Holiday Retail Trends & Your Budget

In the midst of this holiday season, is your budget holding together? In this blog, we’ll look at the latest holiday spending stats, the most recent trends in giving, and offer a few tips to help you maintain a financially-stress free holiday season. While money is most definitively not the reason for the season, examining current holiday spending trends gives us some insight into the health of the U.S. consumer and might even inspire reflection on our own holiday spending habits.

According to the National Retail Federation (NRF), total U.S. holiday spending will rise about 2% in 2015 compared to 2014. NRF estimates that the average American will spend about $1,017 in holiday-related items this year versus $1,000 in 2014. No surprise that the bulk of spending, or 72% of budgets, is expected to go towards gift-giving. Family still comes first in this category as consumers plan to spend four-times as much on relatives than on friends. Spending on food comes in at a distant second, eating up 12% of the average American’s holiday budget, but arguably a very important piece of the pie. Other must-haves like decorations, cards, and flowers account for the remaining 16% of most Amercians’ holiday spending.

While holiday spending isn’t surging by any means, it’s up significantly from the depths of the Great Recession when the average American spent only $682 in November and December. For the last several years wage growth has been relatively lackluster while consumer debt has inched lower and savings rates have grown. This suggests consumers learned a valuable, if not painful lesson during the financial crisis: moderation. Lower debt levels and more savings are both net positives for economic growth and asset appreciation. These trends, coupled with signs that wage growth is finally starting to improve, suggests healthier consumers in the years ahead. Given that household consumption accounts for 70% of U.S. gross domestic product or GDP, we may be in for more holiday cheer for years ahead.

Now that we’ve covered some stats, let’s talk about gifts! What do family members want from Santa this year? A poll by the National Retail Federation found that our female relatives rank gift cards as their top gift item, followed by clothing/accessories, books, CDs, and DVDs. While men also named gift cards as number one choice, more of them wanted consumer electronics or computer-related products than women. Looking to give something a little more personal than a gift card? Check out Amazon’s most gifted list (www.amazon.com/gp/most-gifted) for a bevy of ideas by category. Some of the world’s largest online retailer’s best-selling gifts this year include the LEGO Minecraft Playset, the “Inside Out” movie DVD, Amazon’s tablet “fire”, and Adele’s latest CD, among others.

Have a twenty-something in the family mix? A survey from Eventbrite suggests that Millennials prefer experiences over things. In which case you might consider a gift card to the spa or tickets to a play or ball game for the young professionals in your clan.

All this gift-giving talk, while fun to think about, can really strain a budget if not carefully considered. While we’re more than half-way through the holiday season, it’s not too late to reassess your spending plan and even start strategizing for next year. If you’re feeling some financially-related holiday strain, now is the perfect time to stop and take inventory. What was your original holiday budget? Did you have one? And how much have you spent on holiday-related items so far?

In order to relieve money stress, the best and only place to start is by honestly looking at your current situation. The key is not to use your predicament as an opportunity to criticize yourself, but as a starting point for improvement in the years ahead. By intentionally setting a limit on the amount you’ll spend on decorations, gifts, food, etc… you’re less likely to overspend and more likely to avoid feeling financially overwhelmed during the most wonderful time of the year. If you’re already over-budget and swimming in financial strain, don’t sweat it! What’s done is done. The best thing you can do is use this as a learning experience for next year and beyond.

With that in mind, I find that planning ahead is often the best way to navigate any budget. Once you’ve determined a comfortable amount that won’t strain your finances – and you can do this as early as January – you’ll have an entire year to purchase thoughtful gifts for family and friends, on your terms. You can take advantage of sales throughout the year or simply be open to discovering the perfect gift for that special someone. By planning ahead and giving yourself plenty of time to find just the right gift, you’ll have more time to enjoy being with family when the holidays finally arrive. Instead of rushing around the mall at the last minute or spending a fortune on over-night shipping, you can relish the charm of the season and enjoy time spent with loved ones.

Good luck! Wishing you a happy and financially healthy holiday season!

Carrie A. Tallman, CFA
Director of Research

?????????????????????????????????????????????

Share this:

The Power of Spending Choices

While it’s still well ahead of the official holiday season, a recent email got me thinking about what really drives my spending habits. My sister messaged our family a week ago asking if we were planning to buy presents for the kids this Christmas. I love my nieces and nephews but they are eight in number with at least one more on the way. Buying each one of them a birthday present reflective of their unique personalities is a delight, but as their numbers have grown, holiday shopping has become a little less joyful (‘tis the season) and definitely more stressful.

After the email arrived I knew immediately what I wanted to do – not buy Christmas presents. Only it wasn’t so easy to type those words back. So I waited. Everyone else had responded in the affirmative, but I held back. I felt torn between what I thought I should do and what I knew I wanted to do: enjoy the holiday season with family, minus the gift-giving.

After a little inner conflict and a healthy dose of anxiety, I realized that my desire to not offend, to maintain a magnanimous image, and to avoid the dreaded Scrooge moniker, prevented me from telling my financial truth. I saw that it wasn’t the criticism or praise from others that I was trying to avoid or earn; it was my own inner critic that I was trying to please.

