The raspy breathing of the condor

After 1.5 hours of waiting room bliss, during which my headache got progressively worse, the doctor informed me that it’s probably bronchitis. Accompanied by an all day headache, I might add.

Frustrated. Going to bed.

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The party didn’t start until I walked in…

…is something I’ve never said. Ever. But it makes a great title, don’t you think?

I hardly ever listen to rap, but somehow I’ve got one track from Brougham on my walkman that does justice to that line. And yes, you read that right: walkman. No iPods here, my friends. We’re talking the Sony Hi-Res NWZ-A17, which ironically was my way of not paying the inflated prices for an iPod.

Look up the price and you’ll get the irony.

Anyway, today was a reasonable success. I plowed through another 4 hours of the life insurance book, and I’m learning all about how life insurance can be be many things, including a tax-sheltered investment vehicle for you and your kids. Well, within limits, as the book is always quick to point out.

A few years ago I bought a policy for my own kid. At the time, my eyes were opened to some of the possibilities. In the end, I got a policy that I’ll spend 20 years paying for, but it’ll give her coverage for life and has an investment component that she can withdraw money from at any time without changing the basic coverage of the policy. So basically, it’s both life insurance and a growing investment fund that can be come quite valuable over time – as with all investments.

Can we say down payment for a house? Yes, yes we can. Can we say tax free growth? Yes, yes we can. But the kicker is that it’s also a tax free way to transfer wealth to your kids because there’s no inheritance tax on the policy.

Don’t care about your kids? Want that money to work for you instead? Great, there are insurance policies that act as investment vehicles for you as well. Eventually, they can even pay their own premiums and be self-sustaining.

Anyway, the upshot is that I’m starting to understand why there’s four books for this. Oh, and as a side note, I managed to clarify how many tests there actually are for this thing. Basically, I have to pass four pre-tests (one for each module) before I can register for the real tests, of which there are also four. They’re 90 minute tests, and the fellow I was talking to did them all in one sitting.

I gotta say, that makes for a long morning.

Amidst all this reading, I’ve also had a laugh or two. I mean, is it just me, or is darkly humorous that they included the following bullet point in the list of “costs” for the insurance company:

  • Paying the death benefit and shareholder profits

I kid you not. Together, in the same bullet.

I think those people who talk about death and taxes may have overlooked a third element.

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I’m not dead

Which both sums up the last week or so, and is one of P!nk’s best albums.

Where have I been, good reader?

Well, earlier this week I had a sick kid. And any parent can tell you, the odds of a sick kid turning into a sick grownup are about the same as chickens laying eggs. Not golden eggs, either, just regular old eggs. Y’know, the kind that happen a lot, in case you’re somehow missing the point.

It all started Wednesday night. I finished my workout and felt like I’d been hit by a truck. Admittedly, I’d pushed through for an hour on the bike, but that’s not unusual. By the time I went to bed I felt almost human again, but wasn’t sure what was going on.

Thursday dawned, I still felt off, but better than the night before. I got through the morning studying, but started feeling worse as the day progressed. By the time I brought my daughter home from the Halloween dance that evening, I was pretty much done.

Friday and Saturday were spent on the couch with my new best friend, Netflix. What did I watch? Well, I took a real shine to The Grinder, which is a surprisingly clever sitcom from Rob Lowe, of all people. I got through the first couple of rough episodes of The IT Crowd, and started enjoying it as it developed. I tried to get going on Luke Cage, but lost it halfway through the first episode. Probably because that was during my Wed workout, and it was a little too slow to get me through it.

But don’t let anybody ever tell you that Netflix doesn’t have a lot to offer, even in Canada.

Anyway, tomorrow Operation Screaming Condor begins again in full force. I’m about 3 days into the insurance stuff, once you account for my day off and my illness, and I’d like to be further along. So we’ll see how much ground I can cover this week.

See you folks tomorrow.

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And on the 26th day…

I rested. Which pretty much sums up yesterday. I was tired, and tired of being tired. So I did nothing, nothing at all.

Made me wish I had a snuggie.

Today, on the other hand, the new adventure began. Insurance!

That’s right, my friends, I’ve finished the sprint that was mutual funds, and now I’m into the marathon that is insurance. Four big modules of knowledge! Eight fantastic books of learning! 5 or 6 exams in total!

