January 31, 2018

Bitcoin – Ultra Spiritual Life episode 86

Filed under: Economics, Humour, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 06:00

Published on Dec 19, 2017

Bitcoin – Ultra Spiritual Life episode 86

In this video, I tell you all about Bitcoin, how it works, and why it’s guaranteed to be the best investment of your life.

November 28, 2017

A Tax on the Poor – The Lotto and the Surprisingly Common Sad Aftermath of Winning

Filed under: Randomness — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Today I Found Out
Published on 1 Jun 2017

In this video:

It’s been called a voluntary tax on the poor and under-educated, with people spending a whopping $60 billion a year in the United States alone on lottery tickets, most of which are purchased by low income individuals. (All total, about 20% of Americans play the lotto). Despite the high number of lotto tickets purchased annually, when playing the lottery (in all its forms), you’ll win an average of just 53 cents for every $1 you spend, making it one of the lowest return rates of any form of commercial gambling, and thus extremely profitable for the various government bodies who run the lotteries.

Want the text version?: http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2012/12/on-average-people-who-earn-less-than-13000-a-year-in-the-u-s-spend-5-of-their-gross-earnings-on-lottery-tickets/

November 9, 2017

How Expert Are Expert Stock Pickers?

Filed under: Economics — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Marginal Revolution University
Published on 16 Aug 2016

In this first video in our Personal Finance section of Macroeconomics — and also our new course on Money Skills — we’ll begin to lay out some smart rules for investing.

Today, we’ll tackle Rule 1 — ignore the expert stock pickers.

What’s the basis of that rule? Well, in his 1973 book, A Random Walk Down Wall Street, economist Burton Malkiel made a controversial claim. He claimed that a blindfolded monkey, throwing darts at the financial pages, could select a basket of stocks that would do just as well as a set chosen by the pros.

One of Malkiel’s later students, the journalist John Stossel, set out to test that claim. Stossel did throw darts at the financial pages. The darts landed on 30 companies. Turns out, Malkiel did have it right — the randomly-selected stocks did better than professionally-picked ones.

The point here is, random picking roughly gives you as good results, as trusting the pros. Consider — in most years from 1963-2008, the S&P 500 Index outperformed most of the managed mutual funds. And in a different study, researchers took the top 25% best-performing funds. Two years later, less than 4% of the original set remained in the top quarter. Five years later? Only 1% stuck around.

Basically — past performance doesn’t guarantee future results. Chance often tends to win out.

To show you what we mean, take a hypothetical set of 1000 experts making market predictions. Let those predictions be based on a coin toss. Experts who land heads will say the market will surge this year. Those who land tails say the opposite. At the end of the experiment’s first year, 500 of the 1000 experts will have been right, solely by chance. Now, say the remaining 500 toss again. At the end of the second year, 250 experts will have been right, again by chance. Continue with this logic, and by the end of the fifth year, roughly 32 of the 1000 will have been right, five years running.

Perhaps these 32 will be hailed as geniuses, but remember, they only came about through a coin toss.

So, what’s to conclude from this? Two things.

First, luck and chance matter. In some cases, it can be hard to differentiate luck from skill, as proven by the “genius” 32. Second, no need to spend big bucks on a money manager. After all, the studies prove that random picking often works just as well as professional management.

That said, what if you did have market information? What if you knew something about certain stocks, that made you think they’d do well? Could you beat the market then? That’s what we’ll answer in our next video, when we tackle the efficient market hypothesis. Stay tuned!

March 5, 2015

Tax Free Savings Accounts

Filed under: Cancon, Economics, Law — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

At Worthwhile Canadian Initiative, Livio Di Matteo talks about tax free savings accounts (TFSAs), registered retirement savings plans (RRSPs), and why some people are getting upset that some Canadians benefit more from these financial tools than others do:

A major theme running under most of these arguments goes something like this — Registered Retirement Savings Plans (RRSPs) at least leave “a legacy of tax revenue to future governments” whereas TFSAs may generate “supernormal” returns that will escape taxation and on top of it will accrue primarily to the well-off.

