Inflation Killers—Credit Card Rebates

NOTE: If after reading this, you would like to apply for one of the credit cards that the Fox family uses to max out credit card rebates, we can send you a link and that lines our pockets with a bit of money at no additional cost to you.  Let me know if you’d like to do that.

We’ve talked about how your cell phones are a great killer of inflation, along with other things store brand groceries and Craig’s List and the sharing economy.  But there’s another product that is totally killing inflation that makes those seem like small potatoes—your credit card and the rebates you can now get.

Back in the day credit cards allowed a convenient way to purchase products without having to carry around a lot of cash.  Eventually competition among credit card companies began to heat up, and by the late 1990s they started offering rebates to card holders on their purchases.

Let’s take a quick look at how credit card companies make money:

  1. They charge interest and fees to those who carry a balance. This is where there is a ton of money to be made.  For the purposes of this post, we’ll ignore this other than saying the Fox family never carries a credit card balance.
  2. They take a cut of all purchases. When you buy something for $10 at the store with your credit card, you end up paying $10.00 for it, but the store only gets about $9.41.  That’s because the credit card processing company charges 2.9% of the purchase plus $0.30 on each transaction.  Most people don’t think about this revenue stream, but it definitely adds up.

 

So obviously to maximize revenue from #2, credit card companies want as many people buying as much stuff as possible on their credit cards.  That leads to competition from the likes of Chase and Capital One and a ton of others, and that competition has taken the form of credit card rebates that over the last 20 years have gotten more and more generous.  Credit card companies are enticing you into using their products by giving you a cut of #2.

My first credit card was a Visa associated with Exxon.  It offered a rebate that could be redeemed for free gas.  It was something like 0.5% of my purchases, but it was better than nothing.  I was already buying gas so once a month I would get something like $12 off a fill-up.  Over the course of a year that added up to maybe $150, not a ton of money but free money nonetheless.  Given that I wasn’t getting that before, that was definitely “deflation” on my gas purchases—SCORE.  Compared to what is offered today, that was just a pittance.

 

Credit card arms race

Fast forward to 2018 and things have definitely become higher stakes.  We are bombarded with commercials where Discover gives you a rebate and then matches it at the end of the year, Capital One gives you a 1.5% rebate on all your purchases, and Chase gives 2 airline miles for every dollar you spend.

Credit cards are even offering one-time bonuses of hundreds of dollars if you sign up and spend a few thousand dollars in the first few months.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the marketing and confused by all the intricacies of the rebate programs.  But there’s gold in them hills.

If you take a few minutes (and that’s really all it is) to understand the different programs and figure out which one is the best for you, it can be thousands of dollars each year in your pocket.  THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS.

 

The impact is huge

I’ve mentioned this a few times, but the Fox family plays the credit card roulette game and last year it amounted to about $4,000 in our pockets.  Given we spend about $120,000 a year on expenses, that’s almost 4% of our expenses each year.

You’re probably not surprised that I look at the impact with a spreadsheet, and when you do the numbers it has an enormous impact.  Let’s genericize it and look at my cousin Savvy Fox.  He’s a 22-year-old who graduated from college making $50,000 per year and spending about $40,000 per year of which 80% is stuff on his credit card.  His only major expense that he doesn’t put on his credit card is his rent (and eventually his mortgage); but for everything else he uses his credit card.  Of course, he pays his credit card off each month to avoid usurious interest expenses.

Over the course of his life his income and expenses will grow 3% each year until he’s spending $120,000 per year (like us) when it flattens out.

At age 22 Savvy spends a total of $40,000 of which $32,000 (80% of the total) he uses credit cards for.  Because he’s savvy with his credit cards, he gets about a 4% rebate on those purchases which is $1,280 for the year.  This is found money so Savvy invests it in and index fund and gets about 8% each year.  If he follows this plan for his entire working life (until age 65), when he retires this little exercise will give him a nice little treasure chest of about $660,000.

$660k for doing nothing more than maximizing his credit card rebates!!!  Go ahead and read that again.  In a world where the average net worth of a person is $80k, this little gambit by itself gives you 8x that.  BOOM!!!

To further illustrate the point, $660k is when Savvy is really savvy with credit cards and gets the 4% rebate.  If he wasn’t savvy and just got a 1% rebate, at age 65 he’d have $165k.  That’s really, really good; twice the net worth of the average American, but still HALF A MILLION less than what he could have.

That should show you the stakes.  Now let’s talk about how you get there.

 

Specifically what the Fox family does

It’s important to find a credit card with the highest rebate.  Right now the ranges from about 1.5% to 2.0%.  But the key is the sign-up bonus.  You can fairly easily get a credit card with a sign-up bonus of $200 and higher, and you get that if you spend something like $1,500 in the first few months.

Our family typically plays this game 2-3 times per year, for both Foxy and me.  So we sign up for a new credit card every few months.  Our normal spending easily gets us to that threshold for the bonus.  So take 3 new credit cards per year times 2 people, and you get a total of 6 new credit cards per year, each of which has a $200 rebate.  Just the rebate gets us at least $1,200.  Add to that 1.5% rebate on all our purchases that we can use a credit card for, let’s say $6,000 per month, and you have another $1,080.  That’s over $2,000 right there of found money.  That gets us to about 3.2%, but we do better.

As generous as personal credit card rebate programs are, business credit card rebate programs are better.  Since Foxy Lady and I hung up our own consulting shingles, we had to set up a business.  Because we have a business we can get business credit cards!!!

At Capital One a typical personal credit card has a rebate of $150 and a 1.5% cash back.  Not bad.  Their business credit card has a rebate of $500 and a 2% cash back.  Much better.  At Chase, they have a business credit card with a $700 rebate (after you account for the annual fee).  Now we’re talking.

You can easily imagine that if Foxy Lady gets two Capital One credit cards per year and two Chase cards, and I do the same, the rebate dollars add up.  I’ll do the math for you—it’s $4,800.  Add to that the cash back which is around 2%, and that’s another $1,440.  We’re getting about $6,200 EVERY YEAR for doing nothing more than using credit cards.  That’s a ton of money that is just sitting out there for the taking.

 

Bringing this full circle, there is a ton of money out there for people who put maybe two hours per year into getting it by playing the credit card game.  That money hasn’t always been there, so that by definition is DEFLATION.  Credit cards can be a huge inflation killer.

If you are interested in signing up for one of the cards we use, if we send you a link we get a bit of a bonus from Chase or Capital One.  If you want to do that, just shoot me an email.

International Perspectives–Venezuela Redux

A few years back I chatted with Alberto, my classmate from graduate school who grew up in Venezuela.  It was supposed to be a post on how people invest when they live in Venezuela.  However, we learned that the idea of investing is very different from what it is here in the US and other rich countries because of the precarious state of the economy . . . and that was in 2015.

Fast forward to today, and the Socialist experiment in Venezuela has gotten much worse, to the point where is it a full-fledged humanitarian crises.  Painting a macabre, funny face on it, people refer to the Maduro Diet (Venezuela’s Socialist president’s name is Nicolas Maduro) where food is so scarce in the country that the majority of Venezuelans have lost about 20 pounds–THAT’S DUE TO STARVATION, PEOPLE!!!

In light of that, it seems in poor taste to discuss economics, but here are a couple comparisons of the current state of Venezuela to when Alberto and I did this post:

 

2015

Today

Official exchange rate

6

10

Real exchange rate (on black market)

700

103,000

GDP per capita (in US $)

$16,769

$15,603

At the time of the interview, Alberto said that inflation was about 700% and was astonished by the number.  Tragically, today it’s around 4000% and that is directly leading to lack of food and medicine that is literally killing children.  Horrible.

