Relative Prosperity

You might have read that the U.S. investment markets are jittery on the news that Japan has experienced two consecutive quarters of economic decline—the official definition of a recession.  But if you turn the news around, it offers us a reminder that, however much we complain about slow-growth recovery from 2008, Americans are actually part of one of the most robust economies in the world.

The statistics tell an interesting story.  The U.S. economy is growing at a rate of about 2.95% for the year, which is (as the complainers correctly point out) slightly below its long-term pace.  But this doesn’t look so bad compared to the 2.16% growth average for the G7 nations in aggregate, and our growth numbers are well ahead of the European Union, whose economies are expanding at an anemic 1.28% rate this year.

Look deeper and our story looks even better.  The current recession is Japan’s fourth in six years, despite long-term stimulus efforts that make the Fed’s QE program look like a purchase at the candy store.  Europe is rumored to be teetering on the edge of recession, which would be its second since the 2008 meltdown.  The published GDP figures coming out of China (which are very unreliable due to heavy government editing) could drop to about half the long-term rate this year, and Brazil entered recession territory last summer.

But what about the 5.8% unemployment rate in the U.S.?  That’s better than the 10% rate at the end of 2008, but it’s not good—right?  Compared with the rest of the world, America’s jobs picture looks downright rosy.  The list, below, shows that only 13 countries have lower jobless rates than the American economy, and some of those (Malaysia, Russia, Saudi Arabia) may be giving out numbers that their leaders want to hear.  Yes, it would be nice if the long, sustained GDP growth we’ve enjoyed these last six years were faster, and we all hope that the unemployment rate continues dropping.  But compared with just about everywhere else, life in the U.S.—on the economic front, at least—is pretty good

Global unemployment rates

Malaysia (2.7%)
Switzerland (3.1%)
South Korea (3.5%)
Japan (3.6%)
Norway (3.7%)
Taiwan (3.9%)
Denmark (4.0%)
Brazil (4.9%)
Russia (4.9%)
Germany (5.0%)
Mexico (5.1%)
India (5.2%)
Saudi Arabia (5.5%)
UNITED STATES (5.8%)
Indonesia (5.9%)
Pakistan (6.0%)
United Kingdom (6.0%)
Australia (6.2%)
Israel (6.5%)
Canada (6.5%)
Chile (6.6%)
Philippines (6.7%)
Venezuela (7.0%)
Czech Republic (7.1%)
Argentina (7.5%)
Sweden (7.5%)
Netherlands (8.0%)
Austria (8.1%)
Colombia (8.4%)
Finland (8.5%)
Belgium (8.5%)
Iran (9.5%)
Turkey (10.1%)
France (10.2%)
Ireland (11.0%)
Poland (11.3%)
Egypt (12.3%)
Italy (12.6%)
Portugal (13.1%)
Iraq (15.1%)
Spain (23.7%)
Nigeria (23.9%)
South Africa (25.4%)
Greece (25.9%)

If you would like to discuss your current portfolio/asset allocation or any other financial planning matters, please don’t hesitate to contact us or visit our website at http://www.ydfs.com. We are a fee-only fiduciary financial planning firm that always puts your interests first.  If you are not a client yet, an initial consultation is complimentary and there is never any pressure or hidden sales pitch.

Sources:
http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/japan-recession-europe-stagnation-cast-pall-over-global-economic-outlook/2014/11/17/5cd81612-6e8f-11e4-ad12-3734c461eab6_story.html

http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/japans-economy-tips-back-into-recession-in-another-blow-for-abe/2014/11/16/9a8f2e94-8c9c-44cf-a5e8-b57a470fd61f_story.html

http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/japans-abe-says-tpp-trade-talks-with-us-are-near-the-final-stage/2014/11/07/24ba0b42-63a8-11e4-ab86-46000e1d0035_story.html

http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/british-prime-minister-david-cameron-says-red-warning-lights-flashing-on-global-economy/2014/11/17/acc29d06-c38f-49a1-b478-30d334fd3389_story.html

http://www.tradingeconomics.com/country-list/unemployment-rate

http://www.economywatch.com/economic-statistics/year/2014/

http://vicshowplanet.blogspot.com/2014/08/brazils-economy-falls-into-recession.html

https://uk.news.yahoo.com/ebrd-says-russia-certain-fall-economic-recession-122646029–business.html#PklpsIB

http://online.wsj.com/articles/chinas-slowdown-raises-pressure-on-beijing-to-spur-growth-1413893980

Your Returns Versus the Market

One of the most misleading statistics in the financial world is the return data we are routinely given by the financial media, telling us how much investors made in the markets and in individual stocks or mutual funds over some time period.  In fact, your returns are almost guaranteed to be different from whatever the markets and the funds you’ve invested in have gotten.

