Archives for January 2015

Why You Shouldn’t Bet on Higher Oil Prices Using the USO ETF

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Does this sound familiar? Perhaps you’ve heard it around the water cooler, or considered it yourself?

  1. Crude oil has dropped to $50 a barrel.
  2. You just know oil prices will go up eventually.
  3. The futures market is kinda complicated… I know! I’ll buy an ETF like USO.
  4. Profit!?!?

Here are a few things you should know first about the United States Oil Fund (USO) and similar oil ETPs.

You aren’t the only one who’s thought of this. Over $7 billion dollars have already gone into oil ETFs in the last two months alone. Read this series of Businessweek articles on the subject, all by different authors:

The usual market timing questions apply. Sure, the price will go up, but how long is “eventually”? It might be 1,3,5, or 10 years. If you have a specific time-frame in mind, then you can go out on the futures market and then buy a specific contract. But if oil hasn’t risen enough at that time – maybe it peaked earlier and dropped, or it peaks further in the future – you’ll have lost money.

If you buy the ETF, when is a good time to sell? $80 a barrel? $100? $120? What if you sell and then it rises another 50%?

What if it takes a while? The longer you have to hold these ETFs, the less likely they will track the price of oil (see below). Meanwhile, the ETF provider is happily collecting their annual expense ratios of 0.50% to 1%. At the current asset level of $1.28 billion times the 0.45% management fee, that’s $5.8 million a year in fees.

Your commodities futures ETF may not track the price of oil very well at all. To properly track the price of oil, you’d need to buy some oil and store it somewhere (and pay storage and security costs). These ETFs don’t do that, instead they buy oil futures contracts and keep rolling them over into new ones when they expire. That’s not the same thing. USO is designed to track daily price movements in the price of oil, not long-term movements!

Visually, here are a chart from Attain Capital that compares the change in USO share price (purple) as compared to the spot price of crude oil (red) when oil prices doubled between the start of 2009 and the end of 2010 (blue line adjusts USO underperformance for roll costs):

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Further, consider these stats from Businessweek (emphasis mine):

Since USO launched in April 2006, it has returned -71 percent, while the spot price of oil returned -26 percent. The last time oil roared back from a bottom was in 2009, when it returned 78 percent on the year. USO returned just 14 percent.

If you don’t understand the terms “backwardation”, “contango”, and “roll costs” then you don’t understand commodities futures. If you don’t understand something, you probably shouldn’t buy it. Take it straight from a USO executive:

John Hyland, chief investment officer of USO, says the fund is a “tactical trading vehicle predominately used by professional traders,” and not meant to be a buy-and-hold investment.

In the end, such a play is a speculative bet and it may just pay off, who knows. But it certainly isn’t a wise investment, especially if the tool you’re using doesn’t even do what you want it to do.

This Is Why My Retirement Portfolio Is Simple and Balanced

Via The Reformed Broker, investment manager Research Affiliates shares how a simple, balanced 60/40 portfolio (specifically 60% S&P 500 stocks, 40% 10-Year US Treasuries) did pretty darn good in the past 100, 50, and 25 years:

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It even did well over the last 10 years, considering that “blip” we had in 2008. The 60/40 portfolio outperformed 9 of 16 core asset classes, all while maintaining lower-than-average volatility.

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Of course, they also predict (using sound reasoning, in my opinion) that the same 60/40 portfolio will only produce a 1.2% inflation-adjusted return for the next 10 years. Still, I don’t know of any better options.

Consumer Reports Product Testing Details

crmagVox has an in-depth look at Consumer Reports, including their continued efforts at staying unbiased, rigorous testing methods, and their future financial outlook.

To ensure they’re getting the same thing you’d buy at a store, they buy all of these products anonymously, at full retail price. To maintain independence, they don’t run any ads in their print magazine or on their website and don’t even allow manufacturers to trumpet positive test results in their own ads elsewhere. For many of these products, Consumer Reports is literally the only group testing this thoroughly — and in some cases, they’ve noticed potentially dangerous defects and alerted manufacturers or regulators to issue recalls.

