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A growing theme in investing is to target and invest only in the least volatile stocks in the market. One simple example of this is take the S&P500, which is a representation of the 500 largest publicly traded stocks in the United States, and only invest in the 10% of companies with the lowest standard deviation of the 500. This would produce names such as AT&T, Coca-Cola, and Johnson & Johnson.
This simple concept traditionally would result in an investor owning a lot more safety, blue chip, and high dividend yielding stocks. Not a bad bet in a historic context. Looking forward however, we have an accelerating concern over the price of these types of companies, which may lead to them not being as safe as one would expect.
One metric we look at to value stocks is the Price to Earnings ratio, the easiest way to describe this is what price is an investor willing to pay for every dollar a company earns in profit? A higher P/E ratio implies more expensive, a lower one implies cheap. Comparing a stock, or an index, such as the S&P500 to its historical average P/E can give you a relative idea of whether something is expensive or cheap compared to historical standards.
Historically, going back to 1972, the companies in the lowest 10% volatility bucket in the S&P500 (as measured by standard deviation) produce a historical median P/E ratio of roughly 13. As is stands today that same low volatility class of stocks trades between a P/E ratio of 23 to 24.
Why is this troubling? Well, when prices revert to the mean, and investors are willing to pay less for those same dollars of earnings, it spells trouble for those who hold these assets, especially those who have been chasing the stability and dividends these stocks were expected to provide.
What is causing this? Let’s take a look at the major contributors:
Fed policy. While artificially low interest rate policy is intended to push investors into riskier assets, some investors still want safer assets. Low volatility stocks have higher dividend yields, making them bond proxies.
Sector attribution. The low volatility group is concentrated in Utilities, Financials, and Consumer Staples, which have high dividend yields and P/E ratios that are above their long-term averages.
High valuations for the broad market. The median P/E for the S&P 500 is 24.0, well above its historical norm, which has pushed investors into “safer” stocks.
Secular trends. Fear is a stronger emotion than greed, so investors have flocked to “safer” assets.
Industry innovation. ETFs have enabled investors to more easily buy themes like low volatility.
The first three factors are the most likely the first ones to threaten this crowded trade. The one that has me the most troubled is the fifth factor. Industry innovation has led to specialized investment products that make it very simple for retail investors to buy into this wave of low or minimum volatility assets. We’re seeing these assets recommended in droves to competitor’s clients, with little to no consideration given to how crowded or expensive the trade may be.
These assets in the broad context of a well diversified portfolio may make sense, but from my perspective every asset has a time and a place. Currently, I would not be overpaying for safety by using these low volatility factors we’ve explored above. There are other ways. Like always, when assets deviate from a historical valuation range, it can take quite awhile to be proven right and see them correct. We’re not yelling fire in a crowded theater but would like to see investors better educated on the risks ahead.
Thank you for reading!
Blake Street is an Investment Advisor Representative of Warren Street Wealth Advisors, a Registered Investment Advisor. The information posted here represents his opinions and is not meant as personal or actionable advice to any individual, corporation, or other entity. Any investments discussed carry unique risks and should be carefully considered and reviewed by you and your financial professional. Nothing in this commentary is a solicitation to buy, or sell, any securities, or an attempt to furnish personal investment advice. We may hold securities referenced in the blog and due to the static nature of content, those securities held may change over time and trades may be contrary to outdated posts.
Interest Rates, Inflation, and Monetary Policy: Why aren’t U.S. interest rates going up?
Our topic today is interest rates, inflation, and monetary policy. The question we will attempt to answer is: When are interest rates in the United States finally going to rise?
Defensive Strategies Depress Returns
If you’re like most bond investors, you’ve been expecting interest rates to rise for over 2 years now. As a prudent investor, you’ve been holding the duration, or interest rate risk, of your portfolios shorter than usual to protect against falling prices when rates rise. Unfortunately, the result of your prudent behavior has been to underperform standard indexes such as the Barclays U.S. Aggregate Bond index. And if your portfolio is focused primarily on safe assets such as U.S. Treasuries, all but the longest maturity funds struggled to provide a return even modestly better than inflation.
