The Market feels a bit… “Toppy.”

5 03 2012

Jonathan N. Castle, CFP®, ChFC®

Where does the time go?  It is already nearly the end of February and it seems like 2012 is speeding along faster than last year!  So far this year, the financial markets have been reasonably good to all of us, with the S&P 500 up about 8.5%, the Dow up 6.6%, and the NASDAQ up an eye-popping 13.9% as of this writing.

The Dow Jones Industrial Index has broken through the psychological barrier of 13,000 – the highest it has been since March of 2008 a few times now.  In fact, the markets have been remarkably – almost eerily – calm for the last 3 months, quietly marching upward, shrugging off the occasional bad news (such as the Greek bailout nearly unwinding last week and the ever increasing tension over oil in the mideast) with little more than an occasional flinch. 

As we have said for the past 8 months, we remain cautiously optimistic.  “Moderately Bullish” is a term that I have used in the past.  Based upon historical behavior of Secular Bear Markets, we expect that over the next 3 years or so, we will see substantial ups (and downs) in the markets with a slight overall uptrend.  

As it pertains to the current rally, we believe this leg of the rally is probably due for a drawback of some kind.  The next chart shows our reasoning for this.  When the market approaches a point where it had difficulty breaking through previously (such as the Dow’s 13,000 level), this is known as “resistance.”  Typically, as a market index approaches a resistance level, it generally will pause, draw back, and then, IF the level is to be broken, will punch through that level to achieve new highs.  Similar to a person drawing back before breaking through a door, the market will generally draw back before “breaking out” to a new level.  As we are at that resistance level now, a drawback would be a natural – even necessary – part of a normal market rally. 

Despite the recent market rally, we do not feel it is time to break out any party hats on a new sustained bull market just yet.  There are a number of reasons to remain cautious about the markets:

  • According to the Investment Company Institute – the total inflows (new money) going into equity (stock) mutual funds from February 1st through February 15th was a little over 4.6 Billion Dollars.  While this seems like a lot, compared to the inflows to bond funds, which netted 15.2 Billion – it was just a trickle.  Clearly, investors are not ready to assume lots of stock market risk just yet, and the recent rally did not have the market breadth that would indicate the start of a new bull market.
  • The price of oil is going up.  Part of the reason is that US refineries shut down every May to retool to EPA requirements, so oil nearly always rises during this part of the year.  However – increased tensions in the mideast are also driving oil prices higher.  Higher oil prices mean slower economic growth.  As businesses must pay more for energy, they spend less on payrolls and other things which drive growth.
  • Europe’s financial situation is still quite a mess.  While it seems that the European Union is working feverishly to keep from imploding – and they may well succeed – the fact is that Europe is already mired in what appears to be a deep recession.  This will have a global impact, slowing growth in emerging markets as well as within the United States.
  • Our National Debt is a significant problem – and only getting worse.
  • We are in an election year, so significant economic policy will likely not be passed until next year.  Given the uncertain outcome of the 2012 elections, it is anyone’s guess as to whether any new policies will be helpful or harmful.
  • The Bush tax cuts are set to expire this year.  This expectation is curbing business spending.
  • And the list goes on… given the recency of the 2008 market crash, investors are not yet hungry enough for returns to take additional risks and dive head first into the markets. 

However – there are numerous reasons to be bullish as well.  Institutional investors are slowly beginning to see the opportunity in stocks – and have publicly stated their plans to acquire more stocks in their portfolios over the next several years in preparation for a future bull market.  Some reasons to own stocks – and to expect the market will go up are: 

