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@theMarket: Third-Quarter Earnings Reveal Two Economies

Bill Schmick

With one quarter of the companies in the S&P 500 already reporting, third quarter earnings have been a positive surprise. Eighty-six percent have exceeded earnings estimates and 67 percent have posted higher revenue numbers. What the numbers don't say is that most of those gains have come from overseas.

The revenue number is where we should focus our attention. Higher earnings can be achieved by simply continuing to cut costs (by firing workers, for example). However, looking at the revenue numbers gives us a clear understanding of where the growth is coming from. Not much of it is coming from the home front. A lot of that growth is coming from higher sales in Asia and other emerging markets.

Since the bottom of the recent recession here in America, the majority of firms in the S&P 500 have been exporting their way into profitability. This quarter was no different. Take United Parcel Services; it is one of the companies that investors consider a good barometer of the global economy because it delivers products everywhere. UPS showed a 3.5 percent increase in growth versus last year here at home while their international growth was 13.7 percent. Many other companies are experiencing the same phenomenon.

Clearly, the falling dollar has helped exports as has the increasing strength in emerging market economies, particularly in Asia. And this weekend all eyes will be focused on the latest round of G20 talks in Seoul, where the ongoing battle to "beggar they neighbor" will continue. We can expect currencies to be one of the main topics of conversation since our own U.S. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner has already fired the first broadside. In an open letter he has asked members to "refrain from exchange rate policies designed to achieve competitive advantage by either weakening their currency or preventing appreciation of undervalued currency."

In last week's column, "The Coming Currency War," I explained how the world's governments are using their currencies to increase exports at the expense of their neighbors. Clearly, U.S. third-quarter earnings underscore how our own policies have aided and abetted U.S. companies in exporting more. This makes Secretary Geithner's request look a bit suspect in my opinion. It will be interesting to see the response of other governments.

I mentioned last week that I was waiting for commodities, specifically gold and silver, to pull back. I expected that pullback to be sharp, and it has been. After hitting a high of $1,380 an ounce, gold dropped as low as $1,317 an ounce in what felt like a blink of the eye. Silver also had a commensurate move downward. As expected, a rise in the dollar was the catalyst for that pullback. Traders will wait until they see the results of this weekend's G20 meet before going back into precious metals or other commodities.

There is always the risk that some new policy initiative could strengthen the dollar and thus continue the commodity sell-off. It could happen, but I wouldn't hold my breath. There are few new policy alternatives on the table in Washington to revive the economy so my bet is that after a brief period of strength, the dollar will resume its decline, gold and other commodities will continue higher and so will the stock market. Under that scenario, we are back to buying the dips. Invest accordingly.

Write a comment - 0 Comments       Tags: currency, global economy, dollar      

The Independent Investor: Understanding the Foreclosure Scandal

Bill Schmick

This week one of my clients asked me to explain the ongoing foreclosure debacle in "plain English" as she put it. It dawned on me that there may be a lot of readers out there who would benefit from the same thing, so here goes.

The first point to understand is that homeowners can only be foreclosed and evicted by the person or institution that actually holds the mortgage loan note. That noteholder is the only entity that has the legal authority to ask the courts to foreclose and evict the mortgageholder. That note is what you sign and give to the original lender, promising to pay the loan back over 10-20-30 years. It is that note (not the mortgage) that is the important legal document.

Back in the day, before mortgage-backed securities and loan securitization, most mortgage loans were issued by your local S&L or bank. The note stayed with the local financial institution who serviced the loan, just like in the movie "It's a Wonderful Life."

Then some Wall Street rocket scientists decided to modernize that business. Since all mortgageholders are not the same and some are riskier than others, these Gordon Gekko-lookalikes decided there was a buck to be made in wholesaling mortgage loans to investors hungry for higher-yield securities. Wall Street bought these mortgage loans off the banks and bundled them into huge pools called Real Estate Mortgage Investment Conduits (REMICs). At that point, these mortgages were spliced and diced into tranches according to their risk, (among other variables). The REMICS never owned the mortgage notes, but were simply re-packaging the mortgage loans, taking a fee and selling them to others.

Investors bought these loans, which were separated into a whole range of tranches according to how much risk the investor wanted to take on. What is important to understand is that each tranche holder owned a portion of the same mortgage, rather than investor A owning my mortgage and investor B holding yours. If my mortgage defaulted and you owned a junior (riskier) tranche of my mortgage (times many, many more) then you would be hit with that loss first. If there was still some loss left over, the more senior (safer) tranche holder would take a hit as well. It was physically impossible, even if the sellers owned the notes, to divide them fractionally between thousands if not millions of buyers. So once again these mortgages (tranches) were sold but not the notes.

Imagine the complexity of keeping track of what mortgages were defaulting versus those that were not and how much loss to assign each individual trancheholder? Enter the Mortgage Electronic Registration System (MERS), which became the repository for millions of digitized mortgage notes that all the financial institutions originated from the actual mortgage loans signed by you and me. These digitalized mortgage notes were sliced and diced and rearranged once again and came out the other end as mortgage-backed securities. The problem was that MERS didn't actually hold the mortgage notes either. And therein lies the rub. Legally, the chain of title for these mortgage loans has been broken a couple of times.

