Friday, June 20, 2008

Fear Can Cost You Money

Fear Can Cost You Money

Wall Street recently paid out billions in bonuses to its employees. Those bonuses came from investors who believe investing is risky. In other words, there's a giant industry built around investor fears. The more fear, the bigger the bonuses.

A recent Time magazine article called "How Americans Are Living Dangerously" makes a number of good points on this reality. I'll look at a few of them.

Illusory Control

We misjudge risk if we feel we have some control over it, even if it's an illusory sense of control. The article uses the example of people who drive rather than fly.

Even though the risks of death are higher driving than flying, many people would rather drive simply because they feel they have more control driving. The facts are that only a few hundred people die a year flying and 44,000 are killed a year driving. After Sept. 11, 2001, many people took to the roads rather than the skies. Not surprisingly, between October and December 2001, there were a 1,000 more deaths.

Today, many people feel they have more control if they have money in savings. Thus the saying, "Safe as money in the bank." But the fact is that savers are the biggest losers of all.

Between 1996 and 2006, the purchasing power of the dollar dropped by 50 percent compared to gold. In 1996, gold was approximately $275 an ounce; by 2006 it was over $600 an ounce. In 1996, oil was approximately $10 a barrel ; in 2006 it was over $60 dollars a barrel. Compare the price of real estate in your area between the same 10 years and you'll notice that the purchasing power of your dollar has slipped.

The point is, in spite of the facts, many people feel safer with money in the bank because they feel they have more control over it. They don't have control over the price of gold, oil, or real estate, so they think investing in these assets is risky.

The Biggest Risks of All

The second point the Time article makes is that when we're afraid, we tend to ignore the statistics and listen to our emotions. As I mentioned above, you're over 500 times more likely to die in a car than in an airplane. Yet cars are not the biggest of all killers.

Of the 2.5 million deaths annually in the United States, the No. 1 killer is heart disease. In 2003, there were 685,089 deaths due to heart attack. Auto accidents caused 44,000 deaths. Only 17,732 deaths by murder and 1 death by shark attack occurred in the same year.

Despite these statistics, more people are afraid of sharks and murderers than driving up to a fast food restaurant and saying, "Super-size it." French fries kill more people than guns and sharks, yet nobody's afraid of french fries.

The same is true in the investment world. Since many people believe investing is risky, they go for the second-riskiest investment, mutual funds. As my rich dad used to say, "Mutual funds are like french fries. They may fill you up, but they aren't good for you in the long run."

John C. Bogle, founder of the Vanguard Funds, states in his book The Battle for the Soul of Capitalism, "When we have strong managers, weak directors, and passive owners, it's only a matter of time until the looting begins." Bogle has spoken out this way because the mutual funds industry is legally looting money from investors.

To put it another way, since most people think investing is risky and full of sharks, they've turned their money over to some of the biggest sharks in the world -- the managers of mutual funds.

True Expertise Counts

One of the reasons people think investing is risky is because there's an entire industry that wants you to believe so. Trading on your fears is very profitable.

This leads to point number three in the Time piece. The magazine quotes the findings of a study in which a panel of 20 communications and finance experts were asked about the risk of human-to-human transmission of avian (bird) flu. These experts said the risk was 60 percent. When the same question was asked of medical experts, their answer was 10 percent.

The point is that you need to be critical of experts. Is the person you seek advice from able to give you a credible answer?

Qualified and Unqualified Advice

There are three experts who are often not qualified to give you sound investment advice. They are:

  • Non-investors

    I'm always surprised by the number of people who take investment advice from non-investors -- people such as friends, family, and co-workers. A few years ago, I found a spectacular little condominium for sale for $50,000 in Phoenix, Ariz. All I had to do was put down $6,000 and assume the loan.

    At the time, it was worth about $95,000. Today the units in the same complex sell for $195,000. Best of all, the monthly rent at the time was approximately $1,000 a month and today rents are around $1,500.

    A friend from Portland, Ore., asked if I would let her purchase it. My wife, Kim, and I agreed, thinking at the time that this unit would be a great start for our friend. A few months went by and we asked her how the purchase was coming along. She said, "Oh, I forgot to tell you. I didn't buy the unit." When we asked her why, she said, "My neighbor Marge said it was too risky."

    "How many investment properties does Marge own?"


