As I write this, I’m enjoying a short, but stark, change of scenery. Without a doubt, there’s a serious contrast between the hustle and bustle of Brooklyn and Manhattan and the tranquility of Traverse City.
On one of our daily treks from our Airbnb to the nearest subway station, I overheard our 10-year old say to my wife that our hometown is far simpler. I totally agree. And, I must say, most of the time, simple is nice!
Unfortunately, I’d describe the backdrop of today’s financial markets as not so simple. Yes, stocks and bonds have been a bit boring this year in terms of investment returns. But, let’s not confuse boring with simple.
The fundamentals do look reasonably sound. Corporate earnings are growing nicely; largely boosted by the significant corporate tax cut this year. Job growth has been remarkably steady; in line with what we’ve seen for many years now. And, consumer spending has been consistent and inflation remains tame.
When viewed over time, rather than quarter to quarter, there doesn’t appear to be a noticeable acceleration n the growth rate of the economy. We’ve basically been living in a 2% economy, give or take, along with sub-2% inflation. Not too hot, not too cold.
The Fed also sees this Goldilocks backdrop and considers it an open window to methodically raise interest rates. They’ve long-desired a pathway out of their decade long zero interest rate policy. They’re getting awfully lucky and they aren’t squandering their chance.
The Fed has now raised interest rates twice this year and has raised rates seven times since late 2015. If things go as investors expect, we’ll likely see two more hikes before the end of the year. That would bring us closer to a 2.25% to 2.5% yield on money market funds. With each hike, cash and shorter-term bonds are becoming increasingly more competitive. For investors, things aren’t quite as simple as when cash paid zero.
In addition, the departure from simple might leave early if Trump and his advisors continue to play hardball with our major trading partners. These partners would include our allies to our north, to our south, to our east and to our west. As you can see, the implications for the global economy are unusually large!
While one could wisely adopt the sanguine view of Warren Buffett that we would never be so reckless as to start a full-blown trade war, what we’ve heard from official sources – a.k.a., Twitter – must give one serious pause before quickly discounting less-optimistic scenarios.
For now, despite the lack of simplicity all around us – and that also applies to our last few subway rides – the only rational response for a thoughtful investor is to manage risk through prudent asset allocation, to diversify properly, to remain price conscious and to tilt toward owning high-quality companies. Sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it?
Jason P. Tank, CFA is the owner of Front Street Wealth Management, a fee-only wealth advisory firm located in Traverse City. He encourages questions and comments about future columns. Contact him at (231) 947-3775, by email at Jason@FrontStreet.com and at www.FrontStreet.com