Thursday, October 13, 2016

Tax Loss Sale

Monday was Columbus Day.  This is a federal holiday which my employer observed but the stock market was open.  I took the opportunity to sell my position in ConocoPhillips (COP), a large American oil producer.  This was another of my ill-fated bets on peak oil so I realized a loss.  This will save me some money on my 2016 taxes. When I made a similar tax sale last year I estimated I would recover 25% of my loss.  This turned out to be low, according to TurboTax my actual recovery was about 32%.  I am unsure why the savings were in excess of the nominal statutory rates, perhaps my marginal rate is actually higher because I am subject to some phase outs of exemptions or credits. In any case this makes tax loss selling an even better idea.  I still find it painful however and had been putting it off.

I didn't reinvest the sale proceeds.  I had considered buying some more VDE (Vanguard's energy sector ETF) waiting 35 days (to avoid the wash sale rule) and then selling my current position in VDE (which also has an unrealized loss) and repurchasing the COP so as to maintain my current exposure to the energy sector (more or less) while realizing both losses. However I decided to just take the money out of the market for the moment.  My short term timing was okay as the COP is currently down some since I sold.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Vin Scully

Last Sunday Vin Scully worked the final regular season Dodgers game (against the Giants in San Francisco) and then retired as the Dodgers play-by-play announcer.  He had started in 1950, before I was born and when the Dodgers were still in Brooklyn.  So a pretty remarkable career.

I can't say I listened to a lot of his broadcasts.  Growing up in Livermore, California I started following the Giants after they made the World Series in 1962.  Scully already had a reputation as a good announcer back then and some Giants fans preferred to tune in to the Dodgers broadcast when the two rivals played.  I don't recall being one of them but I certainly knew who he was and must have heard him at least a few times on the radio.  So his retirement brings back thoughts of times gone by.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Corrupt user profile

One annoying thing that can happen to you on a Windows computer is your user profile can get corrupted in a way that prevents you from logging into your account.  Instead you get the error message "The User Profile Service failed the logon.  User profile cannot be loaded."  Last weekend this happened to me for the second time on my Windows Vista machine.  I am unsure of the cause, perhaps a power glitch at just the wrong time (I also got an error message about Windows not having shut down properly).  Fortunately this time the fix proved relatively simple once I figured out what to do.

This is apparently a fairly common problem with lots of advice on the web about what to do. Unfortunately some of this advice seems flawed. For example this Microsoft page has several suggestions but they have drawbacks.  For this reason once rebooting the system fails the next thing you should try is using the System Restore function to return your computer to an earlier working state.  When this succeeds as it did in my case it solves the problem with little effort.  However the Microsoft web page does not suggest this and instead offers some (in my view) inferior alternatives.

The first suggestion is to "fix" your user account profile by editing the registry.  However as best I can tell this doesn't actually fix your profile, instead it replaces it with the default profile you get when you first set up your account.  This will allow you to logon but you won't have your accustomed environment.  I am not sure how serious the differences are as I didn't pursue this further.

The second suggestion is to create a new account and then copy most of your files from your old account to your new account.  This is what I ended up having to do the first time I had this problem and it worked more or less.  But it was quite a lot of trouble, things didn't end up exactly the same as before and I found the involuntary account name change annoying.

The earlier instance of this problem was a delayed effect of a malware infection.  This was made worse by the fact that I (due to laziness) had not created separate user and administrator accounts. This is a bad idea which made fixing things harder as in order to create a new user account I first had to create an administrator account without being able to login normally which fortunately is possible but a bit complicated.  This time my now separate administrator account was unaffected.

Be patient when using System Restore, I initially thought it was failing to launch but it was just taking its time (several minutes or so it seemed) to come up.    

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Social Security Update

In my last post I complained about the government recently making it impossible to access your Social Security Statement online if you don't have a cell phone.  This managed to annoy me enough that I sent a complaint (via email) in late August to my US Congresswoman, something I don't recall ever doing before (I did once email my state representatives when I lived in New York).  As if by magic on September 1, I got another email from Social Security stating they were making the new security features optional (at least for now).  And in fact I was able to log in and download my statement.  Which was in English instead of Spanish and had some different numbers as well (apparently because the Spanish statement assumed my future income would be zero while the English statement made the more reasonable assumption that I would continue to earn at the same rate which is what the earlier statements I received had always done).  So I could have saved myself some trouble if I had just waited a month for the government to come to its senses.

The response was too quick for it to be a result of my email and in fact I later received a pro forma reply from my Congresswoman's office which was unaware of the reversal in policy.  However it seems to be a pretty safe assumption that I wasn't the only person complaining.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Social Security Statements

Back in 2013 I noted that although the government had stopped mailing out annual Social Security Statements it was possible to obtain your statement by setting up an online account.  Unfortunately the government has recently made changes that make it impossible for me to use my online account. Near the end of July I received an email from the government stating that starting in August they were upgrading their security by requiring you to enter a code which they would send as a text message to your cell phone whenever you logged on.  Since I don't have a cell phone this means I can no longer use my online account.  And my attempt to get a statement before the changes took effect was unsuccessful as apparently they actually started sometime in July.

