Evicted: Low-Income Tenants and Landlord Economics in Milwaukee

“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.”

evicted_coverEvicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond follows eight different families who struggled to pay rent in poor areas of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Around the time of the 2008 financial crisis, the author lived in the same units as the other tenants and rented from the same two landlords, whom he also profiles in vivid detail. Amongst many other major awards, this book won a 2017 Pulitzer Prize.

The eviction cycle. Imagine that you are either in a low-paying job or receive government benefits, but that income isn’t enough to pay for rent, utilities, and food. So in any given month, one of those bills doesn’t get paid. That means eventually you get behind on rent, and eventually you get evicted.

After you are evicted once, your housing options instantly shrink. (Not many landlords want to rent to someone who just got evicted.) Just as payday loans specifically target folks with no other borrowing options, there is a subset of housing units that target folks with evictions. You may be surprised that the units in the poorest neighborhoods can cost just as much as a nicer unit in a better neighborhood (that does background checks). As with payday loans, you could argue lenders need to charge higher interest rates to cover more frequent defaults. You could similarly argue that landlords in low-income areas need to charge higher rents to cover unpaid rent and higher turnover costs.

After some time in shelters or crashing with relatives, you scrape together enough to make first month’s rent and a deposit. But every month, rent again takes up 70% of your income (ex. $500 rent and $700 to $800 income), so eventually you fall behind again. The sink gets clogged. Now, the landlord doesn’t want to pay a plumber $100 an hour when you are already owe them two months of back rent. But if your landlord doesnt’t fix the sink, you’re not going to treat the apartment nicely either. You’re also not going to pay any more rent. Two wrongs don’t make a right, but they do save both sides money (in the short-term). Your next eviction is only a matter of time, and cycle repeats.

Stable housing forms the core of a good community. Forced moves can hurt your employment prospects as you miss work while searching for housing. Forced moves lead to increased student absences or having to move schools entirely. Forced moves cause people to lose valuable property like furniture, appliances, clothing, and other household items.

Landlord economics. I didn’t see that much landlord “profit” when my rough calculations showed they were basically two people working full-time in a highly-leveraged business. Yes, landlords Sherrena and her husband “owned” 36 units and brought in $120,000 in gross rent annually, but that is before paying the mortgage, taxes, maintenance, and the time spent as full-time property managers. There was a constant flow of finding new tenants, fixing up damaged units, collecting partial rent payments when possible, and evicting those who fell too far behind. Every missed rent check was $500 less out of their monthly income. An Amazon reviewer stated that he followed up on the properties and found that by 2016 Sherrena no longer owned any of them (many went into foreclosure). I happened to invest $2,000 into an investor loan backed by an 6-plex in Milwaukee and it also went into foreclosure. I’m sure there are landlords doing fine, but I wouldn’t describe it as “easy profits”.

The mobile home park was a bit different. This seems to be a weird loophole where technically you are only renting a plot of land and a utility connection. The “mobile” home (which never moves) on the concrete pad is simply given free to the tenant, who then assumes the responsibility of maintaining everything inside. The landlord doesn’t have to worry about plumbing, electrical, heat, roofing, and so on. If you get evicted, you can’t afford to move your “free” home, and it gets handed off to the next tenant.

Housing assistance statistics. In 2012, 1 in 9 occupied rental households in Cleveland and 1 in 14 in Chicago were summoned to eviction court. Having an eviction can subsequently disqualify you from future public housing assistance, which led the Pulitzer committee to call this book a “deeply researched exposé that showed how mass evictions after the 2008 economic crash were less a consequence than a cause of poverty.” Here are some statistics from the book:

  • 1% of poor renters live in rent-controlled units.
  • 15% of poor renters live in public housing.
  • 17% of poor renters receive a government subsidy (rent-reducing voucher).
  • 67% of poor renters receive no federal housing assistance.

In addition to the 2/3rd of poor renters with no federal housing assistance, another of the book’s arguments is that existing housing assistance programs simply don’t do enough to help people back on their feet. It’s like if you have a broken leg and you need eyeglasses. You need both fixed to get back to work, but you are only given enough money to solve one of the problems. Even if I give you a cast, you’re still blind. If I only give you eyeglasses, you still can’t walk. Money is being spent right now, but people are still stuck in the same place as before. Perhaps more money upfront would help people get back firmly on their feet.

The author’s proposed solution is to signficiantly expand the existing housing voucher program where every family below a certain income level would be eligible for a housing voucher. The voucher could be used to pay for rent on the open market (but not too luxurious or unsafe), similar to how food stamps work. He proposes a variety of sources for the money, for example getting rid of the mortgage interest deduction.

