Strategy Updates

  • Dances with Bulls… & Bears

    Late Cycle Opportunities and Risk

    As we enter the second half of the year global stock indexes have exceeded almost every strategist’s expectations. This powerful advance has just slightly erased the entire steep decline of 2018. It is unusual since it hasn’t been based on any strong underlying themes. In fact, stocks have rallied into declining economic growth and corporate earnings, a tariff war, and a Federal Reserve which has become concerned about the potential for a recession. So what gives? Is the stock market vulnerable? Is there more upside left? I would suggest a little of both.

    During the later stages of an economic expansion, stocks often stage a “super rally” before running into trouble. Investors who recall 1999’s astonishing advance just before the 2000-01 bear market (-50% for indexes) can attest to this phenomenon. Like today’s rally, ‘99 came after a significant warning decline in ‘98 (Russian debt crisis). That decline was quite similar to the mini bear market of last fall. Late-stage rallies like today or others in history can go on longer and higher than investors expect – usually on less than perfect economic and earnings growth – and can be tricky. Our human behavior doesn’t want to miss a stitch of any upside, but we also don’t want to be vulnerable to a significant decline. There are several ways to play this scenario.

    So far my strategy for this late stage rally has been to have less stock exposure. Sacrificing some upside to mitigate risk and adding to stocks only on market corrections and or when we find unique situations. At this point, your portfolio is 2/3rds invested as opposed to 100%, but given that the Federal Reserve may lower rates to “save the market”, what if the late-stage rally lasts another year?? Should we be more invested? Yes, but only during market pullbacks.

    As long as you add stock exposure during market corrections, as I suggested did in May, you are assured of taking less risk and getting your portfolio closer to index-like returns over time. Each time indexes trade down, your portfolio holds up better and your opportunity to add stock presents itself. It’s a “dance” of sorts and I know this process can test the patience of the most aggressive, growth-oriented investor, but historically it has worked. When I say it worked, I mean it gained return while managing risk.

    Over the next few weeks, I will be in the thick of earnings reports for the second quarter. I believe these earnings will be less than expected and coupled with continually weaker economic data and tariff pressure. Investors should expect a normal market pullback from current levels and use such a pullback as another opportunity to add stock exposure.

    You can continue to gain profitability in this late-stage bull market, but it is a riskier environment and one that requires you to be aware of downside risk. Keep in mind that should stock prices begin to fall more than normal, you should be willing to reverse your “dance” pattern, reduce stock and sector exposure, and continue to have stop-loss orders to fend off a catastrophic loss.

    I hope this short update is helpful as we head straight into the earnings reporting season and provides clarity on our opportunistic view of the markets.

    The Sustainable Endowment was written for executives and board members of small- to mid-size U.S.-based nonprofits, charities, or foundations. Running a nonprofit requires specialized knowledge and skills, especially regarding foundation management and investing your endowment so it remains sustainable for years to come.

    This book walks you through the basics and best practices of what you need to know to be successful.

    Order your copy today on Amazon

  • “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road?”

    Fed Pivots, Trade War Ensues and Earnings Loom

    Over the past 18 months, global investors have experienced a number of crosscurrents which created quite a bit of drama, yet yielded little upside in global stock markets. For those less invested during this strange period, there has been little missed opportunity. During the past year and a half I have witnessed stock indexes attempt new highs not once, but three times, without success.

    I find this current fourth attempt of interest, since it is in the face of impending earnings results, well-documented slowing economic growth, trade wars and an inverted yield curve – all of which has caused the Federal Reserve to finally agree that we may have veered off “the yellow brick road” as they now consider lowering interest rates. If and when the Fed reduces rates, will it be too late given the well-publicized weakness in so many economic indicators? And what should investors anticipate for the second half of this year?

    Source: Bloomberg

    In many of my previous Strategy Updates, I have emphasized the importance of data: economic and corporate profit growth is essential for meaningful stock market returns. However, a third prong – policy – has played an increasingly important role in financial markets as evidenced by trade wars and the Federal Reserve. Has our path to generating great long-term returns changed? Should we say, “Goodbye yellow brick road?” I think not.

