Archives for April 2015

American Airlines Learn and Earn: Free 1,000 Miles

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

aa1000American Airlines has a another easy trivia game where you can earn 1,000 free AAdvantage miles. You’ll also be entered to win two First Class round-trip tickets to anywhere they fly.

Just watch some videos and answer some questions about their program… and you can skip to the last 5 seconds of each YouTube video if you wish. (I had some problems skipping past the videos on Safari, but Chrome worked fine.) The questions are pretty easy to figure out, although they seem to vary. Here are the ones I got with answer hints:

  • Exploring your account, you can do… all of the above.
  • Not an Elite level… iron.
  • Most people redeem miles for… flights.
  • Dining rewards are from…. dining.
  • Earn miles from Citi credit cards on… all of the above.
  • American flights daily… 6,700.

A one-time maximum of 1,000 AAdvantage bonus miles can be earned per AAdvantage member. Additional bonus miles cannot be earned by watching the videos more than once. Your bonus miles earned will be saved upon completion of registration. If you leave before registering, you will have to start over when you return.

Miles will post within 8 weeks after promotion ends. AA miles currently expire after 18 months of inactivity. I just earned 1,000 miles each for my wife and I, for a total of at least $20 of value in 6 minutes. Not too shabby.

Chase United MileagePlus Explorer Card Review

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

United Mileage Plus Explorer Card The United MileagePlus Explorer Card is a co-branded credit card between Chase and United Airlines. This card offers unique perks for regular United customers including free checked bags and expanded award seat availability for redeeming miles. There is also a sign-up bonus of 40,000 United miles.  Here are the highlights:

  • 40,000 bonus United miles after spending $2,000 in purchases within the first 3 months.
  • Check your first bag for free (a savings of up to $100 per roundtrip) when you use your Card to purchase your ticket.
  • Earn 2x miles at restaurants and on hotel stays.
  • Earn 2x miles per on purchases from United.
  • 25% Back on United Inflight Wi-Fi, Food and Drinks.
  • Up to $100 Global Entry or TSA PreCheck Fee Credit
  • Priority boarding + two one-time-use United Club passes every year.
  • No foreign transaction fees.
  • Your miles don’t expire as long as your credit card account is open, with no limit to the number of miles you can earn.
  • Use your miles for any seat, any time, on any United flight.
  • $0 intro annual fee for the first year, then $95.

Keep in mind the following terms and conditions:

This product is available to you if you do not have this Card and have not received a new Cardmember bonus for this Card in the past 24 months.

This card is very focused on rewarding you for being a United customer. Before you board, you might use one of your free United Club lounge passes. You have the first checked bag for free on United flights, both for your and a companion traveling on the same reservation. The fee is usually $25 per person, each way, so that this how they get the value of $100 each roundtrip. You also get Priority Boarding, which helps you find space for your carry-on. While onboard, you get 25% back on your inflight purchases of WiFi, food, and drinks.

You earn United miles for all your purchases (double miles on restaurants and hotel stays), but then they also make it easier for you to redeem those miles on Saver level tickets with no blackout dates. Saver Award ticket redemptions start at 12,500 miles one-way within the continental U.S. and Canada.

Another unique feature of this card is that it offers primary coverage on the Auto Rental Collision Damage Waiver. On most other consumer cards, this coverage is offered as secondary coverage, meaning it only kicks in after your personal auto insurance has been exhausted.

Bottom line. The United MileagePlus Explorer Card is a great card for regular United customers. The card provides lounge passes, a free checked bag, priority boarding, and inflight discounts. There are bonus categories to earn more miles, and special expanded award seat inventory for credit card holders to make it easier to actually redeem those miles for flights.

Your Homeowner’s Insurance Deductible Should Be Catastrophically High

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

housemoneyThe NYT Times Haggler just helped a reader who made two small claims on his homeowner’s insurance for (1) a fallen ceiling fan and (2) a stolen bike. Not only did State Farm deny both claims, but they subsequently refused to renew his insurance the next year! This is a unique circumstance, and I’ve heard of co-workers with similar problems. But of course the power of daylight again helped this lucky reader:

After the Haggler’s interactions with State Farm, Mr. Joseph sent an email to the Haggler with the subject line “It worked!” A representative at the company had ed him and, in conversation, was much more forthcoming than Ms. Risinger. Mr. Joseph learned that in New York City, the average for homeowners is one claim every 38 years.