This book reminded me of Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich from over a decade ago. (Here is her NYT review of this book.) Yes, bad decisions can play a role but however you arrive, it is exceptionally hard to break out of the cycle of poverty. You are sensitive to any small setback (car repair, medical bill, theft). Many things actually end up being more expensive when you are broke. Hard work is necessary but not sufficient. You need either a big dose of help (family, friends) or a long streak of avoiding bad luck.

The storytelling in this book is what stays with you. Out of all the families profiled in the book, the only ones that eventually broke the cycle got help from family. That way, they could get everything together long enough to and either land a stable job or finish education/training. The author’s solution is essentially to have the government do that same thing, but the question is whether fellow Americans (strangers) want to help out in the same way (higher taxes). I don’t know about that.

How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free (Book Notes)

“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.”

retirehappy

After finishing the book How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free by Ernie Zelinski, I am surprised at how unique it is. After all these years, this may be the first book I’ve read that directly explores the non-financial aspects of retirement. There are no historical rates of return, compound interest charts, or income strategies. Consider:

  • How will you create meaning in your life?
  • What activities will you keep your mind and body in top shape?
  • Who will you spend your time with?
  • What kind of environment do you want to surround yourself?

I’ve already written about two interesting points inside: Listing 10 activities you’d like to do in retirement, and the differences between a retirement activity and a job. Here are the rest of my book notes.

On going back to some form of paid work after official retirement:

A research study released in 2001 by Cornell University psychologists found that, particularly for men, employment after official retirement is beneficial for their psychological wellbeing. Those who retire from their primary career, but then find some sort of other work, are the happiest and suffer the least depression. Surprisingly, the researchers didn’t find much difference for women who go back to work after retiring versus those who don’t. No reasons were given for this important difference between the sexes.

On separating yourself from your job:

Many professionals miss their personal career space and some have been known to rent office space after they have retired to maintain their routine and sense of importance. They’ll tell their friends “Call me at the office,” just so they have a place to go.

For most of us, who we are, is based on what we do. If we become too dependent on this mind-set and our job ends, we lose our sense of identity. So before, or soon after retirement, we need to redefine who we are in a positive and meaningful way. Recycle yourself.

To help with this separation, try listing your five best traits that have nothing to do with work. Here are some possible examples:

ambitious
well-organized
hard-working
creative
kind
passionate
generous
joyful
loving
spontaneous
connected to others
good sense of humor
peaceful
inner happiness
spiritual

On figuring out how to spend your time instead of work. Ask yourself these questions:

  • What gift do I give naturally to others?
  • What gift do I most enjoy giving to others?
  • What gift have I most often given to others?

Some people don’t need any help in this area. They are ready to sail around the world, then bike around the world in reverse, and so on.

However, many others do need some help creating a fulfilling retirement. This book can help. Perhaps you keep on working because you can’t imagine retirement, or you have already retired but find yourself in a funk. The initial “I’m finally freeeeeeeee!!” has worn off. You might even be a little depressed from the social isolation or lack of structure in your life. This book can help.

Why Pursue Financial Freedom: Fulfilling Retirement Activity vs. Ideal Job

“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.”

retirehappy

How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free by Ernie Zelinski continues to offer smart observations on retirement. For example, when people are working, their idea of leisure is often passive: watching TV, listening to music, shopping, or eating at restaurants. However, in retirement, they need to replace all the intangibles besides money that working provided.

The Academy of Leisure Sciences has 8 criteria for finding a good leisure activity in retirement:

  1. You have a genuine interest in it.
  2. It is challenging.
  3. There is some sense of accomplishment associated with completing only a portion of it.
  4. It has many aspects to it so that it doesn’t become boring.
  5. It helps you develop some skill.
  6. You can get so immersed in it that you lose the sense of time.
  7. It provides you with a sense of self-development.
  8. It doesn’t cost too much.

Did you know even know the Academy of Leisure Sciences existed? Another new tidbit from this book.

My observation is that these are also same characteristics of a good job. Think of your own job and read it again:

  1. You have a genuine interest in it.
  2. It is challenging.
  3. There is some sense of accomplishment associated with completing only a portion of it.
  4. It has many aspects to it so that it doesn’t become boring.
  5. It helps you develop some skill.
  6. You can get so immersed in it that you lose the sense of time.
  7. It provides you with a sense of self-development.
  8. It pays enough to support your lifestyle.

Of course, this brings you to why saving up money to reach financial freedom is a worthy pursuit. The list of things that satisfies the top 8 leisure criteria should be pretty long. It might take a few tries to find something that fits, but you could play any sport, learn to cook, speak a new language, and so on.

However, adding the criteria that it has to pay you makes the list much shorter, perhaps non-existent. Compare picking up cycling for personal enjoyment vs. getting paid as a professional cyclist. Learning how to smoke some decent backyard BBQ vs. getting paid as a professional caterer. Start to speak a new language vs. becoming an (adequately-paid) French teacher. I’m sure some lucky people out there really do have a perfect job where they are getting paid for something that they would “do for free”. However, most of us don’t, so that’s where financial freedom comes in to remove that money requirement.

