Where to put your "safe" money when interest rates are low

Low interest rates are great when you are borrowing money but frustrating for savers, especially retirees who seek to keep up with inflation but want to avoid risk. Of course, the best way to keep up with or beat inflation, at least before taxes, is to invest in stocks. But you don’t want all your money in stocks due to the high risk of losses in the short run.
So where can you put your savings today?
Look for higher rates at online banks, money market accounts, certificates of deposit (18 months is the sweet spot today). Consider building a ladder of 18 month CDs.
Buy highly rated corporate bonds in bond funds. Avoid “high yield” junk bond funds which are risky and could lose value quickly.
Vanguard Short-Term Corporate Bond (VCSH) is an investment grade ETF (exchange-traded fund) charges only 0.07% expense ratio and is very highly rated by Morningstar.The fund is currently yielding 3%.
Source: “Investment strategies in a time of low rates” by Michael A. Polluck writing in The Wall Street Journal, April 22, 2019.

23/4/19: Property, Property and More Property: U.S. Household Wealth Bubble

According to the St. Luis Fed, U.S. household wealth has reached a historical high of 535% of the U.S. GDP (see: https://www.zerohedge.com/news/2019-04-16/where-inflation-hiding-asset-prices).

There is a problem, however, with the above data: it reflects some dodgy ways of counting ‘household wealth’. For two primary reasons: firstly, it ignores concentration risk arising from wealth inequality, and secondly, it ignores concentration risk arising from households’ exposure to property markets. A good measure of liquidity risk controlled allocation of wealth is ownership of liquid equities (note: equities, of course, and are subject to Fed-funded bubble dynamics). The chart below – via https://www.topdowncharts.com/single-post/2019/04/22/Weekly-SP-500-ChartStorm—21-April-2019 shows a pretty dire state of equity markets (the source of returns on asset demand side being swamped over the last decade by shares buybacks and M&As), but it also shows that households did not benefit materially from the equities bubble.

In other words, controlling for liquidity risk, the Fed’s meme of historically high household wealth is seriously challenged. And controlling for wealth inequality (distributional features of wealth), it is probably dubious overall.

So here’s the chart showing just how absurdly property-dependent (households’ home equity valuations in red line, index starting at 100 at the end of the Global Financial Crisis) the Fed ‘wealth’ figures (blue line, same starting index) are:

In fact, dynamically, rates of growth in household home equity have been far in excess of the rates of growth in other assets since 2012.  In that, the dynamics of the current ‘sound economy’ are identical (and actually more dramatic) to the 2000-2006 bubble: property, property and more property.

Income annuities increase income while reducing stress for retirees

“Incorporating an income annuity into a retirement portfolio increases
income, cuts retirement stress and boosts retirees’ confidence,
according to a study by researchers Michael Finke and Wade Pfau from The
American College. Income annuities lower the risk
of outliving savings in retirement without lowering overall income,
compared with an investment-only approach, the study found.” Retirement Security SmartBrief, April 24, 2019.
“new research including 10,000 simulations show income annuities really do improve retirement outcomes compared to investments alone.”

This is according a study commissioned by Principal Financial Group
and conducted by Michael Finke, Ph.D., CFP, and Wade Pfau, Ph.D., CFP,
nationally renowned researchers from The American College (who are not
affiliated with Principal). Check out: https://401kspecialistmag.com/study-by-finke-pfau-shows-annuities-improve-retirement-outcomes/
To learn more about annuities, use the search function in this blog.

23/4/19: Income per Capita and Middle Class

New research reported by the Deutsche Bank Research shows that, on average, there is a positive (albeit non-linear) relationship between the per capita income and the share of middle class in total population:

Source: https://pbs.twimg.com/media/D42GiWNXkAMpID2.png:large

There is an exception, however, although DB’s data does not test formally for it being an outlier, and that exception is the U.S. Note, ignore daft comparative reported in chart, referencing ‘levels’ in the U.S. compared to Russia, Turkey and China: all three countries are much closer to the regression line than the U.S., which makes them ‘normal’, once the levels of income per capita are controlled for. In other words, it is the distance to the regression line that matters.

Another interesting aspect of the chart is the cluster of countries that appear to be statistically indistinguishable from Russia, aka Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. All three are commonly presented as more viable success stories for economic development, contrasting, in popular media coverage, the ‘underperforming’ Russia. And yet, only Latvia (completely counter-intuitively to its relative standing to Estonia and Lithuania in popular perceptions) appears to be somewhat (weakly) better off than Russia in income per capita terms. None of the Baltic states compare favourably to Russia in size of the middle class (Latvia – statistically indifferent, Lithuania and Estonia – somewhat less favourably than Russia).

