What Do I Understand Now That I Wish I’d Understood Then?

What do I understand (or at least think I understand) now that I wish I had understood when I had began my journey through adulthood? It’s of no consequence to me, of course: it’s impossible to turn back the clock. But it might be of some help to you, Vera.

In looking back I’m struck by how naïve I was when I came out of high school and, four years later, college. I had little appreciation for what the world was really like. Growing up in a working-class family in homogenous rural south-central Pennsylvania hadn’t exposed me to much. My world was very small.

More than four decades of career experiences in law, business (CEO), government (special agent for DOD and, later, cabinet secretary), and higher ed (college president) changed that. To a degree. There is still much about life I don’t understand or, perhaps more accurately, refuse to accept. I’m still learning and always will be. Nonetheless, life has imparted a few lessons along the way.

Some of the lessons were easy to learn; some were hard. Some were moments of euphoria and left fond memories; some were painful and left scars. Others were learned merely by reading or observing. (It’s always preferable to learn from other people’s wisdom or mistakes.) I decided to compose a list of what I consider to have been some of the most important lessons.

What the list isn’t, however, is a list of rules to live by. I’m not fond of rules and would never suggest life is so easily mastered. Moreover, as I’ve mentioned before, I have absolutely no desire to tell you how to live your life, Vera. Rather, I’m simply sharing some of the things I wish I had better understood when I was young, starting out.

Some of the lessons are practical; some are of the existential variety. The list is neither complete nor final. After all, I’m still learning.

Please don’t infer an order of priority, for none is intended. “You” and “your,” below, refer to me; it is as if life is speaking to me. Occasional personal comments follow parenthetically. Continue reading

Should Anything Stand In The Way of Making Money?

Last evening, I took issue with this tweet of a financial blogger whom I had followed for his investment insights (Cullen Roche):

The idea of a “sin stock” never made sense to me. Who is the arbiter of whether a company makes the world worse or not?

Cullen went on to say:

The point I am getting at is that if these companies were truly sinning then the economy would divest them. Their stocks would go to $0.

[I]f they operate legally & have customers they’re not sinners.

There you have it, Vera: the market is the arbiter of what’s right and wrong.

I’d feel a whole lot better if I thought Cullen was an outlier in this regard. But I’ve seen too much. And lived through too much. I know better. I know that, often, the market — more specifically, money — is the arbiter.

Who’s to say what makes the world worse? Or better?

Some people say, “Let the market decide!”

Others say, “There is such a thing as morality and ethics that should constrain the markets. And individual choices.”

Today, I am so thankful you have the parents you do.

Treat Your House as a Home, Not an Investment

We live in a hot real estate market. Colorado and, in particular, what’s called the Front Range (roughly, the populated area on the east side of the Rockies extending from Cheyenne to Pueblo) are highly desirable areas. Each year thousands of people move here from other parts of the country. I was one of them in 2012. All else being equal, I can’t think of a better place to live.

Due to the increased demand for housing and relatively high site development costs (for instance, it cost $30,000 just to tap into the water line for a new house where we live), the housing supply is limited. In general, especially from Denver to Boulder to Fort Collins (our home turf), demand exceeds supply.

So you’d think that houses that are put on the market would sell quickly. And some do. But quite a few don’t.

Frequently, we walk around a golf course that’s just to the north of our neighborhood. One thing we’ve noticed over the three plus years we’ve lived here is the length of time it takes for some houses to sell in the neighborhoods adjacent to the golf course. Just now there are several houses that have been sitting on the market for months. The houses are nice, in a great location and some have fantastic views. So what gives?

My intuition has been confirmed by some local realtors I know. The problem is the owners: They’re simply unwilling to sell for the price prospective buyers are willing to pay.

On the surface, this seems crazy. Price is set by the market. If your property doesn’t sell because it’s priced too high, then drop the price. It will sell. Yet many sellers of houses are stubborn. They refuse to hear what the market is telling them.

This situation isn’t unique to the Front Range. When we lived in Virginia, I knew a guy who had been sitting on his former (then vacant) home for a couple of years or more. The house was worth $x, he thought, and he wasn’t going to sell it for less. It didn’t matter what the market had to say.

So what’s the root cause of this seemingly irrational behavior? It stems, I believe, from the mistaken belief that your home is an investment. And from our tendency to be guided by emotions and not reason. (See We Live In an Irrational World)

Now, it’s true that a few people have made lots of money selling their homes. But, on average, they don’t.

Most people break even at best (after factoring in inflation, maintenance, mortgage interest and taxes, or when comparing the cost to what they would have spent by renting); many people don’t even do that well. On average, treating your house as an investment is not a sound investment decision. Indeed, housing has yielded an average annual return of only 0.2% over the past 100 years.

There have been exceptions. If an area becomes hot (for example, because of a major employer moving into the area), or if a bubble forms in the housing market (which has happened from time to time and undoubtedly will happen again), then the value of a house can become inflated, thereby yielding a robust return on investment if you sell before the bubble bursts. Moreover, if you buy your house when the housing market has collapsed, then you eventually may well earn a robust return simply because you bought at the right time. But those are the exceptions.

Yet the exceptions appear to form the general rule. Hence, some people come to believe their homes are not only a place to live but also their principal investment vehicle. So, when it comes time to sell, they allow their homes to sit on the market, waiting for the bigger fool to come along. Sometimes that fool appears, but more often than not he doesn’t.

I suspect another reason for this stubbornness on the part of sellers is their dependency on this asset stemming from their lack of alternative investments. They want to make a killing because their financial well-being depends on it. Or perhaps they overpaid when they bought it and can’t bring themselves to take a loss when they sell it.

A sense of desperation leads to poor decisions. So does loss aversion. Take note, Vera: those principles extend far beyond housing decisions.

There are good reasons to own a house. But there are some flimsy ones, too.

If you choose to buy instead of rent, Vera, remember this: the prudent course of action is to treat your house as a home, not an investment.

More generally, it’s prudent to endeavor to be rational and not emotional when it comes to your finances. Perhaps without exception in the world of investments, emotions will lead you astray.