Monday, October 31, 2011

MF Global Bankruptcy, Bank of Japan Send Stocks Reeling

Anyone who assumed that equity markets would behave after last week's Eurofix found out today what a sadly mistaken assumption that is. Stocks fell right from the opening bell, stabilizing about two percent lower, but capitulating in the final minutes of trading to end near session lows.

Part of the catalyst for selling stocks was the widespread appreciation that not all of Europe's problems are solved, but also the trading suspension and subsequent bankruptcy filing by MF Global (MF), a primary dealer run by former Goldman Sachs CEO, former New Jersey governor and regular Bilderberg atterndee, Jon Corzine. (Yes, it's true, the rich do sometimes eat their own.)

The firm was under pressure recently after having made sizable investments in risky European sovereign bonds, many of which have blown up and become worth much less than what MF Global had paid.

A swell fact box from Reuters shows that MF Global is the 7th largest bankruptcy since 1980, though it's probable that any bankruptcies prior to that date are smaller than #15, IndyMac, which went bust for $32.73 billion in 2008. Also worth noting is that 13 of the 15 occurred after 2000, and three of the top four happened in 2008-2009. So, the question of whether MF Global's little $41.05 billion will cause consternation and contagion, and, if so, how much?

The bankruptcy filing showed Corzine's firm listing as its largest unsecured creditors, JP Morgan Chase (JPM) $1.2 billion and Deutsche Bank about $1 billion.

With Europe still unsettled despite the outline of plans being trotted out last week (and the market rallying strongly), there's still plenty of counterparty risk whisking around the toilet bowl of global debt and MF Global, being a primary dealer, had all the advantages one could dream of and still went up in flames.

Adding to Monday's melodrama was the poor report from the Chicago PMI, which came in at 58.4 for October after a 60.4 reading in September, yet another sign that the US economy may not be doing as well as some might imagine.

The Bank of Japan intervened in its own currency, selling yen and buying US dollars. This sent the dollar soaring and the yen plummeting, in a move the Japanese central bank hopes would improve conditions for the nation's exporters. The follow-on was a crashing Euro, which confounded forex traders after the Euro had risen dramatically against the dollar over the past three weeks. Along with US stocks, commodity prices were mostly lower.

While the kick-off of the week was a rapid reversal of fortune after the extended bull rally of the past four to five weeks, there is certain to be more fireworks ahead. The Federal Reserve begins a two-day meeting on Tuesday, with a rate policy announcement due Wednesday. Hints that the Fed may embark on another round of QE have been circulating, though Fed members have not been forthcoming with details. There is also a bevy of economic data releases scheduled, with October Private Payroll data from ADP and crude inventories on Wednesday, unemployment claims, third quarter productivity, October factory orders and ISM Services on Thursday, prior to the Friday announcement from the Labor Department on non-farm payrolls for October.

With this kind of beginning, the markets will need some stroong economic data to stave off another batch of selling into perceived strength.

Dow 11,955.01 276.10 (2.26%)
NASDAQ 2,684.41 52.74 (1.93%)
S&P 500 1,253.30 31.79 (2.47%)
NYSE Compos 7,563.38 240.56 (3.08%)
NASDAQ Volume 1,788,364,125.00
NYSE Volume 4,310,269,000
Combined NYSE & NASDAQ Advance - Decline: 1125-4532
Combined NYSE & NASDAQ New highs - New lows: 59-39
WTI crude oil: 93.19, -0.13
Gold: 1,725.20, -22.00
Silver: 34.35, -0.93

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Researching Online Brokerages Worth the Effort

While many retail investors have fled from highly volatile equity markets and outflows from equity mutual funds have reached historic proportions (ICI reported that investor holdings in stock mutual funds decreased by 9.5% in September), the ongoing zero interest rate policy of the Federal Reserve has lowered the return on Treasuries and all other fixed asset classes likewise offer returns that barely, if at all, keep pace with inflation.

As stocks made huge moves in October, many retail investors missed out, and it's likely that more will pile into the rally, sensing that the problems stemming from Europe have passed and it's once again safe to invest in stocks. That rationale may or may not prove correct, but, whatever the case, being at least partially invested in stocks is a solid strategy in good times or bad.

If one is inclined to jump in, the easiest way is to plug right in from the comfort of home or office through one of the many online brokerages available. The range of online brokerage products and services has expanded greatly since the infancy of the internet back in the late 1990s, and it pays to research the various options available.

According to a recent ICI report, households with internet access owning mutual funds is nearly universal, with ninety-one percent of all households owning mutual funds have internet access with ninety-eight percent aged 35-44 connected to the internet from their homes.

Additionally, the report goes on to say that eighty-four percent of mutual fund–owning households with internet access went online for financial purposes, such as to check their bank or investment accounts, obtain investment information, or buy or sell investments, though only nineteen percent used the internet for trading purposes, so there is still plenty of room for more home use of online brokerages.

