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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.

The News Nobody Wants To Hear

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December 11, 2008

You can’t watch a news program these days without hearing some “happy talk” about how our dismal economy is “on the verge of recovery”.  You have to remember that many of these shows are sponsored by brokerage firms.  That fact must be taken into consideration when you decide how much weight you will give the opinions of the so-called “experts” appearing on those programs to tell you that the stock market has reached “the bottom” and that it is now time to jump back in and start buying stocks.  Similarly, those people interested in making a home purchase (i.e. millionaires, who don’t have to worry about getting a mortgage) want to know when the residential real estate market will hit “bottom” so they can get the best value.  If I had a thousand dollars for every time during the past six months that some prognosticator has appeared on television to tell us that the stock market has “hit bottom”, I would have enough money to start my own geothermal power utility.

People interested in making investments have been scared away from stocks due to the pummeling that the markets have taken since the “mortgage crisis” raised its ugly head and devastated the world economy.  If those folks believe the hype and start buying stocks now, they are taking a greater risk than the enthusiastic promoters on TV might be willing to disclose.

People just don’t like bad news, especially when it is about the future and worse yet, if it’s about the economy.  On Friday, December 5, the stock market rallied, despite the dismal news that November’s non-farm employment loss was the greatest monthly employment decline in 34 years.  More than half a million people lost their jobs in November.  Despite this news, all of the major stock indices were up at least 3 percent for that day alone.  Have all these people bought into the magical thinking described in The Secret?  Do that many people believe that wishing hard enough can cause a dream to become reality?

There is one authority on the subject of economics, who earned quite a bit of “street cred” when our current economic crisis hit the fan. He is Nouriel Roubini, a professor of economics at New York University’s Stern School of Business. He earned the nickname “Doctor Doom” when he spoke before the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on September 7, 2006 and described, in precise detail, exactly what would bring the financial world to its knees, two years later.  In this time of uncertainty, many people (myself included) pay close attention to what Dr. Roubini has to say by regularly checking in on his website.  On December 5, we were surprised to hear Doctor Doom’s admission to Aaron Task (on the web TV show, Tech Ticker) that his own 401(k) plan is comprised entirely of stocks.  Dr. Roubini explained that he is not in the “Armageddon camp” and that for the long haul, stocks are still a good investment (although currently not a good idea for investors with more short-term goals).  Upon learning of this, I began to wonder if the revelation about Doctor Doom’s stock holdings could have been the reason for the stock market rally that day.

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Roubini at a lecture he gave within staggering distance of my home.  I was able to talk to him about my concern over Federal Reserve Chairman, Ben Bernanke’s idea of having the federal government purchase stocks in order to pep-up a depressed stock market.  How could this possibly be accomplished?  How could the Fed decide which stocks to buy to the exclusion of others?  Dr. Roubini told me that the government has already done this by purchasing preferred shares of stock issued by the banks participating in the TARP program.  He explained that rather than purchasing selected stocks of particular companies, the government would, more likely, invest in stock indices.  Before I get to Doctor Doom’s other points from his lecture, I will share this photo taken of yours truly and Doctor Roubini (who appears on your left):

Doctor Doom with Me

Dr. Roubini told the audience that he believes this recession will be worse than everyone expects. During the next few months, “the flow of macroeconomic news will be awful and worse than expected”. He opined that people are going to be surprised if they think that the stock market “bottom” will come in mid-2009. He expects that by the end of 2009 “things will still be bad” and unemployment will peak at 9% in early 2010. He thinks that the consensus on earnings-per-share estimates for stocks during the next year is “delusional”. He anticipates risk aversion among investors to be severe next year. We are now in a global recession and this has caused commodity prices to fall 30%. He pointed out that commodity prices could still fall another 20%. He considers it “very likely” that between 500 to 600 hedge funds will go out of business within the next six months. As this happens, the stocks held by these funds must be dumped onto the market. With respect to the beleaguered residential real estate market, he pointed out that home prices could fall another 15-20% by early 2010.

The good news provided by Dr. Roubini is that the global recession should end by the close of 2009. However, he expects recovery to be “weak” in 2010. He surmised that the possibility of a systemic meltdown has been minimized by the actions taken at the recent G7 meeting and most particularly with the G7 resolution to prevent further “Lehman Brothers-type” bankruptcies from taking place. He concluded that this recession should be nothing like the Japanese recession of the 1990s, which lasted nearly a decade.

So there you have it:  The news (almost) nobody wants to hear.  You can say these are the predictions voiced by one man who could be wrong.  Nevertheless, given Dr. Roubini’s track record, I and many others hold his opinions in high regard.  Now, let’s see how this all plays out.