U.S. Economy

The Seven Golden Rules That Will Keep You Safe in Today's 'New Normal' Markets

Pundits are talking about the "New Normal," a not-so-subtle hint at the sub-par growth that's expected from the U.S. economy.

Those pundits have picked the right book. But as far as investors are concerned they're reading from the wrong chapter. The "New Normal" isn't just about the economy. It's an epic story about not-so-great expectations – for the financial markets.

And - unlike its Dickensian counterpart - this tale doesn't have an especially happy ending.

Breaking Down the British Giant: Who Will Buy BP's Best Assets?

There's no question that some of BP PLC (NYSE ARD: BP)'s assets are on the block.

The company said Monday that the total cost of the Gulf oil spill had already risen to $3.5 billion. And while it's too early to estimate the final costs associated with the spill, analysts have pegged the tab at $20 billion to $40 billion. Some even believe the total cost could come in near $100 billion.

BP has already paid $165 million to settle individual claims and agreed to set up a $20 billion escrow fund to absorb further damages. It's also suspended its dividend to conserve cash.

But that's not enough. With costs soaring, BP said in June that it is looking to raise at least $10 billion through asset sales in the next 12 months. With that the run on BP's assets commenced.

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Question of the Week: Readers Respond to Money Morning's Retail Stimulus Query

Faced with a wheezing economy that can't seem to heal, big U.S. retailers like Target Corp. (NYSE: TGT) and Office Depot Inc. (NYSE: ODP) are creating their own retail stimulus measures to lure hesitant shoppers back into stores.

Through such tactics as loan programs, credit card rebates and gift card giveaways, top retail chains are rolling out promotional strategies, hoping to break consumers out of their anti-spending doldrums.

"A lot of the government programs have come to an end," David Bassuk, an expert from financial consultancy AlixPartners, told The New York Times. "So retailers are taking it upon themselves to do everything they can to get the consumer to spend, even opening up their wallets to give money back to the consumer."

Sam's Club is taking an unusual approach: It's offering loans of $5,000 to $25,000 to its members, backed by the Small Business Administration. Superior Financial Group is managing the loans and will give Sam's members a $100 discount on the loan application fee and lower interest rates.

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Defensive Investing: Keeping Your Options Open with Covered Calls

Once you get beyond buying puts or calls for purely speculative purposes, no other options strategy is more popular than employing the use of covered calls – and with good reason: Few investment techniques offer more potential benefits with such a low level of risk.

Considered the most conservative of all option plays, this strategy – which basically involves selling (or "writing") one call option for each 100 shares of a stock you own – can be employed for one or more of five distinct purposes:

  1. To generate a stream of additional income – over and above dividend payments – from individual stocks in your equity portfolio.
  2. To generate a stream of income from stocks you own that pay no dividends.
  3. To reduce the effective cost basis of longer-term stock holdings by bringing in option premiums, thus recovering some of the original purchase price.
  4. To provide a limited hedge against potential losses in portfolio value as a result of overall market pullbacks or cyclical downturns in the prices of specific stocks.
  5. As an income-producing substitute for a "limit-sell order" – intended to liquidate a stock position when a specific profit target is achieved.

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Alcoa Earnings Surprise is Positive News for Global Economic Recovery

When Alcoa Inc. (NYSE: AA) kicked off earnings season on Monday by soundly beating analysts' expectations, it flashed positive signals for the company and, more importantly, the entire global economic recovery.

The aluminum giant swung from a loss of $0.26 in the same quarter last year to a gain of $0.13 per share, exceeding by 18% the 11-cent average estimate of 17 analysts surveyed by Bloomberg News.

"It's a very positive signal for economic growth and the stock market generally," John Stephenson, who helps manage $1.6 billion including Alcoa shares at First Asset Investment Management in Toronto, told Bloomberg. "Maybe end-use demand has not been destroyed. That's a very good sign and a great way to start off this Q2 earnings season."

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We Want to Hear From You: Are You Taking Care of Your Credit Score?

More Americans are seeing their credit score slip to its lowest level ever, according to a new report released this week by credit-scoring firm Fair Isaac Corp. (NYSE: FICO). That means it's going to get a lot tougher for U.S. consumers to borrow money – especially given that banks are becoming more and more reluctant to lend.

"It's hard to see the good news in this report, unless you are speaking for the payday lenders, title lenders, and pawn stores," said John Ulzheimer, president of consumer education at

The FICO report shows that 25.5% of consumers – or nearly 43.4 million people – have a credit score below 600, putting them in the subprime realm. That makes them a high risk for lenders and means they'll have a tough time getting a credit card, mortgage or auto loan under stricter lending standards.

Another 9.5% of consumers have "fair" credit scores in the 600-649 range, which is still considered subprime. With "fair" scores, they're likely to need to seek loans, but may not be able to find one.

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The S&P 500 is Set for a Surge… But It Won't Come Easy

Stocks zipped higher in the past week, capping the first four-day rally since early 2009. Get out the party hats and confetti, right? Bears tried to knock shares lower on Tuesday and early Thursday, but after they failed bids hit the tape in a big way and gave it lift.

Technically, stocks continued to move out of the invalidated head-and-shoulders pattern we've discussed lately. With support below at 1,040, the S&P 500 Index should be good for a run to resistance at the 1,095 to 1,115 area in coming days as long as earnings reports and corporate outlooks are supportive.
But the bulls have their work cut out for them there.

To find out more about where stocks are headed next read on...

The Global Double-Dip Recession: Which Markets to Hold… And Which Ones May Fold

Last week's stock-market meltdown was a worldwide affair, and was touched off by trader fears of a global "double-dip" recession.

However, the truth is that the odds of a recessionary reprise are high in just a few countries – primarily those that have experienced excessive fiscal and monetary "stimulus," or that have real inflation problems.

The rest of the world is recovering just fine.

To find out which markets to hold - and which ones may fold - please read on...

Consumers Buck Economic Trends to Help Retail Sales Post Fastest Growth in Four Years

The American consumer bucked strong economic headwinds to help retail sales post the fastest growth in four years, a report is expected to show today (Thursday), boosting optimism that shoppers are overcoming concerns about unemployment and a slumping housing market.

Sales are expected to come in at the upper end of a range between 3-4% for the first five months of the retail fiscal year that began Jan. 31, the biggest gain since 2006, the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC) said in advance of its June report.

The biggest gain in retail sales since 2006 could be a signal that consumers are weathering last month's drop in consumer confidence and are not as concerned as analysts feared about the economic rebound.

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With "Risk Off" Trades Waning, U.S. Stocks Could Be Ready to Reverse Course

There are new signs that institutional traders are preparing for a change in direction of the U.S. dollar and European euro that may have big implications for U.S. stocks.

For months, the winning trade was to short stocks, the euro, and commodities, while buying gold, bonds and the dollar. Commentators labeled this the "risk off" trade since gold and bonds were seen as safe-haven assets. But when crowd mentality is at work, and sentiment – not fundamentals – is driving the bids, there really isn't such a thing as a "safe" trade. It's all speculation.

Take yesterday (Tuesday), for example: After surging 131 points, or 1.4%, out of the gate, the Dow Jones Industrial Average relinquished most of its advance to close just 16 points higher at 9,702.98. Meanwhile the Standard & Poor's 500 Index, which had climbed 1.5% to 1,038 in early trading, ended the day just 0.18% higher.

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