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What You Don’t Know About Social Security—but Should

retirement-exit-2My Comments: You may not agree with me but Social Security is a complicated issue. If you hope to find a quick and easy summary of what is implied by the title, you’ll be disappointed.

My assumption is that if you haven’t yet applied for Social Security benefits, that day will come, and statistics tell us you will be receiving those benefits for many years. The total dollars flowing into your family pockets over those years will be substantial.

To some extent, the flow of money will be determined by which of the 97 months you have to choose from to start your benefits. Each will result in a different number at the other end. So choosing the best month for you and your family could mean gaining or losing well over $100,000 before it’s all over.

To find out for yourself and get a free report to help you make your best choice, call or email me and I’ll provide you with some of the answers. It’s in your best interest if money means anything to you.

By Glenn Ruffenach / June 22, 2014

Imagine that you’re about to accept a new job, and it’s time to talk salary. You sit down with your boss, who begins as follows:

“Actually, our payroll system is impossibly complicated. You can pick from dozens of different ways to be paid and hundreds of different start dates, and each will produce a different salary. We offer some guidance, but we’re short-handed. As such, deciding when and how to collect a paycheck is essentially up to you.

“So…what would you like to do?”

Welcome to Social Security.

Each day, thousands of Americans apply for the first time for Social Security benefits. And each day—if questions from our readers and the stories we hear from financial advisers are any indication—many applicants have no idea what they’re getting into. They know little or nothing about the program’s complexity, the myriad ways to collect benefits and the Social Security Administration’s staffing and service problems.

As such, they’re putting their retirement—and, in many cases, their spouses’ future—at risk.

“People spend more time planning a vacation than they do planning for 20 or 30 years of Social Security benefits,” says Barry Kaplan, chief investment officer for Cambridge Wealth Counsel in Atlanta. Those benefits, he notes, are insurance against market downturns, hyperinflation and living longer than you anticipate. But would-be beneficiaries, he says, typically “go into this without a clue.”
SS summary JUL2014If you and/or your spouse are weighing your options about Social Security, here’s a look at some of the biggest issues—involving both the agency and the benefits program—that could shape your retirement for better or worse.

The Social Security Administration isn’t your financial adviser.

A fair amount of the mail we receive from readers with questions or complaints about Social Security goes something like this: “My Social Security office never told me about….” About a particular strategy for claiming benefits. About a little-known rule. About the consequences of starting one’s payouts at a particular point in time.

No, the Social Security Administration isn’t perfect. (More about this in a moment.)
But its primary job is delivering a service, paying 59 million beneficiaries, and not financial planning. The agency provides loads of information about benefits on its website http://www.ssa.gov/and does its best to answer the public’s questions in its field offices and by telephone. But a comprehensive talk about the nuances of Social Security and your financial future? That’s not going to happen.

Indeed, the Social Security Administration doesn’t know about—and it isn’t the agency’s job to know about—your household budget, your health, your savings, life insurance, plans you might have to work in retirement. In short, all the variables that should go into a decision about filing for benefits, says Mr. Kaplan in Atlanta.

So, the onus is on you to learn about, or find help in deciphering, the basics: how benefits work, claiming strategies, possible pitfalls. And if you’re hellbent, for instance, on grabbing a payout at age 62 (the earliest possible date for most people) and locking yourself—and perhaps your spouse—into a permanent reduction in benefits, the agency isn’t going to stop you.

The Social Security Administration is stretched increasingly thin at the worst possible time.

In March, Carolyn Colvin, the agency’s acting commissioner, didn’t mince words in a report tied to President Barack Obama’s request for additional funding for the Social Security Administration.

“Our service and stewardship efforts [have] deteriorated,” she said. “In fiscal year 2013, the public had to wait longer for a decision on their disability claim, to talk to a representative on our national 800 number, and to schedule an appointment in our field offices.”

The agency, in short, is overextended. In the past three years, it has lost 11,000 employees, or about 12% of its workforce; by 2022, about 60% of its supervisors will be eligible to retire. Meanwhile, budget cuts have resulted in the consolidation of 44 field offices, the closing of 503 contact stations (mobile service facilities) and a delay in plans to open eight hearing offices (where appeals about agency decisions involving retirement and disability benefits are heard) and one call center.

And that 800 number? According to a report in December from the agency’s inspector general, wait times in 2013 exceeded 10 minutes, an increase of more than five minutes from 2012.

The point: The Social Security Administration is grappling with its own problems just as the baby-boom generation, with about 75 million members, is moving full speed into retirement. (The oldest boomers are turning 68 this year.) The demands on the agency mean that you might not be able to find, or find in a timely fashion, the information or help you need. That said…

More services outside Social Security are offering more help.

The Social Security Administration is the first to acknowledge that benefits are complicated. The opening paragraphs of the agency’s “Social Security Handbook,” a guide to the benefits program, state plainly: “The Social Security programs are so complex it is impossible to include information [in the handbook] about every topic.”

Fortunately, a growing number of tools and services—some free, others for a cost—are available to help people navigate these waters.

In recent years, AARP, the Washington-based advocacy group for older Americans, and T. Rowe Price Group Inc., the Baltimore-based mutual-fund company, have introduced sophisticated online calculators that help users determine how and when to claim benefits. Both are free. (The Social Security Administration has several calculators, also free, that can help determine the size of your benefits, but not necessarily when to claim them for maximum effect.)

