Tag Archives: investment advice

When Underperforming the S&P 500 Is a Good Thing

InvestMy Comments: I’ve spent time recently with clients talking about our mutual frustration with the performance of their investment portfolios over the past 18 months. They want their accounts to grow aggressively and I want them to grow aggressively, if for no other reason than it makes me look smart.

We can argue that the stock market is overdue for a crash, and that their respective portfolio managers are factoring that into the mix. The idea is to find ways to avoid the downturn since that alone makes it possible to make gains on the inevitable upturn.

Here is a perspective that will give you another way to look at this. I’m told patience is a virtue, but it’s still hard to come by.

Feb 1, 2015 | By Jeff Benjamin

As financial advisers roll through annual client reviews, many will face the task of having to explain how their portfolio strategies so badly lagged the 13.7% gain by the S&P 500 Index last year.

Fact is, a truly diversified investment portfolio should have returned less than 5% in 2014. It was that kind of year. Any adviser who generated returns close to the S&P was taking on way too much risk, and should probably be fired.

Blame the ever-expanding financial media or the increased awareness among investors, but there is no getting around the reality that clients have become programmed to dwell on the performance of a few high-profile benchmarks.

“Sure, the S&P 500 had a good 2014, and if you had all or most of your money invested in [that index], you did, too,” said Ed Butowsky, managing partner at Chapwood Capital Investment Management. “But what were you doing with most of your money in a single index?”

Most years, a globally diversified portfolio that spans multiple asset classes can hold its own relative to something like the S&P. But when a year like 2014 happens and the S&P essentially laps the field, financial advisers who have done their job might suddenly feel as if they have to make excuses for doing the right thing.

“Periods like 2014 are why people think they should just go buy the index,” said David Schneider, founder of Schneider Wealth Strategies. “Investors tend to fixate on the S&P because it’s the most famous index out there, and when it outperforms everything, it just makes the case for passive investing for all the wrong reasons,” he added. “People think they can just get rid of foreign stocks.”

While long-dated U.S. Treasuries emerged as a surprise outperformer last year with a 27.4% gain, most risk assets around the world didn’t even show up for the game.

Developed markets, as represented by the MSCI EAFE Index, fell 4.9% last year, and the MSCI Emerging Markets Index fell 2.2%.

SMALL CAP LAGGED

Midsize companies, as tracked by the Russell Midcap Index, generated a 13.2% gain last year and almost kept pace with the larger companies that make up the S&P 500. But the 4.9% gain by the Russell 2000 small-cap index shows that smaller companies were not really participating.

With everything packaged into a diversified portfolio, it would have been near impossible to generate anything eye-popping last year.

Applying allocations based on Morningstar Inc.’s five main target risk indexes, ranging from conservative to aggressive, the best performance last year would have been 5.23%, which includes a 1.51% decline during the second half of the year.

To get that full-year return would have required a 91% allocation to stocks, divided between 59% in U.S. stocks and 32% in foreign stocks.

That portfolio, Morningstar’s most aggressive, also included 4% in domestic bonds, 1% in foreign bonds and 4% in commodities, as an inflation hedge.

On the other end of the spectrum, the most conservative Morningstar portfolio had just an 18% allocation to stocks, including 13% domestic and 5% foreign. The 61% fixed-income weighting had 50.5% in domestic bonds and 10.5% in foreign bonds. The 10.5% inflation hedge included 2% in commodities and 8.5% in Treasury inflation-protected securities.

HISTORY LESSON

That portfolio gained just 3.38% last year but fell 0.73% during the second half of the year. “ History has taught us that at the beginnning of any 12-month period, stocks have as good a chance of gaining 44% as they do of losing 25%.” Mr. Butowsky said.

The onus is always on advisers to turn years like 2014 into teachable moments with clients, and a lot of advisers are doing exactly that.

Thomas Balcom, founder of 1650 Wealth Management, took a proactive approach in December by addressing the issue in his holiday greeting card message, which focused on “not putting all your eggs in one basket.”

