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The Independent Investor: Should College be Free, Part II
By Bill Schmick On: 01:16PM / Friday February 17, 2012
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My last column ended with two questions:

"Does a high school education prepare our youth to enter the work force, escape poverty and become productive citizen of the economy?"

The answer to that question is a resounding no, in my opinion, which creates a problem since the purpose of public education, according to our founding fathers, was the accomplishment of those goals. I believe there is a consensus among Americans that a college education has supplanted high school as a requirement in accomplishing the above goals. In which case, colleges should be tuition-free just like most high schools.

Whether college really does prepare our future generations for "living the dream" is another issue, which leads me to my second question.

"Are we still in the industrial revolution or have we graduated into something more?"

The answer is more important to the future of education and America's place in the world than just about anything you can imagine. Most people would agree that the U.S. has graduated from an industrial revolution to the "information age," yet I believe our educational system, thanks to some historical detours, has failed to adjust to this new reality.

A tuition–free college education is an old concept in this country. Baruch College, now part of the City University of New York system, was founded as a free college back in 1847. In 1862, the Merrill Act established public universities through federal land grant. Most states opted to charge no tuition or a nominal tuition. California’s public university system, for example, which remains the largest in the nation, abolished tuition three months after it was founded in 1868.

When WW II ended in 1945, 16 million Americans (one out of eight) were serving their country in some capacity. With returning vets looking for work, many feared we were heading for massive unemployment and another Depression unless Washington did something about it. In 1944, the GI Bill of Rights was passed. It gave servicemen unemployment checks, low-interest housing, business loans and a free college education.

Nearly 8 million vets took advantage of that benefit and in the process drove the U.S. illiteracy rate to 3 percent, the lowest level in American history. It also transformed our economy, creating a massive Technocracy, while introducing the age of information.

But according to Walt Kelley, one of our readers who sent us his excellent book "Common Sense, A New Conversation about Public Education," it was the launch of the Russian Sputnik in October 1957, and our national response to that event, which set American education on a disastrous detour.

Prior to that period, only 18 percent of Americans went on to college. To meet the perceived Soviet nuclear threat, President Kennedy spearheaded a new educational strategy to answer the Russian menace. In addition to bomb shelters and the like, he argued that higher education would be key to saving our country. Kennedy exhorted an entire generation of high school graduates to go on to college and become professionals. It was, he said, their patriotic duty and would not only save America but the rest of the world as well.

Science and engineering were the main areas of educational pursuit as part of the "space race." Those who may have had the aptitude and interest to attend technical schools thought twice about it. After all, going on to college had become a patriotic duty. The federal government made it even easier to attend by supplying new federal and state loans. The number of colleges and students attending them exploded in the 1960s.

The advent of the unpopular Vietnam War (and the subsequent disillusion among the '60s Generation) brought on a whole new set of variables that once again stood college education on its head. The nucleus of the anti-war movement was centered in colleges, especially those colleges that charged little or no tuition. The ranks of student/teacher protestors swelled since college students were also exempted from the draft as were those graduates who decided to become teachers.

Given the strong anti-war sentiment among educators in general, less qualified high school graduates were admitted to colleges (thus escaping the draft) and many below-average college graduates opted for teaching rather than a stint in the Army. Avoiding war, rather than getting an education, became the driving force for attending college.

Politicians in Washington, miffed by the growing protests and civil disobedience of both students and faculty, realized that funding these institutions of higher education was at cross purposes with their own wartime policies. Ronald Reagan used the University of California's peace activists as a campaign issue in his 1966 election for governor and hiked tuitions shortly after being elected. The same kind of thing was happening in New York and other states.

As funding dwindled, tuition-free universities had no choice but to trim costs and begin to boost tuition. Teachers, feeling the squeeze on both their salaries and benefits, began to organize, forming labor unions to protect their jobs and livelihoods. The end result was an upward spiral of ever-increasing tuition costs that continues today.

A second unanticipated result was the decline in the perceived worth of teachers. Teacher unionization on a national scale led many Americans to unjustly compare teachers to similar blue-collar union members in the auto, teamsters and steel industries. At the same time, the quality of new teachers was thought to have declined as the result of the draft evading tactics of the Vietnam Era. This, combined with the poor results of the American educational system in general, gave teachers a bum rap that has continued to this day.

