Why the Volcker Rule is a Cop-Out and a Joke
Right now everyone's talking about the Volcker Rule.
For heaven's sake! What's the big deal? After all is said and done, there is only one real problem with it (and I'll get to that in a minute)…
The 300-page draft Rule, named after its champion architect, former Federal Reserve chairman and inflation-fighting icon Paul A. Volcker, is an addition to the ever-evolving masterpiece of legislation (yes, I'm being sarcastic) known as the Dodd-Frank Act.
Now, draft SEC rulemaking and regulatory actions are first submitted to the public for "comment." The SEC collects all comment letters and posts them on their website.
Well, wouldn't you know it, this draft (some might call it "daft") Volcker Rule has caused a flurry of letter writing; letters were due to the SEC by no later than this past Monday evening.
All in all, this august (not the month) regulatory body received 241 detailed comment letters (that's a lot of comment letters) and an astounding 14,479 mostly form letters, as well.
Almost all of the form letters to the SEC, many of which were "personalized" by submitters, were strongly in favor of the Volcker Rule and called for strengthening it and not watering it down by allowing any exemptions.
How do I know that? (No, I didn't read them all.) They resulted from an e-alert campaign to activist supporters of the Americans for Financial Reform group and Public Citizens, who posted appeals on their websites.
Other notable comments in favor of the Rule, and weighing-in in more detail, came from Paul Volcker himself and Senators Carl Levin (D-MI) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR), who championed the Volcker Rule in the Dodd-Frank legislation and in their comments called the draft too "tepid."
The lengthiest comment letter in favor of the Rule (and of tightening it significantly) came in the form of a 325-page love letter from the Occupy Wall Street movement.
However, of those 241 detailed comment letters, most of them came from detractors.
Detractors like individual banks (who normally let their dogs and lobbyists do their biting) and industry groups, such as the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association (Sifma) and the Center for Capital Markets Competitiveness at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Powerhouse law firm Davis Polk was itself drafted by several banks and Sifma to help draft at least 10 letters on behalf of the cause ("cause" banks want to keep making big bonuses).
Detractors of the Volcker Rule warned of dire consequences for American capital markets, American corporations, the American economy, the world, and the universe beyond even our own little constellation, if the Rule is allowed to curtail their most coveted and conscientious shepherding of their clients' best interests.
Prop Trading, Market Making and the Volcker Rule
The Volcker Rule comes down to this: To continue reading, please click here…
The Real Reason Mark Zuckerberg is Paying $2 Billion in Taxes on the Facebook IPO
As the much-ballyhooed Facebook IPO looms closer, there's a mountain being made out of a molehill.
Turns out 27-year-old founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg may have a $2 billion tax bill that, according to a variety of sources, he intends to pay in full.
He seems like a regular guy…or is he?
To say I'm skeptical of his intentions would be an insult to actual skeptics. I think the "Zuck" is a great guy, but a regular guy? No way.
He didn't build from scratch a business that has 845 million customers by being stupid.
Zuckerberg goes to great lengths to project an aw-shucks kind of image. But in reality, this move is about as down-to-earth as Kim Kardashian's wedding. And it's every bit as sophisticated a play as I would have expected out of Larry Ellison or the late Steve Jobs.
Zuckerberg (and presumably his advisors) knows that the stakes couldn't be higher than they are at the moment, which is why he wants to pay this tax bill and reinforce the illusion that Facebook is part of Middle America – instead of being built upon its back.
He knows that successfully doing so will help him monetize your information when Facebook goes public.
I say this because it's important to remember the only reason Facebook is worth anything is because users – people like you – have voluntarily, with no compensation whatsoever, assembled the greatest single collection of marketing data in recorded history. That's right. Your data is going to make him rich.
So where are all the privacy advocates now?
I'd love to see what Facebook's proposed valuation would be if 845 million people suddenly decided they really don't want to share their most intimate moments with friends or decide they don't really want to "like" anything.
And why hasn't the Occupy Wall Street crowd or the Tax the Rich bunch latched onto this?
Because evidently none of them can spell h-y-p-o-c-r-i-s-y. And many are probably too busy using Facebook to "meme" about their activities to pay attention anyway.
But that's really beside the point.
