Sunday, July 31, 2016

Hillary Clinton's speaking style

Given that Hillary Clinton is running for President against a chronic and transparent liar, it can boggle the mind that polls show the race as being increasingly tight.  Whether Trump just makes things up like a pompous school boy, or simply does not know the facts is not important.  He feels free to say anything.   In addition, Trump does not explain policy choices, and seems to think that saying everything "will be great" should satisfy many of the American people.  That he seems to be right is troubling.

Could much of this be simply a matter of style.  During the convention one network had an interview with Cecile Richards, daughter of the late Ann Richards, who is a Democrat and a political activist of some renown.  The interview related to her strong support of Hillary Clinton, but of course reverted to a discussion about her famous mother, Ann's strong public speaking skills, and her sense of humor. In passing, Cecile said "and she never yelled".

That could be taken as message to Hillary, who continues to act as if she is a terrific public speaker. She is not and she should calm down.  She knows her facts and she knows her policy.  The public does not seem to want to see her more or less applaud herself.  She should make an effort to let the applause and the enthusiasm come to her, not from her.  That has been said here before, but when she finishes a speech after a "rousing" close, and then puts her hands up in the air like she has just kicked a field goal to win the Super Bowl, she is doing herself no favors.

Unfortunately, a sense of humor does not seem to be part of her DNA as a speaker.  Lightening up in other ways could be helpful if it is not forced.  Sometimes humor can show up when least expected if there is a more relaxed style.  

Saturday, July 30, 2016

"Heroes of the Frontier", the new novel by Dave Eggers

Almost everything Eggers' writes is read here.  It seems that each book that he chooses to write is unique.  There is a different pulse and intent to each one.  The stories and characters tend to be a different challenge to understand.

"Heroes of the Frontier" is the tale of a youngish middle aged woman, a dentist with two young children from Ohio, who abandons the tedium, or some might say regularity, of her middle class life as too many issues overwhelm her.  She tells no one and flies to Alaska with her children, rents an antiquated RV, and after a quick visit to see an unrelated "sister" in Homer, drives on with no direction known.  The novel tracks her adventures, missteps, and neurotic planning, all following little purpose other than getting away, disappearing.

Her relationship with her 8 year old son and 5 year old daughter are central to the story, and to her life.  This relationship is well handled, the dialogue is stellar, but as the story builds it becomes an increasingly tense plot for this little and carelessly adventurous family.  In fact, here the book became almost exhausting to read as it developed to a close.

If this is meant by Eggers to be analogous to life in general, it is to some extent a grim view.  Yet, the book does not end with defeat, and there is humor throughout, wry though it may be.  Instead it suggests a continuation similar to the saying "life goes on".

Having been in a slump of not finishing books lately, for some reason one excellent one and two where the verdict is still out, it was a relief to pick up a book that was compelling enough for a straight through read over several days.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Big news at Republican convention...

Melania admits that she liked Michelle's speech and echoed it.  One could think that is was the incompetence of her associates but as set up for women, beauty versus thought.  Could it be that they are not independent except in the minds of perverts like Donald.  Trump can count as a racist on more fingers than on my right hand, including women as a fairly large group.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Republican convention avoids content

Having watched, off and on, maybe two thirds of last night's Republican convention on PBS , it can safely be said that any detail of policy was completely ignored.  From stars of shows about dimwits to half known celebrities to the always rabidly attention seeking Rudy Giuliani, the only message was "trust Trump" or "Trump is a leader" or "Trump has your back" and on and on. There was no discussion of issues with any policy content whatsoever.

This may be the tone of the entire convention, and looking at the audience it seems as if they are fine with that.  Attacking Hillary Clinton in an ugly way was a highly popular approach by a few speakers and blaming all of the perceived ills of the country on the Clinton and Obama administrations must have been required of every speaker.  Wasn't there this person named George W. Bush in the middle there somewhere.

This week's The New Yorker magazine(July 25th issue) has an interesting article about the ghost writer of "Trump's" best selling book "The Art of the Deal", Tony Schwartz.  Schwartz, who wrote virtually every word of the book that Trump now claims to have written by himself, regretfully says that "I'll have to carry this until the end of my life".  He notes that "if Trump is elected President, the millions of people who voted for him and believe that he represents their interests will learn what anyone who deals closely with him already knows --- that he couldn't care less about them."

Essentially, he views Trump as an obsessive attention seeker, an almost psychopathic narcissist, who would be a disaster as political leader, a world leader for God's sake.  This is interesting reading, even if highly opinionated.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Republican conventioneers

What will bind together the folks attending the Republican convention?  This may be interesting to watch.  Will unanticipated speeches and crowd reactions be part of the event, or will they pull off a calm and somewhat routine series of evenings.

Thinking about who the Republicans are now, and what holds them together, these are some thoughts. The first two are easy.  First, there are those Republicans, maybe new Republicans but in the party, who are simply pro-Trump.  He says things that they have always wanted to say and he says them in unvarnished fashion.  They do not seem to need an overall vision from him or a cohesive thought process.  They like immediate thoughts, clear in their singularity.

Second, there are the anti-Clinton Republicans, many who have an intense dislike for her that has built up over the years.  They would vote for just about anyone nominated to oppose her, without qualification.

These two groups are solid although not necessarily in line with each other on many issues.

A third large group could be called the "aberrationists".  They are long time staunch Republicans that will always vote as a Republican, even if they view the Trump phenomenon as unseemly, out of the ordinary, maybe as transient, or maybe just as election politics.  They believe in the pro-business, smaller government, low tax, and social conservatism that has long characterized the Republican party, even if that "ideal" has not been completely accurate for many years.

