Tag Archives: investments

Listen to the IMF’s new warning, economist says, and cut your exposure to US stocks

My Comments: The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is an international organization headquartered in Washington, D.C., consisting of “189 countries working to foster global monetary cooperation, secure financial stability, facilitate international trade, promote high employment and sustainable economic growth, and reduce poverty around the world.”

They recognize that market crashes happen from time to time, and that influences the amount of money they have in reserve to deploy around the world.

I see a parallel between their need to preserve their ability to deploy money under their mandate, with your ability to pay your bills in retirement. I encourage you to pay attention and position your money with this in mind.

by Holly Ellyatt @ CNBC

U.S. markets are “going it alone” and investors are underestimating the amount of risk in the economy, the chief investment officer at Danish investment bank Saxo Bank, told CNBC on Wednesday.

“What we’re saying (to investors) at a bare minimum, is do acknowledge the fact that the U.S. is expensive by reducing (exposure to) the U.S.,” Steen Jakobsen told CNBC Europe’s ‘Squawk Box.’

“And if you don’t want to reduce overall equity exposure go to the MSCI World (a global equity index that represents just over 1,600 large and mid-cap companies across 23 developed markets countries) or take a little bit of risk in emerging markets.”

“For now, we’re pretty much saying to customers, be aware that the market is underestimating risk,” he added.

Jakobsen’s comments were made of the same day the International Monetary Fund (IMF) warned that “a further escalation of trade tensions, as well as rising geopolitical risks and policy uncertainty in major economies, could lead to a sudden deterioration in risk sentiment.”

If that happened, the fund said in its latest ‘Global Financial Stability Report,’ it could trigger “a broad-based correction in global capital markets and a sharp tightening of global financial conditions.”

U.S. markets are fretting but concerns are centered on rising U.S. interest rates, particularly this week after a strong set of economic data last week that could prompt the U.S. Federal Reserve to hike rates further and faster.

Volatility is ‘artificially low’

Jakobsen, who’s known for his bearish view on the U.S. economy, said it was “very prudent and right of the IMF to do this warning.” “It’s very rare that I (hold) sway with any policy institute globally but I absolutely think they’re (the IMF) right,” he said.

“We have three drivers of tighter monetary conditions, one being the price of energy, of course with this bi-product of inflation risk, but we also see the price of money…and the quantity of money, globally, is collapsing. So, in other words, the credit keg is lower so it’s absolutely prudent of the IMF to do this.”

Jakobsen believed that U.S. markets were buoyant because of tax changes introduced by President Donald Trump which lowered corporate taxes and incentivized companies to repatriate overseas profits, with a one-time repatriation tax. The changes were also criticized for increasing the U.S. budget deficit, however.

Saxo Bank’s economist said the tax reforms had enabled U.S. companies to initiate share buyback programs, in which a company purchases its own stock from the marketplace, reducing the number of available shares and thus increasing its share price. Goldman Sachs said in August that U.S. companies are expected to buy back $1 trillion worth of shares in 2018.

Jakobsen said this scenario meant the U.S. market was diverging from the rest of the world, “going it alone.”

“I think they’re (the IMF) pointing to, especially in the Stability Report that just came out, the fact that the U.S. market is on its own, and the reasons it’s on its own is because the tax plan in the U.S. has meant a massive amount of repatriation into the U.S. economy,” Jakobsen said.

“The buyback program in the U.S. this year is $1 trillion and that is basically $1 trillion used to reduce the amount of floating stocks in the world. Why is that relevant? Because it makes the volatility artificially low in the U.S. stock market. It’s (the U.S. market) is almost going it alone,” he said, adding;
“So what the IMF is really doing is just pointing out that, if you exclude the U.S., the world is already moving to the brink. Whether we go beyond the brink I think is more an issue of how fast the Fed, and how insistent the Fed is, on having this projectory of higher rates,” he said.

He believed the Fed was ignoring the inflows as a result of tax reforms and could be hiking rates too quickly. “For my part, I think the Fed is doing a mistake by ignoring this massive inflow on the back of the tax plan in the U.S. and doing so, they do a policy mistake.”

