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The Independent Investor: Mars Is Only The Beginning
By Bill Schmick On: 05:40PM / Thursday August 09, 2012
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Hurrah for us. The Curiosity landing on Mars was the most complex landing NASA has ever attempted. The mission cost taxpayers $2.5 billion, but if history is any guide the economic payback to America will be much greater than that.

The purpose of this Mars mission is to perform a highly sophisticated scientific analysis of the Red Planet around the Gale Crater. Curiosity, the one-ton robotic rover, is loaded with an army of scientific instruments including high resolution cameras, infrared lasers, microscopes, X-ray spectrometer and even drills for retrieving samples of the surface for further analysis. If history is any guide, NASA probably has a host of other tools that are newly developed proprietary secrets that will trickle through the economy sometime in the future.

Scientists at NASA believe Curiosity (about the size of a Mini Cooper automobile) will remain operational for at least a year. Of course, the public and the media will be looking for answers to the really dramatic questions. Was there life on Mars and when? Are there vast deposits of mineral wealth just waiting to be scooped up from the surface? Even more exciting, could there be new and potentially valuable substances heretofore unknown to man that could be successfully exploited?

While answers to these questions may keep Americans interested, I suspect that the real payoff will come from the technology that went into developing and executing the mission. One only needs to look back at how much economic value was generated by the Apollo moon landing and other space programs to understand my point.

From 1962 to 1972, America spent roughly $16 billion (inflation-adjusted) a year on the space program. I remember watching on television (along with millions of other Americans) as Apollo 11 touched down on the moon's dusty surface on July 20, 1969. It was that landing and subsequent other manned missions to the moon that inspired an entire generation of school kids to become scientists and engineers.

Those are the men and women who have given us untold wealth in the form of the technology we enjoy today. Beyond that, a partial list of technological benefits of the space program include micro circuitry, endless software innovations, miniaturization, a vast array of sensor technologies (used today in everything from medicine to transportation) advancements in telecommunications, precision manufacturing, instantaneous global communication, radar mapping, GPS, and the materials science that developed most of the materials that surround you. The economic benefits of those advancements are incalculable. Suffice it to say that the return on $16 billion/year was huge. America would not be the leading economic power of the world today without the space program.

Unfortunately, in this partisan era of spending cuts, NASA's planetary science efforts budget will be cut by 20 percent next year with further cuts expected in the coming years. Much of this money will come out of the agency's Mars program, which will see its funding fall from $587 million this year to $360 million in 2013 and then to just $189 million in 2015. I think that is a mistake.

Consider that less than two months ago just one of our "most reputable" banks threw away over twice the entire Mars budget by speculating in the same kind of derivatives that gave us the financial crisis of 2008. Even if that bank's bet had paid off, its economic benefit to this country would have been insignificant compared to the potential technological advances generated by the Mars Science Laboratory.

As I write this column, new revelations point to trillions of dollars in losses by the rigging of interest rates by this nation's banks (among others). Yet, our politicians nickel and dime NASA's budget to show how fiscally responsible they are. Where are our priorities?

I am one of those Americans who believe that if we don't invest in science and space exploration, the human race will eventually cease to advance as a species. It confounds me that with all the technological breakthroughs generated by past space programs the question of funding space exploration is even raised. What am I missing here?

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.


     
The Independent Investor: Health-Care Feud Continues
By Bill Schmick On: 04:23PM / Thursday August 02, 2012
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Back in the day when the Supreme Court spoke, politicians usually listened. However, the court's recent decision to uphold the Affordable Care Act seems to have simply incensed its opponents and created more controversy.

"Obamacare," as the legislation has been nicknamed, was probably destined to be controversial no matter what the Supreme Court had decided. But by voting in favor of the act, by reason of Congress' power to levy taxes, simply stirred the hornet’s nest further.

Republicans have said they will try to repeal the key provision of the act after the election. They argue that since the court considers any penalty on citizens who fail to hold health insurance as a tax, then the legislation should be subject to a fast-track procedure called budget reconciliation where certain tax issues are resolved.

The GOP figures that if it can just gain a handful of additional Senate seats in November it can knock down the Act altogether on the tax issue. In any case, Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate and author of Massachusetts' health-care initiative, has sworn to repeal it on his first day as president if he is elected to the White House.

From my point of view, I just can't see what is so bad about our country's fledgling steps toward universal health care. I look at health care as simply another form of insurance like home owners or auto insurance. It is a simple fact that our economic system would not function as well or not at all without certain forms of carried insurance.

Do we, for example, protest when the bank demands that we pay for home insurance as a condition of receiving a mortgage loan? Of course not, because we know that a fire, or flood or a tree could fall on our home at any time preventing us from paying off our debt, with dire consequences for ourselves as well as the bank.

