pandemic has ended.  (The travel and hospitality industries are good examples.)  Should that happen, the paper estimates that 35% of workers who have been laid off will not be recalled to their jobs.10  Such a large percentage of permanently unemployed workers would have a big impact on consumer spending, which accounts for roughly 67% of our nation’s GDP.11

The case against an L

Forecasts for an L-shaped recovery are definitely in the minority right now.  It’s certainly possible, but it assumes that the coronavirus spreads completely unchecked for years to come, without cure or even containment.  Remember, the government and the Federal Reserve have been working hard to shore up the economy.  Furthermore, an unprecedented amount of money and brainpower is being poured into the race to find treatments for the virus.  Finally, current economic data suggests that, while unemployment is still rising, weekly jobless claims may have peaked.  That means the worst would be behind us.

For these reasons, the consensus among economists seems to be that a U-shaped recovery is more likely.  Let’s keep our fingers crossed!

So, what does all this mean for the markets?

You’ve probably noticed it already, but each of these letters has something in common: They all start by plunging down.

Right now, our economy is in a recession.  Whichever letter the recovery ends up looking like, we’re currently on the downward side.  That’s why, over the last few weeks, many clients have asked me:

“How are the markets going up when unemployment and the economy are so bad?”

“Should I even trust the numbers I’m seeing in the markets right now?” 

“What if the markets drop again?  Should I start adding funds to my portfolio or should I wait?”

“What should I be doing as an investor right now?”   

The first question, at least, is fairly easy to answer.  I alluded to it earlier, but let’s quickly review how the markets work compared to the economy.

The economy moves based on activity, like production, consumption, and trade. The markets, on the other hand, move largely on anticipation. When investors expect something will happen, they make decisions based off that expectation. So, when the markets plummeted in March, it was based on the expectation that unemployment would rise, consumer spending would fall, and the economy would contract.  In other words, the markets fell because investors saw the downward slope coming a mile away.  Whether the recovery ends up resembling a V, a U, a W, or an L, they knew that economic pain would come before economic gain.

Well, that pain has happened.  So why haven’t the markets continued to slide?  Because that pain has already been “priced in.”  The massive swings we saw in March were based on what is happening right now.  By the same token, the markets have stabilized because of what investors expect in the future – that the economy will make like a V or a U and rise again.

Unfortunately, the other questions don’t have easy answers.  As we’ve already covered, there are cases to be made for and against each letter.  In fact, different industries will experience different letters.  Some industries may enjoy V-shaped recoveries.  Others may have to endure L’s.  Accordingly, different sectors of the markets may sink or swim.

As time passes, more economic data will come out.  So, at some point, we’ll be able to tell the shape of the recovery.  But again, what looks like a V could end up really being a W.  The letter U could actually be the beginning of a sideways-L.  There’s really no way to know ahead of time.

The economist John Kenneth Galbraith once said that “the only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable.”  That’s why we don’t make decisions based on economic predictions.  In the end, that’s just a type of gambling, and here at Vaughan & Co. Securities, Inc., we don’t gamble with your money.

With that in mind, let’s return to the last – and most important – question my clients have been asking lately:

What should I be doing as an investor right now?

There are three basic things everyone should be doing right now.

First is to remember why we invest.  We invest because you have long-term goals you want to accomplish.  There are things you want to do and places you want to go.  There are dreams you want to achieve and people you want to protect.  We invest so you will have financial means to live the life you’ve worked so hard for.

Second is to remember how we invest.  Because we invest for your (as in, nobody else’s) long-term goals (as in, the things you care about most) we don’t make decisions based on predicting whether we’ll have a V recovery or a W or any other letter.  Make no mistake, the type of recovery we see will have an impact on the markets – and by extension, on your portfolio.  So, as your financial advisor, I do track the economy closely, so we can prepare for what the future holds.  But how we invest – that’s based on determining what kind of risk and what kind of return you need to reach your goals.  That’s why you’ll never hear me say, “You should put more money in the markets because I think the economy is going to do better next month.”  Or, “You should take money out of the markets because I think the economy will do worse.”

Instead, I make recommendations based on what you need to achieve your goals, as well as what level of risk you can afford to take on.  That’s why some investors should consider adding funds while others just maintain their current portfolio.  There’s no “one size fits all” approach.

The third thing investors should do, then, is take this opportunity to assess whether their goals and needs have changed.  Imagine, for a moment, that you do know which type of economic recovery we’ll experience.  How would a U-type recovery, or a W-type recovery, be likely to affect your income?  Your expenses?  Your insurance coverage?  Your retirement date?  Your loved ones?  How would a long-term pandemic affect your goals?  Will some (like travel) need to be pushed back?  Can others (like landscaping your yard or contributing to charity) be moved up as a result?

The answers to these questions go a long way to determining whether we should maintain or adjust our current investment strategy.  When it comes to your personal finances, factoring the answers into our plan is more important than looking at the markets every day, or predicting what the economy will do.

So, here’s what I want you to do, «Salutation»Take a few minutes to think about everything you just read.  Think about your long-term goals and your short-term needs.  Has anything changed?  Does anything need to change?  If so, let’s talk.  We can meet over the phone or online to update your investment strategy or financial plan.  We can review your goals, adding and modifying as needed.  We can also review your financial needs, including your income, risk tolerance, and more.  In other words, we can lay out a new plan to make your personal economic recovery look however you want!

In the meantime, I hope you found this information interesting and helpful.  Please let me know if there is ever anything I can do for you.  Here’s to a great recovery!

 

Sources

1 “S&P 500 and Nasdaq jump to record highs, Dow climbs more than 100 points,” CNBC, February 19, 2020.  https://www.cnbc.com/2020/02/19/stock-market-wall-street-in-focus-amid-coronavirus-outbreak.html

2 “S&P 500 Historical Prices,” The Wall Street Journal, https://www.wsj.com/market-data/quotes/index/SPX/historical-prices

3 “Coronavirus Cases in the United States,” Google News, https://news.google.com/covid19/map?hl=en-US&mid=/m/09c7w0&gl=US&ceid=US:en

4 “38.6 Million Have Filed For Unemployment Since March,” NPR, https://www.npr.org/sections/coronavirus-live-updates/2020/05/21/859836248/38-6-million-have-filed-for-unemployment-since-march

5 “US unemployment rate soars to 14.7 percent,” The Washington Post, May 8, 2020.  https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/05/08/april-2020-jobs-report/

6 “U.S. Unemployment Rate Fell to 13.3% in May,” The Wall Street Journal, June 5, 2020.  https://www.wsj.com/articles/may-jobs-report-coronavirus-2020-11591310177

7 “U.S. economy likely set for U-shaped recovery after deep rut,” Reuters, April 21, 2020.  https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-economy-poll/u-s-economy-likely-set-for-u-shaped-recovery-after-deep-rut-reuters-poll-idUSKCN2231V6

8 “World Health Organization warns: Coronavirus remains ‘extremely dangerous’ and will be with us for a long time,” CNBC, April 22, 2020. https://www.cnbc.com/2020/04/22/world-health-organzation-warns-coronavirus-will-be-with-us-for-a-long-time.html

9 “Double-Dip Recession: Previous Experience and Current Prospect,” Congressional Research Service, June 19, 2012.  https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R41444.pdf

10 “Pandemic Recession: L or V-Shaped?” National Bureau of Economic Research, May 2020.  https://www.nber.org/papers/w27105.pdf

11 “Shares of gross domestic product: Personal consumption expenditures,” Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, updated May 28, 2020.https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/DPCERE1Q156NBEA

2020 Oil Crash

Oil Prices Fall Below Zero

How can something cost less than $0?

