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STA Weekly Report – 2019 Market Outlook

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INSIDE THIS EDITION:
Executive Summary
2018 Review
2019 Investment Themes
Macroeconomic Outlook
Capital Markets Outlook
401k Plan Manager*Updated on 12/31/2018

Executive Summary

The second half of 2018, saw the US economy continue its expansion..

Outside of the U.S., BREXIT-related uncertainty and softening Eurozone economic data provided a counter-current too strong to overcome for developed international equities.

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October saw major markets led lower by the technology sector which began to retreat following a very strong first half of the year. November provided a bit of relief for investors after the Fed tempered hawkish statements made in October but the reprieve was only temporary as December provided investors with the worst December seen since the Great Depression.

In portfolios, downside volatility in both October and December proved challenging. However, we entered each of those months with a sizeable allocation to U.S. treasuries.

In the fixed income market, we saw a big swing in market sentiment during 2018. January featured concerns about an overheating economy but by December investors were worried about a slowdown in global growth.

The STA fixed income strategy outperformed the broad bond market index throughout 2018, with less price volatility.

2019 Investment Themes

  • We believe volatility is here to stay.
  • Investors should remember the old adage that it is time in the market, not timing the market.
  • It will be important to build resilience into portfolios.
  • Make sure your cash works hard for you but be careful your cash doesn’t work too hard.
  • Investors should watch for factors that can extend the bull market. Staying invested is not tantamount to “buy and hold”. Ever-evolving market dynamics require a disciplined tactical strategy that can help limit losses while taking advantage of opportunities when they emerge.

Macroeconomic Outlook

  • We expect a synchronized slowdown in global growth in 2019.
  • The U.S. economy is likely in the late-cycle phase with robust domestic growth set to decelerate as a tight labor market and fading federal stimulus weigh on year-over-year growth.
  • The Chinese economy will be challenged by the tariff dispute with the U.S., but we expect only a mild slowdown in the Chinese economy as the government focuses on stimulating its economy with ample fiscal and monetary support.
  • We expect a stable inflation rate at or slightly above 2%. This is in line with the Fed’s 2019 target. 
  • The inflation outlook in Europe and Japan remains a key indicator as it sets the pace for central bankers to remove ultra-accommodative monetary policy and has enormous implications for global liquidity, asset prices, and strength of the U.S. dollar.
  • The rate hiking path is less certain in 2019 than it was at the start of 2018.
  • We believe it is prudent for the Fed to stay more dovish in 2019, given moderating economic growth and the vulnerability global debt has to a spike in borrowing costs. That said, we expect one rate hike in June and another hike in the second half of 2019.
  • We believe the Fed will continue hiking interest rates as long as the job market remains solid and inflation stays on target in 2019.
  • We expect the U.S. economy to gradually slow and converge with the slowdown seen in other parts of the world.
  • An increasing fiscal deficit is not an immediate concern but may constrain the willingness and ability of the government to step in and help the economy recover from the next recession.      

Capital Markets Outlook

  • With 2018 behind us, it is apparent that a higher volatility market regime has taken hold of capital markets as we predicted could occur in our last Capital Markets Outlook. Looking ahead, we are led to believe this is not a short-term shift.
  • It is our view that short term market direction will be driven by the outcomes in three key areas: fourth quarter earnings results, forward guidance, and progress on trade negotiations with China.
  • In the intermediate term, diversified exposure between domestic, international, and emerging markets remains prudent. We favor domestic and emerging market equities.  Developed international equities at present face several challenges, both economic and political, which could make relative returns compared to domestic and emerging markets less attractive in the intermediate term.
  • Longer-term we believe emerging markets will present one of the better investment opportunities we have seen in some time

2018 Review

The second half of 2018, saw the US economy continue its expansion. Consumer confidence hit record levels in September and the labor market remained strong as jobless claims hit levels not seen since before 1970. Additionally, the tightening job market led to some wage pressure which also helped provide fuel for retail sales. Business optimism also saw improvement and helped the S&P 500 post a 2018 total return of 10.56% through September 30, 2018.

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Outside of the U.S., BREXIT-related uncertainty and softening Eurozone economic data provided a counter-current too strong to overcome for developed international equities. As a result, they fared poorly during the first three quarters of 2018 along with emerging market equities which continued their 2018 struggle amidst questions about growth in China, the effect of tighter monetary policy action in the U.S., and global trade tensions.

