New Directions

December 28th, 2014

Emergency Plan

Let’s say you have $60 invested in the stock market.  You have $30 invested in bonds and $10 sitting in your savings account, for a total of $100.  This is essentially a 60/40 stock/bond mix. You do not rely on your investments for current income.

Some crisis unfolds, sending shock waves through global markets.  Within a month, the stock market loses 30%.  Bonds have gone up 10% as investors flee to safety.  Financial soothsayers are predicting further stock losses, perhaps as much as 50%.  Others are saying that the market has bottomed.

Your stock portfolio has lost $18 (30% of the $60).  Your bond portfolio has gained 10% or $3.  Your portfolio is now valued at $42 stocks, $33 bonds, $10 savings, a 50/50 mix of stocks/bonds.

Now, let’s add some historical context. From 1968 to 1982, a period of fourteen years, there was no change in the SP500.  From 1982 to 2000, the SP500 rose 1400%.  Then from 2000 to early 2013, almost thirteen years, there was no change in the SP500.  Yes, it’s only been a year and a half since the market regained those levels of 2000.

So, what would you do?  Do you:

A)  Invest the $10 in savings to bring you back closer to your original allocation mix of 60/40 stocks/bonds.

B) Stick to allocation goals.  Keep the $10 tucked away in savings for emergencies, sell some bonds and buy stocks to get closer to your allocation goals.

C) Change your allocation mix.  Cut your losses by selling the stocks you own and buying the better performing bonds.

D) Shrug and make no changes.  Turn on the game and order a pizza. The stock market will rebound in due time and automatically rebalance your portfolio on its own.

E)  Freeze, not knowing what to do.  Yes, not knowing what you would do is a game plan, a choice.  Perhaps its not the best plan but it is often one chosen as the default.

Now, run that same scenario, changing only one thing. You rely on your investments and savings for half of your current income.  Now what do you do?

Was the past year and a half the beginning of an eighteen year run up in prices similar to the 1982 – 2000 period?  Could the SP500 index, currently trading near 2100, be valued at 21000 (1500 * 1400%) in 2032?  Maybe.  Could 2014 be the last year in the previous flat cycle so that the market drops 25% to the 1500 level of 2000 and 2007?  Maybe.

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GDP
The third estimate of 3rd quarter GDP growth was a strong 5% on an annualized basis, more than offsetting the weak 1st quarter of this year. On a more sobering note, it is only in the past six months that per person GDP has firmly surpassed 2007 levels.
GDP is a measure of tradeable goods and services in an economy.  There is much important human activity that is not measured in GDP so it is far from perfect.  If you want perfect, go to the universe next door. Per person GDP growth below 1% causes concern among traders, money managers, economists and policy makers.  This year per capita growth is a healthy 2% – not robust but respectable.  
Contributing to GDP growth in the third quarter was a 4% yearly increase in federal government spending, more than double the rate of inflation.
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Oil 
Monday’s meeting of the OPEC members left little doubt that Saudi Arabia is content to let the price of oil fall as low as natural supply and demand might take it.  They said they would not consider production cuts until oil went as low as $20 a barrel, about a third of what oil is currently trading at, and a fifth of its price in 2013.  This rhetoric was aimed directly at two non-OPEC members, the U.S. and Russia, warning both countries that the Saudis intend to keep their leadership position in the international oil market.
Missouri was the first state to report an average price per gallon of gas that was lower than $3.  Others are sure to follow.  A few weeks ago an EIA administrator testified before Congress, revealing a number of dramatic shifts in U.S. oil production, consumption and import.  Once the largest importer of petroleum products, the U.S. is now the world’s largest exporter.  Despite falling oil prices, the EIA expects production to increase 10% in 2015.  

An Unwelcome Guest

Nov. 30, 2014

The short week of Thanksgiving should have been rather uneventful.  The week before, officials in Ferguson, Missouri had announced an imminent decision in the grand jury hearing of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an African American, by Darren Wilson, a Ferguson police officer who was European American.

Slavery, the denial of civil rights to African Americans, and persistent housing and job discrimination against African Americans are an integral part of American history.  Bankruptcy is a formal discharge of debt.  There is no formal procedure for discharging past wrongs.  Some Southerners are still distrustful of the Federal bureaucracy in Washington that committed so many wrongs in the period after the Civil War.  The wounds inflicted by white skinned Americans on dark skinned Americans is fresher than those suffered by Southerners during the Reconstruction period almost 150 years ago.  Fresh wounds bleed easily when scratched.

The grand jury took several days longer than “imminent” to reach its decision, announced Monday night.  Several weeks of protests during the course of the hearing erupted into violent rioting at the grand jury’s decision that Officer Wilson should not be indicted for any charges, ranging from first degree murder to manslaughter.  The decision, right or wrong on the facts, picked at the scab of the soul of some African Americans, provoking senseless violence.  Americans of every skin color riot when their team wins the World Series (San Francisco 2014) or Super Bowl (Denver 1998).  Dark skinned Americans riot when they perceive that some injustice has been committed against them.

