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Weekly Commentary

October 23, 2017

The Markets

And the hits just keep on coming.

Last week was the anniversary of Black Monday. On October 19, 1987, the Dow Jones Industrial Average (Dow) lost 508 points, or more than 20 percent of its value, as it fell from the previous trading day’s closing value of 2,247 to 1,739. The culprits behind the historic drop are widely thought to be program trading, high valuations, and market psychology.

The anniversary didn’t put a hitch in the markets’ giddy up last week, though. The Dow closed above 23,000 for the first time ever on Wednesday. That’s the fourth thousand-point milestone the Dow has passed this year, according to Reuters.

The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index also finished the week at a new high. Strong earnings, along with optimism about fiscal and monetary policy, contributed to investors’ optimism. Financial Times wrote:

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October 16, 2017

The Markets

There’s a new kid in town: narrative economics.

Last week, Richard Thaler was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics. His work in behavioral economics and finance recognizes not all economic and financial decisions are made after rational reflection. In Nudge, he wrote:

“The workings of the human brain are more than a bit befuddling. How can we be so ingenious at some tasks and so clueless at others?…Many psychologists and neuroscientists have been converging on a description of the brain’s functioning that helps us make sense of these seeming contradictions. The approach involves a distinction between two kinds of thinking, one that is intuitive and automatic, and another that is reflective and rational.”

Yale professor Robert Shiller, another Nobel laureate in economics, is exploring a field of study related to Thaler’s. It’s called narrative economics. Narratives are the stories we share with each other. They are fuel for conversation and popular narratives often become viral. During a presentation at the University of Chicago, Schiller explained narrative economics is “the study of the spread and dynamics of popular narratives, the stories, particularly those of human interest and emotion, and how these change through time, to understand economic fluctuations.”

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October 9, 2017

The Markets 

Slow and steady... 

It has been 332 days since the Standard & Poor’s 500 (S&P 500) Index experienced a 5 percent drop, reported Barron’s. If there isn’t a selloff on Monday or Tuesday, this will become the longest rally without such a drop.

During this period, the Index has gained 33 percent. Think about that for a moment: 33 percent over 332 days. By Barron’s calculations, the market has gained less than 0.1 percent per day. That’s a very slow rate of increase, relatively speaking. The longest-ever rally without a 5 percent drop, which began in November 1994, was accompanied by a gain of 56 percent or 0.17 percent per day.

The most recent issue of The Economist pondered the phenomenon of the slow-as-molasses bull market that has pushed asset prices higher:

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October 2, 2017

The Markets

A lot happened during the third quarter of 2017, but not much changed.

The bull market in U.S. stocks continued to charge ahead. Traditional measures of valuation continued to suggest the market is overvalued, but some analysts argued it’s different this time. The Economist explained:

“The current [cyclically-adjusted price-to-earnings] ratio of 31 suggests that stocks are about 50% over-valued – a figure that has only been exceeded in the past 60 years during the dot-com bubble. Bulls argue that the S&P 500’s constituents can justify this heady valuation. Big American companies are wielding increased market power, enabling them to earn outsized profits at the expense of America’s customers.”

The bull market in U.S. bonds continued. Interest rates on 10-year Treasury bonds were lower at the end of September than they were at the start of the year, despite the Federal Reserve increasing rates in March and June. The Fed also has indicated it will soon begin to unwind its balance sheet, which includes about $4.5 trillion in Treasury bonds, mortgage-backed securities, and government agency debt.

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September 25, 2017

The Markets

Geopolitics, what is it good for? Absolutely nothin'!

In January, Robert Kahn of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote in Global Economics Monthly:

“Markets showed impressive resilience in the face of a range of geopolitical shocks in 2016, but recent market moves suggest this year could be different…It should be the year that global geopolitical risks provide the volatility in markets that I, and many other economists, have been predicting for some time.”

Kahn may share the bemusement of bond market prognosticators who have anticipated the end of the bull market in bonds for years and have yet to see their predictions prove out.

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September 18, 2017

The Markets

“In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice, in practice there is.”

Yogi Berra was talking about baseball, but the concept also applies to diversification, according to the GMO White Paper, The S&P 500: Just Say No. From the title, you might think the authors – Matt Kadnar and James Montier – don’t like U.S. stocks. They do:

“Being a U.S. equity investor over the past several years has felt glorious. The S&P 500 has trounced the competition provided by other major developed and emerging equity markets. Over the last 7 years, the S&P is up 173 percent (15 percent annualized in nominal terms) versus MSCI EAFE (in USD terms), which is up 71 percent (8 percent annualized), and poor MSCI Emerging, which is up only 30 percent (4 percent annualized). Every dollar invested in the S&P has compounded into $2.72 versus MSCI EAFE’s $1.70 and MSCI Emerging’s $1.30.”

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September 11, 2017

The Markets

Last week, the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey and potency of Hurricane Irma dominated hearts and minds, but there were some diversions and some welcome news, too.

