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The Independent Investor: Trump's Budget

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

It was late, "skinny," and guaranteed to send Washington lawmakers up a wall.  President Trump's first crack at a budget, released on Thursday, makes drastic cuts to many sacrosanct departments and programs while boosting spending in others.

If you haven't strapped in quite yet, now is the time to do so. The president's 53-page budget (less than half of his predecessor's lean, 134 pages) makes dramatic cuts to departments such as the Environmental Protection Agency (minus-31 percent) and the State Department (minus-28 percent), while increasing defense spending by $54 billion.

Areas that would also be hit hard were foreign aid, grants to multilateral development agencies such as the World Bank and United Nation's climate change initiatives. Clearly, "America First" was front and center in making these decisions. Here at home, renewable energy research and carbon dioxide emissions reductions would also be jettisoned, if the president gets his way.

The Agricultural Department, a bastion of American protectionism, was cut by 21 percent. It would see loans and grants for wastewater slashed, headcount reduced, and a program that gives U.S. farmers tax credits by donating crops for overseas food aid would disappear.

Nineteen organizations that count on federal funds for support such as public broadcasting and the arts would cease completely. Home heating subsidies, clean-water projects and some job training would also go by the wayside. The Housing Department's community development grants, along with 20 Education Department programs, including some funding programs for before and after-school programs, felt the ax. Anti-poverty programs were targeted as well.

In contrast, defense spending will be boosted by $54 billion, money for veterans would increase 6 percent and the White House is asking for a $1.5 billion down payment for the building of Trump's "Great Wall." In many ways, Trump's budget looks like a typical GOP blueprint but there are some differences.

For example, Trump wants to strip infrastructure funding from federal agencies, largely the purview of the Department of Transportation (highways, bridges and airports) and the Army Corp of Engineers, which takes care of the nation's inland waterways. Congress controls where that money is spent. We are all aware that historically, a large part of government spending programs is simply an exercise in legal bribery.

Each congressman and senator gets their "taste," depending on how powerful they are and how good they are horse-trading in the cloak room. Bridges to nowhere, choice contracts to favored construction companies — the litany of kickbacks, waste, and cost overruns go hand-in-hand with what we know as government spending.

Here comes Trump. By taking the purse strings away from Congress, he intends on keeping control of how much gets spent on what (and who benefits). Trump is throwing down the gauntlet to the business-as-usual crowd of Washington politicians on both sides of the aisle.

The ink isn't even dry and already the politicians of both parties are "outraged," "concerned," or "doubtful" in commenting about the White House budget proposals. In truth, presidential budgets are simply a "wish list" and should be taken as such. However, once again, the new president is hell bent on fulfilling his campaign promises.

I would expect Republicans will support the president's budget in theory but when it gets down to the nitty gritty, they, like the Democrats, will make sure that business remains "as usual" unless the new president can out-Trump them.

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. None of the information presented here should be construed as an endorsement of BMM or a solicitation to become a client of BMM. Direct inquiries to Bill at 1-888-232-6072 (toll free) or email him at Bill@afewdollarsmore.com.
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@theMarket: Mushy Markets in March

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist
Investors took a break this week from the ongoing Trump rally, even as the pace of change in Washington seems to be accelerating. Both the financial downside and political upside should be positive for your investment portfolio overtime.
 
The minor consolidation I have been expecting in the stock market began this week. The averages have pulled back a little, but the S&P 500 Index, for example, has lost less than one percent from its all-time highs. That's not exactly the end of the world ...
 
I see a meandering two steps back, one step forward, kind of market with the downside risk somewhere between 2,300 and 2,330 on the S&P 500 Index. That would equate to about a 4 percent move. As pullbacks go, that would be minor and necessary given the stupendous gains we've seen since November. 
 
Some readers, mostly Trump-haters,(and there are a lot of them in this neck of the woods) have asked why I am so positive on the markets right now. It's simple: hope is a powerful motivator for stock market investors. So far, that hope has been justified. 
 
The repeal of Obamacare was one of the new president's major campaign pledges. This week, Congress began work on repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act (see yesterday's column "America's Road Toward Universal Health Care.")
 
Not bad, for a president who has only been in office for 49 days.
 
His trillion-dollar infrastructure project campaign pledge was this week's focus in the Oval Office. Work is also progressing on federal cost-cutting, while regulation after regulation is coming under scrutiny from cabinet members/businessmen who, by their very nature, hate waste and inefficiency. 
 
Bottom line, this guy is not only doing what he promised to do in the campaign, but he appears to be doing it with a single-minded purpose. So those who can be at least neutral about this president, (a hard place to be in this divided and polarized nation) he gets an "A" for effort.
 
