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 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.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

News flash...

---The two NFL games broadcast here at 1pm today were Jets/Packers and Giants/Colts.  Were there other games being played?  Both New York teams managed to lose again, although some say they had nothing to lose.  How about the coaches for a start, then GM's.

---Christmas cards were sent yet again, although the number continues to slip.  Yesterday two of those few sending cards here did duplicates, meaning two identical cards from the same person, yet in both cases slight differences in the signature.  Card base is aging.  As an aspiring card counter, that mistake probably was not made here, hope not but could I have sent...

---We enter the last few market days of the year with all major averages down, Nasdaq finally completing the trifecta only in the last few days.  Then there is the Russell 2000 down 7%, aggregate bond down as well, Gold down 4%, Oil down 15%, overall commodity index down 8%, Bitcoin down 76%, is there a theme here?  Maybe a bit of lost confidence in global growth?  Perhaps a rogue President?  Or could my investment choices have been wrong?  Get out the beanie babies, old vinyls, and baseball cards.

I think that a lament here several Sundays ago was ended with "at least there is a new Ray Donovan on tonight".  Ditto.

Friday, December 21, 2018

News and thoughts, our President and the market...

This comment was to be titled "news and thoughts of the day", but then realized it would encompass more than one day.  There is no shortage of topics, but brevity is the goal.

---The equity market has collapsed.  The timing is awkward.  On Monday there will only be a half day of trading so there will be no news there, just enough time to slip in and buy or sell discreetly.  Then a three day week of trading followed by the New Year's Day event, again Monday trading followed by Tuesday off.  For anxious market participants, that means it's unlikely for there to be any hint of relief or clarity until January 2nd begins a New Year.  For nail biters, get out the Polysporin.

---Our incoherent President is on a rampage.  There is no way for anyone to know what comes next.  The departure of Mattis is a big deal, the last adult in the room some would say.  Withdrawing from Syria and on to Afghanistan without any discussion with allies or with members of Congress, even those in his own Party, is without precedent.  It is simply an exercise of power that he uses to spite others.  It detracts attention from his other issues such as the Mueller investigation and the discomfort that Congress feels with his approach to the budget.  The "wall" is a simple concept, for a simple man. 

---For those inclined to believe the mantra "don't look at what he says, but what he does", your faith may be tested.  As Commander in Chief, what Trump tweets at 5:30am is policy.  He can tell the military to move 5000 troops to the border for no reason, or to leave a country as quickly as possible. On domestic issues his impact is not so immediate, but his opinions can be corrosive.  His one vaunted "success" was the tax cut bill, but its boost to the economy was designed to raise stock market prices and then lead to the old trickle down.  So that's done and wealth disparity, which is the biggest domestic problem, has seemingly widened.  Wage increases lag.  More facts will come in the next few months on those issues.

---There are two primary accounts here in my name, one at Fidelity and one at Schwab.  The Fidelity account is run for growth, and today was down 2.2%.  The Schwab account is more conservative and declined 1.1%.  That is just one day.  Taking the time to calculate the loss for the week might be disheartening, so why do it.  Truth is, I have been waiting for the real Trump effect to take hold.  This may be it.



Friday, December 14, 2018

Splat go equities...

U.S. equities ended the week in emphatic fashion, not in a stylish sense.  The major averages were down around 2% for the day.  There were some spectacular drops among well known names.  JNJ was down 10% on a report about the tainted talcum powder that has the trial bar salivating.  Adobe down more than 7% and Costco approaching 9%, both on disappointing results which did not appear to be any kind of disaster from this perspective.  A fragile market is unforgiving.  Techs broadly fell, with the QQQ down 2.5% and market favorites like Apple, Netflix, and Microsoft down more than 3%.  FB was an outlier, just down fractionally.  Other major stocks down 4% were Amazon and Pepsico.  This is not trivial.

The beleaguered transports were the surprise place to be, with autos and airlines stable, meaning dramatically outperforming.  Ford, GM, Southwest, American, and Delta were around flat, reassuring?  Banks did not fully participate in the collapse while healthcare definitely took its full measure and more.

There is no all clear.  Will cooler minds develop through the weekend or will panic build as investors look to year end reporting.  The market no longer rests on the holidays.  Certainly not this year.  Monday will be telling.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Reading John Grisham, a sign of the times?

