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The Independent Investor: A Warning Shot Across Our Bow

Bill Schmick

Monday's surprise announcement that the outlook for U.S. debt has been downgraded reverberated around the world. Global markets shuddered. Investors rubbed their eyes as they re-read the announcement and then hit the "sell" button. Markets declined by 1 to 2 percent. Yet, by the end of the week, stocks and bonds recovered. Was this some kind of false alarm?

First the facts: the Standard & Poor's Rating Services Inc.(S&P) has reduced the outlook for U.S. debt from "stable" to "negative." It did not change its AAA rating for U.S. federal debt nor does it plan to do so anytime in the near future. But it is potentially the first step in an actual ratings downgrade. The White House had been given advance warning last Friday. Officials tried to forestall the credit agency's actions but S&P is convinced that our high debt and deficit levels are raising the possibility that the U.S. fiscal situation could become "meaningfully weaker" if the government fails to improve the country's financial health.

A barrage of spin doctors, led by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, was launched on the nation's airwaves this week in an effort to assure one and all that there is no cause for alarm. It reminded me of that scene in "The Wizard of Oz" in which Toto pulls the curtain away from the Wizard revealing his fire- breathing, smoke-making, image projection machine.

"Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain," the Wizard bellows through his loud speaker system. But like Dorothy, we Americans should ignore the Wizards advice whether in Oz, or in this case, Washington.

The change in the ratings outlook, like a warning shot across the nation's bow, says to me that unless we get our house in order, and do so quickly, there will be hell to pay.

S&P recognizes that all the grand standing going on right now between the political parties is just that. They have no intention of do anything about the deficit until after the next election. Both sides are simply jockeying for position. They are using the deficit to put their presidential candidate and party in the best position to capture the election which is still two years away.

S&P's base case assumes $4 trillion to $5 trillion in deficit reduction would need to occur over the next 10 to 12 years, but it also insists that there needs to be a concrete plan in places for deficit cutting that is actually implemented by 2013. That implies a spending decline of at least 20% of U.S. GDP and an agreement prior to the next presidential elections.

What's at stake here is another Black Swan event, in my opinion. If the politicians flub this one, and our credit rating is cut, I suspect the greenback will be worth about half of its value today. Interest rates across the board in the United States will skyrocket. That will pretty much gut any hopes of a continued economic recovery and the unemployment rate, well, you get the picture.

You might wonder, therefore, why the politicians are stalling since they know the consequences as well as you and me. Taxes, a cut in spending, this year's budget, the debt ceiling – everything appears to be a political football. Politicians blithely fiddle while Rome burns because they all know the truth behind the nation's books.

Historically, politicians and their parties have very little to do with balancing the nation's budget. The most important single variable, when it comes to reducing the deficit, balancing the budget, or actually enjoying a surplus is economic growth. The stronger and longer the period of economic growth, the faster the deficit is reduced. The problem in this recovery is that due to its nature, the U.S. recovery has been anemic and therefore revenues (taxes) aren't coming in fast enough to reduce the deficit as it has in prior economic cycles.

This time around, a combination of growth and spending cuts are called for but politicians on both sides of the aisle are notorious for kicking that particular can down the corridor. The S&P is warning them that the "the can stops here."

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.

Tags: ratings, debt, markets      

The Independent Investor: Stocks & Mutual Funds Versus Index Fund

Bill Schmick

On a daily basis, I review portfolios of stocks and mutual funds from clients and readers. What strikes me most about all these portfolios is that I rarely come across one that has done better than the market. A large part of the problem lies in their choice of investments.

When I say "the market," normally I use the S&P 500 Index as a benchmark. Sure, there are other indexes I can use, ranging from the Dow Jones Industrial Average to a basketful of regional and global indexes, but most pros use the S&P 500 as the market proxy. The truth is that it is notoriously difficult to beat the market and do so consistently.

"But what about Apple?" protests one recent client, who has owned this darling of Wall Street for several years. "It has beaten the market hands down every year."

True enough, Apple, along with a number of other individual stocks, have done better than the market for a year or two or even three, but they have not done so consistently year after year. And even though Apple has done better than the market, I have yet to see any equity portfolio with just that one investment. Normally, Apple is just one of many investments in the portfolio. When all these returns are combined, the gains of an Apple are offset by losses in other stocks.

The risk in holding individual stocks is twofold. One, if you hold comparatively few stocks and one or more blows up, your portfolio will suffer dramatically. If, on the other hand, you have a large stock portfolio it becomes difficult to follow and your performance will tend to mimic the market.

