Wednesday, July 9, 2008

This and That

Tonight will be a slightly different type of post - a series of random thoughts that have been percolating in my head since my last entry. Kind of the way Herb Caen used to write, if memory serves....

Where better to start than the tanking economy? Today all the major stock indices lost another 2%. Both the S&P and Dow are officially in bear territory, and there isn't any particular reason to think things are going to improve soon.

About 3 months ago I wrote a post arguing that weak consumer spending was the biggest issue facing the US economy. And then last week I caught this piece on essentially confirming my fears. This quote sums it up best:

Tighter lending standards imposed by banks in the wake of huge mortgage losses have made it hard for many Americans to secure credit — the lifeblood of expansion in recent years — crimping the appetite of consumers, whose spending amounts to 70 percent of the economy.

Add to that rampant job losses - unemployment rose again in June and high profile companies are laying people off left and right - and you have a bad mix. It's rough out there, people. Keep your job if you still have one....

So how then can anyone explain what I saw on CNBC on Monday? The Chief US Equity Strategist at UBS predicted that all the major US indices would rise 25% in the 2nd half of 2008!!!! My jaw nearly hit the floor. Unfortunately the comment never made onto the Web so I can't link to it. I wish I could because it's so outrageous part of me questions whether I heard it correctly. But I know I did....

In other news, today the US Congress approved the FISA bill. Why? Telecom immunity is not required to fight the war on terror. If those people broke the law they should be held to account, just like all of us would be. It's definitely a disappointing moment for our spineless Democratic controlled Senate, especially since Obama voted for the bill. Irony of ironies -- Hillary Clinton voted against. Unreal.

Meanwhile, in this week's issue of the New Yorker, Seymour Hersch has a long expose about Bush's $400million covert operation campaign in Iran. It's scary stuff. Again, our spineless congress forked over our hard-earned tax money so that Bush's gang of pseudo-CIA thugs can run rampant within Iran. They're actually using the cash to pay off organizations that have been on the US terror watch list for over a decade in hopes that they'll stir up trouble inside Iran. Suicide bombings are on the rise, but the Iranians know it's being perpetrated by the US. The whole thing is nauseating....

My final comment is about sports, or the lack thereof. Man, what a bummer -- I missed the best Wimbledon final ever. Many have said it was the best tennis match ever. I think missing this year's classic Super Bowl was still a little worse, but this hurt a lot. Definitely. On the bright side, I had a productive Sunday so that's good.


Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Break's Over, Back to Work

I watched the entire NBA finals. I just couldn't resist. Lakers v. Celtics for all the marbles. It was kind of a no-brainer, actually. It's my favorite rivalry in any professional sport. In fact, I suspect that's true for most sportsfans who grew up in LA.

Pro sports in Southern California just don't have many compelling rivalries - it's not part of the culture. San Francicans will tell you that the Dodger's/Giants rivalry is a big deal, but Angelinos just don't care that much. And that's really the closest thing any sports team in LA has to a real rivalry. Dodgers/Padres? Angels/A's? Dodger's/A's? Yawn. Lakers/Clippers? Lakers/Warriors? Zzzzzz. Rams/Niners? Oops. (Actually when I was a kid that was a pretty good rivalry, though the Niners always won big in LA and always won when it counted.)

So this was it. If I was going to blow my resolution on a pro sports event, this truly was the one to do it. I'm 99% sure that no other combination of teams - except maybe Phoenix vs. Boston - would have even tempted me. But Phoenix was gone after the first round so that was moot anyway.

I definitely enjoyed the series, but it also really reminded me why I gave up sports in the first place. It's a pretty big time commitment, even with TiVo, and it didn't really give me a ton of satisfaction. Of course that's probably because the Lakers lost, and lost bad.

It was interesting to watch the games after having seen absolutely no NBA since Christmas. I hadn't even seen the new Celtics play yet. And I certainly hadn't seen Gasol in a Lakers uniform. I didn't know what to expect, but I'd heard great things about both teams. And I knew that the Lakers breezed through the supposedly tougher Western Conference playoffs while Boston needed 7 games to beat Atlanta! It didn't look good for the Celtics.

