Investors Cautious as Stock Market Continues Decline

Where is the market heading? photo by Rafael Matsunaga
Where is the market heading? photo by Rafael Matsunaga

During the week between January 8 and January 15 the stock market fell five sessions in a row, losing over 3 percent in its value. Whether that downturn is the much anticipated correction investors have been alert for, or it’s just a regular speed bump on the highway to more profits, is the question of the hour.

The last time the S&P shed 10 percent or more was over three years ago. Since December 29 that index has dropped by 5 percent up until last Thursday’s closing bell. What to make of these indicators is practically anyone’s guess at the moment. The downturn has made shares less pricey, with the price/earnings ratio of the S&P down to 16 on Friday. At the end of 2014 the P/E figure stood at 20.

American investors are also wary of the fall in commodities, not knowing if that collapse is telling them to buy or sell. Oil prices have also been tumbling, selling at under $50/barrel, a six-year low. The drop in gas prices as sparked a rise in consumer spending, creating a great mood for shoppers expressed in an 11-year high this month.

Other indicators, from the strength of the dollar to the price of copper, have left investors at a loss for interpreting the data. Some seem to believe it is just a bump on the road, and are buying some shares that look like bargains now.

“We’re in buying mode now, and are absolutely pleased to be able to pick up some stocks we’re excited about while investors are putting them on sale,” said Lamar Villere, a portfolio manager at Villere & Co, which has about $3 billion in assets under management.

Ed Keon, portfolio manager at Quantitative Management Associates, agrees with Villere.

“I believe it’s more likely to be noise than part of a broader correction,” said Ed Keon, a portfolio manager at Quantitative Management Associates, a Prudential Financial company, where he helps manage more than $60 billion.

US Severing Its Dependence on Oil, Domestic and Otherwise

Shepard's Flat Wind Farm, Oregon by Steve Wilson
Shepherd’s Flat Wind Farm, Oregon by Steve Wilson

According to data collected from several sources, the United States seems to be reducing its reliance not only on foreign sources for oil, but for oil all together.

A sign of the new abundance of oil which is reducing our dependence on foreign oil is the drastic decline in the price of oil since the middle of the year, falling to price which has not been seen in five years. In concert with this development is the increase in shale boom which has boosted US oil production to the most it has been in 30 years.

In spite of the ready availability of abundant, cheap oil, consumption has not gone up. Instead the US is consuming the smallest amount of oil per dollar of GDP in over forty years. Whereas the US GDP and oil consumption used to go up and down together, today they seem to move independently. The fact that they are not linked is a sign that the US is severing its dependence on oil to fuel the economy. How did that happen?

For one thing, cars are highly fuel efficient and getting better every day. As baby boomers retire, they use fuel less and less. Young people are moving into the cities where cars are used less and public transportation is used more. Renewable energy sources are becoming ever more important sources fuel.

With the increase in production and decrease in consumption, imports to the US of oil resources have declined. Today we purchase almost no oil from countries like Russia and Nigeria, and our dependence on OPEC oil has also been in decline. In addition, the US is exporting its own supplies of crude oil, skyrocketing in the middle of 2014.

Almost 90 percent of the energy consumed in 2014 was produced right at home, bringing the US closer to 100 percent energy independence.

Inger Loftheim Rood: Shopping Insurance Plans

Head-shot-of-Inger-Loftheim-RoodChoice is the buzzword these days in health insurance plans. Since there are so many from which to choose, companies such as Florida Blue, Allegiance Life and Health Insurance Company, Guardian Life Insurance Company of America and others, have to provide exceedingly attractive plans for their customers. Right now is a particularly important time to do this, since it is enrollment time.

One focus of Inger Loftheim Rood, VP and Chief of Staff for the Office of the CEO at Florida Blue, has been ensuring efficiency at the firm, in order to provide the best health plans to customers. Florida Blue today offers a wide array of affordable plans, to meet varying needs. As well, from November 15, the company is assisting with subsidy applications to the Health Insurance Marketplace.

For Montana citizens, Allegiance Life and Health Insurance Company also offers a variety of plans. These include: deductibles with limited, deductibles with co-pays, a high deductible health plan and more.

In addition, the US Health Insurance Guide is a useful review for customers shopping for health insurance plans, with break-ups for each individual state.

Margaret Keane Head of Synchrony Financial

Margaret Keane
Margaret Keane

One of only two women running independently traded US banks valued at over $10 billion, Margaret Keane, 55, knows what it feels like to be unique.

