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The Independent Investor: The European Central Bank Delivers
By Bill Schmick On: 04:39PM / Thursday January 22, 2015
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Thursday, Mario Draghi, the head of Europe's Central Bank, announced new steps in an effort to lift the EU from economic malaise. Investors wonder if it will be enough.

That's not unusual. There were many doubting Thomases in this country when the Fed first launched its quantitative easing program back in 2009. Japan, which is in the second inning of its stimulus program, also has its share of detractors.

At first blush, the expanded program of stimulus includes an asset purchase program of both private and public securities of up to $60 billion Euros ($69 billion) a month through the end of September 2016. That amounts to well over a trillion Euros in new stimulus. The markets were expecting roughly half that much.

What makes the move even more impressive is that the ECB prevailed in the face of heavy opposition from Germany's Bundesbank. The Germans argue that bond bailouts like this only encourage spendthrift countries to postpone economic reform. Greece is just one such country.

Greece is scheduled for national elections this weekend and Syriza, a popular anti-austerity party, is expected to win. The ECB's new stimulus program appears to include Greek debt but under certain conditions, most likely linked to Greece's willingness to continue economic reforms.

Unlike our own central bank that has a dual purpose of maintaining employment and controlling inflation in this county, the ECB has only one mandate — inflation. They have failed miserably in achieving their stated goal of an inflation rate of just under 2 percent annually. Last month, consumer prices actually turned negative, falling 0.2 percent. What concerns European bankers and governments alike is that the EU is at real risk of entering a deflationary, no-growth economic period similar to what Japan experienced for well over two decades. Once deflation infects an economic system it is notoriously difficult to cure. The hope is that the central bank's monthly injections of capital at this scale will stimulate growth throughout the 18-member countries and re-inflate the economy.

As a result of these actions, we are now in a peculiar place globally. While the United States has discontinued its stimulus programs, Japan, Europe and China, the largest economies in the world, are embarking on their own stimulus agendas. This does cause some strange disparities in interest rates and currencies however. Interest rates in Europe at this time are lower than here in America. The U.S. dollar is gaining strength while the yen and the euro continue to weaken.

We can expect these trends to continue as time goes by, but there are some benefits. Many currency traders expect that the euro will trade one-to-one with the greenback in the months ahead. The Japanese yen is already dirt cheap. If there was ever a time to book that European or Japanese vacations, now is the time.

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: What's Happening to the Movies?
By Bill Schmick On: 02:44PM / Thursday January 15, 2015
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Have you noticed that American movies seem to be long on bullets and increasingly short on words? That despite flop after flop at the box office, the same movies are coming out with sequels? Get used to it because, increasingly, American viewers are a distinct minority when it comes to the box office.

After agriculture, the second largest U.S. export is entertainment. Films account for well over $31 billion of those exports and the numbers are increasing exponentially. The international box office accounted for a small portion of overall revenues a decade or so ago, but times have changed. Now it's a 60/40 split in favor of foreigners. China, with a population of over 1.3 billion is the largest market for filmmakers in the world.

For a long time, foreign countries only allowed a certain number of American films to come into the country. The idea was that the embargo would allow local filmmakers a chance to show their stuff among the local audiences. In some locales that is still the case, but less so in the really big markets.

Conventional wisdom in Hollywood has it that there is an insatiable international appetite for American-made genre movies, which are heavy on action, explosions, guns, special-effects and the like. They are correct. Foreigners love action movies, children's movies, sequels, Academy Award winners and big production budget films in that order, according to recent industry studies.

And stars are not as big a factor as they once were. To be sure, some late greats such as Stallone and Schwarzenegger can still command an audience but its more about the story line and what super hero is pounding whom.

We are also witnessing a great dumbing down of film content as a result. Universal themes rather than culturally specific ideas are what sell. Foreigners who do not speak English, do not want, nor can they follow long lines of subtitles that scroll across the bottom of the screen. Language, too, can often be nuanced to the point that the audience misses the concept. Besides, reading subtitles can be distracting and a lot of work when the typical viewer simply wants to have a good time and be entertained. Today's movies are crafted mainly to provoke a visceral, as opposed to an intellectual, response.

In the years ahead, you can count on American studios to become even more focused on what the overseas markets wants given the bottom line. Movies that may have bombed in this country have managed to turn a profit thanks to the benefits of foreign audiences. "Pacific Rim," for example, earned $101 million here but cost $190 million to produce. However, it was popular overseas to the tune of $411 million in worldwide earnings. Despite its failure here, a "Pacific Rim 2" is in the works and you better like it.

