2018: The Year in Review

Every January, it’s customary to look back at the year that was. What were the highlights? What were the “lowlights”? What were the events we’ll always remember? Most importantly, what did we learn?
Before we get into that, though, let’s take a brief jaunt back to the 1800s.
The famous 19th century composer, Robert Schumann, used to moonlight as a music critic when he wasn’t writing his own work. What’s notable about his reviews is that instead of writing from his perspective, he often wrote from the perspective of two imaginary characters, Florestan and Eusebius. Florestan represented Schumann’s passionate, witty side; Eusebius, his thoughtful and introspective side. These two characters would debate a piece of music, each bringing a different perspective to the table because their personalities were so different. Was a composition ardent and exciting – or merely flashy and melodramatic? Sincere and thought-provoking, or dull and trite? Both characters had their own opinions, proving that two people can experience the same thing very differently depending on their personality – or in the case of Schumann, that one person can.

Why am I telling you all this? Because when you look back on the year that was, it’s possible to draw very different conclusions. If you were to Google “2018 year in review in the markets”, you’d find wildly varying opinions from analysts, pundits, bankers, economists, and others. They’re all reviewing the same year – but their interpretations tend to be very different.
So, with that in mind, let’s review the year the way Schumann would. I present to you two characters: Volatilis and Tranquillitas, the Latin words for volatile and calm.

The Markets
Volatilis: “Look, it was a volatile year. The Dow, S&P 500, and Nasdaq all ended the year lower than they started – the first time that’s happened since 2008.1 The S&P and Nasdaq are in or near bear market territory, and the Dow had its worst December since the Great Depression.”2
Tranquillitas: “Oh, come now, the year wasn’t so bad as all that. In fact, the markets spent most of 2018 climbing rather than falling. The Dow soared to never-before-seen heights, and at one point, the Nasdaq was up 17.5% for the year!1 A few down months can’t erase all the good that came before.”
Volatilis: “Quite the contrary. When it comes to the markets, losses can quite literally wipe out gains! In fact, since October, the markets have lost all they gained and more. And even earlier in the year, we still saw dramatic peaks and valleys. The markets shot out of the gate in January after the new tax law went into effect, but then quickly plunged in February. The same pattern occurred in March and April. We’ve already covered what happened in summer and autumn – a tremendous rise, followed by a tremendous fall. My dear Tranquillitas, don’t you know that’s what volatility means?”

The Economy
Tranquillitas: “But the markets are not the same as the economy, and the economy soared in 2018. Observe these numbers:

“Those numbers paint a picture of a strong economy – and it’s a beautiful picture, indeed!”
Volatilis: “A lovely chart, but it doesn’t tell the whole story – which is that the economy is likely slowing down. The economic expansion has been driven for years by historically low interest rates – rates the Federal Reserve continues to raise. This, in turn, has affected the housing market and the stock market. Oil prices have plummeted, too, which is good for consumers at the gas pump, but bad for the energy industry. Meanwhile, many of the world’s largest economies are also slowing down, especially in China and Europe. In this ever-more connected global economy we all participate in, that spells trouble. “I don’t need to tell you that if these trends continue, 2019 could be more volatile still.”

The Future
Tranquillitas: “Slowing is not the same as stopping. Interest rates are rising but are still relatively low. Corporate profits remain steady, consumer spending is thriving, as is the labor market. These are all indicators of a healthy economy in 2019, even if it’s not quite producing at the same pace it was before.”
Volatilis: “I see your indicators and raise a few of my own. There’s a ceasefire in the trade war with China, but it could pick up again at any time. The federal government is experiencing another shutdown. Furthermore, a large portion of the economy’s growth over the last decade has been prompted by fiscal stimulus from the government – stimulus that will be harder and harder to provide as the nation’s deficit climbs and climbs.6 Take away that prop, and what happens to growth? “The fact is, investors often tend to be both irrational and impatient – a volatile combination. While the economy may be technically strong, trends are what anxious investors pay attention to. And if the economy looks like it’s trending down, it’s quite possible the markets will follow.”
Tranquillitas: “Yes, Volatilis, but have you considered –”

***

Okay, you get it. In many of Schumann’s reviews, it was at this point that a third character would appear: Master Raro, a teacher who through pure logic and reason would serve as a final arbiter over Florestan’s and Eusebius’ debates. I’ll try to do the same – though I certainly don’t claim to be more capable of “pure logic” than other people!

