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The Independent Investor: Power Shifts from Wall St. to Washington
By Bill Schmick On: 05:01PM / Thursday September 20, 2012
Years ago, it was our captains of industry who commanded the world's attention. More recently, the spotlight of power was centered on Wall Street's banks and brokers until 2008. Today, however, the heads of government and central banks are the market movers.

The financial crisis of 2008-2009 turned the economy and the private sector on its head. Hobbled by the largest crisis in generations, Wall Street was drowning. With the banking sector about to implode, the Street had no choice but to ask the U.S. Treasury for an unprecedented bailout. As one corporation after another (think the auto industry) faced the threat of bankruptcy, the center of financial decision making shifted to Washington, D.C. It remains there today.

Government's role in the economy is nothing new. For many years it has guided the overall pace of economic activity, attempting to maintain steady growth, high levels of employment and price stability. For decades after the Depression of the 1930s, it relied a great deal on fiscal policy to combat the recurring recessions the nation faced.

During the 1960s, the heyday of fiscal policy, the president and Congress played a leading role in directing the economy. However, ideas about the best tools for stabilizing the economy changed after that as a period of high inflation, high unemployment and huge government deficits undermined the country’s faith in fiscal policy. Enter monetary policy (the control of the nation’s money supply) administered by the Federal Reserve Bank and its tools of interest rate manipulation.

In the midst of the panic of 2008-2009, as giant banks went broke and insurance companies teetered on the edge, the government was firing both monetary and fiscal barrels at the problem. The combined policies worked in the sense of staving off a worldwide financial meltdown and another Great Depression. Since 2008, however, because of partisan politics, fiscal policy has fallen by the wayside. Today only the monetary policy option remains to prevent another recession.

In this election year, opposing forces are criticizing the Fed for doing too much or too little to grow the economy. Conservatives say the Fed is creating inflation down the road by its stimulus policies while driving down the value of the dollar. Some have actually accused the Fed of treason in even considering further quantitative easing. Liberals have argued the opposite: criticizing the Fed for being overly worried about inflation and not doing enough to lower the unemployment rate.

Since 2007, the Fed has been engaged in a historical and largely uncharted area of economic manipulation that transcends anything attempted in our country's past. They have been at the center of propping up or selling huge institutions, making loans to banks and others in entirely new and radical ways and buying upward of $2 trillion in government debt and mortgage-backed securities. There is no question that the Federal Reserve Bank, in my opinion, has assumed the throne of financial power in this country by default.

Its power, unlike the private sector, is concentrated in a handful of individuals with considerable independence from the President and the Congress. Both the President and the Congress have all but abdicated their own power to control the economy if not in words, certainly by their actions. The polarization of both parties since the 2008 elections has made fiscal policy initiatives impossible.

The Federal Reserve Bank, through its chairman Ben Bernanke, has on numerous occasions begged the president and both parties to at least share the power via new fiscal policy initiatives. To date that call has been rejected in the name of politics. In my next column I will examine just how big the government has grown as a percentage of GDP and how power could become even more concentrated within our nation's capital in the months and years to come.

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: Game Changer
By Bill Schmick On: 01:40PM / Friday September 14, 2012
This week's announcement of a third quantitative easing program goes beyond anything the Fed has done in the past. It is open-ended, extremely positive for equities and will continue even after the economy begins to pick up its pace. The bears are dead.

This is a game changer, in my opinion, so hold on to your hats because the markets are definitely going higher. The only question is how high?

I won't bore you by regurgitating all the moves the Fed has made, but I will give you the bottom line. Interest rates on the short end will stay low through 2015. The Fed is going to target the mortgage market (read housing sector) by buying up all the mortgage-backed securities they can find. That should both drop lending rates further and also spur the banks to start lending money to Americans who have not been able to obtain mortgages or refinancing.

These latest moves by the Federal Reserve Bank are actions I have been advocating since writing my column "What the Markets Missed" on Sept. 22, 2011. It actually goes further by putting everyone — the markets, the politicians, the corporations and small businesses — on notice. Fed support will be on-going. Why is that important?

