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@theMarket: Stair-Stepping Higher

Bill Schmick

The best rallies are those that move up, take a breather and then move up again. That way markets do not get extended, the gains are fairly predictable, as are the pullbacks. It appears that is the kind of market we are in at present.

The S&P 500 Index reached a low of 1,249 exactly one month ago. It then soared 7.2 percent to 1,339 in the next 23 days. We began this pullback a week ago and so far have given back less than 2 percent of those gains. I would expect a bit more time and possibly downside before resuming our march toward 1,400 on the S&P.

If you are looking for excuses (as so many of us do) to explain the short-term gyrations in the market there are plenty of culprits. If you are a Republican, it's all about the runaway deficit and the opposition's unwillingness/inability to tackle spending and raise taxes. Democrats will argue it's the fault of the GOP and the tea party that narrowly missed shutting down the government by tacking on superfluous riders to the deal. I expect increased rhetoric and market volatility as the debate on the debt ceiling intensifies, so be prepared.

But all of that is simply headline news. The real questions that are making the rounds of trading floors and hedge fund offices are these: At what point does "non-core" inflation, (energy and food, for example) start to impact corporate profits? Are we already seeing some of that risk this quarter as companies voice their concerns about profit margins in the future?

When will the widening gap between America's haves and have-nots reach a boiling point? Over 70 percent of the population is caught in a terrible climate of stagflation while the top 30 percent get richer and richer. Higher commodity prices will eventually force producers to pass on price increases to consumers. Will these consumers demand higher wages in order to stay afloat? Will corporations respond by raising worker's income or will they hold the line? If they hold the line, will that mean consumer spending retreats and the economy slows? Either way, corporate profits will suffer.

Overseas, Spain's real estate losses are massive and at some point will come to the forefront. How will Europe and the world meet that challenge? Spain, unlike Greece, Portugal and Ireland, is a big economy and problems there would have a severe impact on other economies.

Will China be able to continue its role as the world's economic locomotive? The government is struggling to engineer a "soft landing" as it attempts to control/reduce inflation while maintaining a high growth rate. At best, this is a difficult task and if they over tighten, causing their economy to falter, what will that do to global economic growth?

At the center of this debate is QE 2. There is an extremely high correlation between the rise in commodity prices, the stock market and the Federal Reserve's open market purchases of securities. The ripple effect of QE 2 has spread all over the world and the above questions center on what happens with the end of QE2 in June.

The Fed is flooding the economy with money and that money is sitting in bank vaults and on corporate balance sheets. So there is plenty of money to hire workers and raise wages to pay for those higher prices brought on by sky-rocketing commodity prices. Of course, what I am describing is the beginning of an inflationary cycle that, if left unchecked, could lead to hyper-inflation.

Given that no one knows how this story will turn out, one can forgive the two steps forward, one step back volatility in the markets. Gold and silver continue to rocket higher since all we can be sure of right now is that the Fed will continue to pump money into the economy until June. It is also why I believe the stock market, regardless of these short-term pullbacks, is heading higher for now.

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, commodities, inflation, Congress      

@theMarket: Quarter Ends With a Bang

Bill Schmick

The markets presented plenty of head fakes this quarter. In January, contrary to everyone's expectations, the gains of last year kept right on coming through most of the first quarter, only to hit a brick wall in March thanks to troubles in the Middle East followed by nature's one-two punch to Japan. Despite that, the indexes finished the first quarter with the best gains in over two decades.

The Dow racked up 742 points (6.4 percent), the S&P 500 Index gained 68 points (5.4 percent) while the NASDAQ closed up 128 points for a 4.8 percent gain. If we annualize those gains we could be looking at a 20 percent plus gain for the year, which puts my forecast of a 20-23 percent gain in 2011 right on target.

"It was a choppy quarter though," commented one client on Friday who lives in Dalton.

I agree. Clearly this market is exacting a price (higher stress and wear and tear on the nerves) for the gains we are making. I suspect that additional volatility is waiting for us as we continue to climb a wall of worry throughout this next quarter. Some of the concerns I believe will haunt us through the spring are the price of oil brought on by geopolitical turmoil, continued problems among European financial institutions and, of course, the end of QE II, which occurs in June.

Can the economy continue to grow without the multibillion dollar monetary stimulus that the Fed has been providing for well over a year? The economy appears to be growing and unemployment declining, but is that a function of real demand or simply a response to the Fed's easy money policies? How will the stock and bond markets react to an end to this stimulus?

Smarter people than I are expecting a rapid and disastrous response by the bond markets to the sunset of QE II. They believe that interest rates will immediately spike, disrupting what little lending is already occurring and thereby throwing the economy back into recession. I find that hard to believe.

I'm going to give our central bankers, led by Ben Bernanke, the benefit of the doubt. They read the same papers we do and are well aware of the fears of the markets. Is it really plausible that the Fed will step out of the game and simply watch from the bleachers if the doomsayers are right?

