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As the first quarter of 2005 fades into investors' rearview mirrors, the financial media have been quick to recap its results with a jaundiced eye. 'Twas bad, to be sure, for all indices and sectors not related to energy, utilities or basic materials, and it seems that
now that the bad tidings will continue as the feds bear down on a new round of villainous CEOs.
But will the past quarter's travails really continue in a straight line right through into the new quarter, or is a confounding reversal on the horizon?
It's tempting to see the world of finance as if it were on rails, advancing from point A to point B without a squiggle along the route. But unfortunately, it does not work out that way. Bad quarters sometimes lead to good ones, just as one-time heroes like Maurice Greenberg, former head of
American International Group
, can morph enigmatically into goats.
There's little doubt at present that a combination of higher interest rates, higher energy prices, weaker domestic employment and softening global demand will ultimately pummel the market this year. How could it not? Yet before the drubbing begins in earnest, there could be some remarkable trading opportunities in the opposite direction, and soon. And there's always the possibility, remote as it may be, that the recent decline has sufficed to discount market participants' expectations of rough stuff ahead.
Is He Crazy?
Robert Drach, a cynical but deadly accurate veteran of the investment advisory business, has kept his clients primarily in cash during the past year. But last week he began a process that took his accounts from 2% in stocks to 26% invested and now 50% invested. Drach revels in market declines, as he crows that they afford him an opportunity to exploit less-experienced players' negative emotions to his advantage.
"At this juncture we prefer the market splat so we can move to full investment without interruption," he said on April 3, recommending the purchase of beaten-up stalwarts such as
. "The process of profit extraction requires taking advantage of fellow market participants. Almost every position we purchase is directly against prevailing sentiment."
Drach went on to repeat two themes he has successfully articulated for 30 years: That successful investors buy wholesale (when stocks are cheap) and sell retail (when they're back to full price), and that the media stampede otherwise intelligent people into making loss-inducing emotional decisions based on "after-the-fact" price change.
Is he crazy? Maybe not. The
is down 9% from New Year's Day, which sounds pretty bad. By no means is this sort of slough uncommon, however. Even in a raging bull market, stocks can tumble dramatically for multimonth periods.
In 1995, the Nasdaq Composite was up 39% overall. Yet there was an 8% decline from September through October -- 1,069 to 982.
In 1996, the Nasdaq Composite was up 22.6% overall. Yet there was a 19% decline from May to July -- 1,251 to 1,017.
In 1997, the Nasdaq was up 21.6% overall. Yet there was a 13% decline from January to April -- 1,381 to 1,206.
In 1998, the Nasdaq was up 38% overall. Yet there was a 34% decline from July to October -- 2,028 to 1,343.
In 1999, the Nasdaq was up 86% overall. Yet there was a 14% decline from July through August -- 2,840 to 2,442.
In 1993, the last time that the University of North Carolina won the NCAA basketball championship, the Nasdaq 100 was off 9% through the third week of April as investors reacted to the World Trade Center car-bomb attack and the clumsy start of the first Clinton administration. But the index, a proxy for the shares of big tech companies, went on to rally 16% through the end of the year, even as investors were later forced to absorb the country's tragic loss of pride and military personnel in Somalia.
Watch for Dark Clouds to Lift
Rather than blindly extrapolating the first quarter into the future, therefore, it might be best to stay flexible and prepare mentally for the possibility that the dark mood might lift, at least temporarily. Let's catalog what we think we know for sure:
The China economic boom is for real, sort of.
The big Asian country is using 55% of the world's cement as it barrels toward its plan to triple its network of highways by 2008. Despite having four times as many people as the U.S., China currently has a third as many railways and one-fifteenth as many airports, according to researcher Jim Williams of Williams Inference Center.
This sounds like a recipe for a continuation of the first quarter's rise in the shares of companies that produce commodities such as steel, coal and concrete -- and thus higher raw-materials prices and inflation for everyone else. Yet you still have to wonder why, if China is so hot, its stock market is sitting at six-year lows.
Energy prices are skyrocketing, maybe.
The price of crude oil is up more than 60% in the past year as investors come to grips with an issue that I pointed out a year ago: That OPEC's ability to pump out excess high-quality petroleum to meet the rising needs of India and China -- not to mention the desire on the part of Japan and the U.S. to boost stockpiles for a rainy day -- is suspect. Oil prices dampen the world economy on a one-year lag as cheaper inventories are gradually drawn down and replaced by the more expensive stuff, so it's about time for the drag line to hit if it's going to.
Yet it's also well-documented that higher prices encourage conservation and sap demand. If oil buyers get a strong whiff of any slackening in end markets, they will almost certainly back away. One experienced oil trader who has made a ton of money long this year told me that he'll sell heavily if crude fails to move through $58. He expects to see it in the mid-$40s by summer.
Interest rates are bound to move higher, perhaps.
The conventional wisdom believes that the
will push short-term interest rates a quarter of a percentage point higher at every Federal Open Market Committee meeting from now until Chairman Alan Greenspan presumably leaves his post early next year. That would put the federal funds rate at 4.25%, a level that the central bank has deemed pleasantly "neutral" -- which is to say, neither stimulative to the economy nor a drain.
Yet the Fed has proven itself flexible, if nothing else, and last week at a major economic conference at Princeton University, Fed governors reportedly acknowledged that they are sensitive to short-term economic data and could hold fire if presented with persuasive evidence that tight-money policies were leading to a U.S. slowdown. With companies clearly so fretful about the future that hiring is at an astonishing multiyear low, analysts say another weak employment report could stay the Fed's hand -- a move that could cheer investors.
In sum, while there is plenty to fret about in the long term, in the short term there are some potential mood-lifters on the horizon that could bring brave bargain-hunters back into stocks. For some ideas, we can turn, as always, to StockScouter.
The 50 picks in our January benchmark portfolio are up 5.4% as a group so far this year, or more than five times better than the market, on the back of successful recommendations of Hawaii-based oil and land conglomerate
, up 49%; energy services provider
( THE), up 45%; and Gulf of Mexico oil and gas explorer
, up 34%.
The latest benchmark portfolio continues to highlight energy names, but it also mixes in some retailers. Some of the top recommendations for the next six months are pipeline provider
Holly Energy Partners
LL&E Royalty Trust
( LRT), driller
American Eagle Outfitters
( AEOS), children's clothing maker
( GOSHA) and chemical maker
At the time of publication, Jon Markman held no positions in stocks mentioned in this column.
Jon D. Markman is publisher of
StockTactics Advisor, an independent weekly investment newsletter, as well as senior strategist and portfolio manager at Pinnacle Investment Advisors. While he cannot provide personalized investment advice or recommendations, he welcomes column critiques and comments at
firstname.lastname@example.org; put COMMENT in the subject line.