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Independent Investor: Europe's Banking Crisis
By: Bill Schmick On: 09:21PM / Thursday August 18, 2011
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Investors are selling first and waiting for the facts later. Few can blame them given their experience in 2008-2009. Investors in the stock market sustained huge losses by naively believing that the financial sector and the government were in control of that crisis. This time around, no one believes anything they say.

The problem is compounded by the fact that this financial crisis is located in Europe where different rules apply, where the political and financial systems are different and where even the time zones play a part. Wednesday's panicked selloff was largely a result of a front-page story in the Wall Street Journal that revealed that the Federal Reserve Bank is scrutinizing the U.S. subsidiaries of all the European banks.

The Fed is worried that Europe's banks, faced with a dwindling supply of cash to pay off loans and remain solvent, are emptying the cash coffers of their U.S. operations. The latest Fed data, according to the WSJ, indicated that over the last three weeks, the cash reserves of these American subsidiaries have declined by 16 percent.

There was also a mention that one European bank borrowed $500 million in a one week loan from the European Central Bank at a higher interest rate than could be borrowed from fellow lenders at a cheaper rate. Investors sold first, assuming that, in at least this one case, some European bank was in deep financial trouble and where there is smoke there is usually fire. The facts do not support that conclusion — at this time. European banks still have massive reserves here, as much as $600 billion or more.

"At this time" is key because Friday the facts could change and during our financial crisis the facts did change, to our detriment, quite often. Because of our recent past, investors have no faith in either government's or the banking community's ability to solve our economic or financial problems. We have even less faith (if that's possible) in the European Union. Some of that disbelief is warranted. After all, the EU is an economic, not a political union. Given that there has never been a successful union that did not incorporate both politics and economy, the Achilles Heal of Europe is now surfacing.

This week the Europeans tried several initiatives that disappointed investors. First, several European nations announced new rules to prevent short selling of their banking stocks. The U.S. did the same thing during our financial crisis which proved to be both short-lived and completely ineffective. Within three days those same banking stocks were down 10 percent or more as investors simply found new ways to sell those stocks.

A meeting between Germany and France on Tuesday had the markets hoping that the two power houses of Europe would announce new, sweeping initiatives that might finally come to grips with the spreading European crisis. Instead, Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy proposed that Euro-zone leaders should meet more often and recommended appointing a new Euro-zone chief, but didn't say what kind of power they would have in dictating EU policy. Big deal!

Remember the $157 billion Greek bailout that was supposed to be signed, sealed and delivered? Well, not quite; it appears several nations want cash-strapped Greece to provide cash as collateral in exchange for their participation in the bailout loan. It seems a growing swell of anti-bailout sentiment is rising in an increasing number of countries.

Coupled with these disappointing developments, Germany's most recent GDP second-quarter data indicated annualized growth has slowed to 0.05 percent. That punctured any hope that Germany, whose economy was considered the locomotive of Europe, would continue to support overall growth of the 17 Euro nations. Add a banking crisis, coupled with a deep distrust of existing authority, the increasing fear of a double-dip recession and the lack of political unity equals a continued wave of panic selling.

What could turn this around? A once and for all comprehensive plan by Europe to solve their burgeoning debt crisis might be the answer. But can that be done without addressing the "Elephant in the Room," i.e., political unity? Probably not, if a politically-divided U.S. Congress can't come to an agreement on our economic issues, how hard will it be for the EU to do the same?

Bill Schmick is an independent investor with Berkshire Money Management. (See "About" for more information.) None of the information presented in any of these articles is intended to be and should not be construed as an endorsement of BMM or a solicitation to become a client of BMM. The reader should not assume that any strategies, or specific investments discussed are employed, bought, sold or held by BMM. Direct your inquiries to Bill at (toll free) or e-mail him at wschmick@fairpoint.net . Visit www.afewdollarsmore.com for more of Bill's insights.



Tags: Greece, bailout, Europe, banking crisis      
@theMarket: One Down, One to Go
By: Bill Schmick On: 01:26PM / Saturday July 23, 2011
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On Friday, the European Union announced a new $157 billion bailout plan for Greece. The scope of the plan went much further than most investors expected. It promised to finance all countries that need bailouts for as long as it takes for them to recover. There's more.

I refer to the new plan as the "Full Monty" (see my column "Europe Goes the Full Monty") because it is the first time in the 18-month long crisis that European leaders were willing to draft a comprehensive approach to the financial crisis among the PIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain).  The plan will be proactive in heading off any further financial contagion among its members while fencing in those that already are in trouble (Portugal, Ireland and Greece).

