The Retired Investor: Tensions With China May Heat Up
On Aug. 15, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Chinese Premier Vice President Liu He, will be facing off once again; this time to review the Phase One trade deal inked on Feb. 15. Neither side is especially happy with progress so far.
From the U.S. point of view, China has not lived up to its agreement to buy $200 billion of U.S. goods over their 2017 purchasing level. Chinese imports of agricultural products are actually lower than the 2017 level, which is about half the level needed to meet their promised target of $36.5 billion. The energy purchases they promised have also fallen woefully short of their commitment. Only 5 percent of their $25.3 billion in promised purchases has actually happened.
From the Chinese point of view, the level of China-bashing that is going on as part of the election campaign from both parties is an on-going deterrent from honoring their agreement. In addition, the Chinese will argue that the world has changed since the February agreement. The collapse and rebound in oil prices, combined with the onset of the pandemic, has thoroughly upended trade relations not just between the U.S. and China but throughout the globe.
The Chinese have a point, but my suspicion is that U.S. negotiators will be in no mood to forgive and forget (at least not publicly). Besides, we have bigger fish to fry at the moment. The Trump Administration continues to blame the coronavirus outbreak on the Chinese government, hinting that the outbreak might have been on purpose. While it is true that the virus originated in Wuhan, China, there is no evidence that the Chinese government was involved in its origination or spread. But facts have never stopped your president from voicing his opinions.
The security crackdown and new legislation by China on limiting Honk Kong democratic freedoms has also earned China condemnation and sanctions from both sides of the political aisle here at home. There has also been a tit-for-tat shutting of consulates in both countries as a result of U.S. accusations that the Chinese consulate in Houston was a hotbed of spying.
But the latest flare-up involves TikTok, a Chinese-owned video platform loved by more than 50 percent of America's teens. ByteDance, the app's parent company, has been notified by the White House that it has 45 days to reach a deal to sell its U.S. business. This follows on the heels of a growing list of Chinese tech companies that have been blacklisted by the Trump Administration. These actions have created a furor across Asia and within China.
The Chinese accuse the United States of forcing a fire sale of TikTok by slapping on this a time limit, while arguing that America's growing tech war with China is violating international rules of trade. To make matters worse for the Chinese, U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, warned that "countless Chinese apps" may be in for similar treatment in the coming days.
I believe that while China may have been willing to negotiate trade imbalances with the U.S. over the last four years, they have dug in their heels when it came to modifying intellectual property rights and technology transfers. The U.S.'s willingness to wait, and negotiate in good faith appears, at this juncture, to have been an unworkable strategy.
I suspect that our newfound willingness to wage a tech war as a way of bringing China to the table, where serious discussions can begin in these areas, will not be taken lightly. While necessary, we should not expect China to simply lie down and take it. I expect a strong response in the immediate future, and so should you. Be prepared.
The Retired Investor: How Much Are Your Children Worth?
|Rachael Plaine and daughter, Lyla. Photo by Barbara Schmick|
In the weeks ahead, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) wants your children to go back to school. They say it is necessary because children need schooling from a social, emotional, and behavioral health perspective. No one disputes that, so why are American parents balking at the idea?
The short answer is that they are afraid for their kids. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to understand that kids in a classroom are "super spreaders" of virus. Just think of what happens during the Flu season each fall and winter
Despite assurances from the CDC that death rates among school-age children are much lower than adults, they don't claim that no children will die if they go back in the classrooms. As such, parents are asked to play a percentage game. "What are the chances that my child will be the unlucky one and die because I decided to send them back to school to school?"
To make matters worse, the majority of Americans suspect they are not getting the true story when it comes to accurate statistics in regard to COVID-19. Between various reporting procedures among the various states, hospitals, and the federal government everything from double counting to underreporting is occurring.
School representatives across the nation also argue that they are ill-prepared, and do not have the funds to make their classrooms safe for students in a few short weeks. Thanks to the nation's less than robust response to the crisis, neither the funds nor the time to spend them is available for this school year.
The question to ask is, "why is the government, along with the business community, demanding schools reopen now, despite the accelerating rate of virus cases nationwide?"
The elephant in the room no one wants to address concerns the labor force and the economy.
