Home About Archives RSS Feed

The Independent Investor: A Windfall in Disguise?

Bill Schmick

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.

Write a comment - 0 Comments       Tags: silver, oil, commodities      

@theMarket: Let Silver Be A Lesson

Bill Schmick

"You sold silver too soon," grumbled a client. "Look, it's almost $50 an ounce."

That was just one of the conversations I had with disgruntled investors only one week ago. There is no question I felt bad since I had advised readers to sell at least half their silver investments between $36 to $37 an ounce a few weeks ago. Beginning Monday, silver began to drop as the CME hiked margin requirements. By Friday, silver had dropped over 25 percent to as low as $33.05 and ounce.

Parabolic moves such as the kind we have had in silver, and to a lesser extent gold, always revert to the mean. I learned that lesson many times over 30 years of investing in commodities. My strategy is to pick a price level and stick with it, regardless of whether the commodity overshoots my target.

Oil was another commodity where I suggested investors take profits at $100 a barrel. It has subsequently climbed higher, overshooting my target by almost $14 a barrel before it, too, plummeted this week to $99 a barrel. I remain a seller until oil breaks $85 barrel on the downside.

Of course, now that precious metals are in free fall, the knee-jerk reaction from the uninitiated is "at what price do we get back in?"

The easy answer is: whenever investors stop asking that question. When the talking heads and strategists throw in the towel, when precious metals commercials disappear from the airwaves and nobody wants to be bothered with silver, only then will I be willing to reenter the precious metals.

Unfortunately, the sharp correction in silver as well as a bounce in the dollar has impacted the equity markets overall. That is unfortunate and yet for those with steady nerves and grim resolve it is an opportunity.

Most commodities have dropped along with gold and silver. That is understandable given that the majority of traders had purchased commodities on margin (borrowed money). When prices decline substantially (as they have this week) margin calls escalate and notices from lenders flow out through Wall Street like floodwaters through the Mississippi Delta. Margin lenders demand more collateral to maintain their loans to these silver speculators and they want this money immediately.

Speculators, caught with owing huge sums of margin money, did what they always do — sell other investments, usually their winners, to meet the margin call. Oil, gas, base metals, soft commodities — whatever they can sell — which increases the selling pressure on everything and the ripple effect soon reaches high flying stocks and finally equities in general. Welcome to today's markets.

For those of us with cooler heads and steadier nerves, treat this sell off as simply another gift horse in the making. And I'm not about to examine its mouth. I would be buying instead. You see, lower energy as well as other commodity prices are good for the global economy. At some point investors will wake up to that fact. In the meantime, expect more volatility.

"How low can we go?" asked several clients ranging from a doctor in Salisbury, Conn.,  to a retired engineer in Williamstown.

We're almost there, in my opinion. Let's call the low somewhere between 1,305 and 1,325 on the S&P 500 Index (and I may be too negative in my guess). If we dropped as low as 1,300, it would still only be a 5 percent correction from the top. Our last decline was about 7 percent. Since then we have powered as high as 1,370 on the S&P (the intraday high reached on May 2). Remember, you should expect at least three pullbacks a year in the stock market of up to 5 percent. This is simply one of them and the cost of doing business in the stock market.

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.

Write a comment - 0 Comments       Tags: metals, oil      

The Independent Investor: Will Stock Brokers Follow the Ticker Tape?

Bill Schmick

Given that the stock market has almost doubled since its low in March 2009, one would expect that an entirely new crop of youngsters would be clamoring to become the next generation of America's stock brokers. So far the evidence points to the opposite conclusion.

Last month The Wall Street Journal featured an article titled "Dangerous Stockbroker Shortage Threatens America." The gist of the story was that less than 25 percent of all financial advisers are under 40 years of age while 5.6 percent are under 30. The writer quoted research from a Boston-based research firm, Cerullie Associates, that claimed the average age of a financial adviser is just under 49 years old with 14 percent of them over 60.

What I fail to understand is why this supposed shortage is dangerous?

I was a stock broker once upon a time. My clients, however, were not individual investors. My customers were the large institutions with multibillions of dollars that invested worldwide and their famed fund managers who you see quoted on television or in the top-tier investment periodicals. It was a lucrative business.