But what I saw was essentially a one-sided affair that was awfully close to ending in 5 games rather than 6. In fact, it's kind of amazing the Lakers took two games. Game 1 was a solid win for the Celts, and then Game 2 was an absolute rout that turned into a squeaker. But the Celts held on to win because they wanted it more. Game 3 was back in LA, and the Lakers showed a little heart and won despite a mediocre performance. But Game 4 was the one that really showed the difference between the two teams. The Lakers came out absolutely on fire - over the top impressive, dominant, overwhelming, you name it. But by the 2nd quarter they were sputtering and the 4th quarter was pretty much all Boston. That's not the stuff of a champion. It's weak. The same basic storyline unfolded in Game 5, but surprisingly the Lakers held on to win. The announcers couldn't stop ripping the Lakers for their poor play, and they were totally right. And Game 6 was an old-fashioned ass whooping.

Anyway, the point is that the Lakers aren't ready to be champs yet. Maybe next year. If Bynum is healthy they'll be contenders for sure. But they just don't seem to play with any heart. That will have to change.

On the other hand, the Celtics looked like they meant business from the opening tip. All three of their Big Three have toiled on crappy teams for years. They all know their careers won't last too much longer. And they weren't about to let the opportunity to get a ring slip by. You could feel it oozing from Paul Pierce every time Michele Tafoya interviewed him. After the win, KG couldn't even speak he was so overcome. Those guys wanted it with every fiber of their being, with their souls, with their hearts and that's how they played.

Come to think of it, I guess it's kind of inspiring. How about that. I was trying to write about how empty I found the experience, but upon further reflection I think it's the opposite. I was just considering the wrong team's perspective....

Anyway, my break from my break is over, again, and I'll be back to writing more regularly.


P.S. The Staples crowd definitely sucks. They reflect their team's ambivalence.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Are We There Yet?

When I was a little kid I always hated long road trips (which was pretty much the only way my family ever traveled, BTW). I usually started off strong, but after a couple of hours I would get antsy. Every few minutes I felt compelled to ask my parents if "we were there yet." Needless to say, the answer was always the same. I especially remember the anticipation when we'd come close to reaching our destination - minutes seemed like hours, feet seemed like miles. But eventually we'd make it and it would all be worth it.

Tonight I feel like I'm 4 years old again.

Except that the boring car ride has been replaced by the interminable, excruciating democratic primary race. And tonight I'm finally seeing roadsigns suggesting we're near our destination. Which means that the next few days and weeks will be all the more painful.

Hillary got crushed in North Carolina and she's clinging to a minuscule lead in Indiana. It looks like she's finally running out of options. As the pundits like to say, there is no clear path to the nomination for her.

In fact, Tim Russert just called the race for Obama. So maybe it really will be over tomorrow.

But I doubt it. If I learned anything as a four-year-old it's that road trips don't end that quickly or easily. Even after the driving is finished, there's always something else to be done - gas to purchase, keys to pick up, directions to lose, groceries to buy. Something.

And technically speaking, Hillary still has cards to play. She has the so-called nuclear option, where she would use her influence over the Democratic Bylaws Committee to convince them to actually seat the Florida & Michigan delegates as per the original vote tally. It's a pretty crazy plan, since Obama wasn't even on the ballot in Michigan and nobody campaigned in Florida, but she could do it.

And today her campaign asserted that the magic number to clinch the nomination is about 200 delegates higher than the figure (2,025) that everyone else has been using because it doesn't account for Florida & Michigan's delegates.

So we'll have to see where that goes.

As far as I'm concerned, until she withdraws from the race officially I'm assuming she's in. And as long as she's in, she can win.

In other words, we just got off the freeway but the hotel is still nowhere in sight.


P.S. Apologies for the long gap between posts. Truth be told, I nearly gave up on the project for a variety of reasons. Fortunately Dr. Beeper clued me in to the error of my ways....

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Rough Patch

The economy seems to be deteriorating by the hour. New headlines come in daily that not only reinforce how bad things are but suggest that the worst is yet to come. It's like nothing I've ever seen.

