TIME Congress

Paul Gets Assist from 2016 Rivals on ‘Audit the Fed’ Bill

Rand Paul speaks at the Wall Street Journal's CEO Council meeting in Washington
U.S. Senator Rand Paul speaks during the Wall Street Journal's CEO Council meeting in Washington D.C. on Dec. 2, 2014. Kevin Lamarque—Reuters

The three Republicans senators potentially running for the White House in 2016 agree on at least one thing: The Federal Reserve should be audited.

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul re-introduced a bill with Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida on Wednesday to order the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office to review the Fed’s monetary policy decision making and increase congressional oversight.

The bill has a much greater chance of making it to the Senate floor under new Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is one of 30 co-sponsors according to Paul’s office. Former Rep. Ron Paul, Rand’s father, pressed lawmakers for years to audit the Federal Reserve and similar bills have passed the Republican-controlled House in the past.

“A complete and thorough audit of the Fed will finally allow the American people to know exactly how their money is being spent by Washington,” said Paul in a statement. “The Fed’s currently operates under a cloak of secrecy and it has gone on for too long. The American people have a right to know what the Federal Reserve is doing with our nation’s money supply. The time to act is now.”

The bill is unlikely to be signed into law by President Obama. In December, Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen said that she would “forcefully” oppose such legislation as it would jeopardize the central bank’s independence with “short-run political interference,” according to the Hill.

MONEY Gold

Gold is Back—for Now

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Shannon Stapleton—Reuters/Corbis

Gold is up nearly 10%. But you're better off admiring this glamorous commodity than trying to buy it.

Gold is starting to shine again.

Since the start of the year, the yellow metal is up nearly 10% from $1,184 per ounce to just over $1,300 at Thursday’s close.

What gives? The move is likely one of the ripples markets have been feeling in response to the European Central Bank’s decision to start buying tens of billions of bonds each month in an effort to stimulate the European economy. While the decision was announced Thursday, investors had been anticipating it for weeks.

Unlike another commodity that’s been in the news—oil—gold has little intrinsic industrial value. But since everyone regards it as precious and has for thousands of years, investors often see it as the ultimate safe place to park cash when other markets look iffy.

It should be no surprise the ECB’s recent move fits that bill. The move was generally well received. The U.S. stock market, for instance, rallied more than 200 points on the news. But this kind of bond buying program is still something new. While the Federal Reserve, the U.S. equivalent of the ECB, successfully implemented its own bond buying program several years ago, there’s no guarantee the latest attempt will work, and there are likely to be unpredictable side effects.

We’ve already seen one. Witness last week’s sudden 30% jump of the Swiss franc when the Swiss central page decided to stop fixing the franc’s value in euros. Investors flooded into the currency in part because it’s seen as likely to hold its value, whereas the ECB’s bond buying is actually meant to produce some inflation in the countries that use the euro. (Currently, the chief worry in the eurozone is deflation, or falling prices.)

The upshot is that while investors are cautiously optimistic, some want to hedge their bets, and gold is one way to do that.

Does it make sense for you? Probably not. It has gotten easier in recent years for small investors to hold gold with the advent of gold-oriented exchanged-traded funds like SPDR Gold Shares (GLD). Some financial planners have taken to putting a small portion of their clients’ assets, say 2% to 5%, in such instruments to guard against the kind of volatility we are seeing right now.

But if gold’s uncertainty-driven rallies can be dramatic, so can the reversals. In late 2011, when markets were still reeling from the financial crisis, gold traded at more than $1,900 an ounce. The Federal Reserve’s own bond buying program, whose second round had kicked off a year earlier, was a big factor in the run-up. Eventually, however, the economy regained its footing—and the inflation many gold fans feared failed to show up. By 2013 gold was back down about where it is today.