“Two in two years,” Mr. Joseph recalled this rep telling him, “that makes us concerned.” But after digging deeper into Mr. Joseph’s claims, the company decided that it wanted to keep him as a customer.

You should never make a claim for such small things like a stolen bike or broken appliance (especially if apparently it’s not even covered). Every claim you make will be recorded in an insurance database forever. As a result, if you’re not going to make a $500 or $1,000 claim, then why would you set your deductible to $250 or $500? Set it to $2,500 or higher if you can swing it. I’ve been inching ours up over the years, and I believe it is now $10,000 and even higher for natural disaster insurance. Enjoy the lower premiums, but remember to stock up your emergency fund in return. I used to have a special rider for my wife’s engagement ring, but cancelled that as soon as the value become “non-catastrophic” for our finances.

And we’ve all learned a valuable lesson: Homeowner’s insurance is for disasters. Which means that if you’re lucky, you’ll spend money on it for years and years and never get a dime back.

Exactly. Insurance is not an investment, a maintenance plan, or a replacement for properly securing your property. Insurance is there to protect you from something truly catastrophic happening, like your entire house burning down and them putting you up in a residential hotel for months while they rebuild it (which happened to our friends).

Bottom line: If you have homeowner’s insurance, you should set your deductible as high as you can tolerate. It should be a painful number. Take your premium savings and put it towards your cash reserves.

Target Date Retirement Funds: Beating The Behavior Gap

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

The general consensus behind target-date retirement funds is often “They’re okay… but here’s something better!”. Any all-in-one product will be imperfect. But I still like them on the whole and have written previously about how Vanguard’s target-date retirement funds are underrated. If you’re invested in them, this Bloomberg article and Morningstar data should make you feel even better about it.

Most mutual fund investors actually do worse than market returns due to poor behavior, termed the “behavior gap“:

But target-date funds have one big advantage over other kinds of mutual funds, the data show. The average mutual fund has a flaw, which is that the average investor hardly ever does as well as his or her funds. Investors tend to jump in and out of funds at the wrong time. They buy high, choosing funds only after they’ve done well. And they sell low, dumping underperforming funds just as they’re about to take off.

However, owners of target-date fund actually did better:

targetdategap

On average, target-date fund investors are doing 1.1 percent better per year than their funds. Investors in almost every other fund category lagged their funds over the past decade, including a -0.98 percent underperformance for U.S. equity funds and -1.3 percent for municipal bond funds.

The outperformance may be a temporary anomaly, but I do think there are unique features of these all-in-one funds (and their investors) that will persist:

  1. Self-selection. If you buy a target-date fund, you desire simplicity. You have a degree of humility. You don’t overestimate your skills as an investor, otherwise you’d buy something else.
  2. Optical illusions. If you own an all-in-one fund that holds both stocks and bonds together, you don’t have the problem of seeing one investment drop while the other rises. It’s all mixed together in one pot, so the impact is usually dulled. This is the benefit of buying a “balanced” fund.
  3. Automatic rebalancing. Anything that makes you look at your investments is an opportunity to make an emotionally-driven choice. Since these funds even rebalance their holdings for you automatically, you’re not even required to rebalance, which can be hard to do. Right now, a portfolio would probably have to sell stocks and buy some bonds while the media keeps talking about rising rates.
  4. Tweaking is difficult. If you have one stock fund and one bond fund, it’s very easy to buy little more of one or a little less of the other. With an all-in-one fund, it’s harder to tweak your mix.

So you don’t have to do anything, and if you want to do something besides just buy more, it’s a pain. All this means less trading, which over the long run is a good thing.

So don’t be ashamed of buying a diversified, low-cost Target Date fund like Vanguard 20XX or Fidelity Freedom *Index* 20XX funds. The article ends with a good reminder that costs still matter. Don’t overpay for one of these funds either, and maybe even raise a little stink if you are being asked to.

AT&T Access More MasterCard from Citi Review – GSM Phone Offer (Up to $650)

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

accessmore180Our partner Citi has launched yet another new card, AT&T Access More MasterCard® from Citi. This AT&T co-branded card obviously targets a niche, but read on if you will be in the market for a new GSM phone in the next year ($650 is the full price of a new iPhone 6). As such, this card took a little extra research and analysis. Be sure to read all the details before applying, so you understand how to get everything possible out of this offer.

“Exclusive New Phone Offer” details. Yes, the offer screams “new phone”! But lots of ads say that. What kind of new phone? Does it include iPhone 6 or Samsung Galaxy S6? What strings are attached? Do I need to sign a contract?

