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The Independent Investor: Mars Is Only The Beginning
By Bill Schmick On: 05:40PM / Thursday August 09, 2012
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Hurrah for us. The Curiosity landing on Mars was the most complex landing NASA has ever attempted. The mission cost taxpayers $2.5 billion, but if history is any guide the economic payback to America will be much greater than that.

The purpose of this Mars mission is to perform a highly sophisticated scientific analysis of the Red Planet around the Gale Crater. Curiosity, the one-ton robotic rover, is loaded with an army of scientific instruments including high resolution cameras, infrared lasers, microscopes, X-ray spectrometer and even drills for retrieving samples of the surface for further analysis. If history is any guide, NASA probably has a host of other tools that are newly developed proprietary secrets that will trickle through the economy sometime in the future.

Scientists at NASA believe Curiosity (about the size of a Mini Cooper automobile) will remain operational for at least a year. Of course, the public and the media will be looking for answers to the really dramatic questions. Was there life on Mars and when? Are there vast deposits of mineral wealth just waiting to be scooped up from the surface? Even more exciting, could there be new and potentially valuable substances heretofore unknown to man that could be successfully exploited?

While answers to these questions may keep Americans interested, I suspect that the real payoff will come from the technology that went into developing and executing the mission. One only needs to look back at how much economic value was generated by the Apollo moon landing and other space programs to understand my point.

From 1962 to 1972, America spent roughly $16 billion (inflation-adjusted) a year on the space program. I remember watching on television (along with millions of other Americans) as Apollo 11 touched down on the moon's dusty surface on July 20, 1969. It was that landing and subsequent other manned missions to the moon that inspired an entire generation of school kids to become scientists and engineers.

Those are the men and women who have given us untold wealth in the form of the technology we enjoy today. Beyond that, a partial list of technological benefits of the space program include micro circuitry, endless software innovations, miniaturization, a vast array of sensor technologies (used today in everything from medicine to transportation) advancements in telecommunications, precision manufacturing, instantaneous global communication, radar mapping, GPS, and the materials science that developed most of the materials that surround you. The economic benefits of those advancements are incalculable. Suffice it to say that the return on $16 billion/year was huge. America would not be the leading economic power of the world today without the space program.

Unfortunately, in this partisan era of spending cuts, NASA's planetary science efforts budget will be cut by 20 percent next year with further cuts expected in the coming years. Much of this money will come out of the agency's Mars program, which will see its funding fall from $587 million this year to $360 million in 2013 and then to just $189 million in 2015. I think that is a mistake.

Consider that less than two months ago just one of our "most reputable" banks threw away over twice the entire Mars budget by speculating in the same kind of derivatives that gave us the financial crisis of 2008. Even if that bank's bet had paid off, its economic benefit to this country would have been insignificant compared to the potential technological advances generated by the Mars Science Laboratory.

As I write this column, new revelations point to trillions of dollars in losses by the rigging of interest rates by this nation's banks (among others). Yet, our politicians nickel and dime NASA's budget to show how fiscally responsible they are. Where are our priorities?

I am one of those Americans who believe that if we don't invest in science and space exploration, the human race will eventually cease to advance as a species. It confounds me that with all the technological breakthroughs generated by past space programs the question of funding space exploration is even raised. What am I missing here?

Bill Schmick is registered as an investment advisor 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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@theMarket: Get Ready for More Stimulus
By Bill Schmick On: 09:23AM / Sunday August 05, 2012
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Central bankers in both the U.S. and Europe disappointed most investors this week by failing to announce any additional monetary stimulus. But that doesn't mean they won't. What Wall Street fails to understand is that governments do things in their own time and pace.

Actually, this week's sell-off was simply another buying opportunity for those, like me, who are convinced that additional easing is in the cards. How can I be so sure?

The U.S. Federal Reserve in the minutes of its FOMC meeting this week, acknowledged that the economy and unemployment was a disappointment. They said it "will provide additional accommodation as needed to promote a stronger economic recovery and sustained improvement in labor market conditions."

So it doesn't take rocket science to figure out that most of the recent economic data is quickly moving from bad to worse, but the real kicker is the unemployment rate. Despite Friday's welcome gain of 163,000 jobs, the overall rate ticked up to 8.3 percent. That was not an anomaly. The number of new jobs created over the last few months has been falling and this week's number does not appreciatively change that. That, my dear reader, should really concern the Fed. To me, I'm betting the Federal Reserve Bank is going to act. Evidently the markets agree since stocks soared after the unemployment data was released.

