Bigelow advisor Ben Flood was quoted in the latest Forbes article. The age gap is one of the many retirement planning considerations.
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Bigelow advisor Ben Flood was quoted in the latest Forbes article. The age gap is one of the many retirement planning considerations.
Since the start of the year, financial markets have endured a fair amount of volatility after a lengthy period of calm combined with very positive results. Volatility, the variability of returns for various assets over time, has been a major topic of discussion among investors for years. Depending on the time period and data set used, U.S. stocks can be about four times more volatile than a mix of intermediate domestic corporate and treasury bonds. Other assets such as commodities, currencies and real estate tend to be as volatile as stocks although the variability of these other types of assets differs within themselves and with the major categories of stocks and bonds.
Investors care about volatility for many reasons:
Individual securities can be more, or less, volatile. A high-flying start-up is likely to have more dramatic price swings than the big electric utility company that has been paying dividends for years.
Building a portfolio is analogous to visiting the local China Garden Buffet. A plate full of rice would be bland and boring and a plate of extra spicy chicken alone would result in intense stomach distress. Instead, we choose a variety of dishes that complement each other. The bland white rice offsets the spicy chicken. Add some steamed dumplings, vegetables, a little sweet and sour sauce and the full benefits of the buffet are realized.
Price volatility is an important aspect of the management of an investment portfolio. It is one of many factors that affect the overall understanding of investment returns.
While we are in the midst of tax season, capital gains taxes may be front and center when you get the good news or bad news from your accountant or your tax software program. No one likes paying taxes of any sort, but capital gains taxes can seem particularly vexing because they can vary from year to year and, unlike wages or social security payments, taxes are not automatically withheld. Calculating the federal capital gains rate is complicated because it is based on the amount of income from other sources you have within various tax brackets. State capital gains rates further add to the complexity.
In theory we have more control over when and how much we pay in capital gains taxes. There are strategies to minimize the amount of capital gains due, for example, by selling securities that have long-term losses in the same year in which trades with gains are taken.
There are occasions where investors have no control over the distribution of capital gains. Some mergers or acquisitions may consist of either a mix of stock in the successor entity plus some cash or an all cash transaction. In that case, unplanned capital gains are generated for all owners of the acquired company. Mutual funds, even index funds, may make capital gain distributions.
Assuming there are no losses to be harvested, there is the idea of avoiding capital gains altogether by never selling securities which have appreciated in value. This is letting the tax tail wag the dog. It bolsters our reluctance to trim winning stocks or funds lest we lose out on further gains. For example, shares in company ABC went up by about ninety per cent last year. Did we intend to have a position in ABC that was twice as large at the end of the year? Has our overall exposure to equities, both domestic and international, increased beyond our target level? If we are letting the tax tail wag the dog, we may ignore or at least minimize the risk to our portfolio in our effort to avoid paying taxes. Equities are considered the riskiest asset class in terms of volatility of overall returns. That risk is exacerbated when one or two large positions eclipse the other holdings in a portfolio.
Many investors are pleasantly surprised when some or all their capital gains are taxed at the ten or fifteen percent federal rate rather than the maximum twenty percent rate. Even at the maximum rate it is worth considering that a one dollar decline in the gain on an appreciated asset results in a twenty cent loss for Uncle Sam and an eighty cent decline for the investor.
Ben Franklin said, “nothing can be certain but death and taxes.” At Bigelow Investment Advisors, we cannot change the immutable facts described by Mr. Franklin. We can, however, work with your accountant and other professionals to understand the impact of taxes on your portfolio and other financial matters in a holistic fashion.
“Best-case scenario” is a cliché used in many endeavors, from sports to politics to the weather forecast. Typically, it is a way to describe the most desirable outcome in any situation. The stock market these days seems to be reflecting near unanimity in a best-case scenario.
There are positive economic growth forecasts in virtually every developed and emerging economy. Energy and commodity prices, while having recovered from the bottom (remember when oil was $28 a barrel in January 2016?), are not threatening economic activity or a surge in inflation. Earnings estimates for large U.S. based corporations continue to be revised upward. The fiscal stimulus of a tax cut is only adding to the strong earnings estimates. Unemployment globally is declining. In the U.S. the rate has fallen from a peak of 10 percent in 2009 to 4.1 percent last month. Interest rates are still very low and home prices by some measures have regained much of the value lost in the great recession.
What could go wrong?
