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.

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.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016


I recently upgraded my laptop to Windows 10.  One disadvantage is the classic minesweeper game has gone away.  Fortunately I can still play it on an older desktop running Windows Vista.  I recently had to create a new account on this machine because a malware infection had rendered my previous account unusable.  This meant my minesweeper win rate statistics were reset and I could easily track my recent performance.  I have since played 100 games on the difficult (16x30) board of which I won 43.  Most of the losses were due to unavoidable guesses but I sometimes trigger a bomb unexpectedly due to flagging a square as a bomb incorrectly.  These errors are most commonly caused by failing to notice a diagonal adjacency.  Taking this into account I estimate the win rate with optimal play is around 50%.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Windows 10

As you may have heard Microsoft is offering a free upgrade from Windows 7 or 8 to Windows 10.  The offer is currently set to expire on July 29, 2016.  One of my home computers, a cheap Dell Inspiron laptop running Windows 8 which I bought in 2010, was eligible for the offer.  Due to laziness and paranoia I had delayed accepting but with the deadline approaching I upgraded on July 4th.  So far despite some minor annoyances I haven't regretted doing so.  Hopefully this will extend the useful life of the laptop with which I have been generally pleased.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Quicken Workaround

I have been using the 2010 Quicken Premier program since 2009 (like cars new versions of the program come out the year before) to track my personal finances. Recently the update stock prices function (which downloaded current price quotes and other information for securities in your portfolio) stopped working. According to Quicken it should have stopped working as of April 20, 2013.  This is because of a Quicken policy to discontinue online services after about 3 years to encourage upgrading to the current version of the program.  I briefly considered upgrading but according to reviews on Amazon the current versions of the program don't work unless you are on the internet and have logged into a Quicken server.  I find this utterly unacceptable.

Fortunately there is a workaround.  The program provides a way to update stock prices from a list of quotes in a comma-separated values (CSV) file.  Each line of this file should contain the ticker symbol, price (and optionally date) separated by commas.  This file could be produced in a text editor but since I have 49 prices to update this would be a lot of work.  An easier way to produce such a file is to set up a Google Finance portfolio with the securities you are interested in and then use the download to spreadsheet function.  This produces a CSV file.  It isn't quite in the format Quicken wants but I found it fairly easy to write a little Fortran program to adjust each line.

A few hints for people wishing to do something similar.  I will assume you are running under a Microsoft Windows operating system.  Quicken seems to like each line to end in a space and the file to end in a blank line.  The information you want (ticker and price) is the second and third fields of each line in the file (named "My Portfolio.csv") Google saves (in your downloads directory).  Which means you usually want to copy the information between the first and third commas.  However sometimes the first field (company name) contains a comma.  In that case the name is enclosed in quotes.  So if the line starts with a quote symbol you want to extract the portion of the line between the second and fourth commas.  For some of the index quotes Google starts the symbol with a '.' so for example the S&P 500 has symbol '.INX'.  Quicken doesn't like the initial '.' so it should be deleted.  Quicken looks for the CSV file on your desktop so if you create the file there you can avoid entering the full path name. Google won't overwrite an existing "My Portfolio" file in your downloads directory so this file should be deleted before you try to download a new set of prices.

One issue I haven't resolved is that sometimes the prices in the CSV file Google downloads seem to be stale (outdated) compared to the prices you see on your screen.

I believe Yahoo Finance has a similar portfolio function which might also work but since for some unknown reason Yahoo is currently not allowing me to create an account I can't test this.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Car Talk

My previous car was a Toyota Solara. This was a pretty good car but it had an annoying flaw. There was some problem with way the tires were sealed to the rims and they tended to develop slow leaks. So I had to keep topping off the air pressure. When it got too bad I would take it to a tire place and they would do something that fixed the problem for a while but eventually it would recur. Also the car was high mileage and required expensive repairs from time to time. Finally in 2013 (at 216,000 miles) it had a serious engine problem for which I received a $4000 repair estimate. So I replaced it with a Toyota Camry my current car.

The Solara was a variant of the Camry so there isn't too much difference between them. The Camry had about 34000 miles on it when I bought it (it is now approaching 72000 miles). This is the only car I have owned with less than 100,000 miles on it and it has been pretty trouble free which is nice. The Camry also gets better highway mileage than the Solara. The gas tank is the same size so the range is greater. The longest distance on one tank of gas I managed with the Solara was 536.5 miles (Salt Lake City to Denver) in 2011. I soon exceeded this with the Camry (541.7 miles in November 2013) and while on vacation last month set a new personal record by going 626.2 miles on one tank. 

The miles per gallon (mpg) achieved between fill ups seems to vary quite a bit even when I am driving almost exclusively on highways. On my vacation last month my mpg varied between 33.3 and 44.8. Measurement error could be part of this, I fill the tank until the pump shuts itself off and I expect there is some variation in how much gas is in a full tank. Elevation change is clearly a factor, my record distance was aided by a 5000 foot elevation drop which I estimate saved about .8 gallons (compared to no net elevation change). Running the AC will reduce mpg as will traffic tie ups. Average speed affects mileage and when driving long distances in the same direction it seems plausible that you could have a substantial average head wind or tail wind which would also affect mileage. Anyway enough things lined up right for a new record.