Monday, October 31, 2016

"All That Man Is", an unusual novel from David Szalay

This book has received significant attention in the U.K., and is building a following in this country. While called a novel, it is not one story in a traditional sense.  It is a series of nine vignettes of 35 pages or so, stories about different men at various stages of their life.  It is sequential, starting with two 17 year olds on a trip around Europe before beginning college and finishing with a man in his mid-70's who feels young in his mind but whose abilities and health are in a pronounced decline.  The only link among the nine tales is that the man in story nine is the grandfather of a youth in story one.

This is not an upbeat book.  There are good times and sad times throughout, but the tone is one of inevitability at all ages .  It is written with a stylish noir quality that makes one wonder if this is an almost impossibly hip book for now, or one with the longevity of a classic about this particular point in time, not such bad choices. Toward the end of the book there is a Latin phrase that is used to pull together some aspects of the novel.  It translates into "Let us love that which is eternal and not that which is transient".   That could be applied to an effort to understand and appraise "All That Man Is".

There is no question that the book is well written. It is.  That it is more thoughtful brooding than uplifting travel thoughts is not an obstacle, it is more the price of admission to Szalay's exploration of today's Europe.  Settings include Croatia, Berlin, Italy, the French Alps, Cyprus, and Prague.  Each of the stories stands on its own.

What is the attraction here?  Is it entertainment, enlightenment, or informed apprehension?  Each reader will determine that.  That many of the reviews in the U.K., --- in The Guardian, The Financial Times, and the London Review of Books among others --- are so positive must mean that Szalay is on to something that resonates now, at a minimum.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

A look at the past... Greece and Istanbul Part 1

Kathy referred to her parents as Mom and Dad, for me it was Mu-chin and Fu-chin, and for our daughters they were referred to as Pao Pao and Gung Gung.  Here is some information from the past, learned here over time, but limited in depth now.  Pao, the Mom, and Gung, the Dad, will be used as their names here.

They met at the University of Missouri* in 1947, where Gung was working on a masters degree in political science and Pao was taking undergraduate courses.  Being from China, they came from well to do backgrounds, but very different ones.  Gung was from from a Cantonese family that had moved to Fiji from the mainland sometime in the late 1930's possibly.  His father was successful in business and the family was part of the commercial and political class.

Pao was part of the Mandarin class and lived in the Beijing area, at times in the Qingdao area, and in summers at a mountain retreat for the wealthy.  At that location, they lived near Chiang Kai-chek and Pao told us that when he took his regular morning walks he would stop by their house or yard, and pat her on the head as she was a child. Her father was at some point the mayor of Qingdao and he became the Head of Transportation for the nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek.  Kathy has a photograph of that family from when Pao was young, a photograph in front of what can only be called a stone mansion, with a large 1930's Buick parked out front(that photograph is on the wall of the "library room" in our basement now).

In 1948 when Mao took over control of China, and Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan, the parents of Pao and Gung both told them to not come back to China.  History books tell us that there were approximately 5000 Chinese in the U.S. at that time in their situation, and they were allowed to stay and seek resident status.  Pao and Gung were married around this time, when and where is not known.  They left school when their access to funds dried up, and first moved to California and found the only jobs they could, basically the equivalent of migrant workers.  That was not attractive so they found their way to New York City's Chinatown area where Pao's family had contacts.

They eventually moved to a row house in Queens but started out living in Chinatown.  Gung initially worked as a busboy, then a waiter, which is hard to imagine, and told me that when they first moved to New York that he "didn't have a god damn nickel to buy a Coca Cola".  Finally he opened a small store on Division St. in Chinatown selling various types of food and items of interest to those who lived there. In the back of the store, using a few large barrels, he grew beansprouts to sell.

In the meantime, Pao had their first child, a daughter.  The order of all of this is not completely right, as that daughter may have been born in Columbia, Missouri, which bumps some of what has just been written above up a year or two.  Generally speaking, what is written is accurate but the timeline might not be.

As the incredibly hard working Gung began to prosper, they did move to Queens and he and Pao became well known in the New York Chinatown community.  Pao also established and expanded contacts with people with mandarin backgrounds who had moved to the U.S., pre-Mao or just after somehow.  They knew of her family and a few had known them in China.  They created a tight knit community of friends.

