After Market: Stocks Circle in a Holding Pattern, Airlines Glide Lower

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Investors took a wait-and-see attitude Tuesday, but airline stocks lost altitude. The market is in a holding pattern until 2 p.m. Wednesday, when the Fed reveals details of this week's FOMC policy meetings, and whether it's ready to begin cutting back on its main economic stimulus program. If it does begin to taper, the next debate will begin immediately: Is that good or bad for investors?

On Wall Street today, the Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI) edged down 9 points, the Nasdaq composite (^IXIC) fell nearly 6, and the Standard & Poor's 500 index (^GPSC) lost 5 points.

The Dow's gainers were led by a pair of companies hiking their dividends. 3M (MMM), which makes everything from Post-It notes to medical equipment, rose 3 percent after increasing its payout by 35 percent. And Boeing (BA) rose 1 percent. It boosted the dividend by 50 percent and announced a big stock buyback.

The other big blue chip winner was Visa (V), which gained another 2.5 percent. Its stock is now up 43 percent from a year ago.

On the downside, Verizon (VZ), IBM (IBM), McDonald's (MCD) and Microsoft (MSFT) all lost about one percent. Microsoft says it will not name a new CEO until next year.

And airline stocks were broadly lower. United (UAL) and Delta (DAL) both fell 3 percent. American Airlines (AAL), which completed its merger with U.S. Airways last week, fell 2 percent. And Southwest (V) also lost 2 percent.

Brokerage recommendations gave a boost to several issues.

Data storage companies Seagate (STX), up 3 percent, and Western Digital (WDC), up 2.5 percent, following JP Morgan upgrades. And iRobot (IRBT) surged 17 percent after Raymond James gave it a 'strong buy.'

Shares of Facebook (FB) rose 2 percent, hitting an all-time high. The social media giant is rolling out new video ads this week. That's expected to boost revenue. The question is, will it alienate users?

On the downside, Targacept (TRGT) lost more than a third of its value. A clinical trial of its schizophrenia drug did not meet expectations, and the company is dropping development. And chicken producer Sanderson Farms (SFAM) lost 3.5 percent as earnings fell far short of expectations.

What to Watch Wednesday:
  • The Commerce Department releases housing starts for November at 8:30 a.m. Eastern time.
  • Federal Reserve policymakers release a statement on interest rates at 2 p.m.
  • The Senate Finance subcommittee holds a hearing on retirement security.
These major companies are due to report quarterly financial results:
  • FedEx (FDX)
  • General Mills (GIS)
  • Lennar (LEN)
  • Neiman Marcus
  • Paychex (PAYX)
  • Oracle (ORCL)
-Produced by Drew Trachtenberg.

If You Only Know 5 Things About Investing, Make It These
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After Market: Stocks Circle in a Holding Pattern, Airlines Glide Lower

Warren Buffett is a great investor, but what makes him rich is that he's been a great investor for two thirds of a century. Of his current $60 billion net worth, $59.7 billion was added after his 50th birthday, and $57 billion came after his 60th. If Buffett started saving in his 30s and retired in his 60s, you would have never heard of him. His secret is time.

Most people don't start saving in meaningful amounts until a decade or two before retirement, which severely limits the power of compounding. That's unfortunate, and there's no way to fix it retroactively. It's a good reminder of how important it is to teach young people to start saving as soon as possible.

Future market returns will equal the dividend yield + earnings growth +/- change in the earnings multiple (valuations). That's really all there is to it.

The dividend yield we know: It's currently 2%. A reasonable guess of future earnings growth is 5% a year. What about the change in earnings multiples? That's totally unknowable.

Earnings multiples reflect people's feelings about the future. And there's just no way to know what people are going to think about the future in the future. How could you?

If someone said, "I think most people will be in a 10% better mood in the year 2023," we'd call them delusional. When someone does the same thing by projecting 10-year market returns, we call them analysts.

Someone who bought a low-cost S&P 500 index fund in 2003 earned a 97% return by the end of 2012. That's great! And they didn't need to know a thing about portfolio management, technical analysis, or suffer through a single segment of "The Lighting Round."

Meanwhile, the average equity market neutral fancy-pants hedge fund lost 4.7% of its value over the same period, according to data from Dow Jones Credit Suisse Hedge Fund Indices. The average long-short equity hedge fund produced a 96% total return -- still short of an index fund.

Investing is not like a computer: Simple and basic can be more powerful than complex and cutting-edge. And it's not like golf: The spectators have a pretty good chance of humbling the pros.

Most investors understand that stocks produce superior long-term returns, but at the cost of higher volatility. Yet every time -- every single time -- there's even a hint of volatility, the same cry is heard from the investing public: "What is going on?!"

Nine times out of ten, the correct answer is the same: Nothing is going on. This is just what stocks do.

Since 1900 the S&P 500 (^GSPC) has returned about 6% per year, but the average difference between any year's highest close and lowest close is 23%. Remember this the next time someone tries to explain why the market is up or down by a few percentage points. They are basically trying to explain why summer came after spring.

Someone once asked J.P. Morgan what the market will do. "It will fluctuate," he allegedly said. Truer words have never been spoken.

The vast majority of financial products are sold by people whose only interest in your wealth is the amount of fees they can sucker you out of.

You need no experience, credentials, or even common sense to be a financial pundit. Sadly, the louder and more bombastic a pundit is, the more attention he'll receive, even though it makes him more likely to be wrong.

This is perhaps the most important theory in finance. Until it is understood you stand a high chance of being bamboozled and misled at every corner.

"Everything else is cream cheese."
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