Among the services that charge a fee: MaximizeMySocialSecurity.com, from Economic Security Planning Inc.; SocialSecurityChoices.com, from SocSec Analytics LLC; and SocialSecuritySolutions.com, all started by academics. Our review of several Social Security tools last fall singled out Social Security Solutions for its ease of use and Maximize My Social Security for its flexibility.

Finally, check out weekly columns at the Public Broadcasting Service website from Laurence Kotlikoff, an economics professor at Boston University and the developer of Maximize My Social Security. The articles, published each Monday, address a wide range of issues about Social Security (including numerous “secrets” and “gotchas”) and answer questions about benefits. In short, invaluable reading.

The earnings test deters people from working in retirement—and shouldn’t.

Social Security’s earnings test, in which benefits are reduced if a person is collecting benefits and income at the same time, generates numerous questions and much confusion. But the apparent penalties aren’t what they seem.

If you are under your full retirement age when you first receive Social Security benefits and if you have earned income, $1 in benefits will be deducted for each $2 you earn above an annual limit. In 2014, that limit is $15,480. In the year you reach your full retirement age, the penalty shrinks; after you reach full retirement age, the deductions end completely.

The good news: Money lost to the earnings test isn’t really lost. Once you reach full retirement age, Social Security recalculates—and increases—your future benefits to account for any dollars withheld.

Most beneficiaries, though, aren’t aware of that; as such, they typically “work up to the [annual] limit—and stop,” says Andrew Biggs, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and former deputy commissioner at the Social Security Administration.

The earnings test, Mr. Biggs says, “should not be a disincentive to work.” Rather, “think of the test as delaying benefits until later in retirement,” he says. “Over your lifetime, your total benefits will come out the same.”

Spouses, at a minimum, should be aware of three claiming strategies.

Couples have a tremendous amount of flexibility in how they can claim benefits. But the options can quickly become overwhelming, which prompts many spouses to default to the easiest choice: grabbing a payout at age 62.

Before you do that, consider these three claiming strategies. Many couples aren’t aware of these options or don’t think they can benefit from them. Do yourself a favor: Run the numbers. (Fidelity Investments recently did a nice job of explaining these and other claiming strategies.)

Maximize survivor benefits: If you claim benefits before your full retirement age, you could be locking your spouse into a low survivor benefit when you die. The longer you wait to claim, the larger the survivor benefits.

Claim and suspend: Once you reach full retirement age, you can claim your benefit and then suspend it. (In other words, you stop payments before they begin.) This allows for two things: Your spouse, if he or she is 62 or older, can begin collecting spousal benefits from Social Security. (This assumes that the spousal benefit is larger than the spouse’s own retirement benefit. More on this in a moment.) Second, your own benefit, when you eventually claim it, will have increased in size. (Thanks to “delayed retirement credits.”)

Claim a spousal benefit, then later claim your own benefit: At full retirement age—if you are eligible for a spousal benefit and your own retirement benefit—you have the option of claiming just the spousal benefit. At a future point in time, you can then jump to your own benefit, which will have increased in size.

And speaking of spousal benefits…

“Deemed filing” can box you in.

It’s a frequent question: A husband who is already collecting Social Security (or weighing the claim-and-suspend strategy) asks if his wife can take just a spousal benefit at age 62—and then switch to a (presumably larger) benefit based on her earnings record in the future.

The answer: Nope.

If the wife, in this case, applies for benefits before her full retirement age, she is “deemed”—in the eyes of the Social Security Administration—to have filed for both benefits: the benefit based on her work record and a spousal benefit.

She will receive the higher of the two figures, but she will be locked into that reduced benefit going forward. (Reduced because she is claiming benefits before full retirement age.)

Again, as discussed above, if the wife waits until her full retirement age to file for benefits, she would have a choice: She could apply for just a spousal benefit. Then, a few years down the road, she could switch to a payout based on her earnings history.

William Meyer, founder of SocialSecuritySolutions.com, says the “deemed filing” rule trips up innumerable applicants. “We hear about it all the time,” he says.

The lesson is clear and critical: Claim benefits before full retirement age, and your options are limited; claim benefits after full retirement age, and you have more flexibility—and bigger payouts.

Divorced spouses and survivors don’t know what they don’t know.

Ask almost any financial adviser about Social Security slip-ups, and stories about ex-spouses, widows and widowers come tumbling out.

Mr. Kaplan in Atlanta recalls a woman—age 67, divorced and still working—who walked into his office and simply had no idea that she could have been collecting benefits for the previous five years based on her former husband’s earnings.

Prof. Kotlikoff at Boston University tells the story of a friend who had lost his wife and was convinced that he couldn’t claim Social Security checks as a survivor.
“He told me, ‘I made more [money] than she did,’ ” Prof. Kotlikoff says. “And based on that, he thought, incorrectly, that he wasn’t eligible for a survivor benefit. People just don’t know about this stuff.”

The point: Always err on the side of telling Social Security about your family circumstances and/or a change in those circumstances.

“Tell them about ex-spouses, tell them if you’ve lost a spouse, tell them if you have kids,” Prof. Kotlikoff says. (A surviving spouse with children could be eligible for additional benefits.)
“If you don’t tell them, they won’t know. It’s that simple.”

Delaying Social Security doesn’t just result in a bigger benefit; it also can make good tax sense.