Because up until Friday, the Fed's wait-and-see attitude toward additional stimulus created a great deal of uncertainty within the markets and the business world. It also created what I call a "start and stop economy." In such a business climate, both Fortune 500 corporations and small businesses cannot plan, cannot hire, and will not invest.

The Fed is not only removing any uncertainty that this might have been their last QE move, but goes a lot further by putting everyone on notice that they are committed to stimulate for as long as it takes — even after the economy starts to grow again.

Remember readers that no matter how much support the Fed is willing to contribute they can't solve the unemployment problem alone. Once again, Chairman Ben Bernanke reiterated that without fiscal policy, the unemployment situation is not going to improve very much.

So bear with me as I fantasize about the near future. In my opinion, Ben Bernanke just handed the presidency to his boss, Barack Obama. In exchange, so this story goes, the newly re-elected President Obama will forego partisan politics, work with the opposition in both the House and Senate and implement a full employment policy through fiscal stimulus.

But what specific policies are the Republicans and Democrats going to implement in order to reduce unemployment? Both sides keep jawboning about "getting America back to work" but exactly how are they going to accomplish that? How, for example, is cutting spending and raising taxes either directly (taxing the rich) or indirectly (cutting services to the middle class and poor) going to increase job growth? Readers/voters should demand those answers now — before voting for one politician or the other.

But back to the markets, with "risk on" once again, dividend and income funds should take a back seat to more aggressive areas. That doesn't mean dividend stocks won't still go up. They will, but just not as fast. Other more defensive areas such as utilities, consumer and durable goods, healthcare and such will also see less price appreciation than some other sectors. For those who still hold long-dated U.S. Treasury Bonds, get out of them right now. The Fed is no longer supporting that market and as the economy strengthens the prices of these bonds are going to plummet.

Some areas in the stock market that have lagged the overall markets could do quite well between now and November elections. The materials sector seems ripe for a rebound as do the financials and industrial sectors. Emerging markets, which are also top heavy in commodities, could catch up fairly quickly.

I am not sure how high the markets will go before succumbing to a bout of profit taking but, given the background of central bank stimulus, I remain a buyer of pullbacks, which has been my advice since early June. It was a great summer and it could be an even better fall.
 
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: Presidential Power in an Election Year
By Bill Schmick On: 07:35PM / Thursday September 13, 2012
"Executive power has been regarded as a lion which must be caged. So far from being the object of enlightened popular trust, far from being considered the natural protector of popular right, it has been dreaded, uniformly, always dreaded, as the great source of its danger."
 — U.S. Sen. Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, 1834


In the heat of this year's presidential election campaign, voters usually lose sight of one of the most important facts surrounding that office. American presidents, for the most part, have much less power than we think.

Recall the high hopes you may have had in 2008 when candidate Barack Obama promised that "Yes we can" fix the economy, get Americans working again, etc., etc. In his first two years in office. there was plenty of action in translating his vision into reality. We had the stimulus package, Obamacare, clean energy initiatives and a rising deficit as a result. Of course, his party controlled both houses of Congress so passing legislation was a breeze.

But the Tea Party and the mid-term elections of 2010 revealed just how little power the Obama presidency (or any presidency) can muster in the face of a divided Congress. Sure, blame Obama. After all, some of his predecessors managed to get legislation passed despite a hostile Congress, but not many. The historical truth is that the founding fathers designed the office to disappoint those of us who want a powerful leader. You see, those Colonial revolutionaries distrusted government in general and the presidency in particular and our political system evolved accordingly.

The Supreme Court, the Federal Reserve Bank, Congress and don't forget the states all detract from the power this one individual might have held over our life. In order to change anything, let alone move the country in a new direction, the president must create a coalition of interests throughout the other branches of government. This is exactly what the founding fathers, fresh from their battle with King George and the British monarchy, intended.

Yet we still expect the person who succeeds to the presidency to be someone with the power of Superman, the charisma of the Messiah and the personal life of Mother Theresa. The candidates understand this. They are forced to promise us the world knowing full well that they do not have the power to deliver it. If they actually told us the truth — that the office holds little power and voters should not expect much of them — would anyone vote for them?

