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The Independent Investor: Separating the Forest From the Trees
By Bill Schmick On: 08:24AM / Friday August 31, 2012
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"We're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers."
     
— Neil Newhouse, founder of Public Opinion Strategies
and GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney's pollster

Billed as a choice between two distinct and opposing futures for America, the November presidential election candidates are neck and neck. At the center of the battle are two issues: the economy and jobs. Rhetoric aside, how far apart are these men on the issues?

Up until Aug. 12, the media was hard pressed to find much difference between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. The president was a democrat defending his track record of moderate economic growth while grappling with his unsuccessful efforts to whittle away at an extremely stubborn unemployment rate. Romney, on the other hand, promised change, towing the typically conservative line of less government, less regulation and more reliance on the private sector for job growth.

Cutting taxes and reducing spending were on both candidates' agendas, although the degree of cuts and increases differed. Both candidates were woefully short on detail on just when and how these changes would be implemented once elected. Enter the game changer, Congressman Paul Ryan.

From the moment Romney announced Ryan as his vice presidential selection, emphasis has shifted from Romney's "me too" economic plan to Ryan's "Roadmap for America." The Ryan plan has been touted as both the best and the worst program response to the nation's economic wounds ever created. The Magna Cartae it is not, nor is it anything like Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged."

For those who have read all three (I have) , Ryan's plan presents a conservative point of view that has been largely espoused by the Republican tea party over the past few years. There is a lot of truth in what Ryan writes and believes, but many of his policy recommendations are in the wrong place at the wrong time, in my opinion. The best that can be said for the document is that it provides a solution to our fiscal issues, something the Democrats are sorely lacking in their own platform.

The problem for conservatives is that Ryan isn't running for president. In fact, if one looks back through history, vice presidents have had little impact on policy once their boss has captured the White House. So those who focus on Ryan's proposals are missing the point. Ryan's appointment to the ticket is meant to rally the hard-core conservatives, the tea party, if you will, to Romney's side. It does not mean that any of Ryan's suggestions will ever become part of a Romney economic plan.

In the meantime, the Democratic predictions of the end of Medicare and Medicaid as we know it if the Romney/Ryan "Comeback Team" is elected are not true. Ryan's plan to move Medicare from a defined-benefit fee-for-service system (where government is your insurance) to a defined-contribution system (where government writes you a check to help you pay someone else for insurance) is a long-term plan.

At the earliest, it won't take effect until sometime in the 2020s. Now, come on, do these politicians really expect us to believe that for the next 8-10 years every administration, regardless of party affiliation, is just going to sit by and agree to abide by Ryan's proposed Medicare changes in the 2020s?

There is no longevity in policy-making. Remember last year's deficit ceiling battle? The bi-partisan Super Committee failed to come up with a compromise in cutting the deficit in exchange for a higher national debt limit. So both parties agreed to automatic cuts in defense spending and entitlement programs. They are scheduled to be enacted on Jan. 1, 2013. Here it is less than a year later and both parties are already planning to change the agreement after the elections.

Nonetheless, the notion that Medicare and Medicaid will end "as we know it" if the Republicans are elected have the elderly up in arms. In a recent Pew Poll, over 55 percent of respondents, 65 years and older, were dead set against Ryan's plan. Over 51 percent of respondents said it was more important to leave Social Security and Medicare alone than it was to reduce the budget deficit.

In my next column, I will continue to separate the wheat from the chaff, as I see it, in the hope that readers will benefit from a little critical thinking as it applies to November’s elections.

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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The Independent Investor: Middle Class Dilemma
By Bill Schmick On: 05:07PM / Thursday August 23, 2012
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Two national statistics in the last month underscore the nightmare of being a member of America's middle class. The cost of raising a child is up again to $235,000, while the income generated by those same families is "suffering its worst decade in modern history."

That was a quote from the Pew Research Center study released this week. The study shows that families with household incomes ranging from $39,000 to $118,000 have seen their incomes falling backward for the first time since the end of World War II.

At the same time, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) said the costs of raising a child in 2011 increased 3.5 percent from 2010. But those statistics only include child support to age 17. The USDA also considers middle-income parents as those with incomes ranging from $59,440 and $102,870, which is slightly lower than the Pew study.

Families in the Northeast, especially those residing in urban localities, have the highest child-rearing expenses with housing commanding the highest share of expenses (30 percent). Costs also include transportation, child care, education, food, clothing, health care and other miscellaneous expenses.

In my opinion, those cost numbers are grossly understated. If you plan to send your kid to college, and you include the lost income if one spouse quits working to raise your child, then costs escalate substantially. In past columns, I have addressed both the rising costs of college education and the cost of a spouse (usually the mother) who sacrifices career, income and retirement savings to raise a child. I estimate that both of these additional financial hardships could cost your family another $500,000 or more — two or three times the USDA's estimate.

These costs are escalating as 85 percent of middle-class Americans say they are having the worst time in 10 years making ends meet. Most of this demographic group, according to the Pew study, has been forced to cut spending last year as health-care costs and college tuitions have increased, as well as basic items like food and clothing.

