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The Retired Investor: Our Hospitals Are in Trouble

By Bill SchmickiBerkshires columnist
COVID-19 effectively put a halt to most elective surgeries. As the nation gets vaccinated, however, medical authorities have given the all-clear to resume those surgeries. But will patients come back?
 
The answer to that question is important to the nation's hospitals, whose bottom line has suffered as much as, or even more than, most of their patients. Last year, hospitals were forced to shut down surgery in order to create capacity for skyrocketing cases of the coronavirus. But even after beds opened up again (as a result of the reduction in new, serious Covid-19 cases), most patients are still putting off surgery, concerned that they might catch the coronavirus during a hospital stay.
 
In 2020, the nation's hospitals' revenues declined by $320 billion. At the same time, drug expenses increased by 17 percent, labor by 14percent and hospital supplies by 13 percent. This year, hospitals are expected to lose another $53 billion to $122 billion, which amounts to 4 to 10 percent of their total sales. In the meantime, costs continue to rise.
 
A recent health-care market research survey by Becker's Hospital Review, found that fully 68 percent of respondents, who are considered health-care leaders, believed patient fear will delay or limit demand for surgery for at least the next six months. In response, hospitals are working overtime to turn the way they do business on its head.
 
Since making patients feel safe must be their top concern, hospitals have implemented a number of changes in the way in which they operate. For instance, 68 percent of hospitals surveyed have reserved operating rooms and/or intensive care units just for Covid-19 patients. About 23 percent of these organizations have allotted an entire building, including parking lots, to ensure coronavirus patients are isolated from other patients. That increases the feeling of safety but cuts down on the number of non-COVID patients that can be served at any one time. As a result, more than 70 percent of hospitals are running at less than 75 percent capacity.
 
That level of separation also incurs costs that would otherwise be saved. Additional cleaning, maintaining PPE, and conducting testing, as well as the need for higher numbers of employees to accomplish all of the above, hurt the bottom line. As readers might imagine, the demand for additional cost savings is of paramount importance. That is where virtual care solutions come in.
 
Virtual health care reduces cancellations, streamlines surgical operations, provides less time in the physical hospital setting, and reduces costs dramatically. Many hospitals had already been employing some level of virtual care, but it was mostly confined to information gathering and storage. The bad news is that few hospitals have the appropriate tools necessary to effectively deliver virtual care at the scale required.
 
There are no easy answers to the dilemma hospitals face, outside of more aid from the federal government. The Provider Relief Fund, which was included in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act is currently helping hospitals to stay afloat. But the $100 billion fund is not nearly enough, according to the American Hospital Association. Given the present trend, I have to agree that it won' t be enough to keep the doors open in many emergency rooms, let alone surgical centers.
 
What's worse, most medical experts believe that we should expect additional coronavirus-type threats in our future. Prior to the pandemic, we already knew that our healthcare system was broken. It is clear to me that we can no longer deny the obvious. The hospital system may be the wakeup call that we all needed to finally overhaul the healthcare system in the U.S.; at least I hope so.
 

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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The Retired Investor: A Highway of Opportunity

By Bill SchmickiBerkshires columnist
Most Americans seem excited and hopeful about the prospects for the Biden Administration's infrastructure plan. Local politicians as well as their construction buddies are salivating at the possible promise of getting their share of this multi-trillion-dollar prize. But looking beyond the pork barrel, we might want to consider how innovation and technology could help America regain its first-class status in infrastructure.
 
As of 2019, the United States is ranked 13th in the quality of its infrastructure after countries like Singapore, Japan, Germany, and the United Kingdom among others. Of course, it may not be a fair comparison since the U.S. has to rebuild and maintain 4 million miles of roads, streets, tunnels, bridges and other structures, while a nation like Singapore is smaller than New York City.
 
The sheer size of our infrastructure is made even more difficult by how many fingers are in the nation's pie. All of this infrastructure is essentially owned, operated, and maintained by state and local highway agencies. At the local level, about 40,000 individual governmental units of varying sizes and populations are responsible for 75 percent of the nation's highway mileage.
 
