Just don’t call it QE3 nor Inflationary

Drilling for stimulus, finding inflationWhether it’s Barack Obama releasing 30 million barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, or Ben Bernanke saying they might buy another $300,000,000 worth of U.S. Treasurys… even after QE2.  But, no, it’s not QE3… nah.

The oil gambit was, from a purely stimulative standpoint, an interesting move.   It would have been more effective when oil was at $110 and rising rather than in the $90’s and falling.  But, perhaps there was some political hay to be made.  Short term this was not an inflationary move.  However, someday, those 30 million barrels will have to be repurchased… which will have an inflationary effect.  It was a short-term political move.  From a geopolitical perspective, it also signals a US willingness to manipulate the oil markets… rather than being truly “Strategic” (aka for military and other strategic purposes).    Ironically the Obama administration is accusing others of oil price “manipulation” while they just did just that with the SPR oil release.

And for Helicopter Ben, QE and QE2, both unprecedented;  it seems that maybe a little more magic juice is called for.  He doesn’t understand the current economic problems, other than to call them (mysterious) “headwinds”.

The situation, as I see it, is inflation-triggering non-stimulus.  The magic “CPI” may not reflect this right away.  In fact I believe inflation is currently outpacing “CPI Index” inflation by 1 to 2 percent.

I’m not fully aware of the whats or whys of QE3, I just know that I’m not supposed to call it QE3.

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.

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.

Financial Rant against Washington’s Out-of-Control Debt Machine

“We’re spending $3.7 trillion. We’re taking in $2.2 trillion,” Sen. Jeff Sessions said, “That’s a stunning number, and one of the reasons it’s so out of control is that we don’t have a budget.”

I couldn’t have said it better.  Washington’s overall budgetary condition has gone from ridiculous to shear lunacy.  Without a drastic course correction the loons steering the ship are going to take us and our economy down with them.  (Since most of them have platinum-plated pensions, they will NOT go down with the ship).

By some strange alchemy of mendacity, arrogance, and deliberate ignorance, the United States Government continues to follow the financial lead of Italy, Portugal, Greece, and Spain…. and I might add Japan.  For good examples of fiscal sanity we need only look at countries like Australia, Brazil, China, and South Africa.

US debt trends alarmingly up with no apparent end in sight.   Failure to acknowledge these facts is a failure of leadership.  The lengths the US Government is willing to go to continue this economic farce would likely be criminal if employed by corporations. (Ever heard of fiduciary responsibility?)  Rhetoric like “there’s no problem with Social Security or Medicare… they are solvent”.  Wasn’t the same being said about Freddie Mac and Fanny Mae a short few years ago?  I wish President Obama and the US Congress would read some of the best investing books.

Every good rant deserves to deliver some solutions.  And solutions, I’ve got in spades:

  • Cut Federal spending.  Start the debate at 2008 spending levels, and look for further cuts.  Phase out entire programs.  Freeze federal salaries until unemployment drops below 5%.
  • Acknowledge that Social Security for people currently under the age of 40 will be aggressively means-tested.  Folks under 40 (that includes me) don’t count on much unless you are in poverty during retirement.
  • There are only two kinds of infrastructure with real, lasting economic impact.  Interstate highways and the US power grid.  I’m not talking “Smart Grid”… leave that to local utilities.  I’m talking about new, improved, robust, high-voltage, DC power transmission across the United States.  If Canada and Mexico want to sell their power, let them participate (via treaty).
  • Let US oil and natural gas companies drill.  Charge a 10% profit surcharge on new domestic (and offshore) production if you must, but approve the permits and get out of the way.  [But raise the liability cap for disasters.]
  • Embrace the Canada-to-US oil pipeline.
  • Simplify the C-corp (corporate) tax structure by eliminating ALL “loopholes” and reducing the rate from 35% to 21%.  Exempt the first $250,000 from C-corp taxes, and charge 10% for earnings of $250,000 to $5 million to encourage small business investment.
  • Eliminate the self-employment tax on the first $50,000 of small business earnings.
  • Strike down and reverse most provisions of ObamaCare.
  • Rein in the EPA on faux “pollutants” like CO2 and modest levels of methane.  Instead focus on true pollutants like carcinogens, harmful particulates, and toxins.
  • Get out of the way.  The private sector is a dynamo on steroids and is ready to roll when the regulatory restrictions are lifted and relaxed.  Anti-trust and anti-monopoly rules still serve an important roll.  Workplace safety is important too, but measure results as much as adherence to OSHA procedures.

