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It's Your Money

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April 29, 2008

First the mortgage blew up, now the explanation does too

The explanations that have come out of the subprime mortgage crisis just don't ring true.

One of the arguments they’re making to explain why they lent money to anyone breathing, without checking to see if the person could afford to repay the mortgage, was because they wanted in their heart of hearts to increase home ownership in America.


We have a lower rate of home ownership today than we had four years ago. And I’ll bet it goes lower.

The Census Bureau’s American Community Survey says nationwide, we had a 66.2 percent rate of homeownership in America back in 2000. By 2006, the rate had grown to an astounding …. 67.3 percent.

The gain is so small it’s almost nothing.

What we have today is a rate below the peak of 69.2 percent at the end of 2004.

What did we gain, by expanding sub prime lending?

Tens of thousands of foreclosures.

POSTED IN: Mortgages (30)

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April 28, 2008

Recession? It's the wrong question

Did anybody else notice that just as the nation’s focus shifted to the economy, everyone debated whether we were in a recession or not in a recession? To me, it was the wrong question.

While we all talked about that one, watching for any little sign that would settle the argument, we seemed to not notice something: That a much bigger threat to our daily financial lives was growing and growing and no one seemed to be doing much about it.

And bang, here it is:

Inflation is huge, important and we didn’t seem to notice its arrival. It’s walloping us, every day, in the huge prices for the things we need, food and gasoline. It is the bigger problem, but it is not the one those in power seem to be working on.

POSTED IN: Economy (42)

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April 25, 2008

They're rebates. You don't have to pay them back!

People have pretty strange ideas about taxes and the government. The weird one that is making the rounds is that the economic stimulus rebate checks are actually loans. That they’ll have to be paid back. That you shouldn’t cash the check or even file for it because it’s just money you’ll owe.

It isn’t.

It is actually a credit that Congress has given you against 2008 taxes, the ones you owe this year. To stimulate the economy, Congress passed a law directing the Treasury to send taxpayers (and even non-taxpayers) a check equal to the credit they would have gotten on this year’s taxes. The check was simply to speed things up.

You don’t have to pay it back.

To quote from Congress’ Joint Committee on Taxation’s report on the economic stimulus bill: “The checks have no effect on tax returns filed for 2008.”

The report says the rebate is not taxable income to you. If the IRS calculates incorrectly and pays you too much, “the taxpayer is not required to repay that amount to the Treasury.” If the IRS pays you too little, you might claim that amount as a credit against taxes you owe in 2008. It is a refundable credit, so you might get a check next year, too.

You don’t have to pay it back.


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April 24, 2008

From the nation's Capitol to your bank account - rebates coming

And the money comes.

Without a sound, it’ll start arriving one week from Friday, on May 2.

The first economic stimulus rebate payments will begin to be deposited electronically in bank accounts across the land.

It’s going out by Social Security number. Those whose number ends in 00 to 20 are in the first cut.

I’d love to hear from anyone who gets a rebate. The first in South Florida. Send me a note at

What will you do with the money?


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April 22, 2008

Money on your mind

I know you’ve planned to buy this and buy that with your tax refund. You have a few things you want to do with your economic stimulus rebate check, too.

Let’s call this psychological spending.

It very quickly becomes overspending.

Maybe it’s because you don’t actually have the money yet, but you make one plan for it, then you make another. Somehow, you never add all the sums up. Because if you did, you’d know you were planning to spend $500 of that $300 rebate. So you never do the math and you go on making plans that will soon overwhelm the amount you’re about to get from your friends in Washington, D.C.

No, I have no intellectual back-up for this thought.

I just know people do it. I hear them. “When I get that refund, I’m going to…."

And they say people don’t make financial plans. We do. We just make too many of them, for money that’s never enough.


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April 21, 2008

Which way the money flows

After a two-hour discussion last week with a group of financial planners about exactly whose interest comes first – the advisor’s, a broker’s, or your interests as a consumer – I came away more confused than ever. If I’m in a muddle, I’m guessing you are, too.

To recap: A broker must recommend investments that are suitable for you. No wild and crazy investments for conservative folks who’ll need their money tomorrow.

An investment advisor has to recommend what’s best for you, no matter whether this recommendation will make money for the advisor.

A broker has a suitability standard. An investment advisor must be a fiduciary, putting your interests first.

As an example, if the right investment for you is a Standard & Poors 500 index fund, the broker can sell you one that his firm offers for a sales charge of 3 percent. The investment advisor looks around and finds one that has a sales charge of less than a third of one percent. The broker may know the cheaper index fund is out there, but he gets a bigger commission by selling you the expensive index fund. You're getting what's suitable, but not what's best. Because by paying the higher fee, you have less money to invest.

This not-too-clear line got more blurry in recent years when the Securities and Exchange Commission gave brokers a loophole. Brokers would not have to follow the same rules as investment advisors and could offer financial planning and investment advice, so long as it was only incidental to their main business of being brokers. Brokers could be planners but not fiduciaries. Got it?

The Financial Planning Association got sick and tired of that, filed a suit and not long ago won. The broker loophole was struck down.

The SEC says it won’t challenge that court decision. But it might make some new rules, maybe this summer.

In the meantime, it’s more important than ever to protect yourself when you are going into a relationship with a financial advisor. Always ask, Are you a fiduciary? All the time or only in some situations? If a broker asks you to change from one sort of account to another, ask the reason why. Examine the fees and see which way the money goes.

As a journalist, I use the Watergate adage: Follow the money. Only when you know how the advisor is paid will you be able to figure out the advisor’s motivations.


