Monday, October 31, 2011

A Happy, Happy Halloween

Today is Halloween, which often serves as a sort of barometer for how the all-important holiday spending season will play out over the next two months. And if form holds, we could be in for a terrific holiday. According to the National Retail Federation, the average American plans to spend $72.31 on Halloween decorations, candy and costumes this year, which is up more than 9 percent from last year and is the highest figure in the nine-year history of the survey. All told, spending on Halloween is expected to reach $6.86 billion this year.

Interestingly enough, Americans will spend more money on adult costumes this year - $1.21 billion - than on children's costumes - $1 billion. Those numbers were $990 million and $840 million last year. We'll also spend an additional $310 million this year on costumes for our pets.

And the most popular costume? We can expect to see roughly 2.6 million zombies rising from the dead this year, then roaming the streets of America asking for candy.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

GDP Comes Back Strong

Thursday's report on third-quarter GDP growth was the strongest we've seen in some time. In historic terms, 2.5 percent growth is fairly normal, but in these beleaguered times, it was the most growth we've seen in a year, and nearly doubled the second quarter's 1.3 percent.

The biggest growth trigger was personal consumption expenditures, which grew 2.4 percent in the quarter after growing just 0.7 percent in the second quarter. Sales of computers accounted for 0.21 percentage points of the growth in GDP after adding 0.07 percentage points in the second quarter. Motor vehicles had accounted for a 0.10 percentage-point drop in the second-quarter GDP, but rebounded to add 0.07 percentage points to this quarter's growth.

With this solid quarter, we've turned a significant corner: The overall economy has now surpassed the size it was prior to the recession. Our inflation-adjusted gross domestic product totals roughly $13.35 trillion at this point. The size of the economy had peaked at around $13.33 trillion towards the end of 2007, before contracting in the recession.

Venture Capital Roars Back

Much ink has been spilled over the exceptionally poor performance of the stock market during the third quarter of 2011, but there's one area that turned in strong numbers over that period: venture capital. U.S. venture capital firms poured a total of $8.4 billion into 765 start-ups during the third quarter. The dollar figure represents an increase of 29 percent over the third quarter of 2010.

The biggest winner was the consumer information services category, which includes such things as online search firms and social media. Those businesses received more than a billion dollars from venture capital firms in the quarter, in a total of 103 different deals. That's more than double the dollar figure raised in the same quarter last year.

According to Dow Jones VentureSource, which compiled the numbers, venture-capital activity is now on a pace to return to pre-recession levels by the end of the year. That could be a big jump-start for this sluggish economy.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Consumer Confidence: A Double-Barreled Drop

It's not just retirement confidence that's dropping; consumer confidence is also falling, now reaching its lowest levels since we were in the midst of the recession. The most widely watched confidence reading, conducted by the Conference Board, has two basic measures, a current index and a future index, and usually the overall measure declines when one or the other drops. But in the October reading, people have gotten more pessimistic about both the present and the future.

The percentage of people who expect business conditions to be better in six months declined, as did the percentage of people who expect their income to decrease over the next six months. On the other side of the coin, the number of people saying that business conditions are bad right now increased in October, as did the number of people saying that jobs are "not so plentiful."

While these consumer confidence numbers provide a lot of insight into where consumer spending might be headed, it's important to realize that the people surveyed are random Americans, who don't have any special insight into the economy. For instance, the same survey found that inflation expectations over the next 12 months are at 5.8 percent. While anything is possible in this economy, the annual inflation rate hasn't actually been that high since 1982.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Drop in Retirement Confidence

Americans' confidence in their ability to retire comfortably has been declining lately, according to the annual retirement survey conducted by SunLife Financial. That's no surprise, given the economic environment we've been living in the past few years. What is surprising, though, is the timing. While the confidence level stayed relatively stable from 2008 to 2010, it dropped suddenly by 18 percent in 2011.

The thing that's changed is people's confidence in their ability to pay for their basic living expenses in retirement. In December 2008, after the recession had already been in effect for a year, 46 percent of Americans said they were very confident they'd be able to pay for their retirement expenses. Only 14 percent said they were "not at all" confident.

Now those numbers have reversed. In the 2011 survey, more respondents - 28 percent - said they were not at all confident about their retirement than those who said they were very confident (23 percent). The biggest issue here may be a lack of confidence in government: Confidence about Social Security has dropped from 22 percent in 2008 to 9 percent now, and confidence about Medicare has dropped from 20 percent to 8 percent.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Europe's Next Steps

The Greek debt crisis has been festering for more than a year now - when and how is it ever going to end? According to a poll of mutual fund managers conducted by Bank of America Merrill Lynch, the overwhelmingly expected result is a default. Three quarters of the respondents expect it to happen by the first quarter of 2012.

