Investment Management

Navigating Uncertainty: October Market Review and Outlook

October Market Review

In this October market review and outlook, we provide a summary of recent events in the economy and financial markets and offer insights into what this may mean for investors moving forward.

For the last year, forecasters have been predicting an economic downturn in the United States as the Federal Reserve (Fed) strives to control inflation by raising interest rates. Historically, the Fed has had difficulty achieving an economic “soft landing”—that is, taming inflation without causing a damaging recession—when raising rates.

However, more than a year into the Fed’s rate hike cycle, the U.S. economy remains resilient. In fact, the first estimate of third-quarter GDP growth came in at an annual rate of 4.9%, its fastest pace since 2021.

Meanwhile, financial markets have taken a hit in recent months. Both the S&P 500 and Nasdaq dropped more than 10% from their July highs in October, placing both indexes in correction territory. The bond market has also struggled recently as interest rates climb higher.

As we near year-end, many investors are concerned about what a potential recession and ongoing market volatility may mean for their money. Here’s a recap of what’s happened lately and what that may mean for investors heading into 2024.

The Economy Remains Resilient

Since March 2022, the Fed has hiked interest rates 11 times, raising the federal funds rate from near-zero to a target range of 5.25% to 5.5%. However, the Fed has held rates steady since July 2023 in light of moderating inflation and a remarkably resilient labor market.

According to the latest reading of the personal consumption expenditures price index, the Fed’s preferred measure of inflation, core inflation is now 3.7% year over year. While this is significantly lower than its peak reading in June 2022, it’s still a far cry from the Fed’s 2% annual target.

Meanwhile, the unemployment rate continues to hold steady at 3.8%, and third-quarter wages and benefits grew 4.3% year over year. Due in part to ongoing labor market strength, consumer spending increased by 4% in the third quarter, propelling GDP to an annual rate of 4.9%.

October Market Review: Financial Markets Continue to Struggle

Despite strong economic performance, the U.S. stock market continued its decline in October, marking three straight months of negative returns. A variety of factors are in part responsible for the recent pullback in performance, including:

  • Soaring Treasury yields. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note approached 5% in October, the highest level since 2007, curbing investors’ appetite for risk and creating headwinds for big tech and other high-growth companies.
  • Tax-loss harvesting. The recent pullback prior to October created more opportunities for tax-loss harvesting, which put additional pressure on the market in October as investors sold underperforming stocks to offset gains. On the bright side, research from Bank of America shows that although tax-advantaged selling typically pressures stocks at year-end, it often sets the stage for a strong rebound in January when traders repurchase.
  • Higher-than-expected GDP growth. Third-quarter GDP grew at a surprising 4.9% annualized rate, quashing hopes that the Fed will lower interest rates in the near term.
  • Ongoing geopolitical tensions. Russia’s war in Ukraine and the Hamas-Israel conflict continue to add to market uncertainty.

The bond market has also seen weakness as interest rates continue their ascent (in general, bond prices fall as interest rates rise, and vice versa). Both 10-year and 30-year Treasury yields increased more than 0.3% in October, causing longer-term bonds to underperform.

Looking Ahead: Underlying Economic Concerns

Although the U.S. economy continues to hum along, concerns of a potential downturn persist. Some of the factors that could contribute to an economic slowdown include:

  • Declining real disposable income and household savings. Personal income adjusted for taxes and inflation fell 1% in the third quarter after rising 3.5% in the second quarter. Furthermore, personal savings as a percentage of real disposable income fell from 5.2% in the second quarter to 3.8% in the third quarter. As consumers eat through their savings, they may not be able to spend at the same rate going forward.
  • Rising long-term interest rates. Long-term interest rates recently saw their highest levels since 2007. For example, 10-year Treasury yields briefly passed 5% in October, while 30-year yields traded north of 5% for most of the month. Higher rates may be problematic for consumer spending and business investment, as well as several business sectors including the housing market.
  • Tighter credit markets. According to a recent survey from the National Federation of Independent Business, more small businesses reported difficulty accessing credit in September compared to the previous month. The inability to secure capital could lead to a pullback in business investment and hiring.

If these concerns come to fruition, financial markets and the economy might falter accordingly. On the other hand, an economic slowdown could alleviate the need for further Fed intervention, paving the way for future interest rate cuts.

What This Means for Investors

Although recent GDP data is encouraging, these growth rates may not be sustainable as underlying economic concerns create pressure for consumers and businesses alike. While a full-blown recession may not be imminent, many economists expect the economy to cool in the coming months.

Meanwhile, the Fed will decide whether future rate hikes are necessary as new data becomes available. Despite holding rates steady since July, another increase is possible before year-end.

For investors, this lack of clarity may mean heightened market volatility in the near term. At the same time, November is historically the best month for the S&P 500. Indeed, strong performance from U.S. equities could help offset recent losses.

