When I think about the phrase “high-tech portfolio”, I don’t think tech stocks. Instead I think about using technology to build a smarter portfolio. Most actively-managed portfolios are constructed, in full or part, using 50-year-old “modern portfolio theory” methods. I’m working to change this by bringing superior portfolio technology to market.
So, while writing for this financial blog remains a passion of mine, I will likely be spending much more time refining software and building a financial software business. Much of that effort will be off-line at first. Occasionally, however, I will provide business and software updates on the Sigma1 Financial Software Blog.
Developing portfolio-optimization software combines two of my long-term passions: software development and finance.
Rest assured, that I will keep this blog up and going. I think it contains some hidden gems that are worth discovering. I will also continue to blog here when inspiration strikes.
The rule of 72 is an easy way to make fast financial calculations in your head (or on a sheet of paper)… no calculator is necessary. The idea is that you can determine how fast money will double based on an interest rate or rate of return. Divide 72 by the interest rate and that is the number of years it will take for the investment to double.
For example if a CD (Certificate of Deposit) is paying 6% it will double in 12 years because 72/6 = 12.
The rule of 72 can be used for decreases in value, such as inflation. If inflation is 4%, money under a mattress loses 4% per year in value. Because 72/4 = 18, that money’s value will be cut in half in 18 years. So positive returns divided into 72 tell how long it will take your investment to double and negative returns how long to lose half its value.
The rule of 72 provides convenient illustration of how fees can effect an investment. Let’s say you are considering two investments in your IRA managed by your brother-in-law Sam. Option A is to buy and hold SPY, an index fund that has an expense ratio of virtually 0% (0.09% actually) or option B tracking the same index but managed by the Sam’s company with a 2% expense ratio. Sam says “Hey buy my index and I get a commission and a chance to win a boat.” Using the rule of 72 you see that 72/2 is 36, meaning Sam’s index will only be worth half of SPY in 36 years. If you are 29 years old and want to retire at 65 (in 36 years) that’s half of your retirement money! Tell Sam to find some other sucker to win his stupid boat.
Finally you can use the rule of 72 together with inflation and expected return to plan your financial future. If you expect a 7% (nominal) return on your retirement portfolio and 3% inflation, that’s a 4% annual return, so your money will double — in inflation-adjusted terms — in 18 years. Now if inflation is 4% your real return is 3% and your real investment value will double in 24 years; that’s a whole 6 years longer. Possibly 6 more years until you retire. Add a 1% management fee and your real return drops to 2% and doubling time is now a whopping 36 years. Yes, even a 1% fee can cost you 12 more years until you retire!
The example above shows the destructive power of inflation and why even a 1% annual inflation underestimation can be a big deal. For tax payers that means tax brackets (based on the government’s CPI-U) gradually form an increasingly tight straight-jacket around your take-home pay. For Social Security recipients this means cost of living adjustments that simply don’t keep up with real world expenses.
The rule of 72 is a powerful tool for financial estimation. The rule of 72 is not perfectly accurate, but it is generally pretty close to the target. It is, however, easy to use and can be used to explain financial concepts to people that aren’t that “mathy”. It is a great way to start explaining finance to kids; while being a tool powerful enough that is also used by Wall Street pros.
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!
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.
Walking to the Rockies game yesterday, I was struck by the bustling entrepreneurial spirit on display. From the myriad pop-up game-day parking lots (ranging from $25 – $40 per spot), to the ticket sellers (“I buy tickets”, means “I sell tickets”), to the independent street vendors outside the ballpark marketing peanuts and beverages for half the in-ballpark price.
I have been an entrepreneur in training for most of my life. For much of that time I didn’t associate the term entrepreneur with what I was doing, nor would I have been able to spell it. Yet there were several entrepreneurial things I did even before graduating from high school.
- Ran a paper-route (at age 12)
- Door-to-door newspaper sales. To get more revenue and “signing bonuses”
- Picked up odd jobs to make a few bucks. Jobs like fence painting, baby sitting & lawn mowing
- Traded collectible cards… for fun and for profit
- Built a “sluice-box” and panned for gold
In college I did even more. I was trading and auctioning collectible cards via Usenet and the Web… in addition to trading face-to-face. I found that trading up (trading several lower-value cards for one or two high-value cards) was my most lucrative strategy for making money. I had to give up my personal collector’s mindset; to be willing to break up my collections when good deals became available. I learned to put together targeted, marketable, ready-to-use (turnkey) sets in order persuade folks to part with one of their rare, sought-after cards. As I got more market savvy, I learned to trade high convenience for high value. This helped hone my fledgling negotiation skills.
I built up a reputation as a trustworthy vendor/trader who represented the quality of my cards honestly, who mailed them promptly, and packaged them carefully so they arrived in good condition. I was doing this before anyone ever heard of eBay.
