Saturday, May 18, 2019

Mixed bag of comments...

---Today Cedric Klapisch's film "Chinese Puzzle" was watched, and it was better than remembered when it was seen at the town theater in 2014, and I liked it then.  The third film in this trilogy finds Xavier in Manhattan, and the depiction of the city is exceptional, both thematically and visually.  With quirks like Schopenhauer and Hegel showing up to give the protagonist advice, plus multiple characters in large and minor roles that are all interesting, and two especially capable child actors, the two hour film seems to end too soon.  How it all tied together is sort of brilliant.  With large portions  set in areas of lower Manhattan that are so well known here, it was personally compelling. Yeah, still liked the film, a lot.

---As a sporadic but committed viewer of the four major golf championships, the PGA title event seems off kilter this year being played in May.  As has been the trend in professional golf, players with no personality are among the leaders, talk about Brooks Koepka and Jordan Spieth.  At least Justin Thomas did not make the cut but that was the fate of the character Bubba Watson as well.  Tony Finau, a recent favorite, is not in contention.  Tiger Woods did not show up, well he was there but probably still rattled by the broad ill will hoodoo coming his way after his widely publicized photos receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Trump.  Apart from his cozy relationship with the man, it reminds us that there are few redeeming characteristics of Woods other than his exceptional golf game and commitment to physical fitness.  No prior description of this award suggests that he deserved it. He left New York immediately to head back to Floridan on his massive yacht.  It does appear that his commitment to good works and charitable giving is on a par with Trump.

---New York Mayor Bill DiBlasio has joined the Democratic presidential rave.  While advocating some good causes and implementing a couple, he is a limited man who has also shown himself to be for sale.  What next, will John Edwards attempt a comeback?

---From afar, events in Venezuela seem dire, and prospects poor.  Nicolas Maduro was the bad guy to Hugo Chavez's good guy, if that routine could be imagined.  His only driving belief is to stay in power, as there are no longer many buses left to drive. This country is being, maybe already has been, destroyed.  An estimated three million people have already walked over the border.  The supposed opposition leader is Juan Guaido, but as in much of Latin American history the "good guys" are the elite, members of the privileged class.  Maybe six months ago, one news organization, not remembered which one here, did interviews with Guaido in Venezuela.  One was at his home and was sort of like a lifestyles of the rich and famous tour as well as an interview focused on the situation there.  The house would not have been out of place in the best neighborhoods of Miami.  Guiado is not exactly a man of the people.  His call for the people to rise up last week was a complete flop.  In fact, the military seems to have the same rationale to hang on as Maduro.  They have food and protection.  Outcome unclear, but this will end soon.  Russia cannot be seen as supporting the starvation and destitution.

---The stock market is holding up, but it is now a trader's market.  Volatility leads to opportunity but fragility exists.  Companies that have the most recent meaningful price increases are most vulnerable to sharp downturns, especially mid-sized companies in the tech space.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

By default...

"A professional writer, by definition, is a person clothed in self-denial who each and almost every day will plead with eloquent lamentation that he has a brutal burden on his mind and soul, and will summon deep reserves of "discipline" as seriatim antidotes to any domestic chore, and, drawing the long sad face of the pale poet, will rise above his dread of his dreaded working chamber, excuse himself from the idle crowd, go into his writing sanctum, shut the door, shoot the bolt, and in lonely sacrifice turn on the Mets game."    ---   from "The Patch", among previously unpublished writing of John McPhee, published 2018.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

The last baseball game

Generally speaking, there are two times each year when the game of baseball might be focused on.  First is at the beginning of the year when hopes are that the Mets might have a good team.  The second is in the fall playoffs, especially if a favorite has evolved into contention.  Barely hanging onto this first period now, thoughts about baseball while pretending to sleep led to a memory of my last participation in organized baseball, with uniforms, umpires, and people in the stands, such that they were.

That was 1961, in a game between the Little League all stars of the north side and south side of town, as determined by a river.  The game was played at a field somewhere on the north side that was well maintained and had bleachers that were permanent.  Representing the south side, I was the lone participant from my team, Jaycees.  In the minor leagues, third and fourth grades, of my year we had been in contention.  At the next level, fifth and sixth grades,  we had been second tier, meaning we won some games but never against the best teams.

My positions varied.  In minor leagues it was either pitcher or first baseman.  In the majors, it was pitcher or right field.  As a pitcher, my strong point was varying the speed of the pitch.  In little kid terms, I threw the ball hard enough but was no Don Drysdale.  As a first baseman, understanding the game was important so I was not bad.  As a right fielder I was dismal.  How do you pay attention out there?

I was not a starter in my last game.  As it progressed we were losing and my value was questionable.  Our pitchers were not doing that well, so one of the coaches, Buddy's father I think, took me out along the sidelines in the shadows above first base for a warm up of sorts.  He exhorted me to throw it hard, but in that near dark area I was afraid that he would not be able to see it so I held back.  Looking back it is easy to see how laughable that was.  I did not enter the game as a pitcher.

The game came down to the final possible out.  We still had a chance but were maybe two or three runs down. I was the only player that had not yet played for the team so the coaches did what they felt was the right thing to do, and it was the last thing that I wanted.  They put me in to pinch hit.  The pitcher was throwing the ball harder than anything I had ever faced.  Had he been held back.  My only goal was to get my bat on the ball in any way possible.  I fouled the ball once almost directly right before striking out.

Organized baseball career over.  I did play successfully in an informal softball league in 1970's Louisville, having learned to love playing left field, looking forward to any chance.  And for some reason I had turned into a left handed hitter with some power.  What an American game.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Short takes...

---Elon Musk sent a tweet today calling out Jim Cramer on some issue.  That allowed the blowhard Cramer to act like he was a player of consequence.  Musk is losing it for some reason, as he takes issues raised about Tesla personally.  Meanwhile his SpaceX achievements are just bizarrely remarkable, out of this world.  Wish I could go back in time and offer some investor and public relations advice.

---The media ready economists, pundits, and some pols look at the solid first quarter GDP growth and the opportunity for job and wage growth as signs that all is well with the world.  Meanwhile, back at the ranch, aggregate numbers do not reflect the broad problems with this society.  What kind of jobs and what kind of wages?  $15 an hour, whoopee we're all gonna die.  Ray Dalio of Bridgewater Capital is the clearest intelligent voice in the investment community on this issue.

---Citibank was for years viewed as bank of fiefdoms, such that mismanagement was rife.  Little has changed it seeems.  After almost two years, today I finally was able to get a credit card that was no longer needed cancelled.  Phone calls endured, documents sent, and for the last two months tortured by daily robo calls on the issue that left a number to call that was answered by robots.  Today, finally I hope, the disheartening calls were finally put to an end.  Believe it or not, I just kept saying supervisor, then yelling supervisor into phone, and finally some kind of grace intervened.  Just 30 more minutes on the phone and finally the calls for Kathy will stop.

