Investment

Don’t Let The Gold Bug Bite

Gold-Don’t Let The Gold Bug Bite copy

As it tends to do in tumultuous times, gold is once again shining brightly.

There was a sort-of Mea Culpa recently by one of my favorite financial authors, Jason Zweig, in the Wall Street Journal. Reflecting back on a comment made five years ago disparaging gold as an investment, he admits that the 10.5% annual return has since enjoyed made a hash of that prognostication. And while still urging caution he also offers up some valuable insights. Most important is a reflection on how diverse – and often contradictory – theories on why gold is being recommended at any given time.

Gold - Jason Zweig - edfu2.com copyAt the opposite end of the “why buy gold” spectrum today was exemplified by a recent note from a less informed and more fanatical newsletter writer suggesting Now is the time to buy gold. As it tends to be in these politically extreme publications, the lack of logic is stunning. In the middle of July, a warning is sent about a bill introduced into the House of Representatives in March but now “redacted” (the correct word is “retracted”). But the bill could be reintroduced at some undefined time in the future, and if passed could cause the dollar to crash in value: so, Buy Gold Now. Why was there no recommendation to buy gold in March at less than $1,500 an ounce when there was actually a possibility of the bill passing? Why Buy Gold Now at $1,900 an ounce with that threat/justification gone?

“You can buy stock in companies that mine gold, or companies that sell gold. You can buy futures contracts and gamble on the direction of gold prices without ever taking ownership of anything physical. And, of course, there are mutual funds and exchange-traded funds – some own real gold, others just paper proxies and still others holding both.”

More worryingly over the short term is the simple statistic that one year ago exchange-traded funds held $118-billion in assets and today those same gold ETFs hold $215-billion. That represents a lot of new gold owners buying at a time of record-high prices. Now, just for grins, I offer up a couple of paragraphs from an Invest-Notes blog post on August 4, 2014, discussing some thoughts around asset allocation. This was prior to Zweig’s disparaging comments on gold as an investment:

Perhaps the easiest way to demonstrate this concept is gold.

You can just buy physical gold as bars, coins, or jewelry. You can buy stock in companies that mine gold, like Newmont (NEM) or companies that sell gold, like Tiffany’s (TIF). You can buy futures contracts and gamble on the direction of gold prices without ever taking ownership of anything physical. And, of course, there are mutual funds and exchange-traded funds – some own real gold, others just paper proxies and still others holding both.

However, when gold finds itself out of favor, all of these “diversified” assets will decline in value. In the last ten years, the price of an ounce of gold has been as low as $400 and as high as $1850. Gold has lost nearly a third of its value in the last 18-months. TIF was clearly an outlier in the list above, yet it has seen its share prices move between $19 and $100 over the same time.”

(A quick update; last ten-year pricing for an ounce of gold $1000 to $1,900. For TIF the stock price has been $38 to $138.)

Gold is simply a diversifier that can easily fit into most portfolios in a number of different forms but should be kept to a single-digit percentage of your overall holdings. Personally, I’ve got a couple of dozen gold coins purchased over the last twenty years, and there’s usually a junior gold mining stock somewhere in my equity portfolio. In fact, gold coins like the $20 Saint Gaudens are gorgeous as a physical object and could be classified as either a commodity or an artwork – depending on how specific you get with your asset allocation preferences. More important is knowing that successful portfolios tend to be built over time and rarely by making big additions (or sudden reductions) based on the latest shout-out from the crowd.

Finally, for your consideration, in Investnotes #5 from November 13, 2007:

One of the most successful family dynasty’s of all time, the Rothschild’s, have followed a very simple formula for diversification that has proven robust for over 400 years. There is a benefit to working with this model, even if just as a mental exercise, because it allows for considering the bigger picture. It is too easy to look at a stock portfolio or collection of rental houses while overlooking the many other things of value that are owned, or that can help create a truly diversified collection of assets.

  1. One-third in cash; this includes equities, bonds, mutual funds, foreign currencies, certificates of deposit, and pretty much everything else represented by paper.

  2. One-third in real estate; this includes a primary residence(s), vacation home(s), income-producing property, and raw land.

  3. One-third in art and antiquities; this includes not just paintings and Greek pottery, but jewelry (think gold, precious gems, wedding rings, and wristwatches), furniture, fine china and flatware, and pretty much any object that has a market value.”

 

Useful Links:

Gold - On Prognostication - Invest-Notes.com copyGold - Historical Prices of Gold by the Ounce copy

 

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Jazz

Chick’s Tunes

Corea-Chick-IMG_4716

|Chick Corea was on my turntable decades before I knew who he was. Albums like The Leprechaun and Romantic Warrior have been staples of my jazz soundtrack since critical listening became a treasured habit.|

A keyboard player who worked with all the greats and pretty much played it all, Corea has spent the last couple of years revisiting bands and compositions from across a full career. This article is far from comprehensive, limiting discussion of his vast output and talking about only a handful of his music. Having seen Corea play live in numerous settings, most of the albums reviewed here have been savored both at home and in concert.