If you look at all the points and counterpoints made above, though, the logical conclusion is that 2018 was neither a “good” year or a “bad” year. It was…a year! The markets were volatile, but the economy was strong. Similarly, there are indicators of economic strength for 2019, as well as signs that market volatility may continue. Both our fictional characters, Volatilis and Tranquillitus, made good points based on actual facts. But their interpretations of those facts were very different – and that says more about them than anything else. Here’s why that’s important. When we form an opinion about something, it’s often colored by which facts we value more than others. For example, think about when someone asks, “How was your day?” Most days are usually a mixture of good and bad things, aren’t they?

This is a trivial example, but the point is, whether you saw your day as good or bad would depend largely on which events mattered more to you. If you’re someone who thrives off praise and accomplishment, it was probably a great day! If you’re someone who is extremely schedule-oriented, the fact you got stuck in traffic and worked extra late would probably make it a bad day – or at least, not one you’d remember with any fondness. Either way, the facts didn’t change – only your interpretation of them.

Similarly, what we expect of 2019 largely depends on which facts we value more than others. As investors, it’s critical that we remind ourselves about this tendency. Whenever we select an investment, formulate a plan, or make a decision, it’s useful to ask ourselves, “Which facts are causing me to think this way? Which facts am I overemphasizing more than others?” By doing this, we can avoid both undue optimism and overt pessimism – becoming more balanced, less emotional investors in the process!

Whatever 2019 has in store, rest assured there will be both obstacles to avoid and opportunities to seize. But whatever happens, we here at Research Financial Strategies will continue analyzing all the facts and data to help you make smart, unbiased, unemotional financial decisions – music to any investor’s ears. As always, please let me know if there is anything I can do for you in 2019.
Happy New Year!

1 “Investors Find Few Places to Hide,” The Wall Street Journal, December 18, 2018. https://www.wsj.com/articles/market-slidefoils-investors-11545154550?mod=ig_2018yearinreview
2 “Dow closes lower, ending a volatile week on Wall Street,” CNBC, December 27, 2018. https://www.cnbc.com/2018/12/28/usstocks-and-futures-dow-sp-and-nasdaq-on-roller-coaster-week.html
3 “Let the Good Times…Stay a Little Longer?” The Wall Street Journal, December 16, 2018. https://www.wsj.com/articles/letthe-good-times-stay-a-little-longer-11544993632?mod=ig_2018yearinreview
4 “U.S. workers see fastest wage growth in a decade,” The Washington Post, October 31, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/us-workers-see-fastest-wage-increase-in-a-decade/2018/10/31/3c2e7894- dc85-11e8-85df-7a6b4d25cfbb_story.html
5 “U.S. Economy at a Glance,” Bureau of Economic Analysis, September 19, 2018. https://www.bea.gov/news/glance
6 “U.S. deficits and the debt in 5 charts,” Politifact, November 2, 2018. https://www.politifact.com/truth-ometer/article/2018/nov/02/five-charts-about-debt/

Okay, let’s all take a deep breath

It was a rough fourth quarter of 2018 for the markets. It seems like week after week, the major indexes – like the Dow and S&P 500 – get hammered by volatility. These days, just about every news website you can find is packed with breathless headlines about plummeting stocks, photos of nervous-looking traders, government shutdowns and editorials about a possible bear market sometime in 2019.

Frankly, it’s true. One major index was brushing up against a bear already, and it’s possible volatility will continue for the foreseeable future. But does that mean we should panic?

