MONEY The Economy

Think the Fed Should Raise Rates Quickly? Ask Sweden How That Worked Out

Raising interest rates brought the Swedish economy toward deflation Ewa Ahlin—Corbis

Some investors are impatient for the Fed to raise interest rates. They may want to be a little more patient after hearing what happened to Sweden.

If you’re a saver, or if bonds make up a sizable portion of your portfolio, chances are you’re not the biggest fan of the Federal Reserve these days.

That’s because ever since the financial crisis, the nation’s central bank has kept short-term interest rates at practically zero, meaning your savings accounts and bonds are yielding next to nothing. The Fed has also added trillions of dollars to its balance sheet by buying up longer-term bonds and other assets in an effort to lower long-term interest rates.

Thanks to some positive economic news — like the recent jobs report — lots of people (investors, not workers) think the Fed has done enough to get the economy on its feet and worry inflation could spike if monetary policy stays “loose,” as Dallas Fed President Richard Fisher recently put it.

If you want to know why the argument Fisher and other inflation hawks are pushing hasn’t carried the day, you may want to look to Sweden.

Like most developed nations, Sweden fell into a recession in the global financial crisis. But unlike its counterparts, it rebounded rather quickly. Or at least, that’s how it looked.

As Neil Irwin wrote in the Washington Post back in 2011, “unlike other countries, (Sweden) is bouncing back. Its 5.5 percent growth rate last year trounces the 2.8 percent expansion in the United States and was stronger than any other developed nation in Europe.”

Even though the Swedish economy showed few signs of inflation and still suffered from relatively high unemployment, central bankers in Stockholm worried that low interest rates over time would lead to a real estate bubble. So board members of the Riksbank, Sweden’s central bank, decided to raise interest rates (from 0.25% to eventually 2%) believing that the threat posed by asset bubbles (housing) inflated by easy money outweighed the negative side effects caused by tightening the spigot in a depressed economy.

What happened? Well…

Per Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman in the New York Times:

“Swedish unemployment stopped falling soon after the rate hikes began. Deflation took a little longer, but it eventually arrived. The rock star of the recovery has turned itself into Japan.”

And deflation is a particularly nasty sort of business. When deflation hits, the real amount of money that you owe increases since the value of that debt is now larger than it was when you incurred it.

It also takes time to wring deflation out of the economy. Indeed, Swedish prices have floated around 0% for a while now, despite the Riksbank’s inflation goal of 2%. Plus, as former Riksbank board member Lars E. O. Svensson notes, “Lower inflation than anticipated in wage negotiations leads to higher real wages than anticipated. This in turns leads to many people without safe jobs losing their jobs and becoming unemployed.” Svensson, it should be noted, opposed the rate hike.

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Sweden

Moreover, economic growth has stagnated. After growing so strongly in 2010, Sweden’s gross domestic product began expanding more slowly in recent years and contracted in the first quarter of 2014 by 0.1% thanks in large part to falling exports.

As a result, Sweden reversed policy at the end of 2011 and started to pare its interest rate. The central bank recently cut the so-called “repo” rate by half a percentage point to 0.25%, more than analysts estimated. The hope is that out-and-out deflation will be avoided.

So the next time you’re inclined to ask the heavens why rates in America are still so low, remember Sweden and the scourge of deflation. Ask yourself if you want to take the risk that your debts (think mortgage) will become even more onerous.

MONEY Markets

Markets React to Malaysian Jet Crash and Gaza Invasion

A part of the wreckage of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane
A part of the wreckage of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane is seen after it crashed near the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region, July 17, 2014. Maxim Zmeyev—Reuters

Investors sold off stocks in response to news that a Malaysian Airlines jet had crashed in eastern Ukraine today, reportedly killing 295 people. Ukrainian government officials said the plane may have been shot down; pro-Russian separatist fighters in the region denied responsibility. Then late in the trading day came reports that Israeli forces had begun a ground invasion of Gaza.

The S&P 500 index of large cap stocks fell more than 1% for the day. The Dow Jones Insutrial Average also declined, closing at 16,977, back below the 17,000 milestone it first crossed earlier this month.

