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The Independent Investor: U.S. and China Square Off
By Bill Schmick On: 05:45PM / Friday November 14, 2014
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In Beijing this week, the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit is winding down. As representatives from its 21 member nations return home, one thing is certain.  China has become America's main rival for influence in that region.

Depending on who you talk to, China's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is expected to overtake that of the United States sometime in the next five years. Some argue that it may be sooner than that. But while we Americans might fret over falling to second place economically, China's communist leaders could care less. They are eyeing a far larger prize — control of much of the world's natural resources and the means to transport them back to China.

There is nothing underhanded or dishonest about their ambitions. For the last decade, China has been investing, purchasing and partnering with countries and companies worldwide. Whether developing a Peruvian mountain loaded with copper or inking an energy deal with Russia's Vladimir Putin, China is methodically expanding its control over the means of production worldwide. This week's tariff and free-trade deals among Asian nations and the United States is simply another step in their long-term plan.

Much has been made of President Obama's agreements on Tuesday to reduce tariffs on a range of technology products worldwide including videogame consoles, semi-conductor chips and even prepaid cards. The media also applauded an agreement by the two nations to further reduce greenhouse gases and expand the duration of visas for education and business. There was even some progress on developing some military and defense initiatives.

However, in my opinion, China's real objective was to convince Asian members that their plan to extend their economic influence to energy-rich Central Asia was good for everyone concerned. The Chinese are dangling a host of goodies from a free-trade deal in competition with one of our own, and $90 billion in infrastructure investment funds as well as additional investment from an army of Chinese private and state corporations. It is tempting.

You see, China wants to create a "Silk Road Economic Belt." Their objective would be to establish a far-reaching network of transportation, distribution and logistics that would bind China, Central Asia and Europe into one vast economic network. No one is laughing. Asian members only have to look at China's track record in South America and Africa, among other places, to understand just how serious the Chinese are. Strapped for investment, struggling with anemic economies and high unemployment rates, many of these nations would just love to invite the Chinese into their parlors.

If there is a fly in this Chinese ointment, it is of China's own making. Territorial disputes instigated by China with the Philippines, Vietnam and Japan over the last few years have made many nations wary of China's true intentions. Fortunately, all sides have backed off from a shooting war but China's increasingly aggressive military stance has many neighbors troubled.

It is one thing to invite an investment partner into one's country, but quite another to risk occupation by such an acquisitive Big Brother such as China. In light of these fears, China's willingness to talk turkey with the U.S. on military issues may simply be a ploy to alleviate these concerns among some nations.

The bottom line here is that while we at home continue to debate a pipeline that should have been built long ago, China is focusing on sewing up most of the world's natural resources. It is that kind of long-range planning that we need here in America. Unfortunately, we neither have the will nor the leaders to implement such a strategy. And we will regret it.

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: Workers Get to Save More in 2015
By Bill Schmick On: 01:48PM / Friday October 31, 2014
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The IRS has given us all a New Year's gift. As of Jan. 1, the tax-deferred contributions on a variety of employee-sponsored, retirement savings plans have been increased, but not for IRAs.

Readers may already be familiar with the traditional 401(k) plan. It was established as an alternative to the nation's pension plans that are fast disappearing. Most companies offer 401(k)s to their employees (or 403(b)s if working for the state or a non-profit) as a fringe benefit. These plans allow employees to contribute as much as $17,500 a year plus an additional $5,500 catchup if you are over 50. The contributions come right off the top of your W-2 wages so there are considerable tax savings in contributing toward your retirement. In addition, some companies will match your contributions up to a certain percentage. Starting in 2015, your traditional 401(k) and 403(b) maximum contributions will be increased by $500 for those in both age groups.

The maximum IRA contributions will remain the same. However, there will now be new limits on their tax-deductibility. If you are single and make more than $71,000 a year (or married with a combined income of more than $118,000) and have a workplace retirement plan, traditional IRA contributions are no longer deductible. As for the Roth IRA, couples who make more than $193,000 and individuals who earn over $131,000 will no longer be eligible to contribute to a Roth.

