Investing


Fascinating, isn’t it, this stock market of ours, with its unpredictability, promise, and unscripted daily drama. But individual investors are even more interesting. We’ve become the product of a media driven culture that must have reasons, predictability, blame, scapegoats, and even that four-letter word, certainty.

We are a culture of investors where hindsight is rapidly replacing the reality-based foresight that once was flowing in our now real-time veins — just like in basketball, golf, and football.

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If you were to Google “Stock Market Volatility”, you would find a wide range of observations, conversations, reports, analyses, recipes, critiques, predictions, alarms, and causal confusion. Books have been written; indices and measuring tools have been created; rationales and conclusions have been proffered. Yet, the volatility remains.

Statisticians, economists, regulators, politicians, and Wall Street gurus have addressed the volatility issue in one manner or another. In fact, each day’s gyrations are explained, reported upon, recorded for later expert analysis, and head scratched about.

The only question I continue to have about all this comical hubbub is why don’t y’all just relax and enjoy it. Jon Methuen nailed it in his August 15, 2011 parody of the financial world’s ridiculous obsession with “volatility”. “A Reasonable Guide To Stock Market Volatility” is a must view — but only for mature adults with a semi-sick sense of humor.

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Back in the day when relatively few non-professionals even thought about investing in corporate stocks and bonds, a focus on company financial statements was the gospel of conservative (meaning safer) investment theology.

Investment gurus studied Profit and Loss Statements, Balance Sheets, and endless footnotes to determine which businesses were most likely to continue to grow, prosper, increase their dividends, etc. Then, they assessed the quality of “management” before forming conclusions about the economic viability of the enterprise.

The quality of the numbers being analyzed was audited by well respected financial analysts while scores of research MBAs from throughout academia studied business and economic trends within company relevant markets. Sectors of businesses were also put under a fundamental microscope to further fine tune future stock market trends and performance expectations.

“Top-down” or “bottom(s)-up”, fundamentally sound companies were identified, classified, categorized, and fantasized over in much the same way as was being done by the very technicians that the fundamentalists laugh about at cocktail parties.

Certainly, it was presumed, the most financially sound companies would be the most resilient in the face of whatever surprises the economy, global politics, and the weather had to offer. Companies that had “grown up” profitably would have what it takes to continue in the right direction.

Clearly, both schools of financial thought have generated libraries full of useful (and questionable) information that marauding bands of Wall Street product advertising agencies can use against one another in their glossies.

Neither approach should be totally ignored; neither approach should be totally accepted; and neither approach has what it takes to do what its advocates want you to believe it can do — predict what’s going to happen next.

More recently, the analytical elite have reinvented themselves with fundamental analytics sub-divided by capitalization levels, sectors, countries, hemispheres, and more. The supply of data is endless — so much so we are expected to believe, that only very special Wall Street affiliated super computers can make enough sense of it all to really “know” which stocks are worthy of investment.

Frankly, I think they have all traveled way off course in their pursuit of some fundamental nirvana, pretty much to the same extent as their friends in the technical arena. No matter how long the train of growing profits, or how strong the balance sheet, every business has to adjust its model to outside influences to survive long term — and so does every investment plan.

There are a few fundamental fundamentals that demand as much serious attention as the fundamental technicals mentioned above, starting with long term profitability and current financial ratios. (If you haven’t looked at both, you are a speculator, not an investor — no buts, end of discussion.)

Dividend payout history provides information (indirectly) about the quality of a company’s management, products, business model, financial acumen, profitability, and respect for its shareholders. Don’t believe the growth company baloney; if they are not paying you a dividend, they are absolutely overpaying your senior employees.

If you are thinking: “what about start-ups, IPOs, emerging markets, commodities, etc.”, don’t. Those are speculations, not investments. This is not a judgment that all speculations are bad — it’s simply a warning that you must sift through the euphemistic descriptions and figure out what kind of bets you are being asked to place.

Profitability, current assets vs. current liabilities, market share, product mix, and regulatory environment are other key fundamentals that are fairly easy to get your head around — and pay particular attention to the latter.

Very few politicians act as if they know anything about business, capitalism, markets, etc. Very few theoreticians (particularly research economists) seem to know anything about actually running anything for real: business, government, investment portfolio, whatever.

And this brings us to MPT — the fancy new scourge of the financial markets.

Technical Analysis — Blinded By The Math

Without too much of a stretch, it could be documented that the Investment Grade Value Stock (not just “value stocks”) bubble of 1987 was caused by investor focus on company fundamentals. It would be a piece-of-cake to prove beyond any doubt at all that blind faith in technical analysis created the dot-com bubble at the turn of the 21st century.

More recently, blame for the late 2007 through early 2009 “financial crisis” could easily be nestled down at the feet of big government, misguided regulators, and maniacally creative Modern Portfolio Theory (MPT) practitioners, not to mention their ROTF-LOL institutional mentors. What’s next?

Pick a day, any day, where the DJIA is up or down by more than 100 points. Take a look at the “most advanced” or “most declined’ listings and note the shortage of plain vanilla common stocks. What you see is a pari-mutuel spreadsheet listing of the most popular derivative betting mechanisms, adjusted day-to-day, depending on the direction of their wagers.

