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The Independent Investor: Rise of the Smoothie
By Bill Schmick On: 03:20PM / Thursday March 05, 2015
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The global market for smoothies is projected to hit $9 billion this year. Driven by a new health-consciousness among consumers, today's on-the-go convenience of gulping down your vitamins and minerals is appealing to more and more of us. Expect that trend to continue.

From a niche market in America in the '90s, the industry here at home has grown to over a $4 billion market today, which makes the United States the dominat domicile of all-things smoothie. The sector is forecasted to grow 10 percent a year for the next five years, according to Research and Markets Group, an analytical business group. Food chains, service restaurants, beverage companies and consumers, not to mention the dozens of smoothie franchises, have made the fruit and/or vegetable drink as ubiquitous in America as McDonalds or Starbucks.

For many consumers worried about obesity, eating right and living longer, the convenience of gulping down your daily FDA minimum requirements of fruits and vegetables can be a strong selling point. It sure beats the pants off swigging down gallons of unhealthy soda.

Most of us consider smoothies a healthy but a sweet snack consisting of fruit and possibly yogurt or other ingredients like peanut butter or soy milk. The most convenient (and cheapest) way to make the drink is by using frozen fruit. Frozen fruit sales in the U.S. now top $1 billion a year, which is up 67 percent from five years ago, according to Nielsen. Sixty percent of that fruit went into making smoothies, which is up from just 21 percent back in 2006.

The making of smoothies goes back to the 1930s, '40s and '50s with the invention and use of both blenders and refrigerators. Smoothies became associated with the health food industry in the '60s through people like Jack Lalanne, the renowned health and fitness guru, who was one of the earliest advocates of juicing and nutrition. Today, with the trend toward organic and natural foods, smoothies have come into their own.

My own experience with smoothies is now two years old. I started with my old blender making a combination of fruit and vegetables drinks, but soon found that my tried and true blender wasn't cutting it. In search of the same consistency and flavor as a store-bought smoothie, I moved on to a popular smoothie-maker, which cost me a bundle. Still not satisfied, I stepped up once again and bought an even more expensive brand with a powerful motor. If I am an example of a typical smoothie consumer, no wonder that blender sales in America have grown 103 percent since 2009.

Today my wife and I consume at least one a day, combining both fresh vegetables and fruit. I will admit that making them can be time consuming and depending upon the ingredients, expensive. As such, you can usually find me in the bruised fruit and vegetable corner of my local supermarket. I usually make enough to last us at least two days. It gets better.

My company, thanks to my constant urging, decided to buy an almost-industrial smoothie maker. I have become the official "Smoothie King" in the office. It helps that just about all of us here are health nuts, extremely busy and concerned with our weight. As such, we are typical Americans.

As more and more commercial players move into the business, competition is emulating the differentiation that has been so successful in the coffee market. Now, we are being tempted by "Super Smoothies," made with antioxidant-rich super fruits like goji berries or super foods such as chia and flax seeds. Tropical fruit and tea-flavored concoctions are now common at most juice bars and cafes. Pre-made and bottled smoothies are also popping up at many local supermarkets.

If you haven't dipped your taste buds into the smoothie world as of yet, I suggest you do. The health and weight benefits are substantial and they taste great to boot.

Bill Schmick is registered as an investment adviser representative with Berkshire Money Management. Bill’s forecasts and opinions are purely his own. None of the information presented here should be construed as an endorsement of BMM or a solicitation to become a client of BMM. Direct inquires to Bill at 1-888-232-6072 (toll free) or email him at Bill@afewdollarsmore.com.
 



     
The Independent Investor: New Fiduciary Rule Would Benefit All of Us
By Bill Schmick On: 03:48PM / Friday February 27, 2015
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The Department of Labor is trying again. This week, a proposed new rule, backed by the president, would force all financial advisers to adopt a "fiduciary responsibility" toward their clients when overseeing retirement plans. If passed, it could substantially reduce the fees and expenses we pay for that advice.

So exactly what is this fiduciary responsibility that President Obama is championing? The rule would require all advisers to put their client's interests above all other considerations when making investment recommendations on accounts covered under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. That means the bulk of middle class savings represented by all types of IRAs, 401 (k)s, 403 (B)s, pensions, et al. would finally be protected from the present practices of gouging Americans through investing them in high-priced, low-return investment vehicles.