I have been a Consumer Reports subscriber on and off for years, and my parents also subscribed to it when I was a kid. I love their info when buying appliances, but when I’m not making any major purchases the unread issues tend to stack up in a big pile that whispers “I’m wasted money!”. Their constant reminders to renew just serve as reminders that I am not using what I’m paying for. So I cancel. Consumer Reports must have a very frugal client base, so I bet I’m not the only one that thinks like this.

Then I read stuff like this and I want to subscribe again. That’s my cycle. The print subscription is $29 a year. Adding an online access costs $20 a year, making it $49 a year. This is handy when I need car seat reviews or something specific. Getting the online access alone is $30 a year or $6.95 a month. A la carte is probably the best option for me, but as an American I love everything to be “unlimited”. 🙂

529 Plan Tax Benefits Are Subject To Future Change

529During the most recent State of the Union address, the President’s proposal includes removing one of the current key tax advantages for 529 college savings plans. It is important to remember that this is only a proposal and is unlikely to pass a Congress with a Republican-majority. But it does serve as a reminder that the features of all tax-advantaged accounts are subject to future change.

Section 529 plans currently offer excellent tax advantages for college savings. You put in after-tax money, and that money is allows to grow on a tax-deferred basis, and as long as future withdrawals are used for qualified education expenses, there are no taxes on the back-end either.

The proposed changes are to now tax withdrawals (capital gains only) as ordinary income, leaving only the ongoing tax-deferral aspect. In exchange, the annual limits of educational tax credits would be increased along with other changes.

A quick history lesson on 529 plans. Per Wikipedia, Section 529 plans have only been around since 1996, and started out with withdrawals taxed as ordinary income. Tax-free withdrawals for qualified educational expenses were only added in 2001 on a temporary basis (scheduled to expire in 2010) but then in 2006 they were made “permanent” (not scheduled to expire). That is why this is referred to as a “roll back”.

The concern now is that the tax advantages only benefit a small group of people (read: rich folks). From CNN Money:

An analysis by the Government Accountability Office found that in 2010 less than 3% of families saved in a 529 plan. The GAO estimated that families who saved in 529s had a “median financial asset value” that was 25 times that of families without a 529.

But the College Savings Foundation, citing an investment industry analysis, noted that in 2014, over 70% of 529 plans were owned by households with income below $150,000.

The lesson here is that not all tax benefits are considered “sacred”, especially if they can be spun as rich vs. poor. For example, in my opinion the ability to inherit IRAs (“Stretch IRAs”) in order to give your children decades more of tax-free growth probably won’t last forever. But the idea of taxing Roth IRA withdrawals would be very hard sell as it would broadly affect people across various income levels.

I don’t think I would have minded if this was for a newly-designed plan, but I dislike the idea of penalizing the many families (like myself) who have placed their money in a 529 due primarily to the promised tax benefit (which can’t be withdrawn early without penalties). (Edit: The proposal language actually only refers to “new” contributions, so existing contributions should be grandfathered. Might make for some confusing accounting.) Still, as the parent of two kids under 3, I have to decide whether to keep putting money into these things without knowing what the rules will be in the future.

More: WhiteHouse.gov, WSJ

529 College Savings Plans Now Allow Two Investment Changes Per Year

529Here’s a quick note about a change in 529 college savings plans. Up until recently, you were only allowed one investment change per year, per beneficiary. Starting in 2015, a change in federal law means that you are now allowed two investment changes per calendar year, per beneficiary.

Specifically, this is due to a provision of the new ABLE (Achieving a Better Life Experience) Act. For those that like history lessons, this Fairmark article has more background on why 529s restrict investment changes at all.

Now, the rules have always permitted a change in investment options any time you change the account’s beneficiary, so people have also used this as a workaround although it may not be wise to abuse it. Changing your asset allocation all the time usually isn’t a good idea either, but now you have a little more flexibility (i.e. you can undo a change you regret making!).

Tax-Free 529 Savings Plans For Disabled Children and Young Adults

This won’t apply to everyone, but it could be significant if it does. I didn’t know about this until recently.

The Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act used the structure of 529 college savings plans to create similar tax-sheltered accounts for the benefit of caring for disabled children and young adults. In addition to healthcare, qualified expenses would include education, housing, transportation, and employment support. The legislation has passed, but it doesn’t look like any states have actually created plans that you can open yet. More info here.