Most readers are familiar with John Grisham, if not necessarily from reading his books but simply from seeing his name at the top of best seller lists for 30+ years.  Practically speaking he created his own genre of deep south novels about attorneys and crime.  Only a few have been read here, and not one in more than 15 years.  Needing to try something painlessly diverting, his new book "The Reckoning" was picked up.

His basic formula was evident early on, and the setting in Mississippi and surrounding areas continues to ring true in both superficial and very real ways.  The time frame is the 1940's, war time and after.  A main character goes to college at Hollins in Virginia.  She was a high achiever from a relatively well to do family.  It was the case that once Hollins was a Radcliffe of the south so to speak, just one of those "that's right" remembrances.  There is plenty of "safe sex" for readers who don't want to go too far and enough loathsome characters to create a dichotomy that further heightens the goodness of those who are redemptive.  Many of the seemingly irrelevant touches about life in that area are interestingly accurate for the period.

Coming with all of this is the simple writing, not "run Spot run" but an adult version of this.  In this book, there is an amazing tendency towards repetition, as if readers cannot be expected to remember the story from one chapter to the next. The entire focus is the story line and a tug of war between good and evil.  The legal aspects are, as always in his books, a central structure of the narrative.  In pulls everything else along with it.  As with some Grisham books, there is a second story within.  In "The Reckoning" it is the Bataan Death March, as the central character is a participant in that gruesome World War II event.  That part of the book is unequivocally a page turner, well researched and with much better writing, meaning less repetition and a relief from the languid pace of the book in the South.  Did I just write that. It's true.  Maybe Grisham was relieved to get a break from what was expected of him.

Grisham is part of that legion of writers today who write for a movie script.  There is no other way to describe how the story unfolds, with a near the end overseas side trip to London, Edinburgh, and Paris that would provide color and production value, as well as cost and adventure for film participants.  I am a natural target for that type of thing, and admit to enjoying recognizing hotel names, locations, and sites.  Grisham knows what an audience could want.

It is unlikely that another one of his books will be read anytime soon, but this one fulfilled its purpose here.  Once again, I've got it.  To note, there's a remembrance tied in here, as my mother the legal secretary and southerner, world traveler, and lover of New Orleans who was married to a WWII veteran whose theater was the Pacific, yes she was an avid Grisham reader.

Back to the less than upbeat news of the day

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

This dire market...

This will be a brief comment.  Over the last two months, opinions here on the U.S.equity market have been cautious.  It appears that the near term outlook is becoming dire.  Near term is three months, not Thursday or the next few weeks.  This is a time to both sell and buy here, and that is not a usual approach.  I endured and will not repeat all of the gibberish on CNBC today.  The "panelists" could be right, but they all say the same boring things, not to be repeated here. They all play it safe, and are just looking for personal exposure.

I will say few things about what was done here today.  Southwest Airlines was added to as oil prices are coming down and they are primarily domestic carriers.  UPS was sold.  Not a long term position and the Amazon ramp up of their delivery capabilities could have a big impact.  FEDEX has capital gains not factored into this year's tax planning, and they are a better run company so stayed with that.  Two recent positions, one banking and one retail, were sold.  My recent choice to invest in them was based on long ago personal knowledge, and if "Tariff Man" is really on a course  to punish investors with his pride and stupidity, no reason to hold them now, can always come back.  Also added to PYX. Maybe a crazed decision but they announced new cannabis positions this morning, and feel like the chance of some company buying them could be real.  They are cheap, and could be acquired for a relatively small amount that would not be small for existing shareholders, TOTALLY a BET here that I could lose.

Need some Tilray product after that.




Sunday, November 25, 2018

Brief mentions... Gianrico Carofiglio, Vivian Maier, New York sports...

--- Gianrico Carofiglio is an Italian crime novel writer who is a former Mafia prosecutor in Bari, Italy. Translations into English of his three notable books were published over ten years ago.  A new one, "The Cold Summer" has recently arrived here.  The deal with Carofiglio's writing is that the crime stories, while interesting, can have a routine template. They seem to be just a vehicle for his insights into how people behave, how they interact, and how they deal with stressful situations.  Just simple statements like "The fact is that most obvious solutions are usually the right ones", or "eventually the spouse always knows". and "as he was the senior person, the argument appeared unassailable, nobody felt up to objecting and the matter was settled", or the observation that "one of the unpleasant aspects of waking early, when it isn't yet light, is that you're confronted with you own anguish", all make sense in context of Carofiglio's writing and maybe a reader's individual perspective.  As this is a translation of a writer who has received awards in his home country, it is assumed here that there is more nuance in the original language.

