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The Independent Investor: The European Central Bank Delivers

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

Thursday, Mario Draghi, the head of Europe's Central Bank, announced new steps in an effort to lift the EU from economic malaise. Investors wonder if it will be enough.

That's not unusual. There were many doubting Thomases in this country when the Fed first launched its quantitative easing program back in 2009. Japan, which is in the second inning of its stimulus program, also has its share of detractors.

At first blush, the expanded program of stimulus includes an asset purchase program of both private and public securities of up to $60 billion Euros ($69 billion) a month through the end of September 2016. That amounts to well over a trillion Euros in new stimulus. The markets were expecting roughly half that much.

What makes the move even more impressive is that the ECB prevailed in the face of heavy opposition from Germany's Bundesbank. The Germans argue that bond bailouts like this only encourage spendthrift countries to postpone economic reform. Greece is just one such country.

Greece is scheduled for national elections this weekend and Syriza, a popular anti-austerity party, is expected to win. The ECB's new stimulus program appears to include Greek debt but under certain conditions, most likely linked to Greece's willingness to continue economic reforms.

Unlike our own central bank that has a dual purpose of maintaining employment and controlling inflation in this county, the ECB has only one mandate — inflation. They have failed miserably in achieving their stated goal of an inflation rate of just under 2 percent annually. Last month, consumer prices actually turned negative, falling 0.2 percent. What concerns European bankers and governments alike is that the EU is at real risk of entering a deflationary, no-growth economic period similar to what Japan experienced for well over two decades. Once deflation infects an economic system it is notoriously difficult to cure. The hope is that the central bank's monthly injections of capital at this scale will stimulate growth throughout the 18-member countries and re-inflate the economy.

As a result of these actions, we are now in a peculiar place globally. While the United States has discontinued its stimulus programs, Japan, Europe and China, the largest economies in the world, are embarking on their own stimulus agendas. This does cause some strange disparities in interest rates and currencies however. Interest rates in Europe at this time are lower than here in America. The U.S. dollar is gaining strength while the yen and the euro continue to weaken.

We can expect these trends to continue as time goes by, but there are some benefits. Many currency traders expect that the euro will trade one-to-one with the greenback in the months ahead. The Japanese yen is already dirt cheap. If there was ever a time to book that European or Japanese vacations, now is the time.

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: Tail That Wagged the Dog

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

Rarely do we see a single financial asset, in this case oil, have the ability to sway the prices of trillions of dollars worth of investments on a daily basis over such a prolonged period of time.

Oil has been in a months-long tailspin. Its decline was supposed to be a good thing for most consumers, governments and markets worldwide. Why, therefore, has oil's plunge had the opposite effect?

The answer depends on the reader's time horizon. If you are the type of investor who trades with "high frequency," as do almost 70 percent of market participants these days, then your concern is how much you can make or lose by the close of the day. The price momentum of oil is clearly to the downside (interspersed with short, sharp relief rallies). When you ride a successful trend like that, momentum becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Declines begat further declines and where it stops nobody knows.

Technical analysts say the next stop on oil prices is $40 a barrel. Until then, shorting oil and anything oil-related is what is called a "no-brainer" in the trade.

But wait a moment, if cheaper energy is good for most global economies, stocks, etc., why are they falling in price as well? The simple answer is that the benefits of sustainable lower energy prices are longer-term in nature. That's why the Fed ignores the short-term price gyrations of energy or food in its inflation calculations. All too quickly what came down, goes back up.

The market knows this but chooses to ignore it. Consider December's "disappointing" retail sales data. The Street had convinced itself that Christmas sales should be terrific simply because oil prices were dropping. Consumers would (so the story goes) take every dime saved at the pump and immediately go out and buy holiday presents (ala Scrooge) for one and all. As a result, retail stocks soared in early December.

Analysts were falling over themselves hyping the sector and short-term traders made money.

Did anyone bother to ask whether consumers might have other uses for those windfall savings? Maybe paying down debt or actually bolstering savings might have taken priority over a new computer or television.

Consumers, like the Fed, have seen pump prices rise and fall many, many times in the past decade. Clearly, those energy savings, if sustainable, will translate into higher spending over time but the real world operates under a different time schedule than Wall Street.