    Trade wars pose a significant risk to global financial markets as companies are forced to rethink supply chains, which impacts margins and ultimately profitability. With earnings season right around the corner, there are already a few companies like Broadcom and FedEx reporting poor quality earnings with explicit citation of geopolitical uncertainties – namely the trade war! It will be interesting to see if these reports are the “canary in the coal mine.” We continue to believe that this trade war must be resolved in order for this market to resume a longer-term uptrend.

    Jerome Powell and his colleagues at the Fed have pivoted their policy from just short six months ago, which has led investors to price-in rate cuts by year’s end. The purpose of lowering interest rates is to stimulate an anemic economy and inflation rate while attempting to counteract the inverted yield curve, which has historically preceded recessions. However, the idea of cutting interest rates so soon and so aggressively suggests that the US economy and moreover global economies are not on firm ground – a view we have had for some time now.

    We certainly do not want to “fight the Fed” if they do decide on a more accommodative policy path like European counterpart, Mario Draghi. However, simply flooding the stock market with additional capital is a bandage on a ten-year wound, which has never fully healed post-2008. The Fed’s lack of tools – specifically the inability to cut rates further from an already low level – leaves the global economy particularly vulnerable as we go forward. This is why I stand prepared to thoughtfully add stock exposure if the Fed acts as the markets want, yet keep on hand risk management tools, such as stop-loss orders and sector management if simply lowering rates does not get this economy back on track.

    While both global economic growth and earnings quality have decreased over the past few quarters, they are still positive (particularly in certain sectors), which bodes well for businesses with consistent revenue models – think goods and services you cannot live without! These are the types of companies we want in your portfolio. The better than expected index performance in defensive sectors such as utilities, consumer staples, and healthcare this year has validated my thesis.

    A lower interest rate environment would also offer more interesting opportunities in the public real estate market (REITs) and select business models. I am cautiously optimistic that the backdrop of low inflation, an accommodative Fed and resilient economic and earnings data will get this market back on track. I expect several corrections along the way as policymakers and companies alike navigate this new landscape and we should stand prepared to thoughtfully add exposure to sectors and companies performing well in this environment. Should trade talks continue to break down, the Fed acts too late, or corporate profits and economies deteriorate further, be well prepared to weather the storm.

    When there are periods of conflicting asset prices and data, I tend to err on the side of caution, as protecting capital in bear markets allows you to better reach your long-term goals of retirement, spending policy guidelines, or next-generation legacy. In that spirit, continue to look for further evidence of better earnings quality, economic growth, and trade resolution before becoming significantly more invested with your portfolio. I think such a period may come sooner than most investors think.

    I hope you find this update helpful.

    The Sustainable Endowment was written for executives and board members of small- to mid-size U.S.-based nonprofits, charities, or foundations. Running a nonprofit requires specialized knowledge and skills, especially regarding foundation management and investing your endowment so it remains sustainable for years to come.

    This book walks you through the basics and best practices of what you need to know to be successful.

    Order your copy today on Amazon



  • Stocks, Bonds, Risk & Return

    Will The Trade War Further Diminish Economic Growth?

    Investors have witnessed a number of strange occurrences in recent months, if not years. Though stocks have staged a big rally this year (most of it in January), this has merely been an attempt – unsuccessful as of yet – to recover from 2018’s 20% decline that stocks experienced towards year’s end. Even more interesting and odd is the fact that stock prices are lower today than they were in January 2018 – over 16 months ago! What gives? Why are stocks stuck in this long trading range and when will markets allow us to get back to making significant long term returns?

    Source: Bloomberg

    Global stock markets are tied to economic growth and corporate profits. One need look no further than 2017 as a reminder – a period when economic growth exceeded 3%, corporate profits skyrocketed and stock indexes and your portfolio of stocks soared upwards of 20%. Those were the days!

    However, as we review the past few quarters, economic growth rates have decelerated from over 3% to something closer to 2% or less. The Atlanta Federal Reserve Bank GDPNow model’s most recent estimate is that the US economy is growing at just a 1.3% annual rate in the current quarter. And the Atlanta Fed’s model is not alone: the Economic Cycle Research Institute runs a historically reliable Weekly Leading Index that also shows the US economy is slowing to a stall.

    Lastly, the decline in long term US Treasury yields (lowest level in 2 years) and falling commodity prices are signs that the economy is not on solid ground. Investors would be wise to keep these facts in mind.

