Weekend Warm-Ups

June 19th, 2020 – Homecoming Season 2, A Separation & Are America’s Biggest Cities Doomed?

  • I recently finished watching season two of Amazon Prime’s Homecoming (not to be confused with Showtime’s Homeland). The first season was great, and had what I thought was one of the best final episodes of any show in 2018. And while season 2 has its moments, it felt like all style and no substance. Yes, it is well-acted and not a bad way to spend a few hours of your time (there are 7 episodes, each about 30 minutes in length), but season two’s direction seemed as adrift as its protagonist, Jackie (played Janelle Monáe), during the opening scene of its premiere. As a recap (and stop reading here if you want to avoid spoilers about season one), Homecoming is the name of a secret, government-run program wherein  American soldiers who have suffered post-traumatic stress disorder during combat abroad are brought home and then surreptitiously fed small doses of an experimental drug to erase their memory. The goal being to redeploy these soldiers to active duty without any psychological baggage. Season one ended in a way that was very life-affirming, as Heidi (played by Julia Roberts), the caseworker responsible for monitoring the soldiers’ memory loss, discovers what is going on and takes a courageous stand against the government’s systemic abuse. But instead of continuing season one’s momentum, season 2 spends too much time trying to tie-up loose ends. There are no shocking revelations; though interesting characters are introduced (cue Joan Cusack as a hardened military official), they aren’t developed enough to make them memorable, and it never feels like the show is going anywhere. It can’t manage to escape the first season’s shadow.
     
  • As I approach day 100 of self-quarantine with my wife, son, and in-laws, relationships have been on my mind quite a bit. Spending an excessive amount of time in close quarters with family members with whom you would otherwise not spend all of your time has made me contemplate (at least) two things. First, why are character flaws, which are so easily forgiven (and perhaps even appreciated) at the beginning of a relationship, despised years later? And, second, after long-term relationships end, why is closure possible for some but not others? Don’t worry, dear reader. I am not getting divorced (at least I don’t think I am, my wife may have other plans). But these two questions are central to the novel, A Separation, which I just finished reading. Written by Katie Kitamura, the novel is about infidelity and the dissolution of a marriage from the perspective of the unnamed wife. In the wake of her recent separation from her husband, Christopher, the narrator is called upon by her mother-in-law to look for him on a Greek isle. Christopher has been unreachable for days, and his mother, unaware of the separation, thinks it is only natural to have his wife go look for him. Honoring her and Christopher’s agreement to wait to tell family members about the separation, the narrator reluctantly agrees to search for him and in the process describes the arc of her relationship, realizing that she knows even less about the man than she previously thought. An ungenerous summary of this novel would be that it is an over-analyzed rendering of a starter marriage. My take is that past relationships are always subject to mental revision, particularly those where we once cared deeply about the other party. This work is very meditative and is written in a way that is coldly detached, almost clinical, as the narrator relates the details of her failed marriage. Give it a try if you like mysteries that delve deep into one’s psyche.
     
  • Are America’s biggest cities doomed? It’s a question that many folks have been asking themselves during the Covid-19 pandemic. As coronavirus cases tick upward in the Sun Belt, work-from-home directives are extended indefinitely, and coherent plans on how to make mass transit systems safe for millions of commuters remain unclear, people who have the resources to flee cities might be scouring Trulia listings during bouts of panic. In an interesting article, The High Cost of Panic-Moving, the author throws cold water on the idea that large metropolises will lose their allure. Yes, she concedes, there is always population attrition; dramatic life events, such as the birth of a child, often point toward the suburbs where childcare and housing are much more affordable. And for those families who were already looking to move prior to the pandemic, recent events have only strengthened their resolve to pack up. But the article doubts that what cities have to offer – diversity, community, culture, shorter commutes – will ever go out of style. And insofar as teleworking is concerned, its availability prior to the onset of the pandemic didn’t fuel a work-from-home revolution. In fact, the opposite happened, there was a population resurgence in certain cities among college-educated professionals over the last decade. Read this piece if you are interested in what the future may hold for America’s biggest cities, the undisputed engines of our nation’s economic growth.
     
  • Finally, in recognition of Juneteenth, which marks the end of slavery in the former Confederacy, I am going to take some time to read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s piece, The Case for Reparations . I’d urge you to give it a read if you have some time this weekend. Or, if music is more your speed, check out Bandcamp, an independent music platform, which is giving its revenue share from all sales made on June 19th to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in solidarity with protesters (Rolling Stone’s staff recommends 14 albums and songs by black independent artists).


