April 18, 2007

Buy vs. Rent Calculators

If you've read some of my other posts, you'll know that I hate financial truisms like "You need to be able to generate 80% of your pre-retirement income to live comfortably in retirement" or "Invest in stocks because you'll get 8% returns." Why do I hate these sayings? Because they purport to be true for all individuals when, in reality, financial planning is such an individual-specific exercise. And, as these sayings become accepted as truisms, people are effectively discouraged from challenging these ideas and thinking for themselves.

One of the most annoying financial truisms to me is the whole "renting is throwing away money" and "you should always buy instead of renting" line of thought. I accept that owning property is hardwired into our collective DNA as one of those quintessentially American ideals like mom and apple pie, but taking these truisms as the truth can result in some horribly bad financial decision-making. And, I'm not just talking about the people who took out sub-prime mortgages. The way to figure out whether this particular truism is, in fact, true for you is to sit down and crunch the numbers to accurately assess your situation. I realize for a lot of people, the joy of math probably ended somewhere in high school, if not before then, and putting a rent versus buy analysis together may be beyond the scope of their desire, ability and/or free time. One solution to this problem is to use one of the many online calculators that provide a rent versus buy analysis. The problem for me was that I found most of the online rent versus buy calculators to be overly simplistic - most contained too few variables for consideration, and as a result, I ended up spending way too many hours putting together my own rent vs buy spreadsheets.

However, just last week, the New York Times released its own online rent vs. buy calculator (registration may be required - but it's free!), and this is one of the first calculators that I've seen online that I think captures most of the major variables that should go into a rent versus buy analysis. In addition to accounting for many of the most basic variables that other calculators include (monthly rent, mortgage interest rate, etc.), it includes many other variables commonly ignored, such as annual HOA/assessment/maintenance/upkeep charges in owning and insurance/broker fees from renting. Most importantly, the calculator accounts for investment opportunity costs when you make a particular choice, and you can see the consequences of your choices depending on the rate of home price appreciation and rental price increases.

What the New York Times' calculator does is it puts you the consumer in the position of making an informed choice. That is, it doesn't just give you simplistic "buy" or "rent" answers, but rather it forces you to actively think about and consider your assumptions. The beauty of all this is that given the same set of facts for two individuals, one person might choose to buy and one person might choose to rent, and it would be the rational decision for both. For example, let's say you are looking to move to Irvine, California. Searching online, you find this beautiful new 2 bedroom, 2 bath apartment with a pool for $1850/month. You're also considering buying a home as well and find this beautiful new 2 bedroom, 2 bath townhouse for $479,900.

Going to the New York Times calculator, here are the other figures I will input (jump to the next paragraph if numbers are going to make your eyes glaze over): On the main page, I assume a 20% down payment, 6.25% mortgage rate, 1.5% annual property taxes, and annual rent increases of 2%. On the Renting tab, I assume 1 months deposit, 0% rental broker fee (this isn't New York City after all), and 1% renter's insurance. In the Buying tab, I assume $100 in condo fee/common charge with 0% deductibility, 4% buyer closing costs, 6% seller costs, 30 year mortgage, 0.5% annual renovation and maintenance costs, 0.46% homeowner's insurance, $500,000 in capital gains exclusion, and $100 in additional monthly utility charges. Finally, on the General tab, I assume 8% return on investments, a 31% effective income tax rate and 2.5% inflation rate.

So, what's the answer? Do I rent or buy? The answer is it depends because I still haven't entered in an assumed annual home appreciation rate yet! So, if I'm following all the doom and gloom in the news and think the housing bubble is upon us, I'll put in a lower home appreciation rate, say 2%, and the calculator tells me that buying is never better than renting over 30 years. Thus, I should rent. But, if I'm bullish and optimistic and believe that lots of people are going to keep moving to Southern California where the weather is perfect and there just isn't much room left to build houses, I might put in a more optimistic appreciation rate, say 6%, and the calculator tells me that buying is better than renting after just 4 years.

So, what's the lesson? The first lesson is that there is no easy buy versus rent answer and that not all renters are losers! The second lesson is that your assumptions and beliefs play a huge role in the analysis. If you're a young 30 year old couple looking to start out, you're probably also putting your investment funds into stocks expecting higher returns. If you're on the cusp of retirement, your funds may be in more conservative investments. Thus, the 30 year old and the retiree would have different assumptions to punch into the Times' calculator. So many different factors can impact the calculations.

