California Real Estate Markets Are Red Hot

I would think that you’re crazy if you tell me this statement six months ago. Frankly, RED HOT is not even enough to describe the current market. Here are some of my personal anectodes, based on my bidding in the market:
1. Most listings go into pending on the first two days, or after the first weekend.
2. ALL homes have multiple offers at or WAY above listing prices. It’s getting common to have some 20 to 40 offers if the listing doesn’t get pulled down in the first month.
3. If you don’t work with listing agents, it’s end-of-story for you.
4. Grand opening at new home sites are PACKED!!
5. The bidding frenzy is extending some 60 miles away from the center of the metropolitan area.
6. Even handyman or contractors for flooring/carpeting, etc. won’t answer or return your phone calls. I tried to call a handyman for flooring. Not only that he doesn’t return the calls, he has requested his carrier to post a message: “On the request of the subscriber, this phone number does NOT accept incoming calls.” Frankly, that is just NUTS! And this is not just an isolated experience on one handyman, but my experiences with several handymen are like this as well.
7. MLS inventory was 40% down year-to-year several months ago. I wouldn’t believe this if I didn’t see this myself, but MLS listing inventory is going down to essentially absolute ZERO probably in the next one or two months within the 60 miles radius of my search. Just go to redfin.com, and punch the city names. On the upper-right corner, you can see the inventory plots. It’s a straight line heading down to zero, since last October/November.

With Fed buying 40 billions of MBS mortgage securities every month thru QE3, which will tend to close the spread between treasury bonds and mortgage bonds, it is possible that mortgage rates may go even further down. FHA also may waive the 3-year waiting period after short sale/foreclosure. If that happens, in conjunction with even lower mortgage rate, the housing markets can easily go up by another 20%. FHA down payment is only 3.5%. That is basically nothing, and won’t even cover the transaction cost of buying and selling. Taxpapers are essentially subsidizing all the future defaults (again)!

So where do we go from here? I’m a long-term bear on the housing market, and I have called the short-term bottom five months ago this year. I’m not changing my view (yet). But it is surprising that how much intervention can do to the housing markets. I expect the next short-term peak at about 2016, and the next bottom to come at about 2018 to 2020, but that is at least 6 years away from now. If you need a home, but you cannot wait for 6 years, it may still be better to buy now rather than later. I think the prices at the next bottom may be slightly higher than the bottom that was made in 2011/2012. But you would have saved on rents for sure. Given the current pricing, with the exceptions of being right at the center of metropolitan area, it is certainly cheaper buying than renting.

Best luck on your housing hunting trip, because you will need A LOT of that.

My First Million At 33 Book Is Published At Kindel!

Instead of writing on my blog, I have been working on my personal finance book. I have a lofty goal of making real changes in people’s personal finance affairs, hoping that more people can live under their means, and accumulate a great wealth for their retirement. The book is currently

ON SALE for just $0.99
Since the average number of books sold per title is less than 200, my expected revenue from my book will be 35% royalty of $0.99 x 150 copies = $52.50. My tax is about 47% (CA + Federal + AMT). Out of the remaining after-tax profit of $27.83, I have committed 25% to go to charity (see book for details). So I would net $20.87 at the end.

I’m obviously not motivated by a potential $21 profit. But if I can change just a few people’s lives in how they manage their personal finance, it’s truly worth all of my time putting into the book. The amount of wealth within your reach or for any other readers is truly in hundreds of thousands, if not a million.

YES, you can do it too!
Thanks for any PF bloggers to put this news out. I have an OnlineResource page in the e-book that I can try to reciprocate your promotions.

