Archives for April 2014

Awesome Travel Hack That Turned Economy Seats into a Flat Bed For Two

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Ever watch those commercials for Singapore or Emirates Airlines with beautiful people sleeping on luxurious beds while flying across time zones? Jason Blum, a film producer known for the Paranormal Activity franchise, figured out a way to get ‘er done without paying over $10,000 a seat, via Businessweek.:

When Jason Blum and his wife flew to Morocco last year, they could have gone first class. The cost, though, was $22,000. And Blum, possibly the most profitable movie producer in Hollywood, never pays full price when a cheaper alternative will do.

Instead, Blum bought a row of seats in coach for $1,800. He obtained the measurements of the legroom void in front of these seats and had a custom, trapezoidal air mattress built for $500. He packed this contraption into his carry-on. Once airborne, he inflated it, creating a combined seat/air-mattress surface large enough to sleep next to his wife. Estimated savings: $19,700.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any photos by Blum. It was probably similar to the SkyCouch from Air New Zealand:

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But that has very limited availability, so I think it’d be cool if he started selling those custom air mattresses to the rest of us!

Flash Boys by Michael Lewis: Book Notes and Highlights

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flashboyscoverIf you’ve read any financial news at all over the past month, you know that Michael Lewis has a new book out called Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt. I finished it over a week ago, but it’s rather intimidating to write a review when everyone else already has an opinion.

Perhaps I just seek out the critical reviews, but I see many financial pundits basically saying “Pfft. Everyone thinks this Michael Lewis guy is just sooo smart and sooo clever. Well, I’m smarter than him so here are all the things he didn’t get exactly right.” I’ll keep with my usual format of notes and highlights:

  • The book was an entertaining and educational read. If you like other books by Michael Lewis (The Big Short, Liar’s Poker, Moneyball, The Blind Side), you’ll probably like this one. As a gifted storyteller, he made learning about high-frequency trading (HFT) into an intriguing adventure complete with heroes and villains.
  • The most impactful form of frequency trading is slow market arbitrage. Here, HF traders use their speed advantage of microseconds (gained by paying off exchanges or drilling through mountains):

    …a high-frequency trader was able to see the price of a stock change on one exchange, and pick off orders sitting on other exchanges, before the exchanges were able to react. Say, for instance, the market for P&G shares is 80–80.01, and buyers and sellers sit on both sides on all of the exchanges. A big seller comes in on the NYSE and knocks the price down to 79.98–79.99. High-frequency traders buy on NYSE at $79.99 and sell on all the other exchanges at $80, before the market officially changes. This happened all day, every day, and generated more billions of dollars a year than the other strategies combined.

    Each trade may make a penny or even a fraction of a penny, but it all adds up. You could view it like a small tax of less than 1/10th of 1% of every trade.

  • Many people in the industry have come to the defense of HFT in the wake of the book. Some say that HFT improves liquidity, but others say that HFT actually makes the market more volatile and fragile. Others rationalize that someone is always screwing you, it’s just different people this time. (How comforting.) Traditional market-makers make money from trading but expose themselves to risk by providing valuable liquidity. In contrast, the successful HFT traders took nearly no risk:

    In early 2013, one of the largest high-frequency traders, Virtu Financial, publicly boasted that in five and a half years of trading it had experienced just one day when it hadn’t made money, and that the loss was caused by “human error.” In 2008, Dave Cummings, the CEO of a high-frequency trading firm called Tradebot, told university students that his firm had gone four years without a single day of trading losses. This sort of performance is possible only if you have a huge informational advantage.

  • HF traders should just admit that they’re doing it for the money. I think the best defense would simply be that these traders are operating within the current laws and regulations (although Providence, Rhode Island is now suing several HFT traders, stock exchanges, and large brokers). Is it ethical or helpful to society? Questionable. Consider this analogy from the book:

    It was like a broken slot machine in the casino that pays off every time. It would keep paying off until someone said something about it; but no one who played the slot machine had any interest in pointing out that it was broken.

    Do we hate the player or the game? Brad Katsuyama, one of the primary heroes who eventually creates a new stock exchange to neutralize HFT:

    “I hate them a lot less than before we started,” said Brad. “This is not their fault. I think most of them have just rationalized that the market is creating the inefficiencies and they are just capitalizing on them. Really, it’s brilliant what they have done within the bounds of the regulation. They are much less of a villain than I thought. The system has let down the investor.

