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The Independent Investor: Christmas in the New Age

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

Back in the day, going home for Christmas was what you did. Family members and friends would make their yearly pilgrimage to the old homestead. Car, plane or train, it made little difference how long it took, because everyone wanted to be home for the holidays. But times are changing.

Ever since the invention of Skype, Facetime and an array of other Internet services, face-to-face get-togethers are not as important they once were. In these lean economic times, the cost of air and train fare (and until recently fuel) made these trips both time consuming and expensive. In addition, taking off the required work time is not so easy today. Most managers are fairly stingy giving vacation time around the holidays. As a result, holiday hops are out and facetime is in.

And it is not just Christmas. I know in my own life, my wife and I chat with our kids and grandkids quite often via Skype.  This Friday, I will skype with my sister in Pennsylvania while I am visiting with my children and grandchildren in Manhattan. Sure, there is nothing like hugging your children and being with your family in person, but the internet has provided a pretty good backup alternative to keeping in touch.

Christmas music is another area where the internet has come in handy. Whether it is Pandora, Groove shark, Sirius or any other service, you can now get in the holiday mood without spending a lot of money on CDs; (it used to be cassette tapes or vinyl records, if you are my age).

Today I can build playlists, tune in stations on my iPad or construct queues of holiday songs from Bing Crosby to Justin Bieber at the tap of a key. Christmas, according to Christian theology, commemorates the birth of Jesus Christ. It has been celebrated continuously as a religious holiday since the third century A.D. Although the Internet has yet to penetrate Christmas church attendance in any meaningful way, but it will, given enough time and incentive.

However, today in the United States, only 51 percent of Americans consider Christmas a religious holiday and eight out of 10 non-Christians celebrate Christmas as well. The younger you are, the less likely you will be to celebrate the religious aspects of the event. For most of us, Christmas has become a cultural holiday.  

Some things remain the same. Santa Claus is alive and well. Of families with children who believe in Santa Claus, 69 percent will pretend that Santa will be visiting their household on Christmas Eve. Even among those of us who do not believe in the red-suited gift giver, we still tend to pay homage to his image, if not his presence. As for me, I will certainly be reading the " 'Twas the Night before Christmas" to my grandchildren on that momentous evening.

Christmas trees are also still a cornerstone of Yuletide tradition. Eight out of every 10 Americans will put up a Christmas tree this year, which is about the same ratio as a generation ago. Of course, artificial trees now account for about half the Christmas trees in America. Every year, the eco-friendly argument resurfaces with some who argue that one or the other is bad for the environment. Recent data seems to indicate that they are equally as bad.

Honestly, I am kind of relieved that I don't need to go tramping through a forest, knee-deep in snow, and chop down a tree to haul back to my cabin. I also like the fact that I don't worry today about using lit candles or those 1950-era bubble lights (which were almost as bad) in decorating the tree. Life is much safer today, from my perspective.

About 86 percent of us will be exchanging gifts, another tradition that has survived the passing of time. Although there is some evidence that the kind of presents are changing.

More Americans, especially Millennials, are opting to give a gift of "experience" rather than the standard material possessions like cashmere sweaters, diamond bracelets or power tools.

Ski trips, dinner at one's favorite restaurant, or for those who can afford it, an island getaway, are becoming popular gift-giving alternatives.

All-in-all, I would say that the digital age has provided as many positives as negatives in how Americans celebrate Christmas today. Through the years we have seen the tradition of Christmas continue to evolve and that's what makes it so magically enduring. The Internet has certainly provided us wonderful cost-effective avenues for communication.  It is up to us to use it in a way that enhances our own holiday experience.

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: How Rising Interest Rates Will Change Your Life

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

It's official: Wednesday afternoon the Federal Reserve bank hiked the short-term interest rate, called the Fed Funds rate, for the first time in 9 1/2 years. It is the beginning of a new financial era for all of us and it behooves you to understand its implications.

Let me first assuage any concerns you may have that this single 0.25 percentage point increase will impact your life anytime soon. Instead, simply view this event as the beginning of a progression to gradually higher interest rates that will ultimately impact everything from car loans to retirement savings accounts.

The mechanism by which the Fed raises rates is complicated. Just know that overtime there is a domino effect to raising rates. As the Fed hikes on the short-end of the yield curve, interest rates on bonds of all sorts will gradually readjust with longer dated securities (like a 30-year bond) rising more than shorter duration securities (say, a 10-year note). But this takes time and exactly how much time depends on the growth of the economy, the expectations for inflation and a hold whole of other variables such as interest rates overseas.  

While some economists hope that the Fed's decision is a "one and done" event, most financial experts are already expecting at least three more rate hikes in 2016. If so, you should start to feel the impact of rising rates by the latter part of next year. For example, only an hour after the Fed raised rates, several money center banks hiked their prime rate to 3.5 percent from 3.25 percent.  

As such, you should begin to monitor the inflation rate, credit card loan rates, mortgage rates (especially on existing adjustable rate mortgages), CDs and money market rates. All of the above have been so low for so long that they are no longer on most investors' radar screen.   