 In turn, these agencies contract with thousands of private companies that furnish products, services, and equipment to build, maintain, and operate the system. This private sector portion is comprised of highway contractors and consultants, material and equipment manufacturers and suppliers, plus all the professional, trade, and industry assortations that proliferate at the national, state, and local levels. We are talking about many thousands of individual businesses from the largest multinational corporations to single-person operations.
 
Over and above this vast public and private sector army sits the federal government, which provides funding in the form of financial assistance to the states, as well as certain regulations, policies and guidelines.
 
As one can imagine, like in every army, there are traditional ways of thinking and doing and when it comes to infrastructure, even more so. When thinking about infrastructure, more often than not, familiar terms like "shovel ready," "pothole repair," and "black topping," accompanied by long traffic delays and detours comes to mind.
 
But while we have largely delayed or ignored our infrastructure, other countries have been achieving technological breakthroughs and new innovations for years. My hope is that the U.S. will be able to take advantage of some of these advances in our own infrastructure plan in the coming decade.
 
Software programs, for example, are changing the way infrastructure projects are being designed. New building information modeling programs enable three-dimensional, computer-generated designs that allow professionals at all stages, from architects to engineers to building managers, to collaborate on a project. Among other things, using these state-of-the-art programs decreases errors, gives much greater predictability when it comes to costs, and would help to deliver projects that are on time and on budget.
 
Another innovation is the application of 3D printing to construction and design. 3D printing is poised to totally disrupt the construction site, according to many construction experts. A Dutch company, for example, designed and built the world's first 3D-printed steel bridge recently. The use of 3D technology not only can reduce costs, but aid in constructing safer, more durable projects.
 
Plastic roads is another concept that promises to replace traditional asphalt as a primary material in road construction. Advantages over asphalt include quicker installation time, triple the service life, and an effective way to recycle the plastic that is filling up our oceans and landfills.
 
Blockchain technology can also be applied to infrastructure long before the first 3D blueprint is drawn up. Remember that army of private and public sector entities? Imagine how long it usually takes the government to actually contract out and procure all the processes involved in even one project. That's where blockchain comes in. The technology would be ideal in its ability to eliminate the layers and layers of contracts and middlemen that sit between the conception and delivery of just about any infrastructure project.
 
These are just some of the advances that are available to the U.S. The challenge will be to overcome the skepticism and resistance to change that confronts all of us. I'm hoping that with the correct approach, our effort to rebuild America could be the envy of the world. 
 

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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@theMarket: Stocks Grind Higher as Bond Yields Retreat

By Bill SchmickiBerkshires columnist
April is usually a good month for markets. Historically, it is one of the three best months of the year for equities. We all know what happens in May ("sell in May and go away") but we will worry about that later.
 
Over in the bond market, the bond vigilantes may have started to doubt their conviction that inflation is a fait accompli and so yields must go up. This week, yields declined a bit, which gave a boost to some sectors (gold and silver, for example), while banks pulled back a little. But Friday's Producer Price Index report for March reversed that. PPI was up 1 percent versus expectations that were only half that, which brings the year-over-year gain to 4.3 percent.
 
After the report, precious metals fell back, banks rallied, and the U.S. dollar gained along with bond yields. But for long term investors these weekly, and even monthly, government reports should be taken with a grain of salt. The Fed has said that over the short-term the inflation rate will rise, but not nearly enough to cause any risk of runaway inflation.
 
This week's sector rotation among the day traders was to sell out of the re-opening stocks and back into large cap technology. Like gold and silver, readers should know that higher interest rates provide a headwind for the technology sector. As such, it makes sense that NASDAQ outperformed both the Dow and the S&P 500 Index this week. But the tech-heavy NASDAQ is still below its old highs, while the Dow and S&P 500 Indexes have been making new highs. I expect that technology overall and the FANG stocks could play catch-up with the other averages this month.
 