Medicare Part B cost going up

According to The Wall Street Journal (4/23/19) the cost of Medicare part B premiums for 2020 will likely increase $8.80/month from $135.50 to $144.30. The previous increase was from $134 in 2018.
While Medicare part A that covers hospitalization is usually free for most Americnas 65 and older, Part B charges a monthly premium that ranges from $135.50 to $460.50 depending on income.
Most retirees also purchase private supplemental policies or Medicare Advantage Plans (that charge premiums, co-payments and deductibles) to cover expenses not included in Medicare.
So retirees and soon-to-be retired persons need to plan for rapidly increasing health care costs in retirement.

22/4/19: At the end of QE line… there is nothing but QE left…

Monetary policy ‘normalization’ is over, folks. The idea that the Central Banks can end – cautiously or not – the spread of negative or ultra-low (near-zero) interest rates is about as balmy as the idea that the said negative or near-zero rates do anything materially distinct from simply inflating the assets bubbles.

Behold the numbers: the stock of negative yielding Government bonds traded in the markets is now in excess of USD10 trillion, once again, for the first time since September 2017

Over the last three months, the number of European economies with negative Government yields out to 2 years maturity has ranged between 15 and 16:

More than 20 percent of total outstanding Sovereign debt traded on the global Government bond markets is now yielding less than zero.

I have covered the signals that are being sent to us by the bond markets in my most recent column at the Cayman Financial Review (https://www.caymanfinancialreview.com/2019/02/04/leveraging-up-the-global-economy/).

4/3/19: S&P 500 Share Price Support Scams are a Raging Trend

Having posted a record-breaking USD939 billion of shares repurchases in 2018, Corporate America is on track to set a new record-wrecking year of buybacks in 2019. per latest data from JPM (via @zerohedge), January-February 2019 saw USD187 billion worth of shares repurchases in S&P 500 index constituent companies.

This is a notch higher than in 2018 and almost 90 percent above 2017 period.

4/3/19: BRIC Manufacturing PMI: January-February Trend

In January-February 2019, Global manufacturing PMI sunk to its lowest reading since 2Q 2016 averaging 50.7 over the first two months of the year. With it, the slowdown has also been impacting the BRIC economies, overall BRIC Manufacturing PMIs average 41.2 in 4Q 2018 based on each country share of the global GDP for 2018, below 51.83 average for Global Manufacturing PMI over the same period. In the first two months of 2019, BRIC Manufacturing PMI was around 50.8, statistically indistinguishable from the 50.7 Global PMI average.

As the chart above clearly indicates, poor BRIC performance was driven by a contraction-territory reading for China (49.1 in January-February 2019 as opposed to stagnation-signalling 50.0 in 4Q 2018), and Russia (50.5 for the first two months of 2019, against 4Q 2018 average of 51.9). In contrast, both Brazil and India outperformed BRIC and Global PMI readings. Brazil’s Manufacturing PMI averaged 53.1 in the first two months of 2019 against 52.1 in 4Q 2018, while India’s PMI rose to 54.1 in January-February this year against 53.4 in 4Q 2018.

All in, Manufacturing sector leading indicator suggests a major slowdown in the Global growth momentum, and some spillover of this slowdown to Russia and China.  Brazil’s robust reading so far marks the fastest pace of expansion since 1Q 2010, on foot of a recovery from a very long and painful recession. India’s reading is the highest since 2Q 2012. If confirmed over March and over Services PMI, this implies a major diversion of growth momentum within the BRIC group.

6/3/19: Expectations Sand Castles and Investors

As raging buybacks of shares and M&As have dropped the free float available in the markets over the recent years, Earnings per Share (EPS) continued to tank. Yet, S&P 500 valuations kept climbing:

Source: Factset 

As noted by the Factset: 1Q 2019 “marked the largest percentage decline in the bottom-up EPS estimate over the first two months of a quarter since Q1 2016 (-8.4%). At the sector level, all 11 sectors recorded a decline in their bottom-up EPS estimate during the first two months of the quarter… Overall, nine sectors recorded a larger decrease in their bottom-up EPS estimate relative to their five-year average, eight sectors recorded a larger decrease in their bottom-up EPS estimate relative to their 10-year average, and seven sectors recorded a larger decrease in their bottom-up EPS estimate relative to their 15-year average.”

Bad stuff. Yet, “as the bottom-up EPS estimate for the index declined during the first two months of the quarter, the value of the S&P 500 increased during this same period. From December 31 through February 28, the value of the index increased by 11.1% (to 2784.49 from 2506.85). The first quarter marked the 15th time in the past 20 quarters in which the bottom-up EPS estimate decreased while the value of the index increased during the first two months of the quarter.”

The disconnect between investors’ valuations and risk pricing, and the reality of tangible estimations for current conditions is getting progressively worse. The markets remain a spring, loaded with the deadweight of expectations sand castles.