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The Retired Investor: No End in Sight for Airline Agony

By Bill SchmickiBerkshires columnist
Missing bags, canceled flights, stranded passengers, and interminable check-in times have made this summers' travel a nightmare. What's worse, the cost of travelling has exploded.
 
Consumers are paying an average 34 percent higher air fares this year versus last. The reasons why range from higher jet fuel costs, increased labor costs and sky rocketing demand among others. As the summer season progresses, it seems that the worse the experience gets, the more consumers are willing to pay. 
 
If you watch the horror shows on the news, chaos abounds not only here in the U.S. but in the international airline system overall. Short comings in one location, whether it be from the weather, labor shortages, lost baggage or some other cause, has an increasing domino effect that impacts airports and airline schedules throughout the country.
 
As the system continues to break down, airports and airlines are besieged from all sides from irate passengers to an increasingly concerned government. Readers who have firsthand experience or may be even now caught in this web of travel turmoil might ask a simple question. "How did we get here?"
 
The origin of this disaster has its roots in the COVID-19 pandemic. As we all know, the coronavirus devastated air travel worldwide. By 2020, airline travel was down a whopping 70 percent. To put that in perspective, the 9/11 attacks reduced travel by a mere 7 percent. For the airline industry overall, how to survive was the chief topic of conversation within corporate boardrooms.
 
The industry answer -- reduce employees, slash pilot headcount, sell aircraft, and retire older planes. Top airline managements were ruthless in their headcount. Delta and American Airlines, for example, laid off 30 percent of their staff, offering buyouts, early retirements or simply letting people go.
 
The common assumption among airline executives was that it would take five or six years to recover their former traffic. As such, managements continued to reduce their operating expenses to the bone. But the coronavirus did not occur in a vacuum. The government, together with the pharmaceutical sector, managed to develop several effective, COVID-19 vaccinations. That breakthrough reversed the six-year timetable.
 
The consumer suddenly became willing to fly. Travel demand turned around far faster than anyone expected, thanks to the government's vaccination efforts. The industry was caught completely off guard. But that was more than a year ago. Why is the industry still woefully unable to accommodate the surge in demand?
 
The scarcity of labor, which is plaguing the nation in general, is hurting airlines far more. Let's start with pilots. An army of experienced, older, industry pilots decided to retire, (or were asked to retire) and are gone forever. Hiring and bringing on entry-level pilots requires years of training.
 
 In addition, there are myriad regulatory requirements such as clocking at least 1,500 hours of airtime before being allowed to pilot a commercial airplane. Oh, and by the way, those who train these newcomers (instructors and flight simulators) are also in scarce supply.
 
Hundreds of thousands of workers from cabin crews, to ground staff, to baggage handlers were also let go. Many of those ex-employees have either found new jobs or have no wish to rejoin an industry that kicked them out during the worst crisis this nation has seen in a hundred-plus years. Many of these former employees don't see the upside in a job that once again exposes them to the mutations of new COVID strains. They also have no wish to face armies of angry passengers in an industry where job security is no longer guaranteed, if it ever was.
 
Traditionally, airlines have depended on redundancy in their system to handle unpredictable disruptions. Think of it as insurance that if anything goes wrong, a back-up staff is there to handle it. Without the staff, airlines are at the mercy of every sudden storm, pilot absence or COVID-related sick day. Today, a sudden cancellation can cascade throughout not only one airline, but throughout the entire system.
 
Compounding the industry's labor shortages, are shortages of TSA and customs personnel, as well as air traffic controllers. This results in long lines that delay check-ins, which delay departures and arrivals, which keep planes waiting, and incoming passengers on planes, sometimes for hours.
 
I wish I could say that the chaos in air travel will pass with the summer travel season. The problem is that the labor shortages the industry faces cannot be solved overnight. Competition for workers will persist in the months ahead. Industry experts say the problems besetting the airline industry will continue into 2023.
 

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: Local Gas Stations Suffer From High Fuel Prices

By Bill SchmickiBerkshires Staff
Given the price jump in gasoline, you would think owners of the corner gas station are raking in the money. Unfortunately, the opposite is occurring, especially now that pump prices have been declining for more than a month.
 
