Wednesday, April 16, 2014

What’s the Frequency Zenith?

By Grant Williams

WARNING: This week’s Things That Make You Go Hmmm... is going to run a little longer than usual, I’m afraid, so if you have some time to kill, strap yourself in for the ride.

Yes. I have read it.

For the last couple of weeks those have been the five words I have used the most — by a country mile.

The second most used five word combination during that time has been “I know, what a tool.”

The subject to which the first group of words pertains is, of course, Michael Lewis’s new book, Flash Boys; and the second phrase refers to a certain president of a certain exchange, who made a complete fool of himself during the fierce media debate that has surrounded the book since it burst upon the public consciousness in the space of what ironically felt like a few nanoseconds. (The particular piece to which I refer has to be seen to be believed; but if you somehow missed it, you’ll have your chance. Stick around.)
Now, before we get started, let’s get a few things straight right off the BAT(s).

Firstly, I am an enormous fan of Michael Lewis’s work. I think he is an incredible storyteller with a gift for narrative worthy of a place alongside many modern greats. I have read each of his books and enjoyed them all tremendously. Michael has an ability to weave complex subject matter into a tapestry that can be understood and enjoyed by many who might otherwise find such material utterly incomprehensible.

Secondly, I am no expert in high-frequency trading, but I have had some experience of it in recent years; and I have spent some considerable time analyzing it from a business perspective, which has given me a reasonable understanding of its mechanics.

Thirdly, whilst I have limited direct experience of HFT, I DO have almost thirty years’ hands-on experience of equity, bond, and commodity markets in the US, UK, Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia, and Japan, as well as in another dozen or so countries across Asia Pacific; and having watched markets of all types move in strange ways for seemingly no reason until, a few moments later, the cause of the move revealed itself, I feel I have developed enough of an understanding about how the markets work and, perhaps more importantly, about the people who MAKE them work, to venture an opinion or two about the subjects raised by Michael Lewis in Flash Boys.

But before we get to the book that is on everybody’s Kindle, we’re going to turn to sport for a little lesson. Let’s go back in time to Game 6 of the American League Championship Series between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees in 2004, and recall the actions of another “Flash Boy,” Alex Rodriguez, the Yankees’ star third baseman.

Now, at this point, I’m sure the thousands of non-baseball fans amongst you are tuning out in your droves; but in order to try to keep you engaged, let me also tell you a parallel story from the football (or “soccer,” if you must) 2002 World Cup in South Korea, a tale that features one of its brightest stars of that era, the Brazilian midfielder Rivaldo ... and some decidedly unsavory antics.

Let’s see how we get on with this whole parallel story thing, shall we? I know Michael Lewis would do a phenomenal job of weaving the two stories together. Me? I’m not so sure.....

Deep breath.

In 2002, Rivaldo Vitor Borba Ferreira was a footballer at the very top of the world game. He had helped Brazil reach the final of the 1998 World Cup (where they lost to France), and four years later he was one-third of the renowned “Three Rs,” alongside Ronaldo and Ronaldinho (sadly NOT referred to as “the Two Ronnies”), who spearheaded the dynamic Brazilian team that was rightly installed as the prohibitive favourite to win the trophy that year.
In Brazil’s opening game against Turkey on June 3rd, Rivaldo scored a goal in the 87th minute to give Brazil a 2-1 lead with only three minutes to play, and was on his way to earning the Man of the Match award (think “MVP,” baseball fans). With seconds of added time left, Brazil won a corner, which Rivaldo wandered across the pitch to take at a pace which could, at best, be described as “lacking a degree of urgency.” The ball was at the feet of Turkish defender Hakan Ünsal, who most certainly WAS in a hurry.....

(Cue Michael Lewis-like change of scene to increase the dramatic tension.)

Game 6 of the 2004 ALCS, played at Yankee Stadium on October 19, 2004, had urgency to spare, as the Boston Red Sox, having lost the first three games of the series to their hated rivals from New York, needed a win to tie the series at 3 games each and force a Game 7 decider, which would be played at The Stadium the following night. One more loss and their season was over. (No team had ever come from 3 games down to take a Championship Series.)

The Yankees were led by their talismanic third baseman, Alex Rodriguez, who had almost joined the Red Sox earlier that year after the team had suffered a heart-breaking Game 7 loss in the 2003 ALCS — to whom else but the Yankees — only to have the deal voided at the last minute by the players’ union, a move which opened the door for the Yankees to steal the highest-paid and, at the time, most prolific player in the game from under the noses of the seemingly cursed Red Sox. (You can see how that whole situation played out in the excellent ESPN short documentary The Deal).

Rodriguez had been on a tear in 2004 and would end the season with 36 home runs, 106 RBIs, 112 runs scored, and 28 stolen bases. (Soccer fans, I’d give you a comparison, but there isn’t one. Think: doing everything. Really well.) This made Rodriguez only the third player in the 100+ years of baseball history to compile at least 35 home runs, 100 RBIs, and 100 runs scored in seven consecutive seasons (joining two other players with names that even soccer fans would know [kinda]: Babe Ruth and Jimmie Foxx). (No, NOT the actor who won an Oscar for Ray, soccer fans.)

During the playoffs, Rodriguez had dominated the Minnesota Twins, batting .421 with a slugging percentage of .737. (Soccer fans, let’s face it, baseball owns statistics. You got nuthin’. Nuthin’. Take it from me, Rodriguez was Messi with a bat.) He had also equaled the single game post season record by scoring five runs in Game 3 as the Yankees seized a 3-0 lead.

But in Game 6, Messi with a bat was about to get messy with at-bats as his form deserted him and he found himself at the plate in the 8th inning, facing Red Sox relief pitcher Bronson Arroyo, in the game for starting pitcher Curt Schilling, who had battled heroically through seven innings with a torn tendon sheath in his right ankle.

With the Yankees down 4-2 and team captain Derek Jeter on first base, Rodriguez represented the tying run......

On that steamy night two years prior, in a purpose-built stadium in Korea, Rivaldo stood by the corner flag, hands on his knees, waiting oh so patiently for the clock to run down Ünsal to pass the ball to him. The fans whistled their derision at the Brazilian’s delaying tactics. Sadly, time wasting in such situations is commonplace in football, and though the referees are obliged to add additional seconds to negate these tactics, they seldom do so effectively.

Ünsal was no doubt frustrated at the Brazilian’s gamesmanship and kicked the ball towards him at some pace in an attempt to speed things up.

Rivaldo flinched and tried to turn away from the incoming ball, which struck him roughly two inches above his right knee.

With the linesman (baseball fans, think: third base umpire) standing no more than two or three feet from the Brazilian, Rivaldo collapsed to the ground, clutching hisface as if he had pole axed by the incoming projectile, and writhing around as if every bone in his face had been shattered by the evil Turk.

To the astonishment of everybody in the stands, commentators from over a hundred countries, hundreds of millions of fans around the world, and, above all, Ünsal himself, the Turkish player was shown a red card and sent off (baseball fans, think: ejected) for his “crime.”

Rivaldo, having made a miraculous recovery, took the resulting corner, and Brazil held on against the ten men of Turkey for the victory.

Back in the Bronx, with the count at 2-2 (soccer fans, that’s two balls and two strikes, which means... oh, to hell with it. Baseball is so much trickier to explain. From here on in, you’re on your own), Alex Rodriguez swung his bat, made contact with Arroyo’s pitch, and sent it bobbling down the first-base line. As soon as he hit it, Rodriguez set off in a furious foot race that he had absolutely no chance of winning as he tried to beat the ball to first base. He knew it. We knew it.

Sure enough, Arroyo, with a head start, got to the ball first and took the two or three steps necessary to tag the Yankee with the ball (before he reached first base, which would render him “out” and send him back to the dugout, bringing the Yankee inning closer to an end).

However, as he reached out to tag Rodriguez, the ball spun loose from Arroyo’s glove and bobbled into right field, keeping the play alive and letting Jeter score from second and throw the Yankees a lifeline.

Rodriguez continued to second base, where he stopped, called time out, clapped his hands, and whooped.
Cue pandemonium.