And remember, unlike stocks, which represent a share of a company’s profits, or bonds which pay interest, gold doesn’t produce any future wealth, which makes it hard to say what a fair value for it would be. Its jumps in price generally reflect changes in politics and market psychology, which are hard to predict. In the long run, gold isn’t likely to do more than keep up with inflation. Add in trading and investment management costs and most long-term investors are better off just riding out the market’s ups and downs.

MONEY europe

Europe’s Version of the Fed Announces a Big New Stimulus Plan

The symbol of the Euro, the currency of the Eurozone, stands illuminated on January 21, 2015 in Frankfurt, Germany.
The symbol of the euro, the currency of the eurozone, outside the European Central Bank in Frankfurt, Germany. Hannelore Foerster—Getty Images

The European Central Bank just took on its own version of "quantitative easing." Get ready to feel the ripples.

On Thursday European Central Bank president Mario Draghi announced plans to implement a bond buying strategy known as quantitative easing. The ECB, which is the European equivalent of the U.S. Federal Reserve, is hoping to boost the struggling European economy. The Fed implemented a similar effort several years ago.

Under QE, the European bank will buy up tens of billions of euros worth of bonds each month. That should help keep interest rates low and help stave off a worrying trend of falling prices, or deflation.

With the U.S. economy finally humming along, you may be tempted to shrug off the news. But changes in interest rates and prices across the Atlantic quickly ripple across the globe. Here’s how the move could affect you.

It may hold down interest rates and bond yields.

Ever since the Fed cut key interest rates in the wake of the U.S. financial crisis, bond yields have been unusually low. Although many forecasters expect the Fed to begin raising rates in 2015, the ECB’s latest move could keep a lid on how far yields on Treasuries rise.

European bonds already yield considerably less than Treasuries—German government bonds maturing in 10 years pay 0.4%, compared to about 1.9% for Treasuries. If QE continues to depress European yields, more and more buyers are likely to seek out Treasuries, pushing Treasury prices upwards. Bond yields fall when prices rise.

Continued low rates would be good news for borrowers but a mixed bag for investors. Although bonds would lose value when rates begin to rise, many income oriented investors and saver have been frustrated by low payouts, forcing them to hunt for riskier alternatives.

It could further strengthen the dollar.

By buying up bonds, the ECB is essentially creating more euros. On Thursday, the value of the euro fell to $1.16, according to Blommberg. That’s its lowest level in more than a decade. In the long run that should help European companies by making it cheaper for U.S. consumers to buy their goods. But if you own foreign stocks, you’re likely to feel some pain, at least in the short run.

The European stocks you own are denominated in euros, but the value of your account is denominated in dollars. As the dollar rises, a European stock simply isn’t worth as many dollars as it was before, assuming its price in euros didn’t change. The good news is, you don’t need to worry unless you plan to sell right away. In the long run, such currency fluctuations should even out.

The U.S. stock market is happy—for now.

The Dow climbed about 117 points, or 0.7%, to 17,671 in morning trading. While it’s always tricky to interpret stock market ups and downs, it seems likely investors are applauding the ECB’s aggressive action to prevent a deep recession, just as they did over the past several years when the Federal Reserve made similar moves. With the U.S. economy finally humming, the Fed’s strategy seems to have worked. Ultimately the best thing for stock values is to get Europe, a major driver of global growth, back on the same path.

MONEY Economy

Swiss Currency Has Shot Up 15% So Far Today. Here’s Why That Matters

A Swiss coin is seen beneath a euro banknote on Januay 15, 2015 in Lausanne. In a shock announcement on January 15, Switzerland's central bank said it was ending a three-year bid to artificially hold down the value of the Swiss franc against the euro, in a move that immediately sent the safe haven currency soaring. Fabrice Coffrini—AFP/Getty Images

Chaos in the currency market is a sign of deep problems for Europe—and the whole global economy.

The global economy got a lot more interesting today, and maybe a little more scary, when the Swiss National Bank ended its commitment to a fixed exchange rate between the Swiss Franc and the euro.

