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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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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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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Preferred shares find favor

November 9, 2008

ETF portfolios offer tempting yields after sell-off, but risks abound

By John Spence, MarketWatch
Last update: 12:29 p.m. EST Nov. 9, 2008

BOSTON (MarketWatch) — Preferred stocks took a big hit in September and October as the credit crunch and bank failures sent investors for the exits, but the shares have been garnering interest as their yields approach double digits.

Preferred issues have also attracted attention because famed investor and Berkshire Hathaway chief executive Warren Buffett has been buying them. Moreover, governments around the world have taken equity stakes in troubled banks through preferred shares.

Although investors shouldn’t expect Buffett-like deals, they can invest in a basket of publicly traded preferred shares via exchange-traded funds.

Many investors like to think of preferred shares as a blend of stocks and bonds. Preferred stocks, which generally don’t carry voting rights, tend to pay higher dividends than the common shares. Preferred shareholders receive their dividends before common shareholders and also have certain advantages if a company liquidates.

There are many types of preferred shares, including cumulative, callable and convertible. The prices of preferred shares typically have had more volatility than bonds but jump around less than common stock.

Another reason investors are drawn to preferred shares is that the dividends, which are fixed, can be taxed at a lower rate than the income thrown off by bonds.

Liquidity crisis

Preferred shares tumbled hard in October; iShares S&P U.S. Preferred Stock Index Fund (PFF) , an ETF managed by Barclays Global Investors, is off about 30% year to date. It has a 30-day yield of 9.3% and charges management fees of 0.48%.

Invesco PowerShares Capital Management also oversees a pair of preferred-stock ETFs: PowerShares Preferred Portfolio (PGX) and PowerShares Financial Preferred Portfolio (PGF).

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Stocks tumble after government bailout of AIG

September 17, 2008

Wednesday September 17, 5:54 pm ET
By Tim Paradis, AP Business Writer

Wall Street sinks again after Fed bails out AIG, Barclays buys Lehman businesses; Dow down 450

NEW YORK (AP) — Wall Street plunged again Wednesday as anxieties about the financial system ran high after the government’s bailout of insurer American International Group Inc. (AIG) and left investors with little confidence in many banking stocks. The Dow Jones industrial average lost about 450 points, giving it a shortfall of more than 800 so far this week.

As investors fled stocks, they sought the safety of hard assets and government debt, sending gold, oil and short-term Treasurys soaring.

The market was more unnerved than comforted by news that the Federal Reserve is giving a two-year, $85 billion loan to AIG in exchange for a nearly 80 percent stake in the company, which lost billions in the risky business of insuring against bond defaults. Wall Street had feared that the conglomerate, which has extensive ties to various financial services industries around the world, would follow the investment bank Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. (LEH) into bankruptcy. However, the ramifications of the world’s largest insurer going under likely would have far surpassed the demise of Lehman.

“People are scared to death,” said Bill Stone, chief investment strategist for PNC Wealth Management. “Who would have imagined that AIG would have gotten into this position?”

He said the anxiety gripping the markets reflects investors’ concerns that AIG wasn’t able to find a lifeline in the private sector and that Wall Street is now fretting about what other institutions could falter. Over the past year, companies including Lehman and AIG have sought to reassure investors that they weren’t in trouble, but as market conditions have worsened the market appears distrustful of any assurances.

“No one’s going to be believing anybody now because AIG said they were OK along with everybody else,” Stone said.

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The Shakeout After Lehman, Merrill, AIG…

September 17, 2008

As credit stays tight, power shifts to Bank of America, Barclays, hedge funds, and private equity—and regulators will keep a more watchful eye

by David Henry and Matthew Goldstein

Once-mighty Wall Street has turned into the Boulevard of Broken Dreams. From Bear Stearns (BSC) and Lehman Brothers (LEH) to Merrill Lynch (MER) and AIG (AIG), the punishment for years of bad decisions has been shockingly swift and brutal. As firms wobble, markets gyrate, and investors quiver, the question is: When will the pain end?

The signs aren’t encouraging. Sure, the Federal Reserve’s dramatic bailout of American International Group prevented the full-out global panic that might have unfolded with the collapse of the largest U.S. insurer. But AIG’s sudden lurch toward bankruptcy also showed how dangerously intertwined the financial system has become.

For years that interconnectedness masked enormous underlying risks, but now it’s amplifying them. As each new thread from the crazy web has unwound during the 13-month credit crisis, a fresh problem has emerged. How bad things will get from here depends on how cleanly the losing firms and toxic investments can be extricated from the rest. With each passing day the task seems to grow more difficult. By the end of the credit bust, the total losses, now $500 billion, could reach $2 trillion, according to hedge fund Bridgewater Associates. What’s likely to be left when the Great Unwind is finally complete? A smaller, humbler, highly regulated Wall Street barely recognizable from its heady past, where caution reigns and wild risk-taking is taboo.

Plenty of Skeletons

Merrill’s ties to AIG show just how difficult it might be to untangle the financial system. During the mortgage boom, Merrill churned out billions of dollars worth of dubious collateralized debt obligations, those troublesome bonds backed by pools of risky subprime mortgages. To cut down its own risk, Merrill bought insurance contracts from AIG called credit default swaps, which pay off if the mortgages blow up. Merrill holds $5 billion worth of guarantees from AIG alone. In all, AIG insures $441 billion of CDOs, including $58 billion with the subprime taint. It’s unclear which firms bought those guarantees, but AIG sold many to big European banks.

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Lehman rescue fails, BofA seen buying Merrill

September 14, 2008

Sunday September 14, 10:58 pm ET
By Joe Bel Bruno, Christopher S. Rugaber and Martin Crutsinger, AP Business Writers

As Lehman’s future dims, Fed and banks offer cash lifeline to financial system

NEW YORK (AP) — A failed plan to rescue Lehman Brothers (LEH) was followed Sunday by more seismic shocks from Wall Street, including an apparent government-brokered takeover of Merrill Lynch (MER) by the Bank of America (BAC).

A forced restructuring of the world’s largest insurance company, American International Group Inc. (AIG), also weighed heavily on global markets as the effects of the 14-month-old credit crisis intensified.

A global consortium of banks, working with government officials in New York, announced late Sunday a $70 billion pool of funds to lend to troubled financial companies. The aim, according to participants who spoke to The Associated Press, was to prevent a worldwide panic on stock and other financial exchanges.

Ten banks — Bank of America, Barclays (BCS), Citibank (C), Credit Suisse (CS), Deutsche Bank (DB), Goldman Sachs (GS), JP Morgan (JPM), Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley (MS) and UBS (UBS) — each agreed to provide $7 billion “to help enhance liquidity and mitigate the unprecedented volatility and other challenges affecting global equity and debt markets.”

The Federal Reserve also chipped in with more largesse in its emergency lending program for investment banks. The central bank announced late Sunday that it was broadening the types of collateral that financial institutions can use to obtain loans from the Fed.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said the discussions had been aimed at identifying “potential market vulnerabilities in the wake of an unwinding of a major financial institution and to consider appropriate official sector and private sector responses.”

Futures pegged to the Dow Jones industrial average fell more than 300 points in electronic trading Sunday evening, pointing to a sharply lower open for the blue chip index Monday morning. Asian stock markets were also falling.

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