The costliest riots, over $1 billion in damages, had occurred in Los Angeles in 1992 after the Rodney King beating.  Whether in response to victory or injustice, rioting provoked confusion and condemnation in any society.  It was both uncomfortable and strangely seductive to watch the emergence of a super two-year old, having a temper tantrum, from a group of civilized human beings.

Property damage from civil unrest was covered by many business insurance plans, George knew, but he wondered how many businesses damaged in the Ferguson riots were covered for interruption of business operations, replacing some or all of the owner’s lost income.  Sometimes these were sold as riders to a commercial policy.

People with jobs were less likely to get angry.  Unemployment among African Americans was at the same level as the early seventies, when the economy was in a severe recession, and the oil embargo and inflation had prompted Nixon to enact wage price controls.  Those had not been good times for many Americans. Five years after the official end of this last recession, the unemployment rate among African Americans was twice the rate of the general labor force.

The participation rate among African Americans was about 1% less than that for the entire labor force but the rate difference for men was about 4 to 5%.

George was a bit concerned that Monday night’s riots in Ferguson might have a secondary effect on Tuesday’s trading if the 2nd estimate of GDP growth for the 3rd quarter was below 3%.  Yes, he should have been more focused on making turkeys out of construction paper for the Thanksgiving dinner.  He and Mabel – well, mostly Mabel – had started the tradition when the kids, Robbie and Emily, were younger.  Somehow they had continued the tradition after the kids had gone.  George told Mabel that he would do it while they watched the season finale of Dancing With the Stars on Tuesday night.  Somehow he felt like a kid saying he would do his homework later.  Long marriages result from both partners doing stuff they don’t particularly like doing, George thought.