In exchange for stock ideas and access I provided to company managements, my clients paid handsomely in commission dollars. I often ferried my investors to various countries and regions where I arranged private meetings between them and company officials, finance ministers and even presidents. All-in-all it was a gentleman's business. But things have changed.

Institutions discovered the Internet. Electronic trading evolved and became so cost effective that paying commissions for the services of people like me made no economic sense. Besides, what I could do, so could my clients. A phone call or email from the chief investment officer of a huge U.S. pension fund to company X could accomplish the same objective as in my efforts.

In addition, the commoditization of equities overwhelmed all other methods of investment. The sheer weight of money under institutional management forced large institutions to abandon investing in individual equities. Instead, millions every day are bought and sold in baskets of stocks representing sectors, styles, regional and country indexes. It made stock picking superfluous and brokers like me a dying breed.

The same trend that convinced me to jump ship, abandon the brokerage business and manage money has been steadily chipping away at the retail broker's business over the last decade. The advent of discount brokers, automation, passive investing and instantaneous information via the internet has evened out the playing field for individual investors. Investors are now capable of doing for themselves what brokers have traditionally charged them to do.

Today, you and I receive the same information our brokers do and we get it faster. The popularity of mutual funds and exchange traded funds as preferred investment tools have also impaired the utility of brokers and stock picking.

The big brokers realized this years ago and stopped recruiting and training new brokers. At one time, Merrill Lynch, for example, operated a huge campus in Southern New Jersey for the training of their retail brokers, complete with classrooms, dorms and cafeteria. As commissions declined and profits were squeezed, the brokers cut back on hiring and instead gave more and more accounts to the top producers. These producers are now retiring.

Remember that stock broking is a "people" business. Traditionally, you needed to trust and rely on your broker and if you couldn't, you switched. However, 2008-2009 changed that. During the financial crisis, many brokers, young and old, advised their clients to remain invested only to panic and sell out their clients at the bottom. Lawsuits followed, animosity built and trust declined across the industry. 

As an example, two individual investors were recently awarded $54 million in a securities arbitration case against Smith Barney. The case was over the sale of conservative municipal bond investments that turned out to be less than safe, losing between half and three quarters of their value during the financial crisis.

Given the performance and reputation of brokers and the financial services sector in general over the last few years, is it any wonder that the last thing the new crop of college grads wants to do is become stock brokers?

Even the name "broker" no longer exists. Thanks to millions spent in marketing, the brokerage houses have successfully confused the investing public in exactly who they are dealing with. The broker has gone the way of the ticker tape, the typewriter and the transistor radio. New names such as "wealth manager," "financial consultant" and "financial adviser" have replaced the old title and I for one am not so sure the change is for the better. 

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.

Write a comment - 0 Comments       Tags: brokers, investment, Internet      

@theMarket: Ben Does It Again

Bill Schmick

This week's pivotal event was Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke's first press conference with the media. Judging from the price action in the stock market, Ben passed with flying colors.

The chairman provided a bit of clarity, reassuring the market that in June, when QE II expires, it will be a gradual process of monetary tightening as opposed to a sharp spike in interest rates. Clearly, he gave little comfort to the dollar bulls as the greenback continues its decline (down 8 percent year-to-date) while dashing the hopes of bears in the precious metals markets as gold and silver raced ever higher on a wave of speculative fever and inflation expectations.

Although both Bernanke and U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner have expressed their support of a strong dollar policy, neither are doing anything to stem its fall, nor should they, in my opinion. Two years ago I predicted that the U.S. would attempt to export its way out of recession, as would the rest of the world. Judging from the recent spate of quarterly earnings results, U.S. corporations, especially multinations, are making big bucks on the back of the weakening dollar. Profits among corporations are up 26 percent from last year. This will be the seventh quarter in a row where corporations posted double-digit earnings growth.

In Europe, Germany is also benefiting from an upsurge in exports that is helping that country reduce unemployment, propel economic growth and improve corporate profits. At the same time, traditional weak currency, high exporting emerging market countries are feeling the opposite effect as their currencies strengthen, exports slow and imports climb.

