Experiment: Improve my Credit Score to 769 or Higher

I have added my latest and last credit card this year. According to the handy credit simulator at Credit Karma this new card should increase my credit score by 3 points, from 735 to 738. According to another credit simulator this new card will lower my credit score by 3 points to 732. What I take away from this is that this should be my last new card for a while.

I’ve learned that stopping getting new cards and letting them grow is called “gardening”… FICOforums Guarden Club.  I intend to start “gardening” for at least a year and let my “average age of open cards” grow.

It take a surprisingly long time of 4-6 weeks for a new cards to show up on ones credit report.  So I’ve have to wait to see which credit simulator is more correct.  The question… will my credit score go up, down, or stay the same when my newest card is reported? Let’s see how I’m doing in terms of goals:

Credit Score and Credit Card Goals and Results

Achieved:

  • ✓ Get 3 new cards without hurting my score much. (Score is down only 6 points)
  • ✓ Get new cards with complementary and useful features.
    • Slate (Chase): 15-months zero interest, zero cost to transfer balances (during intro period). [No annual fee]
    • Quicksilver (Capital One): 1.5% Cash-back on any and all purchases. $100 “signing” bonus. [No annual fee]
    • Chase Freedom (Chase): 5% Cash-back on rotating categories. $200 “signing” bonus. [No annual fee]
  • ✓ Secure total limits greater than $50K.  Current limits total $61,700.

Close to Reaching:

  • Part I of Utilization (ratio of debt to total credit limit).  Get below 20%.
    • Currently at 20%, but not below
    • Since newest card has not been included in credit report, TransUnion still thinks my utilization is at 24%
  • Part I of “Delinquency”/Payment History:  Go from 2 “30-days late” entries down to 1.
    • Currently at 98% payments on time
    • 2 months until oldest delinquency expires
    • On-time payments will increase to 99%

     Will likely take over 6-months to achieve:

  • Part II of Utilization.  Get below 10%.
    • My Slate card has about $12K of debt, but the APR is 0% until September 2015.  I will likely make minimum payments until August when I will pay in full.
  • Part II of “Deliquency”/Payment History: Have zero late entries.
    • Will take time.  Last negative entry should expire in April.
  • Part I: High Credit Scores: Earn a score of 769 or higher.
    • I’m at 735
    • One estimator says, if I follow my plan, I will hit 745 in about one month… still a ways to go

      Will likely take a year or more to achieve:

  • Part II: High Credit Scores: Earn a score of 785+
  • Beat my wife’s credit score (currently 783, but will probably go up!)
  • Secure total limits greater than $100,000
    • Preferably by requesting/earning higher limits on existing cards

The first credit goals, which I’ve achieved, show that my initial credit plan was achievable given my starting circumstances of good credit. The second and third groups of credit goals are reasonable goals for attaining excellent credit. Finally, the last group of credit goals constitute vanity goals.

The vanity credit goals are will have virtually no practical use since any credit score above 769 is unlikely to make any difference in getting the best rates, best cards, best mortgages, etc.  The only practical consideration is that a 785+ score may provide a small margin of safety against falling below 769 — however that margin would likely evaporate for even one 30+ day late payment.  So, really, the vanity goals are there just for fun.  And I maintain that having fun is a perfectly good goal!

A Low-Silicon Diet

After 17 years in the semiconductor (silicon) industry, I am switching to software.  Why?  Many reasons, but one is worth blogging about.  I believe the long-term trend is economic contraction in hardware (silicon), and significant growth in software.

The trends I see are secular trends — a fancy way of saying very long-term. In fact the trends are just a continuation of the trends of the last few decades.  What ever you call it — hardware, silicon, or electronics — continues to be commoditized:

  • DRAM becomes a commodity — 1980s.
  • Storage (hard drives) become commodities — late 80s, early 90s.
  • Chip-sets  — late 90s.
  • Low-end graphics: early 2000
  • Other sub-systems: Ethernet, audio, USB, PCIe, cable-modems, etc.  Early 2000s
  • 64-bit computing — 2004
  • Routers, Cable Modems — late 2000’s
  • Mid-range graphics — late 2000’s, early ’10s
  • SSDs — 2014

The transition from premium product to commodity is a continuum.  A premium product does not become a commodity overnight.  The premium just gradually decreases for a given class of products.  Another was of saying this is that profit margins gradually erode as competing products accelerate the “race to the bottom.”

Today some of the last hold-outs — high-performance, high-reliability computing, and high-end graphics — are showing early signs of diminishing premiums.   Some analog and mix-signal silicon commands premium prices too.  However, the overarching trend is towards lower profit margins.