The NFL kicked off its 2017 season with the Chiefs’ win over the Patriots. The men’s U.S. soccer team tied Honduras to stay in the running for a World Cup spot. And, Sloane Stephens made the jump from 957th best on the women’s tennis tour to U.S. Open Champion.

Also, last week, President Trump signed a bipartisan bill authorizing relief for victims of Hurricane Harvey. The damage from Harvey has been estimated at about $50 billion, reported Yahoo! Finance, and the damage from Hurricane Irma may be even greater.

The signed bill also raised the debt ceiling, avoided a U.S. Treasury default, and funded the government for three months. These aspects of the legislation may have been more important to stock markets, according to a source cited by Barron’s:

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September 5, 2017

The Markets

When it comes to economic growth, the government doesn’t measure twice. It measures three times.

Last week, the Bureau of Economic Analysis revised its initial estimate that the gross domestic product (GDP), which is the value of all goods and services produced by a country or region, grew by 2.6 percent during the second quarter of 2017. The second estimate indicated the economy grew by 3.0 percent from April through June. The third and final GDP estimate for the second quarter will become available near the end of September.

The New York Times reported:

“If the economy were to sustain the current pace of expansion, it would be a significant uptick from the 2 percent annual growth rate that has mostly prevailed since the recovery began. A difference of a single percentage point may not sound like much, but the stakes are huge in a $19 trillion economy. The acceleration could also help lift wage growth, which has been frustratingly slow for years despite steady hiring, a surging stock market, and rising home prices.”

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August 28, 2017

The Markets

Hope floats.

Optimism about possible pro-growth economic policies, including tax reform and deregulation, helped U.S. stock indices finish higher last week, reported Barron’s. It wasn’t all smooth sailing, though. Stocks bobbed up and down as investors’ optimism was weighted by concerns about a possible debt-ceiling battle and government shutdown.

CNN offered some insight to the historic economic impact of government shutdowns on productivity:

“The last time the government was forced to close up shop – for 16 days in late 2013 – it cost taxpayers $2 billion in lost productivity, according to the Office of Management and Budget. Two earlier ones – in late 1995 and early 1996 – cost the country $1.4 billion.”

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August 21, 2017

The Markets 

Here, there, and everywhere… 

Markets around the world appear to be benefiting from global economic recovery. 

After pointing out the United States’ economy is the heart of the global financial system, Barron’s reported:

“The Standard & Poor’s 500 index has tirelessly amassed 30 record closes this year, but is up just 1.2 percent since March 1. Meanwhile, nearly every foreign stock market has sprinted ahead…We wrote on March 25 about how a global recovery should goose smaller, fresher bull markets abroad. By now, it is firmly becoming the consensus view – metals are rallying, with copper up 18 percent this year; the MSCI All Worlds Index has risen for eight straight months.”

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August, 14 2017

The Markets

North Korea may be a little country, but it can churn up big trouble.

The possibility that verbal hostilities between the United States and North Korea could trigger geopolitical conflict had investors on the run last week. In the United States, the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index fell by 1.4 percent, the Dow Jones Industrial Average lost 1.1 percent, and the NASDAQ Composite finished 1.5 percent lower.

Financial Times explained:

“The sell-off came as U.S. President Donald Trump escalated the war of words against the North Korean regime’s accelerated [program] of nuclear testing. Mr. Trump tweeted on Friday, “military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely.”

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July 31, 2017

The Markets

There was some good news and some bad news last week.

First, the good news: Thanks to consumer spending and an upturn in federal government spending, the U.S. economy grew faster from April through June this year. Gross domestic product (GDP) grew by 2.6 percent during the period, according to the advance estimate for economic growth. This was an improvement over growth from January through March, when GDP increased by 1.2 percent.

Now, the bad news: Personal income did not grow as fast from April through June as it did from January through March. Wages and salaries grew at a slower pace, as did government social benefits and other sources of income. The New York Times wrote:

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July 24, 2017

The Markets

Do we have central banks to thank?

Low interest rates, accommodative monetary policy, and improving economic growth have helped stock markets around the world reach record highs, reports Barron’s:

“…a look around the globe shows the surge of the U.S. market to new peaks to be anything but unique. Major [markets] in Europe and Asia also have been setting records. Even in South Korea, the Kospi closed at a new peak and is up 25 percent from its 52-week low last year, as the global technology rally has proved to be more powerful than the threat of a nuclear-missile launch from North Korea. Last week also saw a record close in the S&P BSE Sensex in India. Japan’s Nikkei is up 25 percent from last August and near a 52-week high (albeit still down 48 percent from its 1989 bubble peak). The Shanghai Composite is a relative laggard, with a 9.6 percent gain from its August lows, bolstered by a 3.7 percent jump over the past five weeks.”

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July 17, 2017

The Markets 

It was a good week for a lot of stocks but not bank stocks.

The Standard & Poor’s 500 (S&P 500) Index and the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) both finished at record highs last week. Barron’s indicated investors owe Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen a debt of gratitude:

“The main force behind the rally was the dovish performance by Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen in Congress on Wednesday and Thursday when she reiterated that rate hikes would most likely be gradual. On balance, her remarks were interpreted as evidence of continued accommodative monetary policy and, from there, stocks were off to the races. The ignition of the rally can almost be time-stamped to her appearance. Before her speech, the market was down for the week.”

