Corporations Meet Owners MVIS 2019

Photo on 2016-06-01 at 16.08

Another year, another annual stockholders’ meeting for MicroVision (MVIS). I’m somewhat speechless; but not entirely so, which shouldn’t be a surprise to people who know that I speak through writing. (In the real world I prefer to listen unless I’m in the role of public speaker, but I digress.) Ideally, annual stockholders’ meetings are for the benefit of the stockholders, an opportunity for them to hear from the people they’ve hired (the board) about how well the people they’ve hired (the managers) are managing the company and the people they hired (the employees.) In some companies it is that. In some, like MicroVision, either by choice or necessity the discussion is an exercise is ambiguity and obfuscation. You know it can be radically improved when the independent shareholders are a better news source than the official conduits. I came away wondering if these well-paid and supposedly learned people haven’t learned from the Greeks, the French, the Russians, or late night talk show hosts.

For my notes about the company and the meeting particulars, head over to the Motley Fool, Investor Village, Silicon Investor, and if I have the emotional resilience, Reddit.

This blog is more about the personal side of personal finance, what it’s like to be an independent shareholder. Don’t expect pom-poms and cheers, but don’t expect me to say stay away. Stock ownership remains an avenue for passive income or at least semi-passive asset growth in the US. If you’ve visited this blog often enough you’re probably familiar with the old refrain; “Spend less than you make. Invest the rest.” Investing doesn’t have to be hard, but it benefits from a bit of work and critical judgment.

IMG_0417MicroVision has been a story stock for the twenty years I’ve known about it. They rarely state their case this way but to me, they have the potential to revolutionize displays. Remember CRTs? They were everywhere, and within a few years were booted out by flat LCD screens. LCDs also expanded the possibilities. Only Dick Tracy had a CRT in his wrist watch. The iPhone wasn’t really possible until LCDs (and Gorilla Glass, which has an anti-MVIS connection) became possible. Now, displays are so common that some appliances and vehicles don’t have buttons. MicroVision’s technology enables tiny projectors, which could be equally disruptive and expansive. But not yet, evidently.

It’s that ‘not yet’ part that inspired many of the questions at the meeting. Why not yet? Why not now? How long do we have to wait, or is there something fundamentally wrong which means never not when?

Startup companies rely heavily on their first customers. Companies with big ambitions get involved with big customers. Big customers don’t want little suppliers besmirching their brand. So, companies like MicroVision can be constrained by non-disclosure agreements (NDAs). No news doesn’t mean no news, it just means no news that they can relay. Unfortunately, no news can mean no news, as has frequently been the case for several years at MicroVision. Deals fall through. Technology isn’t available or costs too much. Stockholders hear far after the fact, if at all – while the stock reacted as if someone else already knew. Very frustrating.

The board and management control the information, which is a powerful position. It is also a well-paid position. Compensation packages annually worth hundreds of thousands of dollars are passed around as the company loses millions of dollars. Some of those people are making several times my net worth every year. Power and profit, a nice business model. MicroVision, as well as other small companies, can mint millionaires while shareholders watch portfolios shrink. That microcosm of forty people in a room becomes a mini-play displaying wealth and income inequality in a manner that is ingrained in our economic model.

The Greeks watched hubris demolish powerful reputations. The self-confidence of empowered managers may be a sign of marvelous news yet to be released, but it can also be mutually-reinforcing as board members nod at board members while giving each other applause and raises. One reason to show up at such meetings is to assess for oneself whether management is confident for a good reason, confident as a style, (or sadly as the SEC has proven, sometimes just conning.)

The French and the Russians both saw regimes fail because one group of people saw themselves as apart from another set of people. Us versus Them is a common human characterization, but take it to an extreme and extreme things happen. Unfortunately, small company regime change rarely happens from outside the boardroom. Fortunately, independent investors can judge those characters and decide how best to invest.

The late night talk show hosts are teaching millions of people the value and folly of the recorded and repeated word. Say something this year, say something else this year, and others can compare consistency. That’s the value of attending every year and taking notes. Recordings would be better, but they’re not allowed.

My notes from 2018 MVIS ASM; “Before the Q&A period, the COB interjected and emphasized that they see the company passing from possibility to probability, hopefully with profitability in 2019.”) When asked about it this year, the board and management said the ‘discussion’ about profitability in 2019 was more along ‘goals’, ‘objectives’, etc.; not intended to be guidance. Legally, probably true. Realistically, is such a statement and distinction a reflection of desirable communication skills? You get to decide.

Dream Invest Live coverI’ve attend most if not all of the MicroVision annual meetings since 2000. Someone walking in now for the first time gets a different impression than someone who has heard the same or similar story for about two decades. I’m glad I showed up that first time, and kept coming back. I just wish MicroVision’s situation was better. If you want examples of investments where the stories were successes, go buy my book; Dream. Invest. Live. Whichever way it goes, MicroVision will be in the sequel (assuming I finish writing it.)

I built my portfolio with many local stocks precisely so I could see the company and the people in person. Sadly, MVIS is my last remaining local stock. SEC filings are official. Company press releases are too. But only a small fraction of communication is text or numbers, or even hearing them instead of just reading them. Humans communicate much more through body language. At a meeting like an ASM, that body language is amplified by everyone in the room. I attend to watch the presenter and the presentation, but I sit in the back to watch the body language of the presenter and the reaction of the crowd. It doesn’t cost much, isn’t captured in any report or analysis, and yet is valuable.

Despite my concerns about MicroVision’s communication style, I continue to hold the stock and may even buy more (after a few more house sales). The technology, industry, market, and potential impress me. I don’t expect perfection, and maybe the only thing I have to do is trust that ambiguity is by necessity, and that this year truly is different. As to us versus them, well, that would require individual revelations, a bit of compassion, and hopefully not revolutions.

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Trade Wars Ugh

Trade wars. For many people they are abstract news items, reasons to cheer or complain. They’re real, and sail past my house and cruise through my portfolio. Global news can affect personal finances, even if isn’t your job that’s affected. What to do? I’m pondering that.

