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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.



     
The Independent Investor: When 'No' Means 'Yes'
By Bill Schmick On: 02:07PM / Friday July 17, 2015

A Greek referendum less than two weeks ago delivered a resounding "no" when voters were asked to approve the European Community's austerity ultimatum in exchange for a new bailout. While Grecians danced in the streets, global markets tumbled, but fast forward 10 days and we now face an entirely different set of outcomes.

Today the Greek parliament approved an austerity program much tougher than the one they originally rejected in the referendum vote. It was approved by 229 votes out of the 300-seat chamber. In a showdown with the EU, it was either pass the package or get booted out of the Euro.

You may need a little background in order to understand this about face by the Greeks. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has spent the last six months deliberately stalling while negotiating in bad faith with the "Troika" (the IMF, EU and ECB).  When it appeared that the other side was getting close to agreeing on some of his demands, Tsipras walked out while calling for a referendum. That deliberate act of sabotage was supposed to force the Troika to agree to even more concessions on the back of a "no" vote. Instead, it did just the opposite.

Tsipras' theatrics convinced the Troika that they were dealing with damaged goods and that the era of conciliation was over when it came to dealing with Greece and its problems. There would be no more emergency money. Greek banks would remain closed as would the stock market. If default and an exit from the Euro were the outcome, so be it.

Germany's Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble, who had become increasingly cynical of the on-again, off-again, negotiating tactics of the Greeks, floated an idea in last weekend's emergency session of the EU in Brussels that would kick Greece out of the Euro in what he called a "five-year time out." Although not all EU members agreed with the idea, enough did. The statement signaled that Germany had had enough. Either Greece was going to toe the line or it was going to experience a financial and economic meltdown.

Tsipras was given until the middle of this week to convince his nation's parliament to pass a series of austerity measures that went beyond those already rejected in the referendum vote. Some of these changes include rules and regulations that would make it easier to fire employees, the end of some protectionist measures that would open up multiple markets including pharmaceuticals and diary products, as well as the creation of a privatization fund whose proceeds would be earmarked to pay down debt.

In order to comply, Tsipras found himself in the unenviable position of enlisting the aid of the opposition parties while fighting his own hardline supporters in the Syriza party. In the meantime, a confused and disillusioned populace wonders how and why their leaders have sold them down the river. It would appear that even though the beleaguered Prime Minster was successful in this latest turnabout, his days as a leader are numbered. The EU has already cast their verdict, Tsipras cannot be trusted. His own party will likely call for new snap elections and a no confidence vote regardless of the outcome of this austerity deal.     

In hindsight, the flawed tactics of Tsipras and his newly-elected, left-wing Syriza party were typical of a group of amateurs trying to play Game of Thrones with the likes of Germany's Angela Merkel and Christine lagarde, director of the IMF.  Unfortunately, the entire charade has left the leading actors somewhat tarnished as a result. Germany and the other members of the EU, an organization founded on the principals of democracy, harmony and peaceful unification have just engineered "one of the most brutal diplomatic de-marches in the history of the European Union" as a front-page story of the Wall Street Journal described it.

Greece is left with an economy at a standstill, an exploding debt load with no real way to pay its creditors and a population, already drowning in austerity measures, facing even worse. Do I think that the worst is over for Greece and the EU? Not by a long shot.

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: Same-Sex Marriage Good for Business
By Bill Schmick On: 04:58PM / Thursday July 02, 2015

Last week's Supreme Court decision to legalize gay marriage at the federal level was greeted with a sigh of relief by most large companies. It also makes my job a lot easier as well. Here's why.

Previously, the myriad laws that allowed or disallowed gay marriage cost the private sector at least $1 billion annually. Over two-thirds of Fortune 500 companies were offering health and retirement benefits to same-sex partners in states that did not recognize their marriage. That incentive became a nightmare for human resources departments throughout the country that tried to square their practices with that of the states.

Spousal benefits for employees' same-sex partners were also more expensive, since some states and the federal government taxed those fringe benefits for gays, while heterosexual married couples were tax-deferred. That caused many same-sex employers to offer gay employees a bigger salary to compensate for these tax costs.