To be fair, I've never followed the economic news as closely as I do these days so I don't have many other points of comparison. But I honestly don't think it would matter. If anything it would probably just remind me how much more severe this downturn is than everything since the Great Depression.

Check out this gem from Thursday's Wall Street Journal. The paper surveyed 46 economists about the overall health of the economy, and 3 out of 4 respondents said that we're already in a recession.

Not only is that a bad sign for the future, it's also a somewhat astonishing result considering that technically we're NOT in a recession. A recession has a very specific definition - 2 consecutive quarters of negative GDP growth. We haven't even had one quarter of negative growth yet. Q4 was positive (+.6%) and the majority of economists surveyed Thursday think both Q1 and Q2 will be mildly positive, too (+.2% and .1%, respectively).

In other words, they think we're still six months away from starting our first negative quarter, which means were still a full year away from actually being in a recession.

So why did so many of them say we're already in a recession when they know technically it's not true?

Because we are.

There are many reasons, but the biggest is the decline in consumer spending in the United States. Roughly 70% of US GDP comes from consumer spending - clothing, groceries, consumer electronics, furniture, appliances, etc. And for the past decade most of those purchases have been funded by easy credit: mortgages, home equity loans, and credit cards.

Those days are gone. Simply put, too many Americans are tapped out now - they can't borrow even if they want to. Thus, they can only buy what they can afford from their paychecks. That will significantly drive down retail sales, which will drive down share prices, which will lead to layoffs. And the cycle will continue, as fewer Americans have jobs and spending continues to fall.

The severity of the downturn remains to be seen, but there is not a lot of reason for optimism. $4.00/gallon gas certainly doesn't help.

We're in a rough patch now; here's to hoping we weather it well.

Monday, March 31, 2008

News You Can Use

Dr. Beeper loves to give me a hard time about my enthusiasm for the Wall Street Journal. He calls me a Murdoch-lover, or some such nonsense.

The insult is so far from the truth it doesn't even bother me. But what does bother me is that at a practical level I am, in fact, supporting the man who created Fox News. That's a tough pill to swallow.

Unfortunately, there really isn't a comparable source for the daily economic & financial news that the Journal provides, with the possible exception of the Financial Times. I need to check that out.

Regardless, my larger point is that the world of finance has gotten so absurdly complex that only dedicated newspapers like WSJ or FT can hope to cover it adequately. And that's bad for everyone.

People throughout the country can relate to the economy's problems in personal terms - foreclosures are at an all time high, gas is nearly $4.00/gallon, unemployment is rising, the dollar is falling, and it goes on from there.

But can they relate to the problems on Wall Street?

How many people truly understand the inner workings of the so-called "credit crisis" that has been unfolding for the past six months? Who knows the difference between a CDS and a CDO? How about an ABS and an SIV? And why did Bear Stearns collapse, anyway?

Normally when an industry falls on hard times, it only affects the people who work in that industry. There might some related inconveniences (e.g., when airlines go bust travelers have to find new carriers) but the fallout is limited.

But the financial industry is different. When it stumbles like it has been lately, the entire banking system comes under stress. That's why the federal government stepped in to rescue Bear Stearns -- they honestly didn't know what would have happened if it had gone under. The worst-case-scenario was too severe and too plausible: a complete collapse of the capital markets.

Should we all be losing sleep over the situation on Wall Street? Maybe. The recent measures put in place by the Federal Reserve are helpful, but there are still severe problems that need to be worked out.

I recommend you all start paying closer attention, and find yourself a good source for financial news.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Ramble On...

It's almost the end of March, so I've had nearly three months to reflect on my no-sports experiment. When I first started the project, I was at a loss. I even wrote an entire post about my anxiety over finding things to keep my interest. Sports had always occupied such a large portion of my web surfing and TV watching time that I had no real idea how to occupy myself when faced with a blank browser window or the TV remote control.

Gradually I figured it out. Now the pattern is unmistakable.

