Monday, May 31, 2010

100 ways to help the world and yourself

Sarah Wilson (the ex-Masterchef Sarah Wilson or a different one?!) gave a few examples of gestures that you can undertake to help make the world a better place. I'll post up a few of my favourites and some of my own.

1. If you buy something from a charity shop, pay double
2. Apologise
3. Instead of using teabags, heat your tea leaves in a pot, leave them to steep and then enjoy your tea while contemplating about the good things in life
4. Stop honking your horn
5. Switch off your mobile phone before going into cinemas and restaurants
6. If you see someone's label sticking out, tell them
7. Stop yourself saying "I"
8. Say thank you to your bus or tram driver when you alight
9. Volunteer. Give Means on Wheels a call or do a Lifeline counselling course
10. Make your own compost with vegetable peelings, lawn clippings, leaves from your gutters and tea leaves. Hardware shops stock convenient compost bins that can fit neatly in your backyard
11. If you're buying a car, consider the low-emission vehicles
12. Put a brick in your toilet's cistern to reduce the amount of water used in flushing
13. Drink green tea instead of coffee. Less caffeine and more antioxidents.
14. Don't push
15. Cut back on watching tv. Go to the park. Go for walks. Join friends for activities or organise them
16. Make a fuss...Take action on things you think are wrong or inhumane. Complain. Participate. Get organised.
17. Introduce single friends to potential partners
18. Plant a tree and dedicate it to someone special. Contact Greening Australia (1900 950 854) and find out how to become a volunteer, helping with local bush regeneration projects
19. Ditch the gym and join a team instead
20. Listen to children as you listen to adults
21. Take responsibility for your actions; don't blame others
22. Walk to your local shops rather than driving tothe larger chain store in the next suburb. The money you save in petrol and parking will pay for any price differences
23. Take a mug (or thermos) into work instead of using styrofoam cups
24. Say yes
25. Don't backstab; be honest, but not bitchy with your colleagues
26. Support your local theatre group. Nex time you contemplate a movie, check out the theatre section of the paper first.
27. Learn a new language
28. Cycle to work. Help reduce emission levels, save money and lessen your chance of getting heart disease. Learn to cook. Invite friends arund to try new dishes.
29. Walk up escalators. Or take the stairs.
30. Walk
31. Watch The Insider - Russell Crowe's new movie documenting corruption in the tobacco industry- and give up smoking
32. Buy birthday presents from the National Geographic shop, which donates a proportion of its profits to environmental and wildlife protection projects
33. Relax
34. Wash your clothes in cold water (helping the environment and your clothes last longer too)
35. Bring your re-usable bags shopping and reduce your plastic bag consumption
36. Write a letter to a friend you haven't seen in a long time, or email them rather than forwarding jokes
37. Buy organic fruit and vegetables
38. Make a stand against genetically modified food. Eat fruit and vegetables in season.
39. Read your newspaper's international pages
40. Laugh at yourself
41. Dog owners: do the right thing
42. Take up yoga
43. Learn to commit
44. Give some loose change to the busker you pass each day. Even if they can't sing.
45. Take a plant into your office. Or some home-baked biscuits to share at afternoon tea
46. Move out of the city. Grow your own herbs
47. Write thank you letters
48. If you live in a chaotic household, plan regular times to eat together. Turn off the television.
49. Ring your mum
50. Buy music or a dvd
51. Save energy by pulling your curtains over windows on hot and cold days
52. Don't shout at children, or anyone for that matter
53. Replace all your light bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs which are more energy efficient than normal bulbs
54. Pray and give thanks at the end of each day
55. Sign up as a volunteer for Clean Up Australia
56. Take a first aid course
57. Don't cheat
58. Stop saying: "I've been meaning to..." It really isn't an excuse
59. Give blood. For the nearest Red Cross bloodbank
60. Vist an elderly neighbour. Stop for a chat, take out their rubbish bins
61. Get rid of clutter in your workplace and at home
62. Give way to cyclists and allow them their space on the road
63. Use re-usable washable nappies because disposable nappies take about 500 years to decompose and account for about 2% of landfill
64. Don't be too obsessive about 'dryclean only' labels. Often handwashing in cool water can be just as effective ad cuts down on harmful cleaning chemicals
65. Take an elderly relative out for a drive in the country. Pack a picnic
66. Get more sleep. Don't drive when you're tired
67. Keep a bowl of fruit on your desk at work
68. Visit museums and galleries
69. Take time off when you're ill
70. Smile at strangers and talk to shop assistants
71. If you see someone who is lost, show them the way (but also be wary of stranger danger)
72. Forgive and move forward

