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The Friday Five

Jason Stipp
Jeremy Glaser

Jason Stipp: I'm Jason Stipp for Morningstar, and welcome to The Friday Five: Five stats from the market and the stories behind them.

Joining me, as always, with The Friday Five is Morningstar markets editor Jeremy Glaser.

Jeremy, thanks for being here.

Jeremy Glaser: You're welcome, Jason.

Stipp: What do we have for the Friday Five this week?

Glaser: The numbers we're going to look at this week are 195,000, 2015, 8%, 0.5%, and finally 0.

Stipp: 195,000 was the number of jobs added in June according to the government's employment report that came out on Friday. This was better than everyone was expecting. What's your read on that number?

Glaser: It was a little bit better than people had hoped. The unemployment rate stayed at 7.6%, and there were pretty big revisions to some previous months' reports. So overall, it was generally mostly upbeat, but it's not a report--as Bob Johnson talked about earlier today--that's really a game-changer in terms of how we think about employment.

Unemployment is still a major problem. We still have a lot of long-term unemployed who are having trouble finding jobs, and this report shows that we're making slow and steady progress, that we're moving in the right direction, but we're not at the point where we can say the employment crisis is over, or that we're at … what we'd hope is a normal level [of employment]. We're still at that elevated unemployment rate. It could be quite some time before we really make up all of those jobs that we lost in the recession.

Stipp: 2015 is the new deadline for larger employers--those with more than 50 employees--to add [health-care] coverage. This was a big change to health-care reform. What's your take on that?

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Glaser: This was very quietly released this week--I think very conveniently during the holiday. This mandate was supposed to start in 2014 that these larger employers had to provide … access to health care for their full-time employees. It has been pushed out for a year. The individual mandate--that individuals have to pay the penalty for not having it--will remain in place in 2014.

I think that this is the first of … many tweaks to this law, the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare, as it begins to be implemented. It's an incredibly complex piece of legislation that has a lot of moving parts. As they start to do the implementation, I think they're realizing that maybe some parts, the incentives, weren't quite set up in the most ideal ways, and they're going to try to find ways to make it work, either through executive action, or through potential legislative tweaks maybe after the midterm elections, to try to solve some of these problems.

This employer mandate really created some incentives maybe for people to drop full-time employees, make them part-time to get under that 50-employee ceiling, and created a bit of a cliff there when you grew pass that point, to potentially have to pay that penalty if you weren't providing health care. The reporting wasn't really in place yet. It wasn't clear how even large corporations that were providing health care were going to tell the government that was happening and avoid these potential penalties. So, I think it's probably good that we have this flexibility and that we're trying to make these tweaks, and it's the first of, I think, many we are going to see.

I think it shows how difficult it is from an investment standpoint to really try to key an investment based on one particular piece of statute, or the hope that some law is going to get passed that's going to help that company. It makes a lot more sense just to look at the underlying fundamentals. So, if you're looking to invest in health care, you're going to be looking for those names that are producing pharmaceutical drugs that people are going to want, that have good competitive advantages, and that, no matter how the law actually gets implemented, are going to able to thrive.

Stipp: Yields [in Portugal] surged to 8% at one point this week after a shakeup in Portugal's government. It looks like our old friend, the European credit crisis, is making another visit?

Glaser: Don't look now, but the eurozone crisis does seem to be heating up again after a pretty long gap. What happened in Portugal was that the head of the junior party in the government, of the center-right government, resigned basically saying that he wasn't happy with the way that the austerity measures were being implemented. He thought that they were too severe. And the government really came close to the brink of collapse. And it appears that they really have pulled it together and that it will hold for now, but it raised those fears.

Like you said, yields briefly hit over 8% on Portugal's 10-year bonds, which is a level they hadn't seen for quite some time, and it just showed how fragile some of these coalitions are. Particularly Portugal has been appointed as the good bailout. Of the peripheral countries, it's one that's always stuck to its program. It hasn't had the kind of drama that we've seen in Greece in particular, and I think the hope was that it could be used as a model to show other countries the best practices. If they can't keep their government together, if they can't really keep onto the plan that the troika wants them to be on--the troika being the European Central Bank, the European Commission and IMF together--to keep them on track, it certainly is not a good sign for elsewhere in the eurozone, and shows that a lot of these underlying problems really have not been solved yet.

