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Weekly Commentary

March 12, 2018

The Markets

It’s a bird…It’s a plane…It’s a labor shortage!

There is little doubt the Millennial generation has been reshaping our world. One of the most remarkable aspects of this demographic group is a preference for experiences over consumer goods. “Three out of four millennials would rather spend their money on an experience than buy something desirable. This “experience generation” is now a third of the U.S. population,” reported Eventbrite.

Well, a new experience has arrived – a labor shortage in the United States.

Last week, Barron’s reported, “Across the nation, in industries as varied as trucking, construction, retailing, fast food, oil drilling, technology, and manufacturing, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find good help. And, with the economy in its ninth year of growth and another baby boomer retiring every nine seconds, the labor crunch is about to get much worse…This, of course, is how a labor market works: Production rises, workers get scarce, and employers raise wages to attract employees.”

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March 5, 2018

The Markets

As Yogi Berra once said: It’s déjà vu all over again.

Last week, global stock markets took a bit of a dip after President Trump announced a 25 percent tariff on steel and a 10 percent tariff on aluminum. Tariffs are taxes on goods imported from other countries. In general, governments impose tariffs to enhance revenue and/or protect domestic industries from competition abroad.

Tariffs tend to spark fierce debate about protectionism and free trade. Proponents suggest tariffs may protect domestic companies and create jobs. Critics suggest tariffs may slow economic growth and drive prices higher.

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February 26, 2018

The Markets

U.S. Treasuries are offering a lesson in supply and demand.

Last week, the U.S. Treasury auctioned $258 billion in bonds. Treasury auctions are the way the United States government finances its debt. The Treasury sells short-, intermediate-, and long-term IOUs, known as bills, notes, and bonds. When investors and governments purchase bonds, they agree to lend money to the United States. In return, the United States agrees to pay an amount of interest over a certain period of time. At the end of that time, the government is expected to repay the money borrowed.

The price and interest paid on U.S. government debt is determined by supply and demand. When there are few bonds and a lot of demand, prices rise and interest rates fall. When there are a lot of bonds and little demand, prices fall and interest rates rise.

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February 19, 2018

The Markets

As New York Fashion Week ended, inflation strutted its stuff. 

Ever since the Federal Reserve began raising the Fed funds rate in 2015, analysts have been anticipating higher inflation. The fact that price increases remained relatively small was a perplexing mystery. Then, last week, inflation increased faster than expected.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the Consumer Price Index (CPI), one measure of inflation, rose 0.5 percent in January. As you might expect, the cost of some items rose faster than others. For example, energy costs rose by 3.0 percent, while the cost of food was up 0.2 percent. In total, during the last 12 months, the all-items index rose 2.1 percent. When food and energy are excluded, the increase was 1.8 percent.

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February 12, 2018

The Markets

Back to reality...

After months of eerie calm, stock market volatility has returned. The CBOE Volatility Index (VIX) – a measure of how turbulent investors expect stock markets to be during the next 30 days – appeared to fall asleep in November 2016. For more than a year, a level of serenity that is rarely associated with stock markets prevailed and U.S. share prices moved steadily higher.

It appears that time is behind us. Barron’s wrote:

“With February’s swift stock market correction, volatility has arrived and will probably stay awhile. The downturn last week ended a streak of 404 trading days without a 5 percent drop in stock prices from the previous high – the longest such streak in market history.

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February 5, 2018

The Markets

It was not a good week for stocks.

Last week, stock markets around the world lost value. In the United States, the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index (S&P 500), Dow Jones Industrial Index (Dow), and NASDAQ all finished lower.

Some pundits have been drawing comparisons between the performance of the Dow last Friday and Black Monday, the memorable day in 1987 when the index shed 508 points in a single day.

They may be barking up the wrong tree. 

Yes, the Dow lost more than 600 points on Friday. That was about 2.5 percent of its value. On Black Monday a lesser drop equated to a 22 percent loss for the Dow. In addition, Black Monday was widely attributed to program trading gone awry. The culprit behind last Friday’s fall is likely to be bonds, according to Barron’s.

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January 29, 2018

The Markets

The numbers are coming in.

Publicly-traded companies report their earnings and sales numbers for the previous quarter in the current quarter. For example, fourth quarter’s sales and earnings are reported during the first quarter of the year, and first quarter’s sales and earnings will be reported during the second quarter, and so on.

Through last week, about one-fourth of the companies in the Standard & Poor (S&P)’s 500 Index had reported actual sales and earnings for the fourth quarter of 2017. As far as sales go, a record number – 81 percent – of companies sold more than expected during the fourth quarter. That was quite an improvement. FactSet reported:

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January 22, 2018

The Markets

Last week, the United States government might as well have hung a sign on the front door of the Capitol that read, “Gone negotiating. We’ll be back in…however long it takes.”

