MONEY ETFs

Hot Money Flows into Energy and Bonds

Dollar sign in flames
iStock

Sometimes it pays to follow the crowd. At other times, you'll get burned.

All too often, I see investors heading in the wrong direction en masse. They buy stocks at the top of the market or bonds when interest rates are heading up.

Occasionally, though, active investors may be heading in the right direction. A case in point has been the flow of money into certain exchange-traded funds in the first half of this year.

Reflecting most hot money trends, billions of dollars moved because of headlines. The Energy Select SPDR ENERGY SELECT SECTOR SPDR ETF XLE 0.1516% exchange-traded fund, which I discussed three weeks ago, gathered more than $3 billion in assets in the first half, when crude oil prices climbed and demand for hydrocarbons remained high.

The Energy SPDR, which charges 0.16% for annual management expenses and holds Exxon Mobil EXXONMOBIL CORP. XOM 0.3407% , Chevron CHEVRON CORP. CVX 0.6902% , and Schlumberger SCHLUMBERGER LTD. SLB 0.6052% , has climbed 22% in the past 12 months, with nearly one-third of that gain coming in the three months through July 18. Long-term, this may be a solid holding as developing countries such as China and India demand more oil.

“We think the Energy Select SPDR is a play of oil prices remaining high and supporting growth for integrated oil & gas and exploration and production companies,” analysts from S&P Capital IQ said in a recent MarketScope Advisor newsletter.

Headlines also favored European stocks as represented by the Vanguard FTSE Developed Markets ETF VANGUARD TAX MANAG FTSE DEVELOPED MKTS ETF VEA -0.4018% , which holds leading eurozone stocks such as Nestle, Novartis NOVARTIS AG NVS -0.259% , and Roche. The fund has been the top asset gatherer thus far this year, with $4 billion in new money, according to S&P Capital IQ.

As Europe continues to recover over the next few years and the European Central Bank keeps rates low, global investors will continue to benefit from this growing optimism.

The Vanguard fund has gained nearly 16% for the 12 months through July 18. It charges 0.09% in annual expenses and is a solid holding if you have little or no European exposure in your stock portfolio.

Rate Hikes

Not all hot money trends make sense, however. As the economy accelerates and interest-rate hikes look increasingly likely, investors are still piling money into bond funds, which lose money under those circumstances.

The iShares 7-10 Year Treasury Bond ETF ISHARES TRUST 7-10 YEAR TREASURY BD ETF IEF 0.0289% , which holds middle-maturity U.S. Treasury bonds, continued to rank in the top 10 funds in terms of new money in the first half. The fund, which holds nearly $5 billion, is up nearly 4% for the 12 months through July 18, compared with 4.2% for the Barclays U.S. Aggregate Total return index, a benchmark for U.S. Treasuries. The fund charges 0.15% in annual expenses.

While investors were able to squeeze a bit more out of bond returns in the first half of this year, they may be living on borrowed time.

The U.S. Federal Reserve confirmed recently that it would be ending purchases of U.S. Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities in October. This stimulus program, known as “QE2,” has kept interest rates artificially low as the economy has had a chance to recover.

The phasing out of QE2 could be bearish for bond funds.

Will interest rates climb to reflect growing demand for credit and possibly higher inflation down the road? How will the ending of the Fed’s cheap money program affect U.S. and emerging markets shares?

Many pundits believe public corporations may pull back from their enthusiastic stock buybacks and trigger a correction. Yet low inflation and modest employment gains may mute bond market fears.

“The Fed is on track to complete tapering in the fourth quarter, and we think there is essentially no chance that it will move the fed funds rate higher this year,” Bob Doll, chief equity strategist with Nuveen Investments in Chicago, said in a recent newsletter.

“With the 10-year Treasury ending the quarter at 2.5%, the yield portion of this forecast is more uncertain,” Doll added, “although we expect yields will end the year higher than where they began.”

