The Importance of Interest Rates on the Economy and Financial Markets

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Since the financial crisis of 2008, and the resulting stock market declines (which reached 60% on the S&P 500 index, from October 2007 to the low of March 2009), interest rates have been maintained at extremely low levels by the US Federal Reserve (the “Fed”). While the Fed controls short term interest rates (overnight borrowing rates by financial institutions), it is the buying and selling in the bond market that establishes longer term rates, including the benchmark ten-year US Treasury rate. Since October 2007 that rate has fallen, with some interruptions, to the current extremely low level of 1.85%. The actual progression of fairly consistent declining rates is as follows (all month-ending figures):

Oct 2007:    4.47%          Dec 2010:   3.30%                      Dec 2013:   3.03%

Dec 2008:   2.25%          Dec 2011:   1.88%                       Dec 2014:   2.17%

Mar 2009:   2.69%         July 2012:   1.47% (the low)     Dec 2015:   2.27% *

Dec 2009:   3.83%          Dec 2012:   1.76%                       May 2016:   1.85%

* 0.25% Fed rate increase in December 2015, the first since 2008

Marriner_S._Eccles_Federal_Reserve_Board_BuildingTo begin the discussion, we will focus first on interest rates and their impact on the real economy. Since interest rates are a cost of doing business, lower rates should encourage more borrowing and more economic activity. That is the underlying idea behind the Fed keeping interest rates as low as they are in the US. It should also be noted that in parts of Europe and in Japan, interest rates have turned negative (below zero), with central banks charging commercial banks for maintaining deposits. This would seem to be the ultimate incentive to lend out money, and yet these economies, and the US to a lesser extent, are stuck with extremely low economic growth rates, now into the eighth year following the financial crisis of 2008.

Borrowers obviously benefit from low interest rates. Borrowers include national as well as state and local governments, all manner of businesses, and consumers buying goods and services and homes that qualify for financing (that is, paying off the purchase price over time). It is interesting to note that, in a period when borrowing rates are so low, many governments are unwilling to borrow further to improve infrastructure and otherwise invest in their respective economies, which would in turn add to economic growth. Of course the other side of this point is that the borrowing ultimately needs to be paid for with either higher taxes, or with additional borrowing at possibly less favorable future rates.

On the other side are all the people and businesses that have excess savings to invest, and are punished by ultra-low interest rates because they can’t get a decent investment return on their money. Businesses that are adversely affected include insurance companies, which rely on interest income to keep their premiums lower, and banks, which benefit from the spread between their borrowing costs and the interest they charge customers on their loans. In a recent Economist article about low rates in Europe, the conflict between trying to stimulate economic growth with low rates, and the impact of those low rates on savers, is presented well: “The conflict over the European Central Bank (ECB) has brought back tensions between Europe’s north and south that emerged during the euro crisis (with Greece). With their large current account surpluses, Germany and the Netherlands (and their citizens) are net lenders; low interest rates hurt them and help southern European countries which borrow more… But the Germans and Dutch seldom mention why the ECB is setting such low rates.  The Eurozone economy is barely growing, and may be on the verge of deflation, so that raising rates… could send Europe into recession. The chairman of the ECB said that “low interest rates are a symptom of low growth and low inflation, not the cause” (Economist, 4/30.16, page 47).

In addition to being a cost of doing business and a source of investment return for savers, interest rates have a direct connection with inflation. Inflation is the idea that the purchasing power of a given amount of money declines over time because of increasing prices. Interest rates are paid to savers as a way of offsetting the negative effect of inflation on purchasing power. The higher the level of inflation, the higher interest rates need to be to offset the impact of inflation. By the same token, low inflation allows interest rates to remain low. If inflation begins to rise, there is a case to be made for raising interest rates, which would conflict with keeping rates low to stimulate the economy. To further complicate matters, the same low rates designed to increase economic growth could end up creating too much growth, which would trigger inflationary pressures on prices, leading to an increase in rates.

This is the dilemma currently affecting the US Fed. “The Fed has held interest rates at low levels since the Great Recession, to stimulate economic growth by encouraging borrowing and risk taking. It started raising rates in December, seeking to reduce those incentives. But it paused as the economy appeared to weaken. Now it seems ready to continue” (NY Times, 5/28/16, pages B1-2). A second article in the Times stated that “the American economy is picking up speed after a slow start this year,… but the overall gains are still likely to fall short of what many experts would hope to see as the recovery nears the end of its seventh year. These crosscurrents highlight the challenge facing the Fed as they weigh whether to raise interest rates in mid-June, or wait until July or later in the year… Buried in the details of the gross domestic product report were signs that inflation was picking up to more normal levels after years of dormancy, with core inflation of 2.1%, just above the Fed’s 2% target” (5/28/16, page B2).