With this newfound awareness, I discovered that not only does this happen at the holidays, but throughout the year! My misguided sense of propriety often influences my spending habits, in a way that is not always aligned with what I really value. Instead, when I notice and promptly ignore my inner critic’s arbitrary rules and demands, it frees me up to spend in a way that’s more aligned with what I really value — like retirement and that future trip to Paris I’ve been planning.

I bit the bullet and told my sisters that I would no longer buy Christmas presents for the kids. It turns out that none of my family criticized me for my decision. This non-reaction was even more proof that my own thoughts and fears – not other people – were behind my financial misalignment.

While some people may not react as well as my family did, when we stop worrying about other peoples’ reactions to our spending choices, they will have less of an impact. We’ll see them for what they are – simply other peoples’ reactions. In the meantime, giving ourselves a break, internally, frees up a lot more clarity to spend in alignment with what feels right. And I can’t think of a better holiday gift!

Carrie A. Tallman, CFA
Director of Research

?????????????????????????????????????????????

Share this:

The Pitfalls of Maximizing Shareholder Value

According to Ibbotson data, the US stock market has delivered a 10.1% annualized return from 1926 to 2014. I mention this data, which includes two significant market corrections, because the numbers speak for themselves. The US entrepreneurial spirit, along with a vibrant capital markets system, is alive and well. We see this today in the slew of new technology startups, healthy corporate profits even in the face of a strong dollar, and record foreign investments in US companies. That being said, there’s something I believe investors have gotten wrong, and that’s the virtually unquestioned tenet that a company’s main responsibility is to maximize shareholder value.

This seemingly obvious truth is surprisingly, a new idea, conjured up in the early 1970’s by economist Milton Friedman who wrote a scathing rebuke of corporate social responsibility in an op-ed piece for the New York Times Magazine. Shortly thereafter, two business school professors ran with the notion and published multiple journal articles extolling the virtues of maximizing shareholder profits. The idea stuck and today most in the financial industry agree that this is the primary, if not only, responsibility of a corporation.

Perhaps because I started out as a high school science teacher, followed by a stint at a local zoo, I came to my first financial position at an institutional money management firm with a slightly different perspective. My first year as a stock analyst was confusing. I quickly learned that companies reported two sets of financial data, one based on GAAP or Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, and another set called “pro forma” that excluded a lot of recurring “one-time” expenses. Then I realized that while my Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) studies helped me gauge the health of a company and its growth prospects (among other things), it became clear that the stock market game had more to do with beating Wall Street’s expectations for the upcoming quarter.

What was going on? Roger Martin in his book titled “Fixing the Game” suggests that a misguided focus on maximizing shareholder returns is incenting companies to boost earnings per share in the near-term at the cost of important, and often uncomfortable, investment decisions for the long-term. He notes that executive compensation is now more closely tied to stock and earnings per share (EPS) performance than ever before. This might be one reason why companies in the S&P 500 Index bought back shares at almost record levels in 2014. While reducing a company’s share-count provides a short-term boost to EPS growth, it leaves less cash on a company’s balance sheet for the critical business investments needed to drive shareholder value for the long-term.

So if maximizing shareholder value is not what company management teams should focus on, then what is? As with most pursuits in life, I find that fixating on a certain result often ends badly. No one can know the future, let alone deliver a certain outcome in perpetuity. Sure we can do it here and there in the short run, but in the grand scheme of things, our jobs – as individuals and companies – is to serve our clients and our communities. I believe that when companies focus on their customers, their employees, and their vision for the future, they are much more likely to maximize shareholder value – with the added benefit of contributing to society along the way. But when management teams and investors alike focus on profits for the sake of profits, the whole system becomes twisted and warped. We’re seeing this today in the rampant short-termism on Wall Street, outsized executive compensation packages, and subpar business investment levels – the lifeblood of our economy and capital markets.

While all this may sound discouraging, the good news is that more and more well-regarded financial professionals – among them, Warren Buffet, Jack Welch, and Blackrock’s CEO, Laurence Fin – are speaking up. One of our industry’s leading organizations, the CFA Institute, hosted a distinguished investment professional at its latest annual event whose presentation was called, “Shareholder Value Maximization: The World’s Dumbest Idea?” His research found that companies that focused on responsibility to customers, employees, and communities tended to outperform those that did not. All this to say that investors are starting to wake up the outdated and erroneous notion that corporations exist only to maximize shareholder value. We’re finally starting to put the cart back behind the horse, where it belongs.

Carrie A. Tallman, CFA
Director of Research

?????????????????????????????????????????????

Share this:

The “Who” of Earning More

While we’ve all read the articles about the gender pay-gap in the US, I’d like to discuss why it’s important that women start earning more and provide one perspective on how we can go about doing that.

