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Independent Investor: Treasury Bonds at Historic Lows
By Bill Schmick On: 12:06AM / Friday June 01, 2012
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This week the 10-year U.S. Treasury Bond hit a record low of 1.63 percent. That can be good or bad news depending on your circumstances and where you are in terms of retirement.

On Wednesday, interest rates on our government treasury bonds spiraled downward once again as investors, deeply fearful of events in Europe, sought a safe haven for their money. Both the U.S. dollar and Treasury bond prices spiked higher as investors shunned risk.

Fears of a systemic sovereign credit failure in Europe were to blame. This "risk-off" trade pushed the Euro to its lowest levels in two years while yields on sovereign debt in countries like Spain, Portugal and Italy soared. At the same time, Germany, Europe's most stable economy, saw the interest rate on its 10-year government debt fall to all-time lows. In a sense, our Treasuries are simply along for the ride as global investors seek to shed their European investments.

In tumultuous times, individual consumers in the United States can simply put their money in a bank or buy CDs in order to protect it. Large institutions who are seeking safety can't really drive up to their local ATM and dump billions in a checking account, so they use U.S. Treasury bonds instead.

These big players are buying these bonds that are effectively yielding a negative rate of interest after inflation. In other words, these institutions are paying the U.S. government a small amount of interest just to keep their money safe. In times like these it's worth it to them.

Unfortunately, if you are an individual retiree who has their money invested in U.S. Treasury bonds, you also have a problem, especially if you are depending on the income from bond interest to maintain your retirement life-style. It will become extremely difficult to make ends meet since, like those large institutions, you too will be receiving a negative rate of interest on your investments. At the same time, your costs of living continues to go up and up. Gas, food, medical costs, etc. are all climbing higher but your income stream is going down.

But for another class of consumers, those Americans who may be fortunate enough to qualify for a mortgage, the decline in Treasury rates may help them lock in a lower rate for a loan. However, borrowers beware.

Many home buyers erroneously believe that their mortgage rate is tied to the interest rate of U.S. Treasuries. They are not. Mortgage rates are tied to an index of mortgage bonds called mortgage backed securities (MBS). Mortgage lenders watch MBS rates closely. Consumer rates are priced according to what the MBS rates are doing over time.

"Over time" are key words. It means that lenders will only reduce consumer rates if they are convinced that the MBS rates have the staying power to remain at a lower level for a sustained period of time. Lenders will not pass on those lower rates to you, the consumer, until they are convinced that the drop in MBS rates is not simply a short-term spike caused by events in Europe this week (as an example).

So although Treasury rates dropped to historic lows this week, mortgage rates improved only slightly. The conventional 30-year fixed rate didn't move at all. Mortgage borrowers will need U.S. Treasury rates to remain at these levels or go even lower before the MBS market responds in kind. Only then, will consumers see a pass-through in mortgage rates. This could take weeks to accomplish.

So what economic meaning should we read into these "historic lows" in Treasury bond interest rates? Well, I guess that without our much maligned, deficit-ridden country and its Treasury bonds, the world would be a much scarier to place to invest. Take that Darth Vader!

Bill Schmick is an independent investor with Berkshire Money Management. (See "About" for more information.) None of the information presented in any of these articles 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 (toll free) or e-mail him at wschmick@fairpoint.net . Visit www.afewdollarsmore.com for more of Bill's insights.




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@theMarket: When Cash Is King
By Bill Schmick On: 05:25AM / Saturday May 26, 2012
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Traders are afraid to hold securities, especially stocks, over the weekends. Every Friday afternoon, positions are squared and Wall Street goes home with few if any overnight positions. This three-day weekend, you can bet cash will be king.

Clearly, investors are just as skittish. They were last summer as well, and for the very same reasons. If anything, the stakes are higher today. Last May, there was some concern that Greece might go bankrupt and/or depart the European Community. This year, both Greece and other member states are actively preparing for that outcome.

Last year, there were riots in Athens. Police battled protestors angry over pension and other spending cuts. Damage was minimal and few were really injured, although it made nightly newscasts fairly dramatic. This year it's far more serious. Greek depositors are quietly but steadily pulling their money out of their banks where there are no TV cameras.

Greeks fear that when (not if) they depart the Euro, their currency (the drachma) will be worth next to nothing, wiping out their savings. Depositors in other problem countries such as Spain and Portugal are also doing the same thing, fearing the worst. Unsure of the Euro and its future, these Europeans are putting their money into the greenback. The higher the dollar goes against the Euro, the worse the situation becomes.

