Medicare Features Often Overlooked

Although Medicare is America’s largest payer for healthcare, participants are often unaware of the features and limitations of the program. It is a costly mistake to sign up for coverage, choose a supplement and drug plan and then never revisit the coverage. Want to save thousands? Here are some simple things to know about your coverage:

• Medicare does not cover medical care in a foreign country. Only Medigap plans C through G and M and N cover part of the cost of emergency care abroad during the first two months of a trip.

• You are paying too much for your prescriptions (probably). Choosing the right Part D prescription plan can save you thousands of dollars each year but a 2012 study showed that only 5.2% of beneficiaries picked the cheapest Part D coverage. And while you may have the least expensive policy this year, the coverage is rarely the least expensive two years in a row.

• Not all pharmacies charge the same price. Drug plans often offer “preferred retail cost sharing” to their members, meaning the pharmacy has contracted with the insurance company to provide lower-cost drugs than other pharmacies.

• You cannot buy a Medigap Policy to go with a Medicare Advantage plan. Medigap policies are only applicable when you are enrolled in Original Medicare.

• Cost of Medicare Part B goes up if your Modified Adjusted Gross Income is above $85,000 for a single and $170,000 for a couple. Your monthly premiums could be as much as $4,432 per year more for the same coverage!

Medicare Action Steps:

1. Purchase travel insurance before leaving the country. There are multiple companies that offer coverage that will provide you medically equipped transportation back to a hospital in your home country.

2. Go to www.Medicare.gov/find-a-plan/ to reprice your prescriptions each year. This handy tool allows you to input your regular prescriptions and compare plans to see which ones cover the prescriptions.

3. Shop the pharmacies with your coverage to ensure you receive the lowest price. Speak with the pharmacy to find out which insurance companies they have partnered with for lower costs or go directly to the insurance company to see if there is a pharmacy in your area they partner with.

4. Stop your Medigap policy while enrolled in a Medicare Advantage plan. If you’re switching from original Medicare to an Advantage plan, your Medigap policy becomes unusable. You have a short window to determine whether or not to keep your Advantage plan. If you decide you don’t like the Advantage plan, you can go back. However, if you keep the plan past the deadline, in most every case you cannot go back.

5. Manage your income to stay below the income thresholds. If your income falls below this threshold after paying the higher premiums, file a Medicare Income Life Changing Event form to reduce your payments.

6. Always review your coverage during annual open enrollment, from October 15th to December 7th. Don’t miss your opportunity to review your coverage. There may be some real savings to be found, but you won’t know unless you check.

How to Find a Fiduciary Financial Advisor

 

In 2016, the Department of Labor shocked the investment world by starting the process of requiring investment advisors who provide services to retirement plans (like IRAs and 401(k)s) to act in a “fiduciary” capacity. The term fiduciary, as defined by Merriam-Webster’s is “held or founded in trust or confidence”.1 In other words, the DOL submitted a set of rules to require advisors to be legally bound to act in the best interest of their clients. While the implementation of the rules has been stalled by Congress, the idea has thrown the world of investment advisors into a tailspin.

If you are like most, the idea that it is legal in the United States for financial advisors to act in any capacity OTHER than a fiduciary capacity is surprising. Unfortunately, it is true. You, like most, may believe that every advisor is required to place your interests above his or her interests at all times. Unfortunately, they are not. Even worse, the definitions are so convoluted that it is difficult for the average consumer to identify a fiduciary from a non-fiduciary. I hope this post helps.

Not All Advisors Are Created Equal

When it comes to narrowing the field to advisors who truly have your best interest at heart, there are essentially three different types of advisors and advisory firms in the U.S.:

  Investment Advisor Representatives (IAR): IARs are employees of independent, Registered Investment Advisor firms that are regulated by the SEC or state securities commissions. These advisors must always act as fiduciaries and must prove compliance to their regulating bodies. These advisors are generally compensated by a fee paid directly from the client (not commissions or compensation that comes from their affiliated company) and are often known as “Fee-Only” firms. IARs generally offer full pricing transparency and full disclosure of any conflicts of interest. This is easily the smallest segment of the investment advisory profession, accounting for fewer than 20% of the advisors in the U.S.

•  Registered Representatives: Registered “Reps” are employees of brokerage firms and are regulated by FINRA. Registered Reps are held only to a “suitability” standard which simply requires the advisor to determine whether the investment is suitable for the client; not necessarily the best for the client, not necessarily the least expensive and without the disclosure of any conflicts of interest. These advisors are generally compensated by a commission that is charged on the sale of the products they sell. This is the largest segment of the advisory profession.