Things that go wrong fall into two major categories. There are the risks that derive naturally as an investor in unpredictable markets, and there are the behavioral aspects. How we respond to the current market euphoria or its inverse, market panic, can be as important as the actual market returns themselves.
Let’s consider some of the vulnerabilities in our best-case scenario. While the U.S. equity market’s upward trajectory provided great performance, much of the improvement has been concentrated in a few very large capitalization names. Just the five largest stocks in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index contributed about a third of 2017’s results. Ironically, another weakness is the strength in the U.S. job market. The good news of low unemployment means there are fewer unemployed or underemployed people to respond to continued economic expansion. Lastly, the backdrop of geopolitical risks or financial system shocks is a constant threat to any rosy scenario. Crises are highly unpredictable and often of short duration, but not always. The 1987 stock market crash and the recent BREXIT vote were brief shocks to the system. The 1973 Arab oil embargo and the 2008 financial market meltdown lasted longer.
Realistically, we have no way of knowing what will precipitate the next market downturn or when it will occur. What we do know is that things can and do change. The quote attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus sums it up neatly: “Change is the only constant in life.”
Many of us have heard of Moore’s Law, which is named after Gordon Moore, one of the founders of Intel. It projects the rate at which microprocessors per circuit double every two years or so. This prediction has held true for nearly forty years and is one of the reasons that computer chips are in everything from cars to phones to the refrigerator that tells you when you are getting low on ice cubes.
Along with the dramatic advances in computing power on smaller and smaller chips, we have seen enormous increases in the capacity to collect and store the data that all these microprocessors are generating. This includes the data that we access and create as part of our everyday lives. We are all a bit like Hansel and Gretel leaving a trail of interesting crumbs whenever we use our phones to look at restaurant menus and book a table, post a photo on our Facebook page or order a new jacket from our favorite retailer. All those crumbs are stored and added to information from other consumers to spot trends and draw conclusions about consumer behavior. Such a trove of information was never possible before the digital age.
The expression “Big Data” came into its own six or seven years ago and was used to describe the vast quantities of information that could be stored, analyzed and manipulated to advance the understanding of science, medicine and demographics. Researchers believed that the massive amounts of data would help identify outbreaks of disease more quickly or help police departments identify crime hotspots and direct resources more efficiently where needed. Some researchers thought that the use of sample data as a technique to study medical treatments would become obsolete because it was now possible to study every documented case of a particular disease or treatment.
Big data is also used to collect and, more importantly, to connect personal information from a variety of digital sources. The convenience of using our phones and other devices to communicate and organize our lives comes with some risks.
One of the most well-known examples of the misuse of readily available customer data was the Nordstrom experiment using the pings from customers’ smart phones to track their progress through the store without their knowledge or permission. Did you linger in the coat department? Skip over the cosmetics department? Shoppers flooded Nordstrom with complaints after the company eventually put up signs announcing this new technology, and the experiment was quickly ended.
Despite the relatively rare occasions when companies like Nordstrom get it wrong, the amount of personal information that is shared and stored is increasingly a part of how we live our daily lives. We benefit from the convenience and enjoy the close, personal and regular contact that digital networks offer.
It is important to acknowledge and accept the risks associated with having so much personal and sensitive data stored in so many different places. As a firm we are working diligently to protect your client information and to help you understand and remain vigilant to potential risks to your financial data.
The United States has enjoyed an unusually long period of very low inflation.
As the graph below indicates, U.S. Core Inflation as measured by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has been below three percent for over twenty years. That means there are many people who have only known an era of stable prices.
There are exceptions. Higher education has been notorious for its persistently aggressive price increases. This is consistent with the data which has shown little or no inflation in the prices of many consumer goods and higher inflation in prices paid for services.
Such a long period of mild inflation can invite complacency and a perception that inflation and interest rates will stay lower for longer. Low energy prices add to the perception that inflation is at bay because some of the most famous periods of rampant inflation were triggered by a series of oil price shocks. Inflation pressures can come from other sources and it is important to remember that not all periods of inflation look the same.
In the current environment, we are seeing wage pressures increase as the labor market continues to tighten. The U. S. unemployment rate is hovering around 4.5 percent. Government labor statistics have noted a decrease in the proportion of the labor force working part time from its peak in 2010-2011. This firming labor market has translated into increases in average hourly wages across a wider spectrum of wage categories that we believe are likely to continue.
The dollar strength against other major currencies peaked earlier in the year and as the dollar weakens, imported goods become more expensive. This contributes to inflation in subtle ways, not just in the prices of imported finished goods, but in the pass-through effect of component parts included in many manufactured goods.
