Monday, June 18, 2018

Hometown mentioned in today's New York Times...

As follows, "Mr. Stewart's embrace of the Confederacy reached an apogee in his 2017 campaign.  He showed up to an Old South ball in Danville, Va., and, surrounded by men in reinactment regalia and women in hoop skirts, declared the Confederate flag a symbol of "our heritage", not of hate.  And he appeared with the white nationalist Jason Kessler, who went on to organize the torch-led protests in Charlottesville..."

Friday, June 15, 2018

Three Billboards...

Each year this is the time to catch up on films that were highlighted at the Oscars and other awards shows.  They arrive on Netflix, and head here. This week there has been "All The Money In The World"(not a great film but an informative reminder of an event and a time period), "Lady Bird"(a well done small film with great lead in Saorise Ronan), and "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri"(remarkable).  "I Tonya" and "Darkest Hour" are on the way.

Three Billboards is fascinating, with twists and turns that keep the film flowing and performances that were special.  The writer and director Martin McDonagh is highly acclaimed as a playwright in Ireland and known best here as the writer and director of the now classic film "In Bruges".

It was a film that had hooks aplenty, one here that was a bit of a revelation, a personal one. With both Lady Bird and All The Money, a break was taken halfway through as home viewing allows.  Three Billboards flew by, no break needed or wanted.  It will likely be watched again in a month or so, a second viewing is required.  There was so much to see and hear.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

"Calypso", essays from David Sedaris

This just published collection of essays by Sedaris were all previously published in recent years, primarily in The New Yorker,  but also a few in The Guardian, The Paris Review, Conde Nast Traveler(UK), and Esquire.  As his many followers know, Sedaris has a unique style of viewing the world from a perspective of well written, insightful, at times sardonic, humor.  He has a touch that works and he will say absolutely anything.  There must be a segment of his fans who are closet readers, not necessarily wanting to be associated with his free form publicly but still there.  He appears to be truthful to a fault as on the second page he writes, "Yes, my hair is gray and thinning.  Yes, the washer on my penis has worn out, leaving me to dribble urine long after I've zipped my trousers back up.  But I have two guest rooms."

The effect of his humor in short bursts is what magazines are for.  As a 260 page book it can be a bit overwhelming.  A picture of the last five years of his life is taken in, as well as perspectives on the death of his mother, the suicide of his sister Tiffany, the aging of a father in his 90's, as well as a health problem or two of his own.  Serious events are dealt with in a straightforward way but from his perspective it eventually works as humor.  Central to all of this is his eccentric family, which almost has its own language that shelters them all as they go on.

The book was a nice two day break from the stupid one, but he is still there.  Sedaris writes, "I later learned that what I suffered was called blunt force trauma.  It's remarkably similar to how I felt after the election, as if I'd been slammed against a wall or hit by a car.  Both pains persist --- show no signs, in fact, of ever going away.  The damage is permanent.  I will never be the same as I was before the accident/election."  While his home area of Raleigh, NC, as well as an island village off of the coast in that state, are basic to his existence, Sedaris has for many years had his permanent residence in rural England.  He's lucky again.

Monday, June 11, 2018

"Patrick Melrose" on Showtime

This five part series was exceptional.  When the series was first being promoted it was intriguing, so the first two of the five novels by Edward St.Aubyn were read about a month ago.  Those books ranged within each from being an impeccably English comedy of manners to depths almost beyond what Bret Easton Ellis has written.  The writing is such that individual sentences or paragraphs seem worth writing down, and certainly worth a dog ear or a pen mark as I often treat books poorly.

The film interpretation took the luxury of not dragging a reader through the despair in the novels too incessantly.  The characters were presented with their annoying, at times aggravating flaws, as well as what could be called their desperate humanity.  Can it be said that humor was abundant through all of this?  It was.

"Patrick Melrose" is done.  What an attractive longer series it could have been is the thought occurs to me now, as there is little out there that is this compelling.  Benedict Cumberbatch was unequivocally the star.

Saturday, June 09, 2018

"The Economist" 2018 Pocket World in Figures...

This annual small fact packed book arrived today.  As usual it has two page fact sheets on 100 countries plus a variety of other broader statistics.  For example:

---New York is the 10th largest city in the world.  The three largest are Tokyo, Delhi, and Shanghai.  With less but a bit surprising, Lima has 10 million people and Baghdad 6.8 million.
---The U.S. is 48th in life expectancy, just behind Guam and Cuba.  The top five are Monaco, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, and Italy, at five hanging in there, giving hope that enjoying life leads to longevity.
---The cost of living is highest in Singapore, Hong Kong, and Japan.  The United States in seventh.
---The U.S. has the highest prison population in the world at 2.1mm, China, a far more populous country is second at 1.6mm, third is Russia at 600,000.  As a percent of the population the U.S. is #1 as well, followed by Turkmenistan and El Salvador.
---As a percent of the population, the number one country publishing books is the U.K., followed by Iceland, Denmark, Slovenia, Taiwan, and France.  The U.S. is 15th.
---Internet users as a percent of the population ranks the U.S. as 43rd,  just behind Azerbeijan, Malta, and Barbados.

Had enough.  Probably.  If not, this vest pocket book could be entertaining on the subway or in the waiting room at the dentist's office.