A Zuckerberg Tax? …Give me a Break
There should be a huge amount of backlash, but there isn't. Well, unless you count any number of proposals like the "Zuckerberg Tax" advanced last Tuesday in a New York Times OpEd piece by tax lawyer David Miller.
Miller advocates allowing the government to claw back money from the ultra-wealthy. He believes that individuals earning more than $2.2 million in income or having more than $5.7 million in securities should have their stocks marked to market and taxed even if they haven't sold their investments.
Bankers Committed Fraud to Get Bigger Bonuses
In case you didn't catch the article titled "Guilty Pleas Hit the 'Mark'" in the Wall Street Journal, I'm here to make sure you don't miss it.
This is too good.
Three former employees of Credit Suisse Group AG (NYSE: CS) were charged with conspiracy to falsify books and records and wire fraud. They were accused of mismarking prices on bonds in their trading books by soliciting trumped-up prices for their withering securities from friends in the business.
By posting higher "marks" for their bonds in late 2007, they earned big year-end bonuses.
What a shock!
What's not a shock is that, after a bang-up 2007, Credit Suisse had to take a $2.85 billion write-down in the first quarter of 2008. No one knows how much of that loss was attributable to the three co-conspirators who were fired over their "wrongdoing."
Two of the three accused pled guilty. Also not shocking is the reason David Higgs – one who pled guilty – gave for his actions. He said he did it "to remain in good favor" with bosses, who determined his bonus and who profited handsomely themselves from his profitable trading and inventory marks.
As for Salmaan Siddiqui, the other trader who pleaded guilty? His attorney Ira Sorkin, the former Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) enforcement chief, said of his client: "What he did was the result of his boss and his boss' boss directing him to do it."
You know what else is shocking?
Buy Timber Stocks and Watch Your Money Grow on Trees
Chances are you've never considered timber stocks in your investing strategy.
But if that's the case, then you've been missing out.
Timber is a long-term investment that can reward your portfolio in good times, and protect it in bad.
In fact, investing in timber has proven to be more profitable – and less risky – than any other asset class for almost 100 years. Investing in timber stacks up well against stocks, bonds, oil and other commodities-even gold.
High-Frequency Trading Could Cause Another Flash Crash
The threat of another flash crash caused by high-frequency trading is as great as ever.
And the next flash crash could be much worse than the one that shocked investors in May 2010.
Although the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has taken some steps to prevent another flash crash caused by high-frequency trading (HFT), some experts question whether the additional disclosure and "circuit-breakers" designed to prevent big, sudden price moves will make a difference.
"Those things won't prevent another flash crash – they can't," said Money Morning Capital Waves Strategist Shah Gilani. "All they will do is soften the move."
The real issue, Gilani said, lies with the computers that execute the trades – thousands of them in milliseconds.
HFT has changed the nature of the stock market since these trades now account for between 60% and 70% of the transactions on the U.S. stock exchanges.
"You can't stop a flash crash unless you stop the computers from doing what they're programmed to do. And that's not being addressed," Gilani said. "The SEC is looking at keeping the ship from sinking, not stopping it from hitting icebergs."
HFT's heavy volume and high speed made it the prime suspect in the flash crash of 2010, when the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged more than 600 points in five minutes, before recovering almost as quickly.
Mini Flash Crashes
Since then, the frequent occurrence of mini flash crashes – when a single stock or exchange-traded fund experiences a steep and rapid drop in price that quickly reverses – have served as nagging reminders of the vulnerability of the system to such events.
"It's like seeing cracks in a dam," James J. Angel, professor at the McDonough School of Business atGeorgetown University told The New York Times. "One day, I don't know when, there will be another earthquake."
Three Luxury Companies That Can Bring You Closer to the Good Life
A lot of consumers are hurting right now, but you wouldn't know that looking at the earnings of major luxury companies.
Many luxury companies like LVMH Moet Hennessey Louis Vuitton SA (PINK: LVMHF), Burberry Group PLC (PINK: BURBY), Hermes International SCA (PINK: HESAF), and Coach Inc. (NYSE: COH) had a stronger-than-expected 2011 campaign.
Better still, they're set to expand on that success this year.
U.S. sales are regaining momentum and emerging markets – led by China – have been an outright boon for luxury companies.
Although you may not have realized it, China is now the world's second-largest market for luxury goods, behind Japan. And it could become the largest as soon as this year.
