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@theMarket: Bumps in the Road

Bill Schmick

Investors are worried. They are worried that the end of QE II will spell disaster. They are worried that European bank woes will spill over onto our shores. They are worried that the economy is stalling and inflation is trending higher. Yet, with all these worries, the markets have held their own over the last few weeks.

I'm not going to dismiss these concerns, although we need to remember that markets often climb a wall of worry. Admittedly, there have been so many downgrades of sovereign debt lately that it's hard to keep track. The PIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Greece, and Spain) have had to make room this week for Japan. That island nation joined the ranks of downgrades in large part due to the economic impacts of the recent earthquake and tsunami.

The governments of the PIGS countries, in the meantime, have responded by implementing austerity measures, hiking taxes and selling off state assets.

These belt-tightening policies have not had the desirable effect either in the economic or in the sociopolitical arena. Anger and fear among the population have spawned demonstrations, strikes and political upheaval.

"Just say no," has been the message of various opposition parties within the region.

The voters are listening. Spain's Socialist Party, for example, was hammered in recent elections. Ireland kicked out its prime minister, Greece's opposition parties are making it impossible for the government to make deeper austerity cuts and demonstrations have replaced dancing as a national pastime.

Although "no" sounds good, especially to the youth, it unfortunately provides little in the way of solutions to the PIGS financial crisis. But regime change (or the threat of one) has made ruling parties drag their heels in implementing reform. In the meantime, the debt continues to pile up and the financially sound countries within the EU are becoming increasingly impatient.

Readers may recall that I expressed serious doubts over a year ago when the EU first announced that in exchange for a bailout, the PIGS would need to agree to stringent spending cuts and higher taxes. My hesitation stems from a similar debt crisis I experienced in Latin America during the 1980s.

At that time, it was the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that was calling the shots. The same deal was foisted on countries throughout Latin America. All that effort accomplished was massive unemployment, a rapid decline in economic activity and a whole bunch of socialist revolutions from one end of the continent to the other. We called that period the "Lost Decade."

In the end, when the problem threatened to topple some of our own banks, we did what had to be done. We swapped debt for equity at 10 cents on the dollar. We also forgave a lot more debt than we swapped and, as a result, we have the Latin America we have today—dynamic, entrepreneurial and growing far faster than most regions. God forbid, that today's brilliant economists and politicians learn a lesson from the Lost Decade!

As for the rest of these worries, I'll handle them in order: the end of QE II at the end of June will be a nonevent. The Fed has our back and will continue to have it. Europe's woes will be contained, most likely by allowing some countries to re-negotiate their debt along the lines I have suggested. The "DD" (double dip) won’t happen this year and inflation expectations will begin to decline as investors realize the peak in the commodity bubble has come and gone.

So that leaves a market that is down less than 5 percent from its highs. Recall that I expected a pullback into the 1,300 to 1,325 range on the S&P 500 Index. Well, we dropped to 1,311 this week and in my opinion we are scraping along the bottom. So quit worrying.

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.

Tags: QEII, debt, Europe      

@theMarket: Markets Tread Water

Bill Schmick

Volume was thin, volatility high, and despite all the excitement over the LinkedIn IPO, the averages finished little changed from the levels of last week. This is a market that requires patience and fortitude.

By now, you probably have had your fill of LinkedIn stories. For those who haven't caught up, all you need to know is that the professional networking company went public on Thursday at $45 a share and proceeded to more than double by the end of the day. It now has a valuation greater than one-third of the companies that make up the S&P 500 Index, making billionaires of its founder and many of its staff.

A few analysts expect LinkedIn's IPO to be just a taste of things to come. The big four in this space - Facebook, Groupon, Twitter and Zynga - haven't set a date for accessing the public markets but are all making noises that suggest future IPOs. Some hope that LinkedIn will revitalize the IPO market, which has been lackluster at best so far this year.

Other analysts fret that the overnight $9 billion market capitalization of LinkedIn is reminiscent of the companies that went public during the Dot-Com boom. And we all know how that turned out. I suspect that, like the stock market in general, the price action of LinkedIn simply reflects the fact that too much money is chasing too few investments led by the "hot money" folks who have abandoned commodities and are looking for the next big play.

