Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Here's an Opportunity for Ambulance Chasing Lawyers to Seize

So, the Brits have started to protect their texting populace from head-banging posts on the walkway. (What about those groin-high pollards? That's still gotta hurt!)

I smell an opportunity for PI lawyers in this country: sue the municipality for damages when your client walks into a lamppost while texting! Any guesses as to when the first suit will be filed?

External link via Gizmodo.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Taxes and Online Financial Services, Part Two

This is really an update on my last post: the unnecessary pain of accurately calculating gain and loss on reinvested dividends. In that post, I chided Schwab Investments for not calculating the gain and loss and including that information on the 1099.

Well, I can add E*TRADE to the same list. Same story, up to a point. E*TRADE allows the user to download the data on the various views I could pull up, including the cost basis data that E*TRADE could have used to fill in the cost basis fields on the 1099.

But, there was a catch. When I downloaded the gain and loss table, Excel dumped all the column data into column one. No wonder: E*TRADE placed double quotes at the start and end of each line. An extra text edit required, another roll of my eyes. (Didn't anyone test this?)

If online financial brokers expect us to use their services, they need to provide first-class historical information downloaded in a number of formats. (Heard of XML, guys?) And they need to provide better online tax data, minimally a complete Form 1099 for download, and not an electronic version of the old crappy hardcopy.

Monday, March 3, 2008

I Never Thought Downloading Financial Data Required So Much Manual Correction

Ah, the annual Income Tax ritual. Got my TurboTax here. Got my W-2's. Got my hard 1099's or the email notice I could download them. Good to go.

In prior years, I dreaded the manual entry of mutual fund data. You know, you get that monthly dividend that gets reinvested? And when you finally sell the sucker, you have to account for the gain or loss summed on each of those little month-by-month transactions? (This is another reason why the Income Tax system is stupid beyond belief, but I digress.)

Well, I was ready to embrace the future. Last year, I liquidated a Dreyfus fund (DSTIX) managed through my Schwab account. I originally bought the fund in 2001, so over a six year period, I had to reconcile 87 transactions, each with its own share price. This sounds bad, but here's how things should have worked:
  • TurboTax asks if it can import 1099 information from a financial institution. I select Schwab, provide my login information, and Schedule B and D data is magically filled in. Task is done.
And why not? Schwab can pull historical price data for all 87 transactions, perform some elementary arithmetic, and fill in all the gain and loss data, including the short term or long term disposition.

Well, duh, of course it didn't work out that way. Not even close. Here's how it really goes.
  • TurboTax happily imports the data. Then it shows that my recalculated tax bill has gone up. Way up.
  • Checking the data, I see that Schwab didn't calculate any cost basis at all. Zippo. So TurboTax thinks I received all this money for nothing, so all of it is taxable. Cripes!
  • I log into Schwab, drill down to my realized gain/loss on the fund, and am informed that the Cost Basis and Realized Gain/Loss is "missing." What does that mean? The data went on vacation?
  • Okay, they provide a "Details" link to follow, which produces a list of all 87 transactions, except the Cost Basis for each transaction is again "Missing."
  • Hey, there's another link to view the original lots I held, and that leads to another list of all 87 transactions, and the Cost Basis for all but two are there! (Okay, now I'm getting irritated, but at least the data wasn't on vacation, after all.)
  • Okay, I begrudge the fact that I'll have to do the math myself, importing two tables from Schwab into Excel and adding some formulas. That's not so bad.
  • Oops! I can't copy and paste from Firefox into Excel! What was I thinking? On to Internet Explorer.
  • Good, I've got two sheets of imported data, the dates all line up, now I need to fill in the two "Missing" Cost Basis values: my original purchase in 2001, and a dividend reinvestment in 2004. Back to Schwab.
  • BTW, Schwab uses Xcitek for historical fund data, which has a crappy, buggy Java interface connector from Schwab, but I get the missing data.
  • Wait a minute, now that I actually look at the data, all the transactions from January 2001 through January 2004 have the same share price. How can that be? Eyeballing the historical graph on Schwab shows a price range from $10.50 to $12.00 during this period. So all that data is crap!
  • Why won't Schwab let me export a spreadsheet of the price data from the historical graph?
  • Okay, screw Schwab and Xcitek for their suckiness, I'll just go to Dreyfus for the historical data.
  • Well, that wasn't easy. After about ten guesses at various links, Dreyfus gets me to the page where I can call up historical data.
  • Except I can't download it. The best I can do is enter the range (Jan 2001 through Jan 2004) and get a month's worth of daily prices.
  • I manually enter the monthly prices on the spreadsheet.
  • Finally, the formulas are entered, the real values spit out, and I can go back to TurboTax. What was originally a huge capital gain turns out to be a small capital loss.
I'm sure many people would have given up at some point, but people that know me know that I'm not happy with a good guess. I can sign my 1040 knowing that the data is accurate "to the best of my knowledge."

It's just a shame that after all the progress in online financial management, something that should have been simple turned out to be a truly sucky endeavor.

Maybe it will all work next time I need it?