The same thing applies to auto insurance. Most states require drivers to carry auto insurance. We are relieved that we do, despite the high and ever-increasing costs of carrying this insurance because we know how much those fender-benders cost. God forbid if it is anything more serious! And yet, how many times have we heard of accidents where the other driver was not covered by insurance? Not only were we angry at the driver, but at the authorities as well for even allowing that uninsured driver on the road.

Without insurance, ships wouldn't sail, planes wouldn't fly, trains wouldn't roll, and you would not even be able to move your furniture to that new home across the state. So why do we want to omit something as potentially expensive as poor health from other's insurance obligations?

Might it be possible that people do not understand that an uninsured person with poor health has the ability to inflict financial damage on everyone else in the health care system?

In our country, hospitals and other medical providers tend to give care first and then try to collect payment later. When the system winds up providing free care or is unable to collect on the bills it sends out, who do you think pays for that? You do.

Our health-care system is a for-profit entity that has to make up for the losses incurred by uninsured customers of its services. Costs are reduced either by shaving salaries and benefits of its employees thereby providing less in the way of services and/or charging you higher fees for the services delivered. In turn, you pay more through your co-pay and insurance premiums.

What's worse is that uninsured people usually wait until their medical condition is so extreme that they cannot function without medical assistance. Health issues that could have been resolved by a yearly check-up at the doctor's office are left unattended due to no insurance. These medical problems can cost literally an arm and a leg by the time the person shows up in the emergency room. Not only will the cost of treating that person be much higher than it would be, but taxpayers are likely to foot the bill for that person for the rest of their lives via welfare, disability or other aid programs.

The bottom line is that we are already paying for those who refuse to carry health insurance either as taxpayers or as health-care insurance owners. Obamacare has no impact on the vast majority of Americans who carry some sort of health insurance. As for those who really can't afford health insurance, this country's social system already covers them through Medicaid and other programs.

That only leaves those who are free-riding the system. Those who can afford to pay for health insurance but refuse. They don't even have to buy health insurance under the Act. They simply have to pay a penalty for not opting in. What's wrong with that?

Bill Schmick is an independent investor with Berkshire Money Management. (See "About" for more information.) None of the information presented in any of these articles 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 (toll free) or e-mail him at wschmick@fairpoint.net . Visit www.afewdollarsmore.com for more of Bill's insights.



     
The Independent Investor: 'Bottom' Not Same As Recovery
By Bill Schmick On: 03:45PM / Friday July 27, 2012
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Every summer for the last three years, economists have announced that the housing market has finally bottomed. But in the same breath, they talk about a recovery they expect in the months and years ahead. I agree that the bottom is in but there is little sign of that promised recovery.

In a recent Wall Street Journal poll of 44 economists, all but three were convinced that housing has hit bottom. To back up their contention, one need only review the data in that sector over the last few months. In May, as just one example, 10 percent more existing homes were sold than in the same month last year. Builders also started on 26 percent more single-family homes that month than the depressed levels of last spring.

In June, housing starts rose 6.9 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 760,000 units, which is the highest rate since October 2008. But new permits for building homes dropped 3.7 percent and pending home sales actually decreased by 1.4 percent. In a bottoming process, however, conflicting numbers are to be expected. In an actual recovery, one should expect a consistent string of stronger data points month after month. That has failed to occur.

For the past several years, good news in the spring and summer (the traditional season for home buying) was followed by disappointing data in the fall and winter. We need to see more robust numbers throughout the year and a broadening out of this trend before a housing recovery becomes a reality.

Zillow, a research organization that measures home values, said on Tuesday that the U.S. market has turned the corner after a five-year slump. They point to the fact that home values have risen for four consecutive months. Yet, when the data is examined closely, we find that the biggest price gains are in the markets that saw the largest drops during the real estate crash. California, Arizona, Florida and Nevada have seen higher prices but from a very low base. Whereas places like St. Louis, Chicago and Philadelphia saw price declines.

It could be that the markets that saw the largest gains were simply correcting an oversold condition that was not sustainable. In other words, prices were too cheap, even under these market conditions, and buyers recognized this. If we are in a true recovery, we should see a continuation in price increases in these markets with a flattening out of prices in declining markets.

Many economists argue that this time around a declining supply of houses will bolster the real estate market's recovery. Here again, I look at the level of homes for sale with a jaundiced eye. The level of housing inventory that is being held "off market" concerns me. First, there is the large pool of foreclosed properties that the banks are holding and can't wait to get off their books.

In addition, roughly one-third of all homeowners are underwater on their mortgages. Many of these owners are hoping for a recovery in prices before selling. Finally, a substantial portion of existing home sales have been purchased for cash by buyers who intend on renting out these properties until the market turns and then selling them at a profit.

