SEC puts in new ‘circuit breaker’ rules

June 10, 2010

SEC puts into place new ‘circuit breaker’ rules to prevent repeat of May 6 stock market plunge

Marcy Gordon, AP Business Writer, On Thursday June 10, 2010, 5:44 pm EDT

WASHINGTON (AP) — Federal regulators on Thursday put in place new rules aimed at preventing a repeat of last month’s harrowing “flash crash” in the stock market.

Members of the Securities and Exchange Commission approved the rules, which call for U.S. stock exchanges to briefly halt trading of some stocks that make big swings.

The major exchanges will start putting the trading breaks into effect as early as Friday for six months. The New York Stock Exchange will begin Friday’s trading session with five stocks: EOG Resources Inc., Genuine Parts Co., Harley Davidson Inc., Ryder System Inc. and Zimmer Holdings Inc. The exchange will gradually add other stocks early next week, expecting to reach by Wednesday the full number that will be covered.

The Nasdaq stock market plans to have the new program fully in place on Monday.

The plan for the “circuit breakers” was worked out by the SEC and the major exchanges following the May 6 market plunge, which saw the Dow Jones industrials lose nearly 1,000 points in less than a half-hour.

Under the new rules, trading of any Standard & Poor’s 500 stock that rises or falls 10 percent or more in a five-minute period will be halted for five minutes. The “circuit breakers” would be applied if the price swing occurs between 9:45 a.m. and 3:35 p.m. Eastern time. That’s almost the entire trading day. But it leaves out the final 25 minutes before the close — a period that often sees raging price swings, especially in recent weeks as the kind of volatility that marked the 2008 financial crisis returned.

The idea is for the trading pause to draw attention to an affected stock, establish a reasonable market price and resume trading “in a fair and orderly fashion,” the SEC said.

On May 6, about 30 stocks listed in the S&P 500 index fell at least 10 percent within five minutes. The drop briefly wiped out $1 trillion in market value as some stocks traded as low as a penny.

The disruption “illustrated a sudden, but temporary, breakdown in the market’s price-setting function when a number of stocks and (exchange-traded funds) were executed at clearly irrational prices,” SEC Chairman Mary Schapiro said in a statement. “By establishing a set of circuit breakers that uniformly pauses trading in a given security across all venues, these new rules will ensure that all markets pause simultaneously and provide time for buyers and sellers to trade at rational prices.”

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U.S. bailout program increased moral hazard: watchdog

October 21, 2009

Wed Oct 21, 2009 1:30am EDT
By David Lawder

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. government’s $700 billion financial bailout program has increased moral hazard in the markets by infusing capital into banks that caused the financial crisis, a watchdog for the program said on Wednesday.

The special inspector general for the U.S. Treasury’s Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) said the plan put in place a year ago was clearly influencing market behavior, and he repeated that taxpayers may never recoup all their money.

The bailout fund may have helped avert a financial system collapse but it could reinforce perceptions the government will step in to keep firms from failing, the quarterly report from inspector general Neil Barofsky said.

He said there continued to be conflicts of interest around credit rating agencies that failed to warn of risks leading up to the financial crisis. The report added that the recent rebound in big bank stocks risked removing urgency of dealing with the financial system’s problems.

“Absent meaningful regulatory reform, TARP runs the risk of merely reanimating markets that had collapsed under the weight of reckless behavior,” the report said. “The firms that were ‘too big to fail’ last October are in many cases bigger still, many as a result of government-supported and -sponsored mergers and acquisitions.”

ANGER, CYNICISM, DISTRUST

The report cites an erosion of government credibility associated with a lack of transparency, particularly in the early handling of the program’s initial investments in large financial institutions.

“Notwithstanding the TARP’s role in bringing the financial system back from the brink of collapse, it has been widely reported that the American people view TARP with anger, cynicism and distrust. These views are fueled by the lack of transparency in the program,” the report said.

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Dow closes above 10,000 for 1st time in a year

October 14, 2009

DJ comeback: Stock market’s best-known barometer closes above 10,000 for 1st time in a year

By Sara Lepro and Tim Paradis, AP Business Writers
5:08 pm EDT, Wednesday October 14, 2009

NEW YORK (AP) — When the Dow Jones industrial average first passed 10,000, traders tossed commemorative caps and uncorked champagne. This time around, the feeling was more like relief.

The best-known barometer of the stock market entered five-figure territory again Wednesday, the most visible sign yet that investors believe the economy is clawing its way back from the worst downturn since the Depression.

The milestone caps a stunning 53 percent comeback for the Dow since early March, when stocks were at their lowest levels in more than a decade.

“It’s almost like an announcement that the bear market is over,” said Arthur Hogan, chief market analyst at Jefferies & Co. (JEF) in Boston. “That is an eye-opener — ‘Hey, you know what, things must be getting better because the Dow is over 10,000.'”

Cheers went up briefly when the Dow eclipsed the milestone in the early afternoon, during a daylong rally driven by encouraging earnings reports from Intel Corp. and JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM) The average closed at 10,015.86, up 144.80 points.

It was the first time the Dow had touched 10,000 since October 2008, that time on the way down.

“I think there were times when we were in the deep part of the trough there back in the springtime when it felt like we’d never get back to this level,” said Bernie McSherry, senior vice president of strategic initiatives at Cuttone & Co.

Ethan Harris, head of North America economics at Bank of America Merrill Lynch (BAC), described it as a “relief rally that the world is not coming to an end.”

The mood was far from the euphoria of March 1999, when the Dow surpassed 10,000 for the first time. The Internet then was driving extraordinary gains in productivity, and serious people debated whether there was such a thing as a boom without end.

“If this is a bubble,” The Wall Street Journal marveled on its front page, “it sure is hard to pop.”

It did pop, of course. And then came the lost decade.