“My clients were definitely surprised they weren’t up as much as the S&P, because everyone uses the S&P as their personal benchmark,” he said. “But we had things like commodity exposure and international stocks that were both down last year, and that doesn’t help when clients see the S&P reaching record highs.”

Veteran advisors recognize 2014 as a truly unique year for the global financial markets.

In 2013, for example, when the S&P gained 32.4%, developed international stocks gained 22.8%. But domestically, the S&P was outpaced by both mid- and small-cap indexes, meaning a diversified portfolio was riding on more than just the S&P’s positive numbers.

Prior to 2013, the S&P had outperformed international developed- and emerging-market stocks on only three other occasions since 2000. Domestically, the S&P has outperformed midcap and small-cap stocks only one other time since 2000, in 2011, with a 2.1% gain.

“It’s tough dealing with clients, because the S&P is the benchmark you can turn on the TV and hear about, and everyone wants to know why they aren’t experiencing the same returns as the S&P.” says Michael Baker, a partner at Vertex Capital Advisors.

“The S&P 500 really represents one asset class – large cap stocks,” he added. “And most investors only have about 15% allocated to large-cap stocks.”

7 Social Security Mistakes to Avoid

SSA-image-2My Comments: Social Security payments are a critical financial component of many lives these days. When it began in 1935, there was much gnashing of teeth among the political parties since it represented a recognition by the government that some people needed help. This was in a world recovering from the Great Depression and watching the developing threat of Communism in the Soviet Union.

Today, many millions of us pay into the system monthly and many millions of us receive a check every month. Some of us, like a client of mine, has a permanent disability that he was born with and qualifies for help with living expenses. He has never been able to earn a living and few surviving family members to help him get by from day to day.

I readily admit to an element of socialism in this process. But I live in a world of rules imposed on us by society where society has deemed it to be in the best interest of the majority that those rules exist. Like making us all drive on one side of the road instead of at random. Think about that for a minute if you choose to believe that society should have no role to play in our lives or that socialism is inherently evil.

Okay, enough political chatter. Here’s useful information about claiming benefits from the SSA.

by John F. Wasik / FEB 17, 2015

Most clients get lost trying to navigate Social Security on their own. There are about 8,000 strategies available for couples and more than 2,700 separate rules on benefits, according to the Social Security Administration. Yet most couples don’t explore all the possibilities; as a result, they end up leaving an estimated $100,000 in benefits on the table, reports Financial Engines, an online money management firm.

For many advisors, talking to clients about Social Security often means having a brief conversation that ends with the traditional advice of “wait as long as you can until you file.” But Social Security, with its myriad filing-maximization strategies, should play a much larger role in a comprehensive planning discussion.

Consider these basic questions: How do you ensure a nonworking spouse reaps the highest possible payment? Should the higher earner wait until age 70 to receive payments? What’s the advantage of taking benefits at age 62? Should clients take benefits earlier if they are in poor health? How can divorcees claim a benefit based on an ex-spouse’s earnings?

Clearly, there are several right and wrong routes to maximizing Social Security benefits. Here are some of the most common mistakes and how advisors can address them.

1. Not planning for opportunity cost
What’s the cost of waiting to take Social Security? How will withdrawals from retirement funds impact clients’ portfolios?

Advisors need to understand how a Social Security claiming strategy will affect a client’s net worth, notes Ben Hockema, a CFP with Deerfield Financial Advisors in Park Ridge, Ill. “If you wait to take Social Security, that will mean withdrawing more money from a portfolio,” he says. “The Social Security decision involves trade-offs.”

Hockema runs Excel spreadsheets in conjunction with specialized Social Security software to show clients what opportunity costs look like in terms of lower portfolio values, displaying return assumptions with graphs.

Many financial advisors point out that the answer is not always to wait until 70 to take Social Security. You have to take a broader view.

2. Failure to consider family history
What are the client’s family circumstances? What do they expect in terms of life expectancy? Have other relatives been long-lived?

