7 bad things about low interest rates

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If you have been able to buy a house or refinance a mortgage in recent years, then congratulations. You have been a beneficiary of the Fed’s extraordinary effort to keep interest rates low. For many others though, monetary policy hasn’t been so favorable — in fact, it has cost them dearly.

Ostensibly, low interest rates are a monetary device to stimulate the economy, but more subtly they also serve to bail out banks and borrowers. Who suffers from that? Primarily savers. Whether you have a short-term savings account or a long-term retirement portfolio, low interest rates have made earning any money on your savings an uphill climb.

Recognizing the various ways low interest rates may have hurt you is not important simply so you can mutter rude things about Janet Yellen when she comes on the television. It can help you make adjustments to adapt to the low interest rate environment and the subsequent fallout that will result when rates return to more normal levels.

Here are seven bad things about low interest rates:

  1. Low interest rates on savings accounts. Deposit rates are closely linked to short-term Fed funds rates, so the low interest rate policy has been very clearly evident in driving savings account rates down to near zero. This is especially hard on retired folks, who typically invest their money conservatively and had grown accustomed to being able to earn some retirement income on their savings. Virtually wiping out that income for people who often don’t have another means to earn a living is a pretty harsh blow. There is no way to fully make up for the destruction of savings account income that has taken place, but it does underscore the importance of shopping around for higher-yielding savings accounts, and perhaps committing your deposits to longer-term CDs to earn a higher rate of interest.
  2. Low yields on bonds. Long-term Treasury bonds have been a staple of retirement plan investments, but low interest rates have helped drive their yields to below 3 percent. You might argue that the drop in interest rates created a windfall for bond investors because prices rise as yields fall, but this would be reversed with a return to more normal yield levels. In the meantime, low yields on a significant portion of retirement investment portfolios is going to make it hard to reach the return assumptions on which retirement funding is based.
  3. Fanning the flames of inflation. The Fed has persistently said it wants to keep interest rates low to encourage higher inflation. I can’t help thinking that encouraging higher inflation is like saying “Beetlejuice” three times — you might live to regret the help that you called for.
  4. A stock market on PEDs. Performance-enhancing drugs, or PEDs, inflated the statistics of professional baseball a few years back, just as it artificially inflated the physiques of the cheaters who used them. Similarly, low interest rates artificially pump up stock prices — in the long run though, all you have are companies that are more expensive, but not actually more valuable in terms of having boosted their revenue-generating power in line with the rise in stock prices.
  5. High checking account fees. Checking account fees have risen steadily in recent years, and free checking has become a rarity. Back when interest rates were higher, banks were happy to offer free checking just to attract deposits. With interest rates low, having those deposits on hand is not worth as much to banks, so one recourse is to raise fees. In fairness, it is worth noting that another government policy is also partly to blame for the rise in checking account fees. The Durbin amendment to the Dodd-Frank Act arbitrarily cut the fees banks could charge retailers for debit card transactions. Banks raised fees to make up for this, but don’t hold your breath waiting for retailers to pass their savings along to consumers.
  6. Low mortgage approval rates. The frustrating thing about the low mortgage rates of recent years is that relatively few people have been able to qualify for them due to tough lending standards. When mortgage rates are no higher than the long-term rate of inflation, it leaves little margin for defaults, so lenders are particularly wary about making loans in that situation.
  7. A subsidy for banks. Yes, mortgage rates came down quite a lot, and credit card rates came down a little, but neither fell as far as deposit rates. So, the rates banks pay consumers fell by more than the rates consumers pay banks. That means banks win and you lose.

Of course, low interest rates have not been entirely bad, and I can even accept the argument that they were a necessary evil in the depths of the financial crisis. However, the longer the Fed prolongs the era of low interest rates, the more it seems that savers are getting a raw deal.

8 questions to ask before lending money to friends

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It’s one of the most awkward questions a friend can ask you: “Will you lend me some money?” Awkward for your friend to have to ask, and awkward for you to have to answer. Saying “no” could adversely affect your friendship. However, saying “yes” could also put a strain on your friendship, and your finances.

If you get asked that awkward question, you should follow up with eight questions of your own before you decide whether or not to lend a friend money.

1. Why does your friend need the money?

Sometimes, there is a clear, one-time need for which a timely loan can get your friend through a particular situation — for example, Bob has found the perfect house but is a couple thousand short on the down payment, or Jane’s son needs dental surgery. Situations which are out of the ordinary and are not likely to recur at least suggest that a loan might be a one-time thing.

Unfortunately, more often when people turn to their friends for financial help, it is because of long-standing money problems. In that case, your loan is likely to be nothing more than a temporary stop-gap, leaving your friend with the same set of problems in a few months, and you with little chance of being repaid.