Nope.

Okay, take another deep breath. Market volatility is unpleasant, and here at Research Financial Strategies, we certainly take it seriously. But panic? Never. Let’s break this down objectively by discussing:

Five Things to Know about Market Volatility

1. The definition of a bear market.
A bear market is defined as a 20%-or-greater decline from a recent peak. As of this writing, the Nasdaq, an index largely comprised of technology stocks, is flirting with bear market territory.1 The other two main indexes, the Dow and the S&P, are still some distance away. Instead, the Dow and the S&P are hovering around what’s known as a market correction, which is a 10%-or-greater drop from a recent peak. Whether that correction will eventually turn into a bear is impossible to say, but regardless, here’s what investors need to remember:

2. Corrections – and even bear markets – are a normal part of investing.
On average, a market correction occurs about every 1-2 years. In fact, both the Dow and the S&P 500 endured brief corrections earlier this year before soaring to new heights. Bear markets are less common, but far from rare. Between 1900 and 2015, the markets encountered 32 bears – roughly one every 3.5 years.2
Pleasant? No.  Normal? Absolutely.
In a sense, a market correction is like the common cold. Annoying – but you tend to get one every year, and it hardly stops you from living your life. A bear market is more like influenza. It makes the average investor feel miserable, and you certainly should treat it seriously. But for most people, it’s nothing to panic about. You get some rest, follow your doctor’s orders, and wait to get better.
Right now, the markets have a cold. Do colds sometimes turn into the flu?  Sure, and it’s possible the current correction will develop into a bear. But it’s not unusual and it’s nothing to freak out about.

3. Panic only makes things worse.
Imagine you got sick and then didn’t get better as quickly as you wanted. Would you start panicking?  No. You would probably go see a doctor, but you wouldn’t resort to extreme measures like using leeches or asking for an operation.

Unfortunately, investors aren’t always so rational.  The fact is, many investors do panic during corrections and bear markets, especially if they last for a long time.  They sell all their investments without forethought, or move everything over into bonds, or any of a hundred other things.  It’s reckless – and recklessness has destroyed more wealth than any bear market.
History shows that it takes around four months for the markets to recover from a correction, and twentytwo months from a bear.3  Some are shorter, some are longer, but regardless of the duration, our own emotions are the bigger problem.
When we get sick, we understand that it might take a while before we feel entirely normal.  It’s a healthy acceptance of reality – and it’s a key part of getting better.
As investors, we need to bring the same acceptance to the markets.

4. The best way to combat panic is to increase our own knowledge.
When you’re sick, you go to the doctor and ask questions.  Or you research your symptoms online, hoping to find answers there.  Maybe you fire up an old episode of The Magic School Bus. Either way, you seek to understand exactly what’s going on in your body – and what your body’s doing to fight the infection.  And if you’ve ever known anyone with a chronic illness, you’ve probably heard them say that simply understanding what was going on made them feel much, much better.
Let’s do that right now by looking at what’s causing this current market malaise. In this case, there are four main factors:

Interest rates. The Federal Reserve raised the country’s key interest rate on Wednesday, December 19.4  This was expected. Part of the Fed’s mandate is to raise interest rates when the economy is strong – as it currently is – because a strong economy mixed with low rates often leads to inflation.  However, the markets don’t always appreciate higher interest rates, because it makes borrowing more expensive.  This, in turn, reduces spending and can slow economic growth. Which leads me to the next factor.

