Archive for General Financial Planning

Don’t put your money where the guns are

As anyone who has tried it knows, investing in socially responsible funds is a thorny problem. Even if you drill down to a mutual fund’s holdings, it’s really hard to be okay with everything in a portfolio. Most people interested in the area can agree that tobacco and arms manufacturers are not socially responsible. But what about drug companies (at least some)? Or makers of junk food? Mining companies? Oil companies? Banks with exploitive lending or account opening policies? Or tech companies that are known to exploit workers overseas? Depending on how involved you are, it becomes really difficult to pick a portfolio as well as have a realistic chance of actually making some money.

Nevertheless, while nothing in this world is perfect, we, and investment products, can move toward better choices. Socially responsible investment funds have lately done quite well compared to the market as a whole, so it appears that even with this selection process, you can still find solid investments. But then we get to the issue of guns.

There’s a website,, where you can input your mutual fund and find out if the fund invests in gun companies or purveyors of guns. Sure, withdrawing your own investments from funds that own gun stocks won’t, in itself, change the world. But, making your opposition clear definitely has an impact long-term on both the mutual fund manager’s choices and screening, and the attractiveness of the underlying company.

I conducted an analysis of all the funds I recommend to my management clients. It was rather depressing. Again, there’s going to be a tension between what would be ideal, and what is possible. I can make my peace with managers owning Walmart, one of the largest retailers of guns and ammo, because they are such a large company that they sell just about everything. Getting them to stop selling this would, I think, require a change in gun laws and so action is better taken on the political/legislative front, in my opinion.

The next level, and this is where it starts to bother me, is investment in sporting goods stores who promote guns and ammo as a major business angle. I, personally have a problem with funds that invest in, say, Vista Outdoor and Dick’s Sporting Goods and will be reviewing investment recommendations in funds that own them. I’m going to leave this up to a client’s decision if this disturbs them, but from now on I will be raising the issue. I do live and work in an area where there is great support for stringent gun control.

The ones that really bother me are the ones that directly invest in gun producers, like Ruger and American Outdoor Brands (Smith & Wesson).  I’m not sure I can personally invest in any mutual fund with holdings in such companies, and I will be making clients aware of this in discussing investment possibilities.

In addition, I have contacted the managers of these funds to raise my objections to these specific holdings. Hearing directly from advisors and investors makes a direct contact. You can easily find the managers of your funds on, or contact me and I’ll get the names and addresses for you.

Most international funds are free of these investments. Thanks to stringent gun control in other countries, most gun manufacturers and sellers are in the U.S. Sigh.


Some resolutions for millennials

I thought I might start off January with some financial resolutions for people at different stages of life, based upon what seems to be difficult but achievable. I’m not going to suggest lose weight and get more exercise because I’m going to try to come up with things you and I might actually do. I’ll disclose a secret and say I’m not actually a millennial. But one lives here, and I meet with millennials fairly frequently. Even if you’re not a millenial, some of these will still apply. So here goes:

