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Showing posts from 2007

Presidential race #6 - Pakistan and Iowa

The tragedy in Pakistan seems to have shaken up U.S. politics a bit.

Eager to show their foreign policy chops, several candidates have tripped. Joe Biden- the most knowledgeable of the crowd, doesn't seem to have figured out a way to benefit.

But on the Republican side, both Thompson and McCain appear to have captured a little momentum .

I don't know about you - but I wish the Iowa results were tomorrow- it has gotten tiresome - actually I wish Iowa and New Hampshire were both over - we need to see where some of the larger pop states stand.

Performance-enhancing drugs

The baseball drug scandal has vanished from the news startingly quickly. Lost I guess in football playoffs, college bowl games, Pakistan turmoil and election politics.

My view is a little off-center: let the best drugs win. If somebody wants to juice up - have at it. The way I see it, what better way to determine long-term side effects? If someone uses some steriod or whatever, and is running marathons at 125 years old, well, then we know that is a good one. On the other hand, if they start sprouting some unattractive appendages, no thanks.

Don't give me all of this "integrity of the game" stuff. This is a sport with spit balls, pine tar and signal stealing, and no instant replay. As we all know, they still have to run, hit, pitch and catch. The drugs just help muscle development/recovery - you still have to lift the weights.

If they want to be a test tube, all the best of luck. Just publish the results for the rest of us.

Stradivrarius Cigars

Dave and Suzanne Duncan gave me some Stradivarius cigars for Christmas. (The logo actually has the final "s" backwards, which I probably could do in Blogger, but I don't know how).

I'll admit that I wasn't familiar with the brand. It turns out that it is a very limited edition stick from General Cigar (Cohiba, Macanudo, etc.). Angel Daniel Nunez is the President of General Cigar (now a division of Swedish Match) and periodically stashes some bales of tobacco for extended aging.

Stradivarius has a Connecticut shade wrapper that has aged for a whopping 15 years.

So I'm saving these for an opportunity to smoke them at a leisurely pace - and I'll let you know how they turn out.

Econorama - Sub prime mortgage

I've been playing with the math on sub prime. I can easily come up with $50 billion of total announced write-downs - and I'm sure that I don't have them all. However, I'm skeptical of two things: first, that the losses will really be this big; and second, that the losses are entirely related to mortgages.

If we assume that the typical sub-prime loan is $250,000, then 200,000 homeowners would have to default, pay nothing, and the houses sell for less than the disposal cost - i.e. - so that the bank receives none of its principal back, for the losses to be $5o billion.

I can see more than 200K homeowners defaulting, but it is harder to imagine that they (that is, the lenders) get zero proceeds from foreclosure sales. In researching this, one thing kept coming up - it isn't clear that all the loans that are being reserved are related to mortgages. The terms in the bank and security firm press releases and filings are more than a little murky. So, don't be surprised…

Macanudo Serie R

Here it is a couple of days after Christmas and my humidors are bulging. My staff gave me a box of the new Macanudo Serie R cigars for Christmas. Dwight and I broke them out Christmas night. These are a small ring gauge and about robusto length.

At the foot, it produced a stronger than expected flavor, but then burned quite mild. A nice short smoke. It burned flawlessly: nice long ash and only had to be lit once; a very well made cigar. (In pleasant contrast to some others I've commented on here recently).

While it won't replace the No. 2 in my selection, it is nonetheless a good smoke.

Charlie Wilson's War

Just saw Charlie Wilson's War this pm.

A really good, really informative, really fun movie.

And a little bit of a lesson for those of us who may be personally religious, but think the religion in the campaign may be overdone.....

I could vote for a guy (or a girl) who likes a drink, and a pretty face.

Presidential race continued #5

Wow - things have gotten interesting!

I've been on record that it is Senator Clinton's election to lose - but I'm not so sure.....

One of the more interesting aspects of all of this is that the more experienced candidates - e.g. time in office, military service, etc., have been trailing or not even in the hunt - i.e.: Biden, Dodd, McCain, while inexperienced have lead - i.e. - Obama, Romney.

Now, I like both Obama and Romney - I actually met Mitt when I was CFO of a company owned by Bain Capital - and he is one smart guy. However, in a dangerous world where WWIII may already be underway, I'm not sure those are the right folks.

Curiously enough, it looks like McCain is making a comeback, starting in NH, after being dismissed. The Wall St. Journal mentioned him last week, not complimentary, but not a condemnation after all. So at least one guy who isn't seeing his first rodeo may be in the hunt.

Private Investments in Public Equity

Private Investments in Public Equity, known to underwriters and investors as "PIPE's", have been the ugly stepchild of the capital markets. PIPE's have been generally considered to be last ditch capital raising tools for cash starved companies. Generally, common stock owners reviled PIPEs with their dilution and high coupon. (PIPE's are normally executed with preferred stock. Further, the preferred almost always had a conversion feature).

It is a powerful comment on the state of some financial institutions that they would do PIPE transactions. Oh, they may not call them PIPEs and may even fight that label, but PIPEs they are. Citibank's new capital carries a whopping 11% coupon. And recall that dividends aren't tax deductible, so the after tax cost equals the pretax at 11%. My conclusion would be that they are in far worse shape than believed to accept that deal. UBS is in at a still rich 9%. WAMU - or Washington Mutual, just took a shot of high …

Stock trading update

Tallied up my trading positions tonight.

My Canadian I Shares (EWC) are still long and strong, and I feel great about the position.

Despite all the market turmoil, I'm pleased to say that my Power Shares QQQQ trade is still positive and I'm still holding.

However, my homebuilder trades are still seriously underwater. A couple have come back up throught their 50 day moving average, and the other two look poised to do so, but nevertheless I've got substantial losses in each and every one. I should have averaged down, but by the time I decided to do so, the rally was well underway.

I'll watch a few more days as tomorrow's Fed move gets announced, and then decide if I want some more exposure to this mess.

There is such a thing as being too early....

High Times

Looking through a magazine rack recently - at Barnes and Noble as I recall - but perhaps at an airport - I've been flying a fair amount lately - I saw a "High Times" magazine. I was surprised to learn those folks are still in business. Who advertises in that magazine? I should have looked.

And how could they possibly manage the business? Every pothead I know lost about, oh, say, 85% of their short term recall. They can't tell you the day of the week. How can they manage htting publishing deadlines, sell advertising and manage subscription sales?