Source: https://www.cnbc.com/2018/10/10/listen-to-the-imfs-new-warning-economist-says-and-cut-your-exposure-to-us-stocks.html

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Ride Out The Next Market Storm With These Balanced Vanguard Funds

My Comments: Readers of my blog posts know at least two things: (1) I’ve been expecting a significant downturn for longer than I can remember and (2) I like Vanguard Funds. I have much of my money there, to some extent because of their insanely low fees compared with what I lived with for most of my 42 years in the money business.

The economic consensus is that a downturn is really coming, though at this point whether it’s tomorrow or 3 years from now is anyone’s guess. That being said, this article explains the logic behind the idea and offers reasons why two of Vanguards funds should be considered.

The article below is very long, has many charts, and is not an easy read. If you are so inclined, there is a link to it at the bottom. Have fun…

Also, please understand that I no longer charge anyone for investment advice and am offering this because I can and because many people out there are going to get hammered when the inevitable happens. (BTW, I cannot find the name of the author below so please forgive me for not providing proper attribution.)

Sep. 24, 2018

The stock market has sailed to record gains of more than 400% since the 2007-2009 financial crisis, and investors who didn’t abandon ship have weathered the storm and are now likely in terrific financial shape. However, as the market waters have risen to new heights, investors flush with unrealized gains may be looking to navigate toward calmer seas during the next crisis. In this article, I take a thorough look at two actively managed, balanced mutual funds from Vanguard that provide capital appreciation as well as income from stock dividends and bond distributions, and that also provide a level of capital preservation during periods of market turbulence. The data below reveal how adding these funds can help buoy your hard-fought portfolio from sinking to the next market bottom.

Riding the Current Bull Market Tailwinds

For investors who have witnessed their portfolio value rise dramatically as we have officially entered the second-longest bull market in history, it may be difficult to remember the dread and angst that was felt by many as the S&P 500 index lost 56.8% of its value from Oct 9, 2007 to the market bottom on March 9, 2009. Since then the S&P 500 share price has more than quadrupled, rising 329.3% as of Sept. 18, 2018 and is currently trading near its all-time high. When factoring in reinvested dividends, the S&P 500 has done even better, generating total returns of 424.4%.

Continue Reading HERE

Caring for Your Aging Parents: How to Prepare

My Comments: Retirement is the third major time in people’s lives. It follows childhood and adulthood. Well, OK, a retired person is also an adult but retirement is a different stage. I describe it as when you turn off the ‘work for money’ switch and turn on the ‘money works for you’ switch.

Meanwhile, modern medicine is keeping us alive longer and longer. But it rarely happens that someone doesn’t gradually decline. And that gradual decline creates new issues for those of the next generation.

Since we as a society have never actively pushed elderly folks out the door to fend for themselves, all this means is that an infrastructure has to exist or be built, to look after aging parents. And if that applies to you, some preparation is necessary. Hence this article.

By Mike Piershale, ChFC | Piershale Financial Group, September 21, 2018

Caring for aging parents is something you hope you can handle when the time comes, but it’s the last thing you want to think about.

Whether the time is now or somewhere down the road, there are steps you can take to make your life — and their lives, too — a little easier.

It’s Time for a Chat
The first step is talking to your parents. How will you know when it’s the right time to do this? Look for indicators like failure to take medication, new health concerns, diminished social interaction, general confusion or even fluctuations in weight.

What can make things more difficult is when the parents are unwilling or unable to talk about their future.

This can happen for a number of reasons, including fear of becoming dependent, resentment toward you for interfering, reluctance to burden you with their problems, or because they are already incapacitated. Without their cooperation, you may need to do as much planning as you can without them. However, if their safety or health is in danger, you may still need to step in as a caregiver.

If you’re nervous about talking to your parents, make a list of topics that you need to discuss. This will help ease tension, and you will be less likely to forget anything.

If there is some reluctance on the part of your parents, it may be wise to cover your list over several visits so that it doesn’t sound so much like an interrogation.

