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October 2020 Performance Review

November 6, 2020

In the three months to the end of October, the market was slightly down. Historically (almost 9 times out of 10), this correlates very well with the incumbent party losing the White House. This sort of makes gut sense: if stocks are dropping, there may be issues in the economy, and voters seek change when the economy is weak. With Biden on the edge of a win, you can chalk up another success for stocks predicting the outcome of elections. While not scientific, it's probably a better indicator than any number of expert predictions or even polling, in some cases. For the record, Hillary Clinton was leading in the polls in 2016, but the stock market was down before the election—and we all know about that surprise turnout. October was weak for both stocks and bonds.

Our Conservative portfolio declined 1.71% , and our Aggressive portfolio declined 1.19%. Benchmark Vanguard funds for October 2020 were as follows: Vanguard 500 Index Fund (VFINX), down 2.66%; Vanguard Total Bond Index (VBMFX), down 0.61%; Vanguard Developed Mkts Index (VTMGX), down 3.73%; Vanguard Emerging Mkts Index (VEIEX), up 1.94%; and Vanguard Star Fund (VGSTX), a total global balanced portfolio, down 0.96%.

We don't want to over-analyze political correlations with stocks, but some goings-on are worth noting, especially since the stock market took a strange turn to the upside in early November, even given the oddities of this election developing results.

As for the three-month market indicator being right again, if any year would have made this indicator worthless, this was it, given the wild gyrations from pandemic shutdowns and massive stimulus programs by the White House and Federal Reserve. The recent huge climb from the abyss to new records (at least for larger cap growth stocks) was probably due for a fall back anyway.

In the days right before the election and during the election on November 3, the market started to take off—presumably on the assumption that Biden would win and that with Congress and the Senate going blue all sorts of massive stimulus programs would be passed. On top of massive Federal reserve support, stocks seem to like that. Note that the market doesn't really care much about 10 to 20 years down the road when such programs have to be paid for, or maybe the market figures we'll be inflating our way out of this mess and that could also be good for stocks, especially companies with debt.

It appears Biden is winning by only a squeaker and the Democrats seemed to have lost the chance to gain real power though the Senate, even losing seats in the House. Remarkably, the stock market took this as a great thing because it basically means all Trump-era policy is locked in place and we won't see a truly massive stimulus (just a massive one by, say, 2009 standards). This means low corporate taxes as well as low income taxes for all brackets are here to stay, at least until some expire years from now. It doesn't seem to bother anyone that this is a long-term disaster, financially speaking, with no major spending cuts or offsetting tax increases. Interest rates are heading back down, perhaps because without the truly massive spending plan that was being hatched by Democrats there is ample demand to buy just a few trillion a year in extra borrowing.

But if the market likes a Biden win, with our without full power, then it would have liked a Trump win losing power in the Senate as well. What about a Trump win with full control of both houses? Maybe the market just wanted to go up because really we are in a speculative bubble now, and without major riots in the streets or double-digit unemployment the drift is up, up, and away. This is how crashes happen.

In our portfolios, our only upside (not including short funds) last month was in small cap stocks, utilities with newly added Vanguard Utilities (VPU) up 4.89%, and—of all places—China, with Franklin FTSE China (FLCH) up 5.01%. Vanguard Small-Cap Value (VBR) gained 3.14%. Perhaps the great turnaround after years of large cap growth outperformance is upon us. With all the momentum and Covid economic benefits to big tech, this could be too soon, but then stocks tend to move before reality catches up.

We had some fairly large losses abroad as a resurgence in Covid cases leads to new lockdowns. Franklin FTSE Germany (FLGR) was down 10.28% as the formerly reasonably successful Covid fighter slipped. Europe in general was weak, with Vanguard FTSE Europe (VGK) down 5.42%. It is possible our political stalemate and slow grind to economic disaster will start hurting the dollar again and boosting foreign holdings, but with trouble abroad this may not materialize. All of our bond funds were down, but by less than 1%.

Bottom line: stocks seem to love low interest rates (actually negative adjusting for recent inflation in many cases) and huge deficit spending and couldn't care less about the longer-term problems we're creating. This could all be very wishful thinking by investors not considering the risks of political gridlock going into what could be a very dicey winter with the economy and Covid. Perhaps we did stumble into the best possible situation. Historically, stocks do best with a Democrat in the White House and 10 of the last 11 recessions happened with a Republican as president. You have to go to the 1800s to find a Republican who didn't have a recession in their first term. These patterns could be coincidences and don't seem to match the generally pro-business policies from Republicans.

Stock Funds1mo %
Franklin FTSE China (FLCH)5.01%
Vanguard Utilities (VPU)4.89%
Vanguard Small-Cap Value (VBR)3.14%
ProShares Short QQQ (PSQ)2.36%
[Benchmark] Vanguard Emerging Mkts Stock Idx (VEIEX)1.94%
Franklin FTSE South Korea (FLKR)-0.62%
ProShares Decline of Retail (EMTY)-1.12%
Homestead Value Fund (HOVLX)-1.25%
Vanguard Value Index (VTV)-1.82%
[Benchmark] Vanguard 500 Index (VFINX)-2.66%
Franklin FTSE Brazil (FLBR)-3.25%
Vanguard Energy (VDE)-3.47%
Vanguard FTSE Developed Mkts. (VEA)-3.55%
[Benchmark] Vanguard Tax-Managed Intl Adm (VTMGX)-3.73%
VanEck Vectors Pharma. (PPH)-4.86%
Vanguard FTSE Europe (VGK)-5.42%
Franklin FTSE Germany (FLGR)-10.28%
Bond Funds1mo %
Vanguard S/T Infl. Protect. (VTIP)-0.20%
iShares JP Morgan Em. Bond (LEMB)-0.38%
[Benchmark] Vanguard Total Bond Index (VBMFX)-0.61%
Schwab US TIPS (SCHP)-0.65%