Investing in mutual funds is less risky than owning individual stocks because your risk is spread out among many more stocks; but unfortunately, in most cases, performance also declines. Statistically, the pros that manage mutual funds fail to beat the market over 80 percent of the time. If you also add the fees that these mutual funds charge investors each year their performance is even worse.

Now, just like stocks, there are mutual funds that have a fabulous track record, either because the fund manager is especially gifted, lucky or both. Think Peter Lynch, the fabled manager of Fidelity's Magellan Fund, or Bruce Berkowitz, recently named the fund manager of the decade. But finding the next Peter Lynch is as difficult as finding the next stock market double.  In the meantime, the risk of picking wrong can be monumental.

Ken Hebner, a well-known index fund manager, argues that by buying a diversified portfolio of index funds, that incorporate emerging markets, international markets as well as the U.S. market, will provide you the best results with lower risks than a portfolio of stocks. I would take that a step further.

My experience indicates that by including certain sector index funds in your portfolio (while excluding others) you could generate even greater gains than the market. For example, during the first quarter of this year, the materials, energy and small cap sectors lead the market higher. Those investors that were overweighted in these areas beat the market with much less risk than if they had held individual stocks in those sectors. In addition, the expense ratios for index funds are much cheaper than mutual funds. Bottom line, index funds offer far less risk than stocks, outperform mutual funds 80 percent of the time and are cheaper, easier and trade as frequently as stocks. What's not to like?


Bill Schmick is registered as an investment adviser 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. Any references to specific securities are for illustrative purposes only and were selected based on a nonperformance-based criteria. The performance of the securities listed is not discussed and Berkshire maintains a listing of all recommendations for the preceding year and makes it available to the SEC upon request. The securities identified and described do not represent all of the securities purchased, sold, or recommended for client accounts. The reader should not assume that an investment in the securities identified was or will be profitable. While Bill Schmick or BMM may invest or has invested with the managers mentioned in this article, the article itself should not be construed as a solicitation to invest or an endorsement of a particular investment. You should carefully evaluate all investment options with your financial adviser. Neither Bill Schmick nor BMM endorse or independently verify any data or opinions expressed by a third-party.

 

Tags: securities, portfolio      

The Independent Investor: It's That Time Of The Year — Again

Bill Schmick

We all waited with bated breath until the end of last year, only to see Congress extend the Bush tax cuts for another two years. Although the legislation passed, it did create some issues that you should be aware of in filing your taxes this year.

Let's start with property taxes; something most of us have learned to despise. Until last year, if you owned a home you were able to deduct a portion of your state property taxes in the form of an enhancement or an addition to your standard deduction. The deduction was worth between $500 and $1,000 depending on whether you were married or single. This provision was not extended, but you can still claim the deduction providing you itemize your deductions. The problem with this new wrinkle is that many Americans do not have a sufficient amount of deductions to make itemizing worth doing.

Given the vast number of workers who lost their job during this last recession, if you were unemployed in 2009, the government granted an exemption in unemployment income up to $2,400 per person. That meant you only had to pay taxes on earned income above that amount. That exclusion has been eliminated as well.

So if you were unemployed at any time last year and collected unemployment compensation you owe taxes on 100 percent of that income. The problem here is that few of these jobless taxpayers withhold taxes from this income, so now they will need to come up with the cash they owe the IRS.

The first-time home buyer credit and the follow-on home buyer tax credit on primary residences provided a tax credit ($8,000 for first-time buyers and $6,000 for other buyers) but require that you keep your new residence for at least 36 months. That means if you bought and sold that new home you must repay that tax credit to the government this year.

The American Opportunity tax credit was a bit of new legislation that replaced the Hope credit that allows taxpayers earning $80,000 ($160,000) for joint filers) to claim $2,500 tax credit for tuition, fees, books, supplies and equipment required for educational studies paid in 2010. There is some confusion about this tax credit because the government already allows a deduction of up to $4,000 for the same items. You can't claim both the deduction and the credit.

People become confused between a credit and a deduction. Simply put, a deduction reduces your income while a tax credit reduces your tax bill. If you earned $60,000, for example, and took the $4,000 education deduction that would reduce your adjusted gross income to $56,000. If you were in the 20 percent tax bracket, then the tax savings for you would be ($4,000 X 20 percent) or $800. However if you selected the tax credit, your tax bill would be reduced by $2,500, a dollar-for-dollar tax savings.

