Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Florida Xmas Redux in Pix

Normally this is a pretty busy time for us, sons Jon and/or Chris visiting, but not this year, they having other commitments.  So recently Ann and I took our boat up the Intracoastal, first to the Waterway Cafe where we tied up for dinner as the sun was setting and, then, after dark, further up the Intracoastal to view the Christmas lights such as the "modest" display below.

Earlier in the month we went to a party to view the Palm Beach Boat parade, this very brief video showing those Florida Christmas festivities.

Or how about an Osprey sitting high up a nearby tree positioned like an angel on a Christmas tree? 

Amazing, this is our 14th Christmas in Florida -- our first one pictured here.  Seems like yesterday.

As much as Christmases here have their own kind of high spirits, those we've left behind in Connecticut were special.  We were younger, our sons were growing, eagerly anticipating Christmas morning.  Those holidays were particularly unforgettable when it snowed, and we had the wood burning stove going, the crackling of the wood filling our family room with the definitive word that winter had arrived.  Shoveling the snow and walking the road when it was a winter wonderland are moments of the past which spring to mind, even while it is 80 degrees here.

One of my favorite Christmas songs is I'll Be Home for Christmas which was first released as a V-disk for our servicemen during WW II.  Here is my brief rendition in memory of my Dad who was serving when this was released, and those special years in Connecticut. 

And to all, a Happy and Healthy Holiday!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Passing the Baton

Only a few years older than I was at the time, my son Jonathan is making his first business trip to Japan and China (having traveled extensively on his own in those regions, and having lived there as well).  The confluence of his eduction, business experience, and language abilities has led to this moment.  I had no such language skills and whenever I traveled in Japan I needed a translator.  This left me at a disadvantage when it came to negotiations which usually entailed a team of Japanese executives on the one side and me on the other, they free to converse among themselves in my presence without my being able to understand a word.  It was the collective "them" against lonely "me."

While my son is there on a business mission that doesn't directly involve negotiating, his language abilities are key to his success there.  He reports on the number of Japanese women that are now in the executive ranks, a far cry from when I first went there in the 1970s.  The photograph below (circa 1977) shows me in a meeting with all male executives, a translator to my left.  When tea was served, it was brought by women but they were not allowed to cross into the conference room -- a sacred domain of the men -- instead handing us the cups at the door.  Oh, how things have changed there.  The Japanese are finally becoming a more heterogeneous society.

From the depth of my files, I unexpectedly came across the speech I had referred to in this entry about a trip I made at the turn of the New Year, 1990 (I had presumed the speech lost to time).

I've reread that speech and am amused by many of its observations.  Japan was the economic juggernaut at the time, reveling in a sense of exuberant nationalism that comes with that territory.  To an extent I bought into that then, but Japan since --- when the Nikkei 225 reached its peak of 40,000, certainly a genuine case of irrational exuberance -- has paid an economic price for that incredible bubble, and, making matters worse, their government "zigged" (raising interest rates) when it should have "zagged" (monetary accommodation).  It only made their recession, and deflation a multi decade affair.

They too have been impacted by the economic rise of China and the creative destruction of the Internet.  When I review this speech which I delivered to Tokyo's Rotary Club, consisting of executives of leading Japanese companies at the time, I'm now fully conscious of those two giant forces no one at the time could have fully anticipated. I'm also acutely aware of how China is now in the position of Japan -- an economic juggernaut that is also flexing its nationalistic muscles.  Just witness its recent landing on the moon, a highly symbolic statement of where it stands today and the rise of its navy.

And the Internet has forged forces of incredible change, breaking down trade barriers that had stood for scores of years, "flattening" the world's labor forces, allowing manufacturing to follow where it might be done best and cheapest.  When one looks at the components of a car or a cell phone, one needs a world map to track the many places they come from.  And the impact of the Internet on the publishing industry in which I worked for decades are self evident, rendering some of the observations I made in the speech about the future of huge multinational publishing conglomerates more a figment of past imagination.   Google and Amazon rule!

