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The Independent Investor: Power Shift Part II
By Bill Schmick On: 11:25PM / Thursday September 27, 2012
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Big Brother is Getting Bigger

Depending on whose sound bite you are listening to, government spending has gotten bigger or smaller over the last few years. Oddly enough, both sides are correct. It all depends on what statistics you are quoting.

President Obama claims that federal spending, under his administration, has risen at the lowest pace in nearly 60 years. His statement is accurate, as long as you remember that the 2009 fiscal budget is considered part of his predecessor's legacy. As such, the $700 billion TARP bailout and the $831 billion stimulus package occurred at the end of President Bush's term, even though Barack Obama signed the stimulus bill and voted as a senator for TARP. How does that work?

Part of the confusion lies in calendar versus fiscal year accounting. Before 1842, the federal fiscal year was the same as the calendar year. Since then it has changed several times and since 1977 the government's fiscal year begins on Oct. 1 and ends on Sept. 30, so the spending in 2009 was pinned on Bush since he was president on Oct. 1, 2009. I guess that is fitting since the cause and result of the financial crisis that continues today occurred while the Republican Party was in power.

Despite the administration's double talk, the fact is that 2010, 2011 and 2012 are three of only four fiscal years since 1945 that the federal government spent more than 24 percent of GDP in a single year. The Office of Management and Budget predicts that this year federal spending will hit 24.3 percent of GDP. That is about what the government spent in fiscal 1942, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and America went to war in both Europe and the Pacific.

Before we look at spending today, readers need to understand that there are at least two measures of government spending. The one most quoted by the economic journals and politicians we'll call "G," which is how much federal, state and local governments directly contribute to economic activity measured as a share of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). It is the sum of all the goods and services they provide.

There is also a broader measure that captures all the spending in government budgets. This figure includes all of "G" plus interest payments on our debt, transfer payments through programs like food stamps, social security, Medicare and Medicaid, unemployment insurance, housing vouchers, Veterans benefits, et al. As you might imagine, when you add all this into "G," government spending, as a percentage of GDP, turns out to be closer to 37 percent. In comparison, the average spend since 1960 is about 32 percent.

Now that is down from the 39 percent that it hit in the second quarter of 2009, when the financial crisis was at its peak. If we confine our analysis of government growth since then, government spending has decreased whether you use "G" or the broader measure.

However, if you measure government growth from the beginning of the decade, when government spending totaled just 30 percent of GDP, then yes, government has grown by a whopping 6 percent in the last 12 years.

Beneath the statistics we can see that the government's economic role has clearly grown larger and with it the power it welds. Its historical role as provider of public goods and services remains but is shrinking as more and more of government's budget is spent on transferring cash and in-kind payments to taxpayers directly through programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

This is no accident. Remember that an entire generation of Americans is close to or already in retirement. Baby Boomers are tapping Social Security while experiencing mounting health issues as they grow older. They are turning to Medicare to answer their needs. And why shouldn't they?

Throughout their working careers, these hard-working Americans, (who fought three wars for this country in their lifetime along the way), have contributed paycheck after paycheck to guarantee that when the time came, Social Security and Medicare would be there for them when they needed it. So, yes government has grown larger. It is the "why" of it that so many politicians conveniently forget.

As the government's role in the economy gains force, so does its power. But power is agnostic. It can be used for good or for evil. We have seen how Wall Street has abused power. In my opinion, government spending that is used to honor its contract with America's retiring workers is a proper use of that power. Whether this country can afford to honor its commitments is another story and a question we will answer in a forthcoming column.

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: Profit-taking: An Opportunity
By Bill Schmick On: 01:01PM / Friday September 21, 2012
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The markets are behaving just like they did after the first two Fed-induced stimulus programs. If recent history is any guide, the consolidation this week provides those who have missed the run-up to get into the market.