In 2013, the U.S. government closed for 16 days. About 850,000 federal workers were furloughed and 6.6 million workdays lost. The shutdown affected private companies that worked with the government, too, and the U.S. economy took a hit.

The prospect of kicking off 2018 with a government shutdown didn’t appear to concern investors too much. Barron’s reported the Dow Jones Industrial, Standard & Poor’s 500, and NASDAQ indices all finished the week higher.

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January 8, 2018

The Markets

Whoosh! Bang! Flash! Fizz! Whistle!

U.S. stock markets delivered their own version of fireworks to celebrate the New Year. During the first week of 2018, the Dow Jones Industrial Average hit a new all-time high, moving above 25,000 for the first time ever. The NASDAQ Composite and Standard & Poor’s 500 Indices also rose to new highs.

2018 is off to an impressive start, but let’s pause for a moment and take a look back at 2017. It was a memorable year for global markets, but there are other reasons it was interesting, too. Here are the highlights of a few of The Economist’s most popular articles during the year:

The world’s most valuable resource is no longer oil, but data (May 6). One-half of the most valuable companies in the world are American technology firms. Some, including The Economist, are concerned about tech companies’ market power and dominance of consumer data.

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January 2, 2018

The Markets

How good was 2017?

It was so good, the Standard & Poor’s (S&P) 500 Index finished in positive territory every month for the first time ever (on a total return basis), reported Barron’s. All major U.S. indices finished the year with double-digit gains.

As we enter 2018, keep an eye on investor sentiment. “History has shown us that the crowd can be right during trends, but it also tends to be wrong at extremes. This is why sentiment can be an important contrarian indicator, because if everyone who might become bearish has already sold, only buyers are left. The reverse also applies,” reported ValueWalk.

Toward the end of 2017, sentiment shifted, but not everyone shared the same outlook. Surveys and indices that track market indicators and institutional advice became less bullish, while newsletter writers and investors became more bullish. 

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December 26, 2017

The Markets

It’s time to turn your mind to taxes.

Last week, President Trump signed tax reform, officially titled ‘An Act to provide for reconciliation pursuant to titles II and V of the concurrent resolution on the budget for fiscal year 2018,’ into law.

The legislation provides significant permanent tax cuts for businesses, including reducing the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent. Most individual taxpayers will also receive tax benefits, including lower marginal tax rates. However, all of the individual tax breaks will expire before 2026.

In addition, “…the standard deduction has been raised from $6,350 for singles and $12,700 for couples filing jointly to $12,000 and $24,000…With the standard deduction raised to $24,000, many folks will take the standard deduction rather than itemize. Taxpayers itemize their deductions when total deductions exceed the standard deduction,” wrote Barron’s.

The new rules won’t go into effect until next year, and that gives you a small window of opportunity. If you act by the end of the year, you may be able to minimize the amount you pay Uncle Sam. For example, you may want to consider:

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December 18, 2017

The Markets

Here we come a tax-reforming…

The reconciliation of Congressional tax reform bills proceeded apace last week, and Congress is expected to vote on the measure early this week. If tax reform passes, Dubravko Lakos-Bujas, head of U.S. equity strategy with JPMorgan, thinks we may see value stocks swing back into favor. Barron’s reported:

“The spread between value and growth has reached a point historically associated with a reversal; the Russell 1000 value index is up 9 percent this year, against a gain of 27 percent in the comparable growth index. Tax reform is a catalyst for a rotation into value stocks, as value companies generate almost 80 percent of their revenue in the U.S. and are subject to an effective tax rate of 30.3 percent, the strategist observes.”

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December 11, 2017

The Markets 

“It's the hap- happiest season of all.”

While holidays don’t make everyone happy, investors should be feeling festive. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index is up more than 18 percent year-to-date. The Dow Jones Global ex U.S. Index is up about 21 percent year-to-date (refer to the table), and Treasury bond yields are lower than they were at the start of the year.

In addition, the CBOE Volatility Index (VIX), a measure of how unpredictable investors expect the S&P 500 Index to be over the short-term, finished the week below 10. A low VIX reading means investors expect calm markets through the end of the year.

Some are wary of the optimism that pervades markets, though. Barron’s wrote:

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December 4, 2017

The Markets 

What will it take to shake investors’ confidence?

From the perspective of unsettling events, last week was jam-packed. North Korea claimed to have the capability to strike the United States with a nuclear missile, tax reform continued to travel a controversial path through the House and Senate, and former national security adviser Michael Flynn pled guilty to lying to the FBI about conversations with Russia's ambassador.

