Fed Week: 3 P’s of Portfolio Management a Better Focus

Trifecta

Portfolio Management efforts can focus on more controllable and proactive themes like Protect, Prune and Plant. Countdown to the FOMC’s September 17th target rate decision is beyond our control and demands the perfect trifecta of outguessing Action, Reactions & Duration of Said Reactions. Good Luck!

When will the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) raise the target Federal Funds Rate and move the U.S. out of the zero interest rate policy (ZIRP) environment? The last tightening came in 2006, and based on recent Fed Funds futures prices and trading activity, the probability for a hike on Thursday has dropped from 50% to 25%. The likelihood rises to 74% for March 2016. Interest rates are the price of money which reflect supply/demand balances as well as inflation, credit, and other risks. Demographics, technology, structural unemployment, and muddle-through global demand will continue to deliver counter-punches to expectations for higher rates and inflation.

Bottom Line for Me: Deflationary counter-forces are powerful and Mr. Market will ultimately prove more powerful than what you see in the below Effective Fed Funds graph.

Whether it is former Treasury secretary, Larry Summers or The New York Times, smart people take polar opposite sides of the interest rate debate that will impact benchmark rates all along the curve (10-Year Treasury shown below). Stock markets throughout the world, as well as global currencies and capital flows, will be heavily influenced by the FOMC’s every word or lack of words. Let’s pretend you know the decision to hike is a foregone conclusion. Will the “market” react favorably or unfavorably? Okay, let’s pretend you rightly picked a 25 basis point increase and the market roars up as an indication the economy is strong enough to withstand the marking of a new interest rate regime. So what happens Friday or next month as investors, traders, speculators, and sovereigns digest the implication on their books? Can you pick the FOMC Trifecta?!

Advice: Spend more mind-share on the portfolio(s) you manage.

Similar to outguessing a room full of brilliant economists, forecasting the weather that impacts our future lawn and garden is fairly difficult. Still, here in North Carolina, we take more controllable and proactive actions in the fall to reduce soil compaction, save water, and enhance root growth in order to rejuvenate a lawn full of summer stress. Global portfolios have experienced summer stress with large losses experienced in numerous asset classes, geographies, market caps, sectors, credit grades, and investment style boxes. Sixty-five percent of the companies in the domestic S&P 500 have negative year-to-date price returns in 2015, and international currency translation is brutal with the strong dollar surge.

PROTECT. PRUNE. PLANT.

There are numerous proactive methods and techniques to pursue portfolio management/asset allocation goals that include less compacted correlations and exposures, savings of taxes, and enhanced future reward-to-risk opportunities. Here is a small sample with no FOMC Trifecta required!

Protect:

Cash is “King, Queen, Prince, and Princess” when uncertainty reigns, volatility and correlations rise, and markets are downright mean. Lots of methods to choose source of funds; however, an example is to quantify and rank reward-to-risk ratios for every holding/exposure and remove a percentage of those with the least favorable margin of safety. With a Growth-at-a-Reasonable-Price (GARP) investment philosophy, I like to rank valuation metrics such as PEG ratios and a proprietary view of estimated Price-to-Sales versus Profit Margins. Dry Powder is never a bad thing and so-called “Cost of Opportunity” is a protection risk I am willing to absorb.

In-depth analysis will look beyond simple stock, bond, cash, and security-level allocation modeling. I focus heavily on portfolio character, risk budgeting, and overall posturing; therefore, protective decision-making can shape a 100% invested portfolio.

Prune & Plant:

When a tide of losses hits 65% of the S&P 500, it is a superb opportunity to proactively harvest tax losses by swapping dollar for dollar into securities with equal reward-to-risk opportunity sets: This captures the economic losses which may be used to offset current gains or banked into carry-loss forwards. Of course, you can modify the type of exposure you have at the same time, but in this case the same amount of dollars remains exposed.
Note: Avoid Wash Sale Rules. 

Isolate and cull through the non-market/price related characteristics of your holdings and prune securities that have failed to meet fundamental or quantitative expectations over your tolerance of time. Perhaps, the business model is shaky, currency risk is too high, dividends are subject to change, the fund manager left, earnings estimates dropped, debt coverage breached your preferred ratio, valuation is too high, or liquidity, spreads, relative strength have weakened. It is rare for a portfolio to be blemish or disappointment free–just the laws of probability and no reflection on your security selection skills 🙂 

There will be no escaping the media and market’s desire to correctly pick the FOMC Trifecta in September, December, March…

Every investor and portfolio is unique so take more controllable and proactive actions that reflect your unique circumstances–In my experience, taking action (no matter how minute) is often worth the behavioral reward when market and events are highly volatile and uncertain.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Michael loves to empower investors with his expertise in securities and economic analysis, goals-based wealth management solutions, and FinTech smart decision-support tools. While directly managing over $5 billion in growth and retirement assets; his proactive advice and software innovations have influenced thousands of fiduciary advisors to better their practices and service to clients. He enjoys spending time with his wife and three boys, competing in USTA tennis, and mentoring others to succeed.

