Understanding Market Volatility

Understanding Market Volatility
December 13, 2018
Ann Terranova, CFP®

Whenever the stock market exhibits increased negative volatility, it is natural to be concerned. We need to understand that market declines are as natural as market increases so that we can continue to invest with confidence. At the same time, understanding what is happening in the economy, cycles of growth and recession, and government policies is important, even if it doesn’t lead to changes in personal investment policies.

Here are some charts. This is the S&P 1-Year Chart. You can see the downturn that began at the end of January, recovery in April and the most recent downturn in September.

By comparison, this is the S&P 5-Year Chart. This chart can put the failure in 2018 equity returns into a longer-term perspective.

Here are the percentages for the two major drops during the year.

Reasons for Market Volatility

Three are many reasons being cited for the market volatility occurring this year. Generally, the reasons cited for this volatility include:

⦁ Trade Tensions/ trade dispute with China
⦁ Geopolitical uncertainty
⦁ Buildup of corporate debt
⦁ The Fed’s own rate hikes
⦁ Inversion of the Yield Curve
⦁ Slowdown in the housing market
⦁ General fears about declining profit margins, slowing growth
⦁ Fears of a recession

I’ve grouped these topics into three: Inverted Yield Curve, Fed Policy, and Other.

Inverted Yield Curve

Wall Street has suddenly begun chattering about a yield curve inversion, which happens when long-term interest rates—typically, Treasuries—fall below short-term rates. Interest rates are largely driven by market conditions, and long-term rates are normally higher because the risk of holding the debt over a long period of time is greater than the risk for short-term debt. But when long-term rates fall below short-term rates, that suggests borrowers expect a weak economy over the longer term, and usually, they’re right: a yield curve inversion has preceded every recession since 1957.

This chart shows the difference between rates on 10-year Treasuries and 1-year Treasuries, with the shaded areas indicating recessions. When the difference is less than 0, that means short-term rates are higher and the yield curve is inverted.

Long- and short-term rates have been converging this fall, with the curve flattening, as the chart above shows. The yield curve inverted officially on Tuesday, December 4th, with respect to the 2-Year and the 5-Year Treasuries. The big inversion, though, is between the 2 and 10-Year Treasuries, and that hasn’t happened yet.

Generally, the inverted yield curve is considered a harbinger of a recession, that the economy is poised to weaken. But is that necessarily the case? No. An inverted yield curve can be a false alarm. The difference between 10-year and 1-year Treasury rates went negative in 1966, but no recession ensued. The curve became positive again in 1967. It inverted again in 1969, and that time, the warning was real: a recession began in December of that year.

In order to accurately anticipate the economy, you have to know a lot more than the fact that the inverted yield curve is signaling a weak economy to come. When will this recession happen? How long will it last? How deep will it be?

The stock market declines also signal the potential for a weak economy to follow. But these events can play out in time and with variations that make the general alignment useless from a predictive or market timing standpoint.

This chart shows the S&P 500 returns superimposed with the grey bars marking recessionary periods. As with the inverted yield curve, there are false signals and significant timing variations.

Still the inverted yield curve is an important factor in understanding where the economy is right now.

Bank stocks sharply declined, and this makes sense. A normal curve with the two-year offering a lower yield than the 10-year is fundamental to how banks make money. Banks borrow short term at lower interest rates so that they can make long-term loans to borrowers at higher interest rates. The difference between those two interest rates, the positive spread, is their profit. If a bank is borrowing short term at a higher interest rate and making loans to borrowers at a lower interest rate, the difference is a negative spread.

In this interest-rate environment, banks would lose money by making loans. Not necessarily on all loans, but it does make some loans unfeasible and some less profitable, forcing banks to cut back on making loans, thereby choking off the access to credit markets that businesses need to grow. This then fuels the slowing of the economy, potentially enough to be a recession. A recession is generally considered negative economic growth for two consecutive quarters.

It looks more like the official inverted yield curve, 10-Year rates falling below 2-Year rates, is going to occur, but it still has not happened yet. There is still a risk of the big inversion. I would say we are perilously close. What could stop the collision course between the two-year and 10-year rates?

The Federal Reserve could stop raising short-term rates. More on this in the next section.

For the individual investor, it must be an acceptable risk that recessions — and the bear markets that are associated with them — will happen many times over the course of one’s lifetime. This is exactly why risk tolerance needs to be adjusted lower as one ages. Your investment portfolio should take into account how many working years you have left, if any, and you should adjust your asset allocation, not to accommodate changing economic conditions, but to match your changing personal circumstances.

Federal Reserve Interest Rate Hikes

A key driver of the recent market decline is that expectations have been growing that the US Federal Reserve will continue raising short-term interest rates. Until as recently as September, interest rate hikes by the Federal Reserve were widely anticipated to continue through 2019. But now, many are calling for a “pause” in interest rate increases.

Fed Chairman Jerome Powell was responsible for some of the change in tone after he said the fed is “close to neutral” on Tuesday, Dec 4, contradicting a comment he made in early October that “neutral is a long way off.” Neutral is the level that would no longer be stimulative or slowing to the economy.

Powell’s comments last week, saying rates are close to a range of neutral estimates pushed the market higher on the belief the Fed would not raise as often as the market had been baking into its outlook. It is believed that yield curve inversion makes clear that the rate hikes the market thought were coming are not.

Trump, who has been vocal in his criticisms of Powell and the Fed’s plans to raise rates, was apparently happy with Powell’s speech, according to comments from Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. Other prominent figures have also been questioning the Fed’s stance, with a former Dallas Fed vice president calling it “very aggressive” earlier this year. Fed Vice Chairman Richard Clarida told CNBC last week the Fed is “much closer” to neutral.

The issue of the Federal Reserve’s interest rate increase policy is closely tied to the problem with the inverted yield curve. What role should the Federal Reserve play with regard to managing the economy? Does the Fed create business cycles, expansions and recessions by way of Federal Reserve policies (interest rates, open market activities)? Or is the Fed a reactive steward, using tools to manage the economy off the edge of other dangers?

The US may or may not have a recession next year, but the economy is expected to grow at a slower pace and the trade wars raise concerns that earnings growth could slow even more. November employment numbers were weak, but this is not alarming with unemployment at a historically low 3.79%. There are numerous reasons, political pressure notwithstanding, to give the Fed cause to reconsider their position on rate hikes.