Tuesday morning’s report of GDP growth allayed George’s concerns.  October’s initial estimate of growth had been 3.5%.  This second estimate was higher, at 3.9%.  The Case Shiller 20 city home price index showed a slight month-to-month increase, but the yearly increase in price was just about 5%, more in line with historical averages.  
 Corporate Profits for the 3rd quarter gained 3.8% year-over-year, slowing down from the 4.6% year-over-year growth in the 2nd quarter.  Profit growth was ultimately driven by growth in productivity.  Capital investments in technology had reaped the greater share of overall growth in the past decade or more.  Labor’s share of growth had been particularly weak the past few years, far below the average of the past forty years. 
A closer look at labor productivity gains in the past decade showed just how meager they were.  
A work force unable to capture productivity growth could not command strong pay growth.  Economists at the BLS anticipated increasing overall output growth in this next decade but those projections were sullied by the lack of clarity regarding the causes for the slow growth in labor productivity of the past decade. Did the shift further away from manufacturing make gains harder to come by?  Was there a limit to growth that could be achieved by better management, process design and innovation? Some blamed the exponential growth of the regulatory state, forcing businesses to devote an increasing number of hours on compliance and reporting.  Others blamed the increase in social benefit programs for softening the competitive edge of American workers.  Got a reason?  Throw it in the hat, George thought. The market traded in a flat range for the day.
On Wednesday, George went to the bank to cash in the joint CD that he and Mabel had discussed the previous week.  He was surprised to learn that the bank did not require the both of them to cash in a joint CD.  Mabel was busy with Thanksgiving fixings so it was convenient that George could go alone to handle the matter.  He picked up a certified bank check from one bank and drove over to the bank where they kept their checking account to deposit the money.  He was also surprised to find that the bank did not credit the money to their account for a few days. “The other bank is just like 10 to 15 blocks away,” George told the teller.  “Well, we have to guard against fraud,” the teller responded.  “So it would have been better to have gotten cash?” George asked. “Well, yeh, but then I think you would have to fill out a form because it’s a large cash transaction,” the teller informed him.  “You know, to say you got the money by legal means, that you’re not a drug dealer,” he went on, “but I’d have to ask my supervisor about that.”
George was going to transfer the money that day to their brokerage but thought he should wait till Monday.  George was tempted to buy maybe a 1000 shares of USO, the commodity ETF that tracked West Texas Intermediate Oil.  OPEC was scheduled to meet Thanksgiving day to discuss the near term future of oil prices.  They had dropped by about a third in the past year as increasing barrels of U.S. shale oil were added to the supply for a weakening global demand.  U.S. oil production was now at 9 million barrels a day, the same level  as the mid-1980s, and rising toward the record production of 10 million barrels in the early 1970s.
Poorer countries in OPEC who funded their government with the sale of oil, wanted to set production cuts to halt any further declines in oil prices.  With their huge supply of oil and relatively inexpensive production costs, the Saudis were content to let the slide continue.  On Tuesday, oil prices had dropped a few percent.  But if the other members of OPEC prevailed and production cuts were announced, George reasoned, he could make a bundle of money in a short time by buying oil the day before.  That was the speculative angel, or devil, on his shoulder whispering in his ear.  His other angel simply asked, “Are we investing or gambling?”  George gave in to his cautious angel.  He could also lose a bunch of money really quickly if the Saudis prevailed.  
Thanksgiving dinner was a relatively muted affair, unlike those of past years.  Bob, George’s older brother, and his wife, Flo, had flown down to Cabo to work on an archaeological dig.  The digging part of that “vacation” didn’t sound appealing to George but this archaeological club, or group, would put them up for 10 days in exchange for their labor and they would still have time for sun and surf.  Bob had become fascinated with archaeology when he was about 60 years old and had pursued it with a passion since then.
Mabel, the oldest of five siblings, had taken on the Thanksgiving festivities.  Two of her sisters lived in Colorado but only Susan, the youngest, came to dinner this week.  Most unusual, George thought, that Charlie was the only child at the dinner this year.  The talk at the dinner table turned to Ferguson.  Robbie had read quite a lot of the testimony at the grand jury hearing and was full of facts.  Charlie got bored as the adults chattered on during the meal. He saw a squirrel coming down the trunk of the tree in the front yard and asked George if he could have some peanuts to feed them.  George had showed Charlie how to sit still on the back deck after putting peanuts out for the squirrels in the middle of the backyard.  He was quite surprised that a child of that age could be motionless and silent for that long as they waited for the squirrels to scurry out from the bushes to snatch up a peanut in their wiry paws.
As the talk and opinions swirled around the table, Mabel was quiet, chewing methodically while listening attentively to the others.  George had already had a few testy words with her earlier in the week so he knew how strong her opinions were.  Robbie’s wife Gail all but accused her husband of being a racist because he did not understand that the facts of the case had been carefully cultivated in favor of the police officer.  Robbie asked his mom for some affirmation.  Mabel finished a bite of sweet potato. 
“About fifteen years ago, I stayed a bit late after school, finishing up some paperwork,” she said to Robbie, then turned to the others around the table.  “It was late October,  maybe early November.  The sun had already set.  There were only a few cars left in the parking lot.  There was one of those parking lot lights, the high ones like street lights, near my car but it would go on for a few seconds, then go off for about a minute.  As I walked to my car in the semi-darkness, I noticed a figure walking to me from my right as though to intersect me as I got to my car.  A second glance up and I saw he was wearing one of those,” she paused, “hoodies, I think they’re called.  As he got closer, maybe twenty feet away, I realized that I couldn’t see his face, that it was a black man in a hoodie. My heart instantly started flippity flopping as I realized that I was going to be attacked.”  
Mabel had everyone’s attention, a difficult thing to do in an family that was not reluctant to share their opinions. “There was no one else in the parking lot that I could call out to for help,” she continued in a purposeful voice. “I hurried my step, reached into my bag, fumbling for the car keys as I approached the car.  I didn’t want to look panicked, fearing I don’t know what.  Maybe that my panic would provoke the attacker.  As I reached out my arm to unlock the car, the man’s voice broke the darkness.  All I heard was ‘Hey’ and I turned and I yelled back ‘Aaaaahhhhh,’ grunting it out like some Kung-Fu movie.  “Mabel?  Is that you? I didn’t mean to startle you,” the voice from the hoodie said.  He brushed back the hood of his parka and I could see that it was James, the biology teacher. 
He was so apologetic and I pretended that I had not noticed him until just that minute. ‘My battery’s dead and I was wondering if you have some cables, could give me a jump,’ he explained to me.  ‘I was going to call AAA and then I saw someone come out of the school entrance and I thought it might be you but I wasn’t sure,’ he went on.  I had cables in the trunk, but I was so upset that I lied and told him no, I didn’t have any.  He thanked me and went back across the parking lot to his car.”  Mabel took a quick sip of water from her glass.  George had never heard this story.  After 35 years of marriage, that rarely occurred.
“I started up the car, then sat there crying,” she continued, her lips tense.  “It’s as though my ideals, my view of myself, was a cloak that I had worn and then, that night, I looked in the mirror without my cloak on.  I wasn’t racist in spirit,” she paused, searching for the words to complete the thought, “or intention, but I realized that I was a racist in perception. Racism is embedded in our culture, in me, whether I like it or not.”  
She stopped and there was silence around the dinner table, a rare event at a Liscomb family gathering.  Robbie, sitting close by his mother, reached across the table to grasp his mother’s hand. From the far end of the table, George was struck by her – what would he call it? Her forthrightness. She had an ability he lacked, and perhaps that’s why the seeing of it in her gave him a sense of admiration.  The moment snapped like a crisp carrot as the front door swung open and Charlie burst through the doorway.  “The squirrel was eating a peanut this far from me!” he yelled excitedly and spread wide his arms.

