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 IHA Monthly   
August 2011 
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Market Commentary
July 2011 Asset Class Returns
Eat the Rich
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History Speaks
Roman Tax Farming
On August 5th, financial conditions of the Italian state came under market spotlight when its 10-year bond yielded a Euro-era record 416 basis points above the German counterpart. One of the issues facing Italy is the widespread tax avoidance that reduces government revenues. Perhaps Prime Minister Berlusconi should reach back to the apogee of Italian power and copy the tax collecting techniques of the Roman Empire. In that period the central government would auction the right to collect taxes in a particular region. The individuals who won the right to collect taxes, known as the publicani, would pay the state in advance of this collection. These payments were, in effect, loans to the state and Rome was required to pay interest back to the publicani upon the actual collection of taxes.  Thus, the government received their moniesILuvTax up front and did not have to involve themselves in the nasty job of actually collecting taxes.  The publicani also retained any additional tax money they collected above their bid price. Of course, this encouraged shall we say 'aggressive' tax collection habits by the publicani making them widely despised throughout the Roman Empire.  The publicani were also money lenders, or the bankers of the ancient world, and would lend cash to hard-pressed provincials at the exorbitant rates of 4% per month or more. Which is, of course, a tradition still carried out by some Italian familes today but perhaps it is better for us to adopt the code of omerta at this point.

Market Commentary

InnerHarbor Advisors, LLC is a Manhattan based financial planning firm catering to market professionals.
 
If you would like a fresh perspective on your finances, please contact John O'Meara or Michael Keating at 212.949.0494 ...or simply 'reply' to this email.

 

In last month's letter we noted it looked like we were seeing a replay of the previous summer's stock market horror show as equities worldwide declined in unison.Well the movie has stayed on script but it looks like someone turned it to fast forward. Fears of the sovereign debt crisis infecting the European (and by extension the world's) banking system resulted in a remarkably quick selloff that saw the S&P 500 decline over 16% in just 13 trading days -  and  four straight days where the market moved up or down at least 4%. The European Union has been pushing their debt issue down the road for as long as they can but with the debts of their larger member states and larger banks being scrutinized, it is not a question of  'if' or 'when' they come to a comprehensive solution but 'how soon'.

The particular stressors of the last month have been yields on Italian bonds:

ItalyYield

and the European banking industry (chart is of the EuroStoxx Banking Sector Index):

 EuroStoxxBanks

Because it now seems to be Italy's turn in the barrel... we point out that while the Italians have a large debt load they also have a relatively manageable fiscal deficit. In addition, while they are known for the inefficiency of their tax system and rigid labor markets this actually means they have some low lying fruit in terms of structural changes to improve their fiscal and competitive position.

What is happening here is that markets are moving their collective doubt from one member of the European Union to the next until they find a target big enough to force a collective European response.

In May of 2010, we wrote that the ultimate decision in Europe will come down to "whether or not the richer northern countries provide outright aid to their more spendthrift southern brethren". Over a year (and hundreds of billion of Euros) later the decision is still the same. Taken collectively, the European Union has a fiscal deficit of 4.4% and a debt to GDP ratio of 87%. Those are manageable numbers (and comparable or better than U.S. figures) but the northern Euro countries, lead by Germany, are not going to assume the deficits of the periphery nations without some sort of fiscal controls over those nations. We find it impossible to envision Greece or Portugal (let alone Italy) agreeing to that.

Therefore we are increasingly of the belief that we will see a split in the Euro currency as that will allow the more stable countries to maintain a strong, internationally valued currency while allowing the Southern periphery countries to devalue and restructure.

In the United States, the downgrade of our debt to AA+ by Standard and Poor dominated the news cycle and was popularly seen as the culprit for the stock market's fall. As noted above, we believe the fear of the European sovereign debt problem infecting the global banking system has been the primary cause of weakness in global markets- but an unprecedented event, such as the downgrade- adds to the uncertainty, and thus the volatility, of markets. While we have found the attempts in Washington to label S&P's actions culpable in some manner more suitable to a banana republic than that of the world's greatest nation we will share our opinion of the ratings agency's actions with you:

First off, it should be noted that S&P always states that their ratings are an opinion and not a forecast of default. And their role in the financial crisis, where mortgage backed securities they had consistently rated AAA collapsed in value shows they have more in common with the blindness of the Greek prophet Tiresias than with his clairvoyance. However, they do have a point that the finances of the country have significantly worsened over the last few years.