The government will also offer a new retirement account, called the myRA. These new retirement savings accounts are targeted to middle and lower-income Americans who make less than $129,000 for individuals or $191,000 for married couples. The myRA is like a Roth IRA, which means contributions, although not tax-deductible, can be withdrawn without triggering an additional tax once the account is five years old and the account owner is over 59 1/2 years old.

How it differs is that the myRA will be invested in a new retirement savings bond backed by the U.S. Treasury that is guaranteed not to lose value and will be free of fees. Individuals can continue to contribute to this account for up to 30 years or until the value exceeds $30,000. At that point it will be transferred to a private-sector retirement account.

Deposits are made through payroll deductions and a myRA can be opened with as little as $25. After that, one needs to commit to a direct deposit of $5 or more every payday. What if you quit?  Don't worry, these accounts can be moved without penalties to your new job.

Those who arguably benefit the most from the 2015 changes are small business owners who contribute to Solo 401(k) Plans. These plans were designed specifically for self-employed entrepreneurs or small business owners with no employees. These self-directed plans try to maximize contributions and at the same time be less complex and expensive to maintain than conventional 401(k) plans.

Solos can be opened at your local bank or credit union. They will enjoy the same 2015 increases in contributions that traditional plans receive and contributions can be made either pre-tax or after-tax (Roth). They also have a profit-sharing element that allows your business to make a 20-25 percent profit sharing contribution up to a combined maximum of $53,000 in 2015 (or $59,000, if you are over 50).

Of course all of this news is great for those of us who can afford to contribute the maximum to our 401(k) plans. To be fair, the myRA does address the widening gap between the haves and have-nots in this country but $5 per paycheck is still an enormous amount for someone making $15,000 a year. The problem is that once again our legislators, who are part of the one percent, fail to understand that very few in America can contribute the maximum to their retirement plans and still eat. 

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: The Elephant in the Room
By Bill Schmick On: 03:27PM / Thursday October 23, 2014
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Mid-term elections are less than two weeks away. Issues, for the most part, have fallen by the wayside as pure politics runs amuck. No wonder voter turnout is traditionally so poor in this midterm madness.

Republicans are running against an unpopular president and are expected to sweep both houses of Congress. All they have to do is keep the focus on President Obama while mobilizing their die-hard base.  That strategy appears to be highly effective so why worry about mundane things like issues? After all, if voters don't care, why should they?

Both parties' campaigns are now dictated by whatever voters are worrying about on a day-by-day basis.  The fear of an ebola pandemic plays well, while the ISIS terrorists are always good for a sound bite or two. The minimum wage, the Affordable Care Act, the economy; these are all given short shrift while the most pressing challenge of this generation barely receives a mention. I'm talking about income inequality.

Despite gaining over 2 million new jobs in the last year or two, income inequality has widened in the United States and is, in fact, accelerating. Our country now finishes dead last in income inequality when compared to all developed nations. The U.S. actually trails Mexico, Chile and Turkey (all emerging markets) when it comes to an equitable distribution of wealth among our citizens.

As this disgraceful and dangerous wealth gap widens, shouldn't we be looking to our lawmakers in these mid-term elections to address this problem? Unfortunately, that's like asking the fox to guard the henhouse.

The average wealth of a congressman is now above $750,000. In the Senate, it's even higher, at $2.6 million. That wealth is distributed among both parties. John Kerry, for example is worth $231 million, while Diane Feinstein, claims $69 million in assets and Frank Lautenberg is worth $85 million to name a few. Clearly our representatives are part of the problem.

The failure to address income inequality in this country is not confined to one or the other parties. Democrats are just as anxious to ignore the problem as are Republicans. It may surprise you that income inequality is actually higher in Democratic-controlled districts than in Republican ones. In the 35 districts with the highest income inequality in the country, Democrats represent 32 of those districts.

These 35 districts share some similar traits. They contain small, enormously wealthy elites surrounded by impoverished neighbors. Most are situated within urban areas such as Washington, Boston, New York, Chicago and Philadelphia. Here are some examples.

