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The Independent Investor: Should College Be Free?

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist
It is a debate that has occupied this country for years. Should college be free to all Americans or should we continue to pay for it? Those in favor argue it is one of our inalienable rights. Those opposed say college is a privilege to be earned and paid for in order for it to have meaning and merit.

I  suspect the majority of Americans who are still paying off student loans, or are already paying for a college education (or soon will be) would vote for free tuition. Who can blame them?

My daughter was born in 1980 and graduated college in 2002. During that time period, the cost of a college education increased almost 400 percent. Looking at prices today, I would say I got off fairly cheap. Americans spent almost $100 billion last year to send over 14 million students to public colleges and universities. We all know that tuition and fees continue to skyrocket, climbing 6.6 percent annually. Yet, most of us believe that going to college is essential and the key to an economic future and the American dream.

Costs differ because not all colleges charge the same. Forty-four percent of all full-time college students attending a four-year college are paying less than $9,000 per year for tuition and fees. That’s a lot of money for a family pulling in $50,000 annually. At the other end of the spectrum, roughly 28 percent of full-time students are attending private, non-profit institutions and are paying at least $36,000 annually. Those numbers do not include the cost of living, eating, school supplies and a long list of other school expenses. All but the wealthiest American families are priced out of that market.

To be fair, most students receive some kind of financial aid, usually from the local, state or federal governments. That aid amounted to about $178 billion this year. That means the average student probably received a little over $12,500 in aid and about half of that won’t have to be repaid.

When you account for all student loan programs, grants, tax breaks and such the government is already paying for almost half the tuition, so why not the rest?

Much of the debate comes down to why the government should pay for schooling at all. Critics argue that the public school system is already a disaster. Our students’ learning abilities have already fallen way behind their peers in other countries. Our high schools are becoming a breeding ground for drugs, crime and dropouts. If we allow colleges to become part of this flawed system, critics say, then we may as well call an end to the educational system in America.

It might be helpful, therefore, to explore why a free educational system evolved in America in the first place.

It was Thomas Jefferson who first suggested creating a public school system. He and others like him argued that common education would create good citizens, unite society and prevent crime and poverty. The debate raged for many years. It took until the end of the 19th century before free public education at the primary level was available to all American children.

High school was a different story. Although the first publically supported secondary school, the Boston Latin School, was founded in 1635, it was Benjamin Franklin who first saw the need for something more than a primary education. The demand for skilled workers in the middle of the 18th century led Franklin to establish a new kind of secondary school called the American Academy in Philadelphia in 1751. Once again, public secondary education was no easy sell.

It wasn't until the 20th century that high schools took off. when the majority of states extended compulsory education laws to the age of 16. From 1900 to 1996, when government began paying for secondary education, the percentage of teenagers who graduated from high school increased from 6 percent to 85 percent.

Since then the purpose of a free education has widened from Jefferson's concept of ensuring that citizens could read, write (vote) and remain law-abiding to something more. In order to escape poverty and to provide a skilled labor force for the industrial revolution, Franklin and his peers believed a secondary education was deemed to be in the national interest.

This history lesson has a point. Ask yourself two questions. Are we still in the Industrial Revolution or have we graduated into something more? And two, does a high school education prepare our youth to enter the work force, escape poverty and become a productive citizen of the economy?

For readers who answered no to the above questions, you will want to read part II of this column. Stay tuned.

Bill Schmick is an independent investor with Berkshire Money Management. (See "About" for more information.) None of the information presented in any of these articles 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 (toll free) or email him at wschmick@fairpoint.net. Visit www.afewdollarsmore.com for more of Bill's insights.

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The Independent Investor: U.S. Energy Production, Going the Right Way

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist
It has been a long time since oil production in this country has been a source of growth. Between domestic regulation, depressed energy prices and off-shore projects, the action in oil has been elsewhere. Now that is beginning to change.

Over the next decade domestic crude oil production is expected to increase 20 percent or more to levels not seen in the United States since the 1990s, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. We were producing 5.5 million barrels per day (bpd) last year compared to 5.1 million bpd in 2007 and production is expected to grow by 550,000 bpd to 6.7 million bpd by 2020. Production is expected to slow after that but still maintain a healthy pace of over 6.1 million bpd through 2035.

U.S. oil production grew faster than in any other country over the last three years. Names from big oil's boom days like the Texas Panhandle, the Oklahoma Border and Granite Wash in states such as Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas have been joined by new wildcat states like the Bakken shale area of North Dakota and even Pennsylvania.

Naturally, since it is an election year, politicians are quick to take credit for oil's resurgence.

"Under my administration, domestic oil and natural gas production is up, while imports of foreign oil are down," said President Obama, which is true but not because of any policies of his administration. Energy exploration and drilling decisions are made many years in advance. Decisions made 4-6 years ago are only now showing up as increased production today.

The real cause and impetus behind this energy rebound is a combination of three factors: the price of oil, an oversupply of U.S. natural gas and new technologies that make drilling and finding new oil cost effective.

Oil is hovering around $100 a barrel and has traded in a rough range of between $85-$110 most of last year. At the same time, natural gas prices are at a 10-year low so it pays for oil and gas exploration drillers to focus on finding more of the higher-priced crude oil component of the energy spectrum.