For those who have a longer-term time horizon, however, theses short-term traders are creating a fantastic buying opportunity for the rest of us. And I don't mean by just buying a handful of cheap oil stocks either. You will have plenty of time for that. So many pundits are trying to call a bottom on oil that the only things I am sure of is that we haven't reached it yet. And what if we do?

I was around for the mid-1980s oil bust when the price of oil fell 67 percent between 1985-1986. It took two decades for oil prices to regain their pre-bust levels. Sure, energy stocks were cheap but they remained cheap while the rest of the stock market made substantial gains. Why take a chance on picking a bottom if your only reward is a dead sector for years to come?

Why not look to buy long-term beneficiaries of a lower oil price in areas such as industrials, technology, and transportation and yes, consumer discretionary? In the short-term, have patience because as I have said I believe the markets will decline in sympathy with oil until we reach at least that $40 barrel number. After that, by all means, do some buying. I know I will.

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's Happening to the Movies?

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

Have you noticed that American movies seem to be long on bullets and increasingly short on words? That despite flop after flop at the box office, the same movies are coming out with sequels? Get used to it because, increasingly, American viewers are a distinct minority when it comes to the box office.

After agriculture, the second largest U.S. export is entertainment. Films account for well over $31 billion of those exports and the numbers are increasing exponentially. The international box office accounted for a small portion of overall revenues a decade or so ago, but times have changed. Now it's a 60/40 split in favor of foreigners. China, with a population of over 1.3 billion is the largest market for filmmakers in the world.

For a long time, foreign countries only allowed a certain number of American films to come into the country. The idea was that the embargo would allow local filmmakers a chance to show their stuff among the local audiences. In some locales that is still the case, but less so in the really big markets.

Conventional wisdom in Hollywood has it that there is an insatiable international appetite for American-made genre movies, which are heavy on action, explosions, guns, special-effects and the like. They are correct. Foreigners love action movies, children's movies, sequels, Academy Award winners and big production budget films in that order, according to recent industry studies.

And stars are not as big a factor as they once were. To be sure, some late greats such as Stallone and Schwarzenegger can still command an audience but its more about the story line and what super hero is pounding whom.

We are also witnessing a great dumbing down of film content as a result. Universal themes rather than culturally specific ideas are what sell. Foreigners who do not speak English, do not want, nor can they follow long lines of subtitles that scroll across the bottom of the screen. Language, too, can often be nuanced to the point that the audience misses the concept. Besides, reading subtitles can be distracting and a lot of work when the typical viewer simply wants to have a good time and be entertained. Today's movies are crafted mainly to provoke a visceral, as opposed to an intellectual, response.

In the years ahead, you can count on American studios to become even more focused on what the overseas markets wants given the bottom line. Movies that may have bombed in this country have managed to turn a profit thanks to the benefits of foreign audiences. "Pacific Rim," for example, earned $101 million here but cost $190 million to produce. However, it was popular overseas to the tune of $411 million in worldwide earnings. Despite its failure here, a "Pacific Rim 2" is in the works and you better like it.

If we look at the more popular movies of 2014: "Transformers," "Guardians of the Galaxy," "Maleficent," "X-Men," "Captain America," "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" and the "Hobbit," overseas revenues were greater than the domestic box office in every case.

Therefore, the next time you are going into a movie theater, after paying $50 for two tickets, wondering how you can be sitting through the same story line, bad acting, ear-splitting, special-effects and a predictable outcome, wrapped around the same title (only with a number 8, 9 or 10 tagged on the end), now you know.

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: What Will the New Year Bring?

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

It was a good year for the stock market. The S&P 500 Index was up in excess of 12.5 percent with the other averages putting in a good performance as well. Naturally, investors are hoping for another year of stellar returns. Is that a reasonable expectation?

At the beginning of each year, people like me are expected to gaze into crystal balls or swirl the tea leaves at the bottom of a cup and pontificate on what the New Year will be like for investors. Unfortunately, I have an "Eight Ball" but no crystal ball and I drink coffee not tea. Honestly, I have as much chance of calling the market over the next 12 months as you do. However, there are some things I do know to be true.

Working from the top down, I expect the U.S. economy to continue to grow, while unemployment declines further. As jobs gain, I also expect wage growth will finally begin to accelerate. Coupled with the declining price of oil, that spells higher consumer spending than most anticipate. And since consumers drive over 67 percent of GDP growth, I'm looking for a better than expected first half in the United States.