Kicking off his career in the early 1960’s Corea played across jazz genres; Latin, straight ahead, west coast. His debut album as a leader was released in 1968 (actually recorded in 1966). At the same time, he began recording and then touring with Miles Davis until 1972. A couple of free-jazz albums followed as Corea simultaneously began recording duets with vibraphonist Gary Burton and started the ensemble Return to Forever. By the time The Leprechaun was released in 1976 Corea already had a full catalog of albums both as leader and sideman.

Okay, during his early years as a leader I didn’t catch any concerts. In fact, much of this music from the 1970s still doesn’t do much for me. But The Leprechaun did, and it is only recently that I began to appreciate why. In the liner notes Corea says making this recording was, “…a way of working that was unusual for me at that time.” It is more than just a tuba and cello mixed with Moog synthesizers that shine on this jazz album. It is a surprisingly coherent blend of the many influences Corea had been exposed to over the first decade of his career.

Another release from 1976 was Romantic Warrior by his band Return to Forever. Granted, I didn’t see Return to Forever live until just a few years ago at the Portland Jazz Festival. But the original band – Corea, Al DiMeolaStanley Clarke, and Lenny White – played the entire album and it sounded wonderful. Yet Romantic Warrior is distinct from The Leprechaun and the follow-on albums for Polydor that have been described as “belonging together.” In contrast, albums by Return to Forever, both preceding and following Romantic Warrior do not form a cohesive sound.

Herein lies the magic of Corea’s oeuvre; much like Miles Davis, Corea is a musical chameleon whose compositions cannot be constrained by traditional labels. His art needs different forms of expression, a variety of musicians, and distinct themes. Whether derived from the formal, lowkey sound of Crystal Silence duets with Burton, the bombastic recasting of books by L. Ron Hubbard, or the classical jazz sound on Like Minds with an all-star cast of jazz giants, Corea is a consummate tour guide of very different musical landscapes.

I have seen Corea and Burton perform live on two occasions. Corea on the piano (mallets bouncing off metal wire) and Gary Burton on the vibraphone (mallets bouncing off metal plates) with this instrumentation creating a sound unlike any other. Crystal Silence (1973), Duet (1979) and Native Sense (1997) are all thoughtful albums. Crystal Silence is a special favorite, with its cerebral, lyrical music. Like Minds from 1998 is another remarkable recording with Pat Metheny, Dave Holland and Roy Haynes joining Burton and Corea, and features original compositions by both. Here we have more strings – guitar and bass – with one of the hardest working men in jazz keeping the beat. To my ear, this album is neither traditional nor contemporary, but simply timeless. A must-listen for any fan of any of the band members.

The Ultimate Adventure from 2007 is a very good album, but it was the live performance that caught me by surprise and upped my appreciation. The flamenco dancing was a particularly entertaining segment of a show filled with visual surprises. Jazz shows as a theatrical enterprise are not something I’ve much encountered (Jason Moran’s tribute to Fats Waller being another outstanding example). Along similar lines, and my preference of the two albums, To The Stars featuring Corea’s Elektric Band, is also based on an L. Ron Hubbard book. As Corea has reportedly said, Hubbard was a very good science fiction writer, and these albums do a great job of describing the narratives musically. Both remind me of The Leprechaun, a sound of summation after much experimentation.

The latest addition to my collection is Chinese Butterfly, a double album from Chick Corea & Steve Gadd in 2018. Gadd has recorded with Corea for decades and appears on a couple of the albums listed above. One of the best journeyman drummers, and a true jazz gadfly who can play smooth, straight ahead, Avantgarde and all jazz in between, Gadd is joined here with a group that includes guitarist Lionel Loueke, sax man Steve Wilson and even former Earth, Wind & Fire vocalist Phillip Bailey. Hopefully, there’s still time to catch this one live. A playful album full of surprises, Corea is still the chameleon 50-years after his first recording as a leader.

Finally, check out the DVD Miles Electric; a different kind of blue. Released in 2004 it features the live performance of Miles Davis and band at the Isle of Wright Festival from 1970 in front of an audience estimated at 600,000 people. While Corea is featured playing electric keyboards during the performance, more interesting is the interview he gave. All surviving band members of the concert performance were asked to talk about their time with Davis while sitting with/at/around their respective instruments.

In the early 1980’s I was heading to a concert and spotted Chick Corea crossing Broadway, also on his way to the venue where he would shortly be playing. I pointed him out to my friend Paul, who had joined me for the show. Seeing us point in his direction from the opposite side of the street, he raised his eyebrows, then made a break for the theatre entrance. That’s as close as I ever got to being able to tell Corea just how much joy his music has brought me over so many years. No hard feelings, but it would have been nice to tell him personally.


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Art

Bridget Riley

Bridget Riley - Arts-Notes

|“Those who understand art only by what it looks like often do not understand very much at all.” -Sol Lewitt|

In 1965 Bridget Riley made a trip to New York City to participate in a show titled, “The Responsive Eye.” Her black and white works were already well known with one having been purchased by a dressmaker who just happened to be on the board of the Museum of Modern Art. He used the painting as the basis for a dress design, other designers quickly followed and suddenly Riley’s work was not only on dresses but lampshades and sofas. She was equally surprised and appalled by this use of her work – and received absolutely no compensation. Returning to her home in England, Riley assumed it would be decades before she would be taken seriously again. Fortunately for us, she was wrong.