  1. I will calm down about my student loans. Just about everyone has them, and everyone hates them. It’s probably too late to do anything about what you borrowed, now, so you have to think through how to manage them. They’re not shameful—they were an investment you made in getting a better job. If they’re fairly low, say under $30,000, it’s really the equivalent of paying off a car over 10 years (rather than 3 or 5 for an actual car). If they’re higher, hopefully you have selected a career that made it worthwhile—if not, you should definitely look into the various programs to bring down the monthly payment.
  2. I will assess whether I should pay off my loans early. If your loans are the subsidized kind (under 4%) you’ll probably be better off investing and saving rather than rushing to pay them off—in the long run, the same money judiciously invested will earn more than the loan is costing you.
  3. I’ll make sensibly frugal choices. Don’t buy an expensive car (or even a new one) until you’ve worked out a budget. Watch the rent you commit to paying. Try to downshift spending without denying yourself the fun—go out, but maybe drink beer instead of a craft cocktail. Meet for drinks instead of dinner. Choose a medium priced restaurant and do your gourmet eating and drinking at home—you can buy a pretty darn good bottle of wine for the cost of a glass or two at a restaurant. You get the idea.
  4. I’ll contribute to my retirement plan the day I’m eligible. There will never be a better time in the future when it will be easier. It’s always hard. If you never get used to that 10%, you won’t miss it as much.
  5. I’ll think of that retirement account as gone and locked up. Don’t borrow from it and don’t even think of cashing it in when you change jobs.
  6. I’ll build up an emergency fund before I take a vacation. Or buy a house. Or have kids.
  7. I’ll commit to paying off my credit cards every month, and pay attention to how to maximize rewards. Play that right and you’ll be able to take more vacations.
  8. I’ll manage my career. Think of your career as an investment asset—get all the training you can to continuously upgrade skills. Everyone gets a terrible boss someday, and everyone has co-workers they can’t stand. Get interpersonal skills training, read up on coping skills, and always have a plan B for moving on. Go to conferences and networking events in your field, and learn as much as you can about marketing. If you’re dreaming about a creative or independent job, realize that at least 60% of that job will be selling the product, not creating the product.
  9. Insofar as possible, I won’t quit without lining up another job. If I get fired, I’ll find career services or a job hunting group to get me back on my feet as soon as possible. Losing a job is debilitating and depressing, even if you hate it. Finding a new one is a part time job. Plan for it.
  10. I’ll pay attention to my employee benefits. Employee benefits can be worth 1/3 of your salary. Does the job offer a Flexible Spending Account? Disability coverage? Free life insurance? How much vacation time? What’s the deductible on the health insurance? Decent or crappy investment options in the 401k? Good employer match, bad, or none? Will they pay for more education (which I will definitely avail myself of)? These are things that you should know before you accept a job, because they’re potentially worth thousands to you. I can’t tell you the number of people I’ve seen who have paid for a lawyer to produce a will (or not made one at all) when their employer offers low cost legal service. Just go light your cigar with a $500 bill.
  11. I’ll set savings and required payments on autopilot by setting up auto withdrawals. Making a decision once, by setting them up, is more likely to continue (on time) than if you have to make a decision every month. You can always cancel the auto-pay if you absolutely must.
  12. I’ll learn about investing. Even if you’re a good saver, you need to educate yourself about investing. I can almost guarantee you didn’t learn about it in school, and unless your parents were exceptional, you didn’t learn it at home either. The only way is self-study—and don’t believe anything you hear at one of those free “investing” lunches—nothing in the investment world is EVER free.


Happy new year and best wishes for 2018.

Amazon, Whole Foods, and you

The takeover of Whole Foods by Amazon was approved this week, and we’re told that by Monday we could be seeing some big changes in the whole grocery business.  This has occasioned an awful lot of clothes-rending on the internet, and even Robert Reich (who I normally respect) has weighed in on what a terrible thing this is. Now Reich is a brilliant guy, and I’ve never been Secretary of Labor (although I’m pretty confident I could do a better job than the current incumbent), so I’m only going to argue here out of my own experience. I think the picture is actually more nuanced than that. So, here’s my take on some of the most prevalent commentary.

Amazon will monolithically rule the entire world of commerce. In my lifetime, just thinking about the grocery business, I’ve seen purchasing habits go from mom and pop stores (not always the cleanest, freshest, or best stocked), to a whole bunch of grocery stores (in this area, National Tea, Jewel Tea, A&P, and later Dominicks) to only a few bigger players and larger stores (Jewel & Dominicks). There once were some pretty seedy little health food stores that smelled strongly of carob and fermenting apples. I, personally, was thrilled when about 20 years ago a now pint-sized Wild Oats opened in Evanston—such a difference in quality! Bigger national players bought regional chains (Jewel has been sold countless times, Dominicks went kaput, and Roundy’s just bought Mariano’s). Even in health food stores, Wild Oats bought People’s Market, Whole Foods bought Wild Oats, etc. At the same time, I’ve seen more boutique specialty stores open (and close)—Fresh Fields, Fresh Market, Valli’s produce.

