editorial, finance blog, financial, funds, home, money, mortgage

Know Unknowns: Bank Balance Sheets & The Federal Reserve

Big Money Printing Press

I consider myself knowledgeable about many things financial: ETFs, stocks, bonds, options, the stock market, for example.  I know the difference between an income statement and a balance sheet, and can read financial statements and prospectuses as a matter of course.

I’ve had little luck deciphering bank balance sheets. Income statements yes, balance sheets no.  They tend to be very opaque, which is one obstacle.  Loans are assets while deposits (other than Federal Reserve deposits) are liabilities.  Accurately determining the quantity, quality, type, and duration of loans can be difficult if not impossible… at least to me.  Perhaps some of this info can be found in the bank’s 10K statements.  Also opaque are details of the bank’s interest rate swaps and other OTC financial contracts.

Historically, the old-style (commercial) bank followed the 3-6-3 rule:   Borrow at 3%, lend at 6%, be on the golf course at 3:00.   Such a bank would take in deposits and lend out with loans (mortgages, car loans, commercial loans).  However, banks could not lend out all the deposits; banks had to keep a fraction of the cash in reserve.  This reserve helps to avoid the “run on the bank” problem, where too many depositors ask for their money — all at the same time.

Keeping all of this spare cash at the bank (about 3-10% of assets) is cumbersome, and also encourages bank robberies.  Banks can transfer much of this physical cash to the Federal Reserve and sometimes even earn a tiny bit of interest (0% to 0.25%, “the Fed Funds Rate”) on it.  Thus the Federal Reserve serves as the bank’s bank.  The Federal Reserve System (or “The Fed”) also helps clear checks (remember those?) and move money between banks simply by moving reserve deposit balances between banks.  No need to shuttle hard currency to and fro.  Deposits are moved with a pencil, or computer transaction in the Fed’s books.

The Fed also lends out money to banks.  Banks can borrow from the Fed at 0.75% (the so-called discount rate).  This system leaves a 0.5% profit for the Fed on the difference between the Fed Funds rate and the discount rate.

Classically the Fed would try to guide the economy by moving the Fed Funds rate and discount rate.  If the Fed thought the economy was overheating (generating excessive inflation) the Fed would raise rates to “cool off the economy”.  The Fed tried to adjust the rates so as to give the economy a “soft landing”.    If the US economy got too sluggish, with high unemployment, the Fed lowered rates.  The interesting thing (no pun intended) about these rates is that they are all short-term rates.  So short-term that the Fed funds rate is sometimes called the overnight rate.

I keep saying “classically” and “historically”, is this is how things used to be done by the Fed.  What’s new, since Fed Chairman Bernanke, has been the manipulation of long-term rates with “quantitative easing” QE, and QE2.  Also new (with the cooperation of US Treasury Sec. Timothy Geithner, Congress, and President Obama) are measures such as the AIG bailout and TARP.

The Fed has shifted into uncharted territory, and in the process neglected one of its two prime mandates: price stability and low inflation.  It also seems to have overlooked the concept of real economic growth (GDP growth adjusted for inflation).  Instead the Fed seems to be fluttering in a course of wide-ranging, unprecedented, knee-jerk reactions.

Today’s Fed is not my father’s Fed, nor are today’s banks.  Today they are increasingly known unknowns.  This path is new and the ticket stub is unclear.  I don’t see a destination nor ETA, but when I look close, very close, I see a dim watermark.  Subtle, like grey on grey, I believe I see in faint yet bold letters INFLATION.

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, Investing, money

Negotiating Financial Setbacks

We all face occasional financial setbacks.  One way to increase feeling of financial loss is to check your portfolio daily.  Since I have a private fund that I manage, I feel obliged to stay on top of it daily.  I’ve noticed that when the fund is up I feel modestly happy, but when it is down I feel doubly disappointed.

Sometimes various financial stresses come together at the same time.  Recently minor financial setbacks have converged for me:  modest potential issues with my rental business, and a few percentage points drop in my fund, and long hours at my day job.  Navigating these financial stresses involves 1) avoiding impulsive decisions, and 2) carefully considering available options.  For example part of me wants to sell the rental property in the next year or so, namely to avoid the occasional headaches of being a landlord and property manager.  Another thought is to contract with a property management company, who charges a fee, but helps manage some of the day-to-day property management duties.  Finally, I impulsively want to deleverage some of my investments.