This tectonic shift in silicon margins will create winners and losers.  Consumers, technology users, and software vendors will tend to be favored.  Hardware suppliers will tend to face headwinds.  Similarly, those who work in software-related fields will tend to benefit, while those working in hardware-related fields will tend to become stuck in a low-growth environment.

Commoditization is not the end of the road.   After all, oil is a commodity that makes billions of dollars per year for companies like XOM.   It simply means that gross profit margins for silicon are likely to fall from 60% to perhaps 30% in the next 5-10 years.

Overall, I expect silicon volume (units) to keep increasing, silicon revenue to modestly increase, while silicon profit and profit margins decrease.  The mantra of “silicon everywhere” is misleading, while the model of cheap silicon everywhere” is quite apt.

Conversely, I see a brighter future in software, app, and web development.  Online retail revenue was about 6.5% in 2013, but the upward trend is strong. Hosting E-business in the cloud will become cheaper as hardware performance increases while hardware cost decreases (and hardware performance/Watt improves).  In this environment of healthy growth, software will differentiate; content will differentiate; and hardware will simply serve.

 

 

Best Way for a Twelve-Year-Old to Learn Finance: My Paperboy Job

By the time I was 12 years old I knew more about finance and budgeting than most 20-year-olds.  I had started delivering papers at age 11 and had accumulated a lot of experience by the time I turned 12.  One of the older kids in the neighborhood had out-grown the paper route job, and my friend Alan I and I decided to share his route when the older kid “retired” from the newspaper business.  Alan was 12 and I was just 11 — making me one of the youngest paper boys in town.

The route was long, spanning about 4-5 miles, and hence came with a long-distance premium paid every month.  Alan and I alternated delivery weeks which included afternoon delivery Monday through Friday and early morning delivery on Sundays.

The best part of the job was afternoon delivery in the summer months.  I seldom minded the heat and I enjoyed riding my bike around the neighborhoods.  The worst part of the job was collections.  Most subscribers paid by mail, but some paid directly to the delivery boys.  For them, I would have to knock on their doors and ask for their monthly subscription fee.  Since many paid in cash I had to make sure to have enough cash on hand to make change.  I found that some people were very prepared to pay, while others said they did not have the money and “could I come back tomorrow?”.   The worst was when tomorrow never came.  The missing money temporarily came out of me and my partner’s pay.  Only when the adults in billing got involved and the situation was rectified did Alan and I get our missing pay — and this could take a couple weeks. We pre-teen kids served as the bank floating interest-free loans to the newspaper!

A bundle of about 50-60 papers was dropped off at Alan’s house every afternoon (or Sunday morning).  On rare occasions there would be one too few papers dropped off.  This meant that I had ride an extra two-mile round trip to the nearest store to buy a copy to replace the missing paper.  I would report the missing paper and get reimbursed for the cost of the paper — but not for riding an extra two miles.   Another lesson — sometime you just have to take on extra work to keep your customers happy.

I was getting first hand exposure to revenue, earnings, “one-off” financial events, and accounts receivable.  I learned that some customers paid on time and others were often tardy.  Occasionally some were generous and even tipped!   Those that paid my mail would sometimes leave a tip, especially around Christmas time.  All of that had to be accounted for because Alan I shared the tips.  Sometime the tips were gifts, rather than cash.  Alan and I divided the cash, be kept the non-cash gifts we were given.  We were both very fastidious about our finances, and I don’t recall ever having a conflict or dispute between us.  We were honest and meticulous and it paid off in a good working relationship.

I had a savings account and interest rates were around 5 percent.  I was eager to get my money in the back to start earning interest on it, and I’d go with my Mom to the bank to make deposits.  (I think her main reason to go to the bank was to deposit my Dad’s paychecks).  I was fascinated with the idea that after two months I would earn interest on interest (in addition to interest on my savings).  After three months I’d earn interest on my interest’s interest’s interest (even though that amount might be less than one penny).  I was paid interest monthly and always looked forward to my monthly bank statements.  I also wondered about the possibility of daily interest, hourly interest, etc.  I only learned later that my musings had touched on the mathematics of fundamental financial concepts such as compound interest, continuous interest, opportunity costs, and discounted future cash flows.

Looking back, I see that my paper route taught me a great deal about money and business.  It also helped me develop a strong work ethic. In many ways it is a shame that the job of paper boy or paper girl is pretty much a relic of the past.  So many lessons not being learned.  It seems that there are fewer and fewer opportunities for younger kids to work, earn money and learn important life skills at an early stage.  Nonetheless there are some young entrepreneurs who are finding real information-economy jobs on the internet, for example.  Times change and so do opportunities to learn and grow.  And that rate of change appears to be accelerating.  We live in interesting times.

