Monthly Archives: October 2015

Unlimited Vacation – Would it be Used or Abused?

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During my years as an HR Director, I was amused at the number of employees who would accrue massive amounts of unused vacation, as though they were storing nuts for the winter. These were often the same people who seemed chronically stressed out, displaying a lack of creativity in problem-solving and lacking the energy to get through an entire day. Clearly, they were not well-rested individuals.

Why do so many people refuse to take their vacation, I wondered? Could it be that their work was so fulfilling and engaging that they simply couldn’t drag themselves away? Or maybe there was a concern about being passed over for a raise or a promotion, a fear of being seen as a slacker by management.

Enter the Time-Off-When-You-Damn-Well-Please Approach

What would it look like if a company began offering their workforce unlimited vacation time, a protocol where employees are allowed to flee to enjoy leisure time in order to relax and reinvigorate their productive swagger? Certainly, this would be predicated on the employee being caught up with current work tasks. And anyway, most will be unable to resist the temptation to check in at work and maybe send an email or twenty while they’re off. So what the heck?

Questions such as these are being asked while the business networking site LinkedIn recently became the latest company to adopt the idea by offering what is affectionately known in the HR

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Tech Trifecta

Investing_moneyThe first question one must ask when looking to invest some money is, where to put it? This is true whether you are hoping to make a lot of money, to do something valuable with the money you have in savings while you’re not using it, or looking to support a business you believe in. It turns out that there may be a way to fulfill each of those three desires simultaneously: a tech trifecta, if you like. Investing in the tech industry might be just the thing for you. There are certainly lots of great technological ideas worth getting behind purely to support, but it’s also common knowledge that there is a lot of money to be made in the industry as well.

Last year, Facebook bought Oculus Rift for $2 billion. Oculus Rift famously raised over $2 million in crowdfunding through a Kickstarter campaign. The tech startup was not a publicly traded company so when they were bought by Facebook,

A Path to Riches or an Alluring Trap?

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I vividly remember a house in the neighborhood where I grew up as a kid. My friend Tony lived there. It was a massive structure, likely over 5,000 square feet, dwarfing all others in the area. This residence boasted a huge swimming pool (rare in Columbus, Ohio), a fish tank that took up an entire wall, and a foyer staircase that rivaled that of the von Trapp family mansion in the movie ‘Sound of Music’.

Because the property’s stature and opulence seemed an oddity for a lower middle class African-American community, I asked another neighborhood friend what Tony’s parents did for a living. “Oh“, came the response, “they’re involved in something called Multi-Level Marketing. I hear you can become quite rich in that business.”

So What the Heck is Multi-Level Marketing?

Just the other day, I mentioned to a friend of mine, who happens to be a millennial, that I was writing an article on Multi-Level Marketing. “What’s that? Never heard of it,” she retorted.

As a boomer, my awareness of MLMs is quite extensive. Back when I was young and impressionable, it seemed like profiteers in this industry were seeking me out on a regular basis. I was told that they were attracted to my gregarious personality and vast network of professional connections. Yet to this day, my understanding as to how it really works is shrouded in mystery.

Here is my own simple definition of MLM. Having signed up for the MLM of a certain product yourself, you then contact everyone you know – starting with family and friends – to persuade them also to sign up for the same MLM product (with you as the referring representative, of course), in the hope that they will sell enough product for you to be able to sit on your couch and watch tv while you reap the rewards of all their referral commissions.

I know, I know… .my definition is a bit warped. But consider it an honest portrayal of my experience with this over time.

My first direct exposure to MLM, a.k.a network marketing, was back in 1995 while I was living in Chicago. I got invited to one of those infamous events that was clouded in secrecy where what you’ve gotten yourself into isn’t revealed until you are seated with coffee and donut in hand. It was a cheesy print publication, a subscription report that featured randomly aggregated research information on society and the world. Surprisingly, tons of unsuspecting folks bought into it with the hope of accelerating their knowledge to become better informed citizens. Me? I attended a couple of meetings and had an uneasy feeling about what was about to go down. On my third visit, I was greeted by a sea of dour faces; they had all been taken financially by the founder.

My brief dalliance with this particular MLM company is not intended as a broad indictment of the entire industry. In fact, I’ve been involved with a wide spectrum of other MLM companies – primarily in the wellness products realm – that had a modicum of integrity and transparency. Some folks I know who were involved with these companies even saw success. But in my estimation, this success scenario was quite rare.

Good Intentions or Taking Advantage of Others?