I am approaching my latest bought of financial stress as I always do.  With contemplation and composure.  At least outwardly I am composed and seemingly unflappable.  Internally, I am stressed and a bit anxious.  This comes with the territory of managing a wide range of investments.   This occasional stress is one of the few things I dislike about finance and wealth management. Of course it too shall pass.

I simply wanted to share the fact that, at times, maintaining a financial course can be emotionally challenging.  I spend a lot of time talking about how successful investing can be easy… and in many ways it can be.  Creating a financial plan can be fairly simple, but sticking to it at times can be stressful and nerve wracking.  Financial discipline is worth it, and financial impulsiveness should be kept to a minimum.  That is what I intend to do; even when it is not so easy.

bond funds, bonds, finance blog, money

IMF Chief’s Arrest

In brief, I say about Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s arrest, innocent until proven guilty. The markets are under no such obligation of assumption. Speculation and rumor are as viable as fact in bond markets, stock markets, commodities markets, options markets… you name it.

The impact of Kahn’s situation has short-term ramifications on the European debt crisis as most loudly exemplified by the Greek debt crisis. Strauss-Kahn’s personal crisis could slow or alter IMF/World Bank actions.

I am not surprised, but I am disturbed by the general media reaction to the allegations against Kahn.  “Innocent until proven guilty” should trump “presumed guilty upon allegation”.  Recent examples of the Duke Lacrosse Team and Kobe Bryant loom large as examples of premature media reaction.  I hope that cooler heads will prevail; that the facts will come out… either way (possibly somewhere in between)…  in the slow, laborious, and languid way that the law dictates.  Until then I assume innocence.

bond funds, bonds, finance blog, funds, money

US Debt Ceiling… Sky’s the Limit?

The current debt ceiling is set at $14.294 trillion, and according to CNN Money we are days away from reaching it.  Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner estimates he and his team can keep the US out of default until early August.

I appreciate the increased attention on the US nation debt.  My concern is the the US is beginning to flirt with danger:  increasing risk of a debt crisis.   US debt is a fair ways removed from the debt crises of the PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain).  However, the current trend of debt as a percentage of GDP is ominous.

A US debt crisis would look a bit different from that of the PIIGS because the US is not bound to a multi-country currency like the Euro.  Devaluation of the USD is likely to be a component of (or reaction to) a US debt crisis.  So are austerity and tax increases.

The danger is that buyers of US debt will demand higher and higher interests rates to compensate them for taking on three key risks,  inflation, devaluation, and default.   As debt increases so do these risks.  As the US refinances debt for expiring Treasurys it does do at greater and greater costs.  As the government raises taxes to combat debt (and pay higher borrowing costs) the US economy is increasingly depressed and tax raises do not result in nearly as much federal revenue as hoped.  Eventually only austerity and devaluation (via the printing press and increases in money supply).

The way I see it, playing brinksmanship now with the debt ceiling in an effort to but the brakes on the US deficit is a reasonable risk.  The current trajectory of the US debt is unsustainable and reckless.  With US debt 90% of GDP and closing in fast on 100%, we are in jeopardy.  This number puts the US next to the troubled Ireland and not far from Italy as shown in this table.

It is time for Congress to get its fiscal act together.  Time is rather short.  I hope we can start making some sort of progress.

finance blog, money, options

Are Options, Futures, and Derivatives Useful?

Some of my friends and family like to give me a hard time about the evils of Wall Street, banks, and the financial industry.  They like to argue they produce nothing physical and simply keep coming up with gimmicks and schemes.

When I point out that the stock market allows the raising of capital to launch and expand real business.  Banks serve a similar purpose, especially in supporting small business.  Usually after this they concede these points, but argue that derivatives are pointless, useless, and wasteful.  That they are primarily tools for spectators.

The classic comeback is what about farmers, airlines, and insurance?  Farmers benefit from futures contracts (and crop insurance).  Airlines use futures and options to avoid getting pinched by rapidly rising fuel prices.

The classic retort is “Okay, maybe, but only consumers and producers should be able to participate; speculators should be excluded.”

My thought is who would take the other side of the trades?  Who would take the other side of corn or oil futures contracts?  Sure there would be a bit of action from oil producers and oil consumers, a bit of action from corn consumers (e.g. Kellogg’s).  But the action would be thin, the spreads wide, and the trades few.  Can you spell “illiquid”?

