Posts tagged ‘debt’

Debt Control: Turn Off Costly Sprinklers When Raining

By living in Southern California, I am acutely aware of the water shortage issues we face in this region of the country. We all have our pet peeves, and one that eats at me repeatedly occurs when I drive by a neighbor’s house and notice they are blasting the sprinklers in the pouring rain. I get the same sensation when I read about out-of control government spending confronting our current and future generations in light of the massive debt loads we presently carry.

I, like most people, love free stuff, whether it comes in the form of tooth-pick skewered, teriyaki meatball samples at Costco Wholesale Corp. (COST), or free government education from our school systems. But in times of torrential downpours, at a minimum, we need to be a little more cost conscious of our surroundings and turn off the spending sprinklers.

Certainly, when it comes to government spending, there’s no getting around the entitlement elephant in the room, which accounts for the majority of our non-discretionary government spending (see D-E-B-T: New Four Letter Word article). Unfortunately, layering on new entitlements on top of already unsustainable promises is not aiding our cause. For example, showering our Americans with free drugs as part of Medicare Part D program, and paying for tens of millions into a fantasy-based universal healthcare package (purported to save money…good luck) only serves to fatten up the elephant squeezed into our room.

Reform is absolutely necessary and affordable healthcare should be made available to all, but it is important to cut spending first. Then, subsequently, we will be in a better position to serve the needy with the associated savings. Instead, what we chose appears to have been a jamming of a massive, complex, divisive bill through Congress. 

Slome’s Spending Rules

In an effort to guide ourselves back onto a path of sensibility, I urge our government legislators to follow these basic rules as a first step:

Rule #1Don’t Pay Dead People: I know we have an innate maternal/paternal instinct to help out others, but perhaps our government could stop doling out taxpayer dollars to buried individuals underground or those people incarcerated in jail? Over the last three years the government sent $180 million in benefit checks to 20,000 corpses, and also delivered $230 million to 14,000 convicted felons (read more).

Rule #2Pay for Our Own First: Before we start spending money on others outside our borders, I propose we tend to our flock first. For starters, our immigration policies are a disaster. As I wrote earlier (read Our Nation’s Keys to Success), I am a big proponent of legal immigration for productive, higher-educated individuals – not elitist, just practical. If you don’t believe me, just count the jobs created by the braniac immigrant founders at the likes of Google Inc. (GOOG), Intel Corp. (INTC), and Yahoo! Inc. (YHOO). These are the people who will create jobs and out-battle scrappy, resourceful international competitors that want to steal our jobs and our economic leadership position in the world. What I don’t support is illegal immigration – paying for the healthcare and education of foreign criminals with our country’s maxed-out credit cards. This is the equivalent of someone breaking into my house, and me making their bed and feeding them breakfast…ridiculous. I do not support the immigration law passed in Arizona, but this unfortunate chain of events thankfully puts a spotlight on the issue.

Rule #2a. – Stop Being the Globe’s Free Police: If we are going to comb the caves of Tora Bora  as part of funding two wars and chasing terrorists all over the world, then we not only should be spending our defense budget more efficiently (non-Cold War mentality), but also charging freeloaders for our services (directly or indirectly). We are spending a whopping 20 cents of each federal tax dollar on defense, so let’s spend it wisely and charge those outside our borders benefiting from our monetary and physical sacrifices. And, oh by the way, sending $400 million to the territory controlled by Hamas (read more) doesn’t sound like the brightest decision given our fiscal and human challenges at home. I sure hope there are some tangible, accountable benefits accruing to the right people when we have 25 million people here in the U.S. unemployed, underemployed, or discouraged from finding a job.

Rule #3: Put the Obese Elephant on a Diet – As I alluded to above, our government doesn’t need to serve our overweight, entitlement-fed elephant more chocolate, pizza, and ice cream in the form of more entitlements we are not capable of funding. Let’s cut our spending first before we buy off the voters with new spending.

There are obviously a wide ranging set of economic, political, and even religious perspectives on the best ways of managing our hefty debt and deficits. I do not pretend to have all the answers, but what I do know is it is not wise to blast the sprinklers when it is pouring rain outside.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®  

Plan. Invest. Prosper.  

www.Sidoxia.com 

*DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, and GOOG, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct positions in COST, YHOO, INTC, or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

June 21, 2010 at 12:30 am 1 comment

Cockroach Consumer Cannot be Exterminated

We’re told that cockroaches would inherit the earth if a nuclear war were to occur, due to the pests’ impressive resiliency.  Like a cockroach, the American consumer has managed to survive its own version of a financial nuclear war, as a result of the global debt binge and bursting of the real estate bubble. Although associating a consumer to a disease-carrying cockroach is not the most flattering comparison, I suppose it is okay since I too am a consumer (cockroach).