2. What other debts does your friend have?

If a friend comes to you for money, it may well be because he or she has exhausted all other sources of borrowing — meaning that the credit cards are maxed out, and possibly mortgage, car, or student loan payments are coming due.

If your friend owes money to credit card companies or lenders, you are probably going to have to stand in line behind them before any money you lend gets repaid — which significantly reduces your chances of seeing that money any time soon.

3. Is this an amount you can afford to lose?

Institutional lenders use a variety of techniques to assess loan risks, and they make thousands of loans. So the cost of the occasional bad loan can be absorbed by the money they make from interest on good loans.

You have neither those underwriting tools at your disposal, nor the opportunity to broadly diversify your lending risk. This makes a one-off type of loan especially risky, and you should not lend more in that situation than you could afford to lose.

4. How formal should the arrangement be?

This loan may be an understanding between friends, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t formalize it with a signed, written agreement. Aside from protecting your financial interests, it can be important to the friendship to document your understanding in a way that ensures you both remember things the same way after some time has passed.

5. Should you charge interest?

Remember, there is an inflation cost and possibly an opportunity cost to tying up your money. Charging interest need not mean profiting at your friend’s expense. It can simply be a way of recouping the cost of having the money unavailable for a while.

One argument in favor of formalizing the arrangement and charging interest is that, if you don’t, the IRS may deem it a gift rather than a loan. If there is a large amount of money involved (the exemption limit is $14, 000 for the 2015 tax year), this may mean having to pay gift tax — and the giver rather than the recipient is on the hook for gift taxes, so this could come out of your pocket.

6. What is the repayment schedule?

Part of the formal arrangement should be a repayment schedule. That way you both know what to expect about repayment terms.

7. Has your friend budgeted for repayment?

Another benefit of a repayment schedule is that it can serve as a reality check. Once you have a repayment schedule worked out, it is fair to ask your friend how he or she intends to find the money for those payments — especially if that friend has been having financial problems already.

8. Which will affect your friendship more: saying no or saying yes?

It might seem to be the path of least resistance to say yes, but saying no means you can both quickly put the incident behind you. On the other hand, a burdensome loan could prove to be an ongoing strain on the relationship for years to come.

Consider the alternatives

If the analytical approach described above seems too hard-headed, consider an alternative besides saying yes or no to a loan: simply giving your friend the money. If your friendship is close enough that you really want to help, giving rather than lending money allows you both to move forward with no strings attached.

On the other hand, if simply giving the money away is not something you can afford, you should think very analytically about lending the money. If things go wrong, a bad loan to a friend could cost you both the money and the friendship.

6 reasons to overcome a fear of plastic

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As I was coming of age, I became aware of too many examples of people who had gotten into trouble with credit card debt. It made me avoid getting a credit card for several years. Eventually, though, I overcame my fear of plastic, and realized it is the user and not the card that should be in control.

A healthy concern about credit card use is not misplaced. After consumers reined in their spending in the immediate aftermath of the Great Recession, they have expanded their credit card debt in each of the last four years, and that debt is on the rise again in 2015. Still, having a credit card does not have to mean having credit card debt. Actually, if you make it a practice to pay off your balance every month, the benefits of having a credit card can outweigh the disadvantages.

This may be more true now than ever before. Here are six good reasons to overcome a fear of plastic, some of which were true 30 years ago when I got my first credit card and some which came into greater prominence in the 21st century:

  1. You win when you get free use of money. Because there is a lag between when you charge something and when you start paying interest on the amount you borrowed, you effectively get free use of the money for a short period of time. The catch is that once interest starts being charged, it is very expensive — credit card companies charge an average of 13.49 percent on outstanding balances. Still, if you pay your credit card bill in full and on time, you can avoid incurring interest charges. As long as you choose a credit card without monthly fees, then used correctly a credit card can be a convenience that doesn’t cost you anything.
  2. You win even more when you get free rewards. Not only can you have the convenience of a credit card for free if you pay your balances off promptly, but you can also get cash back or other rewards on your purchases. Credit card companies do this to induce you to use their cards, both for the interchange fees they get from merchants and on the assumption that many people won’t pay the money back right away and so will have to pay interest. It is especially important to avoid carrying a balance on rewards credit cards because they typically carry higher interest rates than non-rewards cards, but if you can pay your balances off on time earning rewards means the card company is paying you for using their credit card rather than the other way around.
  3. A responsible credit history can help you save on insurance. I was shocked when our auto insurance carrier wanted to raise our family rate a few months ago, even though we have pretty clean driving records. It turns out the deer that jumped into my son’s car a couple years back was not insured, so that accident is counting against us. When I complained, my agent suggested a program they have that offers lower rates for people with strong credit histories. I figured we would qualify, and we did, as a result of which our insurance premiums went down rather than up. Getting a credit card can be an important step toward establishing a credit history.
  4. You may need a credit history to rent an apartment. Never mind needing good credit to buy a home — you may need it just to rent. Landlords consider your credit history as an important indication that you will pay your rent and meet your other obligations as a tenant.
  5. Traveling without a credit card is very difficult. When I first started to travel for business, I actually used to get by with carrying a large amount of cash with me to cover the hotel bill. These days though, decent hotels tend to frown on letting you check in without a credit card, and forget about renting a car without one.
  6. Establishing a digital discipline is becoming essential. The reason some people shy away from credit cards is that they make it all too easy to overspend and get into debt trouble. This was my reasoning 30 years ago; but back then, not having a credit card was enough to avoid the temptation to spend impulsively. Nowadays, with financial affairs increasingly conducted digitally in a variety of ways, you simply have to develop the discipline not to abuse these tools. Otherwise, you will find more than one way to get into money trouble electronically.

