Browsing articles in "Weekly Market Update"

Equifax: How to Protect Yourself

Sep 15, 2017   //   by Bruce Mason   //   Weekly Market Update  //  No Comments

Compared to recent weeks, this week was fairly quiet with little in the way of market-moving news.  President Trump crossed party lines to meet with leaders of the Democratic party in a show of goodwill, however, it is too soon to say if progress was made.  North Korea launched another missile over Japan, but this time the war of words was absent as if accepting Kim Jong Un’s belligerence as ineffectual.  And while Irma destroyed homes and property across Florida, the spirit of Americans coming together and persevering in the face of disaster was once again demonstrated for the world to see.  At the end of the day, it was a good week for the markets and the American people.

Among the biggest stories of the week was our national debt topping $20 trillion for the first time in the history of the nation.  While I said above that the week was good, this bit of news was perhaps a little sobering.  It was also the first time the U.S. debt exceeded Gross Domestic Product (GDP) which was estimated to be roughly $19.23 trillion in the second quarter of 2017.  This equates to $61,895 for every man, woman, and child or $167,299 per taxpayer.  It is important to remember this as both parties wrestle with tax reform in the coming weeks.  While it is unlikely Republicans will get the desired 15% corporate tax rate, it is also unlikely that the tax cuts will be deficit neutral.  If you are interested in just how the national debt breaks down, you can find information at the following link – US Debt Clock.

In other less pressing news, Apple had its annual iPhone event in Cupertino and revealed three new phones.  I won’t go into the details other than to say smartphone innovation is slowing.  While the features of the phones are tweaked, i.e. screen size and technology, their actual usefulness seems to have peaked.  What hasn’t peaked are the prices.  The latest iPhone X pushed through the $1,000 price point and set a new standard for what a high-end phone costs.  I question whether the latest innovation is worth the price and I wonder if there are others who feel the same.  When a phone, albeit a good phone, pushes up against the price of a laptop, one should wonder if the market is a little out of whack (to use a technical term).

Also out of whack is Equifax’s wholly unacceptable response to the data breach that exposed millions of people to identity theft.  As we learn more about what happened, it seems management was asleep at the wheel.  If you have a credit report, there’s a good chance that you’re one of the 143 million American consumers whose sensitive personal information was leaked.  These are steps to take to help protect your information from being misused. Visit Equifax’s website www.equifaxsecurity2017.com.

  • Find out if your information was exposed. Click on the “Potential Impact” tab and enter your last name and the last six digits of your Social Security number. Your Social Security number is sensitive information, so make sure you’re on a secure computer. The site will tell you if you’ve been affected by this breach.
  • Whether or not your information was exposed, U.S. consumers can get a year of free credit monitoring and other services. The site will give you a date when you can come back to enroll. Write down the date and come back to the site and click “Enroll” on that date. You have until November 21, 2017 to enroll.
  • Check your credit reports from Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion — for free — by visiting annualcreditreport.com Accounts or activity that you don’t recognize could indicate identity theft. Visit www.IdentityTheft.gov to find out what to do.
  • Consider placing a credit freeze on your files. A credit freeze makes it harder for someone to open a new account in your name. Keep in mind that a credit freeze won’t prevent a thief from making charges to your existing accounts.  Equifax is offering a free credit freeze while TransUnion and Experian charge $5-10.

Better safe than sorry.  Have a great weekend!

September 15, 2017

The Equifax Hack

Sep 8, 2017   //   by Bruce Mason   //   Weekly Market Update  //  No Comments

It was another busy week with one hurricane behind us and another quickly approaching.  Our thoughts and prayers go out to those who lost so much in Houston.  For those in Florida, we pray the storm weakens before it hits and we urge those who can to evacuate if possible.  Since the news is adequately covering these storms, I’ll move on to the things this week that you may have missed.

In a somewhat unexpected move, President Trump struck a deal with Democratic congressional leaders on Wednesday to increase the debt limit and finance the government until mid-December.  In embracing the three-month deal, President Trump accepted a Democratic proposal that had been rejected earlier in the day by Speaker Paul Ryan.  After weeks of criticizing Republican leaders for failing to pass legislation, President Trump signaled he was willing to cross party lines to score a much-needed legislative victory.  It is unclear whether this collaboration with Democrats foreshadows a more sustained shift in strategy or amounts to a one-time pragmatic decision.  Either way, the government will remain in business at least through mid-December.

In other news, Federal Reserve Vice Chairman Stanley Fischer has resigned citing personal reasons.  His term as vice chair was set to expire next June but his appointment to Federal Reserve wasn’t set to expire until 2020.  The president now has the opportunity to appoint not just the next Fed chair, but the vice chair as well.  Interestingly, the front-runner to replace Janet Yellen atop the Fed, Gary Cohn is now unlikely to be nominated by the president thanks to Cohn’s criticism of Trump’s response to the Charlottesville violence last month.  Cohn, for now, remains the White House’s chief economic advisor.

