Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Why You Can't Beat the Stock Market Through Active Trading

By John F. Wasik (Reuters)

The days of you trying to make a buck actively trading in the stock market are over.

Individuals don’t stand a chance anymore because they are largely competing against rational machines often guided by herd-like irrational forces. The robots can rule in the blink of an eye.

I’m not spouting lines from an Isaac Asimov novel, but citing reality. The machines and people who program and profit from them have won — for now.

I knew it was over for human traders when I heard that high-frequency trading firms were hooking up their data lines directly to exchange computers to gain an extra hundredth of a second in execution time.

High-speed programs are designed to move millions of shares in a fraction of a second to take advantage of small movements in securities prices. These algorithms are ideal Wall Street workers. They don’t need health insurance and you don’t have to pay them bonuses to help finance their Lamborghinis or homes in the Hamptons.

There’s no way to beat the machines, unless of course, you have a faster machine, better programs or the ability to predict the future. Your odds are better in Vegas, which never had great odds for a palooka pulling a one-armed bandit.

Who are you trading against when you take on the machines? Any entity from a boutique investment firm with a handful of “quants” — math majors who flocked to Wall Street for the big bucks — to a mega-bank or hedge fund. Some 60 percent of the volume of the New York Stock Exchange is attributed to high-speed trading, maybe more.

Although many market observers blamed machine traders for a flash crash last year, regulators have done little to slow down these speed demons.

Machine traders don’t even need a human analyst to pull the trigger on trades based on the day’s news or price changes. Who watches CNBC any more in these firms? They don’t have to: Machine-readable feeds from all of the news services and exchanges go right into their computers and trading decisions happen without much direct human intervention.

The trading floor is becoming as relevant as the telegraph system.

That’s why will see even more flash crashes and huge price swings called “mini-flash crashes.”

The only perennial truth about the stock market is that it will remain volatile and virtually unpredictable because it’s based on the mass actions of millions of people. It’s like trying to predict the direction of a giant school of dumb fish.

Every day, even more money is chasing potential price swings at the speed of light all over the world. The more traders adopt these systems, the greater the chaos.

There are, of course, various ways of protecting your money from the market madness. Crafting a low-risk, long-term portfolio allocation of stocks, bonds and alternatives for your age, lifestyle and risk profile is one way.

For long-term stock investors, you’ll be better off in exchange-traded funds like the Vanguard High-Dividend Yield fund or the SPDR S&P Dividend fund. Both offer a portfolio of high-dividend paying stocks.

You can also create a high-dividend portfolio of your own, but you’d need to diversify across at least a dozen industries to buffer sector risk.

Dividends generally aren’t impacted by high-speed trading. If a company has sufficient earnings, they cut you a check every quarter. Once you create your portfolio (with individual stocks), you’d enroll in dividend-reinvestment programs to buy new shares on a regular basis on a dollar-cost averaging basis. That would ensure you wouldn’t be buying in at the market peak. The majority of these programs allow you to buy new shares commission-free.

Don’t even try to time the purchase of your stocks, because Washington will do nothing to protect you against huge market swings.

Wall Street is spreading plenty of money around in lobbying efforts to make sure that their trading desks don’t get regulated in any meaningful way. Sated with financial services industry contributions, House Republicans have already spent most of the year trying to kill Dodd-Frank financial reforms, so high-speed trading isn’t even near the top of their agenda.

So my advice couldn’t be more succinct. The best way to beat the machines is pretty simple: Don’t even play them. Game over.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Tea Party Unpatriotism

The Tea Party’s “blue deal” for America

By John F. Wasik

Imagine being elected to government even though you’re openly hostile to it.

Such is the perverse arrangement the Tea Party has with the electorate, which is foisting a “Blue Deal” on Americans. As opposed to a “New” deal or even “Square” deal, the Blue Deal and its prolonged pain will hurt most middle-class Americans through higher costs in retirement, health care and public health.

Tea Party affiliates’ nonchalant posturing on the potential debt default influenced the Standard and Poor’s decision to downgrade U.S. debt and the ensuing turmoil.

Now that the Congressional super-committee has been named to begin

cutting more government spending — and hopefully raising revenues — it’s time to craft a balanced agenda that will preserve social programs while cutting government waste.

The Tea Party’s brash intrusion into U.S. politics was a needed wake-up call, although the movement will be more destructive than productive if it doesn’t create a tide that lifts all boats. Here are the major stumbling blocks that need to be addressed head-on by the committee:

