Positive returns in the fourth quarter helped propel all major indexes
The year started with a robust recovery from the negative returns at the end of 2018, followed by a resting period in the third quarter, and then more growth at the end of 2019. Continued moderate expansion in the economy was a tailwind for investors, with total return for both bond and stock investors at the high end of historic norms. The greatest gains were from risk asset classes (stocks, real estate, and high yield bonds). Investors in investment grade bonds were also rewarded. Within the Russell 3000 (broad index of US stocks), the strongest returns came from the largest components. Technology jumped 14.3% in the quarter and 46.7% for the year. Financials were up 7.6% in the quarter and 32.9% for the year. Every sector other than Energy (up 9.6% for the year) increased by double digits. Investors were rewarded by the almost 11-year stock market expansion, but the gains have been not evenly translated to all participants in the economy.
Since the stock market began its recovery (March 2009) and the end of the last recession (October 2009), much has changed. Unemployment has fallen from 10% to under 3.5%. Inflation remains low, currently below the target rate of 2%. Average family income (when measured using the statistical mean), has grown by 35%, which is just over 3% per year. Profits to stock owners, measured by the S&P 500, are now 498%. Companies have benefited from low interest rates, corporate tax cuts, increases in worker productivity, and in many cases, reductions in regulations.
In statistics, there are two frequently used approaches to calculating an average (or mean) and median. In common usage, average almost always assumes use of the mean method of calculation. The process for finding the mean considers all observations and divides by the number of observations. If you have ten observations of hourly wages and nine of them reflect $10 per hour and the 10th observation reflects $500, the average hourly wage of those 10 people is $59. Using the statistical measure of median, we organize all observations in numerical order and take the mid-point observation.
In the example above, the median worker earned $10. As income inequality grows, we believe that monitoring the difference between average (mean) and median becomes an important measure of the financial strength of the workforce. This is demonstrated in the graph below.
The green line showing the average (mean) income for families has grown at a much higher rate than the blue line, which represents median income. If the highest wages grow while other wages remain steady, the average will grow while most workers experience no change.
A recent JP Morgan report noted the differences in spending rates between families earning the highest 10% of incomes and the other 90% of U.S. families. They found that the highest earners spent just 68% of their income, while the rest of the population averages spending of 101% of income. The divide between average and median earners and the spending patterns of high and lower earners has implications on the growth rate of the broader economy. If spending rates are highest among those with the slowest growing income but low among those experiencing high rates of growth in real income, the consumer contribution to economic growth will be limited. It also has implications for the savings rates of most families.
In the years since the end of the recession, the economy has grown at an average annual rate of 2.2%. The average economic growth during expansions of the last 50 years has been 3.7%. The majority of GDP (almost 70%) comes from consumer spending. Low growth in wages for the majority of American families during this economic expansion is a part of the explanation for the lower-than-average growth of the economy during this long, but tepid recovery.
Meanwhile, this limited growth in most wages mixed with extremely accommodating monetary policy, stock buy backs and growing dividends have propelled the stock market to record highs despite this slow growth environment. We have a sense of the economy doing better than it is because we see the stock market soaring. While observed by many, the benefits are largely constrained to the top 10%. Market strength and economic strength are often related, but they are not the same thing.
With election year and impeachment on everyone’s mind, Veris monitors for changes to the pillars of the economy, which are the strength in corporate earnings and bond markets. We also recognize that portfolio management is a long-term process. An important factor is not just structuring a portfolio for growth, but also structuring a portfolio to provide for spending needs during periods of decline or volatility. As some investors celebrate these historic market gains, we invite and encourage all of our clients to reach out to your Veris wealth advisor to be sure your portfolio is positioned for the road ahead.
The Veris team mourns the sudden loss of Jud Bergman and his wife, Mary Miller-Bergman, with great sadness.
Jud was more than just a great friend and strategic partner of Veris.
Jud was a visionary and an optimist, a philosopher whose maverick ideas changed the financial world, a dealmaker extraordinaire, a gracious man with a big heart, and a person whose modesty never wavered despite his incredible success. He had a unique ability to share his joy, his curiosity and love of life.
Veris Co-Founder & CEO Patricia Farrar-Rivas said Jud was one of the most thoughtful and unique individuals she has worked with during her 35-year career. Patricia started collaborating with Envestnet in 2000, when the firm had $8 billion in assets and a few dozen employees. Today, it has more than $3 trillion in platform assets and 4,000 people scattered around the world.