Now normally, history doesn't repeat itself but it does rhyme, more often than not. The first Federal Reserve Bank quantitative easing (QE 1) was announced on Nov. 25, 2008, and was formally launched on Dec. 16 of that year. QE II kicked off on Nov. 3, 2010, and QE III was announced last Thursday. After both the QE I and II announcements the markets rallied and then spent several days consolidating those gains. That seems to be the pattern we are experiencing now.

Investors who purchased equities during that consolidation phase were greatly rewarded. The stock market after QE1 gained 29.8 percent during the next 12 months. After QE II, the markets gained another 13.2 percent in just six months. The lion's share of those gains came within the first three months after the announcements. This time around, stocks rallied in anticipation of a third easing so some of those gains could already be in the market.

Nevertheless, a fairly safe prediction would be that over the next 6-8 weeks we should see a substantial rally. That should take us just into the November elections or slightly after. That is where things could get a bit dicey, in my opinion.

The stock market, using the S&P 500 Index as a benchmark, is already up almost 16 percent since I advised readers to get back in the market. If the stock averages were to rally into the November elections, we may be looking at a gain of greater than 20 percent for the year. On Wall Street, there are three kinds of investors: bulls, bears and pigs. I try to avoid "pigging out" when it comes to profits so, by November, it just might be time to cut and run.

In the aftermath of the general elections, there are a multitude of economic issues that the lame-duck Congress will either face or flunk. Chief among them is the often mentioned "Fiscal Cliff." Will the makeup of the House and Senate be such that we can avert across-the-board tax increases and deep spending cuts by Jan. 1, 2013? Will politicians agree to raise the debt ceiling once again? If so, what will that do to the U.S. credit rating?

Those are only some of the gnarly issues Congress and the president–elect will face. Depending on who wins, the first quarter of 2013 might also be a bit stormy. Given that I have no idea of how all of this is going to play out, November might be a great month to take profits this year. There is a risk that things may go absolutely wonderful. Congress and the president could make up. A raft of great legislation could pass before the end of the year and this year's Christmas rally could be stupendous. In which case, I would have left some money on the table by getting out too soon.

So be it. No one ever went broke by taking profits. This year has been a good one so far. Although it is only late September, it is time to begin thinking about an exit strategy. Hang in there for now because I do think there are further gains to be had in the markets. But plan for the future.

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: Power Shifts from Wall St. to Washington
By Bill Schmick On: 05:01PM / Thursday September 20, 2012
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Years ago, it was our captains of industry who commanded the world's attention. More recently, the spotlight of power was centered on Wall Street's banks and brokers until 2008. Today, however, the heads of government and central banks are the market movers.

The financial crisis of 2008-2009 turned the economy and the private sector on its head. Hobbled by the largest crisis in generations, Wall Street was drowning. With the banking sector about to implode, the Street had no choice but to ask the U.S. Treasury for an unprecedented bailout. As one corporation after another (think the auto industry) faced the threat of bankruptcy, the center of financial decision making shifted to Washington, D.C. It remains there today.

Government's role in the economy is nothing new. For many years it has guided the overall pace of economic activity, attempting to maintain steady growth, high levels of employment and price stability. For decades after the Depression of the 1930s, it relied a great deal on fiscal policy to combat the recurring recessions the nation faced.

During the 1960s, the heyday of fiscal policy, the president and Congress played a leading role in directing the economy. However, ideas about the best tools for stabilizing the economy changed after that as a period of high inflation, high unemployment and huge government deficits undermined the country’s faith in fiscal policy. Enter monetary policy (the control of the nation’s money supply) administered by the Federal Reserve Bank and its tools of interest rate manipulation.

In the midst of the panic of 2008-2009, as giant banks went broke and insurance companies teetered on the edge, the government was firing both monetary and fiscal barrels at the problem. The combined policies worked in the sense of staving off a worldwide financial meltdown and another Great Depression. Since 2008, however, because of partisan politics, fiscal policy has fallen by the wayside. Today only the monetary policy option remains to prevent another recession.

