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@theMarket: Fed Gives Green Light to Stocks
By Bill Schmick On: 02:37PM / Saturday January 28, 2012
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It wasn't quite a QE III but it came close. This week, the Federal Reserve Bank extended the time period in which they would keep a lid on short-term interest rates to 2014 while at the same time pushing longer-term rates lower. Investors liked that and bought stocks on the news.

The Fed also said it would consider launching a bond-buying program and it wouldn't wait for a recession to do it. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke hinted he would act if the economy and unemployment simply continues to recover at its present slow pace. At the same time, the Fed dropped its forecast for economic growth this year from a range of 2.5-2.9 percent to 2.2-2.7 percent. He targeted a 2 percent inflation rate for the country but also said he would be willing to see inflation a bit higher if it meant producing more jobs for Americans.

What all of this means for you and I is that the Fed is determined to do all it can to goose the economy, the stock market and the housing markets. In the past, when the Fed conveyed this kind of message to investors, the stock markets climbed higher. I expect the same thing to happen again this time.

It is not yet clear to me how telegraphing their determination to push longer-term rates lower over the next two-plus years is going to help home buyers decide on purchasing, as opposed to renting. If, for example, I was in the market for a fixed rate mortgage and I know rates might trend lower between now and 2014, I would be in no hurry to sign a contract.

The Fed's announcement is also bad news for those retirees who have fled the stock market and have their money invested in "safe" assets such as CDs and U.S. Treasury bonds. They will continue to receive next to nothing for their money while struggling to make ends meet as food, energy, medical services and other necessary living expenses continue to rise.

On the plus side, investors can be pretty sure that the economy won't get any worse and that the stock market is about the only place one can hope to achieve a reasonable rate of return on your investments. Of course, there will be the inevitable piper to pay down the road but central banks around the world have decided to worry about the inflationary consequences of trillions of dollars in stimulus when it happens. Future inflation fears is one reason that commodities led by gold and silver raced higher after the Fed meeting.

So do the Fed's actions change the bottom line of my investment strategy? Not really. I believe defensive areas of the stock markets (those stocks and sectors that pay dividends) will do just fine in this environment. High yield and investment grade bonds will also do quite well. We will still have pullbacks in the market this year and some of them might even be serious. Overall, I believe we are exactly where we should be.

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 email him at wschmick@fairpoint.net. Visit www.afewdollarsmore.com for more of Bill's insights.



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The Independent Investor: U.S. Energy Production, Going the Right Way
By Bill Schmick On: 02:30PM / Friday January 27, 2012
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It has been a long time since oil production in this country has been a source of growth. Between domestic regulation, depressed energy prices and off-shore projects, the action in oil has been elsewhere. Now that is beginning to change.

Over the next decade domestic crude oil production is expected to increase 20 percent or more to levels not seen in the United States since the 1990s, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. We were producing 5.5 million barrels per day (bpd) last year compared to 5.1 million bpd in 2007 and production is expected to grow by 550,000 bpd to 6.7 million bpd by 2020. Production is expected to slow after that but still maintain a healthy pace of over 6.1 million bpd through 2035.

U.S. oil production grew faster than in any other country over the last three years. Names from big oil's boom days like the Texas Panhandle, the Oklahoma Border and Granite Wash in states such as Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas have been joined by new wildcat states like the Bakken shale area of North Dakota and even Pennsylvania.

Naturally, since it is an election year, politicians are quick to take credit for oil's resurgence.

"Under my administration, domestic oil and natural gas production is up, while imports of foreign oil are down," said President Obama, which is true but not because of any policies of his administration. Energy exploration and drilling decisions are made many years in advance. Decisions made 4-6 years ago are only now showing up as increased production today.

The real cause and impetus behind this energy rebound is a combination of three factors: the price of oil, an oversupply of U.S. natural gas and new technologies that make drilling and finding new oil cost effective.

Oil is hovering around $100 a barrel and has traded in a rough range of between $85-$110 most of last year. At the same time, natural gas prices are at a 10-year low so it pays for oil and gas exploration drillers to focus on finding more of the higher-priced crude oil component of the energy spectrum.

At the same time, new drilling techniques like horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing that contributed to the recent explosion in natural gas production are being applied to traditional oil fields. As a result of the higher prices and cost-effective technology, pools of oil and oil shale that were passed up in the past as too expensive to drill, are now profitable to extract.

