Category Archives: financial crisis

The Time Value of Money

We often hear the phrase “the time value of money,” but what does that actually mean? Fundamentally, it means that money now is “worth more” than money later. For example, if I were to put $100 in a savings account at 1% interest, I would have $101 (not including compounding) at the end of a year. How can that be? How does money get more valuable?

It doesn’t. The money itself, when there is no inflation or deflation, retains its original value. In order for there to be any return to money invested, it must be put to work. The only way money can be put to work is by using it to help transform one thing into another thing that is more valuable.

For example, if I take $100 to buy 100 plain wooden blocks and some paint, then invest my time painting the blocks for decorative purposes, I can sell them for, say, $120. The “extra” $20 is the result of my ingenuity and effort. I take cash, some raw materials, and my time and combine them to create value that did not exist before.

If I have an idea for creating such a product, but do not have enough cash on hand to purchase the plain blocks and paint, I cannot create value. A banker or someone else that lends money might recognize my idea as valuable and offer to lend me the money. Say I borrow $100 and agree to pay the lender $105 at the end of a year. I still make $15 on the enterprise. The bank also made money–$5.

This brings us back to our original example–the 1% return on a savings account. For nothing more than the trouble of depositing money in the bank, it pays me 1% It can do so only because it then takes my money and loans it out for 5% It can do that only because someone is willing and able to take that money and create more than 5% value with it.

Now, who makes the most money? We can figure this out by reasoning that a bank will never make money if it lends it out for less than it pays depositors. So the owner of the savings account necessarily makes less money than the bank. What about the business owner? If he/she makes less than the interest rate paid to the bank, that business is a losing proposition. In other words, the business has to make a 5% return just to break even.

This is of course a drastically simplified description of rates of return. The point is that the business owner has the greatest potential of making money. Note that I said potential. Business ownership entails risk, but it is essential for there to be a return on that $100 at all.

Whenever we invest our money, it provides us a return. Behind that return, there is a business, or multiple businesses, actually doing the work of creating value. If the investment is stable and strong, it can be a good strategy for providing for the future. It will never match the potential of a self-owned business, though, because too many other people take their cut first.

Wouldn’t you rather get the biggest cut on at least some of your income? I would, and I’ll bet you would too. Don’t wait, start learning now.

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Why Your Goals Don’t Work

Yesterday, I assigned my students a voluntary overnight project. We had discussed goal setting in class and I wanted to impress upon them the importance of writing down and prioritizing their goals. As I generally find in my classes, only a small number did the whole exercise.

I already know why many of my students failed to follow through on this well-established method for getting what we want out of life. It is the same reason many of us fail to follow through. We say we want to achieve great things, but in the end, we would really rather stay in our comfortable cocoon of low-level misery.

We know from well over a thousand studies that goals work–that is, they lead to high performance. If you want to lose weight, make more money, or achieve anything else quantifiable, goals are the way to do it. Yet we all know how easy it is to get distracted while working on a goal. Why is that?

In my view, there are two major reasons we find it difficult to achieve things. The first stems from what I call a “mind-split.” On the one hand we want to accomplish what we set out to do. On the other, we are afraid that we just might succeed. If we succeed, we show ourselves and the world that we really are capable. It renders null and void all the excuses we used before, and by implication, the excuses we may want to use in the future.

The second hindrance to goal achievement is having the wrong goals. High performance does not necessarily lead to happiness and personal fulfillment. I see this in “achievement junkies,” people who crave the next chunk of conspicuous wealth or yet another trophy in a sport they have grown to despise.

Learning the mechanics of goal setting takes twenty minutes. Learning to set the right goals may take twenty years. As you set out on the great journey that is entrepreneurship, remember that getting what you really want is scary and that getting what you think you want may make you miserable.

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Is This Socialism?

In order to understand the premises of socialism, we need to understand two words: “from” and “to.” Specifically, socialists believe that justice is served when societies observe the following rule: From each according to his abilities; to each according to his needs.