Confidence Cuisine

Cockroaches enjoy feasting on food, but they have been known to live close to a month without food, two weeks without water, and a half hour without air while submerged in water. On the other hand, consumers can’t live that long without food, water, and oxygen, but what really feeds buyer purchasing patterns is confidence. The April Consumer Confidence number from the Confidence Board showed the April reading reaching the highest level since September 2008. On a shorter term basis, the April figure measured in at 57.9, up from 52.3 in the previous month.

Where is all this buying appetite coming from? What we’re witnessing is merely a reversal of what we experienced in the previous years. In 2008 and 2009 more than 8 million jobs were shed and the fear-induced spiraling of confidence pushed consumers’ buying habits into a cave. With +290,000 new jobs added in April, the fourth consecutive month of additions, the tide has turned and consumers are coming out to see the sun and smell the roses.  Recently the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) revealed real personal consumption expenditures grew +3.6% in the first quarter – the largest quarterly increase in consumer spending since the first quarter of 2007.

Sure, there still are the “double-dippers” predicting an impending recession once the sugar-high stimulus wears off and tax increases kick-in. From my perch, it’s difficult for me to gauge the timing of any future slowing, other than to say I have not been surprised by the timing or magnitude of the rebound (I was writing about the steepening yield curve and the end of the recession last June and July, respectively). Sometimes, the farther you fall, the higher you will bounce. Rather than try to time or predict the direction of the market (see market timing article), I look, rather, to exploit the opportunities that present themselves in volatile times (e.g., your garden variety Dow Jones -1,000 point hourly plunge).  

Will the Trend End?

Can this generational rise in consumer spending continue unabated? Probably not. To some extent we are victims of our own success. As about 25% of global GDP and only 5% of the world’s population, changing directions of the U.S.A. supertanker is becoming increasingly more difficult.

Source: The New York Times (Economix)

However, more nimble, resource-rich developing countries have fewer demographic and entitlement-driven debt issues like many developed countries. In order to build on an envious standard of living, our country needs to build on our foundation of entrepreneurial capitalism by driving innovation to create higher paying jobs. With those higher paying jobs will come higher spending. Of course, if uncompetitive industries cannot compete in the global marketplace, and a mirage of spending is re-created through drug-like credit cards and excess leveraged corporate lending, then heaven help us. Even the impressively resilient cockroach will not be able to survive that scenario.

Read full New York Times article here

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

*DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct positions in any security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

May 14, 2010 at 12:20 am 2 comments

General Motor’s Amazing Debt Trick

Now you see it, and now you don’t. General Motors claims that it has pulled off an amazing trick – the CEO of the troubled automaker, Ed Whitacre, claims in a recently released nationwide commercial, “We have repaid our government loan, in full, with interest, five years ahead of the original schedule.” (See video BELOW):

Blushing Pinocchio

Even Pinocchio would blush after listening to those statements. The loan that GM is claiming victory over is roughly $7-8 billion in TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) loans made from the U.S. and Canada. What Mr. Whitacre failed to acknowledge was how investors will be made whole on the whopping balance of around $45 billion.

How did GM miraculously pay off this debt? Whitacre would like taxpayers to believe booming sales or an operational turnaround has funded the debt repayment. Rather, these debt repayments were funded through other government TARP loans held in escrow with U.S. Treasury oversight. Effectively, GM has paid down one Mastercard (MA) bill with another Visa (V) credit card, and then gone on to brag about this financial shell game through a multi-million dollar advertising campaign. It’s bad enough that politicians and so-called media pundits attempt to “spin” facts into warped truths, but when a government-owned entity steps onto a national loudspeaker and spouts out blatantly distorted sound-bites, there should be consequences to these actions. American taxpayers deserve more honest accountability and transparency regarding their tax outlays rather than quarter truths.