U.S. stock markets weren’t immune to these events and some lost value. However, the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index didn’t stay down for long. Both indices finished the week higher.

Barron’s reported black-box trading may have been the reason “…the Dow shed 400 points from peak to trough in a matter of minutes. The drop happened so quickly that some opined that humans couldn’t have been responsible for the tumble. ‘No way real traders were moving that fast,’ says Andrew Brenner, head of international fixed income securities at NatAlliance Securities. ‘Clearly, it was algorithms taking over.’”

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November 27, 2017

The Markets

There was a lot to be thankful for last week.

Stock markets around the world may have ripened to full-slip sweetness this year. Emerging markets have delivered the most attractive returns year-to-date. The MSCI Emerging Markets Index was up 34 percent year-to-date, last week. The United States and Europe have marched higher, too. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index was up about 16 percent year-to-date, while the Euro Stoxx Index was up 11.3 percent, reported Barron’s and The Wall Street Journal.

The question is, “Have markets become overripe?’ As you might expect, opinions on the matter vary: 

  • Jim Paulsen, chief investment strategist at the Leuthold Group, told CNBC, “I don't see the elements of a bear market but I certainly think 2018 can bring us a correction or at least just a more challenging market.”
  • David Lebovitz, global market strategist with J.P. Morgan Asset Management, wrote in Barron’s, “Healthy earnings growth suggests that there is still upside in U.S. equities, but this area of the global equity market is most expensive relative to its long-term average. However, history has shown us that expensive stock markets can get more expensive before they get cheaper, as multiples tend to expand in the final stages of a bull market.”

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November 20, 2017

The Markets

Are investors more like tigers or African wild dogs?

It appears investors – retail and institutional – have become rather like predators. They patiently stalk shares, waiting for a dip, and then they strike – buying stocks when prices fall.

Consider last week. Barron’s described it like this: “The Dow traded down nearly 80 points on Monday, 170 points on Tuesday, and 170 points on Wednesday, but each time the blue-chip benchmark finished off its lows. That was followed by the Dow’s 187-point rally on Thursday, as everyone bought the dips.”

Investors’ remarkable behavior led the publication to speculate, “What if higher volatility, instead of scaring investors away from the stock market, brings them in? In that case, this bull market could still have a long way to go.”

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November 13, 2017

The Markets

Selling it overseas.

Most of the companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 (S&P 500) Index have reported third quarter earnings per share (EPS), which is the profit earned per share of stock outstanding during the period. Many have done quite well.

With more than 90 percent of companies reporting, the total EPS growth rate for the S&P 500 has exceeded expectations, reported FactSet. In aggregate, the growth rate accelerated from 3.1 percent on September 30 to 6.1 percent last week.

It’s interesting to note companies that sell more products and services outside the United States experienced significant increases in EPS when compared to companies that sell more at home. S&P 500 companies with:

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November 6, 2017

The Markets

“Taxes are what we pay for a civilized society.”

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’s statement is engraved on the front of the Internal Revenue Service building in Washington, D.C. Some people agree with the sentiment. Others believe it to be a logical fallacy.

It’s likely the tax plan proposed by House Republicans last week had all of them talking, regardless of position on the opinion spectrum. Some of the changes suggested in the proposal include:

Reducing current marginal income tax brackets from seven to four (12, 25, 35, and 39.6 percent). The New York Times reported, “While the lowest income rate would increase, typical families in the existing 10 percent bracket would most likely be better off because of a larger child tax credit and an increase in the standard deduction.”
Repealing the Alternative Minimum Tax.
Increasing the standard deduction to $12,000 for individuals and $24,000 for married couples, while eliminating personal exemptions (the $4,050 exemptions you claim for yourself, your spouse, and your dependents).

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October 30, 2017

The Markets

The last full week of October was a box full of surprises. 

First, U.S. economic growth exceeded expectations. The devastation wrought by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria was widely expected to stifle U.S. quarterly growth, according to NPR. The Atlanta Federal Reserve predicted 2.5 percent gross domestic product (GDP)* growth for third quarter, down from 3.1 percent the previous quarter. Instead, U.S. GDP grew by 3.0 percent.

In fact, productivity has been flourishing around the globe. The Financial Times reported:

“…activity has again broken upwards in recent weeks, with growth in the advanced economies close to the highest rates seen since before the Great Financial Crash (GFC), apart from in the immediate recovery phase in 2010. Furthermore, world trade volume has now joined the recovery, and corporate expenditure on jobs and machinery is picking up. Overall, it seems that some of the symptoms of “secular stagnation” are beginning to fade…”

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