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The Independent Investor: A Warning Shot Across Our Bow

Bill Schmick

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.

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@theMarket: Stair-Stepping Higher

Bill Schmick

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.

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The Independent Investor: Stocks & Mutual Funds Versus Index Fund

Bill Schmick

On a daily basis, I review portfolios of stocks and mutual funds from clients and readers. What strikes me most about all these portfolios is that I rarely come across one that has done better than the market. A large part of the problem lies in their choice of investments.

When I say "the market," normally I use the S&P 500 Index as a benchmark. Sure, there are other indexes I can use, ranging from the Dow Jones Industrial Average to a basketful of regional and global indexes, but most pros use the S&P 500 as the market proxy. The truth is that it is notoriously difficult to beat the market and do so consistently.

"But what about Apple?" protests one recent client, who has owned this darling of Wall Street for several years. "It has beaten the market hands down every year."

True enough, Apple, along with a number of other individual stocks, have done better than the market for a year or two or even three, but they have not done so consistently year after year. And even though Apple has done better than the market, I have yet to see any equity portfolio with just that one investment. Normally, Apple is just one of many investments in the portfolio. When all these returns are combined, the gains of an Apple are offset by losses in other stocks.

The risk in holding individual stocks is twofold. One, if you hold comparatively few stocks and one or more blows up, your portfolio will suffer dramatically. If, on the other hand, you have a large stock portfolio it becomes difficult to follow and your performance will tend to mimic the market.

Investing in mutual funds is less risky than owning individual stocks because your risk is spread out among many more stocks; but unfortunately, in most cases, performance also declines. Statistically, the pros that manage mutual funds fail to beat the market over 80 percent of the time. If you also add the fees that these mutual funds charge investors each year their performance is even worse.

Now, just like stocks, there are mutual funds that have a fabulous track record, either because the fund manager is especially gifted, lucky or both. Think Peter Lynch, the fabled manager of Fidelity's Magellan Fund, or Bruce Berkowitz, recently named the fund manager of the decade. But finding the next Peter Lynch is as difficult as finding the next stock market double.  In the meantime, the risk of picking wrong can be monumental.

Ken Hebner, a well-known index fund manager, argues that by buying a diversified portfolio of index funds, that incorporate emerging markets, international markets as well as the U.S. market, will provide you the best results with lower risks than a portfolio of stocks. I would take that a step further.

My experience indicates that by including certain sector index funds in your portfolio (while excluding others) you could generate even greater gains than the market. For example, during the first quarter of this year, the materials, energy and small cap sectors lead the market higher. Those investors that were overweighted in these areas beat the market with much less risk than if they had held individual stocks in those sectors. In addition, the expense ratios for index funds are much cheaper than mutual funds. Bottom line, index funds offer far less risk than stocks, outperform mutual funds 80 percent of the time and are cheaper, easier and trade as frequently as stocks. What's not to like?


Bill Schmick is registered as an investment adviser 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. Any references to specific securities are for illustrative purposes only and were selected based on a nonperformance-based criteria. The performance of the securities listed is not discussed and Berkshire maintains a listing of all recommendations for the preceding year and makes it available to the SEC upon request. The securities identified and described do not represent all of the securities purchased, sold, or recommended for client accounts. The reader should not assume that an investment in the securities identified was or will be profitable. While Bill Schmick or BMM may invest or has invested with the managers mentioned in this article, the article itself should not be construed as a solicitation to invest or an endorsement of a particular investment. You should carefully evaluate all investment options with your financial adviser. Neither Bill Schmick nor BMM endorse or independently verify any data or opinions expressed by a third-party.

 

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The Independent Investor: It's That Time Of The Year — Again

Bill Schmick

We all waited with bated breath until the end of last year, only to see Congress extend the Bush tax cuts for another two years. Although the legislation passed, it did create some issues that you should be aware of in filing your taxes this year.

Let's start with property taxes; something most of us have learned to despise. Until last year, if you owned a home you were able to deduct a portion of your state property taxes in the form of an enhancement or an addition to your standard deduction. The deduction was worth between $500 and $1,000 depending on whether you were married or single. This provision was not extended, but you can still claim the deduction providing you itemize your deductions. The problem with this new wrinkle is that many Americans do not have a sufficient amount of deductions to make itemizing worth doing.

Given the vast number of workers who lost their job during this last recession, if you were unemployed in 2009, the government granted an exemption in unemployment income up to $2,400 per person. That meant you only had to pay taxes on earned income above that amount. That exclusion has been eliminated as well.

