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@theMarket: Five for Five

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

It was another good week for the averages with all three indexes chalking up five days of gains in a row. Friday, however, was a mild disappointment thanks to the latest GDP data.

Economists were looking for a first quarter gain of 3 percent in GDP. Instead, the nation's gross domestic product came in at 2.5 percent, but it was still a good number compared to last quarter's 0.4 percent growth. The stock markets, however, have proven that they care less about growth and more about how much and how long the Fed's monetary easing will continue.

In this goldilocks market, good economic data is good news for stocks but also are disappointing economic numbers. I know that sounds crazy, but there is certain logic to this madness.

The Federal Reserve has promised to continue stimulating the economy until the unemployment rate drops by another percentage point or two. In order to achieve that target, the economy must continue to grow and grow at an increasing rate. So, according to the typical investor's logic, disappointing data simply means that the Fed will need to keep pumping money into the economy, which is good for stocks. Of course, if the numbers turn really sour and GDP drops precipitously then all bets are off. But 2.5 percent growth is not too hot or too cold and just enough to insure that the money keeps flowing into the stock markets.

All week Europe has rallied as well. There is a building consensus over there that economies both big and small need further stimulus and possibly an interest rate cut by the European Central Bank. "Austerity," both here and abroad, appears to be becoming a bad word for all but a few die-hard right-wing economists and their followers who we will call "Austerians."

Clearly austerity has not worked in Europe, has not worked in this country, and has not worked in Japan. As a result, what we are seeing is across-the-board movement toward further easing. I, among others, have been arguing for this since 2009.

Of course, those opposed have insisted that unless governments reduced their deficits and restored confidence, simply spending more would only increase debt loads (which are already at record highs). And once countries crossed a theoretical debt-to-GDP threshold, (thought to be 90 percent) they would experience a permanent slowdown in growth as well as hyperinflation.

This argument has raged on for five years with the austerity gang here in America gaining the upper hand this year. Thanks to the Sequester, we are now experiencing the impact of across-the-board cuts at a time when our economy needs spending, not cuts. Oh, and by the way, that theoretical line in the sand that the Austerians insist would sink the economy (based on an academic paper on the subject), was found to contain a mathematical error. Once the error was corrected, the 90 percent debt-to-GDP statistic went up in smoke.

Now, simply because the facts do not square with the Austerians' argument does not mean that they will cease and desist. There is too much at stake to quit now. After all, an entire wing of the Republican Party has been born again (and elected) under this theme. They will stubbornly insist on being right in the face of economic reality until we stop listening to them. In the meantime, despite our debt load and free-spending ways the stock market continues to go higher and higher. Imagine that.

Bill Schmick is registered as an investment adviser representative with Berkshire Money Management. Bill’s forecasts and opinions are purely his own. None of the information presented here should be construed as an endorsement of BMM or a solicitation to become a client of BMM. Direct inquires to Bill at 1-888-232-6072 (toll free) or email him at Bill@afewdollarsmore.com.

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The Independent Investor: R2D2 and the Stock Market

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

Tuesday's "flash crash" precipitated by a fake tweet attributed to a major news organization is old news by now. No long-term investors got hurt in the debacle and by the end of the week it was business as usual in the nation's exchanges. That doesn't mean it won't happen again and again.

In just four minutes, $136 billion was erased from the S&P 500 Index, the main benchmark average of the stock market. The Dow lost 145 points at the same time. Both averages regained those losses over the next two minutes causing some traders to check whether the elevator ride was real or a computer glitch. It was neither.

Having a front-row seat to the now-notorious tweet from the hacked Associated Press account claiming that the White House had been bombed and the president injured, my first reaction was to check its authenticity. I guess human nature is a lot more cynical than computers because in the time required to determine the tweet had been a hoax, billions in securities had changed hands.

Although no one is completely sure exactly what happened, we do know that the brunt of the decline was caused once again by algorithmic trading programs, which are these proprietary software trading systems that are lightning fast and take advantage of minute disparities among stock prices. The newest wrinkle in these high-frequency platforms involves computer scanning for key words among various news agencies.

Computers are now programmed to search out words that may impact stock price movements. In this case, words such as White House, explosions, bombs and injuries could and did trigger a sell program among Wall Street's R2-D2s and C-3POs this week. Once the ball started rolling downhill, armies of computers began spewing out sell orders instantaneously. Once the truth was discovered, these same computers stampeded in the opposite direction. This is what most observers believed happened this week.

It wasn't the first time. In May 2010, the now famous "flash crash" occurred. It erased $862 billion from the market's value in less than 20 minutes. Last year, the same kind of computer glitch wiped $440 million off the books of one trading firm and sent it to the brink of bankruptcy.

Regulators have been working to safe guard the public from these on-going speed traps. Under what is called the "limit/up-limit/down system," trades in stock prices will gradually be limited to a certain percentage range above and below the average price of a stock over the last five minutes. It will act as a speed bump. It won't be perfect but could at least slow down the declines we have experienced from seconds and minutes to hours or more.