Everybody in the stadium — except the first-base umpire ... and presumably the millions at home — had seen Rodriguez intentionally slap the ball from Arroyo’s glove, a move which in baseball parlance is known as “cheating.” (Soccer fans, think: cheating.)

After a strong protest from Red Sox manager Terry Francona and a lengthy consultation among the various umpires, justice was done. Rodriguez was called “out,” Jeter was returned to second base, and the score remained 4-2.

The Red Sox would go on to win the game and, the following night, become the first team in baseball history to win a series after losing the first three games. They would go on to defeat the St. Louis Cardinals 4-0 in the 100th World Series (soccer fans, think: national championship with no “world” connotation whatsoever) and to vanquish a famous “curse” that had persisted for 86 years.

Now, armed with that background, watch these two defining moments HERE and HERE.
In the aftermath, both players were defiant. Rivaldo, amazingly, tried to paint himself as the victim:

(BBC): Rivaldo had admitted fooling the referee by clutching his face after Ünsal kicked the ball at his leg while he was waiting to take a corner in the closing moments of the Group C match.

But he shrugged off the fine and defended his faking as part and parcel of the game.

The 30-year-old said: “I’m calm about the punishment.

“I am not sorry about anything.
“I was both the victim and the person who got fined.
“Obviously the ball didn’t hit me in the face, but I was still the victim. I did not hit anyone in the face.”

... whilst Rodriguez was, for some reason, “perplexed”:
(NY Times): Alex Rodriguez was standing on second base when the umpires decided that he did not belong there. He folded his hands atop his helmet and screamed, “What?’’
He was, to use his word, perplexed.

After the game, Yankees Manager Joe Torre demonstrated that, when it comes to seeing important plays that go against your team, there is one thing common to both soccer AND baseball: the unreliability of a manager’s eyesight. These guys see EVERYTHING that goes against their team perfectly but somehow always seem to be curiously oblivious when the shoe is on the other foot:

(NY Times): “Randy Marsh was closer than anyone else, and it looked like there were bodies all over the place,’’ Torre said, referring to the fact that first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz was near the play. “There were a lot of bodies in front of me, so I can’t tell you what I saw. I was upset it turned out the way it did for a couple of reasons.”

Presumably neither of those reasons involved the fact that the call was right.

Anyway, the point of these two stories as they pertain to Flash Boys is this:

Both Rodriguez and Rivaldo knew there were dozens of TV cameras on them. They knew there were millions of pairs of eyes on them around the world, and they knew that they were being watched by officials charged with monitoring the games to ensure fairness and punish malfeasance — and yet, knowing all that to be true, they both instinctively cheated to try to gain an edge.

That is how they, as competitors, are wired. Whether it’s right or wrong is irrelevant. (It’s wrong, in case you were wondering.) They were both given a set of rules within which to play, and both chose to step outside those rules in the hope that they would get away with it.

Rivaldo did, Rodriguez didn’t.

It’s a fine line, but the reward for success — even if it does involve bending the rules — is considerable.
Lewis’s media blitz began on Sunday night with an appearance on 60 Minutes, and in answering a simple opening question with a typically florid response, he sparked a media storm the likes of which I haven’t seen in a long, long time.

Steve Kroft: What’s the headline here?
Michael Lewis: Stock market’s rigged. The United States stock market, the most iconic market in global capitalism, is rigged.

Those words sent financial anchors on CNBC and Bloomberg TV into a state of apoplexy at the mere suggestion that the playing field in financial markets is anything but scrupulously fair.

As I watched the circus unpack its tents, erect them, and send a parade of clowns careening into the ring, I was genuinely baffled at what I was seeing.

The first act was Bill O’Brien, the president of BATS (one of the exchanges which, according to Lewis’s book, offers an unfair advantage to high-frequency traders), going toe-to-toe on CNBC with the hero of the book, Brad Katsuyama, once of RBC and now the founder of IEX, an exchange dedicated to leveling the playing field for the average investor.

Until last Sunday, I had never heard of either man, nor had I ever seen them in action.

What followed was extraordinary.

If you haven’t seen the clip, you can (and should) watch it HERE, because excerpts from a transcript cannot do justice to either the defensiveness of O’Brien or the cool confidence of Katsuyama; but from the off, had it been a fight, it would have been stopped before one of the participants embarrassed himself any further:

(CNBC):O’Brien: I have been shaking my head a lot the last 36 hours. First thing I would say, Michael and Brad, shame on both of you for falsely accusing literally thousands of people and possibly scaring millions of investors in an effort to promote a business model.

Bob Pisani (to Katsuyama): You are very respected on the street. I have known you a little while. You are thought very highly of. Do you think the markets are rigged?

Katsuyama (calmly): I think it’s very hard to put a word on it...

O’Brien (animatedly): He said it in the book. You said it in the book. “That’s when I knew the markets were rigged.” It’s disgusting that you are trying to parse your words now. Okay?

Katsuyama (calmly): Let me walk you through an example...
O’Brien: It’s a yes or no question. Do you believe it or not?
Katsuyama (calmly): I believe the markets are rigged.
O’Brien (somewhat triumphantly): Okay. There you go.
Katsuyama (calmly): I also think that you are part of the rigging. If you want to do this, let’s do this.

From there, Katsuyama proceeded to ask O’Brien how his own exchange (the one he, O’Brien, is president of) prices trades:

O’Brien: We use the direct feeds and the SIP (Securities Information Processor) in combination.
Katsuyama: I asked a question. Not what you use to route. What do you use to price trades in your matching engine on Direct Edge?
O’Brien: We use direct feeds.
Katsuyama: No.
O’Brien: Yes, we do...
Katsuyama: You use the SIP.
O’Brien: That is not true.

From there, O’Brien made the most successful attempt to make himself look a fool that I think I have ever seen (and on CNBC, that’s saying something). It was, I thought, painfully embarrassing to watch.
In my head, all I could hear was Sir Winston Churchill’s booming voice:

“Never engage in a battle of wits with an unarmed man.”

Less than 24 hours later...

(Wall Street Journal): BATS Global Markets Inc., under pressure from the New York Attorney General’s office, corrected statements made by a senior executive during a televised interview this week about how its exchanges work.

BATS President William O’Brien, during a CNBC interview Tuesday, said BATS’s Direct Edge exchanges use high-speed data feeds to price stock trades. Thursday, the exchange operator said two of its exchanges, EDGA and EGX, use a slower feed, known as the Securities Information Processor, to price trades.

Viva El Presidente!

Anyway, the interesting thing to me, once I got past the sheer insanity of it all, was the level of amazement shown by the CNBC journalists that the market could possibly be “rigged” in any way, shape, or form.
That amazement was shared by the two anchors on Bloomberg’s Market Makers show, Stephanie Ruhle and Eric Schatzker, when their turn came to take a tilt at Lewis the following day:

Ruhle (bewildered): The market is rigged? That’s a big claim!
Lewis (even more bewildered): Well it IS rigged. If you read the book, I don’t think you’d put it down and say the market’s not rigged.

Then, after a pretty good casino analogy that was interrupted by the anchors a few times, Lewis got to the crux of the issue that had been bothering me as I watched:

Lewis: Why are you so invested in the idea this is fair? Why are you even arguing about this? It’s so clear... people are front-running the market. There’s plenty of evidence in the book.
Schatzker: Their orders are being “anticipated.”

Lewis (laughing at the escalating absurdity): Anticipated and run in front of.... [The HFTs] PAY to execute the orders. Tens of millions of dollars a year. Ask yourself THAT question. Why would ANYONE pay for the right to execute someone else’s stock market order?... It’s quite obvious. That order is an opportunity to exploit, because he has advance information about the pricing in the stock market. Is that “fair”?

Ruhle: Today, when I go to execute a stock, I feel like, man, how did that get jacked right in front of me, every time? I do feel that way. But fifteen years ago when I did a trade, I was paying significantly more to do it through a specialist because of what the fees were.... Is it a different situation than when specialists were on the floor?

Lewis (with a somewhat confused look on his face): I never said THAT.
Ruhle: So has the system ALWAYS been rigged?
Lewis: Yes.


