Beware the Fed

There is an old axiom on Wall Street:  “Don’t fight the Fed.”

The Federal Reserve holds an enormous amount of power over the economy.  While the President is usually blamed for a bad economy and praised for a good one, the fact is that the federal reserve actually has significantly more power over the state of the economy.

Despite the name, the Federal Reserve is not an institution of the Federal Government.  The Federal Reserve is made up of a board of bank executives from around the country — the “Governors” — with one individual chosen as the Chairman.  The Chairman is chosen by the President and confirmed by the Congress, but the post is meant to be non-political.  The group meets periodically to discuss the state of the economy and any action that should be taken.  The power of the Federal Reserve over the economy is so acute that the discussions held during the meetings are kept in secret with notes from the meeting only being released several months after they meet.

Often traders will move the stock market up or down before the Federal Reserve meets based on what they expect the group to decide.  If the group’s decision surprises the market, the stock market will often move up or down several percentage points.  The announcements made by the Federal Reserve are purposely made rather vague since they know the power of their words.

Don’t forget about this month’s SmallIvy Book Club Book: The Bogleheads’ Guide to Investing
Pick up a copy and join in on the discussion!

The Federal Reserve controls the economy through two levers, the Discount Rate and the Fed Funds Rate.  The discount rate ( is the amount that the Federal Reserve charges banks that borrow funds from it.  Generally, it is frowned upon for banks to borrow from the Federal Reserve directly and they generally get a scolding when they do so.  The exception is during the recent money crisis where borrowing from the discount window was encouraged since other sources of capital had dried up.

The Federal Funds Rate ( is the rate at which banks loan each other for overnight periods.  The Federal Reserve does not control the Fed Funds rate directly, but instead adds money to the economy or takes it away to affect the rate.  This is done by selling notes, which has the effect of removing money from the economy, or buying notes, which injects money into the economy.  Like anything else, the more money there is in the economy to lend, the lower the price for borrowing (therefore the lower the interest rate).

Because the bank’s costs of capital decrease when the rate at which they can obtain decreases, they also tend to lower the rates they charge.  This trickles up into the economy (except, interestingly, credit card rates), such that most rates tend to fall.  Because the rate savings accounts provide drops, bonds become more valuable, so their price tends to rise, dropping the amount of interest they provide.  Likewise, because the return of common stocks becomes more valuable, stock prices also tend to rise.

This is the reason to not “fight the Fed.”  When the Fed is lowering rates, it’s best not to be short, and when the Fed is raising rates, it’s best to prepare for a fall.  Note that in the early ’90’s, the Federal Reserve lowered interest rates to bring the economy out of the early 90’s recession.  The stock market took off first, followed by the economy.  President Clinton was credited with the good economy that followed, but it was all touched off by the Federal Reserve.

In the late 90’s, when inflation was starting to pick up and internet stocks were trading at ridiculous prices, Fed Chief Alan Greenspan warned of what he called “irrational exuberance.”  The Fed began raising rates to pick the ensuing bubble.  A few months later, the bubble burst and the early 2000 recession occurred.  President George Bush Junior was blamed for this recession, but the stock market had already started to fall before he took office because of the actions of the Federal Reserve.  Finally, just before the latest recession, the Federal Reserve, concerned about housing prices, began to raise rates to dampen the economy.  This caused the housing bubble to burst, leading to the current state.

The action of the Federal reserve typically takes half a year to have an effect.  It takes time for companies to start borrowing and hiring after rates are lowered.  Likewise, when the economy has a good head of steam it takes time for the wheels to grind to a halt.  The Federal Reserve set rates at near zero in 2008 and had been waiting for the economy to pick up.  It appears that there has finally started to be some growth, and the Feds are starting to slowly raise rates because they fear inflation picking up.  As they do so, it is likely to slow the economy and may cause stocks and bonds to fall, at least temporarily.

