decisions, finance blog, financial, Investing, money

Dumb Phone, Smart Money

My two-year contract expired, and I traded in my smart (HTC Android) phone for a “dumb” phone.  The main reason was to save money: I will save $25/month by being able to drop the data plan.  That’s a savings of about $340/year including tax.  I enjoyed my Android phone, but I also have an Android Tablet with wifi only (and a 10.1″ screen) so that satisfies my Android needs.  Of course my laptop has wifi which allows me to write this very blog in a coffee shop.   I just don’t need a smart phone, and $340/year in savings is not insignificant.

I will divulge that I have been much less vigilant with my spending habits this year.  Since my girlfriend and I have stable, high-quality jobs and our financial strategies have been reasonably successful, it has been easy to indulge a bit.  One indulgence has been adopting two wonderful rescue dogs.  We spoil them, and they eat a lot.  I figure they collectively cost $4000/year.  We enjoy their company greatly so the price, while steep, is worth it to us.

I used to be a master of savings.  Now I am merely pretty good living below my means.  I still have the extreme saver know-how, but I am no longer living the extreme-saver lifestyle.  I am living the disciplined saver lifestyle.  I say this because I am sensative to the fact that my finance blog readers are in a wide variety of financial positions.  I am a strong believer in living below your means, especially in your accumulation (savings) years.

baseball, finance blog, financial, Investing

Occupy Wall Street

Wall Street is both a physical location and a metaphor for many things.  Wall Street is a metaphor for U.S. stock markets, stock markets, bond markets, futures markets, options markets, commodities markets, OTC markets, banking, investment banking, even business and CEOs…. the list goes on.

Even if the Occupy Wall Street movement has a financial focus, the term “Wall Street” is just too overloaded.   And that is assuming the folks gathered there are focused on financial institutions and markets.  Some are protesting the Federal Reserve, others the Government, others corporations, others still capitalism.  Most are upset about our crappy US economy.

I think much of America looks at the financial world as a mysterious black box, or as a series of opaque entities tied together in a labyrinth only a few now how to navigate.

Some view this financial black box as useful.  They invest in mutual funds, stocks, bonds, and ETFs.  They take out mortgages and buy insurance.  They trust their investment advisers, or go it alone and trust in themselves.

Others view the financial black box as a “wretched hive of scum and villainy”.  Some from this group are part of Occupy Wall Street.

I have many good things to say about the version of “Wall Street” that I use.   However, I am critical of many parts of Wall Street that I don’t use.   Number 1 on my sh– list are many (not all) financial advisers and stock brokers.  All too often they put people into funds that are commission-laden, undiversified, and unsuited to the needs of their clients, just to make a lot of extra bucks for themselves.  Number 2 on my list are financial analysts (many, not all) whose job seems to be pumping up investments for their proprietary trading beneficiaries.

Nonetheless there are many good things about “Wall Street” and US  markets in general.  Vastly lower commissions on (online) trades, decimal pricing, lower spreads, low-cost ETFs and mutual fund (esp. index and enhanced-index funds).  Free stock quotes and online research.

Back to Occupy Wall Street.  I might as well join (though not support per se) with some virtual protests.

  1. I want a full, independent, and complete audit of the the Federal Reserve and the US Treasury [no I am *not* a Ron Paul supporter].
  2. I want all shareholder initiatives that pass to be legally binding.
  3. I want, at a minimum, the right as an index ETF or mutual fund to have my portion of shares be abstain votes (e.g. the fund manager may not vote *my* shares).
  4. I want (and this is a stretch!) no exit packages for failed CEOs.  I’m fine for paying for real success, but I am not fine with paying for failure.  If a new CEO wants a financial exit package of more than zero dollars, I want a CEO with more self confidence.
  5. I want the government to get out of the bailout business.

If any of you Occupy Wall Street (or Occupy XYZ) folks want to use my protests, be my guest.

decisions, editorial, finance blog, financial, Investing

Stimulus Hypocrisy

Are you excited about Obama’s campaign speech, State of the Union Address, jobs speech presentation to a joint session of Congress?  If so, tune in to hear platitudes and ineffectual, half-backed rhetoric.  Extended unemployment benefits, trivial hiring incentives, infrastructure, stimulus, Keynesian hyperbole and excuses.

I try to stay out of politics on this blog, but I feel compelled to comment about gross fiscal negligence.  I accept the argument that US GDP as a percentage of global GDP is susceptible to decline.  As an US citizen I see no reason to accelerate the decline.  For elected officials to do just that is negligent, naive, or fundamentally hostile to the general welfare of the United States.