    The slowdown in global and US growth is largely attributable to the Federal Reserve’s rate hikes in 2018 which in turn led the punishing 20% decline in stocks. Add to that the month-long US government shutdown and the now real effects of tariffs and it is plain to see why the economy has drifted to a slower pace. In the meantime, it is quite clear that corporate profit growth is feeling the effects of this slowdown.

    Though some companies such as MasterCard, Unilever, and NextEra have been able to generate respectable growth in this slowing economy, many others have missed earnings growth expectations – most specifically in sectors that are sensitive to the economy such as the industrial and consumer discretionary sectors. If the economy continues to slow – or more importantly recede (as in recession) – earnings and stock prices could be in for a further downside slide. Therefore, the key to managing your way through a slower economy is to make sure your portfolio has companies that can generate profits regardless of the economy and also be flexible about your level of stock exposure.

    Just because the economy has slowed doesn’t mean that the market needs to spiral into a wicked bear market (more than the last 20% decline). If the economy can maintain this slower than normal growth rate, there are plenty of companies you can add to your portfolio to potentially make handsome profits this year, particularly in the healthcare, select technology, financial and consumer staples sectors.

    As you know, in an effort to put the odds in your favor for a good year of performance, we have been patiently waiting for stock prices to experience a normal correction after the big rebound in January. That correction appears to be underway as of this writing (~4% off high) – this should give you great opportunity to add more stock exposure in companies that can generate profits in this slower than normal part of the economic cycle. Of course, if the correction appears to be gaining steam on the downside (which would probably be due to negative news about the economy, profits or further tariffs) I may suggest you slow such purchases. Remember: when economies – particularly those threatened by tariffs – are weak, stocks can really take it on the chin.

    Throughout history stocks go up about 80% of the time – however, the 20% of the time stocks are not going up is usually tied to the economy – and this time appears to be no different. The stock market doesn’t deliver consistent year-to-year returns and never has. The important part for investors is to dodge the grizzly bear markets (declines of 35-60%).

    Successful long term investing takes patience and discipline and a keen eye for what the market has done recently (in this case nothing for almost 18 months); and as well an eye for where the economy and profits will take us as we go forward. Once this period of economic weakness stabilizes or even contracts, we could have many years of bull markets and profits to look forward to in the “80% of the time” mode. The stock and real estate markets have been and, as far I can see, will continue to be the best places to grow wealth over the long term.

    Protecting capital in bear markets allows you to reach your long-term goals, whether those goals are to retire, meet your organization’s spending policy guidelines or leave a greater legacy for the next generation. In that spirit, continue to monitor the global economy, the effects of continued tariffs and to manage the risk of your portfolio through your allocation to stocks, sector management and the use of carefully placed stop-loss orders.

    I hope this update finds you well and that you enjoyed the Memorial Day Weekend.


    The Sustainable Endowment was written for executives and board members of small- to mid-size U.S.-based nonprofits, charities, or foundations. Running a nonprofit requires specialized knowledge and skills, especially regarding foundation management and investing your endowment so it remains sustainable for years to come.

    This book walks you through the basics and best practices of what you need to know to be successful.

    Order your copy today on Amazon

  • Global Stock Indexes Return to Previous Highs: What a Short Strange Trip It’s Been

    The recent recovery in global stock prices has been astonishing and is of historic proportion. Investors would be very hard-pressed to recall a period when stock prices have ever made such a big percentage round trip – both down and back up – in such a short period of time. The reasons for the global sell-off have been well chronicled: Federal Reserve rate hikes, slowing economic growth and corporate profits, the US government shut down, and tariff wars to name a few. Though these were – and are – legitimate concerns, why have stock prices shrugged these risks off? Is this the beginning of another significant, multi-year leg higher for global equity prices? Maybe.

    One thing we know for sure is that stock markets serve as a discount mechanism to future events.  Stocks have an uncanny way of rising just ahead of better news or falling prior to the darkest part of dawn. That is why it is often best to buy stocks when the economy is at its worst – or when the list of worries is as long as it was during the first quarter. The other thing I know about stock prices is that shorter-term movements – months, not years – are often driven by investor psychology – not necessarily fundamentals.

    Fear and greed can move stock prices quite significantly in both directions, as we have seen in the past six months. Is the recent volatility, both up and down, a sign that the market is discounting better news about the economy going forward? Or is it just a massive bout of investor fear and greed? I would suggest a bit of both, which means we should be careful but more opportunistic during any upcoming market corrections and put the odds in your favor for a good year of investment performance.

