If I was asked to investigate buying a (Major League) baseball team, I’d start by building a mental model of the finance of baseball.  I’d start by observing that a team consists of 1) a roster of players, 2) an collection of player contract and player and pick options, 3) a management and coaching team, 4) a stadium and stadium support staff, 5) league contracts and obligations,  6) marketing, television, and media rights and contracts, 7) financial assets and liabilities,(8) ball park ticket and concessions sales.   Well, that’s a start anyhow.

I’d then consider the competitive environment.  It consists of other ball clubs and is played about half of the time on other ball fields.  Naturally AL vs NL is an important consideration.   Generally, wins lead to more revenue, and better (more expensive) players contribute to more wins.  However, that is not always the case.

A baseball team aptly called a baseball franchise.  It exists as a privately owned piece of a larger governing organization.    That larger organization makes all sorts of rules that effect everything from the buying and selling of franchises to the “luxury tax” paid by high-payroll teams such as the Yankees.

I’d love to get my hands on a MLB franchise’s income statements and balance sheet, say for the Chicago Cubs.  I wonder if they made or lost money in the last decade?  I’d be curious to see what correlation there was between their revenue and their win/loss record for each season.  I’d wager that the Chicago Cub’s win/loss-to-revenue correlation is much less than that of most other MLB teams… simply because the Cubs fan base is more forgiving of (or simply more used to) losing.

So, an MLB baseball team is a privately-held franchise of the larger MLB organization.  Similar to a McDonald’s franchise being part of the the larger McDonald’s Corporation.  A key difference being that MCD is publicly traded whereas MLB is not.  (And, of course, a baseball franchise is way more expensive that a McDonald’s franchise.)

Switching gears, consider the derivatives market surrounding baseball (and other sports).  I’m referring to sports betting.    In Nevada alone, sports betting exceeds 2 billion dollars per year.  Many sports bets are analogous to binary options… they either pay nothing or 2X (less the vig) depending on the outcome of a game (and the point spread).

I was talking with a friend the other day, about, what else, investing.  He said he had lost about $100,000 on dot com investments.  He said he had some cash lying around and wondered what was a very conservative investment.

I thought some, and mentioned that, for me, paying down the mortgage is a nice, safe investment.  It certainly  beats earning between 0 and 1 percent in a savings account.  I look at the difference between short-term rates and one’s mortgage rate.  That difference could be 4+ percent.

There is no way this type of investing will pop and make you rich overnight.  But it is a safe, sensible option.  And it is likely to improve your credit score.

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It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to warn about the US’s debt woes.  For example this finance blog warned about it April of 2010.  And Bill Gross and PIMCO quit holding US Government bonds recently.  Now S&P joins the bandwagon with a warning that US Treasury debt’s AAA rating is at risk.  This in effect would mean lowering the government’s credit score.

Predicting particularly congressional outcomes is not my strong suit.  But I have been predicting growing US debt online since 1998.  Then the debt was a mere $5.3 trillion.  And I’ve been right that not only nominal debt, but debt as a percentage of GDP would rise.

To so many investors like myself the unsustainability of our current fiscal course is blatantly obvious.  During the day I work for a successful tech company, and I get a significant portion of my pay that varies based on the companies performance.  If profits increase my coworkers and I get more cash; if the profits dwindle so does my pay.  If the company stock rises, so does my compensation.  And if it falls, my compensation falls with it.  It is a smart system, commonly called profit sharing.

Might I suggest a similar compensation plan for federal government workers.  I’d call it deficit sharing.  (I’d prefer to call it surplus sharing, but get real.)  Beyond a certain point (say the average US annual wage) base pay is fixed and all future raises are in terms of variable pay increases.  And variable pay is awarded at the end of each fiscal year.  The proportion of the federal deficit to federal spending prorates this variable pay.  If someday there is a balanced budget there is a 1.0X multiplier to variable pay.  If there is a deficit then variable pay is reduced.  Should there be a surplus a multiplier of greater than 1 would apply.  Share and share alike.  The private sector employees do… and right now we are sharing the sacrifices.  So should Federal employees.