How is this possible?  Start with cash flows.  We are told that the S&P 500 has delivered a compounded return of about 7.8% from 1992 through 2011, which sounds pretty positive until you realize that this return would only be available to somebody who invested all his or her money at the beginning of 1992 and didn’t move that money around at all for the next twenty years.  If you invested systematically, the same amount every month, as most of us do, then you would have earned a 3.2% compounded return.  Why?  A lot of your money would have been exposed to the 2008 downturn, and not much of it would have enjoyed the dramatic run-up in stocks from 1992 to 2000.

In addition, there is the difference–only now getting attention from analysts–between investor returns and investment returns.  Human nature drives investors to sell their stocks and move to the sidelines after their portfolios have been hammered–which is often the worst possible time to sell.  And it drives people to start increasing their equity allocations toward the peak of bull markets when they perceive that everybody else is getting rich.  That means less of their money tends to be exposed to stocks when the market turns from bearish to bullish, and more is exposed when markets switch from bullish to bearish.

Understand also that owning a diversified portfolio means that only a portion of your investments are exposed to stocks. Assets such as cash, bonds, real estate, commodities and other non-stock investments all have returns that are inherently different than stocks, making overall portfolio return comparisons an “apples to oranges” one.

This would be bad enough, but people also switch their mutual fund and stock holdings.  When a great fund hits a rough patch, there’s a tendency to sell that dog and buy a fund that whose recent returns have been scorching hot.  Many times the underperforming fund will reverse course, while the hot fund will cool off.  The Morningstar organization now calculates, for every fund it follows, the difference between the returns of the mutual fund and the average returns of the investors in fund, and the differences can be astonishing.  Overall, according to Morningstar statistics and an annual report compiled by the Dalbar organization, investor returns have historically been about half of what the markets and funds are reporting.

And then there’s the tax bite.  Some mutual funds invest more tax-efficiently than others, and generate less ordinary income.  Beyond that, if a fund is sitting on significant losses when you invest, you get to ride out its gains without having the tax impact distributed to your 1040.  If the fund is sitting on large gains when you buy in, you could find yourself paying taxes on gains even if the fund loses money.

Sources:

http://www.forbes.com/sites/financialfinesse/2012/06/20/why-your-investment-returns-could-be-lower-than-you-think/

http://www.thesunsfinancialdiary.com/investing/understanding-ms-total-return-and-investor-return/

http://corporate.morningstar.com/cf/documents/MethodologyDocuments/FactSheets/InvestorReturns.pdf

My thanks to Inside Information publisher Bob Veres for his contribution to this post.

Bond Market Outlook: Points to Ponder

During the past decade, many long-term fundamentals of investing have been turned upside down and one example is the performance of U.S. stocks compared with bonds. Over longer time periods, such as 20 or 30 years, stocks exhibited higher average annual returns along with greater volatility.Bonds, in contrast, presented lower long-term returns along with fewer ups and downs.

But the 10-year period ending December 31, 2011, has shown the opposite, with the average annual return of investment-grade bonds exceeding stocks by a margin of 5.8% compared with 2.9%.1 No one knows for sure whether the recent outperformance of bonds will continue, but events currently present in the U.S. economy are causing observers to question the outlook in the years ahead.

Interest Rates The Federal Reserve has maintained the federal funds rate between 0.0% and 0.25% with the goal of stimulating the economy. Given how low short-term interest rates are, it is likely that they will turn upward at some point, which would present challenges for bondholders. Historically, higher interest rates have caused the prices of existing bonds to fall as investors have pursued newly issued bonds paying higher rates. This scenario presents the potential for losses for existing bondholders.

Inflation During 2011, inflation averaged 3.2%, close to the historical average of 2.9%.But if inflation were to increase even higher, an investor would lose money on a bond with a yield lower than the rate of inflation. Some observers believe that if the U.S. economy begins generating stronger growth, inflation could once again spike upward.

Federal Spending Sizeable federal deficits are almost old news as the government looks for ways to stimulate the country’s economic engines. While economic growth is a laudable objective, outsized federal spending may impact the financial markets. If the federal government is forced to pay higher interest rates to entice investors to fund the debt, this action could lead to higher interest rates on other types of bonds as well in response to investor demand.

Bonds can help investors balance a portfolio weighted to stock funds or other assets. When making decisions about investments, it is important to weigh both the benefits and the risks associated with bonds and any other assets that you own.

Source/Disclaimer:

1Sources: Standard & Poor’s; Barclays Capital. Stocks are represented by the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index, bonds by the Barclays Aggregate Bond Index, volatility by standard deviation. Results are for the 30-year period ending December 31, 2011. You cannot invest directly in an index. Past performance does not guarantee future results. Investing in stocks involves risks, including loss of principal. Bonds are subject to market and interest rate risk if sold prior to maturity. Bond values will decline as interest rates rise and are subject to availability and change in price.

2Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Inflation is represented by the Consumer Price Index. Historical average is for the period between 1926 and 2011.