Being the World’s Cop. If Congress is truly interested in the kind of debt reduction the ratings agencies and markets will take seriously, it has to end its role as gendarme to the world’s hotspots. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) said as much on Tuesday in a National Public Radio interview in which he was cut off before he had a chance to fully explain why. Frank said overspending on needless military expenses is one reason U.S. debt was downgraded by Standard & Poor’s. Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz estimated in 2008 that the Iraq and Afghan wars will cost the U.S. at least $3 trillion — double the cost of the Korean War and outpacing the 12-year Viet Nam war. Pull out of these countries and reduce spending on forces in Europe and Asia and Congress will not have to touch social programs.
Deregulation Will Cost Money and Lives. The epic dismantling of government regulation by conservative GOP members is going to result in more deaths and higher costs for everyone. Ralph Nader, who knows more than anyone how consumer regulation works, noted that at least 150 million workers will be adversely impacted by cuts in workplace safety and health regulation. There’s more: ”There are 307 million eaters in America,” Nader states. “More than 7,000 of them die from contaminated food and more than 300,000 are hospitalized each year. The Tea Partiers pushed cuts through the House to the already underfunded FDA food safety programs.” Add to that the assault on investor protection, unions, bank regulation and environmental protection, and it’s difficult not to conclude that the Tea Party’s unrelenting hostility toward government watchdogs will largely hurt the populace.
Tax Expenditures Cost the Treasury Billions. Tax breaks such as mortgage interest and health insurance deductions take away up to $1 trillion from the Treasury every year and do nothing to promote affordable housing or health care. Conservative economist Martin Feldstein at the Bureau of Economic Research proposes capping all personal write-offs at 2 percent of annual gross adjusted income. He estimates that would raise annual tax revenue by $278 billion annually. Isn’t this a tax increase? While those making $500,000 a year would likely pay $40,000 more in taxes, taxpayers in the $25,000 to $50,000 range would pay only $1,000. The theme here is restoring progressivity to the tax code instead of raising rates. The wealthiest taxpayers don’t get to lard up on breaks that most of the middle class won’t benefit from. In any discussion about taxes, the Tea Party needs to recognize that fairness in the tax code can partially eliminate the cuts in education and health care. Needless corporate breaks that don’t create any jobs and rob the Treasury should also be on the chopping block.
Rebuild the American Dream. A new social contract is needed. A mindless slashing of every government program isn’t the answer. Social Security and Medicare are enormously successful social programs that have kept millions out of poverty. When you cut benefits, the math is simple: It will increase costs for the retired. If anything, these programs should be expanded to cover more people. Government should be in the business of saving money on hospital stays, medicine and retirement fund management. Social programs should be part of a separate discussion that doesn’t demonize them and implements meaningful cost controls reached by a consensus of Americans. Another dialogue should begin on how to create jobs and involve the private sector, which is sitting on more than $3.6 trillion in cash. Activities that are harmful to society — such as pollution, junk food, smoking, gambling, alcohol and trading speculation — should be heavily taxed. Use the revenue to create 21st Century jobs that pay a living wage and fund public education and clean energy.

Compromise and social progress need to have a seat at the table. The alternative: Chaos, economic despair, social unrest and a lower standard of living. We need only look to the streets of England or the Arab world to see how gross social inequity eventually translates into anarchy.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

iBank: The Time is Right

By John Wasik

We have iPhones, iPods and iPads. Why not an “iBank?”

This wouldn’t be an electronic gizmo that’s obsolete in a year, though. It would be a public-private partnership to bolster America’s infrastructure. It will create jobs, cut the deficit and repair what needs to be fixed all over the country.

An infrastructure bank, or iBank, solves a lot of problems without busting the budget. Instead of providing direct government grants or earmarks for specific projects, loans are made by a government-banking entity.

The U.S. is inexcusably late to the game on this time-tested idea. The European Investment Bank has financed some $350 billion in projects from 2005 through 2009. China spent 9 percent of its gross domestic product — also roughly $350 billion — to build subways, highways and high-speed rail in 2009 alone. Brazil invested $240 billion over the past three years.

The idea is not without high-level support. President Obama recently called for the creation of an iBank. In backing a U.S. iBank, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts testified last year that “a national infrastructure bank will make Americans builders again.”

If the iBank became reality — and really it’s a necessity to compete in a globalized economy — there’s no shortage of projects. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, more than $2 trillion is needed to fix U.S. bridges, dams, waterways and wastewater plants.

The sheer scale of a big fix is staggering: Some 69,000 bridges need to be repaired. The outdated electrical grid needs to be modernized everywhere. You can build solar plants and windmills all you want, but if you have no power lines to transport the electrons from the deserts and plains, you’re whistling in the wind.

Several spin-offs of an iBank have been floating around for years, and the idea already has support across the political spectrum. A “Clean Energy Bank” would fund solar energy equipment. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, supports legislation that would install 10 million roof solar panels. Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois proposed a “Lincoln Legacy” infrastructure bill.

How is the iBank different from just handing out the money to each Congressional district and letting the local representative decide where the money should go?

In Kerry’s vision, federal dollars would be matched with private dollars from pension funds and endowments. Kerry told the Time’s Joe Klein recently that “a $10 billion federal contribution will leverage about $640 billion in private investments.” Kerry claims he has support from business, labor and Republican Senators.

Instead of doling out pork-barrel funding for bridges to nowhere, an independent board would decide which projects are needed most. It’s the inverse of a military base closing commission. Instead of shutting down facilities, this entity would greenlight and finance the most-worthy projects.

One thing an iBank wouldn’t be is another big-check stimulus plan, which Congress passed in 2009. That nearly $800 billion package was a huge fiscal band-aid to help states, school districts and wage earners through the recession. Yes, there were some public works projects that created short-term jobs, but the bulk of the money went to tax relief and the states.

The U.S. needs a new approach to economic triage. The June jobs report was nothing short of dismal as employment growth hit a wall with only 18,000 new jobs coming on the market.

Crumbling infrastructure will cost the U.S. economy nearly 1 million jobs and shave $3.1 trillion from gross domestic product by 2020, the Society of Civil Engineers estimates.

What about the budget? Isn’t there a disconnect between the current passion for cutting the federal deficit and spending money to fix America?

There’s little question that putting people to work will help the economy. Working people pay income, sales and property taxes, which flow back into communities. The steadily employed buy homes, vehicles and appliances. Increased tax revenue in turn reduces the deficit.

The iBank may be able to accomplish what a decade of personal income and estate-tax cuts didn’t: Provide the necessary public-private capital to revive the economy. Not even Harry Potter can make magic work on the U.S. economy without some significant infrastructure investment.