Friday, May 26, 2006

Thought for the extended weekend

The real estate doomsday prophets were out in 2003. Now they seem to be resurfacing in greater numbers to say that we're even closer, because cracks are starting to show. Sounds like a basic case of, "I told you so" going around.

So, let's say housing is going down. Commodities are in full Boom, with the Bulls predicting 4 to 6 more years of rising prices in gold, oil, zinc, copper, uranium, etc... Then there's the undercurrent of talk that the Fed will lead us back to a recession with its full-speed money printing & interest rates. I've been listening to Wall Street gripe about how the Fed has overstepped its bounds by raising rates too high, too fast since a year ago.

That's the way I see the Big Picture right now. My question is this: where's the next Bull market? Perhaps I've missed the commodities boom, or maybe there's still time. But, where is today's beaten-down value that is waiting to burst in to 2,000%+ gains like metals did recently? As it happens, Jim Cramer right now is saying to look at "secular growth stocks", or cyclicals (but it's a rerun! I saw copyright 2005 at the end). Cyclicals will follow the economy... but isn't the economy teetering on trouble?

Where's an amateur to put his money right now???

Thursday, May 25, 2006

The Herd, explained

I just heard an amazing interview with Barry Ritholtz from September 1, 2005. At the time, he was chief market strategist for Maxim Group, but now runs his own hedge fund. Among many great ideas and concepts on applied economics, he provided an excellent explanation for herd mentality.

"It is better to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally in many instances." -- Keynes

Wall Street is populated with many people who come from similar backgrounds, have similar training, and work in a similar environment. They are in a natural herd, and the herd mentality comes with the territory, because it's about survival. To complete the analogy, who wants to be the stray gazelle that gets picked off by the predators? Therefore, analysts, strategists, and economists keep their predictions within a range, so as to avoid become the outlier to be removed. There is a psychological tendency not to fight the flow, and bend into peer pressure. He views Wall Street research as no longer a real profit center, outside of [investment] banking.

That gives us outside amateurs a certain advantage of having a unique background and point of view. Most of the guys on financial news networks are mostly just reading what is handed to them, and many of them get their news from similar sources. It's kinda like the AM radio talk show guys I used to listen to religiously, I don't get the time to listen to them so much any more. But when I could listen all day, it was show after show of the same "news" & topics all day long. It's like a list of talking points was printed early in the morning, and they all read from the same page for their particular show.

The current convention is usually not right, that's the mantra of a typical contrarian investor. The trick is figuring out when the rest of the herd will realize that, and then keeping a step ahead. I don't think it's really that difficult for the average amateur. There are so many sources and tools out there for each of us to develop our own investing & trading strategies. As long as one can follow what he/she learns and knows instead of following the crowd, anyone can succeed.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Just another day...

The market started out well today, and then dropped in the last hours on a government energy report with a startling revelation. It said that if energy prices rise, the economy will suffer. Wow, thank you, Energy Secretary Sam Bodman. But he's not really to blame. All he did was state the obvious, and the herd bolted.

Stocks had shown signs of stabilizing after suffering nearly two weeks of declines as the market fretted about interest rates and the economy's health. But investors clearly were still nervous about keeping money in the market while they remained uncertain about the Federal Reserve's plan for lending rates. Full Story

I am still awed at how the Markets react to news. If we WERE certain about the Fed's plan for lending rates, how would today have gone any different? What would the Dow be doing this week if Ben Bernanke actually publicly stated the future Fed Funds rates for the rest of this year? What would happen if I manage to complete a post without mentioning 'energy' or the 'Fed'?

Monday, May 22, 2006

The Herds are Everywhere!

I just heard the best phrase, "hedge fund herd mentality." It finally states the sentiment I have been searching for since finding that there are A LOT of hedge funds out there, running around with a very significant amount (i.e. A LOT) of money pursuing similar strategies. There are hundreds of hedge funds out there, but many are acting like one, huge, superfund institution that is moving markets by itself. Herds are always dangerous in the markets when they stampede or simply roll over anything in their path. It will be interesting to see how SEC regulation will affect future hedge fund development.

But that's not the half of it. In the same article, an expensive, institutional economy report is cited:

Bridgewater's conclusion:
"The supply of U.S. bonds that is being dumped onto the world is still monstrous, and foreigners desire to hold them is rapidly declining... In order to stimulate enough demand to buy the massive supply, yields have got to rise and the currency has got to fall. This adjustment has barely begun." ***

It shows that foreign investment is, in fact, a serious factor in the price of US stocks and bonds, and subsequently our economy. The above is a prediction that the value of the US Dollar will continue to fall, and the Fed rate will continue to rise (or rather, they must).