Ummm… yeah, sorry, it’s actually unclear exactly how many tests I have to write.  I spent the first two hours today just trying to get my head around what I need to do for this course, and I’ve gotta say they’ve made it really hard to understand. For a bunch of people who are supposed to teach me things, I think they must have broken their rosetta stone right around the time they were writing the web page that describes how to get through the course.

For example, I actually had the click the link that starts the practice test for one of the modules in order to learn that the practice test isn’t really for practice. I actually have to pass the practice tests – one for each module – in order to be allowed to write the real test. And I get something like six tries for each practice test, after which time they finally clue in that I’m a lost cause and refuse to let me sign up for the real test at all.


Sorry, but that deserved all caps. It really did.

And word on the street is that there might be one or two real tests, although it also may have changed over time. Again, it’s not like they have a page that tells me this stuff.

Anyway, while I was muddling my way through all of this, and trying to decide which module to start with, an email popped into my inbox.

Your test result is available now!

And lo and behold, I already had the website open because… well… see the above rant. So I popped over to a different page and the day got a little brighter.


As I pointed out to the folks on my slack channel, I really don’t know how rumours about me being worried or uncertain ever get started… when you’re this magnificent it’s hard to worry!

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I either did well, or…

Or I totally missed the trick questions.

Anyway, I sat the test yesterday, on a rainy (supposed to be stormy) day in Victoria. I arrived 15 mins early, as usual, and watched as about five other people showed up to write the test.

The test itself was 100 multiple choice questions, and either it was nowhere near as hard as the study material I had been working on, or I completely blew it without realizing it. Anyway, the test was slated for 3 hours, and I was done in half that time. I took one last look at about 4 questions that were bugging me, decided not to overthink them yet again, and handed it in.

We’ll see. I should hear how I did late in the week.

Probably the most amusing thing was the drive home. As I drove, one of the questions haunted me. I was driving myself crazy trying to figure out which answer was correct. The question was, “what’s an example of a capital market?” and it came down to two answers: a) stocks, bonds, and derivatives or b) foreign currency exchange. As I sit here typing this, I’m still not sure what the right answer is.

But the funny thing was, this consumed my thoughts for the first 15 minutes of the drive home. I kept going back and forth. Derivatives are part of the secondary market, aren’t they? Is that also considered part of the capital market? Yes? No? Foreign exchange is all about changing money, which is arguably capital. But is it considered a different market? It’s amazing how some of the most fundamental questions can trip you up, ain’t it? I mean, I spent hours doing complex tax calculations to get ready for this, and this is the question I get stuck on?

And then… then I realized what I was doing. I’m pretty sure I passed. I may even have done well. And I’m obsessing over one little question.

I couldn’t help it. I started laughing out loud at my own sorry self, and all the old habits that came back after 20 years.

I’ve told people, back in school I was a 90% or nothing sort of person. Now I didn’t always achieve that, but I certainly tended to average around there. But then, some hard years taught me other lessons. Important lessons, about how failure was also valuable in it’s own way, and how there’s no shame in messing things up the first time.

I gotta say, those lessons have gone right out the door. To other people I’d say, “Hey, you worked hard, you learned things, and you’ll do better next time.” To myself, it’s just a flat, “You should have done better.”

Isn’t it fun how we’re always least forgiving of ourselves? Or is that just me? I’m pretty sure we all know how pride can drive a person.

And yeah… pride goeth where?

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The screams of the condor

Because it’s kind of like a nightmare, only not.

This week has been pretty intensive review, along with mounting stress. I finished the study guide early Wednesday morning, and moved on to general review. I made some flash cards along the way of things I was having trouble with, plus a bunch for the formulas we needed to know. Reviewing those led me into general re-reads of a few of the earlier chapters, just to refresh my memory on some things.

All sounds good, right? Oh, and the exercises in the study guide were far more extensive than the ones in the main book, and I was nailing 80-90% on those, so feeling fairly good.

Today I remembered that I had also paid for another online review tool. Basically, it’s a bunch of flash cards followed by quizzes. And this, my friends, is where things started to go south. You see, these are done by different training group, have a different focus, and in many cases use slightly different terms that the main guides I’ve been learning from.

So… suddenly I’m faced with questions that I can’t quite remember the answer to. Which overall is probably a good thing, because it will shore up my knowledge. But when I hit the quizzes, I find that what I know and the flash cards I reviewed aren’t quite enough.

