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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.

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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.

Jobs And Propaganda

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August 10, 2009

On Friday, Wall Street celebrated a “less bad” Employment Situation Report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  Although the consensus estimate for jobs lost during the month of July was 345,000 — the report from the BLS on Friday recited that non-farm payrolls decreased by 247,000.  You may have heard the BLS referred to as the “Bureau of Lies and Statistics” by those who see BLS reports as “cooked data” for propaganda purposes.  Criticism of the spin given to the report could be found at the Zero Hedge website, which featured an entry with the title:  “The Truth Behind Today’s BLS Report” with quotes from such authorities as consulting economist John Williams and economist David Rosenberg.  Mr. Rosenberg was quoted as providing this caveat:

It may be dangerous to extrapolate today’s report into a view that we are about to turn the corner on the job market front.

At The Atlantic Online, Daniel Indiviglio wrote a piece entitled:  “Did the Unemployment Rate Really Go Down?”  Among his points were these:

As a recession drags on for this long, and people are unable to find jobs, they begin leaving the workforce.  They become discouraged regarding job prospects.  BLS offers an unemployment rate that includes these discouraged workers.  In June 2009, that was 10.1%.  For July, it was 10.2%.

Given this change in unemployment including discouraged workers, I think it’s pretty clear that the 0.1% decrease in the reported unemployment rate can be misleading.  In reality, those who would like a job but don’t have one increased by 0.1% up to10.2%.

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I just think we need to be careful not to get too excited about today’s numbers.  Although they appear to show a decrease in the unemployment rate, the deeper numbers show the contrary.  We may see the light at the end of the tunnel, but we’ve got a ways to go.

Claims of “good news” about the unemployment picture are regularly contradicted, if not by our own personal experiences, then by those of our relatives and friends.  Beyond that, we see daily reports of middle-class families using food stamps for the first time in their lives and we read about escalating bankruptcy filings.

One article I found particularly interesting was written by Nancy Cook for Newsweek on August 7.  It concerned the problems faced by teenagers this year, who sought summer jobs.  They weren’t able to get those jobs because they found themselves “competing with unemployed adults who are now willing to take positions that were considered entry-level in prerecessionary times.”  Ms. Cook discussed how the inability of teenagers to obtain summer jobs impairs their personal and professional development:

Where does that leave high-school- and college-age students, apart from spending their summers lying on the couch?  It leaves them with little income and, worse, few job skills, says Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston.  “It hurts their ability to get jobs in the future,” he says.  Teens who work in high school and college on average earn salaries 16 percent higher than teens who don’t work, according to the center’s research.

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Working summer jobs certainly translates into higher earning power in the long term, but more important, it gives teens “soft skills.”  Those skills teach them to be punctual, write professional e-mails, and work well in teams.  “There’s lots of evidence that shows that employers place a high premium on those skills,” Sum says.  “If you don’t work, you develop cultural signals from other kids, from the streets, or from sitting at home in front of a computer, which is the worst way to learn how to get along with people.”

I find it difficult to believe that normal, human, retail investors would find so much encouragement from reading about the BLS report.  The use of the BLS data to justify Friday’s market pop appears as just another excuse to explain the ongoing inflation of equities prices, caused by banks playing with TARP and other bailout money for their own benefit.

Doubts Concerning The Stock Market Rally

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August 6, 2009

As of today (Wednesday night) the current “bear market rally” continues to surprise people with its longevity.  On the other hand, many news outlets, including The Washington Times and CNBC are declaring a “New Bull Market”.  There seems to be no shortage of commentators proclaiming that the market indices will continue to climb forever.

Back on planet earth, there is a good deal of commentary about the suspicious activity behind this rally.  In my last posting, I discussed the “Plunge Protection Team” or PPT.  Rather than repeat all that, for the benefit of those unfamiliar with the PPT, I will quote the handy definition at the Hamzei Analytics website:

Plunge Protection Team has been the “Working Group” established by law in 1988 to buy the markets should declines get out of control.  It is suspected by many market watchers that PPT has become far more interventionist than was originally intended under the law.  There are no minutes of meetings, no recorded phone conversations, no reports of activities, no announcements of intentions.  It is a secret group including the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, the Secretary of the Treasury, the Head of the SEC, and their surrogates which include some of the large Wall Street firms.  The original objective was to prevent disastrous market crashes.  Lately it seems, they buy the markets when they decide the markets need to be bought, including the equity markets.  Their main resource is the money the Fed prints.  The money is injected into markets via the New York Fed’s Repo desk, which easily shows up in the M-3 numbers, warning intervention was near.  As of April 2006, M-3 is longer reported.

Many of us have looked to the PPT as the driving force behind this rally.  News sources have claimed that the rally is the result of money “coming into the markets from the sidelines” — implying that crisis-wary investors had finally thrown caution to the wind and jumped into the equities markets to partake in the orgy of newfound wealth.  The cash accumulating in the investors’ money market accounts was supposedly being invested in stocks.  This propaganda was quickly debunked by the folks at the Zero Hedge website, with the following revelation:

Most interesting is the correlation between Money Market totals and the listed stock value since the March lows:  a $2.7 trillion move in equities was accompanied by a less than $400 billion reduction in Money Market accounts!

