Wednesday, May 25, 2016

"White Sands", a new book of essays from Geoff Dyer

A new book of essays by Geoff Dyer is always somewhat of an event here.  This latest did not disappoint,which is reassuring, but it also did not break any significant new ground.  It was an entertaining, wryly humorous, group of completely eclectic stories.  Events for Dyer's writing are just starting points for his wandering provocative thoughts that can hit a memory or a nerve at any time.

Many of Dyer's recurring themes are here.  Photography as an art form,  jazz and the musicians that have created it, certain writers such as D. H. Lawrence and Don DeLillo, eccentric outdoor art displays, and travel, always travel.  These essays span a distance between Tahiti, the Forbidden City, West Texas, Los Angeles, the plains of Utah, and northernmost Norway.  In a search for the Northern Lights, Dyer notes that the Norwegian word for stroll is best translated as "grim battle for survival".

The subtitle for this book is "Experiences from the Outside World".  That is one way to tie all of this together.  The favorite of the essays here was "Forbidden City", to some extent for personal experiences but also because the ending was left open, like life in an appealing way.  The concluding essay of the book, "Beginning", recounts Dyer's experience of having a minor stroke in 2014, totally unexpected and at first thought to be without any prior symptoms or habits that could have caused it.  In fact, several neurologists and specialists could not determine the reason for the stroke but it was completely evident on an MRI that he had one.  He recovered, and musing as the end of day in his Venice Beach bungalow, he closes the essay writing, "The water is glowing turquoise, the sky is turning crazy pink, the lights of the Santa Monica Ferris wheel are starting to pulse and spin in the twilight.  Life is so interesting I'd like to stick around forever, just to see what happens, how it all turns out."

Monday, May 23, 2016

Static equity market leaves investors guessing

Recent days in the equity market have seen a drop off in volatility and volume.  That will not continue and there will be a catalyst for more activity soon, but in what direction?  Given the lack of alternatives for income in the credit markets, equities will continue to be relatively attractive as a source of dividends and as opportunities for capital appreciation are buoyed by the continued need for a place to invest.

For now, real trading can begin.  The earnings season is finally over and all of the pundit sniping and attempts to draw short term conclusions after every report are done with for now.  Commentators will need to have something more substantive to talk about as they are not being fed new earnings reports every day to opine on off the top of their heads.  It is also increasingly clear that the Fed wants to raise rates soon, and barring some exogenous event of consequence they will do so.  No one will be blindsided by a rate hike.  No one will be blindsided by a major company or sector of the market reporting unexpected poor results.  We are in the clear.  "Real trading can begin".

Overall the U.S. equity market is not a bargain.  In many areas it appears to be priced within reason. At the same time there are no areas of the market that are in bubble territory, at least from this perspective.  That is especially the case as biotech has collapsed to earth in the last six months.  Areas that are ripe for some capital appreciation  now are banks, transports, and, as just mentioned, biotechs.

Like Schwab some months ago, Fidelity is now touting international stocks as an opportunity.  It's a big world and there will always be some country or area that outperforms but finding that benefit safely is not so easy.  Using discretionary mutual funds is what many suggest, but it is not clear that there is any consistent index beating strategy out there and fees for mutual funds that invest internationally are generally high.  That means looking for indexed ETF's or funds for an area or country with the wind behind its back, and that will be looked at here.  Since so many investments in corporates here are in ones with global operations, this does not feel like an urgent chore.

Money needs a place to go.  The thought here is that stocks will rise in the coming months, summer swoon thoughts put aside.  If there is a market reset for some reason, it will be followed soon by money coming back in at better prices.  If the market stays this boring, maybe that's what is needed.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

"The Noise of Time", a gem of a novel from Julian Barnes

This small book is a thumb nail biography of the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich.  Well known and highly regarded author Julian Barnes has researched the basis facts of Shostakovich's life, as well as some interesting factual asides, and inhabits the mind of the composer as he goes through his life, much in the way that Norman Mailer did with some of his more famous characters.

