The Courage To Act

Overall score 8.2/10

The Courage to Act by Ben Bernanke

The Courage to Act by Ben Bernanke is one of the better economics books I’ve read. Recounting the events before, up to, and after the ’08 crisis, Ben Bernanke had a front seat to the entire situation as chairmen of the Federal Reserve. Bernanke brings a unique insider’s point of view from the crisis and objectively reviews exactly what happened and how different areas of the government, obviously with heavy emphasis on the Fed, reacted and tried to deal with the crisis and it’s eventual fallout.

I get it may not make the most exciting reading for someone just interested in personal finance but for anyone interested in macroeconomics and how the financial system works in the United States I highly recommend this book. Having graduated from college with a degree in economics I had plenty of classes that referenced and were even focused on financial crisis’, especially the Great Recession of 2008-2009 but not a single teacher could truly convey what Ben Bernanke so simply puts in his book. How close not only the financial system came to ruin but the United States economy along with it boggles my mind. The complete evaporation of credit may seem to have affected Main Street with higher interest rates and stricter lending criteria but had the Fed and the government not intervened there could have been a complete collapse of the very fabric of our capitalistic society.

I know that sounds like a doomsday prophecy and looking back from where we are now it seems hard to fathom the conditions that led to this crisis and the crisis itself. Personally I was too young to fully understand what was going on. All I knew was that a lot of people were out of work and my parents retirement accounts lost a lot of money. Now reading the chairman of the Fed’s first hand account of the crisis I understand why those accounts lost so much value and why people were looking for work.

Bottom line is this book will help you if you plan on studying economics in college. This book will help you if you want to understand markets better and the interconnection of our financial system. And this book will help you if you want to understand the recession. It’s a welcome glimpse into the brain of Ben Bernanke and you should take full advantage.

Blockchain and Bad Conversations

Guest post this Friday by a senior at Penn State! Read on to see what he has to say about blockchain.

At this point, you’ve probably heard the term ‘blockchain’ thrown around a time or two. In reality, you’ve probably been in a conversation where it’s been brought up, people start to discuss topics related to it, and you find yourself nodding along to everything they say, pretending to understand what they’re talking about and giving them the satisfaction of knowing they have an engaged audience. Before I say anything else, don’t hate yourself for it! We’ve all been there. What’s important is learning what they were talking about after the fact, so the next time you see this person, you can really nod your head to a familiar topic, not just words going in one ear and out the other. 

So what is ‘blockchain’ exactly? No, it’s not bitcoin, and no it’s not illegal. I know at least a few of you were thinking that. Blockchain is in fact a system of measurement. Just as banks keep ledgers of every transaction within their clientele and partnering banks, blockchain does this for cryptocurrency as well. The key difference between a traditional bank ledgering system and the blockchain is that every transaction that happens in the blockchain is public. Every transaction and its respective amounts and included parties are all recorded on this public interface. Transactions are sorted into blocks along this chain and published online, while remaining well encrypted. These blocks are mathematically solved with a certain amount of transactions, depending on the solution, and then placed on the chain. The blocks themselves are solved by miners; the individuals who actually derive each coin. They then take each transaction, and through a series of complex mathematical procedures, systematically solve each block; adding onto the chain. I know, mind blown. Now before any questions, I have to disclaim the hobby of mining by saying that not everyone can do this, even if you claim to be a mathematical savant. Crypto-mining takes a heavy set of expensive computer machinery, and a lot of time that most people don’t have. However, with that being said, it’s not impossible!

So aside from avoiding a confusing conversation, why is this subject important to our generation? Simple. The blockchain is going to become the most disruptive technology of our modern world. Aside from all that it has already done, the public ledgering system allows for instant data and information dissemination across multiple platforms, and business templates. In other words, people can share sensitive information instantly, with whoever they want to, in a very safe manor. In the next 20 years, the blockchain will revolutionize the ways in which businesses process data. Prospectively, this system will be replicated across every business and multi media platform, allowing for easier spread and analysis of data. 