If you want a simple decision rule for using a credit card responsibly, try this: Any month you cannot pay off your balance, put the card away and don’t use it until your current debt is paid off. This is a crude-but-effective way of making sure the accumulation of debt does not outweigh all the positive aspects of having a credit card.

“Frugal” is not a dirty word

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My wife and I were talking recently about a June 5, 2015, New York Times article that described the lifestyle of “Millionaires Who Are Frugal When They Don’t Have to Be.” It got me thinking about the word “frugal.” It will probably never be a sexy concept, but neither does it have to seem like a dirty word.

The title of the article seems to conjure a slightly pejorative image — people who are well off but needlessly pinch pennies. The actual content of the article is more favorable. It focuses on people who have settled into a particular niche — the Times describes them as single-digit millionaires. It’s an interesting position. Obviously, they are very well off, but they are not crazy rich enough to afford every extravagance that crosses their minds. Also, people in this position often made their money themselves, so they can remember what it was like to get by with less.

None of the lifestyles described will ever be fodder for a reality show — not only aren’t these people splashy enough spenders, but they seem more focused on living their lives than on demonstrating their wealth to the rest of the world. Still, while I can see the article’s point about frugality, what struck me is that each of the people profiled had some form of indulgence, whether it is an extra piece of property or the occasional trip to Italy.

In other words, these people are not making themselves miserable by living a monk-like existence when they could afford more. They are enjoying their wealth even while being very conscious of not blowing it.

Enjoying a frugal lifestyle

Of course, the people in the article are far from typical. Even a single-digit millionaire has been far more fortunate than the average American. Still, I think there are some lessons in the lifestyles described that show how frugality does not have to mean miserable self-denial.

Here are some thoughts on how to leave room for joy in a frugal lifestyle:

  1. Budget for some discretionary spending. Living within a budget requires having the discipline not to exceed that budget, but it does not have to mean every expenditure is specifically planned or even logical. Whether it is $50 or $50, 000, leave yourself a some room in your annual budget to spend impulsively, indulgently, or however you see fit. That way, you will get to feel a sense of financial freedom, while also knowing that you are staying within the framework of your budget.
  2. Own up to your splurging. The worst over-spenders I know always have a rationalization every time they splurge on an unnecessary expense. This translates into a sense of denial which prevents them from recognizing how often they do it. Be realistic. It’s OK to splurge occasionally, but recognize it so it does not become a thoughtless habit.
  3. Make the big decisions count. No offense to one of the guys described in the article, but you can darn your socks all you want, it will still be the big financial decisions that matter. What did you pay for your home, and what mortgage rate did you get? Did you strike a hard bargain on your last car? There are a handful of big decisions that have real big-money impact.
  4. Enjoy the little things. Building a 25, 000 square foot palace can drain even a millionaire’s finances, but buying a little better bottle of wine or a weekend getaway are smaller indulgences that shouldn’t leave a lasting mark. If you learn to enjoy little rather than big indulgences, you can enjoy your money without overspending.
  5. Maintain some form of income. Take it from someone who is in his second career — it feels great to downshift without completely slamming on the brakes. I enjoy working, and even with some money saved there is nothing more reassuring than seeing some income continue to roll in.
  6. Get on the same page as the rest of your household. The wealthy couples described in the article all seem to share a philosophy toward money with their spouses, and this is very important to being able to be happy with a modest lifestyle. If you want to drive around in a seven-year-old Toyota while your spouse wants to live like a Kardashian, neither one of you is going to be very happy.
  7. Keep positive goals in mind. Don’t focus on the denial aspect of financial responsibility; focus on the positive aspects of it instead, such as a brighter future and a stronger sense of control over your life. View financial responsibility as an act of empowerment, not one of denial.

