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@theMarket: Santa Comes to Town

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

He certainly took his own sweet time getting here. Investors had just about giving up hope that the traditional Santa Claus Rally would occur this year. But despite gyrating energy prices, worries over the economy and the looming next earnings season, stocks are on the upswing.

Of course, I am writing this on the Wednesday before Christmas because even the most devoted columnists take off on the holidays. We could still fall back tomorrow, but the markets are only open for a half the day so I'm guessing we maintain this week's gains.

It would be nice if the market continued higher into next week. If so, my forecast of a single-digit gain this year might actually unfold. Let's stay optimistic, shall we and hope for the best. In the meantime, investors, Wall Street strategists and assorted pundits are becoming increasingly downcast concerning the prospects for next year.  

The litany of worries is growing. I already mentioned earnings, which begin shortly after the New Year. Forecasts are somewhat dismal with the usual cast of culprits responsible for the expected disappoint results. Oil, the strength of the U.S. dollar, forecasts for further interest rate hikes, growing default risk in the energy patch, weakness of world economies, led by China, these concerns are nothing new to us. They have kept a lid on stock market performance all year and it looks like they will continue to weight on the market in 2016.

About the best you can say is that these issues are well known and, for the most part, already discounted by the markets. That leaves some room for upside surprises. There is a good chance that Chinese officials will announce further stimulus measures to turnaround their economy early next month. Some companies are going to report better than expected results in January and many will do better than analysts predict. They always do.

Most Fed Heads do not expect another rate hike by the Fed before at least the end of March, if then. Oil prices still remain a wild card and while I do not think energy prices have bottomed, there is at least a 50-50 chance that we could get a "dead cat bounce" before energy resumes its slide. That too would cheer the market, at least in the short term.

It could explain this week's market come-back, which has been led by a rise in energy prices. Beaten down material stocks have also been in favor although there has been no triggering event that would justify such moves. Unfortunately, that calls into question the durability of this rally.

Nonetheless, let's all be grateful for any gains at all. Next week could see a continuation of this up move, in which case, the year could end in positive territory for all three averages.

Given that it is an optimistic time of year, I'm betting for more gains. In the meantime, put the markets on hold for the rest of the week and have yourself a merry little Christmas.

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: Christmas in the New Age

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

Back in the day, going home for Christmas was what you did. Family members and friends would make their yearly pilgrimage to the old homestead. Car, plane or train, it made little difference how long it took, because everyone wanted to be home for the holidays. But times are changing.

Ever since the invention of Skype, Facetime and an array of other Internet services, face-to-face get-togethers are not as important they once were. In these lean economic times, the cost of air and train fare (and until recently fuel) made these trips both time consuming and expensive. In addition, taking off the required work time is not so easy today. Most managers are fairly stingy giving vacation time around the holidays. As a result, holiday hops are out and facetime is in.

And it is not just Christmas. I know in my own life, my wife and I chat with our kids and grandkids quite often via Skype.  This Friday, I will skype with my sister in Pennsylvania while I am visiting with my children and grandchildren in Manhattan. Sure, there is nothing like hugging your children and being with your family in person, but the internet has provided a pretty good backup alternative to keeping in touch.

Christmas music is another area where the internet has come in handy. Whether it is Pandora, Groove shark, Sirius or any other service, you can now get in the holiday mood without spending a lot of money on CDs; (it used to be cassette tapes or vinyl records, if you are my age).

Today I can build playlists, tune in stations on my iPad or construct queues of holiday songs from Bing Crosby to Justin Bieber at the tap of a key. Christmas, according to Christian theology, commemorates the birth of Jesus Christ. It has been celebrated continuously as a religious holiday since the third century A.D. Although the Internet has yet to penetrate Christmas church attendance in any meaningful way, but it will, given enough time and incentive.

However, today in the United States, only 51 percent of Americans consider Christmas a religious holiday and eight out of 10 non-Christians celebrate Christmas as well. The younger you are, the less likely you will be to celebrate the religious aspects of the event. For most of us, Christmas has become a cultural holiday.  

Some things remain the same. Santa Claus is alive and well. Of families with children who believe in Santa Claus, 69 percent will pretend that Santa will be visiting their household on Christmas Eve. Even among those of us who do not believe in the red-suited gift giver, we still tend to pay homage to his image, if not his presence. As for me, I will certainly be reading the " 'Twas the Night before Christmas" to my grandchildren on that momentous evening.

Christmas trees are also still a cornerstone of Yuletide tradition. Eight out of every 10 Americans will put up a Christmas tree this year, which is about the same ratio as a generation ago. Of course, artificial trees now account for about half the Christmas trees in America. Every year, the eco-friendly argument resurfaces with some who argue that one or the other is bad for the environment. Recent data seems to indicate that they are equally as bad.