---And now for today's the mattress saga, highly abbreviated.  It is unclear if quality mattresses are made anymore, or at least offered for sale here.  After an autumn foray with Raymour and Flannigan, a Long Island furniture empire with all of the integrity of Fifth Avenue camera shops, the corporate  Macy's nearby was determined to be the answer.   Stearns and Foster was purchased in December without regard for getting a bargain, and what was meant to be ultra firm would may have passed muster in Motel 6.  Returned that in March for a supposed major upgrade but still not quite right, and last night it just imploded at 4am.  So a long day of phone calls and transfers followed and resolution seems unclear near term.  Corporate rigidity, rules, and scripted responses.  The "craftsman" can come on Tuesday(Wimpy)  I may as well have been talking to India.  A time stamp message was left on my attorney's machine, silly maybe?.  American quality?

---Meschiya Lake's short Jazzfest video today with baby daughter Scoots and her hubby is worth watching.  They are so happy.  Find it if you can.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019


Trump consistently does awful things.  This is not what our country is, but it is what resentment has created.  How this sorts out is unclear.  All of the stats about the economy are averages, and do not take into account a material part of the people that are not doing that well.  And many of them, of all things, support the dismal Trump.  This can be explained of course, but explanation is not needed.  A touch of empathy would help, and big dose of plain old historical knowledge would as well.  We now have a relatively uninformed country.  Or is it just a strange unique American style of nihilism that has overtaken a portion of the population.  That would have at least premise of a thought process behind what's happening rather than just a television dazed population that doesn't read much more than menus. 

That's getting out of control.

Tuesday, April 09, 2019

"Host of Memories", by Peter Lighte

This book by a former banking colleague was published in 2015, but I only recently became aware of it here.  His first short book of essays, Pieces of China, from 2009, was entertaining, informative, and offbeat.  This second book is a series of personal vignettes, from childhood through college and eventually to that banking career.  The sequencing of the varied stories is not exact, which simply means that it leads to interesting overlaps.  "Host of Memories", subtitled "Tales of Inevitable Happenstance", maintains the same qualities as his first, but has only a few sustained pieces that could be referred to as an article or an essay.  For the most part, what is written here could be called pieces of a puzzle that is eventually solved.

Much of the book revolves around a somewhat eccentric extended Jewish family from the Bronx.  That was interesting as it turns into a history of what was experienced in the boomer years by all, as seen from a very New York perspective.  Particularly of interest here was the years that Peter spent at the bank.  We joined Manufacturers Hanover within months of each other and overlapped in training programs.  It was an era of rapid bank growth in international business aspirations, and hiring of older recruits with that interest was not uncommon.  Peter was among several hires either with or working on PhD's in area studies that were hired.  My masters degree from the fortunately overrated Thunderbird landed me there at the age of 31, a few years younger than Peter and a few other of the PhD guys like Chris, Chip, others as well.

As "Host of Memories" develops there are mentions of people that were known, people that I worked with, or people much more senior.  An important aspect of this is that Peter had what at the time might have been called an alternative lifestyle that, while not hidden, was not exactly open in business circles.  Peter mentions the "formidable John McCarthy", a big guy who as a Senior Vice President ruled over my first division in the bank from a large corner office.  Outwardly stern, when he walked through the floor to his office everyone generally sat up straight and looked busy.  Taking a proposal into his office for approval was approached by most with trepidation.  My boss was intimidated by him.  That was 1982.  I took a proposal in without waiting for my boss and found an intelligent person who was completely encouraging, and approved my loan extension  McCarthy soon after move to a major position in the London office.  He was part of a group unknown to me at the time.

In the book most full names of bankers are not used, but it was fascinating to learn that one the most senior leaders of the overall bank was part of this group, a tall Brit with a unique sense of humor who was an excellent public speaker.  Other bankers are mentioned, straight or not, some that were borderline nitwits and others that were smart but freeloaders on the company's less than stellar cost controls at that time.  It was interesting reading, and how it would seem to those not familiar with the company at that time can't be known.

Following up on Peter now, I of course went to Google and found that he has a website.  There I was shocked and pleased to find that in a short section about his first book, a portion of my commentary about it here on eyesnotsold was quoted.  There was my name.  It made me remember that he knew Kathy as well from her international HR job, and when he became aware of our relationship he referred to her as "a good egg".  That was his type of language.

Peter retired from JPM a few years ago as Chairman of the bank in China, maybe some other title as well.  This was great reading here of course.  There are multiple reasons that others could find it of interest.

Sunday, April 07, 2019

The Street Philosophy of Garry Winogrand, essays by Geoff Dyer

This hefty book of photographs is worth dealing with its weight, both visually and editorially.  There are 100 photographs, each accompanied by a short essay. These explications by Dyer bring the art of photography into a perspective that is easily accessible.  They can be technical, they can be humorous, they can involve current events, historical events, often just be a discussion of what is in the photo but not necessarily obvious to the viewer.

Parts of a bookcase can accommodate large books, and were for years holding mainly books of paintings, books inherited or purchased with the purpose of having access to works of art here.  They were occasionally looked at and useful for reference and for education.  Mostly they were ornamental, reassuring to look at the spines.  New additions were rare.  But then...

Perusing Amazon last year, photography books became interesting.  The economics of these books is unclear, seemingly expensive to produce and to ship.  Not my problem, they can be wonderful finds.  The Bronx born and raised Winogrand traveled widely, and he photographed a range of people in surroundings that accentuate their uniqueness.  The multi-faceted writer Dyer, novelist, historian, critic, observer, has long been a favorite here.  Everything he has written is here and has been read, at times commented on.

To act like a reviewer --- if you only buy one photography book, buy this one.

Monday, April 01, 2019

Conglomerate busting...

Ten years of equity market growth have carried most major U.S. conglomerates along steadily if not spectacularly.  In the last year or so, some have not fared so well, and a few of those are well known.  Most notable was GE, an example of gross mismanagement and leadership arrogance.  The latest has been Kraft Heinz, caught without a swimsuit when the tide went out.  Most, however, have fared well enough given expectations of conservative investors, but not up to a market level performance.

As an example, check out 3M, that's MMM stock symbol.  Good ole scotch tape, but so many other things.  There are four divisions:  safety and industrial, transportation and electronics, healthcare, and consumer.  Below these are several hundred products and brands.  The dividend yield is currently 2.7% and the stock price is up 5.3% over the last year, versus 9.5% for the S&P 500.

MMM's top ten mutual fund holders are all index funds, usual suspects but rarely is there a clean sweep.  Who loves MMM?  The largest institutional holder is State Farm Mutual, an insurance company in the Chicago area, makes sense for them one could guess.  Up in the leave us alone state of Minnesota all may be well, but over time every great company needs to compete for capital and just as importantly, if not more so, talent.

Other conglomerates such as Johnson & Johnson, Honeywell, United Technologies, Comcast, Disney, Lockheed Martin, Dow Chemical, and many others work within a specific industry group but own multiple companies.  What a conglomerate is in technology is still being figured out.  Is Alphabet a conglomerate?  Probably, but please explain. Elsewhere, is Berkshire Hathaway a conglomerate?  Not really, as it is uniquely more like a mutual fund that owns independent companies for the long term.

