Archive for March, 2008

Not exempt

A recent quote in the Herald-Leader really set me off.  In an article about recent high gas prices, one woman was quoted as saying “as Americans, we shouldn’t have to go through this.”

WHAT?!?!  Exactly, pray tell, why not??

Ignorant comments like this really ought not be published.  By living in the United States, are we somehow sheltered in an economic bubble that doesn’t ride the wave of global economics?   Is America exempt from the laws of supply and demand (or in this case, more accurately, foreign price controls), is America simply entitled to cheaper oil simply because of our stubborn reliance on gas-guzzling vehicles?  Or even more appalling, because of our status as Americans?

America’s wealth has afforded us a lifestyle that most of the world would see as lavish.  I see this as a privilege, not a right.  Sadly, many people have become so accustomed to the “lifestyle protection” that our status as Americans  has offered, that as the bottom drops out of the dollar we feel that some great injustice has been  done.  We’ve become fat, lazy, and incapable of managing our own lives.

We’re simply entitled to better because, dammit, we’re Americans.  It doesn’t matter that just a few hundred miles off our southern coast, entire nations exist whose populations live off of less than a buck a day.  Every nation falls into economic hardship at some point or another.  When those economies fall, they don’t eat.  When ours falls, we trade the Suburban for a Honda.

Folks, as Americans we’re not exempt from economic woe.  Yet rather than complain about the cost of gassing up our cars, shouldn’t we be grateful for the fact that we can put food on the table for our families?

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Can’t Save? Blame Your Brain.

A friend passed this on to me this morning… I think it’s an excellent article.  The only thing I wish he’d mentioned was the importance of doing your research before buying an investment.

(Money Magazine) — Slow and steady wins the race, but a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Those dueling proverbs sum up the investing mind.

When you imagine choosing between making a quick buck or growing rich later, you know the right answer: Be patient and hold out for the bigger gain. But as soon as you face a real rather than an imaginary choice, the fast money seems irresistible.

New discoveries in neuroscience labs are helping to explain why it’s so hard to resist the allure of instant gratification. It turns out that your brain is much more aroused by $1 today than by $1 tomorrow. And $1 six months from now barely registers.

Only the promise of a much bigger reward later can fire up your brain the way an immediate score does. No wonder it’s hard to save instead of spend and, when you do save, to think long term; the average holding period for a stock, among individual and professional investors alike, is just over 11 months.

And the temptation to buy dotcom stocks in 1999, energy stocks in 2005, real estate in 2006, emerging markets in 2007 or gold right now — what’s hot when it’s hot — is overpowering for many people, no matter how often they’ve been burned before.

A sip now or a slurp later?

Recent experiments conducted independently by three teams of researchers at leading universities have focused on the battle in the brain between now and later.

Tracking people’s choices and their brain activity, one group tested whether college kids would rather have a sip of fruit juice soon or a slurp later. They also tracked how folks decided between Amazon.com gift certificates redeemable the same day for a small amount and those redeemable up to four weeks later for a larger amount.

A second team offered people the choice between $20 immediately and an array of alternatives ranging from $20.25 six hours later to $110 six months later. And a third group measured how individuals responded to the choice between various dollar amounts today and an extra 5 percent to 30 percent up to six months later.

“When our emotions are charged, we have a hard time waiting for a reward,” says Carnegie Mellon University’s George Loewenstein, one of the first study’s authors. Even the chance of getting a slightly bigger reward tomorrow doesn’t have the same stimulating effect on your brain as a gain today does.

It’s all downhill from there. A gain the day after tomorrow carries even less of an emotional kick, and so on. In fact, to the typical person, $20 now is better than $23 three weeks from now, $40 three months from now or $47 six months from now, according to the second study, led by a pair of New York University researchers.

In short, for your brain to be willing to wait a mere three weeks for a higher payout, that $20 would have to grow at an annualized rate of roughly 4,800 percent.

Rational? Hardly. But evolutionwise, the response makes sense. In our hunter-gatherer days we often faced scarcity. And when we’re really hungry, a future feast has to be huge to justify choosing it over eating now.

