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The Retired Investor: Immigration Battle Facts and Fiction

By Bill SchmickiBerkshires columnist
Recently, several studies, combined with macroeconomic data in both the private and public sectors, have revealed that immigration has benefited the economy in recent years. In a politically charged election year, the facts are often ignored as hyperbole takes over. 
 
In my last column, I reminded readers that demonizing migrants is nothing new in American history. In a country that is constantly looking for someone to blame for their troubles, immigrants stand the test of time. One prominent candidate has even claimed that migrants are "not people in my opinion."
 
In a recent Wall Street Journal national poll in late February, 20 percent of voters ranked immigration as their top issue. That places immigration as the nation's No. 1 or 2 issue. But concern over an influx of immigrants predates 2024.
 
 Back before the onset of COVID-19 in 2020, the flow of immigrants into the U.S. was slowing. The ebb and flow of government policy changes had once again turned against immigration. It was fueled by the changing mood of a vocal minority of Americans and the executive actions of a former president that resulted in roughly 1.5 million fewer working-age immigrants entering the U.S.
 
At the outset of the pandemic, as the country closed its borders, the number of entries fell further creating a shortfall of well over 2 million immigrants. At the same time, the U.S. economy was in freefall, unemployment rose to double digits, and the stock market swooned. It was left to a new administration to pick up the pieces and handle the COVID crisis. Fortunately, aggressive fiscal stimulus policies, coupled with the development of vaccines, and central bank easing were enacted to jump-start the economy.
 
It worked. But the sudden spike in demand outpaced the economy's ability to respond. The failure of global supply chains contributed to that dilemma. The labor force was not up to the task either. Millions of Baby Boomers retired. In addition, many workers were forced to stay home to take care of children. Some simply avoided the workplace to avoid getting sick.
 
In times like this, the shortfall in labor would be normally filled with migrant workers but because of past policies, many entry-level jobs went unfilled. Inflation skyrocketed. The new administration did what it could by rolling back many of the former government's immigration restrictions. 
 
Now four years later, we have discovered from a variety of public and private sources both legal and illegal immigration not only boosted the growth of the U.S. economy but may well have played a hand in reducing the worst impacts of inflation.
 
March's nonfarm payrolls data released last week showed a huge gain in employment. Economists' estimates were for 200,000 jobs gain, but 303,000 jobs were reported instead. Most analysts attributed the difference to immigration hiring. At the same time wage growth slowed from 4.3 percent to 4.1 percent as many of those jobs were in entry-level positions.
 
This comes as no surprise to those looking at the facts. The U.S. foreign-born labor force has been growing so fast that it has practically filled the labor gap that was created by the pandemic, according to the Federal Reserve Bank. Economists at the central bank considered immigration as instrumental to the astounding growth rate of the economy. Over the last year, about half of the labor market's recent growth came from immigrants, according to federal data analyzed by the Economic Policy Institute.
 
The Congressional Budget Office predicts the U.S. labor force will grow by 5.2 million people by 2033 due to net immigration. That surge will tack on another 2 percent of real GDP by 2034. Those immigrants will produce $7 trillion more wealth over the next decade than the country would gain without them. The data is so convincing that in a research note, Goldman Sachs recently upped its forecast for growth due to the increased number of immigrants in the labor force.
 
Goldman has raised its growth rate to 2.7 percent and argues that GDP was stronger in 2023 because immigration ran well above the historical average (by 1.5 million migrants) and will come in above trend in 2024 (by 1 million jobs). JP Morgan has also noticed the economic benefits of recent immigration claiming that immigration over the last two years accounted for a lot of the increase in U.S. consumption.
 
Of course, the benefit of immigration on the economy could reverse quickly, depending on the policies enacted after the elections in November. For example, many immigrants both legal and illegal are entering the country through an important loophole in the immigration laws. By asking for asylum, the U.S. is required to provide a form of legal protection for people who face prosecution in their home country.
 
There has been an enormous jump in asylum seekers since 2013 when only 76,000 migrants applied for asylum. Today, thanks to advice and instructions easily obtained through the internet and social media, more than half of the millions crossing our borders are asking for asylum. It is the migrant's "Pass Go" card into the country. Migrants are typically given the right to live and work in the country while going through the legal process of claiming persecution. The facts are that the U.S. is so swamped with applicants that a normal application could take four years to decide.
 
In the meantime, the migrant can work and even if his/her claim is denied, the chance of repatriation is low to non-existent. Sure, the migrant loses the right to work here but simply joins the underground economy that flourishes in every state. How is this rational?
 
