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The Experts

Michael McCarthy
+ About Michael McCarthy
Michael McCarthy is chief market strategist for CMC Markets in Australia. He has over 30 years of experience in financial markets – specialising in equity trading and trader education.

Investor alert: Heightened downside risk

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

By Michael McCarthy

The days ahead are packed with news investors ignore at their own risk. PMIs in China and Europe. Inflation readings in Japan and Australia. Durable goods and other national accounts data in the US. Additionally in the US, there is an FOMC meeting, an interest rate decision and the busiest week of the company reporting season so far.

Many shifts in market thinking are possible this week.

The volatility of many markets is higher, apparently in recognition of these potentially game-changing events. Unfortunately for Australian investors, this increase in market action comes as the share market index trades near the lows of the range.

Those who favour the view that markets are organic in nature are often drawn to the price action. The actual moves of a currency, a share or an index are read as primary evidence – an expression of the collective will of all participants. The current price, relative to its history, contains information about market conditions and possible future moves. That’s why this chart is unsettling.

After peaking in May, the index is down more than 5%. In the last two weeks, it has tested important chart support around 5,660, making a lower low each time. Many chartists interpret this behaviour as a sign of overall market weakness. The bounce yesterday, and positive overnight leads, suggests the market is moving away from the danger zone. However, any sudden shocks could see this important level breached.

Investors chose to buy at the same index level as before, causing a bounce. A move higher from here would suggest a test of at least 5,825, and possibly 6,000.

However, a fall through this support, and a daily and/or weekly close below 5,660, could bring sellers out of the woodwork. The technical picture may deteriorate swiftly considering the events of this week. The good news is that there is a lot of previous action between current market levels and 5,000. A support level at 5,400 coincides nicely with the 61.8% retracement of the rally from November to April, and may prove a turning point if the market does sell down.

At the bottom of the chart is a Relative Strength Index (RSI) indicator. The fall through 50% is also a negative development. Further, the RSI is nowhere near oversold territory (below 20%), suggesting little to slow momentum should the support level break.

The “right” response is dependent on investors’ individual circumstances. Ideally, when the Australia 200 index was closer to 6,000, investors sold stock, bought put options or rotated into more capital stable or undervalued stocks. Investors who acted at that point may now watch and see (ready to pounce on pre-selected stocks), take profits on put options should the market bounce, or ride their reduced exposures to lower levels for such an opportunity.

It’s never too late to act. If the index signals lower levels by closing below 5,660, a quick response is available using what are known in wholesale financial markets as equity swaps. Individual investors know them as CFDs. CFDs (Contracts for Differences) are a “plain vanilla” derivative, as they change in value at a constant rate with the underlying market.

It’s important that any investor considering CFDs understands the power of leverage. While allowing investors to secure significant hedging positions with a small amount of capital, leverage can magnify potential losses, as well as potential gains. Nevertheless, for those willing to make the effort to understand these powerful investment tools, there is an opportunity to quickly and efficiently hedge a market portfolio with a single index CFD transaction.

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Profiting from a holding pattern

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

By Michael McCarthy

Just over a year ago, on 16 June 2016, I wrote an article for Switzer Daily titled Investors need to stick with a strategy. Here's a recap:

  • The global investment outlook remains difficult. The numbers are mildly positive, but there are significant risks.
  • The global outlook is further clouded by the conflicting actions of central banks. While the US Fed tightens, banks such as the European Central Bank (ECB) and the Bank of Japan (BoJ) continue to man the pumps. These cross flows add to market volatility and uncertainty.
  • The outlook for the Australian economy remains modestly positive, despite a number of local distractions such as the Federal election campaign. Sentiment swings are the likely major driver of market moves in this scenario.
  • The share market performance overall could remain sideways, with the Australia 200 index respecting a range between 4800 and 5400.
  • This means “buy and hold” strategies are unlikely to deliver the best returns. Instead, rewards in the current environment may go to active investors – those willing to take advantage of market swings.

