Why not Short the Market?

A “short sale” refers to selling stock that you do not own with the hope of repurchasing it at a lower price later. It is a way for an investor to try and profit from their view that a particular investment is overvalued and likely to fall in price. This technique can be used on individual stocks, or on Exchange Traded Funds (“ETFs”) that represent anything from individual sectors to the overall market. While there are many successful investors who have done well on the short side, for most people this strategy doesn’t make a lot of sense due to the risks involved.

The mechanics of a short sale are as follows: An investor goes to their broker, borrows shares of a stock and sells them. The short sale proceeds are credited to the short seller’s account, less a fee for borrowing the stock. You must have a margin account in order to short stock. If the price of the shorted stock rises, the short seller will need eventually to borrow on margin to keep the position open.

The short seller receives interest on the short sale proceeds, although this is minimal currently since interest rates are low. In practice, this interest is often split with the buyer of the shares or the brokerage firm that is facilitating the short sale. The short seller must pay any dividends on the borrowed stock to the purchaser of the shares.

Risks of Short Selling:

Swimming Against the Tide –Since 1926, about 7 out of 10 years have been positive for the overall market. If you are short the overall market, chances are you will be in a losing position after a year.

Timing is Critical—Stocks can move quickly in either direction, and it is difficult to predict the future. If the event that you are betting on fails to materialize, or if the opposite happens, your losses can mount quickly. For this reason, short selling is more common among professional and institutional investors.

It can be Expensive to Maintain a Short Position— With today’s low interest rates, the combination of the borrowing cost and the dividends the short must pay to the long far outweighs the interest on the short sale proceeds that the seller is earning. For example, say you short 100 shares on Johnson and Johnson at $108 because you think Band-Aid sales are going to decline sharply. You receive proceeds of $10,800 and earn money market interest at 0.01%, or $10.80 per year. Your annual cost to carry the position is the 2.8% dividend, or $302.40 plus any borrowing costs charged by your broker. These additional costs can be quite high for stocks that are hard to borrow.

Limited Profits but Potentially Unlimited Losses–At most, any stock can go down 100% in value. However, there is no limit to how far a stock or the overall market can go up. If it goes up by enough to wipe out the equity in your margin account, the brokerage firm will buy-in the security at a loss and close the trade. Say you short a stock at $8/share. The most you can make is $8 if the company goes out of business and you are able to buy back the borrowed shares at $0. But what if good news comes out and the stock goes from $8 to $18? You just lost $10/share when your maximum theoretical profit was $8. In reality, few companies go out of business so your maximum profit is even more limited.

We believe that, rather than trying to profit on short-term price movements, our clients should place the equity portion of their investments in a diversified portfolio of quality companies with the potential for rising earnings and rising dividend income.

Bill Hansen, CFA

Managing Partner



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The Rational Investor… or Not?

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


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

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

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

Sarah DerGarabedian, CFA
Portfolio Manager



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Interest Rates and How They Impact You

This is the fifth post in a series of six blog entries focused on topics that might be of interest to the Millennial generation.

Today I’m going to touch on the exciting topic of interest rates. Okay, let’s be honest, most of us consider the subject boring and highly technical at best, and pure financial torture at worst. But hear me out. I’d like to explain why interest rates are in fact pretty fascinating, surprisingly straightforward, and worth learning about. The truth is that interest rates can have a massive impact on your current and future financial situation.

So what are interest rates? And how do they affect your financial well-being? If you think about it, everything in our modern society has a cost. You pay for a good meal at a nice restaurant, there’s a charge for staying at a hotel, and an education certainly isn’t free. The same holds true for money. It has a cost and that cost is interest rates. In order to get your hands on some money, say for a car loan, a mortgage, even groceries, you pay for that money in the form of an interest rate. When you have a good credit history, i.e. you consistently pay back other people’s money in a timely manner, you’re considered a good credit risk and it becomes cheaper for you to borrow money in the future. In other words, the interest rate you’ll get charged on loans will be lower than the average person. This is a good thing for your financial well-being. On the flip side, if you are even occasionally late on a credit card, car loan, or any other debt payment, you become a less desirable credit risk and the rate at which you’re charged to borrow money in the future goes up. In other words, the interest rate on the next loan you take out will be higher and you’ll pay out more money over the course of the loan, all else being equal.