You may have heard the advice countless times: Minimize (or avoid) withdrawals from your nest egg (401(k), individual retirement accounts, etc.) for as long as possible to take advantage of tax-deferred growth. Many investors who follow that advice grab Social Security benefits, typically at age 62, to help pay the bills.

But that advice ignores the possible tax benefits associated with following the opposite course: accelerating withdrawals from savings early in retirement so that you can hold off on claiming Social Security.

The thinking here is tied to the fact that Social Security benefits are taxable. As much as 85% of a married couple’s benefits are subject to tax when their income exceeds $44,000 ($34,000 for individuals); as much as 50% of benefits are taxable at lower income levels.

If you delay claiming Social Security and, as a result, end up with larger benefits, future withdrawals from savings will likely be smaller—a recipe for lower levels of taxable income.

“Many retirees don’t consider the impact of their withdrawal strategy on how their Social Security is taxed,” says Mr. Meyer, the SocialSecuritySolutions.com founder. “Missteps in tapping the wrong account and investments to generate income can significantly increase your taxes.”

The Hangover

My Comments: The blogosphere and financial press is increasingly filled with questions and presumed answers about the amount of time since the last market correction. The focus of each writers attention is to suggest doom is imminent or doom is not imminent. Personally, I have no idea when the next crash will happen, just that sooner or later it will.

That being said, here are comments from one of the bright lights at one of the best well lit family of funds available to us. Draw your own conclusions, but if you agree with me that something ominous will happen before long, then talk to me about ways to limit your losses when it does happen.

by Scott Minerd July 24, 2014

The Fed’s not taking the punch bowl from the party, but investors should be wary of the hangover.

On a fall night in 1955, Federal Reserve Chairman William McChesney Martin stood before a group of New York investment bankers at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel and delivered what is now considered his famous “punch bowl” speech. It earned this label because Martin closed his eloquent talk by paraphrasing a writer who described the role of the Fed as being “in the position of the chaperone who has ordered the punch bowl removed just when the party was really warming up.”

Janet Yellen’s recent congressional testimony suggested that she does not subscribe to her predecessor’s temperance. While citing that valuations in certain sectors, such as high-yield or technology stocks, appeared “substantially stretched”, Yellen’s overall sentiment was clear: the Fed does not view the party as really warming up to the point that the punch bowl need be removed.

The excessive risk taking among investors lulled into complacency by an overly loose Fed is a powerful cocktail indeed; one that could produce a hangover in the form of volatility. Having said that, the Fed’s party can still go on for a long time. As I’ve said before, bull markets don’t die of old age, but because of an exogenous event or a policy mistake.

In his famous speech, Martin preceded his punchbowl comment by saying, on behalf of the Fed, “…precautionary action to prevent inflationary excesses is bound to have some onerous effects…” The flipside – a lack of precautionary action by the Fed – will have its own set of consequences in time. It is very difficult to say when exactly these will happen, but near-term indicators suggest the hangover won’t hit while you’re relaxing at the beach this summer.

Chart of the Week
Equity Markets: The Bigger they Come the Harder they Fall
The S&P500 has now gone nearly 800 days since a correction of more than 10 percent – the “meaningful” level for many analysts. The more extended the market becomes, the larger the eventual decline may be. Over the last 50 years, the longer the time between market corrections, the steeper the drop once the correction does occur.

EX-RECESSION S&P500 CORRECTIONS (>10% DECLINE) SINCE 1962

Here’s All The Free Stuff You Can Get With Obamacare

healthcare reformMy Comments: Damn. I knew this was too good to be true. This had to have been written earlier this year but it showed up just a few days ago. Must have come from the same people who wrote the code for HealthCare.gov.

And yes, I know none of this is “free” but still. The GOP said yesterday that the PPACA is now history and it’s only a matter of time before we’re back to what we had before. Which was pushing us into financial oblivion. Cheers.

By Lauren F Friedman July 13, 2014

If you want to buy a plan from HealthCare.gov that will get you covered in 2014, the deadline is March 31 (with some exceptions). But what exactly will the insurance bought on the exchanges get you?

Included within the essential benefits — preventative care, mental health services, etc. — the plans cover some surprising things.

Here are 11 covered benefits that might surprise you.

1. Free aspirin (to prevent heart disease in older men and women)
2. Screening for depression
3. Flu shots
4. STD counseling (for people at high risk)
5. Help quitting smoking, such as tobacco use screenings
6. Folic acid supplements (for pregnant women)
7. Breastfeeding support and supplies, like breast pumps
8. Domestic violence screening and counseling (for women)
9. Substance abuse counseling
10. Services to help overcome long-term disabilities and chronic conditions
11. Screening to determine if your drinking is unhealthy

All of these benefits fall under the 10 essential benefits that the Affordable Care Act provides:

1. Outpatient care—the kind you get without being admitted to a hospital
2. Trips to the emergency room
3. Treatment in the hospital for inpatient care
4. Care before and after your baby is born
5. Mental health and substance use disorder services: This includes behavioral health treatment, counseling, and psychotherapy
6. Your prescription drugs
7. Services and devices to help you recover if you are injured, or have a disability or chronic condition. This includes physical and occupational therapy, speech-language pathology, psychiatric rehabilitation, and more.
8. Your lab tests
9. Preventive services including counseling, screenings, and vaccines to keep you healthy and care for managing a chronic disease.
10. Pediatric services: This includes dental care and vision care for kids
So-called “grandfathered” plans, which have existed since before March 23, 2010, may not provide all of these benefits.