And a few extras of mine:

73. Use stainless steel cutlery instead of disposable cutleries
74. Take time to plan your meals out for the week and cook healthy, nutricious meals
75. Don't overbuy your groceries and end up with wastage
76. Tell your loved ones you appreciate them and spend time with them
77. Do something special for your parents; cook for them, help clean, take them out
78. Visit your local libraries and borrow books rather than buying
79. Share your books with others or pass them on once you've finished reading them
80. Be patient
81. Instead of grimacing and getting frustrated in traffic, listen and relax to your favourite music and enjoy the moment
82. Volunteer to help
83. Try new foods, cuisines, restaurants and flavours
84. Set time to sort your finances out and save money for a rainy day
85. Buy from your local butchers, greengrocer or delis rather than supermarkets all the time
86. Eat less meat and more fruit and vegetables
87. Organise a fundraising(or donate) for your favourite charity
88. Have a relaxing weekend at home without any plans to go out
89. Find a hobby, and if you have one, make time for your hobby
90. Separate your rubbish and recycle as much as you can
91. Eat less junk food, chips and take aways
92. Click to give to The Animal Rescue Site - sponsors donate for every click
93. Visit your doctor for a checkup on your overall health
94. Make a habit of waking up 1 hour earlier and use that time for your own projects/interests
95. When you're working, work hard, when you're having a night out, relax and enjoy it. Don't bring personal worries into your work hours and work worries into your personal hours
96. Go to bed early every now and then
97. Drink tap water. Consume less bottled soft drinks and water. Not only are they bad for your health but also bad for the environment in terms of landfill
98. Instead of buying more cheap items (clothes, goods, furniture etc), buy less items with greater quality
99. Tidy up your house/office desk and it will create good feng shui
100. Enjoy every single day, not just the weekends and you will learn to enjoy life a lot more

Positive employees versus negative employees

It's not easy being an employee. But then it's not easy being the employer either.

We've all worked with various people over the years. After a few years of working, you start to notice that there is a stark difference between positive and negative co-workers. Which category do you fall in?

The positive co-workers:
Can-do attitude, take pride in their work, give their best effort, highly engaged with a can-do attitude, apply effort in achieving their personal and organisational goals, pro-active with their work, adaptable to new ideas and experiences, achievemen orientated, passion for their work, emotionally mature during frustrating and problemmatical situations with clients and co-workers, positive disposition and willing to go the extra mile to help customers or co-workers, exhibit confidence in their ability to succeed

The negative co-workers:
being consistently late(work, meetings, functions), making a lot of personal calls during work hours, lacks motivation/aspirations, does not take responsibility for their work, inability to meet deadlines, watches the clock and counting down to the weekend every week, always making negative and unhappy comments about customers or other co-workers, constantly taking breaks (coffee, smoke, toilet), consistently taking long lunches, tries to avoid work, resist changes, lazy, requires someone to manage them regularly or else they lack initiative to complete their work

So which type of co-worker would you prefer to work with? In answering that question, if you notice that you possess a few of the negative traits, perhaps you should consider changing so that you're not the one that co-workers dislike working with.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Ratings agency - Is there a conflict of interest?

If you were a rating agency and company XYZ was paying you a fee for your know that company XYZ's securities/bond offerings were of a poor quality, would you really write a report about them that would expose the securities/bonds as junk or report them as investment grade in order to raise additional fees?

Imagine it's mid 2007 today.

Pre-Global Financial Crisis (GFC). Before the worldwide market crashed. Before your retirement funds literally halved in market value. And if you live in the US, before your house valuation plummeted below your mortgage.

Would you behave differently knowing what you do now? We all would, if we could. As for Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns and all those large investment banks, they would as well. After you read this, I hope you realise how important it is to perform your own research, investigation, analysis and due diligence on any fund, stock or security that you wish to invest in. Don't just rely on rating agencies guidance.

So what does 'credit rating' refer to? According to the definition provided by Wikipedia: "

A credit rating estimates the credit worthiness of an individual, corporation, or even a country. It is an evaluation made by credit bureaus of a borrower’s overall credit history.[1] A credit rating is also known as an evaluation of a potential borrower's ability to repay debt, prepared by a credit bureau at the request of the lender (Black's Law Dictionary). Credit ratings are calculated from financial history and current assets and liabilities. Typically, a credit rating tells a lender or investor the probability of the subject being able to pay back a loan. However, in recent years, credit ratings have also been used to adjust insurance premiums, determine employment eligibility, and establish the amount of a utility or leasing deposit.

A poor credit rating indicates a high risk of defaulting on a loan, and thus leads to high interest rates, or the refusal of a loan by the creditor."

