Commentary – 6/26/17

The Markets

It has been a very good year, so far.

Through the end of last week, the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index posted 24 record highs and delivered returns in the high single digits. The MSCI World ex USA Index was up more than 11 percent, and the MSCI Emerging Markets Index gained more than 17 percent.

After reading those numbers, many people would assume bond markets are down for the year. After all, stock and bond markets tend to move in different directions. Zacks explained,

“Stock and bond prices usually move in opposite directions. When the stock market is not doing well and becomes risky for investors, investors withdraw their money and put it into bonds, which they consider safer. This increased demand raises bond prices. When stocks rally and the risk seems justified, investors may move out of bonds and into stocks, driving stock prices up further.”

That hasn’t been the case recently. Bonds have been delivering attractive returns, too. The Bloomberg Barclay’s U.S. Aggregate Bond Index is up 2.9 percent year-to-date, while its Global Aggregate Bond Index is up 4.7 percent, and its Emerging Markets Aggregate Bond Index is up 5.5 percent.

So, why are stock and bond markets both showing attractive gains for the year?

There are a number of possibilities. Zacks described one of the most straightforward. “When stocks are doing well but investors remain skeptical about how long they will do well, stock and bond prices can rise together. This is because investors continue to put money in stocks but also put money into bonds just in case the stock market drops.”

There is nothing wrong with a little skepticism.

IF YOU LIVE IN NORWAY, DENMARK, ICELAND, SWITZERLAND, OR FINLAND, THEN you’re among the happiest people in the world. On the other hand, if you reside in Sierra Leone, Bulgaria, Egypt, Palestinian Territories, or Tunisia, you’re among the least happy, according to the United Nation’s World Happiness Report 2017.

The report relies on six measurements to “explain happiness differences among countries and through time.” These include:

• Income (GDP per capita)
• Healthy life expectancy (Relative to other nations)
• Social support (Having someone to count on in times of trouble)
• Generosity (Charitable donations)
• Freedom (To make life choices)
• Trust (Defined as the absence of corruption in business and government)

While measuring ‘happiness’ or ‘satisfaction with life’ may seem frivolous to some, others believe it should be a cornerstone of governance. The report’s authors explained, “Happiness is increasingly considered to be the proper measure of social progress and the goal of public policy.”

For instance, Norway, which is an oil-rich nation, is the happiest country in the world even though oil prices are relatively low. The World Happiness Report 2017 suggests the country “achieves and maintains its high happiness not because of its oil wealth, but in spite of it. By choosing to produce its oil slowly, and investing the proceeds for the future rather than spending them in the present, Norway has insulated itself from the boom and bust cycle of many other resource-rich economies.”

The United States ranks 14th in the world. While our country’s income and healthy life expectancy remain high, keeping us at the top of the list, other factors have caused Americans’ happiness to deteriorate. The study found “less social support, less sense of personal freedom, lower donations, and more perceived corruption of government and business.” America’s issues, the report opines, are social, rather than economic.

Weekly Focus – Think About It

“Brigadier General Wilma Vaught spearheaded…the Women in Military Service for America Memorial, a museum-style memorial on the outskirts of Arlington National Cemetery…There are the thigh-high black leather boots worn by enlisted women to protect their legs from mosquitos before they were allowed to wear pants. The cape of a nurse working at a frontline casualty cleaning station in World War I. Army-issue glasses painted with red nail polish worn by the only African-American WAC unit dispatched overseas in World War II—sent to sort letters under the motto ‘No Mail, Low Morale.’”
                                                                  — National Geographic, May 2017

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Commentary – 6/19/17

The Markets

All eyes on inflation!

Inflation is the way economists measure changes in the prices of goods and services. The United States has enjoyed relatively low inflation for a significant period of time. Last week, the consumer price index indicated inflation had moved lower in May.

Inflation is our focus because it is at the core of two very different opinions that currently are influencing markets and investors. A commentary on the Kitco Blog explained:

“One of the most important economic debates today is whether the economy will experience reflation or deflation (or low inflation) in the upcoming months. Has the recent reflation been only a temporary jump? Or has it marked the beginning of a new trend? Is the global economy accelerating or are we heading into the next recession?”

