Making Money

When I last updated my “play money” (Crazy Ivan) account info it was worth $25,953.  As of market close yesterday it is worth $28,174.  Equity and ETF positions have changed slightly. Then now include DTN, INTC, IVV, JNK, PBP, SPLV and XLE.   I like all of these positions, however XLE has been a short-term disappointment.  I hold XLE as only a hedge against rising gas prices.

All in all not bad performance for an account valued at $15,784 in October 2005.  (There have been no deposits or withdrawals  during the whole time.)  This is about 11.2% annualized performance.

Simple Plan to Tackle the Home Mortgage Crisis

Houses Up

5&7 Plan

The idea is so simple, it is surprising that no one (that I have heard about) has proposed it.  One big problem the US government faces is the enormous pile of mortgage-backed debt held by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.  Another problem is that many “home owners” are underwater with their mortgages.  [How can you be a home owner if you have negative equity?]  Finally, the popping of the housing bubble continues to be a drain on the US economy.

The solution I propose is making interest on mortgage-backed securities tax free for five years.  This plan would immediately drive up the value of these “toxic” assets and drive down mortgage interest rates below historic lows.  This would provide a tremendous boost to Fannie and Freddie and even the Federal Reserve.  Increased demand for tax-free MBS would spur banks to issue more mortgages under easier terms, which would help prop up home prices.  Naturally, fewer home owners would be under water.

This would also be a boon for investors, giving them access to another tax-free asset class.  The incentive of tax-free MBS would be so powerful, it would threaten to take money away from tax-free municipal bonds.  To help offset this risk, part II of my plan would make long-term capital gains on municipal bonds tax free for seven years.  Like Cain’s 9-9-9 Plan, my plan would have a numeric title, the “5&7 Plan”.  (To avoid confusion with the 5-7 Pistol, the “&” symbol is used rather than a dash.)

The long-term capital gains provision gives investors an incentive to hold municipal bonds for at least one year.  The extra two years for municipal bond gains gives investors an added incentive to hold long-maturity municipal bonds.

The 5&7 Plan would expand the tax-free bond universe and introduce the concept of tax-free interest investing to a new group of investors… the middle class.  Typically only high-income earners benefit from tax-exempt bonds because they offer lower interest rates than taxable bonds.  Because high-income taxpayers face higher marginal tax rates, tax-free municipal bonds make sense despite lower interest rates.  If the 5&7 Plan becomes law, higher-yielding MBS will become lucrative to savvy middle-class investors.

I encourage the 2012 presidential candidates to consider adopting the 5&7 Plan.  I could see Romney offering the 5&7 Plan as a way of “cleaning up Newt’s Fannie and Freddie mess.”  Similarly I could see Gingrich pitching the 5&7 Plan as a way of “fixing the Democrat’s Fannie and Freddie problems.”  Finally, I could see Obama selling the 5&7 Plan as “an innovative way to clean up America’s mortgage crisis”.

If the 5&7 Plan gets enough press, it will revitalize the mortgage debate.  It will help turn the debate towards real solutions and away from political blame games.  And, if passed, 5&7 will energize the mortgage and housing markets in explosive ways compared to the tepid response all the other failed legislation of the past 3 years.  If you like the 5&7 Plan, share this link.  If you don’t, please share why.  I will publish all non-spam replies.  Let’s get the 5&7 debate started!

5 Ways to “Show Me the Money”

Ask whether these people are showing you the money. Hold them accountable for your money.

1. Your boss/company. Ask yourself first if you had a good year. If so, do some research on at you should expect to be earning.  Try starting with Glassdoor.  If you are not making what you want and are not moving in the right direction, consider moving to another company.  But, be sure to do through research and then line up a job (in writing) before giving your notice.

2. Politicians.  Are you getting reasonable benefit for your taxes?  Grade by region.  Here’s my grading:  City C, County B, State B+, Federal D.   If your grade is C or less, consider voting the bums out!