Ultimately, we don’t know what the future holds. However, we do know that patience tends to reward long-term investors. Those who maintain a diversified portfolio and stick to their investment plan typically fare better than those who attempt to time the market.

In the meantime, I encourage you to focus on what’s controllable—for instance, your spending habits, savings rates, and investment decisions—and avoid knee-jerk reactions to negative headlines.

If you found this October market review and outlook helpful, head over to our free resources page for more financial planning tips and guidance.

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Single Women and Longevity Risk Part 2: The Importance of Investing

Single Women and Investing

Saving and investing are both crucial for financial health. Yet investing is particularly important when it comes to mitigating longevity risk.  In Part 2 of this three-part series about single women and longevity risk, we’ll delve into the significance of investing and explore how understanding risk and reward can empower women to become better investors.

Differentiating Saving and Investing

When it comes to personal finance, many conflate saving and investing. While both are crucial for financial stability, they serve different purposes.

Saving entails setting aside a portion of your income for near-term expenses or potential emergencies. In other words, your savings should be a safety net that’s liquid and risk-free.

Investing, however, implies allocating money to stocks, bonds, and other assets in anticipation of a potential return in the future. Despite the inherent risks, investing is an essential strategy for single women to increase wealth over time, so you don’t outlive your financial resources.  

Understanding the Risk-Reward Relationship

While investing offers the potential for a higher return on your money, it’s also inherently riskier than saving. That’s why many women hold too much cash relative to their financial goals.

If you tend to be risk averse, you’re not alone. In fact, one Northwestern Mutual study found that in general, U.S. adults prefer to play it safe with their money than take risks.

However, understanding the risk-reward relationship is crucial for overcoming the confidence gap that many women experience as investors. Each investment carries a different level of risk, and effectively managing these risks is essential to achieve your financial goals.

Typically, investments with the potential for higher returns carry a higher degree of risk (although high risk doesn’t guarantee high returns). For example, higher-risk investments like individual stocks and equity funds generally offer the potential for higher returns over time. Conversely, lower-risk assets like savings accounts and short-term Treasury bonds tend to yield more modest returns.

Navigating the Risk vs. Reward Dilemma

Many women face the dilemma of whether to keep their money safe in a bank account or invest it for potential growth. Indeed, research suggests that men are generally more willing to take risks with their finances than women.

However, studies also indicate that as women gain confidence through education and experience, they become better investors. Moreover, women investors are more likely to exhibit traits such as reduced trading, increased patience, openness to advice, more diversified portfolios, and a healthy skepticism towards “hot” investments.

Ultimately, your financial goals determine the level of returns you need from your investments. Saving for a house down payment in the next few years, for example, might require safer investments with less risk. In contrast, saving for retirement that’s several decades away allows for higher-risk investments with the potential for more significant returns.

But you also need to weigh your return objectives against your comfort level with taking on risk. In this case, risk generally refers to the possibility of losing your money. Taking on more risk than you can tolerate can lead you to make rash investment decisions that impede your progress toward your financial goals.

Single Women and Investing: Mitigating Longevity Risk

To mitigate the risk of running out of money prematurely, women must embrace some investment risk. By profiling four different investors, we can illustrate the outcomes along the risk spectrum.

Assume the following savers/investors invest $50,000 for ten years and reinvest all interest and dividends.

  • Investor #1 places her $50,000 in a savings account earning an average annual return of 1.5%. Her account grows to $57.815 in 10 years.
  • Investor #2 places her $50,000 into a certificate of deposit (CD) with an annual yield of 3%. Her account grows to $67,196 in 10 years.
  • Investor #3 places her $50,000 into a diversified portfolio* of 60% stocks and 40% bonds earning a 6% average annualized return. As a result, her account grows to $89,542 in 10 years.
  • Investor #4 places her $50,000 into a diversified portfolio* of 100% stocks, and it earns a 9% average annualized return. As a result, her account grows to $129,687 in 10 years.

A Note on Volatility

While the 100% stock portfolio generates the highest outcome, it also experiences substantial fluctuations over the 10-year period. Meanwhile, the 60% stock/40% bond portfolio exhibits less volatility due to the lower risk associated with bonds. 

Consider the following hypothetical annual return patterns for these two portfolios:

The graphs above illustrate how Investor #4 experiences larger swings in performance over the 10-year period by investing exclusively in stocks than Investor #3. In other words, the price of higher returns is generally increased volatility.

Thus, investors who are unable to weather the ups and downs of the stock market may need to sacrifice return potential to stay the course over time.  

*Diversified portfolio returns were generated using Vanguard Total Market Funds, both U.S. and international.

Striking the Right Balance to Reach Your Financial Goals

The challenge for many independent women investors is understanding their risk tolerance in relation to their need for return.

