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@theMarket: The Same Old Song

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

The stock market has been down all week. Investors have been so busy biting their nails over the debt ceiling and the budget debates that they have had no time to buy this dip. The question is should they?

The S&P 500 has fallen about 33 points since last week, or roughly 1.8 percent. I blame our elected clowns. As the clock runs out and a Tuesday shutdown of the government grows ever closer, weak-kneed investors are bailing. Yet a government shutdown is small potatoes compared to the risk of not raising the debt ceiling.

In yesterday's column "Play It Again (Uncle) Sam," I explained that government shutdowns have occurred 17 times since the seventies. The longest was a three-week stretch during the Clinton years and none of them had done any lasting harm to the economy, the government or to the stock market. The debt ceiling debate may be a horse of a different color.

There could be some real harm done to all of the above if Congress were to allow the debt ceiling to expire in the middle of October. Although the U.S. Treasury might be able to still pay its bills for another week or so, default would certainly be a direct result of this congressional insanity.

It is ludicrous to believe that this tea party-inspired game of chicken has actually gotten this far. A default would cost this country at least as much as the entire 2013 federal deficit in higher interest rates and lost economic activity. How, therefore, does the Republican Party achieve its goal of reducing our debt and balancing our nation's budget by doubling the size of both overnight?

It is informative to look back just two years ago to the summer of 2011 to see how the GOP's first stab at blackmail proved out. At that time the debt ceiling debacle was narrowly averted by both parties agreeing to the Budget Control Act. But a few days later the Standard and Poor's Credit Rating Agency downgraded our national debt because of our dysfunctional political process and its legislators. The Dow dropped 635 points in one day (5.6 percent) while during the summer fiasco, the S&P 500 Index lost 16.5 percent.

The Budget Control Act ushered in the sequestration mechanism of automatic spending cuts when neither party could agree on tax and spending measures to reduce the deficit. Those spending cuts were enacted at the beginning of this year. As a result, employment gains have slowed and the growth rate of the economy reduced in 2013. Go Republicans!

However, notice something interesting about the market's reaction today to these same set of circumstances. The stock market has declined less than 2 percent versus the 16.5 percent sell–off in 2011. Interest rates, rather than spiking on the threat of a default, have actually declined from close to 3 percent on the 10-year Treasury note to 2.61 percent today.

The message here is to focus on price, not hyperbole. The media would have you believe that the world is coming to an end once again. The tea party, desperately trying to gain support before their primary elections, are playing us all. Investors aren't buying it. Too often in the past, we have sold out in fear of what these politicians would do only to discover that they are all paper tigers. Don't fall for it this time. Buy the dip.

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: Play It Again (Uncle) Sam

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

In just four days, the continuing resolution financing the federal government expires. Two weeks later the nation's debt ceiling will also need to be raised. If any of this sounds familiar, it should because these political dramas have become almost a yearly occurrence.

Technically, we have already reached the debt ceiling back on May 19. Since then the U.S. Treasury has utilized what they call "extraordinary measures" to remain roughly $25 million below the debt limit of $16,699,421,000,000. I guess the government might find a way to keep paying its debt beyond Oct. 15, but only for another week or so.

As for a government shutdown, the political theater this year has reached new heights. With mere days left before the deadline, Democrats and Republicans have embarrassed themselves by voting on budget bills that both sides know will never see the light of day. So how bad could it get if these two issues are not laid to rest?

Those on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment insurance and food stamps should rest easy. Nothing will happen to those "mandatory spending" programs. Services that required the protection of property and/or human life (air traffic control, prisons, border security, and veteran's hospitals are examples) would also be spared.

Discretionary spending, however, would be savaged. Things like visa applications, national parks, airport security lines and anything else that involved the services of the hundreds of thousands of furloughed government employees would suffer.

But before you panic, consider a few facts. Since a new budgeting process was established by congress back in 1976, the U.S. government has shut down 17 times. Both Presidents Carter and Reagan each weathered six shutdowns during their administrations with the longest lasting 2.5 weeks. The longest shutdown in our history was during the Clinton administration. That one lasted three weeks.

At their worse, these shutdowns caused some mild inconvenience but had no lasting effect on the economy, the financial markets or Americans in general. Within a month of their resolution even those most affected found life was back to normal.

A failure to raise the debt ceiling, on the other hand, could prove to be quite dangerous. It would mean that America's bills would go unpaid. The nation's debt holders and private service providers would suffer the most. Congress has increased the debt ceiling at least 90 times in the last century and 14 times from 2001-2013 in order to avoid this consequence.

It was only in 2011 that the Republican Party determined that the debt ceiling was fair game in partisan politics. Those threatening a debt showdown are also hoping that the stock market will panic and interest rates across the board will rise sharply (as they have done in the past) as when this issue last surfaced two years ago. They are treading on dangerous territory, in my opinion.