"The national average price of a gallon of gasoline has dropped below $4.50 per gallon after touching $5 as recently as mid-June," according to Berkshire Money Management's Allen Harris. He goes on to say that despite the 10 percent decline, gas is still up 9.3 percent over the last three months. That brings the year's gain thus far to 36.8 percent 
 
In an environment of higher gasoline prices, consumers are hurting. Drivers naturally tend to blame the most visible object of their distress, which is their local gas station. At the same time, gas station owners are also the target of President Joe Biden, who is accusing them of profiting from higher gas prices. Four California cities are so angry with gas stations that they have banned the opening of new gas stations.
 
The truth is that most gas stations tend to drag their feet in raising prices. They know that most consumers have no loyalty when it comes to filling up. The lowest advertised price usually wins the day and higher prices mean lost customers. A look at the typical owner's business model explains what is going on behind this energy crisis.
 
The way it works most often is that when a gas station refills its tanks, it purchases many weeks' (if not months, in the case of diesel) worth of fuel at a single high price. And let's say they did so in mid-June when gasoline was over $5 a gallon. If prices begin to fall (as they have this month), the gas station is forced to sell the product at below its' own cost.
 
Most gas stations barely turn a profit on their core product at the best of times, and when oil spikes, they may even take a loss on it. Gas stations, according to IBISWorld, an industry market research firm, make an average net margin of 1.4 percent on their fuel. A lot of operators set their profit margins as a fixed rate, which only amounts to a few cents at best. Remember too, that when gas prices climb, so do the fees the owner must pay out to credit card companies, since their fees are set on a percentage basis. Rising gas prices after credit card fees can easily erase the stations' profit margins altogether.
 
The facts are that station owners make most of their profits on sales of food, drinks, and alcohol (where sales are legal). In this scenario, think of gas as a loss leader. The National Association of Convenience Stores believe that 44 percent of gas station customers go inside the store. One in three customers ends up purchasing something. Gross margins on certain items such as candy, health and beauty items can be as much as 50 percent. The trend toward selling more prepared foods, which have higher margins than the usual fare of chips, Lotto tickets, coffee, etc., helps as well.
 
Many readers believe that big oil companies own most gas stations, so why feel sorry for them? All those Shell, ExxonMobil, and Chevron signs we pass on the freeway are proof positive, right? Wrong. Most major oil companies have long-since backed out of the retail business because selling gas isn't profitable. The reality is that 80 percent of the gas bought in the U.S. is purchased from a franchised convenience store that is individually owned, no matter what brand of oil they may sell.
 
It may surprise you to know that the number of gas stations has been in a decline for decades. Higher oil prices are one of the chief causes of their demise. The spike in energy prices in 2008, for example, forced hundreds of gas stations out of business. Further competition in the form of big box stores that can purchase fuel in bulk at lower prices has also eaten into the mom-and-pop stores' market share.
 
Finally, the rising number of electric vehicles in use now and their growing popularity into the future will also reduce the number of stations. Despite the EV threat, few stations have made the costly decision to install EV charging units, which can cost more than $100,000 each.
 
So, the next time you fill up, while clenching your teeth as the dollars mount up, just remember that it is not always the gas station owner who is gouging you. In truth, the object of your anger is misplaced. Look half a world away, where war rages, and cartel quotas dictate the price we pay for oil.
 

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: Public Sector Can't Compete in Tight Labor Market

By Bill SchmickiBerkshires columnist
State and local government employees are essential in delivering everyday services to the American public, but the government's labor force is understaffed and has yet to recover from its pandemic lows. The reasons range from lower pay and less advancement to little flexibility in areas such as remote working.
 
Private-sector jobs have already surpassed pre-pandemic levels, while in the public sector, government employers are still looking for more than 664,000 workers with little success. This may sound like one of those "so what" kind of issues but consider this.
 
Public employees operate the nation's trains, subways and buses in addition to delivering essential services like health and unemployment insurance. Also on the list; safety-net services such as housing and cash assistance, protecting the nation's water, food, and air as well as combating infectious diseases. And let's not forget the increasingly difficult duty of teaching and caring for our kids in state universities, community colleges, and K-12 education.
 
I focus on teachers especially since jobs in education account for most of state and local employment, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Teaching salaries have the reputation of being notoriously low in the best of times, which these are not.
 
The ongoing pandemic, now in its third year, provides a clear and present infection danger for all teachers. Throw in the increasing number of school shootings, and the tension that goes along with it daily and you can understand why teachers have been retiring in droves with few replacements.
 
The increasing political pressure from outside the classroom on everything from facemasks, to books, to what lessons plans will be least likely to cause turmoil and/or outrage among parents adds to the teacher's list of grievances. No wonder, that, with a laundry list like that, it becomes even more difficult to woo young teachers for $50,000 a year when the same graduate can earn twice that and more in the tech industry.
 
