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@theMarket: Ho, Ho, Ho
By Bill Schmick On: 03:20PM / Friday December 23, 2011
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Christmas is here and the market action this week indicates the traditional end-of-the-year rally appears ready to begin. About the best one can say is at least we can count on Santa if not anyone else.

In a recent radio interview, the host complained that the bad news just keeps on coming. If it isn't Europe, it's the embarrassment of our own political leaders in Washington. If that wasn't enough, we have tensions in Iran, North Korea and Syria. Yes, I agreed, all of the above is true and yet the stock markets are essentially unchanged from where they were a year ago.

Reading and listening to the chatter that at this time of year is largely focused on what's next for investors, I find a great deal of confusion. Most strategists are caught up in the continuing gloom and doom pessimism that has pervaded the markets throughout the year. This is despite the fact that the U.S. economy is growing at a rate higher than anyone expected.

No matter where you look — technical charts, momentum, fundamentals — it appears we are heading lower in 2012. Conventional wisdom has it that Europe is heading for a steep recession, China a hard landing and the U.S. by default is dragged down with them. In which case, the stock markets go lower.

After more than a year of faulty starts and disappointments by European leaders, most investors discount any new initiatives coming out of the EU as too little, too late. The joke that we call leadership in Washington is also well known. And that's my issue with the bear case. Everyone knows how bad it is — investors, the Fed, politicians, even Main Street. When a crisis is as well known as this one, it is usually addressed.

In my opinion, it is a mistake to get sucked into this malaise. The Europeans are making progress in solving their financial crisis. Granted, we may not like their half-measures, their delays, their posturing and constant policy reversals but in the end things are getting done.

Bond yields in Spain and Italy are coming down. Banks are no longer in danger of going belly-up. The central banks of the world are on record that they will not let the EU or the Euro fail. Just this week the European Central Bank loaned $640 billion in low-interest rate loans to their banking industry. There will be more of the same in the weeks and months ahead. It may not be enough to save Europe from a recession but it could well limit the severity and subsequent damage to the U.S. and the rest of the world.

Pessimism abounds wherever you look and that, my dear reader, should make you sit up and take notice. It is times like this when we have our best rallies. It is times like this that the smart money stays put and does not give in to the overwhelming gloom that is assaulting us at every turn. As a self-confessed contrarian, I remain somewhat bullish on the markets, if not hysterically so.

My strategy is to watch and wait between now and the end of the first quarter. December and January are normally the strongest months of the year. If the Santa Claus rally fails, followed by a down first quarter of 2012, then I will throw in the towel and get much more defensive. Until then I will give the markets the benefit of the doubt even if I keep my enthusiasm on a short leash.

Merry Christmas to all and to all a good holiday weekend.

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 email him at wschmick@fairpoint.net. Visit www.afewdollarsmore.com for more of Bill's insights.



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The Independent Investor: Give Local
By Bill Schmick On: 04:09PM / Thursday December 22, 2011
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The bells of the Salvation Army are ringing on Main Street. Yep, it's that time of the year again when visions of "Tiny Tim" tug at our heart and purse strings. This season try something new; donate your charitable contributions to local organizations.

American charities took in over $300 billion last year and hope to make this year even better. After all, we Americans are a giving people. Nearly two-thirds of us give something to charity every year with many of those donations occurring between Thanksgiving and New Year's.

Why we give is still somewhat of a mystery. The economy is nothing to write home about, unemployment is high and most of us are pinching pennies. Yet, we somehow find that spare dollar or two to drop into the charitable pot or, in some places, the hands of the homeless.

Experts point to the fundamental social urge to help our fellow human beings. There is also the "feel good" factor, since giving makes us feel better about ourselves. There is also the social pressure to give during company fund drives, or marketing calls for example. Yet, each year we discover that things are not quite as they should be in the nonprofit world. Most readers are aware that many large charitable organizations use professional fund raisers at some point or another for phone solicitations, direct mailing, call centers, etc. These fundraisers charge a fee for their efforts, which can be enormous delivering as little as 46 cents on every dollar donated to the charity.

Recently, the attorney general for New York State released a report that found that, on average, just 37.6 cents of New Yorker donations actually went to the charity of their choice. In some places, such as the Hudson Valley, charities received even less, just 17.4 cents/dollar, which was the lowest percentage in the state. There were actually 61 cases where the charity lost money after paying telemarketers and other fund raisers. New York is no different than Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire or most other states in this regard.

Various organizations have given donors tips on the dos and don'ts of giving. Suggestions such as resisting pressure from telemarketers to give on the spot. Others urge you to do background checks on charities before giving or use charity rating organizations that will do that job for you. Experts say that when giving on-line read the fine print and every watchdog organization advises that we should all educate ourselves about charitable giving. All of the above advice is laudable, but where's the fun in that?

