2017 IRA Contribution Rules

The deadline to make IRA contributions for tax year 2017 is Tuesday, April 17. The maximum contribution is $5,500 per individual ($6,500 if age 50 or over) or 100 percent of earned income, whichever is less.

There are income limits which determine whether you can deduct your Traditional IRA contribution or if you qualify to make a Roth contribution. The following table gives the phase-out range for the most common circumstances. Keep in mind that if neither you nor your spouse participates in a work-sponsored plan, you can deduct IRA contributions regardless of your income.

Do you qualify to deduct your Traditional IRA contribution?
If your income is less than the beginning of the phase-out range, you qualify. If your income is over the phase-out range, you do not. If your income falls inside the range, you partially qualify.

Modified Adjusted Gross Income Phase-Out Range
Tax Filing Status For 2017 Contributions For 2018 Contributions
Single, participates in an employer-sponsored retirement plan: $62,000 – $72,000 $63,000 – $73,000
Married filing jointly, participates in an employer-sponsored retirement plan: $99,000 – $119,000 $101,000 – $121,000
Married filing jointly, your spouse participates in an employer-sponsored retirement plan, but you do not: $186,000 – $196,000 $189,000 – $199,000

Do you qualify to contribute to a Roth IRA?

Modified Adjusted Gross Income Phase-Out Range – Roth
Tax Filing Status For 2017 Contributions For 2018 Contributions
Single: $118,000-$133,000 $120,000-$135,000
Married, filing jointly: $186,000-$196,000 $189,000-$199,000

If your filing status differs from those listed above, please contact your advisor and he or she can help you determine whether you qualify.

Harli Palme, CFA, CFP®

 

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What Do You Need to Know About the Tax Cut and Jobs Act?

Major tax legislation generally only happens around once a decade. The last time we had a major re-write of the tax code was in 2003. Just like that round of legislation, most of the individual provisions in the Tax Cut and Jobs Act of 2017 (TCJA) are not permanent and will roll back in 2025. Legislators have indicated that they want to revisit the permanency of those provisions if fiscal indicators show that the bill is not adding to the deficit. Focusing on individual tax laws, we will look at the most common and impactful changes.

Beginning with income deductions, TCJA will remove personal exemptions from the tax code. In 2017, the value of this deduction was $4,050 per individual claimed on the tax return. This deduction was effectively collapsed into the standard deduction, which is currently $6,350 for a single person and $12,700 for a couple filing jointly. The new standard deduction will be $12,000 for a single person and $24,000 for a couple filing jointly. This creates a higher threshold for those seeking to utilize an itemized deduction. To make matters worse, many of the allowable itemized deductions have been either limited or fully eliminated. One sore spot for those taxpayers living in high tax states is a deduction cap of $10,000 on property taxes and state income Taxes. This limitation is an aggregated cap of these deductions. Miscellaneous itemized deductions have also been eliminated. The most common of which include tax preparation fees, investment management fees, and various unreimbursed employee expenses.

The mortgage interest deduction is also another itemized deduction that has come under scrutiny. The deductible limit of a new mortgage after December 15th, 2017 is $750,000 – a reduction from the current limit of $1 million. In addition to this, home equity interest will no longer be an allowable deduction on the Schedule A and there is no grandfathering of this rule. Charitable giving deductions were maintained, as well as medical expense deductions, with a lower threshold for two years. However, with the reduction of taxes paid deductions, removal of miscellaneous deductions, limitation of mortgage interest, and raising of the standard deduction; it will become more difficult to meet the threshold of itemized deductions going forward. This is especially true for retirees with paid off homes.

Now for some good news – tax rates are headed down. There will still be 7 tax brackets, but the rates are going down by 2-3% in each of the brackets. There are some adjustments to the income limits of each bracket, but the top bracket is reduced by 2% to 37%. Another sigh of relief for many taxpayers is that the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) will no longer affect taxpayers with under $500,000 of income for a single person, and $1,000,000 of income for a couple. In addition to raising the income limit, the exemption was also expanded. Additionally, those with minimum tax credits will be eligible to carry them forward and utilize them in future tax years. The relief on the tax rate and AMT front should help soften the blow of the lost deductions for many.

For those with children or grandchildren, the next two sections are important. With the loss of personal exemptions for dependents, this could have created a tax burden for families with more than two children. However, there was an expansion of the child tax credit, including an increase in the credit from $1,000 to $2,000, and an increase in the income phase out to $200,000 for a single person and $400,000 for a couple. As a result, a family with 4 children and income under $400,000 would receive an $8,000 tax credit. It is also important to note that there is a new tax credit for dependents who are not qualifying children, which could include college age students or even dependent parents or siblings.