So there you have it, the blockchain in a nutshell. Before you go buying all the mining rigs and cryptocurrencies you can find, it is important to have at least a base knowledge of the blockchainand the way it operates today. Something about .001% of the world could really explain well. Tell that to your IST and market trends professor.

Why The Federal Reserve Alters Interest Rates

The United States economy has been on a hot streak.  Overall growth had been present for years and recent corporate tax cuts put gasoline on the economic flames.  Precisely why talk of Federal Reserve interest rate hikes have been littering the news lately.  Today I want to discuss what that actually means for the economy and for you as an individual.

So what does the Fed actually do?

At a very high level the Federal Reserve has been enacted by Congress to “promote effectively the goals of maximum employment, stable prices, and moderate long term interest rates.”  This has come to be known as the “dual mandate.”  Why there is three mandates in the dual mandate I do not know, but I don’t make the rules.

It is important to note that maximum employment is not necessarily 100% employment.  In theory it should be, but in reality you will always have people leaving jobs or in the process of switching jobs for many uncontrollable reasons.  However, since we currently sit at some of the lowest unemployment levels in history I’m not so sure the Fed is as concerned with people being able to find work as they are with the other two things in the dual (triple) mandate.

Right now Jerome Powell and the Federal Reserve are working overtime to figure out how to keep inflation within controllable levels as the economy heats up.  In other words, as more money is accumulated to pay for goods and services they are trying to prevent that $3 Starbucks coffee you shouldn’t be getting every morning from becoming a $4 Starbucks coffee you shouldn’t be getting every morning.

Where interest rates come in

Raising or lowering interest rates is one of the most common tools the Fed uses to keep prices stable.  If they feel the economy is heating up and inflation is rising they may choose to raise interest rates to discourage borrowing, something that goes hand in hand with economic growth, and vice versa.

When the Fed alters rates they are referring to the federal funds rate or the rate at which banking institutions can lend money overnight to other banking institutions.  This may not affect individuals directly, but over the long term interest rates offered by banks change accordingly.  This eventually ripples out into the entire economy with the hope of controlling growth or jump starting the economy when it slows or contracts.

The Federal Reserve’s Federal Open Market Committee(FOMC) meets 8 times a year to discuss rates usually about 7 weeks apart.  This ties into the moderate long term interest rates portion of the dual, but actually triple mandate.  Quite obviously, an extreme change in the rate can have unforeseen effects on the economy so the Fed elects to raise or reduces rate gradually over time.  The Fed can also elect to keep rates unchanged if they believe inflation is where they would like it to be.  Currently the target rate of inflation is 2%.

While robust economic growth is good for everyone as it means more jobs, higher pay, and rising markets it is important that it is contained.  Additionally, it is important to encourage borrowing by lowering rates when times are not so good.  A stable economy that tends to expand over time is best for everyone as it keeps the maximum amount of people employed and will not radically change the price of goods.  The Federal Funds Rate is a tool to keep the economy on the right track.

 

Some more links for you:

Federal Reserve website FAQ section

Federal Reserve of Richmond Essay on the Dual Mandate

Explanation of the Federal Funds Rate

Atlas Shrugged

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

The Modern Piggy Bank’s Rating: 10/10

If you saw Atlas, the giant who holds the world on his shoulders… what would you tell him to do? What would you tell him? To shrug”

Atlas Shrugged is one of, if not the best book I’ve ever read. I picked it up after learning of how many successful people attribute their success to the philosophy enshrined in this book and after finishing it I could completely understand why.

I won’t lie. This is a long book, it will take a long time to get through and it can be slow at times. But every page brings you a new insight into how the majority of people interact with reality and how badly you don’t want to be like most people. This is actually the first book that I went back to read passages and pages over again, not because I didn’t understand them, but because I wanted to absorb the words again.

