What I’m Thinking Today

In honor of the extra day in February this year, and on the eve of Super Tuesday, I thought it was a good time to jot down some random thoughts on the market, the economy and the election. So, in no particular order, here goes . . .

  • I hope you listened to my pleas in the last few newsletters not to panic and sell your quality holdings into the correction. If you didn’t, you’ve enjoyed a gain of almost 1,000 since a bottom was made on February 11.
  • I don’t think February 11 was “the bottom” for the year. We’re likely to have at least one, if not two more, corrections this year. That being said, I do believe the market will be higher over the next few years.
  • I would substantially overweight, or even limit, your investments to blue-chip, dividend paying, U.S.-based equities as most of the rest of the world is a mess and income is at a premium.
  • Although I’m happy to see oil prices firming above $30 I don’t think the pain is over. There is still way too much oil sloshing around the world and not enough demand to soak it all up. When the stories of bankruptcies in the oil patch begin to dominate the national media, that will be time to start buying stocks in the energy sector.
  • Large-cap pharmaceutical and biotech stocks have been too beaten up; some great values are starting to present themselves.
  • There is almost zero chance the Federal Reserve will raise rates this year. The greater chance is that they’ll cut rates, although I don’t think that will happen either, at least not in the next few months.
  • When times get scary, and you aren’t sure what to do, it’s ok to do nothing. Outside of some family accounts, in which I bought some stocks during the downturn in January (which proved too early), I have made next to no trades in 2016. And that’s just fine. Sometimes the best trades are the ones you don’t make.
  • When you’re an investor, it’s paramount that you recognize that markets go up and down. There are good times and bad. Up cycles and down cycles. The sooner you accept reality the better. Then you’ll be able to accept the down down with some equanimity and the good times with humility. Investing properly is a marathon, not a sprint.
  • The stock market does not like uncertainty and one of the greatest uncertainties right now is the election. Notwithstanding Bernie’s surprising resilience, I think most people would agree that Hillary will be the Democratic nominee for President.
  • Less certain, though increasingly likely (and I can’t believe I’m writing this), is that Donald Trump will be the Republican nominee. If he sweeps the majority of the #SuperTuesday states tomorrow, his coronation will be virtually assured. And no sane person could really want that to happen. The closer Trump gets to the presidency the more likely the stock market is to be rattled. And that’s not good.
  • All of the Trump supporters out there who think a vote for Trump is a vote for change (“throw the bums out”) and that he will “Make America Great” again, should stop for a minute, listen closely to what he’s actually saying (or more to the point, what he’s not saying) and ask if he is really the person we want leading this country for the next four years. Perish the thought.
  • Tell the important people in your life how much they mean to you. Spend more time with your friends and your kids. Go out and do the things on your bucket list. Don’t wait to drink that great bottle of wine. Life is too short and too precious to waste a moment of it.
  • Give more of your time and/or your money to those less fortunate and count your blessings for how lucky you are; I do every day.
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I’m Back – Time To Speak Some Truth

After a long absence from blogging, it’s time for me to return to writing more frequently. Between the upcoming election and the turmoil in the stock market, there is plenty to write about. So let’s get to it.

To start things off, I’d like to comment briefly on the election. I will certainly be writing at greater length and frequency in the coming months.(Disclaimer: I am a registered Democrat with fiscally conservative leanings, so nobody is speaking for me in this process.)

On the Republican side, I must admit that I’m surprised that The Donald has made it this far. I completely discounted, and underestimated, the appeal of this loudmouthed buffoon. That being said, it looks like he’ll stick around for a while. I’m also surprised by the appeal of the religious zealot, Ted Cruz. There is very little hope for a centrist candidate in this field of “how far right can we lean” candidates. Iowa and New Hampshire managed to winnow away almost all of the pretenders; Ben Carson remains the only Walking Dead remaining in the Republican Field. I imagine he will be gone by the end of the month. That will leave Trump, Cruz, Rubio, Kasich and maybe Bush to wage battle into March. My intuition says the Bush will be the next one to go, leaving the Final Four to duke it out over the remaining few months until the nomination.

The picture on the Democratic side isn’t much better. All of the pretenders have already dropped out of the race, leaving the equally unappealing Hillary and Bernie. Notwithstanding his big win in New Hampshire, I still don’t think Bernie has any chance of getting the nomination. Which means a very flawed Hillary Clinton will likely oppose an equally flawed (and potentially very scary) Donald Trump or Ted Cruz in the general election. The prospect of having to choose between either one, knowing that the winner will become President of the United States has me rethinking my citizenship.

