(Tax loss) Harvest Season is Almost Here!

The kids are back in school, the leaves are changing colors, and pumpkin spice lattes – the age-old harbingers of harvest season – are everywhere. At Parsec, we are preparing for the harvest…of tax losses.

Every year, beginning in late October/early November, Parsec’s portfolio managers will scour clients’ taxable accounts for meaningful losses, which we can use to offset realized gains created from trading throughout the year. These tax-efficient trading strategies provide value to clients by minimizing their tax burden while keeping the portfolio aligned with their financial planning goals.

You might see trades from one security into another one that is similar, but not exactly the same – we do this so that you can recognize a loss while maintaining exposure to the same industry or sector, yet avoid incurring a wash sale. According to IRS publication 550, “a wash sale occurs when you sell or trade stock or securities at a loss and within 30 days before or after the sale, you buy substantially identical stock or securities,” either in the same account or in another household account, including IRAs and Roth IRAs. Stocks of different companies in the same industry are not considered “substantially identical,” nor are ETFs that track the same sector but are managed by different companies (like a Vanguard Emerging Markets ETF vs. an iShares Emerging Markets ETF).

Sometimes it makes sense to place a loss-harvesting trade and leave the proceeds in cash for 31 days, then repurchase the same security. We may do this for clients who have cash needs during the holiday season, with the intention of placing rebalancing trades in January when there is no more need for liquidity. When liquidity is not an issue, however, we prefer to keep the funds fully invested in another high-quality name. We may later choose to reverse the trade, once the wash sale period has expired, or we may leave the trade in place if we think it is appropriate and suits the clients’ needs.

Sarah DerGarabedian, CFA
Director of Portfolio Management

 

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Value Stocks May be Poised to Outperform

Since Parsec’s founding in 1980, we’ve touted the benefits of long-only equity investing.  This includes owning individual stocks, mutual funds, and exchange traded funds (ETFs).  We’ve also maintained the same investment style over the last thirty-seven years.  Regarding funds, Parsec’s investment policy committee (IPC) focuses on low fees, higher-quality holdings, and managers with long track records of outperformance.  When researching individual stocks, we take a value approach, favoring higher-quality companies that trade at a discount to history or peers.

While history shows that value stocks have outperformed growth stocks over most market periods, in recent years growth stocks have delivered higher returns.  In this email we’ll discuss what we mean by value versus growth investing and why we believe value stocks are poised to outperform going forward.

Different stock investors define “value investing” differently.  However, most agree on a few basic principles.  In general, value investors prefer stocks that trade at discounts to their intrinsic values.  Often this happens when a stock’s valuation falls below its long-term historical average or that of its peers.  Another tenet of value investing is margin of safety.  This means selecting stocks that can deliver healthy total returns even if current growth assumptions fall short of expectations.  While we consider ourselves value investors, we will add select growth stocks to the Parsec buy list when expectations look reasonable and a company has a competitive advantage.  In other words, when we think a stock has a reasonable margin of safety.

In addition to a value-based stock selection approach, Parsec’s investment philosophy also has a quality bias.  This means we prefer companies with strong cash flows, consistent earnings growth, a long history of dividends, and above average returns on invested capital.  We also favor companies with strong balance sheets that can withstand different market environments and even gain market share during difficult economic periods.

Looking back over the market’s history, value stocks have outperformed growth stocks by an average of 4.4% annually from 1926 to 2016 (Bank of America/Merrill Lynch).  More recently from 1990 to 2015, value stocks outperformed growth stocks by just 0.43% annually.  The spread has since reversed and in the last ten years value stocks have lagged growth stocks by 3% annually through the second quarter of 2017*.

The shift in leadership from value to growth stocks coincided with the start and continuation of the Federal Reserve’s massive monetary accommodation programs known collectively as quantitative easing (QE I, II, and III).  Those programs put additional downward pressure on interest rates.  In the face of low or no yields and the slowest economic expansion after a deep recession in over 120 years, investors demonstrated a preference for growth stocks over value stocks.  They were willing to pay up for companies delivering higher growth in a world where growth had become scarce.  Throughout the last ten years value stocks have occasionally outperformed, but usually in tandem with a steepening Treasury yield curve and thus improving growth expectations.