Even if answers are imprecise, the discussions can provide valuable insights into how to plan Social Security claiming, say advisors who are trained in these strategies. But it’s the advisor’s role to tease out that information, notes CFP Barry Kaplan, chief investment officer with Cambridge Wealth Counsel in Atlanta. “People often have no clue” about the best Social Security claiming strategies, Kaplan says. “It’s complicated.”

3. Not integrating tax planning

One key question to consider: What are the tax implications of a particular strategy, given that working clients will be taxed on Social Security payments?

Here’s how Social Security benefits taxation works: If your clients are married and filing jointly, and their income is between $32,000 and $44,000, then they may have to pay tax on half of their benefits. Above $44,000, up to 85% of the benefits can be taxed.

For those filing single returns, the range is from $25,000 to $34,000 for the 50% tax and 85% above $34,000. Be sure you can advise your clients on how to manage their income alongside their Social Security benefits.

4. Failing to ask about ex-spouses
Be sure to ask your clients about their marital history, understand what they qualify for and analyze how it will impact their cash flow. Was the client married long enough to qualify for spousal benefits? How much was the client’s ex making? Be sure to walk through different options with clients.

Kaplan offers the example of a 68-year-old woman who was twice divorced: “She was still working, and it had been 20 years since her last marriage,” Kaplan says. “I then discovered … a former spouse’s income that netted my client an immediate $6,216 — six months in arrears — and would result in an additional $1,036 per month until age 70, for a total [of] $30,000 in additional benefits.”

Kaplan’s divorced client was able to claim benefits based on her first spouse’s earnings, which boosted her monthly payment considerably.

5. Overlooking spousal options
A key question to ask: Does the “file and suspend” strategy make sense in your clients’ situation? In this case, the higher-earning spouse can file for benefits, then immediately suspend them, allowing the monthly benefit to continue to grow even if the other partner receives the spousal benefit.

The result: The lower-earning spouse can collect benefits while the higher-earning spouse waits until 70 to collect the highest possible payment.

6. Not taking advantage of new tools
Although specialized software packages can generate a range of benefit scenarios, only 13% of planners use subscription-based tools designed for Social Security maximization. (Most planners do have some comprehensive planning tools available, but they may not integrate Social Security scenarios.)

Most planners rely upon the free and often confusing calculators from the Social Security Administration, along with online calculators and general planning software, according to a survey by Practical Perspectives and GDC Research.

That’s despite the fact that only a quarter of planners “are comfortable enough to plan and recommend Social Security strategies to clients,” the survey noted.
A detailed conversation about Social Security may be even less likely to occur with high-net-worth clients, according to the survey.

When you approach Social Security with your clients, consider that there are multiple nuances within the system’s rules that few practitioners have studied, and these could result in higher payments. You may need some of the sophisticated tools now available.

7. Dismissing it altogether
There’s another reason clients — and often planners — don’t drill down into Social Security strategies: They don’t think it will be available in coming decades.

But don’t write it off altogether. The truth is that Social Security’s trust fund, the money held in reserve to pay for future retirees, is adequate to pay full benefits until 2033. If Congress does nothing to address the funding shortfall, the government will pay three-quarters of benefits until 2088.

And Social Security is one of the most successful and popular government programs in history, so it’s difficult to bet against its long-term survival.

David Blain, president of BlueSky Wealth Advisors in New Bern, N.C., suggests that, in addition to carefully reviewing benefit statements and earnings records, advisors should explore other aspects of Social Security, including spousal, death and survivor benefits.

“You need to take it seriously,” Blain says about integrating Social Security into a plan. “Clients may not understand it and think it’s not going to be there for them.”

John F. Wasik is the author of 14 books, including Keynes’s Way to Wealth. He is also a contributor to The New York Times and Morningstar.com.

The First Sign of an Impending Crash

080519_USEconomy1My Comments: Another in a littany of warnings about pending doom. It gets a little tiresome,doesn’t it? Especially when there are others who swear the signs are there for continued gains. My gut tells me this guy is probably right.

