Monday, June 23, 2014

Investment Choices: Part 1, Interest

I'll have you all know that this is one of the first posts that I set out to write.  It's been shelved time and time again, for the simple reason that I haven't been able to figure out how to introduce the topic.

There are two ways to get money: earn it by working for it; or earn it by using it to make more of it.  Investment is the second one.

A large rabbit, surrounded by zillions of smaller rabbits.
If money were rabbits, investment would be easy.

That's pretty broad statement, and basically means that everything could be an investment.

An infographic: "Locate fertile farmland" leads to "Buy farmland, equipment, seeds ($$$$$$)" leads to "Add time" leads to "add labour" leads to "harvest crops" leads to "sell crops, profit ($$)" which closes the loop.

An infographic: "Come up with business idea" leads to " Develop, test, evaluate, research, pitch, fund idea ($$$$)" leads to "PROFIT!!! (Hopefully) ($$$$$$$$$$$$...)"

An infographic: "Identify valuable thing(s)" leads to "buy thing for low price ($$$)" leads to "add time" leads to "add effort" leads to "sell thing for higher price ($$$$)"

My plan, the plan that I'd been working on for months, was to define and describe all of the different investment mechanisms that I could think of.  A quick search of the internet revealed that other people already wrote definitions of investment mechanisms.  You can find a few choice examples here, here and here.  

Giving financial definitions isn't really my specialty, anyways.  I'm better at stories.  Today I will tell you a story about interest.


My mom had a limited patience for picture books, particularly if she had to read them.  

me, my mom and my sister sitting together on a bed.  My mom is reading a story and looks annoyed.
"One fish, two fish, red fish, f*** this."

As a result, by the time I was 7 or so, bedtime stories for me and my older sister involved a wide selection of books that an adult could find interesting.  We read the entire collection of Calvin and Hobbes, we read Beverly Cleary, we read For Better or For Worse.  On one notable occasion, we read "A Wrinkle in Time" by Madeline L'Engle and I understood none of it.

Me, my mom and my sister sitting on a bed.  My mom now looks happy reading the story.  I look unconvinced.
“Qui plussait, plus se tait. French, you know. The more a man knows, the less he talks.” 

Me, my mom and my sister sitting on a bed.  My mom now looks happy reading the story.  I look bored.
“You mean you're comparing our lives to a sonnet? A strict form, but freedom within it? Yes. Mrs. Whatsit said. You're given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself. What you say is completely up to you.” 

My mom, my sister and I could all agree on the Little House Series, by Laura Ingalls Wilder.  It is a curious thing as a kid imagining that people older than you might have ever been kids themselves.

A picture of 70-year-old Laura Ingalls Wilder's head pasted on a cartoon body carrying a teddy bear.  The picture is in sepia tones.
Maybe.  But probably they only saw in black and white.

'Farmer Boy' is a book about Laura Ingalls-Wilder's husband's childhood.  Reading it, it's hard to miss that money is a theme.

Take for example this description of Almanzo's father:

"Almanzo's father was an important man.  He had a good farm.  He drove the best horses in that country.  His word was as good as his bond, and every year he put money in the bank."

Cartoon mimicking the "American Gothic" painting, only the farmers are wearing bling and the man is carrying a wad of money.
"He was a man of the soil, if by soil you mean money."

Later in the book, Almanzo receives a $200 reward for finding and returning some really rich guy's wallet.

A fragment of the picture from the book.  A scrooge-like man is cringing away from a burly man who is shaking his fist and holding the shoulder of  Almanzo.
Pictured: the rich guy (left) willingly giving a reward to kind young Almanzo.

Almanzo's father takes 9-year-old Almanzo to the bank to deposit the $200, whereupon he spends a few paragraphs rhapsodizing on the wonders of the interest that Almanzo will earn on this investment. 