These 3 Charts Show The Amazing Power Of Compound Interest

retirement_roadMy Comments: Math was not and remains not one of my strengths. But I understand this part. If you are younger than I am and have an opportunity to put some money to work, you need to push the envelope and make it happen.

Whether you do or not, the price you pay for stuff with your money will also increase via the same compounding mechanism, so it behooves you to make sure your savings are growing at least as fast and preferably, much faster. Remember, money is only useful if you can use it to buy the things you need and the things you want.

By Libby Kane July 12, 2014

One of the biggest financial advantages out there is something anyone can access by opening a simple retirement account: compound interest.

Retirement accounts such as 401(k)s and Roth IRAs aren’t just savings accounts — they’re actively invested, and therefore have the potential to make the most of this benefit.

As Business Insider‘s Sam Ro explains, “Compound interest occurs when the interest that accrues to an amount of money in turn accrues interest itself.”

So why is that so important?

The charts below will show you the incredible impact compound interest has on your savings and why starting to save in your 20s is one of the best things you can do.

1. Compound interest is incredibly powerful.

The chart below from JP Morgan shows how one saver (Susan) who invests for only 10 years early in her career, ends up with more wealth than another saver (Bill), who saves for 30 years later in life.

By starting early, Susan was able to better take advantage of compound interest.

Chris, the third saver profiled, is the ideal: He contributed steadily for his entire career.

chart-jp-morgan-retirement-1

2. When you start saving outweighs how much you save.

This chart by Business Insider’s Andy Kiersz also emphasizes the impact of compound interest, and the importance of starting early. Saver Emily, represented by the blue line, starts saving the exact same amount as Dave (the red line), but begins 10 years earlier. Ultimately, she contributes around 33% more than Dave over the course of her career, but ends up with almost twice as much wealth as he does.

saving-at-25-vs-saving-at-35-continued-saving-prettier-1

3. It can even make you a millionaire.
Compound interest can get you pretty far. In fact, Business Insider calculated — based on your current age and a 6% return rate — how much you need to be saving per month in order to reach $1 million by age 65. You can also see the calculations based on different rates of return.

monthly-savings-chart-new-1

 

25 Things You Should Do Before You Die

My Comments: This appeared in a financial planning magazine and really doesn’t need any comments from me. I’d only mess it up.

Well, wait a minute. Years and years agao, before computers, social media and instant messaging, I read that every man should achieve three goals. They were to build a house, father a child and write a book. My book is kinda tiny but I got it done.

By Richard Feloni July 11, 2014

It can be easy to get caught up in the routine of life, doing whatever it takes to get from one point to the next, without doing much that’s exciting or enriching.

Some Quora users offer a few ideas to break the routine in their responses to the thread: “What is something every person should experience at least once in a lifetime?”

The responses range from trying an extreme sport to discovering something life-changing about yourself. We’ve summarized some of the best answers below.

1. Live somewhere vastly different from your hometown.
Living in an unfamiliar setting among people with a different worldview from yours can help you become more self-reliant. —Deepthi Amarasuriya

2. Go out of your way to help a stranger.
Put in time and effort to help someone you have “absolutely no social, moral, or legal obligation to help,” and don’t expect anything in return. —Kent Fung

3. Learn how to appreciate being alone.
Avoid feeling lonely on your own by truly becoming comfortable with yourself. —Barbara Rose

4. Travel without being a tourist.
Go on a trip without feeling the need to take nonstop photos of the biggest tourist attractions. Instead of being a “tourist,” be a “traveler” and try to get an idea of how the locals live. —Arya Raje

5. Take a trip without making any plans.
A “serendipitous adventure” free of the restrictions of an itinerary can be both thrilling and relaxing. —Julian Keith Loren

6. Go paragliding/parasailing/skydiving — anything where you’re flying through the air. The feeling of weightlessness you get is a joy unmatched by anything else in life. —Sainyam Kapoor

7. Learn how to get by on the bare minimum.
If you’re just starting out professionally and fortunate enough to not know a life of poverty, it is worth struggling to make it on your own without the safety net of your family. You’ll learn to appreciate what you earn. —Anonymous

8. Work a service job.
If you’ve never had a difficult job like being a waiter, courier, or janitor, then try volunteering somewhere like a shelter. You’ll learn patience, humbleness, and dependability. —Diego Noriega Mendoza

9. Become comfortable speaking in public.
Public speaking is consistently ranked among people’s top fears, but developing the skill can advance your career and boost your confidence. —Mark Savchuk

10. Participate in an endurance trial like a marathon.
Athletic events like marathons and long cycling races are essentially “voluntary suffering” that can teach you that with enough determination, you can get through anything and appreciate the journey. —Denis Oakley

11. Go scuba diving.
“It is like exploring a completely new world.” —Rajneesh Mitharwal

12. Learn to dance.
Most people are embarrassed to dance at events without the help of some alcohol, but instead of making a fool of yourself at every wedding, learn some real techniques! —Meenakshhi Mishra

13. Run or volunteer for some position of leadership.
You don’t necessarily need to quit your day job and start a senatorial campaign, but you can take a risk and put yourself out there, even if it’s just to become head of your company’s intramural softball team. —Warren Myers