Riley was asked about the earliest paintings, “Were you an angry young woman?” She responded, “I don’t think it was so much that.”

Today these early works – mostly synthetic emulsion on board then soon after simply oil on canvas – are too quickly labeled as Op Art. But Riley’s intention has never been about visual tricks to entertain spectators. In fact, Riley has described her early work this way, “I think they were beautifully aggressive.” When one of the grand old men of art criticism, E. H. Gombrich, inquired about her use of ‘the pure physics of the behavior of light’ Riley simply replied, “I haven’t studied the pure physics of the behavior of light.” The paintings are primarily intended to stimulate the brain, not the optical nerves. Her work is instead grounded in the long history of painting. In Riley’s intelligent conversations concerning artists, she has studied and admired we hear the importance of Titian, Poussin, Delacroix, Seurat, and Mondrian, among others. Her observations are quite sophisticated, “Titian takes two blues and an off-white from the colors in the sky – the farthest distance – and moves them down into the foreground as a skirt, a cloak, and a dress.

“… color is wholly relative. Every hue throughout your work is altered by every touch you add in other places…” John Ruskin

Riley also discusses her progression as an artist by reflecting on the decision to move from black-and-white, to gray and then on to the color paintings for which she is now best known. She mentions the shift from black-and-white to gray was far more challenging than that when moving to color. Interestingly, many of the color paintings retain visual forms similar to some of those early black-and-white works. Despite the similarity in design, the color works have a startlingly different impact on this viewer. A trip to Egypt inspired both paintings and prints where the organization of colored stripes would influence later colorwork. Like her observation of how Titian uses colors to create “air” and cohesion in his works, Riley is very thoughtful in how she uses color in hers. Whether simple vertical stripes or wavy horizontal lines, these compare favorably to the later works featuring a mash-up of curves fragmented and interlaced diagonally.

Bridget Riley - Arts-Notes.com - Work Transition

“If you think of a square, or a circle or triangle, no matter what size it may be, you know exactly what form you can expect to see. But if you say red, yellow or blue you do not know at all what shade of colour you will be looking at.” Bridget Riley

The relationship between music and painting is another interesting topic Riley discusses. She said the impact of Stravinski’s lectures from 1939 that she read in book form became a sort of ‘bible’ to her (her word, her quote marks). Kandinsky also played in this space, but on a more esoteric level, “…we see the color green in the Key of D, only less dogmatically”. Again, for Riley color is more than something to stimulate the visual cortex. Like music, color can create feelings and emotions that are physical. Classical music, like classic paintings, can be studied across a spectrum of ideas and concepts.

“To treat them as historical documents or evidence of past concepts is wrong – they are particular solutions to continuing artistic problems…” Bridget Riley

bridget-riley-dialogues-on-artA recent review in the Wall Street Journal (1-7-2020) was effusive in praise for an impressive Riley retrospective at London’s Hayward Gallery at the end of 2019. Yet, there remains a tendency to emphasize the visual over the cerebral. Over the top comments in the review included: “walking into a snail shell and discovering a turbulent seascape”; “the furious waves of Cataract 3” and; “the furious Indian reds” (are we allowed to use the word furious twice in one review?). It was a stunning show, but more because of the ideas and art history her paintings embrace, not just the optical effects. Today Bridget Riley is still making artwork that is more cerebral than visual, more lyrical than literal.

A series of interviews originally recorded in 1992 and reprinted in 1995 have been collected in an excellent new book, Bridget Riley Dialogues on Art, 2019. Most of the quotes here – hers and others – came from that book.

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Investment

Don’t Forget to Breathe

Investment-Strategy-Abstract 2

|A real investment strategy is not a document or a forecast, but a viewpoint about how to respond to the forces at work around us.|

I am often admonished by my boxing trainer to breathe. Trying to control my footwork and find a proper response to an attack and put my punches in a logical sequence my brain can over-load and I forget to breathe. Time to back-up, clear the mind, regain focus and…breathe. While it is always a challenge to manage our investment portfolios, exceptional times add even more pressure, often leading to poor decision making. Or, just as often and just as bad, a refusal to make any decision. As the old saying goes, “Many a false step was made by standing still.”

So, we’re going to look at some ways to look at our portfolios and do some strategizing (which sounds a lot cooler than ‘financial planning’). Dislocations like the ones we’ve been experiencing during the pandemic suggest previous assumptions may no longer make sense, or even be viable. Time to review our financial performance measurements, think about our biases, make sure our plans (dreams) remain clearly in focus and…breathe.

Investment-Strategy-Winston-Churchill

Step one is to have an investment strategy.

A real investment strategy is not a document or a forecast, but a viewpoint about how to respond to the forces at work around us. A financial strategy simply answers the question, “What does my desired future look like?” What do you want? What do you want to achieve, do or have? And don’t make small plans or aim for easy goals – these do not have the power to push us to achieve the greatness we are capable of.

