Tag Archives: Gainesville

Which Asset Allocation Mix Outperforms?

retirement-exit-2My Comments: Here are two charts, associated with the authors comments, that show very clearly that good financial planning for retirement is as much a matter of luck as it is skill. The first chart has numbers that reflect 45 years, which seems like a long time, until you remember that so many of us now live to be 100.

I’ve talked before about how interest rates have been declining slowly for the past 25 years. Soon (another variable), they will start trending upward. A 45 year average taken 10 years from now may show a very different number.

Creating the right mix of investments is, in my opinion, less of a challenge than is having the discipline to find a rational solution and stick with it. While “hope” is not a very good investment strategy, you can only hope to make good decisions, to find someone who will help you as a fiduciary, unless you’re prepared to go it alone, and live your life as well as you can.

It would be nice if there was a magic bullet, but there isn’t one.

by Craig L. Israelsen JUN 1, 2015

Over the past several decades, the number of investable asset classes has increased significantly, changing the world of portfolio management dramatically.

The challenge of asset allocation now is no longer having too few ingredients to consider but rather selecting among an ever increasing array of sector-specific mutual funds and exotic ETFs.

Choosing an asset allocation model for your clients’ portfolios is not so much about picking the right one — there’s no way to know which model will be right in advance of future performance — as it is about selecting a prudent one. Being prudent and thoughtful is certainly something an advisor can — and must — do in order to meet a fiduciary duty.
Toward that end, I reviewed a series of asset allocation models over the past 45 years, from 1970 through the end of 2014, to see how they fared.

Reviewing the historical performance of various core asset allocation models delivers a useful analysis of the relative merits of different allocations. The analysis should better equip advisors to evaluate a wide variety of investment models — particularly in the online investment advisory space, where new robo advisors are promoting models designed to appeal to a wide audience.

By definition, an asset allocation model must include more than one asset class. In this analysis, I have identified three asset allocation models: a 50% cash/50% bond model, a 60% stock/40% bond model and a seven-asset model. Two single asset classes (cash and large-cap U.S. stock) are also evaluated to serve as bookend benchmarks.

The first portfolio option shown in the “Asset Allocation Spectrum” chart below is a 100% cash model, composed completely of 90-day U.S. Treasury bills. As cash is viewed as the risk-free asset class in modern portfolio theory — inflation risks notwithstanding — we will use its returns and volatility as the base for comparison.
The 45-year annualized return for cash was 5.11%, with a standard deviation of annual returns of 3.45%. The average 10-year annualized rolling return was 5.64% over the 36 rolling 10-year periods between 1970 and 2014.

From there I looked at progressively more complex allocation models.

The first is a very simple one: 50% cash/50% U.S. aggregate bonds, rebalanced at the start of each year. Compared with 100% cash, this 50/50 allocation improved performance 143 basis points while only increasing volatility by 70 bps — a performance-to-risk trade-off of two to one. The average 10-year rolling return was just shy of 7%.

Next, I looked at a classic balanced fund: 60% large-cap U.S. stock and 40% U.S. bonds, rebalanced at the start of each year. Performance, as expected, was boosted significantly to 9.82%; the average rolling 10-year return also rose, to 10.35%. But there was a concomitant increase in volatility, with the standard deviation rising to 11.28%.

The third model used seven asset classes — large-cap U.S. stock, small-cap U.S. stock, non-U.S. developed-market stock, real estate, commodities, U.S. bonds and cash — in equal proportions, rebalanced annually.

The average annualized return was 10.12%, with a standard deviation of annual returns of 10.18% — a rare one-to-one return-to-risk trade-off. The average 10-year rolling return was 10.88%, 53 bps higher than the 60/40 model.

The final investment asset was 100% large-cap U.S. stock. As anticipated, it had a higher level of return — an annualized 10.48%, with average 10-year rolling return at 11.21% — but not by much. Meanwhile, with a standard deviation of 17.43%, volatility was far higher than both the 60/40 model and the seven-asset model.