“Jud was a truly creative and gifted thinker,” Patricia said. “He had an expansive vision about the financial services industry and impact investing. He knew before others that impact investing could change the world. As a leader, he also had a clear idea of where he wanted to take his company. He saw over the horizon and welcomed others to come along with him.
“Each year, Jud delivered an amazing annual presentation at the Envestnet summit. He included cultural references and historical-point-of-views that were both surprising and illuminating. Then we would go to his favorite blues joint or go to see his kids Natalie and Elliott’s Indie Pop band Wild Belle. It was so refreshing.”
One Big Extended Family
Patricia continued, “Jud was very kind and warm. I am still grateful to him while my sister was battling cancer. He spent so much time with me and helped me through a difficult period in my life. That’s who Jud was: He truly cared about people. You got that true sense of family when you were with him and his team. He connected with people. He never became too aloof, too busy or too important to take the time to talk.”
Veris Co-Founder and Partner Anders Ferguson also worked closely with Jud and Bill Crager, the company’s former president and now CEO of Envestnet.
Anders said, “Jud was an optimist. He saw what was possible. He understood the ongoing integration of finance and information before many others did. And, he wasn’t scared to follow his vision. He enjoyed being philosophical and always thought differently about financial services. That’s one reason he loved to make deals. Everybody used to joke about it: ‘What is Envestnet going to buy next?’ One way or the other, they always made those deals work.
“My experience with Envestnet was similar to Patricia’s: The company, under Jud’s leadership, felt like family. That’s pretty difficult when you grow from a handful of people to thousands. Jud was a man of big ideas who made everyone part of his success. I will miss him. He was a good man and a real loss at a time when the financial services industry is gripped by cynicism and greed. Jud was a gem.”
On behalf of the team at Veris, thank you Jud. We are thinking about your family. And to our colleagues at Envestnet, our thoughts are with you.
The Veris Team
Veris has worked with Envestnet for the past 12 years. Veris serves as the strategic advisor to Envestnet’s impact investing platform.
By Alison Pyott, Partner and Senior Wealth Manager, and Rebecca Orlowitz
Many of us are struggling with the current global refugee crisis and seeking some small way to make a difference. Ban Ki-Moon wrote an op-ed for The New York Times titled, “The refugee crisis is a test of our collective conscience.” The crisis affects all corners of the world. Refugees face a host of common issues as they seek peace and security, ranging from the trauma of the refugee journey itself, experiencing or witnessing violence, challenging humanitarian conditions in refugee camps, prejudice from host communities, a lack of self-reliance and livelihood, and even problems
arising from resettling or returning home. Should refugees successfully overcome these obstacles, they must still cope with the trauma for generations to come.
At the end of 2017, a record 68.5 million people around the world had been forced from their homes, including 25.4 million refugees, according to the United Nations refugee agency. Only 102,800, less than 1% of the total number of displaced, were admitted for resettlement in 2017. The terms refugee and refugee camp imply a temporary situation. But this is not a new crisis, and for many refugees their situations are far from temporary. Some refugees have lived their entire lives in camps. Palestine refugee camps have existed since 1948, Mae La refugee camp since 1968 and Dadaab Kenya since 1991, to name a few.
What To Do?
The situation is overwhelming and absolutely a test of our collective conscience. As global citizens, we can use our awareness, energy and philanthropy to help. The impact investor has additional options. We can question how public companies are involved in the refugee and immigration crises. Are they or their supply chains involved in forced or child labor, unfair working conditions, human rights violations, or exploitation of undocumented workers? Companies with higher governance scores are often less likely to engage in these practices.
Divesting from private prisons is another option. There are two publicly traded private prison operators, GEO and CoreCivic Inc. According to the Migration Policy Institution, as of August 2016, nearly three-quarters of the average daily US immigration detainee population was held in facilities operated by private prison companies. That’s a sharp contrast from a decade ago when the majority were held in ICE-contracted bed spaces in local jails and state prisons. The industry’s bottom line depends on incarceration for investor profit.
Investing in solutions is another option for the impact investor. Community development finance institutions (CDFIs) work in many US communities. They deliver responsible affordable lending to help low-income, low-wealth, and other disadvantaged people and communities join the economic mainstream. Investing in a CDFI certificates-of-deposit or promissory note may help refugees and immigrants build credit with low limit cards, financial literacy seminars and loans. In 2014, Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees published a guide of CDFIs referencing Dreamer, immigrant and refugee programs.
Other developing options are supporting public companies who make significant contributions to refugee welfare, including hiring, funding, and in-kind services. New and further developing are pay for success bonds and private investments in refugee entrepreneurs directly or through funds.