Currency markets went into a frenzy. The Swiss franc immediately rose 30% in value against the euro, mirrored by a spike in its U.S. dollar value. Some of those gains have pulled back, with the currency up about 15% at midday. That’s still a huge move.

Okay, so it’s been a big day for currency traders—and anyone planning on a ski trip to the Alps. But what’s this mean for me?

The wildness in the market underscores the big economic story of the moment: Europe’s slide toward a recession. In a globally connected economy, weak demand in Europe could weigh on the recovery in the U.S.

So what exactly happened?

Swiss francs rose because the Swiss central bank removed an artificial cap on the price of an asset people really, really want right now. The import of the story is less about the sudden price change today than about why people want to trade their euros for francs in the first place.

Switzerland isn’t a part of the eurozone, the group of countries that share the euro as a currency. Swiss assets denominated in Swiss francs have long been considered a safe haven—a parking spot for investors around the globe when they are feeling jittery.

The eurozone has given people a lot be jittery about. In the wake of the Greek debt crisis at the beginning of the decade, investors jumped into francs, strengthening the currency against others. The problem with that for the Swiss is that it makes the goods produced by Swiss companies more expensive to export. So the Swiss National Bank (that’s like their Federal Reserve) capped the value of a franc at 1.20 per euro.

It also decided to start charging negative interest rates, meaning investors in effect have to pay a fee to park their money in a Swiss bank. That’s another way of fighting currency overvaluation. Today, at the same time as it cut the currency peg, the Swiss bank lowered the short-term interest rate from -0.25% to -0.75%. That is, they raised the penalty for stashing money there. Even so, the rally in francs shows there remains a lot of demand for doing just that.

Why did the Swiss cut the exchange rate peg?

The surprise move comes as Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank, is considering new measures to stimulate the eurozone economy. Many investors expect the ECB will take a page from the U.S. Federal Reserve and start buying long-term debt to push down long-term interest rates, a strategy known as quantitative easing.

A euro QE is broadly expected to bring down the value of the euro compared to the U.S. dollar. The Swiss, it seems, didn’t want to tie the value of its own currency so closely to the policy makers at the ECB.

“Recently, divergences between the monetary policies of the major currency areas have increased significantly – a trend that is likely to become even more pronounced,” the Swiss central bank said in a statement. “The euro has depreciated considerably against the US dollar and this, in turn, has caused the Swiss franc to weaken against the US dollar. In these circumstances, the SNB concluded that enforcing and maintaining the minimum exchange rate for the Swiss franc against the euro is no longer justified.”

Pity Swiss watchmakers, though. Their timepieces just became more expensive for foreigners to buy.

MONEY Federal Reserve

If the Fed Is Worried About Wall Street Bubbles, Maybe It Should Regulate Wall Street

Foot of George Washington statue with view of NYSE in the background
Randy Duchaine—Alamy

The Fed ponders raising interest rates to tamp down on financial speculation, but tight money is not the only option.

The Federal Reserve and the bond market are in a weird place right now.

Many officials inside the central bank are anxious to start getting back to normal, and to move short-term interest rates off the near-zero they’ve been at since the financial crisis. But the bond market isn’t listening: Even knowing that the Fed wants to tighten, investors have piled into long-term bonds, holding the benchmark interest rate for 10-year debt at just 2%.

This could mean that the bond market thinks the Fed is just plain wrong in its increasingly upbeat assessments of the economy. Investors’ eagerness to park money in low-yielding but credit-safe Treasuries seems to indicate deep worries about the prospects for long-term growth, and little concern about inflation. But as the Wall Street Journal’s Jon Hilsenrath noted yesterday, some inside the Fed are considering another interpretation of low bond yields. Maybe foreign investors are just pumping up U.S. assets because troubles overseas make anything denominated in dollars more attractive. If that’s the case, the Fed should be worried about asset bubbles.

