Don’t Feed the Alligators

A Personal Finance Blog from a Small-Scale Landlord’s Perspective

Archive for March, 2009

Risk Management

Creative Commons License photo figure credit: Cold Cut

A lot of Americans are mad right now.  They’re mad at bankers and CEOs for causing such a mess in the financial markets.  They’re mad at the government for seemingly throwing good money after bad in bailouts of all sorts.  Many are even mad at themselves for living large for so long on borrowed money or the equity in their homes.

I get that.

What’s been bugging me lately, however, is this notion that some of these large banks and financial institutions should be left to fail.  I’ve seen this idea repeated in newspapers, on TV news, on blogs.  I’ve heard it from my coworkers, on talk radio, and at the coffee shop.  Well, the truth of the matter is this: The banks in question here have failed.  They’ve failed spectacularly.  They’ve lost almost incomprehensible amounts of money. Their stock prices are worth next to nothing.

What they haven’t done, except for Lehman Brothers, is gone bankrupt.  We, the people, have been spending hundreds of billions of dollars to keep these institutions afloat.  And that’s a good thing.  Here’s why:

These institutions all have deposit accounts, brokerage accounts, and other types of custodial accounts.  They take your money, pool it together with other peoples’ money, and invest it in various vehicles according to your instructions.  People are always adding to the pool and taking away.  So normally the pool stays the same size or changes very slowly, and this keeps things on a pretty even keel.

If many people either want to put more money in or take their money out of the pool quickly, the pool is forced to buy or sell stock in large quantities, or to call in debt obligations from others.  Buying or selling in very large quantities is ultimately detrimental to customers because it causes the price of the underlying stock or mutual fund to rise or fall very quickly, meaning the you’re either overpaying when you buy in or not getting the full value when you cash out.

If a large financial institution is unable to meet its debt obligations and has to declare bankruptcy, the first thing that is going to happen is that most, if not all, of its customers are going to want to get their money back.  This will trigger a run on the money causing a massive drop in share prices for the underlying securities.  If this price drop is big enough, the rest of the market could react at the same time, causing the whole market to drop.  This is bad news for everyone who has money in the market, not just those who have money in the pool.

This is why it has been necessary for the government to step in to reassure customers of many troubled financial institutions that their money is secure.  By keeping the institutions solvent, the government is preventing a massive run on money that could have far reaching effects on the whole economy.  This is why some of the largest institutions are being called “too big to fail.”

While I certainly worry about what the long term implications will be with respect to taxes to pay for these bailouts, I don’t see any way around propping up these companies by partially or fully nationalizing them until things calm down for a while.  What I would like to see implemented immediately, however, is a plan to put regulations in place to:

  1. make sure that companies that are “too big to fail” are accountable for their business practices to be sure that they don’t fail
  2. make sure that companies going forward can never become “too big to fail”
  3. or some combination of these two.

What are your thoughts?  Are you angry about the bailouts?  Do you see them as necessary or a waste of taxpayer resources?  Do you think we need more or less regulation to prevent these circumstances in the future?

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03.22.2009
Money

Creative Commons License photo figure credit: borman818

I have just about wrapped up our tax return for 2008 and it looks like we’re getting a pretty sizable refund. This poses two questions: What should we do with the refund?

and

Should we change our withholding to avoid getting such a large return next year?

This post is about the first question, and the second will be covered in Part II.

ScrapperMom and I talked for a while about what to do with the refund. Given the current economic climate and the fact that our emergency fund only has about 3 months worth of expenses in it, we considered simply saving the money. It would add about another 1.5 months to our e-fund. This would give us some extra security, but would not help us to reduce our monthly obligations at all.

The other option is to use the refund to pay down some of our other debts. We’ve got a mortgage, car loan, and low interest, fixed rate credit card. Throwing it at the mortgage would be decidedly unsatisfying for two reasons: one is that it represents about 1.5% of our balance, so I’m not sure it would even qualify as a dent. The other is that it locks up our cash, at least until we sell our house — and we have no short term plans to do that. The credit card debt is the result of a renovation that we made to our rental property, and represents a deductible business expense. The tax refund will pay about 2/3 of this debt. With the low interest rate and the tax-deductibility making the effective rate even lower, low monthly payments, and the inability of this payment to provide relief from our monthly minimum obligation, this is also an unattractive option.

