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How to prepare for a natural disaster

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My world is on fire.

As you may have heard, much of Oregon is burning right now. Thanks to a “once in a lifetime” combination of weather and climate variables — a long, dry summer leading to high temps and low humidity, then a freak windstorm from the east — much of the state turned to tinder earlier this week. And then the tinder ignited.

At this very moment, our neighborhood is cloaked in smoke.

I am sitting in my writing shed looking out at a beige veil clinging to the trees and nearby homes. The scent of the smoke is intense. My eyes are burning. After everything else that’s happened this year, this feels like yet one more step toward apocalypse. So crazy!

Fortunately, Kim and I (and the pets) are relatively safe. We’re worried, sure, but not too worried. Our lizard brains make us want to flee. (“Fight or flight” and all that.) But our rational brains know that unless a new fire starts somewhere nearby, we should be safe.

Here’s a current map of the fire situation in our county. (Click the image to open a larger version in a new window.)

The areas in red are under mandatory evacuation orders. (And the red dots are areas that have burned, I think. They added the dots to the map this morning.) Residents of areas shaded in yellow need to be prepped to leave at a moment’s notice. And the areas in green are simply on alert.

See that town called Molalla? That’s where my mother and one of my brothers live. My mother’s assisted-living facility was evacuated to a city twenty miles away. My brother and his family voluntarily moved from their home to our family’s box factory. But even that doesn’t feel 100% safe. (The box factory is located just to the left of that cluster of red dots at the top tip of the yellow area around Molalla.)

Kim and I live near the “e” in Wilsonville. We’re more than twenty miles from the nearest active fire. We should be safe. But, as a I say, we’re worried. So, I spent much of yesterday prepping for possible evacuation.

Update! As of Sunday afternoon (September 13th), things have calmed for us. The evacuation notice has been lifted for our area. The weather is changing. Rain is only a day or two away. So, we’re standing down. Now, having said that, there are still many people in our country who remain evacuated, and there are others who have lost their homes. (My brother’s town and home will probably emerge unscathed. Probably. For now, though, they’re still evacuated and living in an RV at the box factory.)

Natural Disasters

We Oregonians don’t have a protocol for emergency evacuations. It’s not something that really crosses our minds.

While the Pacific Northwest does have volcanoes, eruptions are rare enough that we never think about them. And yes, earthquakes happen. Eventually we’ll have “the Big One” that devastates the region, but again there’s no way to predict that and it’s not something we build our lives around. (Well, many people have been adding earthquake reinforcement to their homes, but that’s about it.)

In the past fifty or sixty years, the Portland area has experienced four other natural disasters.

Now, in 2020, we’re experiencing the worst wildfires the state has ever seen. That’s roughly one disaster every ten or fifteen years, and it’s the first one during my 51 years on Earth that’s made me think about the need for evacuation preparedness.

Kim and I have been asking ourselves lots of questions.

If we were to evacuate, where would we go? What route would we take? What would we carry with us? How would we prep our home to increase the odds that it would survive potential fire?

Let me share what we’ve decided and what we’ve learned. (And please, share what you know about emergency preparedness, won’t you?)

Evacuation Preparedness

The first thing we did was brainstorm a list of things that were important to us. Without reference to experts, what is it that we would want to do and/or take with us, if we were to evacuate.

  • Our animals (and animal supplies).
  • Phones, computers, and charging cords.
  • Important documents from our fire safe.
  • A bag for each of us containing clothes and toiletries.
  • Sleeping bags and pillows.
  • Sentimental items. (We have no “valuable”.)
  • Create a video tour of the house for insurance purposes (be sure to highlight valuable items).
  • Move combustible items away from the house.

After creating our own list, we consulted the experts.

In this case, we looked at websites for communities in California. California copes with wildfires constantly. (And, in fact, Kim’s brother and his family recently had to help evacuate their town due to wildfires!) For no particular reason, I chose to follow the guidelines put out by Marin County, California. I figured they know what they’re talking about!

The FIRESafe MARIN website has a bunch of great resources dedicated to wildfire planning and preparedness. I particularly like their evacuation checklist. While this form is wildfire specific, it could be easily adapted for other uses, such as hurricane preparedness or earthquake preparedness.