Email | Michael@empoweredportfolios.com

Twitter | @MichaelHakerem

Navigating The Global Market Selloff

Bull and Bear

Wealth is most often built through risk-taking, hard-work, blood, sweat, and tears, so never be passive about its management and preservation! My 90’s Bull and Bear artwork was unearthed this weekend from a dusty box. The old pic was an early career motivator to keep me focused on serving financial advisors and private clients no matter the market direction.

Always be PROACTIVE with the proper balance of capital appreciation and rewards as well as wealth preservation and risks.

A market sell-off swept Asian-Pacific stock markets Monday, led by China’s Shanghai Composite, which gave up 8.5%. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng Index dropped 5.2%, Japan’s Nikkei 225 lost 4.6%, Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 fell 4.1%, South Korea’s Kospi declined 2.5%, India’s Sensex was down 5.8%, and U.S. Dow Jones Industrials dropped over 1,000 points on the open. Market volatility, as witnessed by the widely followed VIX indices, had the greatest week to week percent increase on record. As expected, all kinds of assets start to correlate-downward.

This Post is not about fear or encouraging unnecessary action: It is also not about complacency or ignoring the world around us. Families deserve, require, and desire financial stewardship.

Three Things You Can Do Right Now

  1. Check Your Risk Attributes. Security-level modeling is fine; however, I suggest you heighten priority on portfolio-level characteristics like forward-looking valuation ratios (reward-to-risk, price-to-sales, PEG, Yield), draw-down metrics (return dispersion, Sharpe & Sortino, duration, value-at-risk, up/down capture), and sensitivities to varied economic scenarios (including disinflation & recession). Know where you stand — Is your portfolio suitable and aligned with expectations of the future (long and short-term)
  2. Cash is King, Queen, Prince & Princess. The appropriate “pruned” level is investor-centric; however, cash tends to be the simplest and most effective method to satisfy volatility reduction and emotional satisfaction. Why not target a security you never liked anyway, has above-average fees, or generally was not a complementary fit? The psychological impact of taking action (no matter how small) is often rewarding.
  3. Tax-Loss Swaps. In taxable accounts, when multitudes of securities experience large moves down, it makes a lot sense to capture paper losses, turn them into an economic benefit for the future (carry-loss forwards can even offset a little ordinary income) and immediately regain market exposure through another equally attractive security. This is one of the great proactive moves you can make in this market without attempting market timing or outguessing new moves from the People’s Bank of China.

A Few Pictures to Contemplate

1Fred Graph 8-25
The character of the world’s financial markets has changed as easily seen through market breadth, volatility, and sentiment; therefore, it is generally smart for investors to at least appreciate that expectations should adjust. The $4.4 trillion U.S. Federal Reserve balance sheet shown above is one anecdote that clearly illustrates the unusual and unprecedented nature of our economic world. For this reason, and even though I am a student of market history, I cannot accept advice like “this is just a normal and healthy pullback.” The world’s central banks have not a clue how to unwind this experimental game. See, Don’t Roll the Dice with Your Retirement.

2Fred Graph 8-25

The 2015 summer market selloff is blamed on a powerful U.S. dollar surge versus other currencies, plummeting commodity prices (led by oil), earnings and GDP slowdowns in China, Europe, Japan, and the United States. Incoming data is fairly mixed; however, the distribution of risks to global economic activity is still tilted to the downside with deflationary forces gaining momentum.

It only takes one snowflake to cause an unexpected avalanche.

3Fred Graph 8-25

Three More Points to Think About

  • Know Thy Messenger. As you seek guidance and read commentaries, watch for biases and conflicts. This is true whether listening to someone who is always talking market crashes or Armageddon, a strategist paid to keep you in their firm’s asset management products, or a salesperson disguised as an “advisor.”
  • Proactive Preparation, Reaction, and Communication. It may not be necessary to change your asset allocation, safety cash levels, or solid financial plan based on 2015 market dislocations. An allocation to “passive” and “cheaper” index investing has its place, too. Still, organization, scrutiny, and awareness of your portfolio’s expected rewards & risks, diversification, liquidity, credit, leverage (direct or indirect), and fees (on the statement and hidden) is important. How else will you know if a “reaction” is warranted? Whether an advisor(s) is present or an investor is self-reliant, other interested parties (like spouses and children) benefit from an increased level of awareness and communication: where we stand, the game plan, how we implement said plan, and the method of supervision/monitoring.
  • Focus on the More Controllable vs. Less Controllable. Most of us do well to place energy in estate and tax planning, social security strategies, and the fundamentals of diversification and risk management. Even if you 1) knew the exact outcome of potentially significant market moving events like the September Federal Reserve meeting or a surprise People’s Bank of China stock market intervention, you still have to 2) guess market reactions and then 3) the duration of those reactions. That’s a difficult trifecta!

