Should We Fear—Or Cheer—Plunging Oil Prices?

Chances are, you’re celebrating today’s lower gas prices.  AAA reports that the national average price of gas is $2.48 today, the lowest since December 2009.  The result: an estimated $70 billion in direct savings for U.S. consumers over the next 12 months.  At previous prices, the average American was spending about $2,600 a year on gasoline, so the 20% price decline would result in $520 more to save or spend.

It gets better.  Even though gas prices (and, therefore, the cost of driving) have plummeted, the Internal Revenue Service is raising the standard mileage rates that people can deduct on their tax return for business travel, from 56 cents in 2014 to 57.5 cents per business mile driven next year.

Only the investment markets seem to think that cycling an extra $70 billion into the U.S. economy is a bad thing.  This past week, large cap stocks, represented by the S&P 500 index, saw their prices fall by 3.5%—their biggest drop since May 2012. Why?  The only possible explanation is that rapid Wall Street traders believe that lower oil prices will harm the economies of America’s trading partners, and therefore impact the U.S. economy indirectly.

So let’s take a closer look.  While U.S. consumers are cheering the decline in oil prices, and non-energy producing nations like Japan and countries in the Eurozone are seeing a boost in their economies, who’s NOT celebrating?

As it turns out, some of the biggest losers are American domestic shale oil producers, who basically break even when oil prices are at their current $50-$60 a barrel levels.  Any further drop in prices would slow down domestic energy production, and probably create a floor that would keep prices from falling much further.

Another big loser is the socialist government in Venezuela (remember Hugo Chavez?), which needs oil prices above $162 a barrel to pay for all of its social programs.  You can also sympathize with Iran, which reportedly needs oil prices to move up to $135 barrel to stay in the black, due to continuing sanctions from the world community over its nuclear program, and the high cost of supporting Hezbollah and its own military ventures in the Middle East.

The biggest loser is probably Russia, which requires oil prices of at least $100 a barrel for its budget to withstand international sanctions and finance its own military adventures against neighboring nations.  Economists are projecting that Russia will fall into a steep recession next year, when GDP could decline as much as 6%.  The nation is experiencing what economists call “capital outflows” of $125 billion a year—a fancy way of saying that wealthy Russians are taking money out of Russian banks and either investing abroad or putting their rubles in banks located in more stable foreign jurisdictions.  And in the process, they are exchanging their rubles for local currency, as a way to protect against the recent free-fall in Russia’s currency.  Bloomberg News recently published the below graphic which many Americans will find entertaining, but which is probably not happy news for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Fear or Cheer Plunging Oil Prices

It’s interesting that the markets seem to be worrying about low oil prices when the economies with the most to lose are not only less than minor trading partners, but actual political enemies of U.S. interests. Cheaper oil will eventually be regarded as a plus for our economic—and political—interests, but the downturn suggests that Wall Street traders are hair-trigger ready to be spooked by anything they regard as unusual.

If you would like to discuss your current portfolio or any financial planning matters, please don’t hesitate to contact us or visit our website at http://www.ydfs.com. We are a fee-only fiduciary financial planning firm that always puts your interests first.  If you are not a client yet, an initial consultation is complimentary and there is never any pressure or hidden sales pitch.

Sources:

http://www.marketwatch.com/story/5-countries-that-will-be-the-biggest-losers-from-oils-slide-2014-11-20?page=2

http://blogs.piie.com/realtime/?p=4644

http://www.accountingtoday.com/news/irs-watch/irs-raises-standard-mileage-rate-for-businesses-72990-1.html?ET=webcpa:e3476082:a:&st=email&utm_content=buffer4179f&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer

http://www.forbes.com/sites/northwesternmutual/2014/11/27/lower-oil-prices-give-a-gift-to-consumers/

Shouldn’t gas prices be going up?

Iraq is one of the world’s largest oil producers, so when the ISIS militants rolled in from Syria and took over Iraq’s largest oil refinery, global oil traders and gas companies braced for a sharp spike in prices.  Consumers expected to see higher prices at the pump in short order.