The ready.gov website is an excellent resource for disaster preparedness. It contains lots of info about prepping for problems of all sorts. You should check it out.

Creating a Go Kit

FIRESafe MARIN and other groups recommend putting together an emergency supply kit well in advance of possible problems. Each person should have her own Go Kit, and each should be stored in a backpack. (In our case, I have several cheap backpacks that I’ve purchased while traveling abroad. These are perfect for Go Kits.)

What should you keep in a Go Kit? It depends where you live, of course, and what sorts of disasters your area is susceptible to. But generally speaking, you might want your kits to contain:

  • A bandana and/or an N95 mask or respirator.
  • A change of clothing.
  • A flashlight or headlamp with spare batteries.
  • Extra car keys and some cash.
  • A map marked with evacuation routes and a designated meeting point.
  • Prescription medications.
  • A basic first aid kit.
  • Photocopies of important documents.
  • Digital backup of important files.
  • Pet supplies.
  • Water bottle and snacks.
  • Spare chargers for your electronic equipment.

That seems like a lot of stuff, but it’s not. These things should fit easily into a small pack. Each Go Kit should be stores somewhere easy to access. Kim and I don’t have Go Kits yet, but we’ll create them soon. We intend to store them in the front coat closet.

Writing this article reminds me of one of the first posts I shared after re-purchasing Get Rich Slowly. Almost three years ago, I wrote about how to get what you deserve when filing an insurance claim. This info from a former insurance employee is very helpful (and interesting).

Final Thoughts

I spent much of yesterday prepping for possible evacuation. This isn’t so much out of panic as it is out of trying to take sensible precautions. I gathered things and put them in the living room so that we can be ready to leave, if needed. If authorities were to upgrade us from level one to level two status, I’d move this stuff to my car.

Also as a precaution, I moved stuff away from the house and thoroughly watered the entire yard. (Not sure that’d make much difference, but hey, it can’t hurt.) I created a video tour of the house that highlights anything we have of value. And so on. This took most of the afternoon.

This morning, I can see that the neighbors are doing something similar. We’re all trying to exercise caution, I think.

Kim and I will almost surely be fine. Although the smoke is thick here at the moment — it’s like a brownish fog, and it’s even clouding my view of the neighbor’s house! — there aren’t any fires super close to us. And barring mistakes or stupidity, there won’t be any threat to our home.

Still, it’s good for us to take precautionary measures, both now and for the future. And it’s probably smart for you to take some small steps today in case disaster strikes tomorrow.

Here’s a terrific Reddit post about what one person wishes they’d known when evacuating for wildfire.



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How to Buy a Second Home that Pays for Itself

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Recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that home sales were up more than 17% in June 2020 from the month before, and up more than 13% compared to the year prior. Those who have the means to buy a second home are wise to take on mortgage debt (or reorganize their current debt) in today’s low interest environment.

With low 30-year mortgage rates, owning a rental property that “pays for itself” through monthly rental income is especially lucrative with a significantly lower mortgage payment. If you’re curious about buying a second home and renting it out, keep reading to find out about the major issues you should be aware of, the hidden costs of becoming a landlord, and more. 

Important Factors When Buying a Short-Term Rental

The issues involved in buying a rental home varies dramatically depending on where you plan to purchase. After all, buying a ski lodge in an area with seasonal tourism and attractions might require different considerations than buying a home in a major metropolitan area where tourists visit all year long.

But there are some factors every potential landlord should consider regardless of location. Here are a few of the most important considerations:

  • Location. Consumers rent vacation homes almost anywhere, but you’ll want to make sure you’re looking at homes in an area where short-term rentals are popular and viable. You can do some basic research on AirDNA.co, a short-term rental data and analytics service, or check competing rentals in the area you’re considering.
  • Property Management Fees. If you plan to use a property management company to manage your short-term rental instead of managing it yourself, you should find out how much other owners pay for management. Also, compare listing fees for your second home with a platform like Airbnb or VRBO.
  • Taxes. Property taxes can be higher on second homes since you don’t qualify for a homestead exemption. This means higher fixed costs each month, which could make it more difficult to cover your mortgage with rental income.
  • Competition. Check whether a rental area you’re considering is full of competing rentals that are never full. You can find this information on VRBO or Airbnb by looking at various rentals and checking their booking calendars.
  • Potential Rental Fees. Check rental sites to see how much you might be able to charge for your second home on a nightly, weekly, or monthly basis. 