So what is this comment about.  The coming phase in financial markets will be breaking up these huge companies into freestanding independent ones with their own stock, their own compensation systems tailored to their unique businesses and not tethered to "the blob" of a massive company.  That's key. Conglomerates with managements that are open to this concept could be exceptional long term investments.

All things being equal, identifying those managements that are willing to giving up size and power in return for higher shareholder returns is an investor's job now.  Up in the 3M territory folks might not like to hear that, but the next Carl Icahns will eventually find you up in the North Country fair. 

There is no new or original thought in this post, just an opinion about the timing of using it.

On a completely different subject, LYFT would be a buy here in the mid to high 50's, otherwise pass.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Should I call Vinny? Plus a postscript...

This seems like an era that once existed is returning.  Recently on cable programs here, a periodic advertiser has been A.G. Morgan Financial Services.  Based in the financial center of Massapequa, Long Island, the firm offers a guaranteed 9% one year return, "insured by an insurance company", that makes sense.  At the beginning, an older woman states that she wants to be secure in her retirement for obvious reasons(photos of loved ones), that makes sense, and she looks to A.G. Morgan.  Then the Chairman and CEO comes on, that's Vincent J. Camarda, assertive guy, nice tan, and explains that with just $25,000 you can become a client and start an account.  "At A.G. Morgan, we manage over $250 million" and you can be part of our family.

After that the retired older woman comes back on and says "I trust Vinny", that makes sense.

This is ripe. Does this make sense?  That return today is difficult to "guarantee".  What insurance company would guarantee this?  How much capital is at the vaunted A.G. Morgan?  Reminds one of A.G. Edwards or J.P. Morgan?  Just a wild guess but that's the whole point.  Have the networks vetted this advertisement or are they required to do so?

If this is remotely legitimate, that could be just part of the game.  Do they want older people living on fixed incomes to call, and share their vital financial information and who knows what else?  Is this predatory advertising?  First Jersey Securities all over again.

Google shows that this is an eight person shop(bucket?).  Four answer the phone, one is an accountant, and three have some financial experience.  Should I call Vinny?

3/29 Postscript:   Further research on Mr. Camarda includes this comment by an investment adviser information sight --- "Vincent works as a financial adviser at AG Morgan where he has several pending lawsuits against him for misappropriation of funds, conspiracy to commit fraud, and embezzlement."  There is no way to confirm the accuracy of that statement, but at a minimum someone is a bit disgruntled.   On another sight about working environments at investment advisory firms, the number one "pro" of working for Vinny is "complete loyalty leads to higher pay", while the number one "con" is "the CEO tells his employees about his personal life in great detail including his romantic life."  What a guy.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

"Testimony", a memoir by Robbie Robertson

This book was published in 2016 and when the paperback came out in 2017 Amazon delivered it here.  At that time, the reading began but the book did not seem to have any real point of view, or coherence.  It was --- then I went here, then I did that, then I met so and so, and on and on.  After a few chapters, it was put down in a stack on the kitchen table, a reading spot.  Reading places gather books.  There is a small stack on my bedside table, more on the floor beside the bed.  There are several stacks next to the living room chair, and another stack next to the chair in the sitting area upstairs in front of the television.  That's an aside meant to suggest that books accumulate here.  "Testimony" had been among the accumulated that did not deserve a place on a bookshelf as having been read.

In fact, for probably the last six months, it had been the paperback that had just enough heft to be used to hold open hardback books that were being read at lunch.  It was useful.  A few days ago it was serving that purpose when a book was finished, and my lunch not finished.  What to do?  Read "Testimony".  I turned randomly to a page in the middle of the book and began reading, for an hour or more, lunch long done. Everyone in 1960's music seems to be in this book.  Lots of accounts of events with Dylan, and daily experiences with him, but also everyone from Mike Bloomfield and Paul Butterfield  and on to Jimi Hendrix at the beginning, before he went to London and became famous. The Beatles, John, Paul, George, and Ringo of course, are popping up from time to time.  Edie Sedgewick, Andy Warhol, Nico, that crowd as well.  The Chelsea Hotel shows up as the dominant digs for many. How about a trip with Bob to visit Salvador Dali at his suite in the St. Regis on 55th.  It all comes across like a circle of friends and acquaintances in everyday circumstances.

Looking back, here comes a generalization,  warning as they are never fair but often have some validity.  Robbie Robertson and The Band are from Canada. When traveling over the years, I developed a view of Canadians as pleasant people, nice observers.  When talking they did not voice any strong opinions.  Almost all Americans do.  Big difference.  In the past, whenever meeting Canadians they were viewed as boring because of that, even in business situations.  This book has a touch of that quality that was once an unfair internal generalization.  It is a litany of events, so many events and people from page to page that it is like that old saying, "trying to drink water from a fire hose." The writing mostly presents events with little interpretation.

That accepted, I now see that this as a pretty exceptional book.  Recommended to fans of music from that era, and what lived on. 

Thursday, March 14, 2019

A candidate that the media wants to love...

Beto O'Rourke has finally deigned to let us know that he is running for the Democratic Party nomination for President, essentially saying that it is his destiny.  After six years in Congress with few accomplishments of note, and a losing campaign against a man who has breached the bipartisan divide in the Senate as almost no one in either party likes Ted Cruz.  Beto wants to smile his way to the White House.  Does he want to visit every diner in America, a man of the people filming hotel lobbies across the country.  He comes across here as just odd.

In 2007 when Barack Obama began what at first seemed like an improbable run for the Democratic nomination, much of the allure was his skill at public speaking.  Whatever one's political persuasion, most could see that he was talented, capable of making seemingly impromptu remarks in complete sentences with extensive knowledge of issues and policy.  In 2019 when Beto speaks, that is not the case.  Maybe his good speeches or remarks must have been missed here, but what has been seen is a randomly strung together stream of consciousness rant, saying mostly good things in an incoherent way.  Has he done the work?

As is now known by those who follow the political news, he grew up in a wealthy politically connected Texas family.  He is an entitled rich boy who has nice locks and good teeth but that does not yet make him a Kennedy.  He is also not a scruffy upstart starting from scratch.  That he played in some sort of punk rock band does not make him a rebel and does not make him part of the cognoscenti. It's just his version of Bill Clinton playing the saxophone, the fat boy who couldn't play sports.

Obama may have been brilliantly calculating, but it was not that apparent in the beginning.  He came across as idealistic but genuine.  Beto's ploy seems almost grotesquely obvious.  He is joining the increasingly large pack of Democrats who believe that anyone can grow up to be President.  Note, not everyone can be President.  We still await Biden's announcement, and Hillary will stand by her phone if this turns into complete chaos by early 2020.  Bill de Blasio is still teasing us with his reticence, just waiting for Chirlane to tell him when the news cycle is right.

This has been a somewhat cynical ramble.  If polls are remotely accurate, Trump should lose.  Been there, done that haven't we.   More to come...

Monday, March 04, 2019

Is this real? The CPAC rant...