Business cycles are natural, and the succession of expansions and contractions should not lead investors towards the exits. An investment perspective that spans a time period encompassing many business cycles leads to the highest probabilities of success.

Yield Curve, Recessions and Comparison with the ‘70’s

Over the years, I have come to look at the 1973-1974 period as one of the worst investment periods in history. There was double digit inflation, an international oil crisis, went off the gold standard, Vietnam War, and the impeachment of Richard Nixon. From the beginning of 1973 through Nixon’s resignation the next year, the S&P 500 lost about 50% of its value. There were three recessions during this period, followed by a long recession at the beginning of 1980.

The Fed Funds Rate (the interest rate that the Fed uses to manage the economy) reached a high of 20% in 1979 and 1980. This was the Fed’s attempt to curtail runaway double-digit inflation. That bout of inflation began in 1973 after Nixon weakened the dollar by disengaging it from the gold standard. Previously, the dollar was backed by gold; afterwards, the dollar floated freely against other currencies.

Inflation tripled from 3.9% to 9.6%. The fed doubled interest rates in 1973 from 5.75% to 11%. Inflation continued to remain in the double digits through all of 1974. The Fed kept raising rates to counter inflation, but inflation kept rising. Eventually Fed leaders learned that managing inflation expectations was a critical factor in controlling inflation itself.

In 1979 Fed Chair Paul Volcker ended the Fed’s spiraling policies. He raised rates then kept them steady finally ending inflation. That created the 1980 recession, but double-digit inflation hasn’t been a threat since. During that period of time, stock market returns varied widely from positive to negative.

What can be learned from the chart above? When the US went off the gold standard, the dollar had to begin floating against other worldwide currencies. Inflation ramped up to double digits. There was an oil crisis and later a constitutional crisis with Nixon’s impeachment.

1973 and 1974 were horrible back to back negative years for the stock market, as represented by the S&P 500. At the end of two years, an investor earned -20.08% per year; they were down over 40%. From peak to trough, the losses were even more. Nonetheless, the following two years of return were very positive and the investor more than broke even, slightly positive for the 4 years, 1.6%. By 1985, starting with 1973, the investor received an average annual return of 9.6% per year. Thereafter, through 2017, average annual returns exceed 10% every year except during the 2008-2009 period where the crash pushed the average annual returns down to the 9.8% territory.

From the two charts, the previous one showing the recessions, you can see that although the 1980 recession was prolonged (with a wide grey area showing in the chart) the impact on the stock market was minor, only on -4.9% year in 1981.

There is nothing to fear in stock market volatility for the patient, long-term investor.

Out of curiosity, in reviewing this 1973-94 period, I read the entire Wikipedia account of Watergate and the impeachment and ultimate resignation of President Nixon. It strikes me not without parallel to our current situation.

The entire process, from break-in, to discovery, to Congressional hearings, impeachment and resignation took only a little over two years. For a sitting president to lose a base of support to be forced out of office required the upheaval of public and official sentiments that eventually turned against him. Of the five Articles of Impeachment that were brought against Nixon, three passed and two failed. Article I passed with 6 Republican yes votes and 11 no. Article II passed with 7 Republican yes votes and 10 no. Article III passed with 2 Republican yes votes and15 no.

The backdrop of Nixon’s impeachment was also an economy that was truly failing and the increasing pressure against the war in Vietnam.

The situation is not, however, without parallels. What the investor can understand from this exploration is that the stock market continues to function through the upheavals of society. Although each situation is different, there is something to be learned from looking at the past.

Other Reasons for Market Volatility

Trade Tensions

While this issue is receiving a lot of attention in the press, I do not think that the trade wars are a more significant driver of the markets than interest rates and Fed policy. Over decades large US companies, particularly manufacturers have developed extensive global supply chains relying on worldwide sources of lower-cost production. Higher component costs due to tariffs could bring higher inflation over the long-term. But companies would eventually learn to maximize their returns under the new rules. The impact of tariffs is sector-specific, which is consistent with 45’s style of favoring a mechanism to reward friends and punishing enemies. He is, after all, a self-proclaimed ‘tariff man.’

Elevated Values for Stocks

Equities markets have been rising for 10 years, since the crash of 2008-09, where March 11, 2009 was the bottom. It is predictable for people to ask how much longer can this last? There are always increasing fears that the upward trend cannot continue. The recent pullback in the market has been led by tech companies often referred to as FANG: Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google. Many analysts consider these companies to be over-valued.

Global Growth

Global growth appears to be firm – for now. Although downturns are always disconcerting, occasional periods of turbulence are to be expected. It should be noted that despite the sell-off and the pick up in volatility, the backdrop for world equity markets remains generally favorable.


It is impossible to predict with certainty whether the sell-off will prove to be a temporary dip or something more serious. What’s more, timing the market is notoriously difficult. A failed attempt to time the market can hurt long-term investment performance in two different ways: first by selling assets when they have lost some value and going to cash, effectively locking in those losses, and second by missing out on at least some of the gains when the market bottoms and starts to rebound.

Sharp market declines can certainly be unnerving and cause anxiety, but we encourage investors to look beyond near-term volatility and stay focused on achieving their primary financial objectives (which are years and sometimes decades away).  Markets are making waves amid a confluence of risks including higher interest rates and concern that tariffs and ongoing global trade disputes could ultimately put pressure on corporate profits. But let’s consider that this volatility is taking place against the backdrop of robust economic fundamentals in the US, and investors should remember that the long-term prospects for growth are bright.  Near-term risks will always abound, but prudent long-term investors remain invested for the long run.

We continue to believe that a portfolio appropriately diversified across asset classes and aligned with an investor’s unique circumstances and goals remains a powerful way to accumulate wealth over the long term.  It’s tempting to try to time the market during conditions like this, but this year should serve as an example that most attempts at timing will be fruitless. Small caps led the pack in Q1 and Q2 but reversed sharply in Q3. International developed markets did the opposite, reversing to the upside in Q3. Each investor knows best what is going to spur them to fight or flight but responding to those urges can often result in poor investment decisions over time. 

