Fixed rate package interest rates trending up

Since fixed rate home loan rates are rarely published online, i decided to do a survey in person. I went to a bank i have been to five months back and found out that indeed the 1 year fixed rate package is now at 3.68% as reported. The last time i was there it was 2.68%, a whopping 1% increase!

The fixed rate package scheme is a tricky business for banks. Banks will have to make a good guess as to what interest rates will be like in 2 or 3 years’ time. If the rates turn out to be higher than expected, they will be paying higher interests on the cash that they in turn are loaning out and their margins will be squeezed. Hence banks have to be very conservative and quote a safe (as in high) rate.

Looking at the way interest rates are moving, i must say that people who have chosen a 2 or 3 years lock-in five months ago have chosen wisely. They can have peace of mind for the next 2 or 3 years. For the rest of us who can stomach more risk in opting for variable rate packages, lets hope the current savings in interests will still be able to offset the increase in future interest payments, and lets hope your investments will do better than 4%. All the best!

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What moves interest rates

Every home owner who cares about how much monthly installment and interest they pay should be interested to know, what moves interest rates? Specifically, what determines the home loan rates here in Singapore? It is often said in news articles that Singapore rates track the United States Federal Reserve rate. That almost seem like too easy an answer. Fine. The obvious question to ask next – so what moves the Federal Reserve rate?

In their own words, the Federal Reserve states that they are the central bank of the United States, with duties to

  • conducting the nation’s monetary policy by influencing the monetary and credit conditions in the economy in pursuit of maximum employment,
    stable prices, and moderate long-term interest rates
  • supervising and regulating banking institutions to ensure the safety and soundness of the nation’s banking and financial system and to protect the credit rights of consumers
  • maintaining the stability of the financial system and containing systemic risk that may arise in financial markets
  • providing financial services to depository institutions, the U.S. government,
    and foreign official institutions, including playing a major role in operating the nation’s payments system

One of the primary tools they use to fulfill these duties is to suggest what the overnight inter-bank lending rate (commonly known as the Federal Funds rate) should be. The whole world watches and anticipates the outcome of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meetings which reports their conclusions on the Federal Funds rates. The meeting calendars are published here. In between the dates of those meetings, the whole world watches what the FOMC members say. And they do say much.

A recent speech by an FOMC member managed to convince the market somewhat that the Fed rates is set to increase soon.

“Inflation is already too high and inconsistent with our goal of – and responsibility to ensure – price stability,” Plosser said in a speech to a group assembled by the Philadelphia Business Journal. “We will need to reverse course – the exact timing depends on how the economy evolves, but I anticipate the reversal will need to be started sooner rather than later,” he warned. “And, I believe it will likely need to begin before either the labour market or the financial markets have completely turned around,” he added.

This insightful article, however, gives reasons why the Federal Reserve can’t raise interest rates just yet.

While it’s true that maintaining low interest rates will further fuel inflation, the Fed really has no choice. Or perhaps it’s a Hobson’s choice. You see, if the central bank actually raises rates to combat inflation, adjustable rates on mortgages will rise, setting in motion a whole new round of housing defaults, which will lead to an escalation of bank write-downs, which will torpedo stock prices, which will force institutional investors to liquidate holdings to raise capital. The same will happen out in the marketplace, where companies with debt coming due will find it impossible to refinance, touching off still another avenue of defaults, losses, and write-downs.

Interest rates will go up as this article explains.

at some point inflation fears rise to a level where aggressive rate hikes by the Fed are needed to bring about a REDUCTION in long-term interest rates.. even if the economy remains weak.

So do watch out for interest rates movements.

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Singapore SOR falls to 1.09

SOR has fallen consecutively for 3 days to a new low of 1.09%!

SIBOR or SOR pegged loan packages may be drawing more interest now that there are no more cheap mortgages as banks raise rates. Quoting from the Jun 12 article:

No more cheap mortgages as banks raise rates UOB and OCBC Bank have raised rates for their three-year, fixed-rate mortgages to 3.68 per cent from 2.98 per cent. Standard Chartered Bank has raised its rate for its two-year, fixed-rate package to 3.78 per cent a year from about 2.68 per cent .. market players may now be raising rates to squeeze higher margins from new loans

At the same time, banks seem to be fighting for customers in the SIBOR or SOR pegged loan segment, as is evident from the new loan package from HSBC featuring a decreasing interest rate spread. This article explains:

Under the new loyalty package, the customer pays the 3-month Sibor rate plus 0.75 per cent in the first year; in the second year, he pays 3-month Sibor plus 0.65 per cent; and from the third year onwards, the rate is 3-month Sibor plus 0.55 per cent. The 3-month Sibor on July 1 was 1.25 per cent.