Instead, oil and gasoline prices are lower than they were a year ago.  As you can see from the chart below, “regular” grade gasoline prices in different parts of the U.S. fell during the winter and have risen again in the summer months.  If you happen to live on the West Coast and suspected that you paid more for gas than the rest of the country, well, this chart confirms it; the prices in California and the West Coast generally are more than 50 cents a gallon higher than the cost at the pump along the Gulf Coast, where the U.S. has the bulk of its refineries.  People in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic and Southern states generally fill up their tanks at cheaper prices.

If you want a longer-term view, review charts that show the cost of “regular” grade gasoline since 1990.  They show prices hovering around a dollar a gallon for most of the 1990s. (The good old days!)  Since then, the price has gradually crept upwards, with greater volatility and a deep price drop during the Great Recession.  Since the beginning of this decade, prices have remained fairly level, and indeed today’s gasoline prices are almost exactly what they were in early 2008.

Prices have held steady despite the turmoil in the Middle East, in part because most of the Iraqi oil fields are located in the southern part of the country, a safe distance (so far) from the ISIS insurgency.   The other main oil fields are located in Kurdish-controlled areas in the northern part of the country, and the Kurds have managed to protect their ethnic border with great effectiveness.  Add to that a recent agreement in Libya between the central government and a regional militia that will add 150,000 barrels a day to that country’s crude oil exports.

The moderation in prices, from $4.00 at the pump two years ago to roughly less than $3.00 today, is acting as a kind of stealth stimulus for the U.S. economy.  U.S. drivers are expected to use roughly 133 billion gallons of gasoline this year, so the price break adds $53 billion of savings to peoples’ balance sheets.  This, added to the lower costs for factories, airlines and electric power plants, could add half a percentage point to U.S. economic growth in 2014.

If you have any questions or concerns about financial planning or investment management, please don’t hesitate to contact us or visit our website at http://www.ydfs.com. We are a fee-only fiduciary financial planning firm that always puts your interests first.

What, We Worry?

So far this year, the investment markets have held up pretty well, which doesn’t always happen after a year of big returns like we experienced in 2013.  But based on experience, you know that something will spook investors at some point this year, the way the markets took a dive when Congress decided to choke off the U.S. federal budget, or when investors realized that Greece had somehow managed to borrow ten times more than it could possibly pay back to its bondholders.

Professional investors have learned to create a mental “watch list” of possible market-shaking events, and they were helped recently when Noriel Roubini, chairman of Roubini Global Economics, former Senior Economist for International Affairs at the U.S. Council of Economic Advisors, compiled his own worry list.  Roubini said that we’re past the time when people should be fearful of a breakup of the Eurozone, or (for now) any Congressional tinkering with the debt ceiling.  The public debt crisis in Japan seems to be fading in the optimism of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s monetary easing and fiscal expansion, and the war between Israel and Iran over Iranian nuclear technology, once thought to be imminent, now appears to be on the back burner.

So what does today’s worry list look like?  Roubini starts off with China, which is trying to shift its growth away from exports toward private consumption.  Chinese leaders, he says, tend to panic whenever China’s economic growth slows toward 7% a year, at which time they throw more money at capital investment and infrastructure, creating more bad assets, a lot of industrial capacity that nobody can use, and a bunch of commercial and industrial buildings which sit empty along the skyline.  By the end of next year, something will have to be done about the growing debt at the same time that investors face a potential crash in inflated real estate prices.  Think: five or six 2008 real estate crises piled on top of each other, all of it happening in one country.

Numbers two and three on Roubini’s worry list involve the U.S. Federal Reserve, which could (worry #2) cease its massive purchases of real estate mortgages and government bonds too quickly, causing interest rates to rise and sending financial shockwaves around the world.  Or, on the other hand (worry #3) the Fed might keep rates low for so long that the U.S. experiences new bubbles in real estate, stocks and credit–and then experiences the consequences when the bubbles burst.

Roubini also worries about emerging market nations being able to manage their debt and capital inflows if interest rates go up, and of course the situation in the Ukraine has significant market-spooking potential.  Finally, he notes that China has significant unresolved territorial disputes with Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines, which could escalate into military conflict.  If the U.S. were drawn into a maritime confrontation, alongside Japan, with Chinese warships, investors might think it’s a good time to retreat to the sidelines.

