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Book Review: The Walmart Effect

Posted by silentarchimedes on March 20, 2009

The Walmart Effect

How the World’s Most Powerful Company Really Works – and How It’s Transforming the American Economy

Author: Charles Fishman

walmart-effectWHY I READ THIS BOOK

I do not like Walmart, yet I shop there. It is messy and dreary, yet I plan a trip to Walmart every few weeks. It is expansive, yet crowded and claustrophobic. I feel like I’ve spent just as much time there looking for either a product or an employee to assist me as I have actually shopping. I try to minimize my time there but the trip always ends up over an hour and I’m beat by the time I leave. Why do I keep going back there? To make things worse, all these stories about Walmart’s secrecy and unethical business practices keep popping up. Yet that has not stopped me from shopping there. The fact that Walmart has become ubiquitous with middle-class (and poorer) shopping has led most people to subconsciously accept it. So what is going on with Walmart?

THE AUTHOR: CHARLES FISHMAN

It must take someone with guts to take on the Walmart behemoth; especially after you read the book and realize that for most of its  history, Walmart has considered any type of publicity and media a threat to its business model. But Fishman has been known as an investigative reporter that attempts to bring to light the workings of institutions or groups that have been relatively unknown. According to the book’s website, Fishman has spent the past 20 years investigating organizations such as NASA and Walmart. He was also the first reporter to be allowed inside a Tupperware factory, and first in 30 years inside the nation’s only bomb factory.

SHORT SUMMARY

walmart_lowpricesIn an attempt to understand the inner workings of Walmart Inc. and its effects on job creation, global economy, work environments, suppliers, competitors, communities and other issues, Fishman talks with everyone that might be affected by Walmart but Walmart itself. Due to the secrecy of Walmart and the lack of transparency in its statistics, Fishman is forced to rely specifically on his investigative acumen. What he finds out is that Walmart is the ultimate definition of a dichotomy, a contradiction that baffles all levels of society; from the individual to the community to the country to the global economy. On one hand, Walmart is unpretentious, is no frills, provides hundreds of thousands of jobs, provides the cheapest prices for consumers and has always stuck to its core values. However, on the other hand, it has a dictatorial grip on its suppliers and competitors, kills almost as many jobs as it creates, indirectly destroys local natural ecosystems, promotes cheap labor and unfair labor practices, has no transparency or guilt and chips away at the core values of the free market system. It pushes the limits of good and bad capitalism and is the poster child of globalization.

REVIEW

This book really does a good job of trying to understand the Walmart effect. However, although Fishman tries to stay neutral on the positives and negatives of the issue, it is more common that his investigations lead to a negative perception of the company. It’s hard not to have a more negative view after reading the book. There is only one major positive about Walmart, it provides the lowest prices for many of the things families need. However, this is a huge positive and is shown even more during this recession. Walmart’s growth in same store sales have been increasing for the past 22 months while Target’s have fallen the past eight months (Source: Walmart vs. Target: No Contest in the Recession, Time Online). It’s not even a contest and shows that this positive is all that consumers need to turn a blind eye on all the other issues. And for sure, there are a lot of other issues, which Fishman does a great job of detailing and bringing out.

The book flows really well, from the beginning to the end… although the last chapter is the required “so after all this investigative work, what should we do or care about Walmart to make this world a better place?” The first chapter is pretty much a summary of Walmart’s influence on society. The rest of the book goes into detail about each issue by discussing academic studies on the company dating back to the mid-1980s, successful and failed interviews with former supplier executives from big and small companies, the impact of Walmart on things we take for granted now (like deodorants that sell without the useless boxes they used to come in) and talking to opponents of Walmart, from environmental groups to factory workers of their suppliers.

The most damaging against Walmart has to be that a lot of the investigation leads to the same conclusion, Walmart is a big cheapskate. Which was fine when it was a small company, but now that it is the biggest in the world, this sense of being cheap at all costs seems somewhat unfair. Unfair to other companies and unfair to the ecosystems and poor countries’ lax labor laws it depends on to produce such massive quantities of products. Fishman tries hard to not take a position, but the writing is in the book. There are no positives about Walmart that can be concluded from the Chilean Atlantic salmon farms, or the countless companies mentioned in the book that went belly-up after becoming a supplier of Walmart. There’s just too many examples to list. And it’s quite obvious that even the large companies that work with Walmart are under the control of Walmart.

There are some interesting stories in the book. The one I like best is about the company that decided supplying to Walmart was detrimental to its future existence, so it decided to end the relationship. However, Fishman argues that companies that don’t supply to Walmart are highly affected by them anyways because of the devastatingly low prices. Another interesting tidbit was that Fishman believes Walmart may hit a ceiling at some point and there could be, what he calls, Walmart saturation and exhaustion.

VERDICT

This is a very insightful book. Although there are only a few unbiased and encompassing studies on the Walmart effect, Fishman does a good job of investigating and doing his own research. This book sums up my initial motivation for reading  about the world’s largets non-oil company. Walmart is such a dichotomy it’s really difficult to come to a conclusion on whether it is good for society or bad. It has changed so much of everything that it is beyond anyone’s control. Many of the numerous statistics in the book are downright unbelievable. The book is a quick read, very interesting to read and will make you think twice about globalization and also your personal moral responsibilities to it.