While short-term rates have indeed risen with the Federal Reserve rate hike in December 2015, interest rates for Treasuries maturing in 10 years and beyond have actually fallen by an average of more than -0.50% over the past 3 years. Granted, this article was written the day after the British referendum to exit the European Union, which caused global stock markets to tumble and U.S. Treasury yields to fall. If we measure the change in yields as of June 23, 2016 when most experts expected the British to vote to remain in the E.U., long term interest rates have still fallen an average of -0.37% since January 2013.
In contrast to the lack of upward movement in nominal interest rates, real yields – nominal yields adjusted for inflation – have risen across all maturities in recent years, albeit from an extremely low starting point. As of January 2, 2013 real yields for 5-year Treasury bonds were nearly -1.50%, whereas by June 24, 2016 5-year real yields are only negative -0.50%. And if you were willing to invest for 20 or 30 years, you could earn the princely sum of approximately +0.35% to +0.75% real yield as of January 2013 and June 2016, respectively.
If we take a longer term perspective and look back 10 years, we observe an enviable real rate of approximately 2.5% across maturities from 5 years to 30 years! At today’s paltry real yields of less than 1%, it seems unsustainable to invest hard-earned funds for 5 years or more and barely keep up with inflation. Surely interest rates must return to more normal levels eventually.
But when will that long-awaited time finally arrive?
Building Blocks of Interest Rates
To gain some insight into the drivers of interest rates, let’s take a moment to review the building blocks using what I like to call my ‘interest rate birthday cake’.
Theory would have us believe that the minimum return investors will accept is a modestly positive ‘real return’, historically between 1.0% and 2.5%. If you add a maturity term premium and inflation expectations to the real rate, the result is the ‘risk free’ rate of interest, which we typically consider the U.S. Treasury yield curve.
The average annual inflation rate from 2006 to 2016 was 1.93%¹, so we could expect the risk free rate of interest over that time period to be approximately 3% to 4.5%. And yet 10-year Treasury yields are currently hovering below 2%, while 30-year yields stand at approximately 2.5%. In fact, 10-year Treasury rates have been falling ever since the ‘taper tantrum’ in mid-2013 as the U.S. economy continues to struggle to sustain momentum after the financial crisis of 2008-2009.
¹Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
Let’s not forget the aggressive monetary policy actions of the Federal Reserve bank since the financial crisis. The unprecedented amount of monetary stimulus has long been expected to cause inflation, and yet the only result to date has been to keep the U.S. economy from stalling.
Why Has Aggressive Monetary Policy Not Sparked Inflation?
In times past economists observed a fairly reliable relationship between ‘easy money’ and the ‘velocity of money’, or the amount of times a single dollar changes hands. It is the velocity of money that traditionally puts pressure on prices of goods and services.
But as bank lending standards and capital requirements remain strict, consumer debt levels low, and with the ‘shadow banking system’ taking the place of traditional lenders, the velocity of money has been on a steady decline. Consequently, the impact of monetary policy on the economy has diminished.
So if yields on Treasury securities remain stagnant, where else can we look for pressure on interest rates? One answer is the market appetite for risk – what Keynesian economists term ‘animal spirits’. The layers of my ‘interest rate birthday cake’ related to market risk appetites are default risk, liquidity risk, call risk, and others.
The term ‘animal spirits’ is used to describe human emotions that drive consumer confidence. Rising consumer confidence can increase the general level of economic activity if individuals feel wealthier and purchase more goods and services. If consumer demand grows sufficiently, prices of goods and services will increase, as will the general level of interest rates.
Chasing Yield – Investors Look to Corporate Bonds
If we look to Treasury yields for the risk-free interest rate, corporate bond yields should reflect a risk-adjusted rate of interest for various levels of default risk. In recent years, investors with an appetite for risk had found opportunities in low-quality corporate bonds, only to be traumatized in late 2015 and early 2016 as the precipitous drop in oil and gas prices put extreme pressure on the profitability of the energy sector of the U.S. economy. Because the credit quality of many smaller oil and gas producers was below investment grade, the high-yield sector of the bond market was particularly hard hit.
Option-adjusted yield spreads for BBB-rated corporate bonds – the additional yield above the yield of a matched-maturity Treasury – averaged approximately 1.75% in 2006-2007, prior to the financial crisis. In 2015-2016, BBB spreads averaged 2.31%. It seems investors are being fairly compensated for default risk at the current level of yields, despite a rather bumpy ride along the way.
Traditional Drivers of Inflation Are Absent
So with this understanding of the building blocks of interest rates, can we answer the question of why Treasury yields remain stubbornly at levels barely above inflation?