The deal does allow for a "selective default" in Greece, where some but not all of its debt will be written off or renegotiated at lower terms and lengthened maturities. The plan does not go as far as I might have wished but in the real world of European politics it appears the best that they could do. In my opinion, the crisis appears, if not over, to be at least contained for now.

That crisis is one of two large clouds that have been hanging over the markets for months. The other bailout issue is in our own backyard. And, as I suspected, our elected representatives are stretching out the tension as long as they can. Both sides are glorying in their extra media attention, using their 10-15 seconds of sound-bite glory to appear concerned, tough and "on your side" (while raising as much additional campaign funds as possible for next year's elections).

Here are a summary of client questions and my answers this week on this on-going travesty:

"Will the debt ceiling be raised by the August 2 deadline?”

I'm betting yes, but that still leaves 11 days of volatility in the bond and stock markets.

"What will happen after the deadline, if the ceiling isn't raised?"

As I wrote last week, the markets will decline in the short term, presenting a buying opportunity for anyone brave enough to venture into equities.

"Will the Gang of Six deficit-reduction plan be passed?"

I suspect some version of that plan will be passed but the question is when. The Republicans want to prevent any legislation that might improve the economy or reduce unemployment until after next year's elections. They hope voter frustration over the economy will propel their party's candidates into office and defeat a re-election bid by President Obama.

Unfortunately, the nation's financial credit agencies are not cooperating with the GOP timetable. They have made it clear that without a serious, comprehensive deficit–cutting plan in the ballpark of $4 trillion or more, they will cut the U.S. debt rating. I suspect we will be on "credit watch" until a deficit reduction deal is passed, which means that we will be assaulted by this back-and-forth bickering for some time to come.

"If and when the deficit plan is passed, can we go back to whatever normal is?”

That depends. I believe that cutting spending and raising taxes in an economy that is struggling to gain momentum exposes this recovery to extreme danger. Cutting spending too deeply while raising taxes too much (and shrinking the money supply) is exactly what nipped a fledgling recovery in the bud and sent the U.S. economy into a depression in the '30s. Ask yourself this question: do you feel confident that a bunch of madmen in Washington have the ability to strike just the right balance in order to grow the economy while reducing the deficit?

But let me worry about that. It will take weeks, if not months, for such a compromise to be worked out. In the meantime, this last storm cloud appears to be moving to the edge of the horizon for now. I expect some real progress on a compromise next week.

The economy may be inching along, but corporate profits are booming. This earnings season so far is seeing the vast majority of companies beat earnings and increase guidance. This debt crisis is repressing what should be a buoyant stock market. Like a coiled spring, stocks are just waiting to bounce higher. If and when the debt ceiling is passed, that will happen.

Bill Schmick is an independent investor with Berkshire Money Management. (See "About" for more information.) None of the information presented in any of these articles is intended to be and should not be construed as an endorsement of BMM or a solicitation to become a client of BMM. The reader should not assume that any strategies, or specific investments discussed are employed, bought, sold or held by BMM. Direct your inquiries to Bill at (toll free) or e-mail him at wschmick@fairpoint.net . Visit www.afewdollarsmore.com for more of Bill's insights.



Tags: Greece, PIGS, bailout, Europe, deb ceiling      
Independent Investor: Europe Goes the Full Monty
By: Bill Schmick On: 11:24PM / Thursday July 21, 2011
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Full Monty: "everything which is necessary, appropriate, or possible; 'the works.'"    

— Oxford English Dictionary

A new rescue plan for Greece is being hammered out in Brussels today, Thursday. Although the details are yet to be released, it appears that the European Community is finally going for an overall plan that will do more than just Band-Aid over the debt crisis of southern Europe.

Greece, of course, is the bad boy of that continent but Ireland, Portugal and even larger economies like Spain and Italy are being added to the list of troubled nations. Up until now, the EU has grudgingly provided bailout money in exchange for economic austerity measures that have only driven these countries into deeper recessions and increased social discontent.

The new aid package to be announced will be a departure from this bankrupt strategy. Instead, the EU will tackle the root cause of the issue and reduce the overwhelming debt burdens of Greece, Portugal and Ireland. It will allow the EU's rescue fund, called the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF), not only to buy that debt but also reissue new debt (loans) at much lower interest rates. It could also extend the maturities on new loans to these countries from an average of 7.5 years to 15 years or more.

The EFSF will also be able to aid troubled banks by lending money to various euro-zone governments (who will then bail out their banks) pre-emptively. No longer will governments have to wait for the crisis to hit before doing something about it. The EFSF will also be able to buy and sell sovereign debt of any of these countries on the open market in cooperation with the European Central Bank. That should discourage rampant speculation in these instruments, which has exasperated the crisis.