Next, think operationally.

What needs to be done to achieve success? What allows us to determine if the things we are doing supports our investment strategy, moving us closer to our goals? For any goal related activity, assign a probability of its value, and be honest about it. One way to think about tasks that don’t offer an obvious outcome is to admit, “I am not sure, this is why I am not sure, and this is roughly how unsure I am.” If you can’t convince yourself, or put the odds of success above 80%, then move on to the next idea.

Investment-Strategy-Erica-Jong

Organization.

How are you going to operate? How are you going to execute the tasks required to reach your financial goals? Bank (cash and certificates of deposit), brokerage (equities, fixed income, and debt instruments), realtor and/or property manager (real estate), or safe deposit box (gold and jewelry)? Do you want a support team, an investment advisor or are you a lone wolf? Regardless of your choice, there will be a cost involved, just accept that and move on. Remember, the biggest expense will likely be the mistakes you make, including not taking advice from people you are paid for guidance. While most of these types of decisions will only need to be made once, or twice, they can have a big impact on how hard it is to achieve your goals – if at all.

investment-strategy-John-Le-Carre

Finally, what are you going to do to limit your downside losses?

Every truly successful investor in the public eye will admit to worrying more about losses than profits. Making a profit on an investment is a possibility, but not certain, and is unlikely to be the result of anything you can influence. The risk of losing money on an investment is a reality and will happen, often because of something you do (or don’t do). If you are risk-averse and find yourself making quick decisions based on emotion or fear, how you answer the questions in the previous paragraph is critical. Investing in stocks and bonds is not a requirement for long term financial success. Saving is far important than investing and most financial problems are caused by debt.

 

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Jazz

Chick’s Tunes

Corea-Chick-IMG_4716

|Chick Corea was on my turntable decades before I knew who he was. Albums like The Leprechaun and Romantic Warrior have been staples of my jazz soundtrack since critical listening became a treasured habit.|

A keyboard player who worked with all the greats and pretty much played it all, Corea has spent the last couple of years revisiting bands and compositions from across a full career. This article is far from comprehensive, limiting discussion of his vast output and talking about only a handful of his music. Having seen Corea play live in numerous settings, most of the albums reviewed here have been savored both at home and in concert.

Kicking off his career in the early 1960’s Corea played across jazz genres; Latin, straight ahead, west coast. His debut album as a leader was released in 1968 (actually recorded in 1966). At the same time, he began recording and then touring with Miles Davis until 1972. A couple of free-jazz albums followed as Corea simultaneously began recording duets with vibraphonist Gary Burton and started the ensemble Return to Forever. By the time The Leprechaun was released in 1976 Corea already had a full catalog of albums both as leader and sideman.

Okay, during his early years as a leader I didn’t catch any concerts. In fact, much of this music from the 1970s still doesn’t do much for me. But The Leprechaun did, and it is only recently that I began to appreciate why. In the liner notes Corea says making this recording was, “…a way of working that was unusual for me at that time.” It is more than just a tuba and cello mixed with Moog synthesizers that shine on this jazz album. It is a surprisingly coherent blend of the many influences Corea had been exposed to over the first decade of his career.

Another release from 1976 was Romantic Warrior by his band Return to Forever. Granted, I didn’t see Return to Forever live until just a few years ago at the Portland Jazz Festival. But the original band – Corea, Al DiMeola, Stanley Clarke, and Lenny White – played the entire album and it sounded wonderful. Yet Romantic Warrior is distinct from The Leprechaun and the follow-on albums for Polydor that have been described as “belonging together.” In contrast, albums by Return to Forever, both preceding and following Romantic Warrior do not form a cohesive sound.

Herein lies the magic of Corea’s oeuvre; much like Miles Davis, Corea is a musical chameleon whose compositions cannot be constrained by traditional labels. His art needs different forms of expression, a variety of musicians, and distinct themes. Whether derived from the formal, lowkey sound of Crystal Silence duets with Burton, the bombastic recasting of books by L. Ron Hubbard, or the classical jazz sound on Like Minds with an all-star cast of jazz giants, Corea is a consummate tour guide of very different musical landscapes.

I have seen Corea and Burton perform live on two occasions. Corea on the piano (mallets bouncing off metal wire) and Gary Burton on the vibraphone (mallets bouncing off metal plates) with this instrumentation creating a sound unlike any other. Crystal Silence (1973), Duet (1979) and Native Sense (1997) are all thoughtful albums. Crystal Silence is a special favorite, with its cerebral, lyrical music. Like Minds from 1998 is another remarkable recording with Pat Metheny, Dave Holland and Roy Haynes joining Burton and Corea, and features original compositions by both. Here we have more strings – guitar and bass – with one of the hardest working men in jazz keeping the beat. To my ear, this album is neither traditional nor contemporary, but simply timeless. A must-listen for any fan of any of the band members.