In 1995, an early mentor required me to read and hand record daily levels of copper prices, 10-year bond rates, major currency levels, and about 70 other market inputs. I am not suggesting you watch that closely; however, a proactive approach with your hard-earned wealth is warranted!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Michael loves to empower investors with his expertise in securities and economic analysis, goals-based wealth management solutions, and FinTech smart decision-support tools. While directly managing over $5 billion in growth and retirement assets; his proactive advice and software innovations have influenced thousands of fiduciary advisors to better their practices and service to clients. He enjoys spending time with his wife and three boys, competing in USTA tennis, and mentoring others to succeed.

Email | Michael@empoweredportfolios.com

Twitter | @MichaelHakerem

9 Bond Fund Risks To Evaluate

10-Year Yields last year

Now that’s price volatility! Government Agencies, Exchanges, Major Bond Investors, and Main Street Investors are again preparing for the long awaited upward shift in interest-rates and a potential collapse in bond market prices and liquidity. Deja Vu, right? Know your risk exposures and understand the location of your hard earned dollars!

The thought of bond market liquidity evaporating or double-digit drops in bond investments is unnerving enough; however, I am especially concerned where investors are exposed to two trends often seen in 401(k) plans, 529 College Savings Plans, Target Date Funds (TDF), and certain other ‘glidepath’ robotic advice formulas: 1) massive use of bond funds and exchange-traded funds (ETFs) in lieu of direct bond ownership and, 2) traditional advice of raising allocations to bonds as investors age or move closer to goal dates. As an illustration of size, Vanguard expects TDF adoption to hit 50 percent in 2015 and reach 63 percent of the 3.9 million participants enrolled in Vanguard-administered plans by 2018.

Fun Fact: Outstanding U.S. bond market debt
has grown from $31.7 trillion in 2007 to
$39.2 trillion in 1Q 2015. Source: SIFMA

No wise Advisor can assign certainty to the proximity nor consequences of this highly anticipated change in U.S. monetary policy. There are plenty of reasons to believe a Federal Reserve driven rate increase may be postponed beyond 2015due to deflationary forces such as weak global growth and employment, instability in Europe, Middle East, and Asia, shifting demographics, and the exponential price destabilizing impact of technology. However, Fed Chair Yellen seems determined to continue a stated gradual path to “normalcy,” and any move away from the 0-0.25% range in the Fed Funds target will be highly symbolic.

Suitable bond mutual funds and ETFs used in isolation or in combination with individual bond strategies can be very effective. Still, financial market participants may collectively induce higher interest-rate risks, so take heed of nine not-so-obvious risks to evaluate in your bond exposures.

  1. The “Bond” label is not always synonymous with conservatism or lower risk. For illustrative purposes, the opening graphic plots daily percent yields for the “risk-free” U.S. 10-Year Bond from 6/19/2014 to 6/19/2015. Price movement in this key benchmark rate is likely to experience historic volatility in the future. Other segments (high yield, municipal, emerging, mortgages) of the massive bond market are smaller and less liquid than Treasuries.
  2. Principal, maturity, and credit features are not guaranteed or insured–Many investors do not realize, understand or appreciate that bond funds can fall in price. Bond funds are not insured or guaranteed by FDIC, the U.S. Securities Investor Protection Corporation (SIPC), or by any other government agency, regardless of underlying holdings, or how a bond fund is purchased or sold—whether through a brokerage firm, bank, insurance agency, financial planning firm, registered investment advisor or directly.
  3. A net asset value (NAV) of fund shares is no guarantee. An ability to sell fund shares on any business day does not translate into the characteristics of “liquidity” in the sense of price and bid protection for underlying holdings. Funds make assumptions in their daily pricing matrices and actual future sales (especially forced) of holdings can receive prices much lower than modeled assumptions. Note: Closed-end bond funds trade at premium and discounts to underlying NAVs.
  4. Embedded leverage–The proverbial double-edged sword. Funds use yield enhancement strategies to try and boost returns and market their portfolios to attract or maintain investor dollars. This activity can translate into less obvious risks and the use of reverse repos, commitment agreements, and exposure to floating-rate credit lines with banks or bank syndicates should be noted too.
  5. Is the Fund 100% committed to owning actual bonds? Whether due to Fund size or purposeful strategy, additional counter-party and contract liquidity risks are introduced with the use of synthetic positions. Derivative contracts may also involve implied or economic leverage.
  6. Date & Data Matching on Fund Report Cards. Always check the “As of” date on top holdings, risk metrics, returns, credit weightings, and asset breakdowns. Look closely, and you may see inconsistency with the published report issue date–Are you sure you know what you own?
  7. Speaking of Holdings. Among other reasons, unprecedented low rates and high prices have forced some fund managers to reach for yield outside stated comfort zones or core competencies. For example, “conservative” funds with heavy exposures to potentially high risk Puerto Rico and Tobacco bonds.
  8. Metric Effectiveness. Listed durations are very popular and convenient numeric gauges of interest-rate sensitivity. Unfortunately, these generic stand-alone descriptions of price sensitivity can mislead investors due to straight-forward assumptions and limitations. Realized prices and actual market bid adjustments always trump mathematically derived estimates. Any assumed downside needs to consider the size of yield changes, yield volatility, and the new shape of the yield-curve. Most bond funds consist of hundreds or even thousands of bonds across a spectrum of maturities, sectors, credits, and bond features–so accurately portraying a full portfolio’s risk is more complex.
  9. Historical “average” returns, dispersion of said returns, and the degree of like movement with other assets should not be extrapolated. The chart below shows a clear example of unprecedented U.S. Central Bank activity beginning in 2008; whereby, the Federal Reserve increased the size of its balance sheet five‐fold from $900 billion to $4.5 trillion. Translation: Objects as seen in the seven year rear-view mirror are very distorted.