Another key factor is employment. Traditional economic theory holds when unemployment falls (i.e., when more people are employed) inflation will rise because demand for workers will push wages higher. That hasn’t happened yet in the United States even though unemployment has fallen significantly.

In fact, inflation remains stubbornly below the Federal Reserve’s 2 percent target, reported The Economist. Regardless, the Federal Reserve believes higher inflation is ahead, so it raised the Fed funds rate last week and indicated it was preparing to shrink its balance sheet if the economy continues to grow as expected.

There is a group that disagrees with the Fed. They believe inflation will remain low regardless of employment levels. Barron’s wrote:

“In the theoretical world, low unemployment threatens to unleash a torrent of inflation, which needs to be staved off by tighter monetary policies. Back in the real world, disruption, innovation, and competition relentlessly drive down prices while wage growth is hard to come by.”

The difference of opinion was apparent in stock and bond markets last week. In the bond market, yields on 10-year Treasuries moved lower after the Federal Reserve raised rates. In the U.S. stock market, the top-performing sectors were Industrials, which tend to do well when investors are optimistic about growth, and Utilities, which tend to do well when investors are worried about the future.

A CENTURY-OLD MEDICINE MAY HELP WITH AUTISM. Estimates from the Centers for Disease Control suggest one in every 68 American children has been identified with autism spectrum disorder. Few effective treatments have been found, but a medicine that has been around for more than a century may prove helpful.

The Economist reported a very small human trial – only 10 boys were involved – showed a drug used since 1916 to treat the sleeping sickness spread by tsetse flies, may help children with autism. The trial paired the participating boys by age, IQ, and their level of autism. In each pair, one boy received the drug and the other received a placebo:

“Every participant given suramin showed statistically significant improvements in their performance on the tests at seven days. Those on the placebo showed no significant improvement. At 45 days, the boys who were given the drug were performing better on the tests than they had before the infusion, but it was clear that as suramin was leaving their system, their autistic traits were returning.”

The study’s results were published in the Annals of Clinical and Translational Neurology in late May; however, the research summary did not include parent’s personal statements. The study’s first author Dr. Robert Naviaux published those statements on his website.

One parent wrote, “Immediately after the infusion, a kind of inner cheerfulness started to come out. When we were walking back to the car, he was holding me hand. He started giggling and looked up at me and said, ‘I just don’t know why I’m so happy.’”

Another wrote, “In fact, his teachers at school were unaware of the trial and one day we got a note from the teacher asking about what we had changed. We were naturally concerned and when we asked they told us that, ‘He has completed 3 weeks of schooling in 3 days!’”

Let’s hope larger trials prove the drug to be safe and its positive effects enduring.

Weekly Focus – Think About It

“If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”
               –Dr. Stephen Shore, Autistic professor of special education at Adelphi University

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Commentary – 6/12/17

The Markets

Stock market historians may dub 2017 the Xanax year. Traditional historians will probably choose a different moniker.

Stock markets in many advanced economies have been unusually calm during 2017, reported Schwab’s Jeffrey Kleintop in a May 15, 2017 commentary. The CBOE Volatility Index, a.k.a. the Fear Gauge, which measures how volatile investors believe the S&P 500 Index will be over the next few months, has fallen below 10 on just 15 days since the index was introduced in 1990. Six of the 15 occurred during 2017. The average daily closing value for the VIX was 19.7 from 1990 through 2016. For 2017, the average has been 11.8.

Investors’ calm is remarkable because 2017 has not been a particularly calm year. We’ve experienced significant geopolitical events. For example, the U.S. launched a military strike on Syria, and dropped its biggest non-nuclear bomb on Afghanistan. There have been terrorist attacks in Europe, along with discord in the Middle East. The European Union has been unraveling. The U.S. government has shown unusual levels of disarray, and the U.S. President’s passion for Tweets has stirred the pot.

Just last week, the future of Brexit was thrown into question when Britain’s snap elections produced a hung Parliament (no political party has a majority). How did investors react? Barron’s reported the European markets shrugged off Thursday’s election results and moved higher on Friday, offsetting some losses from earlier in the week.