After watching these exchanges, I was so astounded that so many people could STILL live in a complete fantasy world under the illusion assumption that the markets couldn’t possibly be rigged that I turned to my friends in the Twittersphere:

That was the 2,567th tweet I have sent out and, in contrast to the nearly pathological indifference shown by the rest of the world to the previous 2,566, this one was retweeted 96 times. (Button it, Bieber! That’s an impressive number for me, OK?)

But who are these people who believe in unicorns and rainbows fair markets?

Click here to continue reading this article from Things That Make You Go Hmmm… – a free weekly newsletter by Grant Williams, a highly respected financial expert and current portfolio and strategy advisor at Vulpes Investment Management in Singapore.

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Thursday, April 10, 2014

It's Risk On.....Regardless

By John Mauldin

When Gary Shilling was with us here last fall, he and I were feeling considerably more sanguine about the near-term propects for the US and global economies. In fact, I said about Gary that “that old confirmed bear is waxing positively bullish about the future prospects of the US. In doing so he mirrors my own views.”

In today’s excerpt from Gary’s quarterly INSIGHT letter, he tackles head-on the shift in sentiment and economic performance that has ensued since then. He steps us through the ebullient headlines and forecasts that dominated at year-end, and then remarks,

It’s as if an iron curtain came down between the last trading day of 2013 and January 2014. A headline in the Feb. 5, 2014 Wall Street Journal screamed, “Turnabout on Global Outlook Darkens Mood.”

Don’t get me (and Gary) wrong: many of the positive factors that he and I identified last fall are still in play; but they are longer-term, secular factors such as technological transformation and a tectonic shift in the energy landscape rather than the cyclical factors that will dominate for most of the rest of this decade.

In today’s OTB, Gary does an excellent job of summarizing and analyzing those cyclical factors. In this extended excerpt from INSIGHT, you’ll be treated to sections on investor and consumer behavior, deleveraging, housing, income polarization, unemployment, Obamacare and medical costs, the prospects for inflation, the Fed, emerging markets, and much more.

Be sure to see the close of the letter for Gary’s special offer to OTB readers.

I find myself in the lovely tropical city of Durban, South Africa. The hotel where I’m staying, The Oyster Box, is a lovely old throwback properly set on the Indian Ocean, where you can see the continual shipping traffic queuing up to get into the port, which is the largest in Africa. The hotel reminds me of the Raffles in Singapore, with a better view and somewhat more Old World charm. Or at least what I romanticize as Old World charm from movies I saw as a kid (though some of my younger readers are probably sure I lived in that era!).

I sleep now, then get up in less than five hours to catch a plane to Johannesburg, where I will spend the next three days doing more of the speeches and interviews that I’ve been doing for the last two, for my host Glacier by Sanlam. Anton Raath, the CEO, has that quintessential ability to make everyone feel welcome and keep them on goal. I am continually impressed with the quality of South African management, whether here or among the South African diaspora. If the government here could ever figure out how to get out of their way… I wrote a Thoughts from the Frontline almost exactly seven years ago that I called “Out Of Africa.” It was a very bullish take on a country that I could see had wonderful prospects. And indeed investing in South Africa would have been a good move at the time – a solid double in seven years.

But this trip I’ve seen things and talked to people that don’t give me the same feeling. We’ll talk about it this weekend, after I have more meetings with both stakeholders and analysts of the local economy. South Africa seems to me to face many of the same problems that have beset Brazil, Turkey, and others in the Fragile Six. Why is this? Why should a country with this many resources, both physical and human, be falling behind? I think some of you can guess the answer, but I will wait to tell the rest of you in this week’s letter.

Once again, for the fourth time in my life, my hot air balloon trip was canceled! Sigh. I am not sure what the travel gods are trying to tell me, but I will not give up, and one day I expect to soar above the earth on something other than my own hot air.

Have a great week,

Your wanting to come back to this hotel and pretend to be genteel for a few days analyst,
John Mauldin, Editor
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Risk On, Regardless

(Excerpted from the March 2014 edition of A. Gary Shilling's INSIGHT)

U.S. stocks leaped 30% last year, continuing the rally that commenced in March 2009 and elevated the S&P 500 index 173% from its recessionary low (Chart 1). By late 2013, many investors were in a state of euphoria, even irrationally exuberant about prospects for more of the same this year and seized on any data that suggested that robust economic growth here and abroad would underpin more of the same equity performance.


Optimistic Forecasts


Many forecasts from credible sources accommodated them. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in January said the leading indicators for its 34 members rose to 109.9 in November from 100.7 in October, foretelling faster economic growth in the first half of 2014 for the U.S., U.K., Japan and the eurozone.

The International Monetary Fund in mid-January raised its global growth forecast for 2014 real GDP from its October estimate by 0.1 percentage points to 3.7%, with the U.S. (up 0.2 points to 2.2%), Japan (up 0.4 to 1.7%), the U.K. (up 0.6 to 2.4%), the eurozone (up 0.1 to 1.0%) and China (up 0.3 to 7.5%) leading the way.

Outgoing Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke on January 3 said that the fiscal drag from federal and state fiscal policies that restrained growth in recent years was likely to ease in 2014 and 2015. Other deterrents such as the European debt crisis, tighter bank lending standards and U.S. household debt reductions were easing, he said. “The combination of financial healing, greater balance in the housing market, less fiscal restraint and, of course, continued monetary policy accommodation bodes well for U.S. economic growth in coming quarters.”

A Wall Street Journal poll of economists found an average forecast of 2.7% growth in 2014, up from 1.9% in 2013 and the official forecast of the perennially-optimistic Fed, made before Christmas, called for 2.8% to 3.2% real GDP growth this year. Also, chronically-optimistic Barron’s, in its Feb. 17, 2014 edition, headlined its cover story, “Good News. The U.S. Economy Could Grow This Year At A Surprisingly Robust 4%. Forget The Snow. Consumers And Businesses Are Ready To Spend.” Many investors also believed that the U.S. economy was about to break out of the 2% real GDP rises that have ruled since 2010.

Sentiment Shift


It’s interesting that Barron’s ran this headline after investor sentiment shifted dramatically. It’s as if an iron curtain came down between the last trading day of 2013 and January 2014. A headline in the Feb. 5, 2014 Wall Street Journal screamed, “Turnabout on Global Outlook Darkens Mood.” As stocks flattened and then fell, people started to realize that economic growth last year was weak, rising only 1.9% from 2012 as measured by real GDP.

The fourth quarter annual rate was chopped from the 3.2% “advance estimate” by the Commerce Department to 2.4%, and one percentage point of the 2.4% was due to the jump in net exports as imports fell due to domestic shale oil and natural gas replacing imported energy. Nevertheless, exports remain vulnerable to ongoing weakness in American trading partners. Also in the third quarter of 2013, 1.7 percentage points of the 4.1% growth was due to inventories. Given the disappointing Christmas sales, these were probably undesired additions to stocks and will retard growth this year as they are liquidated.
Even the stated GDP numbers show this to be the slowest recovery in post-World War II history (Chart 2). And real median income has atypically dropped in this recovery, largely due to the slashing of labor costs by American business.

Pending home sales, which are contracts signed for future closings, peaked last May and had dropped considerably before cold weather set in this past winter while housing starts fell for a third straight month in February.

Wary Investors


While stocks soared in 2013, investors didn’t dig too deeply into corporate earnings reports, but now they are. As we’ve discussed in many past Insights, with limited sales volume increases in this recovery and virtually no pricing power, businesses have promoted profits by cutting costs, resulting in all time highs for profit margins. Many investors are now joining us in believing that the leap in profit margins, which has stalled for eight quarters, may be vulnerable.

They’re also paying more attention to the outlook for future profits and cash generation as foretold by acquisitions and spending on R&D. Shareholders favor those companies that invest while penalizing companies that fall short. Per-share profits gains due to share buybacks are no longer viewed favorably. Furthermore, investors are aware that two-thirds of the 30% rise in the S&P 500 index last year was due to the rising P/E, with only a third resulting from earnings improvement.

