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The Independent Investor: The Fed Speaks
By Bill Schmick On: 10:50AM / Friday June 21, 2013
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You would think the world was coming to an end, given the global investment community's reaction to Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke's press conference on Wednesday. Evidently, we are so addicted to the Fed's multiyear stimulus program that even a hint that the party may be coming to an end is a major cause of concern.

As for me, the end of the central bank's quantitative stimulus program is actually good news. It means that our economy and employment would have finally turned the corner. It means that all the stimulus efforts of the Federal Reserve Bank since 2008 has finally paid off. It means that our financial markets can finally be returned to the private sector where risk and reward are the paramount determinants of returns. Why is that such a bad thing?

The markets are reacting as if the Fed is going to withdraw its entire stimulus immediately and allow interest rates to rise overnight, thereby sending the world into oblivion. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Chairman Bernanke went to great pains to assure investors that they will continue to keep a lid on rates until 2015. The Fed will continue to purchase bonds and mortgage-backed securities until they see unemployment drop to at least 7 percent. After that, they will continue to stimulate until there is enough momentum in the economy to drive unemployment to at least 6.5 percent or lower.

In addition, at any time in the future if either the economy or unemployment appears to be suffering from the withdrawal of the Fed's stimulus, the central bank reserves the right to stimulate again. Yet the market appears to want both the stimulus to continue and the economy to grow at the same time, ever hear of wanting your cake and eating it too? In my opinion, that would lead to a massive inflation problem.

Despite the Fed's continued reminders that they are concerned with a whole host of data points, the financial markets believe that there is nothing more important to the Fed than the health of the stock or bond markets. That is a myopic view. The Fed’s concerns encompass everything from foreign markets, to currencies, to the price of commodities to the actions of the U.S. Treasury, which brings up another issue.

If the current federal taxes and spending rules remain the same, the budget deficit will shrink this year to $642 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office. That would be the smallest shortfall since 2008. The budget deficit, despite the views of just about every economist, is shrinking quickly. The budget office predicts it will shrink even further over the next two years.

The U.S. Treasury, therefore, will need to sell fewer bonds each month in order to finance the shrinking deficit. The Fed, as readers know, has been purchasing $45 billion a month at these auctions as part of their quantitative easing program. If, as seems likely, the Treasury is going to reduce its issuance of bonds, the Fed is going to be faced with a tough decision.

Either they also taper the amount of buying they are doing each month, or face the unwelcome prospect of crowding out other buyers who are seeking to purchase those same government bonds. If the Fed doesn't taper, we could actually see interest rates on our sovereign debt drop to unacceptable negative rates of interest.

It would be an ideal time to taper bond buying since, with the economy growing and the government's need to issue new debt dropping, the Fed could taper without any appreciative impact on the economy or unemployment. It may take the markets a little while to catch on to these ideas, but when they do the markets will realize they have over-reacted.

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: A Taste of Things to Come
By Bill Schmick On: 04:34PM / Thursday June 13, 2013
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If you are a bond holder, the last few weeks may have come as a shock. Ever since the Fed raised the possibility of tapering their stimulus program, interest rates have spiked higher. For the first time in years, bondholders actually saw bond prices decline. Get used to it.

If you are a baby boomer, the price declines in all things that yield interest or income since May 22 might have you wondering what happened to your "safe" investments. All our professional lives we were told that bonds were "safe" for "conservative" investors, widows and orphans and for those among us that find the stock market too risky.

That was sage advice, if somewhat misleading. For the last 31 years, interest rates have been declining. As a result, bond prices have moved steadily higher. It wasn't that bonds, as an asset class, were without risk. It was simply that bonds were in a classic bull market. From 1982 to 2012, for example, the average annualized return of U.S. intermediate-term bonds have been 8.82 percent. In contrast, the S&P 500 Index had an annualized return of 11.14 percent.

So while we were telling ourselves that we were being conservative, in actuality we were riding a wave of speculation betting that interest rates would decline further and further and forever. Well, reader, the buck has stopped here. Interest rates can't go any lower. Nor is the natural order of things for interest rates to remain at historical lows forever. Something had to change and in this case it is the Fed.

The U.S. 10-year Treasury note is the interest rate most investors rely on as a benchmark. The rate on that security has spiked from 1.67 percent to 2.27 percent in 22 days. Some traders believe it will climb to 2.50 percent before it takes a breather. In the meantime, everything that provides some kind of interest or dividend payment has been clobbered in price. U.S. Treasury bonds, foreign bonds, both sovereign and corporate, U.S. investment grade and high yield bonds, even preferred stocks and other dividend paying equities have experienced a downdraft in price.

