12 September 2006
They've run out of metals

Once there were gold cards, then platinum, even occasionally titanium, and finally Visa and MasterCard opted for nonmetallic descriptions for their high-end cards, Visa issuing "Signature" cards and MasterCard offering a "World" card.

But, as James Bond might have said, the World is not enough. MasterCard now has a World Elite card, issued by HSBC on behalf of Saks Fifth Avenue. Benefits:

The new card offers up to 6% back on Saks Fifth Avenue purchases and 1% back on all other purchases. Customers' points will be converted automatically into Saks gift cards. The card also offers access to the Virtuoso travel network; complimentary companion tickets with the purchase of full fare "Business Class" tickets for international travel; tailored shore excursions and private cocktail receptions on four cruise lines; preferred rates at more than 650 hotels plus value-added amenities such as complimentary daily breakfast for two, room upgrades, late check-in, late check-out, hotel dining credits and customized offerings that are unique to the destination and VIP status; complimentary subscriptions to travel publications; special event access and tickets to performing arts and theater events; and airport lounge access for a nominal fee.

I don't expect to see many of these at the drive-thru at Church's Chicken.

Permalink to this item (posted at 1:37 PM)
19 September 2006
ESPN: The Visa

As though they haven't expanded the brand enough: ESPN now has a "Total Access" Visa card which pays extra rewards for buying network schwag and, assuming you have an NBA veteran's salary and can afford to accumulate the necessary points, will actually get you into some ESPN-specific events. Washington Mutual is issuing this Visa for ESPN; I'm waiting to see if Fox Sports comes up with a Best Damn MasterCard, Period.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:02 AM)
20 September 2006
Hey, scratch this

British scientists have determined that little $5 and $10 wins in the lotto won't do anything for your long-term happiness.

Get up into four figures, though, and you're getting somewhere:

Andrew Oswald, a professor of economics at the University of Warwick, and Jonathan Gardner of the financial management firm Watson Wyatt, say a major money prize isn't necessary. They determined medium-sized lottery wins ranging from about $2,000 to $225,000 had a long-term sustained impact in the overall happiness of the winners.

On average, two years after their win, medium-sized lottery winners had a mental well-being score 1.4 points better than previously — meaning, loosely, two years after their win they were slightly more than 10 percent happier than the average person without a win or only a tiny lottery win.

I'm hoping for $7,599.

Why, yes, I did get my Visa bill yesterday. Why do you ask?

(Via Fark.com.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:31 AM)
10 October 2006
Let them pay for their greed

Boy, do I know what this is like:

Today, I discovered that we had a credit card company unexpectedly and unannounced (although they claim to have sent some notification months ago) raise our APR from 11.99% to 29.99%. Thirty [CENSORED] percent!!!

That is Congressionally enabled highway robbery! Period!

The outrageously higher rate wasn't because we had missed any payments or that we had gone over our limit. It wasn't because we had a sudden change in our credit score, which has been about the same (give or take a couple of points) for the last two years. They claimed it was a decision based on an overall credit analysis. In other words, in corporate speak, they did it because they could.

Been there, done that. The bank in question used to make an easy thousand dollars a year from my card accounts. No more.

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:02 AM)
16 October 2006
GAO complains about plastic

The Government Accountability Office, after a fifteen-month study, has concluded that credit-card disclosure statements don't actually disclose very well:

Disclosure material explaining fees that is provided by the largest issuers of credit cards has "various weaknesses that reduced consumers' ability to use and understand" it, the report said. It found that the disclosures are written in language that is hard to understand, bury important information in text, fail to put related material together and use small typefaces.

Some fees, such as a $5-to-$15 charge to pay a credit-card bill by phone, are often not disclosed, according to the report.

It recommended that the Federal Reserve should revise rules on credit-card disclosures to require that they more clearly emphasize penalty fees and rates and what triggers them.

Especially since they're going up all the time: 20 percent of cards issued by the Big Six issuers are now at interest rates of 20 percent or more, with the majority of those cards over 30 percent, and 35 percent of accounts incurred at least one late fee last year.

The firms covered by the report are Citibank, Chase, Bank of America/MBNA (now merged), Capital One and Discover.

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:23 AM)
17 October 2006
Uncle Sam wants Linden Dollars

It was just a matter of time:

Users of online worlds such as Second Life and World of Warcraft transact millions of dollars worth of virtual goods and services every day, and these virtual economies are beginning to draw the attention of real-world authorities.

"Right now we're at the preliminary stages of looking at the issue and what kind of public policy questions virtual economies raise — taxes, barter exchanges, property and wealth," said Dan Miller, senior economist for the Joint Economic Committee of the U.S. Congress.

"You could argue that to a certain degree the law has fallen (behind) because you can have a virtual asset and virtual capital gains, but there's no mechanism by which you're taxed on this stuff," he told Reuters in a telephone interview.

You can almost hear the sorrow in his voice. "There's gotta be some way we can pry some revenue out of these people."

Historically, what the taxman wants, the taxman eventually gets, and Brian J. Noggle warns:

[Y]ou better start saving up, because the IRS is going to find out you bought Illinois Avenue in 1982 without paying sales tax and is going to want interest and penalties.

And arguing that you landed on Luxury Tax two rolls later won't save you, either.

Permalink to this item (posted at 11:22 AM)
24 October 2006
The enlightened consumer

In the summertime I said something about the new Enlightenment Visa Card, which Neilochka dismisses thusly:

Is collecting 154,000 Reward Points for a Thai Yoga Massage at a fancy resort really that much better than American Airlines Frequent Flier Miles?

As a person who doesn't fly frequently, but occasionally carries a balance, I'd say: "Depends on the interest."

Permalink to this item (posted at 3:25 PM)
19 November 2006
Redefining Black Friday

It now starts on Thursday:

[E]lectronics retailer CompUSA is opening its doors on Thanksgiving night to give holiday shoppers a head-start on Black Friday madness.

Most of the chain's stores plan to open from 9 p.m. until midnight, then send shoppers home for a quick nap before the doors reopen at 5 a.m. on Friday.

"Some customers aren't interested in waking up at the crack of dawn to go shopping at 5 a.m.," said Brian Woods, CompUSA Inc.'s executive vice president of merchandising. "We're giving them more options."

Woods said he's not worried about overlapping with Thanksgiving celebrations. He figures that by 9 p.m., most people are done eating turkey and would welcome a shopping trip as their entertainment for the evening.

Last year, CompUSA opened its doors at midnight, and Woods said the crowds outside averaged 600 to 700, and sales were strong. But after the initial rush, he said, traffic thinned out until about 5 a.m., which seems to when consumers expect stores to open on Black Friday. It's also when rival Best Buy plans to open its stores, a spokesman said.

I figure by 2010, if not sooner, Black Friday will begin Wednesday at 6 pm.

(Via The Consumerist.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:43 AM)
22 November 2006
Paper Chase

Sean Gleeson discovers, to his dismay, that the connection between JPMorgan Chase Bank in New York and JPMorgan Chase Bank, NA, Oklahoma is tenuous indeed:

The Check was drawn on Chase Bank, in New York. But "Chase Bank," in Oklahoma City, refused to honor it! The teller said, "No sir, we canít cash this, itís from the New York Chase Bank."

"But this is Chase Bank, isnít it?"

"Yes, but our system isnít connected with theirs."

Oh. Sure. Makes perfect sense, really. Why would I have thought that the "Chase Bank" system was in any way connected with Chase Bank?

Two observations:

  1. The ATMs do work systemwide; on the other hand, I'd be reluctant to stash a check big enough to be called "The Check" in an ATM, and rather a lot of Chase ATMs don't take deposits anyway.

  2. As their statewide market share suggests, everything's going to BOk.

Oh, there's a Paperless Chase, too.

Permalink to this item (posted at 10:43 AM)
27 November 2006

Or, in other words, a poverty simulation, and not on screen either:

We were assigned an identity and given a summary of our current life situation. Stations were set up to represent the utility company, the mortgage company, a pawn shop, check cashing loan store, grocery store, and public assistance. During the simulation, I became a 19 year old, unemployed, high school dropout, single mother with a live-in boyfriend. Our bills totaled $555 per month including a mortgage on our mobile home, lot rent, utilities, food, and a car title loan that we had taken out. We also had to give transportation passes at every stop to account for the gas or the bus to get us there. Our monthly take home pay was $794.00 per month including $234 in TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) benefits and $120 in food stamps. That left us with $239 per month for everything else. Trust me $60 per week for a family of three for everything else (such as gasoline for the car, medicine, car repairs, diapers, toiletries, and other items) does not go far. Just to make it interesting we were also given several items of value to pawn if we got desperate.

This test subject, in real life, actually counsels on financial issues. And said counsel, she discovered, is offtimes easier said than done:

In a matter of minutes I transformed from the calm budgeting expert who had it all figured out to someone who was just living in survival mode. Much of my reason and logic went out the window. I could not pay the mortgage first as planned because we only took home $110 per week from my boyfriendís job. It was 3 weeks before we had enough to pay the mortgage. In real life, I tell people to pay their mortgage first since we want them to avoid homelessness. In the simulation, we paid the mortgage next to last and had been evicted by the time we came up with enough money to pay it.

In real life I advise people to avoid paying high fees for services such as check cashing and to stay away from the pawn shop. Logic would tell you that it is much cheaper to open a checking account at the local bank or credit union than to pay fees for check cashing services. In the simulation, we did not have a bank account and could not obtain one. In order to cash my boyfriendís check to get money to pay the bills, we had to pay a $10.00 fee for every check we cashed. When we got a cut off notice for the utilities, I found myself in line at the pawn shop to hock my stereo. I took the money from hocking the stereo to pay the gas bill just before they cut it off. I also had to stand in a long line at the public assistance office just to confirm my TANF benefits. I had to take my baby with me since I could not afford daycare. I stood in line for so long that the office closed and I had to come back the next day.

This isn't exactly the situation for which the term "vicious circle" was invented, but it's close enough.

If nothing else, this exercise demonstrates one Hard Fact: things look different on the other side of the desk.

(Seen at Satellite Sky.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 1:52 PM)
5 December 2006
Here's your Allowance

The Allow Card is a prepaid Debit MasterCard pitched to parents of teenagers. It comes with a fistful of parental controls, of which perhaps the neatest is the ability to block out specific types of merchants. The limit, of course, is how much is loaded into the card at any given moment.

I'd probably feel better about this if the proponents weren't also suggesting it as a fundraising tool.

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:01 AM)
9 December 2006
Tales of retail

Given my underly-generous budget and known tendencies toward parsimony, some may have wondered why I'd actually spend the long dollar to have my car serviced at the dealership, generally the most expensive option when you have a choice.

But I can't always be sure I have a choice, since I've done no survey of local independent mechanics to see which of them won't frown (or jump for joy, which is probably worse) when a seven-year-old Infiniti comes through the door. And there are distinct advantages to letting the dealer do the dirty work, not least of which is the fact that he either has the parts on hand or can get them quickly.

What's more, the timing works for me: I can drop off Gwendolyn at seven-thirty and still manage to stroll into 42nd and Treadmill before anyone notices. And the dealership has a major incentive to get the work done in a hurry, inasmuch as they've lent me a G35 in the interim and they'd like to have it back at some point. I might see things differently were the number of persons in this household greater than 1, but since I have to do all this stuff myself, I figure my time makes up for the higher number on the sales slip.

