Mid-Year Market Update

Now that we’re half-way through 2017, it’s time to take a look at market and economic trends year-to-date. The big picture view is that asset classes across the board have delivered strong returns through June. This is despite interest rate hikes by the Federal Reserve’s Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC). In fact, Treasury yields have actually fallen in the face of two interest rate increases this year, pushing bond prices higher. International stocks and bonds have also risen in 2017, boosted by stabilizing global growth rates, depressed yields world-wide, and improving corporate earnings.

Looking a little more closely at the U.S., stocks continued their upward trajectory early in the year following the post-Presidential election results in November. While the new administration has not made much traction in passing new legislation, relatively healthy economic data – including good jobs growth, higher wages, and a strong housing market – have supported stocks. At the time of this writing (June 15, 2017), the S&P 500 Index is up 8.5% on a price-basis and up 9.7% on a total return basis (which includes dividends).

Technology stocks have led U.S. equity markets this year. Within the S&P 500 Index, the sector is up over 17% year-to-date given healthy earnings growth expectations for the group. The more tech-heavy NASDAQ Index is up a whopping 14% this year, almost 6% ahead of the S&P 500 Index. However, we’ve started to see some signs of weakness among tech stalwarts recently and are watching the group closely. On the flip side, energy and telecom stocks have lagged the index, with price declines of 13% and 9%, respectively. Of note, energy and telecom stocks were two of the three best-performing sectors in the S&P 500 Index last year, with prices returns of +24% and +18%, respectively. This marked turnaround in performance provides a cautionary tale on the pitfalls of market timing: last year’s leaders may well become this year’s laggards. In general we’ve found that it’s difficult, if not impossible to predict which sectors or industries will outperform in any given year. As a result, we recommend maintaining a diversified portfolio through all market cycles and rebalancing regularly.

Another wide disparity arose among growth and value stocks. Year-to-date, growth stocks (as measured by the Russell 3000 Growth Index) are up almost 14% on a price return basis versus a 3% return for value stocks (as measured by the Russell 3000 Value Index). Much of the outperformance by growth stocks stems from strong returns among technology stocks – many of which are growth-oriented and trade at higher valuation levels.

After years of underperforming U.S. stocks, international equities have outperformed year-to-date. In aggregate, developed stocks from Japan, Europe, and Australia are up 14% on a price return basis through June. While this group has lagged U.S. stocks over the past four consecutive years, improving economies in most of these regions, positive consumer sentiment, and accommodative central banks are starting to turn the tide. Likewise, Emerging Markets stocks are up over 17% on a price return basis so far this year. The marked turnaround comes as corporate earnings growth for many of these countries is starting to improve and global growth is stabilizing.

Other interesting observations for 2017 include record-low stock volatility levels, lower yields despite higher interest rates by the FOMC, and an eventful (if unproductive) six-months in Washington.

Looking forward, we see risks and opportunities. The Federal Reserve is set to reduce its bloated balance sheet later this year which could pose a risk to above-average stock valuation levels. Despite the potential for unintended consequences, we view the move as a vote of confidence in the U.S. economy and as a much needed step towards more normalized monetary policy. While a more restrictive Federal Reserve is a headwind to asset prices, interest rates remain very low (with no signs of rising) and the U.S. economy remains on stable footing. These factors, along with improving U.S. corporate earnings growth, bode well for continued stock gains over the long-term.

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What’s Ahead for Fixed Income?

After more than thirty years of falling interest rates and thus rising bond prices, yields may be moving higher.  While trends are often short-lived, this new trajectory could persist into 2017 and beyond given recent changes in the political landscape as well as a less accommodative Federal Reserve (Fed).  We’ll take a look at what this new monetary and political environment may mean for bonds and how to best-position your fixed income portfolio for the long-term.

A proxy for the bond market, the 10-year Treasury note yield hit an historical low of 1.36% in July 2016 only to jump 100 basis points (or 1%) by the end of November.  The move came as investors responded favorably to the surprise U.S. Presidential and Congressional election results, in anticipation of higher growth levels in the years to come.