With index ETFs significantly outnumbering the companies whose prices they are attempting to keep track of, isn’t it even less likely than in the past that technical analytics can be useful? Aren’t these numbers simply the result of demand for casino-esque sector funds and their seemingly limitless varietals?
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A Stock Market sell off may be about to begin which could take the Index lower  for the full year. These six reasons demonstrate why one of the most impressive stock market runs may have ended:

1. Markets can’t rise all the time. This probably is obvious to most people. A significant is what a market requires to go higher for a market which has more than doubled in two years. Recent economic news shows that support to be lacking. The S&P has risen to more than double from 683 in March 2009 to almost 1,400 two months ago.

2. Corporate earnings have been pressured by an economic slowdown and margin drops. Many companies in the retail, transportation and manufacturing sectors counted on low commodities prices back in 2009 and 2010 to help profits. That help is gone. Oil has rallied from below $50 in mid-2009 to almost $100 recently. The price is down from $110, but it is still historically high. Prices on cotton and many agricultural commodities have also risen in the same period. The result: The cost of making and moving goods is higher, and margins on items like clothing have dropped.

3. Consumer sentiment has faltered. Recent data from from the Conference Board said “Consumer Confidence Index, which had declined in May, decreased again in June. The Index now stands at 58.5 (1985=100), down from 61.7 in May.” Many retailers have posted slow same-store sales. Activity at the world’s largest retailer, Walmart (WMT), has been down on a same store basis for its U.S. operations.
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The “Bargain Stock Monitor” is one of three market statistics used as performance expectation analyzers for portfolios that are designed and managed using the Market Cycle Investment Management (MCIM) methodology.

It is derived from the month end Investment Grade Value Stock Index (IGVSI) “watchlist” screening program, which identifies IGVSI companies that are trading at least 15% below their 52-week highs.

The “15% down” break-point allows you to keep your eye on “Bull Pen” items. (You really need to be familiar with the selection rules to get the most from the BS Monitor – chuckle – and from the Watch List program.)

The fewer IGVSI equities at bargain prices, the stronger the stock market and the more “smart cash” you should be accumulating in the equity asset allocation “bucket” of your investment portfolio. As the list of bargain stocks grows (indicating market weakness), portfolio “smart cash” should be finding its way back into undervalued securities.

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Adding the phrase “like a girl” to the end of whatever you were saying was a put-down, an insult, something to come to fisticuffs over. Little boys the world over hated being told that they, for example, “threw like a girl.” I’m not defending the statement, I certainly don’t agree with its intent, but hey, that’s been the case from the playground on up.

As far as women are concerned, investing belongs in the same category as childbearing, socializing, fundraising, community organization, and consensual leadership. It’s something that women may approach with trepidation, but the reality is they can be darn good at it.

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Periodically, the stock markets go through a mid-cap and small-cap excitement. We are in such a stage currently. Over the last one year, the small- and mid-cap indices have outstripped the large cap indices by wide margins. This performance is also reflected in the typical mutual fund as well. The average large-cap focused funds are up while mid and small cap funds are up much more. There’s also no shortage of analysts proclaiming that the smaller companies is where the action is.

However, as always, investors need to be extremely wary of this space. Volatility and liquidity have always scuppered investors’ gains in this space, mostly because by the time the mass of investors notice the action, things are already over the hill. You can make money in these stocks, but you need to be careful.

So let me give you a different perspective on small and mid-cap performance. The Small Cap Index may have risen 200 per cent from the bottom in March 2009, but to reach that bottom, it had fallen to one fifth its value. It takes a lot more than a 200 per cent gain to wipe out that kind of a fall.

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How much financial bloodshed is necessary before we realize that there is no safe and easy shortcut to investment success? When do we learn that most of our mistakes involve our very own greed, fear, and unrealistic expectations?

Eventually, successful investors begin to allocate assets in a goal directed manner by adopting a realistic investment methodology — an ongoing security selection and monitoring process that is guided by realistic expectations, selection rules, and management guidelines.

If you are thinking of trying a strategy for a year or so to see if it works, you’re due for a smack up alongside the head. Viable strategies transcend cycles, not years, and viable equity strategies consider three or four disciplined activities, the first of which is selection.

Most strategies ignore one or more of the others.

How should an investor determine what stocks to buy, and when to buy them? Will Rogers summed it up: “Only buy stocks that go up. If they aren’t going to go up, don’t buy them.” Many have misread this tongue-in-cheek observation and joined the “buy anything that is rising” club. I’ve found that the “buy investment grade value stocks lower” approach works better.

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At least ten hands shoot into the air as the discussion turns to stock selection. The speaker smiles, responds to each, and observes: “You really need to know the depth of the water, its temperature, tides, and currents before you dive into the river — and then, what kind of predators are in there?”

Flying low over coastal South Carolina, I’m probably the only person on the plane who sees the meandering rivers and tidal creeks as a history of stock market cycles. How does one navigate these complex connections without getting lost, running aground, or being attacked by alligators?

How does one select equity securities in a manner that consistently avoids the risks of volatile markets, fickle investors, abusive regulators, regressive tax codes, and brainwashed investment gurus? Along with self-confidence and experience, it takes some management skills that most investors fail to sharpen before they launch their boat — planning, organizing, and controlling.
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