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September 2021 Performance Review

October 5, 2021

High inflation with rising energy prices was unsettling enough, but add interest rates on a move back up and it all seemed to be too much for investors to handle. In September almost all fund categories were down, except energy, commodities, and Japan.

Our Conservative portfolio declined 2.36% and our Aggressive portfolio declined 2.27%. Benchmark Vanguard fund results for September 2021 were as follows: Vanguard 500 Index Fund (VFINX), down 4.65%; Vanguard Total Bond Index (VBMFX), down 0.91%; Vanguard Developed Mkts Index (VTMGX), down 3.43%; Vanguard Emerging Mkts Index (VEIEX), down 3.37%; and Vanguard Star Fund (VGSTX), a total global balanced portfolio, down 2.96%.

Our own energy holding Vanguard Energy (VDE) was up 8.66%, which with a boost from our shorts helped us to achieve a fair relative performance. However, a big hit to Franklin FTSE Brazil (FLBR), down 11.47%, and a surprising drop of 6.95% in Vanguard Utilities (VPU) kept us on the ropes with the market, though not quite as bad as Vanguard's global balanced portfolio fund.

The drop in stocks last month was a little more oriented towards large caps, possibly because in recent weeks we saw the first real outflows from stock funds since early this year, and ETFs and other funds tend to be capitalization-weighted.

With a slightly rising U.S. dollar and weakness in many emerging markets, there was no help from foreign markets, except for Japan. The Chinese government's continued crackdown on tech companies has been dragging on Chinese stocks and the negativity may be spreading to other markets. The added worry is what appears to be a collapse of one of China's largest real estate companies, Evergrande. Our own China fund Franklin FTSE China (FLCH) was down only about as much as the S&P 500 last month, but much of the damage has been done as China has been the worst performing major market of 2021.

Everybody seems to know that all assets are expensive now, but the cost of not being in the risk party is slow erosion of purchasing power, as 2021 is shaping up to be a negative 3%+ return on near 0% yield cash, after adjusting for our new high inflation. Worse still for safety seekers, it seems as if speculators borrow your safe money at low rates and gamble in the riskier markets, from stocks to real estate - even cryptocurrencies.

Investors seem to have one eye on when the music will stop - and that could come in the form of higher interest rates or a slowing economy. The wages of fear for an investor today is a gamble of how much inflation the Fed will allow before ruining the speculative party. Ideally, inflation drifts back down and the Fed can slowly get back to normal while the economy ceases to need the twin stimuli of deficit spending and money creation. But the continuing stories of supply shortages and disruptions make so soft a landing look increasingly unlikely.

There have been large monthly inflows into stock funds for the first time in years. This investor confidence started in February of 2021 and held up until mid-September. This return to stocks may have reflected confidence early this year that the vaccines would get the global economy back on track. Unfortunately, once things look safe for investors, prices tend to be too high.

For years now, money has been coming out of stock funds, though most of this was just rebalancing into bonds as stocks did well. The last solid stretch of stock inflows, such as we are seeing now, was in 2017. The only down year for U.S. stocks since the 2007-09 crash was 2018, and 2018 was an even worse year for foreign markets, which is where most of the new money was going back then.

When investors start adding money to stock funds month after month, lousy returns often follow. We could be seeing the end of the run-up in stocks now.

Stock Funds1mo %
ProShares UltraShort QQQ (QID)11.76%
Vanguard Energy (VDE)8.66%
ProShares Decline of Retail (EMTY)6.64%
Invesco CurrencyShares Euro (FXE)-2.01%
Vanguard Small-Cap Value (VBR)-2.55%
[Benchmark] Vanguard Emerging Mkts Stock Idx (VEIEX)-3.37%
Vanguard FTSE Developed Mkts. (VEA)-3.39%
[Benchmark] Vanguard Tax-Managed Intl Adm (VTMGX)-3.43%
Vanguard Value Index (VTV)-3.94%
VanEck Vectors Pharma. (PPH)-4.23%
[Benchmark] Vanguard 500 Index (VFINX)-4.65%
Franklin FTSE China (FLCH)-4.78%
Homestead Value Fund (HOVLX)-5.38%
Vanguard FTSE Europe (VGK)-5.40%
Franklin FTSE Germany (FLGR)-5.63%
Franklin FTSE South Korea (FLKR)-6.83%
Vanguard Utilities (VPU)-6.95%
Franklin FTSE Brazil (FLBR)-11.47%
Bond Funds1mo %
Vanguard S/T Infl. Protect. (VTIP)-0.06%
[Benchmark] Vanguard Total Bond Index (VBMFX)-0.91%
Vanguard Long-Term Bond Index ETF (BLV)-2.52%
iShares JP Morgan Em. Bond (LEMB)-3.02%
Vanguard Extended Duration Treasury (EDV)-3.84%