Recently in Philadelphia police seized 16 pounds of marijuana so strong it is called AK47 and is known to send users to the ER. Don't let anyone convince you differently - a couple of years on that stuff you won't know your birthday...

Pretty amazing that High Times is still around....

Fox Business News

I'm a long-time CNBC watcher.

Most mornings I watch early, as I do what I call working out. (Hey - I'm doing all I can do).

I've surfed to Fox Business News a few times. The first few days were simply terrible. It was basically unwatchable - and I couldn't figure out who they were trying to reach. However, one can't sell Roger Ailes short - it is already better - and their stock scroll at the bottom is a much better feature than CNBC or Bloomberg.

I've noticed that Bloomberg has gotten better - competition is making everyone sharper.

Sears Holdings

On the Fortune magazine website there is a piece on Eddie Lampert and the decline of Sears.

I'm not surprised. The only reason I haven't shorted the stock is that Lampert was too widely popular with his hedge fund friends who were convinced that he would work miracles there. So, too much risk in the short. However, the stock has worked its way down as performance has dwindled.

The question from my viewpoint is simple: why would anyone shop at Sears or Kmart?

The old reasons are gone unless Sears makes a serious effort to regain lost momentum in core categories. Let's examine: Sears used to be powerful in almost every hard goods category, and decent in soft goods. But Best Buy, Lowe's and Home Depot are talking them on in large appliances, and Lowe's and Home Depot have their own lines of high quality tools (e.g. Kobalt) to take on Craftsman tools. Best Buy, Tweeter, Circuit City, Costco and Sam's have to be winning in consumer electronics. Sears does seem t…

Home builder stocks

Well, I'm seriously licking my wounds on my homebuilder stock picks. Only once have I ever averaged down - and just increased my ultimate losses. However, I'm considering it for this group. The prices have continued to drop; adding to the position won't be that expensive....

Daniel T. Carroll

Daniel T. Carroll died last week.

Mr. Carroll was on the board of American Woodmark while I was there (and I believe continued to serve up until he passed away). He had served as the President of Booz Allen Hamilton for a while, and was the consumate director.

In a way he was before his time. He served on a number of boards, and understood - and insisted on - prompt and accurate board reports, straightforward management presentations, and expected management to do its homework. He also expected directors to do theirs, and always studied his materials before any meeting.

He was a tough audit committee director.

RIP Mr. Carroll.

Buying jewelry

We bought some jewelry - and had a big time doing it.

We were in NY and in our hotel (the Essex - see related post) was a tiny jewelry store. There were some simply spectacular pieces for sale and we stepped in, greated by Daniel Safdie. Pam spotted a ring, and I spotted a Girard Perregaux watch.

Then the fun began. It turns out that the art and antique store, also in the hotel and the jewelry store are under common ownership and management. Daniel's brother Ron runs the art store - R. N. Joseph Fine Arts. Daniel coaxed us down the hall to the larger store. It was quickly obvious that Daniel is the straight man, and brother Ron is the entertainment and sales closer.

So we found ourselves joking - and a little negotiating - with two Jewish guys in yarmulkes with country music in the background (a curious coincidence for us Tennesseans).

We bought the watch and ring and Pam picked up a few Jay Strongwater pieces to go along.

I think we got good deals on the jewelry, but we definitely had…

Presidential race continued

Fox Sunday News is doing a good job covering the election cycle with appearances by candidates. Bill Richardson did a decent job today defending his get out of Iraq in one year or less policy - even thought the "surge" seems to be getting some traction.

I thought Fred Thompson last week did a very solid job of taking and defending positions.

While it seems to be done to four - Guiliani and Romney - Clinton and Obama - I'm not so sure yet. Huckeby is winning support, and Edwards may surprise in Iowa....we'll see.

Personally, I still like John Mccain who I think is extremely qualified, and I don't know that it is all bad to have a President with a bit of a temper....but Thompson was impressive on the talk show circuit. He doesn't come across as having a big energy level - but I'm not hiring a fitness instructor.

General Motors $39 Billion Loss

GM reported a stunning $39 billion loss yesterday - which they attributed to SFAS 109 accounting requirements.

I would add FIN 48 to that list of causal reasons.

FIN 48, promulgated by the Mandarins at the FAS and the SEC, requires companies to describe in the footnotes to the financial statements any risky tax deductions they have claimed. In other words, companies are now signaling to the IRS exactly which items they should come audit. So, the intersection of SFAS 109 - which requires tests that future earnings are sufficient to allow deduction of prior year losses - plus FIN 48 - telegraphing risky positions, puts companies, and more particularly their boards of directors, in the position of taking a more conservative tax posture.

The real question is where else this will lead. My supposition is that companies broadly will be reporting higher tax rates - e.g. - lower earnings and earnings per share. I have my doubts that Wall St. financial analysts have adequately reflected highe…

Econorama continued

Fed cut again. Market rallied on the 31st but dived on the first.

I've been reading widespread criticism of Bernanke; general comments are that inflation is growing and the Fed should be holding at a minimum if not actually raising interest rates.

What is missing is any comment on government fiscal policy. Administrations used to draw equal criticism to Fed Governors. Now however, it seems that only the Fed Chairman is in the hot seat, and Presidents, Secretaries of The Treasury, etc. skate.

Perhaps we've abandoned hope that elected folks can exercise any discipline, and concluded that only appointed officials have any possibility of acting in the national interest.....

A chink in the armor?

The Democratic candidates for President are frothing at the opportunity to take a few votes from Hillary....her skillful evasion of a couple of Tim Russert questions has provided an opening to tag her with her husband's famed Slick Willie rep.

Overall, however, I didn't think she hurt her chances, and I think Obama, Edwards, Dodd, Biden et al stand little chance. Indeed, overall I think it is her game to lose...

The Essex Jumeirah

We went to NY for the weekend and stayed in the Essex Hotel - now the Jumeirah Essex. The Essex is a landmark hotel on Central Park South, richer than a couple of its neighbors, but poorer than the St. Regis or Plaza.

I've stayed there many times over the years, from Essex to Essex by Marriott to the Nikko Essex.

Jumeirah is one of the Dubai investment groups. They clearly have invested millions in renovation (I heard $50 million). While the rooms are clearly small by today's standard, they have been totally redone and are quite nice and comfortable, with the requisite large plasma screen in every room.

The lobby has been restored or re-invented and, while small, is elegant.