But staff expertise is worth paying for even if you don't have to pay for it. I pulled up at the New Balance store in Spring Creek Village today and requested, deadpan, a replacement for my old 587s. She didn't even bat an eye; she suggested three models which had the features of the 587, and recommended the 1122 as being the closest approximation to my out-of-date shoes. On the off-chance that this was being suggested mostly for its marginally-higher price, I pointed to one of the others, and I tried it on. Good enough, but not great. For comparison, I requested the 1122, and it was indeed closer to what I was used to. Sale made. (It is theoretically possible to order discontinued styles, but inasmuch as I take an outlier size — 14 EE — I am not hopeful about the prospects.) And while $120 is a fair chunk of change for what is, after all, a pair of running shoes fercryingoutloud, some stores charge even more than that, and I have qualms about ordering shoes online, even though NB's 14 EE is usually spot on. (Amazon.com has them for just under $100.)

Not everything went quite so well today; my favorite car wash (it's in the Village) wasn't overly busy, and I had traces of last week's snowstorm to remove, but neither of their change machines would cough up any quarters for any of the $8 worth of bills I tried. I hate when that happens.

Update, 8:30 pm: If you think Infiniti service is pricey — which, by the way, it is — try tending to a Ferrari.

Permalink to this item (posted at 3:28 PM)
14 December 2006
No lack of interest

The Consumerist headlined this story "Chase Raises Reader's APR To 148.14%", which is not quite accurate: the effective APR for that particular month was indeed that high, because the customer did have a very small balance, which generated a suitably-small finance charge, which the bank, in accordance with its rules, rounded up to $1.00. The average daily balance was barely $8, but $1 worth of interest, expressed in yearly terms, does work out to that percentage, and by law they have to give you this number.

In fact, I once managed a monthly APR in excess of 322 percent in almost exactly the same manner.

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:04 AM)
27 December 2006
Carrying Cash

Johnny Cash, that is, and his picture is on the Johnny Cash MasterCard, issued by Monterey County Bank.

And best of all, it's a Debit MasterCard, so your spending is limited to, um, Cash on hand.

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:42 AM)
8 January 2007
You want finance charges with that?

Americans charged $51 billion worth of fast food last year, about 32 percent of all burgers, shakes, fries, tacos, whatever. I'd like to think most of this was done on debit cards, but somewhere out there is some shlub who's paying 19.9 percent interest on a McRib.

Permalink to this item (posted at 2:05 PM)
11 January 2007
Riding that bull

For a change, all my 401(k) investment options paid off decently in 2006; I wound up with an overall return of 8.84 percent. (For those appalled at how much money Goldman Sachs employees made last year, let it be said that the segment that they sub-advised — I love that word — earned 14.60 percent, which wasn't even the highest return I got.)

For the curious, I am hedged up to here: I'm in a traditional money-market account, a flat-rate account that rolls over every year, a stock-index fund, a large-cap blend fund, and a bond/mortgage fund. I even, yes, Lord help me, it is true, have a few shares of the people who administer all this stuff.

(Remember the generally lousy market of 2001? For the year I was down 0.79 percent. Now that's hedged.)

I have yet to compare notes with our CFO, but I've beaten him five years out of the last six, so I am hopeful. I'm not so confident, though, that I'm willing to offer investment advice, even to Mike.

Update, 9 am: The CFO beat me this year. He said he'd gone after some more aggressive investments this time around. Most everyone, he reports, did fairly well, and no one came out negative.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:28 AM)
21 January 2007
Rewiring the AMT machine

Fritz Schranck proposes a new formula for the Alternative Minimum Tax:

The new AMT should be set at 15% of adjusted gross income — but any payments toward any FICA or Medicare taxes would be credited against the income tax payable under the alternative.

This approach would make sure that the higher income folks now subject to AMT would still pay a significant amount of tax. At the lower end of the potential AMT spectrum, however, there would be an increasing likelihood that those folks wouldn't "qualify" for AMT treatment. It also has the added benefit of protecting more of the self-employed from the alleged ravages of the AMT, since they already directly pay a greater percentage of income in Social Security/Medicare taxes.

I don't meet the AMT threshold, but I did the math for myself, and assuming the standard deduction, which seems reasonable since AMT disallows most deductions anyway, I come up with a tax bite $1850 lower under the Schranck plan. I am, however, itemizing deductions this year, so the actual theoretical benefit would be lower, assuming the existence of such a thing as an "actual theoretical benefit." Further, I expect that were this approach adopted, there would be some tweaking to make it "revenue-neutral." As Mr Schranck notes:

[T]hose now seeking AMT reform haven't openly addressed exactly where the Feds will replace the billions of tax revenues lost, if the AMT as we now know it was to be simply repealed. Somewhere in the current AMT chatter there needs to be some discussion about whether the Feds will forego all that money, and if not, who among us will be asked to make up most if not all of the difference.

And that's quite a difference: the AMT will bring in something like $65 billion this coming year.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:14 PM)
23 January 2007
Carded away

Last week I threw in some remark about the Luhn test, an algorithm used to determine the validity of most credit-card numbers, including all the ones you're likely to see. Today it's big news at Consumerist, so I figure it's time to fill in the gaps in the proferred knowledge.

First thing you need to know is that, for Visa/MasterCard anyway, the first six digits describe a specific issuer. (Major banks have more than one six-digit sequence associated with their operations. Many Bank of America Visa cards start with 4356xx. Mine, um, doesn't.) The string ends with a checksum; everything in between is an account number. This is, incidentally, how you can get a new card from the same bank and most of the digits are the same.

Incidentally, there was a time when Visa numbers in the 45xx and 49xx ranges seemed to be reserved for non-US accounts. This is no longer the case.

And MasterCard issues no 50xx cards, which perplexes some of our customers who heard somewhere that anything starting with a 5 is a MasterCard. (51xx through 55xx only, folks.) I have a Sears card that starts with 50xx; it's not usable as a MasterCard. Sears does have a MasterCard, but it's not in the 50xx sequence.

One last tidbit: Most bank cards have a three-digit verification code (CVV) on the back, printed on the signature strip. American Express uses a four-digit code on the front, except for gift cards.

Permalink to this item (posted at 10:06 AM)
26 January 2007
Some have a Dow jones

Brian J. Noggle isn't a day-trader, so he's got a good reason for tuning the silly thing out:

"The stock market is down at this hour..." the deep FM voice narrates. Quite frankly, the day traders who inflated the stock market bubble at the end of the last century didn't rely on radio to make decisions. The Internet allows people to check the instant progress of their individual portfolios. The day traders who are still trading, instead of flipping burgers or bagging groceries, have access to mystical Level-2 quotes, which are somehow better than simple quotes everyone can get on Yahoo! So FM Man is talking to himself, and me, alone in my truck at a stoplight.

And who cares, really?

The guy on the radio says the market's down? SELL SELL SELL!

Of course, those who sell on whatever macroeconomic metrics arrive from political, pop cultural, or sociological sources don't consider the nature of their individual investments. They lose sight of the long-term prospects of the companies of which they have become a part and in whose long-term direction they, as investors, can exert some small amount of control. Instead, they try to be the head cows in the stampede into or out of a bull run on Wall Street or Main Street, or wherever investors huddle. These short-sighted investors react to the lemming clarion call of astrological percentages and to the deep, comforting voice on our radios that makes it into a daily catechism.

Fark, bless them, gives this sort of thing the kind of reportage it deserves: "Oil prices nosedive on news that Eminem finalizes divorce with Kimberly Mathers".

Makes as much sense as anything else you can cram into a five-minute newscast interrupted by two commercials.

Permalink to this item (posted at 10:57 AM)
5 February 2007
"We built this." - Citi

As conspiracy theories go, this has to be one of the best:

[T]he Patriot Act is a government plot written by the credit-card companies to force all Americans into eternal debt slavery. My eureka moment (or "awakening," in conspiracy-theorist terms) came when I tried opening a savings account at a local bank.

I already have a savings account, of course, but I'm fed up with my current bank because they keep making bonehead mistakes that take forever to fix. So I figured I'd switch to another one just down the street. Unfortunately, itís illegal for me to open a new bank account right now because I donít have the required paperwork. Specifically, the Patriot Act requires a person opening a savings account to have two forms of ID but I only had one with me — a driverís license.

Here's where it gets convoluted:

[F]or a second form of identification, I can use a credit card. So can you. We've all seen news stories about toddlers or housepets being issued credit cards in their names. Hell, I once had a VISA gold card issued to me and maxed out before I even knew I had it.

Legally, I need no proof of identity to get into credit-card debt, yet credit-card debt (or at least acquiring the means to get into it) counts as one of the forms of ID the government requires before I'm allowed to save money rather than owe it.

This sounds like a good argument for a Swiss bank account. Then again, if you want to deal with, say, Credit Suisse, you might as well go to Singapore.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:43 AM)
16 February 2007
Soft, Zillowy numbers

I've spent some time playing with Zillow, as it speculates as to the value of the palatial Surlywood estate, and sometimes it seems pretty accurate — and sometimes you wonder where the heck they came up with that number.

The Wall Street Journal has now looked into the matter, and, well, sometimes it seems pretty accurate, and — never mind, you can see where this is going.

Executive summary, sort of:

The WSJ took 1,000 recent sales and compared the sale price with Zillow's estimate (which didn't reflect the sale) and found that it was within 7.8% accurate, evenly split on the high and low side. However, the average doesn't tell the full story, what's the standard deviation? Well, on 110 of the 1000, it was off by more than 25% and of the 110, 23 were off by more than 50%. Zillow's nice and, as I've mentioned in the past, it's only as good as the information it has — often times it doesn't have the full picture.

Reasonable conclusion:

Still a fun little tool that really doesn't bring much to the table. Can you use it to get an idea of the value of a home? Sure, but I wouldn't bet any money on it.

Current Surlywood Zestimate: $101,558. I think this is about, oh, 7.8 percent high.

(Via The Consumerist.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 11:37 AM)
17 February 2007
Some action, maybe some class

Here's the premise:

Subject to final Court approval, a settlement has been reached in In re Foreign Currency Conversion Fee Antitrust Litigation (MDL 1409). This web site supplies information about the litigation and the settlement, and provides links to relevant documents for Members of the Settlement Classes and others interested in the settlement.

The lawsuit is about the price cardholders of Visa-, MasterCard-, or Diners Club-branded payment cards were charged to make transactions in a foreign currency, or with a foreign merchant, between February 1, 1996 and November 8, 2006. Plaintiffs challenge how the prices of credit and debit/ATM card foreign transactions were set and disclosed, including claims that Visa, MasterCard, their member banks, and Diners Club conspired to set and conceal fees, typically of 1-3% of foreign transactions, and that Visa and MasterCard inflated their base exchange rates before applying these fees. The Defendants include Visa, MasterCard, Diners Club, Bank of America, Bank One/First USA, Chase, Citibank, MBNA, HSBC/Household, and Washington Mutual/Providian.

Inasmuch as I am a person who transacts business with some of these defendants, I was duly sent a copy of the notice: the preliminary approval order can be read here. A settlement fund of $336 million is to be established; attorneys bringing the action have requested that of the $318 million remaining after expenses, 27.5 percent ($84 million) be earmarked for their fees. This is a ton of money, but a lower percentage that one tends to expect from this sort of thing, and it will leave $231 million to pay claims. We will overlook, for the moment, the plaintiffs' claim that the banks charged $3.8 billion in fees challenged by the suit.

I don't have that many foreign transactions; I have noticed that they're spelling out the details better on monthly statements, which is a Good Thing. The most recent, from one of the banks named in the suit, was for $62.83, and here's how it was listed:

FOREIGN CURRENCY   48.48 EUR 01/23 RATE 0.77161

Legally, I could file a claim for some previous transactions (the cutoff is 8 November 2006). Total foreign transactions I can document for the period in question come to just over $100. I may file a claim just to see what, if anything, I get back.

