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The Retired Investor: Auto Insurance Premiums Keep Rising

By Bill SchmickiBerkshires columnist
Forget fuel and food, auto insurance leads the way in areas where inflation is ramping higher. The rise in premiums has far outpaced the overall inflation rate and we could see further gains in 2024. 
 
Auto premiums are up 43 percent in the past three years and there is no sign the rate increases are over. In 2023 alone, auto insurance prices rose 19.2 percent, as registered by the Consumer Price Index (CPI). The January 2024 CPI data just released this week shows a 20.6 percent increase from last year. It is one of the greatest contributors to the inflation rate and exceeded the price gains in almost every other spending category.
 
Industry analysts' best guess is that we could see another 10 percent increase this year before prices plateau. As it stands, consumers are paying an average of $1,785 per year for full-coverage insurance, according to AAA. That is a big jump from the 2019 pre-COVID costs of $1,194. What is behind this spike in premiums?
 
Back in the pandemic lockdown period, insurance premiums fell. Many cars (mine included) sat for weeks in parking lots. For me, I used our second leased car so infrequently that I gave it back to the dealer. Accidents declined and the roads were empty.
 
For whatever reason, when people got back on the roads in 2020-2021, the accident rate skyrocketed, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Nearly 43,000 people died on U.S. roadways in 2022 which was 6,000 higher than in 2019. Accidents, injuries, and fatalities continue to climb as drivers embrace riskier behavior behind the wheel. That behavior costs insurance companies a boatload of money.
 
And let's not forget car thieves. Motor vehicle thefts jumped 29 percent last year compared to 2022. Given the price of replacing a new or used car, insurance companies are paying out more than ever before. It has gotten so bad that some insurance companies have refused to cover certain coveted Kia and Hyundai models in select locations that have become hot-wire targets for droves of criminals. 
 
The profitability of the insurance industry has suffered. The Insurance Information Institute reports that auto insurers paid $1.12 in claims last year for every dollar they collected in premiums. In 2024, that should drop a little (to $1.09) thanks to premium price hikes, but it is still going in the wrong direction. There are even more reasons premiums are rising.
 
Thanks to supply chain disruptions, rising wages, and parts shortages, the costs of repairing or replacing a car damaged in an accident are much higher than it was in 2020. The good news is that the trend in auto body repair prices is reversing. From 12 percent gains in 2022, costs slowed to "only" 3.3 percent in 2023.
 
Add in the higher cost of paying out for car rentals. Throw in the additional costs of higher legal services, and medical care for injuries when required, and you are starting to get the big picture facing your insurance provider.
 
I'm not done. Natural disasters, many of which have been the result of climate change, are fueling higher premiums as well not just in states prone to hurricanes and wildfires. Rainstorms, hail, floods, blizzards — all manner of weather conditions — are causing more and more damage to our automobiles throughout the country. Insurers are resorting to more than price hikes to deal with these trends.
 
Many carriers are pushing customers to move from standalone auto policies to bundled coverage, while at the same time raising deductions in both homeowners and auto policies from $500-$1,000 to $2,500-$10,000. Underwriters are also getting pickier in vetting potential clients.
 
If you have had a claim over the last several years for water damage, for example, they may ask what you have done to mitigate future damage. Other companies are excluding family members from your auto policy who may have had more than one car accident in the past.
 
Insurance regulators are caught between a rock and a hard place. They are finding it difficult to keep insurance premiums low enough for drivers to afford them while keeping insurance companies solvent. And there are repercussions when regulators balk at granting premium increases.
 
There have been several instances where some large property insurance companies have simply stopped writing business in states such as California, Texas, and Florida. In some cases, this has affected the availability of auto insurance as well. Is there anything you can do to lower your bill?
 
You can shop around. Browse the internet. Talk to your friends to see what discounts are possible. Check out at least three companies, and maybe more, if you have blemishes on your record. Companies tend to penalize tickets and accidents differently, so you may get a wider range of price quotes.
 
Bundling your auto and property insurance is another way to go. Accepting higher deductibles can also lower your premiums but have a care if you go that route. Too little insurance defeats the purpose. Another idea is to opt-in to a usage-based program where an app monitors your driving and tracks things like distracted driving, harsh braking, or speeding. Switch auto insurance companies if it turns out you are overpaying, no matter how friendly you may be with your agent. 
 

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.

 

     

@theMarket: Melt-up in Markets Fueled by Momentum

By Bill SchmickiBerkshires columnist
Stocks are climbing, scaling new heights while euphoria abounds. Momentum is pushing the technology sector, and AI stocks in particular. How long can it last and how high can it go?
 