Key Rate Factor: Federal Reserve Activity

On June 17th, the FOMC reiterated that “The Committee anticipates that it will be appropriate to raise the target range for the federal funds rate when it has seen further improvement in the labor market and is reasonably confident that inflation will move back to its 2 percent objective over the medium term.”  In March 2015, 15 of 17 FOMC participants judged that the first increase in the target federal funds rate (now 0-0.25%) would occur in 2015 even though the same contributors expect inflation to be well below the 2% target with a central tendency at 0.6% to 0.8% in 2015.

Key Rate Factor: Inflation Expectations

Below is a representative graph of the Fed’s preferred inflation gauge, PCE Inflation—as measured by the percent change in the personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index is headed downward. Graph retrieved from FRED, the excellent resource at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis: https://research.stlouisfed.org/

It has been more than a decade since the Federal Reserve raised interest rates and nearly seven years since the fed funds rate was set near zero. Still not a forgone conclusion that a new rate regime starts in 2015, government agencies, exchanges, major bond investors, and private investors are again preparing for significant changes. So join them in preparing your mind and portfolios.

A choice not to lose can be a winning strategy, and prudent portfolio management always considers potential reward units versus potential risk units. Each investor and their trusted advisors should follow a continuous wealth management process of Discovery & Diagnostics, Planning, Implementation, and Supervision. As you work through the review steps, note that the “bond” label is not always synonymous with conservatism, low risk, or stability. Please evaluate your obvious and not-so-obvious risk exposures to bond funds and exchange-traded funds.

I welcome your thoughts in the comments section below. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Michael loves to empower investors with his expertise in securities and economic analysis, goals-based wealth management solutions, and FinTech smart decision-support tools. He has directly managed over $5 billion in growth and retirement assets, and his proactive advice has influenced thousands of fiduciary advisors to better their practices and service to clients. He enjoys spending time with his wife and three boys, competing in USTA tennis, and mentoring others to succeed.

Email l mdhakerem@gmail.com
Twitter | @MichaelHakerem

How’s Your Form: When Only A Few Will Know?

All Rights Reserved

One demonstration of character is how YOU go about YOUR business with just a few audience members. Perhaps the sole observer is the person you see reflected in the mirror.

The Xfinity Center, the indoor arena that serves as the home of the University of Maryland Terrapins, holds capacity crowds at nearly 18,000. Imagine the vibration as thousands of fans pile in to cheer, boo, and watch soon-to-be professional basketball players. Boom! Feel the chills and goosebumps on a made three-pointer or “And 1” play. Instant results, instant performance review, all recorded in history for the world to see…

You could hear a pin drop on a recent Sunday morning in College Park. A young player with hopes and dreams stepped up to the line for a technical foul shot. Just #3 and the referee. An opportunity to give less? An opportunity to make excuses? As parents, coaches, and business leaders, we are proud when a child, player, or corporate teammate strives for the perfect form. It is especially gratifying to witness hard work and effort with an awareness that the results and performance may go mostly unnoticed and fade away in time.

Some professionals will play to full arenas and receive national recognition while most of us have our best high-five moments to no cheers or big awards. Some professionals choose the easier way or take advantage of situations where the boss or clients “will never know the difference.” You know these folks, their timing for the right spotlight is impeccable. Meanwhile, most of us will often realize our best professional form on a Saturday morning in an empty office. Is it worth it?

ZZZZZZZZzzziiiiiiiiiipppPPP.

The sweet sound of a swish of the net remains unmistakable–even if it is just YOU. “Yes,” that satisfied smile is worth it–that look in the mirror is worth it.

With Gratitude, Michael

Don’t Roll the Dice with Your Retirement

The costs of not implementing personalized advice will escalate so watch out for products and overly standardized solutions.

