Embodied Energy

June 6th, 2010

Embodied energy is the amount of energy that goes into a product during its entire life-cycle. It includes the energy required to mine and refine materials, assemble these into the final product, transport it to the consumer, and dispose of it. An analysis that considers this entire process is called a life-cycle analysis.

A 1-litre plastic (PET) bottle has an embodied energy of roughly 5.4 MJ. This is the same as leaving a 15 W lightbulb on for 100 hours (1 kilowatt-hour is 3.6 MJ, a 15 W CFL lightbulb gives light equivalent to a 75 W incandescent light bulb). Aluminium cans are about 1.7x worse than plastic bottles in this respect.

Recycling changes the picture a little. Recycled PET has an embodied energy about 20-25% lower than virgin PET. Other types of plastic can achieve reductions in embodied energy of up to 50% by recycling.

While recycling can reduce the impact of disposables (and keeps the plastic out of landfills and nature), the impact of recycled materials is still huge. Avoid disposables whenever possible!

Source: The ImpEE Project, The University of Cambridge, Recycling Plastic

Mutual fund fees cut your life savings in half!

February 13th, 2010

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!

A Dysfunctional Banking System

January 30th, 2010

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!

My First CO2 Quota Purchase

December 20th, 2009

I’ve just purchased 5.89 contracts on the European CO2 emissions market, worth roughly $150. They are now effectively deleted from the market. These are meant to offset two round-trip flights from Toronto to Oslo. An extra multiplier was applied to the raw quantities of CO2, because the emissions from flights happen at high altitude and have been found to affect climate disproportionately.

View the certificate

Looking forward to go back to Norway! I’m sufficiently alienated here in Canada that it’s good to return to a sane (relatively speaking) place once in a while. Hope to see some of you there!

The Commodities Gadget

November 28th, 2009

And here is the Google Gadgets version of the Commodities Widget. It supports exactly the same chains of commodities as the mac version:

  • Energy: Crude oil, natural gas, heating oil and gasoline
  • Softs: Sugar, coffee, cocoa and cotton
  • Grains: Corn, soybeans and wheat
  • Metals: Gold, silver and copper
  • Currencies: US dollar index, Euro, British Pound, Swiss Franc, Yen and Canadian dollars.
  • Stock indices: Dow Jones Industrial futures, S&P 500 futures and NASDAQ.

Use the ‘+Google’ button under the embedded gadget above to add it to your iGoogle page. From your iGoogle page, you can click the down triangle in the upper right corner of the gadget and then ‘edit settings’ to select what to chart. You can also click the chart to go to the corresponding page at INO.com with a bigger chart, more options and info.