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Independent Investor: Don't Worry, Be Happy

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

It is official: the happiest country in the world is Norway, with Denmark the runner-up, according to the World Happiness Report. What lessons can we learn from this survey and what, if anything, should we do as a nation to join their ranks?

Where, you might ask, do we here in the U.S. rank? The answer would be No. 14, down from No. 3 in 2007. The least happy inhabitants on Earth appear to be in Africa while the average Chinese person is no happier than he was 25 years ago, despite the country's much-lauded economic miracle.

How do a pair of tiny countries stay so happy for so long?  It sure isn't the weather, where it is so cold that summers require overcoats and the days can last so long that they keep tourists complaining about lack of sleep. Or is it?

Clearly, the people there have a lot of money. Norway, for example, is the sixth wealthiest country in the world. They can thank the North Sea's oil discoveries 40 years ago for that. Denmark also has a high GDP per capita, but so do we, and yet we placed far lower. One answer is what these people actually do with their money.

These countries make it a priority to give their citizens economic security. Take health care, for example. While our government is in the throes of reducing the number of Americans who will be insured through health-care, in Norwegian society citizens pay a maximum of $300 a year for doctors, hospitals, and other medical services. After that, the government pays for everything for that year. In addition, they get other benefits such as all children's medical expenses are paid for by the government, including childbirth and five weeks paid vacation.

Think of it, as our Baby Boomers worry over how they will pay for their future medical bills, people there feel a great deal of security about their medical future. And it doesn't end there. Everyone receives a pension at 67 and education is free through the university level. In exchange, Norwegians pay higher taxes than we do. Is the trade-off worth it? Well, if happiness is a measure of worth, the results seem to indicate it is.

In our country, at least on the East and West Coasts, winters are relatively mild compared to Scandinavia. And yet, so many of us fight depression over the winter months. How is it that people in Scandinavia, where it snows all the time, can maintain their good spirits? One reason may be that bad weather forces people to band together and to support each other against the elements.

Here in the Berkshires, for example, many of us can't wait for the next snow storm because we ski, snow shoe, tube, or all of the above, before the last snowflake falls. Norwegians, like we in the Shire, have a positive attitude toward negative weather. Norwegians have a saying that "there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing." Tell me about it!

My wife's family is from Norway. For years, she has been bugging me to make a visit and meet her extended family. They are like other Norwegians. They have tons of community spirit developed by staying in one place, living their lives, passing down their family homes to their kids and so on.

Unlike the two of us, who have moved maybe six times in 17 years, Norwegians describe themselves as "place bound" and are proud of it. The good news is that I will get a first-hand experience of Norway in August, when we will spend two weeks meeting and greeting her family. I will have more to say upon my return. In the meantime, however, it appears that happiness has more to do with community than money. That, my dear reader, should be taken to heart. America today is all about us versus them; our right, versus their wrongs. If there was ever a prescription for unhappiness, all we need do is look at ourselves as a nation for the reasons why.

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. None of the information presented here should be construed as an endorsement of BMM or a solicitation to become a client of BMM. Direct inquiries to Bill at 1-888-232-6072 (toll free) or email him at Bill@afewdollarsmore.com.
     

The Independent Investor: Trump's Budget

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

It was late, "skinny," and guaranteed to send Washington lawmakers up a wall.  President Trump's first crack at a budget, released on Thursday, makes drastic cuts to many sacrosanct departments and programs while boosting spending in others.

If you haven't strapped in quite yet, now is the time to do so. The president's 53-page budget (less than half of his predecessor's lean, 134 pages) makes dramatic cuts to departments such as the Environmental Protection Agency (minus-31 percent) and the State Department (minus-28 percent), while increasing defense spending by $54 billion.

Areas that would also be hit hard were foreign aid, grants to multilateral development agencies such as the World Bank and United Nation's climate change initiatives. Clearly, "America First" was front and center in making these decisions. Here at home, renewable energy research and carbon dioxide emissions reductions would also be jettisoned, if the president gets his way.

The Agricultural Department, a bastion of American protectionism, was cut by 21 percent. It would see loans and grants for wastewater slashed, headcount reduced, and a program that gives U.S. farmers tax credits by donating crops for overseas food aid would disappear.

Nineteen organizations that count on federal funds for support such as public broadcasting and the arts would cease completely. Home heating subsidies, clean-water projects and some job training would also go by the wayside. The Housing Department's community development grants, along with 20 Education Department programs, including some funding programs for before and after-school programs, felt the ax. Anti-poverty programs were targeted as well.

In contrast, defense spending will be boosted by $54 billion, money for veterans would increase 6 percent and the White House is asking for a $1.5 billion down payment for the building of Trump's "Great Wall." In many ways, Trump's budget looks like a typical GOP blueprint but there are some differences.

For example, Trump wants to strip infrastructure funding from federal agencies, largely the purview of the Department of Transportation (highways, bridges and airports) and the Army Corp of Engineers, which takes care of the nation's inland waterways. Congress controls where that money is spent. We are all aware that historically, a large part of government spending programs is simply an exercise in legal bribery.