If I'm correct, that represents an awful lot of potential homes for sale that are not being counted in the nation's housing supply by those who argue that a recovery is under way. About the best that can be said for housing is, if a bottom has occurred, then the housing sector will no longer be a drag on the economy overall. It may also mean that prices will stabilize at last at a lower level, although how long it will be before prices increase is a function of how much inventory there is left to be sold.

In my opinion, it could take several more years before that existing stock of houses is sold off and another generation of homebuyers actually begins the process of bidding up home prices once again. For prices to return to their pre-crash level, we would need to see the economy come roaring back and the jobless rate drop precipitously.

In the meantime, if you are in the market for a place to live, focus on the attractions of owning rather than renting a home to live in rather than as an investment. Unless something changes radically in this country, it could take a long time before you actually see a recovery in housing.

Bill Schmick is an independent investor with Berkshire Money Management. (See "About" for more information.) None of the information presented in any of these articles 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 (toll free) or e-mail him at wschmick@fairpoint.net . Visit www.afewdollarsmore.com for more of Bill's insights.




     
The Independent Investor: The Drought of 2012
By Bill Schmick On: 05:21PM / Thursday July 19, 2012
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All you need do is look out your window to understand that a drought has descended upon our region. Aside from yellow lawns and possibly local restrictions on watering your grass, most of us here in the Northeast haven't felt its real impact — yet.

Naturally, those who farm for a living would beg to differ since they are watching their livelihood shrivel on the stalk or vine daily and if the dry spell keeps up they too will join the ranks of a growing list of U.S. counties (over a thousand today) that are applying for federal disaster relief.

Over 60 percent of the country is in the grip of the worst drought "since the late 1950s," as the media is billing this weather event. And as droughts go, "you ain't seen nothin' yet." In the '50s, for example, the state of Texas suffered a seven-year dry spell that was so bad that children born in 1951 grew up with no knowledge of rain. Dust storms that turned day into night were so powerful that they stripped the paint off of license plates.

Of course, nothing in modern-day American history compares to the drought of the 1930s. As the new decade began, the country was still grabbling with the aftermath of the 1929 stock market crash. At the same time, the U.S. experienced two dry years in a row in 1930-31, especially in the East. As the economy faltered so did the rain and by 1934, 80 percent of the country was in a drought and a depression.

Anyone who has read Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath" has a general idea of how bad a drought can get. Scientists believe the period of 1933-1940 was the worst drought in North America in 300 years. Dust storms, especially in the Great Plains, were daily events and by 1934 it was estimated that 100 million acres of farmland had lost most or all of the topsoil to the winds.

It was at that time, after weeks of storms that the mother of all dust storms hit the nation (Black Sunday, April 14, 1935). Sixty mph winds spread the grit and dust from the Great Plains all the way to Washington, D.C. The term "Dust Bowl" was coined a day later by the Associated Press to describe conditions in the Great Plains. I provide this history lesson for a reason.

History often rhymes. There are some similarities in both the economy and the weather today compared to the 1930s. We experienced a crash in the markets in 2008-2009 brought about by speculation and a credit crisis and are still struggling with the aftermath just like we did in 1929-1930. Today, like then, we worry over this country's huge deficit, out-of-control spending, high unemployment rate and slowing economy. Events are eerily similar to what transpired in the U.S. in the early '30s.

Droughts cause dislocations in the economy whenever they occur. They exasperate existing economic conditions. In this country if you look at the pattern of 20th-century droughts, they normally occur every 20 years, so we are overdue for this dry season. Aside from the predictable impact on food prices, droughts create a chain of cascading secondary effects from lost agricultural jobs and businesses to higher utility costs and other industry costs in the developed world to population displacements and political unrest in emerging markets.

If one looks at just the price of corn in the United States, which has increased in price by 38 percent since June 1, it is not hard to predict increases in processed food prices by the winter. Since other staples, like soybeans and wheat, are also wilting in the heat there could be a domino effect across the board for all kinds of agricultural products.

It might surprise you, however, that the prices of beef, poultry and pork might actually decline in the short term. That's because livestock producers would rather send their herds to slaughter now than face the increased costs of feeding them in the future. Out West, (today's potential Dust Bowl) many ranchers have simply run out of range land that could support their herds. As this new supply of livestock is dumped on the market, prices should ease a bit before heading up, so plan accordingly.  The best strategy would be to stock up now and freeze for the future.

I guess the best that can be said of this drought is that it has a way to run before it can compare to the worst that Mother Nature has thrown at us in the last century. It will most certainly cause more drag on the economy, increase the deficit through federal relief assistance to farmers and put pressure on the unemployment rate.

Under that scenario, is it any wonder that the markets are expecting more stimulus from the Fed? Barring that, I guess we should all brush up on our rain dancing.

Bill Schmick is an independent investor with Berkshire Money Management. (See "About" for more information.) None of the information presented in any of these articles 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 (toll free) or e-mail him at wschmick@fairpoint.net . Visit www.afewdollarsmore.com for more of Bill's insights.




