Kindle Unlimited Review: Personal Finance and Investing Books

kindleu

kindleu2Amazon has just announced Amazon Unlimited, an eBook and audiobook subscription service that costs $9.99 a month (30-day free trial) and not included in Amazon Prime. They claim over 600,000 titles in their library, although that number is padded by a lot of little-known self-published eBooks. “Thousands” of those books come with free audiobook versions. You can read unlimited books (max 10 out at once) and on any Kindle app (Windows, Mac, web browser, iPhone/iPad, Android, etc).

It’s a library card with 24/7 instant availability, but how well-stocked is this virtual library?

My personal reading habits include mainly business, personal improvement, and finance books. I compiled a list of notable books that I have read or want to read first, and then checked if Amazon Unlimited had it. I’m also including the findings from my Oyster review (a competing eBook app) for comparison purposes.

Book Oyster.com Amazon Unlimited
William Bernstein’s Recommended Reading List for Young Investors
The Millionaire Next Door: The Surprising Secrets of America’s Wealthy by Thomas Stanley and William Danko. Yes No
Common Sense on Mutual Funds by Jack Bogle. Yes No
Devil Take the Hindmost: A History of Financial Speculation by Edward Chancellor. No No
The Great Depression: A Diary by Benjamin Roth. Yes No
Your Money and Your Brain by Jason Zweig. Yes No
How a Second Grader Beats Wall Street by Allan Roth. Yes No
All About Asset Allocation by Rick Ferri. No No
5 Recent Bestsellers
Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt by Michael Lewis. No Yes
Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry by Helaine Olen. No No
Think Like a Freak: The Authors of Freakonomics Offer to Retrain Your Brain by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. No No
Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty. No Yes
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. No No
5 Personal Favorite Financial Books
Your Money or Your Life by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez. No No
Work Less, Live More: The Way to Semi-Retirement by Robert Clyatt. Yes No
The Richest Man in Babylon by George S. Clason. No No
The Four Pillars of Investing by William Bernstein. No No
A Random Walk Down Wall Street by Burton G. Malkiel. No No

 
* Oyster catalog checked June 2014 and Amazon Unlimited checked July 2014.

Recap

In the “major publisher, popular, well-reviewed” category, Oyster wins hands-down. AmazonUnlimited reportedly does not have any of the major “Big 5″ publishers (they are not BFFs right now). In the “recent business bestseller” category, neither is great but Amazon actually has a slightly better showing. Many of Michael Lewis’s other books are also on AmazonUnlimited (The Big Short, Liar’s Poker, The Blind Side). In the “niche DIY early retirement personal finance nerd” category, again neither does great although Oyster technically wins by a nose.

Bottom line: Amazon Unlimited has a relatively limited catalog for personal finance enthusiasts.

Keep in mind that the Amazon Kindle Owner’s Lending Library still exists (at least for now) and boasts 500,000+ titles (again padded by self-published eBooks). The Kindle Lending Library is free if you already have both a Kindle (any model) and an Amazon Prime subscription. You can only read on a Kindle device though, and you only get one title per month.

There are some promising titles available if you dig around, for example I noticed that William Bernstein’s “Investing for Adults” series of books (The Ages of the Investor, Skating Where the Puck Was, Deep Risk, and Rational Expectations so far) are all available with both Kindle Unlimited and Kindle Lending Library.

Personally, I might sign-up for the free trial and read whatever books I can during that window and maybe it’ll spill over for a month (though you can cancel now and still enjoy you free month without worry of auto-bill), but I can’t see myself paying $120 a year for a limited selection of books (that interest me) that I can’t keep forever.

Book Review: Young Entrepreneur’s Guide to Starting and Running a Business

youngent

youngentI believe that entrepreneurialism is, like many things, a combination of talent and learned skill. Some people will take to it naturally, but a great many more can become successful and independent business people with the proper inspiration and guidance. I plan to help and encourage my daughters to set up their own micro-businesses once they are teenagers, whether it is coding apps or starting a booth at the farmer’s market. Some things you can’t learn from a book.