As the U.S. educational system continues to decline, despite the best efforts of both government and the private sector, I don't believe free college tuition will solve America's educational dilemma although it may help future generations make better career choices. In my next and final column on free colleges, we will address the broader issue of the future of education in this country. Stay tuned.

Bill Schmick is an independent investor with Berkshire Money Management. (See "About" for more information.) None of the information presented in any of these articles 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 (toll free) or email him at wschmick@fairpoint.net. Visit www.afewdollarsmore.com for more of Bill's insights.



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@theMarket: Profit Taking
By Bill Schmick On: 07:53AM / Saturday February 11, 2012
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It has been six weeks (29 consecutive trading days) since we have seen a 1 percent decline in the averages. Given that last year it was practically a daily occurrence, most investors are breathing a sigh of relief. That is starting to worry me.

As a born-again contrarian, I find when most people are leaning one way I tend to start leaning the other. If you have followed my advice and been invested in a dividend and income mostly portfolio, you should be up over 5 percent so far this year, and its only February.

Frankly, I thought the S&P 500 Index would peak out on a short-term basis at around 1,350-1,365 sometime in March of this year. Well folks, as of this week we actually came within 11 points of the top of my range. Is it time for some profit taking?

Markets never go straight up although there have been times when it appears they want to. On occasion over the last few years, stocks have been supported by the policies of central banks around the world. We are in one of those periods right now. In my last column I wrote that the Fed has given stock investors the green light to remain in the market and buy even more equities. Their easy interest rate policies, a tame inflation outlook and increasingly good numbers on the employment and economic front provide support for buying stocks.

That should come as no surprise to you, my readers, which is why you should still be invested in the stock market. All I am saying is that you should be prepared (and willing to sustain losses) during a period of profit taking sometime soon. How much downside this will cause is debatable. We could see as little as a 1 percent pullback to something more like 5-10 percent.

"But 5 percent would just about wipe out my profits for the year," said one reader recently.

No question about that, which is why those who hate to suffer the vagaries of the stock market, might be advised to raise a little cash around now. There is nothing wrong with taking a few profits here and there. It would simply be the smart thing to do, especially if you are heavily invested in aggressive stocks and funds. I still think the year overall will be positive. I just don't expect this straight up kind of market we have enjoyed since Christmas to last much longer.

Stock markets normally discount good news ahead of time. It seems to me that we have already discounted most of the good news out of Europe, the strong numbers out of our own economy, and the decline in the unemployment rate. When markets are priced to perfection (as they are now in the short term) it doesn’t take much to stall their momentum.

Friday, for example, Greece weighed on stocks as investors started to lose patience with the umpteenth round of negotiations between Greece and the EU. I noticed that the stocks that have gone up the most this year experienced the most profit taking. Although the overall averages (Dow, S&P and NASDAQ) have been up marginally throughout the week, certain indexes, like the high flying Russell 2000 small cap index, has seen profit taking. Many times the Russell is a leading indicator of things to come in the overall market.

As such, I am advising readers to add a little caution to the present euphoria by remembering the prudent investor always hedges their bets a bit.

Bill Schmick is an independent investor with Berkshire Money Management. (See "About" for more information.) None of the information presented in any of these articles 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 (toll free) or email him at wschmick@fairpoint.net. Visit www.afewdollarsmore.com for more of Bill's insights.




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The Independent Investor: Should College Be Free?
By Bill Schmick On: 04:18PM / Thursday February 09, 2012
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It is a debate that has occupied this country for years. Should college be free to all Americans or should we continue to pay for it? Those in favor argue it is one of our inalienable rights. Those opposed say college is a privilege to be earned and paid for in order for it to have meaning and merit.

I  suspect the majority of Americans who are still paying off student loans, or are already paying for a college education (or soon will be) would vote for free tuition. Who can blame them?

My daughter was born in 1980 and graduated college in 2002. During that time period, the cost of a college education increased almost 400 percent. Looking at prices today, I would say I got off fairly cheap. Americans spent almost $100 billion last year to send over 14 million students to public colleges and universities. We all know that tuition and fees continue to skyrocket, climbing 6.6 percent annually. Yet, most of us believe that going to college is essential and the key to an economic future and the American dream.

