Saturday, June 14, 2008

Starving Artists? Maybe Not! Also, Buying Art at Art Fairs

Where do artists live? What do they earn? Some answers from “Artists in the Workforce” report.
By SAM ROBERTS:

If every artist in America’s work force banded together, their ranks would be double the size of the United States Army. More Americans identify their primary occupation as artist than as lawyer, doctor, police officer or farm worker...

In 2005 nearly two million Americans said their primary employment was in jobs that the census defines as artists’ occupations — including architects, interior designers and window dressers. Their combined income was about $70 billion, a median of $34,800 each. Another 300,000 said artist was their second job...

Like the population in general, the number of artists has grown fastest in the West and the South since 1990, but New York State, followed by California, Massachusetts, Vermont and Colorado, has the most artists per capita...

The only artists whose ranks declined since 1990 were, as a group, fine artists, art directors and animators, to 216,000 from 278,000...

Overall, the median income that artists reported in 2005 was $34,800 — $42,000 for men and $27,300 for women. The median income of the 55 percent of artists who said they had worked full-time for a full year was $45,200.

Over all, artists make more than the national median income ($30,100). They are more highly educated but earn less than other professionals with the same level of schooling. They are likelier to be self-employed (about one in three and growing) and less likely to work full-time, year-round. (Dancers have the lowest median annual income of all artists, architects the highest — $20,000 and $58,000, respectively.)

“Many performing artists are underemployed,” Mr. Gioia said, “but one of the stereotypes we’re trying to debunk is that artists are mostly marginal and unemployed.”

...While the number of artists doubled between 1970 and 1990 as theaters, galleries, orchestras and university and commercial venues grew, their ranks since 1990 have increased at about the same rate as the total work force. They now represent 1.4 percent of the labor force, or nearly as many people as the active and reserve armed forces.
If knowing that all artists are not starving reduces your guilt about haggling at art fairs, Christopher Borrelli gives some hints about getting what you want at a price you can afford:
Sparkles—beloved Sparkles!

That's what the painting said—"Beloved Sparkles!" Mittelstead had been trawling for cheap wooden furniture at a county fair when he spotted a kitschy painting of a dog's face—a dog named Sparkles. "It was so fun," he remembered. But he didn't buy it—he chickened out. And he regrets it, to this day. "That face is seared in my brain. I miss not having that painting of Sparkles."

Don't let this be you.

"If you like something you see, buy it," he said. That was Tip No. 1. Last weekend, Mittelstead, who is a lawyer and art collector, led an Art Buying Boot Camp with Jannotta through the 57th Street Art Fair. With art fair season in bloom, their tips apply to nearly any fair you happen across—from the Old Town Art Fair (Saturday and Sunday) to your suburban parking lot festival awash in birdhouses made from license plates.
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Friday, June 13, 2008

Cutting Down on Meat

Mark Bittman explores the issues:
LET’S suppose you’ve decided to eat less meat, or are considering it. And let’s ignore your reasons for doing so. They may be economic, ethical, altruistic, nutritional or even irrational. The arguments for eating less meat are myriad and well-publicized, but at the moment they’re irrelevant, because what I want to address here is (almost) purely pragmatic: How do you do it?

I’m not talking about eating no meat; I’m talking about cutting back, which in some ways is harder than quitting. Vegetarian recipes and traditions are everywhere. But in the American style of eating — with meat usually at the center of the plate — it can be difficult to eat two ounces of beef and call it dinner.

Cutting back on meat is not an isolated process. Unlike, say, taking up meditation or exercise, it usually has consequences for others...

Reducing the meat habit can be done, and it doesn’t have to make you crazy. Although there will undoubtedly be times you’ll have cravings, they’ll never give you the shakes. So, in no particular order, here are some suggestions to ease your path to eating less meat.
He finishes with some fine-sounding recipes, including Edamame With Pork, Tomatoes and Cilantro.

Selecting a Financial Planner: Spell "Fiduciary"?

Alina Tugend expresses shock over the casual way in which some people select a financial planner:
Like many people, especially in these financially unsettling times, I long for someone to look at our portfolio — such as it is — and tell us how to manage everything so that we can send both our children to the college of their choice, retire at 65 and be able to send postcards from exotic locations to our future grandchildren.

I also do not want anyone to tell me that I am living in a dream world or that just to build our savings, we will have to cut down on expenses like eating out, the occasional shopping spree and tennis lessons.

I want a magician. Or a liar.

But a financial planner would probably be a good start. We do have a stockbroker who assists us in investing our retirement fund. But analyzing where we are financially and where we should be going isn’t a bad idea. What I learned, though, is that while most people hire a financial planner more casually than they might, say, choose a hair stylist, you really should go into it as if you are selecting a marriage counselor.
She also gives some good hints for your search.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Free Softmaker Office SE Suite

Are you following the evolution of free office suite software?

If so, you might be interested in what was promised in an ad from SoftMaker in July 2008 PC World magazine (page 14). The ad indicated a free office suite could be obtained at http://www.softmakeroffice.com/.


My quick internet search indicated Softmaker has been around for a number of years, so I went to http://www.softmaker.com/english/ to see what was happening. There I learned that the current version of the SoftMaker Suite costs $79.

When I went to http://www.softmakeroffice.com/, I was offered a free download of an office suite, but it was from 2006 and has been superseded by a 2008 version.

If you want a free office suite that runs from a flash drive and might load faster than other suites, this might be your piece of cake. Just compare it closely to OpenOffice before you make your final decision.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Old Brazilian Joke and Free Digital Content: Paul Krugman

Paul Krugman wraps some interesting commentary around an old Brazilian joke.

First, the commentary regarding innovation, Amazon Kindle, free digital content and the Grateful Dead:
The predictions of ’90s technology gurus are coming true more slowly than enthusiasts expected — but the future they envisioned is still on the march.

In 1994, one of those gurus, Esther Dyson, made a striking prediction: that the ease with which digital content can be copied and disseminated would eventually force businesses to sell the results of creative activity cheaply, or even give it away. Whatever the product — software, books, music, movies — the cost of creation would have to be recouped indirectly: businesses would have to “distribute intellectual property free in order to sell services and relationships.”

For example, she described how some software companies gave their product away but earned fees for installation and servicing. But her most compelling illustration of how you can make money by giving stuff away was that of the Grateful Dead, who encouraged people to tape live performances because “enough of the people who copy and listen to Grateful Dead tapes end up paying for hats, T-shirts and performance tickets. In the new era, the ancillary market is the market.”
The joke:
“Brazil is the country of the future — and always will be.”

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Free Services for Cell Phone Users

David Pogue reports there are several free services that might be of interest to cell phone users who enjoy keeping thing simple and useful:
Several super-simple cellular services are so sweet and satisfying, you can’t believe they’re free. They work by recognizing your voice, so you don’t have to master anything new on the phone itself — all of the complexity is hidden from you.

Certain voice-driven freebies, in particular, have earned a permanent place on my phone’s speed-dial keys. All work alike: you dial an 800 number, speak your request and get the results in seconds, usually in the form of a text message on your phone.

Frugal Ben Says: Hmmmm. Almost enough to interest me in getting one of those cell-phone thig-a-ma-jigs!

Exercisers: Eat Real Food or Expensive Drinks and Bars?

Gina Kolata reports on what researchers/athletes consume:
Dr. Tarnopolsky, a 45-year-old trail runner and adventure racer, might be expected to seize upon the nutritional advice. (He won the Ontario trail running series in 2004, 2005 and 2006.)

So might his colleague, Stuart Phillips, a 41-year-old associate professor of kinesiology at McMaster who played rugby for Canada’s national team and now plays it for fun. He also runs, lifts weights and studies nutrition and performance.

In fact, neither researcher regularly uses energy drinks or energy bars. They just drink water, and eat real food. Dr. Tarnopolsky drinks fruit juice; Dr. Phillips eats fruit. And neither one feels a need to ingest a special combination of protein and carbohydrates within a short window of time, a few hours after exercising.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The Price of Clothes

Eric Wilson says they cost less now than in 1998:
Clothing is one of the few categories in the federal Consumer Price Index in which overall prices have declined — about 10 percent — since 1998 (the cost of communication is another). That news may be of solace to anyone whose budget has been stretched just to drive to work or to stop at the supermarket; in fashion, at least, there are still deals to be had. An anecdotal price comparison by Thursday Styles for 31 name-brand clothing items — such as Calvin Klein underwear, a Chanel tweed cardigan, a pair of L’eggs pantyhose, Ray-Ban Wayfarer sunglasses and a wool crepe jacket from Anne Klein — would seem to demonstrate that while luxury prices have outpaced inflation, lower-priced clothes have generally experienced deflation...