Last point, Alberto talked about ways Venezuela could improve and it involved really smart Venezuelans (like Alberto who is one of the smartest dudes I know) staying in the country to turn things around.  Unfortunately, as he prophetically said three years ago, smart and talented Venezuelans are leaving the sinking ship of their own country in droves, and that “brain drain” which was already high in 2015 is now even higher.  There’s no good answer here.

On that note, here is the interview from three years ago:

 

ve

Alberto and Stocky got our MBAs together from the University of Chicago in the 2000s.  He was one of the smartest classmates I knew and went to McKinsey after business school, then to private equity, and now to a big data start-up.  Plus, his Facebook picture is of him and Milton Friedman, so you know he takes his economics seriously.  Alberto grew up in Venezuela and is going to help us with a second installment of International Perspective, by telling us how investing works in Venezuela.

 

Stocky:  Thank you so much for taking the time to educate our readers on how investing works in Venezuela.

Alberto:  I’m happy to.  After reading this, they might come to appreciate how not-screwed-up things are in their own country.

Stocky:  Wow.  That’s a certainly enticing.  So how do Venezuelans approach investing.

Alberto:  Sadly, the biggest goal for most people is to get their money out of Venezuela and into the United States.  Once their money is in the US, then they can invest it in bonds, real estate, etc.

Stocky:  Wait.  What?  That doesn’t make sense.  Why would they do that?

Alberto:  The Venezuelan economy is so screwed up (thanks to decades of socialist economic policies, which were then turbo-charged by Hugo Chavez and his cronies in the last 16 years).  There really aren’t capital markets to speak of, so you can’t invest in stocks.  Also inflation is about 200% (the government claims 60% but no way it’s that low, even though they stopped publishing any sort of figure on the subject several months ago).  Although you can get maybe 15% interest in a savings account (which seems really high at first), you’re losing a ton of money due to inflation.  So people want to get out of Venezuelan bolivars and into US dollars.

Stocky:  Man.  That’s pretty different from maximizing your 401k or investing in index mutual funds, like we do in the US.  So how do people go about moving their money to the US.

Alberto:  First, Miami is the destination for maybe 90% of all the money leaving Venezuela.  It’s good because it’s geographically close, it has a very strong Latin American community, and there are a lot of ex-patriots from Venezuela.

Stocky:  Isn’t that where Tony Montana from Scarface lived?

Alberto:  Yeah, but he was Cuban, not Venezuelan.  Since Venezuelan law doesn’t allow people to take their money out of the country, it leads to a black market.  So your average Venezuelan with money will send bolivars to a “money exchanger” who will take that, convert it into US dollars, and then deposit that money into a US bank like Chase or Citi or any other bank like that.  It’s all done at the black market exchange rate which is about 700 bolivars to the dollar; although the “official” exchange rate according to the government is 6 bolivars to the dollar.

Stocky:  That sounds pretty “cloak and dagger”.  Is that safe?  I could imagine crazy stories of people getting ripped off with stuff like that.

Alberto:  Yeah, sometimes people get ripped off, but these black market transactions have become so common that pretty much everyone knows someone who does this.  Maybe it’s your uncle or your dad’s best friend or someone like that who will handle things for you.  That’s pretty common.

When you start working with someone, you start small.  Maybe $500 worth, or something like that.  After you see if they are honest, then you can give them more and more money.  Through it all, people just want to get as much money out of the country as possible because the economy is in freefall.  So I suppose they’re willing to take on a fair amount of risk.  If you tried to move your money and lost it that sucks, but if you keep it in Venezuela you’re pretty much guaranteed that you’ll lose it to hyperinflation.

Stocky:  Ouch.  Once people get their money to the US, how do they invest it?

Alberto:  Mostly it’s either in CDs or bonds, or those who can afford it will buy American real estate.

Stocky:  I spend a lot of time talking about asset allocation and how people should invest in stocks and not too much in bonds.  It sounds like these people aren’t listening to my advice.  Who would do such a thing?

Alberto:  Surprisingly, www.thestockyfox.com is not the #1 website in Venezuela, at least not yet.  I think there are a couple reasons behind that.  First, remember that the goal is getting the money out of a country with hyperinflation.  If people can make 2-3% with scant inflation by moving their money to the US, that’s a nice win for them.

Second, most Venezuelans, even most upper-middle class ones, are not that financially literate.  Learning the intricacies of investing, asset allocation, the differences between stocks and bonds, etc., just aren’t that high of priorities.  So once people get their money to Miami, they just choose a pretty simple investment which is a savings account or bond.

Stocky:  After the money is in Miami and invested how do people get it back to Venezuela.  After all, isn’t the whole point of investing so you can take money today, let it grow over time, and then spend it on your needs tomorrow?

Alberto:  That’s an interesting point.  I don’t think most people are giving much thought to bring the money back home.  People are waiting to see what’s going to happen to the country.  Politically, and therefore economically, Venezuela has been a crazy roller coaster.  When Chavez took control in 1999 he implemented a ton of social reforms that turned the economy on its head.  When oil prices were high, we could afford to do that, but now that oil prices have come way down, things are pretty bad.

Because of all of that, I think people are just waiting to see what happens to the country.  If there is a miracle turnaround like what happened in Colombia or better yet Chile, then people will see a future in Venezuela and bring their money back to spend.  However, I’m not optimistic, and if things continue to stay bad, I think people with the means will look to leave the country and join their money in the US.

Stocky:  That’s just crazy.  What do people do who can’t move their money abroad?

Alberto:  It’s really, really sad.  If people can’t move their money out of the country, you end up with some really bizarre economic activities.  Some people will invest in things like appliances.  Literally, it’s not uncommon to buy something like a washing machine with the intent to sell in.  Let’s say you buy one for 20,000 bolivars, use it for a couple years, and then because of inflation you can sell it for 50,000.  You made money plus you got the use of the appliance for a while.  Had you just kept that money in cash, you’d end up with much less.  There are active secondary markets for appliances, cars are a big one, really anything that you can buy that is durable.

Stocky:  Are you serious?  We had a mailbag question from Ally about investing in consumer electronics, and the idea just seemed so crazy to me.

Alberto:  You’re right, it is crazy, but that’s the reality in a country where the economy is just strangled by inflation.  Consider yourself lucky that you’re from a country where you’re pretty confident that your dollar will buy something very close to a dollar’s worth of stuff next year.

Stocky:  You’re painting a pretty grim picture of Venezuela.  What do you think the future holds for your home country?

Alberto:  It pains me to say that I’m just not confident.  Maybe you could have a massive turnaround like what happened to Chile in the 1970s of even Col0mbia in the 2000s, but I think the socialist government is so entrenched, and the magnitude of the brain drain has been too large for things are going to get better any time soon.

You’ll continue to have money flow out of the country as fast as it can go, but even more troubling is that you’ll have the most talented people leave.  Back at school there were probably a dozen of us Venezuelans who were getting our MBAs from one of the best schools in the world.  None of us went back home because there just aren’t any opportunities.  But for Venezuela to succeed it needs people like us to go drive change.  It’s a catch-22: change won’t happen without smart and capable leaders, but the country is so screwed up that all those people leave.  It’s not a good situation.

Stocky:  On that happy note, I want to thank you for sharing how things work in Venezuela with us.