June 2012 — This column is provided through the Financial Planning Association, the membership organization for the financial planning community, and is brought to you by YDream Financial Services,a local member of FPA.

What’s Going on With The Markets? 3rd Quarter 2011

The headline on today’s Wall Street Journal says it all: “Stocks Log Worst Quarter Since ’09”, referring of course to the first quarter of 2009 before the start of the (current?) bull market run. Even quarter-end “window dressing”, where fund managers buy up the best performing stocks to make their holdings look good to shareholders and boost their chances of quarterly performance bonuses didn’t help at all. September 30th ended the day, week, month and quarter-end at an ominous level.
 
The shocks to the markets continue to come from the Eurozone debt crisis, worries of another recession starting, the Chinese economy slowing, and now, corporate earnings results for the third quarter coming in below estimates. Forward guidance, that is, how companies estimate their upcoming earnings, are expected to be pulled down a bit. With economic data continuing to soften or come in worse than expected, evidence is mounting that the economy continues to slow down, but not contract. Contraction for two straight quarters is the textbook definition of the start of a recession.
 
My most reliable source for forecasting a recession comes from the Economic Cycle Research Institute (ECRI). In the past, they have been spot on in identifying the conditions that precede the onset of a recession.  This week, although not confirming the start of a recession, the ECRI did confirm that evidence of a recession is spreading like wildfire and one would be almost impossible to avoid given current conditions.  Consumer confidence is at or near an all-time low due partly because of the whole debt ceiling debacle and political gridlock. Without confidence, and without jobs, people are not spending to help the recovery. Without spending, there’s no demand. Without demand, there’s no production and therefore no hiring. And you can complete that circle yourself.
 
As I’ve mentioned before, if we are headed for a recession, then stock prices will likely have to fall further before they are fairly priced. This is because earnings fall during a recession, and institutions only buy stocks when they’re fairly priced according to forward earnings. If we’re not headed for a recession, then stock prices are cheap and out to be bought hand over fist right here, right now. 
 
What we’ve witnessed in the stock markets over the past 8-9 weeks is extreme volatility brought on by the battle between those in the recession camp and those not in the recession camp (along with Eurozone worries).  Since the August 9th low in the markets, the S&P 500 has traded in a 100 point range and has basically gone nowhere.  This bouncing around will not continue forever (but can continue for months), and will give way to a big move up or down in the near future. The action during the past week tends to point to a downward move, but every downward move in this range looked like it was going to break down until buyers stepped in.
 
What I Believe and What We’re DoingAs evidence that points to a recession mounts, I’m becoming less convinced that we can avoid a recession in the next 3-6 months. This is a change from my previous stance of no impending recession in previous months. It’s become increasingly clear that the Federal Reserve is less able to influence what happens in the economy, and in my opinion, the less they do the better.
 
As the odds of a recession have been increasing, and world economies also slow, I have been slowly reducing client exposure to equities over the past couple of months. Our exposure to small cap stocks is now very small, and I began to reduce exposure to mid-cap stocks by up to 1/3 as of last week.
 
On Friday of this week, I increased our exposure to hedges via leveraged inverse exchange traded funds because I believe that we will test the August 9th low on the S&P 500 index of 1101 (current level of support) and may even break below it. I also believe that even if the market did decline by another 10% (should we break support) we still have a year-end rally in the cards.  Even if I’m wrong about reducing equity exposure and increasing our hedges, and the markets reverse and fly to the upside (not likely), prudent risk management based on the facts and circumstances warrant caution. It never hurts to reduce equity exposure when uncertainty and volatility rule the markets.
 
September 2011 was the 6th down month in a row in the stock markets, and bear markets typically last 6-18 months. If this is merely a correction and not a bear market, then 6 months is a good point in time to expect a bounce. My expectations, especially since this is the 3rd year of an election cycle, that somewhere along the lines of mid to late October, we begin to see the year-end bounce. 
 
As always, I offer my caveat: my crystal ball is in the shop and no one, including me, can forecast what the markets will do. I can only provide my best guess, and that’s what this is, a guess, based on all the information available to me and historical precedent, of what the markets may do. I could be totally wrong on both direction and timing, so no one should make any investment decisions based on my prognostications or forecast. Forewarned is forearmed.
 
I’m happy to answer any questions or comments you may have. If you already have a fee-only financial advisor (the only kind I recommend), then great. If you’re looking for an unbiased, fee-only financial advisor, don’t hesitate to contact us. Your first consultation is complimentary and comes with no pressure to act or sales tactics.  As fee-only fiduciary advisors, we act in your best interest and collect no commissions, trails or any hidden compensation.

Stock Market and Economic Update August 21, 2011

The past week hasn’t been particularly kind in the stock markets as we saw little follow-through on the previous week’s rally. My upside target of 1230-1260 in the S&P 500 index was not even approached before selling resumed at around 1208.
 