Another potential source of inflationary pressures is the decline in efforts at further expansion of international trade. There are the beginnings of the imposition of barriers to the flow of goods across borders. The increased tariffs on Canadian lumber imports earlier this year is a good example of this phenomenon. Sustained efforts at protectionism and potential retaliation among trading partners could contribute to price increases and additional inflationary pressure.
It is easy to assume that things will continue as they are. However, some of the factors that have contributed to this enviable period of low inflation are changing. Since inflation can increase for a number of reasons, our response to signs that inflation is heating up may include a wide range of investment tools.
The trade deficit of the United States has received a lot of media attention lately. A surplus or deficit in international trade is created when the value of goods and services exported is unequal to the value of what is imported. The U. S. exports everything from software to soybeans. Some types of products are in both columns. We import pharmaceuticals, chemicals and plastics and we export pharmaceuticals, chemicals and plastics.
Many of the countries with trade surpluses are large exporters of energy like Saudi Arabia or Kuwait, or high value manufactured goods like Switzerland or Germany, or mass market exporters like China. The United States has run a trade deficit since the 1970’s as has the United Kingdom and Australia. The graph below shows the trade deficit for the past twenty five years. During that time, the United States lived through two recessions and White House occupants from both political parties.
The presence of a trade surplus or deficit does not automatically equate to a vibrant economy. Nigeria habitually ran a trade surplus due to its crude oil production and massive reserves. Yet more than sixty percent of its population lives in poverty. Nigeria is a one product economy and the recent decline in crude oil prices moved Nigeria into the trade deficit column.
By contrast, the U. S. economy has a diversified list of imports and exports. The largest categories of exports are machinery, electronic equipment, aircraft and vehicles. The largest import categories are electronic equipment, machinery, vehicles and petroleum products.
Trade with China has been a hot button issue. Eight percent of U. S. exports and twenty percent of imports are with China. The trade friction is based on the effects of the lower cost imports that have devastated manufacturers of consumer goods like furniture and consumer electronics. Employment in the furniture manufacturing industry concentrated in North Carolina has declined by more than sixty percent in the past twenty years. Furniture output there has never regained the level reached prior to the 2008-2009 Great Recession. The benefit some consumers obtain by having access to lower cost furniture contrasts considerably to the dramatic localized costs of a shrinking industry.
There are risks associated with changing the terms of international trade. Protecting certain industries can distort prices for goods and services. If some industries are protected and others are subject to global competition, trade policy can be viewed as picking winners and losers. A bigger concern would be the potential of a trade war where other countries respond to U. S. trade restrictions in kind. That would limit access to markets for American goods.
Protection of favored industries is not the same as vigorously enforcing trade agreements and calling out other countries who shield their own industries from global competition. This activity is time consuming and expensive but essential to our economy.
Is having a trade deficit a negative for the United States? There is no black and white answer and there are many nuances to the discussion. Most observers agree that elimination of the United States trade deficit is unlikely anytime soon.
The year 2016 will be long remembered for the contentious U.S. federal election, the fracture of the European Union from the Brexit vote and a number of horrific terrorist attacks. Such dramatic recent events have an immediate impact on our consciousness and of course on the financial markets.
The focus on the headlines can sometimes obscure the longer term trends that are shaping our environment. The year-end holiday season demonstrated the continuation of one of those trends as we saw traditional department and specialty stores suffer while online sales were burgeoning.
For many years retailers talked about Black Friday. We have all seen the news footage of people camped outside the doors of consumer electronics stores and stampedes of shoppers at discount stores when the doors opened. Cyber Monday is a relative newcomer describing the wave of purchases made using a computer and a credit card. Either way, retail sales over the holiday season account for about twenty percent of total consumer sales in the U.S.
Traditional brick and mortar stores, especially the department stores, emphasize the shopping experience. Shopping malls with their dozens of stores, food courts, waterfalls and tropical plants are designed to make shopping both entertainment and a destination in itself. The goal is to have shoppers spend hours at the mall.
The online shopping experience emphasizes speed and convenience. Instead of getting dressed, driving through traffic and hunting for a parking space at the mall, the shopper, still in robe and slippers, scrolls through the inventory of several stores at once. Once the selections have been made, items are delivered to the door in a few days.