The new law makes an important-to-note change to how kiddie taxes are calculated. Currently, unearned income is taxed at either the child’s tax rate, or the parent’s if it is above $2,100. Under TCJA, instead of the additional tax being calculated at the parent’s rate, it will now be calculated at the Estate/Trust tax rate. This is problematic, especially for inherited IRAs with minor beneficiaries because the tax rate hits the top tax bracket of 37% at just $12,500 of income. Fortunately, much of the income being earned by custodial accounts is tax-advantaged qualified dividends and capital gains, which will be taxed at the long-term capital gain rates of 15%, 20%, or 23.8% (where the Medicare Surtax applies). One strategy to reduce future tax rates in custodial accounts is to consider incurring capital gains in 2017 where the capital gain tax rate will be at or below 15% on the parent’s return. This is preferable because the tax brackets for individuals are much larger than the tax brackets for Estates and Trusts. A relatively small amount of income for minors will cause them to be taxed at the highest capital gain rate in 2018 and beyond. 529 plans also received some attention in the new law. The qualified usage of 529 dollars was expanded to include a $10,000 per student per year tax-free distribution for private elementary and secondary schools.

For those looking for additional estate planning options, TCJA has resulted in an expanded estate tax exemption of $11.2 million per person. This results in a maximum exemption of $22.4 million for a married couple utilizing both exemptions. The law continues to have a tandem gift tax exemption, tied to the amount of the estate tax. This means an individual is able to give away up to $11,200,000 without incurring any gift taxes.

There were a few notable new provisions, including a 20% deduction to “pass through” business income (excluding service based businesses like attorneys, medical professionals, and accountants, unless their total income is less than certain income limits), future alimony treatment, the repeal of the moving expense deduction, and changes to the Roth re-characterization rules. Additionally, corporate tax rates have been reduced to 21%, the new inflation measure for tax purposes will be Chained CPI, and the individual insurance purchase mandate has been repealed. These three provisions are permanent and will not rollback after 2025.

There were also a number of provisions floated in either the House or Senate bills along the way that never made it into the final bill. A few of these items are the removal of the student loan deductions, removal of the medical expense deduction, changing to “FIFO” or First in, First Out accounting method for selling stock, and changes to the capital gains exclusion for selling your primary residence.

It may be beneficial to defer income into 2018 as much as possible, and incur deductions in 2017 where possible.   If you have questions about increasing charitable giving prior to the end of the year to take advantage of 2017’s lower standard deduction, reach out to your advisor as soon as possible. Our custodians work on a best effort basis as we near the end of the year. Those utilizing a Qualified Charitable Distribution from IRAs as their sole charitable giving mechanism are not affected by the changes to the standard deduction. With all of these changes, we continue to stay on top of optimal tax planning strategies both for end of year purposes, as well as looking forward into 2018.

Tax Cut and Jobs Act “Cliff Notes” Version

  • Tax Rates:
    • Overall, they are down, with 7 brackets continuing and rates of: 10%, 12%, 22%, 24%, 32%, 35%, 37%
  • Exemptions/Deductions
    • Personal exemptions are going away
    • Standard deduction rising to $12,000 for a single person and $24,000 for a couple
    • State, property, and sales tax deductions are aggregated and capped at $10,000
    • Medical deductions remain, and AGI limitation reduces for next two years
    • 2% miscellaneous itemized deductions are eliminated
    • Mortgage interest deduction is limited to mortgages up to $750,000 and home equity debt is no longer eligible for deduction
  • AMT
    • AMT remains, but with much higher exemptions and income phase-in limits of $500,000 for a single person and $1,000,000 for a couple
  • Child Tax Credit
    • Has been increased from $1,000 to $2,000 per qualifying child and income phase-outs are raised to $200,000 for a single person and $400,000 for couples
  • Kiddie Tax
    • Will now be subject to fiduciary (Trust/Estate) tax rates
    • Includes inherited IRA income
  • 529 Plans
    • Now allow for up to $10,000 per child, per year tax-free distribution for private elementary and secondary education expenses
    • Also now includes up to $10,000 per year tax-free distribution for home school expenses
  • Estate Tax and Gift Tax Exemption
    • Has been increased to $11,200,000 per person with portability of exemption between spouses
  • Business pass-through rules
    • Preferential tax deduction for pass through entities, not in the service industry. However, Engineers and Architects are able to take advantage of this deduction.
    • Of pass through income, 20% is eligible to be taken as a deduction from income
    • For those in service based fields, namely physicians, accountants, attorneys, etc, deduction is still eligible for MFJ taxpayers with less than $315,000 income
  • Proposed Changes that did not make the final bill
    • First in, First out recognition of capital gains for appreciated securities
    • Removal of the student loan deduction
    • Removal of medical expense deduction

 

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Get Ready for Tax Season

Regardless of whether you prepare your own tax return or hire a professional to do it for you, you are still responsible for collecting the information necessary to complete it.  Well-organized records can make the process significantly easier and potentially save money with your CPA who typically charges by the hour.