These moves, which were all rejected by Germany up until now, will form the basis of the equivalent of a Marshal Plan for Europe. I believe it is the best plan yet to address the financial contagion that has been pulling down one country after another within the EU. By reducing existing debt to manageable proportions and giving the beleaguered nations breathing room to repay it over many more years, the burden becomes more manageable. No longer will Greece, Portugal and Ireland have to slash spending and raise taxes while scrambling to find a way to pay back the loans and grow their economies all at the same time.

I had maintained that it was impossible to accomplish that feat. Readers may recall that over the last year I have been writing (and hoping) that the EU would see the light. This program, while not exactly the route I would have taken, is far more comprehensive than their past plans of simply kicking the can down the road.

An important change, and one that the European Central Bank had been resisting, is the possibility of allowing a "selective" default occur in Greek government debt. How that would happen is still not clear but it might include a bond-exchange program, a write-down of some of the debt or a buy back by the EFSF of a portion, say 20 percent, of heavily discounted Greek bonds.

The markets have been wrestling with just how such a default would impact Europe's banks, which hold billions of Euros in the sovereign debt obligations of the PIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain). Will a "selective" default of some Greek debt trigger the credit agencies to move toward a more negative stance on EU banks? If today’s prices of European bank stocks are any indication, the markets believe that there is a plan to avoid the credit agency's wrath.

All we know at this time is that private institutions in the financial sector will be given a number of alternative methods on how to assist in financing Greece's debt now and in the future. Some of the ways this can be accomplished are debt exchanges, roll overs and/or buy backs of existing debt.

I am sure that the details will need to be ironed out and, as usually happens with a plan this large, it will be a work in progress with lots of trial and error. What is important is that Europe's leaders have finally come to understand that the theatre we have been watching for almost two years needed drastic changes. The solution to the Greek financial crisis demanded that the actors revisit the stage with a new act. This week they have responded with an economic Fully Monty. I say, Bravo!  

Bill Schmick is an independent investor with Berkshire Money Management. (See "About" for more information.) None of the information presented in any of these articles is intended to be and should not be construed as an endorsement of BMM or a solicitation to become a client of BMM. The reader should not assume that any strategies, or specific investments discussed are employed, bought, sold or held by BMM. Direct your inquiries to Bill at (toll free) or e-mail him at wschmick@fairpoint.net . Visit www.afewdollarsmore.com for more of Bill's insights.



Tags: Greece, PIGS, bailout, Europe      
@theMarket: The Bottom Is In
By: Bill Schmick On: 09:08AM / Saturday July 02, 2011
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Well, we've made it through another pullback together. It seems clear to me that this week's stock market action is telling us that the worst is over — for now.

Yes, there are still a few dark clouds on the horizon. The closest one is the ongoing debate over increasing the nation's debt limit. Although I believe that in the end politicians will do the responsible thing and approve an increase, they are not beyond eleventh hour posturing. Few politicians can resist the chance to become the focus of the nation's attention by withholding their vote until all seems lost, only to relent at the last moment, thereby becoming our heroes. Disgusting? Yes, but that's what America's politics are all about these days.

As a result, expect continued volatility within the markets as te deadline approaches. The Obama administration claims we will run out the clock by July 22 while the Treasury is sticking with Aug. 2. The time it would take the Congress and Senate to ratify the debt increase accounts for the difference.

But the bias of the market, despite the volatility, will be toward the upside. It appears that investors are beginning to recognize all the positive factors that I have outlined over the past two months. Japan's economy, for example, is roaring back as indicated by very strong industrial production data this week. For readers who missed it, see my June 2 column "Japan, Is The Sun Beginning To Rise?" in which I both recommended Japan and predicted its rebirth. As it occurs, U.S. economic data will also start to strengthen. This Friday's manufacturing data, released by the Institute for Supply Management (ISM), is just a taste of what's to come. It showed the economy gaining strength for the first time in four months. Oh, and expect unemployment numbers to start dropping as well.

As you know, I have been arguing that the U.S. was in a soft patch of growth brought on by Japan's earthquake-related slowdown. Now that Japan is revving up, so will we. With Greece's problems resolved (at least until September) and oil prices heading toward $85 a barrel, Wall Street is finally waking up to what you and I have known for weeks.

Normally, after such a massive move, the markets should pull back to about the breakout level, which would be 1,300 on the S&P. It doesn't have to happen, but if it does, consider it a buying opportunity. For those of you who may have gotten cold feet during the tumultuous times of the recent past, that would be your chance to get back in.