A few economic reports from last week have me a bit more concerned about the possibility of a recession within the next twelve months.  Although the economic leading indicators that I’ve come to rely on from the Economic Cycle Research Institute turned up again this past week, the only components to rise were financial ones, namely the money supply (with the stock market selling being a contributing factor) and the steep yield curve (ultralow interest rates on short duration debt versus higher rates on longer duration debt made possible by the Federal Reserve’s low interest rate policy). Without these two components, the index would have been down 0.5%, which is down three of the last four months.  Weekly unemployment claims came in at 408,000 whereas they were starting to trend below 400,000 in the last few weeks.
 
So the volatility in the market right now is at least partially attributable to concerns about whether a recession is on the horizon or not. If one is not, then the market is undervalued. If one is, then the market is overvalued. So far, the weight of evidence of a recession is still inconclusive, but it appears that institutional buyers are starting to “discount” that possibility as they demonstrate through selling in the markets.  The research I read is split about 50/50 about whether a recession is coming, with convincing cases made on both sides.  My feeling is that we have a bit further to go on the downside if economic factors or confidence measures don’t start pointing up real soon.
 
Accordingly, I am becoming increasingly concerned about the behavior of the markets and the economic numbers coming out lately since they haven’t been particularly encouraging. Accordingly, this past week I increased my clients’ hedges and continued to slightly reduce exposure to equities just to be on the safe side. 
 
This week will be critical since the Federal Reserve Chairman (Ben Bernanke) will be speaking on Friday and will reveal any further measures they may take to ease recession concerns and restore confidence to the markets.  More information about how the Eurozone will handle its debt crisis should help calm the markets.  But based on the market action on Thursday and Friday, it seems that many institutional and retail investors are not waiting to hear what the Chairman has to say or what solution the Eurozone might propose to avoid a deepening debt crisis.  They have therefore been selling and may continue doing so into this week.
 
I will continue to monitor the markets day to day and make further adjustments to portfolios and increase hedges as conditions warrant. Since the market is heavily oversold, we should expect some level of a bounce this week, if only for folks to prepare for any surprise announcement the Federal Reserve Chairman might offer to help propel markets higher.

Bottom line, it’s too early to reach conclusions about whether or not the April high was an important top in the market. If it was, it was unlike any market top of the past 50 years, with both the LEI and market breadth still hitting new highs after the top. When panic selling spreads across the board – good quality companies go down along with the overvalued speculative stocks.  I can say that barring some type of financial Armageddon, I believe the downside valuation risk in this market is far less than in 2007-08. 

My major equity allocation decision is to give this market more time before making any major adjustments. What is needed –more than anything else– is stability and confidence. Only time and stability can calm the emotional extremes and fears, which still come out of the woodwork on a daily basis. But as I’ve said, if the retest (of the S&P 500 index lows of 1100) is able to hold above the lows of last week, then it could provide a strong market base if evidence of a recession does not increase in coming weeks.

Again, please do not take this message as advice to buy or sell any securities; please consult with your investment advisor (or us!) This message is not intended to forecast what will happen in the market since no one (including me) can do that. My objective is to share what I’ve been hearing, reading and researching, the end result of which is one of cautious optimism.
 
Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you need any help with your personal financial situation or investments.  I welcome your feedback and questions always.

Why I Don’t Trust This Rally

We finally strung together three up days in a row in the stock markets today and that’s a good thing. Volatility is ratcheting down and folks are stepping in to scoop up bargains.  Unfortunately, for the first time since we bottomed back in March 2009, I don’t trust this rally and believe that we are headed back to test last week’s low of 1,101 on the S&P 500 index in the short term.  If the market doesn’t hold at that level, our next stop is likely 1060. Let me explain why this rally has a lot to prove before I believe that this correction is over:
 
1.  Other than relieving an oversold condition, not much has changed fundamentally between last week and today. Uncertainties are abound about the possibility of a recession starting or already started (which I don’t believe), how we’re going to deal with raging federal deficits, and the Eurozone debt crisis. A meeting between German and French officials tomorrow will shed some light on how they will deal with the debt crisis in Europe.
2.  The three day rally that began last Thursday has occurred on light volume, reflecting very little institutional participation.  Institutions often wait for retail investors to bid up the market after a severe selloff to set it up for more selling.  The selling has been coming in on very heavy volume while buying is coming in on light volume, a bearish sign.
3.  Consumer confidence, as measured by the University of Michigan survey released last Friday, was at a record low.  These levels have not been seen since the great recession (but do reflect the recent anxiety over the recent U.S. debt ceiling debacle and stock market sell-off last week).
4.  The main stock market sentiment indicators showed an increase in bullish sentiment last week. This is considered a “contra” indicator. After the recent stock market beating, there seems to be more complacency than fear in the markets. Folks are still in “buy the dip” mode. They might have buyer’s remorse if they’re short-term holders.
5.  The kind of technical damage to the markets caused by last week’s sell-off takes weeks, if not months, to repair.  After-shocks and re-tests of lows are the norm after such a severe sell-off.
The positives that point to a better economic environment and stock market include a better than expected weekly jobs report last week, improved July retail sales figures, good corporate insider buying, and more big corporate mergers announced today.
 
