My family’s story in Chinese stock market.

Following our blog friend’s post on Shanghai volume , I want to share with you my family’s stories in China’s stock market. My mom has been in the market since I was in the secondary school. She lost half of her capital after more than 10 year’s investment. Up to two years ago, she was still struggling. However, since this year, every night when I talk to my mom, she will tell me how much more she could have earned if she had hold the stock longer, or had bought more. She put all our family savings into it now.

And one of our relatives, an 80 year old lady, frugal for her whole life, put all her money in the stock market too. She does not know how to use computer or internet. So she keeps calling my mom to help her excute the trade.

Yes, it is this scary! And I just can not persuade my mom to take the money out of the market. No way she will believe me when she sees the stock price going up so fast every day. Sometimes, I want to make up some emergency stories to ask her for moeny, because that’s maybe the only way to ask her to get some of her money out of that market. But I will feel guilty if I lie. Very difficult situation 😦

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How to better measure home prices?

As shown in the previous post, the median price is far from an ideal measure of home prices. In this softened housing market, a change in the types of houses sold may give people a deceiving picture of increasing prices. Here is an article titled The Follies of Measuring Home Prices from Rich Toscano.

In short, the median house is really a moving target, and the “median price” does not account for the difference in these houses and is therefore subject to the following follies:

  • Changes in who’s doing the buying
  • . If only the rich are still buying the beachfront properties, we may see the median price increasing sharply in a declining housing market.

  • Changes in what buyers are getting for the money
  • . “During the boom, as buyers reached the upper limit of what they could spend, they compensated for the lack of affordability by lowering their standards and buying less desirable homes. So for a couple of years, there, changes to the median price actually understated the extent to which individual home prices were increasing. Since the boom ended, the opposite has happened. Now, the extent to which buyers have been able to get more and more bang for their homebuying buck has not been entirely reflected in changes to the Median purchase price.”

  • Home improvements
  • Seller concessions
  • . The above two have been covered well in the Media, which may value tens of thousands of dollars but not included in the median price.

One of the best solutions lies in the Case-Shiller Home Price Index (HPI), which measures market price changes based on repeat sales of individual homes. Here is a graph featuring a comparison between Median Price and Case-Shiller HPI on San Diego’s housing market.

Looking at the Median Price (the red bars), you may think that San Diego’s Housing market hit the bottom b/w 09/2006 -11/2006 and rebounded back this year. However, CS HPI (the blue bars) shows a consistent decline throughout. Which one is correct? Correlating with sales volumn, we known the latter is the true picture.

For more metro areas and longer periods, you can plot graphs on the http://macromarkets.com.

To get individual home value and neighborhood demographics, I found http://www.cyberhomes.com/ very useful.

Tips on finding a competent real-estate agent

With a burst of U.S. housing bubble, affordable housing may finally come in a few years. I started to learn some knowledge on real estate investment a while ago. From what I learn, a competent real-estate agent is invaluable. Here is one interesting article from MSN titled Find a superstar real-estate agent.

Besides referral, the article listed eight questions to ask your candidate agents:

  1. May I see your resume? This is an interesting one. I have been interviewed by many people, and didn’t expect that I can interview agents this way. I’ll take this advice.
  2. What’s your commission? Only relevance to a seller?
  3. What makes you special?
  4. How often will I hear from you?
  5. What’s your plan for marketing my home? Seller only.
  6. How many transactions did you complete last year?
  7. What do you know about the neighborhoods where I want to live? I’m surprised that information on crime and school performance are not allowed to be disclosed by real estate agents. Again, asking for information sources such as Sperling’s Best Places may come in handy.
  8. Are you a solo agent or part of a team? This may impact how you evaluate the performance of this agent.

A whole new market for anti-depressant producers?

Since there has been so many bad news for pharmaceutical companies for a while, I feel that there stocks may come to some historical low now. I started watching the news from this industry closely to look for a bargain time.

Today I got this news sent to my email: Lilly Receives FDA Approval For Antidepressant For Dogs.

My glasses literally fell down off my nose. I know that dogs get sick too, I know that dogs sometimes look sad too, but I do not know that they are “depressed” too. How do they diagnose a dog to be “depressed”? I guess some dogs become “suicidal” too? Where do dogs get prescription? From a psychiatrist, or from a veterinarian?