As a result, there has been a general outcry of dismay from legions of supposedly "conservative" investors. They are suddenly discovering that their money-making investments of three decades actually carry risk, specifically interest rate risk. As interest rates rise, bond prices decline. However, not all bonds prices decline at the same rate when interest rates rise. But right now, investors are not in the mood to differentiate which bonds (or stocks) they should hold and which they should sell. It is a classic case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

In hindsight, dividend and interest bearing securities have been in a bit of a bubble over the last year or two. Last year, for example, preferred stocks outperformed common stocks registering gains of as much as 17 percent. That is way above normal for a conservative investment. Junk bonds have been on a tear as well, gaining more than many common stocks over the last several years. Dividend paying stocks have had similar results.

Common sense would dictate that these defensive investments should not be outperforming their more aggressive brethren. I suspect that the prices of these securities, bid up to unrealistic levels over the last months, are simply coming back to earth.

It is understandable that, after three decades of gains, many bond investors have been lulled into believing that conservative and safe meant that, although the rate of interest they received from their fixed income investments could decline, the prices they paid for these investments would always be immune from any downside. It is true that if you bought that 5, 10, 20 or 30-year bond at the initial offering price you will receive the par value of that bond at the end of its life.

But between now and then, if interest rates continue to rise, get ready for some volatility that could makes the stock market look tame by comparison.

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: Retirement, Who Can Afford It?
By Bill Schmick On: 03:09PM / Friday May 31, 2013
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Most Americans' retirement savings are under $25,000. That's old news. The new news is that with Social Security in jeopardy, medical costs skyrocketing and the chances of living longer better than ever, how do you expect to retire in the years ahead?

The short answer is most of us won't. But no matter how long you intend to remain on the job, at some point your legs, knees, back or brain will give out, whether you like it or not. For many baby boomers that time is right now, just when the politicians are telling us the country can’t afford to continue funding Social Security and Medicare. It isn't fair but those are the facts.

Honestly, this boomer generation has had its share of "retirement derailers," a word coined by Ameriprise Financial in its survey on the causes behind the retirement crisis in America. Their survey discovered that 90 percent of Americans, ages 50-70 with at least $100,000 of investible assets, have experienced at least one economic or life event that has gutted their retirement savings.

The average person, however, has had four such traumas. Loss of a job, recessions, stock market declines, periods of low interest rates and lifestyle changes such as supporting a grown child or grandchild are some of the derailers that the survey listed. Other causes listed were making bad investments, taking Social Security before retirement age and disappointment over the worth of pension plans.

Remember, too, that the Retirement Derailers Survey polled those with substantial retirement savings compared to the majority of American savers. The Employee Benefit Research Institute found that 57 percent of Americans have less than $25,000 in household savings and investments (excluding their home and pension benefits). Only half of those polled could raise $2,000 in cash if there was an unexpected emergency. Lessons that many older respondents learned such as saving earlier in their lives, acquiring more knowledge about investment and spending less on vacations and extras seem to be falling on deaf ears

Given these well-known facts, one might have expected the rate of the nation's savings would increase but actually the opposite has occurred. The percentage of people reporting that they are saving more for retirement has declined from 75 percent in 2009 to 66 percent today. Have we given up on saving?

That's the conclusion of a recent report by the Deloitte Center for Financial Services. They found that 60 percent of pre-retirees are convinced that future health-care costs will eat up their savings no matter how much they stash away.  In addition, almost 40 percent believe that investment returns will never be high enough to afford even the simplest retirement no matter how much they save.

One wonders if these polls would have a different result if taken in a growing economy with full unemployment and a robust stock market. Although the economy and unemployment leave much to be desired, the stock market is at record highs. The average 401(K) retirement balance for U.S. workers also hit a record high in the first quarter, up 75 percent since March, 2009. Workers, 55 and older, did even better. Those pre-retirees have seen their average balance nearly double to $255,000 from $130,700 back in 2009.

But those are the exception, not the rule; there are millions of Americans who do not even have an IRA, let alone an employee-sponsored savings plan. If the majority of Americans think at all about retirement, they mistakenly assume that Social Security is the retirement plan of the nation. Unfortunately, it is at best a supplemental program to years of private savings of which most of us have none. If ever there was a Black Swan event lurking in the future surely this would be one.

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 Happens If You Can't Afford Obamacare?
By Bill Schmick On: 05:13PM / Thursday May 23, 2013
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We have all been inundated with the pros and cons of Obamacare. It has become so ubiquitous in our daily lives that most of us have simply tuned it out. We can't afford to do that much longer.

As most readers know, Obamacare, formally named the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, will become the law of the land on Jan. 1, 2014. However, as early as October of this year, a new way of buying health insurance will be available to consumers through an online insurance marketplace. So decision time approaches.

But what about all those who have no health care and believe they can't afford to buy it? What do they do? There have been times earlier in my life when I was unemployed. I could barely afford to feed and house myself let alone worry about health insurance. Besides, I was young, healthy and felt I would live forever so what did I need to shell out a couple hundred dollars a month for unnecessary insurance?  Fortunately I had no family at the time. If I had, I would have been in a real bind.

