Saturday, August 22, 2009

Will we see more income equality?

Economic data should show, if it isn't already, that the ridiculously rich have gotten considerably poorer in the Great Recession. The super wealthy have not been immune to the collapse in asset prices.

Perhaps the broadest question is what a hit to the wealthy would mean for the middle class and the poor. The best-known data on the rich comes from an analysis of Internal Revenue Service returns by Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, two economists. Their work shows that in the late 1970s, the cutoff to qualify for the highest-earning one ten-thousandth of households was roughly $2 million, in inflation-adjusted, pretax terms. By 2007, it had jumped to $11.5 million.

The gains for the merely affluent were also big, if not quite huge. The cutoff to be in the top 1 percent doubled since the late 1970s, to roughly $400,000.

By contrast, pay at the median — which was about $50,000 in 2007 — rose less than 20 percent, Census data shows. Near the bottom of the income distribution, the increase was about 12 percent.

Some economists say they believe that the contrasting trends are unrelated. If anything, these economists say, any problems the wealthy have will trickle down, in the form of less charitable giving and less consumer spending. Over the last century, the worst years for the rich were the early 1930s, the heart of the Great Depression.

Other economists say the recent explosion of incomes at the top did hurt everyone else, by concentrating economic and political power among a relatively small group.

The whole article is an interesting read. It brings forward (data) points such as:
  • The Mei-Moses index, which tracks art prices, has fallen 32% in the last 6 months
  • Income distribution was relatively flat in the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s
  • For the super-rich to return to their old levels of wealth quickly would likely require another asset bubble
  • Incomes of the wealthiest Americans rose the most during the stock market bull markets
  • "Since 1980, tax rates on the affluent have fallen more than rates on any other group"
The article also weaves the tale of John McAffee, of McAffee anti-virus software fame, into the overall article. So if you're interested in what's happened to him, now you can find out.

What about the recession's effect on the mass affluent? Well, the original article authors did a follow-up blog post responding to a comment one of the orignla article's readers asked. Their argument is that the upper middle class will fare relatively better than other income groups, and bring up a better unemployment rate for the managerial and professional class and favorable tax policy as supporting points.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Let's not forget about Social Security

Allan Sloan has done another first-rate job trying to focus Americans' attentions on the cluster that is Social Security. He's cut through all the tripe that we keep hearing from our leaders and pundits that says Social Security is fine for another 20 or 30 years and even then it will still be able to to pay 80% of benefits. Do yourself a favor and take 10 or 15 minutes to read the whole story. I'll give you the money 'grafs.

Just last year Social Security was projecting a cash surplus of $87 billion this year and $88 billion next year. These were to be the peak cash-generating years, followed by a cash-flow decline, followed by cash outlays exceeding inflows starting in 2017.

But in this year's Social Security trustees report, the cash flow projections for 2009 and 2010 have shrunk by almost 80%, to $19 billion and $18 billion, respectively. How did $138 billion of projected cash go missing in just one year? Stephen Goss, Social Security's chief actuary, says the major reason is that the recession has cost millions of jobs, reducing Social Security's tax income below projections.

But $18 billion is still a surplus. Why do I say Social Security could go cash-negative this year? Because unemployment is far worse than Social Security projected. It assumed that unemployment would rise gradually this year and peak at 9% in 2010. Now, of course, the rate is 9.5% and rising -- and we're still in 2009.

Sloan does more than call attention to the issues. He offers honest to goodness thoughtful (and dare I say non-partisan) solutions. If we don't start paying attention to these generational accounting problems, we will be on our own and have to suffer tax increases.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Luxury homes at auction

Homes that were valued in the multi-million dollar range just a few years ago being auctioned off for an order of magnitude less in some cases. Bankruptcy is sometimes the culprit behind the auction.

Mr. Warner, 61, bought his house and an adjacent property that once had a trailer park on Little Torch Key, north of Key West, in 1993. It was appraised at nearly $14 million just two years ago. But after losing a large amount of money, he liquidated his construction business in Elkhart, Ind. Last year, another company he owned, Lucky’s Landing, which essentially owned his Florida real estate, filed for bankruptcy protection and its assets came under court oversight.

When no buyer emerged at the listing price of $5.9 million, Mr. Warner asked the United States Bankruptcy Court in Miami to approve the property’s sale at auction. He had a lot riding on the request. To avoid personal bankruptcy, he said, the sale had to generate more than $3 million, roughly the remaining amount of the mortgages.


Stacy Kirk, who together with her mother co-founded Grand Estates Auction Company in 1999 to handle multimillion-dollar homes exclusively, said her business had grown to 30 homes last year, from 20 homes sold in 2005. “We have been receiving more inquiries from homeowners in the $1.5 million and up price range,” she said. “And we are talking to banks for the first time about whether we can help sell similarly priced homes that are headed for foreclosure.”

'Creating an anchor' investing strategy

Here's an investing strategy for emerging markets that claims it will generate 75% of a 'fully invested' strategy, but with half the volatility.

Emerging markets investors worried about a pullback can do what Bob Phillips, a managing partner at Spectrum Management Group in Indianapolis, calls "creating an anchor." That means taking 50% of the money you've earmarked for emerging markets and putting it into cash. The other half goes into an emerging-market index fund or exchange-traded fund. Every month the allocation should be rebalanced back to a 50-50 split. Over time, Phillips says, that strategy has produced 75% of the returns with half the volatility.
Read the full article for ideas on an alternative to the 50% cash portion of the allocation.

I did a quick search on 'creating an anchor investment strategy', '50 50 investment plan', '50-50 reallocation' and a few other terms. Unfortunately, I couldn't find any other published data on this strategy.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The end of strong U.S. GDP growth?

Americans, especially those Boomers, are spending less. That's bad news for an economy that is over two thirds driven by consumer spending.