So are we moderns doomed to save and invest like cavemen? Not necessarily. Knowing that you operate in what NYU’s Paul Glimcher calls “as soon as possible” mode is the first step to making better financial decisions. Willpower and good intentions, though, aren’t enough. You need help. Here’s what to do:

Lock in for later. Saving now is harder than planning to save later. So commit yourself to doing the right thing a year from today. Want to raise your 401(k) contribution? Use calendar software to mark the distant date when you’ll take action — and send an e-mail to a small group of friends now and on that day reminding them that you have committed.

Don’t take your lumps. When you change jobs, it’s tempting to take the money in your old 401(k) as a lump sum instead of rolling it into a new plan or an IRA, especially if you’re decades from retirement. So whenever you’re starting a job hunt, pledge in writing to a friend that you will roll over the retirement account.

Likewise, if you are older and are fortunate enough to have built up a sizable pension benefit, pledge that instead of taking a lump sum when you’re eligible, you will string your pension out over many years as an annuity. Have that commitment witnessed by friends or family members who are younger than you are so they will likely be around when you put away the work shoes.

Similarly, when you’re investing your savings, you need to resist the temptation to simply go for whatever looks as if it will provide a quick return. Take these steps:

Answer two big questions. Why — other than a rising stock price — should I invest in this business? Do I have any reason to think that I know more about this company than whoever sells me the stock?

Sleep on it. If putting money into a hot mutual fund is really a good idea, it’ll still be one tomorrow. Waiting until the next morning won’t cost you much profit, but letting your brain’s anticipation circuitry cool down overnight could save you from an ill-timed bet. And you’ll be richer for your patience.

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On snowstorms and igloos…

As I write this, Kentucky is in the throes of a “massive winter storm”… the “biggest storm in ten years.” Actual snowfall accumulation was about 5 inches. While my comments drip with sarcasm, I recognize that 5 inches is a pretty remarkable snowfall for Kentucky, but I can’t help but chuckle.

Now to their credit, Kentucky snowstorms are bizarre.. they often start with ice. Lots and lots of ice. I still can’t get used to it. Why can’t it just snow?? Why must I brush all the snow off my car only to be met with another quarter-inch of ice that must now be chiseled off? Feet and feet of snow is no big deal… that I can handle that because you just brush it away, and you can actually drive remarkably fast on it. But ice?? I’d do donuts if I could actually get enough traction to get one started!

Growing up in Wisconsin, a five-inch snowfall was pretty routine; heck, even welcomed because for a moment things were white again as opposed to the yellow-brown snow that weeks of sand, plowing, and traffic tends to create.

I have such fond memories of the “real” winters of Wisconsin. When I was younger, winters were awesome! Winter meant sledding, snowmobiles (!!!), outdoor hockey and a general excitement that I just can’t seem to covey to my southern friends. So imagine my delight when I came home yesterday to find my neighbors building an igloo. An IGLOO!! The last time I saw a real honest-to-God igloo was about 18 years ago when I lived in northern Wisconsin (Milltown… about an hour east of Minneapolis for the Google-maps nerds) when we built one in our backyard. I remember pre-forming the blocks in our backyards, covering the snow with water so they’d freeze hard like bricks. The key (as best as I can remember from 18 years ago) to good igloo-building is to stack the snow bricks just like real bricks, using pack snow as mortar, and then get inside the igloo for several minutes so that your body heat creates just a slight ice layer on the inside walls. The ice acts as a buffer between you and the snow walls – it keeps the heat inside, but the snow on the other side of the ice stays cold enough to not melt. If done properly, an igloo is actually remarkably warm on the inside – that much I remember for certain.

So with five inches of snow now rapidly melting, I miss “real” winters. I miss snowmobiles big-time… and the sledding hill by my house with the huge jumps that left bruises from wiping out on them… pick-up hockey games on the outdoor rinks… feet and feet of snow… Funny thing is now that it’s March I’m ready for spring. The longer I live in Kentucky, the less fun winter seems. Maybe I’m just getting old, maybe I’ve lived here too long. Probably both.

I should become the anti-snowbird. I’ll buy a winter home back in Wisconsin. It will have a big sledding hill next door, a huge fireplace, and at least two snowmobiles parked out front. Salt will be a forbidden commodity.. a shovel and a decent set of snow chains is much cheaper… and better for the environment! And if I get snowed in, I’ll just hitch a sled to the back of the snowmobile. Oh yes, and a little lake nearby that will freeze over so we can play hockey.

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