Here is the table of contents for Part I:

Preface
Chapter 1: My 1st Million At 33 – Reader’s Guide

  • Profile of a Frugal Millionaire
  • How I Got My 1st Million At 33
  • Reader’s Guide to the Book

Chapter 2: Understand How Wealth is Created – The secret to making big money

  • Becoming rich is extra-ordinary
  • Your time vs. money
  • The only secret to making big money
  • Take on good debts & avoid bad debts
  • My father’s business moto – How a business prospers
  • Utility and Scarcity
  • Attitude = Altitude

Chapter 3: Book-smart vs. Street-smart – Being lucky is a choice

  • Difficulties are Opportunities
  • Book-smart vs. street-smart
  • A Tiger or a Dog – Finding a career path
  • The true value of a brand-named college
  • Consider free-lancing
  • The three ingredients in starting your own business
  • Being lucky is a choice
  • Pursue what you love; love what you pursue

Chapter 4: Your Income vs. Expenses – Arbitrage the “geography”

  • Are you the boss or the slave?
  • Art & mechanics of budgeting – Running the saving marathon
  • Know where to focus your energy
  • Debit, credit, and cash management
  • Choose a wealth-conducing location – Arbitrage the “geography”

Chapter 5: Why must you invest – Make your home as your best investment ever

  • Nothing is certain but death, taxes, and the I-word
  • Portfolio income is not a usable income
  • Make your home as your best investment ever
  • Avoid the scams and tricks from investment newsletters
  • The biggest investment mistake that people make in following Warren Buffett
  • Investment strategies by the size of portfolio
    • What to invest if you have only $10
    • What to invest if you have $100
    • How to invest if you have $1000 to $10K
    • How to invest if you have $10K to $100K
    • How to invest if you have $100K to one million dollar
  • How much investment risk can you take?
  • Finding a professional money manager: Things to know & ask

Chapter 12: Summary – Get your action plan together

  • Summary – Yes, you can do it too!
  • Becoming rich can be a certainty, not a dream
  • Wealth is a (self-)responsibility – How I tithe
  • Reference guide & resources

For those who are interested, here is the abridged table of content for Part II:
Chapter 1: My 1st Million At 33 – Reader’s Guide (Same as in Part I)
Chapter 6: Investment Theories – Active Investing vs Passive Allocation
Chapter 7: Dividend Investing – Untold secrets of legal tax shelters
Chapter 8: Treat Real Estate like a Business – Leverage & manage your cashflow
Chapter 9: Mega-trend Investing – Bubbles are troubles or Doubles!
Chapter 10: Stock Options – Risks vs. rewards in equity compensation
Chapter 11: Estate & Retirement Planning – Don’t tip Uncle Sam & others
Chapter 12: Summary – Get your action plan together (Same as in Part I)

The full book will go on sale along with Part II later. Part II is targeted for investors with more liquid asset. I split the book into two parts, so that you can buy just the first Part for $0.99. You will not pay more if you buy Part I first ($1), and Part II ($2) later. The price for the full book will be $3. Once the promotional pricing ends, the prices will be more expensive, and I may offer a slight discount on the full book.

Housing Market Making A Short Term Bottom

It looks like housing prices may find a short-term bottom this year, assuming a stable low interest rate environment. The primary reason that I’m saying this is because of an ultra-low inventory of homes on the market, about some 30% to 40% lower than last year or the year before. Furthermore, there are a couple of programs that may reduce the number of foreclosures or short sales to come to the market:

1. Bank of America converting foreclosures to rentals to delinquent borrowers.

2. Fannie Mae implementing bulk sale of REO to investors to convert to rental.

The bottom line is that in majority of the US housing markets, it is becoming cheaper to own than to rent at the prevailing mortgage interest rate. This is bringing many big or mom-and-pop investors to invest in the housing market. However because of the low interest rate, I do NOT believe that this will be the final bottom before a sustainable rise. Eventually, the real bottom will be made near the peak of a bond market interest rate. With a rising stock market for the next several years, the mortgage interest rates will be rising as well, putting a cap over whatever advances that the housing prices can make.

If you want to invest, make sure that it is both net P&L positive and cash flow positive on a 30-year fixed rate financing. The action of mortgaging will reduce the potential impact from the downward pressures of the falling bond market and therefore the rising of interest rate. With a rising rental market everywhere, it is a good time to invest in real estate as long as you can make the math works.