  • You must spend $2,000 in purchases with your AT&T Access More Card within 3 months of account opening. As with other sign-up bonuses, this is the spending hurdle. The application page also says “If you buy a new phone now it will count toward the $2,000 in qualifying purchases!”. At first, I read this to mean “buy a phone and you don’t need to spend $2,000 anymore”. Nope. It’s just reminding you that if, for example, you buy a $650 phone on this card, then you’ll only need to spend another $1,350 on the card to meet the $2,000 threshold.
  • You can get any new phone on the AT&T website. Apple iPhone 6, iPhone 6 Plus, Samsung S6, Samsung S6 Edge, flip phone, whatever.
  • They’ll give you up to $650 back towards a new phone bought full price with no annual contract… At first this may seem like a negative, man I have to buy it at full price? But that’s actually a good thing when the credit is for up to $650! For example, an iPhone 6 starts at $649.99 and Samsung S6 starts at $684.99. (Taxes, shipping, fees, and wireless service not included.)
  • … which also means lower monthly bills! When you essentially bring your own device (BYOD) buy buying the phone outright, AT&T will give you lower bills in the form of $15 to $25 off each month on their Mobile Share Value plans. Also, the $40 per-line activation fee is waived when you buy the phone at full price (and is not waived for 2-year contracts). More details on this below.
  • Since you own the phone and are not on a contract, you can also unlock it for use on any carrier. You can find unlock instructions at att.com/deviceunlock. are the AT&T unlock instructions ]. Postpaid customers have an active account for at least 60 days, with no past due or unpaid balance. Non-AT&T customers can request a phone unlock before activating the phone on an AT&T plan. After submitting your request, the unlock should be done within 48 hours.
  • You must buy the phone using their special link. After you buy the phone, then activate it on an AT&T monthly plans of you choice for at least 15 days. Remember, you’re not bound to a contract after that. It’s easier just to quote from their Terms and Conditions:

    You must purchase an eligible phone from AT&T with your AT&T Access More Credit Card from Citi (the “Card”) using the Phone Offer Link created individually for you. This link may be accessible to you in several locations including, but not limited to, your approval screen at the time you apply, an email welcoming you to Access More Card membership (if you provide a valid email address) and through your Online Account at citi.com/att. You may redeem the Phone Offer using the link at any time after your Card account opening. Once you have made $2,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of your Card account opening, and purchased and activated your eligible phone, Citi will credit your account for the cost of the eligible phone you purchased up to $650 (exclusive of taxes, fees, shipping and wireless service) within 1 to 2 billing cycles. If you choose to purchase an eligible phone which costs more or less than $650, your credit will equal the cost of the phone or $650, whichever is less.

Side question: How does paying full price for a phone compare with the subsidized 2-year contract or the AT&T Next plan? Most people don’t pay full price for a phone. It’s a lot of money. AT&T Next is basically like agreeing to pay full price for a phone but they let you pay in monthly installments instead. So the $650 iPhone 6 would $21.67 for 30 months (multiply that out and you get $650.10.) Nothing really special there. The traditional alternative is that you get a subsidized phone but you enter a 2-year contract at a higher monthly bill. Here’s how the two options compare:

  • The phone subsidy with a 2-year contract is $450, but you have a $40 activation fee. So the $650 iPhone 6 would only cost $200, a $40 per-line activation fee.
  • The monthly bill subsidy with a full price phone adds up to either $360 or $640 over 2 years. With the full price phone, there is no activation fee. If your Mobile Share Value plan comes with 6GB of data or less, you get a $15 discount per month per line. $15 times 24 months = $360. If your Mobile Share Value plan comes with 10GB or more, you get a $25 discount per month per line. $25 times 24 months = $600.

So if you compare the savings between the full price plan as 2-year contract, you’re either behind by $50 over two years, or ahead by $190 over two years. So worst case you’re behind by $50 at the 2-year mark, but if you kept your full price phone and cheaper-by-$15 plan for just an extra 4 months past the contract end date, you’d be ahead again.

Ongoing card rewards program highlights. This card also has a unique rewards program using Citi ThankYou points:

  • 3 ThankYou Points for every $1 you spend on purchases made online at retail and travel websites*
  • 3 ThankYou Points for every $1 you spend on products and services purchased directly from AT&T*
  • 1 point earned for every $1 you spend on other purchases*
  • 10,000 Anniversary bonus points after you spend $10,000 in prior cardmembership year*
  • $95 annual fee.

