Tag Archive: FIRE

If you’re here because you googled me after reading the Wall Street Journal article on GameStop – welcome! This wasn’t my first time in WSJ, but it’s always fun when that happens.

The article is well written, and it provides a balanced and nuanced look at the WallStreetBets subreddit’s evolution (some would say devolution) since the big GameStop affair exactly a year ago. I gave several hours of interviews for the article, and while I’m glad to see my experience described fairly, a lot was left unsaid. This post aims to provide more context, not in the least part due to all the roasting I’m currently getting in the WSJ comment section by people who think I’m a gambler or question my professional credentials. (Somehow, I can’t seem to reply to them – as a new subscriber, my comments are stuck in the moderation queue limbo. Heh.)

For example, I didn’t retire early solely because of the small fortune I made on GME over the course of 45 hours. That certainly helped, but the bulk of my 193.7% return between May 2020-May2021 came from being greedy when others were fearful, Buffett-style. Stocks that had been most affected by covid (travel, retail, energy) were on sale, and no one else wanted to buy them. I still remember the raw fear of possible failure when I sold all my Amazon shares and transferred the money into my investing account to buy a few handpicked and carefully selected stocks. (That key moment’s drama was a bit diluted by the fact that I had to click at least four confirmation pop-ups.)

When I did that, I’d been with Amazon for 10.5 years, most of them as an analyst of various kinds: a quality analyst, a business analyst in charge of fulfillment strategies in most of Canada, Midwest, and Mexico, an investigator, and finally the financial analyst at one of Amazon’s biggest fulfillment centers in North America. Long journey, many lessons, lots of opportunities to hone my skills. I’d read every single thing ever written by Buffett, attended his annual shareholder meetings, listened to every Q&A… I jumped on that once-in-a-lifetime investing opportunity when it presented itself in 2020. I write this now from my cozy apartment in the beautiful Quebec City, eight months and nine days into my early retirement, because all my preparations, and my ultimate choice to dive in, paid off beyond my wildest expectations.

If not for GameStop, I probably would’ve spent another year or so in the rat race: my early retirement (at the ripe old age of 34) was an eventual inevitability, not a lucky fluke. But since this is the one-year GameStop anniversary…

In January 2021, I made a rare discovery: I found a blind spot in my own mind. I was taking a detailed look at the previous decade (as one does) and asked myself, “Self, why did you overlook the raging successes that were Tesla and bitcoin?” And it occurred to me that I’d spent all my time making fun of those and other phenomena, and never even deigned to look at them seriously. Both Tesla and bitcoin were weird-sounding underdogs, and yet they prevailed. I realized there was a flaw in my cognition: I’d jump to conclusions and never give things another chance. That’s a bad trait to have as a human; that’s a dangerous trait to have as an analyst.

And thus a resolution was born: I would suppress my instinct to make fun of crazy ideas, no matter how strange they would seem. I would look into them without bias or prejudice, see what they were all about, check the math, and then make fun of them. Easy as pie – seemed like a fine compromise. I had no idea where that would lead me…

I curate my social media to follow only comedians or scientists: that way, I avoid political and religious drama, and every time I check my Twitter feed, I either laugh or learn something new. Some of the brainiacs I followed routinely made fun of Reddit’s r/WallStreetBets community. (Referred to as “WSB” from here on.) Despite being an avid Reddit user myself, I never once went to WSB: my exposure to that community consisted solely of cherrypicked funny screenshots people would share online. Those memes made it seem like the entire community was filled with idiots and/or gamblers. (And to be fair, that does describe a lot of them.)

I remember Friday, January 22, 2021. I remember logging on Twitter at the end of a monotone workday. I remember some Twitter brainiac I followed making fun of WSB – as I recall, he simply wrote, “those WSB idiots think they can resurrect GameStop!” Months earlier, in 2020, GME was one of the stocks I’d looked at – and recoiled from in disgust. The stock price was around $4 a share back then, and it seemed on the verge of bankruptcy. (My life would’ve been a whole lot different if I’d sought out other opinions on that day… Oh well.) But not this time: armed with my shiny new resolution, I went into the belly of the beast, and started reading what WSB had to say.

I still remember looking at the afterhours action that Friday, when it was still not too late to buy some shares: GME had gone up 51% that day, from $43.03 on Thursday to $65.01 on Friday. It was remarkable – but I didn’t want to make a move without learning more. And so I sat, and read, and learned all weekend long.