If we look at the more popular movies of 2014: "Transformers," "Guardians of the Galaxy," "Maleficent," "X-Men," "Captain America," "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" and the "Hobbit," overseas revenues were greater than the domestic box office in every case.

Therefore, the next time you are going into a movie theater, after paying $50 for two tickets, wondering how you can be sitting through the same story line, bad acting, ear-splitting, special-effects and a predictable outcome, wrapped around the same title (only with a number 8, 9 or 10 tagged on the end), now you know.

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: Think twice Before Co-Signing Student Loan
By Bill Schmick On: 04:30PM / Friday January 09, 2015
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Sure, we love our kids. Of course we want them to get ahead, so when your son, daughter, or nephew asks for your signature right next to theirs on that private student loan application it is tempting. But before you sign on the dotted line consider this.

When you consent to being a student loan co-signer you are in for the life of the loan. If the student fails to make payments, you must. If they are late, you get the notices, too. Their financial problems will impact your credit score and could haunt you the next time you apply for a car loan, home mortgage, or simply a credit card.

I know that putting aside your emotions is difficult at best in the decision-making process. Yet, you must, because there is real money on the line as well as a multiyear financial commitment. Approach the decision as if the relative were a potential business partner. As such, you must be a fairly good judge of character. Does the person asking for the loan follow through on his or her commitments? Do they have a history of making good, financial decisions or are they the type that just can't seem to save money? How practical are they in life's decisions?

If the answers still indicate a green light, decide how and when they are going to be able to pay back the loan. If your son is insisting on getting an art degree with absolutely no prospects of employment, co-signing a loan with him could be financial suicide. Today, many college grads who have a degree in occupations that are already overemployed, obsolete or pay minimum wages cannot repay their student loans. Just because your relatives are "following their heart" in acquiring a degree is no reason to support that decision financially.

By all means be supportive but at the same time, the best assistance you can give is to explain the realities of the workplace. It is their option to listen and agree or disagree. Do this before the student wracks up thousands of dollars of debt that will follow him or her for the rest of their life and possibly yours.

If after all this, the decision is still a go, then urge the student to first explore a federal student loan, which does not require a co-signer, whereas 90 percent of private student loans do. Federal Stafford Loans for undergrads have a fixed rate of 4.66 percent, if the student loan is taken between July 1 and June 30, 2015. This would be both the student's and your best option.

But if you are still not convinced or the private loan is till the only option than consider also that the amount borrowed is not the amount you will end up repaying. Deferment, forbearance and interest will add a substantial sum to that debt. Remember too that student loans are not subject to bankruptcy laws. It is nearly impossible to have student loans discharged. And don't think you can remover yourself from the loan once the student receives it. Lenders have a whole host of hoops you need to jump through to even consider removing you from the loan.

To be fair, only 7 percent or so of students actually fail to make good on their loans. In most cases, the student pays on time things and things go smoothly. It is only when they miss payments and the bank come to you that your relationship begins to change with the co-signee. It is you who will be the "bad guy" every month in hounding the student to make their payments on time. What was once a warm and affectionate relationship can quickly evolve into something else. Don't let that happen to you.

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: Could Greece Upset the Applecart?
By Bill Schmick On: 02:16PM / Friday January 02, 2015
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This week a parliamentary vote to elect a president failed in Greece. National elections have now been called for late January. The outcome could trigger a revolt against an austerity program that has brought years of suffering and pain to the population.

Today, the unemployment rate is about 25 percent in Greece. Its citizens have been living with higher taxes, less goods and services, declining government spending, fewer pension benefits and longer work hours for many years. This unhappy saga was the result of a decadeslong binge of government spending, huge deficits and even higher debt. Detractors and creditors alike say the Greeks have only themselves to blame.

The global financial crisis triggered the end of the party. Since then, the Greek economy has suffered through three distinct recessions. As the economy slid, the viability of the country’s sovereign debt, which was held by the largest banks and financial companies throughout Europe, came into question. European leaders were terrified that the country would declare bankruptcy, renege on that debt and drag down the entire EU financial system with it.

A two-part debt bailout program was put together throughout 2010-2012. Various Eurozone countries, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund (called the Troika) cobbled together a multi-billion dollar package that saved Greece (and the Euro) from economic disaster. In exchange, a severe austerity program, at the Troika's insistence, was forced on Greece and its citizens. Since then the prescribed medicine has improved the outlook for the economy and unemployment. In the meantime, Greek government debt has been quietly shifted from the hands of the banks, (which took losses of 53.5 percent of face value) to those of various governments. At the same time, private investors have been happy to grab up the forced sale of Greek government assets at distressed prices and the financial markets were rejoicing that Greece might actually return to a balanced budget by next year. So where is the fly in this ointment?