What to do you think America?

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When I was born, my birthday gifts included US savings bonds ($50 dollar face value, I believe).  I’ve had a savings account since about age 7, and started reading brokerage account statements at around age 9.  My brokerage college fund started with $1000 and nicely grew to about $4000 by the time I started college at the tender age of 17.

Before the age of 10, I was enthralled by the concept of compound interest.   I was curious about the difference between monthly, weekly, daily, hourly, and by-the-second, even instantaneous compounding.  Little did I know at the time that this concept lead to the mathematical concepts of limits, calculus, and the number e, Euler’s  number.

Needless to say, I love math and finance.  But I first experienced a truly heart-pounding thrill when I started online trading sometime in the late 90′s.  I could see the bid and ask constantly moving, and tried limit orders.  The asks kept rising, and I kept inching up my bid.  Eventually my bid got hit and I was an owner of my first online stock.  This was different than buying mutual funds on the phone from Vanguard, and getting quarterly paper statements.  This was in real time and it was exciting.

I’ve read a lot about Peter Lynch, including his books, and I’ve learned some lessons good and bad.  The bad lesson, as I read his words, was “Don’t buy bonds unless they paying at least 8 or 10 percent.”  The good lessons were “Don’t buy what you don’t understand.” and “boring investments are good… boring names, unsexy, but solid investments are good.”

My next financial thrill revolved around options sales and purchases.  I even recall making a 20-option spread trade that was scary, but ended up netting me about $3000 in a very short time.

I have also has some thrill involving real-estate offers, counter-offers, counter-counter offers, and purchases.   Mostly, tension and anxiety are better descriptors than excitement.  Mild disappointment mostly describes failed attempted real-estate purchases.  Moderate to exuberant happiness describes my successful real-estate bids.

In the last year or two, my trades have not elicited an significant cardiac or endocrine event.   While almost always cerebral and well-considered, my trades have occasionally made my heart go pitter-patter and my endocrine system give me a pleasant rush.  But lately the trill is gone.  My pulse is steady and the motions are vaguely methodical and systematic.

My love of research, introspection, and contemplation remains.  Trading, for me, is just a means to an end.   Increasingly dispassionate.   In the end I hope and believe this makes me a better trader.  As always, time will tell.

I’ve been rather unmotivated to update this financial blog lately.  The reason?  Taxes!  I generally like to keep the tone of this blog upbeat, and when taxes are on my mind my tone tends to be closer to beat up.  Speaking of… my tax payment checks are going in the mail today.  My property tax checks will be going out next month.

However, baseball season is now underway, and that is good.  And my softball league will start up next month… one of the highlights of summer for me.  I wonder how much complicated MLB player’s taxes are and how many states they have to file in?  Also US military personnel.  If I made the rules, US soldiers would not have to pay single cent of tax on their wages while in combat tours.

Whoops, I’ve done it again!  Thinking about taxes and spoiling the prospect of a good mood.  So on to the topic of gold.  I can’t seem to go anywhere with out seeing or hearing either “We buy Gold!” or buy physical gold from us because someone thinks gold will go to $2000 per (troy) ounce.

If I had some gold trinkets or coins sitting a drawer somewhere — gold items that didn’t have any sentimental value to me — I’d get some local cash quotes, pick the highest, and sell.  But as for buying gold… nah… I’d rather buy index funds or black gold, in the form of ETFs XLE and/or VDE.  In fact I currently own XLE, VDE, SPY, VTI, SCHB to name a few.

Well, I’ve got to cut off this financial/baseball/gold/taxes blog post early, as I’ve got to run the dog to advance canine training class.  Best investing wishes, and may taxes not bite too deeply this year.

In the previous blog post I wrote about the mechanics of options to help smooth out and reshape investment volatility.  In this blog post I want to discuss another investment tool:  short selling.