The fashion and retail industry fear that the appeal of price, for consumers of both mass and luxury goods, is becoming a more important factor in decisions about what to buy than desire, which has been the driving mechanism behind the growth of fashion and luxury for decades.

“We as a business cannot afford to have a customer take a second look and ask, ‘Do I need this?’ ” said Bud Konheim, the chief executive of Nicole Miller. “That is the kiss of death. We’re finished, because nobody really needs anything we make as a total industry.”

Hats off to Mr Konheim for his honesty! Or maybe he would prefer us to put hats on, especially if they were expensive and impulsively purchased!

Monday, June 2, 2008

The "Dear Seller" Letter

Looking for a house?

Ron Lieber describes the letter you might want to send to the seller:
It’s what you write to accompany a bid that is so far below the listing price that it cries out for explanation.

Inspired by the success of a friend who used this tactic, I drafted a sample letter that buyers who fear overpaying might send to homeowners. Then, I crafted a reply that confident sellers could fire back.
At the end, he correctly points out the important question: Will your realtor deliver the letter?

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Irate Europeans Protest the Soaring Price of Gasoline

Katrin Bennhold reports that the European middle class is also under attack via high gasoline prices:
Gas prices that make drivers queasy at the pump are a relatively new occurrence in the United States, but persistently high prices forced Europeans to curtail their fuel consumption long ago. (In many countries, government taxes account for more than half the price.)

Highways are filled with fuel-efficient Smart cars and Minis, most cities have highly developed public transportation systems, and green-minded policies have spawned everything from special bicycle lanes to downtown congestion charges. Now the current surge in the price of oil has many Europeans asking how much leaner they can become.

“This concerns everyone who drives,” Ms. Schneberger said. “And that makes a lot of angry people.” Indeed, protests broke out across the Continent this week as irate port workers clashed with the riot police in Marseille and truckers stopped traffic in London to demand government fuel rebates. On Thursday, the protests spread to truckers in the Netherlands and French farmers blocked the entrance to oil depots. Italian and Spanish fishermen were planning strikes for Friday.
Frugal Ben Says: What kind of comfort should we take from seeing middle class people under attack from international forces? It's time for middle class people to recognize that the problems they face are not just local problems. Political corruption and ignorant politicians are corroding middle class life everywhere.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Lose Homes, Pay More Tax!

Think things are bad for people faced with foreclosure? Well, it's worse!

Some of the biggest losers in the real estate slump are not purchasers of mansions they could not afford. They are buyers of second homes — or third ones, for that matter — who are sitting on a tax time bomb.

Many of these people will lose their properties in foreclosure and then stagger into bankruptcy under the weight of a sizable tax bill.

When does light appear at the end of this tunnel?

Friday, May 30, 2008

Is it an Oil Bubble? Steve Chapman and Chicago Tribune

Tribune columnist Steve Chapman disagrees with those who say oil prices will continue to increase:
At the risk of ending up on Pollyanna's Christmas card list, allow me to differ. Oil prices are unpredictable, particularly in the immediate future, and it's easy to think of events that could force them higher—like, say, a war between the United States and Iran. But in the long run, there is every reason to think that the steep, rocky ascent we have been on will give way to a welcome downhill path.

I'm not alone in my optimism. Michael Lynch, head of an energy consulting firm in Massachusetts, told The Associated Press the current price of gasoline "is the peak or very close to it." Analysts at the investment bank Lehman Brothers say we are just as likely to see oil at $80 a barrel as at $200.
His bosses agree with him that prices for oil will drop when the bubble bursts:
Economic bubbles don't widely reveal themselves until they burst. The bubble in technology stocks was apparent to former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan in December 1996, yet that didn't stop investors from bidding up tech stocks to stratospheric levels for three more years. They were in bubble denial, having convinced themselves that the tech revolution meant the normal rules of supply and demand just didn't apply anymore.

You know what happened.

This leads us to wonder whether there is an oil bubble.

Columnist Steve Chapman argues on today's Commentary page that oil prices are likely to see a significant decline. We're going to agree with him. This has the look of a bubble.
Frugal Ben says:

These prognosticators influence opinion (See the reader comments!) and governmental action, but no one ever keeps track of their predictions. Well, ThriftSlut will! We will see how these predictions look 12 nd 24 months from now!

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Is It An Oil Bubble? Soros vs. Krugman

So who's the better prognosticator?

The investor whose fund made US2.9 billion last year with returns of over 30%?
George Soros, a legendary hedge fund investor, blamed the spike in oil prices – which peaked at $135 a barrel for the first time last week – on investors betting that the cost of oil will continue to rise, in an interview with the Daily Telegraph.

He said that the bubble will correct, but warned that this will not happen until the US and UK fall into a recession.

Or the economist/professor/columnist?
Now, speculators do sometimes push commodity prices far above the level justified by fundamentals. But when that happens, there are telltale signs that just aren’t there in today’s oil market.

Imagine what would happen if the oil market were humming along, with supply and demand balanced at a price of $25 a barrel, and a bunch of speculators came in and drove the price up to $100.

Even if this were purely a financial play on the part of the speculators, it would have major consequences in the material world. Faced with higher prices, drivers would cut back on their driving; homeowners would turn down their thermostats; owners of marginal oil wells would put them back into production.

As a result, the initial balance between supply and demand would be broken, replaced with a situation in which supply exceeded demand. This excess supply would, in turn, drive prices back down again — unless someone were willing to buy up the excess and take it off the market.

The only way speculation can have a persistent effect on oil prices, then, is if it leads to physical hoarding — an increase in private inventories of black gunk. This actually happened in the late 1970s, when the effects of disrupted Iranian supply were amplified by widespread panic stockpiling.
Frugal Ben Says: We will revisit this post in 12-18 months to see if practical experience trumps a priore reasoning from a model.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Savers can find it hard to spend

Humberto Cruz wrote in the Chicago Tribune:
The traits that make for good savers, such as preferring to delay gratification and plan for the future, conspire against them becoming spenders, even when they have the means.

Savers don't get much of a kick, if any, from spending. When they spend, they are wired to question whether the money would be better spent on something else—or simply saved.
The column gives some anecdotal data to support this interesting hypothesis.

It would be fun to see if there is formal research which illuminates the matter further.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Newspapers, Innovation and New Models

Marketplace.Org reports on new models for the newspaper industry by making three major points:
  • Local news primarily belongs on the web
  • The print edition will be a place for analysis, not reporting of details
  • The need for innovation will be unending
Is publishing tons of granular local news on the internet simply the latest way of avoiding the hard decision about which side are you on, which community do you serve? Do the newspapers have the intellectual horsepower to provide good analysis of local events? Will unending innovation grind people down?

Frugal Ben Says: Are there easier ways to make a living?

Investment Money 'Resting'

The headline to a story by Robert Manor caught my attention:
"Investment money 'resting,' but will be wake up when market improves"
He writes:
Wrightwood Capital CEO Bruce Cohen, who believes commercial real estate experts are deep in the dark, is surprisingly upbeat about an industry that seems to be at least a little paralyzed.

"There is absolute clarity and certainty that no one knows what is going on," Cohen said at a conference sponsored by the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business. He sounded optimistic.

No one can say when lenders will open their vaults and make a loan. No one can say when spooked buyers of almost any kind of real estate will come out of hiding. No one can say what, if any, effect the election will have on the market.

Cohen's company specializes in real estate finance and investment in commercial real estate, and it has been involved in hundreds of deals. So that gives him some street cred when he says that the gridlock in commercial real estate sales is not a permanent traffic jam.
Frugal Ben Says:

If you are a speculator, you might want to be chasing profits in commodities right now. But the typical middle-class investor might be best off in cash and CD's at the present, with a few high-dividend-paying stocks thrown into the mix.

There are times when there simply are no good ways to make large returns .

