Bob Carlson

October 24, 2014

Aging as a State of Mind

Filed under: Health,Retirement - General — Bob @ 8:20 am

This long New York Times article is about a Harvard psychologist, some of whose studies seek to show that aging and health can be influenced by attitudes and other mental attributes. It makes some interesting points and describes interesting research, though the ideas of using the mind to cure disease or slow aging are far from being fine-tuned and ready for people to use.

At the end of their stay, the men were tested again. On several measures, they outperformed a control group that came earlier to the monastery but didn’t imagine themselves back into the skin of their younger selves, though they were encouraged to reminisce. They were suppler, showed greater manual dexterity and sat taller — just as Langer had guessed. Perhaps most improbable, their sight improved. Independent judges said they looked younger. The experimental subjects, Langer told me, had “put their mind in an earlier time,” and their bodies went along for the ride.

The results were almost too good. They beggared belief. “It sounded like Lourdes,” Langer said. Though she and her students would write up the experiment for a chapter in a book for Oxford University Press called “Higher Stages of Human Development,” they left out a lot of the tantalizing color — like the spontaneous touch-football game that erupted between heretofore creaky seniors as they waited for the bus back to Cambridge. And Langer never sent it out to the journals. She suspected it would be rejected.

October 23, 2014

Saving Money on Travel

Filed under: Cash Management — Bob @ 5:19 pm

The best day to buy airline tickets if you’re looking for the lowest price is Sunday, according to an article in The Wall Street Journal. (Subscription might be required.) In the past, Tuesday was found to be the best day to buy tickets. Even so, Tuesday isn’t a bad day to buy. It is the day of the week with the most price declines, the day when the most tickets are sold, and the lowest-priced day of the workweek.

The best time to buy for domestic travel is about 57 days before travel. After that prices rise. Most people buy about 30 days before travel. International travelers should buy about seven months in advance.

One factor behind the change: Airline executives come into work Monday looking to raise fares, not discount them with sales to fill seats. Just this week airlines put through a $2 each-way across-the-board fare hike, even though prices for oil—the largest expense for airlines—have been plunging. Prices are still going up due to increasing demand for the limited number of available seats.

The lower Sunday and Saturday prices also result from the ability social media has given airlines to throw discounts in front of consumers at any time. That turns vacation shoppers surfing the Web on weekends into ticketed passengers without discounting tickets business travelers might buy while at work. And the findings reflect the lack of corporate sales over the weekend, since business travelers typically fly on more expensive tickets than vacation buyers.

Hidden Wealth in Monaco, and Murder

Filed under: Economy — Bob @ 12:20 pm

Most people don’t think much about Monaco. It’s a small area that not many people visit. It’s a surprise to learn that it’s home to a number of billionaires who made their wealth their, primarily in real estate. What’s more of a surprise is that this wealth apparently led to a recent murder of one of the billionaires. You can read the details about the wealth and the murder on Bloomberg.com.

The family’s influence on Monaco is visible on the five-minute drive along Larvotto Beach to Casino Square in the center of the principality, a journey dominated by high-rise apartment blocks all built and owned by the Pastors.

At one end stands the 29-story Roccabella, one of Monaco’s most exclusive residences, whose marble foyer, high ceilings and uninterrupted views of the Mediterranean has attracted tenants such as billionaire Philip Green and singer Shirley Bassey. Arrayed along the rest of the artificial beach, also built by the family, looms a continuous line of Pastor buildings erected in the 1970s and 1980s — the Bahia, Estoril, Formentor, the Columbia and Houston Palaces, and Emilie Palace.

The Roles of Germany and China

Filed under: Economy — Bob @ 8:20 am

This is a timely essay from George Friedman of Stratfor.com. He took an extended trip through Europe and Asia and collected his thoughts on how people on those continents view the current international situation and recent events. He finds that people on one end of Europe spend a lot of time thinking about Germany, while those at the other end of Europe and in Asia think about China a lot. Friedman gives his views of where those two countries fit in to the global scheme and also the roles Russia and Japan might play.

The two countries at the center of their respective regional systems have both been extremely efficient exporters. The United States, by comparison, exports only 14 percent of its GDP. But it is precisely this ability to export that makes both Germany and China vulnerable. Both have created production systems that outstrip their capacity to consume. For Germany, increasing consumption can be only marginally effective because it is already consuming at near capacity. For China, there is more demand, but much of it is among the roughly billion people who lack the purchasing power to the buy the goods China produces for the regional and global market. China’s society lives on a steep cliff. On top of the cliff is a minority who can purchase goods. In the deep valley are those who cannot — and also cannot readily climb the cliff. Thus, like Germany, China’s effective demand cannot absorb its exports.

Therefore, economic viability for both Germany and China depends largely on maintaining exports. No matter how much they import, their exports maintain domestic social order by providing a significant source of jobs right away, rather than in some future scenario involving the rebalancing of their work forces.

October 22, 2014

Evaluating Investments

Filed under: Asset Allocation — Bob @ 12:20 pm

Nobel Prize-winning economist William Sharpe gave an interesting interview to AAII. He makes several points that all investors should note. Sharpe developed a statistic that’s now called the Sharpe ratio. He said he was looking for a number to consider if you only can look at one number to evaluate an investment. Now, he says that with all the computing power we have today, you should try to use only one number of piece of data to evaluate an investment. Another point: The Sharpe ratio and other data are historic. You should be more concerned about future return and risk, and historic data is an imperfect tool for evaluating that.