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Bailed-out bankers to get options windfall: study

September 2, 2009

Wed Sep 2, 2009 11:14am EDT
By Steve Eder

NEW YORK (Reuters) – As shares of bailed-out banks bottomed out earlier this year, stock options were awarded to their top executives, setting them up for millions of dollars in profit as prices rebounded, according to a report released on Wednesday.

The top five executives at 10 financial institutions that took some of the biggest taxpayer bailouts have seen a combined increase in the value of their stock options of nearly $90 million, the report by the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies said.

“Not only are these executives not hurting very much from the crisis, but they might get big windfalls because of the surge in the value of some of their shares,” said Sarah Anderson, lead author of the report, “America’s Bailout Barons,” the 16th in an annual series on executive excess.

The report — which highlights executive compensation at such firms as Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (GS), JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM), Morgan Stanley (MS), Bank of America Corp. (BAC) and Citigroup Inc. (C) — comes at a time when Wall Street is facing criticism for failing to scale back outsized bonuses after borrowing billions from taxpayers amid last year’s financial crisis. Goldman, JPMorgan and Morgan Stanley have paid back the money they borrowed, but Bank of America and Citigroup are still in the U.S. Treasury’s program.

It’s also the latest in a string of studies showing that despite tough talk by politicians, little has been done by regulators to rein in the bonus culture that many believe contributed to the near-collapse of the financial sector.

The report includes eight pages of legislative proposals to address executive pay, but concludes that officials have “not moved forward into law or regulation any measure that would actually deflate the executive pay bubble that has expanded so hugely over the last three decades.”

“We see these little flurries of activities in Congress, where it looked like it was going to happen,” Anderson said. “Then they would just peter out.”

The report found that while executives continued to rake in tens of millions of dollars in compensation, 160,000 employees were laid off at the top 20 financial industry firms that received bailouts.

The CEOs of those 20 companies were paid, on average, 85 times more than the regulators who direct the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp, according to the report.

(Reporting by Steve Eder; editing by John Wallace)


In sign of strength, S&P 500 breaks past 1,000 as Wall Street rally blows into August

August 3, 2009

By Sara Lepro and Tim Paradis, AP Business Writers
Monday August 3, 2009, 6:02 pm EDT

NEW YORK (AP) — The Standard & Poor’s 500 index (SPX) is four digits again now that the stock market’s rally has blown into August.

The widely followed stock market measure broke above 1,000 on Monday for the first time in nine months as reports on manufacturing, construction and banking sent investors more signals that the economy is gathering strength. The S&P is used as a benchmark by professional investors, and it’s also the foundation for mutual funds in many individual 401(k) accounts.

Wall Street’s big indexes all rose more than 1 percent, including the Dow Jones industrial average (INDU), which climbed 115 points.

The market extended its summer rally on the type of news that might have seemed unthinkable when stocks cratered to 12-year lows in early March. A trade group predicted U.S. manufacturing activity will grow next month, the government said construction spending rose in June and Ford Motor Co. (F) said its sales rose last month for the first time in nearly two years.

“The market is beginning to smell economic recovery,” said Howard Ward, portfolio manager of GAMCO Growth Fund. “It may be too early to declare victory, but we are well on our way.”

The day’s reports were the latest indications that the recession that began in December 2007 could be retreating. Better corporate earnings reports and economic data propelled the Dow Jones industrial average 725 points in July to its best month in nearly seven years and restarted spring rally that had stalled in June.

On Monday, a report from the Institute for Supply Management, a trade group of purchasing executives, signaled U.S. manufacturing activity should increase next month for the first time since January 2008 as industrial companies restock shelves. Also, the Commerce Department said construction spending rose rather than fell in June as analysts had expected. The reports and rising commodity prices lifted energy and material stocks.

Ford said sales of light vehicles rose 1.6 percent in July. Other major automakers said they saw signs of stability in sales. Investors predicted that the government’s popular cash for clunkers program would boost overall auto sales to their highest level of the year.

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SEC makes emergency rule targeting ‘naked’ short-selling permanent

July 27, 2009

By Marcy Gordon, AP Business Writer
Monday July 27, 2009, 8:03 pm EDT

WASHINGTON (AP) — Federal regulators on Monday made permanent an emergency rule put in at the height of last fall’s market turmoil that aims to reduce abusive short-selling.

The Securities and Exchange Commission announced that it took the action on the rule targeting so-called “naked” short-selling, which was due to expire Friday.

Short-sellers bet against a stock. They generally borrow a company’s shares, sell them, and then buy them when the stock falls and return them to the lender — pocketing the difference in price.

“Naked” short-selling occurs when sellers don’t even borrow the shares before selling them, and then look to cover positions sometime after the sale.

The SEC rule includes a requirement that brokers must promptly buy or borrow securities to deliver on a short sale.

Brokers acting for short sellers must find a party believed to be able to deliver the shares within three days after the short-sale trade. If the shares aren’t delivered within that time, there is deemed to be a “failure to deliver.” Brokers can be subject to penalties if the failure to deliver isn’t resolved by the start of trading on the following day.

At the same time, the SEC has been considering several new approaches to reining in rushes of regular short-selling that also can cause dramatic plunges in stock prices.

Investors and lawmakers have been clamoring for the SEC to put new brakes on trading moves they say worsened the market’s downturn starting last fall. SEC Chairman Mary Schapiro has said she is making the issue a priority.

Some securities industry officials, however, have maintained that the SEC’s emergency order on “naked” short-selling brought unintended negative consequences, such as wilder price swings and turbulence in the market.

The five SEC commissioners voted in April to put forward for public comment five alternative short-selling plans. One option is restoring a Depression-era rule that prohibits short sellers from making their trades until a stock ticks at least one penny above its previous trading price. The goal of the so-called uptick rule is to prevent selling sprees that feed upon themselves — actions that battered the stocks of banks and other companies over the last year.

Another approach would ban short-selling for the rest of the trading session in a stock that declines by 10 percent or more.