Reversals cannot be predicted with accuracy. Practical investors should remain in a disciplined long-term approach with a level of risk and corresponding asset mix they are comfortable with in order to benefit from the potential of compounding of investment returns over time.  Diversify appropriately, look past the near-term noise, and stay the course.

1,140 Economists Warn Trump Not To Make Great Depression Mistakes

More than 1,100 economists, including 14 Nobel Prize winners, have written a letter to President Donald Trump, along with Congress, warning against making the same trade mistakes that helped plunge America into the Great Depression.

The 1,140 economists sent the letter Thursday amid a mounting international trade battle. Trump has imposed a number of tariffs, including on steel and aluminum imports, but has granted temporary reprieves to the European Union, Australia and a handful of other countries.

The letter was intended to mirror a similar warning sent in 1930 that went unheeded.

“In 1930, 1,028 economists urged Congress to reject the protectionist Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act,” the authors wrote, citing a trade law that many economists are convinced deepened the Great Depression.

Read More: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/economists-warn-trump-great-depression_us_5aebbb22e4b041fd2d24b003

Another Tariff, Another Downturn

Last week, stocks went on sale again on the heels of yet another erratic policy declaration coming from the White House.

This follows a by-now-familiar pattern: The Trump Administration announces something —this time “tariffs on Chinese imports” with an estimated value of $60 billion a year—without an overall policy program. Traders fear that there will be retaliation against American products sold abroad and put a lower value on the large multinational companies that account for most exports and make up most of the major indexes.

The last time this happened, the tariffs involved steel and aluminum, and the panicked sellers later discovered that the impact on global trade was actually quite small, due to negotiated exemptions for major steel producing nations like Canada and South Korea—plus the Eurozone and Mexico. This time around, the U.S. trade representative has 15 days to develop a list of specific Chinese products to slap the additional taxes onto, and there will be a public comment period before the threatened tariffs go into effect. China has announced that it is developing its own list, and as companies (and farmers) become aware of what is included in its reported $3 billion tariff package, they will lobby for exemptions which may turn this announcement into another tempest in a teapot.

Meanwhile, in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, admissions that private information on 50 million people had been pilfered, and up to 126 million Americans had seen posts by a Russian troll farm on its site, Facebook shares fell almost 10%, from 176.83 down to 159.39. This took the social media giant down from the 5th largest-capitalization company in the S&P 500 index to the 6th (behind Berkshire Hathaway)—dragging the index down even further.

What’s remarkable about this particular selloff over things that might or might not happen is that it came amid some very good news about the U.S. economy. Durable-goods orders jumped 3.1% in February, sales of newly-constructed homes were solid, and Atlanta Fed president Raphael Bostic announced that there were “upside risks” in GDP and employment. Translated, that means that the economy is looking too good to keep interest rates as lows they have been—which means this is a curious time to be selling out and heading for the investment sidelines. (So don’t!)






the path to achieving financial goals is rarely via a straight line


Years ago, pension plans and other qualified retirement plans were offered only by the “big boys on the block.” But now, many small companies are in the game. In fact, if you are self-employed and you don’t have any employees, you have a number of retirement plan options at your disposal. If you have employees, you still have some good options.  Here are five popular choices for self-employed business owners.

1. A SEP Plan

Frequently, a self-employed individual will adopt a Simplified Employee Pension (SEP) plan, which is comparable to a traditional IRA. A SEP isn’t a good plan if you have employees!  If you have employees, they must be covered at the same rate you cover yourself. If it’s just you, then you can contribute to the plan based on a percentage of your total compensation, up to the tax law limit. You make the decision to contribute each year; there is no commitment to make annual contributions.  For 2018, deductible SEP contributions cannot exceed the lesser of 25% of the employee’s compensation or $55,000. As with all qualified plans, the maximum compensation taken into account in 2018 is limited to $275,000.  If you are 50 or above, you can add another $6,000 Catch-Up Contribution.

You do not need to hire a Third Party Administrator to calculate your contributions to a SEP Plan.  Therefore, the SEP is easy and inexpensive to manage.  You do, however, have to file a 5500 Form each year when you plan balance exceeds $250,000.

The SEP Plan is the main go-to tax planning choice of most CPA’s – but it is not the best choice in my opinion.  However, if you didn’t set up another play by 12/31/17 then then SEP may be your best option in 2018 because you have all the way until the due date of your tax return (plus extensions) to set up AND fund the plan.

2. A SIMPLE Plan

A Savings Incentive Match Plan for Employees (SIMPLE) is available only to a business with 100 or fewer employees and no other retirement plan. You, as the employer, must make a matching contribution equal to a certain portion or percentage of each employee’s contribution or a minimum non-elective contribution for all plan participants. For 2018, you can contribute up to $12,500 ($15,500 if age 50 or older) to a SIMPLE. As a further enticement, you do not have to file an annual return 5500 Form the plan.  The benefit of the SIMPLE plan is that it does not require the services of a Third Party Administrator to calculate the contributions each year.  The drawbacks are that the contribution limits are relatively low and that you have to contribute to employees at the same rate that you contribute for yourself.

3. A Solo 401(k) Plan

These plans may cover a business owner with no employees.  The same rules and requirements apply to a Solo 401(k) as for a 401(k) of a large corporation, except there are no employees to be covered or included in the plan.  The self-employed person is both employer and employee and they get to contribute in both capacities making the Solo 401k generally a better choice than a SEP.

In 2018, a self-employed person can defer up to $18,500 ($24,500 if age 50 or older) as an employee, ‘elective’ contribution.  At the same time, the employer ‘profit sharing’ contribution is also allowed.  This employer contribution is calculated the same way the SEP contribution is calculated:  it cannot exceed the lesser of 25% of compensation or $55,000 ($61,000 if age 50 or older). Generally, you can get a higher contribution into the Solo 401k Plan than you can with a SEP.  However, the Solo 401k Plan must be established by 12/31 of the prior year.  The contribution itself can be deposited up to the due date of the tax return plus extensions.  There is no obligation from year to year to continue funding the Solo 401k Plan. Therefore, it is just as flexible as the SEP while generally offering higher contribution opportunities.