Next, we move to European Central Bank President Mario Draghi. After last week's comments that he would "do whatever it takes" to defend the Euro, investors immediately expected him to launch some new bond–buying program this week. When that failed to happen, markets sold off.

I have often reminded readers that prior to accomplishing anything significant in European financial policy; a consensus needs to be built among at least the largest players in the European Union. That does not occur in a week. Draghi is looking for ways to reduce Spanish and Italian sovereign bond rates that will also enlist the cooperation of Germany, France and other nations. He will accomplish that because in the end all the key players have shown that they, too, will defend the Euro with whatever it takes.

In the meantime, ignore all the wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth by the markets and their commentators. Increasingly, world markets act like children: they want instant gratification and as little pain as possible. If they don't get it, they throw a tantrum. 

The Fed has a number of opportunities to announce further monetary initiatives. Although they could technically take action at any time, they normally wait for a forum of sorts to make this type of announcement. The closest is their annual meeting in Jackson Hole, Wyo., at the end of the month. But the Fed might want to wait until they see more economic data, in which case it could be September before they move. They could also synchronize their actions with other central banks. That happened in October, 2008 and again in November, 2011.

The point is that further stimulus is coming both in Europe and in the U.S. If the past is any guide to how the stock market will react, it behooves readers to be invested and stay invested until those events occur. QE II was announced in Jackson Hole on Aug. 27, 2010. The S&P 500 Index rallied 20.9 percent. The next stimulus program, "Operation Twist," was launched on Sept. 21, 2011, resulting in a gain of 21.7 percent in the S&P.

It is also noteworthy that in both cases the stock market averages experienced a "V" shaped recovery in the immediate days and weeks after the announcements. Those who were not invested already were forced to chase the markets. Experienced money managers who waited for a pullback before investing were disappointed time after time. Is it any wonder that this time investors who believe more stimuli are forthcoming are buying on any dips?

There are those who argue that because the markets are climbing ahead of the event, much of the gains will already be discounted once the stimulus occurs. "Not so," say I, as I look back to May 18, 2012, (which was the S&P low for this year). To date, the markets have gained about 7.5 percent. Let's say the markets climb another 3 percent before the end of August. If the expected gains are similar to the rallies of the last two QE's (20 percent), that would still leave another 10 percent between the end of August and the November elections. That's more than enough for me. How about you?

Bill Schmick is registered as an investment advisor 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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The Independent Investor: Health-Care Feud Continues
By Bill Schmick On: 04:23PM / Thursday August 02, 2012
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Back in the day when the Supreme Court spoke, politicians usually listened. However, the court's recent decision to uphold the Affordable Care Act seems to have simply incensed its opponents and created more controversy.

"Obamacare," as the legislation has been nicknamed, was probably destined to be controversial no matter what the Supreme Court had decided. But by voting in favor of the act, by reason of Congress' power to levy taxes, simply stirred the hornet’s nest further.

Republicans have said they will try to repeal the key provision of the act after the election. They argue that since the court considers any penalty on citizens who fail to hold health insurance as a tax, then the legislation should be subject to a fast-track procedure called budget reconciliation where certain tax issues are resolved.

The GOP figures that if it can just gain a handful of additional Senate seats in November it can knock down the Act altogether on the tax issue. In any case, Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate and author of Massachusetts' health-care initiative, has sworn to repeal it on his first day as president if he is elected to the White House.

From my point of view, I just can't see what is so bad about our country's fledgling steps toward universal health care. I look at health care as simply another form of insurance like home owners or auto insurance. It is a simple fact that our economic system would not function as well or not at all without certain forms of carried insurance.

Do we, for example, protest when the bank demands that we pay for home insurance as a condition of receiving a mortgage loan? Of course not, because we know that a fire, or flood or a tree could fall on our home at any time preventing us from paying off our debt, with dire consequences for ourselves as well as the bank.

The same thing applies to auto insurance. Most states require drivers to carry auto insurance. We are relieved that we do, despite the high and ever-increasing costs of carrying this insurance because we know how much those fender-benders cost. God forbid if it is anything more serious! And yet, how many times have we heard of accidents where the other driver was not covered by insurance? Not only were we angry at the driver, but at the authorities as well for even allowing that uninsured driver on the road.

Without insurance, ships wouldn't sail, planes wouldn't fly, trains wouldn't roll, and you would not even be able to move your furniture to that new home across the state. So why do we want to omit something as potentially expensive as poor health from other's insurance obligations?