Banks may be raising their fixed-rate mortgages in anticipation of interest rate increases by 2H08 and beyond. There has been repeated calls to raise interest rates to counter inflation. Meanwhile, it may be worthwhile taking up a SIBOR or SOR pegged loan since they typically come with minimal or no lock-in period, making it possible to switch to a fixed-rate package when broad interest rate hikes really take place.

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Beginner Barista with Krups XP4020

krupsxp4020

So i’ve had my Krups XP4020 for a month now and i’m just starting to get the hang of making coffee proper. If you are a new owner of an espresso machine, hit the net and check out the bountiful resources that teaches you barista know-how. Here are some beginner skills i learned.

First stop, making espresso. You need to make sure the ground beans are properly tamped down. Watch this video for a demonstration on how it’s done. There’s even a lengthy discourse on the science of tamping if you’re interested.

Next, frothing the milk. The trick is to use cold milk so you have sufficient time for frothing it before it gets too warm and starts boiling. I put the milk into the freezer before i start just to make sure it gets a little colder. Experiment with different brands of milk to see which will give you the best results of frothy milk that stays frothy while having the right taste. Again, here’s an excellent video on frothing milk (and another one) . Do read the comments on how to get better froth with your Krups XP4020 if you’re using one. Also notice that the container for the milk is typically a stainless steel pitcher. Here’s an article that says why. I need to try some of these suggestions myself.

What are my thoughts about this machine? I guess it works great as an entry level machine for someone new to making espresso. I have the same gripe that many others have about the plasticky tasting coffee when you first start using it. That taste comes mostly from the water tank. I followed the advice of a forum posting and stuffed newspaper into the water tank and i think the idea actually worked quite well in reducing the plastic taste. Still, it makes me worry to see plastic on the steam wand seemingly melting under the heat of the steam passing through it. If ever i will get a new machine i am going to make sure that it has a stainless steel steam wand and minimal plastic parts.

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Unlimited calls through mobile broadband

fringiphone

Here are further ideas on how to take advantage of VOIP.

Assuming that you subscribe to a mobile broadband plan (as discussed in my previous post) and you also have a home phone line (that allows you to make cheap or free calls) plus broadband internet, you can forward calls between your home phone line and VOIP. This should prove to be quite economical since many people would already have a phone line and broadband internet to begin with. In any case, a phone line + broadband internet combo is relatively cheap. Here are samples of available plans:

US – AT&T Double Pack US$65 includes 1.5Mbps broadband and nationwide long distance calls
UK – Tiscali Broadband and Talk £14.99 includes 8Mbps broadband and UK phone calls
Singapore – Singtel Mio Plan S$55.80 includes 3Mbps broadband, unlimited local calls and 100 mins mobile plan

To forward calls between a phone line and VOIP, you need an Analogue Telephony Adaptor (ATA). What an ATA does is to answer incoming calls on the phone line and initiate a VOIP call, or vice versa, make a call on the phone line when a VOIP call is initiated. This allows you to receive and make calls through mobile broadband and the home phone line, both of which are cheap, instead of your more expensive regular mobile line. Examples of relatively affordable ATA are the Linksys SPA 3102 and the Grandstream HT-503. These are even capable of handling Caller ID from both VOIP and the regular phone line so you will know who is calling you. Setting up the ATA to perform call forwarding may be a very difficult process though, so be warned. A configuration wizard is available here that may help if you are setting up the Linksys SPA 3102.

To avoid the hassle of setting up call forwarding that i just described, you could opt to sign up with a VOIP Service Provider (VSP) and have them handle all your VOIP calls. They will take care of routing calls to and from regular phone lines and calls will work almost exactly the same way as your regular mobile/cell phone, except that it goes through a VOIP client application running over mobile broadband. If you deem the mobile broadband connection to be reliable enough, you can even terminate your mobile/cell phone subscription and use VOIP on mobile broadband exclusively. To play safe though, you can take up a pre-paid pay-as-you-go mobile plan as a backup.

In the future all these will not be necessary as Telcos have no choice but to offer the very same VOIP services, as telephony transits onto an all-IP platform. The internet continues to level the playing ground for businesses and we are about to witness Telcos losing their monopoly over voice and messaging communication.

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Mobile broadband talk is cheap

fring-gizmo5

Here’s an idea your Telco doesn’t want you to know – you could use VOIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) on mobile broadband or data plans and save bundles on phone calls.

Mobile broadband plans are available now for cheap. Here’s a sample of what’s available:

US – AT&T PDA Personal (BroadbandConnect) – US$35 for unlimited data
UK – 3 and Vodafone – 3GB for £15 a month
Singapore – Singtel – 50GB for S$22.42 a month

Assuming a 5GB cap on the data usage, how much VOIP talk time is that equivalent to? According to this forum posting the G711 protocol uses about 38MB per hour in each direction (downstream and upstream), rounding that up to 80MB per hour, 5GB gives 62.5 hours of talk time!