When Macy’s, Kohl’s and GAP stores were reporting their disappointing store sales for the most recent holiday season, all reported declines in traffic at stores open for more than a year. The reason given was “changing customer behavior.” Meanwhile online sales increased by double digits. Analysts estimate that e-commerce sales are growing six times faster than retail sales as a whole.
Some retailers are developing a hybrid model, where the existing brick and mortar footprint complements the e-commerce part of the business. This is especially advantageous for oddly shaped or bulkier items. Companies like Home Depot and Staples allow customers to order online and pick up items at the nearest store, sometimes within a few hours.
The e-commerce revolution is not without its problems. Returned items create headaches for consumers and fulfillment centers. Some retailers make returns easy by including return labels and packaging that can be repurposed for returns. Our local icon, LL Bean, allows online orders to be returned to any brick and mortar store. Other packages can be expensive and difficult to return.
Despite some challenges, the transition from the century old department store model to e-commerce should continue to accelerate. Large, “big box” and discount stores, boutiques and bookstores will continue to be part of the mix. Consumer spending will evolve in new ways. Perhaps in a few years we’ll obtain licenses from consumer products companies and create little plastic toys on our three dimensional printer at home.
A book by that name was published about twenty years ago and is filled with astounding and often humorous pronouncements by well-respected figures. The humor comes from seeing in hindsight the miscalculations and overconfident prognostications made by the so-called experts.
“There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in their home.” This quote was attributed to the president of Digital Equipment Corporation, Ken Olsen, in 1977. Irving Thalberg, a well- known Hollywood producer in the 1930s, is quoted as saying this to Louis B. Mayer who recently had bought the rights to produce Gone With the Wind, “Forget it Louis, no Civil War picture ever made a nickel.”
The experts speak when it comes to Wall Street as well. The financial markets particularly seem to lend themselves to extensive use of extrapolations combined with expert opinion. Paul Samuelson, the first American ever to win the Nobel Prize in Economics, famously said that Wall Street had predicted nine out of the last five recessions. As recent as this past year we had most financial market watchers predicting that 2016 would produce two or three increases in U. S. interest rates engineered by the Federal Reserve Bank. To date, the Federal Reserve has left rates unchanged.
The chart below shows the divergence between the returns of the average investor and results for the major asset classes. Why such a gap? Many analysts believe that one important reason for this discrepancy is emotional. Too often investors are attracted by short term market predictions, pursuit of the hot investments, and market timing strategies. Market prognosticators are often guilty of accentuating these short term factors.
We are not suggesting that making predictions on the economy and markets are without value. Indeed, putting current economic conditions into context by comparing them with past periods is very useful. It is also helpful to look at stock performance and measures of value against historical norms. In addition, demographic trends, like the aging of the Baby Boom generation or the rising middle class in India and China, are often incorporated into projections about the future.
Rather than basing investment decisions on short term forecasts and uncertain predictions, we prefer an investment approach that addresses long term factors such as diversification, time horizon, and willingness to take on risk. We believe these are more important considerations when trying to reach your financial goals.
After the vote last month by the electorate of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, the headlines warned of chaos, uncertainty and financial calamity. That was from the mainstream media; the tabloids were even more alarming in their assessments. There were certainly plenty of reasons for all the shock and awe. The pound lost twelve percent of its value in one day, the equity markets have taken a blow, the British Prime Minister announced his resignation, and the major rating agencies are in the process of downgrading U.K. sovereign debt.
The British and other central bankers will be poised to step in if it looks as though the financial markets are wobbling. The odds of any Federal Reserve rate increase this summer are remote and this should keep U.S. borrowing rates at historically low levels.
While we are in the midst of some sort of market upheaval, it can appear as though its unique set of circumstances have altered the way investment decisions are made. A good example of this phenomenon took place in the late 1990s.
In 1997, there was a series of currency crises culminating with Russia in 1998. In August of that year, Russia devalued its currency and defaulted on its ruble denominated government debt, an unanticipated event that roiled the markets and subsequently brought down a very large hedge fund in the U.S. called Long Term Capital Markets.
The broad stock market index, the S&P 500, lost about fourteen percent of its market value between July and October of 1998. Contemporary commentary referred to “global turmoil” and “panic selling” as investors worried about the long term prospects for post-soviet Russia.
Very few investors remember, let alone dwell on, the events of that summer. Instead, many people think of the 1990s as one of the greatest periods of stock market returns ever.
Will the reaction to the Brexit vote have a lasting impact on global financial markets? Will it be like the Russian currency crisis of 1998? The truth is that no one knows. The timing of the U.K. separation from the European Union and its long term effects are yet to be determined.
