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The Independent Investor: How to Make the Most Out of Social Security
By Bill Schmick On: 03:09PM / Thursday February 19, 2015

Yes, it's complicated. Social Security benefits have been around since 1935 and, like taxes, have become increasingly complex through time. Most people are losing out because they don't understand the fine print. Starting today, you will, so read on.

For most of us, who haven't saved a great deal during a lifetime, Social Security benefits are about all we can depend on once we retire. In 2013, almost 58 million Americans received these benefits. Retirees and their dependents accounted for 70 percent of benefits paid, 19 percent went to disabled workers and dependents while survivors of deceased workers accounted for 11 percent of the total.  Although benefits have increased numerous times since its creation and those benefits are inflation-indexed, the total doesn't come to much, so wringing every last penny out of the program is essential.

In past columns, I have explained that if you can, waiting until you are 70 years of age is your best bet as far as receiving the most money from Social Security. If you defer filing at age 62 (your earliest allowable retirement dates) until age 70, the difference is over $100,000 per person. That's a nice piece of change for retirees. Of course, the downside is that if you die at age 71, then retiring early would have been a better bet. The healthier you are, the more sense it makes to retire later.

There is also an opportunity for married couples to enhance their combined benefits. It is called "file and suspend." It works best if one spouse is making significantly more than the other. The bigger the income gap, the bigger the payoff. Hypothetically, let's say my wife and I are now 66 and debating on whether to tap Social Security since we are both at full retirement age (FRA). Assume my wife, Barbara, as president of the company, has been the real bread-winner and has earned more than me over the years. She can expect to receive $2,000 per month in benefits, while I get $900 a month.

If Barbara files for benefits under her earnings record, I could claim one-half of her benefits ($1,000). At the same time, I could let my benefits continue to increase (by as much as 32 percent if I wait until I am seventy) before claiming them. That's a great deal for me since I make $100 more a month and let my benefits ride. But what happens to Barbara's benefits under this scenario?

As soon as I claim my spousal benefit, Barbara can turn around and immediately suspend receipt of her own benefits of $2,000/month. By doing so, we can now both accumulate the 32 percent increase in benefits until age 70. In dollars and cents, Barbara's benefits will grow to $2,640 a month and mine will top out at $1,188. But in the meantime, as the claiming spouse, I still receive $1,000 a month until age 70.

If we both live to say, 95, the file and suspend strategy would result in more than $200,000 in extra benefits between us. Not a bad return to simply spend an hour or two of additional form filing. There is an added benefit as well; since it would allow me to take a survivor benefit on Barbara's increased monthly amount should she die unexpectedly after age 70. Complicated? Yes, but well worth the time and effort.

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: A Race to the Bottom
By Bill Schmick On: 07:19PM / Friday February 13, 2015

Faced with slowing economies and sluggish employment, more and more countries throughout the world are devaluing their currencies, slashing interest rates and stimulating growth wherever they can. That should be a recipe for further global growth in the years to come.

These days wherever you look — China, Canada, Denmark, Sweden — central banks are announcing surprise interest rate cuts on a weekly basis. Last month's announcement by the ECB of their own additional quantitative easing efforts evidently triggered a rush of responses by other banks across the world.  So far this year 26 out of 34 major central banks are establishing or maintaining monetary easing policies.

This has had the effect of lowering the exchange rate of their currencies, which will, over time, allow their exports to grow and thus their economies. In a sense, this amounts to a price war, where those who can sell their goods at the lowest price (exchange rate) benefit the most. In times past, this kind of action would elicit howls of protests from organizations such as the G-20 group of nations. However, this time around, in their last meeting two weeks ago, the membership actually condoned this global trend.

"But isn't all this money printing inflationary?" one client asked.

Actually, under different circumstances it would be, but right now, most nations, including our own, have the opposite problem. The central bankers are worried about deflation today as economies stumble toward recession and the price of commodities and other products decline further.

Clearly, there is a lot of uncertainty in the world. Investors are skeptical that all this stimulus will have the desired effect. Yet, look at what happened in this country. Despite a gaggle of naysayers, after four years of QE stimulus, our economy is growing at a 2.8-3.0 percent clip and unemployment is gaining. If it worked here, it will work overseas, in my opinion.

Notice what is happening to the stock market, despite this wall of worry. The averages are making new highs. NASDAQ reached its highest closing level since the dot-com boom and bust of 15 years ago. Only this time, these gains are backed up by solid earnings and a strong future outlook.