  • Stock valuations are more attractive than they have been in decades.  Based upon the price of stocks compared to company earnings, stocks are cheap.  In the past, investors who loaded up on stocks at current valuation levels were handsomely rewarded over the next 10 years.  Institutions know this – and their demand for stocks during this period may well keep the market afloat.
  • We are seeing a new “flurry” of IPO’s (Initial Public Offerings).  New companies – such as Facebook – offering publicly traded stock for the first time.  Historically, when there are a lot of IPO’s, the market does well.
  • We are seeing a significant increase in companies buying back their own stock.  Not only does this activity boost the stock market – but it is also an indication of what company insiders think of the future prospects of their companies.  Who would spend good money to buy their own company stock – unless they believed the company woud do well?
  • Corporations are hoarding more cash than ever.  While initially this might seem a bad sign – it is a an indicator of the huge potential that exists.  Eventually, this cash will be deployed.  When it is – there is enough of it to have an enormous impact upon virtually all parts of the economy.
  • Currently, the dividend yield on the Dow Jones is a very attractive 3.07%.  So, hypothetically if the market only goes up 5%, an investor who owned the Dow Jones would reap over 8% in total return.  It is only a matter of time before return-starved pension funds, institutions, and corporations currently investing in Treasuries earning less than 3% begin to move money to other assets to seek greater returns.  When this begins, the market has the potential to move up very quickly.

This balance between bullish and bearish factors is a normal part of the recovery process, but makes for a challenging investment environment. In summary, we remain cautiously bullish, with an expectation for occasional market corrections which may exceed 20% or more.  Likely, it will feel like taking three steps forward, only to take two steps back.  However, we feel that reasonable gains are available with the correct strategy.  The most successful investors that we have worked with have carefully chosen their risk tolerance, and then invested in portfolios scientifically designed around that risk tolerance – and remained focused on the long term.  

This blog post is not personal investment, financial, or tax advice.  Please consult your financial professional for personal, specific information.  Indexes mentioned are a general barometer of the stock or bond market they represent.  You cannot invest directly in an index.  Past performance is no guarantee of future results.   

Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards Inc. owns the certification marks CFP(R), CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER(tm) and federally registered CFP (with flame logo) in the U.S., which it awards to individuals who successfully complete CFP Board’s initial and ongoing certification requirements.

Investment advisory services offered by Paragon Wealth Strategies LLC, a registered investment adviser. 


Our Expectations for 2012

19 01 2012

Jonathan N. Castle, CFP, ChFC

2011 has come and gone and we are rapidly working our way through 2012.  It seems that so far, a general sense of cautious optimism has taken over where only a few months ago, all we heard was gloom and doom.  We applaud what appears to be slightly more balanced reporting on the economic front.  While not all of the news is good, neither is it all bad as it seemed to be several months ago.  A sense of doom and gloom serves no good purpose for our economy, and we are pleased the mood appears to be lifting somewhat.

After reviewing a great deal of economic analysis and often conflicting opinions from our research providers, we have come to some general conclusions about what to expect for performance in the financial markets in 2012.  We have stated over the last several months that we are “cautiously optimistic,” or “moderately bullish.”  There is no substantive data that suggests we should change this outlook (details at the end of the article) – but that does not mean that we believe the road ahead to be easy, particularly for investors.  Nor does it mean that we are wearing rose-colored glasses, or our cups are always “half full.”  It simply means that we believe we will continue to improve – with occasional interruptions – from where we currently are NOW.  We also believe that it will take years for the economy to fully recover – but recover it will.

Our Major Concerns at this time are:

European Debt Crisis and Likely European Recession – Some experts believe that the European recession has already begun. Recent data points indicate that Germany’s economy contracted slightly last quarter, and it is likely that other economies will soon follow.  As we enjoy a globally integrated economy, European recession likely means slowing economic growth in the US and difficulty in achieving meaningful returns in international markets.

Rising Dollar – As the Euro weakens, other currencies, (including ours) strengthen against it.  A strengthening dollar makes it more difficult for US companies to export goods and may make it more attractive for US companies to outsource jobs overseas.  However, a strong dollar does have the benefit of making US debt more attractive to foreign investors looking for security.

Political Stagnation – The past 2 years have been a display of an embarrassingly dysfunctional government. Unfortunately, with 2012 being an election year, we believe it unlikely that any real policy change will occur until 2013 or beyond.