So I can understand how many of us look at this national health care scheme with anger and even fear. After all, the law says that if we don’t join up and obtain healthcare we are going to be fined. What many lower and even middle income families fail to understand is that there is help out there. All we need do is ask.

At last count there are nearly 26 million Americans that could be eligible for a health insurance subsidy, but few know enough about the provisions of the health care act to apply. I'll keep it simple. If you are a member of a working family with annual earnings between $47,100 and $94,200, you will most likely be able to apply for a subsidy. Over a third of those eligible to apply will be between ages 18 and 34 years old. Anyone who is not a member of a government health insurance program (Medicare or Medicaid) and does not have access to an affordable plan at their work place can apply to the government to help pay their premiums. These subsidies will be paid directly to the insurance companies, so there are no out-of-pocket expense requirements.

Starting in October, we will all be able to buy insurance through one of the state-run online health coverage exchanges with health coverage beginning in January. You will be able to choose between four levels of coverage: platinum, gold, silver and bronze. Each of the four plans will offer different premiums and out-of-pocket expense charges.

So let's say you are a family of four earning $94,200 a year and buy a silver premium plan. Preliminary estimates project that such a plan would cost $12,500, but that number could be higher or lower depending upon where you live. The government would pick up $3,550 of that. The exact amount depends on your actual earned income. The idea is to make sure that all individuals pay about the same percentage of their income for health insurance.

For those of us who already have insurance, you will have to decide whether to keep your existing plans or buy insurance on the online exchange. Naturally, you will be able to choose the provider you want based on who offers the most attractive package in terms of affordability and coverage. For all of us, be prepared for mistakes, misunderstandings and some confusion but that is no reason to stick your head in the sand. We are only three months away from making some important decisions so start paying attention.

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: Sticker Shock in Housing Market
By Bill Schmick On: 04:43PM / Thursday May 16, 2013
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The housing market has been in the doldrums so long that most of us believe that when we are ready to buy a new home there will be plenty of deals out there. Think again, the rising costs of everything from land to labor are causing new home prices to climb.

As U.S. residential real estate begins to rebound from its worst downturn since the Great Depression, the pace of recovery is beginning to cause bottlenecks in all sorts of areas. Suppliers of various building materials, for example, after shutting down much of their operations over the last few years, suddenly are besieged with orders from homebuilders across the nation. Unfortunately, it will take time, money and a willingness to expand in order to meet this new demand.

In the meantime, prices go up. Here are just a few examples: the price of gypsum (a key ingredient in drywall) is now only 6 percent below its peak price during the housing boom of 2006. Cement is 99 percent of its 2006 peak price while lumber is 93 percent of peak pricing. Those producers and distributors who have materials for sale are benefiting from these higher prices, but don't expect them to willy-nilly start expanding capacity.

Once burned, company managements are going to make sure that this new-found demand is not simply a flash in the pan. They will wait until they are sure that future demand and higher prices are sustainable over the longer turn before reopening closed plants and hiring more workers — if they can find them.

It may be hard to believe, given the nation's unemployment rate, but skilled labor is increasingly difficult to locate in both the construction industry and the sectors that supply materials. During the great housing layoff, carpenters, bricklayers, frame builders, equipment operators, electricians, plumbers and more were forced to abandon their professions and for many their geographic location in order to feed themselves and their families. Many migrated into the energy business or wherever else they could find work.

Although we don't like to admit it, Mexican workers (illegally here or otherwise) are also scarce. Many of them went back to Mexico during the recession and never returned. Others abandoned states like Arizona after lawmakers passed stricter immigration laws aimed at undocumented workers.

Even land in the form of finished lots is a scarce commodity. During the last five years, the pipeline of approved finished lots was drawn down nationwide and few new projects were initiated. It will take longer than you think before that pipeline is refilled. Remember that developers must go through a long and onerous process to prepare land for new construction. Some state and local governments require years of deliberation before approving residential projects. In the meantime, finished lots are going up in price.

Homebuilders are between a rock and a hard place. Costs are increasing. They can do one of two things: eat the costs, thereby reducing their profits, or pass them on to consumers in the form of higher sticker prices. Obviously, they would prefer the latter, but that remains somewhat difficult because of the comparatively few potential homebuyers who can qualify for a mortgage.

If builders raise prices too much, the buyers will balk and look elsewhere, namely in the stock of existing homes for sale. That may well be a good thing because it will reduce the stock of existing inventory waiting to be sold.

In the process it will bid up existing home prices and eventually shrink the gap with newly-built housing. Either way, if you have been postponing your purchase of a home in hopes of a great deal, that time has come and gone.

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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