In mid-February, the S&P 500 stocks were trading at 14.6 times the next 12 months earnings, higher than the 10-year average of 13.9. As Insight readers may recall, we take a dim view of this measure since it amounts to a double discount of both future stock performance and analysts’ perennially-optimistic estimates of earnings. In December, Wall Street seers, on average, forecast a 10% rise in stocks for 2014, the average of the last 10 years. But the average forecasting error over the past decade was 12% with a 50% overestimate in 2008. That 12% error was larger than the average gain of 10%.

Besides cost-cutting, the leap in profit margins has been supported by declining borrowing costs spawned by record-low interest rates. Low rates have also made equities attractive relative to plenty of liquidity supplied by the Fed and Chinese banks and shadow banks.

Last May and June, stocks, bonds and other securities were shaken by the Fed’s talk of tapering its then-$85 billion per month worth of security purchases, in part because many assumed that also meant hikes in the central bank’s federal funds rate. But then the Fed then went on an aggressive offensive to convince investors that raising rates would be much later than tapering, and investors have largely shrugged off the credit authorities’ decision in December to cut its monthly purchases from $85 billion to $75 billion in January and by another $10 billion in February.

The Fed’s decision in January came despite the recent signs of weak U.S. economic activity, weather-related or not, and indications of trouble abroad. Furthermore, although the Fed is still adding fuel to the fire under equities, it is adding less and less, and is on schedule to end its quantitative easing later this year.

The Age of Deleveraging


So the zeal for equities persists but we remain cautious about the spread between that enthusiasm and the sluggish growth of economies around the globe. As in every year of this recovery, the early-in-the-year hope for economic acceleration that would justify soaring equities may again be disappointed, and real GDP is likely to continue to rise at about a 2% annual rate.

Deleveraging after a major bout of borrowing and the inevitable crisis that follows normally takes a decade. The process of working down excess debt and retrenching, especially by U.S. consumers and financial institutions globally, is six years old, so history suggests another four years of deleveraging and slow growth. And, as we’ve noted many times in the past, the immense power of deleveraging is shown by the reality that slow growth persists despite the massive fiscal and monetary stimulus of recent years. Furthermore, although the Fed hasn’t started to sell off its immense holdings of securities, as it will need to in order to eliminate excess bank reserves, it is reducing the additions to that pile by tapering its new purchases.

Consumers Retrench


In the U.S., some have made a big deal over the uptick in domestic borrowing in the fourth quarter of 2013. Auto loans have risen, the result of strong replacement sales of aged vehicles, but sales are now falling. Student debt and delinquencies continue to leap (Chart 3). The decline in credit borrowing may be leveling, but what’s gotten the most attention was the rise in mortgage debt.

Since housing activity is falling, the mortgage borrowing uptick is due to fewer foreclosures and mortgage writeoffs as well as easier lending standards by some banks. They are under continuing regulatory pressure to increase their capital and slash their exposure to highly-profitable activities like derivatives origination and trading, off-balance sheet vehicles and proprietary trading, so banks are eager for other loans. Furthermore, the jump in mortgage rates touched off by the Fed’s taper talk has slaughtered the profitable business of refinancing mortgages as applications collapsed.

Household debt remains elevated even though, as a percentage of disposable personal income, it has fallen from a peak of 130% in 2007 to 104% in the third quarter, the latest data (Chart 4). It still is well above the 65% earlier norm, and we’re strong believers in reversion to well-established norms. Even more so considering the memories many households still have of the horrors of excess debt and the losses they suffered in recent years.

Furthermore, given the lack of real wage gains and real total income growth, the only way that consumers can increase the inflation-adjusted purchases of goods and services is to reduce their still-low saving rate or increase their still-high debts. Furthermore, consumer confidence has stabilized after its recessionary nosedive but remains well below the pre-recession peak.

So, in rational fashion, consumers are retrenching, with retail sales declines in December and January and slightly up in February. That’s much to the dismay of retailers who appear to be stuck with excess merchandise, as reflected in their rising inventory-sales ratio. And recall that retailers slashed prices on Christmas goods right before the holidays to avoid being burdened with unwanted inventories. Of course, there’s the usual argument that cold winter weather kept shoppers at home. But that's where they could order online, yet non-store retail sales—largely online purchases—actually fell 0.6% in January in contrast to the early double-digit year-over-year gains.

We’re not forecasting a recession this year but rather a continuation of slow growth of about 2% at annual rates. But with slow growth, it doesn’t take much of a hiccup to drive the economy into negative territory. And indicators of future activity are ominous. The index of leading indicators is still rising, but a more consistent forecaster—the ratio of coincident to lagging indicators—is falling after an initial post-recession revival.



Housing activity is retrenching, with pending sales, housing starts and mortgage applications for refinancing all declining. Also, as we’ve discussed repeatedly in past Insights, the housing recovery has never been the on the solid backs of new homeowners who buy the starter houses that allow their sellers to move up to the next rung on the housing ladder, etc. Mortgage applications for house purchases, principally by new homeowners, never recovered from their recessionary collapse. Multi-family housing starts, mostly rental apartments), recovered to the 300,000 annual rate of the last decade but single-family starts, now about 600,000, remain about half the pre-collapse 1.1 million average.

Many potential homeowners, especially young people, don’t have the 20% required downpayments, are unemployed or worry about their job security, don’t have high enough credit scores to qualify for mortgages, and realize that for the first time since the 1930s, house prices nationwide have fallen—and might again. Prices have recovered some of their earlier losses (Chart 5), but in part because lenders have cleaned up inventories of foreclosed and other distressed houses they sold at low prices. In any event, prices weakened slightly late last year.

Some realtors complain that existing home sales are being depressed by the lack of for-sale inventory. Nevertheless, inventories of existing houses rose from December to January by 2.2%. Fannie Mae reported that its inventories of foreclosed properties rose for the second time in the last three months of 2013 as sales fell and prices dropped for the first time in three years. Also, with the percentage of underwater home mortgage loans dropping—to 11.4% in October from 19% at the start of 2013—potential sellers may emerge now that their houses are worth more than their mortgages.

Income Polarization


Rising equity prices persist not only in the face of a weak economic recovery, including a faltering housing sector, but also a recovery that has been benefiting relatively few. The winners are found in the financial sector and those with brains and skills to succeed in today’s globalized economy that put the low-skilled in direct competition with lower-paid workers in developing lands. The ongoing polarization of incomes illustrates this reality eloquently.

Chart 6 shows that the only share of income that continues to increase is the top quintile. All of the four lower quintiles continue to lose shares. Income polarization is very real in the minds of many. It probably doesn’t bother people too much as long as their real incomes are rising. Sure, their shares of the total may be falling but their purchasing power is going up. But now both the shares and real incomes of most people are falling.

Resentment is being augmented by huge pay packages of the CEOs of big banks that were bailed out by the federal government. The number of billionaires in the world, most of them in the U.S., rose from 1,426 in 2012 to 1,645 last year, far surpassing the 1,125 in 2008.

The leaders of financial institutions and other businesses appear to be setting themselves up as easy targets for President Obama, who is fanning the flames of income inequality with some rather pointed rhetoric. Last year, he said, “Ordinary folks can’t write massive campaign checks or hire high priced lobbyists and lawyers to secure policies that tilt the playing field in their favor at everyone else’s expense. And so people get the bad taste that the system is rigged, and that increases cynicism and polarization, and it decreases the political participation that is a requisite part of our system of self government.”

Minimum Wages


Nevertheless, pressure to reduce income inequality remains strong and the Administration’s attempts to raise minimum wages are an obvious manipulation of its efforts in this area. The President issued an executive order raising minimum wages on new federal contracts and in his State of the Union address called for an increase in the federal minimum wage from $7.25 per hour to $10.10 in 2016.

The effects of the minimum wage have been hotly debated for years, no doubt since it was first introduced in 1938, and during each of the nearly 30 times it’s been raised since then, the latest in 2009. Liberals argue that it increases incomes and purchasing power and lifts people out of poverty. Conservatives believe that higher labor costs reduce labor demand, encourage automation, the hiring of fewer high skilled people and result in more jobs being exported to cheaper areas abroad. A new study by the bipartisan Congressional Budget office found that both arguments are true.