You see, most studies on philanthropy indicate that charitable giving is an impulse thing. That's right, we pass through the supermarket doors and toss our spare change into the bucket without thinking, receiving a heart-felt "Thank you and Merry Christmas" for our efforts. In fact, numerous studies reveal that the more one thinks about things like which charity is the best choice or how this or that charity uses my money, the less generous one tends to be. So how does one give without spoiling the fun?

Give local just like you buy local. Most of us know the needs of our own communities. There are dozens of charities right outside your door that you can give to directly without worrying about fraud or how much of every dollar they will receive. Food banks, animal shelters, human shelters, it's all there and when you give locally there is an added benefit. You improve the quality of life in your neighborhood, which helps everyone.

Take my company, for example. We gave away hundreds of turkeys last year at Thanksgiving.  Individually, this holiday season, some of us are sponsoring needy kids with holiday presents as well as donating money to a local animal shelter. Surely there must be a soup kitchen, children's home or something that tugs your heart strings some where close. You don't even need to donate money when you give locally. The donation of your time can be just as valuable. So get out there and give. And God bless us everyone.

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 email him at wschmick@fairpoint.net. Visit www.afewdollarsmore.com for more of Bill's insights.




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@theMarket: Is Santa Claus Coming to Town?
By Bill Schmick On: 03:19AM / Saturday December 17, 2011
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Most years, at about this time, investors begin to anticipate a so-called "Christmas Rally." So far investors have received nothing but coal in their stockings. I counsel patience. Most investors appear to be jumping the gun.

There are many explanations for why markets sometimes move higher between Christmas and the New Year and into January. One reason is the "January Effect." Historically (since 1925) markets have risen in the first month of the year with small caps leading the way. Investors like to get in the market before that move begins, usually during the last week of the year.

Since 1896, the Dow's average monthly return in up years has been roughly 0.5 percent but Decembers have returned 1.4 percent overall. Some believe that tax considerations drive the markets during this time. Investors, for example, who sold losers earlier in the month, now begin to replenish their portfolios with new buys. There is also the fact that many employees receive their year-end bonuses, either in December or January, and invest those proceeds into the markets. I wouldn't discount the psychological impact either. Good feelings, generated by holiday cheer, and the absence of Grinch-like pessimists, who are usually on vacation at that time, spill over into the stock markets..

Yet, not all years have produced Christmas rallies and many Decembers have actually lost money for investors. Given the steady stream of bad news coming out of Europe one would expect that any rally we may have will be somewhat subdued.

For most of this week the markets have tried to rally, largely on good news generated by the U.S. economy. On Wednesday, Thursday and Friday morning's stocks were bid up by one percent or more only to flounder when comments out of Europe cut the gains to just above breakeven. As expected, the sniping began on Monday, almost as soon the EU agreed to expand and police a new fiscal austerity effort among its members. The naysayers were eager to explain why the agreement would be difficult to implement or just plain won't work.

Rumors all week that the credit agencies were preparing to downgrade sovereign French debt to ‘AA’ from "AAA" has also kept a lid on our markets. On Friday, Credit agency Fitch actually downgraded its outlook on France to "negative" but kept their "AAA" rating. It also put Italy, Spain, Ireland, Belgium, Slovenia and Cyprus on negative watch.

Traders have been watching the Euro, selling stocks as the Euro-Zone currency declines and the dollar moves up and then reversing the trade on any strength in the Euro. They argue that the Euro's decline signals worse trouble ahead for the EU and therefore for America and the rest of the world. No one seems to recognize that the Euro's decline actually helps the economies of Europe (making the goods they sell cheaper to overseas buyers), especially in places like Italy and Spain, where exports are a big part of their overall economies.

One wonders when investors are going to decouple from their manic focus on Europe and concentrate instead on the U.S. market where stocks are cheap, unemployment is declining, and the economy growing. It is my hope that it will finally dawn on the markets that there's no place like home, especially for the holidays. In which case, there may be more under the tree than most investors expected.

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 email him at wschmick@fairpoint.net. Visit www.afewdollarsmore.com for more of Bill's insights.




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The Independent Investor: Why Everyone Should Have a Will
By Bill Schmick On: 12:35PM / Friday December 16, 2011
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"I'm not old enough to worry about a will," said one of my clients recently.

Looking at him, you might agree. At 25, he is as healthy as the horses he shoes. As a farrier with his own business, he works hard and plays hard. Life is his oyster right now but if he dies, I reminded him, the state gets everything.

"No way," he said, in utter disbelief.

But it is true. As a single man with no relatives and no will, the chances are quite high that the state would take everything. Fortunately, my client found religion and immediately did some estate planning, including creating a will. Unfortunately, most people will find every excuse in the book to avoid creating a will. Many individuals feel uncomfortable with the possibility of their own death or they take the attitude that when you're dead, you're dead, so why worry about it.

You may be surprised to know that most states are prepared for that and have effectively written a will for you. They are called statutes and are used to determine your heirs if you die "intestate" (without a valid will). Each state's statutes are different and can have an enormous impact on your heirs, especially your children.