Honestly, I am kind of relieved that I don't need to go tramping through a forest, knee-deep in snow, and chop down a tree to haul back to my cabin. I also like the fact that I don't worry today about using lit candles or those 1950-era bubble lights (which were almost as bad) in decorating the tree. Life is much safer today, from my perspective.

About 86 percent of us will be exchanging gifts, another tradition that has survived the passing of time. Although there is some evidence that the kind of presents are changing.

More Americans, especially Millennials, are opting to give a gift of "experience" rather than the standard material possessions like cashmere sweaters, diamond bracelets or power tools.

Ski trips, dinner at one's favorite restaurant, or for those who can afford it, an island getaway, are becoming popular gift-giving alternatives.

All-in-all, I would say that the digital age has provided as many positives as negatives in how Americans celebrate Christmas today. Through the years we have seen the tradition of Christmas continue to evolve and that's what makes it so magically enduring. The Internet has certainly provided us wonderful cost-effective avenues for communication.  It is up to us to use it in a way that enhances our own holiday experience.

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: How Rising Interest Rates Will Change Your Life

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

It's official: Wednesday afternoon the Federal Reserve bank hiked the short-term interest rate, called the Fed Funds rate, for the first time in 9 1/2 years. It is the beginning of a new financial era for all of us and it behooves you to understand its implications.

Let me first assuage any concerns you may have that this single 0.25 percentage point increase will impact your life anytime soon. Instead, simply view this event as the beginning of a progression to gradually higher interest rates that will ultimately impact everything from car loans to retirement savings accounts.

The mechanism by which the Fed raises rates is complicated. Just know that overtime there is a domino effect to raising rates. As the Fed hikes on the short-end of the yield curve, interest rates on bonds of all sorts will gradually readjust with longer dated securities (like a 30-year bond) rising more than shorter duration securities (say, a 10-year note). But this takes time and exactly how much time depends on the growth of the economy, the expectations for inflation and a hold whole of other variables such as interest rates overseas.  

While some economists hope that the Fed's decision is a "one and done" event, most financial experts are already expecting at least three more rate hikes in 2016. If so, you should start to feel the impact of rising rates by the latter part of next year. For example, only an hour after the Fed raised rates, several money center banks hiked their prime rate to 3.5 percent from 3.25 percent.  

As such, you should begin to monitor the inflation rate, credit card loan rates, mortgage rates (especially on existing adjustable rate mortgages), CDs and money market rates. All of the above have been so low for so long that they are no longer on most investors' radar screen.   

The facts are that as time goes by, borrowing money is going to cost you more. One of the ways you have benefited from low rates is in car loans. The auto industry has had a tremendous windfall in sales over the past few years. Light vehicle sales have almost doubled since the lows of the financial crisis. This was largely due to the automaker's ability to offer you financing on their products at record low rates.

For those in retirement, rising rates can be a mixed bag. For almost a decade, retirees have had to contend with lower levels of income because historically low rates of interest mean low rates of return on bond investments. Over the next few years that will change. New buyers of bonds will receive higher returns on their money as rates rise.

However, for those who have insisted on holding a large percentage of their retirement savings in bonds, expect to see lower rates of return as rates rise. And by the way, this also applies to investors who are retiring soon and have money in target-date retirement funds in their 401(k) and 403(b) tax-deferred savings plans.

There are some who worry that even this small increase in the Fed Funds rate will have a dampening effect on consumer sentiment. Clearly, for those of us who have experienced periods of rising rates in the past, our knee-jerk reaction is higher rates equates to slowing economic growth, which leads to less spending. Again, I need to caution you that a moderate rise in interest rates can and has happened in conjunction with a growing economy and accelerated consumer spending. It is all dependent on how well the Fed engineers this process.

For the past several years, I have placed my faith in the Fed, first to rescue us from the financial crisis, then to engineer a recovery despite no help from those in Washington. I trusted them to engineer a plan to normalize interest rates and so far I have not been disappointed. I will continue to back the Fed in this latest move and you should as well.

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: Where Oil Goes, So Goes the Market

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

Stocks had a tough week. All averages are now negative for the year once again and will continue to go lower until oil finds a bottom or the market disconnects from energy prices. The problem with that scenario is that no one knows if and when that will occur.

The price of crude is down 14 percent since December 1 and 35 percent since May. Controversy rages over whether the precipitous decline in oil over the last year from $114 a barrel to $36 a barrel is a supply or demand imbalance. New technology in the form of hydraulic fracking has unearthed a huge new supply of natural gas and oil worldwide. So much so that consuming these new sources of energy will require decades. At the same time, slow economic growth worldwide, especially in emerging market economies, has dampened demand for energy.

Whether the cause of the decline is one or both, the results are the same. Since May, the world has been experiencing a 2 million barrel/day gap of oversupply. What is interesting is that gap remains the same to this day. It hasn't worsened, although the oil price has declined double-digit in the last eleven days. Why the discrepancy between the fundamental facts and the price level?