My little house looks out across Puget Sound to the Olympic Mountains. Nice. I like it. That also means it looks my view includes the shipping lanes that lead to the harbors of Seattle, Tacoma, and Everett. It is more like an interstate than a backroad, but instead of long-haul trucks the traffic is dominated by container ships. Container ships work best when their holds and decks are full. Since the trade wars began, the ships are floating a bit higher as they leave the US and head to Asia.

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(photo taken from nearby Maxwelton Beach when I was there for Twelve Months at Maxwelton Beach)

Maybe they were going to add more containers somewhere else along the way. I doubt it.

One weird result from similar trade imbalances created unexpected opportunities in other regions. Lots of containers coming in with few going out means lots of containers piling up. The price of the excess containers goes down. Resourceful people buy them up. Hello, affordable housing. But, I digress. (If you want more about innovative housing on Whidbey Island check out my post on one of my other blogs, AboutWhidbey.com).

Watching the fairly empty ships burn fuel to cross the ocean has a direct effect, but only emotionally. Indirectly, it hurts the economy and the environment; but those effects admittedly aren’t perceptible in my life. For others, the effects are direct.

And then came yet another mis-informed tweet about tariffs, as if they somehow make money rather than penalizing people. I try to steer clear of politics because it is too easy to get too distracted. But, tweets from the last few days imploded one of the stocks I was considering selling to pay some bills.

Screenshot 2019-05-17 at 17.44.01

NPTN, the stock for Neophotonics, dropped as much as 44%. They have business relationships with Chinese businesses, and investors ran away from the risk. Assuming everything eventually comes back to normal, a 44% drop is a buying opportunity and a lousy situation from which to sell. The direct effect for me may be a greater reliance on my credit card for some truck maintenance. The indirect effect may be greater because Neophotonics builds the switches that helps the internet stream without buffering.

This is an echo, for me.

Screenshot 2019-05-17 at 17.38.14

AMSC’s fall is part of my Triple Whammy that I’ve mentioned before. About eight years ago, one of AMSC’s prime customers decided to become a competitor – using AMSC’s technology without permission. Hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue vanished. The stock dropped from over $70 to under $4, and stayed there for years. It’s only within the last year or two that it has climbed back up to over $10. It’s fall wasn’t the result of a trade war, but the pursuit of justice was curtailed by diplomatic concerns over trade policies. Why upset an economy the size of China’s over damages measured in less than a billion?

Now, my concern extends to MicroVision (MVIS). They, too, are heavily dependent on Asia and China for customers and producers. The MVIS stockholders’ meeting is Wednesday. There’s been too little news to prop up the promises, pardon me, ‘forward-looking statements’, from previous calls and meetings. I wonder if there’s yet another event that will impact their projections (pardon the pun, fellow shareholders.)

We live in a connected world. We are interdependent as a species and as a series of economies. Personal finance requires at least some awareness of the impersonal influences that are beyond our control. Predicting those influences isn’t easy. If it was, all economists and investors would act in unison prior to politicians making proclamations.

In the short term, international trade disruptions mean shifting my personal choices about which stocks to sell. With enough cash, it would also mean possibilities of pursuing opportunities. I won’t say I am happy about the situation, but the situation is a good example of the value of a diverse portfolio and a frugal lifestyle.

Let’s just hope my truck gets me to the MVIS ASM without requiring me to sell some AMSC while waiting for NPTN to recover.

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Inconceivable And Yet

The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good.” – Gordon Gecko, Wall Street

That wasn’t what the movie was championing, but it is probably the most quoted line. Dealing with the modern world can take a bit of looking past the memes or common catchphrases to remember the intent while contrasting that with the result. Movies and games reminded me of that.

If movies and games are the reminder, then the concept is part of the culture. Culture is something to consider when planning for finances.

Watch the movie. I haven’t in a while. But, reading some of the quotes from this 32 year old movie sounds like today.

Gordon Gekko: The richest one percent of this country owns half our country’s wealth, five trillion dollars. One third of that comes from hard work, two thirds comes from inheritance, interest on interest accumulating to widows and idiot sons and what I do, stock and real estate speculation. It’s bullshit. You got ninety percent of the American public out there with little or no net worth. I create nothing. I own. We make the rules, pal. The news, war, peace, famine, upheaval, the price per paper clip. We pick that rabbit out of the hat while everybody sits out there wondering how the hell we did it. Now you’re not naive enough to think we’re living in a democracy, are you buddy? It’s the free market. And you’re a part of it.

This sounds like something out of a Bernie Sanders presentation. Not much has changed, except inequality has grown considerably since then.

The movie that started this contemplation was the too subtly contemplative Rollerball. mv5bzjcwnjgxzjitnjq0ni00ogjhlwiwytitymi5mgq3mze0zjnixkeyxkfqcgdeqxvyntayodkwoq4040._v1_ux182_cr00182268_al_ The movie was supposed to be a warning about freedom versus security in a world run by corporations. The hero prevails after a violent ordeal; but the impression left on the movie industry was that of the violent ordeal, not the struggle against injustice. That’s why 27 years later the movie industry remade the movie emphasizing the violence, not the message.

People remember “Greed is good” and action, and forget the intent.

Monopoly is one of the world’s most popular games. Monopolize the market. Drive your opponents (friends away from the board) into bankruptcy. Own it all while everyone else owns nothing. The original intent of the game was to point out;

It was intended as an educational tool to illustrate the negative aspects of concentrating land in private monopolies.” – wikipedia

I doubt it sells so well because it teaches the lesson so fully.

It’s like Star Wars, where the hero isn’t celebrated as much as the villain. Darth Vader is mentioned far more often than Luke Skywalker. Besides, Luke’s costume isn’t as popular and distinctive as Darth’s.

Screenshot 2019-05-11 at 15.52.53

But Superman was all about Truth, Justice, and the American Way! Well, to paraphrase Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride; “You keep using those words. I do not think they mean what you think they mean.” (Pardon that I had to change the plurality of those words.)

Take your pick of political approval ratings, climate deniers, flat-earthers, and entrenched anachronisms. Things that are obvious to many aren’t obvious to everybody. Welcome to a recipe for dysfunctional attitudes and governance.

When I wrote Dream. Invest. Live. Dream. Invest. Live., I tried to be clear about my assumptions. Basically, accept the system as imperfect but trust the regulatory organizations and justice in general to eventually return to some normal norm. Now, under-funded and under-supported SEC, FTC, and other governmental agencies require more due diligence from individual investors and people planning their personal finances.

