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The Independent Investor: What Happens If You Can't Afford Obamacare?
By Bill Schmick On: 05:13PM / Thursday May 23, 2013
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We have all been inundated with the pros and cons of Obamacare. It has become so ubiquitous in our daily lives that most of us have simply tuned it out. We can't afford to do that much longer.

As most readers know, Obamacare, formally named the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, will become the law of the land on Jan. 1, 2014. However, as early as October of this year, a new way of buying health insurance will be available to consumers through an online insurance marketplace. So decision time approaches.

But what about all those who have no health care and believe they can't afford to buy it? What do they do? There have been times earlier in my life when I was unemployed. I could barely afford to feed and house myself let alone worry about health insurance. Besides, I was young, healthy and felt I would live forever so what did I need to shell out a couple hundred dollars a month for unnecessary insurance?  Fortunately I had no family at the time. If I had, I would have been in a real bind.

So I can understand how many of us look at this national health care scheme with anger and even fear. After all, the law says that if we don’t join up and obtain healthcare we are going to be fined. What many lower and even middle income families fail to understand is that there is help out there. All we need do is ask.

At last count there are nearly 26 million Americans that could be eligible for a health insurance subsidy, but few know enough about the provisions of the health care act to apply. I'll keep it simple. If you are a member of a working family with annual earnings between $47,100 and $94,200, you will most likely be able to apply for a subsidy. Over a third of those eligible to apply will be between ages 18 and 34 years old. Anyone who is not a member of a government health insurance program (Medicare or Medicaid) and does not have access to an affordable plan at their work place can apply to the government to help pay their premiums. These subsidies will be paid directly to the insurance companies, so there are no out-of-pocket expense requirements.

Starting in October, we will all be able to buy insurance through one of the state-run online health coverage exchanges with health coverage beginning in January. You will be able to choose between four levels of coverage: platinum, gold, silver and bronze. Each of the four plans will offer different premiums and out-of-pocket expense charges.

So let's say you are a family of four earning $94,200 a year and buy a silver premium plan. Preliminary estimates project that such a plan would cost $12,500, but that number could be higher or lower depending upon where you live. The government would pick up $3,550 of that. The exact amount depends on your actual earned income. The idea is to make sure that all individuals pay about the same percentage of their income for health insurance.

For those of us who already have insurance, you will have to decide whether to keep your existing plans or buy insurance on the online exchange. Naturally, you will be able to choose the provider you want based on who offers the most attractive package in terms of affordability and coverage. For all of us, be prepared for mistakes, misunderstandings and some confusion but that is no reason to stick your head in the sand. We are only three months away from making some important decisions so start paying attention.

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: Sticker Shock in Housing Market
By Bill Schmick On: 04:43PM / Thursday May 16, 2013
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The housing market has been in the doldrums so long that most of us believe that when we are ready to buy a new home there will be plenty of deals out there. Think again, the rising costs of everything from land to labor are causing new home prices to climb.

As U.S. residential real estate begins to rebound from its worst downturn since the Great Depression, the pace of recovery is beginning to cause bottlenecks in all sorts of areas. Suppliers of various building materials, for example, after shutting down much of their operations over the last few years, suddenly are besieged with orders from homebuilders across the nation. Unfortunately, it will take time, money and a willingness to expand in order to meet this new demand.

In the meantime, prices go up. Here are just a few examples: the price of gypsum (a key ingredient in drywall) is now only 6 percent below its peak price during the housing boom of 2006. Cement is 99 percent of its 2006 peak price while lumber is 93 percent of peak pricing. Those producers and distributors who have materials for sale are benefiting from these higher prices, but don't expect them to willy-nilly start expanding capacity.

Once burned, company managements are going to make sure that this new-found demand is not simply a flash in the pan. They will wait until they are sure that future demand and higher prices are sustainable over the longer turn before reopening closed plants and hiring more workers — if they can find them.

It may be hard to believe, given the nation's unemployment rate, but skilled labor is increasingly difficult to locate in both the construction industry and the sectors that supply materials. During the great housing layoff, carpenters, bricklayers, frame builders, equipment operators, electricians, plumbers and more were forced to abandon their professions and for many their geographic location in order to feed themselves and their families. Many migrated into the energy business or wherever else they could find work.

Although we don't like to admit it, Mexican workers (illegally here or otherwise) are also scarce. Many of them went back to Mexico during the recession and never returned. Others abandoned states like Arizona after lawmakers passed stricter immigration laws aimed at undocumented workers.

