July 23, 2021 – Stocks Keep Going Up, Who They Was & The Handmaid's Tale Season 4

  • Why do stocks keep going up? Strong corporate earnings, low interest rates, investor risk-appetite, and government spending are a few things that come to mind. But let’s not overthink it. Stocks keep going up because people want to own them. And for good reason. People are living longer than ever before and with interest rates being so low, stocks offer the best opportunity for a long-term investment return above the rate of inflation. What’s more, large institutional investors (e.g. pension funds, university endowments, etc.) have obligations to meet and need stocks to bolster their returns; young people have more disposable income to buy stocks via platforms such as Robinhood; and frankly it’s a lot more fun to talk about stocks than it is about bonds with your friends and family. What’s more, Americans have never been wealthier than they are today. Savings rates are up, household debt is down, and incomes are rising. Things are far from perfect. Millions of families and small businesses are struggling. But I don’t know anyone who predicted such a buoyant economic scenario for US consumers 16 months ago. This won’t last forever – stock markets have and always will be cyclical – but people have a lot of money right now and are looking to spend and invest. Enjoy the ride. Just make sure you have a plan for when things inevitably go south.
  • I just finished reading Who They Was by Gabriel Krauze. This is an autobiographical novel about a life of crime and mayhem in London. It’s hard to know how much of this work is fictionalized. But if even half of what Krauze describes in his debut work really happened, then prepare yourself to take a shower after reading it. This novel is brutal and grim, revealing an underclass that many readers have never encountered, let alone known existed. What makes the book really interesting, though, is that Krauze – while dealing drugs, robbing people in broad daylight, and committing other acts of extreme violence – attends university and gets his degree in English. He’s clever, hard-working, and reliable; entirely capable of doing something else. It’s just that he has zero interest in leading a normal life. Trying to understand why that is - and why Krauze is so unapologetic about the choices he makes, the violence he inflicts, and the lives he ruins - makes this a compelling read. If you are looking for something different, give this novel a try. It will have your heart racing from the very first page.

 

  • My wife and I started watching Season 4 of The Handmaid’s Tale. If you’ve stuck with this show until now, you have a pretty good idea of what to expect: horribly gruesome scenes that happen out of nowhere, tremendous acting, and a great soundtrack. But whereas seasons 2 and 3 yielded only misery and pain, the latest season offers hope and gives the viewer something to cheer for. Gilead, the totalitarian state where the show takes place, is beginning to crack. Its power is diminishing, the resistance is gaining strength, and June – the show’s protagonist (played by Elisabeth Moss) – has become a major player for the rebels. But given all that she's been though in the previous three seasons, how much more can June take? Quite a bit, actually. Get back into this show if it ever piqued your interest. Season 4 is the best yet.

 

May 28, 2021 – Child Savers, The Wilds & Chris Bosh

 

  • “A few years ago, I started talking to my 11-year-old nephew about saving and investing,” states Claudia Gonzalez, Chief of Advisors at Kovar Wealth Management in Lufkin, Texas, in a recent article I happened upon while scrolling through my Apple News feed. “He researched the companies he was very passionate about and we invested in those. He talks about it to his friends and other family members, so hoping that makes a difference in those people’s lives and encourages them to save and invest!” The article goes on to interview a few other financial advisors regarding their experiences dealing with children who have done an exceptional job saving money, concluding with the story of teenager who, after paying her own way through college, managed to save enough to become a millionaire in her twenties. I really disliked this article. While the likely intent of this piece is to emphasize the importance of instilling good saving habits in one’s children, I think articles like this one only heighten already high-levels of parental anxiety, without offering any concrete or actionable advice. Parents are stressed enough as it is thinking about how best to raise decent human beings without having to hear about how they are missing out on the benefits of “compounding” if their children don’t start a business at age 13. What’s more, this article makes it seem as though everyone’s life is going to move in an upward sloping fashion (i.e. constant progression). Setbacks – or how to deal with them financially – aren’t mentioned, which seems odd given the trauma most young adults under the age of 25 have experienced while seeing their parents slog through the Great Recession of 2007-2009, not to mention their own struggles during the current global pandemic. And, finally, this article makes it appear that saving money at a young age is a choice, rather than a luxury. I’m here to tell you it isn’t. Your children will turn out just fine financially even if they only begin to sock away money in their thirties or forties. And if you happen buy your kids another toy they probably don’t need, let them laze the day away reading or playing with friends, or do anything else to encourage your offspring to have fun at the expense of learning how best to save “early and often”, please don’t beat yourself up. Odds are your kids will have a much healthier relationship with money than their peers whose families are breathing down their necks about saving.