Readers should not discount the middle class's dilemma as simply a rough patch that will clear up in a year or two, once the economy begins to grow again. The Pew study is simply more proof that the American Dream has turned into a middle-class nightmare. Occupy Wall Street was right. The middle class is shrinking.

In 1970, the share of U.S. income that went to the middle class was 62 percent, while wealthier Americans received just 29 percent. By 2010, the middle class received 45 percent of the nation's income, compared to 46 percent for upper-income Americans. The Census Bureau reported last year that although income fell 1.2 percent for the wealthiest Americans, it dropped 4 percent for the bottom fifth of households. That trend is accelerating. We are rapidly becoming a Third-World Nation in terms of income disparity.

It makes one question how believable the claim by conservatives that the remedy for this middle-class dilemma and for the growing separation of wealth between the have and have-nots is by letting the "capitalistic system work." It sounds quite similar to the same "trickle down" economic policies that have created the circumstances we find ourselves in today.

Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.

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: Is Krugman Right?
By Bill Schmick On: 12:13PM / Saturday August 18, 2012
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Economist Paul Krugman, Nobel Laureate and New York Times columnist, has suggested a solution to this Great Recession. It is a controversial suggestion and one that flies in the face of today's political wisdom. It just might work.

A common fallacy among Americans is that Franklin Delano Roosevelt's economic policies extricated the United States from the Great Depression of the 1930s. Others, with more knowledge of those times, recognize that it was the onset of World War II and the U.S. preparation to wage that war, which truly pulled us out of that economic mire. But stripping that truth down to its bare essentials leaves us with one fact.

To pull this country out of the Great Depression, government spending had to be raised to 43.6 percent of GDP in 1943, 43.6 percent in 1944 and 41.9 percent in 1945. Only in 1946 did spending drop back to 24.8 percent. In his new book, "End This Depression Now," Krugman argues that the answer to our present economic dilemma, which he terms "a second depression," is to spend our way out of recession as we did during WWII.

As today's leading proponent of legendary, supply-side economist John Maynard Keynes, Krugman believes his mentor had it right when he advised government that "the boom, not the slump, is the time for austerity." He argues that Keynes' definition of a depression, "a chronic condition of subnormal activity for a considerable period without any marked tendency towards recovery or toward collapse," applies to our economic reality today. We are in what Keynes referred to as a liquidity trap in which an indebted private sector is so intent on rebuilding its savings that even interest rates of zero cannot tempt it to borrow and spend enough to get the economy working again at full capacity.

Sound familiar?

Of course, Krugman's ideas fly directly in the face of all the austerity rhetoric that is emanating from both political parties during the run-up to November's presidential elections. Both parties seem to believe that the only way forward is to either raise taxes on some; (or cut taxes on others) and cut spending.

In fact, raising taxes and cutting spending is exactly what Herbert Hoover did back in the early 1930s, just as the economy was struggling to recover from the crash of 1929. In my opinion, Hoover's austerity policies, like those that many conservatives are advocating today, are what drove this country from a prolonged recession into its first Great Depression.

In essence, Krugman is suggesting we increase government spending back to the levels of WWII, if necessary. Today, government in total spends around 36 percent of GDP, if you include all goods, services, cash and transfer payments. That represents over one third of all spending in this country. Clearly Krugman's answer to solving this country's woes would make government bigger while creating the most powerful economic entity we've seen since the 1940s.

In the end, we may very well do just what Krugman suggests. I don't believe the majority of Americans will consciously vote for austerity. Raising their own taxes and cutting spending that they need — especially on Medicare and Social Security - would not be in our individual interests, regardless of how well it may be for the future posterity of our children and children's children.

The two biggest concerns American voters will have as they vote this year is staying employed or getting re-employed. Worries over the debt ceiling, the deficit and America's future concern us theoretically but those issues do not impact our pocket book today. If Americans are faced with a program of prolonged austerity after the November elections, I am convinced that they will vote the responsible party out of office as soon as possible.

Under that scenario, if borrowing, spending more and ultimately inflating our national debt away is easier (and safer) than austerity, then guess what most politicians will do? If you doubt that, ask yourself who was the more popular president — Hoover or FDR? That's my point.

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: Watching Thin Paint Dry
By Bill Schmick On: 07:27AM / Saturday August 11, 2012
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This week I have had a hard time deciding what's worse: this summer's heat and humidity or the meandering markets. The averages barely budged over five days and the volume was, well, atrocious.

Of course, volume shrinks during the summer months anyway. Wall Street participants take three-day weekends or vacations while finding excuses to be on the golf courses whenever possible. For many, it is a genteel, less hectic time when junior traders man the turrets and talk to their friends via cell phone.

However, Securities Technology, an organization that monitors changes in stock and derivative volume, reports that the daily volume of trading stocks is down 16.9 percent from a year ago. In June alone volume declined 9.9 percent. In Europe it was even worse with a 12.3 percent plunge last month. In addition, trading in derivative markets fell off a cliff, falling 15.8 percent from June to July worldwide. There was also an almost 30 percent drop in exchange-traded funds transactions versus 2011 as well, and this is supposed to be a growth area.

