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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.

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@theMarket: Quarter Ends With a Bang

Bill Schmick

The markets presented plenty of head fakes this quarter. In January, contrary to everyone's expectations, the gains of last year kept right on coming through most of the first quarter, only to hit a brick wall in March thanks to troubles in the Middle East followed by nature's one-two punch to Japan. Despite that, the indexes finished the first quarter with the best gains in over two decades.

The Dow racked up 742 points (6.4 percent), the S&P 500 Index gained 68 points (5.4 percent) while the NASDAQ closed up 128 points for a 4.8 percent gain. If we annualize those gains we could be looking at a 20 percent plus gain for the year, which puts my forecast of a 20-23 percent gain in 2011 right on target.

"It was a choppy quarter though," commented one client on Friday who lives in Dalton.

I agree. Clearly this market is exacting a price (higher stress and wear and tear on the nerves) for the gains we are making. I suspect that additional volatility is waiting for us as we continue to climb a wall of worry throughout this next quarter. Some of the concerns I believe will haunt us through the spring are the price of oil brought on by geopolitical turmoil, continued problems among European financial institutions and, of course, the end of QE II, which occurs in June.

Can the economy continue to grow without the multibillion dollar monetary stimulus that the Fed has been providing for well over a year? The economy appears to be growing and unemployment declining, but is that a function of real demand or simply a response to the Fed's easy money policies? How will the stock and bond markets react to an end to this stimulus?

Smarter people than I are expecting a rapid and disastrous response by the bond markets to the sunset of QE II. They believe that interest rates will immediately spike, disrupting what little lending is already occurring and thereby throwing the economy back into recession. I find that hard to believe.

I'm going to give our central bankers, led by Ben Bernanke, the benefit of the doubt. They read the same papers we do and are well aware of the fears of the markets. Is it really plausible that the Fed will step out of the game and simply watch from the bleachers if the doomsayers are right?

There is simply too much at stake and Ben Bernanke knows it. I believe the process of pulling out of the market will be a managed one. For those who pay attention to "Fed Speak," I maintain that process is already at work. Recently a number of Board Governors who have granted interviews advised the financial community that the Fed will be taking a more neutral policy position in regards to stimulus in the future.

That's not to say there won't be concerns and with them volatility. Skittish investors will always jump the gun, many times before they actually have the facts. In today's markets, trading on rumors is just as viable as trading on the facts. So prepare for some rough sailing; but I get ahead of myself.

As a portfolio manager, it's part of my job to fret and worry about what will be, instead of enjoying what is. And a rising market is what we can expect over the next few months. Sure, we can and will have down days, but I believe they will be short and shallow. Commodity stocks will lead, so make sure you have some exposure to those sectors, and if you haven't yet, get back into the stock market — now.

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.

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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.

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@theMarket: The Coast Is Clear

Bill Schmick

The stock market continues to be buffeted by bad news. Energy prices are climbing, war rages in Libya, Japan's nuclear crisis continues to radiate and Portugal's government resigned after failing to push through austerity measures intended to avert a financial crisis. The stock market simply shrugs it off and moves higher.

Pay attention readers. When markets continue to absorb negative news, the tea leaves tell me stocks are going higher. Last week, I wondered if the correction was over. The answer is yes. Some arcane variables I follow are flashing green. For example, market breath (the number of advancing stocks versus decliners) has made a sharp reversal over the last 10 days, which is a good sign. In addition, the percentage of stocks that are now above their 50-day moving average stands at 57 percent. If history is any guide that indicates we will enjoy a strong multimonth rally.

"But how can the very same worries that sank the market as recently as a week ago now no longer matter?" protested a snowbird with a summer house in Becket, who was convinced the world was coming to an end just a few days ago.

Markets tend to discount bad news and price in numerous "what if" scenarios over time. The European banking crisis has been with us for well over a year, so Portugal's problems no longer have the power to ratchet up risk on a worldwide basis. It would take serious financial problems in a really large country such as Italy or Spain to roil world markets down the road.

In the Middle East, the protests in Tunisia began in December of last year. Four months later, investors, who initially feared this unrest might spread to Saudi Arabia, now believe that if it were going to happen, it would have done so by now. Sure, oil will still remain at the $100 to $110 a barrel level until hostilities in Libya subside, but the rest of the market is already focusing on other things.

Finally, Japan, the world's most recent crisis, is far from over, but the inflated fears of a nuclear holocaust that drove the markets lower two weeks ago have been punctured leaving a mess (see this week's column "Who Pays for Japan?") but not one that will sink the world's markets. And in the meantime, U.S. GDP was revised upward for the last quarter of 2010 to 3.1 percent. Interest rates remain at historically low levels, and the economy appears to be gaining strength.

What we have had is a good old correction. Now it is over. Valuations are considerably lower (on average 7 percent) which has reduced the premiums in the equity market to a reasonable level. I believe the markets are poised to move substantially higher from here as I have written several times in the past. It appears the same cast of characters — materials, food, technology, industrials and energy — will lead the markets higher. Invest accordingly.

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.

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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.

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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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