4. Keogh Plan

These “dinosaur” retirement plans, specifically designed for self-employed individuals, may be considered relics of the past by some, but they are still kicking around. There are two main types: defined contribution Keoghs and defined benefit Keoghs. The basic rules apply for these types of plans, but with a twist: The annual contribution limit is based on “earned income” instead of “compensation” and thus effectively reduces the percentage cap for self-employed individuals. In contrast to a defined contribution plan (e.g., a 401[k]), in 2018, a defined benefit plan may provide an annual retirement benefit equal to the lesser of 100% of earned income for the three highest-paid years or $220,000.

5. Solo Defined Benefit Plan

A Solo Defined Benefit Plan, combined with a Solo 401k Plan is going to give the very high income self-employed person an even higher tax-deductible retirement contribution.  This is going to be most effective for older people who are nearing retirement and are in their top earning years.  The calculations are complex and will require the services of a Third Party Administrator, but for people who want to maximize their tax-deferred savings, this is an option worth exploring.

We can help you choose the right retirement plan for your business.  We investigate all the possibilities and help you choose the right strategy to fit your changing circumstances. Each year, you have a once in a lifetime opportunity to save money on a tax-advantaged basis and we want you to make the most of it.

For more information, you can refer to the Retirement Plan Comparison Chart available on the website:


The Prevailing Investment Angst

“What should I do since the market is so high right now?” “It can’t continue to go up, it’s going down, right?” These questions represent the prevailing investment angst. This is where professional investment advice can be most valuable. We have to invest without knowing the answer to these questions. The short-term direction of the stock market cannot be predicted – this is true despite the constant barrage of predictions being made every day on the financial news.

The financial experts know a lot more about the markets and how the markets will perform in the future than the ordinary rest of us. Right? No!

As it turns out, the predictions made by financial experts are no better than those made by gypsies looking into crystal balls, soothsayers gazing at the entrails of a sacrificed animal or wizards with tall caps who gaze into space. In fact, the financial experts might even be LESS reliable than those other charlatans.

Somebody has been keeping a scorecard about these predictions, the prevailing truths espoused as a general consensus. Larry Swedroe, an economist and director of research for Buckingham Strategic Wealth, has kept records since 2010 and spent much of 2017 compiling predictions that were made with a great deal of certainty, and recently gave what might be called a “guru scorecard” of results. Here are six “sure things” that were predicted at the beginning of 2017 and how they actually turned out.

One popular prediction was that bond rates would rise dramatically in 2017, causing bond investors to book significant losses. Actual result: Bonds performed well in 2017, with long-term rates topping short-term rates even in the high credit quality portion of the market. This prediction is a fail.

The second consensus prediction was that inflation will rise significantly This prediction also didn’t happen in 2017. On Dec. 13, 2017, the BLS reported that the CPI for all Urban Consumers increased .4%, for all items rose 2.2%, and for all items less food and energy, was 1.7% – not significantly higher than last year.

The third prediction was a win: the growth rate of real GDP was predicted to improve from 1.6% in 2016 to 2.2% in 2017. The recent full-year forecast released Nov. 13, 2017 from the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia is for real GDP growth of 2.2% in 2017.

Fourth, it was generally agreed that with the Fed tightening monetary policy and our economy improving faster than the economies of European and other developed nations and their central banks still pursuing the opposite easing monetary policies, that the dollar would strengthen. The dollar index (DXY) ended 2016 at 102.38 and ended 2017 at 92.3. Another prediction fail.

Fifth, with the political climate increasing concern over the potential for trade wars, it was generally espoused that investors should avoid emerging markets. Investors acting on these predictions would have lost out on significant returns. The Vanguard FTSE Emerging Markets ETF (VWO) returned 31.5% and Dimensional Fund Advisors Emerging Markets Core Fund (DFCEX) returned 36.55% in 2017. Fail.

The sixth prevailing consensus opinion was that, with the Shiller cyclically adjusted price-to-earnings (CAPD) ratio at 27.7 (66% above its long-term average), domestic stocks were overvalued. Compounding the issue with valuations, the reasoning goes, is that rising interest rates make bonds more competitive with stocks. Thus, it was predicted that U.S. stocks would be likely to have mediocre returns in 2017. A group of 15 Wall Street strategists called for the expected the S&P 500 to provide a total return of about 7%. The Vanguard 500 Index Fund, a proxy for the S&P 500, returned 21.67% in 2017. Prediction fail.

Seventh, was a prediction that, given their relative valuations, U.S. small-cap stocks would underperform large-cap stocks in 2017. Morningstar data showed that at the end of 2016, the prospective price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio of the Vanguard Small-Cap ETF (VB) stood at 21.4 while the P/E of the Vanguard S&P ETF (VOO) stood at 19.4. VOO returned 21.8% outperforming VB, which returned 16.3%. This prediction became true.

The last consensus prediction tracked by Swedrow was that, with non-US developed and emerging market economies generally growing at a slower pace than the US economy, with weak commodity prices, slower growth in China’s economy and the Fed tightening monetary policy and a rising dollar, that international developed market stocks would underperform U.S. stocks in 2017. This prediction did not bear out. The Vangueard FTSE Developed Markets ETF (VEA) returned 26.4%, outperforming VOO which we already noted returned 21.8%.

In all, the 2017 Scorecard resulted in only 2 out of 8 consensus predictions coming true. Imagine the disastrous investment program and individual would experience by taking action on all of these so-called “Expert Opinions.” Indeed, since 2010 when the Prediction Scorecard was started, the results have been consistently dismal. Of 62 significant predictions tracked over the past eight years, 43 turned out to be wrong.

All of this is worth remembering next time you hear a pundit or market guru make a confident prediction about what’s going to happen in the markets. Based on past history, you could have done better if you’d relied instead on a gypsy fortune teller.

The market is and will continue to be unpredictable. We have to live with this fact. And… we have to maintain an investment strategy designed to fulfill future goals. To counteract all of the misinformation and false predictions, maintaining a statistics-based, diversified investment strategy is the best defense.

Note: http://www.etf.com/sections/index-investor-corner/swedroe-20

Should we be alarmed?

Suppose somebody came up to you and shouted: “I have terrible news about the economy. I think you should sell your stocks!”

Alarmed, you say: “Oh, my God. Tell me more!”