I've been tidying up my room, the massive piles of random articles, newspapaper clippings and magazines. Things that I found interesting at that time and wanted to re-read later. I found a few articles about the possible conflict of interest that undermine the rating agencies independence. These articles range between 2004 and 2007.

A Fortune magazine article (23 July 2007 edition) about Ohio attorney Marc Dann was quoted stating...
"The ratings agencies cashed a check every time one of these sub-prime pools was created and an offering was made...continued to rate these things AAA...among the people who aided and abetted this continuing fraud..."
Standard & Poor's, Moody's and Fitch Ratings. The three main credit rating agencies that came under Dann's attack. Pensions and Mutal funds in the U.S hold only investment grade bonds so they are unable to invest in these bonds unless the bonds are rated. Below is a guideline of S&P and Moody's ratings structure:

A different report by Alec Klein suggest that:
"...they are free to set their own rules and practices, which sometimes leads to abuse, according to many inside and outside the industry...they have strong armed clients by threatening to withdraw their ratings- a move that can raise a borrower's interest payments"
He cites some examples of the rating agencies doing a bit of bullying in order to maintain their fees: Hannover Re (a German insurer), Compuware (a Detroit computer software maker).

Back in 2007, Moody's code of conduct was:
"Moody's has no obligations to perform, and does not perform, due diligence."
The Fortune article went on to state that '...the other two agencies [S&P and Fitch Ratings] have similar provisions...'

What's the whole point of using the ratings if the rating agencies don't perform 'due diligence'?! Not only have they absolved themselves from being responsible but they are saying we will rate the bonds/security/etc however we don't have to perform thorough checks and have no obligation to do so.

Katie Benner and Adam Lashinsky wrote:
"Dann and a growing legion of critics contend that the agencies dropped the ball by issuing investment-grade ratings on securities backed by subprime mortgages they should have known were shaky...In addition to receiving fees from bond issuers that want ratings, S&P, Moody's and fitch do not vet data provided by these customers..."
If only people took more notice of Marc Dann's foresight, his allegations and his opinion. Perhaps pension funds wouldn't have lost so much if they did. Even in 2007, ripples of the sub-prime problem was reaching the pages in our own Australian newspapers, albeit a small section hidden in the midst of the stockmarket 'boom' articles.

If there's anything to be learnt from the past 3 years recently, it's to perform your own due diligence and don't just rely on 'expert' opinion. If it's your own funds at stake, take control and do your research prior to investing in anything.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Help, my builders are crap and my neighbours are a$$holes!

So you've contracted builders to build your house or extend the house. Everything is going along swimmingly when you sign them up. Suddenly, as they start building, you notice that there hasn't been any mandatory council inspection during the builders progress. You also notice that the builder is flying along with his construction and some of their work is misaligned or simply, crap.

You've got problems and where can you go for help?

1)Consumer, Trader & Tenancy Tribunal - online application fo a dispute can be lodged with application fees ranging from $31-$167 (

2)NSW Office of Fair Trading - There's helpful information and tips on how to construct contracts, decide on builders and resolving disputes

3)Insurance claim- All building work valued over $12,000 must be covered by home warranty insurance and builders must supply the owner with a certificate of insurance when the contract is signed. If your builder is insolvent you can direct your claim to the insurer specified onth certificate of insurance.

4)Legal action- A directory of solicitors with a current practising certificate. This site is maintained by The Law Society of NSW

Vicious and unpleasant neighbours. I had a work colleague with a nasty neighbour. Their relationship deteriorated daily and he would start up his lawn mowing and drilling tools early in the morning every weekend just to drive my colleague insane. So what can you do about unpleasant neighbours?

1)NSW Department of Lands- They administer the Dividing Fences Act 1991. If you give your neighbour a written notice and there's no agreement reached after one month, the Local Land Board can adjudicate

2)Community Justice Centres- Available in NSW, they provide free mediation and conflict management services to assist with dispute resolution

3)Local courts- Civil issues valued up to $60,000 can be dealt with by the Chamber Magistrates

4)Local council- Councils can have compulsory notice powers for any disputes covered by the Local Government Act

5)Private legal action- for solicitors

There's not really much you can do with annoying or unpleasant neighbours if they aren't breaching any laws. You can't really trade your neighbour too if you don't like them. It's always best to try and maintain a good relationship from the start.

You can however, ensure to some extent that you don't contract a crappy builder by ensuring they have all the relevant licences and registrations. That they have insurance covering their work. Don't pay the entire balance up front but in stages of completion. Check for references. See what work they have done in the past. Doing the legwork before contracting them can prevent a lot of headaches later.