  • Another common argument is whether it really affects the little guy investor, or just the big institutional investors. Yes, it’s easy to think of hedge funds trading on behalf of the super-wealthy and not really feel sorry for them. But institutional investors include pensions, mutual funds, and life insurance (annuity) companies. Of course, on a relative basis the big money managers often charge their own layer of fees which are much higher than any HFT “tax”. But since HFT is essentially a transaction tax, the less that your mutual fund or pension plan trades, the less they’ll be affected.

    The CEO of Vanguard actually stated in an interview with Financial Times that HFT firms had actually helped investors cut their transaction costs through tighter trading spreads. Perhaps things aren’t so black and white. Excess trading has long been linked with worse performance, so my index funds are probably barely affected at all. (Vanguard does support some HFT-related reforms.)

  • Can you stop HFT without opening the door to another form of skimming? Maybe Vanguard’s CEO is hinting that HFT is the lesser of many possible evils. Whenever there is big money sloshing around, there will always be splashing. I don’t know. But now that Michael Lewis had thrown a big spotlight on this issue, that in itself may get rid of this market inefficiency. People have written about HFT before but this finally got people’s attention.

If you want to learn about high-frequency trading or like a good investigative story, I would recommend reading the book for yourself. If you’re still on the fence, here are two links which are essentially direct excerpts from the book:

Lyft Promotion Credit Codes: Free Ride Credits

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lyftappLyft is a smartphone-based ride service that competes with traditional taxis. They are similar to Uber, but Lyft calls their fares “donations” and aggressively recruits casual drivers who can apply directly from their app. (Uber does a similar thing with their UberX service whereas their UberBlack and UberTAXI service employs professional full-time drivers.) Lyft drivers are screened with DMV and background checks, as well as provided $1 million in liability coverage. Riders pay entirely through the smartphone app. Drivers keep 80% of the total fare.

Here is a list of all the cities they serve. Right now Lyft is aggressively expanding and the following promotions are available:

  • Download their iPhone app or Android app first.
  • New users: Get free ride up to $25. Hail a pink-mustached car driven by a private individual in their private car. Cities. Get $50 off your first ride with promo code SLICKDEALS. If that doesn’t work, you can get a $20 ride credit via my referral link. If you live in a city where they are just starting out, you may also get a bunch of additional free rides for being a “Lyft Pioneer”.
  • Residents of Pioneer cities get free rides for two weeks. Pioneer cities are places where Lyft is just starting out. If you join the app in a Pioneer city, you’ll automatically get a number of free rides (up to $25 each) valid for the first 2 weeks after you join. Currently, Pioneer is only available in Indianapolis, Minneapolis-St.Paul, Atlanta, Phoenix, Charlotte, Denver, Dallas, Silicon Valley, Baltimore, Orange County, Sacramento, Houston and Columbus for a limited time. (I think Cincinnati, OH, Detroit, MI, Tampa, FL, and Tucson, AZ also qualify.) Details here. Launched 4/24 as part of “Lyftapalooza” were ALBUQUERQUE ANN ARBOR BUFFALO COLORADO SPRINGS CORPUS CHRISTI FRESNO JACKSONVILLE KANSAS CITY LEXINGTON LINCOLN LOUISVILLE MEMPHIS MODESTO NEW HAVEN NEWARK OKLAHOMA CITY OMAHA RALEIGH DURHAM ROCHESTER SAN BERNARDINO SPOKANE TOLEDO TULSA VIRGINIA BEACH.

Get free ride credits to other ridesharing sites including Uber, Flywheel, Gett, Sidecar, Silvercar here! It is pretty neat to summon a ride from your smartphone and track it by GPS as it gets closer to you.

Kayak.com Airfare Price Prediction Tool: Don’t Bother

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In 2007 I wrote about a site called Farecast.com that used past data to offer a prediction on whether airfares would rise or fall in the future. I even used it to book tickets a couple times. It was soon bought and absorbed by Bing Travel (Microsoft) for $115 million in 2008 and but it has recently been killed off and is no longer available. In a recent FiveThirtyEight.com article, Kaiser Fund tested out Kayak.com’s own price prediction tool. It wasn’t a broad survey – he tracked 32 different requests and tracked the prices until Kayak said to buy. Here are the results:

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Out of those 32 requests, 17 resulted in immediate buy recommendations. Out of the remaining 15 that told him to wait at least one day, he eventually saved money only on 5 of them. Averaging out all the final purchase prices, they were actually 2% higher than if he just bought immediately. Fung qualifies his results by saying that even though it’s technically a draw, the tool can help those people who would otherwise second-guess their decisions.

Given that there is only one price predictor tool left and it doesn’t really seem to work all that well, I come to a different conclusion. I plan to take this knowledge and simply buy my tickets whenever the price is acceptable, saving both time and worry.