And this mysterious stranger shouts: “Run for the hills! The American economy just added 200,000 more jobs—more than expectations—and the U.S. jobless rate now stands at 4.1%, the lowest since 2000!”

You blink your eyes. So?

“There’s more,” you’re told. “The average hourly earnings of American workers have risen a more-than-expected 2.9% over a year earlier, the most since June of 2009! You should sell your stocks while you can!”

Chances are, you don’t find this alarmist stranger’s argument very persuasive, but then again, you don’t work on Wall Street. After hearing these benign government statistics, traders rushed for the exits from the opening bell to the closing, and today the S&P 500 stocks are, in aggregate, worth 2.13% less than they were yesterday. The Nasdaq Composite index fell 1.96% and the Dow Jones Industrial Average, a somewhat meaningless but well-known index, was down 2.54%.

To understand why, you need to follow some tortuous logic. According to the alarmist view, those extra 200,000 jobs might have pushed America one step closer to “maximum employment”—the very hard-to-define point where companies have trouble filling job openings, and therefore have to start offering higher wages. No, that’s not a terrible thing for most of us, but the idea is that if companies have to start paying more, then they’ll be able to put less in their pockets—and the rise in the hourly earnings of American workers totally confirmed the theory.

If you’re an alarmist, it gets worse. If American workers are getting paid more, then companies will start charging more for whatever they produce or do, which might raise the inflation rate. “Might” is the operative word here. There hasn’t been any sign of higher inflation, which is still not as high as the Federal Reserve Board wants it to be. But if you’re a Wall Street trader who thinks the market is in a bubble phase, you aren’t necessarily looking at facts to confirm your beliefs.

Suppose you’re not an alarmist. Then you might notice that 18 states began the new year with higher minimum wages, which might have nudged up that hourly earnings figure that looked so alarming a second ago. And some companies have recently announced bonuses following the huge reduction in U.S. corporate tax rates, whose amortized amounts are also finding their way into wage statistics.

Meanwhile, those same government statistics are showing a resurgence in factory activity and a rebound in housing, which account together for more than 50,000 of those new jobs.

So the question we all have to ask ourselves is: are we alarmists? Selling in anticipation of a bear market has never been a great strategy, even though stocks are admittedly still priced higher than they have been historically.

If you are not an alarmist, then you have something to celebrate. The S&P 500 has now officially ended its longest streak without a 3% drop in its history—as you can see from the accompanying chart. It’s an historic run not likely to be seen by any of us again. The truth about the markets is that short, sharp pullbacks are inevitable and routine—unless you were living in the past year and a half, when we seemed to be immune from normal market behavior.





Protecting Yourself from the Equifax Hack

In the past few weeks I’ve fielded numerous questions from clients about the Equifax hack asking what to do about it. The best advice I can give you is to regularly monitor your bank and credit card accounts or pay for a service to do this for you. Best is to do it yourself! Your awareness of your own account activity and prompt action if/when anything is amiss is the best protection. Finding an old error or fraudulent transaction can be difficult to prove and fix. Quickly bringing an issue to the attention of your bank or credit card company will usually result in a speedy resolution in your favor.


What happened? From about mid-May to July 30, hackers ransacked vast troves of information at Equifax, one of the three big credit reporting companies. The breach, as you probably have read, potentially exposed about 143 million Americans’ personal information, including names, addresses, dates of birth and Social Security numbers. The hack stunned many people who became increasingly aware of their own vulnerability to the largely invisible financial system that we have come to depend on.


Since Equifax disclosed the breach, the company has lost over $4billion in market value. Subsequent investigations have begun to expose the company’s negligence. The bug exploited by hackers was “known and could have been fixed and patched, says Ted Schlein, a general partner at venture-capital firm Kleiner, Perkins. Meanwhile, three Equifax officials, including the company’s finance chief, sold a total of about $1.8 million in stock August 1 and 2, according to securities filings, selling their stock before the public announcement and drop in price. Equifax has said they didn’t know the about the breach at the time of the stock sales. This is unlikely, as the well-known cyber-investigations firm Mandiant was brought in officially on August 2.


Regardless of the company’s negligence, people want to know how to protect themselves from this and other potential cyber-vulnerabilities.


Awareness and monitoring of your bank and credit card accounts is key.

  1. Check your Credit Report – Here is a link to a free credit report. You can run this report annually and review (for free!) it to see if there is any activity you do not recognize. This could include opening a new account, applying for any type of credit, late payments or any other activity that does not look familiar. There are other services such as LifeLock.com, but they do charge a monthly fee. https://www.annualcreditreport.com/index.action
  2. Report any Suspicious Activity – If you see anything suspicious, contact the credit card or bank’s fraud department immediately. You are not responsible for charges made on a fraudulent card, or fraudulent activity on your card, but you must report the issue in a timely manner.
  3. Recovering – If you have been the victim of any type of fraudulent activity or identity theft, you can follow the steps outlined by the Federal Trade Commission in this useful Guide. https://www.identitytheft.gov/Assistant#
  4. Tax Season – It’s still too early to know if and how the data are exposed in the breach could be misused, but one concern is that identity thieves can use stolen Social Security numbers to file fraudulent tax returns and receive refunds. When people file their taxes, the IRS tells them their return has already been filed. One way to prevent this from happening is to file early. For more information, the IRS has published a Guide on tax fraud.https://www.irs.gov/newsroom/taxpayer-guide-to-identity-theft
  5. Freezing Your Credit – If you want to be more proactive, you can Freeze Your Credit temporarily and Set Up a Fraud Alert. When you freeze your credit, you set up a PIN on your credit accounts. Any use of your credit will require providing the PIN – information that the hackers will not have access to. A fraud alert can also be set so that credit card companies are required to verify your identity before opening any account. To set up the Freeze and the Alert, contact each of the credit bureaus using these phone numbers:

Equifax – 1-800-349-9960

Experian – 1-888-397-3742

TransUnion – 1-888-909-8872

  1. Equifax’s Identity Protection Program – I don’t recommend using Equifax’s Trusted ID program since this is the database that just got hacked. Providing them with additional information just isn’t a good idea. Furthermore, enrolling in this program may prevent you from participating in a class-action lawsuit.
  2. Monitor Your Accounts – While it is a convenience to have automated bill payment and other bank account management services, you must look at your bank and credit card accounts on a regular basis, review your transactions, and immediately report anything that is not familiar to you.
  3. Help Others – These processes are fairly simple and many require just a few short phone calls or online activities. But many people are just not good at doing these things. You may want to help some of your friends or family members to set up a couple of routine monitoring activities.