Permalink to this item (posted at 10:52 AM)
20 February 2007
Can I pay my Visa with my MasterCard?

There are some ways to pull this off, none of which get an enthusiastic recommendation from me.

I thought about this today when I looked at my PayPal line of credit, which is more or less separate from my regular PayPal account. And by "separate" I mean that they didn't provide an option to make payments on that line of credit using PayPal. Not that this is a problem, particularly: General Electric, not PayPal itself, runs the lines of credit, and when did GE ever take PayPal? Still, it looked funny, especially since I have more than enough in my PayPal account to pay off the entire amount due.

PayPal also has a debit card, which I'd just as soon avoid. I have no idea if GE will take the debit card.

Permalink to this item (posted at 11:23 AM)
23 February 2007
Fiat sales and service

Also seen in the comments at TTAC, this forlorn observation:

A counterfeiter cannot go bankrupt, think Hyperinflation instead. I was in the country of Turkey in the early 90s where 1 "dollar" would buy 17,000 Turkish Lira. By the year 2001 I think it was 1.2M TL to the "dollar". I think "Lira" in Latin means "Print Me!" Inflation, created by our Central Bank Owners/Rulers, is just another method of robbing us since taxes are politically unpopular.

Shoulda been there in 1974, when $1 would buy fourteen TL. I remember griping when the exchange offices changed the rate to 13.85, not because fifteen kuruş was such a huge amount, but because we were so used to thinking in 14-to-1 terms. (Yes, we were lazy, and yes, the currency was a bit more stable in those days.)

And after all that, Turkey has a New Lira, introduced in 2005, which was defined as one million of the old lira. Last I looked, the New Lira was worth about 72 cents US.

Permalink to this item (posted at 3:14 PM)
5 March 2007
Fine print, comb to match, assembly required

Last month one of the Evil Banks who owns the plastic-related segment of my soul sent me a notification to the effect that they were going to pile a few extra percentage points on some Visa card or other. I objected, and said so in return mail; they acknowledged the exception in what we will call Letter 1.

And then I opened Letter 2, which contained an explanation of why they did what they did, which surprised me very little until I noticed that they were referencing an account ending in, oh, let's call it 1234.

I have no accounts ending in the digits indicated, from them or from anyone else.

Best possible interpretation: they've conflated someone else's debt with mine.

The pertinent credit-reporting agency has been tapped for a fresh report. The bottom of this will be gotten to.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:21 PM)
12 March 2007
Life takes Visa

This tagline has been running in the print ads for some time now, but never quite so literally as here:

The latest edition of "THE GAME OF LIFE" will switch from paper currency to plastic this summer. VISA and game maker Hasbro have signed a deal to add VISA cards to the latest version of "THE GAME OF LIFE — Twists & Turns Edition." Players of the new edition, due to be released in August, will receive a VISA card at the start of the game and will use an electronic banking unit to store each player's financial data as well as their status in the game. The new electronic "LIFEPod" will replace the spin wheel from the classic game.

I'm waiting for a version of Candy Land with a glucose meter.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:53 PM)
13 March 2007
Thought, word and deeds

Earlier this year, Francis W. Porretto caught some flak for suggesting that one's home is not the gold-plated asset it's made out to be, in terms as unambiguous as this:

[A] house must be regarded as a consumption expense, not an investment. For young persons overwhelmingly likely to need (or want) to move within a decade of the purchase, it's a particularly bad deal.

The Wall Street Journal has now weighed in with a similar argument, plenty of which was quoted by Burbed.com, as follows:

For the grasshoppers, there's nothing quite as stupid as paying off your 2002 trip to Orlando in 2032, when you finally settle up your refinanced "cash out" 30-year mortgage. And for the ants, economic studies have demonstrated over and over that houses (1) cost more than most people make when they sell and (2) rarely match the long-term returns of stocks or other investments.

It may be late for a lot of homeowners to read this, but here it goes anyway: It's risky and bad planning to have too much of your net worth in your principal residence. No prudent stock-market player would put 60% or 70% of a portfolio in just one stock, but millions will hold that much or more of their total net worth in just one house.

(Disclosure: At the moment, I fall into this bracket. On the other hand, no one has accused me of being a prudent stock-market player, and anyway, the rest of the portfolio is going up faster.)

And, yes, there's this:

When most homeowners figure their returns, they donít do much more than subtract the price they paid from the price they received. Then they come up with a really big return because they paid only a 10% or 20% down payment. So they figure they made a huge "profit."

But they didn't. Thatís because the costs of owning a home — buying it with a long-term mortgage and then paying taxes on it, insuring it, repairing it, renovating it — sap most of what most homeowners think they make in price appreciation.

And woe betide those who live in housing markets in decline.

Says the Burbed fellow, perhaps tongue-in-cheek:

If you don't have a mortgage, you're not driving up property prices. And if you're not driving up property prices, you're hurting your neighbors by preventing them from extracting equity to pay for college for their children.

Why do you hate our children, WSJ?

I'd call this "food for thought," but I'd probably never get back the investment in the kitchen remodel.

Permalink to this item (posted at 10:08 AM)
27 March 2007
Results of a good combing

Flashback to the 5th:

Last month one of the Evil Banks who owns the plastic-related segment of my soul sent me a notification to the effect that they were going to pile a few extra percentage points on some Visa card or other. I objected, and said so in return mail; they acknowledged the exception in what we will call Letter 1.

And then I opened Letter 2, which contained an explanation of why they did what they did, which surprised me very little until I noticed that they were referencing an account ending in, oh, let's call it 1234.

I have no accounts ending in the digits indicated, from them or from anyone else.

At the time, I vowed that "the bottom of this will be gotten to."

The bank has now sent the following explanation:

Your original ... account number was [number ending in what I was used to]. Due to the merger [of us and someone else], system changes necessitated account number updates. Your new account number is [something ending in 1234]. This will be reflected on your card when it comes up for expiration and is reissued.

Of course, having rejected their terms on this account, I will cut up any new card they send me, but I am satisfied with this explanation.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:30 AM)
1 April 2007
One name on the title

Sometimes it's the filler that packs the punch. From an unattributed blurb in this morning's Oklahoman classifieds:

Currently, single women purchase 22 percent of new homes, compared to only 9 percent by single men. They purchased 1.5 million homes in 2005, which equates to one in five sales.

This spike in homebuyers can be attributed to the greater number of single women out there who are choosing to go it along without compromising lifestyle. US Census Bureau findings report that more than half of all adult women live alone.

Well, that "half live alone" business, as it happens, is not exactly true, and "compromising lifestyle" is a phrase that simply screams "We are not serious," but just the same, single women are indeed buying more houses these days, and single men have been stuck around the 10-percent level for decades.

Another possibly-arguable set of premises from the same article, this time a list of "common trends" among these women:

  • 3 out of 4 women spend less than $200,000
  • Prefer 2 bedrooms or more
  • Are more likely to choose resales
  • Buy in city over suburban areas
  • Will not compromise on location or quality of neighborhood
  • Prefer condos or townhomes with well-run neighborhood associations
  • Desire security and/or gated access
  • Want close proximity to stores, shopping and fitness centers

Except in the condo/townhome market, just about everything is "2 bedrooms or more," and in Oklahoma City in particular, three out of four sales to everybody fall under $200,000. (January median price was $123,383, report the metro Realtors.)

I should point out here that the palatial Surlywood estate was acquired from a single woman; I suppose I should have asked her what she saw in the place. (She has since bought a larger house not too far away.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 11:26 AM)
4 April 2007
Spending those surplice funds

Follieri Capital, which specializes in financial products for Roman Catholics, and Washington Mutual have teamed up to offer the World Missions VISA, which is being launched this week via major advertising campaigns in Catholic publications. One percent of card purchases will be donated to the Church's Society for the Propagation of the Faith, founded in 1822, which supports Catholic missionaries in 120 countries. That's the World Missions VISA. Don't leave Rome without it.

Permalink to this item (posted at 11:00 AM)
7 April 2007
We represent the Loophole League

I don't track my FICO score too closely. I do know that it jumped a bit after I bought the house, a bit more after I no longer had a car payment to deal with, and then sagged about the time I had to start dealing with car payments again. It has never occurred to me to start taking extraordinary steps to prop it up.

Especially steps this extraordinary:

[S]ome borrowers are turning to a fast-growing business on the Internet: companies that claim to boost credit scores by transplanting the credit DNA of people with excellent payment histories into the credit files of people with sub-par histories — ostensibly without breaking any law.

The companies claim to raise FICO credit scores by 50 to 250 points or more by adding low-scoring borrowers as "authorized users" onto the credit card accounts of people with FICO scores well in excess of 700. The positive payment information from such cardholders then flows into the files of the persons with sub-par credit.

This, of course, assumes that Warren Buffett is too busy to notice Donnie Deadbeat's presence on his credit report, and maybe that's a fairly safe assumption. Usually "authorized users" tend to be family members — say, daughter away at college — but they don't have to be:

Federal law, however, does not limit the number or prescribe the type of authorized users permitted on any single account. Nor does it prohibit the rental or sale of authorized user designations. Exploiting that loophole, numerous companies have popped up on the Internet offering to buy and rent out the credit card "trade lines" or accounts of credit cardholders with high limits combined with perfect payment histories.

The idea that the not-inconsiderable sum paid by the debtor for this dubious FICO boost might be applied more usefully to reducing his debt doesn't seem to enter into the picture. And to think we were surprised by mortgage fraud.

(Via Fark.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 10:40 AM)
9 April 2007
If only it were that simple

The so-called Tax Freedom Day for Oklahomans comes this Thursday, 12 April, two and a half weeks before the national average (on the 30th) and 5½ weeks before the 20th of May, when the besieged residents of Connecticut finish their obligations.

The latest ever Tax Freedom Day was the 31st of December, in the former Soviet Union.

(Noticed at The Consumerist.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 2:37 PM)
19 April 2007
Forever and a day

But not one day longer:

The world's oldest continuously operating family business ended its impressive run last year. Japanese temple builder Kongo Gumi, in operation under the founders' descendants since 578, succumbed to excess debt and an unfavorable business climate in 2006.

That's 578. Kongo Gumi survived for one thousand four hundred twenty-eight years, longer even than most temporary taxes.

How did they do it? Well, there's not a whole lot of volatility in the business of constructing Buddhist temples. (During WWII, the firm built coffins; subsequently, they diversified into commercial buildings.) Eventually, though, some fairly ordinary factors did them in: declining revenues and mounting debt.

There was a time when I thought E. K. Gaylord might make it to fourteen hundred or so. (He died in 1974, reportedly still at work; he was 101.)

(Turned up by Don Mecoy of The Oklahoman.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:20 AM)
21 April 2007
In lieu of getting out of Dodge

So what are the chances that the Chrysler Group might wind up owned by its employees?

Not great, but not zero either:

About 25 hourly workers calling themselves the "Employee Buyout Committee" are proposing that workers take a 70 percent stake in Chrysler with DaimlerChrysler retaining the remaining stake. Michele Mauder, who works at Chrysler's Toledo Supplier Park, where the Jeep Wrangler is built, and is a member of the committee, said the workers believe employee ownership is the best option for Chrysler's 50,000 UAW workers. "The bottom line is the corporation won't take the hit, it's the employees, the shareholders and the consumers," she said in an interview. "So we need to work as a team."

The employee buyout committee was notified by the UAW last month that its proposal is being evaluated by the union's legal department, Mauder said.

The proposal was mentioned by a shareholder at DaimlerChrysler's annual meeting April 4, and on Tuesday, Mauder received written notification from DaimlerChrysler that the proposal is being reviewed by the German automaker.