When 79 million people—nearly a third of Americans—start spending less and saving more, you know it won't be pretty. According to consulting firm McKinsey, boomers' conversion to thrift could stifle the economy's hoped-for rebound and knock U.S. growth down from the 3.2% it has averaged since 1965 to 2.4% over the next 30 years. "We would have gotten here in 5 or 10 years as boomers retire, but we pushed it up," says Michael Sinoway, managing director of consulting firm AlixPartners.
3.2% growth down to 2.4% growth is a decline of .8 percentage points. Multiply that by the U.S.'s 2008 GDP of $14.3 trillion. That's over $114 billion less in GDP per year, which will compound over the 30 year projection. We'll need to find other ways to grow our economy.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Startup Investing

It's not easy to invest in startups, at least not the ones that you would like to invest in (i.e., non-shady ones with a chance of generating big returns). Startup investing is for the stouthearted. But even if an individual has the stomach, she might find her money not wanted due to competition from larger investors. BusinessWeek offered some tips to get in on early stage companies, if you're so inclined.

1. Do you qualify as an "accredited investor" under the current SEC definition?

2. Do you have reliable information about the company's finances?

3. Can you gain entrée through personal connections to the company, its existing investors, or its board? Do you work in the same field as the company, which could make you a more attractive investor?

4. Have current shareholders listed to sell on one of the secondary market platforms?

One of the hurdles for a mass affluent investor to overcome is the requirement to be an accredited investor.
a natural person who has individual net worth, or joint net worth with the person’s spouse, that exceeds $1 million at the time of the purchase;

a natural person with income exceeding $200,000 in each of the two most recent years or joint income with a spouse exceeding $300,000 for those years and a reasonable expectation of the same income level in the current year;
The accredited investor rule comes straight from the Securities Act of 1933. From what I can tell, the dollar amounts haven't been adjusted since 1982.

One of the illiquid securities exchanges mentioned in the article, SharesPost, promotes having access to sellers of Facebook shares. You don't necessarily have to be a Russian billionaire to buy into the Facebook party.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Prepare for a major tax increase

(Welcome to those visiting from the Carnival of Personal Finance #213. Subscribe to this site.)

Your taxes are going to go up. Not just taxes on the rich, or the mass affluent, or the solidly middle class. Taxes for everyone will increase, since we're going down the road of needing a value added tax (VAT) in the form of a national sales tax to get us out of this massive national debt hole that we've dug ourselves into.

The bill is far too big for only the rich to pick up. There aren't enough of them. America will have to lean on citizens far below the $250,000 income threshold: nurses, electricians, secretaries, and factory workers. Within a decade the average household that pays income tax will owe the equivalent of $155,000 in federal debt, about $90,000 more than last year. What the Obama administration isn't telling Americans is that the only practical solution is a giant tax increase aimed squarely at the middle class. The alternative, big cuts in spending, aren't part of the President's agenda. To keep the debt from wrecking the economy, the U.S. would need to raise annual federal income taxes an average of $11,000 in 2019 for all families that pay them, an increase of about 55%. "The revenues needed are far too big to raise from high earners," says Alan Auerbach, an economist at the University of California at Berkeley. "The government will have to go where the money is, to the middle class." The most likely levy: a European-style value-added tax (VAT) that would substantially raise the price of everything from autos to restaurant meals.
(Added emphasis is mine.)

Anyone who tells you that our national debt won't be a huge problem is bs'ing you. Sure, politicians love to talk about how they'll bring down the national debt by eliminating earmarks, cutting discretionary spending, blah, blah, blah. Budget cuts ain't happening, unless China stops buying all those Treasuries which would negate our ability to do deficit spending. And then there is the required spending on entitlements: Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Do a search on 'generational accounting' to see what kind of financial damage entitlements are going to do to our children and grandchildren. Except we're the children and grandchildren and the problems are upon us already. Don't get me wrong, I think entitlements are a great thing and keep people out of poverty. However, we as a nation never figured out how to pay for them.
It can't go on forever, and it won't. What will shock America into action is the prospect of fiscal collapse, which will grow more vivid each year. In 2008 federal borrowing accounted for 41% of GDP, about the postwar average. By 2019 the burden will double to 82% by the CBO's reckoning, reaching $17.3 trillion, nearly triple last year's level. By that point $1 of every six the U.S. spends will go to interest, compared with one in 12 last year. The U.S. trajectory points to the area that medieval maps labeled "Here Lie Dragons." After 2019 the debt rises with no ceiling in sight, according to all major forecasts, driven by the growth of interest and entitlements. The Government Accountability Office estimates that if current policies continue, interest will absorb 30% of all revenues by 2040 and entitlements will consume the rest, leaving nothing for defense, education, or veterans' benefits.
National bankruptcies

The other option is national bankruptcy. It's not an option, obviously, and a national U.S. bankruptcy will never happen. But for kicks, I did some research on what happens when nations go bankrupt.

A couple of examples I found (thanks Wikipedia!) are defaults on debt incurred by previous national governments, such as post-Revolutionary France defaulting on the debts of Bourbon France and Soviet Russia defaulting on debts of Czarist Russia. There's also an example of a default of Danish bonds in 1850, and another Danish bankruptcy in 1813. Germany has gone bankrupt twice after the World Wars. More recent examples are Russia in 1998, Argentina in 2001-2002, and Iceland in 2008. A national bankruptcy may lead to massive inflation, as the country prints money to pay its debts. Gold could be a hedge against this situation.

Looking at the last Argentina bankruptcy:
Once the Argentine businessmen had transferred their dollars abroad, the second phase of the collapse began. The Argentine government froze all bank accounts, capping the maximum amount an accountholder could withdraw at only $250 (€198) a week. Small investors, those who had left their money in the banks, were the hardest hit. Tens of thousands of desperate citizens stormed the banks, and many spent nights sleeping in front of the automated teller machines.

