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The Independent Investor: Cheap Doesn't Cut It Anymore
By Bill Schmick On: 03:38PM / Thursday December 13, 2012

In this brave new world of ours, it is no longer enough to simply offer the lowest cost product. Product innovation is now critical to a company's success. U.S. companies are discovering it is becoming harder to innovate when their manufacturing plants are half a world away.

Just look at the competition in hand-held devices, medical technology, and a plethora of other high-tech products, the highest sales go to the innovators with the most dependable products. But innovation doesn't stop there. Increasingly, even basic manufacturing products from wing nuts to autos are experiencing a transformation. Corporate teams of designers, engineers and workers on the assembly line find themselves collaborating like never before to produce a smaller, sleeker and more energy-efficient mouse trap, just like they did in the days of Henry Ford.

In order to do that, many companies are realizing that they need their manufacturing processes and factories closer to home. That realization is fueling an "insourcing" of jobs and manufacturing back to America. That's good news for the future of this country and its workforce.

Readers may recall my column, "Made in America Returns" back in June of this year. In that article, I attributed the renaissance in American manufacturing to lower energy and transportation costs here at home as well as the narrowing of labor costs between American workers and those unskilled workers of China and other emerging economies.

But that is not the entire story. A recent article in The Atlantic by Charles Fishman, titled "The Insourcing Boom," caught my eye. He chronicled the recent experiences of General Electric in transforming its defunct Appliance Park, Ky., manufacturing headquarters into today's cutting-edge producer of basic products like water heaters, refrigerators and dishwashers.

As a resident of Pittsfield, anything "GE" is of interest to me and my clients. Back in the day, Pittsfield was the headquarters of this red, white and blue manufacturing juggernaut. That is until Jack Welch, its former CEO, got it into his mind to ship most of our manufacturing jobs off to China and other cheap labor centers 30-some years ago. The same thing happened to Appliance Park. Both towns were devastated. Pittsfield is only now beginning to recover.

Appliance Park, on the other hand, is actually undergoing a revival of its original purpose, manufacturing American-made appliances, thanks to some recent discoveries by present GE management and its current CEO Jeffrey Immelt. After failing to sell the facility in 2008, management resolved to "make it work" at the huge six-factory complex. It soon realized that they could make highly efficient, higher-quality appliances here at home at a lower cost than could be produced elsewhere.

The key, as more and more companies are beginning to understand, to creating truly innovative products, regardless of their nature, at a reasonable price, is having all the pieces of the product creation puzzle in the same place. Over the past few decades that principle was lost and forgotten as U.S. companies rushed overseas to take advantage of cheap labor. In today's marketplace, however, cost is taking a back seat over quality and innovation; something more and more consumers are demanding and willing to pay for.

Input from those in the manufacturing process is becoming integral to engineering and designing a better, more competitive product. You can’t do that when your widget is being made on a Chinese or Indian factory floor in a different time zone, by workers who can't speak English. Although this trend should benefit our own workers, the question to ask is:

Is our workforce prepared for that challenge and opportunity?  In my next column we will address the issue of skilled workers, or the lack thereof, in America.

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 Eyes Are Not on America
By Bill Schmick On: 04:27PM / Saturday December 08, 2012

 

Our stock market has gone nowhere since Thanksgiving week but it would be a mistake to believe that all markets have been on hold since that time. You just may be missing an opportunity elsewhere while politicians fiddle here at home.
 
After gaining back about half of the 8 percent decline it suffered after the election, the S&P 500 Index is within a point or two of its close on Nov. 23. Each day the markets vacillate, gaining or losing a couple of points at the most. I believe this period of marking time will continue until there is some definite progress out of Washington.
 
In the meantime, you might want to look elsewhere. Asian markets, ex-Japan, for example outperformed just about everything else in November. Places like Hong Kong, Taiwan, India and even China are attracting new money. But it appears to be a stealthy flow of investment without the usual fanfare. That usually means it is still early in the game for investing.
 
Emerging markets, once the darling of the investment community, fell off their own cliff back in 2009. Unlike the American market, they have never recovered. The combination of recessions in their two main export markets—Europe and the U.S.—plus the global move out of risk assets overall (because of the financial crisis) left these markets out in the cold.
 
China, which most economists believe has been the largest engine of growth in the global economy, deliberately put the brakes on its economic growth, fearing a major uptick in their inflation rate. And as China slowed, so did the rest of Asia. Times have been hard over the last two to three years, with the Chinese stock market suffering a 40 percent decline. But some brave souls feel it might be time to re-examine the prospects in this area. I agree. Latin American markets, I noticed, outperformed all other emerging markets in October, although not in November. I have even seen signs of some bottom-fishing over in Europe, which is suffering its second recession in three years.
 
What makes these markets interesting, aside from their low valuations, may be a potential turn upward in world economic growth. Remember, stock markets usually discount events six to nine months in advance. Central banks all over the world continue to stimulate their economies. Here in America, if we can actually come to grips with our fiscal issues, we could see a pickup in economic growth. Next year could surprise us if (and that's a big if) the politicians cooperate and actually implement a pro-growth fiscal policy to complement the Fed's on-going stimulus efforts.
 