The UAW itself hasn't made any statement one way or another, though UAW President Ron Gettelfinger has said he would prefer that DaimlerChrysler hold on to the Chrysler Group.

Separate proposals by Kirk Kerkorian, who in 1995 mounted an unsuccessful bid for Chrysler and who wound up suing DCX, and by Palm Beach investor Daniel Imperato, call for dividing up at least some of Chrysler's equity among employees.

Autoblog notes:

While the employee buyout plan is a long shot, and if successful, an incredible risk for the employees, it's also inspiring that a group of workers would be the masters of their own fate. Unfortunately, it's not yet known how much the employees could offer for a 70% stake in their employer, which, in the end, is likely DaimlerChrysler's number one consideration in this sale

I think this could work, though obviously it won't be a straight cash deal: more likely, there will be a period of years during which at least part of a worker's compensation will be paid in Chrysler stock rather than in wages or in benefits. Fifty thousand Chrysler workers times $100,000 would come to $5 billion, which is a hefty proportion of the $5-7 billion rumored to be sought by DCX. (Kerkorian's bid was for $4.5 billion.)

And whether this works or not, I'd prefer it to having the company taken private and then ritually dismembered for the sake of the bottom line.

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:38 AM)
29 April 2007
A green card, as it were

The new Barclaycard "Breathe" is going after the environmentalist market in a big way:

Barclaycard Breathe is the only UK credit card to donate 50% of profit after tax to support carbon reduction projects in the UK and abroad. The card will be launched in Summer 2007 and we commit to donating at least £1million per year.

All donations will be sent to our independent environmental partner — an organisation which guarantees to meet the new UK Government standards for carbon offsetting. It is responsible for ensuring the money is placed into reputable projects that help tackle global warming.

Customers can take advantage of low interest rates on public transport (rail and bus tickets) as well as selected environmentally friendly products and services.

Given Barclays existing record of greening, I think this might be more than just marketing mumbo-jumbo, though their acquisition of subprime lending operations does give me pause.

Barclays will not offer Breathe in the States, at least at first; however, their recent acquisition of Juniper Bank gives them a toehold in the US credit-card market, and they may well opt to offer a similar package at a later date.

(Via Hippyshopper.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:25 AM)
13 May 2007
Please return this section with payment

So I sat down this afternoon and paid all the bills that had come in since last weekend, dropped the to-be-mailed stuff in my briefcase (clearly a stretch of the term) for the morrow, filed away the copies of those bills that were paid online, and now looking over to the side of the desk, I find that my Large Stack of Paper now consists of the following:

  • One Target 10-percent discount coupon, earned as a reward for using my Red Card.

  • One window envelope which presumably belonged to one of the bills, but I can't tell which one.

I was sufficiently panicked to go pop open the case and make sure that the actual envelopes being used seemed at least somewhat appropriate. (In other words: does the return address show, and is there a stray bar code on the actual envelope that will cause it to be mailed to some place in Delaware?) I will, of course, eventually throw it away, but for at least a few more minutes, I will be wondering just where the system failed.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:21 PM)
15 May 2007
Don't leave Azeroth without it

The legendarily-addictive World of Warcraft game universe now has its own credit card.

The WoW Visa, issued by First National Bank of Omaha, pays one-percent reward points in actual WoW game time. The usual Platinum benefits are offered as well. What I want to know is this: when is a player going to find time in Real Life™ to spend $1500 to earn a month's subscription fee?

Permalink to this item (posted at 1:08 PM)
18 May 2007
Amex to get involved, sort of

American Express has come up with something called The Members Project. For the next month, Amex cardmembers will be asked to suggest charity projects; in July, the top 50 suggestions will be posted, and a vote will be taken. For each accountholder who registers for the Project, Amex will donate $1 to the chosen charity, up to a maximum of $5 million. As of last night, two days into the program, over 200 suggestions had been received.

From their announcement email:

Will you send meningitis vaccines to Africa? Rebuild a school in New Orleans? Or support small organic farmers? The possibilities are endless. The decision is yours.

I will definitely register, putting another buck in the kitty: however, I have no idea where I would like to see it spent. Yet.

Permalink to this item (posted at 2:36 PM)
25 May 2007
This is not the Z Visa you're looking for

The Federal Reserve Board has proposed changes to Regulation Z, the current version of the Truth-in-Lending Act, which will raise the bar for credit-card disclosures. Says the Fed:

Disclosures accompanying credit card applications and solicitations would highlight fees and the reasons penalty rates might be applied, such as for paying late. Creditors would be required to summarize key terms at account opening and when terms are changed. Periodic statements would break out costs for interest and fees. Two alternatives are proposed regarding the "effective" or "historical" annual percentage rate disclosed on periodic statements. The proposal would also expand the circumstances under which consumers receive written notice of changes in the terms applicable to their accounts, including requiring an advance notice before a penalty is required, and increase the amount of time these notices must be sent before the change becomes effective.

I can certainly applaud these measures, and apparently so can the banking industry:

"We strongly agree that improved disclosures empower consumers to make better choices in our competitive marketplace," said Edward Yingling, head of the American Bankers Association, a lobbying group that represents the biggest credit-card issuers.

Since it's unlikely that this accord developed as a result of Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke's irresistible charisma, the temptation is irresistible to sniff around for another reason, and Carey Greenberg-Berger of Consumerist seems to have picked up a scent:

The creditors will gladly accept the Fed's proposal if it will help them brand legislation introduced by Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) as unnecessary.

And what is Levin calling for? Stuff like this:

[I]f the creditor increases the periodic interest rate applicable to an extension of credit under the account, such increased rate shall apply only to extensions of credit made on and after the date of such increase under the account, and any extension of credit under such account made before the date of such increase shall continue to incur interest at the rate that was in effect on the date prior to the date of the increase.

If you were paying 16 percent on your balance and they jack it up to 21 percent, the jacking would be limited to new charges: you would still pay the 16 percent on the old stuff. Of course, they apply payments first to lower-interest balances, and if anything is left it's applied to higher-interest balances. But Levin addresses that too:

Upon receipt of a payment from a cardholder, the card issuer shall —
  1. apply the payment first to the card balance bearing the highest rate of interest, and then to each successive balance bearing the next highest rate of interest, until the payment is exhausted; and
  2. after complying with paragraph (1), apply the payment in the most effective way to minimize the imposition of any finance charge to the account.

And there's more. No wonder the banks are flocking to embrace the new Regulation Z: they're hoping that the general public will accept the new Fed rules as sufficient regulation and will show no interest in Levin's bill.

All the more reason to mention it here, I think.

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:22 AM)
16 June 2007
Feeling of dťjŗ vu: priceless

A new eBay MasterCard is being issued this month, with various auction-related goodies for heavy eBay users, which I suppose, after 200-odd auctions, includes me.

In fact, I used to have an eBay MasterCard, issued by MBNA; however, eBay and MBNA fell out of love, and the program was discontinued, and MBNA wound up in the suffocating embrace of Bank of America anyway.

The new eBay MasterCard will be issued by GE Money Bank, which despite its all-American name (I mean, it's General Electric, fercrissake) is based in Switzerland. GE has a working relationship with eBay's PayPal subsidiary, providing lines of credit parallel to PayPal accounts. I have one of those, and it's extremely handy; then again, so long as I have the line of credit, I probably don't need the MasterCard.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:30 PM)
20 June 2007
The editorial Wii

The Midlife Sorority Girls decide to invest in, among other things, Nintendo.

Lou Dobbs, meanwhile, is doubling his dose of Advil.

Permalink to this item (posted at 12:24 PM)
24 June 2007
Only sixteen

Telephone numbers are now more or less portable: you can change service providers and (most of the time) still keep your old number.

Credit cards haven't reached this stage yet, but MasterCard is heading in that direction:

MasterCard has announced the launch of MasterCard Product Graduation in the United States — a new program that enables cardholders to keep the same account number when switching between various card programs offered by an issuer, thereby avoiding the need for the cardholder to update recurring payment accounts, etc.

MasterCard calls Product Graduation a "patent-pending solution that offers more flexibility for cardholders, merchants, and the customer financial institutions that manage accounts. Retaining account numbers will allow cardholders to maintain their recurring bill payments, online shopping profiles, and other automatic payment relationships, providing uninterrupted service for both the consumer and merchant. With this solution, fewer payments will be disrupted when a cardholder switches to a new card program."

Which would be useful if Issuing Bank and Trust Company (Member FDIC) decided to upgrade you to a better card — or, perish the thought, downgrade you to a worse one.

For myself, I don't see this as a major advantage — only twice in my life has a MasterCard issuer chosen to assign me a new number, and once this was because the issuer sold out the entire portfolio to another bank — but it's a step in the right direction, even though true portability is still quite a ways off:

The program does not support a cardholder moving an account between card issuers and keeping the same account number.

Now that would be awesome, not to mention awesomely difficult to implement.

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:59 AM)
26 June 2007
Not that they'd let you haggle

Bendeistiyorum.com, which vends products in Turkey much the way Woot does in (48 of) the States, put up Nintendo Wiis for sale at a way-stiff price of 699.99 YTL (around $530). No one nibbled, and if I'm reading this thread correctly, at least a couple of regulars complained about the price.

Now I don't have the slightest idea how tight Wii supplies are in this part of the world, but I'd be willing to bet that the standard American practice of paying way over list price just to make sure you get something isn't going to fly with the Turks. Not these Turks, anyway.

Permalink to this item (posted at 4:15 PM)
3 July 2007
Memo to a disgruntled customer

If you're going to blame PayPal's debit-card unit for two consecutive declines — and the abuse you heaped upon our poor, unsuspecting customer-service people indicates that you are — you probably ought not to use that same card again the same day.

Which, by the way, was declined. Again.

Permalink to this item (posted at 4:39 PM)
6 July 2007
Nor are they worth a plugged nickel

Joanna looks at both sides of the issue and decides we should dump the penny:

[T]hereís absolutely no way that it's not more expensive to have pennies than to not have them, both from a consumer and a taxpayer standpoint.

Still, she has ideas for the least-valuable coin in your pocket:

As a fundraiser, I see the penny thing as a huge opportunity. Charitable organizations themselves like Goodwill and the Red Cross could advertise getting rid of pennies by donating them and not using them anymore. That would represent a lot of cash and would incite the social movement against pennies for a good cause. Then people can write off the donation, the organizations could turn them over to banks, banks exchange them with the Treasury for higher coinage, and the Treasury can sell them to private companies who make tacky commemorative plaques that tasteless people can buy from QVC late at night. Everybody wins!

It's either that or melt them down into clean copper clappers, an idea that leaves me with that zinc-ing feeling.

Permalink to this item (posted at 10:17 AM)
1 August 2007
Or you could just buy less crap

Who didn't see this coming?

A first-of-its-kind credit card has been unearthed that contributes a portion of card purchases to buy greenhouse gas emissions offsets. GE Money [has] launched the Earth Rewards Platinum MasterCard which enables cardholders to contribute a full one percent of their card net purchases to GHG emission reduction projects; or contribute one-half of one percent to reduction projects and receive one-half of one percent cash back through their monthly statements. Cardholders will be able to switch back and forth between reward programs whenever they choose, at no cost and with no loss of rewards. GE says if 100,000 cardholders spend $750 per month, the annual greenhouse gas credits retired would be the equivalent to removing more than 175,000 cars from American roads for one year.

Interest on $1000 for a year: $180.

Rewards on $1000 for a year: $10.

That smug feeling you get from your dubious environmentalism: priceless.

Permalink to this item (posted at 1:56 PM)
3 August 2007
Surrender the plastic

If you're not keen on giving out your credit-card numbers, you can probably relate to this:

I received a free iTunes download from Ticketmaster this morning. To retrieve said download, an Apple account had to be created.