An acquaintance of mine works with a very profitable MLM company called Vemma Nutrition. She’s a person with integrity who has worked hard to achieve success within the company. Sadly, the Federal Trade Commission just put a temporary strangle-hold on the company’s operations for operating what they deemed to be an illegal pyramid scheme. Company assets were temporary seized by an Arizona federal court. The primary charge against them hinged on their promising college students untold financial returns while selling nutritional drinks. According to the FTC, Vemma earned $200 million in 2013 and 2014. And the students? Well, they were not so lucky, as most were unable to even recover their initial investment in the company.

My Take on MLM Investment Opportunities

In short, if you are considering joining a MLM, I encourage you to tread slowly and keep your wits about you. Have some people seen a ROI in building a profitable business clientele? Certainly, there are some examples. But is it a path to riches? Personally, I believe that’s likely to happen less than 1% of the time. “

In Defense of Shrinking Airline Seats

CoachThe internet is abuzz about the new patent application from Airbus that reveals a concept which stacks passengers on top of each other – think bunk beds in coach class. The revelation conjures up images of ‘cattle cars’ and ‘sardines’, while renewing petitions for legislation to protect a minimum airline seat size. But is the popular narrative true that greedy airlines continue to cram in passengers like turkey stuffing, to extract as much profit as possible? Yes. But passengers are in favor of it – if it means keeping the cost of air travel down.

Patent applications like the one Airbus just filed are nothing new. Airlines and seat manufacturing companies always try to come up with creative new ways to fit in more passengers, such as the saddle seat and the hexagon concept. Airbus was quick to point out that they file hundreds of these kinds of patents each year, and the patent does not mean the new seats will be on your next flight. But would this really be such a bad idea?

Complaining about cramped air travel has become one of America’s favorite pastimes. It is true that seat size and passenger space has been declining while the average American traveler’s girth has been increasing. The seat pitch, which is the measurement from one point of a seat to the same point on the next seat, has shrunk 2 to 5 inches since 1985, while seat width has also shrunk a couple of inches.

Of course, the upside to all of this is that cost has come down…dramatically. Since 1985, the cost of an average domestic round-trip ticket has declined by an inflation-adjusted 30%! This is even after the airline deregulation that took place in the seventies. Going back just a few more years to 1978, we find that ticket prices have been nearly cut in half!

This leads us to a basic concept in economics. There are things we don’t like, or more accurately things we all wish we had or had more of, such as legroom on an airplane. The question is, at what cost? Alternatively, ask yourself how much are you willing to pay for that extra legroom?

Patience Tames the Beast

 stock market crash illustration with graph going down and bear As a child, I often recall adults saying “Patience is a virtue,” or “Good things come to those who wait.” Living in a society whose zeitgeist revolves around the individual and instant gratification, patience tends to fall by the wayside. While there is inherent importance in risk-taking in order to achieve greatness, sometimes simply biding your time is the best thing to do. One of the caveats of playing the stock market is its incredibly volatile nature; you mess with the bull, you get the horns. To become a wise investor, you need an equal measure of risk-taking and knowing when to be patient. 

What Causes Volatility?

In terms of a volatile market, we have to look at both the short and long-term fluctuations of market value. The simplest way to address short and long-term volatility comes with an understanding of supply and demand. Prices are driven up when demand is higher than the amount being sold; inversely, prices drop when more people want to sell than buy. The effects of supply and demand on the market can be seen daily in the market’s closing numbers.

Many believe that a company’s valuation largely determines the stock price, but many are wrong! A company’s value (price multiplied by outstanding shares) does not determine the stock price; rather, it is the opposite. Another important key concept is a company’s earnings. In theory, earnings should be the limiting factor for why a stock rises or falls. Au contraire, mon frère. The earnings determine the ability for the company to turn a profit, while the stock price is determined by the interest placed in the stock by investors.

Long-term stock fluctuation (positive or negative) relies on supply and demand principles, as does short-term stock fluctuation. However, there can be factors outstanding as to why a market would go through a period of intense highs or lows. During times of war, low economic prosperity due to unemployment, or periods where foreign trade decreases, the market (usually) tends to take a decline due to investors not putting money back into the market. On the flip side, periods of intense prosperity seem to drive market values higher, due to investors having more money to spend.

How Do We Counteract Volatility?