Believe me, I’m writing with kid gloves.  Tell me where you think I’m wrong.  Please add your suggestions.  I look forward to publishing both.

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.

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.

Financial Diversions: The Business of Blogging

When it comes to business and finance I have two things in common with Lady Gaga and Frank Sinatra; I have my own style, and I do it my way.  I blog about finance for several reasons: my readers, as a financial journal, to clarify financial ideas and strategies, and as a business venture.  Today I explore the business of financial blogging.

The business plan for the Balhiser Financial Blog consists of three main phases:

  1. Build an audience of financially-minded readers and investors.
  2. When readership is sufficiently high, sell ads on the site.
  3. Write one or more financial books, published electronically, and sell for a modest price (say $2.99).

Currently, I’m focused on phase 1, audience building.  As I blogged in May the Balhiser Finance Blog has had over 58,000 unique visitors and counting.  Had the blog been running ads, the finance blog may have earned about 500 dollars in revenue.  Clearly the blog is a small business. This estimate is based on an earlier time, when web traffic was lower, and the blog accumulated just over 15 dollars in revenue.  These low numbers persuaded me to postpone running ads until traffic increased.

So I looked at my traffic using Google Analytics (a great and free tool).  Comparing this month’s traffic with last month’s showed visits up 89%, page views up 182% and average time on site up 273%. Comparing to 12 months ago visits are up 4,400% and page views are up 9,380%.  Yay!  While the Balhiser Investing Blog is a small business, it’s a growing small business.

I know a lot of web professionals, who give me all sorts of advice on growing blog readership.  The common themes, ideas, and rules that have worked best for my blog:

  1. Blog frequently
  2. Know your audience
  3. Write good content

I have amended rule #3 to “Write interesting content.”  Following rule #2, this means writing content that the blog’s audience finds interesting.  Three way of finding what’s interesting to the blog’s audience are:

  1. Most-read posts
  2. What search keywords bring the most visitors?
  3. Comments from readers

What’s humbling for me is that the blog articles I consider my very best work are seldom the most popular.  My most recent surprise was the popularity of the post Financial Baseball which sought to explain the mortgage mess around synthetic CDOs using an analogy to fantasy baseball.  Based on the positive response I penned the article Financial Baseball and the Finance of Baseball discussing what I’d consider if I was in a position to buy an MLB franchise.  Sorry readers, neither of these blog posts would make my personal “Best financial articles of this decade” list.  I’m glad many of you enjoyed reading them.

Occasionally a financial topic that I am passionate about also gets great readership.  That happened with the blog article CPI Really Stands for… which talked about the Consumer Price Index (CPI).  Consequently, I plan to write more blog articles about the CPI, the definition of CPI, the shortcomings of the current CPI, and alternative price measures to the CPI.

Some advertising and media pros have suggested that I add more news and web trending topics, relating them back to finance.  Such as how Rep. Antony Weiner’s situation will effect the House and pending financial legislation, or how a divorce could effect Rep. Weiner’s finances.  There are practically an “infiniti” of trends if one follows Google Trends:  blogging about the financial impact of Gabrielle Giffords’ tragic injury and the roll of short-term disability insurance, blogging about how trendy celebrities like Colin Farrell, Ice T, and Jessica Simpson make and invest (or lose) their money, even talking about the finance of NASCAR versus Formula 1 (perhaps the most expensive sports enterprise on the planet).  Actually, I kind of like the NASCAR v. F1 idea… it could be fun to research.

Mostly I’ll stick with the 3 tried-and-true rules above.   If and when my audience grows an additional 10-20 times, I’ll probably start running ads again (even though they can be a bit annoying).  And I’ll keep on blogging.

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”.