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The Independent Investor: Get Ready for a Surprise
By Bill Schmick On: 12:00PM / Friday January 25, 2013
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Pay special attention to the new disclosure box when you open your year-end, 401(k) statements. That's where you will discover for the first time just how much you are paying for the privilege of investing in those company-sponsored menus of mutual funds. You may be in for a surprise.

More than 70 percent of all 401(k) participants fail to realize that they are paying fees for investing in these tax-deferred retirement plans, according to an AARP study. I have to agree. Over the years, I have met with many prospective clients who had not rolled their 401(k) over to an IRA once they retired. They were under the impression that keeping their savings plan with their company offered a fee-free benefit for life. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The Department of Labor, after many delays and postponements, has finally forced employers, advisers and fund companies to own up to just how much they have been charging you, the employee, for this fringe benefit. Longtime readers may recall my past columns concerning the battle to prevent these fees from becoming public knowledge. Wall Street has lost that battle but probably not the war.

The problem, you see, is that consumers may simply fail to comprehend the long-term impact of these fees on their retirement savings. Let's say you open your statement and discover that you are paying a $100 in expense ratios (fees), per mutual fund each year. That may not mean much when the overall worth of the account is $10,000. What you fail to understand is that over the life of contributing part of your paycheck towards retirement — 20 or 30 years — those fees will add up.

Demos, a policy research firm, recently released a study which revealed that a two-income family, earning average wages, will lose $155,000 or about 30 percent over the life of their savings plan, to these Wall Street fees. That is in line with most independent studies on the subject which indicate you will pay one-third of your retirement savings in fees.

Wall Street defends its fees and has released its own studies that show the average investor pays less than $248 a year in 401(k) fees and no more than $20,000 during the life of the plan. Even if they are right, given that the average 401(k) in this country is around $75,000, that still results in over 26 percent of the plan consumed by fees.

So what can you, the employee, do about it? Your first reaction may be to stop investing in your 401(k). That would be a big mistake. These deferred savings plans have at least two major benefits over an IRA. The employers' "match" whereby your company contributes dollar for dollar up to a certain percentage of your own contribution is free money and worth any contribution you make.

Second, the government allows you, the employee, to contribute much more to a 401(k) than to an IRA. This year employees can contribute $17,500 to their 401(k) plans and, for those over 50 years of age, an additional $5,500 can be contributed. That compares to just $5,500 (or $6,500 for those over 50) in contributions to a traditional IRA.

However, you can cut down on the fees by urging your company representative to select mutual fund families with the lowest fees possible. That's what I do every day for my clients. Better yet, tell the company to abandon mutual funds altogether and invest in exchange traded funds (ETFs) instead. Some 401(k) plans already offer ETFs. These index funds are much cheaper than their high-priced cousins and outperform comparable mutual funds over 80 percent of the time.

Remember, too, that you are managing your own 401(k). That puts the onus on you to decide what investments to make and when to move to the sidelines. That's tough to do when few of us have the professional knowledge to cope with today's markets. Part of my job is to advise my non-retirement clients on how to invest those savings and when. It is also one of the reasons I write these columns. Hopefully, it gives you, the reader, some advice on how to manage your retirement savings.

Finally, if you are retiring soon, my advice is to plan to roll over your 401(k) savings into a traditional IRA. You likely will enjoy a cost savings of as much as 1-2 percent annually. You will also be able to expand your investment choices from the limited menu your company plans offers. If you need advice on how to accomplish that give me a call. It is much easier to do than you might think.

Bottom line: the new fee disclosures is a giant step forward for you the consumer but now that you know how much you are paying, it is up to you to do something about it.

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: Are Fringe Benefits Coming Back?
By Bill Schmick On: 12:32PM / Friday January 18, 2013
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Since the Financial Crisis, those who have kept their jobs consider themselves as lucky. That may be so, but at the same time many complain that their benefits have been cut as the price for further employment. There are signs that may be changing.

During 2008, I, like millions of other American workers, attended a mandatory meeting at a former employer. The room was rife with fear and trepidation, since just days before the owner had laid off almost half the company. Instead of more firing, he announced that the company would no longer be providing a match to our employee 401(k) retirement plans. He also reduced the number of paid time off for all of us. His announcement was met with relief that no one else would lose their job.