14. Learn to appreciate failure.
Life is filled with defeats and setbacks. You can choose to suffer through each of them until your fortune improves, or you can learn to appreciate the opportunities for learning every failure provides. “It will help you to know yourself — what motivates you, what you did wrong, what makes you happy, and so on.” —Shikhar Argawal

15. Witness the birth of a child.
Seeing the birth of another human being, especially your own child, of course, is something you’ll never forget. —Jack Martin

16. Develop a bond with an animal.
Anyone who has a pet can tell you that the unconditional love you receive from an animal you care for is powerful and increases your overall happiness. —Simon Brown

17. Ride an elephant.
“There’s something incredible about being on top of a majestic animal.” —Ridwa Mousa

18. Drive as fast as you can down an empty road.
Don’t drive recklessly, of course. But if you’re a good enough driver and get a chance to drive down the speed-limit-free German Autobahn, go for it. —Cyndi Perlman Fink

19. Become as good as you can at one sport.
If you make a lifelong hobby of practicing your favorite sport, you will make leading a healthier life fun, challenging, and goal-driven. —Shiva Suri

20. Take a sabbatical from work.
At least once, step away from your professional life to pursue a passion or travel extensively. —Asmita Singh

21. Meditate in a redwood forest.
The massive, ancient trees in California’s redwood forests give you a chance to reflect in untouched nature. “It’s a spiritual and cleansing experience.” —Krystle Smart

22. Fly down a mountain on skis or a snowboard.
Entering a state of extreme focus as you soar down a snowy path can be a euphoric experience. —Pete Ashly

23. Camp in the wilderness hundreds of miles from civilization.
Experiencing what it’s like to live without the luxuries of society will make you appreciate the beauty of nature as well as everything that makes your life easier. —Justin Jessup

24. Perform on stage.
“No matter how stage shy you are and if you don’t know how to sing or dance or act, just get on that stage once. Do your thing and own it. After this, I guarantee you will feel like a whole new person.” —Pritika Gulliani Jain

25. Swim in the “Devil’s Pool” above Victoria Falls in Zambia.
And if you’re a big risk-taker, at certain times of the year you can wade in a slow-moving pool that forms at the lip of the world’s largest waterfall. —Liz Dugas

The Tolling Bells of Complacency

house and pigMy Comments: Not too many years ago, the idea of stability in the markets was divine. Now, not so much. That’s partly because with new technology and tactical opportunities from Guggenheim Partners, volatility increases your chance to outperform and watch your accounts grow. Of course, it also increases your chance to lose money if you don’t know what you are doing.

All the same, since so many of us don’t really have enough money to secure our long term retirement, I’ll be glad when volatility returns. We are way below average right now, as you can see from the chart which you will have to find by clicking on the right link.

A few years ago, facing a world in crisis, central banks aggressively employed monetary policy to avoid catastrophe in financial markets. Now, they must be equally aggressive in fighting complacency.

Commentary by Scott Minerd, Chairman of Investments and Global Chief Investment Officer – July 17, 2014

Last week, after writing my most recent commentary about market complacency, I was surprised that the latest Federal Reserve minutes revealed that the Federal Open Market Committee is also concerned investors are growing too complacent, raising the prospect of excessive risk taking. That followed remarks from Federal Reserve Bank of New York President William Dudley that low market volatility has made him nervous. Fed Chair Janet Yellen reinforced that view in her latest testimony to Congress, saying investors reaching for yield could increase the risk of market problems, and that some valuations, particularly lower-rated corporate debt, are stretched.

It is commendable that the Fed is acknowledging complacency and trying to remind investors of the uncertain path ahead; but perhaps the largest contributor to the rise in risk taking has been the Federal Reserve itself. The Fed is far from alone in fueling complacency, as central bankers around the world have continued to provide easy money to prop up overleveraged economies with large structural imbalances. The Bank for International Settlements has summed the situation up saying that global central bank policies have reduced price swings and market volatility, encouraging greater risk taking.

The Fed and other central banks are to be commended for having avoided a global financial meltdown by pumping up economic activity through cheap money and inflated asset prices, but this approach is not without risks. Now, with unemployment falling to 6.1 percent, the U.S. economy is building a strong head of steam. Despite that, Dr. Yellen has dismissed as “noise” the possible signs of building U.S. inflation, notably evident in Consumer Price Index data showing inflation running at 2.1 percent. That “noise” may well be an alarm bell that the complacency created, and even promoted, by central bankers could eventually result in unintended adverse consequences in the coming years. As policymakers globally contemplate the source of today’s market complacency, I am reminded of the words of 17th century English poet and cleric John Donne: “Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”

Chart of the Week

ANNUALIZED VOLATILITY BY ASSET CLASS (click HERE to see the chart.)

The past few years of central bank-induced liquidity have calmed markets to a degree that is nearly unprecedented in the last 25 years. From equities to fixed income to currency markets, volatility is near historically low levels. The last time such complacency was seen was the summer of 2007, suggesting investors should not be lulled by the current market calm, and instead prepare for choppier days ahead.

Source: Bloomberg, Guggenheim Investments. Data as of 7/16/2014. Volatility refers to annualized 30-day standard deviation. Volatility of the 10-Year U.S. Treasury is yield volatility. The MSCI Emerging Markets Index captures large and mid-cap representation across 23 Emerging Markets countries. The S&P 500 is a market-weighted stock market index comprised of the stocks of 500 U.S. corporations; the index is owned and maintained by Standard & Poor’s. The S&P GSCI® is recognized as a leading measure of general price movements and inflation in the world economy. The DXY is measured against major foreign currencies. The Barclays U.S. Aggregate Index represents securities that are SEC-registered, taxable, and dollar denominated and covers the U.S. investment grade fixed rate bond market, with index components for government and corporate securities, mortgage pass-through securities, and asset-backed securities.