"But I thought that was already the law," said a New York client, on hearing the news.

Actually it is not. Unless you work with a registered investment adviser, most financial advisers on Wall Street are simply required to suggest products that are "suitable" to investors. In practical terms, all that means is that a broker can't put your uninformed, 92-year-old granny into a foreign penny stock that fluctuates 10 percent or so on a daily basis. Anything else is fair game and the industry has taken advantage of that suitability rule to rake in billions over the years from you and me.

It is estimated that over the course of 25 years of saving for retirement, the average investor will pay one-third of his or her assets in fees and expenses. The White House Council of Economic Advisors estimates that these conflicts of interest cost the investor 1 percent, or about $17 billion, per year.

These legal (but less than moral) practices of the financial community have been a pet peeve of mine for years. In my columns, I have repeatedly written about these pitfalls and how my readers could avoid them. Back in 2010, when the Department of Labor suggested this rule, Wall Street, the GOP and the SEC successfully shot down the proposal arguing that a tougher fiduciary standard would prove so costly that small investors would not be able to afford investment advice at all.  I say, why pay for investment advice that only enriches the broker that gives it to you in the first place?

I'm not saying that everyone in the financial sector who is not a fiduciary is a bad guy, because they are not. It is the system that is at fault. The early '80s saw the end of an era of fixed commissions for Wall Street brokers. Since then the way brokers managed to earn a living was to acquire as many clients as possible, while making as much money as one legally could through fees, commissions and revenue-sharing kickbacks from other vendors like mutual funds, insurance companies and annuities.

The fiduciary rule would change that model substantially and it would be expensive to implement and oversee. One's compliance department, like my own, would need to oversee that rule and ensure that client's interests were always placed above the company and individual's interests.  It is certainly doable. My company has a fiduciary responsibility to our clients and enjoys a good bottom line while fulfilling the letter and the spirit of that rule.

Wall Street, in my opinion, could fulfill a fiduciary obligation and still make money — just not as much. The quality of personnel that interface with clients would have to improve and many lucrative relationships with their existing vendors would have to change as brokers pursued the best investments possible at the lowest costs. I, for one, believe this rule is long, long overdue. It's about time the government and the White House put their money where their mouth is when it comes to the little guy.

Bill Schmick is registered as an investment adviser representative with Berkshire Money Management. Bill’s forecasts and opinions are purely his own. None of the information presented here should be construed as an endorsement of BMM or a solicitation to become a client of BMM. Direct inquires to Bill at 1-888-232-6072 (toll free) or email him at Bill@afewdollarsmore.com.



     
The Independent Investor: How to Make the Most Out of Social Security
By Bill Schmick On: 03:09PM / Thursday February 19, 2015
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Yes, it's complicated. Social Security benefits have been around since 1935 and, like taxes, have become increasingly complex through time. Most people are losing out because they don't understand the fine print. Starting today, you will, so read on.

For most of us, who haven't saved a great deal during a lifetime, Social Security benefits are about all we can depend on once we retire. In 2013, almost 58 million Americans received these benefits. Retirees and their dependents accounted for 70 percent of benefits paid, 19 percent went to disabled workers and dependents while survivors of deceased workers accounted for 11 percent of the total.  Although benefits have increased numerous times since its creation and those benefits are inflation-indexed, the total doesn't come to much, so wringing every last penny out of the program is essential.

In past columns, I have explained that if you can, waiting until you are 70 years of age is your best bet as far as receiving the most money from Social Security. If you defer filing at age 62 (your earliest allowable retirement dates) until age 70, the difference is over $100,000 per person. That's a nice piece of change for retirees. Of course, the downside is that if you die at age 71, then retiring early would have been a better bet. The healthier you are, the more sense it makes to retire later.

There is also an opportunity for married couples to enhance their combined benefits. It is called "file and suspend." It works best if one spouse is making significantly more than the other. The bigger the income gap, the bigger the payoff. Hypothetically, let's say my wife and I are now 66 and debating on whether to tap Social Security since we are both at full retirement age (FRA). Assume my wife, Barbara, as president of the company, has been the real bread-winner and has earned more than me over the years. She can expect to receive $2,000 per month in benefits, while I get $900 a month.