The Biden administration's infrastructure proposal also influenced trading. The president's willingness to compromise on the corporate tax rate, plus his invitation to talk with Republicans about the package overall, helped sentiment. That, in turn, pushed the benchmark S&P 500 Index to new highs as well as the Dow. In the meantime, the Russel 2000 small-cap index has taken a back seat to the main averages.
 
In this rotation-prone market, investors have been taking profits in the small-cap arena. There is some justification for this selling. Medical experts have been advising caution over the short-term due to a possible third wave of the coronavirus. This has fueled fears among traders that sporadic shutdowns could occur across America. If so, that could impact smaller companies more than larger concerns.
 
In addition, there has been a noted slow-down in retail participation in the small cap arena lately. Wall Street analysts were predicting that at least half of the latest stimulus checks would find their way into that retail-favored market. That was a bad bet, since the opposite seems to have occurred.
 
Instead, retail investors have paid down debt with their government windfall.  Times are changing as well. As the country gets vaccinated, and more and more new opportunities present themselves (re-opening restaurants, movies, gyms, etc.), individuals are no longer confined to day trading on their computer screens. 
 
I expect stocks to continue to climb this month, supported by good news on the earnings front and the expectation that the economy is gathering steam. Outside of the U.S., Europe and the lesser-developed areas, emerging markets, hold promise. Emerging markets have had substantial corrections during the last two months and seem ripe for buying, in my opinion, especially if the greenback continues to decline.
 

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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The Retired Investor: Water Becoming a Rare Commodity

By Bill SchmickiBerkshires columnist

America is running out of water. During the next 50 years, the nation could see its fresh water supply reduced by one third. But if you think that's a problem for the next generation, you are wrong. This year alone, as many as 83 out of 204 U.S. water basins could begin to feel the brunt of these shortages.

 And don't think these shortages will only affect those regions that we would expect to be dry. The central and southern Great Plains, the Southwest and central Rocky Mountain states, as well as the South, Midwest, and parts of California are all in danger. The twin culprits are rising temperatures and changing rainfall patterns brought on by climate change.

The wettest regions of the country are getting wetter, while the driest areas are getting dryer. At the same time, we are seeing more intense concentrations of rainfall that make capturing and using that water more difficult. If you combine that with temperature changes that are expected to heat up the nation by 5.7 degrees in the years ahead, you have a perfect storm for water shortages.

But that's only the tip of the iceberg. The demand for clean, fresh water is also increasing. Population growth alone is setting us on a path where we are going to need to make hard choices between water use for drinking, irrigation (37% of water usage is for agriculture) and manufacturing. We already are fighting over water in many states. The Colorado River is just one example of the ongoing controversary of water use and state's rights.

However, most Americans simply assume that if push comes to shove, there will always be enough clean tap water in most of the major cities and towns, at least in places like the Northeast, where I live. Think again. Our drinking water has been contaminated by industry, weakening government oversight, and aging infrastructure for years and years. Did you know, for example, that a water main breaks in the U.S. approximately every two minutes?

Leaking lead from aging pipes in New Jersey, radioactive waste in the ground water in Arizona and New Mexico from uranium mines, hookworm disease in Alabama from sewage pipes, mining spills in Kentucky, chemicals in the South Carolina water supply—these are just some of a long list of calamities that are popping up more and more frequently throughout the country.

In the middle of this crisis, the demographics of the U.S. population are changing. Some cities and communities are getting bigger and richer, while others in areas such as the upper Midwest, the Great Plains, and the Mississippi Delta are dealing with fewer resources and declining populations. Unfortunately, these trends will mean increasingly unaffordable water for certain segments of the population going forward. Today, for example, in some areas of North Carolina, a low-income family of six people needs to work 4 to 5 days each month just to cover their water bill.

Utility disasters, such as the massive lead-tainted water crisis in Flint, Michigan in 2015, are expected to grow in frequency and with increasing economic impact. This week's latest calamity involves a Florida reservoir in the Tampa Bay area on the brink of collapse. It was leaking toxic wastewater and could have devastated much of the region's environment and economy. It was narrowly averted, although environmentalists had been warning of the danger for years.

