Archives for February 2016

The Big Short: Movie Notes and Real World Follow-Up

“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.”

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I managed to catch the movie The Big Short (trailer) before it left the theaters. Having read the book with great interest back in 2011, I wondered how it would remade for the big screen. Isn’t it hard to believe that the events described started roughly an entire decade ago? There are plenty of reviews at all the big media sites, but here are my notes:

  • The original book The Big Short by Michael Lewis was classified as non-fiction.* The movie, however, is only “based on a true story”. As such, many of the individual names were changed. Steve Eisman (real person) became Mark Baum (movie character). Ben Hockett became Ben Rickert. Charles Ledley & James Mai became Charlie Geller & Jamie Shipley. Cornwall Capital became Brownfield Capital. For some reason, the names of Dr. Michael Burry and his firm Scion Capital went unchanged.
  • The director, Adam McKay, is probably best known for his comedies with Will Ferrell in Anchorman and Talladega Nights. Oh, and the classic short The Landlord (censored version). I suppose The Big Short could be called a dark comedy.
  • In retrospect, it might seem like betting against the housing market was an easy and obvious bet. While the movie might dramatize things, it did take courage and conviction. They had to put up millions of dollars to place the bet, and then more millions to keep the derivative bets running. Most other investors thought they were stupid, and tried to get them to reverse the bets. The banks also tried to make them sell their positions before they could realize profits. They were risking their own money, their family and friends’ money, and their entire careers.
  • The movie does a good job showing you how the bubble persisted for so long because everyone was incentivized to keep it going. Wall Street workers made money by packaging and selling the bonds. The pension funds and large institutions got to buy “safe” high-interest bonds. The money managers got to collect their fees. The mortgage brokers and real estate agents collected commissions. Homeowners saw their equity grow. Everyone was happy.
  • In contrast, the people who did the contrarian bet were all on the margins, outsiders, even a little weird. Hedge funds run by a guy who avoided human contact and wore cargo shorts and a free t-shirt everyday. (Christian Bale actually asked the real Michael Burry to take off his cloths and give them to him.) Another one based out of their parent’s garage.
  • The revolving door between the regulators and the industry that they regulate remains open. People go from big paychecks on Wall Street, to smaller paychecks at the SEC and other government roles, and then go back to big paychecks on Wall Street. People usually don’t like to burn bridges with future employers. See this Michael Lewis interview.
  • * As the book was non-fiction, CDO manager Wing Chau actually sued Michael Lewis for libel. Chau’s defamation lawsuit was dismissed and his appeal was denied. The SEC actually investigated him and his firm, found them both liable for fraud, banned him personally from the industry, and fined them $3 million in total. He probably didn’t like how he was portrayed in the movie, either.
  • Where are they investing now? In a January 2012 post, I wrote about the current investments of Michael Burry and Steve Eisman. Burry’s water investments seem like a long-term play, but Eisman’s bet against for-profit education is already starting to unfold. In May 2015, Corinthian College and twenty four of its subsidiaries (i.e. Heald College, WyoTech) filed for bankruptcy after challenges by both US and Canadian governments.

If you can’t watch some great acting performances by Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, and Steve Carell, you could always get a refresher course via cartoon stick figures instead. 🙂

NFL Extra Points Credit Card Review: Super Bowl Ticket Redemption Details

“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.”

The NFL Extra Points Credit Card issued by Barclaycard is the only credit card officially co-branded with the National Football League. They are savvy too – the very first thing you do on the application is pick your team, so it can show you a credit card plastered with your favorite logo on it (not the generic one shown to the right). It is certainly a conversation starter; all 32 team logos are available.

Now, there are plenty of “affinity” cards out there that let people show off their university alumni status, preferred charity, or favorite sports team, but most of them have rather vanilla rewards. In contrast, this NFL-sponsored card offers some unique rewards that you can’t find elsewhere. A lot of people dream about going to the Super Bowl. Since it is coming up, I thought I’d take a closer look at using credit cards points to get you there. First, the card highlights:

  • All 32 team cards are available, customized with your favorite team’s colors and logo
  • Earn 10,000 bonus points after $500 in purchases in the first 90 days, enough to redeem for $100 cash back
  • 20% off purchases at NFLShop.com – that’s $20 off every $100 you spend
  • 0% Promotional APR for 6 months on eligible NFL ticket purchases. After that a variable APR will apply, 15.24%, 20.24% or 25.24%, based on your creditworthiness
  • Earn 2 points per $1 on NFL or Team purchases – eligible game tickets, in-stadium and team pro shop purchases – and 1 point per $1 on all other purchases
  • Redeem points for NFL game tickets, VIP experiences, or 1% cash back beginning at 2,500 points for $25
  • 0% Introductory APR for 15 months on Balance Transfers made within 45 days of account opening. After that a variable APR will apply, 15.24%, 20.24% or 25.24%, based on your creditworthiness. Please note, there is a fee for balance transfers.

