Tuesday, March 31, 2015

A taxing night

With an early doctor's appointment for K tomorrow, I went to bed early, or tried to do so.  Early bedtime is always a mistake and can send my mind reeling into unpleasant territory.  Tonight it was taxes, as all documents are expected by our wonderful accountant early Thursday, to discuss and for his analysis.

Having had an exhausting day, so much so that walking up the stairs was a concentrated effort, bedtime was a highly unusual 10pm.  It seemed like a reasonable idea at the time, having just fallen asleep while reading downstairs.  K was already asleep, preparing for our very early wake up time tomorrow. Getting into bed, I stretched and then just fidgeted, turned from my back to my side and back, fussed with the pillows, threw the comforter off and then pulled it back on, and worried about when the taxes would get fully assembled in an orderly way, taxes for K and I and both daughters.  The schedule was packed.

After two hours of restlessness and nothing else, as always happens in situations like this giving up on sleep is the only answer.  Trudging downstairs and having thought through exactly which desk to use and how to organize my work, staples, clips, folders, pads, while lying in bed, I had no choice but to get to work.  I was too tired to do anything else.  In this state of complete no-nonsense drudgery, the work was completed in not much more than an hour and a half without one pause for the kitchen or bathroom, about one quarter of the time that I feared while lying in bed in anguish.  There are still a few loose ends, but nothing that can be done about that now.

Now we get back to the question of falling asleep, but with at least the worry of the night already put to bed.  Or will there be more?

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Basketball and the financial markets

One would think that these two have little in common, and they would be right.  The first full basketball game that was watched here this year was last night's Louisville/N.C. State game.  It was a great tight tough game until the last five minutes, when my favorite Louisville walked or ran away almost easily.  Right now ESPN tells us that Notre Dame is leading unbeaten Kentucky with 10 minutes to play.  That will be one to check if it's close with five minutes left.

Right now the stock market, or financial markets in general, have my attention.  The Weekend WSJ is often a good read, both market stories and features.  Today a column named "The Intelligent Investor" suggests that "an average return of 2% annually, after inflation and fees, from a typical portfolio of stocks and bonds over the coming decade or so" is what many leading investment analysts expect. After our post great recession six year bull market in equities, that sounds almost preposterous, but is it.  Who would have expected the fixed income markets that have existed for the last six years, basically zero short term interest rates and having the ability to get a post tax return of no more that 1.5% for giving your money to the government or your bank for 10 years, that's 10 years.

So what's more interesting, basketball or the financial markets?  Which doesn't have advertising?Time to check on that game.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Resilient markets may present an even greater opportunity soon

This has been a noticeable week of correction for the U.S. equity markets.  There may be more of a correction soon that will just be a fake fade, and then lead to a better time to look for broad buying opportunities.

This is based on an observation of behavior here, so beware this self-centered analysis.  In general the approach to capital gains here is to balance them to minimize tax consequences.  There have been a couple of years when defensive or forced selling led to an imbalanced year, but the carry forwards from those two years, 2001 and 2008 roughly, led to easily maintaining that balance in a few years that immediately followed.  This year there will be more capital gains here than ever reported.

Why?  It simply became an awareness of the need for diversification and more liquidity as we inevitably get older.  It also seemed like common sense.  As we entered 2014 there were a handful of mid-cap and small-cap stocks that had gains of 500% or more over the past five years.  By any relative measure this had led to outsized positions, whether they had more potential or not.  The decision was made to cut those positions in half carefully during the year while continuing to manage the rest of the portfolio as usual.

So for this year capital gains will be much higher than ever before.  Everyone likes to think that they are a market experts or have some special sauce, but that is rarely the case.  If that was my behavior in 2014, the assumption can be made that it was the same for many others.  Being unaccustomed to this, the estimated tax will lag the need.  Some investors may find the need to raise liquidity as this process unfolds.  That means sell stocks. That means pressure on the market that will soon pass.

This is of course totally hypothetical.  Having not seen the thought written by others, the motivation to do so here arrived.

Saturday, March 14, 2015


This is a film that would never have been seen here had it not been nominated for an Academy Award as best picture. That's likely true for most readers here as it had only $12mm in U.S. box office receipts against a $24mm budget before the awards.  Going back to "Hurt Locker", one could wonder how these box office laggards, until Academy notice, become best picture darlings, but that's an issue for a later time.  "Birdman" needs to be seen here before further comment.