While I believe that the markets could bounce for a few more days, unfortunately, I feel that we are headed lower over the short-term. The S&P 500 index closed at 1204 today, and we may even climb as high as 1240-1260 before the markets “roll over”.  That is 3-4% from here, and it’s only an educated guess on my part since 1250 is approximately where the markets fell apart.  I’d like to take advantage of this short-term rise, but only if more volume confirms the move higher.  Otherwise, it’s easy to get whip-sawed in this low volume environment. 
 
This is why I continue to hold onto hedges and have refrained from putting available cash to work at this point.  I’ve continued to selectively cull positions and rebalance accounts to take advantage of the recent strength in the market. Nonetheless, we remain heavily weighted long in the equity and bond markets despite our cash and hedges.  If the S&P 500 index closes above 1290 convincingly, then I’ll re-evaluate my stance, consider pulling in my hedges and invest more cash.
 
But aren’t we investing for the long term? Why should short-term market dynamics control our investing decisions? While we do invest for the long term, it’s prudent to protect capital when the market is in a well-defined downtrend, especially when a near-term recession is a possibility, albeit a remote one.  Markets around the world are factoring in a global slowdown, and the U.S. won’t be immune.  Sure central banks may pull a rabbit out of their hat and stimulate the economy and markets once again, and I’ll be ready for that.  But for right now, unless I see some institutional “power” behind this rally, I just don’t trust it.  As I’ve mentioned before, I expect near-term market weakness until sometime in October.
 
No part of this message should be considered a recommendation to buy or sell any securities, and you should not act on this without consultation with your financial planner or money manager (better yet, talk to us!)  My position will change if the facts change, so I am not married to this position. That could be tomorrow, next week or next month. I don’t have a crystal ball, so my prognostication should not be taken as true fact (I could change my mind or worse, be wrong!)
 
Please let me know if you have any questions, concerns or feedback. I’d love to hear what you’re thinking.

What’s Going on in the Markets-August 4, 2011

I probably don’t have to re-hash for you what’s been happening in the markets over the past couple of weeks as we’ve suffered what feels like the worst decline in the markets since they recovered in March 2009. The media does a pretty good job of instilling fear and I don’t expect the newspaper headlines to be happy ones on Friday morning. So let me give you my take on what’s going on and what I’m expecting.

Coming into this week amid the uncertainty over the passage of the debt ceiling vote in Congress, we had already endured about seven days of selling in the markets that seemed to pick up steam on Monday. The euphoria on Sunday evening over a possible debt deal in Congress was over within minutes of Monday’s market open and the selling began in earnest. So what gives? If a deal was such a good thing, why did the markets sell off on the news and passage of the increase in the debt ceiling?

In reality, the significance of the debt ceiling vote was elevated by the media, and while it added to market anxiety, many were actually more concerned about the signs of slowing in the economy. The usual concerns over jobs, housing, spending and overall goverment regulation of business have been weighing on consumer and business confidence for a few months now. Downward revisions in the gross domestic product for past and future quarters haven’t help encourage companies to hire or spend on capital improvements. Once the focus was taken off the debt ceiling issue, the economic concerns were brought to the forefront.

Another Recession Already?
You’ll hear talk in the media about whether we’re heading for another recession this year, whether we’re already in a new recession or whether the recession never ended. As for the last two assertions, the economic statistics simply don’t support the notion that we’re in a recession. As for whether we’re heading for another recession in 2011, so far, the economic statistics don’t support that either (though some unfortunate members of the unemployed or those under water on their mortgages may not agree.) While we’re seeing a slowing of economic output, hiring and capital spending, we have not seen any evidence of negative or no growth. Could we see one in 2012? Anything’s possible, but no one can predict this; not even me.

My take on all this is that while the recovery has been anemic, I don’t believe that we’re heading for a recession this year. While I’m no economist, the Japan earthquake, Eurorpean and U.S. debt “crises” and other weather related factors have really thrown 2011 for an economic loop. When you consider that fiscal stimulus takes 18-24 months to make it out of the capital markets into capital spending, we may just be experiencing a temporary slowdown in growth.

As an example, commercial traders of lumber futures deny a slowdown in demand, and that usually doesn’t happen if a recession is around the corner. Corporate profits are at record highs (thanks to a dearth of hiring) and many are raising estimates of earnings for the next quarter. Credit is cheap and readily available, and companies are buying other companies and their own stock back at record levels. With the Federal Reserve on the side of the consumer, you’d be hard pressed to bed against them. So I believe that reports of an impending recession may be a bit exaggerated.

