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The Independent Investor: How Cell Phones Hurt Your Productivity

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

Forty-two years ago, when the cell phone was first invented, the new device was hailed as a major tool in boosting everyone's productivity. Today, we are discovering that the opposite is true. The cell phone has become a major distraction.

Ever notice how many people on the job are making cell phone calls? Cops, clerks, nurses, brokers — it doesn't matter who they are — their dependence on their cell phone is almost an addiction. New research reveals that you don't even have to answer your phone to reduce your productivity.

A study by the Journal of Experimental Psychology discovered that subjects who needed intense focus in their daily routines performed poorly when they simply received notification of a text or call on their phone. Their productivity dropped dramatically even if they chose to ignore the notification. Researchers call it the "degree of distraction."

Recently, I tested this concept on myself. My friends and relations will attest to my lack of interest in all things cellular. I regularly forget my phone. Many times my wife will call me on my cell, only to hear it ring on the kitchen counter next to her.

But I have grudgingly been attempting to join the 21st century in my electronic life. As such, I have a brand-new smart phone, a watch that tells me I have a call (as well as my heart rate) and an tablet at home. Over the last week, I've made sure my cell phone was on my desk, fully charged and "on" in my own experiment. I wanted to test my own level of distraction.

Money management requires a fair bit of focus; writing columns even more. Usually, I am under a deadline when I write. Producing readable copy regularly requires an enormous amount of concentration on my part. I try not to be disturbed during this process because it does throw off my focus.

This morning my cell phone was on and I received three calls and several text messages that I did not answer. Nonetheless, it took me an extra hour to complete this column. The same thing happened earlier in the week while writing another column. For me, simply the knowledge of receiving a message triggered a distracting stream of questions — who was calling me and why, was the message important, was it an emergency? Suffice it to say that I did check and see who had called just to put my mind at ease.

Granted, it was a most unscientific experiment, but it does support a growing volume of research on the subject. Although in this day and age multi-tasking is a daily chore, the facts are that human beings are really not that good at it. Workers think that they can text or access social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter or Snapchat and still maintain productivity. The facts are that the average office worker wastes over one-third of the day on these pursuits and that brings down their productivity level drastically.

Not only do cellphones create constant distractions, but they often interrupt important meetings. They can also represent a security risk, mixing personal and business applications on one phone. They can prove physically dangerous to those employees who believe they can multitask while performing physical work. Sometimes they can spread confidential information in the public, which is a big concern in my business.

All in all, while your cell phone can be a useful tool in your life, best practices in the work place would be to turn it off and put it a drawer until after the work day is done.

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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@theMarket: Back to the Future

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

The Federal Reserve Bank postponed hiking interest rates. Global stock markets swooned on what should have been good news. We are back to anticipating what the central bank will do in the future.

Investors are well equipped to handle both positive and negative scenarios, but they can't stand the unknown. And that is exactly what we face for the remainder of the year.

Last week, I predicted the Fed would not raise rates. I argued that based on their achieving only one of their objectives, job growth, the bank would hold off. The rate of inflation, their second objective, has yet to reach their target of 2 percent. There is little evidence that indicates that target rate will be reached any time soon.

Fed Chairwoman Janet Yellen, in her press conference after the FOMC meeting, also indicated that the state of global economies was a concern. Her words echoed the IMF's warnings (also mentioned last week) that now was not the time to raise U.S. interest rates.

In the past, whenever the Fed applied more stimuli to the economy, (or in this case failed to tighten), the markets took it positively. That is understandable given past financial history.

More stimuli equaled lower interest rates, equaled higher stock markets. However, that causal relationship might be wearing thin. Although central bankers have poured over $8 trillion into the global economies over the last few years, economic growth rates have remained stubbornly

The Fed would be the first one to tell you (and has continuously through the years) that monetary policy can only do so much. Without help from the government's fiscal side, (read increased spending) the impact of simply keeping interest rates low is dubious. Over the past seven years in this country, legislatures, led by the Republican Party, have rejected that concept.

Instead, they have done the opposite, with the help of politicians on the other side of the aisle. Even today, the same rhetoric of reduced spending is one of the main planks in every GOP candidate's platform. I vehemently disagree and have advocated the opposite since the onset of the financial crisis. But now is not the time to debate this subject. After all, this is a column about markets.

I maintain that markets will remain volatile for a few more weeks and that a re-test of the August lows is required before this period of correction is over. This past week the majority of traders, expecting that the Fed would not hike rates, bid the markets up to a technical level of resistance, in this case 2,020 on the S&P 500 Index, and then took profits. It was a classic exercise of "sell on the news," which happens quite often in markets like this.

