All posts by phuoc

Short faucets

Like everyone, I have a few pet peeves.  One of the big ones on my list are faucets that are too short for the sinks they’re installed in.  I’ve seen them everywhere, from hotels to office buildings to homes.  Residential installations seem to have the most culprits.  I’m not entirely sure why since many of the residential types are installed directly on the edge of the sinks so they shouldn’t have a problem with clearance.  Yet I’ve run into enough of them to know that just 3″ from the back of the sink is not enough to prevent splashing when you’re washing your hands or doing the dishes.

In my recent remodel, I made sure that the faucets I selected for my bathrooms & kitchen were sufficiently long enough.  I even made sure that the kitchen faucet cleared large pots when they’re placed into the sink.  If enough people are annoyed with this and vote with their dollars appropriately, I would think the problem would solve itself in time.

A good time to invest?

It’s been a volatile 2014 thus far in terms of investing.  The market went down quite a bit and then recover.  The S&P 500 made a new record high but even with that it’s been down for the year.  Some are nervous if this economic recovery can continue given the unwinding of the Federal Reserve unprecedented monetary policy (quantitative easing 3/QE3/”the taper”).  That’s understandable as prices have not given anyone much confidence.  Toss into that mix Ukraine’s abrupt change of government and Russia’s aggression in the Crimea.  Now people are really nervous.  The Russian rouble have marked a new low against the dollar and markets around the world are reflecting this jittery.

But perhaps because of all of the above now’s the perfect time.  The famed Warren Buffett did say to be greedy when others are fearful and we’re getting close.  It’s worth looking at this market to uncover some undervalued issues and see if you would like to allocate some of your capital there.  Speaking of Buffett, Berkshire Hathaway’s annual report and letter to shareholders have been released.  They are all worth reading for the serious investor who wants to be well informed.  You can find back issues of both on Berkshire’s website and they are worth more than their weight in wisdom.  The part I find very interesting in this year’s annual report is the bit about pensions.

The bottom line is not to look at this as a time to worry… it may just be an opportunity in disguise.

Healthy Eating

Healthy eating & avoiding high fructose corn syrup

I’ve been on a health kick in recent years.  Not over the top crazy but taking little steps just to make sure I do what I can to be just a bit healthier.  One of the biggest things I’ve done is to give up sodas entirely.  Whereas I used to drink at least one Diet Coke a day, I rarely drink sodas anymore except for the occasional here or there.  That made a huge difference.  There was a study that suggested that even diet sodas can potentially cause weight gain.  It was done on rats and WebMD says the science is inconclusive.  There may be a correlation between diet soda drinkers and higher calorie intake, but still, there were enough questions that it was just best to cut out the artificial sweeteners altogether.

Another is the switch from margarine and spreads to real butter.  For a long time, people thought the fake stuff was better for you than the real thing.  But then we begin to realize that the hydrogenated oils used to make those spreads weren’t that good for you at all.  Now people are slowly making the switch back.

Lately, I’ve been trying to get healthier by avoiding preservatives where I can and to a larger degree, cutting out high fructose corn syrup (HFCS).  If you didn’t know, HFCS is a cheap sweetener made from corn.  Most people don’t know that the majority of corn grown in the US is not for consumption by people but for HFCS production or animal feed.  HFCS is cheaper because you can use less of it than table sugar for the same relative sweetness.  This is because HFCS has more fructose compared to glucose than table sugar.  Hence the name: high fructose corn syrup.

The body treats fructose different than glucose though and too much fructose can cause various issues.  These include increasing blood sugars and triggering the body to convert fructose to fat rather than burning it for energy.  For these and various other good reasons, it’s better to just ditch it together when you can.  If I must have a soda these days, I opt for the regular kind.  Within those, I reach for the one with sugar rather than those with HFCS.  It’s so ubiquitous in American foods though that you might not have an option.  But when you do, it pays to select the one with sugar instead.  When I buy peanut butter and jams, I look for the natural versions that uses only sugar rather than HFCS, dextrose, etc.  You can also reach out to the manufacturers and tell them you want to avoid HFCS.  It worked on taking GMO crops out of Cheerios so it may work here as well.  In the mean time, choose what you eat wisely.  A little bit goes a long way!

