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The Independent Investor: An Educational IRA for Kindergarten and Above
By Bill Schmick On: 06:38PM / Thursday March 28, 2013
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Most savers are familiar with state-sponsored 529 Plans, a tax-advantaged savings plan to help put your children through college. However, there is another savings plan that could assist you in meeting the bills for school Grades 1 through 12 as well as college. It is called a Coverdell Education Savings Account (ESA).

This plan is ideal for families with multiple children or who want to start saving for their children's educational needs early in their lives. In addition, if you are thinking of sending your child to an independent or private school (or prep school) prior to college then this ESA is meant for you.

You can contribute $2,000 annually to an ESA, although similar to a Roth IRA, contributions are not tax deductible. However, the earnings on contributions and distributions are tax-free as long as they are used for educational purposes. The tax-free money can apply to tuition, room and board, computers, laptops, supplies, tutoring and transportation as long as they are legitimate educational expenses. Attendance at colleges, secondary or elementary schools, as well as vocational schools and other post-secondary educational institutions (whether public, private or religious) are eligible.

Take the example of my grandson, Miles, he is 16 months old, lives in Manhattan and faces horrendous future educational costs. His mother wants to begin saving for his education now. I can't blame her. There are kindergartens in the Big Apple that will set you back $40,000, if you are so inclined. Private grammar and high schools could easily cost $100,000 plus.

Now $2,000 a year in savings doesn't sound like much if you live in Manhattan, but it will certainly help and elsewhere it could be a windfall for many lower-income families. If invested properly, five years of $2,000 contributions could generate a considerable amount of money. Money that would certainly pay for some of the expenses every child will incur through high school and beyond.

So what, you may ask, is the downside to ESAs? The $2,000 contribution per year, per student is negligible compared to the $14,000 a year you can stash away in a 529 Plan. There is also an income limit which kicks in for single taxpayers making over $110,000/year and married couples making over $220,000.

You also have to use the money before the child turns 30 years of age, otherwise the earnings (not the contributions) will be taxed and a 10 percent penalty will also be applied. You could avoid that by simply rolling over the full balance to another ESA for another family member.

The American Taxpayer Relief Act signed into law January 2nd removed any lingering uncertainty concerning the future of ESAs. They are here to stay just like 529 Plans. But unlike their bigger more popular brethren, you can manage your ESA yourself while saving hefty expenses that 529 Plans charge.

Many savers have also been disillusioned with the performance of their 529 Plans thus far. That is an important point since many hoped that the growth of these plan contributions would at least match the rate of increase of educational costs, which are about 6 to 7 percent a year.

If one can afford it, most planners recommend that families contribute to both plans. You still have time to open an ESA account and make a $2,000, 2012 ESA contribution. You can also contribute another $2,000 for 2013 if you are so inclined. The paperwork involved is no more onerous than a standard IRA application that you can obtain from most brokers or your local bank. Do your kid a favor, open an ESA today.

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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Market Watch: Looking for an Excuse
By Bill Schmick On: 04:44PM / Friday March 22, 2013
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You may be wondering how an island nation with an economy smaller than Vermont could set the world's stock markets on edge for most of the week. The short answer is the markets are looking for any excuse to take some profits.

That's not to say that I am ignoring events in Cyprus, a small island in the Mediterranean with a bit over a million inhabitants. The Cyprus problem is simple. Their banking system holds $176 billion in deposits — about eight times the nation's GDP — and some of these banks are in deep financial trouble. They need a bailout similar to the rescue packages given to Greece, Ireland and Portugal.

For the first time since the financial crisis began back in 2008, the EU has changed the rules for a bailout. In exchange for $13 billion in funds, the Cyprus government must raise $7.5 billion on their own. To do that, the EU wanted them to tax all their country's bank accounts of 100,000 euros or more (about $130,000). What would you do if that happened here?

Two words: Bank run. As soon as Cypriots got wind of this scheme they stormed the ATMs of all their nation's banks, but they weren't working. Then the government said they would take steps to prevent any money from leaving the country. Chaos ensued. Parliament convened and it only took until Tuesday before the Cypriot government rejected the scheme out of hand. That still leaves the question of how and under what terms the country will be able to receive a bailout.

What spooked investors was the possibility that what happens in Cyprus could happen in other parts of Europe. Was the EU signaling a new and potentially damaging approach to Europe's financial problems? Would bank depositors in Spain, Italy or elsewhere be next? This is serious stuff, since the only thing keeping a depositor's money in any particular bank is the belief and trust that their money is safe. If there was even a possibility that some government in financial distress might swoop in and "tax" 10 percent of your money, what would you do?

So the specter of a potential bank run throughout Europe was one of the "what if" scenarios making the rounds of Wall Street this week. It seems to me that every governmental financial institution around the world has gone to extreme lengths to convince depositors that their banks are safe. I can't see what anyone would have to gain by changing that policy.

It may simply be that since the lion's share of high net worth depositors in Cyprus happens to be Russian moguls, the EU may be trying to scare the Russian government into becoming a part of a Cyprus bailout plan. Who knows?

