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The Independent Investor: Supermarkets Evolve to Survive
By Bill Schmick On: 03:29PM / Friday July 31, 2015

We take our local supermarkets for granted. Like gas stations, there seems to one on almost every corner, at least in suburbia. With competition from a variety of sources, supermarkets have been forced to reinvent themselves and are doing a good job doing just that.

Historically, supermarkets are a low-margin business, barely eking out 1-2 percent profit margins annually. Even the "hot" areas of the grocery market, like natural. organic and gourmet food emporiums only command 3 percent to 6 percent margins but to the big store chains that's an attractive option.

In addition, the supermarkets industry is highly fragmented with the top 10 chains only accounting for 35 percent of the total number of grocery stores (although they account for over 68 percent of total industry sales in this country). In order to increase profitability, supermarkets are reinventing themselves and benefiting the consumer in the process.

Given that I'm the cook and grocery shopper in my family, I have some firsthand experience in shopping through this transition and so far I like what I see. Clearly your local megastore is going after the natural and organic food shopper. Most readers already know that you pay more for those items, substantially more in some cases. Have you also noticed that you are seeing more "local vegetables" right alongside those that are shipped in from elsewhere? If you are price conscious (like me) you might also notice the price difference. You could be paying as much as 50 cents more per pound for that locally grown spinach or kale but its fresh and you are supporting local farmers, right?

Supermarkets are adding other products and services where profits are far higher than that box of mac and cheese on sale every other week. Look for those "specials" to continue since middle and low-income shoppers account for 70 percent of grocery sales. Most shoppers tend to be price conscious and will switch if they feel that one chain’s prices are better than another's. In fact, super stores are marketing their weekly special flyers with renewed effort. The name of that game is to get the shopper into their stores.

Since food shopping is essentially a sensory experience, the grocery store is hoping that once in the door the consumer will be susceptible to the siren call of other more high-priced items that promise a variety of convenience, culinary and even educational experiences.

More and more markets are adding pharmacies, bakeries, coffee shops as well as salad bars, chef-prepared entrees, brunch stations and gelato bars. And God forbid if you go shopping hungry. I fully acknowledge that the sushi bar or an impulse order of hot wings at the grocery store has replaced my occasional visit to a fast-food burger chain or restaurant. All of that adds meat to the supermarket's net profits.

Since I, like 92 percent of American adults, believe that eating at home is healthier (and cheaper) than eating out, my main objective in the supermarket is still shopping for fresh food. However, I'm frequently drawn to the seafood or butcher's counter where the slicing, dicing, marinating and stuffing has been done for me by the store's "sous chef."

These wily grocers are also bundling together other meal components right next to the meats and fish, which are easy to prepare and taste almost as good as my own, with a few finishing touches.  I admit that on busy weeknights, going this route makes fixing dinner for two an easier and faster affair. Granted, I'm paying up for the pork roast with cranberry stuffing but still paying less than I would going out to eat. The supermarket’s profit is much higher as a result.

I'm still not using the online applications that stores are offering. There are well over 1,000 apps offered by my iPhone right now and that number is growing exponentially each day. More and more establishments are offering lessons in everything from basic cooking to preparing for your next Super Bowl party. Healthy eating for you and the family, educational courses and advice in weight loss management, heart, diabetes, food allergies and even family mealtime management are now offered along with countess recipes and food guides.

The bottom line seems to me that we are all paying more while the supermarkets are making more as a result, but the added services and products seem to be a fair trade. That's a win-win for everyone.

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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The Independent Investor: Are You Ready for El Niņo
By Bill Schmick On: 01:51PM / Thursday July 23, 2015

It's that time again. Trade winds in the Pacific are blowing west to east, pushing warm water to the surface. In times past, those conditions created havoc with much of the world's weather creating everything from fires to floods, sometimes, in epic proportions. Some weather models predict this year's El Niño could rank among the worse.

El Niño ("boy child" in Spanish) has been around for a long time, but it was only in the early '80s that scientists realized the global impact of these events. Their potential intensity is difficult to predict because they interact with other natural climate factors, which can change the outcome.

