Thursday, January 18, 2018

Before Satoshi Nakamoto's "Invention" Was a Human "Blockchain"... in 2007

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Peace

Trade

                                          
Until All Life Is Valued

(Note: This was written in 2008)

The supply chain of human consumption is polluted.  From the dawn of industrial trade, oppression and degradation of all terrestrial life has characterized the extraction and exploitation of the earth, its people and its resources.  Seeing land, air, and sea, and their respective bounty and inhabitants as utilities for asymmetric wealth control has led to thoughtless consumption and violent oppression. 

In the face of this stain on humanity, courageous efforts have emerged to begin to address these concerns ranging from efforts to end slavery to the Fair Trade movement.  These great campaigns and their energetic supporters have raised the level of awareness that passive participation in unjust and inhumane practices merely reinforces the tyranny of the incumbencies.  And now, in the face of the global indictment of unchecked greed and consumption, humanity has an opportunity to turn over a new leaf.  We are invited to manifest Peace Trade.

Essential to Peace Trade is a fundamental belief that an informed humanity, in the main, will choose wisely if given adequate visibility.  In short, if one knows that slavery produced a cheaper product and fair wages were paid for a more expensive one, the value of human dignity will be accepted at greater cost.  If one chooses between renewable, farmed timber versus clear-cut virgin forest, the choice will be for the renewable material.  If the consumer electronics product contains metal extracted by despot warriors and its alternative comes from recycled metals, the recycled will prevail.  And if water and air were contaminated in the preparation of one product and were respected in another, a premium would be acceptable.  In short, the economics of expediency is supported on ignorance.  A call center that degrades its workers versus one that provides meaningful life status improvement will be preferred by those seeking its service.  Silver and gold would lose their luster if each coin was stained with the blood of those whose lives were lost in its minting.

The mechanics of Peace Trade involve the interaction between producer and consumer.  To achieve “Pacific Certification”, the producer bears the responsibility to tell the story of the product or service purveyed.  This can be achieved in a number of ways which have become infinitely accessible given the expansion of digital communication.  However, in its final manifestation, the Peace Trade “Pacific Certified” designation is verified when the public can access knowledge about every step of the process required to produce the good or service consumed.  While a series of community standards will emerge within the Peace Trade program, only a few are inextricable to participation:

I.          Conflict Free – all materials must be sourced from places and people who willfully, and with consent, participate in the stewardship of their local resources.

II.         Oppression Free – all extraction, processing and production must be conducted with the consent of persons who are free to choose their engagement and are not engaged under duress.

III.        Ecological – all methods and utilities used in the extraction, processing, production, and logistics must evidence active steps to transition from polluting to clean methods and must show year-on-year evidence of such transition implementation.  Further, the consumer must be affirmatively advised as to how to recycle every component of a Pacific Certified product.

IV.        Reciprocal – all end products, processes and their use must be actively shared with all participants in the supply chain allowing those at the origination of resources to learn how to manufacture, distribute and sell the by-products of their labor thereby building knowledge capacity for subsequent endeavors.

One will note that the standards set forth above relate to human and environmental Vitality, Harmony, and Prosperity – the essential standards of the Peace Trade’s Pacific Certification. 

In its inauguration, applicants for Peace Trade participation will be required to provide written and accompanying photographic documentation of the people engaged in every part of the production of the end product.  This will include a photo essay of the sourcing of raw materials and the place from which they come; the refining and processing of such materials; the preparation and packaging of the materials; and the utilities involved in bringing the materials to market (including transportation, storage, and distribution).  To achieve the designation of “Pacific Certification”, a representative from each part of the process will sign an affidavit of compliance and their signed affidavit will be made publicly available through the Peace Trade’s Pacific Certification Registry. 

Peace Trade is meant to be self-sustaining and require no grant or donor support.  As a result, a Peace Trade good or service will pay a licensing fee of 0.5% of the published retail price to use the Pacific Certification.  These fees will be used to cover administration and audit costs and any excess will be invested in sourcing communities for the development of schools and community centers.  It is envisioned that these schools and community centers will operate in partnership with the World Peace Festival’s Peace Cells initiative where education materials on the promotion of peace will be made accessible to communities around the world.

The inaugural corporation participating in pursuing the Peace Trade’s Pacific Certification is an organic farm in East New Britain, Papua New Guinea – Pacific Spices.  In recognition of their courageous leadership and in light of the fact that Papua New Guinea has been the nexus of some of the most egregious violations of human and ecological dignity, the town of Rabaul, East New Britain, Papua New Guinea has been selected as the location for the Pacific Certification Registry.  As the global headquarters for Peace Trade, it will commit to employing not less than 50% of its work force (at every level of administration) from the local community and shall serve as the location for the First Annual Meeting of Peace Trade participating companies. 