FGN1_edited-1

The S&P 500 has sustained an unusually high 15%+ annual pace of returns over the last three years. Still, U.S. retirement savings and pension plans fall short by multiples of trillions. Our lifestyle, investment returns, and retirement success are partly in the hands of competent and caring central bankers; unfortunately, they are in experimental territory! Despite hope for a “this time will be different” outcome, last night my wife and I experienced another demonstration of well-intended microeconomics gone awry–Family Monopoly Night. Will the global macro-economy have more success in its quest to provide stability for its growing and ageing citizenry? Let’s not assume a complacent path toward GO!

European emergency deals with Greece, signs of disinflation, and a litany of other mixed data points prove constant reminders of burdens resting on the shoulders of the world’s most powerful central banks. The March 18th U.S. Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting and the associated Summary of Economic Projections and press conference by Chair Yellen come with great anticipation for insights on paths for interest rates, inflation, and global growth.

How can any players evaluate
what is what, or who is on first?

Whether fiscally shaky countries, unstable companies loaded with high yield debt, or individuals afflicted with an addiction to self-dealing blowups, at some point global powers must allow fundamentally sound principals of reward and risk. So-called emergency measures of quantitative easing (QE), market manipulations, and data-spin have created illusions of great prosperity. Can market players truly evaluate the past and future quality of their investment portfolios? How do you prudently plan for future retirement cash flows? Will liquidity exist when massive amounts of investors make the same allocation decisions–see Energy sector? As certain as death and taxes, the FOMC will inevitably trigger a soundness test of our wealth management processes. It will test its own resolve, too.

get-out-of-jail-free-card

Don’t try this at home or on
the global stage!

The primary focus of family game nights is to share equally in the seemingly easy task of promoting fun. To this end, all players are bribed with pleasantries and tasty snacks. Though often too soon, the more formidable Monopoly traders emerge and our micro-economy changes its character. We can now wheel and deal our way to a fortune even faster loading millions onto debit cards instead of cash! Unfortunate bubbles and bankruptcies loom, and we are unsure how this game will unfold. I survey the bubbling emotions of the table and decide to step-in as central banker and quickly implement a few minor tweaks to the rules as relied upon since 1935. Surely, a few rent-free passes around the board, lower mortgage rates and a special one-time QE program are acceptable as a fair trade-off for a prolonged cycle of family fun (and snacks).

monopoly credit cardsUnfortunately, emergency tweaks force a new set of incentive behaviors, and control quickly becomes a rear-view mirror phenomena. The artificial nature of our “new normal” game introduces an evolution of hypersensitivities. Prudent savers shed tears as interest payments and cash flows are severely strained. Formerly on economic life-support, a certain type of grin emerges on the face of wildly aggressive players as fair consequences remain suspended. Never extrapolate current circumstances!

No press conference, but…As the most powerful central banker in the house, I cannot reveal any lack of confidence in how this game may end.

Further details from my reign over family game night shall remain sealed in order to digest the facts as I plan to recall them and to avoid critique. Meanwhile, real life global central bankers, finance ministers, academics, and financial market participants are clearly articulating their own visions for currencies, growth, jobs, and policy options. In fact, seventeen central banks have clearly spoken in 2015 with monetary easing. Sweden slashed its main policy rate into negative territory! Economic battles may ensue as countries try to protect self-interests.

The S&P 500 stands at 2,100 and the
U.S. Ten Year Bond yields 2.14%.

Many managers of wealth agree that broad stock market valuations are elevated and economic cycles cannot be completely eradicated. Nearly seven years since the last U.S. recession, risks of negative asset returns and even lower interest rates are real. At the same time, life expectancy and years in retirement are extending. The EBRI estimates that “at-risk” early baby boomer shortfalls range from $71,299 for married couples to $104,821 for single women.

The costs of not implementing personalized advice will escalate so watch out for products and overly standardized solutions.

Market players put too much faith in the ability of humans (or machines for that matter) to legitimately map desired outcomes with high certainty. The well-intended programs and tools unleashed by global central bankers may produce more future risks than current rewards. Aided an abetted by political dysfunction, demographic trends, geopolitics and a multitude of unforeseen variables, it is impossible for anyone to predict an exact transition from policy-induced tweaks to a self-reliant global economy. Even Dr. Janet Yellen could not have predicted the outcome of our family game night, and this is precisely why it is such an instructive econometric tool!

Like it or not, we were all invited to this global Family Game Night, and an important test looms sometime in the future. No matter the status of your preparation or distance from retirement, take control of your security and freedom with a foundation of financial knowledge, trusted advisory relationships, and methods to review and verify your family’s unique circumstances.