Here are snippets from the fine print that I think are helpful:

Retail websites are websites that sell goods directly to the consumer through an online website and include department store websites, specialty store websites, warehouse store websites and boutique websites. Travel websites are websites that allow you to book travel and include online travel agencies, hotel websites and airline websites.

AT&T purchases are AT&T consumer products and/or services purchased directly from AT&T. AT&T consumer products and services must be purchased from www.att.com, www.telephones.att.com, AT&T owned stores or AT&T customer service centers. Purchases from independent wireless dealers or AT&T resellers are not eligible, unless they are for payment of AT&T service.

That means you can get 3 ThankYou points per $1 of purchases at Amazon.com, Costco.com, Apple.com, Walmart.com, Target.com, Expedia.com, and so on as well at your AT&T monthly service bill. Please see my Citi ThankYou Premier card review for details on redeeming your ThankYou points for at least $100 value per 10,000 points, but note that the special 25% bonus on travel redemption only apply if you also hold the ThankYou Premier card (you can redeem points earned from this card). Throw in the even-more special American Airlines flight awards from the Citi Prestige card and those 3X ThankYou categories start looking even better.

Bottom line. This is a niche card for folks that will soon be in the market for a new GSM phone, especially AT&T customers. (Non-AT&T customers can request a phone unlock before activating the phone on an AT&T plan, after which you’ll have an unlocked GSM phone that can be used on another GSM carrier. Afterward, you’ll still need to activate an AT&T plan for 15 days to get the credit.) If that’s you, then the sign-up bonus is very generous – up to $650 towards a full-price, no-contract AT&T GSM phone. Looking at all the scenarios above, even in the worst case you’d be behind $50 after two years vs. buying new AT&T phone via 2-year contract. There is also the $95 annual fee. That’s still a net benefit of over $500 and thus one of the top credit card sign-up bonuses currently available. The card then offers you ongoing bonus rewards on AT&T service as well as an interestingly broad category of “retail websites”. However, that $95 annual fee is rather high unless you spend $10,000 annually on the card and get the 10,000 ThankYou point anniversary bonus to offset it.

“Disclaimer: This content is not provided or commissioned by the issuer. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the issuer, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the issuer. This site may be compensated through the issuer’s Affiliate Program.”

The Easiest, Fastest Homemade Pizza Dough Recipe Yet

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

madlypizza

I’m still trying my best to cook at home at least 5 times a week, mostly avoiding the pitfalls in my cooking at home flowchart. We make pizza at least once every other week, as it tastes better than anything from the frozen aisle and is very flexible. We’ve recently topped one with leftover corned beef from St. Patrick’s Day.

Suzanne Lenzer of the New York Times recently shared her own pizza dough recipe in Homemade Pizza, Easier and Faster.

So let’s assume you already know that homemade pizza is better and quicker and cheaper than what you can buy at the neighborhood pizza place. You know the reasons to make your own, which are as obvious as they are appealing: You can top a pizza with virtually anything (from special ingredients to leftovers) or almost nothing (one of my favorites is little more than a smear of caramelized leeks dotted with taleggio). You can bake it in minutes — it takes longer to heat up the oven than to bake a pie.

The recipe is from her new book, and it differs from the 5,000 other recipes out there in these important ways:

  1. No kneading! Use a food processor instead. Pizza dough by hand isn’t hard, but this makes it stupid easy. Dump stuff in food processor and turn on for 2 minutes. Done.
  2. Takes 30 minutes all-in on the weekend. Yes, you’ll want to make it ahead for busy weeknights. 20 minutes includes the minimal prep, using the food processor, the rise, and cleaning everything up during the 20-minute rise. Clean counter to clean counter, 30 minutes.
  3. Make ahead, store in freezer. You keep it in the freezer until you need it. Throw it in the fridge to thaw in the morning. Take dough out and preheat oven when you get home. In under 20 minutes, food can be on the table!

Here’s a direct link to the dough recipe, and another NYT article with easy pizza topping ideas. I made the NYT dough last weekend, froze them, and ate them later in the week. We liked it! Here are our comments, which I actually think make it even easier:

  • We used all-purpose flour. The recipe says bread flour and we’ve used it in the past, but AP flour worked just fine and it’s less hassle.
  • We used a rolling pin to roll out the dough. The recipe says to stretch the dough by hand and specifically says “not flat on a work surface”, but we use a floured, flat surface and a rolling pin. It still works and takes nearly zero skill! Here’s a good, simple YouTube video that describes the stupid-proof method. I like stupid-proof.
  • Parchment paper for the win. We bought a baking stone. It got all nasty after a few months. Now we just use a half baking sheet that can preheat in the oven and parchment paper. Also stupid-proof, as it always results in no sticking! Although if you bake 550 degrees, the paper may turn black. We bake at slightly lower temps.
  • Double the recipe. Assuming your food processor isn’t one of those tiny ones, I like the article’s tip to double the dough recipe. Now you’ll get four balls of dough in 30 minutes.

