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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.

Painting The Tape

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July 2, 2009

Would you be willing to wager your life savings on pro-wrestling matches?  That is basically what you are doing when you invest in the stock market these days.  The game is being rigged.  If you are just a “retail investor” or “little guy”, you run the risk of having your investment in this “bear market rally” significantly diminish in the blink of an eye.  Regular readers of this blog (all four of them) know that this is one of my favorite subjects.  In my posting on May 21, I recalled feeling a little paranoid last December when I wrote this:

Do you care to hazard a guess as to what the next Wall Street scandal might be?  I have a pet theory concerning the almost-daily spate of “late-day rallies” in the equities markets.  I’ve discussed it with some knowledgeable investors.  I suspect that some of the bailout money squandered by Treasury Secretary Paulson has found its way into the hands of some miscreants who are using this money to manipulate the stock markets.  I have a hunch that their plan is to run up stock prices at the end of the day before those numbers have a chance to settle back down to the level where the market would normally have them.  The inflated “closing price” for the day is then perceived as the market value of the stock. This plan would be an effort to con investors into believing that the market has pulled out of its slump.  Eventually the victims would find themselves hosed once again at the next “market correction”.  I don’t believe that SEC Chairman Christopher Cox would likely uncover such a scam, given his track record.

After my last posting about this subject on May 21, I have continued to read quite a number of opinions by authoritative sources, echoing my belief that the stock market is being manipulated.  Tyler Durden at Zero Hedge has been quite diligent about exposing incidents of “tape painting”.  Some examples appear here and here.  In case you don’t know what is meant by “painting the tape”, here is 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.

As one might expect, this activity is more easily accomplished on days when trading volume is low.  On June 11, Craig Brown had this to say about the subject on the Seeking Alpha website:

I have read some posts about some suspicions on perhaps some entities painting the tape. Volume has been light so it is something that could happen. We will see if these conspiracy theories play out.

Regular readers of Zero Hedge (it’s on my blogroll, at the right) had the opportunity to see some televised interviews during the past few days, when professionals have complained about “tape painting” in the equities markets.  On Monday, June 29, we saw on (of all places) CNBC, a discussion with Larry Levin, a futures trader on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.  I would consider CNBC the last place to criticize “pumping” of stock prices, since their commentary often seems designed to do just that.  Nevertheless, watch and listen to what Larry Levin had to say at 2:22 into this video clip.  He explains that “this market continues to be propped up by government intervention and manipulation” and he unequivocally accuses the Obama administration of acting to “prop this market up on a daily basis”.  Again, on Wednesday, July 1, visitors to the Zero Hedge website had the opportunity to see this June 30 clip from Bloomberg TV, wherein Joe Saluzzi of Themis Trading noted that “you’ve got government forecasts that are intentionally misleading us, constantly”.    He went on to emphasize that the trading volume we see every day is “fictitious — it’s not real”.  He explained the potential hazards to retail investors caused by trading programs that “artificially inflate the prices” of stocks, although a “news event” could cause that program trading to abruptly reverse, erasing a valuable portion of the retail investors’ assets.

On June 24, Bret Rosenthal posted an article on the HedgeCo.net website, entitled:  “Coping With Government-Sponsored Market Manipulation”.  Here’s some of what he had to say:

We must not allow the government manipulations to cloud our judgement and sucker us into investments that have no hope of success over time.  Example:  the government-sponsored rally in the financials over the last 3+ months was clearly created to help the banking sector raise capital.  Again, if you wish to argue this point I suggest you go down to the water’s edge and scream at the tide.  Massive amounts of capital were raised through the secondary markets for financial companies in the last 30 days.  This is a simple fact. Now that this manipulation is complete and private capital has been sucked in where will the equity markets go?

The best advice for the retail investor, attempting to navigate through the current “bear market rally” was provided by Graham Summers, Senior Market Strategist at OmniSans Investment Research, in this July 1 posting at the Seeking Alpha website:

This rally has sucker punched the shorts countless times now, particularly when it comes to late-day market manipulation.  In a nutshell, every time stocks begin showing signs of breaking down, someone steps in, usually during the final 30 minutes of trading, to push the market back into positive territory.  So while economic fundamentals indicate we’ve come much too far too fast, it’s hard to make money trading based on this information.

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To rephrase the above thoughts, stocks are currently trading where they should be a full year from now assuming that the economy turns around this fall.  This hardly makes a strong case for greater gains or more upward momentum.  But it’s hard to go short with the historic rig that is currently taking place in the market.

So my advice to anyone right now is to stay put.  This week is a wash anyhow due to it being short and due to performance gaming:  portfolio managers and institutional investors pushing stocks higher so they can close out the quarter with gains on their positions.  Indeed, yesterday’s market volume on the NYSE was the lowest we’ve seen since January 5, 2009.

So don’t open any new positions for now.  This week will be exceedingly choppy.  And with volume drying up to a trickle, there is potential for some violent swings as the big boys play around with their end of the quarter shenanigans.  You don’t want to be on the wrong side of one of those swings.

Meanwhile, I’ve been watching my investment in the SRS exchange-traded fund (which inversely tracks the IYR real estate index, at twice the magnitude) unwind during the past few days, erasing the nice profit I made just after getting into it.  Will I bail?  Nawww!  I’m waiting for that “news event” to turn things around.