What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Crypto. I hold a vanishingly small position in Bitcoin. Of course, that position has grown even smaller over the last week. The collapse of Bitcoin has been met with the expected gnashing of teeth. Crypto was billed as a lot of things – including the future of online transactions as well as a hedge against inflation and the vagaries of traditional stocks. It was going to be the New Gold. Its behavior in the current downturn hasn’t proven any of that out. I mostly bought in wanting to learn about this new technological wonder, rather than execting Bitcoin would pop to $1,000,000 and I’d make my fortune. Crypto, for all its hype, has an astonishingly unproven record of being useful in the broader economy outside of being an item of curiosity. At best, it’s felt like even more of a casino than your run of the mill investment opportunities, so as they say, “don’t gamble with funds you can’t afford to lose.”

2. People. After attempting to resolve my ants in the well issue last summer by working with well and water experts and meeting with only temporary success, I turned to a local exterminator this spring to get a second opinion. I’m not sure whether I should be insulted or not that the first thing he said to me was “Yeah, don’t dump any poison down the well.” I suppose just the fact that he said that so quickly implies that there’s a non-zero number of my fellow residents of Cecil County who do respond to similar issues by actually running out and poisoning their own water source. I assured him that I had no intention of emptying a bottle of Terro into my drinking water supply and that I was consulting him for alternative approaches that wouldn’t result in potentially killing myself. The more unsettling part of this whole conversation is that the people who do have to be cautioned against drinking poison are also the people we encounter on the roads each day. They’re the people we encounter while we’re getting groceries. They’re the ones who sit in judgment of us as jury members. They’re the people who go to the polls to elect our leaders. Honestly, the fact that such a warning needed to be said explains a lot about why things are the way they are.

3. An unnamed online brokerage. On a lark, I opened an online brokerage account years ago. I threw a few dollars in it and attempted to teach myself a bit about the exciting world of penny stocks. Believe me when I say that didn’t go anywhere beyond giving me a solid lesson that I have no business spending time being a stock picker. As the market began its fall back around the first of the year, I dug out my log in and set up a small weekly buy order for a broad index fund. It was a chance to use the falling knife to begin capturing some shares outside what’s locked up, sacrosanct and untouchable, in my retirement accounts. I try very hard to be a set-it-and-forget-it investor. In fact, going weeks or months between looking at things isn’t uncommon. The fact that this particular broker has somehow managed to bungle my last two automatic transactions, though, has me double checking all their work to this point. Add in the apparent impossibility of getting authoritative answers from customer service and I’m left to wonder if it’s not time to decamp for an alternative platform. That’s its own flavor of pain in the ass, so I’m begrudgingly staying the course for the time being. If the next transaction inexplicably goes wonky, I’ll have to try elsewhere for my own sanity.

Free markets and free people…

According to an article published in the Daily Mail, Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez has claimed that capitalism “is not a redeemable system for us.” 

Sitting here as someone who 20 years ago had a negative net worth of tens of thousands of dollars and now finds himself in ready striking distance of using two commas in the balance column, I honestly have no idea what the distinguished representative from the New York is talking about.

Way back in the year 2000, I was making just a touch over $30,000 as a first-year teacher with a bachelor’s degree. If you’re playing along at home, that’s in the neighborhood of $17 an hour or $1,154 per pay period. I started putting $25 every two weeks into a retirement account. That’s something like 2% of my salary at the time. As I changed careers, picked up raises, and got promotions over the years, the very first thing I did was increase that amount. If I got a 2% salary bump, at least 1% went towards invested savings. It got to be a habit – one that I still practice. 

Plenty of times there were (and are) wants and needs I’d rather spend that cash on. There are a lot of things I have to pass on or defer to later because saving for the future is a priority. The tradeoff is that over the intervening two decades, that account I started with $25 has grown into something that a kid from “down the crick” could have never imagined possible. 

I’ll never rank with the likes of Musk, Gates, Buffett, or the Koch brothers, but don’t think for a moment that capitalism somehow doesn’t work for “regular people.” I’m the son of a cop and a school teacher from a town in the middle of Maryland’s coal country. My parents divorced when I was a kid. I got my first formal job at 16 and had a laundry list of what today would be called side hustles to pick up extra cash long before that. No one talked about investments or savings or retiring before 65 back there and back then. That sounds just about as “regular” as anyone could be in this life.

In my estimation, capitalism has raised more people out of poverty in the last century than any other economic system devised by the mind of man. It’s what let me build the foundation for a future I couldn’t have dreamed of twenty years ago. Somehow, I doubt that whatever workers’ paradise Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez has in mind to replace American capitalism would leave me in any way better off over the same time period.

The congresswoman is free to think whatever she wants, but I’ll keep standing with free markets and free people.

A tempting target…

Back in April, Senators Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Maggie Hassan of New asked the GAO to launch a study on “risks that fossil fuel stocks currently present” to those invested in the federal government’s Thrift Savings Plan (TSP). The distinguished senators then go on to imply that the TSP should create funds that “incorporate climate change risk” as part of the 401-k style program’s offerings.

Part of the allure of the TSP is its remarkably small fee structure – it’s very cheap in comparison to many other funds. Fees are low, in part, because TSP is simple. It’s got five basic index funds and five “lifecycle funds” that automatically reallocate participant’s money based on target dates. It’s got an elegant simplicity that’s historically effective at creating wealth for its participants over their long careers.

Look, I accept that climate change is a real thing. I also don’t have any particular love of the energy sector – many leaders in the area are losing value. That’s my real issue with them, though. If we’re going to drop energy companies from a portfolio, do it because they’re not making us money – not because some holier-than-thou senator wants to score a few political points.

Congress never saw a big pot of money sitting around that it didn’t want to stick its whole hand into. With $500 billion in assets under management I can understand why the TSP is an awfully tempting target. That said, the very last thing I want to see is a good thing turned on its ear by driving TSP to respond to whatever political views happen to hold sway at any given moment. Treating retirement funds as just another political football is almost a guaranteed way to manage to take another slug of cash out of my pocket.

There are already fund options out there for just about any special interest that wants to play in the market – whether your “thing” is gender diversity, sustainable energy, human rights, or a laundry list of other causes. TSP should remain a broad-based set of fund options targeted at replicating the market overall and building wealth over time for the wide swath of federal employees. Catering to the few individuals who can’t seem to be satisfied with that just doesn’t make senses… unless of course you’re more interested in enforcing ideological purity than in making good financial decisions. Surely no member in the United States Senate could ever be accused of that.

The long view…

I start most mornings with a quick review of the news – usually a scan of BBC, CNN, Fox, Washington Post, New York Times, and London Times. The one thing they all have in common this morning is that they’re screaming the arrival of a new economic collapse. The reader comment sections are even worse. Fear in the market is an ugly, ugly thing.

If I were fifteen years closer to retirement seeing the Dow bleed off 600 points in one trading session might ratchet up my pucker factor a bit. In my experience, though, it pays to remember that in financial markets time is generally your friend. Markets go up. Markets go down. But over the long term the trend has always clawed its way higher.

With six hundred points down I’m looking around the house wondering what I can sell to put my hands on cold hard cash. If I had a big pile of it just sitting around not doing anything, I’d be buying this dip with both hands… because in 20 years no one is going to even remember what a “Brexit” was. It’s one of those times where it really pays to take the long view.