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@theMarket: A Rising Tide
By Bill Schmick On: 04:10PM / Friday January 25, 2013
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That old saying, "a rising tide lifts all boats" certainly applies to the stock market this month. It appears that more and more investors are abandoning the bond market and finally embracing equities. That spells further upside.

Last week, U.S. investors moved a net $3.8 billion into equity mutual funds. The week before that $7.5 billion in new inflows were recorded along with over $10 billion invested in exchange traded funds. That's the best two-week inflow into equity in 13 years.

Over the last few years, I have kept tabs of the money flows in and out of the stock market. We have endured 22 consecutive months of outflows from the equity market. That money went into the bond market, CDs and checking accounts. Many of those investors did well by investing in U.S. Treasury and other bonds, since interest rates continued to fall while fixed income prices rose. They were convinced that equities were going to plummet at any moment. It didn't happen and now, thanks to the record low rates of return offered by these safe havens, investors may be embracing risk once again.

I have often said that as long as money was flowing out of the stock market, volatility would continue to increase while the probability of making new historical highs in the averages would be slim at best. The S&P 500 Index is up about 120 percent from the day I urged investors to re-enter the market back in March of 2009, and we are now within 5 percent of regaining the historical highs of 2007 in most of the averages

We need an expansion in volume and a wave of new buying in order to push us over the top. As I have said, a great many retail investors have sat on the sidelines through this four-year rally. It appears that they may now be moving out of their bond holdings and back into the stock market providing the fuel we need for further gains.

The contrarian in me worries, however, that if we do see the retail investor return to stocks, it may signal an approaching top to this four-year bull run. There have been times in the past, most notably the rush into technology stocks back in 2000, where the retail crowd has jumped in at the absolute worse time. I don't believe that the retail investor is always wrong. There have been plenty of times that the common sense approach of the individual has trumped the hedge fund mentality of most professionals.

The market's grind higher this week was that much more impressive given the earnings disaster of one tech company that, until recently, was the apple of most investors' eyes. I recall warning readers last summer of the high, in fact, impossible valuation that the market was awarding this company. Unfortunately, few readers took my advice to sell.

Stocks are overextended and could have a minor pullback at any moment, but overall I expect the markets will continue their winning streak through the end of the month and beyond. Underlying the averages, I have been seeing a lot of sector rotation where traders are selling the high flyers and buying the laggards. That is also happening overseas where emerging markets, for example, have been subject to profit-taking this month. I would use these pullbacks to add to positions.

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: Get Ready for a Surprise
By Bill Schmick On: 12:00PM / Friday January 25, 2013
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Pay special attention to the new disclosure box when you open your year-end, 401(k) statements. That's where you will discover for the first time just how much you are paying for the privilege of investing in those company-sponsored menus of mutual funds. You may be in for a surprise.

More than 70 percent of all 401(k) participants fail to realize that they are paying fees for investing in these tax-deferred retirement plans, according to an AARP study. I have to agree. Over the years, I have met with many prospective clients who had not rolled their 401(k) over to an IRA once they retired. They were under the impression that keeping their savings plan with their company offered a fee-free benefit for life. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The Department of Labor, after many delays and postponements, has finally forced employers, advisers and fund companies to own up to just how much they have been charging you, the employee, for this fringe benefit. Longtime readers may recall my past columns concerning the battle to prevent these fees from becoming public knowledge. Wall Street has lost that battle but probably not the war.

The problem, you see, is that consumers may simply fail to comprehend the long-term impact of these fees on their retirement savings. Let's say you open your statement and discover that you are paying a $100 in expense ratios (fees), per mutual fund each year. That may not mean much when the overall worth of the account is $10,000. What you fail to understand is that over the life of contributing part of your paycheck towards retirement — 20 or 30 years — those fees will add up.