Target Corporation Store (TGT)

Target (TGT) is a good investment

Target Corporation Store (TGT)

Target (NYSE: TGT)has taken a beating since the whole credit card hacking debacle in late 2013.  They went from a high of $73.50 to under $55.00 – a drop of over 25% in just a few months.  Yes, Target was responsible for the hacking and yes, they may take quite a hit from consumers for it.  But being punished to the tune of 25% was a bit of an overreaction.  The company is still strong and should recover.  Any liability should be minimal.  Target responded properly and took responsibility so I think this will blow over.

Target has a strong balance sheet, a strong history of paying dividends, and has a good image with consumers.  At current prices, the yield is about 2.85%.  Even if Target comes back halfway to its 52 week high, it’s still a gain of over 16%.  There’s no reason it can’t get there and perhaps even more.  I believe in it so much, I took a position in it in late January and it now makes up 9% of my personal portfolio.  This is a pure value play for me – I think it’s just dirt cheap and took a much bigger beating than it deserved.  If you’re waiting for a decent retail stock, Target might just be the right opportunity.

Maintaining your privacy

Maintain your privacy by deleting your Google History

Google is nefarious.  One of its mission is to do no evil, yet it’ll keep every little detail about you forever without much regards to your privacy.  If the government should ask for it, it’ll hand it over.  All this in the name of providing better service.  I use Google services but am trying my best to keep as much of my privacy as I can.  I use an adblocker.  I set up my browser so it doesn’t leave cookies on most sites and I actively stop sites trying to track me.

There are other things you can do.  You can use an alternative search engine.  My current favorite is https://privatelee.com.  It uses the results from Google and Bing but does it anonymously.  After that, go to https://history.google.com and delete your web history.  Make sure you turn off that “feature” afterwards as well.  You’ll want to check this occasionally if you’re a Google user.  I’ve seen it turn back on without as much as a warning.  These may be small measures but every little bit helps!

Done with taxes!

I just filed my taxes and both Federal & state returns were accepted.  The online filing process was even easier this year compared to last year.  The government accepted the returns within minutes of my submission.  It’s pretty crazy how far home tax preparation has gone.  I used TurboTax but I would think any modern package would get the job done for most people.  I only picked it by virtue of being able to import my information from previous tax years.  I’m glad I got done (relatively) early.  This year I had to wait bit since some tax forms that I needed weren’t released by the IRS until late into the new year.

Many people are intimidated by taxes and doing it by themselves would not even enter their mind.  However, there’s really nothing to be concerned about with these modern software packages and really no need to pay anyone to prepare them for you.  The key is to have all your documents ready (W-2, 1099′s, charitable donation receipts, etc.).  The rest of the process is straight forward with the software walking you through every category.

So what are you waiting for?  Get going and cross filing your taxes off your list!

YTD Return

Speaking of retiring, my retirement account is sitting at -2.5% YTD.  I always thought this year was going to be flat in a sideways range or down.  Comparatively speaking, that’s better than the general market, the NASDAQ excepted.  Klarman says not to compare your performance to the market, i.e. don’t put too much stock in relative performance – think absolute performance, and he has a point.  You should always judge an investment on its own merit.  I hate being down, even if better than the market as a whole.  But since my time horizon is long, I’m still feeling great about the investments that I’m holding.  I do have a large position in cash and that’s OK.  But if things are going to go south, I hope they go big.  I want to do some bargain hunting.  Analysts are calling for a 10% correction, but what do they know?  I’m hoping for a little panic so I can pick up stuff cheap.  Not a big, herd wide panic that will put a halt quickly to everything, but just enough so quality issues become undervalue enough that they’re a good pickup.

