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@theMarket: What's Not to Like?

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

This has to be the most-hated stock market rally in history. No one trusts Wall Street or the stock market and just about everyone is looking for an excuse to sell. There isn't a day that goes by without some lionized Wall Street sage predicting the top of the market. That's why it will continue to go up.

An informal survey of recent communications from clients and readers reflects that nervous attitude. Here is just one such missive.

"Dear Bill," began this client email I received on Monday, "interesting article in Barrons, predicting a bear market being imminent. I see this guy has a good track record. Thoughts?"

Over the last six months I have received dozens of similar queries. I won't start to worry until everyone throws in the towel and becomes bullish. In the meantime, enjoy the ride.

This week the Fed said all the right things. They reiterated their position that until the economy begins to grow at a satisfactory rate they will keep the money flowing and remain committed to their stimulus policies. The latest data shows an economy that is still growing at a sub-par rate while employment is improving modestly. Friday's employment number was a bit of a disappointment, gaining just 162,000 jobs, well below that magic 200,000 jobs a month number that we need to make a substantial dent in the nation's unemployment number.

This is absolutely the best news for our Goldilocks' market (if not for the economy and employment). As long as the porridge called data is neither too hot nor too cold, stocks will continue to climb on back of the Fed's easing policies.    

Technically, many indexes are reaching new, all-time highs. The S&P 500 Index cracked 1,700 for the first time in history this week with many technicians pointing to 1,750 as the next stop. Small cap indexes have been leading the markets higher and are now in uncharted territory. The transportation index, which many Dow theorists believe is critical to confirming new highs in the Dow, is on a tear and is itself at a new all-time high. What's not to love in these numbers?

Many investors tend to be a bit myopic in looking at the prospects of the U.S. market. Given that it is the largest stock market and economy in the world it is an understandable mistake. I urge readers, however, to pay attention to what is also happening in economies overseas. In recent columns, I have called your attention to the growth story now unfolding in Japan, but don't ignore the prospects for a European turnaround.

The world's central bank's stimulus policies are finally starting to boost the growth prospects of many nations. This will have a larger and larger impact on the global marketplace where one nation's growing economic health will bootstrap growth in other nations. The last time this happened in the 2003-2007 period, Chinese growth acted as a locomotive for the rest of the world.

We may be entering another such period, only a new engine could be based on the expanding economy of Japan, the European Union as well as the United States. In that kind of future economic environment investors want to take a longer term approach to the stock market. What’s not to like about that?

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: Congressional Farm Bill Is a Disgrace

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

There were times in the past when farmers needed the government's protection. There may even be a limited need for it today, despite the good times many in agriculture have enjoyed in recent years. However, nothing can justify the travesty that congress has offered the taxpayer in its new five year plan for agriculture.

Lawmakers largely voted along party lines (only 12 Republicans voted no along with all of the Democrats) for the bill that dropped food stamps from the farm bill. That left "austerity-minded" Republicans to approve a new spending program that will cost taxpayers $195.6 billion over the next ten years. But, hey, says the Tea Party, we're saving you close to $800 billion by cutting out food stamps, right?  

That vote should come as no surprise since the GOP body, in my opinion, is simply taking care of its own. You see, 24 Republicans sit on the House Agriculture Committee, which oversees this country’s runaway farm welfare program. Total government farm payments to the districts of those 24 congressional reps come to more than $1 billion/year.

However, unlike the 46 million Americans that receive food stamps (who are earning less than $32,000 annually), the benefits of the congressional farm bill (around 80 percent of the money) accrue to a group of people with incomes way above the national average. As an example, net farm income is expected to reach $128 billion this year. That's the highest level in real terms since 1973. And while 12 million Americans endure unemployment, farm income overall exceeded $92.5 billion in 2010, a 34 percent increase from the year before.

Don't get me wrong. I am not talking about the small farm homestead you drive by on your way home. Although they make up almost 90 percent of the farm population, the median farm operator household consistently has a net loss from farming activities.

"Most farm income is concentrated in households associated with commercial farms, which represent 10.3 percent of the farm population," according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

However, that same 10 percent representing large farms and agricultural cooperatives have been getting 73 percent of all government subsidies for decades. That has amounted to billions of dollars in direct payments. Commodity farmers, for example, who grow corn, soy, wheat or cotton, are given $5 billion/year, whether they actually grow those crops or not.

Don't be fooled when congress claims they are reforming agriculture by eliminating the direct payments program, which they created back in 1996. The politicians are simply replacing that program with a $9 billion expansion in crop insurance. They argue that since farming is a risky business, the taxpayer should pick up 62 cents of every dollar the farmer pays to insurance companies to safeguard against crop failure due to droughts or floods. But today more than half of the insurance policies taken out in that sector are revenue insurance (guaranteeing big farms a minimum price) rather than weather risks.