Get Personal
Once you’ve opened the lines of communication, a good next step is to get as much information as you can to prepare a personal data record. This document lists information that you might need in case your parents become incapacitated or die.

Here is some information that should be included:
1. Bank and investment accounts
2. Estate documents like wills and trusts
3. Funeral and burial plans
4. Medical information
5. Insurance information
6. Names and phone numbers of professional advisers
7. Real estate documents

Be sure to write down the location of documents and any relevant account numbers. It’s also a good idea to make copies of all the documents you’ve gathered and keep them in a safe place.

Explore Living Arrangements
Eventually you’ll need to have discussions on more sensitive subjects like your parents’ wishes on medical care decisions and future living arrangements.

Where your parents eventually live will depend on how healthy they are. As they grow older, their health may deteriorate so much that they can no longer live on their own. At that point, you may need to find them in-home health care, health care within a retirement community or nursing home, or you may insist that they come to live with you.

If money is an issue, moving in with you may be the best or only option. Keep in mind this decision will impact your entire family, so talk about it as a family first.

Make It a Family Affair

The physical and financial responsibility of taking care of elderly parents may fall on several adult children, and usually not all are equally able to bear the burden. The result can be resentment, even hostility, and the breakdown of family cooperation.

The key to keeping harmony is communication. Family meetings on a regular basis are key to keeping tensions down and everyone informed. Families can talk over who can pay for care when it’s needed, and who can do physical work for a parent.

Even if a family member lives at a distance, there are things they can do. Consolidating accounts in one bank, setting up online access to paying bills and overseeing financial management are areas that can be handled from anywhere in the U.S.

Ask for Help
The key is to not try to care for your parents alone. Besides getting the family involved, there are also many local and national caregiver support groups and community services available to help you cope with caring for aging parents.

If you don’t know where to find help, contact your state department of elder care services, or call: 1-800-677-1116 to reach the Elder Care Locator, an information and referral service sponsored by the federal government that could direct you to resources available in your area.

Mike Piershale, ChFC, is president of Piershale Financial Group in Barrington, Illinois. He works directly with clients on retirement and estate planning, portfolio management and insurance needs.

The ‘Great Bull’ market is ‘dead,’ and here’s what’s next, Bank of America predicts

My Comments: For most of my adult life, the major player among brokerage firms in the US was Merrill Lynch. Actually I remember it as Merrill Lynch Pierce Fenner and Smith.

Then the crash happened in the fall of 2008 and Bank of America acquired ML on 1/1/2009. The cynic in me said that BoA saw an opportunity to further rip off middle America and what better way to do that than to purchase ML’s 100 plus year client base and reputation.

Not to say that there aren’t some ethical professionals working there but it’s long been my position that if you as a client of theirs makes any money, that’s an incidental benefit since the primary goal is to make money for BoA.

So, here we are with BoA telling the world that the great bull market that has now set records since March of 2009 is ‘dead’. They may very well be right. What does that mean for you if in fact that prediction plays out?

by Jeff Cox, Finance Editor @CNBC 9/19/2018

The “Great Bull” market that came after the financial crisis is dead due to slowing economic growth, rising interest rates and too much debt, according to a Bank of America Merrill Lynch analysis.

In its place will be one that features lower returns, the bulk of which will be concentrated in assets that suffered during the recovery, Michael Hartnett, BofAML’s chief investment strategist, said in a wide-ranging note looking at markets 10 years after the collapse of Lehman Brothers.
“The Great Bull Dead: end of excess liquidity = end of excess returns,” Hartnett said.

The liquidity reference is to central banks that have pumped in $12 trillion worth in various easing programs that have seen 713 interest rate cuts around the world, according to Merrill Lynch. Leading the way has been the U.S. Federal Reserve, which kept its benchmark interest rate anchored near zero for seven years and pumped up its own balance sheet to more than $4.5 trillion at one point.

All that stimulus has led to a 335 percent surge in the S&P 500 since the crisis lows.