You may have heard about the compounding power of interest and how it can help you significantly grow your wealth. This is a very true financial tenant when it comes to investing your money. However, this same principle also works against you when you step into the role of a borrower. As an example, consider that the median price of a home in 2013 was about $200,000. Now assume you take out a 30-year fixed mortgage to purchase a home. You’ve worked hard and have 10% in cash to put down. This leaves you with a $180,000 mortgage. Going interest rates for borrowers with good credit are around 4.25%. Even though these are still historically low rates, at 4.25% you can expect to pay approximately $138,960 in interest alone over the life of the loan! That’s in addition to the $200,000 cost of the house. Now let’s pretend that your credit is a little below average, making you a slightly higher-risk in the eyes of a bank. You’re still able to secure a loan, but the bank wants to charge you a 5.00% interest rate in order to compensate for the risk they take on by lending to you. At a 5.00% rate, you can expect to pay $167,760 in interest over the course of the loan, or almost $30,000 more than you would pay with a better credit score. That is some serious money.

On top of the impact interest rates have on our personal investments and debt payments they also affect our spending and saving behavior. Imagine that your bank was offering a savings account with a 10% interest rate. All else being equal, would you be more or less inclined to save? That’s right. Most people would choose to direct more of their personal income towards savings when interest rates are higher. If millions of people were forgoing spending in favor of savings, this would have a significant effect on the overall economy. Interest rates matter. What about high interest rates when you’re the borrower? As we saw above, even a small increase in an interest rate can lead to much larger debt payments. Generally speaking then, higher interest rates tend to depress credit growth and in the end can muddle economic activity as consumers take out fewer loans.

As you can see, interest rates can have a very direct and often significant effect on our personal financial situation, not to mention our saving and spending patterns, and the broader economy. Although we’ve only skimmed the surface, suffice it to say that interest rates are worth understanding, if for no other reason than to help you make smarter decisions with your money.

Carrie Tallman, CFA
Director of Research


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Renting vs. Buying

This is the fourth post in a series of six blog entries focused on topics that might be of interest to the Millennial generation.

In my experience, one of the largest financial decisions clients struggle with is the decision to rent or purchase their residence. There is not necessarily a right or wrong answer, and every individual’s situation is different. However, there are some scenarios that may help guide you in making the right choice.

Let’s start with buying. Here are five factors that may make it more beneficial to purchase:

  1. You like the idea of “forced savings” – as you pay your mortgage your balance owed is reduced. Building this equity in your home will create a form of savings for you. Since the value of the home is locked in, you can’t squander it away on dining out or shopping. You realize the savings once you decide to sell it.
  2. You think the tax incentives are attractive – when you file your taxes, you will be able to deduct mortgage interest. Property taxes will also add a nice deduction. If you do any energy-efficient improvements, you could be eligible to deduct those expenses. Another bonus is that depending on your situation, any capital gain from the future sale of your home is free from federal income tax.
  3. You want stable payments– typically your mortgage payment will never change, while rent is more susceptible to rise with inflation. Purchasing may be right for you if you are looking for a stable cost of living.
  4. You dislike the restraints placed by your landlord – often when renting you must get everything approved. If you want to paint, rip up the carpet and put down hardwoods, take out a wall or have a dog, then owning probably makes more sense. Home ownership allows you to customize a space and really have a place that you can call home.
  5. You value a second-income stream – by owning a home, there is potential to create additional income by renting part of it out. If you have an extra bedroom, finished basement, or a garage for storage, it’s possible to rent to friends, family or others to help cover your mortgage payment.
  6. Bonus – quite possibly the biggest bonus of all is you will be debt free in retirement with no mortgage payment. You will always have the expense of a rent payment if you continue renting.