Part of the optimism stemmed from the new administration’s promise to cut consumer and corporate taxes and spend on infrastructure projects.  This picture presents a mixed bag for bonds, however.  Increased fiscal spending and lower taxes are positive for economic growth and a healthy economy is generally good for lending and credit activity.  But stronger economic growth would push yields higher and thus bond prices lower.  On the other hand, higher yields would provide investors with higher current income, acting as a partial offset to lower bond prices.  Rising interest rates or yields would also allow investors to reinvest into higher-yielding bonds.

Duration is an important characteristic to consider when reinvesting at higher yields.  A bond’s duration is the length of time it takes an investor to recoup his or her investment.  It also determines how much a bond’s price will fall when yields rise.  Longer duration bonds such as Treasury or corporate bonds with long maturities experience sharper price declines when yields rise.  Likewise, shorter duration bonds are less volatile and will exhibit smaller price declines, all else being equal.  Because we can’t predict the exact direction or speed of interest rate changes, it’s important to have exposure to bonds with a mix of durations.  In this way an investor is able to respond to any given environment.  For example, when yields are rising, an investor can sell her shorter-duration bonds, which are less susceptible to prices changes, and reinvest into longer-duration bonds with higher rates.

Another factor that affects bond prices is inflation.  Inflation expectations have started to heat up in light of low unemployment, wage growth, and expectations for increased government stimulus.  Higher inflation could also put upward pressure on interest rates and thus downward pressure on bond prices.  While inflation can erode the real returns of many bonds, some bonds, such as Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS), stand to benefit.  TIPS are indexed to inflation and backed by the U.S. government.  Whenever inflation rises, the principal amount of TIPS gets adjusted higher.  This in turn leads to a higher interest payment because a TIPS coupon is calculated based on the principal amount.

Finally, the Federal Reserve’s shift away from accommodative monetary policy will have an impact on bond prices.  Although higher interest rates from the Fed will likely pressure fixed income prices, overall we view this change favorably.  This is because a return to more normal interest rate levels is critical to the functioning of large institutions like insurance companies and banks, which play a key role in our society.  Likewise, higher interest rates will provide more income to the millions of Baby Boomers starting to retire and would help stabilize struggling pension plans at many companies.

Taken altogether and in light of an uncertain environment, we believe a diversified bond portfolio targeted to meet your specific fixed income needs is the best way to weather this changing yield environment.  In addition to considering your specific income objectives, our Investment Policy Committee meets regularly to assess the current economic, fiscal, and monetary environment.  We adjust our asset allocation targets in order to take advantage of attractive opportunities or reduce exposure to higher-risk (over-valued) areas.  While we may over-weight some areas or under-weight others, in the long-run we continue to believe that a well-diversified portfolio is the best way to weather any market environment.

Thank you,

The Parsec Team

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Infrastructure Spending

The next driver of economic growth and company fundamentals?

Now that the U.S. presidential election is behind us and a big unknown has become known, stocks are responding favorably.  While equities are basking in a bit of short-term certainty following the November 8th election results, key questions remain.  One of the most significant relates to future government spending, and specifically, infrastructure.  After years of unprecedented monetary accommodation that may have artificially inflated equity prices, increased investments in our nation’s roads, bridges, and airports could provide a significant (and real) boost to corporate earnings and the economy.

Regardless of your presidential preference, both Clinton and Trump promised to increase infrastructure spending on the campaign trail.  Hillary planned to spend about $275 billion over five years while Donald claimed he would double her target.  Overall U.S. infrastructure recently received a grade of D+ from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), suggesting this is one instance in which competitive campaign rhetoric may work in our favor.

