Would You Buy Stock In U.S.A., Inc.?
FORECASTS & TRENDS E-LETTER
IN THIS ISSUE:
1. Analyzing America As If It Were A Giant Corporation.
2. Will USA, Inc. Continue To Surprise On The Upside?
3. Who Will Shareholders Elect As The New CEO?
4. Stocks Do Better Under Republicans, Right?
5. How To Invest In These Uncertain Times.
Several years ago, I wrote an E-Letter that compared the United States to a giant corporation – USA, Inc. In that 2003 E-Letter, I predicted that USA, Inc.’s economy would surprise on the upside in the coming years, and it certainly did. I also recommended that investors move back to a fully invested position in stocks at that time, if they had not already done so.
When I wrote a second E-Letter on USA, Inc. in 2004, most in the media were pessimistic on the outlook for the economy. Unemployment was considered to be chronic, even though it was only slightly above 6%. Others moaned about the growing federal deficit, blaming both the Bush tax cuts and the ongoing war in Iraq. Yet, the US economy continued to grow robustly, and the stock markets set new high after new high.
With many economists expecting the current subprime and housing woes to result in an economic recession, as well as a sure “CEO” change for USA, Inc. in November, I thought that it was high time that I revisit this topic for my E-Letter audience.
We currently have the usual dichotomy of those who believe things will get better, those who think things will get worse, and of course, we can’t leave out the gloom-and-doom crowd for whom the sky is always falling. However, this time around, we seem to have more experts lining up on the negative side than on the positive, possibly including Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, the “CFO” of USA, Inc.
This week, I will attempt to give some perspective by analyzing the current situation as if the United States of America was a stock – USA, Inc. – and whether or not we would want to buy shares in it. Would we want it as a long-term holding in our investment portfolio or our retirement fund? Let’s play like stock analysts and take a closer look.
USA, Inc. – The Biggest Corporation In The World
In many ways, the US economy is like a giant corporation. In this analogy, President Bush is the current Chief Executive Officer (CEO). Congress is the Board of Directors. Ben Bernanke is the Chief Financial Officer (CFO). The population represents the shareholders. The different sectors of the economy could represent separate operating divisions.
Even though USA, Inc. is the strongest and most powerful corporation in the world, it has experienced some severe shocks since the start of the new millennium, and its share price has shown some extreme volatility. The first telltale shock came in March 2000 when the bubble in USA. Inc.’s high-flying Technology Division (Nasdaq) finally burst. Not long after, the entire Corporate Division (Dow, S&P 500, etc.) rolled over into a major bear market that would see most share prices tumble by 40-60%. Simultaneously, another shock occurred: a mild economic recession unfolded in the first three quarters of 2001.
Then came the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 that left thousands of innocent shareholders dead and the rest in a state of shock. CEO George W. Bush announced that the corporation would launch a global War On Terror (WOT), which continues to this day. The initial act in the WOT was the war in Afghanistan which ousted the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. The second act was a hostile takeover of a foreign country (Iraq) that was believed to possess WMDs and assisted terrorists.
There remains some political fallout from the war, but a ruthless dictator was removed from power, and ultimately executed for his crimes against the Iraqi people. However, this string of major events over the last several years has come at a cost, affecting the company’s performance (GDP) and bottom line (federal deficits). Shareholders have been understandably uncertain and skeptical (consumer confidence) about the outlook, especially over the last year as the subprime debacle has unfolded and the housing bubble burst. Add to that the continued weakness of the US dollar, and we have a situation where optimism is hard to find.
Many high-profile analysts (Wall Street) who have traditionally always been very bullish on USA, Inc. have now turned bearish on the company’s outlook in 2008 and beyond. For the most part, they recommend that investors sell their equity shares of USA, Inc. and move either into USA’s competitors (foreign equities) or the supposedly safer USA notes payable (Treasuries). Investors who do so may find history repeating itself, as another round of monetary stimulus from CFO Bernanke will likely drive yields (interest rates) down in the months ahead.
So, in just a few years, USA, Inc.’s outlook has gone from one of unbridled optimism to a growing pessimism that the company is headed down the same path as in the 1970s – a poorly performing economy with growing inflation. In other words, “stagflation.” As you might expect, the gloom-and-doom crowd has been having a field day over the past year or so.
Can USA, Inc. Surprise On The Upside Once Again?
In the past, USA, Inc. has been able to overcome adversity and surprise the naysayers with continued growth in both the economy and the equity markets. You may recall that I cautioned often in 2002 and later E-Letters that USA, Inc. was not in as much trouble as the pessimists warned, and I suggested that the company would once again surprise on the upside. In addition, I frequently quoted from my various sources of economic forecasts who were predicting that the economic recovery would continue as it has.
