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@theMarket: Coal in Your Stocking?

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

The bulls can't muster enough strength to push stocks to new highs. Bears lack the conviction to stage a meaningful decline. It appears we are in a stand-off, but for how long?

This year many of the yearly investments themes of Wall Street failed to bear fruit. The "Sell in May" crowd was mightily disappointed this year. Those who warned that September and then October would be terrible months for the market were also stymied. Today, it's the "Santa Claus" rally crowd. Many investors are geared up to make a stocking full of profits any day now. They may be in for disappointment.

One could argue that we have already had our Santa Claus rally. After all, the S&P 500 Index is up over 25 percent year to date. How much more do you want? I have been warning readers to expect a pullback. Many of the indicators I follow have been flashing amber lights and some have turned red.

Eight of the last 10 and 12 of the last 18 sessions have finished lower. That's called distribution but the losses have been so minor and the euphoria so strong that bulls have largely ignored that fact. Last Friday's jobs report were cause to celebrate. At first the markets did just that, gaining over one percent on the news. But here we are a week later and stocks have given back all of those gains.

Chart of the Day

The politicians in Washington had further good news this week. There won't be another government shutdown in the foreseeable future. Both sides have hammered out a budget deal, which, if passed by the Senate this week, should solve that particular problem at least through 2015.  It removes some of the cliff hanging drama the markets hate so much, but stocks barely moved.

Last week, I advised that if the S&P 500 Index regained 1,800 and remained above it for any period of time, the coast would be clear and this present distribution would have simply been another buy-the-dip opportunity. So far the bulls have not made their case. It is true that the S&P index jumped on the employment news last Friday by over one percent, but quickly broke down. And now it is below that level once again. We are below 1,780, which is another support level. I suspect we decline to 1,760, which is the 50 day moving average. That is my first downside target.

Hopefully, it will bounce from there, but if it doesn't, there is a possibility that we may test the 200 DMA. There have never been two years in a row when the S&P 500 Index did not decline to test the 200 DMA. But I am getting ahead of myself. Let's take it one support level at a time.  

Although all of this cautious advice I am spouting may lead readers to believe I am bearish, when in fact I am extremely bullish over the medium and long-term. It's just that right here, right now, the markets might Grinch us out. But once we go through this little digestion phase, the markets should resume its advance, at least until the end of the first quarter.

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: IRA Distribution Time

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

Information abounds on why and when you should contribute to a tax-deferred savings plan such as an Individual Retirement Account (IRA). Less is known about what happens in retirement when you have to take money out of these plans. For those who turned 70 1/2 years or older in 2013, pay attention, because it's distribution time.

The original idea behind tax-deferred savings was to provide Americans a tax break in order to encourage us to save towards retirement. Individuals could stash away money tax-free while they were working and then take it out again once they retired, when they were presumably earning less and at a lower tax rate. The government determined that once you reached 70 1/2 you have until April 1 of the next tax year to take your first distribution. If you are older than that, you only have until the end of the year.

Officially, it's called a Required Minimum Distribution (RMD) and applies to all employee-sponsored retirement plans. That includes profit-sharing plans, 401(k) plans, Self Employed Persons IRAs (SEPS), SARSEPS and SIMPLE IRAs, as well as contributory or traditional IRAs.

The individual owner of each plan is responsible for computing the MRD and taking it from their accounts. There are stiff IRS penalties (of up to 50 percent of the total MRD) levied on those who fail to comply. The RMD is calculated by taking the total amount of money and securities in each IRA, or other tax-deferred plan, as of December 31 of the prior year and dividing it by a life expectancy factor that the Internal Revenue Service publishes in tables. The document, "Publication 590, Individual Retirement Arrangements," can be easily accessed over the Internet.

As an example, let's say at the end of last year your IRA was worth $100,000. You are 72 years old. Looking up the life expectancy ratio in the IRS table for that age, which is 15.5, you divide your $100,000 by 15.5. Your RMD for this year would be $6,451.61 (100,000/15.5 = 6,451.61).

Remember that you must compute your RMD for every tax-deferred account you own. However, you can withdraw your entire distribution from just one account if you like. You can always withdraw more than the MRD from your accounts, but remember that whatever you withdraw is taxed at your tax bracket. If you make an error and withdraw too much in one year, it cannot be applied to the following year. And before you ask, no, you can't roll the RMD over into another tax-deferred savings account.

What happens if you forget or for some reason you cannot take your RMD in the year it is required? You might be able to avoid the 50 percent penalty if you can establish that the shortfall in distributions was the result of a reasonable error and that you have taken steps to remedy the situation. You must fill out Form 5329 and attach a letter of explanation asking the IRS that the penalty be waived.