The people profiled in the Times article are living such good lifestyles that I probably would not even have used the word “frugal” in the title. To me, it just seems sensible; but that probably says something about my overall mindset, not to mention why my wife showed me the article in the first place….

7 financial lessons recent college grads still need

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Around this time of the year, new college graduates are leaving their schools with a wealth of knowledge. At the end of their four (or six, or eight…) years of college, graduates have typically tackled a wide range of academic subjects, often with an impressive degree of complexity. Unfortunately, one type of lesson many of them are missing as they venture out into the real world is basic schooling in personal finance.

Here are seven personal finance lessons that recent grads might find helpful, because they probably were not taught these things in school:

  1. Student loans need a repayment plan.
    According to the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, the average American college student now has $27, 000 in student loan debt at graduation. Make sure you know the schedule of when payments on your loans will start coming due (typically, this is six to nine months after graduation). If it looks like you will have trouble paying, explore options for alternate payment schedules. Most of all, stay in contact with your lender to find a workable solution. If you simply default, it can have drastic consequences which can include having your wages garnished, your tax refunds confiscated, and long-lasting damage to your credit record.
  2. Credit cards should be for short-term borrowing.
    Recent grads are often deluged with credit card offers. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Credit cards can give your finances some flexibility while helping you build a credit history. The key is to understand and live by this rule: Credit cards should be used only for short-term borrowing. If you use them as a cash substitute during the month and pay off your balance at the end of each month, they can be a free resource, and you might even earn some rewards points in the process. However, if you use them to maintain a lifestyle you can’t afford, you will end up with two big problems: That lifestyle will come to an abrupt end when you reach your credit limits, and credit card debt carries a very expensive interest rate.
  3. The job market may be very different in the next state.
    Having trouble finding a job in your area? Use the fact that you are probably not tied down yet to your advantage and look elsewhere. The unemployment rate in some states is more than twice as high as in others, and the job market can vary even more greatly in some professions.
  4. There is more to a job offer than salary.
    When you compare job offers, be sure to calculate the economic value of any benefits that come with those offers. This includes things like how much they might pay toward your health insurance, or what kind of employer match they make on retirement plan contributions. These amounts can be in the thousands of dollars, so differences in benefits could easily tip the balance in favor of one job over another.
  5. Don’t be on the hook for your roommates.
    Pitching in with others is often the only way a recent grad can afford a place to live, especially in expensive urban areas. Just be careful about whose name is on any legal agreements such as leases or utility accounts. You should take your share of responsibility, but make sure it doesn’t all fall on you if the others don’t pay their share. People’s lives can change quickly in the months after graduation, so avoid financial commitments that involve others.
  6. The right saving account will pay you for doing nothing.
    As you handle the wave of new responsibilities that comes after graduation, you might fantasize about getting paid to do nothing. In a sense, the right savings account will do this. Most savings accounts these days pay almost no interest, but a few are paying around 1 percent. Find one of these relatively high-paying savings accounts, and it will keep paying you month after month with no further effort on your part.
  7. Overdraft protection is a sucker’s deal.
    When you sign up for a checking account, your banker will probably offer you a helpful-sounding service known as overdraft protection. Be sure to decline it. In exchange for temporarily covering any overdrafts in your account, the bank will charge you a fee for each occurrence that is often several times the amount of the overdraft itself. This is a deal that is good for the bank but bad for the customer, so opt out.

It is commonplace to say that there is no teacher like experience when it comes to handling money, but imagine if you took that approach to biology, accounting, or whatever your chosen field is. If you had to experience everything first hand, knowledge would never get a chance to progress very far! Learning from others can help you get more out of your own experiences — and when it comes to personal finance, it can help that experience come at a much cheaper price.

Is the tide turning for savings accounts?

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On the surface, savings account rates seem to be stuck in the same rut they have been in for the last couple years; but if you look a little closer, there are some isolated developments that could start to put the interest back in savings account interest rates.

According to the FDIC, the average savings account rate nationally is just 0.06 percent — a level that average first dropped to two years ago and hasn’t budged from since. However, some banks are beginning to buck the low-rate trend. Those banks remain exceptions, but the rarity of positive rate developments makes it well worth taking note of those exceptions.

Some notable exceptions

MoneyRates.com conducts a quarterly survey of bank rate conditions, called the America’s Best Rates survey. Looking at the big picture, there have been no surprises in recent quarters, as the average savings account rate has dropped in each of the last two surveys. However, a review of the top 10 rates in the survey tells a different story.

Several of the banks in the top 10 raised their savings account rates in each of the last two surveys, with a few of those banks reaching the 1 percent mark. These banks are going their own way by raising rates while the overall average is still declining, and that independence makes them stand out all the more.