It would not be wise to fight the Fed.  If you have money invested that you need within a couple of years, it might be wise to take opportunities to sell.  If you are invested long-term, however, it would probably be better to just stay put.  You don’t know if the effects will be immediate or if there will be a great run-up through this New Years’ season as there often is.  If President Trump is able to get a tax cut through, that will also add fuel to the fire and you might miss out on a great advance in stock prices before the Fed’s effect is finally felt.  The effects of the Fed are temporary and matter little if you’re investing for 20 years.  Missing a big move up in stocks because you’re sitting on the sidelines will.

Have a question?  Please leave it in a comment.  Follow me on Twitter to get news about new articles and find out what I’m investing in. @SmallIvy_SI

Disclaimer: This blog is not meant to give financial planning or tax advice.  It gives general information on investment strategy, picking stocks, and generally managing money to build wealth. It is not a solicitation to buy or sell stocks or any security. Financial planning advice should be sought from a certified financial planner, which the author is not. Tax advice should be sought from a CPA.  All investments involve risk and the reader as urged to consider risks carefully and seek the advice of experts if needed before investing.

Hedging Strategies to Protect Yourself Against a Market Drop

With the big run-up in stocks this year and many people expecting a pull-back or an outright bear market, perhaps you’re getting nervous and looking for ways to protect the gains you’ve made.  Hedging refers to taking positions that will reduce your loss should the market drop while still allowing for gains should the markets continue to perform well.  Today I thought I’d discuss some hedging strategies for those who are looking for a little protection.  Understand, however, that any hedging strategy you employ will reduce gains in the future.

In speaking about hedging we’ll assume that the investor is primarily long to start with, meaning that the investor will make money if the stocks he/she owns go up in price.  (When you buy a stock, bond, or mutual fund, you are “long.”  When you sell short or buy an option that goes up in price when a stock goes down, you’re “short.”)  Most people are long most of the time and this makes sense because the market’s long-term tendency is always up.  Being short for a long period of time would be like entering a turbulent river and expecting to travel mostly upstream.  Hedging a short position can also be done just by doing the compliment of the trades I describe.  For example, buying a call option instead of a put option.  (If you are not familiar with options, check out Options Trading: QuickStart Guide – The Simplified Beginner’s Guide To Options Trading or a similar book.)

One often associates hedging with risk, largely because of the term, “hedge fund” applied to the high risk/high return funds purchased by wealthy individuals.  These funds get their names because they can take long or short positions, but often these funds are not hedging.  Instead they are using large amounts of leverage to make large gains from relatively small movements in the markets.  This causes a substantial risk of losing money.  True hedging actually reduces risk.

To hedge is to take up positions that are designed to offset long positions, such that the investor will be less susceptible to losses due to falls in the market.  For those who play roulette, you would be hedging a bet of $100 on red by putting $50 on black as well.  You would be reducing the amount you would win if red were rolled since you would lose the bet on black, but you would also be reducing your loss should black be rolled since your small win on the black bet would reduce the loss on the red bet.   If an investor is perfectly hedged, he/she will not lose money no matter what the market does.  But by taking up these positions, one also limits or eliminates the possibility for making gains while the hedges are in effect.  The following are ways to hedge a long position:

Selling shares of the same stock short-  This is also called “selling short-against-the-box” and forms a perfect hedge provided that equal numbers of the shares are sold short as are held.  No matter the movements in the stock, no money will be gained or lost.  (Note that if the stock price goes up an investor would need to add cash to the account or pay margin fees, since this would result in  negative cash balances in the account).  Selling short-against-the-box has little purpose other than delaying gains from one year into the next for taxes.

Selling shares of other complimentary companies short-  In this strategy, the investor sells short shares of a company that he/she expects to decline if shares of the company he/she owns fall in price.  For example, if he owns McDonald’s, he might sell shares of Wendy’s short, figuring that is the market turns against fast food companies shares of both companies will fall.