Over the next few weeks, I expect we will fall back to the 1,860 level on the S&P 500 index and maybe a little below that. Selling will be fueled by the same set of circumstances that has bedeviled the markets since the beginning of the correction in August. In summary, we have returned to the pre-Fed meeting guessing game.

What will the Fed do in the future? Are rates off the table for this year? The Fed says no, but states that it is still dependent on the data. It is hard for me to see what is going to increase the rate of inflation to the Fed's target rate this year, ditto to expectations that we will see a lift-off in overseas economies that quickly.

In the meantime, traders are in charge and their time horizon is down to microseconds.

Your only recourse is to ignore the noise, because that is what most of this worry is about, and, look to November and December when the bulls take over again.

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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The Independent Investor: Mind the Gap, Please

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

As the unemployment rate drops toward full employment, the growing skills gap between business and labor is becoming a huge problem in this country. Fully 80 percent of manufacturers and small business owners can't find qualified staff.

Over the years, I've written several columns about this growing problem, but now the economy is picking up and unemployment, at 5.1 percent, is coming close to full employment. Both corporate and government leaders are realizing that in in some industries, such as utilities and aerospace, the skilled labor shortage may hamstring America's ability to do business in the years ahead.

The Harvard Business Review estimates that 47 percent of all new job openings over this decade will fall into the middle-skills range. Middle-skill jobs usually require postsecondary technical education and training and, in many cases, require college math and science courses if not a degree in those subjects.

Although the manufacturing sector today only represents 18 percent of total GDP, every dollar spent in manufacturing adds $1.37 to the U.S. economy. And every 100 jobs in that sector create an additional 250 jobs in other sectors that support manufacturing. The vast majority of manufacturing executives believe this growing skills gap will impact their ability to meet customer demand in the future. They say they are ready and willing to pay well above market rates for qualified employees, yet six out of 10 positions go unfilled.

Back in the day, skilled workers had two avenues to obtain marketable work skills. They could learn on the job through a cooperative apprenticeship system developed by management and company unions. But as unions declined (less than 12 percent of the total U.S. work force is represented by unions), so did the system of this on-the-job training. At the same time, the landscape has changed from gradual and incremental upgrades easily learned on the job to new skills requiring a quantum leap in technical and behavioral understanding. Things like problem solving, communication, teamwork and leadership.

That's where the second avenue of learning new workplace skills would be useful. Colleges were supposed to be the place where young people can absorb these massive breakthroughs and develop the rules necessary to excel in a modern-age professional work life. We were told to major in a field that suited our interests and talents.

Unfortunately, thanks to a high school system that has failed to adequately prepare our students in science and math, plus an American prejudice against just about anything that was not in the liberal arts field, fewer and fewer college students choose a career that is needed in the job market. Over the last two decades only 15 percent of U.S. college graduates majored in science, technology, engineering or math and that, my reader, is where the jobs are.

As the gap widens, a number of initiatives between government, education and the private sector has sought to remedy the situation through training and hiring of graduates, so far with varying degrees of success. The old system of apprenticeships, although trial-tested, is difficult to maintain, given the small number of unions remaining throughout the country.

In-house job training has also been met with some success in major corporations that have the time and money to bring a new employee up to the level of skilled competence necessary for their job requirements. However, small businesses, the main engine of employment and prosperity in this nation, do not have the time, money or number of skilled employees necessary to teach and/or train the unskilled employee.

A crisis always seems to light a fire under those who know what to do, but have just not got around to doing it yet. I think we are getting quite close to the point where everyone in the private and public sectors is going to have to roll up their sleeves and focus on this issue.

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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@theMarket: All or Nothing

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

As traders steel themselves for next week's Federal Open Market Committee meeting, the stock market remains volatile with a bias toward the downside. That should change for better or worse by next Wednesday.

Whether the Fed raises rates or decides to pass for another month or three, I expect traders will use the decision as an excuse to buy or sell the stock market. I normally key off what the bond players think about the Fed's actions and they put the probability of a rate hike at 30 percent.

The odds are low largely because inflation continues to be practically non-existent. The rate of inflation is one of the Fed's twin mandates, the other being employment. Clearly, the jobs picture has been improving all year. So the signals are mixed. Given that the central bank is determined to err on the side of moderation when raising rates, why not wait a little longer before hiking rates?