As for the U.S. market, you know my opinion. I'm bullish, but expecting a pull back. Investors used this obvious piece of negative fluff as an excuse to sell a little stock. If one looks hard enough, you can and will find something to worry about. This week it was Cyprus. Next week there will be something else. Stay invested.

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: Will Beer Become an Acquired Taste?
By Bill Schmick On: 05:18PM / Thursday March 21, 2013
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Twenty-five years ago, American beer had more in common with spring water than with one of the oldest beverages of the human race. Today, thanks to a return to the methods of the past, microbreweries and craft beer brewers are hoping to create a renaissance among beer drinkers in America.

Overall, beer consumption in America has seen a steady decline for the past 20 years as consumers abandoned the practically tasteless, calorie-loaded brews in favor of new product offerings in the wine and spirits industries. In hindsight, the launch of Lite beers only made the matter worse. Beer experts debate whether the consolidation among American brewers using mass production techniques accelerated that downtrend or was simply a survival response in the face of disappearing profits and plummeting sales.

It doesn't matter, since the end result was the same. Today, two megacompanies (Anheuser-Busch InBev and Miller Coors) control 90 percent of the American market. That amounts to roughly $200 billion in sales, or 2.787 billion cases last year, a 1.3 percent decline from the prior year. The two big companies now have so many brands that your local bar can offer eight different brands of beer on tap and, unknown to you, all of them are made by the same company using roughly the same brewing procedures and priced carefully to create an illusion of real choice.

However, there is a burgeoning niche market of craft beers with names like "Flying Dog," "Green Pig" and "Sierra Nevada" that have wrestled a 6 percent market share from the big guys largely built on a return to producing beer in smaller batches with the highest quality ingredients. These mini-breweries have been embraced by as many as 50 million Americans. The segment grew 15 percent in volume and 17 percent in dollars last year, equating to about $10.2 billion in sales. There are 2,347 craft breweries operating in this country as of last year, comprising 1,132 brewpubs and 97 regional craft breweries, according to the Brewers Association. Most beer industry analysts expect that the craft-beer market share will continue to climb as more consumers are willing to pay up for tastier brews with hints of dark molasses, cherries and other exotic flavors.

The blossoming renaissance in demand for beer produced by small, independent brewers can be traced back to Boston Beer Co., the brewer of Samuel Adams beer, almost 30 years ago. Since then the market and the microbreweries have expanded to the point where the market is becoming even more segmented.

For example, a distinction is growing between microbreweries, especially regionals such as Sam Adams and Yuengling, which now account for as much as 1 percent of the overall beer market, and those breweries that produce no more than 6 million barrels of beer annually. They can usually be found within 10 miles of their customers.

Craft brewers, according to the criteria, should be independent, with less than 25 percent of their brewery owned or controlled by another alcoholic beverage industry member. Brewers should have at least 50 percent of its volume composed of all malt beers, which uses adjuncts to enhance rather than lighten flavor. Craft brewers, like great chefs, take the basic ingredients of beer—water, yeast, malt and hops — and produce wonderful and unusual flavors through innovation and education.

Recently, the two big brewers have been muscling their way into the micro and mini-markets producing their own brands disguised as craft beers. The attraction of higher profitability and additional growth, given that craft beers can cost twice the price (if not more) of a mass-produced domestic beer, makes that market irresistible.

The competition within the beer sector has always been fierce. There are now more breweries in this country than before Prohibition. It will be interesting to see whether once again the big guys, through money and clout, force the crafters off the shelf and out of the bars.  In the end, I believe, it will come down to whether America's consumers are willing to pay up for a sip, rather than a gulp, and acquire a taste for truly exceptional beer.

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: Is Everybody Happy?
By Bill Schmick On: 01:56PM / Saturday March 16, 2013
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The Dow made a new record high every day this week, except Friday. The S&P 500 Index came within a hair's breath of its historical high as well. Most world indexes are doing the same thing. The consensus is that the markets are going higher — Uh oh.

I guess I should feel vindicated for remaining bullish over the last year or so in the face of all those "what will go wrong" scenarios. However, when just about everyone is bullish I start to get concerned. It's the contrarian in me.

There are a handful of readers I use as a contrary indicator. You know the type. When the markets are at a bottom, they want to go to cash. At market tops they usually call up asking if they are too conservative no matter how much they are making. I received several emailss this week from those kind of readers who were asking about getting more aggressive. Uh, oh.

When I compare the U.S. equity market with its counterparts in 30 other nations, I find that our market is the most overbought of any of them, although Japan comes in a close second. Uh, oh.

 But markets can stay overbought for a long time, so I wouldn't go out and try to short stocks right here, nor would I take profits.

So far, every dip in our markets has been met with renewed buying. The most popular explanation for this seemingly insatiable demand for stocks is that U.S. Treasury bond investors, tired of receiving record low interest payments from their holdings, are finally selling their positions and are seeking greater returns by investing in stocks. It is called "The Great Rotation," but the evidence is more hearsay than fact.