GM’s Future

As Jedi Master Yoda’s famously quotes, “Uncertain, the future is,” and “Always in motion is the future.” GM is not out of the woods yet – the company lost $3.4 billion in the 4th quarter of 2009 alone and remains 70% government-owned. Nobody is certain how much (if any) of the $43 billion will be repaid by General Motors. For reference purposes, GM lost $88 billion from 2004 until 2009 when they declared bankruptcy  (see AP article)  If all goes according to plan, the former debt holders (now equity holders) and government stockholders will get a return on their capital infusions if and when GM does an equity offering to the public sometime later in 2010. If achieved, the company will have come full circle: public to bankrupt; bankrupt to private; and private to public.

While executives at GM are confident in their repayment capabilities, less convinced are certain branches of our federal government. Maybe these government agencies have taken note of the horrific train wreck occurring in the automotive industry over the last few decades (see GM Fatigue) Take for example the Office of Management and Budget, and the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) – they see TARP losses exceeding $100 billion, including about $30 billion from the auto companies…ouch.

The probability of success will no doubt hinge on some of the dramatic transformations made over the last year. First of all, GM has axed the number of brands in half (from eight to four), cutting Pontiac, Saturn, Hummer, and Saab. Cutting costs is great, but chopping expenses to prosperity cannot last forever – at some point you need compelling products that will drive sales. The rubber will hit the road late this year when GM is scheduled to release the “Volt,” a plug-in hybrid, which the company is using as a launching pad for new products.

TARP on Right Track but Not to Finish Line

Given the heightened political sensitivity in Washington regarding the banks and Wall Street it’s not too surprising that many of the banks wanted to be out of the governments crosshairs and pay back TARP as soon as possible. Beyond political pressure, banks have accelerated TARP repayments in part due to the massively steep and profitable yield curve, along with signs of an improving economy. According to the Treasury Department less than $200 billion in bailout money is outstanding for what originally started out as a $700 billion fund ($36 billion of automaker bailouts is estimated as uncollectible). Even though there has been progress on TARP collections, unfortunately non-TARP losses associated with AIG, Fannie Mae (FNM), and Freddie Mac (FRE) are expected to add more than $150 billion in bleeding.

I don’t believe anyone is happy about the bailouts, although some are obviously more irate. Accountability and transparency are important bailout factors as taxpayers and investors look to recover capital contributions. The next trick GM and Ed Whitacre need to pull off is paying off tens of billions in taxpayer money with the benefit of sustained profits – now that’s a television commercial I want to see.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

*DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds and in a security derived from an AIG subsidiary, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct positions in General Motors, AIG, FNM, FRE, MA, V, or any security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

April 25, 2010 at 11:40 pm 6 comments

EBITDA: Sniffing Out the Truth

Financial analysts are constantly seeking the Holy Grail when it comes to financial metrics, and to some financial number crunchers EBITDA (Earnings Before Interest Taxes Depreciation and Amortization – pronounced “eebit-dah”) fits the bill. On the flip side, Warren Buffett’s right hand man Charlie Munger advises investors to replace EBITDA with the words “bullsh*t earnings” every time you encounter this earnings metric. We’ll explore the good, bad, and ugly attributes of this somewhat controversial financial metric. 

The Genesis of EBITDA

The origin of the EBITDA measure can be traced back many years, and rose in popularity during the technology boom of the 1990s. “New Economy” companies were producing very little income, so investment bankers became creative in how they defined profits. Under the guise of comparability, a company with debt (Company X) that was paying interest expense could not be compared on an operational profit basis with a closely related company that operated with NO debt (Company Z). In other words, two identical companies could be selling the same number of widgets at the same prices and have the same cost structure and operating income, but the company with debt on their balance sheet would have a different (lower) net income. The investment banker and company X’s answer to this apparent conundrum was to simply compare the operating earnings or EBIT (Earnings Before Interest and Taxes) of each company (X and Z), rather than the disparate net incomes.  

The Advantages of EBITDA

Although there is no silver bullet metric in financial statement analysis, nevertheless there are numerous benefits to using EBITDA. Here are a few:

  • Operational Comparability:  As implied above, EBITDA allows comparability across a wide swath of companies. Accounting standards provide leniency in the application of financial statements, therefore using EBITDA allows apples-to-apples comparisons and relieves accounting discrepancies on items such as depreciation, tax rates, and financing choice. 
  • Cash Flow Proxy: Since the income statement traditionally is the financial statement of choice, EBITDA can be easily derived from this statement and provides a simple proxy for cash generation in the absence of other data.
  • Debt Coverage Ratios:  In many lender contracts certain debt provisions require specific levels of income cushion above the required interest expense payments. Evaluating EBITDA coverage ratios across companies assists analysts in determining which businesses are more likely to default on their debt obligations.

