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7 Social Security “did you know” moments to consider

My Comments: For millions of us, Social Security is a critical component and source of income as we attempt to flourish and enjoy our retirement. For those of you who decry the idea of ‘socialism’, I encourage you to attempt to finish your life without every cashing one of your monthly checks.

Yes, you might prefer to have never paid into the system, but pay in your must. Years ago, people we elected to serve in public office at the national level determined that it was in society’s best interest that the elderly not be reduced to living in the streets or under bridges.

Over time, it’s appropriate for us to re-evaluate those decisions. That’s what we’re doing now. I have confidence the aforementioned choices made by our elected leaders will be confirmed and re-affirmed. Democratic Socialism is a viable economic model for us to follow.

Sean Williams, The Motley Fool Published 7:00 a.m. ET May 5, 2018

Social Security arguably is the most important social program in this country, but you wouldn’t know that by quizzing the American public on their knowledge of the program.

Back in 2015, MassMutual Financial Group did just this and found that only 28% of the more than 1,500 respondents could pass its straightforward, 10-question, online true-false quiz with at least seven correct answers. Such poor results suggest that most seniors are likely to leave money on the table or make a non-optimal claiming decision during their golden years.

The fact of the matter is that the American public doesn’t know much about Social Security. And while there’s a laundry list of things they don’t know, the following seven facts stand out most of all.

1. Did you know that Social Security is only designed to replace 40% of your working wages?

To begin with, you may or may not be aware that Social Security is not meant to be a primary source of income for retired workers. When it was signed into law in 1935, its purpose was to provide a financial foundation for lower-income workers during retirement.

Today, the Social Security Administration (SSA) suggests that benefits be relied on to replace about 40% of working wages, with this percentage perhaps a bit higher for low-income workers and lower for well-to-do workers. By comparison, 62% of current retirees lean on Social Security to account for half of their monthly income. That’s a bit worrisome, as the average check for retired workers is only $1,410 per month.

2. Did you know that the Social Security Administration can withhold some or all of your benefits, depending on when you claim?

Claiming benefits before your full retirement age — the age where you become eligible to receive 100% of your monthly benefit, as determined by your birth year — may entitle the SSA to withhold some or all of your benefits. If you won’t reach your full retirement age in 2018, the SSA is allowed to withhold $1 in benefits for every $2 in earned income above $17,040. Meanwhile, if you’ll reach your full retirement age in 2018 but have yet to do so, the SSA can withhold $1 in benefits for every $3 in earned income above $45,360.

The good news is you’ll get every cent withheld back in the form of a higher monthly payment once you hit your full retirement age — likely between 66 and 67 years old. The bad news is it’ll prevent most folks from double dipping with working wages and Social Security income prior to hitting their full retirement age — i.e., between the ages of 62 and 66 to 67.

3. Did you know that Social Security benefits may be taxable?

Believe it or not, your Social Security benefits may be taxable at the federal and/or state level. If your adjusted gross income plus half of your Social Security income totals more than $25,000 as a single filer, half of your Social Security benefits are taxable at federal ordinary income tax rates. For couples filing jointly, this figure is $32,000. A second tier allows 85% of Social Security benefits to be taxed above $34,000 for single filers and north of $44,000 for couples filing jointly.

What’s more, 13 states tax Social Security benefits to some extent. A few, like Missouri and Rhode Island, have exceptionally high income exemptions, allowing most retired workers to escape state-level taxation. Others, like Vermont and West Virginia, mirror the federal tax schedule and can act as a double whammy for seniors.

4. Did you know that Social Security offers a mulligan?

You probably aren’t aware that there’s a do-over clause built into Social Security if you regret claiming benefits early. Beneficiaries are allowed to undo their claim within 12 months of receiving benefits if they file Form SSA-521 or a “Request for Withdrawal of Application.” The catch? First, you only have 12 months to make this choice, and second, you’ll have to repay every cent you’ve received from Social Security in order to undo your original filing.

The benefit of this mulligan is that it’ll allow your benefits to grow once again at 8% per year, until age 70. It’s as if your claim was never made. Seniors who wind up going back into the workforce shortly after they start receiving Social Security income usually benefit the most from SSA-521.