That may just be wishful thinking on my part. More and more of the trading in the stock market is done by these "algos," as they are now called. It has changed the nature of the stock market and has precipitated the demise of many day traders that are simply outgunned by these R2-D2s. What worries me most is that some day in the future these systems may accidentally short circuit in a big way and suddenly we are all looking down the barrel of a financial death star.

Bill Schmick is registered as an investment adviser representative with Berkshire Money Management. Bill’s forecasts and opinions are purely his own. None of the information presented here should be construed as an endorsement of BMM or a solicitation to become a client of BMM. Direct inquires to Bill at 1-888-232-6072 (toll free) or email him at Bill@afewdollarsmore.com.

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The Independent Investor: Insider Trading Alive & Kicking on Capitol Hill

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

It happened while most of us were focused on paying our taxes. By unanimous consent, both the House and the Senate repealed a portion of the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act (The STOCK Act) in just 30 seconds with no debate or discussion. President Obama signed it into law on April 14 — shame on them.

I should have known it was too good to be true. Readers may recall my December 2011 column where I celebrated the passage of the STOCK Act, which made it illegal for congressmen and their staffs to profit from insider information just like the rest of us. It was one of the few actions of a do-nothing Congress (their approval rating at the time was just 9 percent) that I applauded as overdue and a step in the right direction.

It wasn't the first time I had written about the insider profits both senators and Congressmen had been making over the years. In my May 2011 column "Gordon Gekko Should Run for Congress" I explained:

"On average, the lower house members beat the market by about 6 percent a year while those of the higher chamber wrack up a 10 percent level of outperformance annually. Now, if you believe that's purely coincidental, well, I have a bridge I can sell you cheap."

Shortly before my second column on the subject, a "60 Minutes" report brought national attention to this scandal, highlighting profits made by political figures such as Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. The public outrage was such that the STOCK Act passed both houses of congress quickly.

I complained at the time that the act was loaded with loopholes. For example, the rules apply to only information obtained by "pending legislation," however, tons of other kinds of insider information obtained from governmental sources such as a regulatory briefing would be allowed. Unlike existing public insider trading laws, which are deliberately broad and vague, the politicians' guidelines are quite specific and narrow.

The original law required extensive disclosure of financial holdings by congressional staffers and 28,000 senior executive branch employees. Our elected officials, including the president, are already required to disclose their financial activities. The disclosures were to be posted in an online database open to the public. This database was an important part of the law since it would allow public watchdogs to quickly identify profitable trading activity by thousands of staffers.

Prior to the STOCK Act, the financial positions of staffers was part of the public record but were not readily available, making scrutiny deliberately difficult. Information had to be requested on a name by name basis from individual agencies. The process was so time consuming and onerous that it effectively blocked the public from obtaining information buried in these records.

In the name of "national security," this new change within the law removes the requirement to create a searchable index of financial trading activity and ownership in an online database. As a result, it makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for researchers to monitor compliance with the law or even obtain records of these public employees. In effect, the law has been gutted.

If you are wondering why this modification was passed by unanimous consent in the middle of the night, a year after it was originally passed, consider this. The elections are over and the politicians figure you will forget all about this by the time 2014 rolls around. In addition, a unanimous vote does not require any specific legislator to be singled out by name in this most blatant act of self-dealing.

Oh, and by the way, guess who sponsored the legislative change — your friend and mine, Sen. Harry Reid. Enough said.

Bill Schmick is registered as an investment adviser representative with Berkshire Money Management. Bill’s forecasts and opinions are purely his own. None of the information presented here should be construed as an endorsement of BMM or a solicitation to become a client of BMM. Direct inquires to Bill at 1-888-232-6072 (toll free) or email him at Bill@afewdollarsmore.com.

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The Independent Investor: Japan: The Rising Sun, Part II

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

The Japanese stock market is the single best performing market so far this year. That's saying something, since we all know that our own markets are hitting record highs on a daily basis. I'm betting this is just the dawn of a new age for this island nation.

Frankly, there is still a lot of skepticism that the Japanese have finally turned the corner. There have been so many false starts since their markets peaked in the late 1980s that the last three-plus decades have bred an enormous amount of cynicism from both the Japanese themselves as well as international investors.

On Wall Street there are only a handful of us left who remember the glory days of Japan. I first visited Japan in 1977 as a Fulbright Fellow. In those days the Japanese export miracle was in full throttle. Fueled by an invincible stranglehold on the world's exports markets, the country had transformed itself into the second largest nation in terms of Gross Domestic Product. There was even talk that at some point Japan would overtake the U.S. for the No. 1 spot in GDP.

It all came crashing down as a result of excess speculation, missteps in government and monetary policy followed by the rise of truly cost effective competition in the form of emerging markets. Japan's decline has been long and depressing. The country's troubles and the private and public sector's attempts to fix them have been held up as a textbook case of what not to do in economic policy. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke actually did his doctorate thesis on that very subject.

We old Japan hands thought the country's woes could get no worse and then two years ago an earthquake and tsunami devastated the eastern part of Japan. The resulting meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear plant was the final blow. Credit agencies downgraded the country’s sovereign debt to negative, the market sank (the Nikkei was trading at 9,815) and the hit to the economy convinced most investors that Japan’s sun was setting, not rising.

