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The Independent Investor: OPEC's Oil Ploy
By Bill Schmick On: 01:29PM / Friday October 17, 2014
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Over the last four months, Americans have received an early Christmas present. The price of oil has dropped precipitously, benefiting both corporations as well as the consumer. But that could be a two-edged sword for this nation.

Brent crude, the global oil benchmark in the futures market, has declined 23 percent since its June price of $115 per barrel. Today it is trading below $83 per barrel, providing an enormous windfall in cost savings for all of us. The retail price of gasoline has dropped 15 percent during the same time period to a national average of $3.17 a gallon. Every one-cent decline in gas prices equals about a $1 billion drop in energy spending, according to economists. So we have all just received what amounts to a tax cut that has gone directly into our pockets.     

That's the good news. The bad news is that many of the same economists believe the reason prices have fallen so quickly is the deteriorating state of the global economy. Slower growth equals less demand for oil, all things being equal. As such we find ourselves with an oversupply of oil.

Now usually, OPEC, which controls the lion's share of oil production worldwide, would begin to throttle down the amount of oil produced per day. There would be meetings and all the disparate members of this energy cartel would decide what cut backs are necessary in order to prop up energy prices. This time around no such agreement is contemplated.

Instead, Saudi Arabia, the energy colossus, has been quietly telling the oil market that they would be quite comfortable with even lower prices for an extended period of time. Behind the scenes, they have said that $80 a barrel for a year or two would be just fine with them even though that level of pricing would hurt all OPEC members, and some more than others. Venezuela, for example, is in such bad shape that oil at that level would probably force the country into bankruptcy.

So what, you might ask, is the reason for this change in strategy? OPEC recognizes that a new competitor is emerging in the form of United States energy independence. Readers may be surprised to learn that the U.S. has emerged as the No. 1 oil producer in the world, even as it maintains the same spot in energy consumption. We can thank new technology, such as oil and gas fracking, for the turnabout in our energy prospects.

OPEC competitors would like to slow the rate of production here at home, thereby reducing our competitive edge. The best way to do that is by lowering prices. As prices drop certain sources of energy such as fracking and tar sands become less economical in comparison. Industry experts figure that a drop to $75 a barrel in oil would begin to curtail drillers and producers from developing additional fracking wells. The fracking industry has become much more cost sensitive since the early days of 2003. There has been so much capital sunk into the cost of expanding this output that any price change in oil impacts the bottom line much faster.

Investors are well aware of that risk, which explains why many energy stocks have dropped 25-30 percent over the last month. By keeping prices low for a year or two, OPEC could effectively gut much of the growth in energy production here at home. I suspect that is their game plan going forward.

There are other negative implications if OPEC succeeds in their plan. The U.S. oil and gas sector has added over 400,000 jobs since 2003. Some estimate that another 1 million to 2 million jobs have been created in construction, manufacturing and transportation to support our drive for energy independence. As a result, although the cost savings in energy consumption might contribute a 0.03 percent gain to GDP growth, the hit to Americas as a result of a decline in the energy sector could be far greater.     

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: Are We There Yet?
By Bill Schmick On: 05:21PM / Friday October 10, 2014
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No, is the short answer to that headline. The S&P 500 Index needs to test 1,905 or thereabouts before all is said and done. You might ask why.

The talking heads will tell you weak data in Europe is at fault. Others will blame the recent strength in the dollar. Then there is the uncertainty of the mid-term elections now less than a month away. The problem with all of the above is that investors have known all about these issues for months and months. So why react now?

Readers will recall that since the springtime I have been waiting for the markets to test what is called the 200 Day Moving Average (DMA), which is a popular technical indicator that investors use to analyze price trends. The 200 DMA is simply a security's average closing price over the last 200 days. You would think that the higher the 200 DMA climbs the more bullish it is for stocks, but actually the reverse is true

The higher the ratio climbs the more optimistic traders have become and, for a contrarian, like me, that flashes a danger signal. Historically, the S&P 500 Index has re-tested (sold down) to its 200 DMA at least once every two years. We were way overdue for a retest. This, among other indicators (mid-term election years since 1950 have experienced at least an 8 percent correction), has made me cautious as well.

Over the last few weeks I have been warning investors to expect a pick up in volatility and boy have we experienced that over the last five days. The Dow Jones Industrial Average has experienced a swing of over 2,000 points up and down through the week. Wednesday and Thursday marked the largest one-day gain and worst one day decline in 17 years. This kind of volatility, after five months of practically none, is an emotional shock to most of us.

Back in 2010-2011, we had far longer periods of high volatility and experienced much deeper pullbacks. Human beings, however, tend to have short memories so October has been especially painful for most. Your first reaction is to sell and stop the pain before it gets any worse. That's a normal feeling, but feelings have no business in investment, so what should you do?

Nothing, if you are fully invested and most people are at this point; hang in there. The 200 DMA is just a few points away. Sometimes the indexes will bounce off that line and shoot straight up, but that is rare. Usually, stocks will overshoot to the downside, and in that case, we might see 1,875 or so and then spend a week meandering up and then down around the 200 DM level.

The point is that this is a technical sell-off based on overbought markets that have been this way for some time. We are down about 5 percent from the highs. Fundamentally, the economy is in good shape. Stocks are not overvalued. We simply need to pull back and catch our breath. If you have any money on the sidelines I would advise you to start putting it to work as the market declines from here. Not all at once, because no one can pick the bottom. Industrials, mega cap stocks, technology, health care, financials are just some areas that come to mind. This would also be a good time to swap out of your more defensive positions in favor of more aggressive equity holdings.

Above all, stop worrying about the volatility. It is the cost of doing business in the equity market.

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 Is This Recovery Different?
By Bill Schmick On: 03:59PM / Thursday October 09, 2014
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The stock markets are at record highs. Interest rates are at record lows. The unemployment rate is below 6 percent and yet, most Americans are unhappy. They are not feeling the recovery. Why?

The answer to that question is complicated. But let's start with the financial crisis. Like the Crash of 1929, the events of 2008-2009 were also the result of a credit crisis. The country's financial system was on the brink of a meltdown. In the 1930s, a lot of banks went under.  That was averted this time by spending massive amounts of money to shore up our financial institutions. However, the damage was done.

We lost trust. For the first time in three generations, Americans had doubts as to the credit-worthiness of its most venerable institutions. The ensuing recession was unlike any that America has experienced since the Great Depression. When one loses trust, both lender and borrower pull back. It takes a long, long time before that trust is rebuilt.  That process is still ongoing.

Readers may recall that it was only in 1939-1940, a full 10 years after the "Crash," before this country was able to climb out of its longest downturn in memory. Some say that if it had not been for World War II it would have been even longer. I don't believe that it will take us quite that long to return to a normal economy but from a historical perspective, the present state of our economy is understandable.

Back in August, The New York Times crunched some numbers to determine what the economy would look like coming out of a normal recession, compared to what is happening today. They found that five economic sectors out of 11 were lagging badly in this recovery. They were housing, state and local government spending, durable goods consumption, business equipment investment and federal spending. Let's examine how credit impacts these sectors.

Housing is no surprise. After all, it was at the forefront of the subprime loans financial crisis. There is a shortfall of over $239 billion in missing output in this sector. We know the reasons for this shortfall — tighter lending standards and housing prices that are still underwater from their peak. That means less jobs, fewer wage increases, a less mobile workforce since few are willing to sell their homes at a loss to relocate for a job. Bottom line: banks have a trust issue with borrowers; less borrowing, less housing, simple.

Less state and local government spending represents a $180 billion gap versus what they should be spending. The reason for the decline in spending is the absence of tax revenues and burgeoning debt burden most local governments incurred as a result of the recession. States have cut back drastically and for a good reason. They need to borrow just to make ends meet and who will be willing to lend if they are spending like a drunken sailor?  

The $178 billion gap in durable goods consumption is all about big-ticket items, many of which you need to borrow in order to purchase. Things like automobiles, furniture, appliances, etc. If you are already underwater on your house, who can afford to borrow and who will lend to you?

Corporations also have a trust issue. They are spending $120 billion less on plants and equipment than they should be because they lack faith in the future demand for their goods. Most of them can borrow all they want but they don't or if they do it is not for plants and equipment. It is for things they can control like stock buybacks or mergers and acquisitions.

That leaves the Federal government, which is spending $118 billion less than it would in a normal recovery. Because we were forced to spend so much in propping up our financial sectors, the nation's debt skyrocketed to a level that created a crisis of confidence among our politicians. The fear that the nation might not be able to service, let alone pay off these historical high levels of debt resulted in a compromise that in effect reduced spending for the next decade.

To make matters worse, none of the other six sectors that make up the major contributors to gross domestic product have been able to take up the slack. So where does that leave us? When one gets into financial difficulty, it takes a long time to repair a credit rating. It takes years, and that is exactly what has happened between borrowers and lenders over the last five years. There is no way to hurry the process. In the meantime, it is what it is.

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: October Starts Off on High Note
By Bill Schmick On: 06:06PM / Friday October 03, 2014
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Volatility was the buzz word this week in the stock market. The averages moved up and down by a percent or so on a daily basis but ended the week on a high note. Can we expect more of the same?

Traditionally, at least the first two weeks of this month have been volatile, so the good news is that we are half way through that period and so far there has been scant damage to the averages. At one point this week the S&P 500 Index was down about 4 percent from its highs but stocks found support around the 1935 level and bounced from there.

Friday the markets were galvanized by a jobs report that showed 248,000 job gains in the month of September. That drove the unemployment rate down to 5.9 percent, finally dropping below that elusive 6 percent number. In celebration, the markets liked that data point and added another percent or so in performance.

Of course, some worry that if the economy gains further strength too quickly that the Fed may begin to raise interest rates earlier than the expected date of mid-March 2015. So far that is simply supposition. But among Federal Reserve Governors there is growing debate on whether or not to raise rates sooner. Two, and maybe three members (after today's employment number), of the Federal Open Market Committee are petitioning for a faster rate rise. But the buck stops with Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen, who has not indicated that an early rate rise is in the cards.

