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The Independent Investor: Cheap Doesn't Cut It Anymore
By Bill Schmick On: 03:38PM / Thursday December 13, 2012
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In this brave new world of ours, it is no longer enough to simply offer the lowest cost product. Product innovation is now critical to a company's success. U.S. companies are discovering it is becoming harder to innovate when their manufacturing plants are half a world away.

Just look at the competition in hand-held devices, medical technology, and a plethora of other high-tech products, the highest sales go to the innovators with the most dependable products. But innovation doesn't stop there. Increasingly, even basic manufacturing products from wing nuts to autos are experiencing a transformation. Corporate teams of designers, engineers and workers on the assembly line find themselves collaborating like never before to produce a smaller, sleeker and more energy-efficient mouse trap, just like they did in the days of Henry Ford.

In order to do that, many companies are realizing that they need their manufacturing processes and factories closer to home. That realization is fueling an "insourcing" of jobs and manufacturing back to America. That's good news for the future of this country and its workforce.

Readers may recall my column, "Made in America Returns" back in June of this year. In that article, I attributed the renaissance in American manufacturing to lower energy and transportation costs here at home as well as the narrowing of labor costs between American workers and those unskilled workers of China and other emerging economies.

But that is not the entire story. A recent article in The Atlantic by Charles Fishman, titled "The Insourcing Boom," caught my eye. He chronicled the recent experiences of General Electric in transforming its defunct Appliance Park, Ky., manufacturing headquarters into today's cutting-edge producer of basic products like water heaters, refrigerators and dishwashers.

As a resident of Pittsfield, anything "GE" is of interest to me and my clients. Back in the day, Pittsfield was the headquarters of this red, white and blue manufacturing juggernaut. That is until Jack Welch, its former CEO, got it into his mind to ship most of our manufacturing jobs off to China and other cheap labor centers 30-some years ago. The same thing happened to Appliance Park. Both towns were devastated. Pittsfield is only now beginning to recover.

Appliance Park, on the other hand, is actually undergoing a revival of its original purpose, manufacturing American-made appliances, thanks to some recent discoveries by present GE management and its current CEO Jeffrey Immelt. After failing to sell the facility in 2008, management resolved to "make it work" at the huge six-factory complex. It soon realized that they could make highly efficient, higher-quality appliances here at home at a lower cost than could be produced elsewhere.

The key, as more and more companies are beginning to understand, to creating truly innovative products, regardless of their nature, at a reasonable price, is having all the pieces of the product creation puzzle in the same place. Over the past few decades that principle was lost and forgotten as U.S. companies rushed overseas to take advantage of cheap labor. In today's marketplace, however, cost is taking a back seat over quality and innovation; something more and more consumers are demanding and willing to pay for.

Input from those in the manufacturing process is becoming integral to engineering and designing a better, more competitive product. You can’t do that when your widget is being made on a Chinese or Indian factory floor in a different time zone, by workers who can't speak English. Although this trend should benefit our own workers, the question to ask is:

Is our workforce prepared for that challenge and opportunity?  In my next column we will address the issue of skilled workers, or the lack thereof, in America.

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.

 



     
The Independent Investor: U.S. Debt — Another Cliff Note
By Bill Schmick On: 04:00PM / Thursday December 06, 2012
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While politicians bicker over the "Fiscal Cliff," the government continues to borrow about $4 billion a day. The statutory ceiling on U.S. Treasury borrowing is $16.4 trillion and we will hit that number by year-end. Then what?

If Congress refuses to raise the borrowing limit, we can expect the government to run out of options to avoid a default sometime by the end of February 2013. If we default, even technically, the credit agencies are ready to downgrade our debt once again. You may remember the drama and hysterics that last year's debt limit crisis invoked.

For months, pundits predicted dire consequences if the rating of our sovereign debt was downgraded by the big three credit agencies. Foreign holders of our debt would abandon us, they said. Interest rates on all sorts of debt would skyrocket. There would be a stock and bond market crash. Standard and Poor's did actually cut our debt rating from AAA to AA-plus. Contrary to the predictions of these Cassandras, bond prices actually went higher and rates lower; so much for the vaunted power of our credit agencies.  

