Is Economic Growth Buoyant or a Blip? Here’s How to Invest Either Way

When it comes to how the latest economic data could impact investors, two opposite interpretations emerge.

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Is Economic Growth Buoyant or a Blip? Here’s How to Invest Either Way
Paul Sullivan
, New York Times

When it comes to how the latest economic data could impact investors, two opposite interpretations emerge.

Growth of 4.1 percent in the second quarter is a sign of a buoyant economy set to keep growing for years to come, continuing a nearly decadelong expansion since the financial crisis in 2008.

Or growth of 4.1 percent in the second quarter is a short-term blip brought about by tax cuts that gave people a little extra money in their paycheck but is unsustainable in the face of mounting federal debt, higher tariffs and the prospect of a trade war that could hurt large portions of the U.S. economy.

Friday, the Labor Department released the jobs report for July, showing the economy added 157,000 jobs, fewer than the expected gain of 190,000. The jobless rate dropped to 3.9 percent, suggesting slack in the labor market, but wages are growing slowly.

Your takeaway depends on your overall view of the country and the economy.

“In 23 years of doing this, I cannot really remember a time when a statistic comes out and you hear such diametrically opposed interpretations of it,” said Andrew Crowell, vice chairman of wealth management at D.A. Davidson & Co., which manages $48.2 billion. “There is no gray zone. It’s only black and white, which makes it an interesting time to be an investor.”

Who is correct on the data will not be known until the economic impact is felt, which could take months or even years. But for investors, any plan based on waiting or wishing is not ideal.

After all, beginning even before President Donald Trump began to shake up economic norms, with his criticism of the Federal Reserve, threats of tariffs and nonchalance about government debt, investors have been skeptical of the economic expansion, which has run, with a few minor dips, from March 2009 to the present.

A wait-and-see approach on investing can be costly, but moving too quickly at this stage could be ruinous if the market goes into a correction. Advisers to some of the country’s wealthiest people say keep investing, but do it wisely.

Here are four tips for investors in a time of caution:

Diversify your portfolio

Trump has made many comments that in a different time would have caused the economy to tank. Military threats against North Korea and Iran, tariffs against the United States’ largest trading partners, all manner of statements about Russia — none of them has caused a market correction.

Instead, the opposite has happened this year, as investors find opportunities in market fluctuations. “We’ve seen cash come in to buy on the dips,” Crowell said.

And for a seemingly sound reason: Companies continue to grow. The Republican tax cut that was enacted last year and a rollback of financial regulations have helped, but so, too, have strong earnings that have outpaced price increases.

“The stimulative measures have bolstered confidence that growth and the economy is going to be strong over the next couple of years,” Crowell said.

Advisers agree that the recovery has been running for some time and is near the point where bull markets typically begin to falter. But that does not mean the run will end this year or next or even the year after that.

“Consumer wealth is at all-time highs when you factor in home prices and the stock market,” said Henry B. Smith, co-chief investment officer at the Haverford Trust Co., which manages $8 billion. “One of the lacking ingredients throughout this has been business investment, and that is starting to pick up.” Smith is advising his clients to have the maximum exposure to equities that they can stomach. But he is also telling them to think more broadly about equities.

Investors often overlook the moderating role of value stocks, which are steady, dividend-paying stocks that can help weather various economic storms. Instead, they often pursue the higher returns of growth stocks, which are expected to grow at an above-average rate.

Smith said investors should think about trimming back investments in manufacturing, technology and financial services to increase holdings of consumer staples, health care, telecommunication and utility stocks, the basics of value investing.

He cited last week’s sudden drop in the value of Facebook as reason to broaden your view of equities. “Last week was a good reminder that stocks that go up sharply can also come down sharply,” he said.

Be aware of opportunities

Many investors seem willing to forget that the returns of the past decade have been strong and that replicating them going forward may be difficult. In other words, stay invested in riskier assets while they continue to run, because selling them too early could hurt your portfolio.

“When we look at demographics and economic projections, there isn’t going to be as much population growth and consumption,” said Anthony Roth, chief investment officer at Wilmington Trust. “Most of the world has a population moving to slower consumption as they age. While this economic cycle is continuing, the risk of missing out is even greater.”

Roth pointed to the reaction over the flattening of the yield curve, which tracks the difference between the interest rate on short-term bonds and long-term bonds. He said talk about the yield curve inverting — which means long-term borrowing costs become less than those in the short term — was premature.

“The strongest period of the market cycle is from the time of yield curve inversion to the peak of the equity market, which is usually nine to 12 months after that,” Roth said. “We haven’t even gotten to the inversion yet, which would suggest there’s significant opportunity right now.”

Yet investors need to pay attention. “The alarm is when the yield curve inverts,” he said. “It’s a predictor of both recessions and returns in the market.”

Actively monitoring economic data and what it presages is a smart strategy.

Pick recession-resistant stocks

Most analysts believe Trump is bluffing on tariffs and that they are being used as a negotiating tool. This comes from the school of thought that favors what the president does over what he says.

For instance, after saying so many harsh things about European trading partners, Trump embraced Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, just last week.

“The worst case is, Trump just gets in a fight with China, Europe and everyone else and we see an escalation of tariffs that slows world trade and has a significant impact on the U.S. economic cycle, increases inflationary pressures and ultimately reduces output,” said John S. Osterweis, chairman and chief investment officer of Osterweis Capital Management, which manages about $7 billion.

That would be crushing, but it is not the only possible outcome.

“The flip side is, Trump really is a master negotiator and what he’s doing is trying to move away from multilateral trade agreements to bilateral agreements,” Osterweis said. That may produce better trade deals, he said. Lacking any idea as to which outcome to expect, Osterweis said he had been encouraging clients to invest in companies whose outlooks are less dependent on the economy or a particular industry.

“You could think of a Google, where people’s search habits aren’t going to change dramatically if there’s a recession and there’s already an inexorable migration of ad dollars to that company,” he said. “You could look at a drug company with a blockbuster drug coming through the pipeline or a Disney, where they have the next unbelievably popular movie coming out.”

The opposite would be manufacturing companies like automakers that stockpile inventory and could struggle to sell it in a recession. Still, some combination of different types of companies is the more prudent bet.

Consider the tax implications

Facebook’s loss of nearly 20 percent of its value in one day was substantial. But Crowell said it should not cause people to run from the Big Tech stocks like Alphabet, Amazon, Facebook and Netflix.

What it should do is get people thinking about the need to examine their portfolios. “It’s prudent to be mindful that those four names don’t define a diversified portfolio,” he said.

Another reason not to sell off stocks that have appreciated greatly is taxes. People who have held those stocks for a long time have watched them run up in value, which means they are going to owe a lot of money in taxes when they sell them.

Todd Morgan, chairman of Bel Air Investment Advisors, which manages about $8 billion for high-net-worth families, said he shows clients how much the stock of a fundamentally strong company would have to fall before selling it made sense.

“People don’t look at the after-tax returns,” Morgan said. “I’ve had several calls about tech stocks the past few days, all asking, should we stay in or get out?”

If an investor thinks a company is going to drop below what would be owed in capital gains taxes, then it is time to get out.

Investors need to keep paying attention to company fundamentals and economic indicators focused on inflation and wages. If either of those run too high, the Federal Reserve is likely to raise interest rates, which could bring the equity party to an end.

Since neither is happening now, the best advice is to stay invested and stay alert.

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