Since predicting the strength of a potential El Niño is about as risky as predicting the direction of the stock market, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will only deal in probabilities. They predict an 85 percent chance that El Niño this year will be "strong." So far this summer the 2015 El Niño is about tied with the 1997-1998 El Niño in terms of intensity. That's a bit troublesome since the 1997-98 disturbance turned out to be a record-setting event.

The social and economic impact of an El Niño on the United States varies, depending upon where you live and the changing weather patterns. This year, we will feel the strongest impacts of El Niño in the fall and winter. Some of us could actually benefit somewhat, depending upon where you live.

In New England, one can expect a milder winter than average. Snowfall should be less and winter temperatures above average, although we could still experience a few Nor'easters, especially in the beginning and end of the season. The East Coast, overall, should see a much calmer hurricane season. That would be good news in terms of lower heating bills, storm damage, lower insurance claims and business disruption, especially in the retail sector.

Other areas of the country might not be so lucky. In general, summer agricultural crops in the U.S. and Canadian grain belts do well but winter crops not so much. Most often the weather change will bring cooler wetter winters to most southern states.  A strong El Niño often brings heavy rains to places like Texas, the Southern Plains and California.

That might not be a bad thing if it breaks the horrendous drought that has strangled the food and farming economies in these areas for the past few years. The issue will be how much is enough? Back in 1997-1998, heavy rains created terrible flooding, mudslides and death, especially in California. In February 1998, a series of storms caused $550 million in damages and killed 17 people in California.

All in all, the U.S. tends to avoid the worst effects of El Niño, while countries in Southeast Asia, the Horn of Africa and Latin America bear the brunt of these weather patterns. I experienced those conditions first hand while visiting and investing in Peru, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea in 1997-1998.

In Peru, entire towns were wiped away in terrible landslides. Mountains literally tumbled into the Pacific Ocean, burying everything in their path. Fires in Indonesia were so bad that the entire region was blanketed by haze and smog that left your clothes and skin black with ash. These uncontrolled fires decimated crop production in one country after another causing poverty, starvation and ultimately social unrest.

The decline in food production by so many nations had a beneficial impact on our own farming exports but at the expense of so many others. Hopefully, this time around, if El Niño is as bad as some predict, governments in those potential danger areas will be more prepared. But how much they can do, aside from controlling the customary slash and burn style of agriculture, is questionable.

There is no guarantee that this El Niño will develop into another record-breaking event. But temperatures to date this year are already far above average around the planet and many weather models are predicting that 2015 will be the warmest year on record. That simply increases the odds that this boy child of a weather pattern could evolve into a real temper tantrum of nature.

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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@theMarket: O Ye of Little Faith
By Bill Schmick On: 09:28AM / Saturday July 18, 2015

What a difference two weeks make. Back then, if one took the warnings/advice of the media and much of Wall Street, we were facing financial Armageddon. Today, the markets are flirting with new highs. What lessons can we learn from that?

Number one: the media's first and foremost objective is to sell advertising, if that means scaring its target markets into staying tuned (or reading the next page) then so be it. And I'm not just talking about the fringe elements. Greece, China and Puerto Rico led the list of doomsday stories that littered the headlines of some of the top news organizations both here and abroad.

That's where Wall Street comes in. Reporters need sources and like politicians, many financial soothsayers thrive on publicity. They are more than happy to pontificate on "what ifs," which somehow become facts when translated into news stories.

Despite the fact that Greece represents less than 2 percent of Europe's GDP (Gross Domestic Product), the "Herd" intimated, hinted, or predicted (depending on who you were listening to) that the contagion effect of leaving the Euro would drag us all down into Hades. Greek Prime Minster Alexis Tsipras and his Syriza party was counting on just such a reaction from financial markets when he engineered his "No" referendum two weekends ago.

When the end of the world did not materialize, Greece did an abrupt about face and rushed back to the negotiation table. Since then, Greece has passed an austerity program and is now in the process of receiving much-needed bailout money. Greek banks and financial markets are planning to re-open this coming week.

In my last column, I advised readers that any fallout from the Greek debacle either here or abroad should be viewed as a buying opportunity. It was. World markets experienced a sharp but brief pullback. Since then various European markets have risen almost 10 percent, not counting the currency movements.