Whether Superman would approve or not, we’re witnessing the reality of a diverse populace and the injustices inherent in the system. To ignore that reality is to plan for an unreal world. Advocate for the change you want to see, or at least vote. But when it comes to the rather objective and data-driven world of finance, it makes sense to acknowledge the existing risks.

Regardless of the details, the conventional wisdom continues to dominate on a personal level.

Spend less than you make. Invest the rest.

That’s true for an idealized world or a pragmatist’s perspective. Warnings about inequities have been pronounced for decades, yet misconstrued for just as long. For some people, truth, justice, and the American way include thinking greed is good, monopolies are a winning strategy, and strong villains are worth remembering more than heroes.

Do what you can, where you are, with what you have – and work to make a better future. Deal with today. Plan for tomorrow. And realize that a lot can happen between now and then.

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Is Whidbey Changing – Spring 2019 – Coupeville

Every place is the same. Every place is different. Supply and demand affect prices. But every place has its supply issues and a demand for that supply. Saturday, May 4th, was the fourth in my series of talks about real estate and affordability on Whidbey Island. 47532-Is WhidbeyChanging-LNG POSTER My work as a real estate broker is a great opportunity to dive into data, and my time as an engineer means data is a comfort zone for me. Put the two together and find a good reason to talk about data on topics that are frequently defined by anecdotes. This time the talk was at the library in Coupeville with an audience mostly from central Whidbey. It is a place in demand, with some supply issues, and plenty of stories.

Data is objective. Data can also include biases, but data about houses that were sold is data based on people making commitments measured in hundreds of thousands of dollars, at least. One bias is that this is a self-selected set. Anecdotes are enlightening and entertaining, but data about houses that sold is data about actions taken – not just talked about.

I’m familiar with central Whidbey. Besides visiting it almost weekly for dances, friends, or work I’ve also produced two photo essays of the area:

Twelve Months at Penn Cove and Twelve Months at Admiralty Head.

Penn Cove is a protected saltwater harbor that includes the tourist town of Coupeville, a mussel farm, a wide wrap of waterfront properties and yet is off the highway. It can be quiet. Admiralty Head is the forgotten, overlooked center of the island. Take the average of the latitudes of the tips at Deception Pass and Possession Point and get a line that passes through the area around Admiralty Head, Driftwood Park, Crockett Lake, and Fort Casey. That broad swing of park-like properties are neighbors to Ebey’s Landing and Ebey’s Prairie, yet more protected turf. The area is so appealing that movies are made here. The area is also known for the controversial practice airfield bureaucratically named Out-Lying Field (OLF). Around OLF converted fighters practice carrier landings over the relatively safety of land. Great for training and certification, great for folks who enjoy jet noise. Not so great for people who prefer quiet.

It is far too easy to dive into those anecdotes about nature, tourism, movies, and the military. That made it particularly interesting to compile the data about what people are willing to pay to be in the vicinity, though it includes a bias by not including those who wouldn’t pay to be there. Valuing such a non-event is difficult.

Local Affordability - 811-813

My apologies if you’re looking for definitive conclusions. All I have to show are the data.

Price per square foot - 811-813

Overly simply, in some ways central Whidbey fits nicely between the high prices of south Whidbey’s tourist and retirement neighborhoods, and the urban area that is Oak Harbor and the Naval Air Station. If anything, that trend suggests that prices go down as the search moves north, and that central Whidbey gets caught in the middle. Couple that with the trend for lower prices for inland versus waterfront and it is easy to assume the more affordable housing is in the north and between the shores.

Moderating effects don’t necessarily affect those who are particularly sensitive to a particular topic. People who moved to the area decades ago to avoid noise are justifiably upset about low-flying jets designed for performance instead of acoustics. People who moved to the area for the migratory wildlife and panoramic views may care more about the birds and the mountains than the sounds. Every place has its own balancing act. Teasing out the difference can be difficult, especially in an area with so few data points (house sales) to be statistically significant.

https://fineartamerica.com/profiles/tom-trimbath.html

The title of the talk is and was “Is Whidbey Changing”. The answer is ‘Yes’, of course. The entire Puget Sound was overlooked until Microsoft and Frasier made it popular. When there were far fewer people each issue had more negotiable room around it. Now, the area’s popularity has attracted a significant increase in population. Land and housing shortages around Seattle made Seattle’s housing situation headline news. The rest of the mainland is feeling similar effects. The island, however, have natural resource limits to growth, limits that restricted population density on the island. Technology and economic pressures are creating incentives for change. Those changes are being negotiated, possibly from perspectives that were valid years ago when there were fewer people and planes. The resolution isn’t obvious.

I grew up in Pittsburgh during the last of its dirty image era. We were told to accept the smog that was “The Smell of Progress.” Within a few decades, steel was no longer as dominant an industry. It was possible to watch steel mills be sliced up and recycled leaving tortured earth. We never expected them to leave, but they were trucked away. What they revealed was waterfront property that welcomed any clean development. Local industries shifted to robotics and biomed. The image remains but the lifestyles dramatically shifted.

Military base re-arrangements and needs shifted encouraging the Navy to post more people and planes to Whidbey. The flights are increasing. The personnel are filling the vacant properties. The neighbors are feeling the pressures in the environment, housing, and traffic. Maybe that situation will remain. And yet, maybe it will change. Imagine a seaside town with a westward view, dramatic geography, and a very capable airport. The potential value of that is impressive, but theoretical. Imagine the continued progression as the military switches from pilots to drones. Pilots need to be continually trained. Train one drone and the rest learn. Rhetorical: At what point does the best use of the land switch from military to commercial? Will it ever?

I don’t have the answers, and currently there’s an oversupply of questions (and declarations!!!).

Here’s the good news. You get to make up your own mind. That’s one of the benefits of being an adult in a democracy. Whether it is about real estate, affordability, national security, community, or any of those questions in that oversupply, I feel it helps to pick your topic, research it, dive into the objective and subjective perspectives, and decide for yourself.

For those who want a few more details than will fit in this blog post, or want to review the material, here are some links to the video, this presentation, and the previous presentations.