So what is a fiscally conservative, socially liberal voter to do? Well, outside of the slim possibility that Michael Bloomberg will run, I honestly don’t know. I’m not optimistic. And I believe that collectively, the stock market feels like I do. I think a lot of the poor stock market action can be attributed to the uncertainty surrounding a presidential election with no good candidates. And if that’s true, we could be faced with months of market turmoil ahead. Add to that the slowing growth in China, the plunging price of oil, currency devaluation around the globe and a relatively weak domestic economy and you have a recipe for stock market disaster.

That being said, I want to be clear about something. It is not time to panic. Things are not nearly as dire as they were leading up to the crash in 2008. Outside of the negative consequences of a too-strong dollar, corporate revenues, profits and balance sheets are in very good shape. It is part of the normal and natural part of the stock market cycle that after a prolonged period of gains that we must experience a year or two of negative returns. Then, when the gloom and despair have peaked, it will be time for the next rally to begin.

So stick with your plan. In the world of virtually zero interest rates, owning a diverse basket of blue-chip, dividend-paying stocks, returning an average yield of at least 2%, is your best way to secure your financial future. So buckle up and prepare for a bumpy ride. I’ll try my best to guide you along the way.

Don’t Succumb To Blind Fear

The past week has been a very turbulent, and nerve-wracking, time for investors. Stock markets around the world have been rocked by massive losses. In just the seven trading sessions, the Dow Jones Industrial Average (#DJIA) has fallen about 850 points, or 5%. By comparison, the S&P 500 has fallen 5.2%, the UK FTSE a slightly better 4.8% while the German DAX has dropped a whopping 6.9%. These are significant losses in only seven trading days.

Today was a microcosm of the past few weeks as the major averages were whipsawed all day long. At one point, the #DJIA was down 2.8%, before finishing down 1%. Similarly, the Dow Jones Transportation Average (#DJTA) was also down 2.8% before actually ending the day 18 points higher. The S&P 500 dropped 3% before winding up down only 0.9%. Investors who panicked today and sold at the bottom will likely regret that when the market inevitably recovers and they find themselves sitting in cash on the sidelines, missing the large gains.

So what are the reasons for the big declines and the crazy volatility? They include (just to name a few): a growing economic malaise in Europe, concerns about a continued economic slowdown in China, fears on an expanding Ebola outbreak, continued trouble in the Middle East thanks to ISIS and other terrorists, plunging oil prices thanks to the dollar surging in value against most other currencies and horrible policy decisions within OPEC. You could probably add concerns over social unrest in Hong Kong. Don’t forget natural disasters like cyclones, hurricanes and typhoons that are growing in frequency and magnitude. And that doesn’t even count worries about economic slowdown in this country, anticipation about future rate increases by the Federal Reserve and uncertainty about the upcoming mid-term elections. Phew, did I miss anything?

Given all the ills that I enumerated above, we should all dump everything, build a bomb shelter and stick all of our money under our mattress, right? WRONG!! Succumbing to fear, acquiescing to panic and abandoning your financial plan is exactly the opposite of what you should be doing.

First of all, in my opinion, you shouldn’t be investing any money that needs to be spent in the next two years. So if we take that as a given, and if we assume (yes, I know what happens when we assume, but that’s the only way I can continue this narrative) that the money you have invested is for some future purpose (of at least five years), than weekly volatility is really irrelevant. In fact, it is normal and present opportunities.

Let’s put things in perspective. On October 9, 2007, almost exactly seven years ago, the #DJIA was 14,164.53. From there it proceeded to go down for the next year and a half, finally hitting bottom on March 9, 2009 at 6,547.05, for a loss of 53.8%. From that low, the market hurtled forward for the next five and a half years, erasing all of those losses before peaking on September 19 at 17,279.74, a gain of 163.9%! Today the #DJIA closed at 16,141.74, which means we’ve fallen 6.6% from the high. Is that really so bad? In the grand scheme of things is that likely to derail your future plans?

The truth about the stock market is that it goes up and it goes down. And after a prolonged period of going up, with only a few very short down periods, we were due for a correction of sorts. Now, I don’t know either the depth or duration of this correction, but I’m confident it won’t be nearly as bad as 2008/2009. Global economic conditions are MUCH better today, even with all of our problems, than they were back then. So relax, have a nice glass of wine (or whatever your drinking pleasure is), take stock of your portfolio and look at your “wish list” of stocks that you’d like to buy. Perhaps now is the tie to use some discretionary cash to pick up one or two of them on the cheap. Then sit back, wait for the rebound and congratulate yourself for remaining calm and sticking with your plan.