Income inequality in New York's 10th District, represented by Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat, is about equal to Haiti. Nancy Pelosi's California District 12 ranks on par with Bolivia. John Boehner's Ohio District has the same income inequality as Nigeria and Paul Ryan's Minnesota District 6 is as bad as Burundi's.

It gets worse. Our elected representatives have actually exacerbated the income inequality problem over the last 20 years. Two decades of federal spending and expanding regulation by both parties have spawned a growing elite class of federal contractors, lobbyists and lawyers in the D.C. area. Over $100 billion has been funneled into this area since 1989. Is it any wonder that 10 of the capital's surrounding counties in Virginia and Maryland place in the top 20 counties nationwide in household income? Manassas Park City, Craig County, and Bath County, all in Virginia, placed within the top 10 counties nationwide that ranked among the highest in income inequality in the nation.

At this point, about 15 cents of every dollar of the federal procurement budget stays in the DC area. That amounted to $80 billion out of $536 billion in 2010. Think of the monumental transfer of wealth that is occurring from 98 percent of taxpayers to fewer than 2 percent of the U.S. population. Those in the top 5 percent of income in our nation's hometown make 54 times the money that the bottom 20 percent receives.

All of this is being conveniently ignored by those campaigning for your vote. So when you pull that lever in November, remember these are the people you will be voting for - regardless of political party.

As the rich get richer, your share in the nation's wealth and income is falling lower and lower. Do not be swayed by the fear mongers. Ask yourself if voting for these clowns is in your best self-interest and that of America's generations to come. I sincerely doubt it.

If you want to keep up abreast of my most up-to-date articles follow me @afewdollarsmore or on Facebook at billsafewdollarsmore.

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: OPEC's Oil Ploy
By Bill Schmick On: 01:29PM / Friday October 17, 2014
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Over the last four months, Americans have received an early Christmas present. The price of oil has dropped precipitously, benefiting both corporations as well as the consumer. But that could be a two-edged sword for this nation.

Brent crude, the global oil benchmark in the futures market, has declined 23 percent since its June price of $115 per barrel. Today it is trading below $83 per barrel, providing an enormous windfall in cost savings for all of us. The retail price of gasoline has dropped 15 percent during the same time period to a national average of $3.17 a gallon. Every one-cent decline in gas prices equals about a $1 billion drop in energy spending, according to economists. So we have all just received what amounts to a tax cut that has gone directly into our pockets.     

That's the good news. The bad news is that many of the same economists believe the reason prices have fallen so quickly is the deteriorating state of the global economy. Slower growth equals less demand for oil, all things being equal. As such we find ourselves with an oversupply of oil.

Now usually, OPEC, which controls the lion's share of oil production worldwide, would begin to throttle down the amount of oil produced per day. There would be meetings and all the disparate members of this energy cartel would decide what cut backs are necessary in order to prop up energy prices. This time around no such agreement is contemplated.

Instead, Saudi Arabia, the energy colossus, has been quietly telling the oil market that they would be quite comfortable with even lower prices for an extended period of time. Behind the scenes, they have said that $80 a barrel for a year or two would be just fine with them even though that level of pricing would hurt all OPEC members, and some more than others. Venezuela, for example, is in such bad shape that oil at that level would probably force the country into bankruptcy.

So what, you might ask, is the reason for this change in strategy? OPEC recognizes that a new competitor is emerging in the form of United States energy independence. Readers may be surprised to learn that the U.S. has emerged as the No. 1 oil producer in the world, even as it maintains the same spot in energy consumption. We can thank new technology, such as oil and gas fracking, for the turnabout in our energy prospects.

OPEC competitors would like to slow the rate of production here at home, thereby reducing our competitive edge. The best way to do that is by lowering prices. As prices drop certain sources of energy such as fracking and tar sands become less economical in comparison. Industry experts figure that a drop to $75 a barrel in oil would begin to curtail drillers and producers from developing additional fracking wells. The fracking industry has become much more cost sensitive since the early days of 2003. There has been so much capital sunk into the cost of expanding this output that any price change in oil impacts the bottom line much faster.

