Two Bad Choices in Tax Debate

I found this article very informative and I think it is worth sharing.

 

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By Patrick Watson

Remember when everyone wanted to cut the federal deficit? Fiscal policy was much simpler back then: balanced budget good, deficits bad. Times change. Now the House and Senate are considering tax legislation that, according to their own numbers, will add $1.5 trillion to annual deficits over the next 10 years.

This is okay, we’re told, because the tax cuts will stoke economic growth, thereby delivering added tax revenue that offsets the rate reductions.Note the bigger point here. Republicans still say they don’t like deficits—but apparently, this particular plan lets them cut taxes without adding more debt. It’s a miracle.

Is their claim really true? Will the GOP tax plans boost economic growth?

That’s the 1.5-trillion-dollar question.

Theory vs. Reality

The Republican plan’s centerpiece is a reduction in corporate tax rates from a 35% top bracket to only 20%. That would put the US more in line with other countries.

What you seldom hear is that most other developed countries also have value-added tax (VAT), a kind of consumption tax. The US doesn’t. Our tax system will remain different, and not necessarily better, under the new proposal.

Anyway, the theory is that lower tax rates will entice businesses to bring back operations they currently conduct overseas. They will build new factories and hire more US workers. Those workers will spend their higher incomes on consumer goods, and we’ll all be better off.

Unfortunately, that thinking has several flaws.

For one, as we saw in the NFIB Small Business Economic Trends report that business owners say that finding qualified workers is their top challenge right now. Reducing corporate tax rates won’t make new workers magically appear, nor will it improve the skills of those already here.

What increasing labor demand might do is spark that inflation the Federal Reserve has wanted for years. There’s also a good chance it could spiral out of control, forcing the Fed to hike interest rates even faster than planned—which could offset any benefit from the tax cuts.

Fortunately, such added labor demand will appear only if businesses respond to the lower tax rates by expanding US production capacity.

Will they? Let’s ask.

“Why Aren’t the Other Hands Up?”

This month, in one of its regular business surveys, the Atlanta Federal Reserve Bank asked executives, “If passed in its current form, what would be the likely impact of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act on your capital investment and hiring plans?”

Here are the results.

Image: Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta

Only 8% of the executives surveyed said the bill would make them increase hiring plans “significantly.” Only 11% said they would significantly increase their capital investment plans. A solid majority answered either “no change” or “increase somewhat.”

Other surveys reached similar conclusions.

White House Economic Advisor Gary Cohn had an awkward moment last Tuesday at a Wall Street Journal CEO Council meeting. Sitting on stage to promote the tax cuts, Cohn watched as the moderator asked the roomful of executives whether their companies would expand more if the tax bill passed.

When only a few hands rose, Cohn looked surprised and said, “Why aren’t the other hands up?”

So maybe they were distracted or needed a minute to think. Fair enough. A few hours later, White House Economist Kevin Hassett appeared at the same event and asked the same audience the same question.

He got the same result: only a few raised hands.

Pocketing Profits

None of this should surprise us. Tax rates are only one factor businesses consider when deciding to expand. The far more important question is whether consumers will buy whatever the new capacity produces.

Think about it this way: if you’re a CEO and you have difficulty selling your products profitably now, why would lower taxes make you produce more? Even a 0% tax rate is no help if you lack customers.

Former Brightcove CEO David Mendels explained how big companies view this:

As a CEO and member of the Board of Directors at a public company, I can tell you that if we had an increase in profitability, we would have been delighted, but it would not lead in and of itself to more hiring or an increase in wages. Again, we would hire more people if we saw growing demand for our products and services. We would raise salaries if that is what it took to hire and retain great people. But if we had a tax cut that led to higher profits absent those factors, we would ‘pocket it’ for our investors.”

By “pocket it,” Mendels means executive bonuses, share buybacks, or higher dividends. That’s what 10 years of Federal Reserve stimulus produced. A corporate tax cut would likely have a similar effect.

Choose Wisely

As I’ve said for months, I don’t think the House and Senate can agree on any significant tax changes. The two chambers have different political incentives they probably can’t reconcile.

So I think we’ll be stuck with the current tax system. The economy will limp along like it has been and eventually go into recession. The hope-driven asset bubble will pop, hurting many investors.

If I’m wrong and the GOP plan passes in anything like the current form, we will get higher deficits but little additional growth. The tax cuts will flow to asset owners and shareholders, probably blowing the market bubble even bigger. That will make the inevitable breakdown even more painful.

 

Do you agree with Patrick?

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Panic at Orlando airport spoiled my golfing trip

Golf season in Canada can be very short because of bad weather. One of my guilty pleasures is heading south for an annual golf trip with the boys every November. We started this tradition sixteen years ago and I would have to be very ill to miss it.