•  Dually Registered Advisors: Dual registration means that the advisor may be registered with the SEC or the state securities commission as well as with FINRA. This allows the advisor to claim the standard of fiduciary at one moment and then, when the time is right, sell products on a suitability standard and charge a commission without full disclosure. Yes, amazingly, it is legal in the U.S. to call yourself a fiduciary while only serving in that capacity part of the time. It seems that most of the IARs in the U.S., who should be trusted as fiduciaries, are dually registered, making them non-fiduciaries when it is expedient.

How Can I Find a Fiduciary Financial Advisor?

As you can probably already guess, finding a true fiduciary financial advisor can be difficult, especially with the specter of dual registration. It is possible to identify the true fiduciaries by looking at their registration documents with the SEC or state securities commissions but the documents can be hard to understand and you must know exactly what to look for. Alternatively, you can conduct your own investigation by asking a few, very simple questions to eliminate the non-fiduciary advisors:

“How are you and your company compensated?”

•  A flat fee, hourly fee or a fee as a percentage of assets ONLY = fiduciary

•  Commissions or “I am paid by the company, you don’t pay me anything” = non-fiduciary

•  Fees and Commissions, Fee-based, Hybrid fee and Fee Offset = dually registered

“Do you receive ongoing income from any of the products you recommend in the form of 12(b)1 fees or trailing commissions?”

•  Yes = non-fiduciary

•  No = maybe a fiduciary

“Is your firm registered as an Investment Advisor and do you have an ADV Part II disclosure you can provide?”

•  Yes = fiduciary (but may be dually registered)

•  No = non-fiduciary

“Are you willing to sign a Fiduciary Oath?”

•  Yes = fiduciary

•  No = watch your wallet

For a more comprehensive tool to compare advisors, click here to access the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors Financial Advisor Comparison Tool. This is a free checklist and answer key to help you know the right questions to ask.

Feel free to present this questionnaire to Brown Financial Advisory. We have always been an independent, SEC registered, Fee-Only, fiduciary company. And since it is the right thing to do, we plan to keep it that way.

Source: 1https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/fiduciary

Market Commentary: 1Q 2018

Welcome back!  Volatility returned to the financial markets this quarter. U.S. and overseas stocks surged in January, corrected sharply in early February and then rebounded into mid-March. They dipped again into quarter-end, buffeted by a potential trade war and a Facebook data scandal. But despite the volatility, they ended down only 0.7% and 1.5% respectively. Emerging-market stocks held true to their higher-volatility reputation. They shot up 11% to start the year, fell 12% during the mid-quarter correction but finished the quarter with a positive 1.4% return. Unfortunately, core bonds didn’t play their typical “safe-haven” role in the first quarter, since Treasury yields rose across the maturity curve. True to form, core bonds also posted a 1.5% loss.

Here are the broad index returns through the First Quarter of 2018*:

U.S. Large Cap Stocks -0.7% Emerging Market Stocks 1.4%
U.S. Small Cap Stocks -0.1% Commodities 2.2%
U.S. Real Estate -5.9% U.S. Aggregate Bonds -1.5%
Overseas Stocks -1.5% International Bonds -2.0%

Economic Outlook

There are two primary observations about the quarter’s rocky ride. First, the recent 400-day long S&P 500 rally, that occurred without a single 3% decline from its high, was not normal. It was the longest streak in 90 years of stock market history. Comparatively, stock market declines of 10% or more are normal and have occurred in over half of all calendar years since 1950. The market has simply returned to “normal.” Second, despite the dramatic news headlines and market volatility, the economic news that contributed to the recent selloff was that the economy might be getting a bit too strong and the tight labor market could finally translate into higher wage growth and broader inflationary pressures. Fundamentally, the U.S. and global economies still look solid. Global growth may no longer be accelerating, but it remains at above-trend levels and the likelihood of a recession over the next year or so still appears low.

Be prepared for another bear market. The Trump tax cuts and new fiscal spending bill will likely stimulate more spending, deficit-financed measures that are likely to be inflationary. As a result, monetary policy and overall financial conditions will gradually tighten to compensate for the rising inflation. Consistent with the historical pattern, economic activity and asset prices will probably decline and the U.S. economy will slide into a recession and a full-blown bear market, a 20%-plus decline in stock prices. We are not there yet, but it is coming.