When that's the case, CD's and cash and forget-about-high-returns-for-awhile might be your best option.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Shorter Stories, General News for the Wall Street Journal

Shrewd Tribune columnist Phil Rosenthal reports that changes in the content of the Wall Street Journal might accelerate:
Here comes the Sun: Robert Thomson, the 47-year-old Australian whom Rupert Murdoch installed as publisher of The Wall Street Journal in December, was named its managing editor Tuesday. It was an anticipated move that signals more changes to come at the paper, which has embraced shorter stories and more general news since Murdoch's News Corp. took over.
Frugal Ben Says: Fine, that's all we need. Now more than ever, the middle classes deserve extensive, intelligent coverage of investing and financial matters to protect themselves from a government which is owned by the financial industry. So the WSJ is moving to become a USA Today with lousy pictures and no deft writing touch.

It's enough to make a person say that the corporate press has to die in order to make the American institutional press live again!

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Parents Pay Premium for Organic Baby Formula with Cane Sugar

It's hard for me to imagine that people will pay extra for anything just because it is described as "organic", but what do I know?
Amy Chase started feeding Similac Organic infant formula to her second son, Amos, as soon as he was born in November 2006.

“When I saw the organic at Publix, I bought it, no questions asked,” said Ms. Chase, a self-described “yoga mom” in Atlanta.

Like Ms. Chase, many American parents have rushed to embrace Similac Organic formula, even though it sells for as much as 30 percent more than regular Similac. In 2007, its first full year on sale, it captured 36 percent of the organic formula market, with sales of more than $10 million, according to Kalorama Information, a pharmaceutical-industry research firm. (Similac’s parent company, Abbott Laboratories, does not release sales figures for individual products.)

Parents may be buying it because they believe that organic is healthier, but babies may have a reason of their own for preferring Similac Organic: it is significantly sweeter than other formulas. It is the only major brand of organic formula that is sweetened with cane sugar, or sucrose, which is much sweeter than sugars used in other formulas.
When you read the story, be sure to check the reader comments! A lot of tree-huggers chimed in to tell how appalled they were (I wonder, are these the same people who follow advice to buy and hold?) that corporations would do such a thing! Oh, dear! Others were more realistic:
An "organic" label symbolizes for me the combination of ignorance and "risk-phobia" that seems to have swept America and the West, along with the attitude of brand-obsession. What's so special about the fact that your vegetables grew up on horse crap rather than synthetic fertilizer? It's all the same nitrate, and the natural stuff may actually be more dangerous.

— Brett, The United States of America
Frugal Ben Says:

You got the money and education to be able to afford "organic" and you don't READ THE LABEL? You deserve a fat baby, though the baby deserves better than you!

Monday, May 19, 2008

Free Timeline Templates and Other Productivity Tools

A timeline is often the most effective way to organize information about someone's life, a conference, a work schedule or various other events.

Learn about timelines and how to quickly create them with Microsoft Excel or Open Office Calc. Vertex42.com will link you to scores of free spreadsheet templates to help you increase productivity in other ways.

Other free resources are at Microsoft: Nice Looking Timeline and Other Resources

Also see: http://www.cnet.com/8301-13880_1-9929740-68.html and http://www.cnet.com/workers-edge/

Buy and Hold Investors Screwed Again: Headline Bias

How much kvetching should we do over bad headlines in the media?

This issue is raised yet again by a Chicago Tribune story on how "buy and hold" investors get screwed by following the advice of so-called experts.

In a column which appeared in print and on the Trib website, Gail MarksJarvis did an excellent job of alerting readers to the cyclical nature of investments, the long time it can take to recover from poor market conditions and the lackluster performance of asset allocation funds which are claimed to provide some level of investment protection from long cycles of poor market performance.

Column snippets to whet your appetite:
Investors who thought they could count on the stock market to make up for the mediocre savings they have socked away in 401(k)'s and IRAs are having an awakening.

And it's not a happy one.

For eight years now, the stock market hasn't cooperated. Instead of providing the 15-percent-a-year returns people enjoyed in the 1990s, the market has turned into a Scrooge.

Not only hasn't the stock market lived up to its historical average of 10 percent annual returns, but the benchmark Standard & Poor's 500 stock market index stands significantly lower today than it did at the start of the decade...

"It's a lost decade," said Howard Silverblatt, a senior index analyst at S&P...

There has not been a decade this bad for investors since the Great Depression. During the 1930s, investors lost 5.26 percent on average per year, not including dividends, Silverblatt said.

And the next worst period in history, the 1970s, gave investors a 1.6 percent annual return, he said...And the stock market took more than seven years to recover from the losses...

"The 2000s have been the poster child for diversification," said Michele Gambera, Ibbotson Associates chief economist.,,

An investor who would have assembled a classic portfolio, with 60 percent invested in the S&P 500 and 40 percent in a broadly diversified bond fund that mimicked the Lehman U.S. Aggregate index, would have turned $1 invested on Dec. 31, 1999, into $1.32 at the end of last month, noted Gambera....

Investors don't have to assemble complex portfolios on their own...they can buy target-date funds in which a fund manager combines diverse stock and bond investments in proportions geared to preparing a person to retire on a certain date...

Investors should not assume, however, that those funds will not lose money. While the S&P 500 lost about 17 percent between Oct. 9 and March 17, the average target-date fund geared for people retiring in 2010 lost 7.9 percent, according to Morningstar Inc. For the last eight years, the average 2010 target-date fund tracked by Morningstar has averaged a 3.7 percent return a year.
The print headline did a good job of summarizing the reporter's review of the facts and the conclusions she drew, including material which indicates that even target-date asset allocation funds have their problems:
"Many can't find gains in 'lost decade'"
Unfortunately, her excellent insights were blunted by the editor who okayed the online version of the column headline:
"Diverse portfolios take the edge off a rough market"
Sophisticated readers know that there is an art to writing good headlines that attract, inform and even amuse a reader. They also know that the best headline writer in the world cannot produce a perfect gem every time he or she puts fingertip to keyboard. From this perspective, it's not a profitable expenditure of time for us to carp about headlines that are less than perfect. The writers work under constant pressure to produce quickly and its unrealistic for us to demand a home run every time they walk to the plate.

But when a headline in the financial press spins an article along the lines that favor Wall Street boosterism - a practice that many claim plays an important role in the creation of investment manias - the producer should be called on the carpet.

The truth of the matter is that investors who followed the advice to buy and hold mutual funds or, for that matter, stocks in the last 10 years might require many years to recover from the bad effects of that strategy.

You would never know that from the calculatedly misleading headline on the Chicago Tribune website.

Frugal Ben Says:

In general, don't go postal over bad headlines. Even if the headline is bad, by the time you complain, the matter is such old news that it makes no difference.

At the same time, don't ever forget that our business/financial/economics reporting is a travesty which needs to be reformed!

When you see a headline writer bias the reader so as to deform an honest story into a piece of bubble-supporting Wall Street propaganda, express your discontent!

Here's hoping Gail will track down the person who wrote the headline on her internet story and give them a good spanking!
_____________________

The fun of blogging is learning something new as you post.
Some links to what I learned about headline bias in the media:

Bias by headline:

http://www.media-awareness.ca/english/resources/educational/handouts/broadcast_news/bw_bias_in_the_news.cfm
http://www.google.com/search?num=100&hl=en&safe=off&client=firefox-a&rls=org.mozilla%3Aen-US%3Aofficial&q=bias+by+headline&btnG=Search
http://americandaily.com/article/5327
http://www.tampabayprimer.org/index.cfm?action=articles&drill=viewArt&art=1354
http://thinkingpolitics.wordpress.com/2007/11/13/the-stories-we-are-told-media-bias-in-the-new-coverage-of-middle-east/

Thursday, May 15, 2008

College Grads Fail Test on Financial Basics

Many college graduates enter working years not knowing financial basics

In a survey conducted by the Jump$tart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy, college seniors answered about 65 percent of personal finance questions correctly: That's a D grade for these academic achievers.

Those kinds of results worry financial experts, who argue that today's graduating classes need to know more about their finances than generations before them, given the loss of pensions and the shifting responsibility for workers to manage their own retirement accounts...

Investing

With the stress of finding a job, paying off student loans and looking for a place to live, investing can be the last thing on a graduate's mind. But financial experts say it should be a priority...
Frugal Ben Says:
  • The best time to save for retirement is indeed when you are in your twenties and early thirties.
  • At least these grads must know something about inflation, even if it is of the grade variety. Since when is 65% a D, not an F?

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Frugal Ways to Spy on Friends

The Daily Herald reports on new ways to spy on friends:

If you are still relying on Google to snoop on your friends, you are behind the curve.