In terms of cash back rewards, those start at 2,500 points for a $25 statement credit. Considering you only get 2X points on NFL and DirecTV purchases and 1 point per dollar on all other purchases, there are better cash back cards out there. But are the exclusive NFL perks a good deal?

Selected list of exclusive NFL experiences. Sure, you can redeem for a wall poster or t-shirt, but these are examples of the more unique options:

  • 10,000 Points: 2 Tickets to an NFL PreSeason Game
  • 25,000 Points: 2 Tickets to an NFL Regular Season Game
  • 25,000 to 50,000: Official NFL Mascot appearance at your event or party.
  • 100,000 Points: Round of Golf with an NFL Player
  • 160,000 Points: 2 NFL Super Bowl Tickets (Upper Level)
  • 200,000 Points: 2 NFL Super Bowl Tickets (Mid Level)
  • 250,000 Points: 2 NFL Super Bowl Tickets (Lower Level)

There are also Draft VIP parties, Training Camp experiences, Stadium Tours, or having your personal message appear on your team’s scoreboard. The specific redemption amounts vary by team.

Super Bowl Ticket value? You may or may not know this, but the only way for the general public to even have the option of buying Super Bowl tickets at face value ($500 each) is by lottery. To enter this random drawing, you must send a ticket request via certified or registered mail, between Feb. 1 and June 1 of the year preceding the game in question. Those selected in the random drawing will have the opportunity to purchase two tickets.

Super Bowl Random Drawing
P.O. Box 49140
Strongsville, OH 44149-0140

If you’re not one those lucky few, you’re stuck on the secondary market. Check out this FiveThirtyEight article on the crazy markups. According to ESPN, the day after the conference championship games last year, StubHub’s average Super Bowl sale was $3,042. This year? $5,461. Here’s another price chart from BusinessInsider and SeatGeek:

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Let’s say a reasonable estimate is $3,000 per ticket. For 160,000 points, you get two tickets. That makes it $6,000 value divided by 160k points = 3.75%. That’s a whole lot better than 1% cash back. Of course, you’d still have to figure out how to eventually charge $160,000 on your credit card, but some frequent business travelers, small business owners and/or wholesale buyers may have it within reach. Otherwise, just 10,000 points will get you two tickets to a pre-season game, and 25,000 will get you two regular season tickets (available up to a week before game day, usually the specific stadium section number is shown ahead of time).

Got Annoying Monthly Subscriptions? Let Trim Cancel Them For You

“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.”

trim_nologo2You’ve heard the financial media (and me) talk about the importance of automated savings. Things like recurring 401(k) contributions that don’t require flexing your willpower. Well, the other side of the coin is automated spending. Companies love love love it when you buy their stuff on auto-pilot.

A new start-up called Trim helps you identify your recurring charges automatically and cancel the unwanted ones for you, for free. That sounded like a great idea. You’ll have to provide them the login credentials to your credit card or bank account, or you can snail mail them your statements. (I’d say yes to credit card before bank account.) This is going to sound like a humblebrag, but I wanted to test the service out but don’t have any services that I want canceled. Instead, I had a quick e-mail exchange with Trim CEO, Thomas Smyth:

Me: Trim sounds very interesting. Instead of a phone call, do you mind me asking just how exactly do you cancel the service on behalf of customers? I can understand the algorithmic finding of recurring charges, but wouldn’t you need some detailed personal information in order to perform the cancellation? If so, what type of info would you ask people for?

Thomas Smyth, Trim CEO: Absolutely – it just depends on the biller. For some, like Hulu, we simply send a form email that has the user’s account info (email, name) and the most recent charge on the credit card. For others, like credit reports or gyms, we’ll ask the user for more info, like DOB and account number.

We never ask for confidential info like SSN or full credit card numbers — those are NOT safe to send via text message. Sometimes we do run into billers that require this info — for example, LifeLock. In those situations we can’t cancel it for you (sorry!) but we do send you detailed info on how to cancel it yourself.