 What is the best defense? First, it is worth remembering that a five-year or longer time horizon is the basis for any reasonable expected-returns analysis. It is over those longer-term periods that valuation (i.e., what you pay for an investment relative to its future cash flows) is the most reliable predictor of returns. Over the shorter term, markets and economies are reliably unpredictable and are driven by innumerable and often random factors (i.e., noise). Because of this, in the investing world, we are often our own worst enemies. We tend to fall prey to short-term performance-chasing, our natural inclination to “do something,” emotional responses and other behaviors that hurt us as investors. The best defense is having a sound, fundamentally-grounded investment process (like ours) that will work for the long term and sticking with that process through periods of volatility. Second, this may be the appropriate time to consider your capacity (and patience) for a protracted bear market and larger stock declines. It is easy to forget the experience of negative returns during periods of extraordinary growth. Now may be a good time to reconsider your tolerance for volatility (risk) and manage within your boundaries. Of course, we are happy to help.

 

*U.S. Large Cap=Russell 1000, U.S. Small Cap=Russell 2000, Real Estate=Dow Jones US Real Estate Index, Overseas Stocks=MSCI EAFE, Emerging Market Stocks=MSCI Emerging Markets, Commodities=S&P GSCI, U.S. Bonds=Barclays Aggregate Bond Index, International Bonds=JP Morgan EMBI Global Core: Data Source: Blackrock Benchmark Returns Comparison March 2018. Economic Data: Litman Gregory Analytics. Allocations=Morningstar® U.S. Fund Allocation Categories: Data Source: Morningstar®. Index returns are for illustrative purposes only and do not represent actual performance of any investment. Index performance returns do not reflect any management fees, transaction costs or expenses. Indexes are unmanaged and one cannot invest directly in an index. Past performance does not guarantee future results.

 

Market Commentary: 4Q 2017

The bull market continued for another year. The summary below shows that just about everything gained in 2017, causing market indices to repeatedly soar to new heights. Larger-cap U.S. stocks gained 6.6% for the quarter and ended the year with a 21.7% total return. This was the ninth consecutive year of positive returns for the index—tying the historic 1990s bull market and capping a truly remarkable run from the depths of the 2008 financial crisis. Foreign stock returns were even stronger than the U.S. market, with developed international markets gaining 25% and emerging market stocks up 37.3% for the year.

 The broad driver of the market’s rise for the year was rebounding corporate earnings growth. Ned Davis Research analysis shows that, over the last 12 months, the United States saw earnings grow by 14%, Europe saw earnings grow by 25% and the U.K. local-currency earnings grew by 35%. Support for this jump in earnings resulted from solid economic data, synchronized global growth, modest inflation, and accommodative monetary policy. U.S. stocks got an additional catalyst in the fourth quarter with the passage of the Republican tax plan.

 Here are the broad index returns through the Fourth Quarter of 2017*:

U.S. Large Cap Stocks 21.7% Emerging Market Stocks 37.3%
U.S. Small Cap Stocks 14.7% Commodities 1.7%
U.S. Real Estate 5.1% U.S. Aggregate Bonds 3.5%
Overseas Stocks 25.0% International Bonds 10.5%

Economic Outlook

As noted above, U.S. stocks were up for the year, driven in part by expectations of a historic corporate tax cut. It is likely that much of the benefit of tax decreases is already priced in based on consensus earnings estimates for the S&P 500. So, what do lower corporate tax rates mean for long-term earnings assumptions for the United States? The answer is not straightforward, as there are many variables to consider.

Politically, the tax cut was designed to provide an incentive for companies to hire and spend more. Some companies will increase hiring and boost pay as a token gesture but ultimately the pressure from shareholders will lead many companies to return much of the excess cash flow from tax savings to shareholders or capital owners, not employees.

U.S. Corporate earnings will probably see a boost in the short term (consensus seems to be around 10% in aggregate) with more benefit provided to smaller companies. Over the long term, however, the incremental margin benefit from lower taxes will likely be “competed” away. In the new tax plan, there’s an additional tax incentive for companies to pursue capital expenditures. This could increase economic activity and boost overall profits but may also result in an increase in inflation.

 Political uncertainties notwithstanding, Europe continues its economic recovery. It is matching the United States in terms of economic growth and, according to Capital Economics, is on track to generate its strongest growth since 2007. Like European stocks, emerging-market stocks posted strong earnings growth of nearly 20% in 2017. Emerging markets are experiencing a rebound in corporate earnings growth, and, importantly, are becoming less dependent on commodity-oriented sectors as technology and consumer sectors have assumed greater importance. Both overseas stocks and emerging market stocks appear poised to do well in the coming months.