Side tip: Don’t got half an hour on Sunday? You can also freeze pizza dough from the supermarket. You can buy a ball of pizza dough for $1 to $2 at places like Safeway or Trader Joe’s. If you look at the ingredients, many of them are quite simple with minimal questionable additives. Freeze it ’til you need it.

Expected Returns by Asset Class Tool by Research Affiliates

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

crystal_ball_hp

In the current environment of historically-high US stock valuations and historically-low interest rates, there is a lot of discussion about what investors should expect in regards to future returns. Predictions are a dime a dozen, but some are better supported than others. Research Affiliates has interactive Expected Returns tool where they freely share both their forecasts and detailed methodology. For example, here is a PDF of their equities methodology.

1st Quarter 2015 Equities 10-Year Forecast. Currently, their forecast for equities predicts that US Large-Cap and US Small-Cap stocks will have expected real (inflation-adjusted) returns of below 1% annually. Developed European and Asian Country stocks (MSCI EAFE) have significantly higher numbers, while Emerging Markets as a whole offer the best risk/return ratio (Sharpe ratio). I’m not into single-country bets, but it appears Russia is the one to take if you have a high appetite for risk.

ra_expected1

1st Quarter 2015 Fixed Income 10-Year Forecast. Currently, their forecast for fixed income predicts that both long and short US Treasuries will have expected real (inflation-adjusted) returns of basically zero. You might get under 1% real with a broad US bond fund like AGG or BND, or reach for a little more return with a high-yield junk bond fund but with roughly the same Sharpe ratio. The gambler’s choice appears to be Emerging Markets currencies (EM money market funds), which they predict will appreciate relative to the US dollar in the next decade. This is followed by Emerging Market bonds issued in local currency.

ra_expected2

I like reading the theories and fundamental arguments for these forecasts, and consider the numbers as part of the big picture but not necessarily something to act on directly. I also keep track of other forecasts, including the follow which were previously mentioned on this blog – Jeremy Grantham / GMO 7-Year Forecasts (free registration required) and the Rick Ferri / Portfolio Solutions 30-Year Forecasts. The most recent GMO numbers also give the expected-returns edge to Emerging Markets in both the stocks and bond worlds (risk is not directly assessed).

Real Estate Crowdfunding Experiment #1 – Background and Introduction

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

polpic

After I took out roughly $7,500 out of my P2P lending experiment, I started looking for another place to put my money at risk. 🙂 I decided on trying out real-estate crowdfunding, which tries to make real estate investing (either through equity or debt financing) more accessible to individual investors. Right now, all of the major sites require you to be an accredited investor as defined by the SEC. Keep in mind that these investments can be quite risky and that this is an experiment with a small portion of my portfolio set aside specifically for such purposes.

I’m going to be upfront; I didn’t spend an enormous time vetting each and every website out there. I swapped a few quick e-mail questions with a few sites and signed up with some of them (you have to sign up for a free account in order to view the investment opportunities). Due to my analytical tendencies, I missed a bunch of them because the good ones were often fully funded within 24 hours. Other times, I had time to do more research and simply never got back around to it. I finally set some simple criteria and decided that I would jump on the next one that fit the bill. The criteria:

  • Try out one of these new crowdfunding real estate websites – Realty Mogul, Fundrise, Realty Shares, Patch of Land, and others.
  • Single or multi-family residential property.
  • I wanted to be a lender, and the loan must be secured by the property, in the first position.
  • Short-term financing deal with 1 year term or less.
  • Loan-to-value of under 80%, based on my own rough numbers.
  • At least 10% annualized return (10% APR interest).
  • Invest only $5,000 per property.