Presenting her philosophy of Objectivism in story form, Rand creates characters we can all associate with people we know in our own lives. You’ll also find the ideal characters don’t seem so unrealistic and the way they live their lives so simplistic, you’ll wonder why it’s not common sense. Francisco’s speech on money, probably spanning 20 pages, is eye opening and will be sure to burn in your brain for a long time. Even though this book revolves around the storyline of good versus evil it’s about fundamental moral laws that all people should adhere to but so many just throw by the wayside.

It’s actually a struggle for me to write down all I want to say about this book because there’s so much to say and I don’t want to go on a rant. Feel free to email me at founders@themodernpiggybank.com and I’ll happily tell you everything I love about this book in more detail.

So let me finish by saying I don’t care who you are, what you do, or what level of success you have achieved, this book will change the way you look at the world. No, it doesn’t have anything to do with investing and personal finance per say but handling of money is as much of a mental test as it is anything else. In fact, a whole new area of study called behavioral finance is attempting to learn more and understand the connection between our thoughts and the way we go about money.

The very second I turned the last page in Atlas Shrugged I knew I was a changed person and I know you will be to. There is no denying it that Rand touched a long forgotten truth about the human condition and brought it to life through her writings.

Atlas Shrugged is a book I will return to time and time again to read over and over or sometimes just read certain passages and speeches. I’ve gone on to read another of Ayn Rand’s books: Anthem. And am currently making my way through Fountainhead.

Embarking on the journey that is Atlas Shrugged is a long one but not an expensive one. The paperback can be bought from amazon for less than $10. Just click the link below and it’ll take you directly to the page.

Atlas Shrugged

Make sure to let us know what you think! We welcome any discussion about this book or any others that you’re reading. As always we ask you to subscribe using your email so you can stay up to date on all the exciting things going on at The Modern Piggy Bank and follow us on twitter @themodernpiggy2.

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Reading WSJ is Great. This is Better.

If you’re like anyone that wants to learn more about the markets you probably have a Wall Street Journal subscription.  It is a great resource and something I used to read cover to cover almost every day.  I still read it often, but I tend to skip the bombardment of writers telling me stocks are going up/down on any given day, recently the narrative has been the trade war and tariffs.  Don’t get me wrong these things pose a big threat to the global markets, but in my personal opinion that has not even come close to materializing yet and as someone who looks at the big picture I don’t think one day of stock market noise can be explained by any one thing.

So if you are looking to further deepen your knowledge there are few things you can do, many of which are free or won’t break the bank.  Some of the things we like to do include:

Reading Actual Portfolio Management Research

Find a fund, asset manager, investor, professor, economist or anything of the sort that you like and resonate with.  Read what they have to say and ask yourself if it makes sense.  Then read something completely opposite and see what you think.  I used to think individual stock picking was the only way to invest.  My ideology was that bonds could never give me the returns I needed and other financial products involved heavy amounts of leverage.  Then I read Burton Malkiel’s, “A Random Walk Down Wall Street.”  Now, I like looking at data and Malkiel consistently provided concepts I found easy to understand followed by charts to drive his thoughts home.  I am now more open to a portfolio that is diversified across the world and across asset classes.

Some other ideas include reading AQR Capital’s website.  With $226 billion under management across all their offerings its quite amazing they have a research tab right on the homepage so you can read up on their thoughts and insights.  I am also a big fan of Meb Faber’s blog and weekly podcast.  Aside from running a $1b AUM investment manager he frequently puts out free research and inexpensive books.

Looking At Economic Indicators

The Federal Reserve, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Institute of Supply Management, etc. regularly put out economic indicators that gauge the health of the economy.  A lot of guesswork is taken out when you have data showing how many people are buying houses or how inflated the prices of goods are.

Getting even more creative, public companies are required to disclose their financials every quarter.  The largest companies choose to have earnings conference calls and field questions from some of Wall Street’s top analysts, but these are completely available to the public.  So for free you can hear the executives of top global business talk about what their views are on their businesses and the overall economy.

