Friday, October 31, 2008

beware of the bogeyman

Besides running, one of my favorite activities is golf. I do not play as often as I desire. I play just frequently enough to maintain the status quo. That is to say, as reflected by my scorecard, I get no better or worse from round to round. Two things are consistent with my rounds of play: I usually score in the low 90's and I usually par 4 or 5 holes. But once in a while, to my bitter consternation, I am forced to pencil in a total in the low 100's back at the clubhouse. How does this happen?

There are a few ways to dissect the missteps. I could site poor course management, wrong club selection, an unbalanced stance, wayward putts and bad tee shots. But the basic reality, more often than not, comes down to having had two bad holes verse four good holes. The rest of the holes can be bogey, double bogey or may I say average for those of you less familiar with the game of golf. Lets say, for example, on my typical day there are 4 holes on which I score pars of 4 each. The total for these 4 holes is 16. If the remaining 14 holes are split between bogey and double bogey I will score 77 on the remaining holes. That makes the round of 4 par holes equaling 16, plus the 14 average holes equaling 77 add up to a total of 93.

The math of the bad round is similar, but with different results. If I have 2 disaster holes of 8 each, that will equal 16. If the balance of 16 holes are average (split again between bogey and double bogey) they will equal 88. That would make this unpleasant outing of 2 holes equaling 16, plus 16 holes equaling 88 add up to a total of 104--yikes!

Bluntly, a couple of bad holes can have a profound effect on the final tally. Rarely occurring, but known to happen, a one hole meltdown can have a powerful effect on a final score as well. Business conventions held at lavish resorts are a good place to witness this malady. I have seen this kind of blow up several times in this past couple of decades. Players at these events tend to be inebriated, unfocused and are often up against a very difficult course with which they are unfamiliar. The most common ingredients to spur this abomination include a par 5 hole on the back nine when fatigue sets in on the unfocused golfer. The hole may start with an errant out of bounds shot from the tee box, then overcompensation of a swing to plunk a ball in the water, a flub(a poorly hit ball that goes nowhere), a swing and a miss, balls getting buried in the lip of a sand trap, more angry miss hits, shank a wedge (a home run when you wanted to bunt), four putts and penalty strokes. All this can harden into a 16 on the scorecard for just one par 5 hole.

What does a 16 on a single hole do to a scorecard? Well, if the rest of the 17 holes are split between 1 and 2 over par they will equal 94. The math then becomes 16 on one hole plus 94 on 17 holes adding up to a total of 110. I call that--double yikes!!

Why do I shine a light on these golf escapades knowing that many of you reading this post may have little in common with these experiences? The answer is because many of you reading this post may be planning for retirement with the help of 401K's, or other market related investments. And I fear that for many people this one investment year of 2008 will be like a 16 on a par 5 hole.

In the past few weeks, people I know and some I barely know have been telling me of their woes of financial loss. I am not referring to wealthy (or now semi-wealthy) individuals who may have lost millions. I regularly hear from middle class people that tell me of their $200,000 dollar to $300,000 dollar losses. Some of theses losses are in retirement plans, some are self picked stocks and commodities and some are day trade accounts. Many pundits say that these are paper losses now and that over time the markets will recover. And for many people this may be true. But, for some investors, their money may be lost forever or at least very difficult to recapture. Recently, while I was waiting for a business appointment, an anonymous gentleman that I never met before felt the need to share with me his story. He was in his 50's and lives in middle class suburbia. Perhaps because I draw people out or because he had so much to vent, he opened up his laptop to show me his trading account. He told me that he started about 2 years ago with $100,000 dollars. He reached his high of $197,000 dollars midway last year. He didn't stay on that point for more than an instant. He vigorously began to recall the stocks that he thought would be his salvation. Then he told me about his margin account, and about buying stocks on loaned money. As the market began to head south, instead of getting conservative, he saw buying opportunities. He took on more stocks and more margin and more risk. In the few weeks from late September to early October his picks began to plummet and the margin calls came fast. He directed me to the lower left corner of his screen. The balance read $3400 dollars. He kept telling me the same story, repeating items over and over. He could dissect the missteps, point out his mistakes, and acknowledge the occurrence. However, the surrealism of the incident prevented him from feeling anything. In a sort of therapeutic role, I just nodded and listened, as if to transmit that awareness is the first step toward recovery.

Maybe Tiger Woods would be able to come back from a 16 on a par 5 hole to have a respectable round. And maybe Warren Buffett would be able to resuscitate $3400 dollars back to $197,000 dollars in 5 or 10 years. For most of us though, it would seem to be an unlikely prospect. Still, we must try our best. The topography ahead will be rough. Stay sober and focused when handling your money. Choose investments carefully and apply good asset allocation management. Do not make important decisions in haste. When it is needed, ask for advice. And remember, average scores from this point may deliver a final retirement statement inked with the revelations of a double yikes. If so, you may want to head straight for the clubhouse--others there will be waiting to listen.