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July 10, 2017

The Markets 

Things you may want to know…

Last Friday, Financial Times (FT) published, ‘Five markets charts that matter for investors.’ Among the issues addressed in the charts were:

  • The bond market bear watch. The yield on 10-year German Bunds (Germany’s government bonds) reached an 18-month high of 0.58 percent recently. Yields rose after the European Central Bank’s Mario Draghi indicated its stimulus efforts would end at some point.

When bond yields rise, bond values fall, and that makes rising interest rates quite a significant event for anyone who holds lower yielding bonds. In the United States, 10-year U.S. Treasuries moved to a seven-week high last week and then dipped lower following the release of the Federal Open Market Committee meeting minutes, reported CNBC.com.

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July 3, 2017

The Markets

This is the way the quarter ends – with a central bank scare.

Central bankers are stodgy. They speak carefully. For many, reading the words ‘Federal Reserve’ is enough to cause boredom to set in and web surfing to ensue.

Last week, though, the European Central Bank and Bank of England cracked the ‘open secret’ (i.e., central banks will provide less stimulus and increase rates at some point), and investors did not like what they heard.

Central bankers were quick to say they didn’t necessarily mean what people had heard, but the rumor of less accommodative monetary policy was already moving markets. Barron’s wrote:

“But make no mistake: Last week was a game changer. Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen fretted about the high level of asset prices, the Bank of England’s Mark Carney hinted at a rate hike, and Mario Draghi suggested the European Central Bank could be nearing the end of its bond buying…The market didn’t take it sitting down. Long-term Treasury yields surged, resulting in a wider spread off of short-term bond yields.”

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June 26, 2017

The Markets

It has been a very good year, so far.

Through the end of last week, the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index posted 24 record highs and delivered returns in the high single digits. The MSCI World ex USA Index was up more than 11 percent, and the MSCI Emerging Markets Index gained more than 17 percent.

After reading those numbers, many people would assume bond markets are down for the year. After all, stock and bond markets tend to move in different directions. Zacks explained,

“Stock and bond prices usually move in opposite directions. When the stock market is not doing well and becomes risky for investors, investors withdraw their money and put it into bonds, which they consider safer. This increased demand raises bond prices. When stocks rally and the risk seems justified, investors may move out of bonds and into stocks, driving stock prices up further.”

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June 19, 2017

The Markets

All eyes on inflation!

Inflation is the way economists measure changes in the prices of goods and services. The United States has enjoyed relatively low inflation for a significant period of time. Last week, the consumer price index indicated inflation had moved lower in May.

Inflation is our focus because it is at the core of two very different opinions that currently are influencing markets and investors. A commentary on the Kitco Blog explained:

“One of the most important economic debates today is whether the economy will experience reflation or deflation (or low inflation) in the upcoming months. Has the recent reflation been only a temporary jump? Or has it marked the beginning of a new trend? Is the global economy accelerating or are we heading into the next recession?”

Another key factor is employment. Traditional economic theory holds when unemployment falls (i.e., when more people are employed) inflation will rise because demand for workers will push wages higher. That hasn’t happened yet in the United States even though unemployment has fallen significantly.

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June 12, 2017

The Markets

Stock market historians may dub 2017 the Xanax year. Traditional historians will probably choose a different moniker.

Stock markets in many advanced economies have been unusually calm during 2017, reported Schwab’s Jeffrey Kleintop in a May 15, 2017 commentary. The CBOE Volatility Index, a.k.a. the Fear Gauge, which measures how volatile investors believe the S&P 500 Index will be over the next few months, has fallen below 10 on just 15 days since the index was introduced in 1990. Six of the 15 occurred during 2017. The average daily closing value for the VIX was 19.7 from 1990 through 2016. For 2017, the average has been 11.8.

Investors’ calm is remarkable because 2017 has not been a particularly calm year. We’ve experienced significant geopolitical events. For example, the U.S. launched a military strike on Syria, and dropped its biggest non-nuclear bomb on Afghanistan. There have been terrorist attacks in Europe, along with discord in the Middle East. The European Union has been unraveling. The U.S. government has shown unusual levels of disarray, and the U.S. President’s passion for Tweets has stirred the pot.

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June 5, 2017

The Markets

The bull market in U.S. stocks is getting really old!

In fact, this bull has been charging, standing, or sitting for more than eight years. In April, it became the second longest bull market in American history, according to CNN Money.

There are some good reasons the stock market in the United States has continued to trend higher. For one, companies have become more profitable. During the first quarter of 2017, companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index reported earnings increased by 14 percent, year-over-year. That was the highest earnings growth rate since 2011, according to FactSet.

In addition, the economy in the United States has been chugging along at a steady pace. CIO Charles Lieberman wrote in Bloomberg View:

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Pinnacle Wealth Management, Financial Planning Consultants, Sioux Falls, SD