It is the question on the minds of many on Wall Street. At this point, the consensus opinion is that we are due for a pullback. Even the bulls are getting worried as valuations become stretched.
 
However, valuations are in the eye of the beholder. While the price-earnings ratio of the market is about 21 percent, if you remove a handful of mega-cap stocks the average is only 17 times earnings. That handful of stocks has accounted for more than 50 percent of the gains this year in the S&P 500 Index. The Magnificent 7 (Meta, Apple, Amazon, Alphabet, Microsoft, Nvidia, and Tesla) have long held leadership positions within the equity market. Recently, however, a few additional stocks have joined this pack of champions.
 
The "AI 5" (Nvidia, Microsoft, Advanced Micro Devices, Taiwan Semi-Conductor Manufacturing, and Broadcom) are companies that Wall Street analysts believe are leaders in the development of artificial intelligence. All but one (Microsoft) are semiconductor stocks. Momentum in these stocks as well as most of the Mag 7 stocks is through the roof. The last time we saw momentum at this level was in November 2021.
 
Market momentum, for those who are not aware, is the capacity for a price trend in a stock, stocks, or markets to continue and sustain itself (either higher or lower). As the AI movement picked up steam this year, for example, prices rose, traders jumped on the bandwagon, volume increased, prices climbed even higher, and more and more buyers piled into this group of stocks. A herding mentality has taken over and the chase is on!
 
There are plenty of money managers and traders who make a living buying and selling momentum. The idea is to buy the asset when it is rising and then sell after it has peaked in price. Don't be fooled; this is a dicey business. It is a trading maneuver that relies on a greater fool theory and has nothing to do with the fundamental value of the underlying security. 
 
In today's market, many investors are marveling at how high prices Microsoft Nvidia or any of the other Mag 7 and AI 5 stocks have reached. The same momentum trend helps explain why the stock markets, and particularly the technology sector, are pushing higher and higher. There is nothing new in this behavior. It has happened many times in the history of the stock market.
 
What happens next? At some point, the trend of chasing these stocks peters out. Momentum traders will usually be alerted by technical and computer programs that it is time to reverse positions. The highflyers will be sold and/or shorted. Those unfortunates that purchased at the peak will be left holding the bag.
 
Unfortunately, given that the market capitalization of these stocks is in the vicinity of several trillion dollars, the impact on the overall market will be quite large. It is one of the reasons that I believe the coming pullback in stocks could be between 7-10 percent. That may sound like a lot, but it would only be a normal correction in the history of the S&P 500 Index.
 
But before you rush out to sell everything, let me caution that no one knows how far the momentum game can carry stocks. This week we hit 5,000 and beyond on the S&P 500. That is a nice round number but has little significance otherwise. Given the right circumstances, we could see 5,150 or even higher in the weeks ahead. What I wouldn't do is add more money to the Mag 7 or AI 5.
 

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: Electric Vehicles Hit a Speed Bump

By Bill SchmickiBerkshires columnist
Electric vehicles are piling up in dealer lots. Consumers are by-passing EVs for gas-powered autos and hybrids while unwanted EVs sit at the dealerships for months. Production is being cut at the Big Three auto companies. What happened to the EV boom?
 
The green revolution promised that electric vehicles were the wave of the future. Government incentives were offered to boost purchases in the name of clean energy as a way to fight climate change. Over the last few years, wealthy American consumers waited in long queues for their chance to plunk $75,000 or more down for their vehicular status symbol.
 
Auto producers worldwide scrambled to build their version of EVs. Companies that mined lithium, a critical ingredient in the manufacture of batteries, predicted endless demand for the material. Tesla and its billionaire founder, Elan Musk, could do no wrong. Investors flocked into Tesla stock and other equities in that space. What could go wrong?
 
It turns out that despite the tax breaks and Wall Street hype, electric vehicles are just too expensive for the average American consumer. Automobiles overall have climbed in price since the pandemic supply chain disruptions. Add in that inflation and the average price of a new gas-powered car skyrocketed to $46,077 in 2023.
 
In comparison, a new EV averaged $63,878 in the U.S. The total cost of ownership during the first five years must also be added to the price tag. It costs $2,000 to install an at-home charger. Insurance also costs more for EVs in a world where auto insurance continues to rise dramatically.
 
But price isn't the only pitfall. Consumers continue to have concerns over the EV's battery range. Compared to fossil fuel autos, the EV's range is typically less. And once the battery charge is depleted, it takes longer to recharge a battery than it does to fill up a gas tank. The availability and dependability of charging stations are also an issue. Nearly 21 percent of consumers have reported that they have shown up at a charging station only to find it broken, according to a J.D. Power survey.
 