Why are there so many? Two reasons: every place is different, and time changes everything. The answer for a different time and place will necessarily be different – and a good reason to stay tuned.

Thanks to the various Sno-Isle Libraries and their librarians for hosting the presentations.

Formal Disclosure:
I am a real estate broker with Coldwell Banker Tara Properties in Bayview.

Informal Disclosure:
I’m happy to help.

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Nickles And Dimes

How old are you? Do you remember when stores were built around the idea of nickles and dimes, or is being nickled and dimed something that sounds dealing with insignificant details? Change the wording from pennies to dollars and the story hasn’t changed much.

Photo on 2016-03-31 at 14.14

I remember five and ten cent stores, both local stores whose names I forgot and national names like Woolworth’s that are mainly remembered as historical references. With a pocket of change a person could go shopping for enough stuff to warrant a bag (paper, of course.) It was a time of save a few pennies and work up to a nickle, and actually get something for it. Leave a nickle as a tip now; and find you delivered an insult.

The modern equivalent is the dollar store. Very much the same idea, but my imperfect memories remember stores that were nicer than the Dollar Store. They also seemed to be much bigger, but I was much smaller. Perspective matters. The name represents a ten or twenty multiple, but the basis was the same: they buy in bulk from a cheap manufacturer (first Japan, then China, then…), we buy a few items knowing we’re paying based on price, not quality. If that’s all you can afford, then price becomes more important. Even if quality provides lower costs over all, that’s a luxury to someone who only has that dollar.

One lesson is inflation. As much as we can fear or complain about inflation, inflation is relatively calm in recent US history. We worry about inflation exceeding a few percent. Americans who were adults forty years ago lived through a short period of 13% inflation. A dollar in 2019 buys as much as $0.07 did a hundred years ago. We use cents so infrequently that the symbol is no longer standard on a keyboard. (Feel free to play with the notion that “We use sense so infrequently…”, but that’s another story.) The US currently has 1.9% inflation, which is below the Fed target of 2%-2.5%.

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A little inflation is seen as a good thing because a little deflation is a very bad thing. A couple of percent keeps us on the less unhealthy side of a major economic worry. Check Japan’s worries about deflation (and their potential for a deflationary spiral) or Zimbabwe’s worries about hyper-inflation (which is so ridiculous that it was aiming at 1,000,000% recently.)

Saving those pennies made sense when they could accumulate to something. They still can, but one measure of how little we value them is how readily some shoppers leave their change at the counter, or dump nickels and dimes and maybe quarters into the save-a-penny/take-a-penny cup. At least some non-profits benefit from valuing the multitude of discarded coins donated to them at the cash register (that’s assuming there’s any real cash to register as more transactions slide over to plastic or an app on a phone.)

I’m not one of those people who say everyone should count every cent. My bank accounts must balance to that measure, but I’m not going to spend that much time worrying about such small amounts of money. I do save my change, and rarely spend it; but it rarely amounts to much. About two or three times a year I collect all of my change, load it into a rattling retail coin counter (Yay for not having to fill little paper tubes and smelling like copper!), and find that the total amounts to less than a tank of gas. Hit the Donate button, get the receipt, and it doesn’t even make a difference to my taxes. Hopefully it makes a difference to the charity. I don’t do it for me because I’ve quantified how little it adds up to relative to my expenses.

Money is value. Time is more valuable than money. Don’t spend too much of the precious resource trying to save more of the other one. Time is more than money. Decide for yourself where that line is. Don’t worry about whether it makes sense for Bill Gates to take the time to pick up a $100 bill. What will you walk past? A penny? A nickle? A dime? A quarter? A dollar bill? If all you have is $1, then pick it all up. I’ll stop to pick up any of it because of the Lucky Penny superstition, and the possibility that anything higher may be claimed by who dropped it. In reality, a Lucky Penny sits on the shelf for a while before getting dropped in to the coin sorter. The other coins sit on display a shorter time, even though they all end up in the same place.

The more practical application of the nickle and dime concept is electronic. The value of a dollar is more apparent when you have to pull one out of your wallet for every purchase. Go online. Sign up for a subscription that is ‘only’ a few dollars a month. It may be worth more than that, in which case you made a deal. But it is too easy to sign up for several subscriptions, and to sign up for more than you can remember. Debit and credit charges can drain accounts without involving wallets or checkbooks. It is true in personal finance. It is true for businesses. My streaming device readily tries to entice me with subscriptions throughout the day. Most of them have a price of a few dollars a month. Sure, they all have value. But I can only enjoy one at a time, and may not be able to get to all of them in a month. One at a time. One at a time. I turned off Netflix, switched to Hulu, and may try another one soon.

The more important and powerful but boring adage is “A penny saved is a penny earned.” Being creative and resourceful enough to realize you don’t have to buy this thing or that service is much more powerful than saving 20% or even 50%. Don’t buy it and save 100%; assuming that was for a want, not a need. Necessities are more valuable than luxuries regardless of the luxury or its price.

Now, I am curious. I wonder what a pack of gum costs. I rarely chew it, so I don’t know; but I do know it isn’t a nickle or a dime, and may be more than a dollar. Sounds like an excuse to visit the store, check some prices, and save all of the money I won’t spend on such things. Of course if there’s a sale on tea, well, that’s another story…

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Is Whidbey Changing – Freeland – Spring 2019

Give a talk three times and every time is different. Why not? Change doesn’t stop. Time and geography change the emphasis and the topics. A few hours ago I finished my third talk about real estate and affordability trends on Whidbey Island. In general, the message was the same. Thanks to the audience, we talked about new topics with new perspectives.47532-Is WhidbeyChanging-LNG POSTER

Formal Disclosure:
I am a real estate broker with Coldwell Banker Tara Properties in Bayview.

Informal Disclosure:
I’m happy to help.

If you missed it, tune in by watching the video of the livestream (bad camera angles and too-rich colors included.)

Don’t have time for the full show, or want to look at the fine print and individual squiggles? Here’s the presentation.

Is Whidbey Changing – Spring 2019 Freeland (pdf)

Want to see what was different without watching and comparing each presentation (Is Whidbey Changing? – Langley – Fall 2018 & Is Whidbey Changing? – Langley – Spring 2019)? Well, here’s my recollection of some of the new topics.

