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Letter to Clients: 3rd Quarter 2013

Dear Clients & Friends:

My wife is an Iowa native. I am not but I like to say that like the corn, I have grown roots here. After a dozen years of marriage one cannot help but assimilate some of the quirks of their spouse. One of the things I picked up from my bride is the word cornfused; an accurate description for a confused Iowan.

If someone relied only on the financial media to access the economy and investment markets, it would be easy for cornfusion to set in. For the past couple years the media has reported on the awful economy and the dangerous markets. Then, when we reached new records for both the Dow and the S&P500 in May, they suddenly asked if the bull market was for real. Since the S&P’s low of 677 on March 9, 2009 to 1606 at the close of June this year, we have seen a run up of 137%. Not once in that four year period did I hear them suggest it would be a good time to be invested. Once new records were established they still refuse to report good news. The message just switched from “it’s awful” to “can this rally last”. The simple of rule of “Buy Low, Sell High” implies that you have to take risk. Too many investors want to wait for market strength to return but then they risk falling victim to “Buying High”.

In this letter we will take a look at what has happened in the first half of 2013, speculate on the issues we face today, and then generalize on three principals to guide us for the balance of the year. Before we do, some basic housekeeping.

Several clients are now receiving this quarterly letter via email. If you receive a paper copy of this letter but would prefer an email version, please let me or Sue know. Did you know that we also have a free quarterly economic update email? This is a short summary of economically significant charts with a few words of explanation to tell our economic story. If you would like to subscribe to the economic update list you can add your email under the Free Economic Update tab on our website

Identity theft is serious. You place a great deal of trust in us with the information we need to serve you. Rest assured that we have security measures in place to protect you and we constantly assess our policies and procedures to improve security. During this quarter we will be adding additional security to our email server which will allow us to send you encrypted emails. If you receive an email which says that you have received a secure email from us, it is because we encrypted that message to protect your sensitive data. When you get such a message and want us to explain how to access it, we would be happy to walk you through the simple process.

Second Quarter Review

As we already discussed, in late May the U.S. stock market reached all-time highs; from the start of the year, U.S. and global markets were up in the high double digits. Then at a press conference on May 22, Federal Reserve Board chair Ben Bernanke made a low-key suggestion that a stronger outlook for U.S. economic growth would lead to a gradual reduction in the central bank’s bond purchases that had helped keep interest rates low. The prospect of an end to record low interest rates shocked markets, leading to declines in the next six weeks of 4% in the U.S. and 8% in global markets excluding the U.S.

Here’s what performance looked like before and after Bernanke’s announcement.

Source: MSCI; returns include dividends; all returns in local currency

A few things worth noting about performance in the first half of 2013:

  • Even with the declines after Bernanke’s announcement, for the first half of the year, the U.S. is still up 14% and global markets outside the United States are up 10%. If you’d suggested these results at the beginning of the year, everyone would have been thrilled.
  • The strength in the U.S. is a continuation of the trend of the past three and a half years. Since the beginning of 2010, the U.S. market is up 32%, compared with 14% for global markets outside the United States.
  • In spite of continuing headlines about Cyprus, Greece, and Portugal, European stock markets had a solid gain in the first half, as some of the worst-case scenarios built into stock prices failed to materialize. While smaller countries got the headlines, the bulk of Europe’s economic performance will continue to be driven by the larger economies.

Will America pick up the global growth baton?

“The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.”

—Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835

“We can always count on the Americans to do the right thing, after they have exhausted all the other possibilities.”

—Winston Churchill

With Europe’s economies facing continuing challenges and slowing growth in China and other emerging markets, the United States is once again being looked to as the driver of global growth. That’s why it’s important to step back and look critically at prospects for the American economy. The spotlight on the U.S. is nothing new—the opening quote for this section was drawn from a book by 19th-century French historian Alexis de Tocqueville, which he wrote after traveling across America. His insights on America’s resiliency and can-do spirit caused a stir among European politicians, many of whom still saw the United States as an uncivilized outpost.

Like every other country today, the United States faces serious issues. A Wall Street Journal article by Harvard economist Niall Ferguson made the bear case for the United States,focusing on political dysfunction, burdensome regulation, and slipping competitiveness.Sometimes taking a step back provides useful perspective. The Globe and Mail is Canada’s leading national newspaper and ranked in the top 20 global newspapers. A recent Globe and Mail article titled “A Star-Spangled Recovery” pointed to a laundry list of positives for the U.S., among them:

  • Improvement of the budget situation
  • Growth in housing and auto sales
  • Stronger job growth, fuelled in part by the return of manufacturing from overseas
  • The positive impact of small and mid-size businesses and America’s hyper-competitive culture, positioning it for success in global trade.

Winston Churchill’s quote speaks to the American pattern of exhausting other options before doing what is necessary—and applies to today’s dysfunction in Washington. This is reflected in a perspective from The Economist magazine. Based in London, The Economist is broadly respected for its objective analysis of global trends. In April, the magazine published a special report on American competitiveness. Its take wasn’t entirely positive, as it drew a distinction between political dysfunction in Washington and what is happening in the rest of the country. Here’s an excerpt about political leadership in Washington:

This is the America that China’s leaders laugh at, and the rest of the democratic
world despairs of. Its debt is rising, its population is ageing in a budget threatening
way, its schools are mediocre by international standards, its
infrastructure rickety, its regulations dense, its tax code byzantine, its immigration
system hare-brained—and it has fallen from first position in the World Economic
Forum’s competitiveness rankings to seventh in just four years.

Offsetting those issues, the magazine urges readers to look outside of Washington to the progress being made across the country:

  • The shale oil and gas revolution is changing the dynamics of the energy industry and provides America with the prospect of energy self-sufficiency.
  • Sweeping reforms are taking place at the state and municipal level to create accountability and greater focus on results in the public education system.
  • America’s innovation engine is once more operating at full speed—research and development as a percent of the economy has met the previous record set during the space race.
  • In a world where technology is playing a growing role, the United States is home to 27 out of the world’s top 30 universities for scientific research.

Earlier this year, Warren Buffett addressed the uncertainty that preoccupies much 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 confidence in the resiliency of American business, just as he did in his famous New York Times article in the fall of 2008 titled “Buy American. I Am,” which appeared close to stock market bottoms during the uncertainty in the aftermath of the global financial crisis.

None of this is to say that the United States doesn’t face issues around regulation, infrastructure, education, and entitlement spending. But as we look forward, there is a strong case that the United States recovery will once again help fuel economic growth around the world—and with the growth, we’ll see the prospect of solid performance by stock markets.

What this means for your portfolio

At the beginning of the year, I outlined some guiding principles to follow in 2013. Last quarter I reiterated the appropriateness of that advice. The year has now passed the halfway point and I stand resolve in my positions which I would be happy to discuss with you.

  1. Adhere to your plan. Regardless of what happens to markets in the short term, barring a significant change in your circumstances, you should stick to your investment parameters.
  2. Diversifying your portfolios. No one knows which markets will do well or poorly in the period ahead—but we do know that the U.S. represents less than half of global investing opportunities. To maximize returns, we need to tap into the entire pool of opportunities, not just those based at home. And note that for anyone disposed to equate strong economic growth with market returns, historical data shows little correlation between a country’s growth and its stock market’s performance. A better predictor is current valuations, how much you are paying for a dollar of future earnings—and today many of the best values can be found outside of the United States.
  3. 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 May, 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.

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®