Bear Market Anniversary Reflections

March 9th marked the 9 year anniversary of the most recent bear market bottom. It passed quietly with no bands playing and no flags flying. For those who endured the decline, it was a stressful experience that tested the mettle of all of us as investors. The market peaked in October 2007, and then the S & P 500 index of large-company US stocks fell 37% in 2008. Stocks continued to fall in early 2009, until the market finally bottomed on March 9th.  Overall, there was about a 57% decline in the S & P 500 from peak to trough, the magnitude of which no one had seen since the Great Depression. Although the length of the decline was in line with the post-World War II average for a bear market at 17 months, it seemed like it would never end. After hitting the bottom on March 9, 2009, the market recovered sharply and closed up 26.5% for the year. It is interesting to note that despite these declines, the calendar years 2007 and 2009 were both positive for stocks. All declines, while distressing at the time, have proven temporary.

2017 marked the 9th positive year in a row for stocks. While we remain optimistic about the economy, we recognize that eventually there will be another negative year or years. There’s just no way to predict exactly when these will occur. Fortunately, all the major declines in modern history have been short-lived, typically lasting 2-3 years. In the past 92 years, 1929-32 was the only consecutive 4 year down period for stocks. 1973-74 was a 2 year decline, and 2000-02 was a 3 year decline.

If you don’t know when the declines are going to come, what can an investor do to maximize their chances of success?

Make sure you have an appropriate asset allocation (mix of stocks, bonds and cash) that suits your individual risk tolerance and spending needs. You should keep enough cash to provide for emergencies (we typically recommend 3-12 months of after-tax living expenses) and enough fixed income to serve a source of spending when stock prices are lower. While bonds are not particularly attractive right now with interest rates likely to rise from here, you will be glad you have them to help weather the periodic declines that historically are short-lived.

-Avoid making dramatic changes to your portfolio based on news headlines or the mood of the day.  The sudden “I’ve got a feeling” moves in to or out of the market, with a large portion of your portfolio are what can really hurt investors.

Focus on portfolio income. Dividend income from the stocks in your portfolio should be higher each year since more companies will increase their dividends than cut them. Many S & P 500 companies have histories of consecutive dividend increases of 25 years or more, with some over 60 years.

Understand how much you are spending, including what is discretionary and what is not.  The household spending level is the hardest question for most people to answer as we are updating their financial plans. If you are a Parsec client, take advantage of our eMoney portal to get a better idea of your spending by linking your credit cards and bank accounts. Access to the eMoney portal is included at no additional cost to Parsec clients.

Once you have a good grasp of your expenses, periodically monitor your spending level in relation to your portfolio income and investment assets, and adjust if needed.

Historically, the stock market has many more up years than down years. The key is having an appropriate asset allocation, not making dramatic changes to your portfolio based on the mood of the day, and periodically rebalancing to your target mix (which forces the discipline to buy low and sell high).

 

Bill Hansen, CFA

President and Chief Investment Officer

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What a Rising Rate Environment Could Mean for Bond Funds

After the yield on the 10-year U.S. Treasury Bond – a widely used economic bell weather – bottomed in July 2016, interest rates have risen substantially through March of this year.  The recent upward pressure on yields has pushed bond prices lower.  Strong economic growth, ongoing interest rate hikes from the Federal Reserve, and recent political developments could mean higher yields ahead.  Given the current environment, we’d like to take a closer look at bonds and bond funds.  We’ll examine how they work, a key risk metric to consider, and how these investments might perform if interest rates continue to rise.

Bonds are a type of fixed income investment given the regular cash flows a bondholder receives.  Similar to your home mortgage but with the roles reversed, investors who own bonds are loaning money to an entity (usually a corporation or a government) in exchange for a variable or fixed interest rate over a specified period of time.  This interest rate is known as the bond coupon and it varies based on the credit worthiness of the entity and the length of the payback period, among other factors.

While a bond’s coupon rate, or its stated yield at issuance, remains fixed for the life of the bond its price or value on the open market will vary based on prevailing interest rates.  When interest rates rise, bond prices fall, and when interest rates fall, bond prices rise.

