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@theMarket: The Name of the Game — Dividends & Interest

Bill Schmick

Last week, I advised investors to "wait for the bounce" before getting more defensive. We've had three bounces this week, so by now you are either out of your most aggressive investments or nearly so. Stay defensive.

Never has the Dow Jones Industrial Average experienced the kind of swings we have witnessed this week. With 400-500 point swings a day, up and down, it is clear to me that high frequency trading owns the stock market right now. It is no place for the individual investor.

"Have we put in a low?" asks a client from Northern Berkshire County.

It seems so, but only time will tell. I know that is a iffy answer but here's why: The S&P 500 Index has bounced off 1,100 twice this week, giving technical analysts some hope that we have found a level where buyers are willing to step in. Since then, we have climbed almost 100 points or 6 percent in just two days. Normally, the next reaction will be a retest of the lows. That will determine whether 1,100 truly is the low. If it breaks — look out below. We could easily drop another 50-100 points.

Now you will probably agree that for most of us, that isn't a bet we are willing to make, especially if your portfolio is still fairly aggressive. That's why I am suggesting that you take a more defensive stance. Switch to large cap dividend socks, corporate bonds and, if you have the risk appetite, high-yield bonds as well. There are dozens of exchange-traded and mutual funds that offer plenty of choices; just watch out for high expense ratios and front load sales charges.

"Why not go to cash?"

That is a question I've heard repeatedly this week from clients throughout the Northeast.

In general, I wouldn't forsake the stock market quite yet. The jury is still out on whether we are heading for a recession. If we continue to wallow along in our slow growth, low interest rate, high unemployment economy, then the stock market is not going to decline much further. On the other hand, it won't be going up much either.

In that kind of environment, you want to find the highest dividend and interest income bearing investments around. Think of it this way: if the stock market provides sub-par returns for the next year or two (1-2-3 percent) than capturing interest and income returns of 3-6 percent will be a great way of beating the market and reducing your risk.

Fortunately, thanks to the market selloff, you can pick up great deals in that area right now. Those large cap companies that have a large part of their business overseas and pay large dividends are ideal candidates. But don't forget preferred stocks, they are a great way of both participating in any upside in the market while enjoying a healthy stream of income.

The risk of a spike in interest rates has receded. Now that the Federal Reserve Bank has assured investors this week that they will keep interest rates low until the middle of 2013. Investors have been given a window of opportunity to hunt for higher yielding alternatives to U.S. Treasury bonds. So over on the bond side, corporate bonds — both investment grade and high yield — make sense.

The wild card in this strategy is that the Obama administration or the Fed surprises us with another program to stimulate the economy. After all, there are some uncanny similarities between what is happening right now and what happened during this same time period last year. The stock market has declined by about the same amount. Investors were greatly concerned last August (as they are now) that the economy was slipping back into recession.

In late August of last year, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke announced QE II at the Fed's annual meeting in Jackson Hole, Wyo. Bernanke will speak again on Aug. 26 at the same meeting. Some hope he will announce a second market-propping program to further stimulate the economy, something we now know the central bank is at least discussing. That belief stems from the following sentence buried in this week's FOMC statement

"The Committee discussed the range of policy tools available to promote a stronger economic recovery in a context of price stability."

That statement, although short, was significant, but was largely overlooked as the news of the Fed's decision to extend its low-interest-rates policy to 2013 took precedence among the nation's media. Now, just because the open market committee is discussing these things doesn't mean they are ready to act. Nonetheless, it is a possibility. Be forewarned that the volatility in the markets will continue as more participants move to the sidelines, leaving only high-frequency traders and their computers to battle it out minute by minute. 

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.

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Independent Investor: What To Expect After a Waterfall Decline

Bill Schmick

It's been one heck of a two weeks. One would think the world was coming to an end, given the way global markets have behaved. You may not be able to make much sense of why markets sold off so quickly, but out of the carnage we may be able to predict what comes next. Here's why.

Stock market free falls, such as the one we are presently experiencing, are called "waterfall declines," which are sudden drops of 20 percent or more compressed into a few short weeks or days. They are fairly rare events and most follow a roughly similar pattern consisting of three phases.

The first phase is the decline itself followed by a sharp bounce higher. We may be experiencing that bounce right now. Following the bounce (and possible re-test of the lows), the market should drift into a basing period that could last for one to three months.

During that time the market could move up and down in a sideways pattern similar to what we experienced in May through June of this year. Finally in the last phase there is a rally lasting six to 12 months that could move the markets higher by about 25 percent.

In reviewing 10 waterfall declines from 1929 thorough 2002, three months after the post-waterfall low, the stock market was higher in all 10 cases. Six months later, the market was higher in nine of the 10 cases with the average gain at 17 percent. A year later, the market was higher in nine out of 10 cases with the average gain equal to 24 percent. The financial crisis of 2008-2009 was in a league all by itself. The market, three months after the low of March 2009, was up 37 percent.