At the same time, new drilling techniques like horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing that contributed to the recent explosion in natural gas production are being applied to traditional oil fields. As a result of the higher prices and cost-effective technology, pools of oil and oil shale that were passed up in the past as too expensive to drill, are now profitable to extract.

All this good news still won't bring this country to its goal of "energy independence" anytime soon. The U.S. is forecasted to consume 19 million bpd of oil by 2020 versus production of only 10.2 million bpd. Of course that forecast can change depending on price, supply, demand and decisions made by both the private and public sector here.

For example, just this week the Obama administration rejected the proposed XL Keystone pipeline from Canada, a $7 billion, 1,700-mile route through the Great Plains of Texas. The decision is not final, but rather a delaying tactic to allow the pipeline's supporters to update their proposal. It is projects like this that can impact the nation's energy production in years to come. Let's hope this country and its leaders can establish a cohesive energy policy soon that will someday make us energy independent.

Bill Schmick is an independent investor with Berkshire Money Management. (See "About" for more information.) None of the information presented in any of these articles 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 (toll free) or email him at wschmick@fairpoint.net. Visit www.afewdollarsmore.com for more of Bill's insights.

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The Independent Investor: Insider Trading Is No Surprise

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist
Over the last few years, government authorities have gone after insider traders with increasing success. Now, news headlines indicate that there was actually a hedge fund club of sorts that regularly traded on illegal information.

Why should this surprise us? Over the last few years an increasing number of investors I talk with have argued that "the game is rigged" against us little guys. Time after time, I have watched the markets trade up in advance of good news or down before the opposite occurred. It happens much too often to be coincidence.

Back in the early '80s, straight out of graduate school, I joined Drexel Burnham Lambert, a venerable investment banking firm back in the day. There, I made the acquaintance of Mike Milken, who at the time was diligently putting together a junk-bond empire for Drexel. He moved his operation to California and invited me along, but I joined Merrill Lynch instead to establish their foreign equity effort.

That turned out to be a smart move. Milken and his associates went on to make millions but ultimately went down in flames as authorities uncovered an enormous insider trading scam centered on the "junk bond king." As a spectator, I had a front-row seat throughout the entire sordid affair. Milken and some of his buddies went to jail. Drexel went bust and I understood how deceptive and easy it was for individuals to be sucked into insider trading.

The SEC and the FBI are focusing on specific transactions involving individual securities where insider information was leaked. The FBI contends that there was a criminal ring of analysts, traders and fund managers among some prominent financial firms that regularly took advantage of illegal information and garnered millions in profits for the alleged violators.

Readers may recall that last year, Raj Rajaratnam, the founder of a well-known hedge fund, was sentenced to 11 years in prison for making millions in an insider trading scam. Altogether the FBI has wracked up 56 convictions in their four-year probe called Operation Hedge.

I applaud their efforts. Like the FBI, I believe insider trading has exploded in financial markets and goes far beyond a few hedge funds and their associates. But insider trading between government and the private sector is even bigger than the abuses presently being uncovered among and between Wall Street firms. However, I doubt that either the FBI or the SEC has much stomach to actively probe the connections between our elected officials, government bureaucrats and their campaign contributors within the private sector.

As readers are aware, I have already written two columns denouncing the present legal ability of our senators and congressmen and their families and friends to profit from insider information that they have acquired in the course of the legislative process.

My last column on the subject centered on the passage of the STOCK Act (Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge), a bill that would have prevented that practice. It was no surprise that House majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., scuttled the bill in December.

Insider trading will remain a serious and debilitating side effect of a financial system where "greed is good" and the amount of money you make is never enough. At most, the SEC and FBI will be able to catch those sloppy enough to leave a trail but the really insidious information exchanges will continue to fall under "business as usual."

Bill Schmick is an independent investor with Berkshire Money Management. (See "About" for more information.) None of the information presented in any of these articles 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 (toll free) or email him at wschmick@fairpoint.net. Visit www.afewdollarsmore.com for more of Bill's insights.


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The Independent Investor: How The Fed Beat The Market Last Year

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist
Much has been made of the $78.9 billion profit that the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank made last year. All but $2 billion will be transferred over to the Treasury. It is a lot of money but in terms of return on capital it is less than spectacular, a mere 2.6 percent.

The Fed's net income was actually down from a record breaking $81.7 billion profit in 2010 on its $2.9 trillion investment portfolio. Still, they did better than the S&P 500 Index, although not as well as the Dow last year.

The real question is how much risk the Fed is taking in relation to return. It appears that on the metric the Fed is taking on more and more risk to generate a return that is under the "riskless" 3 percent return of a 30-year U.S. Treasury bond.

Take the mortgage market, for example. Over the last three years, The Fed has bet $1.25 trillion that its efforts could turn around housing in America. That bet hasn't panned out. Since they started buying mortgage backed bonds in the beginning of 2009, the value of the housing market has declined 4.1 percent.