So how am I doing? Well, on the chapter quizzes I’ve completed I’ve gotten anywhere from 75-95%. And that probably doesn’t sound too bad. But I generally strive for better, and the quizzes themselves say you should shoot for 90% across the board if you want to feel confident of doing well on the test.

So… honestly, this has shaken my confidence a bit. I put in something like 7 solid hours of review today. I’m maybe 1/4 of the way through the 3rd party flash cards and quizzes, and I’ve got one day left to study.

I’m seriously stressed. Which isn’t good. I know full well that I’ll do better if I’m calm and collected. So tomorrow, I have to focus on staying calm and getting through what I can. Today, I started losing my cool over silly things, like whether buying a call option means you’re bullish or bearish. Seemed like a minor point in the main guide. These quizzes I’m doing now have asked different permutations of that about 6 times. Drove me nuts. The answer is easy enough to memorize, I suppose, but much harder to arrive at through pure logic when nobody’s really taught you this stuff.

Anyway, I’m done for the night. Have to try to get some decent sleep.

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What is it with birds, anyway?

For the benefit of all my non-Canadian friends out there, let me open by saying that today is officially Thanksgiving in Canada. It’s that one day every year when we put the huskies in the pens, leave the maple syrup in the trees, and hunker down in our igloos to enjoy a nice piece of Turkey. The other, other white meat.

Or, if your family came from Ukraine like mine, you might just have a big ham and a plate full of perogies. Made painstakingly by hand by your loving family that very afternoon, as they sat, talked, and took out their aggression on a pile of potatoes and cheese. Yes sir, home made with love and potato smashers, ’cause home made are the only kind that are actually worth eating. Boil ’em for 5 minutes, so they’re hot but not soggy. Serve them up with some sour cream and maybe some diced bacon. Give the hand to the fried onions that the old folks always insist on making for no good reason.

Mmmmm…. makes my mouth water.

Um… yeah, anyway, I didn’t get perogies ’cause I’m too lazy to make them by my lonesome, but I did get invited over to a friend’s house for a lovely turkey dinner. And if I’ve never said it clearly enough to my friends, thanks for all the invites when I don’t have family of my own to spend the different occasions with.

Anyway, it’s true that last week was a bit of a mess. As if the late flights and allergies weren’t bad enough, life was working pretty hard to test my resolve on this whole “change you career” thing that I’ve been doing. Seems like the system is pretty much geared toward kicking back onto the familiar path, mostly because it’s the path of least resistance. If I just go find another job, I get quicker results with less cost, and all the support systems are engineered to encourage that.

The final straw last week was when I finally engaged with a career counselling group that I’ve been given access to. Basically they help you get ready for the next job, whatever that might be. So I spent some time explaining to my coach what I’m doing, studying and all, and then went to to mention how the system is pushing back on that and how it was a little dispiriting.

He paused, then asked, “How sure are you that this is what you want to do?”

I was actually surprised by the question, and sort of stumbled over, “Well, 70-80 percent.”

“Hmmm,” he says. “Maybe we should backtrack a bit. We have a section on the website that helps you figure out what to do next. Maybe you should work through those exercises.”

Now, to be fair, he did say some words about being honest and trying to help. But honestly, after the week I had, I just wanted to flip him the bird. But I’m a professional (at what, none of us are sure anymore) and I simply acknowledged his good intentions and told him I’d think about it.

Y’know what I realized when I did think about it? I actually answered the wrong question. I mean, let’s think about this. The steady stream of studying.  The very public updates about how it’s all going. Does that suggest a lack of commitment here? A lack of certainty that I want to do this?

Nope. What I really should have said was, “Oh, I’m sure I want to do it. But I may only have a 70-80% chance of doing well at it.” And I don’t mean the studying and the tests, I mean the actual career. It’s a whole new world of building a client base, which I’ve never done before. So who can be sure I’ll succeed?

Anyway, I’d never really separated the two thoughts before in my head. For whatever reason, wanting to do it and being able to do it well were tied up together in my head. But now I’ve split them apart, so maybe something good came of it. Maybe.

And with that, Operation Screaming Condor started early this week with some review on Sunday morning followed by more review this morning. I’m about 3/4 of the way through the study guide, and I’m now reviewing the sections I didn’t do so hot on the first time around. I’m doing better this time, but…

Do you remember multiple choice questions? I mean, much like the Dodo bird, you seldom encounter these things in the real world. But they’re all the rage for these kinds of tests. Do you also, perchance, remember how poorly they can be constructed?