By the fourth quarter, however, it was the Fed and comments from Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell that began to shake investor confidence. In a statement early in the fourth quarter, Chairman Powell implied that interest rates were still not near neutral and provided investors with a big concern – that the Fed would not cease raising rates despite a deceleration in economic activity domestically and abroad. Add to that the continued overhang of weakening Chinese growth and potential trade war, and suddenly equity markets found themselves primed for a bout of volatility during the month of October that investors had not seen in years.

October saw major markets led lower by the technology sector which began to retreat following a very strong first half of the year. By the end of October, the S&P 500, NASDAQ, and MSCI All Country World Index had posted total returns of 3.0%, 6.73%, and -3.53% for the year, respectively. November provided a bit of relief for investors after the Fed tempered hawkish statements made in October. However, the reprieve was only temporary as December provided investors with the worst December seen since the Great Depression. When it was all said and done, 2018 saw the S&P 500, NASDAQ, MSCI All Country World Index, and MSCI Emerging Markets Index posted total returns of  -4.39%, -2.81%,         -8.94%, and -14.45%, respectively.

In the Fixed Income market, we saw a big swing in market sentiment during 2018. January featured concerns about an overheating economy but by December investors were worried about a slowdown in global growth. Pressured by the Fed’s rate hikes, the broad U.S. bond market (represented by the Bloomberg Barclays US Aggregate Bond Index) delivered negative total returns for almost the entirety of 2018. Additionally, the U.S. bond market saw its share of volatility with a maximum drawdown of -3.0% in May. In December, a flight-to-quality in response to equity market turmoil helped drive an exceptionally strong rally in U.S. Treasuries and other high-quality bonds and helped the US Aggregate Bond Index recoup the year’s losses by the close of trading on the last day of the year.

2019 Investment Themes

As we look ahead to 2019, we want to highlight key themes that we believe investors should keep in mind as they consider portfolio positioning.

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First, we believe volatility is here to stay. Higher volatility was widely underestimated by investors in 2018 despite the powerful combination of rising interest rates, unwinding of the Fed’s balance sheet, and increases in Treasury issuances that took massive amounts of liquidity out of the financial system. These forces not only increased volatility but also put pressure on the price of risk assets. As we look ahead, we expect market volatility to continue as many of these forces remain and could be magnified by great uncertainty around trade negotiations and Brexit.

Second, investors should remember the old adage that it is time in the market, not timing the market. History has repeatedly shown that sticking to a well-designed long-term plan that avoids emotional overreactions to poor short-term market performance are critical for investment success. As an example, had you stayed invested in the S&P 500 index over the last 20 years (1999-2018), $100,000 invested would today be worth nearly $300,000, a reasonable return given the 2000 tech bubble and 2008 financial crisis. Had that same investor missed the 5 best-performing days during that span, the gain would be cut in half, and his or her portfolio would have had an ending value of approximately $200,000. Following that thought, if the 10 best-performing days had been missed, the gain would have been cut in half again and the portfolio would have an ending value of only $150,000. To further drive home the point, if the 25 best-performing days had been missed, the investment would have resulted in a loss. Historically, days showing the best-performance and worst-performance have been clustered together. Thus, a pullback in the market following a turbulent time could cause an investor without a well-defined discipline to miss the subsequent recovery, thus making a temporary loss more permanent.

Third, it will be important to build resilience into portfolios. Since volatility is expected to stay elevated, it is prudent to consider strategically de-risking portfolios to have some downside protection. There are two ways to de-risk: if investors are bearish, they should raise cash from equities; but if investors are less certain of the market direction, the right strategy is to build more resilience into the portfolio by gearing down portfolio risk incrementally while keeping upside participation. Examples include but are not limited to moving from high-beta stocks to minimum volatility stocks, increasing exposure to high quality and defensive stocks, and improving credit quality and extending duration of the bond allocation. Most importantly, investors would be wise to embrace a well-diversified portfolio and avoid holding concentrated positions. It is worth noting that a large number of positions is not necessary to make a portfolio diversified. Instead, diversification can be achieved during the portfolio construction process aimed at getting broad exposure to multiple, less correlated and sometimes uncorrelated, sources of return which can help a portfolio navigate various market conditions. Counterintuitively, true diversification requires owning some investments that make us uncomfortable because of recent underperformance. A good rule of thumb is that if you feel really good about every single investment you hold, it is quite likely that your portfolio is not diversified enough.