A NY Times editorial urging the Fed not to raise rates cited slow economic growth, recent disappointing job numbers, and inflation below the Fed’s 2% target, observing that “[r]ate increases are called for when economic activity is speeding up to the point of overheating, as reflected in an upward spiral in wages and prices. At its best the economy in recent years has managed to grow at an annual rate of about two percent, a moderate pace that has resulted in considerable slack in the job market. Raising rates in June would apply the brakes to a recovery that has never hit full speed and that now appears to be slowing.” The editorial also commented on the lack of government spending needed to “offset feeble spending and investment in the private sector” (NYT, Sunday Review section, 5/29/16, page 8).

Impact on Financial Markets

Turning to the impact of interest rates on financial markets, there are a few key points to establish (this subject is likely to be discussed frequently in future months):

  • When interest rates rise, the prices of existing bonds decline; the more gradual the time frame over which rates are increased, the less prices are impacted negatively.
  • Another significant factor on the extent of the price declines is how long it takes for the bonds to mature, at which time new bonds can be purchased paying the higher rates.
  • The impact of rising rates on stocks is far less clear. It may be positive, indicating stronger economic growth; but rising rates increase costs to businesses, and provide a more attractive investment alternative (bonds), which would then be paying higher interest rates.
  • The relationship between bond returns and inflation can be sobering: If savers earn 2% interest, and inflation is 2%, then purchasing power has not increased at all. If the interest is taxable, an apparent positive result can be negative, after accounting for inflation and taxation. Even so, bonds continue to provide a useful buffer in portfolios against the much more extreme price volatility of stocks.


Frugal Footballers

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What do Kirk Cousins, Alfred Morris, and Ryan Kerrigan have in common?

If you answered that they’re all key members of the NFC East champion Washington Redskins, you’re right – but only in part. That’s because they share another meaningful attribute: a commitment to saving, despite their multi-million contracts.

As detailed in Kevin Clark’s NFL Journal column in the January 6, 2016 edition of the Wall Street Journal, the young stars live a life of surprising frugality. Cousins, the quarterback, drives a dented GMC Savana passenger van to the office. Kerrigan, the outside linebacker, makes most of his own meals and shares an apartment with a childhood friend. And Morris, the running back, bikes to work — unless it’s cold or inconvenient, in which case he drives his 1991 Mazda 626, or as he calls it, “his Bentley.”

Cousins had a career year in 2015, throwing for over 4,000 yards (and helping me win my Fantasy Football league, to boot). Despite his good current salary, and an imminent big payday, he remains committed to saving. “You’ve got to save every dollar even though you are making a good salary,” he said. “You never know what’s going to happen so I try to put as much money away as I can.”

At a basic level, there are a few ways to build wealth: one is by increasing income; another is by increasing your investment return; and a third is decreasing expenses. Yet only one of these is entirely within one’s personal control: saving. Unlike your income and investment returns, which depend on a host of macro- and microeconomic factors (along with the ongoing success of your firm), your expenses are, to a significant extent, up to you.

Branded or store label? 87 octane gas or some higher octane alternative? Paying down your credit card balance every month, or letting that debt linger? While certain expenses are fixed, many are variable, the reflection of a host of small choices we make daily.

In the words of Jonathan Clements, former personal finance columnist for the WSJ, “Wealth is born of great savings habits.” Having read Clark’s article, I’m now interested not just in whether the Redskins win the game, but what savings-conscious celebration Cousins, Morris, and Kerrigan will enjoy if they do.

An Important New Book about the Finance Industry

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From time to time since Park Piedmont Advisors was founded in 2003, we have quoted extensively from various authors whose books we have embraced.  These authors and their books include Burton Malkiel’s A Random Walk Down Wall Street;  John Bogle’s Common Sense on Mutual Funds;  David Swensen’s Unconventional Success; Charles Ellis’ Investment Policy; and Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan and Fooled by Randomness.

To this list we would like to add John Kay’s Other People’s Money, newly published in 2015.

