Saturday, 30 January 2010

Less-Stress Investing

New Bank Rules Sink Stocks”, “Turn at the Capitol Rocks the Market”, “Stocks Set to Bounce” -The stock market and individual stocks are susceptible to headliners, rumors and speculation. Daily monitoring of the ups and downs can be disheartening or exhilarating. Remind yourself that stock market fluctuations are relatively short-run and investment in stocks should be for the long haul. Historically, prices recover over time. If volatile stock investments are too stressful for you, consider growing your investment portfolio through low-cost index funds (i.e. check out Vanguard 500 Index at Vanguard.com). Index funds reduce the effects of individual stock fluctuation by diversifying your portfolio and have performed comparably well.

In order for your savings to outpace inflation; you will need to take on a certain amount of risk with your investments. Low-cost index funds are an option for the road-weary.

Friday, 29 January 2010

Never Shop Hungry

Yesterday I stopped at the store on my way home from work to pick up a few items on a list. Being close to dinner time, I was hungry. I ended up filling my cart with junk food. My intent was to pick up a battery, laundry detergent and milk. While I did get the items on my list, such items as Tostitos, Velveeta cheese, salsa, crackers and Oreos also populated my cart. Bad move to grab a cart vs. a basket which further enabled caving into my hunger cravings. The kids at home were happy to see the junk food but it was not what we needed. I ended up spending over $50 on what should have been a $20 trip.
Lessons learned:

Don’t go grocery shopping when you are hungry. Food and low prices (I’m always looking for a deal) were just too hard to pass up.

Stick to the list. Even though I had a list, all the end caps, large stacks of food and low prices were too good to pass up. Even though I got a great deal on all the extra munchies, it cost me twice as much as I should have spent.

Use a basket not a cart. I had plenty of room in the grocery cart and it didn’t weigh me down when I added the additional items not on my list. If I would have used a basket, I know I wouldn’t have been as tempted to purchase items not on my list.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

The 28-Day Challenge

Feeling cash strapped? Trying to dig out of debt from December? February is the shortest month of the year and is a good time to challenge yourself to simplify. Experiment with cutting out non-necessary expenses for 28 days to see the impact on your cash flow and your happiness. What would happen if you made most your meals at home with your family and friends; If you invited your friends over to make a meal together instead of going out on the town; If you didn’t watch the cable add-ons for the 28 days; If you packed your lunches and not buy anything from a vending machine?

Only you can decide what your wants are, what makes you happy and what is worth the cost. Try the 28-day experiment. See how much money you can churn toward reducing your debt, build up your emergency fund or give to a cause like Haiti. The challenge is on… go for it!

An Elegant Solution

The heads of the global banking cartel are currently gathered for their annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland. They have received enormous subsidies and bailouts at the expense of taxpayers in many nations all around the world. Those nations that possess representative governments are now beginning to respond to the outrage of their citizens at this gross injustice. In Britain, this has taken the form of a proposal to tax financial transactions. In the US, President Obama recently proposed regulations to limit the risk-taking activities of banks and to force the "too big to fail" institutions to shrink. The bankers' response is a proposal to take regulatory power away from national governments according to a British Press outlet.

This of course would be precisely the WRONG action. National governments in representative systems are forced to respond to the concerns of their citizens. The bankers' proposal would push the power even further away from the people and vest it in unaccountable supra-national bureaucracies. Our response should be precisely the opposite - devolve regulatory power over the banks back from the Federal government back to the state level. This should be particularly true for commercial banking. First, power should be as close to the citizens as reasonably practical so that the exercise of government power will be as responsive as possible to the average citizen. Second, power should be decentralized so as to reduce the incentive to abuse it and to minimize the damage when such abuse does occur.

One very positive effect would be to create a framework that automatically penalizes large organizations. Giant banks constantly lobbied to reduce the role of the states in banking regulation in the name of "efficiency" starting in the 1970s. One of the chief claims advanced during that period was that US banks would be unable to compete with foreign (especially Japanese) banks without consolidation. That turned out to be correct as the US banks produced a bubble very comparable to the one that has led to a 20 year depression in Japan.