And, all of this isn't to say that there aren't problems with the Times' calculator. A more robust calculator might take into account future effective tax rates (e.g. are you climbing the corporate ladder with annual salary raises and thus higher income tax brackets? Do you think a future President Hillary might increase taxes?), the impact of non-traditional mortgages like 80-10-10s or 80-15-5s, variable rate mortgages, expected growth in HOA/assessments as the property ages, etc. Also, more generally, who really knows what the inflation rate should be or what rate home prices will appreciate at? But, the bottom line is that going through the exercise of punching in some numbers into the buy vs. rent calculator will at least make you informed enough to know that renting isn't always throwing away money!

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April 15, 2007

Hedge Funds 101

What do hedge funds have to do with personal finance? Not much unless your idea of personal finance involves figuring out what to do with with the idle millions of dollars sitting in your bank account.

But, with more and more capital being managed by hedge funds and with the growing influence of hedge funds on global capital markets, it's certainly worth at least knowing what a hedge fund is and is not. Just a couple years ago, if somebody asked me what a hedge fund was, I would respond by saying that a hedge fund is basically a mutual fund that is allowed to short stock, employs quantitative PhDs who create complex trading algorithms, and charges its clients outrageous fees due to its ability to create above-market returns. I suppose those types of hedge funds still exist out there, but more and more, you see hedge funds acting like private equity shops (crude definition: an investment firm that raises money, often through highly leveraged debt, to buy out operational companies, make financial and/or operational changes to those companies, and then flip the companies back out on the market to other investors - see the Wikipedia entry on "private equity" for a slightly less crude explanation) or serving as activist insurgent shareholders. Venerable companies like Goldman Sachs, which one might use to describe as an investment banking firm, now looks more like a giant hedge fund and makes far more money in its proprietary trading than it does in banking.

So, then, what exactly is a hedge fund? Whether you're curious to know or you just want to sound smart at dinner parties, I recommend checking out this New York Magazine piece which offers a good basic introduction to hedge funds. Here are a few selected passages from the article:
It’s only a vehicle for investing, albeit one that happens to be less constrained than most. Your run-of-the-mill mutual fund, for example, buys stocks and bonds, and that’s pretty much it. Most are not even allowed to employ short selling, a way of betting that the price of a security will fall. Hedge funds can employ whatever investing tools they want, including leverage, the use of derivatives like options and futures, and short sales. The New York Times decided years ago to incessantly refer to hedge funds’ use of these instruments as “exotic and risky,” thereby adding to their aura of mystery. The funny thing: Practically all financial institutions use these “exotic” instruments.

There’s a much simpler way of putting it, offered by one of the industry’s luminaries. According to Cliff Asness of AQR Capital, “Hedge funds are investment pools that are relatively unconstrained in what they do. They are relatively unregulated (for now), charge very high fees, will not necessarily give you your money back when you want it, and will generally not tell you what they do. They are supposed to make money all the time, and when they fail at this, their investors redeem and go to someone else who has recently been making money. Every three or four years, they deliver a one-in-a-hundred-year flood.”

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April 1, 2007

Save Money: Passport Photos

The next time you're looking to renew your passport, save the $9 or $10 that it costs to take a passport photo at your local pharmacy, and do it yourself with a digital camera. Have someone take four or five shots of you from various distances against a white background and upload those pictures to your computer to figure out the right size you need. Or, just head over to the pharmacy to print out your pictures at $0.19 each and pick the one that looks right. All in all, it shouldn't take too much more time than getting your photo taken at the pharmacy.

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March 29, 2007

Real Estate: Information Overload and How to Think For Yourself

Is it me or has it been just about impossible for the past several years now to go through a day without hearing or reading something about the housing market? At first, it was all about how everyone was making boatloads of money in real estate (with the implicit message that anyone not in on the action, read: renters, would get passed by in the great economic rat race), and more recently, everything has centered around the fear of housing bubbles, rising interest rates and the subprime mortgage market. Truisms that seemed to make so much sense a couple years ago (e.g. "real estate is never a bad investment because prices always go up!") have been replaced by others (e.g. "there's a giant housing bubble in our country caused by an overheated run-up in housing prices!"). With so much information overload out there, how do you separate the wheat from the chaff to figure out what is and isn't important when you're looking to buy or sell property? Some thoughts below:
  1. Reject all the truisms - personal finance is by nature "personal" which means that no one truism applies to all inviduals. So, no matter how many times you hear a pundit repeat mantras like "renting is for losers", just because the message is loud and persistent, it doesn't mean that it's necessarily true for you. Remember, there's no help like self-help, and by thinking about issues actively and critically rather than letting others tell you what to do, you're more likely to make better informed decisions.