Cash Back Reward To My Credit Cards in 2010

I’ve always chosen cashback instead of air mileages for my credit card reward. The reason is cashback goes into your pocket directly, and unlike air mileages or point systems, it is not subject to the conversion factor change in the future.

I have arranged my spending on credit cards as follows:
1. Grocery, drugstore, and any gasoline purchases not at Costco for a flat 5% cashback on HSBC Platinum Cashback Card.
2. Restaurants for 3% cashback and travel related stuffs for 2% cashback on True Earnings American Express card.
3. Essentially 2% cashback on Citi’s Driver’s Edge Option credit card for everything else. It’s 1% + 1% via submitting mileage record. I just submit it for every oil change that I need to do for my car. On this card, it’s actually by point system. I only buy $100 Macy’s gift card using 10000 Thank You points so that I can get a conversion factor of 1 point for 1 cent. Unfortunately, this program is going away now.

I have searched on the internet for a better deal to replace the Citi’s Driver’s Edge card, but I can’t find anything. EmigrantDirect had a 1.4% cashback on everything but it’s gone too. The best thing that I could find is the 2% cashback on Fidelity Rewards American Express card, but the credits go into your Fidelity brokerage account.

I will need to think about this deal, since I’m a little wary of opening another brokerage account just for that. I have consolidated most of my accounts at WellsFargo (where I trade free through PMA account) and InteractiveBroker (for cheap options). I definitely don’t want to have my cash simply sitting in the Fidelity brokerage account doing nothing. Based on my past spending pattern, I can get about $275 just from 2% Citi Driver’s edge card. If I move that spending to any of my existing 1% cashback card, I would throw away $125 per year. Hmm. Something to think about.

In any case, if you don’t use any of the cashback credit card, you are definitely missing out BIG time. I got $362 back on my HSBC, $276 on my Citi Driver’s Edge, $250 on my True Earning AMEX for a total spending of about $34700 on these three cards. That’s $888 that you may be missing.

At the minimum, you should get yourself the True Earning AMEX (assuming you buy stuffs at Costco) and Chase Freedom card for basic 1% cashback & 5% cashback on rotating categories. That’s just a little effort to “earn” while you spend. It really adds up!

Frugal at 1stMillionAt33.com

An Outlook For Precious Metals

My best guess is that precious metals have made a short term bottom. But I can be wrong. Intermediate term however I am still wary of a mid-year dip. A bull market often tries to shake off as many people before embarking a big advance.

Both gold & silver have made the MACD bullish crossover on the daily chart. GDX & GDXJ have both made the crossover by just about a couple of days earlier. The upturn has been quite sharp, and is subjected to sharp pullback. It’s going to take a lot more work to get this market back to bullish stand.

Based on my reading of the Elliot Wave Theory applying to gold & mining stocks, I believe that we should definitely be in major wave 3. Initially, I thought the 5 of 1 of 3rd major wave would be here. After the recent correction, I’m not sure if 2 of the 3rd major wave has begun. The second wave down is usually the most painful. GDX correct some 70% in its 2nd major wave in 2008/2009. Therefore, I would be cautious about the 2nd wave of the 3rd major Elliot wave too. The other disturbing trend for mining stocks is that oil prices are going up fast if not faster than gold. The gold to oil ratio must be carefully watched to decide on whether to over-weigh precious metal mining or oil drilling stocks.

I have been extremely busy with my day job & investment for the last month. Inevitably my blog suffers. After all, I’ve got only 24 hours a day. I’m going to make an effort to blog more regularly. Hope that my work schedule won’t get overwhelmingly busy again.

Surprising Resolution Of Mortgage Paper Fraud Coming

There is a serious mortgage paper fraud bubbling to the surface. I was aware of this several years ago, but I was not aware of the magnitude. It is so serious that I think it can easily turn the whole world up side down (for the second time, I guess).

