February Market Update

For the investor looking for market details and explanations, this February Market Update article is for you.  Broad market index and tech stock investors were in command throughout January, even as the month ended with a Federal Reserve (Fed) meeting taming some potentially over-enthusiastic March rate cut bulls. 

 

With the tech and major market index rally continuing its run since November, I thought now would be a good time to inform you of the latest developments set to impact Americans in the months ahead. 

 

Major Stock Indexes

 

January was good for long-term investors in U.S. stocks, especially in large tech with AI exposure.  If you haven’t heard of Nvidia before, you will from now on.  Market bulls (ie, investors expecting the market to continue its run upward) were cheering the prospects of a more accommodating Fed in 2024, with the rate decision and Fed statement happening on the last day of the month. 

 

For the month of January, the S&P 500 added 1.59%, the Nasdaq 100 tacked on 1.82%, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average rose by 1.22%.

 

Mixed/Slowing Inflation Signals

 

The overall trend for inflation was mixed in January, even as Consumer Price Index (CPI) data came in a bit hot.

 

CPI: The December Consumer Price Index showed a 0.3% monthly increase in December and a 3.4% increase versus one year ago. Estimates were for a 0.2% monthly gain in December and a 3.2% gain year-over-year. Shelter and services pricing remained sticky.

 

PPI: For December, the Producer Price Index report came in below expectations, indicating mixed signals on the inflation front.

 

According to the report, wholesale prices declined by 0.1% month-over-month in December, lower than the expected gain of 0.1% estimated by Dow Jones economists.

 

PCE: According to the most recent Core Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE) release, the rate of price increases slowed down as 2023 came to a close. 

 

The Fed’s preferred inflation indicator showed that prices were higher by 0.2% month-over-month in December and by 2.9% year-over-year. Dow Jones economists had expected respective increases of 0.2% and 3%. However, digging a little deeper and looking at the three and six-month averages of Core PCE on an annualized basis, we see it running under 2% (note: the Fed’s Target is 2%). This data, noted by former Vice Chair of the Federal Reserve Lael Brainard and provided by the Bureau of Economic Analysis, has inflation watchers cheering the current market environment.

 

Fed Put?

 

In plain English, a “Fed put” means that the Fed is standing by to change policy if needed, should the equity markets experience declines.  At present, it feels like there are the makings of a Fed put under the market. If storm clouds arise, the market is expecting the Fed to “come to the rescue” with rate cuts in 2024 if needed.  The market was expecting six rate cuts in 2024 before the January Fed meeting, even though the economy has been performing well as of late. This outlook is not the norm. Historically, rate cuts are seen in struggling or downtrodden economies that need stimulation.  The January Fed meeting tempered expectations for a March rate cut, with probabilities declining from 50% to 35.5% on January 31. However, it is still early in this election year, so pay attention.

 

This idea of a Fed put is a concept, not a guarantee, and seemed to be on the mind of many market participants at the start of February, indicating that the collective market mindset could be that any pullbacks may be short-lived.

 

Treasury Yields Steady in January

 

The widely monitored 10-year Treasury note yield was close to unchanged for the month of January, closing the month near 3.966% — about 10 basis points higher than December’s closing level near 3.865%.  This is the yield most closely tied to the movement of mortgage rates, so it is watched closely.  January marks two consecutive monthly closes below 4.00% in the 10-year yield.  The steadiness in rates is good news for sidelined prospective mortgage borrowers and great news for long-term investors in U.S. equities.

 

Fed Rate Decision

 

The last day of January gave us the first Fed meeting of 2024, as the Fed left interest rates unchanged in line with market expectations.  There were some changes to the Fed’s statement, however, as Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell seemed to want to tame the market’s excitement for a March rate cut.  “I don’t think it’s likely that the committee will reach a level of confidence by the time of the March meeting to cut rates,” Powell said.  The verbal statement indicating that a March rate cut is not likely poured some water on the fire of potentially overly enthusiastic stock market bulls as the major averages pulled back during and after Powell’s commentary.  Powell did signal rate cuts at some point in 2024, however.  “It will likely be appropriate to begin dialing back policy restraint at some point this year,” said Powell.

 

Pretty vague, huh?  Fed-speak is one of the hardest languages to learn!

 

Consumer & Employment Strong

 

Consumer health metrics remained strong during January, even as many analysts expect the consumer to “tap out”.  At the same time, labor market data exceeded expectations for December, showing 216,000 jobs created. Government jobs and health-care-related fields led the way.

 

Starting the month of February, the latest employment report blew away all expectations, showing 353,000 jobs created in January versus 185,000 estimates by Dow Jones. The labor market continues to surprise to the upside, and the market reaction was an interesting one.

