Technology Investor

Harry Newton's In Search of The Perfect Investment Technology Investor. Harry Newton Previous Columns
9:00 AM EDT, Monday, October 19, 2009: Google rose strongly on Friday. I continue to like it for reasons I mentioned on Friday: First, the economy. It's picking up. Second, Google is picking up business as traditional print advertising slumps. Third, Google improves its business constantly. Google is killing Microsoft's awful Bing. Fourth, Google is getting very creative as regards soliciting new business. They just offered me (and I'm guessing you) a $100 coupon to Google AdWords.

I continue to like Apple. The BIG contribution to its profits is the iPhone. According to Nielsen Mobile Insights, only 17% of mobile subscribers in the U.S. have smartphones (iPhone, BlackBerry, etc.) I believe that number will rise to over 50% and the iPhone will be the biggest beneficiary. I believe there'll soon be cheaper versions -- e.g. an iPhone with WiFi, but not the $30 a month data service, and cheaper GPS service (at present $9.99 a month).

Interest rates will rise soon. This weekend Barrons' called on the Fed to raise interest rates to a "more normal" 2%. I agree with Barrons. The Fed is now distorting the economy. Barrons wrote:

There's no need for short-term rates to remain near zero now that the economy is recovering. The call to action is clear: Gold, oil and other commodities are rising, the dollar is falling and the stock market is surging. The move in the Dow Jones industrial average above 10,000 last week underscores the renewed health of the markets. Super-low short rates are fueling financial speculation, angering our economic partners and foreign creditors, and potentially stoking inflation.

The Fed doesn't seem to be distinguishing between normal accommodative monetary policy and crisis accommodative policy. There's a huge difference.

With the crisis clearly past, the Fed ought to boost short-term rates to a more normal 2% -- still low by historical standards -- to send a signal to the markets that the U.S. is serious about supporting its beleaguered currency and that the worst is over for the global economy. Years of low short rates helped create the housing bubble, and the Fed risks fostering another financial bubble with its current policies.

The Fed also ought to consider scaling back its massive bond purchases, which have totaled more than $1 trillion this year and have artificially depressed mortgage and Treasury interest rates. The Fed has virtually cornered the mortgage-backed market, buying about 75% of newly created government-backed securities this year, and that has forced the usual institutional buyers of mortgage securities into other markets, like corporate and municipal bonds. This has contributed to the sharp rally in munis and corporates.

Better to stop the Fed's bond-buying program sooner rather than later, and end artificially low, sub-5% mortgage rates. The more securities the Fed purchases, the greater the ultimate losses on its holdings when rates do rise. Banks also have bulked up on low-yielding Treasuries, buying over $200 billion in the past year.

It's also time for the Fed to consider the plight of the country's savers, who now are getting less than 1% yields on money market funds and who are being forced to take substantial interest-rate or credit risk if they want higher yields. "The Fed is punishing prudent people and rewarding profligate people," one veteran investor tells Barron's. Many unemployed and underemployed Americans may be deserving of some mortgage relief, but there also are millions of Americans -- most of them elderly -- who diligently saved and now have little income to show for a lifetime of effort.

If you believe Barron's logic and hence the likelihood of interest rate hikes soon,

1. You shouldn't be in long-term or even medium term bonds. They'll drop in value.

2. You should be in something that is close to cash so you can grab the higher yields.

3. You should be refinancing your mortgage and borrowing money (but not too much) now. Today mortgages are under 5%.

The Fed is playing a dangerous game -- printing money, buying bonds, keeping interest rates low. If it changes, things could go awry very quickly. Remember, interest rates in 1970s got to 20%

Ask. Ask. Ask. I walked in a ritzy computer shop on Madison Avenue. I picked up an item labeled $24.95. I offered $20 cash, tax included. They accepted. I've used this "technique" in recent weeks on everything from house rentals to car repairs. I've literately saved thousands. It's dumb, but it works. The "technique" works with real estate. Offer ultra-low. Be prepared to walk. 90% of your offers won't be accepted. But the 10% that are will be real bargains. I repeat my old adage: The only thing you can really affect in your real estate transaction is the price you pay.

