Tag Archives: finance

Real concerns about #robo-advisors and #Betterment

Quick summary from reading up on tons of links and discussions on Betterment, Wealthfront, WiseBanyan, etc.

TLDR: real concerns:

  1. You can actually do it better yourself if you put in enough time: both rebalancing and tax loss harvesting (the latter actually only kicks in when there are losses)
  2. Betterment just jacked up their fees, and there is no telling whether they will do it again at any point in the future, which leads us to the third point that is more general for all robo-advisors:
  3. An argument can be made that the whole robo-advisor business model is unsustainable, especially with low initially advertised fees that are the key competitive edge over an ocean of other funds, choice quotes:
    • Charles Schwab is already undercutting both companies with no fees (0.00%), and despite what Betterment will tell you, it’s a great deal.

    • 25 basis points is not a business model, it’s a temporary growth tactic.

Even shorter TLDR: it’s worth paying them if you really want to automatically rebalance and diversify across a range of funds and ETFs for a still-low fee, and hope they can make their model work out. If you are not particularly bent on having, e.g. a slice of bonds and overseas equities, then VTI/VOO/what have you is the way to go.

(Of course, in the context of present day, this assumes you are either not of the opinion that we are in an equities bubble, or it’s not a concern for your portfolio choice)

A healthy bit of #conspiracy theorizing for 2017

Why doesn’t anyone see the obvious? Many years of near-zero interest rate and dumping cheap money into the system produced mediocre economic growth combined with a huge debt and equity bubble (though surprisingly little inflation).

The rate will have to go up to realistic levels at some point, and with it will evaporate the equity bubble, mortgage affordability and the housing market – with debt servicing (consumer, corporate and government) draining all other parts of the economy.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a temporary figurehead with historic unfavorable rating to use as a scapegoat to do some bloodletting in this system?

Oh, wait…

Does #SharingEconomy work? Can you make money renting out cars on Turo?

TLDR: Of course not : ) To grow your income, it’s better to invest in your individual strengths (e.g., improving coding skills) and spend less time playing other peoples’ games.

My overall take on sharing services (Airbnb – can never figure out how to cap this word! Uber, Turo, etc): they are temporary exploits of outdated technology and regulation, and people who rely on these services for income too much will not be happy in the long term. There are lots of posts out there tearing up both Airbnb and Uber. I personally don’t believe they are doomed, just do not consider either one as a stable long-term income option. But today let’s take a look at another poster child of the sharing wave of the future: Turo, formerly known as Relay Rides.

Casually browsing the Interwebs you might notice some numbers getting thrown around that may give you an impression that it’s an easy way to get an additional income stream. But after a quick round of research things become significantly less rosy. Let’s do some quick math – first, the fun part:

Revenue

Let’s say we start on the pragmatic side and offer up a boring but practical car for $40/day. After Turo’s cut of 15% (actually 25% with extra protection features, but let’s say we are too cheap) and a pretty optimistic utilization rate of 70% (which means pretty much a non-stop stream of customers to be serviced), we settle at a healthy $714 of revenue per month.

Expenses

For simplicity, let’s consider a new or a lightly used leased car. It is actually a violation of your lease contract to rent it out on Turo, but technically doable and does not affect our calculations too much if we chose to buy instead.

If we take a pretty average lease of a Corolla or an Elantra, it will set us back by about $1500 in down payment+tax+registration plus a monthly payment of about $100, let’s say for 36 months. Let’s also assume that we magically get enough miles to go with it (basis for this assumption: even though you may need up to 3k miles/month for heavy utilization, you can find takeover leases that may actually fit that need for a short period of time, or again, price out a purchase, which will not be very different). That will give us $141.67/mo if we spread out all those expenses over the lease period.

Next, operational expenses. A typical heavy utilization rental takes about three days. This means we rent out 7 times a month. If we decide to do an express wash every time, and a more thorough wash once a month, that’s $65/month in cleaning. Let’s also set aside about $70 a month for arranging the pickups and resolving any logistical problems (e.g., if someone runs late, or an occasional TaskRabbit for a delivery if you are out of town). Let’s also set aside $100/month for repairs – even if there is a warranty, you can and will get into out-of-pocket situations, and about a grand a year does not seem unreasonable. Finally, we need to add the car to the personal insurance to be able to drive it between the rentals, e.g. to the shop. Let’s throw in about $20/mo for some kind of  a super-minimalistic plan (which technically we could skip, but that would be uncool).

All in all this gives us $396.67 in monthly expenses.

Bottom Line

These numbers leave us with about $317.33 in taxable income per car. Which, for a purely theoretical exercise, falls pretty close to what this guy is proudly reporting from the field, considering he got his Chevy Cruze almost for free.

