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The Independent Investor: A Circus by Any Other Name Is Still a Circus

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

By now you may have heard that Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus are set to close in May of this year. That's the third circus in as many years to close their doors. You might say the announcement marks the end of an era stretching back for almost 150 years. I disagree.

The circus will never die. It's been around since the Romans were sticking each other with swords. It is a venue that is constantly changing that I believe will simply continue to evolve. Society has moved on from the need to see blood and guts on the sandy floor of the arena. For the last century and a half, we have been entertained instead by death-defying feats, acrobatics, wild animals and loud music. In today's digital age, where kids (and adults) would rather sit at home and watch television or play internet games, the smell of peanuts and popcorn, intermingled with elephant feces and three rings of lion tamers, human cannonballs and clowns just doesn't cut it.

Over the years, dwindling audiences, rising expenses, competition from other sources, the lack of marketing savvy by owners, and the increasing efforts by animal rights activists have contributed to the dwindling supply of old-time circuses that at one time crisscrossed the country.

The rising cost of attending the circus may have also been an issue. Middle-class families, whose numbers are also shrinking, had long been the bread-and-butter of the industry. In some cities, tickets for a Ringling show could be as high as $125. The cheapest seats, at $25, were still almost twice the price of a movie ticket. Plus everyone expects to buy food and at least one souvenir during a circus event. For a family of five, the costs have become insurmountable.

Despite rising ticket prices, circus costs were also increasing by leaps and bounds. Transportation costs, alone, have doubled over the last five years. The star-system tradition was also adding to the red ink. Year after year, those whose acts brought in the most tickets demanded to be paid accordingly. Billboard names such as Emmitt Kelly, the sad-faced clown, the Flying Wallendas and Gunter-Gabel-Williams, the fearless lion-tamer, took more and more of the profits.

Worst of all was the cost of the animals themselves. At Ringling Brothers, one elephant alone costs $65,000 a year just to maintain. They had 40 of the big guys on the employee list. Add in the cost of other wild animals, plus the mounting lawsuits from animal activists, and you get the picture.

Some say the final straw of "greatest show on Earth" in this increasingly difficult business environment, was their decision last year to drop their elephants from the line-up. Attendance dropped even further as a result. Those who were asked said that without the elephants, a circus was just not the same. That may be true, but last year Cole, as well as the Big Apple Circus, both elephant-heavy big tops, also announced that they will be closing their tent flaps this year.

As the sun sets over the traditional animal-centric circus tent, a new group of modern-day acrobats, jugglers and dancers have taken the viewing public by storm. Led by Cirque du Soleil (the Cirque), a new industry has sprung up. Through marketing, research and innovation, these newcomers have captured the imagination and pocketbooks of an audience that numbers 150 million people in over 300 cities worldwide.

The Cirque realized through market research that what was important to circusgoers were three things: the tent, the clowns and the acrobatic acts — not animals. So they got rid of the most expensive element, the animals, kept the clowns (but swapped their slapstick humor for something more sophisticated), and glamorized the tent. As for the acrobats, they dropped the star system, added artistic flairs they borrowed from Broadway, and included special effects from other traveling acts.

Since then, plenty of imitators have followed in their footsteps. As a result, the present-day circus has evolved into something that is not quite an ordinary circus, but neither is it a classic theater production. What it is though, is successful. In less than 20 years, the Cirque has achieved a level of sales that took Ringling Brothers a century to achieve. The point is that the circus will be around much longer than me or you but like everything in life, it will just be different.

Note: Several weeks of Mr. Schmick's columns in January & February disappeared into the ether on their way to iBerkshires. They are being back posted to the dates on which they should have appeared.

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. None of the information presented here should be construed as an endorsement of BMM or a solicitation to become a client of BMM. Direct inquiries to Bill at 1-888-232-6072 (toll free) or email him at Bill@afewdollarsmore.com.

     

The Independent Investor: When Your Broker Doesn't Want You Anymore

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

Across the nation, various financial institutions, affected by the new "fiduciary" rules issued by the Department of Labor, are making some tough decisions. Don't be surprised if your broker informs you they can no longer manage your company's 401 (k) or other defined contribution plan.