Each congressman and senator gets their "taste," depending on how powerful they are and how good they are horse-trading in the cloak room. Bridges to nowhere, choice contracts to favored construction companies — the litany of kickbacks, waste, and cost overruns go hand-in-hand with what we know as government spending.

Here comes Trump. By taking the purse strings away from Congress, he intends on keeping control of how much gets spent on what (and who benefits). Trump is throwing down the gauntlet to the business-as-usual crowd of Washington politicians on both sides of the aisle.

The ink isn't even dry and already the politicians of both parties are "outraged," "concerned," or "doubtful" in commenting about the White House budget proposals. In truth, presidential budgets are simply a "wish list" and should be taken as such. However, once again, the new president is hell bent on fulfilling his campaign promises.

I would expect Republicans will support the president's budget in theory but when it gets down to the nitty gritty, they, like the Democrats, will make sure that business remains "as usual" unless the new president can out-Trump them.

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. None of the information presented here should be construed as an endorsement of BMM or a solicitation to become a client of BMM. Direct inquiries to Bill at 1-888-232-6072 (toll free) or email him at Bill@afewdollarsmore.com.
     

The Independent Investor: America's Road Toward Universal Health Care

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

The GOP's plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act was introduced this week.  As one might expect, the Republican Party's long-awaited plan was met with a firestorm of protests from just about every conceivable lobbying group. That's exactly what one should expect, given that there is so much at stake.

Headlines throughout the week warned that if the plan were passed in its present form, health-care premiums could rise by 30 percent or more. Seniors could pay far more for coverage under the new plan, while between 6 million and 10 million people would lose their health insurance coverage altogether. The poor would get short shrift, while the wealthy would benefit most.

The new plan dubbed "The American Health Care Act," (if all goes as planned) will be rolled out in three phases under a budgetary process that would allow Republicans to pass the bill through a simple majority in the Senate. The problem is that although Republicans are unanimous on the need to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the party is divided in how to replace it.

Readers might recall that after the landslide Republican victory in the general election, many Americans were worried that Obamacare would be abolished altogether. The doomsday crowd is convinced that the country's health care insurance coverage will go back to the way things were prior to the ACA. I argue that it is too late for that.

Regardless of what you may think of President Obama, he and the Democratic Party set this nation on a new course. It will, in my opinion, result in universal health-care coverage for all.

"But look at what the GOP is proposing," argue the critics.

My answer is that it is early days and the legislation in its present form will not survive. The Senate (including many moderate Republicans) recognizes that there are deep flaws in Speaker Ryan's plan. But some changes are necessary; otherwise the present program will simply sink further into disrepair.

Please remember, however, that even Barak Obama, in rolling out the Affordable Care Act, conceded that the legislation was not perfect. He fully expected revisions and amendments to the original act. Unfortunately, thanks to a partisan Congress, those amendments never took place. Instead, the opposition simply demanded a repeal of Obamacare, but a funny thing happened on the way to the forum. Uninsured Americans actually saw the benefit of government-sponsored health care, regardless of its imperfections.

Remember, too, that in its present form, the House bill hands over huge benefits to those with the highest income (the one percent) at the expense of the very people who voted for our new president — older blue-collar whites. At least half of Trump's constituency came from white voters without college degrees and the House bill hurts them in multiple ways.

Under Obamacare, in 20 of the 30 states Trump won, non-college whites gained more than any other group. The number of uninsured noncollege white folk fell by 39 percent. Older whites, above the age of 45, provided 56 percent of Trump's vote. This group will be especially hard-hit if House Republicans get their way. They won't.

Four Republican Senators have already gone on record opposing the House bill's Medicaid provisions.  Now that the ball is in their court, I believe Republican lawmakers will soon discover (if they haven't already) that replacing the plan will not be that easy.

And whatever the plan that is finally passed in Washington, D.C., it too will be changed and amended for years to come. Similar to the evolution of Social Security from 1934 into the 1960s, the American version of universal health care will be a process of trial and error until we get it right. And make no mistake, we will get it right. All it requires is patience.

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. None of the information presented here should be construed as an endorsement of BMM or a solicitation to become a client of BMM. Direct inquiries to Bill at 1-888-232-6072 (toll free) or email him at Bill@afewdollarsmore.com.

     

The Independent Investor: Pet Trusts Are the Way to Go

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

If you have been avoiding a visit to an estate planning lawyer, despite the pleading of your spouse, your kids or grandkids, consider this: your pet's future well-being could be in jeopardy without a legal safeguard.

As I wrote in my last column, new legislation is surfacing in a number of states that recognizes our concern for our pets. Even though we consider our pets part of the household, legally, your pet is not considered a human. Instead, they are considered tangible property and, generally speaking, tangible property cannot be named as a beneficiary of a trust.

