Uncertain Fed Means Certain Outcome – Part 1

September 30, 2010

In his recent testimony to Congress, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke used the phrase “unusually uncertain” to describe the U.S. economic outlook. The word uncertain was used five times in the statement released at the conclusion of the June 23 meeting, and was used 16 times in the minutes released on July 28.

The economy again began to grow last summer, putting the current bout of early cycle uncertainty at about four quarters since the end of the recession. In contrast to Chairman Bernanke’s remark, the current uncertainty is not all that unusual at this early stage of an economic cycle. In fact, based on the Fed’s own words, the current level of uncertainty is actually common at this stage of the economic cycle.
• In March 2003, about five quarters after the 2001 recession had ended, the Fed’s Beige Book used the word “uncertain” 30 times to describe the economic environment, almost twice as often as the July 2010 Beige Book. Also, the minutes of the March 2003 Fed meeting used the word “uncertain” 16 times, three times as often as the five times it was used in the June 2010 meeting minutes.
• In October 1992, about six quarters after the end of the 1991 recession, the word “uncertain” appeared 23 times in the transcript of the October 1992 Fed meeting.

The response by the Fed to uncertainty over the economic environment has been anything but uncertain. They have always provided the economy with one last booster shot of stimulus. During the past four decades, the Fed has cut rates one last time well after the recession had ended when a soft spot emerged. For example, related to the above examples of Fed uncertainty, the Fed cut the Federal Funds target rate in June 2003 and in September 1992.

Fourth Quarter is Key

September 28, 2010

The fourth quarter may hold the key to the year for stock market performance. The restoration of a balance between the parties in Washington may be welcomed by markets. The market’s reaction to mid-term elections has nearly always been positive, even when the balance of power has shifted in one or both houses of Congress — as we expect this year with the Republicans having a good chance of taking the House on November 2. The average gain for the S&P 500 in the fourth quarter of a mid-term election year is a solid 8% (see the Weekly Market Commentary from August 2 entitled “Mid-Term Market Moves” for more information). This mid-quarter policy driver may be potent enough to turn sentiment around and produce gains for the year in line with our forecast for modest single-digit gains.

Catalysts on the Horizon – Part 3

September 23, 2010

5. The fourth quarter of mid-term election years is almost always favorable for stocks. The market’s reaction to mid-term elections, as uncertainty fades, has almost always been positive, with fourth quarter gains averaging 8% in mid-term election years. So far, the stock market performance in 2010 has tracked the typical pattern for U.S. stocks in mid-term election years, albeit with a bit more than the usual volatility.

6. If history is any guide, the disappointingly soft economic data over the past few months may soon begin to firm. Looking back over the past 60 years, about one year after the start of every recovery a soft spot emerges. Some closely watched indicators of growth are likely to be near the bottom of their typical soft spot-driven decline and poised for a rebound. As the data begins to firm later this year, the typical pattern of recovery may continue to unfold as it did in the post-recession recovery years of 2003 and 2004 when a late year rally in 2004 resulted in gains for the year.
Unfortunately, all of these potential catalysts are a month or more away while the economic data continues to disappoint.

The volatility that has defined this year is likely to continue with ongoing losses to be recouped by a late-year rally. In the meantime, we continue to find yield-producing investments attractive.

Catalysts on the Horizon – Part 2

September 21, 2010

3. Post-election clarity in Washington may begin to emerge. The balance of power is likely to shift between political parties following the elections. This may lead to more of a political balance in Washington and slow the pace of legislative change resulting in the “gridlock” the market has historically favored.

4. Following the election, the potential for tax cut extensions may become more visible. Based on comments in recent weeks, the party consensus among congressional Democrats on taxes seems to be eroding with some members increasingly in favor of extending the Bush tax cuts. After the election, it is possible PAYGO rules that require budget offsets to any tax cuts are waived allowing the extension of many, if not all, of the Bush tax cuts into 2011.

Catalysts on the Horizon – Part 1

September 16, 2010

We continue to believe a late-year rally for stocks will fulfill our long-held outlook for modest single-digit gains on the year for the S&P 500. However, over the next month or two, the risk that the soft spot lingers and pulls the market back to the lows of the year is significant. Seasonal factors also favor caution given the historically weak performance in September and October. Since 1950, the month of September has more often led to a decline than a gain in the S&P 500 index. However, November and December have provided some of the best returns of the year, on average.

There are a number of potential catalysts for a fourth quarter rally:
1. At the Federal Reserve (Fed) Meeting on September 21, the Fed may announce additional stimulus measures to stimulate growth. On Friday of last week, in his speech from the Fed’s Jackson Hole symposium, Fed chairman Ben Bernanke seemed to pave the way for another round of monetary stimulus. Although he noted that the Fed needs to see more evidence of a slowing economy or further disinflation to act. Friday’s profit warning from a large Technology company is potentially significant in tilting the Fed towards easing should it be followed by a number of other companies in the coming weeks. The unemployment rate ticking up in the August employment report due to be released this Friday would move the Fed in the direction of more stimulus, as well. It may be unlikely the Fed will move as soon as a few weeks from now, there will be plenty of data released before the September 21 FOMC meeting that could show further softening of the economy, raising investor expectations for Fed action.

2. Positive pre-election policy discussions in Washington as incumbents seek to alter the tide of the popular vote — often termed an “October surprise”. In the weeks ahead of the November 2 mid-term elections, incumbents in Washington may take positive stances on issues that are market friendly. Incumbents are in trouble according to state and regional polling data. In seeking to turn the tide of voter sentiment they may talk about tax cuts or other issues favorable to stock market investors.

Vacation Properties and Income – Part 2

September 14, 2010

Another way for retirees to generate income from a vacation home is to sell it. By using the federal capital gains exclusion in conjunction with the sale of your primary residence, you can potentially realize tax-free income. Here’s how it works. The basic capital gains exclusion rules state that you must have owned and used the home as your primary residence for at least two years out of the five-year period ending on the date of the sale. If you are married, the full $500,000 exclusion ($250,000 for single homeowners) is available as long as one or both of you satisfies the ownership test (two years) and you both satisfy the use test (primary residence).

Vacation Properties and Income – Part 1

September 9, 2010

If you have a vacation home, you’re already aware of the enjoyment it provides and the benefits it can offer at tax time. But you may not be aware of how vacation property can be used to generate income in retirement or how it can play into an estate plan. In fact, vacation properties offer retirees a number of different options in managing their finances and estate.
Vacation property may be used to generate income in several different ways. The first, and most obvious, is renting it. The IRS allows you to deduct mortgage interest on your primary residence and one additional property up to a limit of $1 million in combined mortgage debt for mortgages taken out after 1987. Current tax rules also allow you to rent out a second home for up to 14 days per year without having to report the rent as income. If you rent for more than 14 days, the home is considered investment property, and rent must be reported as income. Converting the property to an investment property, however, allows you to deduct rental expenses, such as insurance and utilities, if you have a net profit on the property (deductions are limited if you report a loss). You can still use an income-producing property for personal use while maintaining your tax advantages — but only for the greater of 14 days or 10 percent of the total days it is rented. Maintenance days do not count as personal-use days, but use by in-laws or other part-owners does, even if rent is charged.