Another story that broke late on Thursday is a massive data breach at one of the country’s largest credit bureaus.  Equifax announced a massive data leak that may have impacted 143 million U.S. consumers.  This number represents 44% of the U.S. population but is closer to 75% of those with a credit file.  Information that was accessed includes names, social security numbers, birth dates, addresses, and driver’s license numbers.  In an odd twist, three Equifax executives sold shares of the company in the days after the breach was discovered, but before it was reported.  The execs sold $1.8 million worth of stock, but insist they had no knowledge of the breach when they sold their shares.  In another twist, during the month of July, only 260 put options were traded on the stock.  However, on August 21st someone purchased 2,600 September puts with a strike price of $135.  This $156,000 investment is now worth more than $4 million thanks to the plunge in Equifax’s stock price.  It seems investigators will have their hands full.

Turning to France, I came upon a story that indicates just how quickly the things we take for granted can change.  This past July, France announced it would place a ban on the sale of gasoline and diesel cars by the year 2040 as an ambitious plan to meet its targets under the Paris climate accord.  This announcement came only days after Volvo said it would only make fully electric or hybrid cars from 2019 onwards.  This week France took it a step further.  France’s government drafted legislation to phase out all oil and gas exploration and production on its mainland and overseas territories by 2040, becoming the first country to do so.  This represents a seismic shift in just twenty years, demonstrating the speed at which the transformation of the energy and automobile industry is occurring.

In closing, I hope to amuse the wordsmiths among you.  I had a dispute with my wife this week over the spelling of a common phrase.  Is it Just Deserts or Just Desserts?  Even among those who have a solid grasp of the English language, it seems this phrase causes confusion.  These two terms, though only one letter apart and pronounced identically, have different etymologies.  The particular sense of desert that appears in just deserts derives from the Old French verb deserver meaning “to deserve,” and has been around since the 1200s.  Dessert with the double s derives from the French desservir meaning “to clear the table.”  So, the next time you’re talking about someone’s comeuppance make sure to use just deserts with one s.  As for who was right between my wife and me, I’ll never say.  Now you know.

September 8, 2017

Zestimate

Aug 25, 2017   //   by Bruce Mason   //   Weekly Market Update  //  No Comments

With this week behind us, we’re one step closer to tax reform, normalized monetary policy, and world peace.  Well, maybe not the last part but certainly, we’ve moved past healthcare reform and are moving on to tax reform.  Beginning next week, we expect to hear the President’s plans for reforming and perhaps simplifying our complex tax system.  The markets were buffeted earlier in the week by news that there might be a government shutdown over funding of the President’s border wall initiative and then again later in the week when the President said the U.S. “probably” will terminate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).  It’s a wonder the market isn’t a lot more volatile these days.

Let’s start with a bit of good news.  The leaders of both the House and the Senate confirmed that the United States will raise its debt ceiling.  “There is little chance, no chance we won’t raise the debt ceiling,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said alongside Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.  The Treasury Department has been employing cash-conservation measures since March when the previous suspension of the debt limit expired and the new ceiling was set at nearly $20 trillion dollars.  House leader Paul Ryan reaffirmed this statement later in the week after President Trump tweeted that Congress could have avoided a “mess” if Ryan and Mitch McConnell had taken his advice to link the debt ceiling and veteran’s funding measure.  Either way, it appears for now that this shouldn’t be an issue.

As for tax reform, we should start hearing about it this coming week.  “Starting next week, the president’s agenda and calendar are going to revolve around tax reform,” National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn said this week.  Early reports suggest significant progress is being made between Trump’s top aides and Republican leaders in shaping the overhaul.  The options on the table include capping the mortgage interest deduction for homeowners, scrapping people’s ability to deduct state and local taxes, eliminating businesses’ ability to deduct interest and allowing for the repatriation of corporate profits from overseas.  Before you get too worked up about what may be cut, note that there is contradictory information coming out as this remains a work in progress.  Despite rumors to the contrary, Mr. Cohn says the administration has no plans to end the charitable donation deduction, nor the tax benefit on retirement savings.

I occasionally mention stories that result from unintended consequences.  This week I came across a story that U.S. hospitals are facing soft admissions and don’t expect this to reverse anytime soon.  Reuters reported that headwinds from weak patient admissions will continue to affect hospital groups through 2018, driven by soaring out-of-pocket costs and uncertainty surrounding Obamacare.  High-deductible plans, which shift upfront costs to patients, have reduced demand for non-emergency surgeries.  Some of the largest hospital companies, including HCA and Tenet Healthcare have cut their outlooks and forward guidance.  Perhaps this is less of a flaw and more a feature since one aim of healthcare reform was to bring costs down.  However, I’m not sure this is exactly what they had in mind.