 

January Labor Data Market Reaction

 

While the massively better-than-expected January jobs data indicates a stronger economy, it also shows that the economy may still be running hotter than the Fed wants to see. This reinforces the logical probability that a March rate cut could be off the table.

 

Major U.S. stock indexes didn’t seem to mind, though, as they cheered the data by trading to the upside on the day of. The jobs report was released the morning after positive earnings results from Meta (Facebook), Microsoft, and Amazon. So, perhaps this earnings effect outshined the March rate cut odds everyone seemed to be so fixated upon just a day before.

 

The probability for a March 25-basis-point cut was all over the place at the end of January and beginning of February, resting at a 20% chance on February 1 after sitting at a 46.2% chance on January 26th, according to the CME FedWatch Tool.

 

Is the economy still too hot? What do the continuing and massive upside surprises in the job market mean for inflation?  This is interesting data for short term speculation, but as you have heard many times in the past, short term data is not very helpful in making long term decisions with your investments.  Pay attention to these data points, if you find it interesting, but don’t let any of it sway you from your financial planning course.

 

Q1 Letter to Clients

If there’s a message to take from 2023 markets, it is this: Timeless wisdom best informs timely decisions.

Here’s how Morgan Housel describes the same in his new book, “Same as Ever.”

“The typical attempt to clear up an uncertain future is to gaze further and squint harder—to forecast with more precision, more data, and more intelligence. Far more effective is to do the opposite: Look backward, and be broad. Rather than attempting to figure out little ways the future might change, study the big things the past has never avoided.”

Following are a few timeless tenets that offer timely investment insights for the year ahead.

There’s Never a Good Time to Time the Market

Perhaps most obviously, last year demonstrated how randomly—and rapidly—markets can move. As The Wall Street Journal reported at year-end:

“Almost no one thought 2023 would be a blockbuster year for stocks. They could hardly have been more wrong.”

Another financial journal observed:

“What was supposed to go up went down, or listed sideways, and what was supposed to go down went up — and up and up. The S&P 500 climbed more than 20% and the Nasdaq 100 soared over 50%, the biggest annual gain since the go-go days of the dot-com boom. … ‘I’ve never seen the consensus as wrong as it was in 2023,’ said Andrew Pease, the chief investment strategist at Russell Investments.”

Many financial pundits offered elaborate explanations for the year’s fortunes, and why (in hindsight) their projections were so far off. While their reasons may be accurate, the implication is, were it not for this, that, or the other thing, their forecasts would have been correct.

The problem is, there’s almost always “this, that, or the other thing” going on in this big, busy world. Thus, it really should come as no surprise that routine surprises regularly randomize the market’s next moves.

We’ve known this for years—since at least 1973, when Burton Malkiel published the first edition of “A Random Walk Down Wall Street.” Even after 50 years, Malkiel’s message represents one of the most timeless truths explaining why we don’t try to time market trends.

Beware of Catchy Catchphrases

In 2023, just seven stocks within the S&P 500 Index explained almost two-thirds of the index’s total annual gains. Their striking performance scored them the catchy title, “Magnificent Seven.”

What should we expect for this star lineup in the coming year? Search today’s popular press, and you’ll find timely tips galore on whether to bulk up on more magnificence, or sell while the selling is good. Forecasts hinge on the usual suspects: Whether inflation rises or falls, a recession lands or recedes, technologies advance or retreat, and so on.

Taking a more timeless view, we would suggest being wary of celebrated stocks bearing trendy titles. Chasing after stellar returns with their own nicknames may work for a while. But eventually, one of those “surprises” tends to come along, turning once-hot stocks into cold plays.

Which brings us to our next timeless tenet.

Diversification Is Perennially Prudent

Viewing 2023 up close, there may be a temptation to chase after the market’s recent winning streak, bulking up on more of that which has been so pleasantly surprising of late.

Zooming out, our perspective remains unchanged: Maintain a globally diversified portfolio, tailored for your needs. Treat an allocation to the Magnificent Seven (and the next trend, and the one after that) as one of many “pistons” powering the market’s perennial growth. But pair it with effective diversification, to temper the inevitable upsets that await us in the year(s) ahead.

In this spirit, I wish you a well-diversified investment portfolio in 2024, along with abundant concentrations of health, happiness, and harmonious well-being for you and yours.

 

 

Preparing Your Adult Children for Inherited Wealth

When it comes to inheritance, it is vital that a parent transfer wisdom before they ever consider transferring wealth.  Most children learn the ins and outs of responsible wealth-building from their parents. And most of this through watching.  But as kids grow, simple conversations about saving and spending often branch out into investing, compounding, and comprehensive Life-Centered Planning. But no matter how many good financial habits your children have learned by adulthood, they could still be unprepared for their role in your legacy plan.