Successful iPhone App Developer Actual Income Numbers

applogo2Apple announced that during the first week of January 2015, over $500 million was spent on app and in-app purchases. Apple takes a 30% cut, so that means $350 million was paid out to developers that week. Since inception, Apple iOS developers have earned over $25 billion. Many computer programmers idly dream about quitting their day job and making apps for a living. Marco Arment, creator of Instapaper, has decided to share his revenue stats for the newest app, Overcast (I use both apps regularly).

He also links to four other apps that shared revenue numbers, and I dug around for a few more. Here are all the links to app-specific stats:

It’s hard to generalize these numbers, as the revenue can be very bumpy and some apps are developed by teams instead of individuals. Based on this Forbes article, on the Apple App Store developer, the average app takes in $4,000 of revenue. I don’t know how useful that number is, given that according to this different iOS game revenue survey, the median lifetime revenue for participating developers was $3,000 while the arithmetic mean was $165,000 (only a relative few make the big bucks). The NY Times profiled a couple who would have made $200,000 from their old jobs, but instead spent the time creating apps which made less than $5,000. Then again, lots of people are just dabbling.

I certainly wouldn’t expect the average developer to reach Marco Arment’s numbers as he definitely has well above-average skills, but as with most entrepreneurial pursuits you’re going to have to take some risks to try and make it. I definitely understood the sentiment behind the last part of his post:

Overall, I’m very satisfied with Overcast’s finances so far. It’s not setting the world on fire, but it’s making good money. For most people, the App Store won’t be a lottery windfall, but making a decent living is within reach for many.

After the self-employment penalties in taxes and benefits, I’m probably coming in under what I could get at a good full-time job in the city, but I don’t have to actually work for someone else on something I don’t care about. I can work in my nice home office, drink my fussy coffee, take a nap after lunch if I want to, and be present for my family as my kid grows up. That’s my definition of success.

Investment Returns Ranked Annually by Asset Class 1995-2014

Every year, investment consultant firm Callan Associates updates a neat visual representation of the relative performance of 8 major asset classes over the last 20 years. You can find the most recent one below (view as PDF), which covers 1995 to 2014. For each year, the best performing asset class is listed at the top, and it sorts downward until you have the worst performing asset. You can find previous versions here.

callan2014full

The Callan Periodic Table of Investment Returns conveys the strong case for diversification across asset classes (stocks vs. bonds), investment styles (growth vs. value), capitalizations (large vs. small), and equity markets (U.S. vs. international). The Table highlights the uncertainty inherent in all capital markets. Rankings change every year. Also noteworthy is the difference between absolute and relative performance, as returns for the top-performing asset class span a wide range over the past 20 years.

I like focusing on a specific color (asset class) and then visually noting how its relative performance has bounced around for a few years. The ones that enjoy a stint at the very top are usually found on the bottom eventually.

So instead of trying to predict one asset class that will outperform this year, why not commit to holding a multiple, productive asset classes that will balance each other out over time. Pick ones that will have a long-term positive return, but in any given year might perform poorly. Hold them in a low-cost manner, and rebalance your holdings if they get out of whack.

Simple Living and Minimalist Parenting Quotes

I was catching up on some long reads and finished the article When Mommy and Daddy Took the Toys Away which explored parents who are simplifying by keeping their kid’s toys and other material goods to a minimum.

Only having a few toys? Not expecting more toys when shopping? Huh, kind of sounds like my childhood. The snarky side of me just thinks that “minimalist parenting” sounds a whole lot like “parenting without gobs of disposable income”. In retrospect, it was so much easier for my parents. They had so much less money to spend! 😉

All kidding aside, I highlighted a couple of quotes in the article, as I think they apply to everyone. We all know that adults have their own toys and desires for more toys.

On dealing with envy:

“We don’t overcome envy in our lives by getting what another person has,” Becker says. “We overcome envy by being content with what we have and being grateful for what we have.”

On balancing simplicity and priorities (Salem is a kid):

“You don’t really need to have a whole lot of toys to be happy,” Salem says. “Just the ones that you really want.”

