Investment Ideas from Prison

I have a friend of mine doing hard time in the California State Prison system. Drugs and armed robbery were his crimes, but the real roots lay in his childhood. I told him as much, and urged him to take a look at his childhood upbringing in the hopes that he might exorcise some of his demons. Towards that end, I sent him the book One of a Kind: The Rise and Fall of Stuey ‘,The Kid’, Ungar, The World’s Greatest Poker Player.

I’m sure most of my readers will have no idea who Stu Ungar is, but, as the title of the book says, he was the greatest poker player the world has ever seen. He is estimated to have made over $30 million dollars over the course of his poker career, but he’d continually throw the money away on drugs or other gambling addictions. He went from broke to millionaire and back to broke four separate times over the course of his life. He died so penniless that this friends had to take a collection for his funeral.

I send my friend this story because I wanted him to understand that talent and ability are no replacement for a good understanding of yourself. That’s a lesson I hope he’ll come to learn before he gets out.

He wrote me this letter and I wanted to share it with my readers: Continue reading Investment Ideas from Prison

How I Took On Chase Credit Card — and Won

Currently, I have two checking accounts and a credit card with Chase. That may not seem all that unusual to you, but it came as a surprise to me since I never actually opened any accounts with them.

I had two checking accounts with Washington Mutual, (WaMu) but they went bankrupt after doggedly pursuing a business model of loaning money to people who couldn’t afford to pay it back. That WaMu went bankrupt came as no surprise. I knew it was in trouble a week before the FDIC. See, I was randomly accosted by a stranger who, when spying the WaMu header of my checking account transactions printout, told me, “you’d better take your money out of there. They’re about to go bankrupt.”

I wasn’t worried about the few thousand dollars I had in the two accounts; It was FDIC-insured, and, if the FDIC couldn’t make good on the money, then all my gold investments would suddenly catapult to being worth far more than the electronic dollars I had lost. That’s the nice thing about gold, it gives you security. Gold ownership is a bit like having children: people that aren’t parents can’t understand the joy of parenthood. Likewise, people who don’t own gold don’t understand the simple security that the yellow metal brings.

Needless to say, I just left my money in there to see what would happen. And sure enough, a week later, I was a JPMorgan Chase customer.

Now, the credit card situation was a bit different. I signed up for a Quicken credit card under the mistaken notion that it would somehow simplify my bookkeeping; but, I never mastered how to download the transactions, and eventually stopped using the service altogether. The credit card was issued through Citibank who, back in ’05, made me an offer to loan me money at a locked-in interest rate of 2.99% for the life of the loan as long as I stayed current. At the time, I had a student loan balance of just under $10K from my college days at Southern Methodist University and was paying 8.5% on that. Seemed like a good move to me, so I paid off the balance with a balance transfer check and signed up for automatic deductions from my then WaMu account so I’d never be late. It seemed like a win-win. I got a loan at a rate below inflation and Citigroup immediately bundled up my loan and sold it to investors through Smith-Barney.

Everyone was happy. That was, until Citibank sold the Quicken card to Chase, which immediately discontinued the automatic deductions. I wasn’t paying any attention to the mail I was getting from them because they regularly flood my mailbox with marketing material anyway — often deceptively tagged to look like I had an account with them.

So, you can imagine my surprise in suddenly discovering that, not only did I not have an account with Citibank anymore, but I now had an account with Chase — AND they’ve declared it past due, thus immediately moving my balance up to close to 20% or so, after tacking on a $39 fee

I immediately called Chase and asked them to reset the account to its condition prior to their taking it over. After all, how could they penalize me for not keeping up on an account I didn’t even know I had? Despite what I felt was a strong argument, I got absolutely nowhere. They refused to budge; even refused to refund the $39 late charge. I asked to speak to management. Got someone who told me the same thing. So, I informed her that if this was the official position of Chase that I would take them to court. She would have none of it.

Oh, well. If it was litigation they wanted …

I filed suit in the local small claims court: total cost, including mail service, was $32, and for my $32’s worth of effort, I got everything I asked for and more. My settlement agreement with Chase does not allow me to put the specifics, but I was very pleased with the result. Incidentally, I also have a foolproof section of getting credit cards to refund those pesky $39 late fees that doesn’t involve litigation in my book in anyone is interested. 

I do, however, want to recount here the details of how I did it, in case anyone out there in cyberspace needed the advice on what to do if this kind of thing happens to you.

Now, I know the perception of taking on a large bank is intimidating. I recently learned a story of a friend who had lost $1K out of his checking account (also with WaMu) due to fraud that was in no way his fault. The bank took the position that it was his problem; he decided to just eat the $1K, figuring that there was no way a small individual could fight a mammoth institution like WaMu.

But that’s where he’s wrong.

This is one of the weird places where the small individual has a large advantage over a corporation, and I’m hoping that more people might realize that by reading this story.

Okay. The first step towards bringing suit against a large corporation is to find out their exact legal name. This can be tricky, because there’s no one “Chase Credit Card, Inc.” to go after. Instead, modern institutions are broken up into bunches of smaller, related corporations, so, the first clue is to look at your statement and check for the institution’s name and state where they’re incorporated. Chase was a Delaware Corporation. With that information, I was able to go to the Secretary of State of Delaware’s website. (Insert the name Chase and there are over 500 entries. I narrowed it down by trying different combinations of Chase and either ‘credit’, ‘card’, or ‘bank’.) I then came up with a couple of corporations titled ‘Chase Credit Card Master Trust’, but, while seeming close to the correct company, were actually separate corporations that took the notes from the credit cards and sold them out as CDO bonds: essentially the same things that happened to mortgages, except with credit cards.

