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   Brian Wesbury
Chief Economist
 
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   Bob Stein
Deputy Chief Economist
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  Industrial Production Increased 0.9% in May
Posted Under: Data Watch • Industrial Production - Cap Utilization
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Implications:  Industrial production surprised to the upside in May, due to gains in every major category, matching the largest overall monthly gain since early 2023.  Manufacturing was the biggest positive contributor, rising 0.9%.  Looking at the details, auto production rose 0.6% while non-auto manufacturing (which we think of as a “core” version of industrial production) posted a gain of 0.9% in May. One bright spot recently in manufacturing has been the production of high-tech equipment, which is up 8.2% in the past year, the strongest growth of any major category, likely the result of investment in AI as well as the reshoring of semiconductor production. That said, activity here has begun to slow recently, with May posting a gain of just 0.1%. This signals that the initial burst of activity due to the CHIPS Act may finally be wearing off.  The mining sector was also a tailwind in May, with activity increasing 0.3%.  Gains in the production of oil and gas more than offset a slowdown in the drilling of new wells.  Finally, the utilities sector (which is volatile and largely dependent on weather) was also a source of strength in May, rising 1.7%.  In other news this morning, the Empire State Index, a measure of New York factory sentiment, rose to a still weak reading of -6.0 in June from -15.6 in May.

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Posted on Tuesday, June 18, 2024 @ 10:21 AM • Post Link Print this post Printer Friendly
  Retail Sales Rose 0.1% in May
Posted Under: Data Watch • Government • Inflation • Markets • Retail Sales • Fed Reserve • Interest Rates
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Implications:  Another weak report on the US consumer today with retail sales lagging consensus expectations for the second straight month while prior months were revised lower.  Factoring in revisions, retail sales declined 0.3% in May versus a consensus expected gain of 0.3%.  Sales are down at a 0.1% annualized rate through the first five months of 2024, a sign that US consumers are finally starting to bend under the strain of higher borrowing costs after depleting their artificial stimulus saved up during the COVID years.  Looking at the details, eight out of thirteen major categories rose in May, led by 0.8% monthly increases for autos and nonstore retailers (think internet and mail-order).  That was partially offset by a pullback in sales at gas stations as gasoline prices fell.  Stripping out gas along with the often-volatile categories for autos and building materials, “core” sales rose 0.2% but were unchanged after factoring in downward revisions to previous months. Core sales – which are crucial for estimating GDP – look to be softening of late, up at just a 0.1% annualized rate through the first five months of 2024.  Moreover, sales at restaurants and bars – the only glimpse we get at services in the retail sales report – declined 0.4% in May and has been notably weakening this year: down at a 2.3% annualized rate through the first five months of 2024.  We will be watching this category closely in the months to come as services spending was a lifeline for the US economy in 2023.  Finally, it's important to remember that a key driver of overall spending has been inflation.  While overall retail sales are up 2.3% in the last year, that is no longer keeping up with the pace of inflation; “real” (inflation-adjusted) retail sales are down 0.9% in the last year and have remained stagnant for three years after peaking in April 2021.  It has been 40 years since the US had an inflation problem, so investors should be aware that it can distort data.  Our view remains that the tightening in monetary policy since 2022 will eventually weaken the US economy.

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Posted on Tuesday, June 18, 2024 @ 10:12 AM • Post Link Print this post Printer Friendly
  Replacing Taxes With Tariffs
Posted Under: GDP • Government • Markets • Monday Morning Outlook • Trade • Fed Reserve • Spending • Taxes • Bonds • Stocks

Last week, Donald Trump proposed replacing the income tax with a tariff on imports.  Washington DC let out a loud, and collective, scoff.  The average American was intrigued.  More on this in a few…but to be clear, the idea as it stands won’t work in our current system.  The US cannot replace income tax revenues without sky-high tariffs, and sky-high tariffs would shut down world trade.  Remember…much lower Smoot-Hawley tariffs in 1930 helped kick off the Great Depression.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use this as a starting point for discussion.  Have you followed Elon Musk and SpaceX?  Specifically, the Starship, which just had its fourth launch?  Well, what we are witnessing is the process of iterative development.  Each launch has gone further and had more success.  Henry Ford did the same thing with the automobile and assembly lines.