--- "Finding Vivien Maier" is a documentary that was watched last night, courtesy of a find by Netflix.  It's the story of an eccentric woman who became a famous photographer posthumously.  In her life, her profession was as a nanny for many different families.  She never married, and seemed to have few if any close relationships, even with family.  When she died in 2009, a yard sale aficionado and art collector bought a large box of her negatives sight unseen, and began developing them.  He found other buyers from the same sale and bought everything that had been there.  There were thousands of rolls of undeveloped film as well as  many photos that had been processed.  The work compares well to other notable photographers from the 1950's and 1960's.  It is an interesting story with great photographs shown of people and places in New York, Chicago, and from a trip through Europe, Latin America, and parts of Asia at that time.

--- Wanting to be a New York sports fan can be difficult.  With all of the history of sports in this town,  the money that can be behind it,  and the media attention, how can there be teams this year like the New York Giants and New York Jets in football and the New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets in basketball.  The Giants forgot to have an offensive line, the Jet's heralded the most boring new sport's "hero" Sam Darnold, the Knicks have no leaders, and the Net no stars, or vice versa.  How above it all are the management teams of these franchises, or just out it egos.  Here we get their games on television whether we want them or not. 

At least there is a new episode of Ray Donovan tonight.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

This market, CEO preening, "My Brilliant Friend"...

---The U.S. equity market had a tough week.  The goal of institutional investors yesterday seemed to be to sell as much as possible, but gently in a half day market that would have limited liquidity.  Keep reducing positions without causing a major downdraft.  That worked until the last hour when either margin calls or panicked retail investors let go.  It was not a good finish.

It's been a tough month and a half.  Since the end of September, the S&P is down roughly 10% and the Nasdaq 15%.  The bounce back that investors have become accustomed to is not happening.  Year end tax positioning among some gets in the way of rational investing, and the outlook for tech is clouded by regulatory uncertainty and questions about the consumer appetite for product upgrades in technology.  The implications of the Trump tax cut and its trickle down premise is looking suspect, as it did from the start.

Corporate earnings generally remain strong, but there is growing skepticism about the longer term.  The market discounts future returns, not a hunky dory now.  An increasingly unbalanced global economy is not positive.  Conclusion:  None.

---The latest Bank of America television advertisement is troubling.  It raises one of my most reliable red flags, that of a CEO promoting himself.  This ad begins with the statement "Listening to what matters most" while following Brian Moynihan getting into a cab, riding through Manhattan, his profile looking out, more Manhattan scenes, then the words "grow, innovate, own a home", Moynihan profile again then "The power to make a difference".  It ends with Moynihan getting out of the car and walking into a BofA office building with his voice overlay, "I am Brian Moynihan and I work for Bank of America".

This is solely a recitation of generic positive statements written by an ad agency, and a very personal promotion of Moynihan.  He seems to be a solid citizen but he is no genius.  This type of self promotion usually does not bode well for a company, and in this case may be red flag for the banking industry as well.  When has a downturn in the banking industry been "as expected".  Almost never, but hubris has almost always preceded it.

--- "My Brilliant Friend"on HBO is exceptional.  The portrayal of a point in time(1930's Italy) resonates as accurate and the child actresses are startlingly good.  As in, I like it and must watch for the next episode.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

A few comments...

---It seems here that there is no leadership to this equity market.  No idea here what tomorrow may bring, and that seems to be the case broadly when listening to market talk during the weekend.  Of note, few really smart analysts and investors are talking, and the ones that do appear to be cautious.  Generally that means that they are not positive about near term market direction, but don't want talk down their own existing holdings.  The view here is that there is too much money looking for a home, one that offers the potential for capital gains or an adequate yield.  This is all short term talk but, as has been said before, the long term is just a series of short terms.  With a strong economy right now, will we soon be looking in the rear view mirror?  The debate now is whether global growth is slowing as tariffs, failed cooperation agreements, and chaotic U.S. "diplomacy" are finally having an impact.

