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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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@theMarket: Market Stalls at Record Highs

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

Stock market averages made another batch of new highs this week only to fall back in what may be buyer exhaustion. If the trend continues, investors may be looking at a 4-5 percent decline from here.

It is too early to tell, because one day does not make a trend. We could easily experience a rebound next week, but I would still consider the present levels of most indexes ripe for a fall. My column last week pointed out that we are now in a "danger zone." Sure, the markets could continue to grind higher but every additional point just sets us up for an overdue correction.

Since all eyes and ears are on Washington, progress on President Trump's agenda is dictating where the markets will trade. Every television appearance and tweet by President Trump simply adds to investor expectations. At this point, investors expect that tax cuts, a wholesale revamp of rules and regulations, plus a multitrillion-dollar infrastructure spending plan is just around the corner. It is not.

For those of us who understand the pace of reform in the nation's capital, it would be best to take a longer-term approach to Trump's agenda. It appears, for example, that health care will be the first area our legislatures will be addressing this year. That does not mean that one day soon Congress will vote on a soup-to-nuts replacement of the Affordable Care Act.

Instead, expect to see a flurry of piecemeal changes over the course of many months. Lawmakers will attempt to address the failings of the present health system without disrupting those who are already members of the Obamacare insurance scheme. That will not be an easy task.

Steve Mnuchin, the new secretary of the Treasury, tempered investors' expectations this week that tax reform would also be a done deal any day now. Instead, he promised "significant" tax reform before the congressional August recess. In my opinion, that is still a wildly optimistic deadline for something that has been talked about, but not acted upon, for many years. And yet, naïve investors were disappointed by the new time frame.

Prospects for infrastructure spending, another of the president's policy initiatives, appears to be fading into sometime next year. That is understandable, given the need to balance the desire to get Americans back to work again with the impact that spending will have on an already-bloated deficit.  

Of course, the problem with that kind of disappointing news is investors have already bid up material, commodity and building stocks to outrageous price levels over the past two months. Given that market participants today are notoriously short-term in outlook, there is a risk that speculators will dump these stocks now and revisit them later (hopefully at a lower price).

And if they do, what's to stop traders from taking down the entire market simply because there may be a time delay between investor expectations and the implementation of Trump's agenda? You can see the risk, and it is one reason that I have turned cautious in the short-term.

Do I believe, like some, that Donald Trump won't be able to pull off his program? No, I don't, but I am realistic about the time required to accomplish his goals. There may simply be a disconnect between what investors are expecting and what I believe can be accomplished in the short-term.

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: What Happens to Your Pet After Your Death?

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

If you are one of the 70 percent of the population that considers their pet a member of the family, you should review your estate planning documents. Otherwise, there is a good chance your pet will either end up in the pound, or worse.

This hits close to home for many of us. If my wife and I were to die, for example, who would take care of our chocolate Lab, Titus?

There are few people who we would trust to take care of him. Compounding the problem is the fact that he is 8 years old and suffers from arthritis. I discovered that simply putting some instructions in a will was neither legally binding nor particularly useful. Unless we do something different, Titus could be condemned to imprisonment and a life without love.  

You must understand that legally a dog, cat, horse or any other kind of pet is not considered a human being. They are considered your property. As such, Titus is our "property" and the law states that you can't leave property to a piece of property.

Therefore (until recently and only in some states) your pet can't be a beneficiary in a will. Your instructions within a will are not enforceable. I might state that Bri (our dog whisperer) gets Titus in the event we pass, but a will cannot instruct Bri to care for the dog, take him to the vets, etc. Don't forget, too, that your will is not enacted immediately. All wills have a waiting period, sometimes months, even longer if it is contested.  Who is going to care for your pet in the meantime?

It is also difficult in a will to disburse money to someone for your pet's care over a pet's lifetime since a will is a static (as opposed to an on-going) document. And changes to a will are at the court's discretion. Do you really want some judge, who may or may not be an animal lover, deciding your pet's fate?

You may recall the now-famous case of Leona Helmsley, who left $12 million in trust to Trouble, her white Maltese, while giving nothing to two of her four grandchildren. In 2007, a year after she died, a judge reduced the dog's wealth by $10 million. Still, $2 million was enough for Trouble to live a life of luxury, until she died at age 12 in 2011.

In some cases, pet provisions in your will may only be "honorary." Fortunately, 40 states and the District of Columbia recognize statutory pet trusts, so that pet owners who direct someone to take care of their pet and bequest funds for its care could work through such a legal document. In the states without statutory pet protections, however, these provisions are "honorary." That means the person who receives the funds decides whether or not to use them for your pet's care. There is nothing to prevent that person from dumping your pet and taking a vacation with your $5,000.

The person to whom you entrusted your pet to could be a loving, caring person, but what if the person is allergic to your pet, or already has pets of their own and conflict develops between them? The person may live or move to a rental apartment or community that excludes pets. As you now realize, there is a lot to consider here.

But there are avenues you can pursue to protect your pets. There are legally enforceable documents that can guarantee an animal's continuing care. Some statues such as the Massachusetts General Laws chapter 203E, Section 408 are relatively new. We will be discussing pet trusts in our next column with an expert attorney on the subject, Holly Rodgers.

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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