Demos, a policy research firm, recently released a study which revealed that a two-income family, earning average wages, will lose $155,000 or about 30 percent over the life of their savings plan, to these Wall Street fees. That is in line with most independent studies on the subject which indicate you will pay one-third of your retirement savings in fees.

Wall Street defends its fees and has released its own studies that show the average investor pays less than $248 a year in 401(k) fees and no more than $20,000 during the life of the plan. Even if they are right, given that the average 401(k) in this country is around $75,000, that still results in over 26 percent of the plan consumed by fees.

So what can you, the employee, do about it? Your first reaction may be to stop investing in your 401(k). That would be a big mistake. These deferred savings plans have at least two major benefits over an IRA. The employers' "match" whereby your company contributes dollar for dollar up to a certain percentage of your own contribution is free money and worth any contribution you make.

Second, the government allows you, the employee, to contribute much more to a 401(k) than to an IRA. This year employees can contribute $17,500 to their 401(k) plans and, for those over 50 years of age, an additional $5,500 can be contributed. That compares to just $5,500 (or $6,500 for those over 50) in contributions to a traditional IRA.

However, you can cut down on the fees by urging your company representative to select mutual fund families with the lowest fees possible. That's what I do every day for my clients. Better yet, tell the company to abandon mutual funds altogether and invest in exchange traded funds (ETFs) instead. Some 401(k) plans already offer ETFs. These index funds are much cheaper than their high-priced cousins and outperform comparable mutual funds over 80 percent of the time.

Remember, too, that you are managing your own 401(k). That puts the onus on you to decide what investments to make and when to move to the sidelines. That's tough to do when few of us have the professional knowledge to cope with today's markets. Part of my job is to advise my non-retirement clients on how to invest those savings and when. It is also one of the reasons I write these columns. Hopefully, it gives you, the reader, some advice on how to manage your retirement savings.

Finally, if you are retiring soon, my advice is to plan to roll over your 401(k) savings into a traditional IRA. You likely will enjoy a cost savings of as much as 1-2 percent annually. You will also be able to expand your investment choices from the limited menu your company plans offers. If you need advice on how to accomplish that give me a call. It is much easier to do than you might think.

Bottom line: the new fee disclosures is a giant step forward for you the consumer but now that you know how much you are paying, it is up to you to do something about it.

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 Fringe Benefits Coming Back?
By Bill Schmick On: 12:32PM / Friday January 18, 2013
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Since the Financial Crisis, those who have kept their jobs consider themselves as lucky. That may be so, but at the same time many complain that their benefits have been cut as the price for further employment. There are signs that may be changing.

During 2008, I, like millions of other American workers, attended a mandatory meeting at a former employer. The room was rife with fear and trepidation, since just days before the owner had laid off almost half the company. Instead of more firing, he announced that the company would no longer be providing a match to our employee 401(k) retirement plans. He also reduced the number of paid time off for all of us. His announcement was met with relief that no one else would lose their job.

I'm not sure whether that employer ever reinstated his employees' benefits because I left shortly thereafter. I do know however, that many companies have started to become a bit more generous in what fringe benefits they provide their employees. The employer "match," for example, is making a comeback in some companies, but with a new twist. At that time was a company would match a certain percentage of your own contribution to a deferred benefit plan. Normally the match would range from 3 percent to as much as 6 percent of your yearly contribution.

However, IBM, the business services company with a great reputation for fringe benefits among its corporate peers, introduced a new wrinkle in their employee 401(k) matching compensation this year. Big Blue will still match contributions (and never cut them during the recession), but will now delay its contributions until the end of the year on Dec. 31. They will then pay them in a lump sum. If you leave before Dec. 15, you lose the match. The only exceptions are those that retire that year.

This week, Morgan Stanley, the global brokerage house, announced a variation on that theme. It will defer for up to three years a part of the bonuses for all those who make more than $350,000 and whose bonuses are at least $50,000.  They will also pay those sums in both cash and stock. Although it does not affect the company's financial advisers (brokers) this year, it may be a warning shot about how compensation will be paid in that group in the future. Of course, if you quit prior to the end of those three years, you forfeit any bonus that remains.