The last option is the car loan, which has about the same balance as the credit card. This loan is through our credit union. We bought our van a few years back and stretched a bit for it. We did save a lot of money by buying lightly used, but we took a 6 year loan on it to keep the payments manageable. Since then we have been pre-paying by about 10% each payment, as well as throwing some extra money at it here and there. So far we have shaved over a year off the loan. An interesting thing about this loan that I have not noticed on other loans is that as we pre-pay, our next payment due date keeps getting pushed out. So according to our latest statement, our next payment isn’t due until next year. The nice thing about this is that if we find ourselves in a position where we can’t make the minimum payment on this loan, we can skip it for quite a while by pre-paying now. The same is not true for the mortgage or credit card: if we pre-pay, we’re still obligated to make the minimum payment EVERY month.

ScrapperMom and I have decided, therefore, that the best option for the bulk of our refund is to pay down our car loan. This will cut another year off of our loan, reduce the number of payments left at our present paydown rate to just over 6, and still preserve the security of knowing that, if we lose some or all of our income, the obligation to pay this loan is pushed back far enough to help keep us solvent while we find ways to replace that lost income.

What do you think? Is this the best of both worlds? Are you getting a refund? How will you spend or save your refund? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!

Shaw's Cards

photo figure credit: ScrapperMom

This past Sunday morning ScrapperMom was perusing the grocery store circular when this offer caught her eye (my emphasis added):

Choose your tax refund reward. Customers can purchase gift cards with their Shaw’s Rewards Card (for carded markets) at their local store’s Customer Service center.  No tax form or refund check is necessary.  Customers may purchase a grocery store gift card at $250 or $300.  Each gift card will be loaded with an additional $20 for a $250 purchase or $30 for a $300 purchase.  There is no limit for the amount of cards a customer can purchase. The additional bonus amount cannot be used for the purchase of alcohol, fuel, tobacco, lottery tickets, dairy products, prescription drugs or additional gift cards.  Offer is available March 13, 2009 through April 15, 2009.

Shaw’s is one of our local grocery stores (same company as Star Market), and it ran a similar 10% bonus during last year’s Economic Stimulus check mailings.  Apparently the response from customers and reward for Shaw’s was so great that they’ve decided to run this offer during tax season this year as well.  The limit before was whatever the size of your stimulus check was, and we took full advantage.  But I’m really psyched that there’s no limit on this offer.

Clearly this is a great deal no matter how you slice it.  The offer is for a store that we visit at least once per week, where we spend at least $250 per month, and that sells necessities, namely food.  The only real question is how much advantage we can take.  There are a few factors that limit how many of these cards we should buy:

  • How much cash we have available.
  • What the cost is to tie up this cash for whatever time it will take to use up all of the cards that we buy.
  • Whether this is really a no limit offer.

Because we don’t live paycheck to paycheck, we actually have somewhere between $10,000 and $15,000 available on hand in cash that we could use for this “investment” that is not technically part of our emergency fund.  It turns out that we also gave the government too big of an interest free loan last year, so we’re going to be getting a healthy refund which we can also roll into purchasing discount gift cards.

I ran some quick math to see how soon I would have to spend the gift card before we would have just been better off sticking the money in a CD.  I figured out that if I could earn 3.5%, tax free,  on a $300 investment today, it would take 34 months to earn 10% on the initial investment.  That means that as long as I can spend the gift card within the next 3 years (because with taxes it will take longer than 34 months to accrue 10%) I will be getting a better return by buying the gift card.

I asked myself if there were any down sides to this offer as well.  One that pops to mind is that we’ll be tying up lots of cash that we may need for other things.  The nice thing about these gift cards, however, is that we can easily trade them for cash, and if things ever get that bad, we’ll still have to eat, so having grocery cards is not such a bad thing.  Another thing we’ll need to be careful about is where and how we store the cards.  Having the equivalent of thousands of dollars in cash laying around has risks: fire, theft, loss, etc.  We’ll have to figure out a way to deal with that.  Lastly, what if the store goes out of business?  This is certainly something about which to be concerned, but this is a chain that has been around as long as I can remember, stores don’t usually just all of a sudden stop honoring gift cards, and as above we should be able to liquidate them quickly if it comes to that.

We still haven’t decided exactly how many of these cards we’ll buy in total.  We spent about $5,400 on groceries in 2008, so we can buy a lot of these cards and still come out ahead.  Yesterday ScrapperMom went to the Customer Service desk to buy 6 of them and was told that you can only buy 5 per customer per day.  So there is, apparently, a limit, but I still don’t think it should affect how many we want to buy (though if it did I would argue that the ad does say “no limit”).

What do you think?  Should we stock up on $10,000 worth of these cards (or the closest multiple of $300) and get an instant $1,000 back?  Is this a deal that interests you?  How many will you buy or would you buy if you could?  Are there downsides or risks that we’ve yet to consider? Leave a comment below!