 

  • Female teenage trauma seems like a difficult enough topic to depict accurately in a show under typical circumstances. But what would happen, dare you ask, if nine teenage girls – hailing from diverse backgrounds and with very different personalities – were stranded on a deserted island with no hope of rescue? One answer is presented by Amazon’s The Wilds, which my wife and I watched recently. I don’t want to spoil anything regarding this show – how the girls ended up on the island, the nature of the significant and unique burden each one is bearing, and the ways in which they end up acting as a team to survive – but the show works, even if it manages to introduce every clichéd teenage girl trope it possibly can. Also, kudos to the show’s casting director for selecting Rachel Griffiths (who played the memorable role of Brenda in HBO’s Six Feet Under) to play Gretchen Klein, a scheming scientist whose machinations really drive the show’s most interesting dynamics. This show is dark, even a little dystopian, but it’s also highly entertaining. Give it a try, I doubt you’ll be able to watch just one episode.

 

  • It’s been over five years since Chris Bosh last played in the NBA. At the age of 31 and in the prime of his career, Mr. Bosh was forced to stop playing due to a blot-clot problem that doctors warned would kill him if he continued. It was a freak medical condition, one that caused Mr. Bosh to seethe while watching games from the sidelines, forced into early retirement by bad luck. Mr. Bosh was no ordinary basketball player. An eleven-time All-Star, Olympic gold medalist, and recently elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame (the induction ceremony is in September), he was one of the best power forwards to have ever played. But what he will be most remembered for – rightly or wrongly – was his supporting role on the Miami Heat’s championship teams of the early 2010s. He was the third fiddle on those teams, stepping out of the limelight so that LeBron James and Dwayne Wade could do the scoring. It was a tough transition for Mr. Bosh and he received no small amount of criticism from the media for not scoring and rebounding as he had done earlier in his career. Mr. Bosh’s soon to be released book, Letters to a Young Athlete, is a meditation on what he learned while playing basketball at the highest level, particularly while in Miami under the white-hot glare of public scrutiny. Very few players with Mr. Bosh’s abilities would have been able to swallow their pride and sacrifice their personal glory the way he did. Of late, I’ve talked to numerous people who are considering a career pivot in the next 3-6 months. Mr. Bosh’s book seems like it has a lot of offer on how best to do so.

 

 

April 23, 2021 - Dogecoin, Call My Agent! & The Algebra of Happiness

 

  • Dogecoin (pronounced “dohj coin’), the cryptocurrency that started out as a joke in 2013, has set the internet abuzz of late. Its price, which began the year at about a half a cent, skyrocketed in mid-April. On Tuesday of this week, it had a market capitalization of $54 billion, providing the cryptocurrency’s earliest investors – assuming they sold – with a windfall, not to mention the last laugh. Dogecoin’s price has since dropped significantly, but it is still one of the most valuable cryptocurrency in existence. And while the budding old man inside me (I recently turned 40) wants to rant about how dumb the mania surrounding Dogecoin has become, I think it would be wrong to dismiss the hoopla entirely and not at least try and understand what’s driving the huge upwelling behind it. In that vein, I have two thoughts. First, there are a lot of billionaires and celebrities acting like snake oil salesmen, sharing memes and tweets with their followers in an effort to pump Dogecoin’s value and line their own pockets in the process. This shows how easy it can be to manipulate crypto markets, which is a shame since there appears to be real momentum behind cryptocurrencies entering the mainstream after Coinbase had its initial public offering last week. Dogecoin, unfortunately, has become Exhibit A for skeptics looking for reasons to bash crypto. Second, people are bored. We’ve been stuck at home for over a year and are looking for a behavioral release. Why not gamble a little with a portion of the money received from a recent stimulus check and have some fun? I personally think it’s healthy to dedicate a small percentage of your investments to speculation, especially if it helps you to leave the rest of your portfolio alone. Just don’t bet the farm on Dogecoin; it’ll end in tears if you do.