I could go on and on. The point is that America has a long, long history of shameful and/or stupid immigration policies with a proven history of failure. From a historical perspective, when immigration policies were open, the nation prospered. When they were closed, we suffered.
 
What is worse, we never learn from our mistakes. So here we are once more, threatening mass repatriations, sealing borders, and building walls, with politicians on both sides of the aisle promising this century's version of eugenics to a populace looking for someone to blame.
 

Bill Schmick is the founding partner of Onota Partners, Inc., in the Berkshires. His forecasts and opinions are purely his own and do not necessarily represent the views of Onota Partners Inc. (OPI). None of his commentary is or should be considered investment advice. Direct your inquiries to Bill at 1-413-347-2401 or email him at bill@schmicksretiredinvestor.com.

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 OPI, Inc. or a solicitation to become a client of OPI. The reader should not assume that any strategies or specific investments discussed are employed, bought, sold, or held by OPI. Investments in securities are not insured, protected, or guaranteed and may result in loss of income and/or principal. This communication may include opinions and forward-looking statements, and we can give no assurance that such beliefs and expectations will prove to be correct. Investments in securities are not insured, protected, or guaranteed and may result in loss of income and/or principal. This communication may include opinions and forward-looking statements, and we can give no assurance that such beliefs and expectations will prove to be correct.

 

     

The Retired Investor: Immigrants Getting Bad Rap on the Economic Front

By Bill SchmickiBerkshires columnist
Immigration has become a dirty word among Americans. Illegal aliens take the brunt of the nation's animosity, for sure, and are vilified for a long list of crimes that few question. I am one of the few who see a positive side to migrants.
 
Politicians on both sides of the aisles are competing to keep as many immigrants as possible from entering the country. Campaign speeches by many radicals warn that the situation has reached cataclysmic proportions. The media stokes these fires with shots of dark-skinned refugees fording rivers, shivering in lines surrounded by barbed wire, and headlining any crimes that involve an immigrant. This is nothing new.
 
The country has a long history of failed immigration policies. Waves of immigration, followed by periods of no migration, or even expulsion, are part of our history. Migrants have settled vast areas of the country, built our railroads, and industrialized our cities. Attitudes toward these generations of newcomers have waxed and waned, blown by economic circumstances and the whims of our politicians. 
 
 Immigrants of different races, cultures, and religions have been subjected to enormous political backlash in the U.S. time and again. German, Irish, English, Italian, Canadian, French, Chinese, Jews, Japanese, South American, African — take your pick — they have all had their turn from the earliest days of this nation's existence.
 
Let's look at just a few examples. The Know Nothing Party in the 1850s hated Catholics and all foreigners. They wanted to increase the residency period for naturalization to 21 years. After the Civil War, the Naturalization Act of 1870 only granted naturalization rights to "aliens being free white persons, and to aliens of African nativity and persons of African descent." Then there was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 which blocked Chinese immigrants from entering the country.  
 
In 1924, the politically popular and widespread notions of eugenics, nationalism, and xenophobia culminated in the National Origins Act. It was crafted to eliminate the "parasites of Europe and elsewhere." The Johnson-Reed Immigration Act of 1924 halted all immigration from Asia, Southern Europe and Eastern Europe. Some believe that the lack of fresh immigration labor could have contributed to the economic downturn in the 1930s.
 
In 1933, the country entered the Great Depression. The secretary of labor at the time argued that repatriating foreigners would create additional jobs for Americans. As a result, the federal government deported more than one million Mexicans and persons of Mexican ancestry (60 percent of those were U.S. citizens). How did that work? The reverse happened. The unemployment rates for Americans spiked even higher. Sound familiar?
 
And what about the impact of our pre-World War II, immigration policies? You should know that our anti-refugee rules left thousands upon thousands of Jews stranded in Nazi-occupied Europe. We, along with many other countries, turned a blind eye to Hitler's Jewish pogroms despite knowing the systematic extinction of millions. How many more German Jews and others could have escaped the holocaust by fleeing to America, but no one cared? "Play it again, Sam."
 
In my next column, I will examine the controversy over immigration raging in the country today and how our present policies have impacted our economic growth, income, and inflation.
 

Bill Schmick is the founding partner of Onota Partners, Inc., in the Berkshires. His forecasts and opinions are purely his own and do not necessarily represent the views of Onota Partners Inc. (OPI). None of his commentary is or should be considered investment advice. Direct your inquiries to Bill at 1-413-347-2401 or email him at bill@schmicksretiredinvestor.com.