The Disadvantages of EBITDA

While EBITDA offers some benefits in comparing a broader set of companies across industries, the metric also carries some drawbacks.

  • Overstates Income:  To Charlie Munger’s point about the B.S. factor, EBITDA distorts reality. From an equity holder’s standpoint, in most instances, investors are most concerned about the level of income and cash flow available AFTER all expenses, including interest expense, depreciation expense, and  income tax expense.
  • Neglects Working Capital Requirements: EBITDA may actually be a decent proxy for cash flows for many companies, however this profit measure does not account for the working capital needs of a business. For example, companies reporting high EBITDA figures may actually have dramatically lower cash flows once working capital requirements (i.e., inventories, receivables, payables) are tabulated.
  • Poor for Valuation: Investment bankers push for more generous EBITDA valuation multiples because it serves the bankers’ and clients’ best interests. However, the fact of the matter is that companies with debt or aggressive depreciation schedules do deserve lower valuations compared to debt-free counterparts (assuming all else equal).

Wading through the treacherous waters of accounting metrics can be a dangerous game. Despite some of EBITDA’s comparability benefits, and as much as bankers and analysts would like to use this very forgiving income metric, beware of EBITDA’s shortcomings. Although most analysts are looking for the one-size-fits-all number, the reality of the situation is a variety of methods need to be used to gain a more accurate financial picture of a company. If EBITDA is the only calculation driving your analysis, I urge you to follow Charlie Munger’s advice and plug your nose.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

*DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing had no direct positions in any security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

April 6, 2010 at 11:00 pm 1 comment

Digging a Debt Hole

Little did I know when I signed up for a recent “distressed” debt summit (see previous article) that a federal official and state treasurer would be presenting as keynote speakers? After all, this conference was supposed to be catering to those professionals interested in high risk securities. Technically, California and the U.S. government are not classified as distressed yet, but nonetheless government heavy-hitters Matthew Rutherford (Deputy Assistant Secretary, Federal Finance at the U.S. Department of Treasury), and Bill Lockyer (Treasurer for the State of California) shared their perspectives on government debt and associated economic factors.

Why have government officials present at a distressed debt conference? After questioning a few organizers and attendees, I was relieved to discover the keynote speaker selections were made more as a function as a sign of challenging economic times, rather than to panic participants toward debt default expectations. As it turns out, the conference organizers packaged three separate conferences into one event – presumably for cost efficiencies (Distressed Investments Summit + Public Funds Summit + California Municipal Finance Conference).

The U.S. Treasury Balancing Act

Effectively operating as the country’s piggy bank, the Treasury has a very complex job of constantly filling the bank to meet our country’s expenditures. Deputy Assistant Secretary Matthew Rutherford launched the event by speaking to domestic debt levels and deficits along with some the global economic trends impacting the U.S.

  • Task at Hand: Rutherford spoke to the Treasury’s three main goals as part of its debt management strategy, which includes: 1) Cash management (to pay the government bills); 2) Attempt to secure low cost financing; and 3) Promote efficient markets. With more than a few hundred auctions held each year, the Treasury manages an extremely difficult balancing act.
  • Debt Limit Increased: The recent $1.9 trillion ballooning in the U.S. debt ceiling to $14.3 trillion gives the Treasury some flexibility in meeting the country’s near-term funding needs. The Treasury expects to raise another $1.5 trillion in debt in 2010 (from $1.3 trillion in ’09) to fund our government initiatives, but that number is expected to decline to $1.0 – $1.1 trillion in 2011.
  • Funding Trillions at 0.16%: Thanks to abnormally low interest rates, an investor shift to short-term safety (liquidity), and a temporary rush to the dollar, the U.S. Treasury was able to finance their borrowing needs at a mere 16 basis points. Clearly, servicing the U.S.’ massive debt load at these extremely attractive rates is not sustainable forever, and the Treasury is doing its best to move out on the yield curve (extend auctions to lengthier maturities) to lock in lower rates and limit the government’s funding risk should short-term rates spike.
  • Chinese Demand Not Waning: Contrary to recent TIC (Treasury International Capital) data that showed Japan jumping to the #1 spot of U.S. treasury holders, Rutherford firmly asserted that China remains at the top by a significant margin of $140 billion, if you adjust certain appropriate benchmarks. He believes foreign ownership at over 50% (June 2009) remains healthy and steady despite our country’s fiscal problems.
  • TIPS Demand on the Rise: Appetite for Treasury Inflation Protection Securities is on the rise, therefore the Treasury has its eye on expanding its TIP offerings into longer maturities, just last week they handled their first 3-year TIPS auction.