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Investors in general moved away from risky to safer assets. The 10-year Treasury bond yield fell below 2.5%, down from 2.55% yesterday. A fall in bond yields means a rise in price, and reflects investors being willing to accept a low return in exchange for the safety of U.S. government-backed securities.

MONEY stocks

WATCH: What’s the Point of Investing?

In this installment of Tips from the Pros, financial advisers explain why you need to invest at all.

MONEY Portfolios

For $50 You Can Push For More Female CEOs — But Is It a Good Investment?

Indra Nooyi, chairman and chief executive officer of PepsiCo.
Indra Nooyi, chairman and chief executive officer of PepsiCo. Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images

Two new products let you invest in companies led by female executives. Whether this is a good idea depends on what you hope to achieve.

On Thursday, Barclays is launching a new index and exchange-traded note (WIL) that lets retail investors buy shares — at $50 a pop — of a basket of large U.S. companies led by women, including PepsiCo, IBMINTERNATIONAL BUSINESS MACHINES CORP. IBM 0.6662% , and XeroxXEROX CORP. XRX 0.4969% . This should be exciting news for anyone disappointed by the lack of women in top corporate roles.

After all, female CEOs still make up less than 5% of Fortune 500 chiefs and less than 17% of board members — despite earning 44% of master’s degrees in business and management.

The new ETN is not the only tool of its kind: This past June, former Bank of America executive Sallie Krawcheck opened an index fund tracking global companies with female leadership — and online brokerage Motif Investing currently offers a custom portfolio of shares in women-led companies.

The big question is whether this type of socially-conscious investing is valuable — either to investors or to the goal of increasing female corporate leadership. Is it wise to let your conscience dictate how you manage your savings? And assuming you care about gender representation in the corporate world, is there any evidence that these investments will actually lead to more diversity?

Here’s what experts and research suggest:

Getting better-than-average returns shouldn’t be your motivation. Beyond the promise of effecting social change, the Barclays and Pax indexes are marketed with the suggestion that woman-led companies tend to do better than peers. It’s true that some evidence shows businesses can benefit from female leadership, with correlations between more women in top positions and higher returns on equity, lower volatility, and market-beating returns.

But correlation isn’t causation, and other research suggests that when businesses appoint female leadership, it may be a sign that crisis is brewing — the so-called “glass cliff.” Yet another study finds that limiting your investments to socially-responsible companies comes with costs.

Taken together, the pros and cons of conscience-based investing seem generally to cancel each other out. “Our research shows socially responsible investments do no better or worse than the broader stock market,” says Morningstar fund analyst Robert Goldsborough. “Over time the ups and downs tend to even out.”

As always, fees should be a consideration. Even if the underlying companies in a fund are good investments, high fees can eat away at your returns. Krawcheck’s Pax Ellevate Global Women’s fund charges 0.99% — far more than the 0.30% fee for the Vanguard Total World Stock Index (VTWSX). Investing only in U.S. companies, the new Barclays ETN is cheaper, with 0.45% in expenses, though the comparable Vanguard S&P 500 ETF (VOO) charges only 0.05% — a difference that can add up over time:

image-29
Note: Projections based on current expenses and a $10,000 investment.

If supporting women is very important to you, you might consider investing in a broad, cheap index and using the money you saved on fees to invest directly in the best female-led companies — or you could simply donate to a non-profit supporting women’s causes.

If you still love this idea, that’s okay — just limit your exposure. There is an argument that supporting female leadership through investments could be more powerful than making a donation to a non-profit. The hope is that if enough investor cash flows to businesses led by women, “companies will take notice” and make more efforts to advance women in top positions, says Sue Meirs, Barclays COO for Equity and Funds Structured Markets Sales in the Americas. If investing in one of these indexes feels like the best way to support top-down gender diversity — and worth the cost — you could do worse than these industry-diversified offerings. “Investing as a social statement can be a fine thing,” says financial planner Sheryl Garrett, “though you don’t want to put all of your money toward a token investment.” Garrett suggests limiting your exposure to 10% of your overall portfolio.

