Thursday, March 20, 2008

First Week On the Job - What To Do?

I have previously written that a career is one of your major financial assets. This week I started my new job as an executive at a venture backed high-tech company, which got me thinking about how an employee's performance during his or her first week on the job sets the tone for the rest of his or her tenure with the company.

I report to the CEO, so you might think that my life should be pretty easy. Nothing could be farther from the truth. For me this is a very high-stakes game. Not only do I need to impress my boss, the CEO, I also need to impress my fellow executives and the members of my company's Board of Directors. When you are an executive, your every move is scrutinized from above and from below. Not that I am complaining. I love this game. This is what I signed up for.

If you want to set yourself up for success with your new company during your first week on the job, here are a few pointers that you might want to consider:

1. Ask All the Dumb Questions - don't pretend you know it all. As the new guy you have a short-term license to ask pretty much anything. Use it. Ask anything you need to know about the company, about it's business, about the processes. People will appreciate your curiosity and you will save yourself some embarrassing mistakes down the road.

2. Stop Doing Your Old Job - this is true especially if your new job is a promotion or is substantially different from the job you just left. Wouldn't it be nice to remain in your comfort zone and keep doing what you know? Probably. It would also be career suicide. Embrace your new job with gusto. Bring your expertise from your old position, but remember, you are no longer being paid to do what you previously did. You are expected to do bigger, better & more.

3. If You Don't Feel a Little Like a Fraud You Are Not Learning - this is a different angle on the previous point. Most people are comfortable doing things that they were previously successful at doing. Some are so scared of failure, that they don't even try new things. Others feel that by accepting new levels of responsibility they are, in fact, impostors who do not deserve to be there. Forget all that. Career growth is all about fear. The minute your stop being a little bit scared about your next big assignment, you have stopped growing in your current position. You have learned all that there is to learn, and from this point forward it's all routine. Time to move on. Embrace the fear. Fake it a little. It's a good thing.

4. Jump Right In - don't take it slow your first week. Don't leave early. Don't tip-toe into your new responsibilities. Step in boldly. Take charge of your new assignments. Make your presence known. Let people understand that you mean business and you are there to make things happen.

5. Generate an Output Your First Week - yeah, you're swamped with new employee handbooks, benefits forms, orientation meetings, meeting new colleagues. All that is well and good. Show some results the first week. Complete something. Start something. When you do, make sure that people know about it.

6. Make Your Presence Felt - walk around the office. Introduce yourself to your co-workers. Don't eat alone in your office or your cube. Seek out your corporate tribe members and invite them to lunch. Spend some time getting to know the people and their position in the company. How can you help them? How can they help you? Make some friends.

7. Don't Forget Your Old Friends and Colleagues - just because you started a new job, doesn't mean you should forget about your old colleagues. Maybe one of them forgot to ask you some questions during your transition from your former job? Maybe one of them ran into a problem with an old account or project that you owned? When those calls come, take them. Be kind. Be helpful. Be professional. People will remember this and this will only strengthen your professional network and reputation.

8. Send an E-mail Late at Night - It's not about pretending to work hard, it's about being perceived as the guy that is willing to be there when he is needed, even if the request is a bit unusual or doesn't come during normal business hours. It's about doing more than is expected.

8. Enjoy It - a job is never more exciting, exhilarating or interesting as it is during your first week. Take some time to enjoy the adrenaline. Often, it fades all too quickly.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Should the Fed Bail-Out Financial Institutions?

After JP Morgan and the Fed bailed out BearStearns - or rather, after JP Morgan took over BearStearns for pennies on the Dollar with tax payers guaranteeing the deal with our pocket books, the question comes to mind: should the government be bailing out these irresponsible institutions? I have previously written strongly against a bailout of sub-prime home owners. Is this any different?

Well, I think that it is. It looks like we have a major problem on our hands. We are no longer facing a situation where the economy is in a slump because of the real estate downturn. What we may be facing is possible loss of confidence in the financial system. The collapse of a major investment bank is a really, REALLY bad thing. Such a collapse could potentially start a chain reaction that would drag other financial institutions into bankruptcy and turn a run of the mill recession into something much worse.

Yes. I think that the Fed made the right call. Nevertheless, in doing the right thing, is the Fed letting the bad guys off the hook too easily and creating a situation where banks will be tempted to take reckless risks in the future? That is a possibility and for this reason I think Congress should find a way to better regulate the financial sector in a way that will make such recklessness less likely.

Economic bubbles have existed for as long as the modern economic system has been around. Consider the Tulip craze in 17th century Holland, or the South Sea bubble in 18th century England. An act of Congress is unlikely to stop the next bubble from inflating, they appear to come with the territory. However, tougher financial controls that force companies to recognize and correctly measure their risk, and to inform investors of those risks, are probably in order. On the other hand, Congress should refrain from over-regulation as well - Sarbanes-Oxley (also known as the "No Accountant Left Behind" Act) being a great example of a recent Congressional overreaction.