 

  • My wife and I started watching season one of Call My Agent! and it’s been a lot of fun so far. The show deals with the lives of talent agents working at ASK, a Parisian firm that is going through, let’s just say, a transition period. There are four partners in ASK, and each is working tirelessly – oftentimes at cross-purposes – to keep the agency afloat. Whether it is convincing a client to stay when s/he is determined to leave for a different agency; uncovering the truth about a colleague and deciding whether to hide it or gain a little power by making it known; the agents spend each episode working through their issues without actually knowing they are doing so. And perhaps since I didn’t recognize a single member of the cast, the characters seem real and their lives relatable; they’re winging it just like most of us. It also doesn’t hurt that the show is shot in Paris. The city’s sophistication, creative simulation, and friskiness help the show create an energy that is irresistible.

 

  • “I tell my students that nothing wonderful, I’m talking really fantastic, will happen without taking a risk and subjecting yourself to rejection. Serendipity is a function of courage.” This is an excerpt from The Algebra of Happiness, a book I finished recently. Written by Scott Galloway, a professor of brand strategy at NYU’s Stern School of Business, it’s a personal memoir of a high-achieving entrepreneur willing to admit his flaws and explore his past transgressions. As (hopefully) evidenced by the above referenced quotation, Mr. Galloway provides a lot of interesting perspectives on how one may live a meaningful life. There are passages in this book that really moved me and caused me to reflect on periods of my life where I’ve been a lousy friend, callous husband, or ungrateful son. At times while reading this book I felt, for a lack of a better word, embarrassed for the periods in my life when I’ve taken more than given. Mr. Galloway’s advice isn’t earth-shattering; much of it you already know but may just need to be reminded of from time to time. All the same, I’d recommend this book to anyone who is looking for another perspective on how to deal with life’s obstacles.

 

July 2, 2021 – Bull Market Beginning, Stronger Relationships & Mare of Easttown

  • With a little more than half of the year in the books, many investors – not to mention their financial advisors – are in need of a breather. Meme stocks have dominated financial headlines since the beginning of the year, becoming the poster children of a crazy bacchanalia of excess and speculation in previously sleepy corners of the stock market. Stock of companies such as AMC Entertainment and Gamestop have made a handful of folks rich while leaving the rest of us with massive amounts of FOMO. And while these stocks’ eye-watering returns have lined the pockets of a small number of individuals, their stratospheric gains have also caused a great deal of hand-wringing among investors of a more cautious nature, serving as proof that a market crash is just around the corner. A massive bubble, the thinking goes, has been inflated by cheap money (interest rates are still at historic lows) and massive government stimulus. Once the Federal Reserve raises interest rates and cash and bonds begin to look more attractive, the entire justification for investing in stocks – meme or otherwise – will be undermined and the bubble will pop. Although it is never a bad idea to prepare for the worst, it’s important to remember that taking a fetal position mindset when it comes to investing (i.e. keeping most of your money in cash in anticipation of a market crash) rarely pays off. What’s more, what if we are only in the early stages of a bull market? Yes, I know, the stock market has been up 11 of the past 12 years and stocks are expensive. But the U.S. stock market did, in fact, have annualized returns of 15.5% from 1942-1965 and 17.7% from 1980-1999. If stocks continue to move higher in the next 5-7 years, you want to make absolutely certain that you are invested along the way. The best way to do that is to figure out a way to stay invested even when the stock market gets choppy. To do so, create an investment portfolio – or work with someone who can help you do so – that you are willing to stick with through good times and bad and that takes into account your willingness, need, and ability to take risk.