However, the staff isn't yet up to the task.

Waits to check in were silly. Guests at these rates don't want to be standing in lines. Our rooms weren't ready when we checked in; we went to a leisurely lunch; they promised to call to let us know our rooms were ready; let's just say the phon…

Stock pick

Well, at this point, I would have to say that my homebuilder stock picks are looking extremely premature, or, equally likely, just wrong.

Ouch, I'm down significantly on every buy.

My NASDAQ QQQQ play is still alive and well, although up vs. down volume has been punk lately.

My Canadian IShares pick has done even better.

But I'll admit that I've about offset those gains with homebuilder stock losses - and I wracked those up far faster than I accumulated the gains on the others.

Watch Auction at Christie's

In light of the Wall St. Journal article about watch manufacturers buying their products at auctions, I expected that the Oct 17th NY Christie's watch auction might see some bargains.

I had my eye on a Breguet and a Vacheron & Constantin; both relatively modest compared to many of the other lots. However, between maxing out at work and fighting a full blown fall allergy attack, I didn't get around to placing any bids.

Didn't matter. Both watches, along with many others, went at prices above the range indicated in the catalog. So, my theory on the impact of the disclosure that the collector might be bidding against a deep-pocket manufacturer might dampen the enthusiasm, simply was disproved.

IVR Hell #1: Verizon

I have the Verizon FIOS service.

The complete package of fast Internet, cable television and land line phone service. Overall it has been fine. The installers did a nice job, everything works, and outages have been infrequent.

At the start of the college football season, I called the 888 number on the screen to get the ESPN Gameplan football package which includes eight or so additional college games each weekend. It took about thirty minutes of various IVR menus and holding periods before I reached a human. She promptly asked, and I would add not too courteously, what problem I was having with my phone.

That question was so unanticipated that I actually laughed out loud, before letting her know I wanted to spend money with Verizon.

After some unnecessarily long time gaps, the service was established, and we enjoyed a game that very evening.

However, when the following Saturday rolled around, the Gameplan stations announced that I wasn't a subscriber to those channels. So, back to…

Lee Scott Responds

I posted my letter to Lee Scott of WalMart here a few weeks ago.

To his credit - Mr. Scott responded through a regional VP. That VP called more than once (I was traveling and not too good at returning calls). He apologized about the condition of the store I reported, indicated their commitment to fixing it up and mentioned remodels at some other stores we discussed.

His attitude was certainly appropriate.

As a long time shareholder, I must admit that I was pleased at this response.

This week, The Wall St. Journal ran a lead page one article, basically stating that WalMart, despite being the world's largest retailer, was increasingly irrelevant. I think that may be a bit hasty. I'm certainly still not happy with the stock price, and believe the company is still too concerned with domestic store openings as opposed to capital spending to maintain and improve the base, but I wouldn't right them off just yet. There may still be some folks there with something to prove.

Presidential commentary

Interesting post by James (see below).

I generally agree that we haven't had a solid President since Eisenhower.

Nixon had a rational, thoughtful foreign policy (his China initiatives will be written about for centuries). Give a fair measure of credit to Kissinger. But his economic policies were silly, and he was, well, a crook and a liar.

Clinton had the best economic policies of the last fifty years, largely courtesy of Robert Rubin, but simply no foreign policy whatsoever.

Bush II has recognized what I believe will be a multi-generational battle with radical Islam, but no rational foreign, economic or domestic policy.

No one seems to be able to have a complete set of policies.

James may be right - they just can't build a cabinet of great people. (I must add that Kennedy had a great cabinet - but he was mediocre...).

Columbia University

Columbia University President Lee Hollinger, flush with international publicity for the appearance of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinehjad announced today the Axis of Evil speaker series.

"We had a faculty meeting, and discussed how many opportunities we had lost", said Hollinger "we could have had Hitler in the thirties, and more recently IdiAmin (Dada), Pol Pot, Robert Mugabe, a whole list. So, we are going to move aggressively to schedule as many bloodthirsty dictators, despots and tyrants as we can find."

"In that vein, we are extending an invitation to Kim Jong-Il. He is welcome here at Columbia at any time."

In related developments, the university is also scheduling a rock concert series to match up with the speakers. Signed so far is Megadeath and Anthraxx with rumors of a reunion appearance of Dead Kennedys.

"Most of us here at Columbia don't believe in The Devil" continued Hollinger "but if Satan exists, we want him to know th…

Presidential race continued #5

There have been extraordinary politics this past week.
First, Hillary and Newt on the Sunday news show circuit.
Hillary and Newt made the talk show rounds today. Hillary is cementing her position as front runner - laid out the details of a comprehensive health care coverage. Newt announced during a speech this week that Hillary had over a 90% chance of getting the nomination and an 80% chance of getting elected. Hillary, in an extraordinary streak, appeared on all five major news talk shows.

We could quibble, but I would guess that Newt's math is generally correct.

His motives - maybe a little trickier. He is on record that if his team gets $30 million of pledges, he'll run. And he knows that no one fires up Republicans like Hillary. Newt generates ideas like a forest fire generates sparks. He is bright, experienced and articulate. He is also pudgy and has an ugly divorce in his past. He would fire up the Dems even faster then Hillary fires up the Republicans. I'm wild about…

Business 2.0 RIP

TechCrunch is reporting that Business 2.0 is ceasing publication with the October issue.

Damn I hate that - it was my favorite business magazine. A few years ago I was a Red Herring fan - and it bit the dust as well. Both of them covered the tech space, VC activity, developments in Internet business, as well as some insightful ideas on business opportunities. There was a third related kind of magazine - Industry Standard maybe? I never got into it.

I'm a long time Wired reader as well, and it appears to be doing well - generally a lot of ad pages - but it has become more of a general interest magazine with a technology slant - not a business focused publication.

Not too mention I paid for subscriptions to both. Fortunately for Business 2.0, not too far in advance anyway.

There must be some good editors and writers looking for work so I shouldn't complain about the few dollars I'm out.

Good luck guys.

Federal Reserve Action

The Federal Reserve was in a tight spot.

Congress and the Adminstration have given it absolutely no help with fiscal policy, running up deficits of unimaginable size. In the long run, deficits do matter.

Commercial paper was drying up. Only the best, most credit-worthy borrowers could get loans and mortgages.

