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Independent Investor: Emerging Markets — Times Are Changing
By: Bill Schmick On: 09:12PM / Friday July 15, 2011
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While the investing world is distracted by the U.S. debt ceiling crisis and the on-going drama of Italy and Greece, I've noticed that a small but increasing stream of money is finding its way back into some emerging markets.  

Last year, I advised investors to lighten up on emerging markets. That proved to be the right call. The Chinese market is now below the levels last seen in late 2009. India and Brazil have lagged world markets as has Russia. But usually you want to begin to invest in these markets before their stock markets turn. Today, I think it may be the right time to start nibbling in the area. Here's why.

The increase in commodity prices was a major negative for many emerging markets, notably China, India and Brazil. Their factories are voracious users of energy, such as oil and coal and a host of base metals and agricultural food stuff. When prices of these inputs go up, combined with a fast growing economy, inflation follows quickly.

Many emerging market governments have had to contend with this problem by tightening credit and raising interest rates over the last two years. When commodity prices come down, as they have done over the past four months, it relieves some of the inflationary pressure and allows governments to loosen monetary policy a bit. That reversal of fortunes is happening at the moment.

China, the big dog of emerging markets, has raised interest rates five times this year. Last week, they raised them again but indicated that it may well be the last hike this year. The Chinese central bank has not changed its rigid stance toward fighting inflation quite yet, but it expects to see some lessening in the inflation rate this month. Investors have worried that all this the belt-tightening in China (and other countries) would lead to a "hard landing" for the economy, but the country reported steady growth for the second quarter coming in at 9.5 percent, only slightly lower than the first quarter's 9.7 percent growth rate.

But things have changed in the investing landscape among emerging markets. Gone are the days when one could simply buy a fund that is exposed to all emerging markets and hope to prosper. Brazil and other Latin countries, for example, are tied to the prices of the commodities they produce, so what may be good for China, may be bad for Brazil.

India, like China, has an inflation problem but seems to have a better handle on controlling inflation and imports more natural resources than it exports. Some other Southeast Asian countries such as Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Taiwan have their own set of economic variables, although many of them still depend on China's continued growth for their own prosperity.

Korea, on the other hand, may not even be an emerging market any longer in my opinion. Latin American countries like Mexico, Peru, Chile and Argentina join Brazil in combating high inflation brought on by the very thing that is responsible for their growth, natural resources.

About the best that can be said is that as emerging markets develop, each country's particular set of circumstances can provide both an opportunity and a challenge. Gone are the easy-money days of simply buying them all and watching your portfolio go up and up as it had in the period of 2002-2007. Now it takes some homework and a bit of luck.

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: emerging markets, commodities, inflation      
@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      
The Independent Investor: Ole Man River Bolsters Agriculture Investment Case
By: Bill Schmick On: 05:08PM / Friday May 20, 2011
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The flooding of the Mississippi River will be the worst disaster in the Delta farming region's history since1927. Millions of fertile acres in Missouri, Tennessee, Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas are under water. Farms along that riverbank could take a $2 billion hit, but to us it simply underscores our argument that agriculture is a long term growth area.

Understand that my heart goes out to those who are suffering from this misfortune. Cotton, wheat, corn, soybeans, rice and even catfish won't be raised or planted this season, forcing many Americans out of work. It also will add even more pressure to sky high agricultural prices. Readers may recall my January column "Stock up now or pay later," where I warned that higher prices for a wide range of soft commodities would be showing up in retail stores and supermarkets just about now. But the flip side of these disasters is they offer a fertile field of investment for those who pay attention.

Horrific weather conditions throughout the world are largely responsible for the present crop shortages. So far this year weather appears once again to have turned a cold shoulder to farmers whether in the Mississippi or the Yangtze River deltas. Even before the flood, the World Agricultural Supply and Demand estimates from the U.S. Department of Agriculture was forecasting large price increases for a variety of grains for the 2011-2012 periods.

The flooding just happened to occur as a free-fall in commodity prices began. Energy, base metals, precious metals and agricultural foodstuffs have all been sold simultaneously. Yet, in the case of agriculture, I believe shortages will continue to persist supporting higher food prices for the foreseeable future. Therein lies our opportunity.