With Gung's success, he bought a building at 142 Mulberry in the mid-1950's and built a bean sprout factory in the basement with imported German machinery that handled all of the water that was needed.  He was on his way*.  This building in Little Italy was across the street from the Columbo family's discreet headquarters which may have been awkward, but family lore, definitely accurate, is that rival Italian gangsters started beating up the Columbo head's son on Mulberry Street, and Gung went out and fought them off.  A mad Gung Gung in a fight would have likely been unstoppable, even if he was a small wiry man.  The Columbo's treated him like one of their own after that.

Pao and Gung had a second daughter, Kathy, in 1952 and a son in 1954.

That's it for today, subject to edits.

*apparently the University of Missouri was known at that time for being hospitable to students from China and there were a number others there as well, 25 or 100 or somewhere in between,  I have no idea.

second*  By the mid-1960's, 142 Mulberry was the largest producer and distributor of beans sprouts in the northeast, distributing not only to restaurants but to grocery store chains like Waldbaum's. They were sold under the name "Sun-Mee Sprouts".

Postscript:  in the early 1960's the family moved from Queens to suburban Roslyn on Long Island.

Friday, October 28, 2016

A look at the past... my parents

A daughter asked that I write some stories about the past, looking at history related to her grandparents and her parents, aka me and Kathy.  As she noted, we have talked about spending time on this but when we get together there is never enough time.  The purpose of this comment is to get the information out, and the goal is not perfect writing.

So, this is a start, with a look at my parents, her grandparents on my side, before I was on the scene. There is no one around to corroborate what is written here, and what is known here is no doubt incomplete.  Nevertheless, here goes.

My parents met when they were both working at Burlington Mills, then the largest textile company in the world, in 1940.  How they met I do not know.  My mother had graduated from high school in 1937 in Hillsborough, North Carolina but, unlike two older siblings, there was no money for her to go to college, as the family needed to save money for her younger brother to go to college, more important at that time.  She took a short secretarial school course in Greensboro and got a job at Burlington.  She was good at the job, and ended up being one of the three secretaries for Spencer Love, the founder and CEO of the company.  In that role she traveled to the New York corporate office regularly, staying at a hotel for women only on the east side of Manhattan.  She traveled to Palm Beach often as well, as Mr. Love had a home and a staffed office there.  She also spent time in Washington, D.C. as Love became a "dollar a year" executive for the Roosevelt administration during the war.

My father had studied accounting at Roanoke College, his father's alma mater, about 30 miles from his hometown of Bedford, Virginia, and working at Burlington was his first job.

My parents were married sometime in 1942.  The war had just started for the U.S., and my father was in the equivalent of the "reserves" at that time.  He had graduated from college in 1939, and had been in ROTC.  Then, as part of a reserve corps, he took flight training.  So, like many other couples at that time, the catalyst for getting married was the fact that he was leaving or in training.  After a few months of initiation to the Army Air Force, he was transferred to Brazil, which for some reason had a training base for pilots and was a holding area for planes and equipment.  Then to a base in India. Then he went to Kunming, China to join the Flying Tigers. All new and strange for a small Virginia mountain town boy.

The Flying Tigers had been a "covert" operation run by the OSS to support the Chinese nationalists in their fight against the Japanese.  Once war was declared, they officially became part of the Army Air Corps.  My father was a second lieutenant and a co-pilot on B17 missions to attack air fields and ports controlled by the Japanese.  Sometime in 1943, his plane was badly damaged by Japanese artillery fire but they made it back to a field near its base and crash landed successfully.  His main injury was some sort of serious sinus disruption as at higher than normal altitudes in an attempt to avoid the artillery, the pressurization of the plane, to the extent it existed then, did not work.  He was transferred to an Army hospital in Miami for treatment and recuperation.  My mother met him there, and decided to leave her job in North Carolina.

After his recovery, they lived in Pensacola, Florida, then San Antonio, Texas, and were in Enid, Oklahoma when the war ended.  In each of these places, he was a flight trainer.  In each place, my mother was able to find secretarial work.

When my father was released from the service, they returned to the Virginia/North Carolina area to look for work.  One of the former senior executives of Burlington, a Mr. Rowe, had moved to a senior role at Dan River Mills in Danville, Virginia.  He knew my mother's skills and experience, and offered her a job as soon as she applied, and then found an accounting job for my father.  They moved into an apartment on West Main St. in Danville in 1946.