Yet, by and large, they don't expect this event to be too traumatic for the American economy. The majority of respondents did forecast that Europe is likely to be thrown into recession by a Greek default, yet only 25 percent expect that to turn into a global recession. That's down from 40 percent that expected a global recession as recently as September.

So a Greek default may not be as dangerous as it sounds. In one sense, it would be an opportunity to put the immediate problem behind us, and the European governments can get back to focusing on growing their economies rather than pursuing endless bailouts of Greece. In the long term, that might be the best remedy for all.

Friday, October 21, 2011

IRS Guidelines for 2012

The IRS has issued some announcements on updated regulations for 2012, and there is some good news in there for retirement savings. The limit on 401(k)s has been raised from $16,500 this year to $17,000 next year, so you will be able to put away another $500 tax-free. That applies to 403(b) plans, for people who work for nonprofits, as well.

There are also some cost-of-living adjustments that should provide a small amount of tax relief for high-income taxpayers. The personal exemption will rise from $3,700 to $3,800, and the standard deduction for married couples will go up from $11,600 to $11,900. And the 35 percent top bracket will now apply to incomes of $388,350 and higher, up from $379,150 this year.

There is also some small movement on the estate tax, which his been a moving target for the past few years. The exemption will be raised to $5.12 million next year, up from $5 million. But be warned: At this point, that exemption is scheduled to drop back to $1 million at the end of 2012, unless more legislation is passed.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Behind Apple's "Big Miss"

All the reports about Apple's disappointing quarterly results - the Wall Street Journal headline read "Apple Loses Some of Its Shine" - serve as a reminder about what really moves markets in the near term. Apple's problems weren't that it had poor sales or revenue in the third quarter. The problem was that it didn't live up to Wall Street's lofty expectations.

Consider that the quarter saw record sales of both Macintosh computers and iPads. The overall revenue for the quarter was $28.3 billion, the second-best quarter on record for Apple. Revenues were up year-over-year by 39 percent. Profits were up by 54 percent. There's nothing wrong with any of that; the issue is that the analysts' consensus expected earnings to be 3 percent higher than they actually were.

As a result, Apple lost 6.5 percent off its share price in after-hours trading on Tuesday following the earnings report. But for long-term investors, missing (or meeting) Wall Street's quarterly expectations should be merely a blip.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A Jumpstart for Housing?

The housing market may be receiving a significant boost from an unusual source: a rise in short sales. Short sales, as you may know, arise when a home is in default but hasn't been officially foreclosed upon, and the bank decides to let the owner sell it for less than the mortgage balance rather than repossess it.

According to RealtyTrac, short sales were up 19 percent in the second quarter of this year, while foreclosures were flat. HomeServices of America, a residential brokerage, says it now sees about 60 percent short sales and 40 percent foreclosures, whereas those figures used to be reversed. It's not much of a surprise that short sales would be preferred by banks: They generally end up selling at a discount of about 20 percent, compared to similar homes not in default. Foreclosures typically carry a discount of around 40 percent.

And then there's the time saved. As we mentioned recently, foreclosures in New Jersey take an average of around two and a half years. Speeding up that process will help clear the excess inventory off the market, and get everything moving again.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Industrial Strength

The likelihood of a double-dip recession got a little more remote yesterday, with the news that industrial production in the United States grew in the month of September. The growth in output at factories, mines and utilities was nothing great - just 0.2 percent - but it was up from being flat in August. The biggest movers were increasing demand for automobiles and computers.

In the first half of 2011, the industrial numbers had slowed to practically nothing. The indicators had shown that, for those six months, our industrial output was the weakest it had been since the onset of the recession in 2007.

So the fact that the numbers have reversed direction is very good news indeed. The growth in industrial output led the chief market strategist for JP Morgan to estimate that we'll see an increase in GDP for the third quarter somewhere between 2 and 3 percent. For the second quarter, remember, it was just 1.3 percent.

Monday, October 17, 2011

What Has You Worried?

It's no secret that American investors harbor great doubts about the stock market at the moment. A Gallup poll conducted during September asked people what exactly it was that had them so pessimistic. Not surprisingly, given all that's wrong with the economy right now, they were able to mention more than one item.