The last phase of the downturn began in the Buenos Aires suburbs. After consumption had dropped by 60 percent, young men began looting supermarkets. In December 2001, 40,000 people gathered on Plaza de Mayo in front of the Casa Rosada, the presidential palace. There, they banged pots and pans together day and night, until an unnerved President Fernando de la Rúa fled by helicopter.


Nevertheless, the country recovered from the crash with astonishing speed. In recent years, the Argentine economy has grown at impressive rates of 7 to 9 percent.

Again, it's inconceivable that the U.S. will go bankrupt. That's just not going to happen. But, I do see a large tax increase and increased inflation. The hardest thing to swallow about the tax increase is that since it may be a national sales tax, there's no way to avoid the taxes later by using vehicles like a Roth IRA or Roth 401(k).

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

College endowments take a big hit

As expected, college endowments had a bad (fiscal) year (most just ended June 30). Interestingly, it was the smaller college endowments that did better (or less bad). (free WSJ Digg link) The median decline for small endowments was 16%, for medium was 20% and for large was 25-30%. The blame for the underperformance in 2008 is laid at the feet of the alternative investments that the big endowments have favored.

The so-called Yale approach espoused that endowments -- as long-term investors unconcerned about redemptions or short-term market fluctuations -- were the ideal candidates for alternatives. Yet in 2008, many of these assets became hard to sell, forcing schools to either dump their best-performing securities or funds, or borrow money, to meet their obligations.

Ivy League schools, more reliant on investment gains to fund daily operations, also suffered more from these drops. The average college relies on its endowment for 5% of its operating revenue, while at Ivy League schools the number ranges from 25% to 45%. That caused the type of asset-liability mismatch that has long bedeviled financial firms.

Yale does not plan to change its investment philosphy because of one bad year. And prior to 2008, for 20 years Yale averaged a 15.9% return on its endowment.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Leaving your financial planner

If you're thinking of replacing your financial planner with a new one because of terrible performance in this market, you're not alone. (Or maybe you'll consider doing it yourself.)

A recent survey by consulting firm Oliver Wyman found that the number of affluent investors looking to switch advisers has tripled in one year. According to Spectrem Group, a scant 36% of millionaires think their advisers performed well during the market turmoil of the past year or so.
Not so fast. This is a terrible market for just about everyone. Will you do better with a different planner?
"If you fire Fred and hire George, who's to say that George isn't even worse than Fred?" asks Jack Waymire, co-founder of the Paladin Registry, which matches investors with advisers in their communities. "They might just be trying to win your business, so there's a natural bias there. And if you ask for a sample portfolio, they're never going to show you a bad one. So you'll never really know what they've produced for an average client."
The story recommends getting an agreement from the new advisor that you're considering will evaluate your situation for a fixed fee with no commitment that you will hire him or her.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The casino business

Have you ever wondered what the largest gaming companies and gaming geographic markets are? Probably not, but now you know. I was surprised to see Detroit that high in the rankings. I didn't think casino gambling was that big there.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Corner the frozen concentrated orange juice market

Commodities trading is so 1983. The game these days is farmland. If you believe this, you're in good company along with George Soros, a Rothschild and Jim Rogers.

The fundamentals remain in place for a long-term boom in the prices of everything ag-related. The simplest metric to consider is the amount of farmland per person worldwide: In 1960 there were 1.1 acres of arable farmland per capita globally, according to data from the United Nations. By 2000 that had fallen to 0.6 acre (see chart above, "Precious Acres"). And over the next 40 years the population of the world is projected to grow from 6 billion to 9 billion.
Other forces conspiring to push up the cost of farmland is water scarcity, improving diets in developing countries and climate change, which will raise sea levels and cause more droughts.

Direct farmland investment seems quite difficult. Who among us has the time or skills to understand agriculture and negotiate deals? It's mostly large funds buying up the farmland, and these funds have too high minimum investments for the mass affluent. Fortunately, there is a company called Chess Ag Full Harvest Partners that is trying to become the first farmland-only REIT (Real Estate Investment Trust) in the United States. It's run by a former Nebraskan who was managing a grain elevator at 14 and did stints as a commodities trader and a hedge fund executive. It also seeks to avoid country risk.
her strategy is strictly focused on the U.S. "Yeah, land might be cheap and plentiful in Russia, but if the price of wheat goes up, is your deed going to be honored?" she says by way of explanation. Rather than buy farms in what she calls the "Prada handbag" states of Illinois and Iowa, where land comes at premium prices, she concentrates on less-well-known farming areas. In addition to her home base in Clarksdale, she has an office in South Dakota, and so far the fund has bought land in Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, and Texas as well as Mississippi.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

More simple estate planning

A Fortune article reinforces the basics of estate planning; gifts, life insurance and trusts.


Gifts of $13,000 or less a year to an individual aren't taxable.

Life Insurance

Look into using a life-insurance trust as the beneficiary of your life insurance policy. Another (maybe somewhat depressing) suggestion is to gift money to your children to use to take a life insurance policy out on you.


Grantor-retained annuity trusts (GRATs) are seeing a surge in popularity due to depressed asset prices.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Hedge fund fees take a haircut

The sacrosanct "2 and 20" fee system at hedge funds may be coming to an end. Hedge fund investors are tired of paying big fees for poor performance.