Despite the scale of the refugee challenge, we need to think of it first and foremost as a crisis of solidarity. Whether the world can come together to effectively support these vulnerable groups will be a true test of our collective conscience.
Veris Guest Blog: By Timothy P. Dunn, CFA
Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) Corporation, California’s largest investor-owned utility, which serves roughly 5.2 million households in central and northern California, filed for bankruptcy and is facing an estimated $30 billion of potential liabilities stemming from its equipment’s role in the historic 2017 and 2018 wildfires.
PG&E’s bankruptcy is indicative of how our changing climate presents real economic and financial risks for companies and investors. Prior to the wildfires that burned over 240,000 acres, PG&E included warnings that weather-related disasters could weigh on or disrupt its operations in its regulatory filings. In a statement, the company noted that the state’s most recent climate assessment “found the average area burned statewide would increase 77 percent if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise,” and that “prolonged drought and higher temperatures will triple the frequency of wildfires.” Further, PG&E performed extensive water risk assessments, water management was integrated into its business strategy, and the company spent hundreds of millions of dollars every year in fire prevention, including pruning or removing thousands of trees. This awareness and action, though necessary and important, was not enough.
In an environment that continues to be challenged by climate change, PG&E’s situation could be a harbinger of the economic toll of spatially-related climate risk. “California is now a riskier place to do business,” said the Environmental Defense Fund’s Michael Colvin, a former adviser to the California Public Utilities Commission. “This is a statewide problem.”
The bankruptcy not only points out the danger that warming poses for many companies, it also underscores how difficult it is for investors to analyze risks linked to climate change compared to conventional business challenges. It is becoming increasingly clear that economic damage from climate change will affect a variety of sectors, and even companies regarded as forward-thinking might not be able to directly prepare for all the externalities associated with this systemic global problem.
Source: Seeking Alpha
Terra Alpha first purchased PG&E in 2015 based on the fact that it was a leading US regulated power provider with solid fundamentals and a strong record of shifting to lower carbon power generation. Nearly 80% of the electricity that PG&E delivered in 2017 was a combination of renewable and GHG free. Accordingly, PG&E was well-positioned to benefit from increased regulatory action in California aimed at furthering the shift toward renewable energy.
We sold our shares of PG&E in mid-October of 2017, after PG&E’s equipment was linked to the start of several wildfires. We had determined that the risk profile for the stock had dramatically worsened and it was no longer prudent to own. We felt that its exposure to such enormous liability, coupled with CEO Geisha Williams’ concerns about the growing financial risk for PG&E from forest fires, intensified by a changing climate, and California’s unique inverse condemnation laws, represented material undiscounted financial risk.
While PG&E may represent the first climate change bankruptcy it likely won’t be the last. Investors need to learn how to account for long-tail climate risk in their portfolios.
Timothy P. Dunn, CFA, is Founder, Managing Member and Chief Investment Officer of Terra Alpha Investments, LLC, a global equities asset manager.
*The information presented by Mr. Dunn is not an endorsement of Terra Alpha Investments by Veris Wealth Partners.
By Jane Swan, Partner and Senior Wealth Manager
Stock markets finished 2018 with the worst quarter in more than seven years and the first year of negative returns in 10 years. All major global risk asset classes had negative returns. This includes stocks, REITs, and high yield bonds. Fixed income returns were positive, but very low with the multiple rate hikes in the year. Sectors of the S&P 500 were overwhelmingly negative with only small positive returns from Health Care, Utilities and Consumer Discretionary. Despite strong returns in the first half of the year, Energy was again the worst performing sector of both the quarter and the year.
Against this tenuous investment picture, we enter the season of annual investment forecasts. This ritual continues, despite limitations to the accuracy of these forecasts. While market predictions can be relatively reliable during periods of relative stability, their limited reliability in advance of economic inflection points can lead to failure during times when forecasts are actually most important. Investment and economic forecasting rely on a number of data points that are interpreted to develop scenarios of possible futures.
Market analysts and investors review data, assess the speed and severity of changes in trends, evaluate the moving parts in concert, and put them in context of the economic cycle and known and predictable global events. Balancing the many inputs is a mix of art and science, as the collection of inputs and their placement in history is always unique. Current readings of indicators may be similar to points in a previous cycle, but are never an exact repeat of any prior events. We try to assess what has happened in the past when some things were similar, and how the subtle differences may lead to different outcomes.