As I've explained, the key document in taking out a mortgage is the note. In order for that note to be sold or transferred to someone else (for example, transformed into a mortgage-backed security), the note has to be physically endorsed over to the next person. If it isn't, the chain of title is broken. If the chain is broken than legally the mortgage note is no longer valid. The person who took out the mortgage no longer owes the loan, because he no longer knows who to pay. In my opinion, I still believe that everyone has an obligation to repay money they have borrowed, otherwise, the entire system of credit will disintegrate.

Of course, with the number of foreclosures that have hit the nation, this issue was bound to be discovered as homeowners began to contest eviction. The banks, realizing their error, hired foreclosure mills, (legal firms that specialized in foreclosures), to remedy the problem. Accusations that these foreclosure mills actually went back and falsified documents in order to repair the broken chain of titles caught the attention of attorneys-general throughout the nation as did stories of robo-signers who were signing their names to foreclosure documents that attested that they had reviewed the loan documents when they hadn't.

In an election year, this issue has disrupted everything to do with the mortgage markets from foreclosure to new home sales. Everyone from the White House, the Justice Department, the U.S. Treasury and the Housing Departments are announcing task forces to dig deeply into this mess. In my opinion, the digger they deep the worse the true story will become so stay tuned.

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@theMarket: QE II Supports the Markets

Bill Schmick

No, QE II is not the name of a cruise ship; although it might as well be, given the upward ride it is providing the stock market. The Federal Reserve is expected to launch another quantitative stimulus effort in early November and the markets are rising in anticipation of that event.

On Friday, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke reiterated that the central bank is ready to move if necessary to stimulate the economy. Investors are assuming it's a question of "when" and not "if" the Fed will move to buy additional U.S. Treasury bonds, mortgage-backed securities and whatever else they decide will provide additional impetus to a slow-growth economy.

In an election year, where the continuing high rate of unemployment and the ongoing housing mess is being blamed on the Democrats, the pressure on the Fed for a QE II must be enormous. Remember, at the end of the day, Bernanke is a political appointee, as are the members of the Fed's governing board. Sure, we would like to think that the Fed is an independent body focused solely on the economic health of America and it is most of the time.

On the other hand, if the president's wishes dovetail with what the Fed perceives to be necessary in helping the economy so much the better.

In my last few market columns, I explained that QE II was a game changer. The Fed, by promising additional stimulus, is providing investors with a "put" on the economy and therefore on the stock market. If the economy continues to grow on its own, the markets will go higher. If the economy falters, the Fed will intervene to fix it and the markets will go higher. What's not to like about that?

The arguments on whether we really do need another stimulus, will QE II really work, and will it add to the potential for more inflation down the road are consuming a forest of newsprint. In the meantime, investors are dumping the dollar (see my latest column "The Coming Currency Wars"), the markets forge steadily higher and commodities of all kinds are on fire.

As readers recall, only a month ago I raised my price target for gold to $1,350 per ounce. We have already surpassed that level and it looks like the yellow metal will hit $1,400 per ounce very soon. I'm going to have to raise my price target again but first I would like to see gold and other commodities pull back.

The dollar is key to any commodity correction. There is an inverse relationship between the dollar and commodities. The dollar may bounce over the next few weeks and if it does, that should cause commodities in general to pull back. Remember too that in the commodity arena, corrections are extremely sharp where prices can drop dramatically in a very short time.

As the S&P 500 Index flirts with the 1,180 level, I would expect a bit of resistance before the bulls make a dash toward the year's highs. The ongoing questions over housing foreclosures that have embroiled most of the banking sector this week has kept a lid on the averages. The next Fed meeting won't be until early November so any potential QEII is still weeks away. The main market moving catalyst we face is this quarter's earnings announcements. So far, company results have been a mixed bag. My advice is to let the markets pull back a bit before committing any more money to this party.

Write a comment - 1 Comment       Tags: Federal Reserve, Bernanke, stimulus      

The Independent Investor: The Coming Currency War

Bill Schmick

The International Monetary Fund and its members were in no mood to agree on a unified policy of currency movements at their weekend meeting in Toronto. Finger pointing and veiled threats of retaliation were hurled at China from both American and European members, among others. Underneath all the rhetoric, I fear we are in a race to the bottom as countries vie to reduce the value of their own currencies while demanding that others strengthen theirs.


Back in early 2009, in several columns, I speculated that just about every country in the world would try to export their way out of recession. In order to do that, each country would endeavor to keep their currency as cheap as they could, thereby reducing the prices of their exports. It’s also a fact that some countries (Brazil, India, China) weathered the world recession far better than others. Critics argue that part of the reason that occurred was that these countries contrived to keep their currencies artificially low and continued to export as much as they could.