All of that considered, "Foxcatcher" was a film that was enjoyed here, and here is where films are mostly seen now.  A wrestling film, a grappler film, not a roundballer film, those are the high school thoughts that were an overlay to a possible attraction to this film.  Grapplers are ok, some of my best friends one could say, so why not try it.

Despite reservations before watching, the film was terrific on many levels.  Based on differing personal experiences here, the story focusing on athletes was palpably real, the exploitation of others by a semi-deficient or mentally ill rich scion of a wealthy family was real, the vindictiveness of the hyper wealthy when spurned was real, the earnest effort of the socially unknowing was real, and it was a darn good film with as much character development as most films allow.  Carell, Ruffalo, and Tatum, and Vanessa Redgrave, who in her cameo that was like a Maggie Smith on Downtown Abbey, were all convincing.  In fact Carell was repulsively so, to his acting credit I guess.  What a change.

Thanks Academy for the notice of a small unsuccessful film, but why do what could be viewed as somewhat of a resentful payback by not doing a critical evaluation and face off among the big films that pay Hollywood's bills.  There is no opinion in this comment(right John).  It is just an observation to be discussed at a later time. 

"Foxcatcher" is easily worth a look.

Friday, March 13, 2015

"Midnight in Peking" by Paul French

"Midnight in Peking" is subtitled, "How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China."  Set in 1937, it is a true crime story about the gruesome murder of a 19 year old girl who was the daughter of a former English consul to China, veteran China hand, almost lifelong Peking resident, and dedicated academic.  Based on extensive research that does what would seem like the almost impossible task of recreating something that occurred during that chaotic time, Paul French fashions a highly readable but at points almost too detailed book.  At its best it is compelling, almost spellbinding, reading and in its soft spots it goes into such historical and cityscape detail, repetitively at times, that the writer seems to take more joy in his research than he does in the mystery story that he unveils.

The book is characterized as non-fiction, but when the thoughts of characters are included in the narrative it could also be called historical fiction.  Which one is not really important except that it suggests that the book is a bit more ambitious than one that is strictly old school non-fiction.

When a book starts out with the discovery of a young woman's body being found near a tower that the local Chinese viewed as haunted, her death caused by multiple stab wounds that culminated in her body being cut open, her rib cage being pulled apart, and her internal organs removed, there is obviously some explanation needed.  Once she is identified, only because she was still wearing an expensive watch that few could have afforded, the anguish begins for her father and the community but no solution to the crime is forthcoming in the allotted 20 days for discovery in their system at the time.  The case remains open with few leads, and one Chinese and one English detective continue working together in a futile search for her killer or killers until they give up without results.

Her dour but brilliant elderly father doesn't give up as he relentlessly continues the investigation alone and he finally comes to some answers through his tenacious research and investigation.  Almost all is revealed as this story unfolds at the end.

The backdrop for this story is fascinating.  It is the time when the Japanese, the Nationalists, and the Communists are all competing for territory.  The Japanese are on the verge of a takeover of Peking, the communists are a rising threat, and the Kuomintang under Chiang Kai-shek have retreated south but remain a potent force.  Writer French provides significant historical detail on the developments during this period, interesting reading here.

Peking is run under an old China social order that is separate from the privileged foreign government representatives and business types as well as the many refugees of sorts - White Russians running from the Bolsheviks, Jews coming from Europe for supposed safety, and vagrants of all nationalities looking for a low cost lifestyle of opium and sex.  French seems to delight in knowing every nook and cranny of this 1937 city.

Not a book for everyone, but "Midnight in Peking" did well here.  A section of photographs is included which reinforces the reality of the book.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Ligaya Mishan's entertaining food writing

Exceptional writing stands out.  That's clear in the daily reading of the New York Times.  It's not at all widespread, but in the arts, feature writing, food, architecture, books, film, and many other areas of coverage there are occasional sparks of near brilliance and at times writers whose work if consistently read builds up a personal zeitgeist of sorts and becomes addictive.  The one-off great pieces are welcome while the consistent fine, thoughtful, observant, or entertaining writers are special.  The news sections rarely have writers in this category, the business section never, and the op-ed section, with a few exceptions, is going through a decline, as if that were possible.