Almanzo, holding his father's hand and a wad of money.  His father looks happy and is talking.
"Because you'll have $200 in the bank, they'll pay you interest each year.  At 5%, that's $10 in the first year."
Almanzo, holding his father's hand and a wad of money.  His father looks happy and is talking.
"In the second year, that's $10.50."
Almanzo, holding his father's hand and a wad of money.  His father looks happy and is talking.  Almanzo now looks bored.
"...and after 10 years, supposing the interest rate stays the same and that you don't deposit anything further, you'll have $325.77!"

The book is very specific; but alas, I don't own the book anymore and the internet isn't giving me the answers that I need.  Let's say he earned 5% (based on this source)

At 11, I wondered how much money Almanzo could have expected to earn on his investment in the long term.  I pulled out my calculator and started multiplying.  I wanted to know when his investment would double. 

Me looking intense, writing out each year's interest earnings on a sheet of paper.

There are two ways to calculate interest, depending on whether the interest is simple and compounding.

Simple interest uses simple math:

The formula for simple interest, with my calculation showing that it would take 20 years to double the money.

Compounding interest uses complicated math:

The formula for compound interest, with my calculation showing that it would take 14.2 years to double the money.
This isn't how I did my calculations when I was 9.  One physics degree later, I have a few more tools in the mathematical tool kit.
Using either calculation, young Almanzo would have needed to wait for decades to turn his money into anything approaching a retirement fund.  

After my analysis, I was left wondering if interest was a good way to earn money in the long term.  I decided then--and in this era of sub 1% interest rates am even more convinced--that leaving money in a bank account is not a good investment.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Trend Analysis, Illness Edition

Last winter, my sister and her husband drove the four hours that it takes them to come visit me.  They brought along their two daughters, Laryngitis and Virus*. (*names have been changed)

Me holding what looks like a baby, but is shaped like a virus, standing beside a small child with a virus head.   We're standing in front of a Christmas tree.  I'm smiling.
Shortly after this touching Christmas scene, my throat decided that it hated breathing.

We had a blast.

I roughhoused with L, my oldest niece, until her bedtime.

I'm holding my niece by the ankles, while she smiles and waves her arms.
"More! Achoo!" - L
We all took turns diverting V from her mission to chew on all of the power cords in my basement.

My sister chases after my niece V, who has her eyes on her father's laptop cable.  Her father is sitting and working on his computer.  I am protecting the stairs and my friend is protecting the television and game system.
"Nom nom nom.  Hack, Cough." -V

Finally, we went out on Sunday to play in the cold winter snow at Winterlude.

"Whee!  Snuffle, wheeze." - L

Shortly after they left on the Sunday, I felt a tickle in my throat.  Illness is almost guaranteed after I spend time with family.  We're good at sharing.

Me, looking concerned in the direction of my throat, which is labelled: "Pain".

"I'll just take a cold pill to kick it," I thought to myself.  I popped two Buckley's day pills and then went to sleep.

I woke up Monday, sick, and went to work.

Me, in my work clothes, looking tired and rumpled.

Tuesday morning I was still sick, also cranky; I went to work.

Me, in my work clothes, looking tired, rumpled and angry.
I was a joy to be around.

Wednesday morning I still sick, also hideously disgusting; I oozed to work.

Me, in my work clothes, looking tired, rumpled, angry and my nose is dribbling a green goo.

The previous picture is covered with a green splatter marking.  In the middle is written: "ACHOO!"
Where I proceeded to repaint the office.

By Thursday, I had enough of being sick and disgusting at work, so I stayed home.  
Me lying in my bed, covered completely with a blanket.

When I woke up later in the day, I realized that something was different.

I shuffled to the bathroom and peeled my crusted, disgusting eye open to reveal that the devil had taken up residence in my left eyeball.

A close-up of my face.  My now opened left eye is bright red.

"It'll pass," I assured myself.  I find that this approach works well for most illness.

To pass the time, I updated my stocks spreadsheet.  It did not help the devil eye, which got redder and more itchy as the day progressed.  

The same close-up of my face, only now the skin around my red eye is pink.

When my eye didn't miraculously heal itself as I had hoped it would, I turned my attention to the medical world.  My optometrist was kind enough to let me pay her money to glance briefly at my eye, chuckle and write me a prescription.  