But as the Fed and others end asset purchases and gradually raise rates, investors will have to brace for significant changes, Hartnett wrote.
In that climate, he advised investors to focus on “inequality, innovation and immortality,” that would benefit pharma companies and technology disruptors, along with inflation plays in commodities, value stocks, and markets outside the U.S. and Canada.

“The Fed is now in the midst of a tightening cycle, ignoring structural deflation, focusing on cyclical inflation,” he said. “Until this Fed hiking cycle ends we suspect absolute returns from financial assets will remain slim & volatile.”

The low interest rates and aggressive easing programs fueled a massive run-up in global debt — from $172 trillion pre-crisis to $247 trillion now. Chinese debt rose 460 percent to $40 trillion, global government debt is up 73 percent to $67 trillion, and total U.S. government debt has soared nearly 82 percent since the Sept. 15, 2008, implosion of Lehman, the flashpoint for a crisis that had been brewing for years.

Investors used to central bank largess are now underestimating the Fed’s resolve to normalize policy, Hartnett said. The central bank has raised rates seven times since December 2015 and is on track for two more hikes before year’s end.

Echoing concerns heard across Wall Street, Hartnett noted that additional increases could cause short-term government bond yields to eclipse longer-term rates, a condition known as an inverted yield curve that has preceded each of the past seven recessions.

“Yet the Fed is now saying ‘this time is different’ and a flat/inverted curve won’t stop them hiking,” he said. “A much more hawkish-than-expected Fed is the most likely catalyst for fresh losses across asset markets.”

There have been market disruptions that could get worse: Hartnett called cryptocurrency bitcoin the “biggest bubble ever” that has room for further losses.

The latest leg of the bull market has been fueled by last year’s tax cuts that also contributed to soaring corporate earnings along with a fresh round of share buybacks that is expected to eclipse $1 trillion this year. Buybacks have totaled $4.7 trillion since the crisis.

However, Harnett worries that the fiscal easing has contributed to “polarization” in markets that has seen U.S. performance surge and decouple from weakening global markets. The last two instances of significant fiscal stimulus ended with “currency overvaluation, domestic overheating, and massive schisms in global markets.”

Hartnett advises investors to watch bank stocks, which have pushed higher along with interest rates. If that relationship breaks down, it would signal a larger negative impact from Fed tightening.

One of the Oldest Rules for Retirement Saving Is Wrong, Experts Say. Here’s the Fix

My Comments: It’s Thursday when I post about RETIREMENT.

You’ve heard me say time and again that retirement planning needs to assume one of you (if you have a spouse) is going to be around until age 100. And in every one of those years between now and then, everything you buy will increase in price.

The only way to offset that need for additional funds is to have money invested in the stock market. Don’t count on extra money from Social Security. Don’t count on your bank steadily increasing the interest rate on your Certificates of Deposit.

by Elizabeth O’Brien \ May 1, 2018

You know that old rule of thumb to subtract your age from 100 to get the percentage of your portfolio that should be in stocks? Well as they say in Brooklyn, fuhgeddaboudit!

“You should not robotically reduce your equity allocation because you’re getting older,” says Rich Weiss, chief investment officer of multi-asset strategies at American Century Investments. Instead, most investors should pick a stock percentage that feels comfortable and keep it constant throughout retirement, experts say.

The old rule might have made more sense back when people weren’t living as long. Today, many investors will need their portfolios to last well into their 80s, 90s and even beyond. And you’re not going to get much-needed growth if you stay too cautious with stocks.

Target-date funds are growing in popularity. At the end of 2016, nearly half of all Vanguard investors were invested in a single target date fund — and those with the bulk of their savings in one of these vehicles may be too conservatively invested without realizing it. Designed to be a one-stop-shop for investors, these funds adjust your asset allocation for you and become more conservative as retirement approaches. Once they reach the target year, “the vast majority of target-date funds hit a low [stock] percentage and just stay there,” says Jamie Hopkins, professor of retirement planning at the American College of Financial Services and author of Rewirement: Rewiring The Way You Think About Retirement.