For those not familiar with Whidbey Island, Langley is known globally as a premier tourist destination. Freeland isn’t as well known, but it includes the biggest shops, the “Gold Coast” of west side waterfront properties, a couple of golf courses (depending on where you draw the boundaries, and a lot of the things that help you get things done. It isn’t the only place with those features, but it possibly has the most comprehensive set without being a Big City.

Waterfront

Median house prices are rising, but they tend to combine everything in that zip code. Break out the waterfront versus non-waterfront homes and see a dramatic increase in the median house price. Instead of a price of about $300K, expect something more like $900K. Some of those waterfront homes are along a lake. Expect an even wider dispersion if the distinction between fresh water and salt water. (An analysis I have yet to complete.)

Demographics

Freeland, as well as the rest of south Whidbey is aging. The median age is increasing a bit less than a year per year. That suggests that, as someone moves out, someone their same age moves in. It probably isn’t that simple; but in general the data suggests that Freeland isn’t seeing a trend of retirees selling to young families. Until immortality is invented, this is an unsustainable trend.

Culture

Preserving heritage, culture, and landmarks is difficult anywhere. On a rural island, families may sustain such things; but as generations disperse, so do preservation efforts. Fortunately, philanthropic newbies can accomplish amazing things, too. Such efforts won’t save everything, new money means new perspectives, and as stories fade, things change. Also fortunately, Whidbey Island has one of the highest concentrations of non-profit organizations in the US; so at least some social structure exists to help things persist.

At the core of the conversation are a few key observations:

  • Whidbey Island feels unaffordable to many, and they’re right according to many measures; but the island is actually much more affordable than the other islands, places on the mainland, and places around the Pacific Rim. (By the way, I enjoyed the observation that the comparison is among a bunch of cities sitting over volcano, earthquake, and tsunami zones.)
  • Many of the trends are unsustainable, which means something will change. Inventory can’t go below zero. Immortality isn’t here, yet. (Come on Geron.) If wages don’t keep up with expenses, then workers have to move to someplace more affordable.
  • Solutions that are available other places but not in Island County, may begin changing county policies as off-island economic pressures make it cheaper to change policies here than to live somewhere else.

There’s much more. That’s why the room was packed, and I stayed long after to talk with attendees. I encourage you to watch the video, read the slides – or attend the next presentation which will be in Coupeville on May 4th at 10AM. Every month starts with an update to the data, and Coupeville is unique in many ways, so that presentation will be different, too. I’m looking forward to it, seeing you there, or chatting about such issues online or in real life.

Stay tuned.

PS Thanks to Sno-Isle Libraries, Freeland Library, and the Friends of Freeland Library (particularly for the very sweet projector setup.)

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Earthy Issues 2019

Several years ago I finished a post about garbage with;

“Wouldn’t it be amazing, that when we finally contact an extra-terrestrial civilization, they look at us with respect because of the respect we show for what we have, how we spend it, and what we save? Maybe we’ll be honored for that.”

Since then we’ve had several setbacks, several revelations, and several reasons for optimism. They all continue to add to a reason to also be building lifeboats because this ship isn’t turning quickly enough, at least for my comfort. Amidst the effort, I applaud frugal folk because frugality means respecting what the world provides. (See one of my other blogs, PretendingNotToPanic.com for news for those who are eager and anxious about the future.)

Several decades ago the conversation finally progressed to inspire the first Earth Day. They didn’t do that because they thought we could wait until 2019 to act. They did that because they already thought it was too late to not act. The plural ‘they’ were scientists, advocates, and simply people who cared about clean air, clean water, and sustainable living.

If you’re not several decades old you may not see the contrast in the relative lack of litter, the ability to see for miles, quieter and less smelly traffic, less smelly air around water and waste, fewer backyard fires, and more protections for wildlife and wilderness. Go back to that post mentioned above and see the impact of recycling, reducing, and even composting. Rivers in America are far less likely to catch fire.

For many, Earth Day is yet another holiday to ignore, partly because the only holidays to pay attention to are the ones that provide a day off from work.

I am glad to know several people who organize efforts based on the same philosophy frequently attributed to Teddy Roosevelt (who may have heard it from someone else);

Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are.

One recent initiative is the Whidbey Island campaign of the Taming Bigfoot Challenge, being led by Terra Anderson. Sure, Bigfoot is a part of the Western Washington culture (and some claim it is part of the Western Washington ecosystem), but this Bigfoot is the challenge to reduce individual carbon footprints. Ironically, the people most likely to sign up for such a challenge are the ones who already have small footprints. The biggest gains will be from those who have large footprints and have become aware of the benefits to having much smaller footprints.

Having a smaller carbon footprint is better for the planet. It is also better for the individual.

I dislike generalizations, but there is one I am happy to witness.

Frugal people tend to have smaller carbon footprints. The planet benefits from less carbon in the air, but the people benefit from easier and healthier lives. They already live small. Housing costs go down, as well as heating, insurance, and maintenance costs. Time is saved, or redefined. It takes less time to tend a smaller house. It may take more time to tend a garden, but there’s a significant time savings when it comes time to make dinner because the ingredients may be closer to the kitchen than the car is. Bonus points for food that is fresher, healthier, and cheaper. It may take more time to bicycle to commute or shop (Occupy Your Bike!), but there’s less time and money spent on gyms and gas. I hope to find a way to manage at least part of my real estate career from my bicycle instead of my pickup truck.

Frugal people are aware of their values and the costs of time and money. Dwelling on values seems frequently to encourage people to concentrate on home, friends, and community. Concentrate on that enough and it’s possible to be so busy with projects and people you enjoy that there’s no time or reason to chase what’s being sold in ads. I see a car commercial and see waste, not the luxury they emphasize. I see ads for cruises and I see excess and a disconnect from the world, not the immersion I’ve experienced in traveling by bicycling and walking. I see ads for chain restaurants and see food I can make at home for far less where it’s easier to enjoy with friends. One meal out at a high-end restaurant can buy a week’s groceries, possibly with leftovers.