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Killington

Creative Commons License photo figure credit: Derek Purdy

This past Friday I used some comp time at work to take advantage of some non-weekend skiing at Killington Mountain in Vermont.  My host for the day was an old friend who sold a company during the Dot-Com boom and has been, for the most part, living off of the interest and dividends provided by his investment of the proceeds of the sale.  We talked about a lot of things while riding the ski lift, from parenting philosophy to Wall Street bailouts to the whereabouts of our mutual friends.

My friend challenged me in many ways, not the least of which was in trying to keep up with him on the slopes.  But as the memories of freshly groomed courderoy fade away, I’ve been chewing on a number of the things I learned or relearned in our ski lift discussions.  Please excuse the fact that some of these are broad, and some are narrow, but that’s how the conversation went.

  1. Citigroup is not going back to $45 - Throughout most of the 2000s, Citigroup’s stock price was in the $40 to $50 range.  It closed at $1.03 on Friday.  There are two important lessons here: A. You should not own individual stocks unless you own enough and varied stock to be able to weather problems in one particular market segment, like banking or energy — in other words you should be diversified enough to mitigate non-systemic losses.  B. Even if you believe that the market will bounce back, it will have to do so without Citigroup, GM, and any number of other well established, large companies whose stock is now all but worthless.  Money invested in Citi at $45 is gone.
  2. Koreans make bad pilots – There’s a book out now by Malcolm Gladwell called Outliers.  In it, there is a story about the problems that Korea Air had keeping their planes in the sky in the 80s and 90s.  Apparently the problem stemmed from a cultural requirement for co-pilots and other crew members to respect their elders by not questioning their authority and decisions in the cockpit.  It seems to me that a lot of the financial mess we’re in today stems from people not asking enough questions when they didn’t understand the terms of a deal, be it a mortgage or a credit default swap.
  3. This is not the first time the government has bailed out a “too big to fail” company – Do you remember a company called Long-Term Capital Management?  I didn’t either.  But I learned that this was a hedge fund that failed “spectacularly” in 1998 and was bailed out by a consortium of banks.  This fund was “too big to fail” in that its quick liquidation would have led to a collapse of financial markets.  You can’t sell large stock positions all at once since it causes the price to fall sharply, and you certainly can’t do so for many stocks all at once since it causes entire markets to fall sharply.  My ski buddy wonders why we put ourselves into a position again in which unregulated entities were allowed to become too big to fail.
  4. When you can’t find value in something that you need, you can always go for cheap – I was eyeing the sushi bar at lunch time, but a $15+ dollar lunch was not worth it to me.  Instead I went with a $4 hot dog.  This is similar to why I choose index funds instead of managed mutual funds.
  5. Giving up a little can be worth a lot – A season pass at Killington cost $999.  A season pass with 14 blackout days costs $650.  By giving up less than 10% of the available days during the ski season — which also happen to be the days with the longest lift lines — you save 35% on the pass.  This works the opposite way as well.  I’m reminded of the fact that most of the gains in the stock market happen on VERY few days.  If you had invested $10,000 in 1996 in an S&P 500 Index Fund, you’d have $17,280 in 2008.  If you had missed the 10 best days during that period, you would have just $10,748.  If you had missed the 20 best days, you’d have lost money and be left with just $7,360.  (Source)
  6. The government should not have let Lehman Brothers fail – It was distasteful to the American people that the government bailed out Bear Sterns, so it let Lehman Brothers fail to appease the taxpayer rather than do what was right with respect to fiscal policy.  In all likelyhood this has cost the taxpayers far more than it would have otherwise in the form of bailout after bailout.  The failure of Lehman Brothers began a downward spiral which seemingly has not yet found it’s floor.
  7. Don’t take the experts at their word without doing your due diligence – The weather.com “ski index” for Killington on Friday was a 1 out of 10, with 1 being the worst.  I decided to make the 3+ hour drive and see for myself.  At the very worst case it would be a long way to go for a couple of beers.  My friend says that he would have given the day a 4.5 overall (5 in the morning, 4 in the afternoon).  I would give it a 7, since my bias is towards smaller, less challenging mountains with generally worse conditions.  Check out this clip from The Daily Show which features a great quote from Jon Stewart: “If I’d only followed CNBC’s advice I’d have a million dollars today…provided I’d started with $100 million.” (Thanks to David at My Two Dollars for posting the link earlier this week.)

I had a great time skiing, and a great time chatting on Friday.  I like to think they were both somehow good for my soul.  I like to hear your opinion on any of these points.  Leave a Comment below.