Getting Back on Course

On a camping trip with the kids this past weekend, my daughter stayed in the woods to cut down a tree branch… my friend and his kids continued hiking back to our campsite.  When she had finished, we picked up our gear and began our trek to catch up with everyone else.  But unaware, I took a wrong turn and led us deeper into the woods.  After about ten minutes of hiking, it was apparent to her that we were lost.  A few minutes later she started to tear up and become afraid.

Having hunted in these same woods over fifteen years I knew we were safe.  My frustration was that I had led us in the wrong direction… and I knew it would take much longer now to get back to camp.  Her shoes were wet, her spirit beginning to break, and all she wanted was to be back with her friends (and to eat lunch).  Can’t say I blame her… as an eight year old (like her) I remember getting lost in my Mamaw’s neighborhood one time.  The word “fun” has never been used to describe that experience. 

Now, in the woods with my daughter, I began to experience a different fear… “what if” my six year old son had turned back for us and not continued on with my friend and his kids?  JB could easily assume that my son had stayed with me and would likewise be unaware anything was amiss.  That meant my son could be lost in the woods by himself… perhaps even feeling like I did as a lost child?  And to make matters worse, I left my cell phone in the tent, so there was not any quick phone call back to make sure all was okay (or to get a simple four-wheeler ride back to camp).

The mind began to run… and in a short while I was starting to feel a little panic like my daughter.  I had no control over my son’s situation and that is difficult for a parent.  But that’s when a simple thought landed.  I had a choice… to feed my daughter’s fear, or to turn our current situation into a learning experience.  We stopped, I said a quick prayer for my boy (and for us) and then began to point out signs to her.  Observing what was around us, we rather quickly found our way out of the woods and onto a familiar trail.  Then I let her take over and she eventually led us out to the road.  From there, we were back at camp within a few more minutes only to find her brother roasting s’mores over the campfire.

Thinking back on this experience I am reminded how easy it is to get caught up in hype, fear, or chasing trends with our investments that the “noise” around us soon causes us to lose focus.  We become distracted, and before long realize we aren’t following our plan.  We have taken a wrong turn and are no longer on course… or we simply become afraid, which can lead to emotional decisions that aren’t good for us.  There is much value in learning to stop and observe before we take action.  Through this practice we can make better decisions to get us back on track, and it’s how my daughter learned to get out of the woods!

Remember to “like us” on Facebook to keep up with our updates as they are posted!

What’s causing all the volatility?

Europe. But before we try to explain, let’s remember all the problems when we turned the corner into September. The markets were burdened with the possibilities of entering another U.S. recession, Europe had debt issues, there was a recent downgrade of U.S. debt, and it appeared our politicians in Washington were adding on more issues. Not to mention we were still dealing with supply disruptions and Japan’s economic fears caused by the Japanese earthquake.

Now it appears most of these fears, except Europe, have dissipated for the time being. Moreover the U.S. economy is showing some signs of growth, corporate earnings have held up fairly well, and the S&P 500 has regained 8.5% since the bottom on October 3rd according to Morningstar data.

So what is Europe’s problem? It seems the culprit could be the four letter word: Debt. More specifically, as the fallout from the U.S. sub-prime mortgage problems spread and economies around the world slowed, the so-called “PIGS” of Europe (Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Spain) showed signs of defaulting on their debt. Many believe the reckless, socialistic government spending of the past, as well as weak economies may have brought some other small countries into risk. And not being under one government rule, both the citizens and politicians in the stronger European countries (France, Germany, etc.) may not be willing to provide the necessary aid these countries require.

Yes, we have serious government debt issues in the U.S. As of recent we have seen our politicians “kick the can” down the road. The most recent occurrence of this was the Super Committee failure last week to provide significant helpful solutions.

Sure we could eventually be exactly where Europe is today, and with serious ramifications. However as for now, and excluding our government debt, our banks, consumers, and corporations have made significant progress since 2008 in improving their financial position and building larger amounts of cash to possibly weather another storm if it comes.

What could the European problems mean to our economy? On Monday’s CNBC broadcast, the discussion mentioned that the possibility Europe’s “pain” could actually be our “gain”. In other words, more foreign capital could find its way to the U.S. (via investments into the U.S. dollar and treasuries) and eventually make its way into our stock market. But more serious pains could rise up, according to Miles Betro of Fidelity Investments, should there be a major bank failure in Europe. He suggests that we could see another “Lehman-type” event that could trim as much as 1.5% off our economy (GDP). If this happens we could move right back into a new recession.