The Conservative Political Action Committee has become an event of consequence in these strange days.  There have been various parts of Trump's CPAC speech watched and the question that comes to mind is, "Is this really happening?"  Did the President of the United States really come out on stage and wrap his arms around the American flag, grinning like the Cheshire Cat.  My first thought was Groucho Marx.  All Trump needed was a stogie in one hand as he nodded his head up and down.

The two hour rant has been covered by everyone so no need to get into that sweaty mental breakdown that was visible to all.  Every personal slight felt over two years was reviewed.  Every falsehood repeated.  Yet, apparently 46% of polled voters probably liked it, maybe felt vindicated in some way.  How to understand it?  Resentment is unleashed?  Evangelical righteousness is rewarded?  The elites will be sent to the woodshed by some sort of virtuous billionaire, tax cheat, on and on it could go, But it does not matter in the least.

That 46% is from the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll of voters.  That's an approval rating that is close to a high for Trump and 5% higher than it was the week before the election in 2016.  Issues are not the issue.  It is deeper than that.

Many may think that this is containable, just routine politics roiled by an unpredictable character.  This is not routine.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Explain this market?

First, is it possible that a major U.S. based company with $51 billion of shareholders equity versus $31 billion of long term debt could see its share price drop by 30% in one day due to a $10 billion writedown of intangible assets, meaning accounting but not cash items?  That's a stock price drop from $48 to $34.  Two, is it also possible that the Oracle of Omaha owns 26% of this in Berkshire Hathaway?  Three, is it also possible that this company owns many revered American and, yes, global brands like Jello, Cheez Whiz, Kool Aid, Velveeta, A-1 Steak Sauce, Oscar Mayer wieners, Grey Poupon, Tang, Clausen Pickles, all of those delicacies and many more, plus Heinz Ketchup?  The company obviously is KHC, the food conglomerate Kraft Heinz.

Almost unbelievable for those first two questions, but maybe not on that last one.  One could wonder how much more it would have collapsed without the always necessary ketchup.  There must have been those in the market who knew enough about this company's issues, but real securities analysts are hard to find these days.  At least a few who had done some old style research, like check the stores?  Guess not, and certainly the company must be credited for knowing how to keep a secret, although that's a double edged sword.

It has been a remarkably complacent market recently, but this was quite a rumble under the surface.  Why does the phrase "canary in a coal mine" come to mind?

Also in the day's market news, Square's earnings announcement this morning was met with derision and head shaking by pundits and news readers on CNBC, and traders(not investors) jumped on board.  The stock fell from its Wednesday close of $79.30 to $74.50 in the first half hour today.  After smarter folks studied and digested the numbers, the price rose to $82.70, and closed by the end of the day at $81.42.  That's an almost 10% trading range for the day, a big range especially when it's not one directional.

Complacent market?  One could wonder.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

"The Incendiaries", A Novel by R.O. Kwon

This is not a linear novel.  It can move between time periods from paragraph to paragraph.  Conversation is described rather than following the time worn convention of punctuation.  The three main characters have stream of consciousness descriptions of events that overlap with each other helter skelter.  Events backtrack. The future is foretold. Her first novel is a wonderful ride.

When first considering this book, I wondered if it could be like Suki Kim's first novel in 2003, "The Interpreter".  It was and it wasn't.  Kim's exceptional tale rang so true that it seemed almost like a memoir, not only explicit places and events but personal relationships as well.  As time would show, she never wrote another novel and while some of the events in "The Interpreter" were definitely fiction, others were unlikely to have been. It almost felt like I had met her.  Kim did and does continue to write non-fiction, both essays and journalistic reporting.

Kwon's book feels like it is based on experienced events as well, personal, watched, or extrapolated.  Well, I guess that pretty much fits the term for fiction but there are parts that seem precisely real.  For some reason, it reminded me of reading Jerzy Kosinski's "Steps" in 1973, sitting on a the veranda of a cliffside stone house in Grand Cayman owned by a Kentucky Senator.  Kosinski's seemingly random assemblage of short strange tales were incomprehensible in a way, viewed as written by a writer with an Eastern European sense of humor to charm the unknowing literary establishment.  Still, it was entertaining, and reading on that deck was also incomprehensible.

The writing by Kwon is exceptionally entertaining, turns of phrase that are completely unexpected but perfect show up regularly.  Insights are not forced on the reader.  They just happen.  So that's what I think, and this short book will be read again soon to see what it's like when not read in one night.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Amazon says goodbye New York, New York...

"Give us the three billion and we'll invest it" said Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez earlier.  She was referring to the incentives that New York state and city had agreed to give Amazon to build an East Coast headquarters and hire 25,000 people in Long Island City, Queens.  The young activist media magnet was talking trash.  There is no three billion sitting around.  Those were primarily tax abatements related to future earnings of Amazon.  They don't exist without the deal.

The hugely ambitious State Senator Michael Gianaris, another major opponent of the deal said, "Even by their own words, Amazon admits they will grow their presence in New York without their promised subsidies."  Yes, they will, maybe as many as five thousand jobs in the coming years in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Staten Island.  They are already in the Tribeca part of Manhattan and have a huge sorting facility on Staten Island.

Mayor Bill de Blasio, a well meaning and accomplished nitwit, said, to paraphrase, we gave Amazon the opportunity to work with the community and they threw it away.  What he actually said made less sense.

On January 31st, a post here on ENS, "Confused... equities, buildings, and jobs", briefly discussed the Amazon HQ opportunity and among other things said "Five minutes further out on the 7 Train there are tons of workers who would welcome these jobs."  That is unequivocally true. Many parts of Queens are not uniformly prosperous, as you survey a mosaic of Chinese, Dominican, Indian, Greek, Albanian, and many other Mets loving communities.

Governor Andrew Cuomo could not help himself, so disappointed that he told the truth, saying, "A small group of politicians and activists put their own narrow political interests above their community...", debatable opinion but a correct one.

When a major part of the outcry came down to a simple sound bite about one incentive being either the City agreeing to allow the rights for Amazon to build helipads on their buildings(NYT) or the City paying for the helipads(television commentators), small potatoes in the scheme of it all, the agreement became more troubled.  The thought here is that those politicos who opposed the deal and inflamed indignation saw it as a political win win.  Oppose, get recognition, claim responsibility for expected Amazon concessions, get national attention for standing up for the working people, and enhance their personal political futures.

Unfortunately it was not a game.  This is a huge lost opportunity.  That cannot be understated.  Young people growing up in the classic tenements in many parts of Queens and studying in the run down school systems have had a dream snatched away.  You can bet that their are more computer and tech savvy young workers in that area than anywhere near Arlington, Va. or Nashville, without question.

The enhancements were not unusual or grotesque.  They are an imperfect part of the process.  It could have worked.  Amazon decided that the harassment would not stop.  Game over.

Thursday, February 07, 2019

Bank merger classic, BBT and STI

In this placid environment for most banks, meaning one of reasonable earnings and limited credit risk, the merger of Atlanta based SunTrust and Winston Salem based BB&T is a confederate combination, not of dunces but of bankers.  The rationale is the classic expense reduction through reducing overlaps in personnel, locations, and functions. If there are locations of each bank near each other, now one can be a Kentucky Fried Chicken, a win win for customers, original or crispy.

