The Best in History

March 29, 2020

by Steve Stofka

The financial crisis a decade ago prepared us to better handle this historic pandemic. Gambling by financial companies, fraud and foolishness sparked that crisis. It had a large impact on the economy and the lives of millions of Americans who lost their homes, savings and jobs. It did not shut down the entire economy.

The Federal Reserve has enacted many emergency measures to support the money market and bond market during the current crisis. Many were set up under the leadership of former Chairman Ben Bernanke in response to the last crisis. In the last crisis, heavy Republican opposition delayed or blocked bailout measures. Republicans whipped up that political sentiment and won back the House in 2010. At a Tea Party rally against Obamacare, one old geezer complained that people used to just go home and die. What does he think now about the pandemic? Should the hospitals turn away all those people? The Tea Party is largely inactive now. Former Congressman Dick Armey helped spark the movement, the Koch Brothers funded it, and the Republican Party rode the wave. In the House, a coalition of about thirty members call themselves the Freedom Caucus (DeSilver, 2015). They are the remnant of the Tea Party movement.

During his campaign, candidate Donald Trump was criticized for his support of the relief policies during the financial crisis (Sherman, 2015). In a recent NBC / Wall Street Journal poll, Republican voters gave President Trump a 92% job approval rating. Overall, the public gives him about 50% on his handling of the coronavirus crisis (POS, 2020).  As a presidential candidate in 2016, Mr. Trump famously joked / bragged that he could shoot somebody on fifth Avenue in Manhattan and get away with it (Diamond, 2016). Have his policies contributed to the deaths of New Yorkers during this crisis? Depends on which political glasses you wear.

55 years ago, many Democrats defended President Johnson who sent hundreds of thousands of Democratic and Republican sons to be slaughtered in the swamps of Vietnam. Communism was the virus then. It infected the young and turned them into anti-American socialists. The only remedy was to send the young to another country or beat them with batons at anti-war rallies in Chicago, Washington, and New York City. In the first years of the war, fathers and mothers blamed Communism not President Johnson for the death of their sons. My Lai was the most famous of many atrocities committed during that war (Levesque, 2018). Shortly after that tragedy in March 1968, Mr. Johnson abandoned his re-election bid. Was Mr. Johnson a monster or a hero? Depends on which political glasses you wear.

President Trump is a singular brand but was undoubtedly influenced by the culture of fear and hate that marked his formative years. He wears his hate like a favorite shirt. Like so many, he’s a “used to be”, a former Democrat turned Republican. On C-SPAN’s Washington Journal daily call in program, there’s at least one person who says, “I used to be.” Fill in the blank – either a Democrat or a Republican. They have donned a different shade of glass.

“I’m a this-ism” is another pandemic sweeping the nation. People no longer act in support of their beliefs. Christians declare that they are Christian. They don’t need to act with generosity to others. Progressives declare that they are progressives but don’t have time to vote. That lack of support in the voting booth has hurt the Sanders campaign. He often reminds his supporters that they need to show their enthusiasm at the ballot box. I don’t often hear liberals declare themselves as such. They might be socially liberal but fiscally conservative. Neo-liberals never declare themselves but there are a lot of them, from what I hear. Politicians who have the least restraint in their behavior declare that they are Conservative. Really?

Mr. Trump is the King of Declarations. He’s the greatest President with the greatest policies and his administration is handling this crisis better than any other country. As some people take their last breaths in an emergency room, they are thinking exactly that. This administration is handling this crisis better than anyone in history. How will President Trump’s leadership during this crisis be judged? That will depend on which glasses you wear. Remember, you can trade in for another color of glasses.



DeSilver, D. (2015, October 20). House Freedom Caucus: What is it, and who’s in it? Retrieved from

Diamond, J. (2016, January 24). Donald Trump could ‘shoot somebody and not lose voters’ – CNNPolitics. Retrieved from

Levesque, C. J. (2018, March 16). The Truth Behind My Lai. NY Times. Retrieved from

Photo by Giorgio Trovato on Unsplash

Public Opinion Strategies (POS). (2020, March 26). Coronavirus National Polling (March 26th). Retrieved from

Sherman, A. (2015, September 15). PolitiFact – Did Donald Trump support the Wall Street bailout as anti-tax Club for Growth says? Retrieved from

Stupid and Smart Money

March 22, 2020

by Steve Stofka

When I took some money out of the ATM this week, I was surprised to see a note scrawled on one of the bills. “Stupid money 2002,” it read. I hadn’t thought about that money in a while and here it was paying me a visit. In those years, my accountant had me on a program of investing regularly every month. The stock market was down 20% from the highs of the dot-com boom that ended in 2000. I didn’t know it at the time, but the market would lose another 30% before hitting bottom. I certainly didn’t like putting money in the market only to see it disappear down a black hole.