Some background first. The US bankers and Wallstreet or more properly called “fraudsters” first selling all the worthless “mortgage-back” securities back by phantom 100% financing loans from 2005 to 2007, cheating the entire world out of savings. They turned the world up side down with the financial crisis, and then had Paulson from Goldman Sachs being the US treasurer at that time, saving their ass with taxpayers’ money, transforming or rather downloaded all the worthless mortgage paper onto Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and AIG. Of course, everyone thought that was a great mission accomplished.

Now, when they try to foreclose homes, but lawyers demand to see the promissory notes, they find out, “Damn, where is that piece of crap?” Imagining all the homes that cannot be foreclosed on, due to missing documentations for the promissory notes? All the mortgage-back securities now will be truly back by NOTHING!

Here is what I will venture to guess the potential outcomes.
1. The only way to foreclose these homes will be through non-judicial foreclosures (including California, the home fraud center). Rather than getting nothing for the mortgage paper, it’s far better than getting something for it. Once the avalanche starts rolling, every bank will start scrambling to sell the homes out of the flood gate. Home prices will fall by another 20% in the coming 2/3 years. Or at the minimum, the shadow inventory of the homes on bank’s balance sheet will dramatically rise.

2. If this is not resolved through Congress passing a new law, back-patching the shoddy works by bankers, and the news start to spread around the whole world, US dollar will drop to a new dramatic low. Imagine another 3 trillions loss (out of 11 trillion) on Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac backed debts, all USA government owned? By the way, if this event unfolds, stock markets will panic first, but later will reverse to break 52 weeks high. Bonds will plummet for sure. Real estate will go into extended nuclear winter.

3. New laws get passed through Congress to save the bankers’ ass. Congress initially side with home squatters in the name of protecting voters, until all the law-abiding citizens take the street, demanding fairness. Then Congress realizes that it’s too late to stop the revolution by the majority of the law-abiding citizens, turning to lawless resolutions everywhere.

Just some crazy ideas. But certainly less insane than what has been going on in US real estate markets. And all of the rotten apples (Wallstreet bankers, home speculators, and all the mortgage “consultants”) are still in there unbelievably.

The Fair Price For Gold

“Gold closed at new high!” That was the Tuesday headline on Marketwatch.com. I checked right away, but didn’t see gold cash price breaking new high at $1265. After reading the article, it’s really just a new high in the nearest futures market.

“Investing” in gold is probably one of the hardest arguments to make, since gold simply doesn’t generate any interests nor dividends. Plus that many people who are interested in the commodity market will try to make the argument that nobody needs gold to survive. On the other hand, we all need oil/energy & grains. However, that simply doesn’t matter much for the last 10 years for gold investment. After all, everybody sells his or her investment at the end (whether it’s before or after death), and the only thing that matters is whether you are able to buy low and sell high.

After observing this market for almost 8 years myself since my initial investment back in 2002/2003, I can clearly see that the character of this market is slowly changing from stage 1 to stage 2, with more new participants coming in. Based on my judgment, it’s probably not at the mid-point of stage 2 yet. However, the price has probably reached slightly more than what its “fair price” should be. My definition of “fair price” probably will upset both gold bulls & bears. For the perma-bulls, gold should be trading at above $2200, an inflation-adjusted price from last peak set back in 1980 at about $850. For the perma-bears, gold at any price is probably too high, especially its historical record of hedging against inflation from 1980 to the low of about $250 in 1999/2001 is simply ridiculous (and that is definitely true). I take the middle ground, and would use $400 and adjust it by inflation for the last 20 years, and I would get just $1085.

Why do I use an ad-hoc $400 instead of $850? Peak prices (of $850) are crazy prices. They are always outliers. They do not make sense. A little less than half of the peak prices based on the trading around the peak of $850 before & after 1980 appears to make more sense to me.

I also believe that the inflation-hedging power for gold is valid, but it needs to be judged from a very very long term (way beyond 20 years from 1980 to 2000), just like the argument for housing prices always go up or stock prices always go up in the long term. In fact, all of them (gold/house/stock) do go up in the long term, but the only problem is that we humans only live for about 100 years, out of which we may earn & accumulate for some 40 years, and invest for just 20/30 years at best. The true “long-term” (in the order of 100 years) is simply too long for us. That makes all the differences in the whole world when it comes to “investment”. Depending on the era that we were born, we may or may not enjoy the prosperity at our respective ages.