What we do know is that short term dislocations can create opportunities. We know that unexpected political or market events turn our attention away from what typically drives market activity, growth in earnings for stocks and steady rates of return for bonds. If we are long term in our focus and mindful of the resilience of consumers, economies and well run businesses, we should be able to weather this particular tempest.
The American economy has long been known for its dynamism. Many products and processes we take for granted were originally developed and popularized in the United States. Indeed, even today more patents are issued globally to American citizens than to those of any other country. If you are wondering who are in the top three for global patents, Germany and Japan alternate the number 2 and 3 positions from year to year.
Over the years there has been a lot of discussion about the disruptive nature of many recent technological innovations. Some new technologies have made longstanding products obsolete. Who needs a camera if you can take pictures on your phone? We use google as a verb. It means: to look up people and things on the internet that we used to find in the Yellow Pages or the encyclopedia. Travel agents have become an endangered species now that we book so much of our travel online. The current fault line of the disruption economy pits taxi drivers against drivers for Uber and Lyft.
These new ways of doing things provide us with convenience, lower costs or sometimes both. The benefits were not as apparent to those who sold advertising in the Yellow Pages or who worked for Kodak. On the other hand, there are many people working at Alphabet (formerly Google), Trip Advisor or a host of other companies creating businesses that didn’t exist a generation ago. Some of these enterprises may be the horse and buggy companies of tomorrow.
How do we incorporate elements of the new economy and adhere to our goal of investing in high quality investments? We participate in both emerging technologies and venerable corporations by investing in two ways. We often obtain broad exposure to a number of companies and economic sectors through the use of index funds. Large capitalization U. S. index funds include newcomers like Amazon and Netflix. The small and mid-sized companies include players that have disrupted the old ways of doing things as well. Most of the smaller companies are not household names but a few, like Jet Blue, are familiar.
When we make individual stock selections, we seek to identify profitable companies that we think will meaningfully contribute to the economy in the next five years. They may be market leaders in their industry, have some proprietary brand (think Nike swoosh), process or patents, or some combination of these. The focus on profitability means that some of the newest companies and latest initial public offerings would not meet our screens for quality and profitability.
Some of our clients own shares in companies because they are captivated by their products or technology. These “client directed” holdings are not necessarily stocks we would recommend and we try to ensure that an investment in Tesla for example, represents a modest position in an overall portfolio allocation.
We are regularly refining our investment management process and enjoy the opportunity to discuss our investment philosophy as well as any other financial matters.
During the past year, the economy in the United States continued to improve. Automobile sales were very strong, unemployment declined and there was even some modest wage growth. Lower energy prices have bolstered the consumer economy by freeing up money that would have been spent on gas or heat now going to purchase other goods and services. In addition, home values continued their rebound to prerecession levels in many parts of the country based on some of the most widely used surveys.
Despite all the positive news, investment returns for 2015 were weak. The U.S. ten year Treasury bond yield was 2.17% on December 31, 2014 and it was 2.27% on December 31, 2015. The broad stock market indices increased about one per cent for the year after many zigzags in between. If the economy is doing better, why are the markets doing worse?
This tendency of markets to react poorly to good news and do well during bad periods can seem perplexing. Investors are always looking ahead and trying to gauge the potential for future earnings. The economic performance of the here and now is yesterday’s news. As we try to look over the horizon there are assumptions we make about what we think the future will bring. Market participants are engaged in a similar exercise and also adjusting their assumptions for the amount of uncertainty they feel.
In 2015, the Federal Reserve Governors increased interest rates for the first time since 2006 and suggested this will be the first of a series of rate hikes. The Chinese economy slowed considerably and this along with other factors put pressure on commodity prices. The current stock bull market is somewhat longer than average. This is an election year in the United States. All these elements and more added to uncertainty and negative sentiment throughout much of the past year.
The chart below shows the S & P 500 Stock Index plotted against major recessions indicated by the gray bars. It shows the typical pattern of a market decline while the economy is still positive and a rebound while a recession is ongoing. The effort to look beyond the immediate situation contributes to the mismatch between good news/bad news and market behavior.
At some point in the future, the negativity will be overdone. Some signs of improvement will appear. Earnings will be revised upwards. It is important to maintain a consistent portfolio objective using a mix of assets despite the inevitable fluctuations and changes in market sentiment.