The book was written in 2006 and only talks about the perceptions and actions of Walmart in the context of 2005. The major views of Walmart has not changed since then. However, the signs of Walmart exhaustion have gone out the window now that we are in a recession and most people have turned even more to Walmart for cheap prices. Walmart also has done more to improve the negative perception against it. Just a few days ago Walmart announced that they would be awarding $2 billion dollars to their employees. If Walmart decides to also target the higher end products, like Target, this might create a whole slew of new problems.

walmart_smileywalmart_smileywalmart_smileywalmart_smileywalmart_smileywalmart_smileywalmart_smileywalmart_smileywalmart_smileywalmart_smiley_gray

Rating: 9 out of 10 Walmart smileys


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Posted in Books, Economics, Ethics, Reviews | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

The need for greed. And they all fall. What Arod, recession and global warming have in common.

Posted by silentarchimedes on February 7, 2009

Alex Rodriguez

Alex Rodriguez

What is going on with the world today? Many of the institutions and systems we grew up with and believed in have crumbled faster than a crumb cake in front of Santa Claus. This morning sports fans were shockingly (or not) met with news that one of the few remaining baseball superstars to not be tainted by the steroids scandal, Alex Rodriguez, failed an MLB steroids test in 2003. Considering that this news was corroborated by four independent sources, and based on past evidence of such news, this story likely has meat behind it. As the Barry Bonds’, baseball’s all-time home run king, steroids perjury trial heads to court, we wonder if there is anything sacred anymore in sportsmanship and fair play. The list now includes Bonds, Arod, Marc McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Roger Clemens and Raphael Palmeiro. All were heroes and idols to millions and millions of kids and sports fans.

Bear Stearns

Bear Stearns

Sports is nothing, however, compared to the deepening economic crisis affecting the country. But, then again we need to ask ourselves how did this country fall into such a dire situation in the first place? With news of unemployment reaching 7.6%, worst since 1982, most Americans are sensing a pessimism in the country and its leadership they have never felt before. Corporations that have long been stalwarts have wilted after years of trustworthy service. Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers and AIG, just to name a few. Even General Electric has fallen on tough times due to untrustworthy leadership expectations and financial exposure. Then there are the frauds of individuals, such Bernie Madoff, and corporations, such as Enron and Global Crossing.

Polar bear cub

Polar bear cub

Then there is the global warming and energy crises. Due to the  irresponsible and rampant use of oil and other natural resources, and the irresponsible output of chemicals into the air, river and ground, the natural balance of Earth has come under question. Dire predictions of sea levels, global temperatures, forestation, glacial coverage, droughts and diseases have left us wondering is there any hope left? Will there exist a viable Earth in 100 to 200 years?

It is truly amazing that all three of these problems have one major thing in common. Greed. Greed. Greed. What is most disturbing is that the situations did not become problems until the ultimate greed kicked in. Arod was already a once in a generation baseball player back in high school. It is fair to say that he did not do steroids as a teenager as his body structure was simply too small. Bonds was a skinny player with the Pirates but was already a five tool player on the path to the Hall of Fame. McGwire  was an amazingly talented rookie with the Oakland Athletics. Why did they feel the need to use steroids and become even better than they already were? Why risk already amazing career trajectories with such greed?

Similarly, the financial companies that have gone bankrupt or bought up were very viable and successful companies (some for over a hundred years) before the ARMs and hedge funds became en vogue. Why the greed to do such risky investments in order to raise the bottom line and stock price?  Was it all due to increasing stock compensation packages of executives? Was it all worth it? To dupe millions of unknowing citizens just for more personal money? What about Madoff? An already well-respected and wealthy investor; what caused him to risk everyone’s money (including hundreds of other wealthy individuals and companies), just to make more money for his firm?

Finally, the earth has remained relatively stable ever since the existence of man. However, since the Industrial Revolution and especially since the widespread use of combustible engines, there has been this disregard for the side effects of using such resources. Coupled with research in biochemistry and synthetic compounds, the effects of pesticides, mercury, lead and carbons have led to a precarious global balance. Millions of animal species extinct or on the brink of survival.

Progress?

Progress?

Are humans, the supposedly most “intelligent” species with opposable thumbs, in fact, the dumbest species ever? Just imagine outsiders writing about the history of man and what they would write about, especially the past 150 years. Just imagine what they would write about western civilization. Just imagine what they would say about the population numbers. Or about technology and medical research? Is this the final goal of evolution? We have reached the ultimate in special survival… our only enemy is ourselves? The whole purpose of natural selection is the survival of the strong. However, part of natural selection is natural balance. A species never wants to become too powerful because then their food sources and natural enemies would disappear. Humans have, in essence, overcome both these natural laws. Through natural selection (our brains and opposable thumbs) we are far and beyond the most powerful species. In a relatively short time, our population and power increased beyond control. Humans have no more natural enemies. The machines we have created are unmatched and only destructible amongst ourselves. So what does this all mean?

