Fed sounds hawkish on interest rates / Trump tax reforms in focus

September 27th

Yesterday Federal Reserve head Janet Yellen reaffirmed the central bank’s commitment to keep pushing interest rates higher, saying that it should not be too gradual in its approach – words that will be seen as refreshingly hawkish to many investors. Confirmation of another rate hike in December has pushed bank stock prices higher this morning once again, even across Europe.

Today a major focus for investors will be what President Trump announces about tax reform in a speech later today in the US. A plan to simplify the American tax code and cut tax rates for individuals (especially those in the middle class) and companies, was a key message in Trump’s campaign. It is expected that the tax rate for corporations will be reduced by 15%, from 35% to 20%.

Though Trump has repeatedly stated that rates for businesses would be reduced to 15%, Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (pictured shaking Trump’s hand) indicated in a New York Times interview recently that this may not be a realistic option. Still, any cuts they can get through would potentially be a great leap forward for the US economy and benefit investors simultaneously.

By reducing overall taxation, US companies may become more competitive financially. With lower rates across the board, many firms who were tempted to move abroad to save capital (cheaper labour costs, lower taxes) may choose to stay in the US too, creating more jobs instead of laying off their US-based workforce. A more favourable environment for businesses and individuals is likely to spur economic growth (which will boost stock markets too). The question now is whether the team behind tax reform can convince congress of the merits of the plan and get it passed.

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Merkel win overshadowed

September 22

Angela Merkel has been re-elected as German Chancellor following elections in the country yesterday.

Though it was a convincing win for the CDU/CSU (Christian Democratic Union of Germany and Christian Social Union in Bavaria), the victory was overshadowed by the rise of the AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) party.

Right-wing AfD has gained favour amidst rising anti-migrant sentiment, following Angela Merkel’s open door immigration policies throughout 2015/16.

With the Chancellor having stated in the summer of 2015 that “there is no legal limit to refugee numbers”, hundreds of thousands of undocumented migrants, many of whom were not genuine refugees, flooded into Germany, prompting domestic and international backlash.

The AfD has capitalised off of the social unrest and anger this mass-movement caused and gained 12.6% of the vote yesterday, winning its first seats in the Federal Parliament and becoming the Bundestag’s third largest party.

Stock markets in Europe faltered when markets opened this morning, but are starting to head higher. The major growth of a far-right party in Germany has significant implications for the EU and as such, investors are concerned about the election results. This concern prompted a reasonable sell-off earlier. The Euro is also lower against the Pound and Dollar due to these anxieties.

Why should I diversify my investment portfolio?

Shortly before the financial crisis rocked the world economy in 2007/8, optimism amongst US policymakers was high and widespread.

On June 2nd 2005, only 3 years before many of the worlds largest financial institutions were on the brink of insolvency, Christopher Cox stood in a room full of reporters. Cox was the new Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission or the SEC, under the Bush administration. The role of the organisation was to protect investors from foul play in financial markets, ensuring a level playing field between customers and asset management firms.

After his public introduction from President Bush, Cox took to the podium to set out the responsibilities of his new role and the state of the economy. He praised the financial sectors contribution to US economic growth, saying “In this amazing world of instant global communications, the free and efficient movement of capital is helping to create the greatest prosperity in human history.”

Statement on the Economy.  Rose Garden
Chairman of the Federal Reserve Ben Bernanke, President George W. Bush, Secretary of the Treasury Henry ‘Hank’ Paulson & SEC Chairman Christopher Cox in the White House Rose Garden. September 19, 2008.

Little did he know what was around the corner, but of course, no one really knew what was coming. Even the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke said in January 2008, “The Federal Reserve is not currently forecasting a recession.” It turned out that the SEC and other bodies that were supposed to protect the interests of investors, had stood by while banks were taking greater and greater risks and engaging in dangerous behaviour. Banks were taking enormous risks in the derivatives market, trading highly complex financial instruments like CDOs (collateralised debt obligations) and MBS (mortgage backed securities). Banks were also highly leveraged, which meant they were borrowing huge sums in order to take part in this kind of activity. There was a get-rich-quick culture pervading the financial sector. In this era of widespread irresponsibility on the part of some of the most famous investment management firms in the world, selling more toxic products to unsuspecting investors meant bigger bonuses. As such, it led to the eventual meltdown.

The damage was more serious that anyone could have imagined. In those years, investors lost life savings, while millions of ordinary citizens became homeless and unemployed, in a financial slump that left no country on the planet unaffected.

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Headline montage from media during the peak of the crisis

Why am I talking about the crisis? Well, it’s merely an example to highlight potential risks and why you should hedge against them as much as possible. Risk is a major factor to consider when choosing what to invest in. Financial markets are entities which are linked to human sentiment. Even if the crowd and the talking heads think they are ‘right’ about the way a price, or a company, or interest rates are heading, markets are still, (in the words of billionaire investor George Soros) “inherently unstable”. Due to this instability, it makes sense to hedge your bets and spread your risk across different sectors, asset classes and types of markets when investing.

Financial markets are all interconnected. Even the largest blue chip stocks which we hear about every day are not immune to external forces which can weaken their fundamentals. Geopolitical circumstances out of your control can cause huge sell offs in a single day, putting your portfolio at risk. Perhaps a war breaks out in Asia and suddenly every stock index from Tokyo to Shanghai loses a ton of its value, for example. Even shiny new instruments like cryptocurrencies which are currently all the rage have been known to lose hundreds of dollars off their value in a single trading day. Yes, it would be nice if markets were predictable and human behaviour was also less impulsive, but this sadly is not the case.

How do I diversify?

Diversification is a form of risk management, but it is also a tool you can use to make money as well.

The idea behind diversifying a portfolio is that investors will be less affected by an event that has a strong impact on a particular industry, company or type of investment. Not putting all of your eggs in one basket is another way of thinking about it.

By ensuring you invest in a multitude of sectors and asset classes, you can be more shielded from external shocks to the market (like geopolitical circumstances, economic downturns and the like).

By keeping investments split into different asset classes, (by choosing varying position sizes in different sectors) investors can become fairly well hedged incase of any destabilising news which will cause prices to fall.

Even if the flavour of the month is a bluechip giant in the S&P500 and every analyst seems to be singing it’s praises, going all in on the stock or similar companies within the same sector can be a foolish decision. Trends come and go frequently. Sectors lose steam, indexes that were once riding all time highs lose their edge. We saw recently how a political crisis in Brazil which engulfed the country’s leader Michel Temer, ignited a huge selloff in Brazilian stock markets. The key Bovespa index saw it’s biggest fall in almost 9 years on the same day corruption charges surfaced.

It is not possible to do away with all risk, but by hedging your positions and keeping your risk spread across different kinds of instruments, you can keep protect yourself against large-scale losses and maintain your well earned gains.