5 Steps to Rent Your Second Home

Before purchasing a second home, take time to run different scenarios using realistic numbers based on the rental market you’re targeting. From there, the following steps can guide you through preparing your property for the short-term rental market.

1. Research the Market

First, you’ll want to have a general understanding of the rental market you’re entering. How much does the average short-term rental go for each night or each week? What is the average vacancy rate for rentals on an annual basis? 

Research your local rental market, the average price of rentals in your area, various features offered by competing rentals, and more.

Action Item: Dig into these figures by using AirDNA.co. Just enter a zip code or town, and you’ll find out the average nightly rate, occupancy rate, revenue, and more. Although some of the site’s features require a monthly subscription, you can find out basic information about your rental market for free.

2. Know Your Numbers

You need to know an array of real numbers before renting your second home, including the following:

  • Average nightly rate
  • Average occupancy rate
  • Fixed costs, such as your mortgage payment, taxes, and insurance for the rental
  • Property management fees and costs for cleaning between tenants
  • Additional fixed costs for things like trash pickup, internet access, and cable television
  • Costs for marketing your space on a platform like VRBO or Airbnb, which could be a flat fee or 3% of your rental fee depending on the platform

You’ll use these numbers to figure out the average monthly operating cost for your second home, and the potential income you might be able to bring in. Without running these numbers first, you wind up in a situation where your short-term rental doesn’t pay for itself, and where you’re having to supplement operating expenses every month. 

Action Item: Gather every cost involved in operating your specific short-term rental, and then tally everything up with monthly and annual figures that you can plan for.

3. Buy the Right Insurance

If you plan on using your second home as a short-term rental, you’ll need to buy vacation rental insurance. This type of homeowners insurance is different from the type you’d buy for your primary residence. It’s even unique from landlord insurance coverage since you need to have insurance in place for your second home and its contents.

Some vacation rental policies let you pay per use, and they provide the benefits of homeowners insurance (like property coverage, liability, and more) plus special protection when your property is rented to a third party. 

Action Item: Shop around for a homeowners insurance plan that’s geared specifically to vacation rentals. See our top picks for the best homeowners insurance companies out there.

4. Create a Property Management Plan

If you live near your second home, you might want to manage it yourself. There’s nothing wrong with this option, but you should plan on receiving calls and dealing with problems at all hours of the day. 

Many short-term rental owners pay a property management company to communicate with their tenants, manage each rental period, and handle any issues that pop up. Property managers can also set up cleanings between each rental and help with marketing your property. 

Action Item: Create a property management plan and account for any costs. Most property managers charge 25% to 30% of the rental cost on an ongoing basis, so you can’t ignore this component of owning a short-term rental. 

5. Market Your Space

Make sure you appropriately market your space, which typically means paying for professional photos and creating an accurate, inviting listing on your chosen platforms. Your property manager might help you create a marketing plan for your vacation rental, but you can DIY this component of your side business if you’re tech- and media-savvy. 

Action Item: Hire a photographer to take professional photos of your rental, and craft your rental description and listing. 

Risks of Purchasing a Short-Term Rental

Becoming a landlord isn’t for the faint of heart. There’s plenty that can go wrong, but here are the main risks to plan for:

  • Government roadblocks. In destinations from New York City to Barcelona, government officials have been cracking down on short-term rentals and trying to limit their ability to operate. New rules could make running your business more costly, difficult, or even impossible. 
  • Your home could be damaged beyond repair. If you read the Airbnb message boards and other landlord forums, you’ll find an endless supply of nightmare rental stories of houses getting trashed and rentals enduring thousands of dollars in damage. 
  • Housing market crash. If the housing market crashes again like it did in 2008, you might find you owe more than your second home is worth at a time when it’s increasingly difficult to find renters. 
  • Reliance on tourism. As we’ve seen during the pandemic, circumstances beyond our control can bring travel and tourism to a screeching halt. Since short-term rentals typically rely on tourism to stay afloat, decreases in travel can affect the viability of your business, quickly.
  • High ongoing costs and fees. Higher property taxes, property management fees, cleaning fees and maintenance costs can make operating a short-term rental costly in the long-term. If you don’t account for all costs and fees involved, you might wind up losing money on your vacation home instead of having the property “pay for itself”.