Most experts agree that the U.S. has underinvested in infrastructure for nearly three decades.  As a result, many of our bridges, roads, public buildings, and ports have not had significant upgrades in 50 to 100 years.  Government officials are well aware of the problem, but lack of bipartisanship has been a hurdle to distributing needed funds to critical projects.  While historically divided government has been more favorable for stocks, in this case, an all-Republican government may enable the passage of much needed infrastructure spending bills.

Research suggests that over the long-term, every $1 spent on infrastructure has the potential to boost economic activity by $3.  This is because updated roads, bridges, and buildings improve productivity and drive efficiencies.  Increased spending on these projects would also provide new jobs, further benefiting GDP growth.

While most focus on the economic gains, modernizing key infrastructure facilities may have the added benefit of reducing the harmful greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.  According to a report by the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, more than 60% of the world’s greenhouse gases are associated with old and ailing power plants, roads, buildings, and sanitation facilities, among others.

Finally, increased infrastructure spending may be the balm we need to escape from years of easy monetary policy that has inflated equity prices.  Stock valuations are trading above their long-term historical averages despite multiple quarters of weak sales and earnings growth.  Now with record-low interest rates poised to go higher and few tools left in the Federal Reserve’s tool box, a shift towards new fiscal policies that increase productivity and encourage corporations to invest – such as infrastructure spending – would provide companies with real sales and earnings drivers.  This in turn would help bridge the gap between currently lackluster fundamentals and elevated security prices.

To be sure, there are potential negatives associated with increased fiscal spending, including currently large labor shortages in the construction industry, dependence on prudent government spending, and regulatory red tape.  Likewise, increased infrastructure spending could add to an already elevated federal budget deficit.  However, taken altogether the positives appear to outweigh the negatives.  And new fiscal spending could be just what we need to keep the economy on track while supporting stock prices.

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Market Update Through 06/30/2016

as of June 30, 2016
Total Return
Index 12 months YTD QTD June
Stocks
Russell 3000 2.14% 3.62% 2.63% 0.21%
S&P 500 3.99% 3.84% 2.46% 0.26%
DJ Industrial Average 4.50% 4.31% 2.07% 0.95%
Nasdaq Composite -1.68% -2.66% -0.23% -2.06%
Russell 2000 -6.73% 2.22% 3.79% -0.06%
MSCI EAFE Index -10.16% -4.42% -1.46% -3.36%
MSCI Emerging Markets -12.05% 6.41% 0.66% 4.00%
Bonds
Barclays US Aggregate 6.00% 5.31% 2.21% 1.80%
Barclays Intermediate US Gov/Credit 4.33% 4.07% 1.59% 1.43%
Barclays Municipal 7.65% 4.33% 2.61% 1.59%
Current Prior QTR
Commodity/Currency Level Level
Crude Oil $48.33 $38.34
Natural Gas $2.92 $1.96
Gold $1,320.60 $1,235.60
Euro $1.1110 $1.1396
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Implications for “Brexit”

Investors received surprising news this morning, as the United Kingdom (U.K.) voted to leave the European Union (EU).  While markets will no doubt experience increased volatility in the coming weeks, longer-term, we believe the negative impact of “Brexit” will be largely contained to Great Britain and Europe.

Trade accounts for about 40% of the U.K.’s gross domestic product (GDP), with most of those exports and imports tied to EU partners.  As a result of the recent vote, Britain is likely to see higher trade tariffs from the EU and more trade staying within continental Europe’s borders.  Both of these shifts could weigh significantly on Britain’s economic growth in the mid-term and would likely weigh on EU growth as well.  One positive is that the U.K. never adopted the Euro, choosing instead to maintain the British Pound as its currency.  This is should make an exit from the EU smoother and slightly less costly than if they had converted to the Euro, and suggests it could be less detrimental than if Greece had left.

While the U.K. is likely to experience the largest negative impact by leaving the EU, continental Europe is also at risk given its relatively fragile economic expansion following the Financial Crisis of 2008-2009.  From 2010 through 2015, EU GDP has grown at an average rate of just 1.2% compared to U.K. GDP growth of 2.0%.  Thus any major shock, such as one of its strongest members leaving the Block, could derail those modest growth levels.