Readers may recall why that downgrade happened. Last year was the first time in history in which Congress turned what had been a pro forma vote to raise the debt ceiling into a hostage-taking crisis. In exchange for their approval, congressional Republicans demanded huge spending cuts. One can fault the president for going along with that game, instead of simply raising the debt ceiling on his own and dealing with the consequences.

But President Obama has made it clear that last year was a one-time event. He is insisting, as part of the Fiscal Cliff negotiations, that Congress relinquish its control over the debt ceiling. He is right, in my opinion. Using the nation's borrowing ability for political gain is unacceptable.

The 2011 debt ceiling farce also marked a turning point in a number of areas. It was the seminal event that reversed this country's priority from job creation and economic growth to austerity. It also resulted in the down grading of our nation's debt by a credit agency. It is also worth noting that S&P's downgrade decision was politically motivated.

The credit agency, in its explanation for its negative rating change, explained that based on the 2011 debt negotiations, that the U.S. government's ability to manage fiscal policy was "less stable, less effective, and less predictable."

In one of those paradoxes of history, going over the fiscal cliff would actually avert any further downgrade to our debt status. The expiring Bush tax cuts and automatic spending cuts across the board would do quite a bit to alleviate the stated default-related concerns of the credit rating agencies. The tax cuts would generate around $4 trillion in new revenues over the next decade. That is almost the exact amount most credit agencies are looking for in deficit reduction in order for our fiscal house to be out of danger.

Of course, going over the cliff and staying there will present the nation with another set of economic problems. Both sides agree that the combination of tax increases and spending cuts of that magnitude will both raise unemployment and slow the growth of the economy. It could actually tip us back into recession. One would think the risk of default for any nation would climb as a result.

Back in September, Egan-Jones, a smaller credit rating agency, downgraded American debt from AA to AA-minus, citing Federal Reserve plans to stimulate the economy (QEIII). They argued the plan would reduce the value of the dollar, do little to stimulate the economy and artificially raise the price of oil and other commodities. That would, in turn, hurt U.S. businesses and the consumer. They indicated that the risk of inflation, rather than the risk of default, was the justification for its downgrade.

In which case, if we do fail to come to a compromise, fall off the cliff and, as a result, experience a decline in economic growth and inflation, will the credit agencies actually revise their ratings upward? It would appear they would have to since the basis of their downgrades was politics and lack of fiscal austerity (S&P's reason) and inflation (Egan-Jones' argument). We will have to wait and see how this same group that missed the entire subprime debacle handles this one.

 

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.

 



     
The Independent Investor: Let the Lobbying Begin
By Bill Schmick On: 02:04PM / Thursday November 29, 2012
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The Fiscal Cliff commands center stage. The nation's news media is dutifully reporting every syllable uttered by anyone even remotely connected to the negotiations. But what really matters is what is said behind closed doors between Washington's lobbyists and our elected officials.

Now that the elections are over, the debate (and agreement) among voters and parties that taxes should be raised and spending cuts must necessarily come down to the details. Those details and the devils that represent them (called special interest groups) are assaulting congressional offices with convincing arguments on why their constituencies should be excluded from either tax increases or spending cuts.

It is an old story. Theoretically, in America, I may agree that we should all suffer for the greater good of the country and the economy, as long as in reality "all" doesn't include me. In Washington, that concept prevails everywhere. A corporate coalition, for example, is lobbying to kill any tax increases in the dividend rate. That rate, currently at 15 percent, could go as high as 35 percent or more. They argue that raising the dividend tax will hurt seniors who depend on dividends as part of their retirement savings.

Of course, they neglect to add that the vast majority of Americans (low-and middle class investors) who own dividend stocks, own them in their retirement accounts, which are excluded from dividend taxes. I suspect that raising taxes on dividends will predominantly impact the 1 percent of America's most wealthy, but that's not part of their argument.