TIME wall street

Wall Street Killed the Cupcake

Store Operations At Crumbs, Largest U.S. Retailer Of Cupcakes
JB Reed—Bloomberg/Getty Images

The Crumbs cupcake shop in my neighborhood just shut down. It’s a sad day for the entire sugar industry: Crumbs, a once-growing collection of shops with visions of becoming a national bakery chain, abruptly folded its 65-store operation in 12 states, putting hundreds of people out of work. The company had been delisted from NASDAQ last week, its stock trading for pennies from a high near $14. Sales were falling, Crumbs was losing money and unlikely to become profitable anytime soon. As of its last quarterly filing, the company had just $300,000 in cash on hand, and its liabilities included $244,000 in gift cards outstanding. Hope you didn’t own any of them. Crumbs lost $5 million in its last quarter.

Was Crumbs a victim of Americans turning toward eating healthier, especially among children, as the First Lady has encouraged? Fat chance. We are as plump and pleased as ever, and our appetite for donuts, cronuts, deep-fried Oreos and Baconators will not be reposing anytime soon. Long live junk food, if maybe not us.

But you could see this one crumbing long before it happened. Crumbs made good cupcakes—one of those sweet bombs could keep an 8-year old wired for about three days—but its failure isn’t so much about the product so much as the way Wall Street works to bake new companies. The recipe almost guarantees trouble in the future for many firms. Crumbs joins the long list of once hot food franchises that couldn’t resist the smell of growth and ultimately had difficulty managing it: David’s Cookies, Krispy Kreme, Einstein Bagels, World Coffee, just to name a few. They can survive, but generally after massive restructuring. Crumbs ran out of time and money.

The pattern is similar: a good product or idea becomes increasingly popular, and investors get moon-eyed about the prospects. At the same time, other operators and investors will swear to you that there’s plenty of room for more than one brand—or that if there isn’t much room, their concept is superior.

In the mid-90s, it was the humble bagel’s turn for the national spotlight. The players included Bruegger’s Bagel Bakery, Einstein Bros. Bagels, Chesapeake Bagel Bakery, Manhattan Bagel, Noah’s New York Bagels, Big Apple Bagels and the Great American Bagel among others. Several of them went public, which funded overexpansion. They dreamed big. “What happened to the pizza in the ’40s and ’50s is happening to the bagel today,” said the ceo of Manhattan Bagel at the time. “Soon there will be bagel shops on every street corner.” Except in Manhattan, where there are no Manhattan Bagel shops. Einstein, Noah, Chesapeake and Manhattan would eventually become part of one company, as the craze subsided and the industry consolidated. Then it was doughnuts. Krispy Kreme also got creamed by massive overexpansion funded by its very popular IPO. Even in the U.S., we can only eat so many doughnuts.

Cupcakes are now repeating the pattern, with predictable results. In the cupcake game, Crumbs competitors include Magnolia Bakery, Sprinkles, and any number of hipster-preneurs in major cities not to mention the likes of Duncan Donuts and Starbucks, which flanked the cupcake shops with offerings of their own. If cupcakes were that hard to make, your mom wouldn’t have churned them out on demand.

Why isn’t there more caution? Because that’s not Wall Street’s real concern. The investment industry’s mission is to throw money at enough startups—from cupcakes to social media—and hope to land on a winner. Failure is built in, the only question being who is going to take the losses. A lot of time it’s overeager shareholders who pile in these stocks because all they see is unlimited growth. In food, the best case scenario is Starbucks, whose original store still operates on Pike Street in Seattle along with thousands of others around the world. An IPO allowed Starbucks to enjoy rapid growth and made a lot of investors rich. But part of Starbucks strategy was to be capitalized enough to blow other rivals out of the water by grabbing the best locations. That left everyone else to scramble to remain competitive—and why there’s really no No. 2 in premium coffee.

Fortunately, the U.S. is not going to run out of cupcakes anytime soon. This is basically a mom and pop business that is still best run by mom and pop. Cupcakes may have had their run for now, but investors are always going to be hungry to find the next new food style to fund. And grilled cheese is waiting in the (chicken) wings.

MONEY Ask the Expert

Can I Diversify My Portfolio With One ETF Rather than Four?

