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Getting Rolled By Wall Street

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August 5, 2010

For the past few years, investors have been flocking to exchange-traded funds (ETFs) as an alternative to mutual funds, which often penalize investors for bailing out less than 90 days after buying in.  The ETFs are traded on exchanges in the same manner as individual stocks.  Investors can buy however many shares of an ETF as they desire, rather than being faced with a minimum investment as required by many mutual funds.  Other investors see ETFs as a less-risky alternative than buying individual stocks, since some funds consist of an assortment of stocks from a given sector.

The most recent essay by one of my favorite commentators, Paul Farrell of MarketWatch, is focused on the ETFs that are based on commodities, rather than stocks.  As it turns out, the commodity ETFs have turned out to be yet another one of Wall Street’s weapons of mass financial destruction.  Paul Farrell brings the reader’s attention to a number of articles written on this subject – all of which bear a theme similar to the title of Mr. Farrell’s piece:  “Commodity ETFs: Toxic, deadly, evil”.

Mr. Farrell discussed a recent article from Bloomberg BusinessWeek, exposing the hazards inherent in commodity ETFs.  That article began by discussing the experience of a man who invested $10,000 in an ETF called the U.S. Oil Fund (ticker symbol: USO), designed to track the price of light, sweet crude oil.  The investor’s experience became a familiar theme for many who had bought into commodity ETFs:

What happened next didn’t make sense.  Wolf watched oil go up as predicted, yet USO kept going down.  In February 2009, for example, crude rose 7.4 percent while USO fell by 7.4 percent.  What was going on?

What was going on was something called “contango”.  The BusinessWeek article explained it this way:

Contango is a word traders use to describe a specific market condition, when contracts for future delivery of a commodity are more expensive than near-term contracts for the same stuff.  It is common in commodity markets, though as Wolf and other investors learned, it can spell doom for commodity ETFs. When the futures contracts that commodity funds own are about to expire, fund managers have to sell them and buy new ones; otherwise they would have to take delivery of billions of dollars’ worth of raw materials.  When they buy the more expensive contracts — more expensive thanks to contango — they lose money for their investors.  Contango eats a fund’s seed corn, chewing away its value.

*   *   *

Contango isn’t the only reason commodity ETFs make lousy buy-and-hold investments.  Professional futures traders exploit the ETFs’ monthly rolls to make easy profits at the little guy’s expense.  Unlike ETF managers, the professionals don’t trade at set times.  They can buy the next month ahead of the big programmed rolls to drive up the price, or sell before the ETF, pushing down the price investors get paid for expiring futures.  The strategy is called “pre-rolling.”

“I make a living off the dumb money,” says Emil van Essen, founder of an eponymous commodity trading company in Chicago.  Van Essen developed software that predicts and profits from pre-rolling.  “These index funds get eaten alive by people like me,” he says.

A look at 10 well-known funds based on commodity futures found that, since inception, all 10 have trailed the performance of their underlying raw materials, according to Bloomberg data.

*   *   *

Just as they did with subprime mortgage-backed securities, Wall Street banks are transferring wealth from their clients to their trading desks.  “You walk into a casino, you expect to lose money,” says Greg Forero, former director of commodities trading at UBS (UBS).  “It’s the same with these products.  You’re playing a game with a very high rake, a very high house advantage, and you’re not the house.”

Another problem caused by commodity ETFs is the havoc they create by raising prices of consumer goods – not because of a supply and demand effect – but purely by financial speculation:

Wheat prices jumped 52 percent in early 2008, setting records before plunging again, and sugar more than doubled last year even as the economy slowed, forcing Reinwald’s Bakery in Huntington, N.Y., to fire five of its 32 employees.  “You try and budget to make money, but that’s becoming impossible to predict,” says owner Richard Reinwald, chairman of the Retail Bakers of America.

Paul Farrell also brought our attention to an article entitled “ETFs Gone Wild” to highlight the hazards these products create for the entire financial system:

In Bloomberg Markets’ “ETFs Gone Wild,” investors are warned that many ETFs are “stuffed with exotic derivatives,” at risk of becoming “the next financial time bomb.”  In short, thanks to ETFs, Wall Street is already creating a dangerous new kind of global weapon of mass destruction — a bomb primed to detonate like the 2000 dot-coms, the 2008 subprimes — and detonation is dead ahead.