By Jeff Clark Thursday, February 12, 2015

Investors have plenty of reasons to be afraid right now…

There’s the rapidly falling price of oil… The big decline in the value of global currencies… The Russian military action in the Ukraine… And the possibility of the European Union falling apart.

It’s unsurprising that many investors are looking for the stock market to crash. And – as I’ll show you today – we’ve seen the first big warning sign.

But here’s the thing…

Stock markets don’t usually crash when everyone is looking for it to happen. And right now, there are far too many people calling for a crash…

Once we get through this current period of short-term weakness that I warned about on Tuesday, the market is likely to make another attempt to rally to new all-time highs.

This will suck investors in from the sidelines… And get folks to stop worrying.

Then, later this year, when nobody is looking for it… the market can crash.

But for now, just to be on the safe side… Keep an eye on the 10-year U.S. Treasury note yield…

The 10-year Treasury note yield bottomed on January 30 at 1.65%. Today, it’s at 2%. That’s a 35-basis-point spike – a jump of 21% – in less than two weeks.

And it’s the first sign of an impending stock market crash.

As I explained last September, the 10-year Treasury note yield has ALWAYS spiked higher prior to an important top in the stock market.

For example, the 10-year yield was just 4.5% in January 1999. One year later, it was 6.75% – a spike of 50%. The dot-com bubble popped two months later.

In 2007, rates bottomed in March at 4.5%. By July, they had risen to 5.5% – a 22% increase. The stock market peaked in September.

Let’s be clear… not every spike in Treasury rates leads to an important top in the stock market. But there has always been a sharp spike in rates a few months before the top.

It’s probably still too early to be concerned about a stock market crash… But keep an eye on the 10-year Treasury note yield. If it continues to rise over the next few months, then you can start to worry.

Good investing,

Jeff Clark

Stock Buybacks Are Killing the American Economy

US economyMy Comments: This is a helpful analysis if you are like me and worried about our financial future.

Retirement planning and what to do with our money so it grows and remains safe for the future is what I do. I’m not sure I like it all the time, but at this stage of my life, doing something else is probably not in the cards.

What caught my attention here is that I had no idea anything was killing the American economy. But a quick read of this caused me to include these thoughts with those I have about income inequality and how, if left unchecked, will lead to social chaos in this country.

By Nick Hanauer / February 8, 2015

President Obama should be lauded for using his State of the Union address to champion policies that would benefit the struggling middle class, ranging from higher wages to child care to paid sick leave. “It’s the right thing to do,” affirmed the president. And it is. But in appealing to Americans’ innate sense of justice and fairness, the president unfortunately missed an opportunity to draw an important connection between rising income inequality and stagnant economic growth.

As economic power has shifted from workers to owners over the past 40 years, corporate profit’s take of the U.S. economy has doubled—from an average of 6 percent of GDP during America’s post-war economic heyday to more than 12 percent today. Yet despite this extra $1 trillion a year in corporate profits, job growth remains anemic, wages are flat, and our nation can no longer seem to afford even its most basic needs. A $3.6 trillion budget shortfall has left many roads, bridges, dams, and other public infrastructure in disrepair. Federal spending on economically crucial research and development has plummeted 40%, from 1.25 percent of GDP in 1977 to only 0.75 percent today. Adjusted for inflation, public university tuition—once mostly covered by the states—has more than doubled over the past 30 years, burying recent graduates under $1.2 trillion in student debt. Many public schools and our police and fire departments are dangerously underfunded.

Where did all this money go?

The answer is as simple as it is surprising: Much of it went to stock buybacks—more than $6.9 trillion of them since 2004, according to data compiled by Mustafa Erdem Sakinç of The Academic-Industry Research Network. Over the past decade, the companies that make up the S&P 500 have spent an astounding 54 percent of profits on stock buybacks. Last year alone, U.S. corporations spent about $700 billion, or roughly 4 percent of GDP, to prop up their share prices by repurchasing their own stock.