---As we approach year end, the solicitations from various charities begins to increase.  They are acutely aware that potential donors are looking at their capacity to give, and their tax accountant's ability to improve their tax position.  It's tax avoidance really, but the rules are there to be followed.  Especially beneficial can be the donation of appreciated stock, and it can be a windfall for both the charity and the donor.  So "Doing the Most Good", "Fighting Hate, Teaching Tolerance, Seeking Justice", and other good causes are filling the mailbox, and sending donors back to their records to remember what's already been done.  One received today gave the option of checking the donation box of  $2000, $3000, or $4000, as well as an "other" at least.  Pushing your luck folks, that comes off as beyond presumptuous.

---Today and yesterday, New York resident Andrew Stein has been in the print news and on cable.  It's been a while since this ambitious rich Kennedy wannabe tried to act important.  He never has been, but why stop trying now.  He is much older and has a new rug that can only be called comical, about the only change.  His father's cronies fed him viable issues for years that he would find a way to bungle.  He now heads an organization called "Democrats for Trump", and predicted in a New York Times Op-Ed written with, meaning by, Mark Penn saying that Hillary would be nominated by the Democratic Party in 2020.  Only the NYT would print something by this nitwit, but they deserve a weakness like this that shows up in various ways as they are a New York institution.

Oh well.



Postscript:  Just read a comment on Fidelity's website by Howard Marks of Oaktree Capital, a long time successful fund manager.  The title is "Time for Defense" and he suggests that it is more important now to worry about not losing money than missing opportunities.  That's straightforward at least.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Ugh, equity market has an ugly start to the week... GE's troubles...

Concerns about new Apple Iphone sales volumes being below expectations, a fiasco in Malaysia for Goldman Sachs, and gloom from the new GE CEO all contributed to a significant equity market decline today.  Bond markets were closed for the holiday.

GE keeps spiraling down.  CEO Culp was interviewed on CNBC this morning before the open.  There was one stunning statement that woke up this former banker.  Culp stated that GE had $40 billion in back-up bank lines and they had only dipped into them for $2 billion.  Back up lines are just that, meaning that they are in place to reassure creditors that a company will always be viable as a counterparty and all trade letters of credit guaranteed.  Any dip into these lines is a bright red flag.  I mean, how stupid is the CFO of this company to allow this to happen at all, or was it desperately needed.  Either reason is not good.  Culp made the mistake of talking about the stock price, rarely a good idea for a CEO.

Upon questioning Culp said all existing liabilities are manageable but being closely monitored.  That is code for Long Term Care Insurance, which GE capital was a leader in.  When divesting major parts of GE Capital, the company could not sell a significant part of this portfolio, and is managing it in-house.  The tail risk of this type of insurance is immeasurable, and seemingly always underestimated at GE.  Actuarial tables don't tell the story, as people who bought this type of relatively costly insurance generally had good reason to believe that it would be needed.

GE was once a uniquely successful conglomerate under the egomaniac Jack Welch's reign of terror.  Under Jeff Immelt, all investor goodwill accumulated under Welch was wasted through many flawed acquisitions that kept the attention seeking Immelt in the headlines.  Flannery was a bookmark.  Culp has a huge challenge.  At some point GE will be investable, not there yet.

Apple's news rippled through technology stocks broadly, and recently acquired "winners" here like ON, AMD, and ROKU did not fare well.  This type of activity in technology stocks does not bode well for Asia markets tonight.  No projections here, trading some but mostly just watching.


Thursday, November 08, 2018

"These Truths", Jill Lepore

If New Yorker writer Jill Lepore was not already viewed as prolific, now case closed.  This tome, subtitled "a History of the United States", clocks in at over 900 pages including the index.  This is not something that one would read on the subway or even in bed.  It's too heavy, in weight that is.  This is a project that seems based in what some might called inclusive history.  While undertaking the task of truth to  history, this retelling makes a clear point of highlighting the role of women, immigrants, and all minorities.  It is welcome reading, although at times it seems a bit forced as a chapter might be interrupted at length with a digression that is deemed inclusive.

At times it just reads as history, as other times it reads as history told with a perspective on today's events.  It is filled with current colloquialisms, nuances, and phrases.  Compared with traditional history books, from the Beards, to Spengler, Toynbee, Keegan, and those written as college texts that combine the efforts of many historians under the auspices of a publisher, that is a huge difference.  It does make the writing seem personal, which is not at all bad.