And that's it for today.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

"The Unconnected", George Packer's comment on the election in the 10/31 New Yorker magazine

The subtitle of this article is "The Democrats lost the white working class.  The Republicans exploited them.  Can Hillary Clinton win them back?"  The address of the article is "".  This is not a link, but it can be typed in.

While Packer is certainly no fan of Donald Trump, most of this article is an even handed look at the evolution of the Republican and Democratic parties over the last 40 years.  As one would expect from the Pulitzer Prize winning writer, it is both well done and entertaining.   It is recommended.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Dueling headlines... Economic uncertainty continues

"City Construction Set to Beat 2007 Peak"

"Tech Investors Grapple With Where to Bet"

"Search for temporary workers started in August, a sign of tight labor market"

"Echoes of Financial Crisis As Countries Hoard Cash"

How does one reconcile these headlines picked out from the Wall Street Journal and The New Times today?  There's significant new money being invested in New York commercial real estate, finding workers for the holidays is a challenge, capital is pouring into tech venture funds seeking the next big opportunity, and European and Asian countries are dealing with saving gluts and seeking safe havens for money that is not finding attractive choices for reinvestment.

It's the dilemma of these times, and what is largely responsible for the low to no interest rates in many countries.  How to maintain growth in China, Europe, and prosperous Asian countries is not clear.  Corporations in general have become increasingly cautious, preferring to spend on stock buybacks, dividends, and generous options for corporate insiders rather than R&D and new projects. The U.S. continues to balk on new and necessary infrastructure spending with its Congress of economic lightweights, as well as safe seat seekers and keepers who are afraid to be leaders. That may not change, despite the election results.  China moves the chess pieces around at its discretion so that anyone who claims to know the growth rate there is just guessing.

It is difficult to be comfortable with new investment and new capital spending in this environment. In many areas of possible investing, the next big thing is not clear.  As an example, Google has made significant investments in imitating Apple recently, a smart competitive move but not especially incremental to the overall economy.

Regardless of the ease of index investing and the inclination by many to make no changes, the thought here is that this is exactly the time to look at allocations carefully, even if just the mix of indexes, and make portfolio changes so that there will be minimal regrets when it's time to hit the mattresses.  At least whatever happens will reflect choices.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

"Chasing the Last Laugh"

This is a history book of the world in the 1890's just as much as it is a story of Mark Twain traveling the world at that time.  Subtitled "Mark Twain's Raucous And Redemptive Round-The-World Comedy Tour", Twain takes this year long trip with his wife and youngest daughter as an attempt to dig his way out of bankruptcy, an unlikely bankruptcy as a result of his rash investment decisions.

Written by Richard Zacks, the book is consistently amusing.  It is history made exceptionally interesting.  It now sits at a place on the kitchen table here, available for times to be read.  Halfway through, I can tell that it will be missed when done.  Unlike a novel, it can be picked up at any time even as other books and articles are being read that demand either continuity or immediate attention.

Apart from the successful money earning tour, the book takes Twain and his family to Paris, Vienna, London, San Francisco, Connecticut, and New York City to live for interludes, at a time when considerable travel was obviously not commonplace for most people.

It is an addictive reading experience that will send me looking at other books by this writer.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Planned or prescient --- 2nd debate comments foreshadow last night's debate

At the end of the second presidential debate, an audience member asked if, in closing, the candidates could say one positive thing about the other.  The moderator asked Trump to reply first, he said nothing, so Clinton jumped in.  She said that Trump's children were able and devoted, and that reflected positively on Trump.  Trump, with time to think, then said the he admired the fact that Clinton "doesn't quit, doesn't give up, and is a fighter".

With Trump not willing last night to commit to accepting the results of the election, unprecedented for a candidate, these comments have added meaning.  Trump stated that there are millions of registered voters who should not have the right to vote.  The stooge Giuliani repeated before the debate that the Democrats control the inner cities where voter fraud is rife.  There is no basis in fact for either of these charges, but Trump persists with his "rigged election" statements.

He is, to be blunt, saying that he will not accept the election results if he does not win.  He is a litigation king in the real estate world and this is beginning to look like his fallback, more than just a face saving charade.  His comment about Clinton in the last debate was actually a comment about himself, the person that he admires the most.  Clinton's comment about his children reflects the possibility that they may be the only people able to rein their father in.  Ivanka and Chelsea are apparently good friends.