The collapse of the states' role led directly to the creation of corrupt TBTF mega-banks by reducing the cost of geographic consolidation, just as the weakening and then repeal of Glass-Steagall enabled the growth of financial conglomerates via acquisition across business lines. President Obama has called for limiting the ability of banks to take risk and also breaking up the TBTF banks. We agree and call upon the president to immediately re-implement Glass-Steagall in order to confirm the seriousness of his words via corresponding action. In addition, we call upon him to remove all federal roadblocks to state banking regulation.

The mega-banks object to state regulations because it would increase their cost of compliance. We agree that it would increase such costs and further state that such an outcome would be a GOOD thing. It would create an automatic systemic incentive not to expand. It would be far better for the banks to decide to break themselves up rather than to mandate such an outcome. The legal and regulatory environment can provide the proper incentives and then leave the implementation to the individual players when they find such actions to be in their self-interest. The explicit repudiation of the "too big to fail" doctrine should be sufficient as the only reason to create such behemoths was to become large enough to hold the US economy and financial system hostage. But it never hurts to create the right incentives - all that Washington DC needs to do is stop interfering with the states' ability to regulate.

This seems to be an elegant solution.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Trembling Pillars of Fraud

Over the last two weeks we have seen a series of indications that some of the key elements supporting manipulation of market pricing mechanisms are beginning to tremble. We have seen equity prices rise despite the lack of any significant increase in profits. We have seen commodity prices spike without much increase in real demand. In our opinion the key institutions behind this mess are the major Wall Street (TARP) banks, government agencies and the Fed. They have all played a major role in creating credit inflation, with subsequent asset bubbles and debasement of our currency. But understand this: if you 'look through' each of those institutions you will find the US government backstopping each and every one of them. Each of those has come under increasing attack and as the supports have begun to shake, the fraudulent pricing they have promoted has also begun to unwind. As politics has supported bubble dynamics, so it can destroy them - live by the sword, die by the sword.


Fear and Loathing
First, Yahoo Finance reports that Wall Street's bonuses being paid out now will total $145 billion. That is greater than 1% of US annual GDP. In a normal year that number would be insane. After the disaster those same players inflicted on the US and global economy, that number is downright obscene. Bailouts were indefensible to start with and now you can add infuriating arrogance to the list of offenses. Public anger may be getting through to Congress and without siphoning off taxpayer money via the legislature, the rest of the Wall Street con game doesn't work. It has now gotten so bad that according to Dow Jones Newswire the TARP still exists only courtesy of a Senate filibuster by its supporters.

Fear of angry constituents has taken on a new urgency for our elected officials in the wake of a shocking Republican victory in the Massachusetts election for Senate. With citizens realizing that the Fed's actions have been a pure handout to Wall Street, the reconfirmation of Ben Bernanke as chairman is now very much in danger. Today, the NY Times reports that two additional senators abandoned him. With Geithner at Treasury already under serious scrutiny by Congress for his role in the bailout of Goldman via AIG and the subsequent attempt to hide the details, the two most prominent faces of bailout nation are both in danger of being forced out.


Friendly Fire
The biggest blow psychologically may be the rhetorical broadside from President Obama against the big banks that are a key leg of the credit inflation machine. His speech yesterday called for them to be cut down to size and shackled. This was a frontal attack on the concept of Too Big To Fail, with its implicit taxpayer guarantee for the stupid risks taken by big banks. The Obama Administration has given Wall Street nearly everything it wanted so the Street must now feel shocked that their tame politician has turned on them viciously. We have long felt that once the anger of the populace rose to sufficient levels, the political class would throw the financial elites under the bus in the interest of self-preservation.

Our government has betrayed our nation's citizens in many ways - from the TARP to the uncapping of taxpayer losses on Fannie and Freddie on Christmas Eve. The failure of those policies to make things better or even to stop them from getting worse is now obvious. The failure has become political kryptonite - so much so that Rep. Barney Frank is calling for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mack to be abolished. Frank has been one of their main defenders and cheerleaders for years if not decades. For him to even contemplate such a call tell us that taxpayer bailouts have become the political equivalent of Ebola.

Political support lies at the very foundation of attempts to revive the bubble by inflating credit and eroding the dollar. It is clear that this political support is evaporating before our very eyes and the state of the markets is beginning to reflect that. Suddenly the political foundation of Bailout Nation isn't looking too stable and the pillars resting on it are beginning to tremble violently.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Home Maintenance

Last week, a broken kitchen faucet led to an accidental remodel of our first floor bathroom. We love home improvement and a trip to Lowell’s is like a visit to the candy shop. The bathroom remodel was part joy and part good ongoing upkeep.