So they will try, but it won’t work for every biller. In those cases, hopefully them pointing out your wasteful ways will nudge you towards action. The good news is that the NY Times profiled Trim recently and found it to work pretty well. They even broke down the recurring subscriptions with the highest overall cancellation rates by Trim. Here are just the top 10:

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You could read this as the most overlooked services, or the hardest to cancel, or a combination. People tended to want to get rid of their credit monitoring services, gym membership, and Gogo Air the most. The vast majority of people kept their Netflix and Spotify. The New York Times itself gets canceled 10% of the time it is found, so I suppose it is rather brave of them to even point this service out!

Amazingly, they don’t have an app! Trim has an online web interface, but the original service works simply over text messages.

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Free identification and cancellation services are nice. But canceling will always be harder than signing up, so I try to avoid them in the first place. Automate your savings, not your spending.

Related: SubscriptMe is an app that identifies recurring subscriptions by scanning your phone. There are also haggling services like Bill Fixers which charge a finder’s fee based on how much money they save on your behalf.

Best Mosquito Repellent Study 2015: DEET vs. Non-DEET

“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.”

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The World Health Organization has declared Zika virus an international public health emergency. If you are concerned about exposure to mosquitos due to Zika, West Nile, Dengue, or other diseases, read this NPR article about a 2015 Journal of Insect Science study that tested various commercially-available mosquito repellents in a sealed chamber with a treated hand.

We spend a decent amount of time outdoors and are regularly bit by mosquitos, so we have also been experimenting with various bug sprays in the last few years (especially for kids). I was pleased that our anecdotal results very closely matched those found by this study. First, here are the numbers from the scientific study:

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Takeaways:

Don’t buy by brand, look for the active ingredient. For example, the Cutter brand has repellents with many different active ingredients. Some of them hardly work at all (“Cutter natural insect repellent”) while others work great (“Cutter lemon eucalyptus insect repellent”).

DEET works well, but you should use the lowest concentration possible. In the first hour or so, the chart above shows that mosquitos were repelled the same amount by 7% DEET and 98% DEET. Even after 4 hours, the 98% DEET was only a little bit more helpful. Why expose yourself to that much extra chemicals if you don’t have to? Sleeping overnight in the rainforest is not the same as a morning trip to the zoo! Just reapply if you need to.

For kids and infants older than 2 months, these Cutter Family DEET wipes have the relatively low 7% concentration but also allow careful application (you aren’t inhaling DEET or spraying into eyes or on little hands which end up in mouths). The single serving packages are easy to carry. (Note that on Amazon it is under three bucks as an Add-on with Amazon Prime.) While effective and supposedly rather safe, I simply don’t like the smell of DEET products, so we try to limit our use.

Oil of lemon eucalyptus works just as well as DEET. Look at those turquoise chart bars above. This stuff is just as good in the first hour, and actually better than most DEET sprays after 4 hours. Lemon eucalyptus oil is the only plant-based repellent recommended by the CDC. However, in most products it is synthesized (re-created in a lab, not squeezed from a plant). Still, we have found it to work quite well. It does have a strong lemony-herbal scent, but I actually don’t mind it since it smells natural. The only problem is that officially it is not recommended for children under 3. However, I couldn’t find a solid reason why, other than either (1) possible skin irritation or (2) it simply hasn’t been tested on children under 3.

Our adult and older-kid repellent of choice is the Cutter Lemon Eucalyptus insect repellent.

Try some others for yourself.. Just like how some mosquitos like certain people more than others, I believe different mosquitos hate different repellents. Our last “favorite” mosquito repellent is the Avon Skin-So-Soft Bug Guard with IR3535 (cheaper here for some reason). It is does not appear to be the same Avon tested by the study above, which lists an active ingredient of citronella oil. While we found this stuff not as effective as the two listed above, it does repel bugs for the first hour or so. Label says it is for children 6 months and up.

This last one is our “stealth 2-in-1” bug lotion + SPF 30 sunscreen, with no chemical or herbal smell. This white lotion goes on just like a high-quality sunscreen with a light fragrance.

(The mosquito repellents that depend on “organic, essential oils” like rosemary or lemongrass will work a little initially, but literally become useless within 30 minutes. Look at the full study results at the 30 minute interval. I wish they worked too… maybe if I was just going to check the mailbox.)

I know this isn’t especially financially-related, but I wanted to share our experiences. Hopefully you won’t waste money on stuff that doesn’t work.