Non-Financial Retirement Planning: List 10 Retired Activities

“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.”

retirehappyEver notice that every book on “How to Retire” is really just about how to accumulate a big pile of money? I’m currently in the middle of How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free by Ernie Zelinski, which contains absolutely nothing about mutual funds, real estate, or safe withdrawal rates. Instead, it deals with the non-financial aspects of retirement. What does that mean? Well, many retirees spend at least some time being quite unhappy. They haven’t solved the other retirement problems:

  • How will you create meaning for yourself?
  • What activities will you keep your mind and body in top shape?
  • Who will you spend your time with?
  • Where is the best environment to live?

A recommended exercise is to write down the 10 favorite interests and activities that you would like to pursue in retirement. At the same time, write down how much time you are presently spending on these activities. If you are not spending any time pursuing these activities before retirement, the experts say that you are unlikely that you will spend much time on these activities after you quit work. Many people are surprised when their retirement is completely different from they imagined. They may become bored, aimless, lonely, and/or depressed. A surprisingly large number go back to work!

You need to develop activities as part of your retirement planning, BEFORE you retire. Here’s my list of favorite activities, along with time currently spent.

  1. Time with kids. Chasing bugs and jumping in muddy puddles. Learning new things with them. (Almost enough)
  2. Cooking at home. Becoming a better cook. Know what I’m eating. (4-6 hours a week)
  3. Time with spouse. Enjoying their company. (Not nearly enough)
  4. Play tennis. Social interaction and physical exercise. (3-6 hours a week)
  5. Keep learning about investing and finance. (Enough)
  6. Entertain friends at house. Cook for them. Socialize. (Very little)
  7. Read books. (2-3 hours a week? A little each day)
  8. Build an off-grid shed. Power from solar PV. Tinker with batteries and wind turbines for fun. Water catchment. Composting toilets? (None)
  9. Raise fish and/or chickens. I like to read about chicken tractors and backyard fish farms. (None)
  10. Travel. So much left to see out there. (Few weeks a year)

Right now, most of our non-work time is spent on toddler childcare, so many of these activities are being neglected. This list is a good reminder that I need to work harder on maintaining good relationships my wife, family, and friends. Once all the kids are in pre/school, we’ll see if I actually get around to the rest. Maybe the experts are right and I’ll never build that self-sustaining tilapia farm…

Book Sale: A Random Walk Down Wall Street + The Intelligent Investor

“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.”

(Update 4/7: Random Walk is no longer on sale, but Intelligent Investor is still $2.99.)

randomwalk2018Amazon has the Kindle version of two investment classics on sale for $2.99 each at the moment. These are savings of over $10 from the usual price.

A Random Walk Down Wall Street was the first investment book I ever read that dealt with passive investing. My short-but-sweet December 2004 review was one of the first posts on this site – nearly 14 years ago! (I had read some previous books on DRIP plans and individual stock investing.) I should probably re-read it and see if it holds up now that I have read probably 20+ more books on passive investing.

Another coincidence is that I am currently reading the Buffett biography by Roger Lowenstein, and am at the part where Buffett studied under Benjamin Graham at Columbia University.

p.s. If you are a Texas-style brisket aficionado like me, Franklin Barbecue: A Meat-Smoking Manifesto is also on sale for $2.99.

Readwise: Turn Your Kindle Highlights Into a Personalized Email Newsletter

“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.”

readwise0

I love physical books, but my favorite thing about Kindle books is the highlight feature. It’s really hard to remember everything that you read. This is why I try to condense my handwritten notes in my book reviews. I’ll let The Atlantic explain Why We Forget Most of the Books We Read.

Readwise syncs with your Kindle highlights and then sends you a daily digest with five highlights taken from books that you have read. You’ll need to install a browser extension. It can include Kindle highlights done outside of eBooks, iBooks, Instapaper, and PDFs.

Here’s an example of what I was sent the other day. (I scaled it back to weekly emails.) Much of my reading is about either finance or biographies. A lot of personal finance is in the “simple but not easy” category, so it’s helpful to keep things fresh. Some of the highlights lack context, but I have found most to be useful.

The Elements of Investing by Burton G. Malkiel, Charles D. Ellis.

Rebalancing will not always increase returns. But it will always reduce the riskiness of the portfolio and it will always ensure that your actual allocation stays consistent with the right allocation for your needs and temperament.

Skating Where the Puck Was by William J Bernstein.

To complete the picture, the traditional source of portfolio diversification, international equity exposure, has likewise tarnished; with increasing market globalization, the correlations among equities around the world have crept ever higher.

The Most Important Thing by Howard Marks.

Risk means uncertainty about which outcome will occur and about the possibility of loss when the unfavorable ones do.

