The government of a country, or the Federal Reserve Bank in the case of the United States, is able to control the value of their currency. In the US, this is done by issuing Treasury Bonds at with higher or lower interest rates. Higher interest rates generate increased demand for American Treasury Bonds.
When foreign entities want to buy Treasury Bonds because of the higher interest rate, they must first purchase USD (American dollars) with which to purchase the bonds. An increased demand for USD increases the price of USD. Likewise, the Fed (Federal Reserve Bank) can decrease the value of the dollar by lowering interest rates.
The price of a country's currency heavily influences its economy. For example, if USD are very expensive, then foreign entities cannot afford to buy dollars to buy American goods. This makes it hard for American companies to make money because they're unable to sell their products and services outside of the country. In the case where USD is very cheap, American companies will not be able to afford to import materials with which to build their products. If companies can't build products, then they can't sell products.
For these reasons, most governments would prefer to keep the value of their currency relatively constant when compared with the currencies of their major trading partners. This is borne out by an inspection of the USD-AUD exchange rate: $1 AUD is worth $0.8011 USD today (May 6, 2015), and $1 AUD was worth $0.7753 USD ten years ago (May 6, 2005). That represents an increase in the value of AUD relative to USD of only 3.3% over 10 years. That's an annual return of only 0.33%!
Generally, investments should be chosen with the best rate of return for a given volatility. Volatility is a measure of how much a security's value changes over time. Securities with values that experience large swings in value with regularity are highly volatile. Securities with nearly constant values have low volatility. Bonds are examples of securities with low volatility. Mutual funds have low to high volatility depending on the securities contained within them. Stocks have low to high volatility depending on the company they are for. Generally bonds are less volatile than mutual funds are less volatile than stocks.
If you look at the USD-AUD exchange rate for the past ten years, you can see that the value of AUD relative to USD is very volatile; half of the years it increases in value, and half of the years it decreases in value. Since AUD is volatile and provides a very low annual return, it is not a good investment. These arguments hold true for all currencies. Currency should not be used as an investment vehicle. In general, currency should only be exchanged when necessary to buy goods or services.
Photo by epSos .de
The USDA publishes tables showing how much Americans can expect to spend on food each week. The tables are broken down by family size, gender, and age. They're further divided into four categories: thrifty, low-cost, moderate-cost, and liberal. These charts are updated every month. I first learned about these tables from an article about celebrities trying to live like they were on food stamps.
Interested in seeing how I compared with the USDA guidelines, I fired up Mint and looked at my own spending habits. I clicked Trends >> Spending Over Time >> Show transactions that match any: "Groceries". The results I got are somewhat interesting and complicated.
The first complicating factor is that I moved from Clark, Philippines to Sunnyvale, CA at the beginning of September 2014. The second complicating factor is that I moved from Sunnyvale, CA to Dallas, TX at the beginning of March 2015. Sunnyvale has one of the highest costs of living in America, whereas Dallas's cost of living is pretty close to average. This affected my grocery purchases by inflating my expenditures for the first couple months in each location as I bought non-perishables such as spices and cooking oil that I did not bring with me when I moved.
One other thing to note is that I'm not including money spent on food at restaurants. This money should be included, but it's pretty misleading. I often split the bill with friends and get reimbursed in cash, or I'll treat friends to meals in exchange for their help with moving or working on my car. In these cases the money Mint says I spend on food either isn't actually an expense (because I'm getting paid back in cash), or it belongs in a different category (like auto repair).
The "moderate-cost plan" for me is $306 per month, and the "liberal plan" is $376 per month. Over the seven-month period from September 2014 through March 2015, I spent $323 on average at grocery stores. This puts me in between moderate and Liberal. When including restaurant and fast food purchases, I'm probably near or above the liberal plan. I'm going to look at my food purchases more carefully in the future and use the USDA plan guidelines as benchmarks to see if I'm wasting money on restaurants or need to cut back on any luxury food items like alcohol or sweets.
Photo by Michael Stern
In a post published June 21, 2015, I said I hoped that Korea would be MERS-free by the time I arrived in Korea for my trip this August. Good news! South Korea says the MERS threat is no more. There hasn't been a new case of MERS in Korea since July 2, 25 days ago, and the incubation period for MERS is usually no longer than 14 days.
Getting a Texas driver license for an F-1 student turned out to be both much easier and more complicated than I had anticipated.
I prepared as well as possible by gathering all the required documents and completing all forms in advance. We went to the DPS, waited in line, and did everything else: had a picture taken, fingerprints taken, eye test, etc. We left the office thinking everything went smoothly.
A couple hours after leaving the office, we recieved a phone call saying that the application would be cancelled if we didn't return to the DPS with a translation of the Korean license that we had surrendered. I returned the next day to collect the license so I could have it translated.