TurboTax 2014 Feature Change + Free H&R Block Offer + Free TurboTax Upgrade

ttboxIt’s that time of year again, where we await our W-2 and 1099 forms and decide which tax software to use. I’m working on product-specific reviews, but for now I figured I’d summarize the drama surrounding TurboTax 2015 for those that don’t follow these things as closely.

  • Last year, TurboTax Deluxe Online 2013 started requiring you to upgrade to Premier in order get guidance on stock sales (Schedule D) and self-employment expenses (Schedule C). You can see this as either a feature delete, or price increase. However, the TurboTax Deluxe Desktop 2013 version kept this ability. There was a little outrage but really not that much from what I recall.
  • This year, TurboTax Deluxe Desktop 2014 no longer included Schedule D or C. In other words, the 2013 change to the online version was propagated to their desktop download/CD version. This time, break out the pitchforks! There are over a thousand 1-star reviews on the Amazon product page and articles from various media outlets including the NY Times and Time.
  • Why the outrage this year and not last year? TurboTax says 80% of people use the online version and only 20% use the desktop download, so you can see why Intuit thought everything would be cool. My theory is that desktop PC customers always pay for their software upfront (often at a physical store like Staples or Costco) and then don’t expect to be asked for any more money down the road. This has probably been their habit for years. Now in the middle of doing their taxes, you’re hitting them up for another thirty bucks?!
  • In contrast, with TurboTax Online you pay at the very end and the price is always a little different with various coupon codes and promotions.
  • Finally, the price difference between Deluxe and Premier for Online is $20, but for the Desktop version is $30. The software only cost $40 or $45 initially. That $30 upgrade fee is a 66-75% price increase.

Intuit needed to communicate this price change much more upfront and clearly. They don’t hide it, but you can see how repeat customers won’t notice since the Deluxe name doesn’t change.

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Trying to pick up the fumble, H&R Block is offering any impacted TurboTax customer a free copy of the H&R Block Deluxe + State for 2014, which just so happens to still include Schedule D capital gains guidance.

Those who have already purchased TurboTax Basic or Deluxe and would like to try H&R Block may email H&R Block at SwitchToBlock@hrblock.com and include the following information:

  • Name, address, and phone number
  • Type of operating system in use (Windows/Mac)
  • A photo, scan, or email showing proof of TurboTax Basic or Deluxe purchase

H&R Block will then send a link for one free download of H&R Block Deluxe + State (a $45 value, State E-file is $19.95 extra, does include Schedule D). You can import from a previous TurboTax return. This offer is not on the H&R Block website – it is only available by e-mailing them as directed above.

What if you want to stick with TurboTax? TurboTax may offer you a free upgrade to Premier, *if* you ask correctly. Well, hidden in the Amazon comments and vaguely referenced in various articles is the fact that Intuit will help their customers on a case-by-case basis so they can “demonstrate customer service” and “do what’s necessary” to appease customers. That basically means the squeaky wheels get the grease. You have to e-mail them at their own special e-mail address: TurboTax_Advocate@intuit.com or call them at 800-445-1875 (8am – 8pm EST M-F).

Reports are that if you contact them and cite the unexpected feature change, they will offer you the upgrade to Premier for free (a $30 savings as noted above). You may also mention a TurboTax VP made statements in Amazon reviews and media articles that Intuit would remedy the situation. I don’t know if it will work for the online version, but you could try.

So there you have it. TurboTax committed a foul, H&R Block invites you over to their party instead, and TurboTax wants to take you aside and apologize privately. When comparing tax software prices, be sure to find the right version for your needs and also include the price of state e-File if needed.

Or, you could use the underdog, TaxACT.com. Both the online and desktop versions of their Free Federal edition and cover all the Schedules A/B/C/D/E and even includes a free Federal E-File. For them, the Deluxe option means addition of time-saving import features. Their Ultimate package with everything Federal and State included – all Schedules, free Fed e-File, free State e-File – runs $17.99 for Online or $30.99 for Desktop ($21.99 + $9.99 State e-File).