The facts are that as time goes by, borrowing money is going to cost you more. One of the ways you have benefited from low rates is in car loans. The auto industry has had a tremendous windfall in sales over the past few years. Light vehicle sales have almost doubled since the lows of the financial crisis. This was largely due to the automaker's ability to offer you financing on their products at record low rates.

For those in retirement, rising rates can be a mixed bag. For almost a decade, retirees have had to contend with lower levels of income because historically low rates of interest mean low rates of return on bond investments. Over the next few years that will change. New buyers of bonds will receive higher returns on their money as rates rise.

However, for those who have insisted on holding a large percentage of their retirement savings in bonds, expect to see lower rates of return as rates rise. And by the way, this also applies to investors who are retiring soon and have money in target-date retirement funds in their 401(k) and 403(b) tax-deferred savings plans.

There are some who worry that even this small increase in the Fed Funds rate will have a dampening effect on consumer sentiment. Clearly, for those of us who have experienced periods of rising rates in the past, our knee-jerk reaction is higher rates equates to slowing economic growth, which leads to less spending. Again, I need to caution you that a moderate rise in interest rates can and has happened in conjunction with a growing economy and accelerated consumer spending. It is all dependent on how well the Fed engineers this process.

For the past several years, I have placed my faith in the Fed, first to rescue us from the financial crisis, then to engineer a recovery despite no help from those in Washington. I trusted them to engineer a plan to normalize interest rates and so far I have not been disappointed. I will continue to back the Fed in this latest move and you should as well.

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: Did the Digital Grinch Steal Christmas?

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

Ever notice that however hard you try, the Christmas season is simply not what it once was? The routines and traditions you remember so fondly from your youth have somehow faded away. The digital age has transformed the holidays, and for some of us, the experience has been a mixed blessing.

When I was a kid, we left cookies and milk for Santa (no never mind that we lacked a fireplace for him to come down). Building on that tradition, I engineered faint footprints of ash the night before Christmas for my own child (Santa's, I swore solemnly the next morning) leading from the fireplace to the Christmas tree. Fast forward to today, kids can now call the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and track Santa's Christmas Eve run if they want, so much for those visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads.

Technology has changed a lot more than Santa's travel itinerary. Take letters and greeting cards for example. Even though I still receive holiday cards in the mail, the volume has dropped precipitously. Personally, I dreaded signing stacks of cards while trying to create unique and heart-felt messages for people I barely knew. As for licking the back of envelopes and stamps, my lips still sometime purse simply at the thought of those days.

Today, in this era of Facebook and Instagram, there is no need to spend money on a card or stamp when a status update or sending a holiday-like photo over the Internet can be done rapidly and with little effort. You can wait until the last minute or send a barrage of messages as the "day" approaches if you so desire. Seven days of Hanukkah was just made for the Internet, in my opinion.

One of the largest changes in how we spend the holidays is shopping. I for one decry how Christmas, Hanukkah and New Years are now all about "the sale." The holidays have become so commercialized that the entire experience of sharing with family and friends is at best a side show while the main focus is on the loot received. Sure, back in the day, one would pick up something (singular) for a loved one, usually a few days before Christmas that required thought and effort. Over the years that has transformed into fighting crowds, buying whatever and waiting in checkout lines while searching for those perfect gifts.

Shopping online has changed all that, thank goodness. Now I can surf the web, buy the gift and even have it delivered to one's door gift-wrapped with a personal note. For fumble-fingered me, who can't wrap a present to save my life, this is a Godsend. Yet, I will admit that my loved ones appreciate it when I wrap their presents. They say it makes it real for them to get my lumpy packages trussed up like sandbags, so I still do it.

Digital shopping also allows me to shop worldwide, obtain better prices, greater variety and comparisons of products. It also helps those whose kids still believe in the Big Guy. I remember accidentally finding a stash of toys for me and my siblings in an upstairs closet one year. I was crushed until my Mother convinced me that Santa had simply dropped them off early for her to wrap. Obviously, I am still traumatized by the event. Today shopping online means those gifts arrive in cardboard and can be safely put away until Christmas, Hanukkah or both.

Although real Christmas trees have been replaced in many families with ready-made artificial ones, technology has vastly improved that sickly silver tinsel we used to use (and still vacuum up in the carpets six months later). Inflatable and animatronic Christmas characters, which move and groove, all sorts of digital tree ornaments,  along with apps that can turn your outside and inside decorations on and off make those once-a-year Holiday House Designers look positively artistic.

Next week we will continue this topic, but in the meantime, I would love to hear your own experiences in how the digital revolution has made over your holiday season. Just email your thoughts at my address below.

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: Climate Change Is a $44T Problem

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

The world's largest ever gathering of politicians arrives in Paris this week to wrestle with the growing problem of rising seas and extreme weather. The good news is that man-made global warming may at last be taken seriously by most nations — except our own.

The two-week conference is being held under extremely tight security in the French capital, just days after the ISIS attack that killed 130 people. The group of 150 heads of state and representatives of 195 governments will attempt to slow, if not stop, the environmental destruction caused by greenhouse gases emissions worldwide.

