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@theMarket: O Ye of Little Faith

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

What a difference two weeks make. Back then, if one took the warnings/advice of the media and much of Wall Street, we were facing financial Armageddon. Today, the markets are flirting with new highs. What lessons can we learn from that?

Number one: the media's first and foremost objective is to sell advertising, if that means scaring its target markets into staying tuned (or reading the next page) then so be it. And I'm not just talking about the fringe elements. Greece, China and Puerto Rico led the list of doomsday stories that littered the headlines of some of the top news organizations both here and abroad.

That's where Wall Street comes in. Reporters need sources and like politicians, many financial soothsayers thrive on publicity. They are more than happy to pontificate on "what ifs," which somehow become facts when translated into news stories.

Despite the fact that Greece represents less than 2 percent of Europe's GDP (Gross Domestic Product), the "Herd" intimated, hinted, or predicted (depending on who you were listening to) that the contagion effect of leaving the Euro would drag us all down into Hades. Greek Prime Minster Alexis Tsipras and his Syriza party was counting on just such a reaction from financial markets when he engineered his "No" referendum two weekends ago.

When the end of the world did not materialize, Greece did an abrupt about face and rushed back to the negotiation table. Since then, Greece has passed an austerity program and is now in the process of receiving much-needed bailout money. Greek banks and financial markets are planning to re-open this coming week.

In my last column, I advised readers that any fallout from the Greek debacle either here or abroad should be viewed as a buying opportunity. It was. World markets experienced a sharp but brief pullback. Since then various European markets have risen almost 10 percent, not counting the currency movements.

On our side of the pond, the financial mishaps in Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, also spooked investors. Even the doomsayers had a hard time linking events in Greece to what was happening in Puerto Rico, but they tried. Some would have had us believe that what was happening in P.R. "might" happen in other municipalities like Chicago. Since then Puerto Rico has come up with a plan to restructure its debt, but that news never reached page one.

Finally, we have the Chinese stock market. Readers might recall that I was expecting a 20 percent decline or more in that market given its spectacular performance over the last 12 months. That prediction turned out to be more than accurate, since at its low the mainland Chinese markets were down over 30 percent.

Predictions that this market, which is relatively closed to foreign investment, would somehow provide a Black Swan event that would engulf our market and send the world into a financial meltdown was ludicrous. But, in an atmosphere of fear and worry, it was taken at face value by a panicked investing public. That decline was and is also a buying opportunity, although I suspect few have taken advantage of it.

Where does that leave us? The U.S. markets are at, in the case of NASDAQ, or nearing historical highs. So far this quarter's earnings have come in better than expected (surprise, surprise). The Fed is still making noises about hiking interest rates an infinitesimal amount before the end of the year. Greece has averted another calamity but the drama is far from over. I expect more Chinese government support to bolster their stock market.

We can expect 2-3 pullbacks or more in the stock market of between 3-9 percent every year. We just had one. As I have advised readers all year —stay invested and ignore the background noise.

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: When 'No' Means 'Yes'

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

A Greek referendum less than two weeks ago delivered a resounding "no" when voters were asked to approve the European Community's austerity ultimatum in exchange for a new bailout. While Grecians danced in the streets, global markets tumbled, but fast forward 10 days and we now face an entirely different set of outcomes.

Today the Greek parliament approved an austerity program much tougher than the one they originally rejected in the referendum vote. It was approved by 229 votes out of the 300-seat chamber. In a showdown with the EU, it was either pass the package or get booted out of the Euro.

You may need a little background in order to understand this about face by the Greeks. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has spent the last six months deliberately stalling while negotiating in bad faith with the "Troika" (the IMF, EU and ECB).  When it appeared that the other side was getting close to agreeing on some of his demands, Tsipras walked out while calling for a referendum. That deliberate act of sabotage was supposed to force the Troika to agree to even more concessions on the back of a "no" vote. Instead, it did just the opposite.

Tsipras' theatrics convinced the Troika that they were dealing with damaged goods and that the era of conciliation was over when it came to dealing with Greece and its problems. There would be no more emergency money. Greek banks would remain closed as would the stock market. If default and an exit from the Euro were the outcome, so be it.

Germany's Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble, who had become increasingly cynical of the on-again, off-again, negotiating tactics of the Greeks, floated an idea in last weekend's emergency session of the EU in Brussels that would kick Greece out of the Euro in what he called a "five-year time out." Although not all EU members agreed with the idea, enough did. The statement signaled that Germany had had enough. Either Greece was going to toe the line or it was going to experience a financial and economic meltdown.

Tsipras was given until the middle of this week to convince his nation's parliament to pass a series of austerity measures that went beyond those already rejected in the referendum vote. Some of these changes include rules and regulations that would make it easier to fire employees, the end of some protectionist measures that would open up multiple markets including pharmaceuticals and diary products, as well as the creation of a privatization fund whose proceeds would be earmarked to pay down debt.