The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch and Jeffrey Zaslow.

“…The brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They’re there to stop the other people.” I was a thirty-seven-year-old bachelor when Jai and I met.

How does Readwise make money? From what I can tell, right now it is free during “beta”. They have a VIP level that cost $5 a month or $50 a year. I don’t think I would pay that much, to be honest. My suggestion? At the end of each email, they provide a book recommendation along with a quote. They should make that an Amazon ad, seems like a perfect fit.

Bottom line. If you have a decent library of Kindle highlights, check out Readwise and let it dig up nuggets of gold and send it to you daily or weekly. Get more mileage out of those notes and highlights.

Groupon: Free 60-Day Kindle Unlimited Membership w/ Finance Book List

“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.”

grpn_ku

Groupon is offering a Free 60-Day membership to Kindle Unlimited. You must not have had been a KU subscriber within the last 12 months. A Kindle Unlimited (KU) subscription usually costs $9.99 a month and includes free access to a special library of over 1 million eBooks, thousands of audiobook narrations, and current issues of various magazines. As with Netflix, when the membership ends, your ability to read the books end as well.

After making the purchase, you must “view” the voucher and redeem the unique code here. Note that you must link a credit card and they will charge you $9.99 a month after the initial 60 days by default. To prevent this, you can visit here and cancel the auto-renewal. It will says something like “Your benefits will continue until January 6, 2018, after which your card will not be charged and your membership will end.”

What books are included? You can view all Kindle Unlimited books here. You can search Kindle Unlimited titles here after clicking the “Kindle Unlimited Eligible” box on the top-left. There are is a mix of a few bestsellers, some older classics, and a lot of independently-published titles of varying quality. Here are some finance-related titles that caught my eye:

Kindle Unlimited authors get paid per page that is read. Therefore, your reading can support their efforts.

Book Review: A History of Gold in the United States

“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.”

onenationgold

Having been born after 1971, I have never lived in a time when the dollar was backed by gold. In an effort to learn more about the gold standard, I recently finished One Nation Under Gold: How One Precious Metal Has Dominated the American Imagination for Four Centuries by James Ledbetter. In other words, this is a history of gold in America. Here are my overall takeaways:

I always thought that the pre-1971 gold standard meant that for every dollar printed, there was a certain amount of gold set aside in a vault. This turns out to be false. A long time ago, gold coins actually circulated as currency. But the more modern version of a gold standard simply means the government agrees to sell gold bullion on demand at a fixed dollar price (ex. $35 for an ounce of gold).

Under the gold standard, countries rarely had enough gold in their vaults to cover if everyone decided to redeem their currency. As a result, countries including the United States were constantly worried about running out of gold and used various political tricks to prevent too many redemptions. If the fixed ratio was $35 an ounce and people could get the equivalent of $36 an ounce somewhere else, there would be a big spike in demand and the US would have to ship out tons of gold. If the vaults went empty, that could cause a financial crisis. The system was constantly under stress.

Every major currency has ended up being forced off the gold standard, usually in times of severe stress. Wars. International trade deficits. Economic depressions. In 1933, the US government was again running low on gold and so they devalued from $20.67/oz. to $35/oz (a devaluation of over 40%). In addition, they banned domestic individuals from owning gold from 1933-1974. (Hmmm… a gold standard where you couldn’t actually get gold…) In 1971, with both the Vietnam War and ongoing trade deficits, Nixon ended international convertibility of the US dollar to gold.

I’ve read that every fiat currency in history has eventually failed. Well, it’s also true that every gold standard in history has eventually failed. Just a thought that kept running through my head while reading this book. Gold-backed currency has its own set of problems.

Harry Browne: Wise investment mind or paid salesman for gold industry? You may have heard of Harry Browne as the creator the Permanent Portfolio: 25% stocks/25% cash/25% long-term bonds/25% gold. Well, this book mostly mentions Browne as a shady doomsday salesman for the gold industry. He wrote books that promoted a specific gold company (Pacific Coast Coin Exchange) and then got paid $100,000 (~$600,000 in 2017 dollars) by that company. That’s not all… The SEC shut down PCCE for having no actual gold in vaults and instead buying things like private jets with the money. Here is a 1974 NY Times article about the company.

The chance that the US goes back on a gold standard is very, very, very small. The gold standard did restrict governmental power, and some people like the sound of that. However, governments like having the ability to expand and contract the money supply to overcome stressful events like war and economic recessions. Will they wield that power wisely and effectively? Mistakes will be made, but I don’t see how they will voluntarily give up that flexibility. The question is not whether fiat currency is perfect, it is about which is better amongst imperfect options.

In the end, perhaps it is better that there is an open market for gold. Today, individuals can exchange gold for dollars and dollars for gold whenever they want. Gold ETFs let you buy gold with few clicks and lower transactional costs than physical gold. If you like market-cap weighting, consider a 1% gold portfolio.