And so, counterintuitively, New York Federal Reserve president Bill Dudley has been arguing that low long-term bond yields may be a reason for the Fed to tighten short rates even faster — to prick any bubbles that might be forming. Dudley, in a December speech cited by Hilsenrath, draws a comparison to the mid-2000s:

During the 2004-07 period, the [Fed] tightened monetary policy nearly continuously, raising the federal funds rate from 1% to 5.25% in 17 steps. However, during this period, 10-year Treasury note yields did not rise much, credit spreads generally narrowed and U.S. equity price indices moved higher. Moreover, the availability of mortgage credit eased, rather than tightened.

Easy mortgages, it hardly needs pointing out, did not work out so well.

But raising rates is the only way policymakers could respond to concerns about reckless borrowing. On Twitter, economist Adam Posen, a former member of the Monetary Policy Committee at the Bank of England (the U.K.’s version of the Fed), ticked off some other possibilities.

All of these things amount to greater scrutiny of and tighter controls on bank lending behavior. Such policies are known in central-banking jargon as “macroprudential” regulation. The Fed itself is a regulator of banks. And even in the parts of finance where the Fed doesn’t have direct regulatory authority, it has influence as part of an umbrella group of “stability” regulators created after the crisis. It can also sound loud warnings, asking Congress for more regulatory tools and better rules.

Confronted with the possibility of financial-sector bubbles, we seem to have two choices:

1) Raise interest rates until the economy cries “uncle” and no one wants to speculate anymore. Do it even if it’s taken years and years for the economy to get anywhere close to full employment, and even if wage growth is still sluggish.

2) Make sure banks don’t leverage themselves up too their eyeballs, that Wall Street doesn’t create AAA-rated derivatives on junk mortgages that no one understands, and that people don’t get loans they can never pay back.

If forced to choose, I suspect people in finance, who most certainly have the Fed’s ear on these things, prefer the blunt hammer of option #1 over option #2. They’ll moan about regulation, and question whether it’s even realistic. And frankly, the Fed often hasn’t done that job very well. Wall Street has some of the cleverest people in the world working 24/7—crack down on one crazy, risky scheme, and they’ll come up with a new one. It’s also not crazy to be skeptical of the idea that central bankers will be able to know a bubble when they see it.

But of course trying to prevent bubbles by raising rates and tightening money is a form of regulation, too. The immediate costs are spread out a lot more widely, to everyone looking for a job or hoping to get a raise. And if the Fed should be humble about its abilities as a Wall Street regulator, well… it doesn’t have such a great track record on predicting when the economy will be healthy, either. So maybe it shouldn’t be too quick on the interest-rate trigger when inflation is still very low, unless there’s real evidence of an asset bubble somewhere.

MONEY

The Fed Sees the Economy Getting Back to Normal. The Market’s Not So Sure.

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SAUL LOEB—AFP/Getty Images

Why bonds are rallying even as the Fed hints at tightening.

The Federal Reserve has been signalling that it is getting ready to raise short-term interest from near-0% later this year. It recently ended its purchases of bonds under the unconventional stimulus program known as quantitative easing. Read the front-page newspaper headlines, and it looks like the era of very low interest rates is coming to an end.

But the numbers on the market tickers are telling a different story. This week the yield on safe 10-year Treasury bonds, a benchmark for long-term interest rates, tumbled to below 2%. What gives? How is it that interest rates are going down when it looks like the Fed wants to raise them?

The answer, in part, is simple. The Fed doesn’t get to set interest rates on its own. Day-to-day market commentary make it sound like interest rates can be changed with the push of a button: Fed chair Janet Yellen and the rest of Federal Open Market Committee declare that rates shall rise, and then, boom, you get a better deal on CDs and have to pay more to refinance your house.