I found an investment that fit, electronically signed the required documents, and the deal appears to have completed funding. Here are the results:

  • Patch of Land
  • Single-family home in West Sacramento, California
  • Loan is secured by the property, in the first position. Also have personal guarantee from borrower.
  • 6-month term (roughly April 15th to October 15th), with the goal of a quick rehab and reselling of the property.
  • LTV is 78% per my rough numbers.
  • 11% APR interest, paid monthly.
  • $5,000 invested.

pollogoI’m not sure exactly what details of this investment I am allowed to share, so I’ll save that part for later. It will be good for you guys to pick apart, but it doesn’t really matter for other investors as the project is already 100% funded. I’m just waiting on my first interest payment in May, and hope to be done by October. At the end of the year I will get a 1099-INT.

Here’s part of the pitch for Patch of Land:

Patch of Land is a curated real estate debt crowdfunding platform that sources, originates, and underwrites loans to professional, experienced real estate developers. Patch of Land is one of the first real estate crowdfunding platforms. We have been building a strong track record of funded projects and investor returns since 2013. We are considered one of the top 5 real estate platforms by leading crowdfunding publications.

Loan proceeds are used to rehabilitate residential and commercial real estate properties across the country. Loans are secured by the underlying property and personal guarantees from the borrowers. Patch of Land then matches those loans with accredited and institutional investors for funding. Loans are issued for terms of 12 months at rates ranging from 10 to 18% APR, paid monthly to investors.

What I liked about Patch of Land is their stated commitment to individuals provide significant funding and also that many of their borrowers are experienced individual real estate investors. In that way, it’s almost a peer-to-peer feel, as opposed to institutional investors providing the cash to large real estate organizations.

Along those lines, Patch of Land recently completed a $23.6 million round of funding, and $3.6 million of that came from SeedInvest, a crowdfunded start-up investing firm. So technically, I could have also been a part-owner of this start-up as well. For now, I’ll stick with being a “real estate lender” and maybe I’ll add the “venture capitalist” title later. I would like to invest another $5,000 into partial ownership of a commercial property via another crowdfunding site.

Savings I-Bonds May 2015 Interest Rate Update: Negative 1.6% Variable

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

savbonds4New inflation numbers were just announced, which allows us to make an early estimate of May 2015 savings bond rates before their official semi-annual announcement. This also allows us the opportunity to know exactly what a April 2015 savings bond purchase will yield over the next 12 months, instead of just 6 months.

New Inflation Rate
September 2014 CPI-U was 238.031. March 2015 CPI-U was 236.119, for a semi-annual decrease of 0.80%. Yikes! Deflation! Using the official formula, the variable component of interest rate for the next 6 month cycle will be approximately -1.60%. The new fixed rate won’t be announced until May 1st (speculation below). You add the fixed and variable rates to get the total interest rate, but there is minimum composite rate of 0%. If you have an older savings bond, your fixed rate may be different.

Purchase and Redemption Timing Reminder
You can’t redeem until 12 months have gone by, and any redemptions within 5 years incur an interest penalty of the last 3 months of interest. A known “trick” with I-Bonds is that if you buy at the end of the month, you’ll still get all the interest for the entire month as if you bought it in the beginning of the month. It’s best to give yourself a few business days of buffer time though, since if you wait too long your effective purchase date may be bumped into the next month.

Buying in April
If you buy before the end of April, the fixed rate portion of I-Bonds will be 0%. You will be guaranteed the current variable interest rate of 1.48% for the next 6 months, for a total rate of 0 + 1.48 = 1.48%. For the 6 months after that, the total rate will be 0%. Let’s say we hold for the minimum of one year and pay the 3-month interest penalty. If you buy on April 30th, 2014 and sell on April 1, 2015, you’ll earn a ~0.81% annualized return for an 11-month holding period, for which the interest is also exempt from state income taxes.

This average rate is lower than what is currently available from the highest 1-year bank CD rates (ex. 1.23% APY at Synchrony Bank as of 4/17/15). Given the eventual 6 months of 0% that you will be facing, I may put my cash in a competitive savings account or CD until mid-October and November 2015 to see if inflation has picked up again by then.

Buying in May
If you wait until May, you are virtually guaranteed to gain a composite rate of 0% for the first 6 months. The next 6 months will be the sum of an unknown fixed rate an unknown rate based on future inflation. My best guess for the fixed rate is 0.0%, unless somehow the Treasury suddenly feels pity for us individual savers (doubtful). Given that the only guaranteed thing you’ll get is 6 months of zero interest, I would rather buy in April than May, but otherwise I’d still check back in during mid-October 2015 to see if inflation has picked up.

