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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The Benefits of Focusing on Your Long-Term Financial Goals

As your advisor, our main focus is helping you reach your long-term financial goals.  We say this a lot, but it bears repeating.  It’s worth revisiting because near-term portfolio returns and market noise can distract even the best investor from remembering why he or she invests in the first place.  For most of us, investing is about creating the life we want, giving back to family, friends, and community, and leaving a legacy.  At Parsec, our job is to lead you through difficult market periods, including times when your portfolio may lag the major market indexes.  Every portfolio will experience underperformance from time-to-time.  However, getting caught-up in weak near-term performance can actually hinder progress towards your long-term goals.

This happens when we lose sight of the big picture.  Asset class leadership naturally ebbs and flows over the course of any economic cycle, and so too will portfolio returns.  Financial behavioral scientists suggest that if we’re caught-up in near-term underperformance we’re more likely to act reactively instead of proactively.  Reacting to current portfolio performance increases the odds that we sell low, buy high, trade excessively, or even sit-out the next market run.  In other words, focusing on near-term market moves increases the odds that we hinder our long-term performance results.

In contrast, measuring your progress versus your long-term goals is more likely to increase proactive behaviors and thus improve the odds of realizing your objectives.  For example, framing portfolio returns in the context of your retirement savings target several years from now is more apt to help you keep calm during periods of market turbulence.  “Keeping your eye on the prize”, as they say, can cultivate resiliency and has the added benefit of lowering your anxiety levels.  When you’re less stressed, you’re more likely to engage in proactive behaviors like maintaining an appropriate asset allocation mix, rebalancing back to your target regularly, and staying invested during market downturns.

While we acknowledge that portfolio declines or underperformance is never fun, it’s important to recognize that difficult performance periods are par for the course.  Over time some assets and sectors will outperform while others will lag.  Rather than trying to time the market or catch the latest trend – which is extremely difficult to do – sticking with a diversified asset allocation and rebalancing regularly is a tried-and-true method for achieving your financial goals.

With that in mind, our job is to help you stay focused on the big picture.  Doing so lowers the odds of engaging in detrimental behaviors and increases your chances of success.  When you succeed, we succeed!

Thank you,

The Parsec Team

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What is Smart Beta?

You’ve undoubtedly heard this term, used to describe a certain type of investment that is becoming increasingly popular. What does it mean? And if these investments are “smart,” does that mean that the others are “dumb?”

So-called “smart beta” investing is a bit of an active/passive hybrid methodology. Traditional passive investments are typically replicas of well-known market capitalization-weighted indices, like the S&P 500. A market cap-weighted ETF holds each company in the index according to its size in the index, which can be calculated by multiplying a company’s outstanding shares by the current market price of one share. While this provides broad market diversification at a very low cost, one drawback of this approach is that the companies whose stock prices are rising become relatively larger while companies whose stock prices are falling become relatively smaller. If markets are less than perfectly efficient and stock prices are anything other than fairly valued, cap-weighted indices will tend to favor overvalued companies.

“Smart beta” strategies use different weighting schemes to construct a portfolio, involving metrics such as dividends or low volatility, or even equal-weighting, all of which sever the link between price and weight and tend to provide a value tilt to the portfolio. The reason for this is that, when rebalancing the portfolio, these strategies result in buying low and selling high. Portfolios based on market cap-weighted indices will often do the opposite when rebalancing, buying more shares of the companies whose stock prices are going up, and vice-versa. According to Research Affiliates, LLC, “smart beta” strategies must also encompass the best attributes of passive investing, such as transparency, rules-based methodology, low costs, liquidity, and diversification.

Does this mean that “smart beta” is a panacea that will bridge the gap between active and passive investing? Many of these strategies have back-tested well and have become increasingly popular, resulting in large inflows of capital. Rob Arnott, one of the pioneers of smart beta at Research Affiliates, has written about rising valuations in smart beta investments as a result of their soaring popularity (“How Can “Smart Beta” Go Horribly Wrong?”). He cautions against “being duped by historical returns” and advises investors to adjust their expectations for future returns to account for mean reversion. He and his co-authors think there is a possibility of a smart beta bubble in the works, due to the rising popularity of such strategies.