As for Europe, I am in the minority when looking at the prospects among the members of the European Union. Although Europe is teetering on the edge of recession, the European Central Bank does not appear to have the political backing to launch a U.S.-style quantitative easing program. ECB head, Mario Draghi, continues to promise more, but delivers less and less. Unless the ECB does implement a full QE, the prospects for the continent appear neutral to negative at best.

However, there are also risks ahead that could substantially change the playing field in Europe. The southern tier of European countries will hold elections this year. Populist movements, led by long-suffering voters in Greece, may repudiate the austerity programs that the northern, economically-stronger countries have demanded in exchange for bail-outs over the last few years. If that were to occur, all bets are off as far as investing in the European stock markets and the Euro currency as well. There are too many risks that depend on politics and not economics for my liking.

Over in Asia, readers are aware that I like China. I am betting that the government there will continue easing monetary policy and stimulating an economy struggling with a transition from an export-led to a consumer-led economy. Japan, on the other hand, is in the middle of a full-fledged quantitative easing program that will hopefully pay positive economic dividends in 2015.  

That leaves me liking the three largest economies in the world: China, the United States and Japan. In addition, I believe the U.S. dollar will continue to rise in 2015 while the Japanese yen and the Euro will continue to fall. There are specific exchange-traded funds and mutual funds that allow investors to invest in these areas. Let me know if you are interested.

Readers must be aware that what happens economically may not translate into gains for stock markets. Remember that most markets discount economic events six to nine months into the future. In which case, the U.S. stock market may have already discounted much of the growth I see, especially in the first half of the year. On the other hand, most investors are so U.S.-centric that they either do not believe or chose to ignore the prospects for China and Japan.

In my next column, I will get down to particulars in what I see are the risks and rewards for the stock markets in the year ahead.

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: Think twice Before Co-Signing Student Loan

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

Sure, we love our kids. Of course we want them to get ahead, so when your son, daughter, or nephew asks for your signature right next to theirs on that private student loan application it is tempting. But before you sign on the dotted line consider this.

When you consent to being a student loan co-signer you are in for the life of the loan. If the student fails to make payments, you must. If they are late, you get the notices, too. Their financial problems will impact your credit score and could haunt you the next time you apply for a car loan, home mortgage, or simply a credit card.

I know that putting aside your emotions is difficult at best in the decision-making process. Yet, you must, because there is real money on the line as well as a multiyear financial commitment. Approach the decision as if the relative were a potential business partner. As such, you must be a fairly good judge of character. Does the person asking for the loan follow through on his or her commitments? Do they have a history of making good, financial decisions or are they the type that just can't seem to save money? How practical are they in life's decisions?

If the answers still indicate a green light, decide how and when they are going to be able to pay back the loan. If your son is insisting on getting an art degree with absolutely no prospects of employment, co-signing a loan with him could be financial suicide. Today, many college grads who have a degree in occupations that are already overemployed, obsolete or pay minimum wages cannot repay their student loans. Just because your relatives are "following their heart" in acquiring a degree is no reason to support that decision financially.

By all means be supportive but at the same time, the best assistance you can give is to explain the realities of the workplace. It is their option to listen and agree or disagree. Do this before the student wracks up thousands of dollars of debt that will follow him or her for the rest of their life and possibly yours.

If after all this, the decision is still a go, then urge the student to first explore a federal student loan, which does not require a co-signer, whereas 90 percent of private student loans do. Federal Stafford Loans for undergrads have a fixed rate of 4.66 percent, if the student loan is taken between July 1 and June 30, 2015. This would be both the student's and your best option.

But if you are still not convinced or the private loan is till the only option than consider also that the amount borrowed is not the amount you will end up repaying. Deferment, forbearance and interest will add a substantial sum to that debt. Remember too that student loans are not subject to bankruptcy laws. It is nearly impossible to have student loans discharged. And don't think you can remover yourself from the loan once the student receives it. Lenders have a whole host of hoops you need to jump through to even consider removing you from the loan.

To be fair, only 7 percent or so of students actually fail to make good on their loans. In most cases, the student pays on time things and things go smoothly. It is only when they miss payments and the bank come to you that your relationship begins to change with the co-signee. It is you who will be the "bad guy" every month in hounding the student to make their payments on time. What was once a warm and affectionate relationship can quickly evolve into something else. Don't let that happen to you.

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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