Opinion: The Fed cutting interest rates could be a big mistake

Stock market watchers are expecting a rate cut this week because they believe that the U.S. economy is experiencing a slowdown. Second quarter GDP growth was 2.1% which is lower than the 3.1% growth rate during the first quarter. However, consumer spending rose 4.3% despite the fact that tax refunds were smaller than previous years. The GOP tax cuts did increase the weekly take home pay for consumers which accounts for some of the strong spending.

Growth deceleration in the second quarter was due mostly to tariffs and a fear of a global slowdown.  China’s economic growth has slumped to its lowest level in nearly three decades due to the prolonged trade war with the United States. However, the biggest drag on the U.S. economy has been a slump in business investment which was down 5.5 percent.

It is hard for corporations to spend money with Trump’s tariff threats on most of its trading partners. The new NAFTA or USMCA hasn’t even been approved by Congress; then add the uncertainty of a smooth Brexit (Britain leaving the European Union) and you a recipe for a slowdown in business spending.  In reality the Trump administration is partly to blame for the slump in world economic growth.

In order for the Trump administration to win the trade war they need interest rate cuts in order to lower the value of the U.S. dollar so that their tariffs are more effective. China can easily lower the value of their currency compared to the U.S. because the Federal Reserve is an independent agency.

Why I believe that lowering U.S. interest rates is a bad idea!

  1. Trump has relentlessly used social media to criticize the Fed. To remain independent, the Fed has to resist political pressure.
  2. Unemployment is at the lowest level in decades; the economy doesn’t need more stimulus.
  3. Lowering interest rates will enable Trump to pursue a more aggressive use of tariffs which in turn will further slow world economic growth.
  4. Cheap money will allow corporations to buy back more of their shares adding debt to their balance sheet.
  5. Low interest rates will encourage more wasteful government spending, adding to the already large national debt.
  6. Pension plans will get less interest on fixed income investments making it more difficult to meet their monthly commitments.
  7. Consumers will get less interest on their savings accounts.

Conclusion: Cutting interest rates could make matters worse. It could prolong the trade war with China and enable the Trump administration to actually follow through with threats of imposing more tariffs on their other trading partners.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Stock markets haven’t priced in a Never Ending Trade War

Investors consider tariffs and the trade war as only being temporary. A U.S. – China trade deal, will sound the all clear signal for markets and the economy. But there are indications that we may be in for a longer, more prolonged set of trade battles. A Trade War could last as long as Trump remains in office.

Consider:

  1. U.S. steel and aluminium tariffs remain in place even after the U.S. signed a new trade deal with Mexico and Canada on Sept. 30.
  2. The administration wants to retain the ability to slap punitive tariffs on China permanently as part of a new trade deal.
  3. The administration is moving to institute $11 billion in tariffs on European aviation imports, and there are concerns that the next step is tariffs on European auto imports.

 

Bank of America Merrill Lynch global economist Ethan Harris has said he expects trade wars to continue over different issues and with different trade partners, even if there is an agreement with China. “The trade war is not going to go away during President Trump’s tenure in office. I think it will go through periods of hot war and cold war,” he said.

 

There are political and economic reasons for a long trade war.

On the political front, Trump campaigned on reviving U.S. manufacturing, reducing trade deficits and making better trade deals.  A continued pitched battle with U.S. trading partners shows his political base that he is fighting for them in hopes of being re-elected. Also, the trade hawks in the Trump administration want some form of permanent tariffs in place and welcome trade battles.

On the economic front, the Trump administration believes that tariffs are a good negotiating tool to force countries to eliminate unfair trade practices. The goal is giving U.S. industries protection to redevelop and gain market share back from China and other low-cost competitors.

Unfortunately, temporary tariffs won’t work. It’s clear that a manufacturing revival requires substantial investment and it takes a lot of time to move plants back to the United States.  Capital will only flow to these industries if it believes its protections from cheap foreign goods is permanent, not temporary.

How tariffs are hurting the economy!

  • Trade uncertainty has damped corporate spending on capital projects.
  • Corporate profit margins are expected to contract because tariffs have increased costs but market conditions won’t allow corporations to increase prices.
  • Share buybacks are at all time highs, a sign of low business confidence.