Which brings me to the writing of Ligaya Mishan in her weekly "Hungry City" food column.  She covers mid to low priced restaurants, often ethnic food and mostly off the beaten path.  That gives her a massive amount of opportunities in the five boroughs to find interesting and exceptional food to write about.  As she has said, it's destination food in the sense that one might take a bus or subway to it, not a cross country plane.

Her writing simply has a certain zest to it, a life affirming beat.  There's almost always an edge of humor and the food described is often an education.  In yesterday's column she writes of the chef at Queens Filipino restaurant, "It's a career trajectory that could have easily led him to selling haute free-range kwek-kwek from a Smorgasburg stall.  Instead he's delivering straightforward comfort food - unmodernized, unexalted - with no concessions to Western palates."  That made me smile, but maybe it needs to be seen in context to fully get it.  I look forward to her column each week.

As a one-off, the article in this same week's food section, "A Grass-Fed Pioneer" by Kim Severson is completely entertaining.  White Oak Pastures in Bluffton, Ga. run by the colorful William Harris III is the subject of the article.  The farm that has been in his family for five generations is the largest and most successful purveyor of grass-fed, humanely raised beef in the eastern part of the country.  The writer creatively describes both the history of and the current cultural feel of the farm, and also has the good sense to get out of the way of her subject and let him talk.

The farm has broadened its focus to pigs, chicken, sheep, and goats, and Harris says, "I can't imagine going back to just raising cows, it'd be like watching one channel of black and white TV."  On getting his beef into Whole Foods, he described the process as "harder than me trying to take a calculus class in Russian."  On the possibility of shipping his cattle long distances to get processed, he explains that "it's like raising your daughter to be princess and then sending her to a whorehouse."  Most southerners have known characters like this and the writer let him shine through.

One-off is good enough.  Regular becomes a great part of the pattern of reading. 

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

"Ida", a special film

Last night we watched "Ida", the film that won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. Simple and profound, precisely filmed in black and white, it steadily evolved into having a "can't take your eyes off the screen quality".  The two lead actresses were exceptional.

The story, set in early 1960's Poland, is about a late teenage girl who leaves a convent that has been her home since almost birth to visit her one remaining relative before taking her vows.  Much is discovered and the film evokes the history of that era and what led to it by implication more than by any effort of clarification.  Having knowledge of history helps, which would limit its appeal in some places and in some age groups.  Even considering that, it is hard to imagine anyone watching this not recognizing the exceptional performance of the actress who plays Ida and her powerfully subtle on screen charisma.

An amazing fact is that after interviewing 400 actresses for the part and not being satisfied, the director was led to his nascent star by a friend who saw her reading a book in a Warsaw cafe.  She had no acting experience.

The highly regarded and experienced Polish actress who plays her aunt is a performer who gets completely and convincingly into her role, with unexpected nuance that makes flamboyance unnecessary.

With no background music other that what the characters themselves would actually hear, and the black and white film, this feels like an unusual movie from the outset as it slowly sets out on its tale. And what a fascinating and multi-faceted tale it is.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

"Our Kids", a comment on the NYT book review

Today's NYT book review section has a review of a new book by Robert Putnam, "Our Kids, The American Dream in Crisis".  The book has not been read here, in fact I had not been aware of it.  It's worth looking forward to reading this book by the author of which was, for me personally, a seminal book in the importance of political science and sociology, "Bowling Alone".

The review praises the book, but not uniformly.  To quote, the reviewer writes, "What he(Putnam) omits, however - sometimes maddeningly - is a discussion of the political or economic forces driving the changes he laments". 

From this intuitive perspective, it seems that painting the picture of the state of play of inequality for U.S. children in opportunity is the point of this sociology book.  Most likely this book will not be read by many readers of James Patterson or Nora Roberts novels.  If Putnam were drawn into discussions of political dysfunction, the increasing rightward swing of the Republican party, and the Koch brothers or Sheldon Adelstein, the book would have been weakened if not stained.  The readers of this book will want the lay of the land based on Putnam's research.  They will make up their own minds about the causes of the problems, and will likely be in a camp near the reviewer.  Why tell them what to think?  The reviewer also writes, "Perhaps Putnam's see-no-politics approach is a wily strategy for reaching the broadest audience".  Wily?

But what do I know at this point?  Reading the book comes next.  This is only an instant reaction to what seems like a misguided review.