Alberto:  Thank you.  Venezuela had a lot going for it when I was a child, but unfortunately, the government has thrown a lot of that away, and mortgaged the country in the process.  I hope that things do get better, I truly do.

 

For all my international readers, I plan on doing more of these types of posts that tell us how investing works in different parts of the world.  If you would be interested in sharing how it is done in your country, please contact me and we can set something up.

Keeping up with the Jones . . . financially that is

 

Quick story

Los Angeles is a pretty bizzaro place in general, and this is especially true when it comes to personal finances.  Houses are so expensive, that it’s hard to understand how people do it.  Also, there’s a culture of conspicuous consumption that pervades everything; everyone looks like they’re spending a ton of money (and often they are).  A friend once very wisely said “In LA the BMW 3-series is what Honda Civic is to the rest of the country.”

Foxey and I both had good jobs, were saving a lot, and thought we were “making it”.  Yet, in a lot of ways we looked like the “poor” people on the street.  Our house was fairly average looking, we mowed our own lawn, we both drove old cars (a 1998 Toyota 4-Runner and a 2001 Honda Civic), and in general we had a humble existence.  There seemed a disconnect, and it took an emotional toll.  We were working so hard to save but it didn’t seem like it was making an impact.  Everyone else “looked” richer than we.  What gives?!?!

One day we were at a party, talking to a neighbor who was a mortgage broker.  The neighbor had a few glasses of wine in her and mentioned that she did the mortgages for several people on the street.  She didn’t violate anyone’s confidentiality, but she made a general statement that “you would be shocked at the shit-show that is most of our neighbor’s finances.”  She left it at that.

We’ll come back to this in a second.

 

Looking at the data

According to the US census, the median net worth for an American is . . . $80,000—and that includes home equity; if you strip out home equity it falls to $25,000.  Since this is an investing blog, and also since you know I don’t think you should rush to pay off your mortgage, let’s just look at net worth excluding home equity.

If your first reaction toggled between “that can’t be right” and “that’s really low” and “Holy Crap!!!” then you’re in good company—that was my reaction. My other reaction was “a really large percentage of their net worth is in their home, and that’s no good.”  But that’s a topic for another post.

The Census Bureau breaks it down every which way.  I think the most interesting is by age:

Age Net worth—with house Net worth—without house
Less than 35 years $6,900 $4,138
35 to 44 years $45,740 $18,197
45 to 54 years $100,404 $38,626
55 to 64 years $164,498 $66,547
.65 to 69 years $193,833 $66,168
.70 to 74 years $225,390 $68,716
.75 and over $197,758 $46,936

 

There’s an obvious trend that you would expect.  As you get older your net worth grows, peaks in your older years, and then towards the end starts to fall as you spend your nest egg.

 

People don’t like showing their rear-ends

How do you reconcile all this?  The obvious answer is that, sadly, many people live way beyond their means, showing off a glitzy façade while the financial foundation is completely rotted.  Back in LA, I am certain that we had a net worth higher than nearly all our neighbors.  We certainly had cars crappier than all our neighbors.  We were certainly one of the very few (only?) that mowed our own lawn.

No one wants to “seem” poor, especially when they aren’t.  As I said, it took a bit of a toll.  Fortunately, Foxey and I have good, midwestern roots and were raised to save a big part of our income.  But that’s no fun.  I’m a bit of a freak so I actually derive a lot of pleasure from buying index mutual funds and watching numbers on a spreadsheet get larger.  Foxey is much more normal, and enjoys buying actual things rather than just socking the money away.

Our neighbors, on the other hand, were not saving as much as we were.  If you believe the mortgage brokers comments, many were spending much more than they were making, and weren’t saving at all.  Looking at the national data, they had that in common with much of America.

I don’t want to seem as though I don’t think $100,000 is a lot of money.  It definitely is, but it doesn’t seem like a lot over a lifetime of savings.  Yet, that $100,000 is significantly more than most Americans have saved.  I’m guessing it is probably more than many had on our street, despite all outward appearances seeming to indicate otherwise.  It just seems weird and sad.

 

The point of all of this is that it’s good to know how much you have saved.  Hopefully, one of the things you get from this blog is how to take stock of where you are and what your plan is to achieve your financial goal.

It’s also good to put your savings into perspective.  Saving money is HARD work, especially emotionally given that we live in a world of conspicuous consumption where we are inundated, in the words of Tyler Durden: “Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need.”

It may not always be apparent, but I think it’s always worthwhile.  Amazingly, and very sadly too, just doing a little bit of savings over a long time will put you well ahead of the average American.  Take a look at those median values again—it’s sobering.

Maybe all of us savers need a special handshake or something so we can know that we aren’t alone.  I hope this post makes you as a saver feel that you aren’t alone and that it is worth while.

NFL concussion problem—SOLVED

We’ve had a brutal cold snap of 30o here in NC, so of course they cancelled school.  I can’t think of a better way to calm my nerves after a day pent up with ‘Lil and Mini with 1000% energy not being able to play with friends outside, than to solve one of the major problems facing a major industry.  That’s just what I do.

 

The end is neigh?

It’s pretty incredible that it’s come to this.  The NFL is and has been so amazingly popular, that it’s hard to imagine it going away, yet that is what some fairly well-respected sports analysts have predicted.

I don’t know if I am there yet, but such a decline definitely wouldn’t be without precedent.  The best example is boxing.  Boxing used to be the king of the sports world back at the beginning of the 1900s.

Boxing’s decline can be traced to several reasons, but certainly its brutality has to play a major role in turning off fans.  It was hard to see how debilitated Muhammad Ali was later in life, and it was because he got punched in the face so often.  Each fan had to make a moral choice: “were those fights exciting enough to entertain me in spite of what it was doing to that person’s mind and body?”

Today a lot of people are feeling that about watching NFL games.  Just recently we saw a game where Pittsburgh Steeler Ryan Shazier tackled a Cincinnati Bengal, leading with his head (we’ll talk about that more in a minute), and was paralyzed below his waist.  It was a hard scene to watch as they secured the all-Pro to the backboard and wheeled him off the field then to the hospital.

That’s one type of injury that happens in the NFL.  It’s certainly jarring but it’s not all that common.  The other is the gradual degradation of the brain (CTE), basically where your brain gets injured due to repeated blows to the head.

There are staggering headlines out there that lead you to believe this is happening to everyone.  I’m not there just because there haven’t been comprehensive studies to statistically prove this is so widespread (but when did sound statistical principles keep CNN from throwing a provocative headline out there?).  Whatever, we could debate this over a beer for a while.

Yet, all this does adds up to the potential that the NFL goes from dominating the American sports landscape to either being sued out of existence (unlikely) or receding into oblivion like boxing.  But I’m here to solve it.

 

Get rid of helmets

Over the decades, a ton of technology and engineering has gone into making helmets stronger and able to withstand greater forces and pressures.  And . . . that’s the problem.  Making better helmets makes the problem worse.

Let’s think about that for a minute, and break it down like an economist.  The biggest problem is that players, almost exclusively on the defense (more on this in a second), are hitting each other really, really hard in the head . . . with their head.

These hits that paralyze people and cause concussions come from “helmet-to-helmet” hits.  It makes sense.  Our bodies are shaped to be able to focus maximum energy and momentum behind our core and head.

Now the economist in me is coming out.  Helmets are designed to protect players which is really another way of saying (especially to defenders): “You can hit harder and not get hurt.”  With this it’s no wonder that players are hitting harder and harder, because they have equipment that supposedly protects them.  Of course the problem is those harder hits increase the potential for catastrophe (paralyzation like Shazier) or long-term damage like CTE.