But guess what… buying may not be right for everyone. It’s important to remember that there is more to owning a home than just a mortgage payment. Between maintenance, fees, and taxes, the costs can add up. And other factors may contribute to make it an unwise choice for some people to purchase. Here are five factors that may make it more beneficial to continue renting:

  1. You plan on moving – home ownership is not a short-term investment. If you think that you may be moving for any reason within the next 3-5 years, it’s wise to continue to rent. Once you are settled, revisit the topic!
  2. You don’t have good job stability – of course you can never be 100% certain if your job is stable, but the possibility of your income going down could greatly impact the type of home you can afford. If you expect to quit your job, or anticipate being let go, hold off on a home purchase until there is a bit more certainty about the future.
  3. You just aren’t that handy around the house – as a renter, you don’t have to worry about maintenance issues. If the pipes burst (something that the author can relate to), then the landlord is responsible for repairs. For a homeowner, it’s 100% on you. It’s up to the owner to paint, shovel the drive when it snows, and fix the garbage disposal when it’s broken. If you aren’t ready for the hassle or expense involved with being the fixer-upper, then perhaps home ownership just isn’t for you.
  4. You have a low credit score – having a solid credit score is vital in purchasing a home. While it may not prevent you from getting a mortgage, it could drastically affect the interest rate that you receive. If you have a score below 700 it would probably be best for you to rent while paying off debt and building up your credit.
  5. You don’t have money for a down payment – if you don’t have any cash squirreled away for a down payment, it may not be the time to purchase. If you don’t have a 20% down payment you will have to pay PMI (private mortgage insurance) which will increase cost of monthly payment. Use this time to save and budget before taking the plunge.

These are some of the basic pros and cons of renting vs. buying. Since every situation is different, it’s always best to speak with a financial advisor about the circumstances surrounding your own decision matrix.

With correct planning and consideration, we’re sure that you will come to the best decision for you!

Ashley Woodring, CFP® Financial Advisor


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Student Loans vs. Saving

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


You’ve recently graduated from college and you have a load of student debt. It can be overwhelming. You think it will take forever to pay it off. To make matters worse, you know you are supposed to be saving for retirement but you feel like you can’t because you need to pay off your student loans first.

To make the best financial decision it is important to remove the psychological barriers that often accompany the ‘saving versus paying down debt’ trade-off. The millennial generation is particularly opposed to debt – more so than older generations, so they tend to pay their student loans off before they start saving. Unfortunately, this could be the wrong choice.

The long run average of large company stocks is 11.3% (1950-2013). If your student loans are at an 8% interest rate, you would be better off investing money over and above your minimum loan payment if you have the risk tolerance for investing the money in equities.

Maybe an 11.3% return sounds unrealistic. It’s common for this historical return to seem disconnected from the present. A common psychological condition causes us to take recent past experiences and extrapolate them into the future, creating a false sense of predictive ability on what the future holds. If the good times are rolling, they will always roll. If we are in crisis, we will be in crisis for the foreseeable future. But the truth is that things change. Our economy is cyclical in nature and that’s why we use long-term historical observations to make long-term decisions.

Even with the worst recession since the Great Depression the average return of large company stocks in the 10-year period from 2004 -2013 was 7.4%. And while that’s not huge, you may be willing to take the chance that we won’t soon see a repeat of the worst stock market period in history. Those loans will get paid off eventually and you’ll have more money in retirement simply by saving more and saving earlier.

Don’t forget about your employer match on your 401k. If you have a 401k match, by all means take it! Even if your student loan interest rate is 12%, you’d be better off (after paying the minimum) putting enough money into your 401k to get the free money. That’s a 100% return, guaranteed.