For those who have an Inherited IRA, you too may have to take a RMD before the end of the year. The calculations and rules are somewhat different. Generally, if you have received the inheritance this year, as the beneficiary, you have the choice of taking one lump sum, taking the entire amount within five years or spreading out the distributions over the course of your life expectancy, starting no later than one year following the former owner's death. The IRS produces a table for use by beneficiaries in Publication 590 as well.

Many retirees have a hard time remembering to take their MRD each year. It is a good idea to ask your money manager or your accountant to handle the distribution or at least to remind you each year when the RMD is due. The last thing you want to do is give back to the IRS half your hard-earned savings each year.

Bill Schmick is registered as an investment adviser representative with Berkshire Money Management. Bill’s forecasts and opinions are purely his own. None of the information presented here should be construed as an endorsement of BMM or a solicitation to become a client of BMM. Direct inquires to Bill at 1-888-232-6072 (toll free) or email him at Bill@afewdollarsmore.com.

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@theMarket: Good News Is Bad News

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

U.S. economic growth in the third quarter surged higher by 3.6 percent, while jobless claims plunged by 23,000 to 298,000 as layoffs slowed. That's great news, right, so why is the stock market falling?

If you are scratching your head about now, who can blame you? Americans have been waiting for years to see the economy finally transition from a slow, bumpy recovery with stubbornly high unemployment to something akin to more traditional economic recoveries. It appears we are finally hitting our stride but growth like this could mean the end of the Fed's open-ended quantitative easing, thus the decline.

Investors are afraid that the Fed may begin to taper as early as this month, given the good news. The implications are that interest rates would rise and the stock market would decline as the Fed withdrew support from financial markets. That's what you will hear and see in the financial press, but nothing could be further from the truth.

Let me tell you what is really going on. Don't listen to these pundits who worry about a stock market bubble, pointing to the Fed's easy money policy as the culprit. I disagree. The market rally, in my opinion, is wholly justified. It is based on expectations that the economy will pick up steam and unemployment fall. As I have said before, the markets anticipate events 6-12 months ahead of time. The market media has missed that fact. They are still harping about Fed easing/tapering when the data is telling us the gains are about the economy.

It is why I have been bullish all year and am getting increasingly bullish when looking at the future. The Fed's efforts to stimulate the economy have worked.

The private sector is now picking up the slack and the years ahead should see better and better growth not only here but worldwide. That's a long-term forecast consistent with my belief that we are in a secular bull market in stocks. However, that does not mean the markets will go straight up from here.

Two weeks ago, I warned investors that stocks needed a rest. We could easily see a pullback based on sentiment numbers, momentum and technical factors. Today, I remain cautious in the near term. I accept that there are factors that argue against a decline right now. Christmas is only three weeks away and the historical data suggest a Santa Claus rally happens more often than not. Investors have also become conditioned to buy the dip, no matter how small.

If the bulls can get the S&P 500 Index back over 1,800 then the rally continues and I'm wrong. But if the markets want to use good news as an excuse to drive the markets lower, so be it. I don’t care what triggers a decline; I only care that we need to consolidate gains before moving higher.

How low could we go? If I rely on technical data, we could easily fall to the 50-day moving average (DMA) on the S&P 500 Index. From peak to trough that would be a decline of a mere 3.5 percent. If the Fed does announce the beginning of a Taper this month then we might actually see a test of the 200 DMA. In that case, we're talking a decline of over 8 percent. I find it hard to believe that the Fed would take that action on the eve of transition with new Fed chief, Janet Yellen, taking the reins in January. In either case, a 3-8 percent decline in the markets happens several times a year. It would not be the end of the world and would simply set us up for continued gains into 2014.

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 Banks About to Get Benched?

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

Lobbyists for the big banks have been fighting to water down the so-called "Volcker Rule" for the last three years but it looks like they are going to lose this battle. Next week the U.S. government is expected to announce tighter bank regulations. It could make the financial markets a lot safer for all of us and cost the banks a bundle.

At stake for the banks are about 18 percent of industry sales, or $44 billion, generated by proprietary trading. That's a term used to describe the banking industry's practice of placing big speculative bets with their own money. During the financial crisis those speculative bets went sour and nearly drove the global financial system into a complete meltdown. We, the taxpayers, bailed them out.

In its aftermath, congress passed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. It was a series of sweeping financial regulatory reforms that was intended to insure that certain Wall Street practices would "never again" be able to threaten the world. The centerpiece of that legislation was a rule suggested by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker which would prohibit many aspects of proprietary trading.

