Although the fall season is here and the leaf colors are changing, there are a number of other transforming dynamics occurring this economic season as well. The S&P 500 index may not have changed much this past month (down -0.1%), but the technology-laden NASDAQ index catapulted higher (+1.9% for the month and +6.0% for 2016).
With three quarters of the year now behind us, beyond experiencing a shift in seasonal weather, a number of other changes are also coming. For starters, there’s no ignoring the elephant in the room, and that is the presidential election, which is only weeks away from determining our country’s new Commander in Chief. Besides religion, there are very few topics more emotionally charged than politics – whether you are a Republican, Democrat, Independent, Libertarian, or some combination thereof. Even though the first presidential debate is behind us, a majority of voters are already set on their candidate choice. In other words, open-minded debate on this topic can be challenging.
Hearing critical comments regarding your favorite candidate are often interpreted in the same manner as receiving critical comments about a personal family member – people often become defensive. The good news, despite the massive political divide currently occurring in the country and near-record low politician approval ratings in Congress , politics mean almost nothing when it comes to your money and retirement (see also Politics & Your Money). Regardless of what politicians might accomplish (not much), individuals actually have much more control over their personal financial future than politicians.
While inaction may rule the day currently, more action generally occurs during a crisis – we witnessed this firsthand during the 2008-2009 financial meltdown. As Winston Churchill famously stated,
“You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.”
Political discourse and gridlock are frustrating to almost everyone from a practical standpoint (i.e., “Why can’t these idiots get something done in Washington?!”), however from an economic standpoint, gridlock is good (see also Who Said Gridlock is Bad?) because it can keep a responsible lid on frivolous spending. Educated individuals can debate about the proper priorities of government spending, but most voters agree, maintaining a sensible level of spending and debt should be a bipartisan issue.
From roughly 2009 – 2014, you can see how political gridlock has led to a massive narrowing in our government’s deficit levels (chart below) – back to more historical levels.This occurred just as rising frustration with Washington has been on the rise.
The Fed: Rate Revolution or Evolution?
Besides the changing season of politics, the other major area of change is Federal Reserve monetary policy. Even though the Fed has only increased interest rates once over the last 10 years, and interest rates are at near-generational lows, investors remain fearful. There is bound to be some short-term volatility if interest rates rise to 0.50% – 0.75% in December, as currently expected. However, if the Fed continues at its current snail’s pace, it won’t be until 2032 before they complete their rate hike cycles.
We can put the next rate increase into perspective by studying history. More specifically, the Fed raised interest rates 17 times from 2004 – 2006 (see chart below). Fortunately over this same time period, the world didn’t end as the Fed increased interest rates from 1.00% to 5.25% (stocks prices actually rose around +11%). The same can be said today – the world won’t likely end, if interest rates rise from 0.50% to 0.75% in a few months.
The next question becomes, why are interest rates so low? There are many reasons and theories, but a few of the key drivers behind low rates include, slower global economic growth, low inflation, high demand for low-risk assets, technology, and demographics. I could devote a whole article to each of these factors, and indeed in many cases I have, but suffice it to say that there are many reasons beyond the oversimplified explanation that artificial central bank intervention has led to a 35 year decline in interest rates (see chart below).
Change is a constant, and with fall arriving, some changes are more predictable than others. The timing of the U.S. presidential election outcome is very predictable but the same cannot be said for the timing of future interest rate increases. Irrespective of the coming changes and the related timing, history reminds us that concerns over politics and interest rates often are overblown. Many individuals remain overly-pessimistic due to excessive, daily attention to gloomy and irrelevant news headlines. Thankfully, stock prices are paying attention to more important factors (see Don’t Be a Fool) and long-term investors are being rewarded with record high stock prices in recent weeks. That’s the type of change I love.