Talking to your adult children about inheriting your wealth might be awkward at first. But if you work through this six-part framework you’ll all feel better about your wishes, your kids’ responsibilities, and your family’s Return on Life.

 

  1. Review your estate plan.

While you’re still around to change it, your estate plan is never set in stone. Every year, sit down with your financial advisor and attorney to make sure you’re still happy with your beneficiaries, your health care directives, and the allocation of your assets. You’re under no obligation to share every aspect of your finances and health with your children. But the more you tell them about your legacy plan now, the easier it will be for them to care for you and settle your affairs when the time comes.

 

  1. Consider the impact on your heirs.

Money impacts different people very differently. Inheriting a portion of your legacy could be life-changing for one of your children. Another might not experience much of a change at all. Encourage your children to put together their own team of financial, tax, and legal professionals who will help them make the best use of their inheritance with the least amount of hassle. If you currently work with our firm, we are always happy to meet with your kids at any point.  When we work with a family, we consider all generations a client of our firm.

 

  1. Promote responsible behavior.

Keep in mind that money is a poor tool to fix problems…it is, however, incredibly efficient at exposing problems that were already there. You may feel like you have no choice but to leave some of your wealth to an adult child who doesn’t have the best financial habits. However, it is possible to establish guardrails, such as a family trust that releases money under certain conditions that you establish in your legacy plan.

Even the most responsible children might not be capable of managing a company, real estate, or an art collection. Talk to your children about how their abilities and goals fit with how you want more complicated assets to be managed.

 
  1. Consider transferring some of your wealth during your lifetime.

Transferring money to the next generation could have a couple of different benefits.  First, when you give funds to your kids during your lifetime, you get the enjoyment of seeing them actually benefit from the gift.  Second, it can be used as a teaching tool.  Learning how to make wise decisions with a smaller amount will prepare your kids for handling a much larger amount in the future.  Better to make mistakes and learn when there are fewer ‘zeros’ involved.

 

  1. Set realistic expectations.

Your children likely have ideas about your wealth and expectations for what they will inherit. Have an honest conversation that will help them recalibrate those expectations properly. You don’t want your kids to plan for a life of luxury that you won’t be leaving to them. But if they’re set to inherit more than they realize, you also don’t want them planning for a too-frugal future lacking certain experiences and comforts.

 

  1. Shore up your plan.

By now you have identified some strengths and weaknesses in both your legacy plan and your children’s financial skills. Use this information to plan for improvements. Talk to your financial team about vehicles that can protect certain assets and encourage responsible stewardship. Assign a professional executor who will oversee your estate. Work with your children on a plan to develop the knowledge and skills they’ll need to manage more complicated assets. Identify potential mentors whom you can trust to guide your children after you’re gone.

 

  1. Clarify your intentions.

Sometimes the assets in an estate plan get in the way of the real purpose of the estate plan. You aren’t just passing on stuff, you’re passing on values, experiences, and the means to do more with money than just have more money.

Tell your children what you hope they’ll do with your legacy, not just to make their own lives better but to make life better for their own families, friends, and communities. If you’ve made choices in your legacy plan that might be difficult for your kids to accept, explain your reasoning and your intentions. If you can’t reach a place of agreement, at least try to reach a place of understanding and mutual respect.

And if you need help facilitating these conversations, consider bringing your children into our office for a family meeting. We’re always happy to help families prepare for legacy events that preserve and respect what matters most.

 

4 Financial Best Practices for Year-End 2023

Scan the financial headlines these days, and you’ll see plenty of potential action items vying for your year-end attention. Some may be particular to 2023. Others are timeless traditions. If your wealth were a garden, which actions would actually deserve your attention? Here are our four favorite items worth tending to as 2024 approaches … plus a thoughtful reflection on how to make the most of the remaining year.  

 

1.     Feed Your Cash Reserves

With basic savings accounts currently offering 5%+ annual interest rates, your fallow cash is finally able to earn a nice little bit while it sits. Sweet! Two thoughts here:

Mind Where You’ve Stashed Your Cash: If your spending money is still sitting in low- or no-interest accounts, consider taking advantage of the attractive rates available in basic money market accounts, or similar savings vehicles such as short-term CDs, or U.S. Series I Saving Bonds (“I Bonds”). Your cash savings typically includes money you intend to spend within the next year or so, as well as your emergency, “rainy day” reserves. (Note: I Bonds require you to hold them for at least a year.)

