Here’s an interesting infographic regarding the history of US taxes.

President Lincoln enacted the first taxes in 1862 to pay for the civil war. The lowest tax bracket was 3%, while the highest was 5%. It was later repealed in 1872 until 1894 when it reintroduced again.

In 1913, the highest tax bracket was 7%.

In 1945, the highest tax bracket was a whopping 94%. Why do politicians love other peoples money?

Click on the graphic to make it larger.
History of US Taxes - Infographic

“I’m going to put $10,000 in Facebook’s IPO”.

I was having a conversion with a friend of mine yesterday. He’s a reasonably smart guy. He’s a technology manager at a wireless carrier company and does quite well. At least regarding his income. When it comes to his investments, I have my doubts.

“I think it’s over-valued”, I told him.

“I don’t care. I just want to invest in Facebook. It’s a great company. It’s growing”.

“Yeah, but it’s over-valued”, I argued. “You should go work for them. But don’t buy the stock”.

“I think it will do well”, was his reply. “It’s profitable”.

“Do you know how much it’s worth?”, I countered.

“I think its worth $100 Billion”.

“No, that’s the IPO price. What’s it’s worth? What’s the revenue and profit?”

“I don’t know. And I don’t care”, he admitted.

Apparently my friend is so enamored with Facebook that he’s willing to pay any price to own the stock.

It’s widely believed that Facebook will be offered at a valuation of $100 Billion. With about $3.7 billion in sales and $1 billion in net income, it’s a bit to pricey for me.

The fact that it’s being offered at 30 times sales and 100 times earnings is not relevant to my friend’s decision.

Like most people, he doesn’t even understand what it means when a company sells for a 100 times earnings.

Suppose you were going to buy a sandwich shop. You paid $100,000 to own it outright. At the end of the year, the manager sent you a check for your share of the profits — and it was a only $1,000. Would you invest in that sandwich shop? Well, that’s just like investing in a company like Facebook.

Ah, but what about growth? Surely there’s a lot of growth considering that the whole world will eventually be using FB, right?

Well let’s take a look at that.

Assuming the company has 800 million users, their per customer revenue is about $4.65, with a net income of $1.25.

And let’s assume that even if every person in Asia joins in, they’ll have 5 times the customers.

But these customers only have 1/10th the spending power as Americans. But I’ll be generous and say they have 1/5th the spending power.

So basically, FB’s user base will surpass 5 billion, while their net income will only double to $2 billion. In which case their PE will be 50 instead of a 100. It’s still way too expensive! Using the sandwich shop analogy, you’d now get a check for $2,000!

If it was going public at a $10 billion market cap and paying at least a 1% dividend, I think I might be interested.  But as someone already said, Facebook already went public – only you weren’t invited!

What about your friends? Are they falling over themselves to get in on the FB IPO?

I recently received a review copy of a couple of Asset Allocation books, courtesy of Wiley Publications.

Studies have proven that investment returns are largely due to asset allocation and not individual stock selection. Needless to say, I was quite excited to get them.

One of them called Frontiers of Modern Asset Allocationand looked like a finance textbook I studied in business school, complete with graphs and equations. (And a hefty price tag).

The other one, called The Flexible Investing Playbook: Asset Allocation Strategies for Long-Term Success, seemed like an easier read. So I decided to tackle that one first.

The book was an easy read. Maybe, a bit too easy!

The author, Robert Isbitts – an investment advisor, spent the first half of the book talking about the big market crash of 2008, and had interesting stories about investors getting caught up in the excitement of investing. He also talked about the various ways wall street rips off investors, which was quite good.

The author made several good points about using diverse investments to reduce your risk (ie loss or drawdown) and improve your overall long-term results. He included a comprehensive list of 50 different asset classes.

However, the actual meat of the book (in my opinion) on asset allocation wasn’t as well fleshed out as it could have been. He talked a big talk, offering the Keys to successful asset allocation – simple rules like avoiding the big loss, cutting your losers early, finding the bull market (whether it’s long or short in equities, bonds, or commodities), being flexible, and other pieces of simple advice.

He didn’t however offer easy to implement instructions on these rules. For example, an instruction like selling any investments that’s declined 20% from your purchase price, or maybe has dropped below its 200-day moving average is actionable. Just as simple, but easy to implement. That was the part that was missing in the book.

He did, however, offer a chapter on the different portfolios he uses, like Hybrid, Concentrated Equity, And Global Cycle (which is the name he gives his Global Macro fund). While he explained the composition, and various strategies (like Market Neutral, Arbtitrage, Convertible Securities) pretty well, the actual composition and construction of the portfolio was missing. He also didn’t offer any information on their recent returns or performance.