Harli Palme, CFA, CFP®


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Gen Y, Say Yes to Stocks!

It started with anecdotal evidence: a conversation with a co-worker about a group of professionals he spoke to about their 401k. The wiser (by which I mean older) folks were asking about the outlook for the economy and how they could maximize their 401k contributions. But the young man in the group, who was in his early 30s, expressed complete contempt for the stock market.  All of his money, he said, was in cash. Then a client of mine who is nearing retirement called me just to tell me about a dinner he went to where the topic of investing came up.  He was shocked at how vehement the young people at the table were about not investing in stocks due to their risk.

Since then I’ve read about a growing body of evidence coming from surveys and other research that suggests that the younger generations are too conservative in their investments. Gen Y is saving but not investing aggressively enough. The problem is that they distrust financial institutions (we don’t count) and believe another financial meltdown is all but imminent.

Gen Y, we don’t blame you. You were in your teens on Sept. 11, 2001, which had to have rocked whatever concept of stability you had. By the time you were old enough to know what the stock market was, the technology-driven crash of 2001-2002 was causing strife in budding 401k plans. And just when you were starting to dream about home ownership the housing market was spiraling out of control in 2008-2010. Many of you watched your parents go through extreme financial duress during this time period, something you were well old enough to understand.

It’s no wonder that Generation Y is too conservative. Your generation doesn’t have the benefit of personally experiencing the roaring 80s and 90s to boost your confidence about the markets. You don’t know who Crockett and Tubbs are. Looking at historical stock returns on paper just isn’t the same as living through it. And it’s hard to understand why men ever wore over-sized shoulder pads, but they did. Even the last five (amazing) years of positive stock markets seems like mere payback for the horror of 2008-2009. Despite this, we have to remember that stocks have historically provided the highest long-term return. No matter what your steadfast beliefs are about the future of the economy, it probably carries no more predictive capacity than the next differing opinion. That’s why we look to history as a guide, rather than trying to guess the future.

When you look at stock volatility over long time frames, it isn’t nearly as risky as the day-to-day movement would have you believe. In the last 87 years large company stocks’ annual returns ranged from -43% in the worst year to +54% in the best. That’s quite a spread! But those same stocks in any given 20 year period (starting on any given day in any year) averaged returns in a range of +3% in the worst 20-year period to nearly +18% in the best 20-year period. That includes the Great Depression and the market crashes of this century. That’s a lot easier to swallow. You have a long time before liquidating your accounts for retirement – probably more than 30 years, so you should be taking a longer term view.

And let’s not forget about inflation. That cash that’s in your 401k is doing less than nothing for you. Long run inflation is around 3%. If you are getting a 0% return on your cash, that is actually -3% in real dollars, guaranteed.

Saving money isn’t good enough. Millennials need to invest with a little more oomph. Yes, diligently putting away $500 a month for 30 years is hard work and no one wants to see their money shrink. But consider this: if you get a modest 4% average return on those savings, you will have $347,000 in retirement; if you double that return to 8% an amazing thing happens: $745,000. Taking risk means a lot of ups and downs along the way, but potentially twice the money in the end. If you can go cliff-jumping with your friends, you can buy stocks, right? (No? Was that just my friends?)

There is no reward without risk, to be sure. Any investment plan should be done with the full comprehension of the volatility, range of outcomes and potential for return. There certainly is risk in losing money in the stock market over short and intermediate time periods. However, those losses only become permanent if you sell out during periods of decline. It seems all but certain that an all-cash/fixed income portfolio is doomed to growth too slow to possibly reach any long-term financial goals.


Harli L. Palme, CFA, CFP®

A Gen-exer who believes all of the above applies to her generation too, except the part about over-sized shoulder pads.

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Paralysis from Analysis

This month, I celebrate my 500th year at Parsec.  OK – it is really 22 years, but sometimes it feels like 500 years.