© 2008 Christopher’s Views

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

something to celebrate

This past weekend my wife and I marked our 26th wedding anniversary. We did dinner and a movie on Saturday. On Sunday, we took a drive up to the Hudson Valley for a day of apple picking with our son. It is a ritual we have enjoyed on many Columbus Day weekends over the years. Looking back I am reminded of how time and life move along quickly.

In the early years our relationship was as sappy as any romantic comedy. When we met, I was the stage manager and she was the lighting director for our college theatre group. She laughed at all the playful lines I delivered over our headsets between cues. We had some favorite spots we liked to frequent. Piano bars in Greenwich Village, wine and cheese establishments in Forest Hills, and an old styled neighborhood bar in Fort Greene that was regularly visited by our college friends were our standards. When we were out we would often spontaneously exit where we were and ride mass transit to any place in New York City for a simple pleasure. It could have been to grab a coconut and blueberry ice on a hot summer night before closing at The Lemon Ice King in Corona. Or perhaps we would go for a rousing ride around the clinkety-clank turns and free falling swoons of The Cyclone in Coney Island. And in the winter our thoughts were certainly in sync for a late night sleigh ride down a slippery slope in Crocheron Park.

But it was during our jaunts in my first car that we really melded our bond. I had purchased a used, willow green, body beaten, and under carriage rotted 1971 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia for $400 dollars. I drove that classic for three years and then sold it for $250 dollars. I wouldn't be surprised if that big hearted and plainly styled coupe hasn't reached the graveyard yet. For on the inside, it had the stuff of a champion. It required no maintenance and broke down only once, when I actually did run out of gas. In the summer we would take long drives to the beaches from Montauk Point to the Jersey Shore, or from lakes in the Catskills to the Pocono's. We would build ourselves campfires and stay all night. As the seasons changed, on gray wintry nights, we would search out empty parking lots and do spin outs in the snow. And when we tired from our simple pleasures and playful exchanges the unadorned shelter of that Ghia allowed us to find warmth, comfort and passion in each others arms.

In seemingly warp speed time our daughter is in her last year of college, and our son has just entered kindergarten. Our favorite spots now belie our most time manageable spots, when factoring in proximity to our home and baby-sitters. As for spontaneity, well that has morphed into an occasional last minute plan for a drive to Upstate New York so we can meet our daughter for a family breakfast at IHOP. And if our spending plan allows us a little more freedom we might ride the Interstate East to Boston and catch dinner at Quincy Market with a hotel room movie as a night cap.

Then, ten months ago, my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. We had previously been through some false alarms in the past when cysts were ultimately found to be negative. I think I was in denial about the nearness of those misses and their potential magnitude for desolation. Plausible denial though, I would contend. After all, she was at low risk for breast cancer by many measures. She has never been overweight. She used birth control pills only for a short time in her early twenties. She gave birth to her first child before age 30. She breast fed. She drinks alcohol less than moderately. The only known history of breast cancer in her family is her grandmother at age 80. Plus, the garden in which she loves to toil is organic. With that comforting case of denial I rarely felt that we had dodged a bullet in the past, even though I had implicitly thought that breast cancer must be a nightmarish torment for a woman. Then crashing head on into the knowledge that my healthy, fit, lively and model shaped wife needed a bi-lateral mastectomy was a surreal moment of having that nightmare come to life. It felt as if we were caught in an earthquake and the epicenter was directly below our feet.

We have tip-toed along the ridges of this trembling rift for the better part of a year now, holding on for life. We've held on while meeting with radiologists, surgeons, oncologists, genetic counselors and breast cancer specialists. At times we were dizzied by all the options and decisions that need to be made wisely but promptly. We rolled with the tremors when my daughter had bronchitis and my son got pneumonia simultaneous to my wife's surgery. Through it all, her courage has been enormous. Her courage has been far greater than any courage I think I could have mustered. She has been strong, graceful and unflinching in meeting every challenge. She overcame the gut wrenching emotional challenge of walking herself into an operating room to have her breasts removed. She eloquently undertook and mastered the challenge of explaining a mastectomy to our young son. She purposefully conquered the challenge of remaining grateful and positive for the benefit of our daughter. She battled the persistent challenge of keeping a routine work day when inner primordial voices and images cut a disruptive path through her sleep the night before. And she held tight as her hair fell out.

We have been fortunate that her cancer was detected at an early stage. We are also grateful for our support from family and friends. Managing our careers, our lives, and the cancer has been easier when at times we would come home to an unexpected meal. Our environment was also calmed when our son was being taken care of for a few hours, or a couple of days, while we were taking care of ourselves. And it was priceless to have a friend who knows how to listen, when at times, the stress piled so high that just pulling into a 7-Eleven parking lot felt like a vacation.