So, they voted to cut rates - certainly more steeply than I expected. Oil jumped over $80 per barrel; gold shot through $700 per ounce and kept moving. The dollar fell against everything - settling even against the Canadian dollar! Six years ago - a Canadian dollar bought about 68 U.S. cents - now 100. Given the number of commodities that America now must import - wood pulp, copper, oil just to name a few, this creates inflation. So, the agency responsible for holding inflation in check just shook the genie out of the bottle.

They were in a tight spot.

Stock pick

See the comment below - long time expert James likes Gatehouse Media (GHS). Read his comment.

But James and I both recommend that you do your own due diligence - if homebuilders or GHS don't work out, don't come whining to us that you invested all your retirement nest egg and lost it all and you are having to live on Alpo so you are suing us.

While we are great stockpickers we have - once or twice - I don't exactly remember when - picked a stock that went down when we expected it to go up.....

Osama Redux

So Osama has emerged from some remote cave (or, plausibly, from New York City where he drives a cab) with a new look and new script.

He now has that Just for Men beard thing happening. And, apparently Big Business is responsible for most of the injustice in the world. The Democratic Party should have reined-in Big Business, stopped the war as they were elected to do, and all would be right in the world. Or something along those lines.

Somewhere his history timeline was a little out of whack as to whom was U.S. President at what time, and Don Rumsfeld is kind of a real-life Forrest Gump, in a position of power, manipulating others as a grand puppet master, through the last 50 years or so. My recollection of some of that conflicts with OSL, because I think Rummy ran G. D. Searle and Monsanto for a while....

And his new closing line is to embrace Islam and get a tax cut. I've actually heard worse political promises...

I guess some people will take all that seriously; some will even …

Stock picks

My QQQQ Fibonacci series play which I posted here a few weeks ago, is still live.

With the market rally yesterday, I am in plus territory and still looking for a few hundred points further up on the NAS before closing it.

Additionally today I took opening positions in HOV, CTX, KBH and PHM. There are more homebuilders that are out there, but Bill Miller of Legg Mason Value Trust owns the later three, and that is good enough for me. This is clearly an early play - I don't expect a housing rebound sooner than one year - but the stock price may anticipate the demand. At least that is what I hope....

Alan Greenspan

Alan Greenspan said in his new book what many of us fiscal conservatives have been saying for a long time (and I've posted about many times here), that the Republicans got what they deserved in the last election.

The most disgusting of the performances was the parade of Congressmen and Senators on the conservative talk shows before the election whining about how much worse it could be if the Democrats were in power. Well, maybe so, but we didn't work so hard for so many years to get conservatives elected and a Republican majority in both the Senate and the House, and a Republican President, to see spending soar.

In my vocabulary today, it is no longer spending like a drunk sailor, it is spending like a Congressman.....

10,000 earmarks on the highway bill. Not a single veto.

We traded a Democratic administration with sorry personal discipline but good fiscal discpline, for a Republican administration with excellent personal discipline, but fiscal profligacy.

Mr. Greenspan: you ar…

La Gloria Cubana and Roads End Pinot Noir

Don Mills sent me another batch of cigars from the Germantown TN Tobacco Superstore. So, after a stressed out day last week, I fired up two: an Onyx Madurorobusto followed by a La Gloria Cubana Churchill.

Both lit immediately. The Onyx burned smoothly to a nice long ash and was milder than I expected; a nice smoke. The folks behind La Gloria have been working to improve it, and have succeeded in my view, I found it to be excellent. I don't need a Fuente Opus Opus everyday; my tastes run to a milder smoother cigar. The La Gloria was just that. Smooth easy draw, long perfect ash.

I paired them with a glass of Dave Grooter'soutstanding pinotnoir: Roads End Oregon PinotNoir. It is a limited production wine - I suggest you get your order in for a special treat. It stood up nicely with the cigars. (Frequently cigars just overwhelm wine, hence why they are generally paired with scotch or bourbon).

Econorama continued

I continue to review the mortgage mess with a view of what it might mean to investors. The story gets curiouser and curiouser....we were probably closer to a debt market meltdown than we knew - about three weeks ago $46 billion of short-term paper in Europe need to rollover, and suddenly there were no buyers. On the same day, several billion in the U.S. couldn't find buyers either. Shortly thereafter, Countrywide announced drawing about $11 billion in bank lines because it couldn't sell commercial paper. And, while Countrywide dealt in higher credit risk loans, it also did a large business in strong credit mortgages. So, a key home lender couldn't sell its paper - some, or even most, of which would be very creditworthy.

Here is the part that seems the most curious: wasn't the big problem of S&L's that triggered that series of bankruptcies - and a REAL government bailout (remember Resolution Trust Company?) borrowing short and lending long? Isn't 5, 10…

Zale Corp

Long-time excellent stock picker Jim Garvin noticed this today and passed it along:

Hi Gene, This morning Goldman Sachs highlighted Zale as a "source of opportunity". They recommend that their clients short the stock, and put a target of $18. The reasoning: "...growing macro headwinds, management upheaval, and poor strategic positioning will likely pressure earnings." I've never shorted a stock in my life, but I found this interesting and wanted to pass it on.

I had noticed the downdraft in the stock, but hadn't seen the Goldman analyst report.


I've got a lot to say about this. The Zale board and CEO should have been gone long ago. Apparently they announced that they are looking for a COO. Well, they had an excellent COO - Sue Gove, who knew the business inside and out - and they threw her out about three years ago or so on accounting concerns - which proved to be completely unfounded. As far as I know, they never apologized to Sue after their revi…

Villager Cigars - Part 2

Well, the Villager Cigars came in. The little rascals are smaller than I remember. Paul Kavanagh introduced many of us to them. Paul is a successful entreprenuer, exceptionally well-connected in the Irish political scene, the guy to see for restaurant recommendations in Dublin (and elsewhere), but I remember him for one other thing in addition to cigar recommendations.

He was the first person to say that the Euro was going to happen that I know. His statement was met with widespread skepticism by all our European management - but he stood firm that it was going to happen, that companies needed to prepare, and that it would happen largely on the timeframe that the EU was touting.

He, of course, was right.

Paul, this Villager is for you. (By the way, these little things are stronger than I remember).

Three hundred million dollar lottery

One person won Powerball for $145 mil cash, or $315 annuity. That is a life-changing event.

Ed Rose calls the lottery the tax on the statistically challenged.

