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The Independent Investor: The Pipeline Made Simple
By Bill Schmick On: 08:00PM / Friday November 21, 2014
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The U.S. Senate rejected passage of the Keystone Pipeline by one vote this week. The controversial energy plan will be back on the agenda, however, in January. For most of us, separating fact from fiction as both sides alter the facts is difficult at best, but here are some things we do know.

First, we can describe the project. The proposed Keystone XL project consists of an 875-mile stretch of pipeline and related facilities that will transport 830,000 barrels per day (bpd) of crude oil from Alberta, Canada, through Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska. It will then connect to existing pipeline facilities that flow through Nebraska, Oklahoma and ultimately down to the Texas Gulf Coast region.

About 40 percent of the total project has been completed. A 298-mile line that runs from Steele City, Neb., to Cushing, Okla., already exists as does another 485-mile piece between Cushing and Nederland, Texas. Oil is already flowing within these segments of the pipeline from various oil wells within the U.S.. The remaining segment has been held up for years thanks to the political wrangling among various American politicians and lobbyists.

There has been a cost to this controversy. Thanks to the delays, the price tag to complete the project has already doubled to something like $8 billion to $9 billion. Once approved, it will take two years to build out the pipeline and get things connected.

Depending on who you listen to, the project would mean as few as 20,000 high-paying construction jobs to as many as 42,000 (if you count indirect jobs). Energy spokesmen will tout as many as 200,000, but don't believe that. What no one disputes is that those jobs are only temporary. The actual head count of permanent jobs, once the project is complete, comes in at 50 or less.

Alberta has the third largest proven oil reserves in the world after Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, but much of it is buried within what is called "tar sands." Tar sands are a mixture of sand, water, clay and bitumen. The oil-rich bitumen can be processed into heavy, viscous oil. Producing the stuff will emit an estimated 17 percent more greenhouse gases than traditional oil drilling in the U.S. That is why the likes of Al Gore and Robert Redford are against it.

So if it is environmentally evil and good for just a few long-term jobs why in the world would this country want to approve it?

Over the long-term it makes sense strategically for us and our trading partner to the north.

Let's take Canada first. Our neighbor to the north is our largest source of oil imports, providing almost 2 million of a total of 9 million barrels of imports per day. Strategically, we know that two other major suppliers are problematic. Mexico's oil output is declining and Venezuela is unreliable at best.

Transporting oil via the pipeline from Canada would replace that shortfall for America. In addition, what we don't use, we can export. By law, America is only allowed to export third-party oil. Right now that only amounts to 30,000 bpd. Next year, that number is estimated to rise to 230,000 bpd. The Keystone pipeline would dramatically increase that number while reducing the amount we import from unreliable sources.

The fact is that with or without us, Canada will extract oil from their tar sands. So the argument becomes will we make it easier and safer for them to do so? Our environmentalists want Canada to just abandon the extraction program entirely.

Personally, I would rather our environmentalists focus more on our own issues and let Canada handle the environmental fallout from their tar sands extraction. In typical "America knows best" fashion we see nothing wrong with dictating what another country should do with its natural resources. But does Canada demand that we reduce our coal-fired generation industry, which has a carbon footprint 60 times larger than Alberta oil sands? Does anyone recognize that Canada produces less than 2 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions and tar sands make up just 5 percent of that total?

For once, let's do something that is good for Canada, a country that has stood by us through thick and thin for decades. Sure they can find other means of transportation — namely truck and rail — but why should they have to? The pipeline makes sense for us and for Canada.

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: Markets Are in Half Time
By Bill Schmick On: 09:49AM / Saturday November 15, 2014
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Stocks have had a wonderful run since mid-October's swoon. The S&P 500 Index is now up over 10 percent from its bottom. As we approach another record high, expect some backing and filling before moving higher. I wish I could say the same about the price of oil.

The price of oil is the main topic of conversation among traders and investors. Typically, as the price declines further, Wall Street energy bears vie for headlines by predicting even worse times ahead for energy. Technicians are now considering $40 a barrel as a real possibility and others are jumping on the band wagon as oil broke $75 a barrel on the downside this week.

Methinks the selling is overdone at least over the short-term. We are only a week away from the OPEC meeting and I expect some traders will cover their shorts until after the meeting. What we do know is that Saudi Arabia needs $85 barrel oil to balance their budget. But that Middle East nation is both wealthy and autocratic. It can afford to watch oil drop lower if they choose to. Besides, there may be other reasons in the wind for allowing oil to slide lower.

Excuse my penchant for Machiavellian plots, but it has occurred to me that the nation that is hurting the most from this price decline is Mother Russia. Globally, Russia is the No. 1 producer, followed by Saudi Arabia, while the U.S., at 9 million barrels a day in production, ranks third.  

Readers may have noticed that now that the weather has grown colder, surprise, surprise, events are heating up once again in Ukraine. Vladimir Putin, in my opinion, plans to annex even more territory in the east of that nation. If Europe protests or threatens to increase economic sanctions as a result, Putin could threaten both Ukraine and/or Europe with a cutback or even a cessation of energy exports. He has done it before and there is no reason to believe he won't do it again.