Turning to the U.S., Europe is one of our larger trade partners with about 16% of total U.S. exports going to the Block last year.  This is not an insignificant number, and will likely weigh on U.S. GDP growth in the near-term.  However, the U.S. consumer remains the largest driver of our economy, accounting for about two-thirds of GDP growth.  Following the Financial Crisis of 2008-2009, the U.S. consumer has gotten healthier, supported by an expanding housing market, strong jobs growth, and deleveraging.  A resilient consumer and relatively better economic growth compared to the rest of the world should position us to better weather the recent developments in Europe.

To be sure, today’s news surprised investors and markets alike.  Although the near-term economic impact will likely be limited to the U.K. and Europe, the vote has broader implications for the future of the European Union.  While we can’t predict the longer-term repercussions of today’s historical vote, we can assure you of the benefits of staying invested in a diversified portfolio over the long-term.  Markets will experience sharp corrections, as well as strong rallies, yet clients who remain invested across asset classes throughout the market cycle have a better chance of reaching their financial goals.  With this perspective in mind, market declines like the one we’re seeing today simply represent an excellent opportunity to rebalance your portfolio at more attractive valuations levels.

 

Thank you,

The Parsec Team

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Things are not as bad as the media would have you believe

Queen Elizabeth II turned ninety years old on April 21st.  While I don’t follow the Royal Family all that closely, I do love Princess Kate’s fashion sense and have a thing for sparkly tiara’s (the real ones).  So naturally when I saw an article about the Queen’s birthday I had to check it out.  In addition to some great shots of the Crown Jewels, I found one of the Queen’s comments particularly uplifting.  When asked about the state of the world, Elizabeth unequivocally said that things are much better today than when she was a child.  Although recent headlines – from terrorist attacks to slowing global growth – would have us believe otherwise, I’d like to provide some much-needed evidence that we’re living in pretty good times.

First, Americans are living longer and are healthier than ever before in history.  In 1800 the U.S. life expectancy was 39 years at birth, then 49 years in 1900, 68 years in 1950, and an incredible 79 years today!  In addition to a longer life expectancy, we can take advantage of our twilight years with something called retirement.  The concept didn’t exist in the U.S. prior to the late 1880’s, when workers pretty much labored until they died.  That started to change in 1875 when American Express offered America’s first employer-provided retirement plan.  The Federal Government followed suite in 1935 with the creation of Social Security; and medical health benefits for those over 65 years, also known as Medicare, started in 1965.

According to the Federal Reserve, the number of years spent in leisure – measured as retirement plus time off during your working years – rose from 11 years in 1870 to 35 years by 1990.  While we’re not all experiencing a Downton Abbey lifestyle, things could be worse.

Concerning crime and violence: while the tragic terrorist attacks in recent years are difficult to reconcile, overall murder rates in the U.S. have dropped dramatically since the 1990’s.  America averaged 20,919 murders during that decade but the average number of murders in the 2000’s dropped to 16,211.  On a global level, a report from the Human Security Report Project suggests the world is getting safer, as it relates to people killing other people.  Deaths from war has been in decline since the end of World War II and high-intensity conflicts have declined by more than half since the end of the Cold War.  The report goes on to say that terrorism, genocide, and homicide numbers are also down.

Americans often worry that slowing U.S. growth and rising debt levels will result in a downward economic spiral.  They often point to Japan as a worst-case-scenario.  While the island nation has its challenges, consider that Japanese unemployment has remained below 5.7% for the last 25 years, income per capita adjusted for purchasing power continues to grow at a healthy rate, and life expectancy is on the rise.  Plus I hear they have amazing sushi.  I can think of worse outcomes.

Another common concern I read about is stagnant wage growth.  While I believe this is an important issue, consider that the median annual household income adjusted for inflation was about $25,000 in the 1950’s.  Today it’s almost double that!