If we drill down even further, say to the next two weeks, one can expect a "relief rally" of as much as 10 percent. Then, if the pattern holds, we should "re-test" the bottom. In this case, if we have truly found a bottom for the S&P 500 Index at around 1,100, we should bounce again from there.

"So what happens if we break down through that 1,100 level?" asked a nervous client from Manhattan.

The short answer is 1,100 wasn't the bottom and we go lower, by as much as 10 percent, to S&P 1,000.

Waterfall declines are often recession-related. There have been exceptions to that rule, for example, in 1987 the market fell sharply for two days only to spring back. The Dot-Com boom and bust of 2002 was another waterfall decline that did not usher in a recession.

So what is the best way to navigate through a waterfall decline and its aftermath? It is obvious that one should ride out the turbulence; at least for the next few months. If we are truly entering into a recession, the economic data will confirm that fear or dispel it. If we are going into a double-dip, then I advise you to get defensive—bonds, dividend paying stocks, etc.

But it may turn out that the market was simply correcting, as it does periodically after a long and profitable run. Remember, the S&P 500 Index was up over 80 percent in over two years, so a 20 percent pullback doesn't look as serious from that perspective. 

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.

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@theMarket: Now What?

Bill Schmick

Unless you have been living in a vacuum, you are keenly aware of the stock market's freefall. Panic is in the air and rumors are swirling around the Street's trading floors. It is time for investors to step back and take a breath.

If you are worrying about your retirement accounts, don't. This is not 2008-2009. Much of what is going on in the markets is a result of conjecture, not facts. No one knows if we are going into another recession. No one knows if Italy is going to go bankrupt, no one knows the future. At most, we can only make educated guesses.

Let me first admit that I was definitely wrong last week when I posed the question "Buy or Sell" in my column. I advised readers to hold onto their investments. Like many others, I was expecting a rally in stocks after the successful passage of a debt-limit increase. Even though I expressed my deep concerns over the weakening of the economy, I was caught like everyone else going the wrong way when the markets dropped through the floor. That said, I believe it is too late to sell and, if I do, I will wait first for a bounce.

Selling a market already down 12 percent in 10 out of 11 days is not a smart move. We are close to, if not already in, that zone of capitulation where panic takes over and investors want out at any price. Thursday was over a 95/5 day during which 95 stocks were sold for every five purchased. The New York Stock Exchange Index is so oversold that it registers a minus-2 standard deviation (SD). These are all signs of a near-term bottom.

My friend John Roque, technical strategist over at WJP Capital Group, indicates that when stocks are this oversold, a relief rally is not far behind. In 100 percent of the cases over the last 30 years where a minus-2 SD occurred, the markets have bounced anywhere from 2 percent to over 10 percent within two weeks. Three months later, the same markets gained 3.6 percent to 34 percent. So the odds are in your favor that selling now would be a losing proposition.

"OK, I wait for a bounce," says a client from Becket, "then what?"

That depends. Many times after a relief rally (sometimes called a dead cat bounce) the markets return to, at, or near the lows before moving higher. At other times, there is a week or two of pause before markets resume an upward climb. Last year, the S&P 500 Index lost almost 18 percent and then rallied straight up with no retest. It could happen again but we will need to get the bounce first before guessing at its durability.

The reason this correction feels so different from last year's is the compressed nature of the decline. What took four months to accomplish in 2010 has taken only 11 days thus far this year. In some ways, a short sharp correction is better than a drawn out death by a thousand cuts kind of correction, although both are painful.

So here's my game plan: stay invested, wait for the bounce, when it occurs sell some of your most aggressive investments and see what happens. If we retrace, buy at or close to the bottom. If we continue to climb, the worst that can happen is you miss a few percentage points of gains. But remember, preserving principle is your No. 1 concern. Profits should come second. 

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.

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Independent Investor: Fear and Loathing on Wall Street

Bill Schmick

It has been over a year since investors experienced the kind of sell-off that has beset the global stock markets this week. As of Thursday, most indexes have lost 10 percent or more. The jury is split on whether we are at the bottom or have more to go.

Most of the losses have occurred quickly, in around 8-9 days, which although painful, could be a blessing in disguise. Sharp, short corrections, in my opinion, are much better than corrections that drag on for months losing a little each day.

Of course, these large declines often trigger strong emotional reactions among investors but decisions based on panic rarely prove to be the right ones in hindsight. So I thought I would provide a little perspective on why the markets are selling off and whether or not you want to join the ranks of sellers.

Over the last few months, the macroeconomic data began to weaken. At first, economists explained that it was caused by bad weather, then the Japan earthquake, but as the numbers continued to come in at a less-than-expected rates investors grew increasingly nervous. Then last week, while all eyes were focused on the debt ceiling crisis, the Commerce Department announced that second quarter GDP came up short — 1.3 percent versus 1.7 percent expected. Even worse, the first quarter was revised downward to just 0.04 percent, a shockingly dismal performance.