I swear some of them are so oversimplified that if you know too much none of the answers look right. Then others present a problem that is complex, but make some assumptions to simplify the calculation without telling you about those assumptions. And finally, some of them assume you know stuff they never really taught you in the first place (like whether income from a GIC counts toward your net income when calculating your maximum allowable RRSP contribution for the year).

Uh, yeah… so it’s going okay, but I did get a little frustrated today with a few of those questions. I suspect the actual test will have similar ones, but y’know what? If I miss a few of those, the world won’t end. I’ll probably even pass the test anyway.

Speaking of the test, I get to go write that on Saturday. With a pencil, an eraser, a non-scientific calculator, and no cell phone. Huh… I gotta remember to find a calculator. Anyway, once that’s done we’re on to the insurance course. But y’know, I’m not really sure what to think about that one. Maybe it’ll be interesting too?

Ah well, sky’s the limit, right?

Course, that’s actually true for birds… wonder how much it comforts them.

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Speaking of time…

Yesterday, two important (and time related) things happened.

First, I lost a day to feeling like my head was full of cotton. I figure it was most likely allergies – there’s some tree that I’m allergic to that gives off its fairy dust this time of year, and on the odd occasion it hits me like a truck. Huh… I wonder, do trucks come from fairy dust? Anyway, I woke up sniffling a fair bit, and only partway through the day did it occur to me that it might be my allergies that were making me feel crummy. So I took a pill, and today I feel much better. But there may be no causal relation.

Second, I realized that I’m actually writing the test for my mutual funds course at the end of next week. For some reason, I thought it was another week out. So… surprise!

At this point, I actually figure it’s all good. As of today, I’m halfway through the study guide and feeling good. I suspect I’ll wrap it up early next week, then have some time to focus on the little details that are still eluding my aged memory. Like the formula for the quoted yield of a bond.

I had been thinking that I’d get something like a one week jump start on my insurance course before I wrote this test, which would have been good in some ways. But this way the mutual funds info will probably be fresher in my head, which vastly increases the chances I’ll remember it for the test.

So, as I say, all good.

As for my creative endeavors, I’m being challenged by all the appointments I have this week, just as I predicted. So, nothing so far. On the other hand, I’m getting a fair bit of miscellaneous stuff done, like using those “internet through your power outlet” adapters to run a line to my PlayStation 4.  Yeah… scoff all you want, but I was tired of having Netflix die on me because of a poor wireless connection. Just because it’s buried under the TV with three other wireless devices (four if you include the TV itself) is no excuse for it to work poorly!

On another note, if wireless signals really are bad for your health I’m doing my child no good at all. But frankly, I’m pretty sure my neighbours are tossing around just as many wireless signals, so you get exposed one way or the other I guess.

So I guess that’s it for today. Operation Screaming Condor is on track, and heading into test #1 at the end of next week.


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I guess time really is relative

I’m not gonna lie, today was a struggle. Getting back to studying after my “weekend away” has proven to be a real challenge. But after some futzing around in the morning I managed to get stuck in to the study guide. And yes, I borrowed that phrase from my Irish friends.

The interesting thing about the study guide is that every section has a suggested time. For example, the first section advised that I should spend somewhere around 5 hours reviewing the Regulatory Environment, which sort of made me sad. Then, one hour later, after nailing 90% on the review questions, I was done.

So yeah… I’m ignoring their suggested times from this point forward. I reckon I’m a little over 1/4 of the way through the guide now, and that’s after a pretty shaky four hours of work.

Normally, I’d say that I’m optimistic I’ll get through it this week. But I keep looking at my calendar for this week and seeing a positive raft of appointments. The world is conspiring against me here. So I guess we’ll just have to see how far I get.

Now, speaking of the Regulatory Environment, there’s a topic that’s just screaming for a whiteboard video. I have to say that overall I’m not terribly impressed with the delivery of all this training material. The study guide has a decent layout and is asking good questions, but have any of these folks ever heard of instructional design? Seriously, one good whiteboard video could knock a full chapter out of their book, and be far more effective at communicating the ideas.

Mind you, who am I to talk? I was never able to provide fancy things like that either. Stupid budgets.