Retirement Portfolio Spending Strategy – Withdrawal Order Flowchart

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

According to research from the Vanguard Group, another area where a skilled financial advisor is supposed to able to add value is helping retirees manage withdrawals from their portfolios in order to minimize taxes. According to their paper:

Advisors who implement informed withdrawal-order strategies can minimize the total taxes paid over the course of their clients’ retirement, thereby increasing their clients’ wealth and the longevity of their portfolios. This process alone could represent the entire value proposition for the fee-based advisor.

The paper goes on to show how correct ordering can improve returns by up to 0.70% annually versus people with multiple different account types withdrawing in the wrong order. The thing is, ordering your withdrawals properly isn’t all that complicated. Most of it is summarized in this flowchart:

portspend

  • RMDs stand for required minimum distributions. In general, these are forced withdrawals from pre-tax “traditional” IRAs (including SEP and SIMPLE IRAs) and pre-tax workplace defined-contribution plans (including 401(k) and 403(b) plans) once you reach age 70.5. Since it is mandatory and taxed at ordinary income rates, you may as well spend them first.
  • Next, taxable flows include things like interest, dividends, and capital gains distributions that are already being “spun off” from your taxable portfolio. These are also going to be taxed no matter what anyway.
  • Next, spend your taxable portfolio itself by selling shares and paying any capital gains taxes that may be due. Sell investments with the lowest gains first to minimize taxes. Don’t sell if you don’t need the money.
  • What you have left are tax-deferred or tax-free (Roth) accounts. Do you want to pay taxes now, or later? If you think your marginal tax bracket will be higher in the future, then you should pay taxes now (withdraw first from tax-deferred account). If you think your marginal tax bracket will be lower in the future, then you should pay taxes later (withdraw first from Roth accounts). You could make your decision differently each year depending on your current situation.

How Good Portfolio Management Can Improve Real-World Returns

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

Vanguard has released a research paper called Putting a value on your value: Quantifying Vanguard Advisor’s Alpha, which provides the data and methodology behind its previous statement that a good financial advisor should be able to affect the performance of client’s portfolio by about three percentage points. The areas where good management can add value are summarized in the graphic below:

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As a DIY investor, this chart also provides suggestions for areas to focus your energy. The biggest single “value-add” appears to be in the area of behavioral coaching. This basically boils down to convincing the client/investor not to abandon their previous plans during times of extreme greed (bull market) or fear (bear market). In other words, do nothing. In my previous post, I posed that a simple Vanguard Target Date Retirement fund would provide both low expense ratios and regular rebalancing – no advisor required. It turns out that if you can buy one of these Target funds and leave it alone for a long time, you’ll do even better…

Vanguard analyzed the performance of 58,168 self-directed Vanguard IRA investors from 1/1/2008 to 12/31/2012, a 5-year period which includes both the financial crisis and subsequent recovery. These self-directed investors were compared with an appropriate Target Date fund benchmark. The authors even state “For the purpose of our example, we are assuming that Vanguard target-date funds provide some of the structure and guidance that an advisor might have provided.”

An investor who made at least one buy/sell exchange between funds over the entire five-year period trailed the applicable Vanguard target-date fund benchmark by 1.5% annually on average. Investors who made no exchange lagged the benchmark by only 0.19%. The chart supplied is a little tricky to read, but illustrates the performance gap.

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(You want more “area under the curve” on the positive excess return side, and less “area under the curve” on the negative excess return side.)

I agree a good financial advisor can add value. Many people are doing none of the strategies listed above. However, a motivated DIY investor can implement most of not all of these strategies themselves. If you can buy a Vanguard Target Retirement fund and leave it alone (easier said than done), you can get much of the way there without an advisor. The problem is that you may have to go through an extreme market cycle to know if you can actually do it. Excerpted from the paper’s conclusion:

This 3% increase in potential net returns should not be viewed as an annual value-add, but is likely to be intermittent, as some of the most significant opportunities to add value occur during periods of market duress or euphoria when clients are tempted to abandon their well-thought-out investment plan.

Employer Health Insurance Wellness Programs: Helpful Feature or Profit Center?

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

healthLike many other folks, I have the majority of my health insurance premiums paid by my employer. I appreciate this and value it as part of my “total compensation” (a fact that they keep reminding me about).

My employer and health insurance provider recently teamed up to offer us a “Wellness program”. These used to be rewards-based programs where you earned points for activities like watching health-education videos, tracking your weight, creating a food journal, etc. You could then redeem those points towards gift cards and such. The idea was to encourage healthy behaviors like eating better and regular exercise with little pushes (“carrots”).

But instead of the “carrot”, it appears they may be switching to the “stick”.

