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The Independent Investor: Not All Bonds Are the Same
By Bill Schmick On: 07:44PM / Thursday August 20, 2015

Bondholders are holding their breath as they wait for the Federal Reserve Bank to begin hiking short-term interest rates. Most investors are expecting all bonds to take a hit at the outset of the country's first rate hike in nine years. What happens after that may surprise you.

Prior to the financial crisis and the stimulus policies instituted by the Fed to solve it, bond investors could count on a fairly predictable pattern of behavior among bond categories as interest rates rose. Historically, the Fed would begin to raise rates when they perceived the economy was growing too quickly. Why?

Because normally, unbridled economic growth will result in higher inflation, which is something no one wants. Higher rates would force the cost of borrowing to go up. That, in turn, would slow investment, spending and ultimately economic growth. The trick is to raise rates just enough to head off inflation while allowing the economy to continue to grow.  

In that kind of environment some bonds do better than others. To understand why, you need to know something about risk. To make it simple, there are two kinds of risk. Interest rate risk occurs when rates rise. That risk affects all bonds. Then there is the risk of bankruptcy.

Generally, U.S. government entities (Federal, state and local) are perceived to have little or no bankruptcy risk. Therefore, the fear of bankruptcy does not enter into the bond investor's calculations. Corporate bonds, on the other hand, do have this additional risk factor.

It is one reason why corporate debt, whether investment grade, convertible bond or high-yield (known as junk bonds), almost always offers a higher rate of interest than government bonds. Since the fortunes of most corporations are tied to the fate of the economy, when the country is doing poorly, the risk of corporate bankruptcy rises. Corporate bond prices fall and the interest rate they offer goes up. The opposite occurs when the economy is growing.

In today's growing economy, the most likely outcome of a moderate rise in interest rates (interest rate risk) on corporate bonds would be neutral to positive. Better prospects for companies in a growing economy would lessen bankruptcy risk. That will hopefully negate some or all of the losses incurred by rising rates overall.  

Corporate bonds of all kinds have performed well over the last few years, maybe too well. It may be why bonds overall will have a knee-jerk negative first reaction to the end of an era of easy money. But corporate debt should continue to do well at least until the Fed hikes interest rates to a level that tips the economy into recession. That could be years from now.

Various Fed spokesmen have reiterated over and over again that the pace of interest rate increases in the future will be slow and moderate.   

The moral of this tale is that in the future corporate bonds should do better than government bonds. My advice to investors who continue to insist on keeping the majority of their money in the bond market is to switch from governments to corporates at your earliest opportunity.

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: The Risk of Rising Rates
By Bill Schmick On: 01:21PM / Friday August 14, 2015

Conservative investors are becoming increasingly concerned that their bond holdings may be at risk. If and when the Federal Reserve Bank hikes interest rates this year, will bond holders be caught holding the bag?

It depends. The short answer would be that when interest rates rise, bond prices fall, if all else remains equal. That's because bonds have two sources of returns: changes in price and interest payments that move in opposite directions. If you hold your bond investment until the date it matures (whether that is a few months or as long as thirty years), you receive all the interest payments the bond pays out plus your original investment money back  at maturity providing you purchased it at par (the price it was initially offered).

For those of you who plan to hold your bonds to maturity and are happy with your present rate of interest, then there is nothing to worry about. Rates can rise all they want but why should you care?

The problem for many elderly, fixed income investors is that they are not sure they can wait the five, 10, 20 (and certainly not 30 years) necessary to cash in their bonds at par. Secondly, most retired investors acknowledge that at the present rate of interest income received, they can't make ends meet. So rising interest rates for them is a double-edged sword. It means that in the future the stream in interest income from bonds will improve, but bonds they hold now will go down in price at the same time.

If we focus on individual bonds in the short-term, when interest rates move up, basic bond math indicates that prices generally will decline. Price history also indicates that the longer the maturity of your bond, the steeper the decline. Therefore long-dated, low-interest individual bonds are the most risky investments you can hold in a rising rate environment.

On the other hand, bond funds usually decline less (but they still decline). Bond funds have a wide array of short, medium and long-term bond holdings that mature during different times with different rates of interest. That lessens the impact of interest rate increases over time.

Remember, too, that despite rising rates (or even because of them), governments and corporations must continue to raise money in the debt markets. Plants still need to be built, roads paved, and government programs financed but now the cost of borrowing is higher. There is usually a ready market for these higher yielding bonds depending on the quality of the issuer.  

As interest rates rise, bond buyers, including bond fund managers, are always buying and selling lower yielding bonds for higher yielding bonds. That tends to lessen the price depreciation they suffer over time. As long as interest rates do not rise too fast, most managers can stay ahead of the curve. They can offset price declines in their portfolio of bonds by buying bonds with higher interest payments over a longer period of time.

