SAN FRANCISCO -- When I wrote
Monday that "maybe this really is a new bull market," because the stock market was seemingly ignoring the fundamentals, the sarcasm was apparently lost on many readers.
To be clearer: It's not hard to find reasons for cynicism, nor those inclined to expound on them.
Dave Hunter, chief market strategist at Kelly & Christensen, who turned
cautious in late October after a bullish call on Sept. 20, emailed yesterday with a view that there's far too much optimism about the economy and, by extension, equities. Because the consumer is "tapped out" and joblessness is going to keep rising, he believes "we are nearing an end to this rally and the steepness of the ensuing decline will be stunning."
Perhaps the only "stunning" thing about today's decline was that, for a change, stocks actually fell on negative news. Specifically, on the news that the Conference Board's
consumer confidence index fell to 82.2 in November, its lowest level in seven years. Cautious comments about the economy in separate speeches by
Governor Laurence Meyer and Chicago Fed President Michael Moskow also proved disconcerting to some investors.
Still, today was another tough day for the skeptics as investors aggressively stepped into an early morning dip and major averages closed well above intraday lows.
After trading as low as 9831.15 and then as high as 9992.72, the
Dow Jones Industrial Average
closed down 1.1% at 9872.60, owing largely to weakness in
But broader market averages fared far better. The
closed down 0.7% to 1149.50 after trading as low as 1140.81, while the
dipped 0.3% to 1935.97 vs. its nadir of 1902.89. Elsewhere, the Russell 2000 shed a meager 0.2%.
Given the market's developments since Sept. 21, I figured it an appropriate, if not overdue, time to check in with some of this column's more successful sources and get their "best ideas" for the current environment. Note: By definition, this year's best-performing managers aren't those who've been wildly bullish about tech stocks. Despite the Comp's big move since Sept. 21, the average large-cap growth fund was still down 22.9% year-to-date heading into today's session, according to
The Wall Street Journal
The roughly $600 million Ospraie Fund, which focuses on commodities and commodity-based equities, was up more than 25% year-to-date heading into today. The performance is due mainly to a short position on natural gas, both the spot price and futures. Shorting gas was the fund's "biggest bet, return and trade" of the year, according to manager Dwight Anderson.
Citing record natural gas inventories, Anderson believes natural gas prices will remain "depressed" for the next six to nine months, but Ospraie has largely exited its short position.
Within equities, Anderson still favors foreign commodity producers over U.S.-based ones, because of higher production costs here. The fund's long positions include
, Canada's Teck Cominco and Australia's MIM Holdings.
Asked for a "best idea," Anderson offered
, citing a 7% dividend yield and the fact that the firm's capital expenditures are covered by its regulated utility business.
But Alliant is a "boring stock," he conceded, acknowledging that his main goal between now and year-end is to not blow the hedge fund's year-to-date gains.
In addition to not wanting to give back the gains, the fund manager also said the macro environment is "confused." On the one hand, there are factors in place that "historically have created a great environment" for stocks, namely monetary and fiscal stimulus. But at the same time, there's still uncertainty about the economy and "not many stocks look phenomenally cheap or expensive."
Thus, Anderson doesn't see enough compelling reasons to make aggressive long or short bets in the industries he follows. Then again, he's in a position to be choosy.
The attitude among most other money managers is "I don't care
about the fundamentals -- I don't need to be right, I need to make money," said Gary Farber, a partner at Nightingale & Farber in Seattle.
The Quick and the Outperforming
Farber, whose admittedly small (less-than $5 million) hedge fund was up 8% year to date through yesterday's close, said the performance was due partially to the fund's size, which enables it to be nimble (and quick, I suppose). Additionally, he and partner Walter Nightingale are risk-averse by nature; if a position (long or short) falls more than 8%, they sell half the stake. If one rises more than 20%, they sell 15%. Additionally, the fund is never more than 35% net long or more than 25% net short.
Although "not as convinced as most" about the rally's sustainability and concerned that many stocks look expensive, Farber observed "the psychology has changed." Where stocks made attractive shorts earlier in the year simply because they were expensive on a valuation basis, that's no longer sufficient.
"You can't short
a stock just because it's expensive," he said, citing
as an example. (After rising more than 80% since Sept. 21, Brocade now trades with a
price-to-earnings ratio of more than 90 times trailing 12 months earnings.)
Nightingale & Farber has no position in Brocade but does have active short positions in
Farber believes each is expensive on a valuation basis and faces a difficult fundamental environment, although space constraints prohibit examining the specifics tonight.
As with Ospraie, the fund's long positions include names that probably won't elicit a big emotional response from most readers, including
Archer Daniels Midland
( ABF) and
Clear Channel Communications
One position that isn't among the usual suspects is a stake in the
iShares Japan Fund
. Nightingale & Farber believes Japan is going take the painful, but necessary, steps to rebuild its banking system, Farber said. Additionally, Japan's economy will be the biggest beneficiary of a U.S. recovery and is benefiting from the recent decline in crude oil prices.
That's assuming, of course, the U.S. economy recovers on schedule.