At some point, rational behavior will prevail and LinkedIn will trade at a valuation that will better reflect its fundamentals. Until then, I will watch the show from the sidelines.

As for commodities, the prices of silver, gold, grains and base metals are trading like yo-yos in the hands of elephants. In the energy space, oil is fast closing in on $95 a barrel. Don't try to be a hero and trade these price movements. Leave that to the professionals, who, by the way, are losing as much as they're making in these markets. There will come a time when commodities finish falling. Usually, prices will tend to flatten out and volumes dry up at the bottom. That will be the time to look at these investments once again.

In the meantime, the dollar's strength is hurting U.S. stocks as is Euroland's continued difficulties with the PIGS economies. Friday it was the turn of the Greeks, whose sovereign debt rating was reduced further to "B-plus, highly speculative." It appears that default is inevitable for Greece, (something I predicted would happen over a year ago). The trick will be to engineer a default without actually labeling it as such, something bankers and politicians are quite adept at doing after the last few years.

As for the markets, they remain in up trends. The "sell in May and go away" crowd would have you abandon the markets until October. Although the May Play works some of the time, I don't believe this year will be one of them. Stick with the markets and have patience.

Any references to specific securities are for illustrative purposes only and were selected based on a non-performance based criteria. The performance of the securities listed is not discussed and Berkshire maintains a listing of all recommendations for the preceding year and makes it available to the SEC upon request. The securities identified and described do not represent all of the securities purchased, sold, or recommended for client accounts. The reader should not assume that an investment in the securities identified was or will be profitable.

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.

 

Tags: IPO, dot-com      

@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.

Tags: metals, oil      

@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.

Tags: bears, Bernanke, QEII, export, interest rates, earnings      

@theMarket: Let the Good Times Roll

Bill Schmick

Don't stand there moaning, talking trash
If you wanna have some fun,
You'd better go out and spend some cash
And let the good times roll
Let the good times roll
I don't care if you young or old,
Get together and let the good times roll

— B.B. King, Bobby Bland

It appears Monday's low in the stock market averages concluded this last little sell off. The decline occurred, courtesy of Standard and Poor's credit agency. It reduced its outlook for U.S. Treasury bonds from neutral to negative. Since then the markets have climbed back and are now preparing to test the next level of resistance.

We can credit some stellar earnings announcements, especially in the technology sector, for the turnaround in investor sentiment. Most investors were worried that the Japanese earthquake disruptions — especially in semiconductors — would hurt high-tech companies this quarter. But the strength in demand from around the world, especially in the manufacturing sector, has more than made up for any Japanese-generated short falls.

None of this should come as a surprise to readers since I have been expecting (and writing) that global economic growth would gain momentum this year. It is one fundamental reason why I think equity markets will experience upward momentum into the summer.

"But what about the deficit, the declining dollar, inflation, oil prices?" wrote an exasperated reader, who has disagreed with my bullish calls of late.

"How can the market keep going up and up when all these negatives are out there?" he moaned, while still sitting in cash.

All of those concerns are quite real and I am not discounting any of them. See, for example, my recent column "A Shot Across Our Bow" on Standard & Poor's debt warning. It is obvious that the market is choosing to ignore these negatives for now. I'm sure investors will re-visit these worries when the time is right, but remember Maynard Keynes once said that markets can stay irrational about certain things far longer than you or I can stay solvent.

I contend that as long as the Federal Reserve continues to supply cheap money to the markets in the form of its quantitative easing operations, the markets will go up. The historical low short term interest rates that are now a fact of life are forcing more and more investors to take on riskier assets in order to get a decent return for their money.

I'm looking for a quite sizable "melt-up" in global stock markets over the next few weeks or months. I'm also expecting some new moves by China to allow their currency to strengthen in an effort to combat their soaring inflation rate. That would add further impetus to a declining dollar, which would boost our exports and add more growth to the U.S. economy. It might also turn investor's focus back on China, which has lagged world markets for some time. Stay tuned.

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.

Tags: markets, debt, high-tech, ratings      
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