Friday, June 01, 2018

Short takes... TRUMP TIME

---Donald Trump Jr. stayed busy last week retweeting Roseanne Barr's vile tweets.  When she deleted hers, he did not delete his forwards.  This entitled nitwit should be named Chip.

---It seems obvious that something is wrong with Melania Trump.  A President's wife has generally been hands-off territory for the press related to personal issues.  Did she have some sort of breakdown?  Did she overdose on her Xanax or whatever allows her to play her role?  This "kidney procedure" issue began almost three weeks ago just after her "Be Best" campaign for children was initiated in a speech on the White House lawn.  That was ridiculous and just a gift to late night comics.  It could look like she was almost set up for public humiliation.

---President Trump's speech in Nashville was campaign classic, at times more vindictive as he craves the recognition of his most ardent supporters, speaks in exaggerations that veer into overt lies, and can't help but admire dubious partners in foreign affairs.  The low light was his talk of MS-13, once again consciously equating this awful fringe group with undocumented immigrants generally.

---Trump's incoherent approach to global markets and trade is explained by primarily one thing --- the exercise of power.  His arbitrary leveling of tariffs, taking them off, and then extending them is harmful not only to business interests but also to U.S. consumers.  His explanations demonstrate no knowledge and no nuance.  Long term damage is already being put in place as businesses and countries are not able to do reliable long term planning about hiring and investment.  This will be felt next year and beyond, not in the immediate time frame that concerns Trump, is that one day, up to three months... that's about it.


Wednesday, May 30, 2018

"The Chinese Exclusion Act", PBS

Last night this program, as part of the American Experience series, had its initial showing on PBS.  As a history program about Chinese immigrants in the 19th century and beyond, it was informative and will no doubt be valuable in classrooms for years to come.  It was watched intently here.  Much of the time while watching, it was hard not to think about how much better this program could have been.  For those who were enamored, this may seem like nitpicking but here goes.

The program was incessantly repetitive, in stories and in the photos meant to bring life to the narrative.  The soundtrack was intensely grim and had little nuance while adding huge dose of melodrama that was not needed.  Yes, this was a "grim" subject and one that documented unfair, exploitive, and racist treatment of the Chinese as they arrived on the west coast in small numbers from the 1840's and onward.  The racism was institutionalized by Congress in the Exclusion Act in 1882 at around the same time that the attitude toward freed slaves began to deteriorate.

In telling this story, the Democratic and Republican parties were at odds on issues, but to me it would be difficult for a viewer who was not especially familiar with the era to have any idea what those parties represented at that time, yes a nitpick but a big one it seems.

The idea here is definitely not to relay the history.  Just for that the program is worth watching.  Moving to the 20th century the program reflected some strange biases and here's an example that was aggravating.  In talking about progress for the Chinese in the mid-20th century, the program highlighted some statement by President Kennedy.  There is no memory of or well known record of that at all.  The program was correct to point out the efforts made by President Roosevelt as the Chinese were necessary allies against the Japanese.  However it completely ignored Harry Truman, who actually did something more than talk.

In 1948 when Mao took over in China, there were 5000 Chinese students in the United States on visas for college attendance.  Permanent immigration for Chinese was only minimally allowed at that time.  Under Truman, these students were deemed to be at risk if they returned to the newly Communist country, so they were allowed to stay(Kathy's parents were two of them).

In 1973 Nixon went to China, of course, and some formal relationship began.  In 1979 China began to allow visitors(tourists) for carefully monitored small friendship tours(my parents were on one).  Beginning in 1980,  American citizens of Chinese descent were allowed to begin applying to bring over relatives who were considered to be at risk or had been treated harshly.  Reagan allowed that immigration(Kathy's mother brought over five of her siblings and their families in the following ten years).

The documentary mentioned none of this, just a still fashionable shout out to Kennedy who did nothing.  That was truly annoying.

So mixed reviews here for a well meaning documentary.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Christie for AG?

The list of syncophats looking for jobs after Trump won the election was not short.  Leading the list were Rudy Guiliani, Chris Christie, and Carly Fiorina.  Rudy is now in, Trump nudged Carly off the back of a stage and she has never been heard from again, and Christie is still waiting.  The former New Jersey governor, once seemingly enlightened, will do anything to be back in the spotlight.

Trump knows a limited number of people who aspire to be "public servants".  Ben Carson is the token in, John Kasich is promoting himself relentlessly in a self righteously manner, Ted Cruz is as unlikeable as ever, and so Christie.

He is an attorney, Seton Hall law school, and he is nothing if not ambitious.  Could we be in for another dose of the big one?  Nothing is predictable...

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

"Warlight", a novel by Michael Ondaatje

The book jacket cover refers to "this magnificent novel".  It may be.

The story begins in 1945 in immediate post war London.  Two teenagers are left by their parents whose jobs are unclear, left with eccentric and enigmatic friends of their parents who stay with them in their family home.  This is firmly set in a historical time frame and the history is real and well told, interesting in fact.  Yet the fiction itself is from whole cloth, fascinating from the start.  This is a non-linear novel that moves between time periods, multiple characters, and ongoing events, with a fluidity that works.  Ondaatje assumes that the reader will catch on and not need hand holding at every turn, although occasional repetitions do provide guideposts.  Personally, this is what I want to find in a book and so few novels are like that these days, a type of book that is compelling.