The book is also a critique of life in the former Soviet Union, and the background of fear that was always there for anyone with any stature at all, and consequently under Stalin for their families and acquaintances as well.  Honecker's East Germany and Saddam Hussein's Iraq can serve as two of the more apt comparisons, although China today is moving back more fully in that direction as children are trained in school to report on their elders.

The word "destiny" is a constant theme of this novel, even as it is described as "just a grand term for something you could do nothing about."  "Irony" is another frequently mentioned word, which sustained the fellow captives of their government until it "curdled into sarcasm.. Sarcasm was irony which has lost its soul."

In the last year or so,  I have given up trying to protect books that are purchased here.  Why even think that they will be saved by anyone or used by others.  I mark them up with abandon now, and none more so than "The Noise of Time".  There are phrases or observations on almost every other page that catch my attention, and in the event that I reread the book all of the highlights are mapped out.  There is much to savor in this meticulously written and penetratingly thoughtful book.

And then there is the focus on music, really any type of music, and under the state, the question of "whom it belongs to?"  Not being able to answer that question "was the correct answer.  Because music, in the end, belonged to music.  That was all you could say, or wish for.."

This is an exceptional literary work of historical fiction.  That's an opinion of course, but the book worked well here to say the least.

"New Yorker" treats

Anyone who visits this site regularly knows that the New Yorker magazine is well read here.  For the most part, what is in each issue is just accepted as already widely disseminated, but occasionally there are issues that require mention here.  The May 23rd issue falls in that category.

There are the usual items of interest in Talk of the Town and the critics section is solid.  There are three articles of exceptional note.  The primary one is Jonathan Franzen's article "The End of the End of the World".  It is about a cruise to Antarctica that he had a chance to take and, as is completely expected from Franzen, a veer off into a tale of his family.  The cruise is described in ways that make such a trip seem almost a life necessity, like seeing a complete solar eclipse of the sun at some point, and then if anyone wants to read about and learn more about penguins, I did, this is fine reading. The family tale is endearing and written in a way that is makes the routine seem incredibly important. The article reminded me of what a talented writer Franzen is, and that was needed as most recently I got lost in "Purity", his most recent mega novel, after having enjoyed his first two over the last twelve years.

The second article of special note was "Full Exposure", a portfolio of previously unpublished photos by Diane Arbus from the late 1950's and early 1960's.  Where else could a reader find something like this.  The third of somewhat lesser note than the first two is "Enter Left", a look at the unlikely rise of Jeremy Corbyn to be head of the British Labor Party.  The hook here is the mention of this phenomenon as somewhat parallel to the success of Bernie Sanders here in the U.S.

That's the May 23rd issue, but I can't sign off without mentioning George Packer's lead Talk of the Town comment in the May 16th issue.  That is the best clear and simple explanation of the Trump phenomenon that has been seen here.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The fascinating Kentucky Democratic party primary finish

Yesterday's closing votes in the Clinton/Sanders contest in Kentucky were highly entertaining.  With 96% of the votes in, Sanders had a slight lead.  Four or five counties in the state still had not finished counting all of the votes.  One of them was Jefferson County, that's Louisville and the metro area, and it is the largest county by population in the state by far.

The interesting thing was that in the hour before this, other counties were creeping along with their vote counts but Jefferson County had not budged.  It had 17% of their vote count to finish then and still had the same chore ahead.  If any county in Kentucky could be said to have a Democratic machine, it would be the one that Louisville calls its home.  It could occur to some cynics that this hold up could be a convenient way to see who needed how many votes.  Louisville was certain Clinton territory. As it turned out, as the state total votes counted moved from 96% to 99% Clinton jumped ahead.  She got a much needed win that was a face saver more than any real victory.

Someone should point this out to Bernie.  Since he's already "jumped the shark" with his supporters behavior in Nevada, this could only lead to a further red faced showing of different side of his persona. I have never used that phrase in speech or a written comment in my life, but two wonderful good humored people who once worked for me were always using it back and forth.  For the most part I had no idea what they were talking about.  Now we have a perfect example.

