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The Independent Investor: The More You Look, The More You Lose

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

How many times a day, week, month or year do you check your tax-deferred savings account? Did you know that the more you look, the higher your chances of losing money? For most of us, once a year is more than enough.

There are clients of mine that check their retirement accounts several times a day. To say they are addicted to doing so would not be an understatement. Some of them are retired and have nothing else to do each day but sit in front of the television watching financial channels. They are usually male, have control issues and have substituted watching TV and their investment accounts for their old job.

The sad facts are that the more you look, the higher the probability that you will see losses in your portfolio. That's because the markets do little or nothing the vast majority of time each year. And over time, you can expect the markets to be up or down at least 50 percent of the time. That means that if you check your accounts every single day, you will be disappointed with your returns at least half the time. Do you really want to live like that?

In addition, a loss will always impact you psychologically worse than a gain. For some people, it can ruin their entire day. What's more, those feelings of loss are cumulative. The anxiety builds and builds until you just can't stand another day of losses. So what do you do? Sell, usually at the bottom or close to it.

But it gets worse. You see the largest annual gains in the markets over no more than a couple of days each year.  If you are not invested, you miss it. Then the anxiety really builds, because you don't know when to buy back in. Now you feel like one of those gamblers at a Las Vegas gaming table in the wee hours of the morning, bleary-eyed, hung-over and exhausted but hoping to get back to break-even before they can call it a day.

Various research studies have shown that the more you monitor your portfolio, the riskier you will perceive investing to be. It's even got a name — myopic loss aversion.  It creates an attitude of over-vigilance when viewing short-term losses. And since human behavior is best at avoiding pain in the short run, your natural emotional reaction is to do just that — cut your losses and run.

Behaviorists have studied those who check their portfolio every day versus those who take a peek once a quarter. The daily checker has twice the probability of seeing a moderate loss (2 percent or more) than those who view their account just once every three months. Those who check often are shown to take the least risk in their portfolios and earn the least amount of money.

Frequent monitoring of your investments also causes your stress level to rise. Those who do, experience the stress felt by most Wall Street traders, which is one of the most stressful jobs in the financial sector. And the older you are (listen up, retirees), the more serious will be the consequences to your health.

At any age, stressed-out brains sound an alarm that release potentially harmful hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline (fear and flight). Ideally, the brain turns down these alarms when stress hormones get too high. That doesn't happen when you keep trading (or checking your account). Over time the brain slowly loses its skills at regulating hormone levels. This can cause all kinds of health problems from Alzheimer's to heart attacks and everything in-between.

So how often should you check your accounts? Ideally, no more than once a year and never during down periods, if you want to stay healthy and happy. If you find that a difficult proposition, re-examine your risk tolerance and adjust your portfolio accordingly until you can accomplish that goal.

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: Fedspeak Occupies A Dull Market

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

It is late summer and a time when the rumor mills work overtime. Financial news departments, confronted with a paucity of breaking news, are desperate to publish "informed opinions" and comments from any public or private sector big name they can find. This week a squad of Fed officials was happy to accommodate.

Never mind that after a week of speeches on "will they, or won’t they” hike rates in September (or December, or anytime in between), investors are no closer to the truth than they were last week. As long as raising-interest rate decisions continue to be data-dependent, the markets remain in nowhere land.

I am not going to add my two cents to the debate because exactly when the Fed raises rates is immaterial to me. The financial markets may have an initial knee-jerk reaction when they do, but for longer-term investors, I believe that would simply be a buying opportunity. If traders choose to buy or sell stocks based on the conflicting opinions of every Fed official that gives a speech, well, what else can they do on a boring week in late August?

We are less than 1 percent from all-time highs in most of the averages. A week or two of choppy action should be expected. Some traders are concerned that as September approaches, we may see an even deeper pullback. That would not surprise me, but it would also not be a time to panic. 

Let’s say we do have a decline. One that could, from top to bottom, push the averages down by as much as 10 percent. But so what? In my opinion markets would quickly recoup those losses and climb even higher. Do you want to miss that?

Why am I so confident? Well, the way the election is shaping up, the odds overwhelmingly favor Hillary Clinton to win the White House. Wall Street wants and expects that. She represents "business as usual" for the markets with no new policies that will rock the boat. Sorry if you were hoping for change, but Hillary represents a continuation of existing policies with maybe one exception.