Armed with new and established Web sites, people are uncovering surprising details about colleagues, lovers and strangers that often don't turn up in a simple Internet search. Though none of these sites can reveal anything that isn't already available publicly, they can make it much easier to find. And most of them are free.

Zaba Inc.'s ZabaSearch.com turns up public records such as criminal history and birthdates. Spock Networks Inc.'s Spock.com and Wink Technologies Inc.'s Wink.com are "people-search engines" that specialize in digging up personal pages, such as social-networking profiles, buried deep in the Web. Spokeo.com is a search site operated by Spokeo Inc., a startup that lets users see what their friends are doing on other Web sites. Zillow Inc.'s Zillow.com estimates the value of people's homes, while the Huffington Post's Fundrace feature tracks their campaign donations. Jigsaw Data Corp.'s Jigsaw.com, meanwhile, lets people share details with each other from business cards they've collected -- a sort of gray market for Rolodex data.

Some people have come across dirt on their loved ones without even looking for it...

SP Times Cutting Business/Financial Coverage

See Frugal Ben's Response in the Comments Section:

http://blogs.tampabay.com/media/2008/05/big-changes-com.html

Monday, May 12, 2008

Florida Housing: 61 Month Supply. Opportunity for Investors?

Mary Umberger reports on a Florida housing consultant who was laughed at in 2004 when he suggested dark days were coming to the real estate market. Now, Jack McCabe says, the time for looking at Florida property might be approaching.

"For buyers of second homes, there are some better deals out there than there have been in the last five years, without a doubt, but you have to heed the caveats," he said.

"You need to know which buildings may be good opportunities and which to stay away from," he said. "Some of these buildings that have been [fully sold out] for less than a year may already have 50 or 60 foreclosures in them."

And those foreclosures are likely to mean migraines for homeowners' associations, as defaulting buyers stop paying dues and may be renting to "suspect" tenants, he said.

Then, of course, there's the matter of how foreclosure sales affect the values of other units in the building.

McCabe suggests that would-be buyers build strong relationships with experienced real estate agents in their target areas to learn the backgrounds of buildings...

"I'd say you're going to see some of your best deals [in some areas] toward the end of 2008 and in the first two quarters of 2009."

He still sees another 18 months before the downturn plays out in Florida. "Then we'll see things level out and supply will come down, prices will have come down and insurance and taxes, correlatively, will have come down," he said.

Some markets in the state are starting to emerge from the tank, he said.

Sarasota and Naples, he said, have always been popular with Chicagoans, who seem to favor the Gulf Coast because it's a relatively shorter drive than the Atlantic Coast. The two cities are still floating in inventory and seeing price declines, but they're nearing bottom, he said.

"Ft. Myers and Cape Coral may be the closest to bottoming out in price now," he said. "In Cape Coral, lots that were $5,000 to $8,000 in 2002 and went up to $50,000 to $80,000 in 2005 are now down to $8,000 to $10,000, though the area has had a lot of foreclosures."

He's not encouraging, however, about his own back yard, South Florida.

"Miami/Dade, it's going to take years," he says, sighing.
Frugal Ben Says:

It's not just the cost of the property that a buyer needs to examine in Florida. Insurance costs are skyrocketing and might never come down while the infrastructures are crumbling and taxes might increase dramatically to repair the outcome of years of neglect.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Fix Your Slow-Loading G-Mail?

Gmail account was driving Frugal Ben crazy with its slow loading until two fixes were discovered:

How to make Gmail load faster?

Gmail is one of the best web mail services available, and makes a great use of AJAX technology. Probably because of this, Gmail loads slow during login for many people. Here are some tweaks for making Gmail load faster.

Both fixes worked in Firefox. You might want to create a bookmark with the hack-URL right in it to access your Gmail account or, if your home page is set to Gmail inbox, follow the Tools&gt;Options&gt;Homepage path to set the homepage to one of the faster URL's.

Violence in Mexico! Change Vacation Plans?

Gary A. Warner reports on dangers to Americans:

The U.S. State Department has added its big voice to the growing chorus reporting that violence in areas of Mexico near the border with the United States has become so prevalent that travelers need to consider whether they should visit.

The new "travel alert," one step down from the stronger "travel warning," was issued April 14 in Washington. It says:

"Violent criminal activity fueled by a war between criminal organizations struggling for control of the lucrative narcotics trade continues along the U.S.-Mexico border. Attacks are aimed primarily at members of drug-trafficking organizations, Mexican police forces, criminal justice officials and journalists. However, foreign visitors and residents, including Americans, have been among the victims of homicides and kidnappings in the border region."

The alert said recent clashes between authorities and drug cartels "have escalated to levels equivalent to military small-unit combat and have included use of machine guns and fragmentation grenades."
This, on top of the high price of gas, says stay home for the summer?

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Digital Picture Frames, Frugality and Photography

Sign up for a free subscription to The IMAGING RESOURCE DIGITAL PHOTOGRAPHY NEWSLETTER if you want in-depth reviews of photography products, special deals and occasional insights into the art of photography. Here are some excerpts from the May 9, 2008 (Volume 10, Number 10) review of a digital photo frame:
Whenever we have a Pandigital frame here for review, they're an instant hit with visitors...

For the last few weeks we've had a $170 8-inch PanTouch frame here, which is available now at Sears and Wal-Mart. It features a backlit LED screen with a 4:3 aspect ratio (common to digicams and preferred for portraits), 512-MB of internal memory to hold about 3,200 800x600-pixel images (if resized to the frame's dimensions)...

USEFUL FEATURES

The PanTouch series of frames features one big advance over previous Pandigital frames: a patent-pending touch sensor...

The touch controls are designed to substitute for most of the remote control functions, which are disabled when the touch controls are active. After about three seconds of inactivity, the touch control icons fade away. You can activate the touch controls any time just by touching the top right corner of the mat, which is the Home button...

We particularly applauded the inclusion of programmable on/off times (and hence a clock). The frame also includes calendar and alarm clock functions. Calendar mode not only displays the month but runs a slide show, too.
The frame can play mp3-encoded but not iTunes-compatible music (with or without images) through its built-in stereo speakers or its audio-out port to your speaker system. And it can play video you take with your camera, too. As long as it takes AVI or MPEG movies...

The frame can resize and compress images as they are copied to it so you can store more photos in the frame's 512-MB available memory...

If you've got a WiFi adapter, you can also connect the frame to your wireless home network to tap into Picasa, specifically...

DIRTY SECRETS

Like any other digital frame, the PanTouch series suffers from a few issues common to the species.

For one thing, these things just don't show 24-bit (full) color for some reason. They're all 16-bit. Thousands, not millions, of colors...

Then there's the problem of framed art in general. You have a print you love, you frame it and hang it. And it sits unaltered on the wall ready to engage your interest whenever you look its way. It's passive but constant...

A digital frame, however, has an On/Off switch. But why would you leave it on? And that switch, of course, leads to a power supply, which is actually a power brick plugged into a wall socket. So you have this ugly cord to conceal. And why are they all black when so many walls are white?

A digital frame also has a number of viewing modes. It can certainly display a single image just like your framed print. But will that burn that image into the LCD?

And it can run a slide show of whatever images it finds either in its internal memory, an inserted memory card or even some online gallery. But how do you know what you've missed? Do you have to watch it like a television?

In fact, it's easier to think of a digital frame as a television than a frame. You'd never frame a portrait in a horizontal frame with big black bars inside the mat on the left and right sides. But you'd put up with that on a television.

And that is pretty much what Ron Glaz, IDC director of Digital Imagine Solutions and Services, described as the preferred way to view images...

Citing the big challenge as stimulating users "to release photos from the PC," he acknowledged that digital frames are a popular and inexpensive way to view your growing image collection...Card slots and battery power (to hide that cord) were the top deal makers...

If you don't refresh content on the frame, it gets old quickly. That's where the home network and HDTV displays come in. With the network connection cooking, updating content isn't a big deal. Ask anyone with an Apple TV...

But while you're waiting for that home network to be built, these little frames sure are a crowd pleaser...
Near the end of the newsletter are some reflections on the Lee Friedlander retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the art of Jackson Pollock.
Painting is always a reduction of the complexity we find in nature. Using a lot of color masks that reduction, hinting at the complexity of nature as the eye tries to find a pattern to makes sense of the image.