Today, I would update the first two points, and change the range for the Australia 200 index to 5,400 to 6,000. And that’s the problem in writing investment strategy. Sometimes conditions evolve over time, meaning that the “right” strategy remains the same. Here’s how the index traded over the past year:

The modest upward bias saw a 9% capital gain for an index portfolio, plus any dividends (around 5% with franking). A 14% return when cash rates are at 1.5% is respectable. However, many investors will report returns lower than the benchmark. Overweight cash positions are one contributor to weaker returns. However, there are a couple of strategy points that could have improved performance for many investors:

  • Sentiment swings are the likely major driver of market moves in this scenario.
  • Rewards in the current environment may go to active investors – those willing to take advantage of market swings.

As the chart shows, the main index has traded sideways for most of 2017. With a couple of breaks, it has largely respected a very narrow range between 5670 and 5825. 

Naturally, these market conditions will not last forever. At some stage, there will be a move away from the current range. The likely trigger is a change in the macro economics. A burst of inflation or wages growth could see shares break upward. A dramatic sell off in bonds is another potential positive driver. On the down side, possible market disruptors include disappointing growth numbers in China or the US, or political dysfunction in Europe or the US.

Barring a macro event, the range trading is likely to persist. This demands a strategic response from investors who have not already adapted.

The recent experience in retail stocks illustrates a source of potential opportunity. The whole sector was marked down on the “Amazon effect”. This was NOT due to any change in current earnings or any evidence at the company level of any negative impact. In other words, the sector was marked down on sentiment alone.

Aware investors may have snapped up JB Hi-Fi at levels close to the $21.20 low just six weeks ago. It’s now trading close to $25.00. Similarly, Harvey Norman traded down to $3.59, and is now closer to $4.00. Gains of 10-20% in just two months can significantly improve overall returns.

The good news is that the market may see more sentiment induced swings as Australian companies head into the full financial year reporting season. The news flow begins in the first week of August. Now is the time to identify good investment AND profit taking opportunities and create a watch-list. Any sentiment-induced swings in the lead up to a company’s earnings announcement could be an opportunity, albeit at higher risk ahead of the event.

Two sectors are high on my list due to recent moves. The real estate investment trust index is down around 12% in a month. This is an unusually large fall for a sector considered capital stable. Despite concerns about higher interest rates hurting valuations, bond markets have rallied back strongly over the last week. And the REIT sector is yet to react.

The other sector on the radar is Healthcare. The fall in the sector index in the last month is around 8%. While not as dramatic as property, this swing largely on fears of change in the US healthcare landscape could be a chance to buy into a sector that in recent history has traded at lofty multiples.

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Fairfax (FXJ) and the damage done

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

By Michael McCarthy

Long-suffering Fairfax Media (FXJ) shareholders took another hit on Monday following the withdrawal of a highly-conditional takeover bid from private equity group TPG. The shares slumped by more than 17% during trading, although they recovered to finish down around 11%. This means FXJ shares are now lower than before the TPG led consortium first launched an offer for all of FXJ.

FXJ shareholders who did not take advantage of elevated trading may now kick themselves.

Given all the conditions attached to the bid and the resultant damage when the bid was pulled it is appropriate to ask if the private equity groups should have ever received access to FXJ’s data room. The problem for shareholders is that a professional investor group have accessed all the latest information about FXJ and declined to launch a full bid. This judgement will hang over the stock, and could severely limit upside potential.

Typically the bid, that gives access to a target’s internal numbers, is highly conditional. Some of the “outs” often included go well beyond a standard “material change in conditions”. They can include a recommendation from the target board in favour of the takeover proposal, a requirement that appropriate financing is available, and that all regulatory hurdles are cleared.

Pre-GFC, these risks stayed with the bidder. In the capital-starved post GFC period, the few bidders pushed the conditional takeover bid to extremes. Given the damage done to FXJ’s share price, boards in the future may start refusing highly conditional takeover “bids”.

A number of traders pointed out that a vehicle holding Seek, RSVP, Carsales, Domain and TradeMe would be an attractive addition to the local investment landscape, especially in light of a small Australian listed IT sector. All of these businesses were once FXJ owned. The announcement that FXJ will now proceed with a Domain spin-off suggests that FXJ strategy is unchanged despite new names on the doors.