In recent months some of the biggest institutional investors, including the $175 billion California Public Employees' Retirement System, have gathered at closed-door meetings in New York and Toronto to talk about ways they might flex their newfound muscle. A number of public pensions, such as the $16 billion Utah Retirement System, have pushed firms publicly to ease terms. "This is top of mind for investors," says John-Austin Saviano at Cambridge Associates, a consultant to major investors.
In this market, other investment options are available to the hedge fund investors that haven't been there before.
Private equity and hedge fund managers would prefer the status quo but fear losing big investors, who finally have other options. Instead of plowing money into new funds, for example, investors can buy into an existing portfolio cheaply on the secondary market: Some private equity funds are trading at a 50% discount. There's also the worry that the biggest pension funds will open their own hedge fund and private equity operations. That's making it difficult for money managers to get more assets without giving in to investors. Says one private equity manager: The fund-raising environment is "brutal, just brutal."
While this news affects few individual investors directly, it affects many individuals indirectly whose pension funds might be investing in hedge funds. No longer will their pension funds be paying fees for bad performance and having one fifth of the gains kept by the hedge fund manager.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Taxes originally designed for the wealthy now hit the mass affluent

Money Magazine has a short article on taxes that used to exclusively hit the wealthy, but, because of their not being adjusted for inflation, now hit lower income earners.

I won't do any editorializing.

Friday, May 22, 2009

The death of conspicuous consumption hits the rich

Even the very rich are giving up extravagance (free WSJ Digg link).

Richard and Amanda Peacock spent five years building their dream home, a 10,000-square-foot, orange mansion overlooking the ocean here. They filled it with leopard-skin chairs, pinball machines, antique Coca-Cola signs and six sports cars. It had a room full of 100 hunting trophies -- including a hyena and the head of an elephant -- and an aviary out back housing eight rare parrots.

On a recent Saturday, they held a one-day auction to try to sell it all.


Mr. Peacock's auction marked a new moment in the fall of the latest Gilded Age. Fire-sale auctions of mansions, yachts, sports cars and other trappings of wealth have become increasingly common as the rich become less rich. But Mr. Peacock is in the vanguard in attempting to downsize in just one day. The event was less an auction than a lifestyle liquidation, a clearance sale on a decade's worth of conspicuous consumption.

He has plenty of company among the once-wealthy. Half of all millionaires have lost 30% or more of their fortunes during the financial crisis, according to a recent survey from Chicago-based Spectrem Group. Whether unable to pay their bills or loath to appear lavish at a time of national thrift, many millionaires and billionaires are unloading their baubles. In a twist on the estate sales of deceased celebrities, "living estate sales" have become increasingly popular.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

John Bogle on fixing our retirement system

I'm not a Boglehead, but I vacillate between thinking that no one can beat the market (and so you should put all your money in index funds) and thinking that there are star fund managers who of course can beat the market (and so you should invest in actively managed funds). It all depends on which of my funds is doing better at that particular time, I guess. I have taken an interest in Jack Bogle's ideas to fix our retirement system (I leave it up to the reader to decide if the system is broken and needs fixing).

The financial system, he charges, is too far skewed toward Wall Street and money management firms. At the same time, he says, individual investors have far too much freedom to make ruinous decisions with their retirement accounts.

So how would he fix things? Bogle proposes the creation of a federal retirement board to simplify and clarify the retirement-savings process. The board would oversee a new kind of defined-contribution account to replace the salad bowl of options—401(k), IRA, Roth IRA, Roth 401(k), 403(b)—that currently confront and confound investors. It would also monitor savers' investment choices to help them determine just how much risk they can tolerate and would emphasize low-fee mutual funds over pricier ones. Just as important, Bogle is urging Washington to require retirement plan providers—and all money managers, for that matter—to meet basic client protection standards. He wants fuller and clearer disclosures of all potential conflicts of interest and any other information that might affect investing decisions.

What I like about this: I agree that fees are too high and some of our retirement system is designed to enrich the fund managers. There is way too little accountability for poor performance from the fund managers.

What I don't like about this: I may be reading this wrong, but it seems like this proposed federal board would determine what we could invest our retirement funds in. I worry that the choices would be so conservative that it would be impossible to get the returns needed for a nice retirement. I don't mind someone overseeing investment suitability and pointing out investment risks, but it should be up to the individual to say if he or she wants to take those risks to get bigger rewards.

Sadly, the article says that Mr. Bogle has failing health. More of his investing philosophies can be found here.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Financial crisis numbers

I was reading a story about how innovation will lead us out of the current financial crisis (the online version has some differences from the print version). What really interested me was not the praise given to innovation, which is the central point of the article, but some of the facts and figures the author gave about the cause of the crisis.

He lays the blame for the crisis not on any one group, but on just about everyone involved; American consumers, the U.S. government, politicians, banks, rating agencies and regulators. And he says that allowing Lehman Brothers to collapse is what really made things awful. But on to the numbers.

From 1930 to 1997, U.S. house prices grew by .7% annually. From 1998 to 2006, they rose at an 8% clip.


driving mortgage equity withdrawals to over 10% of disposable income versus 3% a decade earlier and the equity content of the U.S. housing stock down from nearly 70% in 1965 to 43% - the lowest level since records have been kept.


These lower-quality mortgages grew from less than 10% to 40% of originations; interest only or negative amortization loans that didn't require near-term principal repayment were introduced and grew to around 25% of originations; and over 75% of these mortgages were not held by the lenders but rather were packaged into securities and sold to others.


Consumer balance sheets swelled with indebtedness as debt service payments reached nearly 15% of disposable income - as in the 1930s.


we experienced after 2002 the first economic recovery since the war in which real median incomes went down.


The decline in the prices of stocks and values of homes robbed American households of nearly $11 trillion in net worth - which equals the combined output of Germany, Japan and the U.K. - and perhaps $30 trillion globally. Since consumers usually spend about 5% of their net worth a year, the negative "wealth effect" likely caused them to reduce spending by about $550 billion domestically and perhaps $1.5 trillion globally.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Wicked plunge in Americans' net worths

(Welcome to those visiting from the Carnival of Personal Finance #195. Read more about the Carnival of Personal Finance. Subscribe to this site.)