For many, Earth Day is just another day because for them every day is Earth Day. Earth Day has succeeded that well. Watch Facebook and notice how many people proudly display sunrises and sunsets, flowers and fields, people and pets. Food porn may be a thing, but the wider smiles seem to be on those who display their harvests from the garden or the sea. Talk to a mushroom hunter and hear someone who so values what they’ve found that they won’t tell you where they found it; and if they do, know that they trust you to keep a valuable secret.

I rarely celebrate Earth Day. Earning a living gets in the way of it and many other parties. And yet, when I look at what I’ve written and photographed and volunteered for I have to remind myself that I guess I’ve been working on those same planetary and frugality themes for so long that they are part of me. I’m not the role model several of my friends are who bicycle more than they drive, grow the majority of what they eat, and know the comfort of a down comforter is greater than the comfort of a cranked up thermostat. I do what I can.

My various Twelve Month studies are based on the simple yet uncommon idea;

“The best way to feel the sense the world is to be active enough to get out into it, and quiet enough to be able to observe it.”

Twelve Months at Barclay Lake, Lake Valhalla, Merritt Lake (non-fiction)

Twelve Months at Cultus Bay, Maxwelton Beach, Double Bluff, Admiralty Head, Penn Cove, and Deception Pass (photos)

For the travel set there’s Just Keep Pedaling, and Walking Thinking Drinking Across Scotland.

And then there are other benefits because it was a natural decision to accept the role of Site Steward for Hammons Preserve, a Whidbey Camano Land Trust property. Sure, the hat, sweatshirt, and glass are appreciated; but it is also gratifying to walk a property that is being preserved rather than developed or abandoned. It is gratifying to see roses fight back blackberries, and saplings grow tall enough for birds and shade.

DSC_5699 - Edited

I’m glad I live in a place that has more than Earth Day. Whidbey Island celebrates Earth & Ocean Month. Maybe eventually enough will decide to celebrate Earth, sustainably and eternally (well, at least until the Sun consumes the planet, but that’s another issue.)

 

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Better Taxes In 2019

Finally, good news on tax day. Every year, filing income taxes provides yet one more data point in my roller coaster ride through America’s wealth classes. This year, despite making just about the same as the last few years, I paid less in income tax. Skip the politics and other guesses and applaud my tax accountant, Tamera Lewis. Hiring a professional certainly helps, sometimes is a luxury, and sometimes is a necessity. Now to come up with the money to pay taxes for 2018 and start collecting them for 2019. An interesting process.

Add that new data point (really a datum, but I grammatically digress). In 2018 I made within a couple of thousand dollars of what I made in 2019. Not great progress, but the near-term potential has risen dramatically. Yet I paid about 20% less. In an academic environment it would be possible to quantify the various factors involved, but I’ll give credit to Tamera. It wouldn’t be a surprise to learn that a professional can figure out taxes better than cheaper software. I was glad for TurboTax, but I am gladder for saving over $1,500.

Despite the lower taxes, they weren’t so low that I could simply write a check for them. Income from real estate is sporadic, and two or three transactions were delayed a month or two or three or – well, we’ll see when they happen. It was back to using the credit card for a payment that can hopefully be cleared before summer.

As I’ve said before, when I was richer it was easier. It was also simpler. When I lived from investing in stocks, it was possible to fill out the forms by hand. I only traded a few times each year, only had a business license in case someone wanted to buy a book or a photo, or hire me as a consultant. It was low-key and easy. Hold stocks long enough and the tax rate goes down, too. Sell off a few losers to balance the winners and get a tax rate near zero.

Then My Triple Whammy hit. Scramble to build a business during the Great Recession while watching losses accrue in my IRA that can’t be balanced against anything. Start the seven day work week energizing those smaller revenue streams like books and photos. Jump into the Gig Economy and reach last year’s maximum of seven 1099s.Photo on 2018-04-03 at 10.37 Even using TurboTax, calculating my taxes was difficult and painful. TurboTax’s constant updates of what I might owe kicked off anxiety attacks during the process. Bad timing. And yet, trying to do the same job by understanding every nuance, cost, and benefit for about a dozen different income streams and businesses would be unhealthy. I trusted the software because I knew I couldn’t devote enough time to become an amateur accountant.

And then I became a real estate broker. Last year was a transition year as real estate stepped in as large projects like managing an online museum stepped away. That also meant yet another type of business and yet another possible set of forms. Help! Hence, hiring an accountant.

This is so much easier, almost as easy as when I was retired, a millionaire, and had an accountant because “Why not?”. Data and papers still have to be collected, but instead of agonizing over every entry, I was able to hand Tamera a folder, answer a few questions, and walk away for a couple of months. Even without knowing if I was going to pay more or less, using a professional was healthier. Stress is unhealthy, and I have more than my share, hence a fellow realtor awarded me for “clearing significant hurdles” in 2018. (The award is in my office.) Sure, I knew a professional would cost more than a software package that teased with ‘free’ yet charged over a hundred dollar fee; but establishing a new career with its required training left little time for learning another aspect of tax law.

By the way, further applause for Tamera. I finally got the call that my taxes were ready, except for a few questions. I answered all of them except one, which didn’t make sense when I read it in the email. A day or so later I called, because the spoken word is better than the written word. The confusion continued, so I dropped by because personally communicating with a person in person is better than simply hearing. She hadn’t made a mistake. I did. I accidentally gave her my data from 2017, not 2018. It was April and she’d have to start over again. Embarrassed, apologetic, and humiliated. And then impressed, again. One email and one day later and she’d updated everything. Whew. I even checked if there’d be an extra charge for such a late mistake. Nope. Whew, again.

Tamera was even nice enough to alleviate my anxiety by telling me the number before I dropped by to sign the form. The total bill almost matched my checking account balance, but that was better than I feared because if it had been the same as before, it would’ve needed my business account, too. I could pay in cash, but there’d be nothing left for – anything. The mortgage must be paid. Insurance must be paid. I must eat.

I don’t like using my credit card. There are plenty of reasons for that dislike, which will probably become yet another post, but that comes later. One big reason was that I’d finally paid it off, just a few months ago. Hopefully, I can pay it off within a few months, and get ahead to the point that it stays that way.

Thanks to being able to be paid for helping people buy and sell houses and land, I can look forward to an even easier time next year. If all goes well, I may get to pay along the way, rather than scramble at the deadline.