First I’d like to mention that despite earning more college degrees than men, and now, more advanced college degrees, women still make on average 27% less than their male counterparts. That’s a glaring disconnect and it’s significant considering that most women outlive men by roughly five years in the U.S. We’re also the sole or primary source of income for 40% of households with children. That’s up from only 11% in 1960. Thus, a higher income in our working years is crucial if we want to adequately provide for both our children’s and our futures.

While it’s clear the female gender has the intelligence and discipline to master higher education, what isn’t clear is why we don’t reach the same levels of success in the workplace. I can’t claim to know the answer for all women, but I can speak from my own experience. As the first of my sisters to go to college I had little guidance. Fortunately, once I learned the system, established good study habits, and got clear about why I wanted a degree, I started to excel. In college, succeeding meant knowing the material, acing tests, and generally holding myself accountable. I didn’t necessarily need strong interpersonal skills or external confidence. I simply needed to know the subject matter and master tests and assignments.

My first job in finance was a very different experience. In comparison to school, the working world – particularly in the male-dominated world of finance – was much more about confidence, speaking up, and did I mention confidence? Yes, intelligence and a job well-done were important, but I noticed that those who had the confidence to take on challenging projects, talk to the executives with ease, and court clients with swagger seemed to get ahead. Interestingly, I had this confidence outside of work, but in the office my voice cracked, my brain froze up at inopportune times, and my words were often awkward. It was doubly painful to watch myself make blunder upon blunder, all the while knowing that in other environments I was relaxed, confident, capable – in a word, myself. What was happening? Where did I go?

It’s been twelve years since landing my first financial job and since that time my confidence has grown. I believe the biggest contributors to bridging the gap between the outside-work me and the at-work me were awareness, compassion, and trust. Although at times I felt insecure, incapable, and frustrated on the job in those early years, having awareness of the confident, capable version of myself was an important touchstone in the office. It allowed me to notice what triggered my nerves or caused my thoughts to freeze up, instead of believing that that was who I was. With awareness, I could proactively prepare for those moments, give myself a break when I did have a blunder, and trust that in time, I would grow more confident. It wasn’t always easy, but having an image of who I wanted to be at the office spurred me on. So did identifying role models at work, both male and female, and reaching out to those people. Knowing where I wanted to go, what that looked like, and most importantly, who I wanted to be at work were my guideposts.

There were certainly bumps along the way, including raises that were not granted, wrong career turns, and staying in some positions for too long. Despite the setbacks and challenges, I remained focused on my “who” at work and had a willingness, and perhaps a penchant for embarrassing blunders. Money was important to me, and although I aspired to grow my income, it wasn’t my main focus. Surprisingly, my commitment to being more myself and a willingness to work with new, uncomfortable situations had the happy side-effect of promotions and pay raises.

Money is important. Considering that we women often outlive men and are shouldering more and more responsibility for our dependents and ourselves, it’s even more important. The good news is that while money is not always our first priority, from my experience, it doesn’t have to be. A commitment to being more fully ourselves in any environment and a willingness to stretch ourselves with uncomfortable, yet meaningful challenges frequently has the happy side-effect of higher earnings.

Regardless, becoming more fully ourselves brings with it the capacity to weather any financial situation and is, in the end, its own reward.

Carrie Tallman, CFA

Director of Research

?????????????????????????????????????????????

Share this:

The Rational Investor… or Not?

This is the last post in a series of six blog entries focused on topics that might be of interest to the Millennial generation. If you would like to see our attempt at making these subject matters entertaining, visit our YouTube page to see a video version of this article.

 

So here’s the setup: you have two large pizzas. One is cut into four pieces, the other is cut into eight pieces. Would you rather have one piece from the former, or two pieces from the latter? If you asked a hungry four-year-old that question, he’d probably be totally confused because you used the words “former” and “latter.” But then he’d go for the 2 pieces because in his mind, two pieces are more than one. Of course, anyone with a basic knowledge of fractions knows this is a trick question, because it’s the same amount.

Let’s imagine now that the pizzas are companies, and the pieces are shares of stock in those companies. You have $1000 to invest. Company A’s stock price is $50, and company B’s stock price is $100. Assuming that there are no trading costs, you can purchase 20 shares of company A and 10 shares of company B. All else equal, which would you buy? Answer: it doesn’t matter – your investment in either company is the same. You’d be surprised at how many people would choose company A because you get “more” shares of stock or because they think the shares are a better “value” by virtue of having a lower price per share. The thing you have to realize is this – a company can issue any number of shares it wants to. If the price per share is $100 they can issue a 2-for-1 split, and now you’ll have 2 shares worth $50 each for every one you had before. Your total dollar investment in the company doesn’t change, though.

We all want to believe we are rational and that emotions are only something that affect other people, but it just isn’t true. We all have made mistakes like the investor in the example above and that’s why behavioral finance is one of the fastest-growing branches of psychology. This is just one example of common investor misconceptions but there are many more – click on the link above for a lighthearted look at a few that we see from time to time. Remember to always discuss your investment decisions with your advisor, so that he or she can lead you in the direction of the logical and unbiased choice.

Sarah DerGarabedian, CFA
Portfolio Manager

???????????????????

 

Share this: