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The Independent Investor: Europe Follows the U.S. lead
By Bill Schmick On: 05:23PM / Thursday September 04, 2014
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The European Central Bank has lagged behind both the U.S. and Japanese counterparts in their efforts to stimulate the economies of the European Union. Today, they attempted to address that fault before Europe sinks into a recession.

Both bond and stock market investors have been anticipating additional stimulus for several weeks. ECB President Mario Draghi did not disappoint. He said the bank would begin purchasing asset-backed securities and covered bonds, which are investments based on loans to corporations and residential mortgages. The hope is that others will now also jump on board and buy them too.

If that occurs, then European banks would have the courage to make more such loans knowing that the central bank and others would be there to buy them. The thinking is that if it worked in the U.S., it should probably work in Europe.

The ECB also cut its benchmark interest rate to just 0.05 percent and the deposit rate (what European banks pay to keep their money in the ECB) to minus 0.2 percent.They stopped short, however, of actually buying government debt, at least for now.

The ECB reduced its forecast for economic growth this year to just 0.9 percent while lowering its inflation expectations to 0.6 percent. Some economists think that is still too optimistic. As of August, the EU’s inflation rate was 0.3 percent, far below the targeted rate of just under 2 percent.

The ECB has only one job and that is to manage inflation. A slide in inflation (0 or below) can be just as bad as an inflation rate rise. Deflation, rather than inflation, appears to be the greatest fear of officials in the EU. In a deflationary economy, it becomes much more difficult for governments, businesses and consumers to service their debt payments. Investment falls and so does spending. This downward spiral becomes extremely difficult to break.

Japan is a textbook case of what happens to a country caught in this kind of cycle. For over 20 years, Japan has suffered from low to negative growth, falling exports, declining wages and jobs and negative interest rates.  It has taken massive amounts of monetary stimulus, combined with government spending to break out of this cycle and the jury is still out on whether they will succeed.

The European Community, however, is a union of competing interests and it is difficult to arrive at a consensus among 18 members. It is one reason why the ECB has lagged behind its brethren banks around the world in supporting its economies. Although the ECB has conducted a low-interest rate policy, it has stopped short of more aggressive programs such as employing their balance sheet to buy vast amounts of debt in the financial markets. However, today it appears European officials have reached a moment of truth. Cutting interest rates alone has not been able to turn around the situation so even the foot draggers among the EU have finally agreed to more drastic measures.

Most observers would agree that Germany has been the loudest voice in opposing any bond buying actions by the ECB. However, today's actions set the stage for even more stimulus in the months ahead. Let's hope it works.

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: What's Up With Bonds?
By Bill Schmick On: 07:31AM / Saturday August 30, 2014
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At the beginning of the year, Wall Street was certain that interest rates were on their way up. Investors dumped all kinds of bonds anticipating that prices would plummet. Bond prices did the upset. Go figure.

The reversal caught just about everyone by surprise (including me). The thinking behind the bond call was straightforward. The Fed announced it was winding down its stimulus program. It also planned to begin raising interest rates sometime in 2015. Bond players, as they usually do, were expected to anticipate that move and begin to sell U.S. Treasury bonds this year. It all made total sense from an investment perspective. It was the end of a 30-year bull market in bonds so investors were advised to sell.

What few had foreseen in the first half was a slide in the European economy and a rise in geopolitical risk. Those conditions have effectively trumped any move by the Fed. Here's why.

Consider that America and its sovereign debt have long been considered a safe haven in time of global risk like today. So as ISIS makes inroads in the Middle East and Putin thumps his chest in Europe, it stands to reason that global investors would buy U.S. bonds but there is more at work here than that.

Bond investors do not operate in a vacuum, especially when it comes to sovereign debt. They compare (price shop) the perceived safety of one country and what its debt is yielding against other countries and buy the best deal. This week, Euro zone yields on sovereign debt have fallen out of bed due to slowing economic conditions. The bet is that things are getting so bad that their central bank will have to take further easing actions in the weeks ahead.

So let's say I'm a global bond investor. The 30-year U.S. Treasury bond is yielding a shade above 3 percent while the German 30-year is yielding 1.7 percent and the Japanese 40-year bond is offered at 1.8 percent. Why would I buy the German or Japanese paper when I could get more return in the U.S., which, by the way, is also a safer investment in a faster growing economy? Even at the present low rate of interest, American sovereign debt is a much better deal than offshore sovereigns.

It also explains why we are seeing both the U.S. stock and bond markets moving in the same direction. As interest rates drop and yields get lower and lower, the return from the stock market looks better and better versus what one can get in the bond market. Clearly, lower interest rates are bad for savers but great for stocks and equity investors.  I know that I wouldn't be willing to settle for a 3 percent return over 30 years in a bond when I can get twice that in stocks, but some risk-adverse investors certainly would.

In this kind of environment, fears of what our own Fed may or may not do a year from now is definitely on the back burner. As we close out the last days of summer this Labor Day weekend, the stock markets are once again hitting new highs. Fewer and fewer strategists are looking for pull-backs of any magnitude. All seems right with our markets while the rest of the globe seems to be falling apart. Too much complacency, probably, but 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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The Independent Investor: Baby Boomers and Retirement
By Bill Schmick On: 05:28PM / Friday August 29, 2014
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The nation's work force has experienced some traumatic events over the past five years. Between the financial crises, global competition and the slow pace of domestic economic growth, is it any wonder that employment in the U.S. is not what it should be? Yet the biggest challenge of all may be right around the corner as the Baby Boomers retire in droves.

From 1946 to 1964, there was a boom of baby making in this country. A total of 76 million Americans were born during those 19 years. Now those Americans are between the ages of 50 to 68 and are eyeing the prospect of retirement in the near future.

Think of it: Nearly one quarter of all Americans alive today will be leaving the labor force in the years to come. In their heyday, this demographic group shaped much of what this country is today. They lived through the greatest economic boom in our nation's history. They spent more, consumed more, bought more homes and by the late 1990s, had pushed the labor force participation rate (the share of Americans who have a job or who are looking for one) to record highs. By 2003, 82 percent of Baby Boomers were in the labor force. But times they are a changing.

Every month, more than a quarter million of us are turning 65 years old. The share of those 55 and older who are working or looking for work is beginning to fall dramatically. We didn't really notice this change until now because the financial crisis and subsequent recession put many Boomer's retirement plans on hold. Only 10 percent of Boomers had decided to retire by 2010.

Since then, however, the financial markets have come back and so has American's retirement savings accounts. Older workers are deciding to retire as portfolios increase and their confidence in the future gains ground. In the last four years, that Baby Boomer retirement figure has jumped from 10 percent to 17 percent while their labor force participation rate has just hit a 36-year low in 2014.

Over time this trend will have some profound implications for the economy. Retirees, for example, contribute less to the growth of an economy than active workers. Retirees do not produce anything. They also spend much less than they did when they were working. What's worse, the retiree community in this country has little savings. Over 31 percent of Americans have no savings at all. That means a fair amount of Baby Boomers will need to depend on others, such as government or family to support them.

All this is measured by what economists call "the dependency ratio." It is the number of people outside of working age (under 18 or over 64) per 100 adults. Adults are classified as those between ages 18 and 64. The idea is that the higher the ratio of young or old in a given population, the more difficult it is for those of working age to support these dependents.

The good news is that the dependency ratio has been improving in this country in recent decades, from 65 in 1980 to 61 in the year 2000. But the trend is beginning to reverse. By 2020, we will be back up to 65 again. And by 2030 it will be 75. But it could be worse.

Today, the U.S. has fewer residents over 65 years old than most other developed nations. By 2050, about 21 percent of our population will be 65 or older, compared to more than 30 percent in Western Europe and 40 percent in Japan. And as luck would have it, Baby Boomers are retiring at the very time their children are hitting their prime work years.

These "echo-boomers" are an even larger demographic group in size than the Baby Boomers. Many of them can't wait until we old fogies retire and open the professional work-place pipeline to their advancement. Some economists believe our reticence in embracing retirement has just led to lost opportunity for the young. In any case, more and more of us will be stepping aside in the years to come.

At the very least it will mean a sea change in how and who grows the U.S. economy for the foreseeable 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: Labor on Their Mind
By Bill Schmick On: 07:55AM / Saturday August 23, 2014
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It is that time of the year again when the world's central bankers gather together in Wyoming to sort out the economic conditions of the global economy. This year most bankers will be looking at labor growth, or lack thereof, and what to do about it.

In this country we have seen some surprising gains in the employment picture this year despite a less than stellar economic growth rate. Unemployment has dropped from above 7 percent to 6.2 percent in less than a year. Fed officials are somewhat pleasantly puzzled by that performance. FOMC members are watching things like how many part-time jobs are being filled versus full-time positions. They are also looking for hints of wage growth and under what circumstances it is rising. Some members have their fingers on the interest rate trigger advocating a raise sooner than later, while others urge a wait-and-see attitude.

Janet Yellen, our Federal Reserve chairwoman, kicked off the Jackson Hole, Wyo., event, with an address to the central bankers and the press. She urged a pragmatic approach to policy when dealing with the labor markets. Using the unemployment rate alone to guide monetary policy is too simplistic, she argued. Although the jobless rate has declined, there are still millions of Americans who can't find jobs or have only been able to land part-time work with no benefits. Even more have given up looking for work, discouraged after years of trying to find a job.    