In the United States, Former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony didn’t have much effect on stock markets last week, according to Barron’s. However, comments from Goldman Sachs cautioned the trade in big technology stocks, which have accounted for about 40 percent of the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index’s gains this year, was too crowded. The ensuing clamor resulted in the NASDAQ losing 1.6 percent for the week and the S&P 500 finishing slightly lower.

Geopolitical events do not appear to have the impact they may once have had. The Fear Gauge finished Friday at 10.7.

GUESS WHAT? THE FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH ISN’T REALLY A FOUNTAIN. For millennia, humankind has been looking for a means of slowing aging, maintaining health, and restoring youth and beauty. Greek mythology tells us that Hebe, the daughter of Zeus and Hera, could restore youth. In the 1600s, Juan Ponce de Leon was rumored to have searched Florida for the Fountain of Youth. In modern times, many people have turned to their surgeons and dermatologists with varied results.

The latest news in the search for youth and vitality involves metabolites. In 2013, a paper published by Harvard’s David Sinclair, along with other researchers, suggested it might be possible to reverse mitochondrial decay, which is thought to be a key driver of aging, by consuming nicotinamide riboside (NR) supplements, reported Scientific American. A 2015 guest blog post opined:

“If I were a middle-aged mouse, I’d be ready to spend some of the nickels and dimes I’d dragged off the sidewalk to try NR supplements. Even before Sinclair’s paper, researchers had shown in 2012 that when given doses of NR, mice on high-fat diets gained 60 percent less weight than they did on the same diets without NR. Further, none of the mice on NR showed signs of diabetes, and their energy levels improved.”

In March of this year, Science published a paper that expands on prior findings. The research suggests it may be possible to help cells repair damaged DNA by restoring levels of an oxidized form of nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD).

NASA is supporting the work, according to ScienceDaily. If supplements prove effective with humans, it might help keep astronauts – who “experience accelerated ageing from cosmic radiation, suffering from muscle weakness, memory loss and other symptoms when they return” – healthy during a four-year mission to Mars.

Weekly Focus – Think About It

“On street corners everywhere, people are looking at their cell phones, and it’s easy to dismiss this as some sort of bad trend in human culture. But the truth is, life is being lived there.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          –Ze Frank, American online performance artist

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Commentary – 6/5/17

The Markets

The bull market in U.S. stocks is getting really old!

In fact, this bull has been charging, standing, or sitting for more than eight years. In April, it became the second longest bull market in American history, according to CNN Money.

There are some good reasons the stock market in the United States has continued to trend higher. For one, companies have become more profitable. During the first quarter of 2017, companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index reported earnings increased by 14 percent, year-over-year. That was the highest earnings growth rate since 2011, according to FactSet.

In addition, the economy in the United States has been chugging along at a steady pace. CIO Charles Lieberman wrote in Bloomberg View:

“…U.S. economic growth is continuing at a moderate pace, an economic recovery is finally underway in Europe, inflation is under control, corporate profits are rising, and there is some prospect for tax reform and deregulation, even if whatever gets implemented is less than what is really needed. These conditions imply continued growth in corporate profits.”

Last week’s employment report boosted both stock and bond markets. Financial Times opined the report was weak enough to ease pressure on bond rates and strong enough to boost share prices higher.

No one can say with certainty how long a bull market will last. Typically, bull markets are interrupted by corrections – declines in value of 10 percent or more. Historically, bulls have turned into bears, eventually. That’s why it’s important to employ investment strategies that manage risk and preserve capital even when markets are moving higher.

FRESH FROM THE ANNALS OF IMPROBABLE RESEARCH. Anyone who enjoys the Ig Nobel Prizes – which spur people’s interest in science, medicine, and technology by making them laugh and then making them think – may like The Annals of Improbable Research (AIR). An enthusiastically nerdy science humor magazine, the publication offers readers the opportunity to read about new and improbable things every other month.

During its 21-year history, AIR has covered a variety of topics, including:

• The Taxonomy of Barney. “In February 1994, we observed on television an animal which was there identified as a dinosaur, Barney. Its behavioral characteristics suggested that it was dissimilar to the diverse dinosaurian faunas that are so well documented…To test the hypothesis that Barney is a reptile descended from the true dinosaurs, we went into the field in order to capture and study a living specimen. This we accomplished with remarkable ease, as Barney was advertised to be appearing at a local shopping mall.”