In another area, more companies are switching to a "paid time off" (PTO) option rather than the traditional allotment of a certain number of days for holidays, vacation, sickness, pregnancy leave, etc. This gives the employee the option of choosing how many days they can take off from a finite number, whether it is 15-20-30 days or whatever their company decides.

Although this change appears to be in the employee's favor, many companies are nicking away at this benefit in marginal ways. Some companies are limiting the number of days one can carry over from the preceding year while others are reducing the total number of days off that employees enjoyed under the old method.

Of course, the most formidable challenge to employee benefits is yet to come. Obamacare. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, becomes effective in 2014. This year, corporations will have to devise ways to overhaul their employee health care coverage in answer to this new legislation. A couple of firms have already changed their provisions in the health care field. They are opting for what has been termed "Employee Choice" plans.

This plan will give each employee a fixed sum of money (indexed to the rate of yearly inflation) and allow them to choose their own medical coverage and health insurer in an online marketplace.

The employees, according to at least one of the companies, will be paying roughly the same out-of-pocket contributions under the new plan as they did in the old one. They claim the new approach will allow the employee to spend as little or as much on their health care as they think wise. The fear among opponents of this approach is that with the rising costs of health care, the lump sum won't be nearly enough to cover future health care needs.

All in all, the return of employee benefits has been marginal at best, but it is in the early days right now. As the nation's economy continues to grow and unemployment drops, there may yet come a time when fringe benefits will actually expand as a tool to woo hard to find workers. Right now that may seem like a pipe dream but unless this country is doomed to an eternity of lackluster growth, that day will come.

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: What They Didn't Tell You About the Cliff Deal
By Bill Schmick On: 02:23PM / Thursday January 10, 2013
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Now that the country has avoided the Fiscal Cliff, everyone is breathing a sigh of relief. However, there have been some changes in the tax code that many of us have missed in the last-minute negotiations. For starters: your tax bill will be going up in 2013.

Although 99 percent of Americans avoided paying a higher tax rate thanks to Congress, we will all see a 2 percentage point rise in our payroll taxes. That is because neither party had the stomach to extend the tax cut President Obama had enacted in 2011. It means that households making between $50,000 and $75,000, for example, will see a tax increase of about $822 this year, while those making less ($40,000-$50,000) will see a $579 tax hike.

The headline that most Americans understood after the 11th-hour American Taxpayer Relief Act was passed was that those individuals earnings $400,000 and families earning $450,000 would see their tax rates jump from 35 to 39.6 percent. In addition, as part of the law, a new 3.8 percent tax is being levied on investment income for individuals making $200,000 and couples earning $250,000. High-income families will also have to pay higher taxes as part of Obama's health care law.

However, beneath those headline numbers lurks even greater tax increases as a result of the loss of personal tax exemptions for many middle-class income families. Most Americans recognize that $250,000 is a lot of money - if you reside in certain locales — but not much at all if you happen to live in Manhattan, Boston, Chicago or any other high-cost, urban center. Prior to the Tax Relief Act, a family of four, earning $250,000, were benefiting from $3,800 tax exemptions per family member.  

Those advantages have now been erased, effectively raising taxes 4.4 percent for every dollar that family earns over $250,000. If you have six kids, your marginal tax rate jumps to 6 percent and so on.

Higher-income Americans that make more than $1 million could lose up to 80 percent of their itemized deductions for everything from health care, home mortgage deductions, charities and even state and local taxes. When all is said and done, if you add in the loss of exemptions, health-care tax increases, etc., the effective tax rate for the highest earners could be as high as 45 percent.

Unfortunately, taxpayers in many Northeastern states, as well as those on the West Coast, will be hit the most since they normally use itemized tax deductions much more than the national average.