I found this rather annoying.  I have several online accounts with financial institutions which I can use without owning a cell phone.  So I think the government could provide acceptable security without requiring me to be able to receive text messages.  Furthermore they could at least allow you to request a mailed statement online.  Instead to be mailed a statement you have to fill out and mail in a form.  I was annoyed enough to do this and finally received my statement Saturday. My mood was not improved by the fact that it was all in Spanish. Although since the format is similar to previous statements in English it was not too hard to decipher.

My earnings for 2013-2015 seem to be correctly recorded.  I was a bit surprised that my Medicare earnings for my new job are still well under those for my final years with IBM since I had thought several years of regular (albeit small) raises had largely recovered the pay cut I took in changing jobs. There seem to be several factors that explain this.  At IBM in addition to my base salary I regularly received a small bonus (perhaps 4% or so) which I was not accounting for while comparing salaries. And my new job has a mandatory 5% 403b contribution which is exempt from Medicare tax.  As is the 1% or so I contribute my health insurance (IBM paid the entire cost).  And I won't have received my current salary for an entire year until some time in 2017.

Taking all this into account my current salary is about the same as my final salary with IBM.  Of course since 2008 the annual Social Security earnings limit (which is derived from average wage index) has increased from $102,000  to $118,500 so in a sense I am still behind.  On the other hand I have also been collecting a pension from IBM while working at my new job so I didn't really suffer a loss of income.

Added 9/8/2016:  As of September 1, 2016 the new security feature has been made optional (at least for now).  See next post.

Monday, August 8, 2016


The stock market has done pretty well this year.  The S&P 500 Index closed at a record high on several days in July and last Friday, August 5, 2016, closed at 2182.87 up 6.8% for the year and at another record high.  This was of interest to me because as a result my investment in the Vanguard S&P Index ETF (VOO) passed a personal milestone as the fund closed above 200 (at 200.17) for the first time.  I bought this fund at the end of 2012 with some of the proceeds from the forced sale of most of my IBM stock.  This has worked out well for me as the fund is up over 50% while IBM has struggled.  Even with its recent recovery IBM (currently at 163.50) remains well below my selling price (around 190).  Good luck doesn't hurt.

Speaking of luck, the cancer drug, Opdivo, made by Bristol-Meyers Squibb (BMS) recently failed a clinical trial.  Opdivo is a rival to Merck's cancer drug, Keytruda.  As a result BMS fell almost 16% on Friday while MRK was up over 10%.  There is some reason to doubt whether this is really good news for Merck as the drugs are similar and the Opdivo trial probably failed (while a recent Keytruda trial succeeded) because Bristol-Meyers Squibb had aggressively enrolled a diverse group of patients while Merck had prudently limited its trial to the patients most likely to be helped.  So Keytruda may gain share against Opdivo but in a smaller market.  Nevertheless I am glad I own Merck stock and not Bristol-Meyers Squibb stock.    

Saturday, August 6, 2016

PNC Bank

My customer relationship with the PNC Bank recently ended on a negative note.

Things started out well enough.  When I moved from New York to New Jersey a few years ago I didn't have to change banks because Chase also has branches in New Jersey.   However none of the local branches had safe deposit boxes.  So I looked around for a local bank with boxes.  Conveniently the PNC branch in the Princeton Shopping Center (where I often buy lunch) was willing to rent me a box (without having me open an account).

I had no major problems (although their inability to accept a box payment prior to the last minute was a bit annoying) until this year.  The Princeton Shopping Center is being renovated and among other changes the PNC branch is moving to a new location within the center.  Unfortunately the new location won't offer boxes.  I initially planned to just to move to another PNC branch but found the bank less than helpful in arranging this.  I eventually figured out the problem was I just had a box and no other relationship with the bank.  Apparently bank policy had changed and they no longer wanted box only customers.  Nor did they want customers to open an account (which I was willing to do) just to get a box.  I found this all quite annoying but fortunately another nearby bank (TD Bank which is part of one of the big Canadian banks) was willing to rent me a box (although I did have to open an account).

This didn't end my troubles with PNC bank.  First when I went in to empty my box the clerk got confused about which slot she had just unlocked and handed me the box from a nearby slot.  This box was empty (emptied boxes were being left in unlocked slots) which gave me a bit of a scare until she figured out what she had done.  Second I was of course entitled to a refund since I just paid for a year's box rental which the bank was failing to provide.  I was initially told I would be mailed a check.  When I went in a few weeks later to ask where my check was I was told to be patient.  After another few weeks with no check I went again last Thursday.  At this point they give me my refund in cash which they could just as well have done the day I closed my box.  Additionally they didn't give me any accounting of how the refund was computed or have me sign a receipt.  I think I was shorted a few dollars (I didn't realize this immediately because I had forgotten they had raised the box rental fee this year) but it isn't worth it to me to pursue this further.

On the one hand this is all fairly trivial but on the other hand if my experience is representative you would not want to depend on PNC bank for something important like obtaining a mortgage while buying a house.  Based on my experience I would recommend looking elsewhere for a bank.

Hopefully my experience with TD Bank will be better.  On the plus side their box rental fee is less than PNC's and they pay higher interest than Chase.  And they are open on Sundays which I find amazing.