The Bottom Line

A short-term rental can be a viable business opportunity, depending on where you want to buy and the specifics of the local rental market. But there are a lot of factors to consider before taking the leap. 

Before investing hundreds of thousands of dollars, think over all of the potential costs and risks involved. You’ll want to ensure that you’ve done comprehensive research and have run the numbers for every possible scenario to make an informed decision.

The post How to Buy a Second Home that Pays for Itself appeared first on Good Financial Cents®.



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The 10 Best Short Term Investments

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Right now, the market is at all time highs, and at some point in the future, it will inevitably pull back. While investing is long term, you might have short-er term goals that require short term investments.

If you’re a young investor and don’t want to see an immediate decline in your portfolio, now’s a good time to consider short term investment options. Short term investments typically don’t see the growth of longer term investments, but that’s because they are designed with safety and a short amount of time in mind.

However, millennials honestly haven’t experienced a prolonged bear or flat market. While the Great Recession was tough, millennials have seen their net worth’s grow. However, in periods of uncertainty, it can make sense to invest in short term investments.

Also, for millennials who may be looking at life events in the near future (such as buying a house or having a baby), having short term investments that are much less likely to lose value could make a lot of sense.

If you’re a young investor looking for a place to stash some cash for the short term, here are ten of the best ways to do it.

1. Online Checking and Savings Accounts

Online checking and savings accounts are one of the best short term investments for several reasons:

  1. They have higher interest rates than traditional accounts
  2. They are completely safe: your accounts are FDIC insured up to $250,000
  3. You can access your money any time and don’t have to worry about losing interest as a result

However, to get the very best rates from online checking and savings account, you typically have to do one of the following:

  1. Contribute a certain amount to the account (say $10,000 minimum)
  2. Sign up for direct deposit into the account
  3. Use your debit card for a certain number of transactions each month

If you’re going to be doing those types of transactions anyway, signing up for one of these accounts can make a lot of sense. And to make these accounts even more attractive, interest rates have been rising the last few months making yields go higher.

Our favorite online savings account right now is CIT Bank. They offer 0.60% APY online savings accounts with just a $100 minimum deposit! Check out CIT Bank here.

Check out the other best high yield savings accounts here.

2. Money Market Accounts

Money market accounts are very similar to online savings accounts, with one exception. Money market accounts typically aren’t FDIC insured. As a result, you actually can earn a little higher interest rate on the account versus a typical savings account.

Money market accounts typically have account minimums that you have to consider as well, especially if you want to earn the best rate.

Our favorite money market account right now is CIT Bank. They offer 0.60% APY money market accounts with just a $100 minimum deposit! Check out CIT Bank here.

Check out our list of the best online bank accounts for your money.

3. Certificates Of Deposit (CDs)

Certificate of deposits (CDs) are the next best place that you can stash money as a short term investment. CDs are bank products that require you to keep the money in the account for the term listed – anywhere from 90 days to 5 years. In exchange for locking your money up for that time, the bank will pay you a higher interest rate than you would normally receive in a savings account.

The great thing about CDs is that they are also FDIC insured to the current limit of $250,000. If you want to get fancy and you have more than $250,000, you can also sign up for CDARS, which allows you to save millions in CDs and have them insured.

Our favorite CD of the moment is the CIT Bank 11-Month Penalty Free CD! Yes, penalty free! Check it out.

We maintain a list of the best CD rates daily if you want to explore other options.

4. Short Term Bond Funds

Moving away from banking products and into investment products, another area that you may consider is investing in short term bonds. These are bonds that have maturities of less than one year, which makes them less susceptible to interest rate hikes and stock market events. It doesn’t mean they won’t lose value, but they typically move less in price than longer maturity bonds.

There are three key categories for bonds:

  1. U.S. Government Issued Bonds
  2. Corporate Bonds
  3. Municipal Bonds

With government bonds, your repayment is backed by the U.S. government, so your risk is minimal. However, with corporate bonds and municipal bonds, the bonds are backed by local cities and companies, which increased the risk significantly. 