Unfortunately, today the world still grabbles with high unemployment and an economic recovery that is anemic at best. As deficits mount and governments scramble to increase the pace of growth, each country is vying to take an increasing share of a shrinking global economic pie. It is the real cause of this war of words which could soon take on a much more concrete form of expression.


China, due to its size and economic prowess, has been singled out as the main culprit in this on-going currency manipulation. Over the weekend, the Chinese resisted demands to strengthen their currency. They argued that they were already beginning to do so, but “gradually”. They warned that if their currency, the yuan, did not remain stable, it would bring disaster to China and the world.


This was seen by the United States as just more stonewalling. Unfortunately, lawmakers are meeting this week to consider punitive measures against China for undervaluing their currency. Called the “Currency Reform for Fair Trade Act," the legislation is intended to make it harder for the Commerce Department to ignore taking retaliatory actions against Chinese exports that are judged to be benefiting from a weak currency.  The passage of such a bill could easily ignite a trade war where we levy duties or outright ban Chinese import A, while China retaliates by doing the same to U.S. import B.


To date, the White House has been able to short circuit any Commerce Department recommendations for any trade embargos that Congress has demanded. People such as U.S. Treasurer Tim Geithner have chosen a less strident approach in convincing other nations to compromise on the currency question. But if this bill passes the landscape could change quickly. It is just this kind of protectionist legislation that extended and prolonged our own Great Depression and that of the rest of the world in the 1930s.


However, before we cast all the blame on China, consider this: many other countries (including our own) are participating in this currency race to the bottom. The Japanese, for example, over the past month have continually intervened to slow the rise of the yen, which is hurting their exports. So far the price tag for that intervention has cost them 2 trillion yen.


Here at home, the Federal Reserve’s announcement in September that a second tranche of quantitative easing (QE II) is in the works has shaved 7 percent off the greenback’s value in less than three weeks. Last Friday, the Brazilians spent billions to weaken their own currency, the real, and over in Europe the Swiss have been doing the same for months. The euro, thanks to the PIGS (Portugal-Italy-Greece-Spain) crisis, has had its own ups and downs.

 
Since the dollar is still the world’s main reserve currency and it is dropping in value (as is every other currency at the same time) it makes sense that commodities have suddenly caught fire. Since commodities are denominated in U.S. dollars, their value continues to rise as the dollar declines. In a currency war where paper currencies become increasingly suspect and valueless, proxies will appear. This is what I believe is driving the price of gold to new highs. As long as world players insist on growing at the expense of their neighbors, you can expect commodities to continue to rise.

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@theMarket: A September to Remember

Bill Schmick

It was a strong September, the best in 70 years, with the Dow up more than 8 percent for the month while the other averages were not far behind. As the third quarter closes, however, the clear winners were precious metals. But it appears that both commodities and stocks have more to run in the weeks ahead.

At the close of the week, we had a bit of profit taking in stocks as well as commodities, but that was to be expected. As long as the economic numbers continue to come in better than expected, the data will provide support for further upside in these markets.

This week most of that data surprised analysts. Second-quarter GDP growth rate came in at 1.7 percent versus an expected 1.6 percent and was 3.7 percent in the first quarter. The core PCE price index gained 1 percent versus 1.2 percent expected. Consumer spending gained 2.2 percent versus a prior gain of 1.9 percent. The New York "ISM" Index of business was 58.3% while analysts expected 55.6 percent and the initial jobless claims were down by 16,000 to 453,000, which were also better than expected.

Numbers like these cheer investors and help justify why the stock markets are climbing after four months of range-bound trading. I believe that markets can correct in two ways: a sharp, painful decline or a period of consolidation where stocks trade in a range until all the sellers have sold. Given the historical run-up in stocks from March 2009 through April 2010, I had warned investors that a correction was due and a period of marking time should also occur while the economy played catch-up with the gains in the markets. I believe that is exactly what has happened over the last five months.

The 1,150 level on the S&P 500 Index has proven stubborn resistance this week. Every time the bulls assaulted that line in the sand, the bears fought back, driving stocks lower again, but not by much and that is what gives me confidence that the bulls will break through that level at some point

Over in the commodity corner, gold has powered higher hitting its 11th record high in a month, trading at $1,316 an ounce before falling back to regroup. Silver has had an even more spectacular run and traded above $22 an ounce before also falling back. Clearly investors are "buying the dips" in those markets. I agree with that strategy. Buyers beware, however, because all that "feel good" emotion as precious metals hit new highs can quickly turn to fear and panic when (not if) commodities correct. These puppies have had quite a run, so new buyers would be advised to wait for the inevitable sharp but short pullback before buying.

As for the stock market, if we punch through 1,150, the next resistance area for the S&P 500 is around 1,180. Notice, too, that at that level we will have almost re-traced all the losses incurred since the market's April high.

One final note, I won't be writing a column next week since I'm going to Maine for a week of kayaking and hiking with my wife and our dog Titus. I'll miss you.

 

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