Reading the book piecemeal so far, the last chapter that takes the reader to the present, "America, Disrupted" is exceptional for the most part and the chapter "Efficiency and the Masses", that details the Gilded Age, Industrialization, and the lead up to World War I is packed with interesting details that were new here, or at least not remembered.  "The Face of Battle", a chapter about the Civil War, falls short from this perspective, still thorough but somehow not much new.

It may be a month before this book is on the bookshelf, as other more focused books will be welcome breaks, such as "The Library Book", now started, by Susan Orlean, yet another New Yorker writer.  And then there are the newspapers daily... some days are better than others.

Wednesday, November 07, 2018

Election results boost market...

So much for all of the pundits last night wondering about how negatively the Republican party's loss of the House would affect the markets.  It seemed odd at the time, and today the Dow and S&P are up 2% and the Nasdaq up 2.5%.  The markets have liked the corporate tax cuts but apart from that they have been rising in spite of Trump.

With the possibility of some restraint on his power, the concerns about the negative impact of tariffs on global trade, misguided immigration policy, and threats about breaking up technology companies because they don't fall in line with Trump's arbitrary personal vendettas have been somewhat allayed for the moment.  The results are a breath of fresh air for most investors.  Trump has no idea.

Amazon is up 7% today(Washington Post and Bezos), the VHT health care index is up 3.5%, Google and Apple up 3% each --- this is a relief from Trump threats rally.  Somehow the preposterously truth challenged President will claim responsibility for the market rise and his loyalists will fall in line.

Results certainly did favor Trump in some races for Governor and the Senate, and since the Trump train chose to visit areas that already were leaning his way that looks good.  That said, Florida is concerning.  Missouri as well. Georgia looks to some like a disappointment but my God, what a change just to get so close.  Votes still to be counted.

And Dave Brat is gone.  How nice for Virginia!

Democratic Party field for 2020...

The Democrats are not exactly in disarray when it comes to the next Presidential election, but any clear leader is completely lacking.  Whether this could lead to something positive like more voter involvement or something negative like voter fatigue is up in the air.  There is time, but this needs to shake out over the 12 months.

The landscape is broad.  There are as many as five possible candidates from New York.  Andrew Cuomo, despite his disavowals, is clearly and almost manically setting the stage to be "drafted".  Michael Bloomberg is straightforward as always, busy analyzing his chances and setting up behind the scenes support.  New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has unlimited ambition, despite his limitations that are obvious.  Hillary Clinton, having adopted the state, is absolutely willing to be pulled into the race as she and her husband are addicted to the spotlight. Her hints are transparent.  Then there's Kirstin Gillibrand, who looks at Obama's limited Senate experience before running and sees a model for her run, as well as being a more palatable female candidate than Hillary.

Kamala Harris is a star of the West, not enough experience to have much baggage but articulate and carrying a big blue state.  Cory Booker has made his exploratory work clear.  Eric Holder is doing some groundwork, but already seems to be a longshot, as his stature as a politician is much harder to see than his stature as a jurist.  Some talk about Mitch Landrieu of Louisiana, Terry McAuliffe of Virginia, and Martin O'Malley of Maryland, but anyone of those would need some major breakthrough to be viable.  Not likely,  but nothing is impossible anymore.  Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Steve Bullard of Montana, John Delaney of Maryland, and a partridge and a pear tree.

This year there is also a new category of candidate, strong losers.  Into that bucket goes Beto O'Rourke, the strong competitor to Ted Cruz in Texas and Heidi Heitkamp, who lost her Senate seat in North Dakota as she stuck by her principles, and voted against the Bret Kavanaugh knowing that it would hurt her chances(Kavanaugh is deeply flawed, not because of what may or may not have happened in high school but because he is a rigid right wing idealogue on many issues and an ardent Trump supporter, open to political driven decisions as a jurist).  O'Rourke taps into the deep nostalgia of Democrats for a Robert Kennedy style candidate who elicits real enthusiasm.

Then there is the celebrity and business crowd.  Oprah keeps saying no way but here name is kept alive by others.  Howard Schultz of Starbuck's success wants a role in civic engagement.  Tom Steyer has strong opinions that he backs up with activity and funds from his hedge fund success.  Mark Cuban?  There are more that are being missed here.