Market Commentary: 3Q 2017

The third quarter has a reputation as the worst seasonal period for stocks. This year, global stock markets rallied. Emerging-market stocks lead, climbing 8%, followed by European stocks, which gained 6.2%. More broadly, developed international stocks rose 5.5%. For the third consecutive quarter the U.S. dollar depreciated against foreign currencies, providing a boost for dollar-based investors.

In addition to great growth around the world, the U.S. market delivered strong returns in the third quarter, extending its winning streak to eight consecutive quarters. The S&P 500 Index closed at an all-time high after gaining 4.5%. Within the U.S. market, larger-cap growth stocks—technology stocks in particular—continued their year-to-date dominance over smaller-cap and value stocks.

 Fixed-income markets and core investment-grade bonds inched up 0.7% for the quarter. The 10-year Treasury yield (which moves inversely to bond prices) ended the quarter flat, but this masked intra-quarter shifts. It bottomed in early September as fears over North Korea, hurricanes, and political events peaked. But the yield shot up at month-end, closing the quarter right about where it stood three months earlier.

Here are the broad index returns through the Third Quarter of 2017*:

U.S. Large Cap Stocks 14.2% Emerging Market Stocks 27.8%
U.S. Small Cap Stocks 10.9% Commodities -2.9%
U.S. Real Estate 3.6% U.S. Aggregate Bonds 3.1%
Overseas Stocks 20.0% International Bonds 8.2%

 

Economic Outlook

The synchronized global economic recovery continues, providing a solid foundation for corporate earnings and financial assets in general. The multinational Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Composite Leading Indicator recently hit its highest level since October 2014, indicating growth is broadly distributed across OECD countries. In August, the U.S. Global Manufacturing Purchasing Managers Index (PMI) hit its highest level in over six years and Eurozone and Emerging Market PMIs also rose to multiyear highs. Easing inflationary pressures in emerging markets have allowed numerous emerging-market central banks to lower interest rates this year, which is typically positive for local stock markets. In the United States, GDP growth remains subpar by historical standards but continues to grind along at around a 2% annual rate. Financial conditions have eased over the past year and could suggest capacity for economic growth over the next few quarters at least. It seems that the economic recovery may still have legs.

Despite the U.S. economy’s rather healthy economic indicators, we are overdue for the typical correction. It is worth a reminder that historically, the marked drops at least 5% roughly three times a year and declines 10% or more about once a year. We are at 330 days and counting since the last 5% drop, marking the longest such streak in 26 years. Given that historical reference, investors must be prepared—psychologically and financially—for market dips and drops along the way. They are inevitable and may be unsettling, but remember, they are also temporary.

In contrast, a true bear market in U.S. stocks (a sustained 20%-plus decline) is almost always associated with an economic recession. Recessions, in turn, are typically caused by excessive Fed tightening, usually in response to inflationary pressures, an overheating economy, or financial market excesses. At this moment, none of these scenarios seems imminent in the U.S. or global economy.

However, the debate continues. There is disagreement among economists and strategists as to whether inflationary or deflationary risks should be paramount for the economy at this point in the cycle. Should the Fed policy be dovish or hawkish? As always, there are significant uncertainties when it comes to economic forecasting. Humility and intellectual honesty—knowing what you don’t know—are crucial. There are a range of potential scenarios in our investment decisions that avoid betting heavily on any single macro forecast. As the saying goes, “It’s difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.”

 

How to Measure the Cost of an Investment Strategy

There are many factors that affect portfolio performance but few have a more predictable impact than the cost of management. Unfortunately, when evaluating various strategies, the average investor is not familiar with the many contributors to total cost. The recent report published by Inside Information called “2017 Planning Profession Fee Survey” summarized factors that everyone should consider and shed light on some of the hidden costs. First, everyone is familiar with the costs associated with the investment management fee. A typical starting management fee is 1% but nearly one-half of advisors charge more than 1% on portfolios with as much as $1MM under management. Another cost consideration is the cost of the underlying investments. Low-cost investments tend to outperform higher-cost investments over time and managing those costs can contribute significantly to performance. Finally, minimizing trading costs (transaction fees) adds to performance. Ultimately, the report showed how similar firms’ total costs can be 3% or more per year. Because Brown Financial Advisory is committed to your performance success, your total cost with us is less than 70% of the firms in the study.

 

*U.S. Large Cap=Russell 1000, U.S. Small Cap=Russell 2000, Real Estate=MSCI US REIT Index, Overseas Stocks=MSCI EAFE, Emerging Market Stocks=MSCI Emerging Markets, Commodities=DJ UBS Commodity Index, U.S. Bonds=Barclays Aggregate Bond Index: Data Source: Blackrock Benchmark Returns Comparison September 2017. International Bonds=Barclays Global Ex-US Bond USD Index: Data Source: JP Morgan Guide to the Markets 4Q 2017.