On our side of the pond, the financial mishaps in Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, also spooked investors. Even the doomsayers had a hard time linking events in Greece to what was happening in Puerto Rico, but they tried. Some would have had us believe that what was happening in P.R. "might" happen in other municipalities like Chicago. Since then Puerto Rico has come up with a plan to restructure its debt, but that news never reached page one.

Finally, we have the Chinese stock market. Readers might recall that I was expecting a 20 percent decline or more in that market given its spectacular performance over the last 12 months. That prediction turned out to be more than accurate, since at its low the mainland Chinese markets were down over 30 percent.

Predictions that this market, which is relatively closed to foreign investment, would somehow provide a Black Swan event that would engulf our market and send the world into a financial meltdown was ludicrous. But, in an atmosphere of fear and worry, it was taken at face value by a panicked investing public. That decline was and is also a buying opportunity, although I suspect few have taken advantage of it.

Where does that leave us? The U.S. markets are at, in the case of NASDAQ, or nearing historical highs. So far this quarter's earnings have come in better than expected (surprise, surprise). The Fed is still making noises about hiking interest rates an infinitesimal amount before the end of the year. Greece has averted another calamity but the drama is far from over. I expect more Chinese government support to bolster their stock market.

We can expect 2-3 pullbacks or more in the stock market of between 3-9 percent every year. We just had one. As I have advised readers all year —stay invested and ignore the background noise.

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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The Independent Investor: When 'No' Means 'Yes'
By Bill Schmick On: 02:07PM / Friday July 17, 2015

A Greek referendum less than two weeks ago delivered a resounding "no" when voters were asked to approve the European Community's austerity ultimatum in exchange for a new bailout. While Grecians danced in the streets, global markets tumbled, but fast forward 10 days and we now face an entirely different set of outcomes.

Today the Greek parliament approved an austerity program much tougher than the one they originally rejected in the referendum vote. It was approved by 229 votes out of the 300-seat chamber. In a showdown with the EU, it was either pass the package or get booted out of the Euro.

You may need a little background in order to understand this about face by the Greeks. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has spent the last six months deliberately stalling while negotiating in bad faith with the "Troika" (the IMF, EU and ECB).  When it appeared that the other side was getting close to agreeing on some of his demands, Tsipras walked out while calling for a referendum. That deliberate act of sabotage was supposed to force the Troika to agree to even more concessions on the back of a "no" vote. Instead, it did just the opposite.

Tsipras' theatrics convinced the Troika that they were dealing with damaged goods and that the era of conciliation was over when it came to dealing with Greece and its problems. There would be no more emergency money. Greek banks would remain closed as would the stock market. If default and an exit from the Euro were the outcome, so be it.

Germany's Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble, who had become increasingly cynical of the on-again, off-again, negotiating tactics of the Greeks, floated an idea in last weekend's emergency session of the EU in Brussels that would kick Greece out of the Euro in what he called a "five-year time out." Although not all EU members agreed with the idea, enough did. The statement signaled that Germany had had enough. Either Greece was going to toe the line or it was going to experience a financial and economic meltdown.

Tsipras was given until the middle of this week to convince his nation's parliament to pass a series of austerity measures that went beyond those already rejected in the referendum vote. Some of these changes include rules and regulations that would make it easier to fire employees, the end of some protectionist measures that would open up multiple markets including pharmaceuticals and diary products, as well as the creation of a privatization fund whose proceeds would be earmarked to pay down debt.

In order to comply, Tsipras found himself in the unenviable position of enlisting the aid of the opposition parties while fighting his own hardline supporters in the Syriza party. In the meantime, a confused and disillusioned populace wonders how and why their leaders have sold them down the river. It would appear that even though the beleaguered Prime Minster was successful in this latest turnabout, his days as a leader are numbered. The EU has already cast their verdict, Tsipras cannot be trusted. His own party will likely call for new snap elections and a no confidence vote regardless of the outcome of this austerity deal.     