  • Cover the bases of the continuous cycle of wealth management with discovery and understanding, financial and estate planning, strategy implementation, supervision and review.
  • Re-check your human and online advice platforms: Many investors are clearly paying too much and receiving too little OR paying too little and not receiving enough mission critical advice.
  • The National Association of Personal Financial Advisors (NAPFA) is a leading professional association of Fee-Only financial advisors: http://www.napfa.org/
  • The CFA Institute strives to lead the investment profession globally by promoting the highest standards of ethics, education, and professional excellence: http://cfa.is/1AlqmhE
  • The Employee Benefit Research Institute produces non-partisan data on health, savings, and retirement issues: http://www.ebri.org/

I welcome your comments.

Email l mdhakerem@gmail.com

Twitter | @MichaelHakerem

Michael embodies client-stewardship in all his work and happens to be a passionate expert in securities analysis, asset allocation, economic analysis,
and wealth management solutions.

More than 275 million Monopoly games have been sold worldwide and are available in 111 countries and 43 languages. Your family and the U.S. Federal Reserve should invest in this classic econometric tool for a cost of less than $20. 

Sip Your Wall Street Carefully

Michael's Cup2

A great mentor required me to hand record daily and weekly prices of copper, oil, interest rates, currencies, money flow, sentiment, etc. from the Wall Street Journal & Barron’s onto a card stock grid. I know, I know…no automated download and this task was usually completed by 6:30 am. What an awesome way to get close to the data, market barometers, and the pulse of the world’s financial markets.

My LinkedIn Post on December 5th entitled An Ark, a Speedboat, a Tight Bathing Suit, outlines a thought process and framework for asset allocation and portfolio construction. The last paragraph read,

Thoroughly review all your taxable and tax-deferred accounts. Make sure you and the advisors who work on your family’s behalf have coordinated strategic (long-term) and tactical (short-term) estate, asset allocation, and margin-of-safety plans. The tides will inevitably change so do not wait to hear the thunder before the next big storm!

There are thunderous signals abound as prices of oil, copper, and money plummet. See below for a graph of the benchmark 10-Year U.S. Treasury Yield–dropping from 3% to well below 2%. If upward moving 401k plans and investment values have delayed urgency to this point, then the sheer velocity of recent change should cause an immediate review of your complete portfolio and unique circumstances. True, draw-downs of 10% in broader stock gauges are considered “normal” through the course of any given year; that is, a change in prices from some high point to a low point, before reversing upward again. Also true, professional and novice investors are clearly getting burned with dramatic moves taking place in specific sectors, asset classes, and investment vehicles. 

Sound investment strategies expect and withstand this level of two-sided volatility and, in many cases, a buy and hold strategy may make sense. Unfortunately, anecdotal evidence shows clear signs of misalignment and potential hidden dangers. For example, history-making low interest-rates have caused investor’s to demand and advisor’s to reach for a myriad of new products and solutions. Do you or your advisor clearly understand and appreciate the costs and risks in higher yielding MLPs, exchange-traded-products, and lower-rated bonds? Was publicity, slick marketing or a cool chart enough to place your hard earned wealth into a buy decision?

Wise from all points as investor, advisor, and chief investment officer, I can write with certainty that sometimes it just feels right to make changes, no matter how slight, to satisfy a behavioral need to feel more in control of the often uncontrollable. Stress levels are sure to rise in 2015–Investors at all levels will come to appreciate an emotional connection and plenty of great communication with peers and advisors!

10-Year Yields

Let me repeat some advice, do not count on your advisors’ portfolio review timetable or ability to proactively call you. Take the appropriate initiatives (this is not the same as panic) and be aware that various Wall Street incentives and potential conflicts of interest exist on Main Street and Your Street. Be an astute consumer of financial services and feel confident that you have a comprehensive understanding when it comes to fees, rationale of advice, allocation of time to your family, methods of implementation, risk assessment techniques, and so forth. Even good professionals get ensnared in poorly constructed advice business models, overly simplistic tools, and limited offerings. Yes, a so-called fiduciary relationship infers a certain standard of care. Still, a discretionary fee-based relationship is not a license of faith. Some advisors consider marketing fiduciary acts as a license to avoid more laborious and detailed work. Trust, but verify!

Difficult Discussions:

http://www.cfainstitute.org/learning/investor/Documents/difficult_discussions.pdf

Investor Rights: http://investorrights.cfainstitute.org/en/

House of Horrors? Prepare to Get Spooked!

Opportunities for investment return treats exist in many sectors and securities as we enter the backdrop of a historically favorable November-April money flow season and mid-term election cycle. Still, tricky twists, feelings of lost control, and shadows of uncertainty may loom just around the corner.

US_Federal_Reserve_Eccles_Building_1937-2Opportunities for investment return treats exist in many sectors and securities as we enter the backdrop of a historically favorable November-April money flow season and mid-term election cycle. Still, tricky twists, feelings of lost control, and shadows of uncertainty may loom just around the corner. Central Banks bear the queasy burdens where politicians and ugly structural dynamics fail to deliver the goody bags. Broader markets could be in for a real scare or two so our smart preparation will translate into a steadier pulse if fear really accelerates. Lessen the potential for emotional decision-making and focus on those things which can be better controlled. Please review the concluding checklist to help control your fears and advantageously position your comprehensive plan.