If I know that then surely others do as well. If I were the U.S. (and its ally, Saudi Arabia), lower oil prices would be a far more effective tool to slow or even stymie Putin's land-grabbing schemes than sanctions. At the same time it would give a real shot in the arm to American consumers, airlines, farmers, shippers and the transportation sector.

At some point, declining oil prices, coupled with the existing economic sanctions, could truly devastate the Russian economy and bring Russia to its knees. Right now, the Russian people love Putin and his misguided efforts to restore the Soviet empire. Will that adoration persist in the face of a deep recession or even a depression?

We blame Saudi Arabia for not acting to support energy prices. Pundits (including me) have claimed that it is their intent to slow U.S. shale and gas production, thereby hurting America's efforts in becoming energy-independent. Maybe so, but at the same time, it is hurting Russia far more than the U.S. and that's my point.

As for the markets, this last week has been largely a period of consolidation or sideways movement. Markets are overbought and need to work off the excesses, which is exactly what is happening. Remember, markets can adjust by either declining or sideways movement. All year long, we have seen a pattern of sideways rather than down so expect more of the same. Stay invested and enjoy the coming rally into the New Year.

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: U.S. and China Square Off
By Bill Schmick On: 05:45PM / Friday November 14, 2014
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In Beijing this week, the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit is winding down. As representatives from its 21 member nations return home, one thing is certain.  China has become America's main rival for influence in that region.

Depending on who you talk to, China's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is expected to overtake that of the United States sometime in the next five years. Some argue that it may be sooner than that. But while we Americans might fret over falling to second place economically, China's communist leaders could care less. They are eyeing a far larger prize — control of much of the world's natural resources and the means to transport them back to China.

There is nothing underhanded or dishonest about their ambitions. For the last decade, China has been investing, purchasing and partnering with countries and companies worldwide. Whether developing a Peruvian mountain loaded with copper or inking an energy deal with Russia's Vladimir Putin, China is methodically expanding its control over the means of production worldwide. This week's tariff and free-trade deals among Asian nations and the United States is simply another step in their long-term plan.

Much has been made of President Obama's agreements on Tuesday to reduce tariffs on a range of technology products worldwide including videogame consoles, semi-conductor chips and even prepaid cards. The media also applauded an agreement by the two nations to further reduce greenhouse gases and expand the duration of visas for education and business. There was even some progress on developing some military and defense initiatives.

However, in my opinion, China's real objective was to convince Asian members that their plan to extend their economic influence to energy-rich Central Asia was good for everyone concerned. The Chinese are dangling a host of goodies from a free-trade deal in competition with one of our own, and $90 billion in infrastructure investment funds as well as additional investment from an army of Chinese private and state corporations. It is tempting.

You see, China wants to create a "Silk Road Economic Belt." Their objective would be to establish a far-reaching network of transportation, distribution and logistics that would bind China, Central Asia and Europe into one vast economic network. No one is laughing. Asian members only have to look at China's track record in South America and Africa, among other places, to understand just how serious the Chinese are. Strapped for investment, struggling with anemic economies and high unemployment rates, many of these nations would just love to invite the Chinese into their parlors.

If there is a fly in this Chinese ointment, it is of China's own making. Territorial disputes instigated by China with the Philippines, Vietnam and Japan over the last few years have made many nations wary of China's true intentions. Fortunately, all sides have backed off from a shooting war but China's increasingly aggressive military stance has many neighbors troubled.

It is one thing to invite an investment partner into one's country, but quite another to risk occupation by such an acquisitive Big Brother such as China. In light of these fears, China's willingness to talk turkey with the U.S. on military issues may simply be a ploy to alleviate these concerns among some nations.

The bottom line here is that while we at home continue to debate a pipeline that should have been built long ago, China is focusing on sewing up most of the world's natural resources. It is that kind of long-range planning that we need here in America. Unfortunately, we neither have the will nor the leaders to implement such a strategy. And we will regret 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: Workers Get to Save More in 2015
By Bill Schmick On: 01:48PM / Friday October 31, 2014
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The IRS has given us all a New Year's gift. As of Jan. 1, the tax-deferred contributions on a variety of employee-sponsored, retirement savings plans have been increased, but not for IRAs.

Readers may already be familiar with the traditional 401(k) plan. It was established as an alternative to the nation's pension plans that are fast disappearing. Most companies offer 401(k)s to their employees (or 403(b)s if working for the state or a non-profit) as a fringe benefit. These plans allow employees to contribute as much as $17,500 a year plus an additional $5,500 catchup if you are over 50. The contributions come right off the top of your W-2 wages so there are considerable tax savings in contributing toward your retirement. In addition, some companies will match your contributions up to a certain percentage. Starting in 2015, your traditional 401(k) and 403(b) maximum contributions will be increased by $500 for those in both age groups.

