Monday, February 6, 2017

Some thoughts on Bubbles and Student Loans

"The market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent" - John Maynard Keynes

These words from the famous economist John Maynard Keynes come to mind whenever I think I see some type of bubble in the stock market or elsewhere. The saying refers to the risk of taking a short position, or betting that a particular investment will go down in value. When you simply purchase an investment, your risk of loss is your purchase price and your potential gain is unlimited. When taking a short position, you profit as the investment loses value and lose as the investment gains in value. In shorting, your gains are limited to the point that the investment goes to $0 but your risk of loss is unlimited.

Michael Lewis' book turned movie, The Big Short, popularized short selling by showcasing investors who won big betting against the U.S. housing market in 2008. The Greatest Trade Ever showcases other traders who made even larger gains on similar types of trades. One thing that was common between both stories was the serious risk of insolvency many of the investors faced as they continued to pay premiums waiting, and waiting, and waiting, to be proven correct. They knew that the housing market couldn't continue rising indefinitely, yet it continued to defy their predictions almost to the point that they (and their investors) could no longer handle the continued losses.


It seems like every week I come across an article predicting the rise of another bubble. There's the 'Auto Loan Bubble', the 'Housing Bubble' (again), and don't forget the 'Student Loan Bubble'.

"An investment in knowledge pays the best interest" - Benjamin Franklin

For hundreds of years, this mantra has been repeated in this country and for the most part, I tend to agree. Education can be the key to a better life and can allow for significantly higher lifetime income. What is missed from this simple quote though, was clarified by John Adams who said:

"I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain." - John Adams

Interpreted for our day and age, I take this to mean that education is great, but don't study something that doesn't have a financial return unless you don't need a financial return. If you build a legacy sufficient to sustain the next generation, then by all means, allow them to study something they love that may not pay the bills, because you've got that covered for them. If you don't have this luxury and do actually need your education to provide a return, then you need to study something that has value in the marketplace.


Where we run into problems is the belief that an education is worthwhile at any cost. I recently was reading about the astounding levels of debt the average dentist owes. The author of this article finds the average dentist just starting out has an average of $450,000 in student loans with an income of just $120,000 without even taking into consideration the cost of buying into a practice or other borrowing such as a mortgage. Add it all up and it's not difficult to find a dentist with over $1,000,000 in total debt. An income of $120,000 sounds great, but it doesn't go very far with debt levels approaching 4x annual income.

Is this a new thing? One of my favorite fiction authors, Michael Crichton, started his career going through Harvard Medical School (which later helped him as a writer for the hit TV show E.R.). While he was a student there, he wrote Five Patients where he walks through the hospital visits of 5 hospital patients in the 1960s. The book was first published in 1970 and I read it 40 years later in 2010. Even though the book was 40 years old, I was surprised how relevant some of the stories were and was shocked that some of the same problems that existed in the medical field then, persist to this day. I specifically remember that he highlighted that in order to enter the medical profession one had to either come from a well-off family or have a strong tolerance for high levels of debt.

I've been saying for years that it doesn't make sense that students are able to borrow as much as they do and that reform is imminent, yet for years I've been proven wrong. Thankfully I haven't made any investments based on that theory. If people have been saying this as far back as 1970 though, are we truly close to the bubble bursting?

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

January 2017 Net Worth Update

We're off to a good start of the year here in the DIY$ household. We had a few large expenses come in this month, but still ended up growing our net worth by $8k to $610,843. We set an ambitious goal for 2017, and as good as this month was, we'll need some even better future months to get to the goal. Fortunately, January is likely going to be our lowest income month of the year and we had some larger expenses that don't happen every month. Let's break it down:


Our cash balance basically didn't move at all this month. We paid our normal extra towards the house, but also had some big expenses like our semi-annual car insurance ($800), and 2 new tires for my car ($200). Our insurance bill actually went down a little bit, but that's only because I took full coverage off of my Corolla. I figured we're at the point now that we can self-insure the cost of the car, since insurance would likely not give much more than $2,500 if it were totaled.
I don't know about you, but whenever I have to pay for maintenance on my Corolla, it actually makes me happy. I probably shouldn't be happy that I had to spend $200 to get 2 new tires, but I really was thrilled because I knew how cheap that was compared to what I would be paying if I drove some other cars. Not only were they cheap, but the tires I was replacing had been on for nearly 4 years and just barely could still pass the 'penny test'. Ever heard of it? Take a penny and stick Lincoln's head in the tread in your tire. If his hair doesn't get covered, you need new ones.

Just a few days prior to getting tires, I was talking to a co-worker who drives an expensive Italian sports car and lamented that he had to get new tires pretty much every year and they cost over $2,000 for a new set of tires. Hearing stories like that make me love my little cheap car and gives me additional motivation to defer an upgrade.
The coming months should boost our cash balance as we expect some bonuses to come in as well as a raise at work and our tax refund. We finished our taxes for the year and I'm pleased to report that we planned our taxes to the point where our federal refund was only about $600. I prefer to not let the government sit on my money interest free, and this was much better than in previous years when our refunds have been much higher.


The market continues to rally, boosting our investment portfolio by nearly $8k. We didn't do anything more than our normal monthly 401k contributions and actually decided to take a break from additional IRA contributions while we focus on paying off our house. Between my contributions and employer match we are still adding 15% of my pay to my 401k, so feel that we'll still be on track to reach our long-term goals even with temporarily reducing our retirement contributions.
One item worth noting is that we have an HSA account that I include in the total for the investments category. It's currently all in cash and we had some baby related expenses that we pre-paid in January out of that account and expect to use it for the rest of the labor and delivery bills we'll get in February/March. Eventually I'd like to invest funds within the HSA and cover actual expenses out of pocket, but until the house is paid off or the balance starts to be substantial we'll be using it for current medical expenses.


Did I mention that I love my car? Stay tuned for a special announcement when I hit 200,000 miles later this year. The value of our cars moved in the expected direction this month but part of me thinks my wife's car is undervalued. I saw a dealer selling a very similar car to hers that only had a few more bells and whistles and they were asking more than double the value KBB assigns to her car that I use here. I'm ok using the lower value here though since we aren't selling so it doesn't really matter.


I don't have anything special to report on this front, other than the fact that we'll be making a big extra payment on the mortgage very soon to get the balance under $200,000. Not sure why I'm so excited to see that '2' go down to a '1', but it's a fun milestone to reach. We've got some house projects we're planning on doing this year but are in a holding pattern right now until the baby is born.

We've come a long way and still have a ways to go, but as always, it helps to look back and reflect on the progress we've made to this point.