Coffee heat rising

Assets reviving

Well, even though unemployment doesn’t seem to get any better, the economy is said to be recovering. And as a matter of fact, my savings are starting to come back. Last March, investments hit a low point of $420,565, having lost just under $160,000 in ten months. This month, the balance is at $480,753, a $60,188 gain in 8½ months. Not bad, considering that after we were told our office would be closed and our entire staff canned, I used $25,000 of my savings to pay off the second mortgage on my house and that I pay my $800 share of the mortgage on the downtown house with proceeds from those investments.

My financial advisers hope I can refrain from drawing down anything, including the mortgage payments, during 2010. I’m cashing in part of a whole life policy to cover that bill—it will pay the entire year’s worth. They think that if I can leave the money alone for a year, it will recover its former glory. With a $60,000 increase in less than a year, that almost sounds believable.

I’d be happy if it would come back up to $500,000—just another 20 grand—and stay there. A four percent drawdown from that, plus Social Security plus part-time teaching, would yield a net income just slightly less than GDU pays me. And that would cover the bills reasonably well, even though Medicare will drive my monthly costs significantly higher in retirement.

If I’d left the $25,000 in savings instead of using it to pay off the loan, of course, the total would be back at $500,000. But consider: the loan cost $169 a month. Four percent of $25,000 prorated monthly is less than half of that. And if anything happened so that I couldn’t make those payments, I could have lost my home. Now it’s very unlikely that anybody is going to take my house away from me. Not even if the market crashes so spectacularly that I lose every penny.

Let us watch and wait.

Image: ScooterSES, Tokens from the U.S. Deluxe Edition Monopoly.
Public Domain. Wikipedia Commons

How does your (financial) garden grow?

Over at A Gai Shan Life, Revanche has been contemplating the degree to which her investments have recovered from the late, great economic crash. In comparison to the pickle we were in just a few months ago, even “not great” returns look good!

Coincidentally, just a few days ago I happened to take a look at my own funds’ performance over the past year or so…the first time I’ve had the heart to do so in a long time.

My big IRA, which is professionally managed, has been doing a lot better the past couple of months. Between mid-September and mid-October, it increased by a healthy $4,288. The taxable Vanguard funds increased $1,623 over the same period.

The high point reached by all my scattered investment holdings (not counting real estate) occurred in April of 2008. As of about three days ago, the value of all my non-realty investments had dropped by $110,470 off that high. However, I used about $20,000 to pay off a small second mortgage on my home, and so the real difference in value is about –$90,470.

The low point occurred in March 2009. The most recent figures show a gain of about $49,145 from the low point. Again, we need to remember that I made that $20,000 withdrawal in May 2009, and that some of the gain consisted of contributions to the 403(b).

The total package of investments, then, has a ways to go before my illusory riches come back. I certainly don’t expect to regain the remaining $90,470 of the retirement savings that evaporated in the economic meltdown anytime during 2010, even if I succeed in leaving the funds untouched. Really, I’m pleased just to recover that $49,000.

What a ride we’ve had, eh? How are your investments doing? Are you seeing any sign of life yet?

How much was that dollar worth? Interesting money tool

In a history article for a client journal, one of our authors mentioned Measuring Worth, a nifty tool that allows you to compare a variety of money-related values over periods stretching back to 1774.  Among other things, it will calculate the relative worth of the dollar. Enter a specific sum and a year, and then ask what it would have been worth in a later  year. The engine disgorges the equivalent according to six different indicators: the consumer price index (CPI), the gross domestic product (GDP) deflator, the consumer bundle, the unskilled wage rate, the GDP per capita, and the GDP.

The first two are ways of measuring average prices. The third (consumer bundle) shows the average value of a household’s annual expenditures; the unskilled wage rate provides a way to compare wages over time. The GDP per capita is another way to compare income over time, and the GDP itself, the market value of all goods a country produces in a year, shows “how much money in the comparable year would be the same percent of all output.”

More on this feature in a minute.

First, though, let’s look at a feature of special interest to personal finance enthusiasts: Measuring Worth also has a tool that shows how much savings would have grown over time. Enter a value and a date, and then ask how much that value would be worth at another date (up to this year), and it will tell you the return on a short-term investment, a long-term investment, and a stock market investment.

So…let’s say your child is 19 years old now, and you’d like to send her to college. When she was born, in 1990, your parents gave you $1,000 to invest toward her education. If you’d put the money in an excruciatingly safe short-term asset, today it would be worth $2,060. Invested in a long-term asset with a term of 20 years, it would have yielded $4,973. And had you put it in a Dow Jones Average portfolio, you would have $4,196, a middling performance.

Well, what if your own parents gave you $1,000—say, when you were born—and now you’re about to retire? If you were 65 today, the gift would have come in 1944 (and it would have been a lot of moola in those days!). Assuming you kept that investment separate and didn’t add more cash other than reinvesting proceeds, how far would it go today toward supporting you in your old age?

Short-term investment: $16,457.53
Long-term investment, 30-year term: $32,816.67
DJA portfolio: $78,449.64

Whoa! Over a really long term, the stock market beats the other two investment modes, hands-down.