What may make bankers happy may not go down well with voters. Unfortunately, a country is made up of people who need to eat, to work, to aspire to the simple basics of life. Greek voters have seen precious few of those good things in life over the past seven years. Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, who has been implementing the austerity program, recently rejected demands by the Troika to raise taxes and cut incomes again in order to insure a balanced budget. As a result, additional bail-out money has been withheld.

Syriza, a left-wing coalition party of disgruntled Greeks, has been gaining ground and now leads the ruling Samaras' New Democracy Party in national polls. If they win in January's elections, they promise to throw out the austerity policies ordered by the Troika altogether. And Greece is not alone in rejecting the demands of outsiders. Populist movements in Spain and Italy are also attracting an increasing number of voters. They are demanding the end to similar measures in their own countries.

I am not surprised. My experiences during the debt crisis during the 1980s in Latin America convinced me that the Troika's austerity measures raised the risk of increasing social unrest in the Southern nations of Europe. Similar measures levied by the IMF in South America ushered in what is now called "the lost decade." Austerity there did little to improve economic conditions but fostered countless coups and social revolutions, untold poverty and misery.

Today, while the European Union is struggling to avoid falling back into recession, these populous uprisings are at best inconvenient and possibly the harbinger of something that could be infinitely worst. The ECB's plans in January to usher in a U.S.-style program of quantitative easing, I suspect, has been stopped in its tracks, until events in Greece are clarified. If things come undone in Greece, there is a real possibility that the Greeks could bolt the EU for good. And if they exit and survive, what would stop others from doing the same?

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: IRA Distribution Time
By Bill Schmick On: 11:52AM / Friday December 26, 2014
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Information abounds on why and when you should contribute to a tax-deferred savings plan such as an Individual Retirement Account (IRA). Less is known about what happens in retirement when you have to take money out of these plans. For those who turned 70 1/2 years or older in 2014, pay attention, because it's distribution time.

The original idea behind tax-deferred savings was to provide Americans a tax break in order to encourage us to save towards retirement. Individuals could stash away money tax-free while they were working and then take it out again once they retired, when they were presumably earning less and at a lower tax rate. The government determined that once you reached 70 1/2 you have until April 1 of the next tax year to take your first distribution.  If you are older than that, you only have until the end of the year.

Officially, it's called a Required Minimum Distribution (RMD) and applies to all employee sponsored retirement plans. That includes profit-sharing plans, 401(K) plans, Self Employed Persons IRAs (SEPS), SARSEPS and SIMPLE IRAs, as well as contributory or traditional IRAs. The individual owner of each plan is responsible for computing the MRD and taking it from their accounts. There are stiff IRS penalties (of up to 50 percent of the total MRD) levied on those who fail to comply.

The RMD is calculated by taking the total amount of money and securities in each IRA, or other tax-deferred plan, as of Dec. 31 of the prior year and dividing it by a life expectancy factor that the Internal Revenue Service publishes in tables. The document, Publication 590, Individual Retirement Arrangements, can be easily accessed over the internet. As an example, let's say at the end of last year your IRA was worth $100,000. You are 72 years old. Looking up the life expectancy ratio in the IRS table for that age, which is 15.5, you divide your $100,000 by 15.5. Your RMD for this year would be $6,451.61 (100,000/15.5 = 6,451.61).

Remember that you must compute your RMD for every tax-deferred account you own. However, you can withdraw your entire distribution from just one account if you like. You can always withdraw more than the MRD from your accounts, but remember that whatever you withdraw is taxed at your tax bracket. If you make an error and withdraw too much in one year, it cannot be applied to the following year. And before you ask, no, you can't roll the RMD over into another tax-deferred savings account.

What happens if you forget or for some reason you cannot take your RMD in the year it is required? You might be able to avoid the 50 percent penalty if you can establish that the shortfall in distributions was the result of a reasonable error and that you have taken steps to remedy the situation. You must fill out Form 5329 and attach a letter of explanation asking the IRS that the penalty be waived.

For those who have an Inherited IRA, you too may have to take a RMD before the end of the year. The calculations and rules are somewhat different. Generally, if you have received the inheritance this year, as the beneficiary, you have the choice of taking one lump sum, taking the entire amount within five years or spreading out the distributions over the course of your life expectancy, starting no later than one year following the former owner's death. The IRS produces a table for use by beneficiaries in Publication 590 as well.

Many retirees have a hard time remembering to take their MRD each year. It is a good idea to ask your money manager or your accountant to handle the distribution or at least to remind you each year when the RMD is due. The last thing you want to do is give back to the IRS half your hard-earned savings each year.

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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