“You’re not investing in money,” she advised. “You’re buying shares in profit machines, the top companies in the country. Dollar cost averaging buys more shares when stock prices are low, fewer shares when prices are high.” Ok, fine, I said. I kept shoveling money into a black hole. Two years later, that stupid money had turned into smart money. An Invesco analysis found that investors more than doubled their money even when they invested at the middle point of a stock market downturn (Watts, 2020).

When we withdraw money for retirement income, a child’s education, or to start a business, the money is not separated into stupid and smart. Money is fungible. It can’t be separated. Let’s say I give my child $100 to buy some books for school. The next day he is wearing a new set of headphones and I’m angry. “I didn’t use the $100 you gave me,” he says. “I used my birthday money.” I can’t tell the difference.

That’s a problem for the Senate and House as they draft bills to bail out large companies. Most of the windfall from the 2017 reduction in corporate taxes went to stock buybacks. Now companies complain that they don’t have enough reserves to weather the current crisis.

After receiving bailout funds during the last crisis a decade ago, large companies paid hundreds of millions of dollars to their executives while they laid off millions of workers. Richard Trumka, the President of the AFL-CIO, voices the concerns of many lawmakers when he calls for provisions against the companies using this year’s bailout money for stock buybacks and executive bonuses (C-Span, 2020). In response to a question from reporters at Saturday’s COVID-19 press conference, President Trump agreed that he wants to see a provision against using funds for stock buybacks in any proposed legislation. Will Washington politicians do the right thing? An army of corporate lobbyists and lawyers work tirelessly to suck as much money out of Washington as they can.

How will voters judge Mr. Trump’s response to this crisis? Is this his Katrina? Will there be an election this November? The political viewpoints in this country are so disjointed that voters from each side see the facts through their own ideological filter.

While our leaders call for unity, let’s be on guard against our own pack instincts. Many years ago in New York City during the gas embargo, I watched a man get beat up over one gallon of gas. He didn’t wait his turn.


Notes: C-Span. (2020, March 19). Newsmakers with Richard Trumka. [Audio, transcript]. Retrieved from

Photo by Colin Watts at

Watts, W. (2020, March 21). As Dow wipes out over 3 years of stock-market gains, here’s a warning about calling the bottom. [Web page]. Retrieved from

Event and Response

March 15, 2020

by Steve Stofka

The response to an event is part of the event. While driving on the highway this week, I listened to an NPR report on the relatively few deaths from the COVID-19 virus. I passed under a sign telling me that almost 600 people died in my state last year in auto accidents. The number of deaths nationally was almost 39,000. In 2019, we had almost 20% fewer fatalities than 2002 even though we drove 20% more miles during the year (CDOT, 2020). Cars are safer now because the government set safety standards for car manufacturers. Our institutions are strong. We tackle thorny problems and fix them. Was the reaction to this virus a bit too strong?

On Friday, the death toll from the virus climbed to 50. During the winter flu season of 2017-18, the CDC estimated 70,000 deaths (CDC,2020). That’s over 1300 per week. 50 didn’t seem so bad. One person on Twitter thought this panic buying of toilet paper was all silly. Then he went into his grocery store and the shelves were empty of Twix, his comfort chocolate. A bit of black humor. We may need more humor in the weeks to come.

Despite the mortality from flu each season, the world community has built a collective herd immunity to the disease over the past two thousand years. What’s herd immunity? If I have antibodies against a virus, I won’t be a carrier of the virus to someone else. This reduces transmission of the disease. COVID-19 is a new type of coronavirus. No one has built an immunity, so it travels fast.