Schapiro said last week the SEC could decide on a final course of action in “the next several weeks or several months.”

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Investors dump brokers to go it alone online

July 24, 2009

Fri Jul 24, 2009 12:31pm EDT

By Rachel Chang

NEW YORK, July 24 (Reuters) – The collapse of Lehman Brothers (LEH) last September marked the start of a downward spiral for big investment banks. For a smaller fraternity of Internet brokerages, it has set off a dramatic spurt of growth.

Since the start of the financial crisis, $32.2 billion has flowed into the two largest online outfits, TD Ameritrade Holding Corp (AMTD) and Charles Schwab Corp (SCHW), company records show.

By contrast, investors have pulled more than $100 billion from traditional full-service brokerages like Citigroup Inc’s Smith Barney (C) and Bank of America-Merrill Lynch (BAC).

Of course, Americans still keep more of their wealth with established brokerages. According to research firm Gartner, 43 percent of individual investors were with full-service brokers last year, compared with 24 percent with online outfits.

And while figures for 2009 are not yet available, the flow of investors in the past 10 months has clearly been in the direction of the online brokerages, according to analysts both at Gartner and research consultancy Celent.

Joining the exodus is Ben Mallah, who says he lost $3 million in a Smith Barney account in St. Petersburg, Florida, as the markets crashed last year.

“I will never again trust anyone who is commission-driven to manage my portfolio,” said Mallah. “If they’re not making money off you, they have no use for you.”

This trend, a product of both the financial crisis and the emergence of a new generation of tech-savvy, cost-conscious young investors, is positioning online outfits as increasingly important in the wealth management field.

The numbers reflect a loss of faith in professional money managers as small investors dress their wounds from the hammering they took over the last year, the Internet brokerages say.

“There has been an awakening,” said Don Montanaro, chief executive of TradeKing, which reported a post-Lehman spike in new accounts of 121 percent. Investors now realize they alone are responsible for their money, he said.

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How Do I Know You’re Not Bernie Madoff?

June 15, 2009

by Paul Sullivan
The New York Times
Monday, June 15, 2009

Tony Guernsey has been in the wealth management business for four decades. But clients have started asking him a question that at first caught him off guard: How do I know I own what you tell me I own?

This is the existential crisis rippling through wealth management right now, in the wake of the unraveling of Bernard L. Madoff’s long-running Ponzi scheme. Mr. Guernsey, the head of national wealth management at Wilmington Trust, says he understands why investors are asking the question, but it still unnerves him. “They got their statements from Madoff, and now they get their statement from XYZ Corporation. And they say, ‘How do I know they exist?’ ”

When he is asked this, Mr. Guernsey says he walks clients through the checks and balances that a 106-year-old firm like Wilmington has. Still, this is the ultimate reverberation from the Madoff scandal: trust, the foundation between wealth manager and client, has been called into question, if not destroyed.

“It used to be that if you owned I.B.M., you could pull the certificate out of your sock drawer,” said Dan Rauchle, president of Wells Fargo Alternative Asset Management. “Once we moved away from that, we got into this world of trusting others to know what we owned.”

The process of restoring that trust may take time. But in the meantime, investors may be putting their faith in misguided ways of ensuring trust. Mr. Madoff, after all, was not charged after an investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission a year before his firm collapsed. Here are some considerations:

CUT THROUGH THE CLUTTER Financial disclosure rules compel money managers to send out statements. The problem is that the statements and trade confirmations arrive so frequently, they fail to help investors understand what they own.

To mitigate this, many wealth management firms have developed their own systems to track and present client assets. HSBC Private Bank has had WealthTrack for nearly five years, while Barclays Wealth is introducing Wealth Management Reporting. But there are many more, including a popular one from Advent Software.

These systems consolidate the values of securities, partnerships and, in some cases, assets like homes and jewelry. HSBC’s program takes into account the different ways firms value assets by finding a common trading date. It also breaks out the impact of currency fluctuation..

These systems have limits, though. “Our reporting is only as good as the data we receive,” said Mary Duke, head of global wealth solutions for the Americas at HSBC Private Bank. “A hedge fund’s value depends on when the hedge fund reports — if it reports a month-end value, but we get it a month late.”

In other words, no consolidation program is foolproof.

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Bonds’ 30-Year Hot Streak Begins to Cool

May 4, 2009

by Brett Arends
Monday, May 4, 2009
WSJ.com

Bonds for the long run, anyone?

In the latest issue of the Journal of Indexes, investment manager Rob Arnott, chairman of Research Affiliates (read article here) says that long-term bonds have beaten stocks for decades.

“Starting any time we choose from 1979 through 2008,” Mr Arnott writes, “the investor in 20-year Treasuries (consistently rolling to the nearest 20-year bond and reinvesting income) beats the S&P 500 investor.” He argues the figures are even true going back to the late 1960s.

Mr. Arnott’s article has generated quite a stir in the investment world, where he has, in theory, turned a lot of received wisdom on its head.

But American mutual fund investors, responding to last year’s turmoil, are already voting this way with their wallets. So far this year they’ve withdrawn $45 billion from mutual funds that invest in the stock market, and put $68 billion into bond funds, reports the Investment Company Institute.

Should you follow suit? Not so fast.

Obviously bonds, especially Treasurys, held up well during last year’s crisis. And they can make an important part of a portfolio, especially at the right price. But anyone hoping for a repeat of the last thirty years is probably dreaming.

Treasurys don’t look appealing. Short term bonds yield a miserable 1.9%. And long-term bonds, far from offering “security,” are actually at serious risk from rising inflation.

The past is the past. Those who bought long-term Treasury bonds in the late 1970s and early 1980s simply pocketed an enormous one-off windfall when inflation collapsed. It neared 15% in 1980. Latest figure: -0.4%.

Consider what that means for investors.