 

Houses

I find myself in the interesting position of owning 3 residential properties:  1) Our new “dream” house, 2) Our “old” starter home, 3) our rental property.

My wife and I decided to do things differently.  Most homeowners looking to upgrade either make an offer contingent on the sale of the first home, or sell first and buy later.  I decided that was not the optimal strategy for us.  I decided it was best to buy in the upgraded segment before the higher-end markets heated up, and to sell our starter home in a seller’s market.  Part one was buying and moving in to the new house.

The strategy worked very well.  Our “old” home resides in a market where contracts are signed in days, not weeks, and multiple competing offers were becoming common.  Our plan also allowed us to stage the old house without occupying it.   We laid down fresh mulch and 12 tons of rock.  This gave the house tremendous curb appeal.  We also put days of effort into making  sure the house was “white glove” clean from floor to ceiling — even the basement.  We left some furniture and most of the artwork behind (temporarily) for staging.  The place looked spectacular inside and out.

We listed it on a Thursday night, and by Friday night we had had 13 showings and multiple offers.  Saturday morning we discussed the pros and cons of each offer, and made a decision.  We accepted the offer that was $9000 over our asking price.

Before we started the whole process we negotiated a deal with our real-estate agent.  She’d receive the standard 3% on our new home purchase, but only 2% on the old home sale.  This meant paying 5% on the sale, rather than 6%.  This saved us over $2500 in commissions.

So far we are pleased with our new home.  It appraised for more than our negotiated price.  And even though it is about 50% larger than our previous home, our first month’s utility bills are significantly cheaper than our old home built in the 1970s.  Our new home is “high-efficiency”, with a HERS Index of 60.  We anticipate saving $800 to $1000 per year on utilities.  Moreover, we obtained a 3 percent, 15-year mortgage with a negative 1.65 points, which even after 0.5 points of origination, resulted in less than $1000 of closing costs.

All the while, the rental property continues to provide monthly “dividends”.

Financial Life 2.0

Three quarters of the way through another busy year.  I married my girlfriend of six years, and we are thriving despite the dismal economy.    I have a rewarding electrical engineering job, working on some of the most advanced technology on the planet.  My wife has her own successful business, and based on current projections, she has a good chance of  passing me in earned income this year.

My wife and I are compatible in many, many ways — but finance has historically not been one.  At heart, I am a saver, and she is a spender.   That is one reason we have a prenuptial agreement.

When we met my wife was in debt.  In contrast I was looking for new ways to invest my money.  Those ways included paying off my home  mortgage in full, starting several small businesses, and purchasing my first income (rental) property.  With lots of coaching and encouragement (and no out-of-pocket money), I helped her become debt free.  It was very important to me that she do it on her own, because early on I did believe she was the one for me.  On the flip side, I knew that there would be too much tension between us if she could not get here finances together.  Luckily, she listened and adapted.

I have my flaws, but discipline with money is not one of them.  Over time, I have become less frugal.  That has always been part of my plan.  Save and grow wealth early; spend and enjoy later.  We are living well, and putting away money for the future.  I have little doubt that before I turn 40, we will be a millionaire household.  Depending on how one counts, we are already.  Having at least one million dollars in (reasonably) liquid assets is a goal.

My dreams are bigger than this.  I have created a financial portfolio software business I believe has the potential to be worth tens or hundreds of millions of dollars.  It is because of this software,and the ideas built into it, that I have largely stopped blogging here.  The software simply has a better business model.  The prospects of Balhiser.com, as a financial blog, making even $100,000 a year are very small.   It just took me a while to swallow that truth.  I haven’t given up on this website, I’ve just put it on the back burner.

Anyhow, back to wedded bliss.  There is one truth that mars our bliss: the marriage penalty.  Simply put — when we got married our taxes went up.  Just for kicks we ran the numbers both ways: single and married.  The difference was over a $1000 marriage penalty.  And the way things are going, the tax penalty is only going to get worse.

All in all, though, I am happy to be married to my lovely wife.

Wishing my readers all the best.  When in doubt, diversify — at least in matters of finance.  (Probably best not to diversify in matters of fiancée(s))

 

 

 

 

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.

Top 6 Investment Innovations in Recent Decades

These are my top picks for innovations that most benefit personal investors.

#6:  Decimal pricing.    Do you remember when stocks were priced in fractions?  Like 23 and 3/8?  This was not cool.  Not only was it clunky, but it meant that bid/ask spreads were usually stuck at 1/8 of a dollar per share, or 12.5 cents per share.  Luckily, today most investments are priced in decimals.  Some exceptions include bonds and the interest rates on most mortgages.  How archaic!