If Barbara files for benefits under her earnings record, I could claim one-half of her benefits ($1,000). At the same time, I could let my benefits continue to increase (by as much as 32 percent if I wait until I am seventy) before claiming them. That's a great deal for me since I make $100 more a month and let my benefits ride. But what happens to Barbara's benefits under this scenario?

As soon as I claim my spousal benefit, Barbara can turn around and immediately suspend receipt of her own benefits of $2,000/month. By doing so, we can now both accumulate the 32 percent increase in benefits until age 70. In dollars and cents, Barbara's benefits will grow to $2,640 a month and mine will top out at $1,188. But in the meantime, as the claiming spouse, I still receive $1,000 a month until age 70.

If we both live to say, 95, the file and suspend strategy would result in more than $200,000 in extra benefits between us. Not a bad return to simply spend an hour or two of additional form filing. There is an added benefit as well; since it would allow me to take a survivor benefit on Barbara's increased monthly amount should she die unexpectedly after age 70. Complicated? Yes, but well worth the time and effort.

Bill Schmick is registered as an investment adviser representative with Berkshire Money Management. Bill’s forecasts and opinions are purely his own. None of the information presented here should be construed as an endorsement of BMM or a solicitation to become a client of BMM. Direct inquires to Bill at 1-888-232-6072 (toll free) or email him at Bill@afewdollarsmore.com.



     
The Independent Investor: The Grecian Drama
By Bill Schmick On: 03:24PM / Thursday February 12, 2015
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Greece is once again on center stage as the world looks on, wondering if this time the country's finances will finally implode. It is a play we've seen before and its outcome fairly predictable.

Several weeks ago, I warned readers to expect turmoil in Greece. As expected, the anti-austerity party, Syriza, was elected in a nationwide election at the end of January. The new prime minister, Alexis Tspiras, has promised the voters that the spending cuts, tax increases and other austerity measures leveled on Greece by the "Troika" (the IMF, ECB and the EU) would come to an end.

The austerity measures were agreed to by the previous Greek administration in exchange for a three-tranche, $272 billion bailout, which runs until the end of this month. Until the elections, the Troika was insisting that Greece implement even more measures to reduce the country's debts and spur economic growth. Now both sides are seeking a compromise.

The Troika has offered to extend the bailout package for several months to give both parties time to come to a compromise. No deal, say the Greeks. Greece evidently has learned that they can cut a better deal for themselves if there is a clock ticking in the background. They are counting on the Troika caving in to at least some of their demands by the end of the month.

As it stands now, Greek banks are already in a jam, since they can no longer use their government's bonds to borrow funds from the ECB. Instead, they have to rely on their own central bank for emergency funding. Investors have dumped Greek stocks and bond yields have spiked higher as a result. Yet, the panic we've seen before under these circumstances just isn't there.

There is a growing faction within the EU, led by Germany, who believes that a Greek exit from the EU and the Euro is probably the best outcome for everyone. After all, Greece has a long history of going in and out of bankruptcy. Some argue that it was only invited into the original European Union because it was the "birthplace of European Democracy." Its economy and finances, some argue, were never strong enough to warrant a seat at the EU table.

Others say that it is the precedent that counts: if Greece exits the EU, than others may be tempted to do the same, namely countries such as Portugal, Ireland, Spain and even Italy. All of the above are suffering from their own austerity/bailout deals with the Troika. And this is where it really gets messy. If Greece gets its way, by either renegotiating its debt and the austerity program, other countries will demand the same thing.

At the moment, both sides are still talking in a marathon session that could conceivably last through the rest of this week and into next. Tspiras, who knows full well that the major stumbling block to getting what he wants is a reluctant Germany, is attempting to muddy the water. He is demanding billions of Euros in World War II reparations and unpaid debt from Germany. It certainly plays well with the populace, who have long felt that Germany has never paid its fair share for the damage the Nazis have done. The stoic Germans, pointing to two separate agreements in the 1950s and 1960s, say that issue is a red herring as far as they are concerned.

My bet is that despite all the bluster, Greece needs Europe more than Europe needs Greece. At some point in the near future, Tspiras will back off and agree to some face-saving measures that will give his country a bit more time to get its act together. That may lead to similar measures in the case of other problem countries. End of story.

