Is wealth creation possible amidst irony? We certainly hope so, because the financial world seems intent on placing itself in ironic situations. The business phrase that “you don’t know if you have a great company until it has gone through a near-death experience” is attributed to Jack Welch a former CEO of General Electric Company (GE). The financial crisis of 2008 put GE, which by then had moved from being an industrial company to being a financial company, into a near-death experience. The irony is that the experience is dismantling GE, not strengthening it. The financial arm left long ago. The health care arm left recently. The power sector arm will leave soon, and GE will become its aviation arm.
Rising inflation and rising interest rates were the primary reasons the S&P 500 Index returned -18.1% and the iShares Core US Aggregate Bond ETF returned -13.0% for 2022. Fortunately, inflation now seems to be dissipating. Stocks already reflect some of the good news, returning +7.6% in the fourth quarter while bonds returned +1.6% (bond yields fall when bond prices rise). The bull case for 2023 depends largely on whether the Fed “pivots” changing from tightening to easing monetary policy—but in the meantime a recession still looks probable.
The combination of services offered, the structure at Woodstock and the skills accumulated here is unique and very beneficial to our investment clients.
Where are Americans’ retirement assets? As of June 30, 2022, IRAs were the most popular vehicle, according to data from the Investment Company Institute, with $11.7 trillion. Defined contribution plans—such as 401(k), 403(b) and other plans—hold $9.3 trillion. The time-honored defined benefit plans hold a total of $10.5 trillion, but these are skewed to government plans ($7.3 trillion); private sector plans hold just $3.2 trillion because of the government’s excessive regulation of private defined benefit plans. The surprise is that annuity reserves account for only $2.2 trillion. The grand total is $33.7 trillion worth of assets invested. The pension benefit obligations of defined benefit plans, particularly for government plans, may be more than the assets, meaning they are underfunded.
The major news stories of the day will have an impressive impact on the financial markets: Russia’s war in Ukraine, escalating China versus US competition, and the worldwide effort to control inflation. However, there are minor story lines which may show an investor a path through the turmoil: the put-spread collar, liability-driven investing, and which financial market “rules.”
We are all data dependent and we will all react together. The entire world is data dependent. In this observer’s opinion, the phrase “data dependent” may be the second most commonly used term behind “climate change” today. Federal Reserve policy makers are data dependent. Corporate managements are data dependent, and because security analysts rely on company guidance for the bulk of their revenue and earnings growth forecasts, stock opinions and ratings are data dependent. No wonder there is so much attention and focus on this Fed meeting or that real GDP and unemployment report or what bond yields are doing and whether the curve is inverted or not. It is a large laboratory experiment in large group action and reaction.
The stock market has seen its share of peaks and valleys over the years. The peaks can be a euphoric time with the rapid growth of account market values and the accompanying wealth effect. Conversely, the valleys can have just the opposite effect—both fiscally and mentally. To see your statement market value moving in the wrong direction can bring about a feeling of helplessness. Many people need a certain performance return on their savings to meet daily living expenses or to one day comfortably retire, and the equity market has historically proven to be an effective place to meet the necessary return. We need the good, but would prefer to avoid the bad (risk!). So, how should an investor react to the recent market pullback?
According to figures for tax receipts for the nine months ended June 30, 2022, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) was projected to take in $5 trillion for fiscal year 2022, ending September 30th. Last year’s figure was $4 trillion. For the period through June 30, 2022, individual income tax receipts made up 56% of the amount taken in and social security and retirement receipts made up 29 percent. The other 15% is made up of corporate income taxes, excise taxes, and custom duties, with estate and gift taxes making up just .6% of the total. The year-over-year increase in receipts would lead one to believe that the federal government has a spending problem, not a revenue problem. National defense is just 13% of spending. Social Security, income security, health and Medicare make up 65% of expenditures.
Technology is allowing an investment strategy that was previously available mostly to high-net-worth clients to now be mass marketed: A customized portfolio can be offered to every client. Compared to a passive portfolio invested in pooled investments products, “direct indexing” seeks to mimic an index by owning all, or a representative portion, of the stocks in the index, individually. The next step to “custom indexing” allows the broker and the client to pick and choose those stocks from the index to invest in and hold. The new products introduce the concept of tax-loss selling and its benefits to a wider audience. Not too long ago, Wall Street had suggested tax law changes to Congress which would have curtailed tax loss selling generally. Hopefully, the new push to mass market custom indexing will prevent that from recurring.
The first half of 2022 was the worst first half for stocks since 1970 and the worst six months for bonds since 1980. The S&P 500 Index returned -20.0% while the iShares US Core Aggregate Bond ETF returned ‑10.2 percent. The 10-year US Treasury finished June yielding 3.02%, double the 1.51% at which it began the year. Reversing much of the stock market’s strong performance in 2021 (+28.7%), stock price levels returned roughly back to where they were in March 2021. Stocks are trading at cheaper valuations now. Markets have been rocked not only by runaway inflation, but also by the Fed’s prescription to rein it in.