There has been only one time in history that the U.S. has defaulted on any of its debt since the 18th century. Investors in U.S. Treasury bills set to mature on April 26, 1979, received notice that the U.S. Treasury would not make its payments on maturing securities to individual investors. The reasons were many: a congressional stand-off over increasing the debt limit, an enormous number of small holders of these Treasury bills and a breakdown in the word-processing equipment used to prepare checks.

That temporary default only affected a tiny portion of investors holding a miniscule amount of our debt. The immediate impact was to raise the interest rate on Treasury bills by 60 basis points equal to sixth-tenths of one percent. It was a one-time permanent increase in the cost of borrowing to this nation. It increased interest payments by $12 billion. Imagine the impact of a default on the entire $16 trillion of our debt.

Our "leaders" have no idea what their petty squabbling could do to this country's future deficits, debt obligations and debt ceiling. Although I believe that both sides are simply using the debt ceiling as a bargaining chip, the ramifications of even a small default would be mind-boggling. The cost to us would easily equal the whole of our present deficit and make the price tag of Obamacare look like chump change in comparison. I only wonder how our politicians failed to see that two years ago and again today.

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 Droning of America

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

Whether you call them unmanned aerial vehicles, remotely piloted aircraft or simply drones, these remote-controlled devices are expected to become a big business both here and abroad over the next decade. The question is whether this new technology will impact our lives in ways we are willing to accept.

The worldwide drone market in 2007 totaled $3.7 billion. This year revenue estimates have over doubled to $7.5 billion, with the U.S. accounting for two-thirds of those sales. By 2022, it is expected to top $11 billion. The military has accounted for much of that spending with drones accounting for an estimated 31 percent of our military aircraft fleet.

However, public opinion over the use of drones in warfare is divided in this country. Some critics look at drones as little more than murder machines given the drone's ability to indiscriminately deal death from the sky at a push of a button on whomever or whatever we choose. And the "we" is also a problem. Exactly who and under what authority are these drones attacks undertaken? The answers are mired in confusion and unresolved morality.

Supporters argue that drones have allowed the U.S. to exert targeted force almost instantly at a massively reduced cost without risking American lives. From tactics to strategy, the drone has transformed and revolutionized modern warfare. The numbers speak for themselves. Over 50 high-ranking al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders have been "neutralized" in drone attacks. Of course, no one really knows how many civilian casualties accompanied these successful "kills" in the process.

I bring up this controversy because having transformed warfare, drones are now preparing to do the same thing in the commercial space. Everything from law enforcement to border patrol, from agriculture to cinema and dozens of other applications are cropping up as drone technology becomes cheaper and more accessible.

How will these applications threaten American civil liberties, if at all? Will the government use of drones (as they are purported to have used cellphone and other electronic communications) to spy on American citizens in the name of national security? Will its use by local police forces usher in an era of police states, as some claim?

Counterbalancing these fears are the positive benefits of this new technology. Imagine the usefulness of drones in fighting wildfires, patrolling our borders, locating kidnappers, dusting crops, hurricane hunting and surveying things like oil spills, tornados, hurricanes, power lines, archaeological digs and gas spills.

The list of applicants looking to fly drones is expanding and consists mostly of universities, manufacturers and public agencies, but experts expect that list to lengthen as soon as the regulatory environment becomes clearer. The Obama administration has ordered the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to come up with the rules and regulations necessary to integrate unmanned civilian aircraft into U.S. airspace by 2015. The FAA is also tasked with establishing six dome-testing ranges and to fast-track requests for permission to use drones. That should jump-start the industry and lift sales to $13.5 billion in three years, according to a report by the fledgling industry trade group, the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

The real question is whether an American bureaucracy, such as the FAA, along with a morally bankrupt Congress, will be able to craft legislation that answers both the legal and ethical issues inherent in this new and promising technology while allowing America to take advantage of this opportunity. Given their track record, I am less than hopeful.

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: From Russia with Love

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

Stocks rallied this week as news that the world may have found a way to resolve the looming confrontation between the U.S. and Syria. If so, investors can thank Russia for the solution and a much-needed deal that might actually extend into a brokered peace.

Last week, I suggested that readers should not worry too much. I had my doubts over whether we would see any 'rocket's red glare' over Damascus. Given the overwhelming lack of support by the American public and adverse world opinion for a pre-emptive Syrian strike, I was sure that neither Congress nor the president would pull the trigger.

Now that Russia has offered to broker a deal involving the destruction of the Syrian regime's 1,000-ton stockpile of poison gas, the world gets to have its cake and eat it, too. What's not to love about that? Although the media is arguing that President Obama has handled this international incident poorly, I'm not so sure. If Obama can pull off ridding the world of yet another potential danger without firing a shot, I say kudos to him.