This process of iterative learning, which is prevalent in the private sector, seems non-existent in government.  To use an example that writer Glenn Harlan Reynolds shared in a recent Substack post: Ad Astra, Per Ardua, the Space Shuttle was supposed to be reusable, but it never truly was – it cost over $1 billion per flight.  Musk, on the other hand, by figuring out how to re-use boosters has driven the cost per flight down to the range of $3-5 million.

The cost to put a kilogram of payload in space was $55,000 in the Shuttle but is only $2,700 in a SpaceX Falcon 9, a 20-fold reduction.  And this cost will keep coming down.  It’s an amazing thing to watch, how the private sector can simply crush government in efficiency and progress.

Which takes us back to Donald Trump’s proposal to scrap the income tax and replace it with tariffs on imports.  If you look at this proposal like the permanent fixtures of the Beltway do, it’s absolutely ludicrous.  Paul Krugman (on X) couldn’t resist running all the numbers, showing how the tariff would have to rise to 133%, or higher, to raise the same revenue.

At least he admitted that in the 1800s the US funded itself with tariffs and excise taxes, but that was when the federal government was significantly smaller.  Instead of wondering if we could run the government like SpaceX, and not NASA, he just said anyone who thinks we can shrink government that much is just plain “ignorant.”  For the record, calling people ignorant is not proving them wrong.  It is rude, though.

Krugman comes from the left, but even those on the right said Trump’s idea was crazy.  Most used the same logic as Krugman.  Inside the Beltway, the only way to look at anything is to use static scoring models, and very little imagination.  Social Security can’t be imagined anew, bureaucracies are entrenched and have decades of momentum.  They have no incentive to become more productive or to learn iteratively.  Doing so means fewer jobs and smaller budgets.  There is no profit incentive at all…government cannot possibly think like the private sector, even though it should.

At least Donald Trump is thinking outside the Beltway Box.  The pundits are right, taxing just imports would increase the deficit “hugely” to use his word.  We have no idea if that’s what he was thinking.  We doubt it, but it takes an idea to lead to iterative thinking.  Science fiction writer, Steve Stirling, wrote about Starship: “That's what iterative development does; you don't try to make it perfect the first time.  You make it 'good enough for a first try', push it until it breaks, fix what broke, try again, and again and again... until it works all the way.”

One could argue that government keeps trying to iteratively learn.  But Great Society programs have led to several generations of welfare and apparently permanent poverty.  Programs to fix inequality led to more of it, public schools (especially in inner cities) have failed, Social Security will run out of money in 2033, the Federal Reserve has a $1 trillion loss on its books and has to borrow money to make payroll.  The government is so big that even Sports Illustrated, ESPN, and the Weather Channel can’t help but talk about politics.

The problems the US has today are no different than the problems the US had in the 1960s or the 1930s.  One could actually argue that they are worse even though government has grown and grown.  So, this proposal by Donald Trump is a breath of fresh air.  Instead of immediately declaring it dead-on-arrival, why don’t we take this opportunity to discuss the size of government, and how we pay for it.

We know it’s more comfortable for the Beltway crowd to just move on…don’t rock the boat…analyze the same things the same way as always.  We, on the other hand, are going to take this opportunity to grab this idea by the horns and discuss it in the context of history, and the current state of affairs in the US.

The Founders did not have an income tax to fund government, that wasn’t instituted until 1913.  What they could do was use excise (sales) taxes and tariffs.  In the 19th century, actually up through 1930, the peacetime government spent less than 3% of GDP.  Today, federal spending is roughly 23% of GDP, while state and local governments spend about 14% of GDP on goods and services.  Add in the cost of complying with government rules and regulations and we estimate the government either spends, or directs to be spent, roughly 50% of our annual output.