As it stands, millions of working parents with children cannot both go back to work. One or another of the parents must stay home and mind the kids, since there is no child care (and probably won't be) until a vaccine is developed and administered nationwide. That means the economy, with roughly half the labor force stuck at home, won't be able to recover anytime soon.
In addition, an on-going, struggling economy will mean many companies will face bankruptcy and those who survive will be forced to "right-size," which means cutting their labor force permanently. Some already are. That would further compound the economic situation and potentially push out any recovery to sometime next year, if then.
Schools, however, provide huge positive benefits for both children and parents. Few families today can get by on one income, so without re-opening classrooms, the economic well-being of many families could be dire. Keeping schools closed would also unduly harm low-income and minority children and those living with disabilities. These students are less likely to have access to private instruction and care. In many cases, they are more likely to rely on school-supported resources like food programs, special education and after-school programs as well.
Today, there are no good options for these struggling parents. They must weigh in their own minds and hearts and the risk and rewards for keeping their kids at home, or sending them back to school under these most trying of circumstances. It is a terrible tragedy, and one with no solution. My heart goes out to all of you who must make this decision.
The Retired Investor: The Weakening Dollar
Sometimes, investors are so focused on the trees that they miss the forest entirely. Take the U.S. dollar, for example. It has been declining at an alarming rate, yet no one seems to care.
Today, investors are occupied by a number of trees — earnings, stock prices, dividends, earnings results — that a weakening currency is almost an afterthought. Unfortunately, if the dollar continues to weaken, it could radically change your investment choices.
Most readers, in general, believe a strong dollar reflects a strong economy. The fact that it makes our exports more expensive, and imports cheaper, is also true. A strong dollar, in the past, has also been a safe haven for overseas investors, who normally rush to buy the greenback when calamity threatens their own country.
There is also a relationship between the dollar, other currencies, and interest rates. If one country's sovereign debt is yielding more (or less) than another country's debt, then, all else being equal, investors will seek out and purchase the higher-yielding currency. That has been the case here in the U.S., where our higher yields have kept foreigners purchasing dollars in order to buy our bonds for the last several years.
The pandemic has changed that. The efforts by our Federal Reserve Bank to support the economy (by flooding the financial markets with money) has drastically reduced the difference in yield between America, Japan, and Europe. In addition, our deficit, as a result of all the tax cuts and spending throughout the Trump Administration, is starting to alarm investors around the globe. There is a fear that the Fed will need to print much more money (debase the currency) in order to fund the U.S. budget and deal with the enormous debt load we face.
At the same time, all that stimulus money had led some investors to believe that inflation is a much more likely bet in the future. That is a problem, since inflation destroys the purchasing power of a currency. As prices of goods and services rise, it takes more and more dollars to purchase them. It is, for example, why gold and other precious metals, along with base metals like copper, have begun to increase in price this year.
There are also doubts growing about how "safe" the dollar really is. The fact that the country is in disarray and deeply divided has not been lost on both our allies and foes. It is common knowledge, except in some parts of this country, that the Trump administration not only failed miserably in dealing with the pandemic, but has taken the tactic of claiming that the pandemic is overblown and not to be taken seriously. For the first time in recent history, foreign countries are barring Americans from entering their countries.
Many on Wall Street see the dollar declining further. I believe they are correct. If it does, there are some obvious beneficiaries that investors may want to examine. I have already mentioned commodities, like gold, silver, platinum, and copper, that normally rise in price as the dollar declines. Many emerging market economies are also based on their abundant natural resources. They too would benefit greatly from a falling dollar.
Oil normally would benefit as well, but I believe the price of oil will be held back by the pandemic in the months ahead. The demand for oil is correlated with mobility. Mobility worldwide, in the form of driving, flying, shipping, etc., has declined drastically due to the pandemic. In order for the oil price to rise, I believe, we need to beat the coronavirus first with a cure, or at least an effective vaccine. That may not be available until next year at the earliest.
The Retired Investor: Bill & Barbara on Their Retirement Journey
Bill Schmick has been writing two columns a week, most weeks, and they have been appearing on iBerkshires for nine years now. Readers may have noticed that his longtime "The Independent Investor" column has now transformed into the "The Retired Investor." Bill will still be writing his columns but he and his wife, Barbara, have retired from Berkshire Money Management. Below is their letter to BMM on their retirement that we are posting as this week's "The Retired Investor."
