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Independent Investor: Enough Already!
By: Bill Schmick On: 12:11PM / Friday July 29, 2011
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All week the markets have hung on every word coming out of Washington. Nothing else has mattered: not earnings, not Europe's problems, not even the second coming of Christ could have distracted investors. Now that both political parties have achieved what they wanted, let's please stop the monkey business before it's too late.

Credit Suisse, a global broker/investment banker, said on Thursday that in the unlikely event that the U.S. defaults on its debt, the economy could contract by 5 percent and the stock market could lose one third of its value. Although I believe that is an extreme view, the entire mess over the debt ceiling is causing hesitation and delay among the nation's business sector.

Companies have put all sorts of decisions on hold until the crisis is resolved. That includes hiring and investment decisions that directly impact the employment rate and our economic growth. The timing couldn't be worse. The economy is just starting to recover from a soft patch caused by the slowdown in Japan's economy. In addition, our unemployment rate has recently notched up to 9.2 percent. We can't afford these shenanigans.

However, the increase in our debt ceiling is only one of an emerging two-part problem in our economy. Credit agencies are warning that unless we do something to reduce spending and the deficit, our credit rating may be reduced. Now that wouldn't be the end of the world for America, after all, Japan's credit rating was reduced early this year with little consequence. But it certainly wouldn't help the pace of our recovery nor improve the jobless rate.

As we go down to the wire, it appears that if there is to be a deal on raising the debt limit, then both parties will need to agree to disagree and postpone a big deficit-cutting plan until after Aug. 3. There is simply not enough time to hammer out a compromise in the time allotted. There will be a price to pay for a deal of that sort. The markets and the country's corporations will continue to hesitate until a deal is struck that will satisfy the credit agencies.

A compromise budget-cutting plan that cuts $2 trillion or so from the deficit over 10 years will not cut the mustard. The agencies are on record as wanting at least double that amount in order to stave off a credit reduction. The Democrats, led by President Obama, wanted a "Grand Plan" that would answer the demands of the credit agencies and put to rest the deficit politically as an election issue.

The Republicans want the opposite. They see the economy, the deficit and unemployment as the three most likely opportunities to unseat the Democrats next year. By foot dragging now, they can keep the controversy alive and hopefully capitalize on an anemic and aging recovery while continuing to ask "Where are the jobs?" If in the process either the country defaults or our credit rating is reduced they are betting Obama will be blamed for that along with the economy.

They are counting on voters to forget by election time who did what to whom in this debt controversy. I suspect their gamble will pay off.

After all, how many voters remember that the TARP Plan (just one example) was approved before Obama took office? Did you know that the huge deficit we are saddled with actually occurred during the Bush administration? Between his tax cuts and the initiation of two wars, President Bush, with the aid of today's Republican leadership, not only spent the surplus garnered under the Clinton years but wracked up $8.813 trillion in additional new debt.

The Democrats under Obama have added $1.136 trillion in the form of economic stimulus and tax cuts. Economists argue that without that spending our country would have remained in recession or possibly fallen into a depression. In addition, Obama will spend $152 billion on health-care reform and $278 billion on defense. The vast majority of the money spent on these policy initiatives won't even be spent until years in the future, if at all.

As an independent voter, I am less inclined to listen to either parties' rhetoric and instead focus on the facts. The facts are that the financial crisis, the deficit and the subsequent rise in the unemployment rate are the legacy of the Bush administration. I can applaud the GOP for belatedly realizing that they have been on a spending spree for the last decade, but don't blame others for your party's failings.

Sure, if you choose, you can blame Obama and his team for failing to generate a quick recovery, but enough already with this myth that he is the root cause of today's problems in America. As Americans, we deserve more from Washington. 

Bill Schmick is an independent investor with Berkshire Money Management. (See "About" for more information.) None of the information presented in any of these articles 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 (toll free) or e-mail him at wschmick@fairpoint.net . Visit www.afewdollarsmore.com for more of Bill's insights.



Tags: debt ceiling, Congress, credit ratings      
@theMarket: What If?
By: Bill Schmick On: 07:25AM / Saturday July 16, 2011
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This week the scales finally tipped. The phones began to ring and each call was roughly the same.

"What are the chances the debt ceiling won't be raised?"

"What happens if the politicians can't make a deal?"

"What will happen to my investments if the worst case scenario happens?"

Since the calls were coming in from Maine, Vermont, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts and elsewhere, I'm sure you are all worried about the same thing. If, despite the odds, the debt ceiling is not raised by Aug. 2, 2011, the United States of America plunges into at least a technical bankruptcy. What will happen to the markets? The short answer is nothing good.