The report predicts that 16.5 million workers would benefit from the President’s proposal and lift 900,000 out of poverty from the 45 million projected to be in it in 2016. Earnings of low paid workers would rise $31 billion. Since low income people tend to spend most of their paychecks, higher consumer outlays would result.

But the CBO also predicts that the proposed rise in minimum wages would eliminate 500,000 jobs and because of their income losses, the overall effect on wages would be an increase of only $2 billion, not $31 billion. Also, 30% of the higher pay would go to families that earn three times the poverty level since many minimum wage workers are second earners and teenagers in middle and upper income households. And higher labor costs would retard profits and result in price increases, muting the effects of more spending power by higher minimum wage recipients.

In any event, it appears that the proposed jump in the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 would cause a lot of distortions and no doubt unintended consequences for a net gain in low-wage earnings of just $2 billion. That’s less than a rounding error in the $17 trillion economy and would do almost nothing to narrow income inequality. Regardless of the merits, the evidence suggests that higher federal minimum wages are probably in the cards.



By his promotion of an increase in the minimum wage, the President reveals his preference for higher pay for those with jobs over the creation of additional employment. This seems strange politically in an era when unemployment remains very high, especially when corrected for the fall in the labor participation rate (Chart 7).

As also noted earlier, the cutting of costs, especially labor costs, has been the route to the leap in profit margins to record levels and the related strength in corporate earnings in an era when slow economic growth has curtailed sales volume gains, the absence of inflation has virtually eliminated pricing power and the strengthening dollar is creating currency translation losses for foreign and export revenues.



One reason for the Administration’s emphasis on income inequality and raising the minimum wage may be to divert attention from the troubled rollout of Obamacare. True, big new government programs always have bugs but the Administration’s overconfidence in initiating Obamacare and the lack of testing of its website is notable. Also, Obama promised that "if you like your plan, you can keep it," but many, in effect, are being forced into high-cost but more comprehensive policies. To reduce the flack it is receiving, the Administration plans for a second time to allow insurers to sell policies that don't comply with the new federal law for at least 12 more months.

Another problem for the Administration is that Obamacare will reduce working hours by the equivalent of 2.5 million jobs by 2024, according to the CBO. People will work less in order to have low enough incomes to qualify for Obamacare health insurance subsidies. Also, older workers who previously planned to keep their jobs until they could qualify for Medicare will cut back their hours or leave the workforce entirely in order to qualify for Medicare, the federal-state programs for low-income folks that are being expanded under Obamacare.

Hospitals may benefit from Obamacare. Under a 1970s-era law, they must shoulder the emergency room costs of the uninsured, but those risks are being shifted to insurers and taxpayers. Taxpayers will also pay more since 25 states have refused to expand Medicaid, leaving the federal government to set up and run the enhanced programs.

More Medical Costs


Not only is Obamacare proving unaffordable for many but also promises huge additional costs for the government. Healthcare outlays have been leaping and were already scheduled to continue skyrocketing under previous laws as the postwar babies retire and draw Medicare benefits while Medicare costs leap.

The original projected jump in insured people under Obamacare was not projected by the Administration to increase the government’s health care costs appreciably from what they otherwise would have been. You might recall, however, that when Obamacare was enacted, we noted in Insight that after Medicare was introduced in 1967, the House Ways and Means Committee forecast its cost at $12 billion in 1990. It turned out to be $110 billion—nine times as much. Obamacare is no doubt destined for the same cost overruns.

Acting in what they perceive to be their best economic interest, elderly people and those in poor health—but not healthy folks—have persevered through the government website labyrinth to sign up for healthcare exchanges. They're taking advantage of the law's ban on discrimination based on health conditions and age-related premiums. Many healthy people, on the other hand, don’t want to pay higher premiums than on their existing policies, and many of those who are uninsured want to remain so.

So, to make insurance plans economically viable, in the absence of younger, healthy participants to pay for the ill ones, insurers will need to be subsidized by the government or premiums will need to be much higher and therefore much less attractive to all but the chronically ill. This self-reinforcing upward spiral in health care insurance premiums would no doubt also require substantial government subsidies. Aetna expects to lose money this year on its health care exchanges due to enrollment that is skewed more than expected to older people.

Many of the young, healthy people needed to make Obamacare function as a valid insurance fund would rather pay the penalty, which begins at $95 for this year, and continue to use the emergency room instead for medical treatment. Even the escalation of the penalty from $150 in 2014 for a single person earning $25,000 to $325 in 2015 and $695 in 2016 may not spur sign-ups. In total, there are 11.6 million people ages 18 to 34 who are uninsured, a big share of the 32 million Obamacare is intending to insure.

Some employers, especially smaller outfits, plan to encourage employees to sign up for exchanges and drop company plans. The government could push up the now-low penalties for not signing up to force participation, but we doubt that the Administration would risk the ire of an already-unhappy public in pursuing this approach. On balance, the taxpayer cost of Obamacare seems destined to exceed vastly the $2 billion originally projected gap.

The Fed


The Fed is on course to continue reducing its monthly purchases of securities and at the current rate, would cut them from $65 billion at present to zero late this year. The minutes of the Fed’s January policy meeting indicate that it would take a distinct weakening of the economy to curtail another $10 billion cut in security purchases in March.

The tapering of the Fed’s monthly security purchases only reduced the ongoing additions to the staggering pile of $2.5 trillion in excess reserves. That’s the difference between the total reserves of member banks at the Fed, created when the central bank buys securities, and the reserves required by the bank’s deposit base. Normally, banks lend and re-lend those reserves and each dollar of them turns into $70 of M2 money.

But with banks reluctant to lend and regulators urging them to be cautious while creditworthy borrowers are swimming in cash, each dollar of reserves has only generated $1.4 in M2 since the Fed’s big asset purchase commenced in August 2008.

At present, those excess reserves amount to no more than entries on the banks’ and the Fed’s balance sheets. But when the Age of Deleveraging ends in another four years or so and real GDP growth almost doubles from the current 2% annual rate, those excess reserves will be lent, the money supply will leap and the economy could be driven by excess credit through full employment and into serious inflation. So as the Fed is well aware, its challenge is, first, to end additions to those excess reserves through quantitative easing and then eliminate them by selling off its huge securities portfolio. This will be Yellen’s major job, assuming she's still chairwoman in coming years.

Raise Rates?


Last spring, when the Fed began to talk of tapering its monthly security purchases, investors assumed that to mean simultaneous increases in interest rates, so Treasury notes and bonds sold off as interest rates jumped. In the course of 2013, however, the Fed’s concerted jawboning campaign convinced markets that the two were separate policy decisions and that rate-raising was distant. Still, as in almost every year since the great rally in Treasury bonds began in 1981 (Chart 8), the chorus of forecasters at the end of 2013 predicted higher yields in 2014.

“Treasury Yields Set To Resume Climb,” read a January 2 Wall Street Journal headline. It cited a number of bond dealers and investors who expected the yield on 10-year Treasury notes to rise from 3% at the end of 2013 to 3.5% a year later or even 3.75%. They cited a strengthening economy, Fed tapering and higher inflation. Many investors rushed into the Treasury’s brand new floating rate 2-year notes when they were issued in January in anticipation of higher rates. About $300 billion in floating-rate securities already existed, issued by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as well as the U.K. and Italian governments.

Nevertheless, Treasurys have rallied so far this year as the 10-year note yield dropped to 2.6% on March 3 from 3.0% at the end of 2013. U.S. economic statistics so far this year are predominantly weak, as noted earlier. Emerging markets are in turmoil. China’s growth is slowing.



Besides concerns over the sluggish economic recovery and chronic employment problems, the Fed worries about too-low inflation, which remains well below its 2% target, and over the threat of deflation.

As discussed in our January 2014 Insight, there are many ongoing deflationary forces in the world, including falling commodity prices, aging and declining populations globally, economic output well below potential, globalization of production and the resulting excess supply, developing-country emphasis on exports and saving to the detriment of consumption, growing worldwide protectionism including competitive devaluation in Japan, declining real incomes, income polarization, declining union memberships, high unemployment and downward pressure on federal and state and local government spending.