You can hardly expect me to invest my money in your strategy without seeing backtested results, or at least past performance. Especially if your strategy wasn’t easy to follow to begin with. I also think that constructing an actively-managed global macro fund shouldn’t fall under the purview of asset allocation – at least not for the type of investor he’s targeting in this book. (Although, to be fair, his portfolio management rules of such a fund where quite good – but like I said, not exactly relevant).

Maybe the idea wasn’t to get you to understand how to allocate your assets at all! Maybe the author wanted to convince you that’s it’s tricky, and you should hire him to manage your portfolio instead?

Despite it’s flaws, it’s not a bad book. It walks you through a high-level view of asset allocation and explains in detail the various strategies available to investors. Like me, you’ll probably learn (or relearn) a few things, like how to use the R-square when comparing mutual funds or ETFs, and how target-date funds aren’t all they’re trumped up to be.

But if you’re looking for definite advice on how to construct a portfolio in these various asset classes, and when and how often to rebalance, you might need to look elsewhere.

The Euro is on the verge of collapse.

Yesterday, the Euro closed below $1.30 – the lowest level all year. And the yield on the 10-year Italian bonds closed above 7%. The last eurozone countries who’s bonds closed at 7% were Greece, Ireland and Portugal.

The market considers these countries to be credit risks. If you have bad credit, you’d pay 30% or more on your credit card. But a sovereign nation has the ability to tax it’s citizens. So the chance for a total loss is remote – which is why it’ll pay a comparatively lower rate.

But even at a low 7%, Italy can’t pay the interest on it’s bonds. At this rate, as more of the debt rolls over at a higher interest rate,  it will eventually have to default on its debts.

The European Central Bank will make some half-hearted effort to bail out Italy and save the Euro. But in the end, the Federal Reserve will have to step in to save Europe. And it will.

The Federal Reserve will print money to buy up Eurozone bonds. This monetizing of debt will eventually result in massive inflation,

Regular readers know I’ve been talking about inflation for a while.

I’ve been moving my assets in to gold coins, silver, and globally-diversified undervalued large cap stocks like Walmart (WMT), Microsoft (MSFT), Cisco (CSCO), Johnson and Johnson (JNJ) and Berkshire Hathaway (BRK-B).

So what else is going to benefit from looming inflation?

Credit card companies like Visa and Mastercard.

These companies provide transaction-processing services. Unlike the banks that issue these credit cards, they bear no risk if the credit card holders default. They’re more like a toll booth on a bridge that collects a fee each time someone drives through.

But unlike the toll booths, which charge a fixed dollar amount, these companies charge a percentage of the transaction amount.

As the amount of money in circulation increases – and the prices of things goes up – they’ll collect more money for doing the same thing. Unlike other service companies, they don’t have to even explicitly increase their fees. Since it’s a percentage, it will automatically adjust upwards.

And if the Euro actually does collapse, travelers to Europe are more likely to use their credit cards for purchases. This is more convenient than exchanging currency at every border.

I looked at four stocks in this sector: Visa (V), Mastercard (MA), Discover Financial Services (DFS) and American Express (AXP).

Visa and Mastercards have significantly greater global appeal and penetration.

And between these two, I liked Mastercard more.

Over the past five years, it’s revenue and free cash flow has been steadily increasing. It’s currently selling for a P/E of 20 and a Price/FCF of 18.27.

As Warren Buffet demonstrated with his purchase of Lubrizol this year, paying 20 times free cash flow is a fair price to pay for a domainant company.

But unlike Lubrizol, Mastercard isn’t the market leader.  It’s second-place to Visa. But Visa’s cashflows have been somewhat erratic, and it’s stock is a bit too pricey.

So Mastercard is little expensive for my taste. I prefer to buy stocks at a discount. It’s on my watchlist – I’ll pick it up if it trades below 15 times FCF.

In April of last year, I made the case of going long Vodafone (VOD).

Since then, I’m up nearly 44% on my purchase price (including dividends). Vodafone currently yields nearly 7.5%.

Recently, Barrons had a good article on why investors should still consider investing in Vodafone.

Its ADRs, which trade on Nasdaq and each represent 10 ordinary U.K.-listed shares, could rise more than 20%, to $35-$38, over the next two years. Including dividends, the total return could top 35%, with significantly less volatility than the average stock, given Vodafone’s relatively stable business. (Vodafone ordinary shares closed in London Friday at 180 pence. The ADRs finished near $29.)