Me sitting hunched in a chair at the optometrist's office, holding a tissue to my dribbling nose.  Beside me stands a person in a white coat who is staring at a clip board.
"My experience says that infection this is usually fatal.  Just kidding.  Take some eye drops."
Then, she and her receptionist shuffled me out the door and burned anything that I had touched.

Me walking away from a burning building.  You can still see the building's sign that says: "Eye Dr."
"It's the only way to prevent the spread."

Here is where the worlds of my illness and your interest in reading about finance intersect.  Entering the pharmacy to fill my prescription and stock up on cough drops, I noticed that the shelves had been decimated.  Their supply of cough drops was at a precipitous low.  

Me standing in a store aisle, with only a scattering of boxes on the shelves.  At the end of the aisle, a tumbleweed blows.

All their non-prescription medication had been stripped away, leaving only the gross flavours.

Me staring, unimpressed, at two different cough drop flavours: "Lard" and "Pine Cone"
"Cough drops flavoured with all natural ingredients."

Empty cough drop shelves at the pharmacy can mean only one thing: a death plague.  I looked to the internet to validate my experience.  I expected something dramatic.  

A weather map from a huge snow storm, re-purposed.  The lower end is labelled: "Light Coughing", the upper end is labelled "Unprecedented death Plague"

The internet didn't validate my expectations.  According to all traditional sources, the cold season was spreading exactly as much misery as it usually did, but no more.

A microscope image of a cold virus, with a face drawn on it.
"What, you expect me to overachieve?"

There was one shining beacon of hope: an article that stated that Google estimated, based on an increased quantity of searches on terms relating to illness, that more people than usual were getting a cold.  They postulated that this probably meant that the cold season this year was worse than usual.

The following sentences, arranged to make the word: "ILL".  "Sore throat fix"; "Why do I feel so sh*tty?"; "Runny nose"; "get vomit out of rugs"; "How to stop my kid's high fever"; "im coughing a lot do I have cancer?" "Phlegm in throat"

Feel free to question the scientific and journalistic accuracy of such an article.  I know I didn't; instead I felt justified, like I had just unraveled some great mystery.  I was a visionary, a noticer of great trends.  

Me standing proudly at the top of a rocky hill, blue sky in the background, holding a flag that reads: "Best Investor"

This isn't the type of website where I tell you that I used that knowledge and bought XYZ pharmaceuticals company which gave me a 1000% return in the last 6 months.  I instead filed the information in my brain and proceeded to buy shares in two different telecommunications companies.

This kind of thing, noticing subtle trends and then using those trends to get an investing edge, is an investment strategy that many people use to good effect.  Of course, your data has to be accurate for the strategy to work; it turned out that the increased search data didn't correlate to the actual US sickness rates.

A good investor is curious, interested and calm.  I made my prediction, tried to substantiate it and then watched as I was proven wrong.  I learned from my experience.

To you the reader, I pass the challenge.  Try to find patterns in things.  When you think that you've found a pattern, look it up and see if it's been substantiated anywhere.  If it hasn't been substantiated, it doesn't necessarily mean that you're wrong; maybe no one has noticed yet.  Try to imagine how you could use your knowledge of that pattern to make money.

Then--and this is only my advice--let it go.  Don't act on the first idea you ever have.  Wait and watch and see who does act on it, see how they do.  Cultivate your ability to notice things.

Maybe one day, you'll be the one bragging about your 1000% return.  You never know.

A person with a blank face standing proudly at the top of a rocky hill, blue sky in the background, holding a flag that reads: "Best Investor"

(Full disclosure: I currently own JNJ and ABBV, both of which sell pharmaceuticals.  I didn't, however, buy them after my fever-driven inquiry.)


Note: I edited the first part of the story and removed the first picture; on rereading, I wondered if it seemed a bit mean-spirited to my nieces, who are two of my favorite little humans.  Then my sister and my mother both said to put it back, so I did.