BBT is acquiring STI, and both are benefitting in today's market, BBT up almost 4% as the acquirer and STI up around 10% as the acquired.  Both being up underscores market approval.  Both banks already pay a dividend above 3%.  The largest discretionary institutional holders of STI are multiple funds of L.A. based Capital Group, JPM Mid-Cap Value Fund, and Vanguard/Windsor II.  For BBT, the comparable large holders are San Francisco based Dodge and Cox, First Eagle Mgmt., and Delaware Group Value, as if they did anything else.

They chose a new headquarters location, in Charlotte, HQ home of BofA and a large part of Wells Fargo.  A new headquarters location is a bit unusual, but Charlotte has the critical mass of bank type employees, to draw from and fire into.  That will certainly be no solace to Winston Salem, whose tobacco imperialism has long been diminished.  Home prices are already dropping there, just a guess.

Another classic aspect of this merger is that one bank's CEO, that of BBT, will stay for two years and then be replaced by the STI CEO.  One major difference though.  The acquirer's CEO leaves after two years?  It's usually the other way around.  That may be age related but experience suggests that once the deal is closed, nothing about this is guaranteed, it's not legally required.  Experience suggests that this is cosmetic to alleviate the challenges of integration.  SunTrust folks, don't bet the ranch on your guy being in charge one day.

Then there's the issue of a new name.  SunTrust seems as if it could be a possibility for a southern bank, but being the acquired one means that cannot work.  Branch Bank and Trust lacks something of a cachet, everything in fact.  So what works?  SunBranch, of course not.  Bojangles, already taken.  Atlas Banking Corporation, there's one for Cato Institute fans who populate BBT.  Who knows?  Is that the most interesting thing about this merger?

Of course not, for shareholders of these two firms today's share price gains are extremely interesting.  Not one here.

Monday, February 04, 2019

Dueling op-eds in the NYT

On the surface, it may seem as if two op-ed's in the New York Times today, one by David Leonhardt and the other by Charles Schumer and Bernie Sanders, are both on the same track of creating a more fair economic system.  However, there are differences.  For starters, one is intelligently written and one is not.

Leonhardt discusses the tax system in his piece "It's Radical Not to Tax The Rich More."  A few of his arguments are questionable, but most are fact based.  He focuses on variables like education, healthcare, technological change, property tax, and the issue of minimally taxed generational wealth.  He addresses the societal implications of disparities that have become increasingly apparent.

Meanwhile, Schumer and Sanders begin their comment, "Workers Before Buybacks" by promoting the fantasy of the beneficence of the mid-20th century when enlightened CEO's and better regulation created a prosperous America for working people.  That is a preposterously broad based statement that ignores many facts about that time period. Starting the discussion of buybacks in that way undercuts what might have been a better discussion.  Stock buybacks can be beneficial but they can also be destructive.  Buybacks in the place of overpriced acquisitions are a great check on management hubris while buybacks instead of needed investment to grow a company can be harmful.

Companies that squander capital to aid a CEO's manifest destiny to be bigger and bigger often end up in the hands of hostile acquirers, who then come in and lay off workers, cut paychecks, reduce benefits, and streamline operations in a way that disrupts communities.  Just ask Wilbur Ross how to do that.  Buybacks would have been better in those situations so the Wilburs' don't attack.

The point is that the Schumer and Sanders piece is a massive oversimplification that panders to the public rather than informs.  Schumer is a career politician and Sanders admits his preference for a socialist approach that is not affordable without major disruption.  The facts that they point out about income and wealth disparities are correct, but their argument is not credible.

So step aside guys, you've done enough.  Let others have more exposure, and put your feet up.  It's cold outside, time for a toddy.

Saturday, February 02, 2019

"Danny Says", a music film worth watching

This film from 2016 had a limited release, suggesting that it was not a success.  Found on Netflix, it was worth a try.  It was not an especially well put together film, started without much of an introduction and ended abruptly.  There were references to sex acts and preferences, and frequent episodes of drug use, not blatantly explicit but there.  Those aspects may have contributed to its cool reception at theaters.  It's a terrific film, great footage of performances(a Martha and the Vandellas clip rocked) and low key humor throughout.

Danny Fields was an impresario of various offbeat 60's rock bands and 70's punk bands, the more startling the better.  He was part of the downtown Andy Warhol crowd and became a promoter and manager, as well as an almost partner in crime of many musicians.  Music was not his talent but he could recognize it in others, and push it further to the edge and have insight into how best to get attention.  There were Jim Morrison, Iggy Pop, The Stooges, Lou Reed, Nico, Patti Smith, MC5, Alice Cooper, The Ramones, The New York Dolls, and others, but he worked with some that were more mainstream like Judy Collins.  He was a close friend of era's favorite femme fatale Edie Sedgewick and was a longtime friend of Linda McCartney, having worked with her photography when she was Linda Eastman.

Fields is interviewed in a way that makes him the narrator of the film and, while never overtly cracking a joke, his descriptions of what was going on are entertaining, with a lower east side Jewish sense of humor that is hard to describe, is it the acceptance of the inexplicable.  Laughing when no one else is around can seem strange but this did it.

At first, it was not clear that this film was going to work, but patience was rewarded.  Fields is still out there, promoting an East London punk band at last report.  He would now be 79.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Confused... equities, buildings, jobs...

---Amazon's choice of New York's Long Island City for a primary east coast location, split with D.C., continues to arouse opposition in that neighborhood and beyond, and on the New York City Council.  Demands for an agreement to recognize a union from the outset are rife.  With hourly wages at a minimum estimated by the company to be between $17 and $23 an hour, in an area of Queens that has few such jobs, shouldn't that be welcome.  Things will change.  The immediate area around Amazon will be developed.  But think about this.  Five minutes further out on the 7 train there are tons of workers who would welcome those jobs.  For the highly skilled tech jobs, many will live in Manhattan or close to the facility.  The pols want attention, their take.

---A city commission of unknown patricians wants to make The Strand a "landmark" building.  The owners of The Strand, the iconic New York City bookstore, want no part of it.  The actual building is typical of its area, at 12th street and Broadway.  The owner says "leave me alone".  Being a landmark building has significant burdens.  All construction or improvements of any type, interior or exterior, would need to be approved by this commission.  It is an incredibly tedious process.  Kathy's father owned a landmark building downtown.  When the area was not so safe, he put a steel door at the front.  The Commission objected.  He had tenants that he wanted to be safe and businesses there as well.  It was unpleasant, he was fined, but did not give in.  The harassment continued until the building was eventually sold.  Last I looked a few years ago, the new owners had not improved or touched the building, and there were no permanent businesses there at the time, a historic building in inventory.

---The stock market is befuddling, at least here that's the only clear thought.  Up today, what's next tomorrow.  Banks down today.  Visa down 4% and Master Card up 3%, two similar mid-cap tech stocks invested in a few months ago have been different, one up 40% since then, the other down 15%.  Five small to medium cap techs bought on a day in December when I was bored(DBX,  DXC, ON, SQ, SPOT) were in the aggregate down 30% two weeks ago and now are up 15%.  PYX, a recent addition mentioned here previously, bounces like a ping pong ball week to week, up 25% in the last two days, making it up 12% since purchased.