• Horse Calculus. “The idea is that a heart is like a little battery, pushing weak electric currents in a three-dimensional pattern round the body…During each heartbeat, the vector (tip of the arrow) draws a loop – the heart loop – whose shape is a powerful diagnostic of health. Therefore it is useful to measure this loop…His specific question was: does the theory apply to a real horse or only to an ideal cylindrical horse…The moral of this is that applications of mathematical knowledge can be unexpected; you may find yourself taking a surface integral over a horse.”

• Which Feels Heavier – A Pound of Lead or a Pound of Feathers? “Which weighs more – a pound of lead or a pound of feathers?” The seemingly naive answer to the familiar riddle is the pound of lead. The correct answer, of course, is that they weigh the same amount. We investigated whether the naive answer to the riddle might have a basis in perception. When blindfolded participants hefted a pound of lead and a pound of feathers each contained in boxes of identical size, shape, and mass, they reported that the box containing the pound of lead felt heavier at a level above chance.”

Lurking beneath the unusual is some potentially useful scientific research.

Weekly Focus – Think About It

“Being a scientist is like being an explorer. You have this immense curiosity, this stubbornness, this resolute will that you will go forward no matter what other people say.”
                                     –Sara Seager, Professor of Planetary Science and Physics
                                                                at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

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Commentary – 5/30/17

The Markets

Is preparing for the future more important than enjoying the present?

There is a lot to enjoy today. Last week, Financial Times wrote:

“Wall Street ended an impressive week on a steady note – eking out a tiny gain to a fresh record close – as oil prices recouped some of the previous day’s steep losses and the latest U.S. Gross Domestic Product data reinforced expectations for a June rate rise.”

In fact, U.S. equities have been performing well for some time. The Standard & Poor’s (S&P) 500 Index achieved new highs 18 times during 2016 and, so far in 2017, we’ve scored 20 closing highs, including three last week.

While it’s important to enjoy current gains in U.S. stock markets, it’s equally important to prepare for the future. Bull markets don’t continue forever. They often experience corrections. A correction during a bull market is a 10 percent decline in the value of a stock, bond, or another investment. Often, corrections are temporary adjustments followed by additional market gains, but they can be a signal a bear market or recession is ahead.

One investment professional cited by CNBC believes a correction may occur soon. “Gundlach expects the 10-year Treasury yield to move higher, and a summer interest rate rise should ‘go along with a correction in the stock market.’”

Barron’s cautioned strong employment numbers also may signal a downturn is ahead:

“Think about it: Jobs are a classic lagging indicator, and bouts of high unemployment and economic distress are often accompanied by falling stocks. By the time the economy improves enough to enjoy full employment, share prices will reflect that rosier outlook. That’s not to say stocks can’t do well following periods of full employment…Unemployment was 2.5 percent in 1953, and yet the market delivered big gains over the next seven years. But stocks happened to be very cheap in 1953, with a cyclically adjusted price-to-earnings ratio of just 11.6 times…That valuation is now pushing 29 times.”

There is no way to know when a correction or market downturn may occur, but if history proves out, one is likely at some point in the future.

ARE AMERICANS VACATION AVOIDERS? Project: Time Off reports Americans spent 16.8 days on vacation during 2016, on average. That was an improvement from 2015, when the average was 16.2, but it was well below the 20.3 days a year spent on holiday from 1978 through 2000.

The shortening of American vacations owes something to both fear and ambition, according to Project: Time Off:

“Americans are still worried about job security when it comes to taking time off. More than a quarter (26 percent) say they fear that taking vacation could make them appear less dedicated at work, just under a quarter (23 percent) say they do not want to be seen as replaceable, and more than a fifth (21 percent) say they worry they would lose consideration for a raise or promotion.”

While waiving a few vacation days may impress the boss, there are some significant economic consequences. For instance:

Forfeiting 206 million vacation days in 2016 cost employees $66.4 billion in aggregate and about $604 individually.
The increase in vacation day usage from 2016 to 2017 contributed $37 billion to the U.S. economy, helped create 278,000 jobs, and generated $11 billion in additional income across the country.