Dave Scarangella on the other hand, views it as buying somwhere between 15 minutes and a couple of days of fantasy: reverie about what to buy, where to travel, new houses and telling the boss off....

So, in my case anyway,daydreams over, back to work....

Open Letter to Lee Scott of Wal*Mart

I recently sent this letter to Lee Scott, CEO of Wal-Mart. This is a modification of that letter.

Mr. Scott:
I've been a shareholder of Wal-Mart since the 1980's. For most of that time, it was an excellent investment decision.

However, as the chart below shows, since 2000, holding Wal-Mart has been a bad investment decision

(Click for Chart).

Mr. Scott, I'm tired of the excuses, the whining about our customers being financially debilitated by rising gas prices, aboout our profits being hurt by rising health care costs and the like. Are Target's customers so much more affluent than Wal-Mart's that they shrug off rising gasoline prices and other increasing household expenses and just keep buying? I don't think that is likely. Yet Target's comparable store sales continue to rise, while Wal-Mart struggles to post small positive growth.

The harsh truth is that Wal-Mart has lost its way.

Wal-Mart has issues in fundamental operating standards. There is a Wal-Mart and a T…

Dennis Bereford and FASB

In an event too ironic to describe, apparently Dennis Bereford, long-time chief mandarin of the FASB, but now serving on a couple of audit committees, told a group that some business people described the rules emanating from the FAS as rules that don't make any sense, but if you violate them you go to jail.

The statement is of course correct - but the irony is that the FASBbegan issuing those increasingly recondite rules under his direction. Further, Bereford stridently defended those rules - I particularly remember the protracted battle over the totally goofy rules for accounting for stock options - which essentially all of industry opposed - but not the less eventually enacted as FAS 123R.

Denny - you created Frankenstein - now he is your creature....


I've been a user of LinkedIn for years. And, while I won't call it indispensable, I have found it quite useful.

But in the last two weeks, I've gotten more invitations to join others' LinkedIn networks than I got all of last year.

I believe this means something, but I'm not sure what. Most of the people who have pinged me are employed - so it isn't as simple as a declining economy driving a need to network. Several are European contacts - so perhaps LinkedIn is making more penetration there.

I don't know...

Lotus and IBM

IBM recently announced new releases of Lotus Notes and Domino. A key mystery to me has been why IBM hasn't taken Microsoft on more directly with Lotus products. Perhaps it is just shame from the debacle of their original acquisition of Lotus, and the ass-kicking that they got from MSFT.

Current day users wouldn't know, but not that many years ago Lotus 1 2 3 was the dominant spreadsheet, Harvard Graphics the dominant presentation manager and Word Perfect the leading word processing software.

As soon as the non-competes expired, the Lotus leadership, enriched by IBM, bailed. And the products, other than Lotus Notes, drifted. It would seem to me that it wouldn't be that difficult to update 1 2 3 to be as good or better than Excel, and with Mr. Softie's prices, one would think that their would be plenty of profit to be had and still price below Office.

So, every time I see a big splash announcement from IBM, I think that they've decided to get back in the game. I ch…

Keith Urban Concert Continued

Mr. Urban ws nice enought to pose with the whole gang - Gille, me, Pam, Keith, Ellen, Pat and Dwight.

Could not have been a nicer guy.

Again, if you can catch his concert - do it.

Keith Urban concert

We went last night to the Keith Urban concert.


Gille Mills, Pam's cousin and noted set designer/wardrobe consultant, set us up with tickets and a backstage pass "meet and greet". Gille is working as Mr. Urban's wardrobe consultant during this multicity tour.

Urban is far more rocker than country. He has assembled a band of himself, four guitar players and a drummer. The band and stage is much more of a rock set up than country - and Keith Urban is a very talented guitar player in his own right - so, much more of a five slashing guitar players kind of concert than country. At least three of the four guitarists can sing - and sing well, strong high note range, and some nice harmony parts.

If you have a chance to catch a future date - jump on it, even, or maybe, in particular, if you aren't a country and western purist. His show is a long way from Hank Williams and Porter Wagoner.

Backstage, he could not have been more personable. So, we are doing our part now …

Villager Cigars

I saw in the Thompons catalog that they are now carrying Villager cigars. I had a flashback to meetings in Europe where Paul Kavanagh would bring Villagers in and we would fight over them. (I understand that Paul has now retired to the south of France - but not sure...).

So I ordered a box - Thompsons - you guys are great - but I don't smoke that many - so please just take my order and don't try to sell me fifty other things.....

I'll let you know if they live up to my memory.

Econorama - mortgage crisis

The Wall Street Journal published an article by financial markets sage Henry Kaufman on Wednesday Aug 15, 2007. Kaufman has a hard-earned reputation for understanding money, money supply, credit, etc., on a global scale that few others can claim.

Even though he has been retired from his chief economist position at the old Solomon Brothers for years, he still has a firm grasp on economic data. His view is insightful - that many companies traded confidence in financial strength from holding cash and liquid assets for confidence in access to liquidity of lending markets. And, when a credit crunch occurs, they simply have no access to cash, leading not to a downward spiral, but a kamakazee dive.

It has been widely reported that hedge funds and others have had to sell what they could to raise cash, not what they wanted to sell. And, equally widely reported that the hedgies, mutual funds, quant funds and the like ended up owning too many similar assets, meaning that they were all dumping the…


The market rallied on the cut in the discount rate.

But this morning's business report included the news that First Magnus Financial Corp laid-off 6,000 of their 6,100 employees. First Magnus reportedly originated $30 billion of mortgages in 2006. Now, I don't know anything about them, or their employees. And, perhaps some of their brokers pushed some limits on customer applications - again, I don't know.

Magnus is suspending operations because there are no buyers willing to purchase their bundles of mortgages.

The talking heads on the Saturday morning financial television shows included many moaning that the Fed was bailing out wealthy hedge fund managers and the like with the lowering of the discount rate. Those talking heads are stupid. The Fed is smartly trying to prevent a recession, because if no one can sell their home, that is where we are heading....

Cigars III

Dwight brought over some Cohibas last night. But before dinner, we smoked a couple of Cohiba minatures - I'm not exactly sure what Cohiba calls them, but cigarillo size.

Delicious, burned evenly, lit and drew perfectly.

After dinner, we lit Dwights Churchill size Cohibas. While his was fine and he thoroughly enjoyed it, mine was treated with fire retardent, and absolutely refused to stay lit, burn evenly or even close.