There were also several quotes from fund managers:

“Vodafone’s stock is significantly undervalued,” avers Bruno Lippens, a portfolio manager with Pictet Asset Management, “essentially because the market still doesn’t appreciate Verizon Wireless” and the way the dividend will translate into reliable future cash. While there’s no formal annual commitment, Verizon Wireless has little net debt and produces about $1 billion monthly in Ebitda. “Absent massive investment needs, I don’t see an alternative” to paying out a regular annual dividend, adds Lippens, who sees some 40% upside in Vodafone.

The author of the article also thinks that a liquidation of Verizon Wireless could occur within five years, which could be as high as 50% of VODs current market cap.

In my last post, I mentioned that Berkshire Hathaway was undervalued and a good buy that the current price of $76 per B-share.

It turns out that it’s probably a better buy than anyone expected.

Buffett just announced that he’s spent $10.7 billion buying IBM stock, as well as a few billion dollars on CVS and VISA.

I currently own BRK-B, and I’d like to increase my exposure to it. But I’m strapped for cash.

So how do I make money from being LONG BRK when I’m short on cash?

Time to look at option strategies.

When most investors are bullish on a stock, they buy CALL options on it. They fork over some money (called a premium) and have an option to buy that stock at a specific price (called a strike price) at a future date. If the stock price exceeds your strike price, then you’ve made money.

One problem with this approach is that the recent volatility in the market has increased the premiums on options.

Another problem with this approach is that usually,  investors lose money on options. Most commonly, the options expire worthless because the stock price didn’t hit your strike price. And sometimes investors paid too much premium, so that despite exceeding the strike price, they still end up losing money overall.

Let’s look at an example.

Consider the BRK-B, Jan 2013 $75 CALL option. It’s currently selling for $10.50, which means on each contract (1 contract is 100 shares), you’d pay $1,050.

So, in January 2013, unless BRK-B is trading for more than $85.50, you’ve lost a thousand dollars!

A better way is to use PUT options.

When you buy a PUT option, you’re paying a premium and you have the right to sell a stock to someone at a specific price at a future date. You make money if the stock price declines below the strike price. You would enter this contract if you were bearish on the stock.

However, if you SELL a PUT option, you receive a premium. In return, you must buy the stock if it declines below a certain price. If the stock goes up in value, then you get to pocket the premium. So you would only enter this contract if you were bullish on the stock.

Being bullish on BRK-B, and short of cash, I’ve taken a short PUT position.

As I outlined in my previous post, I think BRK-B is worth $112 and has a floor below $72.

I sold the Jan 2013 $60 PUT for $4.50. This means I collected $450 per contract.

If BRK-B drops below $60 per share, I will be forced to buy the stock.

However, based on the premium I collected up front, my purchase price will be $55.50 or 50% of what I think is the intrinsic value.

Mostly likely, the option will expire worthless and I’ll get to keep the premium.

This also how you can turn around the high premiums to work in your favor.

If I didn’t already own BRK-B, I would go for a higher strike price. Most likely, I would sell the Jan 2013 $80 PUT for $11. This would allow me to collect $1,100 per contract.

Of course, the risk that I would be assigned the stock would also be much higher. But I would be comfortable owning this stock at an effective price of $69 per share ($80 strike price – $11 premium = $69).

Option trading is not without risk.

It’s easy to over-leverage and wipe out your portfolio. I use this strategy with great caution and with a lot of forethought.

You also need the highest level of option trading and a margin account in order to sell puts.

A trade like this one usually has a 20% margin requirement. Which means, I need at least $1,200 in margin. Based on that margin a $450 premium would represent a 37.5% gain in 14 months. Not too shabby.

If you’d like to learn more about option trading, I strongly recommend The Bible of Options Strategies: The Definitive Guide for Practical Trading Strategies. It’s a excellent primer on various option strategies.

Disclosure: If it wasn’t already obvious, I’m long BRK-B. Both the stock and by selling puts.

About four months ago I made the case for going long Cisco. At the time, Google shares (GOOG) had popped 20%, and I was looking for a new company to invest in.

In the middle of July Cisco (CSCO) was trading at $15.66.  From a fundamental perspective, Cisco was cheap – selling at less than 10 times free cash flow, and had just started paying a 1.5% dividend. However, the market was discounting the stock price  because they didn’t believe the CEO, John Chambers, could revitalize the aging tech giant.

But regardless of the management, based on just the numbers, the stock was too cheap too pass up.

And numbers don’t lie.

Yesterday, Cisco announced stellar results. It seems that growth is picking up.

Since that last post, shares of Cisco are up almost 20%, at $18.61.

Cisco isn’t the only company doing well this economic environment.