What any good online brokerage provides in the way of online brokerage products and services starts with a stable and easy-to-use interface, simplifying the process of buying or selling stocks, ETFs or mutual funds. Beyond that, one would be advised to seek a brokerage that does not have maintenance or inactivity fees, offers free dividend reinvestment plans and options trading at a low price per contract.

Other features may include free research tools such as screeners, tracking and historical comparisons, but fees are by far the main differentiator of online brokerages. Many offer packages of free trades for new users, low cost stock trades and the ability to have broker-assisted trades for special circumstances. Fees for mutual fund trading should be minimal to free. For users who wish to trade on margin, rates vary widely and should be investigated thoroughly. The ability to transfer funds without hassle over the internet, to and from a personal checking account should be standard. Low minimum requirements, both for an initial funding and ongoing transfers is also a must.

A number of brokerages have expanded beyond stocks and mutual funds to forex, commodities and bonds, so an astute investor should prepare a list of requirements and priorities before opening any online account.

Stocks inherently have risk, so there's no reason to add to the risk and frustration by choosing an online brokerage that doesn't fulfill all of one's needs.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Markets Calm After Massive Post-Eurofix Advance

For a day, at least, US equity markets responded in a fashion similar to what most wizened investors are accustomed. There were no wild swings or sudden accelerations, flash-crashes or HFT-inspired momentum runs. Volume was slight, as investors took a wait-and-see approach after Thursday's massive run-up, inspired by the market salve applied by European leaders.

One can imagine that said leaders engaged in some hearty back-slapping, after delay upon delay in dealing with the three separate issues involving the stability of the Euro as a currency and the Eurozone as a political/economic entity. Recapping, Greek bond-holders were to receive a 50% haircut, banks would get about $140 billion in recapitalizations and the size of the EFSF would be expanded to Euro 1 Trillion, or about $1.4 Trillion US. After negotiations had spilled into Thursday morning, the Europeans actually did deliver an outline that would satiate most of the news-hungry financial journalists and provided a framework for what is sure to be a fluid situation for months and years to come in one of the world's largest economic blocs.

For that, investors took a casual Friday attitude with them today, shoring up positions, taking profits and generally tape-watching to see if there would be any disruption to the relative calm. There were not, globally, as Asian markets were mostly higher, while European bourses and US equity markets were flat to split.

The Dow traded in a narrow range of less than 90 points, the NASDAQ and S&P 500 following with similar patterns. It was like a financial seventies flashback, without the disco music, flared jeans or leisure suits, thank goodness.

Only economic data releases could possibly upset the mood, but those delivered early in the day - personal income up 0.1%, personal spending rising by 0.6% and the University of Michigan's Consumer Sentiment gauge surprisingly up to a reading of 60.9 in October after a posting of 57.5 in September - were, for the most part, benign.

To say that it was a dull day was most likely an understatement and while some might decry the fact that there was no follow-through, one must consider the levels at which stocks are trading. October 2011 is on track to be not only the best October in the history of the Dow Jones Industrial Average, but the best month in terms of points gained in that index's long and storied history. There was probably as much chatter about the World Series as there was about stock moves. Investors have staked out positions and appear, for now, to be standing pat. A rest at these current levels would be neither surprising nor unusual. Even a further profit-taking decline would be an almost welcome reaction.

Macro-economic events have overshadowed what is usually a busy earnings season, though not completely. There is a sense that market turmoil has abated and global stocks are doing just fine, in deference to the protesters carousing in the Wall Street area and other cities.

Like kids after a raucous recess period, maybe all Wall Street wanted, or needed, was a time out.

There's a World Series game seven on Friday and an autumn weekend ahead. We'll worry about next week when it arrives.

Dow 12,231.11, +22.56 (0.18%)
NASDAQ 2,737.15, -1.48 (0.05%)
S&P 500 1,285.08, +0.49 (0.04%)
NYSE Compos 7,803.94, -10.05 (0.13%)
NASDAQ Volume 1,862,553,500
NYSE Volume 4,536,691,500
Combined NYSE & NASDAQ Advance - Decline: 2844-2792
Combined NYSE & NASDAQ New highs - New lows: 125-34
WTI crude oil: 93.32, -0.64
Gold: 1,747.20, -0.50
Silver: 35.29, +0.18

Choosing the Right Money Market Account

With interest rates at historic lows, individuals and funds which are primarily risk-averse or on fixed incomes need to carefully choose their preferred investment vehicles, because inflation is going to eat into most of what's earned in either dividend-producing or fixed-rate investments.

Nonetheless, there are options which can be investigated in search of the best interest rates on money market accounts, where the goal is not growth nor income, but, rather, preservation of capital against the ravages of inflation, which is running at an annual rate of three to six percent, depending upon the source and one's own individual lifestyle choices.

