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The Independent Investor: The Fed Turns Off the Spigot
By Bill Schmick On: 06:15PM / Thursday July 10, 2014
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The Federal Reserve Bank announced an end to their latest quantitative stimulus program on Wednesday. The markets worldwide sold off on Thursday. Was it just a coincidence?
 
It was not as if their announcement was unexpected. The Fed has been winding down its $85 billion a month purchases of bonds and mortgage-backed securities since the beginning of the year. Each month they have pared back $10 billion/month incremental purchases.
 
June's policy meeting confirmed that the last purchases would end in October.
Some investors were relieved, while others were concerned. Many believe that the longer the Fed's program continues the less impact it will have. Others disagree. That is nothing new, since, from the outset, the entire Quantitative Easing (QE) program has been mired in controversy. 
 
The initial round of QE in 2008 was intended to prevent the economy from plunging into a second Great Depression. The Fed succeeded in that desperate bid and followed the first QE with successive bouts of stimulus in 2010, 2011 and 2012.
 
Unfortunately, its goal — to jump-start the economy and return it to a healthy growth rate — has had, at best, mixed results. While unemployment has fallen from almost 10 percent to 6.1 percent in June, the economy has remained mired in a slow-growth recovery. At the same time, this unprecedented meddling in the economy has resulted in a number of distortions, some good and some not so good.
 
Keeping interest rates low was supposed to convince American investors to sell their low-yielding, safe-haven U.S. Treasury bonds and buy riskier assets such as stocks and corporate bonds. The hope was that would in turn spur an increase in lending, consumer spending and investment. Very little of that actually happened. Investors and banks alike either remained in cash or their Treasury bonds.
 
It was the stock market and rampant speculation that has been the main beneficiary of the Fed's efforts. Some argue that the gains in the stock market have only benefited a tiny portion of the population (the One Percent) and there has been precious little "Trickle Down" impact on the economy.
 
Although the unemployment rate has declined, economists argue that the numbers are deceiving. Many After years of attempting to find a job, many people have simply dropped out of the rolls thereby reducing the unemployment rate. The data also indicate that a growing number of these gains are low-paying, part-time jobs, something the Labor Department's numbers fail to account for within these trends.
 
Then there are the risks. Potential inflation heads that list. Contrary to those who have been predicting hyperinflation, the numbers do not bear that out. For the last two years inflation has been running below the Fed's target rate of 2 percent.  
 
However, that could change. If, at some point, banks begin to lend those trillions of dollars, instead of speculate with it, if corporations begin to invest in plant and equipment rather than buy back their stock or someone else's, then the story could change.
 
The multiplier effect of money begins to come into play. That is when the dollar I lend to you is used to buy a widget or two, in turn, the widget seller turns around and uses that same dollar to pay my neighbor to make more widgets and so on and so on. In that way one dollar becomes many more. That's what causes inflation. We haven’t gotten to that point yet. And the Fed says they will raise rates when and if that happens. 
 
Some say all the Fed has done is cause a gigantic bubble in financial assets. The Fed says no, markets, in their opinion, are simply fairly valued. No one, including the Fed, really knows for sure. In many ways this entire QE program has been a grand experiment and the final outcome has yet to be written.
 
So back to the stock market, if you trace the behavior of markets through these various QE programs, one thing stands out. In every instance, once investors understood that the QE program was ending, the stock market declined.  One wonders if this will happen again this time.
 
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.
 
 


     
The Independent Investor: Should You Pay Off Mortgage Before Retiring?
By Bill Schmick On: 03:21PM / Thursday June 26, 2014
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Many retirees, concerned with no longer having a steady paycheck, have asked me for advice on whether to pay off their mortgage early. There is no definitive answer but here are some variables to consider when making a decision.

Your monthly mortgage payment in retirement may represent a significant portion of your monthly income. If you only have social security as an income stream, then chances are that a mortgage payment will significantly reduce the amount you will need to meet your monthly expenses. If so, then pay off the mortgage. However, be careful you don't significantly reduce the amount of money you have available for emergencies, general expenses and discretionary spending. You don't want to end up house-rich but cash-poor.

By paying off your mortgage now, you reduce interest rate risk, especially in a rising rate environment. Naturally, there are several factors at play here. How long and how much debt remains on your mortgage will be a crucial factor. If you have an adjustable rate mortgage and rates double over the next five years then it makes sense to pay off the loan or at least convert to a fixed-rate mortgage.

On the other hand, if you took advantage of the low interest rate environment over the last few years and re-financed, you might now have a thirty-year fixed rate mortgage with an interest rate of 3-5 percent. In that case, it may make sense to keep the mortgage. Why?

If, as many predict, interest rates do rise substantially in the years to come, your borrowing cost on that fixed mortgage will look like a very good deal.

Retirees must also understand the opportunity costs of paying a large lump sum out of your retirement savings to be free of that mortgage. While being debt-free may feel good, could there be other investments that might provide a better return?