Seeing a handful of banks raise rates in this way also suggests that there is some healthy competition going on at the top of the rate tables. HSBC has just upped the ante in that competition, by offering a 1.5 percent rate on a temporary basis. Short-lived teaser rates are nothing new, but HSBC is pledging to keep this rate in place till January of next year. Given that savings account rates are subject to change at any time, that commitment shows that at least some banks are starting to view higher rates as a means of attracting business again.

The good news and bad news about higher rates

Besides competition among banks, there are some economic conditions that may be prompting these rate increases. There is both good news and bad news for consumers in those conditions.

The good news is that after a stumble in March, job growth got back on track in April, suggesting the economic recovery is alive and well. Economic strength increases demand for capital, encouraging banks to offer customers higher interest rates for their deposits.

The potentially negative reason rates may head higher is if inflation revs up. After falling sharply last year, oil prices are on the rise again this year, and that could push inflation higher. Interest rates would move higher in response, but this doesn’t really benefit consumers if it is offset by rising prices.

What consumers should do

Whether bank rates are pulled up by competition or forced up by inflation, consumers should not get caught waiting on the sideline. Clearly, some banks are acting to raise rates sooner than others, so here are some things you can do to get on the leading edge of this trend:

  1. Don’t assume conditions are the same everywhere. Low rates remain the norm, but they are not universal. One good thing about the banking industry is that, because it is highly fragmented, you have a lot of choices — and some of those choices are starting to offer higher rates. If your bank isn’t one of them, don’t assume all other banks are being similarly passive.
  2. Start shopping actively for rates. In business, companies adapt to change in different ways and at different times. That means that as interest rates start to turn around, banks are going to read and react to the trend in varying ways. This could cause the gap among the rates offered by different banks to widen, making this a particularly rewarding time to shop actively for higher rates.
  3. Rein in your CD terms. If you have a CD maturing soon, you might want to consider a shorter term when you roll it over. This will help you avoid locking into today’s low rates for an extended period when CD rates may be poised to start rising.
  4. Look for CDs with low early withdrawal penalties. An alternative to shorter CDs is a long-term CD with a relatively mild (i.e., six months or less) penalty for early withdrawal. This allows you to benefit from the higher rates of longer-term CDs, but still have an affordable way out if rates rise significantly. Step-up CDs, which offer the option of increasing your rate at some point during the CD terms, are also a possibility, but often these offer such a low initial rate that you would be better off shopping for a higher rate and simply paying the early withdrawal penalty if necessary.

Consumers have had a long wait for higher bank rates. Why wait around any longer, when a few banks are already starting to act on raising rates?

How long will oil prices stay low — and what should you do?

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oil price
image: wikimedia commons

If you are old enough, you will remember 1973, when OPEC caused the price of oil to quadruple. (If you’re too young, simply Google “1973 oil crisis images” to see an endless parade of people stranded at gas stations with hand-written signs like the one in the picture.)

That crisis changed life in America forever, starting with an almost instantaneous recession, as businesses couldn’t absorb such a dramatic hike in one of the most pervasive costs in the economy. The malaise brought on by the oil shock lasted more than a decade. Inflation became a part of daily life, while the economy stagnated, giving rise to a new term: “stagflation.”

It got worse in 1979, just when ordinary people had become used to higher oil prices, and it precipitated the worst recession since the Great Depression. Home mortgage rates spiked to over 18 percent before the economy recovered (as it always does).

Since then, we’ve all adjusted to an environment which includes high oil prices.

Our high-oil-price world

New home appliances continue to use less energy. When our furnace went out recently after 30 years of service, even the cheapest model we could buy was way more energy efficient than the dinosaur headed for the landfill. The biggest users of oil — namely, automobiles — continue to use less fuel every year too. It wasn’t much more than a year ago when manufacturers tried to outdo each other with their 40 mpg mainstream models — unthinkable even 10 years ago. We don’t bat an eyelid at electric cars anymore, even luxury electrics like Tesla.

The adjustment is due, in part, to Government regulation; but it also reflects a shift in our culture and values. Despite the culture of conservation, however, the development of other countries and general population growth across the world have led to a consistent rise in the demand for oil. Production has kept pace; but, as Jigar Shah, founder of SunEdison pointed out recently, about 3.8 million barrels per day’s worth of low-cost production is lost each year as older, low-cost wells run dry. Adding capacity to replace that supply requires higher-cost sources. If those sources are not developed, demand will outstrip supply and the oil price will rise again.

In 2008, the price of oil spiked above $100 for the first time, but the financial crisis saw worldwide demand decline and, with it, the price of oil. As the world’s economies recovered, though, so did demand and the oil price, until the world seems to have become accustomed to oil prices north of $100.