    Clearly, taking advice from someone who doesn't know what they're talking about is the real risk.

  • Perceived experts, such as financial planners or stock or real estate brokers

    Most people take financial advice from salespeople, not rich people. Most stockbrokers are not rich nor do they invest in what they sell. The numbers are even worse for real estate brokers.

  • Investors themselves

    I've shown several great investments to an investor friend of mine. To this date, he hasn't purchased anything I've recommended. That's because he can always find something wrong with the investment. Instead of looking at what's good about them, he looks for what's wrong and then talks himself out of taking action.

    This is one reason why I invest as part of a team, so that I can consult with other investors rather than talk myself out of great deals.

The Time article made it clear that fear is normal. We all experience fear; I admit that I've let it hold me back. I probably would've been a lot richer a lot sooner if I flew more and drove less.

The important thing to remember is to pay attention to what we worry about -- and what we should be worrying about.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Reading, Writing, and Resisting Debt

Reading, Writing, and Resisting Debt

When I was young, people lived from paycheck to paycheck. Today, it seems like they live from credit card payment to credit card payment.

Most of us know that millions of People are deeply mired in credit card debt. Many financial experts have said repeatedly, "Get out your scissors and cut up your credit cards." While this may sound like good advice, to me it seems like a painful, short-sighted answer to a more complex problem.

That problem is a lack of financial education. Why don't we teach kids about money in school? Rich or poor, smart or not-so-smart, we all use money. Yet, while there are a few schools beginning to offer some financial education, it seems that most educators believe money isn't a subject worthy of the hallowed halls of our learning institutions.

A History of Credit

When I was a kid, there were no credit cards. Instead, retailers offered layaway plans. My mom would go to a store, such as a furniture outlet, choose the sofa she wanted, and put it on layaway. That meant she put a little money down to hold the sofa, and every payday she'd pay a little toward the purchase. When the sofa was paid for in full, she would bring it home.

At that time, stores also offered "buy now, pay later" plans. This meant my mom could buy the sofa, sign a payment agreement, and take the sofa home that day.

Today, while a few stores still offer such plans or even variations of them, most people simply put their purchases on a credit card. But credit has been a part of American life even before there were credit cards.

A Growth Industry

There are many reasons why credit cards have grown in popularity, including these:

Wall Street has turned debt into an asset.

Today, your friendly banker issues you a credit card. He then sells your debt to a Wall Street firm, which collects your monthly payments at high interest rates -- which is why it's an asset to them.

The minute a Wall Street firm purchases your debt, your bank no longer has it on its financial statement, which then allows the bank to look for more credit card customers. That's one reason why you get so many credit card offers.

The purchasing power of the dollar has dropped.

If you've followed these columns, you know that in 1971, President Nixon converted the U.S. dollar from money to a currency. That means the U.S. and other governments can print money faster than you can earn it -- or save it.

In terms of purchasing power, if you earned $50,000 in 1996, you would have to earn $100,000 in 2006 just to stay even. Many people aren't earning more even though prices are rising, so they make up the difference by using their credit cards for everyday purchases.

When wages go up, so do taxes.

Because the purchasing power of the dollar has dropped, many people work harder, ask for raises, or take on extra work (or a second job) to earn more money. And when they earn more money, they move into higher tax brackets.

Today, the alternative minimum tax (AMT) -- first levied in 1970 as a tax against the rich -- is penalizing the middle class. In many ways, the AMT is a form of double taxation. Many working people are now making more money but taking home less because they pay a higher percentage of taxes.

The cost of retirement has gone up.

When I was young, many people worked for a company with a pension plan that covered them for as long as they lived. If they didn't have a pension plan, they could count on Social Security and Medicare.

That's all changed. Today, millions of workers need to be able to afford their day-to-day living as well as put enough money aside for when they can no longer work.

I Love Credit Cards

Clearly, cutting up credit cards won't address these economic changes or solve America's debt problem.

In the real world, credit cards are essential. It would be extremely difficult to rent a car or make hotel and airline reservations without a credit card. It would also be tough to pick up the tab at a business lunch or shop online without a credit card.

Personally, I love my credit cards because of the financial freedom they allow me, and my life would come to a grinding halt without them.

