Tuesday, April 30, 2019

By default...

"A professional writer, by definition, is a person clothed in self-denial who each and almost every day will plead with eloquent lamentation that he has a brutal burden on his mind and soul, and will summon deep reserves of "discipline" as seriatim antidotes to any domestic chore, and, drawing the long sad face of the pale poet, will rise above his dread of his dreaded working chamber, excuse himself from the idle crowd, go into his writing sanctum, shut the door, shoot the bolt, and in lonely sacrifice turn on the Mets game."    ---   from "The Patch", among previously unpublished writing of John McPhee, published 2018.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

The last baseball game

Generally speaking, there are two times each year when the game of baseball might be focused on.  First is at the beginning of the year when hopes are that the Mets might have a good team.  The second is in the fall playoffs, especially if a favorite has evolved into contention.  Barely hanging onto this first period now, thoughts about baseball while pretending to sleep led to a memory of my last participation in organized baseball, with uniforms, umpires, and people in the stands, such that they were.

That was 1961, in a game between the Little League all stars of the north side and south side of town, as determined by a river.  The game was played at a field somewhere on the north side that was well maintained and had bleachers that were permanent.  Representing the south side, I was the lone participant from my team, Jaycees.  In the minor leagues, third and fourth grades, of my year we had been in contention.  At the next level, fifth and sixth grades,  we had been second tier, meaning we won some games but never against the best teams.

My positions varied.  In minor leagues it was either pitcher or first baseman.  In the majors, it was pitcher or right field.  As a pitcher, my strong point was varying the speed of the pitch.  In little kid terms, I threw the ball hard enough but was no Don Drysdale.  As a first baseman, understanding the game was important so I was not bad.  As a right fielder I was dismal.  How do you pay attention out there?

I was not a starter in my last game.  As it progressed we were losing and my value was questionable.  Our pitchers were not doing that well, so one of the coaches, Buddy's father I think, took me out along the sidelines in the shadows above first base for a warm up of sorts.  He exhorted me to throw it hard, but in that near dark area I was afraid that he would not be able to see it so I held back.  Looking back it is easy to see how laughable that was.  I did not enter the game as a pitcher.

The game came down to the final possible out.  We still had a chance but were maybe two or three runs down. I was the only player that had not yet played for the team so the coaches did what they felt was the right thing to do, and it was the last thing that I wanted.  They put me in to pinch hit.  The pitcher was throwing the ball harder than anything I had ever faced.  Had he been held back.  My only goal was to get my bat on the ball in any way possible.  I fouled the ball once almost directly right before striking out.

Organized baseball career over.  I did play successfully in an informal softball league in 1970's Louisville, having learned to love playing left field, looking forward to any chance.  And for some reason I had turned into a left handed hitter with some power.  What an American game.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Short takes...

---Elon Musk sent a tweet today calling out Jim Cramer on some issue.  That allowed the blowhard Cramer to act like he was a player of consequence.  Musk is losing it for some reason, as he takes issues raised about Tesla personally.  Meanwhile his SpaceX achievements are just bizarrely remarkable, out of this world.  Wish I could go back in time and offer some investor and public relations advice.

---The media ready economists, pundits, and some pols look at the solid first quarter GDP growth and the opportunity for job and wage growth as signs that all is well with the world.  Meanwhile, back at the ranch, aggregate numbers do not reflect the broad problems with this society.  What kind of jobs and what kind of wages?  $15 an hour, whoopee we're all gonna die.  Ray Dalio of Bridgewater Capital is the clearest intelligent voice in the investment community on this issue.

---Citibank was for years viewed as bank of fiefdoms, such that mismanagement was rife.  Little has changed it seeems.  After almost two years, today I finally was able to get a credit card that was no longer needed cancelled.  Phone calls endured, documents sent, and for the last two months tortured by daily robo calls on the issue that left a number to call that was answered by robots.  Today, finally I hope, the disheartening calls were finally put to an end.  Believe it or not, I just kept saying supervisor, then yelling supervisor into phone, and finally some kind of grace intervened.  Just 30 more minutes on the phone and finally the calls for Kathy will stop.