Very low inflation is found throughout developed countries (Chart 9). It ran 0.8% in the eurozone in January year over year, well below the target of just under 2%. In Germany, where employment is high, inflation was 1.2% but lower in the southern weak countries with 0.6% in Italy, 0.3% in Spain and a deflationary minus-1.4% in Greece in January from a year earlier. In the U.K., inflation in January at 1.9% was just below the Bank of England’s 2% target.


Chronic Deflation Delayed


We’ve noted in past Insights that aggressive monetary and fiscal stimuli probably have delayed but not prevented chronic deflation in producer and consumer prices (see “What’s Preventing Deflation?,” Feb. 2013 Insight). Still, this year may see the onset of chronic global deflation. And it will probably be a combination of the good deflation of new technology- and globalization-driven excess supply with the bad deflation of deficient demand.

Why do the Fed and other central banks clearly fear deflation and fight so hard to stave it off? There are a number of reasons. Steadily declining prices can induce buyers to wait for still-lower prices. So, excess capacity and inventories result and force prices lower. That confirms suspicions and encourages buyers to wait even further. Those deflationary expectations are partly responsible for the slow economic growth in Japan for two decades.

Central banks also worry that with deflation, it can’t create negative interest rates that encourage borrowers to borrow since, then, in real terms, they’re being paid to take the filthy lucre away. Since central bank target rates can’t go below zero, real rates are always positive when price indices are falling. This has been a problem in Japan many times in the last two decades (Chart 10). Furthermore, credit authorities fret that if chronic deflation sets in, it can’t very well raise interest rates. That means it would have no room to cut them as it would prefer when the next bout of economic weakness threatens.

Central banks also are concerned that deflation raises the real value of debts and could produce considerable financial strains in today’s debt-laden economies. In deflation, debt remains unchanged nominally, but as prices fall, it rises in real terms. Since the incomes and cash flows of debtors no doubt fall in nominal terms, their ability to service their debts is questionable. This makes banks reluctant to lend.

Governments also worry about the rising real cost of their debts in deflation, especially when slow growth makes it difficult to reduce even nominal debts in relation to GDP. This is the dilemma among the Club Med eurozone countries. Deflationary cuts in wages and prices make them more competitive but raises real debt burdens.

Emerging Markets: Sheep and Goats


As noted earlier, the agonizing reappraisal of emerging economies by investors commenced with the Fed’s taper talk last May and June. Investors have been forced to separate well-managed emerging economies, the good guys, or the Sheep that, in the Bible, Christ separated from the bad guys, the Goats with poorly-run economies.

Our list of Sheep—South Korea, Malaysia, Taiwan and the Philippines—have current account surpluses, which measure the excess of domestic saving over domestic investment. So they are exporting that difference, which gives them the wherewithal to fund any outflows of hot money. The Sheep also have stable currencies against the U.S. dollar, moderate inflation and fairly flat stock markets over the last decade. Also, with their current account surpluses, the Sheep haven’t been forced to raise interest rates in order to retain hot money.

In contrast, the Goats have negative and growing current account deficits. These countries include the “fragile five”—Brazil, India, Indonesia, South Africa and Turkey—with basket case Argentina thrown in for good measure. They also have weak currencies, serious inflation and falling stock markets on balance. These Goats rely on foreign money inflows to fill their current account deficits, so when it leaves, they’re in deep trouble with no good choices. They’ve raised interest rates to try to retain and attract foreign funds. Higher rates may curb inflation and support their currencies but they depress already-weak economies while any strength in currencies is negative for exports.

The alternative is exchange controls, utilized by Argentina as well as Venezuela. That’s why Argentina hasn’t bothered to increase its central bank rate. But these policies devastate already-screwed up economies. In Argentina, artificially-low interest rates and soaring inflation encourage Argentinians to spend, not save. Inflation is probably rising at about a 40% annual rate this year, up from 28% in 2013 but officially 11%. Purchasers are frustrated because retailers don’t want to sell their goods, knowing they’ll have to replace inventories at higher prices—if they can obtain them.

Who Gives? Who Gets?


In some ways, even the Goats among emerging economies are better off than they were in the late 1990s. Back then, many had fixed exchange rates and borrowed in dollars and other hard foreign currencies. So they didn’t want to devalue because that would increase the local currency cost of their foreign debts. Consequently, they all were vulnerable and fell like dominoes when Thailand ran out of foreign currency reserves in 1997. That touched off the 1997-1998 Asian crisis that ultimately spread to Russia, Brazil and Argentina.

Today, less foreign borrowing, more debts in local currencies and flexible exchange rates make adjustments easier. Still, as discussed earlier, the sharp currency drops that are seen promote inflation, but raising interest rates to protect currencies depresses economic growth. Either way, it's no-win in Goatland.

Furthermore, as our friends at GaveKal research point out, current account balances globally are a zero sum game, so if the Goats’ current account deficits decline, other countries’ balances must weaken. This is difficult in an era of slow growth in global trade. Which countries will volunteer to help out the Goats? Not likely the Sheep. Not the U.S. As noted earlier, the Fed has said clearly that the emerging countries are on their own. China isn’t likely as overall growth slows and both import and export order indices in China's Purchasing Managers Index have dropped below 50, indicating contraction. Furthermore, China maintains her mercantilist bias and isn’t overjoyed with her much diminished recent current account and trade balances.
A collapse in oil prices would transfer export earnings from OPEC to energy-importing Goats but oil shocks as a result of a Middle East crisis or an economic collapse and revolution in Venezuela seem more likely. Japan is going the other way, with the Abe government’s trashing of the yen designed to spike exports, reverse the negative trade balance and the soon-to-go-negative current account. The eurozone is also unlikely to help the Goats due to its slow growth and attempts by the Club Med South, mentioned earlier, to become more competitive and improve their trade balances.

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Monday, April 7, 2014

The Odds Are In Your Favor To Trade Gold This Quarter

Using MarketClub's weekly and daily Trade Triangles, I have found that over the last 6 1/2 years, the second quarter of the year has shown the most consistent profits in gold. These past results showed a quarterly gain on average of $7,104.83 on one futures contract.

Gold (XAUUSDO) enjoyed a nice move up earlier in the year, reaching a high of $1393.35 and has pulled back to an important Fibonacci support area. I want to watch this market very carefully and wait for the weekly Trade Triangle to turn green to get bullish on gold. That's not to say I am not longer term bullish, it only means that my timing will kick in when the weekly Trade Triangle turns into a green Trade Triangle.

Besides the Fibonacci support area, the RSI indicator is also at a very low level, similar to that of December 2013.

Trading Results

Q2 of 2008            $965.00
Q2 of 2009            $870.00
Q2 of 2010         $7,057.00
Q2 of 2011         $6,700.00
Q2 of 2012         $4,223.00
Q2 of 2013       $31,260.00
TOTAL             $42,629.00
AVE GAIN         $7,104.83

The results are based on signals using MarketClub's real time spot gold prices and margin of $8,333. This particular trading strategy and results are based on trading one futures contract, both from the long and short side. An ETF could be substituted, but I suspect the results would be quite different.

Trading Rules

How to use MarketClub's Trade Triangles to trade gold:

Use the weekly Trade Triangle to determine the major trend and initial positions. Use the daily Trade Triangles for timing purposes.

Gold entry and exit signals are generated from the spot Gold (XAUUSDO) chart.

Let me give you an example: if the last weekly Trade Triangle is GREEN, this indicates that the major trend is up for that market. You would use the initial GREEN weekly Trade Triangle as an entry point. You would then use the next RED daily Trade Triangle as an exit point. You would only reenter a long position if and when a GREEN daily Trade Triangle kicked in.

You would then use the next RED daily Trade Triangle as an exit point, provided that the GREEN weekly Trade Triangle is still in place and the trend is positive for that market. The reverse is true when you have a RED weekly Trade Triangle. You would use the initial RED weekly Trade Triangle as an entry point for a short position. You would then use the next GREEN daily Trade Triangle as an exit point.