5. Did you know that your claiming decision may be about more than just you?

Deciding when to take benefits might be one of the most important decisions a senior citizen will make. However, it may be an equally important decision for their spouse.

In addition to providing retired worker benefits, Social Security provides benefits to the disabled and the survivors of deceased workers. If a high-earning spouse passes away, a lower-earning spouse may be able to claim survivor benefits based on their deceased spouse’s earnings history, assuming the survivor benefit pays more per month that the low-income worker’s own retirement benefit. If a high-earning spouse enrolls for benefits early — i.e., before his or her full retirement age — it can adversely impact the survivor benefit that the lower-income spouse receives.

6. Did you know Social Security isn’t going bankrupt?

Surprise! Despite a pervasive myth that Social Security is spiraling into bankruptcy, I can assure you that it’s not.

Social Security is funded three ways:

  • A 12.4% payroll tax on earned income up to $128,400, as of 2018.
  • The taxation of Social Security benefits.
  • Interest earned on almost $2.9 trillion in asset reserves.

The secret sauce here is the 12.4% payroll tax, which accounted for 87.3% of the $957.5 billion collected by the program in 2016. As long as Americans keep working and Congress leaves the funding mechanism for the program as is, there will always be money collected that can be disbursed to eligible beneficiaries.

Mind you, this doesn’t mean the current payout schedule is sustainable. Social Security’s Board of Trustees projected last year that sweeping benefit cuts of up to 23% may be needed by 2034 to sustain payouts through 2091.

7. Did you know it’s been 35 years since the program’s last overhaul?

Finally, were you aware that it’s been 35 years since Congress last enacted a sweeping overhaul to the Social Security program? Sure, it’s tweaked a few things over the years, but it hasn’t made any major adjustments in over three decades.

That’s disturbing for one big reason: Social Security is facing a $12.5 trillion cash shortfall between 2034 and 2091, and lawmakers are simply kicking the problem under the rug. Make no mistake about it, Democrats and Republicans each have a core fix for Social Security that works. Unfortunately, with politics in Washington highly partisan, no middle-ground solution has been reached.

While there’s much more to learn about Social Security, these seven facts offer a solid foundation on which to build your wealth of knowledge.

 

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What’s Next For Investments???

My Comments: You have not heard much from me lately. That’s because I’ve been spending hours and hours building an internet course on retirement planning. I’m not there yet but soon will be. Keep following this blog and you’ll get an announcement when it’s ready.

In the meantime, we’re at the end of Quarter 1 of 2018 and it was an interesting quarter for a lot of reasons. For those of you with time on your hands and sufficient interest to explore the details, the following article from The Heisenberg Report is revealing. Whether it helps you make money or helps you not lose money remains to be seen.

Go HERE if you are ready to wade through 8 pages of commentary and graphs. The conclusion you will discern is that market complacency is diminishing rapidly and that something uncomfortable is likely to happen soon.

Vanguard’s Chairman Sees Muted Decade for Stocks After Long Rally

My Comments: Little is said these days about those who are investing for the future and are still working vs those investing for the future who are no longer working. Think of it as being defined as the accumulation phase of your life vs the distribution phase of your life.

Different rules apply. Vanguard Funds founder John Bogle famously suggested that the bond part of your portfolio, presumably the ‘safe’ part, should be equal in percentage terms to your age. If you were 70, for example, 70% of your portfolio should be in bonds.

Demographics, interest rates, and the profusion of new financial products has largely put Bogle’s dictum to bed. But it does illustrate the continued confusion caused by those who fail to recognize the difference between someone in their 50’s working hard to accumulate a sufficient pile of money for retirement from someone in their 70’s trying to make sure they don’t run out of money before they run out of life.

We are currently conditioned to positive returns from the markets, except for 2015, that started as we emerged from the Great Recession of 2008-2009. Those of you in the distribution phase of your life need to heed the warning expressed here.

By Nico Grant | January 17, 2018

F. William McNabb, Vanguard Group’s chairman, cautioned investors to consider reducing their stock exposure before the nearly 9-year-old rally ends.

“We would expect the next decade to actually be very modest on the equities side in the U.S., a little less so in Europe and a little less so in Asia,” McNabb said in a Bloomberg Television interview that aired Thursday. “But it’s still overall lower than long-term historical averages.”

