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The Independent Investor: A Tale of Two Chinas

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

For years, investors bought into the China story. Growth rates twice as fast as the rest of the world, fueled by sky-rocketing exports made competitive by billions of hard-working, low-wage employees grateful to have a job. What happened?

Times have changed. Back in the late 1970s when China first opened its fledgling economy to foreign investment, manufacturing became the chief driver of economic growth, which led to increased exports, more foreign investment and double digit growth rates. The powerful Communist government controlled the process through its sponsorship of state-owned enterprises. These mammoth companies became the symbols of a new "Chinese Authoritarian Capitalism."  

As such, they played a pivotal role in channeling that foreign money and the goods it produced through the economy. Along the way, these companies were listed both on the Chinese stock market as well as abroad. They became the investments of choice and were included in all the most liquid and popular mutual funds and exchange traded funds. As time wore on, these companies borrowed more, hired more and purchased more and more.

Corruption, mismanagement and scandal began to pop up among the managements of these companies. At the same time, as the worldwide financial crisis unfolded, the Chinese economy started to falter.

Unfortunately, at about the same time, China's leaders decided that it was time to transition the economy from its reliance on manufacturing and exports to a new growth model more dependent on consumer services and other forms of consumption. The move made economic sense.

China, through opening its economy, had engineered the birth of an enormous and growing middle class. These new consumers, so the reasoning goes, are both willing and able to support such an economic shift. As China's old economy began to slump and its reliance on areas such as banks, energy, industrials and materials decreased, other sectors such as technology, alternative energy, education, media and entertainment exploded.

However attempting such a monumental feat in short order had consequences. China's economic growth rate continued to fall.  Partially a victim of overall slowing global growth, as well as the predictable disruption of transitioning their massive economy from exports to consumption, the country saw its growth rate cut in half over the last few years. Of course, not many realize that China's economy had expanded 100 percent from what it was ten years ago. As such, a 6-7 percent growth rate today, on 10 times the amount of GDP, is still far greater than any other country in the world.

While all of this played out within the country, foreign investors were pretty much excluded from investing in the new growth areas. Most of the existing investment vehicles are made up of "old China" companies that are closing down, losing money or both, while new China stocks are off-limits to most foreigners.

Investors today need to understand these changes, which go beyond a simple old/new division. The Chinese middle class, for example, is becoming increasingly health conscious and focused on quality. And because the government is cracking down on the rampant corruption among corporate executives, especially in the state-owned enterprises, luxury goods and "gift-giving" providers are also seeing a decline in business.

Here in the U.S., there are a few ways of playing the growing portion of the Chinese economy. There are a handful of "new" China stocks available, as well as a couple of mutual funds and exchange traded funds (ETFs). If you are interested in discussing this further, give me a call or shoot me an email. Saying this, investing in China is not for the faint of heart under the best of circumstances. It requires work and a strong stomach for volatility.

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: Nowhere Land

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

Most of the stock market went nowhere this year. With the exception of the NASDAQ, the rest of the market returned investors less than the average yield of a yearly CD.

It was a disappointing year, to put it mildly. Recall the months of tension as the markets gyrated between up 3 percent and down by about the same amount. Then August hit and the markets declined precipitously, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average collapsing 1,000 points in a matter of minutes. Sure, the markets recovered, but if you had tried to trade that downdraft, you would have lost even more money, because the markets turned on a dime in October with no warning and recouped all of its losses.

What's worse is that all the culprits that generated negative returns for stocks are still with us. The declining price of oil continues to ravage investors. You may wonder why declining energy prices should be such a negative for the stock market. Conventional wisdom says that if prices continue to decline, the chances of bankruptcies in the energy patch escalate and that is negative for stocks.

I may disagree, but at the same time you don't argue with the markets when they get obsessed over something. No matter how crazy or irrational, you have to go with the flow until the flow changes. Then there is investors' angst that the central bank will raise rates again and again despite the anemic 2.2 percent growth of the economy. If they do raise rates 3 or 4 times in 2016, investors fear that it will crater the economy.

Finally, global growth continues to be anemic with China's growth the main concern. As China's economy (the second largest in the world) struggles to find its footing, the country's demand for natural resources also slows. This has caused the price of all kinds of commodities to go into free fall. But we know all this.

As we look ahead, one more uncertainty will gradually increase in importance in 2016.

The U.S. presidential elections will become a larger influence on the market as November approaches. At this point, most investors have no idea what candidates will ultimately face off in the fall.

In a presidential election year, there is normally a down draft in the stock markets sometime before November. How deep the sell-off and how long it lasts depends on a great many variables. Not least of which is investor's perceptions of who will win and what they will do differently from the old administration. The more unorthodox or radical the political platforms of the candidates, the more concern (and volatility) will be generated in the stock markets.

So for this coming year, investors should expect more of the same: volatility, angst, crazy swings in commodity prices, daily interest rate predictions from the Fed Heads and volumes of meaningless noise from the financial media. The days when you could just sit back and clip coupons or just assume a steady climb in stocks are over. You need to manage your investments now or find someone who can, and by the way, have a Happy New Year.

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: 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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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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