Our thoughtful boss, Allen Harris, has asked us to write this letter to tell you all, in our own words, why we are leaving the firm. So, here goes.
Change has its own way of shaping our future. If you had asked me several months ago if I planned to do anything different, either personally, or career-wise over the coming decade, I would have answered with a resounding "no." And then the Pandemic of 2020 came along.
It has forced me, at the not-so-young age of 72, to re-evaluate my priorities. Topping my list is my goal of making the next 30 years of my life the best. Working in an office, exposed to the COVID-19 virus on a daily basis, may not be the best way to accomplish that. In the end my health concerns outweighed the joy and satisfaction of working for Berkshire Money Management.
Someone once said that "loss is another word for change" and today I understand the meaning of those words. Leaving Berkshire Money Management will be for me like leaving my family. So it needs to be done in stages. While I will no longer work for BMM, I will continue to work with the company. I will continue to bring new clients into this firm that I believe in. I will continue to write my columns, which you will continue to receive weekly and I will still be available to any and all of you whenever you need my advice.
In addition, I have been working on a book. I have done my best to share what I have learned over 40-plus years about investment and retirement. Hopefully, it will help you navigate your own financial future in ways you may not have realized. It is just about done, and we want to make it available to all the clients of BMM, as well as those we hope will become clients.
And since I won't be coming to the office (unless requested), I will have more time available for new pursuits. In case you haven't noticed, one consequence of this pandemic has been the increased use and reliance on video communication. Zoom, GoToMeeting, Facetime, and the like, have finally become accepted in this new age of isolation. Even oldsters like me have been forced to learn and access this electronic means of communication.
As a result, I am planning a foray into streaming video over the next month or so. I will be offering my columns, daily market wraps, and various retirement topics through various social media sources such as Face book, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc. in addition to the print media. I just hope my streaming debut will be as popular as my columns.
John Lennon once said, "Life is what happens to you when you're busy making other plans." I suspect life in the days and months ahead may be difficult for all of us. That's why I will still be here for you. What kind of person would I be to abandon you now, my readers, friends, and clients when you may need me the most? We have come too far together for that.
So, yes, I will no longer be an employee, but I will still be a devoted consultant to Berkshire Money Management. I won't have an office, or a title, but I don't need one. All I need is you, and that won't change. Stay safe and keep in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Saying goodbye to the Berkshire Money Management (BMM) family is difficult! We moved to Pittsfield because of BMM and have shared many happy and some sad times together for 11 years.
Our chocolate lab, Titus, grew up at BMM. Many of you who have visited the office have been greeted by his wagging tail and deep brown eyes. When I joined the firm, he was just a puppy. Part of my offer letter from Allen was that I could bring Titus to the office. Who could resist?
I remember that first year, Bill and I shared a narrow section of the hallway when the office was located at 1450 East Street in Pittsfield. Then, we moved to Merrill Road and finally the amazing Crane Model Farm! It has been quite a journey. I've grown to love and admire Allen and his wife, Stacey, and the amazing things they have done for the team and for Berkshire County.
Time passed, and as I turned 60, I realized retirement was much closer than I thought. My mind began to shift. "What's next?" I found myself wondering. As Bill was working with older clients, and coaching them in their retirement, it also became a real conversation for both of us. I knew one thing: I couldn't simply retire and do nothing. The answer became obvious soon enough.
I have been doing photography as a hobby and side job since my days in Manhattan. It is my passion and always has been. The voice inside of me started quietly, but soon became louder, and more insistent. What if I could create my own photography business? Could I? But I didn't take it seriously, because I really liked my job and the people at BMM. I just couldn't imagine leaving!
But last year my mother died, which had a profound effect on me and my attitude towards life and aging. My priorities started to change. That voice grew louder —"life is too short," it yelled — but I still didn't listen. Then, the pandemic hit. At our age, we opted to work from home during the "great pause," even though financial services were considered an essential service.
I had more quiet time, time to think, and the voice grew even louder. I could no longer ignore it. I decided I needed to leave my safe, secure, corporate job and find out what is next for me in my life.