And what about traditional passive investments? Is there still room for these vehicles in an investor’s portfolio? Absolutely, particularly in the more efficient sectors of the broad market.  Even Arnott believes “there is nothing “dumb” about cap-weighted indexing.” At Parsec, we stay abreast of current investment trends, but use a measured approach to portfolio construction that is research-based and backed by sound financial theory. We don’t believe any one investment is particularly “smart” or “dumb,” but rather that there is room for different types of investments within the context of a well-diversified, well-constructed portfolio.

Sarah DerGarabedian, CFA
Director of Portfolio Management

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The Year of The Fiduciary Rule

For about a year now, the industry has witnessed much conjecture and debate about the proposed Department of Labor’s Conflict of Interest rule, also known as the “Fiduciary Rule.”  The rule attempts to broadly categorize anyone offering investment advice to retirement plans or IRAs as a fiduciary.  It is in the final stages of review with the Office of Management and Budget and is expected to pass.

The mechanics of how this works are seemingly straightforward.  An advisor recommending a rollover of retirement assets into an IRA or similar account would be considered a fiduciary.  That matters because a fiduciary cannot make a recommendation that would cause his or her income to increase.  The rule indicates a five-prong test to determine if a person is advising retirement assets.  If any of the following apply, you are now considered a fiduciary:

  1. If you advise on the purchase or sale of securities or property in a retirement account;
  2. advise taking a distribution from a plan or IRA;
  3. manage securities or property including rollovers from a plan or IRA
  4. appraise or offer a fairness opinion of the value of securities or property if connected with a specific transaction by a plan or IRA; or
  5. recommend a person who is going to provide investment advice for a fee or other compensation.

Retirement plan sponsors should take note because if you read the rules correctly, it suggests anyone (including laymen) offering advice to a plan participant or an owner of an IRA would likely be considered a fiduciary and could be held personally liable for their recommendations or advice.

Registered Investment Advisors may not see a significant change in business practice.  We are already considered fiduciaries.  However, broker/dealers (B/D) may not have it as easy.  B/Ds are generally not considered fiduciaries to retirement plans or IRA assets, they are instead held to a less stringent “suitability” standard.  In the light of the proposed rule, one of the chief issues B/Ds face is how to handle variable income and commissions.  Changing their business model to accept level income would likely be an onerous undertaking.  There is an unattractive alternative.  Under the DOL’s Best Interest Contract (BIC) exemption, the broker/dealer may be exempt from the fiduciary rules if certain requirements are met.  These include:

  • obtaining a written contract prior to the offering of any advice,
  • supplying the prospect information and costs for every investment they could own,
  • providing performance information on each investment,
  • fully disclosing compensation arrangements and
  • maintainging this information for a period of six years.

In addition to this, the aforementioned information must be maintained a public website. Consider the amount of work and man-hours it would take to become compliant with the BIC exemption.  Because of this, it is expected that smaller B/D’s will exit the industry or merge with larger providers.

One of the controversial rules surrounds the “seller’s carve out” and its impact on small business retirement plans (plans with either less than $100 million in assets or 100 participants).  Under the rule as proposed, the advisor is not considered a fiduciary to the investments of these small business plans.  I question why every plan, irrespective of size, wouldn’t be required to have a fiduciary.  After all, under this specific rule, if the DOL is trying to protect consumers, why protect some of them and not all of them?

In closing, we at Parsec have been watching this unfold for months and are eager to see the final form of the rule.  Perhaps an unintended consequence is that many customers and retirement plans may have to reconsider their advisory relationship.  Regardless of the new rule, it is important to always put the best interest of your clients first.  Parsec will be prepared for whatever the DOL comes up with.

Neal

Neal Nolan, CFP®, AIF®
Senior Financial Advisor
Director of ERISA Services

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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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