That environment brought us things like fuel surcharges on just about every bill we pay, and hybrid and electric cars. It even caused a bit of a renaissance in the railroad industry as long-distance freight shifted from trucks to more efficient intermodal rail transport, causing the illustrious Warren Buffett to start buying up the nation’s railroads one by one.

As high prices tend to do, it also created a “new” industry: American and Canadian oil production from shale and tar sands. Those technologies only work when oil prices are high, though; but when they work, they seem to work extremely well — so much so that the United States in 2014 was poised to become the world’s largest oil producer.

That’s when things changed, however, in rather quick and dramatic fashion. According to Abdullah al-Badri, its Secretary General, OPEC decided in November not to cut its production to compensate for the additional American production, thus creating an oil glut of about 1.5 million barrels a day.

Consequently, 2014 saw one of the most dramatic drops in the oil price since those first two oil shocks, as this chart from the Federal Reserve shows:

Oil price FRED
Oil Price (Brent), 2006 – Present

So, did this drop bring joy and happiness to all who have suffered for the past 40 years? Not nearly as much as you would expect.

Airlines have reaped a windfall, naturally, but have come out declaring publicly that they are not passing the savings on to consumers. UPS started imposing fuel surcharges back when oil prices were high, but have not made any significant reductions since the price of oil started falling. I’ve seen no reports of utilities dropping their rates as natural gas and oil prices have reached historic lows either.

The list goes on. Knowing how businesses live to make profits, I guess that is not surprising. In time, if oil prices remain low, competition will soon create cracks in the dam and those costs will start to drop, too. But…

Will oil prices stay low?

My guess is not, and I base that on the the comments referred to above, of OPEC’s Secretary General. A recent Reuters report quotes him as saying,  “Now the prices are around $45-$50 and I think maybe they reached the bottom and will see some rebound very soon… It will take some time, ” he said. “It will take another four-five months and we will not see some concrete efforts before the end of the first half of the year due to the reason that we will see how the market behaves at the end of the first half of 2015.”

So, now we have two independent factors tracking for significant changes this summer:

  • OPEC revisiting its oil pricing strategy
  • The Federal Reserve revisiting its intention to raise interest rates

Should those two events coincide, it is not beyond the realm of reason to expect the economy to react negatively.

Moral(s) of the story

1. Don’t buy that gas-guzzler on the assumption that oil will stay low. (Conversely, if you have one, it will fetch a good price now.)

2. If you considered getting into energy stocks or mutual funds, now may be a good time.

3. Be prepared for disproportionate price increases as the same businesses who didn’t drop prices with low oil prices use the rising oil price as justification.

Twice the opportunity for holiday spending guilt

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I ran into my old buddy Jake at the local outpost of a well-known, high-priced donut chain. I had just spent the better part of a sawbuck on a powdered donut hole and thimble of java when I noticed Jake seemed to be lacking his usual Christmas spirit.

His brow was furrowed, and he looked worried and perplexed. I wasted no time asking him what in the name of sugarplum fairies was wrong. Didn’t he know this was the holly-jolly time of year for chestnuts roasting on open fires, one-horse open sleighs and stoplights blinking a bright red and green?

“That’s it: It’s the holidays, man, ” he sighed.

The holidays? How had the holidays depressed him? Had he gone into a store for a flat-screen TV sale, and been steam-rolled in a customer stampede?

“No, that’s not it, ” he moped.

Had one of his zero percent APR credit cards been targeted in a major discounter’s massive data breach, leaving him to discover his number was being peddled around the globe by black market privateers?

“You’re not even close, ” he lamented.

Had he bivouacked for days and nights outside a mall in freezing temperatures prior to Black Friday, only to be rushed by ambulance to a hospital with a case of pneumonia mere minutes before crowds stormed the opening doors?

“Don’t make me laugh, ” he moaned.

Well, what is it then? What would make a normally cheerful dude look grimmer than Bob Cratchit trudging in to work Christmas morning at the corporate campus of Scrooge & Marley, Inc., LLC?

Hydra-headed holiday harangue

“It’s these conflicting messages we’re always being fed by the media, ” he said. “On the one hand, they tell us that we’re not saving enough money for college and retirement and medical expenses and everything else.”


“And then they tell us that retailers are not enjoying the kind of Christmas shopping season they had anticipated, that sales are off, that customers are being too tight-fisted with their dollars and that they’re so used to sales that they don’t shop anywhere but where they can score the best deals. They’re saying some huge retailers might not make it if they don’t rack up big profits this holiday season. And you know who’s to blame? We are!”

I see what you mean. You feel kind of guilty?