Where, may we ask, did the balance of $2.3 trillion in purchasing power come from?  Why the Federal Reserve of course, which directly and indirectly subsidized U.S.banks (and foreign ones through liquidity swaps) for roughly that amount.  Apparently these banks promptly went on a buying spree to raise the all important equity market, so that the U.S. consumer whose net equity was almost negative on March 31, could have some semblance of confidence back and would go ahead and max out his credit card.

Similar skepticism was voiced by Karl Denninger of The Market Ticker website:

So once again we have The Fed blowing bubbles, this time in the equity markets, with (another) wink and a nod from Congress.  This explains why there has been no “great rush” for individual investors to “get back in”, and it explains why the money market accounts aren’t being drained by individuals “hopping on the bus”, despite the screeching of CNBC and others that you better “buy now or be priced out”, with Larry Kudlow’s “New Bull Market” claim being particularly offensive.

Unfortunately the banksters on Wall Street and the NY Fed did their job too well – by engineering a 50% rally off the bottom in March while revenues continue to tank, personal income is in the toilet and tax receipts are in freefall they have exposed the equity markets for what they have (unfortunately) turned into — a computer-trading rigged casino with the grand lever-meister being housed at the NY Fed.

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No, real buying is just that – real buying from real retail investors who believe in the forward prospects for the economy and business, not funny-money Treasury and MBS buying by The Fed from “newly created bank reserves” funneled back into the market via high-speed computers.  The latter is nothing more than a manufactured ramp job that will last only until “the boyz” get to the end of their rope (and yes,that rope does have an end) as the fractional creation machine does run just as well in reverse, and as such “the boyz” cannot allow the trade to run the wrong way lest it literally destroy them (10:1 or more leverage is a real bitch when its working against you!)

Is it coming to an end now?  Nobody can be certain when, but what is certain is that over the last week or so there have been signs of heavy distribution – that is, the selling off of big blocks of stock into the market by these very same “boyz.”  This is not proof that the floor is about to disappear, but it is an absolute certainty that these “players” are protecting themselves from the possibility and making sure that if there is to be a bagholder, it will be you.

Many commentators, including Joseph Saluzzi of Themis Trading, have explained how the practice of computer-driven “High-Frequency Trading” has added approximately 70 percent of “volume” to the equities markets.  This is accomplished because the exchanges pay a quarter-of-a-penny rebate to High-Frequency Trading firms for each order they place, waiving all transaction fees.  As a result, the “big boy” firms, such as J.P. Morgan and Goldman Sachs, will make trades with their own money, buying and selling shares at the same price, simply for the rebates.  Those pennies can add up to hundreds of millions of dollars.

I recently came across a very interesting paper (just over eight pages in length) entitled:  A Grand Unified Theory of Market Manipulation, published by Precision Capital Management.  The paper describes a tug of war between Treasury Secretary Ben Bernanke and the New York Fed, that is playing out in the equities and Treasury securities markets.  The authors suggest that if Bernanke’s biggest threat is high long-term Treasury yields (interest rates), the easiest way to prevent or postpone a yield ramp would be to kill the stock market rally and create a “flight to safety in Treasuries” – situation that lowers long-term yields.  The paper describes how the New York Fed facilitates “painting the tape” in the stock markets to keep the rally alive.  For those of you who don’t know what that expression means, here’s a definition:

An illegal action by a group of market manipulators buying and/or selling a security among themselves to create artificial trading activity, which, when reported on the ticker tape, lures in unsuspecting investors as they perceive an unusual volume.

After causing a movement in the security, the manipulators hope to sell at a profit.

Instead of accusations that the PPT is the culprit doing the tape painting during the final minutes of the trading day, we again see a focus on the New York Fed as the facilitator of this practice.  Here’s the explanation given in the paper by Precision Capital Management:

The theory for which we have the greatest supporting evidence of manipulation surrounds the fact that the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (FRNY) began conducting permanent open market operations (POMO) on March 25, 2009 and has conducted 42 to date.  Thanks to Thanassis Strathopoulos and Billy O’Nair for alerting us to the POMO Effect discovery and the development of associated trading edges.  These auctions are conducted from about 10:30 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. on pre-announced days.  In such auctions, the FRNY permanently purchases Treasury securities from selected dealers, with the total purchase amount for a day ranging from about $1.5 B to $7.5 B.  These days are highly correlated with strong paint-the-tape closes, with the theory being that the large institutions that receive the capital interjections are able to leverage this money by 100 to 500 times and then use it to ramp equities.

As for the all-important question of how the authors expect this to play out, they focus on what might happen at the market close on August 5:

And, while it is a bit early to favor one side or the other, we are currently leaning toward a nervous Bernanke and the need to ramp Treasuries at the expense of equities into August 9.  Equities have had more than a nice run and can suffer a bit of a correction.  Key will be watching the close on Wednesday.  A failed POMO paint the tape close could signal that an equities correction of at least a few weeks has gotten underway.

What we saw on Wednesday afternoon was just that.  At approximately 3 p.m. there was an effort to push the S&P 500 index into positive territory for the first time that day, which succeeded for just a few minutes.  The index then dropped back down, closing .29 percent lower than the previous close.  Does this mean that a market correction is underway?  Time will tell.  With the S&P 500 index at 1002 as I write this, many experts consider the market to be “overbought”.  Fund manager Jeremy Grantham, who has been entrusted to invest over $89 billion of his customers’ hard-inherited money, is of the opinion that the current fair value for the S&P 500 should be just below 880.  Thus, there is plenty of room for a correction.  The answer to the question of whether that correction is now underway should be something we will learn rather quickly.