She explained why she follows sports news, even though sports are not a real interest of hers:

“A lot of times I’m the only woman in the room,” said Keane, who leads Synchrony Financial. “If the Yankees won last night, you should know because it’s going to come up. You need to be able to banter with your male colleagues — you can fight that or you can get in the middle.”

Keane has been climbing the corporate ladder for thirty years, learning to build relationships and the ins and outs of finance. Starting in the call center at Citicorp, she managed to make it to the rarefied atmosphere of top level management where women are conspicuously absent. Now she is faced with a new and exciting challenge. Her company, Synchrony, until recently, was a part of General Electric. As of last July, however it has spun off as its own financial lending institution, becoming the largest bank in the US that is run by a woman.

The other woman in this special club is Beth Mooney of KeyCorp. Even though women hold about half the job in financial services, when you examine the upper echelons of executive positions women are only represented 12.4 percent of the time.

“There’s an enormous responsibility that comes with being a diverse leader,” Keane said in an interview at the firm’s Stamford, Conn., headquarters. “My job is to figure out how to get more women in leadership across our industry.”

Hackers Wreaking Havoc on Financial Records

If there were 2 million bank robberies in just one day in the United States, it is likely that someone would sit up and take notice. According to the FBI, the equivalent of that number of bank robberies is taking place every day in cyberspace. In only the past half year computer hackers have made off with 2.4 million financial records, on average, every single day. According to USA Today 439 records were stolen and 500 million were compromised during the past year.

“We’re in a day when a person can commit about 15,000 bank robberies sitting in their basement,”

said Robert Anderson, executive assistant director of the FBI’s Criminal Cyber Response and Services Branch.

Some of the better known businesses that have been targets of cyber-thievery are Target, Home Depot and JP Morgan Chase. Tim Pawlenty, president of the Financial Services Roundtable and former Republican governor of Minnesota, said that around half of all adult Americans, or about 110 million people, have had their financial data compromised one way or another during the past year. The vast majority of businesses who have been hacked don’t even realize their accounts have fallen into the wrong hands until financial institutions or customers tell them, according to a study conducted by Verizon.

Barrett Wissman: A Modern Medici

Barrett Wissman
Barrett Wissman

One could make an excellent case for saying that what the Medici family did for art and architecture in the 16th century, Barrett Wissman is doing for refined music and fine arts in the 21st century. A successful Los Angeles, California-based entrepreneur and patron of the arts, Barrett Wissman began with an idea and turned it into a movement.

Wissman’s idea was to give a new meaning to performance arts by bringing prestigious music performances to out-of-the-way venues, in contrast to the well-worn art hubs like Milan, London or Edinburgh. From the early stages of Wissman’s project his vision was to create an arts festival. He began with a small performance in Tuscany in an 18th century abandoned opera house. Within a short time this acorn grew into the mighty oak of the now globally praised “Tuscan Sun Festival.”

It did not take long before other arts lovers sought Barret Wissman’s unique abilities to help them create their own arts festivals. For instance, in Northern California Wissman was called upon to help launch the “Napa Valley Festival del Sole.”

As Wissman himself put it,

“It’s a mission in my life to have more and more people enjoy and love the arts.”

As a philanthropist, financier, Principal and Co-Chairman of IMG Artists, a performing arts management company with offices in Los Angeles, California, New York, Paris and London, Barrett Wissman seems to fit the description of “Medici of the 21st century” quite well.

Ameriprise Boosts Staff Across USA

Ameriprise Financial Inc announced that it has hired five new advisors to different locales across the country.

During the past several weeks the asset manager and brokerage firm hired John Ledford from Commonwealth Financial Network; Steve Jacobson from James Financial; Kevin Barnes who left ProEquities; from Morgan Stanley Ron Camisasca; and Sandra Hudgins joining from Merrill Lynch.

Ledford will be going to Ameriprise’s Orando, Florida office. According to Ameriprise he will have $138 million in assets under management. Jacobson will have $124 million in AUM, based in the New Orleans branch office. Stationed in Bentonville, Arkansas with $148 million will be Kevin Barnes. In Clearwater, Florida Camisasca will manage $96 million in assets, while Hudgins will control $100 million from the Dallas, Texas branch.

Four of the managers were taken on as employees, and the fifth, namely Kevin Barnes was hired as and independent advisor.

Ironic Criticism of US Issued from Egypt

In what many are interpreting as a not-so-veiled insult, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry issued a statement urging the US to “exercise restraint” while dealing with violent protests in Ferguson, Missouri. The statement is not only insulting, but also ironic, as it echoes the language used by the US towards Egypt during its own crackdown on violent Islamic protests last year.