If you provide helmets, players are going to hit harder.  If they don’t have helmets, they aren’t going to hit as hard because of SELF-PRESERVATION.  No way a linebacker launches his head at a running back’s head if he’s not wearing a helmet.  There are immediate and devastating consequences to that, so you wouldn’t have those hits anymore.

 

That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard . . . or maybe not

I can imagine you saying, “That’s insane.  You’re going to kill people.”  But I don’t think so.

A really great analogy to football but without helmets is rugby.  It’s fast-paced, it’s very physical, the dudes are huge, AND THERE ARE NO HELMETS.  There’s a CTE issue in football and there isn’t a CTE issue in rugby.  I’m just saying.

So here’s how I would do it:

First, I would ban all helmets by all defenders and offensive lineman.  Quarterbacks, running backs, and receivers would still get to wear helmets, although the helmet would be a toned-down version of what exists today (more on this in a second).  Given that nearly all personal foul penalties for head-to-head hits are called against the defense, it seems appropriate to start looking at reducing those “defender-driven” hits.

Without helmets, defenders would be required to make tackles with their arms and chest and bodies, NEVER WITH THEIR HEAD.  Offensive lineman and defensive linemen would go after each other like they do now, but they wouldn’t butt heads again due to self-preservation.

Offensive skill players (by definition, the only ones who get tackled) would have helmets to protect their heads since they are the ones being targeted by all the other people on the field to be hit, so I think it makes sense for them to have a bit more protection.

Problem solved.  The NFL can thank me in the form of a check with a 7 and then at least six zeros behind it at any time.

There are a couple problems, but I actually think they’re pretty manageable:

Protecting eyes, teeth, and other parts of the face—this is a fair point and I don’t see any problem allowing all players to wear sports goggles (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar style) to protect their eyes.  Also, as is the case today players would wear mouth-guards.  Noses are vulnerable, but that’s the point.  Don’t lead with your face and you won’t break your nose.  And it’s not like broken noses are pervasive in rugby.

Offensive players targeting defenders—if offensive skill-positions have helmets, will that shift the balance in the game to where defenders won’t be able to tackle offensive players for fear of getting headbutted by someone wearing a helmet?  I’m not too worried because defenders are so good and fast (and they’ll be even faster without helmets) that the vast majority of the time they are on the offensive player making a tackle before he has any time to start targeting the defenders.

Second, any tackles that are not head-on aren’t an issue.  So right there, those two points solve 95% of those issues.

Plus, remember that a toned-down helmet wouldn’t cause as much damage if it did hit another player.

Following the rules today, you could have devastating penalties for any play where an offensive player’s helmet touches another players’ head (like expulsion from game and award 7 points to opponent).  But I actually don’t think it would happen all that often.

Turnovers have offensive players (with helmets) become defensive players—this is another issue that seems big on paper but may not be that big an issue.  It’s exceptionally rare to have a helmet-on-helmet penalty on an offensive player after an interception.

If you wanted to be extra careful you could say that on turnovers, the play is over when the defender (who now has the ball) is touched rather than tackled.  That’s super pussy, and I don’t think it’s necessary, but bear in mind we’re talking about the survival of the league and the game.

 

MAJOR BENEFIT—Of course the biggest benefit is eliminating the head-to-head hits that cause the paralysis and CTE, that goes with out saying.  But you know another major benefit to the NFL and its players?  The football players will become a lot more marketable.

Right now none of the top athletes from an endorsement perspective are football players (Peyton Manning is retired so I didn’t count him).  That’s kind of incredible that the NFL is the US’s most popular sport but it doesn’t have any of the top endorsement athletes.

One reason is that the players wear helmets so you can’t see their face.  The top endorsement-athletes are mostly basketball players (nothing worn on their head during games), soccer players (ditto), tennis players (ditto), and golfers (wear a baseball cap).  There are no race-car drivers (helmet that completely covers face), football players, baseball players (baseball cap or batting helmet), hockey players (helmet with visor).

Allowing the viewing public to see their faces will be a boon for football players who want to be the face of soft-drinks and search engines and cars.  There will be a ton of money for them to make.

 

So there you have it.  Problem solved.  As you watch the NFL playoffs this weekend, think about how my innovation could save the game.

Dear 2017, You were pretty awesome

As the door closes on 2017, let’s take a few minutes to reminisce about what an incredible year 2017 was for investors.  For the Fox family it’s awesomeness was especially welcome given that our careers have shifted quite a bit, moving away from working for the man to working for ourselves (though, one of us happens to be a man).

Let’s look at the numbers, and figure out what it all means.

 

A tale of the tape

Like most investors, we had a really good 2017.  Here is how our portfolio broke down:

Investment

Portfolio weight

2017 return

US stocks (VTSAX)

52%

19%

International stocks (VTIAX)

37%

24%

Real Estate Investment Trusts (VGSLX)

7%

1%

Commodities (DJP)

2%

1%

Lending Club

2%

2%

TOTAL

100%

19%

 

Cha-ching

No matter how you look at it, 2017 was a GREAT year for stocks.  The US stock market did really well, growing 19%.  This can become really political really quickly when assigning credit/blame for such things to politicians.  However, I think it’s fair to say the Trump administration has been fairly pro-business.  That, along with the massive tax cut, definitely gave a boost to stocks.

Also, we saw economic growth really pick up while unemployment went to historic lows.  And all that was happening while inflation remained very low (more on this in a second).  If you put all that together, that’s a perfect recipe for awesome stock performances, and that’s exactly what we had.

Not to be outdone, international markets really kicked it into high gear.  Coming into 2017, US stocks had outperformed international stocks (pretty dramatically, actually) for four years in a row, every year since 2012.  That ended this year.  International stocks were up an astounding 24% compared to the paltry 19% that US stocks were able to muster.

I think that’s a good reminder that you can never really outsmart the market.  At the beginning of 2017 there was every reason to believe that US stocks would do better.  There was a ton of momentum in the US coming off of Trump’s election.  Plus, Europe seemed embroiled in political quagmires—Brexit, French elections with extreme candidates polling well, Greece being Greece.  Asia similarly seemed poised for another yawn of a year—Japan remain in a deflationary stagnation, Noth Korea being a total wild card, and it looked like China’s economy would slow down.

Our interpretations were dead wrong and those markets kicked butt, and international markets outpaced the US markets by 5%.  5%!!!  That’s a lot actually.

 

Inflation remains dormant

While all this was happening, inflation remained remarkably tame.  You know I spend a ton of time and energy talking about inflation because it has such a big impact on the purchasing power of your savings.

Huge returns like we had in 2017 are great, but what’s the point if those gains are all eaten away by higher prices?  The final reading for December will come out in mid-January, but preliminary readings indicate that inflation for the year will come in at about 2.1%.  2.1%!!!  As high as those 20-ish% returns were, that’s how low 2% inflation is.

As an investor, it really doesn’t get much better than that—high returns and low inflation.

 

Regrets, I’ve had a few

As you know, I always use New Years as a natural time to take stock (no pun intended) of things.  Now is a really good time to look at how we did, thinking about the things we did well with our investments and what we could have done better.

The high points of our investments were the US and International stocks.  We invested in all index mutual funds so we really didn’t do anything here.  Just “set it, and forget it”.  I suppose that speaks to how useless I am as an investor—the best part of our portfolio is the one that I did the least for.

Certainly, we did have some not-so-great investments.  I hate to be picky in a year where our portfolio grew 19%, but 2017 really exposed some stupid decisions that I had made.  Look at our returns, and the two “basic” investments that everyone should have (I even wrote a whole post on this very subject).  Those did the best.