This trend is all the more disturbing since last year's volume declines were just as bad. It appears that investors are abandoning the nation's stock markets wholesale with a growing number of private and even professional investors jumping ship.

Some of the blame can be pinned on the continued presence of high frequency traders who brought us 2010's "flash crash." Last week, one of their fraternity brothers created another mini-crash of over 100 stocks that listed for well over half an hour. They claimed it was a computer glitch that cost that firm over $400 million in losses as well as its independence.

This fiasco follows closely on the heels of the multibillion-dollar derivative loss racked up by one of our nation's "most reputable" banks. It was caught speculating the wrong way in the same markets that brought us the financial crisis. In the eyes of most investors, these incidents simply strengthen the notion that the markets are nothing more than a global casino where the bets are rigged in favor of the dealers and croupiers.

Investors are absolutely correct in my opinion. The game is rigged; the banksters and fat cats get richer while the rest of us get poorer. And if this were not enough, this same one percent of the population is now busily using their ill-gotten gains to buy this year's presidential election. What the diminishing volume shows me is that there is an ongoing "buyer's strike" among investors big and small that will continue until it doesn't.

Is it any wonder that the financial sector continues to lay off thousands and thousands of well-paid Wall Street types? Their business is shrinking away to nothing. Before long all that will be left are the billionaires and their firms. Poetic justice would be a scenario in which they are left trading against each other with the same insider information bought and paid for from the congressmen and senators in their back pockets.

But enough criticism, let's focus instead on buying the dips. There is a dearth of news coming out of Europe and America between now and the end of the month. That gives traders plenty of opportunity to move markets whenever and however they want. For you, that may mean another chance at picking up some equities at cheaper prices, so stay vigilant.

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: Mars Is Only The Beginning
By Bill Schmick On: 05:40PM / Thursday August 09, 2012
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Hurrah for us. The Curiosity landing on Mars was the most complex landing NASA has ever attempted. The mission cost taxpayers $2.5 billion, but if history is any guide the economic payback to America will be much greater than that.

The purpose of this Mars mission is to perform a highly sophisticated scientific analysis of the Red Planet around the Gale Crater. Curiosity, the one-ton robotic rover, is loaded with an army of scientific instruments including high resolution cameras, infrared lasers, microscopes, X-ray spectrometer and even drills for retrieving samples of the surface for further analysis. If history is any guide, NASA probably has a host of other tools that are newly developed proprietary secrets that will trickle through the economy sometime in the future.

Scientists at NASA believe Curiosity (about the size of a Mini Cooper automobile) will remain operational for at least a year. Of course, the public and the media will be looking for answers to the really dramatic questions. Was there life on Mars and when? Are there vast deposits of mineral wealth just waiting to be scooped up from the surface? Even more exciting, could there be new and potentially valuable substances heretofore unknown to man that could be successfully exploited?

While answers to these questions may keep Americans interested, I suspect that the real payoff will come from the technology that went into developing and executing the mission. One only needs to look back at how much economic value was generated by the Apollo moon landing and other space programs to understand my point.

From 1962 to 1972, America spent roughly $16 billion (inflation-adjusted) a year on the space program. I remember watching on television (along with millions of other Americans) as Apollo 11 touched down on the moon's dusty surface on July 20, 1969. It was that landing and subsequent other manned missions to the moon that inspired an entire generation of school kids to become scientists and engineers.

Those are the men and women who have given us untold wealth in the form of the technology we enjoy today. Beyond that, a partial list of technological benefits of the space program include micro circuitry, endless software innovations, miniaturization, a vast array of sensor technologies (used today in everything from medicine to transportation) advancements in telecommunications, precision manufacturing, instantaneous global communication, radar mapping, GPS, and the materials science that developed most of the materials that surround you. The economic benefits of those advancements are incalculable. Suffice it to say that the return on $16 billion/year was huge. America would not be the leading economic power of the world today without the space program.

Unfortunately, in this partisan era of spending cuts, NASA's planetary science efforts budget will be cut by 20 percent next year with further cuts expected in the coming years. Much of this money will come out of the agency's Mars program, which will see its funding fall from $587 million this year to $360 million in 2013 and then to just $189 million in 2015. I think that is a mistake.

Consider that less than two months ago just one of our "most reputable" banks threw away over twice the entire Mars budget by speculating in the same kind of derivatives that gave us the financial crisis of 2008. Even if that bank's bet had paid off, its economic benefit to this country would have been insignificant compared to the potential technological advances generated by the Mars Science Laboratory.

As I write this column, new revelations point to trillions of dollars in losses by the rigging of interest rates by this nation's banks (among others). Yet, our politicians nickel and dime NASA's budget to show how fiscally responsible they are. Where are our priorities?

I am one of those Americans who believe that if we don't invest in science and space exploration, the human race will eventually cease to advance as a species. It confounds me that with all the technological breakthroughs generated by past space programs the question of funding space exploration is even raised. What am I missing here?

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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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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