Six months ago a friend asked me what I thought about the stock market. I told him I thought it was overpriced. Should I sell some of the stocks in my 401K, he asked? I shrugged. What if stocks went down 50% like in 2001 and 2008, I asked? Would you panic? He didn’t really need the money for five years, so probably not, he said. I’d be anxious, he said. Would you be anxious if you had no money in the stock market, I asked? Yeah, he said. I hear about the stock market on the radio, get news about it on my phone. I’d worry there was another crisis like the financial crisis coming. Do you think stocks are going to go down 50%, he asked? I said I have no idea. If I knew the future, I would have to hide away in a cave somewhere because people would want to kidnap me and make me tell them what the future was going to be. The past has already happened and very often we don’t understand what happened. Even if we knew what the future was, we would have trouble understanding it.

The long bull market in stocks ended this week and the SP500 index officially entered a bear market 20% below its recent high. The bull market almost ended in 2018 when the index fell 19% from a recent high but that didn’t count. 19% is not 20%. What about 2011 when the 20% decline occurred during a trading day but recovered enough by the end of the day to be a decline of less than 20%? That didn’t count either because the “official” declaration of a bear market is based on the day’s closing price. If the 20% decline benchmark were based on the yearly closing of the SP500, we still are not in a bear market (only 16.1% down) and didn’t come close in 2018 or 2011.  But that’s not newsworthy, is it?

The financial crisis came about because of a contagion in our financial markets. That led to a contagion of distrust in our institutions in this country and around the world. The current crisis started with a contagion between people that is spreading to our financial markets. This week the Federal Reserve stepped in to stabilize the bond market (Cox, 2020).

U.S. Treasuries are the benchmark for safety around the world. Companies around the world with long term obligations – banks, insurance companies and pension funds – hold U.S. government debt. The key word in that last sentence is “hold.” As fear gripped the market in Monday’s open this week, long term Treasuries surged 10% in price. A lot of buyers wanted safety. In response, companies that would normally hold their Treasury bonds wanted to take advantage of the price increase, so they put some of their bonds on the market. The bond dealers were not equipped to handle this much previously issued long term debt coming to the market. They are accustomed to trading newly issued Treasury debt. They had trouble matching buyers and sellers. Even as the stock market fell 10% on Thursday, the price of long-term Treasury bonds fell 4% in the last few hours of that afternoon. They are supposed to move in opposite directions. Something was wrong. If there were problems in the U.S. Treasury market, it could spread another kind of contagion throughout the bond market. The stock market is like a toy boat floating on the big pond of the bond market. On Friday morning, the Fed announced that they would start buying Treasuries, starting with long-term bonds.

The financial crisis of a decade ago demonstrated that the response to a crisis becomes part of the crisis – for good or bad. A crisis creates a bottleneck which causes unexpected consequences which may need unexpected policy responses. I tell myself that our institutions are strong, that we fix problems. I’m starting to worry more about the people who stock up on a year’s supply of toilet paper. It will not save them from the zombie apocalypse. The zombies eat people, not toilet paper. I thought everyone knew that by now.



CDC. (2020, January 10). Disease Burden of Influenza. Retrieved from

Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT). (2020, February 25). Colorado Fatalities since 2002. [PDF]. Retrieved from

Cox, J. (2020, March 14). The Fed to start buying Treasuries Friday across all durations, starting with 30-year bond. CNBC. Retrieved from

Photo by Jay Heike on Unsplash


March 8, 2020

by Steve Stofka

A heartfelt endorsement by veteran S. Carolina Congressman Jim Clyburn ignited a outpouring of voter support for Joe Biden in that state’s primary a week ago. Mr. Biden rode that momentum into Super Tuesday a few days later and the campaign that was on life support became the leading candidate in the Democratic race.

The following day the stock market rallied a whopping 4%. Big investors know that Mr. Biden will not make life difficult for them. He is old school. He knows that there are two sets of rules and the rich write the rules. Mr. Sanders makes Wall St. uncomfortable because he also knows that there are two sets of rules. He wants to write a new rule book where the rich don’t write the rules. That’s bad for rich people. Here’s why.