Oh wait, this a book review! Anyhow, since I love the idea of young folks starting businesses I took the opportunity to review a copy of the revised 3rd edition of The Young Entrepreneur’s Guide to Starting and Running a Business by Steve Mariotti. (I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher, as apparently did most of the Amazon reviewers. If you are a blogger, check out Blogging for Books for review books in your area of interest.)

This is a rather thick paperback at nearly 500 pages, and it uses that space to try to be a little of everything:

  • A reference book, covering everything from basic accounting and balance sheets to legal structures (corporation vs. sole proprietorship vs. LLC) to franchising.
  • An easy-to-read guide for beginners, which means that the treatment of all the above topics is concise and simplified (and thus not very thorough or detailed).
  • A collection of inspirational case studies from the non-profit group Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE), which the author founded. You’ll read about many young folks who started their own business in various fields and most of them plan to continue working on them through college and beyond. Sample businesses include website design, party DJ, landscaping, sport or fashion apparel, and Honest Tea.

In the end, like many things that try to be all things to all people, it ends up not being great at any one single thing. It is somewhat all over the place. The book spends time telling you to save money by plugging in your computer and printer into a smart power strip to reduce “vampire” draw. A bit later, it wants to help you prepare for franchising and an IPO. Huh?

Personally, I would tell a young reader to just read all the “An Entrepreneur Like You” case studies first, and see if they have the fire to just go ahead and try to get that first customer. Then, after some successes and failures, they can use this book as a resource to answer any specific questions. How many young people want to read about OSHA regulations or double-entry bookkeeping before making their first dollar?!

For me, I did enjoy reading the case studies but for the other stuff I’d probably just look up on the internet as needed. I might read the marketing section again. All in all, this might make a nice gift for a recent graduate or young person that has shown some entrepreneurial spirit.

Book Review: The Four Pillars of Investing

4pbook

Update: Yanking this one from waaaay back in the archives! Today (6/4) only, the Kindle eBook version of The Four Pillars of Investing is only $1.99. I read this book nearly 10 years ago, and I still have my hardcover copy sitting on my bookshelf. One of my favorites.

My original review published on December 26, 2004:

4pbookWhile A Random Walk Down Wall Street was more of a primer on investing in general, The Four Pillars of Investing by William Bernstein focuses on forming your portfolio. The four pillars are investment theory, history, psychology, and finally investment business.

The book uses statistics and research to support it’s conclusions, which are (briefly and in my opinion) that:

  1. Markets go up and down, but timing it is hard if not impossible, and any success one may have is basically luck.
  2. As risk increases, so does the return. (Ex. Small-cap stocks vs. Large-cap stocks.)
  3. Yes, many actively-managed mutuals fund beat the market every year, but there is no way that you could pick them ahead of time. This year’s winners are just as likely to be next year’s losers. Stick with index funds with the risk-return profile that you desire.
  4. Brokerage firms and stock brokers make their money on commissions and spreads. Most mutual fund companies are similar in that they make their money from fees, without actually being very good at market-beating returns.
  5. Proper diversification in low-expense ratio products can bring you the best chance to keep your money and make it grow.

The book is pretty easy to read, with minimal math. I also briefly browsed Bernstein’s previous book, The Intelligent Asset Allocator, which has a similar focus but is very heavy in the math department. I’d read this book first and see if you thirst for the mathematical underpinnings. I didn’t.

Oyster App Review: Personal Finance and Investing Books

oysterss

oysterssWouldn’t a Netflix for books be neat? You could borrow all the books that you wanted to read and then return them when you’re done. Oh wait, they already invented it and called it a library.

But seriously, what if you wanted it all available 24/7 on your iPhone or iPad, and you don’t want to wait if someone else has checked it out already. Enter the new eBook subscription app Oyster. For $10 a month (first month free, iPhone/iPad + Android app added as of 6/17/14) they’ll let you read all the books you want from their catalog of 500,000+ books. That sounds good me as I buy about a book per month on Amazon as it is. The question is if Oyster’s library is big enough for my personal reading habits. I couldn’t find a way to search through their entire collection without an active subscription, so I signed up for a trial (credit card required).