If you would like to know more about credit card fraud, you can download this Consumer Action Question and Answer Guide. [Create link to website, post document under Resources]

These days, it is important to be vigilant about your financial accounts. Taking some routine actions a few minutes a month is the best way to protect your ongoing financial security.


Insurance Resources by Guest Blogger, Tony Steuer

Tony Steuer, our guest blogger shares some great insurance articles and updates for your planning needs. Tony is an Insurance Literacy Advocate, Founder of The Insurance Literacy Institute, Creator of The Insurance Bill of Rights and Author of The Questions and Answers on Insurance Book Series. His website is www.insuranceliteracy.org.

Resources for Long-Term Care Insurance

Thanks to Lisa Fu for the opportunity to be a resource for her article “3 Things to Know About Long Term Care Insurance” on Magnifymoney.com. Lisa takes a look at the basics of long term care insurance and the age at which a person should consider purchasing a long term care insurance policy. Long Term Care insurance is an important part of a financial plan as it is estimated that 70% of Americans will have a health issue that requires some type of Long Term Care services – home care, facility care, adult day care and so on. These are services that are not covered by Medicare. The average daily cost can be hundreds of dollars depending on your location and the type of service. To find out the cost in your area, visit the Genworth cost of care survey.

The complete article “3 Things to Know About Long-Term Care Insurance” can be read by clicking on the article name. A few highlights below:

Once in retirement, the average American is expected to spend as much as $250,000 on medical expenses.

Like any insurance, the trade-off with long-term care insurance is the leverage provided. If you can’t afford the premium and it doesn’t provide good leverage, investing in long-term care insurance might be unwise.

Steuer advises those who expect a need to purchase a long-term care policy after the age of 40. But purchasing long-term care insurance in your 40s also could save you hundreds of dollars in premium costs, compared to doing so in your 50s.
Depending on the health issue, you may not be able to meet the requirements to file a claim. To use the benefit, you have to be unable to perform two of six activities, such as bathing or feeding yourself. Your health may not be poor enough to use it as a result. “It is likely that a claim won’t be made until someone reaches their 70s.

You may not be able to afford it right now. If you have student loans and other expenses that have placed you in debt, paying for a long-term care insurance premium simply may not be possible. Steuer advises those who expect a need to purchase a long-term care policy after the age of 40 and if you have assets between $1 million and $5 million. “Someone who either has less than $1 million or more than $5 million should not consider it,”he says.

Long-term care insurance as an industry is going through some transitions. Prior to purchasing a policy, you should read my take on this: Can Long-Term Care Insurance Survive? The answer is a definitive yes and this article will provide you the knowledge to make a wise choice on this important coverage especially if “You Are in Denial About Long-Term Care Insurance“. And insurance regulators have formed a Long-Term Care Insurer Solvency Team. Insurance companies must remain solvent and profitable to be able to pay claims, unfortunately this was not the case for Penn Treaty policyholders (who can go here to get answers to their liquidation questions). It’s important to note that life insurance, health insurance, disability insurance and long term care insurance policy holders do have protection through the National Organization of Life and Health Guaranty Associations.

Key Person Insurance Coverage

Key Person Life and Key Person Disability Insurance is used to provide cash inflow when a key person is disabled or passes away. Thanks to Kristin Colella of RSL Media for the opportunity to be a resource for her article on Mutualofomaha.com on “Does Your Business Need Key Person Coverage”. Kristin takes a look at the impact to a business of a key person becoming disabled or dying and how insurance can be used to protect against that loss financially. When a key person is suddenly removed from company operations for an unspecified period of time or permanently, it will have an impact on the company financially.

The complete article “Does Your Business Need Key Person Coverage” can be read by clicking on the article name. Article excerpts including my comments follow below:

Keep in mind that not just any employee can be considered a key person. “The insurance company is going to want to know how that person is essential to the business, and will ask for financials and a job description to prove it,” says chartered life underwriter Tony Steuer, founder of the website The Insurance Literacy Institute. You will also need the key employee’s consent to take out the coverage.

In some cases, a business owner or partner can be insured as a key person. “Oftentimes, owners are the key people because a lot of the business is dependent on them or their connections,” Steuer says.


Sharing Economy Concerns:

Thanks to Ingrid Case for the opportunity to be a resource for her article on Time.com on “3 Tips for Seniors Looking to Make Extra Income”. Ingrid takes a look at how Seniors can earn money in retirement through the sharing economy (think: driving for Uber or Lyft, hosting guests through Airbnb or offering services through TaskRabbit”. As Ingrid points out, these are great ways to make extra money while setting your own hours, there are other considerations some of which I covered in “Thoughts on the sharing economy“. Article excepts including my comments follow below:

You may need to augment your insurance coverage if you are, say, using your car in a ridesharing service. “If you’re a senior, you do not have time to replace the nest egg that an uninsured accident could destroy,” says Tony Steuer, an insurance industry consultant in Alameda, Calif.
There are other insurance considerations for example, if you are driving for Uber or Lyft, your personal auto insurance will not provide any coverage during the time you are in your car waiting for a passenger. Coverage through Uber or Lyft starts when you have a passenger. If you are renting out your home, your homeowner’s coverage may not provide coverage. It’s important to read and understand the terms of your policy and to seek out supplemental coverage as needed.

Othello Powell, GEICO director of commercial lines points out that “Rideshare drivers take ‘huge risk’ with personal auto coverage“, most personal auto policies were never designed to protect you or your vehicle for commercial purposes. A typical personal auto policy contains coverage gaps and limitations for ridesharing and package delivery. If an accident does happen with drivers’ personal auto policies, they have to provide their insurance carriers with specific details, including the phase of the ride they were in. For example: Was the app on or off? Was the vehicle carrying any passengers or packages? Depending on the answers, drivers may not have the coverage they thought they had.