However, it’s important to note that investing in a bond fund is different than investing in a single bond, and if you invest in a bond fund, your principal can go up or down significantly. Here’s a detailed breakdown of why this happens: Buying a Bond Fund vs. Buying A Single Bond.

If you do want to invest in bonds, you have to do this through a brokerage. The best brokerage I’ve found for both buying individual bonds and bond funds is TD Ameritrade. TD Ameritrade has a bond screener built into it’s platform that makes it really easy to search for individual bonds to buy, and gives you a breakdown of all aspects of the bond.

Also, TD Ameritrade offers a $0 minimum IRA and hundreds of commission-free ETFs.

5. Treasury Inflation Protected Securities (TIPS)

Treasury Inflation Protected Securities (TIPS) are a type of government bond that merits their own section. These are specially designed bonds that adjust for inflation, which makes them suitable for short term investments as well as long term investments. TIPS automatically increase what they pay out in interest based on the current rate of inflation, so if it rises, so does the payout.

What this does for bondholders is protect the price of the bond. In a traditional bond, if interest rates rise, the price of the bond drops, because new investors can buy new bonds at a higher interest rate. But since TIPS adjust for inflation, the price of the bond will not drop as much – giving investors more safety in the short term.

You can invest in TIPS at a discount brokerage like TD Ameritrade. Some of the most common ETFs that invest in TIPs (and are commission-free at TD Ameritrade):

  • STPZ – PIMCO 1-5 Year U.S. TIPS Index
  • TIP – iShares TIPS Bond ETF

6. Floating Rate Funds

Floating rate funds are a very interesting investment that don’t get discussed very often – but they are a really good (albeit risky) short term investment. Floating rate funds are mutual funds and ETFs that invest in bonds and other debt that have variable interest rates. Most of these funds are invested in short term debt – usually 60 to 90 days – and most of the debt is issued by banks and corporations.

In times when interest rates are rising, floating rate funds are poised to take advantage of it since they are consistently rolling over bonds in their portfolio every 2-3 months. These funds also tend to pay out good dividends as a result of the underlying bonds in their portfolios.

However, these funds are risky, because many invest via leverage, which means they take on debt to invest in other debt. And most funds also invest in higher risk bonds, seeking higher returns.

If you want to invest in a floating rate fund, you have to do this at a brokerage as well. TD Ameritrade is a great choice for this as well. The most common floating rate funds are:

  • FLOT – iShares Floating Rate Bond ETF
  • FLRN – Barclay’s Capital Investment Grade Floating Rate ETF
  • FLTR – VanEck Vectors Floating Rate ETF
  • FLRT – Pacific Asset Enhanced Floating Rate ETF

7. Selling Covered Calls

The last “true” investment strategy that you can use in the short term is to sell covered calls on stocks that you already own. When you sell a call on a stock you own, another investor pays you a premium for the right to buy your stock at a given price. If the stock never reaches that price by expiration, you simply keep the premium and move on.  However, if the stock does reach that price, you’re forced to sell your shares at that price.

In flat or declining markets, selling covered calls can make sense because you can potentially earn extra cash, while having little risk that you’ll have to sell your shares. Even if you do sell, you may be happy with the price received anyway.

To invest in options, you need a discount brokerage that supports this. TD Ameritrade has some of the best options trading tools available through their ThinkorSwim platform.

Related: Best Options Trading Platforms

8. Pay Off Student Loan Debt

Do you want a guaranteed return on your money over the short run? Well, the best guaranteed return you can get is paying off your student loan debt. Typical student loan debt interest rates vary from 4-8%, with many Federal loans at 6.8%. If you simply pay off your debt, you can see an instant return on your money of 6.8% or more, depending on your interest rate.

Maybe you can’t afford to pay it all off right now. Well, you could still look at refinancing your student loan debt to get a lower interest rate and save some money.

We recommend Credible to refinance your student loan debt. You can get up to a $750 bonus when you refinance by using our special link: Credible >>

9. Pay Off Credit Card Debt

Similar to getting out of student loan debt, if you pay off your credit card debt you can see an instant return on your money. This is a great way to use some cash to help yourself in the short term.