The second part of this analysis compares three allocation models when used in a retirement portfolio — which is very sensitive to timing of returns, particularly large losses. (For that reason, I didn’t include a retirement portfolio consisting of 100% large-cap U.S. stock, as that approach is not prudent.)

The retirement portfolio was simulated over 21 rolling 25-year periods starting in 1970. The first 25-year period was 1970 to 1994, then 1971 to 1995, etc. A total of $455,741 was withdrawn during each rolling 25-year period. The ending balance after each 25-year period is shown in the “Retirement Survival” chart below.

This analysis assumed an initial nest egg balance of $250,000 — quite comfortable back in 1970, although fairly modest now — with an initial withdrawal rate of 5% (or $12,500 in year one) and an annual cost of living adjustment of 3%. Thus, the second-year withdrawal was 3% larger (or $12,875), and so on each year.

As a baseline, I included a retirement portfolio consisting of 100% cash, which fared reasonably well during the early periods (1970s and 1980s). Beginning with the 25 years starting in 1982, however, interest rates began a steady decline downward and an all-cash retirement portfolio began to crumble.

In fact, during the last two 25-year periods, the all-cash portfolio failed to last the full 25 years; hence the zero balance. An all-cash portfolio would also have been unable to keep up with inflation. The median ending account balance for an all-cash retirement portfolio was $332,615.

A 50% cash/50% bond retirement portfolio was a considerable improvement, surviving in every one of the 25-year periods, with median ending account balances of just over $570,000. However, in recent 25-year periods, the ending balance was far below that median figure.

The classic 60/40 stock/bond retirement portfolio has served retirees well over the past 45 years. The median ending balance for the 60/40 portfolio was in excess of $1.5 million. In fact, over one buoyant period — from 1975 to 1999 — this portfolio finished with an ending account balance of $3.9 million.

During that same 25-year period, an all-cash retirement portfolio ended with a balance of $391,702, and a 50% cash/50% bond portfolio finished the 25-year period with a balance of $611,308.

The superior approach, however — with a median ending balance of over $2.1 million — is the model using seven different asset classes.

I found it particularly interesting that, during the inflationary periods of the 1970s, the seven-asset model had considerably better performance as a retirement portfolio — finishing with a balance of $2,086,863 for the 1970 to 1994 period, while the 60/40 model ended up at $1,090,081. The pattern recurs in the first four 25-year periods.

Why that’s worth considering: Over the past 33 years — after the U.S. economy began to decline in 1982 — U.S. bonds have enjoyed an era of unusual prosperity. The average annualized return of U.S. bonds was 8.39% from 1982 to 2014.

But during the 34 years from 1948 to 1981, when interest rates were rising in the U.S. economy, bonds produced an average annualized return of 3.83%.

When interest rates eventually do rise, the performance tailwind for U.S. bonds that has been fostered by declining interest rates could turn into a stiff headwind. An asset allocation model that has a large commitment to U.S. bonds (such as the classic 60/40 portfolio) may be at risk — because if interest rates rise, bond returns will likely be far lower than over the past three decades.

This suggests that a more broadly diversified portfolio is prudent — both in the accumulation years and in the retirement years.

Craig L. Israelsen, a Financial Planning contributing writer in Springville, Utah, is an executive in residence in the personal financial planning program at the Woodbury School of Business at Utah Valley University. He is also the developer of the 7Twelve portfolio.

America Could Have Been One Giant Sweden — Instead It Looks a Lot Like the Soviet Union

My Comments: This is a long, uncomfortable article that predicts how the world might evolve economically and politically over the next several decades.

My generation will have passed on soon, but regardless of your political stripes today, it will be different. If you want to take back America, or at least preserve what we have, you had better get in touch with your socialist side. Either that, or kiss your basic freedoms goodbye. Life simply does not stand still; never has and never will.

By John Feffer / May 26, 2015

Imagine an alternative universe in which the two major Cold War superpowers evolved into the United Soviet Socialist States. The conjoined entity, linked perhaps by a new Bering Straits land bridge, combines the optimal features of capitalism and collectivism. From Siberia to Sioux City, we’d all be living in one giant Sweden. It sounds like either the paranoid nightmare of a John Bircher or the wildly optimistic dream of Vermont socialist Bernie Sanders.