For example, if Investor #1 doesn’t invest in stocks, will she reach her financial goals and manage longevity risk, or will she run out of money before the end of her life? On the other hand, does Investor #4 need to take quite so much risk, or can she beat longevity risk by investing in a less volatile portfolio?

These are the answers I seek when working with my female clients. Ultimately, my aim is to keep my clients invested for the long term to experience the magic of compounding returns and reach their financial goals.

In the third and final article in this blog series, we’ll look at the other side of the equation: minimizing longevity risk by managing your expenses in retirement.

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Is a U.S. Recession Looming?

Is a Recession Looming?

Since mid-2022, concerns about an impending recession in the United States have been making headlines. However, despite various warning signs and indicators, the U.S. economy has shown resilience over the past nine months.

So, what’s happening? In this blog post, we’ll explore the factors that have fueled recession concerns, discuss the current state of the U.S. economy, and examine whether investors should be worried about a potential recession.

Understanding a Recession

Typically defined as two consecutive quarters of contracting gross domestic product (GDP), a recession indicates a significant decline in economic activity. By this definition, the U.S. economy is not heading for a recession, as GDP grew by 1.3% in the first quarter of 2023.

The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) is responsible for officially declaring recessions. Its definition is somewhat vague but emphasizes significant and sustained decline in economic activity across various sectors.

Mixed Economic Signals and Concerns

Mixed economic data has economists divided on whether a recession is imminent.

The Federal Reserve’s projection of low GDP growth for 2023 and successive interest rate hikes have raised concerns about a potential economic decline. A minor banking crisis, resulting in the failures of some financial institutions, also fueled worries.

Moreover, inflation has remained above the Fed’s target, prompting rate hikes that affect corporate investments and consumer loans. As a result, analysts expect negative earnings growth for S&P 500 companies, while a tightened credit market has reduced lending to corporations and consumers.

Meanwhile, the yield curve has been inverted since the middle of 2022, as the yield on 2-year U.S. Treasury notes has exceeded that of 10-year Treasury notes. An inverted yield curve can be problematic as it frequently appears before an economic downturn.

And the New York Federal Reserve’s recession probability indicator, which uses the yield curve’s slope to predict U.S. recessions, suggests a 68.2% chance of a recession in the next 12 months—its highest reading in four decades.

Yet while some indicators have sparked concerns, the current strength of the U.S. labor market and economic activity has divided economists on the inevitability of a recession. In addition, positive earnings, as well as guidance from retailers like Walmart, indicate that consumer spending remains strong.

Though slightly below estimates, retail sales grew for the first time since January. The resilience of the U.S. economy has surprised experts, suggesting that a recession may be farther in the future than expected.

What Does a Possible Recession Mean for Investors?

While concerns about a U.S. recession persist, the economy’s current state and the labor market’s ongoing strength suggest that an immediate downturn may not be inevitable. However, in the event of a recession in the second half of 2023 or early 2024, investors need not panic. Historically, recessions have been relatively short-lived, with an average duration of around 10 months.

Economic downturns also tend to present attractive opportunities for long-term investors, with the S&P 500 generating an average return of 40% in the 12 months following the market’s low point during a recession. In addition, some stocks, such as Target, Walmart, and Home Depot, have historically performed well during recessions.

Thus, despite the potential risks, investors should take a long-term perspective and consider the historical patterns of economic cycles. Recessions, although challenging, have often paved the way for favorable investment opportunities.

For more information, download our free guide: 3 Simple Steps to Improve Your Investment Results

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Oil’s Wild Ride

Rising Oil Prices

Much like stocks, oil prices have been on a rollercoaster ride recently. Triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, prices spiked to their highest levels since 2008 this month and then tumbled into bear market territory five days later. (In general, a price drop of 20% from a previous high represents a bear market.)

The recent drop in oil prices is the fastest decline into bear market territory since April 2020. Then, prices fell more than 20% and turned negative in a single day. Yet a dramatic change in oil prices typically doesn’t trigger the same emotional response that a similar change in stock prices would. Perhaps this is because oil markets tend to be even less understood than equity markets.

To put the many headlines you’re likely seeing about oil into perspective, I thought it would be helpful to provide an overview of how oil markets work, why we’re seeing volatility right now, and what this means—or doesn’t mean—for gas prices.

What Is the Oil Market?

There are two primary markets for crude oil: the physical market and the futures market. In the physical market, large producers like Exxon Mobil pump oil from the ground and sell it to processing companies, which then refine it into products like gasoline and jet fuel. A handful of companies act as middlemen, shipping oil around the world through various channels.

Meanwhile, the oil futures market is an electronic financial market consisting of banks, brokerages, and firms that deal in energy. Producers, refiners, traders, and other market participants use futures contracts to lock in oil prices for future transactions. For example, Southwest Airlines uses futures contracts to mitigate rising oil prices and keep costs low for its customers.