Friday's revelation that GDP only grew by 1.8 percent should not have disappointed investors since just about every economist in the nation was predicting as much. Bad weather and the high prices of energy and food were blamed for the less than stellar performance. Most consider it a blip in the forecasts and growth will improve next quarter.

Despite the on-going outrage by commentators (and everyone else who has to eat and drive) about the rising prices of those two commodities, the overall core inflation rate in this country continues to remain below the Fed's targets.

"How can they just ignore gas prices or what I'm paying for meat, milk and even cereal?" demands a client and mother of three, who commutes from South Egremont to Albany every day.

The Fed argues that it cannot control the prices of food and oil, which are set on world markets and represent the totality of demand from around the globe. The central bankers contend that the recent spike in oil, for example, is transitory and will subside over time.

They have a point. Consider food and energy prices in the summer of 2008. They were at record highs only to plummet in the second half of the year. If the Fed had tightened monetary policy (by raising interest rates) in say, June 2008 at the height of the price climb for food and energy, it would have taken six to eight months before those higher rates impacted the economy. By then we were sliding into recession. Tightening would have transformed a serious recession into another Great Depression.

As for the markets, it's steady as she goes, mate, with strong earnings propelling markets closer to my first objective, S&P 500 level of 1,400. I believe we are seeing a little sector rotation going on with consumer discretionary, semiconductors and technology sectors taking a back set this week to industrials, consumer durables and precious metals. Along the way, expect pullbacks but don't be spooked by downdrafts. Take them in stride, stay invested and prosper.

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.

Write a comment - 0 Comments       Tags: bears, Bernanke, QEII, export, interest rates, earnings      

The Independent Investor: Why Banks Won't Lend

Bill Schmick

Then we'd own those banks of marble,
With a guard at every door;
And we'd share those vaults of silver,
That we have sweated for

"Banks are made of Marble" by Pete Seeger

Over the last few years, the Federal Reserve has practically given money away to any entity that calls itself a bank. Individual states are also trying, but so far the banks have just been hoarding this growing pile of cash instead of loaning it out. Why?

Two reasons come to mind: Banks are afraid of taking on lending risk. Burnt by the subprime mortgage debacle, they are now overly cautious on who they lend to in an economic recovery they are not sure is here to stay. Two, interest rates are at historical lows. If rates start to rise, loans made today could turn to losses fairly quickly.

Recently, state Treasurer Steven Grossman of Massachusetts announced a plan to give banks $100 million to deposit into local community banks for the express purpose of lending to small businesses. The money is part of a statewide effort called the Small Business Banking Partnership. The announcement has been met with some resistance within the banking community. Bankers claim it's not needed because small businesses aren't interested in borrowing due to the poor economy.

That's bad news because small businesses employ the vast majority of workers in this country and pay the most taxes. They are the backbone of this country's economy. Over the last year, small business lending has become a political football since the establishment of the $1.5 billion State Small Business Credit Initiative by the Obama Administration. The plan calls for the banking community to pony up $10 in new loans for every $1 of loans by the state government. Since then, banks and their lobbyists have gone out of their way to show how much lending they are doing to small businesses.

For example, in Massachusetts, as in other states, community banks account for as much as 80 percent of small business lending and that trend has increased through the recession, according to the state's banking association. They claim the amount of lending has also almost doubled in the last six years.

What they don't mention is a lot of that recent growth was in picking up old loans that out of state and money center banks had dumped or would not renew due to the recession and heightened credit risk. A recent survey of members of the International Franchise Association contradicts some of the data coming out of the financial lending sector. The survey revealed that 39 percent of the franchisors report that more than half of their franchisees and prospects are unable to obtain needed financing, which is up 33 percent from a survey taken last year.

"There are several businessmen right here in the county who want to open franchises with me but can't get loans from local banks," says a successful fast-food chain entrepreneur in Berkshire County. "The banks sent them packing to the SBA for help."

The bankers' argument that businesses are not growing and aren't applying for new loans is disputed by the small-business owners I talk to.

"What they aren't telling you is the hoops a small-business owner has to jump through in order to get that new loan," says the head of a large excavating company in the region.