Stock markets reached a fever pitch in 2017 as the S&P 500 Index hit record highs and the rally has continued this year. The advance, buoyed by low interest rates around the world, economic growth and the U.S. tax overhaul, has sparked concerns that valuations have gotten stretched, spurring some investors to brace for a decline.

McNabb, whose firm oversees about $5 trillion, said long-term investors may benefit by holding balanced portfolios with bonds as well as stocks.

“No one can predict what’s going to happen in the next 12 months,” he said. “Having just said that, I’m sure the equity market will continue to skyrocket for the next few months.”

McNabb, who ceded the role of chief executive officer of the Valley Forge, Pennsylvania-based firm to Tim Buckley this month, spoke to Bloomberg in Beijing, where Vanguard is eager to take advantage of China’s opening to foreign financial-services companies. The country’s government said it plans to remove ownership limits on banks and allow overseas firms to take majority stakes in local ventures.

“With some of the changes, it looks like there may be a path to doing retail mutual funds, depending on how things get interpreted,” McNabb said.

Trump’s Looming Bust-up with China is Bad News for 2018

My Comments: Having more money to spend in retirement requires a delicate balance between living cautiously and making sure your funds are growing properly. If you stay alive, the money to pay your bills has to come from somewhere.

All that is to say that global economics is going to play a role in your future financial affairs, whether you understand it, like it, or don’t give a hoot about it. My efforts to help my friends and clients is to try and provide insights to help you get it right and have more money rather than less money.

Trump has already conceded economic hegemony to China on the global stage by refusing to participate in the Trans-Pacific Partnership. That alone is going to limit your financial future over the next several decades. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

by Edward Luce / January 3, 2018

Flattery gets you everywhere with Donald Trump. But only while it lasts. Like any addiction, it needs regular boosts in higher doses. Amid fierce bidding, China’s Xi Jinping won first prize as 2017’s most effective Trump flatterer. All it took was a lavish banquet in the Great Hall of the People. In return, Mr Trump forgot to raise America’s trade complaints or human rights. Mr Xi easily outflanked the US at the Asian summits following Mr Trump’s China visit. If the key to seducing him is a dish of Kung Pao chicken, what’s not to like?

The problem is that Mr Xi must continually feed Mr Trump. At a certain point, the ratio of Trump flattery to loss of self-respect will be too high. Would another flurry of trademark approvals for Ivanka Trump break China’s bank? Probably not. What about giving the go-ahead for a Trump Tower in Shanghai? Possibly. Another red carpet reception is unlikely to cut it. The law of diminishing returns applies to favors already bestowed. In 2018, it is likely to turn negative. China has always been in Mr Trump’s sights. Massaging his ego buys only brief respite.

The other ego is Mr Xi himself. China has acted with caution for more than a generation. For Washington’s “never Trumpers”, Beijing’s restraint gave it honorary membership of the axis of adults that would curb Mr Trump’s instincts. If Mr Trump was a loose cannon, China could be counted on to behave responsibly. In the opening months of Mr Trump’s presidency, Mr Xi did just that. China, not the US, is now the darling of the Davos economic elites. Mr Xi can lecture on Ricardian trade theory with the best of them.

But China’s age of forbearance is over. In October, Mr Xi opened a bolder chapter in China’s foreign ambitions. Deng Xiaoping, China’s great moderniser, spent his last years with no official role other than chairman of China’s bridge association. Hu Jintao, Mr Xi’s predecessor, was happy with just being president. Mr Xi, by contrast, has grabbed every title going and immortalized his own thought in the party’s constitution. Mr Trump has competition, in other words. For the first time since Mao Zedong, China has a living personality cult. US-China relations are now in the hands of two gargantuan egos.

That is bad news for 2018. Added to this are two bigger clouds. For the first time since the cold war, the US has an explicit competitor. Mr Xi’s China has set itself the target of becoming the world’s top dog within a generation. Unlike the Soviet Union, China can sustain technological rivalry with the US. America’s dominance in the Asia Pacific is no longer a given. Mr Xi’s aim is to achieve military parity. Second, America’s president thinks in hourly increments. China’s leader plans in decades. The battle between these two egos is one-sided. Mr Xi holds a telescope. Mr Trump stares at the mirror.