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April 17, 2008

How'd they rob her?

Jo Ann O’Neill, who works at Broward Community College, has a morning routine. Get to work, sign on to the computer, go to, take a sip of tea and call the fraud department.

Because almost every day lately, fraudulent charges made with her debit card are showing up.

Not her actual debit card. But with the information from her debit card that someone, somehow stole. The thief didn’t even bother to steal the actual card. She has no idea how this happened.

That got my attention because the same thing happened to me last summer.

While I was sitting home one evening, debit card in my purse, the thief was at an ATM at a 7-11 taking out my money. Conveniently, the 7-11 doesn’t have a camera on its machine that could perhaps lead the police to the thief. Conveniently, the store doesn’t own the machine, so why should it care?

Was it a card-reader inserted into the ATM that stole the info? Was it a tiny camera trained on the ATM that got her PIN number? I don’t think we’ll ever find out.

In O’Neill’s account, there were more than $1,000 in fraudulent charges in less than a week. Hundreds and hundreds of dollars spent to buy gas. And it continues. Which is why she ends up calling the bank almost daily.

“Wachovia couldn’t have been more helpful,” she said in an e-mail.

What you can take from this: Follow O’Neill’s advice and check your statements online daily. If anything looks unusual, call your bank, which will likely reimburse you for any losses.

Makes it hard to take a day off and just relax, doesn’t it?

photo: Bloomberg


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April 16, 2008

2008 and stocks? Not so good so far

How did your investments do in the first quarter? Not so good?

Sorry, you're not special.

According to Lipper, a mutual fund tracking firm that is a unit of Reuters, the average U.S. diversified stock fund lost 10.11 percent in the first quarter. World stock funds, including those that invest overseas and those that invest domestically and internationally, lost 9.6 percent.

You could have lost even more money if you were in a China fund (down 21.24 percent) or a small value stock fund (down 14.9 percent).

In fact, one of the few ways in which mutual fund investors made any money at all in the first three months was to bet against stocks. Funds devoted to shorting stocks, which gain when stocks decline, rose 12 percent.

Hint: When was it you heard China funds were hot, hot hot? That's so 2007.

POSTED IN: Investments (11)

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April 15, 2008

364 days til your next return is due

Tax FormsIf it makes you feel better, now that you're probably done with tax season, the IRS has a long, long way to go.

I have no idea how the Internal Revenue Service is going to process an extra 20 to 25 million tax returns this season. Those would be the ones filed by people who normally aren’t required to file because their income is too low or perhaps only from Social Security benefits. Those folks needed to file this year because that’s the only way they can get a rebate check.

And were they confused. I heard from so many who didn't have forms, didn't know how to fill them out, couldn't decide what income qualified and what didn't. I'm glad I don't have to decipher those returns.

The IRS can have at it. To be s don't know how well they did with the whole task.

As for the IRS, I like the agency. I think its reputation is much lower than it should be. But this task ahead, it's huge.

Watch for your rebate check, starting May 2.

POSTED IN: Taxes (41)

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My mission

Journalists routinely come back to the office, lean over their neighbor’s cubicle and begin a conversation about the news with, “You won't believe what this guy did....," or “She had an idea I'd never thought about before."

brackey%20cropped.jpgThese stories we tell each other inside the office are often too informal to be included in what we write. But they're so good, they have to be shared.

My mission in writing this blog is to give you information that's so good, it has to be shared.

You've got the job of managing your money. No one in school taught you how. But you and I, we can teach each other, how to handle it, how to save for retirement, how to make money last, how to educate the kids, how to make a budget work.

The conversations I have with my readers are fun. Money’s important, but discussing it does not have to be boring.

I like the interaction. I welcome the questions. And your ideas. What I can contribute is my years of fascination with this subject. I have lots of experience trying to make the issues clear and the ideas relevant. I have access to timely information that you may not. And there are plenty of experts I can call for help.

Because when it comes to finance, you need plenty of voices. There is very little objective advice. There is no product testing to help us evaluate our options. It’s ridiculous.

It’s also not rocket science. I firmly believe everyone can “get” personal finance, if they devote a little time.

My goal would be that you never again make some of the most important decisions of your life -- getting a mortgage, buying insurance, figuring out how much money to live on -- with little knowledge and no help.

The way I see it, we're all better off if we talk about money.


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About the author
You've got the job of managing your money. No one in school taught you how. But you and I, we can teach each other, how to handle it, how to save for retirement, how to make money last, how to educate the kids, how to make a budget work. The conversations I have with my readers are fun. Money's important, but discussing it does not have to be boring.

Harriet Johnson Brackey Harriet Johnson Brackey, the personal finance columnist for the Sun Sentinel, is an award-winning business reporter. Her columns for 2008 were named "The Best in the Business," a national award chosen by her colleagues at the Society of American Business Editors and Writers.

Brackey has worked at Business Week magazine and at USA TODAY, where she was a founder and part of the original staff of the Money section at the country's first national newspaper. After nearly 11 years there - spent covering the 1980s bull market, the insider trading scandals, the 1987 crash - Brackey left Washington, D.C., and came to The Miami Herald. She spent the next decade writing a column about personal finance that chronicled the stock market's Internet boom and bust, as well as the popular Money Makeover features.

Brackey also has done commentaries for Marketplace Money, which airs on National Public Radio and The Nightly Business Report which is broadcast on more than 250 PBS television stations nationwide. She also has been a radio guest on WLRN’s Miami Herald News.
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