Blame it on Wall Street. Financial manipulation in the futures markets seems to be responsible for the 36 percent decline in prices we have experienced since May. Traders have been shorting energy futures contracts hand over fist at the Commodity Markets Future Exchange and that practice accelerated after last Friday's disappointing OPEC meeting.

One can debate the logic of selling stocks simply because oil has declined. Bears will argue that as the oil prices go lower, the chances go up that energy companies will not only suffer earnings declines and cut dividends, but "many" may actually go bankrupt. That could also impact the corporate bond market. No question that could happen.

We have already experienced disappointing earnings from the group and just recently some energy master limited partnerships have cut their dividends. More are expected.  But one must ask how much does the energy sector represent within the stock market? If we look at the benchmark index, the S&P 500, the energy weighting is currently 8 percent and yet its troubles have taken the whole market down in excess of 3 percent just this week.

This is clearly a case of the tail wagging the dog.

Yet, no matter how irrational the market's behavior, what you don't want to do is get in the path of a speeding train. I'm not advocating selling right here, but I also don't want to be buying anything until I see how this energy free-fall plays out. I can't tell whether the clearing price for oil is around this level or at $30 a barrel or even lower. Until that becomes clearer, remain on the sidelines.

In the coming week, we also have the final Federal Open Market Committee meeting of the year. The bond market is giving an interest rate hike at the meeting an 87 percent probability.

Although I believe the market has already discounted that event, the coming rate hike is not helping matters. Still, I think all these worries are short-term in nature.

Sometimes, for a variety of reasons, the market ignores the fundamentals and instead focuses on the animal spirits that sometimes run rampant in the markets. This is one of those times.

At some point in time, when an oil-Armageddon does not materialize, the market may simply focus on something else. If I were a betting man, I would say that we rally after next week's FOMC meeting into the New Year. At these levels, however, all we will gain back is a single digit gain for the year. I'll take it.

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: Did the Digital Grinch Steal Christmas?

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

Ever notice that however hard you try, the Christmas season is simply not what it once was? The routines and traditions you remember so fondly from your youth have somehow faded away. The digital age has transformed the holidays, and for some of us, the experience has been a mixed blessing.

When I was a kid, we left cookies and milk for Santa (no never mind that we lacked a fireplace for him to come down). Building on that tradition, I engineered faint footprints of ash the night before Christmas for my own child (Santa's, I swore solemnly the next morning) leading from the fireplace to the Christmas tree. Fast forward to today, kids can now call the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and track Santa's Christmas Eve run if they want, so much for those visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads.

Technology has changed a lot more than Santa's travel itinerary. Take letters and greeting cards for example. Even though I still receive holiday cards in the mail, the volume has dropped precipitously. Personally, I dreaded signing stacks of cards while trying to create unique and heart-felt messages for people I barely knew. As for licking the back of envelopes and stamps, my lips still sometime purse simply at the thought of those days.

Today, in this era of Facebook and Instagram, there is no need to spend money on a card or stamp when a status update or sending a holiday-like photo over the Internet can be done rapidly and with little effort. You can wait until the last minute or send a barrage of messages as the "day" approaches if you so desire. Seven days of Hanukkah was just made for the Internet, in my opinion.

One of the largest changes in how we spend the holidays is shopping. I for one decry how Christmas, Hanukkah and New Years are now all about "the sale." The holidays have become so commercialized that the entire experience of sharing with family and friends is at best a side show while the main focus is on the loot received. Sure, back in the day, one would pick up something (singular) for a loved one, usually a few days before Christmas that required thought and effort. Over the years that has transformed into fighting crowds, buying whatever and waiting in checkout lines while searching for those perfect gifts.

Shopping online has changed all that, thank goodness. Now I can surf the web, buy the gift and even have it delivered to one's door gift-wrapped with a personal note. For fumble-fingered me, who can't wrap a present to save my life, this is a Godsend. Yet, I will admit that my loved ones appreciate it when I wrap their presents. They say it makes it real for them to get my lumpy packages trussed up like sandbags, so I still do it.

Digital shopping also allows me to shop worldwide, obtain better prices, greater variety and comparisons of products. It also helps those whose kids still believe in the Big Guy. I remember accidentally finding a stash of toys for me and my siblings in an upstairs closet one year. I was crushed until my Mother convinced me that Santa had simply dropped them off early for her to wrap. Obviously, I am still traumatized by the event. Today shopping online means those gifts arrive in cardboard and can be safely put away until Christmas, Hanukkah or both.

Although real Christmas trees have been replaced in many families with ready-made artificial ones, technology has vastly improved that sickly silver tinsel we used to use (and still vacuum up in the carpets six months later). Inflatable and animatronic Christmas characters, which move and groove, all sorts of digital tree ornaments,  along with apps that can turn your outside and inside decorations on and off make those once-a-year Holiday House Designers look positively artistic.

Next week we will continue this topic, but in the meantime, I would love to hear your own experiences in how the digital revolution has made over your holiday season. Just email your thoughts at my address below.

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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