Inflation continues to be low...and rather than strengthening, it is actually weakening.
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We've all seen the dramatic improvement in the US unemployment rate in recent years. More indications that this is spreading to other nations come from France, where unemployment has fallen to levels not seen since 2012. Although the rate is still relatively high, the trend is positive, and President Macron intends to introduce policies which would spur further improvement.
Trends in the housing market courtesy of the Case-Shiller price index data:
First, it is remarkable to me that 13 of the top 20 metropolitan areas have yet to reach the prices of 2005. Nationwide, we are slightly ahead of the peak of that historic bubble. Denver and Dallas have risen the highest about the 2005 levels, while Las Vegas prices are still - 12 years later - one third below their peak.
Over shorter time frames, several cities stand out with particularly hot markets - Seattle and Portland most notably. Every city has seen price appreciation over the past year.
As for Washington DC, 4% price gains year over year. Nothing to set one's pulse racing, but given the political tumult of the past year, probably not a bad result.
For those of you that were unable to join us last Tuesday night, please listen to the recording of our investment conference call where I shared my thoughts on the economy, proposed government policy changes and their impacts on the markets and our portfolios.
A popular item with many of our clients are updates on what the staff at the Family Firm have been reading. As you will see, our collective interests go well beyond the realm of finance and financial planning!
Year In Review - 2016
After many years in which the financial crisis and its aftermath dominated sentiment – and outcomes – in the financial markets – 2016 was most noteworthy for the impact of political events. Since the mortgage meltdown of 2007-08 it had been the Federal Reserve along with other central bankers whose actions seemed all important. However, unexpected election results in Britain in late June and then in America’s November elections put politics at center stage. Brexit and the implications of the Republican triumph dominated much of the results in stock, bond, and currency markets during the latter months of the year.
Ironically, despite the discontent expressed by voters, most national economic statistics were relatively strong. The year was, in fact, a quite respectable one for the American economy and consumer. Moderate growth continued, purchasing power gathered strength due to low inflation, and wages rose a bit faster than in previous years as the employment market continued to expand and participation increased.
The prevalent view in recent years has been that interest rates had nowhere to go but up. That sentiment abruptly turned in mid-February, when the Fed signaled its reluctance to raise rates in the face of global economic distress. From that point on, beaten up assets such as emerging market bonds and stocks, as well as natural resource stocks, surged. The decision by British voters to exit the European Union was a shock to the financial system and seemed to ensure that the period of record low interest rates will continue indefinitely. However, in contrast to the consensus opinion, economies and markets remained steady. Later, the shock US election result produced an instant reversal in interest rate sentiments, as the prospect of potential tax cuts and increased government spending led to a surge in optimism concerning economic growth, and also raised the specter of inflation, causing interest rates to spike.
Major Economic Events
Growth in the US was moderate, although the path was bumpy. Employment expanded at an increased clip, inflation remained under control, and housing prices rose. Consumer confidence and spending remained fairly high. Manufacturing struggled, depressed by reduced energy production and the effects of the high US dollar. The anti-business and anti-trade tenor of the election had no discernible economic or financial impact.
Growth slowed in China, although various government stimulus measures provided some relief. Debt rose and the Chinese stock market was highly erratic. Resource-based economies – and individual companies – suffered from the slowdown in Chinese demand. Australia, Brazil, Russia, and Indonesia were among the nations that were negatively impacted.
Europe’s economy slowly recovered, and it seemed that the worst had passed. The European Central Bank embarked on a massive easing program. That sense of optimism was crushed in 2016 by the refugee crisis, which soon exposed the fault lines in European “unity”. Contrary to what most expected, Brexit had little effect on British and European economies, although it is still unclear how the European situation will evolve.
Oil prices touched bottom in mid-February, 2016, then rebounded sharply. American shale producers have proved quite resilient and it seems that low energy prices are likely to continue, despite the fact that demand for oil has exceeded expectations. OPEC continues to try and reassert its power over the market.
The Equity Markets
US stocks rose in each quarter and have risen for five straight quarters. The broad US equity market ended 2016 with gains of roughly 12%. Small and mid cap stocks did particularly well, particularly in the last two months of the year. Healthcare fell, as concerns over drug pricing weighed on the sector. Financial stocks surged in the post-election rally. Value stocks significantly outgained growth.