“You bet I do, ” he continued. “The other day I went out to the mall, and I was going to load up the car with tons of presents and holiday ornaments and boxes of candy for all my friends, relatives, co-workers and neighbors. I flipped on the radio just before I got there and heard an announcer saying that millions of people are going to have to depend almost entirely on Social Security in retirement.”

So what’d you do?

“Well, I jammed on the brakes, pulled a U-ey and went right back home. That’s going to be me if I don’t start conserving the cash, y’know. If I don’t get going, I might spend my 65th birthday feasting on Whiskas for Kittens.”

Damned if you do — and don’t

“Don’t you get it? This dismal shopping season could be a signal that the economy is weaker than expected, sending us spiraling into another recession and making it even harder for me to save. I might not even be able to afford Whiskas for Kittens on my 65th. It could turn out to be 9 Lives.”

Well, you’ll just have to head back to the mall, then.

“I did, but when I got out to the mall, I heard another radio report about Americans’ awful saving rates. So I turned around and was almost home when I got another earful about how stingy we shoppers are. I just kept on driving back and forth to the shopping center all day. Didn’t buy a thing.”

Later, I ran into Jake at the tire store, picking up a couple steel-belted radials.

“Turns out the left-side tires on my car are bald, ” he explained, “from all the U-turns I made this holiday season.”

Happy holidays, Everyone!

How do you find happiness with money?

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An acquaintance of ours returned from a missionary trip to Tanzania recently. As these cross-cultural encounters go, each side had plenty to share with the other about their lives. Toward the end the trip, she asked one of the locals what stood out from everything the Americans related. It was that there are people on this earth who actually spend money to walk. (He was referring to Americans either buying treadmills or paying gym memberships to walk on them.) They (everyday folk in Tanzania) have no choice but to walk miles every day, and they simply have a hard time imagining walking as a luxury for which one would pay serious money.

That story illustrates, for me at least, that almost everyone living in America is among the top 1 percent of the world’s wealthy. This topic of the 1 percent drew a lot of headlines and attention earlier this year, highlighted by the publication of Thomas Piketty’s book, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century.” (Even before the book’s publication, I even had this to say about the topic.)

The outcome of the recent mid-term elections has been dissected and analyzed by hundreds, all striving to put a fresh spin on the events. Not surprisingly, one of the streams of comment has focused on the campaign contributions of the super-rich, questioning whether inequality is allowing a handful of people to dictate your life and mine by buying legislation, if not just buying the legislators themselves. One of the more interesting books on that subject was published a few weeks before the elections: “Billionaires, Reflections on the Upper Crust, ” by Darrell West, a big shot at the Brookings Institution, who took a look at the lives and politics of the richest thousand or so Americans.

I haven’t read the book yet, but I saw an extract which lists the richest Americans and what they are doing to influence politics. I also came across two well-written reviews. One, by one of the most popular business authors of our time, Michael Lewis, was on the “Billionaire” book, and the other one was by one of the “extreme inequals, ” Bill Gates, of the Piketty book.

Mr. Gates posted a long article on his personal blog, in which he reviewed “Capital in the Twenty-First Century.” In it, he agrees with a few of Mr. Piketty’s general points:

  • “High levels of inequality are a problem — messing up economic incentives, tilting democracies in favor of powerful interests, and undercutting the ideal that all people are created equal.
  • “Capitalism does not self-correct toward greater equality — that is, excess wealth concentration can have a snowball effect if left unchecked.
  • “Governments can play a constructive role in offsetting the snowballing tendencies if and when they choose to do so.”

He also agrees with the fundamental point that taxation of labor is disproportionately high, compared to tax on capital. Not only is income by wage earners (ordinary people from the 99 percent) taxed more highly than income from capital, corporations paying out those wages are taxed on those wage expenses as well, while they pay no taxes on interest or dividend payments. He then goes on to propose a system of taxes not on wealth (as Mr. Piketty advocates) but on expenses. In his defense for the tax structure he proposes, Mr. Gates touches on three things people can do with their wealth:

  • Invest it into their businesses to grow
  • Give it away through philanthropy
  • Spend it

That brings us to the Michael Lewis review of “Billionaires.” In it, he tells the story of a tennis coach who held a tennis camp in New Hampshire for Eastern kids of wealth. Every morning, there would be one box of cereal for every kid, some nice and some boring. The kids would rush and jostle to get the good stuff, and the losers were left with the stuff nobody wanted. By the third morning, the coach held a meeting and told the kids,  “When I’m in the big city, I never understand the faces of the people, especially the people who want to be successful. They look so worried! So unsatisfied!” Here his eyes closed shut and his hands became lobster claws, pinching and grasping the air in front of him. “In the city you see people grasping, grasping, grasping. Taking, taking, taking. And it must be so hard! To be always grasping-grasping, and taking-taking. But no matter how much they have, they never have enough. They’re still worried. About what they don’t have. They’re always empty.”