There is no “CA” in Greece

State of California Treasurer Bill Lockyer did not sugarcoat California’s fiscal problems, but he was quick to defend some of the comparisons made between Greece and California. First of all, California’s budget deficit represents less than 1% of the state’s GDP (Gross Domestic Product) versus 13% for Greece. Greece’s accumulated debt stands at 109% of GDP – for California debt only represents 4% of the state’s GDP. What’s more, since 1800 Greece has arguably been in default more than not, where as California has never in its history defaulted on an obligation. 

The current California picture isn’t pretty though. This year’s fiscal budget deficit is estimated at $6 billion, leaping to $12 billion next year, and soaring to $20 billion per year longer term.

Legislative political bickering is at the core of the problem due to the constitutional inflexibility of a 2/3 majority vote requirement to get state laws passed. The vast bulk of states require a simple majority vote (> than 50%) – California holds the unique super-majority honor with only Arkansas and Rhode Island. Beyond mitigating partisan bickering, Lockyer made it clear no real progress would be made in budget cuts until core expenditures like education, healthcare, and prisons are attacked.

On the subject of bloatedness, depending on how you define government spending per capita, California ranks #2 or #4 lowest out of all states. Economies of scale help in a state representing 13% of the U.S.’ GDP, but Lockyer acknowledged the state could just be less fat than the other inefficient states.

Lockyer also tried to defend the state’s 10.5% blended tax rate (versus the national median of 9.8%), saying the disparity is not as severe as characterized by the media. He even implied there could be a little room to creep that rate upwards.

Finishing on an upbeat note, Lockyer recognized the January state revenues came in above expectations, but did not concede victory until a multi-month trend is established.

After filtering through several days of meetings regarding debt, you quickly realize how the debt culture (see D-E-B-T article), thanks to cheap money, led to a glut across federal governments, state governments, corporations, and consumers. Hopefully we have learned our lesson, and we are ready to climb out of this self created hole…before we get buried alive with risky debt.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds (including CMF and TIP), but at time of publishing had no direct position on any security referenced. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

March 4, 2010 at 11:45 pm 2 comments

Money Goes Where Treated Best

“The world is going to hell in a handbasket” seems to be a prevailing sentiment among many investors. Looking back, a lack of fiscal leadership in Washington, coupled with historically high unemployment, has only fanned the flames of restlessness. A day can hardly go by without hearing about some fiscal problem occurring somewhere around the globe. Geographies have ranged from Iceland to Dubai, and California to Greece. Regardless, eventually voters force politicians to take notice, as we recently experienced in the Massachusetts vote for Senator.

Time to Panic?

So is now the time to panic?  Entitlement obligations such as Social Security and Medicare, when matched with a rising interest payment burden from our ballooning debt, stands to consume the vast majority of our country’s revenues in the coming decades (if changes are not made).  It’s clear to most that the current debt trajectory is not sustainable – see also Debt: The New Four-Letter Word. With that said, historical debt levels have actually been at higher levels before. For example, during World War II, debt levels reached 122% of GDP (Gross Domestic Product). Since promises generally garner votes, politicians have traditionally found it easier to legislate new spending into law rather than cutting back existing spending and benefits.

Money Goes Where it’s Treated Best

If our government leaders choose to ignore the growing upswell in fiscal discontent, then the global financial markets will pay more attention and disapprove less diplomatically. As the globe’s reserve currency, the U.S. Dollar stands to collapse if a different direction is not forged, and interest costs could skyrocket to unpalatable levels.  Fortunately, the flat world we live on has created some of these naturally occurring governors to forcibly direct sovereign entities to make better decisions…or suffer the consequences. Right now Greece is paying for the financial sins of its past, which includes widening deficits and untenable debt levels.

As new, growing powers such as China, Brazil, India, and other emerging countries fight for precious capital to feed the aspirational goals of their rising middle classes, money will migrate to where it is treated best. Speculative money will flow in and out of various capital markets in the short-run, but ultimately capital flows where it is treated best. Meaning, those countries with policies fostering fiscal conservatism, financial transparency, prudent regulations, pro-growth initiatives, tax incentives, order of law, and other capital-friendly guidelines will enjoy their fair share of the spoils. The New York Times editorial journalist Tom Friedman coined the term “golden straitjacket” in describing this naturally occurring restraint system as a result of globalization.