That’s the question many people have been asking this week.  It all started on Monday, April 20, when headlines like this dominated the news:

U.S. Oil Prices Fall Below Zero For the First Time in History1

That same day, plummeting oil took the stock market down with it – the Dow, for example, slid nearly 600 points.2  And while oil prices have risen since Monday, they are still in historically low territory.  The questions, then, are obvious: why are oil prices crashing?  How can they be less than $0?  What does that mean for the stock market?  And what does that mean for us at the pump?

I’ll answer those questions now.

Q: Why has the price of oil dropped so much lately?

First, let’s define what it is we’re actually talking about here. 

Generally speaking, when you hear about oil prices in the media, you’re hearing about the price of crude oil.  Crude oil is raw, unrefined petroleum extracted from the earth.  After extraction, it can then be refined into various products – gasoline being the most well-known.

Historically, oil prices are tied to two different benchmarks: Brent Crude, and West Texas Intermediate (WTI).  Brent is extracted from the North Sea in Europe; WTI from – you guessed it – western Texas.  There are many types of crude oil, but their prices usually follow the price of Brent and WTI, simply because that makes it easier for buyers and sellers to do business.  That means as these two benchmarks go, so goes the rest of the oil industry.

The price of both Brent and WTI have dropped dramatically in recent months, although the news about oil falling below zero is specific to WTI.  (We’ll get to that in a minute.)

There are many reasons why oil prices fluctuate, but they all come back to one: The Law of Supply and Demand.  When the demand for oil is greater than the supply, the price rises.  Conversely, when the supply of oil is greater than the demand for it, the price drops.  This is essentially what’s happening now.  Due to the coronavirus, the world’s appetite for oil is at an all-time low.  Right now, planes aren’t flying, because people aren’t traveling.  Cars aren’t driving as much, because more people are staying home.  Fewer goods are being transported, which means fewer factories are operating.

In short, the world has more of the black stuff than it needs right now.

Sometimes, nations can influence the price of oil by either increasing or decreasing the production of oil.  For example, earlier in April, countries like Saudi Arabia and Russia pledged to cut production by 9.7 million barrels per day. 3  The hope is that by decreasing supply, prices will stabilize.  And they did.  Briefly.

There are two problems here.  The first problem is that the world’s demand for oil is still far, far below that.  In fact, some experts calculate that demand has fallen by 25-35 million barrels per day.3  Think about that number for a moment.  It’s staggering.  So, despite the production cuts, supply will still outpace demand – by a lot.

For the second problem, let’s move on to the next question:

Q: How can oil prices drop below $0? 

Chances are, you have never gone into a store and seen something worth negative dollars.  Just typing the phrase “negative dollars” seems only slightly less crazy than if I had typed, “the sun rose in the west today.”  Nevertheless, the price of West Texas Intermediate did drop below $0 a barrel.  Now, I’ll tell you why.  Bear with me, though, because this is where things get a little tricky.

When it comes to selling oil, there are actually two different markets: the physical market, and the futures market.  The physical market is similar to the way most of us buy and sell things.  A producer, say, Exxon Mobil, sells its oil – usually via an intermediary – to a buyer, like a refinery.  They agree upon a price, the oil is shipped, and that’s that.  This mostly takes place out of the public eye, and it’s not what we’re talking about here.

When you hear the media talk about oil prices, they’re usually discussing the futures market.  This is where futures contracts are traded between brokers, banks, and other entities.  An oil futures contract is for 1,000 barrels of crude, set to be delivered for a specific price at a specific date in the future.  Both buyers and sellers find them handy because the contracts enable them to lock in current prices.

For example, let’s say Bob wants to buy oil from Betty.  If Bob purchases a futures contract at $20 per barrel, and oil prices rise to $21 between the time he bought the contract and when the oil is delivered, he just saved money.  ($1,000, in fact, as that $1 change is multiplied by 1,000 barrels.)  On the other hand, if oil prices fall, then Betty, the seller, will receive more money than if she had sold later.  Either way, producers use future contracts to guarantee they can sell their crude at a later date, no matter what happens.  Buyers who need crude for their own business – like refineries, for example – use them to ensure they have adequate supplies in the future, at a price they can afford.

Make sense?  Good.  Now, let’s throw in a slight twist in the form of speculators. 

Many traders in the oil futures market are speculators.  These traders have no desire to physically own oil any more than you do.  Instead, they make money by betting – speculating – on whether oil prices will go up or down.  (To do this, they simply close their positions before the contract expires by swapping contracts with buyers who actually need it.)

So, now that you understand how things work, here’s what happened.  The contracts for WTI crude set for delivery in May expired on Tuesday, April 20.  (That means Tuesday was the last day these May contracts could be traded.)  Normally, traders who don’t want to take possession of oil treat the last few days as a chance to swap contracts with buyers who do.  In the meantime, crude set for final delivery in May is stored at facilities in Cushing, Oklahoma, and the entire process is usually neat and orderly.

But this was when traders ran into the second problem I alluded to above.  Thanks to overwhelming supply and underwhelming demand, oil prices had already plummeted.  But now there was a new problem: storage.  Simply put, the world is running out of space to store all this excess oil – and Cushing is projected to be at 100% capacity in mid-May!4  As a result, all these traders with May contracts faced the proposition of taking possession of millions of barrels of crude –with no ability to actually store it.  That led to a fire sale of historic proportions.  With most of the usual buyers not buying, traders with neither the desire nor the ability to actually take the oil had no choice but to pay others to take the barrels off their hands.  The result?  WTI prices fell below zero for the first time in history – because the sellers weren’t actually selling.  They were paying others as much as $37.63 a barrel to take the oil for them.5

Whew!  We’ve covered a lot of ground.  Congratulations, because you’ve just completed a crash course in the byzantine world of oil prices.  Let’s end by quickly covering two simpler questions:

Q: How will this affect gas prices?   