China's National Statistics Bureau says that there are now more people living in the country's towns and cities than in the countryside – making China a predominantly urban nation for the first time in history.
Worker pay is rapidly rising in China, with officially mandated base wage minimums up an average of 22% in 2011. And a new class of workers as well as a wealthy elite are driving luxury sales globally.
Two good examples of this are Burberry and Compagnie Financiere Richemont (PINK: CFRUY).
Luxuriating in Success
Burberry, the U.K's largest luxury-goods maker, reported third-quarter sales that beat analysts' estimates, and said it sees no reason to change full-year forecasts even in light of a "challenging" economy.
Burberry's revenue in the three months ended Dec. 31 climbed 22% to $882 million (574 million pounds). Asia-Pacific sales climbed 36%, while sales in Europe surged 20%. Sales rose 4% in the Americas and 31% in the rest of the world.
The company said it can weather any fallout from Europe's sovereign-debt crisis because Chinese consumers will help offset losses.
Chinese customers alone account for 10% of Burberry's total sales.
Swiss-based luxury goods group Compagnie Financiere Richemont also has benefited from China.
Don’t Be A Wall Street Patsy
You want to know the truth? The truth is that Wall Street has stacked the deck against you.
That's why you need to understand how the game is played. Otherwise you'll end up a Wall Street patsy.
So, here's the truth along with some lessons that will help you play the game like a pro.
First, though, we'll need to debunk a few myths…
Let's start with the myth that the Street lowered brokerage charges for the benefit of retail investors. At one time, these fees used to be obscenely high and fixed.
But, on May 1, 1975, fixed commissions were abolished after brash upstarts like Charles Schwab and disgruntled investors decided to attack The Street's price-fixing schemes.
The negotiated commissions regime that followed lowered the cost of access to the stock market, essentially ushering in the era of the "individual investor."
The influx of these individual investors, many of whom didn't have enough money to create diversified portfolios, soon became a boon for mutual funds – which have since grown like weeds in an untended sod farm.
Wall Street Changed the Game
Since the commission business was no longer profitable, Wall Street moved its retail business to an "assets under management" model.
So instead of making money on commissions the game changed to gathering as many assets as you could into a retail investor's account and charging a fee to "manage" them; in other words, just watch them.
That's one of the reasons why Wall Street advocates a "buy and hold" strategy for retail investors. They don't want you to take those assets away from them.
It's the same thing with mutual funds.
And conveniently, if your broker puts you into mutual funds that are losers, it's not your broker's fault.
Now, it's the mutual fund manager's fault. That way the broker can't be blamed if your account loses money.
Instead, your broker can tell you, "Don't fire me, let's fire the mutual fund manager and let's find you a better fund to invest in. But, no matter what happens, we need to buy and hold and not try and time the market."
That's what retail investors are told to do over and over and over again.
But guess what? That's definitely not what Wall Street firms do.
In fact, while you're being told to buy and hold, exchange specialists, market-makers, hedge funds and every trading desk at every Wall Street bank and firm are busy trading.
Some individual investors began to see how Wall Street was really making its money and started trading themselves.
Of course, that only increased the competition for easy trades as more retail investors traded in and out of stocks.
To continue their advantage over the public, Wall Street fought to do away with the uptick rule. The rule was wiped out so traders could short sell any stock at any time.
But it's the big Wall Street players who benefit from the rule change because they can use their huge capital positions and work with each other to drive down stocks they have shorted.
Who gets hurt? The buy-and-hold retail investors who are told to buy more at lower prices are the ones who get fleeced.
And, who is selling to them?…
Five Tech Stocks to Avoid: RIMM, HPQ, YHOO, ORB, GRPN
After a rocky 2011, tech stocks have gotten a nice bounce so far this year.
But while tech stocks may look tempting right now, knowing which tech stocks to avoid will prevent a lot of pain to your portfolio in 2012.
So here are five tech stocks you should avoid, at least for now.
Occupy Wall Street, Consider This My Gift to You…
Out of far left field, I see something coming that I never expected.
It's more like the coming together of pieces of a puzzle that have eluded us for too long.
By the way, Occupy Wall Street, if you're listening, and I hope you are, and you're still floundering (which I know you are) without a cause that anybody can really wrap their heads around, drop your drums, chants, and wanderings, and make the coming together of this puzzle what you're protesting.