Overwhelming US Debt – this may be the most dangerous long-term economic issue we have to face. At some point, we must face the inevitable belt-tightening that will be necessary to keep the US afloat.  Either government spending must decrease, or taxes must increase – or both.  Neither option is good for the economy or financial markets.

The Fed is Out of Bullets – The Fed has reduced interest rates to the lowest that we have ever seen, and pumped trillions of dollars into our economy trying to stimulate economic growth.  However, the damage done to the economy during the Great Recession was so severe that most of the Fed’s actions served only to limit damage – not to create the opportunity for recovery that we were hoping for.  At this time, it appears that the Fed is nearly out of ammo and has few options left.  Fortunately, inflation has not been severe; if it were, the Fed would be forced to raise interest rates again, which would slow economic growth even more and investors holding bonds would see the market values of their bonds decrease.

US Consumer Belt-Tightening – A large part of our economy is based upon the American consumer.  While it is a bit embarrassing to say that our economy runs on us buying things we don’t really need – it is partly true.  As more Americans learn that they can, in fact, live without many of these luxuries, these dollars no longer stimulate the economy.  On a personal level, a reversion to thrift is positive and one that we wholeheartedly support.  On an economic level, however – especially as a service based economy, consumer thrift forebodes even slower growth than previously hoped for.

Rays of Hope and Sunshine

Receding Unemployment – ever so slowly, and certainly not in a straight line, unemployment figures are receding. This is a fact; there are jobs out there to be had.  Many are in small businesses where people are hired one at a time.  Some disbelievers say that unemployment is dropping “only because discouraged workers have given up looking for jobs.”  This argument is hogwash – new workers enter the job market on a daily basis, which offsets discouraged workers leaving or retiring early.  While the jobs may not be the premium top paying jobs that were available before – they ARE indicators of economic expansion from where we were two years ago.

Increased Home Sales – According to the most recent National Association of Realtors (NAR), housing sales appear to have stabilized.  Total housing inventory fell from an 11 month supply to a 7 month supply during 2011. Housing starts and permits are increasing, albeit slowly.  As the housing sector directly impacts over 17% of the entire US economy, this news – however tepid – is hopeful.

US Corporate Profits – US corporate profits are at a high not seen since before the tech-bubble crash.  While much of the profit results from cost-cutting, it is still meaningful. Increasing profits mean that most of the major US firms are on a solid fiscal footing, and are in a much better position to pay attractive dividends to shareholders and fund future expansions.  From a yield perspective – high quality stocks are now more attractive than bonds at current levels.

Improving Manufacturing Data – The December Manufacturing Institute for Supply Management (ISM) Report topped expectations with the factory sector barometer (known as the PMI) increasing to the best level in six months. The raw data of the PMI also indicates that the manufacturing sector has grown for 29 consecutive months, which is generally a good indicator of the future direction of the economy. ALL 3 major US automakers reported profits for 2011.

What to do?

“Buy Low, Sell High.”  We all know this.  Yet, many people are only comfortable investing when the economy is humming along smoothly and all the news is positive.  Unfortunately for these emotionally driven investors, periods of economic boom are often the most dangerous times to invest, because by then, markets are usually overvalued. (Buy High, Sell Low).  Remember – when everyone is already invested, there are no new investors to bid prices up further.  Being invested in portfolios designed to your personal risk tolerance – especially when markets are undervalued – has been proven to be a key to long term investor success.

Typical Bear Market Behavior

For the last 100 years, based upon a study done by Morgan Stanley in 2009 called “The Aftermath of Secular Bear Markets,” major bear markets typically behave as follows.  (Dates for our current bear market in parentheses).

  • Market Crash/Bear Market: -56% for 29 Months, on average (Oct 2007 – Mar 2009)
  • Rebound Rally: +70% for 17 Months, on average (Mar 2009 – Apr 2010)
  • Mid Cycle Correction: -25% for 13 Months on average (Apr 2010 – Aug 2011)
  • Trading Range: Sideways (but slightly UP) with 15-20% whipsaw behavior for 5.6 years, on average (Aug 2011 – ?)

