Monday, September 17, 2018

Tech majors as utilities?

There is a thought developing among many of varying political persuasions that the major technology companies are too powerful, and have too much information.  Those focused on include Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, and Twitter, but names like Netflix and Adobe would probably fall into this net as well, others could.

It is clear that most of these companies are more efficient and at the least as effective at information management than the government.  Should they be regulated as utilities?  Possibly around the edges and subject to some ground rules would be the thought here, but a coterie of those on both the political right and left are now beginning to look for something more stringent.  The need for competitive markets is a concern in various areas of retail business and the manipulation of information for political purposes is another.  Another not at all trivial issue is whether the social networks have been engineered to create addictive behavior that leads to more information in their hands for advertising purposes, and  leads to unproductive use of time by all ages that could otherwise be spent productively, hey even on first hand relationships with other people.  These are legitimate areas to focus on, but regulation done right would be best if not punitive.  This situation evolved due to a vibrant private sector that encouraged innovation, independent of stodgy government oversight.

The danger now is that we are in the age of Trump.  How can any transition to some regulatory guidelines be managed in a way that does not further the censorship aims and overreach of this President?  Well meaning advocates of regulation could be exploited by his minions looking for power and more.  How this plays out is an important issue.  No big insight here, more to come...

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Preparing for war...???

From rejecting the Transpacific Partnership to dropping out of the Paris Climate Accords and to alienating our allies while kissing up to the most dangerous countries on earth, Trump is on a solo course to an accident.  He is unstable and living in his own reality of made up facts.  Talk about "fake news".  As with the inauguration crowd, he now creates fiction about the hurricane disaster in Puerto Rico.  From whole cloth, he weaves lies.  This is abnormal.  Now as he preemptively raises tariffs on China, first $50 billion now set to kick in, now another $200 billion to follow within a month, and just suggested another $267 billion on the way.  These are being levied while negotiations are currently, supposedly, underway.  The lunatic fringe economist Peter Navarro says something and Trump just repeats it.

Almost anyone who reads this does not need it to be repeated.  That's the thing with Trump and his team that maintains the Bannon mentality of just wearing out the opposition with attacks and lies.  Trump simply enjoys demonstrating his power, like a bully on a playground.  "Simply" is the operative word.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Interesting info about investing from the WSJ...

Yesterday's edition of the Wall Street Journal had its monthly analysis, "Investing In Funds & ETFS".  Here are highlights as seen from here.

---The top 50 funds by assets under management, are led by index funds.  S&P index funds were up by roughly 19.5% over the past 12 months.  Total market funds were up around 20.5% on that basis. In comparison, there were a few discretionary fund stand-outs among the 50.  Will Danoff's Fidelity Contrafund is up 25.6% and Charles Pohl's Dodge and Cox Stock fund up 18.1%.  Both were known well in the 1990's and early aughts.  Small cap funds fared well, with the IShares Russell 2000 up 25.4% and the IShares Core S&P small cap up 32.5%.  Growth stocks fared did too, with the QQQ up 28.8%, Fidelity Growth Company fund up 31.7%, and T Rowe Price Growth Stock up 22.7%.

---Among categories, on a year to date basis, the Multicap 1.7 billion Miller Opportunity Fund is up 25.3%, Bill Miller, same age as me, still thriving.  Small cap names are still being managed exceedingly well by some, as in the $1.6 billion Alger Small Cap Focus fund up 46% through August.  Overall, well managed growth funds have been the place to be, value funds not.  Bond funds, however reassuring to some, have not performed well as expected in this rate environment and the outlook is generally not positive.  REIT's are showing some life, for those who know how to choose them and deal with the tax impact, not a skill here.

The takeaway is that the market has been an wonderful opportunity in general, but not one that has attracted as much attention as prior bull markets.  As long as many are calculating the end, that may stay true.  Still, with this over 9 year bull market, careful analysis and considerable caution seem to be required.

Sunday, September 02, 2018

Photos on Facebook, remembered in various ways...

Over the past nine months, posting photos on Facebook has become a regular activity.  We took photos when traveling, on holidays or special occasions, of children growing up, and other times randomly.  All of the photos taken by me are remembered, with a few exceptions noted with "unknown location" or a similar comment.  The camel in a field  near a beach with apartment houses in the background is an example of that previously posted.  There are differences among the memories.

With almost all, the place is remembered, with many the surrounding circumstances come to mind, and with some a detailed memory of an event or activity still seems fresh.  One like that from 36 years ago is posted today, and everything associated with it is a good thought.  I guess that's healthy.

There are photos of Kathy from albums she kept before we met, and a few from her childhood.  She told me about some of them over the years, and others are simply interesting on their own to me, maybe some to others.  In her teens and early '20's, she kept albums that are more like scrapbooks.  They contain not just photos, but also ticket stubs, brochures, itineraries, museum passes, letters from people she met on the trip, and comments written in margins on the pages, as well as her artwork on some pages related to an event. These are entertaining.  She did some of that with books that she put together of our trips, but nothing like her youthful ones.