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 OPI, Inc. or a solicitation to become a client of OPI. The reader should not assume that any strategies or specific investments discussed are employed, bought, sold, or held by OPI. Investments in securities are not insured, protected, or guaranteed and may result in loss of income and/or principal. This communication may include opinions and forward-looking statements, and we can give no assurance that such beliefs and expectations will prove to be correct. Investments in securities are not insured, protected, or guaranteed and may result in loss of income and/or principal. This communication may include opinions and forward-looking statements, and we can give no assurance that such beliefs and expectations will prove to be correct.

 

     

The Retired Investor: Eating Out Not What It Used to Be

By Bill SchmickiBerkshires columnist
Many Americans are getting a bad case of sticker shock when their check arrives at their favorite restaurants. Higher costs for labor, food, and a variety of other inputs are conspiring to make dining out a luxury item that fewer can afford.
 
Lest you think that these sky-high prices are confined to the white tablecloth crowd, guess again. I'm talking about everywhere. Prices in fast food chains, your neighborhood bar and grill, the home-style diner on the corner, and even your local Chinese takeout joint are jacking up prices.
 
By the beginning of this year, the costs of eating out rose more than 30 percent since 2019, according to the Labor Department. I think that is low. My favorite burger chain has increased prices so much that today the average burger costs more than $16 (with fries and a soda, we are talking more than $20).
 
In many cases, restaurants have no choice. Wages for everyone from waiters to busboys, cooks, and dish washers are going up along with the minimum wage. This year, the minimum wage was raised again in 22 states. In addition, restaurants in some areas have been forced to offer or expand fringe benefits to keep staff from quitting.
 
And yet, the restaurant business overall is expected to break $1.1 trillion in 2024, which is a 5 percent jump from 2023 and a new sales record. Employment in the sector is now back to its pre-pandemic level as well. The clear winners of this surge have been the fast-food and takeaway chains.
 
The independent restaurants, especially those with full-service operations, have not fared nearly as well. Caught between escalating costs and increasing resistance by diners to higher check prices, the independents are caught between a rock and a hard place with nowhere to go.
 
As if prices aren't high enough, a new technology-fueled wrinkle will soon be introduced to a restaurant or two near you. It is called "dynamic pricing." Thanks to software innovations, restaurants can move prices up and down based on demand and staffing. This will allow companies to change prices weekly or monthly depending on what they perceive are periods of surging demand.
 
It is a concept that most of us have had some experience with in the past. We all know that airfares increase during the holidays. A summer rental on the beach is more expensive in July than in November. Hotels charge more on the weekends and taxis more at rush hour. Eating and drinking establishments have long used the concept to draw in customers, for example, featuring "happy hours" or "early bird specials" where drinks and/or food are cheaper. However, now companies are using the reverse and charging higher prices during periods when demand surges.
 
Earlier this month, Wendy's CEO Kirk Tanner mentioned that the burger chain was testing dynamic pricing using algorithms, machine learning, and AI. The comment hit the national news wires and the backlash from fast-food fans was fast and furious. The furor resulted in a company statement denying it was going to raise prices, but instead use digital menus to change offerings during the day and offer discounts at slower times.
 
However, dozens of restaurants have already implemented surge pricing, according to the New York Post. And more will certainly be trying out the concept. By some estimates, restaurant chains could easily see prices during the lunch rush, for example, increase by 10-20 percent. The key is in how it is implemented. Focusing on the times of day when prices are lower seems crucial, rather than when they are higher. Somehow that is considered more palatable to consumers. Good luck with that. 
 

Bill Schmick is the founding partner of Onota Partners, Inc., in the Berkshires. His forecasts and opinions are purely his own and do not necessarily represent the views of Onota Partners Inc. (OPI). None of his commentary is or should be considered investment advice. Direct your inquiries to Bill at 1-413-347-2401 or email him at bill@schmicksretiredinvestor.com.

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 OPI, Inc. or a solicitation to become a client of OPI. The reader should not assume that any strategies or specific investments discussed are employed, bought, sold, or held by OPI. Investments in securities are not insured, protected, or guaranteed and may result in loss of income and/or principal. This communication may include opinions and forward-looking statements, and we can give no assurance that such beliefs and expectations will prove to be correct. Investments in securities are not insured, protected, or guaranteed and may result in loss of income and/or principal. This communication may include opinions and forward-looking statements, and we can give no assurance that such beliefs and expectations will prove to be correct.