Even land in the form of finished lots is a scarce commodity. During the last five years, the pipeline of approved finished lots was drawn down nationwide and few new projects were initiated. It will take longer than you think before that pipeline is refilled. Remember that developers must go through a long and onerous process to prepare land for new construction. Some state and local governments require years of deliberation before approving residential projects. In the meantime, finished lots are going up in price.

Homebuilders are between a rock and a hard place. Costs are increasing. They can do one of two things: eat the costs, thereby reducing their profits, or pass them on to consumers in the form of higher sticker prices. Obviously, they would prefer the latter, but that remains somewhat difficult because of the comparatively few potential homebuyers who can qualify for a mortgage.

If builders raise prices too much, the buyers will balk and look elsewhere, namely in the stock of existing homes for sale. That may well be a good thing because it will reduce the stock of existing inventory waiting to be sold.

In the process it will bid up existing home prices and eventually shrink the gap with newly-built housing. Either way, if you have been postponing your purchase of a home in hopes of a great deal, that time has come and gone.

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: Online Education Is Not a Panacea
By Bill Schmick On: 08:36PM / Thursday May 09, 2013
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Over the last decade, online enrollment in college classes has exploded. Many hope that it will ultimately help reduce the burgeoning future costs of a college education. The evidence, thus far, indicates that we have a long way to go.

At the outset, readers should understand that there are two initiatives that have yet to converge in online education. There are MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) offered for free by several universities and colleges, although in some cases the educational institution will issue a certificate or letter of completion (for a price).

These MOOC courses enroll hundreds of thousands of students in 150 or more countries worldwide. The courses are usually developed and taught by big-name educators and function as promotional tools for the teacher and their college or university. The students, in turn, benefit from the acquisition of new information, knowledge and skills, as well as making connections with fellow students from all over the world.

There are also online tuition courses offered by colleges and universities where students pay tuition comparable to what they pay for the traditional physical college class and receive college credit for successfully completing these courses. Back in 2002, only 34.5 pecent of colleges offered online courses; today that figure has grown to 62.4 percent. There are, however, some interesting dimensions to these classes and who enrolls in them, according to the online education company, Learning House.

In a July 2012 report, Learning House found that 80 percent of online students lived within 100 miles of the physical campus of their online educational institute and many lived even closer — within commuting distance and with good reason.

Studies have found that students still need the physical interaction of the classroom. Evidently, face time with the teacher remains an important element of the educational process. So students may enroll in one or two online courses because of a part-time job or other scheduling conflict, but they still take the majority of their classes on campus.

There are also some unexpected issues that have cropped up within the online classroom. Columbia University's College Research Center found that the attrition rate of students attending online courses is quite high. In some cases, especially in the highly popular MOOC courses, those students who failed to complete the courses approached 90 percent. Higher attrition rates also plague smaller classes as well.

Some studies indicate that online classes are better suited for highly motivated, highly skilled students; while those students who struggle or who have failed to master the basics like math and English, do poorly. Unfortunately, that accounts for a great number of today's students who are also having the hardest time affording college tuition.  

There is also some concern that only certain subjects, such as mathematics, computer science and engineering, can be effectively taught online. It may be more difficult to teach liberal sciences such as writing, communications or even lab work. There are also technology issues that can make the best course a nightmare to attend because of poor or inadequate video, document sharing, discussion boards, etc.

That does not mean that online education will not continue to grow. I believe it will and online learning will ultimately find its niche within the educational system. However, I see little evidence that it will alleviate climbing college tuition costs any time soon.

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: Where Others Fear to Tread
By Bill Schmick On: 03:02PM / Thursday May 02, 2013
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In the wake of across-the-board government spending cuts, this month President Obama proposed a new R&D initiative aimed at mapping the brain. Critics immediately balked over the $100 million price tag, but those protests may be pennywise but pound foolish given some of the breakthroughs government has achieved in the past.

The BRAIN initiative (short for Brain Research Through Advancing Innovation Neurotechnologies) is designed to promote innovation and job growth while finding ways to treat and cure ailments such as Alzheimer's disease and brain damage from strokes. It will be funded by the National Institute of Health, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the National Science Foundation.

Like so many other government-sponsored projects, this one will also involve partnerships with universities and the private sector. The last such health-related project, the Human Genome Project, was established in 1990 and cost $3 billion. The returns from that project have been substantial.

"Every dollar spent on the Human Genome Project," said President Obama, "has returned $140 to our economy."

That's not a bad return. The health services sector is only one of many areas that have benefited from government investment. Computing technologies, for example, is an area where the government has played an active financial role in encouraging innovation and new ideas. Breakthroughs there have quickly found their way into the private sector.

