mortgage-balanceAre you looking for peace of mind and significantly improved monthly cash flow? This could be a great time to pay down or pay off your mortgage.

There is a certain sense of euphoria that comes with paying off a mortgage, or making the last payment on a car loan. Your monthly expenses drop significantly, and you now have cash flow for savings, spending, or maybe working just a little bit less.

Retirement is much more achievable if you own your own home.

Let’s look at some different options for “safe money.” 30-year fixed mortgages average about 3.9% in the greater Philadelphia area, according to Meanwhile, current rates for 1-yr CD’s average 0.27%. Five-year U.S. Treasury bonds yield 1.5%. Five-year fixed annuities pay about 2.5%, depending on the issuer.

Comparatively speaking, you may be paying a higher rate on your mortgage than you are receiving from some of your investment holdings. Carrying a mortgage does offer a tax deduction on the interest paid each year. However, this tends to decline over time, and may be reduced further if you are subject to AMT (Alternative Minimum Tax). Depending on your situation, it may be possible to obtain a greater tax benefit by paying off a mortgage, and increasing monthly contributions to a 401(k) or other retirement plan.

This all suggests that owning low-rate bonds and CDs might not always make sense, particularly if you still have a mortgage.

Keep in mind that it is always good to have a small nest egg available to cover life’s surprises, but if you want real stability and security, it may also makes sense to own the roof over your head.

-Jim Lee, CFA, CMT, CFP

Disclosure: Information contained herein is for educational purposes only and is not to be considered a recommendation to buy or sell any security or investment advice. Consult your advisor.

Inside the Appleverse

  • James H. Lee

Apple StoreAt times, it seems like the entire tech universe orbits around just one company.

Nothing is bigger than the Big Apple. Not only is it the largest stock holding for individual investors, but also for hedge fund managers and StratFI clients, too. Apple is now bigger than Exxon Mobil by market capitalization, and is the most highly valued company in the world.

That kind of gravitational mass attracts significant influence. Apple now represents 4% of the S&P 500 index. Last year, shares rose a stunning 40%, contributing a full 1.5% to the return of the popular benchmark. As investors put money into index funds, they are often buying shares of Apple.

Without Apple, the tech world would be a much less exciting place. A recent Zero Hedge article notes that “blended Q1 Y/Y EPS growth for the Information Technology sector is 0.7% [but] excluding Apple, the blended earnings growth rate for the sector would fall to -5.1%.”

Apple is pretty much holding the tech sector together right now. So why not hitch a ride on a rising star?

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Solving the Puzzle of Sustainable Success

  • James H. Lee


Make money, have fun, be excellent.  This is all you that you really need to know to have a sustainable and fulfilling career.  So simple, yet many people lose sight of this. 

Let's face it, making money is the reason why most of us go to work. If your business isn't generating cash flow and paying the bills, you won't be in business for too long... 

Having fun is about maintaining positive relationships.  This attracts new customers and makes work pleasant and joyful.  Lose sight of this and you'll eventually burn-out. 

Being excellent involves becoming your own best competition.  It is about staying focused and engaged in your work, and always striving to make the world a better place.  Remember that you can't grow if you aren't willing to stretch a little! 

This is a package deal - each part makes the others possible.  Make a promise to do these three things every day and watch your life flourish. 

-Jim Lee, CFA, CMT, CFP

Google OfficeThis has been a big week for Apple, as it officially announces a watch that connects to the popular iPhone. Apple is now the largest publicly-traded company in the U.S., bigger than even Exxon Mobil. Nonetheless, I'm more of a Google fanboy.  Apple has a lot of very smart people doing cool things. Google has brilliant people doing things that leave me in state of complete awe.

A dozen years ago, when asked how the company could make money in free keyword search, Larry Page responded that he was really in the business of developing artificial intelligence (AI). The challenge was knowing the difference between what users type as a search, and understanding what they really want.

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Investing in the Future of Hydrogen Power

  • James H. Lee

Toyota MiraiPerhaps the most stunning product development at last month's Consumer Electronics Show was Toyota's new hydrogen fuel-powered car, breathlessly named the "Mirai" and translated as "The Future."

Toyota was the first to go big on hybrid vehicles over a decade ago, and then lost its mojo to all-electric competition from companies such as Tesla. 

The recent switch to hydrogen is intriguing, because it suggests that the company may be moving in an entirely different direction. 

Hydrogen fuel cells are not new - just expensive.   The hydrogen itself can be sourced from natural gas or electrolysis of water using solar power or conventional sources.   Most fuel cells require the use of platinum in membranes that release electrons from the hydrogen.  Those free electrons are then used to create an electrical current which can power a vehicle's motors.  

There are some huge advantages for transportation, such as complete refueling in 3-5 minutes, a full 300-mile driving range, the performance of an all-electric drive, and much lighter weight than battery-powered vehicles, to name just a few. 

Hydrogen fuel cell cars are extremely clean from an environmental perspective.  When hydrogen combines with oxygen, the result is pure H201.  Yup, that means the sole exhaust is drinkable water.

But things get even weirder from here.  As part of its promotion to sell vehicles in California, Toyota is offering 3-years of free fuel to new buyers.  This will come from any one of forty-eight planned hydrogen filling stations on the West Coast. 