In this election year, opposing forces are criticizing the Fed for doing too much or too little to grow the economy. Conservatives say the Fed is creating inflation down the road by its stimulus policies while driving down the value of the dollar. Some have actually accused the Fed of treason in even considering further quantitative easing. Liberals have argued the opposite: criticizing the Fed for being overly worried about inflation and not doing enough to lower the unemployment rate.

Since 2007, the Fed has been engaged in a historical and largely uncharted area of economic manipulation that transcends anything attempted in our country's past. They have been at the center of propping up or selling huge institutions, making loans to banks and others in entirely new and radical ways and buying upward of $2 trillion in government debt and mortgage-backed securities. There is no question that the Federal Reserve Bank, in my opinion, has assumed the throne of financial power in this country by default.

Its power, unlike the private sector, is concentrated in a handful of individuals with considerable independence from the President and the Congress. Both the President and the Congress have all but abdicated their own power to control the economy if not in words, certainly by their actions. The polarization of both parties since the 2008 elections has made fiscal policy initiatives impossible.

The Federal Reserve Bank, through its chairman Ben Bernanke, has on numerous occasions begged the president and both parties to at least share the power via new fiscal policy initiatives. To date that call has been rejected in the name of politics. In my next column I will examine just how big the government has grown as a percentage of GDP and how power could become even more concentrated within our nation's capital in the months and years to 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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@theMarket: Game Changer
By Bill Schmick On: 01:40PM / Friday September 14, 2012
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This week's announcement of a third quantitative easing program goes beyond anything the Fed has done in the past. It is open-ended, extremely positive for equities and will continue even after the economy begins to pick up its pace. The bears are dead.

This is a game changer, in my opinion, so hold on to your hats because the markets are definitely going higher. The only question is how high?

I won't bore you by regurgitating all the moves the Fed has made, but I will give you the bottom line. Interest rates on the short end will stay low through 2015. The Fed is going to target the mortgage market (read housing sector) by buying up all the mortgage-backed securities they can find. That should both drop lending rates further and also spur the banks to start lending money to Americans who have not been able to obtain mortgages or refinancing.

These latest moves by the Federal Reserve Bank are actions I have been advocating since writing my column "What the Markets Missed" on Sept. 22, 2011. It actually goes further by putting everyone — the markets, the politicians, the corporations and small businesses — on notice. Fed support will be on-going. Why is that important?

Because up until Friday, the Fed's wait-and-see attitude toward additional stimulus created a great deal of uncertainty within the markets and the business world. It also created what I call a "start and stop economy." In such a business climate, both Fortune 500 corporations and small businesses cannot plan, cannot hire, and will not invest.

The Fed is not only removing any uncertainty that this might have been their last QE move, but goes a lot further by putting everyone on notice that they are committed to stimulate for as long as it takes — even after the economy starts to grow again.

Remember readers that no matter how much support the Fed is willing to contribute they can't solve the unemployment problem alone. Once again, Chairman Ben Bernanke reiterated that without fiscal policy, the unemployment situation is not going to improve very much.

So bear with me as I fantasize about the near future. In my opinion, Ben Bernanke just handed the presidency to his boss, Barack Obama. In exchange, so this story goes, the newly re-elected President Obama will forego partisan politics, work with the opposition in both the House and Senate and implement a full employment policy through fiscal stimulus.

But what specific policies are the Republicans and Democrats going to implement in order to reduce unemployment? Both sides keep jawboning about "getting America back to work" but exactly how are they going to accomplish that? How, for example, is cutting spending and raising taxes either directly (taxing the rich) or indirectly (cutting services to the middle class and poor) going to increase job growth? Readers/voters should demand those answers now — before voting for one politician or the other.

But back to the markets, with "risk on" once again, dividend and income funds should take a back seat to more aggressive areas. That doesn't mean dividend stocks won't still go up. They will, but just not as fast. Other more defensive areas such as utilities, consumer and durable goods, healthcare and such will also see less price appreciation than some other sectors. For those who still hold long-dated U.S. Treasury Bonds, get out of them right now. The Fed is no longer supporting that market and as the economy strengthens the prices of these bonds are going to plummet.