Push Comes to Shove

Push will eventually come to shove, but the real question is whether we will self-impose fiscal restraint on ourselves, or will the global capital markets shove us in that direction, like the markets are doing to Greece (and other financially strapped nations) today? I am hopeful it will be the former. Why am I optimistic? Although more government spending has typically lead to more votes for politicians, cracks in the support wall have surfaced through the Massachusetts Senatorial vote, and rising populist sentiment, as manifested through the “Tea Party” movement (previously considered a fringe group). 

Political gridlock has traditionally been par for the course, but crisis usually leads to action, so I eventually expect change. I am banking on the poisonous and sour mood permeating through the country’s voter base, in conjunction with the collapse of foreign currencies, to act as a catalyst for financial reform. If not, resident capital and domestic jobs will exodus to other countries, where they will be treated best.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds (including emerging market-based ETFs), but at time of publishing had no direct positions in securities mentioned in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

February 16, 2010 at 11:30 pm Leave a comment

Bashful Path to Female Bankruptcy

The unrelenting expansion in bankruptcies does not discriminate on gender – you either have the money or you do not. Naomi Wolf, author of Give Me Liberty: A Handbook for American Revolutionaries, recently shed light on the underbelly of those suffering severe financial pain in this economic crisis…middle-class women.

How bad is it for middle class women?

“A new report shows that a million American middle-class women will find themselves in bankruptcy court this year. This is more women than will ‘graduate from college, receive a diagnosis of cancer, or file for divorce,’ according to the economist Elizabeth Warren.”

 

Wolf explores multiple factors in trying to explain this phenomenon. Surprisingly, higher education levels does not appear to prevent a higher percentage of bankruptcies in this large demographic.

If education levels are not a contributing factor, then what is? Here are some Wolf’s findings: 

1)      Awash in Debt: One explanation for the extra debt reliance is many of these positions occupied by this class of women are lower-paying, which requires women to tap credit lines more frequently. Also, many women have been targeted by luxury-goods manufacturers and credit-card companies. Repeated contacts by the marketers have led to more women succumbing to the consumerism messages shoveled to them.

2)      Credit Card Legislation: Wolf makes the case that financial credit card legislation introduced in 2005 disproportionately negatively impacts divorced wives because credit card companies get priority in the repayment line over critical child support payments. In other words, child support payments go to the credit card company rather than to the child, thereby creating an undue financial burden on the female caregiver.

3)      Skewed Emotional Beliefs about Money: The biggest issue regarding the emotional connection to finances is working-women “find it embarrassing to talk about money.” The article even acknowledges that many current generation women earn more than previous generations, but financial security has largely not improved because of the “money taboo.” I discover this taboo dynamic in my practice all the time. Part of the blame should be placed on the financial industry’s use of endless acronyms as smoke and mirrors to confuse and intimidate clients on the subject of money. I believe the better way to financial success is to empower clients through education and understanding, not deception and misinformation.

Wolf goes onto explain some of the confused financial thought processes held by this segment of women:

  • Negotiating salary increases is difficult for these women because it makes them feel “unfeminine.”
  • This class often fails to save because they falsely assume marriage will save them financially.

Unfortunately, the lack of financial literacy and dependence on the spouse leaves these women vulnerable to divorce and widowhood.

Working Class Women Better Prepared

Interestingly, Wolf’s findings point to working class women being much more financially literate and prepared in part because they have erased the notion of a knight in shining armor saving the day from their financial responsibilities. Bolstering her argument, Wolf references the success of the micro-finance programs being instituted to lower-class, working women in developing countries.

Wolf’s Solution

How do middle-class working women break this negative financial cycle? Wolf delivers the medicine directly by directing these women to break the “social role that casts middle-class women as polite, economically vague, underpaid, shopping-dazed dependents.” Opening their eyes to these issues will not erase all of the contributing factors, but women will be better equipped to deal with their financial problems.

From my perspective, there is no quick fix for immediate financial literacy. For those interested in learning more, I encourage you to read my article on personal finance, What to Do Now? Time to Get Your House in Order.

 Regardless of your financial knowledge maturity, like any discipline, the more time you put in to it, the more benefits you will receive.