I looked at the arguments and theses of Keith Gill, aka Roaring Kitty, aka DeepFuckingValue. I looked at what had caused the 83.1% week-over-week increase from $35.50 to $65.01. I saw (and double checked, and verified) the strange claims that 140% (yes, one-hundred-and-forty percent) of the float had been shorted. I saw the beautiful, brilliant, brave trap WSB had laid out by buying up as many call options as they could, then nudging the stock price just high enough to trigger them at the end of the week. As hedge funds scrambled to buy more shares to fill the exercised call options, the stock price went higher in the afterhours, triggering higher call strike prices, requiring them to buy more shares, and so on. All that with the stock that was remarkably over-shorted and didn’t have a lot of available shares.

Thus started the chain reaction that changed the world. Someday, someone will make a big fancy movie in the style of The Big Short, and explain this chain reaction concept in great detail and in simpler terms. Until then, just take my word for it – it was brilliant. In the year that followed, people’s notions of GameStop became associated exclusively with cult-like followers, with ridiculous memes and screenshots, with naïve simpletons losing their shirts. Most of that happened later, long after the key event. Most of the people who mock GameStop and sneer at it (I’m looking at you, WSJ comment section!) probably share the same mindset I had prior to 2021: they don’t even bother to look for themselves, to see how all of that began…

That weekend, I checked and double-checked and triple-checked the math, the insane “short % of float” figures, the number of outstanding shares and the timeline for hedge funds to deliver said shares… Everything pointed to the same indisputable conclusion: the math checked out. On Monday, January 25, 2021, I liquidated some holdings (for a net gain, of course) and started buying GME as it experienced a particularly volatile trading day. Part of my research involved looking at the daily charts and patterns: I identified a specific time slot when the selling (or shorting) activity was usually at its peak: between 11:45am-12:30pm EST. (Don’t try this at home, kids – that shipped sailed a year ago.)

That Monday, in between writing weekly business reports and dealing with routine work, I kept a close eye on the price… GME opened at $96, went as low as $61 and as high as $159, and finally closed at $76. My tactic worked: buying in lots, I acquired a substantial number of shares at the average cost of $77.90 per share: not as low as it could’ve been but far better than many others fared on that day. The following two days were a blur of anticipation and looking at the price as the squeeze continued, just as planned. The stock closed at $147.98 on Tuesday. In the afterhours, Elon Musk (who hates short-sellers with fiery passion) tweeted “Gamestonk!!” followed by a link to WSB. The afterhours price shot up to $250 as Musk’s fans poured in. I have mixed feelings about Musk, but damn, that was some brilliant trolling.

And then there was Wednesday… I remember seeing the GME stock over $300 in the premarket trading, then acting incredibly volatile right as the market opened. I remember being torn: what if it really does go all the way to the moon, the way Volkswagen once did after a brilliant short squeeze? Would I be leaving a fortune on the table? A different, more pragmatic part of myself said, “This is too good to be true – just take the money and run.” And I did: I placed a market sell order, it got filled at precisely $293, and I ended up making 276.1% in both my taxable and my Roth accounts in less than 48 hours.

The stock hit $380 that day, and $483 on Thursday, just before the rug got pulled. I still think the sheer momentum would’ve been unstoppable if not for foul play. Robinhood literally disabled the “Buy” button because that was the only way they would’ve remained solvent. Stop and think about that for a bit: a major trading platform had to do the unprecedented, and that was the only thing that stopped the ongoing short squeeze. Meanwhile, the Apex clearinghouse (and all the brokerages under it) limited or disabled access outright. My own broker, Ally (hitherto Tradeking, hitherto Zecco) disabled the login page for three days, and never satisfactorily explained why. Later on, I moved my accounts to Fidelity directly because of that.

The blockade maneuver worked for a bit, and the price dropped to $193. GME recovered and ended the week at $325, a 399.9% week-over-week increase. But the momentum was gone: the following week, the stock price began the long drop to $38.50. (That happened on February 19, 2001.)

If you didn’t experience the GameStop mania firsthand, merely reading about it will not suffice. Tens of millions of Americans – having done zero research, of course – tried jumping on that train. Some made money. Many didn’t. Someone out there bought at the very top ($483) and never regained their cash unless they did a lot of averaging down. My estranged American step-brother contacted me for the first time in 15 years to ask how to set up a Robinhood trading account. I advised him not to, and I still don’t know if he lost any money. (He never contacted me again. So it goes.)