In the past, this money flowed through the broader economy in the form of higher wages or increased investments in plants and equipment. But today, these buybacks drain trillions of dollars of windfall profits out of the real economy and into a paper-asset bubble, inflating share prices while producing nothing of tangible value. Corporate managers have always felt pressure to grow earnings per share, or EPS, but where once their only option was the hard work of actually growing earnings by selling better products and services, they can now simply manipulate their EPS by reducing the number of shares outstanding.

So what’s changed? Before 1982, when John Shad, a former Wall Street CEO in charge of the Securities and Exchange Commission loosened regulations that define stock manipulation, corporate managers avoided stock buybacks out of fear of prosecution. That rule change, combined with a shift toward stock-based compensation for top executives, has essentially created a gigantic game of financial “keep away,” with CEOs and shareholders tossing a $700-billion ball back and forth over the heads of American workers, whose wages as a share of GDP have fallen in almost exact proportion to profit’s rise.

To be clear: I’ve done stock buybacks too. We all do it. In this era of short-term-focused activist investors, it is nearly impossible to avoid. So at least part of the solution to our current epidemic of business disinvestment must be to discourage this sort of stock manipulation by going back to the pre-1982 rules.

This practice is not only unfair to the American middle class, but is also demonstrably harmful to both individual companies and the American economy as a whole. In a recent white paper titled “The World’s Dumbest Idea,” GMO asset allocation manager James Montier strongly challenges the 40-year obsession with “shareholder value maximization,” or SVM, documenting the many ways that stock buybacks and excessive dividends have reduced business investment and boosted inequality. Almost all investment carried out by firms is financed by retained earnings, Montier points out, so the diversion of cash flow to stock buybacks has inevitably resulted in lower rates of business investment. Defenders of SVM argue that investors efficiently reallocate the profits they reap from repurchased shares by investing the proceeds into more promising enterprises. But Montier shows that since the 1980s, public corporations have actually bought back more equity than they’ve issued, representing a net negative equity flow. Shareholders aren’t providing capital to the corporate sector, they’re extracting it.

Meanwhile, the shift toward stock-based compensation helped drive the rise of the 1 percent by inflating the ratio of CEO-to-worker compensation from twenty-to-one in 1965 to about 300-to-one today. Labor’s steadily falling share of GDP has inevitably depressed consumer demand, resulting in slower economic growth. A new study from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development finds that rising inequality knocked six points off U.S. GDP growth between 1990 and 2010 alone.

It is mathematically impossible to make the public- and private-sector investments necessary to sustain America’s global economic competitiveness while flushing away 4 percent of GDP year after year. That is why the federal government must reorient its policies from promoting personal enrichment to promoting national growth. These policies should limit stock buybacks and raise the marginal rate on dividends while providing real incentives to boost investment in R&D, worker training, and business expansion.

If business leaders hope to maintain broad public support for business, they must acknowledge that the purpose of the corporation is not to enrich the few, but to benefit the many. Once America’s CEOs refocus on growing their companies rather than growing their share prices, shareholder value will take care of itself and all Americans will share in the benefits of a renewed era of economic growth.

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.

Medicare Advantage after PPACA

healthcare reformMy Comments: OK, I understand it; you’re sick and tired of posts about the PPACA and the crap our so-called leaders in Congress are doing to muddy the waters. Unfortunately, access to affordable health care is what tends to keep us alive, never mind that the system is mostly a sickness treatment system and not a wellness system.

The fact remains that the doom and crisis promoted by a certain political party in this country has not come to pass. Indeed, some of the most vigorous opponents are now cozying up to the idea by promoting a variant of it in their home states. This article talks about just one element of the national health debate.

Jan 25, 2015 | By Danielle Kunkle

For several years now we’ve heard warnings that billions of dollars in funding cuts to Medicare Advantage plans under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act will result in reduced benefits and higher premiums as well as smaller provider networks and fewer plans.

In fact, the Congressional Budget Office projected the cuts would result in three million fewer enrollees in MA over the long run.

In the short run, however, plans seem to have done a great job keeping coverage as affordable as possible, and enrollment in MA plans remains high.

There’s nothing like worrying about healthcare, especially how you’ll pay for it in retirement.