The Ultimate Adventure from 2007 is a very good album, but it was the live performance that caught me by surprise and upped my appreciation. The flamenco dancing was a particularly entertaining segment of a show filled with visual surprises. Jazz shows as a theatrical enterprise are not something I’ve much encountered (Jason Moran’s tribute to Fats Waller being another outstanding example). Along similar lines, and my preference of the two albums, To The Stars featuring Corea’s Elektric Band, is also based on an L. Ron Hubbard book. As Corea has reportedly said, Hubbard was a very good science fiction writer, and these albums do a great job of describing the narratives musically. Both remind me of The Leprechaun, a sound of summation after much experimentation.

The latest addition to my collection is Chinese Butterfly, a double album from Chick Corea & Steve Gadd in 2018. Gadd has recorded with Corea for decades and appears on a couple of the albums listed above. One of the best journeyman drummers, and a true jazz gadfly who can play smooth, straight ahead, Avantgarde and all jazz in between, Gadd is joined here with a group that includes guitarist Lionel Loueke, sax man Steve Wilson and even former Earth, Wind & Fire vocalist Phillip Bailey. Hopefully, there’s still time to catch this one live. A playful album full of surprises, Corea is still the chameleon 50-years after his first recording as a leader.

Finally, check out the DVD Miles Electric; a different kind of blue. Released in 2004 it features the live performance of Miles Davis and band at the Isle of Wright Festival from 1970 in front of an audience estimated at 600,000 people. While Corea is featured playing electric keyboards during the performance, more interesting is the interview he gave. All surviving band members of the concert performance were asked to talk about their time with Davis while sitting with/at/around their respective instruments.

In the early 1980’s I was heading to a concert and spotted Chick Corea crossing Broadway, also on his way to the venue where he would shortly be playing. I pointed him out to my friend Paul, who had joined me for the show. Seeing us point in his direction from the opposite side of the street, he raised his eyebrows, then made a break for the theatre entrance. That’s as close as I ever got to being able to tell Corea just how much joy his music has brought me over so many years. No hard feelings, but it would have been nice to tell him personally.


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Jazz

The Classical Roots of New Jazz

|The last couple of years has witnessed some very good music standing on the corner of Jazz and Classical.|

When the riot broke out on May 28, 1913, during the first public performance of Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in Paris, it’s hard to believe the spirit of the new jazz music in America wasn’t standing backstage in the shadows. Charlie Parker was a big fan of Stravinsky and his Rites, and it just might be that Salt Peanuts found inspiration in its vicinity. The dissonance we associate with seismic shifts in the landscape of 20th-century music can be clearly heard in compositions and performances of both men. Yet as we have discussed here on several occasions, the intersection of jazz and classical music has found fertile ground even among more straight-ahead jazz players.

“We cannot observe the creative phenomenon independently of the form in which it is made manifest.” Stravinsky

The last couple of years has witnessed some very good music standing on the corner of Jazz and Classical. What might be most interesting about the albums mentioned below is that each includes a current mainstay from the straight-ahead jazz scene. More so than other jazz/classical works discussed here at Jazz-Notes, the classical influences of this younger generation are clearly heard in these songs. This can be partially explained by their having been trained as classical musicians before embracing jazz.

Let’s start with the well-known string quartet Brooklyn Rider and their collaboration with tenor great Joshua Redman (one our favorites here at Jazz-Notes). The album Sun on Sand was released in 2019 and is singularly successful in blending genres. First, the Riders can hold their own whether acting as a rhythm section or “solo” voice. Second, Redman also moves smoothly through both roles, as comfortable behind the band as fronting it. Finally, all tunes are original compositions of Patrick Zimmerli who is well regarded in both classical and jazz circles.

 

The opening number, “Flash”, does not immediately play to either side of the jazz/classical divide. Likewise, the slightly tremulous “Starbursts and Haloes” manages the same feat of being neither fish nor fowl. But the album’s closer, “Between Dog and Wolf: Reprise”, might just be the closest we’ll ever come to hearing echoes of what that collaboration between Stravinsky and Parker could have been.

The latest release by pianist and composer Victor Gould, “When Thoughts Become Things, also includes a string quartet, as well as trumpeter Jeremy Pelt (whose powerful 2019 release, The Artist, pays tribute to sculptor Auguste Rodin). The title cut that opens the album sways back and forth between strings and piano, without staking a claim to preference. Likewise, the piano solo-track, “Brand New” finds Gould in a contemplative mood that carries through in his piano/trumpet duet with Pelt on the classic jazz number, “Polkadots and Moonbeams”. This is a thoughtful and contemplative sounding collection.

 

Finally, Meg Okura’s 2018 release, Ima Ima, featuring the Pan Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble may offer the most curious blend of jazz and classical sensibilities. With help from another Jazz-Notes favorite, trumpet player Tom Harrell (whose 2015 release, First Impressions, includes compositions by Debussy and Ravel) Okura creates a wide-ranging sonic spectrum full of interesting sounds. In fact, the musical flourishes that appear around the edges of the music create atmospheres as varied as theatrical soundtracks, angelic choirs, classical chamber music, and straight-ahead jazz – and all this just in the song “A Summer in Jerusalem.” Even after repeated listens it feels like I hear something new every time Okura’s music plays.