Some areas in the stock market that have lagged the overall markets could do quite well between now and November elections. The materials sector seems ripe for a rebound as do the financials and industrial sectors. Emerging markets, which are also top heavy in commodities, could catch up fairly quickly.

I am not sure how high the markets will go before succumbing to a bout of profit taking but, given the background of central bank stimulus, I remain a buyer of pullbacks, which has been my advice since early June. It was a great summer and it could be an even better fall.
 
Bill Schmick is registered as an investment advisor 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: Presidential Power in an Election Year
By Bill Schmick On: 07:35PM / Thursday September 13, 2012
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"Executive power has been regarded as a lion which must be caged. So far from being the object of enlightened popular trust, far from being considered the natural protector of popular right, it has been dreaded, uniformly, always dreaded, as the great source of its danger."
 — U.S. Sen. Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, 1834


In the heat of this year's presidential election campaign, voters usually lose sight of one of the most important facts surrounding that office. American presidents, for the most part, have much less power than we think.

Recall the high hopes you may have had in 2008 when candidate Barack Obama promised that "Yes we can" fix the economy, get Americans working again, etc., etc. In his first two years in office. there was plenty of action in translating his vision into reality. We had the stimulus package, Obamacare, clean energy initiatives and a rising deficit as a result. Of course, his party controlled both houses of Congress so passing legislation was a breeze.

But the Tea Party and the mid-term elections of 2010 revealed just how little power the Obama presidency (or any presidency) can muster in the face of a divided Congress. Sure, blame Obama. After all, some of his predecessors managed to get legislation passed despite a hostile Congress, but not many. The historical truth is that the founding fathers designed the office to disappoint those of us who want a powerful leader. You see, those Colonial revolutionaries distrusted government in general and the presidency in particular and our political system evolved accordingly.

The Supreme Court, the Federal Reserve Bank, Congress and don't forget the states all detract from the power this one individual might have held over our life. In order to change anything, let alone move the country in a new direction, the president must create a coalition of interests throughout the other branches of government. This is exactly what the founding fathers, fresh from their battle with King George and the British monarchy, intended.

Yet we still expect the person who succeeds to the presidency to be someone with the power of Superman, the charisma of the Messiah and the personal life of Mother Theresa. The candidates understand this. They are forced to promise us the world knowing full well that they do not have the power to deliver it. If they actually told us the truth — that the office holds little power and voters should not expect much of them — would anyone vote for them?

In foreign policy, the president does have somewhat more authority, but once again it is limited by public opinion, Congress and geopolitical realties. As an example, George W. Bush, despite his adversity to nation-building, became an unwilling hostage to a strategy he appalled thanks to 9/11. As for the Obama presidency, it has failed to change public opinion in any decisive manner despite the great expectations of many around the globe when he was first elected.

Mitt Romney appears to want to take a more proactive stance in foreign policy, citing the re-emergence of Russia as a threat as well as viewing China as both an economic and military adversary of sorts. Like his predecessors, if elected, how well he will do in actively balancing the various chess pieces on the world board is far more dependent on what other parties do.

Presidents are far more successful as messengers; some might say visionaries, who can guide the nation along a path while orchestrating the various political players in the band to acquiesce (via compromise) to his point of view. The problem with that role in today's politics is that both parties now reflect the increasing polarization of American society. Neither side is willing to compromise, believing deeply that their way is the right way. The next president might well achieve history but not on his own terms. It would be wise if we all remember that when we vote.

A note to my readers in the Berkshires:

I have volunteered to teach a course this fall at Berkshire Community College at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI). The classes will be on Mondays from 2:45-4:15 p.m. throughout September and October. The course, "America's Future: Buy, Sell or Hold?" will teach students to think critically about such events as this year's presidential elections, wealth and women, our education system and much more. For more information or to sign up for the course call the OLLI office at 413-236-2190.

Bill Schmick is registered as an investment advisor 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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