 

     

The Retired Investor: Companies Dropping Degree Requirements

By Bill SchmickiBerkshires columnist
In today's tight job market, many companies are dropping the required college degree
 
Time was that if you wanted to get ahead, find a higher-paying job, and establish financial security go to college. While some of that advice continues to hold, many companies are foregoing the sheepskin in exchange for experience, skills, and competencies workers have developed in the school of hard knocks.
 
In some respects, the hurtle of a college degree makes no sense when interviewing for a job that does not require college-level skills. I know of dozens of liberal arts majors who ended up working at fast food chains or landscaping.
 
But don't take my word for it. A labor analytics firm, Burning Glass Institute, and the Strada Education Foundations, a non-profit organization, studied the career path of 10 million people who entered the job market between 2012 and 2021. They found that roughly 52 percent of college grads were not using their skills and credentials in their jobs.
 
What a person studies in college, followed by the chance to intern were the main determinants of obtaining a college-level career track, according to the study. Given the escalating costs of higher education, along with years of student-debt payments, is it any wonder that the debate over the value of higher education is a hot topic today.
 
Last year, thanks to a tight labor market, companies began to get wise to the fact that a college degree was not necessary in many areas of employment. ZipRecruiter said the share of jobs that listed a bachelor's degree as a "must" fell from 18 percent in 2022 to 14.5 percent in 2023.
 
In a recent survey by the same recruiting firm, 45 percent of employers surveyed said they had dropped the degree requirement for certain roles, while 72 percent said they valued a candidate's skills and experience higher than the diploma they hold.  
 
Even among postings in "college-level occupations" only 78.4 percent of companies insisted on a degree. That is down from 85 percent 25 years ago, according to labor analytics firm Lightcast. In jobs such as insurance sales agents, e-commerce analysts, property appraisers, and call center managers a degree is now seldom required. Other areas where a college degree may give way to skills-based hiring are in health care, financial services, and IT.
 
That’s good news for a large segment of American workers. Almost two-thirds of the U.S. population over 25 years of age do not have a college degree. And today, America, like many other countries, is facing a long-term labor shortage with no easy solutions. Baby Boomers are retiring. The U.S. birth rates are low and still dropping, and the present shift against immigration by both the public and policymakers has cut off a historic avenue of new labor supply.
 
Given that 62 percent of Americans do not have a college degree, some companies most notably IBM, Walmart, General Motors, and Medtronic are eliminating degree requirements in hundreds of their job postings. Others are following but old habits die hard. The value of a college degree is deeply embedded in the psyche of many a human resources department. Changing those attitudes take time as does discarding automated screening tools that automatically reject non-college applicants.
 
One of the most vocal critics of today's college education is billionaire Peter Thiel, an early Facebook investor and founder of PayPal Holdings and Palantir Technologies. A Stanford graduate with degrees in philosophy and law, he became disenchanted with how leading U.S. colleges were turning out graduates. Thiel became convinced that higher education is not in the best interests of most Americans.
 
Starting in 2010, Thiel established a non-profit foundation that offers to pay students $100,000 to drop out of school to start companies or nonprofits. He selects 20 students per year. Since then, Thiel's program has backed 271 people. Some of those selected have since established successful companies in venture capital as well as in the technology area.
 
In defense of the college degree, studies still show that recent college grads, aged 22-27 working full time, earned $24,000 more per year than those with only a high school degree. Presumably, these grads were lucky enough to find entry jobs in their chosen fields. 
 
David Deming, an economist at Harvard University, argues that wage premium for college grads doubles over the life cycle from age 25 to 60 versus high schoolers. More educated workers are also more likely to have paid health insurance, sick and family leave, as well as the ability to work remotely.
 
As for me, I have long believed that college is not for everyone. Sure, the hard sciences will always be in demand and college is good place to acquire that knowledge base. Beyond that, liberal arts in this country does not seem to be a robust career path if money and security are a topic of concern. I would much rather see a young man or woman give equal consideration to a vocational school after graduating from high school. 
 

Bill Schmick is the founding partner of Onota Partners, Inc., in the Berkshires. His forecasts and opinions are purely his own and do not necessarily represent the views of Onota Partners Inc. (OPI). None of his commentary is or should be considered investment advice. Direct your inquiries to Bill at 1-413-347-2401 or email him at bill@schmicksretiredinvestor.com.

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 OPI, Inc. or a solicitation to become a client of OPI. The reader should not assume that any strategies or specific investments discussed are employed, bought, sold, or held by OPI. Investments in securities are not insured, protected, or guaranteed and may result in loss of income and/or principal. This communication may include opinions and forward-looking statements, and we can give no assurance that such beliefs and expectations will prove to be correct. Investments in securities are not insured, protected, or guaranteed and may result in loss of income and/or principal. This communication may include opinions and forward-looking statements, and we can give no assurance that such beliefs and expectations will prove to be correct.