Market Commentary: 2Q 2017

The second quarter proved to be another very strong period for global stock and bond markets but commodities struggled. Larger-cap U.S. stocks surged to 9.3% for the year while international indexes were each up in the mid-teens. Core bonds also delivered solid returns, rising 1.5% for the quarter. But since higher bond prices correspond to lower bond yields, the yield curve “flattened” considerably and the difference between the 10-year and 2-year Treasury yields ended the quarter at close to a post-2008 low. Conversely, commodity prices and energy stocks detracted from the quarter’s returns and remain a weak spot amid a global rally in risky assets due to a 14% decline in oil prices.

The calm, as manifested in low measures of volatility across global markets, was briefly interrupted during the last few days of June. Global stock and bond investors were rattled by comments from the heads of the European Central Bank and the Bank of England suggesting they may be considering the potential end to bond buying policies designed to stimulate markets and a move to raise interest rates, respectively. They were further jolted by Fed Chair Janet Yellen’s statement that “by standard metrics, some asset valuations look high.” In response, bond yields quickly spiked higher, while currency markets saw large swings. Nevertheless, at quarter-end, the S&P 500 was only about 1% below its all-time high.

Here are the broad index returns through the Second Quarter of 2017:

U.S. Large Cap Stocks 9.3% Emerging Market Stocks 18.4%
U.S. Small Cap Stocks 5.0% Commodities -5.3%
U.S. Real Estate 2.7% U.S. Aggregate Bonds 2.3%
Overseas Stocks 13.8% International Bonds 5.8%

U.S. stock investors seem a bit complacent now. The VIX index, an indicator of the S&P 500’s expected 30-day volatility, fell to a 23-year low in early May and remained low throughout the quarter. The U.S. stock market’s calm ascendance seems to fly in the face of ongoing political uncertainty in the U.S. and geopolitical tumult around the world. The extremely low market volatility and high stock market valuations implicitly discount a very rosy economic scenario but economic growth has been noticeably meager so far this year. Interestingly, a U.S. stock market correction (a decline of 10% or more) hasn’t occurred since February 2016 when, on average, they typically occur about once per year.

However, there is room for hope in the most recent economic data. The Atlanta Federal Reserve recently forecasted that the U.S. economy will grow at a 2.9% rate for the year’s third quarter. The unemployment rate is at a near-record low of 4.7% and wages grew at a 2.9% rate in December, the best increase since 2009.

How will the Fed respond to the contradictory data? In past years, the Fed’s actions have repeatedly converged to meet market expectations with a less aggressive rate hiking path than it originally forecasted for itself. The Fed is likely more hawkish at this point in the economic cycle with unemployment down to 4.3% coupled with its expectation that wage, and ultimately, inflationary pressures will emerge. This creates uncertainty and the risk that the Fed will tighten more than the economy and markets can handle. In fact, economist David Rosenberg writes, “If the Fed does what it says it’s going to do, the yield curve will invert sometime next year, with a recession all but an inevitability.”

An inverted Treasury yield curve has preceded the last seven U.S. recessions dating back to the 1960’s. But with global central bank bond purchases still depressing longer-maturity bond yields, this cycle may be different from prior ones. The Bank Credit Analyst sees the risk of a U.S. recession sometime in 2019, after a final burst of growth over the next year. And this being macroeconomics, there are intelligent counter arguments that the Fed is more likely to fall behind the curve (or already has) in tightening monetary policy, meaning a period of higher-than-expected inflation and interest rates will ensue but a Fed-induced recession may be delayed. Whatever the response, it is reasonable to expect additional volatility in the not-too-distant future.

Market Commentary: 1Q 2017

To no one’s surprise, the U.S. stock market has been on a tear. Over the last eight years, the S&P 500 index has returned more than 300% and the tail-end of this run seems to have accelerated the trend. The first quarter of 2017 provided the highest returns for U.S. large-cap stocks since the last three months of 2013. Additionally, the Nasdaq index has booked its 21st record close of the year so far and the index has recorded a whopping 30%-plus rise over the past 14 months, marking the fastest advance since 2006.

In addition to the great domestic stock returns, international investments have been soaring through the start of the year, especially in U.S. dollar terms. European stocks gained 8.6% for the quarter and EAFE’s Pacific ex-Japan Index gained 11.8%. In aggregate, the broad-based EAFE index of companies in developed foreign economies gained 7.4% in the first three months of calendar 2017. Emerging market stocks of less developed countries, as represented by the EAFE EM index, rose an impressive 11.5%.