    It is pretty easy in hindsight to look back over the past three months of this recovery and think that only a fool would have been cautious during such a period. I tend to take a more “safe than sorry approach” when the key pillars of stock market strength – economic growth and corporate profits – look as vulnerable as they have in the past six months. Often times “cracks” in these important pillars bring on treacherous bear markets and catastrophic declines (40-50%) in stock prices – i.e. 2001, 2008. These types of bear markets occur about every 9-10 years and can ruin a healthy financial/wealth plan or an endowment’s spending policy. Investors would be wise to keep that statistic in mind, should one think that risk management is a fool’s game.

    As you know, you have had less stock exposure than normal during this period to mitigate the potential of a further slide in stock prices. This more cautious stance (less stock) has temporarily muted your upside. However, the difference between your return and the market would be easily rectified if we had a normal market correction of 7-9% which is – in my opinion, and that of other bright investment experts – way overdue.

    The laundry list of worries that we faced at year’s end has dissipated. The Federal Reserve has made a key pivot to be more accommodating while the economy looks to have slowed, but maybe stabilizing at the current lower growth rate of 1.5-2% annually. This, in turn, may allow corporate profits to meet already lowered expectations. You can make great profits in a slower-growing economy by tilting your portfolio to companies that can deliver consistent growth.

    Given the fact that things look a bit brighter, you should continue to add stock where you see great value. If we do experience the way overdue, much anticipated, normal market correction you should most likely speed up such purchases to get your portfolio more in line with market returns.

    Though one might be tempted to add back any missing stock exposure now, or within days, I would suggest a more patient approach to yield the best returns over the longer term.  If the economy is truly on a slower, but solid growth path, there will be better opportunities over the coming weeks and months to be fully invested.

    Though the skies appear to be a bit brighter and the clouds are dissipating, we are in the thick of corporate profit reporting for the first quarter. This may bring some disappointments and a return to volatility on the downside. Should profits and economic data experience a further decline, we will continue to manage this risk by adjusting your portfolio’s allocation to stocks, your sector exposure and the use of carefully placed stop-loss orders.


    The Sustainable Endowment was written for executives and board members of small- to mid-size U.S.-based nonprofits, charities, or foundations. Running a nonprofit requires specialized knowledge and skills, especially regarding foundation management and investing your endowment so it remains sustainable for years to come.

    This book walks you through the basics and best practices of what you need to know to be successful.

    Order your copy today on Amazon

  • Patient and Value Conscious: Upcoming Data Should Align Stock Prices and the Economy

    Long-term investment success often requires short-term periods of patience, restraint and being value-conscious. In today’s fast-paced, short-term performance, the digitally-driven world this can be a challenging combination. However, the discipline to step away from short-term “noise” and carefully examine the “forest” as opposed to the “trees” can result in significantly better long-term returns. This can often mean going against the crowd in the face of a falling or rising market.

    Years ago I learned that short-term movements in equity markets are driven by psychology, but long-term trends are driven by economic and corporate profit growth. This comes to mind during the past few months as I witnessed the dichotomy of sharply rising stock prices in the face of declining economic growth and corporate profits. Investors need to ask at this point which of the two – the recent direction of stock prices (up) or corporate profits (down) – has greater longevity? And, how will this play out over the next few months and the balance of the year?

    In just a few weeks, stock prices appear to have lost their momentum. In fact, for most of March, global stock indexes were in the red. At the same time, economic statistics and corporate profit reports have continued to deteriorate. Perhaps the long-term fundamentals are beginning to trump short-term psychology? I believe that this may be the case. The bond market, which has historically been the best predictor of such things, appears to agree.

    This is evidenced by the bond market’s recent yield curve inversion – short-term yields higher than long-term yields. This unusual phenomenon often precedes weaker economic data and profits. A bit more time, along with earnings and economic data in April, should bring the disparity between stock prices and underlying fundamentals back in line.

    We faced the beginning of a bear market in the fourth quarter of 2018 with most indexes down 20% and many sectors down much more. Though we don’t predict Armageddon for the global economy or stock market, we also do not believe that a real bull market can begin again without at least a normal correction or perhaps something worse. We may be on the precipice of such a move given that the market has lost its momentum and we are heading into what is likely to be a dismal period of earnings reports and economic statistics from the first quarter when the US Government was shut down. For that reason, we continue to be a bit more defensive than your normal, fully invested portfolio.