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Investment

It’s A Fool’s Errand

Markets-Black-Swan-Reference

|During the last financial crisis, a manager at UBS commented that every investor should have a “SWAN” account—for “sleep well at night.”|

_______________________________________________

It’s a fool’s errand to try and explain daily gyrations in equity markets. The ride since the S&P 500 hit an all-time high just a few weeks ago has been dramatic, and any further declines should surprise no one.

“How many things were articles of faith to us yesterday, which are fables to us today?”  Montaigne

Moving past more jawboning about the totally unprecedented shutdown of economic activity, the way forward is far from clear. The U.S. economy has been put into a forced coma in an effort to prevent further deterioration (which is not to make light of the terrible physical and emotional toll we see growing around us every day – it is simply a fact that I discuss investments here, not medicine – this analogy notwithstanding). It’s not certain that the government will be reviving its patient anytime soon. And it is possible that the restart will take far longer to achieve than we can imagine.

_______________________________________________

I suppose we could be generous and suggest that the government has thrown a financial bone (a few trillion dollars) to small businesses and their now unemployed minions. And despite some seeming confusion, it looks like the banks and really big businesses stand to make out pretty good too, again. Yet by implying (promises don’t exist in the House, Senate or Oval Office) that the Fed “will do whatever it takes” for the next couple of months we are being warned the worst may yet be to come. 

So how do we save and invest now? Wall Street-ers will tell you that this, too, shall pass. Probably, maybe, or maybe not. Better to wait until the fog clears, or start buying equities now because the first bounce off of the bottom is where most of the gains will come as markets recover? Personally, I’m making assumptions that have led me to use this last updraft to sell some ETFs and build cash for when the time comes to get serious about buying again. I’ll be on the sidelines for a while yet.

“Don’t trust a brilliant idea unless it survives the hangover.” Jimmy Breslin

Two examples are shared here:

First, my enthusiasm for emerging markets has completely evaporated.

Considering the impact of COVID-19 on the United States and our uneven responses, the idea that countries like India (three times the size of the U.S. population with a fraction of the medical infrastructure) will not see economic chaos is unthinkable. The Pacific Rim (and even Russia) haven’t begun to be hurt like the U.S. but almost certainly will. My bet is that supply chains get shorter as the world acts more local than global. After a couple of decades, I’m finally eliminating this asset class from my portfolios. When the time is right, the proceeds will be reinvested into non-U.S. blue-chip companies.

Second, publicly-traded REITs and real estate tied to equity markets will likely struggle mightily over the medium term.

Known for their great yields and high payouts (in the case of Real Estate Investment Trusts, required by law to distribute the majority of earnings to shareholders) it will be tough to pay dividends when companies and people don’t have to pay rent. How many restaurants, nail and hair salons or tattoo parlors will still be needing retail space six months from now? And what are the long-term ramifications of businesses learning that much of what needs to happen to ensure happy customers does not have to happen in centralized locations? Physical real estate makes up the largest part of my investable assets (all of which I’ll note are debt-free) so it no longer makes sense to have real estate exposure through equity markets. These funds will be reinvested in my S&P 500 ETF.

_______________________________________________

Yet the most important takeaway might just be that cash is still king and liquidity matters more than ever. The focus today isn’t about making money, but preserving it. You don’t want to be forced into making decisions about your equity investments because one or another financial obligations have come due.

During the last financial crisis, a manager at UBS commented that every investor should have a “SWAN” account—for “sleep well at night.” Agreed.

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Jazz

Abdullah Ibrahim

Abdullah Ibrahim

|Duke Ellington Presents from 1963 introduces the world to Abdullah Ibrahim, then living in Switzerland. Nelson Mandela invites the prodigal son back to South Africa in 1990. Subsequently, Ibrahim performs at Mandela’s inauguration in 1994. Since then he has continued to find his own way toward new musical worlds.|

In 2019 Abdullah Ibrahim produced The Balance, his first recording as a leader since 2014.

I found the music to be remarkable. While searching his discography for other albums offering his warm, melodic sound, the discovery that Ibrahim was a bandleader starting in 1963 left me feeling pretty stupid. Perhaps this pianist and composer had not appeared on my jazz radar because of how his music is most often described and labeled.

 

 

Best guess is that previously reading about Abdullah Ibrahim being connected with Don Cherry, Ornette Coleman, and Archie Shepp would imply a free jazz orientation – not a genre I listen to much. Then again, talk of Cape Jazz from South Africa favoring gospel influences was also not so interesting. Ditto for his important works like Mannenberg, being described as a major part of the anti-apartheid sound – if we can assume there really was one sound to describe that heady time in South Africa. Then there are the movie soundtracks. Oh, and born Adolph Johannes Brand in 1936 then going by the name Dollar Brand on his earliest recordings, finally becoming Abdullah Ibrahim in 1968 when he converted to Islam made recognition challenging. Also, as we will reference, he has maintained a lifelong interest in Zen Buddhism even after his conversion to Islam.

His first, eponymous album, The Dollar Brand Trio, was produced by Duke Ellington in 1963.