While there could be any number of wild cards spoiling the party for stocks, it is wise to ignore short-term trends and prepare for the eventual climb in interest rates.

That means staying away from bond funds with long average maturities along with vehicles like preferred stocks and high-yield bonds that are highly sensitive to interest rates.

Longer-term, shares of companies in consumer discretionary, materials and information technology businesses likely to benefit from a global economic resurgence will probably be a good bet.

Just keep in mind that the hot money can be wrong, so build a long-haul diversified portfolio that protects against the downside of a torrid trend going from hot to cold.

MONEY 401(k)s

Stock Gains (and Saving) Push 401(k)s to Record Highs

Staying the course has rarely paid off so well as average retirement account balances soar.

The financial crisis is so yesterday. Retirement savings accounts have never been plumper, according to a new survey of 401(k) plans and IRAs at Fidelity Investments.

At mid-year, the average 401(k) balance stood at a record $91,000, up nearly 13% from a year ago. The average IRA balance stood at $92,600, also a record, and up nearly 15% from the previous year.

These figures include all employees in a plan, even those in their first year of saving. Looking just at long-time savers the picture brightens further. Workers who had been active in a workplace retirement plan for at least 10 years had a record average balance of $246,200—a figure that has grown at an average annual rate of 15% for a decade.

Over the past year, the resurgent stock market accounted for 77% of the higher average balance in 401(k) plans, Fidelity said. Ongoing employer and employee contributions accounted for 23% of the gain. The typical worker socks away $9,590 a year—$6,050 from her own contributions and $3,540 from an employer match.

Of course, the financial crisis still weighs on many Americans. Employment has been an ongoing weak spot and wage growth has been all but non-existent. Meanwhile, those in or nearing retirement may have fallen short of their goals after losing a decade of market growth at just the wrong point in their savings cycle. Many had to sell while prices were down.

But the Fidelity data reinforces the value of steady savings over a long period. By contributing through thick and thin, savers were able to offset much of the portfolio damage from the crisis. They not only held firm and enjoyed the market’s robust recovery but also were buying shares when prices were low. They earned a spectacular return on new money put into stocks the last five years. In calendar year 2013 alone, the S&P 500 plus dividends rose 32%.

Despite continuing contributions, savings balances did not rise as fast as the S&P 500 due to plan fees, cash-outs and broad plan exposure to lower-return investments like bonds and cash. Roughly a third of job switchers do not roll over their plan savings; they take the money, often incurring taxes and penalties. The average 401(k) investor has 33% in fixed-income securities.

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MONEY stocks

What the Financial Press Isn’t Telling Us About Google and Other Tech Companies

Google on iPhone 5
Iain Masterton—Alamy

The search engine's ongoing struggles in mobile highlight problems cropping up throughout the tech sector — yet you wouldn't know it by the reactions of investors and the media.

This was an awful week for tech, as many of the sector’s biggest names announced disappointing results that point to slowing growth and troubled strategies.

Yet you wouldn’t know it by how the markets — or the media — reacted this week.

Late Thursday, the search engine giant Google reported the amount of money that advertisers are willing to pay whenever someone clicks on an online ad continues to fall. So-called “average costs per click” for Google fell 6% in the quarter, compared with the same period a year earlier. This continues a trend that’s been going on for some time. In the first quarter, for example, costs per click sank 9%.

There are two explanations for why this is happening and neither is good news for Google. One is that online sites are increasingly being viewed through mobile devices such as smart phones and tablets, and mobile ad platforms are not paying the premium that traditional web ads have. The other reason is that Google is no longer the only game in town when it comes to online advertising, and Facebook’s recent efforts to boost its mobile presence are clearly succeeding.

Yet instead, most news accounts focused on the rosier parts of Google’s quarterly results, such as the fact that overall revenues grew 22%.