As I mainly read business, personal improvement, and personal finance books these days, that is going to be the focus of my review. I decided to compile a list of notable books that I have read or want to read first, and then check Oyster to see if they have it in their library.

William Bernstein’s Recommended Reading List for Young Investors

5 Recent Bestsellers

5 Personal Favorite Financial Books

Conclusion

Oyster has been steadily increasing the publishers participating in their service, but it looks like they still have a way to go. They do have a pretty good showing in older, popular, well-reviewed books. The problem is that these are exactly the type of books that are readily available in most libraries. On the other hand, they are weak in recent business bestsellers, which is where they could provide me with the most value and convenience (I’d like to just browse and skim many of these first). I read that they will not have it if the book was released within the last 3 months. They also don’t have enough depth to carry some of the better books in the early retirement niche.

I won’t be paying $10 a month for this as I only read about a book a month (cost $10-$15) and Oyster probably won’t have it in their library. I will note that on a user-experience basis, actually reading the books and navigating around the app has been pretty easy.

Alternatives to Oyster include Scribd and the Amazon Kindle Lending Library which boasts 350,000+ titles. The latter is free if you already have both a Kindle (any model) and an Amazon Prime subscription.

Recommended Reading List for Young Investors

ifyoucanallbooks

ifyoucanbookI just finished reading If You Can: How Millennials Can Get Rich Slowly, a free starter book on personal finance by respected author William Bernstein. As the PDF was only 16 pages long, you could probably finish it during a lunch hour or commute. I recommend it, but even Bernstein notes that his “inexpensive, small booklet” is more of a map than a complete book. Included were several book assignments to address specific topics. The idea is a young person could read all of these books over the span of a year or two and round out their financial education. In the meantime, start saving 15% of your income!

Here is the recommended reading list:

Bernstein thinks it tacky to recommend his own books, so let me do it. Back when I was a young lad with no investing knowledge (2004), my favorite introductory book was Four Pillars of Investing by William Bernstein. (The new edition is really just the old edition though, so buy a used copy of the old edition and save some money.) However, more recently I have heard good things about Investor’s Manifesto which supposedly has less math-y stuff.

I’ve read all but two of these books and agree that they were all excellent building blocks of knowledge. Most if not all of these books have been around for a while and should be readily available for free at your local library. Even if you pay for them, the return will be well worth the investment. I added a new copy of all seven books to my cart and it came to under $100 at Amazon ($91.48 to be exact). Good graduation gift ideas?

Flash Boys by Michael Lewis: Book Notes and Highlights

flashboyscover

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:

The Up Side of Down: A Book About Failure

upsidedown

upsidedownFailure. Or as Megan McArdle puts it – “deep, soul-crushing periods of misery following stupid mistakes that kept me awake until the small hours of the morning in a fog of anxiety and regret.” Yup, I’ve been there.

I was afraid that the new book The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success was just going to tell me “don’t give up” over 300 pages. I read it anyway because I enjoyed reading some of the author’s other online articles (mentioned here, here), and I’m glad I did because the book actually looks at failure from a lot of interesting and different perspectives. While sorting through my notes, I managed to batch them into three larger themes:

You shouldn’t hate failure so much. “Keep on trying” is indeed one of the themes (just not the only one). Failure is often a critical part of success. As such, we really shouldn’t be so afraid of it assuming the potential result isn’t truly catastrophic.

  • There are very few entrepreneurs with multiple big successes. Instead, there are a lot of entrepreneurs with a lot of failures both before and after their single big success. The rest of us just never hear about the failures. As they say, “you only need to get rich once”.
  • Good judgment comes of experience – and experience comes from bad judgment!
  • This reminded me of that fact that a huge part of website development these days is little experiments and iteration. Not sure which is better? Try both (A/B test) and see. Try lots of small incremental changes and see what works. Fail and learn quickly.
  • When you ask people “What is the best thing that ever happened to you?” the answer is often a failure. A divorce that leads to a great new relationship. Hitting bottom and getting sober. Being fired from a steady but boring job, which forces you to help start a small business.
  • I just read an interview with Howard Marks, a famous investor and founder of Oaktree Capital (I also read his book). Even he got rejected from his dream job – “If it hadn’t been for that bit of bad luck, I could have spent 30 years at Lehman Brothers”.