Eventually I gave up.

China trip part 2

One additional point: while riding in the back seat of a car cruising down a highway somewhere in China that could have been a U.S. Interstate, back when they were new and could handle the volume as opposed to the run-down overcrowded mess they've become, two of us were whining because we couldn't get our emails to download..Then, suddenly, voila! Blackberries synced and here are all our messages, loaded from anywhere to anywhere.....anyone who says the more things change the more they stay the same hasn't awoken from the coma yet...


I've been watching economic developments and financial markets for over thirty years now (yikes!) and I'm certain I've never seen anything like the last two weeks.

As I noted before, 2003 and early 2004 were unprecedented investment times. Every asset class went up: gold, silver, oil, farm commodities, residential real estate, commercial real estate, stocks and bonds. Anything one invested in prospered. In the last two weeks, essentially the opposite has occurred - so much for the benefit of a diversified portfolio.

There are a number of root causes of this, but it mostly stems from the grinding deterioration of the U.S. housing market, which put large numbers of various kinds of mortgages upside down. In turn, we've learned that these mortgages were held by a wider range of investors than one would have guessed, and some of those investors had borrowed money to buy the the over leveraged home supported and over leveraged hedge fund.....generally, thi…

elections continued

To be honest, I've now lost count of how many candidates there are. Tommy Thompson is out, Huckabee is up, Fred Thompson is almost in but already fading. (But, the longer he waits, the more residuals he accumulates - and the other members of the cast lose out on equal time rules as innocent bystanders as soon as he announces..).

Dem's seem to be down to two already - Hilary and Obama - but I still think that Al Gore may be running the most brilliant election campaign in history. Appear in award winning movies, write a book, save the world, rescue the party from about the only candidate they could run that the Republicans might actually be able to beat.....I still consider him a serious stealth candidate.

Dems are also beginning to reposition as it appears that the surge may actually be working. Who knows, by election, the party of Henry "Scoop" Jackson, Sam Nunn and John Kennedy may re-emerge....The war has been a mess, Bush/Rumsfeld screwed up, but the military ma…

China visit

I recently returned from Hong Kong and a couple of quick trips into the mainland.

More to report than I've got time to blog. The Chinese and Hong Kong economy are growing and creating wealth in an unprecedented way. Obviously, a billion people moving to a market economy is unprecedented. Given the number of people, the virtually unlimited opportunity to improve the skills and productivity of those people, an expanding pool of capital, and the absence of any effective anti-growth vehicles that hamstring the U.S. economy, I don't know why China can't grow at 10% per year indefinitely.

Key impression still comes from a quick visit to Shantou: simultaneously on the road were: pedestrians, bicycles, scooters, motorcycles, some motorcylesconverted to a kind of small truck-like three wheeled vehicle, trucks, cars, and buses. Lanes were more like general guidelines, and left turns across oncoming traffic were a type of guts poker.

Also from Shantou I noticed a couple of what app…


It isn't exactly clear to me what the Mandarins at the Fed are thinking....if high credit score individuals and families can't get a mortgage it will create a recession, period.
Glen Kaufman

A few years ago I purchased a piece of art by Glen Kaufman, titled Jofukuji Kawara. I had seen it years before at an exhibition and loved it, but couldn't afford it at the time.

This weekend we finally hung it in our new home. We've moved a couple of times since the purchase, and, really never uncrated it until now.

I'm not qualified to describe Mr. Kaufman's work accurately, but I believe it is fairly described as a tapestry. The technical description is a "photo collage, screen printing, and impressed metal leaf on custom-woven silk fabric." Be that as it may, it reminds me of the view of roof tops in Japan from one of the bullet trains, and captures a moment of time.
It has been a cigar smoking few days. My close friend Dwight came by, and we unburdened my humidor of two Padron 1964 Anniversarios.

They remain the best. If you can only buy a few cigars, those, plus the Punch Grand Cru (only the ones with "JG" in the center of the band) plus a Monte Cristo #2 would be the ticket.

Later, he had a Trindad and I had a Carlos Tarano Exodus 1959. Very good.

Blood pressure remaining better....
One can only say that the British were incredibly lucky, and the Middle Eastern doctors incredibly inept at wiring (and chemistry? Didn't they have to pass organic and inorganic chemistry to become doctors?)

While we search elderly women for four ounce shampoo bottles in airport lines, Al Qaeda and fiends have moved on, and now co-opt doctors. It is still unthinkable to me - I guess that is one of many reasons I wouldn't be a good CIA employee candidate - I'm not sufficiently cynical to suspect doctors of blowing up innocent children with boxes of nails and propane tanks.....
Armed Liberal at the Winds of Change ( ) blog wrote an outstanding acceptance speech in the role of the Democratic challenger for President. I completely recommend you read it. Also always worth checking there is the Iraq update page.

I would share most of the thinking. My top three priorities for any incoming admistration:

1. The spreading war against Islamist extremism. ( It is clearly much more that a war against Al Qaeda terrorists).

2. The insolvency of Social Security and the astounding pressure coming on budgets from the aging of America.

3. Making first quality healthcare available to every U.S. citizen without creating some awful, bureacratic, socialist style system.

I can post for hours on any of these - and probably will. If you have thoughts on the priorities, please comment.


I was in the Philadelphia airport on a recent Saturday, and watched passengers go by. I formed a quick, but completely firm, opinion.

Men should never, never, wear flip flops.

Flip flops are for young girls.

What you do in the privacy of your own home is your own business, but do not wear those past your front door. Further, do not wear any sandals that expose your toes. Men's toes are generally ugly and disgusting. If you want to wear some Keen Sandals, which completely cover all of your toes, that is acceptable with shorts. Not with pants.

I've got that off my chest. I feel better.

Cigars II

For some reason my blood pressure was a giant number yesterday - one step below "go to the emergency room" level. I can't explain why.

Anyway, I tried all the medicines and tricks I normally use to control it to no avail.

So, I moved to the patio and fired up a Bolivar. I don't know the exact size - a little longer and snaller than a typical robusto. Anyway, very nice. It finally got difficult to draw (my humidors are overstuffed and the cigars are suffering a little) and I switched to a budget brand Cuban Crafters. Not a bad cigar at all.

Result: blood pressure down 30 points. Probably not the treatment most cardiologists should recommend...but it seems to work for me....