The scope for misunderstanding is growing. Too much attention has been paid to the spectre of a nuclear conflict between the US and North Korea — too little to the looming fallout in US-China relations. That is in spite of Mr Trump’s latest tweet boasting that he had a bigger nuclear button than Mr Kim.

The US president still believes China can disarm Kim Jong Un on America’s behalf. No one else thinks that is likely. Last week, Mr Trump said his patience with China was running out. Mr Trump’s advisers have so far curbed his protectionist impulses. But Mr Trump is rarely muzzled for long. His one consistent belief is that the US is being ripped off. China, whom he has repeatedly accused of raping America, tops the list. “If they don’t help us with North Korea, then I do what I’ve always said I want to do,” he told The New York Times. We should expect 2018 to produce US trade actions against China and Beijing to fight them at the World Trade Organization. There will also be more nuclear tweets.

But the US-China fog extends far beyond the Korean peninsula. As does the potential theatre of confusion. Last year China opened its first overseas base, in Djibouti. A Chinese aircraft carrier made its first visit to the Mediterranean. Mr Xi also stepped up China’s installations in the South China Sea — a subject on which Mr Trump has yet to comment.

Mr Trump has not uttered the word “Taiwan” since he spoke to its leader after his election. His first tweet of 2018 was to accuse Pakistan of “lies and deceit”. China rushed to Pakistan’s defense. “China and Pakistan are all-weather partners,” said Beijing after praising Islamabad’s “outstanding contribution” to fighting terrorism. Mr Trump was far closer to the truth. But there are few gulfs of perception wider than that.

In a stand off between Mr Trump and Mr Xi, who would blink first? There is no way of knowing. However, China is giving hints of over-confidence. From the Iraq war to Mr Trump’s election, China has been reaping one windfall after another. His disdain for democratically elected leaders plays straight into Beijing’s hands. But its luck cannot last for ever. Mr Xi should remember that Mr Trump launched missile attacks on Syria when the two were having dinner in Mar-a-Lago. Many in China believe Mr Trump is a paper tiger. They may be right. But it would be rash to test that theory.

Finding the Best Social Security Claiming Strategy – 3 Questions

My Comments: As you’ve heard me say many times, Social Security benefits have become an absolutely critical piece of the retirement income puzzle for most of us. If it’s not there to pay critical monthly bills, it’s there to allow us freedom of movement as we transition from the retirement go-go years to the slow-go years and ultimately the no-go years. What follows here are good insights for you.

Sean Williams | Nov 27, 2017

Here’s how you can get the most out of Social Security.

Many Americans will lean on Social Security pretty heavily during retirement. Data from the Social Security Administration finds that more than three out of five seniors currently rely on their benefits for at least half of their monthly income. Separately, a study from the Urban Institute estimates that an average-earning male ($47,800 in 2015 dollars) will net about $304,000 in lifetime benefits from Social Security if he turns 65 in 2020. That’s about $82,000 more in lifetime benefits than Medicare will provide for this same individual.

Yet in spite of the clear importance placed on Social Security income during retirement, deciding when is the best time to file for benefits is perhaps the greatest mystery for most workers.

Your retirement benefit from Social Security, assuming you’ve earned the prerequisite 40 lifetime work credits, is derived from four factors — three of which you can control. It’s based on your earnings history, length of work history, claiming age, and your birth year. This latter factor is what determines your full retirement age, or the age at which you’re entitled to receive 100% of your retirement benefit.

In its simplest form, if you sign up before your full retirement age, you’ll accept a permanent reduction in your payout of up to 30%, depending on your claiming age and birth year. Similarly, waiting until after your full retirement age to enroll could boost your payout by up to 32%, depending on your claiming age and birth year. You can begin receiving retired worker benefits at age 62, or any point thereafter, but be aware that your benefits grow by approximately 8% for each year you hold off on enrolling.

This is the dilemma that retired workers commonly face: Take the money now and accept a permanent reduction to your monthly payout, or wait and allow your benefit to grow.

Answering these questions will maximize your claiming strategy

The easiest way to figure out what the best Social Security claiming strategy will be for you is to answer the following three questions.