There is simply too much at stake and Ben Bernanke knows it. I believe the process of pulling out of the market will be a managed one. For those who pay attention to "Fed Speak," I maintain that process is already at work. Recently a number of Board Governors who have granted interviews advised the financial community that the Fed will be taking a more neutral policy position in regards to stimulus in the future.

That's not to say there won't be concerns and with them volatility. Skittish investors will always jump the gun, many times before they actually have the facts. In today's markets, trading on rumors is just as viable as trading on the facts. So prepare for some rough sailing; but I get ahead of myself.

As a portfolio manager, it's part of my job to fret and worry about what will be, instead of enjoying what is. And a rising market is what we can expect over the next few months. Sure, we can and will have down days, but I believe they will be short and shallow. Commodity stocks will lead, so make sure you have some exposure to those sectors, and if you haven't yet, get back into the stock market — now.

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: stocks, Federal Reserve      

@theMarket: The Coast Is Clear

Bill Schmick

The stock market continues to be buffeted by bad news. Energy prices are climbing, war rages in Libya, Japan's nuclear crisis continues to radiate and Portugal's government resigned after failing to push through austerity measures intended to avert a financial crisis. The stock market simply shrugs it off and moves higher.

Pay attention readers. When markets continue to absorb negative news, the tea leaves tell me stocks are going higher. Last week, I wondered if the correction was over. The answer is yes. Some arcane variables I follow are flashing green. For example, market breath (the number of advancing stocks versus decliners) has made a sharp reversal over the last 10 days, which is a good sign. In addition, the percentage of stocks that are now above their 50-day moving average stands at 57 percent. If history is any guide that indicates we will enjoy a strong multimonth rally.

"But how can the very same worries that sank the market as recently as a week ago now no longer matter?" protested a snowbird with a summer house in Becket, who was convinced the world was coming to an end just a few days ago.

Markets tend to discount bad news and price in numerous "what if" scenarios over time. The European banking crisis has been with us for well over a year, so Portugal's problems no longer have the power to ratchet up risk on a worldwide basis. It would take serious financial problems in a really large country such as Italy or Spain to roil world markets down the road.

In the Middle East, the protests in Tunisia began in December of last year. Four months later, investors, who initially feared this unrest might spread to Saudi Arabia, now believe that if it were going to happen, it would have done so by now. Sure, oil will still remain at the $100 to $110 a barrel level until hostilities in Libya subside, but the rest of the market is already focusing on other things.

Finally, Japan, the world's most recent crisis, is far from over, but the inflated fears of a nuclear holocaust that drove the markets lower two weeks ago have been punctured leaving a mess (see this week's column "Who Pays for Japan?") but not one that will sink the world's markets. And in the meantime, U.S. GDP was revised upward for the last quarter of 2010 to 3.1 percent. Interest rates remain at historically low levels, and the economy appears to be gaining strength.

What we have had is a good old correction. Now it is over. Valuations are considerably lower (on average 7 percent) which has reduced the premiums in the equity market to a reasonable level. I believe the markets are poised to move substantially higher from here as I have written several times in the past. It appears the same cast of characters — materials, food, technology, industrials and energy — will lead the markets higher. Invest accordingly.

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 wschmick@fairpoint.net. Visit www.afewdollarsmore.com for more of Bill's insights.

Tags: Japan, energy, correction      

@theMarket: A Week to Forget

Bill Schmick

In last week's market column, I warned readers of an impending decline of as much as 5 percent in the stock markets. I realize that not everyone receives both my columns each week. The important thing to know is that 4 percent of that drop has occurred but we may still have a re-test of the lows. 

Over the last few days I have been making a lot of what I call "hand holding" calls. These conversations are meant to summarize the events in both Japan and the Middle East, explain how we are dealing with this crisis, and answer any questions people may have. I soon discovered that my clients (and people in general) have been subjected to a lot of misconceptions, misinformation and still have many unanswered questions surrounding these crises. So let's try to set the record straight.

"What's going to happen in the Middle East?" asked a local business owner from Pittsfield.

By now you know that the United Nations declared a no-fly zone over Libya on Friday. In response, Libya's foreign minister quickly declared a cease fire, but as of this writing, battles still rage within the country. On the news, both oil and precious metals declined from overnight highs. All three of those commodities have gyrated wildly all week in response to global events.

At the crux of this controversy, investors fear that while Libya is a small player in the oil markets, unrest in the region, whether in Gaddafi land, Bahrain or elsewhere, could spread to Saudi Arabia. Unrest within the Kingdom would jeopardize a much larger piece of the world's energy pie and could cripple global economic growth.