Read Complete Naomi Wolf Article Here

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at time of publishing had no direct positions in any company mentioned in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

January 5, 2010 at 12:22 am 3 comments

Getting Debt Binge Under Control

Given the endless daily reminders about our federal government’s insatiable appetite for debt, the inevitable collapse of the dollar, and the potential for civil unrest, the average citizen might be surprised to find out the overall debt situation has actually improved. While our federal debt has been exploding (see also Investing Caffeine D-E-B-T article), households and businesses have been tightening their belts and cutting down on the debt binge of recent years. In fact, the overall debt for the U.S. grew at the slowest rate in a decade according to The Business Insider.

Source: The Business Insider. Steady debt growth decline.

As you can see from the nitty-gritty in the Federal Reserve chart below,  total Nonfinancial Debt grew at +2.8% in the 3rd quarter of 2009 (comprised of -2.6% Household Debt; -2.6% Business Debt; +5.1% State & Local Government Debt; and +20.6% Federal Debt).

What does this all mean? Not surprisingly, we are seeing the same trends in the debt figures that we are seeing in the components of our GDP (Gross Domestic Product). We learned from our Economics 101 class that the equation for GDP = C + I + G + (NX), which explains the components of economic growth.

  • C = Consumer spending (or private consumption)
  • I = Investment (or business spending)
  • G = Government spending
  • NX = Net exports (or exports – imports)

Consumer spending has been the biggest driver of growth before the financial crisis (fueled in part by the contribution of debt growth), accounting for more than 2/3 of our GDP. Now, with the consumer retrenching dramatically – spending less and saving more – we are seeing government spending (i.e., stimulus) pick up the slack.

These same dynamics are playing out in the total debt figures. Since the consumer is retrenching, they are saving more and paying down debt. Business owner debt has been chopped too, either by choice or because the banks simply are not lending. Here again, the government is picking up the slack by ramping up the debt growth.

Encouragingly, all is not lost. Economic principles, like the laws of physics, eventually take hold. Fortunately consumers and businesses have gone on a crash diet from debt – and the banks haven’t accommodated the pleading cash-starved either. Now legislators in our nation’s capital must do their part in dealing with the weighty spending. The overall debt progress is heartening, but Uncle Sam still needs to get off the Ho-Hos and Twinkies and start shedding some of that binge-related debt.

Read Full Business Insider Article

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds and equity securities in client and personal portfolios at the time of publishing. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

December 11, 2009 at 1:45 am Leave a comment

Tips for Survival and Prosperity in Challenging Economic Times

Survival requires multiple strategies

Survival requires multiple strategies

We have all been impacted in some shape or form by the worst financial crisis experienced in a generation. The question now becomes what did we learn from this mess and how can we better prepare for a more prosperous financial future?

Here are some important tips to follow:

Save and Invest: Before paying others, pay yourself first. You can achieve this goal by saving and investing your money. Given the weak state of our government “safety net” programs, such as Medicare and Social Security, it has become more important than ever to save. Life spans are extending as well, meaning a larger “nest egg” is needed for retirement. If you don’t have the time, discipline, or emotional make-up to manage your own money, then seek out a fee-only advisor* who does not have a conflict of interest in regards to building your wealth.

Tighten Belt: In order to save and invest you need to be in a position where you are creating excess income. Cutting costs is one way to generate additional income. Eating out less, buying used, taking more affordable vacations, conserving energy, purchasing private label goods are a few easy ways to save money that will accumulate over time. If those efforts are still not adequate, one should then contemplate adjusting their living situation (i.e., down-size) or pursue additional income opportunities – either through a pay raise or higher paying job alternatives.

Pay Down Debt: If your credit card company is charging you a 15-20% rate on unpaid credit card balances and gouging you for late-fees and cash advances, then look for other sources of affordable financing. A home equity line of credit or second mortgage may make sense for some, if the fees and lower interest rates make economic sense. Contact a financial planner or tax professional to determine the appropriateness of these debt alternatives. Ultimately, the goal is to reduce debt and create more financial flexibility.

Take Free Money: If your employer offers matching payments to your retirement plan contributions, they are effectively offering you free money. Take it! The government offers you some tax deferral savings through IRA (Individual Retirement Account) contributions, so take advantage of that benefit as well.