I wonder how our college girl would’ve been doing before the Bushies screwed up the economy. How much would her stock portfolio have been worth a couple of years ago, when she was 17?

Ah hah! $4,918. In the stock market, her savings would have fallen off $722 over the the year between 2007 and 2008. In a long-term investment instrument, it would’ve been worth $4,549 in 2007, $424 less than the most recent value. It appears that given competent national leadership that recognized the importance of regulating financial markets and was capable of an intelligent response to 9/11, she might have been better off in stocks and bonds.

Entertaining, isn’t it?

Now for the money story:

At the time my father was born, in 1909, his mother had about $100,000. She’d inherited this small fortune from her father, who had made it freighting buffalo hides out of Oklahoma into Texas. Also at about the time my father arrived, her husband ran off. He eventually was found dead by the side of a rural Texas highway. This left her alone with an infant, a change-of-life baby. My father had two elder brothers, the youngest of whom was 18 years older than he was. By the time he was born, both men were out of the house with families of their own.

She became involved with a Christian church on the fringes of mainline Protestantism, and she also became interested in spiritualism. She donated copious amounts to both causes. By the time my father was about ten years old, these worthies had sheared her of every penny that she had. She was left destitute.

Her home was taken away for taxes. She also lost a commercial property and another house she owned. The two older brothers, who knew nothing of this until they returned home and found her on the street, fell out over the fiasco. Tom, the eldest, was a ranch foreman who, of course, lived out in the sticks. He felt his middle brother, Ed, who lived in Fort Worth where their mother lived, should have been keeping an eye on her finances. The brothers were permanently alienated as a result of the bad feelings that arose in the wake of their mother’s impoverishment.

My father also was permanently affected. He developed a lifelong hatred of organized religion (his skepticism—shall we say—is the reason that to this day I will not donate to a church), and he also conceived a passion about money. He decided that, as his life’s goal, he would earn back the hundred thousand dollars.

And he did.

You understand, he was not a sophisticated man. He dropped out of high school in his junior year, lied about his age, and joined the Navy. He went to sea all his adult life, ultimately became a master mariner, and retired at the age of 53, when he achieved his goal of accruing $100,000 in savings. Details like the relative value of money were largely beyond his ken. Though he understood that a hundred grand didn’t make him a wealthy man in 1962, he had no way of anticipating the double-digit inflation of the 1970s. By the time that was over, the nest egg that would have kept him comfortable wasn’t worth enough to support him through his old age in a fashion other than basic poverty.

Luckily, he was a very frugal man by nature, and so it didn’t much matter: his lifestyle wouldn’t have changed, one way or the other.

I have always wondered what that $100,000 of 1909 would be worth in today’s dollars. Let’s enter it and the date of my father’s birth into the Measuring Worth relative value calculator. Current data, we’re told, are available only up to 2008. According to the various measures, today the dollar value of her inheritance would be…

CPI: $2,441,007.10
GDP Deflator: $1,777,507.10
Value of consumer bundle: $5,009,823.18
Unskilled wage: $10,307,228.92
Nominal GDP per capita: $13,314,632.87
Relative share of GDP: $44,808,290.00

In terms of purchasing power, my grandmother’s hundred grand would have been worth $2,441,077.10 in 2008. LOL! Think of the McMansion I could’ve bought with that as a down payment!

What if she had put her inheritance in the stock market, instead of diddling it away on her religious delusions? Invested in a nice, balanced portfolio, by the end of 2008 it would have been worth $16,595,085.85.

Well. Any way you look at it, if she been a little smarter about money and a little less inclined to woo-woo, today I wouldn’t be worrying about how I’m going to get by in retirement!

My father hugely underestimated the amount he would need to live comfortably into his mid-80s. Of course, without his mother’s crystal ball he couldn’t have anticipated the inflation that ate up his savings…but I think, given the way the government is spending money in the wake of the crash of the Bush economy, we can expect a similar inflationary period in the near future.

How much would I need in savings to have the equivalent of the $100,000 he had managed to earn back by 1962?

CPI:  $711,510.24
GDP Deflator: $569,106.07
Value of consumer bundle: $879,310.34
Unskilled wage: $809,366.13
Nominal GDP per capita: $1,510,749.04
Relative share of GDP: $2,465,665.02
Purchasing power: $711,510.24

Hm. If the least of these—$569,106.07—is what I’ll need to survive in moderate comfort (or not!), then I’m in deep trouble. Eighteen months ago, my savings were close to that. But today they sure aren’t, thank you very much, George and friends!

Welp, too late now. There’s not a thing I can do about it, so there’s no point in fretting. Tra la!

Slow Money: Countercultural thinker may have something…or not

I stumbled across Woody Tasch on NPR yesterday afternoon, when NPR’s All Things Considered ran a segment on his “slow money” concept, as it applies to a small organic dairy farm in upstate New York. It’s basically a variant onpeer-to-peer lending, or disintermediation, which cuts out the lending institutions with which we are presently feeling disgruntled.