Peace Trade has agreed to work in partnership with the World Peace Festival 2010 to assist in the process of certifying that every consumer product distributed at the Festival and event supplier achieves Pacific Certification on all products and services offered to the Festival.  Fifty percent of the Pacific Certification license fee assessed to all vendors will be contributed to the World Peace Festival 2010 and will perpetuate past the Festival to support the Peace Cells initiative. 

Peace Trade will operate with a board of twelve members elected from nominees submitted by participating member companies and organizations.  Board members will serve for three year terms with one third replaced each year.  Board members may serve up to two consecutive terms but shall be required at least one year furlough before being elected to a third term. 


The management of Peace Trade shall include an Executive Director, Director of Accountability; and Controller.  These positions will be appointed by the board and will serve at the pleasure of the board. 

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Reality…Really? What’s your 12th Sense?

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 On August 17, 2017 the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatories (LIGO) in the U.S. and Europe together with 70 ground and space-based systems detected gravitational waves and light from colliding neutron stars.  And, assuming our theoretical and sensory models are correct, the U.S. Gemini Observatory, the European Very Large Telescope or VLT (yep, that’s its real name) and the Hubble Space Telescope all detected the synthesis of gold and platinum.  Conveniently named GW170817 for the date of its detection, this event was triangulated through observations made in Hanford, Washington; Livingston, Louisiana; and, Pisa, Italy.  The way that the gravitational wave is detected is by sending a laser beam down a very long tunnel to a suspended mirror.  If the light comes back in a different location, something jiggled.  This jiggle was from a portion of space about 130 million light-years away from Earth.  After triangulating the source of the jiggle, other physicists trained their instruments on the location and picked up x-rays, ultraviolet, optical, infrared and radio-waves. 

If you haven’t done so before, I strongly encourage you to pay a visit to the VLT where you can watch a live webcam image of the sky.  It’s pretty amazing stuff.  But it also raises some extremely important questions about the link between Value and Perception.  And the first paragraph is quite to critical read (so you might want to read it again) to see where this post is going.  Because, you see, the LIGO and VLT all are very expensive extrapolations of the lengths we’ll go in our quest for gold.  “Whoa,” you say!  “What do these disparate technologies have do with gold?”  Well, thanks for asking.  At about US$1.1 billion, LIGO was a very expensive observational tool designed to confirm theoretical constructs consolidated by Einstein.  And, while the news in August of last year was quite exciting to be sure, two years earlier, the Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization (BICEP2) confused Milky Way dust for gravitational waves.  So we spend billions of dollars of terrestrial asset prioritization to confirm the existence of a theoretical construct that predicts the thing that we’re proposing to observe.  Put another way, we tell the universe how it works.  Then we carefully construct an instrument based on that theory to confirm the theory.  And then when it jiggles, we dance about celebrating that the device built on a theory to confirm a theory actually theoretically responded to what we think might have happened.  And to justify this expenditure, we point out that this explains the existence of gold and platinum on Earth…

…which it doesn’t.  Element 79 on the periodic table is an obsession for numerous reasons.  There are those who would suggest that humanity’s affinity for and obsession with gold has something to do with its ability to serve as a venerable metaphor for the Sun in malleable form.  Others celebrate its paradoxical attribute of being an excellent reflector of infrared albeit capable of conducting the electromagnetic spectrum when in direct circuit.  And while gold synthesis is thought to occur in the collision of neutron stars and has actually been synthesized by bombarding mercury (and platinum) with neutrons, the stories of how gold actually showed up on the planet is the stuff of myth.  According to the generally held narrative, most of the gold on Earth is in the Earth’s core.  The stuff that you wear, invest in, and use was delivered to Earth by asteroid impacts about 4 billion years ago. 

Now there will be those who say that the value of this ‘basic science’ is justified to help us understand the ‘origin’ of the Universe.  But as time is a theoretical construct in and of itself, even this pursuit is a self-reinforcing hypothesis.  Things must have a beginning.  Why?  Because our linear time construct says that they must.  But we choose the operating narrative that tells us that there must be a ‘beginning’ and then look for ways to reinforce the correctness of our observations through ‘data’ and ‘technology’.  But we do not, for a moment, contemplate the possibility that Einstein, Newton, Buddha, Confucius and others were informed by culturally accepted normative senses and then back their ontologies into them.