The private sector can’t afford it…that’s why federal deficits alone are running nearly $1.7 trillion per year, with no end in sight.  State debt and unfunded pension liabilities have also grown exponentially.  Clearly something is broken, but bureaucrats, lobbyists, politicians, and think tank employees go to work every day and color inside the lines.  Every once in a while someone comes up with a new idea, which immediately gets crushed by vested interests.

A couple of things.  It is clear China has used existing tariffs and global trade to dominate markets in all kinds of areas.  The US would have a tough time, today, producing all the pharmaceuticals, ammunition, batteries, and many other items it needs without trade.  We believe trade is a positive for economic growth; we are free traders.  However, we are also realists that understand not all our trading partners have our best interests at heart.  Counting on imports for our national security is a risk that few talk about.

Second, roughly 40% of Americans don’t pay income taxes.  The income tax system has become so progressive that 97.7% of the taxes are paid by the top 50% of income earners.  In other words, half of America has no, or little, skin in the game when it comes to income taxes.  As a result, top tax rates (along with deductions, etc.) are likely higher than they would be if everyone paid the tax.  When there is no pain to you why care what others have to pay?  And to all those who say tax rates don’t matter, just look at all the people and businesses leaving California, Illinois, and New York.

A tariff is a tax on consumers because it will be passed on.  In other words, it’s a form of a consumption, or sales, tax.  Just about every state has one.  So, this idea to replace income taxes with tariffs is a step toward a consumption tax.  Some say this tax is regressive because low-income earners spend more of their income than high income earners.  But this can be dealt with and, don’t forget, high-income earners (or their heirs) eventually spend their savings and therefore pay consumption taxes in the future.  If everyone has to pay, then maybe voters will look differently at how government spends.

It seems clear that if we step back, look at the size of federal, state, and local government debts – the fact that after trillions in spending we have not really improved poverty, nor have we addressed the inefficiencies in government – the system is broken.  Maybe some kind of iterative process of change is the only way to break the cycle.  As a result, we think immediately scoffing at a new proposal is wrong.

We rarely write more than one page but found this idea to be so amazingly new that we couldn’t help it.  It is time for America to have a discussion about how much it spends and how it pays for it.  Maybe, just maybe, Donald Trump has started that discussion.  If so, we will be better for it.

Brian S. Wesbury – Chief Economist

Robert Stein, CFA – Deputy Chief Economist

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Posted on Monday, June 17, 2024 @ 12:57 PM • Post Link Print this post Printer Friendly
  Three on Thursday 6-13
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In today’s Three on Thursday, we look at the auto sector in the United States. Auto sales in the U.S. are an important driver of economic activity, influencing various sectors from manufacturing to retail.
Robust auto sales often indicate a healthy economy, as they reflect consumer confidence and spending power. 

Click here to view the report

Posted on Thursday, June 13, 2024 @ 1:57 PM • Post Link Print this post Printer Friendly
  The Producer Price Index (PPI) Declined 0.2% in May
Posted Under: Data Watch • Government • Inflation • Markets • PPI • Fed Reserve • Interest Rates
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Implications:   Producer prices fell in May at the fastest pace in more than six months as energy costs led the decline.  Following an outsized increase in April, producer prices fell 0.2% in May, and have shown significant volatility in the month-to-month readings of late.  Through the first five months of the year, producer prices have seen three monthly readings at +0.4% or higher, and two outright declines.  Despite the drop in May, producer prices remain up 2.2% in the past twelve months, matching the highest reading in more than a year.  Trying to discern a trend in the current environment has proved difficult, leaving the Fed with a lack of confidence in where we go from here, hence the Fed’s downshift in rate cut expectation at yesterday’s meetings (for our takeaways on yesterday’s Fed statement, dot plots, and press conference, click here.) Diving into the May report shows goods costs led the index lower – most notably a 4.8% decline in energy costs – while service prices were unchanged.  Falling prices for gasoline (-7.1% in May) accounted for nearly 60% of the goods cost decline, while food prices (-0.1%) also fell.     Stripping out the typically volatile food and energy components shows “core” prices were unchanged in May and are up 2.3% in the past twelve months.  While that is a slight improvement from the 2.4% year-ago reading in April, core PPI readings have been moving in the wrong direction since breaking below 2% late last year (over the past six months, core producer prices are up 2.8% at an annualized rate).  Further back in the supply chain, prices in May fell 1.5% for intermediate demand processed goods and 1.8% for unprocessed goods. Further easing in inflation will come should the Fed have the patience to let tighter monetary policy do its work.  But inflation risks re-acceleration should the Fed falter and cut rates too quickly at signs of economic trouble.  In other news this morning, initial claims for unemployment insurance rose 13,000 to 242,000 last week, while continuing claims increased 30,000 to 1.820 million.  These figures are consistent with continued job growth in June but at a slower pace.