In 1979, 20-year Treasurys yielded 9.3%. So over its life the bond paid out $180 in interest for each $100 invested. At one point in 1981, 30-year Treasurys yielded an incredible 15%, thanks to runaway inflation in the 1970s. Investors demanded high interest rates to offset the expected loss of purchasing power on their money.

But when inflation collapsed after 1982, those coupon payments turned golden because the purchasing power stayed high. Bond prices soared in response.

Today, bond investors get no such deal. Ten-year Treasurys pay just 3%. And the 30-year 3.96%.

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The bears aren’t dead and buried yet

March 30, 2009

The SPX only stayed above the 50 day simple moving average this time for 5 days.  At the turn of the year, it at least managed 7.  The 2002 lows are crucial support to test the will of new buyers.  If they fail to hold, the 741 level will serve as the canary to warn of a possible complete retest of the March lows.

So far, we have only another headfake to the upside created by jawboning from the Feds.  We still believe this is part of a bottoming process, but we need more honest buying (not short covering) to confirm the lows are already in.

spxtesting800033009


The Fight Over Who Will Guard Your Nest Egg

March 28, 2009

By JASON ZWEIG
wsj.com

A power struggle in Washington will shape how investors get the advice they need.

On one side are stockbrokers and other securities salespeople who work for Wall Street firms, banks and insurance companies. On the other are financial planners or investment advisers who often work for themselves or smaller firms.

Brokers are largely regulated by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, which is funded by the brokerage business itself and inspects firms every one or two years. Under Finra’s rules, brokers must recommend only investments that are “suitable” for clients.

Advisers are regulated by the states or the Securities and Exchange Commission, which examines firms every six to 10 years on average. Advisers act out of “fiduciary duty,” or the obligation to put their clients’ interests first.

Most investors don’t understand this key distinction. A report by Rand Corp. last year found that 63% of investors think brokers are legally required to act in the best interest of the client; 70% believe that brokers must disclose any conflicts of interest. Advisers always have those duties, but brokers often don’t. The confusion is understandable, because a lot of stock brokers these days call themselves financial planners.

Brokers can sell you any investment they have “reasonable grounds for believing” is suitable for you. Only since 1990 have they been required to base that suitability judgment on your risk tolerance, investing objectives, tax status and financial position.

A key factor still is missing from Finra’s suitability requirements: cost. Let’s say you tell your broker that you want to simplify your stock portfolio into an index fund. He then tells you that his firm manages an S&P-500 Index fund that is “suitable’ for you. He is under no obligation to tell you that the annual expenses that his firm charges on the fund are 10 times higher than an essentially identical fund from Vanguard. An adviser acting under fiduciary duty would have to disclose the conflict of interest and tell you that cheaper alternatives are available.

If brokers had to take cost and conflicts of interest into account in order to honor a fiduciary duty to their clients, their firms might hesitate before producing the kind of garbage that has blighted the portfolios of investors over the years.

Richard G. Ketchum, chairman of Finra, has begun openly using the F-word: fiduciary. “It’s time to get to one standard, a fiduciary standard that works for both broker-dealers and advisers,” he told me. “Both should have a fundamental first responsibility to their customers.”

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The Feds use a backhoe for a gravedigger

March 25, 2009

“It’s déjà vu all over again.”
– Yogi Berra

In mid-December, after the Fed lowered rates to 0 to .25%, we noted:

Aggressive action by the Federal Reserve today pushed most markets above their respective simple 50 day moving averages for the first time since September.  We have highlighted the 50 day as resistance level number one in prior notes and have shown it to be critical resistance along with the 200 day and 80 week.  This is a primary step to recovery and opens the door to a potential challenge of the 200 day near the beginning of 2009.

That rally was short lived, eventually failing after a more sustained move above the 50 day near the beginning of the year.  What is interesting is that we may be seeing a similar sequence of events again.

After a brief dip below the 2002 lows, the SPX has rallied back significantly on the back of announcements from the Treasury and Federal Reserve.  The combination of these announcements (along with better economic reports) has again pushed most major market averages over their simple 50 day moving averages.  Unfortunately, volume has not expanded with this push, even though volume levels are higher than earlier in the year.

The market managed about 7 days above the 50 day in early January.  So far, we have 3 days on this trip.  To avoid a repeat of action earlier in the year, it is critical that the SPX remain above the 50 day and the 2002 lows.  The Feds can do all of the grandstanding and wagon circling they want, but the market will not be forced higher.  We need to see organic buying build on this foundation for the bears to truly remain buried below the 2002 lows.  Ideally, a high volume rally will spring from support at the 50 day to challenge the Feb highs in the area of 875.  If this occurs, the 50 day and 800 will serve as very solid support going forward as we move toward the Jan highs around 940.

If the market again fails after a quick Fed induced burst over the 50 day, we look at 741 as the first support level below the 2002 lows.  A significant break at 741 would argue for at least a retest of the lows at 667.  With other indicators showing improvement, including some leaders exhibiting notable relative strength, it is our assumption at this point that the lows at 667 will not be broken.

spxtesting800032509


How many bears could a bear trap bury, if a bear trap began to bury bears?

March 18, 2009

A shovel is not enough longs, we may have hit rock.  The question is, did we hit rock bottom?

The 50 day moving average is in play once again.  Can we remove this huge stone in time for Easter?  The resurrection of the market depends on it.

spxtesting800031809


Phases of fear and elation in the VIX

March 18, 2009

Here we show a nice relationship between the VIX and the SPX.  While this is a commonly referenced pairing, many still challenge the value of using the VIX as a market indicator.  There are numerous ways too use the VIX and almost everyone has their own tweaks.  This chart shows a very clear inverse relationship with several distinct “phases” discernible in the value of the VIX.  These “phases” correlate well with the action in the SPX.  We have labled these phases “euphoria”, “fear” and “panic”.  We also included the 400 day moving average (equivalent to the 80 week) which we discussed previously in The Significance of the 400 day (80 week) moving average.  This bull/bear market reference point matches up very well with the action in the VIX, as the VIX moves into the “fear phase” just as the 400 day is coming under assault, before eventually breaking.  A final test of the 400 day from below, which we highlighted in late April 2008, was accompanied by one last dip into the “euphoria” zone for the VIX.  That was the “last chance” to get out before the drop gathered steam as the SPX then dropped over 50% in less than 12 months.