If you look at GME’s one-year chart, you’ll see how ridiculously volatile it was in the year that followed. It jumped to $483 in late January, then dropped to $38.50 in February, rocketed up to $348.50 in March (a nice 805% return if you’d timed everything perfectly, which no one ever does), down to $132 in April, up to $345 in early June, etc. It was a real rollercoaster of a year.

GME’s one-year chart. (Source: Yahoo Finance)

I was never part of the “diamond hands ape HODL” legion: I fancy myself a strategist, and I always work on being a better tactician. I didn’t touch the stock again unless the chart showed clear support levels. Since the big spike and the plunge that followed a year ago, I’ve made 10 more swing trades: all successful, but never quite as profitable. I dabbled a bit with selling covered calls (a fine hobby when the implied volatility is so high) before selling my shares for a small profit during the final little price spike a few weeks ago. As I am writing this, at the end of a particularly choppy trading day, GME went as low as $86.29 before closing just a hair above $100.

I have no clue what the future will bring: perhaps GME will fall below $20, perhaps it will rally to $300 again. At this point, there are too many forces at work, and it’s among the most irrational stocks in the market: fun to observe, but from a very safe distance.

And as for me… A year ago, I made myself a promise: henceforth, forevermore, I would celebrate the anniversary of those three days (January 25, 26, and 27) with food, and drink, and revelry, and dance. Those 45 hours were a remarkable experience, and I’d celebrate their anniversary forever. Right now, Quebec is in the midst of a strict covid lockdown, with all the restaurants and clubs on indefinite hiatus, so there’ll be limited revelry and dancing. And yet, there’s still champagne, and cake, and the oddly cheap caviar at the local grocery store. (Very fishy, I know.)

The next three days will be a bit of a blur as I celebrate the first anniversary of the time a bunch of peasants armed with math broke Wall Street’s nose. It may have healed, but it will never be the same again. A year ago, we executed a brilliant plan, in pursuit of a beautiful dream, and we made history.

I’ll drink to that.

New project: LetsRetireYoung.com

I grew up reading personal finance blogs: there wasn’t much else to do for fun after graduating college during the 2008 bubble. I always wondered about that elite and mysterious tribe of bloggers, the influence they wielded, the lives they might have led. As tempting as it was, I never set up my own personal finance blog, if only because I didn’t want to be just another non-entity who was still stuck in the rat race, daydreaming out loud, sharing less-than-motivational updates along the lines of “just 51 more months till retirement!”

After I achieved my lean-FIRE early retirement in May 2021, life got a whole lot more fun and easier. Eventually, an online acquaintance teased me: “is it really a FIRE if you don’t have a FIRE blog?” (A bit like that joke about how to figure out if someone is a vegan – they’ll tell you within three minutes. Heh.) And so, the seed got planted…

I’ve launched my Let’s Retire Young blog just over two months ago, and it’s finally fleshed out enough (and not at risk of being abandoned like yet another infatuation) that I feel it can be shared with the world at large. It’s quite separate from this here blog because while a large part of that new blog is based on my own experiences, it’s mostly just money advice. Conversely, while this blog occasionally mentions money, it’s more of a personal memory repository. And, of course, “Let’s Retire Young” is far easier to memorize and pronounce than “Grigory Lukin.” (Which, if you’re curious, rhymes with “story” and “win” when pronounced correctly. Russian names are weird, I know.)

The new blog’s tagline is “Earn more, spend less, invest the rest” – and while I was pretty bad at the “earn more” part, it’s a valid part nonetheless. (Like this post I wrote about getting a tech job without learning how to code.) So far, I’m writing three posts per week: I meal-prep them every Friday (because, as we all know, Friday = “write day”), and there are already 24 of them out there. Once I make it to the big #25, I will have proven my commitment to the bit, and might be able to secure some sort of a semi-professional writing gig. (That’d be a pretty huge upgrade for this writing hobby of mine.)

Just for the fun of it, I’ve also set up a mirror version of my blog over on Medium: I may have missed that platform’s golden age, but it still gets me some readers, especially after I joined a publication for newbie writers – which, admittedly, accepts absolutely everyone, a bit like a tutorial level in a video game.

The blog itself is about early retirement, with a side of geographic arbitrage: I strongly believe that anyone’s financial situation can be changed for the better (if only a little), but that can require significant lifestyle changes, up to and including moving to another city or even country. My advice won’t suit everyone (it would be rather strange if it did), but for the right kind of person, my stories could provide a valuable blueprint. I escaped the rat race at age 34, without having rich parents or a huge inheritance or a high-paying job. (I never once made $100K USD in a year.) I found and exploited multiple glitches in the system, and managed to escape it in one piece, with my sanity mostly intact. Now I live on roughly $1,000 USD a month (rent is cheap here, eh), and loving it.