Fourth, make sure your cash works hard for you, but be careful your cash doesn’t work too hard. Short-term interest rates finally beat inflation after literally yielding nothing for the past decade. As a result, there are ample cash management strategies that can generate attractive returns while taking on minimum amounts of risk. This begs the question, why hold cash in saving accounts earning close to zero when you could allocate to something low on the risk spectrum like short-term treasuries and get an incremental return? Of course, it is important to remember that raising too much cash from equity allocations for this purpose can be detrimental to achieving long-term investment goals even if it often feels good in the moment. In this scenario, not only are return premiums offered by risk assets forfeited, but the power of compounding is also surrendered. Worse still, is that it also exposes investors to longevity risk, a situation that occurs when retirees outlive their assets. Therefore, short-term market risks and long-term longevity risks must be carefully balanced.   

Lastly, investors should watch for factors that can extend the bull market. Staying invested is not tantamount to “buy and hold”. Ever-evolving market dynamics require a disciplined tactical strategy that can help limit losses while taking advantage of opportunities when they emerge. We believe that 2019 could feature several factors that help determine market direction. They deserve close monitoring, so that appropriate tactical adjustments to portfolios can be made.

We believe some factors that could drive market direction this year include:


Macroeconomic Outlook

Macroeconomic analysis lays the foundation for projecting an assets’ future performance. It is well recognized that different asset classes respond differently to various economic drivers. To manage portfolios, we focus on five important economic factors: economic growth, inflation, interest rate, monetary policy, and fiscal policy. Because global economies and financial markets are increasingly interconnected, using these factors helps us derive a holistic view of the economic environment domestically and abroad.

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Economic growth: We expect a synchronized slowdown in global growth in 2019. That said, we expect the global economic expansion to continue, albeit at a slower pace. While we see a slowly increasing probability of economic recession (generally defined as negative GDP growth in two successive quarters), an imminent recession is not our base case scenario in 2019.

The U.S. economy is likely in the late-cycle phase with robust domestic growth set to decelerate as a tight labor market and fading federal stimulus weigh on year-over-year growth. On the other hand, long-term growth in the U.S. is likely to stabilize at a higher level than other developed economies, which could justify a price premium and higher valuation multiples on U.S. assets.

Outside the U.S., we anticipate slower growth in Europe as the region is pressured by Brexit, rising populism, and tightening of monetary policy. The Chinese economy will be challenged by the tariff dispute with the U.S., but we expect only a mild slowdown in the Chinese economy as the government focuses on supporting its economy with ample fiscal and monetary support. This, however, will slow the deleveraging of its mounting debt and increase the risk of financial instability longer term.

The slowdown from peak growth in 2017 is not all bad. The moderate pace of growth might help extend the longevity of the current business cycle which is already among the longest economic expansions in U.S. history going back to 1854. In fact, the current cycle ranks second in length, only behind the expansion that occurred from March 1991 to March 2001 (120 months). 

Inflation: An overheating economy and associated Inflation pressures are common in the late phases of a business cycle. In most cases, inflation forces the Federal Reserve to enact aggressive monetary policy in an effort to cool the economy. Although the Fed has historically attempted to engineer a loft landing, it often over-tightens financial conditions, which can then become the catalyst for recession. Moreover, the fear of an overshoot in inflation can decrease the value of both stocks and bonds in a well-diversified portfolio, as the appropriate discount rate is forced higher.

We expect a stable inflation rate at or slightly above 2%. This is in line with the Fed’s 2019 target.  Inflation expectations are not higher at present because long-term deflationary forces such as an aging population, technology, and globalization help offset cyclical inflationary factors such as a tight labor market and fiscal stimulus. These modest inflation pressures should allow the Fed to take a patient and gradual approach to interest rate normalization, and increases the likelihood that the U.S. economy experiences a soft-landing or shallow recession rather than a deep contraction.