That number, combined with an unemployment rate above 9 percent, plus continued uncertainty within the poorer countries of the EU, was enough to tip the scales. The trading range that the markets have been locked in since the end of April was finally resolved to the downside. Since then, we have broken several technical supports and are hovering just above a big one at 1,225 on the S&P 500 Index. If it breaks down and through this level, the chances of additional losses are quite high.

Sounds like doomsday, doesn't it? Well, the same thing happened last year for the same reasons. The economy was slowing, unemployment rising, Europe was in trouble and the markets dropped 16 percent from April 2010 through August. It was then that the Federal Reserve Bank announced the possibility of QE II. The markets reversed, exploded upward and investors never looked back.

Since March 2009 we have had seven such "dips." Each pullback was considered a buying opportunity and those investors that did so have been mightily rewarded. No one knows if this will be No. 8 or if we are going to continue lower. At some level, stock prices will become just too cheap for value buyers to remain on the sidelines. Some say we are at that level now.   

My advice is to decide how much you are willing to lose and when you reach that limit sell and move to the sidelines. For some investors that can mean 5 percent (you should already be out), others will accept 10 percent, while some might be willing to sustain even more. Once your limit is reached don't hesitate. Be prepared emotionally for the possibility that the markets could turn around a day after you sell out. Accept that if it happens, and don't beat yourself up for not staying the course.

For those of you who have bond investments, keep them since bonds and gold are benefiting from the stock selloff.

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.

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Independent Investor: Enough Already!

Bill Schmick

All week the markets have hung on every word coming out of Washington. Nothing else has mattered: not earnings, not Europe's problems, not even the second coming of Christ could have distracted investors. Now that both political parties have achieved what they wanted, let's please stop the monkey business before it's too late.

Credit Suisse, a global broker/investment banker, said on Thursday that in the unlikely event that the U.S. defaults on its debt, the economy could contract by 5 percent and the stock market could lose one third of its value. Although I believe that is an extreme view, the entire mess over the debt ceiling is causing hesitation and delay among the nation's business sector.

Companies have put all sorts of decisions on hold until the crisis is resolved. That includes hiring and investment decisions that directly impact the employment rate and our economic growth. The timing couldn't be worse. The economy is just starting to recover from a soft patch caused by the slowdown in Japan's economy. In addition, our unemployment rate has recently notched up to 9.2 percent. We can't afford these shenanigans.

However, the increase in our debt ceiling is only one of an emerging two-part problem in our economy. Credit agencies are warning that unless we do something to reduce spending and the deficit, our credit rating may be reduced. Now that wouldn't be the end of the world for America, after all, Japan's credit rating was reduced early this year with little consequence. But it certainly wouldn't help the pace of our recovery nor improve the jobless rate.

As we go down to the wire, it appears that if there is to be a deal on raising the debt limit, then both parties will need to agree to disagree and postpone a big deficit-cutting plan until after Aug. 3. There is simply not enough time to hammer out a compromise in the time allotted. There will be a price to pay for a deal of that sort. The markets and the country's corporations will continue to hesitate until a deal is struck that will satisfy the credit agencies.

A compromise budget-cutting plan that cuts $2 trillion or so from the deficit over 10 years will not cut the mustard. The agencies are on record as wanting at least double that amount in order to stave off a credit reduction. The Democrats, led by President Obama, wanted a "Grand Plan" that would answer the demands of the credit agencies and put to rest the deficit politically as an election issue.

The Republicans want the opposite. They see the economy, the deficit and unemployment as the three most likely opportunities to unseat the Democrats next year. By foot dragging now, they can keep the controversy alive and hopefully capitalize on an anemic and aging recovery while continuing to ask "Where are the jobs?" If in the process either the country defaults or our credit rating is reduced they are betting Obama will be blamed for that along with the economy.

They are counting on voters to forget by election time who did what to whom in this debt controversy. I suspect their gamble will pay off.

After all, how many voters remember that the TARP Plan (just one example) was approved before Obama took office? Did you know that the huge deficit we are saddled with actually occurred during the Bush administration? Between his tax cuts and the initiation of two wars, President Bush, with the aid of today's Republican leadership, not only spent the surplus garnered under the Clinton years but wracked up $8.813 trillion in additional new debt.

The Democrats under Obama have added $1.136 trillion in the form of economic stimulus and tax cuts. Economists argue that without that spending our country would have remained in recession or possibly fallen into a depression. In addition, Obama will spend $152 billion on health-care reform and $278 billion on defense. The vast majority of the money spent on these policy initiatives won't even be spent until years in the future, if at all.

As an independent voter, I am less inclined to listen to either parties' rhetoric and instead focus on the facts. The facts are that the financial crisis, the deficit and the subsequent rise in the unemployment rate are the legacy of the Bush administration. I can applaud the GOP for belatedly realizing that they have been on a spending spree for the last decade, but don't blame others for your party's failings.

Sure, if you choose, you can blame Obama and his team for failing to generate a quick recovery, but enough already with this myth that he is the root cause of today's problems in America. As Americans, we deserve more from Washington. 

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.

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