The last group will be called the "cognitive dissonance crowd".  They both like and resent parts of government.  They want all of the benefits that they "deserve", but they want low taxes and minimal regulation as well.  This is not unusual, as coming up with the right formula for government to please all is not easy, in fact it is impossible. What makes them a group within the party is that Donald Trump exhibits no "cognitive dissonance" of any sort despite making comments that are contradictory or at times nonsense.  They want to be like him. They, for the most part, come from of the once dominant white middle class that is in disarray as it shrinks.

These observations about the Republican party are of course simplistic and not at all comprehensive. What they don't mention is anything about foreign policy opinions.  In the past some Republican candidates led their campaigns with foreign policy opinions.  Reagan did in his own unique way, and George H. W. and Nixon were passionate about their positions and opinions.  This year's Republican primary has been U.S. centric.  With terrorist attacks in this country and fraying race relations on the fringes as well, this may become even more of the case in the general election.  That may be good for Trump, as he is close to clueless about international affairs, while Clinton, like her or not, is well informed on that front.

On to the conventions...

"Lucky Bastard"

This was the ordered book that was referenced in the June 23 post here about the newest book by Charles McCarry.  This one was written in 1998 and, having just been read, it is understandable why it had not been highlighted  widely.  It is clearly unlike the many "Paul Christopher books" espionage books written by McCarry that were often excellent historical fiction as well as engaging reads.

"Lucky Bastard" is pure fiction, hopefully.  The basic story is about a man born in the mid-1940's who may or may not have been an illegitimate child of JFK.  He believes that he is, and he has an engaging personality that works with almost everyone, and opinions that shift constantly to maintain his good relationships with all.  He is chosen by the KGB while in his early college years to be someone that they could manipulate into becoming a powerful politician.  Without him being aware of that, they succeed in their efforts.

This character, Jack Adams, is himself a skillful manipulator of others, reasonably smart and is more than a bit of a perverse sex maniac.  This aspect of the novel seems overdone, weirdly so relative to McCarry's previous work.  Overlooking that strange excess, the book is entertaining, at times humorous, and at other times, unfortunately, seems to be somewhat relevant to the current election season.  While not historical fiction, could it possibly be prescient fiction?

Thursday, July 07, 2016

Too much to write about... a fallback on financial markets

When it comes to both the financial markets and election season politics, there is so much that could be written about that it has led to a mind block here.  The latest black on police and vice versa does not help at all either, it's just something heartbreaking beyond comment. Where does one start when there is so much going on.  Maybe it's the summer heat that has led to this way of thinking.  My Texas friends would suggest that a glass of hibiscus iced tea might help, and this afternoon a pitcher will be made.  For now, here is an effort to make a few comments on financial markets, which is a usual safe starting place.

To say that things are unsettled in the global financial markets is an understatement.  While in fact bond and stock markets have been relatively stable if one overlooks week to week volatility, in fact our little eight portfolios are each having a positive year, it is unclear if anyone has a clear insight into where events will take us.

There were three events this week that were notable here, so far.

First was the suspension of trading, meaning no redemptions allowed, in a $3 billion Standard Life run U.K. real estate fund. That is only one of their many overall funds(good new, bad news?) Standard Life is a long time pillar of Scottish pension and trust investing, and one of the largest, maybe still the market leader.  This action suggests a lack of liquidity in the market, which hopefully will not lead to any forced redemptions by that firm.  It is almost certain that some smaller funds of this type are taking the opportunity to bail out now.

When the formerly highly respected, these days less, Third Avenue Funds Management, stopped redemptions and decided to liquidate their $800 million high yield fund several months ago, it disrupted the markets here for a few days.  It certainly further damaged the already languishing reputation of that firm.  Any repercussions for Standard Life or U.K. property market seem muted from here, but actions like this can take months to play out.  It is not a positive sign.

Second has been the "in process" crisis for Italian banks.  Their credit profiles are poor and with an aggregate 17% of all loans in the banking system rated as non-performing.  This is the worst level among European banks, and will almost certainly get much worse as collateral turns out to be, practically speaking, illiquid, as the Italian legal system bureaucracy is so bloated and antiquated that it barely functions if at all.  Further aggravating the problem is the fact that the Italian banking system is among the least innovative in the world among larger countries, and basically is just a deposit and lending system, almost completely lacking in investment management or other financial products. What that means is that in this interest rate environment, Italian banks are unprofitable even before any credit losses are factored in.  A bailout by other banks is difficult to imagine, as it could lead Portugal, Spain, and any other stressed system to expect that similar relief would be available.

Third is the shrinking of the commercial loan market in the U.S., mainly due to real estate.  The great recession's real estate illiquidity was based in home mortgages as all know. Commercial real estate behaved like most commerical businesses at that time, meaning some fine, some ok, some under pressure.  Today the securization market for commercial mortgages is broadly weak and more expensive if it can be accessed at a time when maturities are coming due from the late 2000's.  That is not a good omen for continued economic growth.

There are many other things one could worry about, but also many that are positives such as employment growth and some increase in consumer spending.  There are also two powerful overhangs on the market...  the election and ISIS based terrorism.  These are not possible to quantify.

despite all of this, the minimal other attractive investment opportunities with any yield of consequence make the stock market, at the moment, continue to be almost a safe haven, done conservatively.  Investors need to be there.  If it does go down, it will be in lockstep, stock picking almost irrelevant, as overall valuation would be the major question.  That's not a pretty picture to think about, but we all have mattresses.