#5: Free online investment info.   Information used to largely come in paper form, and cost money.  Or you could pay tons of money for Quotron… really not practical.

#4: Discount online brokers.   My Dad used to pay $50-$100 per stock trade — over the phone with a broker.  Today some of my ETF trades are free, many of my trades average about $1, and my most expensive trades cost $8.

#3: Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs).  ETFs fix most of the problems with mutual funds such as high(er) expenses and lack of intra-day trading.  ETFs also open up a wide variety of investment options including access to commodities, leveraged funds, and precious metals.

#2: Index investing.  Index investing brings two huge advantages.  First, incredibly low costs.  Second, maximum diversification.  Index investing has, and continues to revolutionize the investing playing field.

#1: 401(k)s (and IRAs).   Named after a once-obscure IRS code, 401(k)s, or 401Ks, offer investors decades of tax-deferred growth opportunity.  IRAs offer a similar advantage.  Finally Roth IRAs offer similar tax-deferral opportunities where the tax benefit is back-loaded.

Stock Beta Computation, 6 Closing Thoughts

When I wrote about computing stock betas in 2010, I had no idea it would be this blog’s third most popular topic. I wrote a handful of blog posts about stock beta, but my heart wasn’t in them.  Today, driving home from the airport, I was inspired to blog about beta for perhaps the last time.  Previously I held back and focused on the mechanics of beta computation, and the discrepancies I was seeing between various website’s beta values.  This time I provide an example beta-computation spreadsheet and don’t hold back on the math or the theory.  Before I launch into this final word on beta, here a few highlights.

  1. Beta is easy to find online.  Not all sites agreed on value, but the delta seems less than it was 2 years ago.   Why compute beta when you can simple look it up?
  2. Beta is less useful if it has a low R-squared.  Luckily, sites like Yahoo! Finance provide R-squared values.
  3. Even with a high R-squared, beta is not a very useful risk measure.  Standard deviation is better in many ways.
  4. In theory high-beta stocks (>3) should go up dramatically when the market goes up.  In practice this is often not the case.
  5. In theory low-beta stocks (<0.5) should be “safer” than the market.  Again not so true.
  6. In theory low-beta stocks (<0.5) should “under-perform.”  Not necessarily.

If you are still interested in beta, simply click to read the full-beta blog.

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.

Is Investment Real Estate Right for you? (So you want to be a landlord?)

Rental House Income
Investing in Rental Property

I have been a rental property manager (landlord) for just over two years now.   I’ve learned many things; two stand out:

  1. Residential real estate can be a great investment.  Rental real estate can provide steady cash flow, excellent asset diversification, favorable tax treatment… all with modest capital gains potential.
  2. Rental real estate can be a real pain to manage at times.  Both tenants and repairs cause headaches.

I currently own one rental property through my LLC.  Because of item #2 above, I’ve recently turned over the property management to property management company.  This choice will probably reduce net revenue about 10-12%, but will help take much of the stress out of finding and screening new tenants and dealing with repairs and tenant issues.  If things work out well, I will consider purchasing a second rental property.

In my local real-estate market it is reasonable to expect about 5-6% net income on a fully-owned rental property.  And over a 30-year period I conservatively estimate 1.5% appreciation.  Further since real-estate prices are a large competent of cost-of-living and inflation, real estate makes a good hedge against real inflation.  Finally, just as property values tend to go up, so do rental rates.  Simply put, residential real estate is the best long-term inflation hedge I’ve found.

The flip side of rental property is the eventual likelihood of landlord/tenant issues ranging from breaking the lease, to late or unpaid rent, to property damage, to eviction — just to name a few. Vacancies without rent can really take a bite out of your cash flow.  Properties can drop in value, and marketable rental rates can fall dramatically.

Somewhat of a wild card is the tax treatment of rental properties.  In the “pro” side are depreciation of the structure which can be deducted, and the fact that “passive income” like other investment income is not subject to Social Security tax.  On the “con” side is that fact that nothing can offset “passive income” except passive losses (and vise versa).  Owner’s of rental real estate (or at least their accountants) will become very familiar with IRS Schedule E of their income taxes.

Rental real estate is not for every investor.  Personally I wouldn’t recommend buying rental real estate until you have a minimum of $250,000 net worth.  Managing a rental property can be time-consuming and challenging.  Alternately, finding a good property management company is also a real challenge.  And unlike infomercials and “Rich Dad Poor Dad” author Robert Kiyosaki suggest, real estate is not a financial panacea.  However, for some higher net-worth individuals, rental residential real estate is worth considering as part of their investment portfolio.