Full disclosure: I purchased one new position last week, and another one this afternoon, totaling about $600,000. So I’m putting my money where my mouth is. I’m very confident those will be very opportunistic and profitable purchases, creating solid profits for me and my clients for years to come.

 

I Hope You Didn’t Sell Last Month

Last month I wrote a blog entitled “Don’t Panic” on February 5 in which I stated that “I believe that this is simply a long overdue correction in a bull market that began in March 2009 and remains in place today.” As it turns out I was fortunate enough to have written this the day that the correction ended. Since that time, the Dow Jones Industrial Average has risen by 6.2% to within a scant 200 points of its all time closing high. At the same time, the S&P 500, the Wilshire 5000 and the Russell 2000 have all exceeded their old records. Clearly, the Bull Market remains in force and that the modest correction has ended.

So where do things stand now? At this moment, the market is still in a clear uptrend. Almost every major stock average is at or near record levels. Treasury yields have stabilized in the range of 2.60 – 2.80%. The value of the dollar index has fallen about 5% since last July and is currently trading near its low. This is helping to increase the relative prices of gold and silver, as well as other commodities, like crude oil.

So what should we be doing? All things considered, we sit tight but remain vigilant. There will likely be more one-off events like what’s going on in the Ukraine that will cause the market to slide. I believe that one- or two-day events like that can create short-term buying opportunities. Unless there is a fundamental and abrupt change in Federal Reserve policy with regards to interest rates, or if our economy were to quickly worsen, or should there be a major conflagration somewhere in the world, then the stock market should continue to work its way higher.

As for me and my clients, we remain fully invested in companies that are participating in this bull market. We didn’t sell last month and we won’t panic the next time the market drops a little because we understand that markets go up and down in the normal course of things. We are patient investors with the courage of our convictions. That’s how you build true wealth.

Don’t Panic

As of the close of business yesterday, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was down 1,136 points, or 6.8%, since the end of 2013. The venerable average was down 5.3% in January, which lead many seers to warn that the market would therefore be down for the full year. I’m here to disagree with that sentiment. I believe that this is simply a long overdue correction in a bull market that began in March 2009 and remains in place today.

Quite simply, the fundamentals underpinning this bull market remain in place. Corporate balance sheets remain pristine and profits continue to grow. The Federal Reserve remains committed to keeping interest rates artificially low and will inject liquidity into the system at the first sign of danger. Congress has already passed a budget deal and is likely to approve an amendment to the debt ceiling without a protracted fight. And finally, the economy continues to grow, albeit at a somewhat modest pace. All of this suggests that the stock market should again move higher.

Keep in mind that there are relatively few alternatives to an intelligently constructed stock portfolio when it comes to saving for your future. Interest rates at the bank are actually negative when viewed after taxes and inflation. Government debt is not much better. Corporate debt generally has positive yields, but you’d have to extend the maturities too far into the future to reap any reasonable yields, and in doing so you would incur significant interest rate risk. On the other hand, there are many solid, blue-chip stocks that pay annual dividends of 3% or better and are increasing those payments at rates far better than inflation. Good examples include Pfizer (PFE), Verizon (VZ), Proctor and Gamble (PG) and Chevron (CVX). [Disclosure: All four stocks are among the Top 25 positions held by Werlinich Asset Management] And while you enjoy those dividends, you also have the possibility of long-term capital growth.

For example, defense giant Lockheed Martin (LMT) pays a dividend that yields 3.5% at the current price. And the stock has tripled over the past ten years, which represents an average annual growth of about 12% per year for the past decade. While there is no guarantee the stock will continue that rate of growth for the next ten years, if it only grows at half that rate, the stock could double over the next decade, not including the dividend payments. What bond can give you the same growth potential? [Disclosure: LMT is the 3rd largest position held by Werlinich Asset Management.]

When looked at through a longer term prism, an intelligently managed stock market portfolio remains the best option available in order to save and invest for long-term growth and future financial security. 

2014 Fearless Forecasts – Looking Back and Gazing Ahead

Each year in my January newsletter (“News and Views”) I make a number of predictions about the stock market, the domestic economy and maybe a few key trends. At the same time, review the accuracy, or lack thereof, of my Fearless Forecasts from the prior year. So let’s first see how my prognostications from last year panned out before I make this year’s prognostications. The forecasts are in black and the actual results are in red.