The answer: probably not as much as you’d think.

Oil prices and gasoline prices are related but not identical.  Gasoline is made from distilled petroleum, usually with a number of special additives.  It’s sold by different companies than those that extracted the petroleum in the first place.  Gasoline futures are an entirely different type of contract governed by a different set of factors.  Transportation, marketing, and refining costs all contribute to the price.  So do federal and state taxes, the latter of which can vary widely.  And of course, different gas stations can set different prices.  There’s no governing body or set of regulations to follow.

Still, falling oil prices do tend to lead to falling gas prices.  As of Tuesday, April 21, the average price per gallon in the United States was $1.81.6  That’s 36 cents lower than a month ago, and more than a dollar cheaper than this time last year.  So, you can expect to pay less at the pump for the time being.  Just don’t expect it to get anywhere near zero!

Q: So how does this affect the stock market? 

Still reeling from the pandemic, oil volatility is the last thing the stock market needs right now.  That’s because falling oil prices make life harder for energy companies.  It can lead to significant layoffs, at a time when unemployment is already skyrocketing.  Nations that are particularly dependent on oil production – Canada comes to mind – may feel the effects even more.  That said, oil prices have been turbulent all year long, so moving forward, much of the economic pain may already be priced into the stock markets.  And with dozens of countries pledging to cut production or prop up the industry, we may see prices stabilize soon.

That said, this is not a problem that’s going to end anytime soon.  (The price of June WTI contracts has fallen recently, too.)  It will likely be months, at best, before demand overtakes supply again.  Storage space is increasingly scarce.  So, this is definitely something we will keep an eye on moving forward.  We will scrutinize your portfolio for any possible weaknesses, and let you know if we feel a change is needed.

We hope you found this analysis interesting.  At the very least, now you can impress your family with your knowledge of how oil futures work!  (I know they’re all just dying to learn.)  In the meantime, let me know if you have any questions.  As this pandemic goes on, always remember that my team and I are here for you.  We are constantly working to keep you on track to your financial goals.

The CARES Act

Breaking Down the CARES Act

As you know, the coronavirus pandemic has created both a health crisis and an economic crisis.  As of this writing, there are over 160,000 known cases.1  By the time you read this, there will certainly be more – and that number does not reflect those who have been infected but not tested.  The economic cost, meanwhile, has resulted in millions of Americans losing their jobs.  Some economists at the Federal Reserve estimate the unemployment rate could rise as high as 32%!2 

To help address both crises, Congress recently passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.  It’s a massive, $2 trillion stimulus package designed to help everything from hospitals, to individuals, to businesses large and small.  Time will tell if it will be enough to blunt the impact of this pandemic, but the fact Congress was able to pass something so significant, so quickly, is a rare feat worth celebrating. 

Charles Darwin once said, “It is the long history of humankind that those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.”  For many years now, that is not a quote you could usually apply to the United States Congress.  Political partisanship has meant that gridlock usually prevails over collaboration.  Thankfully, both sides of the aisle recently proved the institution still works when people put aside their differences and work together for the common good. 

This is major legislation, with benefits for almost every American.  Some of the bill’s provisions are especially important for retirees.  So, to help you understand what the CARES Act does, and how it will impact you, I have prepared a special breakdown.  As I am sending this to all my clients, some information may apply to you, and some may not.  Please read it carefully, and then let me know if you have any questions.      

 We at Vaughan & Co. Securities Inc, hope you and your family are staying healthy and safe.  Please let us know if there is anything we can do for you!                                  

Important Provisions of the CARES Act

The CARES Act is designed “to provide emergency assistance and health care response for individuals, families, and businesses affected by the 2020 coronavirus pandemic.”3  Think of it as a kind of massive care package.  Just as an actual care package is meant to get somebody through a tough time, that’s what the CARES Act is designed to do.  Because so many people have either lost their job, seen their hours cut back, or experienced drastic changes to their daily lives, many Americans must now contend with potential cashflow problems.  The CARES Act contains a number of provisions to help individuals and businesses handle those problems, at least for the short-term.

What follows is a brief overview of the provisions that could affect you and your finances.  Let’s start with:

Direct Payments4

What’s the quickest way to ensure people get the money they need?  Pay them directly.  Perhaps the most newsworthy aspect of this bill is that many taxpayers will receive a one-time direct payment to help them cover expenses. 

Here’s a breakdown of how it will work. 

Individuals who made up to $75,000 in 2019 will receive $1,200

Heads of Household (single parents, for example) who made up to $112,500 in 2019 will receive $1,200.

Married couples filing a joint tax return who made up to $150,000 in 2019 will receive $2,400.

On top of this, each taxpayer will receive up to $500 for each child they have under the age of 17.  So, for example, a married couple with two children would receive $3,400.

Note that payments decrease for individuals and married couples with income above their respective thresholds.  Specifically, payments shrink by $5 for every $100 earned above the $75,000/$150,000 limits.  The payments disappear entirely for individuals who made $99,000 or more, and for married couples who made $198,000 or more. 

So, when will this money actually arrive?  It’s unclear.  The IRS could start issuing payments sometime in April or May, but an official schedule has not been released.  (The CARES Act itself only mandates that payments be made “as rapidly as possible.”4)  It’s likely that those who filed their 2019 tax returns with direct-deposit information will receive payments first.  

If you haven’t filed your tax return for 2019 yet, please let me know.  We would be happy to work with your tax preparer to expedite the process. 

Speaking of tax filing…

New Tax Deadlines5

This isn’t technically part of the CARES Act, but I’m going to cover it anyway because it’s important.  Due to the pandemic, IRS has extended this year’s tax-filing and payment deadlines.  Now, taxpayers have until July 15 – up from the standard April 15 – to file their 2019 tax returns.  The deadline to make IRA and Roth IRA contributions is now July 15 as well. 

Note that this new deadline applies to everyone, not just those who are sick, under quarantine, or materially affected by the coronavirus in some way.  And if you’ve already filed your return, you should still receive your refund around the same time you would during a typical tax season.

Unemployment4

Let’s get back to the CARES Act.

I said a moment ago that direct payments were the most newsworthy aspect of the bill.  But for the overall economy, the bill’s unemployment provisions are probably the most important.  Unemployment claims rose by 3.28 million between March 15-21.  That’s the highest weekly surge in history.  The previous record?  695,000.6 

To help combat this, the CARES Act provides approximately $260 billion in unemployment assistance for those who lose their jobs.  This includes freelancers, independent contractors, and other self-employed workers.  That’s a major change, because under normal circumstances, they can’t apply for unemployment benefits. 