What we find most curious... the 18 countries that they continue to label AAA, including tiny Liechtenstein. Liechtenstein occupies an area of 160 square kilometers, has a population under 36,000 and uses another country's currency, the Swiss Franc, as its own. Liechtenstein owes it wealth to its status as a tax haven within Europe. To compare a landlocked country, with few natural resources, no military to speak of, and a concentrated economy to the nation with the world's largest and most diversified economy, greatest military capabilities and vast natural and geographical resources is nonsensical. If Liechtenstein is a AAA rated country then there aren't enough A's in a Scrabble set to describe the relative U.S. position. In any case, markets not rating agencies will be the ultimate judge of the credit quality... and rates on U.S. government bonds are scraping all time lows:

USRates

Standard and Poor's actions should be seen as a warning on the long term direction of the U.S. financial situation but little more.

 

Markets have stabilized somewhat over the last week and the 18% decline in the S&P 500 from its peak would nearly mirror the decline seen last year. "Have we reached the lows?" That answer will depend upon actions across the Atlantic as the Europeans sort out their debt issues.

 

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Asset Class Returns


Through July 31st, 2011
-
Monthly and 52 week returns for major asset classes. Performance information is for total return assuming reinvestment of interest and dividends. It excludes management fees, transaction costs and expenses.   

 AssetReturns.2011.07
U.S., International and Emerging market stocks all recorded their third consecutive down month, and this does not even include the sharp drop that occurred in early August. Investors did bid up fixed income, especilly the safe-haven of U.S. Treasuries and Tips. The yields on the 10 year Treasury have touched the 2.1% level in recent days.

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Financial Planning Highlight

Eat the Rich ... Are You Hunter or Prey?
 

Warren Buffet had a recent editorial in the New York Times calling for the government to stop  "coddling" his "mega-rich friends" and himself  and raise tax rates, particularly those on capital gains and dividends. President Obama has also been pounding the table on the need for millionaires and billionaires to sacrifice more (although we notice his definition of millionaire seems to start at $250,000 for a couple). Given the strident opposition to any such increases by the Republican Party in general and the Tea Party members in particular, this will obviously be a primary issue in U.S. politics until at least the 2012 election. In any case we thought you might be curious to know where you stand on the income and wealth food chain.

 

 

Income

The graph below shows the distribution of wealth across U.S. households. The colored bars go up to the median income for the households in each quintile of earnings. So, for example, the median income for the middle 20% of earners is $43,000.

HouseholdIncome

The median for the top 20% of household incomes is $156,00. you have to earn $205,000 a year to get to the top 5% and $510,000 a year to reach the top 1%. Of course a snapshot of all households doesn't show the progression one should expect over a lifetime of earning. Someone just starting a career might be in the lower half of the distribution but should expect to spend time in the top half as the advance in their jobs. It is also reasonable to expect that you will have less income when you retire then when you are working. 

  

 

Wealth

To measure the wealth of U.S.  households, we use  household net worth which is the difference in the value of the assets they own (house, car, savings etc.) and the liabilities they owe (mortgage, credit cards etc.). This chart is particularly skewed because a significant portion of the population has no tangible net worth by this measure with the median net worth of the poorest 20% of the population clocking in at $300.

HouseholdWealth

The median Net Worth of the wealthiest 20% of household is $910,000. You need more than double that to get to the top 5% at $1,900,000. If you want to break into the top percentile of U.S. households you need $8,325,000. Better get to work.

 

 

 

 As always we welcome your comments or suggestions. Stop in, call 212.949.0494,  or simply 'reply' to this email.  

 

Thank-you for reading,

John O'Meara, CFP
and
Michael Keating, CFP
  
  

 

 

Mike and John InnerHarbor Advisors 


Contact Info:
InnerHarbor Advisors, LLC
212-949-0494
j.omeara@inneradv.com and m.keating@inneradv.com

Website:
www.inneradv.com