Recently released Fed data on consumer finances paints a picture of how bad things are. In the Fed's report, their assumption of the average drop in net worth from beginning of 2008 to October 2008 is 22.7% (see them on page 12 of the PDF), and their assumption of the median drop in net worth is 17.8%. Since the median is less than the average, it is the wealthier families that saw greater drops in net worth. (The BusinessWeek slide show that I linked to seems to be using the adjusted net worth on page 12, since it quotes about a 13% drop in median net worth.)

If you look at the BW slide show, you can see that only the top decile of households had less than 40% of their entire net worths tied to their primary homes. Housing price declines would tend to disproportionately affect the less well off.

Some other nuggets I've pulled out (keep in mind these, unlike the net worth numbers above, only cover up to the end of 2007, before the financial crisis really hit):

  • Capital gains went from 3.2% of income (across all families) in 2004 to 6.7% in 2007. Wages decreased from 69.7% of income in 2004 to 64.5% in 2007.
  • 'Education' given as an answer to the 'reason for saving' question decreased from 11.6% in 2004 to 8.4% in 2007. 'Purchases' increased as an answer from 7.7% in 2004 to 10.0% in 2007.
  • 59.7% of families use the Internet for financial information or financial services
  • Vehicles are the most commonly held nonfinancial asset. From 2004 to 2007, the share of families that owned some type of vehicle rose 0.7 percentage point, to 87.0 percent.
One thing that our government does well is provide economic data after the fact. Economics isn't everyone's cup of tea, but if you're an arm chair economist, read this one.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Protecting life insurance

The last issue of Fortune ran a blurb on what happens to your life insurance policy if your insurer goes bankrupt. (Unfortunately, the story is not available online.) In the event of an insurer's bankruptcy, the guaranty association for the state in which the insurer is located takes over the failed insurer and either pays the claims or transfers policies to a solvent insurer.

Since insurance is regulated by the states, the amount insured varies, but the story states most benefits are capped at $300,000. The National Organization of Life and Health Insurance Guaranty Associations has more information. As an example, in 2004, when a Pennsylvania insurer went bankrupt, the state guaranty association transferred most policies to stable Pennsylvania insurers.

The story also notes that in the case of AIG, it's the parent company and not the life insurance subsidiary that is experiencing problems. It might be a good idea to check on your insurers corporate structure to know what your insolvency risk could be.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

FHA loan limits have increased

Good news for any of the mass affluent in the market for a new home. The FHA has increased the loan limits of its loan guarantee program. Insured mortgages equals lower rates. (To see what I mean, compare the differences in rates between jumbo mortgages and insured mortgages.)

The stimulus bill allows FHA, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to guarantee loans of up to 125 percent of the median home price in high-cost markets, up to a maximum of $729,750 for one-unit properties. The cap for two-unit properties is $934,200; three-unit properties is $1,129,250; and four-unit properties is $1,403,400.

The floor limit for FHA loans in "normal markets" remains $271,050 for one-unit properties, $347,000 for two-unit properties, $419,400 for three-unit properties, and $521,250 for four-unit properties.

What are the high-cost markets? You can find the list on the FHA Web site (it's an Excel spreadsheet). Basically, the markets center around the major U.S. cities; New York, D.C., Los Angeles, Denver. etc.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

State of the state of the collectible car market

I'm not a real car buff (wouldn't even be able to change the oil in my car), but I do have this fantasy about owning a classic American muscle car. So, I followed with some interest the Arizona auto auctions that recently took place, and found they were far from disasters.

What are the Arizona auto auctions?

First, a little background. Barrett-Jackson, Russo and Steele, Gooding & Co. and RM are four automobile auction houses that each run their own auction in January in the Phoenix/Scotsdale area. Barrett-Jackson's auction seems to be the biggest in terms of dollar sales made. Their auction is also the only one not to set reserve prices. Russo and Steele was founded by a former Barrett-Jackson employee. Gooding is relatively new to the Arizona auctions, but was the only one of the four to have a sales increase this year. RM is the leader at the high end of the market. The auctions attract an over 55 moneyed crowd.

This year's auctions results

From the Barron's article:

At the auctions, the top prices generally were fetched by prewar U.S. and European classics; the bottom, by 1960s American muscle cars without adequate provenance. Entry-level cars priced at less than $100,000 -- veteran collectors call them "drivers" -- did well, especially with first-time buyers. Among sports cars, vintage Ferraris did fine. Newer ones didn't.

Overall, prices are below the high-water marks of the past two years. But the bulls contend the 20%-to-30% drops simply reflect the cooling-off of an overheated market, rather than a long-term slump like those that have devastated stocks and home prices.
I like to see that the muscle cars I want to buy are coming down in price. Good for me, but bad for the sellers

The Times take on things:
Given the economic circumstances, there was great interest in cars priced under $100,000 that would also serve as summer weekend drivers. Cars that are easy to find parts for, and eligible for events like vintage rallies and tours, did well.
Do you remember hearing about GM selling some of its historic car collection to raise capital? Well, they used these Arizona auctions too, although the articles imply the reasons for the sale were not for GM to raise capital.

One of the notable aspects of the Barrett-Jackson sale was the sale of 214 cars from the General Motors Heritage Collection. Most were prototypes or concept cars and included the striking 1996 Buick Blackhawk. Built to celebrate Buick’s 100th anniversary in 2003, it recalled the granddaddy of all design studies, the striking 1938 Buick Y-Job; the Blackhawk sold for $522,500.

Nearly all the cars in the G.M. offering were sold on either a bill of sale or a scrap title, according to Barrett-Jackson. The former, Mr. Jackson said, can never be legally registered for road use. Fortunately, the Blackhawk was sold on a scrap title so it can be registered and driven on public roads. It would be a shame for it to spend its life behind a velvet rope.