In summary, individual bonds are riskier than bond funds generally speaking. In our next column we will discuss the risks of different types of bonds and strategies to reduce that risk going forward.

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: Boomers' Kids Don't Want Your Stuff
By Bill Schmick On: 05:39PM / Thursday August 06, 2015

You saved all your life, acquiring all sorts of assets that you now want to leave to your children. Today, more and more Baby Boomers are finding that their kids just don't want that antique auto or that original oil painting.

Too many of us fail to recognize that the Millennial generation has grown up with an entirely different view of the world, their possessions, one's life style and even value system. This may come as a shock. It did to me. As readers may recall, my wife and I have been downsizing for three years now. During the course of this process, we have offered our thirtysomething daughter and her husband all sorts of stuff that they didn't want. From snowboards to unopened Tiffany wedding gifts, they politely and gently declined our largesse. This includes larger assets as well.

We have, for example, the luxury of owning two homes, a weekend place and another dwelling close to the office. Although my daughter loves to visit and has a real sentimental attachment to the "country" home, she really has no interest in inheriting the old homestead.

"I just couldn't afford the upkeep and maintenance," she says. "It wouldn't be feasible."

If you haven't had this discussion with your kids, maybe you should.  I have learned that there is a major difference between how my generation (and my parent's generation) spent their time, versus today's Millennials. Previous generations spent most of their lives in pursuit of stuff. We worked to acquire stuff and spent most of our time buying, collecting, storing and enjoying our possessions. Any spare time we had was devoted to maintaining and repairing these symbols of our success. Many of us prided ourselves by measuring our self-worth by how many possessions we acquired.

When asked why we needed two houses, four cars and 11 wide-screen televisions, we answered "why, to leave to the kids and the grandchildren of course." We assumed our future generations would value, maintain and accumulate even more antique rugs, dining room sets, golf clubs etc. Brother, it's time to face the truth. They don't want our junk, no matter how valuable we think it is.

For one thing, they don't have room for it. I recently wrote a column on the growing trend by Millennials towards living in smaller houses, apartments and even trailers. My daughter has no room for my teakwood bookcase full of thousands of DVDs and CDs that I have painstakingly collected through the years. She shakes her head quietly while grinning at me, wondering why in the world I still own those things when all of these media products can be easily and simply obtained on the internet and stored/streamed through the Cloud.

In addition, most of our kids value mobility, adventure and experience far more than we did. Given the choice between spending $20,000 on a new car, or a three-week African safari, most of them would choose Africa. The argument that the automobile would last years longer than that safari doesn't faze them in the least.

To them, stuff has to have a purpose. It must be a means to an end, not the end itself. If something new accomplishes a purpose more efficiently, they dump the old and embrace the new. That may sound unsentimental or even ungrateful but it isn't. It's just different.

My daughter still wants to keep certain objects that evoke memories of our past together. Usually, they are small and hardly the most valuable objects. But they are valuable to her and in the end that's what counts. As for the rest of that stuff, my advice is to sell it, give it away, or dump it and spare your children that chore.

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: Supermarkets Evolve to Survive
By Bill Schmick On: 03:29PM / Friday July 31, 2015

We take our local supermarkets for granted. Like gas stations, there seems to one on almost every corner, at least in suburbia. With competition from a variety of sources, supermarkets have been forced to reinvent themselves and are doing a good job doing just that.

Historically, supermarkets are a low-margin business, barely eking out 1-2 percent profit margins annually. Even the "hot" areas of the grocery market, like natural. organic and gourmet food emporiums only command 3 percent to 6 percent margins but to the big store chains that's an attractive option.

In addition, the supermarkets industry is highly fragmented with the top 10 chains only accounting for 35 percent of the total number of grocery stores (although they account for over 68 percent of total industry sales in this country). In order to increase profitability, supermarkets are reinventing themselves and benefiting the consumer in the process.

Given that I'm the cook and grocery shopper in my family, I have some firsthand experience in shopping through this transition and so far I like what I see. Clearly your local megastore is going after the natural and organic food shopper. Most readers already know that you pay more for those items, substantially more in some cases. Have you also noticed that you are seeing more "local vegetables" right alongside those that are shipped in from elsewhere? If you are price conscious (like me) you might also notice the price difference. You could be paying as much as 50 cents more per pound for that locally grown spinach or kale but its fresh and you are supporting local farmers, right?

Supermarkets are adding other products and services where profits are far higher than that box of mac and cheese on sale every other week. Look for those "specials" to continue since middle and low-income shoppers account for 70 percent of grocery sales. Most shoppers tend to be price conscious and will switch if they feel that one chain’s prices are better than another's. In fact, super stores are marketing their weekly special flyers with renewed effort. The name of that game is to get the shopper into their stores.

Since food shopping is essentially a sensory experience, the grocery store is hoping that once in the door the consumer will be susceptible to the siren call of other more high-priced items that promise a variety of convenience, culinary and even educational experiences.