---And now for today's the mattress saga, highly abbreviated.  It is unclear if quality mattresses are made anymore, or at least offered for sale here.  After an autumn foray with Raymour and Flannigan, a Long Island furniture empire with all of the integrity of Fifth Avenue camera shops, the corporate  Macy's nearby was determined to be the answer.   Stearns and Foster was purchased in December without regard for getting a bargain, and what was meant to be ultra firm would may have passed muster in Motel 6.  Returned that in March for a supposed major upgrade but still not quite right, and last night it just imploded at 4am.  So a long day of phone calls and transfers followed and resolution seems unclear near term.  Corporate rigidity, rules, and scripted responses.  The "craftsman" can come on Tuesday(Wimpy)  I may as well have been talking to India.  A time stamp message was left on my attorney's machine, silly maybe?.  American quality?

---Meschiya Lake's short Jazzfest video today with baby daughter Scoots and her hubby is worth watching.  They are so happy.  Find it if you can.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019


Trump consistently does awful things.  This is not what our country is, but it is what resentment has created.  How this sorts out is unclear.  All of the stats about the economy are averages, and do not take into account a material part of the people that are not doing that well.  And many of them, of all things, support the dismal Trump.  This can be explained of course, but explanation is not needed.  A touch of empathy would help, and big dose of plain old historical knowledge would as well.  We now have a relatively uninformed country.  Or is it just a strange unique American style of nihilism that has overtaken a portion of the population.  That would have at least premise of a thought process behind what's happening rather than just a television dazed population that doesn't read much more than menus. 

That's getting out of control.

Tuesday, April 09, 2019

"Host of Memories", by Peter Lighte

This book by a former banking colleague was published in 2015, but I only recently became aware of it here.  His first short book of essays, Pieces of China, from 2009, was entertaining, informative, and offbeat.  This second book is a series of personal vignettes, from childhood through college and eventually to that banking career.  The sequencing of the varied stories is not exact, which simply means that it leads to interesting overlaps.  "Host of Memories", subtitled "Tales of Inevitable Happenstance", maintains the same qualities as his first, but has only a few sustained pieces that could be referred to as an article or an essay.  For the most part, what is written here could be called pieces of a puzzle that is eventually solved.

Much of the book revolves around a somewhat eccentric extended Jewish family from the Bronx.  That was interesting as it turns into a history of what was experienced in the boomer years by all, as seen from a very New York perspective.  Particularly of interest here was the years that Peter spent at the bank.  We joined Manufacturers Hanover within months of each other and overlapped in training programs.  It was an era of rapid bank growth in international business aspirations, and hiring of older recruits with that interest was not uncommon.  Peter was among several hires either with or working on PhD's in area studies that were hired.  My masters degree from the fortunately overrated Thunderbird landed me there at the age of 31, a few years younger than Peter and a few other of the PhD guys like Chris, Chip, others as well.

As "Host of Memories" develops there are mentions of people that were known, people that I worked with, or people much more senior.  An important aspect of this is that Peter had what at the time might have been called an alternative lifestyle that, while not hidden, was not exactly open in business circles.  Peter mentions the "formidable John McCarthy", a big guy who as a Senior Vice President ruled over my first division in the bank from a large corner office.  Outwardly stern, when he walked through the floor to his office everyone generally sat up straight and looked busy.  Taking a proposal into his office for approval was approached by most with trepidation.  My boss was intimidated by him.  That was 1982.  I took a proposal in without waiting for my boss and found an intelligent person who was completely encouraging, and approved my loan extension  McCarthy soon after move to a major position in the London office.  He was part of a group unknown to me at the time.

In the book most full names of bankers are not used, but it was fascinating to learn that one the most senior leaders of the overall bank was part of this group, a tall Brit with a unique sense of humor who was an excellent public speaker.  Other bankers are mentioned, straight or not, some that were borderline nitwits and others that were smart but freeloaders on the company's less than stellar cost controls at that time.  It was interesting reading, and how it would seem to those not familiar with the company at that time can't be known.