In the end, it appears that the Fed is doing its best to stave off the worst of the economic crisis that we are witnessing. We can all hope that they succeed.

I was actually planning to do a post about my first day in my new job today, but I guess that will have to wait for some other time...

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Want to Save Money on Cable? Here's a Useful Trick

This week I learned an important lesson about how to save money when negotiating service rates with the cable company and other vendors. As I am in the process of moving to my new job, I have had a couple of days off and got around to doing some things I have been planning to do for a long time. One of these tasks was to get our cable bill reduced.

We get our cable TV and broadband Internet from Comcast and our monthly bill comes out to about $160 including all taxes, fees & the cost of our HD DVR. We are very happy with the level of service we receive, but the price is just too steep for us. I know many PF bloggers are all about saving money by cutting off cable, but for us this is a complete non-starter. We enjoy our HD channels, HBO & our fast broadband connection and have no intention of giving them up. Since that is the case, the best we can hope to do is to reduce our cable charges as much as possible.

Early in the week I called Comcast customer service and asked for a price reduction. They essentially gave me a resounding "get lost" response. They offered us a $10 reduction in our monthly bill, if we were to subscribe to their triple play service, i.e. buy cable, Internet and phone service from them as a bundle. This was actually a pretty good deal, since not only would we be able to reduce our monthly fee by $10 but subscribing to triple play would mean that we could cancel our land-line phone service and save another $20 a month. However, after my wife and I discussed it we decided that we would rather stick with a traditional land-line. One of our main reasons for this is that a typical land-line works even when the power is out, while a cable phone would only be able to operate as long as its backup power was available (8 hours according to the Comcast representative).

Back to the main story. My challenge was to get a lower price for our current service package. Since I already called customer service and they turned me down flat, I decided to call the disconnection department. That made life a whole lot easier. The agent on the other end of the line was very receptive to my requests. Within minutes I got a $40 discount on our rate effective for 12 months, without having to sign up for any additional services. In addition, the promotional price did not require any contract and we are free to add, change or cancel service at any time. That call saved us about $500 over the next year. As an added bonus, I got the customer service agent to send us a technician, free of charge, to move one of our cable connection spots to another side of the house. This normally costs $150.

So here is the lesson: if you want to get a discount, don't call the customer service center. Talk to the folks that really matter: the department responsible for customer retention & account terminations.

I put this lesson to another good use later in the week by calling AT&T Wireless regarding my cell phone plan. My employer picks up the tab for my cell phone, but I wanted a new Blackberry free of charge. The folks at the disconnection department got pretty close, after the regular customer service agents turned me down flat. I haven't closed the deal yet, I want to make sure that my employer is willing to pick up the difference on my new phone before I make the purchase, but one thing is clear: if you talk to the folks that are tasked with keeping customers, your chances for getting what you need improve dramatically.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

United Sucks (It's Not What You Think)

United Airlines sucks big time. No, I did not have a bad flight experience recently. My flights weren't delayed. My luggage was not lost. In fact, I fly United a lot and I actually prefer that airline to most others. So why do they suck? Credit cards.

My wife and I are enrolled in the credit bureaus' "no-marketing" programs. This means that the number of "pre-approved" credit-card offers that we are getting in the mail has greatly decreased. However, airline & hospitality credit card programs appear to be immune to our requests, and chief among them United Airlines.

Today I did some work around the house and finally got around to doing my shredding. It appears that I have amassed about 6 months worth of materials for shredding, and when I started doing the work, I noticed that there was a particularly large number of credit offers from United Airlines. This got me curious, so I actually did some counting and guess how many credit offers we have received from United in recent months. Let me save you the guessing: 55. This comes out to an average of about two offers per week (!) and these offers are not just for my wife and I. No sir. United seems to think that our five year old son really needs one of their credit cards as well.

I visited the company's website searching in vain for a way to opt-out of these useless and annoying offers. Guess I am just going to have to vent on this blog. So here goes: United, you suck!

If anyone knows of a way to stop this deluge of junk from United, please let me know.

I Am Putting More Money into Stocks

Yes. You heard right. The stock market is tanking and I am putting more of our money into it. In fact, three months ago I started making regular monthly stock purchases on the 15th of each month. I allocate our new investments in a way that re-balances our portfolio. Today for example, I invested our monthly purchase in... REITs. Those are down over 30% in the last 12 months, which means that even after today's purchase our real estate holdings are still below our target allocation of 8% - 10% of the portfolio. I invest our monthly lump sum in a single index fund each month, to reduce our trading costs. This creates a slight deviation from our target asset allocation, but it is too minor to care about.

While others are fleeing the market, I am sticking to my guns. I am under no illusion that the bear market is over. In fact, I believe that we will not see a true bottom to the market in 2008. However, I am smart enough to know that I cannot outguess the market, and I am not going to try. The market will rebound eventually, and our portfolio will be primed and ready to take advantage of the bounce back.

The key to long term returns is desciplined investing. I have a clear asset allocation plan, and I am sticking to it.