In our common narrative of reality, we apprehend the world around us through 5 classic senses.  This notion – known to be dominant since the Katha Upanishad recorded in the 6th century BCE – suggested that the body was a chariot drawn by 5 horses with the mind as the ‘charioteer’.  These senses – touch, taste, smell, sight, and sound – are each derived from and modulated through cranial nerves.  Cranial nerves are the ones that are directly wired into the brain.  Ironically, we have 12 – not 5 – cranial nerves.  Which begs two questions.  First, why have the other 7 nerves not gotten status as a fundamental sense?  And second, given the interaction of many of the cranial nerves, how is that we don’t see that sense is a triangulation of impulses – not a single impulse?  One could equally argue that we have only one sense – resonance perception – and that how we perceive the world is through the subtle integration of distinguishable dissonance, resonance and coherence. 

As a quick neural anatomy primer, the following are the 12 cranial nerves in their anatomical order.


1.      Olfactory Nerve – the shortest nerve path and responsible for our detection of chemistry through evaporation or sublimation

2.      Optic Nerve – resolution of reflectance

3.      Oculomotor Nerve – Eye movement, pupil adjustment and focus

4.      Trochlear Nerve – Visual direction and optical coherence

5.      Trigeminal Nerve -  Facial Sensation, balance, and discrimination and parasympathetic vascular response and chewing

6.      Abducens Nerve – Outward gaze

7.      Facial Nerve – Facial Expression, speaking, chewing, swallowing, salivary function, soundwave modulation.

8.      Vestibulochochlear Nerve – sound and equilibrium (balance)

9.      Glossopharyngeal Nerve – Saliva, Blood Pressure Measure, Tympanic Membrane, taste

10.   Vagus Nerve – Heart, lungs, and digestive regulation, sweating, SA node (sinoatrial node or pacemaker)

11.   Accessory Nerve – shoulder shrug, posture, head turning

12.   Hypoglossal Nerve – movement of the tongue


By selecting 5 senses, we reduce the forms of awareness that we can share.  And by normalizing a consensus view of the amplitudes and frequencies in which sensation can occur, we exclude as intuitive, psychotic, delusional, or aberrant those who perceive what others either do not or chose to ignore.  In short, we constrain the ‘accepted’ senses to ‘normal’ amplitudes, durations, and frequencies and then work to reify our models using these delimited parameters.  We define matter by its chemistry failing to appreciate its resonance and dynamism.  We define energy based on our observable utility thereof dismissing as immeasurable or unknowable that which falls outside the consensus.  Popular spiritual teachers, in an attempt to appeal to a more empathetic and sensitive social order, have further denigrated the complex resonance receptor that is the whole of the body and its field by instructing people to “get out of your head and into your heart.”  This admonition physiologically, energetically, and metaphorically seeks to limit the analytic in favor of the empathetic.  Tragically, neither science nor spirituality is encouraging us to get MORE in our heads, hearts, ganglia, and corpuscles.  Expand our aperture.  Sense more.  Why?  The answer is simple.  If humans are conditioned to reflexive response in a consensus range of social acceptability, mass consumption (everything from stuff to ideas) becomes easier.  By marginalizing an expanded range, those who perceive differently are ostracized.

While we spend billions of dollars confirming our theoretical constructs of illusions that we have projected on the Universe we cannot contemplate the extra-quantum potential of a neutron star collision altering our social valence.  For me, August 17, 2017 was a red-letter day.  On that day, I sat on the beach in Maalifushi, Maldives describing the religious and social constructs that created the energetic obstacles to my life over the preceding 50 years.  While neutron stars were colliding and synthesizing (or not) novel dense compounds a million parsecs away, here on Earth, I was synthesizing something of inestimable value – a personal narrative that allowed me to access a tranquility heretofore unknown to me.  Besides the sunburn and the conversation of August 17, did my lucidity come from a gamma ray stimulus that emerged with a gravitational wave jiggle?  Who knows.  But what I know is that I accessed something of far greater value than I could have ever imagined.  What made August 17 the day for my epiphany?  Who knows.  But I like to think that it was my sensitivity to the extragalactic collision.

In a world awash in a race towards autonomous, augmented, or virtual reality, I would like to ask us all to pause and consider the consequence of the sensory reductionism that is currently attendant these impulses.  Do we have confidence that the programmers and engineers are those who represent the widest amplitude, deepest humanity perceptives?  Do we know the wavelength, amplitude, and operational constraints built into the sensors and simulators that animate our world?  Are any of us asking the human questions about the implications of a society served on 450, 800, 1800, or 1900 MHz?  Do we understand what can and cannot be transmitted on ITU frequencies?  Do most of us even know what this question refers to? 