This happened to one of our clients just this week. The couples, both self-employed, had used one of the nation's largest brokers to house and manage their money purchase plans at their companies. A money purchase plan, for those who don't know, is like a pension plan where employees make contributions based on a percentage of annual earnings. This is standard stuff along with profit-sharing plans, 401(k) s and the like. Corporations use these plans as fringe benefits to reward and encourage retirement savings for owners, managers and employees.

All of the above are tax-deferred savings plans and as such fall under the Department of Labor's new rule (starting in April of this year). The rule requires financial professionals who give advice on retirement accounts to act as fiduciaries for their clients. This means they must act in their client's best interests ahead of their own financial gain and that of their company's. They will be required to disclose their compensation and any conflicts of interests as well.

In our case, since we are already fiduciaries, we were able to swiftly transfer both the husband and wife's accounts (worth over $1 million each) to our care and expertise without skipping a beat. We expect that as more brokers and insurance companies come to grips with these new responsibilities toward their client base, we will receive more calls like this.

As you might imagine, most financial services firms are not going to be advertising their decisions to dump you and your corporate accounts. Some, however, are upfront about these changes. For example, State Farm Insurance, which has sold investment products through their 12,000 agents since the early 2000s, will no longer use that model. Instead, they will have a self-directed call center that will make information and other resources available to customers, but they will have to make their own decisions regarding investments.

Mega-broker Edward Jones announced that they will limit access to mutual funds for retirement savers in commission accounts as well as reduce investment minimums to comply with the new rules. I have the feeling that more of these kinds of announcements, as well as letters and phone calls to clients, will happen with increasing frequency as the deadline approaches.

For corporate accounts, this couldn't happen at a better time. More and more disgruntled employees, unhappy with the performance and fees of their company's retirement plan, have pursued litigation to recover what they claim are exorbitant fees and poor performing investments. The DOL fiduciary rule gives the corporate manager or owner the opportunity to transfer their tax-deferred retirement accounts to companies that are already fiduciaries and have thrived under the responsibility of putting their client's interests first. That way, they and their employees can be sure that the investments and fees that are charged are always in their best interests.

Note: Several weeks of Mr. Schmick's columns in January & February disappeared into the ether on their way to iBerkshires. They are being back posted to the dates on which they should have appeared.

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. None of the information presented here should be construed as an endorsement of BMM or a solicitation to become a client of BMM. Direct inquiries to Bill at 1-888-232-6072 (toll free) or email him at Bill@afewdollarsmore.com.

 

     

The Independent Investor: Gyms Are Counting on Your New Year's resolution

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

Barbara Schmick tries out her new Peloton machine. While she's likely to keep going, most exercise resolutions fall short.

It's that time of the year again when people like me hate people like you. January is the month when all those good intentions to get healthy and fit translate into a 12 percent bump in health club memberships. If only all those Americans who join gyms this month would stick with it.

Sadly for them (but not for me) all those good intentions dissolve by the end of the first quarter. The health clubs of America get back to normal by March. Actually, 4 percent of new members won't make it past the end of January and 14 percent drop out by the end of February. Well over half of new members will fade by the end of the quarter.

The gym owners have no problem with that. They assume that only 18 percent of new members will hang in there and use the gym regularly. You see, the idea of fitness (as opposed to actually doing it), is extremely popular here in America. We all know that, regardless of our good intentions, the population of unhealthy and overweight Americans grows larger all the time. Over 70 percent of Americans are overweight, according to the latest statistics.

That leaves the fitness industry with a practically inexhaustible pool of potential buyers of their services. Statistics for 2016 indicate that worldwide revenues in the health club industry grew to $81 billion. Over 151 million members visited nearly 187,000 clubs.  As you might expect, the U.S. leads all markets in club count and represents about 55 million memberships. Brazil and Germany are our runner-ups. But health club memberships are also strong in both the Middle East and in the Asia-Pacific region as well.

Some researchers believe that the health & wellness industry will top $1 trillion at some point soon. Of that total, the lion's share of sales will continue to be in the beauty and anti-aging products sales, followed by fitness and exercise and then eating, nutrition and weight-loss sales. Worldwide, the industry is already clocking in at $3.7 trillion and growth is expected to accelerate by 17 percent in the next five years.