(This bill of sale vs. scrap title bears further research. I spent a few minutes on Google to little avail. Comments on what this are welcome.)

The car auction houses

NameURLOther Auctions
Barrett-Jacksonwww.barrett-jackson.comFlorida in April and Las Vegas in October
Russo and Steelewww.russoandsteele.comFlorida and California
Gooding & Cowww.goodingco.comCalifornia in August
RMwww.rmauctions.comNumerous. Check out for more details.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

And you thought 100 year bonds had a long duration

Disney and Coca Cola issued 100 year bonds about 15 years ago, and made headlines (at least in the financial world) doing it. But those are nothing compared to some New York City bonds with nearly 300 year maturities.

Next month, one of the bonds, issued in 1868 and thought to be one of the oldest active municipal bonds in the country, will come due. And the city stands ready to retire the debt incurred when Winston Churchill’s grandfather came up with the idea of building a road to one of the nation’s first racetracks, which he had opened in what is now the Bronx.

For 135 years, New York City has been dutifully paying 7 percent annual interest on the bonds, which financed construction of the road. On March 1, the owner of one of them is entitled to come forward and collect its face value: $1,000.

The 38 other bondholders have notes that will mature sometime between now and 2147, a mere 138 years away.
A 7% yield for basically your lifetime, and probably your great-grandkids lifetimes sounds like a pretty good deal now. And municipal bonds are tax free too.

What would possess a municipality to issue bonds of this duration?
West Farms, where the track was, and Morrisania, which would share the road, could not afford the improvement. So the towns issued bonds, backed by Mr. Jerome, with unusually long maturities, gambling that their rapidly expanding neighbor would soon absorb them, and their debt.

“Everybody knew because of the shift of population northward, it was only a matter of time before the City of New York was going to annex the territory,” Mr. Ultan said. “So they issued these bonds with the date of redemption so far in the future because they figured that once the City of New York annexed their town, then the City of New York would assume the payment of the bonds — which is exactly what happened.”

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Waiter, there's an annuity in my 401(k)

Guaranteed income during your retirement. That would certainly set your mind at ease. How do you get a guaranteed income? Social Security? Ummm, errr. A company pension? Sadly, those are a relic of the time of Don Draper. A relatively new and untested option, 'hybrid 401(k)s', may be able to provide the guaranteed income you're looking for.

A dozen or so asset managers and insurers, including AllianceBernstein, AXA, Barclays Global Investors, John Hancock, MetLife, and Prudential, are designing a new breed of retirement instrument that combines elements of pensions and 401(k)s. These products—call them hybrid 401(k)s—have begun slowly rolling out. And while they differ in structure, all combine annuities—essentially, insurance contracts that provide periodic income payments—with an investment portfolio. The hybrids won't protect investors from violent market swings. But they'll guarantee a certain amount of monthly income for the rest of your life.


The structure BGI's finance wonks came up with embeds fixed deferred-income annuities (which provide a set amount of monthly income in retirement) into a target-date fund. A 401(k) participant who chooses SponsorMatch—or whose employer uses it for the matching contributions—would have part of each contributed dollar invested in the annuities and part in the investment portfolio. Essentially, the annuities replace the bonds that would normally be in your portfolio (emphasis mine). If you're in your twenties or thirties, you'd have only a small portion in annuities; but as you age, that portion increases. As with a regular target-date fund, BGI would make those changes for you. Your investment portfolio, comprised of index-based investments, would also be automatically managed for you based on your age. You would simply pick SponsorMatch and sit back. When you received your 401(k) statement, you'd see two pieces: the amount of monthly income you'd have in retirement and the value of your investment portfolio.
Why do we need yet another asset type to put in a 401(k)? A BGI executive makes the argument that 401(k)s weren't meant to be the primary way of saving for retirement. 401(k) investors have historically underperformed institutional investors by 2% a year. There is also the problem of outliving your retirement money. These hybrid 401(k)s promise guaranteed lifetime income (for a price), and are designed to be more like pensions than traditional 401(k)s.

What's wrong with plain old target-date funds?

You might think that current target-date funds would be set up to provide lifetime income, obviating the need for an annuity in the fund. As it turns out, even those funds with the closest target date suffered bad losses in the recent market downturn, impairing their ability to provide income. The reason for this impairment was a heavy stock allocation in those target-date funds.
Fidelity Freedom 2010, which is down 21% year to date, had about 49% of its assets in stocks as of Aug. 31 (these are 2008 dates), according to Morningstar. Vanguard Target Retirement 2010, down 19% this year, had 54% in stocks as of June 30. T. Rowe Price Retirement 2010, down 23% year to date, had about 59% in stocks at June 30.
In fairness, and as one of the fund representatives mentions in the linked story, some of these funds are planning for people with 40 year retirements, which would require a heavier allocation of stocks than bonds in order to make the money last that long. But at first glance I would have expected a 2010 target-date fund to have a much higher bond allocation.

Can we become annuity fans?

Given the fact that the target-date funds hold a high allocation of equities, and the risk of the markets tanking like they've done over the last year, annuities may be a workable solution to the lifetime income problem. Now, I'll come right out and say that I have a bias against annuities. One of the articles addresses this directly:
Academic research has long shown that retirees need monthly income and that annuities make sense in theory, but people don't like them—often for good reason. Many retail annuities sold to retirees are too complicated, too expensive, and too restrictive.
The annuities in the hybrid 401(k) mostly avoid these issues. The fees are only 50 basis points, and there are no fees to cash out. But I have seen nothing about how the hybrid 501(k) will mitigate the insolvency risk of the insurer that is issuing the annuity. In these times, I worry about insurers going belly up and being unable to pay an income stream. Regular 401(k) funds hold stocks and bonds. Short of massive fraud, even if your fund company goes belly up, the stocks and bonds in the fund should still be there. When an insurance company goes belly up, I worry that there might not be anything there with which to pay your annuity.