So when will this volatility end? The consensus among investment experts is no time soon. It appears it’s going to take more time and pain before days become a little more predictable for the markets. Please know we realize this may be a scary and even tiring time for investors to see markets drop 200 to 300 points in the matter of just a few minutes. If we may suggest a helpful “tip” remember that volatility can also work to the upside. Just yesterday we saw the DJIA up 291 points.

And finally, try to focus on what things will be like a year or two from now rather than the next day or even month. In other words, could the deals today be the catalyst for better performance down the road? We believe so, and look forward to that day! Is this not the true definition of an investor?

Market Update 7/5/2011

Since our last Blog on June 7, the market has moved positively in spite of many predictors. This is while news headlines have reported repeatedly on Greece possibly defaulting on their debt, a possible slowdown in the US economy, as well as the U.S. debt ceiling problems in Washington. In fact, just last week the market was up 4%. And since our last post (June 7), see the changes below…

DOW Jones +1.1%
S&P 500 +0.3%
Nasdaq +1.8%
Note: June 7 close through July 1 close; Source: Yahoo! Finance

There is a saying that many times proves itself true… ”The stock market climbs a wall of worry”. What this means is that the stock market can go up in spite of lots of bad news. Since June 7 this appears to be the case.

Going forward on a short-term basis it’s impossible to predict the stock market. However, as far as the economy we could see some slow improvements caused by increased supply shipments from Japan since the earthquake (helping manufacturers such as auto, technology, etc.), and declining gas prices. Just this morning we have seen that Factory Orders released today for May showed a +0.8% improvement over April. We will keep our fingers-crossed hoping this slow-down is just a temporary “soft patch”.

Summer Update

With mid-2011 upon us, now may be a good time to provide an update on key economic issues and the market outlook. So let’s review the “macro” view of things.

If you will remember, last August the Federal Reserve announced their next strategy (QE2) to help support and possibly kick-start our slow economy. The markets read the potential positives of QE2, at least to the stock markets, and we saw the “best” September in years. The markets continued to rally through the end of the year and the mood of the consumer was more positive.

After the first part of 2011 we started getting more positive indicators such as increased retail sales (a good Christmas and consumers spending a little more), some signs of job improvements (even reports of companies hiring), and consumer confidence increasing. However mortgage interest rates rose and the housing sector was still showing signs of no improvement. Additionally gasoline prices at the pump jumped almost $1 approaching $4/gallon. It’s believed all the new money “sloshing” around in the economy created by QE2 found its way into the stock, commodities, and energy markets creating a “playing ground” for short-term speculators.

Now we are in the first of June, and we are hearing the economy isn’t doing as good as we had thought. For instance, economic growth (GDP) in the first quarter was only 1.8% (much slower than what the economy should be emerging out of a recession). Next, the jobs picture deteriorated again in May. And then finally the housing sector is extremely weak with some new price declines in some of the major markets (Florida, California, etc.). Remember up to this point we have been trying to restart our economy without any help from the Housing Sector, which is a very important part of our economy (construction, building materials, appliances, home furnishings, etc.).

So with all this being said, expect some version of the following this summer:

1) More, intense political wrangling and blaming from both sides. With Congress and the White House pushing the deadline to August to raise our nation’s debt ceiling expect more blaming and whining from our “adolescents” in Washington. When the deadline finally comes more than likely the debt ceiling will be increased with some compromise on government spending (but less than we need).

2) Gasoline prices. With the economy starting to signal a soft-spot, Europe continuing to have problems, and the emerging economies (China, India, Brazil, etc.) trying to contain their growth to minimize their inflation, it’s possible you may see noticeable gasoline price declines at the pump. In fact that appears to be starting to happen even now.

3) Mortgage rates. Mortgage rates have dropped again about 0.75% and credit-worthy people can now find 4.5% on 30-year fixed mortgages and 4.0% on 15-year fixed mortgages. This can actually become a great time for people to buy a home or refinance.

4) Volatile markets. Since the Federal Reserve’s QE2 program the markets have been very stable with lower volatility. In other words we haven’t seen many days where the DJIA dropped greater than 200 points. As the Federal Reserve unwinds QE2 you may see more volatile swings in the stock markets. So don’t be surprised and try not to let that scare you.