I'm not sure whether that employer ever reinstated his employees' benefits because I left shortly thereafter. I do know however, that many companies have started to become a bit more generous in what fringe benefits they provide their employees. The employer "match," for example, is making a comeback in some companies, but with a new twist. At that time was a company would match a certain percentage of your own contribution to a deferred benefit plan. Normally the match would range from 3 percent to as much as 6 percent of your yearly contribution.

However, IBM, the business services company with a great reputation for fringe benefits among its corporate peers, introduced a new wrinkle in their employee 401(k) matching compensation this year. Big Blue will still match contributions (and never cut them during the recession), but will now delay its contributions until the end of the year on Dec. 31. They will then pay them in a lump sum. If you leave before Dec. 15, you lose the match. The only exceptions are those that retire that year.

This week, Morgan Stanley, the global brokerage house, announced a variation on that theme. It will defer for up to three years a part of the bonuses for all those who make more than $350,000 and whose bonuses are at least $50,000.  They will also pay those sums in both cash and stock. Although it does not affect the company's financial advisers (brokers) this year, it may be a warning shot about how compensation will be paid in that group in the future. Of course, if you quit prior to the end of those three years, you forfeit any bonus that remains.

In another area, more companies are switching to a "paid time off" (PTO) option rather than the traditional allotment of a certain number of days for holidays, vacation, sickness, pregnancy leave, etc. This gives the employee the option of choosing how many days they can take off from a finite number, whether it is 15-20-30 days or whatever their company decides.

Although this change appears to be in the employee's favor, many companies are nicking away at this benefit in marginal ways. Some companies are limiting the number of days one can carry over from the preceding year while others are reducing the total number of days off that employees enjoyed under the old method.

Of course, the most formidable challenge to employee benefits is yet to come. Obamacare. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, becomes effective in 2014. This year, corporations will have to devise ways to overhaul their employee health care coverage in answer to this new legislation. A couple of firms have already changed their provisions in the health care field. They are opting for what has been termed "Employee Choice" plans.

This plan will give each employee a fixed sum of money (indexed to the rate of yearly inflation) and allow them to choose their own medical coverage and health insurer in an online marketplace.

The employees, according to at least one of the companies, will be paying roughly the same out-of-pocket contributions under the new plan as they did in the old one. They claim the new approach will allow the employee to spend as little or as much on their health care as they think wise. The fear among opponents of this approach is that with the rising costs of health care, the lump sum won't be nearly enough to cover future health care needs.

All in all, the return of employee benefits has been marginal at best, but it is in the early days right now. As the nation's economy continues to grow and unemployment drops, there may yet come a time when fringe benefits will actually expand as a tool to woo hard to find workers. Right now that may seem like a pipe dream but unless this country is doomed to an eternity of lackluster growth, that day will come.

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: What They Didn't Tell You About the Cliff Deal
By Bill Schmick On: 02:23PM / Thursday January 10, 2013
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Now that the country has avoided the Fiscal Cliff, everyone is breathing a sigh of relief. However, there have been some changes in the tax code that many of us have missed in the last-minute negotiations. For starters: your tax bill will be going up in 2013.

Although 99 percent of Americans avoided paying a higher tax rate thanks to Congress, we will all see a 2 percentage point rise in our payroll taxes. That is because neither party had the stomach to extend the tax cut President Obama had enacted in 2011. It means that households making between $50,000 and $75,000, for example, will see a tax increase of about $822 this year, while those making less ($40,000-$50,000) will see a $579 tax hike.

The headline that most Americans understood after the 11th-hour American Taxpayer Relief Act was passed was that those individuals earnings $400,000 and families earning $450,000 would see their tax rates jump from 35 to 39.6 percent. In addition, as part of the law, a new 3.8 percent tax is being levied on investment income for individuals making $200,000 and couples earning $250,000. High-income families will also have to pay higher taxes as part of Obama's health care law.

However, beneath those headline numbers lurks even greater tax increases as a result of the loss of personal tax exemptions for many middle-class income families. Most Americans recognize that $250,000 is a lot of money - if you reside in certain locales — but not much at all if you happen to live in Manhattan, Boston, Chicago or any other high-cost, urban center. Prior to the Tax Relief Act, a family of four, earning $250,000, were benefiting from $3,800 tax exemptions per family member.  