Generally, workers who lose their jobs will receive $600 per week for four months, in addition to what their state unemployment program pays.  The CARES Act also adds an additional thirteen months of federal unemployment insurance on top of a person’s state benefits.

If any family members lose their job, please let me know.  We would be happy to answer their questions or provide any assistance we can. 

Business Support4

Even those who don’t lose their jobs will still want to keep a close eye on our nation’s unemployment rate.  More people out of work means less people spending money on the economy – which can have a profound influence on the markets.  That’s why one of the most critical things the government can do right now is help businesses avoid laying people off. 

Roughly $350 billion of the legislation’s price tag is geared towards just that.  Companies with up to 500 employees can receive loans of up to $10 million.  Any portion of the loan used to maintain payroll or retain workers – at least through the end of June – will be forgiven.  In addition, businesses can apply for grants of up to $10,000 to cover their operating costs. 

For larger businesses, the CARES Act sets aside around $500 billion in loans and grants, especially for hard-hit industries like airlines.  And for companies that are forced to close or furlough workers, the legislation “covers to 50% of payroll on the first $10,000 of compensation, including health benefits, for each employee.”7

These are all necessary steps to keep our economy going.  Will they be enough?  That’s an open question.  The answer largely depends on how long the pandemic lasts – and how well Americans commit to social distancing to stop the virus’ spread.  Watch this space.             

Retirement Funds4

Certain aspects of the CARES Act’s provisions are especially important for retirees.  Let’s cover those now.

First up, Required Minimum Distributions, or RMDs.  In a normal year, anyone 72 years or older would need to withdraw a minimum amount from their IRA or 401(k).  Not this year.  Under the CARES Act, all RMDs are suspended in 2020.  That means you can leave that money in your retirement account for the year if you don’t need it now.  Note that this applies both to retirement account owners and beneficiaries.

People who have already taken their distribution for 2020 can potentially return the money to their account if they want.  This could be a slightly complicated process, so I won’t cover it here.  However, if you want further information about it, let me know.

The CARES Act also waives the 10% early withdrawal penalty for retirement accounts.  Withdrawals will still be taxed, but spread over a three-year period.  Under most circumstances, my advice is to leave your retirement savings where they are, but it’s nice to know that early withdrawals are an option if you need them.

Finally, the CARES Act increases the 401(k) loan-limit from $50,000 to $100,000.

If you have questions about any of these provisions, or how they apply to you, let’s chat!

Combatting the Coronavirus4

Finally, it should come as a great comfort to know that the brave doctors, nurses, and scientists on the front lines are getting assistance, too.  Specifically, the CARES Act provides $100 billion for hospitals, $1.32 billion for community health centers, $11 billion for coronavirus treatments and vaccines, $16 billion for additional medical supplies, like ventilators and masks, and $20 billion for veterans’ health care.  You should know, too, that the Act includes a telehealth program so that if you can’t leave home, you can still have a virtual appointment with your doctor.

Our hearts goes out to all those giving their time, talents – and sometimes, lives – to keep the rest of us safe.  They are true heroes, and we are so grateful for them.  Let’s all do our part to make their jobs just a little easier by maintaining our distance, keeping clean, and staying home as much as possible.

Conclusion

As you can see, the CARES Act is a loaded piece of legislation.  Time will tell whether more measures are needed, but this is definitely a good start.

Of course, our team will continue poring over these changes.  If there is anything else we feel you need to know, we’ll reach out to you.  In the meantime, if you have any questions about:

·         Getting a direct payment

·         Filing your taxes

·         Protecting your paycheck and/or income

·         Your retirement accounts

Please don’t hesitate to let us know.  Whether we’re in the office or working from our own homes, my team and I are always here for you.

Stay healthy, and stay safe.

Regrets We Will Not Have

Four Things Others Will Wish They Had Done – That We’re Already Do

As you know, the coronavirus situation continues to hammer the markets.  All over the world, investors large and small are facing a level of uncertainty we haven’t experienced in over a decade.  But I’m proud to say that, based on the conversations I’ve had with you and my other clients, there may be no group of people in the world who are handling this situation better.  The majority of my clients have all told me some variation of the same thing:

“It’s not fun, but I’m not stressing about it too much.  I know the markets will recover eventually.”

In other words, they know that, while what goes up must come down, what goes down will eventually bounce back up.

I was also proud when a client asked me a very simple, but very smart question the other day:

“When this is all over, what will I wish I had done?”

This question really got me thinking.  Investors are bombarded every day with opinions (informed or otherwise), data (informative or misleading), and news (real or fake).  As a result, many investors have panicked.  When the coronavirus pandemic resolves and the markets rebound, what will they wish they had done?

Here are my answers:

  1. They’ll wish they had focused on the long-term instead of the short.

Investing, by its very nature, is a long-term activity.  Even people who are close to retirement are still investing for the long-term.  That’s why, while bear markets are uncomfortable, they’re also somewhat overrated.  Markets fall over days, weeks, and sometimes, months.  But history has shown that they rise over the course of years and decades, which is good for us, because we’ll be investing for years to come!

Investors who forget this, who think that what’s happening now will happen always, are falling prey to recency bias.  And that never ends well.

  1. They’ll wish they had double-checked our asset allocation before all this started.

Asset allocation – the process of spreading your investments across different asset classes – is one of the most important things an investor can do to balance risk versus reward.  During bear markets, the investors who get burned the most are the ones who “put all their eggs in one basket.”  That’s because they didn’t stop to think what would happen if they let their basket drop.       

Investors who have spread their money across a variety of asset classes – who have truly diversified – know they have plenty of eggs left to cook with.

  1. They’ll wish they hadn’t tried to take shortcuts.

Think of the last time you were caught in a traffic jam.  You’re sitting there, idling in traffic, when suddenly, the lane next to you starts to move.  So, you quickly merge into that lane, only to get stuck again.  Meanwhile, the lane you were just in is now moving…and all the cars that were once behind you are now speeding ahead.

Maddening, isn’t it?

When bear markets hit, investors often panic.  Instead of sticking to their long-term strategy, they sell, sell, sell – at a time when everyone is selling.  This means they are selling low.  In other words, they try to change lanes in the middle of a traffic jam.

But again, we’re in this for the long-term.  The road we’re on stretches for miles.  Sometimes, the speed limit is 75 miles per hour.  Sometimes, it’s only 25.  Trying to take shortcuts just leads to longer delays.

  1. They’ll wish they had positioned themselves to take advantage of when the markets rebound.

It happened after the Great Depression.  It happened after the stock market crash of ’87. It happened after the dot-com bubble burst.  It happened after the financial crisis of 2008.  It happened after the fourth quarter of 2018.  The markets recovered – and climbed to new heights.