So how much equity exposure is right in retirement? The exact answer will depend on your circumstances, and on who you ask. Weiss says the sweet spot for stocks in retirement is between 35% and 55% of the overall portfolio. People with healthy nest eggs, which he defines as containing at least eight times your ending salary, can afford to stick to the lower part of that range, since their portfolios don’t need to generate as much growth, he says.

Those with inadequate savings should consider sticking to the higher part of the range. Stocks can be volatile over the short term, but over the very long term they have historically delivered positive returns. The Standard & Poor’s 500 has not returned less than inflation during any rolling 40-year period, according to an analysis by personal finance site Don’t Quit Your Day Job. The best rolling 40-year returns were 10.3% annualized after inflation, according to the site. You’re generally not going to find such consistent growth with other assets, such as bonds, real estate, or gold.

Of course, stocks can decline over the short term, and the risk of a downturn is why you don’t want to put all your eggs in the equity basket. It’s also why many financial advisors suggest that retirees keep at least three-years’ worth of expenses in cash or cash equivalents, such as a short-term bond fund, so that they can weather a bear market without having to withdraw from their stock portfolio.

Once you’ve decided on a comfortable stock allocation, you shouldn’t fiddle with it much, if at all. If market volatility keeps you up at night, that’s a sign that you didn’t set the right allocation to begin with, Weiss says. Many investors have been conditioned to use their age as a proxy for their risk tolerance, but in reality, Weiss says, “It’s wealth, not age.”

In Defense Of Playing Defense (Part 3)

My Comments: On Wednesday I usually talk about Globla Economics. Today, however, I’m less concerned about emerging markets than I am the evolution of ideas that influence what is happening on Wall Street. Yes, it’s influenced by the hiccups we see in emerging markets globally but the political and economic forces at work in this country suggest the potential for something dramatic.

That’s a mouthful to absorb. What I hope you will get from these comments from Erik Conley is that being defensive right now with respect to your money is a good thing. I know I am with my money.

by Erik Conley, 9/18/2018

Summary
I lay out the case for playing smart defense in order to fill the hole that’s left open with the Buy & Hold approach.

When the stakes are high, it makes sense to have a contingency plan in place.

It is reasonable to expect that a solid Plan B could reduce the downside of these bear markets by at least 50%, which would have the effect of shortening the time it would take to reach one’s goals.

This idea was discussed in more depth with members of my private investing community, The ZenInvestor Top 7.

In part 1 of this series I posed the following question:
What would you do if you found out that your entire approach to investing was wrong? I said that this happens more often than you might think, and for a good reason. The investment advice industry, and the major financial media outlets, work hard to create the impression that the Buy & Hold method is far superior to any other approach that an investor can choose. But is this true?

In part 2 I closed with this thought:
The solution to managing risk with a B-H approach is to play smart defense. What’s that? My version is having a rules-based Plan B that is designed with one purpose in mind – shortening the amount of unproductive time that is wasted with a B-H approach.

Today in part 3, I will lay out the case for playing smart defense in order to fill the hole that’s left open with the B-H approach. Note that I’m not calling for anyone to abandon their B-H approach, especially if it’s been working well for them. What I’m proposing is adding a defensive piece to the B-H approach. Here’s how.

When the threat of a new recession, or a new bear market, is sufficiently high – turn to your Plan B.

Fans of the comedy show It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia have come to know how the gang operates. After sitting around their (empty) bar and tossing around ideas about how to get people to come in and spend money, they finally agree on a Plan.

Each week the plan that the gang dreams up is more outrageous than the last one, and the plans never seem to work. What’s missing is that they never have a Plan B in case Plan A blows up, as it inevitably does. Maybe if they took the time and effort to make a backup plan, they could someday fill the bar with paying customers.

Here’s another couple of examples. Football coaches always have a Plan B ready to go if their original game plan isn’t working. Soldiers on the battlefield would never think about venturing beyond the compound without having a Plan B and a Plan C in place.

You get the idea. When the stakes are high, it makes sense to have a contingency plan in place. So what would a Plan B look like for a B-H investor?

Plan B. A rules-based, systematic procedure that is clear and concise – leaving nothing to chance.