None of these scenarios are guaranteed to happen, and some of them seem unlikely.  But these periodic, headline-related spookings come with the investment territory.  If and when one of these events grabs the global headlines, it might be helpful to remember that the stock markets have weathered far worse and have always come out ahead.  Think: World War II, a presidential assassination, two wars in the Middle East, 9/11 and a Wall Street-created global economic meltdown.  If we can survive and even profit, long-term, from a stay-the-course investment mentality through those events, then we might be able to weather the next big headline on (or off) the worry list.

If you have any financial planning questions you would like to discuss, please don’t hesitate to contact us at (734) 447-5305 or visit our website athttp://www.ydfs.com. We are a fee-only fiduciary financial planning and money management firm that always puts your interests first. Our first consultation is complimentary and free of any pressure or sales pitches.

Enjoy your weekend,
Sam

Sam H. Fawaz CPA, CFP
YDream Financial Services

Source:
http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/nouriel-roubini-warns-that-even-as-many-threats-to-the-world-economy-have-receded–new-ones-have-quickly-emerged#TA08zJsftAXboy7Y.99

How to Choose a Financial Advisor

You know the importance of saving for retirement, but do you have the time and know-how to accomplish your financial goals? In an increasingly busy world, it’s possible that keeping close tabs on your investment accounts isn’t exactly realistic.

Seeking the help of financial professionals has become more important to investors according to a recent survey conducted by Harris Interactive on behalf of TD Ameritrade Holding Corporation, as nearly one quarter (22 percent) of investors report relying more on a professional investment advisor following the recession.

Even if you have a good handle on your investments, you may find that hiring a financial advisor — who can put the time and energy into making sure you and your family plan for a secure financial future — may be a worthwhile investment. By hiring an independent registered investment advisor — commonly referred to as an RIA — you can make sure your investments are managed on a full-time basis by a professional advisor, while still having control.

Of course deciding to put someone in charge of your hard-earned money is not a process to be taken lightly.  Our preferred custodian, TD Ameritrade,  and we offer these tips to consider as you choose an independent financial advisor or RIA:

* Just as it is wise to do research on the background of anyone who would take care of your children, you should investigate the person or company you enlist to handle your money. The Securities and Exchange Commission, Inc. (www.adviserinfo.sec.gov), Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (www.finra.org), Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards (www.cfp.net), National Association of Personal Financial Advisors (findanadvisor.napfa.org/Home.aspx), and Financial Planning Association (http://www.fpanet.org/PlannerSearch/PlannerSearch.aspx), as well as your own state securities agency all collect background information on financial professionals that can be accessed through their websites. Use these sites to make sure the advisors you are considering haven’t faced disciplinary action for dishonest practices and are in good standing with regulators.

* Know the difference between working with an independent RIA and a stock broker, or other financial services provider. Independent RIAs, for example, are bound by law to act in their clients’ best interest. Brokers, on the other hand, are held to a “suitability” standard, meaning the advice they give must be suitable to that client’s situation. If you are looking for objective, comprehensive money management, you might want to consider an RIA.

* While RIAs are required by law to act in your best interest, there are other ways that you can ensure they will do what is best for you. One is to ask how they are compensated. Fee-only compensation generally minimizes conflicts of interest and means that your advisor is paid only for the management services and advice he or she offers, and only by you, not by investment product providers. When an advisor is paid on commission, there’s a greater chance he or she will make choices with your money that serve not only your interests, but their own as well. That’s not to say that advisors do not work fairly under this model, but potential conflicts of interest are something to consider as you choose an advisor.

* When looking for referrals from friends or relatives, the most valuable referrals may come from those in similar situations. It’s also a good idea to ask potential advisors if they specialize in working with certain types of clients and choose one that fits your unique profile.

* A third party custodian should also handle all your deposits, to ensure checks and balances. An independent custodian like TD Ameritrade can help ensure the safety and security of your assets, and will provide you with a clear, concise statement every month. A duplicate monthly statement is also sent to your advisor. Make sure this is also a legitimate and upstanding business.

Working with a trusted independent fee-only RIA can help you realize your financial goals, while allowing you to spend less time worrying about and managing your investments. If you need help and would like to talk to a fee-only planner with no sales pressure, cost  or obligation, please visit our web site at http://www.ydfs.com or call YDream Financial Services, Inc. at (615) 395-2010 or (734) 447-5305.

