Explanation of the SEC Charges against Goldman Sachs

I’m sure you’ve heard the recent news that the SEC has charged Goldman Sachs with fraud for misleading some of its investors. At the core of the complaint is that Goldman structured and marketed a synthetic CDO but failed to disclose key aspects of the product. The key aspect in question here is that the architect of the CDO hand picked the pieces of the CDO and then bet against it.

If you read the complaint and are still unsure what happened, this video explanation by Patty Hirsch on Marketplace will explain it with an easily understood analogy and the absence of much editorial (which is hard to find these days):
(Click to continue reading…)


Resources to Learn About Stock Market Investing

If you know nothing about the stock market, consider yourself lucky.

If you think the stock market is a scary place that you don’t understand, you’re actually in good shape.

I learned about the stock market in a time of prosperity, in pieces, and probably in the worst possible way and it’s burned me on numerous occasions. When everything is going up and there’s an irrational exuberance, you are afforded the opportunity to have good results come out of bad decisions and that can lead to the development of bad habits. So, if you know nothing about the stock market and are scared of it, that’s actually the best time to start learning about it.

So, if you’re scared and I have bad habits, why should you read anything I have to say about investing? I don’t actually talk much about investing outside of discussing ideas and theories (and recommending index funds from Vanguard) but today I’ll outline a few good resources I’ve found to help you learn more about investing in the stock market.

Morningstar Investing Classroom

Morningstar is great. The number one best place to start, if you know absolutely nothing, is with Morningstar’s Investing Classroom. They have four areas of beginner study – Stocks, Funds, Portfolio and Bonds. Each classroom has five levels of study with the exception of Bonds, it only has two, and each level has anywhere from five to eleven courses. I’ve taken several of the courses and they begin with the basics and move onto progressively more advanced topics.

As a bonus, you earn points for answering the quizzes following each course and can redeem those points for various rewards (you have to be a free registered member to earn these credits).

Motley Fool’s Investing Basics

If you’ve completed all of Morningstar’s Investing Classroom courses, Motley Fool’s Investing Basics is a great place to reinforce those ideas but with a witty and humorous twist. Depending on how quickly you went through the Morningstar site, you probably glossed over a few topics or forgotten others, so review can’t hurt. Plus they’re entertaining to read.

Decisions Decisions Decisions…

At this point, armed with the basics, you have to make a decision. Do you want to invest the your stock allocation in index/mutual funds or do you want to try to go your own way and invest in individual stocks? If the answer is index and mutual funds, you probably are armed with enough information go forth and conquer. Open an account with a Vanguard or a Fidelity and have it (those two always seem to dominate Top Fund lists). If you want to go after individual stocks… there is more learning ahead. (some would say there is more to learn but from here but between Morningstar and Fool, you have enough information to Google search from here)

Securities and Exchange Commission

The SEC has a great guide to financial statements, which you’re going to have to decipher and interpret if you hope to be able to pick some winners in the stock market. I would also get myself familiar with EDGAR, which is the SEC’s database of company filings (EDGAR Quick Guide, Comprehensive EDGAR Guide). EDGAR is far more versatile (and comprehensive) than navigating company websites for their filings. They also have a pretty extensive Publications section that has all sorts of valuable information.

Google Finance

If you want a very quick snapshot of a particular company, I think Google Finance has the most amount of information on a single page and provides the easiest interface to reach it. Simply type in the ticker or name of the company and you can get a wealth of information on one page. You can access their related companies, their latest financials, recent and future events, key stats & ratios, a brief summary as well as links on their company website, list of officers and directors, as well as links to other resource reports such as SEC filings, MSN Money’s listed major holders, etc. All that information is one page, that’s why I like it over other similar services like Yahoo Finance (Yahoo Finance’s advantage is that you can add a lot of technical indicators to their charting services).

Wall Street Journal Markets Data Center

So, armed with that information, you probably have enough to go out and do some serious damage to your portfolio (take that any way you’d like :)). Are you ready to be inundated with market data? If so, and my inundated I mean like drinking from a fire hose, then check out the Wall Street Journal Markets Data Center. Pages and pages and pages of financial information at your finger tips. (if it’s intimidating, but that’s okay… and that’s just the home page, you can drill down even more!) It’s absolutely stunning… now go forth and conquer!

 Personal Finance, Taxes 

Severance Is Optional, U-Haul Reservations Aren’t

This week’s hodgepodge of links range from a primer on how to read financial statements to discussion of severance and overtime to U-Haul getting the smackdown in California. Should make for some entertaining weekend reading!

Looking for a good primer on how to read financial statements? Why not check out the folks who analyze the stuff everyday, the SEC? The Security and Exchange Committee has a really easy to read beginners guide to financial statements that will more than adequately acclimate you to how to analyze a financial statement of a company. (Courtesy of Jeremy!)