As for the end of QE II, (see yesterday's column "The End of QE II"), all of the hyperbole you have been hearing about how interest rates would spike and the markets plunge did not materialize, nor will it. As I predicted, the demise of the Fed’s quantitative easing program is a non-event. With all these negatives removed from the market simultaneously, I expect stocks to roar. My price target for the S&P 500 remains at 1,450 or higher.

Once we get there, well, that may usher in a horse of a different color but first things first, the markets are going higher so enjoy your gains.

Bill Schmick is an independent investor with Berkshire Money Management. (See "About" for more information.) None of the information presented in any of these articles is intended to be and should not be construed as an endorsement of BMM or a solicitation to become a client of BMM. The reader should not assume that any strategies, or specific investments discussed are employed, bought, sold or held by BMM. Direct your inquiries to Bill at (toll free) or e-mail him at wschmick@fairpoint.net. Visit www.afewdollarsmore.com for more of Bill's insights.



Tags: debt, Congress, Greece, Japan, pullback      
@theMarket: Better Days Ahead
By: Bill Schmick On: 06:38AM / Saturday June 25, 2011
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After this week you should have either an upset stomach, stress headache or both. Human beings do not do well in markets that climb up and down by over a percent on a daily basis. Unfortunately, as this market bottoms, we may expect more of the same.

On the plus side, the Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou received a parliamentary vote of confidence this week. Yet, facing investors this week is a vote on the passage of the austerity plan that the European Community demands in exchange for bailout money.

Economic data continues to disappoint with the latest unemployment figures coming in more than expected. Wherever you look, gloom and doom pervades the minds and hearts of investors. On Wednesday, Fed chief Ben Bernanke didn't help by reducing the Fed's estimate for GDP growth in the second quarter from 3.1-3.3 percent to 2.7-2.9 percent. Even a 5 percent decline in oil was viewed as negative and simply another proof that the economy is faltering.

Most investors missed the point of Thursday's release of 60 million barrels of crude from the world's strategic oil supply. Pundits complained that it was too little to impact demand since it amounted to less than a day's supply of global demand. Others argued it was an act of desperation by an administration that has run out of ideas to stimulate the economy.

It was none of the above, in my opinion. Readers may recall that a few weeks ago prices of most commodities peaked after the CME raised margin requirements for everything from energy to silver. Speculators, who had bid commodity prices up to astronomical levels, abandoned the market in droves causing prices to decline to their present levels.

Most energy experts believe that the fundamental price where supply and demand for oil are in balance is closer to $85 in barrel. But notice oil, until this week it was still trading at $100 a barrel and above, (although down from its recent peak of $112 a barrel). Clearly, there were still a lot of speculators in the market, who could go either way. It was a tipping point where there was at least a 50/50 chance that traders might try and take the price higher once more.

To me, the International Energy Agency exhibited perfect timing. With a relatively small amount of released oil, they managed to drop the price of crude by $5 a barrel and send the speculators running for the hills. It has also added another element of risk since nervous traders will now have to be looking over their shoulder in case the IEA does it again.

As for the wall of worries that beset the market, all this pessimism is part of the normal process one expects as the averages descend to a level where buyers once again appear. Today we are probably within 1-2 percent of that area, if we are not already there. To me, the math is simple: a possible 50-point decline in the weeks ahead on the S&P 500 Index versus 150-200 points of upside. The risk/reward ratio tells me to not only hold the course but to buy on weakness.

Bill Schmick is an independent investor with Berkshire Money Management. (See "About" for more information.) None of the information presented in any of these articles is intended to be and should not be construed as an endorsement of BMM or a solicitation to become a client of BMM. The reader should not assume that any strategies, or specific investments discussed are employed, bought, sold or held by BMM. Direct your inquiries to Bill at (toll free) or e-mail him at wschmick@fairpoint.net. Visit www.afewdollarsmore.com for more of Bill's insights.



Tags: silver, oil, commodities, Greece      
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Bill Schmick is registered as an investment advisor representative and portfolio manager with Berkshire Money Management (BMM), managing over $200 million for investors in the Berkshires. Bill’s forecasts and opinions are purely his own and do not necessarily represent the views of BMM. None of his commentary is or should be considered investment advice. Anyone seeking individualized investment advice should contact a qualified investment adviser. None of the information presented in this article is intended to be and should not be construed as an endorsement of BMM or a solicitation to become a client of BMM. The reader should not assume that any strategies, or specific investments discussed are employed, bought, sold or held by BMM. Direct your inquiries to Bill at 1-888-232-6072 (toll free) or email him at Bill@afewdollarsmore.com Visit www.afewdollarsmore.com for more of Bill’s insights.

 

 

 



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