And make what could result what you are demanding.
Because, really, this could be the mother lode.
The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is accusing six former executives of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac of playing down the risk to investors of their firms' aggressive fast-forward into subprime mortgages… which caused them to implode spectacularly.
Two separate civil suits, filed last Friday, allege that the executives "knowingly misled investors" who owned shares in the companies and were thus deprived of critical information against which meaningful investment decisions are generally made.
The two wards, currently under U.S. conservatorship (life support attended by a wet-nurse), were themselves spared being sued, on account of their signing civil non-prosecution agreements and promising to cooperate and not dispute allegations (and also not have to admit nor deny wrongdoing). Yet the SEC is seeking financial penalties, disgorgement, and an order barring guilty parties from serving as officers or directors of any public companies in the future against the implicated executives.
The SEC faces an uphill battle based on one word – "subprime."
The problem is, subprime has never been legally defined.
You know what it means, I know what it means, everybody knows what it means, without knowing its exact definition. But if there's no definition of subprime, defense lawyers will counter that it's not possible to sue based on a standard that has never been defined.
How about we compare mortgages to cars and subprime to clunkers. If you're on my used car lot and I offer you two cars at the same price and don't tell you one is a clunker, is that fair? You wouldn't need me to define "clunker." If I said one was a clunker, you would simply choose the other car; after all, it's the same price.
There is a difference, there's a big difference.
Over on the Fannie and Freddie lots between 2006 and 2007, they were loading up on clunkers and not telling anyone what they were stocking. In fact, they were saying things like, "basically (we) have no subprime exposure" in the single-family realm.
One of the reasons they were loading up on subprime was because Wall Street banks were eating their lunch by buying up subprime loans, packaging them, and selling them to investors hand over fist, and Fannie and Freddie wanted in on that very lucrative business. It's not that they hadn't dabbled in subprime before; they had. But as they saw stresses in the marketplace on the better mortgages in their portfolios, they still loaded up on far weaker credits; also known in the business as SUBPRIME.
So what's next?
When Fund Managers Sell, It's Time to Go Bargain Hunting
You may not realize it, but the annual practice of "window dressing" – a process through which fund managers dump their worst-performing stocks and replace them with high flyers – can create some real bargains for retail investors.
The sleight-of-hand does actually little to improve the fund's performance, but it does keep a fund manager's biggest mistakes of the year out of the annual reports sent to investors. For that reason, most fund managers do some window dressing every December. And in years that the overall stock market has struggled – as it has this year – they're busier than usual.
Indeed, managed funds have actually fared worse than market averages this year. The Merrill Lynch composite index of hedge funds is down more than 7% on the year, and many mutual funds are hovering below such benchmarks at the Standard & Poor's 500 Index. The S&P 500 itself is down more than 1% on the year and more than 2% over the past six months.
In fact, this year's third quarter was the fourth-worst performance in hedge fund industry history.
Playing the Rebound
Even though the types of stocks fund managers sell in December tend to be major dogs, the extent of the selling is so severe that many of them rebound come January.
"Ideally, you're buying these stocks now when the selling pressure is still there and selling them in the middle of January," Pankaj Patel, an analyst at Credit Suisse Group AG (NYSE: CS), told Reuters.
Patel has found that large-cap stocks with prices close to their 52-week lows in November outperform the S&P 500 through the following January. Last year Patel developed a list of downtrodden stocks that beat the S&P 500 by 5.8% over that time frame.
It's a pattern other investing experts have noticed as well. George Putnam, editor of The Turnaround Letter, has for 24 years published a list of downtrodden stocks he believes fund managers have punished disproportionately.
Last year Putnam's picks gained more than 15% on average just from mid-December to mid-January, while the Dow Jones Industrial Average gained only 2.7% and the S&P 500 4.26%.
The carnage left fund managers selling heavily out of some of the worst-hit sectors. Bank of America Corp.-Merrill Lynch (NYSE: BAC) strategist Mary Ann Bartels told the Chicago Tribune that hedge fund managers have dumped 50% of their holdings in financial stocks and 49% of their holdings in industrial stocks.
But the best way for investors to use the annual window dressing dance to their advantage is to peruse the list of abused stocks.