T-Mobile Free 7-Day Test Drive Review

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I’m nearing the end of my contract, and I’ve been tempted by T-Mobile’s aggressive promotions like 4 lines for $100 and most recently free rollover data. But I worry about their coverage. Then I learned of the Free T-Mobile Test Drive where you can get an iPhone 5S shipped to you and try out their service with unlimited talk, text, and data for 7 days. All for free. You just have to return the phone to a physical T-Mobile retail store by the end of the 7th day or get charged $375 + tax. If there is damage like a cracked LCD screen or the Find my iPhone feature is left active, you’ll be charged $100.

I signed up online, agreed to the $700 hold on my credit card, and they shipped a phone out to me. 2-day shipping time passed, I started it up, but the phone didn’t work. Well, the phone turned on and apps worked fine on Wi-Fi. The T-Mobile service didn’t work. I saw bars and “T-Mobile” on the screen, but under the phone number setting, it said “Unknown”. All phone calls went to T-Mobile customer service. When trying to access the internet using 4G, it would only pull up a T-Mobile website stating that the phone was not activated on a data plan. Warning: this is a bit of a rant so you may want to just skip down to the bottom line.

Naturally, I called T-Mobile customer service. I was stuck in the usual phone tree hell, as there was no option for the 7-Day Test Drive and I wasn’t a new activation or an existing customer. I had no phone number to type in. Eventually I reached a human. I’ll call her Human #1.

T-Mobile Human #1: Hi, may I help you?

Me: Yes, I just received a phone from your T-Mobile 7-Day Test Drive promotion and I am having trouble getting the service to work.

T-Mobile Human #1: What is your name? (I give it to her)

T-Mobile Human #1: What is your phone number?

Me: I don’t have one.

T-Mobile Human #1: What is your account PIN?

Me: I don’t have one.

T-Mobile Human #1: What is your account number?

Me: I don’t have one. I’m on a test drive. I do have my order number, though.

T-Mobile Human #1: Hmm… let me transfer you. I’ll need to put you on hold for a few minutes.

Me: Okay.

T-Mobile Human #2: Hi, may I help you?

Me: Yes, I just a phone from your T-Mobile 7-Day Test Drive promotion and I am having trouble getting the service to work.

T-Mobile Human #2: What is your name? (I give it to him)

T-Mobile Human #2: What is your phone number?

Me: I don’t have one.

T-Mobile Human #2: What is your account number?

Me: I don’t have one. I do have my order number, though.

T-Mobile Human #2: Okay let me transfer you. I’ll need to put you on hold for a few minutes.

Me: Umm… okay.

I’m not kidding, this actually happens AGAIN with Human #3, and then I get transferred to tech support.

T-Mobile Human #4: (All the same questions again…) Okay, what is the ICCID number under your Settings > General > About?

Me: 8914 2121 2121 1212 555 (not actual number but I did give it to him)

T-Mobile Human #4: Well your SIM is not showing up as activated on our system. I’ll need to transfer you back again.

Me: You know what, I’ve been on the phone for half an hour. I am already running late. I’m going to go.

I wait until the next day and hope the phone activates on its own. Nope. So I call T-Mobile again. This time the person (#5) is in a crowded call center and I can barely hear her amidst the noise. She has no idea what the T-Mobile Test Drive is. She wants to transfer me. I just can’t go through that again so I hang up. I happen to have an errand that runs by a T-Mobile store so I just decide to return the phone.

I walk into the store and tell them I need to return a Test Drive phone. Surprise, they don’t know how to do that. I should mention that this promotion has been running for over 6 months and T-Mobile boasted that over 12,000 people had already done it. The two young men take the phone and ask me what the phone number is. I tell them I don’t have one and the phone doesn’t work. They ask to look at the phone.

T-Mobile Human #6: Your phone isn’t activated.

Me: I know.

T-Mobile Human #7: So they sent you a phone that doesn’t even work?

Me: Yes.

T-Mobile Human #6: We don’t know how to accept this return.

Me: Well, the promo is on your website and it clearly says I can only return it at a T-Mobile store. So here I am.

T-Mobile Human #7: Uhh, we have to call the manager.