As it turns out, gender and job title are good predictors of the likelihood vacation days will remain unused. Last year, men were more likely than women to use all of their vacation days, even though women were more likely to say that vacation was extremely important.

The same was true of senior management. Company leaders believe corporate culture encourages vacation and often hear about the value of taking vacation, but are unlikely to use all of their vacations days.

Weekly Focus – Think About It

“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”
                                                                                            –Jack Kerouac, American author

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Commentary – 5/22/17

The Markets

How much is too much?

There has been no shortage of drama since the new administration took office – legislative setbacks, controversial hiring and firing, and fiery tweets on various topics. Regardless, U.S. investors and markets remained stalwart until last week when the CBOE Volatility Index (a.k.a. the fear gauge) jumped 46 percent higher and markets declined.

Financial Times explained:

“…a range of stock benchmarks made their biggest single-day fall since November, as the political controversy over Donald Trump ties with Russia undermined investors’ faith in the administration’s ability to enact its pro-growth policies. Markets subsequently steadied, but investors are primed for further volatility as the White House faces the distraction of a lengthy inquiry led by an independent special counsel.”

Markets recovered some ground late in the week as the influence of Washington, D.C. drama was offset by strong earnings news. On Friday, FactSet reported first quarter earnings results were in for 95 percent of the companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 (S&P 500) Index and 75 percent had beaten estimates. Altogether, corporate earnings were about 6.0 percent higher than expected.

Earnings performance was particularly strong for companies in the Information Technology, Healthcare, and Financials sectors, and relatively weak for companies in the Telecom Services, Real Estate, and Consumer Staples sectors.

Brace yourself. Next week may be bouncy. The Federal Reserve Open Market Committee will release minutes from its most recent meeting. In addition, we’ll receive the administration’s proposed budget, along with new economic data and consumer sentiment readings.

ARE YOU HELPING YOUR ADULT CHILDREN FINANCIALLY? In 2015, Pew Research investigated whether aging parents received more assistance from adult children or adult children received more assistance from parents. In the United States, Italy, and Germany, they found parents provide more financial assistance to their adult children than the adult children provide to their parents.

The survey found 39 percent of American parents had helped their adult children with errands, housework, or home repairs during the past twelve months, and 48 percent had helped with childcare. Almost two-thirds had provided monetary support. Financial help appeared to be contingent on parents’ circumstances. Those with higher household incomes were more likely to give money to adult children.

Becoming the ‘Bank of Mom and Dad’ can be a slippery slope, according to AARP Magazine. Since parent-child relationships can be emotionally fraught, it’s sometimes difficult to gauge when financial assistance is a good idea and when it’s not. Should you pay for a car repair? Help with the down payment on a home or apartment? Foot the bill for a grandchild’s private school or college? Fund a lavish wedding? Help with medical bills?

The AARP suggested answering four questions, using a scale of 0 to 5, may help parents determine whether to give money to an adult child. The questions are:

1. Will this investment add stability and security to my child’s life?
(0 = entirely optional; 5 = absolutely necessary)
2. Is this a short-term or one-time cash need, or is it something that could go on for years?
(0 = guaranteed, long-term payouts; 5 = absolutely just one time)
3. Is there risk in the investment beyond the cash outlay, such as financial liability on a contract or damage to your credit?
(0 = very high levels of risk; 5 = no additional risks)
4. Can you lend or give this money without fear of damaging your relationship with your child? Or, will it cause tensions or resentments for the people involved?
(0 = guaranteed tensions or resentments; 5 = everyone is happy)

If the combined answers total 13 or higher, the answer is yes, give money to your adult child. If the total is less than 13, you may want to think twice before opening your wallet.

Weekly Focus – Think About It

“Life is to be lived, not controlled; and humanity is won by continuing to play in face of certain defeat.”
                                                               –Ralph Ellison, American author of ‘Invisible Man’

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Commentary – 5/15/17

The Markets

Does performance tell the whole story?

American stock markets have delivered some exceptional performance in recent years. Just look at the Standard & Poor’s 500 (S&P 500) Index. Barron’s reported the S&P 500, including reinvested dividends, has returned 215 percent since April 30, 2009. The index is currently trading 50 percent above its 2007 high.