Economic Data Releases

U.S. Retail Sales and Industrial Production Confirm 2Q Rebound
• U.S. retail sales were below expectations in June, rising 0.2 percent as May’s gain was revised up to 0.5 percent. However, sales were stronger, excluding the volatile categories of autos, gas, and building materials, up 0.6 percent.
• Industrial production increased 0.2 percent in June, putting the quarterly growth rate at the fastest pace since 2010.
• Initial jobless claims declined to 304,000 for the week ended July 5.
• The Empire Manufacturing survey reached 25.6 in July, the highest in over four years.
• The NAHB Housing Market Index increased more than expected in July, rising to 53 from 49, the best since January.
• University of Michigan consumer confidence was weaker than expected in June, falling to 81.2 from 81.9.
• Producer prices ticked down again in June to 1.9 percent year over year. Energy costs rose 2.0 percent month over month.

Euro Zone Production Weak, Chinese GDP above Estimates
• Euro zone industrial production fell 1.1 percent in May, the largest drop since September 2012.
• The ZEW investor survey of the current situation in Germany fell for the first time in eight months in July, while the expectations index fell for the seventh consecutive month.
• Industrial production in France dropped 1.7 percent in May, the largest decline in a year and a half.
• French consumer prices fell to 0.6 percent year over year in June, the lowest since 2009.
• U.K. consumer prices rose more than expected in June, rising to 1.9 percent from 1.5 percent.
• China’s second-quarter GDP growth increased to 7.5 percent from a year ago, the first uptick in growth in three quarters.
• Chinese exports expanded less than expected in June, showing a slightly faster pace of growth at 7.2 percent year over year.
• Chinese retail sales growth ticked down to 12.4 percent year over year in June from 12.5 percent.
• Industrial production in China accelerated to 9.2 percent year over year in June, the best growth since November.

US Cable Barons And Their Power Over Us

Internet 1My Comments: Professionally, I live in the world of finance and investments. Regulation is pervasive, most likely increasing, since there is a pervasive threat of abuse by the big players. I think it would help all of us to have a level playing field, including individuals, corporate America, and society as a whole.

I cannot run my business today without the internet. My predecessors couldn’t run their businesses without newspapers and telephones. Over the years, no one had a problem keeping those industries from being dominated by a few companies who just might become monopolies.

So why is Congress apparently willing to let Comcast become a virtual monopoly without restriction?

By Edward Luce | April 13, 2014 | The Financial Times

No one in Washington seems to have the will to stop industry moguls from tightening their grip on the internet.

Imagine if one company controlled 40 per cent of America’s roads and raised tolls far in excess of inflation. Suppose the roads were potholed. Imagine too that its former chief lobbyist headed the highway sector’s federal regulator. American drivers would not be happy. US internet users ought to be feeling equally worried.

Some time in the next year, Comcast’s proposed $45.2bn takeover of Time Warner Cable is likely to be waved through by antitrust regulators. The chances are it will also get a green light from the Federal Communications Commission (headed by Tom Wheeler, Comcast’s former chief lobbyist).

The deal will give Comcast TWC control of 40 per cent of US broadband and almost a third of its cable television market.

Such concentration ought to trigger concern among the vast majority of Americans who use the internet at home and in their work lives. Yet the backlash is largely confined to a few maverick senators and policy wonks in Washington. When the national highway system was built in the 1950s, it provided the arteries of the US economy. The internet is America’s neural system – as well as its eyes and ears. Yet it is monopolised by an ever-shrinking handful of private interests.

Where does it go from here? The probability is that Comcast and the rest of the industry will further consolidate its grip on the US internet because there is no one in Washington with the will to stop it. The FCC is dominated by senior former cable industry officials. And there is barely a US elected official – from President Barack Obama down – who has not benefited from Comcast’s extensive campaign financing. As with the railway barons of the late 19th century, he who pays the piper picks the tune.

The company is brilliantly effective. Last week, David Cohen, Comcast’s genial but razor-sharp executive vice-president, batted off a US Senate hearing with the ease of a longstanding Washington insider. A half smile played over his face throughout the three-hour session. One or two senators, notably Al Franken, the Democrat from Minnesota, offered skeptical cross-examination about the proposed merger. But, for the most part, Mr. Cohen received softballs. Lindsey Graham, the Republican from South Carolina, complained that his satellite TV service was unreliable when the weather was bad. Like many of his colleagues, Mr. Graham either had little idea of what was at stake, or did not care. With interrogations like this, who needs pillow talk?

Comcast is aided by the complexity of the US cable industry. Confusion is its ally. The real game is to control the internet. But a lot of the focus has been on the merger’s impact on cable TV competition, which is largely a red herring. The TV market is in long-term decline – online video streaming is the viewing of the future.

Yet Comcast has won plaudits for saying it would divest 3m television subscribers to head off antitrust concerns. Whether that will be enough to stop it from charging monopoly prices for its TV programmes is of secondary importance. The internet is the prize.