The same thing happened all week throughout the sector:

* eBay

On Wednesday, the online auction site reported sales that fell short of the Street’s expectations. In fact, on a quarterly basis, revenues have been flat for several quarters. Instead, headlines focused on profits meeting consensus forecasts.

* Yahoo

The portal, which is making a huge push to try to be a big player in online advertising, reported on Tuesday that display ad revenues declined. Yet instead, many publications focused on how Yahoo’s mobile efforts were improving or that the company was going to sell a smaller-than-expected stake in Alibaba, the giant Chinese online retailer and auction site that is expected to go public later this summer.

* Intel

Intel shares hit a decade-high after releasing earnings results on Tuesday that showed better-than-expected PC sales expectations and overall revenue growth. As Reuters reported, chief financial officer Stacy Smith said “PC sales had stabilized, easing fears about the four-year decline in computer sales as consumers turn increasingly to tablets and smartphones.”

Great. That means the dying part of the industry is dying a little less rapidly than was previously thought. Meanwhile, investors glossed over the fact that revenues for the mobile and communications chip group sales were down 67% compared with the prior quarter and off 83% versus last year.

* Microsoft

The company announced the biggest layoffs in its history on Thursday, cutting its workforce by 18,000 — many of those coming from its recently acquired Nokia division. As MONEY’s Ian Salisbury reported, the historic cuts show how far this once-dominant tech company has fallen as it struggles to find its place in the sector. Yet many sites looked at the situation as glass-half-full, noting how the stock was rising on news that Microsoft was retrenching.

Of course, that’s what happens when investors fall in love with a particular group of stocks that have collectively posted a better-than-expected run. They start viewing those shares through rose-colored glasses.

MONEY Markets

Markets React to Malaysian Jet Crash and Gaza Invasion

A part of the wreckage of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane
A part of the wreckage of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane is seen after it crashed near the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region, July 17, 2014. Maxim Zmeyev—Reuters

Investors sold off stocks in response to news that a Malaysian Airlines jet had crashed in eastern Ukraine today, reportedly killing 295 people. Ukrainian government officials said the plane may have been shot down; pro-Russian separatist fighters in the region denied responsibility. Then late in the trading day came reports that Israeli forces had begun a ground invasion of Gaza.

The S&P 500 index of large cap stocks fell more than 1% for the day. The Dow Jones Insutrial Average also declined, closing at 16,977, back below the 17,000 milestone it first crossed earlier this month.

ycharts_chart(2)

Investors in general moved away from risky to safer assets. The 10-year Treasury bond yield fell below 2.5%, down from 2.55% yesterday. A fall in bond yields means a rise in price, and reflects investors being willing to accept a low return in exchange for the safety of U.S. government-backed securities.

MONEY stocks

Stock-Pickers Can’t Keep Up With the Aging Bull Market

Running of the bulls
Simon Greenwood—Getty Images/Lonely Planet Image

The big companies favored by mutual fund managers have substantially underperformed the S&P 500 index this year.

Even fund managers’ best ideas are not working out this year.

In one sign of the poor performance of stock picking by fund managers as the U.S. stock market continues to rally, the largest overweight positions by large-cap fund managers substantially underperformed the broad Standard & Poor’s index over the first half of the year, according to a Goldman Sachs research report.

Those stocks which were the most shunned, meanwhile, posted above-average returns.

Visa, the most overweight position among the 485 large-cap funds included in the Goldman Sachs study, is down 0.4% for the year, while Exxon Mobil, the most underweight, is up 1.1% over the same period.

Overall, well-loved stocks gained 6% on average for the year through June, while the S&P 500 gained 8% over the same time. The most underweight stocks, by comparison, rallied by an average of 10 percent, according to the report.

The underperformance of active fund managers comes at a time when stock pickers were expected to prosper. The aging bull market, which began in 2009, and falling stock market correlations after last year’s big rally were supposed to make 2014 a time when fund managers would be rewarded for picking companies based on their fundamentals.

