401k blog

Perspective on Today's Market Events

Written by Bob Veres & Gerald E Gasber, CFP®, CIMA®, CPFA.

It looks like the U.S. stock market will finally get something that happens, on average, about once a year: a 10+% percent drop—the definition of a market correction. The last time this happened was a whopper—the Great Recession drop that caused U.S. stocks to drop more than 50%--so most people today probably think corrections are catastrophic. They aren't. More typically, they last anywhere from 20 trading days (the 1997 correction, down 10.8%) to 104 days (the 2002-2003 correction, down 14.7%). Corrections are unnerving, but they're a healthy part of the economy—for a couple of reasons.

Reason #1: Because corrections happen so frequently and are so unnerving to the average investor, they "force" the stock market to be more generous than alternative investments. People buy stocks at earnings multiples which are designed to generate average future returns considerably higher than, say, cash or municipal bonds—and investors require that "risk premium" (which is what economists call it) to get on that ride. If you're going to take more risk, you should expect at least the opportunity to get considerably more reward.

Reason #2: The stock market roller coaster is too unsettling for some investors, who sell when they experience a market lurch. This gives long-term investors a valuable—and frequent—opportunity to buy stocks on sale. That, in turn, lowers the average cost of the stocks in your portfolio, which can be a boost to your long-term returns.
The current market downturn relates directly to the first reason, where you can see that bonds and stocks are always competing with each other. Monday's 4.1% decline in the S&P 500 coincided with an equally-remarkable rise in the yields on U.S. Treasury bonds. Treasuries with a 10-year maturity are now providing yields of 2.85%--hardly generous, but well above the record lows that investors were getting just 18 months ago. People who believe they can get a decent, relatively risk-free return from bond investments are tempted to abandon the bumpy ride provided by stocks for a smoother course that involves clipping coupons. Bond rates go up and the very delicate supply/demand balance shifts, at least temporarily, in their direction, and you have the recipe for a stock market correction.

This provides us all with the opportunity to do an interesting exercise. It's possible that the markets will drop further—perhaps even, as we saw during the Great Recession, much further. Or, as is more often the case, they may rebound after giving us a correction that stops short of a 20% downturn. The rebound could happen as early as tomorrow or some weeks or months from now as the correction plays out.

Once it's over, no matter how long or hard the fall, you will hear people say that they predicted the extent of the drop. So now is a good time to ask yourself: do I know what's going to happen tomorrow? Or next week? Or next month? Is this a good time to buy or sell? Does anybody seem to have a handle on what's going to happen in the future?

Record your prediction, and any predictions you happen to run across, and pull them out a month or two from now.  Chances are, you're like the rest of us. Whatever happens will come as a surprise, and then look blindingly obvious in hindsight. All we know is what has happened in the past. Today's market drop is nothing more than a data point on a chart that doesn't, alas, extend into the future.






Should We Be Alarmed?

Written by Bob Veres & Gerald E Gasber, CFP, CIMA, CPFA.

Suppose somebody came up to you and shouted: "I have terrible news about the economy. I think you should sell your stocks!"

Alarmed, you say: "Oh, my God. Tell me more!"

And this mysterious stranger shouts: "Run for the hills! The American economy just added 200,000 more jobs—more than expectations—and the U.S. jobless rate now stands at 4.1%, the lowest since 2000!"

You blink your eyes. So?

"There's more," you're told. "The average hourly earnings of American workers have risen a more-than-expected 2.9% over a year earlier, the most since June of 2009! You should sell your stocks while you can!"

Chances are, you don't find this alarmist stranger's argument very persuasive, but then again, you don't work on Wall Street. After hearing these benign government statistics, traders rushed for the exits from the opening bell to the closing, and today the S&P 500 stocks are, in aggregate, worth 2.13% less than they were yesterday. The Nasdaq Composite index fell 1.96% and the Dow Jones Industrial Average, a somewhat meaningless but well-known index, was down 2.54%.

To understand why, you need to follow some tortuous logic. According to the alarmist view, those extra 200,000 jobs might have pushed America one step closer to "maximum employment"—the very hard-to-define point where companies have trouble filling job openings, and therefore have to start offering higher wages. No, that's not a terrible thing for most of us, but the idea is that if companies have to start paying more, then they'll be able to put less in their pockets—and the rise in the hourly earnings of American workers totally confirmed the theory.

If you're an alarmist, it gets worse. If American workers are getting paid more, then companies will start charging more for whatever they produce or do, which might raise the inflation rate. "Might" is the operative word here. There hasn't been any sign of higher inflation, which is still not as high as the Federal Reserve Board wants it to be. But if you're a Wall Street trader who thinks the market is in a bubble phase, you aren't necessarily looking at facts to confirm your beliefs.

Suppose you're not an alarmist. Then you might notice that 18 states began the new year with higher minimum wages, which might have nudged up that hourly earnings figure that looked so alarming a second ago. And some companies have recently announced bonuses following the huge reduction in U.S. corporate tax rates, whose amortized amounts are also finding their way into wage statistics.

Meanwhile, those same government statistics are showing a resurgence in factory activity and a rebound in housing, which account together for more than 50,000 of those new jobs.

So the question we all have to ask ourselves is: are we alarmists? Selling in anticipation of a bear market has never been a great strategy, even though stocks are admittedly still priced higher than they have been historically.

If you are not an alarmist, then you have something to celebrate. The S&P 500 has now officially ended its longest streak without a 3% drop in its history. It's an historic run not likely to be seen by any of us again. The truth about the markets is that short, sharp pullbacks are inevitable and routine—unless you were living in the past year and a half, when we seemed to be immune from normal market behavior.




To Bit or Not to Bit: What Should Investors Make of Bitcoin Mania?

Written by Dimensional Fund Advisors LP & Gerald E Gasber, CFP®, CIMA®, CPFA.

Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are receiving intense media coverage, prompting many investors to wonder whether these new types of electronic money deserve a place in their portfolios.

Cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin emerged only in the past decade. Unlike traditional money, no paper notes or metal coins are involved. No central bank issues the currency, and no regulator or nation state stands behind it.

Instead, cryptocurrencies are a form of code made by computers and stored in a digital wallet. In the case of bitcoin, there is a finite supply of 21 million,(1)  of which more than 16 million are in circulation.(2) Transactions are recorded on a public ledger called blockchain.

People can earn bitcoins in several ways, including buying them using traditional fiat currencies(3) or by "mining" them—receiving newly created bitcoins for the service of using powerful computers to compile recent transactions into new blocks of the transaction chain through solving a highly complex mathematical puzzle.

For much of the past decade, cryptocurrencies were the preserve of digital enthusiasts and people who believe the age of fiat currencies is coming to an end. This niche appeal is reflected in their market value. For example, at a market value of $16,000 per bitcoin,(4) the total value of bitcoin in circulation is less than one tenth of 1% of the aggregate value of global stocks and bonds. Despite this, the sharp rise in the market value of bitcoins over the past weeks and months have contributed to intense media attention.

What are investors to make of all this media attention? What place, if any, should bitcoin play in a diversified portfolio? Recently, the value of bitcoin has risen sharply, but that is the past. What about its future value?

You can approach these questions in several ways. A good place to begin is by examining the roles that stocks, bonds, and cash play in your portfolio.


Companies often seek external sources of capital to finance projects they believe will generate profits in the future. When a company issues stock, it offers investors a residual claim on its future profits. When a company issues a bond, it offers investors a promised stream of future cash flows, including the repayment of principal when the bond matures. The price of a stock or bond reflects the return investors demand to exchange their cash today for an uncertain but greater amount of expected cash in the future. One important role these securities play in a portfolio is to provide positive expected returns by allowing investors to share in the future profits earned by corporations globally. By investing in stocks and bonds today, you expect to grow your wealth and enable greater consumption tomorrow.

Government bonds often provide a more certain repayment of promised cash flows than corporate bonds. Thus, besides the potential for providing positive expected returns, another reason to hold government bonds is to reduce the uncertainty of future wealth. And inflation-linked government bonds reduce the uncertainty of future inflation-adjusted wealth.

Holding cash does not provide an expected stream of future cash flow. One US dollar in your wallet today does not entitle you to more dollars in the future. The same logic applies to holding other fiat currencies — and holding bitcoins in a digital wallet. So we should not expect a positive return from holding cash in one or more currencies unless we can predict when one currency will appreciate or depreciate relative to others.

The academic literature overwhelmingly suggests that short-term currency movements are unpredictable, implying there is no reliable and systematic way to earn a positive return just by holding cash, regardless of its currency. So why should investors hold cash in one or more currencies? One reason is because it provides a store of value that can be used to manage near-term known expenditures in those currencies.

With this framework in mind, it might be argued that holding bitcoins is like holding cash; it can be used to pay for some goods and services. However, most goods and services are not priced in bitcoins.

A lot of volatility has occurred in the exchange rates between bitcoins and traditional currencies. That volatility implies uncertainty, even in the near term, in the amount of future goods and services your bitcoins can purchase. This uncertainty, combined with possibly high transaction costs to convert bitcoins into usable currency, suggests that the cryptocurrency currently falls short as a store of value to manage near-term known expenses. Of course, that may change in the future if it becomes common practice to pay for all goods and services using bitcoins.

If bitcoin is not currently practical as a substitute for cash, should we expect its value to appreciate?


The price of a bitcoin is tied to supply and demand. Although the supply of bitcoins is slowly rising, it may reach an upper limit, which might imply limited future supply. The future supply of cryptocurrencies, however, may be very flexible as new types are developed and innovation in technology makes many cryptocurrencies close substitutes for one another, implying the quantity of future supply might be unlimited.

Regarding future demand for bitcoins, there is a non‑zero probability(5) that nothing will come of it (no future demand) and a non-zero probability that it will be widely adopted (high future demand).

Future regulation adds to this uncertainty. While recent media attention has ensured bitcoin is more widely discussed today than in years past, it is still largely unused by most financial institutions. It has also been the subject of scrutiny by regulators. For example, in a note to investors in 2014, the US Securities and Exchange Commission warned that any new investment appearing to be exciting and cutting-edge has the potential to give rise to fraud and false "guarantees" of high investment returns.(6) Other entities around the world have issued similar warnings. It is unclear what impact future laws and regulations may have on bitcoin's future supply and demand (or even its existence). This uncertainty is common with young investments.

All of these factors suggest that future supply and demand are highly uncertain. But the probabilities of high or low future supply or demand are an input in the price of bitcoins today. That price is fair, in that investors willingly transact at that price. One investor does not have an unfair advantage over another in determining if the true probability of future demand will be different from what is reflected in bitcoin's price today.


So, should we expect the value of bitcoins to appreciate? Maybe. But just as with traditional currencies, there is no reliable way to predict by how much and when that appreciation will occur. We know, however, that we should not expect to receive more bitcoins in the future just by holding one bitcoin today. They don't entitle holders to an expected stream of future bitcoins, and they don't entitle the holder to a residual claim on the future profits of global corporations.

None of this is to deny the exciting potential of the underlying blockchain technology that enables the trading of bitcoins. It is an open, distributed ledger that can record transactions efficiently and in a verifiable and permanent way, which has significant implications for banking and other industries, although these effects may take some years to emerge.

When it comes to designing a portfolio, a good place to begin is with one's goals. This approach, combined with an understanding of the characteristics of each eligible security type, provides a good framework to decide which securities deserve a place in a portfolio. For the securities that make the cut, their weight in the total market of all investable securities provides a baseline for deciding how much of a portfolio should be allocated to that security.

Unlike stocks or corporate bonds, it is not clear that bitcoins offer investors positive expected returns. Unlike government bonds, they don't provide clarity about future wealth. And, unlike holding cash in fiat currencies, they don't provide the means to plan for a wide range of near-term known expenditures. Because bitcoin does not help achieve these investment goals, we believe that it does not warrant a place in a portfolio designed to meet one or more of such goals.

If, however, one has a goal not contemplated herein, and you believe bitcoin is well suited to meet that goal, keep in mind the final piece of our asset allocation framework: What percentage of all eligible investments do the value of all bitcoins represent? When compared to global stocks, bonds, and traditional currency, their market value is tiny. So, if for some reason an investor decides bitcoins are a good investment, we believe their weight in a well-diversified portfolio should generally be tiny.(7)

Because bitcoin is being sold in some quarters as a paradigm shift in financial markets, this does not mean investors should rush to include it in their portfolios. When digesting the latest article on bitcoin, keep in mind that a goals-based approach based on stocks, bonds, and traditional currencies, as well as sensible and robust dimensions of expected returns, has been helping investors effectively pursue their goals for decades.

[1]. Source: Bitcoin.org.

[2]. As of December 14, 2017. Source: Coinmarketcap.com.

[3]. A currency declared by a government to be legal tender.

[4]. Per Bloomberg, the end-of-day market value of a bitcoin exceeded $16,000 USD for the first time on December 7, 2017.

[5]. Describes an outcome that is possible (or not impossible) to occur.

[6]. "Investor Alert: Bitcoin and Other Virtual Currency-Related Investments," SEC, 7 May 2014.

[7]. Investors should discuss the risks and other attributes of any security or currency with their advisor prior to making any investment.

The Value of Diversification

Written by Bob Veres & Gerald E Gasber, CFP®, CIMA®, CPFA, CFS.

The Value of Diversification

It's not always easy to grasp the value of diversification—why, in other words, it's better to own many stocks inside a mutual fund than one or two stocks on their own. But recent research conducted by Arizona State U. finance professor Hendrik Bessembinder offers some insight.

Bessembinder is not afraid of numbers. He calculated every one month return of every U.S. common stock traded on the New York and American Stock exchanges, and the Nasdaq exchange, since 1926. Even though nearly half of the 25,782 stocks that have been in existence over this time period lasted 7 or fewer years, this still accounted for 2,524,849 individual monthly returns from July 1926 through December 2015.

What did Bessembinder find? Among other things, only 4% of the listed stocks accounted for the entire lifetime dollar wealth creation of the U.S. stock market since 1926. In other words, all the market returns came from only 86 top-performing stocks out of nearly 26,000. If you owned some of those stocks, mixed with the vast majority of stocks whose companies underperformed or went out of business, you got decent returns. If you decided you could pick your own handful of stocks, there is an almost overwhelming chance that you would have missed out on the small number of winners.




Savings Rates Decline

Written by Gerald E Gasber, CFP®, CIMA®, CPFA & Bob Veres.

You don't hear much about America's personal savings rate these days, and the reason may be because the news is discouraging: collectively, the percentage of our income that we save is trending downward again, and may be about to hit record lows. The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis tracks the U.S. personal savings rate, going back to the late 1950s, when when people were setting aside a thrifty 11% of what they made. Americans achieved a record 17% savings rate in the mid-1970s before a long decline set in. In 2013, the rate briefly spiked again above 10%, but Americans have become less thrifty since then. The most recent data point shows Americans saving just 3.6% of their income.

How does this compare to the rest of the world? A chart on the Trading Economics website shows that most countries fall in the 4.5% to 10% range, but with considerable fluctuation. For instance, Spain experienced a negative savings rate just last quarter, but this quarter reports a rate of more than 14%. Japan and Mexico seem to be consistently the thriftiest of the reporting nations, each with savings rates above 20%. (India's rate on the chart appears to be in error.)

Does any of this matter? Economists will tell you that when the savings rate is high, it cuts into consumption, which lowers economic activity. But at the same time, countries with high savings rates have more capital to invest in their future, and their citizens tend to be less vulnerable to economic downturns. On the whole, we should probably prefer more savings to less.