The astute investor understands that these natural disasters offer windfalls for companies that produce much needed tools, equipment and other products that can aid farmers in reviving this devastated acreage. Flooding will normally wash away nutrients and deposit silt or sand as it recedes. Farmers will need equipment to turn that soil, new seed to plant and the fertilizer to make it grow. Although attention is now focused on the Mississippi, don’t forget that other areas of the country are suffering from an abnormally wet spring as well.

In the corn market, for example, U.S. plantings for the first week in May came in at 13 percent, the third lowest pace since 1986 and well below the 10-year average of 43 percent. Ohio, Indiana and Iowa reported plantings of just 1, 2 and 8 percent. The odds that farmers will close the planting gap look slimmer and slimmer since either flooding or severe drought are hitting large areas of the farm belt.

Over in Texas, Oklahoma and the New Mexico range, cattle herds are being pulled off once lush pasture land as either drought or fire has reduced the range to desert. Instead, cattle are dining on feed, already in scarce supply, which will both increase costs and ultimately prices for consumers.

But those are just the short-term considerations. As we look at the long-term supply and demand imbalance, the investment case for food commodities is even stronger. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) is projecting an increase of 2.3 billion in the world population by 2050 to 9 billion. Developing countries will account for the lion's share of that growth. It will take a 70 percent increase in food production (yearly investment of $209 billion) just to keep pace with that growth rate.

If, at the same time, we want to reduce the future percentage of the world's population that goes hungry, then we need to invest $359 billion a year. Since a growing population that is also hungry is a recipe for violent regime change, politicians worldwide are paying attention.

Unfortunately, there is not enough arable land around the world to expand food production. So, in order to meet future demand, new farming, crop seed and fertilizer technologies will be required. It just so happens that U.S. chemical, fertilizer, equipment and food companies are leaders in forging a path to this brave new world.

Bottom line: for investors, the recent pull back in the commodity space was healthy and long overdue but, in my opinion, does not negate the investment case for agriculture over the long term.

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: weather, commodities      
The Independent Investor: A Windfall in Disguise?
By: Bill Schmick On: 04:54PM / Thursday May 12, 2011
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It started last week with a 25 percent plunge in silver prices. Gold, oil, corn, and coffee followed in sympathy, and by the end of the week it was a full-scale route across the commodity spectrum. These price declines will save corporations and consumers untold trillions of dollars. So why isn't the stock market celebrating?

The power and abruptness of the decline caught the majority of investors unaware. After all, commodity stocks have led the market for well over a year. Stock investors were piggy-backing on what was happening over in the commodity pits. Up until last week, commodity speculators were minting money. They were able to borrow short-term money for practically nothing (courtesy of the Fed's QE 2) and were buying commodities, such as silver and gold, with the proceeds. Over time, as more and more traders jumped on board, commodity prices across the board spiked into the "bubblesphere."

Silver for example, from $36 an ounce to almost $50 an ounce rose in less than two months. At that point the Commodities Mercantile Exchange, decided (or was prodded) that enough was enough. On April 25, they raised the amount of money that investors had to put down as collateral (margin requirements) to guarantee their silver trades. It took five margin hikes in a row (an 87 percent increase in margin requirements) before speculators admitted defeat. And what worked to rein in the price of silver is now being applied to other more important commodities like oil and gas.

The Federal Reserve Bank has been targeting asset classes, such as the stock market, in their effort to spark a long-lasting economic recovery in this country. One fly in the ointment has been the spike in commodity prices, especially oil and food, as speculators borrowed money from the Fed at very low prices and made millions by betting on higher commodity prices.

Oil had reached as high as $112 a barrel and gas prices at the pump were skyrocketing in response. A similar trend was under way in food. The Fed is under increasing pressure and criticism as core inflation remains quite moderate, but consumers and corporations were paying more and more for energy and food (two non-core inflation items). The Fed's Chairman Ben Bernanke has argued that prices for these non-core items are beyond their control. But are they?