The economy may be slowing down anyway. Make no mistake, the economy is currently strong – but there are signs that it might be weakening a little.  Corporate earnings are slowing, many corporations are deeply in debt, oil prices have fallen dramatically, and the housing market is coughing, too.  Some analysts even believe the U.S. is due for a recession in 2020 or 2021.  This has many calling for the Fed to cut back on raising interest rates, and the Fed itself predicted it would only do it twice in 2019. 4
Another possible reason for a slowing economy is the third factor, which is:

The trade war. Trade tensions with China continue, and while new tariffs are on hold for now, there’s no immediate end in sight. It’s not hard to understand why the markets worry about this so much. Tariffs – essentially a tax on imported goods and services – often hurt businesses. That’s because higher tariffs often lead to higher prices, which in turn lead to higher expenses. For example, if companies must pay more for the raw materials they need, that can significantly eat into their own profits. This, in turn, can lead to shipping delays, supply chain problems, higher prices for consumers, a resulting loss of business, you name it. All these issues, of course, are then reflected in the stock prices of the various companies affected.

Investor psychology. We already talked about the dangers of panicking. With any market correction, fear is always a factor. In this case, pundits have been proclaiming for months that the bull market may be ending, and that a bear isn’t so far away. This often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, because bearphobic investors will soon see bear tracks everywhere they look. This fear leads to panic, panic leads to sell-offs, and sell-offs lead to corrections.

So, what can we do with this information? We can use it to understand there are reasons for the current market volatility, just as there are reasons we get sick. Neither, however, spells certain disaster or the end of the world.

5. Accepting market volatility as normal doesn’t mean we don’t have a plan for dealing with it.
The final thing you should know about bear markets is also the most important.

Here at Research Financial Strategies, we believe strongly in the use of technical analysis. That means we decide when to buy and when to sell based on supply and demand, not storylines in the media or emotion. We have long been prepared to “go on defense” when necessary, and we understand that protecting your money is just as important as growing it.

Using technical analysis, we look at market trends. Is the market trending up or down? What about different sectors of the market? What about your individual investments? As you know, we have rules in place specific to you that determine at what point in a trend we decide to buy, and at what point we decide to sell. For example, if an investment trends down below a certain price, we follow the rules and sell. Period. If an investment trends up above a certain price, we buy. This allows us to make investment decisions based on what makes sense for you rather than just following the herd. And the best part about this kind of approach? It works whether we’re in a bull market or a bear! Other investment philosophies, like buy-and-hold, can’t say the same.

It’s cold-and-flu season here in the United States…and apparently in the markets as well. That’s why you should focus on living and let us do the worrying. We’ll continue to monitor the markets and the economy. We’ll continue researching your investments to make sure they continue to make long-term sense for your goals. We’ll continue focusing on keeping your finances healthy. As always, contact us if you have questions or concerns. Our team stands ready, our door is open, and so is our inbox! In the meantime, have a great 2019!

Market – Commentary January 7, 2019

Investors will think of the last quarter of 2018 for years to come, but they won’t remember it fondly.
The Economist described it like this, “After a rotten October and limp November, the S&P 500 tumbled in value by 15 percent between November 30th and December 24th. Despite an astonishing bounce of 5 percent the day after Christmas, the index finished the year 6 percent below where it started…”

Last quarter’s volatility and the slide in share prices owed much to uncertainty about economic growth. Investors were concerned about a variety of issues, including:

  • The Federal Reserve making a mistake. Many in financial markets worried the Fed would raise rates too high, too quickly and stifle economic growth. Last week, the Fed put those fears to rest when its Chair, Jerome Powell, suggested the Fed was willing to stop increasing rates during 2019 if there were signs of economic weakness. Investors rejoiced and the three major U.S. indices experienced significant gains on Friday.
  • Weaker corporate profits. Companies were remarkably profitable during the first three quarters of 2018, in part because of the boost from tax reform. However, there were worries fourth quarter earnings would be weaker as the effects of the stimulus faded. Last week, John Butters of FactSet reported, after three quarters of 25 percent or higher earnings growth, the estimated earnings growth rate for fourth quarter 2018 is 11.4 percent.
  • A slowdown in global economic growth. Trade wars and tariffs clouded the outlook for global growth throughout the year. The Economist reported there were signs of economic slowdown in China, and one American technology firm attributed a sharp downturn in its profitability to weaker economic growth in China. There were also signs of economic weakness in Europe.
  • A slowdown in domestic economic growth. Investors have been worried that trade issues, the government shutdown, and other matters could negatively affect economic growth at home. If the government shutdown is resolved quickly, these worries may prove overblown. Last week, Taylor Telford of the Washington Post reported, “…According to interviews with several analysts: The economy is fundamentally strong, and the stock market has overreacted to concerns about a modest slowing.”