More and more markets are adding pharmacies, bakeries, coffee shops as well as salad bars, chef-prepared entrees, brunch stations and gelato bars. And God forbid if you go shopping hungry. I fully acknowledge that the sushi bar or an impulse order of hot wings at the grocery store has replaced my occasional visit to a fast-food burger chain or restaurant. All of that adds meat to the supermarket's net profits.

Since I, like 92 percent of American adults, believe that eating at home is healthier (and cheaper) than eating out, my main objective in the supermarket is still shopping for fresh food. However, I'm frequently drawn to the seafood or butcher's counter where the slicing, dicing, marinating and stuffing has been done for me by the store's "sous chef."

These wily grocers are also bundling together other meal components right next to the meats and fish, which are easy to prepare and taste almost as good as my own, with a few finishing touches.  I admit that on busy weeknights, going this route makes fixing dinner for two an easier and faster affair. Granted, I'm paying up for the pork roast with cranberry stuffing but still paying less than I would going out to eat. The supermarket’s profit is much higher as a result.

I'm still not using the online applications that stores are offering. There are well over 1,000 apps offered by my iPhone right now and that number is growing exponentially each day. More and more establishments are offering lessons in everything from basic cooking to preparing for your next Super Bowl party. Healthy eating for you and the family, educational courses and advice in weight loss management, heart, diabetes, food allergies and even family mealtime management are now offered along with countess recipes and food guides.

The bottom line seems to me that we are all paying more while the supermarkets are making more as a result, but the added services and products seem to be a fair trade. That's a win-win for everyone.

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: Are You Ready for El Niņo
By Bill Schmick On: 01:51PM / Thursday July 23, 2015

It's that time again. Trade winds in the Pacific are blowing west to east, pushing warm water to the surface. In times past, those conditions created havoc with much of the world's weather creating everything from fires to floods, sometimes, in epic proportions. Some weather models predict this year's El Niño could rank among the worse.

El Niño ("boy child" in Spanish) has been around for a long time, but it was only in the early '80s that scientists realized the global impact of these events. Their potential intensity is difficult to predict because they interact with other natural climate factors, which can change the outcome.

Since predicting the strength of a potential El Niño is about as risky as predicting the direction of the stock market, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will only deal in probabilities. They predict an 85 percent chance that El Niño this year will be "strong." So far this summer the 2015 El Niño is about tied with the 1997-1998 El Niño in terms of intensity. That's a bit troublesome since the 1997-98 disturbance turned out to be a record-setting event.

The social and economic impact of an El Niño on the United States varies, depending upon where you live and the changing weather patterns. This year, we will feel the strongest impacts of El Niño in the fall and winter. Some of us could actually benefit somewhat, depending upon where you live.

In New England, one can expect a milder winter than average. Snowfall should be less and winter temperatures above average, although we could still experience a few Nor'easters, especially in the beginning and end of the season. The East Coast, overall, should see a much calmer hurricane season. That would be good news in terms of lower heating bills, storm damage, lower insurance claims and business disruption, especially in the retail sector.

Other areas of the country might not be so lucky. In general, summer agricultural crops in the U.S. and Canadian grain belts do well but winter crops not so much. Most often the weather change will bring cooler wetter winters to most southern states.  A strong El Niño often brings heavy rains to places like Texas, the Southern Plains and California.

That might not be a bad thing if it breaks the horrendous drought that has strangled the food and farming economies in these areas for the past few years. The issue will be how much is enough? Back in 1997-1998, heavy rains created terrible flooding, mudslides and death, especially in California. In February 1998, a series of storms caused $550 million in damages and killed 17 people in California.

All in all, the U.S. tends to avoid the worst effects of El Niño, while countries in Southeast Asia, the Horn of Africa and Latin America bear the brunt of these weather patterns. I experienced those conditions first hand while visiting and investing in Peru, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea in 1997-1998.

In Peru, entire towns were wiped away in terrible landslides. Mountains literally tumbled into the Pacific Ocean, burying everything in their path. Fires in Indonesia were so bad that the entire region was blanketed by haze and smog that left your clothes and skin black with ash. These uncontrolled fires decimated crop production in one country after another causing poverty, starvation and ultimately social unrest.

The decline in food production by so many nations had a beneficial impact on our own farming exports but at the expense of so many others. Hopefully, this time around, if El Niño is as bad as some predict, governments in those potential danger areas will be more prepared. But how much they can do, aside from controlling the customary slash and burn style of agriculture, is questionable.

There is no guarantee that this El Niño will develop into another record-breaking event. But temperatures to date this year are already far above average around the planet and many weather models are predicting that 2015 will be the warmest year on record. That simply increases the odds that this boy child of a weather pattern could evolve into a real temper tantrum of nature.

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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