The truth is that many cities and states face huge upgrades in their water infrastructure and have for many years. The only way to obtain the money is to raise taxes or borrow the funds through municipal bond offerings.  If you live in a big city or state with a prosperous population, that may be costly but still possible. But what do you do if your utilities are serving a shrinking or stagnant population with lower income prospects?

Given the dilemma we face as a nation in this area, the Biden Administration's infrastructure proposal seems to be on the right track in proposing $45 billion in grants to help water utilities replace lead water lines and another $56 billion for water and sewer projects. It seems clear to me that preserving our water supply, both now and in the future, is every bit as important as fixing our roads and bridges. As for our growing water shortage, let's hope we all finally take climate change seriously.

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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@theMarket: Spring Has Sprung in the Markets

By Bill SchmickiBerkshires columnist
New highs on the S&P 500 Index this week gave the bulls more ammunition to forge ahead. Leading the charge were clean energy, infrastructure, and technology stocks. Is this the start of another leg up for the equity averages?
 
Credit for the advance, in my opinion, was the increase in the rate of U.S. vaccinations (despite the uptick in coronavirus cases over the last week). Second were the actions of the Biden administration in moving rapidly to tackle the needs of the U.S. economy. Possibly even more important, at least in the long term, were their proposed efforts to address the dangerous widening of the income inequality gap in this country.
 
As readers are aware, the gap in income inequality has been growing in this country for three decades. The ongoing pandemic has only accelerated this problem. After years of politicians and economists arguing that "trickle down" economics would narrow this gap, the opposite has occurred.
 
President Biden has decided to try another approach. He is committing the largest spending program since Roosevelt's New Deal to narrow the income inequality gap between the haves and have-nots. His latest $2.25 trillion proposal, announced this week in Pittsburgh, was focused on dealing with the deteriorating state of the nation's infrastructure. But it also included a $400 billion program to care for elderly and disabled Americans, and $300 billion that would be directed into building and retrofitting affordable housing. These are areas where the income gap has caused enormous pain and suffering in many Americans.
 
Those who still insist on the bankrupt theory of private sector solutions to all our economic issues argue that there is little return on investment in programs like that. It is the kind of thinking that has divided this nation and alienated at least half our population. Whether you are Republican or Democrat, a Trump hater, or lover, income inequality affects all of us. Income inequality is color blind as well. My belief is that it is time to try something different, and the markets seem to agree with my assessment.
 
Despite Biden's plan to raise taxes on corporations and those earning $400,000 in income, the markets continue to rally. This has surprised the bears as well as many politicians. They trot out the same old tired arguments, warning that raising taxes in a weak economy will crater the economy. Historically, the threat of higher taxes usually resulted in a short-term decline in equity markets, but not this time. Why?
 
My explanation for this week's leap higher in the markets is simple. Most of Corporate America (and Wall Street} recognize the long-term jeopardy of the continued widening of the income gap on their own businesses. Remember, consumer spending comprises almost 70 percent of the economy overall. The less money consumers have, the less they spend. The less spending, the lower the economic growth rate.
 
This week, the market's gains were fueled by a come-back in technology stocks, led by the semiconductor and clean energy sectors. It was a welcome development for the bulls. Friday's labor report also held good news. U.S. job growth in March showed 916,000 jobs were added in the economy, while the unemployment rate dropped to 6 percent.
 
Now that March's volatility is winding down, and the end of quarter rebalancing is over, I am hoping for a better April into May for investors. Those who had raised some cash in February had some great opportunities to buy back stocks last month. I expect markets to continue higher but rotation between various sectors will also keep markets somewhat volatile.
 
A word of warning, however. Investors should not expect that President Biden's infrastructure proposal will pass in its present form. Its passage will require a great deal of negotiations and time. I'm thinking legislation won't be passed until October, with the price tag reduced to something below $2 trillion over 10 years. Remember, too, that in the past, infrastructures bills have failed to pass more times than not.  Hopefully, in the end, something meaningful will actually get done, so keep your fingers crossed.
 

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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