Don’t Be a Victim of Corrupt or Unscrupulous Financial Planners/Advisors

A late night news story on a Metro Detroit television station last night tells the tale of a couple (and others) robbed of their retirement by their financial adviser-here’s a link: http://bit.ly/eXgpO0

Some of you may have seen this video last night, got up, checked your online accounts, and wondered how you can avoid being an unwitting victim of an unscrupulous financial adviser or planner. Everyone would do well to heed the advice given at the end of the video.

Last year, I sent out a message on how you can avoid being Madoff’ed (see below), a reference to the New York investment adviser who bilked his clients, charities and investors of billions of their hard earned money. Bernie Madoff is currently spending a 150 year sentence in a Federal prison and his possessions are being auctioned off to repay a mere fraction of his victims’ losses.  I also sent out a message with Five Tips to Avoid Potential Investment Fraud (link below).

So what do we do at YDream Financial Services to help you sleep better and know that you’ll never become a victim of financial fraud? In cooperation with our custodian, TD Ameritrade Institutional, we have processes and procedures in place to ensure that you never become a victim to the extent that it is within our control.  In fact, I’ve written two short articles on this blog over the past couple of years that will help you rest easier knowing that your money is safe, sound and well protected:

How Consumers Can Avoid Being “Madoff’ed” https://themoneygeek.com/2009/03/24/how-consumers-can-avoid-being-madoffed/

Five Tips to Avoid Potential Investment Fraud https://themoneygeek.com/2009/04/13/five-tips-to-avoid-potential-investment-fraud/

I urge you to review these short two articles whether you are a client or not and protect what you’ve worked so hard to save and invest. If you have any question or concerns, please don’t hesitate to call or e-mail me (visit my website at http://www.ydfs.com). I will explain further how we take extreme measures to not only protect your money, but your personal and confidential information as well. Your trust in me is the most valuable asset I hold; I will work extremely hard to protect it.

In The Land of Password Management, RoboForm is King

Over the years, I’ve made tens of “Cool Tools” presentations (and the like) around the country and the list of tools has varied widely as time went by.  While many of the tools make it into my presentations once or twice within a span of a few months, one staple that continues to garner the largest audience interest is an inexpensive password manager and form filler known as RoboForm.  It continues to surprise me how many people still aren’t using one of these great productivity boosters.  If you’re not taking advantage of a password manager in this internet age, let me tell you that you’re wasting precious time and probably taking unnecessary security risks.

I’ve been a user of RoboForm for several years now.  In fact, I first reviewed and raved about RoboForm in an article published a few years ago.  RoboForm remains my number one must-have application on every computing platform I own or use regularly and it is the first application I install when I move to a new operating system or get a new device.  While there are several password managers out there, both free and paid versions, nothing I’ve tried comes close to the versatility and power of RoboForm.  It cannot be ignored that, in this day and age of key loggers and identity theft, having a secure repository of personal information is essential.

I decided to review the current beta 7.0 version of RoboForm since it’s the first real upgrade in recent years.  Actually, it’s not a major upgrade; it’s more of a renovation.  I’ve been using the latest version for a couple of months now and I like the new features and enhancements.

Background

For those of you that are new to password management programs and form fillers, here’s a little background on their capabilities:

As time goes by, we accumulate more and more user ID’s, passwords, secret questions and phrases, software installation keys, personal identification information, credit card and bank account numbers, website addresses, secret notes, etc. (need I say more?), all of which we need to store and retrieve securely.  While a variety of methods have been devised and employed to accomplish this task, most are barely secure and totally inconvenient or incompatible with the wide variety of devices and platforms currently available.  RoboForm aims to be your single and most secure repository to store all this information within (yet another) master password protected and encrypted database.  Think of RoboForm as your hardened safe to store all this info which can only be opened with the correct combination (i.e., the master password).

In addition, many applications, web sites and other secure network gateways require us to change our passwords periodically and utilize strong replacements with a variety of formats and requirements.  Thinking of and remembering these changing passwords can drive one crazy and, as a result, many of us resort to easy-to-hack passwords and storage methods just to keep us sane.  RoboForm steps up here with a powerful password generator that meets a variety of criteria required by the site or the application.