As a volunteer driver, I experienced first-hand the panic at the Orlando airport while dropping off a friend after our last round of golf. We decided to go early so we could have   dinner together at the airport. Walking in, we faced a stampede of frighten travelers running and screaming to the exits.

Some travelers thought they heard gun fire while others thought that they heard an explosion. Standing outside watching the Orlando Police conduct their investigation with weapons drawn was very alarming.

It turns out that a camera battery exploded in a bag which cause people to panic and the airport to be evacuated. Thousands of travelers faced hours of waiting at security checkpoints.

Phil Brown, CEO of the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority, said a full ground-stop was issued at 5:30 p.m. and lasted until 9 p.m. At a press conference Friday night, Brown said 24 flights were canceled and 27 others were diverted. He acknowledged that some passengers will have to book new flights, and others might struggle to find hotel rooms for the night.

He added that some airport staff and TSA agents instructed the crowd to take cover, when the initial explosion created confusion among staff and passengers.

At first glance, it may seem that the Orlando Aviation Authority may have over reacted to a faulty camera battery. However, it happened on the same day that Americans celebrate veteran’s day.  Plus no one wants to read about children getting hurt after visiting Disney World.

I felt bad for my friend who ended up sleeping at the airport as his flight was cancelled and rescheduled for 2:30 p.m. the next day. I was lucky that my early morning flight was cancelled and I got some extra sleep. It made delays in my rescheduled flight a little more bearable.

Will this unfortunate incidence stop me from going south golfing? Not a chance, however I may decide to spend a few extra days driving instead of flying.

The moral of this story is managing risk extends beyond the financial markets. Panic and over reaction can easily cause a major sell off in stock markets. You can’t predict what will cause a stampede to the exits.

 

 

 

 

 

Scary Financial Facts for Halloween

 

It’s that time of year when scary things come out on Halloween. However, when you open your door on October 31, will you be confronted by anything scarier than these hair-raising financial horror stories?

Will debt destroy your future?

  1. Student loan debt has reached $1.45 trillion dollars in the U.S. and $42.9 billion in Canada. U.S. graduates owe on  average of $37,712 and $27,000 for Canadians.
  2. Credit card debt is increasing in both countries. Americans carry an average of $16,000 and $4,100 for Canadians
  3. 107 million Americans have auto loans for a total outstanding debt of $1.2 trillion. It is estimated that 40% of the 120 billion dollars in auto loans in Canada are financed for 7 years or longer.
  4. Mortgage debt in Canada is a bigger problem than the U.S. because mortgage interest is not tax deductible. Average mortgage in Canada is around $200,000 (much higher in cities like Toronto & Vancouver) and $192,000 in the U.S.

Will someone steal your identity? 

First we find out that the Yahoo hack in 2013 exposed the information of every single one of their 3 billion accounts and then we find out that a data breach at Equifax exposes the personal information of 145.5 million people. Is there a single American who hasn’t been hacked yet?

The odds are great that your personal information is for sale to identity thieves or already in their hands. Can you foil them with credit freezes and other ID protection measures before it’s too late? Is it already too late? Does your VISA card contain mysterious purchases for 10 large screen TVs from Best Buy?

U.S Health Care Nightmare

Who knows what horrors await you if you become sick and your insurance premiums are too high for you to afford? Average out-of-pocket medical costs continue to rise, topping $10,000 in 2016. Meanwhile, premiums continue to rise on the health care exchanges.

Over the past four years, premiums in the individual marketplace have more than doubled. As insurers back out of some markets and political uncertainty reigns, premiums on the state insurance exchanges continue to rise rapidly. For example, rates in Georgia are up by 57%.

Scary lack of retirement savings

According to a report from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), the mean retirement savings of all working-age American families, which the EPI defines as those between 32 and 61 years old, is $95,776. Almost 40 million households have no retirement savings at all.

Only 65% of Canadians are saving for retirement and on average have about $84,000 in retirement accounts. (RRSP & TFSA)

Frightening Canadian Energy Policies

  1. No access to foreign markets for oil & gas (besides the U.S.)
  2. Cancellation of Energy East pipeline (buying oil from the Middle East, selling discounted oil to the U.S.)
  3. Construction delays in Trans Mountain & Keystone XL pipelines
  4. No accountability for carbon tax revenue (how is this money spent?)
  5. 4 billion dollars of extra interest payments for reduced hydro rates in Ontario

Release the Nukes

What list of potential horrors would be complete without the prospect of nuclear war? The current tense relations between the U.S. and North Korea make that horrible concept more plausible and in addition to the terrible death toll and destruction of property, the financial impact on the world economy would be hard to imagine.

Remember the famous quote of Albert Einstein, “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”

Now remember the leaders who have their fingers on their respective nuclear buttons. ARE YOU FRIGHTENED YET?