Fight Debt with Debt

Whenever anyone asks me how to solve the credit card problem, I tell them to fight fire with fire -- and debt with debt. The way I solve my increasing needs for cash is to go deeper into debt -- good debt, not bad debt.

For example, I use debt -- which is essentially tax-free money -- to invest in real estate, which in turn increases my cash flow. Not only do I not pay taxes on my debt, I could also pay no taxes (or very little in taxes) on the income from the debt. Hence I earn more but pay less in taxes.

Obviously, in order to do this you need to know how to use debt wisely and responsibly, and must be able to find great investments that increase cash flow.

The Root of the Problem

Most financial experts will scoff at my "fight debt with debt" approach. They'll say my advice is based on flawed logic, and it may well be -- for most people. But I ask you to step back and take a look at the world of finance. As I stated earlier, Wall Street is able to take your debt and turn it into their asset. That's what financially smart people do, and it's one example of why rich people get richer.

Unfortunately, most people take bad debt and turn it into horrible debt. This is especially true of poor people and people with bad credit, who have access to only the worst forms of debt and pay the highest interest rates on it.

But their problem isn't credit cards -- it's a lack of financial know-how. And at the root of that lack of knowledge is our school system and its archaic curriculum, which is out of touch with the way people really live.

Clearly, advising people to cut up their credit cards won't solve the problem of excessive credit card debt. A pair of scissors won't make anyone financially smarter, but some financial education just might.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Educate Yourself into Riches

Many of Wall Street's elite firms were being required to pay tens of millions of dollars in fines to investors, according to media reports. The penalties are for alleged bad investment advice, courtesy of New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer.
This brings me to one of my favorite quotes from famed investor Warren Buffett goes: "Wall Street is the only place that people ride to work in a Rolls Royce to get advice from those who take the subway."
I have been highly critical of the standard financial planning advice -- "work hard, save money, get out of debt, invest for the long term, and diversify" -- for a long time. Such guidance is often more a financial advisor's (subway rider's) sales pitch than a solid investment guide.
But while I think it's courageous that Spitzer slaps millions in fines on a few Wall Street firms for their bad investment guidance, I believe the investors who accepted that unsound advice have some responsibility, too. Isn't knowing the difference between good and bad advice part of knowing what you're doing?
The Difference Between Investing and Shopping
The problem is, most investors don't know how bad the standard investment advice is. This mantra of "work hard, save money, get out of debt, invest for the long term, and diversify" is followed by millions of investors -- who lost $7 trillion to $9 trillion between 2000 and 2004. Many are still following this bad advice today.
Not only did millions of investors lose trillions of dollars, many also missed the boom in real estate, oil, gas, and previous metals. Furthermore, despite investors' huge losses, Wall Street paid out some of its biggest bonuses in history.
However, investors should realize it's "buyer beware." Investing is different from shopping. If I go to Sears and don't like the tool or shirt I purchased, I can generally get my money back. When we go shopping, we expect value for our money. But when we invest, we do so in the hopes of making more money -- and knowing that we risk making losses. What would happen to the financial industry if brokers were sued every time a client lost money? The wheels of world commerce would grind to a halt.
My point is: The world is filled with honest people handing out bad advice. An example of honest bad investment advice is the standard one of "work hard, save money, get out of debt, invest for the long term, and diversify".
The world is also filled with biased advice, which is why people say, "Never ask an insurance broker if you need insurance, or a mutual-fund sales person if they recommend mutual funds." Furthermore, there are many crooks and con artists as well, who intentionally promote dishonest ventures.
Spotting the Difference
So while it's imperative that we have the Securities and Exchange Commission and a brave Attorney General such as Spitzer to enforce the rules, we, as individual investors, still need to be vigilant and personally responsible for the advice we receive and what we do with our money.
In my opinion, that means each of us needs to be responsible for our own financial education so we can tell the difference between good advice, biased advice, and crooked advice. If you can educate yourself to know the differences between those three types of advice, getting rich is easy.
Or, if you take investing advice from a subway rider, don't be surprised if you wind up on the subway.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Throwing Good Money After Bad