To make matters worse, there are no caps on how much farmers can receive from this insurance subsidy program. Today, crop prices are close to their historical highs. Big commercial farmers can basically lock in those high prices by taking out this insurance, effectively hedging against a price decline in their crop and we the taxpayer get to pay for it in high prices for our food and paying the majority of insurance premiums.

The government's system of agricultural price supports makes no sense at all. Take sugar, as an example. Sugar is 50 percent higher than anywhere else in the world because our government sets a minimum price for that commodity. In order to maintain that price the USDA may have to buy upwards of 400,000 tons of sugar, costing you and me $80 million in taxpayer dollars just to keep the price of sugar artificially inflated.

So why is it, you may ask, that milk prices would actually spike higher if subsidies on that product were removed? The problem is not in the price of milk, it is in the costs to produce it. The climbing costs of feed in recent years (feed prices are kept artificially high by our farm program) make producing milk a losing proposition. If it were not for the fact the government subsidizes dairy farmers, farmers would be forced to jack up the price of milk to as much as $6 a gallon in some states.

Our farm bill is archaic. It has all the waste and inefficiencies that marked the Soviet-era central planning debacle that ultimately destroyed the agricultural sector in Russia. It is therefore interesting to note that the party that professes to abhor socialism, government interference in the private sector (food stamps, etc.) and additional spending has done a complete about face when it comes to the high-powered lobbying of a handful of corporations and their own self-interests.

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: Political Posturing Ahead

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

The markets have spent most of this year focusing on concrete things like the economy, jobs, the Fed's stimulus program and corporate earnings. However, 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.

It is no accident that President Barack Obama took to the road this week with proposals for additional federal spending to boost the economy. After heaping all the blame on the Republican House for blocking his middle-class economic agenda, he introduced what appears to be a re-hash of old proposals that have been shot down repeatedly by the Republicans. What's the point?

The Democrats are hoping that playing the blame game, just prior to the legislative summer recess, will hurt Republicans returning to their districts, who (they hope) will be greeted by an outcry of anger and disgust by voters. I believe they are misreading the situation.

While it is true almost everyone is down on politicians, what most observers fail to realize is that both conservatives and liberals won't allow their representatives to compromise in order to advance a new economic or social agenda for the nation. "Moderate" has become a dirty word among this increasingly polarized society. Positions have hardened, rather than softened, and legislators who appear to have "caved-in" risk a short shelf life in Washington.

This year's budget battle has begun. Both Houses have approved their own version of a budget based on party lines that is $91 billion apart in terms of spending. If we don't have a budget by the end of September, the politicians will most likely do what they have done every year since Obama was elected, pass a temporary measure (or not) before the government shuts down on Oct. 1. Does any of this sound familiar?

Then there is the debt ceiling, where once again the U.S. Treasury will run out of funding between October and mid-November. The Obama administration says there will be no deals cut in order to get Congress' approval to raise the ceiling. On the other hand, thanks to the sequester, spending cuts that will automatically take effect again next year, the Republican-controlled Congress will be looking for even further cuts in entitlements programs such as Social Security and Medicare.

About the most anyone can hope for is that the markets have become so inured to this useless posturing, that they tune it out entirely. There is an old saying in the stock market that an event can only be discounted once. Anything more becomes a buying opportunity. In the past five years, the "Double Ds" of deficit and debt have been discounted several times and all of those sell-offs have turned out to be a wonderful buying opportunity. I suspect it may happen again.

In the meantime, the markets are performing handsomely. Each spurt higher has been followed by a healthy consolidation, which is exactly what you want in a bull market. Ignore the noise. Minor pull-backs should be expected. Investors are still way too cautious to spell an end to the upside.

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: Food Stamps & the Farm Bill

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

The decision by Congress to pass a version of the new farm bill that excludes the food stamp program caused a fair amount of concern throughout America last week. Unless a compromise is reached with the Senate by September, it will mean that a lot of people, especially children, are going to go hungry in the months ahead.

Food stamps, officially called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), have been around in some form or another since the Great Depression. Its basic purpose is to help distribute food to the needy amid calamitous times such as widespread unemployment and economic dislocation. It became part of the farm bill back in the 1970s through political expediency. Every five years since then, the legislation has been renewed, usually with some new tidbits of pork for both sides. Both Democrats and Republicans grew to like this deal because urban liberals could advance their ambitions to provide nutritional help to the poor and needy while rural lawmakers could guarantee continued price supports for their farming constituencies.

Over the following decades this bi-partisan back-scratching resulted in a farm bill loaded with abuses, Soviet-style central planning and governmental outlays that expanded exponentially went hand-in-hand with hand-outs for all regardless of real need. Over the past 10 years, as an example, the farm bill has cost taxpayers close to a trillion dollars.

Today almost 80 percent of those outlays are spent on SNAP and other food stamp-type programs, which cost taxpayers $78.4 billion in 2012, compared to $20.6 billion in 2002. Last year, 46 million Americans received an average of just over $130 in benefits, which amounts to about 73 percent of their monthly grocery bill.