Trump is known for not playing by rules.  In business, his bullying and belligerence may work, and looking at his deals for tax abatement it seems that they do.  In the basic fundamentals of our democracy,  this is not acceptable.  He is threatening the American voters with an "elect me or else" statement, equivalent to saying "I will mess you up".

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The last debate tonight

What happens tonight in the debate between Trump and Clinton is not really looked forward to, more dreaded than seen as something to enjoy.  If it could be constructive and issues focused on, that would be welcome.  With Trump's antics and front row invitations, that seems unlikely.

Trump's rants about a "rigged election" should not be debated.  They should be dealt with quickly and dismissively.  Clinton surrogates, including her unimpressive campaign spokesperson, have said that since Trump is losing his comments about the election are a last ditch effort.  Advice to Clinton from here would be to not declare victory too soon and just try to discuss issues at every turn.  When Trump brings up e-mails, the Clinton foundation, and speaking fees, deal with them succinctly and move on.  When Trump says things like "she meets in secrecy with international banks to plot the destruction of  U.S. sovereignty", just say that is a complete fabrication and absolutely incorrect.
Don't debate lies.  If Trump brings up the ridiculous Rudy Giuliani or the patsy Chris Christie, just roll your eyes and ignore him.

Remember readers during the primaries when the debates were entertaining, at times a reason to laugh.  Here it's difficult to get back to that frame of mind.  Hillary Clinton is who we have, issues notwithstanding, and Trump is becoming more unhinged and repulsive by the day.  It is not out of line to say he is becoming "dangerous to our democracy".

The most disturbing aspect of this election is how many voters, even if no more than an astounding 40%, seem to be all in for Trump, regardless of what he says.  Ha Ha Ha... not laughing here now but hoping to be in a more detached mood by debate time tonight, looking for the absurd rather than the pathetic.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

"The Wangs vs.The World"

This is a first novel by Jade Chang, about whom there is no information.  There must be, but none was discovered here.  How the book found its way into my hands is unclear but, always searching for new reads, it was discovered.  The book was published earlier this month.

It's a family story.  The father, Charles Wang, is a Chinese immigrant to the United States, coming from Taiwan but originally from a prosperous mainland China family that was disrupted by the conflicts of the 1930's and '40's before his birth.  He becomes highly successful as a cosmetics manufacturer in Los Angeles. With three children, the death of their mother in an accident, and then a second wife, from Taiwan, he spends freely until making, and doubling down on, a terrible business decision in that rough year 2008 and loses his fortune.

The family's way of life is completely disrupted, major house in Bel-Air foreclosed, and the children, ages 16, 21, and 28, are gathered up in L.A., Phoenix, and upstate New York.  In the process, a road trip across the U.S. is undertaken and the family both connects and disconnects in ways that are hopeful and distressing.  The ultimate goal of Charles Wang is to go back to China to reclaim his ancestral property.

This book goes in too many directions to detail.  There are portions about finance, banking, and the art world that are both high brow clichés and yet still well done, at time humorous.  There are the perils of the road, bad motels, unpredictable food, and the varied reception that awaits them as they travel.

This is not a great book. It's good enough, and has a strong dose of realism about today's world. Depending on one's perspective and experience, it still can be one that is difficult to put down.  One could think that it is largely autobiographical.  It worked well here.

In Hillsborough, North Carolina?

Initial reports of the firebombing of a Trump/Pence headquarters in North Carolina stated that the location was Raleigh, NC.  Hours later it mentioned the place as the Orange County headquarters of that campaign.  Yesterday the location was pinned down, in national media, to Hillsborough, the county seat.

That was somewhat of a shock.  The town is known well here as it was my mother's birthplace and the long time home of my grandmother.  This historic town, founded in 1754, was the center of North Carolina's government during the Revolutionary War in the 1770's.  It is unclear how much it grew during the 200 years after that, as the average population was 1,400 in the 1950's, '60's, and '70's when I visited often.  It was a quiet and friendly small town, with a sense of pride.  My history focused grandmother seemed to know everyone there, or at the least she was able to talk about them.

With its attractive location, from the 1970's on it increasingly became home to academics from UNC and Duke, and to literary figures or aspirants who liked the fact that it was a small affordable town with an unusual number of well educated and well informed citizens.  With a population of 6,000 now, it has changed significantly, but the center of this small town still looks the same(at least it did the last time that I was there for a funeral service, in 2006).  The marker in front of my grandmother's former house was still there, "The Piano Teacher's House", but it was beginning to be impinged upon by untrimmed shrubs.