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Posted on Thursday, June 13, 2024 @ 11:21 AM • Post Link Print this post Printer Friendly
  Reality Check
Posted Under: Employment • GDP • Government • Inflation • Markets • Research Reports • Fed Reserve • Interest Rates • Bonds • Stocks
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Today, the Fed made it clear there’d be fewer rate cuts in 2024, most likely one or two, with a start more likely after the election than before.  Meanwhile, the Fed made a mess out of explaining its logic for their new path forward.     

The Fed’s statement was a virtual non-event, with only one notable wording change – a “lack of further progress” on inflation has become “modest further progress” – a nod to this morning’s CPI release

From there, things start to get a bit confusing. The committee’s economic projections showed no change in its expectations for GDP growth and the unemployment rate for year-end, and minimal change in the inflation outlook, yet the committee changed its expectation for the appropriate pace of rate cuts in 2024 from three down to one.  More confusing is that their forecasts for year-end readings on “core” inflation (which excludes the volatile food and energy components) and the unemployment rate – proxies for their dual mandate of price stability and maximum employment – reflect absolutely no change from current readings. You read that right, the Fed forecasts that “core” PCE inflation will end the year at the exact same twelve-month rate that we have witnessed through April, and the unemployment rate won’t rise or decline between now and the end of December. 

In other words, conditions today don’t warrant a rate cut, but if conditions don’t improve between now and year-end, the Fed will then have the confidence that it’s time to start cutting rates. Likewise, with little to no change in their forecasts for growth or inflation in 2025 and 2026, they have bumped up their expected pace of rate cuts in each year by one so, despite the slower pace of rate cuts in 2024, we see rates end in the exact same spot as previously forecast by the time we reach year-end 2026.

What would we take away from today’s report? The Fed is at a loss for why progress on inflation has stalled and where they will go from here. They believe they have done enough to bring inflation in check, but they aren’t seeing results. In our view, they have been following the wrong signals since the start; ignoring the growth in the M2 money supply in favor of blaming supply changes, which resulted in targeting a symptom rather than the disease. They flooded the system with excess reserves, muting their ability to manage economic activity through monetary policy and putting themselves in the awkward position of running large losses. They find themselves reacting to stubbornly high inflation they told us would be transitory, and constantly trying to explain away why their forecasts have been off base. Confidence is justifiably waning.

We do expect that the Fed will cut rates once later this year, likely after the elections, but we see cuts coming as economic weakness leads to higher unemployment and modest progress on inflation. The morphine is wearing off and the aftereffects of money printing, excessive and misguided spending from Washington, and companies getting a bit over their skis in terms of hiring will lead to a more turbulent back half of 2024.