Because Congress acted so late in the year, the IRS said it would need until mid-February to reprogram its systems. As a result, they advised that those who plan to itemize their deductions wait until after March 1 to file their taxes. Since most of us wait until the very last second (or longer) to file, this delay should not have a major impact on us taxpayers. In any case, the coast is clear for filing your taxes. I bet you just can't wait.

Note: You've got some extra time. Tax day is Tuesday, April 19, this year because the 15th falls on a Friday holiday in Washington and Monday falls on Patriots Day in Massachusetts.

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.

Tags: taxes, IRS, deductions      

The Independent Investor: Guess What Dirty, Smelly Investment Has Caught My Interest?

Bill Schmick

Trashed by environmentalist, near and far, it is the bad boy of the energy arena. Environmentally hazardous, its producers and consumers are notoriously lax in even attempting to do something to control the pollution they spill into our atmosphere. You know these boys. Their industry usually hides under the proverbial wood pile minting money, only reluctantly revealing themselves in daylight when called to explain yet another mine disaster or ruined river. So why is the demand for coal and those that produce it gaining popularity on Wall Street?

Coal, for those who don't know, is divided into two categories: metallurgical or coking coal, which is used for steel making and thermal or steam coal, which is used for heating and electrical generation. "Met" coal is a high-priced, low-volume product that boasts a high heating value. Here in the U.S., we only consume about 15 million tons of Met and the rest (30-40 million tons) we export to places like China.

Met coal is used in 70 percent of global steel production and accounts for 10 percent of world coal production. It is steel's primary energy source and takes 1,300 pounds of coal (called coke) to produce one ton of steel. The demand for this kind of coal has been rising steadily for some time as country after country in the emerging markets produce more and more steel for building infrastructure and export.

The recent earthquake and tsunami disaster in Japan has opened up an enormous new market for steel and the coal to produce it. Japan has already embarked on the expensive and necessary task of rebuilding. Investors figure Japan is going to need a lot of steel (and therefore coking coal) to accomplish that. Together with the already robust demand from emerging markets, the stocks of these coal producers are in demand.

But that is only one side of the coal market. Thermal or steam coal production dwarfs that of its pricier cousin. Thermal's primary use is in power generation. Worldwide, over 7 billion tons of this stuff is consumed each year. The U.S. uses about a billion tons a year, but because it's heavy and expensive to ship, not much (about 22 million tons) of it is exported.

The fact that over 40 percent of the world's electricity is derived from coal-fired power plants explains why in an era of solar, wind, natural gas and other green alternative energy sources, old King Coal keeps rolling along. It took many years and trillions of dollars to build this coal-based system of power generation. It will take a lot more time, effort and money to convert that system to alternative fuels.

Here in the U.S., 48 percent of our electricity comes from steam coal. Once again, thanks to the ongoing crisis in containing and preventing a radioactive melt down in Japan's Fukushima plant that percentage of use could increase if nuclear power generation is derailed in this country. Worldwide, politicians and voters appear to want at least a moratorium on building new nuclear plants until further studies are done analyzing their safety and other factors. Since we all know how long studies take, this delay can take time and any energy gaps will be filled by additional coal consumption. Investors are quick to realize that this presents further opportunities for additional coal consumption.

Coupled with these developments is China's new status as a net importer of coal beginning in 2009. Most of the 126 metric tons of new imports have come from Australia, but there is some discussion on whether the U.S., which some call the "Saudi Arabia of coal" with 238 billion tons of proven reserves, could figure out a way of exporting our coal cheaply to Asia. That would translate into a big jump in the price of coal stocks.

Does all this new coal demand mean that we will have to settle for coal and its residual pollution as a major source of energy in this country forever?

Not necessarily. It is true, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, that 44 percent of the coal-fired plants in this country currently have no pollution control equipment. There are 400 coal-fired plants spread across 46 states. Their emissions result in about 380,000 tons of black garbage that is spewed into our air each year. Mercury emissions alone around these plants are killing 17,000 people each year and causing 11,000 hear attacks, not to mention the impact on children, whose health is affected most by these poisons.

Even the billions in bribes the industry has paid to Washington for decades to overlook these "minor nuisances" no longer work. Americans have demanded and government has finally agreed to take action. As a result, the industry has been warned that they either retrofit existing facilities with counter measures or close them entirely over the next few years. The EPA's new emission restrictions require a removal of 90 percent of mercury emissions by 2015, along with 80 percent of sulfurous oxides and 52 percent of nitrous oxides by 2018. These new standards will apply to 31 states and the District of Columbia.

