Tension between Israel & the US and Iran has been growing the past few months. The economic sanctions are really starting to hurt Iran, but they are also hurting the West with higher oil prices. Blocking Iran’s oil exports is a big sacrifice in today’s tight oil market. (more…)
Archive for the ‘Economy’ Category
The US and Great Britain are back at it, releasing their strategic oil reserves “in an effort to prevent high fuel prices derailing economic growth in an election year”. Last year, they did the same thing while Libya’s oil production was offline. The effect on oil prices lasted for a whopping two weeks back then. This year’s action is, if possible, even more short-sighted. (more…)
It’s gearing up for the next round of financial crisis. While our so-called leaders have enjoyed their annual back-patting exercise at Davos, I have become exceedingly alarmed by what’s currently going on in the commodities markets. Food, energy and metals have all sky-rocketed during the last five or so months. While the financial markets have seen a 20% increase during that period, and this is touted as “the crisis is over”, the prices of raw materials have increased 50-100%. These are the real inputs that the economy and indeed our lives depend on.
Let’s look at some numbers:
And what has the S&P done?
This is looking to me like a very unhealthy market. It’s like the high commodities prices of the first half of 2008 all over again. Only this time, the economy is probably a lot less resilient towards high prices. If the economy tanks again, what instruments remain to bail it out? The “wealthy” nations of the world are already running close to 0% interest rates, and are up to their ears in debt. Printing money, as has already been done, is a surefire way to boost commodities even higher. Peak oil, the climate crisis (drought brought forth some of the high grain prices seen above) and general resource depletion are all converging to shake the foundations of our debt-based consumerist society.
The Davos growthsters have only one plan: Returning to the good old years of growth by “stimulating” the economy by ever more illusional money.
I have another idea: It’s time to question that old growth gospel and stop borrowing money and natural resources from our future.
Virtually all mutual funds (aksjefond in Norwegian), charge their customer some percentage of their total account balance at the end of each year. This annual fee is most likely in the 2 – 3% range. This may not sound much, but over the years, it does add up:
0.98^40 = 0.45
0.97^40 = 0.30
What this means is that if you start saving at age 27 and want to retire at age 67, a 2% annual fee will shave 55% off your retirement account. A 3% annual fee will take out more than 70% of your savings.
This model is too simplistic, since most people will save a certain amount each year and add to their retirement savings. These subsequent amounts are not subject to the fee as many times as the amount you put down in the first year, e.g the amount you save the 2nd year is only subject to the fee 39 times, the 3rd year 38 times etc.
The annual returns you get is another complicating factor. Given higher annual returns, these annual fees should matter less, right? Not so, it actually doesn’t matter at all what the underlying annual return on the investment is – the fees will cut the same percentage of your total life savings, since
(1+p)^n / ((1+p)*(1-q))^n = 1 / (1-q)^n
p := annual base return on investment
q := annual fee
I even created a more advanced model which takes into account inflation, increases in salary, various return rates on the investment etc. You can copy it and play with it from here: Google Spreadsheets
The spreadsheet model shows that the 3% annual fee is not as bad as the initial calculations show, but still ends up eating half your savings under reasonable assumptions (income = 100000, tax rate = 33%, inflation = 2%, pay increase = 3%/year, spend = 50000 first year, then increasing 3%/year, return on savings = 7%)
Do managed mutual funds offer higher returns than passive index funds, which have much lower fees (typically 0.1% – 1%)? Various studies have tried to answer this. A survey of the existing literature is given in Performance Persistence for Mutual Funds: Academic Evidence. The various papers quoted in this article show different results. At best, there is very weak evidence of some skill among the top fund managers, but no study found that the funds generated excess returns after fees were subtracted. It also shows that past performance is a very weak predictor of future performance – after two years, the is virtually no correlation at all. So if a fund performed great until now, there’s no reason to believe it will continue much longer into the future.
Let’s end with a few quotes:
“A respect for evidence compels me to the hypothesis that most portfolio managers should go out of business. Even if this advice to drop dead is good advice, it obviously will not be eagerly followed. Few people will commit suicide without a push.”