3. Social Security.  Ever work out the rate of return on your projected Social Security payments versus the amount you have and will put in.  Mine is about 0% return.  And that is *if* I ever get *any*.  Not much you can do about it, but something to consider when planning your own retirement…. What if I get nothing from Social Security when I retire?

4.  Investment Adviser.  How does my return stack up to A) The S&P500 total return (including dividends)?  B) A 100% bond profile such as Vanguard Total Bond Market Index Fund Admiral Shares (VBTLX)?  If, overall, it is under-performing both, fire your adviser.  If it beats one… ask questions like why it didn’t do better.   If it beats both, ask “what risks are you taking with my money!”?  If you are your own investment adviser ask yourself the same questions.  And, if you decide to fire yourself, consider getting advice from someone reputable and sane like Vanguard.

5.  Your credit score.  Know your credit score (FICO score).  Guess what?  If it’s below 711, it’s below average! [Technically below “median”, but let’s not split hairs.]  720 used to be golden, but today 750 is the new golden score.  In some cases 770.  If your score is below where you’d like it to be, start getting financially fit.  And remember, success doesn’t happen overnight.  Success takes time.

Bitcoin: The More the Merrier, up to 21 Million

S&P made the right declaration: AA+.  Moody’s and Fitch showed relative weakness.   The downgrade of US Treasurys makes complete sense given that US debt loads will easily surpass 100%  of GDP within a decade.  The US Treasury accuses S&P of negligence for not using their $20T vs $22T figures.  I’ve heard stronger arguments from 8th grade debate teams. [Been there. Done that.]

Here I am, Joe investor, watching the markets whipsaw like mad.  I braced for impact in my oh-so-slow way and mitigated perhaps 10% of the damage, but my investments have been generally damaged too.

Maximum caution lies not on either side of the coin, but on the edges.  100% “safe” investments are not safe in the same way that 100% aggressive investments are not safe.  Safety should be measured in terms of the following risk factors 1) situational 2) statistical (non-monetary)  3) inflationary (monetary).

In the midst of worldwide and US market turmoil there has been similar chaos in the fledgling currency called bitcoin.  It is so “new” that my spell checker suggests “bitchiness” or “bit coin” as alternatives.   Meanwhile I’m thinking of a very small exposure to bitcoin as an alternative to precious metals or commodities.

I should disclose that I have I have an emotional connection to bitcoin.   Bitcoin has aspects of finance, technology, and financial engineering that are intriguing to me.  So please consider this factor as I continue to write.

Bitcoin is all that fiat money is not… Bitcoin is finite!   The number one rule I am painfully learning about ANY fiat currency is that it is potentially infinite.  (Unbounded, if you will.)  The fiat currency “presses” are only bounded by the constitution and discipline of the political systems that underlie them.  And these very systems have show over historically documented periods to be ultimately undisciplined. Simply put: lack of monetary discipline leads to economic calamity leads to runaway inflation.

That is one factor that is engineered against in the bitcoin ecosystem.  The bitcoin “printing presses” are inherently limited to 21,000,000 bitcoins.  Further some bitcoins will be forever lost into the digital black hole.

I am not here to say that there are not flaws with bitcoin (BTC).  Just that very few have been discovered yet, and those are very minor so far.  I am saying that bitcoin also has unprecedented advantages: 1) digital portability, 2) relative anonymity, 3) potentially fee-less transfer, 4) agent-less security, 5) inflation-resistance.  I love all of these factors, especially resistance to inflation.

I am here to say that the business cycle is real.  There are booms and busts.  And there is government meddling with the business cycle that, in the long run, only magnifies booms and busts.  And that bitcoin is one possible antidote.  That said, I am sticking with stocks, bonds, ETFs, etc in a not-so-contrarian manner.  I just happen to be mining a few bitcoins on the side.  Not familar with bitcoin mining?  Google it!  :)

Fallout from the S&P US National Debt Downgrade

Kudos the S&P for being the first major debt rating firm to downgrade US debt to AA+.  Essentially they warned Congress that $4 trillions in cuts was required in a debt ceiling deal, Congress only ponied up about $2 trillion.  Bill Gross of PIMCO saw this coming as did many, many others including this finance blog.