Short selling involves borrowing shares of stock and selling those borrowed shares.  This immediately does two things to your portfolio:  1) It gives you a liability for the shares, 2) It gives cash proceeds from the sale.

An investor, Alice, may choose to short a stock (or ETF) because she expects its price to fall.   She may expect one security  to fall relative to another security.  For instance, if Alice expects AAPL to outperform MSFT over then next six months, she could short MSFT and use the cash proceeds to purchase AAPL.  Even if MSFT goes up, Alice will make money so long as the value of her AAPL holdings go up more.

Suppose things don’t go according to plan for Alice.  For some crazy reason MSFT shares go way up, while AAPL shares remain flat.  As this trend continues, Alice’s portfolio net asset value (NAV) erodes.  This decreases Alice’s margin and increases her portfolios’ leverage.  If the trend continues Alice will eventually receive a margin call and have to cover her short position by buying MSFT stock to close her short position.

There are a few details to be aware of before entering a short position on a security.  The first is determining whether (and how much) stock is currently available for short-sale.  Once you’ve determined that your chosen stock is available for shorting, you should find out the particular terms for borrowing the stock.  For instance, you may forfeit a small percentage of your short-sale proceeds.  Often highly liquid stocks will be cheaper to borrow than less liquid ones.

Once you’ve found an stock with short-availability and an acceptable borrowing rate, you can execute a short-sale.  Since you will have a negative position (say -100 shares) you will pay rather than receive dividends on every share.  See also this helpful explanation of how, where, and why short-shares become available.

That’s the basics of short-selling.  Short-selling provides an alternative way to bet against a stock.  Buying puts is one method, short-selling is another.   Short-selling is allows going long-short… picking winners AND losers.  Short-selling is a tool that opens many investing opportunities and exposure to additional investing risks.

Options Investing

On December 25, 2010, in finance blog, Index Investing, Investing, options, by Dave

Some readers have expressed interest in options investing blog topics.  So I’ll pontificate a bit about options investing.

I view options as generally “zero-sum” hedging tools.   When I buy and sell (mostly sell) options my first thought is not making money on the options trades.  My main goal is transforming and reshaping my portfolio.

In my IRA portfolio option trades cost me about $8.00 each.  Since IRA accounts generally cannot be margin accounts, I have only 4 basic ways to play options: 1) write covered calls, 2) write cash-covered puts, 3) buy calls, 4) buy puts.

The tactic I’ve applied in my IRA is a basic covered-call approach applied primarily to SPY.  In a nutshell, I started by buying 100 shares of SPY and selling a single at-the-money call 2 or 3 months out.  That call option either expires worthless or I buy it back just before it gets exercised.  I then repeat every couple months; selling 4-5 option contracts a year.

The primary advantage of this approach is that it provides extra return during sideways markets and softens market dips.  The trade off is missing out much of the upside return during bull markets.  Setting the option strike price near the stock price eats into portfolio upside, but gives larger option premiums.  Choosing a higher strike price, more out-of-the-money, allows you to retain a larger share of market upside but provide you a smaller premium.

The other factor to keep an eye on is implied volatility.  The most common way to track implied volatility is via the VIX.  When the VIX is higher, you can expect to get more money for the calls you “write” (create and sell a call option).  I prefer to sell call options when the VIX is 18 or higher.

So if you are interested in dabbling with options I recommend starting with selling covered calls on a highly-liquid ETF like SPY.  Real time bid/offer quotes are almost essential and allow you to make limit order trades.  I recommend starting near the option midprice when selling a covered call.  For example if the Jan 2011 SPY 125 call has an ask/offer of 2.16/2.20, you can started by offering your call at 2.18. [Depending on the exchange, your brokerage account, and the price you may only be able to bid in $0.05 increments; in other cases you can price options in penny increments.]