  1. I think the broad markets will be only modestly higher in 2013. Put me down for an 8% gain for the Dow Jones Industrial Average, which means a closing price of 14,156. That, coincidentally, would be six points below the all time high of 14,164.53 from October 9, 2007. I think the S&P 500 will lag the Dow this year, limiting the S&P to a gain of only 6%, which means a closing price of 1,508. As usual, the market will not rise in a straight line. Indeed, there will likely be two corrections of between 5 – 10%. But again, investors who hold tight will be rewarded. I was right about the direction of the market, but not the magnitude. The DJIA finished up 26.5% and the S&P 500 ended up 29.6%. There were three corrections of between 5 – 10% (they were each around 6%). Buy and hold was definitely the way to go.
  2. I’m confident the Fed will leave short term rates unchanged for the entire year; they’ve already declared as much. I also believe that there will be no more “quantitative easing” plans as the risks of inflation outweigh the concerns about deflation. I think the yield on the 10-year Treasury will stay in a range of 1.50% – 2.00% and the 30-year bond will remain roughly 1.00% higher than the 10-year. Mixed result here. I was correct that the Fed would leave short term rates unchanged and that there would be no more QE. The 10-year Treasury broke above 2% in June, establishing a new trading range between 2.5% – 3.0%. The 30-year bond yield did indeed remain about 1% higher than the 10-year. 
  3. I think the value of the dollar will be lower by the end of the year, after finishing 2012 around 80. Countries all over the world are attempting to devalue their currency in order to bolster their exports and the U.S. is no exception. I expect the dollar index to trade between 73 – 83. I wasn’t too far off. The dollar finished the year right where it started, around 80, after trading as high as 85 and as low as 89 with a primary trading range between 79 and 83. 
  4. I think slower global economic growth this year will limit demand for West Texas Crude, thereby keeping the price down a bit. That being said, I think the price of WTIC will stay for much of the year between $80 – $100, although it wouldn’t surprise me to see it briefly drift as low as $70. This prediction was reasonably accurate as the price traded between $90 – $100 for much of the year, with a three month spike during the summer. There was very little downside movement.
  5. The price of gold has moved higher in each of the last 12 years, even as the rate of growth slowed a bit last year, and I’m confident it will go higher again this year. My upside target is about $1,850 per ounce while the downside is about $1,600. The primary trading range will probably be something like $1,650 – $1,750. I think the price of silver could test $40 per ounce again, but will likely remain in a tight trading range between $26 – $36. I don’t see silver going much lower than $25. Unfortunately, I could not have been more wrong with my predictions for the precious metals sector, which completely tanked last year, as the price of gold plunged almost 30%. Silver fared even worse, finishing the year down about 40% from the high. This one hurt.
  6. The housing market will continue to rally in 2013. Average prices will slowly rise throughout the year as inventory remains very tight. Interest rates will remain historically low, although they will likely be higher by the end of the year. This was mostly correct. The housing market, as represented by the HGX housing index rose 23% in the year. Housing starts increased 11%. New home sales rose 17% but existing home sales were flat. Prices in both new and existing markets rose nicely. Interest rates, although higher than 2012, did remain historically low in 2013.
  7. I think the average rate of GDP growth over the next four quarters will be around 2.0%, which is slightly lower than 2012. Q4 2012 may be the high water mark as the first half of 2013 could struggle to reach 1.75%. The average rate of growth of GDP for the last four quarters was exactly 2.0%, although the good news was that the rate of growth increased all four quarters, accelerating nicely in the second half of the year after a very laggard first half. 
  8. For the third year in a row, job growth, or the lack thereof, will continue to be one the most important domestic stories of the year. The unemployment rate will likely top out around 8.0% and will fall to only 7.5%. The U-6 measure for unemployment, a more accurate gauge of the true unemployment situation, will likely remain in the 14%-15% range. The other big story will of course be the federal deficit. There was solid improvement on the employment front last year. The unemployment rate fell from a high of 7.9% to a low of 7.0% in November, while the U-6 fell from 14.4% to 12.7% over the same period. And the fight over the deficit caused a government shutdown. 