All this good news still won't bring this country to its goal of "energy independence" anytime soon. The U.S. is forecasted to consume 19 million bpd of oil by 2020 versus production of only 10.2 million bpd. Of course that forecast can change depending on price, supply, demand and decisions made by both the private and public sector here.

For example, just this week the Obama administration rejected the proposed XL Keystone pipeline from Canada, a $7 billion, 1,700-mile route through the Great Plains of Texas. The decision is not final, but rather a delaying tactic to allow the pipeline's supporters to update their proposal. It is projects like this that can impact the nation's energy production in years to come. Let's hope this country and its leaders can establish a cohesive energy policy soon that will someday make us energy independent.

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 email him at wschmick@fairpoint.net. Visit www.afewdollarsmore.com for more of Bill's insights.



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@theMarket: Markets Climb a Wall of Worry
By Bill Schmick On: 12:30PM / Saturday January 21, 2012
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Problems, issues, challenges, call them what you may. Nary a day has gone by when something, somewhere continues to put investors on edge. From the Straits of Hormuz to the infidelities of Republican hopefuls, the world appears to be full of surprises. Yet, the stock markets grind higher.

Why now? Haven't these same issues been with us for months? Yet, the same news on Greek debt negotiations that in the past sent stocks into a downward spiral is now simply being ignored. The continued delays in EU progress toward a monetary and fiscal solution to their financial crisis are now greeted calmly rather than with horror.

Some of the market's response can be attributed to a "no news is good news" read on events in Europe. That leaves investors to focus on the positive data coming out of the American economy, something I have been writing about for months. The data continues to improve. We are actually hearing some analysts who now believe the fundamentals of the housing markets are improving.

There is also the recurring story, first identified by me in a September column "What the Market Missed," that the administration is planning a big mortgage refinancing operation with the Fed's assistance. Anywhere from $1-3 trillion worth of U.S. mortgage holders will be able to refinance their high-interest bearing mortgages at lower rates, injecting billions into home owners' pockets.

However, all this good news has been quickly reflected in stock averages. Financials, which have been under constant selling pressure for well over a year, have suddenly rallied big in the last three weeks. Home builders have also jumped by over 10 percent in some cases in the same time period. Technology stocks overall are on a tear, despite some lackluster earnings announcements. The benchmark S&P 500 Index is already up over 5 percent so far this year and we are only now entering the third week in January.

Most indicators are flashing amber or red warning lights indicating the markets are overbought and due for a correction. I agree, although markets can remain overbought for a long time and still plow higher. When I look at the potential downside, I am not too concerned. Sure, we could drop a good 50 points or so in quick order on the S&P but that's about the extent of the downside I see right now.

If I put that in perspective, there were days last year when that kind of decline was almost a weekly occurrence. All week trader talk focused on when the correction would occur and how much the averages would decline. Unfortunately for them, markets will typically do what is most inconvenient to the most number of players.

And that's what happened this week. As traders positioned for a sell off, they were continually disappointed, the pullbacks were shallow and the markets grinded relentlessly higher, despite the worries.

Make no mistake, the good times will end but the trend over the next three months in the markets is up. So enjoy the ride short-term and don't worry too much about the inevitable pullbacks, at least 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 email him at wschmick@fairpoint.net. Visit www.afewdollarsmore.com for more of Bill's insights.




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The Independent Investor: Insider Trading Is No Surprise
By Bill Schmick On: 05:01PM / Thursday January 19, 2012
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Over the last few years, government authorities have gone after insider traders with increasing success. Now, news headlines indicate that there was actually a hedge fund club of sorts that regularly traded on illegal information.

Why should this surprise us? Over the last few years an increasing number of investors I talk with have argued that "the game is rigged" against us little guys. Time after time, I have watched the markets trade up in advance of good news or down before the opposite occurred. It happens much too often to be coincidence.

Back in the early '80s, straight out of graduate school, I joined Drexel Burnham Lambert, a venerable investment banking firm back in the day. There, I made the acquaintance of Mike Milken, who at the time was diligently putting together a junk-bond empire for Drexel. He moved his operation to California and invited me along, but I joined Merrill Lynch instead to establish their foreign equity effort.

That turned out to be a smart move. Milken and his associates went on to make millions but ultimately went down in flames as authorities uncovered an enormous insider trading scam centered on the "junk bond king." As a spectator, I had a front-row seat throughout the entire sordid affair. Milken and some of his buddies went to jail. Drexel went bust and I understood how deceptive and easy it was for individuals to be sucked into insider trading.