Here are the broad index returns through the First Quarter of 2017:

U.S. Large Cap Stocks 6.0% Emerging Market Stocks 11.5%
U.S. Small Cap Stocks 2.5% Commodities -2.3%
U.S. Real Estate 1.0% U.S. Aggregate Bonds 1.0%
Overseas Stocks 7.4% International Bonds 2.4%

Across a wide range of measures, the global economy is in its best shape in many years. Economic growth in most countries and industries has been accelerating, albeit modestly. In fact, the Global Manufacturing Purchasing Managers Indexes, which have been correlated with global equity returns over time, recently made new multiyear highs in the United States, the eurozone, and China. A quick survey of the economic landscape suggests the environment should remain supportive of stocks and other risk assets, at least over the next six to 12 months. While unexpected macro shocks can occur at any time, the global macroeconomic backdrop offers reason for optimism that many of the reflationary trends that have benefited our portfolios in recent quarters can continue and the likelihood of an imminent U.S. or global economic recession appears low right now. Without a recession, history suggests a bear market in stocks is unlikely.

The European economy seems to have turned an important corner. Last year, for the first time since the 2008–2009 financial crisis, Europe’s economy grew faster than that of the United States. Improving economic growth ultimately leads to better sales growth and gets consumers and corporations to borrow and spend, furthering the cycle. According to the Bank Credit Analyst, private sector credit growth in Europe is up at the fastest rate since the financial crisis. The European Central Bank has revised upward both its inflation and growth projections for 2017–2018.

High current valuations will likely be a headwind to U.S. stock market returns looking out over the next five years but international stocks look attractive. Corporate earnings in the U.S. have not kept pace with the fiery stock market returns of the last few months and valuations have risen. In stark contrast to one another, it appears that European earnings are cyclically depressed while U.S. earnings are near cyclical highs and this relationship does not appear to be adequately reflected in their respective valuations. In Europe, corporate earnings have barely grown since the 2008–2009 financial crisis primarily due to the onset of a regional debt crisis in 2011. Meanwhile, U.S. company earnings have grown strongly, exceeding prior cyclical highs due to historically high profit margins, stock buybacks, and low interest expenses. This results in European stocks appearing to be relatively less expensive than U.S. stocks and more attractive for the long-term. It is impossible to know the precise timing or exactly what catalyst will lead investors to close the gap and begin shifting from U.S. investments to international holdings but history teaches that in time, there will be periods of international stock out-performance.

Market Commentary: 4Q 2016

You know that you are deep into a longstanding bull market when you see things like average pedestrians keeping one eye on the market tickers outside of brokerage houses to see when the Dow Jones Industrial Average has finally breached the 20,000 mark. Who would have thought that there was much good to come when the beginning of 2016 got off to such a rocky start, tumbling 10% in the first two weeks—the worst start to a year since 1930? Nevertheless, the markets eventually bottomed in mid-February and began a long, slow recovery. While the U.S. markets suffered a setback in June when the U.K. decided to leave the Eurozone, and endured another hard bump right after the elections, in the end, we were not disappointed.

The final quarter provided U.S. stock investors with impressive gains. The Wilshire 5000, the broadest measure of U.S. stocks, was up 4.54% in the fourth quarter of 2016 and ended the year up 13.37%. It was also a year to remember for investors in small company stocks. The Russell 2000 Small-Cap Index finished the year up 21.31% after producing an astonishing 11% return in November alone.

Unfortunately, rising U.S. equity prices came at the expense of core bond and international stock returns. The overall U.S. bond market gained 2.65% for the year, but that hid a fourth quarter decline of 3.2% as rising interest rates resulted in the worst quarterly performance for bonds in 35 years. Expectations for rising inflation, along with the Federal Reserve’s December decision to raise interest rates, further contributed to falling bond prices. Emerging Market stocks also declined, falling 4.8% in the final quarter. Nevertheless, the combination of portfolio increases and decreases still resulted in better than average returns across the allocations.