It will mean an enormous expense and effort on the part of power generators. Of course, much of the expense will be passed on to consumers in the form of higher monthly energy bills, but even then I suspect that some plants just won't be able to continue to functions. As a result, I expect to see cheaper (and cleaner) natural gas replace coal in the generation of electricity over the next few years. That's good news for all of us and for natural gas producers. Did I mention that I like that sector as well? I guess that will have to wait for a future column.

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 1-888-232-6072 (toll free) or e-mail him at wschmick@fairpoint.net. Visit www.afewdollarsmore.com for more of Bill's insights.

Tags: coal, energy, environment      

The Independent Investor: Who Pays for Japan?

By Bill Schmick

It appears that the ongoing disaster in Japan will not end up on the doorstep of the world’s insurance industry. Total damage estimates now range from $200 to $300 billion but insurers will “only” be saddled with 10 to 20 percent of those costs. That still makes it one of the costliest disasters in the history of the insurance sector and there are some nagging details that could cost them even more.

Considering the spate of natural disasters so far this year (New Zealand’s earthquake and Australia’s flooding), not to mention the wave of calamities since 2004, Hurricane Katrina, erupting volcanoes in Iceland, earthquakes in Chile and Haiti – it is a wonder the insurance industry is still around to pay anyone.

The earthquake claims alone (excluding the tsunami and radiation damage) against reinsurers (insurance companies who insure insurance companies) are estimated to run as high as $35 billion. This just may further deplete an industry whose capital is dwindling daily and just about guarantees a first quarter loss for most companies in that industry with exposure to Japan.

Big reinsurance companies are starting to total up their exposure. Swiss Re says they face $1.2 billion in claims, while AIG allows for at least $700 million. Munich Re and Hannover Re, two large European insurers, aren’t ready to guess and the French reinsurer, Scor SE, believes its losses will total no more than $262 million. Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. also has some exposure through its reinsurance companies, but has not yet released estimates.

One reason the big insurers have escaped the majority of catastrophe claims is the insular nature of the Japanese. Unlike most countries, the Japanese prefer to insure their own property and businesses against catastrophes and other risks. Unfortunately, analysts believe that Japan historically has tended to under-insure most of its productive assets such as auto factories, semiconductor plants, consumer manufacturers, farm land and everything in between.

Nuclear risks like the present fallout from the Fukushima plant tend not to be insured by private companies. The quasi-government-owned Japan Earthquake Reinsurance Company will most likely bear the brunt of those losses (although this government agency might only insure half of the losses or less).

Actually, few if any insurance companies worldwide will insure against a nuclear accident, which makes the ongoing concern over the Indian Point nuclear unit in New York that much more serious. The reactor sits atop a fault line, that if worst came to worst could conceivably expose radiation to 6 percent of the nation’s population and a comparable amount of this nation’s assets.

Of far more serious concern to the insurance industry are supply chain disruptions that are occurring, and will continue to occur thanks to the devastation in Japan. The prospects of long-term supply disruptions are highly probable as Northern Japan’s factories have been shut down by limited power supply and are failing to produce and ship parts and products that are essential to high tech, electronic, auto and other industries worldwide. By some estimates, Korea, for example, depends on Japanese parts for 23 percent of its finished products.

On Thursday, for example, Toyota told its plants in the U.S., Canada and Mexico to prepare for a possible shutdown due to the lack of parts availability. General Motors has already stopped production of a truck plant in Louisiana and a related engine plant in New York.

Business interruption coverage is a routine insurance product which insures a business against just such an interruption. Just about every business worth its salt has such a policy or policies. While a business’s supply chain  generally has a few weeks of safety stock supplies, there isn’t a lot of time for companies to find new suppliers, shift production or try to make spot purchases before they run out of parts. Costs skyrocket as several companies in the same line compete for scarce parts.

Possible shortages of Japanese-made components can significantly impact profits across the globe as businesses fail to deliver products to market on time. You can be sure that some insurance company somewhere will be on the hook to make up for that cost of lost production. It is this supply chain problem that has the managements of insurance companies staying awake at night.

The insurance industry is keeping mum about this potential problem. I can understand their reticence, but until we get all the facts I would not go bottom fishing in that sector.

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 1-888-232-6072 (toll free) or e-mail him at wschmick@fairpoint.net. Visit www.afewdollarsmore.com for more of Bill's insights.

Tags: Japan, insurance      
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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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