Bond, 30-Year Bond.

This morning, the nice folks on CNBC’s Squawk Box were discussing the possibility of bringing back the 30-Year Treasury Bond. A Treasury Bond is, in short, your very own piece of the National Debt. Instead of sending the President down to the local Citibank chapter to put a mortgage on Yellowstone, the United States Treasury — the same folks to whom you write that check enclosed with the 1040 — issues bonds. They pay you interest for the term of the bond (2, 5, 10 years) in return for using your money to run the government. But wait, there’s more! These bonds are a liquid investment, meaning you can buy and sell them fairly easily. You don’t have to hold a bond to the bitter end to get your money back. Even if you don’t have one of these in your brokerage account or safe deposit box, you still probably own some of these bonds, because they are often used by banks, brokerages, and mutual funds as an interest-bearing place-holder. Treasury Bonds are considered a very safe investment because they are backed by the United States Government, an entity unlikely to default (or, declare the bonds worthless).

A few years ago, the government stopped issuing the 30-year Treasury Bond. At the time, there was a budget surplus and the national debt was shrinking. It made sense to reduce the number and kinds of bonds out there. It made sense to get rid of what national debt was left in a shorter time frame than 30 years. It made sense not to pay 30 years worth of interest. It was the government equivalent of paying down a credit line and cutting up the credit card. Besides which, the stock market had long since peaked, and I believe there was the unspoken hope that with one less type of bond available, money would make its way to corporate bonds and common stocks. Stock market recovery was vital to the idea of “privatizing Social Security.”

But things have changed since then. The budget surplus is gone. The national debt is rising, buoyed on a rising tide of Homeland Security and War On Terror and tax cuts upon tax cuts. Interest rates are at historic lows, even on a 30-year basis, as proved by America’s collective mailbox full of mortgage and refinance offers. Peter Fisher, the man credited with killing the 30-Year Treasury, is moving on. Bloomberg sees an open door.

The Squawk Box online poll results were 74% in favor of bringing back the 30-Year. Keep in mind, this is not a population of day-trading soccer moms, but predominantly licensed financial industry professionals who happen to have time to respond to an unscientific online poll during the hours when the markets are opening. If this is consistent with the opinions of people with actual authority, consider the return of the 30-year a done deal.

Should it be announced that that new 30-Year Treasury Bonds will be issued, I believe the major stock market indices will go down. This will happen for two main reasons. First, it will mean the Feds are admitting that budget deficits and the national debt will be with us for the foreseeable future. So much for shrinking the government; farewell fiscal responsibility. It will be evident that the government needs 30 years to pay its debts. That bodes ill for the economy, and therefore the stock market. The other reason this will cause market declines is that some investors will take money out of stocks in favor of the new bond. Why? Because it is perceived as safe. After all, if you can’t trust the Federal Government, who can you trust?

Health Class is Over, Have a Mountain Dew!

It probably will show my age to say that I first encountered a school vending machine in High School. The things have become ubiquitous… or have they? After years of “exclusive placement” deals, schools are being forced to either remove vending machines, or at very least offer whatever is considered “healthy” this week in the machines. These days, that means things like fruit juice, skim milk, and unsalted pretzels. To say sports drinks somehow fall in the “healthier” category is disingenuous, considering the sugars and empty calories they contain.

Of course we all know that the rise of the school vending machine is purely coincidental with rising rates of youth obesity, obesity related diseases such as adult onset diabetes, and learning disabilities such as ADD and ADHD. These things have nothing to do with giving children as young as first grade — with the judgment of children — unfettered access to all the soda and candy they can afford to stuff in their mouths. How could it be otherwise?

It is furthermore painfully obvious that students are a captive audience. If only Coke is available, students will drink Coke. If only Pepsi is there, then Pepsi is the drink of choice. If this is in opposition to what is available at home, so be it. Branding at its very worst. And that is before considering that vending machine snacks may be keeping students from eating the theoretically more balanced lunches available in the cafeteria. Theoretically. Go ahead and Google up “school lunches” and you will likely find dozens of menus in the first 3 pages of links. Decide for yourself whether you consider the meals nutritious and balanced.