Mr. Farrell’s essay included a discussion of a Rolling Stone article by McKenzie Funk, describing the exploits of Phil Heilberg, a former AIG commodity trader.  The Rolling Stone piece demonstrated how commodity ETFs are just the latest weapon used to advance “Chaos Capitalism”:

And yet, as Funk puts it:  “Heilberg’s bet on chaos is beginning to play out on the streets.”  The toxic trail of commodity ETFs is already proving to be deadly, starving thousands worldwide, while the new Capitalists of Chaos only see incredible profit opportunities, as they make huge bets that they’ll get even richer in the next round of catastrophes, disasters, poverty, starvation and wars.

Bottom line: Commodity ETF/WMDs are mutating into a toxic pandemic fueled (and protected by) the insatiable greed of banks, traders and politicians whose brains are incapable of giving up their profit machine, won’t until it implodes and self-destructs.  The Wall Street Banksters have no sense of morals, no ethics, no soul, no goal in life other than getting very rich, very fast.  They care nothing of democracy, civilization or the planet.

Don’t count on the faux financial “reform” bill to remedy any of the problems created by commodity ETFs.  As the BusinessWeek article pointed out, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission is going to have its hands full:

How much the new law will help remains to be seen, says Jill E. Sommers, one of the agency’s five commissioners, because Congress still needs to appropriate funds and write guidelines for implementation and enforcement.

Let’s not overlook the fact that those “guidelines” are going to be written by industry lobbyists.  The more things change — the more they remain the same.



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Searching For A Port In A Storm Of Bad Behavior

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August 20, 2009

Since I began complaining about manipulation of the stock markets back on December 18, I’ve been comforted by the fact that a number of bloggers have voiced similar concerns.  At such websites as Naked Capitalism, Zero Hedge, The Market Ticker and others too numerous to mention —  a common theme keeps popping up:  some portion of the extraordinary amounts of money disseminated by the Treasury and the Federal Reserve is obviously being used to manipulate the equities markets.  One paper, released by Precision Capital Management, analyzed the correlation between those days when the Federal Reserve bought back Treasury securities from investment banks and “tape painting” during the final minutes of those trading days on the stock markets.

Eliot “Socks” Spitzer recently wrote a piece for Slate, warning the “small investor” about a “rigged” system, as well as the additional hazards encountered due to routine breaches of the fiduciary duties owed by investment firms to their clients:

Recent rebounds notwithstanding, most people now are asking whether the system is fundamentally rigged.  It’s not just that they have an understandable aversion to losing their life savings when the market crashes; it’s that each of the scandals and crises has a common pattern:  The small investor was taken advantage of by the piranhas that hide in the rapidly moving currents. And underlying this pattern is a simple theme: conflicts of interest that violated the duty the market players had to their supposed clients.

The natural reaction of the retail investor to these hazards and scandals often involves seeking refuge in professionally-managed mutual funds.  Nevertheless, as Spitzer pointed out, the mutual fund alternative has dangers of its own:

Mutual funds charge exorbitant fees that investors have to absorb — fees that dramatically reduce any possibility of outperforming the market and that are set by captive boards of captive management companies, not one of which has been replaced for inadequate performance, violating their duty to guard the interests of the fund investors for whom they supposedly work.

Worse yet, is the fact that mutual funds are now increasing their fees and, in effect, punishing their customers for the poor performance of those funds during the past year.  Financial planner Allan Roth, had this to say at CBS MoneyWatch.com:

After one of the most awful years in the history of the mutual fund industry, when the average U.S. stock fund and international fund fell by 39 percent and 46 percent respectively, you might expect fund companies would give investors a break and lower their fees. But just the opposite is true.

An exclusive analysis for MoneyWatch.com by investment research firm Morningstar shows that over the past year, fund fees have risen in nearly every category.  For stock funds, the fees shot up by roughly 5 percent.

*   *   *

Every penny you pay in fees, of course, lowers your return.  In fact, my research indicates that each additional 0.25 percent in annual fees pushes back your financial independence goal by a year.

What’s more, the only factor that is predictive of a fund’s relative performance against similar funds is fees.  A low-cost domestic stock fund is likely to outperform an equivalent high-cost fund, just as a low-cost bond fund is likely to outperform an equivalent high-cost fund.   . . .  As fund fees increase, performance decreases.  In fact, fees explained nearly 60 percent of the U.S. stock fund family performance ratings given by Morningstar.  Numerous studies done to predict mutual fund performance indicate that neither the Morningstar rating nor the track record of the fund manager were indicative of future performance.