The investments that did the worst were those “other” investments that aren’t one of the three basic ingredients.  I’m stupid, and that stupidity probably cost us $50,000 this year.  Ouch.

I’ve chatted about our commodities investment and our Lending Club investment, both of which have been incredible duds.  Currently, we’re in the process of eliminating those from our portfolio, so hopefully in 2018 we won’t have to deal with that crap.  Of course, because the investing gods like to humble stupid people, I am sure those two will perform spectacularly this year.

As for the REIT, over the longer-term it’s done fairly well (not as good as US stocks but better than International stocks).  This was just a down year, so that happens sometimes.  Still, it begs the question why we got into this instead of just sticking to the three ingredients, and I have some lame excuses, but nothing worth mentioning.  Hmmmm.

 

So there you have it.  2017 was an incredible year for being an investor.  Despite the couple misses we had, our two biggest investments really did well, so we’re happy.

How about you?  How did your portfolio do in 2017?

RIP Inflation

Inflation is dead!!!  That’s quite a proclamation.  Is the stress of the holidays getting to me, making my mind soft?  Or is there something really to it?

If you are a regular reader of this column, you know that inflation can have an enormous impact on your financial plan.  You also know that I think that the government’s official measure of inflation (CPI) is way overstated.  No matter what you think, it’s undeniable that inflation is important and generally the lower the better.

If you don’t want to read the whole column, I’ll give you the answer: robots and engineering.  If you’re interested in my reasoning, read on.

 

Quick Crash Course

Inflation basically comes from one of two places:

  1. The government going insane and turning the presses on to print more money. This is hyperinflation and Zimbabwe and Venezuela lately and the Weimar Republic in the 1920s are good examples of this.
  2. The general rise in prices as people demand more for their labor and raw materials get more scarce, leading to increased prices.

Say what you will about the insanity of Washington, but #1 really isn’t a concern.  So inflation for the rich countries of the world really comes from #2.

 

Oil

The latest bout of really bad inflation in the US was in the 1970s and carried over to the early 1980s until Ronald Reagan and Paul Volker punched inflation in the face.  That was started by the oil shocks that OPEC imposed on the world.

Oil production was curtailed which drove prices higher.  Oil is a bit of a unique commodity in that we used it (and continue to do so although to a lesser degree) in nearly every aspect of life.  More on that in a minute.  Our world was based on oil so we really couldn’t do with less, so we had to pay more.  We really didn’t have a choice.  Prices rose (inflation).

Thirty years later in the mid-2000s oil prices dramatically rose again to $150 per barrel as demand from India and China shook the markets.  Again we had to use oil so we paid the higher prices, but then that story ended differently.  Technology had advanced so we could use less oil—natural gas powerplants, hybrid cars, solar panels, etc.—which took a bite out of the 2007 oil shock.

Also, and more importantly, technology also allowed fracking and oil sands to produce amazing amounts of oil in the US and Canada.  All the teeth were taken out of the OPEC threat.  Prices cratered over the next few years and have remained at very low levels.  If oil ever goes up again, more fracking and shale sands will be mined to bring prices back down.  We’re probably set with oil prices being moderately controlled for the next 100 years.

BOLD PREDICTION—Oil prices will never rise faster than 2% for the rest of my lifetime.

 

Other raw materials

Oil is a very unique raw material in that it is used everywhere.  Others aren’t nearly so ubiquitous.  That said, raw materials can increase in price.  However, when that happens our dynamic economy has shown an amazing ability to engineer products to substitute the more expensive raw materials for cheaper ones.

The price of copper has doubled over the last 30 years (from about $1.50 per pound to $3.00 per pound).  That should cause inflation yet think about engineering.  Thirty years ago how much copper was used in telephone line—a ton (literally)?  Now that’s all fiber-optic cable (mostly plastic—which is cheap) that carries a 1000x information at marginally higher prices.  Copper pipes used to be used exclusively in homes.  Now it’s PVC which is cheaper and more durable.  You get my point.

You can also have commodities like foodstuffs (cows and bushels of corn).  In the past those have increased in price significantly.  However, as an economist would predict, as the price goes up farmers plant more corn and ranchers husband more cattle.  That keeps everything at relatively steady prices.

When ever anything gets more expensive, businesses, with their profit motive, will find alternatives to do the job better at a lower price.  That is going to keep a major cap on inflation.

BOLD PREDICTION—There won’t be raw material whose price goes up significantly while also whose use increases significantly.

 

Robots

The largest component of inflation is human labor.  In the past, there has always been a general pull towards higher wages.  When the economy is weak (unemployment is high) that tends to slow or even stop.  When the economy is strong (unemployment is low) companies have to compete for workers and they do so by raising wages.  That leads to higher prices.

Of course, higher prices don’t always translate to inflation.  If a person is paid more but is much more productive (thanks to computers or other tools) that doesn’t lead to inflation, and if the productivity improvements are large enough will often lead to deflation.

However, and here’s the political hot potato, those productivity advances tend to be focused on the highest-skill workers.  Engineers now have computers to make them more productive; airline pilots have more advanced aircraft; construction workers have better tractors.  When most of those people got pay increases it was because they were more productive, no their impact on inflation was minimal.

The low-skill workers really haven’t gotten productivity enhancements, so any pay increases they got typically led to inflation.  But look at what has happened to all those low-skill jobs.  They have disappeared or are disappearing.  You don’t have gas-station attendants and grocery-store baggers anymore.  Cashiers are quickly disappearing.  Soon waitresses are going to disappear.

Most of the time the extinction of these jobs is because technology (robots) can replace them at a fraction of the cost.  Politically and socially this is deep water and we could debate this for hours whether this is good or bad.  But from an inflation perspective this is definitely keeping a cap on inflation.  If the wage for a low-skill job rises to fast, a robot or computer replaces it at a cost of pennies on the dollar.

Go to your grocery store and see all the self-checkout lines.  Each of those used to be manned by a low-skill worker.  Now one worker is overseeing 8 lines.  Many restaurants have self-order tablets which eliminate the need for waitresses (now you only need servers).  Of course countless low-skill factory jobs have been eliminated by robots.  You could go on and on.

This puts a huge cap on inflation, leading to much of what we see:

  1. Stagnant wages for low-skill workers
  2. Exponential growth of people-replacing machines
  3. Persistently low inflation.

BOLD PREDICTION—Wages for skilled workers will continue to increase while unskilled workers will decrease. Only a minimum wage will keep wages at the low end up, but that will lead to fewer low-skill jobs available.

 

The Federal Reserve has said it is baffled by the persistent low inflation in the face of fast economic growth, historically low interest rates, a low unemployment.  In the past those three ingredients always led to inflation, something that the Fed is chartered to control.  To me it seems like an easy situation to figure out, but I am smarter than a Nobel Prize winner 😊.

It’s pretty simple—we aren’t going to have inflation because there are so many amazingly smart (and very well paid) engineers that can find any product (including people) whose prices are rising and replace them with cheaper substitutes.

Like I said before, there are social implications for this which make these issues very gray.  However, keeping to the black and white areas, I believe this means inflation will probably remain low for years to come.  As an investor that’s GREAT NEWS.

Bitcoin—Top 5 WTF

A few of you have written in asking what I think of Bitcoin and its crazy ride.  Here are my Top 5 observations on Bitcoin.