The point --- finding patterns here is difficult.  Finding value is not easy.  It was once said that value stocks were a value for a reason.  Famous investors and analysts always made their reputations by sifting out the best of that bunch.  Those types of leaders don't seem to be visible now, and the jabber on CNBC is no help.  Still trying, after all these years, and doing ok.

Postscript:  Fidelity index funds for Extended Market, Total Market, and S&P 500 were all up by 0.88%, absolutely identical, first time that has ever been seen.  Is this why they call it  programmed trading?

Saturday, January 26, 2019

A few passages from the book "Telex from Cuba".

In yesterday's comment on this book, I made a point of not including quotes, there were too many.  Some either linger, or on looking back seem interesting enough to repeat.  Well, I have time.

---"Anyone who buys a psychic telephone doesn't really believe it's going to work.  That all you need is $19.99.  Buy the machine.  Take it home.  Plug it in.  Dial a number and hear the living voice of someone dead and vanished.  People buy things for other reasons.  They weren't born yesterday.  They don't need the law to tell them that the equipment is faulty.
     Let the people learn for themselves:
     You don't call the dead.
     The dead call you."

And that is the end of the book.

---"That is incredible---our chauffeur, mayor of Preston!  But that's communism.  Ho Chi Minh started out as a fry cook at the Ritz."

---"He refused to believe that anyone who should be loyal wasn't.  Just as Batista wasn't capable of understanding that none of the girls was loyal... it was beyond the scope of what he deemed possible, even as he made himself aware of every last detail."

---"Mother had been a May Queen, and she was president of Kappa Kappa Gamma at DePaux.  I had to return her sorority pin when she died.  Harlan Sanders---that's Colonel Sanders---he was from Indiana, and had always been in love with Mother.  We were his guests at the Sanders Motor Court once on our way to Cumberland Falls. You could tell he had that fatal thing for Mother. His hands shook and his face turned red when he greeted us.  I think Daddy was amused."

---"Suppose you could speak to someone you love who's no longer living.  Would you cross a continent to speak to that person for just fifteen minutes?
     You would.
     When it's someone you love, the answer is that fifteen minutes is limitless if it means getting information about how to proceed without them.  The chance of a clue is worth the journey.  Because you don't know what that person will say to you.  You can't guess what you might be turning down."

---"He said he wanted the pictures for when he was old and depressed, Mrs. Carrington said.  To remind himself of the good times he's had.
    Her husband's secret catalogue of mistresses.  Mrs. Carrington seemed strangely proud of the photographs, as if they belonged not to Tip Carrington but to her.
    My husband loved life.  And she had proof."

Friday, January 25, 2019

"Telex from Cuba", Rachel Kushner

This book was published in 2008, but it is not dated.  The novel captures a time that is still a part of the history known here.  It is set in late 1950's Cuba, and focuses on the American families, mostly serial expats, who run the massive United Fruit Company sugar plantations, and their interactions with the locals.  The rise of the Castro brothers, from the prosperous upper middle class of the countryside, and the reign of the lower class leader Batista, are the backdrop.  Rural beatniks topple slavers.  It is based on history and well researched, and leads to a reality that is stranger than fiction story.  Fiction based on truth.

The book is like a collage.  Differing types of abstraction develop and ultimately turn into a coherent story.  Or to be more pedantic, at times it's like trying to look at a Bruegel painting without focusing on distinct parts.  Anxious reading does not work.  Read on.  It all comes together.

Rachel Kushner's writing is spectacular.  For no good reason her work had not been on my radar, which was obviously defective, troubling thought these days.  Good books are often read here with pen in hand or nearby, to mark a special passage and then dogear the page.  For picking the book back up here later, they may at some point be reminders.  For purposes of this comment, they are too numerous to be useful.  Some could lead back to me, not the best idea.

This is my type of book, real characters, real history, and believable fiction.  Just checking Wikipedia, she was born in 1968 so none of this is personal storytelling, it's cut from whole cloth.  The second paragraph's lead sentence on Wiki is "one of her influencers is American novelist Don Delillo."  That makes sense.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Where is Mister Ed when we need him?

In one of his more bizarre interviews, speaking on CNBC this morning Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross seemed to need Mister Ed's help.  Wil...Bur.  Feeling free to jabber without thinking about his role as a government spokesperson, he said that "we are miles and miles away from resolving the trade war with China...that is very complicated with lots and lots of issues."  This vague statement was casually said to highlight his importance but was not at all helpful to financial markets.  Why would Wilbur be remotely be aware of that?

More alarmingly, of federal workers not being paid he said, "I don't really understand why they are going to homeless shelters to get food... or why they can't get loans... borrowing from a bank or credit union is federally guaranteed."  People go to food banks, soup kitchens, and even homeless shelters because they are hungry, or need food for their families.  Sort of simple!  And what the f..k is he talking about?  Bank and most credit union deposits are insured by the FDIC, loans are not.  Loans are based on credit scores and credit history, and often cannot be obtained in a few days.  Credit cards can be used but many federal workers have only adequate salaries, and may not want to tarnish their credit scores for a short term event.  Or they may be maxed out.  Is Wilbur senile or callous may be the right question.  Maybe both, but the best answer seems to be that he is calculating, or call him wily Wilbur.

When filing with the Department of Government Ethics as he entered office, he listed assets of $700 million.  Huge of course, but he had always told Forbes Magazine, that "richest" list, that he was worth $3.7 billion.  The back story from Michael Lewis's recent book, "The Forbes reporters were accustomed to having rich people mislead them about the size of their wealth, but nearly all had been trying to keep their names off the list."  To quote a Forbes editor, "In the history of the magazine only three people stand out as having made huge efforts to get on, or end up higher than they belonged.  One was Saudi Prince Alwaleed.  The second was Donald Trump.  And the third was Wilbur Ross."  A former senior partner of Ross said, "Wilbur doesn't have an issue with bending the truth."

So why is he Commerce Secretary, a job he knows almost nothing about...

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

A few observations...

---The docudrama "Brexit" on HBO last night was not exactly stirring television, but it was revealing, saving its best punch for last.  Bypassing the standard political campaign system in the U.K. through data mining and digital/social media, an apolitical low key brilliant eccentric builds a successful nationalistic anti-immigrant campaign, with analysis from Cambridge Analytica and funding from Robert Mercer.  Could one then consider digital advertising and the exact same scenario in the U.S., adding in Steve Bannon with Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.  Reflecting on this, the odd thing is that Clinton and Trump seemingly had no idea what was going on.  Clinton had no need to continue intense campaigning and Trump thought it was all about him.

---Fund manager Seth Klarman's letter to his investors has received significant attention today.  While he warned of increasing debt levels being built up by corporations and countries as others have, his characterization of the negative impact of growing wealth disparity separates him from other market watchers. He suggests that this situation will become unhealthy for markets and, while not being explicit, he clearly sees Trump as toxic for both global leadership and for the financial markets.