The public’s indifference to the rise of the internet barons is also assisted by lack of knowledge. Americans are rightly proud of the fact that the US invented the internet. Few know that it was developed largely with public money by the Pentagon – or that Google’s algorithmic search engine began with a grant from the National Science Foundation. It is a classic case of the public sector taking the risk while private operators reap the gains. Few Americans have experienced the fast internet services in places such as Stockholm and Seoul, where prices are a fraction of those in the US. When South Koreans visit the US, they joke about taking an “internet holiday”.

US average speeds are as little as a tenth as fast as those in Tokyo and Singapore. Among developed economies, only Mexico and Chile are slower. Even Greeks get faster downloads.

So can anything stop the cable guy? Possibly. US history is full of optimistic examples. Among the dominant platforms of their time, only railways compare to today’s internet. The Vanderbilts and the Stanfords had the regulators in their pockets. Yet their outsize influence generated a backlash that eventually loosened their grip.

For the most part, electricity, roads and the telephone were treated as utilities and either publicly owned, or regulated in the public interest. The internet should be no exception. Much like the progressive movement that tamed the railroad barons, opposition to the US internet monopolists is starting to percolate up from the states and the cities. It is mayors, not presidents, who react to potholed roads.

Last week, Ed Murray, the mayor of Seattle, declared war on Comcast even though it donated to his election campaign last year. Drawing on the outrage among Seattle’s consumers, Mr. Murray seems happy to bite the hand that fed him. “If we find that building our own municipal broadband is the best way forward for our citizens then I will lead the way,” he said.

Others, such as the town of Chattanooga, Tennessee, which is distributing high-speed internet via electricity lines, are also doing it for themselves. Forget Washington. This is where change comes from. “We need to find a path forward as quickly as possible before we [the US] fall even further behind – our economy depends on it,” said Mr. Murray. As indeed does America’s democracy.

World Weather Gone Haywire: Effect On… and the Economy

My Comments: No, we are not doomed. But it’s worth paying attention to from time to time. If you are looking for solace, you won’t find it here. My cousin in England just wrote to tell me their weather is noxious and unpleasant. Have you thought about the price of vegetables and fruit in the coming months, stuff that we normally get from California? No rain there at all.

The people who give us economic data now say that the first quarter of 2014 saw really bad numbers. Early on it was an assumption that the economy was poised to enter another recession. Now, the powers that be say it was largely the weather. That’s a mixed blessing.

If you insist on keeping your head where the sun never shines, sooner or later it won’t matter how hot it is. Regardless of whether this is Gods’ plan, if the oceans continue to rise, life is going to be more difficult for my grandchildren. But I guess if God hasn’t yet told you the plan can be changed by paying attention to CO2 levels, you don’t have to worry about consequences. And anyway, I’ll be dead by then and my Tea Party friends can claim all the credit.

James Roemer / Feb. 19, 2014

Cold U.S. Winter Affecting Nation’s Economy

You have heard it on your local news for weeks, read about it in dozens of newspapers around the world and if you live in the deep south, Midwest or Northeast, have “felt” it first hand—the most severe U.S. winter since 1982, at a time when much of the rest of the planet continues to see overall warmer than normal weather.

Look for another potential big storm in the east around February 26th and at the very least, record cold weather next week into early March.

You can hear a broadcast on Bloomberg a while back talking about natural gas prices possibly going over $6.00 and discussing global warming, the Brazilian drought, etc.

The adverse weather is having a multi-billion dollar affect on our nation’s economy. Pipes are bursting in the Northeast, salt companies are running out of supplies to remove snow, and various businesses are running into more economic hardship, as a result of the weather. Florists saw national revenues fall 60% during the Valentine’s Day period, unable to deliver flowers to tens of thousands of loved ones.

Our $16 trillion economy can usually ward off a couple of snowstorms, but NOT the incessant nature of 3 consecutive months of brutal cold and near record snowfall, in which tens of thousands of flights are being cancelled every other week. Other industries such as plastic and rubber products, auto sales, etc. are also being hurt.

The drought in California (one of the top 8 economies in the world), could also have a trillion dollar affect on our nation’s economy as food bills could soar without widespread rains and winter snow cover in the next winter or two. If El Nino forms, this could all change. It’s something I am arduously looking into.

TK – the balance of this article is full of charts and comments that may influence you if you are a short term trader. My primary interest is the long term performance of clients money (and mine) so I tend to ignore short term issues as they are largely noise. But global warming is going to have a long term influence on virtually everything, including our money. To get to the site where you can see the charts and read the rest…
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Some Hints About Inflation

080519_USEconomy1My Comments: How many of you remember the inflation numbers from the late 70’s? 12% comes to mind. And was that ever exciting and frightening.

Since then, the people who pull most of the strings have been sensitive to this and have taken steps to keep inlfation under control. The other extreme from high inflation is deflation, which is bad no matter how much you hate inflation. Why is beyond the scope of this blog post.

So, we now have a new head of the Federal Reserve, the person with the most power when it comes to pulling strings. How this will all play out is anyone’s guess but play out it will, and you and I will have to pay attention if our future investment performance is important, and if we understand that the purchasing power of any given dollar in the future will determine if we are happy or not.

June 26, 2014 by Scott Minerd

U.S. Federal Reserve policymakers are dismissing as “noise” signs that inflation pressure is building, but perhaps they should be listening more closely.