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Equity market is influenced in recent days more by the bigger picture

Macroeconomic issues are influencing the recent equity market's decline more than day to day or week to week data reports, or corporate earnings or outlooks.  China remains central to these macroeconomic concerns and it is clear that the growth outlook there is clouded.  For anyone that has tried to invest in China based stocks, the feeling may be familiar.  You can get an idea about the potential but the details are not available.  That is indeed the case for China as a whole now.  There is a feeling that is being developed that the Chinese growth story is being propped up by government intervention that will eventually not be sustainable.

Apart from that, Russia is in a dismal economic situation that will test Putin's nationalistic grip if it continues, and financial markets globally are being tested by the view of many governments that austerity measures in the face of economic adversity are the right course of action.  Then, of course, there are the dire problems in the Middle East and the curse of North Korea.  Top that off with a U.S. President that is already a lame duck in terms of any sweeping action or any significant credibility in reserve, and a Presidential race that is viewed as borderline insane by much of the world, add it all up and there are concerns far beyond the latest job claims numbers.

If the U.S. market's regular churn that is underway now is simply part of the ebb and flow of U.S. numbers and investor sentiment, the market will settle in at some level and reprice from there.  If global macroeconomic issues take hold, market predictability is less certain and will lead to a more defensive posture by investors.

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

"A Fine Line", a new English translation of a Gianrico Carofiglio novel

What a pleasure it was to find this book on Amazon.  It has been five years since there has been a new Carofiglio novel published here and it has led to a concern that his legal practice had overtaken his writing career.  Additionally, there have been a streak of non-fiction books read here, many excellent but the current one being read is a bit tedious.  To follow the story line of the one being read now, what could be a compelling read and may yet turn out to be one, knowing that a great aunt was in a hospital for the mentally ill or that a distant cousin committed suicide is not necessary.  The author seems to need to regurgitate absolutely everything he learned about the main character, Allen Dulles.

Relief was found by taking a break to read "A Fine Line".  Carofiglio is among a group of Italian crime writers that focus on solving the crime and not on the brutality of a crime, which is very different from American or British fiction of this genre.  Carofiglio's main character is an attorney who may as well be a private detective.  Of the three previous books by this author, this is by far the best.  The legal aspects of this case rule, and as usual the development of this main character Guido Guerrieri  takes equal billing.  As pure intelligent pleasure reading this book could not be more highly recommended, and it just might add to some personal insight as well.  Of course, each to his own as there are no guarantees.

To finish this comment, here are quotes from four pages in the book.  Out of context these quotes may seem trite and will possibly be meaningless.  They are not necessarily so when reading, but here's an attempt to give a better picture of what this book is trying to do, other than just solve a crime.

Page 115 --- "I remembered a sentence I had read a few weeks earlier:  It's never too late to be who you might have been."

Page 231 --- "Each of us, over the years, creates a character for ourselves.  One we identify with, which corresponds to a positive idea of ourselves, which encapsulates the qualities we like to think we have."

Page 243 --- "The important events of my life have happened by chance.  If there was a design, I never noticed it."

Page 275 --- "The true measurement of time is the unexpected events, the kind that change everything and make you realize how many other things happened before that you weren't aware of and should have been, and how many things you took for granted that will never happen again."

I don't know if this close of a book comment works, but it is now typed and is not being changed.

Tim Cook and Jim Cramer

For whatever misguided reason, Tim Cook seems to have locked onto Jim Cramer as his way to communicate with investors.  It is easy to imagine some clueless communications executive at Apple advising him to do so as a way to "open up" and differentiate himself from his predecessor.  This is such a major mistake.