The author finds much to criticize in the current highly complex world of finance. He maintains that those engaged in finance have gone from providing traditional functions useful to society, to now engaging in activities profitable mostly to themselves and their own financial businesses. He uses the term “financialisation” to describe the two main components of these unfavorable changes: “the substitution of trading and transactions for relationships,” and the “restructuring of finance businesses.” (Pgs. 15-16)

In the upcoming months we will present selected portions of the book, which we highly recommend. The following excerpt discusses the likelihood of most investors successfully timing or outperforming the market:

“Many financial promotions exploit the control illusion and the excessive confidence people have in their own judgment. The most common means of chasing the dream is to believe that savers can successfully identify market highs or lows or select stocks or managers that will outperform the market. The overwhelming evidence is that they can’t. Few investors or managers have any sustained capacity for outperformance. Actively managed funds, taken as a whole, do worse than the market averages by the amount of fees charged.  Retail investors do even worse than the average of investment funds by mistiming their purchases and sales. As with games involving mixtures of skill and chance, such as poker, there are few people with genuinely outstanding abilities who profit at the expense of the general run of players, and many more who persuade themselves, and perhaps others, that recent runs of good fortune are the result of their exceptional skill.” (Pgs. 62-63)

Stock Price Declines…Not So Unusual

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With a volatile third quarter now ended, it may be helpful to offer some historical context for the recent market declines. Since the financial crisis in 2008, stock prices have had only one substantial period of decline (approximately 20%), in 2011. Since this has been a long period of generally steady stock price increases, it is perhaps reasonable to point out that stock prices are “due” for some declines. Interesting historical statistics were presented in a recent article in Investment News magazine (9/14/15, page 3), which advocated a buy and hold approach to price drops, rather than trying to time the markets in an attempt to be out while prices are falling and in when they are rising.  The article notes that since 1945 there have been: (a) 59 periods of declines between 5% and 10%; (b) 20 periods of declines between 10% and 20%; and (c) 12 periods of declines of more than 20%. In all of these periods, there have been recoveries from the declines, in varying time frames dependent on the severity of the decline. The article observes that “the majority of market returns occur in a small minority of days and that the big return days tend to be unpredictable and hot on the heels of awful news. ” It also states that “buy and hold is a relative concept that needs a certain amount of flexibility to allow for liquidity, rebalancing and various life events such as retirement.”

At Park Piedmont Advisors, these are core components of our investing philosophy. And this is why we focus so much on appropriate asset allocations specific to each clients’ circumstances, which we then expect our clients to be able to maintain during periods of declining stock prices.

Impact of “No Rate Change” on Investors

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The much awaited decision by the U.S. Federal Reserve as to whether to start raising interest rates was answered in the negative yesterday, while still leaving open the possibility of an increase before year end. “Heightened uncertainty abroad” and “prospects of low inflation,” both of which are reasons not to raise rates, were deemed more important at this time than “improving labor markets” and “reducing slack in the economy,” which would have been reasons to start raising rates

Financial markets had little reaction. Stock prices rose initially but ended the day modestly lower, and bond prices gained, but only back to last week’s levels.

While low interest rates are designed to benefit economic growth, they have a negative effect on investors looking for safe ways to earn interest on their money. This adverse impact on conservative investors has not been sufficiently highlighted in the Fed’s ongoing decisions to keep rates at close to zero starting in 2008. Conservative investors have had to add riskier investments to their portfolios to try and earn even modest investment returns. While taking on this added risk has worked well since 2008, it still has its unsettling moments (as recently as August), and carries no certainty that the results will continue to be  favorable.

Aug. 26 Memo to Clients re: Investing vs. Trading

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As the world’s stock markets continue to capture our attention with their extreme fluctuations, we think it’s important to present our view that most of this volatility is actually being created by traders, as opposed to long-term investors. (Note: this is our third memo in the last several days addressing current stock price declines.)

What’s the difference between trading and investing? Traders look to profit from price changes that occur in the short term, typically measured in days, frequently even shorter. The wider the price range, the more opportunity for gains or losses. Trading is a form of gambling, in that the result of the trade is known quickly and is often unrelated to any underlying, long-term economic rationale.

In contrast, investing presumes a lengthy time period, a set of goals to be achieved over that time period, and a view that there’s likely to be sustainable economic growth in the world’s economies over that time period. The investor’s relevant time period is measured in years, not days. We believe investors should not transform into traders when the markets experience periods of extreme market volatility.