So, completing the entry I wrote in March, 2011, I can now add that speech itself which I made at the end of 1989.  Still many of these issues exist, although, now, the trade battle, and our trade deficit, relate to China.  The more things change, the more things do indeed seem to stay the same.  Over to you, the next generation!

Speech to the Tokyo Koishikawa Rotary Club on December 29, 1989
by Robert Hagelstein

It is truly an honor for me to stand before you today and to have an opportunity to discuss Japan and United States economic relations as viewed by an American academic publisher. By Japanese standards, our business is a fledgling one, established only 23 years ago. During that time, we have grown both internally and by acquisition and we have very successfully sold our books in Japan. This sales success is attributable to the excellent work of our Japanese business partner and the continued expansion of Japan's fine educational system.

Thus, I have had some first-hand business experience dealing with Japan, and I have watched it emerge as a leading economic power. One of the reasons I am particularly honored to speak on the topic of Japan-U.S. economic relations as the decade closes, is because we may be on the eve of a new stage in world economic development. Not only will there be an economically unified Western Europe in 1992, but the recent move away from communism in Eastern Europe and the embracement of democratic and capitalistic philosophies, even in the Soviet Union, will create a completely new political environment and new economic opportunities.

Unfortunately, with the opportunities come the danger of political instability, and we need to make the right decisions. What evolves over the next decade very much depends on whether Japan, the economic community of Europe, and the United States trade in harmony or whether splinter groups succeed in creating an environment of mutual suspicion.

Therefore it is important that Japanese business leaders, like yourselves, understand how many Americans perceive past Japanese growth to an economic superpower status and how Japanese relations with the United States are perceived. Incidentally, I do believe that many of these same perceptions are gaining ground in the European community, an arena where Japanese exports and Japanese investments are becoming significant.

But please let me underscore that I am talking about perceptions, how people think things are, not necessarily how they really are. If steel is the raw commodity most widely used in the business of selling automobiles, ideas are the main commodity of my industry, publishing. Therefore it is fitting, although perhaps unfortunate, that two recently published books may have a significant impact on U.S. - Japan economic relations. The first, The Japan Which Can Say No by Akio Morita and Shintaro Ishihara, is not available in the United States except in a bootleg translated edition, but it is already having quite an effect. The book is seen as a strong expression of burgeoning Japanese nationalism which views America's present trade dilemma as being rooted in bigotry and the decline of the American will and competitive ability. It argues that Japan can say "No" to any American suggestion by simply playing the U.S. off against the Soviet Union for technology components.

The second book that will undoubtedly have an impact on American policymakers and the media is one that was recently published in the United States, and which was named one of the outstanding business books by Business Week, The Enigma of Japanese Power by a Dutch journalist, Karel van Wolferen. This book argues that Japan is actually an oligarchy and while Japan professes to be engaged in free market trade and to have democracy, it is run by a tiny group of huge mega-corporations. These corporations have access to cheap capital and compliant labor, and they are protected by the government. Van Wolferen also contends that the Japanese standard of living is not much above that of some Eastern European nations, even though the Japanese worker is enormously productive.

As I said these books may very well have a negative effect on how Japan is perceived by the broader American public; they may give intellectual support to those who want to raise barriers to Japanese imports and Japanese investments in the United States. While even the vociferous protectionists recognize that Japanese workers are among the most productive in the world, and that Japanese industry has succeeded all too well in producing well engineered durable consumer goods, many Americans perceive that the transformation of Japan in the decades after 1945 into an economic superpower occurred, not because of hard work, sacrifices and ingenuity, but, rather, because the United States and Western Europe were left with the responsibility to blunt the threat of Communist aggression, thereby having to put extensive human and monetary resources into defense.

Even today, while the United States spends six percent of its gross national product on defense, Japan spends only one percent. Many in the West cite such figures (as well as the comparatively low--at least until recently--levels of Japanese foreign aid to developing nations) as one of the primary reasons for Japan's rise to economic power. By having been able to concentrate on internal industrial investment and foreign trade, Japan is perceived to have captured--unfairly to some extent--our overseas markets and thereby transforming itself into the economic power it is today.