Is it beyond reason to speculate that the CME may have received a call from Big Ben over at the Fed? If the Fed can target an upturn in the stock market, how difficult would it be to engineer a deflating of the commodity bubble through the stiffening of margin requirements?

Whether the CME decided on their own or had a little help, the downdraft in commodity prices has removed that problem from the Fed's agenda. It will also produce an immediate and automatic boost to the economy across the board. Gasoline futures are already heading down on the back of a 21 percent margin hike on NYMEX gasoline futures. Corn was limit down (minus-5 percent) on Tuesday as well. Speculators are selling positions in anticipation that margin hikes on other commodities are just around the corner.

Over time, I believe commodity prices will stabilize and even rise, although not at the rate of the past. As the speculative froth comes out of this asset class, the real values will be set by supply and demand and not speculators. Many of these commodities are becoming increasingly scarce, whether in the energy, food or metals space, so the investment case is still viable. In the meantime, as prices come down to earth, I expect investors will begin to realize that this down draft is actually a windfall in disguise.

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      
@theMarket: Stair-Stepping Higher
By: Bill Schmick On: 04:54PM / Friday April 15, 2011
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The best rallies are those that move up, take a breather and then move up again. That way markets do not get extended, the gains are fairly predictable, as are the pullbacks. It appears that is the kind of market we are in at present.

The S&P 500 Index reached a low of 1,249 exactly one month ago. It then soared 7.2 percent to 1,339 in the next 23 days. We began this pullback a week ago and so far have given back less than 2 percent of those gains. I would expect a bit more time and possibly downside before resuming our march toward 1,400 on the S&P.

If you are looking for excuses (as so many of us do) to explain the short-term gyrations in the market there are plenty of culprits. If you are a Republican, it's all about the runaway deficit and the opposition's unwillingness/inability to tackle spending and raise taxes. Democrats will argue it's the fault of the GOP and the tea party that narrowly missed shutting down the government by tacking on superfluous riders to the deal. I expect increased rhetoric and market volatility as the debate on the debt ceiling intensifies, so be prepared.

But all of that is simply headline news. The real questions that are making the rounds of trading floors and hedge fund offices are these: At what point does "non-core" inflation, (energy and food, for example) start to impact corporate profits? Are we already seeing some of that risk this quarter as companies voice their concerns about profit margins in the future?

When will the widening gap between America's haves and have-nots reach a boiling point? Over 70 percent of the population is caught in a terrible climate of stagflation while the top 30 percent get richer and richer. Higher commodity prices will eventually force producers to pass on price increases to consumers. Will these consumers demand higher wages in order to stay afloat? Will corporations respond by raising worker's income or will they hold the line? If they hold the line, will that mean consumer spending retreats and the economy slows? Either way, corporate profits will suffer.

Overseas, Spain's real estate losses are massive and at some point will come to the forefront. How will Europe and the world meet that challenge? Spain, unlike Greece, Portugal and Ireland, is a big economy and problems there would have a severe impact on other economies.

Will China be able to continue its role as the world's economic locomotive? The government is struggling to engineer a "soft landing" as it attempts to control/reduce inflation while maintaining a high growth rate. At best, this is a difficult task and if they over tighten, causing their economy to falter, what will that do to global economic growth?

At the center of this debate is QE 2. There is an extremely high correlation between the rise in commodity prices, the stock market and the Federal Reserve's open market purchases of securities. The ripple effect of QE 2 has spread all over the world and the above questions center on what happens with the end of QE2 in June.

The Fed is flooding the economy with money and that money is sitting in bank vaults and on corporate balance sheets. So there is plenty of money to hire workers and raise wages to pay for those higher prices brought on by sky-rocketing commodity prices. Of course, what I am describing is the beginning of an inflationary cycle that, if left unchecked, could lead to hyper-inflation.

Given that no one knows how this story will turn out, one can forgive the two steps forward, one step back volatility in the markets. Gold and silver continue to rocket higher since all we can be sure of right now is that the Fed will continue to pump money into the economy until June. It is also why I believe the stock market, regardless of these short-term pullbacks, is heading higher for now.

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: markets, commodities, inflation, Congress      
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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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