On Friday, George learned that the Saudis had prevailed at the OPEC meeting.  By the end of the day, USO had dropped more than 8%.  We bear the fruits of what we do and don’t do, George reminded himself, then wondered if that was a line from Shakespeare or maybe Leonard Cohen?

While the stock market stayed relatively quiet during the week, ten year bond prices continued to gather strength.  Stocks and bonds tended to move opposite each other in a dance of risk and return. When they both gained in strength, something had to give.  The last time they met at this strong level was at the end of August, when bonds faltered first, falling  about 5% over two weeks while the SP500 remained fairly stable.  In mid-September they flipped.  Bonds rallied up 8-9% as stocks fell the same amount.  Then stocks rallied to all time highs in the past four or five weeks but bond prices had not fallen more than a few percent.  George resolved to watch this dance during the following week.  It was the first week of the month, filled with a number of reports including the employment report that could renew or drain confidence in the stock market. 

A Long Term Plan

November 16, 2014

“Yaaaaay!” Charlie erupted as he kicked the pile of leaves in the backyard. Rusted orange, dried blood crimson and mustard yellow flew up into the air.  Rake in hand, George smiled at his grandson’s exuberance. “Hey, champ, let’s get these leaves in the bag.”  The little arms gathered up the colored leaves and swung to the trash can which was about the same height as the four year old boy.  Charlie threw the leaves up over the lip of the trash can.  Very few leaves made it into the can. Charlie tilted the black plastic can toward him so that he could look in the can. “Look, Ganpa!” he exclaimed, proudly showing the inside and the few leaves that had made it into the can.  “The kid’s a politician,” George remarked to his son Robbie sitting on the back deck. “Get’s very little accomplished with a lot of fanfare.”

Robbie held up his phone. “Let me get a shot of the two of you.”  George picked up Charlie and held him over the trash barrel.  Charlie clasped him around the neck and Robbie snapped the picture.  George set the child down and the boy once again gathered up a clump of leaves and threw them up into the air.  Robbie took another picture of his son.  George walked over to the deck.  “Let me see.”  Robbie showed him the two pictures then looked at the picture of his son tossing up the leaves.  He handed the phone to his dad.  “Looks like a scatterplot, doesn’t it?” Robbie asked. George looked.  “Wow, what have you been working on?  Most people don’t see a scatterplot in a cloud of leaves.” A scatterplot is a number of data observations plotted on a graph.

“Still working on pattern recognition for drones,” Robbie said, a bit of tiredness in his voice.  “A lot of tough problems to crack.”  George nodded toward Charlie. “I can remember when you were this age,” George said, a fondness in his voice. Robbie went on, “Charlie – any four year old – has better visual processing that the most sophisticated algorithms we write. The brain scientists plot the paths in our brains but we still sit around the lab wondering what is it that our brains are doing when we interpret the world.  Well, we just keep kicking at this mule…” His voice drifted as Charlie came over to them, leaves clenched in his little fists.  He slumped on Robbie’s knees.  “You need to rake more leaves, Ganpa,” he whined.  George looked up and saw that Charlie had leveled the pile of leaves.  “Ok, champ, let’s rake more leaves.”

Mabel opened the rear screen door.  “I need a potato peeling person!” she called out.  Robbie stood up.  “I’ll get it,” Robbie said, “you rake.”

As he raked, George thought back to that time when Robbie was the same age Charlie was.  At that time, thirty years had seemed like a lifetime because it was.  He and Mabel had been in their thirties.  George remembered some  meetings with their accountant at the time. She had given them the talk, one that she probably gave to other young families. “You need to keep some things in mind for your kids, and for your retirement.  I know it seems like a long time away now but your little boy will be in college before you know it.”  The accountant was only a few years older than they were but talked like a Solon.  George had supposed that the profession encouraged that kind of long term thinking.  Heck, his time horizon was about five years and this woman was stretching their imagination out twenty, thirty and forty years. “The choices you make now will limit or expand your choices in the future.”

Almost thirty years later, George and Mabel had done well by following her advice over the years.  George wanted to thank her but she had moved her business to Oregon or Washington and they had lost touch.  They had not bought the really big house although they had sometimes wished they had more room, especially when the kids were teenagers.  They had treated the two houses they had owned as a place to live, not as an investment vehicle or a store of wealth to borrow from.  The mild downturn in the residential market in the early 1990s had not worried them.  When the prices of homes crashed in 2007 and 2008, they lost little sleep because the mortgage was paid off.  George did take a hit on his 401K though.  He was close to retirement as the market tanked and both of them worried a lot through that 2008 – 2009 winter.

In the late 1980s, George had opted in for what was then a fairly new idea, a 401K plan, at work.  These were termed “defined contribution” plans.  The employee, not the employer, took the risk and the responsibilities for the investment allocations in the plan.  The employer made its contribution to the plan and had no long term liabilities for the results that the investments did or didn’t make.