  2. Don't be afraid to do the math - a lot of truisms that you'll hear on the news or read about on the Internet can be verified (or disproved) by doing a little math. For those of you who are math-phobic, there are a bunch of tools and calculators on the Internet that can help you crunch numbers. Caveat: the only problem is that some of these calculators are more reliable than others, and I could dedicate entire posts to this topic.
So, all I've told you so far is to reject everything you read and hear along with some vague notion that you should be dusting off your old Algebra books to do some math. How is that supposed to help you? Well, I admit that I certainly haven't provided any magic answers, and that's partly on purpose - I don't think there are quick and easy answers. However, I do believe that popular notions about the real estate market are rife with unjustified and oftentimes incorrect myths, mantras and exaggerations, some of which I have tried to address here and here. For now, I'll leave you with this article "What Happens When the Boom Goes Bust" from the Motley Fool, one of the rare articles about housing that I have found to be informative and well thought out:
According to the National Association of Home Builders, the average price for a new home in 1980 was $76,400. In 2005, the average was $295,100.

That's incredible! $218,700 in caaash ...
Before you get too excited thinking about investing in real estate and flipping houses, ponder this: Over a 25-year period, that $218,700 gain comes out to a 5.6% annualized return.

Think about that. If your stock investments had grown at just 5.6% annually over the past 25 years, you'd be kicking yourself. And with good reason -- during that time, the S&P 500 earned 10.3% annually -- almost double the average gains in housing....

Treat investing like you treat homeownership
During the past eight years, home prices have grown at a much faster clip, so some of you are probably accusing us of cheating. We aren't.

Instead, we're taking a long-term view -- because that's the only view that can make you super-rich.

What's a mere million
Consider that cocktail-party story about Sal from Asbury Park who made a million a few years ago flipping condos in Miami. It's a great story, and we'll go ahead and bet that bits and pieces of it are true. In fact, it might all be true.

But for every Sal from Asbury Park, there was a Jimmy from Hackensack who got in over his head and lost everything. Yeah, that happened too. That's why the subprime lending market is collapsing around HSBC (NYSE: HBC), Washington Mutual (NYSE: WM), and New Century Financial (NYSE: NEW), among others.

And even if Sal did make a million in 2003, is he set for life? Certainly not. In order to make that nest egg last, Sal can only withdraw about $40,000 per year. Our guess is that Sal wants to live better than that. So he probably kept flipping houses. Flipping and flipping until the Miami condo market came down around him. Or, if he's still holding properties, the real estate boom cycle has ended, and Sal will be lucky to eke out 5% returns over the next decade or more -- all the while servicing the debt he needed to buy those condos in the first place.

A cautionary tale
Of course, Sal's a figment of our imagination, but we invented him to make a point. One great year will not set you up for life. Even a short-lived real estate boom won't make that happen. To set yourself up for life, you need decades of good years. And the stock market is the wealth-building enterprise that has demonstrated the ability to return 10% per year for decades. In other words, buy a house for the comfort, but buy stocks for the profits.


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March 27, 2007

Travel Tips from a Weary Traveler

Having spent several weeks on the road shuttling through airports and hotels, I wanted to share some travel tips that I learned along the way:
  • Hotel Rewards Programs - Make sure you register for your hotel chain's rewards program when you book your hotel stay or at some point during your hotel stay (during check-in or check-out probably makes most sense). If you register for the rewards program after your hotel stay, you may not be able to get credit for your previous stay (something I learned the hard way).

  • Airline Rewards Programs - Did you know that you can get airline mileage credit for flying on other airlines? So, for example, if you happen to collect all of your mileage through U.S. Airways, if you take a flight on United, you can apply your United flight mileage to your U.S. Airways frequent flyer account. Check your favored airline's website to see its specific policies.

