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@theMarket: Ben Does It Again
By: Bill Schmick On: 06:16AM / Saturday April 30, 2011
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This week's pivotal event was Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke's first press conference with the media. Judging from the price action in the stock market, Ben passed with flying colors.

The chairman provided a bit of clarity, reassuring the market that in June, when QE II expires, it will be a gradual process of monetary tightening as opposed to a sharp spike in interest rates. Clearly, he gave little comfort to the dollar bulls as the greenback continues its decline (down 8 percent year-to-date) while dashing the hopes of bears in the precious metals markets as gold and silver raced ever higher on a wave of speculative fever and inflation expectations.

Although both Bernanke and U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner have expressed their support of a strong dollar policy, neither are doing anything to stem its fall, nor should they, in my opinion. Two years ago I predicted that the U.S. would attempt to export its way out of recession, as would the rest of the world. Judging from the recent spate of quarterly earnings results, U.S. corporations, especially multinations, are making big bucks on the back of the weakening dollar. Profits among corporations are up 26 percent from last year. This will be the seventh quarter in a row where corporations posted double-digit earnings growth.

In Europe, Germany is also benefiting from an upsurge in exports that is helping that country reduce unemployment, propel economic growth and improve corporate profits. At the same time, traditional weak currency, high exporting emerging market countries are feeling the opposite effect as their currencies strengthen, exports slow and imports climb.

Friday's revelation that GDP only grew by 1.8 percent should not have disappointed investors since just about every economist in the nation was predicting as much. Bad weather and the high prices of energy and food were blamed for the less than stellar performance. Most consider it a blip in the forecasts and growth will improve next quarter.

Despite the on-going outrage by commentators (and everyone else who has to eat and drive) about the rising prices of those two commodities, the overall core inflation rate in this country continues to remain below the Fed's targets.

"How can they just ignore gas prices or what I'm paying for meat, milk and even cereal?" demands a client and mother of three, who commutes from South Egremont to Albany every day.

The Fed argues that it cannot control the prices of food and oil, which are set on world markets and represent the totality of demand from around the globe. The central bankers contend that the recent spike in oil, for example, is transitory and will subside over time.

They have a point. Consider food and energy prices in the summer of 2008. They were at record highs only to plummet in the second half of the year. If the Fed had tightened monetary policy (by raising interest rates) in say, June 2008 at the height of the price climb for food and energy, it would have taken six to eight months before those higher rates impacted the economy. By then we were sliding into recession. Tightening would have transformed a serious recession into another Great Depression.

As for the markets, it's steady as she goes, mate, with strong earnings propelling markets closer to my first objective, S&P 500 level of 1,400. I believe we are seeing a little sector rotation going on with consumer discretionary, semiconductors and technology sectors taking a back set this week to industrials, consumer durables and precious metals. Along the way, expect pullbacks but don't be spooked by downdrafts. Take them in stride, stay invested and prosper.

Bill Schmick is an independent investor with Berkshire Money Management. (See "About" for more information.) None of the information presented in any of these articles 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 (toll free) or e-mail him at wschmick@fairpoint.net. Visit www.afewdollarsmore.com for more of Bill's insights.



Write a comment - 0 Comments       Tags: bears, Bernanke, QEII, export, interest rates, earnings      
The Independent Investor: Why Banks Won't Lend
By: Bill Schmick On: 02:28PM / Friday April 29, 2011
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Then we'd own those banks of marble,
With a guard at every door;
And we'd share those vaults of silver,
That we have sweated for

"Banks are made of Marble" by Pete Seeger

Over the last few years, the Federal Reserve has practically given money away to any entity that calls itself a bank. Individual states are also trying, but so far the banks have just been hoarding this growing pile of cash instead of loaning it out. Why?

Two reasons come to mind: Banks are afraid of taking on lending risk. Burnt by the subprime mortgage debacle, they are now overly cautious on who they lend to in an economic recovery they are not sure is here to stay. Two, interest rates are at historical lows. If rates start to rise, loans made today could turn to losses fairly quickly.

Recently, state Treasurer Steven Grossman of Massachusetts announced a plan to give banks $100 million to deposit into local community banks for the express purpose of lending to small businesses. The money is part of a statewide effort called the Small Business Banking Partnership. The announcement has been met with some resistance within the banking community. Bankers claim it's not needed because small businesses aren't interested in borrowing due to the poor economy.