If you are working in the sharing economy, be sure you’ve read your homeowner’s insurance, auto insurance or related policy to determine what’s covered and what’s not covered. If your “work” is not covered, then you should strongly consider obtaining insurance to fill that gap.

Consumer Insurance Rights:

There continues to be more resources and protections for insurance consumers, depending on the state you live in and the type of insurance coverage. The Michigan Department of Insurance recently posted: Know Your Rights When Working With Insurance Companies. You can help increase awareness of the need for insurance and advocate for these rights by participating in The Insurance Bill of Rights Movement and signing The Insurance Bill of Rights petition (please share the petition). This is your opportunity to make a positive change as a consumer and as a member of the insurance industry.

The Department of Labor fiduciary rule has been delayed for an additional 60 days (link includes a countdown clock). The National of Association of Insurance Commissioners is moving forward to address this uncertainty by reviewing their annuity suitability guidelines. Annuities have been a prime area of sales abuses ranging from having high fees to contracts with surrender charges that exceed the contract holders’ life expectancy to those that can not be surrendered. If the annuity companies and those who sell annuity products were to concentrate on the positives of annuities – providing a guaranteed stream of income while minimizing fees, it would benefit consumers and more Americans would use this as part of their retirement distribution plan.

Health Care/Health Insurance Update:

Some of you may be fatigued by the ongoing health care/health insurance discussion, however, this appears to be the issue that just won’t die, despite Paul Ryan declaring that “Obamacare is the law of the land“.

Trump continues to poke at it, which creates uncertainty for insurance companies (Obamacare’s insurer’s struggle for stability amid Trump’s threats), in turn creating uncertainty for insurance consumers.

Insurance regulators also are concerned. Trump has stated that he is not sure if his administration would fund what are known as cost-sharing reduction payments, which reduce deductibles and co-payments for lower-income people.

Trump’s administration did announce some minor fixes last Thursday (a good start, just nowhere close to enough according to health insurers). However, despite uncertainty, insurers gear up for Obamacare 2018.

South Carolina is suing the federal government over the collapse of their health insurance exchange.

The IRS stated that the Earned Income Tax Credit has helped in that subsidies paid to an insurance company rather than directly to the taxpayer cut down on tax fraud.

For a thorough look at the issues, take the time to read “A Health Care Roadmap” and it includes an overview of the issues and includes areas that can be improved and ways to increase cost efficiency, make the plan financially do-able – please take the time to read it and share it. Yes, this is fixable, Alaska just did it.

Visit Tony’s website for more relevant articles on insurance: www.insuranceliteracy.org.

Review of 2016 US and Global Markets

In 2016, the US market reached new highs and stocks in a majority of developed and emerging market countries delivered positive returns. The year began with anxiety over China’s stock market and economy, falling oil prices, a potential US recession, and negative interest rates in Japan. US equity markets were in steep decline and had the worst start of any year on record. The markets began improving in mid-February through midyear. Investors also faced uncertainty from the Brexit vote in June and the US election in November.

Many investors may not have expected global stocks and bonds to deliver positive returns in such a tumultuous year. This turnaround story highlights the importance of diversifying across asset groups and regional markets, as well as staying disciplined despite uncertainty. Although not all asset classes had positive returns, a globally diversified, cap-weighted portfolio logged attractive returns in 2016.

Consider that global markets are incredible information-processing machines that incorporate news and expectations into prices. Investors are well served by staying the course with an asset allocation that reflects their needs, risk preferences, and objectives. This can help investors weather uncertainty in all of its forms. The following quote by Eugene Fama describes this view.

“If three or five years of returns are going to change your mind [on an investment], you shouldn’t have been there to begin with.” ― Eugene Fama

The chart above highlights some of the year’s prominent headlines in context of broad US market performance, measured by the Russell 3000 Index. These headlines are not offered to explain market returns. Instead, they serve as a reminder that investors should view daily events from a long-term perspective and avoid making investment decisions based solely on the news.

The chart below offers a snapshot of non-US stock market performance (developed and emerging markets), measured by the MSCI All Country World ex USA Index (in USD, net dividends). The headlines should not be viewed as determinants of the market’s direction but as examples of events that may have tested investor discipline during the year.

World Economy

2016 Market Perspective

Equity Market Highlights

After a rocky start, the US stock market had a strong year. The S&P 500 Index logged an 11.96% total return and small cap stocks, as measured by the Russell 2000 Index, returned 21.31%.

Overall, performance among non-US markets was also positive: The MSCI World ex USA Index, which reflects non-US developed markets, logged a 2.75% return and the MSCI Emerging Markets Index an 11.19% return.1

Global Diversification Impact
Overall, US equities outperformed equities in the developed ex US markets and emerging markets. As a result, a market cap-weighted global equity portfolio would have underperformed a US equity portfolio. Investors generally benefited from emphasizing value stocks around the world, as well as US small cap stocks.

Returns at the country level were dispersed. In developed markets, returns ranged from –24.87% in Israel to +24.56% in Canada. In emerging markets, returns ranged from –12.13% in Greece to +66.24% in Brazil.

Strong performance in the US placed it as the 17th best performing country out of the 46 countries in the MSCI All Country World Index (ACWI), which represents both developed and emerging markets. Although the S&P 500 Index had a positive return in 2016, the year was not in the top half of the index’s historical annual returns.

Brazil offers a noteworthy example of market prices at work and the difficulty of trying to forecast and time markets. Despite a severe recession, Brazil was the top performing emerging market country in 2016. Brazil’s GDP was projected to shrink 3.4% in 2016, according to the OECD in November, yet its equity market logged strong performance. The lesson is that prices incorporate a rich set of information, including expectations about the future. One must beat the aggregate wisdom of market participants in order to identify mispricing. The evidence suggests that this is a very difficult task to do consistently.

In 2016, equity market volatility, as measured by the CBOE Volatility Index (VIX)2, was below average. There were, however, several spikes—as you might expect—as new information was incorporated into prices. The high was reached in early February, and spikes occurred following the Brexit vote in June and again in November preceding the US election.