Workers considering employment in areas like education, the postal service, etc. are being wooed away in this tight labor market by hefty signing bonuses and faster wage growth in the private sector, which becomes especially important in an inflationary environment.
 
You would think the simplest solution would be to raise wages for government employees just like the private sector has been doing. That turns out to be a rather difficult proposition. In the past, state and local governments struggled with a combination of cutbacks in federal spending (depending on who was in office), as well as low tax receipts from time to time. This made budgeting difficult and somewhat unpredictable.
 
Which brings us to government budgets. For the most part, it is the budget that determine salaries for public workers. Budgets, as we know, are ponderous things that take a long time to pass, and almost always involve political horse-trading. Raising wages for government workers, therefore, is a hot potato that few politicians are willing to tackle unless they must.
 
Another disadvantage in finding workers is that government work is not as flexible. Working from home doesn't cut it for a bus driver, police office, or letter carrier. Therefore, hybrid and remote work options just aren't in the lexicon of most state and local governments. So, who suffers the most from these lower wage jobs?
 
In the overall economy, state and local governments account for about 12 percent of employed people. Most of these workers are women. Workers of color, particularly Black and American Indian employees, are also heavily represented in these industries. As such, public sector employment has provided economic security for women and minorities.
 
Is there a solution to this employment problem? Probably, but not in the short term. However, as the wait time between your bus or subway stop lengthen, the lines at your unemployment office, or at the tax assessor's office trail out to the sidewalk, and your mail is two weeks late, we will notice and complain. At some point, if we yell loud enough, things will change, but I suspect not before they get much worse.
 

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: China Tariffs on Deck

By Bill SchmickiBerkshires columnist
The Biden administration is wrestling with whether to ease some of the Chinese import tariffs on billions of dollars of Chinese goods. If they do, it would mark the first step in reconciling the trade differences between the world's two largest economies and could even nudge down the inflation rate.
 
The trade war is now over four years old and substantial tariffs remain. "To what end," some may ask, as certain deadlines approach. The first tranche of the Section 301, China imports tariffs on $34 billions of goods, is set to expire this week. Another $16 billion worth of tariffs will expire on Aug. 23 followed by $100 billion of tariffs on Sept. 4.  
 
 You may recall that back in 2018, former President Donald Trump imposed a series of tariffs on a host of Chinese products totaling more than $450 billion. In response, China imposed their own tariffs on American goods. From there, as the rhetoric reached new heights, each side escalated the tariffs, encompassing more and more goods at higher and higher penalties.
 
Since China represented the United States' largest agricultural export market, China focused their retaliatory tariffs in that area. The U.S. Department of Agriculture found that the tariffs reduced U.S. exports of agricultural products by $27 billion from 2018 to 2019.
 
The damage ultimately was so bad that the federal government was forced to give farmers nearly $30 billion in taxpayer money just to compensate for lost sales to China. Overall, the tariff war caused U.S. exports to fall by 9.9 percent, while reducing GDP by 0.04 percent, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research.
 
The tit-for-tat escalation ultimately led to a "Phase One" trade deal between the two countries, signed with great fanfare by Trump in January 2020. The agreement required China to sharply increase its purchases of U.S. goods as a precondition for the president to remove the new tariffs. The agreement was a total flop. China, during the first two years of the deal (2020-2021), purchased only 57 percent of its commitments. China purchased $289 billion of U.S. goods, instead of the $502 billion promised.  
 
A partial explanation for such a big miss was the COVID-19 pandemic, which affected trade between almost all nations. In addition, supply chain disruptions had a meaningful impact on other U.S. products such as automobiles and aircraft exports. Weakening demand for imports overall, as China's economy declined, has also been a contributing factor.  
 
Bottom line: if one looks at trade between the two nations overall, China's purchases are below the level they were before the trade wars began.
 
The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development found that the trade war was simply a lose-lose for both countries. The tariffs were supposed to protect American industries, but they have hurt the U.S. economy instead. If there had been no trade war, U.S. exports between 2018 and April 2022 would have been $129 billion more, according to a Washington-based research group, Americans for Free Trade.
 
Unfortunately, the Phase One agreement did not end the tariffs, but only prevented them from going higher. The average tariffs on goods affected is still about 20 percent on each side.  Not only did the tariffs on Chinese parts, components, and materials not make our manufacturing sectors stronger and more competitive, it also did the opposite.
 