Starting this year, if I don’t complete an in-person health exam, 30-minute online survey, and telephone coaching session annually, then the employer contribution towards my health insurance premiums will be cut by around 40%. For example, if my employer used to contribute $800 a month towards health insurance and I don’t jump through all the hurdles, my out-of-pocket costs will increase by $320 a month. This program is managed by a for-profit publicly-traded corporation called Healthways (ticker HWAY).

Healthways, Inc. provides well-being improvement solutions that help people improve their physical, emotional and social well-being, thereby improving their health and productivity and reducing their health-related costs.

I’m a skeptical person, so this basically translates to “Healthways makes money by making people cost less to insure.” They can do this in two ways:

  • Decrease health insurance claims by improving employee health through cost-effective strategies.
  • Decrease employer-paid premiums by increasing the employee-paid portion for lazy or forgetful employees.

I really don’t know how much these mandated tasks will improve worker health. I suppose some people who never see a doctor on their own may find out they have hypertension or high cholesterol. I know my wife and I pretty much went through the motions (took about 4 hours altogether including travel time) in order to prevent that huge premium hike. It was a financial no-brainer. On the other hand, I would love to see what percentage of workers fail to complete all the tasks by the deadline and how much extra money that brings in.

Target Mobile Coupon Text Codes: $10 off $50 in Food Purchases & More

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targetgroceryAttention Target shoppers… Target is offering some special coupons if you text specific messages to them at 827438 (TARGET). They’ll reply with a link to a unique coupon code that you just show the cashier on your smartphone. This week there is a pretty good $10 off coupon if you spend $50 on food and beverage purchases, and then I got sucked down the rabbit hole and wanted to find all the other available codes (even though I’m really not an avid coupon person). Here are all of them that I could find:

  • Text GROCERY to 827438 for a $10 off $50 coupon good on food and/or beverage purchases. Excludes alcohol, baby food, nutrition shakes and bars, pet food, Target Cafe and Starbucks Cafe. Expires 4/19/14. (GROCERY2 works as well.)
  • Text OFFERS to 827438 for a link to sign up for future coupons offers on your phone. Obviously, this means you’ll get ongoing marketing messages from Target. Up to 5 texts per month.
  • Text BABY to 827438 for a link to sign up for Target Baby Alerts. New subscribers get 10% off your first online baby order (excludes clearance items, diapers, wipes, training pants, and formula). Up to 6 texts per month.
  • Text APPAREL to 827438 for a $5 off $25 coupon good on Apparel and/or accessories purchase. Men’s, Women’s, Kids all included. Expires 4/19/14.
  • Text RECIPE to 827438 for a bunch of various food-related offers (this week $2 off $5 fresh fruit purchases, $1 off various easter and Target Pantry items). Expires 4/20/14.
  • Text SPRING to 827438 for a bunch of various offers (this week food, detergent, toilet paper, diapers). Expires 4/23/14.
  • Text THANKS to 827438 for a bunch of various offers (looks very similar to SPRING code above). Expires 4/23/14.
  • Text BAREURHAIR to 827438 for a bunch of various grooming-related offers (razors, shampoo, toothpaste). Expires 4/23/14.

Messaging and data rates may apply. Text STOP to 827438 to end. All the coupons say “Limit one identical coupon/offer per guest, purchase total must be met for each coupon/offer individually.”

Some of these coupons you can just find on their Weekly Ad coupons page.

Daycare Costs vs. In-State College Tuition

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There are many articles about rising college tuitions and how to best save for college. But according a recent study, in 31 states the annual cost of day care for an infant exceeds the average cost of in-state tuition and fees at public colleges. From this WaPo article:

We accept that it typically takes 18 years to sock away a sizeable-enough college nest egg. Considering that child care is an equivalent, if not greater, expense and that the average maternal age at first child birth is 26, this suggests that we should similarly start putting money away for day-care expenses when we’re roughly 8 years old.

Here’s the state-by-state breakdown:

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Vanguard Managed Payout Funds and Safe Withdrawal Rate Strategy

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paycheckreplaceA key component of retirement planning is figuring out how to draw an income from all that money you’ve invested. “Create your own paycheck.” The trick is figuring out how to take a stable amount out every year without running out of money.

This has led to a debate about “safe withdrawal rates”. The 4% number has been thrown around a lot, where for example if you retired with $1,000,000 in a balanced portfolio of stocks and bonds you might take out $40,000 a year (increasing with inflation) for 30 years with confidence. The problem is that if you simply take out 4% of your starting balance and then keep taking that number out every year robotically then your outcome depends a lot on sequence of returns. If you hit a prolonged bear market just a couple years into retirement (i.e. value drops to $700,000), your nest egg is much less likely to survive. On the other hand, if you hit a bull market for the first 10-15 years and only experience the bear market afterward, then you may die with more money than you started with.

