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The Independent Investor: Banks Face Tougher Regulations
By Bill Schmick On: 08:46PM / Thursday April 10, 2014
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This week the eighth largest U.S. banks were told they need to increase capital by about $68 billion. In some ways it is too little, too late in the government's efforts to prevent another financial meltdown. Nonetheless, the regulations do provide an increased level of safety for taxpayers.

"Too big to fail" is a term that makes most of us grind our teeth. It was taxpayers, after all, who were required to pay trillions of dollars to rescue our financial sector after the 2008-2009 financial crisis precipitated by our largest banks. Ever since then, regulators have been looking at ways to prevent the same thing happening again.

Now, over five years later and despite massive lobbying efforts by these same banks, this week the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., the Federal Reserve and the comptroller of the currency approved rules that would raise the ratio of capital required as percentage of total assets to 6 percent at our country's largest banks. That would require the top eight banks to raise an estimated $68 billion in capital by either selling off parts of their businesses or raising equity via the stock market.

The idea behind raising capital levels is simple. The more capital an institution has to put up in order to participate in a risky trade, the less profit they make. In the past, banks could borrow or leverage their existing capital through derivatives or short-term funds called "repos" and buy or sell things like credit default swaps, collateralized mortgage obligations and other exotic, poorly understood financial instruments. With little capital down, the bank's profits were tremendous — until they weren't.  The resulting house of cards they build practically buried us all.

Banks are blasting these new limits. Their spokesmen are arguing that it puts U.S. banks on an uneven playing field with their counterparts in Asia and Europe. These banks, they point out, are governed by the Basil III accord, which also takes into account both a leverage ratio and risk-based capital requirements. That Basil agreement, at 3 percent, they argue, is half the level now required for their American counterparts.

All the usual arguments have been trotted out — loss of competitiveness, less market liquidity, senseless regulations. Over-turning these rules will be the subject of intense lobbying within Washington's corridors of power. Although the lobbying will be fierce, many of these same banks have already taken steps to adjust their capital base higher. In addition, these new regulations, if approved, will only begin to take effect in 2018.

What none of the banks will say is that the old system, where banks themselves set capital levels based on their estimate of the perceived risks of their assets, failed miserably. They have also conveniently forgotten that it was neither European nor Asian banks that triggered the meltdown. It was our largest eight banks that disregarded their own risk assessments in the name of greed.

In many ways, regulating the banks at this late date is similar to closing the barn door after the horse has bolted. Still, the new rules are simple, straightforward and will make it harder for rogue traders and institutions to set off another financial Armageddon. These rules may and do create some unnecessary and nonsensical consequences such as holding large amounts of capital against safer assets like U.S. Treasury bonds. However, unfortunately, our banks have proven that they cannot regulate themselves in these areas. By their own actions, they have invited the devil, in this case, government regulators, to their door.

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: Obamacare Confounds Critics
By Bill Schmick On: 04:15PM / Friday April 04, 2014
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Despite a coordinated and well-financed effort to sabotage and overturn the Affordable Care Act, the open enrollment numbers this week indicate there is a groundswell of support by Americans for a universal and effective health-care coverage.

That may surprise some of you but not this columnist. Back in the day, I lived through the fear and anxiety of having no job or health-care coverage. The nightmare of how to protect my family kept me awake at nights. Fortunately I did land a job, actually a crappy position I took simply because my employer offered health-care coverage.

Right here in my neck of the woods, the North Adams Regional Hospital announced (with three days' notice) it was closing, putting 530 hospital employees (and their families) out of work. A byproduct of this layoff is an abrupt end to their medical insurance. In a different day, these families would have nowhere to turn. Fortunately, thanks to the Massachusetts health-care laws and now the Affordable Care Act (ACA) there is someplace to turn.  

Most readers understand that the legislation that is Obamacare is far from perfect. In my opinion, its passage was simply the beginning brick of a health-care system foundation whose time had come in this, the greatest nation in the world. I expected that there would be wholesale changes to the original legislation as time went by. The resulting vitriolic response to the law consisting of overblown predictions of doom, outright lies and organized sabotage both dismayed and angered me.

Granted, the Obama administration fumbled the ball right out of the gate with their less than auspicious launch of the program's primary website, HealthCare.gov. The Congressional Budget Office, you may recall, had subsequently reduced its estimate of open enrollment by this Monday's deadline to only 6 million due to the botched launch.

Some of the data extrapolations and promises of what the program could and would do for those Americans who were uninsured or underinsured were also overblown. That damaged the credibility of a sincere effort to provide what even many emerging nations offer their citizens. Obamacare was quickly labeled a "train wreck" by the majority of Republicans and was touted as the main issue of the upcoming mid-term elections. Yet, none of those mistakes warranted the effort to overturn the law, let alone shut down the government if its critics didn't get their way.