Bernie Sanders is often branded as a socialist. He brands himself with the qualifier Democratic Socialist. As the Wall St. Journal’s Richard Rubin pointed out this week, Mr. Sanders is not proposing a European model of socialism (Rubin, 2020). Those progressive systems are funded by a regressive sales tax called a VAT (Wallop, 2010). This tax burden falls mostly on middle class and working families. Mr. Sander’s plan funds progressive programs with progressive taxes falling mostly on the wealthy. That ain’t socialism. We need a naming contest for a system where the wealthy do extra to help the community. Four syllables or less. I’d suggest Neighborism based on the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life,” with Jimmy Stewart. What’s your suggestion?

Last month President Trump launched a political tweet missile at the Supreme Court (Baker, 2020). This past week Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer hand carried his warning to the steps of the Supreme Court. He was part of a protest regarding a current course case that tests the court’s earlier decisions beginning with Roe v. Wade almost fifty years ago. Chief Justice John Roberts has admonished President Trump, Mr. Schumer and others that they should not threaten the Supreme Court. Mr. Schumer says he regrets his remarks (Pecorin, 2020). President Trump last apologized for his remarks when he was in the first grade.

The high court’s Bush v. Gore decision chose the outcome of the 2000 Presidential election and tarnished the court’s reputation as an objective body. Since the beginning of his tenure as Chief Justice in 2005, Mr. Roberts has tried to resuscitate the court’s reputation. In this age, tarnished reputations stay tarnished.

Was the court ever impartial? Over a hundred years ago, Albert Einstein sparked a revolution in physics with a set of mathematical equations which showed that impartiality was impossible. Our observations and conclusions are based on our frame of reference. In the past century an overwhelming body of evidence has substantiated Einstein’s claims.

A central proposition in physics has spread to the humanities. Is this a “hey man, everything is relative” moment? No. Understanding an argument’s frame of reference takes time and research. Most of us are too pressed for time and tend to discard arguments that we don’t instinctively like. Chief Justice Roberts maintains that the members of the high court are not prone to this common human fallibility. Do they cast aside the ideological framing they have formed during their life and career and reach a deliberative decision that fully balances all the considerations of a case before the court? No, of course not. Mr. Roberts is still living in a Newtonian world of imagined impartial justice. Perhaps he should remove his robe while shaving and see the man reflected in his mirror.

A long time ago, my sales manager said to me, “Either you believe in your own b.s. or someone else’s b.s. Wouldn’t you rather own it?” This week Mr. Biden looked like a man who owns someone else’s b.s. – that of Jim Clyburn and the folks in S. Carolina who gave Mr. Biden a sense of confidence. His walk up the stairs to a stage platform has grown more vigorous since Super Tuesday. His voice projects with a confidence and assuredness that I didn’t hear just two weeks ago. He no longer sounds like a frail man. I’m still not convinced he owns his b.s., but he may get there in the next few months.

Mr. Sanders, on the other hand, is a man who has owned what he says for decades. As an Independent, he has played a minor role in the Democratic political hierarchy despite his many years in the Senate. Will voters choose the man of measured manner, Mr. Biden, or put their money on the impassioned and principled Mr. Sanders?

I wish my teachers had told me that I needed to be 70+ to run for President. We have too many old people in Congress. I thought so when I was young. I think so today. Yes, old people have experience, sagacity and some have a more measured temperament. The age of the people we send to represent us in Washington does not reflect us.

The Congressional Research Service recently computed the average age of the House at nearly 58 years; of the Senate, 62 years (Manning, 2018). According to the Census Bureau, the U.S. population – including children – has a median age of 38 (2019). If we take out the 25% of the population under 18, a reasonable estimate of the median age of adults might be an age of 50, ten years younger than the current average age of the members of Congress.

Patrick Leahy, the other Senator from Vermont, has held his seat for almost half a century. They come to Washington and die in Washington. They believe that they have earned an objective wisdom through their long service in their seats. To paraphrase Socrates, the man who thinks he is wise is a danger to himself and others. Step aside. Let the young blood walk the halls and make a different set of mistakes than the ones you once made. Let go. Our country will be better for it.


Baker, P. (2020, February 25). Trump, in India, Demands Two Liberal Justices Recuse Themselves From His Cases. Retrieved from

Manning, J. (CRS). (2018, December 20). Membership of the 115th Congress: A Profile. Congressional Research Service. Retrieved from

Pecorin, A., et al. (2020, March 5). Schumer says he regrets comments Chief Justice Roberts called ‘dangerous’ threats. ABC News. Retrieved from

Photo by Louis Velazquez on Unsplash

Rubin, R. (2020, March 6). Bernie Sanders’s Tax Plan Would Be Biggest Expansion of Taxation Since World War II. Wall St. Journal. Retrieved from (paywall).