Buying put options- A put option is a legal contract by which someone agrees to buy shares of a stock for a predefined price before a certain date.  This can be though of as an insurance contract on the shares of the stock.  In exchange for this agreement the owner of the shares gives the seller (called the writer) of the put a certain amount of money, called the “premium”.  For example, a put option for selling 100 shares of XYZ stock at 50, good for three months, might cost $300 when the price of XYZ was at $51 per share.

Writing covered calls on the stock–  Here a contract is written that allows another individual to purchase your shares for a fixed price.  This limits the amount the investor can make on the shares (since if they go up above the agreed to sales price they will be purchased for the sales price) but reduces losses somewhat if the shares decline in price due to the premium collected.

Buying short ETFs– This involves buying short exchange traded funds (ETF).  These are financial instruments that are designed to go in the opposite direction of a particular market segment or index.  For example, an owner of several mining companies might buy a short basic materials ETF as a hedge against a fall in commodities prices or a slowdown in goods production.

Selling a portion of the position The simplest way to guard against losses in a position is to simply sell some or all off the position, and is probably the best thing to do if you really need the money in the short-term since it is the most cost-effective way to be safe.  This, of course, reduces the possibility of future gains, however.

If you’re interested in individual stock buying and this strategy, I go into far more detail in my book, SmallIvy Book of Investing: Book1: Investing to Grow Wealthy.  Check it out at the link below if interested.

Have a question?  Please leave it in a comment.  Follow me on Twitter to get news about new articles and find out what I’m investing in. @SmallIvy_SI

Disclaimer: This blog is not meant to give financial planning or tax advice.  It gives general information on investment strategy, picking stocks, and generally managing money to build wealth. It is not a solicitation to buy or sell stocks or any security. Financial planning advice should be sought from a certified financial planner, which the author is not. Tax advice should be sought from a CPA.  All investments involve risk and the reader as urged to consider risks carefully and seek the advice of experts if needed before investing.

401K Changes that Would Work

IMG_0120401k plans are better than traditional pensions and way better than Social Security, if they are used correctly.  The issue is that they are not used correctly.  People are too timid and leave all of their money in the money market or treasury fund their entire careers, missing out of the growth they could have had if they had invested.  They don’t enter the plan until they are in their forties or fifties, or contribute far too little.  They are too aggressive when they are nearing retirement, usually because they are trying to make up time, and see a market crash wipe out half of their portfolio value right when they were ready to head out-the-door.  They borrow against their 401k plan, or take the money out entirely, and lose the effects of compounding.

These issues could be easily solved.  The reason they occur is the rules behind 401k plans that allow or even encourage behaviors that are destructive to the employees retirement.  People have no choice in the amount they contribute to Social Security or pension plans.  The employer or the government dictates how much of the employee’s pay is contributed and how much they provide.  And at least with Social Security, you have no choice but to participate.  You are enrolled whether you like it or not.  Employees can choose not to enter the pension plan at some companies, but most realize that they should and they do enroll.  Likewise, you can’t borrow against your pension plan or Social Security or take it out early.  In the case of pension plans, they are invested in a mix of stocks and income investments in a manner that is appropriate for the goals of the plan and the payouts that must be made.

The sad part is, if people were to put all of the money they are putting into Social Security (about 13% of their paycheck) into a 401k plan and invested it properly, everyone who worked their whole life would be set for retirement.  There would be no issue paying for living expenses and medical bills.  The senior discount would vanish since most seniors would be multi-millionaires.  Unfortunately, people don’t think about their futures and plan.  They either see the big pile of cash they’ll need to build up to have  comfortable retirement as being either too difficult to achieve or retirement too far out in the future, so they sabotage themselves.  Much as I hate to see central government planing and control, some regulation is needed to nudge people in the right direction.  Unlike Social Security, where the government has proven that they’ll just squander any money given to them, however, government involvement should only extend to preventing people from drawing the money out to soon, not enrolling at all or not contributing enough,  or investing the money in a way that is too timid early or too aggressive late.  Here are some regulations that would make 401k plans the path to comfortable retirement for all:

1.  Required enrollment.

Employees should be required to contribute at least 5% of their pay to a 401k plan to ensure they’re putting enough away for at least a basic retirement.  While I hate to force people to do anything, it is for the good of society to not have a group of destitute retirees.  As an incentive to contribute more, the rules could eliminate the need to make a Social Security contribution if at least 10% of an employee’s paycheck is being contributed to a 401k, between the employee’s contribution and the employer’s.