But let's get back to trends in fitness. My gym is what you would call a big box facility — lots of equipment for weight training and cardio. It has a couple of personal trainers, locker rooms and showers and that's about it. Membership dues are $10 a month. You can't beat that, especially when you consider I come from Manhattan where yearly memberships can easily cost you $65-$80 a month for comparable amenities.

High-end clubs, like Equinox in New York City, command a multiple of those prices. Unlike my gym, the beautiful people in high-priced facilities lounge around the pool, check their make-up in the club's nutrition center mirror and, on occasion, perspire, but at an acceptable level.

Yet, smaller niche gyms are also gathering a following. These gyms focus on specialty fitness programs that concentrate on a particular style of exercise, piece of equipment (think Pilates), or even a philosophical approach, such as yoga.  

One new twist in this niche market is combining home exercise, while utilizing state-of-the-art internet, and other variables to deliver a customized experience in your living room. This Christmas, as an example, I surprised my wife, who is an avid runner and gym rat, with a subscription plus equipment purchased from a fast-growing, specialty fitness company specializing in spinning.

I reasoned that she needed another cross-sport as an alternative to running. The problem for both of us is that between lifting weights, running, hiking with the dog and other fitness-related activities, we don't have that much spare time available on any given day, thus, a home program that could be done whenever we had the time.

The company, called Peloton, offers an at-home spin class with live instructors accessed via an electronic screen attached to the bike. All classes are recorded in their NYC studio (which Peloton owners call "The Mothership." They also offer an inventory of pre-recorded classes including great simulated bicycle rides through majestic scenery worldwide. Via the internet, the member can socialize with other club members, interact with the trainers, compare notes, and even compete depending upon one's interests.

The membership, spinning bike and accessories were not cheap, but that's what makes me such a great husband. My wife tells me that this company and others like it are growing by leaps and bounds. I don't doubt it.

In any case, even though my gym will be crowded over the next few months, I urge you to join. I am a firm believer in daily exercise and the older you get the more important it becomes. Who knows, maybe we will bump into each other on the elliptical machine and trade stock ideas?

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 inquiries to Bill at 1-888-232-6072 (toll free) or email him at Bill@afewdollarsmore.com.

     

The Independent Investor: Dementia & Your portfolio

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

As more Baby Boomers reach retirement age, few elderly investors are willing to discuss a growing risk to their portfolio. The onset of diminished mental capacity can cause huge losses in your life savings. Many only realize the problem in hindsight. Don't let that happen to you.

The facts are concerning. For example, one in nine people, age 65 or older, suffer from some form of dementia. That skyrockets to one in two people over the age of 85. What's worse, there are at least 18 different diseases that bring on dementia. Alzheimer's disease is only the most prevalent of causes. No one can predict who will get this disease, but we do know that the older we get the higher the risk.

If you have been reading my columns on estate planning, you know by now that a visit to an estate planning attorney is in order.  It is true that most investors with significant assets have already made wills, set up trusts and in other ways made plans to protect their money after death. In many cases, they have also set up a power of attorney to manage their affairs in the event of illness or when they can no longer manage their money themselves.

The problem with all of the above is that none of it safeguards you against an early onset of dementia. Only you can detect it, but even then, your mind can be telling you something different and usually does. It is a serious problem, since one out of seven us have it and may not know it. For investors, especially self-directed investors, this can result in disastrous investment decisions.

But what about your loved ones, won't they know? Unfortunately, unless you have actually lived through this process with a relative or friend, chances are they won't recognize what is occurring unless you tell them. I have had clients who have managed to conceal how poorly they are functioning from those they live with while continuing to make increasingly poor investment decisions as their brains atrophy.

My experiences with my own mother have taught me just how insidious this process can be. Our family assumed that dementia could be identified by the amount of things my Mom forgot, but we were wrong. There are many ways dementia can manifest itself and loss of memory is only one of them. In vascular dementia, for example, where the victim experiences a series of micro-strokes, other more important issues start to impact the brain. Loss of judgment, impulse control and emotional imbalance are several other conditions that can crop up even before memory loss.