During that time, I have been involved in a lot of highly technical projects.  With one project in particular, I was really stressed out about the details.  I analyzed every piece of data so much that I made little progress.  Bill Hansen, one of our Managing Partners, said I suffered from “paralysis from analysis.”  After some reflection, I realized he was right.  At some point, I had to let go and realize nothing would ever be perfect.

In my lengthy career here, I have seen the effect of “paralysis from analysis.”  Some investors may be reluctant to act based upon the endless stream of information available now.  One can flip on the TV at any hour and hear the opinions of investment commentators.  Peruse the Internet, and one can find a vast amount of data about the stock market and the economy.  With so much information and contradictory opinions, it is easy to sit on the sidelines and do nothing.

In some cases, inaction can be as devastating as making the wrong choice.  Consider this scenario.  On March 9, 2009, the S&P 500 hit bottom.  A lot of people panicked and sold all holdings, leaving the proceeds in cash.  Five years later, the index was up 205.84 percent or 22.6 percent annualized (total return).

At the bottom point, there were probably a few people on TV who claimed the end was near.  One could probably find endless charts and articles foretelling great doom to come.  If an investor was paralyzed by this data overload, sat on the sidelines, and did not invest during that five-year period, he or she could have missed an opportunity to recover from deep losses.

What should a person do?  For starters, it helps to leave emotion out of the decision as much as possible.  Then, develop an investment plan that will not lead to sleepless nights.  The real test will come when the market has wild swings – either up or down.  One must commit to the plan and not deviate based upon the mood of the moment.  It is fine to alter the plan if goals or needs have changed, of course.

We at Parsec try to help our clients develop these plans and weather the inevitable market fluctuations.  Communication is a key factor in success.  We encourage our clients to tell us their goals, their changing life situations, or anything that is relevant to staying on target.

So, let’s switch off the talk shows, put down the business magazine, and take a nice walk.  Let’s try to enjoy life instead of obsess over every little detail.

Cristy Freeman, AAMS®
Senior Operations Associate

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Portfolio Construction: The Way We See It – Part 1

In this ever changing world we live in, there are “advisors” everywhere. Flip on the TV, pull up a news app on your mobile device, or even the national paper. I came across a gem a few weeks ago from the NY Times archives.

SUNDAY, June 5, 1994; Picking Stocks by the Stars

Published: June 5, 1994

For those who missed the recent conference on “Astrology and the Stock Market” in Manhattan (about 40 people attended), here are some tips from several of the hot sessions:

The Art of Timing: Combining Astrological Indicators — Graham Bates, London financial astrologer. “I’m worried and confused about the eclipses in November. I don’t know what they’re going to do, but I know they’ll be important.”

Stocks, Planets and Solar Cycles — Richard Mogey, executive director of the Foundation for the Study of Cycles. “There’s a 23 percent gain the fifth year of every decade because of the Jupiter-Saturn cycle. I’d expect the same in 1995.”

The Cosmic ‘Inner Winner!’ — Paul Farrell, author of “Think Astrology and Grow Rich.” “When Uranus and Neptune go into Aquarius, I look toward information and technology.”

Beyond Cycles: Using Interpretive Astrology to Identify Key Turning Points in Markets — Charles Harvey, president of the Astrological Association of Great Britain. “When there is a new moon in the eighth house, Placidus system, in New York, there is always a major change in interest rates. That happens July 8.”

Want something more specific? Henry Weingarten, who heads the Astrologers Fund (the conference sponsor), predicts, “Novell will be at 30 next May.” But, “If it hits 35 before then, I’m out.”

There will always be very smart individuals that develop complex theories of why and how the markets work. This is part of human nature and our innate desire to understand how our world works. This is why we have departments in government and universities dedicated to studying human behavior. Our investment approach at Parsec is incredibly simple. We accept that markets behave irrationally in the short term. We feel that it would be a breach of our fiduciary duty to attempt to predict short term market movements.