We added the notes on Bear Stearns and Citigroup for a consensus of the “expert” opinion at the time.

vixspx031809


A Generational Opportunity

March 17, 2009

by Jim O’Shaughnessy
Tuesday, March 17, 2009

“The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’ One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger – but recognize the opportunity.” -John F. Kennedy

I recently had dinner with a client who told me that stocks had not performed well over the last 40 years. At first I suspected that she was generalizing from the recent pummeling equity markets have experienced — after all, this is a time frame that included two of the biggest bull markets in history! Yet, when I went to the data, I found out that she was absolutely right. The 40 years ending February 2009 were the second worst 40-year period for equities since 1900, with only the 40 years ending December 1941 doing worse!

Let’s put this into perspective. The 40 years ending in 1941 included the stock market panic of 1907, which drove down the Dow Jones Industrial Average nearly 38 percent; the World War I Era, where the period between 1910 and 1919 was one of the worst ever for stocks; AND, oh yes, the Great Depression. Finally, icing on the 40-year cake, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. How could these last 40 years even begin to match that? Alas, they did.

40-year-real-returns1The chart on the left is a histogram of the average annual real returns for U.S. equities (large stocks) for all 40-year holding periods, with annual data starting in 1900 and monthly data beginning in 1926. There were only three 40-year periods where U.S. stocks returned less than four percent annually — the 40 years ending December 1941, where they earned a real rate of return of 3.80 percent annually for the previous 40 years; the 40 years ending February 2009 where they earned 3.86 percent annually; and the 40 years ending December 1942, where stocks returned 3.92 percent a year. Keep in mind that’s just 0.55 percent of the 545 periods analyzed. We are talking about an event so rare, that most of us alive today will never see such an opportunity again.

The histogram also shows the norm — stocks returned between 6 and 8 percent a year for 353 periods, or nearly 65 percent of all of the 40-year periods analyzed. Looked at closely, you see that 99.45 percent of all  observed 40-year periods, U.S. stocks enjoyed a real rate of return between 4 and 12 percent a year, and that we are now presented with a huge generational opportunity.

Reversion to the Mean: Short, Medium and Long Term

Let’s look at what happened with U.S. stocks the first time they earned less than 4 percent a year for a 40-year period. For the five-, ten-, and twenty-year periods following the nadir reached in 1941, here are the real average annual compound returns for a variety of U.S. stock categories:

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Mortgage woes no longer just a “subprime thing”

March 5, 2009

Thursday March 5, 6:37 pm ET
By J.W. Elphinstone, AP Real Estate Writer

Delinquencies, foreclosures climb to almost 12 percent of US home loans in 4th quarter

NEW YORK (AP) — Foreclosures are spreading by epidemic proportions, expanding beyond a handful of problem states and now affecting almost 1 in every 8 American homeowners.

It’s an economic role-reversal: The economy, driven down by the collapse of the housing bubble, is causing the housing crisis to spread.

Figures released Thursday show that nearly 12 percent of all Americans with a mortgage — a record 5.4 million homeowners — were at least one month late or in foreclosure at the end of last year.

That’s up from 10 percent at the end of the third quarter, and up from 8 percent at the end of 2007. In addition, the numbers now include many once-qualified borrowers who took out fixed-rate loans.

Data from the Mortgage Bankers Association also showed that a stunning 48 percent of homeowners who have subprime, adjustable-rate mortgages are behind on their payments or in foreclosure.

The reckless lending and borrowing practices in states like Florida, California and Nevada that were the epicenter of the problem are no longer driving up the nation’s delinquency rate.

Instead, foreclosures are being fueled by a spike in defaults in places such as Louisiana, New York, Georgia and Texas, where the economy is rapidly deteriorating and unemployment is climbing.

“It’s jobs. People are losing their jobs left and right,” said Houston real estate agent Michael Weaster.

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How About a Stimulus for Financial Advice?

February 26, 2009

By ROBERT J. SHILLER
Published: January 17, 2009

In evaluating the causes of the financial crisis, don’t forget the countless fundamental mistakes made by millions of people who were caught up in the excitement of the real estate bubble, taking on debt they could ill afford.

Many errors in personal finance can be prevented. But first, people need to understand what they ought to do. The government’s various bailout plans need to take this into account — by starting a major program to subsidize personal financial advice for everyone.

A number of government agencies already have begun small-scale financial literacy programs. For example, the Treasury announced the creation of an Office of Financial Education in 2002, and President Bush started an Advisory Council on Financial Literacy a year ago. These initiatives are involved in outreach to schools with suggested curriculums, and online financial tips. But a much more ambitious effort is needed.

The government programs that are already under way are akin to distributing computer manuals. But when something goes wrong with a computer, most people need to talk to a real person who can zero in on the problem. They need an expert to guide them through the repair process, in a way that conveys patience and confidence that the problem can be solved. The same is certainly true for issues of personal finance.

The significance of this was clear at the annual meeting of the American Economic Association this month in San Francisco, where several new research papers showed the seriousness of consumer financial errors and the exploitation of them by sophisticated financial service providers.

A paper by Kris Gerardi of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, Lorenz Goette of the University of Geneva and Stephan Meier of Columbia University asked a battery of simple financial literacy questions of recent homebuyers. Many of the respondents could not correctly answer even simple questions, like this one: What will a $300 item cost after it goes on a “50 percent off” sale? (The answer is $150.) They found that people who scored poorly on the financial literacy test also tended to make serious investment mistakes, like borrowing too much, and failing to collect information and shop for a mortgage.

