How Do Derivatives Affect the Economy?

Derivatives protect people from a change in prices of an underlying asset. They began, generally speaking, as a hedge against changes in commodities prices. So, if you are a corn farmer and want to be able to plan on how much you will receive for your crop, you can agree on the price with a miller. The farmer is in a sense betting that the price will be higher or at least the same as the rest of the market at harvest time, and the miller is betting that the price will be lower or at least the same – and the miller is ensured of a supply of corn. The result is stability for both parties. The agreement is derived from the underlying asset of corn. That is the essence of a derivative.

Derivatives also hedge against price changes in other financial instruments and can become far more complicated or “exotic.” An institution can buy a credit default swap (CDS), for example. Institution No. 1 would pay institution No. 2 to ensure that the value of an asset does not fall under a certain level. If the value does drop, then No. 2 would pay No. 1. When the value of real estate plummeted in 2007 and 2008, many No. 1 institutions were banging on No. 2 institutions’ doors to get paid. This was one of the factors leading to the economic collapse, when the overall value of the CDS market dropped from $62.2 trillion at the end of 2007 to $38.6 trillion at the end of 2008, according to the International Swaps and Derivatives Association.

Another factor was collateralized debt obligations (CDOs). These are packages of debts such as bonds or mortgage-backed securities. The idea is to reduce risk by spreading it around. But some in finance, such as Warren Buffett, said that they instead spread risky investments to more institutions. So when the underlying, or derived, asset plummeted, the rug was pulled out from under everyone.

Although some, like Buffett, had sounded the alarm on derivatives, many people were surprised by the enormous impact the instruments had on the financial sector in the collapse of September 2008. Regulators were also surprised, because derivatives are often unregulated because they are essentially an agreement exchanged between parties but amount to a $400 trillion market traded over the counter (OTC).

Financial reformers want to shed more light on the market, but on April 21, a Senate committee went even further than that and approved tough standards that would force banks to get rid of their swaps trading operations. That rule might not make it to the final financial reform package, but it is certain that the eventual law will clamp down on derivatives in some way.

Posted on July 1, 2010 Read More

What is a Company’s “Cap”

The term means market capitalization – the market value of all of a company’s existing shares. It is basically a company’s shares multiplied by the current market price of one share. Investors gauge a company’s price by this rather than by sales or assets. It is also an effective way to see how the economic downturn of 2008 affected the financial world. The total market capitalization was as high as $57.5 trillion in May 2008, slid to $50 trillion in August and then went down to $40 trillion in September 2008, according to the World Federation of Exchanges.
There are no hard rules about the values of each designation. One gauge says small-caps are less than $2 billion in value, mid-caps are up to $10 billion and large-caps are more than $10 billion. Others say mid-caps start at $5 billion and small-caps start at $1 billion. And still others have added more categories: mega-caps, more than $200 billion; micro-caps, $50 million to $300 million; and nano-caps, below $50 million.
The size makes a difference in investor expectation. Small-cap stock values can grow or shrink quickly. The gain may be great, but so is the risk. These companies can grow into mid- and large-cap companies, taking investors along for the ride. But they also have less to fall back on when times are tough. They can drop in a hurry, again taking their investors with them.
Large-cap companies, which make up half of total market capitalization, tend to be steady in their performance. They are usually the companies that dominate their industry and are not likely to grow any more enormous by percentage, or to shrink, for that matter. These entities are often devoted to maintaining their position. So the investments are usually steady.
Mid-caps are considered a mix of small-cap and large-cap. They often have ambitions to grow into a large-cap, but that drive can also lead them to take risks. The companies are still substantial and are not likely to take ill-advised risks.
Investors should assess their risk tolerance before deciding to invest in stocks. Then they can determine which class of companies to put their money into. Many mutual funds specialize in different groups, so investors can take advantage of company size characteristics but spread the risk at the same time. The funds that track indexes such as the S&P 500 focus on large- or mega-cap companies, which offer stability and slower growth. They usually stumble only in significant downturns such as those after the 9/11 attack and the financial meltdown of 2008.



Posted on June 1, 2010 Read More

Is It Too Late to Invest in Gold?

For the past 10 years, gold has been surpassing expectations. It had dropped to $272 an ounce in 2000, and, at the time, few thought the price would rise dramatically. But over the past decade the price kept rising – breaking records – until it hit a high of $1,226 in December 2009. With each new record, many observers predicted that the price could not possibly go much higher and that the bubble would burst. As of this writing, the price has dropped to $1,092, with many analysts saying that the bubble has finally burst. But that has been said many times in the past decade, only to be followed by another rally.

Back in 2000, those who predicted higher gold prices were envisioning a worsening economy, which usually drives up the value of gold. It is the standard investment that many turn to for security in uncertain times.

Quite often the price performance is the inverse of the stock market’s, which does better in a stable environment. Some say now that the economy appears to be steadying, gold prices should stabilize or drop. In fact, many financial advisors caution against jumping into the precious metals market, fearing a plummet. Even some of those who previously encouraged precious metals investing are backing off these days.

“It was great to get in about three or four years ago, but now you have to be much more cautious,” Cary Carbonaro, a financial planner with Stonegate Wealth Management of Clermont, Fla., told the Orlando Sentinel. “It has had a huge run-up, but it is a cyclical thing.”

Even George Soros said, during the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this year, “The ultimate asset bubble is gold,” but then, according to reports, doubled his own investment in gold a month later. That could be because he foresees an increase in inflation, which also drives up the value of gold.

Those who want to jump on the golden bandwagon are advised to be cautious in taking that leap. Even the most enthusiastic advisors still say investors should put only a small percentage into precious metals – 5 to 10 percent of their total investment money at most. Also, most advise their clients to invest in a fund rather than buy the metal itself, mostly for security reasons. After all, what’s the use of an insecure investment meant to bring security in an insecure time?

Posted on May 1, 2010 Read More

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