Large cap blue-chip companies like Intel (INTC), Microsoft (MSFT), Walmart (WMT), Johnson &  Johnson (JNJ) are also doing well.  Even my old favorite Vodafone (VOD) which I bought over a year ago is doing well. The share price, currently at $28.39, is up nearly 23% from my purchase, and it currently yields 6.75%.

So what stock is worth buying today?

Believe it or not, it’s Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway (BRK-A or BRK-B).

Buffett recently announced that Berkshire would buy back shares below 1.1 times the book value. The world’s best value investor definitely recognizes value in his company stock price and has effectively put a floor underneath the stock.

Currently trading at a Price/Book  of 1.15,  the stock is close to that floor.

Let’s look at the B shares, or the baby Berkshires (BRK-B), which currently trade at $76.

Buffett’s 1.1x of book value puts the stock price floor at $72.69. But how much is the stock actually worth?

This is actually very simple to calculate.

The value of the publicly-traded securities owned by Berkshire is $63.66. The rest of the companies made $4.8 in earnings. These companies are worth about 10 times the earnings or another $48.

Add the $48 to the $63.66 and we get $111.66.

So buying Berkshire today means we have a floor at 5% below today’s price, and an upside of 31%.

Disclosure: I’m Long CSCO, BRK-B, MSFT, INTC, WMT and JNJ

Gold broke another record today, closing just over $1,700/oz. The Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped 634 points (5.5%) and not surprisingly, US Treasuries jumped.

This was the expected response to S&P’s cut in US credit rating.

The irony is the jump in US Treasury prices caused a decline in the interest rates.This is because bond prices and interest rates are inversely correlated.

Usually, when your credit rating is cut, the interest rate at which you can borrow goes up.  But, in the case of the US government, it has gone down.

The current yield on a 10-year Treasury is 2.31%.  Last month it was 3.02%. Similarly, the yield on a 30-year Treasury bond is 3.65%, down from 4.28% last month.

Maybe S&P should take down the US’s credit rating another notch, and cause interest expenses to fall even further!

Okay, I’m being facetious.

But I don’t like the way it’s playing out. The current economic scenario reminds me of Japan over the past two decades.

Will the US economy continue to flounder for the next several years just as Japan did?

Will the government continue to prop up failing banks and poorly run business at the expense of the tax-payer?

Will interest rates continue their downward spiral?

Will real estate continue to slide for the rest of the decade?

Are we really turning Japanese?

I really think so!

Last week, search engine giant, Google (GOOG) jumped 15% in one day.

About six weeks ago, I wrote a post stating that Google was undervalued by 33%, and worth buying at around $500 per share.

Since then it’s jumped to $600, a whopping 20% jump, more if managed to get in at the low point. Quite a strong move for a large cap stock.

I still think the story for Google is strong, but if I didn’t already own it, I wouldn’t necessarily buy it today. Instead, I’d look for another cheap stock, something a little more boring.

As I wrote about in a previous post on investing in boring stocks, I prefer unloved, boring stocks with no growth prospects over exciting, glamor stocks. Incidentally, the stock I mentioned in that post, Johnson & Johnson (JNJ), is up over 10% in the past four months.

One of the stocks I’d consider is Cisco (CSCO).

This tech giant has lost its luster, with the stock price having gone nowhere for the past ten years.

I blame the poor leadership of the CEO, John Chambers, for the stocks performance. But at today’s prices, it probably doesn’t matter how incompetent the management is.

Cisco currently trades for $15.66 with a newly introduced dividend yield of 1.50%. It trades for a P/E of 12.2 but more importantly it trades for a P/FCF of only 9.2.

FCF or free-cash-flow is one of my favorite metrics when valuing stocks. It’s the cash left over after all the expenses have been paid out, and capital expenditures have been made. Unlike earnings, free-cash-flow is very hard to manipulate. Over the past decade, even though Cisco’s share price has stagnanted, the free-cash-flow has more than doubled from $4.1 billion to $9.2 billion.

For a stable, profitable market leader like Cisco, ten times free-cash-flow is a great deal. As Warren Buffett indicated in his purchase of Lubrizol, it’s okay to pay 20 times free-cash-flow for a great company.

Cisco also has an incredibly strong balance sheet, with about $40 billion in cash or $7.80 per share in cash – that’s almost half of it’s stock value.

Even though Cisco faces increasing competition and has a penchant for wasting money on acquistions that don’t seem to make any sense, it still has a wide economic moat. Cisco makes devices that move internet traffic. And the amount of internet traffic is increasing every day.

It’s only a matter of time before Cisco becomes a $25 stock again.

Disclaimer: I’m long Cisco.