When Mabel returned to teaching in the mid 1990s, she had taken a conventional defined benefit pension plan, the only one that the school offered.  In early 1999, as the Nasdaq climbed to nosebleed valuations, George had eased up on the stock allocation in his 401K.  He didn’t know a whole lot about investing, only that stocks were riskier than bonds.  As the market continued to climb, he sometimes regretted his decision but stuck with it as a matter of common sense. By the end of 2000, as stock prices continued to fall, he was glad he had been more conservative.  In late October 2014, the Nasdaq 100 had finally climbed above the level it reached in 1999, 15 years earlier.

They enjoyed a wonderful Sunday dinner with Robbie, his wife Gail, and their grandson Charlie.  Robbie asked about Emily, his sister, but no they hadn’t heard from her in almost a year.  Two kids grow up in the same house.  One of them is stable, has a good career, and a wonderful family.  The other leads a troubled life, and is consumed by some inner demon.  Emily was not a fit conversation for a dinner table so the talk moved onto other topics.  Robbie, Gail and Charlie drove back to Colorado Springs that evening.  There was a front moving down from Canada or Alaska so they declined the offer to stay in the guest room for the night.

There wasn’t a lot of economic news scheduled for the week so George was not expecting any strong moves in the market.  Much of the earnings season had come and gone.  According to FactSet  almost 80% of companies had reported above consensus estimate of earnings.  A more disturbing sign: three times as many companies had issued negative guidance for fourth quarter earnings as those that had indicated a more positive outlook.

The big news for the week was the Rosetta spacecraft.  Launched ten years earlier, it had rendezvoused with a comet 300 million away on its journey from the far reaches of the solar system to the sun.  As if that wasn’t spectacular enough, the spacecraft then launched a washing machine sized landing vehicle to sit down on the comet as it sped through space.  Talk about long term planning.

On Thursday, the spot price of a barrel of crude oil dropped below $75.  The Energy Information Agency (EIA) announced that the average price of a gallon of gasoline had fallen further to $2.94, the second week below $3.   Several analysts pegged the price range of $65 – $70 as a “make or break” benchmark for many fracking operations.  If oil were to stay down at that level for any length of time, many new drilling plans would be put on hold.  Operations at existing wells might be cut back.  The strong dollar meant that countries who were net exporters of oil would be paid in dollars, which could be traded for more of their own currency.  For these countries, the strong dollar was helping offset the impact of lowered prices.

On Thursday, the BLS released the September report of job openings and turnover, or JOLTS.  The number of employees quitting their jobs had risen to a recovery high of 2%.  Workers who were not confident of finding another job did not quit their current job.  Job quitters acted as a canary in a coal mine, where a relatively small part of an ecosystem or economy indicated the health of the entire system.  A rate of 2% or higher indicated a healthy confidence in the employment grapevine.

On Friday, George had lunch with a few former colleagues.  Four old guys sitting at a booth, drinking too much coffee. As usual, the discussion was lively.  Each of them had a take on the elections just past but the conversation got a bit heated when Stan said that there were just too many people who didn’t want to work.  Who was going to pay for all these people?  Who was going to pay for all the government programs?  He had just read a report from Pew Research that summarized the changing trends in the labor force participation rate and the sometimes contentious debates about those changes.  The participation rate was the number of people working or looking for work as a percentage of the adult population, the civilian non-institutional population, as it was called.  A 90 year old person could still work and was counted as part of that population of potential workers.

The core work force, those aged 25-54, showed a slightly declining participation.  The first boomers had grown out of this age group at the turn of the century.

George’s opinion, one echoed by the Congressional Budget Office, was that much of the reduction in the participation rate was due to changing demographics.  Since the mid-1990s, women, particularly white women, had had a historically high participation rate.

Some workers of earlier generations who had not needed a college education to earn a middle class wage found themselves less desirable in this more technological work environment.  During the recession, employers shed many workers with long term health problems.  As the economy improved employers were reluctant to hire these job seekers who may have had a good work ethic but possessed no above average skills or education.   Some applied for disability, or retired early if they could, or simply gave up trying.

Those with college level education and higher were more likely to be working.  The downtrend in the participation rate for both groups had started during the Clinton years, long before the Bush presidency, the 2008 recession or Obama’s presidency.

Full time workers as a percent of the total population were about the same level as the mid-1980s, when the economy was in a growth phase.  The 1990s and 2000s had been marked by unsustainable bubbles – the dot com boom and the housing debacle.

Older workers contributed to the high participation rates of the 1990s and 2000s.  A lot of people came to regard these abnormally high participation rates as normal.  They weren’t, George argued.

Sure, people are living longer, George argued, but the number of older workers can’t keep rising indefinitely.  Since the early 1990s, older workers had risen by 20 million, from 12% of the work force to 24% of the work force.  They were competing with younger workers for jobs.

