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@theMarket: Where Is the Bottom?

Bill Schmick

Everyone seems to be looking for the same thing, an end to the pain, an end to the stress, a place where the selling stops. It's called a bottom and it appears to me that we haven't found one yet.

One contrary indicator is the sheer number of bottom fishers who are trying to outguess each other on how low the markets can go. Normally bottoms are reached when no one wants to buy and everyone believes the markets are never, ever coming back. So far, I have seen no evidence that investors are in that state of mind.

This has been a waterfall decline and as such, one can look back through history and see how markets have reacted to past selloffs of this type. If you haven't read my Aug. 11 column, "What To Expect From After a Waterfall Decline" please be sure to read it.

Over the last two weeks, the market declined to about 1,100 on the S&P 500 Index and then proceeded to bounce 9.5 percent to about 1,204. Many think that was the bottom. But was it? I looked at some historical data on past waterfall declines, compliments of Ned Davis Research, a highly respected financial firm, hoping to confirm or deny that supposition.

I found that in 8 of 11 post-waterfall decline cases since 1929, the market has made lower lows. So far this decline has been a textbook waterfall decline. They all begin with a breath-taking whoosh downward, find an interim bottom, (in this case S&P 1,100) and proceed to bounce about 10 percent to an interim peak. Our rally this week to 1,204 was about 9.5 percent and would certainly seem to qualify as an interim peak.

Eventually this interim peak is followed by a decline to the final bottom, which in past declines have averaged about 14 percent to 16 percent. That would put the S&P 500 Index at around 1,020. But that is an average decline. If you look at waterfall declines that were caused by debt-related fears such as in 2008, 1940, 1937, 1938 and 1929, then, the bottoms were a good 10-15 percent lower than the average.

Now that does not mean that this decline must replicate past performances. And remember, too, that this type of bottom occurred in 73 percent of the cases since 1929. Therefore, 2011 could turn out differently. My intention is neither to frighten readers nor to call the bottom but rather to give you an idea of what has happened in the past and give you a framework for future risk/reward. At the very least, I would think that there is sufficient historical data to reframe from jumping into the market again at some arbitrary number whether it be 1,100, 1,075 or 1,020.

Bottoms are rarely V-shaped. There is usually a basing period of several months where the markets trade up and down, testing the lows until a sufficient amount of evidence convinces investors to get back in the market. The sectors that perform the best in a basing/testing period are health care, energy, consumer staples, telecom and utilities. Once the market bottom is in, then the sectors with higher betas such as technology, consumer discretionary, financials and industrials outperform.

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: decline, waterfall, bottom, history      

@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.

     

@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.

Tags: crash, bottom, dead cat bounce      

@theMarket: One Down, One to Go

Bill Schmick

On Friday, the European Union announced a new $157 billion bailout plan for Greece. The scope of the plan went much further than most investors expected. It promised to finance all countries that need bailouts for as long as it takes for them to recover. There's more.

I refer to the new plan as the "Full Monty" (see my column "Europe Goes the Full Monty") because it is the first time in the 18-month long crisis that European leaders were willing to draft a comprehensive approach to the financial crisis among the PIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain).  The plan will be proactive in heading off any further financial contagion among its members while fencing in those that already are in trouble (Portugal, Ireland and Greece).

The deal does allow for a "selective default" in Greece, where some but not all of its debt will be written off or renegotiated at lower terms and lengthened maturities. The plan does not go as far as I might have wished but in the real world of European politics it appears the best that they could do. In my opinion, the crisis appears, if not over, to be at least contained for now.

That crisis is one of two large clouds that have been hanging over the markets for months. The other bailout issue is in our own backyard. And, as I suspected, our elected representatives are stretching out the tension as long as they can. Both sides are glorying in their extra media attention, using their 10-15 seconds of sound-bite glory to appear concerned, tough and "on your side" (while raising as much additional campaign funds as possible for next year's elections).

Here are a summary of client questions and my answers this week on this on-going travesty:

"Will the debt ceiling be raised by the August 2 deadline?”

I'm betting yes, but that still leaves 11 days of volatility in the bond and stock markets.

"What will happen after the deadline, if the ceiling isn't raised?"

As I wrote last week, the markets will decline in the short term, presenting a buying opportunity for anyone brave enough to venture into equities.

"Will the Gang of Six deficit-reduction plan be passed?"

I suspect some version of that plan will be passed but the question is when. The Republicans want to prevent any legislation that might improve the economy or reduce unemployment until after next year's elections. They hope voter frustration over the economy will propel their party's candidates into office and defeat a re-election bid by President Obama.

