The Most Expensive Cities in the World
Every year, The Economist magazine surveys the Worldwide Cost of Living, looking at 160 expense items across 133 countries. There are a lot of interesting tidbits to be found in the report, but perhaps the most interesting is a list of the most expensive cities in the world. In 2018, Singapore won this dubious honor. After that, it was a tie between Zurich, Switzerland and Paris, France, followed by 4) Hong Kong, 5) Oslo, Norway, 6) Geneva, Switzerland and Seoul, South Korea, 8) Copenhagen, Denmark, 9) Tel Aviv, Israel, and 10) Sydney, Australia.
No American city? The fact that the dollar fell against other currencies over the past year lowered the cost of living in places like New York (ranked #13) and Los Angeles (#14) when measured in global terms.
It turns out that there’s more than one way to measure “expensive,” however. A survey of 293 global population hubs, conducted by Demographia, took each area’s median house price and divided it by the median household income for people living in each city, in their own currency. If the average median income was $50,000 and the average home cost $250,000, then the median multiple would be calculated as 5.
Measured this way, American cities were well represented among the most expensive locations in the world. Hong Kong was the least affordable major city in the world, with a multiple of 19.4. Sydney, Australia (multiple: 12.9) finished a distant second, followed by 3) Vancouver, Canada (12.6), 4) Santa Cruz, California (10.4), 5) San Jose, CA (10.3), 6) Melbourne, Australia (9.9), 7) Santa Barbara, CA and Los Angeles, CA (9.4), 8) Honolulu, HI (9.2), 9) Salinas, CA (9.1) and Tauranga, Western Bay of Plenty in New Zealand (8.9).
How to Argue
These days, it seems like everybody is arguing about everything, and with perhaps a bit more… energy than in years past. And it turns out that most of us are going about our arguments all wrong.
Author Daniel Pink has pointed out that most of the arguments going on today involve two people articulating their points in an attempt to convince the other person, while hardly listening to the arguments being made by the other person. Both sides are assuming that the other person is ignorant of the facts, and try to provide the facts they think are missing—to a person who believes he or she has superior facts, and therefore is not likely to be convinced.
Pink points to several studies by two Yale professors which show that most people think they have a lot more facts, and know a lot more, than they actually do. A lot of their “facts” are actually assumptions or beliefs, and of course there is no reason for people to self-evaluate whether they actually have a solid factual groundwork for what they believe.
This is actually an efficient way to proceed through most areas of our lives; why learn the details of something (like, for example, how a sewing machine works, or a cylinder lock’s mechanism) when you can just put them to use? Why read the Constitution when you already know the gist of it? As the world gets more complex, more and more assumptions are made based on fewer and fewer pieces of concrete knowledge.
The cost of this mental efficiency, Pink argues, is that it makes it harder to discern the difference between what we believe and what we actually know.
So how does this relate to arguing? In your next argument, instead of trying to overcome somebody else’s beliefs with your own, and talking over each other without listening, invite the other person to explore deeply the facts behind their positions. What are the statistics and where did they come from? How would that proposal actually work in the real world, and where has it been tried before, and what was the outcome?
The goal, of course, is not to convince, but to soften the stance of the other person, and to be prepared to soften your own stance if it turns out you aren’t as confident of your facts as you imagined. Arguing becomes more a matter of mutual understanding that the world is more complicated and nuanced than the absolute positions that are so often articulated—which is a start toward what the goal of an argument should be: better self-knowledge and better understanding of each other and the world.
The Luck Factor
Why are some people wealthier or more successful than others? The default explanation has always been that the wealthier among us are more diligent and/or smarter or more talented than the less-wealthy, so that the cream eventually rises to the top.
The problem with this explanation is that the statistical variation in wealth is far greater than could be explained by all the observed variances in work, talent or intelligence.
Meaning? Eight individuals own as much wealth as the world’s poorest 3.8 billion people. 80% of the world’s wealth is owned by 20% of the people, and actually the wealthiest 1% own more than all the people who are below the 50% wealth level. These are numbers that simply cannot be explained by variations in work habits; in order for somebody to earn billions of times what others make, that person would have to work billions more hours. Similarly, our average IQ is 100, but there are no individuals with an IQ of 1,000, much less 1 billion. So how is it possible that some people have billions of times more wealth than others, even though they are not billions of times more diligent or intelligent?
The answer appears to be luck. A team of researchers at the University of Catania in Italy created a computer model of human talent and the way people use it to exploit the opportunities they encounter in life. The simulations introduced random good and bad opportunities—that is, good luck or bad luck—across the spectrum of simulated life careers, which means some simulated careers got more than their share of good luck, others of bad luck, just as some got more or less intelligence or work habits.