Bill Schmick is registered as an investment adviser representative with Berkshire Money Management. Bill’s forecasts and opinions are purely his own. None of the information presented here should be construed as an endorsement of BMM or a solicitation to become a client of BMM. Direct inquires to Bill at 1-888-232-6072 (toll free) or email him at Bill@afewdollarsmore.com.



     
The Independent Investor: Joint Business Is Jumping
By Bill Schmick On: 01:16PM / Friday February 06, 2015
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Today, more than 7 million Americans are no longer limping. Instead, they are trotting around with the assistance of artificial knees, hips or both. Every year another million of us will join the crowd, and that number is expected to grow as America ages.

Arthritis is the main reason for these surgeries, followed by obesity, which adds stress to the knees and hips. Everywhere you turn, Americans are told that they must lose weight. However, in order to do that, a less than virtuous circle has evolved for many of us. We are all striving to eat healthier and eat less while exercising more. As such, wherever you look, aging amateur athletes vie with the young on the ski slopes, the treadmill, hiking trails and wherever else one finds exercise. But this cult of weekend warriorship is demanding a high price.

It is bad enough that we Baby Boomers are wearing out our joints at a stupendous rate. However, the real growth rates in joint replacement are coming from those between the ages of 45-64. Joint replacements have tripled in that age group over the last decade, with nearly half of all hip replacements now being done in people under age 65.

In the past, orthopedic surgeons were reluctant to replace a knee or hip in patients under 65 since replacement joints typically only lasted 10 to 12 years. Today, thanks to advances in medical device technologies, a typical knee or hip can last 20-25 years. As a result, more Americans than ever are opting to get the surgery now, rather than give up their mountain bike or snowboard for less active physical pursuits. I'm one of them.

Six months ago, my knee began bothering me while doing my usual cardio fitness exercises. The pain increased to the point that I visited a doctor who informed me that my right knee "was shot." Decades of running, step aerobics, snowboarding and skiing had taken its toll on my body. Although the pain was moderate at best, I opted for surgery now rather than limp along until the pain forced me into surgery. I did not want to sacrifice my athletic lifestyle.

The procedure was successful thanks to my surgeon, Dr. Mark Sprague of Berkshire Orthopedic Associates, who is a true rock star. The staff and service of Berkshire Medical Center's orthopedic unit was exemplary as well. I guess you get what you pay for.

The cost of a joint replacement varies depending on where you get it done. A study by Blue Cross Blue Shield indicates a total knee replacement procedure, on average, costs $31,124, but could be as low as $11,317 in Montgomery, Ala., to as high as $69,654 in New York City. Hip replacements, on average, go for $30,124 but can be as much as $73,987 in Boston.

But there are whole lists of other services that must be paid for. Pre-surgery appointments, diagnostic studies, lab tests, the doctor's fees, anesthesia, postoperative hospitalization plus postoperative recovery including rehabilitation and physical therapy. Since my surgery was one month ago, I have not received a final total of the all-in charges. But when I do, I'll most likely write another column, since it is my understanding that the actual manufacturing cost of an artificial hip is about $350.

Yet, by the time the hospital purchases these sterilized pieces of tooled metal, plastic or ceramics, that same hip costs them $4,500-$7,500. From there the charges escalate. By how much, I am determined to find out — so stay tuned.

Bill Schmick is registered as an investment adviser representative with Berkshire Money Management. Bill’s forecasts and opinions are purely his own. None of the information presented here should be construed as an endorsement of BMM or a solicitation to become a client of BMM. Direct inquires to Bill at 1-888-232-6072 (toll free) or email him at Bill@afewdollarsmore.com.



     
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Bill Schmick is registered as an investment advisor representative and portfolio manager with Berkshire Money Management (BMM), managing over $200 million for investors in the Berkshires. Bill’s forecasts and opinions are purely his own and do not necessarily represent the views of BMM. None of his commentary is or should be considered investment advice. Anyone seeking individualized investment advice should contact a qualified investment adviser. None of the information presented in this article is intended to be and should not be construed as an endorsement of BMM or a solicitation to become a client of BMM. The reader should not assume that any strategies, or specific investments discussed are employed, bought, sold or held by BMM. Direct your inquiries to Bill at 1-888-232-6072 (toll free) or email him at Bill@afewdollarsmore.com Visit www.afewdollarsmore.com for more of Bill’s insights.

 

 

 



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