The SEC and the FBI are focusing on specific transactions involving individual securities where insider information was leaked. The FBI contends that there was a criminal ring of analysts, traders and fund managers among some prominent financial firms that regularly took advantage of illegal information and garnered millions in profits for the alleged violators.

Readers may recall that last year, Raj Rajaratnam, the founder of a well-known hedge fund, was sentenced to 11 years in prison for making millions in an insider trading scam. Altogether the FBI has wracked up 56 convictions in their four-year probe called Operation Hedge.

I applaud their efforts. Like the FBI, I believe insider trading has exploded in financial markets and goes far beyond a few hedge funds and their associates. But insider trading between government and the private sector is even bigger than the abuses presently being uncovered among and between Wall Street firms. However, I doubt that either the FBI or the SEC has much stomach to actively probe the connections between our elected officials, government bureaucrats and their campaign contributors within the private sector.

As readers are aware, I have already written two columns denouncing the present legal ability of our senators and congressmen and their families and friends to profit from insider information that they have acquired in the course of the legislative process.

My last column on the subject centered on the passage of the STOCK Act (Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge), a bill that would have prevented that practice. It was no surprise that House majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., scuttled the bill in December.

Insider trading will remain a serious and debilitating side effect of a financial system where "greed is good" and the amount of money you make is never enough. At most, the SEC and FBI will be able to catch those sloppy enough to leave a trail but the really insidious information exchanges will continue to fall under "business as usual."

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 email him at wschmick@fairpoint.net. Visit www.afewdollarsmore.com for more of Bill's insights.




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@theMarket: Europe Downgrades Hit Markets
By Bill Schmick On: 07:41PM / Friday January 13, 2012
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After a week of slowly grinding higher on exceptionally low volume, the markets swooned on Friday. Europe, once again, was responsible.

It was almost comical to watch the talking heads this week as they tried to make a case that the U.S. markets were decoupling from the troubles in Europe. They highlighted the increasingly positive economic data, the possibility of quarterly earnings surprises and the hope that the Fed was preparing for another round of quantitative easing.

My take is that Europe has a longer holiday season than we do. Their movers and shakers just got back to work this week. We haven't decoupled. There was simply an absence of market making news until this week.

All of that decoupling talk disappeared on Friday as a rumor surfaced that credit rating agency Standard & Poor's was ready to downgrade a slew of European countries this weekend. At the same time, JPMorgan's revenues disappointed the market in their earnings announcement, sending the entire financial sector into a tailspin. Retail sales for December (as I predicted) also disappointed the markets. The holiday season failed to live up to retailers' expectations triggering fears that future economic growth was in jeopardy.

My advice to readers is to ignore all these one-off events. The simple truth is that we have benefited from A) The Santa Claus Rally and B) the January Effect. In my last few columns, I explained both and predicted the markets would rally as a result. Both A and B came off like clockwork and are now about over, leaving the markets vulnerable to a pullback.

I'm not looking for anything disastrous to develop, outside of a normal two-steps-forward, one-step-back kind of decline. There are too many positive developments for me to become overly bearish.

Both Italy and Spain managed to sell 17 billion worth of sovereign debt ($21.5 billion) this week without too much trouble. That was a vast improvement over last month when few players were willing to even look at buying bonds from these countries. The European Central Bank left rates unchanged, leaving the door open for possible rate cuts in the future. Even Greece, the bad boy of Europe, is stumbling towards a debt deal in their typical on-again, off-again fashion.

There is also a lot of talk about the possibility that the Fed will launch QE 3 sometime in the next few months. This is partially a result of some dovish-sounding speeches from several Fed members lately. I have my doubts. As long as U.S. economic data continues to improve, I don't think the Fed sees the need for additional monetary stimulus right now.

Of course, we are in an election year and sitting presidents in the past have been known to "lean" on the chairman of the Federal Reserve to goose the economy as November approaches. I think it is still too soon for that kind of monetary monkey business before the elections. But it does help buoy the mood of investors so we will put that in the plus column.

In summary, the markets will pull back and then go higher. That will be a trend I expect will continue for the next several months. I'm not looking for big gains, just a general trending higher by the indexes, interrupted by pullbacks on a periodic basis. The upside could lift the S&P 500 Index to the 1,350 level but from here that's no more than a 5 percent gain from here. As such, we will keep one foot in dividend paying stocks and the other in the fixed income market. In other words stay defensive.

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 email him at wschmick@fairpoint.net. Visit www.afewdollarsmore.com for more of Bill's insights.



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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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