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, however, this was a rather conventional view, at least among influential thinkers like economist John Kenneth Galbraith who predicted that the United States and the Soviet Union would converge at some point in the future with the market tempered by planning and planning invigorated by the market. Like many an academic notion, it didn’t come to pass. The United States veered off in the direction of Reaganomics. And the Soviet Union eventually collapsed. So much for “convergence theory,” which like EST or cold fusion went the way of most crackpot ideas.

Or did it? Take another look at our world in 2015 and tell me if, somehow we haven’t backed our way through the looking glass into that very alternative universe — with a twist. The planet currently seems to be on the cusp of a decidedly unharmonic convergence.

Consider what’s happening in Russia, where an elected autocrat presides over a free market shaped by a powerful state apparatus. Similarly, China’s mash-up of market Leninism offers a one-from-column-A-and-one-from-Column-B combination platter. Both countries are also rife with crime, corruption, growing inequality, and militarism. Think of them as the un-Swedens.

Nor do such hybrids live only in the East. Hungary, a member of the European Union and a key post-Communist adherent to liberalism, has been heading off in an altogether different direction since its ruling Fidesz party took over in 2010. Last July, its prime minister, Viktor Orban, declared that he no longer looks to the West for guidance.

To survive in an ever more competitive global economy, Orban is seeking inspiration from various hybrid powers, the other un-Swedens of our planet: Turkey, Singapore, and both Russia and China. Touting the renationalization of former state assets and stricter controls on foreign investment, he has promised to remake Hungary into an “illiberal state” that both challenges laissez-faire principles and concentrates power in the leader and his party.

The United States is not exactly immune from such trends. The state has also become quite illiberal here as its reach and power have been expanded in striking ways. As it happens, however, America’s Gosplan, our state planning committee, comes with a different name: the military-industrial-homeland-security complex. Washington presides over a planet-spanning surveillance system that would have been the envy of the Communist apparatchiks of the previous century, even as it has imposed a global economic template on other countries that enables enormous corporate entities to elbow aside local competition. If the American tradition of liberalism and democracy was once all about “the little guy” — the rights of the individual, the success of small business — the United States has gone big in the worst possible way.

Yellen’s problem with US felons

My Comments: We are a nation of approximately 316 million people, of which roughly 30% are “youth dependent” and 20% are “elderly dependent”. This leads me to assume that roughly half of us are capable of employment of some kind.

The next assumption is that if the employable number of people is about 158 million, and of those, 13 million have a criminal record, about 8% of the workforce has a red flag somewhere in the system.

Some of these people have limited education and work related skills. A common observation of prison populations is that few of them know how to walk and chew gum at the same time. That’s probably unfair, but I didn’t put them there.

All this means that if you are going to work toward keeping the level of unemployment down and limiting the amount of money thrown at people not now in the work force, we might be better off spending money on the development of employable skills and reducing the penalty for smoking pot. Unless you like building new prisons and make money by managing them.

Edward Luce | February 22, 2015

Some 13m Americans with a criminal record weigh on unemployment rate

When we think of crowded US prisons, we do not usually turn to economists — still less central bankers. Yet America’s steep rate of incarceration must be high on the list of what keeps Janet Yellen up at night.

Markets will be waiting to pounce on the US Federal Reserve chair’s slightest nuance in her congressional testimony this week. Will the central bank lift rates in June or September? The key to her thinking lies in the US labour force participation rate. If it improves, the Fed can keep rates at zero without fear of wage inflation. If it stays put, Ms Yellen may have to end the party far sooner.

Much has been made of the sharp fall in US unemployment in the past few months; it is now at just 5.7 per cent. But if the same number of Americans were active in the labour force today as at the start of the recession in 2007, the jobless rate would be almost 10 per cent. The labour force participation rate — the basis for calculating joblessness — has fallen to 62.8 per cent of adults today from a peak of 67.3 per in 2000.