Some of our favorite indicators include:

  • Real GDP Growth – GDP Growth less inflation
  • Purchasing Managers Index(PMI) – gauges business health by means of a survey to purchasing executives at hundreds of companies which includes new orders, factory orders, employment level, supplier’s delivery times, and inventories
  • Housing Starts – how many people are buying new homes
  • Caterpillar/Boeing Earnings Calls – industrial giants who are sensitive to changes in the global economy

Tinkering With Data Series

There are a number of free or low cost data series out there on the internet.  One of the most popular is the Fama/French database which includes US equity data dating back to the 1920s.   AQR Capital, which I referenced before, has a similar dataset on their website as well.  These two are especially nice because they have different factors you can play around with and see how they have historically performed.

However, even yahoo finance has free data.  Most recently I was playing around with an S&P 500 strategy that tilts into lesser represented sectors of the market and found that yahoo price data was more than sufficient.

And you don’t have to be a programming genius either, you can do a lot with excel and you’d be surprised how one simple plot can lead to many ideas.  One of my favorite websites portfoliovisualizer.com actually allows you to create a portfolio and see how it historically performed.

But if you are a real nerd you can play around with quantopian.com, quandl.com, and quantiacs.com.  These websites have free financial data and essentially built a backtesting engine for you so you just have to code up a strategy and see how it performs.  (Not sure if quandl does the backtesting for you I just heard they have great data)

More than anything it is important to be creative.  The industry notoriously is pretty secretive about their research because an overused strategy is one that does not work.  However, more and more firms are starting to provide research and insights to the general public so make use of what you can.  We are working on starting two new sections of the website. One for money manager’s letters to investors and one with interesting papers, excel spreadsheets, and more. So hopefully we can provide value to you as well.

As always we welcome questions, comments, and thoughts via email at founders@themodernpiggybank.com.  Be sure to subscribe to this website and follow us on twitter @themodernpiggy2.

The Major Indexes Explained

If you turn on CNBC you’ll probably see and hear a bunch of talking heads screaming about how many points the Dow is up on the day or where the S&P 500 is heading.  It can be a lot to take in and even we learn new things about the major indexes from time to time.  So if you are confused about what these things represent you’re in the right place.

The major indexes include the Dow Jones Industrial Average, Standard & Poors 500 (S&P 500), and the NASDAQ Composite.  There are countless more you may have heard of like the Russell 2000, but usually the three listed above are the most talked about and usually can be used to get a quick snapshot of whats happening in the market.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average

^DJI_YahooFinanceChart.pngThe Dow traces its roots back to 1885 and was officially introduced in 1896 when Charles Dow calculated an average of 12 purely industrial stocks.   Surprisingly, it is not the oldest index as it is 12 years younger than the Dow Transportation Average.  It has come a long way since then and now holds 30 stocks with none of the original 12 remaining.  GE has the record for the longest Dow membership, but was recently removed for Walgreens amidst a series of financial blunders.  The companies are selected by a committee of experts with the goal being to select companies that together best represent the US economy as a whole rather than purely industrials for which it was originally intended.

The Dow is the most followed US index.  Whenever it passes a mile stone celebrations are in order and whenever there is a crisis people gauge the severity by how much the Dow has fallen.  Interestingly enough the index is price weighted.  This means that a company that has a greater price per share represents a larger portion of the Dow than a company with a lower price per share.

A table of all the components can be found here.

The Standard & Poor’s 500

^GSPC_YahooFinanceChart.pngStarted in 1957, the S&P 500 is a weighted average of the top 500 stocks in the US by market cap.  Unlike the price weight of the Dow the S&P 500 is cap weighted meaning that companies with a larger market capitalization represent a larger portion of the index.  For example, a price swing in Amazon would have a bigger effect on the index than a price swing in Campbell’s Soup.

This index is just as popular as the Dow and some might argue that it gives a more holistic view of the US economy since it is an average of more stocks.  Since its construction relies solely on market cap it does tilt toward certain sectors of the economy and individual companies.  Currently the S&P 500 tilts toward the technology and financial services sector with about 26% and 15% weighting respectively.  The smallest sector is telecom at just under 2% (I calculated these a few months ago so I apologize if they are not 100% accurate).  To take this a step further about 4% of the index is AAPL while smaller companies can be just fractions of a percent of the index.  Overall, the S&P 500 is a solid way to hold the US market, but its construction can sometimes cause it to lean towards what’s hot.  We are working on an article discussing this in more detail and hope to share it soon.