In the physical market, private deals between buyers and sellers determine prices. Details of these transactions aren’t widely available, making the physical oil market somewhat murky. Companies like S&P Global Platts publish daily price estimates known as spot prices based on discussions with traders.

The futures market is more transparent. Futures trade on two main exchanges, CME Group’s New York Mercantile Exchange in the U.S. and Intercontinental Exchange in London. The prices of these contracts are widely available.

Types of Crude Oil

Crude oil is graded according to thickness and sulfur content. Light, sweet crude oil is the highest grade and therefore the most sought after, as it is easier and cheaper to refine.

West Texas Intermediate (WTI), the primary oil benchmark for North America, is light and sweet because it contains very little sulfur. It is sourced primarily from inland Texas and is one of the highest quality oils in the world. Because the fracking boom has turned the United States into the world’s largest producer, WTI prices are followed globally.

WTI is similar to Brent crude, which they produce off the coast of Northern Europe. Brent is the main oil benchmark for most of the world. It is also very high quality, although it has a slightly higher sulfur content than WTI. Typically, WTI is ideal for gasoline, while Brent is ideal for diesel fuel.

Meanwhile, countries like Canada, Venezuela, and Russia, among others, produce sour crude oil that has a higher sulfur content. Lower-quality crude oil is cheaper to produce but more difficult to refine.

Global Oil Production & Consumption

Established in Baghdad, Iraq in 1960, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) is comprised of 13 nations that collectively control about 80% of the world’s proven oil reserves. These countries supply roughly half of globally exported crude oil by value. However, this percentage has been steadily declining in recent years. Outside of OPEC, the United States and Russia possess the largest reserves.

The following graphics show the top 10 oil producers/consumers and their share of the world’s total oil production/consumption, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).

In 2020, the world’s top five exporters of crude oil were Saudi Arabia (17.2% of global exports), Russia (11%), Iraq (7.7%), the United States (7.6%), and United Arab Emirates (7.2%). Russia is still a top exporter. However, it’s worth noting that the country’s oil exports by value declined more than 40% from 2019-2020.

In addition to oil, Russia is a major producer, consumer, and exporter of coal and natural gas, as well as the various refined products made from them. According to the IEA, Russia’s fossil fuel industry produced the energy equivalent of 11 billion barrels of oil in 2019.

Currently, Europe and China account for about 90% of Russia’s total exports. Within Europe, dependency on Russian oil and gas varies by country. By comparison, only 3.5% of the United States’ oil imports came from Russia in 2021—the highest percentage in over two decades (but not the highest value).

U.S. Oil Production & Consumption

Since 2008, the value of U.S. oil imports has fallen over 62% due to a surge in domestic production. Currently, about 35% of U.S. supply comes from international partners, compared to about 65% produced domestically.

Meanwhile, U.S. oil exports have increased nearly 3,000% after the United States ended a four-decade-long ban on oil exports, dating back to the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973. In other words, the United States is now less dependent on other countries for our oil and is becoming a more important exporter of oil to other countries.

The United States is becoming increasingly energy-independent. However, it continues to import lower quality oil from countries like Russia to make use of its existing infrastructure. According to Ryan Kellogg, a professor at the University of Chicago, the U.S. spent billions of dollars on its refining capacity in the 1990s and early 2000s. As such, it doesn’t make economic sense to let that equipment sit idle. In addition, domestic production is not yet at the level where the U.S. can stop importing heavier, sour oil from other nations.

What Affects Oil Prices?

Like other markets, supply and demand determine oil prices. Anything that affects either side of this equation can send prices up or down.

Historically, geopolitics have played a significant role in the direction of oil prices as producers jockey for position. In addition, changes in the global economic outlook can affect supply and demand.

Oil prices can also move in tandem with financial markets. For example, it’s not unusual to see oil prices drop when equity markets decline. In the futures market, speculative bets by traders can also influence prices.

What’s Responsible for Recent Volatility in Oil Markets?

In early 2020, demand for oil dropped sharply as Covid-19 cases surged globally. Government-issued lockdowns stopped people from driving to work, grounded airplanes, and slowed the pace of global trade. As a result, oil prices fell to their lowest levels in decades.

Oil prices have been on the rise as the global economy recovers from the effects of the pandemic. However, the Russia-Ukraine crisis exacerbated already inflated oil prices and is largely responsible for the uptick in volatility more recently.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, the price of oil surged to over $110/barrel, a 15% increase from the previous week. Russia is the world’s third largest producer of oil after the United States and Saudi Arabia. Indeed, sanctions on Russian exports and reluctance to purchase Russian oil sent prices upward.