Enter your state's life and health insurance guaranty association. Each state has a guaranty association that will backstop insolvent insurance companies. There is a Web site,, with information about state guaranty associations. For example, in my state of New York, the Life Insurance Company Guaranty Corporation of New York, will only protect up to $500,000 of annuity contracts. I would like to hear more about how the annuities in the hybrid 401(k)s would be insured.

Finally, and off on a bit of a tangent, contrast the insurance guaranty association's annuity protection with that offered by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC), which guarantees failed company pension plans. In 2009, the maximum monthly guaranty (with no survivor benefits) for a 65 year old is $4,500. The PBGC monthly guarantee equates to a return of over 10% a year on $500,000, and it's risk free since it's guaranteed by the PBGC.

Estate planning for your home

Most of us won't be hit by the estate tax when we shed this mortal coil. Even adding in the value of a home, the vast majority of Americans won't owe an estate tax, so their homes can be passed on to their heirs and avoid most taxes. Those who would be hit by the estate tax can do some prior planning to pass on a home with as little tax implications as possible. One sophisticated strategy is a qualified personal residence trust.

Here's how a QPRT works. Say a retired doctor in Florida wants to give his $1 million beachfront home to his two daughters. This strategy would require the doctor to put his home into an irrevocable trust for several years, while he continues to live in it. Through a complex IRS calculation based on interest rates, the length of the trust and his age, the IRS values his right to live in the house at, say, $600,000.

For the purposes of his taxable estate, that knocks the value of his house down to just $400,000 -- regardless of how much the house appreciates in the meantime. (That $400,000, though, comes out of the doctor's federal gift- and estate-tax exemptions.) When the trust is up after the stipulated number of years, if he chooses to continue living there, he can pay his daughters rent, further reducing the size of his taxable estate.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Your 1099-B will be late this year

I received a mailing from my broker that my 1099 wouldn't be mailed until February 15 of this year. It said that the IRS reporting deadline has changed from January 31. What the heck?

Well, it turns out I can blame Congress. The reason for the change is brokers now have to include tax basis as well as sales proceeds on all sales you make in the tax year. I have a couple of issues with this as a reason for pushing back the deadline.

First, the 1099 forms are generated by a computer. It's not like people are calculating the tax basis for all my sales transactions by hand. So once the computer program is updated to print the basis on the 1099, there is no other work. The incremental processing time to include this when the 1099 forms should be trivially small, or else the programmers who made the change should be fired. No extra time is needed.

Second, the tax basis isn't required to be put on the 1099 forms for 2008. It's not going to be required until a later date. So the brokers are being given more time to add information to the 1099 form that they aren't even required to add this year.

Third, the change in the law only applied to the 1099-B, but since most brokers send out a combined 1099 with the 1099-DIV and 1099-INT with the 1099-B, the IRS is allowing the later date to apply to the entire combined 1099.

Why am I making a big deal about this? Because I like to get my taxes done early, and this will delay me by at least 2 weeks. The worst part is that my broker usually screws up the dividend classification (qualified vs. non-qualified) and has to send me a corrected 1099. I'm sure that it still won't catch the mistakes it's made in the past even with this deadline extension, and I'll be getting a corrected 1099 even later than usual. OK, rant done.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Just an interesting story

This is just an interesting story.

TD Bank branch opening

I received a postcard in the mail informing me that TD Bank was opening (another) branch near me. They're giving away $500 cash (in a drawing) on the day of the opening, and then they're giving away a $1,500 gift card (also in a drawing) several days later. Better than a toaster. Look for these giveaways if one opens near you.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Where have all the cowboys stock analysts gone?

There are fewer employed stock analysts, their ranks having been decimated by layoffs as a result of subprime losses and mergers. This leads to less research available to individuals, since their brokers are less likely to now cover as many stocks. (Whether or not fewer analyst reports is a good or bad thing is something we can debate at another time.) What are some other options if your favorite coverage is no longer available? BusinessWeek has provided some options.

Research Edge is a boutique research firm that provides recommendations for $2700 a year, or $225 a month. From looking at the sample on their Web site, it appears they provide daily big picture market strategies and individual stock or ETF recommendations. Their CEO is a former managing director at The Carlyle Group, so he's a heavy hitter. has a premium section that contains more of the insights they pull from SEC filings. As they say - "For the past 5 years, Footnoted has been digging through SEC filings to bring the most interesting tidbits to our readers. But because we look at many more filings than we post on the site, we’ve decided to launch a separate product: FootnotedPro."

The most notable one of all is of course Morningstar. According to the article:

The Chicago firm started out providing reports on mutual funds, but since 2005 it has been steadily adding product categories. Currently, for an annual fee of $159, subscribers can read regularly updated reports from 200 analysts on 2,000 stocks and get access to fairly involved screening tools for finding stock or fund bargains.
The story mentions a couple more possibilities, so if you're in the market for equity research, check it out.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Where the returns were in 2008

Are you looking for where the investment returns were in 2008? Look no further, they were in managed futures funds.

[...] boon for managed futures funds, which climbed more than 13% last year. Hedge funds, by comparison, were off around 21%.
What are managed futures funds?