Toyota is rethinking the game in other ways, too.  While most cars are plugged into a garage outlet, the Mirai serves as an off-grid source of power, meaning that you could plug your garage into your car.  Toyota engineers say that a smallish American home could be powered for up to 5-days on a single filling of hydrogen. 

Garry Golden, a New York-based transportation futurist, says that rather than rebuilding a well-established network of gasoline service stations across America, the future of hydrogen-power may resemble the iconic "milkman" model of home delivery, with hydrogen "honeycombs" delivered daily to residences or convenience stories, and the empties picked up and recycled at the end of the day.  

A more immediate scenario involves a gradual build-out of hydrogen-based fueling stations.  The areas to watch, says Golden, are island nations such as England and Japan.


So, has the time finally come for hydrogen-power?  Investors lost piles of money in fuel cell stocks during the early 2000's.  Most have not gotten back to break-even, even though the technology has progressed by more than a decade. 

Key fuel cell stocks that were the "next big thing" such as Ballard Power Systems (ticker:  BLDP) and Plug Power (PLUG) are now "single-digit midgets", trading for $2 per share.  Executives at Plug estimate that the company could break-even by the fourth quarter of 2015, but have not yet reported a profit.  Of the two, Plug appears to be in a better position.

Meanwhile, Toyota (TM) is worth a second look.  This isn't because the company is an innovator in the use of hydrogen power, but because they are good at everything else.  Toyota  is benefitting from a weak yen, and U.S. sales were up 12.7% last December.  Earnings per share are up 23% over the past year, yet the stock is trading at just 12x earnings.   


Will hydrogen live up to the hype?  In this case, it doesn't matter.


-Jim Lee, CFA, CMT, CFP 


Disclosure:  Information contained herein is for educational purposes only and is not to be considered a recommendation to buy or sell any security or investment advice. Securities listed herein are for illustrative purposes only and are not to be considered a recommendation.   The advisor currently holds shares of Toyota Motors (TM) in client accounts.  

Financial Resolutions

  • James H. Lee
ResolutionsAccording to a recent article in the Journal of Psychology, almost half of all Americans make a New Year's Resolution.   What to most of us want to do differently?  Lose weight, save money, get organized, and spend more time with the family.  
Financial planning won't necessarily help you burn off the stuffing from holiday turkey, but it can help you with the other three.  We're here to help you get started on the right track.
Success is often about setting priorities - let's start with the basics first.
1) Eliminate your credit card debt. This may be the highest and safest return on your money. Check out sites like and look at credit cards that can enable you to consolidate debt at a lower interest rate. If you need more help, consider free resources such as the Consumer Credit Counseling Service.
2) Know your monthly budget. How much do you have each month in income? What are your monthly expenses? There are some great expense tracking tools out there, such as Your income needs to be more than your outgo!
3) Build some cash reserves. Ideally, everyone should have 3-6 months worth of cash in a savings or money market account in case of emergency. If you need to rely on payday loans to make your rent or car payments, you may need to move somewhere less expensive, work longer hours, or find a job that pays more.
4) Get your profile on LinkedIn. Think of this as your online resume. The average job only lasts 3-4 years, so start planning for your next job before this one ends.
5) Pay yourself first by putting money into savings at the beginning of each month. If you wait until the end of each month, you might find that you don't have any money left!
6) Get insured. In this order, you need car insurance (some states won't register your car without it), renter's or homeowner's insurance, health insurance, disability insurance, and life insurance. Nothing can send you into bankruptcy faster than medical bills combined with a physical inability to work. Thankfully, with Obamacare, more people have access to health insurance than ever before.
7) Save for a home. If you have a stable situation and plan to live somewhere for at least 3-5 years, think about buying a home. If you are looking for a safer or better neighborhood, considering going onto Google Maps and looking for a location with more trees (this is simple, but it works!) You will need to figure out how much you can reasonably afford. Buying a home that is less than you can afford gives you some flexibility for improvements, furnishings, and to pay for life's many surprises.
8) Contribute to your future retirement. If your employer has a qualified retirement plan, try to save at least 10%-15% of your monthly income, especially if you have completed steps 1-7. If you don't have these benefits at work, set up an IRA account with a mutual fund company like Fidelity or Vanguard. There are some big tax benefits here, but remember that this is money that you shouldn't touch until you reach retirement age. If you are in your 20's or 30's, you can start by considering index funds that invest in stocks, or "lifecycle" funds that are rebalanced as your get closer to retirement.
9) Get your will written. This isn't something you do for yourself, but for the people that you care about. Keep this in a safe place, along with copies of financial records and account passwords. Meet with a family lawyer in your state, or consider inexpensive software such as WillMaker.
10) Look for professional guidance. Now that you've completed the basics of financial fitness, it is time to get some coaching! Talk with friends and family to find out who they recommend for financial advice, and don't be afraid to interview several advisors until you find someone that you trust and feel comfortable with. GuideVine and the Paladin Registry are both excellent ways to find a qualified pre-screened financial advisor in your area.
Here is the key to successful resolutions - write them down, build a plan, and monitor your progress.