However, the situation today is very different than in 2002 – 2004. The combination of subprime woes, falling housing values, rampant foreclosures, historically high oil and gasoline prices, growing federal deficits, employment issues, etc., etc. is mounting a huge challenge to USA, Inc.’s business plan. Plus, we still have all of the old problems such as geopolitical uncertainty, terrorism, trade imbalances and so on.
Even USA’s CFO, Ben Bernanke, has been less than optimistic in recent testimony. You will recall in last week’s E-Letter that I noted how CFO Bernanke had “…predicted that we would see very slow growth in the first half of this year, but most likely dodge a recession, with growth to rebound in the second half of the year.” I also noted that I thought his forecast was quite optimistic, to say the least.
Sure enough, Bernanke’s testimony last week before Congress was far more pessimistic than his previous statements. In this testimony, Bernanke carefully avoided saying the “R word” (recession), but most analysts are reading between the lines and concluding that even the Fed is now bracing for a more severe economic downturn. For example, his most recent testimony included the following analysis of his previous “no recession” forecast:
No kidding! Considering that the housing and credit markets have done nothing but deteriorate faster and deeper than most analysts predicted over the past year, it sounds to me like Mr. Bernanke is preparing for a recession. Even worse, his recent testimony has also included comments about the economy being “sluggish” until 2010, which could mean that the days of a short-lived recession and quick recovery, as in 2001, are behind us.
Fortunately, CFO Bernanke still holds fast to the belief that the company will not enter into a period of “stagflation,” where economic growth stagnates but inflation is rampant. However, faced with a falling dollar and skyrocketing commodities prices, this is also going to be a tough feat to accomplish. This is especially true considering Bernanke’s continued pledge to “do whatever it takes” (i.e. – cut interest rates) to stabilize the economy, since doing so could fuel inflation. To say the least, CFO Bernanke is walking a potenially dangerous tightrope.
The bottom line seems to be that it’s going to be awfully hard for USA, Inc. to surprise on the upside this time around. The headwinds are many, and with consumer confidence at multi-year lows, the apprx. 70% of GDP that consumer spending represents is definitely in jeopardy. Housing no longer offers a source of spending money, and the growing credit crunch is making debt harder to get. As a result, any consumer spending growth would have to come from an increase in real income, which is going to be hard to come by if we are entering into a recession as many, including CFO Bernanke, seem to believe that we are.
Will The New CEO Make A Difference?
In my previous E-Letters about USA, Inc., Bush was either the CEO or up for re-election, but that is not the case this time. No matter what, USA, Inc. will have a new CEO elected by the shareholders in November, and the leadership of that new CEO, coupled with his or her relationship with the board of directors, could have a profound effect on the health of the corporation, either good or bad.
On the one hand, we have Republican CEO candidate John McCain. As I have written recently, McCain is not as conservative as most in the GOP base would like. But on key issues with regard to running USA, Inc., McCain would appear to be the better choice than either of the Democrats. He has pledged to continue the Bush tax cuts; is a deficit hawk; and he is very strong on the military and national security – both of which are key to USA, Inc.’s well being.
On the other hand, we have two competing Democratic CEO candidates in Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Although neither has locked up the nomination as of the time this is written, we have a pretty good idea what their major policy positions are, especially since they differ so little. Both Hillary and Obama promise to raise taxes on the rich, but we do not yet know exactly what income level they consider to be rich. Both would let the Bush tax cuts expire in 2010, or possibly reverse them before that time. As I will discuss below, that could deal a serious blow to the economy.
Both would raise the capital gains tax rate, which would be a major negative for those who own stock in USA, Inc. Both would institute nationalized health care, despite the many examples of how poorly socialized medicine has worked in many industrialized countries around the world. By doing so, they will, in effect, nationalize apprx. 15% of the US economy.
These are just a few of the reasons I believe John McCain would make the better CEO of USA, Inc.
Stocks Do Better Under Republicans, Right?
The conventional wisdom is that Republicans are better for business and the economy than are Democrats. Therefore, it stands to reason that the stock market would perform better under Republican presidents than under Democrats. If we go further and assume that the presidency and control of Congress are both held by Republicans, it should be even better for business and the stock market. These ideas make a lot of sense – too bad they’re not true. The following table compiled by van Kampen and Ned Davis Research tells a different story. It shows the annual arithmetic average returns of stocks in various political scenarios.