Yet poor stock selection is one reason why just one in five actively managed large-cap stock funds are beating the S&P 500 for the year so far. Typically, about 40% of managers best the S&P 500 over the same period, said Todd Rosenbluth, director of fund research at S&P CapitalIQ.

“What funds need to do to outperform is find unloved stocks and get in front of it. If they hold the same stocks that other managers are overweighting, then it’s more likely that they are just going to tread water,” Rosenbluth said.

Underweight stocks’ performance this year seems to bear that out. Shares of Goodyear Tire & Rubber, the company with the largest underweighting among consumer discretionary stocks, is up nearly 16% for the year to date, while shares of Essex Property Trust, the most underweight financial company, have rallied 32%.

Other companies with significant underweighting include Apple, PepsiCo, and Ventas, according to the Goldman report.

The lack of a significant market pullback could be another reason for the underperformance, Rosenbluth added. The S&P 500 has not had a pullback of 10%, known as a correction, in three years. That has made it hard for managers who sold during last year’s 30% rally in the S&P 500 to find places to invest their cash, he said.

“Some managers were prudent and sold during the rally, and now they are left wondering what to do,” he said.

MONEY The Economy

A Key Fed Official Says the Job Market is Just Fine. But is He Right?

Richard Fisher, president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas
Richard Fisher, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. Jose Luis Magana—Reuters/Corbis

With a little help from Jonathan Swift, Shakespeare, and World War II, Dallas Fed President Richard Fisher makes the case for why interest rates need to rise soon.

In between references to Shakespeare, beer goggles and Wild Turkey, Dallas Federal Reserve Bank President Richard Fisher— a member of the Federal Open Market Committee that sets the nation’s interest-rate policy— expressed concern Wednesday about the risks caused by the Fed’s ongoing stimulative policies.

Thanks to a dramatically improving jobs picture, according to Fisher, the Fed should not only cut off its bond-purchasing program (known as “QE3″) by October, but the central bank should also shrink its portfolio of assets and begin raising interest rates early next year or sooner.

Whether or not the economy can withstand monetary tightening — fewer jobs means fewer people able to buy stuff — is open for debate. The real question, though, is if the jobs picture is really that strong?

First some context.

In his colorful speech, Fisher, one of the Fed’s leading “inflation hawks,” reiterated his belief that the Fed’s rapidly escalating balance sheet (now at approximately $4.4 trillion) in combination with a near-zero federal funds rate has led to investors having “beer goggles.” (As Fisher explains it, “this phenomenon occurs when alcohol renders alluring what might otherwise appear less clever or attractive.”) This is what he says is happening with stocks and bonds, which are both relatively expensive.

To make his point Fischer quoted Shakespeare’s Portia in Merchant of Venice: “O love be moderate, allay thy ecstasy. In measure rain thy joy. Scant this excess. I feel too much thy blessing. Make it less. For fear I surfeit.”

Portia’s adjectives (joy, ecstasy and excess) describe “the current status of the credit, equity and other trading markets that have felt the blessing of near-zero cost of funds and the abundant rain of money made possible by the Fed and other central banks that have followed in our footsteps,” Fisher said.

Of course, the Federal Reserve hasn’t bought trillions of dollars of debt, and cut the main interest rate to nothing, for no reason. There was something called, you know, the Great Recession — the once-in-a-lifetime cataclysmic economic event from which the country is still recovering.

But, said Fisher, things are improving, especially in the labor market. Not only did businesses add almost 300,000 employees last month, but there are more job openings, workers are quitting more often and wages are rising. Is he right?

Let’s check out some graphs:

Job openings:

ycharts_chart-1

Fisher is right that job openings “are trending sharply higher.” This time last year, there were a little less than 3.9 million job openings. Right now there are more than 4.6 million – an 18% increase.

“Quits”:

quits

The healthier an economy, the higher the number of employees who quit their job to either find another or start a new business. Therefore a higher so-called quits rate, means a healthier labor market.