27% of the entire population was older than 55.  Most of that population was past working age yet older workers made up 24% of the work force.

Workers who might have retired in decades past were continuing to work, clogging up the labor pipeline.

Stan thought the economy had still not recovered and was worried about the next recession.  Who’s gonna pay for all these people, he wondered again.  George reminded him that average weekly hours of all private workers – most of the work force – was now at the same level as before the recession.

The Civilian Labor Force was higher now than before the recession started.  The growth rate was lower but still growing.

But George agreed that there were persistent problems.  A third of those unemployed had been out of work for more than a half year.

Real weekly earnings were stagnant, neither growing or declining.

There were still a lot of people who were not counted in the labor force because they were not actively looking for work.  They wanted jobs but had given up.  As bad as it is now, George reminded Stan, discouraged job seekers are at the same level as they were in the mid-1990s.  Did you even notice back then?  George asked.  Stan admitted he hadn’t.

“A lot of us weren’t paying attention,” George told the group seated at the booth.  “Sure, it got bad sometimes, but we figured we would get through it.  This last recession was bad, bad, bad and there is a lot more information available now.  We can see how bad it was five years ago and there’s plenty more information to worry over as we look to the future.”

“So, you’re optimistic?” Stan challenged.  “Yeh, I am,” George replied. “Thirty years ago my accountant told me that by the time we retired, politicians would have to do one of three things:  increase taxes, cut benefits, or increase the retirement age.  She told Mabel and I that politicians would probably do a little of all three to spread the pain out and avoid getting thrown out of office.  I was doubtful.  How could she know what was going to happen so far in the future?  ‘It’s just math,’ she told us. ‘The largest generation of people is going to start turning 65 in twenty-five years and the system is not designed for it.  They’re gonna get sick and who’s gonna pay for it?  You think the little that you pay into Medicare is going to cover that?’  I look back now at her predictions.  They’ve raised the retirement age.  Check. The low inflation rate is helping to reduce the growth in Social Security benefits.  A half-check.  Medicare costs are growing at two to three times the rate of inflation.  They haven’t raised taxes yet but it’s coming.”

Stan said sardonically, “And you call yourself an optimist.”  George laughed.  “I guess I’m an optimist because she got Mabel and I planning for all of this a long time ago.  When they raised the retirement age, we weren’t surprised.  When they cut Social Security benefits in the future, we won’t be surprised.  When they raise taxes, we won’t be surprised.”

“Is this lady still your accountant?  She sounds pretty smart.” Stan asked.  “No,” George replied. “I think she and her husband moved to Oregon or Washington.  They wrote business and investment software but they gave up trying to defend their software from copying.  This was in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  Even their own clients were copying their software and giving it to their friends. ‘Smaller companies like ours just don’t have the time or resources to protect against theft,’ she told us.  ‘Eventually we’ll go to work as consultants for the larger companies.’  And several years later, that’s what they did.”

The waitress brought the check.  Normally they would split it four ways but Stan picked it up and handed it to George.  “Shouldn’t the optimist pay?”  George laughed.  “This one time,” he said, “but on one condition.  You all have to agree with me.  Isn’t that how they do it in politics?”  They all laughed, grunting as they straightened up after sitting so long.

The Flame of Fame

On Monday, George finished a re-read of Nassim Taleb’s Fooled By Randomness, an examination of probability without the mathematics. Taleb wrote from the point of view of a market trader but the book contained apt lessons for many kinds of decision making.  Mabel went out with a few friends to see the movie Birdman.  She asked George if he wanted to go but he was happy to sit around and read.

Taleb told the story of a emerging market bond trader in the 1990s who made a quarter billion dollars for his firm by “buying on the dips.”  When the price of the bonds declined, the trader took a highly leveraged long position, betting that the price of the bonds would rally.  Each time they did.  The man became convinced that he knew this market well.  He believed in his own astute judgment.  Then came a dip with no subsequent rally.  Instead, prices continued to fall.  The trader had no stop loss set, a floor price where a trader closes his position to prevent further losses.  Instead the trader convinced his bosses at the firm that prices would soon rally.  He increased his position as prices fell further.  Eventually, prices fell so low that the firm, near bankruptcy, fired the trader and closed the position, losing almost 600 million.  George thought about that.  There had been one correction in April and May of 2012, a near correction in October and November of that same year.  Smaller dips had occurred in June and August of 2013, then in January, April and August of this year.  Finally, this month a 7% or so dip.  Like the bond trader in the 1990s, the winning strategy of the past few years had been to buy on these dips.  The subsequent rise in prices helped convince buyers that their particular view of the market, whether fundamental or technical, was a sound one.  Note to self, George thought, don’t confuse good luck with genius.