The answer lies in the middle block of the interest rate pyramid: inflation. More precisely, the market’s expectation for future levels of inflation.
As you may recall from your Econ 101 course in school (assuming our readers stayed awake during class!), inflation typically occurs when either, 1) input prices are rising, causing manufacturers and service providers to increase their finished goods prices to the extent possible, or 2) consumer demand for goods and services exceeds the current supply, enabling manufacturers and service providers to increase their prices.
Though employment and consumer sentiment in the U.S. have certainly improved since the financial crisis of 2008-2009, the persistent trend of lower employment participation is thought to dampen the impact of the current, nominally low, unemployment rate relative to previous economic cycles.
Even though the recent drop in oil and gas prices has stabilized, these essential commodities remain at historically low levels enabling manufacturing, transportation, and leisure travel firms to keep prices low.
So when are these competing forces going to settle out and the long-awaited inflation pressures manifest themselves? Not any time soon, if the forward inflation rate expectations published by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis are any guide.
If inflation pressures are indeed muted on both the supply and demand fronts, and risk appetites are being satisfied with the current level of yield spreads, it is difficult to see where inflation pressures, and therefore interest rate increases, are likely to arise in the near term.
And yet investors cannot endure miniscule real yields indefinitely. Surely there must be something else keeping interest rates low?
As Long as U.S. Treasury Bonds Remain a Safe Haven, Treasury Yields will Remain Low
The final piece in the interest rates puzzle comes from outside the ‘birthday cake’; in fact, outside the U.S. entirely. The final piece is the capital ‘flight to safety’ as international investors seek positive returns amid a global economic slowdown and negative interest rates elsewhere in the world.
Given the economic uncertainty caused by the British referendum to leave the European Union, and the dearth of alternative ‘safe haven’ investments, we should expect demand for U.S. securities to remain strong over the near term. Continuing demand for U.S. Treasuries, even at historically low yields, coupled with muted economic activity dampening inflation pressures, means U.S. interest rates can remain low for the foreseeable future.
Eventually, foreign economies should recover and demand for U.S. Treasury securities should fall, pushing yields up to more normal levels as global economic activity strengthens.
But as long as the U.S. is ‘the only game in town’, prudent investors can legitimately maintain the maturities of their portfolios near- to above the standard market index to capture a positive inflation and term premium while awaiting calmer global markets sometime in the intermediate future.
Marcia Clark is an Investment Advisor Representative of Warren Street Wealth Advisors, a Registered Investment Advisor. The information posted here represents her opinions and is not meant as personal or actionable advice to any individual, corporation, or other entity. Any investments discussed carry unique risks and should be carefully considered and reviewed by you and your financial professional. Nothing in this commentary is a solicitation to buy, or sell, any securities, or an attempt to furnish personal investment advice. We may hold securities referenced in the blog and due to the static nature of content, those securities held may change over time and trades may be contrary to outdated posts.
Last week we watched our version of “The City” lose in Game 7 of the NBA Finals, after blowing a 3-1 lead in the series. This week we watch as London, aka, “The City” and the U.K. at large enter their own final referendum homestand on whether to leave or remain in the European Union. Whether the U.K. stays or leaves, most of this outcome will be short term noise, and will deliver little long term impact in our opinion. Similar to how Cleveland winning a championship has their town in hysterics right now, it still won’t change the fact that their rivers light on fire.
As the clock ticks down, most polls show a healthy balance of IN or OUT voting leading to a proverbial coin flip for the U.K referendum. Consult the odds makers or gambling experts and you’ll get a slightly more confident story for the U.K to remain in the European Union. Let’s see where the money is:
If the masses turn out to be asses in betting, which would not be a first, what ultimate impact would a “Brexit” have on the EU or U.K. as a whole? Your guess is as good as mine at this point. A successful “Brexit” vote would start a minimum two year process described in Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty in which E.U. treaties would still apply as negotiations were carried out to determine how the exit is ultimately handled. Big takeaway here is we’re not dealing with a binary event where a switch is flipped and suddenly everything we know about the E.U. changes overnight.