Here are the broad index returns through the Fourth Quarter of 2016:

U.S. Large Cap Stocks 12% Emerging Market Stocks 11.6%
U.S. Small Cap Stocks 21.3% Commodities 11.8%
U.S. Real Estate 8.6% U.S. Aggregate Bonds 2.6%
Overseas Stocks 1.5% International Bonds 1.9%

Core bonds are likely to continue to struggle over the next market cycle. The combination of the Fed’s plans for three additional interest rate hikes and an incoming presidential administration that promises to significantly increase spending could mean higher debt servicing costs for both consumers and the government (i.e., taxpayers). Placing a greater emphasis on flexible fixed-income strategies is essential to helping the bond portfolio contribute to the overall portfolio return but it cannot completely remedy the issue. Interest rates are still historically low, where the 10-Year Treasury is now yielding 2.45% versus an average over the last 58 years of 6.15%. The result can only mean lower portfolio returns than has been experienced on average in the last 50 years. Fortunately, inflation is also low and net “real” returns (your portfolio return minus inflation) should continue to fall within an acceptable range over a sufficiently long period of time.

Reflecting again on the financial markets’ rocky start to 2016, it is also important to remember how quickly trends can change. While it is unclear how 2017 will play out, since precise inflection points in market performance are impossible to predict, European corporate earnings and eventually stock prices are poised for recovery and valuations in Emerging Market stocks remain favorable. In contrast, U.S. stocks appear somewhat overvalued and have continued to increase despite their historically high price-to-earnings multiples. As interest rates rise, we may see a weakening in the support that the low rates of the past decade have afforded U.S. stock prices. Corporate tax cuts would likely help support higher prices, but over a full market cycle, valuations tend to matter materially while chasing baseless momentum is a recipe for disappointment. Optimistically, short-term market traders seem to be expecting a robust economic stimulus combined with lower taxes and deregulatory policies that would boost the short-term profits of American corporations. But it is helpful to remember that we are entering the ninth year of economic expansion, making this the fourth longest since 1900, and many economists are predicting a recession within the next few years. The best recipe for portfolio success is broad diversification to help ensure the portfolio has upside potential and downside protection across diverse economic outcomes.

Market Commentary: 3Q 2016

One hundred days after the Brexit scare and nine months after the most recent Fed rate hike, the markets once again confounded the instincts of nervous investors and went up instead of down. Last week, Federal Reserve Chairperson Janet Yellen told the world that the U.S. economy is healthy enough to weather a rise in interest rates. Nevertheless, the Fed governors met in September and declined to serve up the first rate hike since last December. That was reassuring news to the Wall Street traders and helped to provide yet another quarter of positive gains in U.S. stocks.

Larger companies were positive but posted the lowest gains. The Russell 1000 large-cap index provided a 4.03% return over the past quarter, with a gain of 7.92% so far this year, while the widely-quoted S&P 500 index of large company stocks posted a gain and is up 7.8% for the year so far. Comparably, the Russell 2000 small-cap index gained 9.05% this quarter, posting an 11.46% gain so far this year.

Comparatively, the U.S. remains a haven of stability in a very messy global investment scene. The broad-based EAFE index of companies in developed foreign economies gained 5.80% in the third quarter but is only up 2.2% for the year. European stocks have lost 2.67% so far in 2016. In contrast, a basket of emerging markets stocks domiciled in less developed countries, as represented by the EAFE EM index, gained 9.03% for the quarter and is sitting on gains of 16.4% for the year so far.

Here are the broad index returns through the Third Quarter of 2016:

U.S. Large Cap Stocks 7.8% Emerging Market Stocks 16.4%
U.S. Small Cap Stocks 11.5% Commodities 8.9%
U.S. Real Estate 12.3% U.S. Aggregate Bonds 5.8%
Overseas Stocks 2.2% International Bonds 12.5%

What is keeping stock prices high while sentiment appears to be somewhat restrained? No one knows the answer. But a deeper look at the U.S. economy suggests that the economic picture isn’t nearly as gloomy as it is sometimes reported in the press. Economic growth for the second quarter has been revised upwards from 1.1% to 1.4% due to higher corporate spending in general and especially as a result of increasing corporate investments in research and development. America’s trade deficit shrank in August. Consumer spending, which makes up more than two-thirds of U.S. economic activity, rose a robust 4.3% for the quarter, perhaps partly due to higher take-home wages this year.

Meanwhile, if someone had told you five years ago that today’s unemployment rate would be 4.9%, you would have thought they were highly optimistic. But after the economy gained 151,000 more jobs in August, unemployment remained below 5% for the third consecutive month and the trend is downward. At the same time, average hourly earnings for American workers have risen 2.4% so far this year.

Based on their reading of the Treasury yield curve, economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland have pegged the chances of a recession this time next year at a low 11.25%. In general, a steep yield curve has been a predictor of strong economic growth, while an inverted one, where short-term rates are higher than longer-term yields, is associated with a looming recession. They predict GDP growth of 1.5% for this election year, which is comfortably ahead of the negative numbers that would signal an economic downturn.

