The Stingy News Weekly (01/17/2010)
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Investors keep fooling themselves
"Historically, inflation has eaten away three percentage points of return a year. Investment expenses and taxes each have cut returns by roughly one to two percentage points a year. All told, those costs reduce annual returns by five to seven points. So, in order to earn 6% for clients after inflation, fees and taxes, these financial planners will somehow have to pick investments that generate 11% or 13% a year before costs. Where will they find such huge gains? Since 1926, according to Ibbotson Associates, U.S. stocks have earned an annual average of 9.8%. Their long-term, net-net-net return is under 4%. All other major assets earned even less. If, like most people, you mix in some bonds and cash, your net-net-net is likely to be more like 2%."
The self-fulfilling prophecy
"Can you convince people that something is good merely by telling them that other people like it?"
Hated stocks beat loved stocks
"For 11 of the past 12 years, I have studied the performance of analysts. four favorite stocks, and the fate of the four they most scorned. My analysis covers 1998 through 2009, except for 2008, when I was temporarily retired as a columnist. Their favorites, on average, were flat during those years while the four stocks they hated most gained about 6 percent annually."
Why so many Americans are broke
"Bookstores are full of books about getting out of debt. Why, then, are so many Americans struggling to get by? One reason, according to Connecticut College Psychology Professor Stuart Vyse, is that when it comes to money, people are not as rational as many economists.and authors.think. In his book Going Broke: Why Americans Can.t Hold on to Their Money, Vyse cites studies that consistently show that people commonly make mental mistakes when it comes to their money. This realization is the foundation of behavioral economics, which holds that people behave differently than in the supremely logical fashion that classical economics predicts."
Keys to success
"Berkshire has really figured out how to behave with large insurance exposures that could potentially pay out billions from catastrophic events. There is a huge benefit to having so many non-insurance operating businesses affiliated with their insurance businesses, especially large utilities and railroads, where you are highly confident that you are not going to take a big hit. You can't have a bunch of operating businesses that could potentially lose much and also face a Katrina or a Wilma. That's where you have brilliance."
Less intuition, more evidence
"Those of us who aren't wine snobs or speculators probably don't care too much about the prices of first-growth Bordeaux, but most of us would benefit from accurate predictions about such things as academic performance in college; diagnoses of throat infections and gastrointestinal disorders; occupational choice; and whether or not someone is going to stay in a job, become a juvenile delinquent, or commit suicide. I chose those seemingly random topics because they're ones where statistically-based algorithms have demonstrated at least a 17 percent advantage over the judgments of human experts. But aren't there at least as many areas where the humans beat the algorithms? Apparently not. A 2000 paper surveyed 136 studies in which human judgment was compared to algorithmic prediction. Sixty-five of the studies found no real difference between the two, and 63 found that the equation performed significantly better than the person. Only eight of the studies found that people were significantly better predictors of the task at hand. If you're keeping score, that's just under a 6% win rate for the people and their intuition, and a 46% rate of clear losses."
An immodest proposal
"In other words, the estate tax is really a capital gains tax, but triggered by death, not sale of the capital asset. So why not eliminate the estate tax, but then have the heirs inherit not only the stock in Amalgamated Widget but granddad's cost basis as well? Then, when Junior sells a million shares in order to pursue his dream of winning back the America's Cup or whatever, he has to pay a substantial capital gains tax on those shares. A possible compromise would be to set the capital gains on inherited assets at a higher rate than on assets bought by the person himself. This would allow the Democrats to feel all warm and fuzzy for having still socked it to the rich and allow the Republicans to claim credit for having eliminated an unfair, arbitrary, expensive, and economically pernicious tax."
The 'other' imbalance and the financial crisis
"I argue instead that the root imbalance was of a different kind: The entire world had an insatiable demand for safe debt instruments that put an enormous pressure on the U.S. financial system and its incentives (and this was facilitated by regulatory mistakes). The crisis itself was the result of the negative feedback loop between the initial tremors in the financial industry created to bridge the safe - assets gap and the panic associated with the chaotic unraveling of this complex industry. Essentially, the financial sector was able to create 'safe' assets from the securitization of lower quality ones, but at the cost of exposing the economy to a systemic panic."
In China, fear of a real estate bubble
"With property prices soaring in key cities, many investors and bankers worry that China has the next great real estate bubble waiting to be popped."
The hidden persuaders of fast food
"The Starbucks menu uses the "rule of three." The menu offers three sizes of coffees, given the enigmatic names of Tall, Grande, and Venti. (They're 12, 16, and 20 ounces respectively; 24 ounces for cold Venti drinks, to allow for ice.) Since Starbucks newbies won't know what they're getting, they tend to order the middle choice, Grande. In the psychology literature, this is known as "extremeness aversion" - people instinctively favor a middle choice, figuring it's safer. Guess what? You've just ordered two cups of expensive coffee. The Grande's sixteen ounces is two regular cups."
How Visa dominates a market
"Every day, millions of Americans stand at store checkout counters and make a seemingly random decision: after swiping their debit card, they choose whether to punch in a code, or to sign their name. It is a pointless distinction to most consumers, since the price is the same either way. But behind the scenes, billions of dollars are at stake."
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