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Diversification across sectors is key

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

By Michael McCarthy

Financial year end approaches rapidly. Despite the ongoing headlines of doom the Australian share market advanced pleasingly over 2016/17. An investor holding an index portfolio is up around 9% in capital terms, and has collected another 5.5% in dividends and franking credits. An annual return of 14.5% is credible in any environment let alone the current low growth and low interest rate environment.

Investors who achieved 14.5% or better on their share portfolios are likely pleased. However it’s frustrating to work hard on investing - reading the reports, examining the recommendations and implementing the strategy – only to receive lower returns than the “market portfolio”. One possible contributor to underperformance is the composition of the index itself.

Local investors face a particular challenge. The sectors of the Australian share market vary significantly in size. The financial sector is large and represents around 37% of the total value of the Australia 200 index. On the other hand, the Information Technology sector is much smaller, coming in at around 1%. This means Australian investors whose portfolios are broadly in line with the index, or who have passive share investments like index ETFs, are overweight financials and underweight IT in global terms.

This graph shows the sector weightings for the Australia 200 index alongside major global indices. 

Note how financials and materials stocks comprise half of the value of the ASX 200. The only other index with this large a sectoral skew is Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index. Comparing the Australian index to Germany’s DAX and the US S&P 500 and Nasdaq indices, there is an argument that it is severely underweight IT stocks, and underweight consumer related and healthcare stocks.

These sector skews are not necessarily a bad thing. Investors who want to overweight banks and miners may find an index investment alone is a good choice. However those holding substantial portfolio or fund index exposures not seeking this balance of sectors need to act.

What can investors do?

The central issue is the need to diversify across sectors. The best way to diversify depends very much on an individual investors existing holdings, so the right choice is specific to each situation. Nonetheless there are many suitable tools available to Australian investors.

Local choices

A simple response for those with existing portfolios is to re-weight across the sectors, going overweight under-represented sectors and underweight in financials and materials. The problem with this approach is the lack of enough suitable choices in the smaller sectors.

 Another possible approach is to invest a portion of capital in an actively managed fund. The style of the fund should diverge from the index. Suitable candidates include absolute return and value investor offerings. On a similar theme, ETF’s that offer sector, industry, commodity or geographic exposures could suit.

Direct investment in international share markets is an increasingly popular choice. Leveraged traders have dealt in CFDs over global giants such as Apple, Amazon, Barclays and Volkswagen for many years. Experienced investors who study the potential risks and benefits of these instruments also use them to shape the exposures of their portfolio.

Direct investment in international shares is also on the increase now that trading costs are more reasonable and service offerings are improving, admittedly from low levels. There are challenges here as well, particularly as Australian investors are used to registry or individual registration of shares, whereas many international markets operate with share custodians. Just like any other field of endeavour, investment markets reward hard work.

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Milk bubbles?

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

By Michael McCarthy

The “b” word is thrown around a lot. China credit? Bubble. US S&P 500? Bubble. Australian housing market? Bubble.

We are now at the point where any solid rise is labelled a bubble. Yet, the characteristics of a bubble are well studied, and most of the markets so labelled do not display them.

Key characteristics of bubbles include a suspension of disbelief. Alert investors listen up for newer versions of “it’s different this time” as a sign a market could be about to pop.

The second characteristic is identified on a chart: a strong and sustained price rise that steepens exponentially.

A2 Milk (A2M) added to its lustre with yet another profit upgrade last week. The New Zealand-based dairy producer pushed revenue estimates up and advised it will invest some of the additional income in marketing, although less than previously advised this year. 

Naturally, the shares rose. However, the way they rose is a problem. 

The daily chart shows the price rises are getting steeper. The most recent buying has pushed the gains to almost vertical. Those who believe the share price action is primary evidence could be very concerned by this action. This looks very much like a “blow off” phase that precedes a bubble bursting. 

So far, I haven’t detected any “it’s different this time” arguments around a2M. Another possible, but in my view less likely explanation for this dramatic and explosive stock move, is that it is step-changing to new, higher valuations.

However, the instability implied by the gapping higher may see prudent investors locking in at least some of the recent gains.

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JB Low-Fi?

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

By Michael McCarthy

Standing on your desk and shouting “Amazon is coming!” is not stock analysis. Yet, some investors appear to take this approach to their investments. The big sell-down in retail stocks in anticipation of the entry of stiffer competition is indiscriminate. It’s reasonable for investors to wonder if any babies have been thrown out with the bath water.