The problem in photography, which begins with the complexity found in the scene, is a different one. It's the generous art. Its practitioner profits from practicing frugality.
Frugal Ben says:

Enjoy the current newsletter http://www.imaging-resource.com/IRNEWS/

Subscribe at the end: http://www.imaging-resource.com/IRNEWS/subsrvcs/irn-srvs.htm#sub

See home page: http://www.imaging-resource.com/

Friday, May 9, 2008

Shell-out Falter and Other Frugal Developments

Latteconomizing anyone?
...falling home values, skyrocketing tuitions, $4-a-gallon gas (I paid that much for the first time this week) and other gloomy omens have me exhibiting a form of what my grandfather used to call "shell-out falter."

It seems to be going around. Starbucks Corp. recently reported a 28 percent drop in second-quarter profits, and some analysts attributed the decrease to neo-tightwads reducing their consumption of gourmet coffee drinks.

This development prompted me to invent a new term—"latteconomizing," meaning to economize on lattes and other minor indulgences.

I've cut back myself on premium joe as well as impulse tube-steak purchases.

I've also been using more coupons and buying sale items in atrocious bulk.
Eric Zorn says, Tough times call for crafty economizing.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

More on George Soros: Struggling to Reimagine Economics

George Soros was predicting recession when Bernacke and Paulson were comatose.

Today, in an interview with Diane Rehm, he discussed some prognostications about financial markets. He is a shrewd investor who sees the dollar being replaced by commodities and other currencies as a standard of exchange. Because we Americans consume more than we produce, our marketplace preeminence will inexorably decline and have to be shared with other countries who produce more than they consume.

Regarding investments, he sees continued rough times for American investors and advises us to keep cash reserves on hand.

The market analyses and predictions make the interview worth hearing by themselves.

The interview is even more interesting for his thoughts about the metaphors and ideologies that shape economics and finance. Soros is struggling to move investors and politicians away from the economic fundamentalism which makes it impossible for us to competently analyze our economic behavior. That's the good part. Sadly, the philosophy he articulates might not really represent a radical break with the past. Much of it is reminiscent of cybernetics and interactionist sociology from the early and mid-20th century. It is as though he knows something is terribly wrong with economics but he cannot see how to ground the dismal science in its true home, biology.

Good listen! (About 60 minutes. Downloadable)

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Junk Bonds or CD's for a Widow with Children

More regarding the relative advantages of CD's and bonds for the middle class investor:

Today I came across a response by Gail MarksJarvis to a reader who went for high yield and had second thoughts after the bonds were purchased:
Q: I am worried about holding on to bonds issued by Bear Stearns just weeks before the bailout. Although I bought them for $75,000, my broker told me a few weeks ago they were worth only $68,000. I need all the income I can get because I'm a widowed parent with children's college expenses. I'm wondering if JPMorgan Chase & Co. will honor the maturity if the takeover goes through. The bonds, at 5.3 percent, mature in March 2010. I cannot afford to lose that corporate bond money! -- S.V.
A: JPMorgan has said it will assume Bear Stearns' obligations once the acquisition is complete. And because the deal was negotiated and blessed by the Federal Reserve, it's likely to be finalized. When that happens, it will be as though you purchased JPMorgan bonds, not Bear Stearns bonds.

That should give you comfort. Although no corporate bond is as safe as a U.S. Treasury bond or an FDIC-insured bank CD, your bonds will be significantly safer than they were. Instead of a bond in a company teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, you will have a bond backed by one of the nation's strongest financial institutions--one with a Moody's rating of Aaa3 for bonds similar to yours. That's a strong rating.

Of course, investors lately have come to realize that strong ratings aren't always dependable. After all, Standard & Poor's was rating Bear Stearns bonds AA when the company was on the verge of bankruptcy in March. But typically ratings of A and above are a better sign than if you see B's or C's in bond ratings. If you see corporate bonds rated below A, you should assume there is a fairly strong risk that the company could have trouble paying you what you expect.

For a simple-to-read list of bond ratings see: "What Do Bond Ratings Mean?" at www.aarp.org/money/financial_planning/sessionsix/bonds.html.

Learning about risks in bonds is critical if you want to safeguard your money. Although the rescue of Bear Stearns has made your existing bonds more secure, you should make sure you don't take chances again. If you truly cannot afford to lose money, avoid corporate bonds and stick with safer choices...
Two pages down in the same business section was an ad for a CD which paid 4.50% for a 36 month term, no risk to principal at all. To make an extra $600 a year on each bond, the widow was risking a principal loss of $7000.

Frugal Ben says: Ms. MarksJarvis gave S.V. some good advice in the column, but she neglected to warn her about about getting bad advice from brokers. If S.V. took it upon herself to buy junk and ignored warnings from her broker, she got what she deserved. On the other hand, if she was faithfully following the advice of someone she trusted, she needs to be told to get a new broker: Advising someone in her circumstances to pursue higher yield in junk is unconscionable.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

For the Middle Class Investor: How to Invest in Bonds (Dinner with Frugal Bill)

A couple of weeks ago, I went to dinner with two of my brothers. We began talking about investments and Frugal Bill said he had recently taken a position in a bond mutual fund. He seemed disappointed when I was less than enthusiastic about this development, so I decided to do some research and write a post to clarify my own thoughts about the matter.

We will be roaming through the subject of bond investing in future posts, so do not expect to find all of Frugal Ben's thoughts about the matter right here.

The first thing you need to know about bond investing is that it is extremely complicated. Far more complicated than the financial press and the mutual fund companies want to admit! When these sources of information represent bond investing as relatively simple compared to investing in stocks, they are misleading you and you are correct to wonder if they do so out of ignorance or from outright desire to deceive. Either way, be careful!

There are basically five ways for the middle class investor to invest in bonds:

  1. Buy U.S. Savings Bonds at the local bank. This is a very safe investment, but a lot of trouble because you have to deal with the paper.
  2. Open a Treasury Direct account and invest in TIPS or other kinds of United States notes or bonds. This is an extremely convenient way to invest for the future with vehicles backed by the United States government. Frugal Ben says: Every middle class investor should have a Treasury Direct account which is used to make sure money needed for known future purposes will be there when it is needed. See prior post.
  3. Buy bond mutual funds. We will examine this later in more detail. Frugal Ben says: Mutual funds for bonds are very tricky. They are not nearly the conservative investments that mutual fund companies would like you to believe they are, but they are somewhat better than nothing.
  4. Buy the bonds yourself through a brokerage. Whether the bonds are corporate bonds, municipal bonds or junk bonds, this is an extremely complicated undertaking wherein you have to know a lot about inflation risks, default risks, recall risks, and all kinds of other risks. If the bond you are buying is a junk bond, all the normal risks are magnified. Buying bonds directly is something that is beyond the expertise of the average investor. Frugal Ben says: Don't do this unless you have devoted a lot of study to the matter.
  5. Invest your money in Certificates of Deposit. That's right, CD's. The kind that are offered by your local bank or savings and loan. Strange to say, few people realize that a CD is actually a bond!
In an earlier post aimed at challenging the folk wisdom which says stocks outperform bonds over the long haul, I showed information from Vanguard which indicated that bond fund investments could have been much less risky than stock fund investments over the past 10 years:

Investments of $10,000 would have grown as follows:
Total International Stock Index $20,527
Total Bond Market Index $17,546
Total Stock Market Index $15,477
Here's an update on that post.

I did some crude research on CD rates for the 10 year period roughly overlapping the same information from Vanguard. First, I looked for information about historical cd rates. That led me to a Federal Reserve webpage from which I was able to construct estimates of what an investor would have achieved if he or she had invested in 6 month certificates of deposit from 1998 to February 2008, roughly the same 10 year period covered by the Vanguard figures reported above.

An investor who used average 6-month CD's to manage $10,000 in this 10 year period would have had $15031 at the end of the 10 years. This is a very conservative estimate of the investor's results. It presupposes that the investor did not shop around for the best rates in his/her area or on the internet and it also presupposes that the investor did not take advantage of higher rates offered for longer term investments. It is quite possible that an investor who searched aggressively for good CD rates of varying durations would have done at least as well and maybe even better than the investor in Vanguard's Total Stock Market Index.

Speculation aside, what can we learn from comparing the CD investment with the others?

On the one hand, $15031 is the lowest of the results cited above. All the investments cited above beat this estimated result.