It varies from first person to third person, and that is always completely clear without any effort from the reader.  Ondaatje writes well.  His language is appealing, sometimes a bit playful, in this subtle tale of mysteries that unfold continuously.  As is usual when writing about books read, a few quotes follow.  They reveal little, but for what it's worth...

--- "Our guardian had no interest in cooking... He preferred he said 'a hasty life'."

---"Only the recent memories, with no one now to share them with, had begun to evaporate."

---"I always sit at the back, especially any show where a relative or a magician is involved."

---"She has not lived such a life, of families and community, for a very long time.  She has accepted a world of secretiveness, where there is a different power, where there is not generosity."

---"They have lunched at La Coupole long into the afternoon, watching each other swallow oysters, drink champagne from slender flutes, until they finish with a crepe they share. When she reaches for a fork, he sees the scar above her wrist."

---"Who made me move from just an interest in characters to what they do to others?  But above all, most of all, how much damage did I do?"

---"The familiar false modesty of the English, which included absurd secrecy...  It had concealed in some ways the most remarkable theatrical performance of any European nation. Along with undercover agents, who included great-aunts, semi-competent novelists, a society couturier who'd been a spy..."

Confused.  Read this book.

Power down...

The following was written at around 6pm yesterday.

"A storm was in the forecast but it came and went in minutes, at 5:20pm it became dusk and stayed that way with just occasional brief rain flurries that continue now. Strangely the power went out in the first minute.  It is still off and a recorded phone call came informing us that the power will be restored by 5:30am May 16.  A transformer must have decided to blow in anticipation. Thank goodness for our generator.  After the 2012 Sandy experience, it was viewed as a necessity.  It is more than ever now.

So it's cranking away in the backyard like a VW Beetle, rumbling and having misses like it needs a turn-up, but that's normal.  The lights are on here, but from my seat in front of the computer, our windows show no lights in three directions.  Every pretty penny spent on that generator was worth it.  It runs on gas, underground, so the one thing that determines staying power is oil.  It burns oil as it runs, and after a never predictable time it needs a refill.  Generally two days can be counted on, a day more possibly. 

Settling in now, two chapters to go in a good book, both teams are playing baseball tonight, and The New Yorker, The Nation, and The Economist all showed up in the mail.  That's what I got, ge"

That's when internet and television access, Cablevision, shut down.  The choice of magazines was helpful, and fortunately there was a DVD on hand, no streaming required.  It was "Trash", a well done, touching, and all together preposterous Brazilian film that was a feel good story about four desperately poor, and seemingly parentless, children in a favela.  Don't worry be happy.  Both the power and the cable access came back around 1am.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Brief observations...

--- North Korea's sudden decisions to stop all testing and to pull back on and "eliminate" its main facility is being seen by some as a win by Trump.  It is clear that Kim is cooperating with China on this.  It is unsettling in its own way, as in too good to be true.  Nobel Prize for Trump?  One thought could be that China is playing the long game, while the U.S. culturally and Trump compulsively plays the short game.  North Korea will still have the technological and intellectual capability in place and likely much more that is tangible.  They will be under the umbrella of China.  China's goal is full control of North Asia, if not by direct rule certainly by default.  If they are betting that Trump gets eight total years in office of nativist navel gazing, their patience is explained.

---Unemployment statistics remain positive but, as has been mentioned by many, that is not the whole story.  Wage growth is modest and, of more concern, the decline in solid middle class jobs continues.  Still, most jobs do inspire confidence to spend, as optimism is a core American trait, and to Borrow.  More aggressive credit card offers are now out there and home equity retirement loan advertising is back again.  Some of the credit card offers are so generous that it is already built in that the issuer will not have a profit for two to three years.  The hook has been cast.  Yet today, that's now, subprime auto lending is at a default rate higher than 2008, so some fraying around the edges of credit is clear.  This is worth some thought.

--- Speaking of a return of certain advertisements, what about Online Trading Academy.  That's a memory, and it's back.  Free 30 day offer, learn to trade like a pro, "I made $12,000 in just the first month."  Mentioned here before, TD Ameritrade continues to have its commercials focus on low cost options trading, for everyone. Easy peasy.  Now there is National Securities of Eatontown seeking traders for great opportunities, that's in New Jersey, not First Jersey.  Stretching memories with that one.  More thought required.

---Remember the IPO game in which some small private companies in tech would spend heavily on advertising and on their products, build some recognition, and then cut back on spending for a year before the IPO to boost profitability.  While true professionals should have seen what was going on, transparency was a problem.  Could this happen in retail.  A company that has been liked here, American Giant(sweat shirts, t-shirts, casual athletic wear, shorts etc.) could be into this ruse.  Products bought from them about three years ago were exceptional.  The catalogues of this Bay area company were especially attractive.  The only issue in the past was that care with size had to be focused on.  The name of the company is indicative.  BUT, a recent small order arrived, just four "premium" t-shirts, two the usual short sleeve and two long sleeve, and the cotton is coarse and thinner than the past, the size decidedly not generous.  The size, large, is right but the short sleeve ones are marginal on length, an almost fatal flaw if you are not a plumber.  This is research only seen here!  IPO coming?