This home sweet home for an extended family is such an unlikely place for an act of political violence.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Wells Fargo just wants the problems to go away

There was a comment here on September 23rd about the Wells Fargo customer fraud issue.  While recognizing the seriousness of the charges and the appalling longevity of the problem, the comment here was that the firm's overall good reputation and low key management team would mean they get through this without major disruption and that the stock price probably already reflected the damage. In fact, the question raised was whether the stock should be bought at time, after its fall.

That is still a legitimate question, but maybe for later.  The "low key" style of management has been far too subdued at present, giving the distinct impression that they wanted to say as little as possible and let the problem disappear out of the news cycle.  It has not.  Tim Sloane, the ultimate insider, has now been named CEO.  This could almost be compared to the situation of one of their acquired companies eight years ago.  That was when, after as series of ridiculous acquisitions, Ken Thompson was fired at Wachovia, and corporate insiders were assigned the CEO and Chairman tasks, on an interim basis.

Tim Sloane could very well be an interim CEO for all practical purposes if he continues speaking in platitudes with the usual clichés, that do not acknowledge the significance of the punishing cross selling culture that management had put in place, and bragged about for many years.  If, it was mainly for investor's ears, that all turns out to have been largely a charade, it will lead to a languishing stock price for the foreseeable future.

With the existing customer base in retail that is their primary target for growth, no nationally focused card seeking non deposit customers for example, Wells is in a bind.  It was surprising to read that they have far more far more branches than Bank of America. They are expensive*.  In corporate and international banking, Sloane's expertise, they are no powerhouse.  They get their deals by being the most accommodating, not by being among the most innovative.  To realize real growth there while up against JPMorgan, Goldman, and Citi is unlikely.

This debacle has pulled back the curtain on some issues at the firm that had not been focused on by many.  Management needs to project a more serious and urgent approach to these problems if it is to be effective.  They need to detail some truly disruptive and creative change, which they clearly do not want to do.

*There is a Wells Fargo branch in our small town.  It opened around 8 or 9 years ago, and rarely is there any sign of significant foot traffic in or out of the building.  It took the place of a long established family hardware store that apparently could not develop a way of continuity for the store within a large family, and, of course, its business had over time been affected by Home Depot and Lowe's outlets in nearby towns.  It's in a large space with a large parking lot in a town that is always tight for cars.  The Wells lot stays empty most of the time as it is monitored.  We have an account of some consequence there due to one need  years ago, and go in from time to time.  It is always empty. There is only one banker on the relatively vast floor plus usually one or two tellers.  The branch seems to have limited ties to the community.  As it stands, it is unlikely that it is profitable.

There are five other banks in the four blocks of downtown, more banks than pizza parlors, but not nail salons.  Two of the banks are long established Chase and Citi locations that are fully staffed with mostly local people.  They thrive.  One wonders, why does Wells persist here.  Is there more going on than a customer scam.  Could it be kickbacks to senior managers?  Highly unlikely, but everything about Wells Fargo will be questioned in the near term, with thoughts possibly similar to that. 

Thursday, October 13, 2016

"The New Yorker" continues with fine articles

From time to time there is a comment here about articles of note in "The New Yorker" magazine. They keep coming.  Last week's two best were "Trumptown" by Larissa MacFarquhar, a writer not previously known.  Subtitled "How a West Virginia county turned deep red", it does in 12 pages what many reviewers have tried to ferret out of the jumbled but well received book "Hillbilly Elegy" about any impact on this election.  Also in the issue is "Adding a Zero" --- "Sam Altman, the Yoda of Silicon Valley" by staff writer Tad Friend. This can give one enough information to pretend they know what's going on there, and it does that well and in an almost intimidating way.  Who can compare to these young brainiacs there.

The latest issue has Ryan Lizza, the political reporter of the magazine writing an article, "Taming Trump", that looks at the tribulations and, maybe, successes of the third manager of that campaign.  It remains interesting even on this depressing subject.  The there is the exceptionally informative article by Dexter Filkins about Fethullah Gulen, the iman in the Poconos, and his influence in Turkey.  From reading magazine reports and NYT stories, the impression here had been that Gulen's beliefs were simply being used by Erdogan as an excuse, in recent years, to continue to consolidate all power in the country, moving it from a marginally secular democracy to an eventual dictatorship that takes advantage of the strong belief in Islam by many in that country.  Filkin's describes Gulen's influence as one who is a spiritual guide for millions who oversees a world wide network of charter schools.   His view of Islam is viewed in the West as being more liberal than that of the Islamist leaders of Turkey.  There was much new information here.