While we here in America are winding down our quantitative easing, over in Europe, Mario Draghi, the head of the European Central Bank, is wrestling with increasing their own QE program. He disappointed investors this week when he failed to announce additional stimulus measures on the heels of stimulus announced just last month. I keep reminding readers that decisions in Europe take much longer than in the U.S. Nonetheless, European markets sold off as a result.

In the meantime, the dollar keeps climbing, gold and silver continues to fall, with at least one analyst at Ned Davis Research predicting that the precious metal could ultimately fall to $650 an ounce.

Over in Asia, Hong Kong protests continue against the Mainland's heavy-handed tactics to reduce the quality of democratic elections on the island. Readers, however, should remember that prior to the peaceful transition of Hong Kong to China; Hong Kong was a colony of Great Britain. As such, its democratic rights were limited during that period as well. That doesn't make it right but it is the facts. Although it makes great headlines and sound bites, I don't believe that these protests will turn into some kind of "Asian Spring" in which the entire region falls into turmoil. Comparing what is happening in Hong Kong to the events in the Middle East is comparing apples to oranges, in my opinion.

As for our markets, I expect to see the rebound continue. In this volatile environment that means that we could reach 1,975 on the S&P 500 and 17,927 on the Dow quite easily. After that, there are two options: first, we drop back and re-test the recent lows between 1,910 and 1,935. There is a lot of technical support at those levels. If we break that, expect to see a long-overdue test of the 200 day moving average come in to play.

Or we could meander around the 1,975 level before trying to take out the historic highs. That is exactly what happened in every market dip so far this year. However, it is absolutely necessary for all the indexes to make new historical highs before the threat of another big dip is removed for the remainder of this year. In either case, I would do nothing but watch.

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: Money & Divorce — What You Should Know
By Bill Schmick On: 06:27PM / Thursday October 02, 2014
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You never paid attention to the family finances. Suddenly, your spouse wants a divorce. Fortunately, it's an amicable separation and you agree to split things up equitably. Where do you begin?

The above scenario is much more common than you think since the odds that your marriage will end in divorce are about even at best. More than 50 percent of first marriages end in divorce and 60 percent of remarriages, so the statistics are weighted against a successful marriage in America. It is extremely important therefore that both spouses understand their current financial situation and what their income needs will be post-divorce.

First, think of what your immediate cash needs will be. If one of you is working and the other is not, then cash flow is going to be highly important to the unemployed spouse. In that case, the cash-strapped party will want to receive assets that one can sell easily, quickly and with the least tax consequences. This would include stocks, mutual funds, exchange-traded funds bonds and possibly Roth IRA assets. For the spouse that is working, a combination of assets makes more sense. Some might not have immediate liquidity such as a home, a limited partnership, retirement plans and certain taxable accounts.

Remember also that you may decide to split up, but that does not mean your debtors will agree to let one or the other off the hook when it comes to your liabilities. Mortgage lenders, credit card companies, the IRS and even your credit report agencies will want to know exactly who and how each party are going to honor their debt obligations. As such, it is important that before you get divorced you agree to either pay off your mutual debt or determine each spouse's responsibility for that debt. It might also be a good idea to request a credit report as well since sometimes there may be some outstanding debt that has slipped through the cracks over the course of a long marriage.

By the way, don't ignore the tax ramifications of splitting up your assets. For example, if the spouse in need of cash flow sells securities there may be taxes to pay at the end of the year. If you are going to agree to sell your home and you think you can sell it for more than the purchase price, you might want to hold off getting a divorce until after the sale. Why?

The first $500,000 in capital gains from the proceeds of a home sale is not taxed as a married couple. However, if you are single the tax exclusion drops in half to $250,000. In addition, you may have also accumulated tax assets, which are tax losses that can be applied against taxable gains over the years. Make sure this issue is examined and those assets divided appropriately.

Next to your home, retirement assets are usually a major part of any couple's net worth.

Employer–sponsored retirement plans, IRAs, even pensions can be divided and transferred on a tax-free basis as long as the rules and regulations are followed. Divison of some of these retirement assets requires both the divorce court and the plan administrator's approval.

Getting a divorce for most of us is a traumatic emotional decision but it also has a major financial impact as well. Separating emotion from the financial decisions is tough enough when the both sides are relatively civil about the decision. It can be almost impossible when the divorce is acrimonious. And I have not even mentioned the subject of children. That is another topic for another time.

In any case it is a good idea to seek out someone who can advise you on these financial matters that has an objective point of view.

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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News Headlines
Pittsfield Auctions Off 54 Tax Liens for $667,000
Clarksburg Town Meeting OKs Budgets, Borrowing for Road Work
Local Pilots Provided Aid During Clarksburg Brush Fire
C-SPAN to Broadcast BCC Speech by Sen. Warren
North Adams Police Personnel Commended for Life-Saving Actions
Selectmen Approve Phase 1 Of Bridge Repair, Town Warrant
Pittsfield Paid $80K In Moving Costs to 100 North St.
North Adams Financial Review Finds Few Issues
Pittsfield Licensing Board OKs New Classic Car Business
Northern Berkshire Relay for Life Set Friday Night

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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