In my view, the answer is an emphatic yes. There are retailers in Australia with strong earnings records and a history of responding well to evolving retail environments.

Although I put Harvey Norman in this category, today I’d like to focus on the numbers that give confidence JB Hi-Fi has hit an attractive share price level.

1) The PE ratio

PE ratios are much abused. They are easily misused, and in some sectors such as resources, have little application. However, in retail they are a useful ready reckoner on the value in a stock. This chart shows JB Hi-Fi's PE ratio against its share price. When JBH hit its all-time high in February this year, the PE ratio remained well below its historic highs. This reflects the growth in earnings over time.


After the sell-down, the PE is closer to historic lows. At around 12.5x, JBH looks cheap to me. 

2) The dividend yield

Currently 6.7% when franking is included. The current cash rate is 1.5%. 

Despite threats, the consensus among analysts is that JBH will grow at around 9% (according to Bloomberg). Higher dividend yields are rare among high-growth stocks.

Recent headlines may have investors concerned that there is universal bearishness about JBH, yet three analysts rate it a “Sell”, six a “Hold” and five a “Buy”.

3) Key support at $22.60

This chart shows the bounce of support around $22.60. There are no guarantees in markets, but this combination of factors may give investors the confidence to trade through the market noise.

Important: This content has been prepared without taking account of the objectives, financial situation or needs of any particular individual. It does not constitute formal advice. Consider the appropriateness of the information in regards to your circumstances.
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Is the market set for a pullback?

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

By Michael McCarthy

Global share markets are testing investors’ nerves. The German DAX and the US S&P 500 are at record highs. The Nikkei and the Australia 200 index are at post-GFC highs. Markets have clear positive momentum. Yet, event risks over the remainder of the year are high, and valuations are stretched. Buy, sell or hold?

Investors can draw comfort from data this year which shows European expansion, an upswing in the US and stabilising growth in China. The better outlook reduces the potential for a market meltdown.

However, there is an argument that current share market levels are reflecting an “as good as it gets” scenario. Among other factors, if the White House can’t deliver its stimulatory measures, if the European economy stalls, if the upswing in growth data doesn’t flow through to wages, there is potential for substantial corrections.

If a global fall of 10-20% is on the cards, how will local stocks fare? The short answer is badly. More experienced investors can take advantage of the historically low levels of volatility and use derivatives to cover downside risks. Other investors face selling down stocks to reduce any impact of a market stumble.

Which stocks will suffer most in a downturn?

In a low growth environment, companies that grow profits at levels well above the systemic rate command a premium. Think Domino’s Pizza, Sydney Airport and Bega Cheese. The reasons vary, but the share price premium is reflected in the P/E. Ratios in the 30x to 45x range are common.

Healthcare as a sector falls into this category. Leaders such as CSL, Cochlear and Fisher and Paykel have PEs in the 30x-40x range. Ramsay and Resmed are trading at around 25x earnings. The demographic theme of an aging population requiring increasing health services in a sector where the government pays the bills is an attractive investment proposition. The PE premium attached to the sector reflects investors paying up for assured growth and income.

The problem is the crowding into these exposures. The investment themes are well known, and the PE premiums demonstrate the popularity of these stocks. These elevated valuations could be harbingers of underperformance in a market sell-down. Not only are they caught with most other shares in any downdraft, they may suffer a larger P/E contraction than the broad market, meaning a greater fall in percentage terms. This is how market darlings become fallen angels.

The nature of the pullback

The nature of the pullback is an important consideration. A short sharp sell-off that sees investors bargain hunting fairly quickly would most likely see these premium stocks continue to trade at higher multiples than the broad market. However, a gut-roiling market panic could see investors selling what they can. In this sort of sell down, premiums tend towards defensive earnings (Woolworths, anyone?) and away from growth.

In my view, any stock market correction is more likely a healthy pullback than a crisis. Regardless, a broad market fall of 10-20% could see some stocks and sectors drop further. Reliable income streams could be more highly valued than projected growth rates. Investors may wish to examine portfolios for vulnerabilities before any serious selling starts.