However, when I think of RRSPs and TFSAs, I see them both as essentially the same. They are both “tax expenditures” that are designed to encourage saving by promising some type of tax incentive. The broader debate should really be about how we want to encourage more saving and then about “tax expenditures” in general rather than how much we should allow as limits to either RRSP or TFSA contributions.

However, if we are going to argue about RRSPs and TFSAs, to my mind what differs is the timing of the break. For an RRSP, you are getting the tax incentive upfront and deferring the taxes until you withdraw the money. For a TFSA, you are making the contribution with after tax dollars and allowing the contribution to accumulate tax free — the tax benefit comes down the road as the money grows.


Young households with children who face more cash constraints might find the RRSP more attractive while older households would probably find the TFSA more attractive. All other things given, both vehicles are of greater advantage to higher rather than low income earners because higher incomes are more likely to be able to save — period. If you are going to make the argument that TFSAs are somehow favouring the wealthy or higher income earners, you need to acknowledge that the same argument applies to RRSPs.

Update, 7 March: It kinda helps when I remember to include the correct link to an article…

January 6, 2015

QotD: Home ownership as a form of forced savings

Filed under: Economics, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

Housing is pretty effective forced savings. We pay extra on our house each month, much to the dismay of many financial types of my acquaintance. Now, in theory, I could put that money right into mutual funds. In practice, I’m probably more likely to put it into a nice table for the backyard. As Dave Ramsey says all the time, the biggest mistake people make in talking about personal finance is treating it as a math issue. It’s not. The math behind personal finance is so risibly simple that journalists can do it. The discipline, however, is very hard. So the correct comparison for homeownership is not what the buyer could have achieved by putting all that extra money into a mutual fund; it’s what they would actually have done with the extra money if they hadn’t bought a house.

So while I’m not saying that you should definitely invest in a house, I won’t say you definitely shouldn’t, either; all I would say is that you shouldn’t count on your home value too much.

Megan McArdle, “Buying a Home Isn’t Bad for You”, Bloomberg View, 2014-04-07

May 6, 2014

Rick Wakeman on the best financial advice he ever received

Filed under: Britain, Business, Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 09:17

Lorraine McBride talks to Rick Wakeman about his career.

Has there ever been a time when you worried how you were going to pay the bills?

Yes, there have always been times like that. In the late Sixties, when I played at the Top Rank ballroom, being an organist meant carting my organ around to sessions, which cost two thirds of my earnings, on top of running a car, which was when I learnt the word “expenses”.

My rent cost £8 a week and I can remember being really short. In 1970, I was up in London looking for session work and Marc Bolan who was a great mate, gave me a session for Get It On. All I had to do was a glissando on the piano. I said to him afterwards, “You could have done that,” and he replied, “Well, you want your rent money don’t you?” Tough times, but when I joined Yes, I went from £18 a week to £50 a week.

Yes made a fortune, what did you spend it on?

We were all told to go out and buy a nice house, which was an eye-opener because I’d only known a two-up, two-down and a Ford Anglia. Suddenly we were talking five-bed, des-res. I remember looking around one house for sale in Gerrards Cross and the lady said, “This is the breakfast room.” I said: “What, just for breakfast?” because it was just a different world.

Lots of rock stars get ripped off, did you learn any tough lessons?

Yes, everybody in the business did. One thing you start to learn, usually too late, is that being top of the tree doesn’t last forever. You drop down a few branches and find your position but you set yourself a lifestyle that requires “top of the tree” earnings to pay for it. Then of course, you have the unexpected events like a divorce of which I’ve had three.

Suddenly you grow up very quickly and certainly when a problem hits, you back-pedal to try and work out how to sort it out. I was lucky. I had a very good accountant who helped tremendously and I learnt to listen but it took a long time. It probably wasn’t until the turn of the millennium when I found myself in yet another divorce, when the situation seems unbelievable, you really start to listen.


What’s been your best financial move?

Undoubtedly listening to David Bowie who said: “Be your own man and don’t listen to people who don’t know a hatchet from a crotchet and try to fulfil their own ideas through you because they haven’t got any.” I wanted to do Journey to the Centre of the Earth with an orchestra but there wasn’t enough money from the record company. I ended up mortgaging my house, selling everything I owned. I begged, borrowed and stole to do it. But the record company didn’t want it and I faced losing everything because I was so heavily in debt.