And then I look around and see how many other people are scrambling every day in the Gig Economy, collecting every job they can, each with yet another contract, pay schedule, reporting requirements, and eventual transition to the next gig. Our tax code is designed for paychecks from life-long careers, or income from investments, or fixed incomes from trusts or retirements. Everything else is stapled, glued, and taped on to cover the rest. The result is a mess. But the result is that those working amidst the rest get no rest because they have to keep working and pay bills, yet find time to also understand the tax laws, even the ones that supposedly benefit them.

My roller coaster ride through America’s wealth classes continues. There are no guarantees, but it seems that I am heading back into familiar territory, a place where I can hire the right guides to see me through. Roller coasters have rails for guides, but this is America which means travelers are responsible for finding their way, maybe with some help. I’m glad I found some. I hope others do too.

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Is Whidbey Changing – Spring 2019 – Langley

Well, I did it again. Last night we reprised the presentation made late last year about real estate and affordability trends on Whidbey Island. I say ‘we’ because if there wasn’t a library to host it or an audience that asked questions it would only be me talking to an empty room. That would be silly. As in many places around Seattle, along the coast, and across the planet housing has become an issue for everyone from serious investors to individuals fortunate enough to afford a house to the homeless and near-homeless. Through in economy concerns and create a topic worthy of lots of discussions, and occasional updates.

47532-Is WhidbeyChanging-LNG POSTER

For that previous presentation, as well as a fuller narrative and a link to the video, go to ‘Is Whidbey Changing‘ (the edition that was named before I realized this could be a recurring title.) (Also: Curses to the clash between Google and Microsoft that kept the event from being livestreamed. Maybe next time.)

That presentation was updated with new data, which filled in the winter season and answered some of the anxious questions asked late last fall. For those who like data, slides, and the ability to review them for themselves, here’s the most recent presentation.

Is Whidbey Changing – Spring 2019

Here are several of the insights about the changes.

  • The comparison between automated estimates continues: Zillow, Redfin, RealAVM, and ValueMap. If the person with two watches doesn’t know what time it is (back from the times when watches were mechanical and had errors), then having four makes things better and worse. Only having one answer can create a false confidence. Asking for several opinions is harder and requires critical judgment, but is also more valuable. (Imagine if the world ran that way.) I use the example of the estimated price of my 868 square foot house that was a view.DSCN5128 Four different algorithms (probably) developed by four sets of mathematicians and four answers for one house. At one point the differences were about $74,000, or about 25%. Another implication is that, if I trusted Zillow’s estimate, my house’s value went up by more than two year’s living expenses in less than three months. Yeehaw! At that rate I can retire in about thirty months! But, one house is not representative, which is why the rest of the presentation uses statistics based on existing home sales, not estimates.
  • One of the anxious aspects from last year was whether a Seattle slump was damaging Whidbey Island home prices. The island’s trend did quiet a bit, but managed to climb. Arguably, Whidbey Island’s real estate market was harder hit by the winter weather, and yet it continued. That suggests the market isn’t as fickle or fragile as the worst worries suggested.
  • Prices are affected by supply and demand. North and Central Whidbey reached record low inventories. South Whidbey was aimed at the same, but bounced up just enough to miss making the record island-wide.
  • The seasonal variation in houses for sale continues its bouncy downward trend, but has to change eventually. The market can’t have a negative number for the number of houses for sale. When Seattle was in a similar situation, the prices began to climb dramatically. In so many ways Whidbey Island is not Seattle, but the markets may – may – act similarly.
  • The price distribution of the number of houses for sale continues to show a dramatic reduction from several years ago. The biggest drop continues to be in the sub-$300,000 houses. On a percentage basis, that means South Whidbey has about twenty houses over a $1,000,000 (about 20% of the market) and only about ten below $300,000.
  • North Whidbey’s market actually picked up speed with Days on Market dropping below 20 days.
  • Similar when looked at as Months of Supply.
  • The Price per Square Foot trends across the island show all are rising, with South Whidbey leading the way, which may be a consequence of its greater supply of million-dollar homes.
  • A new bit of data focused on ‘downtown’ Langley where Price per Square Foot started rising two years ago, distancing itself from the rest of the island, and its zip code. ‘Downtown’ Langley may be experiencing its global awareness heightened by tourism marketing.
  • For the last few months, the rest of South Whidbey didn’t see much change in the Median Sale Price. While Central Whidbey had a drop, it was only after a surge that put it higher than North Whidbey. That may be caused by Central Whidbey’s smaller inventory where a few sales can dramatically shift numbers.
  • Whidbey maintains it ‘most affordable’ status when compared to San Juan, Vashon, and Bainbridge despite Bainbridge’s slight drop.
  • Seattle’s price drop is apparent, but small in comparison to where it was. Everywhere else was relatively flat or slowly climbing despite the news.
  • In regional supply, Seattle’s surge is so large that the uptick is larger than the entire Whidbey Island market. That extra supply in King County may mean less demand for Island County.
  • As for Seattle relative to the Pacific Rim, it isn’t the cheapest, but it’s down there. So, even as we recognize its unaffordability, globally it can look very affordable.
  • The following charts on Whidbey Island’s demographics, affordability, and vacancy rates haven’t changed. Basically, the island is getting older, earning enough money on the island to live on the island is getting tougher, and county and particularly South Whidbey have a very large number of vacant homes. The island also has a sad and developing homeless situation: people who aren’t just statistics, but are people who can’t afford housing even if they have a full-time job. No one is a statistic, but together we become one. Odd?
  • Another new bit of news comes from various cities that also face high vacancy rates and low available inventories. It is becoming common that cities charge taxes, like an extra percent of taxable value, for homes that aren’t lived in regularly. The details differ by city, but the situation and intent are the same. They may demonstrate at least one way to fund affordable housing.

During and after the talk there were several good questions. I don’t claim to know everything so I will admit to being human and having to point at other humans for those answers. When in doubt, talk to the County about official stuff. For some items, we can all guess but not know because of privacy concerns or because the analyses would require significant resources. Other brokers, bankers, and basically the rest of the community all have something to add.

One item that is easy to pass along is the influence of waterfront properties on the Median Sales Price. Surely with so many waterfront homes and their significantly higher price per square feet they’d significantly shift the overall numbers.