  • Getting a Better Airplane Seat - I love web check-in but find that it's hard to switch to a nicer seat online. If you have the time, even if you've done web check-in, go to one of the automated self-service machines and check-in again. You may actually be offered better seats (as has happened to me). And, of course, there's always the tried and true method of directly asking one of the airline's customer service agents.

  • Rental Car - Before you drive off the lot, check your car to make sure all dents, scratches and other problems have been documented. Rental car agencies in big cities are busy and are happy to send you off as quickly as possible. Taking a couple minutes to inspect your car before driving away can save you the headache of filling out an incident report when you return your car and the rental agency "discovers" scratches and dents.

  • Forget Your Toiletries? Many hotels will provide a complimentary toothbrush, toothpaste, razor and just about anything within reason. So, if you're annoyed by or can't figure out all those ridiculous TSA restrictions on what you can and cannot bring on the airplane, rest assured that you should be able to at least brush your teeth for free.

  • Airport Security Screening - Save yourself a headache by packing your belt, jewelry, watch, cell phone, Blackberry, coins, etc. in your laptop bag, purse or bookbag so that you can get through the security screening with as less hassle as possible. Also, if you happen to buy a one-way ticket at the last moment at full refundable fare, be prepared to be selected for additional security screening. And, if your name is Robert Johnson or Gary Smith, you're probably screwed.

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March 22, 2007

Why Women Love Handbags

Like most guys, I've always been confused by one of the great mysteries of the world: what's with women and their handbags? Part fashion accessory, part functional, most bags seem to accomplish neither. They're either way too big (read: suitcase) or way too small. And how is a $2000 bag with the Louis Vuitton symbol plastered all over it considered stylish instead of ostentatious free advertising?

In her book review of It's In the Bag in the Atlantic Monthly, fashion write Lynn Yaeger lends some insight into the mysterious female mind (to be fair, this applies to guys and their man-purses):
As a fashion writer (and, let’s face it, compulsive shopper), I’ve spent the last couple of decades looking at extravagantly priced handbags, trying to uncover their secrets: Why are women dragging veritable suitcases to work when their male counterparts make do with a billfold and a BlackBerry? Why does a frivolous bag like the coquettish Fendi Baguette, shaped as the name would indicate, cause a sensation while the Chanel 2005 (introduced in 1998), which looked like a high-tech pillow and prided itself on its ergonomic correctness, lay a tremendous egg? The answers, it turns out, lie far beyond considerations of practicality or even objective aesthetic appeal. (Sometimes a jolie laide bag will take off while a lovely purse languishes.) This much can be said with certainty: Handbags have nosed their way into a place once occupied almost exclusively by diamonds and fancy furs, functioning as badges of honor, announcements that you’ve arrived at a particular economic or social level, or at the very least, emblems of hopefulness, yearning, and optimism—I have the same bag as a movie star! I am someone to be reckoned with!—that can be brandished for all the world to see.
And, so therein lies the rub - it's about status. A nice purse equals high status. I suppose the guy equivalent would be cars, watches and the big-screen TV. But, with the guy items, I get why the 52 incher is better than the 40 incher or why the Porsche with the super horsepower beats out the cherry red Chevy Cavalier. But, what makes the $920 Gucci bag better than an $8 Target bag? And who can really tell if the knock-off Chinatown Prada bag isn't the real thing? Anyways, pardon me while I go check out the hot new 3 series from BMW......

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March 12, 2007

Is the Value of an Ivy League Education Overrated?

What's the value of an Ivy League college education (or really, an education at any "elite" private university)? There's certainly a mystique in popular culture about the Ivy League, particularly among non-Ivy Leaguers, that goes something like this: Students at Ivy League schools are a bunch of eggheads different from you and me. With their smarts and prestigious gold-minted degrees, they are set for life as they ascend the upper echelons of power, business and wealth. Like all myths and stereotypes, there are some elements of truth shaded in this notion, but what is the true picture? Is an Ivy League college education superior to an education at State U or some other college? Looking at several objective factors as well as some anecdotal evidence below (which admittedly is not scientific), the answer to this question is a resounding MAYBE...