Many market commentators have used colorful, even poetic language to describe the global equity market results for the third quarter. The market “swooned”, “tumbled” and all this movement made the markets “queasy” and “jittery”. This expansion in vocabulary reflects the not unexpected general nervousness that investors feel when markets decline for some period.
History shows us that market pullbacks are common occurrences and are part of the reason that long term returns are better for stocks than for other less volatile investments. Stocks are volatile and you get paid for enduring that volatility.
The chart below shows the price index for the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index of U.S. stocks over the last five and one half years. This covers a period when equities were recovering from the Great Recession of 2008-2009 and posted some impressive returns. The graph shows that, even in a period of above average returns, there have been a half dozen major pullbacks.
Source: J.P. Morgan, Standard & Poor’s
We could have just as easily shown the same graph and focused on the upward momentum of the U.S. Stock market during the same time period. The average market decline in the past thirty-five calendar years was 14.2%. Yet despite the regular occurrence of stock market pullbacks, the U.S. stock market had a positive return in twenty-seven of those past thirty five years.
Of course a diversified portfolio that includes other types of assets will help mitigate the inevitable swings of the global equity markets. Even a well-constructed, diversified portfolio is not immune to market forces however. An umbrella will protect you from the rain but you will not stay completely dry. So too, a diversified portfolio will dampen the volatility in the stock markets but cannot eliminate it.
Looking forward we see continued opportunities in the global markets and welcome the opportunity to develop investment portfolios that help achieve your goals.
In the early days of Saturday Night Live, very talented comedienne, Gilda Radner, created some memorable on-screen characters. Perhaps her most famous personality was Roseanne Roseannadanna, a frizzy haired news commentator who always ended her monologue by saying “It’s always something.”
This remark seems especially appropriate when reviewing the economy and financial markets. As 2015 reaches its halfway mark, the financial markets are dealing with the uncertainty surrounding Greece’s position in the euro zone, the major market correction in the mainland Chinese stock market and the continued weakness in energy prices.
Last year Ukraine ousted its prime minister and Russia occupied Crimea, the U.S. Federal Reserve ended its quantitative easing and there was endless speculation about the federal budget in the wake of the mid-term elections. Who can forget the fiscal cliff, sequestration, or the earlier versions of the Greek debt crises? Roseanne was right.
Looking back, we can see how these stories played out but, at the time, the commentary and media coverage can distort the importance of any particular issue. The current list of problems and uncertainties can lead to reluctance to commit to invest in assets with a long time horizon. The worries of the moment can induce some hesitation before committing to a long term financial plan. Alternatively, some investors are afraid to continue to hold their long term investments and decide to liquidate everything and “wait it out.”
Our approach to this dilemma is to create an investment portfolio that meshes with a level of risk that you can tolerate during the inevitable gyrations of the markets. We may review with you a chart that shows the yearly results for different investment portfolios as well as U.S. stocks and bonds over the last twenty years and how certain types of investments performed during the financial crisis in 2008-2009.
As important as determining risk tolerance is the discipline of regularly rebalancing your portfolio. This helps insure that your mix of investments stays within the agreed upon risk level targets. If the stock market is doing well, it can be hard to imagine wanting to sell. When the market is doing poorly, buying can seem equally daunting. Rebalancing keeps the risk level of your portfolio from creeping up and making the risk level higher than you wanted when the inevitable market downdraft hits. It also gives you “permission” to buy long term investments when things seem particularly bleak.
The financial and economic issues during the remainder of 2015 will likely surprise and confound us. The market reaction, always difficult to predict. Since we know that there is “always something,” our goal is to continue to manage high quality investment portfolios that meet your long term needs.
The word benchmark originated as a two word term used by surveyors to describe a mark made on a stationary object with a known elevation or position. That mark would then be used as the reference point for subsequent measurements of nearby geographic locales. If you have ever been hiking or walked by an older building or church, you may have seen some bronze discs or cast iron squares indicating your position relative to some other fixed point.
The benchmark concept has been widely used in many other spheres including investment management. It is often used to describe a standard against which an investment portfolio is compared. There is plenty of commentary about whether a particular portfolio has a higher or lower yield than its benchmark or is more or less volatile than a particular benchmark portfolio.
Short term investment performance is often compared to an index, a basket of unmanaged assets having some particular characteristics, and that index is considered the benchmark. Daily results for several U.S. stock indexes are reported widely in the media.
This chart shows the results for various indices over the past ten years.