Short-term volatility really has no way of being stopped or counteracted. The market will always undergo some type of decrease, increase and leveling out, stemming from fickle investors just like ourselves. We all try to increase our profit margins in the long term through wise investing, but short-term money can be made through incremental buying. If you don’t have a broker and rely solely on your own wisdom and whatever you can glean from your TV financial news channel, incremental buying should be the ace up your sleeve. As the market ebbs and flows from hour to hour, buying one-hundred shares per hour (more or less, depending on the current price) allows you to increase your chance of making larger gains. Buying stocks hourly allows you to decrease the overall money spent per stock when price decreases and increase overall profit per stock when price increases.

Incremental buying works nicely for the long-term effects of a volatile market as well. However, the best tool you can use to curb the effects of long-term volatility is patience. When experiencing a difficult market similar to the one we have now, sometimes the best thing to do is just wait. I would personally advise taking the incremental route, primarily as a mid-risk/high-reward option. There’s always the chance of catching the stock at a low point, right before the soar. But patience is one of the greatests tools in a good investor’s arsenal. I stress the importance of patience for two reasons. First, history shows that markets trend toward stability. Second, rash decision-making backed by poor market understanding makes you no money. Riding the wave to shore works better than fighting the current.

When Will It Stop?

BlackRock Inc. has called for a halt on the market if volatility increases. A halt on the market would cause a temporary cessation of trading in order for investors and companies to get things figured out and back on a stable track. This would include a ‘limit-up/limit-down’ clause where the market would be halted if securities drop or rise above a certain threshold. Experts are saying that the market should calm down once the Federal Reserve raises interest rates. An increase in interest rates would benefit those so-called thoroughbred stocks due to the sense of surety that investors attribute to them. The market beast may be wild right now, but it won’t stay that way forever. Starting this fourth quarter and looking towards the end of the year, keep an eye open for the market to be tamed.  

The College Funding Dance-Advice from a Leading Expert

imageIt goes without saying that a college education has become an expensive proposition. As many families and their kids wrestle with ultra competitive admission requirements as well as soaring tuition costs, advisors like California-based Ron Adams are highly sought after for their advice and wisdom.

As an ambitious journalist in Sacramento, I had the pleasure of meeting Ron over 10 years ago, and I found him to be a fountain of knowledge on the college admissions process. As one of the nations leading experts in college funding, he has assisted hundred of parents and students in significantly lowering their out-of-pocket expenses for four year college terms. His book, “How To Give Your Kid A 4-Year College Education Without Going Broke,” provides to those engaged in the admissions process practical strategies and tips on how to maximize financial aid. Ron also reveals little-known tools that college financial aid offices often don’t and won’t share with you.

Below is an excerpt from my recent interview with Ron, regarding recent developments in the college funding arena:

Ron, what sort of trends are you seeing in terms of tuition costs?

On a national basis, the cost of attendance for a public university is rising at about a 6.5% clip per year; for a private school, it’s in the neighborhood of about 7.4%. So if you do the math, that means that the University of Nebraska – my alma mater, which is currently right around $22,000 per year – will soar to around $44,000 in ten years. And if you look at a private university like Stanford, which last year was just slightly above $60,000 per year, it will rise to $120,000 over that same time period.

Why are we continuing to see such massive increases?

Frankly, it stems from a willingness on the part of banks to loan students pretty much any amount of money they need up to $20,000 per year. Colleges and universities know this, so they feel they can raise rates whenever they desire.

It sounds like lenders and the higher education institutions are colluding together

That’s true. Sallie Mae is an example of a college lender that willingly engages in this practice because they know that students can never declare bankruptcy on those loans. So 30 years from now, at whatever interest rate they are charging, they know that they will eventually be able to recover that money.

What a frustrating scenario for those seeking to go to college!

Michael, what I continue to see – which is the fault of the parents and, in some cases, the student also – is that they wait too long to get serious about the college funding process. Tragically, many become concerned about planning for this around the second semester of their junior year or even the summer of their senior year. That’s way too late. This process should ideally occur during their freshman year, in order to ensure the best possible access to these monies.

How does standardized testing play into all of this?

Students take the PSAT test during October of their sophomore year. A prep course for this is vital because when you get a good score, a couple of things happen. First, you become eligible for a National Merit Scholarship, which is a highly regarded source of money. Secondly, once schools are alerted to these scores, they send out letters inviting students to apply. They’ll often waive the application fee, extend an invitation to visit their campus for a tour and arrange for the student to meet with a professor in the desired field of study. So my message here is that those who wait until second semester of junior year or (heaven forbid) the fall of the senior year to begin their planning, are going to miss out on a ton of funding opportunities. Starting this process late makes it hard to recover. “