Like job openings, the number of quits has been rising since bottoming out during the recession. The major difference though is that the number of job openings has almost reached pre-recession levels, while quits has not.

Wages:

wage growth
BLS

Fisher admits that wages aren’t growing “dramatically.” Nevertheless, he cites the Current Population Survey and the most recent National Federation of Independent Business survey to show that wages are on the rise.

However, wage data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that Americans in the private sector are earning $24.45 an hour, only up 1.9% from last year.

But these three metrics aren’t the only metrics to gauge the health of the labor market.

Long-Term Unemployed:

l-t unemployment
BLS

Before the recession, about 1.3 million workers were without a job for longer than 27 weeks. Today, that number is slightly more than 3 million. While that’s significantly better than the post-recession high of 6.8 million in August 2010, there are still a lot of workers who’ve been without a job for a long time.

“Long-term unemployment is still a significant source of slack in the economy and is accounting for a historically large share of the total unemployment rate,” says Wells Fargo Securities economist Sarah House.

Broader unemployment:

l-t2
BLS

And while the unemployment rate may signify the economy is moving closer to full employment, the picture is less sanguine if you look at a broader unemployment rate that takes into account the underemployed (part-time workers who want to work full-time) and discouraged workers. Before the recession that number hovered a little over 8%. It’s now 12.1%. And while it’s trending down, it’s not coming down fast enough. At least according to recent testimony by Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen.

Conventional wisdom says inflation will come when wages really start to rise. Some, like Fisher, think we’re getting really close to that point. But if you take into account wage data from the BLS and look at the millions of Americans who aren’t working to their full capacity, it’s not hard to see how tightening monetary policy might make life harder on lots of workers.

MONEY stocks

WATCH: What’s the Point of Investing?

In this installment of Tips from the Pros, financial advisers explain why you need to invest at all.

MONEY stocks

WATCH: The Problem With Investing in Penny Stocks Like CYNK

MONEY's Pat Regnier explains what's behind the phenomenon of the stock that rose 25,000% in days, and why you should beware.

+ READ ARTICLE
TIME stocks

Why a Portuguese Bank’s Problem Is Costing You Money

Explaining the Banco Espirito Santo SA problem

You don’t have money deposited at Banco Espirito Santo SA. You probably don’t own its bonds, or its stock. Or stock in Espírito Santo Financial Group SA, which apparently controls the bank or in Espirito Santo International SA, the Luxembourg holding company that issued the now-faltering commercial paper that is at the center of all this. You probably have never even heard of Banco Espirito Santo, which has been described as one of Portugal’s leading financial institutions, which would be significant if Portugal’s economy was significant. But that nation’s GDP of $220 billion makes it bit player in the European zone. Even Greece is bigger.

Still, troubles at Banco Espirito Santo have spread to other segments of the European banking system and then reverberated across the pond to Wall Street, sending the Dow down 180 points in Thursday morning trading. So even if you owned the bluest of blue chip stock with no exposure to European banking, you still lost money.

How does that work? It’s just another reminder that everything financial in the world is connected in one way or the other. So a seemingly containable problem in a Portuguese bank can quickly find a way into your pocketbook. “The event has hit European financials like a torpedo and has revived investors’ darkest nightmares about Europe,” the Financial Times quoted one equity strategist as saying.

The issue for investors is to decide whether this is a one-off problem or a hint of bigger troubles in Europe, whose economic recovery has lagged that of the U.S. While some are looking for other evidence, others aren’t waiting to find out. They headed for the exits, pushing gold higher and the yield on ultra-secure German bonds lower. Portugal’s stock market took a hit as Banco Espirito Santo’s shares tumbled 17%. Shares of Spanish and Italian banks fell sharply, too. Spain and Italy are bigger economies than Portugal but they’ve had similar problems. So bond yields on Italian and Spanish debt rose and Greece, not surprisingly, finds the market for its own bonds shrinking.