Eventually my record company in America loved it, insisted it was released and it sold 15 million copies and that really taught me to be my own man. Spending money I didn’t have was simply my best financial decision because if I hadn’t done it, 40 years on, I wouldn’t be doing my shows now.

January 26, 2014

Monty on “real” poor people

Filed under: Economics — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 12:27

At Ace of Spades HQ, Monty returns from a mundane-world-induced hiatus:

Articles like this make me wonder if the bien pensant journalist-and-pundit class knows any actual poor people. I was born poor, grew up poor, and spent a good chunk of my 20’s poor. Not genteel poor, either — I mean hard, stony-bottom, empty-pocket poor. I come from poor people.

Poor people don’t think about money in the same way that more well-off people do. When you’re poor, money — and the lack thereof — informs your every moment, waking and sleeping. You know exactly, at any given moment, how much money you have, down to the penny. How much in the bank, how much in your jeans, how much in the coffee can on the counter at home. Every purchase is a choice — if I buy this six-pack now, that means hot dogs instead of hamburger for dinner tomorrow; if I pay my cable bill, that means that instead of dinner and a movie my best girl and I get to spend a night at home watching the TV. You triage your bills — rent comes first, then heat. Then … you decide: cable or cellphone? Who can you put off the longest? How long can you float things?

You start with the credit cards because you figure you have the right to treat yourself once in a while. If you have to sit at home instead of going out, what’s wrong with having a nice flat-screen TV to watch? And then the car went south, and that blew a $500 dollar hole in your budget, so you had put your groceries and gas on the credit card that week just to make ends meet. The kids needed new clothes and shoes and supplies for school. You’ve got to pay the minimums on the card just to keep things going, and the balance just creeps higher and higher until you’re butting up against the limit. Then you get another card, and maybe the old lady gets one too. And pretty soon … well. You wake up at night in a cold sweat because you know that bankruptcy and ruin are only a breath away. It’s not just a question of if you lose your job or get sick and can’t work; it’s a question of losing the overtime hours you’ve become accustomed to, or if the wife goes back to part-time instead of full time. You realize you’re barely treading water as it is; it would only take a small wave to drown you.

Not being able to afford the small luxuries isn’t poverty. Poverty is being constantly worried that you can’t afford the necessities of life. Waking up in a cold sweat because you’re not sure you can make the rent payment … again. It’s a constant nagging worry that saps your energy and keeps your stomach churning.

November 10, 2013

Latest federal initiative shows “patronising contempt, arrogant presumption and impressive stupidity”

Filed under: Cancon, Economics, Government — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 13:39

The federal government is launching a program to help “ordinary Canadians” become better at managing their finances. Richard Anderson points out the amusing aspect of this:

I sometimes wonder if the hacks who put out these releases aren’t giggling to themselves the whole time, amazed at what they’re getting away with. You work for a Conservative government that wades through a sea of red ink every year. This same government has no credible plan to deal with the entitlement crisis, except point out how we’re less screwed than the Yanks. So naturally you go about lecturing the common folk on how to balance their chequebooks. This is like the morbidly obese diet coach of legend.

We see here a unique combination of patronising contempt and arrogant presumption that does not, so far as we have been able to determine, exist outside of Ottawa. Even the Soviets assumed that an ordinary adult could balance their personal budgets without being lectured to by a full time commissar. Then again they were communists, not nannies. Herein lies the great difference between the totalitarian projects of the last century and the petty authoritarianism of this one, the end result. The communist, fascists and Nazis envision a new man who would change the world. Note the underlying assumption: Man.

At some point, after rigorous indoctrination, the boy would become a man. The modern nanny state assumes that the boy never becomes a man, he’s always a boy needing to be hectored to and monitored. As the press release notes: “…brushing up on the basics of money management at any age and will include events for Canadians of all ages.” No matter how old you get, the federal government will be there to tell you how to manage your affairs. That generations of Canadians did this quite well without government involvement never comes up.