Key to all of this are the ambitions of perceived party stalwarts like Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren.  Biden is perhaps a viable candidate although a bit shopworn.  The opinion here is that Sanders and Warren would be poison for the party.  They would be far too left leaning for crossover Trump voters and anathema to the "deplorables". Yet they are clearly setting up for possible campaigns.  Those two love attention.  Without question, each of the three have significant name recognition so must be taken seriously.

Certainly, there are others that have been overlooked in this review of candidates.  Will this be interesting to watch or just painful?


POSTSCRIPT:  I have been alerted to the omission of Amy Klobuchar from this comment. That was not intentional.  She belongs in this list as well, and may be one of the few that could stand toe to toe with the hostile Trump and stay balanced and focused. 

Monday, November 05, 2018

Bryan Kemp, mid-term 2018 winner of most repulsive campaign...

It was announced this evening that Bryan Kemp, Republican candidate for Governor of Georgia, has won the hotly contested Virgil Goode award for most repulsive campaign in the 2018 mid-term elections.  As the current Attorney General for the state of Georgia, he backed up his consistent lies and bluster with blatant voter suppression action, excluding thousands of voters from the polls, primarily African Americans.  Yes Bryan Kemp, he approved his messages of divisiveness, and the phony twang with which it was delivered.

Thursday, November 01, 2018

Two highlighted NYT obits today --- McCovey and CIA writer... does that make sense...

Today's New York Times has two featured obituaries that have personal importance.

The first one concerned the death of Willie McCovey at the age of 80.  McCovey played for the Danville Leafs of the Carolina league in 1956.  The ball park was not far from our house and my parents would take their seven year old to games several times a year.  They would always have popcorn and they always let me have a Nehi orange soda, a major treat.  The stands were never too crowded and at one game I walked about ten seats down, stood over the home dugout behind the netting, and as Willie came out for a bat I yelled "hit a home run Willie".  He glanced and smiled, and then went to the plate and hit a hooking line drive down the right field line that just barely stayed fair for a home run.  I can still visualize the event today.

The second obit of note was of Victor Marchetti, who wrote the 1974 book "The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence".  It was a groundbreaking book at the time.  Why important to me?  At that time there were three goals in my life --- to become some sort of writer, to live in New York, and to travel internationally.  The last two were certainly achieved.  In 1974 I was living in Goshen, KY outside of Louisville, a teacher there.  To pursue that first dream I introduced myself to the book editor of the Louisville Courier Journal, at that time an esteemed regional newspaper.  She agreed to let me become a free lance book reviewer for the paper, and Marchetti's book about the CIA was one of my reviews that was published.  I worked hours and hours on that article, and $25 was my reward, actually not that bad, inflation adjusted.  That stint of writing reviews was the height of my writing career.

In 2003 I saw a game in Candlestick Park, and Willie was acknowledged by the announcer as being in attendance but I was not close to his wave.  Writing adequately was a significant positive for my career in banking, because it was not a widely held skill in that industry.


Sunday, October 28, 2018

Thoughtful comment, plus routine annoyances...

---"Waiting for Eden" is a special book.  This short and sparely written book is far more powerful than its size.  Sentences can be so perfectly written as to stop a reader in their tracks.  The author, Elliot Ackerman, is multi-tour veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.  The narrator is "just on the other side, seeing all there is, and waiting".  Eden was his fellow soldier and friend who survives a Humvee detonation, and the narrator watches his friend's wretched ruined life in a hospital while his wife tries to comfort him.  Not an appealing book to read?  That was my first thought.  Glad I ignored that first thought.

---Facebook's ad pop-ups have become incredibly annoying.  Am I wrong in thinking that the number has been expanding rapidly.  There are so many that are unrelated to me at all.  Targeting?  Logging onto FB at my desktop once or twice a day, opening up leads to a succession of annoyances that make thinking about doing what was intended almost impossible at the start.  Facebook sells these ads.  If my observation has any relevance, the companies that pay for them may be disappointed.

---Speaking of pop-ups, have others experienced on other sites ones that advertise something that has just been purchased?  Is that trying to sell you more or eliminate cognitive dissonance?  I have no need for more Jockey boxer briefs nor do I question my usual purchase.  Ever since an online order a few weeks ago, my free online access to my hometown newspaper has pop up ads seeking my attention for their products.  This is becoming Orwellian.

---My iPhone now has a revamped, or updated, spell check system that starts guessing words faster than I enter them.  On completely routine sentences it is successful at times but more often it just slows me down and, yes, the word "annoying" is again appropriate.  This is relatively new.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Brief comments once again...