The idea has a certain postmodern (or Depression-era?) charm. Like small-town bankers, we will all lend money to our friends and townspeople, here in the global village. Tasch’s take on it, however, is intriguing: that the speed with which financial transactions fly around the planet is a weakness in the global economy, because there are “structural limits to the power of industrial finance.”Speaking in favor of a simplified market, Tasch observes that “most recently, the subprime mortgage collapse signals the limits of ever accelerating, ever more complex, derivative-driven financial markets.”

He argues that the make-big-money-fast model, organized from “‘markets down’ rather than from the ‘ground up,'” works in favor of environmental degradation and, where food is concerned, brings us chemical-laden food, obesity, and hunger. Tasch focuses on socially responsible food production, suggesting that capital should be steered toward small, local, environmentally friendly farms and businesses.

It would be good to see organized support of farms that produce high-quality food all over the country. Wouldn’t it be awesome to have access to this kind of dairy product at a nearby market? Assuming, however, it came at a price one could afford…

Possibly if more financial support materializes for operations that produce organic foods, milk from grass-fed cows will become available at something less than $20 a gallon.

Not bankrupt after all?

Despite the extreme market volatility and the various grim economic prognoses, so far my December investment statements come bearing news nowhere near as hideous as expected.

My big IRA went up by $2,000 last month. The Vanguard funds rose $5,000 in December. TIAA-CREF, in the past highly sensitive to recession, went up $40 over the past quarter. I haven’t received the quarterly report for the Fidelity funds in my 403(b), but the same guys who run my IRA and advised me how to invest in Vanguard also told me what to do with my contributions to Fidelity, and so I’m hoping that statement will show about the same results.

Though I’m certainly not getting rich here (or even keeping up with inflation), at least I’m not losing money. Given the situation, that’s pretty good.

Interesting what these guys have invested in. Hmmm…they’ve stashed a fair amount in cash: 45 grand in the money market, another ten grand in cash reserves. But we remain invested in American Express, Bank of America, Berkshire Hathaway, Caterpillar (need lots of tractors, presumably, in Iraq and Afghanistan)…ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil, Occidental Petroleum (they like oil)…General Electric (they like energy overall). And get this: they like junk food: McDonald’s, Yum Brands.

Awww…lookit this photo: junk food is good for young love! Doesn’t that warm the cockles of your capitalist heart?

They’ve dumped some stuff…Seagate gone. Actually, they’ve dumped a lot of stuff: this statement is signficantly shorter than it has been in the past. Fewer stocks, more mutual funds. And I’ve never seen them move so much into cash holdings.

Well, my shirt may be slightly frayed, but at least I still have a shirt. This is not the time that I would like to retire, perforce by layoff. However, if it happens, apparently I won’t starve.

Pay off the loan vs. stash the cash

About $23,900 is owing on the second mortgage on my home, which I took out at 6.1% to renovate the investment house. I could pay the principal down at the rate of $250 a month plus about $3,500 a semester from a side job, or I could put that money into savings so it would be available to pay off the loan when I retire. Or, if I decide to sell my house (which is otherwise paid for), that amount would refill my pocket after the amount owing on the second is engrossed from the proceeds of the sale.

I figure this will allow me to pay off the mortgage in about two and a half years, or, over the same period, to accrue $25,000 in an interest-bearing account. Either way, the amount put into some kind of investment instrument–real estate or mutual fund–will be about the same.

Which is better? I agonize, I wring my dainty hands:

Item. The payment is very low–less than $170 a month.

Item. Despite the sagging real estate market, neither my house nor the investment house is losing much, because they are both in fairly “hot” central-city neighborhoods. Neither has dropped in value below what we paid; in fact, each has apparently risen somewhat. One is holding its value at about $50,000 to $70,000 more than its 2004 purchase price. The other is within walking distance to but out of earshot from a brand-new light rail route. In comparable cities, housing values have jumped along light rail lines. Barring a major recession, it’s unlikely either house will depreciate significantly.

Item. A major recession is not beyond the realm of possibility. In that case, property values certainly could drop, or worse, my son or I could lose our jobs. If that happened, it would be better to have $25,000 in liquid savings, not tied up in a house I may be unable to sell or even, if I’m unemployed, borrow against.

Item. My son and I plan to sell or rent the investment house in three to five years.

Item. Assuming things go well, I plan to retire in about three years. At that time I will have to decide whether to keep my house, which has much to recommend it, or to move someplace smaller and more economical to operate. If I decide to stay, I could use the $25,000 cash savings to pay off the loan or, at an 8% return, to cover the mortgage payments. If I decide to sell, about $23,000 will disappear from my profit on the house. But the cash savings will make up for it. Either way, it looks like a wash. In three years, I either have 23 grand put back into the house or I have 25 grand invested in a mutual fund.

Personally, I hate having a debt hanging over my head, and I hate paying interest. Even though the payment is low, if it runs the entire life of the loan I’ll end up paying twice as much as I borrowed. Of course, that won’t happen, because the investment house will be sold long before thirty years are up and I’ll pay off the renovation loan with the proceeds. Still, it’s a psychological burden. On the other hand, with the economy unsettled it may be better to stash the money in liquid instruments. Or convert it all to gold bullion and bury it in the backyard.
So: which is better? Keep the money liquid or put it back into real estate by paying off the loan?