The U.S. returns have been so good for so long that many investors are wondering: why are we bothering with foreign stocks? A recent Forbes column suggested the answer: since 1970 foreign stocks have outperformed domestic stocks almost exactly 50% of the time, meaning the long trend of U.S. out-performance that we have become accustomed to could reverse itself at any time.

No one would dispute that the economic statistics are weak tea leaves for trying to predict the market’s next move. However the slow, steady growth we’ve experienced since 2008 is showing no visible signs of ending and it is hard to find the usual euphoria and reckless investing that normally accompanies a market top and its subsequent collapse of share prices. At the current pace, we might look back on 2016 as another pretty good year to be invested.

Market Commentary: 2Q 2016

U.S. markets were initially range-bound for most of the quarter until June, when the relative calm in global stock markets came to an abrupt end. Upending most forecasts and taking world financial markets by surprise, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union on June 23. In the wake of the vote, British pound sterling fell 11% overnight against the U.S. dollar, its lowest level since 1985. The euro fell 2.4% to 1.10 versus the dollar. Global equities plummeted.

 Then in the week following Britain’s historic vote, global equities rallied despite significant uncertainty regarding the economic, political, and financial market implications of Brexit.When the dust had settled, developed international and European stocks remained in the red, while U.S. stocks edged into positive territory. The big winners in the quarter were emerging-markets stocks, which gained 2.6% and are now up 6.6% year to date.

As the second quarter ended, investors could be forgiven for feeling both bruised and battered. In the aftermath of the Brexit vote, global financial markets initially hit the panic button. Following the vote, stocks fell, bond yields dove, and both the British pound and the euro swooned. The markets demonstrated the typical flight to safety, with U.S. Treasurys, the U.S. dollar, Japanese yen, Swiss franc, and gold all rising sharply.

Here are the broad index returns through the Second Quarter of 2016:

U.S. Large Cap Stocks 3.7% Emerging Market Stocks 6.6%
U.S. Small Cap Stocks -2.2% Commodities 13.3%
U.S. Real Estate 13.3% U.S. Aggregate Bonds 5.3%
Overseas Stocks -4.0% International Bonds 10.7%

There are a number of positives in the U.S. economy. Historically low oil prices and high domestic production have lowered the cost of doing business and the cost of living in the United States. Both are a boon to the economy, which is on track to grow at a 2.0% rate this year. Although hardly dramatic, this growth rate is sustainable and not likely to overheat the different sectors of the economy which could lead to a recession. Manufacturing activity is expected to grow 2.6% for the year based on the numbers so far, and the unemployment rate has fallen to 4.7%, below the Federal Reserve target. The unemployment statistics are almost certainly somewhat misleading in the sense that many people are underemployed, and a sizable number of working-age men are no longer participating in the labor force. But for many Americans, the employment picture is much better now than a few years ago. By a number of measures, the U.S. economy seems to be comfortably plodding along.

Uncertainty remains in the Eurozone. A recent report by Thomas Friedman of Geopolitical Futures suggests that the EU, at the very least, is going to have to reform itself and the vote in Britain could be the wake-up call it needs to make structural changes.  The Eurozone has been struggling economically since the common currency was adopted.  It is still dealing with the Greek sovereign debt crisis, a potential banking crisis in Italy, economic troubles in Finland, political issues in Poland and a wealth disparity between its northern and southern members. Nevertheless, Friedman thinks the UK will be just fine, because Europe needs it to be a strong trading partner.  Britain is Germany’s third-largest export market and France’s fifth largest.  Would it be wise for those countries to stop selling to Britain or impose tariffs on British exports?  Cooler heads are likely to prevail.

The quarter’s market upheaval was yet another reminder that successful investing requires patience. Investing is part of a process, not a one-off decision, toward achieving your long-term financial goals. On the first day of July, the Dow, S&P 500 and Nasdaq indices were all higher than they were before the Brexit vote took investors by surprise. This suggests, yet again, that the people who let panic make their decisions lost money while those who kept their heads sailed through.  There will be plenty of other opportunities for panic in a future where terrorism, a continuing mess in the Middle East, a refugee crisis in Europe and premature announcements of the demise of the European Union will deflect attention away from what is actually a decent economic story in the U.S. There will be inevitable and unpredictable shorter-term market ups and downs along the way, and through these periods, it is our job to remain focused on the long-term objectives of our clients, maintaining a consistent investment discipline to guide our decisions over time.