All this talk of recession has probably gotten a lot of people spooked and I was doubly surprised to discover that there is no federal law requiring severance pay! It is more a custom than it is a requirement, which makes sense if your company has let you go because it’s facing a tight financial situation. I suppose I always assumed a severance package was standard. (Oh, and it’s legal for your company to require overtime from you, but they have to pay)

One of the most commented posts I have is my horror story about U-Haul and how I hate U-Haul; so, I was delightfully surprised to hear that U-Haul has settled a class action lawsuit in California that would result in them paying $50 every time they didn’t honor a reservation. Despite this new agreement, I still wouldn’t rent from U-Haul since that $50 doesn’t guarantee that you won’t be driving a death trap capable of breaking down going 60 mph on the highway.

An issue that has come up a bunch of times, especially now with tax season looming, is whether or not credit card rebates are taxable. I’ve always thought that they aren’t so this is good confirmation from a third party.

I just got this great email from a publicist that sent me a copy of J.K.Lasser’s Your Income Tax 2008 and it involves what casinos report to the IRS (I’m a fan of the casino, in moderation, so this was entertaining to read):

  • Slot machines and bingo: Payouts of $1,200 or more are reported to the IRS, but there is no withholding taken out.
  • Keno: Similar to slot machines, but the amount won must be at least $1,500.
  • State lotteries and sweepstakes: Withholding is taken out of all winnings of more than $5,000.
  • Parimutuel pools, including horse and dog races: Subject to withholding, but only if the winnings are both more than $5,000 and at least 300 times as large as the amount bet.
  • Big winners are reported to the IRS on a special Form W-2G.
  • If winnings are to be split, as with a lottery pool, winners are reported on a Form 5754.

Finally, I leave you with this great little exchange between Mrs. Raising4Boys and their three year old tyke. (I don’t want to ruin it, so click through and read it; I guarantee at least half of you won’t be disappointed)


Background Check Your Financial Adviser

Thinking about handing over some of your hard earned cash to an adviser or firm? Or have you already handed over your cash to an adviser or firm? Do a background check on the person to see if their on the up and up by using these resources:

NASD’s BrokerCheck system has “the professional background, registration/license status and disciplinary history … [of] nearly 5,100 registered firms and more than 660,000 brokers.” This only works for brokers, most advisers won’t be on this unless they’re a registered broker as well. It basically gives you the skinny on the firm, prior names, where they’re registered, what licenses they have, tc.

  • NASD Arbitration & Mediation search site will let you do a search on all the disputes over a certain time period anyone has had with any financial institution that went through the NASD arbitration process.

North American Securities Administrators Association will list the regulators in your state and if you contact your state’s regulator they can provide all sorts of juicy information on that broker or firm. Not 100% sure how powerful this is because you actually have to contact someone to use it.

Lastly, a Investment Adviser Public Disclosure form must be filed with the state or the SEC by anyone looking to do business in the area. Their search form is very powerful and quite fast.


Trading With the Enemy – Using Media to Pump Up Stocks?

I saw an interesting article (technically it’s a book review) on written by Robert Lenzner and Victoria Murphy and wanted to bring it to you folks to see what you thought. It was written three years ago but the book is interesting and the darkness it sheds light on is intriguing.

Basically they reviewed Trading With the Enemy: Seduction and Betrayal on Jim Cramer’s Wall Street by Nicholas Maier, a former employee of Cramer & Company. The book alleges that James Cramer used his own TV appearances and CNBC anchors to pump up stocks that his hedge fund would then dump, taking the gains the security made after the media attention. Maier says that Maria Bartiromo and David Faber were the two unwitting anchors who Cramer used in the scheme and they were eager to break stories, to no fault of their own because they’re reporting news, so the sham was easy to set-up.

A quote from Maier after Cramer went on TV to promote a great long-term investment: “Our real strategy, however, was all about taking profits now. Back at the office, we were supposed to dump stocks after a quick half-point gain. On TV, Jim would tout a stock we owned, but if it moved up, we would sell.” The book keeps on going with other schemes and plots used by Cramer & Co. I mean things like after-market orders on the hot 90s IPOs so they’d stay hot the next day were commonplace according to Maier. Since then, three pages from the book were removed, they accused Cramer of using insider information, and it was republished.

My own take? I’m sure these backroom type deals happen all the time just like I’m sure insider trading on tiny scales happens too. That’s just the nature of the markets and everyone will try to get an edge wherever they can. The SEC just needs to be diligent and make sure the egregious offences are taken care of. If I find this book in a library I’m going to pick it up but I doubt it’s worth buying a book on speculation and unsubstantiated accusations.

Any thoughts?

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