David Remnick's profile of Leonard Cohen is still ahead, looking forward to it.  

Postscript, 10/14 ---The Leonard Cohen article is exceptional.  That comes from one who never bought one of his albums.  I did enjoy his subtle popular poetic anthems of the 60's and 70's and have followed his life story.  Close friends have been serious devotees, notably a long ago girlfriend in Phoenix who played the guitar and sang his songs wistfully, and two college friends in D.C. who have Cohen as one of those at the top of their pantheon of songwriters/musicians.  The comments on aging in this piece are interesting, as should be the case by one who has been an "aging" philosopher for most of his life.  And, the photo is a hoot, almost a caricature of what one of my friends may well look like and dress like at that age.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Amazon's allure

Over a month ago, Amazon stock was purchased here at its lofty price, now loftier.  The stock had been owned here in the late 1990's and sold for a nice gain, or so I thought at the time.  Clearly it was sold far too soon, and the same was done with Chipotle and Regeneron.  Some like Google and Apple for a very long time and Visa, Netflix, Facebook and others over the last seven years, have been buy and hold names. I don't want to look at more names that were sold too soon or those on tears in the the late 90's tech boom that were not sold soon enough, like ATHM.  These decisions back in time were just part of the game.

Back in Amazon now, as it has a franchise that has no limit to its ambitions.  With its leadership role now in cloud computing(how did that happen), its "focus?" on selling almost anything and everything, its Prime package that becomes more and more of a value as its customers use it, including video streaming, and the Echo product with Alexa that can now include music streaming, they are not stepping back.  They are attempting to create an integrated purchase system that is akin to Apple's communications systems and Google's search systems, ubiquitous oligopolies as a result of user choice.

The recent new Amazon experience here is with grocery and consumer product delivery.  It's exceptionally convenient.  Everything from paper towels, to detergent, over the counter medications, bottled water, salad dressing and many common grocery items is available, although they don't come close to having all brands and products, yet.  Prices are as good as can be found, at times much better. Advil was part of a delivery here, and what was chosen looked like the price that had been paid at the local pharmacy. It was, but the container from Amazon had three times more tablets.  Getting the first large box received picked up off of the front stoop was a bit of an effort, but apart from that it was a welcome time-saver and value.

In this social network dominated and sharing economy, it seems that companies move to being oligopolies rapidly, relative to the past.  When a company makes that move, and embeds itself into the habits of consumers, it can obviously be powerful.  Can they keep growing?  That is the question here and Amazon is the bet.  Books are still the biggest purchase item here, showing long term habits are ingrained.  Whether the stock can continue its climb is uncertain of course.  At least the company is beginning to report positive earnings after years of spending every dime for investments.

Now they begin to challenge FedEx and UPS, their vendors and now to become competitors, at least for their own deliveries.

$1200 in a year?  It depends on the overall market remaining stable.

Sunday, October 09, 2016

"not consequential yet"?

Yesterday's late afternoon post here ended with the above phrase.  That no longer appears to be the case, even if Trump stays in the race.  Catching up with the news last night, one could see the cascade of comments, and disavowals of support.  Those confirming support did so for "party principles".  In fact, the Republican Party appears to be in complete disarray.

Here, anything tonight related to the debate is seen as possible.  Will Trump even cancel his appearance at the last minute.  Unlikely, but not impossible.  Whether it's countries defending a currency, companies denying a takeover, investors claiming solvency, or politicians maintaining their innocence, they often do so until the bitter end.  But, the end, at times, does come and everything that preceded it is wiped out.

Trump is in trouble.  That has been said before...

Saturday, October 08, 2016

Calls by some Republicans for Trump to withdraw --- not consequential yet

Donald Trump's candidacy keeps getting more and more tarnished.  The number of Republican candidates and insiders calling for him to withdraw grew in the last few days after his 2005 comments on women became public.  He is, by most standards of normalcy, a repulsive person.  If most people don't already know that, then they just don't want to know.  The real leaders of the GOP will stay with Trump until the end.  Simply because Mike Pence was able to work his way through a debate with some steadiness, if not answers, does not make him any kind of attractive substitute. Looking at his record and his beliefs, he is far too right wing to be a viable candidate.  Trump is the standard bearer, one whose views on most issues are fluid, and mainly geared to startling attention getting.