Europe may not recover in 2013 if our economy starts to pick up steam, but it may stabilize. Over in China, there has been a regime change. Xi Jinping is the new president while Li Keqiang will be the new premier. The leadership transition was smooth and investors expect that the new leaders will continue to implement structural reforms while possibly calling an end to their tight money policies. Given that the money flow into China funds has been positive for the last seven weeks, some global investors are betting on a turnaround.   
 
So as American investors and the media wring their hands at every hiccup in Washington, some of the aggressive money is investing in more fertile fields abroad. Emerging markets are risky and not for everyone, but if you have an appetite for taking on more risk then I suggest you follow suit.

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: U.S. Debt — Another Cliff Note
By Bill Schmick On: 04:00PM / Thursday December 06, 2012

While politicians bicker over the "Fiscal Cliff," the government continues to borrow about $4 billion a day. The statutory ceiling on U.S. Treasury borrowing is $16.4 trillion and we will hit that number by year-end. Then what?

If Congress refuses to raise the borrowing limit, we can expect the government to run out of options to avoid a default sometime by the end of February 2013. If we default, even technically, the credit agencies are ready to downgrade our debt once again. You may remember the drama and hysterics that last year's debt limit crisis invoked.

For months, pundits predicted dire consequences if the rating of our sovereign debt was downgraded by the big three credit agencies. Foreign holders of our debt would abandon us, they said. Interest rates on all sorts of debt would skyrocket. There would be a stock and bond market crash. Standard and Poor's did actually cut our debt rating from AAA to AA-plus. Contrary to the predictions of these Cassandras, bond prices actually went higher and rates lower; so much for the vaunted power of our credit agencies.  

Readers may recall why that downgrade happened. Last year was the first time in history in which Congress turned what had been a pro forma vote to raise the debt ceiling into a hostage-taking crisis. In exchange for their approval, congressional Republicans demanded huge spending cuts. One can fault the president for going along with that game, instead of simply raising the debt ceiling on his own and dealing with the consequences.

But President Obama has made it clear that last year was a one-time event. He is insisting, as part of the Fiscal Cliff negotiations, that Congress relinquish its control over the debt ceiling. He is right, in my opinion. Using the nation's borrowing ability for political gain is unacceptable.

The 2011 debt ceiling farce also marked a turning point in a number of areas. It was the seminal event that reversed this country's priority from job creation and economic growth to austerity. It also resulted in the down grading of our nation's debt by a credit agency. It is also worth noting that S&P's downgrade decision was politically motivated.

The credit agency, in its explanation for its negative rating change, explained that based on the 2011 debt negotiations, that the U.S. government's ability to manage fiscal policy was "less stable, less effective, and less predictable."

In one of those paradoxes of history, going over the fiscal cliff would actually avert any further downgrade to our debt status. The expiring Bush tax cuts and automatic spending cuts across the board would do quite a bit to alleviate the stated default-related concerns of the credit rating agencies. The tax cuts would generate around $4 trillion in new revenues over the next decade. That is almost the exact amount most credit agencies are looking for in deficit reduction in order for our fiscal house to be out of danger.

Of course, going over the cliff and staying there will present the nation with another set of economic problems. Both sides agree that the combination of tax increases and spending cuts of that magnitude will both raise unemployment and slow the growth of the economy. It could actually tip us back into recession. One would think the risk of default for any nation would climb as a result.

Back in September, Egan-Jones, a smaller credit rating agency, downgraded American debt from AA to AA-minus, citing Federal Reserve plans to stimulate the economy (QEIII). They argued the plan would reduce the value of the dollar, do little to stimulate the economy and artificially raise the price of oil and other commodities. That would, in turn, hurt U.S. businesses and the consumer. They indicated that the risk of inflation, rather than the risk of default, was the justification for its downgrade.

In which case, if we do fail to come to a compromise, fall off the cliff and, as a result, experience a decline in economic growth and inflation, will the credit agencies actually revise their ratings upward? It would appear they would have to since the basis of their downgrades was politics and lack of fiscal austerity (S&P's reason) and inflation (Egan-Jones' argument). We will have to wait and see how this same group that missed the entire subprime debacle handles this one.

 

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: Play it Again, Sam
By Bill Schmick On: 08:19AM / Saturday December 01, 2012

It was a week of tension. Markets rose and fell on every word uttered by party leaders, who jockeyed for position and the national spotlight around the Fiscal Cliff. It was Washington at its worst. Get used to it because this deal is going to go down to the wire.

Remember last year's Greek debt negotiations? It was a game of he said, she said that dragged on for months. We are playing the same song once again only on this side of the pond. I guess the best that can be said for this American version is that if nothing happens before Jan. 1 we all think we know the outcome.

But unlike Greece, where the country either received a bail-out or went bankrupt, this U.S. event would not be as dramatic, at least at first. If for some reason the politicians miss the deadline, it would take several days and even weeks before we feel the tax bite. As for the spending cuts, those draconian measures will be enacted piecemeal and over several years. Why is this important?