The human world does not have a checks and balance system. Nature and other species have always acted as the equalizers. The closest thing that comes to that is the United Nations, and everyone knows how ineffective it is. Additionally, idealistic political systems such as communism and socialism have proven futile. Even checks and balance systems, such as the one in the United States, has a limited efficacy, as witnessed by the politics, lobbyism and other issues. Nature is having a difficult time balancing the effects of human greed and power. Diseases and natural disasters are becoming minimal in damage due to medical research and better disaster predictions. Without any natural enemies, we are left to govern ourselves and our future. As exciting of a possibility that is, the track record of that has been phenomenally pathetic.

Posted in Economics, Ethics, Health and Fitness, Opinion, Politics, Science and Math, Sports, Technology | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

Citi Field no more? Politics or bad use of taxpayer money?

Posted by silentarchimedes on February 4, 2009

Citi Field Rendering

Rendering of Citi Field

Due to the economic crisis affecting financial companies, the big corporations that have taken money from the federal Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) have come under scrutiny for their use of capital and list of expenditures. The latest salvo was by several politicians, U.S. Reps. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) and Ted Poe (R-Texas), who are questioning Citigroup’s $400 million stadium naming rights and marketing deal with the New York Mets. The deal includes calling the stadium Citi Field for twenty years. Citigroup, like many other financially strapped companies, has taken out about $45 billion from TARP.

At first glance, the concerns of Kucinich and Poe make sense. A company that is taking valuable taxpayers’ money because of its financial situation should not be spending $400M simply to put their name on a baseball stadium. However, is this politics as usual? There are several issues here that show that public perception is not always reality.

New York Mets

New York Mets

The obvious issue here is that the marketing deal is a legal binding agreement between two corporations. How can politicians force a company to renege on a legal business deal? Does giving $45B equate to complete scrutiny of the said company? Doesn’t the company still have some independence in fulfilling previous agreements and decisions? What about the Mets? They have made other business decisions since then based on having that revenue stream. Is it fair that politics might force a legal deal to be reneged?

The second issue here is marketing. As financially strapped as companies are, they still need to spend a portion of their budget on marketing. This is the case even if they are receiving money from the federal government. What do the politicians expect them to do? Use 100% of their budget on selling loans and improving the credit crisis? That’s unreasonable because marketing helps increase the financial business. Maybe Citigroup continues to decide that Citi Field will in fact have a positive effect on its financial business.

Citigroup

Citigroup

A third issue is the actual effect of the $400M. The number seems large but it is over the course of twenty years. That amounts to $20M a year. Now we know (at least with very high probability) that the economy won’t be in the doldrums for the next twenty years. That means the deal, as affected by the economic crisis, is in the range of $20-$60 million. This is chump change for a large corporation like Citigroup. More specifically, it is 0.04% to 0.13% of the $45B in assistance! When you look at the fact that Citigroup has revenues of over $19 billion and has a cash/debt ratio of $763B/691B then you start wondering is this worth the time to criticize over?

This reminds me of the grilling that the auto industry received last fall when they tried to get some assistance from Congress. The amount was tiny compared to the bailout received by the financial industry. Yet, politicians were focusing on politics as usual. They focused on these tiny expenditures that have bad public perception (such as private airplanes by executives) instead of worrying about reality and where the real money is going. The auto industry did not cause this mess. The auto industry also employs millions of hard working Americans. The financial industry and politicians caused this mess, and instead of them getting grilled, the politicians gave the financial industry a massive bailout without any public hearings. Talk about fairness. Now we have more politicans worrying about a stadium marketing deal that although has a bad public perception, when analyzed in further detail really has no financial bearing on the situation. It’s absurd and once again, politics at its best.

Posted in Economics, Opinion, Politics, Sports | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Is gold ready to break out after today’s rise?

Posted by silentarchimedes on January 23, 2009

What’s going on with gold today? Gold prices touched above $900/oz today and by mid-noon was trading over $40 higher to $899 an ounce on February deliveries. The highest levels since October of 2008. As of 12:52pm, the SPDR GLD is up over $4.00 to above $88 (4.00+%). The volume of 24 million at 1pm is already twice as much as the average daily volume of 12 million. What is also surprising is that the EURO to Dollar index is dropping today, signifying a strengthening US Dollar. In most cases, these two measures should move inversely proportional to each other (Well, technically, gold rises when the EURUSD=X also rises). So what to make of this move today?

One, it’s easy to say that the huge movement up is all due to the stream of negative economic news. Most daunting was the release of Britain’s GDP, showing the country’s most severe contraction in nearly 29 years. Which also officially pulled the UK into a recession. Additionally, bad earnings from a stream of companies have made today a safe-haven buying day, which lends credence to why both the gold and silver prices are rising, and why the US Dollar is also rising, due to an influx in US Treasuries buying.