We have a hunch that the social systems and their technological companions and henchmen are fundamentally compromising much of what we value.  We’re pretty sure that we’re being taken for a ride with some sort of Orwellian dystopia.  But we’re complicit if we continue to fall for the illusion of the advantage of digitizing the analog human existence.  Maybe you reading this post, maybe your sharing of it, may create a gravitational wave.  Maybe a mirror at the end of a long tunnel will jiggle.  And just maybe, we’ll see things in a different light.  Wouldn’t that taste amazing?


x

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Handwriting on the Wall

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 One of the delights of my work in the capital markets is the tireless (and often, thankless) effort to educate investors on the dynamics of capital markets.  Behind this effort is a long-standing commitment to be part of a solution to the opacity that has been profligate since the birth of the industrial rent extracting economy dominance in the late 18th century.  In the dominant socioeconomic model, “understanding” money and markets is too elusive for the average citizen who is coerced and seduced into trading their time for money and surrogating their later (“non-productive”) years to the professional management of investments in the form of pensions, life-insurance and other annuities. 

I recently received an e-mail from a reader of my blog who offered a “gotcha” moment critique of a post I wrote in December 2015 in which I stated:

And the deeper reality remains that our economic illusion of unfunded pensions – that ominous Depression-level event in 2017 – that will destroy nearly 23% of the discretionary spending of American seniors in 5-6 fiscal quarters poses a far greater threat to our actual living than does the U.S. and Chinese reckless fossil fuel emissions.

The reader astutely pointed out that 2017 ended the year with the markets soaring.  Therefore, the thought was, my ‘prediction’ must be off.  And, if Donald Trump and the Republican Congress have their way, this reader – like hundreds of millions of others – will take the bait and fall for the illusion that my December 2015 post was wrong and the headlines are right.
https://www.valuenews.com/roadrunner-and
-wile-e-coyote-news-article_3772

Unfortunately, the observation (not prediction) I made in 2015 played itself out.  And we’re now living in the cartoon reality when Wile E Coyote runs off the cliff onto the air and keeps running… until he looks down!  Throughout 2017, the public was informed that the unrecoverable cliff edge had been passed.  The Milliman 2017 Corporate Pension FundingStudy  showed that heading into 2017, corporate pensions were operating at a nearly 20% shortfall of their terminal obligations.  While the stock market surge in 2017 was an undeniable financial asset gain in 2017, the tiny problem was that pension allocations to equities was around 1/3 of portfolios while fixed income (highly correlated to rates set by Central Banks) was over 44%.  So did the economy improve?  No.  Did the market gains offset the Central Bank rate suppression?  No.  And are pension managers desperately aware of what their members don’t know?  Hell yes!  What’s the evidence?  Well, going into 2017, pension risk transfers (think the CDS products that tanked the banking sector in 2007-8) was at an all-time high.

Since 2002, pensions have been operating at a funding deficit with the exception of 2007.  Combined with the impact of interest rate suppression, this puts investors (that’s right, you the reader) in a position where you don’t actually have what you expect you have. 

“But Dave,” you say, “the average consumer didn’t spend 23% less in 2017.”

Not so fast.  According to the most recent Federal Reserve Consumer Credit data (the G.19 Report published on December 7,2017), since 2012, we’ve added nearly $1 trillion in revolving consumer credit to our private consumption behaviors.  Yes, we’re spending a lot but we’re not paying for the things we’re buying with cash.  And most alarming, the biggest spender is not the individual consumer but the Federal Government with an outstanding consumer credit exposure of $1.14 trillion (nearly twice the levels seen in 2012).  When you add the credit spending to the investment picture you find out that the reason why my reader puzzled over my ‘error in prediction’ is because there’s a frenzy of tricks that are kicking the metaphoric can down the road. 

And here’s a note.  I don’t predict things.  In my funds, in my credit underwriting, and in my other activities – mine is not the business of prediction.  What I do is look at the facts that are public but not generally known or discussed.  I figure that if there appears to be a cover-up, there probably is.  And rather than falling for the convenient headline, I look.  The ease with which I (and others) could exploit ignorance arbitrage is self-evident.  But instead, I continue to attempt to point out the writing that’s on the wall.  And for those of you who don’t know the derivation of the metaphor from Daniel 5: 24-28, the conclusion in the metaphor matches the present financial situation.  Days are numbered and the kingdom is already divided.



x
http://www.pionline.com/article/20170323/ONLINE/170319953/investment-return-assumptions-of-public-pension-funds

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Et In Terra Pax

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A few hours left in 2017 as I’m sitting on the skyline in San Francisco looking across to the Coit Tower with the pulsing light Alcatraz breaking the darkness.  In keeping with one of my oldest traditions, the last act of the year is to reflect on the year passed and pause to acknowledge those who lit the steps that marked the days of my journey.  This year’s reflections will include both the individuals who lit my path along with the moments of wisdom that infused the passing of my days.