Q: Does investing in a “total stock market index fund” give you diversified exposure to large-, medium-, and small-sized companies? Or do I need to invest in separate mutual funds for my large- and small-company stocks? — Toby, Davis Junction, IL

A: No, you don’t need separate funds. The Vanguard Total Stock Market ETF VANGUARD INDEX FDS TOTAL STOCK MARKET ETF VTI 0.0584% is designed to give you exposure to a broad cross-section of different types of domestic equities in a single exchange-traded fund.

Its portfolio breaks down like this: around 72% is invested in large companies, a little less than 20% is in medium-sized businesses, about 6% is in small-company shares, and 3% is in so-called micro-cap stocks.

Now, you can achieve similar diversification by allocating your dollars into a collection of more narrowly constructed funds that focus on industry-leading large companies or quick-growing but volatile small companies.

For instance, you could pick up Money 50 funds Schwab S&P 500 Index SCHWAB CAPITAL TST S&P 500IDX SEL SWPPX 0.1918% , with iShares Core S&P Mid-Cap ISHARES TRUST REG. SHS S&P MIDCAP 400 IDX ON IJH 0.1985% and iShares Core S&P Small Cap ISHARES TRUST CORE S&P SMALL-CAP ETF IJR -0.1647% . (Although, if you’re not careful, you might end up with more exposure to smaller companies than you want. About 30% of IJR’s portfolio is in micro-cap stocks.)

All things being equal, says BKD Wealth Advisors’ portfolio manager Nick Withrow, you’re better off going with the one fund than three or four.

For one thing, each fund comes with its own expenses. If VTI dovetails with your risk tolerance, then you’ve taken care of your domestic stock portfolio at a measly cost of 0.05% of assets annually. That’s marginally cheaper, by about 0.06 percentage points, than buying a host of exchange-traded funds that collectively approximate VTI’s portfolio, says Withrow.

But there’s another reason — you.

Basically, you don’t want to get into the business of buying and selling ETFs to try and time the market. And you’re much less likely to get into that expensive habit if you buy-and-hold one fund, rather than picking three or four.

“The more choices an investor has, the more apt he or she is to feel that they have to do something,” says Withrow. “The idea of simplicity, especially with a buy-and-hold attitude, goes a long way.”

Of course, one total market exchange-traded fund doesn’t mean your portfolio is complete. Don’t forget about foreign equities or, you know, bonds. But when it comes to U.S. stocks, one cheap total market ETF (like VTI) is particularly useful.

MONEY Markets

The Real Reason You Should Care About Insider Trading

Martha Stewart leaving court after conviction
Businesswoman Martha Stewart, 62 leaves federal court in New York City on March 5, 2004. Stewart was found guilty on all counts over a suspicious stock sale. Jeff Christensen—Reuters

A new study suggests insider trading is even more rampant than anyone thought. But it's not so obvious why individuals should be concerned.

Between Michael Lewis’s takedown of high-frequency traders in Flash Boys and a new study finding that one in four M&A deals are preceded by insider trading, Wall Street’s public image is looking more “sell” than “buy” these days.

But how much does insider trading actually harm the average Joe? Even if Gordon Gekkos are running amok, do cheaters pose a real threat to those who play by the rules? The answer might surprise you.

1. Insider trading won’t hurt you if you don’t trade. Just like front-running high-frequency traders, those who trade on secret information are unlikely to hurt the portfolios of buy-and-hold investors, says Rick Ferri, founder of Portfolio Solutions.

In theory, an individual who frequently trades could be unlucky and end up buying or selling just as market-riggers are doing the opposite. But holding a diversified portfolio of stocks over long periods of time dilutes that damage; if you hold an index fund for a decade, you’d likely lose no more than pennies from trading inequities, says Ferri. “Getting upset about insider trading is like getting upset about the NFL draft,” says Ferri. “It makes for juicy headlines, but unless you’re a professional, it’s not really going to affect you.”

2. Insider trading could even help you. The presence of cheaters in the market could, coincidentally, benefit uninformed investors who just happen to land on the right side of a trade, says Santa Clara University finance professor Meir Statman, who has studied investor perceptions of insider trading. Let’s say you need to sell a stock in a company to free up cash, says Statman: If that happens to coincide with an insider trading-driven run-up before the company announces a merger or acquisition, you could actually win out.