Friday's non-farm payroll report, the first employment data that can be attributed to the Trump administration, came in much better than expected — 227,000 jobs versus an expected 175,000 gains. It appears that more than just stock market investors are hoping for a better environment. American small-business owners, who are responsible for the lion's share of U.S. employment, are among those who hope for a better business climate under Trump.
 
The question will be whether that employment number will convince the central bank to raise short-term interest rates next week. Although the headline numbers look great, the Fed usually looks at details such as whether wages also rose. They didn't. The economy, meantime, is still not growing at an accelerated pace. The Atlanta Fed actually reduced its first quarter GDP growth rate from 1.3 percent to 1.2 percent this week.
 
The Fed Funds Futures market is telling us that bond traders are nearly certain that a rate hike will occur on March 15. I believe that at least part of the reason markets have turned mushy this week is in reaction to this event. Rising interest rates, no matter how small, concern investors greatly. I believe that rising interest rates, not Trump, are the main obstacle to further gains in the stock market this year.
 
But as long as central bank policy remains moderate, with small rate hikes, spaced widely apart, the stock market can adjust and continue to climb. If, however, the Fed becomes more aggressive, for whatever the reason, then all bets are off.  
 
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. None of the information presented here should be construed as an endorsement of BMM or a solicitation to become a client of BMM. Direct inquiries to Bill at 1-888-232-6072 (toll free) or email him at Bill@afewdollarsmore.com.
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The Independent Investor: America's Road Toward Universal Health Care

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

The GOP's plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act was introduced this week.  As one might expect, the Republican Party's long-awaited plan was met with a firestorm of protests from just about every conceivable lobbying group. That's exactly what one should expect, given that there is so much at stake.

Headlines throughout the week warned that if the plan were passed in its present form, health-care premiums could rise by 30 percent or more. Seniors could pay far more for coverage under the new plan, while between 6 million and 10 million people would lose their health insurance coverage altogether. The poor would get short shrift, while the wealthy would benefit most.

The new plan dubbed "The American Health Care Act," (if all goes as planned) will be rolled out in three phases under a budgetary process that would allow Republicans to pass the bill through a simple majority in the Senate. The problem is that although Republicans are unanimous on the need to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the party is divided in how to replace it.

Readers might recall that after the landslide Republican victory in the general election, many Americans were worried that Obamacare would be abolished altogether. The doomsday crowd is convinced that the country's health care insurance coverage will go back to the way things were prior to the ACA. I argue that it is too late for that.

Regardless of what you may think of President Obama, he and the Democratic Party set this nation on a new course. It will, in my opinion, result in universal health-care coverage for all.

"But look at what the GOP is proposing," argue the critics.

My answer is that it is early days and the legislation in its present form will not survive. The Senate (including many moderate Republicans) recognizes that there are deep flaws in Speaker Ryan's plan. But some changes are necessary; otherwise the present program will simply sink further into disrepair.

Please remember, however, that even Barak Obama, in rolling out the Affordable Care Act, conceded that the legislation was not perfect. He fully expected revisions and amendments to the original act. Unfortunately, thanks to a partisan Congress, those amendments never took place. Instead, the opposition simply demanded a repeal of Obamacare, but a funny thing happened on the way to the forum. Uninsured Americans actually saw the benefit of government-sponsored health care, regardless of its imperfections.

Remember, too, that in its present form, the House bill hands over huge benefits to those with the highest income (the one percent) at the expense of the very people who voted for our new president — older blue-collar whites. At least half of Trump's constituency came from white voters without college degrees and the House bill hurts them in multiple ways.

Under Obamacare, in 20 of the 30 states Trump won, non-college whites gained more than any other group. The number of uninsured noncollege white folk fell by 39 percent. Older whites, above the age of 45, provided 56 percent of Trump's vote. This group will be especially hard-hit if House Republicans get their way. They won't.

Four Republican Senators have already gone on record opposing the House bill's Medicaid provisions.  Now that the ball is in their court, I believe Republican lawmakers will soon discover (if they haven't already) that replacing the plan will not be that easy.

And whatever the plan that is finally passed in Washington, D.C., it too will be changed and amended for years to come. Similar to the evolution of Social Security from 1934 into the 1960s, the American version of universal health care will be a process of trial and error until we get it right. And make no mistake, we will get it right. All it requires is patience.

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. None of the information presented here should be construed as an endorsement of BMM or a solicitation to become a client of BMM. Direct inquiries to Bill at 1-888-232-6072 (toll free) or email him at Bill@afewdollarsmore.com.

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@theMarket: Markets Are Priced for Perfection

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

What a week for stock investors! All the main averages and most of the minor indexes registered historic highs. No question, Donald Trump has been good for the markets. The question is when will investors begin to take profits?

Calling a top (or a bottom) in the markets is notoriously difficult. Granted, over the years I have been lucky and managed to catch a turn or two once or thrice. As readers know, once we hit 2,330 on the S&P 500 Index, I expected and still do expect some profit-taking. That doesn't mean you should panic nor do anything more than raise a little cash.