Some of this fall is the result of changing demographics. The baby boomers are starting to retire. Some of it comes from the expansion of the US disability benefit, which pays millions more people to stay out of work than it used to.

What is often overlooked, however, is the starring role of the US criminal justice system. Critics of America’s willingness to hand out criminal records think of it as a social blight. It is also a crime against the economy. The numbers are staggering. At 2.3m, the US prison population is the highest in the world — close to the combined numbers of people locked up by China and Russia, and more than 10 times those of France, Germany and the UK combined. Think of it as a democratic gulag. It is almost double where it was in 1991. That means the US has millions more ex-convicts than it used to, the large majority of whom are routinely screened out by employers.

But the taint of a criminal past affects a far larger pool of people than felons, who number about 13m. Almost one in three adult Americans, about 75m people, are included on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s criminal database. Details for roughly half those names are incomplete. To enter the FBI’s list, you need not have been convicted in a court — merely arrested at one time or another.

Most employers carry out background searches on job applicants and screen out those with criminal records. Among those whose applications would instantly be deleted is Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, because of a 1977 arrest for a traffic violation. So too would that of George Clooney. He was arrested in 2012 for demonstrating outside the Sudanese embassy in Washington.

During the 1990s the US achieved close to full employment. This coincided with a shift to zero tolerance policing. About half of US states still have a “three strikes and you’re out” automatic jailing rule. But for most employers one strike is enough — and there is a good chance it was misreported. Persuading the FBI to expurgate your record, or amend it, is virtually impossible. That bouncing cheque that you wrote to your landlord in 1997 will probably show up as a “misdemeanour” until your dying day. Names are kept on the FBI’s database for 110 years. Among the
millions defined by labour statistics as “discouraged”, or who have stopped looking for work altogether, a high share had their discouragement thrust upon them.

What can Ms Yellen do about it? Not much directly. A year ago she tried to highlight the stigma of long-term unemployment — employers’ reluctance to hire people who had been out of work a long time. Two of those she cited had criminal records. She was pilloried for having failed to disclose that detail — yet her examples were on the money. She could also demand that questions about criminal records be included in the monthly labour force survey, and in surveys of employer attitudes. The US government gathers a lot of detail about households. It should add criminal records to its questionnaires.

She ought also to give a pat on the back to the Ban the Box movement, which persuades employers to remove questions about criminal records from screening forms. The information is disclosed at a later stage in the interview process, by which time companies are likelier to see your plus points. Ban the Box has been adopted by a few big companies, including Walmart, the retailer, which last week announced it would raise hourly wages. Ms Yellen should also give a thumbs up to the Redeem Act — a bill sponsored by Cory Booker, the Democratic senator, and Rand Paul, the Republican senator. The law would allow Americans to expunge non-violent crimes from the records. She might also try to shame the FBI into maintaining accurate data.

None of these steps alone would expand the US labour market in time to alter the Fed’s calculations. But together they would help lower a big structural barrier to US growth. Ending the three strikes rule would have a more lasting impact. It would also make America fairer. Ms Yellen has the biggest economic bully pulpit in the world. She should spell out the hidden costs of America’s tendency to criminalise.

Medical Identity Theft Rising Fast

rolling-diceMy Comments: If ever there was a 21st century crime, this is it. We’ve all read about what happened to Target Stores and others where customer information was stolen. What we don’t often think about in this context are our own medical records, scattered across the health care landscape which we inhabit.

I’ve been aware of it’s significance since becoming aligned with a firm in Duval County called Caduceus Consulting. They’ve developed a professional liability policy that provides legal help for any physician or dentist exposed to a cyber threat. You can find an overview of it here:

The threat is real, and it can be expensive to remedy. Even if you only suspect a breach, EVERY possible patient whose name and records are in your records must be notified and advised. For the owners of a medical practice, to which law firm do you turn for help? Who has the technical undestanding and skills to help make the problem go away? Can you make it go away? How many thousands of dollars will it cost?

To the extent you are a physician or dentist in Florida, I have a very low cost solution to mitigate this threat to your future financial security.