Once recent pickup for me has been Target based on the same rationale.  The whole credit hacking debacle really did a number on Target.  I believe their response is right on the money.  They didn’t shy away or make any excuses and accepted responsibility.  The exposure for them should be manageable.  Yet the market beat them up pretty bad, putting them at a new 52 week low.  Even if they can get halfway back, it’ll be a nice return.  In the meantime, I’ll collect my dividends and hold onto a quality retailing company.

Maldives - Early Retirement

Retiring early

I’ve had this dream of retiring early.   Perhaps when I reached 30.  At age 24, everything in the world seems possible.  Recently I’ve learned that quite a number of people have actually done it.  Some have done it by age 30 and others by age 38.  One goes by the name of “Mr. Money Moustache“.  The trick to retiring early is to spend less now.  It doesn’t mean to deprive yourself of everything but it does mean figuring out what really matters and what makes you happy.  I knew a guy early on that I suspected has retired early.  In fact, I’m confident of it.  And he was this way.  You just have to figure out how much you’re earning and do what you can to sock as much away into a retirement and separate brokerage account as possible.  The retirement account will allow you the tax deferred growth while the brokerage account will allow you to invest for immediate access should you need it.  And you will at some point when you retire early since tax rules do not allow you to withdraw from a retirement account early unless you make substantially equal periodic withdrawals over your expected life expectancy.  However, you wouldn’t want to tap into that immediately and let it grow tax deferred as long as you can before you begin to do so.

For me, it’s too late to retire at age 30.  But it may not be too late to retire substantially early.  Call it age 50 for now.  Once you do retire though, plan on withdrawing roughly 4% or less of your portfolio per year.  It’s been shown that amount will allow you to have your savings outlast you.  Typically when you do retire, your spending goes down a little bit anyways, regardless of your actual age when you do retire.  Now I just have to convince my wife that we need to spend less!

Chaudhry Aslam and Extra-Judicial Killing

Chaudhry Aslam was Pakistan’s “super cop” and had escaped many attempts on his life.  Recently though, the Taliban succeeded in bringing him down with a bomb.  He was ruthless in pursuing criminals & gangsters and many feared him.  He was however, not without critics.  Many have accused him of human rights violations by purposely engaging suspected criminals in gunfights, killing them and claiming self-defense afterwards.  A recent PBS radio story on Aslam gave me pause.  A human rights activist said there’s never a right time for extrajudicial justice.  Officials though say there is no choice in a society where crime is rampant yet the judiciary is either frightened, corrupt or both.  The question that came into my mind is what does society do in a situation like that?  Do you suspend some human rights for immediate security or do you maintain what due process might remain and run the risk of criminals over running everything?  If you stick to your guns and do what’s right, there may not be a society left after the criminals win.  At least not a society that you would recognize.  If you don’t and play by their rules, there’s a risk that you’ll go down that slippery slope and be as lawless as the criminals.

So what should a society finding itself in this situation to do? Aslam believed he had the answer.  He gave his life for that belief and now his 16 year old son wants to continue in his footsteps.  It’s an interesting dilemma.  What would you do?

Prego Spaghetti Sauce – it’s flavored with meat!

I bought a jar of Prego Flavored With Meat pasta sauce today.  I was in a mood for a good bolognese and was just too lazy to make it from scratch.  I know the jar stuff can’t even come close but if I recall, I had some pretty decent bolognese sauce from a jar when I lived in Paris.  Surely this can’t be much worse.  I was wrong.  At $2 for a 24 oz. jar, it’s certainly good on the wallet.  The 3rd ingredient after tomato puree and diced tomatoes was beef.  That’s a good sign right?  Well, perhaps.  I made some pork chops to serve with my spaghetti and gave this sauce a whirl.  First impression is that I can taste sugar but not the beef.  It’s not a bad sauce… it’s just not a particularly good one.  If I had to rate it, this would be a 2.5/5 for me and I wouldn’t recommend it.

prego_meat