My strategy is to re-employ that cash as we pull back. The timing of such a move is always more of an art than a science. Think of it as a process. Sell a little today, a little more tomorrow, and so on. I'm not looking for a big pullback, maybe 4-5 percent. After the market declines, use the same kind of technique to buy back stock. But don't go overboard because I believe the Trump Rally still has legs.

What, you might ask, has our new president accomplished in order to justify this ongoing rally? Well, aside from a flurry of executive orders that have reversed some of the prior president's executive orders, not very much. But it is what he has promised that has investors drinking the Kool-Aid.  

The litany of tax cuts, infrastructure spending, Obamacare overhaul and an end to onerous rules and regulations has given investors hope. Analysts and pundits are fueling those feelings by drawing up all sorts of "what-if" scenarios that promise good days ahead.

Material, building, construction and defense sectors have skyrocketed in price because of promises of increased defense and infrastructure spending. Forecasters see a big jump in corporate earnings if taxes are cut. As for the impact of less regulation, that is expected to have a beneficial impact on business spending and capital investments.

If the election was about "Making America Great Again" why are overseas markets going up as well? Wasn't President Trump going to launch devastating trade wars with the rest of the world, sending us all down the drain? Others were/are sure that World War III is right around the corner, now that there is a "wild man" in the White House. Yet, global stock markets are going up as well.

One explanation may be that overseas players believe Trump's bark is nowhere near his bite. So far that has proven to be the case. Others are taking heart, hoping that his example will lead to changes in their own countries. One could argue that Brexit began a populist movement worldwide that rejected the status quo, the rule of the few over the many and a revival of capitalism. A case in point is the rise of yet another Trump-like politician in France, where Jean-Marine Le Pen, the far-right candidate of the National Front, looks set to gain even more popularity.

While all of this movement may be intoxicating to market participants, we need to see a little more beef before justifying the present levels of stock prices. I have no doubt that the new administration will get much of what they want done, but it will take time. The market has just gotten a little ahead of itself right now.

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. None of the information presented here should be construed as an endorsement of BMM or a solicitation to become a client of BMM. Direct inquiries to Bill at 1-888-232-6072 (toll free) or email him at Bill@afewdollarsmore.com.

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The Independent Investor: Pet Trusts Are the Way to Go

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

If you have been avoiding a visit to an estate planning lawyer, despite the pleading of your spouse, your kids or grandkids, consider this: your pet's future well-being could be in jeopardy without a legal safeguard.

As I wrote in my last column, new legislation is surfacing in a number of states that recognizes our concern for our pets. Even though we consider our pets part of the household, legally, your pet is not considered a human. Instead, they are considered tangible property and, generally speaking, tangible property cannot be named as a beneficiary of a trust.

Many states, however, are allowing legally enforceable documents that can guarantee a pet's continuing care. Forty-six states and the District of Columbia have passed statutes specific to pet trusts, according to the Animal Law Review. In Massachusetts, legislation was passed in 2011 to provide for pets' welfare after their owners' demise.

"The definition of tangible personal property hasn't changed," explained attorney Holly Rogers, an expert in the area, "but legislatures have recognized a compassionate exception when it comes to our pets."

The primary legal document required to safeguard your pet is a pet trust, according to Rogers:  "It can be as simple as 'I leave $20,000 to my sister, Betty, for the care of my cat, Fluffy.'"

The pet trust can be a stand-alone document, inserted into your will, or worked into your existing revocable trust. And, as we have written in the past, everyone should have a will or trust anyway. A trust is especially important if minors or adults who can't care for themselves are involved. A trust allows your beneficiaries and your pets to avoid probate which is time-consuming, public and expensive. Trusts also allow for tax-planning if you are leaving a substantial inheritance to your beneficiaries.

For those of us that want more than a simple directive, a pet trust can be drafted with any amount of complexity. Rogers who does estate planning for her Massachusetts clients, is the local "go-to" lawyer when it comes to pet planning.
 
"I have created trusts where there are multiple layers of contingencies," she says. "The trust can name trustees and caretakers both appointed within the document, in which the trustee insures that the pet is cared for and disburses money to the appointed caretaker, and provides specific provisions for the pet's care and the duties of the trustee and caretaker. Responsibilities can be broadly or narrowly defined depending upon the owner's wishes. "

How much can you expect to pay for a pet trust? It depends on who you go to and the level of complexity that you demand. Holly Rogers would be much more reasonable. She estimates a range of $250 for an amendment to add a simple pet trust to your existing will or trust to as much as $1,500 for a soup-to-nuts drafting of an estate plan for you and your family in which your pet trust is part of the package.

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. None of the information presented here should be construed as an endorsement of BMM or a solicitation to become a client of BMM. Direct inquiries 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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