Insights & Advice

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Quarter ends with a bang

The markets presented plenty of head fakes this quarter. In January, contrary to everyone’s expectations, the gains of last year kept right on coming through most of the first quarter, only to hit a brick wall in March thanks to troubles in the Middle East followed by nature’s one-two punch to Japan. Despite that, the indexes finished the first quarter with the best gains in over two decades.

Buyers are in control

The Dow racked up 742 points (6.4%), the S&P 500 Index gained 68 points (5.4%) while the NASDAQ closed up 128 points for a 4.8% gain. If we annualize those gains we could be looking at a 20% plus gain for the year, which puts my forecast of a 20-23% gain in 2011 right on target.

“It was a choppy quarter though,” commented one client on Friday who lives in Dalton, MA

I agree. Clearly this market is exacting a price (higher stress and wear and tear on the nerves) for the gains we are making. I suspect that additional volatility is waiting for us as we continue to climb a wall of worry throughout this next quarter. Some of the concerns I believe will haunt us through the spring are the price of oil brought on by geopolitical turmoil, continued problems among European financial institutions and, of course, the end of QE II, which occurs in June.

Can the economy continue to grow without the multi-billion dollar monetary stimulus that the Fed has been providing for well over a year? The economy appears to be growing and unemployment declining, but is that a function of real demand or simply a response to the Fed’s easy money policies? How will the stock and bond markets react to an end to this stimulus?

Smarter people than I are expecting a rapid and disastrous response by the bond markets to the sunset of QE II. They believe that interest rates will immediately spike, disrupting what little lending is already occurring and thereby throwing the economy back into recession. I find that hard to believe.

I’m going to give our central bankers, led by Ben Bernanke, the benefit of the doubt. They read the same papers we do and are well aware of the fears of the markets. Is it really plausible that the Fed will step out of the game and simply watch from the bleachers if the doomsayers are right?

There is simply too much at stake and Ben Bernanke knows it. I believe the process of pulling out of the market will be a managed one. For those who pay attention to “Fed Speak.” I maintain that process is already at work. Recently a number of Board Governors who have granted interviews advised the financial community that the Fed will be taking a more neutral policy position in regards to stimulus in the future..
That’s not to say there won’t be concerns and with them volatility. Skittish investors will always jump the gun, many times before they actually have the facts. In today’s markets, trading on rumors is just as viable as trading on the facts. So prepare for some rough sailing; but I get ahead of myself.

As a portfolio manager, it’s part of my job to fret and worry about what will be, instead of enjoying what is. And a rising market is what we can expect over the next few months. Sure, we can and will have down days, but I believe they will be short and shallow. Commodity stocks will lead, so make sure you have some exposure to those sectors, and if you haven’t yet, get back into the stock market—now.

Posted in A Few Dollars More, At the Market