A few other things that are better: U.S. death rate from strokes has declined by 75% since the 1960s; deaths from heart attacks have also dropped dramatically; more Americans attend college today than at any other time in our history; smoking is down sharply; poverty is on the decline in the U.S.; and fewer people around the world die from famine each year.

Happily, I could go on, but I won’t.  Suffice it to say that Queen Elizabeth II, in her 90 years of experience and wisdom, may be right.  And even if she’s not, we’re all better off believing she is.

Carrie A. Tallman, CFA
Director of Research

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Brexit: What is it and what are the investment implications?

There have been many headlines recently about the so-called “Brexit”, or the possibility of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union. There is a referendum on the subject coming up on June 23 in the UK, with current polls showing 47% in favor of staying and 40% in favor of leaving. This is not to be confused with the “Grexit” fears from a few years ago about the possibility of Greece leaving the European Union as well as the Euro currency. The UK is different in that it is a member of the EU, but continues to use the Pound as its currency rather than the Euro. Therefore, the UK maintains its own central bank and monetary policy. The main effect of such an exit has to do with trade agreements within the EU.

Potential negatives of an exit include a possible slowdown in the UK economy, short-term local stock market volatility and\or depreciation in the Pound. The EU represents about 50% of UK exports but only about 10% of imports, so if trade agreements are less favorable as a result of the exit then the UK stands to lose.

There are also positive factors to consider with regard to the UK. According to Goldman Sachs, the economy (as measured by Gross Domestic Product) in the UK is projected to grow faster than that of the US or the other Euro area countries in both 2016 and 2017. The Pound has already fallen 9% against the dollar over the past year, and the UK stock market has underperformed both the S&P 500 and the MSCI EAFE index over the same period. A vote to remain in the EU would remove the current uncertainty, and could be a catalyst for UK stocks to reverse their recent underperformance. If the vote is to leave the EU, many trade agreements will need to be renegotiated. This process will likely take years to complete, while UK stock market volatility should be short-lived.

To quantify our clients’ potential exposure to the UK, in a typical portfolio our target weighting for international stocks is about 26% of the overall allocation to equities. Of this amount, approximately 1/3 is emerging markets and about 2/3 developed markets. The UK is considered a developed market, and makes up about 20% of the MSCI EAFE index, which is the primary benchmark for most actively managed developed international mutual funds. This would imply that roughly 3-4% of our typical stock portfolio has exposure to UK equities through mutual funds, plus any additional exposure through individual stocks we might buy that are headquartered in the UK.

Since the outcome of the Brexit vote is impossible to predict with certainty, portfolio exposure to UK stocks is low and the effect of the vote on stock prices is indeterminate, we are maintaining our current target weights in international stocks.

From a diversification standpoint, investing in international stocks reduces overall portfolio risk since foreign stocks do not move exactly in tandem with US stocks. Sometimes international investing improves portfolio returns and sometimes it does not. In recent years international stocks have underperformed relative to the US, but historically there have also been periods of significant outperformance. While there will be more hype and headlines as the June 23 vote approaches, we remain committed to long-term investing in a globally diversified portfolio.

William S. Hansen, CFA
President
Chief Investment Officer

Bill

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32nd Annual Economic Crystal Ball Seminar

Each year we co-sponsor the Annual Economic Crystal Ball with UNC Asheville.  This is a great opportunity to hear Parsec’s Chief Economist, Dr. James F. Smith, and Nationwide’s VP and Chief Economist, Dr. David W. Berson, discuss the economic and financial outlook through 2017.  To register please email Kimberly Moore at kmoore@unca.edu or call at 828-251-6550.   A copy of the brochure can be found here.

  • Location: Lipinsky Hall Auditorium (Next to Ramsey Library)                                               UNC Asheville Campus
  • Date: Thursday, April 28, 2016
  • Reception: 6:15 p.m.
  • Economic Outlook:  7:00 p.m.
  • Financial Outlook: 7:30 p.m.
  • Q & A: 8:00 p.m.