1. Am I in good health?

The first thing you’ll want to do is assess your long-term health outlook to the best of your ability. Admittedly, trying to guess our own expiration date is nothing any of us can do with accuracy. We can, however, factor in our own medical history, and that of our immediate family, to determine whether or not we’re in poor, good, or excellent health. Your overall health and longevity outlook will help determine whether claiming early, late, or somewhere in the middle makes sense.

People with chronic health conditions and/or those with immediate family members who haven’t reached the average U.S. life expectancy of 78.8 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are often best served claiming benefits earlier. While waiting would boost your monthly payout, claiming early and immediately receiving a payout will usually maximize what you’ll receive over your lifetime.

Conversely, waiting until ages 68 to 70 and boosting your payout well above your full retirement age benefit can be worthwhile for seniors in excellent health who’ve had parents or grandparents live into their 80s, 90s, or even 100s. Waiting can produce a significantly higher lifetime payout by ages 85 and up.

If you’re in good, but not great, health, then claiming around your full retirement age might be a wise decision. Again, it’s something of a crap shoot, but the smartest thing to do is take the information we have about our health and apply it as best as possible to our claiming decision.

2. Will this claiming decision affect anyone other than me?

The second question you’ll want to answer to ensure you’re making the best Social Security claiming decision possible is: How will this claiming decision affect those around me?

For instance, if you’re an unmarried elderly individual with no dependents, then your claiming decision really is your own to make. What you do should affect you alone.

On the other hand, if you’re married, your claiming decision could have implications on your spouse. As an example, if you’re the higher-earning spouse and file for benefits before reaching full retirement age, and you wind up passing away before your lower-earning spouse, the maximum survivor benefit that your lower-earning spouse may be eligible for will be reduced.

Elderly couples should also work on coordinating claiming strategies to maximize what they receive while they’re alive. Higher-earning spouses often benefit by waiting until their full retirement age or later to sign up for Social Security. Letting this larger benefit appreciate makes sense given that it’ll have the biggest positive impact on the couples’ household income later in life. Meanwhile, couples can sometimes gain by having the lower-income spouse claim early in order to generate some income for the household while the larger benefit grows.

Long story short, understand how your claiming decision will affect those around you.

3. How reliant will I be on Social Security income?

Perhaps the most important question you’ll want to ask yourself is this: How reliant will you be on Social Security? Generally speaking, the more reliant you’ll be, the greater incentive you’ll have to wait before signing up.

One of the bigger mistakes made by enrollees is filing for benefits early if you have little or nothing saved for retirement. If your nest egg is practically nonexistent, then you’re probably going to lean very heavily on Social Security during your golden years. If this is the case, the last thing you’d want to do is file for benefits early and permanently reduce your monthly payout. Instead, you should be working during your 60s, assuming you’re in good enough health to do so, and allowing your wages to cover your living expenses. This way your Social Security payout can keep growing, thus allowing you to maximize your monthly payout.

How reliant should you be on Social Security? I believe the ultimate goal should be to have no reliance on Social Security income whatsoever. In other words, your ability to save and invest for the future allows your Social Security payout to be nothing more than icing on the cake. But for the average American, it’s designed to replace about 40% of working wages. As long as you have a primary source of income, and Social Security isn’t it, you’re doing something right and should be in decent shape during retirement.

If you take your health, your marital/dependent situation, and your expected reliance on Social Security income, into question when making your claiming decision, you’re liable to find the best claiming strategy for you.

10 Social Security Terms To Know And Understand

My Comments: Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

For those of you still not signed up and receiving monthly benefits, here’s some useful things to know.

For those of you who attended my Social Security workshops, you’ll recall the acronyms that appear on every page. There’s even a couple more here for you to learn.

Maurie Backman – The Motley Fool – Nov. 10, 2017

Social Security serves as a key source of income for countless retirees and disabled individuals.

It’s also an extremely complex program loaded with rules and terminology. If you’re attempting to learn about Social Security (which is something you should do, regardless of how old you happen to be), here are a few key terms you’ll need to understand.

1. OASDI

OASDI stands for old age, survivors, and disability insurance, and in the context of your paycheck, it’s the tax used to fund the Social Security program. The current OASDI tax rate is 12.4%. If you work for an outside company, you’ll lose half that amount of your earnings up to a certain income limit, while your employer will pay the remaining 6.2%. If you’re self-employed, however, you’ll pay the full 12.4% up front.