In fact, in normal times, the Fed only sets short-term rates. What happens to rates on loans maturing years down the road is determined by investors, and it all plays out in the moment-to-moment fluctuations of yields on the bond market. When demand for bonds is high, their prices go up and yields go down; yields rise when bond prices fall. Bond investors think a lot about Fed policy, but they also have their eyes on a host of other economic fundamentals that determine how much it should cost to borrow money.

“Fed policy matters a lot in the short term,” Ben Inker, co-head of asset allocation at the mutual fund manager GMO, recently told me. “It only matters in the long-term if they show themselves to be incompetent.”

Of course, these haven’t been normal times. With the quantitative easing program, the Fed had also been buying up longer-term Treasuries. Lots of people believed that this meant yields were artificially low, and would spike once it looked like QE was over. But the end of the Fed’s bond purchases hasn’t led to a spike in rates. It turns out investors still really want to hold long-term government bonds. “I think now what people are saying is maybe rates weren’t artificially low—maybe they were low for a reason,” said Inker.

Investors like to hold Treasury bonds when they don’t care for the alternatives, such as putting money into expanding their businesses or building new office buildings, houses, and factories. And they are happier to accept low rates when they don’t see much risk of the economy overheating and producing inflation. In short, the low long-term yield on bonds reflects the market’s fairly pessimistic outlook for growth in the long term.

The latest economic numbers from the U.S. are looking healthier lately. Unemployment has come down, and consumer confidence is up. Bond markets, however, are seeing a lot of bad news abroad, and perhaps are worrying that it will spill over to the U.S. In Europe, for example, very low inflation is threatening to turn into deflation—or falling prices—which may sound nice for consumers, but reflects weak demand and makes it harder for borrowers to settle their debts.

The weak global economy has also brought down yields on other government’s bonds—Germany is paying 0.5%—which make Treasuries look like a comparatively good deal. That’s another factor keeping demand for U.S. bonds high and yields low right now.

So here’s the picture: The Fed sees an economy that’s getting stronger, and is looking to raise short-term rates sometime this year to get ahead of the risk of inflation. But markets still see plenty to worry about. Those worries may include, as economist Brad Delong has pointed out, the risk that the Fed may slow down the recovery too soon.

MONEY Economy

Why Your Paycheck May Not Grow With the Economy

500lb weight on top of money
Kiyoshi Togashi—Alamy

Though the job market is improving, workers might have to wait a while longer to see those big raises they've been waiting for.

You may have heard that the U.S. economy is back. The nation’s gross domestic product grew by 4.6% and 5% in the last two quarters—the strongest increase since 2003; Americans are more confident about the economy than at any time since the recession; and gasoline prices are as low as they’ve been in more than five years, amounting to a huge tax break for consumers and businesses.

No wonder employers felt strong enough to add 321,000 jobs to the economy in November, while the unemployment rate was at a post-recession low of 5.8%.

Still, many workers have not seen a pick-up in pay even as the employment climate has improved. In fact private sector wages declined by 5 cents (or by 0.2%) in December, despite the economy adding 252,000 jobs.

Total compensation, which includes benefits like medical insurance, rose 2.1% from the same period a year ago. That’s actually a slight uptick from the post-recession norm, but well below pre-2008 levels.

Which is weird. As demand for workers improves, and the unemployment rate declines, you’d expect inflation to rise and wages to increase.

One reason why wages have grown so slowly is that for much of the recovery there’s simply been a lack of demand for goods from consumers as many Americans worked to get out from the terrible effects of the housing crisis.

Since my spending is your income, more dollars saved and fewer spent mean less economic activity resulting in a weaker labor market. And since the Federal Reserve already dropped short-term interest rates to practically zero, and Washington lawmakers are reluctant or disinterested in further fiscal stimulus, marginal relief is coming from D.C.

Another explanation might have to do with the nature of compensation.

In a recent report, the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco highlighted the notion of “sticky” wages.

The argument goes: Since businesses were unable to reduce wages as much as they wanted when the economy got really bad five years ago (short of firing people), they are now not inclined to raise salaries as the economy lifts off.