However, there are two technical signals that are also resonating quite nicely with the tech gold bugs. Let’s first look at the trading band GLD has been trading in since it’s low back in Nov 2008. I have drawn in the magenta bottom trading boundary which GLD prices essentially hit three times (11/08, 12/08 and 01/09). I have also drawn in the magenta top trading boundary which GLD prices hit twice (end of 11/08, 12/08). In order to keep within this linear rising trading band, GLD would have had to make a move to the upside in the next week or two. Today’s rise only keeps GLD within this trading band and does not signify a breakout. However, because it is a rising trading band, then that bodes well that GLD will continue to rise in the coming weeks. Should it break above the top trading band, we might see a very strong move upwards and well past $100/share. If it breaks below the bottom trading band, then the fundamental breaks and we can see GLD once again test its lows in Nov 2008. Because there is strong buying interest today, this bodes well for GLD.

GLD trading band since Nov 2008 low

GLD trading band since Nov 2008 low

The second bullish signal might prove stronger than the above signal. Let’s look at the 50-day EMA and the 200-day EMA for GLD since 2005. Something is happening here that hasn’t been seen since September of 2005 when gold began it’s next bullish leg up from the $400s/oz to $1000/oz. The 50-day EMA breaking above the 200-day EMA. Although the below chart does not show it, today’s bounce up definitely will push the 50-EMA above the 200-EMA. This is a strong signal and it is coupled with strong volume, which shows buying conviction on the upside. When two long EMAs cross each other they signal long-term trends. You can see that when the 50-EMA crossed under the 200-EMA back in Sept of 2008, GLD dropped for a few months. This break back above 200-EMA could signal strong upside for GLD prices. Coupled with the trading band shown in the first chart, and we major bullish signals for gold in the next few weeks. As in my 2009 Predictions in my previous post, I expect gold to top $1000/oz at some point this year, possibly in February.

Have fun!

GLD 50-EMA ready to pass 200-EMA

GLD 50-EMA ready to pass 200-EMA

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My 2009 Predictions

Posted by silentarchimedes on January 22, 2009

Here are my 2009 predictions. None that are too far out there. Just a basic assessment of what I think might happen in 2009.

POLITICS

Barack the Celebrity

Barack the Celebrity

Obama’s approval ratings remain historically high but lower than the inauguration euphoria – Obama’s ability to inspire change and leadership at such a dour time in America gives him public leeway not seen since, well, 9/11. However, Obama’s pragmatism will help him keep the country on course and inspired throughout 2009. He has already made key changes in ethics regulations and state diplomacy in his first days in office. The only thing that will stop him will be… Congress.

Don’t expect much from Congress – Congress had lower approval ratings than President Bush in 2008, even with the Democratic majority and push for change. Expect the same from Pelosi and Reid, who are not strong leaders and have plenty of personal ambitions to prove Congressional strength to the Executive strength. Couple with the Republicans fight for relevancy, expect a 2009 of posturing and tit-for-tats. 2010 seems like a better year for Congress because the public will side with Obama over the frustrating bureaucracy in Congress in 2009.

ECONOMICS

The market moves sideways – There will be strong forces pulling the economy from both the recession side and the growth side. It is what I call the economic paradox. As the economy falls, oil prices drop and the US Dollar rises (somewhat surprisingly). However, as global growth resumes, oil demand and  commodity prices rise again and the US Dollar falls (since investors will begin investing in riskier assets instead of US Treasuries). Both are problems for America. Obama seems focused on passing bills and bailouts that will help light a fire under the economy, especially job market. However, the more he does the more inflation becomes a risk. Expect several major rises and several major slides, but by the end of 2009, the Dow Jones will still be in the 7500-9000 range.

Gold surpasses $1000/oz again – Because of the economic paradox, gold will continue to maintain its safe haven status in 2009. One of these days, gold will surpass $1000/oz again. In looking at the GLD chart, gold hit a low in mid-Nov 08 and has since built a nice rising linear resistance that it bounded in early Dec 08 and mid Jan 09. If gold breaks the upper linear resistance of $900/oz expect $1000/oz in Feb 09. If it does not expect a pullback. Aside from the technicals, 2009 is still a year of unforeseen economic strife and that will keep the price of gold high. Depending on where the economic paradox is at the end of 2009, gold will either be well above $1000/oz or testing it’s multi-year lows of $700/oz again.

Gold (GLD) prices from Jan 2008 to Jan 2009

Gold (GLD) prices from Jan 2008 to Jan 2009 (12-EMA green, 50-EMA red)

There will only be one viable American automaker by year’s end – The Big Three is already, in essence, the Small Two. Chrysler’s recent gift of 35% stake to Fiat for its access to technology and services is a desperation move to prove to the U.S. government that it has a viable plan to survive. However, the U.S. government is not going to perpetually support a half-foreign owned company at taxpayers expense. As for GM and Ford, 2009 will still be a very tough market. Any uptick by buyers will simply be for fuel efficient cars built by Toyota, Honda and even Hyundai. GM is effectively surviving on federal assistance, which runs out every few months. A radical solution has to found soon. Don’t fret though, because of the uniqueness of this market, hopes abound for small automakers that can make a difference in “green” vehicles.