 

  • Did your relationship with your significant other get better during the pandemic? If so, you’re not alone. According to an article I read recently, “among married men and women age 18-55, 58% said that the pandemic has made them appreciate their spouse more, and 51% said that their commitment to marriage had deepened.” The article goes on to cite other statistics to illustrate how romantic relationships have deepened during the pandemic, such as fewer arguments and lower divorce rates. Given what many of us have been through the past year, I was shocked at these findings. Like many people, I thought the divorce rate would surge once the pandemic loosened its grip and vaccinations became more widespread. But it simply hasn’t happened. The article doesn’t give any one reason for why many couples have grown closer during the pandemic, but I like the author’s conclusion that, “too often predictions about relationships cynically focus on doom and gloom scenarios. This sets couples up for failure by priming them to notice what’s wrong and to overlook what’s right. The fact is, our relationships are stronger than we think.”

 

  • Speaking of resilience, my wife and I just finished Mare of Easttown and the show’s protagonist, Mare Sheehan (played by Kate Winslet), should be given a medal for simply getting out of bed every morning, not to mention working relentlessly as lead detective to solve a local murder in rural Pennsylvania. I don’t want to give anything away by revealing the specific nature of Mare’s trauma, but suffice it to say she is dealing with a lot. Winslet is incredible in her portrayal of very complex character, and the show serves as a study of Mare’s endurance through tremendous hardships, as well as the daily domestic and professional stresses and strains that come her way. Like Mare, every character is struggling, and the show does a great job portraying even its most flawed Easttowners with a humility and complexity. If you enjoy murder mysteries, particularly ones that take place in close-knit communities, you should give this show a try. It’s riveting and will keep you guessing until the very end.

 

May 7, 2021– Biden's Tax Plan, Empire of Pain & Kindness

 

  • President Biden’s proposed tax plan has been front and center for many investors since its unveiling last week. Among other items, the plan intends to tax those making more than $1 million dollar annually at a rate of 39.6% at the federal level on profits on assets such as stocks, bonds, real estate and businesses. This level of capital-gains taxation would be the highest rate in decades, nearly double the current rate of 20%. And while many of us can only dream of making over $1 million dollars a year, there are a couple takeaways that investors of all stripes should keep in mind. First, not all investments are subject to the new tax rate. Retirement accounts, such as 401(k)s, IRAs  and pensions, are still exempt from taxes until money is withdrawn. Second, the proposed increase in capital-gains doesn’t necessarily forebode dark days for the stock market. The 1950s, for example, had some of the best stock market returns of the last seven decades despite a 90% marginal tax rate on the wealthiest households. Regardless of how Biden’s tax plan takes shape over the next few months, stocks will still be one of the highest earning assets classes available, particularly for those with a long time before retirement.

 

 

  • I’ve nearly finished reading Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty by Patrick Radden Keefe, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. If you read enough reviews of this book, you might think that it only touches upon the Sacklers’ involvement in the development and marketing of OxyContin, a drug that unleashed an epidemic of opioid-related overdoses in the US while making the family obscenely wealthy. But once you start reading, you come to understand how the aggressive advertising of OxyContin was perfected decades earlier by Arthur Sackler, a man of incalculable energy who weathered not only poverty during the Great Depression but also rampant anti-Semitism. In the words of Keefe, Arthur “had a genius for marketing, especially for pharmaceuticals”, a skillset he used to devastating effect to devise the advertising campaign for Valium, creating the first Sackler fortune and establishing the blueprint for future addiction that his nephew, Richard, would use four decades later to peddle OxyContin. Keefe, through his voluminous research and engaging writing style, creates a compelling narrative, describing in painstaking detail how the Sacklers were able to co-opt doctors, influence the Food and Drug Administration, and downplay Valium’s and OxyContin’s addictiveness to reap billions. This book raises troubling questions about the US healthcare system and how it could permit the Sacklers to flourish. It will make you feel angry. It will make you feel sad. And, most likely, you’ll feel hopeless at some point. But that’s exactly why you need to read this book: you’ll be better informed to identify – and therefore help contain – a future crisis.