Only Trade With Risk Capital

Even if the odds are in your favor, don't forget that there are no guarantees in trading and only funds that you can afford to lose should be used to trade with.

See you in the markets!
Adam Hewison

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Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Reversal of Fortunes Options System....Yours FREE!

Here's a great chance to get one of the best, most profitable Options Trading Systems that Premier Trader University has to offer.....completely "Free". Attend this live webinar and get it as a gift to you. The Reversal of Fortunes Options Trading System - a $497 Value at No Cost to you!

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This powerful system will identify reversal patterns in today's hottest markets like Apple, Google, and the Dow. In this webinar, we'll give you specific, step by step instructions on how to use this setup day in and day out. You'll receive the software, trade plans and complete video training.

These killer indicators can be used to profit in the options markets in literally minutes per day at no cost to you. Only traders attending this webinar will be able to bring home this options system so make sure you get your seat in advance and we'll see you on Tuesday.

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See you Tuesday evening,
Ray @ The Hedge Fund University

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Wednesday, April 2, 2014

SP500 ETF Trading Strategies & Plan of Attack for This Week

Index ETF Trading Strategies: Stocks have kick started this week with a 0.85% pop in price but the big question is if the market can hold up. Last week stocks repeatedly gap higher and sold off with strong volume telling us that institutions are slowing phasing out of stocks (distribution selling) unloading shares into strength and passing them onto the a average investor to be left holding bag.

I want to show you a couple charts which show the price action, volume and money flow of the SP500 so you have a visual of what I am talking about.

30 Minute Intraday SP500 Chart – ETF Trading Strategies

In the chart below you can see the price gaps followed by selling. Why is this important? It is important because during a down trend the market makers and big money plays who have the money and tools to manipulate the markets will allow the market drift higher or they will run price up in overnight or premarket trading when volume is light. Once the 9:30am ET opening bell rings volume and liquidity spike which allows the big money player to sell remaining long positions and or add to short positions they have.

If you look at the blue on balance volume line at the bottom of the chart you can clearly see that more contracts are being sold than bought which is typically an early warning sign that the market is about to fall farther.

ETF Trading Strategies

Automated Trading System – 30 Minute ES Futures Chart

Below is a marked up screen shot of my automated trading system which I use for timing both futures and ETF trading strategies. The color coded bars tell you the market trend along with the strength of buyers and sellers.

When you couple market cycles, trends, volume/money flow, along with chart patterns we can forecast and trade markets with a high degree of accuracy in terms of market direction and timing.

Automated Trading Systems
My Index ETF Trading Strategies Conclusion:
Just to be clear on the current market trend and my overall outlook let me explain a little more. Overall, the broad stock market remains in an uptrend. Thursday and Friday of last week we started getting orange bars on the chart telling us that cycles, volume, and momentum are now neutral. It’s 50/50 on which way the market will go from here, so until the market internals (cycles, volume, breadth) push the odds in our favor enough for a short sell trade or a new long entry we will not add new positions to our portfolio.

It is important to understand that nearly 75% of stocks/investments move with the broad market. So we don’t want to add more long positions when the odds are not in favor of higher prices. Trading in general is not hard to do, but creating, following, executing properly money and position management is. If you have trouble with following or creating an ETF trading strategy you can have my ETF trading system for rising, falling and sideways markets traded automatically in your trading account.

Learn more here about my Automated Trading Systems

See you in the market! 
Chris Vermeulen

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Monday, March 31, 2014

Why Gold Is Falling and a Gold Forecast You May Not Like

The bitter truth about what may happen to gold is not all that exciting and likely don’t want to know, but you need to understand what is unfolding as we speak…..

Long story short, the prices of bonds look as though they are about to rally once again. Mounting fears of a stock market correction has money flowing into bonds which in turn will drive interest yields lower yet gain.

But the BIG PICTURE of what he FED said the other week about how they plan to raise rates in 2015 and cut QE down to $55 billion per month hurts the long term outlook for gold.

This news may not sound that important, it actually is and undermines the price of miners, silver and gold in a big way. Find out why gold is falling and the threat that could trigger a much larger meltdown in the long run with my gold forecast video.

Chris Vermeulen
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Friday, March 28, 2014

Understanding Covered Calls

By Dennis Miller

The strategy I’m writing about today is one of my favorite, guaranteed moneymakers. These are trades we can all easily make, requiring no capital outlay and guaranteed to make a profit or you don’t make them. What’s the catch? We might occasionally find ourselves lamenting how much more money we might have made.

Experienced investors have likely figured out that I’m talking about a stock option called a “covered call.” Buying options is for speculators, and that’s not what I’m talking about today. I want to show you the one and only option trade that meets my stringent criteria for comfort.
Covered calls:
  • Are easily understood;
  • Are easy to implement;
  • Require no market timing to make your predetermined profit; and
  • Require minimal time for investors to manage.
In addition, you can calculate your profit clearly at the time of the trade (if there’s no hefty gain, you pass on it); the risks are financially and emotionally manageable; and the upside potential is excellent with covered calls. Let’s begin with the boilerplate stuff first before we discuss strategy.

There’s an options market that allows people to buy and sell options on stocks. Speculators have made millions of dollars trading options without owning a single share of stock. That’s the wrong place to be with your retirement nest egg. I’m going to show you how an average investor with an online brokerage account can supplement his income in a safe, easy, responsible, and conservative manner.

Let’s start with a basic premise: money is consistently made on the sell side of the transaction. Selling one type of option is the only strategy that will meet our stringent criteria.

Before we proceed, here’s a need-to-know glossary for covered calls:

Stock option. An option is a right that can be bought and sold. There are markets for trading options in an orderly manner. Two transactions may occur between the buyer and seller. The first is the transaction when the right (option) is sold. The second transaction is “optional” and at the discretion of the buyer. If the buyer exercises his right (option), the seller is required to complete an agreed-upon stock transaction. Today we’re focusing on covered call options.

Covered Calls. When you sell a covered call, the buyer purchases the right to buy a certain number of shares of stock which you own, at an agreed upon (strike) price, at any time before the option expires (known as the expiration date). The option buyer is not obligated to buy your stock; he has the right to do so. You’re obligated to sell the stock if the buyer exercises the option. The term for this is your stock gets “called away.” Regardless, you keep the money you were paid when you sold your option.

There are four elements to an option transaction:
  1. the price of the option in the market (what you can buy or sell it for);
  2. the number of contracts (each contract is 100 shares);
  3. the price of the underlying stock (referred to as strike price); and
  4. the expiration date.
Option price. This is the price the option is bought or sold for. This changes as the price of the underlying stock moves in the market and the time frame moves closer to the expiration date. Readers will see that there are two prices: “bid” and “asked,” just like stocks. When you sell an option, this completes the first part of the transaction. The money changes hands and is yours to keep, regardless of what happens later. Cha-ching!

Strike price. This part of the transaction is agreed upon when the option is bought/sold. Let’s assume the buyer purchased a call (a right to your stock) at a strike price of $55/share. Should the buyer choose to exercise his option, the buyer pays you $55/share, and you (through your broker) deliver the stock, regardless of the current market price of the stock.

Expiration date. Options generally expire on the third Friday of every month. When looking at the options trading platform on any major stock, you’ll find options available for several months in advance. You’ll notice that the longer the remaining time, the higher the price of the option.

At the time the stock option is bought/sold, all of the elements above are agreed upon. The buyer has until the expiration date to exercise his option. The numbers of shares and selling price have already been determined. If your stock is called away, you’ll see the cash come in to your brokerage account, and the shares will automatically be delivered to the buyer.

Never sell a call option without owning the underlying stock; it’s much too risky for your retirement nest egg.
Option contract. An option contract is for 100 shares of the underlying stock. Options are sold in contracts, and the prices are quoted per share. For example, if you see an option price of $1.15, the contract will cost $115 ($1.15 x 100 shares). If a buyer/seller wants to have an option on 500 shares, he buys five contracts.