Mr. Lewis then lists numerous studies which all show the same thing: People with way more money than they need are perpetually unhappy. But, worse, not realizing that having so much more than others leaves them unfulfilled and unhappy, they keep looking to more money as the answer to that emptiness. It’s like someone adrift at sea, drinking sea water when they’re thirsty, only to discover that it leaves them even thirstier. After that, they keep thinking if they only drink even more sea water their thirst will go away.

The truth, as Michael Lewis pointed out, as corroborated by numerous studies, is that the money given away brings more happiness than the money strived for. “A … study, by a coalition of nonprofits called the Independent Sector, revealed that people with incomes below twenty-five grand give away, on average, 4.2 percent of their income, while those earning more than 150 grand a year give away only 2.7 percent.”

How about you? Money-wise, what brings you the most happiness?

The sunny side of pessimism

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From the Declaration of Independence to the space program, optimism was traditionally something of a core American value; however, it is one that has taken quite a beating in recent years.

Not too long ago, an NBC-Wall Street Journal poll found that 76 percent of Americans lack confidence that their children will have a better life than they do. That is a stunning reversal from the onward-and-upward America in which baby boomers were reared. Then again, the optimism of the baby boom generation atrophied into a dangerous complacence which has been bad for the economy in general and for household finances in particular. The following are some examples of how this complacence has led to trouble, and why the new mood of pessimism might actually be constructive:

  1. Consumer confidence is the key to economic growth. To this day, consumer confidence figures are closely watched for signs of where the economy is heading. There are two flaws with this. The first is that there is something of a chicken-or-the-egg relationship between consumer confidence and the economy. Does confidence really help boost the economy, or do people simply feel more confident when they are experiencing stronger growth? The more damaging flaw is that the emphasis on consumer confidence presumes that the only problem with household finances is people’s attitudes. This ignores the reality that non-mortgage consumer debt is at an all-time high. People not only do not have the means to back up their confidence, but too much optimism right now might actually make the problem worse by encouraging people to borrow.
  2. Investing for the long term will fund retirement nest eggs. Faith in the hefty market returns of the 1980s and 1990s led professionals such as pension consultants and personal financial planners to plug overly-optimistic assumptions into their retirement funding projections. These high assumptions created the illusion that retirement plans were on track toward being fully funded, which allowed people to skimp on their contributions to those plans. All concerned were slow to revise their methods, reassuring themselves that future returns would make up for a disappointing year or two. Now, nearly 15 years into a century of unreliable stock market returns and low single-digit interest rates, reality is starting to seep into those retirement assumptions. People may not like it, but it will force them to fund their retirement plans more realistically.
  3. Next year will be better. The annual raise and possibility of a bonus were long staples of the American worker’s career. It was okay to overextend the credit card, sign up for a mortgage they couldn’t quite afford, or put off saving for retirement because rising salaries would soon ease those problems. Now people are considered lucky if their wages keep up with inflation; many had to take a step back in pay as a result of the last recession. This harsh reality should encourage people to make their financial commitments based on resources they know they have, not on those they hope they will have in the future.
  4. Housing is an asset that appreciates over time. Banks and home buyers alike thought it was perfectly fine to forego down payments and borrow heavily against home equity because rising home prices would soon build up a healthy equity cushion. When it turned out that prices could in fact go down — and stay down — banks and homeowners alike found themselves over-leveraged and under water. A more conservative approach to mortgage borrowing should lead to a more stable housing market.
  5. Education is the answer. Yes, education can open doors, but it cannot perform miracles. Frustrated with the recessionary job market, Americans borrowed in record amounts to go back to school. Student loan debt jumped by over 50 percent in just five years, and now tops $1.3 trillion. Too much of this money went to programs students were unsuited for, or degrees with no career value. A more consumerist approach to education would better help people get their careers on track without wasting so much money.
  6. Don’t let the market leave you behind. Bandwagon markets in stocks, housing, oil, and gold have led to spectacular busts. When getting rich quickly is the promise, it is amazing how many people become blind optimists. The rush into these markets is every bit as much of a panic as the scramble to get out when things go sour. People start out desperately afraid they will be left behind and end up desperately afraid they will be ruined. Perhaps by now they’ve been burned often enough to be hunting for investment bargains rather than the next bandwagon.

Pessimists are less fun at parties than optimists. They sweat the details, worry about what-ifs, build emergency savings, and never take their jobs for granted. In the wake of the banking crisis, poor financial market returns, and an extended stretch of high unemployment, that kind of pessimism might actually be healthy and lead to a sunnier future.