Premium Performance
In 2016, the small cap and value premiums3 were mostly positive across US, developed ex US, and emerging markets, while the profitability premium varied by market segment4. Though 2016 marked a generally positive year, investors may still be wary following several years of underperformance for value and small cap stocks. Taking a longer-term perspective, the premiums remain persistent over decades and around the globe despite recent years’ headwinds. The small cap and value premiums are well-grounded in financial economics and verified using market data spanning decades, but pursuing those premiums requires a consistent, long-term approach.

US Market
In the US market, small cap stocks outperformed large cap stocks and value stocks outperformed growth stocks. High profitability stocks outperformed low profitability stocks in most market segments5. Over 2016, the US small cap premium marked the seventh highest annual return difference since 1979 when measured by the Russell 2000 Index minus Russell 1000 Index. Most of the performance for small caps came in the last two months of the year, after the US election on November 8. This illustrates the difficulty of trying to time premiums and the benefit of maintaining consistent exposure. Through October, US small cap stocks had outpaced large company stocks for the year by only 0.35%. By year-end, the small cap premium had increased to 9.25%, as shown below.

US value stocks outperformed growth stocks by 11.01% following an extended period of underperformance. Over the five-year rolling period, the value premium, as measured by the Russell 3000 Value Index minus Russell 3000 Growth Index, moved from negative in 2015 to positive in 2016.

Developed ex US Markets
In developed ex US markets, small cap stocks outperformed large cap stocks and value stocks outperformed growth stocks. Over both the five- and 10-year rolling periods, the small cap premium, measured as the MSCI World ex USA Small Cap Index minus the MSCI World ex USA Index, continued to be positive. The five- and 10-year rolling periods for the small cap premium have been positive for the better part of the past decade.

Value stocks outperformed growth stocks by 9.26%, as measured by the MSCI World ex USA Value Index minus the MSCI World ex USA Growth Index. Similarly to US small caps, most of the outperformance occurred in the fourth quarter, reinforcing the importance of consistency in pursuing premiums. Despite a positive year, the value premium remains negative over the five- and 10-year rolling periods.

Emerging Markets
In emerging markets, small cap stocks underperformed large cap stocks and value stocks outperformed growth stocks. Despite the underperformance of small cap stocks, small cap value stocks fared better than small cap growth stocks and performed similarly to large cap value stocks. Investors who emphasized small cap value stocks over small cap growth stocks benefited.

Fixed Income
Both US and non-US fixed income markets posted positive returns. The Bloomberg Barclays US Aggregate Bond Index gained 2.65%. The Bloomberg Barclays Global Aggregate Bond Index (hedged to USD) gained 3.95%.

Yield curves6 were generally upwardly sloped in many developed markets, indicating positive expected term premiums. Indeed, realized term premiums were positive in the US and globally as longer-term maturities outperformed their shorter-term counterparts.

Corporate bonds were the best performing sector, returning 6.11% in the US and 6.22% globally, as reflected in the Bloomberg Barclays Global Aggregate Bond Index (hedged to USD). Credit premiums were also positive in the US and globally as lower quality investment grade corporates outperformed their higher quality investment grade counterparts.

While interest rates increased in the US, they generally decreased globally. Major markets such as Japan, Germany, and the United Kingdom all experienced decreases in interest rates. In fact, yields on Japanese and German government bonds with maturities as long as eight years finished the year in negative territory.

In the US, interest rates increased the most on the short end of the yield curve and were relatively unchanged on the long end. The yield on the 3-month US Treasury bill increased 0.35% to end the year at 0.51%. The yield on the 2-year US Treasury note increased 0.14% to 1.20%. The yield on the 10-year US Treasury note closed at a record low of 1.37% in July yet increased 0.18% for the year to end at 2.45%. The yield on the 30-year US Treasury bond increased 0.05% to end the year at 3.06%.

The British pound, euro, and Australian dollar declined relative to the US dollar, while the Canadian dollar and Japanese yen appreciated relative to the US dollar. The impact of regional currency differences on returns in the developed equity markets was minor in most cases. US investors in both developed and emerging markets generally benefited from exposure to certain currencies.

“There’s no information in past returns of three to five years. That’s just noise. It really takes very long periods of time, and it takes a lot of stick-to-it-iveness. You have to really decide what your strategy is based on — long periods of returns—and then stick to it.” ― Eugene Fama

1. All non-US returns are in USD, net dividends.
2. The VIX is a measure of implied volatility using S&P 500 option prices. Source: Bloomberg.
3. The small cap premium is the return difference between small capitalization stocks and large capitalization stocks. The value premium is the return difference between stocks with low relative prices (value) and stocks with high relative prices (growth).
4. Profitability is measured as a company’s operating income before depreciation and amortization minus interest expense scaled by book equity. The profitability premium is the return difference between stocks of companies with high profitability over those with low profitability.
5. Profitability performance is measured as the top half of stocks based on profitability minus the bottom half in the Russell 3000 Index.
6. A yield curve is a graph that plots the interest rates at a specific point in time of bonds with similar credit quality but different maturity dates.

Frank Russell Company is the source and owner of the trademarks, service marks, and copyrights related to the Russell Indexes. Dow Jones data provided by Dow Jones Indices. MSCI data © MSCI 2017, all rights reserved. S&P data provided by Standard & Poor’s Index Services Group. The BofA Merrill Lynch Indices are used with permission; © 2017 Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith Inc.; all rights reserved. Bloomberg Barclays data provided by Bloomberg. Indices are not available for direct investment; their performance does not reflect the expenses associated with the management of an actual portfolio.

Past performance is no guarantee of future results. This information is provided for educational purposes only and should not be considered investment advice or a solicitation to buy or sell securities.

Investing risks include loss of principal and fluctuating value. Small cap securities are subject to greater volatility than those in other asset categories. International investing involves special risks such as currency fluctuation and political instability. Investing in emerging markets may accentuate these risks. Sector-specific investments can also increase these risks.

Fixed income securities are subject to increased loss of principal during periods of rising interest rates. Fixed income investments are subject to various other risks, including changes in credit quality, liquidity, prepayments, and other factors. REIT risks include changes in real estate values and property taxes, interest rates, cash flow of underlying real estate assets, supply and demand, and the management skill and creditworthiness of the issuer.

Eugene Fama is a member of the Board of Directors for and provides consulting services to Dimensional Fund Advisors LP.

Dimensional Fund Advisors LP is an investment advisor registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission.