Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Wrangling Over a Phantom Stimulus By Bob Veres

The headlines are screaming again, this time about the Capitol Hill controversy over payroll tax cuts. And, as usual, there is more to the story than what you're reading.

First the good news. Earlier reports said that a stalemate on the tax cut would shut down the government, but before the Senate went home for the holidays, it passed a separate bill that finances the government through next September.

Better news: by all reports, Republicans and Democrats were--and are--in general agreement that there should be some kind of stimulus to the still-recovering economy, and the biggest, least-stimulated sector is consumer spending. The Republicans argued for more tax relief for the wealthiest Americans, and want to reduce pollution controls and force the President to approve the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would deliver oil from tar sands in Alberta, Canada to refineries in Texas. Meanwhile, the Democrats wanted a broad-based stimulus measure that would put spending money in the hands of more mainstream American consumers. And they supported environmentalist opposition to the pipeline and the pollution proposals.

Naturally, the two sides couldn't agree on a compromise, so the Senate, by an overwhelming majority, kicked the can down the road for two months by agreeing to continue the reduction in Social Security taxes from 6.2% to 4.2% until Congress could get back in session early next year.

It seems clear that the Senators expected their colleagues in the House of Representatives to follow this simple solution. But nothing is simple in this partisan political atmosphere, and the House (for now, at least) has rejected the measure.

There are several interesting complexities here that should have gotten more attention. One of them is the problems that this wrangling has created for employers, who will have to scramble at the last minute to change their payroll systems to reflect either the 6.2% rate or the 4.2% rate. Which will it be? Who knows? All anybody knows for sure is that the withholding amount will need to be correct starting January 1, and the National Payroll Reporting Consortium has already said that, as a result of the brinkmanship, there is now not enough notice to accommodate any changes that quickly.

Of course, if and when the whole issue is taken up at the end of the proposed two-month extension, companies would face exactly the same dilemma. Chalk this up to a Congress that is oblivious to the consequences of its actions on the business community--especially small businesses.

Behind the scenes, there are other dramas. One involves the very complicated way that the Social Security tax reduction is structured. Reducing the payroll tax would obviously reduce the flow of money into the Social Security trust fund, which is famously experiencing solvency troubles of its own. Neither side wanted to be seen as making the entitlement mess any worse, so the stopgap bill would have had the U.S. Treasury pick up the payments--a sideways accounting move has no real substance. The bill also prevents doctors who accept Medicare payments from receiving a 27% reduction in reimbursement payments, which would weaken the financial stability of another entitlement program, so the Treasury will pay that out of its pocket as well.

But the surprising thing here is that this is actually a revenue-neutral piece of legislation. The Treasury coffers would be replenished through a side door that nobody seems to have noticed. Title IV, entitled "Mortgage Fees and Premiums," would have raised the amount that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac--the organizations that back a majority of home loans in the U.S.--would collect in mortgage fees after January 2012. In all, the raised mortgage fees--which would increase the cost of homeownership at a time when the housing market is staggering--would pay for the two month extension of the payroll tax cut (estimated at $20 billion) plus two months of additional jobless benefits for 2.5 million out-of-work Americans (an estimated $8.4 billion) and two months of added Medicare reimbursements to doctors (an estimated $6.6 billion).

Can we call this a stimulus, when money comes out of the pockets of home buyers and put in the pockets of payroll workers, the unemployed and doctors? Since the bill seems to be stuck in partisan wrangling, maybe the question is moot anyway.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Don't Kill The Messenger

Don’t kill the messenger!

In days of old messengers were often killed by leaders, if they brought bad news to them, after awhile the messengers would defect or leave the country rather than bring bad news that would get them killed. Can you blame them?

Since the middle of August there has not been that much good news to talk about. I know some of you have been pretty disappointed that investments have not done better. Most people just want some good news. However, my job is to tell you the truth and safe guard your investments during times like this.

November 30th the DJIA was up almost 500 points and people were disappointed that we were not completely back into our investments. Yet if you understand what caused the rally you might be happier with cash.

First, China cut its reserve ratio requirement by 50 basis points overnight, which is the most effective means it has for trying to boost bank lending. This sent the markets up a bit over 1%. This is the first time since 2008 they have done so, indicating that the recent weakness in housing and construction markets in China is bad enough that China had to do something. The part that should be worrying you is China’s economy has hit a wall despite massive amounts of bank lending and deficit spending by China equal to at least 37% of its GDP in each of the last three years.

Second, there was a coordinated global central bank action to lower swap rates for European banks borrowing dollars. The U.S. Fed, ECB (European Central Bank) and other central banks are trying to make it attractive for banks in the Euro-zone to borrow dollars directly from the ECB instead of in the private or interbank markets. This keeps interest rates low. This was good for another 2% or so move in the markets. However, this does nothing to solve the underlying credit issues that are plaguing Europe, but merely postpones the day of reckoning. Everything I see and read tells me Europe will be in a recession like we had in 2008 within 18 months.

Third, the markets were oversold and trading on light volume which makes the sustainability of this move suspect. Despite the big move the markets stopped dead in the middle of the resistance band of 1245 to 1250 on the S&P 500.

Don’t Miss the Ten Best Days in the Stock Market

We have all seen the articles “Don’t Miss the Ten Best Days in the Stock Market” which all show that missing just a small percentage of the market's best days dramatically reduces an investor’s return. This assertion has been repeated so often that it's become unquestioned. Have you read an article that disputes this belief?

If you look at the top one-day gains and losses for the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA), you will notice an interesting phenomenon.

1.The worst days seemed to be in close proximity to the best days

2.In the majority of cases, large percentage gainers were no more than 90
trading days away from a large percentage loser, sometimes before and sometimes

3.In 50 percent of the cases, gainers and losers were separated by no more than
12 trading days.

4.When looking at Nasdaq's the largest gainers and losers, all but two have
occurred since 2000.

These observations make it hard to believe that investment success rested upon being fully invested in order to catch the winning days. Rather, especially in the case of the Nasdaq crash of 2000, it suggests that it was more important to miss the worst bear market which brings us to the other side of the coin: All of the "Don't Miss the Ten Best" articles fail to mention what would happen to your portfolio if you missed the ten worst days. We know that it takes a 100% gain to make up for a 50% loss and Monte Carlo retirement analysis shows that low volatility portfolios often last longer than those tuned for high returns especially during your retirement years when you are drawing on your investments. So it's more important to avoid large losses than it is to pursue large gains.

What happens if rather than missing the ten best days, you miss the ten worst?

Paul Gire, CFP®, from Strategic Advisory Services decided to study this. He examined one of the most bullish periods in Dow history, from 1984 to 1998. In addition, He examined the impact from missing not just the 10 best and worst days, but also examined the 20, 30, and 40 best and worst days. What he found was simply remarkable.

1.The buy-and-hold return for this 15-year period was 17.89%, one of the most
bullish periods in the stock market’s history.

2.As expected, missing the best days lowered returns, and missing just 40 of
the best days over this 15 year period cut returns nearly in half.

3.Missing the worst days has the expected result of increasing returns
substantially, improving the return by 77% for missing the 40 worst days.

However, how realistic can it be to get in and out of your investments and be in your investments on the best days and out of your investments on the worst days, if 50% of those days are within 12 trading days of each other and all the rest are within 90 days of each other? Paul’s next discovery was really remarkable and to me the final key to my puzzle.

By missing both the best and the worst days between 1984 to 1998 you got a remarkably consistent return. Whereas missing just the best or worst had a magnified impact as the number of days increased, missing both produced a consistent return of approximately 20%, as shown by the chart at the beginning of this post.

Not only does missing both result in superior returns, imagine the benefits from lower volatility:

1.Lower mental and physical stress.

2.Less volatility on retirement income making it last much longer.

As investors learned during the 2000 to 2002 and 2008 to 2009 market meltdowns, it's one thing to stay the course when investments are booming, yet quite another when market meltdowns are rapidly eroding gains from years of careful saving and investing. The 30 months 2000 to 2002 stock market meltdown erased half of the market gains made since 1974, the previous 26 years. Then came 2008 and early 2009. Now look at what is happening in 2011.

Is it possible we are missing something when we look at the last 110 and 10 year periods? Stay tuned for next month's post!