Just as bear markets are inevitable, so too are bull markets.  Investors who don’t think long-term, who try to take shortcuts, who don’t try to balance risk and reward, will not be positioned to take advantage of the next one.  Which means that when this is all over and the markets rebound, when they look over at the lane next to them and see people zooming ahead, they’ll be wishing they had done things differently.

But here’s the good news. When this is all over, we won’t be wishing we had done these things.  Why?  Because we’re already doing them!  So, while headlines probably won’t be pleasant over the next several weeks, we can take comfort in this very simple fact:

When this is all over, we won’t need to look back and regret.  All we’ll need to do is keep looking forward.

No matter what headlines you see over the coming weeks and months, always remember that my team and I are here for you.  We’re here to answer your questions.  We’re here to keep an eye on your money.  We’re here to help you hold to your long-term dreams and plans.  So, if there’s ever anything more we can do, please don’t hesitate to let us know.

Because we’re here.

Coronavirus and Market Swings

An Update on the Coronavirus Situation

The Situation

On Thursday, March 5, 2020, the Dow fell 969 points – just the latest in a week of wild swings.1  While monitoring the situation, a headline caught my eye:

“Dow tumbles nearly 1,000 points again, because stocks can’t figure out coronavirus.”2 

To me, this headline illustrates what the media often gets wrong about investing.  But before we dive into that, let’s review how the coronavirus (COVID-19) is impacting the markets.

A wild week

In terms of pure numbers, the first week of March has been one of the wildest in recent memory.  In fact, the Dow had two of its best days ever on March 2nd and 4th…but two of its worst days ever on March 3rd and 5th. 2  Writers have been comparing the stock market to a rollercoaster for decades, but this takes the analogy to a whole new level.

It's not hard to understand why.  The coronavirus outbreak – which as of this writing has spread to over 100,000 people, with over 3,400 fatalities – is putting a major crimp on business activities around the world.3  Global supply chains, which are the networks between a company and its suppliers, have been dramatically affected. As a result, some of the world’s largest corporations have warned shareholders that they may not be able to reach their quarterly profit estimates.  Industries like travel and transportation, which depend on the movement of people and goods, have seen business plummet.  This in turn has impacted the energy industry, as less travel and transportation mean less demand for oil.

So.  Coronavirus is definitely taking a toll on global markets.  The question economists are struggling to answer is, “How will coronavirus affect the global economy?” 

Here in the United States, consumer spending is one of the main drivers of our economy.  There have been over two-hundred confirmed cases of COVID-19 thus far.  That’s a small number in the grand scheme of things.  Economists’ concern, though, is that the virus may spread, causing people to stay home and consumer spending to slow dramatically.  Nations with far more cases, like China, South Korea, and Italy, are already seeing slowdowns.  The worst-case scenario, according to some analysts, is that economic growth for 2020 could be cut in half if the virus continues to spread.4  Should that happen, some nations may well experience a recession.

The Federal Reserve responds

For weeks, analysts expected the Federal Reserve would act at some point.  That’s exactly what they did on Tuesday, March 3rd, when the Fed announced they would cut interest rates by 0.5%.5  The Fed figured lower interest rates would prompt more spending and lending.  Think of it as giving the economy a dose of Vitamin C.

But the markets fell anyway.

There are a few reasons for this.  While a rate cut was expected, the Fed acted much sooner than many anticipated.  So, rather than prompt enthusiasm, it instead prompted concern.  “If the Fed feels like they have to cut rates to keep the economy going,” the thinking goes, “what does that say about the economy?”

Then, too, there’s only so much that lower interest rates can actually do.  To be frank, the Fed has already spent most of its ammunition on this front.  Interest rates have been low for years and have only gotten lower lately.  Furthermore, interest rates can’t fix global supply chains, or replace lost business.  They won’t fill seats on airlines or keep the machinery running in hard-hit factories.  Nor can they stop coronavirus from spreading.

Viruses are no respecter of borders or laws; they’re certainly no respecter of lower interest rates.

Headline-driven investing

Just typing those words makes me shudder!  Headlines are one of the last things that should drive investing, but that’s where we are right now.  The proof is in what happened on Wednesday, March 4th.

The night before was Super Tuesday – when fourteen states held presidential primaries.  Joe Biden won most of these states, which buoyed investors, as Biden is seen as more centrist than his main opponent, Bernie Sanders.

What connection does Joe Biden winning have on stocks?  None right now.  It doesn’t change anything about coronavirus.  It won’t magically increase economic activity.  The election itself isn’t for another eight months!  And yet, the markets rose over 1,000 points on the back of that headline…before giving most of it back the very next day when the headlines changed.6

Which leads me back to the headline I showed you at the beginning of this letter.

“Dow tumbles nearly 1,000 points again, because stocks can’t figure out coronavirus.” 

Look at those words again: Stocks can’t figure out coronavirus.  Stocks don’t have minds of their own, of course, so my guess is the headline really meant investors can’t figure out coronavirus.

But here’s the thing.  For investors, there’s not much to figure out.

Economists, analysts, and pundits try to divine how today’s news will affect tomorrow.  They create projections to help banks, businesses, and politicians make decisions.  It’s a hard job, there’s no denying.

But no investor can accurately predict how bad the virus will or won’t be.  I’ve seen some commentators make claims about vaccines, or how warm weather will stop the virus in its tracks, or any of a dozen other things.  It’s all speculation.  The fact is, no one knows how long this epidemic will last, or how far it will spread.  No one knows who will win the election in November.  No one knows the future!  We can make educated guesses, but we can’t know with any certainty.  So of course investors can’t “figure out” coronavirus.

Even if we could, the situation would likely change the next day!

To me, the problem with the headline above is that it implies investors should be trying to “figure it out.”  But if we could, there would never be any uncertainty.  Investing would become as predictable as grocery shopping.  But investing doesn’t work like that.  That’s why we don’t make investment decisions based on predictions.  It’s why, during times of market volatility, we don’t chase our own tail, trying to time the markets or make risky bets based on what we guess might happen.

In other words, we don’t need to “figure out” coronavirus.  Let’s leave that to the scientists.  Instead, all we need to do is largely what we’ve already done!  And that is:

  1. Determine what kind of investment return you need to reach your goals, and then choose high-quality investments based on the principles of supply and demand. When demand outpaces supply, buyers are in control, and prices are likely to move upward.  When supply is greater than demand, sellers are in control, and prices tend to go down.  That’s why we don’t buy or sell based on predictions or stories.  We look at what is actually happening by examining trends.
  2. When the market is trending upward, we focus on growing your money. When the market trends down, we focus on preserving it.  This is done by putting strict rules in place that govern your investments.  For example, if an investment moves below a predetermined exit point, we sell.  If necessary, we can move entirely to cash if that’s what it takes to preserve your principal.