In foreign policy, the president does have somewhat more authority, but once again it is limited by public opinion, Congress and geopolitical realties. As an example, George W. Bush, despite his adversity to nation-building, became an unwilling hostage to a strategy he appalled thanks to 9/11. As for the Obama presidency, it has failed to change public opinion in any decisive manner despite the great expectations of many around the globe when he was first elected.

Mitt Romney appears to want to take a more proactive stance in foreign policy, citing the re-emergence of Russia as a threat as well as viewing China as both an economic and military adversary of sorts. Like his predecessors, if elected, how well he will do in actively balancing the various chess pieces on the world board is far more dependent on what other parties do.

Presidents are far more successful as messengers; some might say visionaries, who can guide the nation along a path while orchestrating the various political players in the band to acquiesce (via compromise) to his point of view. The problem with that role in today's politics is that both parties now reflect the increasing polarization of American society. Neither side is willing to compromise, believing deeply that their way is the right way. The next president might well achieve history but not on his own terms. It would be wise if we all remember that when we vote.

A note to my readers in the Berkshires:

I have volunteered to teach a course this fall at Berkshire Community College at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI). The classes will be on Mondays from 2:45-4:15 p.m. throughout September and October. The course, "America's Future: Buy, Sell or Hold?" will teach students to think critically about such events as this year's presidential elections, wealth and women, our education system and much more. For more information or to sign up for the course call the OLLI office at 413-236-2190.

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: Are Markets Predicting Obama Winner in November?
By Bill Schmick On: 06:46AM / Saturday September 08, 2012
Stock markets are said to discount the future. If one studies the election cycle and its impact on market performance, the stock market is telling us that there is a high probability that Barack Obama will enjoy a second term.

Readers may recall that I have been using the historical performance date of the stock market during election years since 1900 to predict the market's direction in 2012, courtesy of Ned Davis Research. So far, that data had accurately predicted the markets ups and downs all year.

The data shows that the Dow Jones Industrial Average gains an average of 8.6 percent each election year when the incumbent has won. It gains less when the challenger wins. The Dow is up 8.8 percent year-to-date. In only three cases over the past 112 years has the incumbent party candidate gone on to lose after being up that much by the end of August. As such, I would say there is high probability (89.7 percent) that a Democrat will sit in the White House come November.

Of course, you may reject the stock market as an accurate predictor of the future. You may also choose not to base outcomes on probabilities; that is your prerogative. But as a stock market investor you may want to hope that the election-year indicator is correct. Here's why.

In last week's column, I stated that "Traditionally, stock markets are thought to do better under a Republican administration since their policies are normally more pro-business and pro-stock markets," but that kind of thinking flies in the face of reality. Kudos to a reader from Lenox Dale who supplied me with a wealth of statistics which show that stocks have historically fared much, much better under Democratic administrations. The S&P 500 Index has rallied an average 12.1 percent per year since 1901 when Democrats occupy the White House versus just 5.1 percent for the GOP.

The overall economy has done better as well with GDP increasing 4.2 percent annually since 1949 when a Democratic president occupied the Oval Office compared to 2.6 percent under Republicans. Our greatest stock market run occurred under Bill Clinton's watch (1993-2000), followed by the period 1981-1992 under the presidencies of Reagan and Bush. 

But enough history, this week we made a little history of our own with all three stock market averages hitting new highs for the year. As expected, European Central Bank President Mario Draghi outlined the latest European rescue plan. The ECB intends to buy member nations' government bonds in exchange for further promises to accept outside oversight of their fiscal policies.

Then, on Friday the unemployment data came in weaker than expected. That immediately had gold flying in anticipation that it is all but certain that the Fed will ease next week at their Sept. 13 FOMC meeting. And my wish came true. I said I would like to see the S&P 500 Index break out of its weeks-long trading range and it did. It appears more upside awaits us.

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: Looking Beyond Election Speak
By Bill Schmick On: 03:12PM / Thursday September 06, 2012
"If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it."
— Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Propogandist


Republicans warn of impending disaster if the federal government's house is not put in order. If we continue to do nothing about it, Romney, Ryan and the Republicans will most certainly be right. The question is whether the economy can survive the harsh medicine that these doctors prescribe.