A thoughtful article in The New York Times (August 22, 2015, pg B2, written by Ron Lieber), headlined “Take Some Deep Breaths, and Don’t Do a Thing,” makes the same point. Mr. Lieber observes, “Stocks are most useful for long-term goals. So unless these goals have changed in the last few days, it probably doesn’t make much sense to overhaul an investment strategy based on a blip of market activity.”

At Park Piedmont Advisors, we have long advocated that the U.S. stock market not be used as a basis for trading activity because trading can give rise to unsettling price changes from time to time. These changes can lead investors to take ill-advised actions that could undermine their long-term goals. Simply put, the financial well-being of long-term investors is threatened when trading activity turns the stock market into a casino.

Aug. 24 Memo to Clients re: Investing Pitfalls amid Market Volatility

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Given the continued sharp stock price declines on Friday, August 21st, and thus far on Monday, August 24th, we’re sending this follow-up memo to discuss the pitfalls of alternatives to our customary advice of maintaining your current stock allocation. Our advice presumes that stocks are a necessary part of your investment portfolio to meet your long-term financial goals. The following is a list of the main alternatives, and the key issues associated with each:

1) Sell stocks and buy back at lower prices. This is referred to as “market timing”, and is very hard to implement successfully. In addition to deciding the right time to sell, you also need to make the right decision about buying back into the stock market. If you wait too long, you miss the upside that has historically come from the stock portion of your portfolio.

2) Sell stocks and hold as cash. Short-term cash/money markets pay virtually no interest in the current low interest rate environment, and are guaranteed to lose purchasing power to inflation.

3) Sell stocks and buy high credit bonds. Since interest rates are very low (with the 10-year US Treasury benchmark rate close to 2%), these bond prices are very high, and remain vulnerable to the anticipated rise in US interest rates (although issues in the world economy may delay the Fed’s raising rates).

4) Sell stocks and buy high yield income investments, from US and international issuers. When stock prices are declining because of fears of worldwide economic slowdown, these investments also tend to decline as credit risks increase.

5) Sell stocks and buy alternative investments that provide hedging opportunities. This is another form of market timing, because while hedges may help during stock price declines, they will also hold back the extent of the gains during stock price recoveries. Issues of timing include when to buy these hedges and when to sell them; if held for the long term, the hedging costs might result in a lower return than simply maintaining the initial allocation without the hedges.

6) Sell stocks and buy commodity investments like gold, oil, and industrial metals. Commodity prices have been declining in recent years, and continue to be adversely affected by the same economic slowdown that the world’s stock markets appear to be reacting to.

It’s no secret that both the Wall Street investment community and the media have an interest in convincing investors to increase their activity and market participation when prices turn down. At Park Piedmont, we’ve evaluated these various alternative strategies and concluded that your long-term financial well-being is better served by maintaining the allocations to the various markets that we developed with you in calmer times.  We’re available to discuss any of these topics in more detail at your convenience.

Aug. 21 Memo to Clients re: Stock Declines

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The past few days have seen sharp declines in US stock prices, but as of August 20, the S&P 500 stock index is down all of 1% for the year, and still above its January 30th low by approximately 2%.  The current problems for the market range from slow world-wide economic growth; to more specific problems in China, and certain European countries ( eg, Greece);  to sharply declining commodity prices (which has a mixed impact on various countries, depending on whether they are primarily producers or consumers of commodities); to the likely beginning of interest rate increases in the US. Having stated the problems, it is important to note that none of them are new to the markets.

It is also worth noting that US interest rates on high credit bonds have declined modestly during the recent stock price declines, which means those bond prices have increased modestly.

As a context for the current stock declines, since the more than 50% declines that ended in March, 2009, the S&P 500 index has tripled in value (low of 677 to current 2,036). During this six plus year time frame  there has been only one period with serious stock price declines, from April 2011 through October 2011, when the S&P 500 declined  20% (1,362 to 1,100).  Since that 2011 decline ended, the index is up more than 80%.   Many of these historical figures can be found in our regular Monthly Comments.

In considering our message for the current stock price declines, we thought a repeat of portions of our August 2011 memo would be appropriate.

“We want to reemphasize our commitment to the idea that properly developed asset allocations, designed specifically for each client’s goals and risk tolerance, provide the basic rationale for not changing investments during periods of extreme downward market volatility….”