The results almost exactly reproduced what we see in real life: that is, after 40 years, 80% of the simulation’s wealth was in the hands of 20% of the simulated individuals. But when the researchers looked at the levels of talent programmed into these most successful individuals, they discovered that they were never the most talented, or most intelligent, or the most diligent. Those factors all improved success scores, but they were almost irrelevant compared with the one contributor that explained most of the difference in wealth: the number of good luck opportunities compared with bad luck setbacks that the simulated individuals encountered. The most successful individuals were the luckiest ones, and the least successful individuals were the unluckiest ones.
The research team is now turning its data set over to venture capitalists and those who fund scientific research, who are hoping that they can overcome certain biases when it comes to where to invest. But for the rest of us, especially those of us who have been successful in life, this is perhaps an opportunity to take on a dose of humility, and experience gratitude for the opportunities we’ve been given over our working lives.
Social Security, Where Budget Cuts Lead to Terrible Service
These days, trying to apply for Social Security benefits, or getting straight answers about what your best claiming strategy might be, is frustrating at best. Recently, Max Richtman, president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, illustrated the problem in vivid detail before the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee. When he began his testimony, he first dialed the agency’s toll-free telephone number. Twenty-five minutes later, he announced to the legislators that his phone was still on hold. A recorded message said that his wait would be about an hour.
Visiting the local office isn’t much better. Since 2010, annual budget cuts have reduced the SSA’s staffing by 3,500 employees, and funding under the FY2019 federal budget would result in a further reduction of 1,000 more. Congress has not confirmed a Social Security Administrator in the past five years.
Of course, by stretching the staff so thinly, our government has also compromised the quality of the advice that you receive about the very complicated possible claiming options involving spouses, survivors of deceased spouses and working individuals who wonder how much their yearly income will reduce their benefits if they claim early.
Mary Beth Franklin, author of a guidebook for financial planners entitled “Maximizing Your Clients’ Social Security Retirement Benefits” suggests that most claimants will get better advice from their financial planner than the overstressed, underpaid worker at the Social Security Administration. Once a claiming strategy has been identified, clarified and discussed, people can use the online system to fill out the documents that are needed to apply for benefits. Not all can do this, however; surviving spouses and surviving divorced spouses need to apply for survivor benefits over the phone or at their local Social Security office.
2018 First Quarter Market Report
Is the bull market finally over? For the first time in nine calendar quarters, the U.S. investment markets delivered a negative overall return. It was only a slight decline, but the decline reminds us that markets can and do go down from time to time.
After starting the year strong, the Wilshire 5000 Total Market Index—the broadest measure of U.S. stocks—finished the quarter down 0.76%. The comparable Russell 3000 index was down 0.64% for the first three months of the year.
Large cap stocks posted identical small losses. The Wilshire U.S. Large Cap index dropped 0.76% in value, while the Russell 1000 large-cap index fell 0.69%. The widely-quoted S&P 500 index of large company stocks dropped 1.22% in value during the year’s first quarter.
Meanwhile, the Russell Midcap Index fell 0.46% in the first three months of the year.
As measured by the Wilshire U.S. Small-Cap index, investors in smaller companies posted a 0.73% loss over the first three months of the year. The comparable Russell 2000 Small-Cap Index lost a bit of ground as well, falling 0.08% for the quarter. The technology-heavy Nasdaq Composite Index finished the quarter with a gain of 2.33%, making technology the standout performer of the year so far.
International stocks are fully participating in the downturn. The broad-based MSCI EAFE index of companies in developed foreign economies lost 2.37% in the recent quarter. In aggregate, European stocks were down 2.57% over the last three months, while MSCI’s EAFE’s Far East Index lost 0.67%. Emerging market stocks of less developed countries, as represented by the MSCI EAFE EM index, gained a meager 0.93% in dollar terms in the first quarter.
Looking over the other investment categories, real estate, as measured by the Wilshire U.S. REIT index, fell 7.42% during the year’s first quarter. The S&P GSCI index, which measures commodities returns, gained 2.37% in the first quarter.
In the bond markets, coupon rates on 10-year Treasury bonds have continued a slow but steady rise to 2.75%, while 30-year government bond yields have fallen slightly to 2.97%. Five-year municipal bonds are yielding, on average, 2.06% a year, while 30-year munis are yielding 3.01% on average.
What’s going on? The first quarter saw the first correction—that is, a decline of more than 10%–in three years, which dragged returns down from a roaring start to the year. Industry pundits have many triggering effects to point to, from chaos in the White House to the possibility of a global trade war, to fears of inflation or higher interest rates, to the simple fact that U.S. stocks have been priced much higher than their historical averages. They aren’t getting much explanatory data from the economic statistics; the unemployment rate is testing record lows and new jobs are being created at record levels. More importantly, annual earnings estimates for S&P 500 companies rose 7.1% during the first three months of the year—the fastest rise since FactSet began keeping track in 1996.