How are the markets going to respond to all of this? Well, no one knows. Remember everyone thought this past September would be horrible and it was the best single-month September ever for the stock market. Also keep in mind after the major crash of 2008-2009 and in a very, unprecedented scary time in our economic history the DJIA has gained 92.0% (3/9/2009 – 5/31/2011, WSJ).

Now I could speculate and you will hear others who will tell you “exactly” what they believe the markets will do. Further, you can go out and buy all the books you want telling you what’s going to happen both now and later. In fact if you like “horror or fiction” there are plenty new books written about America’s doom days ahead. But understand that we’ll only know “for sure” after it’s happened!

Yes, your investment allocation needs to be correct and needs to be reviewed and adjusted periodically which we will continue to do for our clients. But please try to not let this stuff scare you or cause you to “derail” from a well thought out investment plan. And if you feel the need to “time” your investments (in and out of the market), then let me direct you back to our blog to an earlier post titled “A Crash Overhang”.

So in summary, go about your life and enjoy it. Try not to try to react to what you are going to hear (or even try to fix). And this summer may be a good time to avoid the Business and News TV channels as they hype all the negatives.

Is this the Same Kind of Fire?

Being burned so badly in 2008-09, many investors are wondering why the markets are selling off and if this is a repeat of the last big correction. No one can say for sure, but this correction doesn’t feel like the one we experienced in ‘08. Here are a few factors we are hearing that may be the cause.

1) Necessary Correction due to large run-up the last 12-months. Since the March 9th low in 2009, the S&P 500 rebounded 79% through April 23rd high close in 2010. This is a pretty significant rebound, so profit-taking or some amount of correction should happen eventually as this is a natural cycle for markets. Interesting to note, since April 23rd the S&P 500 has corrected -12% through May 26th. (Sources: Morningstar, Inc. and Wall Street Journal)

2) Global Economic & Debt Issues (Euro-zone countries). In the news as of late are the government debt problems in Greece, with the possibility of spreading into Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Italy. Remember Greece is only approximately the size of the state of Indiana. Nevertheless up to this point Europe has not convinced the investment community that they will make the tough decisions and deal constructively with their serious government debt issues. If Europe gets it’s act together, we could see the markets improve overnight.

3) Possible Global economic slow-down affecting the U.S. Economy. We now live in a Global economy as many U.S. companies (Caterpillar, Proctor & Gamble, GE, IBM, Cisco, etc.) sell some of their goods and services outside the US. If these foreign customers buy less goods and services from us, then our economy could slow down again. This is why we are starting to hear news services talk of the possibility of a “Double-Dip” Recession. Hopefully Europe’s problems won’t be “systemic” and spread, but no one knows for sure at this point in time. Outside of this, the U.S. economy is slowly improving and appears to be able to weather Europe’s problems.

4) Geo-Political Issues. From the North Korean/South Korean conflicts and the continuing Iran/Israel nuclear saga create political uncertainty which can also revamp market volatility. Plus many legislative changes coming from the White House and Congress such as Finance Reform, Healthcare Reform, talks of Cap and Trade, etc. indicate to the markets that the government is growing in both control and debt. Until these issues settle down, potentially larger government can produce some degree of uncertainty and increased market volatility.

Remember the markets hate uncertainty. When uncertainty exists, markets tend to increase in volatility and money begins to move around, increased hedging can occur, and securities can become shorted, etc. All of this makes market direction almost impossible to determine on a short-term basis. This is why advisors strongly suggest that investors not get caught up in making knee-jerk changes to short-term corrections.

Hopefully this helps explain some of the reasons we are experiencing so much continued volatility in 2010. Though we may be wrong, what we are hearing is that this should not be a repeat of the market problems we experienced in 2008. We are still hopeful and believe markets will settle down at some point, usually when we least expect it. The advice we can give is that it’s usually best for an investor to develop good, long-term investment plans that can weather the many short-term bumps in the road. Quite possibly, if an investor can’t do this, they may need to avoid non-guaranteed investments (stocks, bonds, etc.) and settle for potentially much lower returns.

In the meantime consider these positives: declining interest rates (30-year mortgages are now below 5%), cheaper gas prices, as well as zero inflation. Hopefully some short-term positives will put more money in your wallet while you wait for your portfolio to grow again.