When we decided to ride the central bank liquidity wave in 2013, we knew there was a chance the market could have a pretty good year, but like most investors we were pleasantly surprised with the gains that the U.S. stock market delivered. Including dividends, the S&P 500 Index soared by 32%, well in excess of what even the most optimistic prognosticators envisioned at the start of the year.
One branch of technical analysis studies the relationships between asset classes to determine the health of the financial markets. John Murphy has written extensively on this subject and I have gathered a lot of my own wisdom through his teaching. With that in mind, here are a few relationships that I am watching right now to help determine the health of the U.S. stock market.
If you are looking for a movie about power, money, sex, drugs, yachts, Lamborghinis, high-pressure sales tactics, stock manipulation, sex, and drugs (did I mention sex and drugs?) then go see the new Martin Scorsese movie, The Wolf of Wall Street, starring Leonardo DiCaprio. The film is based on the memoirs of Jordan Belfort, the founder of the brokerage firm Stratton Oakmont, which functioned as a boiler room selling penny stocks in the 1990s. I don’t want to give away the ending, but I will say that if you enjoy watching unimaginable amounts of corruption and debauchery, you are going to love it.
All of which gets me thinking about the admittedly boring world of our Pinnacle investment analysts.
2013 has treated investors to a wonderful meal of huge equity returns, and there may still be a fine port waiting for us at the end. To steal from the Pola and Wyle song, we are entering what is typically the most wonderful time of the year (and right on cue, Bernanke Claus handed the market a dovish communique for the holidays). December is the second strongest month over the last 10 years and has a very clear pattern of strength during the last half of the month, as you can see from the chart to the right (from Jeff deGraaf, with RenMac).
Actively managing a portfolio requires buying and selling securities with the goal of managing risk and outperforming passive benchmark portfolios. Clients are correct to question the number of trades that are being made in their portfolio in pursuit of this objective. After all, one trade can generate several trade acknowledgments from our custodians, and each trade acknowledgement shows the brokerage commission charged for each transaction. Clearly the cost of trading has a negative impact on total portfolio return. As we approach year-end and Pinnacle’s investment team continues to generate commissionable transactions in our managed accounts, it might be helpful to analyze the cost of brokerage commissions relative to our ability to implement our active management strategy.
With less than two months to go in the year, the markets have returned a remarkable 23% on the S&P 500 index. Our portfolios are diversified, so we haven’t gained that much, but many policies are in double-digit territory (which represent significant gains in less than a year). With healthy returns already booked, one has to question whether investors will want to cash out and go the beach. I admit that a trip to the Bahamas sounds great right about now.
In a recent “Your Money” column in the New York Times, John Wasik did a great job of delivering the status quo message about portfolio expenses. He reminds us that John C. Bogle, Founder of the Vanguard Group, and many others, have performed studies that demonstrated that active managers cannot beat a passive index because of the fees charged in actively managed funds. He reminds us that these consist not only of the well-known and often discussed fees in a fund’s expense ratio, but also include ‘hidden’ fees like the cost of managers who leave too much money in cash (which does not earn market returns), and fund transaction costs. The article goes on to mention a recent paper by William Sharpe, the Nobel Prize winner this year in Economics, who compared the expense ratio of Vanguard’s Total Stock Market Index Fund to a more expensive actively managed fund, and found that the costs of active management were $2,000 for a $10,000 investment over ten years.
With the end of the government shutdown and the lifting of the debt ceiling, it’s time to review how we’ve positioned Pinnacle’s portfolios. First, our stance has been that the political impasse was mostly noise — that’s why we didn’t pull volatility down over the past few weeks. Washington’s politicians waited until the last minute, hoping to force some policy concessions, but had to acknowledge the practical reality that making a deal was better than the alternative.