The fact that the US has been so successful from 1945 to present is a testament to something unique and special about our whole socioeconomic system.  The fact that we have righted or ameliorated our past social mistakes while improving our economic quality of life is remarkable.

Why our President is so hostile to basic economic factors is shocking.  Historically massive US National deficits siphon capital from the private sector.  Federally-manipulated low interest rate actions (QE1, QE2) sap safe investment opportunities from senior citizens, while fueling speculation in gold, silver, and commodities ranging from oil to corn to aluminum.   Putting the hammer down on domestic oil and natural gas production, particularly off-shore, puts another deep bleeding gouge into the US GDP.   Presidentially-dictated EPA mandates on coal plants put US electrical production in limbo.  Crony-capitalism (or faux capitalism) puts basic free enterprise on notice to be politically correct as a first priority.

I have been silent too long.  I avoid social political issues, but I must address fiscal political issues.  This is my first salvo.

bond funds, bonds, decisions, finance blog, financial, Index Investing, Investing, Low-Cost Funds

401k Plan Redux (Coming Soon to Your Company?)

Poker Chips (financial asset allocation)My current employer is radically revamping its 401K plan.  I have noticed that companies tweak their 401K plans about annually, and dramatically change them every 5-7 years.  This time it’s big. One of the choices allows for both ETF and mutual funds purchases.  The EFT option has me excited.

So far in my career I have worked for three Fortune 500 technology companies.  Long story short, I have two 401Ks and a couple IRAs.  Between them I have about 8% invested in ETFs and the rest in mutual funds.  After the 401K redux, I’ll likely have about 30/70 ETF to mutual fund mix.  I’ll keep my asset allocation largely the same, but I’ll work out a bit of math here and there to do so.  Some mutual funds stay, some funds go, some switch to higher expense-ratio versions, and some are frozen from new money after a certain date.  Over time my retirement assets may approach a 50/50 ETF-to-mutual-fund ratio.

A similar 401K change may be coming your way soon.  The booming ETF trend is continuing unabated with over $1 trillion dollars in assets under management in 2010; some predict that doubling by 2015.  Why?  1) Institutional investors like ETFs, 2) retail investors like ETFs, 3) exchanges like ETFs, 4) brokerages like ETFs.  Generally for the same reason: lower costs.

The upside of more options is access to better options and greater potential for diversification.  The downside is trading fees for ETFs… $7.95 under the new 401K paradigm.  Wise, infrequent purchases can mitigate trading costs.  This requires a bit of financial planning, but is not really a big deal for serious investors.  And there are ~25 ETFs that trade for free.  One can invest in them every paycheck (like buying EEM for free) then periodically, every 6 months or one year, bite the bullet to sell EEM (for free) and buy the better ETF VEU.  Brilliant — low fees and true dollar-cost averaging.  [Not my idea, but a good one.]

In summary, fear not the change to more ETF-centric investing.  Your particular company may pull a fast one on you… but in many cases not.   Read ALL the fine print before determining the case.  I’m glad I did, and I sense greater investing opportunity.

editorial, finance blog, financial, Investing, Small Business

9.2% Unemployment, not just for Europe

Not hiring 2011 When did I wake up in Europe? I want to go home, to the USA that I remember.  9.2% unemployment is for France and Italy.  I’ve been to these countries — nice places to visit — but not to work hard and get ahead.  High unemployment is cultural, normal, systematic.

Is Germany the new USA?  It’s the only European country doing well.  Germany has pride and strength of purpose.  Germany has its fiscal house together.

Is the USA becoming the next France?  Jobs for government workers, modest jobs security for those with jobs, and very few prospects for the unemployed and for recent college graduates.

The fixes for our current economic mess are not rocket science.  I agree with Bill Clinton’s recent comments… the corporate tax rate needs to be reduced.  The U.S. government needs to reduce the self-employment tax that is a huge drain on U.S. small businesses.  Congress and the Administration need to encourage, rather than stymie, domestic oil and natural gas production.  Finally,  an intervention is needed to halt Washington’s latest spending bender.  Washington has been drunk behind the wheel of a massive M1 tank, trying to drive the economy, whilst drifting lane to lane and taking out the odd car here and there.   That tank, fueled by 14+ trillion of debt, is about to find the price of fuel is about to rise.

Now is not the time for platitudes, or experiments.  Now is the time for prudent action.