Fees, fees and even more Fees. Nine years ago, I closed a business that took American Express credit cards. Last week American Express tried to charge me $7.95 for nine years of inactivity. Now you know why the financials are doing better. I actually own a handful of shares in American Express (AXP). They're actually up a few shekels. I bet many Amex customers are not checking their bills for these new "creative" charges.

Meantime, there's a piece in a newsletter called Bottom Line Wealth that begins, "No one like to change checking accounts, but if your bank is one of many that are aggressively increasing fees and imposing unfriendly new policies, you might save hundreds of dollars a year by switching. ... Examples: Bank of America now charges a steep $12 monthly fee if your account balance drops below $750. Suntrust's stop payment fee rose to an astounding $36 earlier this year. Many Bank of America, Chase and Wells Fargo ATMs now charge non-customers $3 to withdraw cash on top of $1 to $3 that the customers' own banks may charge. Worst of all are overdraft fees. Many banks have increased this penalty to $35 per overdraft ($37.50 at US Bank and $39 at KeyBank), while increasing the number of overdraft fees that can be imposed per day.

Bank of America customers now face up to 10 overdraft fees per day at $35, for a potential daily penalty of $350.

Online banks turn out to be the best. For example, Chesapeake Bank Internet based Clear Sky Account actually pays 1.75% on checking accounts.

You get old. You get obsessed with health. More of my friends are dying than are having babies. One friend has skin cancer (called malignant melanoma) that has attacked his brain. There is one lesson here for the rest of us:

Visit a dermatologist now and then once a year forever. Get him to cut out anything that looks halfway suspicious. You can live with scars. You can't live with cancer. Skin cancer comes because of two reasons:

1. You were out in the sun too much when you were young,

2. Your family's genes suck.

There are three things you can do now:

1. Keep your grandkids out of the sun, and/or protected. But a tiny exposure is good for vitamin D in old folks.

2. Go to a dermatologist tomorrow. Do not trust your local GP or internist to diagnose your moles. My friend did. And he's furious.

3. Read all about skin cancer on this useful site from the Children's Hospital of Wisconsin. There's even a gruesome identification chart.

Free antivirus software. Fromthe New York Times:

October is National Cybersecurity Awareness Month, and the Department of Homeland Security recommends running antivirus software on your PC to protect it. Plenty of programs offer to defend your Windows PC from viruses, spyware and other malicious code roaming the Internet. But if money is tight, you don’t have to do without: AVG Free, Avast Home Edition and Microsoft Security Essentials are all available to download free of charge.

World's worst pun.
A middle eastern king was down on his money and began to sell off his valuables. The last of these was the Star of the Euphrates, at that time the most valuable diamond in existence. He went to a pawnbroker who offered him 100,000 rials for it. "Are you crazy?", said the king. "I paid one million rials for this gem! Don't you know who I am?"

The pawnbroker replied, "When you wish to pawn a star, makes no difference who you are."

Second worst pun.
A patient said to a psychiatrist, "I keep wanting to cover myself in gold paint."

The psychiatrist said, "Sounds like you have a gilt complex."

This column is about my personal search for the perfect investment. I don't give investment advice. For that you have to be registered with regulatory authorities, which I am not. I am a reporter and an investor. I make my daily column -- Monday through Friday -- freely available for three reasons: Writing is good for sorting things out in my brain. Second, the column is research for a book I'm writing called "In Search of the Perfect Investment." Third, I encourage my readers to send me their ideas, concerns and experiences. That way we can all learn together. My email address is . You can't click on my email address. You have to re-type it . This protects me from software scanning the Internet for email addresses to spam. I have no role in choosing the Google ads on this site. Thus I cannot endorse, though some look interesting. If you click on a link, Google may send me money. Please note I'm not suggesting you do. That money, if there is any, may help pay Michael's business school tuition. Read more about Google AdSense, click here and here.