Of course the reason vending machines are popular in schools is the same reason you will find them in apartment complexes and shopping malls and a hundred other places: revenue. The companies that place vending machines, as you may or may not know, pay a portion of the proceeds for the privilege of placing a sure money-maker. In an age of schools which believe they are poorly funded, this revenue may make the difference between a bare-bones no-nonsense education ad the availability of extracurricular activities. Some cynics suggest that our schools are in much more dire need, making this revenue the difference between ancient outdated textbooks and new ones.

The school day is the one chance some kids have to eat anything approaching a balanced meal, whether because of parental lack of interest of parental lack of money. Vending machines in schools undermine that ideal. To sell that dream in return for a few hundred dollars is unconscionable.

So, Where is there a 5 Star Restaurant in Omaha?

One lucky soul had the winning eBay bid of $250,000. The money goes to charity, the bidder goes to lunch. This is no ordinary lunch, of course, but lunch with the second richest man in the world, Warren Buffett.
Buffett is a legendary investor, and Chairman of Berkshire-Hathaway. Perhaps more remarkable regarding his reputation as an investor is the fact that he shuns technology stocks, claiming he does not understand them well enough to invest in them. One can imagine that his friend, the man who nudged Buffett aside from the position of richest man in the world, Bill Gates might be persuaded to tutor him in this regard.

Berkshire-Hathaway, by the way, is a rather legendary company in its own right. They are a holding company, whose subsidiaries are mostly but not exclusively insurance companies. The two subsidiaries you are most likely to have heard of are GEICO and Dairy Queen. At this writing, it will cost you over $70K to buy a single class “A” share of Berksire-Hathaway. There is no dividend. The company paid Buffett a salary of $294K in 2002. That’s not much more than the cost of this little luncheon.

As with many men of wealth beyond being able to spend it, he is also a bit of a philanthropist. Previous charity lunches, held in San Francisco and not auctioned on eBay, went for $25-32K. These lunches have gone from the price of a nice car to the price of a nice 4 bedroom house in many areas of the country. The winner does get to bring 7 companions, bringing the price per plate down to $31,250 — assuming the actual food is included in the price tag.

I sincerely hope the winner is doing this because he or she wishes to help the charity beneficiary, and not thinking to pick up a quarter million dollar stock tip.

Fannie Mae wants YOU to own a house!

Fannie Mae (the Federal National Mortgage Association) is a large, quazi-government corporation whose purpose is to make sure there is adequate funding for consumer mortgages. It usually does this by buying mortgages from lenders, freeing the lenders to go out and lend money to someone else (“making a liquid market in mortgage backed securities”). In the process, they are able to use economic means to stifle predatory and discriminatory lending practices. Fannie Mae also happens to make a lot of money doing this ($5.25B). Enough money that they can pay some $20M to the three-letter types and still send out an annual dividend of $1.56 to holders of their 978 million shares. That’s over $1.5 billion in dividends per year. The dividend alone is more than 4300 times the maximum conventional mortgage. FNMA is big. Some would argue it is too big to be allowed to fail.

But that is not today’s topic; instead I would like to direct your attention to their advertising. You wouldn’t think there’d be a lot of advertising, since after all they deal primarily with banks and mortgage companies. They actually have a surprising amount of advertising. Some of it is occasionally found on business and news oriented media. Some of it is in the form of sponsorship of organizations such as NPR. All of it is designed to make you feel all warm and fuzzy about home ownership.

All these are quotes from their website: “The American Dream of home ownership.” “Because having a safe place to call home strengthens families, communities, and our nation as a whole. ” “Revitalizing neighborhoods and creating affordable housing opportunities for over 20 years.” “A home of our own is a dream come true and symbolizes who we are.” “Homeownership has the power to green-line both neighborhoods and nest eggs.” A past ad even suggests that homeownership is directly linked to better schools.

Implied is the idea that owning real estate will magically make life happy. A house should be the foundation of your finances! You are nobody unless you own a house! Do they really think you are stupid enough to think nobody owns houses in crime-ridden, run-down communities? Are they saying that apartment dwellers are somehow not holding their own in American society? That renters by default do not live in safe places or strong neighborhoods? That anybody with stable finances should surely own, not rent, their residence?