I am sad that the Space Shuttle is being retired.  Such action is merely a symbol of where the US Government, en masse, sees the USA heading.  This need not be the case.  The US, as a whole, has all that we need to succeed.  We are are free, independent, creative, and motivated.   The US has shown repeatedly the resilience to challenge adversity and thrive.  Why so few lawmakers can see this — communicate this — is baffling to me.  Are they simply economically ignorant?  Or indifferent?

Until some economically sane action emerges from Washington, I am hedging my personal finances.  I’m positioning against the real possibility of long-term, government-sponsored inflation.  I’m factoring in the likelihood of the government CPI (CPI-U Urban Consumer Price Index)  understating true inflation and overstating the real US GDP.

There is a chance, a glimmer of a chance, that the current debt ceiling negotiations will lead to economically sound changes.  I think the chances of that are less than 20%.  I will watch closely and act accordingly.

bond funds, bonds, finance blog, financial, Investing, money

Wired in High Finance

Stock Tickers BlueThere are two economies, the real economy and the financial economy (the financial markets). The two economies are linked, but sometimes the linkage is almost imperceptible.

Take for instance the recent run up in stocks, up ~20% in the last year, and up a total of ~40% in the last two years. This stock run up in the financial economy is in spite of the dismal real economy which was (still is?) in the midst of the Great Recession. The classic explanation for this jump in stock prices is anticipation of strong economic growth that many were guessing was just around the next fiscal quarter or two.

But continued lackluster economic growth, high unemployment, and inflation fears have the stock markets retreating 4% in the last month. QE and QE2 have driven commodity, gold, silver, and oil prices up (and the dollar down to a degree). Low interest rates have also helped fuel the commodity boom. I don’t say commodity bubble, I say boom, because I don’t believe it is a bubble… merely a precursor to higher inflation.

Further the prospects of Congressional legislation past and present loom as large economy and business-dampening prospects.

  1. Dodd-Frank Act regulating all sorts of financial and non-financial items.
  2. Obama Care.
  3. The real possibility of tax increases as part of debt ceiling deal.

The danger of Dodd-Frank, which deals primarily with the financial economy, is that it may spill over into the real economy as well — a form of fiscal contagion.   Obama Care hits right in the solar plexus of the real economy soon.  Potential tax increases are a kidney shot to the real economy.

Also on the horizon is the debt crisis in Europe, currently centered around Greece, but with dominoes in Portugal, Spain, Italy and Ireland ready to fall.

So, why on earth would I be neutral to mildly bearish (long term) on US equities?  The title “Wired on High Finance” sums it up.

  1. Wired, as is in connected, by wire, cable, fiber optics, or wireless.  The continuing computational and connectivity revolution is only accelerating.  This helps business productivity, which helps business (the real economy) and inevitably the financial economy (the stock market).
  2. High Finance.  High finance in the US eventually finds a way.  Take for instance GE which managed to pay zero income tax last year.  Big money always finds a way.   Call it industriousness, creativity, or greed… it gets things done.

Without all of the governmental fiscal and regulatory “headwinds” (as Bernanke has called them), my outlook would be bullish.  Despite them, I believe that the power of a wired world of high finance will find ways to resist the government onslaught.  Either through back-room deals (the new and no-so-new crony capitalism) or the ballot box (voters tired of 9% unemployment), these “headwinds” will be reduced, skirted, or avoided.

And while CPI stands for Consumer Price Index, most commonly, it also stands for Cycles Per Instruction — one measure of computer processing speed.  So while the mainstream CPI may understate prices, the other CPI is very favorable to computation power.  (In both cases keeping true CPI down is desirable.)

Notice I am neutral to mildly bullish on the US (and global) economy.  That is why I, personally, am increasingly invested in investments that reflect that believe — namely covered-call market-index strategies.  That is why I have switches some of my ETF investments from SPY (an S&P500 index EFT) to PBP (an S&P500 covered-call ETF).  Inflation fears and low interest rates have continued to cause me to shy away from most bonds and bond fund… with the exception of high-yield (junk) bonds.