Here are the factors that more than half the investors cited as reasons for their concern:

Unemployment; weak economy: 85 percent
Volatility on Wall Street: 80 percent
Confrontational political stalemate: 74 percent
Lack of national leadership: 71 percent
Federal Reserve policies: 51 percent
Financial crisis in Europe: 50 percent

Friday, October 14, 2011

Sloppy Bank Robber of the Week

Here's a lesson for all you would-be bank robbers: Work on your handwriting. Last week, a man walked into a bank branch down in New Castle, Delaware, and handed the teller a note. She couldn't read the writing on the note, so she handed it back to him and asked him if he could rewrite it.

Apparently, he wasn't just asking for his account balance. The teller's request completely spooked the man, who fled from the bank on foot. A local police officer spotted him, though, and arrested him. The man is now being held on charges of attempted robbery.

Let that be a lesson to you. If you ever walk into a bank and give the teller a note asking what their 90-day CD rates are, make sure you write very clearly.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Settling In to Earnings Season

Third-quarter earnings season is underway, and if the analysts are to be believed, this one could be a doozy. The analysts' consensus calls for profits to grow 13 percent for this quarter over the third quarter of 2011. The forecast also calls for fourth-quarter profits for S&P 500 companies to edge up even further, to 15 percent.

As of the beginning of this week, 29 companies in the S&P 500 had announced their earnings, and 21 had beaten the analysts' estimates. That's a mark of 72 percent, but remember, the average percentage of companies that beat analysts' earnings estimates is 61 percent. So we're above average, but not by as much as that 72 percent might suggest.

On the other hand, the Web site looked at all the companies that had pre-announced earnings guidance in recent weeks, and found that the ratio of negative-to-positive news was 2.6 to 1. That might sound terrible, but again, those numbers are ordinarily skewed. The average figure is 2.3 to 1, so the number of companies reporting bad news is only a little bit higher than normal.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Managing Social Security

American recognize that we are l iving longer, and thus will be spending more of our lives in retirement. That's the good news from the new MetLife Retirement Income IQ survey. The bad news is that many people still don't seem fully prepared for how they're going to pay for those extra years.

Take Social Security. A full 45 percent of the respondents said that Social Security would be an important part of their retirement scenario. But only 17 percent knew that by delaying when you begin accepting that retirement benefit by three years, you can add 24 percent to your annual total.

The reason that's so important is because Social Security is guaranteed to last till the end of your life, and it's indexed to inflation. If you can maximize those benefits to where you're receiving, say, $30,000 a year, and you live in retirement for 25 years, with a little inflation adjustment, Social Security can be a nearly million-dollar proposition. That means you should manage it with the care and attention you would put toward any other million-dollar aspect of your portfolio.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Short Sales on the Rise

Last week we talked about the volatility index, an indicator that the stock market might be due for an upswing. Here's the other side of the equation: in the month of October, short selling increased at its quickest pace since 2006. Borrowed shares, the sign of a short sale, now constitute 11.6 percent of outstanding shares on the American market.

Overall, the percent of short sales is at its highest level since 2009. About 4.1 percent of the shares on the NYSE have already been borrowed and sold, up from 3.5 percent in July. Since short selling is a bet that a stock will decrease in price, this can be taken as an indicator of a further market decline.

Of course, that's only one indicator. Bloomberg News yesterday released the results of a poll of economists, who predicted that the S&P 500 would grow by 13 percent between now and the end of the year. If that happens, there are going to be a lot of disappointed short-sellers out there.

Monday, October 10, 2011

A Dismal Third Quarter

The third quarter of 2011, which ended a week ago, was a disaster for the stock markets. What's becoming clear as more detailed figures become available is how thorough the downturn was. Every equity category and every sector, lost ground.

Here are how some mutual-fund sectors made it through the third quarter:

Precious-Metals Stocks: Down 6.2 percent
Utilities: Down 6.6 percent
Health: Down 13.5 percent
Real Estate: Down 14.7 percent
Technology: Down 15.9 percent
Financial: Down 20.2 percent
Industrials: Down 21.3 percent
Energy stocks: Down 21.3 percent
Natural Resources: Down 25.9 percent

Did anything survive the quarter unscathed? According to the New York Times, there was one general U.S. stock fund that finished in positive territory: The Hussman Strategic Total Return fund. It gained 2.4 percent.

Friday, October 7, 2011

The New Jobless Figures

September brought us another month of increasing payrolls, but not enough of an increase to make a dent in the unemployment rate, according to figures released this morning by the Labor Department. U.S. payrolls added 103,000 jobs for the month, although the official jobless rate remained stuck at 9.1 percent. The government also revised upward the jobs figure for August; it now turns out that we added 57,000 jobs that month, instead of the zero figure that was originally reported.