The two subjects that have replaced sports in my life are politics, particularly the presidential race, and the economy. Both topics are covered in detail and quite well on the Internet, so that's what I read 90% of the time that I'm online. TV is a slightly different creature. In my opinion, only politics is covered well on TV. And that would be a stretch, were it not for the 4 shows I regularly watch.

My #1 source for news is Countdown with Keith Olbermann. I'm a big fan. His strong personality can be a little much at times, but otherwise I think it's a first rate news show. And of course there's The Daily Show & The Colbert Report. And last but not least, Real Time. I've always liked Bill Maher, but I've been enjoying more than usual lately.

Anyway, what's remarkable is that both topics are in the midst of riveting, historic eras. The housing/credit crisis has been unfolding as if in slow motion for months and still nobody knows where the bottom is or what exactly it will look like (the options seem to range from bad to worse). Meanwhile, the Democrats are tearing themselves apart to win the nomination while John McCain bumbles his way toward the White House.

Which brings me to my next point. Why is the Democratic primary race still going on? What am I missing? Mathematically Hillary cannot catch Obama in any of three categories: pledged delegates, popular vote, and total states won. What is the point? It's over. It's time for the superdelegates to step forward and call it for Obama.

I saw two different news items on The Huffington Post today that really got me thinking. First, and don't laugh, I saw the latest YouTube offering from Obama Girl. It was the first time I'd seen any of her work, and man, what a winner. Just great. Totally funny and right on point. But what struck me even more is that people are so psyched about Barack Obama that they'll actually write songs about him. It's an amazing phenomenon. The guy just has it. Charisma doesn't do justice to his gift. I'm not entirely sure what it is, but it's powerful. I think trust is a big part of the equation, but it's more than that I'm sure.

The second thing I saw was also on Huffington. The gist of the story is that the the prolonged democratic fight is clearly harming the Democrats and helping McCain. As obvious as that may sound, now that it's in the news it's a self-fulfilling prophecy.

At what point will Hillary concede? I suppose she's hoping there's still a chance Obama will implode, somehow rendering him unelectable thus convincing the superdelegates to support her. One never knows what the future holds, but at this point that sure looks unlikely. If the Reverend Wright experience is any indication, it's going to take something pretty extreme to trip up Obama. He took a potentially crippling negative and turned it into huge opportunity. And the nation noticed. He didn't duck the issue. He didn't try to oversimplify it. He talked about it openly and intelligently.

Let's end this debate already so we can figure out how to beat McCain. Hillary can be the VP if she wants. Just get out of the way already.


Sunday, March 23, 2008

My Inner Sportsfan Won

I caved.

Not only because my willpower deserted me, but also because I realized that it's nearly impossible to ignore the men's NCAA basketball tournament. It was tough enough to avoid the Super Bowl, but that game takes place on a single afternoon. The Tournament lasts for 3 weeks and is the most widely talked-about sporting event of the year.

It's huge news at my office. The firm actually streams CBS over our network throughout the Tournament so we can watch games from our desks. And this year my department started its own NCAA pool that was free to enter. So I pretty much had to enter. My boss is a huge Duke fan and we talk college basketball all the time. It would have been way too hard to explain why I didn't enter, and frankly it didn't make any sense to me either.

So I entered the pool (and another one with my friends). More significantly, I kept one eye on the games much of the day on Thursday.

And once I'd broken the proverbial seal, I really couldn't see the logic in not watching any more. I suppose I might have fought the urge a little harder if I were at home, but I spent the weekend with my in-laws. And as expected, my father-in-law and I watched parts of games all weekend. I watched the first half of the Oregon game, all of the UCLA game, and the end of the Georgetown & Tennesse games.

It wasn't much compared to every other year of my life, but it wasn't zero, either. And I'm glad. The Tournament really is the best sporting event of the year.

So we'll have to see what happens next. My intention is to resume my no-sports experiment when the Tournament ends and then reassess in September. Till then I intend to revel in my hiatus.


P.S. If anyone besides DrBeeper reads this site, they should check out this link (DrB put it in the comments section of my last post.) It's pretty interesting. It's an academic paper arguing that teams in red jerseys win more.