To put things in perspective, if you try to scale and operate, say 5 cars like that, you will be making slightly less than a burger flipper at McDonald’s. For that money, you will have to deal with an average of about 2 customers every day (that includes cleaning the car) and any associated overhead such as people flaking, running late, scratching or staining the car, screwing you over on gas, disputing mileage or just randomly giving you a crappy review. If we tighten the numbers to, say, 90% utilization or even completely remove the cost of the car itself! or find perhaps a higher-end vehicle combination that might yield closer to $1000 in profit per car (though I doubt that number can be achieved in a stable long-term way), that’s still not really the business I would like to be in.

To consider scaling further and doing this full time, you would have to deal with 15-20 cars which gives us 7 pickups+cleanings every day, including the weekends. At this point, a private parking lot near a major airport and a carwash would come in handy, too.

The LendingClub debacle: what does it mean from a lender’s perspective

Short-term: it means nothing. The sky isn’t falling and my adjusted return rate over 3 years is still 13.77%. And MMM et al are still collecting a sweet chunk of referral change for sending the general interwebs population in that direction.

Long-term: will see. Short of catastrophic operational disruption (which I don’t think is the case here), I expect things to move along the same way in this established business (ok, so the startup tag on this post looks pretty ridiculous by now, of course). The threat I’m still concerned about is some economic event which may cause people to default much more. But what will take the biggest hit in that case – equities, funds, real estate or peer-to-peer lending – is anyone’s guess.

Market is 𝘴𝘵𝘪𝘭𝘭 ~2x 2010 – do you believe avg company 2x richer than 2010? Bar hyperinflation, it has to correct more

Screen Shot 2016-02-13 at 1.43.19 AM

So I painfully moved to cash, bonds, money market and other assets throughout 2015. It was a very lonely and depressing experience, missing out on all those FBIOX gains (I know, right?) But I kept asking myself, do I really believe that all those S&P 500 big old dudes, the General Electrics, the General Motors, IBMs, and Exxons. Do they make twice more money than 5 years ago? Hardly. So why all the craze? We don’t have a noticeable inflation, at least not in the consumer, non-real-estate space. S&P 500 is still almost 2x over 2010, give or take, even after the ongoing correction early in the year. There are no fundamental reasons for these companies to jump 2x in their market cap. Meaning, there might have been some other, non-fundamental reasons – perhaps more speculative in nature – and now we still have some way to go…

 

The world outside tech bubble is crazy

In yesterday’s Bloomberg article with an upbeat glass-half-full original title of “The mining industry makes oil giants look great”, we see one of those CEO quotes that truly boggles the mind. Apparently, if this continued for 33 months already, it’s probably considered not so bad in the non-tech world.

… since he took on the role 33 months ago the company’s revenue had slumped by an average of $350 million a month.

Just curious, how does a routine conversation with the board/investors go then? “So, how are you guys doing?” – “Not so bad, focusing on our core competencies, pissing away $350 million a month, just like the last few years” – “Great, keep up the good work then!”

How much did employees make on that Square IPO?

If you are a recent midlevel Square employee, you are likely to have gotten 10k-25k RSU’s vested over 2 years. That’s about $130k-$325k pre-tax over 2 years, assuming today’s stock price. (the throwaway-authored reddit post could be completely made-up, but these numbers are not far from what I’ve seen at Uber and 3 other startups)

Folks who joined before Square introduced RSU’s (which, looks like, were issued for at least the last 2 years) likely had to pay for their stock options, and it doesn’t look pretty:

21 million options have been awarded at a value above the $13.07 closing price of Square’s stock today

“Awarded at a value above the price today” means “currently worth less than toilet paper”. Of course, those 21 mil options could have been bonuses on top of RSU’s, which would make this a bit more palatable.

If you got in a bit earlier with a strike price of $1 and an options grant of 25k, then we’re looking at $300k before tax. I have no idea what a typical options grant was in those days, again just going by what I’ve seen at 4 other startups. If you got a royal grant of 100k, then it’s closer to real money – $1.2 million before tax, but clearly that has quickly dried up in value as the strike price went up and over the current ~$13 stock price, leaving the people who joined at the later stages of the stock options program with not much.

Also worth noting is that a decent engineer with a $150k/year in salary at Square (according to Glassdoor, which unfortunately does not offer a time filter on those salaries, but let’s assume for a moment that it’s a relatively recent number) – the same engineer could probably pull $200k (or maybe even $250k) at the big 4, all things considered. That’s at least $100k extra for the 2 year period. That does not make one filthy rich, but apparently neither did the Square IPO so far.

I do believe however that it’s a viable business, and the stock price may (or may not) go up during the lock-up period significantly.