Rather than pull in their horns, the Fed is buying another $200 billion more in 2012. That amounts to 20 percent of all new mortgage loans. That may just be a beginning, if you can believe some Fed officials. They indicate the central bank could buy two or three times that amount.

The Fed normally makes its money from interest earned on U.S. Treasury bonds, federal agency debt and securities held by firms such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. That sounds tame enough, but that is not the entire story. By the nature of its charter, the Fed is supposed to deal in risky assets from time to time. Like Star Trek, their mission may be "to boldly go where no man has gone before."

The Fed is a classic buy at the low investor lending money and investing when no one else will. During the financial crisis, when banks, corporations and even countries were experiencing a free fall in prices in all their financial securities, the Fed was the buyer of last resort.

Yet, today, even some of the most sophisticated Americans have it in their head that the Fed uses taxpayer money in its operations. Even the Wall Street Journal reported in a recent story, "Fed's Lofty Profit Becomes Treasury's Gain" that "The central bank has come under attack for taking too many risks with taxpayer money ... ." The facts are that the Fed actually contributes to the pool of taxpayer funds and will continue to do so whenever possible.

Since the Federal Reserve Bank has the power to create money, it does not need to borrow money from, or use taxpayer money. Sure, the Fed might lose money at some point if inflation suddenly spiked and it needed to pay higher interest on bank reserves. If things really got messy and it needed to sell some of its government bonds, it might suffer a loss but those would be, at worst, temporary issues.

Remember, too, that the Fed is both a buyer and a seller with a far longer time horizon than the markets. Its mission is to administer interest rate policy and insure that unemployment does not get too far out of whack. As such, it creates and controls interest rates to a large extent and can create over time an economic environment conducive to those goals.

There is a reason that investors worldwide don't bet against the Fed. Although profits are fairly far down on the list of the Fed's agenda, because of the nature of their objectives, it is more than likely that they will turn a profit as long as they continue to buy low and sell high.

Bill Schmick is an independent investor with Berkshire Money Management. (See "About" for more information.) None of the information presented in any of these articles 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 (toll free) or email him at wschmick@fairpoint.net. Visit www.afewdollarsmore.com for more of Bill's insights.


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The Independent Investor: 2012 Could Be Another Up & Down Year

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist
It is that time of year when market strategists stick their necks out and predict the future. No, never mind that most, if not all, of their predictions will turn out to be wrong. Investors clamor for yearly forecasts regardless of accuracy, so here's mine.

This year a lot can happen. So much depends on forces outside our control that predicting the markets will be up (or down) X percent by year end would be criminal at best. Instead, I would like to broadly outline the possibilities and risks we face in the months ahead and how best to play them.

As I predicted, we are currently in a rally that began before Christmas and should extend for the next few weeks if not months. I don't think we will hit any new highs during this period or if we do it won't be until April. Europe will most likely continue to dominate the news, so we should continue to experience quite a bit of volatility. Be prepared for the 1-3 percent up days followed by the same or more on the down days.

I believe that ultimately Europe will get its house in order but between here and there the markets will be quite choppy. A foot in both the equity and bond markets should play best in that environment. Stick with dividend and large cap stocks and defensive sectors in this period along with corporate and high yield bonds and short-term paper.

Although the U.S. economy continues to improve, it is nothing to write home about. Without additional help from the do-nothings in Washington or an end-run by the president around Congress, unemployment will remain high and growth between 1.5-2.5 percent. That is an optimistic scenario, which assumes that a European recession is inevitable but at the same time contained to their side of the ocean.

If, on the other hand, it appears that Europe's recession is spreading globally then all bets are off. Remember too that stock markets sell first and collect the facts later in this day and age. Just a hint that something like that is in the cards would be enough for  a major sell-off in world markets. Therefore it wouldn't surprise me if we have a classic "sell in May (or April) and go away" scenario this year.

Granted that would be a worse-case scenario but one we must all be prepared for. Further hiccups in Europe, fear of renewed recession here at home without further monetary or fiscal stimulus from the Fed or White House could spook sending the S&P 500 Index back towards its 2011 lows at 1,100. Granted, that would be a worse case scenario but one we must all be prepared for. A switch to all bonds would be best in that case.

But remember, we are also in an election year and markets usually begin to anticipate that in the second half of the year. This could give investors an opportunity once again to buy the dip. If history is any guide, the Obama administration will want to do anything and everything they can to boost the economy going into the November election. This year that argument should carry additional weight since both parties are campaigning on the economy and unemployment.

In that case, we could see a major move higher in the averages off the bottom this summer that could move the U.S. market to substantial gains by the end of the year and into 2014. Now, wouldn't that be nice?

If some or most of my forecasts come true for this year, it is quite obvious that a buy and hold strategy will be a recipe for disaster as will all cash, all bonds or all stocks. There will be times during the year investors will want to be both aggressive and defensive and it will be a lot of work, just like last year. There is an old saying that "if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen" or in this case, hire a money manager that can make those decisions for you, but be sure you pick the right one.

Bill Schmick is an independent investor with Berkshire Money Management. (See "About" for more information.) None of the information presented in any of these articles 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 (toll free) or email him at wschmick@fairpoint.net. Visit www.afewdollarsmore.com for more of Bill's insights.


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