Gains (%) for Stocks by Party of the President and Majority Party in Congress
Sources: van Kampen, Ned Davis Research
You can come across a lot of theories about why Republican presidents have lower stock market returns than their Democratic counterparts. Some might say that the free-spending ways of Democrats tend to put money in consumers’ pockets, from which comes 70% of our GDP. Others, tongue-in-cheek, suggest that the Republicans have to spend their time in office fixing what the Democrats messed up during their terms, only to be replaced by another Democrat who enjoys the fruits of their labor.
There seems to be little consensus about which of these theories is correct. However, one thing that many experts agree on is that gridlock in Washington is actually good for the economy. Looking at the above table, when the White House and control of Congress are held by different political parties, the stock markets tend to do better, as a general rule.
Need we look any further back than the Bush Administration to see how well Republicans hold the line on big government and spending? Unfortunately, the Republicans showed they could spend with the best of ‘em. The statistics also seem to indicate that if any particular party has too much control, it can mean trouble for the economy and/or stock markets. Thus, since the Democrats have control of Congress, it might be best for the markets if McCain won the presidency, based on the numbers above.
Before leaving the CEO discussion, as noted above both Clinton and Obama plan to either scale back or eliminate the Bush tax cuts. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they would let them expire in 2010 as the legislation provides, but possibly that they would be dismantled as early as 2009.
There is broad agreement that the Bush tax cuts are a big reason why the economy has been able to surprise on the upside as it has in recent years, despite major headwinds. Therefore, I would like to see the Bush tax cuts made permanent, not dismantled. Reversing the tax cuts would be a big mistake, in my opinion, and I found additional support for my opinion in a recent Investors Business Daily editorial.
As I noted above, CFO Bernanke has gone on record saying that the economy is likely to continue to be sluggish until 2010, and possibly longer. Thus, if a Democratic president and Congress simply let the Bush tax cuts lapse under the current terms of the legislation in 2010, any economic recovery past 2010 could be jeopardized.
This isn’t just my opinion. A recent Heritage Foundation study by economists Tracy Foertsch and Ralph Rector suggest that allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire would reduce GDP by apprx. $100 billion per year, cost 709,000 to 900,000 jobs, and prevent approximately $200 billion of personal income from being created each year.
If we assume that Hillary or Obama and the Democratically controlled Congress take action to repeal all or part of the tax cuts before 2010, then the sluggishness that Bernanke refers to could not only go on much longer, but could also be more severe, possibly turning an extended period of slow growth into a long-term recession.
How Should You Invest Now?
There should now be no question that USA, Inc.’s share price has suffered over the last year or so. As of the end of February, the S&P 500 Index was over 14% below its October 2007 peak. While we’re not in bear market territory yet, we are definitely in a major correction, and most analysts feel the bear market designation is only a matter of time.
Whether your portfolio is sitting largely in cash or fully invested in stocks and bonds, it’s not easy to figure out where to go from here. Sure, you could sell out, but you might be realizing losses only to find the market stabilize from here. Or, you might hold on to your investments or even be aggressive and buy more, only to find the market continues to drop.
I sincerely believe that most people would be better off if they used professional money managers to direct their investments, or at least most of them. For years, studies have shown that the average investor who self-directs his or her equity portfolio consistently and significantly under-performs the major market averages. If you would like more information on this fact, one place to start is with Dalbar, Inc. (www.dalbarinc.com).
I have been in the investment business for over 30 years, and even I don’t manage my own investments. With the exception of a couple of real estate interests, all of my investment portfolio is directed by our recommended professional money managers or in carefully selected mutual funds in our “Absolute Return Portfolios.” Using their time-tested systems, the money managers I recommend select the stocks, bonds and/or mutual funds to be in, and they determine when to be in the market and when to be out or hedged (partially of fully).
In addition, each of my recommended Advisors approaches the market in a different way. Some offer frequent trading strategies that seek to capitalize on short-term market trends, while others are more gradual in their moves, seeking to take advantage of longer-term market trends. However, most of the programs we recommend will either hedge their long positions or seek the safety of cash in down markets, and some do a combination of these risk management techniques.
During periods of great uncertainty in the markets, I have found that it often pays to go with experience. The more market cycles an Advisor has weathered, the more experience his or her various strategies gain. For this reason, I often recommend that clients consider the programs offered by Niemann Capital Management and Potomac Fund Management.
Both of these Investment Advisors have programs with over 10 years of actual track record, so they’ve experienced both good times and bear markets. We have also worked with both of these firms for many years, and have found them to be both professional and responsive to the needs of our clients.