Have you also noticed that we are back in the "he said, she said" environment that ruled the market's direction throughout last summer? This week the averages gyrated up and down as one after another European politicians or bureaucrat pontificated over the fate of Greece or Spain. Positive comments, meant to buck up the markets, were quickly followed by retractions or other contradictory statements.

Face it readers, this situation is going to be with us until at least the middle of June, when Greece holds a second election. At that point we may achieve more clarity on the fate of the country and its membership in the Euro-zone with a corresponding move in the markets. Until then expect more of the same volatility.

Last week, I predicted a "snap-back rally." We had it but it wasn't much of one, barely moving the averages up by 2.5 percent or so. The S&P 500 Index now sits at around 1,323. I expect that both the upside and downside will be volatile over the next few weeks, based on the events in Europe.

On the downside, we could test the 200-Day Moving Average around 1,279 on the S&P 500 Index with further risk to 1,250 or so. On the upside, we probably have a celling between 1,340-1,370 on that same index. That would provide a 5-7 percent trading range for the markets. Those who follow the market day-by-day will find that stressful to say the least.

Last week's much heralded IPO, which I likened to the buildup preceding the "John Carter" movie, flopped on an epic scale. That it was a disappointment is obvious, but more importantly, it also drives yet another nail of distrust in the coffin of Wall Street. Retail investors, already wary of anything stock-related, took a flyer only to be burned once again by "da boyz" in the three-piece, pin-striped suits that took their money and left them holding the bag. Soon the only investors left in the markets to be bilked will be themselves. 

Bill Schmick is an independent investor with Berkshire Money Management. (See "About" for more information.) None of the information presented in any of these articles 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 (toll free) or e-mail him at wschmick@fairpoint.net . Visit www.afewdollarsmore.com for more of Bill's insights.




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The Independent Investor: The Devil Is In The Details
By Bill Schmick On: 05:28PM / Friday May 25, 2012
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It has now been over three years since the CARD Act was signed into law. You remember that bit of consumer legislation that sailed through Congress with nary a nay vote? How then have the Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure Act performed since inception?

Well, it depends on who you ask. Its advocates say it has accomplished its goal, which was to stop the predatory policies against middle/lower class consumers by the nefarious money-center banks and credit card companies.

For the life of me, I really can't see much difference between today and back in the bad old days, can you? Take interest rates, for example, here we are in the lowest interest rate environment in modern history and yet my Visa rate is 15.24 percent for standard purchases. And if, God forbid, I need a cash advance, well then I have the privilege of paying 25.24 percent for that loan plus a fee that could amount to 4-5 percent of the advance.

There is also a clear warning on my bill that states if I fail to pay the minimum balance within the 23 days (my monthly grace period) then my late payment interest rate charge will be 29.99 percent plus a $35 late fee. My second credit card company charges me even more for transgressions. It is true that the fine print on the back of the bill has gotten bigger and so have the explanations for how they calculate the interest rate they charge me. At last count it was a 19-line explanation that never once actually told me the interest rate I'm paying.

And how about those "balance transfer" offers we find in the mail every other day or so. You know the drill:

"Save on Interest. Get a low 0.00% APR on balance transfers until 04/01/13. After that, your variable purchase APR will apply, currently 15.240%"

The ad is accurate enough, but what it fails to make clear is that the offer only applies to balances you transfer. Any new, additional purchases will be charged the 15.24 percent rate. And if the offer also includes the lower rate for new purchases, the time period is very short, no more than 4 or 5 months. Many times there is also a fee for the transfer itself, often amounting to 3-5 percent of the balance.

There can also be another hitch. You need to qualify for the offer. If your credit rating doesn't pass the muster, you might simply be transferring the balances from one high-charging credit card to another. Don't even think about being late on your payments either, because even one mishap will send your rate soaring on your entire balance despite the original offer terms.

To be fair, there are fewer late fees today, especially the kind that compounded a credit cardholder's debt through ballooning charges for over-the-limit purchases and the like. There has also been some roll back in debit card fees, but in exchange consumers are losing things that until recently were free within the banking universe.

The debit card reward program is dead and there are little to no price savings anymore for restaurant or other retail purchases. Retailers are actually boosting prices on many small-ticket items as a result of the Durbin Amendment. The legislation was a last-minute addition to the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act that went into effect on Oct. 1, 2011. The amendment capped the debit interchange or "swipe fees" that franchisees pay to accept Visa and MasterCard debit cards by about 70 percent.The swipe fee cap has had an unintended but disproportionate impact on transactions for small amounts.

A new study by the National Association of Convenience Stores also found that drivers are paying 6 to 10 cents a gallon in hidden bank fees every time they use a credit card to gas up. At the same time, the banks swipe fee goes up with the price of gasoline. Convenience stores paid more than $11 billion in card fees last year, a jump of almost 25 percent. As gas hit $4 gallon in some markets, the bank's average cut of swipe fees alone increased to 7 cents, if you pay with a debit card and 10 cents with a credit card.