On the face of it, this sounds just. Who would quarrel with the idea that people should get what they need? It is the “from” part that get us into trouble. If life were a matter of us all standing around a pre-existing barrel of goods–food, clothing, shelter, and other necessities–and taking what we needed, one might justify this distribution rule.

Of course, we all know that is not how the things we human beings need come to exist. Except for air, basic necessities have to be created by someone. Socialism presumes it is right to take from the creators and give to others. Is that what our economic system has become?

You bet it has, but not in the way you may think.

The complexity of our economic system has allowed us to take from people who don’t exist yet. How can that be? It is called debt. Debt is en extremely useful tool. If someone lends you money to buy something you could not purchase with cash, say a house, many people benefit. You benefit because you are able to use something valuable before you pay for it completely. The seller benefits because he/she can sell to someone who otherwise could not purchase. The lender also makes money.

If we had no system for borrowing and lending money, it would be nearly impossible to own anything like a house or car. Here is the problem. Not only can regular people and private businesses borrow money, so can the government. The difference is that the government borrows from future generations.

One way the government does this is to borrow money literally. It essentially issues IOUs to its citizens. The government can also print money. In the first case, debt can build until the present generation cannot pay it all off. In the second, government spends money it has “printed” and hopes no one notices that the resulting inflation has robbed citizens of buying power.

Either way, the system makes chumps of us. If we live frugally, save our money, and teach our children to do the same, we wind up feeding the government’s insatiable appetite for spending at our own expense. At some point, the system has to break down. Either our children and grandchildren will have to pay absurd tax rates or the value of our currency will diminish to zero. Maybe both.

And this brings us back to socialism. If the government tried in the present to take the amount of money it needs to sustain its orgy of spending, citizens would revolt. If they hide their theft by passing it on to its future citizens, we who are right here right now may grumble, but we won’t revolt.

Is this how we want to live? If so, let’s be honest about it. Socialism advocates taking from the “able” and giving to the “needy.” If you believe that, are you willing to look future generations in the eye and tell them that we gave and gave and gave and that by the way, they owe the bill?

I didn’t think so.

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Filed under currency, economy, entrepreneurship, financial crisis, infllation, investing, money, retirement

Killing the Goose

We all remember the story of the Goose and the Golden Egg. Anxious to become wealthy without working for it, the farmer eventually kills the goose because one golden egg a day just isn’t enough.

California voters just sent a message to their politicians that they will not become the second goose to die at the hands of the shiftless and lazy. By an astonishing margin, the general populace told Sacramento that increased taxes and smoke-and-mirrors borrowing will not fly. Let us pause to celebrate a victory.

Most Americans still believe that we each own what we create. To politicians, this is a novel idea. They prefer instead to think of wealth creators as being at their disposal. Not content with only maintaining essential services like police protection, they find in taxpayers a never-ending source of wealth to confiscate and distribute according to their notions of “fairness.” Of course, “fairness” is usually linked to re-election.

Fellow citizens, we are the geese and the farmer is trying to kill us. Like California, let’s send the message loud and clear that enough is enough.

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Whose Money Is It Anyway?

Most of us work until sometime in May to pay our taxes. The rest of what we earn is ours. Hey, wait a minute. Isn’t that first five months ours too?

Not according to the government. In fact, they take it before we ever get our hands on it. Those of us with jobs have taxes withheld. Take a look at your next pay stub and remind yourself how much money you DON’T get each pay period.

Here’s the kicker. Far and away, it is the middle class that gets whacked for taxes. Why? Because it is easier to collect from us. The poor don’t have any money to confiscate; the rich have enough money to hire people who can protect what they earn.

Is that fair? I leave that to you. But, if you decide that paying less in taxes is a good thing, read on.

Owning a side business has numerous advantages. You control it, and if you manage it properly, you can build up a solid retirement to supplement or replace your “traditional” retirement. Better yet, you can protect more of your “regular” income from taxation.

Tax laws allow numerous deductions for business. Many expenses can be used to reduce your taxable income. So, in addition to having more income, you get to keep more of your money. Be sure to use a good tax advisor, because the laws must be followed closely.