It is an impressive freshman performance and in hindsight clearly points in the direction Ibrahim has pursued for decades. The real surprise is that through all the so-called Cape jazz-free jazz-protest jazz-soundtrack jazz phases, Abdullah Ibrahim’s sound has been remarkably consistent, and certainly not defined by any of these labels. For a discussion of his music, where I will make my own assertions as to his influences, we’ll focus on two albums: the 2011 release Sotho Blue and Mukashi from 2013.

Abdullah Ibrahim - Sotho BlueSotho Blue is a collection of Ibrahim original compositions that include one song by Bud Powell. We hear the influences of Ellington, Powell, New Orleans, and the West Coast jazz of the 1960s. Sounds of the orient and surprisingly contemporary jazz references speak to an open mind, enjoying without embracing. The saxophone, flute, and trombone trade places as lead vocals to Ibrahim’s piano from song to song taking the music from highs to lows. It can remind us of the emotions engendered when we travel as flaneurs rather than tourists. Yet the album is described as “background music” and for “private rumination and meditation” by a resource I usually respect. Neither of these comments rings even remotely relevant when listening to the album. Again, labels and comparisons can be misleading and even unfair.

1. Calypso Minor 4. Nisa 7. Glass Enclosure
2. Sotho Blue 5. The Mountain 8. Star Dance
3. Abide 6. The Wedding 9. Joan Capetown Flower

Consider this, a hot new trumpeter is on the scene and we ask someone recently having heard the player live what she sounds like. A response of Dizzy Gillespie or Miles Davis provides little insight. Dizzy hard bop or big band? Miles first quintet or electric? Using Dizzy and Salt Peanuts or Miles and Kind of Blue makes it clear what to expect. Free jazz? Have you actually listened to one of his recordings? The piano of Ahmad Jamal? Too cerebral, Abdullah Ibrahim is more playful. The piano of Chick Corea? Too muscular, Ibrahim is more lyrical. The influences of Ellington and Monk are assumed by his own admission. With Ibrahim offering so many references that are, quite frankly, somewhat tangential to the music he plays proves a distraction. Though I can’t offer a good point of reference.  (Note to self; listen before assuming.)

Abdullah Ibrahim MukashiMukashi, named for a Zen master Ibrahim deeply respects, is an album that might be more appropriate for meditation, assuming forceful solos don’t harsh your mellow. This music inspires thought not introspection. The recording doesn’t sound oriental though it includes the sound of traditional Japanese flute playing. Perhaps some bright spots reflect the definitions of World Music, while he also plays at the fringes of traditional American jazz. All the labels, the genres, and definitions blur in Mukashi. The most interesting of the Ibrahim recordings currently on my playlist, it is also the most challenging.

Sotho Blue and the piano solo album from 2008, Senzo (mostly his greatest hits), are getting the most playtime these days. I prefer music without words so that it doesn’t distract me while reading books and magazines. Curiously, I have found myself pausing mid-sentence upon hearing a phrase or block of notes in Ibrahim’s playing. He definitely has something to say and doesn’t need words to express an idea.

For those interested in hearing Abdullah Ibrahim, a good start would be with The Balance. An elegant and confident album, once again featuring compositions by Ibrahim, with one by Monk. Ellington would be a proud and happy mentor hearing Ibrahim at 86 still playing like a seeker of new worlds.

 

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Investment

Think Like a Man of Action, Act Like a Man of Thought.

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As financial markets continue in their highly erratic trajectory, amid Covid-19, they leave opportunity (as well as shock and awe) in their wake. This is a time when it is especially important to avoid emotional reactions and focus on intelligent decision-making. Revisiting some notes made a decade ago during more quiet times – specifically, the sub-prime mortgage crisis – here are five suggestions that might help to both calm nerves and enhance decision-making capabilities.

1. Don’t make more predictions than your data can support.

As Warren Buffett once noted, “You should invest in a business that even a fool can run, because someday a fool will.” Now that a virus has taken over management at so many companies, we’ll have to see which fools have been the wisest in preparing for tough times. What does the company do and how does it make money? Beyond this, short of being a member of the company’s management team, there’s not much else you can know for sure. Restaurants and hotels will likely take longer to return to normal than makers of household products. Dividends and yield will suffer.

2. Focus on the not-too-distant future; near-term forecasts are more certain than 10-year projections.

The future has always been hard to predict and this fact is unlikely to change just because investors wish it would. Assuming China doesn’t see a second wave of infections (an “if” worth watching for) it appears the worst is now in their rearview. After a few months, life begins to look familiar in Chinese cities. Let’s hope it stays that way and we follow a similar path, needing 24-weeks instead of 24-months to begin our recovery. But there seems little sense to talk about what the economy might look like at this time next year, or even year-end. Always be suspicious of undue emphasis on the long-term, especially when the short-term isn’t looking so good.