The inflation outlook in Europe and Japan remains a key indicator as it sets the pace for central bankers to remove ultra-accommodative monetary policy and has enormous implications for global liquidity, asset prices, and strength of the US dollar. Steady and decreasing inflation in emerging market countries should give policymakers room to cut interest rates to support economic growth.

Interest rates: The rate hiking path is less certain in 2019 than it was at the start of 2018. The Federal Reserve stands to become more data dependent, rather than following a predefined path as the policy rate approaches neutral, the level at which monetary policy neither stimulates nor restricts growth. The Fed has dual policy mandates: to maximize employment and generate price stability. However, an obvious divergence between an extremely tight labor market and moderate inflation readings has emerged. As such, the Fed will be faced with tough choices as it makes monetary policy decisions and determines how hard is appropriate as it hits the brakes on the U.S. economy. We believe it is prudent for the Fed to stay more dovish in 2019, given moderating economic growth and the vulnerability global debt has to a spike in borrowing costs. That said, we expect one rate hike in June and another hike in the second half of 2019. The 10-year Treasury should stabilize in a range between 2.75% and 3.25%, which would benefit rate sensitive sectors such as housing. A stable U.S. interest rate should also prevent the U.S. dollar from strengthening, which would be good news for commodity producers and emerging market assets. 

Monetary policy: We believe the Fed will continue hiking interest rates as long as the job market remains solid and inflation stays on target in 2019. However, even with moderate inflation pressure, we have had years of robust GDP and job growth.  This should allow the Fed to slow the pace of tightening and potentially take a pause after a couple of rate hikes between now and the end of 2019. Make no mistake, however, the Fed (and we) would like to see higher interest rates, as long as they are supported by economic and financial conditions. This would give the Central Bank more fire power to boost the economy when the next recession arrives.    

The unwinding of the Fed’s balance sheet is currently running on autopilot and should continue as long as the U.S. continues expanding in a healthy manner. Should the U.S. economy experience a meaningful slowdown, we expect the Fed to pause or even reverse its balance sheet program in an effort to inject liquidity back into the economy.

Fiscal policy: During 2018 we witnessed divergent global growth where a strong U.S. economy met disappointment across the rest of the world. Robust domestic growth was largely fueled by tax reform and fiscal spending, which is expected to fade during the second half of 2019. As result, we expect the U.S. economy to gradually slow and converge with the slowdown seen in other parts of the world.

Fiscal stimulus is temporary by nature and less effective when the economy is growing at full capacity. Corporate America used most of its tax savings to repurchase shares, rather than invest for the future. Expanded fiscal spending has largely been financed by Treasury issuance, which competes with the private sector for capital. An increasing fiscal deficit is not an immediate concern but may constrain the willingness and ability of the government to step in and help the economy recover from the next recession.      

Capital Markets Outlook

With 2018 behind us, it is apparent that a higher volatility market regime has taken hold of capital markets as we predicted could occur in our last Capital Markets Outlook.

Read More

Looking ahead, we are led to believe this is not a short-term shift. Instead, we expect increased volatility to remain with us for the remainder of 2019 as quantitative tightening continues in the US and trade tensions remain unresolved. Additionally, while earnings remain positive as we write this report, a falloff in earnings growth could lead investors to fret. As we have mentioned in previous reports, volatility does have a silver lining – it is likely to provide more opportunities for disciplined investors to find attractive entry points for financial assets, particularly as return dispersion between securities increases. For the balance of 2019, we expect return dispersion to increase. As a result, it is important to be selective and patient as the best opportunities are likely to require time to play out.  

It is our view that short term, market direction will be driven by the outcomes in three key areas: fourth quarter earnings results, forward guidance, and progress on trade negotiations with China. We believe the temporary reopening of the government until February 15 and threat of another shutdown on that date, is merely noise that should not drive longer-term investment decisions. It is for this reason that in the short-term investors must remain disciplined and fact driven, rather than headline driven, as not doing so could imperil meeting longer-term goals and objectives. In the intermediate term, diversified exposure between domestic, international, and emerging markets remains prudent. However, we believe exposure between those geographies should not be equal. Instead, we favor domestic and emerging market equities.  Developed international equities at present face several challenges, both economic and political, which could make relative returns compared to domestic and emerging markets less attractive in the intermediate term. Longer-term we believe emerging markets will present one of the better investment opportunities we have seen in some time. However, with higher volatility that we expect going forward, preserving capital at this stage in the market cycle will best position investors to fully take advantage of this opportunity. Moreover, we caution that investors in emerging markets will be required to accept higher volatility in exchange for the higher return potential we believe exists. Because of this, tactical management will continue to be of great importance both to control downside risk and preserve capital. A sound tactical approach should help investors increase or decrease exposure to emerging markets when macroeconomic and technical signals inflect.