---Why are the Democrats putting Hakeem Jeffries into the spotlight?  He seems to be a somewhat inarticulate congressman with no distinguishing accomplishments.  At least he does not make us watch him go to the dentist, i.e. Beto O'Rourke.  Are the seeds already being sown to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

---The HBO program "True Detective" is now in its third season after a lengthy break from the first two.  Season One was watched with the thought that I obviously should like it, with its star cast and quirky approach.  I tried and did not.  Season Two was unwatchable, obviously just a personal observation.  That Season Three is now being watched is indicative of a need for late night entertainment, and it has my attention.  It's not a pretty story, but the script is incredibly well written.  Whether it eventually all hangs together is yet to be known.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

My beef with the New York Times...

The New York Times is an institution.  "All the News That's Fit to Print" is there everyday top left, front page.  It is a daily part of life here, and has been for 39 years.  Certainly I don't admire every article or writer, and almost by definition some articles can seem to have an NYT slant, angle, some would say bias.  That's part of any paper not written by robots, and so far they have not been outfit with algorithms to do that.  Certain publishing conglomerates push an agenda.  That's a given and can be too apparent.  From this perspective the New York Times strives for fact based reporting, even if a point of view must be maintained for coherent articles.

Perhaps the most biased piece ever seen here in the Times was the obituary for Dodi Fayed.  It detailed the life of a simply horrendous playboy with absolutely no redeeming characteristics.  That may have been true, but in an obituary...  It was unfortunately or fortunately hilarious to read from that perspective.  The piece has long been buried by the Times, so to speak.  It can't be found, but reading it with Kathy at the kitchen table is a vivid memory.

But getting to my beef.  The NYT is a global, national, state, and city newspaper, but it's local and  even a personal one in a few aspects.  This week's Sunday Styles section is a prime example.  The lead story is about a divorce, headline "A Messy Split For All to See", another full page follows.  They were a power couple in the New York art world.  The patriarch of the husband's family, the Mugrabi's, "emigrated to Columbia from Jerusalem and made a fortune textiles, leading to a net worth of $5 billion", not including the current valuation of a huge number of paintings by famous artists, with more than 1,000 Warhol's, many Basquiat's, Koons', Hirst's, and on and on.  So how do you make that kind of money in Columbian textiles(?) and what else is Columbia famous for?  The article does not ask.

There is a photo of the divorcing wife that is one of the most alluring photos of a fully clothed individual ever seen in a newspaper, nothing straightforward like the "Sun".  The couple's stunning jet setting life is detailed.  The cause of the break up and divorce is also detailed, from skinny dipping at a packed party, to a liaison on a couch discovered in the early morning hours, to "an unreachable husband while she was shuttling between vacations in Sardinia and London".

This is in the newspaper that highlights "New York's Neediest Cases" each day.  Hey, obviously I read the article, but is there some incongruity here.  So that is one aspect of the Times that boggles some days, with the style section and at times with straight news articles about Manhattan.  The other local and personal areas are the wedding and obituary sections.  It is clear that being famous, highly talented, or from the upper east side of Manhattan play a big role in being included.  The wedding section has made huge strides at diversity, almost overdoing it at times perhaps, but those left out in the past do have some catching up to do.  The obituaries are the most puzzling.  Of course those very well known in politics, science, and the arts are often included.  There are also obits of people with seemingly few accomplishments.  It was written in a lengthy obit two days ago - "but the highlight was his annual croquet party that drew a huge crowd every year."  Notable northeast prep schools abound.  So do Palm Beach and Naples as final residences of Manhattanites.  Then there is The Frank E. Campbell Funeral Chapel, a mainstay of those who perish with an upper east side background that can qualify for Times publication.

So that's just the way it is and ever will be.  There was a perfect New York story, from Chinatown, to Francis Lewis Boulevard, to Long Island; from Queens public schools to Herricks school district, to Northfield, one of those prep schools, to Simmons and then Syracuse for a B.A. degree in three years, to Columbia for a Masters;  from a women's cooperative in Boston, an admin job in Palo Alto, back to Manhattan and Manufacturers Hanover and on to Goldman Sachs; from large family dinners in Chinatown, Little Italy, and Flushing:  all of these seemed like a real New York story.  It was not accepted.  A bit of a beef on that.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

"The Fifth Risk", perspective on current governance by Michael Lewis

The writing of Michael Lewis has been long followed here, but in recent years his work has not been as compelling as remembered.  "Flash Boys", in particular, was soft on any real insight, and what was meant to be provocative was old news.  "The Big Short" was not viewed as ecstatically here as by critics and most readers.  It was fact checked here as one of the main characters was known well to me during my career.  It was regulation that was either inept or corrupt,or both.  He did well for his investors and himself, and followed the rules as they were.  "His" humor and good nature was barely picked up, as predatory behavior seemed to be necessary for the book.  Oh well.

So reviews of  "The Fifth Risk" were read, and it was picked up months ago.  The fact that it did not directly have anything to do with finance was a big positive, so my inclination was not already set to be snooty.  Yet when I began reading it seemed familiar, and quickly it became clear that this had been read, yes in Vanity Fair articles that were terrific.  Finally the book was picked up again and reopened, realizing that the final chapter had not been published in the magazine, so would be new material to me.

The actual "Fifth Risk" is incompetent government leadership.  This is Lewis back to form, yet what seems ludicrous and in a way humorous is serious stuff.  The Prologue, Lost in Transition, sets the table for that fifth risk.  The first chapter, Tail Risk, is about the Energy Department, now led by Rick Perry, 'nuff said.  The second chapter, People Risk, is about the Agriculture Department, now led by Sonny Perdue, former governor of Georgia.  The third chapter is about the Commerce Department, now led by Wilbur Ross, a successful investor in bankrupt companies whose specialty was laying off large numbers of people and then cashing out.  There is much more that is appalling about each of these characters.

In each case, the new cabinet secretaries had no idea what their departments were responsible for, and reading this book it is clear that most people, myself included, have no idea of the breadth of responsibilities of these departments of the United States government.  It's fascinating reading until one realizes they too, based on knowledge, could have been appointed to one of these jobs.  Hey, "I know nothing too".

The department head then appointed Trump administration dictated assistants, and they appointed the leading workers.  To quote one example, "Into USDA(Agriculture) jobs, the Trump team had inserted a long haul truck driver, a clerk at AT&T, a gas-company meter reader, a country-club cabana attendant, a Republican National Committee intern, and the owner of scented candle company, with skills like "pleasant demeanor" listed on their resumes...  What these people had in common was loyalty to Donald Trump."

So you get the picture.  This book could be read twice if everything was to be internalized.  Nausea might ensue.  And I say again "Oh well", but things are not well, not when the book was written and not now.

Wednesday, January 09, 2019

Questions of the day...

---What is pushing this equity market up other than the lack of alternative investments?  Not complaining but some stability would now be reassuring.

---Why do I think of Stephen Miller as a canker sore on the Presidency?