Paul Samuelson, Economist, Nobel Laureate
“If “active” and “passive” management styles are defined in sensible ways, it must be the case that, (1) before costs, the return on the average actively managed dollar will equal the return on the average passively managed dollar and, (2) after costs, the return on the average actively managed dollar will be less than the return on the average passively managed dollar. These assertions will hold for any time period. Moreover, they depend only on the laws of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. Nothing else is required. ”
William F. Sharpe, Professor of Finance, Nobel Laureate
Will you continue to let banks, traders and fund managers fleece you, to the tune of half your retirement savings, for a service which can be fulfilled just as well by a monkey throwing darts? Or will you change to passive index funds, and give these leeches what they deserve?
Here is an alternative, if you want some market exposure: In the US, the ticker SPY tracks the S&P 500 index at an annual cost of 0.1%. In Norway, Handelsbanken offers its XACT OBX fund which tracks the main index at Oslo Børs for a fee of 0.3% a year. These trade like normal stocks.
I’m not saying this is a good time to get involved in the markets, but there’s never a good time to pay too much in fees!
As the debt-crisis reached its preliminary climax in the fall of 2008, we were promised the collapse of society if the banks were not rescued with public funds. Maybe that’s true, but now is the time to think about building a better banking and money infrastructure.
My personal experience with banks was increased somewhat over the last month, as I tried to wire transfer several thousand dollars from a bank account in Canada to one in Norway. The accounts are both owned by me. They are with large, respected entities in both countries. I have several receipts (thank God) that show that the account number (IBAN), SWIFT code, address, name etc. provided by me are correct.
The money did leave my bank account in Canada a few days after I requested the transfer. So far, so good. The problem is that that was in December 2009. After waiting for a week, I first contacted the sending bank in Canada. They gave me a nice looking “Payment Transmission Confirmation” showing the information I had entered and some other numbers. The transmission showed that the money had left my bank, then gone to an intermediary associated with my bank and had been sent on to Bank X (I know the name, but won’t post it here yet) in Great Britain, with instructions to send it on to my bank.
I gave my receipt to my bank in Norway, but they could not find any funds, not in my name, not to my account, not of that amount, not on that date, etc. Their intermediary is another Norwegian bank, so I tried calling them – no luck. They pointed me to DnB NOR, who is the intermediary they use. DnB NOR was also unable to find the money.
I requested more information from Canada. Another week went by, and all I got was this very detailed spreadsheet-looking SWIFT request from my contact in Canada. The first receipt had some numbers. This one had lots of numbers! I sent it on to my Norwegian bank, who didn’t quite understand it. While it certainly had numbers, it didn’t have the number they wanted (transaction reference number).
At this point, I directed a request for a formal investigation to the originating bank. It’s been a week since then. They are no doubt calling banks down a long chain of intermediaries now. What I know about the trace of my money is this: My Bank in Canada -> Intermediary in Canada -> Intermediary in Great Britain 1 -> Intermediary in Great Britain 2 -> unknown. After the unknown, the final part of the route should be: DnB NOR -> Intermediary in Norway -> My Bank in Norway.
If you think this looks a bit like how the internet (tried traceroute?) works, you’re absolutely right. The only difference is that this process is manual. Yes, you heard it right. What happens at each of these links, is that some peon in the sending bank faxes a document with instructions and numbers on it to the next bank in the path. This is done over a “secure” (physically separate from the normal telecommunications network) wire. (Thus the term wire transfer). Then some peon in the receiving bank will look at the instructions, type the info into their system, and if the destination is not yet reached, fax it on to some other bank. The woman I talked to at DnB NOR even suggested that at some point in the chain, they had failed to find a “path” (translated from Norwegian “sti”) towards the destination! The routing in SWIFT is completely ad-hoc you see.
Whenever you visit a major city (at least in Canada), you can bet that the tallest five buildings are banks (not counting the CN Tower of course). If you’ve ever wondered what the people in those 100-story glass palaces do, now you know: They are full of peons who form the human equivalent of CISCO routers in a giant human version of the internet. In 2010, I believe this meets the definition of Epic Fail. And yes, the banks have ways of making us pay for this largesse!