As anxiety rose during the fourth quarter of 2018, some investors rushed to the perceived safety of bonds. High demand pushed the yield on 10-year Treasury bonds lower. It dropped from 2.99 percent to 2.69 percent during December, according to Yahoo! Finance.

While increasing bond exposure may have been a prudent portfolio adjustment for investors who were taking more risk than they could bear, those who moved out of stocks on fear missed out. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index and the Dow Jones Industrial Average posted their biggest one-day point gains on record on December 26, reported Emily McCormick for Yahoo! Finance.

At this point, some investors feel overwhelmed and worried about their ability to reach personal financial goals. If you’re one of them, please give us a call. Sometimes, reviewing life and financial goals, and the reasoning behind portfolio choices, may be reassuring. We look forward to hearing from you.

What is midwest nice?
The Economist recently explored whether there was a basis for the idea that Americans who live in mid-western states are more congenial than people from other states. The publication explained ‘Midwest nice’ this way,  “It is apologizing involuntarily when scooting past someone, both to warn of your presence and to express regret for any inconvenience your mere existence may have caused. It is greeting people as they step into a lift and wishing them well as they leave. It is a strong preference for avoiding confrontation.”
The Economist found it all depends on how you measure ‘nice.’

If the standard is volunteerism, the Corporation for National and Community Service reported three of the five states where people volunteer the most are in the Midwest:
1) Utah (West)
2) Minnesota (Midwest)
3) Wisconsin (Midwest)
4) South Dakota (Midwest)
5) Idaho (West)

If the standard is personality, the Midwest shares the blue ribbon for friendliness. A group of researchers from the United States, Britain, and Finland mapped the psychological topography of the United States and found people in Middle America and the South to be friendly and conventional, while those on the West Coast, in Rocky Mountains, and along the Sunbelt were relaxed and creative. Americans in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast regions were temperamental and uninhibited.

When it comes to charitable giving, Utah and the Southern states come out on top. Southerners give the highest percentage of earnings to charities. The money primarily goes to churches.

The preponderance of the data considered by The Economist suggest that ‘Midwest nice’ has a basis in reality.

Weekly Focus – Think About It
“The wind comes across the plains not howling but singing. It’s the difference between this wind and its big-city cousins: the full-throated wind of the plains has leeway to seek out the hidden registers of its voice. Where immigrant farmers planted windbreaks a hundred and fifty years ago, it keens in protest; where the young corn shoots up, it whispers as it passes, crossing field after field in its own time, following eastward trends but in no hurry to find open water. You can’t usually see it in paintings, but it’s an important part of the scenery.”
– John Darnielle, Musician and author

Best regards,
John F. Reutemann, Jr., CLU, CFP®

P.S.  Please feel free to forward this commentary to family, friends, or colleagues. If you would like us to add them to the list, please reply to this email with their email address and we will ask for their permission to be added.

Investment advice offered through Research Financial Strategies, a registered investment advisor.

 

S&P 500, Dow Jones Global ex-US, Gold, Bloomberg Commodity Index returns exclude reinvested dividends (gold does not pay a dividend) and the three-, five-, and 10-year returns are annualized; the DJ Equity All REIT Total Return Index does include reinvested dividends and the three-, five-, and 10-year returns are annualized; and the 10-year Treasury Note is simply the yield at the close of the day on each of the historical time periods.
Sources: Yahoo! Finance, Barron’s, djindexes.com, London Bullion Market Association.
Past performance is no guarantee of future results. Indices are unmanaged and cannot be invested into directly. N/A means not applicable.