A paper by Liran Einav and Jonathan Levin, both of Stanford, reporting on work with William Adams of Citigroup, shows how sophisticated automobile lenders can be in their loan technology. They use complicated statistical models not only to approve people for credit, but also to fine-tune the down payment and even to suggest what kind of car individuals can buy. This suggests to me that many borrowers can’t match the expertise of lenders.

And another paper, by Paige Marta Skiba of Vanderbilt University and Jeremy Tobacman of the University of Pennsylvania, showed that payday loans — advanced to people who run out of cash before their next paycheck — exploit people’s overoptimism and typically succeed in charging annual rates of interest that may amount to more than 7,000 percent.

One wishes that all this financial cleverness could be focused a bit more on improving the customers’ welfare!

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ETFs: A Better Bet in a Bear Market

February 26, 2009

Amid the financial crisis, tax advantages are but one benefit of exchange-traded funds. Their transparency, liquidity, and lower fees also appeal to investors

By David Bogoslaw
BusinessWeek.com

Imagine having invested in the DWS Commodity Securities A Fund (SKNRX) in 2008. The mutual fund had an annual return of -45.9% and also distributed nearly two-thirds of its net asset value as capital gains, incurring a substantial tax bill for investors on top of the losses they suffered. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the only mutual fund to do so: More than three dozen funds with negative returns of at least 21% paid out over 30% of their net asset value as capital gains last year, according to Morningstar (MORN). Ouch and double ouch.

Making capital gains even higher than usual was the fact that most traditional mutual funds were forced to sell legacy holdings that had dramatically appreciated in value since being purchased in order to fund redemptions as nervous investors fled the market.

That may have prompted more people to switch to the mutual funds’ chief rival for the affections of diversification-minded retail investors, exchange-traded funds. Unlike mutual funds, ETFs incur zero capital gains until an investor actually sells his shares. While turnover in an ETF’s holdings can be high, it is done through in-kind exchanges of one security for another rather than through selling and buying.

But since the deepening of the financial crisis last September, the tax advantages of ETFs are just the icing on the cake.
Transparency, Liquidity, Lower Fees

The primary reason ETFs are more popular than ever is they give financial advisers the ability to better control their clients’ investment portfolios. First, there’s the transparency of knowing exactly what’s in an ETF on any given day, which matches advisers’ need for real-time management of investments in order to minimize wealth destruction. In this regard, ETFs have a clear advantage over mutual funds, which are required to disclose their holdings only four times a year. Of course, there are plenty of traditional index funds that are just as transparent as ETFs by virtue of the ability to see the contents of the underlying index on any chosen day, says Russ Kinnel, director of fund research at Morningstar.

ETFs’ inherent liquidity is also more valuable than ever in view of the continuing high volatility in stock and bond markets. Then there are the lower fees typically charged by ETF sponsors, which make a big difference in the current environment, where returns are mostly underwater.

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Most Profitable Mutual Funds Ever

February 20, 2009

Friday February 20, 10:55 am ET
By Max Rottersman

HANOVER, NH (ETFguide.com) – The highest mutual fund advisory fee, of all time, was collected from the Fidelity Magellan Fund (FMAGX).  In 2001 it took in $792 million.  Magellan has earned the top three, all-time records, grossing $1.8 billion between 2000 and 2002.  Much of that is profit, from future retirees who don’t read their statements.   Most can’t believe such large sums go directly into one manager’s pocket.   After all, if they did, wouldn’t we read about it in the press?  No.  Mutual fund companies provide a steady stream of advertising dollars.  It isn’t a conspiracy.  It’s natural self-interest for all involved, from The New York Times to the Wall Street Journal.

Ironically, American mutual fund regulation is the finest in the world.  I’m not joking.  There’s no secret to the numbers I’m pointing out.  They’re sent to every shareholder once a year.   Sadly, few journalist read fund financial statements either.  And any Fidelity shareholder who doesn’t like the fees is free to leave.

Mutual funds are corporations run on the behalf of their shareholders, represented by a board of trustees.  It’s a legal structure that makes for some confusing language; for example, fund fees are often called expenses (which legally they are), rather than fees (which functionally, you pay).  For example, Fidelity never charges you, the shareholder, directly. Rather, the fund trust pays a fee, from the fund’s assets, to various Fidelity companies (which are separate from the fund corporation) for various services.  Your board of trustees enters into contracts, on the shareholder’s behalf, with the advisor (like Fidelity) and other service providers.  Ironically, mutual funds were born during a ‘socialistic’ time in American history.   Again, I kid you not.  Should shareholders revolt, trustees can easily fire the portfolio management companies which serve the funds.   Interestingly, that has seldom happened.

If you have any question about the profitability of the fund business, consider this.  Last year, these five funds alone earned over $2 billion in advisory fees. Fidelity Contrafund: $522 Million (FCNTX), PIMCO Total Return Fund: $506 Million (PTTAX), Growth Fund Of America: $450 Million (AGTHX), Europacific Growth Fund: $439 Million (AEPGX), Fidelity Diversified International Fund: $374 Million (FDIVX). Again, believe it or not, these are the fees the manager charges for a few people to pick stocks for the fund.  The operational costs are separate.

Flying under the radar, because they don’t offer shares directly to the public, the CREF Stock Account Fund paid $586 million in advisory and administrative fees, the largest amount of any fund in my database.  TIAA-CREF says it’s ‘at cost’.  We have to assume it’s true, that the teachers did their own homework and thought for themselves.

Every shareholder should understand that all mutual funds have two basic costs.  The first is the cost to manage the portfolio; that is, buy and sell stocks and bonds.  A single person with a brokerage account can do this.   In mutual funds, the fee for this ‘portfolio management’ work is called the advisory fee.  The second basic cost is operational.  This work is often done by hundreds of people: administrators, call center workers, accountants, IT professionals, custodians, printers and lawyers.  The operational work is what shareholders ‘see and touch’ when they deal with their mutual fund.  Shareholders seldom, if ever, have any contact with the portfolio manager (advisor).