I’m not a history buff in general, and perhaps that is why I found this book rather dry and hard to finish. There is no flowing narrative like a Michael Lewis book. However, I felt like I did learn some useful lessons and I’m glad I finished it.

Barking Up The Wrong Tree: The Benefits of Being Mostly Optimistic

“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.”

barkingEric Barker writes at Bakadesuyo.com and his talent/skill is synthesizing hundreds of different sources of academic research and historical anecdotes into actionable ways to improve your life. That’s kind of a crowded field these days, but I enjoyed reading his book which combines a lot of his past work: Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong.

If I had to sum up this book in one word, it would be “nuanced”. Be nice but not too nice. Work hard but not too hard, especially on one single area of your life. Grit is good, but time is finite. Thus, quitting and working on a better thing instead can also be good. Is it better to be an extrovert or introvert? It depends. (The book details why.) With so many tips and examples, this was one those books that kept my attention when reading it, but after I finish I had trouble remembering something specific to carry with me.

After looking back on my notes, I decided to make this my takeaway: Be mostly optimistic. For the most part, being optimistic opens you up to more opportunities that more than offset any failures. If I had to use a number, be 80% trusting, 80% optimistic. However, don’t be 100% trusting as that opens you up to abuse. Here are some examples.

Your great weakness may also be your greatest advantage. Consider what makes you unique, and look at it optimistically. You might not make a lucrative career out of your quirks, but it’s still your best shot. You have to align your life and environment to maximize your differences. If you love working within structure, use that. If you need to blaze your own path and can’t stand structure, use that. If you happen to love one thing 1,000x more than anything else, well you better get on that.

Prisoner’s dilemma. This game theory experiment involves two individuals faced with the decision of whether to trust or betray the other person (from Wikipedia):

Two members of a criminal gang are arrested and imprisoned. Each prisoner is in solitary confinement with no means of communicating with the other. The prosecutors lack sufficient evidence to convict the pair on the principal charge. They hope to get both sentenced to a year in prison on a lesser charge. Simultaneously, the prosecutors offer each prisoner a bargain. Each prisoner is given the opportunity either to: betray the other by testifying that the other committed the crime, or to cooperate with the other by remaining silent. The offer is:

If A and B each betray the other, each of them serves 2 years in prison
If A betrays B but B remains silent, A will be set free and B will serve 3 years in prison (and vice versa)
If A and B both remain silent, both of them will only serve 1 year in prison (on the lesser charge)

As one of these prisoners, what would you do? What if you had to do it 20 times in a row? You could always trust. You could always betray. You could do something in between. It turns out that a really simple algorithm does nearly best overall: tit-for-tat. The strategy is simply to cooperate on the first iteration of the game; after that, do what your opponent did on the previous move. If they trust, then you trust. If they betray, then you betray.

You know what is a even a little bit better? Tit-for-tat occasional forgiveness. Once in a while, you should trust again even if they betrayed last time. This stops a negative feedback loop of repeated betrayals.

The lessons: Start out nice (be optimistic!) and hope to stay nice, but don’t be a doormat if abused in return. Be consistent. Forgive once in a while.

Optimist vs. Pessimist explanatory style. The book includes an interesting contrast as to how each would react to a setback. Pessimists tell themselves that bad events:

  • will last a long time (I’ll never get this done)
  • are universal (I can’t trust any of these people)
  • are their own fault (I’m terrible at this)

Meanwhile, optimists tell themselves that bad events:

  • are temporary (This happens occasionally, tomorrow will be better)
  • have a specific cause (It is just because the weather is bad today)
  • are not their own fault (I’m good at this, but today wasn’t my lucky day)

It is suggested that you can indeed change your natural optimism/pessimism levels by altering your explanatory style.

This is not to say that you should be only optimistic. Here’s a good post exploring the pros and cons of both sides. The overall conclusion:

The majority of the time, think positive. Happiness and health trump pretty much everything else. There are situations where negativity can help, like when we’re making high-stakes plans or trying to improve skills.

Be optimistic socially. Even if you aren’t a natural extrovert, you can still build your network in a positive way without being sleazy. Meet new people by finding shared interests and/or shared challenges. Help others first when you can, without expecting anything in return. Most people are good and will look to reciprocate. Join groups. Try to maintain .

Luck school = try new things. Dr. Richard Wiseman studied “lucky” people and found that the most important characteristic of lucky people is that they are much more likely to just try new stuff, which opens them up to opportunity. In other words, luck wasn’t random; it was due to choices. So he started a “Luck School”, teaching a group of people to act more like lucky people. It worked. Yes, trying more being failing more too, but people tend to regret a failure to act, while the failures didn’t really do any damage. You can often learn from failure, anyway. Finally, we tend to remember the good things and forget the bad. (This selective memory is probably why I have three kids.)