And as to politics in general, fatigue has set in, at least for today.  Comments not forthcoming.

Saturday, May 05, 2018

Kentucky Derby time...

No practical way to place a bet here, the Kentucky Derby is still watched.  The whole event as depicted on television seems a bit anachronistic, more than traditional, as in people pretending to be who they are supposed to be.

The race itself remains an exciting event.  There is simply a dedicated horse crowd, for whom this is the be all and end all of their year.  Is there any difference in other sports?

In 1973 I was there in an uncrowded infield to watch Secretariat win in breathtaking fashion, my friends from Chicago watching for just a few amazing seconds away on the rail.  In other Louisville days I attended a few times each year, thinking that I had learned a bit of system for betting.  I had not.  In New York days, Belmont was a 30 minute drive away, and interest continued.  Success with "my system" was occasional, but more often not.  Still, being at the track was almost always a pleasant day.

In 1984, Louisville friends invited us join them in their family's Derby box seats.  That was an honor of sorts to Kathy and me as well as a treat, but any system that was in my find turned out to be combustible.  Not a win, place, or show in the six races that we attended.  Still and not put off, regular attendance at Belmont one or two times a year continued into mid-aughts.

No favorite here now, though in the mud it is almost certain that one or two long odds horses will be in contention, and one may win.

Postscript:  don't know what others are saying or writing, but in hindsight Justify was an exceptional three to one pick, almost a gift to those in the know.  That does not remotely include me.  Next up, the Preakness.

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

"Anatomy of a Miracle", a novel* by Jonathan Miles

In recent months magazines and newspapers have been the primary reading here.  An effort has been made with a few books but none have truly diverted my attention.  Two sit next to my chair, bookmarks in each about halfway through.  "Anatomy of a Miracle" was a three day read, brisk in the first half or so, engaging after that until, near the end, it limped home to the finish line.  But it made it without question.

The book begins as an exceptionally comic novel, notwithstanding being about a paraplegic Afghan war veteran living in Biloxi, Mississippi.  The veteran makes an inexplicable recovery, and the mystery around that extraordinary event follows.  The humor reflects the characters and the place, and it is done with what could be called a loving eye.  The wry tone is always present but the story turns more and more into a reflection on death, dying, purpose, and just carrying on.

Some quotes from the book may be interesting.

From the Vietnamese convenience store owner --- "She's been selling beer across the Biz-E-Bee counter for sixteen years, and from what she can gather, being a teetotaler, it doesn't seem to make people happier or better, it just makes them come back the next day for more of it."

From the director of an attempted documentary about the event --- "But a villain, to my thinking, has to have evil intent or else a selfish disregard for consequences---and I had neither.  I did the best with the situation I was given.  No, there's a villain here, but that wasn't me.  You see, that's what makes this such a Southern story.  The villain was the past."

From the mother of another wounded veteran---"The best kind of people in this world D, but also the worst kind---they're riddles.  They do things that don't make sense, and no matter how hard you try you can't never figure them out.  But you can't help yourself from trying."

From the director---"God healed and revived people, right,but did he also, you know, just zap others---bury them neck-deep in a divine dump of shit just to see if and how they'd wriggle free?  As an adult he'd only ever been to church for weddings, so he didn't know;  most of what he knew about about God came from old Al Green albums."

"Her father was crazy, yes, a yowling sixty seven year old dervish, and his response to life had always been to flail at its mysteries and discordances with fabulist stories...Winton Lorimar isn't religious, but is fond, in his words, of  'the hoodoo in life': the cracks in our knowledge and perceptions, the existential equivalent of the unplayable tones lurking between the black and white keys of a piano."

Whether this gives anyone more insight into "Anatomy of a Miracle" is unknown.  The book was a welcome find here.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Equity market has distinct sell-off

There are sell-offs that seem completely broad based and there are those that are focused.  Today's equity market was distinguished by major declines in large tech names.  High P/E Amazon, Facebook, Adobe, and Netflix fell significantly.  Low P/E Apple and the Alphabets did so as well.  Valuation was not the issue, the sector was.  Recent volatile highfliers like Freeport McMoran tanked, while the once reliably rising 3M did as well.  Defense related stocks like Lockheed Martin and Boeing jammed on reverse.  Those stocks that did well seemed to be ones that had been showing weakness, like Kimberly Clark, Hexcel, Trinity, and Insteel.  It is presumed that any portfolio will have stocks like these that were only randomly connected on a day like this.

Not having tuned in to any pundits today, what a relief, it can only be said that tomorrow will be a day to be watched.  For a reasonably well performing market, this one has had an unusual edge of uncertainty around it.  The techs have been bellweathers, and questions about consumer replacement cycles are out there with Apple.  Questions about higher capital expenditures surround Google, aka Alphabet, but the thought here is most investors do not have a good understanding of what this company is working on, and Google has always preferred it that way.

The question here is whether the consumer can keep up with the technology.  That consumer includes yours truly.  With wage growth still modest and wealth disparity still widening, with the efficacy of the education system broadly being an open question, is there a growing knowledge disparity as well.  Those are big questions which may be part of the market overhang.  And then there's Trump.