One way to tackle this chore is to create a checklist of the documents and information needed to complete your return.  As you gather the documents, start to organize them in a file by the following categories and check them off the list.

Prior Year’s Tax Return

Use last year’s tax return as a starting point to create your checklist.  Although you may have new sources of income or different deductible expenses for the current year, this is usually a fairly comprehensive list of needed documents such as Form 1099 or 1098.  It will also serve as a reminder of information you may need to determine from bank statements or receipts such as medical expenses.

Sources of Income

This category generally includes wages, dividends, interest, partnership distributions, retirement and rental income.  You may receive a Form W-2, 1099, or K1 that indicates the amount of income reported to the IRS.  For other types of income, such as alimony received, you may need to determine the amount to report from bank statements.

Adjustments to Income

These are direct reductions to taxable income that commonly include deductible IRA contributions, alimony paid, Health Savings Account (HSA) contributions, SEP, SIMPLE or other self-employed pension plan contributions,  and self-employed health insurance payment records.

Deductible Expenses

If you itemize deductions rather than taking the standard deduction, you may need to collect source documents indicating the amount of mortgage interest paid (Form 1098), real estate and personal property taxes paid, medical expenses, and charitable contributions to be reported on Schedule A.

Tax Credits

Tax credits are a direct reduction of your tax bill so take a few minutes to research available 2017 credits.  You may be able to claim the American Opportunity Credit if you have a child in college or a Residential Energy Credit if you have made any “green” home improvements.

Basis of Property

This is also a good time to review and update the basis of property if necessary.  Home improvements made during the year may have increased the basis so collect and file those valuable receipts.

Taxes Paid

Federal and state taxes you have already paid may be found on your W-2 but if you pay quarterly estimated taxes you may need to collect records of payment.

While this is not a comprehensive list of every possible tax document needed to complete a tax return, it is a starting point from which you can develop your own, one that reflects your unique life circumstances.  Start organizing now and maybe tax season won’t be your least favorite season of the year.

Nancy Blackman - Parsec Financial Corporate Headshots
Nancy Blackman – Portfolio Manager
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Happy Donating!

As we approach the end of the year and the holiday season, we seem to be bombarded with opportunities for charitable giving. Happily, many of us answer this call and donate generously to our favorite charitable organizations. Your generosity may also be beneficial at tax time if you remember a few IRS guidelines for charitable contributions.

  • You must itemize deductions on Schedule A to deduct a charitable contribution.
  • Donate before year end to claim a deduction for 2017. Please remember if you are making a stock donation, to submit the request a few weeks before the end of the year. This will allow your custodian enough time to fulfil the request in time for the deadline.
  • Verify that the charity is tax-exempt (sometimes called 501 (c) (3) organizations) or qualified. The IRS considers the following types of organizations qualified for charitable donation purposes.
    1. A state or possession of the United States, or the United States for public purposes
    2. A community chest, corporation, trust, fund or foundation of the United States organized for charitable, religious, educational, scientific, or literary purposes or for the prevention of cruelty to children or animals
    3. A church, synagogue or other religious organization
    4. A war veterans organization
    5. A nonprofit volunteer fire company
    6. A civil defense organization
    7. A domestic fraternal society if the contribution is used for charitable purposes
    8. A nonprofit cemetery company if the funds are used for the perpetual care of the entire cemetery

More information about qualified organizations can be found in IRS Publication 526, Charitable Contributions. You can also verify the tax-exempt status of an organization on the IRS.gov website.

  • When making your donation of cash or goods, be sure to get a receipt. The IRS requires a receipt for donations greater than $250.
  • Large donations may be limited in the current year to 50% of AGI for public charities or 20-30% for private charities. Any excess donations can be carried forward for five tax years. When planning a large gift, talk to your tax professional to develop the most beneficial giving strategy.
  • Lastly, many employers will match gifts made by their employees, so remember to check your company policy and do twice as much good!

Nancy Blackman - Parsec Financial Corporate HeadshotsNancy Blackman, Portfolio Manager

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How Parsec Monitors Investment Securities

Parsec invests in a variety of securities for its clients.  These may include mutual funds, exchange traded funds or ETFs, and individual stocks, among others.  All of these investments can and do experience significant price pullbacks from time to time.  While Parsec’s Investment Policy Committee (IPC) focuses on investments it can hold for the long-term and performs significant research before adding any new positions, price declines still happen.  In this email we’ll discuss how the IPC monitors investment securities and we’ll share with you our process for when a stock or fund doesn’t perform as expected.