 

5. Unprecedented wild ride

What has happened with Bitcoin in 2017 is really unprecedented.  Its price has risen about 17x which obviously is a lot.  To me, the more astounding point is that it has risen that high given it has a market cap of $300 billion (that is the total value if you added up all the bitcoins in the world).

If you think of bitcoin as a stock, that combination is pretty incredible.  A lot of stocks have had crazy good years where they increased 17x.  However, most of those are off a really low base: so maybe a $50 million company grew to a $1 billion company.  Obviously, that is much easier to do off a smaller base.

However, with Bitcoin, continuing with that analogy, it grew from a $15 billion company (that’s about in the top 2000 globally) so that isn’t exactly small.  Then it vaulted to $300 billion which would put it at about top 10.  Think about that for a minute.  Crazy.

 

4. I still don’t get it

I feel like some old man who doesn’t get the world around him.  Damn kids won’t get off my lawn.

I couldn’t tell you with any specificity what Bitcoin is (there are buzzwords like “blockchain” but I don’t know what that means either).  I certainly couldn’t tell you how I could “buy” them or “mine” them.  I don’t know a single vendor who would accept Bitcoins, and if they did I wouldn’t know how you do that transaction.

And I think I tend to be fairly knowledgeable about these things.  I can pay for stuff using my watch which proves I’m at the forefront of technology, but Bitcoin is just beyond me.  I think that applies to most people—the story of Bitcoin is exciting but the details are pretty fuzzy.

 

3. Not surprising run-up

Given the incredible run-up, I am not surprised of it’s continued push higher in the past couple weeks, thanks to it’s listing on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange earlier in the month.

Being listed (or having your futures listed) on a very legitimate financial exchange obviously lends some credibility to something that up to this point had very little of it in respected financial circles.  Also, it somewhat addresses #4.  You can buy Bitcoin futures on the CME and I think many more people know how to do that than knew how to buy Bitcoins on their own two weeks before.

I still think Bitcoin is built on quicksand and will eventually collapse (more on this in a second), but in the short term it’s not surprising that it’s value has gotten a huge bump as it has been listed.

 

2. Ticking timebomb

There are a lot of people extremely bearish on Bitcoins, and many can give you a ton of reasons why it’s just an eyelash away from collapse.  I predict that eventually a central bank will crush it like an elephant finally getting annoyed by a gnat.

What would provoke such action by the US Treasury?  A terrorist attack.  It seems likely that given Bitcoins anonymity features, it will be used to fund some type of terrorist attack that will kill innocent Americans.  When that happens you can easily imagine the headlines, and then easily imagine the government’s response.

Bear in mind the whole premise of Bitcoin is that governments aren’t responsible stewards of their fiat currencies, so society needed some type of currency that the government can’t screw up.  That’s a bit of a “Screw-you” to Washington, so I think if there’s any connection between Bitcoin and a terrorist attack, the government will come down HARD.

 

1. Go left when everyone else says “go right”

There’s a famous saying in investing that saying when everyone believes one thing, the opposite tends to happen.  Right now, EVERYONE is saying that Bitcoin is a bubble and its value will crater.  People have been saying that when it was at $1000 and then the chatter exploded when it crossed the $10,000 threshold.  Now it’s at about $18,000.

Seriously, can you think of one serious, respected analyst who is bullish on Bitcoin?  I can’t.  Can you think of highly-regarded financial people who said Bitcoin is a crazy bubble that will crash HARD.  I can think of about a thousand.

Given that, it makes me think that Bitcoin might still have some upside.

 

Who knows with all of this?  I know I certainly don’t.  Personally, we don’t invest our money in Bitcoin, mostly because of #4 and a bit because of #2.  That said, I am enjoying the crazy ride that makes for fun reading in The Wall Street Journal.

 

Inflation–the big scary monster hiding under your bed

wheelbarrow-of-cash

“Ocean waves will grind the greatest boulder into sand if given enough time”

Inflation, the general rise in prices over time, is a powerful and unrelenting force which is eroding the value of your money every year, every month, every day.  How powerful is inflation?  Look at this simple example with my neighbors, Mr and Mrs Grizzly.

If they want to spend $50,000 per year (in today’s dollars) in retirement they’ll need about $1.2 million on the day they retire (40 year retirement, 6% return, 3% inflation).  Every year in retirement they’ll spend a little more than $50,000 to buy what $50,000 buys today because of inflation.  However, if you crank the inflation knob up a notch from 3% to 4%, they’ll need $1.5 million.  Up to 5%, they’ll need $1.8 million.  What makes inflation so scary is that the impact is huge—a 2% increase requires your nest egg to be $600,000 larger—and it’s also completely out of your control.

In the US, inflation is tracked by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a division of the Department of Labor, with a tool called the Consumer Price Index (CPI).  Basically (I know it’s much more complex, but for brevity’s sake) it looks at a general basket of goods that people buy and tracks how those prices change over time.  It’s meant to track EVERYTHING that consumers buy: food, housing, cars, airline tickets, medical expenses, entertainment, and on and on and on.  The US boasts an amazing record of tame inflation over the decades, but even then it’s been quite a roller coaster: in the early 1980s, according to the CPI, inflation was averaging about 12%, and it has averaged about 1.6% since 2009.

That just ruined Mr Grizzly’s day.  So he needs $1.2 million today to retire, but depending on inflation it could range from $1 million to $8 million if it got as high as it did in the early 1980s?!?!?!  No bueno.  How the heck is he supposed to plan for a range like that?

What to do with inflation.  It’s like that big, scary monster living under your bed.  It can be a powerful force that can completely turn your financial world upside down.  Or, it can be something that is built up in our imagination that in reality isn’t that bad at all.  Let’s figure this out.

 

Inflation is going to do what it will do, and there isn’t a lot you can do about it as an investor.  The US government sets an inflation target at 2%, but reasonable people can debate how good Washington is at managing stuff like this.  When I do my planning for the Fox family, I personally use 3%.  But there is some good news—I actually think the CPI waaaaaaay over estimates inflation and that it is going to be on the lower side of historic averages, which is a good thing for those of us saving for retirement (as always, this is just my opinion and may turn out to be quite wrong, also with my projections I am not predicting the future).

The CPI is supposed to compare apples to apples, so basically what did you buy last year and how much would that cost if you bought the exact same stuff this year.  I think over the short-term the CPI works pretty well; I’d believe that prices in 2017 were about 2% higher than in 2016 (in line with the CPI’s figures).  But over longer periods of time, the CPI really fails because I think it does a really lousy job of dealing with major technological advances.  So when you look at 10 or 20 or 50 years, which happens to be the time horizon we’re looking at for retirement, I think the CPI really overestimates inflation.

If you go back to 1965 (I picked 50 years ago, because I figure I have 50 years to live, so that’s my time horizon), the CPI says prices have risen about 7.5 times.  So something that cost $100 in 1965 would cost about $750 today.  If you do the math, that equates to about 4.1% per year.  We saw the impact that the level of inflation has in the above examples (pretty major impact), yet let me tell you why I think the government is getting it wrong and there is some real relief.  This is going to be a long post (but I hope a valuable post), so get comfortable.

 

1965_Chevrolet_Impala

Cars

In 1965 you could get a new 4-door sedan like the Chevy Impala for about $3000.  Today you could get a new 4-door sedan like the Honda Civic for about $20,000.  If you do the math, that calculates to about 3.9% inflation per year, right around what the CPI says (I know, you’re saying: “Stocky, so far I’m not impressed.”)  But remember, the CPI is supposed to compare apples to apples; when you compare a 1965 Impala to a 2015 Civic, the Civic has a ton of advantages.