1. Exclusivity

There is no doubt that Ivy League schools are some of the most selective universities in the world. The acceptance rate at Harvard is around 10%. Contrast that with Texas Tech University and its almost 70% acceptance rate. So, we know that it's hard to get your foot in the door at the Ivy League schools, but what does that mean? I think all we can conclude from the low acceptance rates is that lots of high school seniors apply to Ivy League school because Ivy League schools are desirable.

2. High Caliber Students

Students who are accepted for admittance to Ivy League schools tend to be high achievers, at least from traditional metrics such as grade point averages and SAT scores. In addition, there is ever increasing pressure to demonstrate superlatives above and beyond academics, whether in the field of athletics, volunteer work or something else. So, when you put all these super achievers together, you get a great synergy (or at least in theory). From an anecdotal standpoint, this argument seems to have a lot of traction among the Ivy Leaguers I know. Smart kids, particularly smart kids who are motivated and driven, will push other smart kids to perform their best, share ideas and produce innovation. However, a fair number of the Ivy Leaguers also point out that the undergraduate experience at an Ivy League school is not all about intense intellectual debate and curiosity, and you may be surprised by what goes on within the student body - everything from stereotypical StateU-type binge drinking and partying to rampant cheating and plagiarism to a more than uncommon intellectual non-curiosity. So, while certain synergies come from putting a bunch of smart people together, does a driven high achiever excel because of the environment or is that same person going to excel no matter where he or she goes to school?

3. Cost

One negative aspect to Ivy League schools certainly has to be the price tag. The tuition, room and board at Dartmouth, for example, is currently $43,341 per year. Contrasting with Texas Tech again, the tuition, room and board for Texas residents at Texas Tech is an estimated $17,554. Assuming that the respective tuition, room and board figures remain the same over four years (highly improbable given the tuition increases at both public and private universities), we're talking about a $100,000 difference over four years between Dartmouth and Texas Tech. If a Dartmouth student finances his/her education solely through student loans, that's over $170,000 in debt by graduation. Now, imagine that the Dartmouth grad goes to a private graduate school and finances that education through debt. The $170k from college is some serious money, but now we're talking about some serious serious money! Don't think it ever happens? Check out the plight of two young married doctors with over a HALF MILLION dollars in student debt.

4. Quality of Faculty

So, maybe the Ivy League advantage comes from the quality of the faculty and classes. After all, some of that genius must rub off on the students, right? Again, my anecdotal evidence indicates no clear conclusion. The vast majority of Ivy Leaguers that the Honchos have spoken to felt that quite a few of their professors were uninterested in the teaching aspect of their jobs. What, you say - teachers who don't want to teach? Similar to any other major research university, Ivy League schools are in competition for grants and funding, and that comes from research and publishing. As such, professors are rewarded for their research and publishing efforts and not so much for teaching. Sure, the Ivy Leaguers found some gems here and there, and in some cases, had inspirational relationships with professors who became their mentors, but as a whole, many professors seemed to be distant from teaching (and rationally so, considering the reward scheme). One Ivy League alum who took classes with two different Nobel prize winners found the genius of the laureautes less than inspiring. The first Nobel laureaute missed more than half his classes while traveling back and forth between Europe to build a villa and put a graduate student in charge of teaching the course. The other Nobel laureaute refused to engage any points of view that differed from his own.

5. Connections

So, that brings us to connections, and this is where I think the Ivy League / elite private college advantage comes in. For certain industries and professions, investment banking and management consulting come to mind, it certainly appears that having the Ivy League degree is advantageous for getting one's foot in the door. Certain traditionally clubby professions such as finance are disproportionately populated by Ivy League alums. When these companies look to recruit each year, Ivy League schools are their major sources for talent. Similarly, Ivy League undergrads tend to serve as feeders to Ivy League law schools and business schools, and many white-shoe companies tend to hire a disproportionate number of recruits from the Ivy League professional schools.

But, this advantage does not seem to cross all industries or professions, including medicine, sales, entertainment, engineering, computers, accounting, sciences, etc. After all, is organic chemistry really that different at Harvard versus UCLA? Are Harvard students learning about special atoms that their counterparts in Westwood aren't? I don't think so, but then again, I never took organic chemistry.