Earnings and sales reports would drive the market for a few days until Wednesday when the Fed was expected to end its bond buying program.  On Thursday, the first estimate of 3rd quarter GDP would be released.  After the close Monday, Amgen reported earnings that were 12% better than expected.  That would help set a positive mood for Tuesday’s open.

Tuesday’s gauge of consumer confidence from the Conference Board was almost 95, the highest since 2007.  Lower gasoline prices have put extra money in consumer pockets.  A 25% decrease in the price of gas ($4 – $3) puts about $800 in a consumer’s pocket, a “raise” of almost $20 a week.  The declining price of oil caused Chevron to revise its earnings guidance downward by 15-20% for 2014 and 2015 but that was not as bad as anticipated and the shares rose.

The Case Shiller index of home prices in 20 metropolitan areas showed a 5.6% year over year gain, the lowest yearly gain in two years.  After almost a decade, the housing market seemed to be returning to more normal patterns of price appreciation.

On the whole, this earnings season seemed positive but the cautionary tone of Taleb’s book reminded George to stay watchful.  On Sunday, the European Banking Authority had released the results of their 2014 stress tests on more than 120 European banks. Approximately 20% had failed the test, most of them in Italy, Greece, Cyprus and Spain. When a football game ends, fans leave their seats and move toward the exits in a loosely organized fashion.  When a larger bank or sovereign country seems to be in danger of failing or defaulting, investors rush toward the exits as though someone called “Fire!”  Still, George was feeling – well, vindicated – that he had seemed to catch this latest dip near the bottom.
 
The mild weather of late October continued.  In shorts and tee shirt, George raked leaves in the backyard on Wednesday morning.  Taking a break, he poured himself another cup of coffee, then glanced out the window overlooking the front yard.  “Oh, wow,” he muttered.  He went to the front door, commenting to Mabel as he opened it, “Must be a bad accident down the street.  There’s a Channel 3 van parked across the street.  I’m gonna check it out.”  If Mabel had a stopwatch, she would have clocked 14 seconds before George was rushing back inside, hurriedly closing the front door. “Geez,” he exclaimed.  “What’s wrong?” Mabel asked.  “Some woman from the TV station, she starts running across the street toward the house when she saw me!  She called my name, for Chrissake!”

George walked into the kitchen, then took up a position on the side of the fridge where he could look out the window onto the street without being seen.  “There’s some guy with a video camera with her!” He said, managing to fit anger, annoyance and exasperation into the tone of his voice.  Mabel got up from her chair, stood by the living room window, partly concealed by the drapes as she looked out at the street.  “What do you think they want, George?  Should we go out and talk to them?”  “No, that’s the problem.  I think that’s exactly what they want – to talk to us.  Weird!”  Mabel noticed that the rooftop mounted dish on the TV van had been raised up.  “I think they’re broadcasting, honey,” she told George in a loud whisper.  The woman outside stood on the sidewalk, her back to the house, gesturing, turning to the house, then turning back to the camera man who wielded a shoulder mounted video camera pointed at the woman and George and Mabel’s house.  “They wouldn’t come into our front yard, would they?” George wondered aloud. “Isn’t there some kinda law against that?”

Mabel switched channels from the weather to Channel 3. “Oh, no!  This is a live feed.” She turned up the volume.  The woman reporter standing out on their sidewalk was looking at Mabel from the TV screen. There seemed to be several seconds of delay so that George and Mabel could see the woman reporter gesturing on the front sidewalk, then seeing that same gesture shortly on the TV as though time had fractured.

Reliable source, the reporter said.   In advance of the mid-terms, President visited Liscombs, who have not demonstrated active role in politics for either party.  Speculation about election strategy in the hotly contested Senate and Governor’s races.  A man presumed to be Mr. Liscomb ran back into the house to avoid answering questions.  Supposedly independent political organizations spending a lot of money in Colorado.  Are the Liscombs bundlers for one of these organizations?  Just how independent are these organizations?  Why did the President visit this house, this couple?  Were campaign rules broken?

George had joined Mabel, standing beside her, staring dumbstruck at the TV.  “Are they saying we’re like some kind of political action group like the ones the Koch Brothers fund?” George asked Mabel.  “Oh, they’re not saying anything,” Mabel said with a touch of anger.  “They’re suggesting, provoking…” she stopped as the report concluded.  “Now here comes the tease before the commercial,” she said.  “More on the upcoming elections here in Colorado when we come back,” announced the lunchtime news host.  “You watch too much TV,” George kidded her.  “You’ve gotten hip to their tricks.”

Both of them turned to look outside the living room window.  The reporter now stood with the video tech near the rear of the van.  “I think they’re leaving,” George said.  “No, wait,” Mabel told him.  “The dish on the van is still elevated for upload.  Wait till they lower it.  Then we’ll know they’re leaving.”  “Where did you learn all this stuff?” George asked her.  “Remember when we had that knife fight at the school five years ago?” Mabel asked.  George nodded.  “Two kids went to the hospital.  The local stations covered it, of course.  Got to see the vans.  It’s amazing how much equipment they cram in a regular van.  There’s probably a third person in the van working all the computers and equipment.”