Bottom line. Being mostly optimistic appears to be the best available strategy for many things in life. Try a lot of new things. Meet new people. Optimists are more likely to create opportunities for career success and personal happiness. You will also fail more, but those failures don’t tend to cause permanent damage. Optimism is even associated with better health and longer lifespans. Don’t go overboard. Don’t be a overly-trusting doormat, and don’t be dangerously overconfident. Think 8/10 optimistic. (I’m not naturally this optimistic, so I’ll have to consciously try and change my attitude and explanatory style.)

University of Berkshire Hathaway: Notes From Annual Shareholders Meeting (Book 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.”

univ_brk

If you are a Buffett & Munger follower, you should be intrigued by University of Berkshire Hathaway: 30 Years of Lessons Learned from Warren Buffett & Charlie Munger at the Annual Shareholders Meeting by Daniel Pecaut and Corey Wrenn. Anyone can buy all the old BRK shareholder letters, but there are very few transcripts from the live shareholder meetings in Omaha, Nebraska (1986–2015). There is definitely overlap, but these live interactions sometimes provide a peek into their less-publicized opinions (especially Munger’s). Here’s how the authors describe the book:

This book isn’t for the first-time investor. It’s for the informed investor who sees the value of being able to get deep into the mindsets of Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger. If you want to walk around in their shoes for the past three decades, absorb what works, and then apply it to your own investments, then this book is for you.

The current price is only $0.99 in Kindle format. At that price, it should be an easy decision on whether to own the entire book forever, but here are my personal notes and highlights to give you an idea of the contents:

How Berkshire Hathaway differs from other actively-managed stock mutual funds:

The public has long viewed Berkshire as a sort of mutual fund with large stock holdings. This view underestimates or ignores 1) Berkshire’s insurance companies’ impressive generation of low-cost float, 2) Berkshire’s impressive and growing stable of cash-generating operating businesses, and 3) Berkshire’s ability to orchestrate value-enhancing deals.

Classic quote on stock market prices:

Buffett noted that many investors illogically become euphoric when stock prices rise and are downcast when they fall. This makes no more sense than if you bought some hamburger one day, returned the next day to buy more but at a higher price, and then felt euphoric because you had bought some cheaper the day before. If you are going to be a lifelong buyer of food, you welcome falling prices and deplore price increases. So should it be with investments.

Luck and the Ovarian lottery:

Buffett launched into an intriguing thought problem he called “the ovarian lottery.” You are to be born in 24 hours. You are also to write all the rules that will govern the society in which you will live. However, you do not know if you will be born bright or retarded, black or white, male or female, rich or poor, able or disabled. How would you write the rules? Buffett said how one comes out in this lottery is far more important than anything else to one’s future. He and Munger were huge winners having been born American (“in Afghanistan, we wouldn’t be worth a damn”), male (at a time when many women could only be nurses and teachers), white (when opportunities for minorities were slim) and good at valuing businesses (in a system that pays for that like crazy). Buffett noted it is important to take care of the non-winners of the ovarian lottery. Therefore, some sort of taxation is in order. Given that few people with money and talent are turned away from free enterprise under the current system, the 28% capital gains tax is probably okay.

Investing in yourself:

Buffett asserted that the very best investment you can make is in yourself. Buffett shared that, when he talks to students, one of the things he tells them is what a valuable asset they have in themselves. Buffett would pay any bright student probably $50,000 for 10% of their future earnings for the rest of his life. So each student is a $500,000 asset just standing there. What you do with that $500,000 asset should be developing your mind and talent.

State-sponsored legal gambling:

Buffett asserted that to a large extent, gambling is a tax on ignorance. You put it in, and it ends up taxing many that are least able to pay while relieving taxes on those who don’t gamble. He finds it socially revolting when a government preys on its citizens rather than serving them. A government shouldn’t make it easy for people to take their Social Security checks and waste them by pulling a handle. In addition, other negative social things can flow from gambling over time.

Read, read, read:

Buffett agreed that he is big on reading everything in sight and recommended good investors should read everything they can. In his case, he said that by the age of 10, he’d read every book in the Omaha public library on investing, some twice! Fill your mind with competing ideas, and see what makes sense to you.

Investing with real money:

Then you have to jump in the water—take a small amount of money, and do it yourself. He joked that investing on paper is like reading a romance novel versus doing something else. Munger shared that Berkshire Director Sandy Gottesman, who runs a large, successful investment firm (First Manhattan), asks interviewees, “What do you own, and why do you own it?” If you’re not interested enough to own something, then he’d tell you to find something else to do.

Book recommendations, including The Richest Man in Babylon:

We have often recommended to our friends and clients George Clason’s classic, The Richest Man in Babylon, so we were delighted to hear Charlie speak of it. He said that he read the book when he was young and that the book taught him to under-spend his income and invest the difference. Lo and behold, he did this, and it worked.