To see the full list of member companies click here.

The NASDAQ Composite

^IXIC_YahooFinanceChart.pngThe NASDAQ composite is a composite index of all stocks trading on the NASDAQ exchange.  If you haven’t heard of the NASDAQ exchange it’s simply a separate stock exchange from the NYSE set up in the 1970s as the first electronic exchange.  To put this in simple terms every trade on the NYSE gets cleared in New York at the NYSE.  The NASDAQ is different as it allows sellers to automatically connect to buyers in a decentralized manner.  For further details click here for an interesting Investopedia article on how it all works.

Although it is not a tech exclusive index the NASDAQ is notorious for being technology heavy.  The index dropped over 80% in value in the early 2000s dot com bubble.  As of May the index sits at about 46% technology stocks, but otherwise has a good mix of stocks from every sector.  Additionally, it is also market cap weighted like the S&P meaning larger market caps represent a larger portion of the index.  It differs from the S&P 500 in that any company that chooses to list on the NASDAQ exchange is automatically on the index whereas the S&P 500 is the top 500 companies by market cap that are based in the US regardless of exchange.  Over 2600 stocks trade on the NASDAQ and they are all represented in the NASDAQ Composite index although some fund managers might select the top 100 as it makes it easier to package into index funds and the like.

For the full list of companies click here.

The Bottom Line

The major indices do a great job of giving a snapshot of the US markets, but that’s about it.  The construction of these indices show inherent biases towards industries and even individual companies.  Owning the US markets has rewarded investors handsomely over the course of modern history, but it is important to know how indexes and funds are constructed so you can truly understand your investments.

The main takeaway here is to understand what your risks are.  I have no problem with index investing as it is easier for me to justify why a whole market may go up than try to place a value on an individual security.  If we can assess our risks and better understand our portfolios we can start thinking about if we want to hedge that risk out and at the very least we can understand why our portfolio is moving up or down to avoid rash uninformed decisions.

If you are interested in index investing some great funds and ETFs are offered by Vanguard and State Street.  They are extremely passive, have very low fees, and minimal tracking error to the indexes they follow.  As always it is important to read the funds prospectus and understand how it works before investing.

As always we welcome questions, comments, and thoughts at founders@themodernpiggybank.com.  Be sure to subscribe to this website and follow us on twitter @themodernpiggy2.

How To Sharpen Your Skills For Free

After I graduated I was looking for a way to keep some of the skills I learned in college sharp and maybe even add some new ones to my tool belt.  There are countless websites out there that will charge you a lot of money for a product you know little about.  For example, one of my clubs in college offered DataCamp for free to dues paying members. DataCamp is a premier resource for learning programming with data science applications in a web environment.  It was a great tool and a great product, but I could not justify paying $30/month for it.

So I tried out a website called edx.com, it is a non profit run by universities offering college level courses many of which are free.  The most popular subjects offered are Computer Science, Language, Data & Statistics, Business & Management, Engineering, and Humanities, but don’t be fooled there are tons more course offerings.  Courses are either self paced or instructor led and provide a sample syllabus outlining lesson plans, software packages, and how much time is recommended to be devoted to the course per week.  In addition, they have professional certificate programs although these are paid features.  I am planning to sign up for the Introduction to Python series to refresh my skills and learn the new features of Python 3.

In addition to edX, there is Coursera where I found a great instructor led course on Wind Turbines that I am looking to complete.  Also, there is lynda.com which has partnered with a lot of universities, such as our alma mater Penn State, and libraries to offer similar free courses.

Whether your looking to learn something completely new or just sharpen your skills there is no harm in taking a free course at one of these sites.  They are great resources for almost all popular subjects and will help immensely in your personal development and the best part is that it won’t cost you a dime.