Recent headlines have included, “Why The S&P 500 Will Fall Another 20% In 2019” from Seeking Alpha, “S&P 500 will climb 15% in 2019 – here’s what to buy now” from MarketWatch, and from Bloomberg, “Save the Date: June 10 Is When Charts Say the Stock Turmoil Will End.” The absurdity of specificity in these forecasts highlights a dilemma for investors. And while we can watch economic indicators for signals of vulnerability, there always exists an additional supply of uncertainties. Shifts in consumer sentiment, changes to the yield curve, and other indicators can give us signals of market strengths or weaknesses. Natural disasters and human interventions are less predictable, but can have a significant impact.
In our current situation, we have troves of data to evaluate numerous trends, while finding bigger questions seemingly impossible to answer. We have low unemployment, signaling a strong workforce. If the market downturn of the fourth quarter quickly recovers, we will still be in the longest market expansion in history. The yield curve is nearly flat, suggesting concern about future growth. Corporate earnings are expected to grow, but at a slower rate than last year. And yet all this data still paints an opaque picture of future markets.
Crosscurrents In the Markets
Weighing on the market is a growing list of uncertainties that constrain the ability of businesses to plan. Uncertainty around Brexit makes it difficult for businesses in Europe to plan for growth, evaluate the positioning of their workforce, and determine where their HQ should be located. It is the time of year when U.S. farmers are planning their 2019 crops, but they don’t know if tariffs will continue to reduce their markets. Further the government shutdown has limited data they use to finalize crop planting plans. The effects of tariffs and the partial government shutdown continue to trickle into ancillary businesses the longer they continue, airlines for instance. The resolutions of Brexit, tariffs with China, the government shutdown, and the eventual conclusion of the Mueller investigation may cause bursts of market volatility. However, greater certainty, and resolution, around these matters may lead to a market boost as businesses simply can plan better.
The current accumulation of uncertainties is unusual. In Barron’s annual Roundtable of Experts, most expect the pressures of these uncertainties to resolve in the first half of the year but believe they will constrain economic growth as we await the resolution. These experts expect GDP growth somewhere between 0.5 and 2.4 percent in the first half of the year and a return to growth higher than 3 percent in the second half of the year after these uncertainties are presumably sorted. We can at least partially attribute the market decline from last quarter of 2018 to these escalating dilemmas. So long as they mostly resolve in the first quarter and no major new matters are added, we very well could return to a strong position in the economy and the stock market. That said, a year ago, these current market stressors of a possible hard Brexit or re-vote on the referendum, a trade war, and government shutdown lasting over a month, were at best distant on the horizon. Markets were celebrating the success of tax reform that hoped to raise stocks while increasing wages and consumer spending. All with little concern over increases to deficits.
The Big Picture
As we look to the year ahead, we work to keep all of this in perspective. In addition, as impact investors we consider long term implications of all opportunities. We take note that while the federal government opens and shuts down, on many levels, cities and states march forward in combating climate change. They are innovating in green and sustainable cities and housing and technologies. We are seeing solutions-based leadership. There are nearly 50 new models of electric vehicles and batteries coming on the market. Total oil used for cars and trucks hit peak and is actually dropping in the U.S. Some states are making bold experiments in new ways to deliver community healthcare. And more of us are awakening to the crisis of inequality in our democracy. Spotlighted by 1 million federal workers on shutdown struggling to pay basic bills, while eight billionaires are highlighted this week having equal wealth to 50% of the people of our world.
Considering these matters, Veris’ determined focus on climate change factors, gender lens characteristics, community wealth building and social equality, sustainable agriculture and forestry, as well as mindfulness gives us practice at looking beyond the old-fashioned forecasts. Our broader approach positions us to work with our clients to better understand risks and opportunities beyond those reflected in the standard list of economic indicators.
1 Seeking Alpha, January 7, 2019 “Why The S&P 500 Will Fall Another 20% in 2019” by https://seekingalpha.com/article/4231851-s-and-p-500-will-fall-another-20-percent-2019
2 MarketWatch, January 7, 2019, “Opinion: S&P 500 will climb 15% in 2019 – here’s what to buy now” by Michael Brush https://www.marketwatch.com/story/sp-500-will-climb-15-in-2019-heres-what-to-buy-now-2019-01-07
3 Bloomberg Markets, January 23, 2019 “Save the Date: June 10 Is When Charts Say the Stock Turmoil Will End” by Elena Popina https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-01-23/save-the-date-june-10-is-when-charts-say-stock-turmoil-will-end