Domestic Stocks: Entering 2018, we correctly took a constructive, yet cautious, view of the domestic equity market despite elevated valuations. We noted strong and improving economic fundamentals as well as favorable tax policy changes that would overwhelmingly benefit corporate America. As we entered the second half of the year, we became more cautious as we saw signs earnings had peaked, valuations were stretched across most equity sectors, price support from stock buybacks gradually dissipated, and corporate insiders began selling increasing amounts of stock. As we observe the domestic equity market today, we believe it remains an attractive place to allocate long-term capital. Volatility at the end of 2018 helped reset valuations to more reasonable levels and reacquainted investors with more normal volatility levels commonly seen in domestic equities throughout history. However, we do believe investors will have to be discerning in selecting their exposures and allocations as some sectors will be better positioned than others. We believe there exists the prospect for positive developments on the trade front that could provide a boost to domestic stocks more broadly speaking. However, going forward it is far more important that earnings remain on an upward trajectory, especially in the face of higher interest rates. Despite our modestly favorable view of domestic equities it remains important to focus on downside risks. Chief among them are the potential for an earnings recession and earnings guidance to fall short of expectations. Should these outcomes occur, we would expect domestic stocks to struggle to find new highs.

Developed International Stocks excluding the US: Developed international equities had a very difficult 2018 as deteriorating economic results and political uncertainties in several countries led to a prolonged drawdown through the majority of the year. While monetary policy in developed international markets like Europe and Japan remains accommodative, developed international equities could struggle to perform better than both domestic and/or emerging market equities. Especially, if BREXIT negotiations drag on without resolution and economic conditions across the Eurozone continue to deteriorate.  In fact, even with the forward P/E on the MSCI All Country World Index ex-US at approximately 13x, we think political risks in developed international markets are potentially underappreciated, and believe the geographic region is inexpensive for a reason. The result is that we see the capital appreciation potential for developed international stocks excluding the US likely to be limited in the first half of 2019.

Emerging Market Stocks:  US dollar strength, an economic slowdown in China, and ongoing trade disputes overwhelmed emerging market equities in 2018. The MSCI Emerging Market Index was down double digits and left many investors wanting to eliminate exposure from portfolios entirely. However, we believe that doing so at this juncture is an error. We see at least three major catalysts that could push broad emerging markets higher. First, improvement in the Chinese economy, which is in the middle of its own stimulus push, could lend a considerable tailwind to emerging markets, especially emerging market Asia which is closely tied to Chinese economic performance. Second, a weaker dollar should it emerge could provide a big boost to emerging market equities. Last, a pickup in earnings growth momentum could propel emerging market stocks higher as investors take note of the more robust earnings opportunity in these markets relative to other geographies. That said, we believe that even if these things don’t occur, there are likely to be pockets of tremendous opportunity at the country or region level. In fact, we give more credence to the idea that return dispersion within emerging markets is likely to be great in 2019 and an active approach that can identify nuances between geographies and control for volatility best positions investors to capitalize on the emerging market opportunity we see ahead.

Fixed Income: Fixed income starts 2019 from a much better place than it started 2018 with the 3-month Treasury bill yielding 2.35% compared to only 1.38% in 2018 and the 10-year Treasury bond yielding 2.68% today compared to 2.41% last year. Because bond yields have historically correlated with future returns, we expect a positive but modest return from fixed income in the next few years.

That said, fixed Income likely faces fewer headwinds this year than last. The path of the Fed’s rate hikes is expected to be slower than last year. Global growth is moderating, especially in Europe which may delay the normalization of monetary policy by the European Central Bank and provide a tailwind for bonds. Inflation pressures remain under control thanks in part to soft commodity prices, softening real estate, and the fading effect of U.S. fiscal stimulus.