This was a year of transfiguration.  The year dawned in the company of dear friends in Melbourne Australia who committed on New Year’s Eve at the stroke of midnight to daily offer an acknowledgment of gratitude for life each day of 2017.  The Living Abundantly community kept its promise!  And my year is the better for it!  I’ve spent years advocating for the willful and intentional expression of gratitude in all the enterprises in which I’ve been engaged – not some sort of silent reflection but an explicit, unambiguous, and communicated indication that the people and places in our lives are acknowledged for the contribution they make to our existence.  Experiencing a full year of this type of community enriched my life and all that I engaged.


This was a year of mortality.  I witnessed the paradox of 5 deaths.  Each involved people or situations which, at the beginning of the year, I would have counted as dear friends or associated therewith.  Two lives came to an end (within weeks of each other).  While I miss their fellowship, I ceaselessly smile when I think of them.  Two friendships died.  In truth, whether they actually died this year or whether they never existed in the manner to which I aspired I may never know.  And my practice of reckless generosity without reciprocal agreement on the distinction between granting and being taken for granted died.  This year taught me that I can handle the organic transition of life – the actual death of friends – far more easily than living with the fact that someone or something that I loved and valued is no longer vital in life! 

This year I was the beneficiary of notable luminaries in Melbourne – Michael Roux and his family, Serdar Baycan and Elizabeth Grigg, and Mark Nebreda – all who warmly embraced the transformative thinking that I infused into the days of the year.  In the vicissitudes of Australian corporate and political intrigue, these individuals were constant navigators in the fog!

This year I was the beneficiary of the growing fraternity of Charles Way and John Plunkett who worked tirelessly to advance the Innovation Alpha investment platform in the face of relentless complacency.  Together with the team at M·CAM International and CNBC, we continued to forge an unshakable advantage in a market blinded by consensus.

I had the honor of working (and cycling) with Nicolas Wales – my dear friend and colleague who defined for me the essence of both of those words in beautiful and meaningful ways.

I had the honor of standing next to my son Zachary when I took my first tentative steps into making 2017 the year that I stood for the quality of my life when I married Kim.  The blessing of his presence in that moment will stand head and shoulders above most of life’s accomplishments.    

Above all, this passing year was my first that passes in peace.  Until this moment, New Years marked an aspirational initiation – a sense of possibility for the coming of the New and Different.  But thanks to my wife, my love, and my partner Kim Martin, I come to the close of this year in complete peace.  And ironically, it is this acknowledgement and benediction that lifts my spirits for the dawning of 2018.  I’m looking into a year in which I will live each moment with all those who share a sense of peace, with those who emanate explicit and persistent gratitude, and those who see the infinitely orthogonal potential borne of a relentless celebration of that which IS.  Happy and Prosperous New Year to All!



MMXVII

Et In Terra Pax

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A few hours left in 2017 as I’m sitting on the skyline in San Francisco looking across to the Coit Tower with the pulsing light Alcatraz breaking the darkness.  In keeping with one of my oldest traditions, the last act of the year is to reflect on the year passed and pause to acknowledge those who lit the steps that marked the days of my journey.  This year’s reflections will include both the individuals who lit my path along with the moments of wisdom that infused the passing of my days.

This was a year of transfiguration.  The year dawned in the company of dear friends in Melbourne Australia who committed on New Year’s Eve at the stroke of midnight to daily offer an acknowledgment of gratitude for life each day of 2017.  The Living Abundantly community kept its promise!  And my year is the better for it!  I’ve spent years advocating for the willful and intentional expression of gratitude in all the enterprises in which I’ve been engaged – not some sort of silent reflection but an explicit, unambiguous, and communicated indication that the people and places in our lives are acknowledged for the contribution they make to our existence.  Experiencing a full year of this type of community enriched my life and all that I engaged.

This was a year of mortality.  I witnessed the paradox of 5 deaths.  Each involved people or situations which, at the beginning of the year, I would have counted as dear friends or associated therewith.  Two lives came to an end (within weeks of each other).  While I miss their fellowship, I ceaselessly smile when I think of them.  Two friendships died.  In truth, whether they actually died this year or whether they never existed in the manner to which I aspired I may never know.  And my practice of reckless generosity without reciprocal agreement on the distinction between granting and being taken for granted died.  This year taught me that I can handle the organic transition of life – the actual death of friends – far more easily than living with the fact that someone or something that I loved and valued is no longer vital in life! 