The participation within the market is broadening as well, which is always a sign of strength. The market's advance is becoming less dependent on megacap stocks (last year's favorites) and leadership is becoming more democratic. Usually, this indicates the likelihood of longevity, or market staying power.

In a stock market like this, one actually hopes for pullbacks. What you want to see is a gain followed by a pullback that makes a higher low, and then a higher high. There are plenty of triggers in the world for these kind of movements — Greece, ISIS, oil prices, the Ukraine. Don't let any potential sell-off spook you. Stay the course.

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: The Grecian Drama
By Bill Schmick On: 03:24PM / Thursday February 12, 2015

Greece is once again on center stage as the world looks on, wondering if this time the country's finances will finally implode. It is a play we've seen before and its outcome fairly predictable.

Several weeks ago, I warned readers to expect turmoil in Greece. As expected, the anti-austerity party, Syriza, was elected in a nationwide election at the end of January. The new prime minister, Alexis Tspiras, has promised the voters that the spending cuts, tax increases and other austerity measures leveled on Greece by the "Troika" (the IMF, ECB and the EU) would come to an end.

The austerity measures were agreed to by the previous Greek administration in exchange for a three-tranche, $272 billion bailout, which runs until the end of this month. Until the elections, the Troika was insisting that Greece implement even more measures to reduce the country's debts and spur economic growth. Now both sides are seeking a compromise.

The Troika has offered to extend the bailout package for several months to give both parties time to come to a compromise. No deal, say the Greeks. Greece evidently has learned that they can cut a better deal for themselves if there is a clock ticking in the background. They are counting on the Troika caving in to at least some of their demands by the end of the month.

As it stands now, Greek banks are already in a jam, since they can no longer use their government's bonds to borrow funds from the ECB. Instead, they have to rely on their own central bank for emergency funding. Investors have dumped Greek stocks and bond yields have spiked higher as a result. Yet, the panic we've seen before under these circumstances just isn't there.

There is a growing faction within the EU, led by Germany, who believes that a Greek exit from the EU and the Euro is probably the best outcome for everyone. After all, Greece has a long history of going in and out of bankruptcy. Some argue that it was only invited into the original European Union because it was the "birthplace of European Democracy." Its economy and finances, some argue, were never strong enough to warrant a seat at the EU table.

Others say that it is the precedent that counts: if Greece exits the EU, than others may be tempted to do the same, namely countries such as Portugal, Ireland, Spain and even Italy. All of the above are suffering from their own austerity/bailout deals with the Troika. And this is where it really gets messy. If Greece gets its way, by either renegotiating its debt and the austerity program, other countries will demand the same thing.

At the moment, both sides are still talking in a marathon session that could conceivably last through the rest of this week and into next. Tspiras, who knows full well that the major stumbling block to getting what he wants is a reluctant Germany, is attempting to muddy the water. He is demanding billions of Euros in World War II reparations and unpaid debt from Germany. It certainly plays well with the populace, who have long felt that Germany has never paid its fair share for the damage the Nazis have done. The stoic Germans, pointing to two separate agreements in the 1950s and 1960s, say that issue is a red herring as far as they are concerned.

My bet is that despite all the bluster, Greece needs Europe more than Europe needs Greece. At some point in the near future, Tspiras will back off and agree to some face-saving measures that will give his country a bit more time to get its act together. That may lead to similar measures in the case of other problem countries. End of story.

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: The Labor Market Is on Fire
By Bill Schmick On: 06:18PM / Saturday February 07, 2015

Non-farm payroll employment increased by 257,000 jobs in January and the gains for the preceding two months were revised upward as well. Even better news was hourly wages that jumped 0.5 percent in January to $24.75 after declining in December. That's the biggest gain in six years and bodes well for the economy overall.

Wall Street has been debating just how fast or slow the U.S. economy is growing for months now. The faster the growth, the more likely the Fed will raise interest rates. Why is this so important?

One school of thought says interest rate hikes are "bad" for the stock market. In times past, when rates rose the stock market has sold off, sometimes a lot, other times not so much. Since June is supposedly the target date for a rate hike, and markets usually discount such events by six months or more, we are in ground zero -- if you believe in this scenario.

Weighing in on the other side of this argument are those who believe the Fed won't raise rates for a variety of reasons. Number one, the U.S. economy is not as strong as many think it is (thus the debate over every data point). Even if growth in America does grow a bit more, it won't be enough to pull the rest of the world out of the doldrums. As proof, they point to the decline in oil prices.