There are very few investments that can equal the return of paying off credit card debt. With the average interest rate on credit card debt over 12%, you’ll be lucky to match that in the stock market once in your life. So, if you have the cash to spare, pay down your credit card debt as quickly as possible.

If you’re struggling to figure out a way out of credit card debt, we recommend first deciding on an approach, and then using the right tool to get out of debt.

For the approach, you can choose between the debt snowball and debt avalanche. Once you have a method, you can look at tools.

First, you need to get financially organized. Use a free tool like Personal Capital to get started. You can link all your accounts and see where you stand financially.

Next, consider either:

  1. Balance Transfer: If you can qualify for a balance transfer credit card, you have the potential to save money. Many cards offer a promotional 0% balance transfer for a set period of time, so this can save you interest on your credit card debt while you work to pay it off.
  2. Personal Loan: This may sound counter-intuitive, but most personal loans are actually used to consolidate and manage credit card debt. By getting a new personal loan at a low rate, you can use that money to pay off all your other cards. Now you have just one payment to make. Compare personal loans at Credible here.

10. Peer To Peer Lending

Finally, you could invest in peer to peer loans through companies like LendingClub and Prosper. These aren’t completely short term investments – many loans are for 1-3 years, with some longer loans now available. However, that is shorter than what you’d traditionally want to invest for in the stock market.

With peer to peer lending, you get a higher return on your investment, but there is the risk that the borrower won’t pay back the loan, causing you to lose money. Many smart peer to peer lenders spread out their money across a large amount of loans. Instead of investing $1,000 in just one loan, they many invest $50 per loan across 20 different loans. That way, if one loan fails, they still have 19 other loans to make up the difference.

One of the great aspects of peer to peer lending is that you get paid monthly on these loans, and the payments are a combination of principal and interest. So, after several months, you’ll typically have enough to invest in more loans immediately, thereby increasing your potential return.

We are huge fans of LendingClub as a CD alternative, and you can sign up for LendingClub here

Frequently Asked Questions

Here are some common questions about short term investments.

What makes a short term investment?

A short term investment is one that has a time frame of less than 5 years. Typically, short term investments are done to be more stable – but at the end of the day, it’s all about time frame.

Are short term investments risky?

They can be. The duration of the investment does not imply less risk. While some short term investments are risk-free (like savings accounts), others are extremely risky (like peer to peer lending).

Who should consider short term investments?

Anyone who is looking for an investment duration of less than 5 years. While it’s common to think people nearing retirement may need a short term investment, any age – including young adults – can benefit.

Is debt payoff an investment?

We think so! Paying off debt is a guaranteed return, especially in the short term.

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Final Thoughts

Finding short term investments can be tough. It’s a bit counter intuitive to invest, but only for a short period of time. As a result, you’ll typically see investments with lower returns, but also have lower risk of loss.

What are your favorite short term investments?

The post The 10 Best Short Term Investments appeared first on The College Investor.



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Socially Responsible Investing: Is It Also More Profitable?

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Since the Dawn of Mustachianism in 2011, the same question has come up over and over again:

“MMM,

I see your point that index fund investing is the best option. But when you buy the index, you’re getting oil companies, factory farm slaughterhouses and a million other dirty stories.

How can I get the benefits of investing for early retirement without contributing to the decline of humanity?”

And in these nine years since then, the movement towards socially responsible investing has only grown. Public pension funds have started to “divest” from oil company stocks, and various social issues like human rights, child labor, climate change or corporate corruption have bubbled to the surface at different times.

And all of this has led to the exploding new field of Socially Responsible Investing (SRI), and a growing array of new ways to do it.

So it seems that this is not just a passing trend – people just might be starting to care a bit more. And since capitalism is just an expression of human behavior, the nature of capitalism itself may be starting to change.

This leads us naturally to the question:

What can I do with my money to help fix the world? And even better, is there a way I can make money in the process of fixing it?

The answer is a good, solid “Probably.”

As long as you don’t get too hung up on getting every last detail perfect, because just like real life, investing is a haphazard and approximate and unpredictable thing. But by understanding the big picture, you can make slightly better decisions on average, which lead to slightly better results. And slightly better results, stacked up consistently over time, can lead to a much better life, or even a much better world.