The maximum IRA contributions will remain the same. However, there will now be new limits on their tax-deductibility. If you are single and make more than $71,000 a year (or married with a combined income of more than $118,000) and have a workplace retirement plan, traditional IRA contributions are no longer deductible. As for the Roth IRA, couples who make more than $193,000 and individuals who earn over $131,000 will no longer be eligible to contribute to a Roth.

The government will also offer a new retirement account, called the myRA. These new retirement savings accounts are targeted to middle and lower-income Americans who make less than $129,000 for individuals or $191,000 for married couples. The myRA is like a Roth IRA, which means contributions, although not tax-deductible, can be withdrawn without triggering an additional tax once the account is five years old and the account owner is over 59 1/2 years old.

How it differs is that the myRA will be invested in a new retirement savings bond backed by the U.S. Treasury that is guaranteed not to lose value and will be free of fees. Individuals can continue to contribute to this account for up to 30 years or until the value exceeds $30,000. At that point it will be transferred to a private-sector retirement account.

Deposits are made through payroll deductions and a myRA can be opened with as little as $25. After that, one needs to commit to a direct deposit of $5 or more every payday. What if you quit?  Don't worry, these accounts can be moved without penalties to your new job.

Those who arguably benefit the most from the 2015 changes are small business owners who contribute to Solo 401(k) Plans. These plans were designed specifically for self-employed entrepreneurs or small business owners with no employees. These self-directed plans try to maximize contributions and at the same time be less complex and expensive to maintain than conventional 401(k) plans.

Solos can be opened at your local bank or credit union. They will enjoy the same 2015 increases in contributions that traditional plans receive and contributions can be made either pre-tax or after-tax (Roth). They also have a profit-sharing element that allows your business to make a 20-25 percent profit sharing contribution up to a combined maximum of $53,000 in 2015 (or $59,000, if you are over 50).

Of course all of this news is great for those of us who can afford to contribute the maximum to our 401(k) plans. To be fair, the myRA does address the widening gap between the haves and have-nots in this country but $5 per paycheck is still an enormous amount for someone making $15,000 a year. The problem is that once again our legislators, who are part of the one percent, fail to understand that very few in America can contribute the maximum to their retirement plans and still eat. 

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: All Clear
By Bill Schmick On: 04:09PM / Friday October 24, 2014
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If investors needed proof that the market's bottom is in, this week provided it. It was the best week of the year in stock market gains and it looks like we have more on the way.

That's not to say we couldn't have another pullback, but it won't be to the levels we saw nine days ago. The S&P 500's 200 DMA is around 1.905. That would be the logical limit to a decline if traders wanted to do a little profit-taking, but I don't see much downside beyond that.

One catalyst that is providing support for the market is another good earnings season. Although there have been a few spectacular misses by some big technology companies, by and large, companies have beat earnings estimates and provided positive guidance for the months ahead.

Negatives do remain. ISIS is not going anywhere soon and Ebola will continue to rear its ugly head as it did this week when a Manhattan physician contracted the disease. One can only wonder why a medical doctor, who had been working with infected patients in Africa, would "self-diagnose" rather than getting checked out immediately upon returning to the U.S.

But markets rarely discount an event more than once. So far we have had several potential Ebola cases in this country and the markets have already discounted the possibilities. In order for investors to really sell-off the markets, something new and far more serious must occur.

The same goes for ISIS. Yes, the terrorists have proven to be far more resilient and tough-minded, despite bombing runs by the U.S. and its allies. However, the opposition seems to have at least slowed their advance, which is enough for the markets.

As for the worry-mongers who follow the Fed, forget about them. In my opinion, the Federal Reserve Bank will overstay its welcome when it comes to keeping interest rates low until they are convinced that the labor market has truly recovered. And that brings us to the mid-term elections, which are less than two weeks away.

Most pollsters believe that the GOP will sweep both houses of Congress. All Republicans need to do, according to the consensus, is to continue slamming an already-unpopular president and stay away from the issues. As such, the stock market is going to celebrate their win by gaining ground. For whatever reason, markets initially go up when Republicans win elections, even though the historical data indicate that markets always do better under the Democratic Party.

Once elected, the GOP has two years to do something on the legislative front in order to carry the 2016 presidential elections. They cannot afford to do nothing and blame the Democrats, as they have done for the last eight years - if they want to win. So what can we expect?

At the very least, we should expect some kind of fiscal stimulus plan that will pick up where the Fed left off. Infrastructure spending, something this country desperately needs, in tandem with corporate tax cuts (always popular with their corporate supporters) might be a way of growing the economy and further reducing unemployment.

Most politicos would say that the Democrats would never go along with that and if they did, the president would veto any GOP-authored fiscal stimulus plan as a matter of course. I'm not so sure. As an unpopular, lame-duck president, Obama might consider a Republican-controlled Congress as an opportunity to save the reputation of his presidency. If he were to usher in a new era of compromise, even if that compromise were all his own, would he do it? We shall see but in the meantime, stay invested.

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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North Adams Workers, Students Donate 800 Pounds of Food to Pantry
Pittsfield Parks Light Up With Memorial, Holiday Events
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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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