Readers, by now, are fully aware that the sticking point between Republicans and Democrats, as far as extending the Bush tax cuts, centers upon those earning $250,000 or more annually. The Democrats do not want to extend the Bush-era tax cuts to that group, while Republicans do. Instead, the GOP would like to focus on eliminating certain individual tax loopholes, arguing that they would be less harmful to businesses, jobs and the economy.

One loophole being discussed is the tax deductibility of home mortgages for either first or second home owners or both. There is some talk about capping that deduction, although to do so would impact many middle-class Americans as well as the wealthy, argues the homebuilding industry. Their lobby won't tolerate even a minor change in the mortgage interest deduction.

They contend that home ownership has taken the brunt of the decline in the nation's economy and is now only beginning to recover. Monkeying with mortgage deductions would throw housing back into a tailspin and with it the majority of homeowners in this country, according to housing advocates.

AARP, the top lobbyist for retirees, is also dead set against any spending cuts to Medicare and Social Security. Even minor changes such as slowing the cost-of-living formula for Social Security recipients or extending the age of Medicare eligibility is anathema to their constituency, retirees.

Wherever you look, from charitable contributions to energy depletion allowances, some group or another has a reason, sometimes rational, sometimes not, for why the axe should be spared in their case. It appears that where individual interests are concerned, posterity is taking a backseat among America's lobbyists and the populations and professions they represent. I suspect that if we expect our elected officials to compromise and avoid the Fiscal Cliff; Americans should first look at their own attitude toward compromise where our individual interests are concerned.

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.



     
The Independent Investor: Fiscal Cliff or Shallow Ditch?
By Bill Schmick On: 03:44PM / Thursday November 15, 2012
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And you tell me
Over and over and over again, my friend
Ah, you don't believe
We're on the eve
of destruction
.

— Barry Mcquire, "Eve of Destruction"

Panic has once again descended upon Wall Street. This time investors are gnashing their teeth over whether our political parties will be able to strike a tax and spending deal before Jan. 1. If not, so the story goes, we will plunge, like lemmings, over the so-called Fiscal Cliff never to return. Why am I not impressed?

We have had a number of these dramatic binary events over the last few years. They always make great theater, but none have turned out nearly as bad as the media predicted. If you had panicked and sold on their advice you would be much poorer today. This particular cliff-hanger reminds me of another end-of-the-year event that was predicted to cause horror and dismemberment among the world's institutions, Y2K.

The Year 2000 was a problem for both digital (computer-related) and non-digital documentation and data storage situations that resulted from the practice of abbreviating a four-digit year to two digits. Would the world's computers be able to recognize and accommodate a year that began with "2" instead of "1?"

At the time, we were assaulted for months with stories that spelled out what could, would or should happen if the world was not prepared for this digital disaster. But predicting the end of the world is a zero-sum gain. If someone gets it right, (and no one has thus far) there won't be anyone left around to brag about it. As for Y2K, it turned out to be, in the words of Shakespeare "Much Ado about Nothing."

In this case, investors, who have known about the Fiscal Cliff for months, are assuming what happens before it will happen again. Readers may recall that last year, both Republicans and Democrats could not agree on how to address our growing deficit. The Republicans used the nation's debt limit, which was fast approaching a ceiling, as a bargaining chip to force a series of spending cuts on the White House and Senate. Both sides refused to back down. At the 11th hour, it was agreed to kick the can down the road until after the elections by temporarily raising the debt ceiling in exchange for implementing a series of tax hikes and spending cuts that would be implemented automatically at the beginning of 2013.

If there is no compromise, pundits and even the president have predicted that the combination of tax rises and spending cuts will drive us back into a recession, the gains in employment will evaporate and the United States will quickly join Europe in vying for the worst economy of 2013. No one wins. Everyone loses.

What's wrong with that picture?

Well, for starters, everyone knows it and politicians hate to lose. Americans have also conveniently forgotten that the parties did compromise last year. They agreed to disagree, but still raised the debt ceiling at the height of partisan politics. Today, less than two weeks after the elections, President Obama was re-elected with a mandate to lead but also to compromise. That seems clear when you look at the results in Congress. Republicans were re-elected and maintain their majority in the House while the Democrats control the Senate. It seems to me that voters want compromise from all their elected officials and both parties know it. Last year there was no such message; in fact, if anything, both sides felt it was their way or the highway and still they compromised.