This year I was the beneficiary of notable luminaries in Melbourne – Michael Roux and his family, Serdar Baycan and Elizabeth Grigg, and Mark Nebreda – all who warmly embraced the transformative thinking that I infused into the days of the year.  In the vicissitudes of Australian corporate and political intrigue, these individuals were constant navigators in the fog!

This year I was the beneficiary of the growing fraternity of Charles Way and John Plunkett who worked tirelessly to advance the Innovation Alpha investment platform in the face of relentless complacency.  Together with the team at M·CAM International and CNBC, we continued to forge an unshakable advantage in a market blinded by consensus.

I had the honor of working (and cycling) with Nicolas Wales – my dear friend and colleague who defined for me the essence of both of those words in beautiful and meaningful ways.

I had the honor of standing next to my son Zachary when I took my first tentative steps into making 2017 the year that I stood for the quality of my life when I married Kim.  The blessing of his presence in that moment will stand head and shoulders above most of life’s accomplishments.    

Above all, this passing year was my first that passes in peace.  Until this moment, New Years marked an aspirational initiation – a sense of possibility for the coming of the New and Different.  But thanks to my wife, my love, and my partner Kim Martin, I come to the close of this year in complete peace.  And ironically, it is this acknowledgement and benediction that lifts my spirits for the dawning of 2018.  I’m looking into a year in which I will live each moment with all those who share a sense of peace, with those who emanate explicit and persistent gratitude, and those who see the infinitely orthogonal potential borne of a relentless celebration of that which IS.  Happy and Prosperous New Year to All!



MMXVII

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Happy Enron-versary...Sweet 16

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Sixteen years ago, the then-largest bankruptcy in U.S. history was filed.  Back in 1984 and 1985, when Ken Lay took the helm of Houston Natural Gas, HNG’s earnings were nose-diving on the collapse in gas consumption as cheap oil was putting the squeeze on a business that had been flourishing since its start in 1925.  InterNorth – a gas company founded in 1930 in Omaha and stretching to Minnesota gas fields in 1932 – was a conservative, profitable energy conglomerate seeking to avoid the break-up axe of Irwin Jacobs.  In 1985, InterNorth spent $2.3 billion to acquire HNG giving HNG’s investors a 40% market premium.  A decade later, Ken Lay was presiding over what Fortune magazine described a “America’s Most Innovative Company” – a designation that the magazine awarded from 1996 until… the music stopped today in 2001.

What was so innovative?  Selling commodities like oil, water and telecom hardly makes a company innovative.  Doing big deals, paying break-up fees to opportunistic financiers, hosting lavish parties and having financial statements that look like a tangled web of tangled webs – none of these are innovative.  And when Warren Buffett bought the still profitable Northern Natural Gas Company for $928 million (the legacy of InterNorth) – returning its ownership to Omaha there still was no innovation.  Regrettably, try as one may to find “innovation” befitting Fortune’s pronouncements, the only thing that surfaces is professional collusion and fraud.

Arthur E. Andersen earned his accounting credentials working as the assistant to the comptroller at Wisconsin-based Allis-Chalmers before becoming Illinois’ youngest CPA at the age of 23.  Somewhat ironically, Allis-Chalmers (a massive agricultural, industrial and machine conglomerate) itself was born of an opportunistic bankruptcy liquidation in 1860, was nearly wiped out in the “financial panic” of 1873 had, to re-organize itself in 1912, and plead guilty to price fixing and bid-rigging in 1960.  When Arthur Andersen founded his accounting practice in 1913 he rapidly built a reputation of advocating for the professionalization of accounting to serve the transparency interests of investors rather than the promotional interests of clients.  Arthur died in 1947 but his firm still turned down business (and lost clients) due to its reputation for being a stickler for rules in the 1970s.  Watching its competitors enrich themselves on client-favored accounting and consulting, the tide began to turn in the 1980s and revenue became more valuable than reputation.  When David B. Duncan’s assistant sent the damning e-mail on November 9, 2001 that instructed staff to “stop the shredding” (of evidence), he merely punctuated the end of the “innovation” Fortune and the stock market celebrated. 