The Boston Tea Party was prompted by a 3% tax. Many of us pay over ten times that amount now. I doubt that pouring tea into the harbor will do much good these days, so throw your own little tea party. Start a side business and keep more of what was yours to begin with.

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Truth or Consequences: Holding Big Business Accountable

When you or I start a business, we do not usually have the luxury of picking up the phone and calling our Congressman. Imagine actually getting through to your representative and having this conversation:

Noel: “Congressman Smith, this is Terry Noel.”
(Smith motions to his Executive Assistant, shrugs his shoulders, and writes a note asking who the hell this guy is.”)
Congressman: “Larry! Great to hear from you! You know, I am doing everything I can to stop global warming, guard against the swine flu, and get steroids out of baseball.”
Noel: “Well, Congressman, that’s not really why I called.”
(Smith motions again. Writes a note asking for the caller’s record of campaign contributions.)
Congressman: “Nothing?”
Noel: “Huh?”
Congressman: “What? I mean, nothing is more important than my constituents.”
Noel: “Well, you see, I have a big problem. My business is coming up short this quarter. To tell you the truth, I could use a bailout.”
Congressman: “I see…”
(Circles his finger at the side of his head in a cuckoo motion.)
Noel: “Not much. I mean nothing compared to the big banks.”
Congressman: “Well, Harry, it’s been nice talking to you and I appreciate your vote.”
Noel: “Wait! The bailout?”
Congressman: “Yes, I am making sure that all these companies are held accountable. I am glad you support me. American jobs for American workers. That’s what I say. We can’t let our businesses suffer because of low wages in Fiji. Call again. Anytime.”
Noel: “But…(click)…

When government injects itself into the economy, its actions are arbitrary, capricious, and usually based on campaign contributions. As long as politicians are given the power to reduce competition through regulation or provide subsidies outright to their contributors, businesses can grow. In fact, they can grow rapidly because they no longer have to work as hard to satisfy their customers. When things get rough, they ask their political friends to change the rules instead of competing fairly. Businesses don’t get winnowed out for failure to perform.

The winnowing process of a truly free market is supremely neutral. If you or I do not provide a better product or service than our competitors, we lose money. If we lose enough, we go out of business. The only way to stop the current insanity of propping up businesses that are “too big to fail” is to take away politicians’ power to interfere.

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Thanks, Mr. President

No doubt hearing the cries of Tea Party attendees last week, President Obama bravely slashed $100 million dollars from the budget. $100 million dollars is a lot of money. That is, unless you compare it to the rest of the budget. Let’s do some math. At least seven or eight trillion dollars has been created and injected into the economy. My calculator won’t go that high, so I got out a big piece of paper and starting dividing. It turns out that it is 1/70,000 or .00001.

My first reaction was laughter. I thought I had accidentally stumbled upon The Onion web site. Nope. Turns out it was legitimate news. I had to ask myself, “What kind of nation have we become that we allow our leaders to insult us so roundly?”

Of course, we know exactly why Obama is doing this. It is to take our minds off what he and the rest of the government (our government) are not telling us about the financial crisis. When the truth comes out, will we fall for yet another cynical ploy like this one?

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By Land or by Sea?

Paul Revere made his famous midnight ride to warn the countryside of an attack by the British. He asked his friend, who was to be in the North Church tower, to light one lantern if the attack was by land, two if by sea. Seeing the first light flicker in the belfry, he leaped astride his horse and whirled to take one more look. A second flame! The attack would be by sea and Revere set out at a thundering gallop to take his place in history.

I wish we had someone in a tower who could look and listen for the shuffle of British feet manning the boats on shore. We are not so fortunate, though. We know only that our nemesis–an economic meltdown–is lingering in the dark, waiting to attack like our oppressors of that time. Whether it comes by land or by sea, we do not know.

In a sense, all of us are looking toward that tower. Like the Americans of Revere’s era, we have endured the harassment and insults of arrogant and incompetent tyrants. We know the big attack is coming, but from where? Deflation? Inflation? A major depression?