    I suggest you continue to search for and take advantage of isolated opportunities in companies that represent great value regardless of the market’s direction. These are difficult to find and, given the overall market environment, the pace of adding significant exposure has been slow.

    It is always difficult to predict with accuracy the direction of stock prices, but one simple rule holds true: When the economy and corporate profits are rising, stocks do great! That has just not been the case over the past 4 months, which poses a risk to investors. As a reminder to anyone who has experienced a normal bear market, stocks typically fall before the bad news about profits as happened in October – and then have sporadic, often significant, advances as we’ve seen recently – only to decline again into poor earnings reports.

    Though global stocks historically decline approximately 40% during an average bear market, I am not predicting such an outcome. In fact, be ready to become more growth-oriented as soon as stock prices and earnings growth are more aligned – most likely when stock prices are lower and most of the bad news about profit growth has been digested. I wouldn’t be surprised to see this come to fruition in the next few months.

    After decades of managing money, I have experienced a number of these short-term periods of being less invested and they have proven to be a bit trying in the middle, but valuable in the end. None of those past periods lasted more than months and I don’t expect this period to be an exception.


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    The Sustainable Endowment was written for executives and board members of small- to mid-size U.S.-based nonprofits, charities, or foundations. Running a nonprofit requires specialized knowledge and skills, especially regarding foundation management and investing your endowment so it remains sustainable for years to come.

    This book walks you through the basics and best practices of what you need to know to be successful.

    Order your copy today on Amazon

  • Markets Don’t Go Up Forever

    I hope you are enjoying the profitability that stock ownership can provide as global stock indexes continue to reach new highs. Year-to-date most indexes have reached double digit returns, with global indexes providing the most upside.

    I believe that the last bear market occurred in 2015-16 when global indexes fell 20% and corporate profits experienced a very mild recession. Over the past year we have been witness to a significant global corporate profit and business cycle recovery. Though many have called this a “Trump Bump,” it should be obvious at this point that the improving global economy and corporate profits cycle has little to do with the US President and more to do with how the business cycle works. The best part of our message today is that we believe that this new bull market has a brighter and longer future than most investors believe.

    Corporate profit cycles last years – not months – and this one is in its infancy. Though many investors are in awe that the Dow Jones Industrial Average is over 22,000, they should try to remember that it is simply a number – it was 800 when I started my career! What is more important is the price of the market related to its underlying profitability or “price-to-earnings ratio.” In statistical terms the market is nowhere near overvalued. In fact, there are sectors of the market that still trade at ridiculously inexpensive multiples to earnings – not at all a symptom of a market that is overvalued.

    There are many investors who question the future longevity of this market strength – which is another indication that we are far from a market top. However, there is a much larger crowd who seem immune to the old adage, “what goes up must (at some point) come down.” Though we believe that the recent market strength is well justified and has “legs,” we would not advise investing without some tools to manage the risk of this thesis being wrong and to protect your portfolio from catastrophic loss. As you know, we employ our Active Risk Management process specifically for this reason – this includes actively managing your asset allocation, your sector exposure and the careful placement of stop loss orders – the combination of which we call our “plan B.”

    I find it hard to believe that today’s investors would invest aggressively without some sort of “plan B” should it all come to a crashing halt. Surely investors must recall the recessions and corresponding stock market declines of 35-55% that have occurred several times in the past two decades?  Or the time it took for stocks to recoup those losses – on average six to seven years?  I find the short term memory of the average investor just plain astonishing. However, with the media’s attention on passive/robo/index investing, perhaps we can’t blame these naïve investors for getting sucked in! Let’s face it – while markets are going up the tide lifts all ships and your average index fund will participate in market returns. However this view is extremely shortsighted, particularly when it comes to the bulk of an investor’s wealth as they approach important timelines, such as retirement. They say that stock market history is riddled with investors repeating the same mistakes. The lack of some sort of “plan B” risk management appears to be the most obvious.

    The increasing popularity of passive/robo/index investing should be a warning to all investors to employ risk management tools and a plan for avoiding catastrophic loss, for the next inevitable and eventual market decline may just be much bigger than expected. In the meantime, continue to invest with an eye towards growth and be well prepared should things go awry. My book can help.

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