The United States is more insulated from the crisis that other countries—Europe, for example. Still, the shift in global trade flows has caused a lot of market uncertainty over the last month. Indeed, the Biden administration has banned Russian oil imports. However, this most recent price drop was due to the realization that Europe wouldn’t be abandoning Russian oil just yet, easing pressure on the rest of the world’s oil supply for the time being.

The Relationship Between Oil and Gas Prices

Gas prices have also been on the rise due to record-high inflation levels. But many consumers are wondering why the recent decline in oil prices hasn’t affected prices at the pump yet.

You may not be as affected by rising gas prices if you drive an electric vehicle or gas is a small part of your budget. However, the average American spends anywhere from 2-4% of their overall income on gasoline, and for lower earners a much greater percentage. When gas prices go up, these Americans then have less money to spend on other goods and services. This, in turn, can affect the broader economy.

Although oil prices influence gas prices, it’s not a cut-and-dry relationship. Retailers set their gas prices based on replacement cost. Therefore, there’s typically a lag between changes in oil prices and changes in gas prices.

When wholesale prices increase, retailers will often take a hit to their margins first to remain competitive with other retailers nearby. Similarly, retailers may hold their gas prices steady despite a lower delivery cost to make up for the margin they lost during the price increase.

In addition, there’s usually a drop in demand when gas prices spike as consumers top off their tanks in anticipation. This slowdown in demand affects when retailers schedule their next fuel delivery—another reason the prices of oil and gas don’t always move in tandem.

What Does All of This Mean for Your Investments?

Though it’s impossible to predict the future, we’re likely to see more volatility as the war in Ukraine continues. And while we’re currently experiencing a particularly painful period as prices rise and our account balances fluctuate, the good news is these things tend to be cyclical. Investors have historically been rewarded for staying the course—especially when it feels most uncomfortable to do so.

If you’re an ESG investor, you will not be participating in the rising stock values of oil and commodities companies due to the supply squeeze. However, I believe the long-term outlook for companies that incorporate ESG practices into their operations is still strong, as I write in my most recent op-ed for CNBC. You can read the full article here if you’d like to learn more.

As always, please feel free to contact us if you’d like to discuss any of this further.

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5 Inspiring Statistics About Women and Investing

Women and Investing

As a financial advisor who works primarily with women, I’m all too aware of the gender investment gap. Not only are women paid less than men on average (and therefore have less money to invest), but many women aren’t confident in their investment abilities. Unfortunately, this can result in lower returns—a contributing factor to the retirement savings shortfall.

That’s the bad news. The good news – there’s evidence that this gap may be closing. Fidelity recently released its 2021 Women and Investing Study, which provides some interesting insights into women’s attitudes and behaviors about investing. The study’s key finding: more women than ever are taking a seat at the investing table.

Here are five inspiring statistics about women and investing that may make you feel more optimistic about your financial future:

#1: 67% of women are now investing outside of retirement compared to just 44% in 2018.

When it comes to closing the gender investment gap, younger women seem to be leading the charge. Indeed, 71% of Millennial women invest outside of retirement, according to Fidelity. But, the numbers are encouraging among older generations as well. Two-thirds (67%) of Gen X women and 62% of Baby Boomers say they invest outside of retirement.

So, what’s holding women back from closing the gap completely? According to Fidelity, 70% of women say they need to know more about picking individual stocks. In addition, 65% of women said they’d be more likely to invest or would invest more if they had clear steps to do so.

#2: When women invest, we see better results than men do.

Based on an analysis of more than 5 million Fidelity customers over the last ten years, women outperformed their male counterparts by 0.4% annually, on average. According to a recent CNBC article, there are many reasons women tend to be better investors than men.

For one thing, women trade less, which helps avoid unnecessary fees and many of the pitfalls associated with market timing. In addition, women tend to invest more consistently, meaning we like to have a strategy in place and follow it. Interestingly, none of these reasons has anything to do with knowing how to pick the right stocks. Instead, they require discipline.

#3: 9-in-10 women plan to take steps within the next 12 months to help their money work harder to grow.

Nearly 70% of women surveyed said they wish they had started investing their extra savings earlier. On the bright side, 90% of women say they plan to take steps to remedy this situation in the next 12 months. Specifically, their goals include:

  • Improving their financial literacy.
  • Creating a financial plan.
  • Reaching out to a financial professional.
  • Investing more of their savings.

#4: 64% of women would like to be more active in their finances, including investment decisions.

Perhaps some of the good money habits we developed during the pandemic contribute to these inspiring statistics about women and investing. For example, half of the women surveyed said they have been more interested in investing since the start of the pandemic. And 42% of women say they have more money to invest than they did pre-pandemic.

However, despite women wanting to invest more, the vast majority still don’t feel confident when it comes to long-term planning and investing for the future. Only 19% of women feel confident selecting investments that align with their goals. Meanwhile, only 31% feel confident planning for financial needs in retirement. (If this sounds like you, here are 5 Ways to Boost Your Financial Confidence.)