In order to comply, Tsipras found himself in the unenviable position of enlisting the aid of the opposition parties while fighting his own hardline supporters in the Syriza party. In the meantime, a confused and disillusioned populace wonders how and why their leaders have sold them down the river. It would appear that even though the beleaguered Prime Minster was successful in this latest turnabout, his days as a leader are numbered. The EU has already cast their verdict, Tsipras cannot be trusted. His own party will likely call for new snap elections and a no confidence vote regardless of the outcome of this austerity deal.     

In hindsight, the flawed tactics of Tsipras and his newly-elected, left-wing Syriza party were typical of a group of amateurs trying to play Game of Thrones with the likes of Germany's Angela Merkel and Christine lagarde, director of the IMF.  Unfortunately, the entire charade has left the leading actors somewhat tarnished as a result. Germany and the other members of the EU, an organization founded on the principals of democracy, harmony and peaceful unification have just engineered "one of the most brutal diplomatic de-marches in the history of the European Union" as a front-page story of the Wall Street Journal described it.

Greece is left with an economy at a standstill, an exploding debt load with no real way to pay its creditors and a population, already drowning in austerity measures, facing even worse. Do I think that the worst is over for Greece and the EU? Not by a long shot.

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: Global Markets Weather a Wild Week

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

After weeks of trading in a narrow range, world markets broke to the downside. The culprit was once again Greece. Now investors must wait until this Sunday to discover if there is more selling ahead.

Last weekend's move by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras of Greece to call a voter referendum in the middle of last-minute negotiations with its creditors effectively destroyed what chance there had been for a reasonable solution to that country's debt crisis.

European negotiators from the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund (commonly known as the Troika) stormed away from the bargaining table. They withdrew further financial support from Greece, which, in turn, forced the Greek government to close their banks and stock market, ration the amount of money Greek citizens could withdraw from ATMs as well as delay pensioner's payments.

When world markets opened on Monday, Asian markets were clobbered first with declines ranging from 2-5 percent. European markets followed suit with Italy, Spain and Portugal down over 5 percent. The larger markets, such as Germany, fell almost as much. By the time American markets opened, it was a foregone conclusion that the rest of Monday would be rough. By the time the smoke cleared, the S&P 500 Index, the Dow and NASDAQ were all down over 2 percent.

The moderate gains that U.S. markets had compiled year to date have disappeared. The averages are flat to only slightly up for the year as a result. Technically, we are quite near the S&P 500 Index's 200 day moving average (200 DMA), an important level.

I said last week that a 5-6 percent decline could happen at any time. So far this sell-off has barely registered minus-3 percent. That is nothing to fret over.

Europe, on the other hand, has already experienced a 10 percent correction (after a 22 percent gain in the first quarter). The continent could fall further depending on what happens Sunday. The situation in Greece is now in the voter's hands.

The broad strokes of the referendum appear to give the people of Greece the choice of voting "no" on the Troika's demands for increased austerity in exchange for further bailout money. Clearly, Tsipras (in a bid to stay in power) is squirming out of making that decision, even though he was elected to do just that. He is urging voters to reject more austerity, hoping to then use that verdict to extract more concessions from the Troika.

A "yes" vote would imply that voters would accept further belt-tightening measures as part of any creditor agreement. Whether Tsipras could survive such a vote is unclear. Wall Street seems convinced that the outcome will automatically set Greece on a path to either staying or exiting the Euro and the European Union.

Certainly, the European powers, led by Germany, are adamant that the referendum would and should be a decision on whether Greece remains in the Euro or returns to the Drachma. Unfortunately, they do not control the referendum nor how the questions will be phased. But given that the EU is both a political and an economic union, I believe neither side is going to get what they want. In which case, the drama will continue.

But I am certain that the decline in European stocks is a buying opportunity for aggressive investors. Europe will survive this mess, in my opinion, and prosper despite it. Like China, which is still in the throes of its own correction, European equities are not for the faint of heart. Remember too that with the purchase of European stocks (unlike China) comes the additional risk of getting the currency right. Will the Euro go up or down and over what time frame? I believe that over the long term the Euro will continue to decline but over the next six months, who can say?

Bottom line: if you decide to put your toe in the water over there make sure you do so knowing all the risks. Above all, keep your exposure toe-sized and no larger.

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: Same-Sex Marriage Good for Business

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

Last week's Supreme Court decision to legalize gay marriage at the federal level was greeted with a sigh of relief by most large companies. It also makes my job a lot easier as well. Here's why.

Previously, the myriad laws that allowed or disallowed gay marriage cost the private sector at least $1 billion annually. Over two-thirds of Fortune 500 companies were offering health and retirement benefits to same-sex partners in states that did not recognize their marriage. That incentive became a nightmare for human resources departments throughout the country that tried to square their practices with that of the states.