Well, the stock markets are acting like January first is a do or die event. It's not. Politicians can continue to agree to disagree; delay a compromise and either extend the deadline or let the country fall off the cliff (really a ditch) temporarily. They would still have time to come up with a solution sometime in 2013 without much impact to the economy.

But that kind of scenario would sell fewer newspapers and reduce the ratings on business shows. Brokers would have less to talk about and retirees, rather than being pinned to their televisions, could actually go out and do something productive like exercise or read a good book.

If you are in that stressed-out category, remember this. How much did all that angst over Greece help you? In the end, Greece did get a bail-out, their market is up 25 percent since then and the U.S. market is up substantially as well. So relax, will you?

Warren Buffet may not be right about everything but one reason I believe he is so successful and still in the business is because he takes a long-term view. Sure, time has become compressed. Fortunes have been made and lost in years rather than decades and it has become fashionable to “trade” the markets. I am as guilty as the next person, but only to a point.

In the past, we've had to refuse clients because we didn't see eye to eye when it came to investment style. They insisted we sell every down move in the market before it occurred and jump back in "at the right time," which for them, was before the markets moved back up.

"If I could do that," I explained. "I wouldn’t need to work. I could simply sit home, trade my own account and make a couple billion dollars a year."

Here's my take. The anxiety over this Fiscal Cliff is overblown. Focus instead on the increasingly positive economic data in the United States. In addition, I expect the Fed may announce further stimulus moves in the coming month. The stock market, which is trading around 13 times earnings, is fairly valued given a modest growth scenario. We may be underestimating that growth and prospects for a better 2013 than most people expect. Buy the dips.

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: Let the Lobbying Begin
By Bill Schmick On: 02:04PM / Thursday November 29, 2012

The Fiscal Cliff commands center stage. The nation's news media is dutifully reporting every syllable uttered by anyone even remotely connected to the negotiations. But what really matters is what is said behind closed doors between Washington's lobbyists and our elected officials.

Now that the elections are over, the debate (and agreement) among voters and parties that taxes should be raised and spending cuts must necessarily come down to the details. Those details and the devils that represent them (called special interest groups) are assaulting congressional offices with convincing arguments on why their constituencies should be excluded from either tax increases or spending cuts.

It is an old story. Theoretically, in America, I may agree that we should all suffer for the greater good of the country and the economy, as long as in reality "all" doesn't include me. In Washington, that concept prevails everywhere. A corporate coalition, for example, is lobbying to kill any tax increases in the dividend rate. That rate, currently at 15 percent, could go as high as 35 percent or more. They argue that raising the dividend tax will hurt seniors who depend on dividends as part of their retirement savings.

Of course, they neglect to add that the vast majority of Americans (low-and middle class investors) who own dividend stocks, own them in their retirement accounts, which are excluded from dividend taxes. I suspect that raising taxes on dividends will predominantly impact the 1 percent of America's most wealthy, but that's not part of their argument.

Readers, by now, are fully aware that the sticking point between Republicans and Democrats, as far as extending the Bush tax cuts, centers upon those earning $250,000 or more annually. The Democrats do not want to extend the Bush-era tax cuts to that group, while Republicans do. Instead, the GOP would like to focus on eliminating certain individual tax loopholes, arguing that they would be less harmful to businesses, jobs and the economy.

One loophole being discussed is the tax deductibility of home mortgages for either first or second home owners or both. There is some talk about capping that deduction, although to do so would impact many middle-class Americans as well as the wealthy, argues the homebuilding industry. Their lobby won't tolerate even a minor change in the mortgage interest deduction.

They contend that home ownership has taken the brunt of the decline in the nation's economy and is now only beginning to recover. Monkeying with mortgage deductions would throw housing back into a tailspin and with it the majority of homeowners in this country, according to housing advocates.

AARP, the top lobbyist for retirees, is also dead set against any spending cuts to Medicare and Social Security. Even minor changes such as slowing the cost-of-living formula for Social Security recipients or extending the age of Medicare eligibility is anathema to their constituency, retirees.

Wherever you look, from charitable contributions to energy depletion allowances, some group or another has a reason, sometimes rational, sometimes not, for why the axe should be spared in their case. It appears that where individual interests are concerned, posterity is taking a backseat among America's lobbyists and the populations and professions they represent. I suspect that if we expect our elected officials to compromise and avoid the Fiscal Cliff; Americans should first look at their own attitude toward compromise where our individual interests are concerned.

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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News Headlines
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Fourth of July: The Declaration of Independence
Fourth of July Festivities Include Parades, Fireworks
Pittsfield 15s Impressive in Babe Ruth District Opener
Economic Development Commission Will 'Roll Out Slowly'
North Adams Youngster To Throw Out Friday's First Pitch at Fenway
Team Bianchi Wins Road Race Challenge
Bird, Blue Devils Earn Win in Giorgi League
North Adams 13s Battle on Difficult Night in Babe Ruth Play

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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