Getting Started and Working with RoboForm

Downloading and installing RoboForm version 6.x (a free trial version good for storing up to 10 passwords is available at http://www.roboform.com) is quick and quite easy.  Whether you’re using Internet Explorer, Firefox, Google Chrome or one of the many available mobile platforms, RoboForm integrates nicely and stands ready to store your user ID’s, passwords and other personal data each time you access a site.  The only thing you need to get started is to specify the master password to be used to lock all of your secret information once RoboForm starts memorizing.  Naturally, with a variety of military strength encryption schemes (no fewer than five encryption algorithms are available) to secure your database, you don’t want to forget the master password once you’ve specified it.  Even RoboForm technical support will not be able to figure out your password if you forget it.  And of course, your master password should be very strong and long because it unlocks your most valuable data: your personal information and passwords.  RoboForm stores all of this securely and locally, unless you decide to use RoboForm online (discussed below.)

Visit a web site, enter your user ID and password and, depending on the options you specify, RoboForm will pop up and offer to store them in what’s called a “passcard.”  The passcard is capable of storing numerous fields.  So, if you need to enter more than just two pieces of information to log in, RoboForm can handle the job.  If you are setting up your online access for the first time, RoboForm helps you generate and store a password based on a variety of security criteria, characters, length, etc.  Thereafter, whenever you visit that site, RoboForm will offer to fill in the user ID, password and other information assuming that you’ve unlocked the database with the master password.  One available setting determines how much time you have before the master password “times out” and is required to be re-entered.  This way you don’t have to enter it each time you summon RoboForm to populate your login information or web-based form.  Since you don’t have to subsequently type in the secure information, key loggers installed without your knowledge cannot capture your valuable data.

The other powerful capability of RoboForm is an online form filler.  When you set up RoboForm, you have the option to set up profiles with your name, address, phone numbers, credit card numbers, banking information, etc.  Anytime you encounter an online form for e-commerce or other sites, RoboForm will pop up and offer to populate the relevant information on the form.  If you set up multiple profiles (e.g., one for home, one for work, one for your spouse), you can choose amongst them, choose amongst credit cards to use or choose which address to use.  This is a huge time saver since RoboForm’s built-in intelligence is programmed to recognize and remember the most common field types used on the web.  To the extent that it doesn’t, you can right-click on the form and have RoboForm save the form information for future use.  I find this capability quite handy for repetitive surveys over time, forms that require shipping and billing data, and sites that request recurring demographic data.

Have you ever been frustrated after spending a lot of time on a site completing an online form or long text box and then find out that the site timed out or couldn’t save your info?  You’ll find that saving the data in RoboForm first before submitting it can save you quite a bit of aggravation.  Just bring up the page again and let RoboForm re-populate it.

RoboForm can also securely save and store free-form bits of information known as “safenotes.”  I’ve used safenotes to store software installation keys, combinations for safes and locks, Wi-Fi network names and keys, PIN’s, frequent flier numbers, and other confidential personal or financial information.

As mentioned above, RoboForm is available on most computing and mobile platforms including the PC, iPhone, Windows Mobile, Palm, BlackBerry, Android, and Symbian.  A version known as RoboForm2go works on a USB thumb drive and enables you to plug in and out of any PC without having to install the program and move your passwords onto someone else’s PC.  Another available piece of software, known as GoodSync, keeps your RoboForm information synchronized between different platforms and locations.

RoboForm Online

Over the past year, RoboForm has been beta testing a version of RoboForm online which optionally allows you to synchronize your passcards and safenotes to a secure server.  Accessing these very secure items online requires you to register with and to log into the site (free) with a secure password.  Actually opening the secure items prompts for your RoboForm master password to be entered, thereby enabling two levels of password security.  This service has been a godsend for me on numerous occasions where I was away from my PC and didn’t have my laptop or RoboForm2go USB thumb drive with me when I needed a login ID and password.  The site functions much like the desktop version of RoboForm and assists you with automatically logging into sites that you’ve saved in RoboForm.