In college, I developed a software product called Visual Math 3D. Looking through my notes, the proposed company structure was:
EngimaSoft, a division of Paradigm Software, a branch of Millennium Corp.
No shortage of boldness there! I see now that others have grabbed most of these names. Good for them, they are good names.
Visual Math 3D had a logo and marketing pitch for the cover of the box. Unfortunately, I had too much school work (and school play) to bring the software to market. Had I been more business-savvy at the time I would have brought in one or two partners to help market the product. Who knows… it could have grown into a competitor of Mathematica, AutoCAD, or Excel — it had aspects of all three.
I continue to be an entrepreneur in training. I’ve learned a few things.
- Business cards: I have business cards now!
- Smile, listen, and mingle.
- Listen to feedback.
- Keep your sales pitch short, then converse like a real human being, not a sales droid.
- Market both yourself and your company/venture. Online and offline.
- Market to people who are actually interested. Don’t waste time selling ice to Eskimos.
- Advertising. A necessary evil. Yes, you will likely have to part with some capital to grab the right people’s attention in a positive way.
- Branding. Logos, tag lines, style. Done right branding creates a sense of professionalism, familiarity, and trust.
Financially my most successful ventures have not been lofty, swing-for-the-fences efforts. Balhiser LLC’s rental property has earned over $10,000 and prospects remain good. The Sigma1 proprietary-trading group is currently up $2700, but markets are fickle. My card trading activities netted about $1200 over 4 years. My paper route earned about $1100 over 1.5 years.
Except for the rental property business, all my business ventures have been self financed and operated on shoe-string budgets. They have also been part-time, night and weekend activities. I have a full-time career in engineering, and while my employer hasn’t given me the golden handcuffs yet, I do wear a nice silver pair. Thus entrepreneurship will continue to be a part-time activity
My entrepreneurial successes have been modest, yet I am undaunted (at least most of the time). Today I am a minor league entrepreneur. I believe that within the next ten years I am likely to make it to the majors, because I have good ideas, tenacity, and passion. Luckily I know several successful entrepreneurs, and I listen to and learn from them. They encourage and inspire me when I need a little emotional support.
Entrepreneurship is not for everyone. It is difficult, if not impossible, to teach in a classroom; entrepreneurship must be experienced. It can be fraught with setbacks and dead ends. Passion can turn lead to burnout and frustration. Yet entrepreneurship can be exhilarating, stimulating, empowering, fulfilling and fun.
Entrepreneurs continue to drive the US economy. The best, most concise, most creative ideas come from entrepreneurs . Entrepreneurs also deliver mundane, but necessary goods and services ranging from car washes, to restaurants, street-side baseball snacks, and rental properties.
The entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well in the US. Recessions wipe out jobs, and some of the unemployed try out an entrepreneurial path. While many fail, some succeed. Some that succeed thrive, and build the businesses of tomorrow. These people create not only jobs for themselves, they create jobs for others. They drive innovation and keep America competitive.
I am not expert on entrepreneurship, but I am an entrepreneur. I work with other entrepreneurs and admire their spirit. While Washington pays lip-service to entrepreneurs, it seems to be ignoring the obstacles it puts into place, impeding entrepreneurs:
- Self-employment taxes. Small business pays Social Security and Medicare twice on every dollar earned. Even on the very first dollar.
- Employment and payroll rules and regulations. The red tape is one reason I hesitate to hire any employees.
- Regulations. The only reason my hedge fund is not open to the public (at least to select accredited investors) is the mountain of regulatory requirements.
Even against daunting odds and government red tape, entrepreneurs find a way. There are many who let red tape and taxes cause them either not enter the entrepreneurial game or quit it out of frustration. This is a shame, and a loss for the US economy. There are those who give up one entrepreneurial path (their first) choice, to pursue an alternate entrepreneurial path. This, too is a loss, but perhaps not a severe. Finally, there are some small businesses that simply stop growing… not from lack of opportunity, but to avoid the deep, sticky, red tape of employment law.
Right now I’m the category of entrepreneurs who are forgoing (for now) my first venture: the Sigma1 Hedge Fund, and pursuing my secondary venture — financial blogging. I have a couple accredited investors willing to invest with me, but I have told them for now to put that on hold.
It’s not that financial blogging is not enjoyable, it’s simply far more difficult to make reasonable profits from a finance blog. Given a choice, I’d rather make $250,000/year from blogging than managing a hedge fund. It’s much more likely that managing a hedge fund has a greater chance of making that kind of money. That, dear readers, is why blogging is my second choice for a business undertaking.
Entrepreneurs, I’d love to hear your stories. How you succeeded, how you failed, what you learned? Has government (federal, state, local) red tape gotten in your way? Have you found ways to succeed in spite of all that?
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.
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!]
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.