This is not an abstract issue. The dollar, as well as global stock and bond markets, would decline. The price of gold and possibly silver would jump but very few other asset classes would be immune from the carnage. The wave of selling would reverberate around the world because everyone is involved in America's bond market. The duration of this financial rout would probably be short lived, a day or three, maybe even a week, before our political "leaders" in Washington came to their senses. Personally, I believe that it would be a classic buying opportunity and one probably not seen since the week after 9/11.

A recent poll by CNBC indicated that 64 percent of viewers are blaming the Republicans for the present impasses in the debt ceiling talks. As for me, I blame us, the voters — Democrats, Republicans (especially the tea party) and independents for the present dilemma. I wrote "leaders" in quotes because the present fiasco has convinced me that there are no leaders left in Washington, D.C.

But why should that surprise you? The present blame game that is substituting for compromise among the congressmen and senators is a joke if one looks at the track record of these supposed leaders. President Barack Obama continuously reminds us that the problems started during the Bush administration. But he was elected to the Senate in 2005, just as the real excesses of mortgage-backed securities was getting under way. Joe Biden was a senator from 1972 until running for vice president in 2009. Where were they when we needed leadership and an effort to end the rampant speculation that was occurring on Wall Street?

Rep. Barney Frank was the chairman of the House Finance Committee before and during the financial crisis as was committee members Orin Hatch, John Kerry, Chuck Schumer and even Ron Paul. All these august officials were asleep at the switch despite receiving a wealth of information daily on the nation's financial system.

Rep. Rosa De Laura has been around since 1990 and sits on the House subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services. Steny Hoyer has been in the House since 1986 and was House majority leader from 2007-2011 and House minority whip from 2003-2007. Nancy Pelosi was the speaker of the House since 2007 and is now House minority leader; that about sums up the background of today's starting line-up on the Democratic side.

Republicans, on the other hand, beginning with our past president, presided over the financial crisis from 2000-2008. During that period, Eric Cantor, Paul Ryan, John Boehner, Mitch McConnell and many more of today's "responsible" budget-cutting GOP leaders knew and did nothing but watch as the financial system spun out of control. They too have conveniently forgotten their past lack of leadership and are busily blaming the opposing party for their own shortcomings.

Today we are looking to these same men and women to compromise, to work together and fix the economy, balance our finances, raise the debt ceiling and solve the nation's unemployment problem. We elected them, despite the knowledge that these very same people have been found wanting in the past. Why should we expect them to be any better today?

So let the chips fall where they may. I expect that until we have a deal the markets will continue their schizophrenic behavior. The best thing you can do is hunker down and wait for this storm to blow past.  

Bill Schmick is an independent investor with Berkshire Money Management. (See "About" for more information.) None of the information presented in any of these articles 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 (toll free) or e-mail him at wschmick@fairpoint.net . Visit www.afewdollarsmore.com for more of Bill's insights.



Tags: debt ceiling, markets, Congress      
Independent Investor: Time Is Running Out
By: Bill Schmick On: 04:12PM / Thursday July 07, 2011
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By now we have reached our debt limit of $14.294 trillion here in the United States. As you read this, the U.S. Treasury is already shuffling bits of electronic paper around to stay current on our nation's debt payments. By Aug. 2 even this desperate farce will have come to an end.

The Obama administration's deadline is even earlier. By July 22, there must be a deal to raise the nation's debt ceiling or else there will not be enough time to ratify an agreement before the beginning of August, when Congress begins its recess. The situation is serious enough for both parties to forgo their July vacations and work for a compromise this week in steamy Washington, D.C.

A new development has the president challenging the Republicans to work out a longer-term compromise solution to the deficit right here and right now. It remains to be seen whether the GOP will accept the challenge.

The nation's debt ceiling was first established back in 1917 at a hilariously low $11.5 billion. Since 1962, it has been raised 74 times, without a problem on either side of the aisle. So why has the debt ceiling suddenly become such a contentious issue?

Politics is the short answer. The Republican Party, which passed an increase in the debt ceiling eight times during the Bush presidency, claims to have suddenly found religion when it comes to the nation's debt. And if you believe that one, you deserve to be fleeced by the shills in Washington.

The GOP is demanding $4.4 trillion be cut from the deficit over the next 10 years. They are using the ceiling to affect changes in Medicare and Medicaid spending that would probably not see the light of day in any other circumstances. The Obama administration countered with a plan that would cut $4 trillion over the same time period without changing any of the major entitlements programs. One would think that a compromise could be worked out, but as time goes by it seems as if neither side really wants a solution. As the 11th-hour approaches, opposing politicians are milking the drama for very hour of prime time they can capture.

