Mutual Funds

Regular readers know I’ve been pretty pessimistic on the outlook of the US economy and bearish on the US dollar as well. However, since it seems like everyone is echoing the same sentiment, could it be that we’re due for a short (or medium) term spike in the US Dollar?

According to Lou Basenese, editor of the The Alpha Intelligence Alert, think it’s time to go long the USD.
Here are some of the reasons he cites:

1. Bernanke & Paulson Rediscover “Verbal Intervention.” Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke finally got off their duffs to defend the dollar. Paulson got things started in Qatar on Sunday. Speaking to the leaders of the Gulf oil states, he urged the countries to think twice about abandoning their dollar peg, as “ending the peg is not the solution to the inflation problem.” And Bernanke stepped up today. Speaking, via satellite, to an international monetary conference in Spain he insisted Fed policy will be a key factor, “ensuring that the dollar remains a strong, stable currency.” After such a long silence, this week’s tag team approach is nothing but a positive development.

2. The “Smart Money” is Cashing In. The smart money – Wall Street institutions – tends to be a great leading indicator. If you can figure out what they’re doing in time. Right now they’re sending a clear signal – take profits on your bearish dollar bets. Case in point, as the dollar met heavy selling on May 21, the smart money took almost $100 million in profits out of Currency Shares Euro Trust (NYSE: FXE). Enough to top the Wall Street Journal’s “Selling on Strength” screen. And this isn’t the first time the ETF recently made the list. All told, the increased selling activity indicates the smart money fears we may never see such high prices again.

3. George Soros Changed His Mind. Even the smartest investors are entitled to a mulligan. After bouncing roughly 3% off the March lows, in recent weeks, George Soros told the Wall Street Journal he is now “neutral” on the dollar. And expects it to strengthen over the next 12 to 18 months. Accordingly, he “greatly reduced his bets against the greenback.” Bottom line – we should pay attention when this hedge-fund phenom changes his mind. Here’s why, copied and pasted from my first article in defense of the dollar…

“A trader named Jean-Manuel Rozan once spent an entire afternoon arguing about the stock market with George Soros. Soros was vehemently bearish, and he had an elaborate theory to explain why, which turned out to be entirely wrong. The stock market boomed.”

“Two years later, Rozan ran into Soros at a tennis tournament. ‘Do you remember our conversation?’ Rozan asked. ‘I recall it very well,’ Soros replied. ‘I changed my mind, and made an absolute fortune.'”

My guess is he will make a fortune on this change of heart, too.

4. The Fed is Done. Okay. Maybe one more cut looms on the horizon. But after that, it’s time to get back to fighting inflation and hiking rates. Futures traders awoke to this same reality once revised GDP numbers were released May 29. They ratcheted up their bets that the Fed would raise rates in late October, putting the odds at 88%. Before the release, odds of an October hike stood at 70%. As I said last time, the Fed will hike again. Soon. And such moves will immediately strengthen the dollar.
5. Busted Rhymes and Tattered Clothing. The crickets are chirping among the rappers and super models. It’s been a long time since we’ve heard (even rumors) about the world’s fashionistas and rhyme-slingers extolling the virtues of the euro over the dollar. In other words, when pop-culture embraced the dollar hating, it signaled the inflection point. And it’s time for them to get caught on the wrong side of the trade for such foolish speculation.

6. The Retail Investor is (Blindly) Headed for the Slaughter. Sad as it may be, the retail investor tends to always show up late to the profit party. Right now they’re headed to the slaughter. The proof – the number and popularity of currency ETFs literally exploded in recent years. As one long-time advisor told an IndexUniverse.com reporter, “I’ve never seen this much interest in currency ETFs before…There’s just a pile of money coming into these funds now.” And that pile, according to my research, sits around $4 billion, despite most of the ETFs being less than two years old. This reminds me of my days back at Morgan Stanley. Whenever management decided to launch our own Small Cap Growth Fund for example, because the asset class was so “hot,” the asset class was too hot. It was time to recommend our clients take profits. And now that betting against the dollar is fashionable on Main Street, it’s time we head the other direction or risk getting burned like the rest of the performance chasers.