Here are some of the steps that a B-H investor can take to manage downside risk.
• Sell your worst-performing holdings, and allow your best-performing ones to run. Review this monthly or quarterly.
• Set up news alerts on your main holdings. At the first sign of a regulatory body asking questions about accounting irregularities, misbehavior in the C-Suite, or a bad miss on an earnings report, sell first and ask questions later.
• If one of your companies announces a dividend cut, sell first and ask questions later.
• If you catch wind that the company may not be able to meet a loan recall, or roll over a line of credit, head for the door.
• If the company brings in a new CEO who has no experience in the business involved, leave quietly.
• If the CFO gives evasive or confusing answers to analyst questions on a conference call, sneak out the back door.

Macro signals
As I said earlier, recessions and bear markets are killers, especially when looked at from the perspective of time lost. The B-H promoters claim that there has never been a 20-year period in the market when investors lost money. This is true. But is it relevant? I think not, and here’s why.

We invest to grow our purchasing power. It’s that simple. But we don’t have an unlimited amount of time to accomplish this. There have been 4 really bad bear markets in the last century, and each one of them brought pain and suffering to investors. None of them suffered more than the true believers in B-H.

The investment business will tell you that bear markets are just part of the game, and if you are patient, you will recoup your losses in due time. This is another example of the mythology of B-H. It’s partly true, but it’s irrelevant. This approach requires you to sit back and watch as your life savings spend 10, 15, 20 years or more “under water.” When you finally get back to even, there is no getting around the fact that you have just wasted a significant amount of time getting to your ultimate goal, which is financial independence and security.

“Time is the one resource that can never be renewed. Once it’s gone you can never get it back.”

Major bull & bear markets throughout history
The table below shows all of the major bull and bear markets since the Great Crash of 1929. It shows what was happening at the time to cause the bear markets, the losses suffered by investors, the loss of time, the macro environment that was present during each event, and the bull market recoveries that followed.

According to my analysis, a B-H investor would have earned an average annual return of about 9.7% throughout this entire period. That’s not bad at all. But it would have taken much longer to reach her investing goals if she simply rode out all of the ups and downs along the way.

It is reasonable to expect that a solid Plan B could reduce the downside of these bear markets by at least 50%, which would have the effect of shortening the time it would take to reach one’s goals.

For example, an investor who used a simple moving average crossover system as a way to reduce equity exposure would increase their returns from 9.7% to 11.6% per year, over the entire time frame.

An investor who systematically avoided the worst parts of economic recessions, and the bear markets that accompany them, would have achieved an annual return of 12.22%.
And an investor who used both the recession warning model and the bear market probability model would have achieved an annual return of 14.10%.

The reason for these better outcomes is based on the fact that markets go through long periods of over-valuation and under-valuation, and an astute investor will pay attention to which environment is in play at all times. Today the market is somewhat overvalued, so it makes sense to reduce exposure to the riskiest parts of the capital markets.

Likewise, in 2003 and 2009, the markets were very undervalued, and it made sense at that time to increase exposure to the risky end of the market. This is not rocket science. It’s just common sense.

Everybody is a Buy & Hold investor until their account value starts going down.

Where do we go from here?

In the next installment, I will present a few options for playing smart defense. Moving average crossovers are one. Mean Reversion is another. Sector rotation is a third. They are all defensive strategies that can be part of a solid Plan B.

See you next time.

Note from TK: Read Mr. Conley’s original article HERE.

How Social Security’s Troubles Could All Just Go Away

My Tuesday Comments on Social Security: Some of us remember what happened in 1983 when Congress was sane and was facing a financial crisis. Within the span of six years, which happened to be the same six year election cycle of the Senate, the system was expected to crash. So bending to common sense, Congress made some changes that resulted in the system we more or less have today.

That was 35 years ago and there is writing on the wall that more changes will need to be made. The changes need not be dramatic and are relatively simple. But it will require leadership committed to the welfare and well being of the people they allegedly profess to lead. Right now I’m unsure about that.

