Saturday, July 19, 2008

A Review of VaultStreet

Like many people, I have accounts at several different financial institutions that I've established over the years. I've always been a bit uneasy about signing up for e-documents. For a while, I was self employed, and because I had so many business expenses, I was used to storing lots of paper in case I got audited. I also was unsure of how to organize e-docs. Would I store them on my hard drive, so that if my hard drive crashed, I would have no financial records whatsoever? What filename methodoogy would I use? Would it be easy to sort the statements by date so I could see what I had?

Or would I leave the statements in my email account, thus endangering my quota, and not being able to find the emails amidst all the spam that makes it through my filters? Would the statements get mistaken for spam and dumped into my spam box that I rarely look at because it is so large? Or would I just leave the statements on the company's web site? Problem with that is, how long do they keep them there? For investments, you need to know what you paid for a stock when you sell it so you can compute capital gains. Some stocks I might keep for 5 to 10 years. I have the prices in Quicken, but if I got audited, what to do?

So I stumbed across a website called Vaultstreet (, and it seemed to have a pretty good idea. Here's how it works: you log into that account, and you give it your passwords to your brokerage accounts. Then it logs in to these accounts and downloads all your statements in PDF format, and stores them all, and it sorts them by date using metatags.

I was able to import statements from ING Direct, Schwab, TD Ameritrade and Fidelity. Many of the Schwab statements came in with the wrong date, the ING statements didn't have my account # in the metatag, but otherwise, the process worked relatively well.

You can specify which other people you want to examine your documents. So you could add your accountant, and he or she could log in and view all your statements, including your 1099s and other tax forms.

However, VaultStreet only lets you do this automatic download with about 15 different institutions. It doesn't have some big funds, like Janus, at least not yet. It seems to have most of the major online brokerages, but otherwise, its coverage is pretty skimpy. They really need to enhance their breadth of institutions covered.

They also don't allow you to upload documents that you scan yourself.

It took a little getting used to how their UI works, but I got the hang of it after a few sessions.

I also question their business model: after the 30 day trial period, they charge $200 per year. With the number of institutions they have, this seems like an awful lot of money. If you compute it at the cost per statement processed, it probably works out to $5 to $10 per statement. That seems like a lot to pay for a little bit of convenience. Furthermore, this should be a product that is very sticky. I doubt many people would leave after they use it: after all, they'd then have to figure out what they would do for filing their documents. Since this is a very sticky application, they really should price it low then have somewhat aggressive increases each year, especially as they add new institutions to download from.

Furthermore, VaultStreet should be going to smaller institutions to get them to pay Vaultstreet for processing their statements. Every statement that is printed and mailed must cost the financial institution at least $1: postage, paper, printing, stuffing, and so on. So if VaultStreet could get them to pay them instead, Vaultstreet would get a lot of individuals using their site. These individuals would only be able to access the statements that the institutions were paying for, but might decide to subscribe to get access to everything. They could do this with utilities (they've got Verizon broadband and Verizon telephone now, but that's it), mortgage companies, leasing companies, etc.

You'd think that by charging the institutions a fairly low amount, they'd get a lot of new customers, and some of these might sign up for the full package.

It'd be really nice if you could upload your exisitng stuff to the site. Because let's face it, you're probably going to have some paper documents from institutions that are too small for them to worry about. Another thing that would be excellent would be a way to add documents via email. So if I were emailed a statement, I could just forward it to a specific email address, and it would be added to my documents. (If they had email uploading, it'd be nice if you could specify meta tags like the statement date in the email message somehow).

I'd love to be able to scan and upload all this paper I have, and it's not just financial stuff. For instance, receipts for major appliances purchased. Car repair records (I have an extended warranty: what if my engine goes bad and the car company says I never changed the oil? So I keep all my valvoline receipts). A few weeks ago, I was stopped at a light, and the woman behind me didn't stop. That resulted in my needing a new bumper, paid for by her insurance company. It also resulted in about 30 pages of paperwork: accident report, insurance claims, mechanic, rental car agreement, and so on. Wouldn't it be nice if I could take all those pages, put them on my scanner, and then upload the file, or better yet, just attach it to an outlook email, type in the metatags (i.e., date, and brief description) and then upload it?