How sensitive a bond’s price is to a change in interest rates is measured by a term called duration.  Specifically, duration is a measure of interest rate risk.  It indicates how much a bond’s principal value will rise or fall due to a change in interest rates.  Measured in years, a bond or bond fund with a higher duration will be more sensitive to changes in interest rates than a lower duration bond or bond fund.  As a result, a portfolio of bonds with a higher duration will fall more in price as interest rates rise than a portfolio with a lower duration, all else being equal.  Fortunately, bond mutual funds or ETFs report their portfolio duration and investors can use this metric to gauge short-term risk.

I say short-term risk because while a jump in interest rates – as we’ve seen recently – will weigh on a bond fund’s near-term performance, the higher current income that comes as a result of an increase in interest rates will often offset much of the decline in a bond fund’s value over the long-term.  This is one benefit of owning multiple bonds or a fixed income fund versus an individual bond.  Because a portfolio of bonds or a bond fund doesn’t have a single maturity date (instead it contains many bonds with different maturity dates), it can provide more income flexibility.  For example, in a rising rate environment, as some bonds in the portfolio mature, the manager can reinvest proceeds from those securities into new bonds that now have higher yields.  In turn, this pushes the portfolio’s yield up and helps to offset price declines.  In particular, bond funds can offer significant diversification benefits given their exposure to many individual bonds with different durations and credit profiles often for a low fee.

While a bond fund’s duration will indicate how much it declines (or rises) in price when interest rates rise (or fall) over a given period, it also indicates how much of a boost it will get from new, higher yields.  Bond funds with higher durations – which are more sensitive to interest rates – typically offer higher current yields to compensate for their higher risk profiles.  So while bond portfolios with higher durations will experience sharper price declines when interest rates rise, they’re also more likely to benefit from higher current income over the long-term.  At the same time, bond funds with shorter duration – which are less sensitive to interest rate changes – won’t benefit as much from higher current income associated with rising interest rates, but they won’t fall in price as much either.

The point is that bond duration is a useful risk metric.  When a fund has a higher duration it tells us that its price will fall more dramatically when interest rates rise as compared to a lower duration fund, but it should benefit more from higher current income tied to higher yields.  The key, however, is your investment time-horizon.  As an investor, you’ll be able to benefit from the higher current income of a longer duration bond fund only if your time-horizon exceeds the fund’s duration.  When it does, higher income over the long-term should offset near-term price declines.

This dynamic – of higher income offsetting falling bond prices – is related to the nature of bonds and is nicely illustrated by the Bloomberg Barclays U.S. Aggregate Bond Index.  According to Charles Schwab, since 1976 over 90% of this index’s total return has come from income payments rather than price changes.

While most investors should fair well with a bond fund that is aligned with their investment horizon, diversification is another important consideration.  As stocks have historically delivered the strongest long-term returns and have outpaced inflation since the early 1900’s, bond investments are best used when there is a specific income need.  When this is the case, having a mix of shorter and longer-duration bond funds can help an investor take advantage of a changing interest rate environment and mitigate sharp price swings.  In today’s environment, owning bond funds with varying durations – in proportion to one’s income needs, investment time horizons, and risk tolerance – an investor should be better able to take advantage of rising interest rates.  For example, let’s take a client with 20% of his bond holdings in a short duration fund, 20% in an intermediate duration bond fund, and 60% in a long duration bond fund.  If interest rates were to rise sharply, the lower duration fund would see a small if negligible decline in value. In some cases, it may make sense for the investor to sell some of those shorter duration securities and use the proceeds to add to their long duration bond fund, which would now have a higher current yield.

In addition to duration and price sensitivity, Parsec’s Research Committee considers many other factors when constructing a client’s fixed income portfolio.  We also look at where we are in the credit cycle, the underlying quality of each bond asset category, valuation levels, and inflation sensitivity, among others.  Although thorough and well thought out research is critical to meeting your financial goals, staying invested for the long-term is even more important.  When appropriate, doing so with a fixed income portfolio can help you better weather significant price swings and ultimately benefit from current income.

Thank you,

The Parsec Team

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34th Annual Crystal Ball Seminar

We are excited again to co-sponsor the 34th Annual Crystal Ball with the University of North Carolina at Asheville. This has been a long-standing tradition that we look forward to every year.

On May 3, economists David W. Berson and James F. Smith will make forecasts on the business and financial outlook for the coming year and will explore the implications of those predictions on a state, national, and international level.