In the short term, coronavirus will probably continue to impact the markets.  The global economy will continue having symptoms.  But we don’t need to guess what the effects will be anymore than we need to guess what the weather will be like ninety days from now.  Instead, we determine the rules we need to follow to help you reach your goals, and then follow those rules to the letter.  To me, it’s comforting to know that we don’t need a crystal ball to be successful long-term investors.  We don’t need to be virus experts.  All we need to be is disciplined, informed, and prudent.

In the meantime, I expect volatility will continue.  By the time you read these words, the headlines will have changed again.  That means the markets will have probably swung again.  That’s okay.  Because while volatility is never fun, we don’t need to “figure it out.”  We’ve already done that.

While I’m encouraging you to not stress over daily headlines or market swings, I understand that’s sometimes easier said than done.  After all, it’s your money!  So, if you have any questions or concerns about your portfolio, please let me know. I will always be here for you.

The Decade In Review: 2010-2019

Every January, I send my clients a letter titled The Year in Review, where together we look back at the year that was.  What were the highlights?  What were the “lowlights”?  What did we learn?

But this January doesn’t just mark a new year.  It marks the beginning of a new decade.  (Unless you are a strict observer of the Gregorian calendar system, in which case the next decade begins in 2021.  But I digress.)  So, for this letter, we’re going to look back at what shaped the markets in the 2010s – and what lessons we should take with us into the ‘20s.

2010-11: Aftershocks of the Great Recession

The best way to see how much can change in a decade is to remember how things were at the end of the last one.  In 2010, we were coming off the worst decade for stocks since the 1930s.  The Great Recession had devastated the retirement savings of millions of people.  Many of the world’s most famous financial institutions had collapsed.  And the national unemployment rate was near 10%.1

It was a scary and uncertain time.  Many investors had fled the markets entirely by 2010, some for good.  As a result, they missed a remarkable recovery that was just around the corner.  Not only that, they missed the longest bull market in history.

In hindsight, it might seem obvious that there was nowhere to go but up.  But just as the start of a recession is very hard to see coming, the ending can be equally hard to wait for.  People can be forgiven for thinking the worst was still to come, because in 2010 and 2011, there were still a lot of ominous headlines to deal with.  Remember any of these terms?

Sequestration   ●   U.S. Debt Ceiling   ●   European Debt Crisis ●   Bailouts   ●   Austerity   ●   The Fiscal Cliff

For the first few years, fear abounded as to whether the global economy would be able to recover at all.  Nation after nation dealt with spiraling debt that couldn’t be paid off.  Remember how often Greece used to be in the news?  Some analysts speculated about the possibility of a second recession. 2011 was an especially tenuous year for the stock market, especially when the United States’ credit rating was downgraded for the first time in history.

2012-14: The Federal Reserve intervenes

During this time, however, the world’s largest central banks were working behind the scenes to keep the recovery going.  In the United States, for example, the Federal Reserve embarked upon a massive bond-buying program, to the tune of $85 billion per month.  This accomplished two things.  First, it flooded the money supply and kept interest rates historically low.  Lower interest rates made borrowing less costly, which meant businesses and individuals could borrow and spend more, thereby pumping more money into the economy as a whole.  This, of course, equaled growth.  Slow growth, but growth nonetheless.

The second thing the Fed’s bond-buying did was drive more investors into stocks.  Low interest rates often lead to lower returns for fixed income investments, so it was into the higher risk, higher reward stock market that investors went.  All this had been going on for years, but the results were only then becoming apparent.  So, it came almost as a surprise when the markets reached new highs, even though the economy still seemed to be licking its wounds.  It was in mid-2013 that the Dow hit 15,000 for the first time, rising to 16,000 by the end of the year, and then 17,000 the year after.

2015-16: Waiting for the other shoe to fall

But that didn’t mean the markets were immune to volatility.  Despite the economic recovery, many experts spent the decade in near-constant fear of another bear market.  Every wobble, every market correction, was watched with fearful anticipation.  It was like standing next to someone’s hospital bed, thinking every next breath will be their last.  Some of this was probably a form of post-traumatic stress caused by the Great Recession.  The rest came from the spasms of an ever-changing world.

Oil prices plunged dramatically around this time, hurting both oil-producing nations as well as the energy industry.  China’s stock market crashed.  The Greek debt crisis reared its ugly head again, prompting fears that “financial contagion” would spread and create another global recession.  And then came Brexit.  The news that the United Kingdom would leave the European Union sent shockwaves around the world.  And here at home, one of the most bitterly contested presidential elections in U.S. history had both sides of the political aisle forecasting economic ruin if the other side won.

But despite the dire predictions, these developments only slowed the recovery’s march rather than derailing it completely.  In fact, by July of 2016, the Dow once again hit new heights.

2017-19: The longest bull market

While most of the decade had seen slow-but-steady growth, the horse started picking up speed as it neared the finish line, buoyed by tax cuts, increased government spending, and corporate earnings.  Nowhere was this truer than with the Dow.  Comprised of thirty of the largest publicly-traded companies, the Dow hit 20,000 for the first time early in 2017 – and closed well above 28,000 on December 31, 2019.2

Exactly ten years before, the number was only 10,428.  That’s an increase of over 170% - the culmination of the longest bull market in history.

Of course, it wasn’t all smooth sailing.  The trade war with China is an ever-present concern, with rising tariffs often leading to brief, but dramatic downswings in the market.  2018 was actually a down year for the S&P 500, the only one of the decade.  And as the 2010s drew to a close, many economists warned of a slowing economy – with maybe even a mild recession in store.

Despite these warnings, investors did what they had done for most of the decade: Act startled, and then head right back into the markets.  Some pundits call it a market “melt-up” instead of the usual meltdown.

What have we learned?

So.  A remarkable decade filled with twists and turns.  But what did we learn? 

When I looked back at the last ten years, one thing that struck me was how interconnected the world has become.  So many of the storylines that drove the markets originated far beyond our shores.  We truly live in a global economy.  We invest in other countries, buy products in other countries, loan money to other countries (or apply for loans, as the case may be) and trade with other countries.  We might be separated by the world’s biggest ponds, but the ripples near one shore are always felt near the other.

That means two things.  One, for an advisor like me, it means there’s more than ever to keep track of.  But two, it means we should react less and less to the headlines of the day – or to each individual ripple.  A butterfly might flap its wings in Beijing and cause a hurricane in Topeka, as the saying goes, but there are butterflies flapping their wings everywhere.  That’s one reason why we saw many storms but fewer hurricanes in the 2010s.