RoboForm Online gives you the added flexibility of synchronizing your passcards and safenotes over the internet across multiple devices.  This is a very powerful and much needed capability, though I can understand many people’s hesitation to surrender and trust their most sensitive passwords and personal information to a third party server.  My only comment is that RoboForm has the highest levels of security and encryption implemented and, with two levels of password protection, I feel reasonably secure about putting my data out there.  Besides, your online ID’s and passwords are by definition already stored on many servers in the cloud which can be equally hacked by determined thieves, albeit one at a time.

Version 7 Enhancements

One of the most significant enhancements in this version 7.0 beta is the capability to save and fill ID’s and passwords in Windows (WIN32) applications, not just online passwords.  In addition, when saving an online form, the details are now displayed for you so you know exactly what is being saved.  Furthermore, this occurs in a non-obtrusive tool-bar rather than the old pop-up box, thereby streamlining the web browsing experience.  Logging into widely known and popular websites automatically downloads site icons to make the related passcards more visually appealing and easier and faster to recognize.

Another significant enhancement for devices equipped with a fingerprint reader is the capability to enter the master password via a finger swipe.  The fingerprint device stores your master password in a secure area on the device.  This secure area becomes accessible to RoboForm only after you slide your finger and it is then authenticated against the fingerprint stored on the device.

A release date for version 7 has not yet been announced.

RoboForm Criticisms

RoboForm is not without its shortcomings and share of quirks.  For example, more and more sites are switching to an Adobe Flash version of their login screen to raise security.  RoboForm cannot currently handle most of these sites.  On those sites, you have to perform a manual RoboForm lookup and type in your ID and password yourself.

On some sites, such as American Express, RoboForm inexplicably stops working properly. This requires you to have RoboForm fill out the form (but not submit it) and then you manually click on the submit button.  In this case, you can re-memorize the site information in RoboForm and fix the problem for future visits.

As sites become more sophisticated with additional levels and types of authentication (e.g., captchas, pointing and clicking your PIN on an onscreen keyboard à la ING Bank, rotating challenge questions, etc.), this renders RoboForm unable to do anything more than show you your credentials to be manually entered.  I’m not sure how or if RoboForm can be enhanced to overcome and automatically populate these additional safeguards, but it sure would be nice if they figured out a way to do so.

Whenever you change the master password, your passcards and safenotes should inherit and respond only to the new password.  However, I’ve had a few occasions where a passcard would only open up with the old password.  Finally, I’ve had occasions where I’ve had to inexplicably remind RoboForm where my data directory resided.  Fortunately no data has ever been lost.

Options & Recommendations

The paid version of RoboForm, known as RoboForm Pro, is about $30 for the first license and less for additional licenses.  An enterprise version is available and significant discounts are available for large license purchases.  During various holidays throughout the year, a 20% discount can be found on the website.  Even without the discount, for this price, you can count on saving yourself tons of frustration and aggravation compared to using manual or spreadsheet password management and form filling.  Buying multiple licenses at the same time (whether or not on the same platform) will likely save you money compared with buying them over time.

I also highly recommend the powerful GoodSync software if you plan to sync your data or files across multiple platforms or devices.  GoodSync is one of the most powerful file synchronization tools available and is also one of my most frequently used cool tools to keep data in sync.

For those who prefer free versions of password management tools, of course the Internet Explorer and Firefox password stores are available, though they are significantly less capable than RoboForm.  The popular open-source password manager applications KeePass and LastPass are also free but, in my opinion, not as convenient as RoboForm.  If you’d like additional information about password managers including the five most popular ones, visit http://lifehacker.com/5042616/five-best-password-managers.

I welcome your feedback and questions about RoboForm or other password managers. Please feel free to write me at shf@ydfs.com.

Sam H. Fawaz, CFP®, CPA works with Y.D. Financial Services in Canton Michigan and Franklin Tennessee and has been helping clients with financial planning and financial planners with technology solutions for over 20 years. He has been writing about tax, financial planning and technology solutions for over fourteen years.  He can be reached via e-mail at shf@ydfs.com or at (734) 447-5305 with any questions.  You can follow Sam on Twitter at http://twitter.com/themoneygeek or at his blog at http://themoneygeek.com.  His company website is at Y.D. Financial Services, Inc.

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