Some real estate-related deductions were preserved, such as allowing taxpayers to exclude income from the discharge of debt on their principal residence. This especially helps those who are considering a short sale or a lender-approved sale for less than the principal mortgage balance. It also allows a deduction for mortgage insurance payments for those making less than $100,000.

Another tax advantage for most Americans is the increase in contribution limits for retirement plans. You can now contribute $500 more to your Individual Traditional or Roth IRA for 2013, bringing the total to $5,500 with a $1,000 "catch-up" contribution for those over age 50.

The same $500 increase in contributions will also apply to 401(k), 403(b) and 457 Plans as well as for SIMPLE IRA plans for small businesses. Obviously, everyone should be contributing the maximum amount to these tax-deferred plans or as much money as you can reasonably afford to save toward retirement.

So it seems that none of us were able to dodge some increase in our taxes this year. Given the dire straits of the government's finances, I guess we should be grateful it wasn't worse.

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: January Could Be Important
By Bill Schmick On: 04:18PM / Friday January 04, 2013
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Now that the Fiscal Cliff is behind us and the spending battle is dead ahead, investors are wondering what lies ahead. Historically, the market's performance in January has been important. Since it is a good signpost for the future over the last 60 years, let's examine some of the indicators that many professional traders use.

Many investors look to the first five days of January as a gauge of where the markets are going for the rest of the year. During the last 40 years when those five first days were gainers, the markets were up for the entire year 85 percent of the time. For example, last year the S&P 500 Index gained 1.2 percent in the first five days of January. As a result, the S&P 500 Index was over 13 percent. That was close to the historical average. Over the last 39 years, the markets gained an average of 13.6% when the first five days of January were gainers.

Conversely, when the first five days are negative the markets were down for the year, but only 47.8% of the time. The indicator therefore, does not work as well on down periods. Readers should be aware that, in general, during post-election years the markets have not done well. Only 6 out of the last 15 post-election years saw gains in the first five days of the year. It looks like 2013 will be an exception.

Building on the first five days theory "where the S&P 500 goes in January, so goes the year" is the most widely used barometer traders follow and with good reason. Over the last 62 years (since 1950) this indicator has been accurate 88.7 percent of the time. Down Januarys invariably ushered in a new or extended bear market, a flat market or at least a 10 percent correction. The average loss for those years was 13.9 percent.

I guess the only good thing good to be said for those down years is that they were great buying opportunities since invariably the year after saw significant gains.

There is also something called the "January Barometer Portfolio," which is made up of the S&P's three best performing sectors in January. If you invested in them and held them through the February of the following year, you would beat the S&P Index on average by 1.4 percent. Finally, Januarys have been the best month of the year for NASDAQ performance consistently since 1971.

So here it is Jan. 4, the last day of the market week and stocks are up. So far, if the indicators hold, 2013 promises to be an up year for investors. I agree with that assessment. But that doesn't mean that everything will go straight up.

Now that the Fiscal Cliff is behind us, we face a long litany of worries. The battle over spending cuts has begun. We will see the debt ceiling reached very soon. The government will run out of money (again) by the end of February. Without a deal on spending, the drastic cuts in defense and entitlements trigger on March 1. That would hurt the economy. And in the wings, the credit agencies are waiting to downgrade our government debt once again unless a real effort is made to address the deficit.

Make no mistake, my readers, we will continue to be thrown between hope and despair by those fools in Washington. But markets normally climb walls of worry. My advice is to ignore the noise in Washington. Keep your eye on what is important— the growth in the economy. Those of you who followed my advice in November stayed invested, expected a last minute deal of the Cliff and were rewarded for your patience and perseverance.

I am waiting like everyone else to see what the rest of January brings. Until then, I will ride the ups and downs while continuing to buy any dip especially in emerging markets, (including China), emerging Europe and Europe overall. Hang tough and see it through until I say otherwise.

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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