If wages are rigid against a terrible economy, they’re stagnant (at least for a while) when the tide turns. “Businesses hold back wage increases and wait for inflation and productivity growth to bring wages closer to their desired levels,” says the report authors’s Mary Daly and Bart Hobijn. “Since it takes some time to fully exhaust the pool of wage cuts, growth remains low even as the economy expands and the unemployment rate declines.”

While there’s a bit of rigidity to all wages, the authors found “industries with the most downwardly rigid wage structures before the recession have seen the slowest growth during the recovery.” This means that businesses that were able to lower pay when revenues dried up have been more likely to increase wages as the good times returned.

So people in the wholesale trade business (truck drivers to sales reps) saw wages increase relative to pre-recession levels, while those in construction have to make due on less income.

What does this mean for workers?

“The rigidity of wages in a number of sectors has shaped the dynamics of unemployment and wage growth and is likely to do so until labor markets have fully returned to normal,” per Daly and Hobijn. And with still elevated levels of the long-term unemployed, high numbers of workers in part-time positions that want full-time ones, and fewer people quitting their jobs than before the recession, we’re still in not normal labor market territory.

Investors, especially older ones with larger holdings in fixed-income, should take note, too. Without higher inflation, and especially wage growth, the Federal Reserve is likely to delay raising rates.

While recent Fed meetings minutes have been interpreted as having a more hawkish tone, rates aren’t likely to rise (or rise quickly) while workers still struggle to make up lost ground.

Updated to reflect on Jan. 9 jobs report.

MONEY Financial Planning

5 Simple Questions that Pave the Way to Financial Security

Analyzing 20 years of data, the St. Louis Fed found that five healthy financial habits are the key to future wealth.

Want to know how your bank account stacks up against that of your neighbors? You’ll get an idea by asking yourself five simple questions, new research shows.

The St. Louis Fed examined data from the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances between 1992 and 2013 and found a high correlation between healthy financial habits and net worth. In the surveys, the Fed asked:

  • Did you save any money last year? Saving is good, of course. Just over half in the survey earned more than they spent (not counting investments and purchases of durable goods).
  • Did you miss any credit card or other payments last year? Missing a payment isn’t just a sign of financial stress; it may trigger late fees and additional interest. An encouraging 84% in the survey made timely payments.
  • After your last credit card payment, did you still owe anything? Carrying a balance costs money. In the survey, 44% said they carried a balance or recently had been denied credit.
  • Looking at all your assets, from real estate to jewelry, is more than 10% in bonds, cash or other easily sold, liquid assets? If you don’t have safe assets to sell in an emergency, you are financially vulnerable. Just over a quarter of those in the surveys have what amounts to an emergency fund.
  • Is your total debt service each month less than 40% of household income? This is a widely accepted threshold. A higher percentage likely means you are having trouble saving for retirement, emergencies, and large expenses.

The average score on the 5 questions was 3, meaning that the typical respondent—perhaps your neighbor—had healthy financial habits 60% of the time. That equated to a median net worth of $100,000. Those who scored higher had a higher net worth, and those who scored lower had a lower net worth.

In general, younger people and minorities scored lowest, while older people and whites scored highest. Education was far less relevant than age. “This may be due to learning better financial habits over time, getting beyond the financial challenges of early and middle adulthood and the benefit of time in building a nest egg,” the authors wrote.

It should come as no surprise that healthy financial habits lead to greater net worth over time. But the survey suggests a staggering advantage for those who ace all five questions. One of the lowest scoring groups averaged 2.63 out of 5, which equated to median net worth of $25,199. One of the highest scoring groups averaged 3.79 out of 5, which equated to a median net worth of $824,348. So these five questions not only give you an idea where your neighbors may stand—they pretty much show you a five-step plan to financial security.