Companies also have had a harder time recruiting workers with same-sex partners to states where their marriage isn't recognized, where varying laws require corporations treat same-sex marriages differently depending on the state.

From my own experience, advising clients in same-sex relationships to plan for the future has been extremely difficult. In addition to the confusing and contradictory nature of state laws in regard to gay marriage, the federal government has also been a Gordian knot of confusion. Regulations and interpretations of same-sex marriage were handled differently depending on the government agency. Different bureaucracies, whether in Veterans Affairs, the Department of Labor, Social Security and even the Railroad Retirement Board had all devised different interpretations of what constitutes a gay union and its benefits (or lack thereof). In addition, there are more than 1,000 federal laws and regulations that currently apply to married couples and these same laws will now need to be reviewed and re-evaluated with all couples in mind.

The Supreme Court ruling now allows our LGBT clients to simplify what had been complicated estate plans, including trusts and living wills. Since same-sex marriages will be viewed the same as other marriages, much of the estate planning can now follow a more standardized process. Spousal beneficiaries of pension plans, 401 (k) and other tax-deferred and IRA plans, as well as spousal health insurance benefits, will no longer be in question.

Some sources have guesstimated that the same-sex decision could generate as much as $2.6 billion in an economic windfall over the next three years. The $51 billion a year wedding industry should see a boost in business for sure. Others calculate that the tax savings from reporting a combined income and other cost savings by the LGBT community will result in additional consumer spending.

Economic benefits aside, last week was a great week for Americans, in my opinion. The court's upholding of Obamacare, the 5-4 decision in favor of gay marriage, and witnessing the families of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church forgive the alleged murderer of its family and congregation members were all momentous events. This week, I'm proud to be an American.

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: Tiny Houses Gain Appeal
By Bill Schmick On: 05:01PM / Saturday June 27, 2015

In this era of tight credit, high-priced McMansions and rapid life-style changes, the American Housing Dream may no longer be defined as a three-bedroom homestead on half an acre.

For many Americans of all ages, there is a movement afoot to downsize their living space dramatically.

The typical American house is around 2,600 square feet. Until recently, builders were taking the "barbell approach" by building bigger and bigger homes at one extreme and smaller and smaller apartments on the other. This trend, I suspect, largely reflected the growing disparity toward higher income inequality in this country. The rich, builders reasoned, wanted and could afford the sprawling monstrosity with the private drive and manicured lawns, while the poor were happy to have a roof over their head.

But more and more Americans are "going tiny" for a variety of reasons. No question that buying a typical small house or even a trailer that measures 100-400 square feet is decidedly cheaper than a regular home. Most of us spend 1/3 to 1/2 of our income over a minimum of 15 years paying off the house.  In contrast, over 68 percent of those who own tiny houses have no mortgage. As a result, over half of tiny house people accumulate more savings than other Americans.

Homes also require a lot of time and effort to maintain. It is one of the main reasons that retirees are "downsizing" but that is not the only reason. Aside from the on-going expense, environmental concerns, such as fuel consumption, also play a part in that decision. More than 80 percent of greenhouse gas emissions during a home's 70-year life are attributed to electricity and fuel consumption. In addition, many Americans are going through life-style changes. More and more of us Baby Boomers are embracing the fact that we can live far more comfortably in a smaller place.

And it is not just the oldsters who are joining the tiny movement. The Millennial population, which is transitioning from cozy student housing and small apartments, do not have the "bigger is better" expectations of their parents. Their preference is walkable convenience, smaller, more innovative abodes that allow for hi-tech convenience and less time and effort on the upkeep.

The younger folk want to ride or walk to work, be surrounded by shared amenities like fitness centers, a comfortable neighborhood and other amenities outside the home. It may be why only two out of every five tiny homeowners are over 50 years old. Tiny house owners are also twice as likely to have a master's degree and earn a bit more than the average American.