 

* Government bonds and Treasury Bills are guaranteed by the U.S. government as to the timely payment of principal and interest and, if held to maturity, offer a fixed rate of return and fixed principal value.  However, the value of fund shares is not guaranteed and will fluctuate.
* Corporate bonds are considered higher risk than government bonds but normally offer a higher yield and are subject to market, interest rate and credit risk as well as additional risks based on the quality of issuer coupon rate, price, yield, maturity, and redemption features.
* The Standard & Poor’s 500 (S&P 500) is an unmanaged group of securities considered to be representative of the stock market in general. You cannot invest directly in this index.
* All indexes referenced are unmanaged. Unmanaged index returns do not reflect fees, expenses, or sales charges. Index performance is not indicative of the performance of any investment.
* The Dow Jones Global ex-U.S. Index covers approximately 95 percent of the market capitalization of the 45 developed and emerging countries included in the Index.
* The 10-year Treasury Note represents debt owed by the United States Treasury to the public. Since the U.S. Government is seen as a risk-free borrower, investors use the 10-year Treasury Note as a benchmark for the long-term bond market.
* Gold represents the afternoon gold price as reported by the London Bullion Market Association. The gold price is set twice daily by the London Gold Fixing Company at 10:30 and 15:00 and is expressed in U.S. dollars per fine troy ounce.
* The Bloomberg Commodity Index is designed to be a highly liquid and diversified benchmark for the commodity futures market. The Index is composed of futures contracts on 19 physical commodities and was launched on July 14, 1998.
* The DJ Equity All REIT Total Return Index measures the total return performance of the equity subcategory of the Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT) industry as calculated by Dow Jones.
* The Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA), commonly known as “The Dow,” is an index representing 30 stock of companies maintained and reviewed by the editors of The Wall Street Journal.
* The NASDAQ Composite is an unmanaged index of securities traded on the NASDAQ system.
* International investing involves special risks such as currency fluctuation and political instability and may not be suitable for all investors. These risks are often heightened for investments in emerging markets.
* Yahoo! Finance is the source for any reference to the performance of an index between two specific periods.
* Opinions expressed are subject to change without notice and are not intended as investment advice or to predict future performance.
* Economic forecasts set forth may not develop as predicted and there can be no guarantee that strategies promoted will be successful.
* Past performance does not guarantee future results. Investing involves risk, including loss of principal.
* You cannot invest directly in an index.
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* The foregoing information has been obtained from sources considered to be reliable, but we do not guarantee it is accurate or complete.
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Sources:
https://www.economist.com/finance-and-economics/2019/01/05/what-the-market-turmoil-means-for-2019
https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-01-04/powell-says-fed-ready-to-adjust-policy-if-needed-can-be-patient
https://www.cnn.com/2019/01/04/investing/dow-stock-market-today/index.html
https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/27/us/politics/trump-tax-cuts-jobs-act.html
https://insight.factset.com/sp-500-2018-earnings-preview-highest-earnings-growth-in-eight-years
https://insight.factset.com/largest-cuts-to-quarterly-sp-500-eps-estimates-since-q3-2017 (download report)
https://www.cnbc.com/2019/01/04/stock-market-comeback-is-now-in-the-hands-of-china-us-trade-talks.html
https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2019/01/04/stock-market-has-been-going-down-down-down-so-why-do-so-many-analysts-think-itll-go-way-up-this-year/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.59bd81bd0720
https://finance.yahoo.com/quote/%5ETNX/history?p=%5ETNX
https://finance.yahoo.com/news/stock-futures-rise-christmas-eve-sell-off-134312777.html
https://richardlangworth.com/success
https://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/2018/12/27/is-there-any-truth-to-the-idea-of-midwestern-nice
https://www.nationalservice.gov/vcla/state-rankings-volunteer-rate
https://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/psp-a0034434.pdf
https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/midwest

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