Eventually another employee came by that knew the proper return process. I asked if they could just activate the phone in the store, but they couldn’t. I made sure to get a receipt stating that they received my device back and confirm that I’ll be charged $0.00. So after dealing with eight different T-Mobile employees and wasting well over an hour of my time, I still have no idea how good T-Mobile’s coverage is in my local area. It could be great.

For my troubles, I did get to keep the Apple OEM earbuds that came with the phone. Yay. I guess they think it’s icky to share earbuds (and I agree) so they ship brand new ones to every Test Drive customer along with a refurbished iPhone.

Please, T-Mobile, if you’re going to run a a test drive promotion, you need to use it as THE perfect opportunity to show the best side of your company and gain a customer!

Bottom line: I like the idea of letting people test drive the network. I do suspect T-Mobile coverage can be good enough if you stay in major metro areas. I liked being able to order the kit online and have it arrive at my door. Returning at a physical store so they can manually check the phone’s condition was better than having me mail it in and praying it gets there safely with a fair inspection. This way I knew I’d be charged nothing when I returned the phone. But T-Mobile needs to make a special department or hotline for this promo as their customer service folks are uninformed. Hopefully, most other people who do this test drive get a properly activated phone and don’t have to deal with the same issues.

IRS Estimated Taxes Due Dates 2015

irsclipIf you have self-employment or other income outside of your W-2 paycheck this year, you may need to send the IRS some money before the usual tax-filing time. Here are the due dates for paying quarterly estimated taxes in 2015; they are supposed to be in four equal installments. This is for federal taxes only, state and local tax due dates may be different.

(Note: January 15th, 2015 is the last day to make an estimated tax payment for 2014. See bottom of post for fast payment options. This will prevent any penalty for late payment of the last installment. You do not have to make this Q4 payment if you file your 2014 tax return (Form 1040) and pay the tax due by February 2nd, 2015. If you miss these dates, file your return and pay as soon as possible to minimize penalties.)

IRS Estimated Tax Payment Calendar for Individuals

Tax Year / Quarter Due Date
2015 First Quarter April 15, 2015 (Wednesday)
2015 Second Quarter June 15, 2015 (Monday)
2015 Third Quarter September 15, 2015 (Tuesday)
2015 Fourth Quarter January 15, 2016* (Friday)

 
* You do not have to make the Q4 payment due January 15, 2016, if you file your 2015 tax return by February 1st, 2016.

Who needs to pay estimated taxes?
In general, you must pay estimated tax for 2015 if both of the following apply:

  1. You expect to owe at least $1,000 in tax for 2015, after subtracting your withholding and refundable credits.
  2. You expect your withholding and credits to be less than the smaller of
    • 90% of the tax to be shown on your 2015 tax return, or
    • 100% of the tax shown on your 2014 tax return. Your 2014 tax return must cover all 12 months.

If you forget to pay (like I’ve done before), then you should make a payment as soon as possible even though it is late. This will minimize any penalty assessed.

How do I pay? When does the payment count?

  • By check. Fill out the appropriate 1040-ES voucher (last page of the PDF) and snail mail to the indicated address. The date of the U.S. postmark is considered the date of payment. No fees besides postage.
  • By online bank transfer. You can store your bank account information and pay via electronic funds transfer at EFTPS.gov or call 1-800-555-4477. It takes a little while to set up an online account initially, so you’ll need to plan ahead. For a quick one-time payment, you can also use IRS Direct Pay (just introduced in 2014) which does not require a sign-up but it also doesn’t store your bank account information for future payments. Both charge no convenience fees. The date of payment will be noted online.
  • By debit or credit card. Here is page of IRS-approved payment processors. Pay by phone or online. Fees will apply, but the payment will count as paid as soon as you charge the card.

I usually pay online at EFTPS.gov for both convenience and to avoid fees. However, right now the lowest fee for a credit card payment is 1.87% from providers like PayUSATax.com, which I’ve used. Meanwhile, you can earn up to 2% cash back from a credit card like the Citi Double Cash card. So you can actually clear a small profit by making your tax payment with the right credit card, and it will officially count as paid to the IRS immediately.

Sources: IRS Pub 505, IRS Pub 509, IRS Form 1040-ES [pdf].