In a sad commentary on justice in white-collar crime, Mr. Duncan’s guilty plea (which carried with it a 10-year prison sentence) was currency that he used to keep himself out of jail until the Supreme Court overturned Arthur Andersen’s conviction in 2005 at which time David withdrew his plea.  In 2008, the SEC settled with him stating that he failed to “exercise due professional care and the necessary skepticism,” to avoid defrauding the market.  No fine was levied against him.

Enron and Arthur Andersen got caught.  Each day, far greater damage is being done in the financial markets and, each day, the perpetrators of these injustices are celebrated.  Over the past several weeks, I’ve had the great fortune of meeting several of these white-collar criminals-in-waiting.  They live in beautiful suburbs in Boston, New York, London, Singapore, Geneva, Melbourne and Hong Kong.  They send their 1.2 children to private schools, drive their 3.3 cars parked in their 4 car garage homes inhabited by their picture-perfect families doing weekend sporting activities before or after attending the religious service of their heritage.  Each day they tell their clients that they’re doing right by them out of one side of their mouth knowing full well that, in reality, they are cutting fee deals with fund mangers and distributors, influencing financial advisors, and playing fast and loose with their fiduciary management of the funds of billions of people because they know they’ll never get caught.


“David,” said one of them a few weeks ago, “you don’t get it.”

“Don’t get what?” I replied.

“Picture a 53 year-old school teacher.”

“OK.”

“Do you really think that she’d ever understand the difference between the returns that she sees on her annual financial statement and what she could have made?” the chief investment officer asked me.

“Yes,” I started, “I suspect she’d get the math if she saw it.”

“Yes,” he said, “but that’s the point.  Each year the law makes her put money into our fund.  Each year we tell her how her retirement has grown.  And next year, she’ll pay us more money to manage for her again.”

“Yes,” I acknowledged, “I’m sure that’s the case.  But don’t you have an obligation to insure she’s getting the best return?”

“Nope,” he smugly replied.  “No law says that we have to deliver best performance.  We just have to manage our clients’ accounts.”

If the same woman, walking down the street in a major city had her handbag snatched losing $250 dollars, we’d call that theft.  But if that woman lost $2,500 last year by this one firm’s sub-optimal allocation, it’s called a “service”.

But thankfully, the 99%ers now have their day of reckoning with the Man!  Anonymous crypto-currencies and block chain are giving power back to the people, right?  After all, it was the government and Big Brother that created runaway speculation on energy banks in Houston, that created credit default swaps for no-documentation mortgages, and rating agency fraud (which has still gone unprosecuted).  If we have an opaque, digital, anonymous system based solely on a speculative algorithm with no verification methodology to confirm provenance, that should fix these horrible abuses, right?

Greed and opacity were all Enron can claim as Innovation.  Complicity and subterfuge were all Arthur Andersen could claim as Innovation.  Financial illiteracy is all the chief investment officer of a few weeks ago can claim as Innovation.  And casino-fueled hype is all Bitcoin can claim as Innovation.  It is not innovation to sate the avarice that besets a population that prefers anonymous excess to rational sufficiency.  And with Bitcoin now at $10,908.01 and the Facebook founding Winklevoss twins becoming reportedly the first bitcoin billionaires – are we really a more egalitarian, democratic, society?

Sixteen years later and we’ve learned nothing.  Our governments and their regulators have done nothing.  The public is not more protected.  And to be sure, our behavior evidences that we still place blind trust… blindly!  Put a runaway speculation opportunity in front of the average person and, guess what?  Speculation happens.  The solution to Enron / Arthur Andersen wasn’t to separate the assurance and consulting businesses of accounting firms.  The answer wasn’t to throw millions of dollars into investigations and prosecutions so that guilty partners could live in their Texas mansions in retirement.  The solution was for individuals – you and me – to improve our financial literacy.  To see where our dollars flow in our daily lives and to learn enough to hold our 401(k)s and pensions accountable.  But here’s the trouble.  We made movies like The Smartest Guys in the Room, Inside Job, and The Big Short but have no concept of the current, looming pension, Social Security, and insurance crisis of the mid-2020s.  Oh, yes!  Another GFC of larger proportions is already infecting the market today.  And like the GFC, it doesn’t take prediction to see it coming.  It just takes reading public documents, doing a little math and recognizing that even the criminals are telling us that its coming.  But like the GFC, we’ll stick to being surprised. 