Munger also suggested that it is very important to learn how to avoid being manipulated by lenders and vendors. He strongly recommended Robert Cialdini’s book, Influence, for the task. He also recommended Cialdini’s newest book, Yes, noting that Cialdini is the rare social psychologist who can connect the world of theory and daily life.

Note: This a dated quote, and Robert Cialdini’s newest book is actually Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade, published in 2016.

Work for yourself an hour each day:

He got the idea to add a mental compound interest as well. So he decided he would sell himself the best hour of the day to improving his own mind, and the world could buy the rest of his time. He said it may sound selfish, but it worked. He also noted that if you become very reliable and stay that way, it will be very hard to fail in doing anything you want.

Simple career advice:

“Do what you enjoy the most. Work for people you admire. You can’t miss if you do that.”

Investing in stocks (equity) vs. bonds (debt):

Buffett noted that the analytical hurdle for buying a bond requires answering the question, “Will the company go out of business?” while buying an equity requires answering the more difficult question, “Will the company prosper?” This is why Berkshire bought the 15% notes of Harley Davidson rather than the stock. He had no question the company would stay in business, quipping, “You have to like a business where the customers tattoo your name on their chests!” But gauging Harley’s long-term prosperity was much more difficult, especially during the throes of the crisis.

Also see my earlier posts on appreciating your absolute standard of living and why you should maintain some optimism.

Bottom line. If you’re a Buffett & Munger enthusiast, this is a nice addition to your collection. Lots of familiar wisdom but also includes some additional perspective. If you’re not a Buffett & Munger enthusiast, I might start elsewhere, for example with Warren Buffett’s Ground Rules if you’re not ready for the original shareholder letters. Here’s to hoping the authors will do a similar book on the Wesco Financial meetings with Charlie Munger.

What if the North Pond Hermit Has Pursued Early Retirement Instead?

“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.”

finkel

Of my summer reads was The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel. Many people dream about leading a “quiet life” away from all the hustle and bustle. The “North Pond Hermit”, real name Christopher Knight, lived alone without speaking or interacting with another human being for 27 years. Read a preview in this GQ magazine article.

Since this is not a personal finance or investing book review, I will just let you read the nice synopsis from the Amazon listing:

In 1986, a shy and intelligent twenty-year-old named Christopher Knight left his home in Massachusetts, drove to Maine, and disappeared into the forest. He would not have a conversation with another human being until nearly three decades later, when he was arrested for stealing food. Living in a tent even through brutal winters, he had survived by his wits and courage, developing ingenious ways to store edibles and water, and to avoid freezing to death. He broke into nearby cottages for food, clothing, reading material, and other provisions, taking only what he needed but terrifying a community never able to solve the mysterious burglaries. Based on extensive interviews with Knight himself, this is a vividly detailed account of his secluded life—why did he leave? what did he learn?—as well as the challenges he has faced since returning to the world. It is a gripping story of survival that asks fundamental questions about solitude, community, and what makes a good life, and a deeply moving portrait of a man who was determined to live his own way, and succeeded.

People seem to form strong opinions about this story. Some treat him as some sort of inspirational figure. Others only saw a saw a weirdo that stole a bunch of things. A lot of time and energy was spent trying to label him with the appropriate psychological disorder.

My takeaway from the book was that he was a simple guy. He wanted to be alone. That was it. He wasn’t a libertarian or other political leader. He wasn’t religious. He wasn’t an environmental activist. He was never violent and didn’t carry a weapon. He wasn’t trying to impose his views on anyone.

The fatal flaw to his plan was that he couldn’t provide his own food and shelter. He had to steal things from other humans to keep warm and to feed himself. His criminal trial sounded rather boring – He pled guilty for stealing about $2,000 worth of stuff like propane tanks, canned food, and batteries. More importantly, he affected the personal security of the people he stole from. Knight did wrong things, and he knew it. He served roughly a year in jail with specific terms during probation.

I kept thinking to myself – Christopher Knight could have lived alone forever if he had just worked and saved up some money for a few years. He has nearly all the traits required for early retirement – disciplined, resourceful, low expenses, and disregard for social pressure. Knight said that growing up as a kid, his rural Maine family taught him that being tough was better than strong, and clever is better than intelligent.

What if he had read the books Your Money or Your Life or Early Retirement Extreme when he was 20 years old? (I know they weren’t published until 1992 and 2010. But what if they were?) ERE author Jacob Lund Fisker used to catch flack because he voluntarily took cold showers to both save money and follow his personal philosophy of self-discipline and low environmental waste. Christopher Knight took cold baths from a bucket of rainwater for 27 years. No problem.