And, of course, Apple wants to know how they're going to collect from you — even if they're giving you a freebie.

I used to advise people to get a card with a very low limit just for such occasions; yes, I know that you're not going to have to eat any illegal transactions, but there's a certain satisfaction in sticking it to identity thieves. At the time, I had a MasterCard with a whopping $100 limit, which I used for all manner of low-level Net transactions. Unfortunately, I was diligent in making payments, and now that card has a $12,500 limit, and I'd just as soon AverageOnlineMerchant dot com didn't have any record of it.

So I'm thinking maybe an American Express gift card, say $25 worth. (I get one of these every few months for spending some ungodly sum on my Amex.) It acts pretty much like any other American Express card, and once you get tired of it, it's easy to burn off somewhere.

The alternative — you get freebies without having to sign up for anything — is too remote a possibility to consider.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:23 AM)
16 August 2007
With which you can buy Hello Kitty stuff

It's the official Hello Kitty Platinum Visa.

This will have to do, as Popgadget says, "until Hello Kitty takes the final step toward total world domination and starts printing her own currency."

In Kitty we trust.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:49 AM)
Creditors dodged

A chapter in the forthcoming Household Credit Usage: Personal Debt and Mortgages suggests that buyers of American cars are more likely to default on auto loans than are import buyers.

Loans secured for European cars and Japanese cars are 50 percent and 56 percent, respectively, less likely to default than loans on American cars.

The authors looked at the performance of 6,996 auto loans from January 1998 to March 2003. In addition to the probability of default being higher for American cars, their results show that loans on European cars are the least likely to be prepaid, followed by loans for Japanese makes.

The authors suggest that, just as insurance companies base rates on the make and model of the car being insured, banks should consider dropping their "house rates" for auto loans and adjust interest rates according the type of car being financed.

That scream you heard is Bob Nardelli trying to move 100 days' worth of Jeep Commanders.

For the life of me, I can't imagine why there would be such a difference between domestic and import buyers, though the research offers some hints:

  • Purchasers of American cars were older (45 years versus 41 and 38 for purchasers of European and Japanese cars, respectively).

  • Purchasers of American cars borrowed more relative to the purchase price (80 percent versus 65 percent and 76 percent for purchasers of European and Japanese cars, respectively).

  • European car purchasers had higher monthly incomes on average ($4,625) than either American ($4,024) or Japanese ($4,114) car purchasers.

The second of these points seems the most salient, since not only is there greater loan exposure, but the domestics tend to depreciate faster. Still, the default rate isn't extraordinarily high: 4.7 percent for the domestics, say the authors. Perhaps a factor is the remarkably high level of incentives Detroit offers to move the iron off the dealers' lots, which might encourage people to buy costlier vehicles than they can actually afford. But this isn't entirely a domestic phenomenon, either: Mitsubishi took a half-billion-dollar bath on an attempt to build market share by aggressively courting subprime borrowers.

So this is interesting, I suppose, but I await further data. In the meantime, if anyone's interested, the last time I bought a car (June '06) I put down 44 percent of the purchase price. It was, however, a Japanese car.

Permalink to this item (posted at 2:45 PM)
21 August 2007
The designated-Visa rule

News Item: Bank of America has become the first "Official Bank of the NFL" in the U.S. and has introduced the "NFL Checking" program that includes "Check Cards" and checks designed specifically for the pro football fan.

Well, okay. Pardon me while I stifle a yawn.

What I'd really like to see is for a bank to strike a deal with half of a sports league. Forget the minor details about how none of the major leagues would actually countenance such a thing, or how banks, once they get to a certain size, have a tendency to take their customer base for granted. I want to see, for example, an Official Bank of the National League, and an Official Bank of the American League, and I want to see them going head-to-head in their advertising throughout the baseball season, especially during All-Star Week and the World Series.

Hey, it's less contrived than the Bud Bowl.

Permalink to this item (posted at 5:25 PM)
11 September 2007
Maybe it fell between the sofa cushions

There's something a trifle disquieting about this:

Cash slips through the pockets of Americans each day and by the end of the week memory fades. A new survey has found that 48% of Americans suffer from "mystery spending." The VISA USA survey found that Americans lose track on average of $2,340 annually. Nearly half of consumers say they can't account for more than one-third of their cash, spending an average of $120 in a typical week, but losing track of $45.

I am no one's idea of a great money manager, but here is every cent I spent yesterday:

  • Breakfast, such as it was: $2.05
  • Copay for doctor's appointment: $30.00
  • "Can I bum a buck, or a buck and a half?" $2.00
  • Packet of crackers to go with lunch (Dinty Moore stew): $0.75

Thirty-four dollars, eighty cents, nicely accounted for, and I'll get the $2 back soon enough.

Of course:

VISA obviously suggests that the cure for "mystery spending" is to put small transactions onto plastic.

Out of sight (until the bill comes), out of mind, I guess.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:56 AM)
16 September 2007
Icahn has cheezburger?

Well, maybe not that specifically, but investor/corporate raider (depends on your point of view, I guess) Carl Icahn has a finger or two in literally dozens of financial pies. (Warning: The interactive graph, says the little popup box, works in Internet Explorer only.)

One company controlled by Icahn these days is ImClone Systems, which developed the anti-cancer drug Erbitux. A couple years before Icahn's takeover, ImClone had been embroiled in an insider-trading scandal, the very one which got Martha Stewart sent to Club Fed.

Disclosure: You'd never have read this, had this title not occurred to me.

Permalink to this item (posted at 1:44 PM)
16 October 2007
Trick or debit?

A survey by VISA says the average consumer will spend $40 on Halloween this year.

I'd like to think that somewhere out there, somebody is compensating for my chintziness.

Permalink to this item (posted at 10:31 AM)
19 October 2007
No blue and gold stripes, though

About fifty years ago, Bank of America (the original, San Francisco-based version) brought forth a new credit card, which would be operated by banks rather than stores, and which would be acceptable at all sorts of places that had never taken credit cards before. It was called BankAmericard, and B of A licensed the premise to seemingly every bank on the planet. (The holdouts eventually created a card of their own.) In 1977, all the BankAmericard variants, including B of A's, were united under the Visa trademark, and the name got shoved back into a corner somewhere.

Today, Bank of America (the much-merged, Charlotte-based version) is reviving BankAmericard as a rewards-based credit card. It's a Visa.

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:46 PM)
1 November 2007
Bankers' hours

In the best of all possible worlds, they'd be 24/7/365. We're not there yet by any means, but this is kind of heartening in a perverse sort of way.

Earlier this week I dropped a check payable to me in the night depository at Monolithic Bank and Trust Company (Member FDIC). Historically, I knew to expect a certain amount of hold time, and that the bank would send me a letter telling me exactly when that hold time would expire.

Which, it turns out, is the third of November. A Saturday.

They're still not accustomed to this sort of thing — if I pay most bills using their online facility on Saturday night, it will be Monday before the actual payments are posted — but this is progress, however small.

One other promising sign: If you also have one of their credit cards, you can pay the bill online up to 8 pm Eastern on the due date and it will still be on time. However, perhaps to offset this advantage, they're twiddling the due dates so they don't always fall on the same day of the month. (I've experimented with this: a bill paid at 6:55 pm Central was in fact credited the same day. Wait ten minutes, though, and you might as well wait 24 hours — or 23:50, anyway.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:53 AM)
6 November 2007
Living in debasement

The greenback is kinda brown these days, and while government figures go to great lengths to indicate otherwise, the real culprit is not hard to spot:

The 1964 silver dime weighed 0.1 ounce. In 1964, three of them would buy a gallon of gas anywhere in New York. What would they buy today?

Well, according to Kitco, which tracks the prices of precious metals, silver closed on Friday at $14.49 per ounce. Three silver dimes == 0.3 ounces == $4.35 worth of silver. That would buy 1.45 gallons of 2007 gasoline: 45% more than it did in 1964.

Clearly, the real price of gasoline has gone down, not up. The apparent increase in its price is really the deterioration of the dollar, which has been deliberately inflated to pay for the ever-expanding appetite of government.

Not to mention the deterioration of the dime, which is now made of some nickel/copper combination that's worth less than either alone, if only because of the expense of separating the two.

Although the W-2 for the wages of this sin can be found elsewhere in the piece:

For example, a house comparable to the one your Curmudgeon owns, which recently appraised for $400,000, on which he pays $10,000 annually in property taxes, would have cost about $30,000 [in 1964], and would have incurred property taxes of about $450 per year.

The price of this house has risen thirteenfold and change; the taxes have gone up twenty-two times.

Of course, these numbers were recorded in the Vampire State, as Akaky Bashmachkin calls it; your mileage may vary, though probably not enough to make you want to break into song.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:55 AM)
15 November 2007
The perfect quinceaŮera gift

What she really wants is a gift card:

Retailers are seeing an increase in the cash value of gift cards received by Hispanics.

According to Comdataģ Stored Value Solutions (CSVS) fifth annual gift card survey, Hispanics received gift cards with the highest average value among ethnic groups at an average balance of $71, compared to $41 for Caucasians and $60 for African-Americans. The Hispanic total was a $33 increase over last year.

The study also revealed that 26 percent of Hispanics surveyed report giving gift cards to children as a budgeting tool or to use as an allowance.

The higher-value cards don't mean they're stinting on their own contributions, either:

Hispanics are most likely to spend more than the value on their cards, adding their own money to increase their purchasing power. 69 percent of those surveyed indicate they often or always spend more than the amount of the card, compared to 52 percent of Caucasians and 44 percent of African-Americans.

And you probably won't see any of them trying desperately to use up exactly the value of a card, either.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:54 AM)
20 November 2007
Greyed out

"Black Friday"? Meh:

While there is a major focus on retail shopping data for "Black Friday" (November 23rd) and "Cyber Monday" (November 26th), the peak holiday shopping day will likely be Saturday December 22nd. Based on historical shopping patterns, the week of December 17-23 will produce the highest level of holiday sales. Furthermore, the holiday shopping period has been expanding as many consumers and retailers shift to the holiday mode shortly after Halloween rather than after Thanksgiving. Payment card usage from prior years indicates that "Black Friday" and "Cyber Monday" do not even rank among the top five busiest holiday shopping days.

Where would we be without the last minute?

Then again, there was an actual backup on the Distressway westbound yesterday afternoon: apparently not everyone is hip to the new barrier-enforced traffic pattern. Somebody is trying to get the jump on things.

Update, 3:30 pm: Head Farker Drew Curtis explains how it works:

Almost every product with a huge markdown on Black Friday falls into two categories:
  1. Items for which the manufacturer has paid a big premium to the retailer to be the first thing the store's media liaison mentions when media comes calling for quotes about the sales, or

  2. Crap.

These two categories, of course, need not be mutually exclusive.

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:08 AM)
26 November 2007
Choosy treehuggers choose plastic

Or so it seems:

Last year, 28.6 million real Christmas trees were sold in the United States at an average price of $40.50, according to the National Christmas Tree Association. Americans also bought 9.3 million fake trees at an average price of $68.

Well, of course. Real trees don't have any resale value, except perhaps to someone with a woodburning stove.

(Via Bitter Bitch.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 11:03 AM)
28 November 2007
Where the dollars are

It wasn't that long ago when you couldn't even have branch banks in Oklahoma, the sort of policy which discouraged out-of-state banks from competing — which, I have to assume, was the whole idea. Now that this rule and some others have been scrapped, you might wonder if the Big Boys from the Coast have taken over.