Brian S. Wesbury – Chief Economist

Robert Stein, CFA – Deputy Chief Economist 

Click here for a PDF version

Posted on Wednesday, June 12, 2024 @ 4:27 PM • Post Link Print this post Printer Friendly
  The Consumer Price Index (CPI) was Unchanged in May
Posted Under: CPI • Data Watch • Government • Inflation • Markets • Fed Reserve • Interest Rates • Bonds • Stocks
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Implications:   Inflation came in softer than expected for the second straight month in May, but it’s still far too early before the Fed can declare victory.  Looking at the big picture, there was considerable progress against inflation from mid-2022 to mid-2023: consumer prices were up 9.1% in the year ending in June 2022 and then dropped rapidly back to 3.0% in the year ending in June 2023, leading many to believe the end of “temporary” pandemic inflation problems was in sight.  But since then, inflation has remained stubbornly above 3%, casting doubt on the Fed’s ability to cut rates in 2024.  Looking at the details of today’s report, May inflation was held down by energy prices, which declined 2.0% on the back of lower prices for gasoline (-3.6%).  Stripping out energy and its often-volatile counterpart (food), “core” prices also came in softer than expected, rising 0.2% and up 3.4% in the last twelve months.  Leading the increase in core prices was once again housing rents – both for actual tenants and the imputed rental value of owner-occupied homes – which continues to defy predictions of imminent reversal, rising 0.4% for the month and running close to or above a 5% annualized rate over three-, six-, and twelve-month timeframes.  Housing rents have been a key driver of inflation over the last couple years, a trend we expect to continue as they make up a third of the weighting in the overall index and still haven’t caught up with the rise in home prices in the past four years. Meanwhile, a subset category of prices the Fed has told investors to watch closely and is a useful gauge of inflation in the service sector – known as the “Supercore” – which excludes food, energy, other goods, and housing rents, was unchanged in May. That is the lowest reading since September 2021, a welcome sign for the Fed, as Supercore has showed no sign of abating since the Fed began hiking rates: up 4.8% in the last year and an even faster 5.5% annualized rate over the last six months. While the last two months of inflation data have been “good news” for the Fed, they have repeated they want full confidence that inflation is trending sustainably toward their 2.0% mandate. That likely means several months of cooler readings before they move toward the first rate cut.  Moving too soon before the job is done could determine whether we repeat the inflationary 1970s.

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Posted on Wednesday, June 12, 2024 @ 10:28 AM • Post Link Print this post Printer Friendly
  Spotlighting Inequality
Posted Under: Employment • Government • Inflation • Markets • Monday Morning Outlook • Fed Reserve • Interest Rates • Spending • Bonds • Stocks • COVID-19

With a Presidential election less than five months away, expect to hear a great deal of discussion about inequality: the gap between the rich, the poor, and the middle class.

It’s been a recurring theme of pretty much every presidential election starting in 1932, if not before.  What should the federal government itself do to address poverty, expand opportunities for the poor, and close the gap between the rich and poor?  It’s a potent political talking point, large parts of government spending, along with many agencies and programs, are designed to address it.  Inflation, immigration, record-high corporate profits, and soaring stock markets are in the spotlight.

Joe Biden proposes student loan debt forgiveness and caps on drug prices, while Donald Trump has said he will end the taxation of tip income for service workers.  These policies are focused on relieving financial burdens on specific groups. 

More importantly, if we look at the results of policies during COVID (massive monetary and fiscal stimulus), it is clear that those who own assets benefited, while those who do not, were harmed.  Those who had accumulated assets of various kinds – stocks, bonds, real estate, crypto,…etc. – have benefited from asset price inflation, particularly those whose jobs allowed them to work remotely.

This same inflation caused by the Federal Reserve hit lower income groups harder than everyone else.  It’s a given that those with fewer financial assets benefited less from price appreciation.  And while average hourly earnings did accelerate because of inflation…up 22.3% since February 2020, the consumer price index is up 20.8% during that same time frame.  But, food prices are up 25.3% and energy prices are up 35.6%, both of which make up a larger share of spending for lower income groups.  Airfare, by contrast, is down 1.2% over the same timeframe.  No matter how we look at it, living standards have at best stagnated for those with few assets and wage income.

Politicians have pushed for an increase in the minimum wage to try to help lower-income workers keep pace with inflation, but we doubt that’s helping.  For example, in California a recent law raised the minimum wage for restaurant workers to $20/hour versus $16/hour for other workers.

Overall unemployment remains low at 4.0%, up only 0.3 percentage points from a year ago. But that overall modest increase masks some large increases among younger workers.  Unemployment among 16-17 year-olds has soared to 13.6% from 9.7% a year ago.  Unemployment among 20-24 year-olds has risen to 7.9% versus 6.3% a year ago.  The kids are increasingly not alright in the current labor market.