Niemann Capital Management is located in Capitola, California and currently manages over $1 billion in client assets. This is quite a milestone for a money manager, but it’s easy to see why so many investors have placed their confidence in Niemann’s asset management. We began recommending Niemann’s programs back in 2002 when they had only $180 million under management, so we have been fortunate enough to be able to participate in their growth over the last several years.
Niemann has a time-tested system for identifying market momentum and then invests in those equity mutual funds where they expect the most growth. Niemann has further refined their strategy into a collection of programs that offer different levels of risk and reward. They may invest in any of the hundreds of mutual funds on Fidelity’s fund platform, and they use short funds occasionally for hedging purposes. The minimum investment is $100,000.
Potomac Fund Management has the distinction of being among the first Advisors I ever recommended to my clients back in 1996, and we still have just as much faith in them as we did in the beginning. Like Niemann, Potomac seeks to identify the strongest performers among their pre-selected universe of alternative mutual funds, and tends to move among these funds or into cash more gradually. They will also use “short” funds to hedge long positions at times.
One distinction, however, is that the group of mutual funds Potomac uses tends to have lower volatility, so they usually do not fall as much as the overall market during down periods. Thus, Potomac’s Guardian Program can be a somewhat more conservative way to access active management than in Neimann’s programs. Potomac currently manages over $200 million in client assets. Potomac’s minimum investment is $50,000.
We also have several other professional money managers we recommend who approach the markets in different ways. You can see their actual results on my website, or our Investment Consultants will be happy to share more about these other alternatives with you.
If you are among the many investors who are under-invested in equities and/or sitting on the sidelines in low-yielding cash accounts, I highly recommend that you consider these very successful money managers. I think they will serve you well in these uncertain times.
To speak to one of our Investment Consultants, just give us a call at 800-348-3601. Or, you can send us an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also visit our website at www.halbertwealth.com, where all of our various programs are discussed. Finally, if you would like to review printed information about Niemann and/or Potomac, including the applications and other investor paperwork, click on the following link to submit an online information request.
The AdvisorLink® Process
We often get questions from prospective clients about the process of investing with one of the recommended money managers in our AdvisorLink® Program. It’s actually quite easy, as I will discuss below, and is set up to handle both do-it-yourself investors as well as those who need help in deciding which Advisor(s) may be most suitable. The main thing to remember is that our job is to help you find, hire and, if necessary, fire money managers. While we help with the due diligence and paperwork chores, you always have total control of your money.
The first step in the process is to review information about our recommended programs. You can do this by going to our website at www.halbertwealth.com, or by requesting that one of our AdvisorLink® kits be mailed to you. Each of our recommended Advisors has programs that are actively managed, meaning that they seek to switch among investments in an effort to maximize your potential for gain. However, as I noted above, the strategies employed by our recommended Advisors can differ considerably.
Once you have identified one or more AdvisorLink® programs that are of interest, you can either go online or pick up the phone and request an Investor Kit for that particular program. This kit will not only contain the necessary paperwork to establish the account(s), but will also have additional information about both my company and the recommended Advisor(s).
If you are not sure which AdvisorLink® money manager may best fit your needs, you can always contact one of our Investment Consultants and discuss the benefits of each as they relate to your personal financial situation. You can help this process along by completing one of our Confidential Investor Profile questionnaires, which helps us greatly with important information about your financial goals, risk tolerance and investment experience.
Upon deciding which money manager(s) will be most suitable for you, we then help process the paperwork and forward it on to the Advisor. Each of our recommended Advisors has a custodial relationship with either a mutual fund family or a brokerage firm to insure maximum security of your funds. For example, both Potomac and Niemann mentioned above manage client accounts through Fidelity Brokerage. Thus, you make your check payable directly to Fidelity and not Niemann, Potomac, or even my company.
Once accounts are established on your behalf, the Advisor has the authority to make trades within the account, but cannot withdraw funds other than for periodic management fees, as agreed in advance. Fees are typically charged on a quarterly basis, and are withdrawn directly from the account. Fees vary by Advisor, but generally range between 2% and 2.5% annually.
Just so you know how we get paid, our recommended Advisors share a part of their management fees with my company in exchange for our marketing services in introducing clients to them, and for assisting in processing the necessary paperwork. Thus, there is no separate billing from HWM for assets held in this program. You can find these money managers on the Internet and go to them directly, but their fee is the same either way.