One of the larger talking points we hear discussed is how the U.K. will lose the majority of existing trading agreements and will be on an economic island. This is simply just not true. Sure the U.K. will need to go back to the negotiation table but they’ll have ample opportunity to continue relationships with the common market via the European Economic Area, European Free Trade Area, and even other more regional trade groups. Here’s an example of how many tangled webs one can weave:
One could argue, and it is our personal sentiment, that much of the market is already pricing in a “Brexit” discount. It appears that the consensus view is that the U.K. would bear the brunt of the near term pain from an exit. This risk premium can be viewed in the form of currency volatility of the British Pound relative to the Euro as of late, shrinking British equity premiums relative to Eurozone stocks, and last but not least higher relative interest rates that lead to increased debt servicing costs. The U.K. and Germany for example have similar public debt loads, but it costs the U.K. approximately an extra $33 billion a year to service its public debt load.
Source: Haver Analytics, Ned Davis Research
Having seen that a “Brexit” discount may already be priced, whether it passes or not, we remain committed to our international holdings and will likely take any near term dip as an opportunity to buy into weakness. Ideally, a remain vote instills confidence in some of the countries on the E.U. periphery that are struggling with structural reform and the European Union as a whole can get back to trend level growth. Something we’ve been patiently waiting for now for years.
All in all, a small part of me will be sad to see the “Brexit” vote come and go, it was a welcome distraction from the impending circus of an election the United States is about to endure. On that note, my counsel remains the same, turn off the TV talking heads, spend time with those you love, grow your value in the workplace, and be a strong steward of your wealth. That’s what we’ll be doing.
Blake Street, CFP®
Retirement Planning Isn’t Just for “Retirees”
By: Joe Occhipinti
When people discuss the topic of saving or planning for retirement, the picture that often comes to mind is that of an employee that has been working for the same company for 20+ years and is on the verge of retirement.
When I hear about planning and saving for retirement, I find myself thinking about those who are 20+ years away and need to make the most of one variable that cannot be replaced – time.
Time is precious, and when it comes to preparing for retirement making up for lost time is one of the most difficult things to do. One of the most basic ways we see this is employees missing out on years of 401(k) matching contributions from their employer. A match can be a 100% return on your investment, assuming you are fully vested. That’s a tough return to beat in any financial market.
Too often financial planning and saving for retirement gets thrown to the wayside as something that can be put off for another year. For some, that could be an additional 6% of their salary they are choosing to forgo in their 401(k). If you got an additional 6% of your salary per year added to your retirement account, then how much sooner do you think you’ll be able to retire? How much stronger would your retirement look?
The other key piece of a strong retirement is a financial plan. A sound financial plan should you help surface all facets of your financial picture and ultimately how each piece helps or hinders you from achieving your long term goals. This includes budgeting, savings, investing, and managing risk.
Debt is probably the most often overlooked and underestimated piece of planning. Holding on to excessive debt during your working years can really put a damper on your ability to retire, especially if you have a large amount prior to retirement. Don’t let lack of planning be the sole reason for you to not get the retirement you’ve been dreaming of.
The final thoughts I will leave you with are: 1) Do I want to retire? 2) If I begin contributing to my 401k today, then how much do my chances of a successful retirement increase? 3) Am I managing debt appropriately? 4) Have I put enough time into financial planning to build a strong retirement?
Take the necessary steps to put you on track for retirement, whether that’s 2 or 20 years away.
Investment Advisor Representative, Warren Street Wealth Advisors, LLC., a Registered Investment Advisor.
The information posted here represents opinions and is not means as personal or actionable advice to any individual, corporation, or other entity, Any investments discussed carry unique risks and should be carefully considered and reviewed by you and your financial professional. Nothing in this presentation is a solicitation to buy, or sell, any securities, or an attempt to furnish personal investment advice. We may hold securities referenced in the presentation and due to the static nature of content, those securities help may change over time and trade may be contrary to outdated posts.
We at Warren Street Wealth Advisors want to personally thank all of the lineman out there in the world.
These brave people are on call 24/7, 365 to make sure that we still can still have power in all of our house, along with all the other luxuries we enjoy in our home.
From all of us at Warren Street, thank you for all that you do. We greatly appreciate it.
Warren Street Wealth Advisors, LLC
17822 E 17th Street, Suite 208
Tustin, CA 92780
As a Registered Investment Advisor, Warren Street Wealth Advisors, LLC is required to file form ADV to report our business practices and conflicts of interest. Please call to request a copy at 714-876-6200.