In the past eighteen months, share market rewards went to stock pickers and active investors. Willingness to take advantage of market swings in both directions has been an important value creator. For this reason, investors should welcome a pull back as an opportunity to generate excess returns. As the chart shows, a pullback for the Australian share market may be very close:

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Wild Western Areas

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

By Michael McCarthy

Share market index volatilities are at, or near, century lows. This could mean that individual stocks are also quieter, OR, it could mean that individual stocks are swinging more wildly, but the swings are offset by stocks moving in the opposite direction. For an example of the latter, look to nickel sulphide miner, Western Areas Ltd (WSA).

Classic Historical Volatility measures the change in share price from one day to the next. Both 90- and 180-day volatility in WSA are close to 60%. In contrast, the same readings for the Australia 200 index are 9.2% and 11.2%. WSA is far more volatile than the market average. There are good reasons for these larger daily fluctuations.

Not only is WSA in the volatile commodities space, it’s a nickel miner. Nickel is, of course, a major component in stainless steel production, and the largest consumer of seaborne nickel is China. This makes WSA somewhat of a proxy for Chinese steel consumption, and broader China sentiment. Given often vehemently opposing views on the outlook, it’s no surprise that WSA is highly volatile.

Readers of refined sensibilities and lower-risk appetites should look away now. Because there’s broad agreement the near- and medium-term outlook for nickel is constrained. Nickel spot prices are off more than 10% from 2016 highs, and China bears abound, despite being horribly wrong about a “hard landing” for at least five years.

Now have a look at the WSA chart:

First, note the share price is down around 40% on 2016 highs. Secondly, no matter how I draw the down trend line, the price is clearly breaking up through it. The price action is unambiguously bullish. Thirdly, WSA is the second most shorted stock on the ASX, with a whopping 17.5% of all shares sold short. 

Despite the current pessimism, the WSA share price is signalling upward, and the large short position creates the potential for a melt up in price if momentum catches. This could be important news for both longer-term investors and short-term traders. 

Important: This content has been prepared without taking account of the objectives, financial situation or needs of any particular individual. It does not constitute formal advice. Consider the appropriateness of the information in regards to your circumstances.

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Retail tales: The Amazon effect and JB Hi-Fi

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

By Michael McCarthy

The “Amazon effect” - an increasingly mystical and omnipotent threat to every retail operation in Australia - is on its way. Judging by share price action, both Harvey Norman (HVN) and JB Hi-Fi (JBH) are particularly vulnerable. Yet just as the track record of Australian companies expanding overseas is less than glittering, the local landscape can, and does, trip up international operations expanding in Australia.

In the 1980’s, many lessons were dished to young traders in Australia’s newly opened money markets. Market structures and practices were new and fluid. The standard transaction size in foreign exchange markets was $1 million. In an attempt to dominate the market, one of the newly arrived US banks boasted they would “do the world in ten”. That is, they would make forex prices to buy or sell $10 million to anyone who cared to ask. 

That was a stunning upping of the ante, and many local traders feared for the outlook for Australian participants, worried this big North American outfit would take over the forex markets. However, it’s clear in hindsight that there was a profound cultural misunderstanding. Locals had (and still have) a particular disdain for big-headed show ponies. Every trader sought to pick off the braggarts. Within six months, the Big American had downgraded its Australian operations and sent the head forex trader off to Hong Kong.

Australians sometimes place too much emphasis on commonality with other English speaking nations, and forget there are very real cultural differences. Starbucks’ experience in Australia is a case in point. After stellar success in the USA over the 80’s and 90’s, it started an international expansion. In 2000, Starbucks arrived in Australia. 

Many feared for the 6,000 plus independent cafes in Australia. However, again there was a cultural misunderstanding. Starbucks' success in the USA was at least in part due to the previously widespread sale of fairly ordinary drip filtered coffee, and Starbucks’ revolutionary use of espresso coffee. The situation in Australia was very different. Waves of post-war European immigration brought with them a more sophisticated coffee culture.

Starbucks initially expanded to almost 300 stores. However, Australians knew what good coffee tasted like and the strategy didn’t work. Starbucks started selling stores. In 2014, a final shedding reduced Starbucks’ presence in Australia to 22 stores, with accumulated losses greater than $140 million. Despite stupendous success in other markets, Starbucks’ Australian venture was a failure.