And if a trader for an institution held a long position on Spanish and Italian debt, say, he might forced to sell some other assets to cover that position. Those other assets might be U.S. stocks.

It’s a Portuguese problem, but it’s now your loss too.

MONEY Portfolios

For $50 You Can Push For More Female CEOs — But Is It a Good Investment?

Indra Nooyi, chairman and chief executive officer of PepsiCo.
Indra Nooyi, chairman and chief executive officer of PepsiCo. Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images

Two new products let you invest in companies led by female executives. Whether this is a good idea depends on what you hope to achieve.

On Thursday, Barclays is launching a new index and exchange-traded note (WIL) that lets retail investors buy shares — at $50 a pop — of a basket of large U.S. companies led by women, including PepsiCoPEPSICO INC. PEP -0.1998% , IBMINTERNATIONAL BUSINESS MACHINES CORP. IBM -0.8571% , and XeroxXEROX CORP. XRX -0.1541% . This should be exciting news for anyone disappointed by the lack of women in top corporate roles.

After all, female CEOs still make up less than 5% of Fortune 500 chiefs and less than 17% of board members — despite earning 44% of master’s degrees in business and management.

The new ETN is not the only tool of its kind: This past June, former Bank of America executive Sallie Krawcheck opened an index fund tracking global companies with female leadership — and online brokerage Motif Investing currently offers a custom portfolio of shares in women-led companies.

The big question is whether this type of socially-conscious investing is valuable — either to investors or to the goal of increasing female corporate leadership. Is it wise to let your conscience dictate how you manage your savings? And assuming you care about gender representation in the corporate world, is there any evidence that these investments will actually lead to more diversity?

Here’s what experts and research suggest:

Getting better-than-average returns shouldn’t be your motivation. Beyond the promise of effecting social change, the Barclays and Pax indexes are marketed with the suggestion that woman-led companies tend to do better than peers. It’s true that some evidence shows businesses can benefit from female leadership, with correlations between more women in top positions and higher returns on equity, lower volatility, and market-beating returns.

But correlation isn’t causation, and other research suggests that when businesses appoint female leadership, it may be a sign that crisis is brewing — the so-called “glass cliff.” Yet another study finds that limiting your investments to socially-responsible companies comes with costs.

Taken together, the pros and cons of conscience-based investing seem generally to cancel each other out. “Our research shows socially responsible investments do no better or worse than the broader stock market,” says Morningstar fund analyst Robert Goldsborough. “Over time the ups and downs tend to even out.”

As always, fees should be a consideration. Even if the underlying companies in a fund are good investments, high fees can eat away at your returns. Krawcheck’s Pax Ellevate Global Women’s fund charges 0.99% — far more than the 0.30% fee for the Vanguard Total World Stock Index (VTWSX). Investing only in U.S. companies, the new Barclays ETN is cheaper, with 0.45% in expenses, though the comparable Vanguard S&P 500 ETF (VOO) charges only 0.05% — a difference that can add up over time:

image-29
Note: Projections based on current expenses and a $10,000 investment.

If supporting women is very important to you, you might consider investing in a broad, cheap index and using the money you saved on fees to invest directly in the best female-led companies — or you could simply donate to a non-profit supporting women’s causes.

If you still love this idea, that’s okay — just limit your exposure. There is an argument that supporting female leadership through investments could be more powerful than making a donation to a non-profit. The hope is that if enough investor cash flows to businesses led by women, “companies will take notice” and make more efforts to advance women in top positions, says Sue Meirs, Barclays COO for Equity and Funds Structured Markets Sales in the Americas. If investing in one of these indexes feels like the best way to support top-down gender diversity — and worth the cost — you could do worse than these industry-diversified offerings. “Investing as a social statement can be a fine thing,” says financial planner Sheryl Garrett, “though you don’t want to put all of your money toward a token investment.” Garrett suggests limiting your exposure to 10% of your overall portfolio.

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