Disclaimer: These are my personal investing thoughts, opinions, and choices as of today.  No one can reliably predict the markets (stock, bond, futures, options) or interest rates, certainly not me.

finance blog, home, home, Investing, mortgage

Financial Diversification Beyond Wall Street

There are many ways to diversify beyond Wall Street’s offerings:

  • CDs (Certificates of Deposit)
  • Bank at a Credit Union
  • iBonds and/or Savings Bonds
  • Residential Real Estate
  • Commercial Real Estate
  • Starting a Small Business
  • Collectibles (gold, silver, platinum, art, vintage cars)
  • DIY home improvement

Paying down debt is also an investment:

  • Paying off (or paying down) credit cards
  • Paying off auto loans
  • Paying off student loans
  • Paying down mortgage(s)

These debt-lowering options have the side benefit of improving your credit score and lead to a healthier credit report.

Additionally, there are “investments” that benefit your finances and offer other non-financial advantages.

  • Education and training.  Either self-taught or formal. (including reading this blog!)  Increase your earning potential.
  • Exercise, and healthy diet.  The longer and healthier you live, the greater your potential to earn and prosper.
  • Strengthen your social network.  You will feel happier, more motivated, have more job networking opportunities.

Finally, there are methods to reduce and diversify your cost of living expenses:

  • Learn to cook, grill, or otherwise eat at home more often.  If you are persistent you may find you are eating better, healthier, and more economically.
  • If you like coffee… brew your own.  It may take time to learn what you like, but when you do you’ll love it.  Whether it is is store-ground hazelnut drip, Vietnamese coffee with Chicory and sweetened, condensed milk, French Roast, or a plethora of other choices you will benefit.
  • If you love high-quality craft beer, consider brewing your own.  After the initial investment (~$200) you can brew your own for less than $4 per six-pack.  Share it with friends, and grow your social network.
  • Use those DIY skills to make your house more energy-efficient by installing low-E windows, LED light bulbs, and even update weather stripping and doors.
  • Grow a garden.

I have employed all of these financial ideas except commercial real estate (not counting REITs), certificates of deposit, and gardening.  My point is that it is possible to invest beyond Wall Street’s offerings.  Wall Street now offers some great investments including ETFs, and excellent brokerage companies like Vanguard, Fidelity, and Interactive Brokers (for sophisticated investors).  Finance and investing extends beyond stocks, bonds, ETFs, and Wall Street.

finance blog, Investing, money

Improving your Credit Score

Credit scores are important because they effect the interest rates you pay on everything:credit cards, car loans, mortgages, lines of credit, etc.  Credit scores and credit reports can also effect your success or failure in landing jobs or obtaining leases on an house, townhouse, or apartment.

If you know your credit score (FICO score), and it’s 770 or higher, you have an excellent score and are in great financial shape.  If your credit score is 720 to 769, you are in good shape, but could benefit from an upgraded score.  Finally if your credit score is below 720, you should strongly consider fixing your credit score.

I have some personal experience with credit score improvement and repair.  When I met my girlfriend and eventually found out her personal finance situation I had to take a deep breath.  She had $13,000 in credit card debt and credit score of 630.  One year later she had a credit score of 750 and almost zero debt. I provided no money to her… just advice and emotional support.  Today she is kicking butt and her credit score is well north of 770.

How’d we do it?  Pretty simple.  By making minimum payments to the low-interest accounts and throwing any left over money towards the highest interest account.  After a couple months, and an improved credit score, she took out a line of credit that was lower than her other rates.  She used it to pay off her highest rate card which was charging an outlandish rate of near 27%.  She kept making timely minimum payments to her lower-rate balances, while throwing almost all leftover money at the cards with the current highest rate.  As her credit score improved she was even able to call up and negotiate lower rates with some of her credit card companies.

I am Mr. Finance.  When I initially learned of her credit and debt situation I was taken for a loop.  I called my dad, Mr. Finance Senior, and confessed my discomfort.  Wise man that he is, he counseled me on observing how she adapts to my financial advise.   Since all else with her was wonderful, I held my breath and watched and waited.  Long story short, she did great.  I am so proud of her.

Not only is she now past her debts; she is thriving.  And because she did it herself, she has learned to “grok” a healthy financial lifestyle.  We are still happily (even blissfully) together.

finance blog, gold, Investing, money

Millionaire by 40? Inflation says Big Deal!

40 years old is still several years off for me, but I it is very likely I will be a millionaire by the time I reach 40.  In fact, if you count my contributions to Social Security (including my employer’s half), the current value invested in my personal “Social Security Trust Fund” puts me there already.  But I’m certainly not counting on Social Security.

So, I’ll be rich right?  Wrong!   First there’s inflation.   Many economists say US inflation has been about 4% per year over the last century.  There’s a handy rule of 72 that says, for example, 72/4 = 18.  That means 4% inflation means that a million dollars today is only worth $500,000 in 18 years and $250,000 in 36 years.