Valuations of property...

Due to events here, there is a need to have the value of our house assessed and the value of all items within the house assessed.  That is according to my attorney and is apparently necessary.  It seemed to be a straightforward request.

For assessing the value of the house, that was the case.  It took an hour and a half for an assessor to check out the important infrastructure elements like plumbing, electric, heating, and air conditioning, inside and out.  Square footage had already been documented and counting the rooms and their purpose was simple.  They could eyeball the condition of the house, which is fine since there had not had any major renovation from the time it was purchased in 1997.  The house was built in 1972 and we were the second owner.  In fact, while the appliances in the kitchen were updated substantially by necessity 13 years ago, the cabinetry did not change and the counters remained the original yellow original yellow laminate.  No marble countertops, shameful, or now deemed retro?  And actual wallpaper from 1972 remains in the hallway and kitchen.

Overall  that inspection was straightforward.  I do not yet know their conclusion, particularly since one of the most important aspects of this type of assessment is relative.  What the value is of comparable homes in this particular neighborhood and school district, as well as the walking or driving distance to the town and train station, is fundamental.  How does it fit in?

What was not at all straightforward was the valuation of the contents of the house.  Two women who are apparently specialists in this field, certified in some way, were joined by the attorney and spent more than four hours going through the house.  I stayed as quiet as possible, spoke when asked once or twice, and once offered an opinion when they were looking at an Ethan Allen knock off and admiring it as a fine antique.  Otherwise the attorney led them around, but their voices carried.

They opened cabinets and examined dishes packed in cases.  What apparently was Lenox china was examined and counted one by one, what was heavier Chinese china was looked at but not counted.  They removed everything from the den mantle and referred to some miniature chairs as collectors items as they did some small pottery items bought in Portugal in 1998.  Vases were inspected and large Chinese floor standing pottery was photographed.  Overheard once was "that is ivory?".  Whatever that was, was not, but my silence remained.  They photographed paintings on the walls, including two done by a daughter when she was eight.  A "Victorian chair"was repeatedly mentioned, and hopefully they were referring to the style and not the condition or age.  "This is Shaker" was overheard, an utterance that must have been meant to sound informed but was used in reference to Piedmont Virginia/North Carolina cabinets and dressers.  They oohed and aahed about a desk purchased by my father in the 1970's as if it were a pre-historic gem.

The results are awaited.  Our attorney told me that their conclusions do not need to be accepted, but that this needed to be done.  The outcome will be interesting.  One clear fact is that they really had a good time exploring the house and making their judgments.  The joy of a small power.  It felt like a violation of privacy.  That must be the timing of it all.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The focus on personal spending, sex, and pay-offs may be fine with the Trump adminstration

That's a long title for a post here.  The point is that a focus on Michael Cohen, Stormy Daniels, Tom Price, the Billy Bush interview, George Papadapolous, Michael Flynn, the firing of Comey, and multiple crude, uninformed, and callous comments by Donald Trump is playing into the hands of the Trump administration agenda.  Robert Mercer could not have written a better script.  The many important and dangerous things going on are in danger of being overshadowed, and a public not accustomed to drinking out of a fire hose to get their news could be fed up with it all.

The more important stories should be about the decimation of talent within various areas of government.  There has been some attention to the empty senior positions in the State Department around the world, and Michael Lewis had done reporting on the Energy Department and the Agriculture Department that is alarming but not unexpected.  Whether multiple positions are empty broadly within the government and inexperienced political hacks with more concern about lunch than policy are now rife is unfortunately likely.

U.S. foreign policy is now chaotic.  Trump apologists suggest that this is intentional, part of Trump's "art of the deal" intuition.  It should go unsaid that too much is at stake for this approach to be defensible.  We wait, watch, and try to focus on what's important.  Being diverted by unpleasant personal trivia may be newsworthy in the sense that it reliably attracts some segments of viewers and readers, but it underestimates the need for intelligent reporting that is required now.  One would like to think it underestimates the American people.

Enough bully pulpit, as if this blog has one.

Monday, April 16, 2018

A Sprint/T-Mobile merger...

A combination of Sprint and T-Mobile has been talked about for the last year.  Several discussions led to nothing and now they apparently are back at it.  On the face of it, this would be a good deal, and maybe a necessary deal.  Both firms are at a distinct disadvantage competing against the top two, AT&T and Verizon.  Both Sprint and T-Mobile are maintaining their customer bases, but with various types of discounts and special offers.  This will not set them up well to invest in new spectrum.

It is Japan vs. Germany, as Softbank's mercurial megalomaniac Masayoshi Son controls 85% of Sprint and Deutsche Telecom owns approximately 60% of T-Mobile.  Sprint's U.S. management seem to be corporate functionaries while T-Mobile is actively managed by the outspoken and at times controversial John Legere(always entertaining when infrequently interviewed on CNBC).  T-Mobile's stock is down 3% for the year while Sprint is off a material 30%.  The consummation of a merger is more about cosmetics that agree with both owners rather than the financial rationale for the transaction.