Not Quite Campfire Worthy–A Tale to Set the Scene 

One beautiful fall day in 2014, they walked along the streets paved with greenbacks. The skies were blue, and the air was refreshingly crisp. Perhaps ready to embark on a different journey, they reminisced the ups and downs of a six year history since the miserable fall of 2008. Tears and smiles were shared as they chronicled times of fear and euphoria. At some point on this fine day, the road became twisted, winding aimlessly, briefly directionless. The skies were suddenly grayer and less reflective. Look! Ahead there…a house! An eagle sculpture above the federal entrance signaled prestige and power. They huddled, and the group thought, this place will provide the guidance we seek. They approached the monumental iron doors and grasped the ice cold lion’s head door knocker. A pleasant and welcoming white haired hostess invited them in as the door slowly creaked open. The foyer was extremely bright with sudden flashes of extreme darkness. The new air felt cold as it occassionally drifted across the back of their necks. The smell turned foul as the uninvited musty taste breached their tongues. BOOM! The door abruptly shut behind them, and despite the hostess’s assurances of safety, the group’s confidence and expectations were terribly shaken…

The World Relies on the U.S. Federal Reserve

October 29th marks the next scheduled policy announcement from the most powerful central bank in the world, and investors, media, and politicians will parse every word for signs of confidence and expert guidance. U.S. monetary policy is made by the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC), which consists of the members of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System and five Reserve Bank presidents. The FOMC holds eight regularly scheduled meetings during the year, and it is widely anticipated that the Committee will officially cease material additions to its QE3 bond buying program at October’s meeting.

A few key goals of this so-called Quantitative Easing (QE3) program:

  1. maintain downward pressure on longer-term interest rates
  2. support mortgage markets
  3. help to make broader financial conditions more accommodative, which, in turn, should promote a stronger economic recovery and help to ensure that inflation, over time, is at the rate most consistent with the Committee’s dual mandate

All three QE3 goals impact your retirement portfolios, college savings accounts, and “fun money” brokerage accounts. Your willingness to become an astute watcher of market inputs such as FOMC activity and the inverse relationship between interest rates and bond prices will increase your basic understanding of fluctuating account values, and it will enhance your potential success as an individual investor and consumer of financial advice. Never rely 100% on an advisor with sole discretion over your accounts and the directive, “just make me money!”

Thank you to my friends at Intrinsic Research for supplying charts for three of the key market proxies spooked this October: daily S&P 500 stock index, weekly US 10-Year Bond yields, and weekly Crude Oil prices. Explanations for soaring market volatility range from Ebola, terrorism, European woes, politics, and concerns over top-line revenue growth. Bottom Line: The complacency of clearer skies has been replaced with a cloudier picture; whereby professional, novice, and machine-driven traders demonstrated an ability to accelerate out of assets such as lower rated corporate bonds and stocks.

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Current Chair of the Federal Reserve, Dr. Janet Yellen, has pointedly reiterated that interest rate targets are “data-dependent” and not based on a calendar projection; that is, when economic conditions and the economic outlook warrant a less accommodative monetary policy, the Committee will raise its range for the benchmark interest rate it targets (federal funds rate). Many powerful market participants are betting that early to mid-2015 will mark the beginning of a new higher rate regime. This dynamic relationship between two sometimes opposing forces (central banks & traders) will likely cause great angst, volatility, and uncertainty in many portfolios over the coming quarters as the Federal Reserve attempts to tip-toe in and out of the lurking economic shadows. Home mortgages, business loans, corporate deal-making, global trade, a range of asset classes, currencies, and critical decisions will be impacted. Make sure to solidify your well grounded short and long-term plans in order to avoid the emotional decision-making that overwhelms so many people at dark moments.

A Famous Chart & Unprecedented Efforts

As provided by the St. Louis Fed’s fantastic FRED database and courtesy of S&P Opco, LLC, the below graph illustrates the total assets of the Federal Reserve, which have grown considerably from $869 billion pre-crisis levels during the summer of 2007 to today’s levels of nearly $4.5 trillion (left-axis). The leader of this growth effort is an American Hero, Dr. Ben Bernanke, former Fed Chair, who succeeded Alan Greenspan in February 2006. Bernanke’s outstanding reputation included his thorough studies on The Great Depression and Japanese deflation. In 2002, one of Bernanke’s first speeches as a Federal Reserve Governor, was entitled “Deflation: Making Sure ‘It’ Doesn’t Happen Here.” A so-called Bernanke Doctrine emerged to identify specific measures required to combat or prevent deflation. There is little doubt that heroic actions were taken during the Great Financial Crisis of 2007-2009, and there is little doubt that the S&P 500 stock index (right-axis) benefitted greatly from unprecedented and continuous support.