Stay safe and healthy!

 

Best,
Zach

June 12th, 2020 – And Their Children After Them, State of the Union & Stock Swings

  • La France profonde, or Deep France. It’s a phrase that is meant to denote life outside of Paris, a deep sense of the nation that exists in provincial towns and villages. Bucolic countryside, delicious cuisine, and picturesque town squares far from the hustle and bustle of Paris, it’s where the essence of France is and will always reside. Sounds like an enviable place to live, right? Far from it, at least based on the latest novel that I read, And Their Children After Them, by Nicolas Mathieu. Winner of the 2018 Prix Goncourt, France’s oldest and most prestigious literary accolade, this work was translated to English in April 2020 and was a page-turner. Set in Heillange - a fictional French valley town on the border with Luxembourg that has been decimated by deindustrialization – the novel traces the modest life of its protagonist, Anthony, beginning in the summer of 1992, when he is 14, to the summer of 1998. During those six years, Anthony grows up, with chance encounters setting in motion a series of events that come to define not only his life, but also those of his peers. While the novel focuses on the directionless, yet endearing, Anthony, it also shifts between the perspectives of his proud, alcoholic father and devoted mother. The novel also portrays Heillange through the eyes of first-generation North African teenagers, many of whom struggle to meet their parents’ old-world expectations while assimilating to French culture. At heart, this is a coming-of-age novel based in a left behind swath of France. But it also digs deeper, describing in vivid detail what it is like to grow up outside of an urban center and how that environment can lead to prejudices, grievances, and, ultimately, political rage (e.g. the Yellow Vest protests).
     
  • I just finished watching State of the Union and it’s one of the best shows I’ve seen all year. Written by Nick Hornby, the show centers on the marriage of Louise (played by Rosamund Pike) and Tom (played by Chris O’Dowd). The setting for each episode is the same: a pub across the street from the office where Louise and Tom have their weekly marital therapy session. Their relationship of 15 years has hit choppy waters for reasons that become abundantly clear in the first episode, and they are making a last-ditch attempt to salvage their love. And while watching a couple work through its strained marriage might not be a theme high on your viewing list at the current moment, it’s hard not to appreciate some of the issues Louise and Tom discuss as they deconstruct their past and seek the best way to move forward jointly, if at all. Careers, kids, in-laws, spiteful past remarks that have left scars, it’s all addressed in a witty, sarcastic manner that is relatable if you have been in a committed relationship for an extended period of time. An added bonus is that each episode is only ten minutes long; the show moves quickly and doesn’t waste time on boring plot lines or uninteresting characters. And with the camera focused solely on the interplay between Louise and Tom, you, as the viewer, feel as though you have an intimate, front row seat at a play. The downside of this show? It’s on Sundance, which you might not have. Binge it anyway on the 7-day free trial and then cancel your subscription.
     
  • Until earlier this week, stocks seem to do nothing but go up. April was the best month for the Dow Jones Industrial Average since Ronald Reagan was President, and the S&P 500 had its best 50-day rally ever, notching up a gain of 40% since its low on March 23rd. Alas, it seems as though stock markets may have gotten ahead of themselves. On Thursday, major indices suffered their worst day since March; a stark reminder of how quickly sentiment can sour. The reality of an U.S. economy where 1 in 4 American workers has lost a job during the pandemic may have finally set in. That figure, alongside fears of a large-scale secondary coronavirus outbreak and dire economic predictions – the U.S.’s gross domestic product is expected to shrink 6.5% this year – has unnerved investors, casting doubt on the viability of a speedy economic recovery. So what to do? As always, stick to the financial plan you made during calmer times. If anything, stocks’ recent volatility illustrates that no one has a clear understanding of how things will play out in the upcoming months, let alone next week. It is during these times that patience is rewarded more than ever. If you have specific questions, please don’t hesitate to reach out.