Will this trend continue? It’s hard to say. As of January 2015, only 20 percent of the total legislated cuts have been phased in, and while many seniors in MA plans already are absorbing higher cost-sharing, there’s been no tremendous public outcry thus far.

There’ve also been some measures enacted to mitigate some of the impact of those cuts that have been phased in already, so the real impact of PPACA on plans will become clearer in the next few years. Let’s take a look at the big picture.

PPACA changes how insurers are paid

Some legislators felt MA plans were being overpaid for the benefits they deliver, and that to bolster the solvency of Medicare itself, the nation needed to lower payments to MA insurers.

In essence, PPACA aims to slowly lower Medicare Advantage payments over time until the government pays the same amount per beneficiary whether they enroll in original Medicare or an MA plan. Most Medicare plans began receiving less pay in 2012 but the cuts are to be phased in from 2012–2017, so we have a ways to go yet.

Under PPACA, plans also can qualify for a bonus payment for providing better care. Plans have to report data detailing how many of their members are routinely getting preventive care under the plan, as well as how many get additional support in managing chronic conditions such as diabetes. Plans receiving higher star ratings get higher bonuses, with the desired result being that the bonus program will encourage plans to focus on delivering a higher quality of care, thus increasing the value of the health care dollars spent by consumers.

The downside is that some plans linger in the 3 to 3.5 range, and might not survive long enough to reach the 4 to 5-star level that provides needed benefit dollars to survive.

Mandated benefits changes
PPACA also introduced a new mandatory cap for all Medicare Advantage plans designed to cut member costs. The cap limits the total out-of-pocket costs a member can incur for Medicare covered services each year. The limit is set to $6,700 in-network right now, which is substantially lower than limits many plans had before the law and thus results in higher spending by the plan.

The law also stipulates that plans can no longer charge members more for than Original Medicare for certain services such as chemotherapy and skilled nursing. Plans have had to revise benefits to come in line with this rule, and this means they’ll pay out more than they did before.

Going forward overall, plans also must spend at least 85 percent of premiums gathered back out on benefit, and the remaining 15 percent must pay for marketing, administrative expenses and of course, profits.

Enrollment grows anyway

So, in light of all these scheduled funding cuts, why have we seen MA enrollment continue to grow? Well, there have been extenuating circumstances.

The American Action Forum gave testimony in July that plans have been largely shielded so far because the Administration has used demonstration program dollars to partially offset the first phases of PPACA benefit cuts.

These project dollars end in 2015. The Administration also has backed down two years in a row on proposed payment cuts. A scheduled 2 percent cut in MA payments in early 2014 was avoided when CMS announced a 3.3 percent increase in payments, and this allowed plans to keep some benefits that may otherwise have been cut.

These extra dollars have kept benefit changes relatively minor. The Kaiser Family Foundation reported that about half a million beneficiaries had to find new plans for 2014 because their prior plan was no longer available. Many argue beneficiaries are overwhelmed anyway with too many plan choices, so fewer plans could be a good thing.

Some other beneficiaries have experienced doctor changes. Shrinking networks have made national news this year, with one large carrier terminating as many as 15 percent of its in-network physicians. Trimming networks is a common way plans can absorb funding cuts without having to change benefits drastically. Doctors with a record of providing the most cost-effective care get to stay in the network while others are booted.

While this is always disruptive for the members affected, these beneficiaries generally switch to another Medicare Advantage plan rather than take on the added expense of Medigap. The same can be said for beneficiaries who saw MA premium increases, on average, of about $5 per month. A change like this doesn’t make someone suddenly want to go out and spend $150/month or more on a Medicare supplement. They simply change to a different Medicare Advantage carrier.

Agents who work in the senior market know that even small increases like a $5 increase in a doctor copay will often result in the member seeking to change plans. Unfortunately, when the other available plans also have had similar increases, members soon learn to just grin and bear the changes. So enrollment continues to grow because the people experiencing changes have nowhere else to go that’s more affordable.