At which point my generic conversation partner tends to say something like “Don’t give me none of the financial gibber-jabber!”

But is it?  I think not.  I believe that commodities futures and options are potentially useful to producers (like farmers) and consumers (like Nestlé) and that “speculators” provide liquidity.  I put “speculators” in quotes, to include not only speculators, but hedgers, investors, arbitrageurs, and market makers.

I’ve only begun to delve into this topic.  To be continued…

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

Money and Investing Celebrities

Jim Cramer, Suze Orman. Warren Buffett, Peter Lynch, Bill Gross, John Bogle. The first two are the closest to household investing celebrities and arguably have the biggest media presence. The latter four are perhaps the biggest names in investing when it comes to mutual funds.

While I occasionally enjoy Cramer’s style, I generally dislike his advice. I believe that his high-energy style encourages high turnover, higher trading costs, reduced tax efficiency, and decreased diversification. Suze’s style is more focused on emotion, spending habits, relationships. I believe she offers a kind of emotional support and tough love that can help folks get out of debt and overcome financial life challenges. Suze’s style is particularly well-suited towards women investors (I’ve heard this from several of my female friends). She has a good grasp of mortgages, credit, foreclosures, and debt management. However, when it comes to stocks, bonds, mutual funds, ETFs, 401Ks, and the like, I find her advice spotty, inconsistent, and occasionally wrong.

I have a better overall opinion of the advice of Lynch, Buffett, Gross, and especially Bogle. I’ve found Lynch’s books useful and I’ve liked his advice about almost everything except bonds. And the performance of the Fidelity Magellan Fund under his management was exceptional. Gross balances out Lynch, because Gross has an impressive track record of bond investing with PIMCO. Buffett also boasts an impressive investing and management record. Finally, Bogle popularized and perfected index investing through Vanguard Funds.

It’s a shame that there is no investing superstar celebrity that provides solid, clear, and broadly applicable investing advice. Perhaps that is because prudent investing advice is somewhat boring. So generating excitement is done through either stock-picking mania (which I consider imprudent) or human interest stories (which tend to be getting out of debt, or get-rich-quick). Another challenge is appealing to a wide range of investing situations and widely different levels of financial literacy.

I’m frequently looking for ways to make this finance blog appeal to a wider audience. That’s why I’m looking at investing celebrities today for clues to make this blog’s message more powerful. As of now, my biggest takeaway is that if I focus more on the emotional and relationship aspects of investing and spending, I may be able to more effectively connect with women investors.

bonds, finance blog, money

Year-End Portfolio Tax Planning

With only a few weeks remaining in 2010, now is a great time to make any tax-planning adjustments.

Step 1 is determining your general current capital gains and gross income situation.   Do you have carry-forward tax losses?  What are your current 2010 realized net short-term and long-term capital gains?   What are your unrealized capital gains?  What is your 2010 “ordinary income” situation looking like?

Answering these questions gives you a starting point for year-end tax planning.

For example, if you have big long-term capital gains because you sold a bunch of company stock to make a down-payment on a vacation property, you make ask yourself, “is paying 15% tax on these gains a good deal, or do I want to try to offset them with a few capital losses?”

Or, you may ask the inverse question…  “I have a bunch of unrealized long-term capital gains;  Should I sell now and realize them for the ‘bargain price’ of 15% tax?”

Some of these financial questions are tough to answer.  That is why I pay my CPA $80/hour to help me answer them. [This is a bargain price; my previous CPA was $150/hour.  Finding a good one for $80/hour was a godsend!]  If your struggling to answer them, I’d encourage you to set up an appointment with your CPA, or if you don’t have one a local CPA.   Bring your best answers or guesses, and you might be surprised how much they can enlighten you in one short hour.

A little year-end tax planning could save you $500, $1000, possibly several thousand dollars.  If you have to pay $80, $100, or even $250, for this I’d say its money well spent.

bond funds, bonds, funds, Index Investing, Investing, Low-Cost Funds, money, options, Small Business

More Hypothetical Proprietary Fund Ideas

While the Σ1 Fund is currently a real 100% privately-held investment vehicle, all language and speculative plans about its future are currently (9/28/2010) STRICTLY THEORETICAL.  There is currently no SOLICITATION or even OPPORTUNITY for anyone other than Balhiser LLC shareholder(s) to invest in the fund.  Further, there is currently no SOLICITATION nor OPPORTUNITY to invest in Balhiser LLC at present. Thus the HYPOTHETICAL and SPECULATIVE language is merely just words at this point and time.  It is entirely possible that outside investors NEVER be given the opportunity to invest.