Feb 25, 2015 | By Dan Cook

Medical identify theft increased by nearly 22 percent in 2014 compared to 2013. And this tough-to-contain realm of fraud will likely continue to grow due to conditions that have created fertile ground for this particular crime.

That’s one major takeaway from the fifth annual study of medical identity fraud released by the Ponemon Institute and the Medical Identity Theft Alliance, nonprofits dedicated to investigating the causes and ramifications of medical identify theft and finding ways to counter its spread.

The report does not take into account the Anthem hack, in which as many as 80 million consumers had their personal data stolen.

“Medical identity theft is costly and complex to resolve,” the groups’ study concludes. The study attempts to estimate that cost and outlines the reasons for its stubborn persistence.

Among the major outcomes of this study:
• Health care providers are not doing enough to secure patients’ medical records;
• Health care providers don’t respond in a consistent or timely manner when fraud is suspected or has occurred;
• Medical identify theft victims frequently don’t learn that their ID has been stolen until three months following the theft;
• Once they find out, it often takes months — and an average of 200 hours — to resolve a case;
• The cost to resolve the average incident is $13,500, a cost often paid by the victim;
• Many victims either don’t know who to report theft to, or are afraid to report it for a variety of reasons;
• Many victims report their identify was stolen by someone they knew, most likely a relative;
• Consumers and health care organizations believe the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act has made medical identify theft more common due to insecure insurance websites;
• Theft generally occurs to access medical services and products, not to steal a patient’s identity for more general purposes.

The study’s authors said that, while such theft can’t be prevented, there are steps that can be taken to reduce its spread. They include:
• Monitoring of credit reports and billing statements for evidence of theft;
• Check in periodically with the primary care physician to ensure accuracy of medical records;
• When a consumer suspects identity theft, one should contact a professional identity protection provider for follow-up;
• Education of insured individuals about the risks of sharing medical identity information even with close relatives;
• Health care and other organizations that are responsible for securing patient information should have systems in place to authenticate all patients seeking services.

The full study, which is chock-a-block with details about this growing threat, can be found here

Which Trust to Use?

will with clockMy Comments: First, a DISCLAIMER: I am NOT an attorney and it would be best if no one accuses me of practicing law without a license. There’s an ongoing issue about this in Florida right now.

But I do get asked questions about trusts and it helps to have a little basic knowledge. I also know several qualified attorneys whose names I will share if asked. This is to help you get started if you have questions. Know too that the rules about step-up in basis may be invalidated soon.

by Ingrid Case / FEB 5, 2015

Trusts, which can range from simple to extremely complex, are a standard tool in the anti-estate-tax arsenal.

There is just one firm rule: If the trust benefits a spouse, “you must cause the trust to be included in the second spouse’s estate, for estate- tax purposes,” says Samuel Donaldson, a professor of law at Georgia State University. “There may be a lot of gain inside the trust. Because it’s subject to estate tax, it gets the step-up in basis. If it’s not included in the second spouse’s estate, the assets would have the same basis as at the first spouse’s death.”

Trust options include, but are certainly not limited to:
Credit shelter trust: If, between the first spouse’s death and the second, the estate is likely to grow beyond what the portability will shelter, Donaldson suggests that members of a couple leave everything outright to the surviving spouse, but put a provision in the will saying that disclaimed assets must pass into a credit shelter trust. “Which to choose depends on the assets, the expected appreciation between the two deaths, the consumption habits of the surviving spouse, and the estate-tax exemption in place at the second spouse’s death,” Donaldson says.

Clayton QTIP trust: Clients who want to leave assets in trust for the surviving spouse (and potentially other beneficiaries) should use a Clayton QTIP trust, Donaldson suggests. “It’s just like an ordinary QTIP, but to the extent that you do not make a QTIP election on the assets sitting inside the trust, the unelected assets pour over automatically into a credit shelter trust,” he says.