November 28, 2011

Megan McArdle reviews some recent scolding books on thrift

Filed under: Economics, Media — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 08:39

Megan McArdle admits right up front that she recently splurged on a very spendy kitchen appliance, so you know she does not number herself among the community of scolds on the topic of thrift:

For decades, Americans have wallowed in credit, shunned savings and delighted in debt. In 1982, the personal savings rate was 10.9% of disposable income, by 2005 it had fallen to just 1.5%. It has since rebounded, but remains a measly 5%.

All this profligacy supports a rather vibrant cottage industry in polemics against consumerism. Authors as varied as the economist Robert H. Frank (1999’s “Luxury Fever”) and the political theorist Benjamin R. Barber (2007’s “Consumed”) have ganged up on what they see as the particularly unequal and excessive American spending habits. Unsurprisingly considering their abhorrence of waste, they are avid recyclers; the same arguments, behavioral economics studies and anecdotes appear time and time again. Access to credit makes consumers overspend. Materialistic people are anxious and unhappy. The conspicuous-consumption arms race is unwinnable. Down with status competition! Down with long work weeks, grueling commutes and McMansions! Up with family time, reading and walkable neighborhoods! The effect is rather like strolling down the main tourist strip in a beach town: Each merchant rushes out of his shop, gesticulating wildly and showing you exactly the same thing that you saw at all the previous stores.

The latest person to open up shop on this boardwalk is Baylor marketing professor James A. Roberts. “Shiny Objects: Why We Spend Money We Don’t Have in Search of Happiness We Can’t Buy” runs mostly true to form, its main innovation being to add financial self-help advice to the usual lectures. The book includes not only exhortations but actual instructions—how to make a budget, get out of debt and save for retirement.

It’s a thorough survey of both academic research on consumerism and basic finance advice. Still, I first ran into an argument I hadn’t seen before somewhere around page 200 — that the perfect surfaces of modern products hasten the replacement cycle because they show wear so badly — and well before then Mr. Roberts had fallen into some of the terrible habits of the genre. Though less openly contemptuous of the spendthrift masses than many of his fellow scolds, he still exudes that particular sanctimonious anti-materialism so often found among modestly remunerated professors and journalists.

Here are some of the things that upset him and that “document our preoccupation with status consumption”: Lucky Jeans, bling, Hummers, iPhones, 52-inch plasma televisions, purebred lapdogs, McMansions, expensive rims for your tires, couture, Gulfstream jets and Abercrombie & Fitch. This is a fairly accurate list of the aspirational consumption patterns of a class of folks that my Upper West Side neighbors used to refer to as “these people,” usually while discussing their voting habits or taste in talk radio. As with most such books, considerably less space is devoted to the extravagant excesses of European travel, arts-enrichment programs or collecting first editions.

September 5, 2011

False ideas about investment risk

Filed under: Economics — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 10:25

Dan Ariely points out that most people have no idea at all about some of the key questions on investment risks:

To this point, we’ve run a number of experiments. In one study, we asked people the same question that financial advisors ask: How much of your final salary will you need in retirement? The common answer was 75 percent. But when we asked how they came up with this figure, the most common refrain turned out to be that that’s what they thought they should answer. And when we probed further and asked where they got this advice, we found that most people heard this from the financial industry. Sort of like two months salary for an engagement ring and one-third of your income for housing, 75 percent was the rule of thumb that they had heard from financial advisors. You see the circularity and the inanity: Financial advisors are asking a question that their customers rely on them for the answer. So what’s the point of the question?!

In our study, we then took a different approach and instead asked people: How do you want to live in retirement? Where do you want to live? What activities you want to engage in? And similar questions geared to assess the quality of life that people expected in retirement. We then took these answers and itemized them, pricing out their retirement based on the things that people said they’d want to do and have in their retirement. Using these calculations, we found that these people (who told us that they will need 75% of their salary) would actually need 135 percent of their final income to live in the way that they want to in retirement. If you think about it, this should not be very surprising: If you add 8 hours (or more) of free time to someone’s day, they will probably not want to spend this extra time by going for long walks on the beach and watching TV — instead they may want to engage in activities that cost money.

