CFTC moves to rein in small ETF investors: report

August 22, 2009

Sat Aug 22, 2009 12:18pm EDT

CHICAGO (Reuters) – Exchange-traded funds or ETFs have become a top target in U.S. regulators’ efforts to rein in excessive speculation in oil and other commodity markets, The Wall Street Journal reported on Saturday.

Commodity ETFs, which came into existence in 2003, offer one of the few avenues for small investors to gain direct exposure to commodity markets. The funds pool money from investors to make one-way bets, usually on rising prices.

Some say this causes excessive buying that artificially inflates prices for oil, natural gas and gold.

Commodity ETFs have ballooned to hold $59.3 billion in assets as of July, according to the National Stock Exchange, which tracks ETF data.

The Commodity Futures Trading Commission has said it seeks to protect end users of commodities, and that cutting out individual investors is not the goal.

“The Commission has never said, ‘You aren’t tall enough to ride,'” CFTC Commissioner Bart Chilton was quoted as saying in the WSJ article. “I don’t want to limit liquidity, but above all else, I want to ensure that prices for consumers are fair and that there is no manipulation — intentional or otherwise.”

Limiting the size of ETFs will result in higher costs for investors, the WSJ reported, because legal and operational costs have to be spread out over a fewer number of shares. Investors range from individuals to banks and hedge funds with multimillion-dollar positions.

The CFTC is currently considering a host of measures to curb excessive speculation, including position limits in U.S. futures markets. Many U.S. lawmakers called for greater regulation of some commodity markets after a price surge last year sent crude oil to a record high of $147 a barrel in July 2008.

(Reporting by Matthew Lewis; Editing by Toni Reinhold)

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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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The Power of Paying Attention

April 30, 2009

by Laura Rowley
Thursday, April 30, 2009, 12:00AM

If you want to be happy, pay attention.

That’s the conclusion of the new book ‘Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life’ by behavioral science writer Winifred Gallagher. Interviewing neuroscientists, psychologists, philosophers, and others, Gallagher argues that your happiness depends in large part on where and how you choose to place your focus.

Paying attention sounds like a no-brainer, but it’s similar to the platitude “Live within your means” — it makes a gigantic difference in your well-being, yet many people can’t figure out how to do it. Gallagher breaks down the science of attention, explaining what happens in the brain when we focus on something; why certain things grab our attention and can sabotage our mood, creativity, and productivity; and how to take control of the tool of attention to create a more fulfilling life. At its heart, the book optimistically affirms that no one is a victim of his circumstances — no matter how difficult those circumstances might be.

Gallagher knows that territory intimately. The book was inspired by her battle with cancer a few years ago. “When I got the diagnosis, I interviewed doctors, talked to friends who went through it, chose the best surgeon and radiologist in the best hospital for me,” she recalls. “And once I did that, I made the executive decision to hand my body over to them and direct my attention to moving forward with life. That’s not to say I was happy, or thought, ‘Gee, cancer, what a blessing.’ I hated it. But I didn’t let it monopolize my focus.”

Shifting Your Attention

Instead, she shifted her attention to what was engaging and meaningful. “I would get up in the morning and look in the mirror; I was bald and I could have thought, ‘I don’t feel good, I’ll lie here in bed and watch Oprah.’ But I got dressed and booted up the computer,” she says, adding that she also concentrated on her five children and day-to-day tasks. “The thing that impressed me was it really worked. We do have much more control over our attention than we think.”

Perhaps first and foremost, “you have to choose your target,” says Gallagher. “If you don’t choose a target, your brain will choose one for you — the brain is out scanning around and saying, ‘Let’s stare at that screen, let’s listen to that infomercial.’ When you focus on something, your brain photographs that sight or sound or thought or feeling –and that becomes part of your mental album of the world. So it’s important to make those choices count.”

And when it’s not deliberately focused, the brain tends to home in on bad news. “We evolved to pay attention to painful, negative feelings for the excellent reason that if something is scaring you or making you angry, you are motivated to do something about it,” says Gallagher.

The problem is, research has shown that “negative feelings shrink your visual and conceptual reality, which limits your options,” Gallagher explains. “The attentional issue is particularly important now, when so many people are under terrific financial stress. You can’t focus on it 24/7. Focusing on the positive literally broadens your visual field; you can take in the big picture, both visually and conceptually, consider more options. You’re in a better decision-making space.”

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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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Contrarian Quotes

March 19, 2009

“Follow the path of the unsafe, independent thinker. Expose your ideas to the dangers of controversy. Speak your mind and fear less the label of ‘crackpot’ than the stigma of conformity. And on issues that seem important to you, stand up and be counted at any cost.”
– Thomas Watson

“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it’s time to pause and reflect.”
– Mark Twain

“The ‘crowd’ is most enthusiastic and optimistic when it should be cautious and prudent; and is most fearful when it should be bold.”
– Humphrey Neill


Obama lifts Bush restrictions on stem cell research

March 9, 2009

Mon Mar 9, 2009 6:24pm EDT

By David Alexander

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Barack Obama lifted restrictions on federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research on Monday, angering abortion opponents but cheering those who believe the study could produce treatments for many diseases.

“We will lift the ban on federal funding for promising embryonic stem cell research,” Obama said to vigorous applause at a White House gathering.

“We will also vigorously support scientists who pursue this research. And we will aim for America to lead the world in the discoveries it one day may yield.”

Shares of companies specializing in stem cell research burst upward on the news, with Geron Corp (GERN) up by as much as much as 35 percent and StemCells Inc (STEM) up 73 percent at one point. Other related company shares rose, too.

The decision was a clear repudiation of the approach taken by Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush. U.S. law limits the use of federal money to make human stem cells, but Bush tightened the restrictions even further to include work using such cells.
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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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