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The Independent Investor: How 'Black' Will This Black Friday Be?

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

For retailers, the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday traditionally signals the beginning of the do-or-die holiday selling season. The question worrying Wall Street and retailers alike this year is will the results justify the hype?

Listening to the third-quarter earnings and revenue guidance from retailers last week, there was little to applaud. Department stores were especially downbeat on their expectations for the entire 2015 holiday shopping season. Big discount stores, like Walmart, were less negative, and argued consumers were simply keeping their powder dry, while waiting for next weekend's super deals.

Some analysts argue that the disappointing earnings most retailers posted had more to do with the exceptionally warm fall weather we have been experiencing than lack of shopper enthusiasm. October, after all, will go down in the history books as the warmest October on record. That had to hurt winter clothing and apparel sales.

You may have noticed that the usual sales hype we come to expect wherever we look about now has been somewhat muted over the last week. That may have more to do with the terrorist bombings in Paris than anything else. Promoting the latest gizmo for your dog, or a better hair curler to de-frizz your hair may not be as meaningful to you when Parisian cops are storming apartment buildings and Russian planes are blowing up over Syria.

Most pundits are expecting a 3.7 percent rise is retail sales, which is below last year's 4.1 percent gain. Is it the economy, the weather, geopolitical events or changing tastes really behind the slowdown, or is Black Friday losing its mojo?

Officially, Black Friday was an invention of the American retail sector wishing to goose their holiday sales. I remember back in the 1960s growing up in Philadelphia when the city's police department called the day after Thanksgiving "Black Friday," because of the traffic jams and crowded sidewalks that launched the holiday season. Retailers embraced the concept and attempted during the 1980s to transform the event into a family shopping tradition.

Over the years, however, as the numbers of “door busters” multiplied, and ad budgets skyrocketed,  it created some unanticipated results. Long lines, combined with a heightened mood of "get it first at any costs" led to some very un-Thanksgiving moments. Highly publicized damage to stores, fistfights among shoppers and other injuries, have led many to forsake this so-called tradition.

At the same time, retailers, in their drive to capture every available dollar of the consumer's money, pushed forward store opening times from early Friday morning to midnight to the recent decision to open their doors on Thanksgiving Day. For many, that latest move was the final straw that led to increased disenchantment with the entire idea. Labor organizations and social media campaigns have reacted by calling for consumers to boycott stores that have pushed the concept over the edge.

Then, too, some shoppers report a sense of fatigue as the holiday chatter escalates. The "only X days to Christmas" countdown has backfired on many of us. We find ourselves rejecting this pressure to spend, spend, and spend on the perfect gift that probably does not exist.

Then, too, the overall importance of the year-end holiday sales season is waning.

Competition among retailers is now so intense that some merchants are offering Black Friday-like sales in the middle of the summer. Others have been offering holiday discounts on merchandise for weeks and intend to keep offering it well after year-end. Shoppers now expect sale events on every major holiday. Not to be undone, stores are even inventing more holidays like "Single's Day" to lure shoppers. As a result, retail spending has become far more dispersed throughout the year.

If this is the case, why then do retailers continue to hype a concept that generates at least as much ill will as it does good will? For mass retailers, it is all about competition. Every dollar you spend elsewhere is a dollar they have lost. They are on a treadmill of their own making and haven't yet figured a way of getting off. When that occurs is up to us.

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 Market: Buy the Dip

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

Markets sold off this week but not everywhere. While the U.S. and Europe suffered a bout of profit taking, parts of Asia did fine. Investors should expect more volatility on the home front next week.

The mood among investment advisors was somber, if not downright bearish, at the Schwab investment conference in Boston. Over the last week, hundreds of money managers, including yours truly, sat through educational and investment sessions given by some of the best minds on Wall Street. Why so glum?

Many were worried that global growth would continue to slow and drag our economy down with it. Then there were the Fed Heads, who changed their mind about a December rate hike for the umpteenth time. Now, the odds are better than 70 percent (up from 30 percent) that the Fed will raise rates next month.

Given the current level of the stock market, which is close to all-time highs, most investment advisers are better sellers than buyers. Contrarian that I am, I think that is a mistake. The Schwab equity strategy team, Liz Anne Sonders and Jeffrey Kleintop, tend to agree with my view. Kleintop, Schwab's global strategist, pointed out that world GDP next year was forecasted to grow by 5 percent, according to the OECD, IMF and World Bank. He is also expecting global economic data will continue to surprise us on the upside between now and the end of the year.

Sonders, Schwab's U.S. equity chief, believes here at home a recession is several years away. It's her opinion that our economy is getting very close to "escape velocity." That's a term used to describe the ability of our economy to grow on its own, independent of any help from the Federal Reserve Bank.  She also thinks the Fed will raise rates in December, barring any unanticipated slowdown in the economic data between now and then.

There are, however, some issues confronting the economy that indicate that it won't all be smooth sailing in the weeks and months ahead. Although we have gained 13 million jobs since the financial crisis, which is a good thing, the flip side is that small businesses are having trouble finding workers.