In 2001 Fidelity charged shareholders $162 million for operational costs (on top of the $792 million).  Fidelity probably makes some money on these costs too, since Fidelity subsidiaries handle shareholder servicing, administration and other ‘touch’ services.  Yet most people don’t believe me when I say most of the advisory fee is profit.  They just can’t believe it’s legal for Fidelity to collect $792 million for a few people picking stocks (which they pay a handsome salary in the millions, but it’s a fraction of what they charge). Here’s a list of 58 Fund Managers Who Took in Over $100 Million in Advisory Fees Last Year.

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The Kondratieff Cycle

February 2, 2009

kondratieff-cycle

Graphic compliments of The Long Wave Analyst.

Professor Nickolai Kondratieff (pronounced “Kon-DRA-tee-eff”)

Shortly after the Russian Revolution of 1917, he helped develop the first Soviet Five-Year Plan, for which he analyzed factors that would stimulate Soviet economic growth.  In 1926, Kondratieff published his findings in a report entitled, “Long Waves in Economic Life”.  Based upon Kondratieff’s conclusions, his report was viewed as a criticism of Joseph Stalin’s stated intentions for the total collectivization of agriculture.  Soon after, he was dismissed from his post as director of the Institute for the Study of Business Activity in 1928.  He was arrested in 1930 and sentenced to the Russian Gulag (prison); his sentence was reviewed in 1938, and he received the death penalty, which it is speculated was carried out that same year.  Kondratieff’s major premise was that capitalist economies displayed long wave cycles of boom and bust ranging between 40-60 years in duration.  Kondratieff’s study covered the period 1789 to 1926 and was centered on prices and interest rates.

Kondratiev waves — also called Supercycles, surges, long waves or K-waves — are described as regular, sinusoidal cycles in the modern (capitalist) world economy.  Averaging fifty and ranging from approximately forty to sixty years in length, the cycles consist of alternating periods between high sectoral growth and periods of slower growth.  The Kondratieff wave cycle goes through four distinct phases of beneficial inflation (spring), stagflation (summer), beneficial deflation (autumn), and deflation (winter).

The phases of Kondratieff’s waves also carry with them social shifts and changes in the public mood.  The first stage of expansion and growth, the “Spring” stage, encompasses a social shift in which the wealth, accumulation, and innovation that are present in this first period of the cycle create upheavals and displacements in society.  The economic changes result in redefining work and the role of participants in society.  In the next phase, the “Summer” stagflation, there is a mood of affluence from the previous growth stage that changes the attitude towards work in society, creating inefficiencies.  After this stage comes the season of deflationary growth, or the plateau period. The popular mood changes during this period as well.  It shifts toward stability, normalcy, and isolationism after the policies and economics during unpopular excesses of war.  Finally, the “Winter” stage, that of severe depression, includes the integration of previous social shifts and changes into the social fabric of society, supported by the shifts in innovation and technology.


FDIC May Run ‘Bad Bank’ in Plan to Purge Toxic Assets

January 28, 2009

By Robert Schmidt and Alison Vekshin

Jan. 28 (Bloomberg) — The Obama administration is moving closer to setting up a so-called bad bank in its effort to break the back of the credit crisis and may use the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. to manage it, two people familiar with the matter said.

U.S. stocks gained, extending a global rally, on optimism the bad-bank plan will help shore up the economy. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Stock Index (SPX) rose 3.1 percent to 871.70 at 2:40 p.m. in New York. Bank of America Corp. (BAC), down 54 percent this year before today, rose 84 cents, or 13 percent, to $7.34. Citigroup Inc. (C), which had fallen 47 percent this year, climbed 17 percent.

FDIC Chairman Sheila Bair is pushing to run the operation, which would buy the toxic assets clogging banks’ balance sheets, one of the people said. Bair is arguing that her agency has expertise and could help finance the effort by issuing bonds guaranteed by the FDIC, a second person said. President Barack Obama’s team may announce the outlines of its financial-rescue plan as early as next week, an administration official said.

“It doesn’t make sense to give the authority to anybody else but the FDIC,” said John Douglas, a former general counsel at the agency who now is a partner in Atlanta at the law firm Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker. “That’s what the FDIC does, it takes bad assets out of banks and manages and sells them.”

Bank Management

The bad-bank initiative may allow the government to rewrite some of the mortgages that underpin banks’ bad debt, in the hopes of stemming a crisis that has stripped more than 1.3 million Americans of their homes. Some lenders may be taken over by regulators and some management teams could be ousted as the government seeks to provide a shield to taxpayers.

Bank seizures are “going to happen,” Senator Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, said in an interview after a meeting between Obama and Republican lawmakers in Washington yesterday. “I know it. They know it. The banks know it.”

Laura Tyson, an adviser to Obama during his campaign, said banks need to be recapitalized “with different management” so they start lending again. “You find some new sophisticated management unlike the failed management of the past,” Tyson, a University of California, Berkeley, professor, said today at the World Economic Forum conference in Davos, Switzerland.

Still, nationalization of a swath of the banking industry is unlikely. House Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank said yesterday “the government should not take over all the banks.” Bair said earlier this month she would be “very surprised if that happened.”

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U.S. budget deficit seen topping $1 trillion in 2009

January 6, 2009

Tue Jan 6, 2009 6:13pm EST

By Jeremy Pelofsky and David Lawder

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Politicians want American consumers to resume spending to pull the economy out of its tailspin, and the U.S. government is leading by example with a potential $1 trillion deficit in 2009 — even before a massive stimulus plan.

The Congressional Budget Office is set to release its projections on Wednesday for the fiscal 2009 budget deficit and experts believe it will not just set a new record beyond the $455 billion set in 2008, but could hit $1 trillion as the economic recession saps federal revenues.