Because asset prices and interest rates are inversely correlated, very low interest rates over the last decade have led to above-average asset valuation levels.  This has been even more pronounced among growth stocks as investors have been willing to pay a premium to own them in a slow growth environment.  As a result, typically higher-priced growth stocks are even more expensive today.

Sticking to our value- and quality-biased investment approach has admittedly been a headwind in recent years.  However, we believe higher-quality stocks trading at a discount are poised to outperform.  Growth stocks currently trading at premium valuation levels will have further to fall in the event of a market downturn.  As well, low interest rates have prompted corporations to take out record debt levels.  As rates begin to rise, higher-quality companies or those with strong balance sheets and robust cash flows will be better able to service their debt levels, even during an economic downturn.  While maintaining our investment approach through the current environment has been challenging, we feel confident that investing in higher-quality companies trading at discounted valuations will reward clients over the long-term.

*References the Russell 3000 Growth Index and the Russell 3000 Value Index

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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March Update – Trading

Trading is an important, albeit often underappreciated part of investment management.  In this email, we’ll share with you our investment philosophy and how it drives our trading approach.  While Parsec uses both funds and individual securities across client accounts, this blog applies more to those portfolios with individual stock holdings.  In general, we use funds for smaller-sized accounts because of the immediate diversity it provides, at a relatively low cost.  We generally use individual securities for larger client portfolios as these portfolios offer economies of scale that can overcome trading costs.  Over the years, we have fine-tuned our trading approach with an eye towards minimizing costs and maximizing efficiency.

As you’ve heard us say time-and-again, Parsec does not engage in market timing.  Instead of trying to determine when one asset class will underperform and another outperform, we select our securities using a bottom-up fundamental research approach.   Using individual equities as an example, this means that we first screen any new stock ideas for attractive financial characteristics and then perform additional due diligence to determine its total return potential over the next several years.  Once a stock is added to a Parsec portfolio, we monitor the company regularly for changes in its competitive environment, its growth drivers, and valuation levels.  However, we do all of this in light of our long-term thesis on the stock, as opposed to the market’s near-term noise.

Taking a long-term investment approach in which we focus on a security’s total return potential often allows us to buy and hold securities for many years.  This keeps our portfolio turnover – a measure of how frequently assets are bought and sold – low, and in turn keeps our trading costs low.  When we do trade we use block trades whenever possible.  By aggregating all of our trades into one large transaction we can better assure that clients receive the same price when a given security is bought or sold.

In addition, our focus on a security’s long-term potential largely circumvents the need for specialized trade orders.  Typically short-term traders, and not long-term investors, utilize limit orders, stop orders, or other types of non-market orders.  These specialized trades often come with additional costs, including higher transaction fees for retail investors and various opportunity costs.

One such opportunity cost can arise when setting short-term price targets.  For example, using a limit order to purchase a security requires an investor to set a price target.  However, without thoroughly researching a security using fundamental analysis, price targets are often based on “a gut feel” or are knee-jerk reactions to an investor’s past experience with an asset.  In effect, unconscious emotions can drive the trading decision and lead to even higher costs.  These can come in the form of missed opportunities, as when a stock declines but doesn’t quite reach an investor’s price target to buy.  In this case if the stock then continues higher an investor may have missed-out on significant upside potential.

Another opportunity cost is possible when a security pays a dividend, but because an investor was waiting for a slightly lower price before buying, he or she inadvertently forfeited the added income.  In some cases the dividend payout might have amounted to more than the savings associated with buying at a lower price.

While there are many types of trades, and some that do add value, in general we’ve found that specialized trade orders often come with more costs than benefits.  This is why Parsec identifies assets using fundamental research and takes the long-term view on a security’s total return potential.  Doing so inherently reduces security turnover in a portfolio and thus trading costs.  It also avoids incurring hidden opportunity costs and, we believe, increases the likelihood of reaching your longer-term financial goals.

Thank you,

The Parsec Team

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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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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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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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