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The Retired Investor: Home Is Where the Hammer Is

By Bill SchmickiBerkshires columnist
Remember those promises of how you were going to finish that deck, remodel the kitchen, or fix that faucet? Well, this year, many Americans finally stopped procrastinating. 
 
It appears that there is at least one silver lining in this pandemic: a boom in home improvements. Take my brother-in-law, for example. He lives in a Maryland suburb with his wife and extended family, which consists of three adult children, plus a bunch of grandchildren. Faced with working from home, the entire family embarked on a do-over to their back yard. During the last few months, they installed an above-ground pool, built a gazebo, and purchased outdoor patio furniture. Since then, the back yard has become the center for family recreation and entertainment.
 
Travel up the coast to my daughter's home on the Long Island Sound, where DJ "Ming," (who also happens to be my son-in-law, Aaron) converted the family's small guest house into his recording studio. He also built, with the help of my daughter and their young children, an outdoor vegetable garden, replaced the kitchen faucets, and re-wired and laid new internet cable throughout the house and his new studio.
 
These are just two examples of the do-it yourself frenzy that has occupied millions of Americans over the past several months. Is it any wonder that Home Depot just reported that their same-store sales have exploded, spiking 25 percent? Lowes reported similar results with comparable store sales surging 35 percent.
 
Families with time on their hands and stuck at home finally tackled those long-delayed, home improvement projects, either by themselves or by hiring contractors. Demand for hardware, paint, tools, lawns and garden goods, and treated lumber have gone through the roof. It seems that over the last few months, Americans spent their time hammering nails, according to a recent survey from Porch.com, a remodeling platform. Their findings indicated that three quarters of those surveyed said they had done some kind of home improvement project during the pandemic. Homeowners with time on their hands began to update or reconfigure both indoor and outdoor spaces for exercise, work, school and recreation. Underlying this trend is the assumption that the coronavirus may be with us for some time to come. 
 
In addition to home improvements, more employees are also working from home. Like me, they may have started working remotely on their kitchen counter or dining room table, but for most that has become unmanageable. As a result, the demand for home office space has also increased. 
 
Prior to the pandemic, less than half of all homes boasted a remote working space. And yet, a survey conducted by YouGov, in partnership with USA Today and LinkedIn, found that 74 percent of professionals age 18 to 74 said they were now working from home.  What most have discovered is that establishing a new home office is both time-consuming and expensive. Upgrading existing space, basement waterproofing, attic or bedroom refinishing, in addition to office furniture and the need to wire (or re-wire) and install internet cable, can break a budget very quickly.
 
Whether or not the home improvement phase subsides in the second half of the year will depend largely on the virus. During the winter months, the outdoor projects will most certainly taper off. But if home sales rebound (and they look like they may), then spending on remodeling, especially bathrooms and kitchens, may continue to gain for a few more months. 
 
Of course, the wild card is how long the pandemic will last, and what additional impact it will have on the overall economy and employment. Analysts expect that without a new stimulus bill to cushion the blow, most consumers will temper their spending overall, until they see which way the wind blows. If so, at least we can all take some satisfaction in a job well done.
 

Bill Schmick is now the 'Retired Investor.' After working in the financial services business for more than 40 years, Bill is paring back and focusing exclusively on writing about the financial markets, the needs of retired investors like himself, and how to make your last 30 years of your life your absolute best. You can reach him at billiams1948@gmail.com or leave a message at 413-347-2401.

 
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@theMarket: The Economy Versus the Stock Market

By Bill SchmickiBerkshires columnist
It is a tale of two markets. One represented by stocks, which has experienced a "V" shaped recovery, while the other (the economy) appears to be describing a "W." Can the two continue to diverge?
 
The short answer is "yes," as long as the Federal Reserve Bank continues to support the financial markets with unlimited stimulus.  "Stocks are the only game in town," as one investor put it. "Bonds are yielding me less than nothing after inflation, and commodities are just too risky."
 
That sums up the present state of affairs facing investors. 
 
The fact that earnings have been absolutely dismal in the latest quarter meant little to the markets. Earnings forecasts have been reduced to such a low point that the majority of companies have had no problem beating estimates. Some companies, especially in the technology space and stay-at-home stocks, have actually thrived during the pandemic.
 
I wish that could be said for the overall economy, but the coronavirus doesn't care what kind of economic models we fashion. Everyone hoped that by this summer the virus would have done its damage and moved on, but containing the virus has proven much harder than we imagined. 
 
Despite the on-going virus burden, U.S. employers added 1.8 million jobs in July. That was an upside surprise. Average hourly earnings month-over-month were up 0.2 percent (versus -0.5 percent expected), which was good news as well. The service sector led the gains in the non-farm payroll report. 
 
The only downside may be that the stronger than expected employment data may remove some of the urgency for an immediate compromise on a new stimulus package between the two parties. This week, investors had been hoping Congress would give the economy another jolt of stimulus, but so far nothing has materialized. Both Democrats and Republicans say they are getting close, but also add that they are still "trillions of dollars apart" from a compromise on a workable bill. Friday (today) was the self-imposed deadline for a deal, but after a marathon session on Thursday night, the politicians had nothing new to report. I do believe that in the end the two sides will hammer out a deal. It is just too important to the economy for our legislators to fail.
 
In the meantime, President Trump is trying to alleviate some of the suffering this stimulus delay may be causing Americans. He has said that he will try and implement executive orders for payroll tax cuts, assistance with both student loans and evictions, as well as unemployment benefits. An announcement may be forthcoming shortly on this subject.
 