For many consumers, an EV needs to fit their circumstances. Demand for electric vehicles is concentrated in just a few states. Last year, the best markets for EVs were West Coast cities and metropolitan areas. City living, where typical driving trips are shorter, and chargers are readily available makes more sense than a rural environment where drivers encounter long drives, scarce charging stations, rough terrain, and cold weather. 
 
But even in some metropolitan areas, such as Chicago, sub-zero temperatures can decimate battery life. Media coverage of stranded Tesla's in Windy City parking lots has not encouraged electric vehicles and fence-sitters. Reports that charging stations were also not working and those that took much longer than usual to charge didn't help either. 
 
In the used-car market, EV prices have seen big price drops of as much as 30 percent. Last month, rental firm, Hertz Global Holdings announced they are selling 20,000 electric vehicles from its U.S. fleet. That is just two years after inking a deal with Tesla to offer vehicles for rent. They are reversing their plans to convert 25 percent of their fleet to electric vehicles by the end of this year citing higher expenses related to collusion and damage for EVs.
 
As more and more competitors come to market, competition has heated up. A pricing war of sorts has started. Tesla models were on a pricing roller-coaster ride for most of last year as GM and Ford made a big push into the market. Ford's new vehicle, the F-150 Lightening Pro, for example, was sold out early last year. But by the last three months of 2023, the pace of sales slowed.
 
The Pro was marketed as a rugged entry-level electric truck but when cooler weather hit, so did the buyer's anxiety over range. The expected range dropped significantly in cold climes and so did sales. This year both Ford and General Motors have announced they are curtailing electric vehicle investments. Ford has just announced it will cut its plans for production of the pickup, while GM is delaying some new EV model introductions. It is also switching gears to produce more hybrids instead. 
 
Hybrids seem to have benefited from the slowdown in sales of EVs. Hybrid sales jumped 65 percent versus 46 percent for EVs last year. Ford, Kia and Toyota are offering more hybrid new-car options, while in the used car market the gas-electric versions of BMW, Toyota, and Hyundai are selling well.
 
It appears that while consumers have embraced the concept of electric-powered autos, they are not quite ready to bet the farm on them. Given the price differentials, the hybrid offers the best of both worlds. For now, it seems that is where the consumer is most comfortable. I believe that could change and will when buyers see further price declines in the future. That still does not answer the need for more and better charging stations or improved technology in the battery space. I am sure that day is coming but just not now.
 

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.

 

     

@theMarket: Jobs Jump But the Fed Disappoints

By Bill SchmickiBerkshires columnist
It was one of those weeks. A gauntlet of data had investors working overtime to figure out where stocks and the economy were going. At the same time, the Fed told investors that a March rate cut was off the table. And then the job data was announced.
 
The non-farm payroll report for January came in at almost double market expectations. Economists were expecting 185,000 gains, but the U.S. economy created 353,999 jobs. That was a blowout number that had traders torn between selling the market (because of the inflation implications) or buying it due to what it might say about future growth.
 
Strength in the job market and wages would mean the Fed will delay cutting interest rates while further growth in the economy could be good for future earnings. The Wednesday FOMC meeting illustrated that dilemma and what the Fed planned to do about it. In one word — nothing — no rate hikes, and no rate cuts either. The outcome was a disappointment.
 
I thought Fed Chairman Jerome Powell did a good job explaining the present state of the economy and the reasons the Federal Reserve wants to wait a little longer to ease monetary policy. He expects the economy to continue to grow and at the same time the progress toward reducing inflation will continue. The Fed has been watching the labor market for signs of weakness but slowing wage growth is more important than the number of unemployed workers. Given the huge gain last month in the payroll data, his decision to wait for the data to confirm the Fed's next move seems correct to me.
 
I had warned readers that those bulls who were expecting a March interest rate cut by the Federal Reserve Bank were roaring up the wrong tree. And yet, going into the meeting, almost half of the market was betting on a cut. The news triggered a wave of selling that sent all three main averages down by more than a percent. Since I was not on the side of any Fed cut until May or even June, the sell-off felt overdone in my opinion. We regained much of those losses by Friday.
 
Beyond the Fed, the most important event was the fourth quarter earnings reports of five of the Mag 7. By Friday's close, the scorecard stood at three wins and two whiffs. Microsoft had decent earnings, but the stock sold off anyway at first, while Google disappointed investors. Meta and Amazon scored, and Apple whiffed.
 
