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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

Controversy in Wisconsin

Aug 11, 2017   //   by Bruce Mason   //   Weekly Market Update  //  No Comments

After a streak of nine consecutive record high closes, the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed lower on Tuesday.  Stocks have largely drifted in recent sessions with trading volumes near their lows for the year as second quarter earnings season has wound down, while the S&P 500 has failed to post a 1% daily move in either direction since the middle of May.  Stocks finally dipped into the red after President Trump warned that North Korea will be “met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”  The market took notice.

It is hard to discuss this week without talking about the escalation of tensions between the United States and North Korea.  Although you’ve likely heard much of what I’m about to say it bears repeating.  North Korea is explicitly examining a strike on the U.S territory of Guam.  Furthermore, intelligence reports now suggest Pyongyang has successfully developed a miniaturized nuclear weapon and has up to 60 nuclear weapons in its arsenal.  The last time the U.S. went to war was 2003 when we invaded Iraq to topple the Saddam Hussein regime.  In that case, the market pulled back in the months prior to the start of the war, only to recover its losses and go on to exceed its previous high over the following twelve months.  The point I’m making is that the market usually moves ahead of the triggering event but typically recovers in the months that follow.

On to more “normal” news.  You know the kind of stories that pit politicians against one another.  You might have heard that Foxconn, the large Chinese manufacturer that is among those that make Apple’s iPhone, is planning on building a $10 billion research and development plant in Wisconsin.  The focus of the plant will be on autonomous driving which is another topic I seem to be discussing more and more these days.  However, recent reports suggest it is far from a done deal.  Wisconsin’s republican-led state senate could vote against republican Governor Scott Walker’s efforts and reject the plan.  At issue is an estimate that the state wouldn’t break even on the project for 25 years if it gives Foxconn the negotiated $3 billion in tax subsidies.  And that’s still assuming that Foxconn actually creates the 13,000 jobs it claimed it might create, at the average wage — just shy of $54,000 — it promised to create them at.  In fact, the plant is only expected to start with 3,000 jobs; the 13,000 figure is the maximum potential positions it could eventually offer. If the factory offers closer to 3,000 positions, the report notes, “the breakeven point would be well past 2044-45.”

While this one isn’t about autonomous cars, it is about pilotless planes.  According to new research by UBS, pilotless planes could not only be the future method of transport, but an “economically-beneficial one too.”  The report believes there may be a material profit opportunity of more than $35 billion per year for the aerospace and aviation industry.  It states commercial aircraft already use computers and technology on-board to assist in a number of functions, including the autopilot system.  Would you buy a ticket for a pilotless fare?  More importantly, will we still have to pay baggage check fees?

In closing, we turn to the theme of unintended consequences.  Sometimes the best of intentions can backfire in their outcomes.  In a surprising twist, Philadelphia’s tax on soda has made these carbonated beverages more expensive than beer in the city.  A new study from the nonpartisan Tax Foundation found that the 1.5-cent per ounce tax has fallen short of revenue projections and has forced some Philadelphians to drive outside the city to buy groceries.  Philadelphia’s tax on soda is 24 times higher than its tax on beer.  The irony is that the study found consumers facing taxes on sugary drinks are more willing to substitute alcoholic beverages in place of soda, mitigating the original reason for the tax, the reduction of caloric intake and perhaps creating new issues in the process.  Now you know.

August 11, 2017

Is Yellen on the way out?

Jul 28, 2017   //   by Bruce Mason   //   Weekly Market Update  //  No Comments

From news on tax reform to the failure of an Obamacare repeal, this week was full of consequential news.  Add to that, the busiest week for earnings announcements this quarter and you have the makings of a very crazy week.  I’m happy to say the markets look to close higher despite the wide variety of good and bad news.  I use the word “bad” loosely because it is such a subjective word.  At the moment, investors have a high tolerance for political uncertainty and appear optimistic for the second half of this year.

Let’s start with the Federal Reserve Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting this week.  To nobody’s surprise, the Fed announced it is holding pat on interest rates.  The difference between the last meeting and the current meeting boils down to about fifteen words.  The Fed’s statement makes clear job gains in June were solid but that inflation is below its two percent target.  The language on both items is stronger than the previous statement.  With regards to its balance sheet it went on to say, “for the time being the Committee is maintaining its existing policy of reinvesting principal payments from its holdings of agency debt and agency mortgage-backed securities in agency mortgage-backed securities and of rolling over maturing Treasury securities at auction. The Committee currently expects to begin implementing its balance sheet normalization program relatively soon.”  It was the relatively soon part that got people’s attention.  It is unclear whether the Fed will let its holdings mature, actively sell its holdings on the open market, or some combination of the two.  As a reminder, the Fed’s balance sheet swelled from roughly $800 million before the financial crisis in 2008 to roughly $4.5 trillion today.

While we’re on the subject of the Federal Reserve, it should be noted that Janet Yellen’s term as the Chairperson is set to expire in January 2018.  It is up to the president to decide whether to keep or to replace her with a new appointee.  The Fed has been slowly transitioning from a more accommodative to a less accommodative policy regarding the economy, which may work against the current administration’s desire to keep its monetary foot on the gas pedal.  The latest reports suggest that Gary Cohn is the leading contender to replace Janet Yellen.  If appointed, Cohn would be the first Fed Chairman who isn’t a trained economist since Jimmy Carter’s appointment of G. William Miller.  Mr. Miller lasted all of seventeen months before being replaced by Paul Volker in August 1979 due to runaway inflation.  Some of you may remember those days.

In other news, a new study out this week suggests the mortgage interest tax deduction has no effect on home ownership.  I should admit I am skeptical of these findings but believe it will be used in the upcoming tax reform debate.  As reported by the Wall Street Journal, it shows the popular U.S. tax deduction, a “sacred cow” of the country’s tax code, just isn’t very effective.  The study was put together by scholars from MIT, Princeton, and the University of Copenhagen.  Ironically, the study centers on real estate data from Denmark in the ‘80s.  It concludes the deduction reduces government tax collections by $72 billion per year.  This report comes during speculation over the final shape of the administration’s tax cut proposal.  Without savings from the attempted Obamacare repeal, the GOP will have to come up with other ways to cut expenses in order to keep their proposed tax reform deficit neutral.  Another idea being floated is to increase the top marginal tax rate to 44% on those earning above $5 million.  It seems implausible that Republicans will go for that option.

In closing, I turn to speeding tickets.  At some point, virtually everyone will be pulled over for exceeding the speed limit.  Urban legend suggests that the color of the car is a major determinant.  Most people believe the color red gets pulled over more often, but red actually comes in second to white.  So when I came across a non-scientific piece this week that asked which vehicles get the most traffic tickets I was intrigued.  Is it BMWs or perhaps Corvettes?  I figured a sports car would top the list.  I was wrong.  Top of the list is the Lexus ES 300.  To be fair, the remainder of the top ten was, in fact, sports cars.  But Lexus?  To read the results and see where your car ranks check out this website (not an endorsement of insurance.com).  Now you know.

July 28, 2017

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