In addition, although a small rate hike here in the U.S. would have little to no impact on the economy; it does have implications for global currencies, trade and emerging markets. I have referred in the past to the "carry trade." That's an arbitrage investment that many large institutions use on a global basis. They borrow in cheap or declining currencies and invest it in strengthening currencies and bond markets. A rise in rates (even a little one) does and will impact this carry trade. It will also impact exports, imports and, by extension, the economies of various nations.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is well aware of this risk. It is the main reason why its Managing Director, Christine LeGarde, has urged our central bank to delay a rate decision until next year. She feels that the global economic conditions are just too fragile at this juncture to sustain a rate rise from the world's largest trading partner. She has a point. Neither the world, nor the Fed, really wants to see the dollar strengthen any further in the short-term. A rise in our rates would do that.

Wall Street would have us believe that the present volatility and uncertainty among stock markets would also be a big deterrent to hiking rates right now. I doubt that. The Fed would not be overly concerned if the U.S. market moved up or down 3-4 percent in the short-term. I'm guessing that you might feel differently about that.

By now, most of us are starting to cope with the newly-found volatility of the markets. For the first seven months of the year, the indexes traded in an extremely tight range. Since then we have been making up for lost time. The CBOE Volatility Index, which measures perceived risk, has jumped 120 percent over the past month.

Consider that over the last 15 trading days alone we have had 11 "all or nothing" days when greater than 80 percent of the stocks in the S&P 500 Index moved in the same direction, higher or lower. That compares to only 13 such days over the first 159 trading days of the year. It indicates that investors are far more concerned about the risk of the overall market than they are about the fortunes of any individual stock. That concern continues today.

It appears to me that the markets will trade aimlessly until the middle of next week. The bears will position themselves around a probable rate cut and a fall in the markets, while the bulls will do the opposite. Whatever happens, the fireworks will be at best a short-term phenomenon. Since no one really knows what decision the Fed will make, the best thing to do is nothing.

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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The Independent Investor: The Economics of European Migration

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Staff

A stream of destitute refugees arrives on European shores every day. Greece, Hungary and Italy have borne the brunt of this migration, but the ocean of displaced persons this year has already swamped their resources. It is a life and death crisis that demands an answer now.

Unfortunately, the European Union is neither accustomed to, nor organized in a fashion that allows for rapid decision making, especially when it comes to political problems like this. Something as knotty as what to do with the influx of over 500,000 illegal immigrants over the past year has taken European leaders out of their comfort zone.

Normally, a long process of consensus-building among EU members is necessary before political or economic decisions can be implemented. As an example, think of the time and effort that was necessary to bail out Greece. But this emergency won't wait. The drowning of hundreds of migrants in April, the discovery of a truckload of dead refugees in Austria last month and the recent front-page photo of a dead 3-year old immigrant in Turkey underscore the fact that political dithering means additional lives lost.

Faced with public outrage, the European Commission's President, Jean-Claude Juncker, proposed a plan to redistribute 160,000 refugees across the European bloc. The plan must be approved by a qualified majority of EU governments. Even before countries vote on the plan, it is obvious to everyone that it falls far short of a solution considering the numbers of migrants expected to descend upon the continent.

Many of the immigrants are political refugees from the Middle East (mainly Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq). For several years, we have all watched on the nightly news the plight of these refugees living in squalid camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. At this point, however, these countries cannot take any more refugees, nor do they have the resources to care for those in the camps.

Lebanon, for example, has taken in one million refugees. Given that their entire population amounts to 4.5 million, the overload of immigrants is destroying that country. GDP is expected to decline 3 percent this year as the government and economy collapse under the weight of refugees. Faced with starvation or worse, many of these camp migrants are escaping to Europe with the help of smugglers.

Part of the problem within Europe is the routes used in smuggling these immigrants into the EU. The Mediterranean gives smugglers and others easy access to Italy and the Greek Islands. From there, refugees travel over land in pursuit of economic opportunity wherever they can find it. Countries such as Germany, Finland, France, Spain and Great Britain are attractive end points for these immigrants.

Faced with already high unemployment rates, slow to no-growth economies, and overburdened social spending programs in many cases, European countries are not in the kind of economic shape to support an influx of destitute migrants. Many governments (and voters) believe these new arrivals will simply add to the strain they are already feeling. In Eastern Europe, religious and cultural differences have created a backlash against accepting any migrants at all.

In addition, many European countries have little or no experience in accepting and processing refugees, which makes an EU Pan-European approach that much more difficult to implement.

Europe has faced and managed emergencies like this before. The Yugoslav wars of the 1990s and influx of Vietnamese "boat people" are just two that come to mind. Yet, the number of migrants seeking asylum in Europe today is higher than at any time since World War II. Meeting this challenge will test Europe like never before. Let's all hope that Europe's politicians are up to the task. Otherwise this crisis will only get much, much worse.

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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