In our quarterly reports to you we include a benchmark return based on your investment objective. This benchmark return combines indices for U.S. equities, international equities, fixed income and short term treasury bills in proportion to their weight in the benchmark portfolio. We also include data on inflation as measured by the consumer price index to serve as a benchmark for cost of living adjustments.
What none of these index reports can do is compare your actual financial assets to your personal benchmarks. Benchmark data does not answer the question of whether you are making progress towards your goals whether it be college education, charitable gifts or a comfortable retirement. We work to structure your portfolio with these personal goals in mind and focus on the often multi-year process involved in accomplishing your objectives.
Knowing how your portfolio stacks up is useful information. Like the hiker, it is interesting to know the exact location as shown on the benchmark at the top of the mountain. Yet it is the trail markers and blazes along the way that get you to the summit.
It has been more than five years since the financial panic of 2008 and the official end of the economic recession that followed. Even though the economy was no longer officially in recession, economic growth in the subsequent years has been slow and fitful. Last year, 2014, was the year in which we saw some sustained improvement in the U.S. economy.
We see several important reasons for the momentum:
The improvement in the U. S. economy does not mean there will be smooth sailing ahead. The decline in crude oil prices will translate into slower job growth in a sector of the economy that has been adding jobs as domestic production ramped up. Weak wage growth and the large number of part time workers limits growth in consumer spending. The stronger dollar makes American goods more expensive abroad and will be a drag on exports. The Eurozone is a major trading partner and its economy is struggling. Japan and China, while they are very different economies, share a common problem of subpar economic growth.
The Federal Reserve has signaled its intention to begin the process of raising short term rates. We do not consider the prospect of higher short term interest rates to be a major concern because inflation is in check and long term rates, the ones that determine the rates for mortgages and capital goods, are likely to stay at historically low levels.
While we enter the New Year with strong momentum in the U. S. economy, there is no shortage of roadblocks that could hinder continued progress. We continue to monitor events and incorporate our view of the economy and markets into the management of your portfolio.
After a volatile start to the year, U.S. stocks performed well in the second quarter, up 3.9%. Year to date returns for U.S. stocks are now positive, up 3.1%. Foreign developed and emerging market stocks declined in the quarter with emerging market stocks hit especially hard. Foreign developed and emerging market stocks are down 2.8% and 6.7% respectively for the year. U.S. and foreign bond returns are negative for the year. Foreign assets, stocks and bonds were negatively impacted by a strengthening U.S. dollar. Cash is the sole major fixed income asset class positive for the year. Interestingly, cash investments now yield more than U.S. stocks.
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We are pleased to announce that Donna M. Ewert has joined the Bigelow team as Vice President and Senior Advisor. Ewert adds her expertise as a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ practitioner as the firm continues to expand its current investment advisory and financial planning offerings.
Ewert brings extensive experience to the firm. Prior to joining Bigelow, Ewert worked as a high net worth financial advisor in New York City and Boston for Fidelity Investments. After returning to Maine, Ewert spent almost a decade as a portfolio manager and client advisor with Robinson Smith Wealth Advisors in Portland, Maine.
Ewert graduated with a B.A. in Economics from the Peter T. Paul College of Business and Economics at The University of New Hampshire. She went on to earn her Certificate in Financial Planning from Boston University. Ewert is a member of the Maine Estate Planning Council and the Financial Planning Association.
“We are so pleased to add Donna’s experience and expertise to our growing company,” said Kathryn Dion, President of Bigelow Investment Advisors. “Our clients’ need for financial planning services led us to look for an addition to our team who fits in with our ethos of innovation and exceptional service. We are confident Donna will be a key player in providing and implementing high quality solutions for our clients.”
Ewert grew up in Norway, Maine and now lives in Brunswick with her husband. She is the former state treasurer of Maine Women’s Network and works on the annual auction committee for Boys & Girls Clubs of Southern Maine. In her spare time, she enjoys scuba diving, theater, and supporting various organizations in the arts while also being a lifelong member of Red Sox Nation.
Volatility has returned. U.S. stocks rallied in January, peaking nearly 8% above their year-end close. Less than two weeks later, U.S. stocks had declined 11% from this January peak. This pullback was followed by another 8% rally in late February only to be followed by an 8% pullback in late March. This whipsawing of investors is not atypical for the stock market. Since 1980, the market has experienced an intra-year pullback of at least 10% 22 times, with the average intra-year drop of 13.8%. While stock price volatility may be unnerving, it is not uncommon. The exceptionally low volatility in 2016 and 2017 has made the recent price swings seem more pronounced.