Stipp: Key rates at the ECB and the Bank of England are staying at 0.5%. It was news announced this week. But something did change.

Glaser: It might seem at first that there weren't any big changes coming from the big European central banks, which were basically saying they were leaving rates where they are, no new stimulus plans announced, no big changes.

But there were some subtle shifts in terms of communication that I think were pretty important. The big one being that the ECB started to provide some forward guidance, something they've been very reluctant historically to do, and said that they do expect rates to be extremely low for an extended period, that there were some discussions of actually lowering rates, providing some more easing, particularly in the face of continued very, very slow growth, continued recession, and the potential rekindling of the crisis that we saw in Portugal this week.

I think it shows that the ECB is trying to say, look, we're separate from the Federal Reserve, obviously, that even if there is some tapering in the United States, we continue to want to be very easy, given the difference of the economies in the U.S. and Europe right now.

It shows that they're willing to maybe be a little bit more aggressive than they were before. There was always some concern that because the ECB is historically a more conservative institution, much more worried about price levels and inflation, that maybe in the face of a real crisis, they wouldn't actually step up to the plate.

I think Mario Draghi wanted to make it very clear that they will, they're going to provide this guidance. It was an unanimous decision to provide it, showing that some of the more hawkish members of the ECB were on board, which is a good sign. So even though it wasn't a huge shift, I think that by giving this guidance, it's a sign the ECB is ready to act if need be.

Stipp: Zero is the number of shares that you're recommending investors allocate to the potential new Bitcoin ETF.

Glaser: I think that's probably a safe bet. The Math-Based Asset Services Winklevoss Bitcoin Trust, which filed with the SEC this week to potentially start trading, is not one that I think most investors should be particularly interested in.

Bitcoins are this virtual currency that exists outside of central banks, outside of government, and it's governed by a fairly complex mathematical algorithm. The idea is to allow people basically to have a medium of exchange. You don't have a store of value that potentially could be harmed by the printing of new money, by fiat money; people were concerned about that.

Although it's a fascinating topic--I think it's a great discussion--it's not a great investment. Bitcoins are a pretty illiquid market. It's not totally clear that they are legal. There are a lot of concerns about money laundering. Some of the big exchanges where Bitcoins are swapped back and forth have had to shut down, and it's taken a while to get them reopened, so they can comply with some money laundering laws. It seems like there could be Congressional action really to restrict their use more generally. That's potentially a big problem. It's extremely volatile. You see these big swings up and down. For something that's supposed to be used as medium of exchange, when you have the price just zoom up and down, it's very difficult to actually use it like that, because you don't know how long it will take to actually get those Bitcoins priced, unlike with the dollar, where day-to-day you have a pretty good sense.

So it's just not a product that really provides a lot of benefits, and there are a lot of potential security risks. With Bitcoins, if you get hacked and someone takes your Bitcoin, that's irrevocable, because there is no central authority to get that back to you. That's a big risk factor that they pointed out in the S-1 themselves, and I think it's a real one that investors would need to be thinking about.

Abby Woodham, who is [a Morningstar] ETF analyst who took a look at this filing, also said that she just doesn't see a lot of redeeming factors here. I think it shows that just because someone comes up with a novel new financial product, it doesn't mean that you should be rushing toward it. It doesn't mean it's a good idea. If anything, when something new comes out, you probably should have a healthy dose of skepticism before deciding that it's a good place to allocate some money.

Stipp: Well, I don't know about Bitcoins, but your currency is always good on The Friday Five, Jeremy. Thanks for joining me again this week.

Glaser: Thanks, Jason.

Stipp: For Morningstar, I'm Jason Stipp. Thanks for watching.