BUT FEAR NOT! The note is concluded with the following timeline:
Long-term optimism. [Don] Hays writes: "Inflation fears will cause big Fed worries, but if we are right we will see the core rate settle down 3-4 months from now. So that fits with market unrest here, and then the return of a healthier bull market in a couple of months."***

Statistics show that we'll have another down market next month with lower lows than this month. A falling dollar should raise the value of foreign stocks & currencies, and it might be a good idea to put money into a savings account or bonds for the next few months. More statistics show that the second half of this year should see a happy ending, but aren't specific as to when. My guess right now is that we'll see an honest bull market near the line between the 3rd & 4th quarters, or mid-August. Until then, don't be fooled! Any run-up in prices may be short-lived, and I'd be ready to jump with stop limit orders.

As if this post shouldn't get any longer, more oil speculation is making me sick! A member of OPEC mentions that he will suggest a reduction in production next week. So, what do we see today? Commodity traders are buying up the oil supplies... er futures in anticipation of what might happen. And, of course, we'll see the results of these future prices in our present-day gas pump prices. When things calm down and we discover that the production cut won't do much to supplies, the futures prices will fall while today's gas pump prices stay high. If no news happens for a week or two, then the refiners will timidly edge their prices down in free-market competition.

Ugh, feeling a bit queesy in disgust. On the bright side, all the Bulemia I get from reading about oil prices might help me drop those 50 pounds I've been meaning to shed...

Friday, May 19, 2006

Edgy Gets Political

In an interview on August 15, 2005, Dr. Michael Perelman of California State University's School of Economics was explaining factors that influence oil prices. In response to my previous post below about paying for the speculation of war, I discovered his statements on this subject. He simply called it a "risk premium" for the threat of war in oil producing countries. That's a good explanation for it, it's just too bad that we're all being held over a barrel (pun intended) on these oil prices. Why must all the oil be gathered from such turbulent areas?

Here's a theory: many people believe the US has numerous oil reserves in the ground. We could drill here, as we have in the past. But we don't drill because our society is so elegant now that it cares more about the "Environment" than our natural resources. I'm not trying to say that being environmentally concious is a ludicrous concept. Just because some people, who have made fabulous success in earning wealth in their lives by using an excuse of what we would call "work", and have taken up these causes with fanatical fervor in order to balance their personal perception of their level of Karma, or because they feel environmentalism is an excellent excuse to promote their personal, political agendas, doesn't mean that EVERYONE who talks about environmental issues is a loopy, wing-nutty, robotic, script-spewing fanatic.

Back to oil producing nations. Where is oil drilled? Is it downtown of a city? Now, I've seen an active oil pump in the middle of a shopping center parking lot in the outskirts Oklahoma City, but which do you think was there first? Many drilling sites are under-developed for a variety of reasons; they have jungles, deserts, remote mountain ranges, people nearby may be living in rural squalor, and the vast majority in poverty. You think they're worried about the "Environment"? You think Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, or Venezuela doesn't have more important things to worry about than if this one, particular activity of drilling for petroleum will adversely affect the local wildlife and fauna?

What the heck happens with sprawling cities, whether they're made from skyscrapers and suburbs or from shacks? Why aren't we concerned about the "Environment" when we're building thousands of square miles of condos and houses to keep up with this real estate craze we've been experiencing? You have to knock down trees to clear room for a building!

My point is this, we don't drill within our borders because we are concerned about affecting the local "Environment", the local wildlife, the local citizens, and let's not forget that Washington has been in bed with the Middle East for 20 years already. But we're not supposed to know about that... I guess there's some other perfectly good reason why the oil drilling boon of the 1980's suddenly dried up (remember that show, Dallas?).

In short, it appears that America is just "too good" to drill its own oil. So we have to head across the tracks, and make our way to the crackhouse to get our fix from the gun-toting thugs that own that turf. They flip us the bird as soon as we turn our backs, but then quickly count their money. As long as we have cash, they'll keep smiling to our faces (yeah, you, Chavez!).

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Fool's Gold, & A Rant on Futures

Today the markets started well up from the pre-market trading. But, wouldn't you know it? We ended down even further today! The futurists were getting optimistic a little too early after the down-200 day, and gave everyone else false hope, like fool's gold.

I'll admit that fears on the core CPI did influence yesterday's selloff, but it was already going to be a down day. The bad news only made a bad situation worse. Even oil was down, although it is up today. I subcribe to the view that markets this year will be down in the first half, but will rise high during the second half.

Oil was down because, as people say, demand is also down from the high costs. But Energy analyst Victor Shum of Purvin & Gertz in Singapore said it remained too early to tell if demand had indeed been significantly hurt by high oil prices, which are still about 40 percent higher than a year ago. The fluctuating price of energy (oil) is determined by those commodity traders who buy and sell oil all day long. The words "Iran" and "nuclear" were mentioned in the same sentence, and traders began buying it all up in speculation. Now, we all pay the price for media hype. There is no standoff, there is no invasion, and the selloff (profit taking) begins. It sickens me how we must pay for speculation, not facts. The FUTURE price of oil is up, so the refineries raise their CURRENT prices in anticipation. Perfectly legal, and we pay for other goods this way, whether it's gasoline or a can of beans on the shelf.