This is true in all of the main areas we care about – personal wealth, fitness and health, even relationships and happiness. And while your money and investments are certainly not the most important thing in life, they are still worthy of a bit of easy and effective optimization.

So anyway, the first thing to understand with SRI is, “what problem am I trying to solve?”

The answer is, “You are trying to make your investing (especially index fund investing) have a better impact on the world.”

On its own, index fund investing is ridiculously simple. You just get an account at any brokerage like Vanguard, Etrade, Schwab or whatever, and dump all your money into one exchange-traded fund: VTI.

When you do this, you are buying a stake in 3500 companies at once(!), which is both impressive and overwhelming. How do you even know what you are holding?

Well, this is all public information, and easily available with a quick Google search. For example, here’s a list of the top 90 holdings in VTI (click for larger):

Top 90 holdings in Vanguard’s VTI Exchange Traded Fund

As you can see, the biggest chunk of money is allocated to today’s tech darlings, because this index fund is weighted according to market value, and these are the most valuable companies in the US today.

Through a convenient coincidence, the total value of the VTI fund happens to be just under $1 trillion dollars, which means you can just throw a decimal point after the ten billions digit of market value to get a percentage. In other words, about 4.7% of your money will go towards Apple stock, 4.4 towards Microsoft, and so on. Together, these top 90 companies are worth more than the remaining 3,410 companies combined, so these are what really drive your retirement account.

And within this list, you will see some of the usual suspects: Exxon and Chevron (oil), Philip Morris (tobacco), Raytheon and Lockheed (bombs), and so on.

But what about the less-usual suspects? For example, I happen to think that sugar, and especially sugar-packed beverages like Coke, is the biggest killer in the developed world – a major contributor to 2 million of the 2.8 million deaths each year in the US alone. Should I exclude that from my portfolio too?

And what about drug and insurance companies – aren’t they behind the political stalemate and high costs of the US healthcare system? Comcast funded some election disinformation campaigns here in my home town in the early 2010s, should I exclude them too? And if you’re part of a religion that is against charging interest on loans, or in favor of pasta and Pirate costumes, or against a spherical Earth, or any number of additional ornate rules, you may have still more preferences.

The higher your desire for perfection, the more difficult this exercise will become. However, if you are like me and you just want to get most of the desired result with minimal effort, you might simply have a look at the Vanguard fund called ESGV.

ESG stands for “Environmental, Social and Governance”, and in practice it just means “We have tried to avoid some of the shittier companies according to some fairly simple rules.”

And the result is this:

Vanguard’s ESGV Exchange traded fund (ETF) – top 90 holdings

The first thing you’ll notice is that it’s almost the same. In fact, the top five holdings – Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, Alphabet (Google) and Netflix not far behind, collectively referred to as the FAANG stocks – are completely unchanged – and this means that there will be plenty of correlation between these funds.

It’s also the reason that the stock market as a whole has recovered so quickly from this COVID-era recession: small businesses like restaurants and hair salons have been destroyed by the shutdowns, but big companies that benefit from people staying at home and using computers and phones are making more money than ever. The stock market isn’t the whole economy, it’s just the publicly traded companies, which are the big ones.

But let’s look at the biggest differences between the normal index fund versus the social version.

The following large companies listed on the left are missing in the ESGV fund, in order of size. And to make up the difference, the stake in the companies on the right have been boosted up to take their place in your portfolio.

Main differences between VTI and ESGV (source: etfrc)

The omission of Berkshire Hathaway was a bit of a shocker, as it is run with solid ethical principles by Warren Buffett, one of the worlds most generous philanthropists. And in fact the modern day nerd-saint Bill Gates is on the Berkshire board of directors, another person whose work I follow and respect greatly.

(side note: Apparently the company fails on the “independent governance” category. And Buffett disputes this category, but in his characteristic way has decided to say, “Fuck it, I’ma just keep doing my own thing with my half-trillion dollar empire over here and you can have fun with your little committee” – I’m paraphrasing a bit but he totally did say that.)