More than most deals, the costs that could be reduced by a merger, both overlaps and more market power in purchases, are attainable without wrenching change.  The creation of a third major wireless choice could reverberate beyond the U.S.  The window to get this done is closing as Trump's unpredictability will only grow.  At the moment, he has no beef with these two firms, and does publicly against the ATT/Time Warner combination.  One would think that whoever thinks for Trump would not want him to be seen as repeatedly obstructionist to economically advantaged mergers.

Now is the time.  This deal can be done, and it should be.  It should be noted that a speculative position in Sprint is held here.

Postscript:  In a way, this brings back the memory of my involvement in the merger of Manufacturers Hanover Trust and Chemical Bank in 1991.  They were two well known, even storied, names who did not have the critical mass to compete on their own.  They combined to have a fighting chance.  And the rest is...

Sunday, April 15, 2018

A trove of stamps...

In a binge of cleaning and sorting through old stuff, at the bottom of a drawer yesterday what amounts to a disorderly stamp collection was found.  They were always one of her many interests, but in recent years it had not been thought about.  Sheets of 29 cent Elvis stamps, 32 cent Nixon stamps, 22 cent Duke Ellington stamps, 32 cent James Dean stamps, Friendship with Morocco ones, 22 cent Enrico Caruso's, Knoxville World Fair(?) ones, clean sheet of Marilyn Monroe's, 29 cent Gene Kelly's, Francis Ouimet,  A. Philip Randolph, John Dewey, and Chinese New Year stamps from multiple years.  Those are the large aggregations.  There are numerous other small set of utilitarian stamps, 1 cent, 2 cent, 3 cent, four cent, and five cent, plus one two cent post card that must be from the 1950's.  Odds and ends are still being sorted, including stamps from Taiwan, China, and Columbia where there were family interests. 

There is much more to be done around this place.

Television tonight...

The program mentioned in the last post, "Killing Eve", is on BBCA at 8pm.  Eager for that one.  "Homeland" continues its season on Showtime at 9pm.  It's not as edgy as it once was, but still is superior to any network television, despite annoying aspects of the lead character.  At 10:30pm the quirky new HBO show "Barry" has its fourth episode, socially awkward assassin aspires to be an actor.  I guess the half hour break is for ice cream.

At times television is watched fretfully as a substitute for reading.  Tonight will be a welcome break from needing to chose.  The latest book can play its role after the programs.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Bits and pieces...

The following suggests too much television but here goes.

---The members of Congress interrogating Mark Zuckerberg about Facebook suggest that there is broad public outrage, by users and followers, over Facebook's actions.  The media pundits are suggesting the same.  What is the evidence of this?  It is unclear that this is true, and completely clear that the most of the members of Congress reading their staff written scripts have little idea of what they are talking about.  The use of Facebook is not in jeopardy.  The real risk is ill-conceived legislation.

---There is an exceptional new television series on of all places BBC America.  That's "Killing Eve", with Sandra Oh as an M15 intellegence agent who is tracking a lithe blond haired assassin for hire as she travels across countries for her hits.  Presumably the first episode will be replayed during the week.

---There are many advertisements on television for various prescription medications.  "Ask your doctor about...".  In the first instance this seems odd, but after promising relief for some terrible health problem the ads always close with multiple disclaimers.  Most have the ultimate disclaimer, such as "Don't take if you are allergic to Otesla(or choose your drug)".  How would you friggin' know?

---A  program is interrupted by a litany of wonderful events.  People helping others, dogs rescued, happy folks dancing in the streets as they go about their day, smiling faces and greetings at work, a crosswalk signal just passed, all is well... and then there will be a logo and a short statement about an insurance company, a tech giant, a drug company, or other corporate behemoth.  Is the message that they are secretly a non-profit working solely for the greater good?   It's a wonderful world.

---Not being a native New Yorker, I have the right to be for both New York baseball teams.  The Mets' start is attention worthy, and being a fan comes with the deed to a house on Long Island.  Are they really a good team?  We take what we can get.  Twenty minutes away on the LIRR, going to the stadium was once routine.  Do they really have a good manager again, good coaches?  This is promising...

---The posting of photos to Facebook continues from here.  If not now, when.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Berkshire Hathaway annual report 2017

Our annual report arrived today.  The extensive shareholder's letter of the past has been turned into three pages.  They concisely point out a few investing thoughts.  The firm is sitting on mountains of cash and could but almost anything, even a country, but Warren Buffett has always focused on one place(the U.S), one accounting regimen.  That and nothing else today focused on the GE rumors. 

With a short report, there were no zingers for the press to focus on: but a couple could be:  Referring to his investment colleague, "Both Charlie and I believe it is insane to risk what you already have and need in order to obtain what you don't need".  Or referring to a CEO who wanted a deal "the speadsheets  never disappoint".  Comments on expand on this.

His huge holdings of American Express and Bank of America remain, each advantaged by prior purchases.  Coca Cola remains a long term position.  Finance being Buffett's expertise, Wells Fargo and U.S. Bancorp are among the top four equity tradeable positions.  BKB is so much more that that with multiple owned companies.

Annual report still worth reading...