Citibank, one of the largest financial organizations on the planet, predicts that the world economies could lose at least $44 trillion in economic activity between now and 2060 if global warming is not addressed. They are predicting that at 1.5 degrees of warming, global GDP will fall by $20 trillion. At 2.5 degrees, the economic damage will be $44 trillion. Many scientists believe global warming will surpass those numbers and hit 4.5 degrees of warming.

If so, the bank believes the economic downside could be as much as $72 trillion. And this prediction, coming as it does from one of the nation's most stalwart bastions of free markets and capitalism, is sobering even to the most conservative elements of our nation.

Of course, you wouldn't know that if you followed the GOP primary debates. Only Chris Christie, Governor of New Jersey, (among the front runners) even acknowledges that global warming is an issue. Grudgingly, he admitted to the possibility of a problem but had no solution other than to invest "in all types of energy." Although George Pataki and Lindsey Graham have admitted that climate change is real and caused by humans, they are not really considered front-runners and have provided even less in the way of solutions.

The rest of the Republican field has taken the opposite tact by attacking the Democrats, specifically President Obama's efforts to address climate change. Part of their problem and that of the United States overall, is that we, along with China, as the world's largest economies, contribute the most to the world's growing global warming problem.

Politicians in America realize that any deal we make with the rest of the world to clean up the mess will largely fall on our shoulders. Most Americans realize that and are willing to shoulder the responsibility. However, most Republicans (a large but distinct minority), have chosen to take a short term but expedient route by denying that global-warming even exists. By their reasoning, there is no need to spend any money on a problem that does not exist.

The Chinese, the second largest polluter, has been playing follow the leader. If the U.S. won't get off their butt and own up to their part in the world's pollution, why should they? Of course, when the smog and pollution is so bad in Beijing and other cities that gas masks are in order (simply to breathe), denial of these environmental problems becomes both ludicrous and somewhat embarrassing.

It may explain why the Chinese have taken an early and quite public approach to combating the problem during this two-week event. Nations will be working on proposing a worldwide legally binding agreement to lower greenhouse gas emissions. To date, most nations have promised a great deal to promote climate control, but failed to do anything substantive once they returned home.

In the case of our own country, I don't expect much. Regardless of whatever the Obama administration might agree to do at the conference, the agreement would still need to be ratified by Congress. In an election year, that would be a non-starter. Shame on us.

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: Financial Media May Be Your Worst Enemy

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

The business of financial news reporting has achieved a high level of sophistication and timeliness. Almost anything noteworthy that happens around the world is instantaneously transmitted to you from a variety of sources. The question is should an investor act on that news?

The short answer is no, not unless the event is truly catastrophic — nuclear war, end-of-the-world type stuff.  Achieving your financial goals and objectives requires a well-thought out approach and an investment process, which is by its nature long term. That process will almost always be at cross purposes with those of the news media. Why?

It begins with the media's time horizon and business model. A media organization's goal is to bring you breaking news first. By its very definition, it is largely short term in nature. "Turkey shoots down Russian jet invading its airspace," is a recent example of breaking news. That story will have legs to run for a while or be bumped aside by the next newsworthy event, depending on developments.

In the meantime, the stock markets in Europe and the U.S. sold off in reaction to this event, fearing that the situation might escalate. What should you do? Ask yourself if this is truly an event that should disrupt your long-term plans to save for retirement. Most reasonable investors would answer no.

Why is breaking news so important to the media? Most news organizations' source of revenue and profits is generated by advertising dollars. How advertisers decide on who gets what of their budget depends on market share, especially in electronic media where most of us get our news.

The more market share you command, the more money you make. And all of this is measured in minutes, hours, days and weeks by rating organizations that make a living selling that data to the Fortune 500 companies. As such there is an intense drive to keep your "viewership" by whatever means possible.

In the financial community this is most often accomplished by appealing to either fear or greed. Headlines and sound bites that promise to tell you why this company could see its value cut in half or what will move markets tomorrow or next week or whether or not the Russians will "strike back" at Turkey are the hooks the media uses to trigger fear or greed in most investors. It works remarkably well.

The problem is that fear and greed have nothing to do with rational investing. I often tell my clients that by the time the news gets to you, the retail investor, it has been discounted seven ways to Sunday by the markets. The more popular the investment theme becomes in the media, the more cautious you should become. The opposite holds true when the media turns negative.

Increasingly, the media has contributed to what I call a herd effect in the markets. When markets pull back (and they always do), news reporters treat it as if it were big news. The further markets fall, the more the news media attempts to increase the drama with headlines that promise even darker days ahead. The same is true on big up days. The only purpose this serves is to increase "viewership," ratings and a larger share of advertising dollars.

If you listen and act on this hysteria, the only thing that is guaranteed is that you will sell low and buy high over and over again. I know it is difficult to ignore, but one of the worst mistakes you can make as an investor is to fall prey to the day-to-day noise in the media. Use the media as a source of information and for entertainment but don't confuse the two. The media is no substitute for a rational investment process.

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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