"They want collateral and a lot of it. They want you to sign your life away, and none of that matters unless you are making tons of income as well. And once I pass all their risk criteria, I get the privilege of borrowing short term from them at 8-9 percent when the prime rate is 3.25 percent."

Given that most banks are paying under 1 percent for money to loan, one would think that a 7-8 percent spread should bring in plenty of profits. That is one of the main reasons that the Federal Reserve has been keeping interest rates at historical lows for so long. So far it hasn’t worked.

And speaking of the Fed and the end of QE II in June, most everyone (including the banks), are expecting interest rates to rise in the second half of this year. Few bankers have the appetite to lend money to a small business when they expect rates to rise. And if they do, they only want to lend for a short period of time.

"That's also difficult for a small business to handle," explains the excavator, "if I have to go back to the bank in three years, I can't do long range planning. I can't even be sure I'll get a new loan and if so, at what price. It makes being a small business owner that much more uncertain."

Grossman plans to come to Pittsfield sometime in May to discuss the state's funding initiative with local bankers. I think it would be a good idea to meet with small-business owners as well. That way he would be able to hear their side of the story before leaving town.

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.

Write a comment - 1 Comment       Tags: banks, QEII, franchise, lending      
Page 113 of 126... 108  109  110  111  112  113  114  115  116  117  118 ... 126  

Support Local News

We show up at hurricanes, budget meetings, high school games, accidents, fires and community events. We show up at celebrations and tragedies and everything in between. We show up so our readers can learn about pivotal events that affect their communities and their lives.

How important is local news to you? You can support independent, unbiased journalism and help iBerkshires grow for as a little as the cost of a cup of coffee a week.

News Headlines
Adams Faces More Than $1M In Storm Damage
William Pitt Sotheby’s International Realty Taps Brokerage Manager
Barrington Stage Company Board of Trustees Welcomes New Member
Berkshire Immigrant Center Names New Advisory Board Members, Leadership
Southern Vermont College Board of Trustees Names New Member
This Week in Williamstown: Sept. 21-27
Cultural Pittsfield This Week: Sept. 21-27
'White Boy Rick': The Wild, Wild Midwest
Mount Greylock School Committee, Teachers Air Sides in Labor Dispute
Pittsfield Dedicates Adult Learning Center To William Stickney

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.

 

 

 



Categories:
@theMarket (268)
Independent Investor (366)
Archives:
September 2018 (2)
September 2017 (1)
August 2018 (9)
July 2018 (2)
June 2018 (8)
May 2018 (8)
April 2018 (7)
March 2018 (6)
February 2018 (7)
January 2018 (7)
December 2017 (8)
November 2017 (5)
October 2017 (5)
Tags:
Metals Congress Markets Interest Rates Europe Euro Pullback Selloff Japan Taxes Federal Reserve Greece Rally Election Crisis Fiscal Cliff Wall Street Deficit Banks Bailout Commodities Debt Retirement Economy Jobs Recession Housing Energy Europe Stock Market Currency Debt Ceiling Stimulus Oil Stocks
Popular Entries:
The Independent Investor: Don't Fight the Fed
@theMarket: QE II Supports the Markets
The Independent Investor: Understanding the Foreclosure Scandal
The Independent Investor: Does Cash Mean Currencies?
@theMarket: Markets Are Going Higher
The Independent Investor: General Motors — Back to the Future
@theMarket: Economy Sputters, Stocks Stutter
The Independent Investor: Why Are Interest Rates Rising?
The Independent Investor: How Will Wall Street II Play on Main Street?
The Independent Investor: Will the Municipal Bond Massacre Continue?
Recent Entries:
@theMarket: Record Highs and More to Come?
The Independent Investor: Dogs and Their Cars
@theMarket: September's stock market
The Independent Investor: How Prepared Are You to Sell Your Company?
@theMarket: Record Highs Coming Up?
The Independent Investor: Should You Bury Yourself?
The Independent Investor: Turmoil in Turkey
@theMarket: Will Stocks Break Out or Break Down?
The Independent Investor: Should You Pay Down Your Mortgage?
@theMarket: Stocks Set for a Volatile August