2.  Forbid withdrawals until age 62, then limit withdrawals until age 70.

There is no good reason for people to be pulling their retirement savings out early, and again, doing so subjects society to the burden of carrying a lot of destitute old people.  No withdrawals should be allowed until the employee has reached at least the age of 62 (which also encourages people to work longer and reduce the number of years they’ll need to be supporting themselves with their savings).  To prevent people from pulling all of the money out at age 62 and blowing it, they should only be able to pull out a portion, like 5%, each year until they are age 70.  Hopefully by that point they will have learned that it is a good thing to take the money out slowly since then the account has the ability to recover and generate more money and they’ll continue that behavior from then into old age.

3.  Eliminate borrowing of funds.

Just as funds should not be withdrawn, they should not be borrowed.  If people want to pay down credit cards, start a business, or upgrade their home, they should find the money elsewhere than their retirement savings.  People shouldn’t live beyond their means at the expense of their retirement funds.

4.  Remove the money market option for those under age 58.

There is zero reason for anyone to have a dime in a money market fund within a 401k account until they are getting close to using the money.  Removing this option would force employees to invest the money, which would allow the money to grow and prevent inflation from reducing their spending power in retirement.

5.  Require a professional money management option.

Most people know little about investing.  An option where a professional money manager just invests the money for employees should be included.  This would be similar to a traditional pension plan, except the money manager could invest for groups of employees separated into different age brackets instead of investing everything as one big account.  Because there would just be a few, large accounts (maybe three), instead of a lot of little accounts to manage, and because the manager would be investing in mutual funds instead of individual stocks, the cost would not be very much.

6.  Limit the contribution of company stock by employers.

Some employers like to issue company stock as their contribution instead of giving cash because cash is more precious.  This puts an employee in a risky position since he/she then has a big position in one company – their employer’s.  They could both lose a job and see their 401k decimated should the company misread market conditions.   A reasonable limit, such as 1% of salary, should be placed on the amount of company stock that can be issued by a company for a 401k contribution.  Alternatively, require a company match at least 5% of salary with cash before issuing stock so that the employee at least has 10% of his/her salary going into the 401k in a diversified manner before concentrating in company stock.  Employees should also be able to sell shares that a company distributes to them immediately and shift the money into mutual funds where it will be appropriately diversified.

7.  Require low-cost index fund options in each plan.

Research has shown that low-cost, passive funds will beat out high cost, actively managed funds over time.  Unfortunately, some employers only have high cost funds available.  Every 401k plan should at least have the choice of a large cap, small cap, international, and bond index fund in their investment mix.

8.  Auto-enroll employees in a target date retirement fund.

Even when they do enroll (usually through automated enrollment), many employees tend to wait to get into their 401k plans and make their investment choices, sometimes for years.  Currently, many 401k plans auto-enroll employees in a money market fund, meaning they are losing money to inflation until they shift the money somewhere better.  Instead, they should be auti enrolled in a target date retirement fund so that at least they’ll have a reasonably good investment plan until they get the time and motivation to take a little more active role.

To ask a question, email or leave the question in a comment.

Disclaimer: This blog is not meant to give financial planning advice, it gives information on a specific investment strategy and picking stocks. It is not a solicitation to buy or sell stocks or any security. Financial planning advice should be sought from a certified financial planner, which the author is not. All investments involve risk and the reader as urged to consider risks carefully and seek the advice of experts if needed before investing