Price per square foot - waterfront

Waterfront properties do have significantly higher Price per Square Foot ($356 for waterfront versus $201 for the rest) and significantly higher Median Sales Price ($605 versus $320, respectively) but they only represent ~15% of the market (88 out of 572 houses).

Median Sales Price - waterfront

There are many more topics to discuss. Two more opportunities are scheduled: Freeland Library on April 23 at 2PM, and Coupeville Library on May 4 at 10AM, each with its own emphasis. By the way, I applaud the island libraries for hosting these free discussions. Housing, affordability, and sustainability are important issues as the island and the region changes. I look forward to giving similar presentations, or answering specific questions from individuals. As I said above, I don’t have all the answers, but I might be able to help.

Stay tuned. This story has been going on for decades and has no reason to stop.

Formal Disclosure:
I am a real estate broker with Coldwell Banker Tara Properties in Bayview.

Informal Disclosure:
I’m happy to help.

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If Only The Money Was There

I got my hair cut today. I’d show it off, but Google auto-updated my Chromebook in a way that disabled the camera (something we now assume should be part of a normal computer.) Trust me. Diana at Chops did a fine job steering my image towards respectability in time for my affordability and real estate presentation 47532-Is WhidbeyChanging-LNG POSTERnext week at Langley Library. I’d just come from a talk with writers and entrepreneurs, where looking scruffy is acceptable. In those two conversations and a few others in the last week the same refrain was heard; “If only the money was there.”

The money is there. That’s the issue. For each of those conversations the money was there, not here. There’s enough money out there; but out there doesn’t move businesses, projects, and ideas here – wherever here may be.

This is a story that includes the poor and the rich, two four letter words that overly simplify the world because every issue is about individuals, but simplifications must be made to make conversations happen.

Whidbey Island is not alone. Plenty of people are trying to pay their bills by starting businesses.

Services are common because their expenses are low, at least compared to goods that require materials, tools, labor, storage, shipping, and maybe handling returns. The profits and the profit margins from services are high, too. Potentially. Goods, however, especially goods that can be mass-produced, can scale wonderfully. Patent an idea, get someone else to make lots of whatever it is, and enjoy royalties without further work. (See AlanBeckley.com for one friend’s success story.)

Ideally, starting a business is a very American idea. The majority of wealthy people got their money from inheritances or working in finance; but many of the minority built their wealth by working. They succeeded in clearing the realistic hurdle that blocks many idealistic plans.

Getting a business started isn’t easy. It takes money to make money and the poor don’t have money, by definition. It is possible to build up from only a few hundred dollars, but those stories seem about as common as hearing about lottery ticket winners. The next most logical step is to borrow money. The rich have money, by definition, and many will make it available at a price. So, one way to become less poor is to make someone else more rich. Granted, that price reflects the potential losses from failed loans, and that price doesn’t always cover those losses.

As a consultant, one of the most common conversations I have is how someone is going to fund their idea. Now, here I have to show some discretion because appearances are important and I don’t want to reveal the reality behind confident facades. But then, I suspect we all know people wearing a bold front that’s propped up by hope, faith, or debt. That facade may be worn far past the establishment of the business because sole-proprietorships are fragile and not protected like corporations. Their owners know how easy it is to fall back down there.

The island is a good place to see the process in action. Anonymity is harder to maintain. Storefronts opening and closing are associated with people instead of businesses. If a store opens, folks know who is running it. If it closes, we lament the loss for the person more than the loss of the business. Conventional wisdom claims that the main reason young businesses don’t survive is because they didn’t have enough money at the start. They were under-capitalized, just as the poor are under-funded.

The same is true with advocacies and non-profits. Great ideas, but insufficient funds for the work that needs to be done.

One of the topics that may come up at next week’s real estate talk is similar. Affordability is directly a function of assets, debts, income, and expenses. Finding safe, clean, and sustainable housing is much easier with more money. A home means a more stable life, a chance to become part of a non-transient community, and legitimacy. With a fixed address a person can be more reliable, more likely to get a job, more likely to be healthier and have lower health care costs, and potentially have lower stress levels. Without the house, there may not be the job, there may be a wide variety of health issues, and there’s less money available for prevention or treatment.

So, it sounds simple. Get people into houses, any kind of houses. There are several people and organizations working to help, but the very fact that housing is expensive means the solution requires money. The money, and to some extent the houses, are there; but it’s not where it is needed.

Thanks to crowdsourcing and social media, there are probably more sources of funds that ever. Whidbey Island is also populated with charitable people.

On an island with fewer than 100,000 people, there are over 264 charitable organizations listed with the IRS.” – AboutWhidbey.com

Each source has its own set of rules, guidelines, goals, procedures, and limitations. To some extent, they exist because the traditional source of borrowing money from a bank is less popular than before. Banks are more cautious because of recent losses. Faith in banks has also diminished for several reasons, including scandals like the one at Wells Fargo, and personal experiences during the foreclosure crisis. I can’t compare to the situation before the Great Recession (the Second Great Depression), but I do know many people who have an aversion to being beholden to a bank, or any debt. If they can’t buy it for cash, they won’t buy it; and that includes houses.

Wealth inequality continues. Now, 0.7% of the people control 46% of the wealth.” – Pretending Not To Panic

That 46% of the wealth could do a lot more work, but much of it is held in financial instruments like stocks. Billionaires rarely make billions from paychecks. Billionaires are created by stock appreciation. As wealth inequality grows, more money flows out of the economy and into tax havens. The rich get richer and the poor have less available to help them become less poor – unless they borrow from the rich making the rich richer.

I’m one of the lucky ones. I live in a supportive community, and have received generosity beyond what I imagined. I’m in a much better situation than I was even two years ago. And yet, a few months of delayed projects and compensations could mean I’d have to sell my house and move – somewhere more affordable. I doubt that will happen, but I notice it and then look around at how many others are in less comfortable situations.

A few decades ago and relative to today, banks were seen as a source of affordable funds, government provided more services, social mobility was greater, wealth and income inequality was much lower. From what I witness, the new sources don’t compensate for the loss of the old supports. If you find that “It should be easier” you’re probably right. But, until something changes, this is the new normal – and be thankful for those who decide that generosity isn’t measured by profit and loss.

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