This is a great new market for anti-depressant producers. If dogs can be depressed, so can cats, birds… any pets. How many pets do we have in this country?

Maybe time to buy these stocks?

How much premium are you willing to pay for top university education?

Since our last discussion about PhD’s career choice, I came across an interesting discussion about paying for education in a forum.

“Case study: please see quick summary for more details.
A 17 yr old got into one of the top 5 schools (the $48k a yr type) and her parents make about $250k so she cannot get fin aid. She can get a free ride to a state school that actually has a lot of national merit scholarship finalists going there, so it’s not a dump.
I turned the problem around countless times (mostly at around 3 am).
What would you wise fatwallers do? Right now I try to convince her that free undergrad is better than $200k top school, especially if she wants to go to grad school right after undergrad. Am I wrong to ask her that?
Personal experiences and/or any other advice are greatly appreciated.
Thanks a lot!

Edit: MIT vs. Ariz State honors college; her goal is med school.

Ok guys, thanks. More replies than I expected. I really appreciate this. Her parents are old friends of mine and they asked me for input.

I am glad to see that my main thinking gets somehow confirmed:
-want to go into engineering and work directly after undergrad: MIT no-brainer
-want to go to med school: ASU might not be a bad choice

Her parents are in their low 40s but they’d really like to semi-retire early (before 50). They have about $400k in assets. They came here I believe about 8 or 9 yrs ago and they started earning in the $200k range 2 yrs ago. They live frugally, no bmw, lexus, etc. Perhaps their only extravagance is some international travel. However, their thinking is that they can pay for med school, no questions asked. They also are afraid that her going to MIT might entice her to stop after undergrad and scrap the medical school plans. I also believe that the MD job security is better than life in a cube, even at GS or GOOG.
Right now she is depressed, she thinks that her dreams are being shattered by not going to a top school.”

Many people joined the discussion, including graudates from state colleges, graudates from MIT, Princeton, Stanford, Johns Hopkins, and recruiting faculty at graduate schools or medical school. Many people faced similar difficult choice.

The thread originator concluded

“I am glad to see that my main thinking gets somehow confirmed:
-want to go into engineering and work directly after undergrad: MIT no-brainer
-want to go to med school: ASU might not be a bad choice”

I disagree, not just on his/her main thinking, but also on his/her summarization of the discussion. As I read through all the replies, I feel that the majority of the people do not regret what they chose–Ivy League or state college. Those who chose to go to top universities do not regret being in a school with “unusual culture where hacking and tinkering with things and figuring out how much bend there is in the rules are all valued” even though they came out of school with $10K debt, Those who chose state college felt happy that they left college without any debt, and went to good graduate school afterwards. These people emphasize that only the rank of the graduate school counts.

Yannick and I discussed this during the dinner time. We came for PhD program, which normally offers full fellowship or assistantship, so going to a top university was a no-brainer for us. If our kids someday face this choice, what shall we do?

At first, I was inclined to recommend the 17 year old girl to attend a state university. I was a TA for a class with more than 900 students in an Ivy League University. We had to divide the class into small TA review sessions. I was TAing two honor sessions, each with about 22 students. While I did see some very smart and hard-working students, I do not think that they got much attention from the professor. Some later came to me for recommendation letters, because the professor is not very accessible. Those famous professors in top universities are famous because they do research, they publish papers. They get recognition only by the number of papers they publish, or the level of the journal their papers get published. To publish papers, they had to squeeze their teaching effort. Pretty much every professor I know consider teachinga a burden. What’s the point of paying $200K to a school where the professors never see you anyway, and do not pay much attention to teaching?

However, after the discussion with Yannick, I started to change my mind. I transferred from an Ivy League university to another top private university, so I do not really know much about public schools. I started TAing graduate course after my transfer, so I really do not know the undergraduate life well either. Yannick has been to both public and private universities, and his experience tells him that the course qualities at the private school are better than the public school he stayed even when they are ranked similarly ( I guess public school professors pay even less attention to teaching?) And more importantly, you see many more smart people in a top university, and you will learn and benefit from them.