     
The Independent Investor: The Dollars & Sense of Losing Weight
By Bill Schmick On: 11:12AM / Wednesday July 11, 2012
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The statistics are some of the most accurate in the American medical community. Overall, 35.7 percent of the adult population and 16.9 percent of our children are obese. If you add in those Americans who are merely overweight, then two-thirds of this nation are on the road to higher health costs, a shorter life and a miserable life style.

Obesity-related illnesses cost us $179 billion annually, with obese Americans spending 42 percent more per year for medical care than the non-obese to treat everything from Type II diabetes to heart disease. Breaking that down into individual dollars and cents, it costs $4,879 for women and $2,646 for men every year in various costs associated with being overweight or obese.

It means that obese women pay nine times more and obese men pay six times more in associated costs than do individuals at a healthy wright. Besides the obvious individual health costs associated with this American epidemic, there are also work-related costs that you may not realize.

A study by Duke University concluded that it is costing business $73.1 billion annually in absenteeism, work productivity and other costs for obese, full-time employees. Lost productivity alone is costing us $12.1 billion a year, which is twice as much as the medical costs. It works out that it is costing business $16,900 per capita for females and $15,500 for men in the 100 pounds overweight category of worker.

Other non-medical costs include wage loss, higher premiums for life insurance, short-term disability and disability pension insurance, sick leave (obese men miss two more days of work than healthy men) and early mortality.

Much of the statistical data on how many of us are overweight or worse is derived from measuring the Body Mass Index, a cheap and simple formula to determine a rough estimate of body fat. You use your weight and height to compute a score. Those over a certain score are considered overweight and as your score increases so does the obesity factor.

Let's take me for example, for most of my adult life my weight fluctuated between 185-190 pounds. At six-foot, two, I smoked and worked out like a fiend (love those contradictions). Seven years ago, I quit smoking, stopped exercising, and subsequently ballooned in weight to 255 pounds. My BMI soared from 24 to 33. I avoided standing on the scale and hated getting my yearly physical for obvious reasons. What I didn’t know, won't kill me (yep, another contradiction).

In the meantime, my brother, who is three years younger than I and about the same height and weight, came down with Type II diabetes because of his weight. It was only a question of time before my added pounds was going to show up as serous health issues. I started back to the gym but continued to eat what I wanted. I gained even more. It was at that point, I realized that I had been kidding myself. I wasn't overweight, I was officially obese.

Almost 55 pounds later (and lighter), the years seem to have have fled and I feel better than I have in a decade. The point to this "true confessions" is that although I knew all the obesity statistics, I never considered myself anything but overweight. I suspect we are all the same until something happens that allows us to take a bite out of reality.

There is good news and bad news about the obesity epidemic in this country. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that after two decades of steady increases, obesity rates in adults and children in the U.S. have remained unchanged during the last 12 years. Either we have reached the saturation level in the population where everyone that is prone to gaining weight has done so, or that the constant drum beat of public education on the dangers of obesity has made an impact. That's the good news.

The bad news is that a recent study by the New York University School of Medicine indicates that obesity in America might be far worse than we think. The culprit is the same BMI that we all use to determine obesity. Although the BMI is cheap and the starting point for measuring a weight problem is also one of the least accurate medical tests in existence. The study concluded that the number of obese Americans may actually be much higher than we think.

The researchers believe the problem with the BMI is that it estimates rather than measures body fat. The study used two other measures along with BMI — the amount of leptin, a protein which regulates the body's metabolism and Dual Energy X-Ray Absorptiometry that tests body fat, muscle mass and bone density. Thirty-nine percent of those patients in the study who were classified as overweight were actually obese.

The bottom line is that we are killing ourselves. Our children are entering adulthood heavier than they've ever been at any time in human history. The way our food is processed, American's addiction to fast food, our increasingly sedentary life style, an aversion to pain or discipline — all have been offered as reasons for this state of the nation. It doesn't matter who or what is to blame, in my opinion. Fat is fat and until each of us understands and takes responsibility for his or her own part in this epidemic there is little anyone can do outside of food rationing. My advice is get on the scale. And take it from there.

Bill Schmick is an independent investor with Berkshire Money Management. (See "About" for more information.) None of the information presented in any of these articles 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 (toll free) or e-mail him at wschmick@fairpoint.net . Visit www.afewdollarsmore.com for more of Bill's insights.




     
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Pittsfield Considering Lighting Up North Side of Tyler Street
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State Provides $200K To Fix Pittsfield Roads
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Williamstown Medical Entities Easing Residents' Anxiety
Pine Cobble Forest Project, Dinner Celebrates Utility of Goats
Reception Set for Retiring Williams Inn Owners
North Adams Approves Taxi Rate Hikes
Waldorf High School Students Make Historic Trip to Cuba
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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