The Civic gets 35 miles to the gallon, while the Impala got about 12.  The Civic has incredible safety features like airbags, antilock brakes, backup camera, and on and on; the Impala has seat belts across your lap (they didn’t even have the shoulder ones).  The Civic has Bluetooth to connect to your MP3 player, while AM/FM was an option on the Impala.  A new Civic will probably last you 200,000 miles or more, but your Impala would be lucky to get to 100,000 (like “go-out-and-buy-a-lottery-ticket” lucky).

Put all that together and how much of that 3.9% annual price increase is due to inflation, and how much is due to the Civic just being a better car?  It’s not an easy question to answer, but I would think an awful lot of the price increase is because you’re getting a safer, more fuel-efficient, and more durable car . . . just a better car.

To look at it from a different angle, we know $3000 in 1965 would buy you a new Chevy Impala.  What would $3000 buy you in 2015?  A quick look at Autotrader.com shows that for $3000 you could get a 1998 Honda Civic with 150,000 miles.  Between those two choices, each of which is $3000, don’t you have to pick the Civic as the better car?  It’s safer, much more fuel efficient, has more convenient features (cruise control, automatic windows), and it will probably last longer.  All that says that inflation was actually a lot less than the 4.1% the CPI said or the 3.9% we calculated.

 

Rent

Housing is the biggest expense that people have, so how does that come into play?  In 1965 the average rent was about $90 per month while in 2011 it was around $870 which calculates to about 5.1%.  That’s higher than the CPI, but before we freak out about runaway inflation in the housing market, let’s do the apples-to-apples comparison.  In 1965 you were getting a place where you might have shared a bathroom with your neighbor and a phone too.  You had an icebox instead of a fridge (literally a cabinet that you kept cool with blocks of ice), and radiator heating.

Today you have granite countertops and stainless steel appliances, central air conditioning, and a fitness center downstairs if you’re lucky.  How much of that 5.1% increase is due to prices rising, and how much is due to you just getting a much, much nicer place with much better amenities?  Today, I’m sure if you tried hard enough you could get a total armpit of an apartment that was completely vintage 1965, and I bet you probably wouldn’t pay more than a few hundred bucks for it, showing that prices for apples-to-apples apartments haven’t risen near that 5.1% level.

 

Heart Stents

Healthcare

Ahhhh.  This is where you’re saying: “But what about healthcare?  Medical prices are spiraling out of control.  That’s where they get you.”  The Medical CPI shows that prices have increased an astounding 17 times since 1965—about 5.9% annually.  Mr Grizzly just had a minor aneurysm, which he knows is really going to cost him.  But before you despair, do the apples-to-apples comparison and realize that the quality of healthcare has gone up exponentially while costs it can be argued have come down.

Let’s say Grandpa Fox had a heart attack in 1965.  First, his chances of survival weren’t very good, but let’s assume he survives and gets coronary bypass surgery.  After two months of recovery he’s back at home living his normal life, but now with a sweet scar running all the way down his chest from the open-heart surgery.  That surgery back then would cost around $6000 (it’s hard to find exact numbers on this so I estimated; any reader who has better data please let me know) which is a drop in the bucket compared to the $100,000 price tag bypass surgery costs today.

Unfortunately, Grandpa Fox passed his lousy heart genes on to me.  However, instead of a heart attack hitting me out of the blue, my doctor discovers early on that I have high cholesterol and prescribes me Lipitor which costs about $300 per year, and that is even lower if you go generic.  My heart problems get taken care of for much less money, plus I didn’t have to go through a high-risk surgery and brutal recovery.

But maybe Lipitor doesn’t work, so after a while they find my coronary arteries are severely blocked and I get a stent (of course, I only use a Medtronic brand stent).  I have a non-invasive surgery where they insert the stent through a tiny incision in my hip, I go home that evening, and it all costs me about $20,000.  Like before I probably would have a much better outcome than Grandpa Fox, at about three times the cost which equates to about 2.4% inflation over the 50 years.

So while medical expenses have skyrocketed (and I totally agree they are out of control), if you look at the idea of taking someone with a heart problem and getting them back to health, prices have actually gone way down since 1965.  So much for aggressive inflation here; you could actually argue that there has been deflation.

 

Food

So let’s compare apples to apples, literally.  Apples in 1965 cost about 16¢ per pound while today they are about $1 per pound—that equates to inflation of about 3.6% inflation.  But there is actually a difference between 1965 apples and 2017 apples.  Back then there was this weird concept of fresh fruits and vegetables being “in season.”  You could only buy apples certain times of the year which was around late summer and fall (I had no idea so I actually had to look this up, which kind of proves my point).  Today fresh fruits and vegetables are in season when your grocery store is open and you have money.  So again, you’re paying more but you’re also getting a better product as well—year round fresh fruits and vegetables.

 

And there are many product categories whose prices have fallen drastically (air travel, anything with electronics), and others that we used to be charged for but are now free (telecommunications, news articles, books).  The whole point of all this is that depending on how you look at it, inflation isn’t going to be nearly as high as the CPI says which is a huge help to savers.  That means your dollar will stretch further in retirement than you might otherwise think, and that you’ll need less to retire on.  Consider this my gift to you.

Lending Club—No Bueno

About two years ago we broadened our investment portfolio with this new-fangled things called peer-to-peer lending with Lending Club.  This has turned out to be a pretty major disappointment for us, and we are in the process of exiting the investment (which isn’t a quick process—more on this in a second).

Basically, the idea of peer-to-peer lending is like match.com for lenders and borrowers.  People who want to invest/lend money meet people who want to borrow money.  Borrows can get money they need at much lower rates and much less hassle than if they got a loan from a bank.  Lenders can earn interest at a much higher rate than they would get from a bank.  Banks are cut out of the process and everyone wins, right?

 

How it works

There are people looking to borrow money for debt consolidation/payoff credit cards (that’s about 80% of the loans), help their small business, pay for home renovations, etc.  Let’s say a given loan is for $10,000.  A bunch of lenders like us each kick in $50 or so, so you’ll be in this loan with hundreds of other people.  The person gets the money and then pays off the loan over 3-5 years.

Lending Club vets each loan and each applicant, and assigns a credit score.  That credit score determines the interest rate which can range from 5-20%.

As a lender you can go through all the thousands of loan application and pick which ones you want to lend to.  That’s fun at first, but quickly becomes a hassle, so you can just put it on auto-pilot and Lending Club will pick the loans for you.  That’s what we did.

 

What happened to us

In mid-2015 we opened our account, starting with $3000.  Of course, I watched the process like a hawk, from the loans I picked to when they started paying back.  At first it went great (isn’t that line in pretty much every movie, before everything goes to hell?).  We were getting paid back by all our loans, and our return was over 12%, which of course is amazing.  That’s free money.

We put more money in over the next couple months, and then when we sold our California house we put a big chunk ($60,000) in.  By that time, our account was worth about $100,000.  Through mid-2016 things were going well.  Our returns had inched down to about 10% (still spectacular), and I was congratulating myself on being a financial genius.

Towards the end of 2016 I started to see some of my loans default.  Of course, this is to be expected.  Some of the loans will go bad but those should be offset by the higher interest rate, and everything works out.  Still, it was a disturbing trend.

After a few months, the bad loans kept coming and my return steadily dropped, until it settled at 2.5% which is where it’s at today.  That’s crazy!!!  Obviously, there’s a huge difference between a 10% investment and a 2.5% one.