While that figure likely includes some of the impact of a $700 billion bailout package for the financial industry and U.S. automakers, it does not include any of economic stimulus measures Congress hopes to pass, which could cost another $775 billion over two years.

President-elect Barack Obama is contemplating large tax cuts to the tune of about $300 billion and potentially as much if not more in infrastructure projects and other spending to try to jolt the economy out of recession.

North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, said that a $1 trillion deficit was not just a possibility for 2009, but that an average of $1 trillion could be added to the national debt annually over the next decade.

“We’re on an unsustainable course,” he said in an interview with Reuters, adding that he had not yet seen the CBO figures.

“It’s obvious we have to have a recovery package,” the North Dakota Democrat noted, but Congress must also address longer-term issues, such as the costs of the Medicare health care program and Social Security retirement system.

TOUGH CHOICES AHEAD

Obama said on Tuesday he expects to inherit a deficit approaching $1 trillion and his administration would have to make tough budget choices. But economists agree now is not the time for the country to tighten its belt.

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Stocks: A Range-Bound Recovery in 2009

December 24, 2008

S&P’s chief investment strategist says a bear-market bottom may already be in place—and tells why 2009 could be a better year for stocks

By Sam Stovall From Standard & Poor’s Equity Research Investing
Excerpted from a report published by Standard & Poor’s Equity Research Services on Dec. 22

Investors will remember 2008 as a year of change. Not just change in the White House, but also the pocket change that they used to call their portfolios.

Let’s face it. This bear market started as the perfect storm of popping bubbles—commodities, emerging markets, hedge funds, and real estate. From Oct. 9, 2007 through Nov. 20, 2008, the S&P 500 (SPX) declined 52%, making it the third-worst bear market since the 1929-32 crash. One of the more amazing characteristics of this decline was its speed. The average “mega-meltdown,” or bear market decline of more than 40%, traditionally took 21 months to play out. This one took 13 months.

Not surprisingly, all 10 sectors within the “500” fell, from a 22% slump for Consumer Staples to a 74% thrashing for the Financials. Finally, 125 of the 128 subindustries in the S&P 500 declined.

Factors Backing a Bottom

Where do we go from here? Probably not lower, in our opinion. A few months ago, I wrote that 700 on the “500” might be a worst-case scenario for a decline, citing the trendline drawn off of the 1932 low, the average bear-market retracement of prior bull market advances, and the applying of a bear market P/E ratio on a conservative “top-down” EPS estimate. We got close to that level, as the S&P 500 closed at 752 on Nov. 20. Since then, it rose 21%—technically signaling the start of a new bull market. So I say why quibble? What’s 50 points among friends? Besides, we believe there are several reasons that a bear-market bottom may already be in place.

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Treasuries seen at risk of “bubble” trouble

December 8, 2008

Fri Dec 5, 2008 3:29pm EST

By John Parry and Jennifer Ablan

NEW YORK (Reuters) – U.S. government debt, long considered the safest investment in the world, looks like it too has been hit by “bubble” fever.

Prices of U.S. Treasury bonds appear dangerously overstretched after a soaring rally, another sign of how financial markets have been turned on their head.

“Treasuries are the riskiest securities on the planet,” said Tom Sowanick, chief investment officer for $22 billion in assets at Clearbrook Financial LLC in Princeton, New Jersey.

While few fear that the U.S. government will fail to honor its debts, many see a risk that bond prices may plunge just as spectacularly as house, commodity and stock prices have in recent months.

“It looks like the Treasury market is in bubble territory,” said William Larkin, fixed-income portfolio manager with Cabot Money Management, in Salem, Massachusetts.

The rally in the nearly $5 trillion U.S. government bond market picked up speed this week when the Federal Reserve hinted it may buy longer maturity government bonds.

Fears of a bubble in Treasuries underscore how far investors have fled from risk since ballooning house price valuations popped in 2007, causing huge losses in markets across the board and sparking a global economic crisis.

Yields on long-maturing bonds are below 3 percent and only 1-2 basis points on three-month T-bills, the lowest in decades.

After buying billions of dollars worth of government debt, U.S. institutional investors and foreigners including Asian central banks could incur enormous capital losses.

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Dow plunges on news recession began in Dec. 2007

December 1, 2008

Monday December 1, 7:04 pm ET
By Jeannine Aversa and Martin Crutsinger, AP Economics Writers

Dow sinks nearly 680 after group says US has been in a recession since December 2007

WASHINGTON (AP) — Most Americans sorely knew it already, but now it’s official: The country is in a recession, and it’s getting worse. Wall Street convulsed at the news — and a fresh batch of bad economic reports — tanking nearly 680 points. With the economic pain likely to stretch well into 2009, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said Monday he stands ready to lower interest rates yet again and to explore other rescue or revival measures.

Rushing in reinforcements, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, who along with Bernanke has been leading the government’s efforts to stem the worst financial crisis since the 1930s, pledged to take all the steps he can in the waning days of the Bush administration to provide relief. Specifically, Paulson is eyeing more ways to tap into a $700 billion financial bailout pool.

On Capitol Hill, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., vowed to have a massive economic stimulus package ready on Inauguration Day for President-elect Barack Obama’s signature.

That measure — which could total a whopping $500 billion — would bankroll big public works projects to generate jobs, provide aid to states to help with Medicaid costs and provide money toward renewable energy development. Crafting such a colossal recovery package would mark a Herculean feat: Congress convenes Jan. 6, giving lawmakers just two weeks to complete their work if it is to be signed on Jan. 20.

President George W. Bush, in an interview with ABC’s “World News,” expressed remorse about lost jobs, cracked nest eggs and other damage wrought by the financial crisis. “I’m sorry it’s happening, of course,” said Bush. The president said he’d back more government intervention.

None of the pledges for more action could comfort Wall Street investors. The Dow Jones industrials plunged 679.95 points, or 7.70 percent, to close at 8,149.09.

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