Then there is the trend toward retirement by this nation's Baby Boomers. Two hundred and twenty-five thousand Americans turn 65 every month. In 2010, for example, only 10 percent of that demographic age group was retired. Today, that number has reached 17 percent and is climbing. Nearly 25 percent of all Americans born between 1946-1964 are planning on retiring in the years ahead. How does that impact our idea of full employment when calculating what are structural unemployment (essentially permanent) issues versus cyclical issues?

Yellen presents a good argument. It is a fact that the unemployment rate does not account for part-time workers, discouraged workers, retiring workers and shifts in the nature of the economy. If we have jobs that are going unfilled because the nation lacks workers with sufficient skills and education to do the job, then that is a structural issue. The same is true when dealing with the growing number of Baby Boomer retirees.

No amount of interest rate declines and stimulus money is going to dent a structural issue. In which case, it would be time to raise interest rates early and sooner than the markets expect. Anything the Fed says that implies that we are approaching an unemployment rate that is bumping up against "structural" problems then (as far as the markets are concerned), look out below.

On the other hand, if keeping rates lower for longer would generate more economic growth and therefore more jobs (cyclical employment) then investors would like that. It would mean the markets still have a green light to make new highs and continue the rally based on a zero interest rate policy. Therefore investors were content to hear that the Fed will be taking a "pragmatic" approach to the labor markets.

As long as easy money is on the table, the markets will continue to go up. It also means that the cottage industry of Fed watchers that have sprung up over the past five years will continue to try and out guess what the Fed will do next. Of course the Fed has no idea what they will do next (the pragmatic approach) but we will continue to read and listen to the pundits anyway.

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: Financing ISIS
By Bill Schmick On: 05:26PM / Thursday August 21, 2014
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Outgunned, outmanned and outfinanced, terrorists should be logically on the losing end of any combat engagement. And yet,   they exist and sometimes flourish despite the odds. Much of their success can be attributed to cash, the life blood of any army, and their increasingly sophisticated method of raising it.

Terrorists today would like you to think that they thrive because their cause is just. It plays well with the foreign media but the truth is that they have developed a sophisticated global fund-raising system that utilizes everything from Internet appeals to directly tapping into some country's defense budgets.

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is a great example of how modern terrorism finances revolution. Take their recent rape of Syrian resources. ISIS targeted and captured Eastern Syria because that's where the nation's oilfields are located. In the name of revolution, the conquerors were soon exporting oil to the world and spending the proceeds on munitions.

Like locusts, ISIS minions then spread out throughout Syria gathering up and smuggling out of the country antiquities and other treasures for even more money. In just one Syrian region alone, they netted $36 million by selling a boatload of 8,000-year-old relics. But it was in Iraq where they really hit the jackpot.

As town after Iraqi town was annexed in their drive toward, Baghdad, the capital, ISIS rolled up an increasing cache of money, supplies and American-made equipment including arms, ammunition and assorted vehicles. In invading Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, their operatives pulled off the largest bank heist in modern history, netting the group over $400 million. Most experts believe ISIS has amassed roughly $2 billion in their war chest while continuing to write a new page in terrorist fund raising.

ISIS has also expanded the use of the Internet. They have learned the value of social media from groups such as al Qaeda. They are now using various internet sites to raise awareness and contact individual donors. Those who contribute are kept informed of their donations at work via progress reports on special operations, body counts and new advances by revolutionary fighters.

Funny enough, ISIS owes its existence to America's allies in the Middle East. Specifically, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait have been funneling donations to the group in their bid to blunt the resurgence of Sunni-led forces in the region. They have argued that the U.S. failure to oust Assad, Syrian's strongman, left them no choice but to support those forces in Syria that could oppose the regime.

The Sunni-Shiite sectarian war has forced almost all the countries in that region into feuding religious camps. The U.S. objective of promoting peace and stability in the region is definitely on the back burner among these nations. The terrorists have tapped those sentiments and developed a financial pipeline through Turkey or Jordan into Syria that is worth hundreds of millions in donations, especially from Kuwait.

Kuwait, where this kind of activity is still legal, acts as an assembly point for money throughout the Gulf States from charities, religious groups, fund raisers and even raffles. The effort is so widespread that U.S. officials have charged that their country's minister for justice and Islamic affairs is a major terrorist financier. It appears to make little difference to that government or its people.

So in a roundabout way, our energy dependence on that region has spawned much more than higher prices at the gas pump. It has and still is oil money that supports terrorists, whether we are fighting ISIS, al Qaeda or a hundred other militant groups. The longer we wait to gain energy independence, the longer the problems of terrorism will continue to plague us.

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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