When I started that side project, I didn’t realize how interesting the monetization component would be: thus far, I’ve made $22 USD through AdSense on the main blog and $4 USD on Medium. Not exactly a huge income stream per se, but according to the r/blogging subreddit, search engines generally ignore you until you put out 25-30 posts. We’ll see how that plays out – but meanwhile, I’m enjoying this gamification process of all the different indicators that can be tracked and improved. Earnings rate, visitors, clicks, page loading time, etc…

Getting to the first 25 posts is the first major milestone. At the pace I’m going, I’ll cross the 100-post threshold sometime in June/July. (Unless, of course, that money-related reality TV show I applied for calls me back, in which case I’d probably be offline for a few months in early 2022. My life is pretty eccentric.) Once I get to that point… Perhaps I’ll be able to get a book deal, and get an actual, real book published from some of my best posts. Perhaps something else. Maybe I’ll switch to just one post a week, or end the whole project with just 100 posts so as not to dilute it with random generic gibberish. We’ll see.

In the meantime, though, head on over to LetsRetireYoung.com and check it out for yourself, eh. Feel free to leave comments, ask questions, share your favourite posts on social media, and tell your friends. I know that personal finance blogs are a dime a dozen these days (things have changed a lot since 2008), but hey – it’s better to have blogged and lost than never to have blogged at all, am I right?

Cheers, y’all.

Bonjour, Quebec!

This post is about three months overdue, but I have it on good authority that time is relative. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

So much has happened… The move from Toronto to Quebec City was an exercise in organized chaos: I managed to pack all my stuff (including all the small detritus of life that takes up an alarming amount of cubic space) into plastic crates, moved them into the small Uhaul truck I rented, and drove it all the way to QC with an overnight stop at a rest area. (My original estimate of completing the 8-hour move-and-drive by 6pm was wildly optimistic.) Then it was all about unpacking and moving my stuff to that shiny, beautiful second-floor apartment that is my home. Returning the Uhaul. Walking back to the apartment, ogling all the French signs and sights. I hope those first memories will never fade away.

At some point, I’ll probably forget and normalize the memory of my first month here, before I got my furniture (mostly Ikea, and a couple of used furniture stores), but it was pure chaos: sleeping on my mattress on the floor before I finally got one of the last beds available at the local Ikea. (With another Uhaul rental – those things are like cheat codes for everyday life!), then navigating through all the furniture boxes in my living room, then slooowly assembling it all over the course of three days or so. Did you know that there actual online support groups for people who try to assemble Ikea’s Malm dressers? Ask me how I know…

There were casualties: I wasn’t careful with my gaming PC (just yeeted it in the back of the truck instead of securing it on the passenger seat like the precious baby that it is), and something inside got misaligned. The nearest computer repair store fixed it, got it working again, and then held it hostage for four days because the technician didn’t write down how much to charge me. Fun times… Didn’t help that they closed early on Saturday despite telling me earlier that day to stop by at 4. I fought that particular spike of rage by finding a great deal on a used 20-gallon aquarium and acquiring three little guppies to go with it. (And a fancy thermometer. And a big wooden decoration. And a couple of little plants. And an air pump shaped like a volcano. It’s pretty fun, eh.) I’m still figuring out the exact water chemistry, and will probably have to splurge on a tap water filter to make sure they get dechlorinated water when I change it. It’s an ongoing but fun project – and when it comes to the expense/cuteness/stinkiness ratio, fish are far better pets than birds or mammals. (There are also reptiles, of course, but they’re not as cute in my utterly subjective opinion.)

Quebec City itself is beautiful… Just google its pictures and see for yourself: that’s not just one small touristy block, that’s a good chunk of the city, and there’s more beauty in other parts of it, too. All the parks have lots of trails and pathways for pedestrians, bicycles, skateboards, etc. It turns out Duolingo had lied to me, and the Quebec-French is quite different from French-French. The few times I tried saying “enchante” (pleased to meet you) to new acquaintances, the response was mostly “WTF does that mean?” Heh. It’s getting better, though: while I still can’t follow other people’s conversations at parties (just smile and nod!), I can mostly figure out what I’m reading by recognizing the key words.