In addition to tiny houses, some mobile entrepreneurs and millennials are choosing trailers as a viable alternative to tiny homes. Like many retired Baby Boomers, Millennials fashion themselves as footloose and free, able to work for themselves, whether in the high-tech world or in the service industry. To them, the RV is made to be moved, aerodynamic in form, much cheaper than a house and without the building codes, insurance and other legal stuff that conflicts with their lifestyle.

One popular made-in-America brand, Airstream, is the current rage of young entrepreneurs attracted to the retro-look and feel of the aluminum trailers. The company can’t keep up with the current demand. Recently Airstream partnered with the Columbus (Ohio) College of Art and Design to create a camper with a workspace and living area marketed toward 20- to 30-year-olds whose jobs don't tie them to a specific place. Airstream is currently evaluating the design for possible new product introductions.

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: Robo-Advisers Have Landed
By Bill Schmick On: 04:00PM / Friday June 19, 2015

Skynet, move over. The dawn of intelligent portfolio services is rising across the globe. Depending upon your individual circumstances, this trend could be an answer to many investors' problems.

Exactly what is robo-investing?  The dozen or so firms offering this service use computer algorithms, rather than humans, to manage your investments. They do so at a considerable cost savings to you, the retail investor. They offer a substantial discount in the fees they charge, compared to more traditional financial service advisers.

Until recently, many investors had two choices when deciding how to manage your retirement savings such as an IRA or inheritance, for example. You could do-it-yourself (DIY). Pick some mutual funds, stocks or exchange traded funds your cousin or your fishing buddy suggests and invest for the "long-term." That works fairly well as long as markets continue to gain year after year, but fails miserably when the markets turn, as they did during the financial crisis of 2008-2009.

Most individuals (and professional investors) held on throughout that decline only to sell at the bottom. Twenty-five years or more of savings were wiped out in 18 months. Many retail investors have stayed in cash ever since, missing a 100 percent-plus gain. Those who held on have made up most, if not all of, their losses, but it has taken over five years to do so.

The other option is to hire a financial adviser. Unfortunately, they normally have a minimum asset requirement of $250,000-$500,000 or larger. These advisers will charge you 1-2 percent annually and many also make additional fees through commission arrangements or "revenue sharing" deals with mutual fund managers.

The problem with the DIY approach is that most individuals are not able to invest their own savings, nor should they. They may excel at their chosen career but those skills do not normally transfer to money management. As for hiring an adviser, many investors can't make the minimums; especially younger people, who are just starting to save.

Robo-advisers, on the other hand, normally set their minimums somewhere between $5,000 and $10,000. For that initial investment, they will manage your money via computer, charge you half of what a real-live adviser will charge (or less), and some even give you access to investment professionals, who will answer questions about the investments.

Some advisers such as Charles Schwab, the discount broker, charge no fees or commissions in essence, free money management, but readers should be aware that nothing is free. The robo-adviser may insist that 10 percent of your portfolio always remain in cash. That money can be used by the broker in any number of ways that can generate them a good return while making nothing for you.

Robo-advisers can also make money on the investments they select for you. They could, for example, invest you in higher-fee, exchange traded funds or their own brand of ETFs, if they choose. The point is that these robo-advisers are in this to make money, and they do. The fact that they do should not deter you from investigating this further.

Clearly, there is nothing new in how they invest you. There is no "HAL" out there whose artificial intelligence is going to make you brilliant investment choices and returns. All of these firms base their investment guidance using Modern Portfolio Theory (MPT), Efficient Market Hypothesis (EMH) and an analysis of your risk tolerance profile. These are all standard tools of any money manager. They simply down-load this into a computer and invest you accordingly.

If your investment skills are zero to none, robo-investing may be exactly what you need. Your returns may not be spectacular but at least you will have returns. For those of us who have sought the poor man's answer to proper investing, this may well be it. 

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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Village Ambulance to Host Free CPR Workshops
Dr. Veeranna Joins Cardiology Services at BMC
Mayoral Candidate Tyer Targets Anti-blight Ordinances
Lanesborough's Water Line Project Trending On Budget
Wellington, Roberson Lead Teams to Giorgi League Wins
Pittsfield to Hold Babe Ruth, Little League Fall Ball Signups

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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