SPORTS

yankeesYankees back in business – Sorry non-Yankees fans, but 2009 is appearing to be the Year of the Yankees. A new stadium, a team salary in excess of $200 million, a re-focused Arod with Mark Texeira pushing him, injury free Posada, Matsui and Chamberlain? It’s gonna be a great three-team AL East battle all summer. Yankees will win the division and make it to the World Series once again.

Posted in Economics, List, Opinion, Politics, Sports | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Did anyone realize it’s 2009!?! A short look back at the first decade of the 21st century.

Posted by silentarchimedes on January 16, 2009

Happy 2009!

Happy 2009!

The year is now 2009! Just ten years ago, the country was at the height of the dot com era. I was in my last year of my undergraduate years and very eager to graduate and join the exciting dot com workforce. It seemed like paradise at the time. I remember getting about ten job interviews and declining several others. I remember the offers that came in from startup companies to established corporations. I also remember gasoline in Pittsburgh being around 90 cents because it was the only semester I had a car with me. The only thing that scared people in 1999? The Y2K problem. I also remember people being relieved that the Clinton presidency was coming to an end because of the Lewinsky embarrassment. That was ten years ago…

Now it’s 2009. A lot has happened the past ten years; the first decade of the 21st century. The decade that I grew up, age wise, at least. It is a different country now. A more sober country. A battle-tested country and a depressed and pessimistic country. Although most people heaved a sigh of relief when the Y2K problem never materialized, it wasn’t long before the country would begin a string of events that has led to the current depressed state. 9/11 occurred. The dot com bubble busted. The telecom industry collapsed. The Afghanistan War began. The Patriot Act was passed. The country went into and out of a recession. The Iraq War began. The energy crisis began. Hurricane Katrina happened. The housing bubble inflated and popped. The credit bubble inflated and popped. The country went into another recession. And not to mention the Yankees haven’t won a World Series since 2000. It has been a very trying decade.

However, the country and myself are in the same situation as we were ten years ago. I will be finishing my studies and looking to enter the workforce once again. The country is full of hope again that a new presidency can bring much needed change. Although the hope and environment are different this time around, we must draw strength from what we have endured and learned in the past ten years. Personally, I am a much more patient, practical and, believe it or not, optimistic person than I was ten years ago. Although I was more energetic and sharper back in my early twenties, the experiences I have gone through in my twenties has made me a much more balanced person that cherishes even the simple things in life. I believe this country is similarly in the same state. During the dot com era, the country seemed to move about with reckless abandon, as if the paradise would last forever. Now after ten years of hardship, the country must learn from these experiences and come together as one country to come out of this recession stronger and more optimistic.We have to because we have plenty more challenges to face in the second decade of this century.

I am excited at what the last year of the first decade of the 21st century brings.  I am excited at the future of America. The 2008 elections were one of the most exciting ever and to see Americans rise up and meet the challenge was very refreshing. 2009 marks the end of an era and the beginning of another, for this country and for myself…

Happy new year!

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Opinion: It’s time for Dick Cheney to just leave quietly

Posted by silentarchimedes on January 8, 2009

The VP and P

The VP and P

Another story from the arrogance and incompetence of the Bush administration. Today, Vice President Dick Cheney was quoted in an AP interview,

In an interview with The Associated Press, Cheney also said that Bush has no need to apologize for not foreseeing the economic crisis.

“I don’t think he needs to apologize. I think what he needed to do is take bold, aggressive action and he has,” Cheney said. “I don’t think anybody saw it coming.”

The last part is what really got me mad. A LOT, and I mean A LOT of people saw this economic crisis coming. Let’s take a quick look at some of the groups of people that saw this coming:

1. Gold bugs – Gold investors have been preparing for this economic crisis since the crash of the dot com era. Gold has steadily risen from the mid $200s/oz to a high of $1000/oz, and now at ~$850/oz today.

2. Currency investors – The euro to dollar ratio was at 0.85 at the beginning of the dot-com crash in 2001. Since then it has flipped and risen so quickly to 1.60 in early 2008. Most people familiar with the dollar index, fiat currencies and supply/demand saw this as a huge omen of future economic turmoil. It was only a matter of when.

3. Housing investors – The term housing bubble was surmised to be occurring well before the height of the housing bubble. Many people burned by the dot-com era and became fiscally responsible saw the non-stop rise in housing prices as a major deja vu.

4. Economists – There have been so many books written on this exact economic crisis in the past ten years, of which two have been reviewed on this blog (Crash Proof, The Coming Economic Collapse). Anyone who has read one of these books realized that the American economic system has been living on borrowed time and money.

5. Historians – History comes in cycles because the leaders don’t learn from history. The Iraq War and the recession afterwards first played in the first Bush administration. Instead of learning from it, the younger Bush repeated the exact same historical events.

6. Most sane people – I saw this economic crisis coming a few years ago when I started reading about the US economic system. A lot of my friends saw it coming. A lot of people knew that we only got out of the tiny recession after the dot-com crash and 9/11 because Greenspan and the Feds loosened the credit spigot and money-printing machine. What ensued was the housing bubble and more mortgaging of America’s future.