What is yet to come is more trash, manufactured or real, on both candidates, but especially by the Bannon led Trump campaign.  Negative campaigning about Clinton and Trump will continue over the next four weeks until voters are overwhelmed.  With Trump, his core voters will stay with him no matter what.  Are they possibly 30% of the American electorate, could it be as high as 40%.  That seems hard to believe, but where we are today would have been unthinkable a year ago.  As a "New Yorker" article this week described some Trump voters, they just want to put a middle finger up to the so-called "elites" in this country.  No information needed.  How they could possibly have made a billionaire sociopath the recipient of their support is "supernatural", to use a word from a book read and referenced here recently.

Not fully understanding that, one could wonder about the existence of closet Trump voters. Remember the closing races of the Republican primary.  There were some where the Trump percentage of the vote was far greater than any poll projected.  At times he crushed the other candidates.  Where did that come from?  Even realizing that those were solely conservatives voting, how could the momentum have become so strong.

There can be a thought that there is some strange brew of nostalgia, resentment, nihilism, and serendipity that leads to Trump voters who have never been public, will never be known.  There could be a certain personal power in that, a chance to do something different, to take a chance behind the curtain.  There is no such phenomenon likely on the Clinton side. She is the establishment, and the well known.

And on and on it goes.

"Nutshell", a short novel by Ian McEwan

"Nutshell" is an unusual book.  It has a murder, a birth, an unborn narrator listening from the womb, and a dysfunctional relationship propelled by desire, greed, and the need for oblivion.  It is set in today's world, and the digressions that interrupt the narrative are often as interesting as the story at hand, or umbilical cord one could say.  The listening and feeling fetus is quite insightful.

The male lover in the doomed pairing is "not even a colorful character, no hint of the smiling rogue. Instead, dull to the point of brilliance, vapid beyond invention... whose repeated remarks are a witless, thrustless dribble, whose impoverished sentences die like motherless chicks..."

The listening one's lament, "Perdition.  A poet's word.  Lost and damned.  I am a fool to let my hopes rise a point or two, like a futures market after a rout and before the next."  That can be identified with.

From climate change to global politics, the narrator chimes in.  "Fresh-bearded young men with beautiful skin and long guns on Boulevard Voltaire gazing into the beautiful, disbelieving eyes of their own generation."

As the silent observer details the world's urgent problems, he wonders, "If, as the new cliché goes, this is biblical, the seas are not parting for them, not the Aegean, not the English Channel.  Old Europa tosses in her dreams, she pitches between pity and fear, between helping and repelling... she wants to help but she doesn't want to share or lose what she has."

The outlook for the one finally released into the world, chaos but eagerly awaited freedom.

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Investing ideas not forthcoming... looking back at Pepsico

Financial markets remain uncertain.  Here, there is much more pruning going on than investing.

When investing, it is often adding to existing equity positions when there is a hiccup for a stock that still looks like an opportunity.  These additions are generally small, just adding for a fee of $7.95 a trade. There are many positions here that have been built simply by having a long term hold approach plus making small incremental additions at what is hoped are opportune times.

Pepsico is one of those stocks.  It was first bought in the early 1990's, date not available even at the broker. At the time, it was purchased because I thought that I had some insight into the firm, as I had been its international business banker in the early 1980's.  That knowledge was clearly dated and I had no ties to the firm when the stock was purchased, but I had experienced its culture - aggressive, competitive, and sharp edged.  They treated their bankers poorly but politely, not bad for themselves of course.  They realized that senior management at banks wanted new business at almost any cost, and they rightly took advantage of that.  When making a large loan to them to build a bottling plant in Argentina with German equipment, my job was simply to source the opportunity, do the paperwork, run it up the hierarchy, and keep the client pleased.  The further it went up, the more pleased my managers were.  Putting this in place led to constant contact with Pepsi, many lunches and dinners as was the style in those days.

That Argentine exposure was not a positive for the bank's stock by the late 1980's.

While that may not have been the right reason to buy the stock at the time I did, it has been a profitable investment. Today that position has a 2.7% yield.  The stock price is multiples of the purchase price and it yielded the stock YUM, meaning the spin-off of KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell, which has led to additional capital gains and has a 2% dividend.