By the way, if you’re wondering what the next shoe to drop is in regards to our banking system, I’ll give you a hint.

What actually cinched the corporate name for me was actually the customer service operator for Chase. I called in and told her that I was intent on suing her employer and that I needed to know what the corporate name was. She told me that it was “Chase Credit Card Services”. I searched the State of Delaware’s database for that name, and came up with “Chase Bankcard Services Inc.” It wasn’t exactly the name the operator gave me, but it was close enough.

I took down the address which, for those of you in the audience looking to sue their Chase credit card, is:

The Corporate Trust Company
Corporation Trust Center
1209 Orange Street
Wilmington, DE 19801

Note: This is not the actual address for Chase, but rather for the company that they have established as their “agent”- meaning that they’re there for the express purpose of being served for lawsuits.

Next, I had to file the claim.

Small claims are filed at the local Justice of the Peace Court (called JP courts by those in the legal profession). I turned to Google and found the closet JP court, went down and filled out the forms. As previously mentioned, it cost a total of $32. Including the cost of sending the suit certified mail.

About three weeks later, I got a call from a Dallas attorney who had been appointed to represent Chase in my suit against them. There is a natural inclination towards antipathy on the part of many people who are now talking to an attorney who had technically been hired to take the other side, but that’s not my style. My ex-wife was an attorney and I knew that she didn’t particularly agree with the clients she represented, so instead of being spiteful, I was instead very cheerful with her. As fate would have it, she had not yet passed the bar, and couldn’t even represent Chase when the case came to trial. Believe it or not, I actually think I had more litigation experience than she did.

Long story short, I represented my case in a very reasonable tone and emailed her what my terms were to settle the case. She said she’d get back to me after speaking to her client. Well, she got back to me today — and told me that Chase had agreed to settle the case for terms even more generous than I had asked for in writing — which felt good.

Now, if I could just get my gold stocks to go up, my financial life would be in order.

Seven Days of Loses Makes One Weak

Ouch! The poor Dow Jones Industrial Average has continued it’s rout for the last 7 days. Falling from 10750 to close today at 8579. That’s a decline of roughly 20% in one week. If we go back one full year, the Dow closed at 14164 on 10/9/07. A loss of roughly 40%. Put those two numbers together and we see that the Dow has suffered half of its 40% decline on the year in the past seven trading days.

Gold closed the day at $910. For those of you who have read my book and are interested in the Dow-Gold ratio, gold was priced at $730 an ounce one year ago. It’s $910 today. So the Dow-Gold ratio has fallen from a ratio of requiring 19.4 ounces of gold to buy 1 “share” of the Dow a year ago to only requiring 9.43 today. That’s a decline of roughly 51% in one year. Any way you slice it, stocks have been an absolute bloodbath.

It’s been a good market for us bears, and it will continue to be. I am predicting that the Dow-Gold ratio will continue to fall all the way to a bottom of two or three. That’s another 70%+ loss or so, but I don’t think it will come this year. I think the stock market is do for a snap back. The carnage will take a breather and it will lull in people who feel it’s a good time to buy. People who do so hoping to make a good long term investment are going to be sorely disappointed. You might see some short term gains, but it’s still a long way down. It’s a traders market.

I haven’t seen many stories today discussing these market declines in terms of the Efficient Market Hypothesis (EMH). In years past, whenever you’d see these market declines a Hedge Fund somewhere would suffer some huge loss. Typically the press would ask the manager for a comment and the manager would say something like, “The market activities of the last couple of weeks of market activity are so extraordinary that they were impossible to predict. These types of market only occur once every 1000 years.”

Those statements were based on predicting stock market returns as a normal distribution about a daily average with each day having no influence on the days following it. As we’re seeing, that’s just not the case. The last few days along have seen a string of huge loss after huge loss one right after the other. That’s not bad luck; that’s a bear market.

I have a hairstylist friend who works in a very expensive hair salon. She keeps my book at her station and has noticed a lot of people asking about it lately. It prompted one of her clients revealing that she and her husband had lost the entire $250,000 investment they had made in a hedge fund just a few months prior. Which just goes to show that old story about a fool and his/her money.

Short term corporate bonds are going for unheard of yields.  The search on my Scottrade account is showing annualized yields of 80.9% for National City Corp bonds maturing in April of next year, and that’s but one example. There are plenty others. Those National City Corp bonds have an A3/A- rating, but it seems no one is trusting the rating agencies anymore. And why should they. Washington Mutual bonds were rated as investment grade until just a couple of weeks before they became worthless. With events happening like that, April of next year can seem a long time away indeed. But it does represent a good opportunity for the Michael Millken’s of the world who can sift through the financial statements and sort out the goods bonds from the bad. Then again, with all the accounting shenanigans and off balance sheet Structured Investment Vehicles, who can really tell the junk from the gold anymore. 

That’s the problem with markets that aren’t transparent. No one knows what’s good, so they abandon everything. Until we start to see the yields on these bonds coming down, credit markets will continue to be frozen. That means capital is at a premium and stocks are going to have real trouble doing well. What the next market development is is anybody’s guess.