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@theMarket: Europe Is a Good Bet
By Bill Schmick On: 12:34AM / Sunday June 08, 2014
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When the allies invaded the coast of Normandy on June 6, 1944, no one knew how much was at stake. It was a risky move that not only put an end to years of bloodshed within Europe but also ushered in a new world order that continues today. European leaders are hoping that their central bank's actions this week will provide an economic D-Day of their own.

The greatest risk to the economies of Europe is deflation. The European Central Bank (ECB) maintains a 2 percent inflation target for the EU, but the inflation rate as of May was a mere 0.05 percent.  While unemployment remains above 12 percent and economic growth continues at a sub-par rate, the EU could face an era of stagnation similar to that which had plagued Japan for twenty years.

Over the past three years, the ECB has shoveled over one trillion Euros in loans without conditions to the banking sector. Little of that money found its way to the private sector. Instead, the banks simply re-deposited those funds with the ECB and banked the interest or used it to trade for their own account in the stock and bond markets. In the meantime, lending to the private sector keeps shrinking and the economy stalling.

The ECB has now cut a key interest rate to below zero. It essentially means that European banks in a complete reversal will now be paying the ECB to park their funds there. This negative rate of interest in intended to spur financial institutions to begin lending that money to companies and other credit-hungry entities. The ECB also suspended their sterilization operations (taking money out of the market) which should inject a further 165 billion Euros into the mix.

The bank also promised over $500 billion in discounted loans to banks, providing they lend that money to companies and not other financial institutions. I'd give the bank an "A" for effort, but more needs to be done.

Investors were taken by surprise by the boldness of these latest moves. You see, the markets have long been inured to the actions of the ECB as too little, too late. Unlike the U.S., where our Fed answers to no one, the ECB has to juggle the conflicting views of many member nations of the European Union. While the Fed can take decisive and far-reaching steps to jump-start our economy, the ECB needs to build consensus among its members. This takes time.

This week's actions are, in my opinion, only the first of several steps to grow the European economy. A quantitative easing program that emulates the asset purchasing that both the U.S. and Japanese central banks have implemented might be the next step. So far, Germany, with its deep-rooted fear of hyperinflation (pre-WWII) has been against this action.

But Mario Draghi, the bank's president, went on record promising more, if these efforts failed to accomplish his goals. "Are we finished?" he asked. "The answer is no."

I believe him.

So let's bring this down to you and your portfolio. Readers may recall that well over a year ago, I suggested some exposure to Europe either through a mutual or exchange traded fund. That has worked out well since European averages, although still selling at a 15 percent discount to their American counterparts, are all at record highs. I think more exposure to Europe would be a wise move.

Right now, most readers have 25-30 percent in cash based on my advice. Over the next few weeks, I suggest you move some of that cash to Europe. Exactly how you do that is up to you. Take notice, however, that if the ECB's strategy works, one can expect the Euro to weaken against the U.S. dollar while their stock markets rise. It would make sense to look for a fund that combines those two elements. If one decided to simply ignore the currency aspect, remember that Germany is probably the strongest country economically, while Italy offers the most value. Invest according to your own preferences or call or e-mail me for more advice.

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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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.



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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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@theMarket: Flirting With Record Highs Again
By Bill Schmick On: 07:31AM / Saturday May 24, 2014
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You can't keep a good market down, so why is everyone so darn worried about the stock market? Could it be that too much of a good thing may be dangerous to your financial health? If so, someone should tell the bulls.

Truly, no one should be complaining. Here we are at the end of May, normally a month where the markets come under selling pressure, and we are a mere five points away from the S&P 500 Index's all-time high. The contrarian in me says that too many people are waiting for the shoe to drop right now, so it probably won't.

Officially, it is the Memorial Day weekend that kicks off the herd migration from Wall Street's gray canyons and valleys to more amenable vistas. Highly-polished Wing-tips are exchanged for Gucci sandals, as the high and mighty head for the over-crowded beaches and multimillion dollar "cottages" of Long Island and the Hamptons.

Those who remain are the young and ambitious. Without much trading authority, they will have a hard time moving markets. Nonetheless, they will attempt to make a killing for their bosses at the expense of the rest of us. As market volume dries up this summer, it is a toss-up on whether markets become even more volatile or simply wallow in apathy and neglect.

In my career, I have seen both during the summer doldrums. In recent years, the markets have tended to be more volatile with fairly large declines in June and July. In other periods, you could hear a pin drop for weeks at a time on New York trading floors. I'm betting we see more volatility than less.

While the markets continue to grind higher so does the short interest in the stock market.

Short interest is the quantity of stock shares that investors have sold short but not yet covered or closed out. Many strategists use short interest as a market-sentiment indicator, since it indicates how many investors think a stock's price (or market) is likely to fall. Both the short interest aggregate dollar amount of the S&P 500 Index and short interest ratio (days to cover or buy back these shorts) are at levels not seen since mid-2007. We all know how that ended for investors.