HAPPY HALLOWEEN!

 

Robots have arrived on Wall Street

Last week marked the debut of an upstart fund called the AI Powered Equity ETF, an actively managed security that seeks to use artificial intelligence to beat the market. The exchange-traded fund officially launched last Wednesday so it is too early to measure how this fund will perform over the long term.

At its core, AIEQ ETF is powered by the big-data processing abilities of IBM’s Watson. It is responsible to develop a portfolio of stocks that will be able to offer results that are not only better than  human stock pickers  but also the overall market. Most ETFs are passively managed and follow indexes like the S&P 500, the Dow industrials or other sectors. In other words, your new portfolio manager is a computer program.

The fund currently is composed of 70 stocks, plus an allotment of cash, that are spread around sectors. Components are determined by “their probability of benefiting from current economic conditions, trends, and world- and company-specific events,” EquBot said in a news release.

The top five holdings by concentration are Penumbra 4.63%, Boyd Gaming 4.51%, Genworth Financial 4.45%, Mednax 3.8% and Triumph Group 3.52%, according to XTF.com. The turnover is expected to be high around 2% – 3% per day. The fund charges an expense ratio of 0.75%, which is slightly lower than the average expense ratio for actively managed ETFs.

The information explosion has made the jobs of portfolio managers, equity analysts, quantitative investors and even ETF builders more challenging. New technology in artificial intelligence could help solve those challenges. There’s still quite a range in AI models being used. There could be other quantitative groups that are looking at the same raw data but analyzing it in a different way, meaning the same input material can result in different insights and outcomes.

Another example of an unusual method for picking stocks is  Buzz US Sentiment Leaders ETF BUZ, an exchange-traded fund that selects its holdings based on positive chatter in social media and other online sources. The fund is up 17.2% in 2017, above the 13.9% rise of the S&P 500.

If the IBM’s Watson stock picking outperforms over the first quarter and money flows into the EFT, you’re going to see 20 competitors inside of six months.

This is a very gutsy structure, I am putting this ETF on my watch list. I am also going to monitor the top ten holdings of this ETF to get some stock picking ideas.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Investing ideas: I liked the product so much, I bought the company

Victor K. Kiam made a fortune as the President and CEO of Remington Products which he famously purchased in 1979 after his wife bought him his first electric shaver. Kiam became famous as the spokesman for the Remington shaver. His catchphrase, “I liked the shaver so much, I bought the company”, it made him a household name.

Your iPhone is your BFF and you can’t function without a Starbucks latte. You post something on your Facebook page every day, go home from work and chill out by watching Netflix. They’re all products you love and know well.

But does that mean the companies behind them are good investments?

The short answer: At least it’s a good starting point.

At first glance, it isn’t a terrible idea to own stocks if you have a good understanding of a company’s products and have a good feeling it will be successful. Yet knowing whether a business makes a good product and has excellent customer service are by no means the only measurements for investing.

For example: Snapchat (SNAP) and Twitter (TWTR) are both very popular but can they become sustainable businesses with positive earnings growth? So far, it isn’t looking very good for either of these companies. Before you invest, you have to determine whether the product or service is just a new fad or a money-making long-term trend.

One of my best investment ideas in 2016 came from going on vacation on a cruise line. Talking to other passengers I got very positive feedback on their cruise line experiences. Plus many of my boomer friends confirmed that they also loved taking a vacation on a cruise line.  The baby boom generation is getting older and I had dinner with many passengers in their eighties and even with one women in her nineties. (This could be a long-term trend)

Although I was on vacation on a Carnival ship, I bought shares in Royal Caribbean after extensive research.

Price / Earnings Earnings growth (5yr) Operating margin
Royal Caribbean 17.7 times 16.45% 19.95%
Carnival 18.5 times 8.95% 16.63%

It turns out that I could have beaten the returns of the S&P 500 index by owning either RCL or CCL as illustrated by the chart below.

Finding good, long-term investments is exceedingly difficult, there are only a few good ideas out there. When you find an extraordinary business and you have an understanding of what its future looks like, you should invest some money into it. Unfortunately, going that takes time, effort and know-how, often more than casual investors will do on their own “but it can be done”.

My 200th post: Investing in the Second Machine Age

As a retired senior, I am having difficulty adjusting to ” the Second Machine Age”. The advances in technology are mind blowing. I would never have guessed that self-driving cars in science fiction movies like “Minority Report”  or “I Robot” could become available in my life time.  How about Elon Musk’s vision of offering a rocket ride of only 30 minutes to get to London from L.A., is that just science fiction or a potential reality?

China, the world’s biggest vehicle market, is considering a ban on the production and sale of fossil fuel vehicles in order to reduce pollution and boost the production of electric vehicles. The move would follow a similar ban by France and Britain but they have included a 2040 timeline. However, China has introduced draft regulation to compel vehicle manufacturers to produce more electric vehicles by 2020 through a complex quota system.