Those advantages have now been erased, effectively raising taxes 4.4 percent for every dollar that family earns over $250,000. If you have six kids, your marginal tax rate jumps to 6 percent and so on.

Higher-income Americans that make more than $1 million could lose up to 80 percent of their itemized deductions for everything from health care, home mortgage deductions, charities and even state and local taxes. When all is said and done, if you add in the loss of exemptions, health-care tax increases, etc., the effective tax rate for the highest earners could be as high as 45 percent.

Unfortunately, taxpayers in many Northeastern states, as well as those on the West Coast, will be hit the most since they normally use itemized tax deductions much more than the national average.

Some real estate-related deductions were preserved, such as allowing taxpayers to exclude income from the discharge of debt on their principal residence. This especially helps those who are considering a short sale or a lender-approved sale for less than the principal mortgage balance. It also allows a deduction for mortgage insurance payments for those making less than $100,000.

Another tax advantage for most Americans is the increase in contribution limits for retirement plans. You can now contribute $500 more to your Individual Traditional or Roth IRA for 2013, bringing the total to $5,500 with a $1,000 "catch-up" contribution for those over age 50.

The same $500 increase in contributions will also apply to 401(k), 403(b) and 457 Plans as well as for SIMPLE IRA plans for small businesses. Obviously, everyone should be contributing the maximum amount to these tax-deferred plans or as much money as you can reasonably afford to save toward retirement.

So it seems that none of us were able to dodge some increase in our taxes this year. Given the dire straits of the government's finances, I guess we should be grateful it wasn't worse.

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: January Could Be Important
By Bill Schmick On: 04:18PM / Friday January 04, 2013
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Now that the Fiscal Cliff is behind us and the spending battle is dead ahead, investors are wondering what lies ahead. Historically, the market's performance in January has been important. Since it is a good signpost for the future over the last 60 years, let's examine some of the indicators that many professional traders use.

Many investors look to the first five days of January as a gauge of where the markets are going for the rest of the year. During the last 40 years when those five first days were gainers, the markets were up for the entire year 85 percent of the time. For example, last year the S&P 500 Index gained 1.2 percent in the first five days of January. As a result, the S&P 500 Index was over 13 percent. That was close to the historical average. Over the last 39 years, the markets gained an average of 13.6% when the first five days of January were gainers.

Conversely, when the first five days are negative the markets were down for the year, but only 47.8% of the time. The indicator therefore, does not work as well on down periods. Readers should be aware that, in general, during post-election years the markets have not done well. Only 6 out of the last 15 post-election years saw gains in the first five days of the year. It looks like 2013 will be an exception.

Building on the first five days theory "where the S&P 500 goes in January, so goes the year" is the most widely used barometer traders follow and with good reason. Over the last 62 years (since 1950) this indicator has been accurate 88.7 percent of the time. Down Januarys invariably ushered in a new or extended bear market, a flat market or at least a 10 percent correction. The average loss for those years was 13.9 percent.

I guess the only good thing good to be said for those down years is that they were great buying opportunities since invariably the year after saw significant gains.

There is also something called the "January Barometer Portfolio," which is made up of the S&P's three best performing sectors in January. If you invested in them and held them through the February of the following year, you would beat the S&P Index on average by 1.4 percent. Finally, Januarys have been the best month of the year for NASDAQ performance consistently since 1971.

So here it is Jan. 4, the last day of the market week and stocks are up. So far, if the indicators hold, 2013 promises to be an up year for investors. I agree with that assessment. But that doesn't mean that everything will go straight up.

Now that the Fiscal Cliff is behind us, we face a long litany of worries. The battle over spending cuts has begun. We will see the debt ceiling reached very soon. The government will run out of money (again) by the end of February. Without a deal on spending, the drastic cuts in defense and entitlements trigger on March 1. That would hurt the economy. And in the wings, the credit agencies are waiting to downgrade our government debt once again unless a real effort is made to address the deficit.

Make no mistake, my readers, we will continue to be thrown between hope and despair by those fools in Washington. But markets normally climb walls of worry. My advice is to ignore the noise in Washington. Keep your eye on what is important— the growth in the economy. Those of you who followed my advice in November stayed invested, expected a last minute deal of the Cliff and were rewarded for your patience and perseverance.