The idea that Amazon is about to sweep the Australian retail landscape clean is the extreme – the reality will take longer, and likely have less impact than the extremists think. It may even fail. This brings us to the sell down in JBH and HVN. Both of these groups have demonstrated their capability and adaptability over decades. The recent 20% plus sell off in both stocks brings their P/E ratios down to 12-13x, and both stocks are sitting on share price support levels.

In short, they are top quality retailers at attractive valuations. This sort of window rarely stays open for long.

Important: This content has been prepared without taking account of the objectives, financial situation or needs of any particular individual. It does not constitute formal advice. Consider the appropriateness of the information in regards to your circumstances.


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Stock in the spotlight: Adding growth exposures

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

By Michael McCarthy

Markets near high points present challenges to investors. One problem is caused by the need to re-weight a portfolio as conditions change. Finding a performing stock to sell is straightforward. Determining which stocks to buy when valuations are full to expensive is more difficult.

Alumina Ltd (AWC) is an unusual stock in that it has only one asset – a 40% stake in Alcoa World Aluminium and Chemicals (AWAC). AWAC is a global miner and smelter of bauxite and aluminium, and has operations on four continents. 

Aluminium producers fell out of favour in a carbon-constrained world because they consume huge amounts of power in the production process. However, the world still needs aluminium and the spot price has rallied more than 30% over the last eighteen months as confidence in the industrial outlook grows.

At $1.70, AWC remains well below its all-time high above $7.00. Some analysts are concerned about the dividend outlook, as first quarter payments from AWAC dropped below the required run-rate. In my view, this is a timing issue, and AWC is likely to increase its dividend again. A scenario where industrial activity swings higher and inventories run down is supportive of a higher Aluminium price, and a more profitable AWC. 

Investors underweight resources and looking to add growth-exposed stocks may find AWC a suitable choice.

Important: This content has been prepared without taking account of the objectives, financial situation or needs of any particular individual. It does not constitute formal advice. Consider the appropriateness of the information in regards to your circumstances.

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Stock in the spotlight: Going for Platinum

Climbing the wall of worry: 3 events that could derail the market

A beef with P/E ratios

Going for growth

Stock Spotlight - Healthscope (HSO)

The triple top: Is the market set to slide?

Are shares at risk of a pullback?

Gold for Australia: stocks to watch

Reporting season: the good, the bad and the ugly

Factors affecting portfolio performance

Common behaviours that could hurt your investments

Can the 'Goldilocks' economy keep the bears away?

How to invest in 2017

Who’s afraid of the big bad Fed?

Market volatility demands action

3 market hurdles in the silly season

ASX 200 could reach 5900 by year's end

The chart every investor must see

3 things you missed during the US election circus

Could Trump sink your portfolio?

Healthcare stocks catch a cold. Time to sell?

This week's jobs numbers could make or break the market

Will there be a Santa Claus rally?

Should you buy the banks?

Active investors are cheering, not panicking

Why should Aussies care if the Fed raises rates?

Pay close attention! Market action could heat up

How to energise your portfolio

How to know if your company is a winner

Rate cut or not, stocks could climb

Is the market in the sell zone?

Is the share market ready to surge?

Australian shares and the federal election

Investors need to stick with a strategy

Flight Centre has its wings clipped

What every successful investor needs to know

Sell in May and go away?

Share investors are currency traders

Buying stocks in choppy markets

Any value in Woodside?

Media under the Southern Cross

ANZ: forecasting disaster

Blowing housing bubbles

Australian shares back in the zone

Investment approaches in volatile markets

The not-so-big Australian

Signs of a market bottom

Slaying golden goose myths

Investment strategy and the reporting season

Good news for rational investors

Tightening tales

The upside of low energy prices

Australian shares: looking ahead

Energising your portfolio

The wisdom of copper

How will rising US rates impact your investments?

News versus noise

The investment toolbox

The three-stock portfolio

Digging for gas bargains

How to keep your investment cool

“Dow 30,000 Now” and CSL

Canberra puts a Buy on shares

Market volatility and dividend floors

Dusting off the portfolio

Market routs, corrections and sell offs

Share market falls and CBA – time to buy

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