Don Mecoy reports in the Oklahoman that no, they haven't:

Oklahoma and its largest metropolitan areas are highly competitive banking markets, Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. statistics show. Oklahoma had the fifth-lowest concentration in its banking market in 2004, the FDIC said.

The state's largest bank, Bank of Oklahoma, controls just more than 11 percent of deposits, and the five biggest institutions manage about one-third of all deposits. By contrast, the five largest banks in Texas hold more than half of all deposits. In Arizona, the three largest banks control nearly two-thirds of state deposits.

Things I noticed:

  • We still prefer our homegrown banks. The top three — BOk, MidFirst and BancFirst — are all based in Oklahoma. And the out-of-state bank with the greatest market penetration is Arvest, right next door in Arkansas.

  • None of the aforementioned Big Boys from the Coast has scored 5 percent of the market; Bank of America comes closest, at 4.59 percent.

  • If you were wondering if everything's going to BOk, well, they've got a long way to go before they become the 800-lb gorilla of the state.

One of the Big Boys bought out my bank, and I haven't moved. Yet.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:57 AM)
4 December 2007
An ill-starred venture

The Federal Reserve, says Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), should get into the business of rating credit-card offers on a 1-to-5-star scale. For some reason, this hasn't made it to his Web site yet, but the Minnesota Daily published this overview of the proposal:

The Credit Card Safety Star Act of 2007 would allow the Federal Reserve System to rate credit cards on a scale of one to five stars, with five being the safest for customers.

Credit card companies that raise interest rates without informing customers might receive a one-star rating — more stars means less risk for consumers.

In a press release about the proposal, Wyden said he believes confusing credit card agreements can disguise requirements that result in higher payments and fees.

John Hall of the American Bankers Association is doubtful:

"We feel this proposal may be premature because the Fed Reserve is undergoing a two-year project to improve the regulations that banks must obey regarding disclosure of credit card terms and fees and rates," he said.

Credit card disclosures are typically full of legal jargon, Hall said, because banks' lawyers recommend they follow the regulations set by the Federal Reserve "to the letter" so they aren't legally responsible for any problems. He said if the Federal Reserve changes the regulations, disclosures might become less confusing.

And I wonder how long it will take before Crappy Bank and Trust Company (Member FDIC) starts looking for a way to sue the Fed after getting a star and a half — ten, twenty minutes?

Back in May, Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) came up with an industrial-strength rewrite of the credit-card regulations, which I mentioned briefly here; last I looked, Levin's bill had never made it out of committee. Quelle surprise.

(Suggested by Fark.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:56 AM)
That foreign-transaction business

Copied from my mid-February post:

Subject to final Court approval, a settlement has been reached in In re Foreign Currency Conversion Fee Antitrust Litigation (MDL 1409). This web site supplies information about the litigation and the settlement, and provides links to relevant documents for Members of the Settlement Classes and others interested in the settlement.

The lawsuit is about the price cardholders of Visa-, MasterCard-, or Diners Club-branded payment cards were charged to make transactions in a foreign currency, or with a foreign merchant, between February 1, 1996 and November 8, 2006. Plaintiffs challenge how the prices of credit and debit/ATM card foreign transactions were set and disclosed, including claims that Visa, MasterCard, their member banks, and Diners Club conspired to set and conceal fees, typically of 1-3% of foreign transactions, and that Visa and MasterCard inflated their base exchange rates before applying these fees. The Defendants include Visa, MasterCard, Diners Club, Bank of America, Bank One/First USA, Chase, Citibank, MBNA, HSBC/Household, and Washington Mutual/Providian.

I did turn in a claim form at the time: the Administrator has now sent out a letter explaining three options for receiving payments from the settlement fund, and I took the one requiring the least paperwork.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:27 PM)
20 December 2007
How foreign a transaction?

MasterCard calls them "multilateral interchange fees," and the European Union has ordered the credit-card giant to scrap them.

The fees, generated by cross-border transactions, bring in an estimated €10 billion a year, and, says the EU, customers wind up paying the tab:

The European competition commissioner Neelie Kroes said that consumers effectively ended-up footing the bill, "as they risk paying twice for payment cards: once through annual fees to their bank and a second time through inflated retail prices paid not only by card users but also by customers paying cash".

MasterCard will appeal the ruling, which may next be extended to archrival VISA Europe. This is not, so far as I can tell, related to the class-action suit against VISA, MasterCard and their issuing banks in the States over foreign-transaction fees.

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:01 AM)
25 December 2007
Another wall to break down

I did enough time at the phone company to know the litany: business services are priced high so as to subsidize residential services and keep those prices low. This might have even made sense in, oh, 1980 or so. Not anymore:

It's critical to get rid of prices that discriminate against businesses. Far as I know, all phone and cable companies in the U.S. still charge through the nose for "business" service that is hardly any different than home service. For example, Verizon's FiOS (fiber) for Business prices are far higher than for their ordinary consumer service. To the company's credit, it's beginning to offer symmetrical service for both consumers and businesses. But the consumer/business distinction needs to go away. The sum of production coming out of homes will make the "consumer" label an archaic misnomer.

Be it noted that I have a lot more bandwidth at Surlywood than at 42nd and Treadmill — downstream, anyway. (My uploads are capped at 600 kb, and I mean 599.9; the T1 line at work is 1.5 mb in either direction.)

Eventually, I suppose, you're going to have to deal with both a line company and a bandwidth company: transport and traffic will be two separate services. But I don't expect the dinosaurs to become extinct overnight.

Permalink to this item (posted at 12:11 PM)
31 December 2007
Refi your Ford, sir?

I spent most of my life not having car payments, and I miss that. When World Tour '06 ended in a pile of sheetmetal and coolant (and a separate pile of venison), I'd chalked up a little over a year and a half in that happy state, and the worst thing about shopping for replacement wheels was the certain knowledge that I'd be back on the treadmill again for another five years.

Okay, four years. Two and a half to go. Admittedly, it's a smaller squeeze each month, inasmuch as I put almost all the insurance settlement into the down payment, but a squeeze it is, just the same, and I'm not anxious to prolong it. It's not an uncommon reaction:

When I needed to own a car, I remember that you looked forward to finally paying the car off, so that you had at least a year or two car-payment free before getting on the new-car carousel again. Looks like that's out the window these days. Instead, we're left with a perpetual payment model that carries a timebomb of macro-economic proportions.

And it's the same sort of bubblicious nonsense that's contributed so much to the national housing market, but with a nastier twist:

In the housing game, the assumption was that the piece of property bought would rise in value — not an unreasonable assumption, given real estate's traditional security as an asset. But that notion is laughable when it comes to cars, because common knowledge holds that a vehicle depreciates the second it rolls off the dealership lot. So the constant trade-ins and roll-overs had nothing at all to do [with] even the illusion of building equity — it's pure consumerism, disguised as upgrades in reliability.

Which explains much about why I bought a used pre-owned experienced vehicle this time around: someone else had already eaten most of the depreciation. (I paid 40 percent of the original sticker price.) Still, I'm not even thinking about trading in this none-too-wee beastie any time in the next thirty months, so long as it's running well, which at the moment it is despite 104,000 miles on the clock.

Permalink to this item (posted at 11:30 AM)
2 January 2008
Which explains their current state

Apparently the fact that CompUSA is liquidating has not motivated them to mend their ways on their deathbed. Witness the following:

I saw a pack of DVD-R blanks with a couple of different price tags on it. There was one that said $4.99, and partially on top of that, one that said $9.99. The shelf signs offered another 15% off of that.

Upon taking it to the register, I was told that it was in fact $9.99. When I inquired, I was asked how they couldn't tell if I'd applied the $4.99 sticker myself. I pointed out that it had the same item number, and was partially underneath the higher price tag.

"Oh yeah. I guess you couldn't have done that then." The girl informed me that she was unable to give me the lower, marked price.

I remarked how good a deal it was for them — do a 100% markup on the product, then offer a 15% discount. Nicely done guys.

Heck, they could double the price, then mark it off 40 percent, and make it look even better.

Then again, these are the folks who once tried to sell me a service contract on an SD card.

Permalink to this item (posted at 4:35 PM)
8 January 2008
Grading on the demand curve

"We are always very disappointed if we see retailers that are pricing the Wii or any of our products above the MSRP price."

So said Reggie Fils-Aimé, Nintendo's American boss, and apparently he was sufficiently disappointed to do something about it. Kotaku reports:

On December 14th, Nintendo President Reggie Fils-Aimé held a conference call to address the growing problem of Wii shortages, detailing the company's plans to get customers matched up with systems by any means necessary. First came the raincheck system, which allowed customers a chance to pre-purchase the machine at GameStop stores across the country, with the understanding that they would be guaranteed a system by the end of January.

Then he announced that seven retail outlets — Best Buy, Target, Wal-Mart, Sears, Kmart, Toys R Us and Circuit City — would have the coveted consoles in stock that weekend, revealing that stores had been stockpiling the systems for a massive, last-minute flood.

While the rainchecks met with varying success due to limited ability, the flood of systems that weekend had a huge effect on the eBay market.

This is the sound of a bubble bursting:

On December 17th, according to my data ...11,016 Nintendo Wii consoles were sold on eBay, for an average price of $368 — the first time the price had dropped below $400 in a month.

There is, however, a practical limit to how much a manufacturer can rein in either retailers or the secondary market, as Nissan is finding out:

Nissan was considering voiding the warranty of any GT-R resold in its first 12 months on the road, but has since abandoned that idea. "We've talked about ways to stop eBay sales by restricting the transfer of the new car warranty to the next buyer for at least six months," said Eric Anderson, Nissan's North Central Region vice president. "But we gave up on that idea because it would have been unfair to the guy who found he really had to sell his car sooner."

Anderson continued by saying there is nothing Nissan can do about dealer markups — which are expected to be at least $15,000 — either. "We'll counsel dealers on why they shouldn't, but there's no way we can stop them from doing it," Anderson said.

Excluding the inevitable "destination charge," the GT-R will list for $69,850, or about the price of 280 Wiis — at MSRP, anyway.

Permalink to this item (posted at 10:52 AM)
15 January 2008

I regard myself as largely a defensive person, so you might think that my 401(k) investments tend toward the conservative, and indeed they do; I don't realize huge returns except in the most bullish of markets, but I seldom lose much for very long.

To keep a bustle in my hedge funds requires a little bit of work and an enormous amount of patience. Over the years I have stashed retirement cash in six different accounts, all of which are currently active and three of which are currently receiving new deposits — and none of which lost money last year, even my bond/mortgage fund. (The worst performer in the portfolio was a large-cap blend under Goldman Sachs management, which squeaked out a gain of 0.62 percent for the year despite fourth-quarter stock-market woes.)

The fund manager, hoping to whip up some anxiety, advises that I will require X dollars per month in retirement, despite the fact that I'm earning only about 0.75X while actually working. Either they're expecting some serious inflation, or they're making some dubious assumptions, and I lean toward the latter, since the figure is based on retirement at 65 and people born in 1953 can't draw full Social Security until age 66. Further, they expect my salary to go up three percent a year between now and the Distant Future, which isn't likely: my pay is limited by, among other factors, my unfortunate choice of ancestors.

In point of fact, I can't imagine retiring at all; more likely, I'll drop dead some night at the office and the proceeds will be rolled into my estate, and then rolled right back out again to pay the bills.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:17 PM)
16 January 2008
From the Advice to Customers file

When your credit card fails to pass muster during an Internet purchase, "my doofus Web host inadvertently double-billed me for a year in advance" is much more plausible an explanation than "there's something in your software that makes it misread the expiration dates."

Just saying.

Permalink to this item (posted at 11:26 AM)
18 January 2008
Not that we expect you to do this

Two paragraphs out of Business Week:

In a Manhattan apartment that costs $1,600 a month or more to rent, you'd be lucky to have a separate bedroom, a dishwasher, and a living room that fits a full couch.