Unfortunately, the nation's financial credit agencies are not cooperating with the GOP timetable. They have made it clear that without a serious, comprehensive deficit–cutting plan in the ballpark of $4 trillion or more, they will cut the U.S. debt rating. I suspect we will be on "credit watch" until a deficit reduction deal is passed, which means that we will be assaulted by this back-and-forth bickering for some time to come.

"If and when the deficit plan is passed, can we go back to whatever normal is?”

That depends. I believe that cutting spending and raising taxes in an economy that is struggling to gain momentum exposes this recovery to extreme danger. Cutting spending too deeply while raising taxes too much (and shrinking the money supply) is exactly what nipped a fledgling recovery in the bud and sent the U.S. economy into a depression in the '30s. Ask yourself this question: do you feel confident that a bunch of madmen in Washington have the ability to strike just the right balance in order to grow the economy while reducing the deficit?

But let me worry about that. It will take weeks, if not months, for such a compromise to be worked out. In the meantime, this last storm cloud appears to be moving to the edge of the horizon for now. I expect some real progress on a compromise next week.

The economy may be inching along, but corporate profits are booming. This earnings season so far is seeing the vast majority of companies beat earnings and increase guidance. This debt crisis is repressing what should be a buoyant stock market. Like a coiled spring, stocks are just waiting to bounce higher. If and when the debt ceiling is passed, that will happen.

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: Greece, PIGS, bailout, Europe, deb ceiling      

@theMarket: What If?

Bill Schmick

This week the scales finally tipped. The phones began to ring and each call was roughly the same.

"What are the chances the debt ceiling won't be raised?"

"What happens if the politicians can't make a deal?"

"What will happen to my investments if the worst case scenario happens?"

Since the calls were coming in from Maine, Vermont, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts and elsewhere, I'm sure you are all worried about the same thing. If, despite the odds, the debt ceiling is not raised by Aug. 2, 2011, the United States of America plunges into at least a technical bankruptcy. What will happen to the markets? The short answer is nothing good.

This is not an abstract issue. The dollar, as well as global stock and bond markets, would decline. The price of gold and possibly silver would jump but very few other asset classes would be immune from the carnage. The wave of selling would reverberate around the world because everyone is involved in America's bond market. The duration of this financial rout would probably be short lived, a day or three, maybe even a week, before our political "leaders" in Washington came to their senses. Personally, I believe that it would be a classic buying opportunity and one probably not seen since the week after 9/11.

A recent poll by CNBC indicated that 64 percent of viewers are blaming the Republicans for the present impasses in the debt ceiling talks. As for me, I blame us, the voters — Democrats, Republicans (especially the tea party) and independents for the present dilemma. I wrote "leaders" in quotes because the present fiasco has convinced me that there are no leaders left in Washington, D.C.

But why should that surprise you? The present blame game that is substituting for compromise among the congressmen and senators is a joke if one looks at the track record of these supposed leaders. President Barack Obama continuously reminds us that the problems started during the Bush administration. But he was elected to the Senate in 2005, just as the real excesses of mortgage-backed securities was getting under way. Joe Biden was a senator from 1972 until running for vice president in 2009. Where were they when we needed leadership and an effort to end the rampant speculation that was occurring on Wall Street?

Rep. Barney Frank was the chairman of the House Finance Committee before and during the financial crisis as was committee members Orin Hatch, John Kerry, Chuck Schumer and even Ron Paul. All these august officials were asleep at the switch despite receiving a wealth of information daily on the nation's financial system.

Rep. Rosa De Laura has been around since 1990 and sits on the House subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services. Steny Hoyer has been in the House since 1986 and was House majority leader from 2007-2011 and House minority whip from 2003-2007. Nancy Pelosi was the speaker of the House since 2007 and is now House minority leader; that about sums up the background of today's starting line-up on the Democratic side.

Republicans, on the other hand, beginning with our past president, presided over the financial crisis from 2000-2008. During that period, Eric Cantor, Paul Ryan, John Boehner, Mitch McConnell and many more of today's "responsible" budget-cutting GOP leaders knew and did nothing but watch as the financial system spun out of control. They too have conveniently forgotten their past lack of leadership and are busily blaming the opposing party for their own shortcomings.

Today we are looking to these same men and women to compromise, to work together and fix the economy, balance our finances, raise the debt ceiling and solve the nation's unemployment problem. We elected them, despite the knowledge that these very same people have been found wanting in the past. Why should we expect them to be any better today?

So let the chips fall where they may. I expect that until we have a deal the markets will continue their schizophrenic behavior. The best thing you can do is hunker down and wait for this storm to blow past.  

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: debt ceiling, markets, Congress      
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