The argument continues that while the United States was forced to play the role of the world's policeman, making the huge miscalculation of becoming involved in the Vietnam War in the 1960s and then having to pay for it in the 1970s, Japan, under the leadership of Prime Minister Tanaka, methodically pursued its strategy of building exports. Automobile exports to the United States, for instance, rose from some 381,000 units in 1970 to 2,527,000 by 1985. By 1985, the U.S. - Japanese trade balance, which had been tilted in the U.S. favor in the early 1970s, became a U. S. deficit of some $46 billion.

Fortunately, as I said at the onset, we may well be on the eve of a new stage of world economic cooperation, and the widely held negative perception of how Japan got to where it is today may become far less important. The major changes, of course, are the rapid disintegration of the Eastern European military bloc and the continued steps toward military disengagement and disarmament. If these changes continue, tremendous amounts of capital and technical manpower can be shifted from creating new generations of advanced weaponry, and maintaining large military forces, into devising new generations of industrial and consumer products as well as rebuilding America's infrastructure, from schools and-hospitals on the one hand, to highways and housing on the other.

You and I recognize, that these economic and political changes will not be completed overnight. But they are underway, and they will help to strengthen very significant economic changes already occurring in the United States.

This change began when America's self-image reached its nadir in 1979. American military and civilian personnel were seized by radical elements in Iran and held hostage for more than a year. The Carter administration appeared to be impotent and American feelings about themselves were at an all time low. The United States was completing a decade of inflation, stagflation, and high interest rates. Most of this pain was inevitable, as the United States had to pay for its policy of guns and butter in the 1960s and for the enormous cost of putting a man on the moon.

When Ronald Reagan became president in 1980, the stage was set for a significant turnaround. President Reagan promised to lower the inflation rate and restore American values while maintaining a strong military presence, and to promote capitalism throughout the world. It is remarkable that, in his decade, he accomplished many of his objectives with the very notable exception of balancing the federal budget.

We also began to recognize that American schools, in contrast to Japanese schools, were graduating poorly trained students, who, in contrast to Japanese students, were inefficient workers. American industry, also in contrast to Japanese firms, could not design quality goods, could not organize their work forces efficiently, and would not invest for future growth.

However, it seems to be coming clear, at least to Americans, that our own "American bashing" has gone on for too long. Paul Craig Roberts, who is with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said that it is America's own self-loathing that is giving Japan the mistaken message that we are really a declining economic power. He said that if we, ourselves, give the mistaken message that the 1980s were a failure from an American economic perspective, we will be failing to recognize the stunning accomplishments achieved in this decade by the United States. It will also be unlikely that our trading partners will also recognize those accomplishments.

In fact, while there are still many problems, such as the trade imbalance, lack of savings and a growing national debt, counterbalancing these are improvements such as more productive workers, lower levels of unemployment, stable inflation, and leadership in industries that have become truly global: software, entertainment and service industries. For instance, American engineers may have transformed the entire debate over high definition television, an area perceived in the United States to be a prime area for technology spinoffs in the 1990s and beyond, by devising a digital, not analog, approach. And even in the automobile industry, Detroit is now being seen, at least in the United States, as able to design and build a moderately priced and well-engineered durable product. Confidence in the long term prospects for the American economy is growing.

Perhaps of equal importance, in the fall President Bush convened a domestic summit conference in Williamsburg, Va., only the third such domestic conference in American history. It was specifically concerned with finding ways to improve American education. While no tangible improvements in education have emerged from that conference yet, as with reductions in military spending, this meeting could be the beginning of a movement that will have a significant impact on American economic growth in the 1990s.