2. SSI

SSI stands for supplemental security income, and it’s different from OASDI in that it’s a program funded by general tax revenues, not Social Security taxes. SSI is designed to help those who are over 65, blind, or disabled with limited financial resources keep up with their basic needs.

3. FICA Tax

FICA stands for the Federal Insurance Contributions Act. It’s the tax that’s withheld from your salary or self-employment income that funds both Social Security and Medicare. For the current year, FICA tax equals 15.3% of earned income up to $127,200 (12.4% for Social Security and 2.9% for Medicare), but those making above $127,200 will continue to pay 2.9% FICA tax on income exceeding that threshold. In 2018, the earnings cap will rise to $128,700.

4. Social Security credits

In order to collect Social Security benefits, you must earn enough credits during your working years. In 2017, you’ll receive one credit for every $1,300 in earnings, up to a maximum of four credits per year. For 2018, the value of a single credit will rise to $1,320 of earnings. Those born in 1929 or later need 40 credits to qualify for benefits in retirement.

5. AIME

AIME stands for average indexed monthly earnings, and it’s used to calculate your personal Social Security benefit. The amount you receive from Social Security is based on your highest 35 years of earnings. To arrive at your AIME, your past earnings are adjusted for inflation so that they don’t lose value.

6. Full retirement age

Your full retirement age, or FRA, is the age at which you’re eligible to collect your Social Security benefits in full. FRA is based on your year of birth, and for today’s older workers, it’s 66, 67, or 66 and a number of months. Though you’re allowed to claim benefits prior to reaching FRA (the earliest age is 62), doing so will cause you to collect a reduced benefit amount — permanently.

7. Delayed retirement credits

Though waiting until full retirement age will ensure that you collect your benefits in full, if you hold off on filing for Social Security past FRA, you’ll rack up delayed retirement credits that will boost your benefits. Specifically, for each year you wait, you’ll get an 8% increase in your payments. Delayed retirement credits stop accruing at age 70, so that’s typically considered the latest age to file for Social Security (even though you can technically wait even longer than that).

8. Trust Fund

The Social Security Trust Fund was established in the early 1980s to cover any future shortfalls the program might face. If Social Security has a year in which it collects more taxes than it needs to use, that money is placed in the Trust Fund and invested in special Treasury bonds. Once Social Security’s incoming tax revenue fails to cover its scheduled benefits, the Trust Fund will be tapped to make up the difference. Come 2034, however, the Trust Fund is expected to run out of money, at which time future recipients might face a reduction in benefits.

9. COLA

No, we’re not talking about a soft drink. In the context of Social Security, it stands for cost-of-living adjustment, and it’s designed to help beneficiaries retain their purchasing power in the face of inflation. Back in the day, those who collected Social Security received the same benefit amount year after year. But beginning in 1975, beneficiaries have been eligible for automatic COLAs based heavily on fluctuations in the Consumer Price Index. COLAs are not guaranteed, however. If consumer prices don’t climb in a given year, benefits can remain stagnant. Such was the case as recently as 2016.

10. Survivors benefits

Survivors benefits are designed to provide income for your beneficiaries once you pass. Those benefits are based on your earnings records and the age at which you first file for Social Security. Surviving spouses, children, and even parents of deceased workers are eligible for survivors benefits.
Clearly, there’s a lot to learn about Social Security, but familiarizing yourself with these key terms will help you better understand how the program works. It also pays to read up on ways to maximize your benefits so that you end up getting the best possible payout you’re entitled to.

Stocks for the Long Run? Not Now

My Comments: There is increasing uncertainty about the stock market. This uncertainty has been growing now for the past 3 plus years. The long term trends described below, coupled with historically low interest rates, suggest the next decade will be disappointing to most of us.

This analysis comes from a Guggenheim Investors report published last September. I haven’t included all the many charts as you will be better served by going directly to the source to see them. https://goo.gl/UL1SSP

If nothing else, you should read the conclusion below…

September 27, 2017 |by Scott Minerd et al, Guggenheim Investments

Introduction

Valuation is a poor timing tool. After all, markets that are overvalued and become even more overvalued are called bull markets. Over a relatively long time horizon, however, valuation has been an excellent predictor of future performance. Our analysis shows that based on current valuations, U.S. equity investors are likely to be disappointed after the next 10 years. While the equity market could continue to perform in the short run, over the long run better relative value will likely be found in fixed income and non-U.S. equities.