#5: 71% of women said they felt more confident once they set up a financial plan.

An overwhelming theme throughout the Fidelity study is that women feel better when they have a financial plan. Yet, though interest in investing is on the rise, less than half of women say they would know what to do if they had $25,000 to invest in the stock market today.

Unfortunately, this lack of confidence goes beyond women’s financial lives. More than a third of women said their financial situation keeps them up at night at least once a month. The primary culprit? Their long-term finances.

If these statistics about women and investing have inspired you to take the first step towards securing your financial future, a trusted advisor can help.

If your finances are keeping you up at night or you simply want a clear path towards your financial future, working with a trusted financial partner can help. In fact, 86% of women agree that having their investments managed by professionals makes life less stressful, according to Fidelity.

Curtis Financial Planning can help you develop a plan for your future and align your investments with your goals and values. To get started, please schedule a call.

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Sustainable Investing Simplified

Sustainable Investing Simplified

Over the years, the nomenclature around sustainable investing has morphed to the point of confusion. Besides “sustainable,” other descriptive terms for this investment style include environmental, social, and governance (typically referred to as ESG), socially responsible (SRI), and impact investing. You may also see the terms green, values-based, climate, intentional, or personal investing used to describe this investment approach.

While the terminology may vary, there’s a common theme inherent to this investment style. People who invest sustainably not only want to grow their wealth, but they also want to support their values with their capital.

What is Sustainable Investing?

In traditional stock analysis, investors evaluate a variety of fundamental factors to determine a stock’s expected return. For example, they may look at a company’s earnings and growth prospects to determine if it’s a good investment. The underlying belief is that if a company is profitable, its investors should profit as well. Unfortunately, traditional investment analysis doesn’t consider how a company makes its money.

A sustainable investment approach takes traditional analysis a step further by including environmental, social, and governance factors in the analysis. The goal is to reward companies that not only take care of their investors and stakeholders, but that also care about their employees, the planet, and society in general.

Indeed, numerous studies have found that companies that score well on ESG factors perform better over time. Since many of us are investing with a long-term view for retirement, investing in companies that operate responsibly can be both financially and personally rewarding.

Let’s take a closer look at the individual elements of ESG:

In many cases, ESG can be used interchangeably with sustainable investing. Here’s a deeper look into each ESG factor.

The E, which stands for environment, measures how a company uses energy and resources. Today, carbon emissions and climate change are critical environmental issues encompassed in the E analysis.

S stands for social and addresses employee and labor relations, diversity and inclusion, and reputations fostered between people, institutions, and communities.

G, or governance, refers to a company’s internal system of practices. In other words, it considers the procedures a company follows to govern itself, make effective decisions, comply with the law, and meet its stakeholders’ needs.

Unfortunately, analyzing securities for these criteria can be challenging since there aren’t uniform ESG reporting standards yet. However, as investor interest grows, so has the industry that rates companies for ESG performance. This trend suggests the future of ESG investing may offer greater opportunities for investors who wish to align their investments with their values.

How to Invest Sustainably

Investor interest in ESG investments hit an all-time high during the Covid-19 pandemic. In fact, Morningstar reported that ESG funds captured $51.1 billion of net new money from investors in 2020—a record and more than double the net inflows in 2019.

As interest in responsible investing gains momentum, sustainable investment strategies are increasingly becoming more accessible to individual investors. Whereas options were once constrained to mutual funds, there’s now a wide variety of ESG exchange-traded funds (ETFs) available. Specifically, the number of sustainable mutual funds and ETFs available to U.S. investors rose 30% year-over-year in 2020, according to a report issued by Morningstar earlier this year.

In addition, ESG strategies are no longer limited to stock funds. There’s also a growing number of options entering the ESG bond fund universe. Meaning, investors can now incorporate sustainable investment strategies across their entire asset allocation if they want.

Women and Sustainable Investing

Interest in sustainable investing appears to be growing among all types of investors. However, women have long led the charge in ESG investing since values-based investment strategies entered the scene.

For example, a recent client survey conducted by RBC Wealth Management found that women are more than twice as likely as men to say it’s extremely important that the companies they invest in integrate ESG factors into their policies and decisions. Another report from Cerulli found that the majority of women in the U.S. under age 60 favor ESG investing. 

Why do these statistics matter? Today, more than half of women in the U.S. are the primary breadwinners in their families, according to research from Prudential. And 30% of women surveyed are married breadwinners who are producing more than half of their household income. In other words, as our financial power grows, our investment decisions can have a greater impact on how companies address environmental, social, and governance issues.

At Curtis Financial Planning, we help you invest in strategies aligned with your values, so you can feel better about your financial decisions. Please get in touch if you’d like to learn more. We’d love to hear from you.  