Costs differ because not all colleges charge the same. Forty-four percent of all full-time college students attending a four-year college are paying less than $9,000 per year for tuition and fees. That’s a lot of money for a family pulling in $50,000 annually. At the other end of the spectrum, roughly 28 percent of full-time students are attending private, non-profit institutions and are paying at least $36,000 annually. Those numbers do not include the cost of living, eating, school supplies and a long list of other school expenses. All but the wealthiest American families are priced out of that market.

To be fair, most students receive some kind of financial aid, usually from the local, state or federal governments. That aid amounted to about $178 billion this year. That means the average student probably received a little over $12,500 in aid and about half of that won’t have to be repaid.

When you account for all student loan programs, grants, tax breaks and such the government is already paying for almost half the tuition, so why not the rest?

Much of the debate comes down to why the government should pay for schooling at all. Critics argue that the public school system is already a disaster. Our students’ learning abilities have already fallen way behind their peers in other countries. Our high schools are becoming a breeding ground for drugs, crime and dropouts. If we allow colleges to become part of this flawed system, critics say, then we may as well call an end to the educational system in America.

It might be helpful, therefore, to explore why a free educational system evolved in America in the first place.

It was Thomas Jefferson who first suggested creating a public school system. He and others like him argued that common education would create good citizens, unite society and prevent crime and poverty. The debate raged for many years. It took until the end of the 19th century before free public education at the primary level was available to all American children.

High school was a different story. Although the first publically supported secondary school, the Boston Latin School, was founded in 1635, it was Benjamin Franklin who first saw the need for something more than a primary education. The demand for skilled workers in the middle of the 18th century led Franklin to establish a new kind of secondary school called the American Academy in Philadelphia in 1751. Once again, public secondary education was no easy sell.

It wasn't until the 20th century that high schools took off. when the majority of states extended compulsory education laws to the age of 16. From 1900 to 1996, when government began paying for secondary education, the percentage of teenagers who graduated from high school increased from 6 percent to 85 percent.

Since then the purpose of a free education has widened from Jefferson's concept of ensuring that citizens could read, write (vote) and remain law-abiding to something more. In order to escape poverty and to provide a skilled labor force for the industrial revolution, Franklin and his peers believed a secondary education was deemed to be in the national interest.

This history lesson has a point. Ask yourself two questions. Are we still in the Industrial Revolution or have we graduated into something more? And two, does a high school education prepare our youth to enter the work force, escape poverty and become a productive citizen of the economy?

For readers who answered no to the above questions, you will want to read part II of this column. Stay tuned.

Bill Schmick is an independent investor with Berkshire Money Management. (See "About" for more information.) None of the information presented in any of these articles 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 (toll free) or email him at wschmick@fairpoint.net. Visit www.afewdollarsmore.com for more of Bill's insights.



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@theMarket: Fed Gives Green Light to Stocks
By Bill Schmick On: 02:37PM / Saturday January 28, 2012
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It wasn't quite a QE III but it came close. This week, the Federal Reserve Bank extended the time period in which they would keep a lid on short-term interest rates to 2014 while at the same time pushing longer-term rates lower. Investors liked that and bought stocks on the news.

The Fed also said it would consider launching a bond-buying program and it wouldn't wait for a recession to do it. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke hinted he would act if the economy and unemployment simply continues to recover at its present slow pace. At the same time, the Fed dropped its forecast for economic growth this year from a range of 2.5-2.9 percent to 2.2-2.7 percent. He targeted a 2 percent inflation rate for the country but also said he would be willing to see inflation a bit higher if it meant producing more jobs for Americans.

What all of this means for you and I is that the Fed is determined to do all it can to goose the economy, the stock market and the housing markets. In the past, when the Fed conveyed this kind of message to investors, the stock markets climbed higher. I expect the same thing to happen again this time.

It is not yet clear to me how telegraphing their determination to push longer-term rates lower over the next two-plus years is going to help home buyers decide on purchasing, as opposed to renting. If, for example, I was in the market for a fixed rate mortgage and I know rates might trend lower between now and 2014, I would be in no hurry to sign a contract.