Households must earn less than 130 percent of federal poverty guidelines and have assets of less than $2,000. For a family of four, this would mean an annual income of less than $32,000. The number of Americans that took advantage of the SNAP program last year increased by nearly 3 percent and given the economy and unemployment, that number is predicted to increase again this year.

The Berkshire delegation spent a week living on $31.50 - the average SNAP amount for an individual

Berkshire Lawmakers Taking SNAP Challenge

Halfway Through SNAP Challenge

#SNAPchallenge tweets

Berkshire Lawmakers Complete SNAP Challenge

In addition to food stamps, the Emergency Food Assistance Program, as well as other nutrition programs aimed at children, seniors and Native Americans, were also discarded as part of this latest congressional farm bill overhaul. What, you might ask, could possibly justify this wholesale gutting of one of this country's most important social safety net?

Democrats blame the Republican Party, led by the austerity-at-any-cost tea party faction, for the fiasco. On the surface that may be true, but I have to give the GOP a point or two for at least trying to overhaul this unwieldy and unworkable bill. Separating the two issues was a good way to start.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Oh) said that although they dropped food stamps from the farm bill, the Republican Congress would address that issue in the future. I believe that many moderate Republicans see the worth in food stamps but that does not mean that they won't try to rein in the amount the government is spending on the program.

Critics argue that these food stamp programs have become too easy to access under the Obama administration and are costing the country far too much. The Wall Street Journal in its editorial, "A Healthy Farm Rebellion," applauded the GOP's actions and labeled food stamps "the symbol of the runaway welfare state with 47 million Americans receiving taxpayer funded meals as of this March."

There are also growing complaints that the quality of the foods and drinks that recipients are buying with their food stamps ($5 billion alone was spent on soda) cannot be termed "nutritional" by today's standards. The cheap processed food choices, critics insist, are simply adding to the obesity problem and do little to provide a well-rounded supplemental diet for America's poor and low-income families.

Some of those arguments do ring true to me. I also agree that the farm bill has become an unholy alliance of bipartisan pork barreling. It needs to be re-invented but I do take issue with how the Republicans have tackled the problem. You don't throw the baby out with the bath water. This is literally true since 72 percent of SNAP participants are in families with children and fully one-quarter are in households with seniors or people with disabilities.

The time to reduce these kinds of benefits is when they are no longer needed. In the meantime, with 12 million Americans out of work, food stamps are doing the job that they were intended to do. In my next column, I will be looking at the other side of the equation, the GOP "farm only" version of the bill. Stay tuned.

 

 

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: Higher Education Just Got More Expensive

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist
More than 7 million students and their families depend on Stafford Loans, a federally subsidized loans program, to help them get through college. Barring an eleventh hour compromise, it looks like the interest rates on those loans will double costing new students $1,000 more to fund their educations.
 
The initiative to raise interest rates on these student loans from 3.4 to 6.8 percent was spawned by the GOP-controlled House and passed July 1. Those politicians, who have continued to pursue their bankrupt austerity agenda, argue that, at most, the increase will cost new students $20 extra per month. Given that the vast majority of these same officials make well over $700,000 per year, I can understand why they don't think this should be such a big deal to you and me.
 
Or maybe they feel that since total student debt is now over $1 trillion, another $1,000 or so won't matter. Its peanuts, they argue, for millions of American families in the grand scheme of things. Peanuts to them, but our children's education debt has now surpassed both credit card and auto loan debt, ranking it as the second-largest type of consumer debt after mortgage loans. In the last 13 years alone, the average amount of student loan debt has increased from $17,000 to $27,250 — a 58 percent increase. Tell me another outlay that has jumped that much in so short a time period?
 
Long-time readers of this column know how much I value education of all kinds. Ask yourself how doubling rates on student loans furthers the aspirations and future hopes we have for a better America? Those responsible for this legislation would be quick to answer that this spending cut helps balance the budget, reduce the deficit and therefore puts the country on a sounder financial footing.
 
I believe that is an extremely short-sighted approach to what could be the single most important investment this country can make. Our children are our future. The ability to afford a higher education is a far more important priority than spending billions more on immigration control or the drug war or the dozens of other programs that remain ideologically sacrosanct from these austerity cuts.
 
Unfortunately, my hope that the Democrats in the Senate would be able to overturn this piece of legislation, at least temporarily, was dashed on Wednesday when all 46 Republicans and some Democrat Senators opposed a roll-back. There is still time to come to a compromise, but time is running out. The new legislation will not affect those students already enrolled in college but new students enrolling in September of this year will be.
 
Personally, I liked Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren's initiative the best. In the first bill she has authored since her election, Senator Warren would tie the interest rate on Stafford loans to the rate banks receive from the Federal Reserve Bank. That would lower the student loan rate from as high as 6.8 percent to 0.75 percent, saving our students thousands in interest payments.
 
It is a strange world indeed when the rates that are charged to our banks by the Federal government are considered appropriate, while doubling the rates on student (who are, in essence, America's future), is somehow deemed just and fair.
 
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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