We are also grabbling with an earnings recession. Profits over the last two quarters have been down, versus last year's results, and that is expected to continue. The rising dollar, energy prices, and a slowdown in China are among the causes of these disappointments. Corporations have been able to mask this decline by buying back more of their shares on the open market. This has the effect of boosting their profit per share (simply because they have less shares outstanding) but even the most naïve investor is beginning to see through this ploy.

Clearly, the above issues bear watching, but are not enough to derail the bull market. The days of double-digit gains may be over but we can still see respectable single digit growth from stocks. It all adds up to more volatility in the stock market in the months ahead.

This week was part of the readjustment in thinking among investors that is necessary as the Fed prepares to hike rates. Remember, two thirds of the nation's money managers have never experienced a rate hike by the Federal Reserve Bank. Fortunately, I'm not one of them.

As I predicted last week, the markets need to consolidate after several weeks of gains. It is nothing to worry about; just the usual give and take within the markets. If you have a little cash to spare, this would be a good time to put it to work.

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: 'Bag Lady' Syndrome and You

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

Ladies, are you secretly terrified that you are going to end up penniless on the streets, begging for enough money to feed yourself? Well, join the crowd because almost 50 percent of women share your anxiety.

That's right, a high percentage of women, even those who make more than $30,000 per year (and 27 percent of women who have salaries over $200,000) are secretly (or not so secretly) worrying that they will become destitute in their old age. The study, conducted by Allianz, an insurance company, surveyed 2,200 women between the ages of 25 and 75.

You might discount these findings, figuring that most of the women surveyed were stay-at-home wives or wealthy widows. You would be wrong. Sixty percent identified themselves as the "breadwinner" in their family and 54 percent were the household's appointed keeper of the purse strings. Fifty-three percent of single, divorced and widowed women admitted to the bag lady syndrome but so did 43 percent of all married women.

It appears that these fears are not relegated to American women. German, Russian, English, just about all women across the pond, identify with the syndrome (although the jury is still out in regards to Asian women). It is understandable why women in America should be concerned, given the facts.

Women are almost twice as likely as men to live below the poverty line during retirement. Single and minority women feel it the most. Women, who are 65 or older; make do with a median income of around $16,000 a year, or $11,000 less than men of the same age. Why would that be?

Women earn and save less over their lifetime than men. I have written numerous columns detailing why. From the continued inequity of receiving less pay for the same job as men, to the erroneous assumption that men are the breadwinners and women are the caretakers, the odds continue to be stacked against women in this country (and in Europe).

However, the bag lady syndrome goes far beyond these obvious facts. It seems that men have this attitude toward work that a job is their birthright. If one doesn't work out for whatever the reason, there is always another one. If more money is needed, they simply work harder or get two jobs or assume they can and will do whatever it takes. Women, in general, don't usually feel that way for the following reasons.

While job opportunities are better for women than ever before in this country, in order to succeed, women still need to "show" they can do the job. They need to work harder, outperform and get along with their male counterparts to an extent that male workers do not. The system has still not come to grips with all that we expect from our women. They need to be mothers, home managers, caregivers for dependent parents, as well as professionals. Employers and Social Security (and tax-deferred savings plans) penalize them for taking time off for rearing children or parent care. As a result, they save less.

Curious to see how my female clients and friends would respond, I did my own small informal survey. I asked them if they were affected with the Bag Lady syndrome. Here is what they said.

"Yes, I do," said the 57-year-old president of a local company, who owns two houses, has substantial retirement savings and money in the bank. "I feel like I only have a small window of time when I can live on my savings, but what's going to happen when I'm 90 and my money and my husband are gone?"

"I fear I won't have enough money to retire. I'm 43 and even though I have full faith in my husband, what would happen if he died, or the market crashes or something like that," answers a 43-year-old, part-owner of a successful firm.

"I am pretty close to that ... for me it's not a fear, it is very close to becoming a reality," answers a single, middle-aged women, who is not only hard-working but intelligent and a former business owner.

Yet, the younger the woman I asked, the less concerned they were with what would happen to them by the time they reached retirement age.

"No, but I have a modified version of that syndrome," explained a 35-year-old professional with two young children. "I am concerned that my children won't be as comfortable growing up as I was. As for me, I can get a job, any job, if I want it enough and I'll never be destitute."

And finally this is the answer from a working, twentysomething female professional.

"No, not me, that's too far away to even think about,"

I can only assume that the further one is from retirement, the less anxiety there is among women over how they will support themselves in their old age. In addition, the workplace experiences of women today are far different from those of a middle-aged or elderly women. That could also change feminine attitudes in the future. We will wait and see.

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: Social Security & the Budget, Part II

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

Now that President Obama has signed the budget deal passed by Congress last week, it is time to take a look at how retirees have fared under the new provisions. For the most part, the changes were positive for elderly Americans.

