@theMarket: Fed Passes the Ball to Congress
By now everyone knows the outcome of Ben Bernanke's speech at Jackson Hole on Friday. For those looking for a cure-all from the chairman of the Federal Reserve, his speech was a disappointment.
Overall, the markets were not nearly as disappointed as one might imagine. I suspect the smart money (see Thursday's column "Can the Fed Save the Markets") was not expecting much in the way of new programs. Of course, Chairman Bernanke promised to take another look at the economy on Sept. 20, when next the FOMC meets, but don't hold your breath.
Although the Fed still has some tools it could use if necessary, the Fed is not omnipotent when it comes to stimulating the economy. There is, of course, quite a bit that Congress, the Senate and the White House could do and the chairman made it clear that the ball was now in their court. He also warned those who are hell bent on cutting spending in congress to be careful what they vote for. He warned that the economy is as fragile as an egg shell right now.
To underscore that point, the second-quarter GDP was revised down again on Friday to only 1 percent from 1.3 percent just a few weeks ago. At that rate, we are teetering between a recession or sub-par growth. I still give a double-dip recession less than a 50 percent chance, in my opinion, but more ineptitude in Washington or a new, negative shock from Europe could tip us over the edge.
The stock market is at an extremely precarious level right now. The averages could go either way, but I believe there is still more downside risk than upside potential over the next few weeks. As a result I remain defensive and nothing that I have seen this week has changed my mind.
Some investors were encouraged when Warren Buffet announced he was taking a multibillion dollar stake in Bank of America. Yet investors should remember that Buffett is a long term investor and is not fazed if the prices of stocks he invests in subsequently go lower, in some cases, much lower, before finally rebounding. And in some cases, his investments do not pan out at all.
I would continue to use any rallies to reduce your most aggressive equity holdings and instead focus on dividend and income investments. Now, even the Fed is looking to our dysfunctional government leaders for new initiatives to reduce unemployment and increase economic growth and that does not give me a warm, fuzzy feeling.
The stock market is in the middle of a bounce right now and I expect that both volatility from Europe and additional selling pressure from concerned investors will drive the averages back to their recent lows. There is a high probability that those lows will fail to hold.
As for this weekend's arrival of Hurricane Irene on the East Coast, experts are predicting that it could cost billions in damages not to mention loss of life. Hurricane Katrina was considered one of the costliest natural disasters to hit America in years. It caused $125 billion in damages and lopped 0.05 percent off the nation's GDP. Let's hope and pray that Irene does not prove to be that bad. The last thing we need is another economic catastrophe. But as the saying goes, when it rains, it pours.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org . Visit www.afewdollarsmore.com for more of Bill's insights.
The Independent Investor: Japan — The Sun Is Beginning to Rise
Readers should know by now that I'm a contrarian. The worse things seem to get, the more interested I become. Take Japan for example.
This island nation has suffered one economic bad spell after another for over 20 years. Japan is a depressing tale of economic and political mismanagement that has resulted in years of negative interest rates, a huge budget deficit, a stagnant economy, moribund stock market and a disillusioned and aging population. The massive earthquake and tsunami that triggered a nuclear disaster at a nuclear power plant in the eastern part of the country was seemingly the last straw that broke this country's back.
Japan is now officially in recession, which started in the last quarter of 2010, and has both widened and deepened thanks to these calamities of nature. Faced with enormous rebuilding costs, any effort to rein in the government's huge deficit looks hopeless. As a result, last week Moody's Investors Services placed Japan's government debt on review for a possible downgrade after changing its view in February from "stable" to "negative."
So why am I interested in investing in a country faced with this unending list of woes?
After two decades of lackluster efforts to revive the domestic economy, a new approach has been forced on the nation's leaders, thanks to the earthquake and tsunami. An enormous re-building of parts of the economy has to be undertaken, similar to the kind of reconstruction Japan undertook after World War II. Experts estimate it will cost $200 billion to $300 billion.
Japanese corporations need to increase their capital expenditures in order to regain lost capacity as well as to invest in improving their supply chain operations against a repeat of this kind of disaster. In addition, they will spend more money on earthquake proofing existing factories and office buildings and acquiring alternate power sources. This could add another $150 billion to $200 billion to national spending.
Aside from all the spending that is beginning in the near future, the government will maintain its extremely loose monetary policy. Interest rates will remain at 0 percent for the foreseeable future. At the same time, the yen is expected to decline as investors shy away from bonds that are rated "negative" by Moody's and an economy that is in recession.
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.
Over the longer term this particular set of economic variables may actually pull the country out of its decadeslong deflationary quagmire. Japan as a nation needs to spend again, build again and buy again. Up until now, there hasn't been the will or a really compelling reason to do so. Now, whether you call it divine intervention or simply the flip side of a bad set of circumstances, Japan has its mojo back. It may take a few years before all of the above unfolds, but I think we are on the cusp of dramatic change within this country. Remember, you heard it here first, folks.
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 email@example.com. Visit www.afewdollarsmore.com for more of Bill's insights.
@theMarket: Marking Time
This coming week will be a humdinger for the markets. The Federal Reserve is expected to begin a second round of quantitative easing and voters will deliver their verdict on the economy in mid-term elections. Both events will have ramifications for investors and stock markets worldwide.
The Fed's decision to further stimulate the economy via a second round of quantitative easing (QE II) has already been priced into the market, in my opinion, but the impact of the mid-term elections has not. If the Republicans gain a majority in the House and additional seats in the Senate, as many political pundits predict, then the markets have reason to rally in the months, if not weeks ahead.