With better yields, moderate interest risks, and the need to hedge equity risk lead us to believe that core fixed income composed of high-quality bonds should play a bigger role in portfolio construction going forward. At the same time, we urge caution on corporate bonds as rising leverage across industries, profit margin pressures, and slower growth add risk. However, this risk is not imminent. Most companies have taken advantage of low interest rates to extend debt maturities. Therefore, they don’t need to refinance a large portion of their balance sheet in near term. We are also cautious on state and local government debt where large unfunded pension liabilities are a concern. While recession is not our base case for 2019, we are moving to improve the credit quality of our corporate and municipal bond portfolio. We believe this is prudent and required to protect principal, even if it means that we give up some yield and current income in the shorter-term.

The growth of federal deficits and other liabilities is our biggest long-term concern. National debt has been growing faster than GDP. While we don’t believe we are at crisis levels, we believe investors should closely monitor developments on this front.

Alternatives: The volatility we experienced in equity and fixed income markets at the tail end of 2018, was a valuable reminder that alternative investments are likely to play an increasingly important role in portfolios. As a reminder, alternative investments can provide a differentiated source of return for portfolios and are worth including as part of an overall allocation. This is especially true in periods when stock and bond correlations increase, thus reducing the hedging benefits usually associated with bonds. Since they provide a source of less correlated returns, alternative investments can be an attractive portfolio compliment. While they tend to lag the broad market during bull markets, they can outperform when the market is in turmoil. As we approach later phases of the business cycle, demand for these assets may increase. As a matter of portfolio construction, including some exposure to these assets has been shown over time to lower the volatility of a portfolio without sacrificing the opportunity to participate in the upside. We expect that to continue as we make our way through 2019.

In Conclusion

STA Wealth Management is committed to bringing our clients the best financial planning and investment advice in the industry. 

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We encourage you to visit our website www.stawealth.com for more information about how we may be able to serve you and new commentary expressing our views on timely financial planning and investment management topics. STA Money Hour airs daily from 12-1PM Monday through Friday on AM 950 KPRC.

You can also stream STA Money Hour from your smart phone by downloading the iHeartRADIO App.

I would ask that if you have any feedback regarding this private client report and/or have any questions that we may be able to assist you with, please email me at luke@stawealth.com.  I will respond to each email, and I thank you in advance.

Luke Patterson
CEO and Chief Investment Officer
STA Wealth Management

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Event Date:  February 26, 2019

To attend, click link to Register Now

If you are a business owner or executive that is looking to learn how to maximize import/export trade in today’s global markets, this event is for you.  STA is proud to co-sponsor this event and breakfast discussion where a panel of trade experts will further explore the current trends and opportunities happening globally and ideas to optimize your global trade business activity.

Important Disclosure:

Please remember that past performance may not be indicative of future results.  Different types of investments involve varying degrees of risk, and there can be no assurance that the future performance of any specific investment, investment strategy, or product (including the investments and/or investment strategies recommended or undertaken by STA Wealth Management, LLC (“STA”), or any non-investment related content, made reference to directly or indirectly in this article / newsletter will be profitable, equal any corresponding indicated historical performance level(s), be suitable for your portfolio or individual situation, or prove successful.  Due to various factors, including changing market conditions and/or applicable laws, the content may no longer be reflective of current opinions or positions. Moreover, you should not assume that any discussion or information contained in this article / newsletter serves as the receipt of, or as a substitute for, personalized investment advice from STA.  To the extent that a reader has any questions regarding the applicability of any specific issue discussed above to his/her individual situation, he/she is encouraged to consult with the professional advisor of his/her choosing.  STA is neither a law firm nor a certified public accounting firm and no portion of the article / newsletter content should be construed as legal or accounting advice.  A copy of the STA’s current written disclosure Brochure discussing our advisory services and fees is available upon request. Please Note: If you are a STA client, please remember to contact STA, in writing, if there are any changes in your personal/financial situation or investment objectives for the purpose of reviewing/evaluating/revising our previous recommendations and/or services, or if you would like to impose, add, or to modify any reasonable restrictions to our investment advisory services. STA shall continue to rely on the accuracy of information that you have provided.

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