Existing I-Bonds
If you have an existing I-Bond, the rates reset every 6 months depending on your purchase month. Your bond rate = your specific fixed rate + variable rate (minimum floor of 0%). Unless you bought your I Bond before November 2002, you will not be earning any interest for at least 6 months. For now, I think I will still hold my existing I Bonds and see what happens at the next update. I still value their unique advantages like ongoing tax deferral, exemption from state income taxes, and being a hedge against inflation (and even a bit of a hedge against deflation).

Annual Purchase Limits
The annual purchase limit is now $10,000 in online I-bonds per Social Security Number. For a couple, that’s $20,000 per year. Buy online at TreasuryDirect.gov, after making sure you’re okay with their security protocols and user-friendliness. If you have children, you may be able to buy additional savings bonds by using a minor’s Social Security Number.

For more background, see the rest of my posts on savings bonds.

Navy Federal Credit Union Youth Week $100 Bonus

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

navyfedlogoNavy Federal Credit Union has solid bank and loan products, including checking accounts with ATM rebates, competitive mortgage rates, and limited-time 0% balance transfer promotions. Membership eligibility for NavyFed is primarily restricted to Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard regular Active Duty and reservists, and Army and Air National Guard personnel, but also includes family and household members of existing NavyFed members and some civilian employees in the Department of Defense.

If you’re a member, the exclusive perks mean that you should sign up your kids sometime… and right now you can get $100 for doing so! As part of their Youth Week 2015 promotions, you can get:

  • $25 for signing up your child (under 18) for membership.
  • $25 for opening a Campus Checking Account for your child (age 14-17), which has no minimum balance requirements and up to $10 in ATM fee rebates per statement period.
  • $25 for opening a SaveFirst Account for your child (under 18) with as little as $5.
  • $25 for opening a reloadable prepaid Visa® Buxx Card for your child (age 10-17).

Expires soon on April 18th, 2015. Thanks to reader Charles for the tip.

LendingClub Realistic Return Expectations Chart

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

Thinking about investing in P2P loans? Even though I still believe that decent returns are possible, I think it is important to have realistic expectations. I’ve given out the following warnings since they started:

  • You won’t get the stated interest rates on your loans. Let’s say the loans you invested in are charging 12% interest to the borrowers. First, there are fees to pay. Second, these are unsecured loans to faceless individuals on the internet. You don’t get to repossess a house or even a car. All you can do is hurt their credit score. They could empty their bank account and walk away the next day. Defaults are gonna happen; you should expect it.
  • Your reported return will decline over time. I see many people who have loans being very happy about their 10% reported returns after a year or so. Well, expect it to drop 1 to 3% or possibly more by the time the loans actually finish their full terms. If you keep rolling over your interest into new 3 year loans, that means your average loan age will likely remain around 1.5 years (often even younger due to high prepayment rates).

Recently, LendingClub started showing this on their performance and statistics pages:

This chart illustrates how returns typically decline over the life of an investment. If your account is relatively new, it is likely that your returns will decline over time as some of your Notes become past-due and charge off. This chart is not a prediction of how your portfolio will perform and actual results may vary.

Here’s the chart with a focus on the beginning (3-9 months = 9.8% median return):

lc_returns3

Here’s the chart with a focus on the end (24-30 months = 7.2% median return):

lc_returns4

That’s a performance drop of 2.6% over 21 months if you take the average loan ages (6 months to 27 months). I can see why the chart starts at 3 months, as no loan can be charged off until the payments are at least 90 days late. I’m not quite sure why the chart ends only at 30 months though, not 36 months, as I think the numbers would drop even further. (As an aside, I know than some investors basically try to sell their loans on the secondary market at full expected value after 12 months or so to maximize returns. If you could find buyers at that price, that might not be a bad strategy.)

A historical 7.2% median annualized return is still pretty solid. For a rough approximation, here are the returns of some corporate junk bond funds, probably the closest publicly-traded asset class available. Per Morningstar as of 4/14/2015, the 3-year trailing total return of the Barclays High Yield Bond ETF (JNK) was 6.67%. As of 4/14/2015, the 3-year trailing total return of the Vanguard High-Yield Corporate Bond Fund (VWEHX) was 7.21%. Given that the timeframes don’t match up perfectly, I would only go as far as saying that the return figures are in the same ballpark.

It is worth noting though that the mutual funds offer the same broad diversification for everyone, whereas an individual investor at LendingClub has more scatter in returns (either higher or lower than average). As for me, apparently I’m below the 10th percentile myself with my 4.3% annualized returns. Arrgh!