Jim Cramer's influence, to the extent he has any, is with retail investors.  Mr. Cook, retail investors do not price your stock.  A set of major investors that are called by some "lead steers" drive the price of your stock.  To most of them, Cramer is an irrelevant blowhard. Cramer's focus is on increasing the audience of CNBC's business entertainment program, and thus his compensation, and in satisfying his massive ego.  Anyone who has watched him knows that he constantly changes his mind on stocks. He will aggressively pound the table on a stock one day only to change his mind, or be proved wrong, by the next week if not sooner.  Yet, Mr. Cook, you are regularly having interviews with him and even, at least once, answering his phone calls from his set on live CNBC.  Do you enjoy his obsequious questions?  Your fawning approach to Cramer is damaging your reputation and in consequence the view of your company.

Do you think that your predecessor would have ever paid such attention to any television pundit, much less an important analyst or investor.  No.  He saved his public exposure time for Apple announcements which were focused on products, but those presentations were also a chance for investors to size up Jobs and get an understanding of his thinking.  Cook, on other hand, has far too much availability as he opens himself up to the self absorbed Jim Cramer.

If there is a competent Investor Relations executive or consultant at Apple, they should know all of this.  Cook's pleasant soft Alabama drawl cannot overcome the damage that this is doing, and the fact that it is revealing how clueless he is about the investment community and how the market works.

Sunday, May 01, 2016

"Fraying at the Edges", a New York Times special section by N. R. Kleinfeld

This strong piece of journalism is in today's New York Times.  It details the beginnings of Alzheimer's in a 69 year old career minded woman of some means who lives in New York.  It follows her inexorable decline over three years.  To those who have watched loved ones or friends go down this trail, much of this will be familiar.  To my knowledge rarely has it all been written as part of one piece focused on one person with this amount of clarity and detail.  Even as the piece ends the subject is still a functioning person, dealing with her limitations, very aware of them, and in her own way studying her own illness with the help of her husband and Alzheimer's support groups and programs.

What was seen from this perspective was the path that my mother followed in her final five years, and I have never understood better what she was going through.  The parallels are many.  When visiting my parents in Virginia during her decline, I would at times invite friends over to the house for dinner, but alert them to the fact that my mother had Alzheimer's.  My mother would know their names, ask about their families, say all the right things, and the second that I would walk out of the front door with friends to keep talking as they walked to their cars they would say, "your mother seems exactly the same.  She could not have Alzheimer's."

The subject of this article initially was looked at in the same way.  My mother's natural good manners and a long time practice of deferring the spotlight masked the fact that she could no longer cook, other than her morning toast, and that her driving was limited to places she knew exceedingly well - the library, her doctor, the main grocery store, and a few other places.  The article was all so familiar. Even so the article gave me insight into how she was managing to cope, and hide what was really going on with her.  She loved to read, and I have always wondered what she was really retaining as she sat in the living room, away from the blaring television in the den, in her favorite chair with a book or The New Yorker.

The answer seems to be that linear stories and articles can entertain and be retained for a some time, but anything more complex does not work well.  That makes sense, and it was gratifying to finally feel like she wasn't silently sitting there pretending to read, or anxiously waiting.  During one of my last visits when she was truly "with it" but definitely into the middle innings of the disease, I took her to some concerts, rock and country bands, outside at a local park.  It was a casual not too crowded affair, free music sponsored by the town.  She was a musician and loved seeing any type of music anywhere, always had.  So she fit right in at the park, enjoying the music and people as we had a chance meeting with some long time acquaintances.  I started to step away with a friend to get a beer at nearby stand and she beckoned me back saying "I want one too".  Of course she did, she always had a beer at any even like this, from Jazzfest to Danville, and at 84 years old she deserved one.

Today another family member has Lewy Body dementia, and my layman's description of that disease is that it is a combination of Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, that has a few other unpredictable side effects. It seems to arrive and settle in much more rapidly than Alzheimer's and the time frame between diagnosis and the end of reading, driving, and cooking is short.  Nevertheless, the Alzheimer's characteristics described in the article are still relevant.  The ability of the afflicted to live with awareness in the present may be the same, and that can be reassuring.

As one can see from the reaction here, this article will likely trigger thoughts by many readers depending on their experiences with this incurable disease.