Following up on Peter now, I of course went to Google and found that he has a website.  There I was shocked and pleased to find that in a short section about his first book, a portion of my commentary about it here on eyesnotsold was quoted.  There was my name.  It made me remember that he knew Kathy as well from her international HR job, and when he became aware of our relationship he referred to her as "a good egg".  That was his type of language.

Peter retired from JPM a few years ago as Chairman of the bank in China, maybe some other title as well.  This was great reading here of course.  There are multiple reasons that others could find it of interest.

Sunday, April 07, 2019

The Street Philosophy of Garry Winogrand, essays by Geoff Dyer

This hefty book of photographs is worth dealing with its weight, both visually and editorially.  There are 100 photographs, each accompanied by a short essay. These explications by Dyer bring the art of photography into a perspective that is easily accessible.  They can be technical, they can be humorous, they can involve current events, historical events, often just be a discussion of what is in the photo but not necessarily obvious to the viewer.

Parts of a bookcase can accommodate large books, and were for years holding mainly books of paintings, books inherited or purchased with the purpose of having access to works of art here.  They were occasionally looked at and useful for reference and for education.  Mostly they were ornamental, reassuring to look at the spines.  New additions were rare.  But then...

Perusing Amazon last year, photography books became interesting.  The economics of these books is unclear, seemingly expensive to produce and to ship.  Not my problem, they can be wonderful finds.  The Bronx born and raised Winogrand traveled widely, and he photographed a range of people in surroundings that accentuate their uniqueness.  The multi-faceted writer Dyer, novelist, historian, critic, observer, has long been a favorite here.  Everything he has written is here and has been read, at times commented on.

To act like a reviewer --- if you only buy one photography book, buy this one.

Monday, April 01, 2019

Conglomerate busting...

Ten years of equity market growth have carried most major U.S. conglomerates along steadily if not spectacularly.  In the last year or so, some have not fared so well, and a few of those are well known.  Most notable was GE, an example of gross mismanagement and leadership arrogance.  The latest has been Kraft Heinz, caught without a swimsuit when the tide went out.  Most, however, have fared well enough given expectations of conservative investors, but not up to a market level performance.

As an example, check out 3M, that's MMM stock symbol.  Good ole scotch tape, but so many other things.  There are four divisions:  safety and industrial, transportation and electronics, healthcare, and consumer.  Below these are several hundred products and brands.  The dividend yield is currently 2.7% and the stock price is up 5.3% over the last year, versus 9.5% for the S&P 500.

MMM's top ten mutual fund holders are all index funds, usual suspects but rarely is there a clean sweep.  Who loves MMM?  The largest institutional holder is State Farm Mutual, an insurance company in the Chicago area, makes sense for them one could guess.  Up in the leave us alone state of Minnesota all may be well, but over time every great company needs to compete for capital and just as importantly, if not more so, talent.

Other conglomerates such as Johnson & Johnson, Honeywell, United Technologies, Comcast, Disney, Lockheed Martin, Dow Chemical, and many others work within a specific industry group but own multiple companies.  What a conglomerate is in technology is still being figured out.  Is Alphabet a conglomerate?  Probably, but please explain. Elsewhere, is Berkshire Hathaway a conglomerate?  Not really, as it is uniquely more like a mutual fund that owns independent companies for the long term.

So what is this comment about.  The coming phase in financial markets will be breaking up these huge companies into freestanding independent ones with their own stock, their own compensation systems tailored to their unique businesses and not tethered to "the blob" of a massive company.  That's key. Conglomerates with managements that are open to this concept could be exceptional long term investments.

All things being equal, identifying those managements that are willing to giving up size and power in return for higher shareholder returns is an investor's job now.  Up in the 3M territory folks might not like to hear that, but the next Carl Icahns will eventually find you up in the North Country fair. 

There is no new or original thought in this post, just an opinion about the timing of using it.

On a completely different subject, LYFT would be a buy here in the mid to high 50's, otherwise pass.