Let's go back to the retiree who refinanced and now has a 30-year fixed at 5 percent. If interest rates do rise from here sometime down the road, that retiree has the opportunity of taking advantage of those higher rates. Theoretically, he could invest that lump sum money into a safe U.S. Treasury bond yielding 6 or 7 percent, maybe more.

While he waits for rates to rise, there is always the stock market. Stocks have averaged a 7 percent return historically for well over the past 100 years. He could invest the money in a group of dividend stocks, which would not only generate him income but also price appreciation. In long-term bull markets like today's, the average return on equities has been much, much more.

Of course, each individual's situation is different. Paying off the last $100,000 of a mortgage out of a retirement nest egg of $1 million is much different from someone who only has saved $300,000. As always, the mortgage interest rate you are paying is critical to the equation. There are also alternatives. If there is no prepayment penalty, you can always pay down the principal faster or simply double your overall monthly payment.

But numbers aren't everything. For some people debt is, and always will be, a dirty word.

The peace of mind they receive from being debt-free may trump whatever opportunity they may have elsewhere. My only advice is to weigh all your options carefully before making that decision.

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.



     
The Independent Investor: Unhappily Ever After
By Bill Schmick On: 02:44PM / Friday June 13, 2014
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Over the next decade roughly 75 million Americans will retire. While most of us are well-aware of the need to plan, save and invest for that momentous moment, very few of us are actually prepared for the non-financial challenges of retirement itself.

Recently, as a result of one local company’s early retirement incentive plan, as well as the bankruptcy of a local hospital, I have had some firsthand experience in dealing with the expectations of retiring clients in this area. What I have found is that the majority of men are ill-prepared for retirement, more so than women. At the same time, their spouses are extremely worried — with good reason.

Studies show that men have a much harder time adjusting to retirement than do women and are far more naive in understanding what retirement does to one’s quality of life. Those who retire unexpectedly due to sickness, job loss, those who have become accustomed to working long hours or who bring their work home with them have the most difficulty in retirement.

It seems that most men tend to define themselves and their self-worth on the basis of their careers and the money they make. After 30 or 40 years of polishing their identities as providers, senior workers and/or producers, they find themselves at a loss when that ends. Many men are suddenly faced with an identity crisis they have not confronted since they were teenagers. The more of a workaholic they are, the less likely they will have developed other outside interests that could help define and transition them to a new identity and role.

Women, on the other hand, are much more likely to have several roles — worker, mother-caregiver, community activists, etc. — throughout their life, all of which aid in a transition to retirement. Women are much more likely to have had their working careers interrupted by child-rearing or by taking care of elderly parents than men.

I know my own wife, Barbara, the COO of our company, also maintains a successful career as a photographer, has a large network of friends and acquaintances and is a member of several community organizations and social groups. In general, I believe women tend to be more engaged with others and more connected to their communities in terms of social support and networking. Retirement, to them, may be just another change in a life that is full of changes.

Seventy-five percent of workers believed that their quality of life would improve once they retired, but only 40 percent of retirees found that it actually did. So if you are planning to retire, forget about your dreams of being perfectly happy walking on the beach every day or playing golf or minding the grandkids. None of that is guaranteed to fulfill you, or even hold your interest beyond the first couple of months. There is no free lunch in retirement.

The only sure thing in retirement is that at some point you will die. Your problems do not disappear, they just change in nature and many times, your problems actually grow in size and importance (since you have little to distract you).  Sure, you may live longer by retiring from a stressful job that was either physically or mentally taxing, but that doesn’t mean you will live healthier.  Your chances of becoming addicted to alcohol, narcotics or prescription pills actually increase.

Finally, the most important truth of all is that you will never be able to save enough money to retire happily ever after because money and happiness have nothing to do with each other. In my next column, I will give you some pointers on how to become one of those 40% of retirees who actually enjoy retired life. I’ll leave you with a big hint — it starts with your spouse.

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.



     
The Independent Investor: A Road to the Future
By Bill Schmick On: 04:02PM / Thursday June 05, 2014
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There is a growing national buzz among scientists and engineers over a driveway in Idaho. This green-hued stretch of hexagonal tiles of hardened glass in an Idaho suburb represents one prototype idea for revolutionizing the nation's highways. It could be a road to the future.

The concept of Scott Brusaw, a down-to-earth, electrical engineer who lives in a rural Idaho community, is to convert America's broken-down highway system into a nationwide network of solar panel highways. In doing so, this solar highway would generate three times the energy used in the U.S. each year while reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 75 percent.

These new roadways would consist of three layers of individual panels. The top layer would be manufactured of high-strength, textured glass. It would provide better traction for vehicles than concrete or blacktop and is strong enough to support trucks weighing three-to-four times the weight of the 18-wheelers that chew up our road system every day.

Embedded underneath that first layer would be an array of solar cells for gathering and generating energy, as well as a system of LED lights (powered by the sun) that would be able to function as road and warning signs. Finally, a base plate layer would distribute the power as well as provide heat to melt snow and ice on the roads and prevent seepage, a major cause of road destruction on today's highways.