You can see why I’m confused about the one-percent-of-assets-under-management business model: Why pay someone to create a portfolio that’s 60 percent too low in its estimation?

And 60% is if you get the risk calculation right. But it turns out the second question is equally problematic. To show this, we also asked people to tell us how much risk they were willing to take with their money, on a ten-point scale. For some people we gave a scale that ranges from 100% in cash on the low end of the risk scale and 85% in stocks and 15% in bonds on the high end of the risk scale. For other people we gave a scale that ranges from 100% in bonds on the low end of the risk scale and buying only derivatives on the high end of the risk scale. And what did we find? People basically looked at the scale and said to themselves “I am a slightly above the mean risk-taker, so let me mark the scale at 6 or 7.” Or they said to themselves “I am a slightly below the mean risk-taker, so let me mark the scale at 4 or 5.” In essence, people have no idea what their risk attitude is, and if they are given different types of scales they end up reporting their risk attitude to be very different.

June 26, 2011

Skype’s PR problem over their sneaky options plan

Filed under: Economics, Law, Technology — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 13:35

Over my career in the software industry, I’ve worked for several companies who provided a stock option plan as part of their employee compensation scheme. Exactly one of those companies’ programs ever provided me with any actual tangible benefit (the company was bought, and the options were bought back at market rate). It netted me a couple of thousand dollars. Options may have been a way to get rich in the early 1990s, but they’re pretty much a longshot lottery ticket now.

Skype has found a sneaky way of making that longshot chance even more unlikely to pay off:

Employees aren’t even able to keep the vested portion of their stock options. The vast majority of stock options granted to startups have a vesting period, typically four years, with chunks of those options becoming vested during that four year (or whatever) period. If options are vested you can exercise them, pay for the stock and own that stock. At least that’s the way things have been done over the decades.

Skype did things differently. With Skype stock options the company has the right to not only terminate unvested options, but also vested ones. And any vested options that you’ve exercised (meaning you paid cash for them) that were turned into actual shares could simply be bought back by the company at the price you paid, regardless of their current value.

Turning your potentially lucrative stock holdings (if the value was higher than your strike price) into a mandatory zero-interest savings account. Nice.

The fact that Skype adopted this plan in the first place isn’t in itself “evil.” But they’ve done two things wrong from what I can tell.

First it appears that employees had no idea what they were signing and they probably expected it would be a normal stock option type deal that everyone in Silicon Valley has done for decades. If Skype wasn’t crystal clear with them, and explained it in normal human language that they understood, then these employees were intentionally misled. Skype had an incentive to make things unclear, because employees would demand far more compensation if they had understood. The fact that employees are so surprised that this is happening suggests that they didn’t understand the agreement. This is what lawyers call fraud.

The second thing Skype did wrong was not to waive this clause with the looming acquisition. The company can deny all day long that they fired these employees for cause, not to save a few dollars on stock options. But the appearance is the exact opposite.

May 16, 2011

Stephen Gordon: should Canadians be buying cheaper US stocks?

Filed under: Cancon, Economics, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 13:02

Is now a good time to buy American stocks?

As the dollar appreciates, there are more articles in the financial press commenting on how U.S. stocks are becoming cheaper from the point of view of Canadian buyers. I am probably the last person from whom you should take investment advice, but there are some things to think about when you’re trying to decide if a stock is cheaper or if it is simply worth less.

Buying USD-denominated assets is in large part a bet against the Canadian dollar. Since 2000, Canadians who bought the S&P500 index instead of the TSX have generally regretted it [. . .] The average CAD return on the TSX was 11 per cent more than the CAD return on the S&P500 over the past decade. [. . .]

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that U.S. stocks are a bad deal, because they have one very attractive property: they generate higher returns for Canadians during bad times. This is the sort of correlation that is most valued by investors: we are willing to pay extra for assets that pay off most when extra money is most needed. For example, most people buy fire insurance, even though it is a money-losing investment for almost all households. Even though the odds of a fire are small, homeowners are still willing to pay for an asset that pays off when their house burns down.