So What Happened Today?
To be honest, I came into my office today fully expecting an “up” day in the markets since we finally “bounced” yesterday. All technical indicators pointed to a severely “oversold” market (a market where selling is exhausted in the short term) that we were ready to bounce higher. In fact, I had prepared and positioned for it.

But overnight, Japan intervened in the capital markets to stem the seemingly unstoppable rise in the value of the Yen (which adversely affects their exports) right after Switzerland lowered their short-term interest rates to near zero yesterday (just like the United States). In addition, brewing concerns over Italian and other European debt problems were not helped by ambiguous comments made by the head of the European Central Bank on how they are dealing with their crisis. Suffice to say, with a 400,000 print in the weekly unemployment figures reported today, we were down from the start and never looked back.

As so often happens on a day when everyone starts to sell, the selling feeds upon itself and others join in. While we didn’t see any moments of panic, the selling was steady and relentless all day. What started out with gold and silver making highs in the morning ended the day with both at their lows.

Why? I believe it was because of forced selling and margin calls. When margin account balances need to be replenished, the most liquid of assets (like gold, silver and even Apple Stock) get sold off to cover the margin. So while there is nothing fundamentally wrong with many stocks and funds, they get sold along with everything else to raise cash for margin calls and for mutual fund shareholder requests for liquidations.

So Now What?
Despite the intense selling over the past couple of weeks, the S&P 500 is only 10% from the highs this year, just right in correction territory. You may recall that the markets corrected 16% last summer, and that’s never fun. Many then were predicting a double-dip recession around the corner and a return to a bear market. Neither of those happened; instead we moved up 30% to new highs in May. While past performance is no guaranteee of future results, I still don’t see any impending techincal signs that we are entering into a new bear market phase right now. If I did, I would be taking appropriate action. However, though this could change on any particular day, I believe this bull market still deserves the benefit of the doubt.

At the moment, as alluded to above, the market is extremely oversold and should bounce over the next few days. After that, it’s anyone’s guess what might happen, but I suspect that the remainder of the summer and into early fall will remain choppy, volatile and “lean” with a negative bias. While I expect more short-term downside, I don’t think panic selling is the right response now. While you may choose to cull some profitable positions, it may already be too late to sell most. As always, you should check with your financial advisor (or us) about the right course of action for your portfolio. Remember, no one can guess how high or low a market can go.

To be certain, I was not expecting the kind of response that we got from the market this week. But I could not foresee the actions and responses from central banks around the world either.

For our client portfolios, I’ve been keeping a good portion of investable funds in cash and had liquidated some positions ahead of this decline. Of course, I wish I had liquidated more, but alas, my crystal ball is still in the shop.

I’ve been wanting to put on some hedges via inverse ETF’s for some time now. But those funds are “too hot to handle” right now and with an oversold bounce overdue, they would only compound losses in the short term. Other hedges are also way too expensive right now as volatility is at 52 week highs. I usually like to wait for a bounce in the markets before putting on hedges, but the only bounce we got yesterday was a bit tepid and shorter than expected. I will look to put them on as soon as market conditions allow. If the selling continues in the short term as I expect, then I’ll look to lighten up other positions as appropriate as well.

On Friday, we’ll get the monthly jobs report for July, which is widely expected to be lousy and show a continued unemployment rate of 9.2%. Any selling that transpires in the morning will more likely result from margin call covering rather than a reaction the jobs number (or if we get more bad news overnight from Europe).

Please be sure to contact me if you have any questions or concerns about the markets. I’ll be happy to help, but please don’t take action based on the contents of this message. It’s not my intent to render actionable financial advice to anyone pursuant to investment advisor restrictions and regulations.

What’s Going on in the Markets – Tuesday June 21 2011

As communicated in my post last week, the stock markets were overdue for a rally.  And as expected, we rallied for the fourth day in a row today.  What distinguishes today’s rally from the previous three days is that the market has now switched from a downtrend to a new confirmed uptrend.  The real tell was the amount of volume traded on the stock exchanges and it was much higher today than the previous three rally days.  Thus, today we got what is known as a “follow-through day” in the markets. 

Expectations of a Greek bailout, an upcoming great 2nd quarter corporate earnings season (beginning in July) along with lower oil prices have helped improve investor and institutional optimism.  Institutions are also facing quarter-end, so they help buy up the market in the last couple of weeks to make their results look better.  As you know, we closed out our hedges (profitably) in the middle of last week in anticipation of this rally.

With any follow-through day, there are risks that the rally fails and the downtrend reasserts itself.  This is why a follow-through day comes on the fourth day of a rally attempt and no earlier.  Unfortunately, it sometimes takes two or more failed attempts before the rally succeeds. In fact, a failed follow-through day occurred most recently on May 31 when institutions sold into the rally the day after the uptrend was confirmed.  So while all signals point to a rally in the short term (my guess is that it lasts perhaps 1-3 weeks), we have to be cognizant that markets are on edge these days as we digest the news of a global economic slowdown, the prospect of more European debt woes and the prospect of a delayed extension of the national debt ceiling in Congress. 
A new rally is most vulnerable in its first few days and, once those have passed, the chances of succeeding increase dramatically.  In any case, volatility and low volume, as I’ve mentioned before, are characteristics of summertime stock markets.  So markets are more easily pushed around in this environment.

