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Teen Trends to Watch

Oct 20, 2017   //   by Bruce Mason   //   Weekly Market Update  //  No Comments

The markets advanced this week pushing the averages higher again.  In fact, the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) closed above 23,000 for the first time.  It is also worth noting that this week marked the thirtieth anniversary of Black Monday.  For those of you who are too young to remember, the 1987 stock market crash was amongst the largest in history with the DJIA falling 22.6% in one day or the equivalent of 5,300 points.  While some are worried about current market valuations, it should be noted that a repeat of Black Monday is unlikely to happen again due to modern trading technology, implementation of circuit breakers, and the way funds are managed.  Yep, this time is different.

So let’s start with the big news.  Procter & Gamble held off activist investor Nelson Peltz with the certification of the proxy vote this week.  The vote was very close with a margin of victory of only 0.2% or roughly 6 million votes.  While this means P&G is out of the woods, for now, the fight for a board seat likely isn’t over.  CEO, David Taylor, insists that the current transformation underway is working but will take time.  Today’s earnings announcement of just one percent organic growth undermines management’s defense and leaves the door open for the likes of Mr. Peltz to make another run at the company.

In other news, I learned this week that there may be a huge hike in the SIFI threshold on the way.  You may remember in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, certain financial institutions including banks, brokerage companies, and insurance companies were determined to be “too big to fail”.  The official term given by the Federal Reserve for these institutions is “Systematically Important Financial Institutions” or SIFI for short. Gary Cohn, the chief economic advisor to President Trump and the Director of the National Economic Council, said the Trump Team and Congress are working on a plan to raise the asset level to be considered systematically important from $50 billion to $200 billion.  The reason this is significant is that companies considered systematically important have more stringent regulatory requirements regarding capital and reserves.  Undoing this measure just nine years after the financial crisis seems dicey, but we’re currently in a risk-on environment.

I came across two stories this week that involved the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe.  Having never heard of this Native American tribe, I was curious.  A federal judge in Texas invalidated four key patents for the dry-eye treatment Restasis, dealing a blow to its manufacturer Allergan.  In September, Allergan took the highly unusual step of paying the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe in upstate New York to take possession of the patents, which then were leased back to the company.  The tactic was a way to protect the company from a patent challenge that is underway before the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).  The Mohawk tribe has claimed that sovereign immunity shields the patents from challenges.  While the ruling this week is a blow to Allergan, the case with the USPTO remains unsettled.  Oddly enough, I came across another story this week in which the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe is suing Microsoft and Amazon for patents it holds.  I am intrigued by this technicality and wonder if this may become a loophole for corporations, not unlike some of the other unsavory strategies they’ve employed such as the “double Irish with a Dutch sandwich” which shifts taxable profits to a low or no tax jurisdiction.

In closing, I’d like to share a research survey by Piper Jaffray.  The survey looks at the spending habits of teenagers and hopes to gain insight into the current trends.  The following are some of the highlights:

  • Snapchat is the preferred social media platform for 47% of teens, up 12% year-over-year.
  • 82% of teens expect their next phone to be an iPhone, which is the highest ever seen in this survey.
  • Streaming continues to gain teen video share as preference for “linear” TV declined 2%
  • Only 35% of teens listen to Pandora radio versus 49% last year.
  • Teens increasingly prefer Amazon as their favorite website at 49%, up 9% year-over-year.
  • Starbucks remains the only public brand to garner double-digit mindshare among restaurants.

Now you know.

October 20, 2017

Tax Reform to the Forefront

Sep 29, 2017   //   by Bruce Mason   //   Weekly Market Update  //  No Comments

Fall officially started last Friday, but you could have fooled me!  The weather isn’t the only thing that is hot these days.  The markets remain steady despite the meltdown in Washington DC.  While we can count on mother nature to bring us cooler weather in the weeks ahead, it is not certain that cooler heads will prevail in our Capitol.

Let’s start with the first of two big stories that directly or indirectly affect everyone in this country.  This week the GOP struck out again with the repeal of Obamacare.  Majority Leader Mitch McConnell failed to garner the minimum 50 votes necessary for passage of the GOP bill.  Holdouts included Senators McCain (AZ), Collins (ME), and Murkowski (AK) who all faced strong opposition in their home states.  Not giving up hope, Senate Republicans are now promising to repeal the Affordable Care Act by January 2019 while President Trump has stated his intention to press forward and negotiate directly with Democrats on health care legislation.  Some progress is being made to shore up the federal Medicaid subsidies to insurance companies which should bring insurers back to some of the markets they previously abandoned.  In addition, there is talk President Trump could sign an executive order allowing people to buy health insurance across state lines (which is currently not legal).  Conceptually, this should constrain or even reduce premiums due to increased competition.

The second large story which you are undoubtedly aware is the proposed tax reform put forward by the GOP this week.  While it offers some details, it isn’t explicit enough to know its potential impact.  Many provisions are still being worked out behind closed doors and should be made available in the weeks ahead.  However, here’s what we know:

  • It doubles the standard deduction while getting rid of personal exemptions
  • It gets rid of most deductions except for mortgage interest and charitable contributions
  • It repeals the alternative minimum tax (AMT)
  • It reduces the tax on pass-through income to 25%
  • It repeals the estate tax
  • It reduces the current tax table from seven brackets to three (although income ranges are not known)

Surprisingly, early reports suggest it is Republicans that are not happy with the plan.  One of the larger deductions being phased out is state and local taxes which amount to a large hit for those in high tax states including, California, New York, New Jersey, and Illinois.

In company news, Target announced they plan on raising their minimum wage to $11 per hour in October from a current level of $10 per hour.  The retailer also committed to boosting its minimum hourly wage to $15 by the end of 2020.  This is another move in the direction of rising wages which not only set a precedent other retails may have to follow but may also spark inflation which has been stubbornly low despite the Federal Reserve’s best efforts.  In a more concerning bit of news, Citibank is bringing back collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) which nearly brought down the financial industry and our economy in 2008.  According to Bloomberg, the bank has spent the past two years hawking synthetic CDOs and promoting returns as high as 20% but feels things are safer this time around.  This time will be different.

In closing, if you were wondering what it would cost to buy an uncut diamond the size of a tennis ball, we found out this week.  After a year of negotiations, the British dealer Graff Diamonds agreed to buy the 1,109-carat Lesedi La Rona diamond for $47,777 per carat which works out to $53 million.  Laurence Graff said in a statement, “The stone will tell us a story, it will dictate how it wants to be cut, and we will take the utmost care to respect its exceptional properties.”  If only I could find a stone that talked like that!  Now you know.

September 30, 2017

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

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