The way to balance the budget, according to the GOP plan, is to cut income and corporate taxes, eliminate at least some tax deductions (no details), preserve defense spending (already larger than the next five nations combined), cut Medicare spending in the 2020s, trim other government spending and gradually shrink the deficit and balance the budget sometime over the next 10 years (yeah, right).

In my last column, I examined the fallacy of believing today's promises by politicians that don't come to fruition for a decade or more. Liberal economists argue that the Romney plan would boost unemployment by slashing public spending next year and the year after and most likely drive the economy into recession. But Mitt Romney knows this as well.

In an interview this spring with Time Magazine's Editor–at-Large Mark Halperin, Romney said, "... if you take a trillion dollars, for instance, out of the first year of the federal budget, that would shrink GDP over 5 [percent]. That is by definition throwing us into recession or depression. So I'm not going to do that, of course."

There is election speak at its finest. How far apart therefore are the candidates on what they truly intend to do about the economy?

In comparison, President Obama also wants to cut income and corporate taxes. Where they differ at all is in those who make over $250,000 a year. Obama wants to raise taxes on them while Romney doesn't. In the grand scheme of things, the amount of money that taxing the rich will generate will hardly be enough to make a dent in the budget. The real value is in generating drama and stoking voter sentiment with an "us against them" mentality. Occupy Wall Street would be proud.

Both candidates want to revitalize manufacturing, improve job training, make America energy independent and expand free trade. How they differ is on the margin. Whoever wins will most likely implement the same policies as their opponent.

Take energy independence as an example. The candidates would have you believe that if the U.S. were energy independent, pump prices would go down or at least the volatility in energy prices would disappear. Nothing could be further from the truth. Global markets set oil prices not the U.S. All energy independence would mean is that on the margin, U.S. companies would experience higher profits (and our government higher taxes) from higher oil and gas prices. Romney indicates he would rely on domestic oil and gas exploration including off-shore drilling to accomplish that independence. Obama would focus on fossil fuel exploration and development as well as alternative energy sources.

Where they differ the most is in how to reduce spending. Romney wants to cut government domestic programs that will ultimately impact lower and middle-class Americans on the margin more than wealthier Americans, while keeping defense spending the same. Obama would rather cut spending in both areas so that declines in spending would be a bit more modest.

As for regulation, Obama wants to enforce the Dodd-Frank financial regulations while Romney wants to repeal them. However, in the face of on-going wrong-doing by the nation's financial sector, the Romney campaign has been curiously absent in furnishing an explanation on how they would stop these continued abuses by the financial sector.

The point of this exercise is to separate fact from fiction, rhetoric from reality, in what I see as an increasingly confused and jingoistic campaign. Both sides seem to be relying more on one-liners than substantive explanations of policy. The use of misleading data, deliberate falsehoods and confusing statements intended to incite and confuse voters seems to be on an increase as well.

As such I feel obligated to try and make some sense out of this nonsense. In my next column, we'll look at how much power the president really has in implementing the grand visions they promise.

A note to my readers in the Berkshires:
 
I have volunteered to teach a course this fall at Berkshire Community College at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI). The classes will be on Mondays from 2:45-4:15 p.m. throughout September and October. The course, "America's Future: Buy, Sell or Hold?" will teach students to think critically about such events as this year's presidential elections, wealth and women, our education system and much more. There are only a few seats left. For more information or to sign up for the course call the OLLI office at 413-236-2190

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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News Headlines
Village Ambulance Adds Vans With Wheelchair Lifts
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Cheshire Will Hold Another Override Vote
Teddy's Tops WPT in Giorgi League
Bennington Tops Lanesborough 11-year-olds
Womble Pitches Pittsfield 13s to Win in Babe Ruth District Opener
Berkshire Carousel Breaks Ground On Permanent Home
Pittsfield's Tyer Challenges Mayoral Candidates To Foot Race
Committee Approves Changes To North Adams Zoning Ordinances
Curtain Rises on Williamstown Theatre Festival

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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