However, I am not pleased with reports coming out of Japan's Nikkei Shin Bun last night that President Obama is leaning toward making Larry Summers our next Federal Reserve Chairman over Janet Yellen, the vice chairwoman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve Bank. Summers, in my opinion, is just another of a long line of politicians that have moved between the private and public sectors peddling their influence in exchange for money and position..

The head of our central bank needs to look beyond his or her next meal ticket and focus instead on doing the best possible job for all of the country, not simply Wall Street. I believe Janet Yellen would be such a person. The White House has denied that a decision has been made, but that doesn't mean it won't be Summers. Obama, as a lame-duck president, can do what he wants. I'm hoping he makes the right choice, rather than the political one.

Next week, the Fed meets and most economists and investors believe that the much-mentioned taper will begin at that time. Depending on whatever announcement is made, the stock and bond markets could see quite a bit of short-term volatility. Pay no attention to it.

All you need to know is if the economy gains pace and unemployment does not, then the Fed is going to taper and, at some point, end its efforts at quantitative easing altogether. That will be good for the stock market and bad for the bond market. If, on the other hand, the Fed does not taper it means the economy is rolling over and unemployment will remain the same. That will not be good for the stock market longer-term.

My best guess is that the Fed will announce some minor pull-back in monetary stimulus. For example, they could decrease their $85 billion in monthly purchases of U.S. Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities by $10-15 billion or so. Since this year's deficit is not nearly as high as expected, the need by the U.S. Treasury to issue bonds has been reduced. The Fed could simply pull back their Treasury bond purchases while leaving the mortgage-backed security purchase plan the same. That would not be the end of the world no matter what the pundits may say.

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: Five Years After the Crisis

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

The collapse of Lehman Brothers occurred five years ago this week. In hindsight, this investment bank’s disorderly failure proved to be the critical domino that set into motion economic and financial disruptions that are still with us today. What have we learned?

For starters, we've learned that some of our financial institutions have gotten too big to fail, unless we want to endure yet another financial credit crisis. We have also learned that a credit recession, unlike a normal business recession, takes much longer to work its way through the economy. Today few, if any, western economies have regained their stride. GDP growth is still far below the rate necessary to sustain full employment. What growth there is has come with a huge price tag in added debt.

These last five years have also witnessed the transfer of power from the private sector to the public sector in the ability to control and influence markets. Various central banks, wielding policy tools that were never meant to insure that stock markets moved higher or mortgage rates lower, now determine how much you make or lose on your investments on a daily basis.

It is Central bank chairmen like Ben Bernanke, Mario Draghi in the EU, and Japan's Haruhiko Kuroda who move markets today. Even Warren Buffet is small potatoes compared to the pronouncements of our central banks. I'm not criticizing those bankers, far from it, were it not for them the financial world would be in tatters, which leads us to yet another result of the Lehman fiasco.

It is clear to me that our elected officials do not have the will or the ability to deal with this on-going financial crisis. It was, after all, our lawmakers, in league with their Wall Street campaign contributors that precipitated the credit crisis in the first place. The repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, for example, which allowed banks to re-enter the speculative side of finance, is just one of the many legislative mistakes made in the name of "free markets." Nothing could be further from the truth.

Not one single ranking official of any of the major institutions that precipitated the crisis has ever been indicted, let alone convicted of any wrong doing. The statute of limitations for financial fraud has now run out, guaranteeing that the perpetrators of these crimes of the century will never be brought to justice. How, readers might ask, did this happen?

You see, under our legal system you can't be convicted of a crime unless you can prove intent. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), which was charged with going after the bad guys, had to prove to a jury, beyond a reasonable doubt, that these top guns intended to commit fraud. Evidently, they couldn't or wouldn't.

The majority of the Dodd-Frank financial reforms, adopted with great fanfare over three years ago, have still not been implemented. This "never again" legislation has been effectively hamstrung by politicians on both sides of the aisle. These delays have been aided and abetted by the banking lobby (imagine that). As of September, just 40 percent of the provisions of this law have been finalized and integrated into law. In the meantime, several too-big-to-fail financial institutions have racked up billions in losses by transacting the same type of excessive speculative trades that triggered the subprime crisis.

So what have we learned?

If you lost your job and are unemployed, you've learned how to support a family by working part-time jobs, asking for government help or simply begging. If you kept your job, you've learned not to expect a raise no matter how hard you work, lest you be replaced for less money. Investors learned not to trust anyone on Wall Street, least of all their brokers.

However, if you are one of the bad guys you've learned that crime does pay. If you are an elected politician, you've learned that no matter what you promise, always protect your campaign contributors.

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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