Ironically, the small downturn plus the jump in earnings may have forestalled a bigger corrective bear market later. The S&P 500, by some measures, is now trading at 16.1 times projected earnings for the next year, compared with 18.6 in late January when the markets were extraordinarily bullish. Stocks are not as overpriced as they once were, and the corporate tax cut could lead to higher reported earnings throughout the year.
Some are questioning whether the large cap indices fully reflect the overall U.S. economy these days. As mentioned earlier, the technology sector is generating positive returns. If you were to take Amazon.com, Microsoft, NetFlix, NVIDIA Corp., Cisco Systems and Apple, Inc. out of the S&P 500, the downturn would have been much worse, as companies like Procter & Gamble, Exxon Mobil and General Electric all lost value. As tech roars and more traditional companies see their shares losing value, technology makes up a greater portion of the capitalization-weighted indices, and its returns will have a higher impact in the future.
In any case, it appears that investors have become increasingly nervous about their stock investments. Over the past three months, the CBOE Volatility Index–the VIX index–widely known as Wall Street’s “fear gauge,” posted its biggest quarterly rise since the third quarter of 2011, jumping 81%. The VIX reflects option traders’ collective expectations for the S&P 500 index’s volatility over the coming 30-day period, and by this measure, traders had been very calm for the 18 months before early February. Now the VIX is at or near its historical average, which suggests that the equities markets are going to experience a totally normal bumpy ride going forward. This is a good time to fasten seat belts, and also consider whether you’d have the patience to ride out a bear market. We can’t predict when that will happen, of course, but I think everybody realizes that the bull market cannot last forever.
Wilshire index data: http://www.wilshire.com/Indexes/calculator/
Russell index data: http://www.ftse.com/products/indices/russell-us
Nasdaq index data:
International indices: https://www.msci.com/end-of-day-data-search
Commodities index data: http://us.spindices.com/index-family/commodities/sp-gsci
Treasury market rates: http://www.bloomberg.com/markets/rates-bonds/government-bonds/us/
Last year, it was hard to turn on your computer without reading about the dramatic rise in cryptocurrency values, or see advertisements for ways that you, too, could participate in this get-rich-quick opportunity to buy virtual money that is backed by no government on Earth.
It’s almost always the case that when an investment becomes wildly popular and experiences a dramatic runup in price, that is exactly the wrong time to invest. And it turns out that cryptocurrencies were no exception.
While the stock markets were dropping moderately in value, cryptocurrencies lost their owners an estimated $60 billion in the last week of March, including a $20 billion drop over one dramatic six-hour period. Bitcoins are trading below $7,000, and the trend is taking them toward their February 6 low—and, perhaps, further. In case you’re not up on other cryptocurrencies, there’s something called Ether (now $381 per coin); Bitcoin cash ($691.48); Litecoin ($116.27) and Ripple (49 cents).
The problem, as always, is figuring out whether these alternative currencies are actual investments. For now, there are very few stores which accept them as actual money. Bitcoin’s primary purpose in the marketplace has famously been to enable drug and weapons traffickers to buy and sell without leaving a paper trail for international police agencies to follow. Chances are, those markets are not of much interest to you or your portfolio, so it might be wise to watch this crytpo-mania play itself out from the sidelines.
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Colleen Weber is a fee-only financial advisor, CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ professional, and CPA with more than 15 years of financial planning experience. Providing comprehensive financial planning and wealth management, she specializes in serving clients nearing retirement, retirees, busy professionals, and women. She is passionate about developing financial plans that save clients on taxes, and investment strategies that help them pursue their goals. Learn more about Colleen by connecting with her on LinkedIn or booking a complimentary phone call meeting.
By Colleen Weber, CFP®, CPA
When we’re young, many of us don’t know what we want to do with our careers. While I had always been interested in the world of investments, financial planning, and tax planning, I wasn’t inspired by the jobs I was seeing.
After graduating from Mankato State University with a degree in accounting, I chose to work in the corporate world, working at various Fortune 500 companies. Up until the late 1990s, the only way to provide financial planning advice was to sell products and offer a limited amount of planning or advice. Despite my interest in the industry, I knew this wasn’t the type of role I wanted to fill. I had no interest in working as a salesperson or having to face conflicts of interest. I knew I wanted a practice that treated clients how I would want to be treated.
Economists and traders pay a lot of attention to something that probably doesn’t keep you up at night: the FOMC Minutes, or, in English, the summary of the discussion among decision-makers on the Federal Reserve Board, known as the Federal Open Market Committee.
What do they discuss? The health of the U.S. economy, the prospects for inflation, and whether interest rates should be raised or lowered. The latter issue, of course, is the reason for all the fuss; traders want to know if rates are going to go up faster than people expect, which might slow down the economy and reduce demand for stocks. Read More “Sunny Weather Forecast”