3. Nevertheless, these cheaters are destroying the American Dream. Pundits have used the points above to argue that insider trading should be legalized. But the so-called “victimless crime” claims at least one victim, says Statman: confidence in the market. “A belief in fair play is part of good American culture,” says Statman. “The stock market is supposed to be an emblem of the American Dream: the belief that if you work hard and do your research, you’ll be rewarded. It’s not supposed to feel like the lottery.”

In his research, Statman has found that people living in economies riddled with more corruption, like India and Italy, are twice as likely as Americans to deem insider trading acceptable.

insider
Meir Statman, “Is It Fair? Perceptions of Fair Investment Behavior across Countries,” Journal of Investment Consulting, 2011.

There are a few key takeaways: If we want to keep our markets fair, it’s important that cheaters are caught and punished. But news headlines shouldn’t prevent you from investing, as long as you do it wisely — with diversified index funds and minimal trading. “Trading is like going into the jungle,” says Statman.

“There will always be beasts who are larger than you and thus able to devour you,” he says. “So go in as rarely as possible.”

MONEY stocks

Smith & Wesson Misses on Earnings, But Don’t Call it a Misfire

Smith & Wesson
A Smith & Wesson .357 magnum revolver is displayed for customers to rent at a Gun Club on December 7, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. Gun enthusiasts rent the the weapon to try out before making a purchase at a gun store . Leading firearms maker Smith & Wesson reports almost 50 percent increase in sales revenue. Kevork Djansezian—Getty Images

Despite disappointing profits, the gunmaker has been on a steady upswing in recent years.

Smith & Wesson, one of the nation’s largest firearms makers, released its earnings yesterday, and it was not good.

The Springfield, Mass.-based company saw its 4th quarter revenue drop 4.6% from the year before (or 1.5% if you exclude the effects of guns made by Carl Walther GmbH of German which S&W no longer sells).

Moreover, the gunmaker’s financial outlook left much to be desired. The company announced that it expects net sales in the next fiscal year to be between $585 million and $600 million, with earnings per share (EPS) between $1.30 and $1.40. Analysts at Wedbush Securities, for instance, had expected revenue of $642 and EPS of $1.50, per a recent report.

Still, all is not lost for shareholders.

For one thing the company actually improved its position this past fiscal year. On the whole, revenue increased to $627 million from $588 million last year and $412 million in 2012. Net income also rose to $89 million from $78 million 12 months earlier.

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Source: Company Data

Thanks to increased sales, the company’s stock is up and has been for a while. Prior to the latest earnings release, S&W’s annualized return was 77% over the past three years. While the stock did drop as much as 17% after earnings were announced, the stock price is still up 49% over the past five years.

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And more people than ever are in the market for guns, especially handguns.

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Source: Company Data

The National Shooting Sports Foundation (a firearms industry trade association) adjusted background check numbers show there were about two times as many background checks this past May than in 2001.

Adjusted background checks are down year-over-year, but that was due to a post-Newtown demand surge, according to Wedbush, which is now “returning to normal.” Moreover, S&W handgun sales have increased by $100 million over the past year.

TIME Business

You Can Now Use PayPal to Buy and Sell Stuff in 203 Countries

PayPal hopes to ease online transactions in fraudulent countries

Internet payment company PayPal is opening for business in 10 new countries this week, bringing the total number in which it operates to 203.

PayPal is expanding into the following countries: Belarus, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Monaco, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Zimbabwe, Paraguay and Nigeria. The latter has the largest potential marketplace for PayPal with 60 million Internet users, according to measurements by Euromonitor International.

PayPal will not introduce all its services at once in the new countries. PayPal executive Rupert Keeley told Reuters the company will only launch the “send money” feature at first, which allows consumers to make online payments to pre-approved merchant sites. The service will not enable payments to local merchants, but Keeley believes that PayPal can still “give our sellers selling into this market a great deal of reassurance.”

The eBay-owned e-commerce company also hopes to increase the number of secure Internet transactions in countries fraught with fraudulence, Reuters reports.

[Reuters]

 

MONEY Gas

WATCH: Iraq Conflict Could Lead to Higher Gas Prices

The latest conflict in Iraq — the world's second-largest oil producer — could result in your paying more at the pump for gas.

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