Many economists and pundits are now coming around to my view that whoever gets elected will launch a large economic spending program. Infrastructure seems the logical object of this anticipated government largesse. Fiscal spending should propel the economy further and may even restore the U.S. to its historical growth rates for at least a year or two. That would make the stock market roar.

As for the Fed and interest rates, the smart money is betting that if there is an interest rate hike, it won’t come until December at the earliest, and even then it is a big “if.” If history is any guide, the Fed will remain on the sidelines until after the election. In the past, when the central bank did raise rates three months prior to the election, the incumbent party always lost the presidency. I imagine that fact is not lost on a Fed chairwoman who was appointed by a Democrat.

Given that this is the near-term future scenario that the market is discounting, any technical sell-off would be just that. Technical in nature and not something that is out of the ordinary. My advice: Don’t try to time the market. Instead, simply tune out the noise and go to the beach.

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: Health Savings Accounts a Good Idea

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

Does your employer offer a health savings plan? Many do, especially if your company's health insurance has a high deductible. If you aren't taking advantage of it, you should and here's why.

Health Savings Accounts (HSA) were created as a way to help control rising health care costs. An HSA is an account, similar to a personal savings account or an IRA that you can open at work or on your own. Employers consider it a supplement to their high deductible employee health insurance plan (HDHP).

How do you know if your health insurance plan qualifies as a high deductible? Usually, HDHPs won't start paying out until after you've spent at least $1,300 (individual) or $2,600 for a family in expenses with your own money.

HSAs are used to pay for things your employer plan doesn't cover. Qualified medical expenses such as co-pays, health plan deductibles and other non-insurance covered medical expenses such as dental and vision expenses. You — not your employer or insurance company — own and control the money in your HSA. The government and the health insurers believe that most people will spend their health care dollars more wisely if they're using their own money.

HSAs function somewhat like a 401(k) or 403(b) plan. You can make contributions from your paycheck on a pre-tax basis. Your employer can also match some percentage of your contributions. No matter how much you make, you can open a HSA plan. Even though you may have already maxed out all of your other available tax-deferred savings plans, you can still open a HSA.

Health Savings Plans offer a triple tax advantage in an age where tax shelters are few and far between. Any contributions to the plan, investment earnings you may make, and money you take out for qualified medical expenses are all exempt from federal taxes.

There are some eligibility rules that do apply before you can qualify. You must be already covered by a HDHP. You can't have other health coverage that is not an HDHP (including Medicare). And you can't claim yourself as a dependent on another person's tax return.

The maximum you can contribute in any single year, as determined by the Internal Revenue Service, is $3,350 or, if you have a family plan, $6,750. These maximum levels are subject to yearly adjustments for inflation. That's also good news given the ever-escalating cost of health care.

So what happens, you might ask, if I contribute the maximum and I don't use it in the first year?

The money simply accumulates in your HSA account, rolling over year after year and hopefully making more and more investment returns. You can invest it in the stock or bond market or just about anything else you want. If you switch jobs, you can roll it over with you.

The only issue is that if you take the money out for anything other than medical expenses, you will pay taxes on it. If you take it out before 65 years of age, you will also pay a steep penalty.

If you are a generally healthy individual and want to save for future health care expenses, this is the way to do it. Or, if you are near retirement, a HSA makes a lot of sense because you know your medical expenses are going to increase in the future.

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: Three in One

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

On Thursday, all three U.S. benchmark averages — the S&P 500, NASDAQ and the Dow Jones Industrial Average—registered historical new highs on the same day. You don't want to know what happened the last time this happened.

That was in 1999. The year after ushered in the Dotcom boom and bust where some averages lost 20-30 percent and sent the markets on a roller coaster that did not end until 2003. Am I saying that will happen again? No, but I am expecting a pull-back soon in all three averages.

It is not something that most investors need to worry about. As I mentioned in my last few columns, stocks are overbought and valuations are being stretched higher and higher. That is a typical occurrence in financial markets. Rarely do markets trade on par with what we call a "fair valuation." Securities, for the most part, trade above or below their fair value all the time.

It is what causes rallies and followed by sell-offs, which is the very nature of the market.

So far this year, we have had two sharp declines: in January and then again in February, followed by a rally that has now taken us up to new highs (without a significant decline). OK, you might argue and say that the two-day, panic sell-off after Brexit qualified as a third. I won't quibble with that, but it does not negate another decline sometime this month or possibly in September.