Don't get me wrong, I really like what Vaultstreet has done so far: it is a great idea to suck in stuff from the financial institutions directly. But I think the company has really overpriced its product based on how many statements you're likely to get per year from the institutions it supports now. Seriously, it's going to probably equate to $5 to $10 per statement, as I doubt you'll get more than 20-40 statements per year from the institutions they support. I'd also like to see Vaultstreet allow generic uploading, and especially generic emailing. As it stands now, it seems to be a very interesting technology, but unless you have a myriad of accounts at the few insttutions it currently supports, it's going to be hard to justify the $200 annual price tag.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

A Matter of Years

We've all heard that expanding our drilling for oil won't do any good because it would take at least ten years for the oil to reach the market:

"Let's remember that the amount of oil in ANWR is too small to significantly improve our current energy problems. Further, the oil exploration in ANWR will not actually start producing oil for as many as 10 years." -- Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA)

Many of the opponents of ANWR advocate a greater investment in mass transit, including high speed rail. For instance, Patty Murray won some award in 2003 for advocating rail subsidies.

So how long does high speed rail take to get from conception to actually bringing passengers?

The Southeast High Speed Rail (SEHSR) Corridor provides us with a good case study. The SEHSR will run from Washington, DC to Charlotte, NC, and will primarily be built on existing right of way. Four states formed the coalition in 1992. It is projected to open sometime between 2015 and 2020. So what's the hold up? It's not funding. It's environmental studies, and other studies. Here is what they need to complete:

Planning studies (1 - 1.5 years)

  1. Determine existing studies
  2. Traffic Forecasts
  3. Analysis Needs
  4. Conceptual Solutions
  5. Preliminary Cost Estimates
  6. Cost Estimation Valuation Process

Environmental Studies (5 years, after the planning studies)

  1. Purpose and Need
  2. Traffic Analysis (I guess the Traffic Forecasts from the planing studies isn't enough)
  3. Preliminary Alternatives
  4. Public Outreach
  5. Technical Studies
  6. Air Quality
  7. Noise Analysis
  8. Traffic Analysis (again?)
  9. Socio Economic
  10. Cultural Resources (what the hell is this?)
  11. Biological Resources
  12. Hazardous Materials
  13. Water Quality
  14. Floodplan / Hydrologic
  15. Energy
  16. Land Use
  17. Economic
  18. Wetlands
  19. Visual Effects (from the studies or from the actual rail?)
  20. Environmental Justice
  21. Cumulative and Secondary Impacts (one secondary impact: lots of trees killed for studies)
  22. Cost Benefit Analysis
  23. Refine Alternatives
  24. Alternative Selections
  25. Section 400 Evaluation (not to be confused with 404 - File Not Found)
  26. Record of Decision

Preliminary Design (2.25 years, concurrent with the end of the environemtal studies)

  1. Geometric Design (they've got visual effects already, what's this for?)
  2. Typical Selections
  3. Grading
  4. Drainage (this after they've got a study done on Floodplan / Hydrologic)
  5. Structural
  6. Traffic / ITS (another traffic study!?)
  7. Signing / Striping
  8. Lighting
  9. Utilities
  10. 30% plans

Final Design / Right of Way Engineering (3.5 years)

  1. 60% Plan
  2. 90% Plan
  3. Final Plans
  4. Specifications and Estimates (of what?)
  5. Right of Way Setting
  6. Right of Way Engineering
  7. Appraisals
  8. Purchase Offers
  9. Counter Offers
  10. Relocation
  11. Asbestos Clearing
  12. Demolition
  13. Condemnation (if necessary)
  14. Federal Regulations

So the sum of all these is about 10 years, according to the SEHSR website. And this is before construction starts, but after the several year period when they were getting the coalition of states assembled and doing preliminary planning. In the case of the SEHSR corridor, the total time is currently estimated at 23 - 28 years.

So 10 years to get oil out of the ground seems pretty fair compared to the speed under which the government would be able to get a high speed rail link to go a few hundred miles.