The government's legislation still allows credit card issuers to impose plenty of obscure and hard to understand charges such as fees on purchases abroad ( usually about 3 percent) or for having a zero balance (punishment for paying off your debt).

Companies can close accounts and reduce or withdraw lines of credit without notice or reason although they must wait 45 days before applying over-the-limit fees or a penalty rate on a newly lowered credit limit. They can raise your interest rates as high as they want, after giving you 45 days' notice. If you dispute it, the card company will close your account and give you five years to pay off the balance. Finally, you must go through mandatory arbitration to address grievances rather than the courts.

It should come as no surprise that banks have had to look elsewhere once the law made their former abusive and usurious practices illegal. As a result, the credit card issuers are more selective in obtaining new customers and turning down those they don't want. In order to replace lost revenues, the banks have begun to increase charges on checking accounts and minimum balance requirements. So in today’s checking account environment, the typical customer will not only receive zero interest for the funds they deposit in a bank's checking account but also pay increasingly higher costs for the privilege of losing money.

The bottom line: all the credit card legislation has done is switch the chairs around the same old slippery deck, in my opinion. Although credit cards are so prevalent that many of us think a credit card is a necessity (some will go as far as say it is a right), it isn't. You can opt out of the system and pay in cash anytime you want. For some of us it has become a convenience item, which we pay for, in lieu of carrying around bundles of cash. For others it has become much much more and that is dangerous. Credit cards were never intended to become your plastic loan shark or an alternative to a payday loan or check cashing storefront, but for many that is exactly what they have become. If so, it's time to make a change because legislation can do only so much.

Bill Schmick is an independent investor with Berkshire Money Management. (See "About" for more information.) None of the information presented in any of these articles 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 (toll free) or e-mail him at wschmick@fairpoint.net . Visit www.afewdollarsmore.com for more of Bill's insights.



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The Independent Investor Credit: The Real Cause Behind The Great Recession
By Bill Schmick On: 03:10PM / Friday May 18, 2012
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It has been almost five years since the start of the financial crisis. In its second year, the so-called recovery has been disappointing, unlike any other economic cycle since World War II. At the heart of this failure lies our country's inability to recognize why this time it is truly different. That difference can be summed up in one word — credit.

We must reach back to the Great Depression to find the last time there was a large-scale banking crisis in which leverage and excess credit were the main cause of a recession. Too much credit (sometimes called leverage) is the "Achilles heel" of any economic system. Unfortunately, neither government nor the private sector has much experience in dealing with the aftermath of an economic credit binge. Instead, we have all tended to try and jump start the economy using the same tools we have been using since WWII. It won't work.

Up until the aftermath of WWII, real private lending had grown about the same pace as economic activity. But in the early 1970s, credit began to grow at about twice the rate of economic activity and it continued expanding from there. Economists think that the credit binge was ignited by the collapse of the Bretton Woods international monetary system. That agreement, established in 1944, was forged in an effort to reconstruct the world's economy after the war.

Forty-four Allied nations agreed to peg their currencies to the U.S. dollar. In turn, the dollar was pegged to the price of gold. The U.S. took the world off this dollar/gold standard on Aug. 15, 1971. Currencies from that point on were allowed to fluctuate based on the economic fortunes of each nation and that's where credit came in.

Governments and their economists figured out that the more credit (leverage) you used, the higher the growth rate of your economy and the longer that growth could be sustained. If you wanted a strong currency, the ability to borrow, and be able to make a name for yourself on the global block, the expansion of credit was a good way to do that. The challenge was balancing that credit growth with the underlying capital base of your financial sector. Up until then, that had not been a problem, but times change.

During 2004-2007, we expanded credit further and faster than anyone really understood. Like children with a new but dangerous toy, our financial wizards had no idea what excessive credit could do to an economy. Anyone that had firsthand experience (during the 1930s) had long since retired. Readers are now intimately aware of the sub-prime mortgage debacle, our credit collapse and its resulting impact on our financial system.

As a result of the crisis, a large fraction of the global banking systems' capital base was erased almost overnight. In Europe it continues to unfold today. When something like that happens, it takes a long time to rebuild that capital base. In the meantime, lending is put on the back burner as banks struggle simply to survive. Without lending, the life blood of economic growth, the economy will and has experienced a deeper recession and slower recovery. That is the natural result of a credit crisis and there's not much a government can do about it.