Second, there’s taxes.  Over $300,000 of my holdings are in tax-deferred accounts such as 401k accounts and IRA accounts.  Sure this money is part of my net worth, but when it comes out at retirement I’ll likely be paying something like 30% tax on it.  That’s about $90,000 to Uncle Sam.  Poof!  Gone!

Back to inflation.  Inflation works like a stealth tax.  According to government CPI figures, US inflation increased just 1.5% in 2010.  That simply doesn’t jive with my experience.  My HOA fees increased 7%, my electric and water bill increased 8%.  Car insurance, home insurance, satellite TV, health-insurance premiums, internet, rooms at my favorite hotel, and meals at my favorite restaurant went up, by 4-10% last year.  Even the local sales tax increased almost 1%, making everything that much more expensive on top of everything else.  In Balhiser World 2010 inflation was about 4-5%, rather than the 1.5% according to the CPI.   Thus I have some new ideas about what CPI stands for…

  • Cagey Price Index  (Price? What price?  Prices are relative.)
  • Calming Price Index  (Nothing to see here. Relax. Inflation is under control.)
  • Clairvoyant Price Index  (Far away someone is substituting chuck steak for Filet Mignon.  Meat is meat.  And prices are low.)
  • Creative Price Index (2+2=3 for sufficiently small values of 2)
  • Cowardly Price Index (Please don’t be mad, prices aren’t that bad… see?)

Of course CPI officially stands for Consumer Price Index.  Let just say that for the next 72 years the official CPI is 4%, but actually inflation is 5%.  That handy rule of 72 says that at 4%, one million dollars today will be worth $62,500 of buying power.  At 5% buying power is cut in half to $31, 250.  Of a long enough time a 1 percent difference in inflation is a big deal.

So what?  Well, the CPI is used for a lot of things such as government cost of living adjustments, tax bracket adjustments, Social Security benefit increases, and money paid on Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities, to name a few.

It’s bed time so I’ll cut to the chase.

  1. One million dollars is not what it used to be, and is certain to be worth much less in the future.
  2. To try to remain solvent (and avoid unpopular austerity measures) the US Government has a powerful incentive to under-report inflation.
  3. Many investors and economists are beginning to believe that the CPI significantly under-reports inflation. Examples: “CPI Controversy”“Bill Gross says so”, “Forbes, pastries, and gold say so too”.
finance blog, Index Investing, Investing, Low-Cost Funds

Modern Marvels of Finance

Much rhetoric today is focused against “Wall Street”, bankers, hedge funds, and speculators.  People are upset about the effects of the Great Recession, but are often misguided about the causes.  I submit the idea that the foremost cause of the Great Recession was the business cycle (or economic cycle).    If we are to blame the people and institutions behind the business cycle for the Great Recession we must also applaud them for the periods of growth between recessions.  To one degree or another we are all participants in the business cycle.

Of course, there have been behaviors ranging from ethical violations to fraud, particularly in the arena of mortgages and mortgage-backed securities, and (MBS) credit default swaps.

While there are flaws and imperfections in the US financial system, the accomplishments of the system deserve some attention.  The United States represents an economic marvel of the 20th century and 21st century financial achievements of the American financial system.  Like Rome, the United States incorporates the best of other systems.  The stock exchange did not originate in the United States, but the US and Europe improved upon it.  To the best of my knowledge, the index fund and the ETF both originated in the US.

Right now, today, US investors have access to:

  1. Low cost online brokerage accounts.   It is easy to find brokerage accounts that charge less than $8 per trade and have a list of commission-free ETF trades.  With effort, it is possible to find accounts with trades costing less than $5, or even lower.
  2. Free stock and ETF market data. (For example Yahoo! Finance and Google Finance).
  3. Superb ETF offerings. (SPY, VTI, SCHB, BND, VEA, VEU…)
  4. Excellent order fulfillment and pricing (with most brokers).

Just imagine a world without stock exchanges.  Could you imagine placing a classified ad or holding a garage sale to trade stock certificates?  Ludicrous, right?

The current US financial system is indeed a modern marvel.   English, Canadian, and  European exchanges have been similarly efficient and successful.  Other exchanges around the world are playing catch up, and doing so quickly.

The global world of finance is constantly evolving, but as of today the options available to US investors are quite spectacular.  We are wise to take advantage.