Lastly, people new to Medicare are already used to health insurance plans with higher cost-sharing. They never experienced earlier plans that had richer benefits, and at age 64, many are paying many hundreds of dollars for insurance with high deductibles. To them, a Medicare Advantage plan with even a premium of $70 or more is a relief.

Calm before the storm?

What remains to be seen is how the plans will weather the rest of the cuts that are scheduled to phase in over the next few years, and how many times the Administration or Congress will step in to soften the cuts.

We’ve been kicking the can down the road for years on scheduled cuts to physician fees, and perhaps that’s the future for Medicare Advantage as well. Stay tuned.

Good Company, Bad Stock

retirement_roadMy Comments: This post is to remind you that stock market performance and the state of the economy do not follow the same track. From time to time there are close parallels, but they dance to a different drummer.

My arguments that the stock market is due for a crash are unrelated to the state of our economy. They are also unrelated to the name or party of the President in office at any given time. Obama cannot take credit for the current economic strength nor can G.W. Bush be blamed for the crash that happened in 2008. That I am also a Democrat is also irrelevant.

The stock market is going to crash again, and you need to be prepared if you have money exposed to what will be an unpleasant period. Period.

January 30, 2015 / Commentary by Scott Minerd

The U.S. economy is strong relative to other countries, but its equity valuations mean less upside potential for long-term investors than other areas of the world.

The U.S. economy is in the best shape out of any economy in the world, but it reminds me of a great business with a bad stock. Despite its underlying economic strength, I believe U.S. equity markets are likely to underperform those of less healthy economies in the long run. When I look around the world at economies that have many more problems than the United States, I see more upside potential for equity valuations and market performance in places like Europe, China and India.

Certainly, the United States is in a self-sustaining recovery—already the fifth-longest economic expansion since World War II. Despite noise this week around the 3.4% decline in durable goods orders, recent economic data releases continue to be positive: new home sales rose to a 6.5-year high and the Conference Board’s Consumer Confidence Index surged to 102.9 in January, the highest since August 2007. The U.S. economy remains the engine sustaining global growth, but when it comes to equity market valuations, a lot of the risk premia are out of the market.

One of my favorite macro-valuation tools is to compare total stock market capitalization to underlying gross domestic product (GDP). In the United States, this ratio is currently 134 percent, the highest level since the third quarter of 2003, the year this global comparison data became available. By the same measure, equity valuations in the euro zone, China and India are much lower. China’s equity market capitalization, for example, is 51 percent of its GDP, significantly below the previous high of 101 percent registered just prior to the global financial crisis.

As policymakers around the world introduce measures to reflate their economies and implement structural reforms to release growth potential, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Chinese, European, and Indian equities outperform U.S. stocks in the long run.

Switching to the bond market, I’ve been bullish since last fall that rates in the United States would decline to 2 percent or lower. In the near term, rates probably will fall further, but given that we’ve come more than 120 basis points since the beginning of January 2014 (as of yesterday’s close), it seems that the best part of the bull market in U.S. rates is over.

If it weren’t for quantitative easing in Europe and the deflationary shock coming out of oil, we would see U.S. rates meaningfully higher than they are today. With inflation likely to start picking up in the second half of the year, wage growth likely to start showing strength due to increases in minimum wage (20 states increased minimum wage effective Jan. 1), and the prospect that the Federal Reserve will probably increase rates at some point in the second half of the year, the vulnerability to rates rising will increase as the year plays out.

This will mean tough sledding for most of the bond market, but it’s not necessarily bad news for the U.S. economy. Even if rates rise modestly and a lot of the juice leaves the equity markets in 2015, the underlying economy is just fine and will continue to be just fine.

Foreign Markets May Offer More Growth Potential

U.S. stock market capitalization as a percent of GDP is at its highest level since the third quarter of 2003, the year this global comparison data became available. By the same measure, equity valuations in the euro zone, China and India appear much lower. As central banks in those countries implement policies to reflate their economies and structural reforms take hold, stock markets in those countries may present more attractive opportunities in the long run.