The importance of the credit downgrade is the message it sends to voters and to Washington:  The US Treasury  is not immune the market realities of global economics.  The giant US credit card has terms and conditions ultimately dictated by global bond markets.  As debt-to-GDP ratios increase so will borrowing costs.  The long-term trajectory of US debt growth, under current law, is staggering.  Further the cocktail of massive debt, out-of-control debt growth, and a weak US economy do not bode well for future US debt ratings.

Unfortunately I don’t think this message is being heard or understood by a sufficient number of Americans.  Gross and El-Erian get it.  The US House of Representatives is starting to understand. The Senate and the White House do not.  Neithe does the US Treasury saying “There is no justifiable rationale for the downgrade?”  Seriously, what meds do they have to be on to say that with a straight face?  The American public has a degree of understanding, but not sufficient concern or attention.

The fallout of the downgrade will be modest but wide-ranging.  It will be good news for AAA rated companies and countries like Exxon Mobile, Britain and German.  The debt rating will be bad news for adjustable-rate mortgage holders, US bond holders, and entities that are required to hold US Treasuries.

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.

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.

Thinking about Asset Allocation

In my blog post Financial Toolkit: Indexing the World I discussed 5 ETF building blocks for diversified investment portfolio construction.  In this financial blog post I’m going discuss a hypothetical investing situation:

Deborah is a 40-year-old woman with a $100,000 401K who just changed jobs.  She transferred her 401K to an IRA, and has $100,000 now sitting in cash.  Deborah’s new job pays $60K/year and she plans to contribute $10K/year to her new 401K.  How might she invest her IRA funds?

As a proponent of diversified index investing, I suggest the following category questions… What percent  1) Domestic vs. foreign?  2) Stock versus bond?

I put forward the suggestion that Deborah’s choices in regard to these two questions will predict 80-90% of the performance of her chosen portfolio.  (Don’t believe it, then read this asset allocation paper sometime when you are afflicted with insomnia.)

Let’s say Deborah decides that a 80/20 domestic versus foreign allocation, and 60/40 stock versus bond allocation are right for her.  Working out the math that’s $80,000 for US investments and $20,000 for foreign investments.  Applying the second stock vs bond ratio to each yields the following: $64,000 for US equities, $16,000 for US bonds, $12,000 for foreign equities, and $8,000 for foreign bonds.

The US part is pretty easy to achieve.  Plunk $64,000 in a low-cost, broad-market ETF (or mutual fund) like SCHB, and $16,000 into a total (aka aggregate) bond ETF like BND.  The foreign stock component is easy too; but $12,000 into VXUS.  Only the foreign bonds require two ETFs because there are no foreign total bond ETFs (to my knowledge); thus I suggest $4000 in a foreign government-bond ETF like IGOV and $4000 in a foreign corporate-bond ETF like IBND.

There you have it.  A simple example of asset allocation.

My personal opinion is that an initial asset allocation process can be very simple and effective.  Notice that I was able to avoid several secondary asset allocation measures such:

  • Value vs Growth (stocks)
  • Large-cap vs Small-cap (stocks)
  • Sector allocation (stocks)
  • Developed vs Emerging markets (stocks and bonds)
  • Short-term vs Long-term (bonds)
  • Average Maturity or Duration (bonds)
  • Government vs Corporate (bonds)
  • Investment-grade vs non-investment grade (bonds)
  • Average credit rating (bonds)

All of these “secondary asset allocation factors” can be side-stepped by purchasing “total” stock and bond funds as outlined above.  Such total (or aggregate) ETFs seek to own a slice of the total, investable, market-cap-weighted investing universe.  Essentially, a total US stock fund seeks to own a piece of the whole US stock market.  Similarly with a total US bond fund, etc.

In summary, if you have a diversified, low-cost investment portfolio, the two biggest ratios to know are domestic/foreign and stock/bond.    [If you don’t have a diversified, low-cost investment portfolio you might want to think about changing your strategy and your financial adviser!]

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.