Fiduciary duty is extremely important to us. This duty is a very old idea, which was defined here in America with Harvard College v. Amory in 1830. The decision of this case scolded the trustees and instructed them of their duty to manage the trust as they would manage their own affairs. This is known as the “Prudent Person Rule.” Here at Parsec, when evaluating an investment, we ask ourselves first is this in the best interest of our client and secondly would we invest in this particular security.

Be on the lookout for further posts on this topic.

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How much is that Doggie in the Window?

According to a recent announcement from the American Pet Products Association, Americans spent $55.7 billion last year on their pets. That’s billion, not million. An article at Time.com (http://time.com/#23451/pets-dogs-cats-spending-americans/) cleverly noted that the figure is $10 billion more than Germany spends on its defense budget.

I admit I am one of these people. My little rescue dog hit the lottery when she came to live with me. She has seven dog beds, if you include her car seat (yes, car seat). She owns more jackets than I do, although they are all for function, not fashion. She has multiple, color-coordinated harnesses, collars, and leashes so that she need never feel ashamed about how she looks. When we go on vacation, she has as much luggage as I do. Yes, she is spoiled rotten.

I am not alone. Bill Geist of the “CBS Sunday Morning” program tells a hilarious story about his “free” rescue dog: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/even-cat-people-fall-in-puppy-love/.  Sometimes, the unexpected costs can really add up.

In our industry, I see a number of fees that some people pay for investments: high commission rates for certain products, either on the front or back end of the transaction; frequent, unnecessary trade costs from a practice called “churning;” and expensive investment counsel fees. Before long, that simple purchase of 100 shares of ABC Widget Works has cost a fortune in added fees.

When you are evaluating an investment advisor, consider how the person earns his or her money. Does he receive a commission for his or her investment recommendations? Is he or she directly affiliated with a broker? Does he or she charge an additional investment counsel fee? While he or she may promise a great gross return on investment, the net return after all of those fees may be no better than what you would find with a simple savings account.

At Parsec, we do not receive commissions for any of the investment products we recommend – no commission from the trade, no commission for recommending a certain security, nothing. In addition, when we recommend mutual funds, we look for funds that do not carry significant internal fees.

We are not beholden to a particular broker. We have four brokers who we like to recommend, based upon client needs.

We do charge an investment counsel fee that we think is reasonable to industry standards. When you sign a service agreement, you see upfront what your fee schedule will be. On a quarterly basis, you receive a reports package that includes information about net-of-fee investment performance, current holdings, et cetera. We are also here to help with planning – everything from college savings to retirement to estate. We like to think service goes beyond placing a trade. Our clients pay us to act as a partner in planning their future.

Everything in life – from owning a home to adopting a rescue dog – has the potential for unexpected costs. How you invest your money, though, should be a little more straightforward. With a little research in advance, you can evaluate whether or not fees charged for service are reasonable and affordable.

Now, if you will excuse me, I need to order organic food for my doggie. And maybe I will pick up a bottle of shampoo. She told me she is tired of smelling like a bowl of oatmeal.

Cristy Freeman, AAMS
Senior Operations Associate

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Happy 5th Anniversary, Bull Market!

That’s right, it’s the Wood Anniversary for the market, which hit bottom on March 9, 2009. Since then, it has come roaring back – the S&P 500 is up 174% for the 5-year period (that’s price change only, not total return). Not too shabby.

The WSJ has a nice article here showing the anniversary in five charts. According to one of the charts, this rally is the second-best since WWII (beaten only by the S&P’s 228% gain from 10/82 through 10/87). The article’s author thinks there is still room to go in the market recovery, saying that investors’ confidence in the rally will continue to fuel stock market inflows.

No one knows what the future will bring where the market is concerned, but the present is a far cry from five years ago. Happy Friday, happy bull market anniversary, and here’s to five more years!

Sarah DerGarabedian, CFA
Portfolio Manager

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