Might it be possible that people do not understand that an uninsured person with poor health has the ability to inflict financial damage on everyone else in the health care system?

In our country, hospitals and other medical providers tend to give care first and then try to collect payment later. When the system winds up providing free care or is unable to collect on the bills it sends out, who do you think pays for that? You do.

Our health-care system is a for-profit entity that has to make up for the losses incurred by uninsured customers of its services. Costs are reduced either by shaving salaries and benefits of its employees thereby providing less in the way of services and/or charging you higher fees for the services delivered. In turn, you pay more through your co-pay and insurance premiums.

What's worse is that uninsured people usually wait until their medical condition is so extreme that they cannot function without medical assistance. Health issues that could have been resolved by a yearly check-up at the doctor's office are left unattended due to no insurance. These medical problems can cost literally an arm and a leg by the time the person shows up in the emergency room. Not only will the cost of treating that person be much higher than it would be, but taxpayers are likely to foot the bill for that person for the rest of their lives via welfare, disability or other aid programs.

The bottom line is that we are already paying for those who refuse to carry health insurance either as taxpayers or as health-care insurance owners. Obamacare has no impact on the vast majority of Americans who carry some sort of health insurance. As for those who really can't afford health insurance, this country's social system already covers them through Medicaid and other programs.

That only leaves those who are free-riding the system. Those who can afford to pay for health insurance but refuse. They don't even have to buy health insurance under the Act. They simply have to pay a penalty for not opting in. What's wrong with that?

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: 'Bottom' Not Same As Recovery
By Bill Schmick On: 03:45PM / Friday July 27, 2012
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Every summer for the last three years, economists have announced that the housing market has finally bottomed. But in the same breath, they talk about a recovery they expect in the months and years ahead. I agree that the bottom is in but there is little sign of that promised recovery.

In a recent Wall Street Journal poll of 44 economists, all but three were convinced that housing has hit bottom. To back up their contention, one need only review the data in that sector over the last few months. In May, as just one example, 10 percent more existing homes were sold than in the same month last year. Builders also started on 26 percent more single-family homes that month than the depressed levels of last spring.

In June, housing starts rose 6.9 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 760,000 units, which is the highest rate since October 2008. But new permits for building homes dropped 3.7 percent and pending home sales actually decreased by 1.4 percent. In a bottoming process, however, conflicting numbers are to be expected. In an actual recovery, one should expect a consistent string of stronger data points month after month. That has failed to occur.

For the past several years, good news in the spring and summer (the traditional season for home buying) was followed by disappointing data in the fall and winter. We need to see more robust numbers throughout the year and a broadening out of this trend before a housing recovery becomes a reality.

Zillow, a research organization that measures home values, said on Tuesday that the U.S. market has turned the corner after a five-year slump. They point to the fact that home values have risen for four consecutive months. Yet, when the data is examined closely, we find that the biggest price gains are in the markets that saw the largest drops during the real estate crash. California, Arizona, Florida and Nevada have seen higher prices but from a very low base. Whereas places like St. Louis, Chicago and Philadelphia saw price declines.

It could be that the markets that saw the largest gains were simply correcting an oversold condition that was not sustainable. In other words, prices were too cheap, even under these market conditions, and buyers recognized this. If we are in a true recovery, we should see a continuation in price increases in these markets with a flattening out of prices in declining markets.

Many economists argue that this time around a declining supply of houses will bolster the real estate market's recovery. Here again, I look at the level of homes for sale with a jaundiced eye. The level of housing inventory that is being held "off market" concerns me. First, there is the large pool of foreclosed properties that the banks are holding and can't wait to get off their books.

In addition, roughly one-third of all homeowners are underwater on their mortgages. Many of these owners are hoping for a recovery in prices before selling. Finally, a substantial portion of existing home sales have been purchased for cash by buyers who intend on renting out these properties until the market turns and then selling them at a profit.

If I'm correct, that represents an awful lot of potential homes for sale that are not being counted in the nation's housing supply by those who argue that a recovery is under way. About the best that can be said for housing is, if a bottom has occurred, then the housing sector will no longer be a drag on the economy overall. It may also mean that prices will stabilize at last at a lower level, although how long it will be before prices increase is a function of how much inventory there is left to be sold.

In my opinion, it could take several more years before that existing stock of houses is sold off and another generation of homebuyers actually begins the process of bidding up home prices once again. For prices to return to their pre-crash level, we would need to see the economy come roaring back and the jobless rate drop precipitously.