Cold fusion II

One of the best things about being a blogger is the very insightful postings that come along. Jed Rothwell posted a link on developments in and around the science of cold fusion. I've added the link to his site on the side and here . I will absolutely admit to not understanding a lot of it - but it is nonetheless rewarding to see that some scientists continue the effort.

Senator Harry Reid

When Tom Daschle was the minority leader, I really didn't like the guy. I thought he was too tricky and Michaveallian. However, I never doubted that he was smart. I have a real question about just how bright Harry Reid is.

He does seem to be far more predictable, e.g. his pedestrian comments on the Libby commutation. If he were going to issue a press release, he could have at least had some creativity and originality (Durbin's had some fun to it).I doubt that the Democrats did themselves any favors naming him majority leader. There are some far smarter alternatives, such as Chuck Schumer. I'm not a particular Chuck Schumer fan, but I've never questioned his IQ or skills.

Scooter Libby

I must apologize to the Bush administration.

Any regular reader of this blog recognizes that I'm not an administration fan. However, in commuting Libby's sentence ( it was absolutely NOT a pardon) the President did the right thing. The special prosecutor thing outlived its usefulness a long time ago. Neither Democrats or Republicans should call for it again unless there is very real tangible evidence of high crimes and misdemeanors. The Nixon administration or worse.

No bj's from young women, no leaking names for political gain, etc. etc. Selling military secrets to Al Queida is more like the minimum standard.

The judge sentenced the guy for a longer term than a typical drug dealer. For what? Try to figure out what the real crime was.

I feared that this lame duck administration would through Libby directly in front of the train. Good to see they have some resolve left.

Global warming

Many years ago - perhaps as much as twenty - I read where someone had calculated that painting the Interstate Highway system white would reflect enough sunlight to actually offset global warming.

Anyone remember that? Believe it?

Cold fusion

Whatever happened to cold fusion. Not the software, the reaction.

After all, even the skeptics agreed that something strange happened from time to time in those tests a few years ago....


The last couple of weeks I've been smoking a few new cigars. Many are courteous of Don Mills Tobacco Superstore on Winchester Rd. in East Memphis. In your are in the area, check it out.

Anyway, last week I tried to have an Onyx Reserve from one of my humidors. Unfortunately, it was so plugged it absolutely would not draw. No bad reflection on Onyx; it happens to even the best rollers. So, I tried an El Secreto that Don sent me. It retails for only $2. Hey it isn't a Fuente Opus Opus, but it wan't a bad smoke either....

Last night I had the opposite result; I tried a Cusano M. I don't want to disparage Cusano - they are making some very good cigars - but this M didn't cut it. So, I retrieved a Avo robusto from one of my humidors. The humidor was a little too full, so it was a little dry. Nonetheless, Avo came through. A really good cigar.

Scooter Libby

Lewis "Scooter" Libby received his sentence today.

As far as I can tell, he was convicted of little more than still going by a kid's nickname even though he is an adult.

He of course should receive a Presidential pardon. Sadly, the Bush administration is increasingly looking and acting like the Nixon administration. And Scooter will be left twisting in the wind....

The Reasons We Think America is On the Wrong Course

I was listening to the Michael Medved show yesterday. He does a nice job at talk radio. But he was worked up because the CBS News Poll showed that 72% of Americans surveyed think the U.S. is on the wrong track. (When I went to CBS' site, it looks to me like the number is 69%, but that's an insignicant difference). Medved's view is that income for the poorest citizens are rising (recent government data), unemployment is low, stock market is high, no cold war, so why so pessimistic?

Here are my answers:
Several of our young men and women are being killed every day in a war that we are getting sick of.
The deficit is some unimaginable, staggering number that my generation is imposing on my children.
Social Security is bankrupt and both Congress and the Administration (both previous and current, and both Republican and Democratic) are unwilling to face the issue.
There are virulent infectious agents in hospitals that are resistent to essentially all antibiotics, and the drug compan…

Econorama continued

Senators and Congressmen are falling all over each other to introduce legislation to do something to China for any of a variety of presumed sins.

Many of these are centered on the concept that the Chinese currency - generally called the renminbe- is artificially undervalued, and, if allowed to float on the open market, would zoom in price vs. the dollar, making U.S. exports etc. more competitive.

Let's examine this policy from the opposite perspective - e.g. - the dollar would sink in value versus the Chinese currency. While this might be of some short-term value to some exporters, it is something of a crash diet, resulting in quick, but short-lived, weight loss. Hasn't a bedrock of U.S. policy since Alexander Hamilton was the first Secretary of the Treasury been a strong dollar? Do we think that a weak dollar is in the long-run best interest of America?


There are a number of constructive things Congress can do should it so chose. First, it could shave a couple of hun…

Governor Corzine et al

Apparently, NJ Governor John Corzine joined 26 other state governors to sign a letter to Congress asking them to investigate the oil companies for price gouging.

Since Corzine was a senior executive at Goldman Sachs, where he became a multimillionaire (if indeed not a billionaire), I expected that he had some fundamental grasp of supply and demand, and the price function in a market economy.

Perhaps crashing at 90 miles an hour without a seat belt injured more than just his ribs....I can't believe he doesn't understand economics at that basic level...he is too honorable a man just to grandstand on this issue.....


There was a lot that I wanted to post on this week. However, the tragedy at Virginia Tech overwhelmed anything else.

And there was sad, senseless violence in many other places as well (e.g. - 180 killed in Iraq in one day).

I've been searching for a noun. None have seemed to fit. What do we call someone who slaughters schoolmates? Murderer seems inadequate somehow. Perhaps the term is overused on television cop and lawyer shows..... Madman? True, but also insufficient. I've settled, dissatisfied, on psychopath...

Having lived a number of years in Virgina, and having visited the Va Tech campus a few times, I know a number of alumni. It is a very solid school, where middle class families send their daughters and sons to study computer science or engineering or in some agriculture program. There is still a bucolic hint in Blacksburg, even though the area has grown steadily in recent years. One can be in farm country with only few minute drive from the campus.

I can't …

Donald Imus

The confluence of factors that caused Mr. Imus to lose not one, but two jobs, and the media attention that resulted, and continues, are an amazing commentary on life in America in 2007.

What matters..

First, and I've blogged on this before, is our increasing self-absorption. Last week, there was a significant new twist in the Iraqi conflict - car/truck bombs attempting to blow up major bridges. Did you know? While it was reported, it was drowned by our focus on ourselves and the increasing importance of avoidance of speech or writing which might hurt someone else's feelings.