If all these people, including lots and lots of Americans saw the economic crisis coming, you are telling me the Feds and the economists that govern this country didn’t see it coming? Please… They just chose to look the other way. Why not? They are rich. There is no accountability. Leave it to the next administration or future generations to clean up the mess.

It’s really absurd that Dick Cheney deflects the Bush administration’s responsibilities by claiming that NO ONE SAW IT COMING. To put it nicely, the arrogance, narrow-mindedness and stupidity of the outgoing administration continues. The Bush administration continues to hope that in time history will judge them nicely, but I believe this second recession under their watch pretty much locks in their incompetence regardless of how well Iraq or Afghanistan turn out.

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When is poker gambling? Analogies to investing in stocks.

Posted by silentarchimedes on December 24, 2008

Screenshot of Texas Hold'em Poker 3D

Screenshot of Texas Hold'em Poker 3D

To those people that play poker for its competitive atmosphere or its mathematical excitement, it is not gambling. However, to the outsider or the concerned family member or friend, poker is gambling and any attempts to justify it are simply excuses. I am more in the former camp, but I also know that there are varying degrees of how one plays poker that determines how much poker is a game of skill versus luck. Playing poker is very similar to investing in stocks or mutual funds. A person can play it such that luck is the overriding factor in whether he or she wins (like playing the lottery) or the person can become informed and knowledgeable in all the aspects of the game (like the game of life). Educated poker is about rules, probabilities, psychology, and strategy. Educated investing is about laws, microeconomics, macroeconomics, markets, company details, management details, buying strategy, and selling strategy.

Poker and investing is gambling when…

1a. You pick random hands to play even when the odds are against you.
1b. You pick a random company to invest in.

2a. Even when you know you have a losing hand you keep raising and hope to bluff or scare your opponent into leaving the hand. In other words, you risk going down with the ship. You don’t know when to cut your losses.
2b. The company you invested in keeps missing its target numbers. Instead of cutting your losses, you hope for a turnaround that seems further and further out of reach. You don’t know when to cut your losses.

3a. You don’t even know the probabilities well enough and what the odds are of the next community card being in your favor. You are playing blind, so to speak.
3b. You know what the company basically does, but you don’t read its quarterly reports or anything about P/E ratios, operational cash flow, debt levels, etc. You will be blind to micro-economic problems that can drop the stock like a rock.

4a. You misjudge your opponents’ hands. Being too optimistic in your chances, you turn blind to the fact that your opponent might be holding a pair of Kings because you are hoping that two diamonds come down on the turn and river.
4b. You become attached to the company you invested in and are blind to emerging companies with better technologies or other competitors whose pipeline is looking better than your company.

5a. You keep losing hands. Your track record of winning in poker is below 50%. However, you have a hard time stopping and your losses eat inside you even when it’s over.
5b. You keep losing money in your investments. Your track record of picking sound investments is below 50%. However, you have a hard time letting go and you keep pouring in money into the same losing investments.

6a. You have no long-term poker-playing strategy or your strategy is not working. However, you ignore this or you have blind faith that it will eventually turn in your favor. Gambling is about false hope, blind attachment and ignorance of your true abilities.
6b. You have no long-term investment strategy or your strategy is not working. You know when to buy but have a hard time determining when to sell.

7a. You are too emotional. You take losing hands very hard. They eat inside you hours or days afterwards.
7b. You are too emotional. You take losing investments very hard. They eat inside you for days and even months afterwards.

8a. You are too risky. You regret bets that don’t pan out. You wish you didn’t plop down $20 on a hand that you knew you’d probably lose anyways.
8b. You are too risky. You regret investments that don’t pan out. You wish you didn’t plop all that money on a technology that had only a tiny chance of succeeding.

.

I like the saying that poker is short-term luck and long-term skill. The goal for the player is to decrease the length of that short-term luck to as short as possible. By maximizing skill, you minimize luck, and the game becomes less about gambling and put you more in control of the outcomes. The problem with playing the lottery or slot machines is that no matter how much you learn or the type of intricate strategy you use, the big chunk of luck can never be reduced. However, poker and investing can be done such that the luck or gambling aspects of the game is greatly reduced.

Why do you think the same poker players are at the final table in poker tournaments all the time? Doyle Brunson? Why do you think investors like Warren Buffet are consistent winners in their investments? The homework those guys do can be loosely equated to Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods’ attention to detail.

Good luck! Well, good skill!

Related link:

The Mirage of the Martingale

Posted in Economics, Ethics, List, Other, Reviews, Science and Math, Technology | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

2008 Year in Review – Top 10 in Finance

Posted by silentarchimedes on December 22, 2008

Let’s get right to it.