Last week, I warned readers that all these stocks were priced for perfection and only stellar earnings and guidance would be able to justify further gains. Three out of five did just that and the markets reacted by hitting new highs.
 
There was good news on the U.S. Treasury financing front as well. The government announced it will need to raise less money via Treasury auctions this quarter. The mix between short-term notes and bills and longer-term bonds is tilting a little more toward the long end. That should keep the yield on U.S. Ten-year bonds supported. 
 
I expect stocks will continue higher, but the journey will be marred with sharp pullbacks. My target is still 5,000 -plus on the S&P 500 Index. Stepping back, however, I see these gains as part of an interim topping process that will end at some point this month or next in a stiff pullback.
 

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: Economics According to Trump Supporters Part II

By Bill SchmickiBerkshires columnist
The economic condition of the country has convinced a minority of the population that the only person who can save the country from economic ruin is Donald Trump. The growing budget deficit and persistent inflation are two areas of growing concern for that bloc of voters.
 
However, more and more Americans are paying attention to those areas as we head into 2024. Last week, I pointed out some areas of economic contention between Trumpers and those against him such as illegal immigration. Inflation is another major gripe for Trumpers. That seems to fly in the face of economic facts.
 
The inflation rate has dropped in half over the last year, according to government statistics, but most voters ignore that data. Their main inflation gauge is how much it costs to feed the family and the price of gas at the pumps. Unfortunately for them, inflation continues to thrive at the check-out counters in the supermarket and gas stations. As we know, inflation hurts those within the lower-income groups, many of whom are Trumpers, far more than it does higher-income earners. 
 
The Federal budget deficit is also a major concern. Trumpers and many hard-right congress members are demanding a 30 percent decline in spending. Notice too that continued support for Ukraine and the Israel wars has also fallen by the wayside. For 40-plus years we have been hearing how important it was to finance unending conflicts around the world in the name of Democracy. Many of those Americans who fought and bled in those wars have had enough. To them, the questions continue to be "What about me and mine." Trump, despite his background, answers that question in ways that many can identify with and support. 
 
Of course, the spending cuts they are demanding are in areas that reflect Republican arguments — some traditional, like reducing the size of government, cutting waste, etc., and others directed at the counterculture. However, with the size of the federal debt continuing to climb, many Americans are also beginning to worry that spending should be reduced as well.
 
The overwhelming support for fossil fuels in the face of the obvious impacts of climate change is another area that stumps Trumper critics. It shouldn't. To me, it is all about jobs. About 8.1 million people are employed directly in the energy industry. Countless more receive ancillary benefits from the fossil fuel sector.
 
The top five energy-producing states are Texas, Wyoming, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, and West Virginia.  Any guess who most of those states support? No matter the impact of drought, floods, hurricanes, tornados, etc., for workers in fossil fuels, there is no contest. Losing one's job will take precedence over climate change.
 
Many are so fearful of losing their livelihood that climate change itself becomes deniable. Any threat to their livelihood will be voted down again and again no matter how many initiatives are tabled, or disasters occur. And yet none of us have come up with a viable plan to transition workers into good-paying alternative jobs in different industries. Sure, there are programs available that can retrain and transition workers, but this takes time. Who feeds the family in the meantime?
 
Do these differences make Trump voters bad people? No, it doesn't. The simple fact is that their career paths and life experiences in America have been radically different from your own. There are some areas that both sides can agree on like our debt load and inflation.
 
But face it: forty years or more of widening inequality in America have left a large segment of the population on the sidelines. They have not been able to share or experience the benefits of democracy, and certainly not capitalism.
 
It is not lost on these voters that President Biden was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1972. He, and many like him, governed through countless wars, the exportation of U.S. jobs to Asia, the creation of the Rust Belt, and the death of manufacturing. To this segment of the population, he is part of the problem and has little creditability no matter what he says or does.
 
Biden, on his part, is doing a lot on the economic front. He has staked his re-election bid on "Bidenomics." His administration is spending billions of dollars in public investments while focusing on assisting middle-income workers, rejuvenating the rustbelt, and hiking investments in manufacturing capacity. Those efforts are being ignored, or worse, ridiculed by those against him. Some may forgive him and politicians like him, but none will forget.
 
Some say that over time our democracy swings like a pendulum from right to left and back again. Sometimes, it swings too far (think the 1930s, and again in the 1960s). Over the last four decades, the pendulum has swung to one of those extremes again creating excesses like billionaires in this country whose wealth rivals several countries' GDP. I expect the swing to the right, and towards populism, is just beginning. How volatile it becomes will be up to all of us and how we handle differences. Economics is a good place to start. 
 

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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