Managed futures are different from long/short funds and natural resource sector mutual funds. Managed future funds trade futures contracts and other derivatives. This allows them to take long and short positions. They use futures to make bets on oil and other commodities, as well as stocks and bonds. They tend to do well in markets with a lot of volatility, which we had in abundance last year (and still have now), and not as well in low volatility markets:
In 2005 and 2006, when stocks were steadily rising, the Chicago Board Options Exchange Volatility Index—the infamous VIX "fear index" that measures whether fluctuations in equities are weak or wild—dipped to a low of around 10. During those two years, managed futures funds overall eked out gains of just 1.7% and 3.5%, according to research firm BarclayHedge, compared with 10.7% and 12.4% for hedge funds.

Don't break the buck continued

Following up on my last post on this matter,I received a new notice from my money market mutual fund manager that it was going to extend its participation in the Treasury's Temporary Guarantee Program until April 30, 2009 (the date to which the Treasury extended the availability of the Program). I would bet that as the Treasury keeps extending availability, my fund will keep extending its participation, and I'll get to keep paying for the 'privilege'.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Simple estate planning

Money Magazine recently covered the basics of estate planning. First, understand how the estate tax rates are going to change over the coming years.

In 2009 the federal exemption - the amount of an estate not subject to a 45% federal tax - has increased from $2 million to $3.5 million for individuals. This move is the result of a 2001 law that continually increased the limit for the eight years following. Oddly, the law calls for estate tax to be eliminated in 2010, then to revert back to 2001 levels ($1 million with a 55% tax rate above that) in 2011.
So, as of right now, you only have to worry about estate taxes if your estate is going to be over $3.5 million when you shed this mortal coil. However, even if your estate won't hit this level of assets, you should have an estate plan.

You need a will to make sure your inheritance plans are carried out as you instructed. Money recommended the site,, to help you find an estate planning attorney. You'll also want to do whatever you can to avoid probate. Why?
"It's not unusual for a $1 million California estate to generate $23,000 in probate fees," says Liza Weiman Hanks, a San Jose estate attorney and author of "The Busy Family's Guide to Estate Planning."
Some other things to understand; living trusts, 'pour over' will, irrevocable life insurance trusts, bypass trusts and disclaimer bypass trusts (read the fine article).

I'll describe irrevocable life insurance trusts to pique your interest. Normally, if you designate someone other than your spouse as the life insurance policy beneficiary, such as a child, the benefits paid will be taxed as being part of your estate. However, if there is a policy that covers you but that you don't own, the benefits shouldn't be subject to your estate taxes.

Enter the irrevocable life insurance trust. You set it up and the benefits are paid to the trust, free of estate taxes. There are some big caveats, however. For one, after the trust is established, you can't change the beneficiaries. This is part of the reason it's called irrevocable.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Estate planning tips for bear markets

There are a couple of estate planning "benefits" that you can get in bear markets and low interest rate environments. The first one is pretty trivial. Give away your assets that have lost value to your heirs. If an asset has fallen in value by 50%, you can now gift twice as much of it, up to the annual $13,000 limit, before having to pay taxes on the gift. Then, if the asset comes back in value, your heir should only have to pay the regular capital gains rates on the gain. If instead you held on to the asset and it came back to full value, when you shed this mortal coil, the asset could potentially be subject to the 45% estate tax, which is greater than the current capital gains rates.

Another tip is to use a grantor retained annuity trust, as described:

A GRAT is an irrevocable trust designed to transfer the appreciation on assets contributed to it with minimal or no gift-tax consequences. It's a popular strategy for transferring wealth in a low-rate environment. That's because of the current IRS-mandated interest rate of 2.4%. Here how it works: Let's say you set up a GRAT and fund it with $1 million in badly depressed stock. Assuming the simplest scenario and a trust term of two years (it could be longer), the GRAT would make annuity payments to you valued at $518,081 in each of those two years. (That includes a calculation of present value you don't want to do at home; those payments can be made in cash or stock.) If the asset appreciates more than those payments—and the odds of that seem good, with a low "hurdle" rate of 2.4%—the excess goes to your beneficiaries tax-free.

If it turns out the asset has appreciated less than those $518,081 payments, the trust fails. The asset returns to you, and you can start another GRAT and try again. A rolling GRAT strategy allows multiple possibilities of catching the asset's rise at a valuable moment. GRATs have a standard structure, so setting up the second or third one is less expensive than the first. (A simple GRAT might cost about $5,000.)

Now, those five grand fees can add up, so you wouldn't want to have too many failed GRATs.

Finally, the story points out that the IRS rate for intra-family lending is now %0.81. Try getting that rate from your local bank.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Falling air travel means bankrupt airlines

Plummeting jet fuel prices caused by the sharp decrease in the price of oil won't help the troubled airline industry. Passenger traffic was down 10.6% in November. We're also not talking about a nice (relatively) Chapter 11 bankruptcy that allows an airline to reorganize. Oh no, these are the Chapter 7s, liquidation.

Now, with both business and leisure travel in North America expected to fall as much as 15% this year, the industry may face another round of bankruptcies. Unlike the last spate of failures in the mid-2000s, not every airline may survive. In previous downturns, carriers often used Chapter 11 as a reset button that let them emerge from bankruptcy even stronger by shedding debt and other obligations, such as pensions. To play it safe, big carriers such as American Airlines and US Airways have raised fresh cash. But many airlines have hocked most of their assets, leaving them little to borrow against. "At this point, bankruptcy is liquidation," says Roger E. King, an airline analyst at institutional research firm CreditSights.
The 15% fall in North American passenger traffic squares with some numbers I found in a previous post (decrease to 240 million from 299 million passengers on American carries). That stories referenced from that post said ticket prices would rise. But this more recent article says that carriers are slashing fares to fill empty seats, but doesn't mention what's happening with capacity. Anecdotally, I haven't seen massive fare decreases.

The BusinessWeek article says Air Canada and US Airways are the two big airlines that are in danger of going under. From my reading, it seems that Air Canada's problems are due to the financial engineering of the hedge funds that bought it during its last bankruptcy.