"The Edge of Seventeen", a film

This is a film about high school students, presumably meant to attract a young audience.  Finding it last night on Netflix and, looking not be terrorized by Trump, it was given a try.  Following somewhat in the "Juno" tradition, it develops into a well done contained bit of entertainment, which does not try to be more than that.  Strange as it may seem, there were many connections.  Teenage girls are remembered and the perils of isolation are part of the story.  If expectations are not high, this becomes a superb distraction.  The feel good ending was completely expected.  That's a necessity for this genre.  The general quality of the acting in this one was far above average.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Observations about Bank of America, and more market talk

The recently received 2017 Annual Report of Bank of America tells some stories, some intended and some maybe not.  The report is a throwback to annual reports as they traditionally were before brevity was favored after 2001 and austerity became the rule after 2008.  There is an opening 32 page glossy section of photos and happy talk.  Page 2 is a full page portrait of  CEO Brian Moynihan.  In this section there are 15 photos of women and 3 of men.  Investing and lending for lofty goals is a theme, as is sustainability and environmental issues.  This is a document that promotes ideals and the Chairman more than it does the financial performance of the firm. It goes unsaid that they can  choose to do this due to better performance and a significantly higher stock price after being in the doldrums for years.

What are the observations?  The photo of the CEO is a  red flag.  It is not a photo of a leader meeting with clients or talking to employees.  It is just his full page mug.  Supporters inside the firm would say that his leadership requires this, and that the PR, ad, and design firm folks recommended it.  Of course they did, because their real job is to intuit what the person that pays them wants.  Choosing to do this speaks of hubris, no way around it.  Hubris is rarely a positive.

The focus on ESG values, aka environmental, social, and governance focused investing, is to some extent laudable, but this annual report overwhelms.  "Responsible growth" is the mantra.  It could remind one of the now deposed Jeff Immelt of GE, who projected a saintly presence while managing, or not managing, an increasingly dysfunctional franchise.  There are multiple examples of the goodness of the bank, and to quote one, "I'm in a happy place now because Bank of America saved my life".  Again, it overwhelms.  If this felt like a priority to the company, one or two quotes from credible and well known outside observers or investors would have been a good idea. 

The proxy statement continues this push to greatness.  Proxy statements are traditionally viewed as fact based legal documents.  The section on election of directors has descriptions of each one, as is customary.  Moynihan, as a director, is described as being responsible for leading the "transformation" of the company and "conceiving" the drive for responsible growth.  The description is more opinion based than the norm.

To speak more broadly and project this approach to the large corporate market as a whole, it is a classic hallucination for companies and their leaders to view strong performance as personal achievement while ignoring an environment that allowed it to happen. It has been a positive period for large financial firms.  The best thing a CEO can do is not get in the way.  A sense of celebration and back slapping across corporate America is not a good sign.

Is this another peak market indicator...

Postscript:  a 6/5/07 post here described the annual report of a former North Carolina bank, Wachovia, and the profile of its CEO.  There are parallels.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Brief observations...

---The identical front page photo of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal on March 21 was one of Trump, sitting with the Saudi Crown Prince, holding up a poster board showing examples of how much Saudi Arabia has spent on U.S. made weaponry.  Is the message that the U.S. is for sale.

---The "fake news" that H.R. McMaster was on his way out was confirmed as true, as he was replaced as National Security Advisor by John Bolton.  Bolton is a strident right wing nationalist who served as an often unofficial roving global ambassadorial trouble maker in the Reagan and Bush administrations.  A combination of Trump and Bolton should be of enormous concern to all stable people.

---Trump continues with his incoherent trade policy as he announced large new tariffs on Chinese goods to be determined in 15 days.  Why plan ahead?  The media continues to mostly follow Trump's lead of not drawing a distinction between services, where the U.S. is strongest, and industrial and consumer goods which are sourced globally, with Asia being a major trading partner.

---So as not to address that distinction, the Trump nationalists are using "national security" as a crucial rationale for a trade war.  Upon signing today's order, Trump said that this was "the first of many more, many more."  Financial markets seemed to believe him.

Yesterday's comment on snow was premature

It continued to snow yesterday, slowly but consistently until the wee hours.  The plow guy came at 1am  to clean up the driveway and the walk to the front door.  There is a huge amount of somewhat damp snow on bushes and small trees in the yard.  Will there be some breakage?  That's possible.  It's a heavily overcast day now, with snow still flying around that is more likely from roofs and trees than the sky.  Who knows?  This was a morning surprise.  Will today's appointments be possible?  With effort, probably yes if parking lots are cleared.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Significant snow day not anticipated...

In talking with a friend from Virginia yesterday who inquired about the impending weather, my response was "it's not cold enough, only a slush storm that will not have much impact as recent mid- days have been in the high 30's."  Perhaps that was wrong. 

The snow is falling here at mid-day and the temperature is at 31 degrees.  The high is now forecast to be 33, and 12-18 inches of snow is the supposed expectation.  That I doubt, but my track record is deteriorating.  Today was planned to be a grocery shopping day to buy things that I wanted.  There is enough food here, but a surprising wrinkle developed.  Yesterday's dinner food was ordered from a pan-Asian restaurant that has always had reliably tasty food if one is in the mood for it.  It had been maybe a month since the last order.  Grilled steak and in the shell shrimp with mixed vegetables, brown rice,  pad thai, and hot and sour soup were excellent.  The portions were such that tonight's dinner and more were in the bag.  Then...