---The entire pipe bomb scare seems a bit fishy here.  How could something so comprehensive be orchestrated and yet be done so ineptly?  Was it just done to screw with the public's mind before the mid-terms?  Was it just an example of what could be done?  Could it have played out just as the perpetrator designed or will we learn soon that it was some random crazy or two?  Not one pipe bomb go off, anywhere?  Thank goodness for that, but there is more to be learned.  Were they all just put together with a flaw?  More info needed.

---The equity market stays volatile, but it seems that lately the ups are not fully compensating for the downs.  It is certainly a stock picker's market for the first time in a while for those inclined toward risk.  After the big bump during the market day, there seem to be a few concerns about the earnings reports of Amazon and Google.  They look fine here.  It's also a nitpicker's market.  Still may decline over the near term.

---Saudi Arabian leaders seem to be following a Trump playbook.  Say one thing today, another tomorrow, repeat... They are buying time, and may succeed.

---The Red Sox look unstoppable.



Saturday --- seems now to be "some random crazy".  Of course I am well aware that Trump's incendiary remarks and contant lying at all times could lead to this, but if someone did not know that then they don't want to know that.  Meaning, why write about it.


Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Brief comments...

---Elizabeth Warren more or less made a fool of herself in the last day.  Her DNA test stunt will backfire.  Craving attention, she took up Trump on his challenge about her distant heritage and dropped right down to his level.  She would never win a national election, so can't be upset by her action.

---Melania Trump has taken a step into the media spotlight recently with her Africa trip and a major interview.  She should have stayed in the shadows.  With her callous right wing opinions she revealed, in her own words and her distinct accent, that she sounds like the way Nazis were portrayed in old World War II films.

---The stock market is having what is called an "oversold rebound" today.  The reason for the bounce back eludes me.  Steady as an investor, I don't mind.  Tech leads the way as that was being punished partially for political reasons rather than financial analysis results, so that makes sense.  The guess here is that when Jim Cramer on CNBC last Thursday was emphatic that it was far too soon to buy, shaking his head in his pompous way, that was the signal.  Time for a rally.  He is wrong more often than not.  Joking about his actual impact as he is a maven for retail investors, not real players.  What's next is unknown.

---Recently various pundits and supposed analysts on CNBC have once again begun touting international stocks as the right place to be.  For their audience, it is almost always the wrong place to be.  An investor can own international through multi-national U.S. stocks, and have the benefit of the most transparent capital market in the world.

---American League --- favor Boston for sure.   National League --- undecided, although leaning toward L.A., as Dodgers vs. the Red Sox would be like old time baseball card collecting days.  Who were the Brewers and Astros in the late 1950's.


Thursday, October 11, 2018

Market drops, Trump talks...

This is hardly worth saying.  When the market was going up, Trump took credit.  When the market has a correction, Trump goes into blame mode.  Saying the Fed is going wild, saying the Fed is loco, has gone crazy, has a ridiculous policy, and on and on.  No self reflection, no self control, no perspective, that's our President.

This is unprecedented, at least in the post WWII era.  When there is market turmoil the President, the regulators, and most responsible legislators band together to project a sense of calm and control.  This President goes on the attack, as if he has panicked too.  Today he commented on the Federal budget deficit(it is normal for any entity to borrow by the way) and said "I"am paying higher rates and "I" don't like it.  The Federal budget is his?  This is the rant of an aspiring autocrat.

We have a sense of why the market corrected yesterday.  The continuation of this substantial decline, sharply at day's end, could by some be partially attributed to a complete absence of executive leadership.  Will Treasury Secretary Mnuchin provide any substantive advice. No. Will the fawning Larry Kudlow do so?  Absolutely not. Pence knows nothing about markets. Wilbur Ross is napping.  Sarah Huckabee is yapping.  Melania is trying on shoes.  Hope Hicks is gone.  Who is in charge?  Is it just the fringe economist Navarro who has the President's short attention span working by talking in sound bites?

And on and on...

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Two hugely consequential events...

Here at 4pm, contemplating two major events today.  One is man made and on paper and one is from nature and will negatively impact countless lives.  The equity market's sharp decline would be major news on any other day.  With Hurricane Michael ongoing, it could feel inconsequential.