Get a job transfer to Oklahoma City and a 1,228-square-foot three-bedroom apartment in a luxury development with its own clubhouse, hot tub, and swimming pool can be yours for only $989 a month.

There are, of course, other differences.

Permalink to this item (posted at 10:22 PM)
20 January 2008
Farging speed demon

Well, this is fun. For the first time in I don't know how long, I've actually gotten all my tax documentation together by the 20th of January; I've done the preliminary guesstimate, and I'm ready to hit up my regular e-filer.

My regular e-filer, however, is not ready; they won't be opening up until tomorrow, and the sign-in form has been disabled for now.

Sheesh. Then again, it's a holiday (bless you, Dr King), so they'll probably do some serious business. Me, I get to work about nine hours and then trundle off to the dentist. And won't he be surprised: for the first time in I don't know how long, I have actual dental insurance to cover some as-yet-undetermined fraction of the price.

Permalink to this item (posted at 4:12 PM)
24 January 2008
In other words, give us 50 cents

AT&T announces that they will occasionally siphon another half a buck fom me:

Effective March 12, 2008 the Carrier Cost Recovery Fee rate will increase from $0.99 to $1.49 per month in which you have state-to-state and/or international charges on your AT&T Long Distance Telephone Account. This fee helps recover costs associated with providing state-to-state and international long distance service including expense for national regulatory fees and programs, and connection and account servicing charges.

This fee is not a tax or charge imposed or required by any government entity.

Of course, we have plenty of those too.

At the top of this is a block reading "To view your Terms & Conditions for AT&T Long Distance, access www.att.com/public_affairs or call 1 888 225-8530 to have a copy mailed." This URL is, to be charitable, misleading; there's nothing within two screens of there that even comes close. Fortunately, there are search engines for this sort of thing, so if you really want to read about the CCRF, here's the official version, and here's what it actually means.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:07 AM)
26 January 2008
A better stimulus package?

It will never fly — people who've never saved a dime wouldn't get a cent — but I like the sound of it. As posted by John Ellis:

It's the brainchild of one Leonard Yablon, my neighbor and friend and the former CFO of Forbes. And it goes like this:
  1. Allow individual 401K withdrawals of $12,000 for the next 100 days.
  2. Individual withdrawals up to $12,000 will be tax free.
  3. The result should be an immediate infusion of $120-180 billion into the economy.
  4. Which should stabilize the markets.

Before you ask: yes, I could do that. I'm loath to screw with retirement income, generally, but I figure the bulk of it is going to end up in my estate anyway.

Mickey Kaus calls it "exceptionally Republican ... but exceptionally fast."

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:22 AM)
28 January 2008
Direct marketing with heft

Local tree services, in the wake of the December ice storm, are doing land-office business these days. (In fact, just about everyone is doing land-office business these days, with the exception of actual land offices. Go figure.) The competition is fierce, and how do you get noticed?

One operation took this approach: they wrapped one of their business cards around a rock of appropriate size, dropped both into a small Ziploc bag, and lobbed the bag into neighborhood yards. You can't miss it: the card is blue, which makes for easy contrast against dormant vegetation. And it was very close to where they generally throw my newspaper, which suggests that they went to considerable effort to make sure it was within my line of sight when I stumbled out the door to bring in the news, or at least as much effort as was consistent with not actually getting out of the vehicle on the way down the street.

This is the first time I've seen this particular promotional, um, pitch. I suspect, though, it's been around for a while and I just never happened to be on the receiving end.

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:00 AM)
31 January 2008
We're just holding it for safekeeping

Rep. Ken Luttrell (D-Ponca City) has come up with a measure to require mortgage holders to pay interest on escrow accounts.

Mike McCarville's précis:

House Bill 2594, by Luttrell, would require lenders to pay a portion of the interest earnings to the consumer whose money is funding the account. Under the bill, each lender holding funds in an escrow account would be required to pay the borrower dividends or interest at least once per quarter, calculated at a rate equal to at least 50 percent of the one-year Treasury Note rate or "rate of a comparable instrument." The lender could not deduct any charge for service from the interest or dividend payment. At least once a year, lenders would be required to provide mortgagors a financial statement showing the interest credited on the escrow account.

Immediate thought: How would they calculate the interest? Average daily balance? I know that my escrow account is fairly meager this time of year, grows substantially through the spring and summer, and is depleted in the autumn as the insurance and tax bills fall due.

So I went to look at the bill itself [link goes to RTF file] and found that yeah, that's pretty much what they have in mind:

The interest shall be computed on the daily balances in the account from the date of receipt to the date of disbursement and shall be credited to the account as of the last business day of each quarter of a calendar or fiscal year. If the account is closed or discontinued before the last business day of a quarter of a calendar or fiscal year, interest shall be computed and credited as of the day the account is closed or discontinued.

I won't make a ton of money off this deal should it pass — seldom does my escrow account exceed $2000 — but I like the idea. Now I'm waiting for someone to complain that this will make mortgages harder to obtain, and that (you knew this was coming) women and minorities will be hardest hit.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:09 PM)
16 February 2008
Phaux phish

So I opened up an email which claimed to be from my bank, telling me I need to change my user ID, and after going through it with the proverbial fine-toothed comb, I determined that it actually was from my bank, telling me I need to change my user ID. I duly logged on through the regular channel, rather than using any links in the mail itself, and sure enough, they want a more-complex logon to suit their New and Improved Security Measures. Sixteen characters apparently qualified as "not enough." I cut it back to twelve and threw in some heavy shift-key action; they didn't complain, so I assume this was adequate.

Shakespeare, of course, anticipated identity theft:

Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls:
Who steals my purse steals trash; 'tis something, nothing;
'Twas mine, 'tis his, and has been slave to thousands:
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him
And makes me poor indeed.

Well, okay, he might be enriched a little bit, but not as much as he'd like.

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:29 PM)
1 March 2008
One more banana

Today's assignment: burn up a gift card at the supermarket. Difficulty: I need fruits and vegetables, which don't always come neatly prepackaged and/or prepriced.

Last time I was faced with a dilemma of this sort, I wound up sacrificing $1.60, so this time I vowed to do better, and to do the math in my head. The problem, of course, comes with the unofficial scale in the produce department, which is accurate to approximately zero significant digits.

And I did better, using up all but thirty-nine cents. It occurred to me that if I'd gotten one additional banana I might have come closer, though two might have put me over the mark. Yes, it would have been simpler to go over and pay the difference in cash, but that's not how I roll.

There's a service called Gift Card Giver which takes these unused balances and puts them to good use, but they require that you mail in the actual card, and I am for some reason disinclined to use a 41-cent stamp to send off a 39-cent gift card.

Maine, meanwhile, is considering a measure that would mandate cash refunds on balances of $5 or less. A representative of the Hannaford supermarket chain argued before the state's Judiciary committee that such a rule "would negatively affect the economics of the gift card program," which qualifies, I think, as duh-worthy.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:28 PM)
3 March 2008
Guess the weight

With steak prices well into double digits, one local supermarket is fighting back with unit pricing: they have single ribeyes and New York strips, smallish ones, for a flat $5. I had them weigh one for me: just under nine ounces. This works out to around $9 a pound, which is two or three bucks cheaper than the stuff in the display case, and it's a reasonable size for a single person; the ones they usually cut on site tend to be 12-14 ounces, a bit more than I need at dinner time, and end up costing around ten dollars apiece. I'm not so adept that I can guess the weight of any given cut on the first try, but I'm not doing the strictest portion control either, so a little bit of variation either way won't bother me greatly.

There are, often as not, better deals to be had by buying the so-called Family Packs; but I have never quite warmed to the necessity of unwrapping the big package and rewrapping each individual piece separately.

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:56 AM)
5 March 2008
Always make it look official

I got yet another flyer from a mortgage company looking to drum up some refinance business, and they had this humongous data box on the side that contains "Property Value Est." and "Housing Zone." The "Value Est." is $91,683, which is $2800 more than the County Assessor came up with last year and about five grand short of this week's Zillow Zestimate. Conclusion: plausible. The "Housing Zone" is a four-digit number, which by some strange coincidence is duplicated in the address label: it's the +4 part of the nine-digit ZIP code. Conclusion: trying too hard.

Permalink to this item (posted at 11:21 AM)
14 March 2008
Can you change a five?

Obviously we can, but Sean Hackbarth doesn't like the new fin:

Our currency continues to get uglier and uglier. The new and "improved" five dollar bill is now in circulation. "Enhanced security features" fail to give the bill any elegance.

The same is true of any US airport, I submit.

But I can appreciate this after-the-fact comment:

I'm even opposed to the sans-serif font used on that purple "5." A serif font gives the bill more dignity and seriousness. If I want fun money Iíll go to Toys R Us.

(Via Little Miss Attila.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:07 AM)
15 March 2008
Why the mortgage industry is in trouble

Two words: dubious math.

I am advised by the folks who hold my note — yes, George Kaiser, I'm looking at you — that my "account has gone through an escrow analysis cycle" and their projected expenditures for the upcoming twelve months will deplete the funds in escrow by a total of eight cents. To compensate for this deficiency, they are raising my monthly payment by $1.80.

In actuality, I think they've slightly underestimated my property taxes for the year, so I'm not going to send off one of my famed Letters of Protest. Still, there remains annoyance at slightly above vestigial levels, due to the fact that they're getting 0.3x, where x equals the actual principal-plus-interest payment, to screw around with for several months before they actually cut checks to the county and the insurance agent.

Permalink to this item (posted at 10:40 AM)
19 March 2008
For which I will gladly pay you Tuesday

Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel is lowering the boom on the payday-loan industry:

McDaniel said he sent letters to about 60 companies running 156 payday lending outlets in Arkansas, telling them to cease and desist their practices.

The attorney general said he made the demand on the basis of two recent opinions from the state Supreme Court finding the high interest rates payday lenders' charge on short-term loans "unconscionable" and deceptive trade practices prohibited by the Arkansas Deceptive Trade Practices Act.

This could be arguable. On the one hand, Arkansas' usury law limits interest rates to 17 percent. But the 1999 act that first allowed check-cashing centers states that their charges for holding a post-dated check does not qualify as interest. In January, the Court ruled that the state's check-cashing act does not confer "blanket protection" on lenders.

One trick of the trade: partnering with out-of-state banks [link goes to PDF file] which are allowed to charge more than the Arkansas rate if their home state permits.

AG McDaniel says he requested written responses from the lenders no later than the 4th of April.

Permalink to this item (posted at 11:42 AM)
1 April 2008
The First National Bank of Spitzer

Actually, I have no idea where the former governor of New York stashes his cash, nor do I care, but for some reason I got this from my bank today and I wonder if it's fallout from the Adventures of Client #9:

As part of our continued effort to enhance online security, we've changed the way we process online payments or transfers, and have updated our online terms and conditions to reflect those changes.

The updated terms and conditions will be available online and will take effect April 13, 2008.

Here's a summary of what we're changing:

We may delay or cancel a request to transfer or charge money back to the Pay From or other account at our discretion including if the payment:

  • Looks suspicious or fraudulent
  • Appears to have incorrect amount or recipient information
  • Seems to duplicate another payment

Don't you be structuring, y'hear?

Permalink to this item (posted at 4:23 PM)
3 April 2008

I don't get it. Every other credit card I have, be it Visa, MasterCard, American Express, JCPenney fercrissake, can process an online payment from my bank in 24 hours. But not Washington Mutual.