Another thing we learned?  Sometimes, most times, slow and steady really does win the race.  We were all taught the truth of this as children when we learned the story of the tortoise and the hare.  The past decade proved it.  Everyone loves growth that comes fast and hot.  But when something burns fast and hot, it tends to burn out faster, too.  One reason we never saw the recession so many people feared is because the economy recovered as slowly as it did.  It’s a lesson we can apply to our own financial decisions.  While it’s always tempting to chase after windfalls and jackpots, it’s so much smarter to prioritize steady progress over short-term whims.  The race to your goals is a marathon, not a sprint.

A third thing we learned is how often things don’t go as predicted.  In 2010 and 2011, many experts predicted a gloomy decade for the stock markets – and they had good reason to think so!  But it didn’t happen.  When, say, Obamacare became the law of the land, many experts predicted economic disaster.  As of this writing, it hasn’t happened. When Brexit became a reality, many experts predicted a global catastrophe.  As of this writing, it hasn’t happened.  When President Trump was elected, many experts predicted a market meltdown.  As of this writing, it hasn’t happened.  We all have our opinions on whether events like these were good or bad, of course.  But it’s a good thing we didn’t base our investment decisions on any expert’s predictions!

Because if there’s one thing we learned this decade, is that a prediction is like a person’s appendix – pretty much useless.

2020 and beyond

With that in mind, I won’t make any predictions for the coming decade.  If history is correct – and it always is – another market correction, another bear market, another recession will come eventually.  Whether it’s this year, or next, or the one after that, I can’t say.  What’s more important is that we remember this: It’s when we fly that we should have the healthiest respect for gravity.  But it’s when we’re on the ground that we should raise our eyes to the skies.

Investing is like trying to find our way in the dark – and our strategy is our North Star.  It’s so much more valuable than any prediction!  We may bump into the occasional obstacle.  Sometimes, we may even trip.  But if we hold to that star, we will keep moving forward in the direction we want to go.

We will make this decade whatever we want it to be.

My team and I can’t wait to spend the next decade with you.

What is an Inverted Yield Curve?

If you ask an economist what makes them toss and turn at night, chances are they’ll tell you, “Fear of missing the warning signs of a recession.”  After all, for anyone who studies the economy for a living, few things could be worse than a sudden economic slump catching you by surprise.

That’s why many economists rely on certain indicators to predict if there’s rough weather ahead.  Historically, one of the most reliable indicators is the inverted yield curve.  This is when the yield on long-term bonds drops below the yield on short-term bonds.  Why does this matter to economists?   Because an inverted yield curve has preceded every recession since 1956.1

Long-Term Bond Yield Hits Record Low2
Stocks Skid as Bonds Flash a Warning
3
The Wall Street Journal, August 14, 2019

On August 14, the yield on 10-year Treasury bonds dropped below 1.6%, officially falling beneath the yield on 2-year Treasury bonds for the first time since 2007.4  That’s an inverted yield curve.  The markets responded the way children do when a hornet gets inside the family car – they panicked.  The Dow, the S&P 500, and the NASDAQ all fell sharply, with the Dow plunging over 700 points.3

The obvious question, of course, is “Why?”

It’s a smart question!  To the average investor, the term “inverted yield curve” probably doesn’t sound very scary.  So, why does it have the markets freaking out?  Let’s break it down by answering a few basic – but also smart – questions.

  1. What’s a bond yield, again?

A bond yield is the return you get when you put your money in a government or corporate bond.  Whenever an investor buys a bond, they’re agreeing to loan money to the issuer of that bond – the government, in the case of Treasury bonds – for a specific length of time.  Typically, the longer the time, the higher the yield, as investors want a greater return in exchange for locking up their money for years or even decades.  That’s why the yield on long-term bonds is almost always higher than on short-term bonds.  When these trade places, we have an inverted yield curve.

  1. Okay, so why have bond yields inverted?

Bear with me here, because I’m about to get a little technical. 

Bond yields have an inverse relationship with bond prices.  That means when prices go up, yields fall, and vice versa.

What do I mean by price?  Well, investors must pay to buy bonds, of course, and when more people buy them, the price of these bonds goes up.  (It’s the basic law of supply and demand: When the demand for something increases, so does the price.)   When that happens, yields drop.

Investors often see bonds as safe havens of sorts, especially during economic turmoil.  Stocks, on the other hand, tend to be seen as “higher risk, higher reward” investments.  In this case, investors are selling their stocks and plowing more and more money into long-term bonds, pushing prices up and yields below that of short-term bonds.  The fact investors are doing this suggests they’re not optimistic about the near-future health of the economy and are seeking safe places to park their money.

  1. Why are investors so worried about the economy?

On the home front, it’s largely because of the trade war between the U.S. and China.  As the two nations engage in an ever-growing battle of tariffs, the fear is that businesses in the U.S. will have to raise prices, thereby hurting consumers.  On August 13, President Trump decided to delay the most recent round of tariffs until December, saying he didn’t want tariffs to affect shopping during the Christmas season.5  Previously, Trump predicted tariffs would not hurt U.S. businesses, so this sudden about-face suggests even he is worried.

Investors are also worried about a slowdown in the global economy.  Two of the world’s most important economies, China and Germany, have both shrunk.  Put all these things together and it’s not hard to see why investors worry about a recession in the near future.

Fears the recent news about inverted yield curves will only stoke.

  1. So is a recession imminent?

As I mentioned earlier, inverted yield curves have preceded every recession since 1956.  This includes the Great Recession of 2008.  But does this mean a recession is just around the corner?

No!

There are two things to keep in mind here.  First, a brief inverted yield curve is not the same thing as a sustained one.  While inversions have preceded every modern recession, inversions do not always lead to a recession.  Think of it this way: You can’t have a rainstorm without dark gray clouds.  But dark gray clouds don’t always lead to a rainstorm.  Make sense?

You see, correlation does not equal causation.  By this I mean that while inversions and recessions are often seen together, one does not actually cause the other.  An inverted yield curve is like a sneeze: It’s a symptom, not the disease itself.  And while a sneeze can mean you have a cold, it doesn’t lead to a cold.  Sometimes, we sneeze because we got pepper up our nose.

Second, let’s assume for argument’s sake that this recent inversion is a warning sign of a future recession.  That doesn’t mean a recession is imminent.  Some analysis suggests that it takes an average of twenty-two months for a recession to follow an inversion.1  That’s a long time!  A long time to save, invest, plan and prepare.

  1. So does an inverted yield curve even matter, then?

I’ll put it simply: It matters enough to pay attention to.  It doesn’t matter enough to be worth panicking over.

Make no mistake, we’re in a volatile period right now.  There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that volatility will continue.  But while comparing the markets to the weather has become something of a cliché, it also makes a lot of sense.  When storm clouds gather, we pack an umbrella or stay inside.  We don’t run for the hills.