3. Be wary of precision; it is better to be vaguely right than precisely wrong.

Too much detail gives a false sense of security. It’s just human nature to think someone predicting that earnings for the S&P in 2020 will be $174.44 must know more than someone who simply suggests that earnings will be more than the estimated $163 achieved in 2019. Yet all we can really expect now is that the S&P will struggle and is unlikely to achieve any growing earnings growth over 2019. Don’t trust anyone making an earnings prediction for 2020 or 2021. The financial markets will likely do worse than what we enjoyed in 2019 and you should plan accordingly.

4. Income isn’t always income.

A stock or stock fund paying a big dividend is not a safe place to hunker down. Even a 6% dividend doesn’t mean much if the value of the underlying asset has dropped over 25% since January (the average for stocks in the S&P 500, so far). Four years of dividends have evaporated and many high yield investments will be forced to cut their payouts, possibly even before the virus fades, adding even further downward pressure to already stressed investments. The current yield of the S&P 500 is now over 4% – which won’t mean much if we’re only halfway to the bottom for equity prices.

5. Avoid greed.

I fully believe that our country will get through this – just as we do with hurricanes and financial shenanigans. But there is currently no end in view to the Covid-19 crisis and bottom-feeding at this point is more likely to make you poorer, not richer. Frankly, if you depend on your savings to live on, consider some selective cash-raising opportunities. Sub-prime saw a 50% decline from top to bottom – we’ve only seen half that amount, so far. At this point panic is bad, but being a Pollyanna might be worse. Make sure your umbrella is big enough to keep you dry until the storm passes.

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Investment

On Prognostication

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|We tend to brag about our most recent brilliant investment while conveniently forgetting our more frequent whiffs.|

Chapter eleven from the first book of essays by Michel de Montaigne serves as a welcome reminder that some truths are beyond debate. A minor noble, occasional public servant and prolific reader Montaigne began writing short works of critical self-reflection around 1570. He referred to these works as essays and, effectively, created a novel genre. (As a side note, 400 years later the Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges would, effectively, perfect the essay.) 

The title of chapter eleven is deceptively perfect as it relates to our theme herein, investing. This brief essay covers two important topics often overlooked by individual investors; survivorship bias and forecasting. As to the first, we’ll quote Montaigne, “Besides, no one keeps a record of their mistakes, inasmuch as these are ordinary and numberless; and their correct divinations are made much of as they are rare, incredible and prodigious.” As has been often reflected upon here at Invest-Notes, when reviewing every stock transition I’ve made over a 12-month period, the many bad trades are inevitably left in the dark, overshadowed by the occasional big winner. We tend to brag about our most recent brilliant investment while conveniently forgetting our more frequent whiffs.

Millionaire-Next-DoorThe glaring error in an otherwise interesting book on the wealthy, The Millionaire Next Door, is this failure to acknowledge the losers. We meet a few very successful businessmen, owners of dry cleaners, who have quietly amassed meaningful fortunes. But no mention is made of the thousands of dry cleaners who not only didn’t make a million dollars but went broke trying. Montaigne tells the story of a skeptic in ancient Greece shown a chapel filled with votive offerings from sailors who survived shipwrecks to prove the beneficence of the gods. The skeptic observes, “Those who were drowned, in much greater numbers, are not portrayed here.”

More importantly, we talk about the records of Warren Buffett and Peter Lynch though never discuss the vast majority of professional investors who went broke or settled into quiet mediocrity. There is a reason books that discuss the “habits of super successful investors” all seem to talk about the same people. Not that many people are successful over a meaningful period of time. Of course, there are big winners, but always remember that the losers are “numberless.” Only with hindsight do we know who survived. This applies equally to individual stocks and hedge funds – no one talks about the ones who didn’t make it.

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“…there is no use in knowing what is to be, for it is wretched to be tormented to no purpose.” -Cicero

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PrognosticationAs to forecasting, we should all know better. The idea that we can tell what is going to happen to the price of any individual stock over a period of a few months is self-deceptive. An analysis showing where a stock price will be 5-years from now is a lie. It has been demonstrated that over meaningful lengths of time the equity markets go up more often than they go down, so while dips can be ferocious, recovery has proven a relatively safe expectation. But this is based on the movement of a cohort of equities, not an individual stock.

As Nassim Taleb has said repeatedly, if the author of that glowing 5-year analysis doesn’t have at least half his net worth invested in the stock under discussion don’t believe anything being said.

The follow-on is our tendency to look at how much we can make instead of how much we can lose. Yes, there is money to be made if an investment increases in value. But when a company you invest in goes bankrupt (as recently happened to me with a private equity deal) being able to write-off the loss is small consolation. At the time I did the deal it never occurred to me that a total loss of invested capital was a possibility. But the lesson learned was a confirmation of one of the most important rules when investing; never make a bet so big that a loss can leave you with a permanent impairment of capital. While painful, and embarrassing, financially there is no change to my lifestyle or future prospects.

So, since we can never know the future we must avoid prognostication. Because when our bets on future outcomes start going off track, or derail completely, the best we can do is reflect wistfully on what might have been. This, in turn, can lead us to fear the future. What if we are wrong again? Opportunity becomes something to be feared, best to avoid. Instead, focus on the here-and-now, what we know and not what might be. I’ll be doing more private equity deals but now with a focus on risks, not just rewards.

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