And no matter how much time politicians spend talking about inequality, too small a share of it will be spent discussing the horrible long-term effects of COVID Lockdowns on learning, which caused a loss of accumulated skills during COVID itself but also the lingering effects of higher school absenteeism.

One way to address educational inequality is for states to continue to move in the direction of funding students rather than funding government-run schools.  After all, even in states with locked-down public schools, many private schools found a way to educate students in person.  Because most state governments fund schools and not students, those who could afford private schools avoided a good deal of the learning loss.

Meanwhile, lurking in the background, is the issue of the huge number of low-skilled workers coming across the border in the past few years.  Obviously, the people coming to the US will be able to earn more here than in their home countries.

But whether or not this immigration is overall “good” or “bad” for the US economy, low-skilled immigration almost certainly benefits higher-income natives, who, don’t have to compete in the labor market against newcomers, much more so than the low-income Americans, who often do have to compete.

The fact that all these problems became worse during COVID is ironic.  Many politicians believe the real source of inequality is capitalism itself, with America as the poster-child.  But in the US, during COVID, government (including the Fed) became bigger and more powerful than ever, while living standards stagnated for those who had not accumulated assets.

The real, and only proven, way to create less inequality is to allow free market capitalism to work.  Interfering in that process creates more problems than it solves.

Brian S. Wesbury – Chief Economist

Robert Stein, CFA – Deputy Chief Economist

Click here for a PDF version

Posted on Monday, June 10, 2024 @ 11:50 AM • Post Link Print this post Printer Friendly
  Nonfarm Payrolls Increased 272,000 in May
Posted Under: Data Watch • Employment • Government • Markets • Fed Reserve • Interest Rates • Bonds • Stocks
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Implications:  Even with blemishes, the job market is still too strong for the Fed.  First the good news.  Nonfarm payrolls rose 272,000 in May, easily beating the consensus expected 180,000.  Total hours worked rose 0.2% and are up 1.3% from a year ago.  Average hourly earnings increased 0.4% in May and are up 4.1% from a year ago, both beating inflation.  We like to follow payrolls excluding government (because it's not the private sector), education & health services (because it rises for structural and demographic reasons, and usually doesn’t decline even in recession years), and leisure & hospitality (which is still recovering from COVID Lockdowns).  That “core” measure of payrolls rose a respectable 101,000 in May, the second fastest pace in the past twelve months.  Now for the blemishes.  Civilian employment, an alternative measure of jobs that includes small-business start-ups, dropped 408,000 in May while the labor force (people who are either working or looking for work) declined 250,000.  As a result, the unemployment rate ticked up to 4.0%, the highest since January 2022.  The labor force participation rate (the share of adults in the labor force) declined to 62.5% and the employment rate (the share of adults who are working) declined to 60.1%.  Much has been written lately about whether the immigration surge at the border is behind solid continued payroll growth.  If so, you’d expect job growth in the payroll survey to beat the growth of civilian employment (which is based on a survey of households that probably fails to measure illegal immigrants).  That’s consistent with both May and the past year, as payrolls have grown 2.8 million while the employment measure is up only about 400,000.  Even using the civilian employment figures the foreign-born share of the workforce is now 19.2% versus 16.6% a decade ago.  The alternative reason for the general trend of slower employment growth is that this is what sometimes happens when the economy is at a turning point toward a recession.  We continue to believe the year ahead will be weaker than the past couple of years.

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Posted on Friday, June 7, 2024 @ 10:49 AM • Post Link Print this post Printer Friendly
  Three on Thursday - Keep Politics Out Of Investing
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The election year is in full swing, bringing with it the usual drama. In today’s Three on Thursday, we examine past presidential cycles and their implications for investing. Amid all the drama and political uncertainty with an election right around the corner, what does this mean for the markets moving forward? 

Click here to view the report 

Posted on Thursday, June 6, 2024 @ 1:54 PM • Post Link Print this post Printer Friendly

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