What this means for client portfolios is that new investments of cash are safer during a confirmed uptrend, which is what I started doing today.  But in the current environment, just like with hedges, new investments could turn into short-term trades if the market decides not to cooperate.  So even though we are investing for the long term with the majority of the portfolios, a small percentage of each portfolio is invested on a short-term (or very short-term) basis to take advantage of market swings and volatility.  This could be hours, days or weeks depending on how the markets behave.  In my opinion, proper diversification of portfolios includes both long-term investments and short-term ones as well.

I hope this helps you understand a little better how I’m approaching this market and trying to help manage portfolios.  As usual, please don’t rely on my prognostications as a basis for any investment or trading decisions; consult with your advisor or us if you have any questions about how to invest in these markets.  My crystal ball remains in the shop, so I’m no better at predicting the future than the next fortune teller.  What I do best is act as your risk manager and thereby mitigate the risk of bad things happening to portfolios while enhancing portfolio returns.

I welcome your questions and appreciate your referrals.  Happy first day of summer 2011!

What’s Going on in the Markets – Thursday June 16 2011

The past several weeks in the stock markets have been quite trying for anyone paying close attention to what’s been going on.  As of today (Thursday June 16), we are working on a possible seventh down week in a row in the stock markets.  Since 1933, this has only happened three times, while the markets being down six weeks in a row has occurred seventeen times. Tomorrow is our last hope of an upside rally that takes the markets positive for the week and avoids making history by being the fourth time we see seven down weeks in a row.  Despite how bad this may sound, the selling has not been so intense to be considered anything more than a normal stock market correction within this bull market.
 
Why are the markets so intent on going down? Well, as I described in my last couple of writings, the end of quantitative easing by the Federal Reserve (buying treasury bonds), an apparent slowing in the economy, continued debt woes in Europe (Greece is in the forefront this week), and the failure of Congress to pass an increase in the debt ceiling.  Employers remain reluctant to hire new employees due to uncertainty surrounding health care and other financial legislation (e.g., the burdensome health care costs involved with hiring a 25th employee).
 
Of course, with several weeks down in the markets, every doom and gloom scenario and “Johnnie’s come lately” hawking another “End of the World” book come out of the woodwork, make the talk and news show circuits and call for Dow 5,000 and S&P 300 (they’re around 12,000 and 1,268 right now.)  Just yesterday, noted economist and academician Robert Shiller declared that we are definitely headed for another recession (of course we are, but it won’t be this year and probably not next year!)  Am I concerned that the economy may be slowing? Of course I am.  But to date the weight of evidence is that we are slowing, not stopping or switching to negative growth.  We endured a similar “soft patch” last spring and summer and the markets have made new highs since then. I continue to believe (guess?) that the disruption in the global supply chain caused by the Japan earthquake tragedy has thrown a wrench into the worldwide economic recovery story and that the second half of 2011 will see growth re-accelerate. Those who state otherwise are also guessing.
 
I stated in my last “What’s Going on with the Markets” newsletter that I believe that we are probably headed to test the 1,257 (the Japan earthquake low) or 1,250 level on the S&P 500 stock market index. Today we hit 1,258 before settling up at around 1,268. Was today the bottom? I really don’t know (neither does anyone else).  But all the signs and indicators that I pay attention to would indicate that today’s successful test of the Japan low might be sufficient to give the market a bit of a lift, at least temporarily.
 
So what do we do in the case of a market correction like this? If the decline is more than modest or is expected to be more than modest, we hedge client portfolios with leveraged inverse funds or options. This helps us keep our investment positions in place while hedging the risk a bit.  While this doesn’t totally protect the downside, it does allow us to mitigate (and perhaps profit) from the downside in the markets.  When we hedge portfolios in this manner, we take a portion or all available cash and buy the inverse funds on a temporary or “rental” basis. We may be in these inverse funds for a few hours, days, weeks or months depending on the market action. 
 
By definition, a hedge may be a drag on overall returns while it is on, but it can also be profitable if you manage it properly and the markets are not too volatile.  When market indexes give signals that the downturn may be over and a new uptrend may be afoot, we take off the hedges to fully benefit from the uptrend.  While no one person (including me) can perfectly time the market top or bottom, you can learn the rhythms, signals and technical indicators of the market and protect portfolios.  While some may be concerned with trading costs of hedging a portfolio, keep in mind that commissions are relatively cheap (and quite cheap compared to the protection the hedges provide).
 