Home repairs play an important part in protecting your investment. Doing it yourself can be a fun challenge and a source of pride. In taking on the task, it is important to do your homework. Taking advantage of the free classes at your local home improvement store is a great way to build skill and befriend an expert. We believe we cut our remodeling costs by more than half in doing it ourselves and are very happy with the outcome.

‘Labor of love’ or just plain ‘labor’, doing it yourself is a great way to keep your maintenance cost low and your home value up.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Dieting and Dollars

Has January always been plagued as diet month? Ads plaster the newspapers, commercials are everywhere and we hear of the excessive holiday weight complaints throughout the day-from ourselves as well as others. Our excess weight is a sign of how we spend our money. Over 10% of American's disposable income is spent on food. This is twice what the typical family spent in 1929.

We know we don’t need to join a club or start a fad diet to lose weight. We could cut two-thirds of our fat, shave 700 calories and save at least $7 a day (> $2,500/person this year), simply by selecting healthy food options compared to eating processed fast junk food. If we eat healthy, we will lose weight, save money and live a longer, healthier life.

Diet and dollars – may both our weight and budget reflect healthy losses and gains in this coming year :)

Monday, 18 January 2010

The Gift of Service

We were visiting with a new graduate and his fiancĂ© Friday evening. He had an interview earlier that day and felt it had gone well but didn’t seem excited about the opportunity. They were taking about their honeymoon plans and how they love to travel. We suggested that they give thought to a year or two of volunteerism. With a tight job market, it is a good way to get experience and growth. It is also something you have the freedom to do before you take on the responsibilities of a home mortgage, a car payment and children.

The travel and experiences will enrich your life in so many ways. Leading a productive life is rewarding. Giving of yourself to help others is incredibly fulfilling. There are a number of options; Doctors without Borders, Peace Corps, Financial Service Corps, USAID, KIVA, teaching English abroad in underdeveloped communities and a whole host of missionaries just to name a few. For new graduates, it something to consider as you weigh your options against a tight job market.

Friday, 8 January 2010

Live-Save-Give

As the New Year begins, it is time to reevaluate budgets, investments and giving. On Saturday, January 2nd we were driving and listening to one of our favorite money broadcast: Marketplace Money. They had an article about the Fifty Percent League that made us rethink our giving. As Marketplace Money states: “The Fifty Percent League is made up of people who believe it’s their moral obligation to give away as much of their money as they can.”

We believe in the 80-10-10 rule where you live on 80% of your income, save 10% of your income and give away 10% of your income. This Saturday was the first time we heard about the Fifty Percent League and it made us question if we were giving enough to the causes we believe in.

The article interviews Pilar Gonzales, who only makes about $35,000 but gives away at least twenty-five percent of her income. Even though she does not make a lot of money, she has placed her priorities in helping others and is living out her values.

No matter how much or little you make, you can make a huge difference in other people’s lives by giving of your time, talents and financial resources. As you make your New Years Resolutions, are you living out your values with your time, talents and money? We invite you to listen to their story.

Saturday, 2 January 2010

Fresh New Year

New Year, New Resolutions, New Expectations. New Years is time to de-clutter. Clutter is physically and mentally exhausting. Following all the commotion that comes from the end of the year frenzy, I long for quiet, peaceful, at rest January. It is a time to de-junk my house, my office, my closets and my life. Doing so brings about clarity and energy. Steps of this process:

1. Assess priorities and establish a plan on how you will give focus to your priorities.

2. Choose the objects, obligations and activities that align with your priorities. Say no to the things that don’t matter. Saying yes to things that are not a priority will drain you.

3. Eliminate the non-essential. This frees you from having to tend to things that aren’t important to you and reduces clutter both physically and mentally.

4. Make sure every physical item has a place. Being disorganized is a waste of your time as you look for lost items as well as an irritant. By being organized, you gain control over your space and time.

5. Create a schedule where every priority is allocated it’s time. Dedicating time to your priorities assures you are working toward achieving and maintain your goals and will keep you in control and on top of your world.

6. Review and update your budget for the new calendar year. Make sure it reflects your priorities and that you are living within your means.

7. In setting up a budget, follow the 80-10-10 rule of living off 80%, saving 10% and gifting to others 10%.

Following these steps kicks off the year with focus, clarity and new energy.