Year to date, the North American stock markets have been steadily rising. However, first quarter earnings estimates have been reduced and disappointing results could spark a market correction. Fund managers have been getting defensive as one of best performing sectors during the past 12 months has been utilities.

Timing the market is next to impossible but investors are still buying on rumors of a U.S. – China trade deal and probably sell on news. You may want to avoid putting any new money into the markets or raise some cash and wait for a better buying opportunity.

 

 

Reality Check on Trump’s tax cuts and trade deals

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Let me start with Larry Kudlow, the Director of the National Economic Council, who said back in April of 2018 that he believes the U.S. tax cuts could generate GDP growth of 5 percent annually for a short time. The U.S. economy did manage a 4.2% GDP growth in the second quarter of 2018 but the annual rate was only 3.1 percent. Sorry, forever Trumpers but Obama had 2.9% GDP growth in 2015 without the tax cuts.

GDP growth projections even fooled the Federal Reserve which signaled three rate hikes for 2019 but the slow down in world economic growth has forced the Fed to put any more rate hikes on hold. Market watchers believe there is a strong possibility that the Fed may have to cut rates if U.S. growth continues to slow down.

April fools : Tax cuts will for pay themselves

  • The budget deficit grew 77 percent in the first four months of fiscal 2019 compared with the same period in 2018, the U.S. Treasury reported earlier this month. The total deficit was $310 billion up from $176 billion over the same four-month period a year earlier. The cause of the massive increase, according to Treasury officials: tax revenues fell dramatically and government spending increased significantly. Even worse news is that the budget deficit is projected to exceed $1 trillion in 2020.
  • The national debt, which has exceeded $21 trillion, will soar to more than $33 trillion in 2028, according to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO). By then, debt held by the public will almost match the size of the nation’s economy, reaching 96 percent of gross domestic product, a higher level than any point since just after World War II and well past the level that economists say could court a crisis.

Trump campaigned on a promise to shrink the country’s trade deficit, arguing loudly during campaign stops before and after taking office that bad trade deals have allowed other countries to take advantage of the United States. Trump imposed tariffs as a way to reduce the trade deficit with America’s trading partners.

April Fools: Imposing tariffs will reduce the U.S. trade deficit

The U.S. trade deficit hit a 10-year high in 2018, growing by $69 billion, according to figures released March 6 by the Census Bureau. Trump’s constant verbal blasts and a number of arm-twisting PR stunts focused on efforts to revive American manufacturing and reduce dependence on imported goods such as steel and other materials failed to produce any meaningful results.

Trump promised to scuttle all those bad trade deals and replace them with pacts that would re-energize our country’s manufacturing sector. Very little has happened on any of those items during the past two years.

Yes, Trump pulled the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and renegotiated the North American Free Trade Agreement, both of which he called some of the “worst” deals”, and he’s currently pursuing separate deals with China and the European Union.

It’s important to note, however, that Trump has signed just one new trade deal, with South Korea. The NAFTA replacement, known as the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement, still needs to be approved by Congress and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have raised concerns. Canada and Mexico will not ratify the new agreement unless the U.S. remove the tariffs on steel and aluminium

So far, engaging in trade wars with just about any country America does business with has not delivered promised results of more jobs for U.S. workers. Companies are not relocating manufacturing plants back to America.

 

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Some share buybacks programs are hurting investors & workers

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Between 2008 and 2017, 466 of the S&P 500 companies spent around $4 trillion on stock buybacks, equal to 53 percent of profits. The Trump tax cut of 2018, helped corporations to repurchased more than $1 trillion of their own stock, a staggering figure and the highest amount ever authorized in a single year.

Under a share buyback program, a company purchases a certain number of its own shares on the open market. Reducing the number of outstanding shares making the remaining shares worth more. One of the most obvious reasons for the growth of such programs is to help offset the effects of generous stock compensation packages for executives, including stock options and stock contributions to employees’ 401(k) programs.

In theory, management only repurchases stock if it expects to enhance shareholder value more that way than by using the cash for capital spending, acquisitions, product development or dividend distributions. In reality, it has helped poor management use financial engineering to artificially increase earnings and hopefully keep share prices from falling in value.

A very simple example below shows how financial engineering works. A corporation buybacks 50,000,000 shares at $20.00 each which increases earnings by $0.25 and reduces the price earnings ratio from 20 to 16 making the company more attractive to investors.