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Monday, November 13, 2017

When Arithmetic is Forgotten: Xerxes’ Omens in the Market

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 The strength of bulls or lions cannot stop the foe. No, he will not leave off, I say, until he tears the city or the king limb from limb  - the Delphic Oracle 480 BCE

“a really extraordinary thing happened: a horse gave birth to a hare. Xerxes dismissed it as insignificant, though its meaning was transparent. It meant that, although Xerxes would walk tall and proud on his way to attack Greece, he would return to his starting-point running for his life”  Herodotus 452 BCE


This morning’s USA Today featured the headline, “Is a market crash coming?”.  In it, Yale Economist Robert Shiller, Euro Pacific Capital’s Peter Schiff, and Artemis Capital’s Christopher Cole opined on the U.S. Stock market and its pre-2008, pre-2000, pre-1929 similarities.  These three men were featured for their prognostications and performance leading up to and during the 2008 market collapse.  Whether they didn’t talk about it or whether the article’s author Adam Shell didn’t ask or report it, there was a glaring arithmetic omission in the piece.

Over the past 20 years, U.S. and European companies have engaged in the longest period of share buy-backs and internally financed merger and acquisition (M&A) activity wiping out nearly $5.5 trillion in investable securities based on U.S. Federal Reserve data.  Over the same period, the number of publicly traded companies has nearly halved.  And while off their 2012 peak, the Reserve Bank of St. Louis reports that corporate earnings as a fraction of U.S. GDP is still at 40-year highs.  Venture capital investments – investments that can only be made by qualified, elite investors, has nearly doubled in the past 10 years though the number of funded transactions is in only half the companies that were financed during 1999 and 2000.  There’s no question that the central bank intervention on interest rates has fueled the massive corporate share repurchasing activities and that rising capital balances among the ultra-wealthy have migrated into the exclusive unicorn VC clubs.


In short, each share that exists in the market today has a higher price premium on it for the simple reason that the supply is not meeting the demand. 

Unlike 1929 (human speculators), 2000 (fad speculators), and 2008 (asset speculators), there are a few other market phenomena that miss the attention of the experts and the article.

First, actuarial tables!  This is the most damaging reality facing the largest number of investors that is never discussed.  While the central bank intervention following 2008 was like shooting atropine into a heart in crisis, an insidious problem was created.  Fiduciaries who are required to purchase and hold investment-grade debt (pensions, insurers, banks, mutual funds, endowments, even Social Security) saw their yields decrease below the compounding level required to meet their future obligations.  This meant that they needed to “catch up” their returns in other (riskier) investments without alarming the public.  Corporations, using cheap fiat money, issued record amounts of investment grade debt essentially playing the spread between sovereign debt and corporate risk.  In the first quarter of 2017, a record $372 billion in new corporate bonds were issued.  When entities that take today’s money with a promise to repay value in the future (think pensions, life insurers, Social Security, and mutual funds), they rely on compounding rates of return on the money they hold.  With nearly 9 years of interest rate manipulation, these parties no longer can meet their obligations in the future without buying much higher risk assets (public and private equity).  And for their math to work, guess what?  They must have equity markets appreciate in value at a rate in excess of ”fair value” as they’re making up in equities what they’ve lost in compounding returns in debt.

Second, reinvestment risk.  This is a high-class problem that’s getting worse, not better.  When any investor elects to leave one form of investment, one of the greatest challenges is to move all the money to other investments that achieve equal or better returns.  With record amounts of passive investments in public equities (mutual funds, ETFs and other Index strategies), the ability to sell equities and move the money into anything else has become unwieldy at best and impossible for many asset managers.  Let’s say you don’t like the valuation of a company and its stock.  Great!  What are you going to do with the money that you take out?  And if you’re a large holder of said stock, how are you going to exit without drastically dropping the price with a glut of supply?  Oh, that’s right, you’re not.  On the one hand, you’ve got no place to go with the volume of capital that you’d get from the sale and on the other, you’ve got no way to exit without devaluing the thing you’re selling.  So, caught between a rock and a hard place (or using, our opening metaphors, facing the Greeks at Thermopylae) you just have to hold your breath and hope that King Leonidas caves first.  Put in modern market terms, you have to hope that everyone else is equally obligated to keep prices rising so that the mutual assured destruction button doesn’t get pressed.

Like Xerxes and the Persian Army, today’s market oracles are missing the lessons of the Athenian States.  Overwhelming force (whether its soldiers or hordes of cash) is irrelevant when the Hot Gates are narrow.  With little option to purchase assets with returns and with less inventory to fill the gaps that interest rate manipulation has created on future liabilities, the market is stuck with odds that are worse than Xerxes.  If anyone creates the “correction” the whole Achaemenid empire falls.  Every manager knows this, every central banker knows this, and they’ve all seen the movie 300.  Nobody wants to take on King Leonidas so the rhinos are getting dressed as bulls.  Untangle this last metaphor and you’ll get extra points!


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