So, there you have it. Operation Screaming Condor has bagged four hours and 1/4 of the study guide.

As for my creative works… well, past actually doodling out how I might do a whiteboard video on the Regulatory Environment, I’m totally bust. I fear this will be the theme for the week as well, given the aforementioned schedule of appointments.


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How I learned to relax and love the bond

I grew up with these little beauties known as Canada Savings Bonds. When I was a kid, these were solid gifts for grand kids, a good place for the family allowance to go if you had investment minded parents, and even a good place to stash some scholarship money if you didn’t need to use it right away.

And they were practically magical. 6% is the figure that sticks in my head. 6% interest, compounded annually. People would kill for secure returns like that today, but back then with interest rates approaching 30%, it didn’t seem quite as amazing as it does today.

In any case, until a few years ago that was everything I knew about bonds: you bought them from the government of Canada, you made a guaranteed return over time, and you didn’t need a ton of money to invest.

But honestly, they were really just mythical, money making creatures to me.  I never really understood what a bond was.

Today, I know a fair bit about bonds. They’re basically a way for a government or a company to take out a short-term loan from a bunch of random people.

Let me paint a picture for you. Let’s pretend that a city needs to build a bridge this year, but doesn’t have the money to do it. They could go to a bank for a loan, but the bank would charge a pretty high interest rate. For the sake of argument, let’s say 10%. Another way the city can pay for the bridge is to issue a bond. Basically, the city decides that they’ll ask people to loan them money – maybe $100 at a time – until they’ve got all the money they need. As an incentive, the city offers to pay 5% interest annually on the loan.

So you, just a regular person on the street, can go out and buy a City Bridge Bond for $100, with a guaranteed 5% return per year. And maybe the city takes 5 years to pay you back, because they can afford to pay for 1/5 of the bridge each year based on their income.

So it turns out that those Canada Saving Bonds that I grew up with were really just a fancy way for the Canadian government to borrow money from me. And being an average person, I always figured it was a pretty straight forward arrangement. I buy a bond, they keep the money for a while, and after a few years I get the money back with a set amount of interest. Easy, right?

Well, yeah… but apparently I’m way too simple minded.

I’ve also learned recently that bonds get traded in what’s called a secondary market. Basically, what that means is that once I own a bond, I can turn around and sell it to you. So maybe my $100 bond at 5% interest is worth $105 after the first year, and maybe you’re willing to pay me that to take it off my hands. I may need the cash, and you may want a secure investment.

Okay, that sort of makes sense too, right?

But here’s where things get wonky. Let’s say I just bought that bond 2 months ago. So the face value is $100, and it’s got a guaranteed interest rate of 5%. But let’s also say that over that two months, interest rates have also climbed to 7%.

Okay, here’s where things get tricky. You could buy the bond from me for $100, and after a year it’d be worth $105. OR you could buy a brand new bond for $100 with a 7% interest rate, and after a year it’d be worth $107. So… which one would you buy? They’re both $100 bonds, but one is clearly worth more than the other.

Which leads us to the basic rule: when interest rates go up, the value of existing bonds go down.

But all of this presumes that you’re constantly buying and selling bonds. And honestly, who does that? I never cashed in a Canada Savings Bond until it had fully vested, or until I needed the cash for something like school. And at that point, normal people don’t think to sell on the secondary market – they just cash it in and take the money.

The idea that bonds would be less valuable as interest rates climbed just never occurred to me. They’re worth what they’re worth… right?

So… why am I bothering with all of this. Well, the upshot is that the financial markets, and specifically those lovely mutual funds that you and I invest our life savings in, are doing this kind of trading all the time. So if your funds own a lot of bonds, and interest rates go up, your funds go down.

And this… this would have made no sense to me a few months ago.

Simply put, I’m learning that there’s a lot to learn. And that there’s a lot to teach other people about how all of this works. Because if I didn’t understand this stuff, it’s a good bet that many others don’t as well.

I’m beginning to think that’s one of the biggest values a financial adviser can bring to the table: the ability to educate you, and help you understand those wily RRSPs or 401Ks.

Because let’s face it, nobody can guarantee that they’ll always pick winners for you.

In other news, after a funeral weekend and flight back late last night, I sort of took a day off from Operation Screaming Condor and got some other aspects of my life a little more organized. Back to it tomorrow.

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