I do think I’ve seen a startup->buyout->behemoth in virtually all retail, and eventually there seem to be boutique spinoffs to serve special needs. Even within the organic foods market, smaller producers are routinely sold to larger entities. Applegate is owned by Hormel, for example. If you’ve ever tried to produce a product, eventually you reach the limits of scalability—you have to buy in larger quantities, or manufacture and distribute more efficiently, or compete not only on quality but also price or go out of business as the founders get old or exhausted. The big fish with the better supply chain and distribution network take over. For now, Amazon is the best game around, and I don’t know anyone who hasn’t shopped with them.

Amazon will force everyone to shop with it. Let’s think about why Amazon is such a success so far. Because they have things, and can get it to you fast. Example: I needed a $3.00 item, a new roller switch for a lamp—this is about the level of electrical repair I thought I could handle. Went to Lowe’s—nothing. Went to Home Depot—had one, but it turned out to be the wrong size, and that was all that was available. Went to locally owned Ace Hardware to get some personalized advice. Sent me home with another one—also the wrong size (same as the one Home Depot sold me, so much for advice). Went to a local electrical supply outlet, which turned out to be shut down. Went to a lamp and lighting store—they didn’t carry parts. These excursions took the better part of 3 afternoons, and I still didn’t have the part. And guess where I found exactly the right thing? A five pack for $10, delivered free.

From my perspective, the chief reason I order from Amazon is that I can find what I want without chasing all over town, and it will be in stock. I’d like to have that kind of reliability locally, but I don’t. And for about the past year, Whole Foods has been woefully understocked—we waited 6 weeks for crunchy house brand peanut butter. Years ago, Barnes and Noble was a thrilling improvement to places like Kroch & Brentano’s, but B&N has nowhere near the selection that Amazon offers.

However, two of my favorite independents: Bookends & Beginnins in Evanston and the Seminary Co-op in Hyde Park, do a far better job of peddling interesting titles I would never discover on Amazon. Farmer’s markets, gourmet specialty stores, and single product shops (like the Spice House) might be the food purveyor counterpart.

Amazon will jack up prices. Certainly a possibility, but it didn’t happen yet in the book world. Amazon, even after years, is still the lowest price in the book trade. In my view, Amazon still competes very strongly on price and selection.

The deal only benefits shareholders.  Okay, I admit, I’m one of those shareholders, of Whole Foods. I’ve owned it forever for two terrible reasons: I have liked shopping there (even though I think it’s drastically deteriorated over the past year), and I kept hoping it would “come back” stock price wise. This idea of the greedy corporate octopus that doesn’t care about anybody but (rich) shareholders has me a bit bemused. Because it’s extremely likely that those (rich) shareholders are YOU! If you have any money at all invested in stock mutual funds—S&P 500 funds, Target Retirement funds, even specialties like the Fidelity Contrafund or Parnassus—you own at least Whole Foods and in most cases, Amazon. Many people with 401ks or other workplace retirement plans have no idea what they actually own, and just want the value to go up. How on earth can value go up if companies don’t keep an eye on profits?

And the one I’m ACTUALLY really worried about, but no one else seems to be: The merger will result in loss of community.  One of the main ways I get out of the house and see my neighbors is at the grocery store. I see community events posted. Whole Foods used to offer talks, charity events, demos by local producers, and classes. Those have slowly disappeared in the past year, but I did still have a chance to chat with random strangers, the regular store staff, and there was somebody to complain to and voice concerns about products. Now it seems we’re moving to a society where we’re holed up in our individual homes, potentially ministered to by drones and robo-communications, and it’s dang hard to raise anyone to attend a club meeting anymore.

Independent bookstores and cafes are actually stepping up to this role, but it’s only a very small and elite subsection of the neighborhood that actually attends these events. But we are increasingly losing the agora, and I don’t know how you quantify the value of that.