In the past, it took at least five years before lending (and investment) once again approached pre-recession levels. Credit, after all, has much to do with the trust and faith by the lender that the borrower will be able to repay the loan. A credit crisis like the one we experienced in 2008-2009, destroys that faith. No matter how low the Federal Reserve forces interest rates, lenders won't lend until that faith is restored and they feel their capital base is once again secure. That takes time. The on-going turmoil in Europe's banks simply delays that from happening.

In the meantime, ignore all the promises of both candidates. "Getting America back to work again" and similar slogans would require an understanding of the nature of the slowdown and an entire new set of tools to address it. Neither party's candidate appears ready to recognize that this Great Recession is truly different from any in their lifetime. I doubt they or the armies of experts advising them will ever recognize the truth, except in hindsight.

The good news is that time does go by. It's been three years since we have officially entered a "recovery." In another two years or so we should be getting back to normal. I hope.

Bill Schmick is an independent investor with Berkshire Money Management. (See "About" for more information.) None of the information presented in any of these articles 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 (toll free) or e-mail him at wschmick@fairpoint.net . Visit www.afewdollarsmore.com for more of Bill's insights.




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@theMarket: 'Play it again, Sam'
By Bill Schmick On: 04:21PM / Saturday May 12, 2012
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"Play it once, Sam, for old times' sake, play 'As Time Goes By.'" — Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman)

"You played it for her, you can play it for me ... If she can stand to listen to it, I can. Play it." — Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart)
"Casablanca"


Last year, the bull-market rally began to run out of steam on May 2. Over the next two months, the Dow fell 1,000 points to the 11,900 level. There was then a rally that took the averages back up to a little over 6 percent before giving up the ghost once more on July 26. It continued to decline until the beginning of October, falling all together about 20 percent.

It wasn't until the Federal Reserve Bank came to the rescue once again with a new round of monetary easing that the markets finally bottomed and began to rise on Oct. 4, 2011. Over the next six months, the S&P 500 Index rallied 30 percent until its peak this year on April 2. It waited until May 1 before beginning its present pullback.

For Wall Street traders, it was also an exhausting time in the markets during which swings of several percentage points a day became common. Much of the decline was blamed on Europe. The U.S. economic data didn't help either. Week after week, one disappointing data point followed another raising the specter of a double-dip recession. Does any of this sound familiar?

Today the circumstances in both Europe and the U.S. are eerily similar to what happened last spring. So far in May, the stock market is playing the same swan song as last year.

"History doesn't repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme," said Mark Twain well over a century ago. And that saying certainly applies to the stock market. The question is what, if anything, is different about this time around?

The short answer is, not much. Italy and Greece were the focal points of the Euro debt crisis last year. Since then there has been a massive bank bailout and an austerity pact but nothing much has been done to turn the European Unions' struggling economies around. The economic picture has actually deteriorated further, thanks to the nonsensical austerity plan engineered by Angel Merkel of Germany.

Spain is the main problem right now. As their economy nose dives, their debt explodes, while their banks wobble under mountains of bad real estate loans; the 12th largest economy in the world is fast approaching a life-support situation. Greece, after last week’s election upset, is also revisiting its off-again, on-again membership in the EU.

Once again, investors are keying off the Spanish/Greece/Italian sovereign debt yields to decide whether to buy or sell on a daily basis. So far it's been mostly selling. Remember my "She Said, He Said" columns of last summer? Investors were driven crazy by conflicting and often contradictory statements out of Europe's capitals. Today the names have changed — Hollande instead of Sarkozy in France, Draghi instead of Trichet at the ECB, and in Greece, Papandreou for someone yet to be announced — but the conflicting statements remain the same.

Over here, we have the same issues over the economy that we had last year. And in the wings, hovers the Fed. That's right, if our market, Europe's markets, the economy and employment begin to drop dramatically, the Fed will once again come to the rescue. That, my dear reader, is why this year is rhyming with last year and the year before that.

As long as governments continue to tinker with the world's stock markets, as they have done ever since the 2008 financial crisis, we will have these same issues over and over again. I have written about our stop and start economy often. As long as the Fed is the sole locomotive of growth, we can expect the economy and the stock markets to continue to boom and bust.

This has truly become the Great Recession. Readers of this column were advised at the end of March, beginning of April, to take profits and prepare for this sell-off. I am writing off this second quarter. By the end of it, I suspect the averages could be where they were at the beginning of the year, until then, stay defensive and I'll keep you posted.

Bill Schmick is an independent investor with Berkshire Money Management. (See "About" for more information.) None of the information presented in any of these articles 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 (toll free) or e-mail him at wschmick@fairpoint.net . Visit www.afewdollarsmore.com for more of Bill's insights.





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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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