I'm at a loss to explain this. I paid three bills last night after closing time (8 pm). Two of them are noted as withdrawals effective 3 April for payments on 4 April. WaMu, paid at the same time, is effective 3 April for a payment on the seventh. (And it's not one of those situations where the bank has to cut a check and send it on: those take five days and are clearly identified as such.) This won't make me late or anything, but it's perplexing.

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:04 AM)
5 April 2008
Policy matters

Don Mecoy writes in this morning's Oklahoman:

About one of every four vehicles on Oklahoma roads is uninsured, and there's not much that can be done to improve that, state officials say.

Oklahoma lawmakers have proposed and adopted a number of measures designed to punish uninsured motorists, but the state's rate of uninsured motorists has remained steady in recent years, said Lonnie Jarman, driver compliance director at the state Department of Public Safety. "In the 50 states and the District of Columbia, there is no one that has found the perfect solution," Jarman said.

Many motorists who fail to carry auto insurance do so because they can't afford it, Jarman said. "Most states have found regardless of what they try to do, it doesn't change that rate very much. The reason why that is, is because it's a social issue, the social issue being, 'I can't afford it'."

And this differs from health insurance — how, exactly? Yet you don't see anyone calling for government-operated Universal Auto Coverage.

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:40 AM)
8 April 2008
Who wears short shorts?

You do, young lady, if you care anything about the nation's economy:

Although there are scoffers, the hemline theory of market fluctuation has always been remarkably accurate. In the twenties and sixties skirts were high, and so was the economy. In the thirties and forties, as women tripped over their dresses, the market was in the tank, and the economy sputtered in slow motion.

Miniskirts and short shorts were all the rage in 1987. The designers then decided that short skirts were ridiculous and we had Black Monday.

And evidently we haven't learned:

This year long dresses are all over Milan, Paris, New York and London. Mid-calf skirts and floor skimmers are definitely the trend. And short shorts are far and few between.

This won't necessarily actually work, of course — correlation and causation have only a passing acquaintance with one another — but it couldn't hurt, could it? Besides, our leading hysterics scienticians say it's supposed to be hot this summer.

Permalink to this item (posted at 2:28 PM)
17 April 2008
It's better to travel

This was the title of the debut album by Swing Out Sister, featuring the sorta-seductive vocals of Corinne Drewery. In real life, it's more expensive to travel:

American Express Business Travel released its 2007 Business Travel Monitor data yesterday, an analysis of North America-based domestic and international air, hotel and car rental rates for 2007. Among results: The average domestic hotel rate increased last year to $157 from $141 in 2006, while the average international hotel rate for the year jumped $36 in the same period, to $266. International airfares rose from $1,707 in 2006 to $1,836 in 2007, while domestic fares were flat, rising by just $1 year-over-year, to an average of $231. The average daily cost for domestic car rentals rose 4.4 percent to $72.

I don't think I hit the "average domestic hotel rate" even once during World Tour '07. Then again, I don't have an expense account.

Last time I rented a car was 2006, between the wreck of one car and the acquisition of another; I didn't spend anywhere near $70 a day. And if I had spent $70 a day for a freaking Dodge Stratus, you could use the charge slip as evidence to have me committed to the Home for the Bewildered.

Permalink to this item (posted at 4:35 PM)
26 April 2008
Heralding an eventual BMI Tax

You can almost hear the author licking her chops at the prospect: What if nobody in America were fat?

We'd save billions of dollars in gas. Airlines would double their profits. A dearth of diabetes and other diseases would save billions of dollars more — and put thousands of doctors on the street. McDonald's would sell not Big Macs but little steamed chicken snacks — or watch its profits melt away. Productivity would rise, potentially creating tens of thousands more jobs or higher wages all around.

Add up the savings up on health, food, clothing and efficiencies, and you could buy a professional home gym for every U.S. household — or hand each $4,270 in cash.

Aside from the fact that every single item here is highly arguable, you still have to wonder: what's she got against doctors?

Let's look at just one of these claims:

If Americans were slim and maintained their weight by eating 150 fewer calories a day (half a slice of pizza), that could snip roughly 6.5%, or $20 billion a year, off U.S. farmers' sales (assuming no extra exports). Bob Young, the American Farm Bureau's chief economist, says farmers would cope. They'd switch some land from fattening seed oils and sugar beets to fruits and vegetables. Or they might grow corn for ethanol, or even open a hunting resort.

On the question of ethanol, this site's stand is as follows: Corn should be used to produce ethanol only in accordance with the Lincoln County Process.

If this looks like an awfully-thin argument, it's actually one of the better ones she throws in: the overall theme of the piece seems to be "You're fat, and you suck, and you're keeping me from getting my rightful $4,270."

Which is a kindly interpretation compared to HeatherRadish's:

Let's do a little thought experiment:
What if no one were black?
What if no one was gay?
What if no one were Jewish? (I think this has been written)
What if no one were old? (In the UK the NHS is working on it...)

I don't see how this is any different.

I suppose I've just opened myself up for "What if no one linked to stupid Web articles?"

Permalink to this item (posted at 2:20 PM)
2 May 2008
Squeaking by in Blighty

Emalyse reports on potential problems at the low end of Britain's wage scale:

James Lowman, head of the Association of Convenience Stores (ACS) worries that low paid workers in retail will may claw back their losses if the government chooses to reform the minimum wage as a way of making up for the abolition of the 10p tax rate.

There are already plenty of part time and full time workers who need to rely on additional state benefits in order to top up their low wage packets and the rates are already due to increase in October. The hourly rate for 18 to 21-year-olds will increase from £4.60 to £4.77, while the statutory wage for 16 and 17-year-olds will go up from £3.40 to £3.53. The rate for those ages 22 and over will increase by 21p to £5.73 per hour.

I found it interesting that the UK's minimum wage varies with the age of the wage-earner; we used to have a so-called "training wage" in the States, but the primary criterion was lack of experience, not age, and anyway it was allowed to die in 1993.

But what was fascinating about this was the backstory on the "abolition of the 10p tax rate." The Guardian (yes, yes, I know, I know) put out a Q&A page on the matter, and get a load of this:

The 22% tax rate is coming down to 20%, and the 10% tax rate for lower earners is being abolished altogether — forcing more than five million workers up into the 20% tax bracket.

There's only one other bracket: forty percent, which kicks in at £36,000.

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:03 AM)
14 May 2008
Flies didn't drop this fast

First it was the bloody dismemberment of CompUSA. Now comes the liquidation of PC Club, in comparably-dramatic fashion:

PC Club, a California personal computer retailing chain, filed Chapter 7 bankruptcy and shuttered 37 stores nationwide ... as well as its online ClubIT.com store on Tuesday.


2 years ago, the owner/founder (Jackson Lan) passed away after a long battle with cancer. Now it seems his dream passed with him. He had an outlook for PCC that never would have ended in this manner.

His brother took over the company, and shortly thereafter ~15 store were abruptly closed citing reasons of ineffectiveness. Of course many of these stores had yet to be open for 2-3 years. Those stores were in Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Colorado, etc.

Roughly about a month ago, maybe a little more — the current president, the vice-president, and a couple of regional mgrs were "separated" from the company. Then came a massive reorganization in which HQ was restructured from the top down. It seemed as if the company was consolidating and preparing an effort to return to the old days of focusing on the "brick and mortar" business that it was founded on. In the weeks following, cost cutting measures were implemented and more staff rearranged and removed Ö including the heads of accounting and HR. Still, we were all reassured that this was being done for the good of the company.

Then come the inventory issues. All stores in the company are running short of product and the distribution center has no inventory on hand. We are told this is because new purchase accounts are being established and the lull is only temporary. District managers are plainly telling store managers as recent as yesterday that inventory problems should be taken care of soon and that we may just have to deal with it for a couple of more weeks. In the mean time, customers continues to ask if we're going out of business — resellers are openly pissed about not being able to get product.

Then there's today. And all of you already know what happened. Senior management disappeared and were unreachable by the company attorney during the "meeting of doom". We closed the store, made final deposits, got our stuff, and left.

PC Club built me a machine a few years back. (How few? It was recent enough to have Service Pack 2 for XP in place.) Apart from blowing up a video card on day two, which they fixed in a couple of hours, it's been pretty reliable.

(Via SEKOconcepts.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:08 PM)
15 May 2008
Icahn has Yahoo?

Without making a fuss about it, Carl Icahn has piled up about 50 million shares of Yahoo!, about 3.6 percent of the company.

Now he's going to make a fuss: Icahn plans to nominate as many as ten directors to the Yahoo! board in an effort to prod the company into accepting a takeover bid.

Notes Paul Kedrosky:

I'm not surprised. I went through Yahoo's current board, asking myself who I would keep if I were Icahn ... and I couldn't come up with anyone. It's a faceless bunch who won't be missed.

I doubt this will be the mother of all proxy fights, but it ought to be interesting.

Addendum: MG Siegler at Venture Beat provides the appropriate artwork for the title.

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:08 AM)
21 May 2008
A bang-up selling job

Max Motors in Butler, Missouri has a promotion you don't see too often: buy a new car, get $250 worth of gas — or a handgun.

As Dave Barry might say, I am not making this up:

It seems the resourceful dealer is offering car buyers a solution for it all — and the gun is proving to be the popular choice with 80 percent of his customers choosing the firearm over free fuel. As expected, not everyone is happy. Considering most of his customers already own guns, [he] doesn't understand why people's feathers are getting all ruffled.

And no, they're not actually handing you the weapon with the keys:

Customers who choose the semi-auto pistol over the gas are handed a certificate that must be redeemed, after the requisite forms and background check are complete, at a local gun shop.

The promotion ends on the 31st.

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:32 PM)
31 May 2008
A slightly lighter millstone

The Federal Reserve Bank has been making noises about new rules for credit cards, and I'm beginning to think that card issuers are seriously running scared. Evidence? The following unexpected changes to some of my own accounts:

  • The worst card I have, in terms of interest rates, has dropped that rate by a point for no apparent reason. And no, it's not a variable-rate card.

  • Two issuers have sent me notifications that they are abandoning the practice of two-cycle billing.

  • I pay these bills through my bank's online service. Late Thursday night, I ordered a payment to American Express: the normal cycle on this would be to debit my account Friday, and the payment would be posted Monday. Amex in fact posted the payment today, and sent me an email to that effect.

This is not to say that they're turning into the Good Guys all of a sudden; I have to figure that they'll point to little incremental changes like this and tell the Fed, "See? We really don't need any new regulations."

Update, 1 June: On the other hand, incidents like this won't help their cause.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:44 PM)
6 June 2008
Oh, the reality of it all

I am now in receipt of the final bill for my brief trip to the ER back in April, and I noticed this blurb on the back:

For patients without insurance coverage, we are pleased to offer a 45% discount if the account balance is paid in full within 60 days from the date of service.

This excludes fertility treatments, but I didn't get them, and anyway fertility is just about the last thing I need.

So I did the math, as I often do, and had I been uninsured, they'd have settled my $3183 bill for $1751. As it happens, the actual amount they're getting, insurance plus my check, is $1785.

At least we now have an idea of what the care is really worth. Maybe.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:15 AM)
7 June 2008
The incredible shrinking vanilla

The 1.5-quart tub of Breyer's ice cream — previously 1.75 quarts, and before that an actual half-gallon — has finally shown up in my local store. Actually, I didn't mind the 1.75 so much, since it fit perfectly in my freezer door. But I'm pleased to note that my grocer of choice turned these things loose with an initial price tag of a mere $2.98. How long this will last, I don't know. Of course, if I wanted the Really Good Stuff and didn't want to make a separate run to Braum's, I'd have to shell out nearly $6 for Blue Bell, which won't fit in the door, but which is still a half-gallon.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:18 PM)
The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

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