In hindsight, the flawed tactics of Tsipras and his newly-elected, left-wing Syriza party were typical of a group of amateurs trying to play Game of Thrones with the likes of Germany's Angela Merkel and Christine lagarde, director of the IMF.  Unfortunately, the entire charade has left the leading actors somewhat tarnished as a result. Germany and the other members of the EU, an organization founded on the principals of democracy, harmony and peaceful unification have just engineered "one of the most brutal diplomatic de-marches in the history of the European Union" as a front-page story of the Wall Street Journal described it.

Greece is left with an economy at a standstill, an exploding debt load with no real way to pay its creditors and a population, already drowning in austerity measures, facing even worse. Do I think that the worst is over for Greece and the EU? Not by a long shot.

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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@theMarket: Global Markets Weather a Wild Week
By Bill Schmick On: 08:02AM / Saturday July 04, 2015

After weeks of trading in a narrow range, world markets broke to the downside. The culprit was once again Greece. Now investors must wait until this Sunday to discover if there is more selling ahead.

Last weekend's move by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras of Greece to call a voter referendum in the middle of last-minute negotiations with its creditors effectively destroyed what chance there had been for a reasonable solution to that country's debt crisis.

European negotiators from the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund (commonly known as the Troika) stormed away from the bargaining table. They withdrew further financial support from Greece, which, in turn, forced the Greek government to close their banks and stock market, ration the amount of money Greek citizens could withdraw from ATMs as well as delay pensioner's payments.

When world markets opened on Monday, Asian markets were clobbered first with declines ranging from 2-5 percent. European markets followed suit with Italy, Spain and Portugal down over 5 percent. The larger markets, such as Germany, fell almost as much. By the time American markets opened, it was a foregone conclusion that the rest of Monday would be rough. By the time the smoke cleared, the S&P 500 Index, the Dow and NASDAQ were all down over 2 percent.

The moderate gains that U.S. markets had compiled year to date have disappeared. The averages are flat to only slightly up for the year as a result. Technically, we are quite near the S&P 500 Index's 200 day moving average (200 DMA), an important level.

I said last week that a 5-6 percent decline could happen at any time. So far this sell-off has barely registered minus-3 percent. That is nothing to fret over.

Europe, on the other hand, has already experienced a 10 percent correction (after a 22 percent gain in the first quarter). The continent could fall further depending on what happens Sunday. The situation in Greece is now in the voter's hands.

The broad strokes of the referendum appear to give the people of Greece the choice of voting "no" on the Troika's demands for increased austerity in exchange for further bailout money. Clearly, Tsipras (in a bid to stay in power) is squirming out of making that decision, even though he was elected to do just that. He is urging voters to reject more austerity, hoping to then use that verdict to extract more concessions from the Troika.

A "yes" vote would imply that voters would accept further belt-tightening measures as part of any creditor agreement. Whether Tsipras could survive such a vote is unclear. Wall Street seems convinced that the outcome will automatically set Greece on a path to either staying or exiting the Euro and the European Union.

Certainly, the European powers, led by Germany, are adamant that the referendum would and should be a decision on whether Greece remains in the Euro or returns to the Drachma. Unfortunately, they do not control the referendum nor how the questions will be phased. But given that the EU is both a political and an economic union, I believe neither side is going to get what they want. In which case, the drama will continue.

But I am certain that the decline in European stocks is a buying opportunity for aggressive investors. Europe will survive this mess, in my opinion, and prosper despite it. Like China, which is still in the throes of its own correction, European equities are not for the faint of heart. Remember too that with the purchase of European stocks (unlike China) comes the additional risk of getting the currency right. Will the Euro go up or down and over what time frame? I believe that over the long term the Euro will continue to decline but over the next six months, who can say?

Bottom line: if you decide to put your toe in the water over there make sure you do so knowing all the risks. Above all, keep your exposure toe-sized and no larger.

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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The Independent Investor: Supermarkets Evolve to Survive
The Independent Investor: Are You Ready for El Niņo
@theMarket: O Ye of Little Faith
The Independent Investor: When 'No' Means 'Yes'
@theMarket: Global Markets Weather a Wild Week
The Independent Investor: Same-Sex Marriage Good for Business
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