---When they have the advantage, why do Democrats sabotage themselves with thoughtless far too broad characterizations ... see "deplorables" by Hillary Clinton and now "immoral" by Nancy Pelosi?Trump is completely amoral and his supporters favor his symbolic concrete wall, but they are not immoral for doing so, just sort of stupid, but don't say that either.

---This season's Ray Donovan has one more episode left and one thing is certain.  It seems impossible that everything could be resolved in this much darker New York City version of the series.  That means another season is in the works.  Will family "values" eventually override everything and Bridget become the new Ray?

---Is Marco Rubio still keeping his sights on the Presidency?  As a fabulist Trump apologist, he appears to be laying the groundwork with the Trump base while saving his supposed socially liberal thoughts for an eventual Trump tumble.  Or does he believe in anything at all other than political expediency?

"Asymmetry", a novel that befuddles, yet works

This book by Lisa Halliday was published 10 months ago and has been widely reviewed.  The reviews read here could be summarized like this.  "WTF, not to be a spoiler, I like this book."  Meaning that reviewers did not know what to do with this book, although knew that their review should be positive.  The two stories are to some extent incoherent stream of consciousness rambles that over time coagulate into something that makes sense.  The first story, Folly, has a quote to begin, "We all live slapstick lives under an inexplicable sentence of death...".   It does develop as a story line that has reasonable sequencing, almost like a play that works better on stage than in print.  The second story "Madness" has a starting point that quickly vanishes into a haze of disorienting events. Its initial quote is "Our ideas about the war were the war".

This is a book that is about the writing.  There are relationships, family issues, unexpected turns, political events, all of the components of many novels.  Done with sensitivity, irony, humor, yes humor for sure, and a touch of the roll out of destiny... Yes, my book reviewer imitation.  It recently was named one of the NYT book review section's ten best fiction books of 2018.

I like this book.

Monday, January 07, 2019

Volatility here to stay?

The U.S. equity market continues to gyrate or hesitate in fits and starts as if not knowing what to do.  There are many market analysts and pundits who speak of the market as if it were a person who thinks in some cohesive way, best understood by those suits speaking.  The truth seems to be that it is confounding to most.  Explaining a day, today at this moment only, when Google, Apple, and Facebook are down materially while Amazon, Nvidia, AMD, and Anet are decently up can be done, but not easily.  Also, various tech small caps bought here several weeks ago with seemingly precise bad timing are now erasing losses, even two of the five moving slightly to the plus side.  The dubious overall position in PYX is now moving into distinctly positive territory, albeit with a position that is now disturbingly large due to stubborn bottom fishing.  Even the almost preposterous JCP position began in November and doubled in December is now at par.  Should I get out, yes, will I, unlikely at the moment.

This volatility will continue until some base is established, if this is possible to find in these Trumpian times.  Earnings and risk drive stock market pricing, but completely random political chaos creates an environment that defies any confident speculation.  If one attributes the persistence of consumer spending partially to boomer wealth, that may slow as they do.  If analysts and commentators focus on low unemployment levels and the manufacturing index as positive indicators, that is close to folly.  Wages broadly are only rising modestly and manufacturing is far less important than the service industries.  The vaunted $15 minimum wage would yield an annual income of $31,200 dollars for a forty hour week, before Social Security taxes(that is what they are). That modest level exists almost nowhere, and across the United States my guessed at average of the minimum wage is $11.  Shortages of workers in some areas are only being met with modest wage increases, contradicting economic thought, because the problem is not only pay but qualifications to do the jobs.

Looking at annual performance here, not so swift but with the S&P down over 4.7% not horrible.  With a concentration of stocks buffered by bonds and money markets, the more aggressive account was down 7% and the other down 2%.  Accounts managed for family were both down 1%  So overall not so bad when considering that the often exceptional Fidelity Contrafund which was down 2% and the closely followed Dodge and Cox Stock fund down 7%. 

As this post was being written with breaks during the day, the market has continued to strengthen.  Money must be invested somewhere.  The outlook for the year is murky here, but nowhere to run to.  Still in with equity allocation toned down just slightly.


Friday, December 28, 2018

Rainy day thoughts...

--- "No collusion".  That is Trump's constant refrain about the Mueller investigation.  The media seems to follow his lead.  The primary purpose of the Mueller investigation was to determine if there had been any activity by any foreign government, principally Russia, to influence the 2016 presidential election in a corrupt or illegal manner.  His mandate is to follow the evidence where it leads.  Trump has not been charged with anything.  Yet the fact that his sole focus is on "collusion" could be telling.  In following his standard playbook, could he be confirming that he knew of campaign violations and actively participated in them, beyond the payoffs to silence his women acquaintances.  The media's focus on the lurid is not helpful.

---"Buybacks Come Back to Bite Firms" is the title of a WSJ article today.  It notes that with the market downturn, firms engaged in buying back stock are underwater on their purchase.  That's obvious and hardly newsworthy enough to be the headline on the Business and Finance section.  Buybacks can only be viewed from a longer term perspective. That major banks do this is routine in good times. Their business is to some regulatory extent fenced in, and appetite for any acquisitions has largely been sated.  That tech firms are increasingly joining is a fact worth thinking about.  If the era of reinvestment in new iterations of technology is waning, what has happened to the R&D.  What's next?  This is a reminder that buybacks are not a bump for the overall economy unless they lead to stock market increases that spur consumer spending and capital spending.  Old story dwelled on here many times before, perhaps worth a thought once again.

---The equity market leveled out today, relaxed before the weekend.  Time to think!

---Almost dark here at 4:25pm, a combination of the day's weather and the season.  Looking on the bright side, days will now gradually become longer.  More light is better.  For some that is a very good thing.  Friends who live in Florida, Texas, and Arizona are more enlightened at the moment, so to speak.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

"Educated", on the NYT best seller list for 44 weeks...

Curious about this book, it was finally picked up.  Now I am still curious.  This memoir has become one of those best sellers that won't let go.  Is that because it is a straightforward and easily accessible narrative that delves into a seldom seen world?  This story is about a survivalist family in rural Idaho, estranged from society by choice, attempting self sufficiency with home schooling and herbal medicines.  Rough behavior is the norm and women often come out on the short end of that.  The family is Mormon, but seemingly taking basic premises to mind boggling extremes.

Various reviews have been looked at post reading, and some seem apologetically to like the book while others fawn over it.  One commentary by Bill Gates was well written and interesting, and it put a human touch on the author, Tara Westover.  That was needed here, but still there are lingering thoughts.  The book often seems scripted, too much of a roller coaster ride, haunting beatings to school in Paris, desperate poverty to an education at Cambridge, binge watching the Walking Dead to hours spent reading Hume, Rousseau, and Mill.

This must all be accurate on the surface, but somehow I wonder.  Is the fact that J.D. Vance is the lead blurb praise on the cover saying something.  Did everything in "Educated" happen to somebody in a tableau of a life but is the memoir completely true.  It ends with what feels here like a "new age" take on psychology that makes perception of the self true by definition.

That's the question here, unclear.  And with that, the book was interesting, cringe worthy, and thought provoking.