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General Electric is a perfect example of corporate mismanagement. From 2015 to 2017, they repurchased $40 billion dollars’ worth of shares at prices between $20 and $32 and their share price is now only $10.21, a total waste of shareholders’ money.

When corporations direct resources to buy back shares on this scale, they reduce their ability to reinvest profits more meaningfully in the company in terms of R&D, new equipment, higher wages, paid medical leave, retirement benefits and worker retraining.

It’s no coincidence that at the same time that corporate stock buybacks have reached record highs, the median wages of average workers have remained relatively stagnant. Far too many workers have watched corporate executives cash in on corporate stock buybacks while they get handed a pink slip.

Recently, Walmart announced plans to spend $20 billion on a share repurchase program while laying off thousands of workers and closing dozens of Sam’s Club stores. Using a fraction of that amount, the company could have raised hourly wages of every single Walmart employee to $15, according to an analysis by the Roosevelt Institute.

Walmart is not alone. Harley Davidson authorized a 15 million share stock-repurchase around the same time it announced it would close a plant in Kansas City, Mo. And Wells Fargo has spent billions on corporate stock buybacks while openly plotting to lay off thousands of workers in the coming years.

Senators:  Sanders-Schumer propose a bill to limit buybacks

Their  bill would prohibit a corporation from buying back its own stock unless it invests in workers and communities first, including things like paying all workers at least $15 an hour, providing seven days of paid sick leave, and offering decent pensions and more reliable health benefits.

They point out:

The past two years have been extremely disappointing for millions of workers. President Trump promised the typical American household a $4,000 pay raise as he pushed for his tax giveaway to the rich. The reality, however, is that from December 2017 to December 2018, real wages for average workers have gone up by just $9.11 a week. Why should a company whose pension program is underfunded be able to buy back stock before shoring up the pension fund?

Stock buybacks don’t benefit the vast majority of Americans because large stockholders tend to be wealthier. Nearly 85 percent of all stocks owned by Americans belong to the wealthiest 10 percent of households. So when a company buys back its stock, boosting its value, the benefits go overwhelmingly to shareholders and executives, not workers.

What do you think? Should government limit share buybacks?

 

 

Yield hunting in the Dogs of the Dow

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Investing in the Dogs of the Dow as a strategy dates back to 1991 from a book “Beating the Dow” by Michael O’Higgins. The Dogs of the Dow are the 10 highest dividend yielding stocks within the Dow 30. They are called investment “Dogs” because rising dividend yields tend to be a function of falling prices.

It is a simple strategy of allocating an equal amount of funds into each of these 10 stocks and holding them for a year. Normally, an investor would need to only rid about two to three stocks every year and replace them with different ones. These stocks are typically replaced because their dividend yields have fallen out of the top 10 because the stock price has either increased in value or have reduced their dividend payment. (Sometimes a stock, like GE that has fallen on hard times is removed from the DJIA altogether.)

Why am I hunting for yield in the Dogs of the Dow

  • My retirement accounts contain a large percentage of  U.S. dollar holdings.
  • I am a retired Canadian senior who requires income from my investments to pay bills.
  • Dividend stocks provide income and some downward protection during volatile markets.
  • Historically, Dow stocks have been very stable companies that can weather any market decline with their solid balance sheets and strong fundamentals.
  • The current yield on the dogs of the Dow are higher than the yield on 2 & 10 year U.S. treasuries
  • The Canadian dollar is currently trading at a 32% discount to the U.S. dollar which increases the income from holding U.S. stocks.

Dogs of the Dow 2019

Stock Symbol Company Name 2018 Close Dividend Yield
IBM International Business Machines 113.67 5.52%
XOM Exxon Mobil 68.19 4.81%
VZ Verizon Communications 56.22 4.29%
CVX Chevron 108.79 4.12%
PFE Pfizer 43.65 3.30%
KO Coca-Cola 47.35 3.29%
JPM JP Morgan Chase 97.62 3.28%
PG Procter & Gamble 91.92 3.12%
CSCO Cisco Systems 43.33 3.05%
MRK Merck 76.41 2.88%

At first glance, IBM has a very tempting dividend yield. However, I warned my readers that IBM wasn’t a good investment back in 2015 when Warren Buffett lost 11.8% on his IBM shares. Buffett has sold all his IBM shares for an estimated 2 billion dollar lost. The trend has been downward ever since and I don’t see a turn around anytime soon.