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.
So it is doubly important to recognize that with all these headwinds, the government's original estimate of 7 million enrollments in individual insurance plans was not only met but exceeded by the March 31 deadline. All those predictions that the ACA would spawn "death panels" (Sarah Palin), massive layoffs (Marco Rubio), skyrocketing health costs (most Republicans) and let's not forget Rush Limbaugh's prediction of "the total collapse of American society," were either outright lies or at best examples of monumental ignorance.

Readers note that this week there has been a deafening silence from the opposition. How very predictable.

Make no mistake; the opposition pulled out all the stops to defeat this effort.  As one small example, the response to my own columns on Obamacare was organized and orchestrated. I still receive daily and weekly comments protesting my position on the need for some kind of universal health care.

I started to dutifully publish these comments but soon realized the emails were so similar and the writing style so clearly from the same hand that it became obvious that I was a victim of a mass anti-Obamacare email campaign.  I can't prove it nor do I need to. I simply delete the innumerable computer-generated emails from "poor widows and orphans wiped out by Obama."

Bottom line, I hope these Obamacare enrollment numbers force a change in the opposition's tactics. Rather than insist on overturning a much-needed health care initiative in this country, wouldn't it be nice if they simply worked to improve it?



     
The Independent Investor: Do Women Have a Choice?
By Bill Schmick On: 03:05PM / Friday March 28, 2014
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Income inequality between the sexes in this country has always been a problem and it does not appear to be getting any better. Critics argue that much of the blame lies in the choices many women make in pursuing their education and career goals. I beg to differ.

In my last column on the subject two weeks ago, I observed that the pay differential between men and women had finally caught the attention of national politics. The National Budget Office, for example, pointed out the biggest beneficiary of a minimum-wage increase would be women.  It is true but the real core of this issue lies elsewhere.

As most readers are aware, American society has changed. As a result of the overall income inequality in this country over the last 30-plus years, most couples are required to work full time in order to make ends meet.  Women have also spent decades fighting for that right to work on equal footing with men. Why is it, therefore, that when two people get married, pursue equal professional careers, and decide to raise children, it is the wife who is expected to sacrifice her career, take time away from the workforce and forgo income and advancement?

Who says this is the way it should be?

For me, this is the main obstacle that women face in this country. This expectation that women are required to be the primary caregivers in our society is the root cause of gender income inequality. It is an expectation so prevalent among us that only the strongest of 21st century women even question its fairness.

When a woman is expected to quit her job and raise children, several things occur. Her professional career is interrupted, sometimes for many years. Think of the "Good Wife's" Alicia Florrick, for example. This fictional lawyer dropped out of her legal profession for 13 years to raise children. In the meantime, her philandering husband cheats on her and then goes to prison. In order to support her family, she had to beg and plead simply to be offered a paralegal position at a Chicago law firm.

During those child-raising years, she did not contribute to Social Security a 401(k) plan or IRA, failed to keep up with her competition (mostly male lawyers), and when she did get a job it was at a salary far below what she should have been making if she, instead of her husband, had raised the children. What's more, from her employer's point of view, why pay her more since who's to say she doesn't take another leave of absence if she gets pregnant again?

Unfortunately in America, there is more fact than fiction in this television tale. The divorce rates in the U.S. are 40 percent to 50 percent and guess who ends up with the kids the majority of time? So not only have women given up a career, income and economic advancement, but a vast number of them now are required to support the kids while the ex goes off to prison or to enjoy his professional success with someone younger.

But let's say you are one of the lucky ones with a happy marriage. Whether you like it or not, with the kids grown, you probably still need to go back to work to make ends meet in this economy. But the chances of getting more than the minimum wage job are slim at best. It explains why women represent more than 62 percent of minimum wage workers.

Many of these women are divorced, have children to support or, just as important, they are widowed. You might find it surprising to discover that more than 75 percent of women in this country are widowed at an average age of 56. One in four of these women are broke within two months of being widowed, according to the National Center for Women and Retirement Research. More often than not, their only avenue of support is low-paying jobs with no future.

We haven't even examined the other side of women's role as caregivers to aging parents. It is the woman, once again, who is expected to provide economic and social support for aging parents at the expense of saving for retirement, Social Security benefits and income generation.

So it appears that blaming women for the choices they make as an explanation for gender income inequality would be laughable if the present state of inequity were not so serious. The solution to this injustice goes far beyond raising the minimum wage, but at least it would be a step in the right direction.

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: What's Wrong With This Flight Plan?
By Bill Schmick On: 10:14AM / Friday March 21, 2014
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The next time you board a regional airplane remember this. The co-pilots responsible for your safety are making the minimum wage. That means they are earning about as much as the guy hauling trashcans outside your local supermarket or flipping fast-food burgers and working a heck of a lot longer hours as well.