After presenting various figures, and a discussion of the problems of that time, we concluded as follows:

“As usual, we make no predictions as to whether these problems can be solved in a reasonable or timely manner. The future is always unknown. However, to the extent your financial goals require investments in what are by definition uncertain markets, we continue to advocate that your best defense is to maintain an asset allocation that allows you to get through times of high volatility without making changes that involve selling the poorly performing asset class.”

We would also add that it should not be surprising for stock prices to experience some period of decline, given the remarkable gains of the past six years.  There is no avoiding the investment truth that stocks can provide both significant gains, as well as uncomfortable declines. Trying to time these price moves we believe cannot be done consistently. Relying on your established allocation continues to be the best way to navigate the inevitable periods of downturns.

Is “picking winners” actually a loser’s game?

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For decades, Wall Street firms have marketed their ability to beat the market with their active investing strategies. The claim hinged on each firm’s ability to “pick winners,” stocks whose returns would beat the market’s. This market-beating ability would, in turn, justify the firms’ high fees.

But in fact, active management rarely provides better investment results than what could be earned simply by owning and holding broad market indexes. A recent “Your Money” column by the New York Times’ Jeff Sommer (“How Many Mutual Funds Routinely Rout the Market?  Zero,” March 15, 2015) cites a substantial body of research showing that, over the past five years, not a single actively managed mutual fund has “actually managed to outperform the rising market.”

Sommer’s column discussed recent research that looked at the following: Starting with 2,862 actively managed domestic stock mutual funds in operation through the 12-month period between April 2009-March 2010, the study selected the top quartile of funds for those 12 months, then analyzed which of those funds continued in the top quarter for each of the next four 12-month periods through March 2014.

The answer: two. Out of the total pool of 2,862, only two – less than 1/1000 of the total pool – had consistently beaten the market. Keep in mind: all of these funds are run by smart, sophisticated investment professionals, yet they could not keep pace with market returns. Sommer notes that the two funds that had done well for the four years through March 2014 have since experienced “a mediocre stretch, at best.”

In Sommer’s concluding words: “The study seems to support the considerable body of evidence suggesting that most people should not even try to beat the market: Just pick low-cost index funds, assemble a balanced and appropriate portfolio for your specific needs, and give up on active fund management.”  

This customized allocation approach, using low-cost indexed investments, has been PPA’s consistent strategy since its founding in 2003. Sommer’s column can be read in its entirety here:

Why We Don’t Use Active Funds

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We’ve never believed that “actively managed” investments can reliably outperform index funds over longer-term timeframes. (NOTE: when we use the term index funds, we mean mutual funds and Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs).) Turns out, the evidence is on our side: over the past decade, the vast majority of actively managed funds – large-cap, mid-cap, and small-cap alike – underperformed their benchmark indices (source: S&P Dow Jones Indices, SPIVA 2014 Year-End Scorecard). See also Prof. Burton Malkiel, A Random Walk Down Wall Street: the Time-Tested Strategy for Successful Investing; John Bogle, Common Sense on Mutual Funds: New Imperatives for the Intelligent Investor.

Given actively managed funds’ underperformance, why do they cost so much? Interestingly,  it is those extra costs associated with active management that end up being the main reason for their long term underperformance when compared to a benchmark index, which is one of Bogle’s main points.

Some of the extra cost goes for research, the goal of which is to pick stocks that will do better than the aggregate investment result of the stocks in the benchmark index. Then there are the trading costs that arise when stocks are bought and sold by the fund managers. Taxes on gains also add to the cost of owning the fund. Some funds add their own distribution costs to the fund, paid by the investors. And sometimes there are sales commissions, referred to as “loads,” paid to brokers for selling the funds, which would add another cost.

By comparison, the investor in an index fund pays a very low fee to the fund, which does no research, has few trading costs and few taxable distributions, adds no distribution costs, and has no loads. The index fund invests in all the stocks that meet the definition of the index the fund has developed (e.g., various emerging market indices), or invests in an existing index the result of which the fund is designed to match (e.g., the S&P 500 index). There is no picking and choosing of certain stocks to the exclusion of others, within the universe of stocks in the index.

Over time, many in the investment community have come to realize that all the smart people, and sophisticated strategies, trying to pick the outperformers adds up to an exercise in futility. We think the better approach is to buy all the stocks in the various sectors of the markets that you are interested in, using low-cost index funds, and then let the aggregate result of those sectors be your result, absent the unnecessary, and, over time, self-defeating costs.