So if you were unemployed at any time last year and collected unemployment compensation you owe taxes on 100 percent of that income. The problem here is that few of these jobless taxpayers withhold taxes from this income, so now they will need to come up with the cash they owe the IRS.

The first-time home buyer credit and the follow-on home buyer tax credit on primary residences provided a tax credit ($8,000 for first-time buyers and $6,000 for other buyers) but require that you keep your new residence for at least 36 months. That means if you bought and sold that new home you must repay that tax credit to the government this year.

The American Opportunity tax credit was a bit of new legislation that replaced the Hope credit that allows taxpayers earning $80,000 ($160,000) for joint filers) to claim $2,500 tax credit for tuition, fees, books, supplies and equipment required for educational studies paid in 2010. There is some confusion about this tax credit because the government already allows a deduction of up to $4,000 for the same items. You can't claim both the deduction and the credit.

People become confused between a credit and a deduction. Simply put, a deduction reduces your income while a tax credit reduces your tax bill. If you earned $60,000, for example, and took the $4,000 education deduction that would reduce your adjusted gross income to $56,000. If you were in the 20 percent tax bracket, then the tax savings for you would be ($4,000 X 20 percent) or $800. However if you selected the tax credit, your tax bill would be reduced by $2,500, a dollar-for-dollar tax savings.

Because Congress acted so late in the year, the IRS said it would need until mid-February to reprogram its systems. As a result, they advised that those who plan to itemize their deductions wait until after March 1 to file their taxes. Since most of us wait until the very last second (or longer) to file, this delay should not have a major impact on us taxpayers. In any case, the coast is clear for filing your taxes. I bet you just can't wait.

Note: You've got some extra time. Tax day is Tuesday, April 19, this year because the 15th falls on a Friday holiday in Washington and Monday falls on Patriots Day in Massachusetts.

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.

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@theMarket: Quarter Ends With a Bang

Bill Schmick

The markets presented plenty of head fakes this quarter. In January, contrary to everyone's expectations, the gains of last year kept right on coming through most of the first quarter, only to hit a brick wall in March thanks to troubles in the Middle East followed by nature's one-two punch to Japan. Despite that, the indexes finished the first quarter with the best gains in over two decades.

The Dow racked up 742 points (6.4 percent), the S&P 500 Index gained 68 points (5.4 percent) while the NASDAQ closed up 128 points for a 4.8 percent gain. If we annualize those gains we could be looking at a 20 percent plus gain for the year, which puts my forecast of a 20-23 percent gain in 2011 right on target.

"It was a choppy quarter though," commented one client on Friday who lives in Dalton.

I agree. Clearly this market is exacting a price (higher stress and wear and tear on the nerves) for the gains we are making. I suspect that additional volatility is waiting for us as we continue to climb a wall of worry throughout this next quarter. Some of the concerns I believe will haunt us through the spring are the price of oil brought on by geopolitical turmoil, continued problems among European financial institutions and, of course, the end of QE II, which occurs in June.

Can the economy continue to grow without the multibillion dollar monetary stimulus that the Fed has been providing for well over a year? The economy appears to be growing and unemployment declining, but is that a function of real demand or simply a response to the Fed's easy money policies? How will the stock and bond markets react to an end to this stimulus?

Smarter people than I are expecting a rapid and disastrous response by the bond markets to the sunset of QE II. They believe that interest rates will immediately spike, disrupting what little lending is already occurring and thereby throwing the economy back into recession. I find that hard to believe.

I'm going to give our central bankers, led by Ben Bernanke, the benefit of the doubt. They read the same papers we do and are well aware of the fears of the markets. Is it really plausible that the Fed will step out of the game and simply watch from the bleachers if the doomsayers are right?

There is simply too much at stake and Ben Bernanke knows it. I believe the process of pulling out of the market will be a managed one. For those who pay attention to "Fed Speak," I maintain that process is already at work. Recently a number of Board Governors who have granted interviews advised the financial community that the Fed will be taking a more neutral policy position in regards to stimulus in the future.

That's not to say there won't be concerns and with them volatility. Skittish investors will always jump the gun, many times before they actually have the facts. In today's markets, trading on rumors is just as viable as trading on the facts. So prepare for some rough sailing; but I get ahead of myself.

As a portfolio manager, it's part of my job to fret and worry about what will be, instead of enjoying what is. And a rising market is what we can expect over the next few months. Sure, we can and will have down days, but I believe they will be short and shallow. Commodity stocks will lead, so make sure you have some exposure to those sectors, and if you haven't yet, get back into the stock market — 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.

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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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