In the meantime, if you are in the market for a place to live, focus on the attractions of owning rather than renting a home to live in rather than as an investment. Unless something changes radically in this country, it could take a long time before you actually see a recovery in housing.

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: The Drought of 2012
By Bill Schmick On: 05:21PM / Thursday July 19, 2012
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All you need do is look out your window to understand that a drought has descended upon our region. Aside from yellow lawns and possibly local restrictions on watering your grass, most of us here in the Northeast haven't felt its real impact — yet.

Naturally, those who farm for a living would beg to differ since they are watching their livelihood shrivel on the stalk or vine daily and if the dry spell keeps up they too will join the ranks of a growing list of U.S. counties (over a thousand today) that are applying for federal disaster relief.

Over 60 percent of the country is in the grip of the worst drought "since the late 1950s," as the media is billing this weather event. And as droughts go, "you ain't seen nothin' yet." In the '50s, for example, the state of Texas suffered a seven-year dry spell that was so bad that children born in 1951 grew up with no knowledge of rain. Dust storms that turned day into night were so powerful that they stripped the paint off of license plates.

Of course, nothing in modern-day American history compares to the drought of the 1930s. As the new decade began, the country was still grabbling with the aftermath of the 1929 stock market crash. At the same time, the U.S. experienced two dry years in a row in 1930-31, especially in the East. As the economy faltered so did the rain and by 1934, 80 percent of the country was in a drought and a depression.

Anyone who has read Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath" has a general idea of how bad a drought can get. Scientists believe the period of 1933-1940 was the worst drought in North America in 300 years. Dust storms, especially in the Great Plains, were daily events and by 1934 it was estimated that 100 million acres of farmland had lost most or all of the topsoil to the winds.

It was at that time, after weeks of storms that the mother of all dust storms hit the nation (Black Sunday, April 14, 1935). Sixty mph winds spread the grit and dust from the Great Plains all the way to Washington, D.C. The term "Dust Bowl" was coined a day later by the Associated Press to describe conditions in the Great Plains. I provide this history lesson for a reason.

History often rhymes. There are some similarities in both the economy and the weather today compared to the 1930s. We experienced a crash in the markets in 2008-2009 brought about by speculation and a credit crisis and are still struggling with the aftermath just like we did in 1929-1930. Today, like then, we worry over this country's huge deficit, out-of-control spending, high unemployment rate and slowing economy. Events are eerily similar to what transpired in the U.S. in the early '30s.

Droughts cause dislocations in the economy whenever they occur. They exasperate existing economic conditions. In this country if you look at the pattern of 20th-century droughts, they normally occur every 20 years, so we are overdue for this dry season. Aside from the predictable impact on food prices, droughts create a chain of cascading secondary effects from lost agricultural jobs and businesses to higher utility costs and other industry costs in the developed world to population displacements and political unrest in emerging markets.

If one looks at just the price of corn in the United States, which has increased in price by 38 percent since June 1, it is not hard to predict increases in processed food prices by the winter. Since other staples, like soybeans and wheat, are also wilting in the heat there could be a domino effect across the board for all kinds of agricultural products.

It might surprise you, however, that the prices of beef, poultry and pork might actually decline in the short term. That's because livestock producers would rather send their herds to slaughter now than face the increased costs of feeding them in the future. Out West, (today's potential Dust Bowl) many ranchers have simply run out of range land that could support their herds. As this new supply of livestock is dumped on the market, prices should ease a bit before heading up, so plan accordingly.  The best strategy would be to stock up now and freeze for the future.

I guess the best that can be said of this drought is that it has a way to run before it can compare to the worst that Mother Nature has thrown at us in the last century. It will most certainly cause more drag on the economy, increase the deficit through federal relief assistance to farmers and put pressure on the unemployment rate.

Under that scenario, is it any wonder that the markets are expecting more stimulus from the Fed? Barring that, I guess we should all brush up on our rain dancing.

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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News Headlines
Mount Greylock's Enrollment Projection Debated in Subcommittee
Clarksburg Mulls Options on House Taken for Taxes
'Transcendence': Can't Get Over Itself
North Adams Cemetery Commission Resurrected
Pittsfield Considering Lighting Up North Side of Tyler Street
Hoosac Valley Graduate Rumbolt Remembered
North Adams Hospital Emergency Room to Reopen in May
State Provides $200K To Fix Pittsfield Roads
Williamstown Housing Committee Names Interim Chair
Williamstown Medical Entities Easing Residents' Anxiety
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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