As for the markets, we have reached a point where the S&P 500 Index is positive (up 2.3 percent) for the year. That is no mean accomplishment, given the ongoing burden of the pandemic. We have the Fed to thank for that, as well as the federal government's fiscal stimulus programs. As long as the central bank's monetary policy remains accommodative, we should be in good shape. But that does not mean that stocks can't go down. 
 
One risk to the markets may be the on-going tech war between China and the United States. Readers should read yesterday's column, "Tensions with China may heat up," on the issue. President Trump escalated the pressure on Chinese companies by signing two new executive orders on Thursday. He has prohibited U.S. residents from doing business with the Chinese-owned TikTok and WeChat apps, beginning 45 days from now. On Friday, he added sanctions on Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam and 11 other individuals for implementing "Beijing's policies of suppression of freedom and democratic processes."
 
He worries that these Chinese companies are gathering personal information on Americans that may present a security risk. In addition, an influential group of U.S. regulators said stock exchanges should set new rules that could a trigger a delisting of Chinese companies. The president's Working Group on Financial Markets insisted that Chinese companies must be required to allow access to their audit work papers.
 
So far, we have been dealing with a "Teflon" market where bad news simply rolls off the averages and only good news is discounted.  There is a risk that this tech war could escalate and test that concept. If I were you, I would expect China to retaliate against our actions fairly soon. If investors get spooked, it could cause a short-term decline in the markets.
 

Bill Schmick is now the 'Retired Investor.' After working in the financial services business for more than 40 years, Bill is paring back and focusing exclusively on writing about the financial markets, the needs of retired investors like himself, and how to make your last 30 years of your life your absolute best. You can reach him at billiams1948@gmail.com or leave a message at 413-347-2401.

 

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The Retired Investor: Tensions With China May Heat Up

By Bill SchmickiBerkshires columnist
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.
 

Bill Schmick is now the 'Retired Investor.' After working in the financial services business for more than 40 years, Bill is paring back and focusing exclusively on writing about the financial markets, the needs of retired investors like himself, and how to make your last 30 years of your life your absolute best. You can reach him at billiams1948@gmail.com or leave a message at 413-347-2401.

 

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@theMarket: Stocks Fall as Congress Fails to Act

By Bill SchmickiBerkshires columnist
It should come as no surprise that our politicians failed to compromise on a new bailout package this week. It is symptomatic of a country that suffers from a great philosophical divide. The only entity that investors can truly believe in is the Fed. Keep the faith.
 
Chairman Jerome Powell, in his Thursday press conference after the two-day Federal Open Market Committee meeting, said the path forward is "extraordinarily uncertain." As such, our central bank will remain accommodating, he promised, which means the financial markets will continue to be supported going forward.
 
Readers should remember that.  Over the long term, I plan to remain constructive towards the stock markets. However, in the short-term, we need to contend with a number of negatives. 
 
The unemployment numbers are going up, not down. Economic data may also weaken during the next few weeks. You can thank those red states that ignored expert medical advice and reopened their economies for that. As a result, businesses have had to cancel, or slow their plans to reopen some state economies. And now those COVID-19 hot spots appear to be spreading and moving toward the Midwest. I expect this trend to continue.
 
And while the numbers of cases and deaths (more than 151,000) continue to climb, the Republican's answer is to announce a $1 trillion rescue package. The centerpiece of their legislation is focused on protecting businesses from lawsuits by employees who sicken and/or die by coming back to work and extending the PPP benefits to businesses. 
 
The Democrats want a $3 trillion package which focuses on the unemployed and additional funds to state and local governments. As of this writing, the parties remain far apart. In the balance are millions of Americans who will be facing eviction notices with reduced unemployment compensation and no job prospects.
 
All but the most conservative economists believe that the $1 trillion plan offered by the Republicans is woefully inadequate. There is also no evidence whatsoever that the Republican claim that the additional $600 a week supplement in unemployment is encouraging workers to remain at home instead of looking for jobs that do not exist.  
 
I am also quite concerned with the planned re-opening of the nation's school systems. My recent column, "How much are your kids worth," outlines the horrible choice parents in America have to make in the next few weeks. 
 
The risk I see is that, like the push to re-open states prematurely, school re-openings may follow the same path and backfire (as it has in many other countries). Children in classrooms might become "super spreaders" of the virus, infecting themselves, their parents, grandparents, along with their cities and states. 
 
I warned readers two weeks ago to prepare for some volatility in the event Congress failed to act before the end of the month. That prediction has come true. The longer politicians continue to procrastinate, preen, and pose for the cameras without delivering another fiscal stimulus package, the longer financial markets will continue to gyrate. Since market participants have already priced in another stimulus package, the failure to pass this legislation would trigger a market decline. Readers should also remember that the months of August and September have not treated investors kindly in the past. Let's hope the politicians don't make this a self-fulfilling prophecy.
 

Bill Schmick is now the 'Retired Investor.' After working in the financial services business for more than 40 years, Bill is paring back and focusing exclusively on writing about the financial markets, the needs of retired investors like himself, and how to make your last 30 years of your life your absolute best. You can reach him at billiams1948@gmail.com or leave a message at 413-347-2401.

 

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The Retired Investor: How Much Are Your Children Worth?

By Bill SchmickiBerkshires columnist
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. 
 

Bill Schmick is now the 'Retired Investor.' After working in the financial services business for more than 40 years, Bill is paring back and focusing exclusively on writing about the financial markets, the needs of retired investors like himself, and how to make your last 30 years of your life your absolute best. You can reach him at billiams1948@gmail.com or leave a message at 413-347-2401.

 

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