The Fed's announcement is also bad news for those retirees who have fled the stock market and have their money invested in "safe" assets such as CDs and U.S. Treasury bonds. They will continue to receive next to nothing for their money while struggling to make ends meet as food, energy, medical services and other necessary living expenses continue to rise.

On the plus side, investors can be pretty sure that the economy won't get any worse and that the stock market is about the only place one can hope to achieve a reasonable rate of return on your investments. Of course, there will be the inevitable piper to pay down the road but central banks around the world have decided to worry about the inflationary consequences of trillions of dollars in stimulus when it happens. Future inflation fears is one reason that commodities led by gold and silver raced higher after the Fed meeting.

So do the Fed's actions change the bottom line of my investment strategy? Not really. I believe defensive areas of the stock markets (those stocks and sectors that pay dividends) will do just fine in this environment. High yield and investment grade bonds will also do quite well. We will still have pullbacks in the market this year and some of them might even be serious. Overall, I believe we are exactly where we should be.

Bill Schmick is an independent investor with Berkshire Money Management. (See "About" for more information.) None of the information presented in any of these articles 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 (toll free) or email him at wschmick@fairpoint.net. Visit www.afewdollarsmore.com for more of Bill's insights.



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The Independent Investor: U.S. Energy Production, Going the Right Way
By Bill Schmick On: 02:30PM / Friday January 27, 2012
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It has been a long time since oil production in this country has been a source of growth. Between domestic regulation, depressed energy prices and off-shore projects, the action in oil has been elsewhere. Now that is beginning to change.

Over the next decade domestic crude oil production is expected to increase 20 percent or more to levels not seen in the United States since the 1990s, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. We were producing 5.5 million barrels per day (bpd) last year compared to 5.1 million bpd in 2007 and production is expected to grow by 550,000 bpd to 6.7 million bpd by 2020. Production is expected to slow after that but still maintain a healthy pace of over 6.1 million bpd through 2035.

U.S. oil production grew faster than in any other country over the last three years. Names from big oil's boom days like the Texas Panhandle, the Oklahoma Border and Granite Wash in states such as Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas have been joined by new wildcat states like the Bakken shale area of North Dakota and even Pennsylvania.

Naturally, since it is an election year, politicians are quick to take credit for oil's resurgence.

"Under my administration, domestic oil and natural gas production is up, while imports of foreign oil are down," said President Obama, which is true but not because of any policies of his administration. Energy exploration and drilling decisions are made many years in advance. Decisions made 4-6 years ago are only now showing up as increased production today.

The real cause and impetus behind this energy rebound is a combination of three factors: the price of oil, an oversupply of U.S. natural gas and new technologies that make drilling and finding new oil cost effective.

Oil is hovering around $100 a barrel and has traded in a rough range of between $85-$110 most of last year. At the same time, natural gas prices are at a 10-year low so it pays for oil and gas exploration drillers to focus on finding more of the higher-priced crude oil component of the energy spectrum.

At the same time, new drilling techniques like horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing that contributed to the recent explosion in natural gas production are being applied to traditional oil fields. As a result of the higher prices and cost-effective technology, pools of oil and oil shale that were passed up in the past as too expensive to drill, are now profitable to extract.

All this good news still won't bring this country to its goal of "energy independence" anytime soon. The U.S. is forecasted to consume 19 million bpd of oil by 2020 versus production of only 10.2 million bpd. Of course that forecast can change depending on price, supply, demand and decisions made by both the private and public sector here.

For example, just this week the Obama administration rejected the proposed XL Keystone pipeline from Canada, a $7 billion, 1,700-mile route through the Great Plains of Texas. The decision is not final, but rather a delaying tactic to allow the pipeline's supporters to update their proposal. It is projects like this that can impact the nation's energy production in years to come. Let's hope this country and its leaders can establish a cohesive energy policy soon that will someday make us energy independent.

Bill Schmick is an independent investor with Berkshire Money Management. (See "About" for more information.) None of the information presented in any of these articles 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 (toll free) or email him at wschmick@fairpoint.net. Visit www.afewdollarsmore.com for more of Bill's insights.



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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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