There are two types of options: puts and calls. We’re going to discuss the only option strategy that meets our stringent, conservative criteria: selling a covered call.

Why would an investor buy a call option? Buyers of call options are generally speculators who believe that a stock will appreciate above the strike price before the option expires. If they guess right, they can make a lot of money.

The vast majority of call options expire worthless. The rules are simple. Don’t sell an option unless you own the underlying stock. (This is referred to as a “naked call”.) Don’t buy options—period!

A Savvy Strategy

We’ll use a fictional company – ABC Products – for an example. Say we bought the stock in October 2012 for $40; the market price one year later (in November 2013) was $55/share. Why would we want to sell a covered call?

In November, ABC was $55/share. We’ll say its current dividend is $0.55/share. The March call option at a strike price of $57 is selling for $1.10/share—twice as much as the current dividend.

Assume that on December 20, you either called your broker or went online and brought up ABC in your trading platform. You would have seen the current bid and asked prices. Assume it sold for $1.10/share.
Now, one of four things could have happened:
  1. The stock didn’t go over the $57 strike price, so the stock was not called away. In approximately 90 days, you’d have received $0.55/share in dividends, plus $1.10 for the option, for a total of $1.65. You just added more than double the dividend to your yield without spending a penny more of your investment capital. What do we do when the option expires? Look for another juicy opportunity for the June options and do it again!
  2. Let’s take the worst case scenario: the market tanked. You had a 20% trailing stop in place. You got stopped out at $44—$11/share lower than the November price. But wait a minute, what about the covered call? The value of the option would also have dropped and sold for mere pennies. If you got stopped out of the stock, you could have bought back the option at the same time. For the sake of illustration, say you bought it back for $0.04. You netted $1.06/share profit. Instead of losing $11/share, your loss became $9.94. If you didn’t buy back your option, you’d have had huge risk exposure should the stock jump back up. It isn’t worth the risk, so you’d spend the few pennies it takes to close out your position.
  3. You wanted to exit your position before the expiration date. If the stock rises above the strike price of the option, generally the price of the option will move right along with it. If the stock moved to $59/share, you would “buy to close.” The market price should be close to $2/share; however, that would be offset by the fact that you sold your stock for $59.00 share. If the stock remained stagnant or started to drop and you wanted to exit your position, the market price of the option would decline more rapidly. You’d likely buy back your option at a profit.
  4. The most difficult situation emotionally is when the stock rises well above the strike price and gets called. Let’s assume that in March, ABC has appreciated to $59/share. Your option is called at $57 (the strike price). You make a profit of $2/share from the time you sold the option, plus the $1.10/share for the option and the $0.55 dividend, for a total of $3.65/share. For the 90-day time frame, you earned 6.3% on your money ($55/share), or 24.9% on an annualized basis, net of brokerage commission. Yet we’ll lament the fact that you could have made more.
In each case, you haven’t invested any more capital. You make 100% profit on the call in two cases. The worst case is you generally break even on the options should you want to exit early. In the vast majority of cases, selling covered calls is straight profit on top of your dividends.

Here are some guidelines:
  • Sell covered calls for stocks you own and would gladly keep.
  • Sell covered calls to expire after the dividends are paid.
  • Sell covered calls at a strike price above the current market price of the stock, referred to as “out of the money.”
  • Don’t lament the times your stock gets called. You took a nice profit, and there are plenty more opportunities out there.
  • Use stocks that are heavily traded, as they are more liquid.
  • To calculate gains for any stock and option price combination, please use our option calculator, which you can download here.
Selling selected covered calls is a great way to turbocharge yield without any additional investment. At the same time, it will mitigate a bit of risk. If you have a 20% trailing stop in place and the stock gets stopped out, your 20% will be offset by the profit you made on the option sale. While most investors are starved for yield, you can find yield in the safest and easiest manner possible.

Each month, we look at the Miller’s Money Forever portfolio and recommend and track covered calls on some of our positions. If you're not a current subscriber, I highly recommend taking advantage of our 90-day, no-risk offer. Sign up at the current promotional rate of $99/year, and download my book and all of our special reports—really take your time and look us over. If within the first 90 days you feel we're not for you, feel free to cancel and receive a 100% refund, no questions asked. You can still keep the material as our thank-you for taking a look. Click here to subscribe risk-free today.

The article Covered Calls was originally published at Millers Money

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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Why Junior Gold Mining Stocks Are Our Favorite Speculations

By Laurynas Vegys, Research Analyst

Despite last week’s pullback, the precious metals market is off to an impressive start in 2014. Gold is up 10.6%, silver 4.3%, and the PHLX Gold/Silver (XAU) 17.1%. Gold, in particular, had a great February, rising above $1,300 for the first time since November 7, 2013. This has led to some very handsome gains in our Casey International Speculator portfolio, with a few of our recommendations already logging triple digit gains from their recent bottoms.

Why Junior Gold Mining Stocks Are Our Favorite Speculations

One of Doug Casey’s mantras is that one should buy gold for prudence, and gold stocks for profit. These are very different kinds of asset deployment. In other words, don’t think of gold as an investment, but as wealth protection. It’s the only highly liquid financial asset that is not simultaneously someone else’s obligation; it’s value you can liquidate and use to secure your needs. Possessing it is prudent.

Gold stocks are for speculation because they offer leverage to gold. This is actually true of all mining stocks, but the phenomenon is especially strong in the highly volatile precious metals. Most typical “be happy you beat inflation” returns simply can’t hold a candle to stocks that achieved 10 bagger status (1,000% gains). In previous bubbles—some even generated 100 fold returns. And we may see such returns again.

It’s Not Too Late to Make a Fortune

Here’s a look at our top three year to date gainers.

What’s especially remarkable is that all three of these stocks shot up much more than gold itself, on essentially no company specific news. This is dramatic proof of just how much leverage the right mining stocks can offer to movements in the underlying commodity—gold, in this case. Two of the stocks above are on our list of potential 10 baggers, by the way.

So have you missed the boat? Is it too late to buy?

Looking at the chart, two bullish factors jump out immediately:
  • Gold stocks have just now started to move up from a similar level in 2008.
  • Gold stocks remain severely undervalued compared to the gold price. A simple reversion to the mean implies a tremendous upside move.
Now consider the following data that point to a positive shift in the gold market.
  1. After 13 consecutive months of decline, GLD holdings were up over 10.5 tonnes last month. The trend is similar to other ETFs.
  1. Hedge funds and other large speculators more than doubled their bets on higher gold prices this year.
  1. Increase in M&A—for example, hostile bids from Osisko and HudBay Minerals to buy big assets.
  1. Apollo, KKR, and other large private equity groups have emerged as a new class of participants in the sector.
  1. Gold companies’ hedging of future production—usually a sign of insecurity among the miners—shrunk to the lowest level in 11 years.
  1. China continues to consume record amounts of gold and officially overtook India as the world’s largest buyer of gold in 2013.
  1. Large players in the gold futures market that were short have switched to being long.
  1. Central banks continue to be net buyers.
To top it off, there’s been no fallout (yet) from the unprecedented currency dilution undertaken since 2008—and we don’t believe in free lunches. The gold mania train has not yet left the station, but the engine is running and the conductor has the whistle in his mouth. This means…..

Any correction ahead is a potential last-chance buying opportunity before the final mania phase of this bull cycle takes our stock to new highs, well above previous interim peaks.

In spite of the good start to 2014, most of our 10 bagger gold stocks are still on the deep discount rack. And you can get all of them with a risk free, 3 month trial subscription to our monthly advisory focused on junior mining stocks, the Casey International Speculator.

If you sign up today, you can still get instant access to two special reports detailing which stocks are most likely to gain big this year: Louis James’ 10 Bagger List for 2014 and 7 Must Own Stocks for 2014.
Test drive the International Speculator for 3 months with a full money back guarantee, and if it’s not everything you expected, just cancel for a prompt, courteous refund of every penny you paid.

Click Here to Get Started Now

I hope you will take advantage of this opportunity in front of us—while shares are still relatively cheap.
The article Junior Mining Stocks to Beat Previous Highs was originally published at Casey Research

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