There are a few childhood photos of me, but little beyond that.  When taking a two and a half month trip to Europe in late 1971 with two college friends, or trips to Little Exuma or Jamaica in the 1970's, photography was not what I did.  My two friends on the Europe trip both had cameras, but my attitude at the time was that I could buy post cards or look in books for pictures of the sights and preferred to stay in the present and soak experience in, if that is the way it can be characterized.  As for taking photos with people, the guys were just that.  Somewhere there are two or three photos of me sent by one of them after the trip, no idea where they are.

When Kathy and I began traveling in 1981, it was expected by her and I bought right in. That has become apparent to those who check in on Facebook as "friends", and others who follow without signing up as a "friend".  Given the events of this year, I guess that this will continue...  Be forewarned, there is a large drawer in a basement cabinet in the ping pong room that is filled with piles of photos that did not find there way into albums.  Precarious steps down but...

Thursday, August 30, 2018

More brief comments...

---Warren Buffett was interviewed on CNBC this morning for about 20 minutes.  He was his usual low key and congenial self, and not predisposed to give any broad directional comments about today's equity market.  As always, he looks to invest when he sees value, and not purportedly time the market.  He does currently have huge cash reserves now at his company, so obviously has not seen a major opportunity recently, actually in the last three years.  Comments of interest... he continues to modestly add to his Apple position, one in which he owns 5% of outstanding shares... he owns approximately 9.5% of the shares of each of the four major airlines, Delta, Southwest, American, United and that was not known here... but he is not as attracted to consumer branded products as he once was.  It was all interpreted here as having a degree of caution at the moment, but those airline investments?

---In the current New Yorker, there is an article about the journalist Glenn Greenwald.  It is fascinating, if at times a bit confusing.  Here, Greenwald has not surfaced much since his interactions with Edward Snowden and Julian Assuage were widely publicized.  The range of his interests and his style of life are covered here.  While he is the scourge of the elite Democratic establishment, he writes of Trump, "he is a criminal surrounded by fifth tier grifters who, under normal circumstances, would be generation Power Points to defraud pensioners."  Pinning down the mercurial Greenwald is not easy.

---This September 3rd issue of the magazine packed with things of interest... Louis Menand on Francis Fukayama's latest book, a review that must be read again to begin to fully understand it... Jon Lee Anderson on the Ortega regime in Nicaragua... a comment on the HBO program "Succession", an eight show series that presumably will continue, and was a program about business titans in general that was well done for the most part, despite some flaws I liked it...  Anthony Lane reviewing a documentary about John McEnroe by a French director, just in time for this U.S. Open...  and more of interest.  When there is an issue like this it is a treat, especially because magazines are so much easier than books to read in bed while waiting for sleep.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Random market comments...

---Toll Brothers builders reported strong results today, which was seen by some as an affirmation of the housing market.  Their average house sells for $840,000.  That's across a range of cities, not just New York.  They are luxury builders that are not representative at all of the broader market.  In fact, this could be viewed as negative news because what it really affirms is that the bifurcation of wealth is becoming more extreme.  In the long run that is not sustainable, economically or politically.

---In recent days Elon Musk has shown that his brilliance does not extend to understanding how the stock market works.  Like everything else, he wants to solve it and control it in a way that seems to be becoming an obsession.  He needs to be told that his job is to focus on his businesses, only make decisions based on business needs, and not on trying to influence the stock price.  The market may not appreciate what he sees, but if it works the market will catch up.  His angst is the cause of market concern now.

---Trump has suggested that consideration be given to earnings reporting by corporations every six months and not quarterly.  Some in his cabal have convinced him that quarterly reporting is too time consuming, too costly, and not constructive to long term investing.  That is a terrible idea.  For some industries the argument could be made, I guess, but to many firms the variability in their operating environment makes quarterly reporting a necessity.  For financial firms, a quarterly credit check is essential for investors.  If Regulation FD is followed to the letter, six month reporting could be feasible, MAYBE, but Trump and his team are working to weaken Reg. FD already.  This makes no sense.  Hedge funds and active traders would just have a more open playing field and traditional investors would be less informed.  What should be done more rigorously? Companies in general should stop giving quarterly guidance.  Underscore that.

---When watching CNBC, there is the recurring thought here now that Jim Cramer is trying to put himself in position to be Secretary of the Treasury.  Ludicrous right, well maybe.  He frequently goes to extremes to rationalize Trump's policies now.  He loves attention and he has watched the constant CNBC contributor Larry Kudlow become a key economic adviser to Trump.  Cramer has been in his current gig for a long time and such a change would be a capstone to his minor celebrity life.  The creepy Mnuchin cannot be enjoying his role too much these days as he, at times, openly disagrees with Trump, in particular on trade, and has recently been more in the background.  He has just watched Trump minions bite the dust.