Still, people really hate failure. It may be evolutionary, but people have developed many behavioral and cognitive biases to protect them from the pain of failure.

  • Finding a job can be soul-crushing because it involves repeated attempts and repeated failures. This is why many people give up and simply stop looking after a certain period of unemployment. The prospect of all those rejections is also why many people don’t start looking until their unemployment benefits are about to run out.
  • Normalcy bias is the tendency to act as if things are fine when they are obviously not. The long, gradual decline of General Motors is presented as an example until they were finally forced into bankruptcy (failure!) and is now making a comeback. This reminded me of Warren Buffett’s warnings about the upcoming crisis in municipal pension obligations.
  • Confirmation bias is the tendency to only see evidence that supports your theory and ignore any contradictory evidence. Book examples include the Dan Rather Killian documents controversy and the NASA Challenger disaster.
  • This reminded me of Charlie Munger and his principle of inversion (read his book too!). Always try to look at things backwards. For example, instead of looking for things that you should do to achieve a goal, consider making a list of things you would do to make sure you never reach that goal. Then make sure not to do those things.

Therefore, attitude is very important.

  • The people most likely to find work are the ones who keep trying every day (treating job-seeking as a job itself) and those who are willing to compromise (lower pay, move cities). Unemployment is like a big, dark room with just one exit. Only the ones who keep looking will get out (unless you’re really lucky). The idle will stay in the dark room forever.
  • Studies have found that successful people believe that outcomes depend on their decisions. The key word is believe. Even if it isn’t actually true that it is all about your personal decisions, it helps when you believe it is true.
  • In order to help make people have a better attitude, it is best for the system to “punish” failures with consistent, immediate corrections with an emphasis on rehabilitation rather than retribution. If people admit that they were wrong, let them fail, hit them with a penalty, but give them the chance to pick themselves back up.
  • The paradox of forgiveness. It has been helpful for this country to have bankruptcy as an option (as opposed to debtor’s prisons or lifelong servitude), but only because as a whole our country places a large stigma on bankruptcy and fewer people take that option than you would expect using cold math.

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character

toughbook

toughbookWhat makes children, or even adults, succeed? It’s commonly believed that cognitive skills, also known as intelligence, are a primary factor. Smart people are the successful ones, right? Tests like the SAT measure this stuff, skills like pattern recognition, reading comprehension, and math problems.

But in the book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough, the author discovers a lot of evidence that doesn’t support that theory. Instead, non-cognitive “character” skills like perseverance, curiosity, optimism, and self-control may be even more important.

Tough weaves together various research studies and experiments to make this argument. Here are just a couple of examples:

  • GED vs. High-school graduates. Passing the GED test means you are proficient in the same academic areas as an actual high-school graduate. Yet people with GEDs are consistently less likely to graduate college, have lower incomes, and are more likely to be in jail. Why? Perhaps beings a high-school graduate requires additional traits – the inclination to persist at a often-boring task, the willingness to delay gratification for a long-term goal, or the ability to adapt to different social environments.
  • KIPP charter schools. KIPP schools are charter middle and high schools that take in lower-income students by lottery (no test screening) and use intensive educational efforts with the ultimate goal of a 4-year college degree. The first few KIPP classes improved their standardized test scores in middle and high school significantly. Yet the actual college graduation rates were disappointing, with a curious pattern:

    The students who persisted in college were not necessarily the ones who had excelled academically at KIPP. Instead, they seemed to be the ones who possessed certain other gifts, skills like optimism and resilience and social agility. They were the students who were able to recover from bad grades and resolve to do better next time; who could bounce back from unhappy breakups or fights with their parents; who could persuade professors to give them extra help after class; who could resist the urge to go out to the movies and instead stay home and study.