I’m not in a hurry to invest in American stock right now, as I still see the US government’s debt addiction having the potential to drag down the US market much further. Not that staying in Canadian stocks insulates me from such things . . . but the impact should be lighter on Canadian holdings than on US positions.

June 16, 2010

Monty explains it all for you

Filed under: Economics, Europe, France, Humour — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 12:02

Financial worries? Fiscal imbalance? Debt woes? No problem! Monty has the answers (well, answers to some questions, even if they’re not the ones you’re interested in):

And the good news just keeps coming! Slumping cattle and lean-hogs futures may have bottomed out. Screw gold, man; I’m buying swine! (Monty, The Wasteland Bacon Baron. It has a nice ring to it. The potentate of pork! The sultan of swine! The High Lord of ham! The chitlin Chieftain!)

I’m not sure whether this is good news or not: Cramer calls yesterday’s big gain a sucker’s rally and advises people to get out. My rule of thumb is to treat anything Cramer says as the ravings of a lunatic. I consider him a shill and a buffoon. And yet . . . is this a Strange New Respect I’m feeling? Or just the dying embers of that burrito I ate for lunch yesterday?

French financial group AXA experiences a blinding glimpse of the obvious and exclaims, “Ze Euro eez doomed!”. Zut alors! (And no, I don’t know why French guys would be speaking English with a French accent instead of French.)

Spain and Portugal submit their austerity plans to the ECB and IMF. Plans include selling shoelaces at the airport, dancing for nickels, graft, corruption, and murder-for-hire. The ECB and IMF remain skeptical, and suggest that Portugal and Spain might want to look into selling the family silver or something.

And if all of that isn’t enough to get you assembling your Financial Apocalypse Survival kit, how about this?

More bond issues are being denominated in Canadian Loonies and Swiss Francs as investor skittishness regarding the Euro spreads. When investors choose something called the “Loonie” over your currency because it just sounds more stable somehow, dude, you got problems.

June 8, 2010

Consumer debt doesn’t follow the script

Filed under: Economics, Media, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 07:49

Or, in a demonstration of individual rationality, doesn’t follow the script where consumers sacrifice themselves and go even deeper in debt to spark further economic recovery:

While some pundits out there might have you believe that the US economic recovery remains solidly on track, Friday’s May jobs report threw a spanner into those notions, and the latest reading on consumer credit offers little evidence that the crucial consumer intends to share with Uncle Sam the burden of bolstering the economy.

The Federal Reserve’s report on April consumer credit today shows total credit outstanding rose a little less than $1 billion, following a revised $5.4 billion drop in March; March credit was originally reported up $2 billion.

Within the details, the item that jumps out most is the decrease in revolving credit, which fell at a 12% annual rate and declined for the 19th straight month. Revolving credit outstanding has fallen 14%, or roughly $138 billion, since autumn of 2008. Non-revolving is roughly flat since late ‘08.

It would help if the pundits would settle on one of the two diametrically opposed roles that consumers are “supposed to” assume. At an individual level, consumers are being lashed for their profligate spending and borrowing habits, and excoriated for their unprecedented levels of personal debt. This is bad, the pundits say (and I don’t disagree): individuals and families should not be taking on so much debt and efforts to reduce outstanding debt are praised. However, consumers as a group are expected to spend, spend, spend in order to help pull the retail sector back into healthy growth.

So if they do the right thing as individuals, they’re doing the wrong thing for the economy as a whole? Perhaps the emphasis on consumer-led recovery is mistaken, especially given the levels of debt that consumers have already taken on.

June 7, 2010

QotD: Investing in well-managed companies

Filed under: Economics, Humour, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 13:57

When companies make money, we assume they are well-managed. That perception is reinforced by the CEOs of those companies who are happy to tell you all the clever things they did to make it happen. The problem with relying on this source of information is that CEOs are highly skilled in a special form of lying called leadership. Leadership involves convincing employees and investors that the CEO has something called a vision, a type of optimistic hallucination that can come true only in an environment in which the CEO is massively overcompensated and the employees have learned to be less selfish.

Scott Adams, “Betting on the Bad Guys”, Wall Street Journal, 2010-06-07

Older Posts »

Powered by WordPress