There is still a long road to recovery ahead of us. We have found much testament of this road as it is told to us by the swarming mass of cancer survivors we have encountered along the way. And even though my wife's physical scars will heal, their shadows will stay behind. Her emotional scars I suppose are resolved to dim, needing to be somehow in accord with the gaslight that will accompany her at check-ups for the rest of her life.

We are both spiritual people. We have strong faith in a higher power. We believe in miracles. So, almost a year later, we are grateful to be celebrating our anniversary. We are looking forward to gathering up our tattered bodies and embarking on the journey of the rest of our lives. As I look ahead I am reminded that time and life, ironically, often move forth in circles. And so I hope that in the warmth, comfort and passion of each others arms we can slowly, little by little, one day at a time, walk in search of simple pleasures, playful exchanges and solid ground.

(c) 2008 Christopher's Views

Friday, October 10, 2008

on the mend or toast?

job losses, paper losses
tough times, harsh times
pink slips, severance checks, markets looking grim
record slides, record dives
5 year lows, 10 year rules
pass the cash, check the credit
and sleep on it tonight

red tickers light the day, margins calls steal it away
sharks are in the water
when one buy back window closes
10 free fall trap doors open
flights to safety
day trade wipe outs
breach of contract lawsuits
and bank stocks for Uncle Sam?

Dollar, Peso, Pound
Euro, Rouble, Krona, Franc
Iceland melting down
financial contagion spreads
worldwide summits
worldwide plummets
when oil retreats, OPEC meets

money coaches, money shrinks
evaporating 401k advice
skip the latte, skip the cruise
chill out, take life in stride
go enjoy the weekend
and repeat the 10 year rule

nervous investors, bewildered advisors
funds in the tank, tuition payment pain
mad as hell
ring that damn closing bell
running on empty
running for office
who's to blame?
who's in the mood?
why not double down?

Friday, October 3, 2008

the red flags

The people who know me know me to be analytical, thoughtful and reflective. I use these core character traits to guide me in making most of the important decisions in my life. Yet no matter what my analysis of an issue reveals I rarely go against my gut feelings. The analysis of America today is forthright. The National debt is out of control. The economy is on life support. We have failed strategies in the Mid-East. Healthcare costs are crippling the quality of treatment. Energy policies are behind the times. And there is a lack of leadership in Washington.

That said, the upcoming Presidential election will be of vital importance. And so, with that in mind, I sat down to watch the Vice-Presidential debate. Based on Senator Biden's experience I expected him to fair well. And reflecting on Governor Palin's difficult time with the media recently, I expected her to fair poorly. While it is both subjective and somewhat intangible to score debates, I thought they both did well.

I wish I knew for certain which ticket is best for America's future. I do not know. But my gut has long known a simple truth. If you want to get different results you need to do different things. The Obama-Biden ticket is clearly geared more toward working differently on solutions to America's energy policy, healthcare, The Mid-East, and the economy. And so I feel more at ease voting Obama for President.

My gut also has a queasy feeling about Senator McCain and his judgement. Notwithstanding that Governor Palin is at times a spirited speaker, I think McCain's choice here is less maverick and more reckless. Many of Palin's responses are red flags. I just don't believe Senator McCain put prudent effort into this important decision.

Sarah Palin's assertions that there is some relevance between Alaska's proximity to Russia and her foreign policy qualifications are ridiculous. When she choked on the question regarding The Bush Doctrine in Charlie Gibson's interview it revealed a very limited understanding of the Bush Administration's basic philosophy. Then I recently experienced a more comprehensive red flag.

This past Tuesday I was exiting my gym after a workout. As I was passing by the TV in the lounge, Katie Couric's interview with Governor Palin was being aired on the CBS Evening News. Couric was asking Palin what her sources for news consumption have been in shaping her world views. Palin, on this simple question, looked like a deer in the headlights. She tried to avoid responding to the question. This was just a basic question. Governor Palin has asserted herself as confident and ready for this high office and she couldn't give Katie Couric the name of any publication she had read. As Palin danced around the question, Couric continued 'but what ones specifically? I'm curious?'. Palin replied 'Um, all of them, any of them that have been in front of me over the years'.

My brain went into rewind. I started to replay an episode of Seinfeld from season one. Jason Alexander, as George Costanza, was pretending to be an architect. George was asked a simple question--what do you design? George looked like a deer in the headlights and nervously replied--railroads. Clearly George wasn't confident and ready to be an architect.

I view these red flags as I see smoke to fire. I sincerely hope that on the night of November 4th, 2008 the Obama-Biden ticket is elected into office. If not, I envision that I will awaken on November 5th from a shock induced stupor and settle into a paralyzing anxiety. My first stop will be my physician's office. I'll be looking for a four year supply of Xanax.