This week, the Federal Reserve caught the market by surprise. In fact, it seemed like Fed policymakers caught even themselves by surprise. Previously, they had been forecasting that interest rates would remain near zero through 2023, on the assumption that inflation would remain manageable. But as the country has emerged from hibernation, inflation has run much hotter than expected. As a result, an increasing number of Fed officials now expect they’ll have to raise rates much sooner. After so many months of insisting this wouldn’t happen, it took people by surprise to hear the opposite.
How did Fed officials get it wrong? The economy, it turns out, doesn’t always move in a straight line. In recent months, more than half the inflation came from just two areas—lumber and used cars—and for reasons that would have been hard to predict.
The new car market has been in disarray due to a semiconductor shortage. So car buyers have been chasing a limited number of used cars. The result: Used car prices recently logged their fastest monthly increase since recordkeeping began in 1953. And lumber prices, despite a recent retreat, are still up more than 100% vs. pre-pandemic levels. That’s because low mortgage rates and lockdowns combined to boost home construction and renovation.
The Fed’s difficulty in forecasting inflation illustrates, I think, how hard it can be as an investor to know where things are heading. I often come back to the refrain that “no one has a crystal ball.” The Fed’s recent challenges illustrate that reality. But that crystal ball motto is more of an observation than it is actionable advice. What can you, as an individual investor, do to protect yourself from uncertainty when even the Federal Reserve, with all its resources and expertise, has a hard time knowing where things are heading? Below are some recommendations:
Dollar allocation: According to research, asset allocation is the most important driver of portfolio returns. But there’s a step I recommend even before asset allocation: I call it dollar allocation. The idea is to think, at a high level, how you’re allocating each dollar you earn. The big three, of course, are spending, saving and taxes. The question is, how are you allocating among those categories, and within them? This might seem like an elementary question, but many of us run our financial lives on auto-pilot, so it can be eye-opening to take a closer look. Having a better handle on your dollar allocation can help you respond more easily when the economy throws a curveball.
Asset allocation: The split between stocks and bonds is, in my opinion, the most important portfolio decision. But don’t stop there. When you think about asset allocation, go deeper. To assess the risk in your portfolio, I recommend tools like Morningstar’s free portfolio X-Ray. This will help shine a light on your portfolio’s exposure—or lack thereof—to each segment of the market, and it can help surface risks hiding below the surface.
Guaranteed income: Virtually everyone is entitled to Social Security, but only a lucky few will receive traditional pensions. If you want to build more certainty into your financial plan, there’s an easy way to do that: with an annuity. I acknowledge that annuities don’t have a great reputation, and I don’t normally recommend them. But if stability and predictability are paramount, there are two types worth considering: single-premium immediate annuities (SPIAs) and deferred annuities. SPIAs are attractive because they’re generally the most cost-efficient. They’re also very straightforward, making it easy to comparison shop. Deferred annuities, on the other hand, don’t start paying until later in life and can thus provide critical longevity protection.
Tax categories: As I’ve noted a few times in recent weeks, I believe it’s ideal to have assets in each of the three main tax categories: taxable, tax-deferred and Roth. But don’t forget 529 accounts. In some ways, they are an ideal structure. Like Roth accounts, they grow tax-free. But unlike Roths, you can contribute much more. Limits vary from state to state, but these limits are very high—between $200,000 and $500,000 in most cases. In addition, a contribution to a 529 is considered a “completed gift” for estate planning purposes, making them very attractive for high net worth families. This is a great tool for protecting against the uncertainty of ever-changing tax laws.
Debt: The economist Hyman Minsky proposed a theory about economic crises. Paradoxically, he said, financial stability causes financial instability. What he meant is that periods of financial stability lead people to become overconfident, assuming that the good times will last forever. That overconfidence often sows the seeds of its own demise because people become complacent and less disciplined. And then they take on more debt than they can handle. That is how stability can lead to instability. At a time like this, when everything seems rosy, it’s good to keep this in mind. If something unexpected happens in the economy, people with less debt are generally in a better position. So maintain a little more discipline than might seem necessary.
Mindset: In the past, I’ve described a concept I call the five minds of the investor. In my opinion, the path to success as an investor requires a balancing act, channeling simultaneously the minds of an optimist, a pessimist, an analyst, an economist and a psychologist. To understand why, consider just the past five years: In a lot of ways, it’s felt like an eternity. The stock market has more than doubled—but not without two hard-fought presidential elections, multiple changes to the tax code, a pandemic, a recession, a market crash and, finally, a stunning recovery. And yet, despite all that, here we are, five years later, far wealthier than we were before. The lesson: Yes, the world is unpredictable. But through all the turmoil, some things are constant. Most importantly, when you own a stock market index fund, you own a little piece of hundreds of companies, where millions of people wake up every day and go to work to build wealth for shareholders, including you. And when you own U.S. Treasury bonds, you have an IOU from a government that—so far, at least—has never failed to pay its bills. To be sure, there have been ups and downs—and there will be many more. As we’ve just seen, even the Fed isn’t all-knowing. But if you keep your eye on those basic facts, I think that’s the best recipe for protecting yourself from whatever comes next.