To make things a little more confusing, most options are quoted with a 100x multiplier.  So that means that an option quote of $2.18 actually sells for $218.00.  Each option contract transacts 100 shares of the underlying security (the “underlying”).  So exercising one SPY 125 call contract requires paying $12,500 in order to buy 100 shares of SPY at $125 per share.

Year-End Portfolio Tax Planning

On December 10, 2010, in bonds, finance blog, money, by Dave

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.

Just a quick chart, globally-exposed ETF building blocks with VTI, JNK, IGOV, and  EFA.

GRAPH:  Possible portfolio construction pieces

And on the short-side, ETFs: BIL, BWX, IEI, IEF, ISHG, ITE, and TLO.

GRAPH: Possible short-side (deconstruction) pieces

These ETFs are building blocks I’m considering for a long-short portfolio.  As you can see it would be a US-equity-long,  global-equity long, high-yield (junk bond) long, USD (United States Dollar) short portfolio.

I’m also very interested in call option writing to blunt some of the equity exposure, whilst still remaining equity-long.

What Election 2010 Means for Your Finances

On November 2, 2010, in finance blog, by Dave

Simply put, the House will go to a Republican majority.  The Senate is likely to maintain in Democratic hands, though by a small margin (say 51/49, with independents caucusing Democratic).

Meanwhile, there will be a lame-duck House and Senate sessions.  The biggest item this Congress will face is expiring tax cuts.  There are two ways this can go.   1)  A compromise is reached before year-end where cuts under a certain number (say $400,000) are retained.  2) No compromised is reached and the tax cuts sunset.  Forced to bet, I’d predict option #2 happens.  If this occurs, this sets up an interesting 2011 where the President’s veto pen and the Senate are the checks against a strong Republican push to retain the Bush tax cuts.

In 2011 the status of income taxes, inheritance taxes, dividend taxes, and capital gains taxes is up for vote.  The strong Republican shift in the House will put more attention on these issues in 2011.  The minority status of Republicans in the Senate will make it challenging for Republicans to put significant changes on President Obama’s desk.  The biggest wildcard will be how President Obama will deal with this dramatically changed legislature.

In summary, I predict that the next 2 years will be marked by gridlock on many fronts.  I predict that the Bush personal income taxes will be retained for those with incomes $200-250K or less… I’ll hazard that even up to cuts for this with incomes up to $500K will be retained.  The fate of dividend tax cuts it less certain.  I suspect that the 15% rate will be retained for those with incomes up to $500K.  I suspect that capital gain rates will lapse to the higher pre-Bush levels.  These are my best guesses.

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Computing Beta, Again

On October 25, 2010, in finance blog, Investing, by Dave

The beta computation saga continues.  I came up with a modified version of the example beta computation method from:

http://faculty.babson.edu/academic/Beta/CalculateBeta.htm

I incorporated a couple modifications (specific to Excel 2010):

  • Install the “Analysis Toolpak” Add-in:
    • File->Options->Add-ins->”Go…”->”Analysis Toolpak”
  • Data->”Data Analysis”->Regression
  • You will have the option of “R Square”.  You will have a couple coefficients, the first (top) is alpha, the second (bottom) is beta.

The “Babson Method” is equally effective.  Take your pick.  Beta and “R square” together are more useful than beta alone. Remember that a low R-square (say <0.5) means that (historic) beta is not particularly useful for explaining the movement of the stock or asset in question.  Moreover either method also supplies a (historic) alpha… a measure of that assets excess return versus the benchmark.

Like any backward-looking analysis, historic alpha, beta, and R-square provide ways to look a that asset’s past.  One hopes that they provide some measure of an asset’s future… this may or may not prove to be the case.

I still see a minor factor that makes either method slightly imperfect…. the lack of accounting for total return.   The basic method don’t account for (re-invested) dividends.  However this is fairly easily remedied by factoring in dividend payments into the asset returns.  It is likely that there are other refinements to be found.