Speaking in regard to my own industry, publishing, I believe that the global opportunities will also be significant in the coming decade. In the 1980s, two very significant trends emerged: one, a trend of consolidation through acquisitions by large multinational firms and, two, an explosion of information publishing which has now become even more dominant in the U.S. than trade publishing. In fact, by 1988, according to an estimate prepared by Veronis Suhler & Associates, gross expenditures on business information services was 19.7 billion dollars in the United States, surpassing book publishing's 18.4 billion dollars. Multinational companies, for example Reed Communications, Pearson, International Thompson, Elsevier, and McGraw Hill, are positioning themselves to become dominant forces in the 1990s. These companies are dedicated to information and scientific publishing. Meanwhile, the trade publishers have been teaming up with entertainment and consumer magazine conglomerates. John Suhler recently speculated that Japanese publishing firms may soon begin to acquire Western publishing properties, following the lead of Japanese investment in recording and film companies. Global giants will emerge in the publishing, entertainment and communications industries.

I have talked about how Japan's economic stature is perceived, how the United States (and perhaps others as well) perceived American economic power in the 1980s, and how Americans are beginning to perceive a stronger economic future for themselves in the 1990s. How Japan is perceived as an economic superpower in the 1990s is something that the leaders in this room can affect.

With a reduction in international tensions, I suspect few in the United States and Western Europe will be calling for Japan to shoulder the burden of increased military spending. But you can anticipate that calls for Japanese aid to the developing world will increase. Then calls for Japan to streamline its distribution system, to open them more to Western influences and to diminish the influence which its large business cartels have will also increase. But, by working to create the same conditions and environment for foreign goods and investment that you enjoy, or that you want for your goods and investment abroad, you will ensure that Japan is recognized as a responsible economic superpower. You will also help to ensure that Japanese workers will enjoy more of the material rewards of their decades of hard work.

Indeed, there are epochal opportunities in the 1990s and we must all decide how we can develop common interests and common goals. If the leaders in this room apply the same ingenuity and hard work you applied to transform Japan, you can be a very positive force in transforming U.S. - Japanese business relations and the world economy. Thank you.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Lion in Winter: a "Holiday Show" at Dramaworks

While most South Florida stages are basking in the glow of holiday cheer productions, Dramaworks has chosen to present its antithesis, a play set in the Christmas past of 1183, James Goldman's vision of the Plantagenet family reunion (which actually never happened) in Chinon, France, at the castle of King Henry II, along with his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine who he has briefly released from a prison exile in England, their sons, Richard (the Lionheart), Geoffrey, and John, as well as France's King Philip II, and his half-sister, Princess Alais Capet.

Most of the play circles around alliances made and then broken, focused on which son of Henry's will inherit the throne, who gets what territory, which Prince will marry Princess Alais, or, for that matter whether Henry himself will marry the Princess who is half his age if he can get his marriage to Eleanor annulled by the Pope (who owes him one), whether King Philip can recover territory Henry promised to return when Philip's father was alive, and last but not least, whether Eleanor will be able to secure her freedom from the soul crushing 10 year imprisonment she has endured.  As the foregoing suggests, there are endless combinations for alliances between the characters who desperately want to achieve their objectives with the least important factor being family love and loyalty.  It is the perfect stuff of tragedy, but this is equally balanced with comedic elements -- sublimely and acerbically written by James Goldman.

What a delicious reprieve from the typical Christmas show as behind the facade of the holiday is probably more family strife than anyone cares to admit.  The play has the tone of the cynical Stephen Sondheim song from Follies, "Could I Leave You?" and it is no surprise that Goldman and Sondheim were friends and in fact collaborated on Follies, for which Goldman wrote the book.

Goldman portrays the dysfunctional Plantagenet family using many factual elements but much of it is totally imagined.  They scheme and counter-scheme to the point of exhaustion, mostly out of sheer boredom with their lives, where after a tortuous scene Eleanor hilariously asks, "What family doesn't have its ups and downs?"