The point is that when it occurs (notice I did not say if), I would simply ride it out. We are in an election year and if history is any guide, no matter how sharp or severe the decline, chances are that by the end of the year the markets will still be positive. Remember, too, that my own expectations were for a mid-single digit return from stocks in 2016. As of today, we have already reached my target.

There is nothing to say that the markets won't go higher from here, because just about everyone is looking for a correction in August. That is understandable, given what happened on Aug. 19 of last year. Remember the Dow down 1,000 points before the opening that day last summer? How soon we forget.

But a sell-off now would be too easy. Markets usually do what is most inconvenient for the most number of investors. A more likely scenario is that we continue to grind higher. The S&P 500 Index breaks 2,200 on the upside. Stock chasers rush in to buy and push the averages up by another 20-30 points and then wham!

Could it happen that way? Possibly, but how it happens and when should matter little to you. Whatever downside we have will simply be a passing storm. The clouds will lift as the election approaches. If Clinton continues to maintain her lead in the polls, or widen it, then Wall Street will take heart and continue to support stocks. On the other hand, if Trump should regain momentum or even move back to even with Clinton, then we can expect more volatility all the way up to Election Day.

So those who want Trump in the White House could pay for that support via damage to their investment portfolios. Nonetheless, I expect that whoever wins what damage may occur to our investments will be short-lived. Americans are forever optimistic and within weeks, if not days after the election, we will see the markets rally on renewed hope of better days ahead.

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: Why the Nation's Productivity Matters

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

The headlines paint a stark portrait of the amount of goods and services that American workers produce in any given year. We are in the longest decline of American productivity since the 1970s. That fact has economists pessimistic about the future chance of continued growth in this country.

Labor productivity has declined for nine straight months and fallen 0.4 percent over the last year. There is nothing complex about productivity statistics. Output per worker, according to the numbers, is drifting down when it should be going up. The last time this happened was in the 1970s, just before a nasty double-dip recession.

Increases in productivity are what makes America's middle-class what it is. Living standards improve when productivity climbs because the economy produces more goods and services with less. As a result, workers get raises, corporations add higher-paying jobs and you and I feel like we are making headway in our careers.

Contrary to what you might think, a decline in productivity does not mean that American workers are getting lazy or becoming inept in the workforce. Much of productivity depends on innovation. If a worker is using a 50-year-old tool or a 25-year old computer to produce a product, the chances are productivity is falling no matter how long or hard she is working.

Since WW II (up until 2005) annual productivity gains averaged 2.3 percent. New, more efficient methods of producing bigger and better products and services — developed during the war effort and were carried over into civilian society allowing productivity to roar. The advent of the computer especially in the 1990s goosed productivity even further and helped carry us through the postwar decades. Since then, the rate has gradually declined only averaging 1.2 percent or so since 2006 despite the "digital revolution."

You would think that these new digital innovations would have further aided productivity. After all, the internet and the development of things like emails and messaging should have made the workplace more efficient. Maybe it did provide some growth, but if so, its life cycle might have been shorter than we thought. It could be that mobile devices, networking applications and teleconferencing will provide a productivity life in the future. It is just that we are now in a lull between phases.

Some economists believe that the Baby Boomers are at fault. As experienced workers leave the labor force for retirement and are replaced by millennials with little or no experience, productivity falters even though employment overall is picking up. However, lower productivity seems to be a global phenomenon and not all countries are experiencing the Baby Boomer demographic.

A better explanation may be the lack of capital investment in this country since the financial crisis. Although corporations are flush with cash, they have been using that money to pay larger dividends or buy back their stock in the markets. Companies argue that regulations, taxes and unskilled American workers are at fault for their lack of capital spending. Falling worldwide wages may be another reason. Investing in technology and experimenting with better ways to produce a widget are expensive. Given the trend toward lower wages worldwide, it may be cheaper for companies to simply hire more workers at minimum wage and make-do with antiquated equipment or practices or move off-shore where wages are even less.

Reversing this trend may take a combination of factors. As unemployment drops and labor becomes scarce, companies will have to pay up for skilled workers. At some point, it may become economical once again to spend on plant and equipment rather than continue to pay and hire at higher and higher wages.

Then, too, after the presidential elections, some of Corporate America's complaints over taxes and regulations may be addressed by both political parties. At least, we can hope so since, without investment, innovation stalls and with it productivity.

Clearly, the decline in productivity has been and continues to be one of the major drags on returning America to its historical growth rates. Without gains in productivity, living standards flatten out and things feel like they are going backwards. Until we solve it, middle-class workers in America will continue to struggle.

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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