His statement was worse than most of his insults, and perhaps more insensitive. I've been a listener for a decade or so, and would observe that his harshness is usually personal. That is, singling out some individual for attack - a politician, say, or the head of some business that Imus felt wronged or slighted by. Some of the kerfuffle here probably stems from the fact that Rutgers women were essentially…

Democratic strategy

I'll admit to being mystified by the Democratic party strategy on Iraq.

What is there to be gained by forcing a withdrawal timetable now? If the new strategy begins to be successful (early results are promising, but we've seen improving conditions deteriorate there before), then they look foolish. If the new strategy fails, then the Republicans were going to take the blame anyway.

It seems the only winning outcome for them is a failure that let's them say "I told you so". "I told you so" is usually not a popular phrase even among people who agree.

Why didn't they just stay on the sidelines a little longer? If the new plan worked, they could jump on the bandwagon.....

Pat Summit

I'm not a University of Tennessee sports fan.

However, I am a great admirer of Pat Summit.

Ms. Summit: congratulations on another championship.

For those of us college hoops fans who thought there would never be another John Wooden; we were wrong - there is - and her name is Summit.

She knows how to create a culture of performance and accountability. And, based on a number of observed facial expressions, I would say she knows how to give direct feedback....

congrats again.

Presidential race continued #4

Former Health and Welfare Secretary and four time Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson formally announced his candidacy for President on George Stephenopolis' show Sunday morning. And, before I could organize my post, Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo launched his bid on Monday. With Vilsack out for money reasons, my count is now eleven declared Republicans and seven declared Democrats. However, I think both Newt Gingrich and Al Gore are running stealth campaigns, so I now call it a whopping 19 candidates. Have there ever been that many? I wonder....certainly not anything like that in my memory.

The last couple of weeks have brought some interesting, if very predictable, developments. First, Obama's poll numbers have stalled. Second, all the possible Guilani negatives are coming out. Both of these are predictable; as candidates get some momentum, the press begins snooping for any scandal, or just anything. Guilani's third wife seems to be the news generator on that side (…

Drug resistant infections

The statistics on the number of Americans dying from infections - and in particular infections acquired in hospitals - are staggering. About 2 million Americans acquired an infection last year while in the hospital!

I tell my friends that you can't leave someone alone in a hospital - that they are the most dangerous places in the country. Generally, my comments are met with skepticism - until they or a relative are in the hospital. Invariably, they report back to me that I was right; there aren't enought nurses, wrong medications or meals show up, something is unsanitary, and so on.

We need some kind of a program to encourage the pharmaceutical industry to tackle infections. They just aren't interested any more - the risks and rewards greatly favor chronic illnesses where drugs can be used for years or decades - e.g. Lipitor - than for acute, short-lived drug regimens. The FDA - who I haven't trusted in years - needs to be assertive here - and so does all branche…

Tax Stats

To the tax the rich crowd:
Again - the most recent statistics (2004): the richest 1% paid 35.6% of the TOTAL federal income tax. The top 10% paid 67.6%. Two thirds!

I believe if we elected some normal people to Congress, they could balance the budget in about 15 minutes....

NCAA Basketball Tournament

The single best sporting event in the U.S. is of course the NCAA tournament.

Congratulations to my Memphis Tigers for making it to the Sweet Sixteen - and last eight - two consecutive years. And to the State of Tennessee for sending three teams to the round of 16, despite having a much smaller population than TX, CA, FL, NY and several others. Obviously good things are happening in TN basketball.

To the Kentucky basketball program: keep your hands off Calipari.

The PA race course

Recently I've been driving the PA test course. Where the turnpike joins 309 North. Excellent test designed by PA DOT. About 8 feet to go from zero to highway speed, exceptionally limited visibility makes entry extremely challenging. To add to the excitement, lately they've turned off the big overhead lamp that would illuminate the course at night. Tach up; slam it.

Topping it off, PA 309, in an event that should have been headline news, has evidently recently been shelled by insurgents.


Falling home sales+Taliban attacks in Afganistan+rising oil prices+Japan MOF raising interest rates+falling Chinese stock market+open-ended $100 billion per year Iraq war cost+U.S. auto makers losing money+staggering federal debt+subprime lending problems+dollar in free fall=recession.

Presidential race continued

The broadcast media is already consolidating the candiates - Hil and Obama, Guliani and McCain. Thanks to the blogosphere some others may last a while and give us an interesting race and perhaps some real candidates.

Iowa and New Hampshire should not get to decide the whole thing for us.

The PA Turnpike

I've been commuting on the PA Turnpike. If you haven't experienced the danger, it works like this. Most, if not all, of the major interchanges are under construction. The natives tell me the construction projects started just after the First Continental Congress.

Anyway, the key thing is the degree of navigational difficulty. Got a new Porsche? Preferably turbo - the entrance ramps are a worthy test. The off ramp near Harrisburg onto Highway 15 South is a favorite- one has about 20 feet to get up to the speed of the traffic. Tach up, pedal to the floor. If you are in a minivan and a 18 wheeler is approaching, I hope your insurance covers Life Flight.

Similarly, the on-ramp from 309 South to the Turnpike West has a thrill ride combo of a cattle chute into a chicane. (One of the Turnpike's engineers' favorites - sometime chicane first, sometimes last).

I recommend the Bell Full Competition helmut combined with a NASCAR flamesuit....along with that 911 Carrera Turbo.

How many candidates?

What are there now? Sixteen? Seventeen? Huckabee in, Kerry out I think brings us to 18.

Let's try: Republicans: Guiliani, Romney, McCain, Huckabee, Hunter, Brownback, Gingrich, Pataki, Thompson and Hagel.

Democrats: Biden, Clinton, Vilazon, Kucinich, Dodd, Obama, Edwards and Richards

On the Democratic sideline is still Al Gore - who probably could be a serious challenger to Hillary. And, while I've included Guiliani on the other aisle side, and I think he has a real chance to win, I now question whether he wants it. He certainly hasn't lept in full force, and one has the sense that the train is leaving the station.

Richards brings a good resume to the race, and from a distance, seems to have done a nice job as Govenor of New Mexico. However, announcing the formation of his committee on the same day as Hillary may prove to be a portent. I would say she currently has a 40:1 journalist entourage advantage. If they aren't following you around, they aren't writing about you…