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@theMarket: A Race to the Bottom

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

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
iBerkshires Columnist

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

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
iBerkshires Columnist

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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The Independent Investor: College Savings Accounts Are Not Risk-Free

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

A national debate over whether to tax "529" college savings plans has turned the spotlight on these plans and how they work. Do they really help parents save the money their kids will need for college? The answer depends on how they are invested and how they are managed.

Starting in 2001, the IRS offered tax benefits to middle-class families to cope with the escalating costs of college education. Thirty-four states (and the District of Columbia) also chipped in with tax breaks of their own. These savings plans work much like a 401 (K) or a Roth IRA. The after-tax money you invest in these plans will grow (or not) without being subject to federal income tax. Any money you withdraw from the plan will be tax-free as well, as long as it is used to pay for qualified educational expenses such as room and board, tuition and books.

Since the onset of 529 plans, tuition and fees at private, nonprofit four-year colleges have risen by an average of 2.4 percent per year. Over the same period (2002-2013) the inflation rate for these same colleges averaged 5.2 percent. Today's average cost per one year at a private, nonprofit college is $39,518. A Public University's cost for in-state tuition, fees as well as room and board, averages $17,860. Given those numbers, is it any wonder that 529 plans have accumulated over $244.5 billion by 2014, with the average account size of about $20,671. For those who can afford it, these plans look like a good deal.

However, before you jump on this educational band wagon, savers should be aware of some pitfalls in this scheme. Like 401(k) and other tax-deferred plans, the responsibility to manage those savings are on your shoulders unless you want to pay a fee for someone to manage that money. If you go through a broker the average annual fee is roughly 1.17 percent/year. Some charge higher, depending on the advice they give. If you go it alone, you still pay a fee, since most states charge an annual fee of 0.69 percent.

These fees matter because in order to just keep up with inflation and college cost increases, you need to make at least 5-6 percent on your money per year just to stay even. That is no mean feat when you realize that the average return on the stock market per year over the last century or so is 6-7 percent. Given most savers' track records in investing their other tax-deferred savings accounts, the prospects are fairly low that the performance of these plans will tie, let alone, beat the market.

In 2010, nine years into these plans, most 529 plans had a negative performance record. Since then, many have at least recouped saver's initial investment amounts. Some have done even better. The point is that not all 529 plans are made the same.

For those who don't want to actively manage these funds, many plans offer target date funds that automatically shift from aggressive (mostly stocks) to conservative (mostly bonds) investments as the child approaches college age. The problem with target funds is that they do not account for market trends. Let's say your daughter is two years from college, so her target fund investment is now fairly conservative. In a rising interest rate environment, which most investors expect to begin this year, that fund, now top heavy with bonds, will do poorly just when your child can least afford losses.

Bottom line, without the tax-saving advantages of the 529 plan, there is no reason to open one. And even with the tax-deferrals, there is no guarantee that you will have the money you need by college time. That will depend on how astute an investor you are or, if you are paying a professional, how well they do on your behalf.

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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