It turns out the local government pays a $200/week stipend to encourage newcomers (other Canadians, or immigrants like myself, or refugees) to learn Quebec-French and Quebecois culture. It’s an intensive program – five days a week, up to six hours a day, for twelve weeks – but it sounds like an amazing deal. There’s a distinct lack of good apps that teach Quebecois French, and I will have to become fluent anyway… Might as well. Just need to send off some documents on Monday, and then they’ll slot me into the next available class, whenever that might be. Quebec’s government isn’t perfect, but this “bribe to learn” program they’ve set up to preserve and promote their culture and their language is downright brilliant. Kudos, at least on that front.

My PR (permanent resident) card is finally here, after spending seven weeks bouncing between Toronto and Quebec. (My neighbour in Toronto means well, but for some reason he didn’t write his return address on the envelope when he sent it to me.) It’s incredibly shiny and going to make my everyday life a whole lot easier. I celebrated with a meal at my favourite local diner, La Cuisine. Check it out if you ever visit Quebec City: friendly staff, great decor, delicious food, low prices. What more can one ask?

…you know how some movies have that cliché where the main character travels to a strange foreign land and just happens to bump into a local guide that speaks fluent English, has a ton of badass qualities, and is an overall improbably awesome and helpful human being? Turns out that actually happens! My new Quebecois girlfriend is a certified badass that does krav maga, knows how to ride any non-motor thingy that has wheels (roller skates, longboard, etc), loves simple and healthy living, etc. What’s even better is that she’s also open to the idea of becoming a professional nomad, doing her graphic design work on her laptop while vegging out in some cheap tropical country. My life is highly improbable, I know, and for that I am incredibly grateful.

It’s been six months and twelve days since I left Amazon for good. (Unless, of course, they decide to pay me back the 47 shares that they owe me; then I might – might – consider entertaining the preliminary notion of possibly going back.) The time flew by, and I feel so much more relaxed and healthier… This whole “early retirement” thing is great, really. Five stars, would try again, highly recommended. I could stay in the rat race another five or 10 years, become a multimillionaire, get more shiny toys, but I’d never get those years back. You can double your net worth – you can’t double your life expectancy.

To give you some idea of how sweet this life is, the only things on my calendar are:

  1. the final expanse book coming out in 3 days;
  2. liquidating all my stocks in late December because I’m quite convinced there’ll be a major correction by April. (Student loan payments will start up again. People will owe taxes on their huge 2021 gains. None of that is good news. Keep in mind that the dot-com bubble burst in March, when the 1999 taxes were due…)
  3. a cool date at the opera with gf in January;
  4. an equally cool long weekend getaway with gf and her friends at a rented cottage somewhere in rural Quebec in February;
  5. possibly a family reunion in March-April-ish?

In September 2022, I will have lived in Quebec for 12 months, which will make me eligible to join the local Freemason chamber. They’re an odd group, but I like what I’ve learned about them so far. When the world begins to fall apart (sort of like in Vancouver, which is currently inaccessible by road thanks to the flooding and mudslides), it’ll be vital to have a gigantic support network on your side. Prepping and stashing food and guns and medicine is only the first step. The second step is getting to know your neighbours (are they medics? cooks? people with no particular skills but with great vibes?). The third step is acquiring an army: a giant social network you can rely on, no matter where in the world you are. I considered other options, like Scientologists, Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses, etc, and decided against them – and Freemasons actually seems like a fun and non-judgmental bunch, and a great way to learn new stuff, and make new local friends, and liven up ye olde social calendar. Too bad they have a strict anti-nomad policy in Quebec, thus the 12-month waiting period first.

At some point, most likely May 2023, I’ll be eligible to apply for my Canadian citizenship, and once I get that, I’ll finally start my life as a snowbird, thus completing my weird, weird metamorphosis. Until then, though, I’ll spend a couple of winters here in Quebec. It’s pretty ironic that the goal of my early-retirement journey was to live someplace cheap and tropical, yet I’ll have to live through the coldest winters of my life (since leaving Siberia in 2003, anyhow) as the last rite of passage. Heh.

And now, after a walk through the snow and a bit of exercise, I’m off to do some more gaming (gf is in Montreal this weekend) – Sunless Skies is both amazing and cheap – while listening to the excellent Ologies podcast (amazing pop science in 90-minute-long increments!), followed by a homecooked meal with a glass of red wine, and maybe another Werner Herzog movie. (It is my new quest to watch everything he’s ever written and/or directed. Two movies down, dozens to go!)

Life is good.