Our leaders think that injecting trillions and trillions of dollars of paper money into our economy will keep the enemy at bay. It may, for a while. In the end, though, the bill will come due and the unholy legions will come calling. When it does, where will you be? Asleep in bed armed only with a sheet of paper money or in a financial fortress built of solid knowledge and sound discipline?

Wake up, my friends. Midnight is upon us.

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Filed under economy, financial crisis, new business

Uncovering Your Hidden Value

All business operates on a simple premise. One person creates value for another. Outside of gift-giving and other types of benevolence, the creator gets paid. He or she receives value, often in the form of money, and both partners to the trade are better off than they were before.

Many forms of value are obvious. Clothing, shelter, food, and the people who create them are valuable because we need those basic things to survive. Music, paintings, sports and other non-essentials improve our lives even though we could live without them. But they too are commonplace and obvious.

Many people who start businesses are stuck in the obvious. They try to provide more of what others are already providing quite well: dry cleaners, groceries, web design, etc. There is nothing wrong with opening this kind of business. If you can do it better, faster, or cheaper than your competitors, you may do well. But why butt heads with the rest of the market?

Each of us has value to others that may have gone unrecognized. We may know how to do something unique or make something unusual that is valuable to 0thers. But how does one discover these hidden veins of value? Start by brainstorming fifty ideas for businesses. Don’t criticize or question any idea, just write down fifty. Even if some turn out to be “obvious” keep writing. Chances are, you will find something valuable that only you can provide.

The next step is refining your idea into a business model. A business model takes your initial idea and builds around it a “delivery system” that allows you to get paid for what you do well. More on business models next post.

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What is an Asset?

Accountants, financial advisors, and the popular press talk constantly about “assets.” Most people have only a vague notion of what an asset really is. My favorite definition comes from the book Rich Dad Poor Dad. An asset puts money in your pocket. A liability takes money out of your pocket.

Let’s think about that a minute. What kinds of things take money out of your pocket? Well, that bass boat sure does. Unless you make a heck of a lot of money fishing, more money goes into the monthly payments and upkeep than comes out in the form of income. If you are like most of us, you don’t expect any money to come your way on account of that boat. That, friends, is a liability.

This is not being judgmental, by the way. If you enjoy fishing, buy that boat by all means. As long as you have the money, live it up. In the case of a pleasure boat, no one really expects to make money. But what about your house? Haven’t you always been told that it is an asset? The truth is, it takes money out of your pocket too. Even if you have paid it off, you are still spending money on upkeep, utilities, and insurance. That makes your house a liability. But don’t you make money when you sell? Try that about now. And even if you could sell it, where would you live?

The only thing that truly counts as an asset is something that puts money in your pocket. Assets are money machines. When you put some amount of money in an asset, you expect to receive more money than you put in at some point in the future. There are two ways to accomplish this. One is for the asset to throw out a stream of money like, say, a savings account. (I know. It’s not much of a return, but stay with me.) As long as you keep that money in the account, you earn money. Another example is a stock that pays a dividend.

The second way for an asset to make money for you is appreciation in value. Imagine buying a Silver Eagle coin for $15 and selling it six months later for $20. This type of asset makes you money, but you have to sell it to realize the gain. House flipping was a popular form of this type of investing until the housing market crashed.

A successful business is a tremendous asset. By building a business, you can realize both kinds of return. A business creates an income stream as long as you own it. If you build it the right way, you can also sell it at some point for much more money than you put into it. Another great thing about building a business is that you can put much more than just money into it. You can put your know-how, your time, your social network, and your creativity into it. The bank does not care what I know or how hard I am willing to work when I open a savings account. I park some cash and it works for me for the rate determined by the bank, end of story. A business gives me an opportunity to capitalize on things other than money.

It all comes back to value. All businesses operate on the principle of creating value that other people are willing to pay for. Many times, we vastly underestimate how valuable we are to others because we are stuck in the J-O-B trap. Chances are, you have much more potential value than you realize. Next week, we’ll take a look at some ways to tap that hidden value.

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