In slow or potential recessionary economic climates, the demand for oil dries up as fewer goods and services are demanded. Most often the decline in the price of oil almost always heralds a slowing of the economy, not only here, but worldwide. In that kind of environment, the Fed would be crazy to hike rates. Some say they should actually restart the QE program before it is too late. No wonder the markets are as volatile as they are given these diametrically opposing views.

Which view is accurate, or are they both wrong? Clearly, the energy issue may have much more to do with the explosion of new energy sources brought on by breakthroughs in technology over the last decade. Weakening energy demand may not be the case at all. It may simply be that this new supply has overwhelmed demand in the short term and price declines are the adjustment vehicle to once again bring the oil market into equilibrium.

There is no question economic growth is slowing around the world, however, various governments are doing their utmost to stimulate their economies as the U.S. has done over the past several years. Their efforts should bear fruit if we use our own QE programs as a guide.

One might wonder that the fear of the unknown, of change, may be at the bottom of these issues. We have been in a low to non-existent interest rate environment for so long in this country that even a small uptick in rates makes us uncomfortable. All you need to do is look back in history prior to the financial crisis to understand that rising interest rates in a growing economy has actually been a good thing for stocks.

In any case, the markets this week have actually turned positive for the year. The oil price was the trigger for three straight days of one percent or more in gains. Unfortunately that means that oil is still the tail that is wagging this dog. I have no idea whether we actually have seen the "bottom" in oil prices, but if we have then we can expect markets to continue higher from here.

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: Joint Business Is Jumping
By Bill Schmick On: 01:16PM / Friday February 06, 2015

Today, more than 7 million Americans are no longer limping. Instead, they are trotting around with the assistance of artificial knees, hips or both. Every year another million of us will join the crowd, and that number is expected to grow as America ages.

Arthritis is the main reason for these surgeries, followed by obesity, which adds stress to the knees and hips. Everywhere you turn, Americans are told that they must lose weight. However, in order to do that, a less than virtuous circle has evolved for many of us. We are all striving to eat healthier and eat less while exercising more. As such, wherever you look, aging amateur athletes vie with the young on the ski slopes, the treadmill, hiking trails and wherever else one finds exercise. But this cult of weekend warriorship is demanding a high price.

It is bad enough that we Baby Boomers are wearing out our joints at a stupendous rate. However, the real growth rates in joint replacement are coming from those between the ages of 45-64. Joint replacements have tripled in that age group over the last decade, with nearly half of all hip replacements now being done in people under age 65.

In the past, orthopedic surgeons were reluctant to replace a knee or hip in patients under 65 since replacement joints typically only lasted 10 to 12 years. Today, thanks to advances in medical device technologies, a typical knee or hip can last 20-25 years. As a result, more Americans than ever are opting to get the surgery now, rather than give up their mountain bike or snowboard for less active physical pursuits. I'm one of them.

Six months ago, my knee began bothering me while doing my usual cardio fitness exercises. The pain increased to the point that I visited a doctor who informed me that my right knee "was shot." Decades of running, step aerobics, snowboarding and skiing had taken its toll on my body. Although the pain was moderate at best, I opted for surgery now rather than limp along until the pain forced me into surgery. I did not want to sacrifice my athletic lifestyle.

The procedure was successful thanks to my surgeon, Dr. Mark Sprague of Berkshire Orthopedic Associates, who is a true rock star. The staff and service of Berkshire Medical Center's orthopedic unit was exemplary as well. I guess you get what you pay for.

The cost of a joint replacement varies depending on where you get it done. A study by Blue Cross Blue Shield indicates a total knee replacement procedure, on average, costs $31,124, but could be as low as $11,317 in Montgomery, Ala., to as high as $69,654 in New York City. Hip replacements, on average, go for $30,124 but can be as much as $73,987 in Boston.

But there are whole lists of other services that must be paid for. Pre-surgery appointments, diagnostic studies, lab tests, the doctor's fees, anesthesia, postoperative hospitalization plus postoperative recovery including rehabilitation and physical therapy. Since my surgery was one month ago, I have not received a final total of the all-in charges. But when I do, I'll most likely write another column, since it is my understanding that the actual manufacturing cost of an artificial hip is about $350.

Yet, by the time the hospital purchases these sterilized pieces of tooled metal, plastic or ceramics, that same hip costs them $4,500-$7,500. From there the charges escalate. By how much, I am determined to find out — so stay tuned.

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
SteepleCats Win, Take Over Fourth Place
Westfield Ends Pittsfield 14-Year-Olds' Run in Regionals
White Label Agency Hires Several New Staff Members
North Adams Happenings: July 30
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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