Observers are unsure why the Egyptians, who generally do not criticize one of their most important sponsors, would choose to make such a biting statement.

In the wake of the hard-line crackdown on protestors last year in which hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood members were gunned down by Egyptian forces, relations between the US and Egypt became strained. The protestors were demonstrating against the forced ouster by the Egyptian army of democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood member President Mohamed Mursi in July, 2013.

Western countries remain suspicious of Mursi’s replacement, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the army chief who ousted Mursi and then won the votes he needed to become president. Despite the US discomfort with al-Sisi they have continued to provide monetary and military support to the regime.

The statement released by Egypt came after protests denouncing the shooting of an unarmed black teen by a white policeman in Ferguson, Missouri became increasing violent and out of control. The statement made was uncomfortably close to a statement issued by the US in July 2013 in which the White House “urged security forces to exercise maximum restraint and caution” in dealing with protests by Mursi supporters. Egypt even added that the foreign ministry was “closely following the escalation of protests” in Ferguson.

Cruising to the Bahamas? Bimini Superfast, Royal Caribbean and Celebrity Offer Great Choices

Bimini Boats
Bahama-style fun in Bimini and Beyond

If you are considering a vacation cruise to the Bahamas, there are several excellent options to choose from.

If you only have one day, a good choice to consider is the Bimini Day Cruise on the Bimini Superfast cruise liner from Resorts World Bimini (RWBimini.) The Bimini cruise from Miami leaves every Friday through Sunday at 9AM, gets you there in record time, drops you off for a day of exploring, and then gets you back to Miami by 8PM. The Bimini Superfast is a luxuriously equipped cruise liner which is also the fastest cruise ship in America. So the fun begins as soon as you board the Bimini Superfast to the Bahamas, and does not end until you get back to port.

Also leaving from Miami and presented by the International Royal Caribbean company are four-night Bahama cruises. These holiday get-aways offer an enormous number of on-ship activities from ice skating, rock climbing to relaxing at the pool. Passengers sail to CocoCay and Nassau on day 2 and 3, where they disembark and explore the islands. Cruising on Majesty of the Seas, passengers can enjoy the luxurious on-board Day Spa & Fitness Center, refurbished staterooms, and a just recently remodeled pool deck adds to the enjoyment.

Departing from Fort Lauderdale, Florida are 3 and 4-night Bahamas Holiday Cruises on board the Celebrity Constellation. The cruise ship speeds to Key West, Florida, Nassau, Bahamas, and then back to its port of origin, Fort Lauderdale. Celebrity X Cruises specializes in high-end service, from greeting passengers by name, to having a dessert that a passenger mentioned and having it appear at dinner without asking. All suites have butler services, a luggage valet and the possibility of extended stay on board when the formal cruise has come to an end.

Treasury Calls for Financial Institutions and Congress to Boost Cybersecurity

Urging financial institutions and companies to do what is needed to protect consumers; US Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew spoke at the Institutional Investor’s 4th Annual Delivering Alpha Conference and CNBC. Lew said that US financial institutions must protect their customers against cybersecurity thefts, disruptions and attacks.  He said that our institutions of finance should utilize the Administration’s new cybersecurity framework not only with their own systems but also as a means to evaluate outside vendors.

“The consequences of cyber incidents are serious,” Secretary Lew said. “When credit card data is stolen, it disturbs lives and damages consumer confidence. When trade secrets are robbed, it undercuts America’s businesses and undermines U.S. competitiveness. And successful attacks on our financial system would compromise market confidence, jeopardize the integrity of data, and pose a threat to financial stability.”

While the new framework, which is called “Improving Critical Infrastructure and Cybersecurity” as 2013 Executive Order 13636, is being implemented, more needs to be done to improve our ability to fight cyber threats. Secretary Lew has been calling on Congress to pass all-encompassing laws which will improve the state of information sharing by making provisions for targeted liability protections while at the same time protecting privacy.

“As it stands, our laws do not do enough to foster information sharing and defend the public from digital threats. We need legislation with clear rules to encourage collaboration and provide important liability protection. It must be safe for companies to collaborate responsibly, without providing immunity for reckless, negligent or harmful behavior. And we need legislation that protects individual privacy and civil liberties, which are so essential to making the United States a free and open society. We appreciate the bipartisan interest in addressing this important issue, and the Administration will continue to work with key stakeholders on the various bills that are developing in Congress,” added Secretary Lew.