On the other hand, consider the risk factor. The $10,000 investment in CD's had absolutely no risk of a loss of principal. At any time during the 10 year period, the investor could have gotten back the entire principal plus interest except for the interest for the last 90 days before redemption. In regard to both of the stock mutual funds, the loss of principal for an investor who suddenly needed the money could have been substantial, especially in 2003. An investor who chose the Total Stock Market Index would have taken on enormous risk to principal to earn an additional $446 over the 10 year period.

Frugal Ben says:

As of May 2008, CD rates are nothing to write home about.

Nevertheless, CD's are an extremely safe, dependable, easy-to-understand investment product which frugal investors should not disdain. Using CD's in combination with stock investments can help you preserve what you accumulate. If you have future obligations which you must meet, CD's guarantee that the principal will be there when you need it.

If you have a brokerage account, you can probably buy CD's there. The process is typically very convenient. Rates will be reasonably competitive and you should get a rate exceeding the brokerage's money market rate if you want to park cash and stay out of the stock market for a few months. On top of that, paperwork is very easy.

For the best rates, shop around at your local banks to see what kind of "Manager Specials" they offer! These specials can have rates considerably higher than the normal CD rates. Also check Bankrate.com or other sources for the best rates available on the internet.

It's a pain to constantly search for better rates and roll over your money from bank to bank, especially when you are emotionally attached to an institution. Be ruthless! The end results make the effort worthwhile!

Free File Launching Program Available May 6

Interesting piece of software is being offered at www.giveawayoftheday.com as a freebie.

Download page is at http://www.giveawayoftheday.com/recentx/

The program - RecentX - keeps track of files, folders etc. that you use daily. These become available for almost instant launching. It's like clicking your Start button, then Documents or Programs, but on steroids. This kind of launching is extremely handy if your file structures are complex or you need to frequently visit folders that might be buried deeply in locations like the User folders in Documents and Settings.

You can see reviews at the download page.

Frugal Ben Says:

If you have never downloaded from the site before, exercise discretion.

There is wide variation in quality from one day to the next. Some software is extremely good, other software can be quite bad. If you have a way of installing into a sandbox to test software without changing your primary drive, that's ideal. Naturally, back up your C:\ drive before you install so that you can revert if necessary. Also, not a bad idea to install late in the day, after there are lots of comments that show how the installation process and program worked for others.

Finally, downloads will contain a Readme file with registration instructions. It is extremely important to follow these instructions precisely! Otherwise, you could end up with a 30-day trial version of the program rather than a free version.

Finally, if everything works well and you like the program, backup your C:\ drive again so that you do not lose the freebie if something goes wrong with Windows or other programs and you have to reinstall.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

We Dodged a Bullet: Extremists Failed to Privatize Social Security

The stock market, like any other market, goes through cycles of activity. A secular bear market is a long period of time in which prices stagnate or decline and investors suffer punishing losses from which they might never recover. Such secular bear markets can last as long as 25 years!

Since the mid 1990's, Washington extremists have been pushing the idea of privatizing Social Security. In this endeavor, they have shown themselves to be ignorant of - or maliciously indifferent to - secular stock market trends.

Up to now, they have been unsuccessful in privatizing Social Security so as to enrich Wall Street.

A Marketplace.org commentator reflects on their failure and says,
The best thing to have happened during the Bush administration is something that did not happen.
Listening is more enjoyable!

Read if you must!

Macfrugality? Are Mac Owners Smug and Clueless?

From Marketplace.org:
A new marketing study has found Mac owners tend to think they're more extraordinary than the average Joe. They're also more likely than PC users to whiten their teeth, drive hybrids, drink Starbucks coffee and eat organic food. Andrea Gardner reports.
This is even more amusing heard (interview lasts about 90 seconds) but read if you must.

Frugal Ben wants to know: What is MacFrugality?

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Economics as Science or Religion: McCain Must Decide

David Leonhardt paints an insightful picture of the dilemmas faced by politicians who try to use scientific, evidence based economics versus faith based economics:
When Douglas Holtz-Eakin took over in 2003 as the director of the Congressional Budget Office — the nation’s bean counter in chief — he walked right into a firestorm.

For years, Republicans had been pushing the budget office to change the way it estimated the cost of a tax cut. Rather than looking only at the revenue lost, they argued, the office should also consider how tax cuts would change behavior. With lower tax rates, businesses would invest more, workers would work more — and the government would thus get a tax windfall. This, in a nutshell, is supply-side economics.

A bearded academic, Mr. Holtz-Eakin had just finished a stint in the Bush administration and had spoken favorably about dynamic analysis. So his appointment excited Republicans almost as much as it scared Democrats. Senator Kent Conrad went so far as to call it “a mistake.”

But it turns out that both parties underestimated Mr. Holtz-Eakin. He did indeed begin using dynamic analysis, which makes a lot of sense, since tax rates really do alter people’s behavior. Yet he used it as it should be used.

What the budget office found, as study after study has shown, was that any new revenue that tax cuts brought in paled in comparison with their cost. This is why the deficit jumped under the last two tax-cutting presidents (Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush) and fell under the last two tax-raising presidents (George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton).
Leonhardt goes on:
Today, Mr. Holtz-Eakin again finds himself in a firestorm. He is the top economic adviser to John McCain’s presidential campaign, and some fiscal conservatives have begun wondering what happened to the Douglas Holtz-Eakin who was a teller of unpleasant truths. For that matter, they’re wondering what happened to the John McCain who was a fiscal conservative himself, the man who not only railed against profligate spending but also voted against Mr. Bush’s deficit-creating tax cuts.
Now McCain must decide whether he will use scientific understanding to illuminate the country's economic condition or pander to extremists who value ideology over facts.

Frugal Ben Says: Benjamin Franklin and the other fathers of our country were proponents of science. Duh Uhhh! What do you think these patriots would tell McCain to do?

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Free Market Ideology: The Danger to Real-Time Investors

If you are a middle-class investor protecting a family, you should learn as much as you can about "free market" ideology. It's a set of faith-based beliefs that shapes the financial industry in general and the corporate philosophies of many companies whose stock you purchase. If you think you can safely invest for your family without critically examining how this faith-based economics affects the managers of your investments, you are a sheep headed for a shearing.

The central element in free market ideology is a utopian vision of society in which economic activities can be pursued with little or no government regulation.

Concretistic descriptions of a free market can be found all over the internet. Wikipedia's is a bit more sophisticated:

A free market is a market in which prices of goods and services are arranged completely by the mutual consent of sellers and buyers. By definition, in a free market environment buyers and sellers do not coerce or mislead each other nor are they coerced by a third party.

Say Again? Buyers and sellers do not mislead one another?

On April 17, 2008, two stories ran in adjacent columns of the New York Times business section. The position of the articles invites the attentive reader to wonder, "Has American business leadership deteriorated to a point where executives are expected to deceive and mislead as a normal part communication with shareholders?"

The centerfold story: Patience Wears Thin: G.E.'s Shortfall Calls Credibility Into Question

For seven lean years, Wall Street has given General Electric and its chief executive, Jeffrey R. Immelt, the benefit of the doubt.

...Now, in the wake of a surprise earnings shortfall last week, Wall Street's patience has run out as the stock has plunged to its lowest level in four years.

...Shares of G.E. closed at $32.23 on Wednesday, down from about $37 a week ago, and off sharply from where they were before Mr. Immelt took over on Sept. 7, 2001.

For Mr. Immelt, the problem now is not just the earnings disappointment — the consensus estimate for the first quarter was 51 cents and G.E. reported 44 cents — but a looming credibility gap. On March 13, he assured investors the company was on track to meet its profit targets. And in December, he told analysts that G.E.'s goal of earnings growth of at least 10 percent in 2008 was "in the bag."

..."I've been covering the company since 1996, and I've never seen a miss this big," said Nicole Parent of Credit Suisse, who had rated G.E. as her top pick but downgraded it to neutral after the earnings report...

When the news broke shortly after 6 a.m. last Friday, Mr. Tusa said: "I was on the train, and I almost fell out of my seat. It was a shock — people thought it was a misprint."

...Even defenders of Mr. Immelt admit that the juxtaposition of the rosy predictions and the ensuing shortfall have shaken the reputation of G.E., which is the sixth-largest American company by revenue as well as a barometer of the broader economy.