First, the market decline seemed overdue.  Equities kept edging up despite multiple reasons for concern.  Today it was not just rising rates or a few disappointments in earnings.  It was not simply a rejection of tech's dominance.  It was, at least for a day, a panic of portfolio adjustment.  Is it possible that the weather's unpredictability, the rapid surprise of the overwhelming power of this storm, made investors in mass question the vulnerability of their investment portfolios.  That may be a stretch, just a thought.

We will simply watch as the storm progresses, as the television news will show us the same segments over and over again.  Once again reporters will be holding onto street signs, wading through water, and struggling to stay upright.  It seems like a right of passage for the profession.  At this point, it appears that the devastation could be widespread.

It does put market events into perspective.


Thursday, October 04, 2018

Current events...

The article and photos on the Trump family wealth in the New York Times yesterday was almost unprecedented in length .  It covered two fifths of the front page and seven full NYT pages within the first section.  There were many things in the article that were familiar here, a few that will be mentioned.  A reader will only understand if they have had the patience to read the article.  Just to begin, the article begins with and at times reverts to many things that have been written about before in the paper of record and elsewhere.  Much more detail is added.  A few brief comments:

---With some knowledge of New York after having been here for 38 years, it can safely be said that what the article describes about Fred Trump's real estate business is, simply, the truth about how it works.  Lawyers are essential to get anything done, rule and regulation skirting is their job, documents are hard to pin down as accurate or not due to the overwhelming amount that exist, and who people know is immensely important.  Litigation is a part of the life.  That's where Donald Trump's fortune came from and that was well known.  Fred Trump worked within that system and would not have been seen as dishonest inside it.  He was a long term and valued client of several major banks, one of which was part of my life.  Compared to his father, Donald Trump was a different story, and that is not really news.

---Donald Trump was a successful self-promoter, working one creditor off against another until, by the early 1990's, no major New York bank did business with him other than operational services such as clearing.  Foreign banks and some U.S. regional banks trying to become big shots were his sources of bank funds after that time.

---One bizarre fact, totally new here.  The mailing address for the shell company that was a key part of the money laundering and tax evasion schemes of Fred Trump and Donald Trump is about one mile from our house on Long Island.  A senior Trump partner lived here, and ran the company out of his house.

That's enough.  More would be tedious, if this has not already been so.


Tuesday, October 02, 2018

Market comment...

Do I dare try to do this anymore?  The market today was relatively static overall, but it feels as if there is a rumbling of something to come, a tremor.  The climb of gold, GLD, was an unusual event relative to the past year.  Inevitably contrarian approaches to this market will arise, and the thought  always is whether someone knows more than others.  Someone does, but who.  That varies.  As an example, in a widely watched interview with Warren Buffett two weeks ago, he touted airline stocks as undervalued and suggested owning the big four as he does.  Having Delta and American here, they had a bump after that day and have been dropping ever since.  Oracle of Oh.

Facebook continued its collapse at the rate of 2% a day and until this abates, few will come in as it looks as if some major positions are being dumped.  Small fry like me just watches.  Two tech additions in recent months have been going in different directions, although both slipped today ---Roku down 5%, but no worry as it's been a rocket overall and Red Hat, -2% for today and down as a position.  Banks are stagnant recently as they should be.  They have done well and can sit and rest for awhile. They are not research plays, not even their own research for the most part.

So that's my two cents worth, if that much. Since CNBC is not a daily payment, is that saying this is worth something more.

Jonathan Miles reviews Gary Shteygart

The Sunday New York Times Book Review, 9/30, has a review of  Gary Shteygart's "Lake Success" by Jonathan Miles.  Miles has been a favorite, and he certainly does not overload on publishing.  As a reviewer of Shteygart, he is a good choice.  Humor is a central part of both author's writing, but done with skilled powers of observation that speak to serious issues as well.  About one third of the way through "Lake Success" at the moment, that approach seems to be on track.

There are two differences.  With Miles, when a book is finished, a bigger message resonates after all of the clever language and story lines are done.  With Miles, some major characters have depth even after the hijinks are over.  With Shteygart, a book can be immensely enjoyed during the read but, when the book is done, it is done.  If that makes sense.  Maybe "Lake Success" will be a surprise, but if not so what.  To quote the Miles review, "Gary Shteygart holds his adopted country up to the light, turns it, squints, turns it some more, and finds himself grimacing and laughing in almost equal measure."  A current book that can do that is needed.

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...