10. Yahoo rejects Microsoft’s $45 billion takeover offer – February 11, 2008. This one has to rank as one of the most stupid business decisions ever. Since Yahoo practically started the internet search business back in the 1990s, they have quickly given up their dominant position to Google in the past ten years without a major fight. By the middle of 2007, Google had a 53.6% market share of the search engine business, versus Yahoo’s rapidly shrinking 19.9%. Microsoft’s $44.6 billion in cash and stock offer was literally a lifeboat and gave Yahoo the best chance for long-term survival. Yahoo rejected the offer and a later offer in May valued each Yahoo share price at $33. Yahoo’s share price had been languishing around $19 in recent years. Yahoo’s CEO and founder Jerry Yang demanded $37/shr! Eventually Microsoft got tired of Yahoo’s demands and pulled all negotiations off the table. What is Yahoo today, end of 2008? The share price is $13.03 and Yang was ousted in November. Although Microsoft still has lukewarm interest in Yahoo’s search business, the main opportunity for Yahoo has passed.

9. Housing prices continue to go down town – It’s amazing how so many analysts and normal people knew that the meteoric rise of housing prices was due to risky ARMs and other loans that were impractical and ticking time bombs. It’s amazing the federal government did not see this coming or chose to not do anything about it. Because of the dot com bust from a few years ago and the recession soon after, the Feds turned a blind eye and let free credit run rampant. The bomb went off in 2006, and median housing prices have gone on a free-fall from an inflation-adjusted high of $275,000 in 2005 to near $200,000 at the end of 2008. It will take a good while to sort this thing out. Housing prices are still historically high and with high unemployment rates, increasing foreclosures will continue to flood an already over-supplied realty market.

8. Unemployment rate – The United States has been pretty lucky in terms of unemployment rates for the past two decades or so. Ever since the recovery from the high inflation, 9.0+% unemployment rates of the early 1980s, the rate has stayed well below 8.0%. Since 1995, the rate has performed even better, only touching above 6.0% once during the short recession recovery in 2003. In January 2008, the rate was around 5.0% but had already been steadily rising throughout 2007. Since this January, the rate has put on the rocket boosters and is now at 6.7% nationally, with no signs of slowing down. Several states, such as Michigan (9.6%) and Rhode Island (9.3%) already have unemployments rates above 9.0%! Another five states have rates above 8.0%! Stats were from Nov 2008 and look to be higher when December stats come out.

7. What happened to the commodities bull market? – Oil, gold, silver, platinum and copper. All were at multi-decade highs in 2007 and even in 2008. Since then? Crude oil prices have dropped from $150+/bl to $37/bl! Most commodities lost more than half their values. Exchange-traded funds such as SLV, GSG, and XLE all dropped more than 50%. The one exception so far has been gold. Although gold prices have dropped from a high over $1000/oz, they have not dropped below $700/oz, and have recovered into the $800s since then. Gold is an unique commodity and it appears that it mostly trades as a safe-haven currency than a physical commodity. In looking at the chart of GLD (below), gold prices have solidly bottomed out at $70/shr and is looking like it will have a strong 2009.

SPDR Gold Shares (GLD) Performance since Jan 2007.

SPDR Gold Shares (GLD) performance since Jan 2007

6. Remember the $168 billion original stimulus package? – That amount seems so little nowadays especially when Obama is bandying around an $800B to $1 trillion stimulus package. Add to that the $750B bailout package given to financial companies and automobile companies. This is a year of bailouts and stimuluses and so far they have not helped the economy. Instead, the state of the economy is at its worst at the end of 2008. The expected package by Obama will be an early focus of the Obama administration. I think most people could use an extra few hundred dollars in their pockets.

Pixar's Mater - Help me!!!
Pixar’s Mater – Help me!!!

5. The survival of American automobile companiesGeneral Motors, Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler became the poster child of the current economic crisis hitting main street. On display was the millions of jobs, especially blue-collar jobs, in America at risk of disappearing due to the recent decades of mismanagement, overhead and foreign competition of the US auto industry. With the finance industry easily getting a $750B bailout, it seemed absurd that an industry that for decades represented hard working Americans and unions had to literally beg for a few billion dollars to survive. It was obvious where the attention of politicians were. Although Bush recently said that $18B of the $750B bailout would be immediately used to prop up GM and Chrysler, the long fought battle was wasted time and energy by the attention garnering and bureaucratic Congress.

4. Bernard Madoff arrested on $50B Ponzi fraud scheme – When the $50 billion Ponzi fraud scheme by Bernard Madoff was revealed in early December, it was the main headline of major news websites for a mere few hours. Since then, as more details trickle out, the fraud continues to take a back seat to the macro-economic recession covering the globe. In any other year, the news of a legendary and consummate businessman (and a former NASDAQ chairman) being arrested for a fraud-scheme covering possibly the largest dollar amount in Wall Street history would ripple for weeks, if not months. However, with white collar crimes dominating the post-dot-com era (Enron, Worldcom, Martha Stewart, Tyco and the 2008 unraveling of the hedge fund industry), the public is now immune to financial fraud. Quite unfortunate. (See here for What is a Ponzi scheme)

Corporate bankruptcies on the rise in 2008.

Corporate bankruptcies on the rise in 2008.