Among the more flexible choices for investors these days are money market accounts, which, unlike certificates of deposit or US Treasury bonds, doesn't tie up an investor's capital for months or years at a time. Modern money market accounts can be found within offerings from brokerage accounts, through banks, credit unions or other lending or financial institutions, and the benefits of holding one's money in one are myriad, from limited tax liability to some which offer checking accounts upon which one can draw out funds or even debit cards tied to the account, which makes certain money market accounts not only wise investments, but useful choices in today's fast-paced environment.

Due to regulations and requirements under Regulation Q, which defines and governs money market accounts, most institutions limit the amount of money one can withdraw in a given time frame (usually monthly) or the number of transactions one can make within a money market account without incurring fees or penalties. Thus it makes good sense to investigate some of the literally thousands of web sites which offer comparisons or informational links concerning personal investing in money market accounts. Since money market accounts are regulated under the auspices of the US Treasury, understanding the rules and tax implications is a good first step to learning which funds or accounts fit best with your individual situation.

Once a decision is made to open such an account, a search for the best interest rates on money market accounts should be the next undertaking, though it pays to read the fine print, because, like all investment or financial accounts, there are multiple choices that may or may not be beneficial to your particular goals.

At worst, money market accounts are useful tools for keeping the money you do have, especially if you're concerned about volatility or risk in other markets, such as stocks, bonds, or derivatives, the most risky of all investments. Most money markets are government guaranteed against default, so any funds committed to them are as safe, if not safer, than money in a bank.

Flexibility is key, so choose a money market account that meets your established needs, offers a fair interest rate without onerous restrictions, and you'll sleep well at night, knowing your money is in a sound and secure environment.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Global Stocks in Love with European Rescue Plan

If yesterday's gains were the equivalent of irrational exuberance, then today's stock risings around the world must be something akin to unconditional love for all things European, Euro, Eurozone or Euro-centric.

In the pre-dawn hours of Thursday, the meeting of leaders from the 17 nations comprising the the Eurozone - the nations employing the Euro as official currency - within the 27-nation European Union, broke from their marathon meeting and outlined a bold, yet still unfinished plan to stave off the collapse of Greece, keep key European banks solvent and expand the European Financial Stability Facility (yes, we know, you were wondering what EFSF stood for) to Euro 1 trillion ($1.41 trillion).

Greek debt-issuers, denominated mostly by major European banks, would be required to write down bonds by 50% (a haircut, as it is known), a proposal that many of the prominent banks had wished to avoid - and still may fight - was pushed through by the Eurozone leaders as a necessary action to keep the government of Greece from default and insolvency. The total amount to be written down on Greek debt came roughly to Euro 100 billion ($141 billion), though analysts debated the actual figure, most arguing the the recapitalization of the banks must be a much higher number.

Despite the lack of clarity over the details of the plan, stock indices around the world exploded to the upside on the news. The Hang Seng gained 3.26%, with other markets in the region all positive, though it was the European bourses themselves which registered the largest gains by far.

In Germany, the DAX finished more than 5% higher, the French CAC-40 soared 6.28% and Austria's ATX surged 6.11%. Other european markets registered significant gains.

While the European markets were notching higher through their afternoon, US futures were indication an explosive open with Dow futures in the green to the tune of - at times - more than 300 points. When US markets opened, the response was quick and certain, with all of the major indices higher in the early going, the NASDAQ setting the pace all day and finishing with a phenomenal gain of nearly 88 points and the S&P outdoing it with a 3.43% hike by days' end.

That Europe's long-awaited plan will proceed without hitches is uncertain, though there are sure to be bumps along the road. For now, however, the global stock market reaction appears to be showing broad approval and unequivocal support.

Buoying the euphoric sentiment in the US was the initial reading of US 3rd quarter GDP, which came in as expected, showing a growth rate of 2.5%, when skeptics of the somewhat-dormant US recovery had predicted much lower numbers, some believing that America was heading back into recession. With the holiday season fast approaching, chances for a double-dip recession have by now been effectively squashed.

Not only were stocks radically higher, with the Dow piercing the 12,000 threshold for the first time since August 1, the index on pace for it's best October ever, but commodities were also up sharply across the board, with oil, gold, silver, corn, soybean and wheat futures all posting superlative gains.

At the end of the day, the markets put on a show of global confidence not seen in some time, registering some of the best gains since the 2008-09 US financial catastrophe. What remains to be seen is whether the European leaders can actually implement the plan and keep the global economy churning. For today, at least, the consensus seems to be primed for their best efforts.

Dow 12,208.55, +339.51 (2.86%)
NASDAQ 2,738.63, +87.96 (3.32%)
S&P 500 1,284.59, +42.59 (3.43%)
NYSE Composite 7,813.99, +307.84 (4.10%)
NASDAQ Volume 2,851,696,750
NYSE Volume 6,600,709,000
Combined NYSE & NASDAQ Advance - Decline: 4956-827
Combined NYSE & NASDAQ New highs - New lows: 282-31
WTI crude oil: 93.96, +3.76
Gold: 1,747.70, +24.20
Silver: 35.11, +1.80