MONEY best of 2014

5 Bright Ideas That’ll Make You a Better Investor

Lightbulb with pie chart
MONEY (photo illustration)—Getty Images (1)

From lower-cost financial advice to a fresh way to find a bargain stock, the best new investing breakthroughs of the year.

Every year, there are innovators who come up with fresh solutions to nagging problems. Companies roll out new products or services, or improve on old ones. Researchers propose better theories to explain the world. Or stuff that’s been flying under the radar finally captivates a wide audience. For MONEY’s annual Best New Ideas list, our writers searched the world of money for the most compelling products, strategies, and insights of 2014. To make the list, these ideas—which cover the world of retirement, technology, health care, real estate, college, and more—have to be more than novel. They have to help you save money, make money, or improve the way you spend it, like these five investing innovations.

Best Way to Get Advice Cheaply

In 2014, Internet-based “robo-advisers” went from a novelty to a force that’s changing how you get and pay for money advice. In a nutshell: They’re driving costs to the floor. Some of investing’s biggest names are going robo. The competition breaks down into two types:

Portfolio Builders: Startups like Betterment and Wealthfront use algorithms to design you a mix of low-cost index funds. They charge no more than 0.25% to 0.35% of assets per year, less than traditional advisers. Giant Schwab has announced a similar, free service. (Schwab is paid in part by putting customers into Schwab’s funds.)

Computers plus people: LearnVest is more focused on saving and budgeting, but for $70 a month it will also connect you with a financial planner for investment and other advice. Vanguard’s new Personal Advisor Services will create a portfolio for you, and assign you a planner you can talk to, for 0.3% per year. The pilot program is open to existing customers with $100,000 to invest.

Best Answer to Your Toughest New Problem

With the Fed ending quantitative easing, the big worry is when interest rates will rise again. Since bond values fall when rates rise, the bonds you own for safety suddenly feel high-risk. But Colorado Springs financial planner Allan Roth says a look at the numbers should dampen your worry, as long as you have a long-term focus. After the initial drop, the higher yields you’ll get in bonds can help make up for the fall. Many Fed observers expect rates to rise one percentage point next year. Below is what happens in a typical bond fund if rates spike twice as much, by two percentage points, and then flatten out.

Annualized return

Best Timely Trick for Finding Bargain Stocks

Count All the Cash

When you’re hunting for a bargain stock, a rich dividend is a classic place to start. A big payout is a sign that a company has to do something extra to attract buyers. And a firm with cash to distribute may be more stable than other unloved stocks. But dividend yields average just 2% these days.

The concept: “If you just look at dividends you ignore a significant piece of the pie,” says portfolio manager Patrick O’Shaughnessy of O’Shaughnessy Asset Management. Also add in stock buybacks, which can be a better use of cash than costly acquisitions often are. To do that, calculate “shareholder yield.” A company paying 2% that bought back 3% of its shares in a year would have a 5% shareholder yield.

The new way to invest: Cambria Shareholder Yield ETF (SYLD) buys stocks that score high on this measure.

Best Reason to Be Skeptical About Market-Beating Claims

Many new mutual funds and ETFs are based on the idea that by combing through past market returns, you can identify factors (such as company size) that explain why some stocks do better than others. But a new study by financial economists Campbell Harvey, Yan Liu, and Heqing Zhu argues that many of these discoveries are probably illusory. With the advent of cheap, powerful computers, academics are making more and more “discoveries”—over 200 just in the past 15 years. The sheer number of findings, the study argues, suggests researchers are simply picking up a lot of random noise.

Discoveries

Best Big Idea in Three Characters

“r>g”

That’s economist Thomas Piketty’s formula for economic inequality. In Capital in the 21st Century, Piketty says the return (r) on owning capital tends to be faster than economic growth (g). If he’s right, the rich will pull away from the rest. And it’s a reason to own stocks and other long-term assets.

Related:

MONEY Economy

Dow Races Past 18,000

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Jeffrey Coolidge—Getty Images

But is this "Santa Claus" rally in the stock market being driven by an economy that's naughty or nice?