Throwing Good Money After Bad

All booms eventually go bust.
We all remember the stock market crash of 2000, and most of us remember the real estate crash after the implementation of the 1986 Tax Reform Act. Today, many people are anticipating another real estate crash.
Unfortunately, despite our understanding of booms and inevitable busts, it's always near the top of a boom that "dumb money" buys in. Currently, this has set the scene for a potential market bust of which few people are aware. I'll describe it today's column, and advise how best to prepare in my next column.
Express-Lane Inspiration
About a year ago, I wrote warning readers that the real estate boom was over. How did I forecast the end of the boom? I got my hot tip from the cashier at my local Safeway supermarket.
While she was tallying the cost of my apples, broccoli, and steaks, she handed me her new real estate agent's card and invited me to call her for my next real estate investment. Moments later, I was home writing that column. As my rich dad used to say, "When dumb money chases smart money, the party's over." Needless to say, many real estate agents and investors wrote me nasty notes.
I'm not a hundred-percent certain where things are going today. Most economists are forecasting a strong economy, but economists worry me more than newly minted real estate agents. Most seem to be happy that inflation is in check; when I hear that inflation is in check, I begin to think about deflation, and as most of us know, deflation is much, much, worse than inflation.
An Inconvenient Truth
In the simplest terms, inflation occurs when there' too much money in the system. On the flip side, deflation occurs when there are too few dollars in circulation. When that happens, prices start to fall. For example, in inflationary times, prices of houses go up. In deflationary times, prices of houses come down. If prices of houses begin to drop too fast right now, it could be 1986 all over again.
I wrote a colum years ago about how I love debt and my credit cards. The trouble is that most people do. Today, you can qualify for a loan to buy a house simply if you're alive and breathing.
The strong economy we've been experiencing for years has thus been built on dumb money -- in addition to smart money -- borrowing more and more. Even the U.S. government has had a field day borrowing money to do such things as fight a war and attempt to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan rather than rebuild our country. And the inconvenient truth about debt is that it has to be paid back.
A Certain Ratio
For the next two years, I'm cautioning people to watch their ratios between good debt and bad debt, and keep liquid reserves such as cash, gold, or silver.
Good debt is debt that makes you rich. An example of good debt is the debt on the apartment houses I own. That debt is good only as long as there are tenants to pay my mortgages. If tenants stop paying their rent, my good debt turns into bad debt.
Most people don't have good debt -- all they have is bad debt. Bad debt is debt that makes you poorer. I count the mortgage on my home as bad debt, because I'm the one paying on it. Other forms of bad debt are car payments, credit card balances, or other consumer loans.
On our home, my wife, Kim, and I keep a 25 percent debt-to-equity ratio. In other words, our debt is 25 percent of the home's value. Unfortunately, many people have an 80 percent or higher debt-to-equity ratio. That means the debt on their home is 80 percent and their equity is only 20 percent.
On our investment properties, we carry a higher debt-to-equity ratio. To protect ourselves, we have cash reserves to cover the expenses of the properties. For example, in case all the tenants leave and no one is left to pay the mortgage and expenses, we have separate funds for each property, with enough liquidity -- i.e. cash, stocks, and bonds -- to carry the building for a year. Unfortunately, the dumb-money crowd has no reserve funds for their properties.
Where Deflation Does Its Damage
In a deflationary market, the value of your home can drop. If the value drops, the bank may call in your loan. Even if you've never missed a payment, and even if you're ahead on the payment schedule, the bank can call in your loan if they feel the value of the property is lower than the loan amount.
For example, say you buy a house for $100,000 and put 20 percent down and borrow $80,000. If the market deflates and the value of your home drops to $70,000 (because everyone else is selling their homes to get out of debt), the lender may ask you to pay the $80,000 you owe immediately.
If such deflation happens, cash will become king. There will be half-price sales on BMWs, expensive restaurants will close, and people will be out of work. And anybody who caters to people with dumb money will be in trouble. As I said before, deflation is much worse than inflation.
Smart Money, Bad Times
The good news is that during deflationary times, smart money reenters the market, so crashes are great for smart people with smart money. Instead of listening to the optimistic economists, then, you should eliminate bad debt and improve your debt-to-equity ratios on good debt.
Most important, study; if you want to be smart, you need to learn. I'll discuss what you should study in the second part of this column. For now, be aware that if deflation comes and there's a recession, it won't have much effect on the poor. Instead, it'll punish middle-class people who think they're rich because their houses and stocks have gone up in value.
I'll explain more in a couple of weeks.