Our current bear market appears to be slightly shortening the cycles, but, in light of current political dysfunction and the European Debt Crisis, we believe the “trading range” portion of the market cycle will likely last several years at a minimum.

For 2012, we believe the following:

  • Markets will continue to be choppy, sometimes uncomfortably so
  • We DO expect to see some growth out of stocks, but not particularly impressive growth
  • Larger, dividend paying stocks should play a large role in the equity portions of portfolios (as compared to mid- or small-cap stocks)
  • US markets will be less volatile, and return more, than developed international markets. Emerging Markets will suffer from the European recession.
  • Interest rates (and bond prices) will remain relatively stable
  • The US Dollar will strengthen compared to the Euro

Our suggestion is that investors focus on other issues over which they have control:

  • Maximize IRA, 401(k), Roth, and other retirement plan contributions.
  • Reduce debt wherever possible.
  • Cut back on unnecessary luxuries (cook at home more, examine utility bills, etc).
  • Examine opportunities for mortgage refinance or other strategies to lock in low interest rates.
  • Closely examine your tax strategies (Roth Conversions, capital gains realization, business sales, etc) to include the expectation that taxes will be higher in future years.

While this list is certainly not exhaustive, it is a good place to start.  If we can offer you assistance in making the decisions necessary to maximize your odds of success during these uncertain times, please don’t hesitate to give us a call.

This blog article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal, tax, or personal financial advice.  Please consult your own financial professional for personal, specific information.  PAST PERFORMANCE IS NO GUARANTEE OF FUTURE RESULTS.

Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards Inc. owns the certification marks CFP(R), CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER(tm) and federally registered CFP (with flame logo) in the U.S., which it awards to individuals who successfully complete CFP Board’s initial and ongoing certification requirements.

Investment advisory services provided by Paragon Wealth Strategies, LLC., a registered investment advisor.

Current Debt Crisis – A high stakes game of “Chicken”?

19 07 2011

by Michael Carignan, CFP®, CRPC®

Do you remember watching the old classic movies where two guys get in a  fight over a girl and they head out to the quarry for a game of chicken?  If you do, you might see some similarities to what’s going on in Washington right now.  The difference this time, however,  are the consequences for all of us if neither one of them blinks.  The controversy in Washington is loud and filling the airwaves with political rhetoric and scare tactics.  And, if you listen to the media, there might be some potentially disastrous consequences if our elected officials don’t come to an agreement soon.  So we thought it would be helpful to analyze this issue, try to understand what is going on, then turn to the history books to see if something like this has happened before and how it turned out.

While the current situation certainly can be frustrating, it actually is the result of the checks and balances built into our constitution.  While the President can authorize actions and spending bills,  it is up to the Congress to actually finance them.  Right now there is a disagreement between house Republicans – who hold a majority, and the President on how much is reasonable to spend and on what.  Without going into the individual spending priorities for each of them and their merits, let’s just address the most basic elements.  The President would like to spend more and raise taxes to cover the current spending needs – while the house Republicans want to cut spending dramatically (~$2T over 10 years) with no tax increases.  Each side of the argument has valid points, but neither side seems willing to compromise enough to make a deal at this point.

In the press, we are hearing that if the debt ceiling increase is not approved then the US Government is going to default on its obligations.  What does that actually mean?  The most common things we’ve heard are that the government will stop paying soldiers, medicare benefits and/or social security benefits.  What does that make people feel?  “PANIC”!  Even worse, we hear there may be a full default on US treasury debt across the board.  More PANIC!  The news evokes a significant emotional response, with the intent of making the audience watch more of the TV news to see if anything has happened in the last 30 minutes to change the situation!   Can either of these scenarios happen?  Yes, but let’s put it in simpler terms to try to understand the entire issue.