The takeaway here is that my children will arrive at a point in time when Social Security will become a critical part of their ability to pay their bills and live what to them is a normal life. They are going to have to learn that if that is to happen, they have to vote for candidates who will work on their behalf.

by Dan Caplinger, August 19, 2018

The release earlier this year of the Social Security Trustees Report brought about the usual set of headlines explaining the financial crisis that the retirement and disability benefits program faces. The latest projections confirmed expectations that if nothing changes, the Social Security Trust Funds will be out of money by 2034. That could force an immediate and dramatic benefit cut for tens of millions of Social Security recipients at a time in their lives when they’re least able to weather an income cut.

Yet when you look at the report, you’ll find several instances within its 270 pages in which the trustees say that things might well turn out OK. Actuarial projections in these cases work out positively throughout the next 75 years, and Americans are able to keep getting their benefits without any threat to the trust funds. Under this rosy scenario, no changes to Social Security end up being necessary in order to assure the survival of the program and full benefits for all.

That raises an obvious question: What has to happen for this favorable outcome to happen? You’ll find the answer in the report, in its discussion of what it calls the low-cost assumptions for Social Security.

Projecting the future of Social Security
To make the sophisticated actuarial projections that go into producing the numbers in the Social Security report, those who prepare the report have to make assumptions about key variables that determine how much money Social Security brings in and pays out. But economists can’t be certain about exactly how those factors will play out. As a result, Social Security uses three different sets of assumptions: low-cost, intermediate, and high-cost.

These three sets of assumptions work the way you’d expect. The low-cost assumptions are generally optimistic, predicting quicker recoveries from economic downturns, expecting stronger economic growth over the long haul, and seeing other factors work out favorably from the standpoint of funding Social Security. The high-cost assumptions take a more pessimistic view, expecting weaker growth and prolonged recessions along the way. The intermediate assumptions split the difference.

In particular, here are a few of the assumptions that the low-cost model makes, compared to the intermediate scenario:
• Fertility rates of 2.2, compared with 2.0 under the intermediate assumptions.
• A rise in economic productivity at an ultimate average annual of 1.98%, rather than 1.68%.
• A rise in the consumer price index at an average of 3.2% annually, rather than 2.6%.
• An expected growth rates in average earnings of 5.02%, compared with 3.8%.
• Long-run real wage differentials of 1.82%, versus 1.2%.
• Larger working-age populations and labor force participation than in the intermediate model, with unemployment rates of 4.5% compared with 5.5%.
• GDP growth of 3.2% rather than 2.4%.
• Real interest rates of 3.2% versus 2.7%, based on nominal interest rates of 6.4% compared to 5.3%.

How all these factors interact gets complicated quickly. But in general, using the low-cost assumptions, things work out well for Social Security. Relatively lower life expectancies reduce the length of time retirees collect benefits, and a lower number of married couples cuts the burden of spousal and survivor benefits on Social Security’s shoulders. Higher interest rates let the trust fund balances generate more income.

A low-cost scenario would be great — but don’t hold your breath
The Trustees’ Report shows the benefits of having the low-cost scenario play out. Under those projections, the combined trust funds for the old age and disability trust funds never run out, with the combined funds declining from the 2018 level of about 289% to reach a low point of 113% of expected annual benefits in 2050. From there, a shift back in demographics helps the trust funds build up capital again, topping two years’ worth of benefits by 2095. That’s a far cry from dealing with completely using up both trust funds by 2034.

The challenge with the low-cost assumptions is that they’re unlikely to occur. The fact that projections haven’t deviated much from their course of expecting trust fund exhaustion in the mid-2030s shows that the intermediate assumptions on which those projections are based have generally turned out to be accurate historically. It would take a fundamental shift to make low-cost assumptions more realistic.

Most of the reason the low-cost assumptions are there is to give a sense of how sensitive the results are to economic factors that differ from the intermediate assumptions. Just because the low-cost assumptions exist doesn’t mean that there’s any significant chance that they’ll actually occur. For those who think that the assumptions under the low-cost model represent targets for economic and fiscal policy to strive toward, it’s extremely unlikely that the economy will cooperate enough to fix Social Security without specific and direct action from lawmakers.