Prosper vs. LendingClub Investor Experiment: 2.5 Year Update

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

lcvspr_clipoIn November 2012, I invested $10,000 into person-to-person loans split evenly between Prosper Lending and Lending Club, both out of curiosity and for a chance at higher returns from a new asset class. After diligently reinvesting my earned interest into new loans, I stopped my after one year (see previous updates here) and started just collecting the interest and waiting see how my final numbers would turn out at the end of the 3-year terms.

My last update was 6 months ago, so here’s what things look like after roughly two and a half years. This will be my last update before final liquidation of my portfolio (see recap below).

$5,000 LendingClub Portfolio. As of April 14, 2015, the LendingClub portfolio had 129 current and active loans remaining with a principal value of $1,003 (1 in grace period). 96 loans were paid off early and 29 were charged-off . 1 loan is between 31-120 days late and 2 are in default, which I will assume to be unrecoverable ($37.07 in principal). $417.94 in uninvested cash is left in the account, and I also withdrew $4,000 previously (payments and interest). Total adjusted balance is $5,421.

1504_lc2

$5,000 Prosper Portfolio. My Prosper portfolio now has 110 current and active loans with a principal value of $1,404. 114 loans were paid off early, 42 charged-off. 1 loans are between 1-30 days late ($22). 3 are over 30 days late, which I am going to write off completely (~$18). $410.26 in uninvested cash is left in the account, and I also withdrew $3,500 previously (payments and interest). Total adjusted balance is $5,336.

1504_prosper1

Experiment Recap and Conclusions

  • P2P lending has successfully gone mainstream. The fact that institutional investors are buying a significant portion of Prosper and LendingClub loan inventory would seem to prove that the concept is viable. This WSJ article says 66% of Prosper loans in 2014 had been sold to institutional investors. What started out as the Wild West of unsecured loans is now accepted by Wall Street. LendingClub had a successful IPO in December 2014 (which they generously let their lenders participate in).
  • LendingClub reports my adjusted* annualized returns as 4.30% annualized. Prosper reports my annualized returns as 4.10% annualized. These returns are certainly above that of a savings account or bank CD, but not as good as many other asset classes over the same period. Considering the weighted average interest rate on those loans was 12% for LendingClub and 14% on Prosper, I saw a lot of defaults. (*Adjusted means you assume all loans 30+ days late will be total losses.)
  • My reported returns consistently deteriorated as my loans aged. 10 months ago Prosper said my returns were 5.76%. 14 months ago Prosper said my returns were 7.55%. LendingClub reported my unadjusted annualized return 6 months ago as as 5.27%. 10 months ago, it was 5.94%. The lesson here is that your returns will continue to vary and likely deteriorate as your loans age, so don’t assume your returns will always stay the same as they are in the beginning. Also, your returns will look higher if you keep reinvesting into new loans.
  • I am not a good loan picker. But will you be better? My returns are below average when compared to the advertised historical numbers. Certainly, I have seen reported numbers from other people who have done much better. Who knows, you may be the next P2P Bond King! 🙂 But I took my shot, diversified into over 400 loans, and here are my honest results. Not everyone who gets bad returns is willing to share about them.
  • For small-time individual investors, dealing with unfamiliar forms at tax time can be tedious and time-consuming. Dealing with the tax forms each year isn’t impossible, but it isn’t fun either. If I were to invest all over again, I would definitely do it within an IRA to avoid tax headaches. To save more time, I would also buy at least 100 loans x $25, which also happens to be the $2,500 minimum for free auto-investment at LendingClub (no minimum at Prosper).
  • I plan on liquidating the rest of my portfolio by the end of 2015. In June 2014, I still had $5,493 of principal in active loans in both LendingClub and Prosper. (The rest was idle cash, mostly withdrawn.) Now, roughly 10 months later, I only have $2,407 in principal and my total balance grew by a measly $67. $67 dollars! After filing my 2014 tax returns, I decided it was not worth the headache of dealing with the 1099s involved with these little loans. Thus, I plan on selling my remaining notes on the secondary market, probably soon but definitely by year-end. I might try again in the future inside an IRA, but for now I choose simplicity.
  • LendingClub vs. Prosper relative performance. I tried my best to invest at both websites with the same criteria and overall risk preference. As noted, my LendingClub reported returns (4.3%) are a bit higher than my Prosper reported returns (4.1%). This is also supported by my own balance updates, although I wouldn’t put too much importance on the absolute numbers as I stopped reinvesting into new loans after the first year. Here’s an updated chart:1504_lcprosper
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