Irritated that I would have to make a total of three trips to the DPS for this license and the fact that nowhere on the DPS website does it indicate that a translation is required, I ask the DPS clerk if the translation had any requirements. I asked if it needed to be certified or notarized. She responded no. So I went online and had the license translated. This was the most convenient translation for me because I could do it outside of normal business hours. I have a job so I can't spend all day traveling around the city.
We returned to the DPS and waited in line again. When we finally got to the front of the line, they told us we could have just skipped the line because we were continuing an application. Thanks for telling me that when it's useful information! I gave them the translation, and then things got really weird.
They told me they couldn't accept the translation, so I asked "Why?"
"Normally the translations we get are 3 to 4 pages long."
"So? There's less than 100 words on the license. How could a translation be that long?"
"We can't take this."
"Why not? What's wrong with it?"
"We need a translation"
"That is a translation. It's a line-by-line translation."
"Normally they are 3 to 4 pages long. We can't take this."
"Because normally they are 3 to 4 pages long."
"Um, okay. Where can I get this translation?"
"At a school or a consulate, I think. I don't know."
"Can you be more specific? I don't have time to call ten different places."
"No, I don't know."
At around this point I got escalated to speaking to a supervisor. I asked, "Can you take this translation?"
"No, because normally the translations we get are 3 to 4 pages long."
"That's not a reason to reject this translation. I need something written telling me exactly what I need and where I can get it. This is the third time I've come to the DPS. What exactly do I need?"
"I don't know."
"You don't know? How can I give you something if you don't know. I need something written so I know exactly why you're denying this application."
"I don't know. I'd have to research it and it would take some time."
"Do you have email? Can you send the exact requirements to me?"
The next day she sent me an email with the reciprocity agreement between Texas and South Korea for driver licenses. There is one line that says Texas can require a translation of a driver license. That's it. It's not required. It also says that South Korea will provide samples of valid licenses so that Texas can compare them with what they get from applicants.
Considering Korean driver licenses have pictures that can be matched with the applicants and they have the words "Driver's License" printed on them in English, there's really no reason to require a translation. As long as you know on what day the license expires, which is a number that doesn't need to be translated, you're good.
I eventually did my own research, and we got the license translated at the Korean consulate. However, the day before we went back to the DPS, the license arrived in the mail. Okay then! I guess their incompetence is not limited to simply being unable to explain their requirements but also includes an inability to enforce those requirements as well.
I've listed below the documents you should bring with you to the Department of Public Safety (DPS) Driver License Office:
Photo by Marcelo Braga
Southeast Asia isn't known for having the best drivers in the world. I was recently assigned to work in the Philippines for 6 months. My company provided me with a rental car for the duration, and mayhem ensued. Here are some of the things I observed while there. This is part three of a three-part series.
Speed limits practically don't exist in the Philippines. Most roads have no posted speed limit. This isn't a problem because roads without a speed limit are usually so congested that going faster than 20 MPH isn't possible. Remember that high-speed chase in Manila in that Borne movie? That couldn't have happened.
The roads that do have posted speed limits fall into two categories: private tollways and public roads. Police in the Philippines don't have radar guns (as far as I could tell), so they can't really enforce speed limits. Private tollways have their own traffic patrol officers, but there aren't many of them, and they probably don't have radar guns either. Speeding was exceedingly common from what I saw, yet I did not hear of a single speeding citation being issued.
I'm really really surprised I didn't see more head-on collisions in the Philippines. It was somewhat common to see cars cross over the double-yellow center line several hundred yards before the driveway they were turning in to. I guess they figure that way they can always use the far-left lane as a reversible lane. This always freaked me out when I saw it because it always seemed like it happened when the wrong-wayer was coming my way.
In Manila, I saw this maneuver performed en masse. I was in a taxi stopped at a red light, waiting to turn left. The traffic light was one where both directions of traffic get green left-turn arrows before the green circle goes up. Well, when our side's green arrow went up, about ten or twenty cars jumped out of the left turn lane, went down the road a couple hundred feet in the wrong direction, and then turned left at the intersection.
Motorcycles are cheap in the Philippines. Really cheap. They're not like the motorcycles you're used to seeing in America. They're tiny. 100-200cc engines. Tires that look like they belong on a mountain bike. You get the idea.
Filipinos don't wear shoes very often. The footwear du jour over there is the "slipper". It's more commonly known in the US as a thong sandal. I'm not even sure a lot of Filipinos actually own anything but slippers. Anyway, 9 out of 10 motorcyclists wear slippers while riding. That's some poor foot protection in the case of a crash.
It gets worse. Motorcycles get overloaded almost as often as jeepneys with three or four people on a bike. Sometimes they're even used to transport things like ladders or lumber. It's pretty ridiculous to see the amount of stuff you can transport on a motorcycle with a little determination.
The worst thing I saw on a motorcycle was a woman riding on the back holding a Subway drink cup in one hand and her helmet in the other. She wasn't wearing her helmet, the motorcycle was on a highway, and she had no way to hold on.
Want to read more about driving in the Philippines? Check out the other two parts of this series:
Photo by James Manners