Computing Beta

On October 17, 2010, in finance blog, by Dave

I will try to use as little math and jargon as possible…

Beta is one way to look at a stock’s behavior relative to the rest of the stock market.  The most common way to compute beta for a stock is to compare its price over a 3 year period versus the S&P 500.  The beta for a stock can be computed with daily, week, monthly or other data.  Generally the difference in the final answer is small between these.  Personally, I favor a beta based on daily closing values, but for this blog post I’ll stick with a monthly beta computation.

Lets compute beta for CSX versus SPY (an S&P500-based index EFT) using Microsoft Excel 2010:

  1. Go to Yahoo Finance and type in ticker symbol CSX.
  2. Click on “Historic Prices” and set the range from Oct 18, 2007 to Oct 18, 2010.  Select the “Monthly” radio button.
  3. Scroll to the bottom of the page and click “Download to Spreadsheet.”
  4. When prompted select “Open With -> Microsoft Excel”.
  5. Cut and paste the data in the “Adj Close” column to a new spreadsheet.
  6. Repeat the above process for SPY.  Put the SPY data in a column adjacent to the adjusted CSX closing price data.
  7. Compute the variance of SPY for example SPY data points e.g. “=VAR.S(C4:C40)”
  8. Compute the covariance of CSX with respect to SPY e.g. “=COVARIANCE.S(B4:B40,C4:C40)”
  9. Beta is, by definition, the value in step 8 divided by the value in step 7.  However I have found this not the case when using the MS Excel 2010 formulas above.  The next steps tell how I “fix” this beta.
  10. Compute average values for CSX and SPY: e.g “=AVERAGE(B4:B40)” and “=AVERAGE(C4:C40)”
  11. The fixed value is the result of step 9 *  the SPY average/the CSX average.  This is CSX’s 3-year, monthly beta.

Using this method, I compute a beta for CSX of 1.00.  This is a fair bit different that the value of 1.24 reported by Yahoo Finance.  I used the same process for MSFT and compute a beta of 0.93 versus Yahoo Finance’s 1.03 for Microsoft stock.  Looking for a more out-there beta, I repeated the process for C (Citigroup). I computed a beta of 4.39 versus Yahoo Finance’s 2.65.   For another comparison Google Finance reports betas for CSX, MSFT, C of 1.2, 1.05, and 2.54.  Finally, MSN Money reports betas of 1.21 ,1.06, and 2.55.

It irks me that 1) these 3 finance sites don’t detail their beta-computation methods, 2) They produce different results, 3) My method produces different results, 4) MS Excel doesn’t [I don't believe] offer a beta or beta.finance function, 5) I have to tweak MS Excel data to get a more reasonable beta computation.

Be that as it may, I managed to explain one way of computing beta, and did so with a minimum of math.  Please feel free to flame this post and tell me a better way.  Until then feel free to try my method, or create your own modified method.

P.S. — I did some web searching and found an alternate method that is pretty decent:

http://faculty.babson.edu/academic/Beta/CalculateBeta.htm

They also perform a monthly 3-year beta computation. I like that it is clear, correct, and easy to follow.   I don’t like that it uses an older version of Excel and that it requires graphing and essentially reading the numbers off of the graph.

  1. What is the average weighted expense ratio for all my holdings?
  2. How much, if anything, did I pay in commissions in the last 12 months.
  3. What was my rate of return in the last 12 months? (post all fees and expenses)
  4. How does that compare to the to rate of return in the S&P 500 in the same time period. (inclusive of dividends)
  5. What is the 12-month standard deviation of my investment portfolio? (a measure of risk)
  6. What is my asset allocation between stocks, bonds, and other?
  7. Do any of my holdings have loads?  If so why?
  8. How diversified are my holdings?

Bonus: Please update me on my portfolio’s tax efficiency and tax efficiency strategy.

Feel free to take good notes, and, if you like, send the answers to me.  I’d be glad to give you my personal assessment/opinion.