Investment

The Investor’s Edge

|Let’s take a more nuanced view and talk about individual stocks and not the markets since the word “average” doesn’t seem to apply right now.|

Not much new here. Markets are more manic than normal, though these are hardly normal times. Investor sentiment by most measures remains skeptical and cautious. And yet day trading is back. Almost 25% of the S&P 500 market capitalization now consists of just a handful of technology stocks heading skyward like rockets while most equities are down or flat for the year. From the lowest unemployment rates on record to some of the highest in a century in a matter of weeks. All this notwithstanding,  talk of “bubbles” is getting louder. So let’s take a more nuanced view and talk about individual stocks and not the markets since the word “average” doesn’t really seem to apply right now.

Today’s thought starter, “Should you buy a stock whose price is at a 52-week or all-time high?” And does this really matter to someone looking to invest for the long term? Some very smart investors take opposite sides of this debate.

It has been argued that the overall trend of the market is the key driver of short-term gains or losses.

When the market is moving up, even mediocre stocks can enjoy an uptick in stock price (“the trend is our friend”). Conversely, when the market is moving forcefully down, even good investments can take a hit (“what the hell happened in April?”).  This also means that outside forces can make a questionable investment look better than it is, and still leave good investments available at favorable prices.

Somewhat connected to this line of thought is that over longer periods of time, “reversion to the mean” should be expected. Maybe not. Put another way, stocks that go up too fast should tend to come back down, while stocks that drop precipitously usually bounce back. All of this is, of course, based on the premise that a pop or drop in an equity is not caused by an outlier event like accounting fraud or sudden product failure. But today we’re seeing record numbers of business that won’t ever revert to anything because they are gone. Thousands of companies are reinventing themselves, their operations, and business. New will not look like old.

The conundrums are bountiful here and often contradictory.

It might make sense to purchase stocks at high watermarks when the market is moving up and avoid trying to catch what may turn out to be a “dead-cat bounce” buying stocks not moving with the upward flow. Or, when the market is trending down it might be best to purchase equities at new highs because that should be a sign of additional strength. Does pride come before a fall in price for stocks too? Avoid purchasing a stock on the rebound when the overall market trend is up because this can hide weaknesses? You could just buy an index, but as the S&P 500 makes strikingly obvious right now, a few big winners can hide a lot of companies struggling mightily.

In the final analysis, the basics remain.

The key is understanding what a company does, how it makes money from that activity, and what does it do with profits. Ditto for EFTs and mutual funds. How do they invest, how (or when) will they make a profit and how do they reinvest (or share the money). I typically follow an ETF or individual stock for several weeks, or even months, before taking a position. This allows for time to learn about the investment, fully understand the underlying strengths and weaknesses while also thinking about what might trigger unit price movements. My preference has typically been to buy on weakness, or adverse news (value investing). But reading some of the thoughtful commentaries that suggest purchasing on strength (momentum), has me reconsidering this traditional viewpoint. The golden mean is sounding good these days, 60% value and 40% momentum. I’ll let you know how that works.

No answers here, just something to think about.

Even when considering stocks for the long haul, it makes sense to acquire a position in an equity investment when the odds favor maximizing the long term returns. But short term we should be mindful that for many of us, a serious impairment of capital may not be something we will have time to recover from. As stock prices move over varying periods of time – some because of macro events (pandemics come to mind), others because of events specific to the stock (Elon Musk, whoa!) – the investor should always be looking for an edge. Especially the edge of a cliff.

 

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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

A Life of Ideas

Sol LeWitt 2

|Lary Bloom isn’t in the art business, he was a friend of LeWitt, and as such this biography is more about the man than his art.|

There were several curious aspects to my purchase of an original pen and ink drawing by Sol LeWitt from his incomplete cube series. A work long coveted, when one came onto the market in the middle of the financial mayhem of late 2008, I set aside caution and bought it. After making a deal with a highly regarded gallery in NYC, I was asked to send a personal check directly to the consignor of the work as no commission was being charged, “The sale is being handled as a favor to a long time and very dear customer.” Included with my check was a personal note of thanks, describing my longstanding admiration for LeWitt and a promise that the drawing had found a home where it would be enjoyed and not be resold.