There’s a famous saying: If you torture a body of data long enough, it’ll confess to anything you want. People have looked for so many ways to beat the market using past data that of course they found ways that would have worked. But I would be much more comfortable if there were a story as to why, if everybody knew this history, it would still work. Most of these arguments don’t have such a story.

More Evidence the Correction is Mild

Filed under: Asset Allocation,Investing — Bob @ 8:17 am

The recent stock market decline drew a lot of headlines, but as I’ve said it hasn’t amounted to much in the long term. Here’s more evidence of that. When there’s a significant decline in stocks, value investors say that they are finding a lot of bargains and are happy for the decline. That’s not happy this time, as the story points out. Stocks still appear to be fairly valued to overvalued, and the decline so far hasn’t been enough to change that.

A global rout in stock markets has wiped $3.3 trillion from the value of equities worldwide this month through Oct. 16 and the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index has slumped 6.2 percent since reaching a peak for the year on Sept. 18. The plunge hasn’t been enough for Cinnamond and other money managers who hold unusually high levels of cash, such as Stephen Yacktman of Yacktman Asset Management LP and Wally Weitz of Weitz Investment Management Inc., who say bargains still aren’t easy to find.

“It’s not as if the world is all of a sudden dirt cheap,” Keith Trauner, co-manager of the $509 million GoodHaven Fund, said in a telephone interview from Miami. “It’s becoming more reasonable,” said Trauner, whose fund had 28 percent of its assets in cash as of May 31.

October 21, 2014

A Case for Optimism

Filed under: Retirement - General — Bob @ 5:20 pm

I know you’re bombarded constantly with negative forecasts and commentaries. That seems to be the predominant strain of the financial advice industry. It seems easier to build a negative case than any other. That’s why you should read Marc Andreesen’s interview in New York magazine. Andreesen says he’s always been optimistic, and that being optimistic almost always pays off.

On the other hand, if there’d been a few more skeptics in 1999, people might have kept their retirement money. Isn’t there a role for skepticism in the tech industry?

I don’t know what it buys you. Let me put it this way. If you could point to periods of time in the last hundred years when everything just stabilized and didn’t change, then maybe yes. But that never seems to actually happen. The skeptics are wrong all the time.

Gates and Others on Inequality

Filed under: Economy — Bob @ 5:20 pm

The French economist Thomas Piketty drew a lot of attention this year with the publication of his book, Capital in the 21st Century. I haven’t read it, but reviews indicate it is an attempt to build the case for using the government’s taxing power to reduce or eliminate income inequality in countries. One of the more interesting responses to the book is from Bill Gates on his blog. I also like this response to part of Gates’ essay.

To be clear, when I say that high levels of inequality are a problem, I don’t want to imply that the world is getting worse. In fact, thanks to the rise of the middle class in countries like China, Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, and Thailand, the world as a whole is actually becoming more egalitarian, and that positive global trend is likely to continue.

But extreme inequality should not be ignored—or worse, celebrated as a sign that we have a high-performing economy and healthy society. Yes, some level of inequality is built in to capitalism. As Piketty argues, it is inherent to the system. The question is, what level of inequality is acceptable? And when does inequality start doing more harm than good? That’s something we should have a public discussion about, and it’s great that Piketty helped advance that discussion in such a serious way.

However, Piketty’s book has some important flaws that I hope he and other economists will address in the coming years.

The Future of Oil

Filed under: Economy — Bob @ 12:20 pm

Some years ago I listened to an oil analyst say that there’s only way to understand the oil market. He said the Saudis control changes in prices and that they wanted a lot of volatility. They would tighten supplies when prices were low, pushing prices higher. When prices were high, the Saudis provided more oil to bring down the price. His thesis was that if hte price were volatile, new investment in either oil or in substitutes for it would be limited. People couldn’t plan multi-year billion dollar investments when they had no idea what the selling price would be.

That thesis seemed to hold true for a long time. That’s why this news is so interesting. Apparently the Saudis have been telling people that oil prices are going to stay low for a long time, and they are very comfortable with that. The Saudis have decided that things have changed, and that what works best for them in the long term is for oil prices to stay low for a while.

Saudi Arabia is quietly telling the oil market it would be comfortable with much lower oil prices for an extended period, a sharp shift in policy that may be aimed at slowing the expansion of rival producers including those in the U.S. shale patch.

Some OPEC members including Venezuela are clamoring for production cuts to push oil prices back up above $100 a barrel.

But Saudi officials have given a different message in meetings with investors and analysts: the kingdom, OPEC’s largest producer, will accept oil prices below $90 per barrel, and perhaps down to $80, for as long as a year or two, according to people who have been briefed on the recent conversations.

Past Performance is No Guarantee

Filed under: Economy,Emerging stock markets — Bob @ 8:20 am

Financial firms are required to include the phrase “Past performance is no guarantee of future results” in much of their literature. According to recent research, the same holds for economic data. A country’s recent growth rates tells us nothing about future growth. That’s the word from economist Larry Summers, who uses the point to argue that China’s growth in the future isn’t going to be any where near the 10% growth many have gotten used to expecting. He thinks it is likely to turn under 4%.

But when it comes to predicting China’s medium- and long-term growth, economists are chucking that wisdom out the window, argue former US Treasury secretary Larry Summers and Harvard University professor Lant Pritchett in a new National Bureau of Economic Research paper (registration required).

As a result, they say, even the more cautious economic forecasts for China are overestimating the country’s growth prospects. Summer and Pritchett’s calculations, using global historical trends, suggest China will grow an average of only 3.9% a year for the next two decades. And though it’s certainly possible China will defy historical trends, they argue that looming changes to its  authoritarian system increase the likelihood of an even sharper slowdown.

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