Another questionable practice in the mutual fund industry — the hiring of “rookies” to manage the funds — was recently placed under the spotlight by Ken Kam for the MSN TopStocks blog:

In this market, it’s going to take skill to make back last year’s losses.  After a 40% loss, it takes a 67% gain just to get back to even. You would think that mutual funds would put their most experienced managers and analysts to work right now.  But according to Morningstar, the managers of 28 out of 48 unique healthcare funds, almost 60%, (see data) have less than five years with their fund.  I think you need to see at least a five-year track record before you can even begin to judge a manager’s worth.

I’m willing to pay for good management that will do something to protect me if the market crashes again.  But I want to see some evidence that I am getting a good manager before I trust them with my money.  I want to see at least a five-year track record.  If I paid for good management and I got a rookie manager with no track record instead, I would be more than a little upset.

Beyond that, John Authers of Morningstar recently wrote an article for the Financial Times, explaining that investors will obtain better results investing in a stock index fund, rather than an “actively managed” equity mutual fund, whether or not that manager is a rookie:

For decades, retail savers have invested in stocks via mutual funds that are actively managed to try to beat an index.  The funds hold about 100 stocks, and can raise or lower their cash holdings, but cannot bet on stocks to go down by selling them short.

This model has, it appears, been savaged by a flock of sheep.

Index investing, which cuts costs by replicating an index rather than trying to beat it, has been gaining in popularity.

Active managers argued that they could raise cash, or move to defensive stocks, in a downturn.  Passive funds would track their index over the edge of the cliff.

But active managers, in aggregate, failed to do better than their indices in 2008.

So …  if you have become too frustrated to continue investing in stocks, be mindful of the fact that equity-based mutual funds have problems of their own.

As for other alternatives:  Ian Wyatt recently wrote a favorable piece about the advantages of exchange-traded funds (ETFs) for  SmallCapInvestor.com.  Nevertheless, if the stocks comprising those ETFs (and the ETFs themselves) are being traded in a “rigged” market, you’re back to square one.  Happy investing!

DISCLAIMER: NOTHING CONTAINED ANYWHERE ON THIS SITE CONSTITUTES ANY INVESTING ADVICE OR RECOMMENDATION.  ANY PURCHASES OR SALES OF SECURITIES OR OTHER INVESTMENTS ARE SOLELY AT THE DISCRETION OF THE READER.

Where The Money Is

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June 1, 2009

For the past few months we have been hearing TV “experts” tell us that “it’s almost over” when discussing the Great Recession.  Beyond that, many of the TV news-readers insist that the “bear market” is over and that we are now in a “bull market”.  In his new column for The Atlantic (named after his book A Failure of Capitalism) Judge Richard A. Posner is using the term “depression” rather than “recession” to describe the current state of the economy.  In other words, he’s being a little more blunt about the situation than most commentators would care to be.  Meanwhile, the “happy talk” people, who want everyone to throw what is left of their life savings back into the stock market, are saying that the recession is over.  If you look beyond the “good news” coming from the TV and pay attention to who the “financial experts” quoted in those stories are … you will find that they are salaried employees of such companies as Barclay’s Capital and Charles Schwab  … in other words:  the brokerages and asset managers who want your money.   A more sober report on the subject, prepared by the National Association for Business Economics (NABE) revealed that 74 percent of the economists it surveyed were of the opinion that the recession would end in the third quarter of this year.  Nineteen percent of the economists surveyed by the NABE predicted that the recession would end during the fourth quarter of 2009 and the remaining 7 percent opined that the recession would end during the first quarter of 2010.

Some investors, who would rather not wait for our recession to end before jumping back into the stock market, are rapidly flocking to what are called “emerging markets”.  To get a better understanding of what emerging markets are all about, read Chuan Li’s (mercifully short) paper on the subject for the University of Iowa Center for International Finance and Development.  The rising popularity of investing in emerging markets was evident in Fareed Zakaria’s article from the June 8 issue of Newsweek:

It is becoming increasingly clear that the story of the global economy is a tale of two worlds.  In one, there is only gloom and doom, and in the other there is light and hope.  In the traditional bastions of wealth and power — America, Europe and Japan — it is difficult to find much good news.  But there is a new world out there — China, India, Indonesia, Brazil — in which economic growth continues to power ahead, in which governments are not buried under a mountain of debt and in which citizens remain remarkably optimistic about their future.  This divergence, between the once rich and the once poor, might mark a turn in history.