International stocks were mixed. The EAFE Index (predominantly Europe, Australia, and Japan) ended the year up just 1.0%. The various stimulative measures taken by central banks in Europe and Japan have not produced a robust turnaround. Large European banks, in particular, are being hurt by the negative interest rate policies. In emerging markets, the story was much more favorable, albeit with volatility and a large dispersion of returns. Despite poor economic statistics, equity investors are looking forward and countries such as Russia and Brazil, having been written off by many investors, turned in strong gains during 2016. Italy and Mexico were the worst performers of 2016.
Energy stocks profited from the rapid recovery in energy prices; natural resource stocks ended the year as the top asset class. American REIT prices did reasonably well, although the prospect of higher interest rates pulled them down during the last half of the year. International REITs struggled with sluggish consumer spending.
Overall, the effects of diversification from the traditional S&P 500 index were mixed. Small and mid cap stocks made significant positive contributions, as did energy stocks. International investments detracted overall, although the gains in emerging markets were not far below the American market.
The Fixed Income Markets
Bond returns were weak in the fourth quarter and this drop negated much of the gains of 2016. Nevertheless, bonds ended the year with positive results. US taxable bonds ended with a return of just under 3%. The Federal Reserve increased interest rates just once. International bonds also had a poor fourth quarter (a rising dollar inflicted much of the damage) and ended the year with only small gains. Cash and similar investments continue to languish.
For those of you that were unable to join us last Tuesday night, please listen to our Post-Election Investment Conference Call below where I discuss the implications of the November 8 election on the markets and the economy.
Dia de los Muertos, Day of the Dead, is a popular holiday in Mexico and the Southwestern United States, and is celebrated on Nov 1-2nd. Having grown up in San Diego, I was aware of the celebration and to be honest I was pretty freaked out at first by all the skull and skeleton decorations! When I came to learn that Day of the Dead was in fact a day to remember loved ones who had died and to celebrate and remember them, I became intrigued.
Talking about death is a lot like talking about money in American culture – we don’t do it. Or if we do, it is behind closed doors or in hushed voices. I love that the Day of the Dead is a celebration of life, a party with colorful decorations, lots of good food and music, and time to reflect and share the memories of those we love and miss. Moreover, it presents a wonderful opportunity to talk about death itself.
When a loved one dies, there is of course grief and sadness. This difficult and painful time can be compounded by family conflict and/or bureaucracy if appropriate measures are not put into place while the loved one is alive. While we may not like to talk or even think about death, the knowledge that we are lessening the future pain and suffering of those we leave behind is a powerful motivator to take action.
Here are some actions that can be taken to help ease the burden on surviving loved ones, in my personal order of importance:
- Have a Medical Power of Attorney aka Advanced Medical Directive aka Health Care Proxy – any document that names someone to make medical decisions on your behalf if you are incapacitated.
*Critically important for single individuals over 18 – mom and dad cannot make medical decisions for their children once they are 18 years old, and if their (adult) child is incapacitated the last thing parents want to do is have to apply to court for the ability to do so.
- Have basic estate documents in place:
- Power of Attorney (this one is for someone to make legal and financial decisions for you during your lifetime)
- Will - including guardianship if minor children are involved
- Possibly a trust – this is more advanced and should be discussed with your financial advisor and estate attorney
- Make sure that beneficiary designations on your retirement accounts and life insurance policies are up to date and reflect your wishes – you want to make sure that former spouses and or deceased beneficiaries are no longer included.
- Consider sharing your estate plan with your heirs and loved ones while you are still alive so that there are no surprises and you are still available to answer any questions. This may help to prevent hard feelings and even heirs suing one another after your death.
Estate planning takes time and effort that most of us would rather spend on just about anything else. However, failing to plan in order to ease our discomfort only passes it along (exponentially) to those we leave behind.
My grandmother Jane, “G.G.”, was 5 feet tall on a good day, often wore red, white, and blue, and loved a good party! She died 5 years ago just over the age of 91. My family and I will share stories and laugh while eating her favorite pigs-in-a-blanket on her required “little napkins” on Nov 1st this year. In this connected, festive atmosphere the stage will be set for me to ask my family about their wishes at their death? What documents are in place? What do they want their legacy for our family to be?