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Deflation is in almost all cases a side effect of a collapse of aggregate demand – a drop in spending so severe that producers must cut prices on an ongoing basis in order to find buyers. -Dr. Bernanke

Bernanke theorized that a central bank should always be able to generate inflation. Ironically, I believe the Federal Reserve’s decision to continually add post-crisis stimulus through QE2 and QE3 programs, its attempts to modify the natural course of business cycles, and its promotion of a whatever it takes now and forever rhetoric has actually aided and abetted other deflationary forces. Of course, a strong argument can be made that other parts of Washington failed to be as heroic in efforts to restore our sub-optimal economic growth and prosperity.

Global debt burdens, demographics, impacts of technology, skills degradation, and plummeting velocity of money are structural forces that compete hard against Dr. Bernanke and his best laid plans. -Michael (no doctorate)

Global stocks, bonds, property, and numerous other assets’ prices have risen and probably contributed to some rough wealth effects; that is, some aggregate upward change in demand encouraged by more spending and less saving. Of course, a major risk factor is the potential reflation of yet another set of asset bubbles caused by excess central bank liquidity and credit rather than “fixing” economic fundamentals. Whatever the case, it is hard to argue “mission accomplished” as large and small economies face growth fears and fragility this fall of 2014. Therefore, any change in U.S. monetary policy runs the risk of igniting a chain reaction of extreme volatility throughout the globe.

Smart Preparation Goes A Long Way

As the Federal Reserve soon attempts to lead a new confident path, a trajectory of structural resolutions is unclear and negative side effects loom large. I fear Bernanke’s, and now Yellen’s, traditional econometric modeling will reveal numerous break downs in theory as the Federal Reserve shifts its unconventional policies. Unfortunately, market players put too much faith in the ability of humans (or machines for that matter) to legitimately map flawless outcomes for real growth, unemployment levels, interest rates, credit markets, and behavioral reactions. Smart market strategists believe the European Central Bank (ECB) will take the global baton with its own rumored unconventional programs. Again, not a fix for long-term structural problems, and this notion of a global market fully confident and supported by a non-unified group of Euro Nations to replace the United States Federal Reserve provides no comfort to this investor.

Previous attempts by the FOMC to exit QE programs in March 2010 and June 2011 were met with significant volatility and lower asset prices.

8655576585_d0621b62a4_kThe FOMC’s announcement on October 29th may not spook market participants due to its widely anticipated outcome; however, just like expecting to be scared at a Halloween haunted house, an expected “BOO!” can still raise the hair on your arms and make you jump! Let’s avoid complacency or delays in necessary portfolio adjustments even if financial markets seem settled and the S&P 500 (1,971) again surpasses the 2,000 level. The next Summary of Economic Projections and press conference by Chair Yellen (pictured) will be December 17, 2014: It is sure to be interesting and educational!

Focus on more controllable fear factors:

The below topics are important, and I wish to 
empower you with more specific tools, tips, and experience. 
I feel strongly about efforts to shape a trustworthy, forward-thinking
financial industry where families’ interests are served first. 

  • Communicate, Educate, Empower with all close family members;
  • Take charge of the collaboration amongst your tax, legal, and business advisors to maximize your family’s financial, tax, and investment planning–do not assume this is taking place without your encouragement;
  • Assess your family’s unique growth, income, tax, risk tolerances, and asset location needs–be your best advocate and communicate with your advisors;
  • Revisit portfolio diversification within and across all taxable & tax-deferred accounts–examine holdings beyond broad buckets of stocks, bonds, cash to ensure comprehensive suitability, proper risk alignment, and balance;
  • Be more selective with the evaluation of reward-to-risk factors among your individual securities and less reliant on “a rising tide lifts all boats” strategy;
  • Note: Cash is an important asset class with its own characteristics of safety
    and future opportunity–even worth paying a fee upon;
  • Maximize retirement strategies (Social Security, Roth, 401k, insurance);
  • Know all your costs such as quarterly fees based on assets, transaction costs on trades, additional fees not easily seen from owning and trading mutual funds, closed-end funds, and exchange-traded-products–hint, the trend is down; and
  • Check conflicts of interest (too many to list) among your advisors, investments owned, products sold, trade execution & allocation, and actual services rendered versus those promised before you signed the dotted-line

Previously, I suggested that the FOMC invest in a classic econometric tool (a family game of Monopoly) to simulate what happens when you dramatically change the rules of the game and then attempt to “normalize” back–not pretty: http://bit.ly/1uFITDA

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I welcome your comments. 

Michael embodies client-stewardship in all his work and happens to be a passionate expert in securities analysis, asset allocation, economic analysis, and wealth management solutions.

Email: mdhakerem@gmail.com & Twitter: @MichaelHakerem

Photo Courtesy of U.S. Federal Reserve: Eccles Building 1937
Photo Courtesy of IMF Staff Photograph/Stephen Jaffe: Dr. Janet Yellen

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