*    *    *

Compare the two worlds.  On the one side is the West (plus Japan), with banks that are overleveraged and thus dysfunctional, governments groaning under debt, and consumers who are rebuilding their broken balance sheets. America is having trouble selling its IOUs at attractive prices (the last three Treasury auctions have gone badly); its largest state, California, is veering toward total fiscal collapse; and its budget deficit is going to surpass 13 percent of GDP —  a level last seen during World War II.  With all these burdens, even if there is a recovery, the United States might not return to fast-paced growth for a while.  And it’s probably more dynamic than Europe or Japan.

Meanwhile, emerging-market banks are largely healthy and profitable.  (Every Indian bank, government-owned and private, posted profits in the last quarter of 2008!)  The governments are in good fiscal shape.  China’s strengths are well known — $2 trillion in reserves, a budget deficit that is less than 3 percent of GDP — but consider Brazil, which is now posting a current account surplus.

On May 31, The Economic Times reported similarly good news for emerging markets:

Growth potential and a long-term outlook for emerging markets remain structurally intact despite cyclically declining exports and capital outflows, a research report released on Sunday said.

According to Credit Suisse Research’s latest edition of Global Investor, looking forward to an eventual recovery from the current crisis, growth led by domestic factors in emerging markets is set to succeed debt-fuelled US private consumption as the most important driver of global economic growth over coming years.

The Seeking Alpha website featured an article by David Hunkar, following a similar theme:

Emerging markets have easily outperformed the developed world markets since stocks rebounded from March this year. Emerging countries such as Brazil, India, China, etc. continue to attract capital and show strength relative to developed markets.

On May 29, The Wall Street Journal‘s Smart Money magazine ran a piece by Elizabeth O’Brien, featuring investment bargains in “re-emerging” markets:

As the U.S. struggles to reverse the economic slide, some emerging markets are ahead of the game.  The International Monetary Fund projects that while the world’s advanced economies will contract this year, emerging economies will expand by as much as 2.5 percent, and some countries will grow a lot faster.  Even better news:  Some pros are finding they don’t have to pay a lot to own profitable “foreign” stocks.  The valuations on foreign stocks have become “very, very attractive,” says Uri Landesman, chief equity strategist for asset manager ING Investment Management Americas.

As for The Wall Street Journal itself, the paper ran a June 1 article entitled: “New Driver for Stocks”, explaining that China and other emerging markets are responsible the rebound in the demand for oil:

International stock markets have long taken their cues from the U.S., but as it became clear that emerging-market economies would hold up best and rebound first from the downturn, the U.S. has in some ways moved over to the passenger seat.

Jim Lowell of MarketWatch wrote a June 1 commentary discussing some emerging market exchange-traded funds (ETFs), wherein he made note of his concern about the “socio-politico volatility” in some emerging market regions:

Daring to drink the water of the above funds could prove to be little more than a way to tap into Montezuma’s revenge.  But history tells us that investors who discount the rewards are as prone to disappointment as those who dismiss the risks.

On May 29, ETF Guide discussed some of the exchange-traded funds focused on emerging markets:

Don’t look now, but emerging markets have re-discovered their mojo.  After declining more than 50 percent last year and leading global stocks into a freefall, emerging markets stocks now find themselves with a 35 percent year-to-date gain on average.

A website focused solely on this area of investments is Emerging Index.

So if you have become too risk-averse to allow yourself to get hosed when this “bear market rally” ends, you may want to consider the advantages and disadvantages of investing in emerging markets.  Nevertheless, “emerging market” investments might seem problematic as a way of dodging whatever bullets come by, when American stock market indices sink.  The fact that the ETFs discussed in the above articles are traded on American exchanges raises a question in my mind as to whether they could be vulnerable to broad-market declines as they happen in this country.  That situation could be compounded by the fact that many of the underlying stocks for such funds are, themselves, traded on American exchanges, even though the stocks are for foreign corporations.  By way of disclosure, as of the time of writing this entry, I have no such investments myself, although by the time you read this  . . .   I just might.

Update: I subsequently “stuck my foot in the water” by investing in the iShares MSCI Brazil Index ETF (ticker symbol: EWZ).  Any guesses as to how long I stick with it?

June 3 Update: Today the S&P 500 dropped 1.37 percent and EWZ dropped 5.37 percent — similar to the losses posted by many American companies.   Suffice it to say:  I am not a happy camper!  I plan on unloading it.

DISCLAIMER:  NOTHING CONTAINED ANYWHERE ON THIS SITE CONSTITUTES ANY INVESTING ADVICE OR RECOMMENDATION.  ANY PURCHASES OR SALES OF SECURITIES ARE SOLELY AT THE DISCRETION OF THE READER.