Elevated U.S. Equity Valuations Point to Low Future Returns

U.S. stocks are not cheap. Total U.S. stock market capitalization as a percentage of gross domestic product (market cap to GDP) currently stands at 142 percent. This level is near all-time highs, greater than the 2006–2007 peak and surpassed only by the internet bubble period of 1999–2000. This reading is no outlier: It is consistent with other broad measures of U.S. equity valuation, including Robert Shiller’s cyclically adjusted price-earnings ratio (CAPE), Tobin’s Q (the ratio of market value to net worth), and the S&P 500 price to sales ratio.

U.S. Equity Valuation Is Approaching Historic Highs

Here is the bad news for equity investors: At current levels of market cap to GDP, estimated annualized total returns over the next 10 years look dismal at just 0.9 percent (before inflation), based on previous trends. Intuitively this makes sense: Looking back at the history of the time series, it is clear that an excellent entry point into the equity market for a long-term investor would have been a period like the mid-1980s, or in the latter stages of the financial crisis in 2009. Conversely, 1968, 2000, and 2007 would have been good times to get out.

Market Cap to GDP Has Been a Strong Predictor of Future Equity Returns

Market cap to GDP is a useful metric because it has proven to be an accurate predictor of future equity returns. As the chart below shows, market cap to GDP has historically been highly negatively correlated with subsequent S&P 500 total returns, particularly over longer horizons where valuation mean reversion becomes a significant factor. Over 10 years, the correlation is -90 percent.

Market Cap to GDP Has Been a Good Predictor of Equity Returns 10 Years Out

It would be easy to assume that the rise in stock valuations is justified by low rates. A similar argument is made by proponents of the Fed model, which compares the earnings yield of equities to the 10-year Treasury yield as a measure of relative value. While there is some relationship between interest rates and valuation as measured by market cap to GDP, low rates do not explain why equities are so rich. At the current range of interest rates (2–3 percent), we have seen market cap to GDP anywhere from 47 percent to current levels of 142 percent—hardly a convincing relationship. In short, interest rates tell us little about where market cap to GDP, or other valuation metrics, “should” be.

Fixed Income Offers Better Relative Value

For a measure of relative value, we compared expected returns on equities over 10-year time horizons (as implied by the relationship with market cap to GDP) to the expected return on 10-year Treasurys—assuming that the return is equal to the prevailing yield to maturity. Typically, equities would have the higher expected returns than government bonds due to the higher risk premium, but in periods when equity valuations have become too rich, future returns on U.S. stocks have fallen below 10-year Treasury yields. Not surprisingly, past periods where this signal has occurred include the late 1990s internet bubble and 2006–2007.

The chart below demonstrates that if equities over the next 10 years are likely to return just 0.9 percent, 10-year Treasury notes held to maturity—currently yielding about 2.2 percent—start to seem like a viable alternative. The fact that S&P 500 returns over the past 10 years have not been as low as the model predicted can at least be partially explained by extraordinary monetary policy, which may have helped to pull returns forward, but in doing so dragged down future returns.

Conclusion

Based on the historical relationship between market cap to GDP ratios and subsequent 10-year returns, today’s market valuation suggests that the annual return on a broad U.S. equity portfolio over the next 10 years is likely to be very disappointing. As such, investors may want to seek better opportunities elsewhere. Equity valuations are less stretched in other developed and emerging markets, which may present more upside potential.

In fixed income, low yields should not deter investors, as our analysis indicates that U.S. Treasurys should outperform equities over the next decade. But as we explained in The Core Conundrum, low Treasury yields should steer investors away from passively allocating to an aggregate index that overwhelmingly favors low-yielding government-related debt. In particular, sectors not represented in the Bloomberg Barclays Aggregate Index, including highly rated commercial asset-backed securities and collateralized loan obligations, can offer comparable (or higher) yields with less duration risk than similarly rated corporate bonds. We believe active fixed-income management that focuses on the best risk-adjusted opportunities—whether in or out of the benchmark—offers the best solution to meeting investors’ objectives in a low-return world.