The rest of the world’s stocks, as measured by the MSCI EAFE Index, which includes stocks from developed countries in Europe, Australia, and the Far East, returned 97 percent in U.S. dollars during the same period. At the end of April, the MSCI EAFE Index was 20 percent below its 2007 high.

If you subscribe to the ‘buy low, sell high’ philosophy of investing then these performance numbers may have you thinking about portfolio reallocation. However, performance doesn’t tell the full story.

For example, there’s a significant difference between the types of companies included in the two indices. At the end of April, Information Technology stocks comprised 22.5 percent of the S&P 500 Index and just 5.7 percent of the MSCI EAFE Index. Financial stocks accounted for 14.1 percent of the S&P 500 and 21.4 percent of MSCI EAFE.

It’s important to dig beneath the surface and understand the drivers behind performance before making assumptions or changing portfolio allocations.

Even so, European stocks have the potential to deliver decent performance this year, according to Barron’s. “The case for a revival in European stocks, particularly the Continent’s many multinationals, rests in large part on expectations for improving global growth…This year Europe’s GDP is expected to increase by about 2 percent, after growing 1.7 percent in 2016 – better than the U.S.’s 1.6 percent.”

Last week, the S&P 500 Index moved slightly lower.

THE HERD OF UNICORNS IS GROWING. Since 1996, the value of companies listed on American stock exchanges has increased from 105 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) to 136 percent of GDP, according to The Economist. (GDP is the value of all goods and services produced in the United States.)

During the same period, the number of companies listed on American exchanges has fallen from 7,322 to 3,671.

This fact might lead you to surmise that a few businesses have become dominant in their industries, but that’s not the case. Many companies are choosing to remain private rather than issue shares through an Initial Public Offering (IPO) and then trade on an exchange. Financial Times explained:

“Over the past 10 years the number of initial public offerings in the United States, and the total amount of equity raised by them, are way down on historical averages. If these had held there would have been more than 3,000 new public companies in the past decade. Instead, we have had fewer than half the number of IPOs.”

Why don’t the leaders of vibrant young companies want to issue shares? There may be several reasons:

• Technology-intensive businesses may need less capital.
• It’s relatively easy to raise money in private equity markets.
• Regulatory requirements for public companies increase litigation risk from securities class actions.
• Private markets are better at allowing companies to take a long-term perspective.

The reluctance to take companies public has fattened the world’s herd of unicorns – private firms worth over $1 billion that are not subject to public-company standards for accounting and disclosure. There are currently about 100 of them.

Weekly Focus – Think About It

“It may be possible to gild pure gold, but who can make his mother more beautiful?”
                                               –Mahatma Gandhi, Leader, Indian independence movement

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Commentary – 5/8/17

The Markets

Is it complacency? Exuberance? Uncertainty? Exhaustion? Insight? Intuition?

Last week, all three major U.S. stock markets gained value and two reached new record highs. On the face of it, that’s great news for stock investors. However, if you look below the surface, the markets’ upward trend may have you scratching your head.

Barron’s reported:

“That the S&P would hit a new high was all the more surprising given the lack of reaction to major headlines throughout the week. On the plus side of the ledger, Congress managed to avoid a shutdown, while on the downside, President Donald Trump tweeted that the U.S. ‘needs a good shutdown,’ and the Federal Reserve appeared more hawkish than prognosticators had been prognosticating. Nothing. Then there’s the prospect of a shocker in the French election over the weekend, though the pro-Europe candidate Emmanuel Macron is widely expected to beat the more-radical Marine Le Pen. Yet here we are. ‘It’s like the market took Novocain and is numb to everything,’ says Thomas Lee, head of research at Fundstrat Global Advisors.”

It may be investors give more weight to company performance during the first quarter than to other factors. So far, 83 percent of the companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 (S&P 500) Index have reported first quarter earnings (earnings measure a company’s profitability). Three-fourths of the companies reported earnings were higher than had been estimated, reported FactSet.