 

Best,
Zach

May 15th, 2020 – Overpriced Education, There but for the & Housing Market’s Future

  • With the recent announcement that California State University, the largest four-year college system in the United States, will cancel most in-person classes for the upcoming fall semester and resort predominantly to on-line instruction, it’s become clear that colleges and universities are in a mad scramble to figure out how best to respond if students can’t – or are unwilling – to come back to campus in the fall. And with students – not to mention parents - progressively more uneasy about shelling out ~$50,000/year for on-line learning, higher education’s entire business model has been called into question. So what does the future look like for higher education if coronavirus becomes a staple of our lives for years to come and the experience (i.e. non-classroom setting) part of college becomes non-existent? Enter Scott Galloway, a Professor of Brand Strategy and Digital Marketing at New York University’s Stern School of Business. In a recent interview with New York Magazine, he posits that there is a, “horrific awakening being delivered via Zoom of just how substandard and overpriced education is at every level.” In his view, the proverbial rubber will hit the road over the course of the next six weeks when deposits and registrations for the fall are down 10-30 percent. Such a drop, he states, won’t be a problem for elite universities, such as MIT, which can easily fill spots from waiting lists. But as the lack of demand trickles down the supply chain, less desirable universities are going to take a big hit to their bottom line. And while second-tier universities’ financials will become increasingly precarious with their very survival being called into question, top-50 universities will become even stronger due to partnerships that he believes will be formed with big-tech companies. Think iStanford, [email protected] and HarvardxFacebook, and then imagine each of these schools enrolling 100,000 kids per year for two-year degrees in STEM for 50% of the price; big-tech companies provide the classroom instruction on-line, while universities handle the accreditation. Not a far-fetched idea if the shift to on-line learning becomes permanent, but a nonetheless disturbing one as, “the discovery, empathy, and emotional growth of a campus-based liberal arts education,” is lost and replaced with merely the, “pursuit of vocational skills and shareholder value.” Scary stuff, but nonetheless important to consider during a time when millions of people, facing economic duress and other extreme hardships, are simply trying to stay afloat.
     
  • How many times have you promised to stay in touch with an old co-worker, a friend who was moving away, or even a former love interest? For a while, you probably do so, then the emails start to lag, life inevitably takes over, and you completely forget about the person. At the same time, there are those people whom we wish we could forget forever but who nevertheless become permanently lodged in our memories despite our best attempts to banish them. This, in a nutshell, forms the plot of a novel I just read, There but for the. Why do we hold on so tightly to some relationships, however toxic they may be, while simultaneously letting other, healthy connections, slip through our fingers? I certainly don’t have the answer, but the novel’s author, Ali Smith, explores these issues through her central character, Miles Garth, as seen through the memories of four characters who have gotten to know him in a limited capacity over the course of his life. The memories these four characters have of Miles - told abstractly through wordplay, emails, stories, handwritten notes, conversations and lyrics – unfold after they are summoned to urge Miles to leave a bathroom in which he has locked himself in during the course of a dinner party at an upscale London neighborhood. Smith’s writing style is experimental, and the structure of this novel can feel uncomfortable at times. But give it a try if you are looking for something different that demands your attention. If you do, you may come to an enriched understanding of your own relationships and why they did – or did not – work out.
     
  • Finally, Barron’s feature article last week was on the housing market and the impact coronavirus will have on home values. The article’s takeaway is that the housing market will most likely prove more resilient that many homeowners and would-be-buyers currently expect. You’ll have to read the piece for a deeper dive on why this is the case, but here are three reasons the article provides to buttress this outlook. First, the supply of houses is the tightest it has been in decades. Even before Covid-19, there was a housing-affordability crisis raging across America. Second, mortgage credit quality is excellent, meaning that most owners have enough equity to withstand sustained price declines and don’t have to fear becoming “underwater” (meaning they owe more on their mortgage than their home is worth). Third, the federal government has stepped up to the plate. Thanks to recently passed legislation, millions of homeowners now have the right to a forbearance on their mortgage payments for up to 180 days, as well as the option to extend the forbearance for an additional 180 days without fees, penalties, or additional interest payments. Of course, real estate is local, and the health of any particular area is going to depend on many future, hard to predict trends, such as demographic tendencies, labor market strength, and ever-changing buyer preferences. It may therefore take a few years to see if this article’s stance proves accurate.

 

Have a great week!

Best,
Zach

May, 1st, 2020 – Stock Market Rebound, The Restaurant & About Schmidt

  • With roughly 30 million jobless claims since mid-March, a gross domestic product that shrank 4.8% in the first quarter, and the steepest decline in consumer spending ever recorded last month, the United States’ economy has been brought to its knees by Covid-19. Notwithstanding the economic wreckage, the Standard and Poor’s 500 – an index of the 500 largest companies listed on stock exchanges in the United States – just had its best month since 1987, helping to recoup a major portion of its virus-induced losses that began in late-February. While the stock market is not the economy (the former is meant to reflect anticipated corporate earnings and is often given to wild optimism), the disconnect between the two seems particularly pronounced, especially since the International Monetary Fund expects the bleakest times since the Great Recession later this year. Will stock markets continue to rebound, or will there be another major crash, similar to what we saw in late-February to mid-March? I’m not in the business of calling stock market turns, but it seems fair to say that there will be more volatility ahead until there is substantial progress on a promising vaccine, consumers are willing to resume familiar spending habits, and work and travel practices get back to normal. The stock market’s swoon earlier this year was a gut check for investors. If you found the drop too much to bear psychologically, then now is an ideal time to revisit your investment portfolio and think about de-risking its composition. Long-term, stock markets will rise, but that knowledge is of little use if you can’t withstand the inevitable ups and downs that will occur along the way. If you have any questions, please reach out.
     