Eventually, the van pulled away from the curb.  George realized that he’d missed the announcement from the Fed on their bond buying program, switched channels to confirm that they had ended the program. Although the Fed had stopped adding to its balance sheet, it continued to hold a whopping $4.5 trillion in assets, the total of the past several years of printing money to support the economy as the country struggled to recover from the Great Recession.

The market closed at the about the same level as Tuesday.  Dreamworks, the studio that produced the How to Train Your Dragon movies,  reported better than expected earnings after the close, sending the stock up 5% in after hours trading.  Kraft also reported earnings slightly higher but the overall sales picture was tepid.  Samsung reported a huge 60% decline in profit, squeezed on the high end by Apple and under pressure from mid and low end competitors.  The giant insurer MetLife had a blow out quarter.  Visa reported better than expected earnings, sending the stock over 4% higher in after market trading.

If Thursday’s first estimate of 3rd quarter GDP growth had come in at 2.5%, below the consensus of 3%, the market could have dropped 2% or more, George thought.  Instead, the estimate was 3.5%.  The market opened up lower then climbed about 1% during the day.

In each earnings season, there are several stories.  One was Gilead Sciences, a small cap biotech firm, whose “killer app”  was a new hepatitis drug called Sovaldi. Gilead reported earnings of $1.79 for the past quarter.  This was about 10% above earlier guidance but in the crazy world of Wall St., investors had been expecting $1.92, a “whisper” earnings number based on anticipated higher sales of Sovaldi.  Instead, sales of the drug were 20% less than the previous quarter.  The stock dropped about 5% on Wednesday, before climbing to new highs on Thursday.  The stock had more than quadrupled since the beginning of 2012.

On Friday the market jumped 1% at the open.  Overnight, the Bank of Japan had announced a massive stimulus program to combat risks of deflation, the bugaboo of all modern economies.  If prices might be slightly lower next year, why buy this year?  As consumers postpone some purchases, the decline in sales leads to further price declines as companies compete more fiercely to get those fewer sales.  Japan’s core CPI, excluding food and energy prices, had risen above 1% in response to earlier stimulus programs but had now fallen in the past several months back toward 1%.

On the domestic front, personal income gains in September were positive, averaging about 2.4% annually and above inflation. Wages and salaries jumped .4%, double the overall income growth. Consumer spending remained tepid, declining to a 1.4% annual pace of growth.  Amazon had warned earlier that they expected the Christmas season to be subdued this year.  Some speculated that the low rate of inflation and consumer spending would further check any rise in interest rates before the middle of 2015 at the earliest.

The market closed just slightly above the level it had reached six weeks earlier.  George had to remind himself that it was just luck.  But he sure felt smart.  Then he noticed a disturbing sign, the dragonfly doji after a gap up, on the chart of SPY, the ETF that tracks the SP500 index. The doji are one of many candelestick patterns, a type of technical analysis that tries to understand the psychology of buyers and sellers in the market from price movements over one to three days. After a number of up days, such a pattern might signal that buying pressure has become exhausted. After reading Taleb’s book, George reminded himself once again to be skeptical of signals. The last dragonfly doji after a 1% gap up that George could find in the past few years occurred on April 28, 2012.  The market had turned down after that one, losing more than 10% over the following five weeks.  Of course, George could have missed some doji simply because the market had not turned after the occurrence of one.  As Taleb noted, our view of historical data suffers from hindsight bias, from knowing what happened after a particular event.  We can not see the future very well but it’s worse than that. We don’t see the past very well either.  George had laughed when he read that.

Next week was the first week of the month when several economic reports would capture the attention of investors.   The monthly labor report at the end of the week would get the most attention.  The ISM indexes of the manufacturing and service sectors would be closely watched for any signs of a slowdown.  The sluggish growth in Europe and the strong dollar would have a negative impact on exports, which would show up in the manufacturing index.  The CWPI, a composite of both of the ISM indexes, had probably peaked the previous month, and should be lower this month as a natural part of the cyclic pattern of the past several years.  Investors could react negatively though to this cyclic decline.  The VIX, the volatility indicator, had dropped into a more calm zone and below its 10 day average.

But investors had not abandoned the safety of long-term Treasuries.

If Republicans took control of the Senate in Tuesday’s election, the market would probably get a boost, George figured.  The results might not be known for days or weeks if there were recounts in some key senatorial races and that might drag the market down a bit in advance of the upcoming labor report.  Would the market go up or down?  George could definitely say yes!  He looked out the window Saturday afternoon and could tell the direction of one thing for sure – leaves.  They were calling to him, or was it his wife with a helpful reminder?