Form a 6-Month Emergency Fund: The economy may be in a bottoming-out phase; however we are not out of the woods yet. Unemployment is approaching 10% and many companies and industries continue to struggle. Build a protective financial cushion should you or your family hit a bump in the road.

Invest in Yourself: Investing for retirement is crucial, however investing in yourself is just as, if not more, important than traditional investing. What I’m referring to is job training, education, and health awareness. We live in a globalized economy and in order to compete against those starving for our jobs, we need to improve our skills and education. Lastly, we cannot neglect our health. Finances need to be put in perspective. Our health should be a top priority and a disciplined balance between diet and exercise will not only reduce stress, but it will also improve mental health.

Times have been challenging, but when the going gets rough, the tough go saving. Take control of your financial future rather than letting economic circumstances control you. Financial success however should not come at the expense of your health, so also focus on a balanced program of diet and exercise. There are no free lunches in this world, but following these steps will help lead you on a path to prosperity – even in these challenging economic times.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

*DISCLOSURE: Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP is President and Founder of Sidoxia Capital Management, LLC (www.Sidoxia.com), a fee-only Registered Investment Advisory firm headquartered in Newport Beach, California.

September 18, 2009 at 4:00 am Leave a comment

Debt: The New Four-Letter Word

Debt-GDP

D-E-B-T, our country’s new four-letter word, used to be a fun toy the masses played and danced with to buy all kinds of goods and services.  Debt was creatively utilized for all types of things, including, our super-sized McMansions purchased with Option ARM (Adjustable Rate Mortgage) Countrywide loans; our 0% financing car binges (thanks to now-bankrupt Chrysler and General Motors); and our no-payment-for-two-years, big screen plasma TVs (financed at now-bankrupt Circuit City). Eventually consumers, corporations, and governments realized excessive debt creates all kinds of lingering problems – especially in recessionary periods. We are by no means out of the woods yet, but consumers are now spending less than they are taking in, as evidenced by a positive and rising savings rate. This slowdown in spending is bad for short-term demand, but eventually these savings will be recycled into our economy leading to productive and innovative value creating jobs that will jumpstart the economy back on a path to sustainable growth.

Click Here For Excellent Article from the Peterson Foundation

In our hot-cold society, where the pendulum of greed and fear swing dramatically from one side to the next, we are also observing an unhealthy level of risk aversion by financial institutions. This excessive caution is unfortunately choking off the health of legitimate businesses that need capital/debt in order to survive.  As we continue to see a pickup in the leading indicators for an economic recovery, banks should loosen up the credit purse strings to provide capital for profitable, growing businesses – even if there are hiccups along the way.

National Debt “Blob” Must Be Slowed

Federal  Budget Pie

In the famous 1958 sci-fi horror film, “The Blob”, a gelatinous, ever-growing creature from outer space threatens to take over the town of Downingtown, Pennsylvania by methodically engulfing everything in its path. Steve McQueen eventually learns that freezing the Blob will halt its progression. In our country, entitlements, in the form of Medicare and Social Security, serve as our 21st century Blob. As the chart above shows, entitlements have expanded dramatically over the last 40 years and stand to expand faster, as the 76 million Baby Boomers reach retirement and demand more Social Security and Medicare benefits. Clearly the current path we are travelling on is not sustainable, and beyond breakthroughs in technology, the only way we can suitably address this problem is by cutting benefits or raising taxes. We only dug ourselves in a deeper financial hole with the enactment of Medicare Part D (prescription drug benefits for Medicare participants).  I must admit I have great difficulty in understanding how we are going to expand health care coverage for the vast majority of Americans in the face of exploding deficits and debt burdens.  I eagerly await specifics.

With an enlarging national debt burden and widening deficits, the U.S. is only becoming more reliant on foreign investors to finance our shortcomings. This trend too cannot last forever (see chart below). At some point, foreigners will either balk by not providing us the financing, or demanding prohibitively high interest rates on any funding we request – thereby negatively escalating our already high interest payment streams to bondholders.

Foreign Debt OwnershipRegardless of your political view, the problem pretty simply boils down to elementary school math. The government either needs to cut expenses or raise revenue (taxes or growth initiatives). Politically, the stimulative spending path is easier to rationalize, but as we see in California, eventually the game ends and tough cuts are forced to be made.

Let’s hope the painful lessons learned from this financial crisis will steer us back on path to more responsible borrowing – a point where D-E-B-T is no longer considered a dirty four-letter word.

June 10, 2009 at 5:30 am 7 comments

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