So is today’s gold price too expensive? Based on all short-term technical indications, I think gold will soon come to a short-term top, possibly exceeding the last high. For the timeframe, I would say probably give or take 1 to 2 weeks. My own actions in this market have been mostly neutral. Try to buy the next dip if you can catch the break. Think of saving away in terms of GLD/SGOL or better yet in physical gold (so that your gold won’t shrink in size due to ETF fee). Such saving definitely won’t make you rich overnight, but at least you should be able to preserve your wealth.

Slowly through each wave of rise and fall, markets are revealing where the capitals are concentrating. The market leaders are no longer US, Japan, nor Europe, but Brazil, India, China, and Taiwan.

US market is facing heavy pressure again today. S&P 500 has broken support at 1080/1085, and then 1065/1060. The technical pictures are simply getting worse and worse. However, that is not so for Brazil, India, China, Taiwan, and other southeast Asian markets. They are far above July low by some 10%. The good news is that I believe these market leaders are not forecasting a repeat of depression, or a serious bout of recession. The bad news (for more mature markets as to emerging markets) is that the better days are not for us.

Going forward the stock markets will be increasingly selective. Given the extremely low interest rate environment, there are LOTS of hot money trying to find a home. But it’s probably not going to be in S&P 500.

Ironies Yet To Be Bernanke On Time Magazine

Helicopter Bernanke has been chosen as the Person of the Year 2009. That is just ridiculous in my personal opinion.

For someone along with Greenspan created the single biggest housing bubble (in size) in human history so far, bailing out all the guilty parties and mopping up all the mistakes with even greater mistakes through printing of more free money, he is “coined” as the savior of the economy from another great depression. A country does not attain prosperity through devaluing its own currency. Such acts when the confidence game is up will be met with great consequence. I have no doubts that history in the future will not have kind words for Bernanke, nor Greenspan (whose reputation has already been turning thru this financial crisis).

Aren’t you glad that banks are paying back all the TARP money? I guess all of them are hopeful eternally, and wishing that all the option ARM and alt-A borrowers will be paying back more when they start to reset to 25-year amortization schedule, starting now until the end of 2011. I think banks are very likely to negotiate all the option ARM mortgages back to 30 years or longer if possible. However, the biggest problem is that once the mortgages are re-negotiated, the mortgage payment will NO LONGER be less than the prevailing rent. Furthermore, who is going to pay down more principal towards a property that is already 10% to 20% under-water? I expect that the two factors combined will cause significant portion of the borrowers to simply walk away, or become home squatters to take advantage of one year of free rent through foreclosure process.

So when the hands of banks are tight, and they will tighten even more on the new loans. Some will probably go under and join the weekly FDIC’s Friday parade, and some may come back and ask for government money again. Ha, except that for the second time when they want to dip the “honey pot” again, the money will not be available because American and politicians will be so upset and simply shut down the institutions. If they are able to sustain without asking for more money, you can be sure that lending in economy will take a dive, driving USA onto the same Japanese-style deflationary track. But don’t worry, our beloved Helicopter Bernanke will come in his helicopter in a hurry, bombing free money from the sky at the fastest speed. It is likely that in the not-too-distant future, we will see a more volatile stock market, dropping at first due to the resurgence of financial crisis, and then zoom back up and onto new highs (higher than 2007) due to out-right devaluation of US dollar.

By the end of 2010, US fiscal deficit will probably end at 13.5 trillion dollars or more. The speed that it will increase will be exponentially faster until it collapses. Before US goes full speed on this exponential debt curve, there may be still a chance of stopping before the point of no return. But such opportunity does not exist as long as Bernanke is still in office as Federal Reserve chairman. I guess Greenspan will be remembered as the Bubble Man, while Bernanke may be remembered as the Bubble-death Man, who would blow up the final bubble in $US and US bonds, without any further ability for US to attract/wield global capital.