I am waiting like everyone else to see what the rest of January brings. Until then, I will ride the ups and downs while continuing to buy any dip especially in emerging markets, (including China), emerging Europe and Europe overall. Hang tough and see it through until I say otherwise.

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: Round Two
By Bill Schmick On: 02:33PM / Thursday January 03, 2013
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The ink is still drying on the Fiscal Cliff compromise and already the focus has shifted from preventing tax hikes to what promises to be a battle royal over spending cuts. At stake could be the future health of the economy.

The mood among lawmakers after the bruising cliff battle is downright sour. Republicans are fuming that no spending cuts were included in the compromise while those who make above $400,000 will see their taxes hiked. Democrats, on the other hand, are unhappy that President Obama didn't stick to his guns on hiking taxes for those making $250,000 or more. What both parties' radicals fail to grasp is that neither side gets all that they want in a compromise. And without compromise nothing gets done in Washington.

This week, a new Congress will be sworn in. Time will tell whether that new body of legislators, which is still controlled by Republicans, will be more amenable to compromise than the last Congress. Less legislation was passed over the last two years then just about any time in our nation's history. We can't really afford two more years of that kind of inertia.

As part of the cliff compromise, the so-called 10-year plan of sequestered spending cuts in defense and entitlements, agreed upon in August of last year, were delayed for two months. That gives the new Congress time (until March 1) to work out a more focused plan of spending cuts than the across-the-board first installment of $88 billion in cuts that no one wants to make.

Adding even more drama to these difficult negotiations is the looming threat of another debt ceiling in our nation's borrowing abilities. That ceiling, which now stands at $16.394 trillion, will expire at the end of February. The president has already said he won't make the same mistake he did last year by allowing Congress to use that ceiling as leverage to force further cuts in spending. But Congress is bound and determined to do just that.

In addition, the credit rating agencies were disappointed by the cliff compromise. The deal did little to alleviate their concerns over the burgeoning deficit. Moody's, which still maintains a triple-A rating on U.S. debt, could join Standard & Poor's in reducing their credit rating on U.S. government debt unless more cuts are made and soon.

Beyond the rhetoric and posturing of this debate that most assuredly will be with us through most of this first quarter, there are some very real consequences for our economy, employment and our nation's future. At long last, the U.S. economy is beginning to grow at a sustained rate, thanks to the efforts by the Federal Reserve Bank. Its QE 1-2-3 appears to be working and the economy is gaining momentum. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, however, has cautioned that without simulative fiscal policy out of Washington lawmakers there is not much more he can do.

Yet, Republican lawmakers are insisting that the government do the exact opposite — cut spending, not increase it. They demand austerity now and a reduction of the deficit now. It is similar to the stance of Germany and its Chancellor Angela Merkel two years ago. Their misguided policy drove half of Europe into a recession and unemployment rates, in some countries, as high as 24 percent. Why do they think it won't happen here?

I do not condone this country's out-of-control spending, or the deficit, or our addictive need to borrow and borrow. I think it is despicable, dangerous and has gone on far too long. But there is a time and place for everything. Now is not the time to find fiscal religion.

Let the economy continue to grow, gather strength and then cut spending and even raise taxes again if necessary. Give growth another year to work its magic. That will give the economy enough staying power to weather a bout of austerity. My bet is that if we do, tax revenues will explode, the deficit will flip to a surplus by 2016-2017 and we won't need to hike taxes for anyone. It has happened many times in our nation's history and I believe it could happen again.

In the past, the problem has been that when the good times begin to roll, the notion of austerity and spending cuts are conveniently forgotten in Washington. That's the time we will need the tea party and its devotion to fiscal discipline. Let's hope they are still around and stay true to their economic goals by that time. In the meantime, let us grow.

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
Berkshire Arts & Tech School Celebrates Successes
MCLA Gallery 51 Presents Annual Affordable Art Show
Holiday Farmers Market Freshens Up Williamstown
Pittsfield Manufacturer Celebrates Growth In New Facility
Adams Man Starting Organization to Target Animal Abuse
Williamstown Housing Trust Asked to Help With Cable Mills Bond
North Adams Workers, Students Donate 800 Pounds of Food to Pantry
Pittsfield Parks Light Up With Memorial, Holiday Events
Louison House 25th Anniversary Fetes Namesake
New Clark Exhibit Marries Contemporary, Traditional Art

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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