Musings of a 27-Year Stock Market Veteran

The overview of the U.S. Federal Reserve System (Fed) on its web site states that it was founded in 1913 with the mandate to provide a more stable monetary and financial system. Over the years, its role has expanded, and the Fed is now responsible for four general areas:

Formulating monetary policy in pursuit of maximum employment, stable prices, meaningful inflation, and moderate long-term rates

Supervising and regulating banking institutions

Maintaining the stability of the financial system and containing systemic risk in financial markets

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Providing financial services to depository institutions, including the U.S. government and foreign official institutions.

It has always been a tall order for the Fed to simultaneously achieve maximum employment, stable prices, and moderate interest rates. The unprecedented globalization of the world’s economies and financial markets has made the job ever more demanding with changes in the Fed’s policy having implications far beyond the U.S. borders.

Observing how closely financial markets scrutinize and wildly react to testimonies, releases of minutes from FOMC meetings, and speeches by the Fed’s governors, one gets the impression that the Fed’s primary function appears to be tipping off the market.

During March 2006 alone, the Fed Members gave 11 public speeches plus three testimonies to Congress, including the March 28, 2006 testimony by Ben Bernanke on the economic outlook. As if that in itself wasn’t more than enough to digest, the retired chairman, Alan Greenspan, has become a top-paid public speaker. Given that during his 19 years at the Fed’s helm, he steered the market through a number of crises to a gain of 600% — his comments still move the market. A good example was the market’s negative reaction to his February-end comment that the economy may slide into a recession by the end of 2007.

This never-ending and often conflicting jaw-boning by the Fed’s present and past officials make the over-extended market vulnerable to unpredictable short-term swings. Except for those dedicated full-time day-traders with quick keyboarding skills, public investors will achieve better returns by focusing on investment outlook measured in months and years rather than hours and days. Stock selection then becomes more crucial than market timing.

After 27 years of trying my hand at market timing, I know full well that the market will invariably, sooner or later, stomp even the brightest of practitioners of this precarious trade. In recent years, market analysts more than ever have been challenged by complex global financial developments that can trigger massive surges of money from one part of the world to another at the click of a mouse. The days when the U.S. economy and market were the overwhelming trendsetters for the rest of the world are regrettably becoming history.

I am not only nostalgic for those good old simple days, but it also concerns me that the market timing system I had relied on for almost a quarter century is 95% based on trading in U.S. stocks and bonds. Perhaps the time has come for me to retire my crystal ball designed in the days when Mao’s Red Book was a runaway bestseller in China and the word derivative had yet to enter the financial lexicon. So until such a time, I will just have to do the best with the U.S. market data I have at my disposal.

US Oil Fund (AMEX/USO, $53.35) The fund’s objective is to match the daily percentage change in the spot price of West Texas Intermediate light crude (WTI) delivered to Cushing, Oklahoma, less fund expenses. USO may also invest in futures contracts of other petroleum-based fuels. Since its IPO of April 10, 2006, USO closely matched the total return of the WTI benchmark, while also tracking the trend of the NYME futures.

The Iranian hostage crisis triggered an upside breakout in crude futures from the already formed technical head-and-shoulder bottom. The USO is likely to follow by breaking above $55. Considering the confrontational government in Iran, there is a real potential for crude to rise above the July 2006 high. This would present global stock markets with a wall of worry they may not be able to climb without eventually falling off.