The adjacent story: Retailers Get Stingy With Data

J. C. Penney says the tumultuous economy is making it impossible to predict earnings over the next year. Macy's asserts that providing monthly sales information is too distracting and confusing. And Starbucks argues that annual profit estimates are unnecessary.

In American retailing, less is suddenly more — at least when it comes to giving investors the sort of financial information they have long expected from companies.

Faced with an economic slump, a growing number of national retailers are abandoning the longstanding tradition of reporting monthly store sales and forecasting annual profits.

The stores say that they are eliminating outdated practices that encourage short-term decision-making and can confuse investors.

But many Wall Street analysts and investors, who rely on these numbers to gauge a company's health and the mood of the American consumer, are crying foul. The motive for providing less financial insight, they suspect, is to avoid issuing embarrassing numbers in the middle of a recession, numbers that can drive down a company's stock price.

So far this year, Starbucks, Macy's, CVS, Caremark and Jos. A. Bank have ditched one or both of the financial reporting practices that were once standard in retailing.

And on Wednesday, J. C. Penney joined the list, saying it would stop offering annual profit estimates, known in the industry as guidance, at least for now. (It will still provide monthly sales and quarterly profit estimates.)

Myron E. Ullman, the chief executive of J. C. Penney, said that with the housing market in turmoil and gas prices surging, "there is not enough visibility to give something meaningful."

The analysts who track J. C. Penney and the rest of the retail business can barely contain their frustration with all the lip zipping. "Withholding information is not what investors want," said Bill Dreher, a longtime retail analyst at Deutsche Bank Securities. "They want clarity."

A tough economy, Mr. Dreher added, "is a time to be more communicative, not a time to deprive us of guidance or clamp down on information."

How does this affect you? It's simple!

You can't make good investment decisions about companies whose executives camouflage the company's state from its investors!

Look at the situation of a buy-and-hold investor who trusted Immelt in December when he said 10% earnings growth was "in the bag" or trusted him in March when he said the company's profit targets were on track. On April 10, that investor's GE closed at $36.75. On April 11, after the earnings report was issued, Frugal Ben bought some GE for $32.

Today, the stock is trading at $32.25. Ben is happy enough with that. The stock pays a 3.25 % dividend yield which allows Ben to wait for the first good selling opportunity so that he can dump this speculative puppy.

The trusting investor lost about 13% of his investment overnight. If he needed to sell now, he's screwed. To break even, he has to wait until the stock appreciates almost 15%.

Free market dupes often argue that stories like the above confirm the effectiveness of a deregulated market: Eventually, the dupes tell us, misrepresentation or concealment gets discovered without government intervention and the market corrects the problem. This sort of wacky reassurance misses the point and is of no use to retail investors! You are not and never will be the market as a whole over an infinite period of time. You're the investor who gets robbed today and all too often cannot make up the loss over the rest of your investing lifetime.

The free market utopia pops up all the time in our political discourse but is rarely recognized for the faith-based reification that it is.

Few people would be taken in by the wackiness when someone says "Vote for me! I want to eliminate all government regulation concerning car thefts. We don't need that kind of regulation, we need freedom! We live in a country where the general economy keeps improving. You will be better off in the future than you are now. So, if your car is stolen, eventually you will recover from the loss."

If that doesn't play, why should one believe a free market utopian who promises, "Vote for me! I want to eliminate all government regulation concerning corporate investment misrepresentation. We don't need that kind of regulation, we need freedom! We live in a country where the general economy keeps improving. You will be better off in the future than you are now. So, if your investment gets whacked 13% or 50% or even 100% because executives deceived you, eventually you will recover from the loss."

When you shop for a house, you enjoy some protection because the seller is required to truthfully disclose information in response to your direct questions about house defects. Why should the situation be different when you shop for a stock?

Frugal Ben Says:

Inoculate yourself against simple-minded arguments from free market extremists. They are preachers of a utopian fantasy irrelevant to real middle class people. Teach yourself to think critically about their assurances that an unregulated market helps investors.

In the real world, investors are entitled to accurate information about what they are buying. We cannot trust executives to provide such information in unregulated markets. By the time the market catches on to cheats, irreversible damage to middle class people has already been done.

You will never have perfect information when you make an investment decision.

On the other hand, you are entitled to good information - that is, information free from distortion rooted in incompetence, irresponsibility or outright deceit.

In short, you are entitled to market regulation that guarantees transparency from prima donna executives.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Lend Your Loved One Money, Then Pay Gift Tax?

When helping your kids or other loved ones with a loan, you can run afoul of the Federal Gift Tax.

One way to deal with that tax is by lending children money:
Lend and borrow money.

Credit between family members requires the formalities of a bank loan, but the rate can be more favorable.

If you lend money to family members — say, to buy a house or a car, start a business or pay off an unfavorable bank loan — you must charge a minimum rate of interest set each month by the Treasury, called the applicable federal rate. In April, the rate for long-term loans (those lasting more than nine years) and requiring monthly payments is an extremely attractive 4.31 percent.

Alternatively, you can benefit parents or siblings by borrowing money from them and paying more interest than they could get from money markets or bank C.D.'s. There's no maximum government-set rate, but Mr. Moore suggests you "mimic the market" by paying what a bank in your area would charge for a comparable personal loan.

See more about other frugal techniques for dealing with this issue:

When Generosity Bumps Into Gift Tax
By DEBORAH L. JACOBS
April 21, 2008
THESE days, many prosperous baby boomers are subsidizing parents, and sometimes siblings, who are less fortunate. Innocuous as this may seem, being generous can also subject you to gift tax. While helping a family member often occurs under the radar, if the gift exceeds a certain value and the I.R.S. catches it, you could be forced to pay the tax as well as interest...

PC World Editor: Free Web Services Disappear, Then What?

Harry McCracken warns: Pay attention to "Important" e-mail from free Web services!
If your favorite free Web service sends you an e-mail that declares itself "Important," open it pronto--and brace yourself for grim news. If my in-box is any indication, "Important" is becoming a cold, hard euphemism for Sorry, pal, the free ride is over.

In just the last month or so, Driveway notified me (and 8 million other users) that it was discontinuing its online storage service. UReach.com told me it was taking away my all-in-one messaging service--unless I started paying at least $5 a month. And
Searchbutton, which hosted the search engine for my personal Web site, instituted a $500 annual fee for the service it had been giving away.

There's no denying the facts: Lots of companies that thought they could make a business out of free services can't. Either they start charging, or they disappear...

http://www.pcworld.com/article/id,47511/article.html

Frugal Ben Says: Is this problem with free web services or with all web services? What happens if you are trustingly backing up your important data to a backup site for which you pay a monthly fee and the company goes out of business? You might wish you had also been backing it up to a hard drive or DVD in your personal possession.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Freebies Vintage 2003: Some that aged well

From PCWorld, Best Free Stuff on the Web 2003
Fed by the Fed

Federal Web sites can out-shovel anyone when it comes to free data, but they often lack interface niceties. Still, for certain kinds of statistics, there's no better place to poke around. FedStats is a gateway to stats from federal agencies. Just pick a subject (Environment, say), and a list of relevant agencies, from EPA to NASA, pops up. Click the Key Statistics link to get quick hits on notable studies. You could also turn to the Social Law Library's State Law Page for a comprehensive and current list (organized by state) of links to state agencies, courts, and laws.

Frugal Ben Says: FedStats is very convenient when you are starting some research.
Scouting the Web

Web newsletters appeared minutes after the Web debuted. One of the first and best is The Scout Report, a weekly digest of useful sites with an academic bent. (Specialized spin-offs are devoted to physics, life sciences, and math/engineering/technology.) A typical 20-item report might reveal new figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, an archive on the free speech movement, a cool online collection of sheet music, and a special focus on a topic in the news.

Frugal Ben Says: Worth subscribing to. See Scout Report Archives for sample newsletters.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

2007 - Soros Predicts Recession. 2008 - Bernanke and Paulson Still In Dark

Frugal Ben says investors need truthful information from public officials, not cloying bon-bons. Well, it was Valentine's Day!
February 14 2008
Treasury secretary and Fed chairman say rate cuts and rebates should keep economy out of recession

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson both acknowledged problems in the U.S. economy Thursday, but both said they believe the nation will avoid falling into recession.

The two made their comments at a hearing before the Senate Banking Committee about the economy. Their testimony comes in the wake of troubling economic readings that have raised recession fears on Wall Street...
Not everyone was still in the dark:

From "The Face of a Prophet": April 2008 Article about George Soros.

