Jonathan N. Castle, CFP®, ChFC®
The financial markets – both stocks and bonds – have been relatively calm for the last 4 months, nicely rewarding investors who avoided the urge to “Sell in May and Go Away,” and instead remained invested with a sound and prudent investment policy. Since the short but abrupt 10% correction that ended on June 2, the global stock markets have steadily advanced, packing on about 15% of value in the US markets and almost 18% in overseas trading. Our strategy of skewing portfolios heavily toward large stocks and high-yield bonds has generally paid off, allowing our investors to capture most of the market’s gains, commensurate with each individual’s risk tolerance.
However, based upon our own observations of financial news, as well as multiple discussions with clients, there is a nagging feeling of unease that persists in the financial markets. Nearly every client we meet with displays at least some level of concern about the economy and the financial markets going forward, despite having reaped solid returns from investments so far this year.
The financial markets are merely a reflection of the perceptions of hundreds of millions of investors, some of whom are highly sophisticated and understand the implication of governmental policies and economic data, and others who invest more by feel or intuition. Recently, there has been lukewarm (but not upsetting) economic news on the domestic front, a continuation of monetary easing by the Fed, and some positive developments in Europe that have led to a generally positive experience in the capital markets. Despite the calm, past experience has taught us that investors behave like lemmings and the stock market typically sets itself up to hurt the most people at any given time. I am reminded of Murphy’s Laws of Combat. There are several that presently come to mind:
• Murphy’s Law Number 26: The easy way is always mined.
• Murphy’s Law Number 38: If your attack is going really well, it’s an ambush.
• Murphy’s Law Number 32: In a crisis that forces people to choose among alternative courses of action, most people will choose the worst one possible (this one in particular may apply to Congress and the upcoming election)
• Murphy’s Law Number 44: After things have gone from bad to worse, the cycle will repeat itself.
• Murphy’s Law Number 145: Opportunity always knocks at the least opportune moment. (which takes courage to exploit…)
There are several very good reasons for unease – but it appears that there may also be a chance for opportunity to knock as well. Let’s take a look at the major issues that will be impactful on the economy and the financial markets over the next year or so.
Europe: The European Union seems to be finally getting its act together. The European Central Bank appears to be putting forth believable policies that may just keep the Union together and allow a “soft landing” for a number of the countries that are in deep fiscal trouble.
QE3 and Bernanke’s Printing Press: The Fed’s announcement of QE3 is, in the short term, positive for the stock market and for the economy. Fortunately (for now) it does not appear that all of the ingredients for hyperinflation are present. QE3 does not cause the US to directly incur any more debt – but it does cause the Fed to print more money which can eventually lead to a weak dollar and inflation. Since other Central Banks are printing money as well, the Fed’s act of printing more money does not necessarily mean that the dollar will weaken against other currencies. So – for the short term, this is positive. For the long term – once the economy does truly begin to recover – this open-ended quantitative easing could be a catalyst for extreme inflation if fiscal tightening measures are implemented too slowly at some point in the future.
China: It appears that China may have engineered a “soft landing.” If this is the case, it will have a positive impact upon our economy, as China is a significant trade partner with the US.
Fiscal Cliff: The most dangerous upcoming challenge that we have to watch centers around the expiration of the Bush Era Tax Cuts. Originally scheduled to sunset in 2010, these tax cuts represent an aggregate economic impact of over $500 Billion dollars and are currently scheduled to expire at the end of 2012. If these tax cuts are allowed to expire abruptly, it would shock the economy and immediately push the US economy back into a harsh recession. It is likely that unemployment would rise quickly, every household in America would feel the impact, and the stock market would sharply pull back.
2012 Presidential Election: Despite Romney’s good performance in the first debate, the markets currently still appear to be factoring an Obama victory. If Obama is reelected, then we believe that the markets will perhaps move sharply in one direction or another – but only for a very short period of time and for less than several percentage points, as amateur investors knee-jerk to the news. The impacts of governmental policy on industry sectors are some of the most widely studied economic subjects, and “bets” are placed months in advance. In fact, a number of studies have shown that the markets have a greater impact on presidential elections than presidential elections do on the markets. However – that being said, the consensus is that a Romney election will likely be better for the markets in the short term than would an Obama second term. Romney is a fiscal conservative, disagreeing with the Keynesian approach that the Obama administration is following. Historically, a Keynesian approach has not been particularly successful in creating economic prosperity, but has proven very effective at creating government debt and citizen’s dependency upon the government. Unfortunately, at some point, “production” must occur – which only occurs in the private sector and the free markets.
2012 Congressional Election: It is likely that the Congressional and Senate elections will be more impactful to the economy than the Presidential election. If either side wins a mandate and can actually move forward with the responsible governance of the country, then we may see some of the more troublesome issues resolve themselves. It is our hope that Congress feels it has a mandate, and is empowered enough to move forward with “smoothing out” the expiration of the Bush Tax Cuts to the point where the US economy can avoid the upcoming fiscal cliff. If that is the case, then we may avoid recession and reap significant profits from the capital markets over the next several years.
So – in short – what do we see and what do we plan to do?
1. We are watchful. If we actually do hit the Fiscal Cliff, we will likely have time to react before everything goes to heck in a handbasket. In the event that the Bush Tax Cuts do expire, AND we begin to see the effects in the markets and on the economy, we will shift to Defensive Portfolios where appropriate. The Defensive Portfolios are designed to perform quite well under extreme market stress. However, if the stock market ends up providing a strong return, the Defensive Portfolio will miss out on most of it. Consequently, we do not want to shift to the Defensive Portfolio unless we feel that the odds of a serious market correction are high. Unfortunately, one cannot have it both ways. Safety and high returns rarely go together. Additionally, changing portfolio structure will have significant tax consequences on non-IRA type accounts.
2. In the event that we avoid the Fiscal Cliff, we expect several opportunities to arise if the situation in Europe continues to improve. Having reduced our exposure to international and emerging markets nearly 2 years ago, their impending recovery will likely present us with significant opportunity for profit. Currently the consensus from most analysts is that it is too early to buy into these markets – but perhaps soon.
3. High Yield Bonds and Large Growth Stocks continue to appear more attractive than usual. We intend to keep these in the portfolios in percentages well above what we would hold normally. So far, this has played out well for portfolio performance.
4. Interest rates: Rising interest rates are the least of our concerns right now. Yes, rising interest rates do cause the price of existing bonds to fall – but interest rates will only rise if the Fed does a complete 180 degree turn from its present policy of quantitative easing. Likely, we will have plenty of warning – and a very robust stock market – long before we need to adjust portfolios to protect against rising interest rates. Once that occurs, however, we will make the necessary adjustments to insulate portfolios against falling bond prices.
As always, we appreciate the faith that you have placed in us by allowing us to advise you during these most “interesting” times in our lives. It is our hope that our watchfulness and our attempts at distilling complex and often confusing information adds value to your overall financial situation.
This blog is for informational purposes only. This is neither an offer to purchase nor sell any securities. All investing involves the potential of loss – including invested principal. Indices quoted are general barometers of security price movement. You cannot invest directly in an index. All information is obtained from sources deemed reliable but not guaranteed. Past performance is not a guarantee of future performance. No tax or legal advice is given nor intended.
Investment advisory services provided by Paragon Wealth Strategies, LLC, a registered investment advisor.
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