Before the drawing was delivered, I received a phone call from a person who did not immediately identify themselves, and due to age, was somewhat difficult to understand. During a one-sided conversation, I listened to fascinating stories of the New York art scene during the 1970s. Finally, Mimi Wheeler thanked me for my kind note and said she was glad that someone who could appreciate Sol’s drawing now had it. She apologized for not taking better care of it, “…but you know he just had so many of them.”

“Obviously a drawing of a person is not a real person, but a drawing of a line is a real line.”

Sol LeWitt, Life of Ideas, Lary BloomSo, my surprise was profound while reading in a recent biography of LeWitt, A Life of Ideas, by Lary Bloom from 2019, that Mimi Wheeler (interviewed in the book) was more than a friend of LeWitt, as she had described herself to me. They had an intense romance and having lived with Lewitt from 1969 to 1972, she certainly knew just how many of those drawings he had.

While this may seem a long-winded way of starting a book review, it dovetails nicely with what makes the book so interesting. Bloom isn’t in the art business, he was a friend of LeWitt, and as such this biography is more about the man than his art. As a professional writer as well as a family friend, Bloom is in a unique position to talk about LeWitt, a man who had very little to say about himself publicly. In fact, the artist Lawrence Weiner while emphasizing his respect for LeWitt also makes clear that “…socially, Sol had a lot of warts.” This tension comes through in Bloom’s book where the mixture of praise from those who didn’t know LeWitt well but enjoyed the beneficence of a man who could be amazingly generous contrasts with stories from friends who could find themselves thoroughly frustrated with LeWitt.

Born in 1928, and raised around Hartford, Connecticut, and later attending Syracuse University, LeWitt lived a relatively nomadic life. Joining the army, LeWitt spent time in San Francisco, Japan, and Korea. In 1953 he rented an apartment in New York City to pursue a career as an artist. He later chose to spend many years living in Spoleto, Italy where both his daughters were born. Finally, LeWitt and his family settled in Chester, Connecticut. Overlay a listing of all the exhibitions and shows, and it is striking how much travel LeWitt managed over his lifetime. While he tended to avoid the opening receptions, he enjoyed seeing his work on-site, especially later wall drawings that were mostly executed by others. Artist Jan Dibbets joked that an important lesson he learned from LeWitt was that the gallery or museum should always provide a ticket for the artist to attend the exhibit, “No tickie, no showie.” Just as LeWitt moved from idea to idea, this feels mirrored in his tendency to move from place to place.

Far from a cold, calculating intellectual, as less rigorous writers often describe not just LeWitt but many artists obtusely classified as Minimalist or Conceptual, Bloom shows us that LeWitt was very much human. His was not the life of a rarified Brainiac, but of a man who experienced all of the pain and joy that falls to all of us. In the final analysis, LeWitt simply managed to express our all too human foibles in so many inspiring and beautiful manifestations. That new works have continued to appear since his death in 2007 demonstrates clearly that the ideas can survive beyond life.

After you have read Bloom’s biography, watch Sol LeWitt, a documentary by Chris Teerink from 2012, supposedly the first-ever documentary about his life and work. Here, LeWitt’s artistic output can be placed in a context that follows the narrative of the biography. From drawings to paintings to photographs to sculpture to prints and works built using cement blocks, the breadth of LeWitt’s work is made plain to see. Additionally, the video is filled with scenes from the overwhelming MassMOCA exhibit of LeWitt’s wall drawings located in a three-story building that once housed a textile mill. With 105 of the over 1200 wall drawings LeWitt created on display in North Adams, MA the effect can be dizzying.

 

LeWitt Picture 1As for my drawing, it arrived – ink on vellum and identified as 10/5 in pencil at the bottom left. LeWitt’s signature was also in pencil, on the bottom right and dated 1974. His artist’s book, Incomplete Open Cubes was printed in 1974 and with the aid of a magnifying glass, it is easy to discern that my drawing was not the one used in his artist book featuring the entire series of 122 drawings and photos of the sculptures. The sheet is not quite square, being clearly cut from a larger piece of vellum. The cube is an isometric rendering that almost touches the edges at the top and bottom. It matches both photos of other drawings from the series, as well as printed descriptions in catalogs, almost perfectly. The drawing is in front of me now, hanging above my desk and will likely remain there until…

 

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