3. Bankruptcies and those near it – It has been a sad year for many corporations as they head towards bankruptcy. Many of them well-known with years of solid profits. The list continues to grow and the impact of the recession on the consumer and his/her buying habits is only beginning. Circuit City, Linens ‘N Things, KB Toys, Frontier Airlines, Mrs. Field Cookies, Steve & Barry’s, Whitehall Jewelers, Mervyns, Sharper Image and Waffle House are some of the big name bankruptcies. And this list doesn’t even mention financial companies, which I discuss in #2. See this list for a more comprehensive list of corporate bankruptcies in 2008.

2. The demise of the hedge fund and mortgage finance industry – The derivatives market has become a multi-billion (if not, trillion) dollar investment industry that is complicated and largely misunderstood, even by the most astute financial advisors. Derivatives, as its name suggests, are investment products that are created off of actual traditional investment products. That means their intrinsic value is conjured up and their existence puts them closer to full-blown gambling. The current financial laws and oversight are not suited for such trading. Over the years hedge funds and derivatives took on more and more of the investment strategy of major financial corporations. Derivatives that were based on risky mortgages and insurance eventually collapsed as housing prices plummeted with lendees’ inability to pay the mortgages. The result has been a credit lockup unforeseen in decades. Major financial companies toppled and its effects are still not fully known. Major companies that totally collapsed include Bear Sterns, Lehman Brothers, Washington Mutual, ANB Financial, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and AIG.  See this list for a more comprehensive list of financial collapses in 2008.

KBW Philadelphia Bank Index - Collapse since 2007

KBW Philadelphia Bank Index - performance since 2004

US Recessions since WWII (Courtesy of CNN)

U.S. Recessions since WWII (Courtesy of CNN)

1. Recession or Depression – Which leads to the number one financial news in 2008. Are we in a deep and difficult recession or a depression? In early December, it became official that the U.S. went into a recession in December 2007. To some analysts, this is good news because it means we are closer to coming out of it.  As you look at the chart on the right, most recessions last around one year. Based on the official Dec 2007 start date, historically we would already be on the tail end of the recession. However, to other analysts, this is bad news because the worst is yet to come, and we are already twelve months into it. With no light  seemingly at the end of the tunnel, these analysts portend a long recession. Bad news from around the world keep coming in and the bottom of the current economic crisis still has not occurred. Oil prices continue to drop, gold prices have since rebounded (bad for economy), and the dollar index has begun dropping again. Signs of major inflation on the horizon are evident, especially with the massive bailouts and the Feds lowering the overnight interest rate to its lowest level ever, 0%-0.25%.

The entire 2008 Top 10 in Finance is all bad news. Most of them have to do with the current economic crisis. The key hope is that the Bush administration is finally over and 2009 brings a more adept and intellectual administration that will do just about anything to get America out of the economic dump. An administration that seems focused on the middle class and job creation. However, with it comes more and more national debt and the mortgaging of the future. There seems to be no alternative. This will most likely lead to long-term inflation when countries such as China, India, Russia and other Asian countries continue their rise to redefine the existing  economic world order. This is not to say that the United States is doomed to be a second-bit player, as we know that is unlikely. However, the country needs to refocus on what made it a superpower in the first place, investments in technology, jobs, science, and innovation.

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Harvard’s rapidly shrinking endowment?

Posted by silentarchimedes on November 19, 2008

Over the past few weeks I have received emails from all the presidents of my alma maters regarding the respective university’s financial situation in this rapidly deteriorating economy. The emails all had the exact same outline. The serious tone was set right away. Followed by a reassurance of “don’t worry, the university has a good handle on the situation”. That the financial trustees have invested wisely and haven’t done as badly as most other colleges. Then by another serious tone that the university endowment will inevitably  be smaller at the end of the year, and to what extent it is not clear yet.

Harvard Yard

Harvard Yard

However, all universities have some envy with Harvard University’s financial position. Check out the endowment figures on Wikipedia. They have the largest endowment in the world, by far. In 2007 they had a $34.635 billion endowment, which completely dwarfs the second largest endowment, Yale University, $22.53 billion. Even a similar university like Princeton University has only an endowment of $15.787 billion (although Princeton does have the highest endowment per student figure, whereas, Harvard only ranks 5th in this category). The financial manager of Harvard’s endowment has a highly regarded position and has more responsibilities than most large investment firms.

I came across an article on Slate yesterday regarding the impact of the economy on Harvard’s endowment in 2008. Although it’s still unclear, and since Harvard is a private institution does not have to abide by the SEC regulations for the public disclosure of financial statements, there are many clues to its performance this year. In simple terms, it’s not looking good. But the question to ask is, why? With an endowment so large, so powerful and so stable, wouldn’t it actually be pretty easy to manage? Simply invest in the most stable and long-term entities out there? Why risk the entire university on risky investments? This seems partly true in the case with Harvard. As more comes out, it will be interesting to see what the final endowment figure is for Harvard (and for all other prestigious universities, for that matter) at the end of 2008.

Harvard’s Investment Errors – That’s where America’s greatest university is investing its endowment?

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