Spousal benefits for employees' same-sex partners were also more expensive, since some states and the federal government taxed those fringe benefits for gays, while heterosexual married couples were tax-deferred. That caused many same-sex employers to offer gay employees a bigger salary to compensate for these tax costs.

Companies also have had a harder time recruiting workers with same-sex partners to states where their marriage isn't recognized, where varying laws require corporations treat same-sex marriages differently depending on the state.

From my own experience, advising clients in same-sex relationships to plan for the future has been extremely difficult. In addition to the confusing and contradictory nature of state laws in regard to gay marriage, the federal government has also been a Gordian knot of confusion. Regulations and interpretations of same-sex marriage were handled differently depending on the government agency. Different bureaucracies, whether in Veterans Affairs, the Department of Labor, Social Security and even the Railroad Retirement Board had all devised different interpretations of what constitutes a gay union and its benefits (or lack thereof). In addition, there are more than 1,000 federal laws and regulations that currently apply to married couples and these same laws will now need to be reviewed and re-evaluated with all couples in mind.

The Supreme Court ruling now allows our LGBT clients to simplify what had been complicated estate plans, including trusts and living wills. Since same-sex marriages will be viewed the same as other marriages, much of the estate planning can now follow a more standardized process. Spousal beneficiaries of pension plans, 401 (k) and other tax-deferred and IRA plans, as well as spousal health insurance benefits, will no longer be in question.

Some sources have guesstimated that the same-sex decision could generate as much as $2.6 billion in an economic windfall over the next three years. The $51 billion a year wedding industry should see a boost in business for sure. Others calculate that the tax savings from reporting a combined income and other cost savings by the LGBT community will result in additional consumer spending.

Economic benefits aside, last week was a great week for Americans, in my opinion. The court's upholding of Obamacare, the 5-4 decision in favor of gay marriage, and witnessing the families of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church forgive the alleged murderer of its family and congregation members were all momentous events. This week, I'm proud to be an American.

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 Market: Second Quarter Earnings on Deck

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

Next week we get to do it all over again. The second quarter ends in three days and investors will begin to focus on company results once again. The first quarter was nothing to write home about and the second quarter may be more of the same.

The final revision of first quarter GDP resulted in a contraction of minus-0.02 percent, which was less than the minus-0.07 percent decline that was originally reported. The culprits: bad weather, the West Coast port disruptions, a decline in energy spending and a strong dollar. Over the second quarter some of these negatives should begin to dissipate.

Weather has taken care of itself. The ports are back to business, although the logjam that was created by the labor strike could linger on and spill over into some companies' results. Energy spending is still down with little hope for an uptick until oil prices improve. After reaching a bottom in the low $40s, oil has traded in a tight range around $60 a barrel for weeks.

The dollar has halted its ascent and has also been trading in a tight range against most other currencies over the last several months. That may have allowed multinational companies to hedge their exports at more reasonable levels. However, the dollar has not really declined much from its 12-month highs. That could mean there could still be currency related earnings declines.

Wall Street analysts had originally been predicting earnings would decline by 4.7 percent last quarter, but when all was said and done earnings actually registered a 0.30 percent growth rate while the total revenue decline was minus-2.9 percent. At the end of March, analysts were still expecting that second quarter earnings would decline by minus-2.2 percent. So far 77 companies have issued negative guidance for the quarter, while only 29 have issued positive forecasts.

The earnings season won't get into full swing until the second week of July, but given the lack of other things (except Greece) to fret about, investors may pay undue attention to the results. As I have mentioned before, I'm not looking for many upside earnings surprises this quarter. Earnings will be ho hum for the most part and as a result will continue to cap any potential gains in the stock market here in the U.S. I expect we will see much better news in the third and fourth quarters, however.

Where does that leave us — in a continued trading range that could take us into August or even September. We could see a 5-6 percent pullback at some point, especially if the Fed does decide to raise rates in the fall.  If so, I would expect any sell-off to be temporary at best and an opportunity to buy the dip. In the meantime, I still see better prospects overseas.

China is in the midst of a much-needed pullback in its A shares market. We are only 100 or so points from a full 20 percent correction in that market in just two weeks. As I have warned readers several times, Shanghai is one of those wild and wooly markets that should not be more than 5-10 percent of anyone's portfolios.

But it is almost always a good idea to buy "when the blood is running in the streets," as Baron Rothschild once said. It doesn't get any bloodier than this in Shanghai for those with a brave heart and nerves of steel. No one ever calls the bottom, but buying a little at a time as a market declines is the way I do it.

As for Europe, investors are exhausted over the wrangling between Greece and its creditors. I believe that any negative fallout from Greece has already been largely discounted by the markets.  Stay invested, stay calm and use any declines, especially overseas, as a buying opportunity.

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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