The Economic Outlook will focus on inflation, employment, interest rates, the strength of the dollar and the housing market. The Financial Outlook will explore the implications of Federal Reserve policy for the financial markets. Various investments will be addressed, with an emphasis on interest rates and the bond market.

About our Speakers

David W. Berson, Ph.D                                                                                                              Dr. Berson is Senior Vice President and Chief Economist at Nationwide Insurance, where his responsibilities involve leading a team of economist that act as internal consultants to the company’s business units.  His numerous professional experiences include Vice President and Chief Economist at Fannie Mae from 1989-2007, past president of the National Association of Business Economists, and senior management position with Wharton Econometrics Forecasting.

James F. Smith, Ph.D.                                                                                                              Dr. Smith is the chief economist at Parsec Financial.  He has more than 30 years of experience as an economic forecaster. Dr. Smith’s career spans private industry, government and academic institutions, and includes tenures with Wharton Econometrics, Union Carbide, the Federal Reserve and the President’s Council of Economic Advisers.

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Downturns, Recoveries and Portfolio Income

The most unpleasant part of investing in stocks is definitely the periodic pullbacks. Unfortunately, these are part of the price we pay for more money in the long run.

When the stock market is going up, everybody feels good about being a long-term investor. It is the downturns that test all of our nerves and our belief in long-term investing. As one pundit put it – we can then see who the long-term “owners” of stocks are as opposed to the shorter-term “renters.”

Currently the S & P 500 is around 1946, down about 8.6% from its peak in May of 2015. The low point of the current correction was on 2/11/16, when the S & P was down about 14% from its peak. As a refresher, a correction is defined as a -10% to -20% retracement from a previous peak, and a bear market refers to a decline of more than -20%. We are currently in the 35TH correction or bear market since 1945, and during this time these have occurred about every 2 years on average. Prior to the current correction we had gone almost 4 years without a 10% pullback, so our memories of this sort of negative volatility had begun to dim.

Considering market declines of between 10% and 20% since the end of World War II, the average percentage decline is -13.8%. The average time to recover back to the previous peak level was 3.6 months from the low point. The correction we are experiencing is currently about average in magnitude, and if it were to follow historical averages we would expect a recovery sometime in early summer. Nobody knows for sure whether things will get worse before they get better, but studying past market conditions gives us some context as to the range of potential outcomes.

What do we do in the meantime? If your asset allocation is 100% stocks, we recommend that you stay with it or, if you have the ability, take this opportunity to add to your portfolio with monthly deposits (such as to your 401k or Roth IRA), periodic bonuses or other savings. If your chosen asset allocation includes fixed income, then we periodically rebalance to your target mix and add money to stocks at temporarily depressed prices.

In our portfolios that contain individual stocks, our recipe is as follows: start by focusing on high quality companies with the potential for rising earnings and dividends. Combine 35-45 such companies into a well-diversified portfolio. Regardless of what happens in the stock market over the next year, your portfolio income should be higher each subsequent year. The management teams of high quality companies with long track records of dividend increases are very reluctant to cut their dividends. Even in a recessionary environment, more companies should increase their dividends than maintain or cut them. There are many well-known companies that have increased their dividends every year for 25, 35, 50 or even 60 consecutive years. You may already own some of these companies, especially if you are a Parsec client.

Total return is comprised of two components: income and price appreciation. Over long time periods, the income component of total return has represented just under half of the overall return of the stock market. However, the variability of the income return has been much lower than that of the appreciation component. By focusing on those companies that we believe are likely to have consistent dividend growth over time, particularly for those of our clients who are retired and spending from their portfolios, we are setting up a condition where there is less uncertainty about a significant component of their overall return. For our clients with large cap mutual funds instead of individual stocks, the same general premise applies.

The equity portion of our client portfolios also includes small-cap, mid-cap and international companies, which we invest in primarily through pooled vehicles such as mutual funds and exchange-traded funds (“ETFs”). The fixed income portion is also well diversified, with a focus on short-to intermediate term, high quality instruments along with some high yield and international bonds for diversification and yield improvement.