Moreover, as I read through the discussion, I saw surviving bias in the replies from those state college graduates. It looks like that everyone is happy with their decision. However, most of the state college graduates who do not regret are people that survived well in the public schools. Most of them got admission to the medical school, or went to top universities for PhD programs later. I do not see many replies from people who chose public state universities and went to work afterwards. Where are they? Does that mean that anyone who face this choice will survive well out of the public school? I doubt it.

My hypothesis is: given a group of people who faced similar choice as described and who chose to go to public school, those survived well out of public schools tend to reply to the thread more than those who did not. 17 is a very young age, anything can happen. What if she decides not to go to graduate school? What if she gets to know people whom she should not know?

Only satisfied people responded. So we have to take some discount on these replies. There are people who dropped out from top universities, like Bill Gates, we can be sure that he does not regret. There must be a lot people who dropped out from public schools too, but we do not see them very often in the news.

Yannick and I do not belittle public schools. But I am very risk-averse. If our kids face the same decision, I think that we will let them choose MIT. After all, I know that they have a much higher probability of making good friends at MIT than at ASU, and with that, I will have some peace in mind. And if we have a daughter, I will sent her to MIT or Stanford, no question asked! She can bring back a very good husband, maybe better than Yannick (I have not found one yet, and will not :). $200K is a lot of money, but our peace of mind and our children’s happiness are worth more than $200K, right?

Better start saving for our children now, and prepared to rent for a long, long time. I believe that the investment in education will give higher return than investment in real estate or stock market.

Emergency fund comes before investment?!

I shared my view on emergency fund in general earlier. At the end that post, I said that EF was a necessary step to start retirement savings and investments, without explaining it. This may seem to be a naïve question. However, I struggled with it when I got started and would like to share my experience here.

Emergency fund gives you a peace of mind which enables you to make better investment decisions. When I started to invest, I got several individual stocks, whose prices vary a lot. I intended to buy-and-hold, which was only possible when you are able to leave the money untouched even in emergency. It was quite tempting to use the emergency fund to buy more stocks. However, without an emergency fund, I realized that I might be forced to sell the stocks at the wrong time. So I need my emergency fund to take that risky investing strategy with individual stocks.

It became clear to me that it’s very important to separate your long-term investment and your cash reserve. When I first worked on my investment strategy, I had so many things in my mind, emergency cash, down-payment for the first house, regular investment, and retirement reinvestment. All these goals have different timeline, thus have different risk tolerance. Without separating them explicitly, I was really making the task much more difficult and even intractable. The good thing was that I was not paralyzed by the complexity, I started anyway; the bad thing was that I got a messy strategy which was not optimal and I had trouble sticking to it. In the end, I ended up selling all my holdings and reshuffled my portfolio in less than two years. I was lucky that I was a graduate student, thus, was not hurt that much in tax.

Lower tax with Qualified Dividends and Capital Gain Worksheet

Today I was about to mail out my state tax return and saw a blank space in my schedule D line 22. It asked if I had any qualified dividend, which we did have. I was surprised Taxcut didn’t fill in this blank for me. So I decided to follow the instruction and take a look at the worksheet myself.

Dividends are usually taxed at the marginal tax rate of your ordinary income. However, take a look at the form 1099-DIV and you may find some of them are qualified dividends, which are taxed at the tax rate of long-term capital gain (15%).

Now the good news is that some people may qualify for an even lower tax rate at 5%. Please take a look at the following to see if you qualify:
1. If you have qualified dividends or long-term capital gains;
AND
2. If your adjusted gross income (AGI) is
less than $30,650 if single or married filing separately;
or less than$61,300 if married filing jointly or qualifying widow(er);
or less than $41,050 if head of household
Then you could lower your tax with the Qualified Dividends and Capital Gain Worksheet (Page 38 of 1040 instructions for 2006 and Page 35 of 1040 instructions for 2007) on line 44 of Federal tax form 1040.

I believe many graduate students and young fellows with lower income qualify for this. I used to be quite skeptical about usefulness of all kinds of the worksheets in 1040. This time, it really saved us hundreds of dollars in tax!