The themes are as relevant today as they were in 1183.  Just think of the mass killings, lack of gun control, family shootings and the kaleidoscopic wars in which our species seems to indulge. At one point Richard threatens John with a knife, John saying "A knife -- he's got a knife."  Eleanor's reply to her sons covers war and its microcosm, families: "Of course he has a knife.  He always has a knife.  We all have knives.  It is eleven eighty-three, and we're barbarians.  How clear we make it.  Oh my piglets. we're the origins of war.  Not history's forces nor the times nor justice nor the lack of it nor causes nor religions nor ideas nor kinds of government nor any other thing.  We are the killers; we breed war.  We carry it, like syphilis, inside.  Dead bodies rot in field and stream because the living ones are rotten.  For the love of God, can't we love one another just a little?  That's how peace begins.  We have so much to love each other for.  We have such possibilities, my children; we could change the world."

The language is so rich and witty, and if there is love, it is of the contest itself, a wonderfully choreographed Tarantella of never-ending verbal slings and arrows.  Dramaworks takes this splendidly written work and uses all its expertise to bring the play to the level of a Broadway production, one which may not please everyone as it is a complicated, and sometimes disturbing play.  Black humor, perhaps, but there is a certain honesty that prevails. 

Professionalism shines through in the production, first with the most ambitious set ever undertaken by the company (scenic design is by the highly experienced and gifted Michael Amico), a revolving part of the stage where as one scene is being presented to the audience, the other is being set up behind stage.  Goldman's play demands many different scene changes and had Dramaworks not built its mechanized set, the play would have had to be representationally presented or there would have been those dreaded darkened moments while stage hands moved furniture, and this play needs to move along without such interruption.  Amico's set allowed Dramaworks to have a perfect scene ready quickly and appropriately decorated with tapestries and furniture, including one with a Christmas tree.

The costume designs by Brian O’Keefe deserve a special mention as they are so integral to the play and to the characters. O'Keefe not only did his extensive period research, but made a careful study of the characters themselves, designing each costume for that character's persona, and then constructed each piece by hand. Only the belts and boots were purchased.  As a result, both the King and Queen look entirely regal.  Their sons can be easily distinguished by their dress -- Richard the Lionheart in his warlike appearance, Geoffrey the middle son having a tight snake-like fitting attire, and the younger, John, who borders on being a buffoon, dressed in almost a potato sack, all these costumes so suitable to their personalities.  The young Princess Alais is attired in simple gowns while King Philip's attire reflects his youth, although a King in his own right.

As usual, Dramaworks' casting is excellent.  King Henry and Eleanor of Aquitaine are played by two experienced Shakespearean actors, C. David Johnson and Tod Randolph, respectively, and their classical expertise makes their presence truly stately on stage. Theirs is a battle of wits and wills and Johnson and Randolph make excellent foils, yet easily fall into each other's arms, recalling their shared past. Richard is played by Chris Crawford, with the authority expected of an experienced warrior, and with requisite relentless ambition to succeed Henry. A Dramaworks veteran, Cliff Burgess, plays the sly Geoffrey with chameleon-like precision, while Justin Baldwin portrays the clueless, infantile John. Katherine Amadeo inhabits Alais with a calculating innocence, entirely in love with and dedicated to Henry, the man, but, still, as a Princess, knows her own mind, holding herself up well to the dominating intellect of both Henry and Eleanor.  Pierre Tannous makes his Dramaworks debut as an actor, having been active in the theatre company behind the scenes until now -- playing King Philip, balancing his need to appear regal in spite of his young age. 

The production is Directed by William Hayes who is also the Producing Artistic Director of the theatre company.   Lighting design is by Ron Burns, and sound design by Matt Corey.

Eleanor: How, from where we started, did we ever reach this Christmas?  Henry: Step by step.

It's Christmas, 1183 at Dramaworks!  

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Reflections of a Relic Investor

I used to think I was a fairly knowledgeable individual investor, watching measures such as the money supply (no one even refers to that anymore), interest rates, and comparing those to the earnings yield on stocks (the reciprocal of the Price/Earnings ratio) to partially determine asset allocation.  Alternatively there was also the tried-and-true asset allocation approach, maintaining a fixed relationship between a percentage of bonds vs. stocks in a portfolio.  March 2009 presented an incredible buying opportunity with the S&P reaching its nadir of some 676 (vs. 1,800 plus today).  If you rebalanced every year thereafter, you would have missed out on some equity appreciation, but, nonetheless, participated in the rise of the S&P with less risk. Buying long term bonds today for balancing now implies taking on more risk because of the artificially low interest rates.  The asset classes would be highly correlated in a period of rising interest rates and declining equity values.  

