Monday, April 27, 2009

Are We Turning The Corner Yet?

Bert Whitehead, M.B.A., J.D.

Finally we have seen some positive news on the financial front, and many optimists think we have hit the bottom and the stock market bounced off its low-point. It’s nice to be able to take a breath from the brutal onslaught of bad news over the past year.

We have been preaching about the dangers of being out of the market, even when it is falling, While it has been psychologically stressful to maintain equity positions over the past year, recent market activity points to the reason to refuse to market-time.

Interestingly, the average gain for the S&P 500 in the 1 year following the low close for the 8 bear markets that occurred in the last 50 years is +36.5%. The current bear market is the 9th bear market of the last half century. The closing low point (so far) of this 9th bear market was 677 and it took place 7 weeks ago on 3/09/09. In the last 7 weeks, the S&P 500 has gained 28.5% (not counting the impact of reinvested dividends.

Our clients pay us to ‘watch their backs.’ So without being an outright pessimist I think that we are still in a perilous financial situation. The future of the auto industry is teetering and we may see 2 of the ‘Big 3’ bite the dust in the next few weeks. The economic reality goes even deeper than that. We are restructuring our national economy to be able to participate in a global economy.

Our prosperity over the past 15 years was based on a world-wide spending spree, fueled by cheap credit and over-leveraged real estate. The current government nostrums are designed to spur more spending, but no meaningful programs have addressed the banking and real estate collapses. We see the impact of these issues everyday in the ‘For Sale’ and ‘For Lease’ signs in almost every neighborhood and commercial area.

Each client’s situation is different, and so the approach best suited to you depends more on what is going on in your own life. If the breadwinner in your family is out of work, or you have kids in college, or are faced with disability, or are retired (or hope to be soon) – these are the key factors in your investment allocation. While the stock market may look great, it is a mistake to be kicking yourself for having missed out on the steep increase recently.

For clients in transitional or distressed situations, we want to maintain an extra cash cushion. If your life situation is stable and your bond ladder is on-track, dollar cost averaging into the stock market is very advantageous. Now that tax season is over, we have scheduled appointments with each client to review your portfolio and make adjustments as appropriate.

It is a mistake to conclude, based on the past 2 months market activity, that you should now jump in with both feet. It is likely that we may not hit bottom until next year, and then it may take a couple of years to fully recover. Market timing is a futile waste of energy.

Treasury bond rates are low, and the feds are buying bonds to keep long term rates down, so it will be advantageous for many clients to refinance at lower rate (unless you owe more on your house that it’s worth). Jumbo mortgages (i.e. more than $417,000) however still carry very high rates and it is seldom worthwhile to refinance those.

This experience of living through the worst economic period since the Great Depression of 80 years ago will have a lasting positive impact on most of our clients. The losses will ultimately be recouped, and we are able to outlast even a continuing downturn. More importantly it has made many of us aware that we were frittering away money on things we didn’t really value. This lesson I think has to be re-learned by each generation as we discover that our Schwab statements aren’t the scorecard for our real wealth.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Best Case vs. Worst Case April 2009

Bert Whitehead, M.B.A., J.D. ©2009

How will this recession play out? I like to ask people that question (although many of them think I should know). I have noticed a strong correlation between a person’s economic outlook and their political leanings. The extremists on both sides focus on certain factors in the global meltdown to support their point of view. I’d like to examine the extremes on both sides and explain why both an extreme positive or negative outlook is at best a very remote possibility.

The Best Case: The Stimulus plan works as designed world-wide and the economy bottoms out at the end of this year. The rebound is very rapid so that the stock market is back up to 13,000 by the end of 2010 and unemployment drops to 5% and we all sing “Happy Days Are Here Again!” The government devises regulations for banks and oil producers with congressional oversight to control their profits and pricing. Taxes are raised on businesses, investors, and high income earners to pay for energy, education, and health care services while lowering the deficit with the increased revenue. Increased government spending causes inflation which threatens to get out of control.

The Worst Case: The worldwide economy reels toward collapse with the US government selling bonds to provide money to support an ever-expanding list of government-provided entitlements, bailouts, and subsidies. More pressure is applied to other countries to follow our lead, resulting in rising stagflation worldwide and hyper-inflation in some countries threatens to spread globally.

Gross Domestic Production world-wide drops precipitously. Higher tax rates to target the most productive sectors of the economy result in less total government revenue as sales and incomes drop. Small businesses close, or start operating under-ground. Unemployment rises and pushes the world into a global depression. Protests and crime increase as populations become more impoverished. War looms.

The Truth: Neither of the two above scenarios are going to play out to the conclusion. This economic cycle will end and we will recover at some point. Stimulus programs may do more harm than good, but we are not going to become a socialist country. The dollar will not collapse and putting all your wealth in gold or another currency to avoid being wiped out is nonsensical..

There are simply too many economic factors at work to be able to determine the outcome. Most changes in a free market are self-correcting, e.g. as the dollar weakens, more foreigners want to buy US goods, services and real estate, which ultimately strengthen our economy and the dollar rises again. Supply and demand result in short-term price swings as markets seek balance by testing the extremes. Lower beef prices mean more people will start eating beef, and then ranchers will grow more steers. The outlook is further clouded by completely unexpected events such as a California earthquake, or a war in the Middle East that shuts down 50% of the world’s oil supply.

Most readers of this blog have already been impacted by this recession, and those who haven’t yet are likely to be in the next year. The worst reaction, however, is to bank on an extreme scenario. It is just as foolish to sell everything you own to buy gold because some writer ‘proves’ that hyperinflation is inevitable. It is folly to put all your assets into real estate because it’s so cheap now, and you believe that the big turnaround has already begun. Home prices are still dropping, and I remember the wisdom of my father: “Son, never try to catch a falling knife!”

The proponents of both extremes have personal agendas that focus their paradigms. Politicians and government economists want us to believe that the trillions we are spending is a brilliant idea. Those who predict doom-and-gloom profit handsomely as stoking fear sells their books and newsletters. Emotionally it is easy for us to assume the short-term upswing in the stock market means the recession is over, or seeing the market drop 25% in a couple of months means we are headed to Armageddon.

The final outcome of this historical financial crisis will likely to take 3-7 years to work out, and I doubt that we will bottom out before 2011 or 2012. Political agendas of both parties were a factor in creating this circumstance. Many regulations now scorned were once endorsed by both parties, e.g. encouraging mortgages to provide home ownership for all Americans. This seemed like a good idea at a time but most see that financial regulations need to be adapted to suit a society where many people are very naïve in financial matters.

People on both sides of the aisle should be concerned and active in this conversation. Our political process depends on our input. But don’t let it ruin your life. Don’t let the extremists in the political arena and their counterparts in the financial media lead you to take precipitous moves with your investments.

Functional Asset Allocation takes your personal situation as the primary driver in allocating your investments. While changes will need to be made this year, we want you to be able to survive any economic trend. Our job is to make sure you can sleep at night.