All of the above can have a devastating impact on your portfolio. In some cases, an investor with early onset dementia can experience excessive fear or rage. Although prudent all their life, some investors will begin to take on excessive risk with their portfolios. Others will panic at the first down period in the markets and sell everything. Some lose their hard-won skepticism and will trust perfect strangers with easy-money con games.

Unfortunately, most loved ones realize that something is wrong only after the fact. It is far easier to suspect dementia when someone cannot find their way home. But it is far more difficult to identify within the financial world, especially if you have been making investment decisions on your own for many years.

How can you protect yourself from this risk? First, monitor your own investment behavior. If you detect that there have been recent shifts (either more greed or fear) in how you approach the markets - be on guard. Make sure you talk to your loved ones concerning these changes and ask them to keep an eye on your behavior. If they admit that they do see a change, don't get angry, get help. Go to your doctor and admit your fears. Better to lose a little pride than half of your life-savings.

On a different note, I will be missing in action over the next few weeks, getting my left knee replaced. Look for me again in November.

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 inquiries to Bill at 1-888-232-6072 (toll free) or email him at Bill@afewdollarsmore.com.

     

The Independent Investor: The Impact of One Bad Apple

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

For years, the mantra of Corporate America has been that they are drowning in government rules and regulations. Small business has echoed that refrain, as has Wall Street. The problem is that these same entities continually shoot themselves in the foot.

Over the last two weeks, thanks to Wells Fargo in the banking sector, and Mylan Labs in pharmaceuticals, Corporate America has once again reminded us of that business just can't be trusted. In the case of Wells Fargo, over 2 million fictitious customer accounts were opened over several years in order to meet sales goals.

Critics say Mylan Labs' 500 percent increase (since 2007) in the cost of a device called EpiPen that treats severe allergic reactions is simply another case of rampant greed within the drug industry. They are not alone. Gilead Sciences and Valeant Pharmaceuticals have both been caught instituting similar price hikes on some of their drugs. And who can forget Martin Shkreli, the former head of Turing pharmaceuticals, who jacked up the price of a life-saving drug, Daraprim, from $13.50 to $750 per tablet (while giving the finger to all of us on tape).

Not only has the public reacted with anger over these incidents, but it has kept the idea alive that existing rules and regulations are justified. What's worse is that many politicians will use these events to pile even more restrictions on the nation's corporations.

Hell hath no fury compared to a politician with a meaty issue in an election year. Senators from both parties jostled for air time on Tuesday during a hearing over Wells Fargo's indiscretions. To say that Wells' chief executive officer was trashed up one side and down the other would be an understatement.

CEO John Stumpf, once the "pretty boy" of the financial industry, due to his company's relatively clean bill of health during the financial crisis, was vilified for going easy on the bank's leadership while firing thousands of lower-level workers. Legislatures used terms like "gutless leadership", "fraud" and "out of touch" executives to decry management's response to the scandal.

Next week, it is Mylan Lab's turn to testify before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Heather Bresch, the CEO of the massive pharmaceutical company, will be on the hot seat. Politicians running for re-election will be vying for the microphone. Expect to hear how she and her company are guilty of price gouging among other charges.

While the hearings and their aftermath might provide entertaining reading, the consequences of these cases of corporate greed may have far-reaching effects on all of our industries.  There is a great deal of truth in the complaints of many businessmen, especially small businessmen, that Federal, state and local regulations are making it almost impossible to run a profitable business, but at the same time, one bad apple after another pops up justifying the chains that bind the entire cart.

After the 2009 financial crisis, a flood of new regulations and reforms swamped the banking industry. The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act were signed into law in 2010. Among other things, it created yet another agency: the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

The Federal Reserve was given more power as were a slew of other governmental agencies. Lending practices, reserve requirements, trading restrictions and countless more new regulations were foisted on the banking industry. The idea behind this avalanche of rules and regulations were to ensure that "never again" will Americans be subjected to these "too big to fail" bailouts.

Hillary Clinton has already promised to deal with these outrageous pricing issues in the drug sector. As such, does anyone want to guess the chances of reducing regulations on either the pharmaceutical or banking industry? As long as industry continues to shoot itself in the foot, what else can one expect?

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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