The financial media is doing their part to stoke the buying frenzy. They are having a field day citing financial statistics of this record or that. The Dow, for example, has been up 10 days in a row. That has only happened four times since WWII. An interesting statistic, but worthless when it comes to your portfolio or what happens next.

For those who feel compelled to put more money in the markets at this late date, do so with some financial acumen. Don't buy on the up days or buy everything at once. Average in and try to keep your emotions out of it. Remember, investors' greatest enemies are fear and greed.

Another suggestion would be to look for the laggards using the "rising tide lifts all boats" theory. If you truly believe that the global markets are going to continue to rise (with no breaks) in the foreseeable future than buy those stocks, sectors and country indexes that have lagged the U.S. market.

And for those who have stayed the course and are fully invested, remain so. However, I suspect that as March advances the rate of gains will slow. Once the S&P 500 Index breaks out to new highs, the markets will become a battleground of those buying the dips versus those wanting to take profits. That is not a game that most of us will be willing to play. I know that I would rather sit with what I have and watch the battle play out. Either way, I don't see much downside risk for long-term investors. Overall, I am still looking for double-digit gains in the markets this year.

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 Richest Man on Earth
By Bill Schmick On: 06:41PM / Friday March 15, 2013
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As the white smoke clears, the first Argentinean was appointed to the pinnacle of the Roman Catholic Church. Pope Francis I, formerly known as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, assumed the reigns of what many believe is the wealthiest instituition on Earth and since he is the boss that makes him one wealthy individual.

At the helm of this financial behemoth representing 3,000 dioceses and 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide, is a 76-year-old man who likes to be called "Father Jorge," who takes the subway and prefers to dress in clerical black, rather than the rich red of his fellow cardinals. He is a man who rejected the palatial digs of his predecessors as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, opting instead to live in a small apartment where he cooked his own meals.

Francis I is responsible for untold billions in assets that range from priceless art works to real estate holdings that are so large they rival the size of many small countries. No one knows for sure how much the Catholic Church is worth although over the years various media organizations and research centers have made a stab at estimating portions of the net worth of this 2,000-year-old religious order.

For example, back in 2010, The Economist estimated that the church and organizations owned by them in just the United States was spending roughly $179 billion a year. They estimated that the 34 metropolitan provinces managed by 270 bishops spent 57 percent of that money in health-care networks, 28 percent went to colleges while parish and diocesan operations (of which there are 196) accounted for only 6 percent. It might surprise some to know that charitable donations only accounted for 2.7 percent.

The church employs 2,800 lay workers worldwide, which isn't much considering the number of Catholics out there. Pope Francis' new digs, Vatican City, alone accounts for 1,900 of these workers. Given that the Vatican is officially a city state, its employees are responsible for issuing its own passports, license plates, postal service as well as the administration of a host of offices and buildings, including its own hospital. Much of that infrastructure has outgrown the confines of the world's smallest country and has sprawled throughout Rome's urban landscape.

If we confine our discussion to just the assets the Vatican owns, we know that its portfolio includes billions in property across Europe. Included in the portfolio are buildings in London, Paris and Switzerland. Then there are the landmarks in Rome, which draw 5 million tourists a year such as the Apostolic Palace (the pope's official residence) the Sistine Chapel (with its murals by Botticelli and Michelangelo) and St. Peter's Basilica, the largest church in the world. You could combine Disneyland, Disney World and a couple more such attractions and you wouldn't come close to the worth of those historical spiritual shrines in the middle of some of the highest priced real estate in Europe.

There are estimates that worldwide, the Church owns roughly 716,000 square miles of real estate - about the size of Alberta, Canada - which includes churches, cathedrals, monasteries, schools and convents among other properties. Its bank, called the Institute for Works of Religion (IOR), is estimated to be worth $8 billion to $10 billion and has investments in multiple corporations ranging from finance, insurance, chemicals, steel, construction and real estate.

It is thought that the Vatican holds a mountain in gold worth several billion dollars. The real money, however, is tied up in artwork and other irreplaceable religious relics. They are both practically impossible to categorize and even more difficult to price, since the Church would never sell these objects.

Yet, despite its wealth, the Catholic Church has been cash-flow poor for several years. Scandal and mismanagement has cost this colossal non-profit an enormous sum. The abuse scandals have drained the church of well over $3.3 billion to date. That number is expected to grow as more cases are decided in favor of the plaintiffs. For an organization that receives $170 billion annually in revenues, a couple billion might seem like small change; but many of the settlements have been made by individual dioceses and religious orders, which are not nearly as wealthy as the Church overall. Eight U.S. dioceses have already declared bankruptcy as a result of these settlements and more of the country's 196 dioceses could wind up in similar straits.

The Vatican Bank, itself, has also been the subject to repeated multimillion dollar scandals ranging from money laundering, to mismanagement and the lack of financial controls. So don't envy the new pope too much. Francis I has his work cut out for him and I suspect he will have precious little time to enjoy his status as the wealthiest guy on Earth.

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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