By now just about everyone realizes there will be major fallout from failing to pass a new debt ceiling. The most obvious and immediate outcomes would be that the U.S. would technically default on its loans, our interest rates would spike, and the stock market plummet. Even if our "leaders" had a change of heart and approved a new ceiling a day later, the damage would have been done.

It would be similar if you or your household declared bankruptcy. Although you might be able to work your way back to financial health quickly, the bankruptcy would be part of your credit history for years into the future and with it would come certain costs.

Everyone from the head of the Federal Reserve and U.S. Treasury to every elder statesmen of the economy has warned of the folly of allowing the country to default. And yet a recent Gallup poll indicates that 47 percent of Americans are opposed to raising the debt ceiling while 34 percent say they don't know enough to make a decision. I suspect that most Americans mistakenly believe that raising the debt limit will automatically mean an increase in federal spending. That's not true.

Increasing spending would require authorization by Congress. In today's anti-spending environment that kind of legislation would have few backers. But failing to increase the debt limit will immediately make the debt we owe climb higher. It would force the government to suspend interest payments on the debt we already owe. Those interest payments would continue to accrue into the foreseeable future. The same would happen to you if you failed to make your minimum payment on your credit card. So your overall debt continues to rise, and quickly.

At the same time, as a result of our default, investors worldwide would demand higher and higher rates of interest to lend to a country that had already failed to pay its existing debtors on time. The fact that we might change gears later would not mitigate the actions we failed to take when they were required. The damage has been done and we would pay for it in the form of higher rates for years into the future.

I have long since lost faith in politicians. Their actions indicate that time after time they have put their own interest above the common good. So, yes, this debate makes me nervous. I don't want to see Washington once again play with our livelihoods. A U.S. default will severely impact our car loans, mortgage rates, student loans, credit cards and a whole host of personal debt liabilities. If push comes to shove, it may come down to fighting fire with fire.

The Fourteenth Amendment states:

"The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for the payments of pension and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion shall not be questioned."

If the GOP is dead set on using the threat of a U.S. bankruptcy to wheedle spending cuts (but not tax increases) from the administration, than, in my opinion, using the 14th Amendment to raise the debt ceiling without legislation is a proper and responsible alternative. God knows, I am all for spending cuts and have been for decades, but this in not the time nor the arena to force change.

Bill Schmick is an independent investor with Berkshire Money Management. (See "About" for more information.) None of the information presented in any of these articles 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 (toll free) or e-mail him at wschmick@fairpoint.net. Visit www.afewdollarsmore.com for more of Bill's insights.



Tags: ratings, debt, markets, Congress      
@theMarket: The Bottom Is In
By: Bill Schmick On: 09:08AM / Saturday July 02, 2011
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Well, we've made it through another pullback together. It seems clear to me that this week's stock market action is telling us that the worst is over — for now.

Yes, there are still a few dark clouds on the horizon. The closest one is the ongoing debate over increasing the nation's debt limit. Although I believe that in the end politicians will do the responsible thing and approve an increase, they are not beyond eleventh hour posturing. Few politicians can resist the chance to become the focus of the nation's attention by withholding their vote until all seems lost, only to relent at the last moment, thereby becoming our heroes. Disgusting? Yes, but that's what America's politics are all about these days.

As a result, expect continued volatility within the markets as te deadline approaches. The Obama administration claims we will run out the clock by July 22 while the Treasury is sticking with Aug. 2. The time it would take the Congress and Senate to ratify the debt increase accounts for the difference.

But the bias of the market, despite the volatility, will be toward the upside. It appears that investors are beginning to recognize all the positive factors that I have outlined over the past two months. Japan's economy, for example, is roaring back as indicated by very strong industrial production data this week. For readers who missed it, see my June 2 column "Japan, Is The Sun Beginning To Rise?" in which I both recommended Japan and predicted its rebirth. As it occurs, U.S. economic data will also start to strengthen. This Friday's manufacturing data, released by the Institute for Supply Management (ISM), is just a taste of what's to come. It showed the economy gaining strength for the first time in four months. Oh, and expect unemployment numbers to start dropping as well.

As you know, I have been arguing that the U.S. was in a soft patch of growth brought on by Japan's earthquake-related slowdown. Now that Japan is revving up, so will we. With Greece's problems resolved (at least until September) and oil prices heading toward $85 a barrel, Wall Street is finally waking up to what you and I have known for weeks.

Normally, after such a massive move, the markets should pull back to about the breakout level, which would be 1,300 on the S&P. It doesn't have to happen, but if it does, consider it a buying opportunity. For those of you who may have gotten cold feet during the tumultuous times of the recent past, that would be your chance to get back in.