Investment security returns are driven by a number of factors.  For individual stocks, earnings growth, competitive environment, and exogenous events can significantly affect price performance.  For mutual funds and ETFs, the general capital market environment as well as portfolio management departures or changes at the parent company can influence both fund flows and price changes.  At Parsec, in addition to reviewing all covered securities at regularly-scheduled meetings, the Investment Policy Committee continually monitors client investments for these types of factors in between our ongoing investment reviews.

We do this by reading sell-side research reports, company government filings, and the news.  Likewise, the financial software we use alerts us to any new developments on our covered securities and helps us manage the large volume of news flow in order to focus on the most important stories of the day.  When a significant event does happen that negatively affects a security, we research the development by listening to a company’s conference call, reading industry reports, and conducting our own due diligence.  We review our thesis on the fund or stock and determine if and how the latest events could affect the security’s long-term prospects going forward.  In order to gauge an investment’s upside potential we adjust our growth assumptions to reflect the new information and evaluate the security’s risk/reward profile in light of its new price level.

Oftentimes when a major story surfaces there is minimal information on which to make a decision.  At the same time, the market has a tendency to overreact to news events.  For these reasons, Parsec’s Investment Policy Committee may intentionally wait before taking action when a stock or fund experiences a significant negative development.  Although it may appear that we are not responding to the event in question, we are in fact working diligently behind the scenes to gather as much data as possible while reviewing our thesis and assumptions.  This can be a frustrating time for clients who would, understandably, prefer us to take immediate action.  However, we have found that taking a wait-and-see approach allows us to collect more information and answer important questions before making an uninformed or premature decision.

Waiting for the dust to settle while collecting additional information also allows us to better understand how a development could affect a stock or fund’s long-term prospects.  If we determine that a company or fund can recover from an adverse event and the security has fallen significantly in price, it’s often an attractive buying opportunity.

However, on other occasions it may be clear that it’s time to sell a position.  This can happen when an investigation surrounding a security is new but affects multiple divisions or aspects of the underlying company’s or fund’s operations.  Another example may include an environmental disaster or a significant product recall that could take years to resolve.  In these instances the best action may involve taking a modest loss now in order to avoid a much larger loss in the months or years to follow.

While our bias towards higher-quality stocks and funds may mean we’re more likely to hold a security or even add to positions following a negative news event, we are closely monitoring client investments and performing in-depth due diligence as new developments arise.  Our intention is to make objective and thoughtful decisions that will benefit clients and their portfolios over the long-term.

Thank you,

The Parsec Team

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How do I Apply for Social Security Benefits?

You’ve worked hard, met with your financial advisor, determined when to take Social Security and you are set to retire… now what? Many retirees get to this point and are not sure what the next steps are when applying for Social Security. Thankfully, you have three options!

  1. Online: Prefer to handle things on your own? Today, it’s easier than ever to apply for Social Security by applying online. Visit their website to get the process started. If you don’t finish the application, they make it convenient by allowing you to return and finish the application later.
  2. By Phone: Not savvy with the computer? You can also call Monday through Friday from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. at 1-800-772-1213 to speak with a representative and apply for your benefit.
  3. In Person: Prefer to handle things face to face? You can visit your local Social Security office to apply for your benefit. Please visit their office locator to find the office closest to you.  I’d recommend either calling to set up an appointment, or getting there early. Like the DMV, you may end up waiting a while!

It’s important to be prepared when starting the application process for your benefit. Below are some of the items that you may need to be prepared to provide when applying.

  • Birth Certificate – this needs to be an original certificate or one certified by an issuing agency. They will not accept a photo copy.
  • Proof of citizenship or lawful alien status.
  • Copies of W-2 forms and/or self-employment tax return for the previous year.

If you don’t have all the appropriate documents, don’t let that stop you from applying.  The Social Security office will take what you have, allowing you time to collect the other documents.  Any original documents that you have provided will be returned to you once you have completed the application process.  If you don’t know how to get all the documents required, I recommend speaking with a representative at your local office.  They can help point you in the right direction.

It’s important to note that the Social Security Office recommends that you apply for benefits at least three months prior to the date you wish to start receiving your benefit.  The earliest you can sign up for your benefit is 61 years and 9 months of age.

If you are nearing retirement, and would like to determine the best time start receiving your benefit, please call your financial advisor to discuss. We are here to help!

Ashley Gragtmans, CFP®

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(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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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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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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