Last Friday, there was a pipeline explosion in Nigeria, a country fraught with insurgents who have been attacking oil facilities. Did the price of oil shoot up in an orgy of speculative fear-mongering? No. The excuse? The explosion was caused by "vandals" attempting to steal oil, not "militants" attempting to disrupt supply. The supply was still broken, but the source will affect the price of oil? Our prices were affected when they blew up part of an offshore platform, taking out 20% of Nigeria's capacity, it supplies about 20% of US oil imports.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

More Excuses for the Bears

Today is about the 4th day in a row that the markets have been dropping. This time, the blame was placed on the Core CPI (inflation measured without food & energy prices) report that was released today. It said that core CPI was up 0.6% last month (it was up 0.4% last month). Therefore, investors had an excuse to be bearish today. Today? What about the past 5 trading days?

Today's excuse is the media looking for a reason to explain the situation, but it's a short-term explanation for a long-term view. Stocks have been falling since the day after the Fed released it's latest rate increase last week! AND has anyone noticed that the commodities are also falling, including gold? Today, I finally heard someone say that the money is flowing into bonds, but that wasn't the case before today. Hmmmm....

Speaking of the Fed, Chairman Ben Bernanke made a speech today saying that the government should stay OUT of hedge fund regulation. HOO-RAH Ben! Score one for the free-market capitalists against "creeping socialism" and beaurocracy! By the way, the Federal Reserve Bank is NOT a government entity. Ben Bernanke does explain and discuss the situation with the President of the United States, but he doesn't report to him.

However, the Fed is not a friend of Wall Street. Every talking head on Wall Street has been griping about the Fed's rate increases (9 in a row, now) and how it is stifling the economy. Today, I heard them say that it may be too late to save the economy after this last increase. Is THIS the sentiment that caused the Down-200 day?

While the markets have been falling, the dollar has been rising against the Yen and the Euro. My guess is this is because people are cashing out of overpriced stocks and holding cash and US bonds. I bet foreign investment may have a play, too. They might see prices falling and could be converting their currency to dollars to buy up more American opportunities.

Just remember, the market is falling, not the country. We still have fundamentals, so what goes down WILL come back up!

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The Bloodbath

The two trading days around this past weekend showed declines in all areas of the market, from the Dow and S&P 500 to bonds, the price of oil, gas and even gold! All I can say is, 'what tha?' If the money's coming out of equities, why is it not going to bonds or gold?

A few weeks ago I jumped out of a lot of my holdings, thanks to trailing stops. I checked my own meager portfolio to see that the few bets I'm holding onto right now are bleeding me: my small stake in Chinese-owned General Steel, my retirement savings in the S&P 500, and my bearish bet against Coventry Healthcare. To add insult to injury, after holding (and dropping) Countrywide for 18 months, I see it now reaching new heights that it never could rise above during my tenure. This is the kind of stuff that kills the weak of heart... and stomach. But only if you drop out now.

Thursday, May 11, 2006


While trying to get a handle on all the noise about the price of gold, the falling dollar, rising commodities & metals, I came across this comforting piece of news: Why You Should Be Terrified (you might have to register to read it, sorry!). Those Fools really do a great job of saying what should already be known, but we never bothered to check. It really does help to have someone spell it out sometimes!

As for me, I'll remember that I'm still working toward being primarily an investor in companies traded on US exchanges. I'm not already trading global markets on the forex, so I'm not going to worry about trying to figure out the economic consequences of the devaluation of the Rinminbi (sometimes called the Yuan, or Juan in Southern China) being unpegged against the US Dollar. Stick with the basics and everything else will take care of itself: focus.

Jack Welch once told a large group of students that the best tip to success is focus. He said that, whatever you do, find something and stick with it. In today's ADHD environment, I'd say that's pretty good advice. Hell, it's taken me over 2 hours just to write this dang bit because I've been downloading Podcasts and watching Adult Swim! Now that's not very responsible, is it? As I always tell my son, "Do as I say, not as I do."

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Oh no, it's the Feds!!!

"The Fed's decision to boost a key short-term lending rate to 5 percent was widely anticipated. But investors were rattled by the central bank's accompanying statement, which said more policy firming -- or rate hikes -- could be necessary to contain inflation. The Fed indicated it would be closely watching economic data to determine its next step." Full story here

Well, of course the Fed will be closely watching economic data! Is that supposed to be a new concept for them??? I think Ben Bernanke is asking himself one question for every report he publishes, "can I make Wall Street think I'm unpredictable?". Mr. Bernanke is still trying to prove that he is not the Mini-Me of Alan Greenspan, and can actually think on his own.

It's almost fun to watch the Wall Street herd jitter and jump every time a croc or lion is spotted, whether there is one or not!

One interesting note, a colleague at work stopped by my desk today to ask, 'what's going on with the markets today? They're going down.' I didn't know what he was talking about, because I have been watching the healthcare stocks like UNH and CVH to see if they'll continue to plummet. The past few days, they've been rising dramatically. And that is ONLY because I put money down against CVH!

Here's to the Game, and my first post!