Budget Basics that could Benefit Individuals and Governments Alike

With U.S. government debt at record levels and a large tax cut recently announced while corporate profits are soaring, I often reflect fondly on the movie “Dave,” starring Kevin Kline. The movie warms my heart because it shows us what could be – within the realm of government budgets (and politics). While I’ll leave the political commentary to someone else, I will say that politicians and our government could benefit from a return to budget basics.

In the movie, the White House Chief of Staff decides to use a stand-in for the President during a public photo opportunity. Things get interesting when the actual President suffers a massive stroke at the time of the publicity event. Looking to hold onto power, the Chief of Staff has the Presidential double, a small business owner named Dave, continue to fill the Commander in Chief’s shoes. While Dave has a big heart and a do-good attitude he also starts to use his new-found power. He first tests these waters by calling his friend and accountant Murray to the White House to review the annual budget. After reviewing the government ledger, Murray declares that if “[he] ran his business this way, he’d be out of business.”

There’s no doubt that the U.S. financial system is a much more complicated structure than an individual household or small business, but as the movie “Dave” suggests, it can still benefit from the simple principles you and I use regarding our own financial affairs. One such principle is debt management. As it stands, U.S. debt to gross domestic product (GDP) is around 105%. Gross domestic product (GDP) is the total dollar value of all goods and services produced over a specific time period. While GDP is a measure of the size of our economy it also describes how much the U.S. produces or earns.

The point is that a higher GDP (i.e. earnings) suggests the government can handle higher debt levels. The same principle applies to an individual: someone with a larger salary can typically handle a higher level of debt, all else equal. But when you divide debt by income or GDP – the debt to GDP ratio mentioned above – lower is usually better. For example, most banks will consider an individual a high credit risk if their total debt level to gross income is above 36%. Now compare that to 105% of U.S. debt to GDP and you can see that our government might do well to start reducing its reliance on debt.

Looking at the historical record, U.S. debt to GDP has averaged 62% since 1940. Today’s levels are well above that and the second highest in our history. Debt to GDP reached an all-time high in 1946, at 119%, when the U.S. issued a significant amount of debt to fund our efforts during World War II. Given the serious threat to world stability during the 1940’s, most would argue the additional debt issuance was a risk worth taking. However, today’s elevated debt levels come during a time of relative peace and following nine years of U.S. economic expansion – the second longest on record.

Shifting back to budget basics, most would agree that times of prosperity and stability are ideal periods in which to reduce the deficit and thus national debt. Or at least not add to existing levels.  Unfortunately, the U.S. government has not followed these principles in recent years. Granted, we’ve had some extenuating circumstances such as the Financial Crisis but we’ve also had steady if not subpar GDP growth since then. Most economists – and budget basics – would argue for increasing taxes or at least holding them steady towards the later innings of an economic expansion, when corporate profits are high. However, this time around Congress passed a tax bill that significantly reduced company taxes.

To be fair, there are well documented benefits to running a budget deficit (for a country) and cutting corporate taxes. However, if deficits continue over the long-term, debt levels can mount, ultimately becoming a headwind to future economic growth and prosperity. As interest rates climb from currently depressed levels, so will debt servicing costs. On top of higher interest expense tied to rising yields, the historical record has shown that large tax cuts can boost inflation – especially when implemented towards the end of an economic expansion – and thus contribute further to rising interest rates. At the same time, lower taxes reduce the government’s revenues and make weathering the next recession more difficult.

While the recent tax bill is clearly a near-term positive for companies, employment, and the economy, it can also bring long-term benefits if our politicians implement sound financial policies that balance the budget and bring down government debt levels. In short, our Congressional and Executive leaders might do well to take a page out of the movie “Dave” and return to some budget basics. They might also enjoy a little break in the process.

 

 

 

 

 

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Bear Market Anniversary Reflections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Bill Hansen, CFA

President and Chief Investment Officer

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What a Rising Rate Environment Could Mean for Bond Funds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you,

The Parsec Team

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34th Annual Crystal Ball Seminar

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

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

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

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

EVENT DETAILS

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

Location:
Lipinsky Hall Auditorium – UNC Asheville campus

Date:
Thursday, May 3, 2018

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

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

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Things are not as bad as the media would have you believe

Queen Elizabeth II turned ninety years old on April 21st.  While I don’t follow the Royal Family all that closely, I do love Princess Kate’s fashion sense and have a thing for sparkly tiara’s (the real ones).  So naturally when I saw an article about the Queen’s birthday I had to check it out.  In addition to some great shots of the Crown Jewels, I found one of the Queen’s comments particularly uplifting.  When asked about the state of the world, Elizabeth unequivocally said that things are much better today than when she was a child.  Although recent headlines – from terrorist attacks to slowing global growth – would have us believe otherwise, I’d like to provide some much-needed evidence that we’re living in pretty good times.

First, Americans are living longer and are healthier than ever before in history.  In 1800 the U.S. life expectancy was 39 years at birth, then 49 years in 1900, 68 years in 1950, and an incredible 79 years today!  In addition to a longer life expectancy, we can take advantage of our twilight years with something called retirement.  The concept didn’t exist in the U.S. prior to the late 1880’s, when workers pretty much labored until they died.  That started to change in 1875 when American Express offered America’s first employer-provided retirement plan.  The Federal Government followed suite in 1935 with the creation of Social Security; and medical health benefits for those over 65 years, also known as Medicare, started in 1965.