So, I took a giant leap into the unknown! Allen and I had a long talk. He had noticed I was becoming more and more distracted in the last year or so. He understood. It was so very hard to say goodbye to him, but I know he will always be in my life as a good friend and that makes me happy. In fact, I will be working with BMM from time to time as an independent contractor, so I don't have to really say goodbye after all! I can continue to be part of the "coolest place to work in Berkshire County!"
And, I am happy to announce Berkshire Visions: Photography by Barbara Schmick, will be open for business!
Titus wants to remind you that you can teach an old dog new tricks. The two of us are proof of his advice! He will miss all of his friends at Berkshire Money Management, as will we.
Barbara & Bill Schmick
The Retired Investor: Next Bailout Should Address Job Creation
As the COVID-19 virus rages across the nation, Americans are hoping for more assistance from the government on a variety of fronts. So far this month, their hopes have been met with a resounding silence from the White House, although members of Congress are trying to come up with answers that both parties can agree upon. I have a couple of suggestions.
The first round of fiscal and monetary stimulus did a good job in addressing the huge spike in unemployment the country has suffered. While the CARES Act at $2.2 trillion provided $500 billion to distressed industries, almost $350 billion in loans to small businesses and $4100 billion to hospitals, it was the $200 billion in additional unemployment benefits and $300 billion in stimulus checks to individuals that got the most attention.
The PPE, the additional $600 a month in unemployment benefits (which is set to sunset soon), the direct payments to taxpayers, plus the Fed's actions in the credit market, did wonders in alleviating the worst impact of the country's economic shut down.
The challenge we face this time around is twofold, in my opinion. We need to continue to help those who have been out of a job, as well as the thousands of workers who are now being laid off as the virus cases delay business re-openings in over half the country. We also need to incentivize those businesses that are struggling to remain open to rehire workers in this period of uncertainty and do more to help small businesses that are facing bankruptcy.
Exactly how to do that in an election year, when neither Congress nor the White House can agree on anything, is a tall order. As in so many things lately, the failed leadership in Washington leads me to look elsewhere for suggestions.
This week the United Kingdom's finance minister, Rishi Sunak, announced, as part of a mini-budget, some novel ideas to save jobs, help Britain's youth find work, and bolster the nation's restaurants. Some of those measures might work here as well.
The UK government, in response to the pandemic, is already paying up to 80 percent of salaries for about nine million workers under their own furlough scheme. That program will begin to wind down by August. But in preparation for the end of that plan, the government is offering more than $1,000 to firms who take on workers, including all those who had been laid off due to the pandemic. They are also spending an additional $2 billion-plus to subsidize the hiring of 16- to 24-year-olds.
Green grants for households and public sector buildings (including hospitals), to make them more energy efficient, are also in the works. As an added incentive, the tax on home purchases will be waived for those thinking of purchasing a home under $500,000.
Restaurants, both here and abroad, are suffering mightily from the virus. The government, in an effort to encourage consumers to go out and buy a restaurant meal, are giving consumers a $12 discount per meal through the month of August.
Most economists on Wall Street think it is a foregone conclusion that a second stimulus package is not only needed, but will pass no later than August. In an election year, both parties want to look like they are helping those in need.
At the same time, the recent surge in virus cases, and the delays in reopening the economy that COVID-19 is causing, makes a second package vital to the future health of the nation. Remember too, that the planned end of enhanced unemployment benefits at the end of this month could cause a drastic increase in delinquencies in consumer-sensitive, financial areas such as mortgage, auto, and commercial loans.
I would expect, therefore, that both the unemployment benefits and another direct payment to certain Americans under a certain income level will be part of CARES Act II. This time, however, I expect the additional unemployment benefits could be reduced, while some kind of going-back-to-work bonus, awarded over a specific time period, might be part of the plan.
If this is coupled with a UK-style payout to the hiring firm, it could tip the scales and stem further job losses. In the small business area, the extension of the PPE program is needed at a minimum, with intense focus and more funds funneled to small and tiny Mom and Pop enterprises. We could expand the UK's restaurant discount idea to all of our service industries. This could easily be accomplished by simply eliminating sales tax on all goods and services for a certain time period.
In any case, I am sure that we could all come up with ideas that might work in getting the economy going again. If you have one, send it to me, and I will do my best to print as many as possible.