...But last summer, at a luncheon at his home in Southampton with 20 prominent financiers, he struck an unusually bearish note.

"The mood of the group was generally gloomy, but George said we were going into a serious recession,” said Byron Wien, the chief investment strategist of Pequot Capital, a hedge fund.

Mr. Soros was one of only two people there who predicted the American economy was headed for a recession, he said.

Shortly after that luncheon Mr. Soros began meeting with hedge fund managers like John Paulson, who was early to predict a crisis in the housing market. He interrogated his portfolio managers and external hedge funds that manage his fund’s money, and he took on new positions to hedge where they might have gone wrong. His last-minute strategies contributed to a 32 percent return — or roughly $4 billion for the year.

You think Henry Paulson might learn something from John Paulson, or what? (They are not related. )

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Taxpayers Foot the Bill for Olympic Torch Fantasy

Forget about Bay Area economic problems! San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsome was determined to have his Olympic Torch Relay Farce despite the fact that no one had any idea how much the massive security measures would eventually cost local, state and federal taxpayers.

What's the history of this ritual that Newsom deemed so important? Edward Rothstein lays it out:
Look to the opening of Leni Riefenstahl’s 1938 film, “Olympia.”

In that homage to Berlin’s 1936 Olympic Games the origins of this ritual are revealed. Never before had a lighted torch been relayed from a Greek temple in Olympia to an athletic competition, let alone by thousands of runners trying to keep it from being extinguished.

So Riefenstahl creates the myth the Greeks never got around to telling, creating a filmic counterpart to the opening of Wagner’s “Ring,” in which an entire world gradually emerges from elemental fragments. The camera begins by surveying a misty landscape of ruins, of shattered pillars and overgrown grasses. Restless and circling, the camera reveals a Greek temple standing amid the stones. Heads and the bodies of Greek statues appear in an eerie erotic landscape. Under the sensuous caresses of Riefenstahl’s lens, a naked discus thrower comes to life, polished stone becoming muscular flesh. Another athlete prepares to throw a javelin, its trajectory leading toward a bowl of fire. Lighting the Olympic torch, another nude acolyte triumphantly raises it aloft like Wagner’s Siegfried displaying his sword.

Humanity is given its purpose; the relay begins. The torch is conveyed from one bearer to the next and ends in Berlin at a 110,000-seat stadium where it ignites an altar of flame. Through shimmering heat the sun itself can be seen, vibrating in sympathy. And Hitler salutes the cheering crowds.

This passing of the torch thus demonstrates a lineage of inheritance — a historical relay — making Nazi Germany the living heir to Ancient Greece.
With a history like that, would anyone be surprised that the torch run lends itself to controversy? But somebody seems to be: Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge said, "It is a crisis, there is no doubt about that." He added, "But the IOC has weathered many bigger storms." Bigger storms? What's he talking about? Integrity issues? If that's what he's talking about, just wait and see what the politically connected do in Daley's Chicago if that city wins its Olympics bid!

Sports are wonderful when everyday people are the participants. But big time sports are just another mechanism for transferring wealth from the middle classes to elites.

Frugal Ben says taxpayers should evict officials who intemperately spend on divisive, wacky Aryan fantasies.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Frugal Ending to Lives of Subway Cars

From the New York Times, we learn that Delaware is frugally putting old subway cars to good use:
One by one, a machine operator has been shoving hundreds of retired New York City subway cars off a barge, continuing the transformation of a barren stretch of ocean floor into a bountiful oasis, carpeted in sea grasses, walled thick with blue mussels and sponges, and teeming with black sea bass and tautog.
According to Jeff Tinsman, “They’re basically luxury condominiums for fish.”

Enjoy! Be sure to take a few seconds to see the slide shows!

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Is TurboTax Worth the Price?

Last year I used TaxCut to prepare my income tax returns. I did it because TurboTax - the program I used for the prior five or six years - kept asking me about a leased car that was long gone from my life. Many years ago I used the car for business, then returned it to the leasing company when the lease ran out. After that, the car was sold, probably more than once. Meantime, TurboTax kept obsessing about it, kept demanding information about its mileage and expenses, kept refusing to let me delete the thing from my tax preparations and move on with my life.

TaxCut made the deletion simple, just as I hoped it would. My prior experience with both programs indicated that TaxCut always performed better than TurboTax in regard to deletion of irrelevant, obsolete data. Maybe its makers should go into the divorce business?

This year I went back to TurboTax because I got a better software bundle and rebate with it.

But when I got to the end of the filing procedure, the program disappointed me. It charged me $17.95 to electronically file my federal return, just as the package said it would. Then it whacked me another $17.95 to file state tax forms. This charge is a large bump-up from last year, when I used TaxCut. Was it really worth almost 36 bucks to file electronically? Probably not.

So what's a frugal person to consider in regard to tax preparation software?

First, do you need it all? Well, probably you do:

  • For all but the simplest tax situations, a computer program for doing your tax returns is a must! If your tax situation is complicated enough to require you to use the long Form 1040, it's unwise (errors will occur) and very difficult to do your return by hand.
  • All major tax preparation programs guide you through an interview which will allow you to prepare an accurate form. Needed information is automatically placed in all the proper spaces and all calculations are guaranteed correct.
  • Using a program saves a lot of time compared to doing taxes by hand. It might even be faster for you than using a tax preparer! I still shake my head over how long it took to gather tax materials, organize them, write notes and then drop the package off with my accountant. Even more time was burned up in inevitable phone calls and emails needed to clarify things. When I started using software to prepare my own taxes, I saved time.
  • Using even the most expensive program probably costs less than taking your stuff to a tax preparer.
The big problem with tax preparation software is that it is way overpriced! This is especially true of the most popular programs like TurboTax or TaxCut.

No matter that you factor in rebates and bundles, your final cost for such programs has steadily increased far more than inflation during the past several years. What justifies the increase?

Even when there are huge changes in the tax code, the bulk of the material in the tax forms filed by individuals changes little from year to year. When tax regulations require program adjustments, the software manufacturers need do little except tweak the code and the programs will compute taxes perfectly for their targeted tax year. If you use these programs long enough, you will see that any advertised "improvements" are mostly marketing hypes that ultimately benefit the software company, not you.

Real improvements occur slowly and incrementally. That's why there are no substantial differences between the most popular tax products - competitors have plenty of time to copy one another. Any minor differences that exist are probably going to be undiscoverable until you purchase and install the product and fill out your tax forms. By that time, you are not going to ask for your money back so you can start from scratch with something else.

Confronted by these unjustifiable price increases, most people just suck it up: They pay a bloated price for software that remains, from the user's perspective, basically unimproved from year to year. Then they get over it!

But there are other things you can do:
  • Watch for the best sale prices you can find. For example, consider what I thought was a good deal at Staples. Here's an update. I got Quicken Starter bundled with TurboTax but had to pay for electronic filing. The Quicken, TurboTax and filing fees finally cost about $75. At the Intuit website, I would have gotten "free" filing, but would have paid $84.90 for state and federal tax programs and would have gotten no free Quicken. Total savings: Around $40 on $85 purchase.
  • State and federal tax sites are improving every year. Be sure to check out how they can help you deal with regular income taxes. What do they offer in the way of free filing, online or otherwise? What do they do for you in terms of free electronic payments or refunds? Practice frugality by exploring these resources well before you need them. For example, do it around December or January instead of shopping and partying.....Weeeeell, NOT! Just do it early.
  • If you should pay estimated federal or state taxes, check government websites for programs which will automate the process for you without any charge.
  • There are three reasons to electronically transmit your tax forms: Transmission leads to fewer errors than scanning paper forms, it is said. Transmission is faster if you let things go to the last minute and the post office has closed. Finally, your government likes it because it makes things easier. Should you pay $35 for someone to transmit your forms and payment to the government after you have already paid a bloated price for software? That doesn't seem fair.
What's the most frugal solution to the problem?

Before the tax deadline, check with your friends and relatives. Who will be installing tax software on their computers?

Prepare your return on one of those computers and print the return. Then drink some beer with your benefactor. Later, mail the return to IRS with a check. Frugal and fun! If you are in a hurry to file and your form is simple enough, another alternative might be to transfer the information to forms on a free government website and pay taxes or get your refund electronically. That would be frugal and fast.

Either way, you're not paying $36 for a service which would be fairly priced if it were reduced by 50 to 75 percent.