According to the Federal Reserve, the number of years spent in leisure – measured as retirement plus time off during your working years – rose from 11 years in 1870 to 35 years by 1990.  While we’re not all experiencing a Downton Abbey lifestyle, things could be worse.

Concerning crime and violence: while the tragic terrorist attacks in recent years are difficult to reconcile, overall murder rates in the U.S. have dropped dramatically since the 1990’s.  America averaged 20,919 murders during that decade but the average number of murders in the 2000’s dropped to 16,211.  On a global level, a report from the Human Security Report Project suggests the world is getting safer, as it relates to people killing other people.  Deaths from war has been in decline since the end of World War II and high-intensity conflicts have declined by more than half since the end of the Cold War.  The report goes on to say that terrorism, genocide, and homicide numbers are also down.

Americans often worry that slowing U.S. growth and rising debt levels will result in a downward economic spiral.  They often point to Japan as a worst-case-scenario.  While the island nation has its challenges, consider that Japanese unemployment has remained below 5.7% for the last 25 years, income per capita adjusted for purchasing power continues to grow at a healthy rate, and life expectancy is on the rise.  Plus I hear they have amazing sushi.  I can think of worse outcomes.

Another common concern I read about is stagnant wage growth.  While I believe this is an important issue, consider that the median annual household income adjusted for inflation was about $25,000 in the 1950’s.  Today it’s almost double that!

A few other things that are better: U.S. death rate from strokes has declined by 75% since the 1960s; deaths from heart attacks have also dropped dramatically; more Americans attend college today than at any other time in our history; smoking is down sharply; poverty is on the decline in the U.S.; and fewer people around the world die from famine each year.

Happily, I could go on, but I won’t.  Suffice it to say that Queen Elizabeth II, in her 90 years of experience and wisdom, may be right.  And even if she’s not, we’re all better off believing she is.

Carrie A. Tallman, CFA
Director of Research

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Market Update Through 12/31/2015

Total Return

Index

12 months YTD QTD

Dec

Stocks
Russell 3000 0.48% 0.48% 6.27% -2.05%
S&P 500 1.38% 1.38% 7.04% -1.58%
DJ Industrial Average 0.21% 0.21% 7.70% -1.52%
Nasdaq Composite 6.96% 6.96% 8.71% -1.92%
Russell 2000 -4.41% -4.41% 3.59% -5.02%
MSCI EAFE Index -0.81% -0.81% 4.71% -1.35%
MSCI Emerging Markets -14.92% -14.92% 0.66% -2.23%
Bonds
Barclays US Aggregate 0.55% 0.55% -0.57% -0.32%
Barclays Intermediate US Gov/Credit 1.13% 1.13% -0.73% -0.35%
Barclays Municipal 3.64% 3.64% 1.66% 0.77%

Commodity/Currency

Current Level Prior QTR Level TTM High

TTM Low

Crude Oil

$37.04

$45.09 $65.61

$33.77

Natural Gas

$2.34

$2.52 $3.57

$1.81

Gold

$1,060.20

$1,115.20 $1,305.70

$1,045.40

Euro

$1.0863

$1.1163 $1.1835

$1.0522

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SDG Market Indicator: Future Nobel Prize Winner?

Every day, it seems someone has a new model that claims to predict the next stock market meltdown or boom.  Two of my colleagues, Mark Lewis and Sarah DerGarabedian, and I had a stock market theory we tested a couple of years ago.  We called it the “SDG Market Indicator.”  

At the time, Sarah’s almost one-year-old son was having some difficulties sleeping through the night.  Whenever she did not get a good night’s sleep, we noticed on most of those days the stock market dropped.  Over a 48-day period, we compared her sleep cycle against the market’s performance.  If she slept well the night before, the market increased 42 percent of the time.  The market was either flat or declined 58 percent of the time when she had an average to bad night’s rest.  

You are probably saying to yourself, “This is the stupidest thing I have ever heard.”  You are right.  Some people accept far-fetched theories like the SDG Market Indicator as sound market guidance, though.  As they chase the next theory’s prediction, they risk losing more than they could potentially gain.  

Market timing statistically does not work.  A study by Morningstar highlights the dangers of market timing.  This study shows that, during the period 1926 – 2009, an investor who invested $1 in stocks would now have $2,592.  The study also shows that if that investor missed the 37 best months during this time frame, but was otherwise invested in stocks, the investment would only be worth $19.66 at the end of 2009. 

At Parsec, we prefer to take the long-term view when evaluating the market.  It is impossible to predict on a day-to-day basis what the market will do.  However, as studies have shown, the market will eventually recover from declines.  It is all part of the cyclical nature of financial markets.  

The next time you see a hot new theory, just think of the SDG Market Indicator.  Now, I am off to force feed Sarah a turkey sandwich and slip an Ambien in her tea.  It is time for a few positive days in the market.

Cristy Freeman, AAMS
Senior Operations Associate

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