Put Your Cash in Context: While current rates across many savings accounts are appealing, don’t let this distract you from your greater investment goals. Even at today’s higher rates, your cash reserves are eventually expected to lose their spending power in the face of inflation. Today’s rates don’t eliminate this issue … remember, inflation is also on the high side, so that 5% isn’t as amazing as it may seem. Once you’ve got your cash stashed in those high-interest savings accounts, we believe you’re better off allocating your remaining assets into your investment portfolio—and leaving the dollars there for pursuing your long game.  

 

2.     Prune Your Portfolio

While we don’t advocate using your investment reserves to chase money market rates, there are still plenty of other actions you can take to maintain a tidy portfolio mix. For this, it’s prudent to perform an annual review of how your proverbial garden is growing. Year-end is as good a milestone as any for this activity. For example, you can:

Rebalance: In 2023, relatively strong year-to-date stock returns may warrant rebalancing back to plan, especially if you can do so within your tax-sheltered accounts.

Relocate: With your annual earnings coming into focus, you may wish to shift some of your investments from taxable to tax-sheltered accounts, such as traditional or Roth IRAs, HSAs, and 529 College Savings Plans. For many of these, you have until next April 15, 2024 to make your 2023 contributions. But you don’t have to wait if the assets are available today, and it otherwise makes tax-wise sense.

Revise: As you rebalance, relocate, or add new holdings according to plan, you may also be able to take advantage of the latest science-based ETF solutions.  We’re not necessarily suggesting major overhauls, especially where embedded taxable gains may negate the benefits of a new offering. But as you’re reallocating or adding new assets anyway, it’s worth noting there may be new, potentially improved resources available.

Redirect: Year-end can also be a great time to redirect excess wealth toward personal or charitable giving. Whether directly or through a Donor Advised Fund, you can donate highly appreciated investments out of your taxable accounts and into worthy causes. You stand to reduce current and future taxes, and your recipients get to put the assets to work right away. This can be a slam dunk strategy to avoid an embedded capital gain and get a tax deduction for the full value going to the charity of your choice.  If you have appreciated assets, considering gifting these and holding on to your cash.

 

3.     Train Those Taxes

Speaking of taxes, there are always plenty of ways to manage your current and lifetime tax burdens—especially as your financial numbers and various tax-related deadlines come into focus toward year-end. For example:

RMDs and QCDs: Retirees and IRA inheritors should continue making any obligatory Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) out of their IRAs and similar tax-sheltered accounts. With the 2022 Secure Act 2.0, the penalty for missing an RMD will no longer exceed 25% of any underpayment, rather than the former 50%. But even 25% is a painful penalty if you miss the December 31 deadline. If you’re charitably inclined, you may prefer to make a year-end Qualified Charitable Distribution (QCD), to offset or potentially eliminate your RMD burden.

Harvesting Losses … and Gains: Depending on market conditions and your own portfolio, there may still be opportunities to perform some tax-loss harvesting in 2023, to offset current or future taxable gains from your account. As long as long-term capital gains rates remain in the relatively low range of 0%–20%, tax-gain harvesting might be of interest as well. Work with your tax-planning team to determine what makes sense for you.

Keeping an Eye on the 2025 Sunset: Nobody can predict what the future holds. But if Congress does not act, a number of tax-friendly 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act provisions are set to sunset on December 31, 2025. If they do, we might experience higher ordinary income and capital gains tax rates after that. Let’s be clear: A lot could change before then, so we’re not necessarily suggesting you shape all your plans around this one potential future. However, if it’s in your overall best interests to engage in various taxable transactions anyway, 2023 may be a relatively tax-friendly year in which to complete them. Examples include doing a Roth conversion, harvesting long-term capital gains, taking extra retirement plan withdrawals, exercising taxable stock options, gifting to loved ones, and more.

 

4.     Weed Out Your To-Do List

I love this one…it is at the top of my improvement goals.  Doing less instead of staying busy with more.  This year, we’re intentionally keeping our list of year-end financial best practices on the short side. Not for lack of ideas, mind you; there are plenty more we could cover.

But consider these words of wisdom from Atomic Habits author James Clear:

“Instead of asking yourself, ‘What should I do first?’ Try asking, ‘What should I neglect first?’ Trim, edit, cull. Make space for better performance.”

JamesClear.com

 

Let’s combine Clear’s tip with sentiments from a Farnam Street piece, “How to Think Better.” Here, a Stanford University study has suggested that multitasking may not only make it harder for us to do our best thinking, it may impair our efforts. 

“The best way to improve your ability to think is to spend large chunks of time thinking. … Good decision-makers understand a simple truth: you can’t make good decisions without good thinking, and good thinking requires time.”

Farnam Street

 

In short, how do you really want to spend the rest of your year? Instead of trying to tackle everything at once, why not pick your favorite, most applicable best practice out of our short list of favorites? Take the time to think it through. Maybe save the rest for some other time.