Market-making is the business of using a firm's capital to buy and sell securities with customers. Sometimes they make a profit on the trade and sometimes they don't, depending on the price spread between the bid and the ask price of a security. Wall Street has been providing that service for its customers for a long, long time. It is the grease that insures liquidity in the market and without it the machine would probably freeze up.

However, over the past decade or so, the banks took that principle and ran with it, but they went a step too far. They started making bigger and bigger bets on their own and disguised them as customer hedges. They explained that these hedges were necessary to facilitate customer business when in fact the banks were simply speculating on everything from commodities to subprime mortgages.

The Volcker rule seeks to prevent banks with federally-insured deposits from making such trades that could threaten their stability (and ours).  Of course, the devil is always in the details.

Lobbyists, hired by the banking industry, argued that coming down hard on proprietary trading would severely curtail banks' and brokers' ability to provide market making for their customers. It would also put our banks at a severe disadvantage when competing globally with foreign banks that are not regulated by U.S. laws. Finally, it would deprive the sector of an important source of profit.

I suspect the last point carries the most weight within the halls of the nation's biggest banks. One would think that after their near-collapse, our banks would have learned a lesson and given up their most dangerous practices. In the past, when the financial community fouled up, they established some self-policing guidelines to avoid a repeat performance and head off government intervention.

Not this time. With nary an apology in sight for past practices, banks have stonewalled the public and government. Instead of addressing the conflicts of interest, the rewarding of dangerous trading practices by their employees and changing the culture of greed so apparent among these Big Banks, they have done the opposite since the crisis.

Readers need only recall the so-called London Whale trades that cost one of our top banks $6.2 billion in 2012. Disguised as a portfolio hedge against customer positions, the loss was the direct result of the kind of speculative betting that was so wide spread prior to the financial crisis and it continues today.

It seems clear that on their own, the banking sector is not about to change their ways. Although I hate the idea of even more government interference upon the private sector, I believe that without it, the financial sectors' speculative practices pose a threat to everyone's well-being now and in the future.

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: Record Highs Again

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

Over the last 20 years or so, the three days prior to Thanksgiving have always been positive for the markets as has the day after. This year they were accompanied by record highs.

All three averages inched up this week, with the Dow surpassing 16,000 and the technology-heavy NASDAQ breaking 4,000 for the first time since the turn of the century. The S&P 500 Index beat my year-end target of 1,800 and may actually reach 1,850 by New Year's.

It was a short week for traders, with the markets closed for Thanksgiving and only open half a day on Friday. Most of the news centered on how good or bad retail sales will be during the holiday season. This year there are six less shopping days available so big retailers are pulling out all the stops in their goal to boost sales by 4 percent over last year's results.

We enjoyed Thursday's repast with wonderful friends down the road. During dinner there was a great deal of grumbling amidst the turkey, sweet potatoes (and Hanukah latkes) over the retailers' decision to open their stores once again on Thanksgiving night. Our conclusion, that America's single-minded focus on pursuing the almighty buck has reached new and unfortunate heights, was the only negative in an otherwise wonderful holiday.

We only have three weeks of trading left before Christmas as well and just about everyone is expecting the traditional end of year "Santa Claus" rally. It usually kicks off a day or two before or after the holiday and extends through New Year's and into late January.

As usual, when everyone is expecting one thing, the markets tend to surprise you. That is why I am hoping for a short-term pullback now rather than later. That would set us up for the up move everyone is expecting. Unfortunately, the longer we go without a decline, the higher the risk investors will be getting coal in their stocking this year.

All year long the market has climbed a wall of worry. If it wasn't the deficit, it was the taper or any number of issues that kept us on our toes. Through it all, the markets forged ahead.

But suddenly, the skies have turned blue with nary a cloud to be seen. Even the nuclear stalemate in Iran appears to be unwinding. For the first time in a long time, there does not seem to be anything to fret about.

That should be a good thing, right? So why am I worried, call me a contrarian (or the Grinch) but when there is no wall of worry, I wonder how the market will maintain its upward momentum in the short-term?

If a pullback is to occur, it should happen over the next 2-3 weeks. As I said last week, if it does occur, do nothing. Over the long term, whatever decline we may get will be practically meaningless. Stay invested, turn off the television and enjoy yourself.

In the meantime, take a look at this coming week's column on secular bull and bear markets, if you have a chance. Some of the smartest people I know on Wall Street are convinced that we have entered a new secular bull market. They are definitely a minority, but I happen to be in their camp. If I am right, and we have entered a new long-term bull market, there will be many more cheerful holidays in your investment world.

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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