Let’s say a husband and wife are looking at bills coming due over the next few months and realize they are coming up short on money in the bank, because of a combination of things (say, medical costs, car repairs and overspending on luxury items). The wife refuses to let more money go onto the credit cards unless the husband agrees to reduce spending.  He still wants to keep going out to eat and tells her she needs to get a second job.  Neither of them want to relent and they keep getting closer and closer to the date they will have to pay the bills and still no agreement to increase the credit card limit.  What do they do? Do they refuse to pay ALL of their bills across the board and shut down the household? Do they declare bankruptcy?  Or is it more likely they will decide which bills have priority, and which ones, if not paid right away, are least likely to cause permanent damage and delay paying on those?

This appears to be the most likely scenario.  For those who are watching the news and listening to the pundits spin out their theories for what disaster is looming if politicians don’t come to an agreement, you may be asking if this has happened before.   You don’t have to look too far in the past to see another example.  Many in the press will say this is unprecedented, and the particular doomsday scenarios vary from channel to channel,  but the November 1995 government shutdown was quite similar in nature to the situation we face now.  Let’s see if this sounds at all familiar.

1. The Republicans in Congress are unhappy with the President’s desire to spend more money on entitlement programs than they like.

2. The President is unwilling to cut programs to the level that Republicans want and is unwilling to sign a budget and debt ceiling increase that are presented to him.

It seems that in both cases you can substitute Bill Clinton and Barack Obama and voila!  Today’s scenario recreated.  In 1995 the buzzwords were “balanced budget” and now the focus is on “debt reduction”.  The basis for the stalemate may be slightly different and some of the facts are different but it is actually a close parallel to what’s happening today.  So what happened when the government “defaulted” in 1995?  They suspended all “non-essential” government spending until there was an agreement.  Each side played the media to the max – pointing fingers across the aisle and blaming the opposition for the entire flap.   The Federal Government did not default on interest payments, nor did the Government stop paying soldiers, retirees, Social Security, or Medicare.  Instead, they did furlough government employees in the Environmental Protection Agency, Forestry Service and Department of Health.  They closed buildings and public parks but continued to fund the basic services we need to keep the country safe and functioning.

Was it a comfortable time?  Not at all.  Many  people were affected, and for a period of time the populace really wondered how much worse it might get.  Did the US markets crash? No…they were virtually unaffected.  In some opinions, the government shutdown actually had the benefit of bringing spending back under control and getting us to a point of an actual surplus — even if it was only for a brief period of time.

My intent is not to disregard the potential financial impact that a deadlock between Congress and the President could create, but instead to point out that putting the current situation in a historical context can help us have a better appreciation for what might happen, and how it may affect our lives individually.  None of us can have a direct impact on the negotiations in Washington, but there are things we can do to sleep better at night.  First, it is important to be financially prepared for unforeseen and uncontrollable events.  Even government employees can have a problem with a paycheck not showing up on time, so make sure you have adequate short term savings to cover a few months expenses.  Second, make sure your investment philosophy matches your risk tolerance.  If you find yourself overly concerned with the short term market impact of a negative news story, you need to consider whether or not your risk tolerance is appropriate.  “Flip-Flopping” back and forth between an ultra conservative risk tolerance, and a more aggressive one – essentially letting the media yank your strings – is a recipe not only for financial disaster, but will likely cause ulcers and high blood pressure as well.  Having a good understanding of what your particular investment philosophy is and how much of the market fluctuations you are willing to tolerate – and STICKING TO YOUR PLAN –  is especially important for those preparing for, and enjoying retirement.


This blog post is for informational purposes only.  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.  Past performance is not a guarantee of future performance.  This message is NOT personal investment advice and should not be taken as such, nor is it a recommendation to buy or sell any security.

Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards Inc. owns the certification marks CFP(R), CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER(tm) and federally registered CFP (with flame logo) in the U.S., which it awards to individuals who successfully complete CFP Board’s initial and ongoing certification requirements.

Investment advisory services offered by Paragon Wealth Strategies LLC, a registered investment advisor.