Strong earnings show companies have performed well. Price-Earning (P/E) ratios help investors gauge whether a company’s stock, or a stock index, is a good value. The P/E ratio indicates the dollar amount an investor may pay to receive one dollar of a company’s or an index’s earnings, according to Investopedia.

Last Friday, the trailing 12-month P/E ratio for the S&P 500 Index was 21.9. That’s quite a lot higher than the five-year average of 17.4 or the 10-year average of 16.7.

At the same time, the forward 12-month P/E ratio for the S&P 500 Index was 17.5. That’s also a lot higher than the five-year average of 15.2 or the 10-year average of 14.0.

So, why are highly valued markets moving higher? It’s a puzzle.

IS THE U.S. GOVERNMENT WELL RUN? Stop rolling your eyes. The Economist reported Steve Ballmer, former head of a large tech company, has been working on a new project – completing Form 10-K for the United States of America. The project is called USA Facts: Our nation, in numbers.

If you’re not familiar with Form 10-K, it is the global gold standard of corporate disclosure. United States regulators require public companies to provide comprehensive overviews of their businesses and financial condition each year, including audited financial statements. The information is provided on Form 10-K.

USA Facts aggregates publicly available data from federal, state, and local governments. It then groups the data into four operating divisions based on the ‘missions’ described in the U.S. Constitution:

• Establish justice and ensure domestic tranquility
• Provide for the common defense
• Promote the general welfare
• Secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity

After reviewing USA Facts, The Economist wrote:

“Governance is poor. The country is not managed using a coherent taxonomy. So, for example, the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the White House each split the job of running America into roughly 20 operating divisions. But their categories are different, meaning crossed wires and insufficient accountability…”

The findings aren’t much of a surprise. The government does not compare favorably to corporations. It has a profit margin of negative 3 percent. (The S&P 500 average is 8 percent.) It invests more in the future than most companies. Research and development and capital expenditures are 12 percent of revenue. (The S&P 500 average is 8 percent.) Debt is 289 percent of tax revenues, which are a proxy for sales. (The S&P 500 average is 77 percent.)

If you’d like to review the numbers, visit USAFacts.org.

Weekly Focus – Think About It

“Ignorance and fear are but matters of the mind – and the mind is adaptable.”
                                                –Daniel Kish, President of World Access for the Blind

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Commentary – 5/1/17

 

The Markets

It was a good week to own stocks.

Not all financial news was good news last week, but that didn’t prevent U.S. stock markets from moving higher. Barron’s reported on the good news:

“This past week, welcome political news from Europe, a batch of stellar corporate-earnings reports, and a concrete tax proposal to cut corporate and some personal rates sharply gave the bull even more reasons to rally. By Friday’s close, the Dow Jones industrials and other market measures were standing near all-time highs.”

Overall, corporate earnings were quite strong during the first quarter of 2017, according to FactSet. With 58 percent of the companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index reporting in, earnings are showing double-digit growth for the first time since 2011.

That’s exhilarating news for investors.

Economists had less to celebrate. The Commerce Department’s first estimate indicated the U.S. economy got off to a slow start during 2017. Gross domestic product (GDP), which measures the value of all goods and services produced, came in below expectations and grew at the slowest rate in three years. Bloomberg reported:

“The GDP slowdown owes partly to transitory forces such as warm weather and volatility in inventories, which supports forecasts for a rebound as high confidence among companies and consumers and a solid job market underpin growth. Even so, the weakness at car dealers could weigh on expansion, and further gains in business investment could depend on the extent of policy support such as tax cuts.”

Keep an eye on Congress and the Federal Reserve. Changing fiscal and monetary policies are expected to have a significant influence on markets and the economy.

WHAT DID YOU SAY? If you find yourself tuning-out in loud restaurants, asking people to repeat themselves frequently, or cupping an ear in an effort to better understand what a friend or colleague is saying, then you may be interested to learn that hearing loss is one of the most prevalent health issues for older Americans. It ranks third, right behind arthritis and heart disease, according to the Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA).