As of March 31, 2018, U.S. stock returns were -0.7% for the quarter, outpacing foreign developed stocks but trailing emerging market stocks. U.S. bond returns were negative in the quarter with foreign bond returns outpacing most asset classes. Foreign bond returns were primarily driven by a decline in the U.S. dollar. As shown below, U.S. and foreign stocks posted double-digit one year returns with U.S. bonds returning 1.2%.
On the positive side for stocks, company earnings growth has accelerated. Global economic growth is strong. U.S. companies are benefitting from lower corporate taxes. Debt costs remain historically low, allowing cheap funding for stock buybacks and growth investments. On the negative side, the strong stock returns in 2017 reflected expectations for accelerating growth in 2018. The bar is quite high for companies to surpass expectations. Trade tensions are rising and the potential for a trade war between China and the U.S. is concerning. While interest rates are still low by historical standards, the Federal Reserve has shifted from an accommodative policy. Bond prices are already discounting further rate increases. As such, the U.S. bond market yield is at a five-year high.
As we look ahead, three questions warrant scrutiny and research. Will the Fed raise rates too quickly? How fast can company earnings grow after 2018? Is the current global economic growth rate sustainable?
We look forward to sharing our views on these issues and helping our clients navigate through an increasingly complicated economic environment.
As of January 2, 2018, Bigelow Investment Advisors has teamed up with Wind River Capital Management, an investment advisory firm with offices in Brunswick and Ellsworth, Maine.
The combined organization will be known as Bigelow Investment Advisors.
Based in Portland, Bigelow was founded in 2007 around the core principles of a low client-advisor ratio, personalized and inclusive client services, and an integrated approach to investment management and financial planning. Since inception, the company has experienced steady growth, expanding our base of both individual and institutional client relationships, while still maintaining our client-first approach to asset management. With Wind River, the combined company will manage approximately $300 million in client assets.
Wind River was incorporated in 1993 in Ellsworth before expanding to Brunswick in 2005. The Midcoast firm brings a diverse base of clients with over $80 million in combined assets under management. Ben Wootten and Bill Hunter will continue to care for their clients from their offices in Ellsworth and Brunswick as Principals of Bigelow.
“Bill and I view this as a terrific opportunity to offer our clients an expanded range of services while maintaining close contact and individualized attention,” commented Ben Wootten. “We are pleased to be joining the Bigelow team and look forward to working together.”
Bigelow’s partnership with Wind River marks an exciting new chapter for both firms, one that combines more than 150 years of investment experience to create an increasingly diverse organization that is better suited to meet the needs of an expanding client base.
“We are excited about our combined ability to serve clients throughout the region,” said Kathryn Dion, Bigelow’s President and co-founder. “The depth of collective experience and expertise of our professionals will ensure that we can provide exceptional service for generations to come.”
2017 returns for U.S., foreign developed and emerging market stocks were exceptional. As shown in the table below, 2017 stock returns were well ahead of their three-year and five-year average annual returns. Foreign stock returns, both foreign developed and emerging market stocks, outperformed U.S. stock returns. Emerging market stocks returned +37.3% and foreign developed stocks returned +25%. U.S. stocks returned +21.1%. Better than expected earnings, accommodative central bank policies, low inflation and positive corporate tax changes in the U.S. contributed to the robust stock returns. Foreign stocks further benefitted from a weak U.S. dollar.
Investors have enjoyed strong stock returns without experiencing the high volatility associated with holding long-term assets. Stock volatility is at an all-time low. U.S. stocks posted positive returns every month in 2017 with only one down month in nearly two years. While it is difficult to call the bottom in volatility, we do expect volatility to increase for stocks and would view the recent lull in volatility as an exception to the norm.
U.S. and foreign bond returns were also positive for the year. U.S. bonds returned +3.5% and foreign bond returns are +11.3%. U.S. bonds posted positive returns despite interest rate increases by the Federal Reserve. Strong corporate bond returns and low inflation expectations contributed to the positive U.S. bond returns. While stock returns easily outpaced bond returns, bond yields in the U.S. now exceed stock yields. As such, we continue to view bonds as an important risk diversifier and a stable source of income.
We do expect low absolute returns for bonds to continue as interest rates remain near all-time lows and default and liquidity risk premiums approach cyclical lows.
In all, 2017 was a strong return year for nearly every asset class.