Further good news is that character skills appear to relatively malleable; you can learn to improve your level of grit and self-control. KIPP schools now provide their students with a “character report card” as well as traditional academic grades.

This book is a great read for parents and educators, but I would say that the conclusions extend to adults and even personal finance. We all need these skills to be good citizens. Being financially secure is simple on paper – spend less than you earn, invest the difference for the future, and keep it up every year. Hmmm… that sounds a lot like self-control, delayed gratification (and perhaps optimism :) ), and persistence.

I would argue that these character skills are more important than what you could learn in any book about Roth IRAs or modern portfolio theory. The question is how do we teach adults these traits, or is it too late?

Economy of You Book Review: Stories About Starting Your Own Microbusiness

econofyou

Microbusiness. Nanobusiness. Solopreneur. These new terms were created to describe the one-person businesses which Kim Palmer profiles in the new book The Economy of You: Discover Your Inner Entrepreneur and Recession-Proof Your Life. Some people turn their business into a full-time job, while many keep their 9-5 jobs and run their ventures on the side. Palmer herself is a full-time editor for US News and World Report as well as a “side-gigger”, selling virtual financial planners on her Etsy shop Palmer’s Planners.

In terms of a synopsis, I would describe the book as breaking up the interviews of a number of solo entrepreneurs into major themes like:

  • How they discovered their idea or niche
  • How they built a support network for help
  • How they earned their first customers and grew from there
  • How they balanced their new business with a full-time job, family, etc.
    1.  
      Overall, the book is definitely more inspirational examples and idea generation than actual nuts-and-bolts guide on how to run a solo business.

      I enjoyed reading it, and here are my own impressions and takeaways from the book. Hopefully they will also help you decide if you should read it.

      A true microbusiness just needs one person and hardly any start-up money. This is my own definition, but I think it is appropriate. When I look at the people profiled in the book in addition to of all the business that my friends have started on their own, hardly any of them need more than maybe a few hundred dollars to get started. Website design. Writing a blog. Handcrafted jewelry. High-quality natural soaps. iPhone apps. Selling online coaching and e-books. If you need venture capital, it is not a microbusiness. Even if someone ends up owning a bakery, they often started by catering or baking custom cakes. You need enough personal ability and energy “saved” up to start, not money.

      You already know if you want to be a solo entrepreneur. Starting a microbusiness is definitely not for everyone. Do you have an itch in the back of your mind, an idea that you have been nursing for long time? Are you so enthusiastic about something that you wouldn’t mind it entering what used to be your free time? Many people are quite happy keeping their job and their play time separate. Finally, read this following book excerpt by Palmer after making her first few months of sales.

      As gratifying (and useful) as it was to earn that extra cash, it didn’t even begin to get at the satisfaction that my Etsy shop gave me. Each sale affirmed by ability to create something of value, a skill I sometimes doubted that I had as freelancing rates plummeted during the recession and writing jobs dried up. I had a new identity; I created and sold money planners. I began daydreaming about ways I could expand and new products I could design.

      There is no guarantee that your solo business venture will be wildly successful. But if just the act of doing it and getting a few readers or customers will give you great satisfaction, what have you got to lose? As noted, the start-up costs should be minimal. I started this blog with an $8 domain name, free open-source software, and web hosting for under $10 a month. 9 years later, I’m still doing it! :)

Omnivore’s Dilemma: Economics of Farming and Why Food Marketing Is Everywhere

omni160

I’d like to make a habit of reading a book every other week in 2014. My first book is The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan. This 2006 NYT bestseller has already been well-discussed, but I saw it at my library’s donated book sale and wanted to read it for myself.

Instead of a regular review, I just wanted to share one financial concept inside about the special economics of food. We all learned in school that as prices go down, demand should go up. As demand goes up, the price tends to rebound until an equilibrium is found. But this doesn’t work for food producers:

The growth of the American food industry will always bump up against this troublesome biological fact: Try as we might, each of us can only eat about fifteen hundred pounds of food a year. Unlike many other products – CDs, say, or shoes – there’s a natural limit to how much food we each can consume without exploding. What this means for the food industry is that its natural rate of growth is somewhere around 1 percent per year – 1 percent being the annual growth rate of American population. The problem is that Wall Street won’t tolerate such an anemic rate of growth.