For me, the question is when, not if, the markets will gain more ground. Stocks (and some commodities) are somewhat overbought right now and looking for an excuse to pull back. Maybe the election results will precipitate a "sell-on-the-news" reaction in the very short term. The question I ask is whether the lame-duck Congress will give investors an added excuse to sell?
Most readers are aware that the Bush tax cuts are scheduled to expire in 2010. Will Congress act to extend those cuts before the end of the year? If it does (by extending the tax cuts for many, if not all, Americans), then the markets could see substantial gains. On the other hand, if nothing is done and the tax cuts are allowed to expire than we may be in for a period of uncertainty.
Since I have been attending Charles Schwab's yearly investor conference in Boston this week, it was a good opportunity to take the pulse of the best and brightest on Wall Street as they shared their views of the market and economy. Clearly, just about everyone I talked to is bullish. Not once did I hear the term "double-dip recession," and for the most part, just about everyone was looking for strong markets between now and at least the second quarter of 2011.
In addition, no one likes bonds, especially U.S. Treasury bonds. "Bubble" was the term most often used when describing the $70 trillion investors have stashed away in the bond market. Most argue that the perceived safety that investors see in bonds is an illusion. The investment team from Gameco Investors Inc. headed by famed value investor Mario Gabelli argued that bonds are "in the ninth inning of a 30-year run" providing holders with little yield, no growth prospects and a mountain of interest rate risk. In addition, "Money markets are also not as safe as you think," said Gabelli.
He points out that the $2.8 trillion in money-market funds has a great deal of dollar risk in the form of depreciation, inflation and debasement, besides offering little in the way of yield or growth.
Currency wars was also a leading topic of discussion with most participants believing the battle between nations to keep their currencies weak will continue. The prognosis for the greenback is more weakness ahead as America attempts to export its way to greater growth. As a result, U.S. companies that export are in vogue, especially technology stocks.
Gold, precious metals and commodities in general was an area of heated arguments, with some dismissing the recent run ups as irresponsible speculation while others read the price moves as a rationale answer to declining currencies and the inevitable rise in inflation that lurks just around the corner.
Emerging markets are once again in favor as an area for long-term investment. Bulls point to the increasing percentage of global GDP (49 percent) represented by these fast-growing economies as opposed to what they consider is an underrepresented share of the world's stock market capitalization (only 31 percent).
In the minus column, financial stocks stood out as an area that won't regain its pre-2008 luster anytime soon, neither will consumer discretionary stocks. In both cases, these sectors suffer from the deleveraging that is under way among American consumers. Banks, whose major business is making loans to customers, will experience low growth since Americans are trying to reduce, not increase, their debt as a percentage of their personal income. Consumers are reducing that debt by cutting back on their discretionary spending.
All in all the tone was upbeat at the conference and it felt that business was beginning to get back to normal after several years of strife. Whether that is a good thing when discussing the financial services sector is a matter of opinion.
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 1-888-232-6072 (toll free) or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit www.afewdollarsmore.com for more of Bill's insights.
@theMarket: Precious Metals Gain While Stocks Mark Time
As investors waited for stocks to make up their mind, gold and silver took off this week. Gold made new highs while silver's price level is higher than at any time since 1980. The question is will stocks follow that lead or fall back as they have the last two times the S&P 500 reached this level.
Up until this week, most people (including myself) were betting the market would roll over for a third time and head back to the lows or make new lows. However, thanks to recent economic data that has shed a more positive light on the health of the economy, bullish sentiment among investors has increased to slightly over 50 percent, the highest reading in two years, according to the American Association of Individual Investors. But before you start jumping up and down just three weeks ago those same fickle investors registered the second largest bearish stance in two years. It just indicates how confused we all are about the future direction of the stock market.
In addition, most of us have a trust issue with this market. According to a recent AP-CNBC poll, nearly 90 percent of investors with less than $50,000 and 75 percent of those with $250,000 to invest, believe the stock market is unfair to the little guy. One indication of that sentiment is the continued light volume. Normally after Labor Day volume increases, but the opposite has occurred. That's another sign that market participants are not willing to be burnt a third time. So far this attempt to break out of this four-month trading range has been skittish at best.
All week the market has inched up and down tentatively extending its reach upwards without actually touching the 1,130 level on the S&P. Even if it breaks that level, there is no guarantee that it won't swoon sometime in October. With this much negative sentiment, the contrarian in me is whispering "what if."
What if the markets confound us all and do break out? I must confess that based on the recent economic data and the market's ability to hold the lows over the past few months, I've decided to give stocks the benefit of the doubt here in the short term. However, I am in the "show me" camp. I won't trust this market until I see volume expand and volatility begin to dampen down.
Regardless of what the market does now, I still want to keep some powder dry (cash) at least into October. Further out, I expect a rebound in stock markets which could last for the next two or three quarters.
This is not rocket science. Historically (since 1900) markets do better after mid-term elections, with the uptrend continuing through the first and second quarter of the following year. Couple that history with a growing probability that the GOP will regain sufficient seats in Washington and you have the ingredients for higher markets in the future.
As readers know, I have never believed in a double-dip recession and I have been expecting the economic numbers to improve as more stimulus money is spent and the economy strengthens. That appears to be happening, which will give some fundamental support to my forecast of the market's expected gains.