6. Conclusion

It's hard to measure from objective standards whether there is an absolute rule as to whether it makes sense to go to a Princeton over a Penn State or vice versa. The Honchos know graduates of both fine institutions who have gone on to do great things, as well as graduates of both who aren't doing such great things. Ultimately, the decision is a matter of individual choice.

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Blogger Ben said...

I am a Columbia grad, and I agree there are some disadvantages to going to an Ivy League school. First, if you look at high achievers in business, government, journalism, nonprofit work, or whatever interests you, the people at the top are usually not graduates of a top college. If they have an Ivy degree, more likely than not it's a graduate degree, and they got their undergrad paper somewhere more modest. That's not to say that going to a non-Ivy school causes success, but clearly there is far more to success than which campus you hung around at while winging classes.

I particularly agree about the connections; that was by far the most valuable thing for me. You can't beat being at a place where the average person is interesting and smart.

And finally, remember that as college has broadened to a standard part of most young Americans' education, it has encountered the same problems that have hobbled public high schools. Many if not most American colleges have a serious (and well-populated) remedial program, and I frequently hear professor friends express dismay at the basic knowledge incoming students lack.

There are good professors everywhere, and plenty of bad ones in the Ivy League. It's also possible to get a good education in most colleges, if you stick close to the good professors and work at your education beyond just getting good grades. But the question for most students is not what the upper limit of education potential is at a given school, but what kind of education they will get if they, like most students, take school seriously but not that seriously. What will they absorb by osmosis? This I think is different at Columbia than it is at NYU, and it's different at Rice than it is at Texas Tech. There's just more well-educated people around everywhere, and I think that makes a difference for average students.

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March 11, 2007

Bear Stearns Subprime Mortgage Analyst Called Out by NY Times

In today's New York Times article "Crisis Looms in Market for Mortgages", reporter Gretchen Morgenson takes a Bear Stearns subprime mortgage company analyst to task for issuing a positive report about subprime mortgage lender, New Century Financial Corporation, whose stock subsequently dropped over 75% shortly after (for you visual ones, see the Yahoo Finance chart below).


(Note: Bear Stearns had upgraded New Century's stock on March 1)

It turns out a large number of New Century's customers were defaulting on their loans, forcing New Century to stop making new loans, leaving the company in need of an emergency cash infusion from outside sources to stay in business. The article goes on to tackle the bigger issue of the $6.5 trillion mortgage securities market and how increasing lax standards for issuing loans has created greater risk for massive defaults.

So, was this just a bad read on the part of the Bear Stearns analyst or is there a bigger issue here? For whatever it's worth, it turns out that Bear Stearns finances a portion of New Century's business. Not necessarily a problem in itself as Bear Stearns, like any large investment bank, probably does business with most of the large companies in the country, but it certainly does sniff of similarities to the Dotcom boom when Wall Street analysts were pumping up stocks of companies that their investment banks had business relationships with. And we all know what happened to the Dotcom boom:

(Nasdaq)


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March 10, 2007

Tax No-No: Don't Inflate Your Deductions by 6x (duh)

For those of you working on your taxes trying to figure out all of your charitable donations from the past year, keep in mind that it's probably a bad idea to try and claim deductions six times the fair value of your donation. TaxProf Blog has a post about a court case involving a Goldman Sachs investment banker who made $115k and tried to deduct $55k in used clothes donations. While the tax court found that the fair value of the clothing donation was only $9k, amazingly enough it found that the Goldman investment banker was not negligent in overestimating the value of her donation. So, how in the world do you explain $9k in used clothing? From the Tax Court's ruling:
According to [the Goldman banker], she routinely purchases designer clothing and shoes, wears the items once or twice, and then donates them to an upscale thrift shop in New York, New York.
That's terrific. My only question is how in the world she found the time to do all of this shopping, especially given the legendary hours that i-bankers are known to work.

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How To Pick the Best Airplane Seats

Whether you're an aisle or window person (if you're a center seat type of person, I'd love to hear why), I recommend that you check out Seat Guru the next time you're looking to book a flight. Not every aisle or window seat is equal, and Seat Guru does a terrific job of showing where the premium seats are (and sometimes this doesn't even mean exit row seats) through a nifty layout and comment interface. Pretty much every domestic and major international airline is covered, and this includes all the different types of airplanes used in the airline's fleet. If you're one of those people who fly first class, well, you stink. I'm jealous.

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