If you die without a will, for example, and have children under 18, the state will control who will care for them. Sure, siblings or grandparents are usually the go-to choices as guardians, but not always. There are also many instances where a sister or brother may not agree with the court's ruling. In which case, there ensues a long and costly custody battle with most of the emotional hardship borne by your children.

It gets worse. Let's say you have been diligently saving for your kids' college education. Without a will, there is no guarantee that an appointed guardian will honor your wishes. They may simply use the money for your child's support dismissing college as a frivolous expense or a luxury they cannot afford.

Probate is the term used for the long, arduous and expensive state court procedure that administers your estate. An uncle of yours dies in Florida and leaves a condo, but no will. As his nearest kin, you will need to hire a lawyer in state, spend the money, time and effort necessary to have the disposition of the condo adjudicated in the court system and hope that in the end the state rules in your favor.

You go through all those hoops only to find out a distant cousin disputes your right to inherit. At the same time you discover the condo's mortgage is greater than its worth and the condo association doesn't approve the one buyer who might take it off your hands. I think you get the point. Probate is a nightmare.

Many people have confused a revocable living trust with a will. They are two different legal documents, which serve different purposes. In a living trust, you transfer assets into the trust during your lifetime. When you die, those assets go directly to your beneficiaries and do not go through probate. It is a private document and is more difficult to be challenged.

In contrast, a will is a public document. It can be useful in combination with a living trust to ensure that any property that is not already listed in your living trust (such as furniture or antiques, or heirlooms) before death will be transferred to the trust at death. A will can also address the needs of your children by naming a guardian and spelling out the financial provisions for their care and education. A will can also accommodate your wishes and intentions clearly and at greater length than a trust.

Creating a will and/or a living trust is best done through an attorney. It may cost a couple hundred dollars but it is the best way overall to cover yourself and your family in the event of your death. I suggest if you haven't done one yet, it's about time you did.

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 email him at wschmick@fairpoint.net. Visit www.afewdollarsmore.com for more of Bill's insights.




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@theMarket: The Case of the Crying Wolf
By Bill Schmick On: 06:05PM / Friday December 09, 2011
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How many times in the past year have we been faced with binary events that were either "do or die" moments for the markets? Some turned out to be "dos" but others definitely failed to meet investors' expectations. Yet, armageddon did not occur.

Despite these weekly doom and gloom predictions, the markets have weathered the storm. Consider these "end of the world" moments: the U.S. debt ceiling, the budget debate, the lowering of our credit rating; while in Europe there have been dozens of do-or-die deadlines from Greek default to this weeks' EU summit. How long must the wolf cry before we become inured to its call?

The truth is that the media and many of its guests see things in such simplistic terms that either/or is about all they have time for. Real life, as we know, is much more convoluted and complex than that.

Sure, there may come a time when once again (like in 2008-2009), the problems that besiege much of the world's economies will come home to roost. But, if human nature holds true, it won't happen until we least expect it. Since, if we expect something terrible to happen, we will do all we can to avoid or fix it. That process, my dear reader, is what is occurring right now throughout the world.

So if you were thinking that European leaders have finally resolved their financial crisis, think again. Friday's EU agreement moves them another step closer, but we still have a long way to go.

Twenty-six European nations agreed to forge a new treaty in order to establish an even closer fiscal union, one that will force members to get their fiscal house in order or "else." Presumably, "else" would mean that members who fail to toe the line will be booted out of the union. Great Britain, which rejected the Euro in favor of its own currency, the British pound, in the original treaty, was the only member country that refused to join the agreement.

Drafting that agreement, ironing out the fine details, and ultimately passing it should be a guaranteed source of additional volatility as the debate continues. Although the fiscal integrity of several European nations was the source of the financial crisis, this fiscal initiative does little to solve the symptoms of the crisis. Those symptoms - huge debt loads, escalating sovereign interest rates, high unemployment, slowing economies and concern over the Euro — are still of immediate concern.

These worries will be with us for the foreseeable future and, left unaddressed, could sink the markets. But remember, just two weeks ago, several of the world's largest central banks announced their intention to establish a floor under this crisis in the form of massive monetary intervention when necessary.

Over here in America we have our own issues. On the fiscal front, our do-nothing Congress and Senate guarantees there will be no additional economic stimulus unless President Obama can pull something out of his hat that does not need congressional approval. Monetary policy is on hold as the Fed waits for further clues on the economic health of the U.S.

This particular wall of worry is indeed quite formidable. Some investors have decided to just move to the sidelines until this volatile period subsides, and I don't blame them. If concern over your investments is keeping you up at night, you are too aggressively invested, in which case change your allocation.

As I warned in my last column, we saw a lot of volatility in the markets this week. Expect more of the same in the weeks to come. That said, I believe we will move higher between now and the New Year.

Next year, however, may be a different story entirely.

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 email 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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