The markets continued to make new highs until the end of the year and then subsequently crashed in 2008-2009.

Last week the markets touched my S&P 500 Index target of 1,900 — briefly. It was so quick that I half hoped we would make another stab at that level and possibly break it. It appears we are trying to accomplish that as I write this. Markets are never neat and tidy so if we break this level to the upside, I would expect a bout of short-covering which could propel the markets higher by another 20-40 points quickly. At the same time, I think too many people are bearish for a sell-off right here and now. If we were to see a fast jump higher and a panic stampede into the market at that time we just might be set up for a last hurrah.

Have a happy Memorial Day weekend. But while you are grilling, swimming or just plain having fun, do me a favor. Take a moment to remember our servicemen and women both past and present. I know I will be remembering my buddies in Vietnam that didn't make it. Semper Fi

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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The Independent Investor: Can it be this simple?
By Bill Schmick On: 05:29PM / Friday May 23, 2014
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Financial gurus have come up short in explaining exactly why interest rates are going down, and not up, as everyone expected them to do. The same thing is happening overseas. What gives?

Pundits have been trotting out the same old reasons for why rates are declining. Slow-growth economies in North America, Europe and Japan have persisted this year, much to the surprise of everyone. So central banks worldwide are maintaining an easy-money policy, which is driving all interest rates lower. That is at odds with the Fed's view of economic conditions.

If you recall, back in May of last year, the Fed announced that the U.S. economy was gathering so much steam that they had decided to begin tapering their $85 billion a month stimulus program beginning in January of this year.

Interest rates spiked higher as the bond market anticipated not only the end of stimulus but higher economic growth as well in 2014. The Fed was right, but only in the very short term.

The fourth quarter GDP hit 4 percent. But then the economy fell off a cliff.

Economists would have us believe that the Polar Vortex is to blame. I expect when the first quarter is finally revised for the final time we will have experienced a minus sign in growth for the first three months of the year. No question that the prolonged season of cold weather hurt the economy, but by how much? No way was that decline all weather-related, in my opinion.

Through it all, the stock markets have refused to go down, despite the slowing economy, cautionary earnings and revenue forecasts by corporations, the Ukraine, and any other bad news.

We are in an environment where new highs in stocks are reflecting an expectation that economic growth will not only continue but accelerate. Historically, when the economy gains momentum, interest rates rise and the stock market goes up. When the economy weakens, the reverse happens. So, my dear readers, either the bond market has it wrong or the stock market does.

What or who is the fly in this particular ointment? My guess is the Fed has a lot to do with this.

Think back, what happened when our central bank announced the first quantitative easing plan, known as QE I. The economy gained ground, the recession faded and the stock market took off. When the Fed announced the end of that program, the economy slowed, and stocks plummeted. So the Fed announced QE II. The process was repeated: stocks up, rates down and economic growth. By the end of QE II, the bond market and corporate America had learned a thing or two about central bank stimulus. They learned to anticipate.

Corporations began to pull back their investments. The bond market headed lower, bracing for more sluggish growth and a possible recession and stocks headed lower. Enter QE III. But by then, even the Fed realized something had to change. So they changed the game plan.

As QE III was about to sunset, Ben Bernanke, the Fed chairman at the time, extended QE III indefinitely. He promised that the stimulus would continue until the economy was able to stand on its feet again without assistance that unemployment needed to drop to at least 6.5 percent and that short-term interest rates would stay low out to 2015.

The stock market took off and the economy gathered steam once again. Fast forward to today. QE Infinity is winding down at a rate of $10 billion dollars per month. By the end of the year the Fed plans to end their stimulus program entirely. It has already been cut in half, year to date. The economy has slowed from 4 percent in the fourth quarter to 0–to–negative in the first quarter. The data seems to indicate it is slowing still. The bond market's low interest rates are indicating the same thing.

So something has to give. If bond players are right, (and they tend to get it right more often than stock jockeys) then we can expect even slower growth in the months ahead. Might the Fed reverse course if that were to happen? The consensus says no, but consensus tends to be wrong fairly often. In the meantime, what in the world is the stock market doing at record highs?

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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News Headlines
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Backstop Repairs Drain Last of Pittsfield's Bossidy Funds
Berkshire Battalion Loses Second Straight
McCann Students Lauded for Leadership & Skill Building
BU Looking For More Use of Tanglewood Campus
Battalion Falls at Danville
Berkshire County Arc Receives Workplace Wellness Grant
Cultural Pittsfield This Week:Dec. 19-Jan. 4
Groundbreaking Ceremony Held at New Williamstown Senior Housing
Shakespeare In the Park Will Resume At Pittsfield Common

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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