7. New President = Clean Slate. Whether Barrack “Haven’t-Been-to-Iraq-In-A-While” Obama or John “I-Have-Anger-Issues” McCain gets the nod, a new president will get a clean slate to establish their very own dollar policy. At least temporarily. And thanks to record crude prices, expect the new Commander-in-chief to move from the current administration’s weak lip service to more meaningful actions in support of the dollar.

8. We’re Still Not Decoupled. At least not from Europe. Doubts about euro-zone growth continue to pop up. The latest – a weaker than expected composite purchasing managers index reading, compiled by the Royal Bank of Scotland and NTC Economics. The measure from across the 15-nation euro-zone slumped to 51.1 in May, the worst in nearly five years. Bottom line – the European Central Bank is in a pinch. It can’t hike rates in the face of a slowdown. And it can’t cut rates with inflation running around 3.5%. In the end, the stalemate buys the dollar time to narrow the interest rate gap.

9. Institutions are Secretly Hedging their Bets. It’s not news that international stock funds significantly outperformed U.S.-focused funds over the last seven years. Or that the dollar decline aided their outperformance. However, few realize these very same funds are now protecting their portfolios against a dollar rally. Three of the top money managers in the business (Harris Associates, Dodge & Cox and Henderson Global Investors) are now hedging up to 55% of their currency exposure. A big jump, considering the international funds from Henderson and Dodge & Cox never hedged their exposure since opening in 2001.
And last but not Least…

10. The Dollar Decline is Getting Too Long in the Tooth. As I said before, “the cyclicality of the markets instructs us that the pendulum will eventually swing back the other way.” Combine that with Einstein’s theory of relativity and one thing is clear: Although the “real” value of our flat currency may never recover, its relative value certainly will. And with the worst of the financial crisis probably behind us, I stand by my conviction. The worst of the dollar weakness is behind us, too.

Consider this my second warning that the dollar will rise. And soon. That makes now perhaps the last opportunity to position your portfolios for maximum gain.

Good investing,

Lou Basenese

If you do feel like going long, Rydex Strengthening Dollar 2x Strategy (RYSBX) is a good way to enter this trade.

If the dollar does strengthen, there’s a good chance my commodity investments (includes gold and oil stocks) and foreign currency ETFs will decline. I might use RYSBX to hedge against the rising dollar.

According to Morningstar, here’s the top ten performing mutual funds of 2007

1. Direxion Commodity Bull  2X Inv (DXCLX) : 87.6%

2. Direxion Latin America Bull 2X Inv (DXZLX): 83.7%

3. CGM Focus (CGMFX):  79.9%

4. AIM China A (AACFX): 74.9%

5. Nationwide China Opportunities A (GOPAX): 74%

6. Matthews China (MCHFX): 70.1%

7. Profunds Ultra Emerging Markets (UUPIX): 70.1%

8. T. Rowe Price New Asia (PRASX): 66.4%

9. Guinness Atkinson China & Hong Kong (ICHKX): 65.1%

10. Matthews India (MINDX): 64.1%

Unfortunately I didn’t own any of them. Recently, I did jump in CGMFX though, and hopefully it’ll keep up its momentum. A large part of its returns came from shorting Countrywide CFC. I hope they exited the position. Today Bank of America (BAC) announced they would be acquiring CFC. The stock was 50%+ on the news!

Its that time of year, where you should be looking at your investment portfolio, assessing your performance, seeing what you did right or wrong and if any part of it needs to be rebalanced.

Its also a good time to assess your tax liability and see if you can (or should) be funding your Roth IRA for last year. Typically, if you’re in the highest tax bracket, you cannot invest in a Roth IRA. It also doesn’t make much sense, since when you retire you might be a lower tax bracket. But in any case, you should be investing in a regular IRA. Up to certain income levels you get a tax credit for these contributions, so its definitely worth more research. You can invest up to April 15th for last year’s contribution.

You might also want to take a look at your life insurance and see if it still meets your needs. You may have had a life event which requires you to modify it.