The same is true of market volatility.

Remember, an inverted yield curve is an indicator, not a prophecy.  Economists can toss and turn about such things, but you and I are focusing on something much less abstract: your financial goals.  More important than any indicator, more important than the day-to-day swings in the markets, is the discipline we show.  If you think about it, market volatility is really a symptom, too – a symptom of emotional decision making.  Investors see a good headline, and they buy, buy, buy!  That’s a market rally.  Investors see a bad one, and they sell, sell, sell!  That’s a market dip.

Investing based on emotion leads to one thing: Regret.  Regret that we bought into the hype and bought when we should have waited for a better deal.  Regret that we fell into fear and sold when we should have held on longer.  We invest by being disciplined enough to buy, hold, or sell when it makes sense for your situation.

That’s the best way to stay on track toward your goals.  That’s the best way to not toss and turn at night.  We don’t make decisions based on predictions.  We make decisions based on need.

My team and I will keep watching the indicators.  We’ll keep doing our best to explain the twists and turns in the markets.  And we’ll keep doing our best not to overreact to any of them.  In the meantime, please contact me if you have any questions or concerns.  We always love to hear from you!

 

 

 

1 “The inverted yield curve explained,” CNBC, August 14, 2019.  https://www.cnbc.com/2019/08/14/the-inverted-yield-curve-explained-and-what-it-means-for-your-money.html

2 “Long-Term Bond Yield Hits Record Low,” The Wall Street Journal, August 14, 2019.  https://www.wsj.com/articles/bond-rally-drives-30-year-treasury-yield-to-record-low-11565794665

3 “Stocks Skid as Bonds Flash a Warning,” The Wall Street Journal, August 14, 2019.  https://www.wsj.com/articles/asian-stocks-gain-on-tariff-delay-11565769562

4 “Dow tumbles 700 points after bond market flashes a recession warning,” CNN Business, August 14, 2019.  https://www.cnn.com/2019/08/14/investing/dow-stock-market-today/index.html

5 “U.S. Retreats on Chinese Tariff Threats,” The Wall Street Journal, August 13, 2019.  https://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-will-delay-some-tariffs-against-china-11565704420

Market Volatility 2019

“Investing When Money Markets Moves Our Way”

The last several years, and even the last several months, have been a microcosm of the money markets. The 7% drop in the month of May set off by one of Trump’s tweets was followed by an almost immediately 7% upswing in the month of June and continuing into early July. In the year 2018, we had two different 20% downturns, each of which were promptly followed by strong market upturns. As most of our clients know, and have come to accept, this level of market fluctuation is normal but unpleasant. Our strategy to deal with these market fluctuations is to acknowledge that they will continue to occur, but it is the price that we must pay for the higher equity market returns that we receive and expect to receive in the future. That the new market records would be a good time to address a couple of changes in the markets. First, I have finally decided that it’s time that for me to get on Twitter. Our president has decided that he’s going to, generally speaking, bypass the normal press release mechanism and release new information to the public through Twitter. I understand that Twitter is used for all kinds of purposes other than general policy announcements. It also seems to be used for sparring with your enemies, and it’s certainly being used to communicate directly with the US citizens and bypass the Washington Press Corps. I don’t want to spend too much time on the technical details of our work for you, but I can’t help but notice that the equity market mutual fund ETF purchases by the general public has been running at very low levels with bond fund purchases outrunning them throughout the month of June. That is, most of your fellow investors were selling stocks and buying bonds during the June period when the market was setting market records, unfortunately we cannot help them because they’re not our clients, but it is an indicator to us how many people are poor investors.

It has been and continues to be our recommendation to you that you maintain your investment in these wonderful multi-national rational companies in which you have invested.  The value of these companies may fluctuate dramatically in the stock market.  Your fellow investors may sell out at the latest whim or presidential tweet, but you know and we agree with you, that all of these changes and the daily press fixations on one matter or another all pass very quickly and it becomes insignificant to the long-term health of these rationally run companies.  This is a wonderful time for you to point out to your family that market ups and downs change very quickly, change unpredictably, but that we believe the long-term trend is up and that the 20% up and down turns, the 7% up and down months, are part of the cost of being a good long-term investor.  Please note that during all of last year with its ups and downs and this year with its ups and downs, the dividends in your account have continued to come into your account and to rise.  If you come across any of your good friends or family who are complaining about and concerned about market fluctuation, market volatility, please give them our name and we would be happy to talk to them and see if we can help them.

A final point that I would like to address, because I hear it come up from time to time are various market strategies that fall into the category of technical analysis, sometimes the “trend following,” sometimes they’re called market momentum play.  All of them are designed to offer an investor the possibility of avoiding large market downturns and yet participate in the upside of markets.  Many times, their components will argue for loss protection analysis or plan to protect capital.  We believe that all these technical analysis type programs sound great, a program which avoids serious market downturns.  But unfortunately, we can’t, because they don’t work.

The market technical analysis for rules-based investing is designed to help you stay invested in investment programs that are working well now and avoiding programs that are not working well.  The idea being that the recent past can indicate and predict what the future will be.  Our argument is that the future is unknowable, and that we have faith that capitalism will, and the investment markets moving cycles, will fix any problems that they’ve had in the past, any excesses that they’ve had in the past.  We will move forward, solve our problems, and figure out a way to increase earnings going forward.

The market analysts offer you the possibility and pretend that they have a system whereby they can avoid these losses.  It sounds very enticing because it’s exactly what you would like to hear, that losses can be avoided, and gains realized.  This is not possible, so our strategy to deal with market downturns is for you and your spouse to fully acknowledge that they’re coming, to embrace them, to treat them as part of the entire process, and then to teach your children the exact same formula, so that they don’t make the mistake of getting involved in any one of these market time schemes that promise to have you out of the markets and selling before a downturn, and yet somehow magically getting you back into the markets in time for an upturn.

The last two years are just further evidence and a career’s worth of evidence, that these programs don’t work.  That they have you sell to late, have you buy back into an investment program too late as well, so that you realize a lot of the loss don’t get the gain get the market gets her upturn, and are disappointed anew with significant transition cost all along.  Our approach to dealing with market downturns is to understand that they’re coming.  This is not a prediction for the future, but we understand that they will come.  They will come at an unpredictable, unknowable time, that it’s part of the process.  Both you and your spouse should understand that.  You should explain it to your children so that they can become effective investors as well.

If you, your spouse, or any family members have any questions, please give us a call.  We continue to be optimistic about the future.  Your prosperity is our business.  Thank you.  Contact me with any questions.

Very truly yours,
James Vaughan III