 

     

The Retired Investor: The Chocolate Crisis, or Where Is Willie Wonka When You Need Him

By Bill SchmickiBerkshires columnist
Valentine's Day has come and gone. About 92 percent of American consumers were planning to share chocolate and other candies for Valentine's Day this year, according to the National Confectioners Association, but the price tag for that heart-shaped box of chocolates may have left a bad taste in many a mouth this year.
 
Last year, chocolate sales exceeded more than $4 billion. It feels like I paid my fair share of that total. You see my wife, Barbara, loves chocolate, so giving a gift on Valentine's Day was easy. Along with flowers and a card, a generous amount of dark chocolate (but not milk chocolate) in any form — hearts, cups, dipped pretzels, bonbons, truffles — is sure to win the day. Her craving, however, transcends that one day, so chocolate is my go-to source for gift-giving on birthdays, and most holidays. As such, in this era of inflation, I have kept track of how much these sweet dark delights are costing me.
 
This year, I was not surprised to see candy prices continue higher. Retail chocolate prices have risen about 17 percent over the last two years, according to a report by CoBank, and I expect they will continue to do so. Why?
 
Cocoa, a main ingredient in chocolate, is responsible for much of the price rise. The price of cocoa hit record highs last week, just in time for Valentine's Day. Prices have doubled over the past year and are up 40 percent since January. This week cocoa futures prices continued higher to $6,030 per ton, another record high. The outlook for the 2024 growing season is worsening, which is leading to fears of a larger global deficit.
 
Cocoa, you see, is another victim of climate change. Poor weather and crop disease have afflicted the world's main cocoa-growing region, which is in West Africa. Massive rains followed by severe drought, coupled with wind, devastated the cocoa crop. Insects and disease followed shortly thereafter. This has led to the third year in a row where cocoa harvests have been coming up short.
 
But don't think that higher prices in the futures markets are making growers in Ghana and the Ivory Coast rich. Ghanaian farmers are receiving between $1,800 and $1,900 per ton and Ivorian growers even less ($1,600/ton), according to the Ghana Cocoa Marketing Co. In both countries, the government controls prices that farmers receive, which are based on prices that were current anywhere from 12 to 18 months ago. That is an unworkable system but that is another story.
 
It is the world's hedge funds that have reaped most of the benefits of this surge in prices. At the end of 2023, speculative traders began massing billion-dollar bets on cocoa futures contracts, gambling that this year's harvests would be poor as well. At this point, the hedge fund community has the largest risk exposure ever, according to the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, with more than $8 billion in futures positions.
 
Of course, with all these new traders jumping into the market, prices have soared, but so has volatility, making it even more difficult for processors to hedge their purchases. They need cocoa beans to make cocoa butter to supply chocolate makers. As a chocolate buyer throughout this period, I have noticed that big companies like Nestle and Cadbury have been raising prices consistently for the last two years.
 
Hershey, one of America's most loved chocolate makers, said product prices rose 6.5 percent in the fourth quarter, and 9 percent in all of 2023. The company is planning on cutting 5 percent of its workforce because price inflation is forcing consumers to pull back on purchases.
 
The bad news is that not only are cocoa prices continuing to rise, but so too are the price of sugar and wages. Both are key components in just about every chocolate factory including Willi Wonka's, where even Oompa-Loompas demand raises. I would expect that by Easter we will see yet another hike in chocolate prices and by Halloween, well, who knows? So, unless you discover a golden ticket inside your chocolate bar, I would buy it early.
 

Bill Schmick is the founding partner of Onota Partners, Inc., in the Berkshires. His forecasts and opinions are purely his own and do not necessarily represent the views of Onota Partners Inc. (OPI). None of his commentary is or should be considered investment advice. Direct your inquiries to Bill at 1-413-347-2401 or email him at bill@schmicksretiredinvestor.com.

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 OPI, Inc. or a solicitation to become a client of OPI. The reader should not assume that any strategies or specific investments discussed are employed, bought, sold, or held by OPI. Investments in securities are not insured, protected, or guaranteed and may result in loss of income and/or principal. This communication may include opinions and forward-looking statements, and we can give no assurance that such beliefs and expectations will prove to be correct. Investments in securities are not insured, protected, or guaranteed and may result in loss of income and/or principal. This communication may include opinions and forward-looking statements, and we can give no assurance that such beliefs and expectations will prove to be correct.

 

     
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