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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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@the Market: Expect Another Volatile Week

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

The stakes are rising. On Friday, Vladimir Putin seemed to suggest that an attack on its ally, Syria, would provoke a response from Russia. President Obama stubbornly maintained that we will still take military action against Syria, who he accuses of breaking international law by gassing innocent people. Historically, financial markets don't take well to the threat of war between super powers.

Some might conclude that Russia is simply calling Obama's bluff by answering one attempt at sabre rattling with another, but investors normally would rather sell first and wait to see if a shooting war develops. In order to navigate the markets these days one needs to be a political analyst, military historian and fortune teller all at the same time.

Well, please come into my parlor, and we will see what my crystal ball says.

On one side, according to the U.S. government, there is some evidence that the Syrian regime did gas its own people. However, the United Nations, Russia, China and the majority of world opinion (including that of our allies) are disputing that and have made it clear that there is no justification for a military response from the U.S.

President Obama, suspecting that a military response might be a hard sell to the American public (less than 30 percent of Americans are in favor of a strike), handed the decision over to Congress last weekend. Both the House and Senate want more details and plan to vote on the issue next week. As a result, I believe that the stock and bond markets, worldwide, will be held hostage to that vote.

You can bet that markets will gyrate up and down based on every comment out of Congress and the White House. Overseas, Russia's Putin, ever the poker player, will be throwing in another chip or two in an effort to increase the stakes of the game. We could see naval or air alerts, even troop movements by Russia in support of its Syrian ally.

In the end, America will have to ask itself if it's worth it. In the face of a United Nations that refuses to uphold the laws it was created to defend, should we? How will a perceived loss of face and resolve impact Iranian or North Korean ambitions? Is gassing 1,000 Syrian civilians equal to gassing millions of Jews in World War II?

I believe that unless the polls change dramatically over the next few days, Americans have already given their answer and the politicians will vote accordingly. I'm guessing that President Obama, although stubborn, is also pragmatic. He will acquiesce to a congress "no go" vote and back down.

In which case, investors will have worried for nothing. At that point, we will be on the eve of the Fed's decision to taper (or not) on Sept. 18. What a wall of worry! Given all of the above, I am impressed by the resiliency of the markets thus far. We are above the S&P 500 Index's 50-day moving average and are less than 3 percent off record highs, despite Syrian worries. I warned readers last week that we are still not out of the woods quite yet. It appears that there are at least two or three good weeks to go before we can see a clearing on the other side. Take heart and stay invested.

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: Markets Will Drift Lower

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

August was not a great month for stock markets. September could be equally disappointing. After months of higher highs, a consolidation phase should be expected but it is not the end of the world.

As expected, from the peak, we have pulled back about 4.5 percent in the S&P 500 Index in August. As consolidations go, this one has been exceptionally mild. What makes it so painful is that we have all gotten used to one record high after another. We don't like losing money, even if they are only paper losses. I am putting you on notice that my worst-case scenario would be to expect another 4 to 5 percent of downside from here. Why?

Although I look at a number of indicators, the market's technical indicators across the board have started to deteriorate. So much so that it will make future short-term attempts to re-capture the recent highs problematic. Yet, on the plus side, there are some signs that we could be closer to a bottom than the bears might think.

All month I have been looking for a day in which the number of stocks with down volume on the New York Stock Exchange exceeded those with up volume by more than 90 percent. These 90 Percent Down Days are quite rare. We have only seen five instances of this type of behavior in 2013. In every instance, these readings occurred near the lows (3-5 percent) of their respective pullbacks.

On Tuesday of this week we had a 92 Percent Down Day on the NYSE. However, the event had some shortcomings. Ideally, you want this kind of sell-off (capitulation) to occur after a dramatic decline. Instead, the markets had rallied to new recovery highs prior to Tuesday. It was also a news-induced event, which lessens its significance. The catalyst for the decline was reports that the U.S. and its allies are planning some kind of retaliatory strike against the Syrian regime for its alleged role in gassing its own citizens. So Syria, As a result, any rebound we may get over the next few days should not be believed.

I suspect that at the earliest, we will not be out of the woods until after the Federal Open Market Committee meets again on Sept. 18. In the meantime, the debate over whether the Fed will begin to curtail their stimulus program at that time will occupy the headlines and the market’s attentions. Back in July, I also warned readers that "we are entering that time of year when our dysfunctional political parties may once again roil the markets in an attempt to justify their miserable existence."

Over the next two months, be prepared for the politicians to resurrect all the battles of yesteryear: the debt limits, the deficit, the budget, Obama care, etc. This could be the excuse markets need to spend a month or two more consolidating the gains we have experienced since November of 2012. We could see another 4-5 percent downside in the meantime. That would be my worst case scenario. Overall, that's not much of a decline given the market's recent gains.

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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