Last night I was climbing the walls on an hourly basis.  Sleep is never guaranteed these days but this was different.  Then the thought arose.  Could the sauce on the steak, shrimp, and vegetable dish have been cream of MSG.  That proclivity of the restaurant had been forgotten.  There is definitely enough food here, but choice is limited now.  The possibility of delivery from another place in this weather is unclear.

It does look like a perfect day to focus on tax returns, if there is ever a perfect day for that.  My father relished doing this type of project but the accounting enjoyment gene did not pass.  Still, after an hour or two of tedium all documents can be found(or deemed necessary to find), estimated tax payments totaled, charitable contributions added up, and the sum of village, county, and property tax payments done.  Will this get done, all bundled up and ready to hand over tax accountant?  Maybe... that's the intention.

Hmm... just looked out the front door.  The snow plow has come by already and piled up snow in front of the driveway entrances.  Does the Umberto's delivery guy have an SUV?

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Photographs on Facebook continue...

A February 17th post discussed the posting of photographs taking place at that time.  It continues.  With the extensive number of photos taken over the years when traveling or at events, it seems as if this is a way to digitize that past.  Who will ever look at the albums lining three shelves of a bookcase in the guest room and one in the den.  There may well be a better vehicle to do this than Facebook, but this is what is known here.  Photos could be sent individually by e-mail to those who might have interest and that has been done sporadically, but that would be a cumbersome and mostly ineffective approach.  For now FB seems to be it.

The fact that is has a limited reach to my desired audience is unfortunate.  Many close friends never latched on to FB.  At its beginning, it was driven by younger people.  Older age groups followed, but not in mass.  Some of my close friends tried it but were annoyed.  Who wants to make decisions about friend requests?   Why do I want to read trivia and everyone's opinion?  Who has access to this and how can it be used?  Each of those thoughts arose here, but joining in modestly was the approach taken.  Many long time friends had no time for it.  With the effort, or diversion, going on here, encouraging them to piggy back on to someone else's site and find the photos being posted is the best that can be done.

So as mentioned on 2/17, iphone now in hand and albums out, posts continue...

Saturday, March 17, 2018

A Saturday...

The morning newspapers did their job along with a few cups of Cafe du Monde coffee, the usual.  One notable article was the Barron's cover story, "The Costs of Caregiving".  This is nothing groundbreaking but it is a good summary of the possible emotional, physical, and financial stress of caregiving that may not yet have been internalized by many boomers.  Can only experience do that?  Are financial markets factoring in the ultimate impact of this on the broad consumer market?

 The NCAA tournament this afternoon offered no diversion as Villanova and Duke crushed weak opponents.  There was no spectacle like UMBC's win last night.  As they overwhelmed Virginia, the announcers rarely if ever mentioned the full name of the school.  UMBC?  That rail thin 5'7" guard ran the game against the big UVA team.

As has been usual in the last month or two, photo albums and books are being scoured and that leads to posts on Facebook.  This had rarely been my practice in the past, but it is now is a segue into what is already being done, and reinforces an activity that is almost like a treasure hunt.  It seems necessary.

Weekends are a time to assess financial markets and have led to commentary here.  At this point there is not a strong opinion about what lies ahead.  Is the recent volatility just a trader's short term dream, notice that I did not use a possible modifier, that belies a continued strong equity market.  That combined with almost Depression era level interest rates and the year and a half absence of vol suggests that there will be change.  The view here is that the equity market now will be driven by interest rates and foreign exchange, aka the dollar.  That is saying that overall corporate earnings will not be the issue but market valuation levels will be.  The thought remains here is that the market is more fragile that it appears.

Food coming from Misaki soon, a family owned Japanese restaurant  just down the hill that has been in town for 30 years now.  Salmon Teriyaki, brown rice, and New York roll(tuna and avocado) are on the way.  It is hoped that the basketball entertainment will be elevated for dinner.

And that's the story, Good Day.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament begins...

Some years this catches on here.  Lack of familiarity with many of the teams can be a problem, but if a few teams get on an unexpected roll, the excitement can build.  Upsets that would be liked here are Davidson over Kentucky, San Diego State over Houston, and UNC Greensboro over Gonzaga, the latter being the most unlikely.

Many of the usual basketball powers will be playing, but long time favorites Georgetown(went to college there) and Louisville(lived there in the 70's) are not.  Home area schools Virginia and North Carolina are clearly in the mix. 

Watched a bit of one of the preliminary games earlier and talent was not evident.  Time to check back in.

Sunday, March 04, 2018

Trump vs. Schumer, battle of the litens

The decision(aka intuitive personal reaction based on no information) by Trump to block further funding of the Hudson Tunnel infrastructure spending is unequivocally stupid.  This is the second time stupidity has reined here where parochial politics outweighs national interest---first time by everything wannabe Chris Christie blocking New Jersey's portion of funding two years ago.  Now traditional New York pol Chuck Schumer responds by trying to be the persona of Trump rejection.  His approach to negotiation in the first instance now is the press, the better to build his righteous stature.

While other countries have advanced rail systems and dedicated mostly commercial road networks, the stuck with 1950's innovation.  This can stay political but there is no glory on either side.  Long term programs so f'ing obviously need long term consistent commitment.  A vain idiot in the White House doesn't mean seeing this as a political opportunity.