Does this sound like pie in the sky? Right now, I would say so, but stranger things have become realities in this country. Prior to The Wright Brothers, flying was an unproved technology. So was Brainiac, before the U.S. government proved that computers were possible.

In this case, all of the technology involved in a solar highway process is proven and available.

Tempered glass is used in countless products and big companies are already working on creating even stronger glass technologies. Solar cells and panels exist and their costs are rapidly decreasing, while their efficiencies skyrocket. Energy storage and new battery technology is becoming an everyday occurrence and can be found in airplanes, autos and any number of other new products.

As a result, the rollout of such a new road system comes down to cost. In today's political climate, our highway system is lucky to be just limping along at the present level of funding (see my column "Potholes Take Center Stage"). Our politicians can't see beyond the cost of fixing a pothole or two. But that does not mean it will always be this way.

Right now estimates put the cost of one square foot of solar highway at $70, compared with anywhere from $3 to $15 for asphalt or cement, depending on the quality and strength of the road. Given that just in the lower 48 states, we have roughly 29,000 square miles of paved road, the cost of building a solar highway would be in the trillions of dollars. The cost of maintenance is unknown as well and detractors can come up with an array of reasons why solar roads won't work. But costs will come down over time and as they do, solar roads will look more and more possible, in my opinion.

Remember that 20 years ago, electric cars were considered impossible because the battery to power them would be twice as big as the car and three times as expensive. Fortunately, the federal government thinks the idea is worth investing $ 1 million or so to encourage more research and feasibility studies. They did the same thing 15 years ago to further oil and gas fracking technology and we all know how that turned out.

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.



     
The Independent Investor: Holy Cow
By Bill Schmick On: 01:04PM / Friday May 30, 2014
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While shopping for my Memorial Day cook-out last weekend, I experienced a lethal dose of sticker shock. Steaks, roasts, spare ribs, pork loin, even ground beef were commanding prices that were a good 5 to 9 percent higher than they were at the start of the year.

Unfortunately, it appears prices will go higher still in the months ahead. Here's why.

Remember the Drought of 2012? The results of that dry period are still having repercussions on food prices today. Back in July of that year this is what I wrote: "If one looks at just the price of corn in the United States, which has increased in price by 38 percent since June 1, it is not hard to predict increases in processed food prices by the winter. Since other staples, like soybeans and wheat, are also wilting in the heat there could be a domino effect across the board for all kinds of agricultural products."

That domino effect had an interesting and long-lasting impact over the short and medium terms for all sorts of food stuffs including beef and pork prices. This was my advice back then.

"It might surprise you, however, that the prices of beef, poultry and pork might actually decline in the short term. That's because livestock producers would rather send their herds to slaughter now than face the increased costs of feeding them in the future. Out West, (today's potential Dust Bowl) many ranchers have simply run out of range land that could support their herds. As this new supply of livestock is dumped on the market, prices should ease a bit before heading up, so plan accordingly. The best strategy would be to stock up now and freeze for the future."

I hope you took my advice and have a very big freezer.

Fast forward to today, almost two years later, and we find that meat prices have seen almost record monthly increases across the nation. As a result of the drought and the subsequent livestock slaughter that followed, the U.S. now has the lowest cattle numbers since 1951.

Inventory continues to decline. At some point ranchers and farmers will begin to rebuild their stock as prices continue to move higher. But there is no quick fix because it takes at least 18 months for a calf to become market ready. Some experts estimate it could take up to three or four years before the nation's herds are back to what they were before the drought.

As for pork prices, the porcine epidemic diarrhea virus is a major cause of reduced pork production. The virus has now spread to 26 states with devastating effect. The pork industry lost almost 8 million animals, mostly piglets, to the disease over the last year. As a result, the USDA is expecting a 2.3 percent decline in overall pork production for 2014. In the meantime, most food analysts are expecting the consumer to pare back on meat purchases and substitute chicken in their diets. It is much cheaper per pound and mush easier to increase production. It would only require six months or so to meet added demand.

However, I am betting poultry prices will see some price inflation as well. As for meat, it appears that higher prices are going to be with us for the foreseeable future.

And there may be more bad news for U.S. consumers. Analysts are betting that the return of El Nino this year, somewhere between August and October, will have a negative impact on certain crop yields.

El Nino, readers may recall, is a climatic phenomenon caused by warm waters in the Pacific Ocean that can trigger ferocious rain and flooding in some areas while drought in others.

In the past, this weather event has caused devastating crop losses. In turn, this has resulted in huge and sudden price spikes, especially in soft commodities like sugar, coffee, cotton and cocoa. The last "super El Nino" was in 1997. That year, from Florida to California, there were storms, tornadoes and mudslides.

The bottom line is that you can expect food prices across the board to keep climbing.

So welcome to America, a land where there is no "official" inflation, unless you need to eat, consume gasoline, buy clothing, rent space, put a child through school or pay medical bills.

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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