How is it that Telcos can offer such a low price for mobile broadband data plans knowing that this can jeopardize their standard mobile plans business? For one thing, people are used to the reliability of their existing phone services which just work. Having to install and setup new software, sign up with a VOIP service provider or even understanding VOIP itself is like learning rocket science to most people. It took a massive marketing campaign like Skype to get people warmed up to the idea. Nevertheless, there’s no avoiding the trend that talk is getting cheaper, literally speaking, with mobile services moving on to an all-IP platform.

Here’s a little experiment (costs you nothing) that can get you started on VOIP (using SIP rather than Skype). You need a PC, Wifi and a Symbian/Windows Mobile/iPhone mobile phone with Wifi. First, sign up two new SIP accounts at SIPphone (so that you can make calls from one account to another. You could create an account on behalf of your spouse, sibling etc.). This is a free SIP account by Gizmo5. Notice that you’re assigned a phone number (1-747-xxx-xxxx) just like having a real phone number. Next, install the softphone onto your computer and have it setup with one of the SIP accounts you have created earlier. Next, get fring onto your phone. Follow this video tutorial to setup the other SIP account in fring. Make a call from the softphone to fring – simply dial the SIP phone number and moments later you will get a call on fring!

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SOR dips to new low

The 3 month SOR Fixing rate has just fallen to a new low of 1.16%. This is lower than the lowest i have heard of (1.17%) since i started tracking SOR.

The Fed rates have been kept at 2% as has been widely anticipated. Opinions are divided on whether they will hike rates in the next round of meeting, but the odds that it will be maintained at 2% is getting higher. Many analysts point to the fact that no time frame has been given for the rate hike is an indication that it will not go up soon. The Feds are said to be “behind the curve”, usually taking longer than expected to act. Perhaps the current movement in SOR is reflecting this effect.

Again, good news for home loan owners who have gone with loans pegged to SIBOR or SOR, but as always, keep a close watch.

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Laptop harddisk data recovery

http://www.thinkgeek.com/homeoffice/stickers/8d30/

The worst requests i get on fixing computers are from firstly, those who ask me to fix their friend’s computer (or their friend’s friend’s), and secondly, those who made a mess by allowing every kind of virus and malware into their computer. Ok, lets get on with data recovery..

I was asked to help fix a laptop (Windows XP) that refuses to boot up. Diagnosis shows that the harddisk was damaged. Naturally the first thing to do is to try to backup whatever data that can still be salvaged. To cut the long story short, this is the thing to do: get the Ubuntu Live CD, boot up the laptop with the Live CD, plug in a USB thumbdrive and copy whatever data that can still be read from the laptop harddisk to the thumbdrive. The copying process will take a long time because there will be a lot of retries when reading corrupted data, and you have to answer prompts to skip the corrupted file, so do be patient.

If the Ubuntu Live CD solution doesn’t work, the next solution worth trying is to use DiskInternals NTFS Recovery software, which comes for a fee. Use the trial version to see if data can be recovered before acquiring the full version. The easy way to attempt this recovery process is actually to dismantle the harddisk from the laptop, plug it into a USB harddisk enclosure or use a laptop to PC IDE adaptor (like the one pictured below), attach it to a PC and run the software from the PC. If these two methods don’t work, maybe you can try the harddisk freezer trick..

DSC_0051

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PC Surround Sound

Thinking of setting up a home theatre system with surround sound? Under normal circumstances the easiest way to go about it is to get a packaged home theater system which typically comes with a DVD player. This is usually cheap and hassle free (if you don’t go for high-end stuff that is).

However, if you want to play surround sound content from downloaded video files (e.g. avi or mkv with ac3) then a PC is necessary. Using your PC (assuming you already have one) has the added obvious advantage that you don’t have to spend another dime on getting a DVD player.

If you already have your sound system set up complete with a surround sound decoder, and your PC sound card has digital output (optical or coaxial), simply connect the digital output to the receiver, play the video file with the surround pass-through option selected and it should just work. If your PC sound card has 5.1 output instead, you might find the Creative Home Theater Connect DTS-610 useful as it encodes the 5.1 output into DTS signal for piping into your receiver, or, you may be able to replace the sound card with one that comes with digital output (like the HT Omega Claro) for a little more.

If you haven’t actually set up your home theatre system, you could choose to get a standard packaged speaker + receiver set, or you might want to consider building one. In my previous post i shared on how to build a decent Stereo Hi-fi. Now to extend it to a 5.1 surround sound set up, you need to get a center speaker plus rear speakers. If you deem the rear speaker sound as less important than the front, you can opt for low cost speakers. Get the Wireless Digital T-Amp, which uses the very same high quality Stereo class-T amplifier, to transmit the rear speaker sound signal wirelessly and you’re good to go!

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