Since I’m expecting to go to business school in the Fall, I want an evenly balanced portfolio and preferable a no-load Mutual fund with low fees. Typically, you’d chose several funds to balance out your portfolio. I already have a few country-specific ETFs that I’ve short-listed, but I also want a little bit in a fund that’s a bit aggressive and willing to go short if conditions permit.

After some research, I think I’ve found a pretty decent fund which suits my investment mindset. Here’s a snippet from there July 2007 semi-annual report:

CGM Focus Fund held major long positions in the oil service, metals and mining and engineering industries at quarter end. The Fund’s three largest long holdings were Open Joint Stock Company ‘‘Vimpel-Communications’’ ADR, Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan, Inc. and Schlumberger Limited. The Fund was also approximately 8% invested in stocks sold short at June 30 (percentage of total net assets). The short positions were in financial services and regional banks. The three largest short positions were Countrywide Financial Corporation, Indymac Bancorp, Inc. and Fortress Investment Group LLC.

CGMFX returned a whopping 80% in 2007. Except my BHP Billiton, Anglo American and Petro-China shares, most of my portfolio didn’t come anywhere close to these returns. Don’t know if it’ll continue to produce these stellar returns, but so long as Ken Heebner is the fund manager I think it will.

I was reading this article from the New York Times by Tim Gray called “Three Strategies That Kept Sizzling:

Ken Heebner, manager of CGM Focus, achieved a double distinction with his fund. He placed among the top performers for the most recent quarter and the five-year period. For the quarter, CGM Focus, which invests mainly in large-capitalization domestic stocks, returned 30.3 percent, while for the five years ended Sept. 30, it returned 32.9 percent, annualized.

Mr. Heebner’s offering isn’t for the faint-hearted. He shovels shareholders’ money into relatively few stocks  23 in late September and rapidly zips in and out of investments. When I buy a stock I say, What factors would cause me to change my view? he said.  If I see them, I immediately sell. And if I see something I like better, I immediately sell. If there?s an emerging opportunity, I don’t want to miss it.

As a result, his portfolio has a higher-than-average annual turnover rate 333 percent, versus 90 percent for the average stock mutual fund, according to Morningstar. His returns also zigzag more than those of other funds in his Morningstar peer group.

Mr. Heebner sniffs out trends economic, social or demographic and then tries to find well-run companies poised to benefit from them. Lately, that has meant loading up on energy shares. On June 30, the most recent date for which data is available, he held the American depositary receipts of Petroleo Brasileiro, the giant Brazilian oil company, and Cnooc, one of China’s big producers, as well as shares in several oil services outfits. Energy stocks accounted for a third of his portfolio.

If you can live with that sort of volatility, you might get some terrific gains. Note, however in 2002, the Fund was down 28%. But for 2007 its up a whopping 60%!!!! Makes my 18% return seem extremely pathetic in comparison!

I was also looking at buying TAVFX which buys undervalued companies. But its returns have been less than mine and they require a $10,000 minimum to invest in. But its a lot less volatile, but with it comes a lower return.

I have a 401k from a previous employer. With only a dozen mutual funds to choose from, it doesn’t have very many investment choices. I’ve done the best I can from these choices and have selected 8 of them, with 75% of my 401k invested in just 3 funds. And I’ve managed to eke out a very respectable 17.4% for the first 3 quarters of the year.

On the flip side, my 401k with my current employer has about 3 dozen options. However, there’s less diversification amongst them than with the previous employer! It lacks a REIT fund (not that I’d invest in it, since I’m heavily invested in Real estate on my own), a health care fund, and a technology fund.

Instead, some moron set it up with 4 bond funds, 2 small-cap broad market funds, 2 small-mid cap value funds, 2 small-mid cap blend funds, 4 mid-large cap equity funds, 4 mid-large cap value funds, 3 international funds, and so on.

So despite the wide selection of funds, they’re less diverse than the 401k with only 12 options. Instead of choosing the fund with the least management fees, the lazy (or maybe inept?) administrator just included 3 or 4 similar funds so the participant can make his own decisions.

And despite having so many options, I only managed to make 14.05% in the current 401k for the same time period, which is basically a reflection of the broad market indices minus the management fees.

Sometimes fewer, more well-thought out options are better!