In early 2017 I decided to pull the plug, and stopped reinvesting my money.  Now, as the small loans (we have about 3000 out there) pay off, we take that money and put it back in our Vanguard account.  Unfortunately, this isn’t a fast process so it will take us about 5 years to unwind everything.  Oh well.

 

Why it works (or doesn’t)

On paper it sounds like one of those awesome ideas where the power of the internet changes an old business model for the better, and I think there’s a lot of truth in that.  It brings borrowers and lenders together and cuts out the middlemen, and lowers the borrowing costs substantially.

The problem lies in their ability to ensure payments are made.  Fundamentally, what is stopping borrowers from getting the money and then just going away and not paying?  It may not happen a lot, but it doesn’t take a lot of these to really kill your return.

I have a bit of insight here because I was a large enough account that I would get a call about once per quarter from them “seeing how I was doing”.  You can imagine the tone of these calls changed as my return dropped.

These loans are unsecured, so the only thing that makes borrows pay back is morality (I never want to count on that when it comes to money), the threat of negative marks on their credit rating, and the general badgering from Lending Club as it tries to collect.  With traditional bank loans that are collateralized, the threat of repossessing something seems a lot stronger.

Not difficult to predict, there was a large portion of the borrowers who would take the money and then not pay it back.  Some might be thieves who borrowed the money in a scam and never intended on paying back.  Others certainly intended on doing it but things didn’t work out.  Given the economy has been super strong the past couple years, this is especially troubling because it should be as good as it gets right now.

When someone stops paying Lending Club goes after them with phone calls, but those don’t seem really effective.  Seriously, what are they going to do?  Some delinquent borrows do starting paying back but most either never answer the phone, or they do and say/demand that Lending Club quit bothering them (there are actually notes lenders can see on all this activity).

I personally think that in our litigious environment today, lenders don’t have that much leverage.  Also, to avoid claims of bias or discrimination, it’s probably not easy to turn down borrower applications.  That leads to a perfect storm of crap that I think I got caught up in.

 

What is the lesson?

Investing is an interesting psychological experiment.  The simple approach of buy-and-hold broad index mutual funds is almost certainly the best, yet it’s the most boring.  When you’re doing that and things are going well, there’s that itch to see “what else you can do” and “what you can do better”.

That’s what happened to me, and most of the time that’s death.  That’s what happened with us and our commodities investment, which has been a major loser.  That was also the case with Lending Club, and we’ve had disappointing results (especially since stocks are up about 15% annually in the time we’ve invested in it).

So the lesson here is that it’s probably always better to stick with the boring but tried-and-true approach.  History is on your side here.  We have over 100 years of data on how stocks behave, in good times and bad.  Peer-to-peer lending is fairly new so you don’t really know how it will play out.  Maybe you’ll miss out on something that’s new but amazing (see: Bitcoin), but that leads to an interesting second point.

Many leaders—NFL head coaches, CEOs, politicians—say that success finding all the great things, but more avoiding the bad things.  Stocks are similar.  It’s a game rigged in your favor, but there are pitfalls along the way that are so tempting.  That’s where I think I tripped up.  Lending Club and commodities were sexy investments at the time, and it scratched that itch for me to be “doing something.”  And it hurt me.

Of course, that doesn’t mean we never innovate.  Peer-to-peer lending may turn into something big; digital currencies might turn into something big.  They might be important parts of a financial portfolio, but I think now is way too early a time to be putting my money down on that bet.  I know I’ll miss some big wins, but hopefully I’ll also avoid big losses and come out ahead.

Top 5 reasons to be thankful as an investor

Today is a special day in the United States.  We reflect on all the amazing blessings we have in life—our families, our jobs, our friends.  For me it’s Foxy Lady, Lil’ Fox, and Mini Fox in some order.  There’s also world peace (more on that in a second), technology that has immeasurably improved our lives, and a little place called the United States of America.

However this is a personal finance blog, so what are the Top 5 reasons to be thankful (wearing an investing lens) for:

 

5. No wars—This is a pretty humanitarian one. In my lifetime, the biggest war the US (and the developed world for that matter) has fought is probably the Second Iraq War with 4500 deaths. That’s a tragedy for sure, but compare that to the generational death toll of US soldiers from war pre-1975: Vietnam-58,000; Korean War-37,000; World War II-405,000; World War I-117,000.  That alone is SO, SO much to be thankful for.

Of course, war is bad for investing.  It destroys buildings and infrastructure that is meant to produce things.  Once the war is over those things either need to be rebuilt which costs a lot, or people just move on and all that productivity is lost.  And that’s not even mentioning the dead, many of whom are educated and highly productive people.  No matter how you cut it, armed conflict is bad, and we’ve enjoyed an amazingly peaceful 40 years, even with those periodic skirmishes. That’s great for investing.

 

4. Tame inflation—When I was growing up, and even when I was in college in the late 1990s, we always thought inflation would naturally settle around 4-5%. Before then, expectations were even higher.

We all know that inflation relentlessly eats away at the purchasing power of our savings.  Some economists argue whether too low of inflation is good or bad (I think the lower the better), but everyone agrees that too high inflation is a bad thing.

For the past 10 years we’ve had inflation hovering around 1.5%, including 2015.  This year looks like it will be around 2.1% or so; that’s higher than it’s been in nearly a decade which speaks to how low inflation has been.

When you look at economic disasters over history, more often than not, they involve crazy inflation that has run out of control.  We’ve had a great run on this, and there’s no reason to think it will end any time soon.

 

3. A nation of laws—It’s easy to get caught up in all the BS of politics and a 24-hour newscycle that our nation is facing right now. One might think that the country’s going to hell, but it’s not.

Things work.  We have rules that 99.99% of the people follow 99.99% of the time, and the system works.  This is especially true in the stock market where by and large it’s a fair game.  There haven’t been any major scandals or houses of cards like we saw in 2008 or 2001 or even 1929.

There’s always going to be some level of shenanigans just based on the nature of greed, but as an investor I do feel things are on the up and up.  So long as that’s the case, we’ll make money.

 

2. A 9-year bull market—So far in 2017, stocks are up about 20%. That’s pretty astounding. That has created a tremendous amount of wealth for common investors.  That’s an incredibly democratizing process.

As good as this year has been, it’s just the latest in a string of amazing years since 2008.  However, if you take a longer view, over the last 40-years, things have been equally spectacular.  The average return since the year of my birth (1977) . . . over 11%.  And that’s compounded annually which is something all those 4th and 5th graders from the Summerfield Open will appreciate.

We’re on a good run right now, and of course it will slow down at some point, the timing which Robert Schiller and I disagree on (and I’ve been proved right so far).  But even a longer-term view shows how good things have been, and really there’s no reason to think the future will be otherwise.

 

1. Internet—I’ve mentioned this a number of times, but it’s hard to overstate the amazingly positive impact the internet has had on investing. First, it makes actual investing so much easier. You can research companies more efficiently than could have been imagined pre-1995.  Also, you can actually conduct transactions so much easier, compared to before when you had to do everything over the phone with a broker.

Also, there are those little companies called Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook, and a slew of others.  Those all have business models based on the internet.  They have brought tremendous benefits to society, and along the way have made tons of money which has gone to their investors, this one included.

 

So many things are more important than money and investing, and those are at the top of my list of things I am thankful for as I dig into my turkey today.  However, wealth is a great enabler.  For me it allowed me to quit my job to become a full-time stay at home fox for my two cubs.  To the degree that my investments facilitate that, I am thankful for investment tailwinds like the five I just mentioned.

Everyone, have a great Thanksgiving.