I’m wondering… should I revise my $10K minimum investment.  Perhaps $5K-$9K with a ~2% up-front load ($5000 yields $4900 of principal, $5000 yields $5100).  Increments above $5K are $1K with an up/down choice.  Increments are also $1K for investments over $10K.  Additional subsequent investments for current investors are $2K minimum with $1K increments.  Withdrawals minimums are $5K or %100 plus optional $1K increments.  Additional fund investments are subject to the same early withdrawal penalties as initial investments.  ALL requested redemptions are FIFO by default.

Distributions (realized capital gains, dividends, etc) are annual.  How they are distributed is TDB.  My initial inclination is that there is an ex-dividend date on the last trading day of each month, and dividend income is distributed in proportion to #months held * #shares.  Distributions are re-invested by default. Non-reinvested distributions are held in a non-interest-bearing manner until $500 is reached, upon which the total distribution will be paid in full by ACH or check.  Non-reinvested dividends may be paid, upon request, before the $500 minimum is reached, but a distribution-collection fee of $50 will be assessed.  For shareholders with >= $100K NAV none of these distribution restrictions or fees apply.

75% of redemption fees will be paid to Balhiser LLC, the remaining 25% will be paid to the Fund.

Requirements for potential investors:

  • Minimum of 5 years experience investing in stocks, bonds, ETFs, and/or mutual funds.
  • Acknowledgment that this is an investment of at-risk capital that may be subject to forced liquidation without notice during volatile and illiquid market conditions. This could result in severe or even total loss of investment.
  • Acknowledgment that options WILL be part of the Fund’s holdings/obligations.  While the primary target use of options is “covered-call” writing the notion of “covered” is not strict.  The fund may consider an RNM (Russel 2000 mini call option contract) to be “covered” by ownership of “an appropriate amount” of SPY (S&P500 ETF) shares.
  • Acknowledgment that ETF futures contracts may part of the Fund’s holdings/obligations.
  • Signed (and notarized) legal waiver that specifies that in exchange for participating in this fund, fund participant, fund participant beneficiaries and/or heirs, agree to hold legally blameless the fund manager and Balhiser LLC  for losses sustained by the Fund.
  • Solid familiarity with E-mail and the Internet and Internet-based “paperless” documents and communication.

In exchange for these concessions, the fund manager agrees to the following “skin-in-the-game” and transparency conditions:

  • So long as fund assets (or total net unredeemed funds invested) exceed $50K, the fund manager and/or Balhiser LLC will maintain a minimum of $25K invested in the Fund.
  • So long as fund assets exceed $50K, the fund manager and/or Balhiser LLC will reinvest all fund net distributions and net fund management proceeds into the Fund.
  • So long as FE>$50K. Fund manager and/or Balhiser LLC will be subject to same fees, terms, and conditions as all other investors PLUS will have to provide an ADDITIONAL 60-day advance notice to all fund shareholders (via email or other means) prior to any sale of holdings in the Fund.
  • 100% of Balhiser LLC/fund manager redemption fees (fees incurred for “personal” withdrawals) will be paid to the Fund.
  • End-of-month NAV reports will be delivered by email to shareholders. (delivered within 5 business days)
  • Subject to NDA: Unaudited Annual Report detailing complete fund holdings (delivered within 20 business days). Disclosure to CPA is permitted.
  • Subject to NDA: Upon request unaudited inter-year report (delivered within 30 business days). A $250 fee applies.  Disclosure to CPA is permitted.  Fee is waived once per year for investors with >= $100,000 invested in the Fund.

Base Management Fee Rates (similar, but not identical, to an expense ratio)

  • 7.8 basis points per month (0.078%) of previous close-of-month fund NAV.
    [~0.95% in simple interest, or ~0.9772% compounded annually]
  • Base management fee reduced by:
    • 10% for investors with >=    $50,000 NAV (or $50K net unredeemed investments).
    • 25% for investors with >=   $100,000 NAV (or $100K net unredeemed investments).
    • 33% for investors with >=   $250,000 NAV (or $250K net unredeemed investments).
    • 50% for investors with >= $1,000,000 NAV (or $1M net unredeemed investments).