Spousal limited access trust: This irrevocable trust lets clients use their gifting exemption while still retaining access to the gifted assets. Spouses each create an irrevocable trust and contribute assets up to their exemptions. Each spouse is the beneficiary of the other spouse’s SLAT; spouses can also name additional beneficiaries. No estate taxes are due on the trust assets at the death of either spouse. “You can withdraw assets on a limited basis, and you have control over how assets are invested. The spouse can access the trust if they are otherwise out of money — it’s the spare gas tank. If the spouse doesn’t need it, the beneficiaries get it,” says Charles Bennett Sachs, principal at Private Wealth Counsel in Miami.

Irrevocable life insurance trust: Inside or outside a trust, life insurance can help beneficiaries pay estate taxes. When the death benefit is paid to a trust instead of an estate or individual, it stays outside the estate’s taxable value. Transfer an existing policy to a trust at least three years before the donor dies, however, or the IRS will consider the death benefit part of the taxable estate.

Charitable remainder trusts: “Assets can pay to a client for life, to children for life, and to grandchildren for a period of time, and then go to charity,” Munro says.

Irrevocable trusts: These can serve as vehicles for transferring a business to the next generation. Bruce Brinkman, a planner at Allen, Gibbs & Houlik in Wichita, Kan., cites as an example some clients whose estate is worth close to $30 million and who have a $6 million estate-tax liability. They want to move a company they own out of their estate now, before it appreciates further. To minimize estate tax, Brinkman recommends that they gift about half the company to an irrevocable trust, with the three adult children as beneficiaries. Appreciation and distributions will happen outside the estate and will not be subject to income tax — and the trust can use the distributions to buy the other half of the company over 10 to 15 years.

7 Quick Points On Europe

europeMy Comments: My purpose with this post is to confuse you. Yes, that’s right, to confuse you. That’s because even though I claim to be a financial professional of almost 40 years duration, I’m confused. And I don’t want to feel alone.

This came across my inbox inside a newsfeed I look at daily which suggests it’s not that esoteric. The title itself lends it credibilty. That’s because most of us are interested in making our money grow and that Europe’s financial state over the next several months is critical. But it may just be an example of an economist talking to himself.

It’s not too long so I ask you to read it and let me know, if you can, just what it means. Thanks.

Ben Hunt, Epsilon Theory / Jan. 28, 2015

#1) Here are the most relevant recent notes for an Epsilon Theory perspective on the underlying political and market risks in Europe: “The Red King” (July 14, 2014) and “Now There’s Something You Don’t See Every Day, Chauncey” (Dec. 16, 2014).

#2) Markets reacted positively to last Thursday’s announcement because Draghi doubled the amount of QE that he leaked to the press on Wednesday. Financial media pegged QE at 600 billion euros on Wednesday and 1.2 trillion euros on Thursday. Once again, Draghi played the Narrative game like a maestro.

#3) This is NOT open-ended QE. Sorry, but the Narrative game doesn’t work like this. If you mention a target date (September 2016), then that becomes the Schelling focal point, no matter how much you try to walk that back by saying it’s open-ended.

#4) Risk-sharing, or the lack thereof, matters. Draghi won approval of a doubled QE target by minimizing the mutualization of QE risk among EU countries. 80% of the bond-buying will be done by national central banks, and Germany will only buy German government bonds, France will only buy French bonds, etc. That’s important for two reasons. First, if Italy or Spain goes off the rails, then the Bundesbank’s balance sheet isn’t immediately crippled.

Second, this is why German bonds are rallying just as hard (harder, really) than periphery bonds. It’s also why US bonds are rallying so hard, because you can’t maintain a huge spread between the only risk-free rates left in the world.

#5) Market complacency on Greece is a mistake. Not because Greece itself is a huge systemic threat, but because the same political dynamics in Greece are coming soon to Italy. Greece is Bear Stearns. Italy is Lehman.

#6) In tail-risk trades as in comedy, timing is everything. Even if you think that it’s an attractively asymmetric risk/reward profile to bet on a Euro crisis (and I do), this is a heavily negative carry trade. If you don’t know what the phrase “negative carry trade” means, then please don’t make this bet. If you do know what it means, then you know that you either have to play a lot of hands to make the odds work out for you (and the nature of systemic crises makes that impossible) or you have to be spot-on with your timing.