All in all, my forecasts were a bit of a mixed bag, but except for the horribly wrong forecast for gold  I wasn’t too far off last year. And remember, I have no formal training in economics. I’m just someone who closely observes what is happening in the world and tries to apply that knowledge to my investment management business. Anyway, last year is history now; it’s time to look forward, which means a new set of Fearless Forecasts. So without further ado, here we go:

  1. I think the broad markets will again finish higher in 2014. Put me down for a 12% gain for the Dow Jones Industrial Average, which means a closing price of 18,565. I think the S&P 500, with a greater emphasis on tech and growth, could do a little better, finishing up 14%, for a closing price of 2,106. As usual, the market will not rise in a straight line. I expect there will be two or three corrections of between 5 – 10%. One could even be worse than that. But investors who hold tight will be rewarded.
  2. For the second year in a row I believe the Fed will leave short term rates unchanged. I also think the Fed will reduce their bond buying program to at least $40 billion a month by year-end. If they economy is strong enough, they could have it down to zero. The yield on the 10-year Treasury will remain in a relatively tight range of 2.75% – 3.25%.
  3. For two years the dollar index has traded between 79 and 85 and closed the year around 81. Given the reduction in QE, a falling deficit and trade gap, I expect the dollar will be 5% higher, or about 85, by the end of the year.
  4. I think an improved global economy this year will increase demand for West Texas Crude, putting upward pressure on the price. On the other hand, increased supplies from shale drilling will be a drag on prices. Therefore, I expect the price for a barrel of oil to remain relatively range-bound in the $90s for most of the year, with a low of $85 and a high of $105.
  5. After 12 straight years of increases the price of gold fell last year, and fell hard, finishing around $1,200/oz. Longer term, meaning over the next few years, I think gold will move higher. Before that however I think gold will drop below support at $1,200, falling to as low as $1,000.The yearly high is tougher to judge, but I’ll estimate the high to be no better than $1,400.
  6. I expect the housing sector to continue to rally in 2014, albeit at a measured pace as slightly higher interest rates inhibit a faster rate of growth. The volume of new and existing home sales will rise by no more than 5% and average prices will gain slightly less as inventory rises.
  7. I think the average rate of GDP growth over the next four quarters will be around 3.0%, a marked increase from the prior four quarters. I expect the first two quarters to have a higher rate of growth than the second two.
  8. Real job growth, or the lack thereof, will continue to be one the most important domestic stories of the year. The headline unemployment rate could fall as low as 6%, and will likely be no higher than 7%. The U-6 measure for unemployment, a more accurate gauge of the true unemployment situation, will likely remain in the 12.5%-13.5% range. The bigger problem is the dismal labor participation rate, which has fallen to a thirty-five year low of 62.8. That measure must improve in 2014. 
  9. Finally, I don’t believe the mid-term elections will do much to change the political landscape. Congress will likely remain divided. I do expect the The Tea Party to be marginalized as the electorate realizes that a hyper-polarized Congress cannot govern at all.

When Good News Is Really Good News

The Department of Labor today announced that the unemployment rate in October dropped to 7.0% as 203,000 new jobs were added in the month. Almost 300,000 fewer people were counted as unemployed while the labor force participation rate increased, both of which are good things. In addition, the average work week increased a bit, as did average wages. To sum it all up, this was probably the best employment report since the beginning of the financial crisis in 2008.

In recent months, this type of good economic news was often seen by the market as bad news because it suggested that it would force the Federal Reserve to accelerate its timetable to begin tapering QE. Following that logic, without QE to prop up the stock market, equity prices would fall. This convoluted thinking has left us with the backwards reality of “bad is good” and “good is bad” for the past few months.

So as an investor, where does today’s action leave us? At this moment, the Dow Jones Industrial Average (#DJIA) is up 193 points to 16,015. It could be that stock market participants finally understand that it’s good to have better employment; that it’s a good thing to have better than expected GDP growth (the second estimate for Q3 was 3.6%) and that the housing market should not collapse with the 10-year treasury around 3%. I believe that the Fed will not begin to ease before April. And if they do it right, they can reduce their monthly bond purchases slowly enough that it shouldn’t do any real harm to the economy. Indeed, if the economy is strong enough to stand on its own, that’s good for everyone, including the stock market.

Therefore, my clients and I remain fully invested in the market. I expect this rally to extend through the rest of this year and into 2014. And if the rumor is true that Congressional leaders are inching closer to a bi-partisan budget deal on the debt ceiling and the deficit which will include getting rid of the harsh sequester cuts, then we could really be looking at a very bright picture for the stock market for months to come.