In other news, Zillow, the popular website homebuyers use to find their perfect home, won an important class-action lawsuit in Chicago that challenged the accuracy of its ‘Zestimate’ tool used for estimating U.S. home values.  Have you ever gone on there to find that your home is worth considerably less than you think?  Homeowners sued Zillow in May, complaining that its computer algorithm often undervalues homes, sometimes by hundreds of thousands of dollars, making them harder to sell and constituted illegal “appraisals.”  The judge, in dismissing the suit, agreed. “Zestimates are not false, misleading, or likely to confuse,” the ruling read. “The word ‘Zestimate — an obvious portmanteau of ‘Zillow’ and “estimate’ — itself indicates that Zestimates are merely an estimate of the market value of a property.”

In closing, I turn to a mystery that was recently uncovered.  Prosecutors in Bavaria have found documents showing thousands of Audi vehicles exported to China, Korea, and Japan may have the same vehicle identification number (VIN).  The discovery was made as investigators searched Audi corporate files for documents related to the dieselgate scandal.  A cars VIN number is supposed to be a unique, 17-digit identifier for every car and truck produced and cannot be reused for at least thirty years.  This allows for owners or potential buyers to track things like the cars ownership history or accident record.  One explanation is that imported Audis are especially prized in the Chinese market but have strict limits on the number that can be imported in any given year.  Some speculate assigning one VIN number to thousands of vehicles is one way to get around this regulation.  Now you know.

August 25, 2017

Back to the Future

Aug 18, 2017   //   by Bruce Mason   //   Weekly Market Update  //  No Comments

Traditionally, summer is the period of the year during which the market becomes quiet.  We usually see trading volume dwindle and volatility slow.  However, the month of August has proven to be anything but ordinary. Between the riots in Charlottesville and the traditional Friday firing of an administration official, not to mention the media’s need to sensationalize every news story, we’re living in a polarizing time.  While the economic data hasn’t changed much, it seems investors patience and tolerance are waning thin.

More recently, it has become hard to report on the news from the week, because these days are so political.  I try to tread a fine line, knowing that this weekly recap is read by people across a wide spectrum of political beliefs.  However, it is sometimes difficult to avoid since politics often has a way of impacting both the stock market and the economy.  If I seem partial to one side or another, know that it is not intentional and just a reflection of what is being reported (for better or worse).  Having said that, let’s move on to nonpolitical stories this week.

Procter and Gamble has been under siege lately by activist investor Nelson Peltz.  This week the company fired back in a letter to shareholders asking them to vote against the bid by Trian Fund Management to land a board seat.  It states, “Mr. Peltz does not bring any new or needed skills to our Board.  We believe that adding him to the Board would derail the very significant value creation progress we are making.”  Kudos to P&G for not mincing words.  The company’s annual shareholder meeting is scheduled for October 10, 2017.

In other company news, Costco was ordered to pay $19 million after losing a recent lawsuit.  A federal judge ruled that Costco owes Tiffany & Co. damages for selling engagement rings with the Tiffany name.  Costco argued that its use of the name “Tiffany” referred to a generic style of ring, and not the luxury retailer itself.  However, using the name Tiffany is different than using the phrase “tiffany setting” which is synonymous with a solitaire style setting which is considered the classic engagement ring style today.  Unfortunately for Costco, they only sold 2,500 “Tiffany” rings with a profit of $3.7 million.  While this won’t have a significant impact on the company’s earnings, it is worth noting semantics matter.

This next story made me a little nostalgic.  While I don’t remember the authentic wood paneled station wagons of the 1950’s, often referred to as “Woodies”, I do remember the faux wood paneled station wagons of the 1970’s.  Over time, car manufacturers have sought out weight savings first in the use of aluminum and then with the use of carbon fiber.  With the push toward electric vehicles, slimming down cars takes on an even greater importance.  It seems the push to make lighter vehicles is leading some Japanese suppliers to turn to wood.  Denso and DaikyoNishikawa say cellulose nanofibers made from wood pulp weight just one fifth of steel and can be five times stronger.  While nothing compares to those faux wood paneled station wagons of yore, I am cautiously optimistic we’re moving back to the future.

In closing, we sometimes talk about patterns in the market.  For example, this is only the fourth calendar year in history (since 1926) that the first seven months of the year were all positive.  The other three years in which the first seven months were all positive were 1954, 1964, and 1995.  The average full year return for those three years was +35.56%.  However, these patterns are typically just anomalies which is why most small print disclosures usually say something to the effect of past performance does not guarantee future returns.  So when Liz Ann Sonders, chief investment strategist at Charles Schwab, made the following statement this week I had to chuckle.  She said, “there’s a seasonal thing we all need to be mindful of right now.  Many viewers may not be familiar with an effect that comes into play in years ending in seven.  If you go back all the way to 1900 and you use the Dow, for a variety of reasons, maybe some of which are mystical, years ending in seven have notoriously brought corrective phases.”  That’s not to say that we aren’t going to have a pullback this year, but “mystical” reasons are not generally at the top of my list.  Now you know.

August 18, 2017

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