Watch Cramer for half an hour if you can stomach it, and see what I mean.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

So what goes with this equity market?

U.S. equities remain strong but investors are on edge and pundits, as always, are skeptical.  With 94% of Fortune 500 companies having reported second quarter results, 84% of companies have beat EPS estimates and 72% have been above revenue estimates from securities analysts.  That's pretty astounding.  We are getting into "It can't get any better than this territory" which sounds positive but to investors can be a bit scary.  "It can't get better?"

The big worry of the moment is about major tech names.  Many of China's major tech names, notably Tencent and Alibaba, have disappointed investors recently and seen share drops between 10% to 20% over the past few months.  Tech is global so this is not trivial.  Facebook and Netflix in the U.S. have retrenched in recent months, for totally different reasons, that's big tech showing some vulnerability.  Amazon, Google, and Apple remain solid.  On the consumer side, housing starts have been on the low side but consumer confidence remains strong.  Whether that confidence is due to consumer wealth capacity growing or due to looser lending standards in a more competitive retail market is the real question.  Opinion here is that it is the latter, which requires some thought.

Where is the right balancing point between desired wage and productivity growth and the possibility of some unexpected hiccup in inflation?  Really, all seems quiet on that front but that is the looming question.  The other overhang is having an unbalanced leader who could roil the geopolitical front or the domestic political front in a serious way at some point.  Who knows, but if he manages to make a major blunder the market has room to move down 10% without destroying anything but some retail and traders, but not institutions.  If he does something catastrophic, look out below.  We watch...

Still invested here at usual range of limits, a bit risky if one is into age based investing but that's not done here.

So we watch...

Friday, July 27, 2018

Short takes...

--- Here in New York State there are political advertisements for Andrew Cuomo running mutiple times a day on all major networks.  He has no serious competitive opposition, at least that is the general consensus.  He appears to be setting up a presidential campaign which he would surely lose if  he by chance became the 2020 Democratic  candidate.  Just in the last few days he has added free four year college for all who are not upper middle class to his promises, echoing or competing with Elizabeth Warren(another national non-electable candidate).  Warren at least seems sincere, plus ambitious at all costs, but Cuomo is pure ego with a weak track record.  Yet he is undeniably setting up to run.  Where all of his advertising money is coming from is unknown, but being a successful New York politician has traditionally been lucrative.

---Speaking of New York, the city, and their attack on Uber and Lyft is amazing.  Has anyone ever tried to get a licensed yellow cab in the outer boroughs, especially at night. They still rarely exist.  Even in Manhattan on a day of bad weather, waits can be daunting to impossible.  Uber and their likes need some oversight but the city wants them at the trough of legalized bribes that characterize the traditional yellow cab industry.  Still preposterous governance.

---There is this phrase in the lead Talk of the Town article in this week's New Yorker, "In truth, however, many Republicans are more comfortable with Trump that they care to admit."  Sorry to suggest this, but that should be expanded to "many Americans".  This supremely ill informed demagogue channels the uneducated gut reactions of large segments of this country.  We can hope for his fall as the 7/30 New Yorker cover suggests, but exaggerated concern should be the dominant thought of those concerned, and it is not exaggerated.

---Trump's understanding of healthcare, economics, and trade is so limited that it should be viewed as embarrassing.  As President the news commentators mostly try to treat him seriously.  Among administration officials, the leading whore of late is Larry Kudlow, a conservative but mostly thoughtful television economist for many years(by the way, he has no degree in economics).  Always in favor of limited regulation and free trade, he now backs every Trump statement, no matter how contrary to everything he espoused during his career.

---It is clear that the economy is doing well, but the dynamics of a strong economy are not a six month event after tax cuts.  The groundwork for economic growth is years in the making, and much of what is going on dates back to actions by Barack Obama and, as much as I hate to say it, even George Bush.  Trump only praises himself, even as he is in the midst of destroying long term global marketing arrangements for farmers.

---And finally, the huge EU penalty on Google is not based on research or analysis of any type, just an exercise of power by petty European bureaucrats who have no understanding of the pace of change in technology..  Read what almost any informed expert says about this.

Sunday, July 15, 2018


Not posting much at all...

The men's tennis semis were exceptional, the final today was a formality.  Tennis is such a mental game when players are close.  Once a passable local player, I would feel guilty when knowing how to play, missing a point on purpose to get to the next one... more etc.

One thing that I am really pissed about... On local television there are adverts for casinos in the Catskills now... they have white guys with beautiful Asian girls...  no problem here with that as a concept of course.... but there are no Asian people at all within a hundred miles, so are they just advertising something else shipped in... It's obvious and does not feel right....

Seems offensive from my perspective...

Kathy was as she was, our girls are too, and some NY State agency does this....  what could be called biased stereotyping...

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...