Some possible investments to consider

  1. Millions of dollars are pouring into the Global X lithium & Battery ETF (LIT). It has had a massive gain in value of 58% so far this year. It has also attracted short sellers who are betting on a pullback in price.
  2. For stock pickers, the top ten holdings of LIT include five U.S. listed companies, ticker symbols Tsla, FMC, SQM, ENS and ALB. A word of caution, some of these stocks have very high valuations and can be very volatile.

There is little doubt in my mind that advances in digital automation, robotics and artificial intelligence will change your living standards over the next decade. Just think how companies like Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google and Apple have already influence our lives during the past decade.

A 2013 study by Oxford University’s Carl Frey and Michael Osborne estimates that 47 percent of U.S. jobs will potentially be replaced by robots and automated technology in the next 10 to 20 years. Those individuals working in transportation, logistics, office management and production are likely to be the first to lose their jobs to robots, according to the report.

Some possible investments to consider to capitalize on this trend

  1. Robotics and Automation ETF (ROBO) which contains three U.S. listed companies in their top ten holdings. Ticker symbols, AVAV, HOLI and CGNX
  2. Global X Robotics & Artificial Intelligence ETF (BOTZ) which contains three U.S. listed companies in their top ten holdings. Ticker symbols: NVDA, ISRG and TRMB
  3.  Semiconductor ETFs like SOXX or SMH which include companies that provide key components for self-driving vehicles, automation, robotics and artificial intelligence. The top ten holdings of these ETFs are places to look for individual names that could outperform the overall market.

There is also an interesting book that I am thinking about buying.

Synopsis: According to the authors, the book has three sections.

  • Chapters 1 through 6 describe “the fundamental characteristics of the second machine age,” based on many examples of modern use of technology.
  • Chapters 7 through 11 describe economic impacts of technology in terms of two concepts the authors call “bounty” and “spread.” What the authors call “bounty” is their attempt to measure the benefits of new technology in ways reaching beyond such measures as GDP, which they say is inadequate. They use “spread” as a shorthand way to describe the increasing inequality that is also resulting from widespread new technology.
  • Chapters 12 through 15, the authors prescribe some policy interventions that could enhance the benefits and reduce the harm of new technologies.

You can also search you-tube “The second machine age” to listen to the authors speak. 

 

Disclaimer: Do your own research, these investment ideas can be very volatile. 

Ignoring investment rules to achieve income

 

A few months ago, I asked readers for advice regarding a $300,000 inheritance. The couple are in their late fifties, debt free with little savings. Although, they are very fugal, they live paycheck to paycheck due to lack of steady full time work. Few companies want to hire older workers when they can hire young people for a lot less.

Being very good friends, they came to me for some free advice. After a few meetings, I realized that traditional investment strategies just wouldn’t work this couple. They have been dipping into their retirement accounts to pay bills. I recommended putting $100,000 back into their retirement accounts. The $200,000 into a joint investment account with a discount broker in order to split the income and save on fees.

Disregarding Asset Allocation guidelines

Based on their age and proximity to retirement, a 60% equities and 40% bonds mix would have been appropriate. However, investing in bonds with low interest rates, inflation and taxation doesn’t give them very much income.

Disregarding Diversification guidelines

Being Canadian, foreign dividends are taxed like interest payments similar to Canadian bonds. Plus, foreign assets are subject to currency fluctuations. The increased value of the Canadian dollar has wiped out all U.S dividends and most of the capital gains from owning U.S. stocks.

Disregarding suitability guidelines

This couple’s investment knowledge is very limited, their only investments have been in mutual funds with high management fees. After explaining how high fees will reduce their income, they agreed to take more risk in owning some individual stocks and exchanged traded funds.

Constructing a portfolio to maximize income and minimize risk

  1. I invested $61,418 in four Canadian Reits that generates $418.16 per month or $5,017.92 per year. The Reits income will be a combination of interest and capital gains. Compared to investing $120,000 in bonds yielding 3% per year or $3,600.00
  2. I invested $63,329 in three Canadian dividend stocks that generates $330.00 per month or $3,960 per year. Due to the couple’s low income, these dividends will be tax free income.
  3. I invested the balance of $75,253 into four covered call ETFs that generates $392.00 per month or $4,704 per year. The covered calls will produced capital gain income and the ETFs also has some dividend income in their monthly distributions.

Grand income total works out to $1,140.16 per month. The average annualized return on the $200,000 portfolio is 6.85% with a minimum amount of risk.  

This is only a temporary solution to achieve some monthly income until their work situation changes. Sometimes investment guidelines have to be broken because one size doesn’t fit all.