 A report late last year by the National Research Council, a government advisory group, calculated that nearly $500 billion a year in revenues generated by 30 well-known corporations in digital communications, databases, computer architecture and artificial intelligence can be traced back to government seed money. That was a great investment for society overall. It's just one of countless examples of our taxpayer money at work in a free-market economy.

If you think that the present natural gas boom in this country is an example of free-market capitalism, think again. Over 30 years ago our government spent more than $100 million in seed money (and billions more in tax breaks) to research and develop the fracking techniques that have produced a renaissance in one of our most precious natural resources.  

The simple facts are that no corporation today could afford to spend money like that on an idea that may or may not provide a return to the bottom line. In 1975, the first federal test well in Wyoming produced nothing more than a lot of hot water. In this day and age, the CEO of a private company that produced that kind of result would probably lose his job. Most shareholders would simply not stand for that kind of risk and return proposition.

Politicians are still complaining about the billions we provide in federal energy subsidies to both fossil and renewable forms of energy, but I believe that investment is paying off in a truly big way. We are seeing a renaissance in our manufacturing base as a result of cheap energy resources. An increasing number of global companies are re-positioning their manufacturing base back to America, providing jobs and tax revenues. I'm quite certain that no one in the government or private sector could have imagined that spending $100 million in natural gas research 30 years ago could result in such big dividends today.

That's why I applaud the White House proposal for BRAIN research. Who knows what the payoff will be, but I believe government has a role and a duty to go where others fear to tread. History shows that research and development, despite the occasional $500 toilet seat, is still a proper and profitable use of taxpayer money.

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: R2D2 and the Stock Market
By Bill Schmick On: 03:40PM / Thursday April 25, 2013
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Tuesday's "flash crash" precipitated by a fake tweet attributed to a major news organization is old news by now. No long-term investors got hurt in the debacle and by the end of the week it was business as usual in the nation's exchanges. That doesn't mean it won't happen again and again.

In just four minutes, $136 billion was erased from the S&P 500 Index, the main benchmark average of the stock market. The Dow lost 145 points at the same time. Both averages regained those losses over the next two minutes causing some traders to check whether the elevator ride was real or a computer glitch. It was neither.

Having a front-row seat to the now-notorious tweet from the hacked Associated Press account claiming that the White House had been bombed and the president injured, my first reaction was to check its authenticity. I guess human nature is a lot more cynical than computers because in the time required to determine the tweet had been a hoax, billions in securities had changed hands.

Although no one is completely sure exactly what happened, we do know that the brunt of the decline was caused once again by algorithmic trading programs, which are these proprietary software trading systems that are lightning fast and take advantage of minute disparities among stock prices. The newest wrinkle in these high-frequency platforms involves computer scanning for key words among various news agencies.

Computers are now programmed to search out words that may impact stock price movements. In this case, words such as White House, explosions, bombs and injuries could and did trigger a sell program among Wall Street's R2-D2s and C-3POs this week. Once the ball started rolling downhill, armies of computers began spewing out sell orders instantaneously. Once the truth was discovered, these same computers stampeded in the opposite direction. This is what most observers believed happened this week.

It wasn't the first time. In May 2010, the now famous "flash crash" occurred. It erased $862 billion from the market's value in less than 20 minutes. Last year, the same kind of computer glitch wiped $440 million off the books of one trading firm and sent it to the brink of bankruptcy.

Regulators have been working to safe guard the public from these on-going speed traps. Under what is called the "limit/up-limit/down system," trades in stock prices will gradually be limited to a certain percentage range above and below the average price of a stock over the last five minutes. It will act as a speed bump. It won't be perfect but could at least slow down the declines we have experienced from seconds and minutes to hours or more.

That may just be wishful thinking on my part. More and more of the trading in the stock market is done by these "algos," as they are now called. It has changed the nature of the stock market and has precipitated the demise of many day traders that are simply outgunned by these R2-D2s. What worries me most is that some day in the future these systems may accidentally short circuit in a big way and suddenly we are all looking down the barrel of a financial death star.

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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News Headlines
Berkshire Arts & Tech School Celebrates Successes
MCLA Gallery 51 Presents Annual Affordable Art Show
Holiday Farmers Market Freshens Up Williamstown
Pittsfield Manufacturer Celebrates Growth In New Facility
Adams Man Starting Organization to Target Animal Abuse
Williamstown Housing Trust Asked to Help With Cable Mills Bond
North Adams Workers, Students Donate 800 Pounds of Food to Pantry
Pittsfield Parks Light Up With Memorial, Holiday Events
Louison House 25th Anniversary Fetes Namesake
New Clark Exhibit Marries Contemporary, Traditional Art

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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