This is why many experts encourage a more flexible “dynamic” withdrawal strategy that adjusts withdrawals based on portfolio performance. There are an infinite number of ways to implement this, so I looked for an industry example and found it in the Vanguard Managed Payout Fund (VPGDX)*. This all-in-one fund uses a 4% target distribution rate and with regular, monthly distributions that you can indeed treat like a (somewhat variable) paycheck. The fund is actively managed for total return, although a majority of its components are passive index funds.

How does the Vanguard Managed Payout fund calculate how much you can spend each year? Reading through the prospectus, we find that the monthly payout is calculated on January 1st every year, then kept constant for the next 12 months, and then reset again the next January 1st. If you started January 1st, 2014 with a $1,000,000 in this fund you would get a payout every month of 2014 for $2,995 ($35,940 a year). Why isn’t it 4% or $40,000?

The fund’s dynamic spending approach uses a “smoothing” method that keeps the monthly payout from changing too dramatically from year to year. Specifically, the 4% withdrawal rate is based on a 3-year rolling average of hypothetical past account value (assumes you spend the monthly distributions, but reinvest any year-end capital gains and dividends). Screenshot from prospectus:

managedpayout

So since the average of the past 3 years is lower than the current value, you’re getting 4% of a smaller number. As you can see, with smoothing your annual income from this fund can vary significantly over time. A starting portfolio size of $1,000,000 might get you an annual distribution varying from less than $36,000 or more than $44,000. Other smoothing methods include setting a maximum ceiling or minimum floor value, but this fund does not do that. Ideally, you would use the income from this fund to supplement other income from more reliable sources like Social Security, pensions, or guaranteed income annuities. That way your overall income will vary even less, and you’ll only have to cut back a little during down years.

(* Previously, Vanguard had three different Managed Payout funds with three different target spending rates of 3%, 5%, and 7%. I think this was confusing for many investors who didn’t really understand that the 7% fund would most likely experience a significant loss of principal over time. This is only speculation on my part, but the 7% payout fund did gather 8 times the assets as the 3% payout fund, even though 3% is a more realistic number for most folks. Vanguard now says that 4% is best for the “typical retirement period of 20–30 years”.)

Free PDF of Rich Dad Poor Dad Book

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

richdadRich Dad, Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki and Sharon Lechter is probably one of the most controversial best-selling personal finance books out there. Some people love it, others hate it. I am bringing this up because until 4/13 you can download a PDF of the book for free at RichDad.com. Specifically, you have to sign up for an account with your name and e-mail. Unless you really want a lot of spam, I’d use a disposable or temporary e-mail address. After verifying the e-mail I was able to download the PDF without issue.

I read and reviewed Rich Dad, Poor Dad in 2005, and while I do admit the book has many flaws I guess I still have a little nostalgic soft spot for it. Somehow his message of buying assets with your hard-earned money and not liabilities connected with a lot of people. Don’t get me wrong though – having read three other Kiyosaki books and listened to an audio CD series, my opinion is to skip everything else Kiyosaki sells! Just read the original. Don’t buy any other books or products, and please please don’t pay for a get-rich-quick seminar.

Free Starter Personal Finance Book: How Millennials Can Get Rich Slowly

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

ifyoucanbookWilliam Bernstein, author of several books on investing, has recently released a short book targeted at giving young folks a primer on saving for retirement. The title is If You Can: How Millennials Can Get Rich Slowly (Amazon link for the reviews). It costs the minimum 99 cents there, but you can also download it for free in PDF, MOBI ebook, and Amazon AZW3 formats. From his website:

For years I’ve thought about an eleemosynary project to help today’s young people invest for retirement because, frankly, there’s still hope for them, unlike for most of their Boomer parents. All they’ll have to do is to put away about 20% of their salaries into a low-cost target fund or a simple three-fund index allocation for 30 to 40 years. Which is pretty much the same as saying that if someone exercises and eats a lot less, he’ll lose 30 pounds. Simple, but not easy.

Not easy because unless the millennials learn a small amount about finance, they’ll fall victim to the Five Horsemen of Personal Finance Apocalypse: failure to save, ignorance of financial theory, unawareness of financial history, dysfunctional psychology, and the rapacity of the investment industry.

The book is only 27 pages long, but there are also several “reading assignments” of other books to complete your education. Those other books are not free but they have all been around long enough that it shouldn’t be too difficult to borrow a copy from your local library.