He had already shown that he was willing to sacrifice nearly anything to stay away from people. He was willing to live in a tent. He pooped in the bushes. He never spoke a single word so as to keep hidden. How much would it really have cost him to live in the woods alone? $5,000 a year? If you use the 25x rule (aka 4% withdrawal rate), that’s $125,000. If he kept his previous job as a home security technician, he probably could have saved that up in 5 years.

This guy is not a role model, but that’s kind of the point – with financial independence you don’t need to worry about what others think. The book doesn’t provide a current update on Christopher Knight. Maybe he did save up enough “F- You money” and is now alone again somewhere, minding his own business.

Shoe Dog by Nike Founder Phil Knight: A Great Audiobook

“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.”

shoedog180

As a kid in the late 1980s, I admit that I yearned for a pair of Nike Air shoes. I’d doodle shoes with that AIR logo and visible air pocket. I still remember the day I finally got a pair. They were an ugly blue-suede color from the bottom of some bargain bin, but they were only $34.99 and they were mine.

As Nike was already huge by then, I never had any curiosity about the early years of Nike. I only started listening to Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike by Phil Knight after seeing it mentioned as Warren Buffett’s “favorite book of 2016” in his Berkshire Hathaway annual letter.

While I usually prefer reading physical books since I like to write notes and make highlights, this book seemed more like a story so I decided to listen to it as an audiobook. That turned out to be a good decision. (Right now, Audible is offering two free audiobooks as part of its free trial. As with all Amazon trials, it’s easy to cancel. The other book I picked was When Breath Becomes Air.)

Here are some quick notes that I took (less than usual due to it being an audiobook) along with some of my favorite quotes (you can mark notable places with the app and then go back).

Phil Knight was on the University of Oregon track team. He ran for fun and would have kept running even if he never owned a shoe company.

I’d been unable to sell encyclopedias, and I’d despised it to boot. I’d been slightly better at selling mutual funds, but I’d felt dead inside. So why was selling shoes so different? Because, I realized, it wasn’t selling. I believed in running. I believed that if people got out and ran a few miles every day, the world would be a better place, and I believed these shoes were better to run in. People, sensing my belief, wanted some of that belief for themselves. Belief, I decided. Belief is irresistible.

He was a visionary, but not necessarily how you think. Knight first sold imported shoes from Japan – Tiger by Onitsuka. In fact, he only started Nike after Tiger threatened to pull his distribution rights. He didn’t start with “Air Jordans” and “Just Do It” fully-formed in his mind. He was more of a warrior/competitor that just kept on fighting.

Nike’s success was not at all guaranteed. Knight had to maintain a full-time job as an accountant while running his company on the side. There were many hiccups and struggles and lawsuits, each of which could have bankrupted the young company.

I’d like to remind them that America isn’t the entrepreneurial Shangri-La people think. Free enterprise always irritates the kinds of trolls who live to block, to thwart, to say no, sorry, no. And it’s always been this way. Entrepreneurs have always been outgunned, outnumbered. They’ve always fought uphill, and the hill has never been steeper. America is becoming less entrepreneurial, not more.

Knight never used this word, but he appeared to be more of an introvert than an extrovert. He wasn’t a natural salesman or self-marketer. He didn’t like advertising. He developed a strong core of extremely loyal people at Nike. He was not a micro-manager.

Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results.

Thoughts on becoming rich:

When it came rolling in, the money affected us all. Not much, and not for long, because none of us was ever driven by money. But that’s the nature of money. Whether you have it or not, whether you want it or not, whether you like it or not, it will try to define your days. Our task as human beings is not to let it.

On luck:

Luck plays a big role. Yes, I’d like to publicly acknowledge the power of luck. Athletes get lucky, poets get lucky, businesses get lucky. Hard work is critical, a good team is essential, brains and determination are invaluable, but luck may decide the outcome. Some people might not call it luck. They might call it Tao, or Logos, or Jñ?na, or Dharma. Or Spirit. Or God.

On why he finally shared this personal memoir:

I’d like to share the experience, the ups and downs, so that some young man or woman, somewhere, going through the same trials and ordeals, might be inspired or comforted. Or warned. Some young entrepreneur, maybe, some athlete or painter or novelist, might press on. It’s all the same drive. The same dream.

Finally, some career advice:

I’d tell them to hit pause, think long and hard about how they want to spend their time, and with whom they want to spend it for the next forty years. I’d tell men and women in their midtwenties not to settle for a job or a profession or even a career. Seek a calling. Even if you don’t know what that means, seek it. If you’re following your calling, the fatigue will be easier to bear, the disappointments will be fuel, the highs will be like nothing you’ve ever felt.

Another anecdote that showed his honesty was that although he regrets not being able to spend much time with his young children, he also admits that if he had the chance he would do the same thing all over again.

There are many other worthy highlights in this book. I definitely recommend Shoe Dog for people interested in the origin story of Nike, entrepreneurialism, global business, and as interesting autobiography.