Global CIO Commentary
U.S. Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen’s press conference last week came just hours after Consumer Price Index data revealed inflation of 2.1 percent year over year. Nevertheless, she was exceptionally dovish and sanguine on inflation. Yellen contended that even though the U.S. economy is near the Fed’s objectives of full employment and price stability, recent data on inflation was “noise” and there continues to be considerable underutilization in the labor market. This was only the most recent demonstration of a willingness among Fed policymakers to highlight any number of economic data points to support accommodative monetary policy. It came even though labor conditions are improving toward a level associated with the non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment (NAIRU); a tipping point of around 5.5 percent unemployment which has historically corresponded with a period of Fed tightening.

I am increasingly of the view that the Fed and investors are complacent about inflation. While a broad-based secular increase in inflation is most likely a problem for the next decade, there are a number of technical and cyclical forces working to push consumer prices higher. One technical factor is the one-time 2 percent Medicare payment cut which went into effect in 2013 and temporarily depressed healthcare costs for Medicare recipients. The recent increase in healthcare costs results largely from the year-over-year effects of this one-time cost reduction expiring.

Another inflation factor at work is shelter. With rental vacancy rates hovering near 13-year lows and new home sales soaring by 18.6 percent to an annualized pace of 504,000 units in May, we can expect a continued rise in shelter costs for the rest of the year and possibly into early 2015. As a result of these technical issues and the cyclical factors associated with the economic expansion and employment growth gathering pace, we are likely to see inflationary pressures continuing to build. It is clear that we have now passed the days of low inflation growth.

We are in the late stages of a bull market and, as I have noted before, bull markets do not die of old age, but typically end as a result of a policy misstep. If Fed policymakers want to avoid such a mistake, they might start listening more closely to the “noise.”

Chart of the Week

U.S. Shelter Inflation Likely Heading Higher

May’s Consumer Price Index (CPI) data surprised to the upside, with transportation and medical costs adding to the 0.3 percent month-over-month gain in core CPI. However, the biggest contributor to increasing consumer prices continues to be shelter costs, which account for over 40 percent of core CPI (and 22 percent of core Personal Consumer Expenditures (PCE), the Federal Reserve’s favored gauge of inflation). Shelter inflation measured by CPI is already up 2.9 percent from a year ago, and due to falling vacancy rates and gains in home prices, shelter costs could accelerate to nearly 4 percent growth over the next year, which would push core CPI well above 2 percent.

14-06-30 INFLATIONSource: Haver, Guggenheim Investments. Data as of 06/25/2014. Note: Model inputs include the rental vacancy rate (six-quarter lead), home prices (seven-quarter lead), and growth in working age population (24-quarter lead).

Guggenheim Partners, LLC is a global, independent, privately held, diversified financial services firm. For more information visit guggenheimpartners.com.

Ten Brands That Will Disappear in 2014

bruegel-wedding-dance-ouMy Comments: From time to time we see predictions about all sorts of things. But as time passes, they fade into oblivion and rarely do we consider whether any of those predictions came to pass.

We give great credence to those who make those predictions since they usually appear in print, or on television, and we tend to think those folks know what they are talking about. But you and I know that the future is unknowable. I frequently tell my clients that not only do I not know what the markets will look like a year from now, but I have no idea what I will have for supper today.

This was written about a year ago. Was he right?

By Douglas A. McIntyre May 23, 2013

Each year, 24/7 Wall St. identifies 10 important brands sold in America that we predict will disappear before 2014. This year’s list reflects the brutally competitive nature of certain industries and the importance of not falling behind in efficiency, innovation or financing.

The list also reflects how industry trends can accelerate the demise of certain brands. This year, we included two magazines — Martha Stewart Living and Road & Track. With print advertising in a multiyear decline, some magazines have weathered the decline better than others. These two, however, have suffered sharp drops in advertising revenue over the past five years. Magazines also carry the heavy legacy costs of printing, paper and distribution — a problem not shared by online-only competition.

Consumer electronics is another category with disappearing brands. The Barnes & Noble Nook is on the list. It competes with better-selling products made by larger companies — Apple and Amazon.com — and is also in the e-reader business, a shrinking industry. The Olympus digital camera also will disappear from store shelves by the end of 2014. Camera sales, especially point-and-shoot models, have been eroded by smartphones, which have increasingly high-quality cameras.

Yet another industry with two brands on our list is automobiles. Car sales are growing in the United States, but brands with market shares under half a percent cannot compete with companies that either produce high-luxury models like Mercedes-Benz or multiline giants like General Motors. Suzuki pulled out of the American market last year. Mitsubishi and Volvo will follow soon.

Looking back on last year’s calls list, we have had some winners, and some bad calls. Suzuki, MetroPCS and Current TV are all gone in the United States. American Airlines is part of a new company through its combination with U.S. Airways, though the American Airlines name lives on. Talbots was acquired by a private equity firm less than two months after we called it. Research In Motion is no longer a brand, having been renamed BlackBerry. We bungled our predictions regarding Avon, the Oakland Raiders and Salon.

We continue to use the same methodology in deciding which brands will disappear. The major criteria include:
1. Declining sales and losses;
2. Disclosures by the parent of the brand that it might go out of business;
3. Rising costs that are unlikely to be recouped through higher prices;
4. Companies that are sold;
5. Companies that go into bankruptcy;
6. Companies that have lost the great majority of their customers; and
7. Operations with withering market share.

Each brand on the list suffers from one or more of these problems. Each of the 10 will be gone, based on our definitions, within 18 months.
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