Our companies needed those Chinese intermediate products (now on the tariff lists) to manufacture finished goods here. Companies found that without them, competing with companies in Japan and Europe, which continued to have access to those cheaper Chinese inputs, made our products more expensive in the open market. Our companies continued to lose market share globally as a result. Those losses continue today.
 
Some may question why President Biden has continued Trump's misguided policies, despite the damage it has caused the U.S. economy, while doing little to hurt China's economy. The simple answer is politics.
 
Being "tough on China" is a popular stance among Americans, even if it means a weaker economy. If you throw in China's growing authoritarianism, suppression of human rights, oppression of minorities, and military ambitions in Asia, the Biden administration would need some strong counter arguments to justify an easing of tariffs.
 
Given the rising inflation rate and cooling economy in the U.S., President Biden may now have the political cover to roll back some of those tariffs. President Biden is hoping that reducing tariffs would lower the costs of everyday merchandise to consumers. Unfortunately, economists are expecting that tariff reductions will only have a modest impact on inflation, but in my opinion, every little bit helps when inflation is topping 8 percent.
 
This week, the U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, and China's Vice Premier Liu He, held talks focusing on economic policy and relieving global supply chains. Words such as "pragmatic," "constructive," and "substantive" seemed to indicate that some movement on tariffs is in the offing. Let's see what develops throughout the week.
 

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: Streaming Comes of Age

By Bill SchmickiBerkshires columnist
There are roughly 817,000 unique and different programs available via streaming services in the U.S. The median streaming household pays for three to four such subscriptions costing between $20 and $30 per month. Most consumers claim the choices are overwhelming and cumulatively expensive, so why don't they plan to do anything about it?
 
Those were the findings of a Nielson report titled "State of Play" published in April 2022 that analyzed the state of streaming entertainment in America. The number of programs (movies, series, specials, etc.) has increased by 26.5 percent since the beginning of 2020.
 
The amount of content that we couch potatoes have consumed has also increased by 18 percent since 2021. To put that in perspective, in just one month (February 2022), Americans consumed 169.4 billion minutes of content. Obviously, there is a strong correlation between the amount of content available, and the amount we consumed.
 
Personally, there isn't a day that goes by that I am not bombarded with ads on television, radio, the internet, and emails from one streaming service or another. Most of them promise a week or so of free viewing and then automatically bill me each month via credit card for as long as forever. Honestly, when I examine the offerings, I discover that much of what they offer is old shows and series with one or more new series thrown in that were popular once upon a time.
 
Nielson says almost half of all users they surveyed felt overwhelmed by the quantity of programming available. I concur. My list of shows on the four services I subscribe to continues to build to the point that it would probably take me a year of constant binging to get through it all!
 
So, with all of this content, you would think that I would cut back, discontinue a service or two, and save some money. But true to form, no matter how much I complain, I have no plans to cut back, or reduce the amount of streaming content I consume each night. And that is exactly what most of those surveyed by Nielson said as well. A full 93 percent of respondents said they planned to either keep the streaming services they had or add more over the course of the next year.  
 
If you asked me right now how much I pay a month and over the course of a year for my subscription services, I couldn't tell you. How about you, can you even guess? It turns out that almost a third of U.S. consumers underestimate how much they spend on subscriptions by $100 to $199 per month, according to a study by market research firm, C+R Research. 
 
It is also true that many people (42 percent) have forgotten that they are paying for a streaming service that they no longer use. I am guilty once again. My wife and I enjoy foreign films, so about four months ago, we decided to fork over another $6.99 a month for a British service. We watched maybe one or two shows and that was it. Because we charged the fee to our credit card, the amount was automatically debited, making it easy to go unnoticed. Since 86 percent of consumers have at least some, if not all, of their subscriptions on autopay, I suspect many readers have similar experiences. TV and movie streaming came in third, after mobile phone and internet charges as the most forgotten types of subscriptions.
 
Way back when, if you recall, cable companies offered preset packages to subscribers that included several premium services in addition to network television for a bundled price. In a similar move back to the future, many of Nielson's surveyed consumers (64 percent) said they would be interested in bundling competing streaming services to save money if they could choose the streaming services they want. It seems to me that as winners and losers begin to become apparent among streamers some sort of bundling will make economic sense. In the meantime, I will probably continue to complain about, pay for, and accumulate additional services.
 

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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