The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 has mystified the world. It has also brought the issue of flight safety on the front-burner again. The investigation has now centered on the possibility that someone on the flight crew tampered with or re-directed the flight path of the plane carrying 227 passengers. To me, it simply drives home the point that whether you are on an international flight or a regional puddle-jumper, your pilot is crucial to your survival.

As such, it is hard for me to accept that pilots, who are required to have a college education and countless hours of flight certification, can make as low as $22,000 a year or less and work 240-300 hours a month for that privilege.

Unlike most professions, pilots only get paid from the time the airplane leaves the gate until it arrives at its destination. So the typical pilot is only on the clock for 21.5 hours a week. That translates for a first-year co-pilot as no more than a gross weekly pay of $495. A pilot with a decade of experience might average around $1,312.

Why then does anyone want to be an airline pilot?

Many simply have a passion for it and will do anything to fly. In addition, regional airlines are considered a stepping stone to a much more lucrative job at one of the major airlines. The senior-most pilots who fly 747s or 777s can earn $200,000 or more a year. It may have required 35 years or so of poor pay and long hours to attain that level but, unfortunately, there are few such openings available given the overall number of working pilots.

The pilots of the missing Malaysian airplane are being investigated now as part of the government probe. Authorities believe that whoever disabled the plane's communication systems and then flew the jet according to a different flight path had to have a high degree of technical knowledge and flying experience. It illustrates how much control one individual can have over a great many people.

Although the amount of money you make does not necessarily reflect an individual's competence or sense of responsibility. I believe the airlines, in compensating their pilots, have sunk to new lows in their multiyear industry task of cost-cutting at the passenger's expense.

Like you, I have accepted most of these management changes with a modicum of grumbling. I have said nothing when, without warning or explanation, they cancel my flights (and the next one) simply because there are not enough passengers available to pack in like sardines in a can.

Although miffed, I also shelled out the extra money I'm charged to carry luggage on my trips. I had no choice. The fact that I now have to pay for seat selection as well as their lousy food and surly service, is the new normal in aviation.

But I draw the line at paying our pilots a minimum wage. After all, this is my life we are talking about. I don't like to entrust it to a young man or woman who is overworked, underpaid and probably less than motivated on a bad day. It is a wonder that we don't have more pilot safety issues already, but to their credit, these pilots, despite their slave labor, have consistently given their utmost to ferry their passengers to safety time and again in every kind of weather and obstacle.

If there was ever a reason to raise the minimum wage, this is 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: Income Inequality Among Women
By Bill Schmick On: 06:37PM / Thursday March 13, 2014
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Today women make up about half our workforce. But they still make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. That is wrong, and in 2014, it's an embarrassment.

— President Barack Obama, State of the Union Address

This week the president met with women members of congress to discuss income inequality among the sexes. At the same time, the Democratic Party is making the passage of a minimum wage bill part of its campaign strategy for mid-tem elections this year. It appears that how much a woman makes in this country has suddenly become important.

It's about time. This has been a pet peeve of mine for years. Some longtime readers may recall my first four-part series on this subject back in 2009-2010. At least once a year since then, I have tried to keep the inequity between the salaries of men and women on your front burner.

There is a lot of misinformation bandied about by both sides on this issue although you would think that everyone would be on the side of women making at least an equal wage with men performing comparable tasks. President Obama didn't help when he used the often-quoted but confusing "77 cents statistic" during his State of the Union address.

Detractors immediately jumped on the number arguing that the 23-cent gender pay gap is simply the difference between the average earnings of all men and women working full time. It does not account for differences in occupation, positions, education and job tenure or hours worked. They like to add that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that when measured hourly, not annually, the pay gap between men and women is only 14 percent not 23 percent.

Others argue that income disparity may be linked to the field of study that women pursue. A recent survey of 1,000 adult women in higher education by Western International University found that the income gap decreases significantly in cases where women held degrees in business, technology, science and math. The American Association of University Women concurred with those findings in their study of 15,000 graduates. They found that along with science, math and some technology areas, women received equal pay with men in engineering, health-care occupations (especially nurses), life science, social services and administrative assistants.

Although it is true that women are now the majority of students pursing academic degrees, few are pursuing careers in high-paying areas such as petroleum, aerospace, and chemical or electrical engineering. Instead, female students dominate in what are considered the 10 least profitable majors like early childhood education, communication disorders, human services, community organization and so on.

All of the above seems to point to one obvious conclusion. Your income is largely dependent on what degree and profession you pursue. Women, so the critics argue, earn less money because they choose to enter careers that have built-in income disparities.

They conveniently dismiss that, even with all of the above arguments, the statistics indicate that women still suffer from a disparity of income despite degree or profession. They also assume that choice, in American society today, is a woman's prerogative.  In my next column, I will explore those issues and why and how women now represent 60 percent of minimum wage workers and 75 percent of workers in the 10 lowest-paid occupations. Stay tuned.

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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