Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Rise and Fall of US Stocks All in One Day; Making a Budget and Sticking to It

The Markets

Stocks did an about-face midday on Tuesday, shaving away all of the morning gains as the afternoon wore on and word from Europe was mixed. The Dow Jones Industrials and S&P 500 each made a run at the lower end of their 50-day moving averages, hit resistance and failed, badly.

All of the averages made suspicious-looking early moves between 10 and 11 am EDT, hovered near the highs, made new highs around 2:00 pm and then fell remarkably into the close, with not even a hint of a closing bounce.

From a technical point of view, meeting resistance at the 50-day MA makes perfect sense and the indices will likely take another run at it in coming days, though it seems a hurdle too high to surpass, considering all of the significant headwinds facing companies (lowered earnings forecasts) and nations, especially those in the Eurozone - Greece, Italy, Portugal, Ireland - to say nothing about the current poor economic conditions in the USA.

Stocks have been mired in a basically directionless trading range for the better part of two months and that's making people even more nervous and keeping significant amounts of money out of stocks and into treasuries, corporate paper, cash and equivalents, gold and other tangible assets. The fear surrounding a default by Greece and the associated fallout to other European countries and banks has the market in a condition of near paralysis.

Until the sovereign debt issues are resolved one way or another, stocks will be unlikely to advance as investors are simply too afraid to stake out new, large positions.

On the data front, housing starts fell to a three-month low, from 601,000 annualized in July to 571,000 in August. With such a glut of cheap foreclosures and bank REO property on the market, in addition to the nearly 300,000 residential homes held by Fannie Mae, hope for a recovery by the end of this year are fading fast. With the onset of colder weather and the usual seasonal downturn, one could easily suggest that housing will dive even lower or bounce around the bottom until Spring of 2012 at the earliest. Of course, such numbers didn't faze Wall Street in the least. Optimists pointed out that building permits rose from 601K in July to 620K in August, though it's only a 3% move, barely more than a rounding error.

So, with Europe still a basket case and the US close behind, the markets are stuck in neutral, awaiting some kind of announcement from the FOMC, which began a two-day meeting today with a rate announcement due out tomorrow around 2:15 pm. The wording of the FOMC statement is unlikely to change dramatically, though many on the street believe the Fed will either outline some new policy such as "operation twist" in which they purchase longer-dated securities in order to drive long rates lower, or announce another round of quantitative easing, which would be dubbed QE3, though that concept, having already failed to goose the economy twice in the past two years, is unlikely to gather much traction within the Fed circle.

All should be expecting something from the Fed, even though many believe that they have exhausted nearly all of their policy tools.

Dow 11,408.66, +7.65 (0.07%)
NASDAQ 2,590.24, -22.59 (0.86%)
S&P 500 1,202.09, -2.00 (0.17%)
NYSE Composite 7,217.11, -17.52 (0.24%)
NASDAQ Volume 1,942,335,500
NYSE Volume 4,250,461,500
Combined NYSE & NASDAQ Advance - Decline: 2261-4207
Combined NYSE & NASDAQ New highs - New lows: 85-189
WTI crude oil: 86.89, +1.19
Gold: 1804.80, +26.30
Silver: 39.74, +0.09

Idea: Making and Sticking to a Budget

We've all heard forever that making a budget for household and/or business expenses and income is a smart and necessary step toward financial freedom and fiscal responsibility, but, taking our lead from Washington, few people seem able to keep the process honest or reach desired outcomes. Our federal government is probably the worst example of budgeting known to man, as the process is riddled with partisan politics, fudged calculations, unrealistic expectations and projections and extraneous falderol like earmarks, off-balance sheet expenditures and unfunded liabilities like Social Security and Medicare.

Household budgets are a bit simpler to make though not quite as difficult to keep. The best approach is to go for a monthly outlook, as most of us have recurring expenses that serve as a baseline. Things like utility bills, phone and cable bills, car payments, mortgage payments (though some of us have eliminated those recently) and credit card expenses come due at some time or another during the month and have to be paid in a reasonably timely manner.

After that, items such as food, clothing, entertainment, (liquor and cigarettes if so inclined) and other variable expenses should be calculated out on a monthly basis as best as possible. That way, one can readily see where overspending or potential savings might occur. The regular bills, known in the business world as "fixed expenses" aren't going to change much, if at all, month to month, and one will find that over time, even variable expenses don't bounce around very much.

Once one has all the monthly expenses lined up, then it's time to match it against income (if one still has any) and see how it balances out. If you are one of the lucky few who have an extra $5,000-$2,000,000 on the income side of the ledger, you can stop reading right here. You don't need a budget; you need a financial advisor or a beach house.

If, however, you're like most people, you'll see where all that money goes, and when you stop crying, you might find a little bit left over. Anything more than 10-20% above your monthly regular expenses would be a great sign. If you find yourself a few hundred dollars short each month, then there's work to do.

Where most people get into trouble is in making exceptions, overspending (usually caused by not thinking and acting on emotion), and bogus projections, like "I'll get a raise soon," or the classic fail, "when I start receiving Social Security checks..." as wishful thinking almost never returns positive results.

Another trap is not counting the little things that add up to big headaches without one noticing. Things like that morning latte - and doughnut, bagel, croissant or McDonald's McBiscuit - the extra tip for the heavenly lunch waitress or waiter, tolls, parking fees, snacks, bottled water, the occasional needed home item, more expensive gas than calculated, all contribute to budget busting in all but the most frugal environments.

There are remedies for those items, such as keeping receipts for everything or a log book exclusively for "little" expenses, but the best way is to take your monthly expense total and add 10% to it, calling it the miscellaneous expense column. If you're judicious and cautious, you'll find yourself spending less than that 10%, but it's doubtful it will add up to very much. The key concept is that every dime and dollar counts, even those $200 binge nights out with the guys or gals.

In the end, we'd all like to earn more and save more, the goal eventually being filthy rich and not having to worry about money any more. Since that's an unlikely event for the vast majority, taking a little time each month to review and preview income and expenses gives one a clearer outlook on where one's been, where one's money is going and what can be done about it.

There are an assortment of online tools and sites which can provide some assistance. Here's a good place to start, with brief reviews of some of the best budgeting websites.

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