We encourage our clients to focus on this concept of rising portfolio income to meet their investment goals and provide peace of mind during the inevitable corrections and bear markets that we will all experience at some point.

William S. Hansen, CFA
President
Chief Investment Officer

Bill

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Remain calm and carry on: why stocks and stress don’t mix

The popular press is generating a lot of recession-related articles lately and with stocks starting the New Year on a weak note, it’s no wonder investors feel a little nervous. Year-to-date, U.S. large cap stocks are down about 10% while most international markets are down even more. Commodities continue to slide and global economic growth has been revised lower. This is certainly not a confidence-inspiring picture, but here’s why keeping calm and carrying on is the best course of action.

First, I want to illustrate why stocks and stress don’t mix. Let’s say that stocks are down 10% year-to-date, the global growth outlook is muddy at best, and you’re seeing a lot of articles suggesting that the US is headed for a recession. Assuming the above facts and a meaningfully-sized investment portfolio, most humans are likely to feel anxiety, stress, and maybe some fear. Is the market going to fall further? Are we heading for a recession?

Having read enough about neuroscience to be dangerous, I know that when we’re feeling anxiety, stress, and fear, the more evolved part of our brain – our neocortex – is usually off-line and the more primitive part of our brain – our limbic system or brain stem (a.k.a. lizard brain) – is typically running the show. When our lizard brain is calling the shots we often make poor, fear-based decisions because we can’t see the big picture. Our brain shuts down and we become reactive instead of proactive. In these instances our capacity to think higher-level thoughts is greatly reduced.

Speaking of the big picture, did you know that from 1926 – 2015, stocks have delivered average annualized returns of 10%? Notice that includes the two largest US market declines, the Great Depression, and the Great Recession. Not bad. When we get triggered by stress, facts like these can get overlooked and we could make decisions we’ll come to regret. Here’s a schematic of how that might look:

graph 1

You can see how our thoughts and emotions affect our behavior which then reinforces the above pattern or one like it. Unfortunately, the outcome stinks and so I’d like to propose an alternative – – one that leads to a much happier, healthier outcome.

In the alternative pattern, the same triggering event happens, only this time you’re aware of the stress and anxiety it triggers. The fact that you’re aware of the stress and anxiety is huge! It means you’re not identifying with the emotions and thus your rational-thinking, neocortex brain is still online. You now have choices. Given the old pattern, one strategy would be to call your advisor and get some reassurance that the sky isn’t falling. Another option is to simply turn off the TV or the computer and take some deep breathes. Maybe take a walk around the block or engage in an activity you enjoy. The point is to interrupt the old pattern. The more you can do this, the more your awareness grows, and in turn, the more options you have.

Following through with this example you can see that giving yourself a break from the triggering event and getting some perspective allows you to stay calm, and thus make better decisions. Just like the first illustration, when repeated, this one will also reinforce itself. And the outcome is much better.

graph 3

So now that you’re hopefully in a calm, peaceful state, we can talk about the current environment. Yes, stocks have gotten off to a shaky start but the US economy remains on stable footing. Jobs growth is strong, oil prices are low, consumer debt is in-check, and wage growth is finally starting to rise. It’s true that US manufacturing is contracting but it only accounts for about 12% of GDP. Meanwhile, US services sectors, which account for 88% of GDP, remain in expansion mode.

Stocks have been spooked by falling commodity prices, slowing growth in China, and fears of deflation. But most leading indicators remain strong and every recession since the 1970’s has been preceded by a spike in oil, not a decline. Finally, and speaking of perspective, there will always be some risk of recession simply because contractions are a natural and a healthy part of any business cycle. Without them we can spiral out-of-control into bubble-like environments. I for one intend to stay calm and carry on. Nothing else seems to help anyway.

Carrie A. Tallman, CFA
Director of Research

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