I expect that we will bounce back a bit tomorrow and perhaps rally over the next week or so because the market is quite a bit “oversold”.  As a result, I removed our portfolio hedges today (at a small profit) to take advantage of such a rally.  Summer markets tend to be low volume and volatile, so I’m not sure that any rally will be sustained throughout the summer, but I don’t see us selling off in a big way.  When a new confirmed market uptrend asserts itself, I will be the first to deploy new cash into the market.  I will however reiterate, as I have in the past, that no one should trade or invest based on my prognostications. While I continue to be positive on the market, you should consult with your own advisor (or us) before making any investment decisions based on my comments. 
 
We are happy to speak with anyone who might be interested in discussing financial planning or money management.  As usual, there is no obligation, pressure or cost for speaking with us. If you have any questions about this market update or any other financial matters, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

What’s Going on in the Markets – Monday June 6 2011

Today marked the fourth day in a row of intense selling in the stock markets immediately after the markets gave a technical “buy” signal last Tuesday.  Last Wednesday, the markets staged a hard reversal to the downside and have not yet recovered.

Economic indicators of late have been coming in worse than expected with recent slowdowns in manufacturing and hiring and higher unemployment claims. Last Friday the labor department reported the creation of 54,000 new jobs during the month of May while analysts were projecting 150,000-175,000 new jobs created.  Needless to say, the markets were disappointed and continued the sell-off that started last Wednesday.

While there are many possible reasons discussed for the market’s indigestion (e.g., the end of the Federal Reserve’s bond buying program in June, the earthquake in Japan, continued sovereign debt woes in Europe, lack of agreement in Congress on extending the debt ceiling, lower consumer confidence, high joblessness), no one really knows the exact reason why the markets sell off on any particular day.  As I indicated in a previous message, institutions take profits periodically on positions to help reset prices and make the market more enticing for those standing on the sidelines waiting to buy at lower prices.  While the institutions (who make up the bulk of buying and selling in the markets) may view slower growth as reasons to sell, they have not been selling with wild abandon by any means.  So one could say that the correction has been somewhat orderly (but any declines in prices are never pleasant).  In other words, institutions don’t appear to be positioning for a bear market or a recession in the near future.

My intermediate and longer term indicators are still bullish even as this 5% correction (so far) may get to 10%.  As a reference point, the markets corrected 13-15% last summer and that set us up for much higher stock prices.  While the gains we’ve seen so far will likely not be repeated, I still expect a respectable finish for the year with a positive return in the stock markets (though my crystal ball is in the shop, so please don’t make any investing decisions based on this prognostication.) The summer months tend to be volatile and of low volume, so market swings are frequent and sometimes abrupt.  I believe that corporate earnings (which ultimately drive stock prices) will continue to surprise to the upside (if they’re not hiring, then costs stay low).  The effects of the tragic Japanese earthquake, which caused a hiccup in the markets this quarter, will begin to wane and offer opportunities for companies to help with the rebuilding, and thereby also help with future corporate earnings.  Finally, the costs of oil and other commodities overall have come down and will ultimately reduce inflation pressure.

How should you handle this correction? For most, doing nothing may be the right answer and simply “ride out” this correction.  For my clients, I have once again begun hedging portfolios in case the correction proves to be more protracted than expected.  I have already become more defensive by reducing more risky types of positions and adding more defensive ones.  But in an overall stock market correction, ultimately 3 out of 4 stocks will follow the market down, so there’s no good place to really hide. As this correction plays out and support wanes for certain sectors, I will slowly scale out of those positions and wait to buy them back at lower prices as appropriate.  If necessary, I will add more to our hedges to reduce our overall equity exposure and risk.  New positions are on hold until a new uptrend is confirmed.  This is by no means a recommendation of what you should do with your portfolio if you’re a “do-it-yourselfer”, so please consult with a professional (like me!) if you’d like to protect your portfolio or figure out what you should do.  Every investor and his or her goals are different, and that’s how we handle each client–individually.  In any case, the correction may take us down to the 1250 level in the S&P 500 index (the March 2011 Japan earthquake low) or down to 1200 (less likely in my opinion).

With four down days in a row, we might see a bit of a relief rally tomorrow (Tuesday), but I’m not expecting any type of big reversal.  With the amount of selling that has been going on lately, I just don’t expect the markets to turn around that quickly and “rip” to the upside without a catalyst. Ultimately, corrections are healthy for the markets and they will recover in time. It’s just never fun to watch the markets (and our portfolios) go down, but if you’re a long term investor, this is merely a bump in the road.  If I see that circumstances have changed and my technical indicators flash warning signs, you can bet that you’ll hear from me again and I’ll be taking appropriate action.

I welcome your questions and feedback. If you’re not yet a client, keep in mind that your first consultation is complimentary and comes with no pressure and no obligation whatsoever.  As a fee-only advisor, I put your interests first and work as your fiduciary. Not all advisors can make this statement.

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