#7) In a fundamentals-driven market you need to look at fund flows; in a Narrative-driven market you need to look at Narrative flows. With Draghi’s announcement last Thursday, there is no longer a marginal provider of market-supportive monetary policy Narrative. Or to put this in game theoretic terms, the 2nd derivative of the Narrative of Central Bank Omnipotence just flipped negative. We’ve shifted from an accelerating Narrative flow to a decelerating Narrative flow, and that inflection point in profoundly important in game-playing. The long grey slide of the Entropic Ending begins.

The Good News Behind GDP’s Decline

Bruegel-village-sceneMy Comments: For almost four years now, I’ve posted ideas and comments that related to the economy, to investing, sometimes to politics, sometimes just weird stuff. The idea was to give me an outlet where I could be free to share ideas that I thought might be helpful to friends and clients and whomever happened across my posts.

This post and the next are an attempt to help anyone get a better handle on what is happening to the economy, and to a lesser extent, how you should prepare to have your money invested going forward. The next big thing we can look forward to is a rise in interest rates.

Commentary by Scott Minerd, February 05, 2015

As the U.S. economy maintains its momentum and with the euro zone showing signs of improvement, all eyes are now on the Fed’s next move on rates.

On Friday, it was announced that U.S. gross domestic product rose an annualized 2.6 percent in the fourth quarter—a marked slowdown from the 5 percent growth we witnessed in the third quarter of 2014. But what the market took to be bad news was actually a sign of economic strength.

Falling net exports subtracted a full percentage point from GDP growth. But net exports—exports minus imports—only looked relatively weak because consumer demand for imports was so strong, growing at an annualized rate of 8.9 percent quarter over quarter. In fact, this past December, U.S. companies imported $48.8 billion worth of consumer goods, an all-time record figure.

In the fourth quarter, household consumption was the main driver of GDP growth, up by over 4 percent. This is a positive sign for the U.S. economy, particularly when considering that nearly 70 percent of economic activity in the United States stems from private consumption.

Durable goods orders, which fell by 3.4 percent in December, also rattled investors when the number was released last week. Durable goods orders is the one data set I actively ignore—it is one of the most volatile economic indicators and is often revised significantly from one month to the next. Taken in isolation, a one-month drop in durable goods orders does nothing to support the thesis of a weaker economy.

Fluctuation just means some big order came through or some big order didn’t come through, and it should not move markets. That investors latched onto the weak durable good numbers is, I believe, as misguided as their take on the GDP print. Economic fundamentals in the United States remain sound.

The economic environment in Europe is also showing signs of improvement, and I expect this trend to continue throughout the year. Loan growth is picking up, quantitative easing starts in March, and while the latest Greek tragedy plays out in Athens, I expect European policymakers will be diligent in not allowing Greece to write off any of its debt for fear such an occurrence may inspire others, such as Spain or Portugal, to demand the same.

As the global economy gains strength and U.S. economic data continues to improve, investors are now likely to focus on the Federal Reserve’s next move. In an interview with Bloomberg last week, James Bullard, president of the St. Louis Fed, expressed his view that investors are wrong to expect the Federal Reserve to postpone an interest-rate increase beyond midyear, citing the decline in unemployment levels and the underlying momentum in the U.S. economy.

Bullard is a policymaker I hold in high regard and, judging by his comments, market chatter of interest rates hikes being postponed into 2016 now appears overdone. In all likelihood, given policymakers’ concern that the economy will overheat if they leave rates too low for too long, I think that a rise in rates somewhere between September and December is a fair estimate.

Import Growth Is a Good Sign for the U.S. Economy
Though fourth-quarter GDP came in below expectations at 2.6 percent, much of the apparent weakness was due to falling net exports, which subtracted a full percentage point from the growth figure. But net exports fell because imports grew at a faster rate, a sign of strong domestic demand. In other words, the same factors that are leading to a healthy growth rate in consumption, such as an improving labor market and increased consumer confidence, are also causing higher demand for imports.

The bottom line is that the U.S. economy is doing very well and looks set to continue this momentum.