Monday, July 31, 2017

Why You Should Worry About the Rising Stock Market

The stock market keeps rising, setting new records just about every week.  The S&P 500 has risen over 15% since Election Day 2016, and shows no signs of slowing down.  That's an annualized rate of over 20% a year, which is exceptionally good for an aged bull market as we have.

The election of Donald Trump as President was seen as a major reason for the rally.  He promised infrastructure spending, tax reform and other measures that should stimulate the economy.  But his Presidency has sunk into a quagmire of chaos, incoherence and unpredictability. These, coupled with the legal risks emanating from special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation, should have triggered market retrenchment.  But stocks have hardly blinked before levitating some more.  Whatever is driving the market, it doesn't have much to do with the Trump Presidency.

Accommodative monetary policy in Europe and Japan is also said to be a reason for the market's buoyancy.  Foreign central banks have been printing money, and some of it supposedly has found its way into the U.S. markets.  But the dollar has been falling recently, indicating liquidity is flowing out of our markets, not in. That's not a formula for a rally.

Corporate earnings, although pretty decent, aren't dramatically better than last fall.  They don't explain the lighter-than-air quality of stocks today.

So what's going on?  Let's consider that over half of all stock market transactions consist of computerized trading.  Machines are trading with machines, using algorithms known to very few.  These algorithms verge on alchemy.  They rely on statistical correlations that may or may not hold true in the future.  These correlations can be disrupted by unexpected government policy, political upheaval or conflict, economic change (such as the effective collapse of OPEC as a functional cartel), and technological change (such as the fracking that just blew up OPEC).  They also utilize artificial intelligence, seeking to learn from their ongoing experiences in the market and modifying their algorithms as a result of what they learn.  Thus, the humans may have difficulty anticipating what the programs will do tomorrow.  And the programs may produce a positive or negative synergy or other interaction that humans have not foreseen.

Computerized trading is opaque.  That is, in real time, no one knows for sure if a trade or a series of trades involved a machine or two machines or none.  One should avoid anthropomorphism in today's stock markets.  In other words, one should not ascribe human motives, intentions or characteristics to market activity.  There may be no reason comprehensible to humans for today's stock prices.  When computers use artificial intelligence to trade stocks, the valuation of financial assets may be fundamentally changed, and changed beyond human comprehension.  You may think that stock prices are whacked out--and you could be correct from the human perspective.

Homilies like stocks are excellent long term investments and will protect against inflation were derived at a time when people dominated the financial markets and established the asset valuations on which these notions were based.  If machines that function opaquely suddenly become dominant, how can humans understand the valuations determined by the machines?  More succinctly, how can you tell what's a good price and what's a bad price anymore?

There are many more questions than answers in a machine-dominated market.  When the market keeps setting new record highs in machine-dominated trading, be careful.  We are bravely, or not, going where no investors have gone before.  And no one really knows what's going to happen.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Buy Your Retirement

If you're having trouble saving for retirement, think of it this way:  your retirement is a purchase, and the more you spend, the more luxurious it will be.  Retirement is a purchase--you're buying rest, relaxation, entertainment and time to do whatever you want.  You may have to buy a fair amount of health care and other services such as lawn care, housekeeping and so on.  But whatever the case may be, the more money you have for retirement, the nicer it will be.  No need to think of saving as a sacrifice.  You aren't giving up things up.  You're simply spending for a better retirement instead of a bigger TV. 

So, if you can't save for retirement, then spend on your retirement. It will be one of the smartest purchases of your life.  For more, see,,,