That's bad news because small businesses employ the vast majority of workers in this country and pay the most taxes. They are the backbone of this country's economy. Over the last year, small business lending has become a political football since the establishment of the $1.5 billion State Small Business Credit Initiative by the Obama Administration. The plan calls for the banking community to pony up $10 in new loans for every $1 of loans by the state government. Since then, banks and their lobbyists have gone out of their way to show how much lending they are doing to small businesses.

For example, in Massachusetts, as in other states, community banks account for as much as 80 percent of small business lending and that trend has increased through the recession, according to the state's banking association. They claim the amount of lending has also almost doubled in the last six years.

What they don't mention is a lot of that recent growth was in picking up old loans that out of state and money center banks had dumped or would not renew due to the recession and heightened credit risk. A recent survey of members of the International Franchise Association contradicts some of the data coming out of the financial lending sector. The survey revealed that 39 percent of the franchisors report that more than half of their franchisees and prospects are unable to obtain needed financing, which is up 33 percent from a survey taken last year.

"There are several businessmen right here in the county who want to open franchises with me but can't get loans from local banks," says a successful fast-food chain entrepreneur in Berkshire County. "The banks sent them packing to the SBA for help."

The bankers' argument that businesses are not growing and aren't applying for new loans is disputed by the small-business owners I talk to.

"What they aren't telling you is the hoops a small-business owner has to jump through in order to get that new loan," says the head of a large excavating company in the region.

"They want collateral and a lot of it. They want you to sign your life away, and none of that matters unless you are making tons of income as well. And once I pass all their risk criteria, I get the privilege of borrowing short term from them at 8-9 percent when the prime rate is 3.25 percent."

Given that most banks are paying under 1 percent for money to loan, one would think that a 7-8 percent spread should bring in plenty of profits. That is one of the main reasons that the Federal Reserve has been keeping interest rates at historical lows for so long. So far it hasn’t worked.

And speaking of the Fed and the end of QE II in June, most everyone (including the banks), are expecting interest rates to rise in the second half of this year. Few bankers have the appetite to lend money to a small business when they expect rates to rise. And if they do, they only want to lend for a short period of time.

"That's also difficult for a small business to handle," explains the excavator, "if I have to go back to the bank in three years, I can't do long range planning. I can't even be sure I'll get a new loan and if so, at what price. It makes being a small business owner that much more uncertain."

Grossman plans to come to Pittsfield sometime in May to discuss the state's funding initiative with local bankers. I think it would be a good idea to meet with small-business owners as well. That way he would be able to hear their side of the story before leaving town.

Bill Schmick is an independent investor with Berkshire Money Management. (See "About" for more information.) None of the information presented in any of these articles 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 (toll free) or e-mail him at wschmick@fairpoint.net. Visit www.afewdollarsmore.com for more of Bill's insights.



Write a comment - 1 Comment       Tags: banks, QEII, franchise, lending      
@theMarket: Let the Good Times Roll
By: Bill Schmick On: 10:56AM / Saturday April 23, 2011
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Don't stand there moaning, talking trash
If you wanna have some fun,
You'd better go out and spend some cash
And let the good times roll
Let the good times roll
I don't care if you young or old,
Get together and let the good times roll

— B.B. King, Bobby Bland

It appears Monday's low in the stock market averages concluded this last little sell off. The decline occurred, courtesy of Standard and Poor's credit agency. It reduced its outlook for U.S. Treasury bonds from neutral to negative. Since then the markets have climbed back and are now preparing to test the next level of resistance.

We can credit some stellar earnings announcements, especially in the technology sector, for the turnaround in investor sentiment. Most investors were worried that the Japanese earthquake disruptions — especially in semiconductors — would hurt high-tech companies this quarter. But the strength in demand from around the world, especially in the manufacturing sector, has more than made up for any Japanese-generated short falls.

None of this should come as a surprise to readers since I have been expecting (and writing) that global economic growth would gain momentum this year. It is one fundamental reason why I think equity markets will experience upward momentum into the summer.

"But what about the deficit, the declining dollar, inflation, oil prices?" wrote an exasperated reader, who has disagreed with my bullish calls of late.

"How can the market keep going up and up when all these negatives are out there?" he moaned, while still sitting in cash.

All of those concerns are quite real and I am not discounting any of them. See, for example, my recent column "A Shot Across Our Bow" on Standard & Poor's debt warning. It is obvious that the market is choosing to ignore these negatives for now. I'm sure investors will re-visit these worries when the time is right, but remember Maynard Keynes once said that markets can stay irrational about certain things far longer than you or I can stay solvent.

I contend that as long as the Federal Reserve continues to supply cheap money to the markets in the form of its quantitative easing operations, the markets will go up. The historical low short term interest rates that are now a fact of life are forcing more and more investors to take on riskier assets in order to get a decent return for their money.

I'm looking for a quite sizable "melt-up" in global stock markets over the next few weeks or months. I'm also expecting some new moves by China to allow their currency to strengthen in an effort to combat their soaring inflation rate. That would add further impetus to a declining dollar, which would boost our exports and add more growth to the U.S. economy. It might also turn investor's focus back on China, which has lagged world markets for some time. Stay tuned.

Bill Schmick is an independent investor with Berkshire Money Management. (See "About" for more information.) None of the information presented in any of these articles 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 (toll free) or e-mail him at wschmick@fairpoint.net. Visit www.afewdollarsmore.com for more of Bill's insights.



Write a comment - 3 Comments       Tags: markets, debt, high-tech, ratings      
The Independent Investor: A Warning Shot Across Our Bow
By: Bill Schmick On: 04:32PM / Thursday April 21, 2011
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Monday's surprise announcement that the outlook for U.S. debt has been downgraded reverberated around the world. Global markets shuddered. Investors rubbed their eyes as they re-read the announcement and then hit the "sell" button. Markets declined by 1 to 2 percent. Yet, by the end of the week, stocks and bonds recovered. Was this some kind of false alarm?

First the facts: the Standard & Poor's Rating Services Inc.(S&P) has reduced the outlook for U.S. debt from "stable" to "negative." It did not change its AAA rating for U.S. federal debt nor does it plan to do so anytime in the near future. But it is potentially the first step in an actual ratings downgrade. The White House had been given advance warning last Friday. Officials tried to forestall the credit agency's actions but S&P is convinced that our high debt and deficit levels are raising the possibility that the U.S. fiscal situation could become "meaningfully weaker" if the government fails to improve the country's financial health.

A barrage of spin doctors, led by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, was launched on the nation's airwaves this week in an effort to assure one and all that there is no cause for alarm. It reminded me of that scene in "The Wizard of Oz" in which Toto pulls the curtain away from the Wizard revealing his fire- breathing, smoke-making, image projection machine.

"Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain," the Wizard bellows through his loud speaker system. But like Dorothy, we Americans should ignore the Wizards advice whether in Oz, or in this case, Washington.

The change in the ratings outlook, like a warning shot across the nation's bow, says to me that unless we get our house in order, and do so quickly, there will be hell to pay.

S&P recognizes that all the grand standing going on right now between the political parties is just that. They have no intention of do anything about the deficit until after the next election. Both sides are simply jockeying for position. They are using the deficit to put their presidential candidate and party in the best position to capture the election which is still two years away.

S&P's base case assumes $4 trillion to $5 trillion in deficit reduction would need to occur over the next 10 to 12 years, but it also insists that there needs to be a concrete plan in places for deficit cutting that is actually implemented by 2013. That implies a spending decline of at least 20% of U.S. GDP and an agreement prior to the next presidential elections.

What's at stake here is another Black Swan event, in my opinion. If the politicians flub this one, and our credit rating is cut, I suspect the greenback will be worth about half of its value today. Interest rates across the board in the United States will skyrocket. That will pretty much gut any hopes of a continued economic recovery and the unemployment rate, well, you get the picture.

You might wonder, therefore, why the politicians are stalling since they know the consequences as well as you and me. Taxes, a cut in spending, this year's budget, the debt ceiling – everything appears to be a political football. Politicians blithely fiddle while Rome burns because they all know the truth behind the nation's books.