Many states, however, are allowing legally enforceable documents that can guarantee a pet's continuing care. Forty-six states and the District of Columbia have passed statutes specific to pet trusts, according to the Animal Law Review. In Massachusetts, legislation was passed in 2011 to provide for pets' welfare after their owners' demise.

"The definition of tangible personal property hasn't changed," explained attorney Holly Rogers, an expert in the area, "but legislatures have recognized a compassionate exception when it comes to our pets."

The primary legal document required to safeguard your pet is a pet trust, according to Rogers:  "It can be as simple as 'I leave $20,000 to my sister, Betty, for the care of my cat, Fluffy.'"

The pet trust can be a stand-alone document, inserted into your will, or worked into your existing revocable trust. And, as we have written in the past, everyone should have a will or trust anyway. A trust is especially important if minors or adults who can't care for themselves are involved. A trust allows your beneficiaries and your pets to avoid probate which is time-consuming, public and expensive. Trusts also allow for tax-planning if you are leaving a substantial inheritance to your beneficiaries.

For those of us that want more than a simple directive, a pet trust can be drafted with any amount of complexity. Rogers who does estate planning for her Massachusetts clients, is the local "go-to" lawyer when it comes to pet planning.
 
"I have created trusts where there are multiple layers of contingencies," she says. "The trust can name trustees and caretakers both appointed within the document, in which the trustee insures that the pet is cared for and disburses money to the appointed caretaker, and provides specific provisions for the pet's care and the duties of the trustee and caretaker. Responsibilities can be broadly or narrowly defined depending upon the owner's wishes. "

How much can you expect to pay for a pet trust? It depends on who you go to and the level of complexity that you demand. Holly Rogers would be much more reasonable. She estimates a range of $250 for an amendment to add a simple pet trust to your existing will or trust to as much as $1,500 for a soup-to-nuts drafting of an estate plan for you and your family in which your pet trust is part of the package.

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. None of the information presented here should be construed as an endorsement of BMM or a solicitation to become a client of BMM. Direct inquiries to Bill at 1-888-232-6072 (toll free) or email him at Bill@afewdollarsmore.com.

     

The Independent Investor: What Happens to Your Pet After Your Death?

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

If you are one of the 70 percent of the population that considers their pet a member of the family, you should review your estate planning documents. Otherwise, there is a good chance your pet will either end up in the pound, or worse.

This hits close to home for many of us. If my wife and I were to die, for example, who would take care of our chocolate Lab, Titus?

There are few people who we would trust to take care of him. Compounding the problem is the fact that he is 8 years old and suffers from arthritis. I discovered that simply putting some instructions in a will was neither legally binding nor particularly useful. Unless we do something different, Titus could be condemned to imprisonment and a life without love.  

You must understand that legally a dog, cat, horse or any other kind of pet is not considered a human being. They are considered your property. As such, Titus is our "property" and the law states that you can't leave property to a piece of property.

Therefore (until recently and only in some states) your pet can't be a beneficiary in a will. Your instructions within a will are not enforceable. I might state that Bri (our dog whisperer) gets Titus in the event we pass, but a will cannot instruct Bri to care for the dog, take him to the vets, etc. Don't forget, too, that your will is not enacted immediately. All wills have a waiting period, sometimes months, even longer if it is contested.  Who is going to care for your pet in the meantime?

It is also difficult in a will to disburse money to someone for your pet's care over a pet's lifetime since a will is a static (as opposed to an on-going) document. And changes to a will are at the court's discretion. Do you really want some judge, who may or may not be an animal lover, deciding your pet's fate?

You may recall the now-famous case of Leona Helmsley, who left $12 million in trust to Trouble, her white Maltese, while giving nothing to two of her four grandchildren. In 2007, a year after she died, a judge reduced the dog's wealth by $10 million. Still, $2 million was enough for Trouble to live a life of luxury, until she died at age 12 in 2011.

In some cases, pet provisions in your will may only be "honorary." Fortunately, 40 states and the District of Columbia recognize statutory pet trusts, so that pet owners who direct someone to take care of their pet and bequest funds for its care could work through such a legal document. In the states without statutory pet protections, however, these provisions are "honorary." That means the person who receives the funds decides whether or not to use them for your pet's care. There is nothing to prevent that person from dumping your pet and taking a vacation with your $5,000.

The person to whom you entrusted your pet to could be a loving, caring person, but what if the person is allergic to your pet, or already has pets of their own and conflict develops between them? The person may live or move to a rental apartment or community that excludes pets. As you now realize, there is a lot to consider here.

But there are avenues you can pursue to protect your pets. There are legally enforceable documents that can guarantee an animal's continuing care. Some statues such as the Massachusetts General Laws chapter 203E, Section 408 are relatively new. We will be discussing pet trusts in our next column with an expert attorney on the subject, Holly Rodgers.

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. None of the information presented here should be construed as an endorsement of BMM or a solicitation to become a client of BMM. Direct inquiries 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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