The ruler of Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah, has decided to short circuit any political unrest in his kingdom by buying off the people who count. Friday he announced a multibillion dollar boost in welfare benefits, bonuses for public-sector workers (including the army) and a massive program of new housing. This follows last month's $37 billion giveaway. Some of the money will also be spent on hiring, ahem, 60,000 new "security guards" at the interior ministry just in case this bribe does not appease all of the populace.

My belief is that tensions in the Middle East may continue, but their power to impact world equity markets is diminishing and as they do, the price of oil will slowly sink back to my target of $80-$90 a barrel, which seems a reasonable price for oil, given world economic growth.

Japan's crisis around the Fukushima nuclear plant, on the other hand, is still a wild card. No one knows what will happen in the days ahead. I maintain that, if the worst should occur, it will not have a substantial impact on the United States. The uncertainty, however, will keep world markets volatile for a bit longer.

If I measure this pullback from top to bottom, we have had a 7.01 percent decline. Over the last few days we have been experiencing a relief rally that has reclaimed about 3 percent of that fall. I am not certain that we have seen the lows yet on the S&P 500 Index. We could still test the 1,225-1,235 level if there were to be a nuclear meltdown at Fukushima or an air war with Libyan forces.

None of that changes my strategy and hopefully yours. This is a pull back to be bought. Don't try to catch the very bottom, simply add to your positions on down days. You should have been doing just that this week. I know I have.

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 wschmick@fairpoint.net. Visit www.afewdollarsmore.com for more of Bill's insights.

Tags: oil, energy, Middle East, Japan, nuclear      

@theMarket: No More Than 5 Percent

Bill Schmick

Patience is a virtue that many investors find difficult to master, present company included. However, this time it appears to have paid off. The tight trading range that held the market captive over the last few weeks has finally been broken. Unfortunately it was to the downside.

This week, especially Thursday, a major sell-off occurred across all asset classes — equities, gold, silver, crude — with economically sensitive stocks leading the decline. It is a key indicator, for me and suggests that the flush-out, selling climax or whatever you want to call it is beginning.

The ostensible reasons for this rout were numerous: a sudden and surprising trade deficit in, of all places, China, a downgrading of Spanish debt by another credit agency, a jump in U.S. jobless claims and of course, some further bad news from the Middle East. This time the concern is riots in the eastern part of Saudi Arabia.

On Friday, all these troubles took a back seat to a devastating earthquake/tsunami that struck Japan spawning another tsunami that raced across the Pacific toward Hawaii and the West Coast of the U.S. mainland. Suffice it to say that the markets remain volatile. I'm hoping for a conclusion sometime this coming week and if not, we will all need to practice the "P" word.

Investors were jumping into U.S. Treasuries and the U.S. dollar in a bid for safety. At the same time, Bill Gross, the head of Pimco, the largest bond house in the world, said he has sold all but the very shortest of his Treasury bond holdings in his largest fund. In explaining the sale, he said:

"When a trillion and a half dollars worth of annualized purchasing power disappears," Gross said, referring to the end of the Fed's QE 2 operations, "I simply question as to who will buy them and at what yield."

When Bill speaks, the bond world listens and so should you.

However, this is not the time to panic. Although it may well feel like an irresponsible action to take, I say gird your loins, start purchasing equities and if you are still in Treasuries (after my numerous pleas to sell), this is an opportune time to unload.

"How deep of a pullback are you looking for?" asked a reader from Great Barrington on Friday.

Well let's look at the technicals.

The S&P 500 Index has a lot of support around 1,265-1,270, failing that, the next level would be 1,225. So from around1, 300, we are talking about no more than a 5 percent correction. As I have often said, equity investors should expect corrections of up to 10 percent at regular intervals in the stock market. It is simply the cost of doing business and if you can't take that kind of volatility you don't belong in the stock markets, period.

Silver, on the other hand, has hit my price target of $36-$37 an ounce. Since I'm fairly disciplined when it come to trading commodities, I have cashed in about half of my chips, although I remain long gold for now. It just seems to me that a 300 percent gain in silver calls for some profit taking. I hope you agree.

That does not mean I will abandon the metal entirely. I believe silver will consolidate as metals often do for several weeks or possibly months before moving higher. In the long term, I believe silver has further upside as do most metals. For longer-term investors I suggest you take your lumps in the short-term. As for me, I will wait until it pulls back to a more reasonable level before becoming interested once again.

Oil, however, as I have reiterated, has more than reached my price target of $100 a barrel. My strategy for investors in that area had been to first reduce exposure to energy stocks, followed by a reduction in oil itself. It doesn't bother me that the talking heads are betting that oil goes higher. If they want to risk their money on an extra $10 worth of upside, let them. I think the easy money has been made (from $35/bbl. to $100 a barrel) and that's what I try to achieve — low risk, high return trades.

Hang in there readers, there are better days ahead.

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 wschmick@fairpoint.net. Visit www.afewdollarsmore.com for more of Bill's insights.

Tags: metals, commodities, disasters      
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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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