Hearing loss isn’t just an issue for older Americans, though. Twenty percent of American teenagers experience hearing loss, and it’s a significant issue for combat soldiers and veterans. The Washington Post reported:

“A study by the Journal of General Internal Medicine, which covered over 90,000 veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq seeking VA care from fiscal 2006-2007, may serve as a general guide. Among male veterans seeking VA care, 16.4 percent to 26.6 percent suffer from serious hearing loss and tinnitus, and 7.3 percent to 13.4 percent of female veterans are affected. How much of this is combat-related or due to environmental factors such as background noise, training, and even medication is unknown.”

Remarkably, many people ignore their hearing loss. Just 16 percent of Americans (age 69 or younger) with hearing issues use hearing devices. It’s a decision that can have serious consequences since studies have linked hearing loss and cognitive decline, reported NPR.

A new generation of hearing devices, called personal sound amplification products (PSAPs), may help reduce the stigma attached to wearing hearing aids. They’re designed to look like stylish fashion accessories or ear buds, and they’re controlled with smartphone apps.

The real selling point may prove to be that PSAPs are far less expensive than traditional hearing aids.

Weekly Focus – Think About It

“Most of the successful people I’ve known are the ones who do more listening than talking.”
                                                  –Bernard Baruch, American financier and statesman

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Commentary – 4/24/17

The Markets

Last week, investors multi-tasked, pushing both U.S. bond and stock markets higher.

In March, the Federal Reserve raised the Fed funds rates for the second time in three months. Typically, we would expect interest rates to rise and bond prices to fall, but interest rates have been falling and bond prices have been moving higher. Barron’s reported yields on 10-year Treasuries hit their lowest levels since the election last week.

Reuters explained there has been a shift in expectations:

“Bonds prices have been boosted in recent weeks by reduced expectations that the Federal Reserve will raise interest rates two more times this year, following disappointing economic data releases. Still, Fed Vice Chair Stanley Fischer said on Friday that two more U.S. rate increases this year remain an appropriate plan for the Federal Reserve despite some weak recent economic data.”

Geopolitical anxiety continued to play a role in market performance, too, causing investors to flee to safe havens, which contributed to bond market strength.

Geopolitics didn’t cause U.S. stock markets to swoon, though. Barron’s reported:

“Stocks’ on-again, off-again rally was on again last week, and it took the Standard & Poor’s 500 index to within sniffing distance of its March 1 record. Climbing in the face of geopolitical anxiety from Paris to Pyongyang is bullish, as is preserving the upward slope of the index’s 200-day average. But there are signs of wavering conviction…”

That wavering conviction is found in investors’ preference for a small group of tech stocks, as well as more defensive sectors of the market. Through mid-April, just 10 stocks accounted for one-half of the S&P 500’s gain during 2017.

A possible motto for 2017: Expect the unexpected.

MOBILE TECHNOLOGY: THE NEXT GENERATION. Faster and more efficient mobile phones are on the horizon. That’s right, 5G is almost here, according to Network World.

If you were never quite sure what distinguished 1G from 2G, or 3G from 4G, much less 4G from 5G, the answer depends on whom you ask (or in this case, what you read). PC Magazine explained the technology:

“1G was analog cellular. 2G technologies, such as CDMA, GSM, and TDMA, were the first generation of digital cellular technologies. 3G technologies, such as EVDO, HSPA, and UMTS, brought speeds from 200kbps to a few megabits per second. 4G technologies, such as WiMAX and LTE, were the next incompatible leap forward, and they are now scaling up to hundreds of megabits and even gigabit-level speeds.”

The Economist, on the other hand, explained the benefits to users: speed of communication. 5G is different from earlier generations of wireless broadband because it can:

“…send and receive signals almost instantaneously. The “latency” (i.e., the lag between initiating an action and getting a response) that has hobbled mobile phones will be a thing of the past. When 3G phones were the bee’s knees, the time taken for two wireless devices to communicate with one another was around 500 milliseconds. That half-second lag could make conversation frustrating. A decade later, 4G had cut the latency to 60 milliseconds or so – not bad, but still an age when waiting for crucial, time-sensitive data, especially from the cloud.”

5G mobile networks may be up and running by the time the South Korean Winter Olympics roll around in 2018, according to The Economist.

Weekly Focus – Think About It

“Try putting your iPhones down every once in a while, and look at people’s faces.”
                                                                                              –Amy Poehler, Comedian

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