Hammering Heads with Circular Conversations
This article is an excerpt from a previously released Sidoxia Capital Management complementary newsletter (July 1, 2013). Subscribe on the right side of the page for a complete monthly update.
Deciphering what is driving the markets on a day-to-day, week-to-week, or month-to-month basis can feel like repeatedly hammering your head. In order to grasp the reasons why financial markets go up and down, one must have a conversation with your brain explaining that good news can be bad for asset prices, and bad news can be good for asset prices. Huh…how can that be? These circular conversations are what keep newspapers, magazines, media commentators, and bloggers in business… and what baffle many investors.
For example, headlines often reflect sentiments such as these:
- “Unemployment Figures Disappoint…Dow Jones Rallies +200 Points on QE3 Continuation Hopes”
- “Unemployment Figures Delight…Dow Jones Tanks -200 Points on QE3 Discontinuation Fears”
- “Economic Figures Revised Lower by -0.2%…Dow Jones Skyrockets +200 Points as Lower Interest Rates Propel Stock Prices.”
- “Economic Figures Revised Higher by +0.2%…Dow Jones Plummets -200 Points as Higher Interest Rates Deflate Stock Prices.”
On rare occasions these headlines make sense, but often online media outlets are frantically changing the headlines as the markets whip back and forth from positive to negative. News-producing editors are continually forced to create ludicrous and absurd explanations that usually make no sense to informed long-term investors.
It’s important to recognize that if the financial markets made common sense, then investing for retirement would be simple and everyone would be billionaires. Unfortunately, financial markets frequently make no sense in the short-run. Stocks are volatile (often times for no rational reason), which is why stocks offer higher returns over the long-run relative to more stable asset classes.
Explaining the latest spike in stock/bond price volatility has been exacerbated in recent weeks as a result of the nation’s banker (the Federal Reserve) and its boss, Ben Bernanke, attempting to explain their future monetary policy plans. In theory, bringing light to a traditionally mysterious, closed-door Washington process should be a good thing…right?
Well, ever since a few weeks ago when Ben Bernanke and the FOMC (Federal Open Market Committee) disclosed that the stimulative bond buying program (QE3) could be slowed in 2013 and halted in 2014, financial markets globally experienced a sharp jolt of volatility – stock prices dropped and interest rates spiked. Counter-intuitively, Bernanke’s belief that the economy is on a sustained recovery path (expected GDP growth of +3.25% in both 2014 & 2015) spooked investors. More specifically, in the month of June, the S&P 500 index declined -1.5% in June; Dow Jones Industrial Index -1.4%; and the 10-year Treasury note’s yield jumped +0.3% to 2.5%. Greedy investors, however, should not forget that the stock market just posted its 2nd best quarter since 2009 – the S&P 500 climbed +2.4%. What’s more, the S&P 500 is up +13% and the Dow up +14% in the first half of 2013.
Bernanke Threatening to Take Away Investor Lollipops
Another way of looking at the recent volatility is by equating investors to kids and stimulative QE bond buying programs (Quantitative Easing) to lollipops. If the economy continues on this improvement trajectory (i.e., unemployment falls to 7% by next year) and inflation remains benign (below 2.5%), then Bernanke said he will take away investors’ QE lollipops. But like a pushover dad being pressured by kids at the candy store, Bernanke acknowledged that he could continue supplying investors QE lollipops, if the economic data doesn’t improve at the forecasted pace. At face value, receiving a specific timeline given by the Fed should be appreciated and normally people are happy to hear the Chairman speak rosily about the economy’s future. However, the mere thought of QE lollipops being taken away next year was enough to push investors into a “taper tantrum” (see also Investing Caffeine – Fed Fatigue article).
With scary headlines constantly circulating, a large proportion of investors are sitting on their hands (and cash) while staring like deer in headlights at these developments. Rather than a distracted driver texting, investors should be watching the road and mapping out their future investment destinations – not paying attention to irrelevant diversions. Astute investors realize that uncertainty surrounding Greece, Cyprus, fiscal cliff, sequestration, presidential elections, Iran, N. Korea, Syria, Turkey, taxes, QE3, etc., etc., etc., have been a constant. Regrettably the fear mongers paying attention to these useless headlines have witnessed their cash, gold, and Treasuries get trounced by equity returns since early 2009 (the S&P 500 index is up about +150%, including dividends). Optimists and realists, on the other hand, have seen their investment plans thrive. While the aforementioned list of concerns has dangled in front of our noses over the last year, we will have a complete new list of concerns to decipher over the coming weeks, months, and years. That’s the price a long-term investor pays if they want to earn higher returns in the volatile equity markets.
As strategist Don Hays points out, “Nothing is certain. Good investors love uncertainty.” Rather than getting consumed by fear with the endless number of changing uncertainties, the real risk for investors is outliving your savings. Paychecks are being stretched by inflationary pressures across all categories (e.g., healthcare, gasoline, utilities, food, movies, travel, etc.) and entitlements like Social Security and Medicare will likely not mean the same thing to us as it did for our parents. Unless investors plan on working into their 80s as greeters at Wal-Mart, and/or enjoy clipping Top Ramen coupons in a crammed apartment, then they should do themselves a favor by taking a deep breath and turning off the television, so they can be insulated from the constant doom and gloom.
So as intimidating, circular conversations about good news being bad news, and bad news being good news continue to swirl around, focus instead on building a diversified investment plan that can adjust and adapt to the never-ending list of uncertainties. Your head will feel a lot better than it would after repetitive hammer strikes.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs) and WMT, but at the time of publishing, SCM had no direct position in any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC Contact page.