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Letter to Clients: 2nd Quarter 2013

Dear Clients & Friends:
Would you prefer to receive this via email? As of this month you can now opt to receive an email instead of a paper letter. If you want to activate the email option just let me know. Otherwise, you will continue to receive the paper version.

First Quarter Review

At the end of March, U.S. stock markets crossed the all-time high reached in October of 2007. This was due to an exceptionally strong performance to start the year following the agreement by U.S. Congress in early January to avoid the fiscal cliff, which would have required dramatic reductions in spending and risked throwing the U.S. back into recession.

Two things worth noting about first-quarter performance:

  1. Driven by a strong start in January, the U.S. market was up by over 10% in the first quarter, leading strong gains by equities globally. One word of caution: last year the U.S. market was up by 13% in the first three months before giving back almost all of those gains in the second quarter, in large measure due to concerns about Europe. I don’t foresee a repeat of that kind of second quarter performance but optimism must be tempered.
  2. On the topic of Europe, in spite of recent headlines about the bank crisis in Cyprus and continuing issues in Greece, the European market was up by 7% (in local currency) in the first three months of 2013. While Cyprus and Greece got the headlines, the bulk of Europe’s economic performance will continue to be driven by the larger and stronger countries.

Here’s how first-quarter performance looked:

Monthly and Q1 Market Performance Across the Globe*

  U.S. Europe Emerging
January 2013 5.3% 5.1% 1.0% 4.9%
February 2013 1.3% 0.9% 0.0% 1.2%
March 2013 3.8% 0.9% -0.8% 2.3%
Q1 2013 10.7% 7.1% -0.2% 8.6%

Returns to month end, all in local currency, including dividends.

Warren Buffett’s view: Stocks still offer value

Warren Buffett is generally considered the greatest investor of all time. From 1966, when he began running Berkshire Hathaway, to the end of 2012, the overall U.S. stock market (including dividends) has returned an average of 9.4% annually. That means that $1,000 invested in the U.S. market in 1966 was worth just over $74,000 at the end of 2012. During that same time, the book value of Berkshire Hathaway increased by almost 20% per year, twice the U.S. market return. The result: that same $1,000 invested in Berkshire Hathaway’s book value would have grown to over $5 million.

That’s why Warren Buffett’s views are worth heeding. And that’s also why his annual letter to investors is awaited each year with such anticipation. There were three key messages in this year’s letter:

1. Invest in “wonderful” businesses

Buffett is known for saying that he’d rather buy “a wonderful business at a fair price than a fair business at a wonderful price.” He’s written in depth about the competitive insulation that makes for a great business. (In another well-known turn of phrase, he’s said that he wants to buy businesses “so wonderful that an idiot could run them, because some day an idiot will.”)

In this year’s letter Buffett touched on Berkshire Hathaway’s investment in American Express (of which he owns just under 14%) as well as Coca-Cola, IBM, and Wells Fargo, his other three big holdings in which he owns between 6% and 9%. In all four cases, he increased his stake in 2012; he quotes the Mae West line that “too much of a good thing is wonderful.”

2. Look past today’s uncertainty

Buffett addressed the uncertainty that preoccupies many members of the media and has dampened the willingness of American business to invest. He points out that uncertainty has been a constant in the United States since 1776; the only variable is whether people ignore the uncertainty (which typically happens in boom times) or fixate on it.

Buffett continues to express the same confidence in America’s resiliency as he did in his public letter titled “Buy American. I Am.“, which appeared in the New York Times close to stock market bottoms during the uncertainty in the aftermath of the global financial crisis.

3. Stay in the game

In this year’s letter, Buffett addressed the temptation to, in his words, “try to dance in and out (of the stock market) based upon the turn of tarot cards, the prediction of so-called experts or the ebb and flow of business activity.”

He went on to say that since the long-term outcome of investing in stocks is so overwhelmingly favorable, “the risks of being out of the game are huge compared to the risks of being in it.”

In this interview that followed the release of his letter, Buffett reiterated his view that since at some point interest rates will inevitably rise, stocks of quality businesses continue to offer good value relative to bonds, even in the face of the run-up in equity prices since last summer. He also repeated his skepticism about owning bonds, saying that today “the dumbest investment is a government bond.”

What this means for your portfolio

At the end of last year, I outlined some guiding principles to follow in 2013. While many things have changed, the appropriateness of that advice has not. I encourage you to continue to:

1. Take the right level of risk. If your portfolio makes your feel comfortable and secure, your portfolio is on target. If the daily market fluctuations and gyrations cause you angst, we need to discuss alternative methods of achieving your goals.

2. Adhere to your plan. Always remember that the headlines will never be “Nothing significant happened today”. The role of the media to amplify the significance of everything.
That may be what sells newspapers but it should not serve as guidance for your financial decisions. I am always willing to discuss recent events and their impact on your money, both in the long and short term, whenever you have concerns.

3. Diversify your portfolios. The U.S. represents less than half of investing opportunities around the world. In addition, the rapid economic growth in markets like China, India, and Brazil is creating opportunities. For those reasons, I continue to recommend geographic diversification of portfolios.

4. Focus on dividends and cash flow. Amid the uncertainty surrounding economic growth and equity returns, I continue to place priority on the cash yield from investments. While the headlines talked about U.S. markets hitting new highs in March, investors who reinvested their dividends saw their account values exceed the 2007 peak significantly earlier. We also continue to seek yield from non-traditional sources such as REIT’s, master limited partnerships, and Business Development Companies.

Just three months ago I wrote “In many ways it feels like the economy is ready to run… As evidence of a stronger economy presents during the first half of the year, we expect momentum to build in the second half of the year.” Momentum is building. Value still exists in the marketplace. Short term predictions are extremely unreliable but I am optimistic for the remainder of 2013.

I hope you found this overview helpful. Should you have questions about anything in this note or about any other issue, please feel free to give me or one of the members of my team a call.

And as always, thank you for the opportunity to serve as your financial advisor.


Art Dinkin, CFP®