To learn more about the speakers and the presentation, please visit the crystal ball website:

https://events.unca.edu/event/34th-annual-economic-crystal-ball-seminar

EVENT DETAILS

Speakers:
David W. Berson of Nationwide Insurance
James F. Smith of Parsec Financial

Location:
Lipinsky Hall Auditorium – UNC Asheville campus

Date:
Thursday, May 3, 2018

Agenda:
6:15 PM – Reception with light hors-d’oeuvres & refreshments
7:00 PM – Economic Outlook
7:30 PM – Financial Outlook
8:00 PM – Q&A

Admission is free, however, seating is limited. To register, contact UNC Asheville’s Economics Department at 828.251.6550 or email kmoore@unca.edu.

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What does a Weaker U.S. Dollar Mean for Companies & Consumers?

Earlier this year the U.S. dollar reached a 10-year high compared to the currencies of its major trading partners*.  However, the greenback has declined about 8% year-to-date through July.  In this email we’ll explore what drove the U.S. dollar to record levels, how dollar weakness or strength impacts corporations and consumers, and what may lie ahead for the world’s most widely-held currency.

Many factors affect a currency’s strength or weakness.  Some of these include interest rate levels, inflation, central bank policy, investor sentiment and the health of the economy.  The U.S. dollar is unique in that it is the largest foreign exchange reserve, accounting for over 60% of global reserves.  As a result, other countries’ need for reserves and investors’ fears or confidence also affect how much the dollar appreciates or depreciates.

Following the financial crisis, the U.S. dollar appreciated versus many other currencies due to its perceived safety and ultimately, a quicker U.S. economic recovery compared to its peers.  This happened despite the Federal Reserve’s ultra-accommodative monetary policy in which it pumped trillions of dollars into the economy – an action that might normally depreciate the dollar due to an increased currency supply.  Instead, the Fed’s actions helped lead the U.S. economy out of the financial crisis which helped support corporate earnings and sales growth.  This in turn led to increased foreign demand for U.S. stocks and bonds.  As U.S. dollars are required to purchase our stocks and bonds, growing foreign investment in U.S. securities led to greater demand for the greenback, and subsequent dollar appreciation.

During the last ten years of dollar appreciation, we’ve experienced both positive and negative effects.  On the positive side, a strong dollar makes traveling abroad more affordable for U.S. citizens and effectively lowers the prices consumers pay for imports.  As consumers account for roughly two-thirds of U.S. GDP growth, the savings gained on lower-cost imports due to a strong dollar can lead to significant gains in disposable income, all else being equal.

On the downside, a strong dollar may hinder tourism in the U.S. and could result in weakened demand for U.S. exports as those goods become relatively more expensive for foreigners.  Another drawback is negative foreign currency translation for U.S. multinational companies.  U.S.-based firms that earn revenues abroad will have to exchange foreign currencies back to U.S. dollars at a less favorable rate.  This acts as a headwind to sales and earnings growth, and contributed to the recent “earnings recession” we saw among companies in the S&P 500 Index in 2015 and 2016.

In contrast, recent U.S. dollar weakness has started to help boost corporate earnings growth and could be a support for stocks going forward.  While it’s impossible to know if the dollar’s strength will continue to moderate, a few factors suggest it might.  One is an improving global economic outlook relative to the U.S.  The U.S. economy was a bright spot in the early years following the last recession, but emerging market economic growth is gaining ground and European GDP growth recently outpaced U.S. GDP growth.  Another factor is that the Federal Reserve has shifted to a less accommodative monetary policy stance.  Ordinarily this would support further U.S. dollar appreciation (via a reduced supply of dollars and higher interest rates attracting foreign investors); however, investor concerns that restrictive monetary policy could slow down the current economic expansion are outweighing the shift in the Fed’s policy stance.

Considering the above factors and given several years of strong gains, recent U.S. dollar weakness could continue.  While there are pros and cons to a depreciating dollar, we would welcome the shift as this would help reduce import costs for consumers and businesses, while supporting sales and earnings growth for U.S. multi-national corporations.

*Powershares DB US Dollar Index Bullish Fund (UUP) – compares US dollar to euro, yen, pound, loonie, Swedish krona and Swiss franc

The Parsec Team

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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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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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