A cartoon of a man in a suit running - titled "The Fear Index"

The Science Fiction of Financial Markets

A lot of us feel when we look at the Dow Jones plunging [that] we’re in the grip of some alien force that slips human control. — Novelist Robert Harris

The stock market in May 2010 seemed to “come alive” when it swooned 1,000 points within minutes, Harris said in a bone-chilling radio interview that’s worth a listen for Main Street investors.

His new thriller, “The Fear Index,” which the London Telegraph called “unputdownable,” is about a hedge fund manager. But in the interview, Harris expressed his desire to take readers beyond the business reporter’s technical explanations for the market’s wild swings up or down. A solitary, $4 billion trade, the media widely reported, caused the 2010 Flash Crash that left an impression on the novelist. As Europe teeters on recession, it’s anyone’s guess how the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock market index has managed to soar more than 7 percent since Jan. 1.

Wall Street experts may be able to make sense of a hair-trigger market, but Harris’s sci-fi explanation is appealing to the rest of us. He invokes the imagination – or, perhaps I should say, the artificial intelligence lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

To hear Harris’ interview on National Public Radio, click here.Learn More

Taxing Behavior

Taxes, politicians and economists say, can either encourage or discourage human behavior. This chart landed on my desk, so I thought I would share it.

The capital gains tax rate has declined sharply over the past 14 years. The marginal tax rate for high-income individuals has plotted a very different course than the marginal rate for the middle class.

What does this chart say to you?

Please post a comment by clicking below, on “Learn More.” …Learn More

Three pictures depiciting various scenes from the play "Money Matters"

Teen Play about Money is “Eye Opening!”

“Money Matters,” a play that opened last weekend in Cambridge, Mass., demonstrated the financial wit of its teenage actors at the same time that they – and the audience – embraced the complexities of money.

Credit versus debt, income differences among classmates, money and relationships, certificates of deposit, needs versus wants – this only scratches the surface of the subject matter in the Youth Underground theater production, which begins touring the Boston area in February.

The actors clearly were having fun, but their performance served as an educational tool that might be replicated. For example, the screenplay was based on the actors and other teenagers’ 80-some interviews of community residents about their financial viewpoints and mishaps. The stories generated ideas for the vignettes that were stitched into a screenplay.

“Very eye-opening!” audience member Cameron Netland, 16, said after the performance.

“I learned the difference between saving and spending and between debit and credit!” said Aaliyah Nathan, 14, who, wearing black suede boots to the performance, admitted a weakness for new shoes. …Learn More

Reports Explain Key Retirement Issue

The Society of Actuaries released a series of very readable reports dealing with specific issues, from how to handle a forced retirement to whether to withdraw savings incrementally.

“Around the time of retirement, there are so many decisions,” said Joseph Tomlinson, chairman of the working group that produced the new reports. The goal of the two-year project was to provide “friendly and unbiased” information, said Tomlinson, a Maine actuary and financial planner.

He said members of the professional organization also felt the public needed information that wasn’t from “someone trying to sell something – and we’re not.”

The online reports are free. Click here. …Learn More

Street signs at the intersection of Broad and Wall Street.

Questioning Wall Street Convention

Walk into your financial adviser’s or broker’s office, and the conversation inevitably leads to your portfolio’s “asset allocation” and “total return.”

Financial planners, the media, investors – we’ve been under Wall Street’s spell for three decades. But a small chorus of skeptics, bucking the orthodoxy, argues that brokers and planners don’t always match investments with an individual’s goals and needs. The human gets lost – in more ways than one.

“People are being guided by the asset management industry,” said Boston University finance professor Zvi Bodie, co-author, with consultant Rachelle Taqqu, of “Risk Less and Prosper: Your Guide to Safer Investing.”

The industry’s premise is that “you can’t afford not to take risk,” he said, referring to the tenet that more risk means a larger potential return. But what happens if you roll the dice and lose? “They never say that,” he said.

Keen to this critique, Barclays in London and a few other large investment houses have started pitching wealthy clients by focusing on their “unique” circumstances.Learn More

Young Adults Adrift in E-Spending Ocean

Collectibles purchased online range from Russel Wright dinnerware (shown here) to songs and video. Source: backhomeagainvintage.

Credit cards and malls are so yesterday.

Young adults move easily among an array of online payment and shopping options unimaginable a decade ago: PayPal, Groupon, telephone bill payment, smartphone apps that pay for store purchases, online retailers galore, automatic bank payments, and online gift cards.

Technology is moving fast: Amazon recently released an app called “Flow” that will recognize a product — from a book to a jar of Nutella — and then send the price, user reviews and a “Buy It Now” option to your smartphone.

It’s time to take stock of how easy it has become to overspend and how difficult saving is for young adults weaned on e-transactions.

“When it doesn’t feel like money, people don’t treat it like money,” said Priya Raghubir, a professor at the New York University Stern School of Business, neatly summing up her 2008 paper, “Monopoly Money: The Effect on Payment Coupling and Form on Spending Behavior.”

It’s extremely hard for young adults to change their behavior, “because they aren’t used to any other way of paying,” said Raghubir, 48, who remembers the old paper-transaction days when cash was king and checks were reserved for the big purchases…Learn More

A group of women in business attire holding signs with question marks on them in front of their faces.

Women Crave More Information

It’s common knowledge that women save less in their retirement plans than men do. This is a major problem, because they live longer, are more likely to require nursing home care, and need more money.

To learn why women save less, Karen Holden and Sara Kock at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, recently conducted focus groups with state employees and analyzed data for the Wisconsin Deferred Compensation Program. Similar to a 401k, the program for Wisconsin government workers also allows tax-deductible, voluntary contributions, though there is no employer match. Squared Away interviewed Holden about their findings.

Q: Do women save less, because they earn less?

Holden: Average lower earnings are a factor but more surprising is that, at any specific salary level, women contribute a lower percentage of their earnings than do men. Women on average contribute 6.28 percent of gross pay, compared with 7.03 percent for men. While lower pay and age differences accounted for some of that, being a woman led to lower contribution rates. …Learn More

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