The breakdown for September was that the private sector added 137,000 jobs, while government payrolls fell by 34,000. The biggest-gaining sectors were service providers, who added 85,000 jobs on the month, and construction, which added 26,000. There was a decline of 13,000 factory jobs, the biggest loss in that category since August 2010.

While the trend is in the right direction, 103,000 new jobs a month is really only enough to tread water in a growing population. Economists estimate that we need to create closer to 200,000 jobs a month to really make a difference in the unemployment rate. The trend is in the right direction, but we aren't quite there yet.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Steve Jobs, 1955-2011

With the news yesterday that Apple founder and longtime CEO Steve Jobs had passed away, there was also a sense that we might never see the likes of this sort of business titan again. Unlike his contemporary, Bill Gates of Microsoft, Jobs not only founded Apple (and was fired by his hand-picked successor) but remained critical to the day-to-day operations of the company, nearly to the end of his life. It's hard to think of another American business that was so innovative and influential - and successful - due to the efforts of one man.

Here's a quick timeline of Jobs' life work:

April 1, 1976: Steve Jobs co-founds Apple Computer.

December 1980: Apple goes public in the biggest IPO since Ford Motor in 1956, with a market valuation of $1.8 billion.

January 24, 1984: The Macintosh goes on sale to the public.

May 1985: Jobs is fired from Apple. The company's split-adjusted stock price is about 2.5.

1996: Apple announces it has bought Jobs' company NeXT, bringing him back to the fold.

September 16, 1997: Jobs becomes CEO of Apple once again. The company's split-adjusted stock price is 5.4.

November 10, 2001: The iPod goes on sale to the public. Apple's share price is at 9.

June 29, 2007: The iPhone goes on sale to the public. Apple's share price is at 122.

October 5, 2011: Steve Jobs dies. Apple's share price is at 377. Its market cap of $350 billion makes it the second-largest corporation in America after ExxonMobil.

If you had bought 100 shares of Apple on the day Steve Jobs was re-introduced as the company's CEO, your $540 investment would now be worth $37,700.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Promise of Volatility

Are you looking for a sign that the stock market is due for a turnaround? There might be a good omen out there now, in the form of the Chicago Board Options Exchange's Volatility Index. The VIX has pushed itself above 40 for the third quarter, a jump of 160 percent, and is now in a territory that has historically predicted market upswings.

Since 1990, in those periods when the VIX has closed above 40 - which it only does around 3 percent of the time - the S&P 500 has returned 3.2 percent on average over the next three months. And over the ensuing 12 months, the S&P has historically returned 19 percent.

The volatility index looks at the prices paid for options that are designed to protect investors from losses in equity investments. It's a contrarian indicator, in that it shows that individual investors are fearing the worst - which means the market has turned into a good buy. That's the theory anyway; we'll see how well it holds up this time.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

What's Ahead for Greece?

The crisis in Europe continues to weigh down the markets here in the U.S., as investors have move from speculation over whether Greece will default toward strategies for minimizing the damage of that default. Moody’s rating agency has already declared that the likelihood of a Greek default was “virtually 100 percent.”

At this point, the other European nations may very well let Greece default, writing off the billions of dollars it owes to other member nations. While that would mean a big financial hit for Greece’s lenders - primarily the continent’s central banks - it would also end the crisis in its current form. Perhaps a larger concern would be that a default would drive up interest rates for all the Eurozone countries. Many of them are in a precarious enough position that it might tip them over into default as well.

It would also likely mean Greece would exit from the euro and return to its own currency – which might, ironically, benefit its economy, with a cheaper currency driving up tourism and exports. Certainly, the longer the sense of impending doom hangs over the continent, and the more the can gets kicked down the road, the longer it will take for Europe to return to economic growth.

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Bounceback in Retirement Funds

Despite the fact that the economy remains very sluggish, there is some good news to report as far as retirement planning goes. After retirement plans took a huge hit in the market downturn of 2008-2009, people are starting to build up those nest eggs again. Over the past year, 41 percent of American workers say they have increased their contributions to their 401(k)s. That's up from 31 percent who did so in 2010.

That's been a part of a huge bounceback in overall retirement savings. After the nation lost a huge amount of money in 2008, the value of U.S. retirement assets has been growing steadily ever since. Here's the recent history of the total value of all the 401(k)s, IRA, pension plans and government plans in the U.S.:

2007: $17.9 trillion
2008: $14.0 trillion
2009: $16.1 trillion
2010: $16.7 trillion
2011: $18.2 trillion