Warren Buffett looses $500 million on IBM’s Bad Quarterly Results

Oil stocks have been very volatile due to slower world economic growth, over-supply concerns and fears of a 2020 recession. I am eliminating  both Chevron and Exxon Mobil as potential buys.

I am using fundamentals to eliminate Coca- Cola, Merck and P&G because of their high price earnings ratios compared to the rest of the stock market. Plus, Coco-Cola and Merck have high dividend payout ratios which will make it difficult for them to increase dividend payouts going forward.

J.P. Morgan has never been a Dog of the Dow until this year. U.S. banks have seen their net interest margins decrease due a flattening  yield curve. In simple terms, they are paying more interest on deposits but loan demand is weak so they are getting less loan interest. U.S. banks have under performed the over all market. This is a possible turnaround candidate if economic growth comes in stronger than expected.

Verizon and Pfizer have been Dogs of the Dow for the past five years and have fairly good fundamentals. They both have stable share prices, low payout ratios and reasonable price earnings ratios. These two stocks are possible buys for income.

Dec. 2018 Verizon $52.93 4.46% Pfizer $36.22 3.75%
Dec. 2017 Verizon $53.38 4.33% Pfizer $32.48 3.94%
Dec. 2016 Verizon $46.22 4.89% Pfizer $32.28 3.72%
Dec. 2015 Verizon $46.78 4.70% Pfizer $31.15 3.60%
Dec. 2014 Verizon $49.14 4.31% Pfizer $30.63 3.40%

I think that Cisco is strong buy. Cisco has been a Dog of the Dow for the past 4 years and their share price continues to increase in value. During those years, Cisco has maintain a consistent 3% dividend yield by increasing their annual dividend.

Dec. 2018 Cisco 38.3 3.03%
Dec. 2017 Cisco 30.22 3.44%
Dec. 2016 Cisco 27.16 3.09%
Dec. 2015 Cisco 22.43 3.03%

Unfortunately, past performance is no guarantee of future returns. Please do your own research, this post is for educational purposes only!

 

Making a new budget despite a failing budget in 2018

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You would think that a former financial planner could put together an accurate budget. Unfortunately, the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry. (This saying is in “To a Mouse” by Robert Burns)

No matter how careful I am in planning a budget, something may still go wrong. My central air conditioner failed last year even though it wasn’t that old. Plus, I didn’t realize that the life cycle of my stand up freezer is only 10 years and that hearing aids need to be replaced every 4 to 5 years. Replacing all these items was not in my budget and very expensive.

However, my emergency fund did cover other unexpected break downs like having to replace my old treadmill, workout television and to buy a new refrigerator. Needless to say, 2018 was a year of unforeseen expenses.

Projecting my retirement income for 2018 also missed it mark. Some of my Canadian dividend stocks cut their dividends which not only reduced their payouts but caused their share value to drop.

I offset some of my lost income by doing some tax loss selling which will generate an income tax refund in 2019. Plus my new hearing aids are tax-deductible which makes their purchase a little less painful.

Some tips to avoid budget failure

  1. Don’t guess, there are plenty of ways to track your spending. (Internet banking, credit card statements, mobile apps just to name a few.

  2. Don’t forget to include birthday, weddings and Christmas gifts in your budget. You can rack up credit card debt by unplanned gift giving, especially during the holidays.

  3. Have a realistic emergency fund. Too many people live paycheck to paycheck. For example; the U.S. government shutdown is not only hurting government employees but contract workers who won’t get any back pay. One solution if you have trouble saving is a low-interest personal line of credit which is better than using your credit card for emergencies. 

  4. Your budget should be flexible, it isn’t written in stone. It isn’t something to keep you from spending moneyA budget is a tool to provide you with information to manage your finances. It can help find money that you can spend where it will give you the most enjoyment.

  5.  Think of a budget as a money road map. Sometimes you will come across bad weather, road closures and construction detours. Don’t give up if your budget doesn’t work out the way you planned.

It’s always a shame when you work hard and don’t get any benefit from the money that you have earned. Get in the habit of making a budget every year. Life is too short to live paycheck to paycheck.