Would I buy it today at a forward P/E of around 20 and with a long term debt to equity ratio of 250%. No.  It's already owned here in size.  Someone looking at it as a new investment could view today's price as the cost of entry to a great stock.  Margins in the soda business are substantial, not unlike the tobacco business.  With Gatorade, Tropicana, Quaker Oats, and other product lines that add up, this is a vast global consumer products company with what is generally viewed as good management.  I have no reason to doubt that, but have no idea now.  In fact, I have never liked the beverage, Pepsi, or its even sweeter and more caffeinated cousin, Mountain Dew.  Nevertheless, many people do.

The best guess here is that it could be a reasonable "toe in the water investment" for stock buyers, but with its size any investor in broad index funds is getting a piece of it in the mix.

Not adding here, but thought about it.

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

"Class Divide", an HBO documentary

Last night, this new documentary was watched here.  It is set in west Chelsea in Manhattan and looks at an expensive new private school, Avenues, established in 2012 that was built just across 9th Avenue from low end housing projects.  Interviews with students who attend the school and young people from the projects in the area show the completely divided perceptions that they have of each other.  There was not really new information here, but it was certainly a film that gave an in depth look at the phenomenon of gentrification, or richification, in places like Manhattan.

The telling point was "class" and "wealth" for the most part, rather than any overt racism on either side.  A sense of learned fear drew lines for the privileged students, no matter how open minded at heart, and a sense of inevitability and invisibility contained the project youth whose insights were straightforward and wistful.

"Class Divide" was a compelling film without any outright, or finger pointing, moralizing.  It is worth watching.

Rant summary comment

Now reading Ian McEwan's "Nutshell", a rant by a lecturer, repeated by a secret observer, about the multiple challenges of our age, closes with this comment, "We've built a world too complicated and dangerous for our quarrelsome natures to manage.  In such hopelessness, the general vote will be for the supernatural.  It's dusk in the second Age of Reason."

As is not uncommon in his work,  McEwan uses this new book as a canvas to comment on anything and everything.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

"Avid Reader", memoir by Robert Gottlieb

This recently published book written by the editor Robert Gottlieb was a treat to read.  It's his publishing work life story as well as the story of his life with family and friends.  As an editor at Simon and Schuster, Alfred A. Knopf, and The New Yorker, and then back to Knopf, he spent over 55 years somewhere near the epicenter of good writing.  In this book, he meets and works with numerous well known authors, and rubs elbows with many others related to the overall literary community.

Working directly with writers such as Joseph Heller, Toni Morrison, Robert Caro, John Cheever, Barbara Tuchman, Michael Crichton, and so many others, even Bill Clinton and Bob Dylan, he has many stories to tell.  In fact, so many that he rarely spends a significant number of pages, or even a full page, discussing any one person.

There are seriously interesting tidbits throughout if many of the books that he edited have been read. It was interesting to read that he viewed "Something Happened" as a superior book to "Catch 22". That view has long been held here but it may not be widespread.  He also more or less shares the opinion that John le Carre's writing diminished in quality after his great success in his early years.

Some of the most interesting stories are from his days as editor of The New Yorker, where he replaced the legendary William Shawn.  His relationships with other staff members work out well in a reasonably short time frame, and he builds strong relationships, professional and, at times, almost familial with writers such as Pauline Kael, Janet Malcolm, and Nora Ephron among others.

His own family life and history is detailed throughout in a somewhat disorderly manner, but the composite when the book is done is clear.  He's had a busy life, and at 80 now he stays busy, always reading and at times still editing.  Building up his life from modest means, he now has a house in Miami Beach, an apartment in the best part of the 6th in Paris,on Rue Jacob between Boulevard St. Germain and the Seine, a country house in Connecticut that his wife loves(he is not a nature man), as well as his digs in Manhattan.  He takes advantage of all places not in the country side.

The one thing that was odd about this book, from this perspective, is that it has very few chapters or breaks.  In a book of a little more than 320 pages, there are chapters as long as 95 pages, 65 pages, and 40 pages.  These chapters have no breaks at all, even of a couple of spaces,  as the stories within them are always changing, on the move.  Gottlieb is an editor so obviously this is on purpose but it is different from the style of many books these days.  Maybe he thinks that most readers are like him, a man who is dedicated to reading books at one sitting if possible.

He is an avid reader.