I begged to differ. In June 2011 in my column "Japan: Is the Sun Beginning to Rise?" I argued:

To my way of thinking, here is an economy that is on the eve of a massive stimulus program, a declining currency (good for increasing exports), a corporate sector hell bent on increasing capacity and re-gaining global market share (think autos) and a population that is willing to finance the effort regardless of Moody's outlook on their bonds. In the eastern region, new housing (unlike the U.S.) is in great demand. And unlike our own financial institutions that refuse to lend despite low interest rates, Japan's banks will lend and lend to corporations and individuals in order to help the recovery effort.

What this indicates to me is that a V-shaped economic recovery in Japan is a strong possibility. If I'm right, the stock market is a screaming buy."

Granted it took some time for the country to reorganize, find its footing and develop an alternative direction. In November of last year, new Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was elected, promising a radical new approach (for Japan) to eradicate two decades of stagnation. This year the Japanese government, along with the central bank, has embarked on a huge stimulus program. Although comparable to the type of quantitative easing our own country has employed to lift us from recession, Japan's program is far greater given the size of their economy.

They are deliberately attempting to combat years of deflation by reigniting its opposite. A daunting task since it is far easier to manipulate inflation than deflation within a country. The process has begun. The value of the yen has plummeted, bond yields are rising and the stock market is taking off. Yes, the stock market is up some 13 percent so far this year, but we have to put that gain in perspective. The peak level for their market index, the Nikkei, occurred on December 29, 1989, at 38,957. Today the Nikkei is trading at 13,549.

In hindsight, it took the U.S. market four years to reach its present state of record highs from the bottom of the financial crisis. I attribute that gain to the efforts of our central bank's stimulus programs. In Japan, after 30 years of bottoming, the stock market is just beginning to respond to their central bank's quantitative easing. We still have a long, long way to go before the Nikkei approaches even the halfway mark when comparing record highs.

Bill Schmick is registered as an investment adviser representative with Berkshire Money Management. Bill’s forecasts and opinions are purely his own. None of the information presented here should be construed as an endorsement of BMM or a solicitation to become a client of BMM. Direct inquires to Bill at 1-888-232-6072 (toll free) or email him at Bill@afewdollarsmore.com.

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@theMarket: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

This week, for the first time all year the S&P 500 Index has sustained more than a 1 percent pullback. It needs to correct somewhat more, and despite the short term pain, this sell-off is a good thing.

Have you ever asked yourself why a tea kettle has a spout? It allows steam to escape so that the water within does not boil over. That's what periodic sell-offs accomplish in the stock market. Daily new highs, weeks of successive gains, chasing stocks — all of those indicators were out there. As I have written over the last month, it was just a matter of time before market discipline exerted itself. I'm hoping the decline will continue for a few more days and purge some of the excess exuberance out of the markets. So why not sell now and try to catch the bottom later?

If you can do that successfully, you're a better man than I, Gunga Din. But in the past, readers may recall, I have done just that. I have successfully told readers when to sell and when to buy back in 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011 and 2012, so why not now? The difference this time is the extent of the decline I am looking for.

In the past, each of my sell recommendations encompassed a correction in stocks of at least 10 percent. This time I don't see that. We may experience a decline that approaches the 10 percent level but, in my opinion, a decline of that magnitude is not warranted.

You see, unlike the last few years, I don't see the kind of market risk that precipitated big declines. The EU, Greece, Washington, U.S. debt downgrades, as well as fiscal and monetary uncertainty has been replaced with what — Cypress? Bumpy unemployment numbers? North Korea sabre rattling?

None of the above has the power to crater this market. The present concern over the last few weeks' jobs numbers should be put in context. Remember that a lot of construction jobs were created by Super Storm Sandy, however, those repairs are winding down. At the same time we are starting to feel some of the ill-advised (in my opinion) sequester cuts starting to show up in the data.

Clearly those cuts will do little good for the economy but they won't sink it. As long as the Fed keeps pumping dollars ad infinitum into this economy we are all sitting pretty. On the plus side, the recent decision by the Japanese monetary authorities to follow our central bank's lead and stimulate their economy to the tune of 7.5 trillion yen is truly unprecedented.

I was talking to a 30-year veteran of Japanese investing, Michael Longthorne, a managing director of Mizuho Securities, who described the move as "strapping a rocket onto a go cart." We concluded that after over 20 years of economic stagnation, there is the potential that the world's third largest economy (after the U.S. and China) could become a real factor once again in global economic growth in the years to come.

Bottom line, markets will use just about anything as an excuse when a pullback is overdue. My advice is to ignore the jibber jabber, ignore your short-term paper losses and look forward to a good year of double digit gains in your investment accounts.

Bill Schmick is registered as an investment adviser representative with Berkshire Money Management. Bill’s forecasts and opinions are purely his own. None of the information presented here should be construed as an endorsement of BMM or a solicitation to become a client of BMM. Direct inquires to Bill at 1-888-232-6072 (toll free) or email him at Bill@afewdollarsmore.com.

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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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