 

  • “It’s a little facile, maybe, and certainly hard to implement, but I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than: Try to be kinder.” This excerpt comes from George Saunders’ commencement address to Syracuse’s Class of 2013. Saunders’ speech seems particularly relevant this year given the tumultuous events of the past 14 months, and I’d encourage anyone – recent college graduate or otherwise – to read it. It’s not the crappy jobs, occasional humiliation, or being poor from time to time that bothers Saunders when he looks back at his life. Rather, it’s the moments when, “another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded…sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.” Saunders wasn’t kind when someone desperately needed warmth, and it eats him up inside. But kindness, as Saunders states, “is hard – it starts out all rainbows and puppy dogs, and expands to include…well, everything.” So how do we stop being selfish and become more present? You’ll need to read the speech to find out Saunders’ response. And please do. It provides an uplifting message and in a witty, heartfelt manner.

 

April 16, 2021 – Archegos, Allen v. Farrow & Red Pill

 

  • By now, you may have heard of Archegos Capital Management. It’s the family office that imploded a few weeks ago, losing more than $20 billion in the span of two days. Archegos’s founder, Bill Hwang, had built up a fortune since 2013, betting on technology stocks such as Netflix and Amazon. His returns were outstanding, in no small part due to the large amounts of leverage (borrowed money) he used to juice his performance. But Hwang’s fortunes turned in late-March, when some of his stocks went south fast, leaving him scrambling for cash to pay off his lenders. He wasn’t able to do it, and as a result some of the banks that had lent him money took swift action and began selling his stocks, which led to further loses. A death spiral then ensued; Archegos was toast and Hwang has been unavailable for comment. And while many of us will never come close to being able to lose $20 billion, there are a couple investment truisms inherent in Archegos’s fall from grace that investors of all stripes would do well to internalize. First, try not to make financial decisions based on your perceived value of your financial assets. Yes, you may think your house or apartment is fantastic (look at the craftsmanship! this neighborhood is amazing!) or that your business is unique (it occupies a niche no one else even knows about!), but buyers may not feel the same way. Better to underestimate what you think an asset is worth and plan financially for a reduced amount of money than to borrow against a windfall that never materializes. This applies to your human capital as well. You may believe that you can work until you are 65 or 70, but it’s probably not a bad idea to see if you retirement savings is on track to provide you a comfortable retirement by age 60. Second, diversify your investments. Mr. Hwang placed most of his money on a few companies. When they faltered, so did his fortunes. If you find that most of your wealth is tied up in one particular asset – whether it be the stock of a particular company or cryptocurrency – sell some of it and spread the earnings among other asset classes.

 

  • I just finished watching Allen v. Farrow, HBO Max’s four-part documentary series that delves into the accusations of sexual abuse against Woody Allen involving Dylan, his then 7-year-old daughter with Mia Farrow; the custody trial that ensued; the details of Allen’s relationship with Farrow’s adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn; and the bitter fallout in the years that followed. In revisiting not only Dylan’s sexual abuse allegations, but also the nasty custody battle, and timeline of Allen’s sexual relationship with Previn, the series – at least in my opinion – makes a very strong case that it was Allen’s influence and celebrity, not to mention Hollywood’s tendency to side with talented men over female accusers, that, until recently, helped his pleas for innocence gain credence in the court of public opinion and cast Farrow as a scorned lover. You’ll have to watch the series to make up your own mind about what really happened in the Allen/Farrow household, but there’s no doubt that Allen has been subjected to the forces of change chipping away at the patriarchy.

 

  • Finally, I recently finished reading Red Pill by Hari Kunzru. The narrator and protagonist is an unnamed Brooklyn-based writer struggling to produce new work. He’s depressed and it’s beginning to affect his marriage. The solution? Obtain a prestigious fellowship at a writing center in Berlin so as to distance himself from the grind of his daily existence (he has a young daughter) and focus solely on writing. Yet, after arriving in Berlin, his sense of ennui only deepens. And without the presence of his wife and child to keep him anchored to reality, the protagonist begins to drift, spending nearly all of his time online going deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories, alt-right iconography, and nihilism. What then ensues is an exploration of the friction that exists between understandable fear and paranoia and what can happen when someone is pushed over the edge, questioning the very concept of reality. This isn’t a novel that I’d recommend to everyone. I felt tense reading it, and some of its themes are harrowing. That being said, it’s a unique novel that does a great job examining the existential anxiety and hopelessness that many people feel in our current moment.