This leaves companies like General Mills and McDonald’s with two options if they hope to grow faster than the population: figure out how to get people to spend more money for the same three-quarters of a ton of food, or entice them to actually eat more than that. The two strategies are not mutually exclusive, of course, and the food industry energetically pursues them both at the same time.”

If farmers have a great year, they can actually make less money as prices plummet after product floods the market (due to our finite stomachs). Let’s look deeper into those two alternatives:

Convince people to spend more for the same amount of food. This is behind why everything is processed to the point of ultimate convenience with sleek packaging. Any cooking beyond using the microwave has been removed. Everything is in single-serving packages. Every new diet comes with its own line of ready-to-eat stuff in a box. Surprise, everything also gets more expensive! I just noticed that gluten-free pasta costs roughly 3 times as much as traditional pasta. Even terms like “organic” and “free-range” are twisted by marketing and may not mean what you think.

Convince people to eat more food. What we consider an acceptable portion size has increased over the years. From 1982 to 2002, the average pizza slice grew 70 percent in calories. Even the surface area of the average dinner plate expanded by 36 percent between 1960 and 2007 (source). Think of the “Upgrade” or “Combo” feature of many fast food menus. Why just order a sandwich and drink water, when for a little more you can get fries and a soda? Once you order the combo, why not “upgrade” to even larger fries and larger soda for just 50 cents?

This is why we are surrounded by food branding and food marketing. To fight back, we should buy food as close to their whole “raw material” state as possible in order to avoid the middleman (processing). Even though it does take more time, this makes the food we eat both healthier and cheaper overall.

Cooked: A Book About Why You Should… Cook

Consider the following questions that you may have asked yourself recently:

  • What can you do to consume fewer calories while eating healthier food?
  • How do you get your family to spend more time together, talk, and connect?
  • How do you get the public to care more about what they are eating, which in turns forces the food corporations to improve their standards?
  • What can modern super-specialized citizens do to feel more in touch with nature and self-sufficient?
  • How can you save some money?

I’m sure the title has given it away by now, but the answer is to cook! Specifically, cook at home for yourself and your family, as close to from scratch as possible. At least, that’s the lesson from the book Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation by Michael Pollan. A previous post expanded on the health benefits of cooking at home, and the book examines cooking as broken down into the four elements: Fire (BBQ), Water (Braises), Air (Bread), and Earth (Brewing).

Indeed, why is it that we seem more obsessed by food than ever (Food Network, Cooking Channel, Yelp, Food Bloggers Everywhere) at the exact same time that fewer and fewer people actually know how to cook? The food industry is betting that the current generation of kids will have hardly any idea of how to cook even basic dishes, as it means even more $$$ for them! A quote from consumer researcher Harry Balzer:

[Read more...]

Shareholder Yield: Better Stock Screening Metric Than Dividend Yield?

syldbook130

I’ve read a few books about dividend investing and remain interested in the idea, although I’m not confident enough (yet?) to allocate my portfolio that way. Portfolio manager and writer Mebane Faber has a short book called Shareholder Yield: A Better Approach to Dividend Investing that offers another tweak on dividend investing strategy.

(As tweeted earlier, the Kindle eBook version is free until the end of Monday, which was a good promo as it got me to I read it. That, and it was only 55 pages.)

The book starts with an overview of history and academic research. First, a little over half the total return of the US stock market since 1871 is due to dividends. The smaller half is price appreciation, which when people talk about the S&P 500 index is all price appreciation. Second, stocks with higher dividends have had a higher historical return than stocks with little or no dividends.

So dividends are good, but they aren’t the entire picture. There are five ways for management to deploy the free cash flow generated by the company:

  1. Invest in existing operations,
  2. Acquire other businesses,
  3. Pay down debt,
  4. Repurchase stock (reducing outstanding shares), and
  5. Distribute cash to shareholders.

[Read more...]