Best of all, these so-called “Managed Accounts” are held in your name (not in a fund), and you have complete control and transparency over your account(s). You can also access daily performance information and get account statements via the custodian’s Internet website. While you always have 100% control over your account, we do require that you not execute personal trades within the same account that our Advisor trades on your behalf.
One of the most important aspects of our ongoing service to you is our monitoring of the AdvisorLink® money managers. Since I maintain investments with every money manager we recommend, my staff is able to download and evaluate performance and trading information on a daily basis. This helps to allow us to determine if trades are consistent with the Advisor’s past performance strategy and methodology, and to evaluate if any losing periods are within historical loss parameters.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, as one of my clients, you will always know if we change our mind about a manager. There have been times in the past when we have withdrawn our recommendation of a manager, and we have suggested that our clients move elsewhere.
When is the last time a money manager told you to close your account? Probably never! Trust me, we will tell you if we believe it is time to fire an Advisor and move your account.
Back to our original question: If the United States was a stock, would you buy it? USA, Inc. has surprised on the upside since 2001, as I have consistently predicted, and despite the naysayers and the gloom-and-doom crowd. However, the negative factors currently affecting the economy are going to be difficult, if not impossible, to overcome. It increasingly looks like we’re in for a mild recession that could hang on for a while.
Even so, I believe that USA, Inc. is still a good long-term investment if left in the hands of capable, professional managers. That’s because no bull market goes straight up, and no bear market goes straight down. Whether bull or bear, the equity markets have periods of rallies and downward corrections that provide tradable trends for those Advisors whose skills allow them to identify and trade them.
In the long run, I don’t think I would ever bet against USA, Inc.’s ability to rise from adversity and provide value to its investors. In the near-term, however, the US economy and stock markets will have to navigate the subprime debacle, the housing slump and the resulting credit crunch, along with other challenges including a possible recession this year or beyond. But the point is, we have handled similar situations like this in the past. I believe the economic downturn will be manageable, and that USA, Inc. will remain the strongest economy in the world, generally speaking, at least for the next few years.
That being said, USA, Inc. does have some long-term structural problems that will have to be dealt with at some point. Those include: 1) budget deficits and the national debt; 2) the retirement of the Baby Boomers and related Social Security and Medicare concerns; and 3) a falling dollar – just to name a few. These are very serious structural problems that, if not addressed over the next few years, could lead to very serious long-term economic woes.
As this is written, odds are that one of the Democratic candidates – Hillary or Obama – could become the CEO of USA, Inc. next year. Both vow to raise taxes on the “rich,” increase the size of government, increase entitlement programs, institute national health care, etc., etc. It is no stretch, in my opinion, that if they are successful in these aims, the long-term outlook for USA, Inc. will greatly diminish.
This suggests that successful investing over the next several years will become increasingly challenging. And let’s face it, we all need to make our investments work harder for our retirement. Maybe it’s finally time to consider some of the active management strategies that I have recommended for over a decade.
If you are out of the market, or under-invested, the only way I would consider getting back into the stock or bond markets now would be under the direction of a proven professional money manager. Click HERE to request more information on the money managers discussed above, as well as others recommended by my company. (Past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results.)
Lastly, it doesn't matter where you live. We have clients in all 50 states, most of whom I have never met, and we had clients in all 50 states long before the Internet made remote communication so much easier. You may think your financial advisor needs to be located nearby, but that is just not the case. In my opinion, it is a mistake to limit yourself to only those advisors that are in your vicinity. I have over a thousand clients all across America, working with my company in Austin, as well as the professional money managers I recommend who are also located in various parts of the country.
As always, if we can help you, please don’t hesitate to call us at 800-348-3601 or visit our website at www.halbertwealth.com.
Wishing you profits,
Gary D. Halbert
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Forecasts & Trends E-Letter is published by ProFutures, Inc. Gary D. Halbert is the president and CEO of ProFutures, Inc. and is the editor of this publication. Information contained herein is taken from sources believed to be reliable but cannot be guaranteed as to its accuracy. Opinions and recommendations herein generally reflect the judgement of Gary D. Halbert (or another named author) and may change at any time without written notice. Market opinions contained herein are intended as general observations and are not intended as specific investment advice. Readers are urged to check with their investment counselors before making any investment decisions. This electronic newsletter does not constitute an offer of sale of any securities. Gary D. Halbert, ProFutures, Inc., and its affiliated companies, its officers, directors and/or employees may or may not have investments in markets or programs mentioned herein. Past results are not necessarily indicative of future results. Reprinting for family or friends is allowed with proper credit. However, republishing (written or electronically) in its entirety or through the use of extensive quotes is prohibited without prior written consent.