In last week's column, I warned that the demise of File and Suspend and Restricted Application, which are Social Security claiming strategies, was all but certain. The final legislation confirmed that, but fortunately the new rules do not take effect immediately, as many had feared.

Those who are already receiving benefits from these strategies will be grandfathered in, meaning their benefits will not be affected at all. In addition, those who will reach retirement age within the next six months (or who are already retired), will still be able to take advantage of these strategies, at least until April 30 of next year. Anyone born after 1953 (or before) can still do a Restricted Application for spousal benefits, even if the filing won't occur until years from now.

For those who fail to fall within the above age guidelines, these claiming strategies are now off the table for you.

There is, however, some good news for seniors. Social Security disability insurance, which has been in a financial crisis, has been rescued, at least for now. There are 11 million Americans receiving disability benefits. These beneficiaries were facing a 20 percent cut in their benefits by 2016, but now that has been put off for three years. Lawmakers found a stop gap solution. Congress is increasing the percentage share of Social Security taxes (from 1.8 percent to 2.37 percent) that are earmarked for disability, thereby averting a shortfall.

At the same time, retirees were bracing themselves for a substantial hike in Medicare Part B premiums. These hikes could have amounted to as much as 52 percent for some beneficiaries. The budget deal averts that by allowing the U.S. Treasury to lend $7.5 billion to the Medicare program.

Premiums will still rise, by about 15 percent, which is still a sharp hike, but better than the worst-case scenario. In two years, Medicare beneficiaries will have to start repaying that loan by paying roughly $3 per beneficiary, per month.

In the future, we can expect more changes like this to occur as legislatures grapple with the runaway costs of the U.S. entitlement programs. I am not a believer in the death of Social Security, as so many predict. Instead, retirees will continue to see compromises, adjustments and the grandfathering of existing beneficiaries of our entitlement programs as lawmakers come up with solutions.

Political analysts were surprised by the common sense approach to these latest Social Security and Medicare negotiations. Now that Paul Ryan has taken the reigns as House Speaker, expect to see the same kind of approach in resolving entitlements, as well as tax reform. I don't expect any "grand bargain" on either issue. Readers may recall that both the president, as well as former House Speaker John Boehner, had repeatedly (and unsuccessfully) attempted to achieve such all-encompassing deals.  

Instead, expect moderate changes, pragmatic bargaining and incremental fixes to these programs. That's what I call progress.

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: How High Will We go?

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

The markets have two months to recoup their losses and deliver positive returns to investors. With this year's correction behind us, the question to ask is will the markets deliver positive returns for 2015 and, if so, what will they be?

As October comes to an end, historically the month of November is positive for the stock market. December and the traditional Christmas rally it typically generates combine to make these two months the best period for positive returns all year. Chances are high that this year the stock market will perform according to this behavior pattern.

I say that because so far in 2015, if you had followed the historical behavior of the markets: "sell in May," "expect at least 2-3 or more pullbacks per year," and the warnings that "the first half of October is usually volatile," you would not have been steered wrong.

As we trade today, the S&P 500 Index is slightly positive (1.5 percent) for the year. The Dow Jones Industrials is essentially flat, while the NASDAQ has done better, up 7.4 percent for 2015. I am expecting that all three averages will gain from here through the end of the year. The NASDAQ will most likely outperform the other two averages, but not by a wide margin.

As I have said all year, I expect a single digit return from the S&P 500 Index, but will that mean 1 percent or 9 percent? That's quite a range and the outcome could have a significant impact on your returns for the year. The low end of my range would see the S&P to hit 2,150. That is only another 2.3 percent gain from here. In total, that would generate a 2015 return of 3.8 percent for this benchmark index. On the other hand, if over the next two months the bulls get to see all their wishes come true then we could achieve as much as 2,250 on the S&P 500 Index. That would generate roughly an 9 percent return. What would need to happen in order for that wish list to come true?

One item on that list has already come true. The political issues that were bugging the markets are now off the table — debt ceiling, budget debate, a new speaker — thanks to this week's compromise in Washington.  

Bulls are also betting that the economy will continue to muddle through, neither too warm nor too cold, so the Fed won't take any action on interest rates in December. Energy prices will remain at this level, providing lower costs for both the consumer and corporations.

That will translate into more money for the consumer, who will be willing to spend more this holiday season. That should generate additional sales and profits for the retail sector. On the international front, both China and Europe will continue to stimulate their economies and that will support global equity markets.

I do believe that much of the bull's case will come true, although it will require good timing, some luck and cooperation from a number of sources. What can go wrong? The Fed could fool us. The dollar might spike higher. The weather, given El Nino, could turn frigid, fueling higher energy prices. Overseas central bankers and governments may not cooperate or change their minds. I could go on, but you get the point.

Whether the bulls get their way, or we have to settle for something less, my worst case scenario is still fairly positive for the markets. Especially for those of you who thought the world was coming to an end on that Dow 1,000 point down day in August.

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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