In the meantime, if this brief primer on sustainable investing interests you, please take this survey. You’ll find out what issues you care most about when it comes to your investment dollars.

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The Truth About Diversification

financial planning diversification

financial planning diversification

Most investment advisors  (including me) believe that building and maintaining a diversified portfolio is the most prudent way to invest clients’ money.

Not only do numerous studies of asset class* returns support this, but no matter how smart and experienced the advisor is, it’s near impossible to predict with consistency which asset will outperform in any given time frame. That isn’t to say that it doesn’t take skill and expertise to build a diversified portfolio – it does – many metrics come into play such as growth prospects, valuation metrics, and global economic trends.

* There are four broad assets classes:

  • Stocks or equities
  • Fixed income or bonds
  • Money market or cash equivalents
  • Real estate (represented by REITS)

And, within each asset class are sub-asset classes  (or stock sectors) that allow for greater diversification, for example, with the stock asset class, you will find large U.S. stocks, small U.S. stocks, international stocks, and emerging markets stocks. And, within the fixed income asset class are different types of bonds: short-term, hi-yield, muni, etc.

The reality about diversification is that a truly diversified portfolio will not provide the return of the best performing asset over a given time, nor will it match the performance of the worst performing asset. The return will be somewhere in between. Which is precisely the point – the highs are less high, but the lows are less low making it more likely that an investor will not panic and change strategy at exactly the wrong time.

Remember the calmness in the markets in 2017 when all stock sectors seemed to go only up? And, indeed, the returns were pretty amazing: 37.2% for emerging market stocks, 27.4% for S&P 500 growth stocks, and 24.2% for the MSCI (a global stock index) for example. Now, take a look at the chart below which shows returns year to date through June 15, 2018. You can see that the best performing sector so far this year is the Russell 2000 (an index that represents small-cap U.S. Stocks).

And, the worst performing sector is emerging markets stocks (EM Equity). The S&P 500 (representing large U.S. stocks) is up only 2.3%. I’ll wager that there aren’t too many investment advisors that could have predicted that small-cap stocks would be the best performer so far this year, but I can also almost guarantee the portfolios they manage for their clients have an allocation to small-cap stocks.

A truth about investing is that past performance does not predict future results. A great visual of this phenomenon is shown in Callan’s Periodic Table Of Investment Returns – a chart showing annual returns for key indices from 1998-2017. You can see how random the returns are and how easy it might be to try and chase top performers and then be disappointed.

You can liken diversification to the Tortoise, and the Hare story…as the Tortoise said: “slow and steady wins the race.”

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Stock Market Corrections are Inevitable

As you open your account statements and see your balance go up month after month you breathe a sigh of relief. But, then your next thought is – can the market keep going up like this? When will it end?

It helps to recognize that every market has pullbacks and that they are a regular part of stock market behavior.

Volatility does not imply the direction of the stock market. Instead, it’s the price we pay for a higher return in the long run.

We are currently in the 9th year of a bull market that started on March 9, 2009. In a few months, it could be the most extended bull market in history. However, it hasn’t all been up, up, up. There have been five corrections (market drops of 10% or more) and many smaller dips since 2009.

Second, it helps to recognize that market corrections are unpredictable. Realizing there will be a pullback doesn’t tell us when or help us maximize returns. If we cash-out today, we are just as likely to miss another year or two of upward movements as we are of sidestepping the next downturn. In result, our long-term financial plan may get derailed.

Third, recognize now that the next unpredictable correction will look obvious in hindsight. The reality is that even the most seasoned of investors can’t accurately predict stock market direction. Why? There are many events that can cause stocks to drop that are unpredictable themselves – from terrorist attacks to civil unrests, to a sudden change in economic policy.

Finally, realize that corrections are healthy for long-term bull markets. As stocks get close to full value or overvalued, it makes sense that prices will fluctuate to a more reasonably priced range. This leaves the door open for buying stocks at better prices and more gain in the future. Sometimes taking no action is the best action.

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Why You Need A Financial Plan

There are a few times a year when the volume of calls to my office from people seeking financial advice goes way up. One of them is in January when New Year’s resolutions are top of mind and another is the 30 or so days leading up to the tax deadline in mid-April.The “January effect” arises from a wish to get a fresh start on financial planning; the “tax effect”  has to do with figuring out how to pay less to Uncle Sam.

But most people would be better off if they didn’t wait for a deadline or time of year to take a hard look at their finances. Financial planning can be compared to being proactive about your health – we’re way better off maintaining a healthy lifestyle than waiting for a medical crisis to change our habits! Same goes for your finances. Making smart financial choices early and often will ensure a strong financial future.

For sure, meeting with a financial advisor isn’t always the easiest thing to do. It’s hard to talk about money especially if you feel “clueless” (not my word, but a word many women use to describe their financial savvy) or embarrassed about some of the financial decisions you’ve made in the past. But a good advisor doesn’t care about any of those things; they want to objectively help you make good financial decisions going forward.