The Dow Jones industrial average climbed above the 18,000 level for the first time ever, shortly after the government released a report showing the U.S. economy grew at an annual rate of 5% in the third quarter—much faster than was initially thought.

The report also pointed out that consumer spending increased faster than expected, a sign that the improving labor, stock, and housing markets are finally being felt by American households.

Given this fact, conventional wisdom says the market is enjoying a normal Santa Claus rally. But conventional wisdom is wrong. Here’s why:

At the end of most years, stocks tend to surge for reasons of good tidings and good cheer. This year, however, the bulk of the near 1,000-point rise in the Dow that began a week ago has really been driven by bad news around the world.

As economies in Europe, Asia, and Latin America have all slowed more than expected, expectations for global growth have sunk, driving down oil and commodity prices. In fact, crude oil prices have tumbled by nearly half, to around $61 a barrel since the summer.

Brent Crude Oil Spot Price Chart

Brent Crude Oil Spot Price data by YCharts

For American consumers, this is an early present from the North Pole. The average price of regular-grade gas in the U.S. has fallen to $2.47 a gallon, the lowest point since 2009, which leaves more money to stuff into Christmas stockings at this time of the year.

Yet for large parts of the rest of the world, falling oil prices and the slowing economy spell trouble.

Falling energy prices, for instance, are wreaking havoc on the budgets of emerging economies that are dependent on oil revenues to maintain their finances. Russia, Algeria, Iraq, Iran, Nigeria, and Libya all require oil prices above $100 a barrel to keep their debt/gross domestic product ratio from rising, according to a recent report from Goldman Sachs.

Even Middle Eastern oil producers such as Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and the Saudis need oil above $63 a barrel to maintain their financial health, yet oil is barely over $60 a barrel now.

As global economies start to sputter, investor faith has faltered, as seen by the flight of cash away from global currencies into the U.S. dollar. In recent months, the value of the dollar has jumped nearly 13%, which strengthens the buying power of Americans but hurts the finances of most of the rest of the world.

^DXY Chart

^DXY data by YCharts

To keep their currencies from losing even more value, central banks around the world are now in the unenviable position of having to raise interest rates even as their economies crave rate cuts to boost growth.

The U.S. Federal Reserve is the one big exception.

While Fed chair Janet Yellen has denied that global economic worries are influencing the Fed’s decisions on setting U.S. interest rate policy, the consensus on Wall Street is that they clearly are a factor.

Last week, just before the Santa Claus rally ignited, the Fed’s Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) announced — as expected — that it would keep short-term rates near zero. The committee, however, threw Wall Street a curve ball when explaining its decision. For months, the Fed said that it expected that rates could stay near zero for “a considerable time.” Investors were bracing for that language to be removed from its December press release since the U.S. economy was starting to get into gear.

As it turned out, “the phrase ‘considerable time’ was not dropped from the latest FOMC statement as was widely expected. Instead, it was reinforced with a new phrase stressing that the Fed can afford to be ‘patient’ before starting to raise interest rates,” said Ed Yardeni, president of Yardeni Research.

In so doing, “the Fed didn’t remove the punch bowl; they spiked the punch,” says Sam Stovall, U.S. equity strategist for S&P Capital IQ. “Akin to lighting the tree at Rockefeller Center, this response to the Fed’s actions may have signaled the start of the Santa Claus rally.”

Why did the Fed cling to this “patient” sentiment?

Because the global slowdown allowed it to.

The U.S. economy is clearly gaining momentum, as Tuesday morning’s GDP report clearly showed. But cheap oil caused in part by a global slowdown means that consumer prices in the U.S. should be stable. That means even as GDP is rising at a brisk pace, the Fed can keep stimulating the economy with low interest rates without fear of inflation.

In other words, what’s bad for the world is good for the U.S.

Merry Christmas.

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