So far, both sides have said they are willing to do just that. In politics (as in real life) you go into negotiations with your strongest suit. Otherwise, you have nothing to give in exchange for another card. I believe there is a new willingness in Washington to compromise but, for Americans, it will have to be one of those "show me" moments. As such, patience and a cool head are required until then.

We only have 14 or 15 working days on Capitol Hill in order to get a deal done before this "Eve of Destruction." Just about everyone assumes both sides will not budge and negotiations have not even started.

In the meantime, there is an old saying on Wall Stree: "Don't fight the tape." It means that regardless of whether the direction of the market is right or wrong, don't fight the flow. Right now, panic prevails, the markets are in a waterfall decline and investors are all going down like lemmings together. Don't get caught up in this crowd psychology. In my opinion, sentiment and the markets will reverse as soon as it becomes apparent that this black chasm in front of us is simply one more shallow ditch.

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.


     
The Independent Investor: Insult to Injury
By Bill Schmick On: 05:27PM / Thursday November 08, 2012
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It has been over a week since Hurricane Sandy descended upon the Northeast. Adding insult to injury, this week's Nor'easter provided yet another punch to a region that is barely standing. Fortunately, yesterday's storm was more of an inconvenience than a disaster.

Of course, those who just had their power restored in places like Long Island and the battered New Jersey sea coast were plunged back into despair at this new power outage. But damage is minor compared to the estimates that Sandy has wrought. The price tag is now ranging from $30 to $50 billion, but that is only a guesstimate. Losses that are insured by private companies could amount to $20 billion or more. Additional losses covered by the National Flood Insurance Program, plus uninsured losses, could boost the total to the $50 billion mark.

Normally, the estimates of property damage are usually revised upward, while those losses incurred as a result of lost business activity are revised downward. That is because businesses usually find a way to make up for lost activity. In the case of Sandy, regaining lost business activity depends on when the power is restored. In many areas, power is still not fully restored and won't be soon, thanks to yesterday's storm.

Damage totals would put the cost of Sandy far above recent hurricanes and at least equal the cost of the four hurricanes the United States suffered in 2004. But the losses are still well below the $100 billion price tag of Hurricane Katrina, although it could beat the next largest storm, Hurricane Andrew in 1992 ($46 billion in inflation-adjusted losses).

There are a lot of misunderstandings about weather-related destruction. I have read a number of articles that seem to suggest that storm damages could actually be good for the economy. Pundits like to point out that although the damage will cause a dip in economic activity in the impacted region over the short-term, the economic reconstruction involved in rebuilding infrastructure (roads, bridges, subways, railways, etc.), plant and equipment (factories, stores, housing), and goods and services could actually act as a stimulus to the economy while creating new employment.

Some of the depressed consumer spending, they argue, will simply be postponed. For example, Hurricane Sandy was responsible for a 20 percent drop in retail sales last week in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast regions amounting to $4 billion. Although some of that will surely be recouped in the weeks and months ahead because of Thanksgiving and the Christmas season, not all of it will be recouped.

What many are forgetting is that natural disasters are destroyers, not creators, of wealth. The opportunity cost that we forego in natural disasters is immense. Think of what the victims could have done with the time, money and effort they now have to spend on rebuilding. No longer can businesses, homeowners and even the government make the purchases and investments on other more productive pursuits that could have generated more jobs and a better business environment if the disaster had not occurred.

Sure, the re-building process may result in a better structure or highway than before but the costs are replacement costs, not new investment. And what value will we place on the 100-plus lives that were lost or the pain and suffering of those that are now homeless or without jobs? What about their opportunity costs?

Sandy was a hurricane, a destructive one, but there was nothing super about it. It will take those in the Northeast a long time to recover from its impact and there are precious few silver linings in this disaster no matter how deeply you look.

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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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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