When I ask a potential client why they contacted me, here are some of the most common answers:

  • I want to retire early and do something different with my life. Can I afford to do this and how soon can I do it?
  • I am retiring in 5 years and I have no idea if I’m on track.
  • I want to buy a house and I need to know how much to save and what I need to do to qualify for a loan.
  • I am afraid to invest my money in the stock market because I don’t trust it, but I’m not earning any return on my money in the bank, what should I do?
  • My father (or mother) just passed away and left me some money. I want to make sure that I make the right decisions with this money and need help and a plan.
  • I want to send my kids to private schools but they are expensive. I want to know if I can afford it and save for other goals like retirement.
  • I’m single and I don’t want to rely on anyone else for my financial health, I want a plan to reach my goals.
  • I’m going through a divorce and I worried about my financial future.I need help figuring it out.
  • I make a great salary but I spend too much. I want help to set up a budget, reign in my spending and start saving and investing more.
  • My spouse/partner passed away and I’ve never managed the finances alone. I need someone I can trust to help me.

Some of these situations are like a medical crisis – “oh my gosh…I’m retiring in 5 years and I haven’t saved enough money!”, others are unexpected, such as a divorce. But all share one thing in common: all situations will be less stressful and better managed with financial education and a plan.

Photo by Teerapun/

Editor’s note: This post was originally published on April 7, 2014 and has been updated and refreshed.

Related articles:

Do You Need A Financial Advisor?   Investopedia
Six Important Steps to Hiring a Financial Advisor  Forbes


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Smart and Savvy Roth IRA Strategies Updated for 2018


Roth IRA’s are a great savings tool. Contributions aren’t deductible like with traditional IRAs, so Roth contributions don’t lower your tax bill immediately. However, the tax-free nature of any earnings, no required minimum distributions (RMD’S) and ability to withdraw your at any time, tax and penalty free, make them an excellent planning and savings tool.

Before any discussion about Roth IRA strategies it’s important to be aware of the income and contribution limitations:

Income Limits

In 2018, for single taxpayers, there are phase-outs between modified AGI of $120,000 and $135,000 and over $135,000 Roth contributions aren’t allowed. For married taxpayers the phase-out range is from $189,000 to $199,000 and over $199,000 is disqualifying.

Contribution Limits

In 2018, the total amount individuals can contribute $5,500. People over 50 can contribute an additional $1,000 for a total of $6,500.

Here are some features of Roth IRA’s that highlight their unique saving and planning advantages:

1. You Can Open A Roth For Your (Employed) Children

As soon as your child has taxable earned income and regardless of age, you can contribute to a Custodial Roth IRA for them up to their earnings, or a maximum (in 2017) of $5500.00, whichever is less.

As a parent, you retain control of the account until your child turns 18 (or 21 in some states). What a great way to start a nest egg for your children and teach them something about money at the same time!

2. High Earners can contribute to a Roth 401(k)

High earners can work around the income limits noted above by contributing to a Roth 401(k) if their company plan allows it. No income limits apply to Roth 401(k) contributions so it can make good sense for big earners to contribute to a Roth 401(k) or split contributions between a traditional and Roth 401(k). Total contributions cannot exceed the 2018 limit of $18,500 (or $24,500 for those 50 and older).

3. Roth Conversions

Seven years ago income limits on Roth conversions lifted so that anyone no matter how much money they make can convert a traditional IRA to a Roth in any given year. High-earners may not want to take the tax hit that a conversion would trigger while earning the big bucks, but if there is a year where income is lower (i.e., a sabbatical year, quitting a salaried job, first years of retirement before RMD’s,  to work at a start-up) a Roth conversion may be a good move.

For many, the lowest tax years of post-20’s life may be the years in between retirement and the beginning of Required Minimum Distributions (RMD’s) at age 70 ½ – this is also a good time to consider converting some IRA money to a Roth.

4. The Backdoor Roth

At about the same time the rules on Roth conversions were changed, a strategy developed called the Backdoor Roth. People who hit the income limits for Roth contributions instead contribute to a non-deductible IRA and then immediately convert it to a Roth IRA.

However, it’s not that simple because of the pro-rata rule. If the person converting has other traditional IRA assets, the taxes due on the conversion will depend on the ratio of IRA’s that have been taxed to those that haven’t. There is a workaround to the pro-rata rule: roll traditional IRA assets into a company plan such as a 401(k) or solo 401 (k) before attempting the back-door Roth, taking them out of the pro-rata equation. This move makes sense if the company plan has decent investment choices and low fees.

Due to the wide array of tax outcomes that could occur while applying these strategies, it would be wise to get a second opinion from your financial advisor or tax accountant.

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