  • For the last few weeks, I’ve been quarantining with my in-laws. I used to think that I knew them fairly well, but our time together has, let’s just say, brought us much closer. Although each of us has a separate routine during the day, the one thing we’ve managed to do together most nights is watch The Restaurant. And we love it. Set in post-World War II Stockholm, the show revolves around the LÖwander clan and their family-run restaurant. With its dated cuisine, stuffy atmosphere, and aging clientele, the family business has not managed to keep up with the times. The LÖwanders are losing money fast and need to make some drastic changes, and it is the unconventional methods each of the family members resorts to in order to keep the restaurant afloat that really make the show engaging. The show also does a wonderful job of interweaving the lives of the affluent LÖwanders with those of their kitchen staff and the confrontations that come from that crossover. If it sounds like a “Swedish Downton Abbey”, you’re not far off. Tolerate the subtitles, this show is worth it.
     
  • Six months after the death of his wife, Albert Schmidt is at a crossroads. His identity – once deeply intertwined with his status as a partner at a white-shoe law firm in Manhattan – has completely unraveled, as the up-and-comers at the firm have gently pushed him toward the exit. Stumbling into early retirement, Schmidt has no clue what he is going to do with his life. He has only one friend, relations with his daughter have soured, and the invitations he used to receive to parties have dried up. No one, it turns out, really liked Schmidt that much after all. People simply put up with him so that that they could be around his charismatic wife. This is the setting for a book I picked off my in-laws’ bookshelf on a whim, About Schmidt. The novel is almost nothing like the movie, in which Jack Nicholson won a Golden Globe for Best Actor for his portrayal of Albert. It’s worth reading if you enjoy black humor and a story that really gets a character’s soul, no matter how deeply flawed. Like many of us at one point or another, Schmidt is forced to evolve, and it’s an interesting ride to see just how much he changes.

 

Have a great weekend!

Best,
Zach

April 17th, 2020 – Resilience, Covid Changes & the Everglades

  • As my fifth week of self-quarantine draws to a close, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about resilience. I know, it’s a word that is overused to the point of meaninglessness, but an interesting article in the New Yorker, which discusses decades of research undertaken to determine how resilience actually works, is worth a read at the current moment, where most of us feel especially stressed. There is a lot to appreciate in this article, but if you don’t feel like reading it in its entirety, there are two pieces of advice worth noting. First, the article advises framing adversity as a challenge that you can overcome, which is to say that you should not ruminate on a minor, negative event. Whether you forgot to call a close friend on his/her birthday or promised you’d be home for bedtime to put your kid(s) to sleep but ended up having to stay late at the office, try and learn from the misstep (e.g. “I’ll put Bryan’s birthday in my calendar so that I don’t forget next year”) and then immediately shake it off and move on. Second, and this pertains more to work, is to try and train yourself to view feedback from a client and/or boss as “specific” rather than “global”. In other words, if your performance is criticized, attempt to take the stance, as the article states, “that this is one narrow thing rather than a massive indication that something is wrong with my life.” It is helpful to remember that construing events as positive (i.e. growth opportunities as opposed to just traumatic) can be learned.
     
  • Speaking of resilience, imagine going blind at the age of 8 but nonetheless becoming a Rhodes Scholar and then state lieutenant governor, all before the age of 37 (not to mention rooming with Ronan Farrow at Yale Law School). Then, imagine leaving it all behind to join the Jesuit religious order, whose ordination process takes roughly 10 years and includes vows of poverty, obedience and chastity. The person who experienced this is Cyrus Habib, and, no, he was not enmeshed in a political scandal or facing financial ruin. In fact, he was a shoo-in for re-election of lieutenant governor of the state of Washington and tapped by many for even higher levels of government service. What caused his swerve? You’ll have to read Frank Bruni’s opinion piece to find out but with Covid-19 upending all of our lives, it raises interesting questions about taking a “moral inventory…in the face of terrifying suffering.” Once this awful virus is behind us, it will be interesting to see the ways people may decide to redirect their lives in a more satisfying or impactful way. The questions Mr. Habib asked himself prior to making his life-change may help as you determine your own life’s arc.
     