Have you been selling your stock positions? If so, I want to hear from you. Why are you selling? What are you planning to do with the money? Are you planning to get back in? If so, how will you decide when the right time might be? Leave me a comment below.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Next Bubble is Already Inflating

These days it seems like oil prices have broken all economic relationship with reality. Oil prices continue to soar and have repeatedly broken the all time price records over the past several days. Is this a question of too much demand? Is supply falling? Not according to this article from CNN:

"In its weekly inventory report, the U.S. Energy Information Administration, a government agency that measures oil and gas supplies, said crude stocks rose by 6.2 million barrels last week. Analysts were looking for a rise of 1.6 million barrels, according to a Dow Jones poll. Gasoline supplies rose by 1.7 million barrels, significantly more than the 300,000 barrel rise that analysts had forecast. The government said gasoline stockpiles are well above average for this time of year."

So why are oil and other commodities such as gold, wheat and others going through the roof? Could it be that this is the next economic bubble? Could it be that investors spooked by the falling stock markets, troubled by the unstable credit and money markets, and losing faith in the crashing real estate markets are all of a sudden flooding into this new asset class? That's what I think is going on.

Don't get me wrong. I have previously stated that I am very much in favor of high gasoline and oil prices. I have even advocated here for aggressive carbon taxes, and this spike in oil prices is effectively a form of taxing carbon emissions. This unintended tax on pollution appears to be having the desirable effect. From the same article:

Gas demand much lower. Still, oil's rebound is somewhat surprising given continued low demand for gasoline. Gas demand held steady last week, still averaging 9.1 million barrels per day over the past month. Demand is 0.4% higher than the same period last year.

The EIA revised its U.S. oil and gasoline demand forecasts downward Tuesday, citing a slow economy and high oil prices. The government agency now expects oil demand in the United States to grow just 40,000 barrels a day, or 0.2%, in 2008, down from 0.5% or 100,000 barrels a day in its previous forecast.

Since 2001, oil demand has grown an average of 0.9% annually or 175,000 barrels a day. In 2007, oil demand was statistically flat, growing only 10,000 barrels a day.

Gasoline demand has grown an average of 1% annually over the past six years, but this year's demand for gas is expected to increase only 0.3% from last year, down from last year's annual growth of 0.4%."

High oil & gas prices are prompting folks to drive less and to seek cheaper alternatives. High energy prices are also making renewable energy more economically viable. Heck, even one of my colleagues who drives an SUV to work - a 45 mile commute each way - told me last week that he is seriously considering working from home for a couple of days a week, or even getting a (gasp!!) smaller car. Of course, I would be happier with a direct carbon tax - one that would keep our tax dollars in the U.S. instead of exporting our money to our terrorist-supporting "allies" abroad. Such a tax would also be imposed on other forms of carbon emmission (in particular coal burning power plants). Nevertheless, high oil prices are a decent substitute with the prospects for a half sane energy policy coming out of Washington being as dim as they are.

But, I digress. The point of this post is to highlight the fact that money is flowing into commodities at a rate that has very little to do with actual demand or with economic reality. So, while I hope that we continue to see high energy prices in the coming years, there is a distinct possibility in my opinion that commodity prices will come crashing down to earth at some point. Think the stock market is scary? If you are putting a large percentage of your portfolio in commodities, it is possible that you are in for a much scarier ride when that little bubble finally pops.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Will You Meet Your Retirement Savings Goal?

Meeting your retirement savings goal is a big deal. It can mean the difference between a comfortable and happy retirement and spending your golden years as a Wal-Mart greeter. I have created the simple calculator below to help me figure out if we are on track to meeting our retirement savings goal. I thought my readers would find it amusing as well.

To use the calculator plug in the various parameters - your current assets, your savings rate, your planned retirement age, your current age & your expected rate of return. To plug in the numbers double click on the various parameters, or simply click and drag the different values up or down. Enjoy, and let me know if you have any feedback.

Also, if you have an idea for an interesting personal finance calculator that you would like me to create, just let me know.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Burning Bridges is for Suckers

As I previously wrote, I am on my way to my next gig. The week after next I will be starting in my new role as Head of Business Development for my new company. I am now in the process wrapping up my responsibilities for my current employer which got me thinking about the title of this post: burning bridges is for suckers.

Even though I am leaving the company, I am taking with me two critical assets: my reputation & my contacts. Over the past three years of working for this company I have developed a reputation as a reliable, creative and highly competent professional (if I do say so myself). My reputation will stay in this company long after I am gone and I will continue to stay in touch with my network of colleagues and contacts over the long haul.

So even though I am leaving, it is my highest priority to keep these two assets intact and even enhance them, if I can. Although my last day is next Wednesday and my days here are numbered (4 to be exact) – I am not slacking off. I am making sure that my responsibilities are smoothly transitioned and my replacement is well trained.

Even though I have some things I want to say and some complaints that I am dying to air, I will do no such thing. The most productive course of action from a career perspective is to leave the best impression possible.