Investors are well aware of that risk, which explains why many energy stocks have dropped 25-30 percent over the last month. By keeping prices low for a year or two, OPEC could effectively gut much of the growth in energy production here at home. I suspect that is their game plan going forward.

There are other negative implications if OPEC succeeds in their plan. The U.S. oil and gas sector has added over 400,000 jobs since 2003. Some estimate that another 1 million to 2 million jobs have been created in construction, manufacturing and transportation to support our drive for energy independence. As a result, although the cost savings in energy consumption might contribute a 0.03 percent gain to GDP growth, the hit to Americas as a result of a decline in the energy sector could be far greater.     

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: Why Is This Recovery Different?
By Bill Schmick On: 03:59PM / Thursday October 09, 2014
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The stock markets are at record highs. Interest rates are at record lows. The unemployment rate is below 6 percent and yet, most Americans are unhappy. They are not feeling the recovery. Why?

The answer to that question is complicated. But let's start with the financial crisis. Like the Crash of 1929, the events of 2008-2009 were also the result of a credit crisis. The country's financial system was on the brink of a meltdown. In the 1930s, a lot of banks went under.  That was averted this time by spending massive amounts of money to shore up our financial institutions. However, the damage was done.

We lost trust. For the first time in three generations, Americans had doubts as to the credit-worthiness of its most venerable institutions. The ensuing recession was unlike any that America has experienced since the Great Depression. When one loses trust, both lender and borrower pull back. It takes a long, long time before that trust is rebuilt.  That process is still ongoing.

Readers may recall that it was only in 1939-1940, a full 10 years after the "Crash," before this country was able to climb out of its longest downturn in memory. Some say that if it had not been for World War II it would have been even longer. I don't believe that it will take us quite that long to return to a normal economy but from a historical perspective, the present state of our economy is understandable.

Back in August, The New York Times crunched some numbers to determine what the economy would look like coming out of a normal recession, compared to what is happening today. They found that five economic sectors out of 11 were lagging badly in this recovery. They were housing, state and local government spending, durable goods consumption, business equipment investment and federal spending. Let's examine how credit impacts these sectors.

Housing is no surprise. After all, it was at the forefront of the subprime loans financial crisis. There is a shortfall of over $239 billion in missing output in this sector. We know the reasons for this shortfall — tighter lending standards and housing prices that are still underwater from their peak. That means less jobs, fewer wage increases, a less mobile workforce since few are willing to sell their homes at a loss to relocate for a job. Bottom line: banks have a trust issue with borrowers; less borrowing, less housing, simple.

Less state and local government spending represents a $180 billion gap versus what they should be spending. The reason for the decline in spending is the absence of tax revenues and burgeoning debt burden most local governments incurred as a result of the recession. States have cut back drastically and for a good reason. They need to borrow just to make ends meet and who will be willing to lend if they are spending like a drunken sailor?  

The $178 billion gap in durable goods consumption is all about big-ticket items, many of which you need to borrow in order to purchase. Things like automobiles, furniture, appliances, etc. If you are already underwater on your house, who can afford to borrow and who will lend to you?

Corporations also have a trust issue. They are spending $120 billion less on plants and equipment than they should be because they lack faith in the future demand for their goods. Most of them can borrow all they want but they don't or if they do it is not for plants and equipment. It is for things they can control like stock buybacks or mergers and acquisitions.

That leaves the Federal government, which is spending $118 billion less than it would in a normal recovery. Because we were forced to spend so much in propping up our financial sectors, the nation's debt skyrocketed to a level that created a crisis of confidence among our politicians. The fear that the nation might not be able to service, let alone pay off these historical high levels of debt resulted in a compromise that in effect reduced spending for the next decade.

To make matters worse, none of the other six sectors that make up the major contributors to gross domestic product have been able to take up the slack. So where does that leave us? When one gets into financial difficulty, it takes a long time to repair a credit rating. It takes years, and that is exactly what has happened between borrowers and lenders over the last five years. There is no way to hurry the process. In the meantime, it is what it is.

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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