U.S. Census Bureau. (2019, July 16). Median Age Doesn’t Tell the Whole Story. Retrieved from

Wallop, H. (2010, April 13). General Election 2010: a brief history of the Value Added Tax. The Telegraph. Retrieved from

President Mayor?

March 1st, 2020

by Steve Stofka

Among the Democratic candidates for President are two mayors. Mike Bloomberg was mayor of New York City for the twelve years following 9-11. Pete Buttigieg just completed an eight year stint as mayor of South Bend, Indiana. Americans have never elected a recent mayor to the presidency (Badger, 2019). Will this year be different?

Mayors are responsible for everything that happens in their city – from policing practices to snow removal. John Lindsay, a former mayor of New York City, almost lost his job because of a snowstorm (Marton, 2019). Too many homeless people in Los Angeles? Mayor Eric Garcetti takes full responsibility (City News Service, 2019). Few residents write to the mayor to say that they are so happy that their streetlights are working. The lack of complaints tells a mayor that he or she is doing a good job. Mayors are a tough bunch with strong shoulders.

Do we take the same responsibility for our savings portfolios? If interest rates are too low, do we keep all the money in a savings account and blame the system? When the market goes down, do we rethink our risk appetite, or do we blame those invisible market forces?

 At nearly 11 years, this bull market is the longest running in the past one hundred years. The 400% gain since the March 2009 low beats both the gains of the 1920s and 1990s bull markets. Just a month ago, the investment firm Goldman Sachs estimated that there was still room for more price appreciation this year (Winck, 2020).

This week’s downturn was made sharper by several practical factors. In any abrupt downturn that last a few days or longer, margin calls prompt more selling. What is a margin call? Let’s say I borrow $50 from my broker to buy a $100 stock. If the price goes down to $90, my broker wants me to pony up another $5. If I don’t have the cash, the broker will sell some of my holdings to raise the cash.

The Coronavirus prompted investors to reassess projected earnings for this year and to assign a greater risk to their stock exposure. A lot of investors bought bonds with the proceeds from their stock sales. Worst time to buy long term bonds? Probably. An ETF of 30-year Treasury bonds (TLT) hit its highest price ever this week.

President Trump regards stock market performance as an important indicator of his success. What will he do if market prices decline another 10%? Will he attack Fed chairman Jerome Powell as he did in 2018? Has Mr. Trump become the most wearisome President in modern history?

Joe Biden took almost half the votes in the S. Carolina primary this week, but Bernie Sanders is still leading the roster of candidates with 54 delegates (Leatherby and Almukhtar, 2020). It’s a long road to the goal of 1991 delegates to secure the nomination. The delegates captured in the first four primaries are dwarfed by the 1344 delegates in play this week on Super Tuesday. 643 of those delegates are in California and Texas. It’s a reminder of the power of a few states in the selection of a President.

What about the mayors in the race? Pete Buttigieg is 3rd in delegate count. Because Mike Bloomberg entered the race late, he set his sights on Super Tuesday and currently has 0 delegates. Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar have both worked long and hard, have enthusiastic supporters but have earned few delegates. Running for the top office is a hard job.

Will this week bring more downturns in the market? There was a big surge of investors willing to buy late Friday afternoon. It’s a good sign when large investors are willing to take a position before the weekend.  



Badger, E. (2019, November 18). Pete Buttigieg Tests 230 Years of History: Why Can’t a Mayor Be President? N.Y. Times. Retrieved from

City News Service. (2019, August 26). Mayor of LA Promises More Help to Solve Homelessness Problem. Retrieved from

Leatherby, L., & Almukhtar, S. (2020, February 3). Democratic Primary Election Results 2020. Retrieved from

Marton, J. (2019, January 28). Today in NYC History: John Lindsay’s No Good, Very Bad Snowstorm of 1969. Retrieved from

Photo by Mateus Campos Felipe on Unsplash

Winck, B. (2020, January 23). GOLDMAN SACHS: Lagging fund inflows can drive the stock market even higher | Markets Insider. Retrieved from