Historically, politicians and their parties have very little to do with balancing the nation's budget. The most important single variable, when it comes to reducing the deficit, balancing the budget, or actually enjoying a surplus is economic growth. The stronger and longer the period of economic growth, the faster the deficit is reduced. The problem in this recovery is that due to its nature, the U.S. recovery has been anemic and therefore revenues (taxes) aren't coming in fast enough to reduce the deficit as it has in prior economic cycles.

This time around, a combination of growth and spending cuts are called for but politicians on both sides of the aisle are notorious for kicking that particular can down the corridor. The S&P is warning them that the "the can stops here."

Bill Schmick is an independent investor with Berkshire Money Management. (See "About" for more information.) None of the information presented in any of these articles 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 (toll free) or e-mail him at wschmick@fairpoint.net. Visit www.afewdollarsmore.com for more of Bill's insights.



Write a comment - 0 Comments       Tags: ratings, debt, markets      
@theMarket: Stair-Stepping Higher
By: Bill Schmick On: 04:54PM / Friday April 15, 2011
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The best rallies are those that move up, take a breather and then move up again. That way markets do not get extended, the gains are fairly predictable, as are the pullbacks. It appears that is the kind of market we are in at present.

The S&P 500 Index reached a low of 1,249 exactly one month ago. It then soared 7.2 percent to 1,339 in the next 23 days. We began this pullback a week ago and so far have given back less than 2 percent of those gains. I would expect a bit more time and possibly downside before resuming our march toward 1,400 on the S&P.

If you are looking for excuses (as so many of us do) to explain the short-term gyrations in the market there are plenty of culprits. If you are a Republican, it's all about the runaway deficit and the opposition's unwillingness/inability to tackle spending and raise taxes. Democrats will argue it's the fault of the GOP and the tea party that narrowly missed shutting down the government by tacking on superfluous riders to the deal. I expect increased rhetoric and market volatility as the debate on the debt ceiling intensifies, so be prepared.

But all of that is simply headline news. The real questions that are making the rounds of trading floors and hedge fund offices are these: At what point does "non-core" inflation, (energy and food, for example) start to impact corporate profits? Are we already seeing some of that risk this quarter as companies voice their concerns about profit margins in the future?

When will the widening gap between America's haves and have-nots reach a boiling point? Over 70 percent of the population is caught in a terrible climate of stagflation while the top 30 percent get richer and richer. Higher commodity prices will eventually force producers to pass on price increases to consumers. Will these consumers demand higher wages in order to stay afloat? Will corporations respond by raising worker's income or will they hold the line? If they hold the line, will that mean consumer spending retreats and the economy slows? Either way, corporate profits will suffer.

Overseas, Spain's real estate losses are massive and at some point will come to the forefront. How will Europe and the world meet that challenge? Spain, unlike Greece, Portugal and Ireland, is a big economy and problems there would have a severe impact on other economies.

Will China be able to continue its role as the world's economic locomotive? The government is struggling to engineer a "soft landing" as it attempts to control/reduce inflation while maintaining a high growth rate. At best, this is a difficult task and if they over tighten, causing their economy to falter, what will that do to global economic growth?

At the center of this debate is QE 2. There is an extremely high correlation between the rise in commodity prices, the stock market and the Federal Reserve's open market purchases of securities. The ripple effect of QE 2 has spread all over the world and the above questions center on what happens with the end of QE2 in June.

The Fed is flooding the economy with money and that money is sitting in bank vaults and on corporate balance sheets. So there is plenty of money to hire workers and raise wages to pay for those higher prices brought on by sky-rocketing commodity prices. Of course, what I am describing is the beginning of an inflationary cycle that, if left unchecked, could lead to hyper-inflation.

Given that no one knows how this story will turn out, one can forgive the two steps forward, one step back volatility in the markets. Gold and silver continue to rocket higher since all we can be sure of right now is that the Fed will continue to pump money into the economy until June. It is also why I believe the stock market, regardless of these short-term pullbacks, is heading higher for now.

Bill Schmick is an independent investor with Berkshire Money Management. (See "About" for more information.) None of the information presented in any of these articles 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 (toll free) or e-mail him at wschmick@fairpoint.net. Visit www.afewdollarsmore.com for more of Bill's insights.



Write a comment - 0 Comments       Tags: markets, commodities, inflation, Congress      
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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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