During that same period, the earnings yield on stocks vs. bonds became more and more divergent as the Fed moved from one stage of "quantitative easing" to the next.  The impact on both markets can be seen with clarity if five years ago you decided to commit half of your investments to the iShares 7-10 Year Treasury Bond (IEF) and the other half to the SPDR S&P 500 (SPY) and, then, took a five year trip to Mars, leaving the market behind.  Returning today, you'd find your 50/50 bond/equity allocation now at 35/65, simply because of equity appreciation.  So, what to do if you don't want so much at risk?

Jason Zweig addresses that question in this past weekend's Wall Street Journal. Bottom line, "know thyself."  He quotes investment adviser David Salem who said that investors holding large stock portfolios or are considering buying more equities, should be "both willing and able to bear the loss," clarifying that "willingness is behavioral and ability is financial, and you can't know for sure in advance which one is going to trump the other."  As the last bear market quickly eroded 50% plus of equity values, a 65% equity weighting puts one's portfolio at higher risk.  What one did as that last bear market gathered momentum is a good indication of what one might end up doing if this market, too, ends badly.  Of course, it can go higher -- in that regard I'm always reminded of John Maynard Keynes' famous comment “the market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent."

Today's investment environment is now as foreign to me as the Mars landscape would be.  Hostile too.  While GDP is hardly growing, and unemployment stubbornly stays above 7%, peak profits are being racked up by major corporations.  How can this be?  Zero interest rates translate into profits, borrowing at nearly nothing to reduce corporate higher-rate debt or financing stock buy-backs.  Corporations have squeezed their workers too, many laid off, a reward to shareholders in the form of increasing dividends.  Labor unions are no longer empowered, a major consequence of labor competition from overseas.  We no longer "make things" here and even intellectual labor can be harvested overseas, at lower cost, thanks to the impact of the Internet. So, by some measures, the "market" is "cheap." It certainly is cheap if you look at earnings yields vs. bond yields, a spread that has widened with every nail in the QE coffin. 

At one time I thought the Fed's actions saved the world from a financial meltdown.  Perhaps it did. But sustaining its monthly $85 billion bond buying program ad infinitum, not to mention maintaining zero interest rates, is creating an asymmetrical investment environment with every passing day (I'm avoiding the word "bubble" as the latter I sort of understand).  It gets worse: recent Fed minutes implied lowering the interest it pays on bank reserves, which has led banks to warn that such an action might force them to charge depositors for holding money in savings and checking accounts (a negative interest rate!). 

Perhaps all of this is being engineered to create a feeling of prosperity from the inflated asset prices of 401Ks, real estate, and equities, hoping that some will trickle down to the middle class via increased spending by the main beneficiaries, the wealthy. (Not surprising, Tiffany & Co. "reported a 50% increase in net earnings in its third quarter..., largely resulting from 7% growth in worldwide net sales and a higher operating margin.")   Or, perhaps, there is something more ominous behind the Fed's actions, a fear of deflation outweighing its concern for (or even desire for) inflation.  Deflation would be an investor's clarion call to buy longer term "secure" bonds, even at these low rates, but, then, we will soon see the next round of the shoot out at the O.K. Corral (a.k.a. Congress), when the debt limit debate comes up again in March.  So, even US Government Bonds may not be rated AAA given the crazy political environment.

No, all the old rules of investment are out the window in this investment environment, as understandable to me as Bitcoins, the price of which surpassed $1,000 today vs. $30 earlier this year, resembling the parabolic price rise of Dutch tulip bulbs in the 17th century.

Ending on a more understandable note, a Happy Thanksgiving to all.