As for the end of QE II, (see yesterday's column "The End of QE II"), all of the hyperbole you have been hearing about how interest rates would spike and the markets plunge did not materialize, nor will it. As I predicted, the demise of the Fed’s quantitative easing program is a non-event. With all these negatives removed from the market simultaneously, I expect stocks to roar. My price target for the S&P 500 remains at 1,450 or higher.

Once we get there, well, that may usher in a horse of a different color but first things first, the markets are going higher so enjoy your gains.

Bill Schmick is an independent investor with Berkshire Money Management. (See "About" for more information.) None of the information presented in any of these articles 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 (toll free) or e-mail him at wschmick@fairpoint.net. Visit www.afewdollarsmore.com for more of Bill's insights.



Tags: debt, Congress, Greece, Japan, pullback      
The Independent Investor: Gordon Gekko Should Run for Congress
By: Bill Schmick On: 01:39AM / Saturday May 28, 2011
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Did you know that congressmen and senators consistently outperform the stock market year after year? On average, the lower house members beat the market by about 6 percent a year while those of the higher chamber wrack up a 10 percent level of outperformance annually. Now, if you believe that's purely coincidental, well, I have a bridge I can sell you cheap.

Don't take my word for it. Four university researchers from four different schools poured over 16,000 stock buys and sells of 300 congressmen over a 16-year period and found "significant positive abnormal returns." Five years ago, the same team uncovered even better results when investigating the personal stock transactions of Senators.

As a full-time portfolio manager myself, I know managing money is a 24/7 job that requires an enormous amount of research, experience and time. How can our politicians manage to pull out these startling returns year after year, while serving in Washington, running election campaigns and travelling back home to their constituents?

The university report speculates (without forming a conclusion) that the out performance may have something to do with the ability of members of both houses to trade on non-public information or worse, vote their own pocketbooks.

But wait, how can that be? Isn't trading on insider information illegal?

Well, it turns out that our lawmakers are excluded from the same insider trading rules that have nailed so many Wall Street traders, most recently in The Galleon Insider Trading Case.

Just think how much potential for abnormal profits resides in knowing what bills and appropriations will pass and those that won't. If, for example, a huge contract is awarded to one of our defense companies in a non-public appropriations bill, a member of either house could legally buy the stock ahead of time and even tip off friends, family and possibly their largest campaign contributors.

It may also explain how certain big financial institutions, over the last few years, seem to know exactly how bad or good the country's economic data will be prior to public release. That data has been capable of moving markets substantially either up or down over short periods of time.

Given the U.S. government’s massive intervention in the financial system since 2008, the ability to make piles of money from government actions is immense. Is it any wonder that politicians have adroitly avoided changing the rules that govern their own actions, until now?

A bill introduced by Reps. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., and Tim Walz, D-Minn., called the STOCK (Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge) act was reintroduced in March of this year. It was first introduced in 2006 and predictably went nowhere. The act would "prohibit Members of Congress and federal employees from profiting from nonpublic information they obtain via their official positions, and require greater oversight of the growing 'political intelligence' industry."

"As it stands today, neither members of Congress nor their staff can be held legally accountable for making personal investment decisions based on non-public information," explains Congresswomen Slaughter, "Even more troubling is that unregistered firms might be using Congressional non-public information to make financial transactions at the expense of the average investor. The bill places those individuals under insider trading rules and enhanced disclosure rules."

The act would prevent government employees from disclosing non-public information to anyone if they believe it will be used to buy or sell stocks, bonds or commodities futures. It would also require members of Congress and employees to report the purchase, sale or exchange of securities in excess of $1,000 within 30 days.

"This is a matter of equality under the law," said Congressman Walz, "The same standards we have established for Wall Street should apply to Congress. The potential for abuse is obvious and troubling and there is simply no good reason Congress should get to play by a separate set of rules in the stock market."

Readers may agree that there is something hypocritical about politicians and regulators probing hedge funds for suspicious trading while the very same government officials are able to trade on nonpublic information on current and upcoming congressional activity and give it to their friends as well as hedge funds if they choose.

While I applaud the efforts of Walz and Slaughter, I suspect the chances of STOCK's passage is about as remote as my growing hair again.

Bill Schmick is an independent investor with Berkshire Money Management. (See "About" for more information.) None of the information presented in any of these articles 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 (toll free) or e-mail him at wschmick@fairpoint.net. Visit www.afewdollarsmore.com for more of Bill's insights.



Tags: Congress, SEC, trading      
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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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