  • I just finished reading The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise by Michael Grunwald. I confess that prior to reading this book, I often thought of Florida as a ticky-tacky place that was fine enough to spend a week, get a sunburn, perhaps see an alligator, and then rush home. And while admittedly, I haven’t drastically altered that view, this book really opened up my eyes to the fascinating history of the Everglades, a one of a kind ecosystem that has been under ecological threat since the mid-19th century. And it is this threat - described exhaustively by Mr. Grunwald through the exploits of a greedy cast of characters looking to profit off the beauty of south Florida’s picturesque landscape - interwoven with deep analysis, drama, and edgy humor which makes this book an entertaining work. Not a fun beach read by any stretch of the imagination, but a great tale of how the Everglades came to be what they are now, and what the struggle for its preservation can teach us about how best to protect our environment moving forward.

 

Have a great weekend!

Best,
Zach

April 3rd, 2020 – Alphabet Soup Recovery, CARES Act & Tiger King

  • Crises always happen, and they always end. Right now things seem bleak, but we are going to make it out of this rut eventually. What shape will our economic recovery take? It’s difficult to say, but economists have put forth an alphabet soup of possibilities. First off is the “V-shaped” recovery, where economic output rises back as quickly as it has fallen. Under this scenario, economists wager, the coronavirus outbreaks in Europe and America will have to clear up by May and people will need to immediately emerge from their homes ready to splurge. If this seems unlikely then you may be a believer in the next letter camp, that of the “U-shaped” recovery, in which the economy rebounds much more slowly (e.g. normal business activity doesn’t resume until July or August). If V is preferable and U is acceptable, the final letter is what no one wants: an “L-shaped” recovery. In fact, such a recovery isn’t a recovery at all; employees are furloughed indefinitely, business activity is paralyzed, and uncertainty remains until 2021. Whatever shape an eventual recovery takes, innovation, optimism, and cooperation are going to be key. Just exactly how these three traits can be fused to drag us out of this crisis can be found in an interesting article in Harvard Business Review. The piece can be a tad dry at times, but stick with it for some concrete steps that can be taken now to increase our odds of a favorable letter recovery.
     
  • On March 27th, President Trump signed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) into law. There is a lot to unpack in this piece of legislation - far too much to list in its entirety in the Weekend Warm-Up format - but here are some highlights:
    • Individuals are permitted to take a penalty-free distribution of up to $100,000 from their retirement account if they, or a spouse or dependent, are diagnosed with COVID-19 or if they experience negative financial consequences (e.g., job loss) as a result of the pandemic;
    • The borrowing limit from an employer-sponsored retirement plan (e.g. 401(k) or 403(b)) has been increased from $50,000 to $100,000 for the 180-day period following the bill’s enactment;
    • The contribution deadline for IRAs has been extended to July 15 as well;
    • Borrowers of federal student loans will not be required to make student loan payments prior to September 30, 2020, and interest on the loans will not accrue during such time period.
    If the above items have piqued your interest – or you would like to learn more about other components of the CARES Act – please reach out to me.
     
  • Every year or so a show or podcast comes around that immediately takes the general public by storm. In the past this may have been the case with Serial or Making of a Murderer. The latest in this genre is Tiger King, a recent documentary on Netflix that has more than its fair share of sensational thrills, unbelievable plot twists, and charismatic characters. It’s that rare show that is incredibly compelling, terrifying, and downright absurd. The show follows Joe Schreibvogel (aka Joe Exotic), the owner of a private zoo in Oklahoma that houses over 200 tigers and other big cats, as he feuds with Carole Baskin, a self-proclaimed animal activist committed to ending big cat ownership in America. I won’t delve into the sordid details regarding the lengths to which Joe and Carole go to in the show to antagonize one another, but there is no shortage of jaw-dropping footage that will keep you glued to your screen. But unlike others shows that I’ve found fascinating, I didn’t find myself rooting for any one character in Tiger King to come out vindicated. I simply kept watching because I wanted to see what crazy stunt Carole or Joe would pull next. These are deeply troubled, trauma-laden individuals too wrapped up in their own eccentricities and egomaniacal behavior to see the damage they are doing everyone around them. It makes for great television.

 

Have a great weekend!

Best,
Zach