Furthermore, both funds hold the factory meat king Tyson foods, while neither holds Roundup-happy Monsanto, because it was bought by the German conglomerate Bayer AG a while back. Nextera is a giant electric utility in the Southeastern US that claims to be the world’s largest generator of renewable energy. Some do-gooders are against nuclear power, while others (including me) think it’s the Bee’s Knees and we should keep advancing it. And all this just goes to show how nobody will agree 100% on what makes a good socially responsible fund.

But What About The Performance?

In the past, some investors were nervous about giving up oil companies in their portfolio, because while it was a dirty substance, it was also what made the world go round – which meant it was a cash cow.

Now, however, oil is on its way out as renewable energy and battery storage have crossed the cost parity threshold – meaning it’s cheaper to make power (and vehicles) that don’t use oil. In its place, technology is the new cash cow, and tech is heavily represented in the ESG funds. The result:

Traditional index fund (VTI) vs Socially Responsible equivalent (ESGV)

As you can see, the performance has been similar but the ESG fund has done significantly better in the (admittedly short) time since it was introduced at Vanguard.

Of course, we have no idea if this will continue, but the point is that at least our thesis is not a ridiculous one – environmentally sustainable companies do have an advantage, if the world gradually starts to care more about these things. And if you look at the share price of Tesla and other companies that surround it in electric transportation and energy storage, you will see that there are many trillions of dollars already lining up to benefit from this transition. And the very presence of so much investment money creates a self-fulfilling prophecy, as Tesla is now building or expanding five of the world’s largest factories on three continents simultaneously.

So What Should You Do? (and what I do myself)

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My latest home-brewed ebike project – this one can reach 42MPH / 67km/hr!

First of all, it helps to remember a fundamental piece of economics: your spending dollars will probably have a much bigger impact than your investment dollars. This is because you are sending a direct message to the world rather than an indirect one:

When you buy a new gasoline-powered Subaru (or a tank of gas for your existing guzzler) or a steak at the grocery store, or a plane ticket, you are telling those companies directly that consumers want more of these products, so they will produce more of them immediately.

When you buy shares in Exxon, you are only subtly raising the demand for those shares, which raises the average price, making it ever-so-slightly easier for Exxon to maybe issue more shares in the future. In other words, you are making it easier for them to access capital. But capital is only useful if there is demand for their products. And with oil there is a nearly constant surplus, which is why OPEC and other cartels need to work together to artificially restrict supply, just to keep prices up.

Plus, as a shareholder you are theoretically eligible to place votes and influence the future direction of companies – even companies that you don’t like. If you look up the field of “shareholder activism”, you’ll see this is a tradition that goes way back.

So I have tried to take a few simple steps on the consumer side myself, and I find it quite satisfying: Insulating the shit out of all of my properties, building a DIY solar electric array on one of them, and buying one electric car so far to eliminate local gas burning. And a few electric bikes including a super fast one I made myself.

Each one of these steps has provided a very high economic return, percentage-wise, but that still leaves a lot of money to account for, which brings us back to stock investing.

As someone who loves simplicity, I have done this:

  • Bought almost entirely VTI (or similar Vanguard funds) from 2000-2015
  • Started experimenting with Betterment in 2015, liked it, and have been adding a percentage of my ongoing savings to that account to that since then. (Note that Betterment now also offers a socially responsible portfolio option.)
  • Switched the dividend re-investing of my old Vanguard VTI over to Vanguard ESGV, to avoid “wash sales” in making the most of Betterment’s tax loss harvesting feature.
  • Bought some shares of Berkshire Hathaway separately, and also make a few sentimental investments in local businesses, including the MMM HQ Coworking space.

But you could choose to be more hardcore in your ESG/SRI investing:

  • Buy your own basket of stocks based on the index, but with different weighting based on your own values
  • Spend more money on other things that generate or save money (a bigger solar array on your house, better insulation, electric car, an ebike to reduce car trips, etc.)
  • Invest in local businesses of your choice, rental real estate, community solar projects, or other things which generate passive income – publicly traded stocks are just one of many ways to fund an early retirement!

Like most areas of life, investing is not something you have to do perfectly in order to succeed – even socially responsible investing. If you apply the 80/20 rule to get the big picture right, you have probably found the Sweet Spot and you can move on to the next area of life to optimize.

In the Comments:
What is your own investment strategy? Have you thought at all about this ESG / SRI stuff? Did this article bring anything new to the table?



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