As someone with experience in property management, I find these implications insulting, as should you. There are people who own houses in bad neighborhoods, and people whose houses are a drain on the finances, people for whom this particular American Dream is a nightmare. There are people who rent houses and apartments in good neighborhoods, and people who rent for a variety of reasons, few of which are monetary.

FNMA does some good things. They do not need to tug on Joe Average’s heartstrings to make the mortgage market liquid. Should there turn out to be a “housing bubble,” such sentimental claptrap must be accorded a fair share of the blame. They should lose these ads now.

That must have been an effective seminar

Workplace violence is a depressingly common occurrence. Most of it is small stuff, but occasionally something so large happens that it makes national news. Such a thing happened this week. An employee at an aircraft plant stormed out of an ethics and sensitivity seminar, shouted “Y’all can handle this!” and returned minutes later with both a rifle and a shotgun. He killed 5 people and injured 9 others before taking his own life. Nobody yet knows why.

This was apparently not the first time Mr. Williams had such counseling. He was said to be a hothead who had problems with black people. The union steward for the plant says there have been many “concerns” expressed by his coworkers over the years. Afterwards, none of his coworkers were surprised who the shooter had been. One victim’s husband had heard her concerns that he would hurt someone several times over the years. He described Williams as “obviously sick.”

Security expert Gavin de Becker, in his landmark book The Gift of Fear, tells us that normal, sane people do not lash out in violence unless pushed to the point that violence seems the only logical choice. Williams was by all accounts not a normal, sane person. De Becker furthermore posits that the vast majority of workplace violence can be prevented by adequate employee screening. In short, if you pay attention during the hiring process — check references, note reactions to questions — you can weed out the people most likely to become violent in your workplace. If this is not a laudable goal, then I don’t know what is.

Williams’s bosses put up with behavior that caused his coworkers to worry for a decade and a half. This surely impacted the workplace, possibly drove away really good people who went on to jobs where they did not have to deal with this nut. And this was before he killed, wounded, and gave post-traumatic stress syndrome to his coworkers. I am willing to bet he wasn’t very productive either.

If you are in charge of hiring, you cannot afford not to pay attention.

The Long and Winding Road

It seems like not a day goes by without a headline to the effect of “Bad Thing Happens in Iraq.” Soldiers killed or injured. Suicide bomber. Weapons cache found in graveyard, leaving occupying forces to either desecrate graves, or expect an attack. A mosque is blown up. Infrastructure at risk. Police cadets killed. Journalist killed. Political unrest. And Saddam himself has joined Osama Bin Laden as an Arabic Elvis, despite a large bounty on his head, and despite the fact that everyone was sure he was dead a month ago. According to the Washington Post, American Lt. General Ricardo Sanchez reports an average of 13 attacks on American and/or British forces each day for the last 6 weeks. In the face of this opposition which is not supposed to exist, the President of the United States says “Bring them on!” With this daring taunt, he places American military forces in harm’s way — men and women with families who miss them as they serve their country. Furthermore, he endangers the innocent Iraqis they were supposed to be helping.

This is to say nothing of the ongoing problems of destroyed infrastructure. Ordinary citizens have serious problems getting clean, safe food and water. Roads and electrical service are spotty. Inasmuch as “liberating” forces have taken out the Iraqi government, it is not unlike waking up and discovering that anything with “Federal” in the title was damaged or destroyed. In many cases, even local government is tenuous. Make no mistake, the Hussein regime was not a bunch of nice friendly guys dedicated to the betterment of its subjects. However, there is no evidence that liberating forces have improved the situation in the short run.

Even so, don’t say “the Q word” — quagmire — in front of Donald Rumsfeld. Like the former Iraqi Information Minister proclaiming that all is well and there are no approaching armies and a curse on whomever dares to say otherwise, Rumsfeld insists this is nothing to be alarmed about. Everything is coming along, things are getting better every day, give us some more time, and we’ll pack up and leave as soon as we can. This might be more convincing if we hadn’t heard the same thing about Afghanistan. The new administration, while philosophically a huge improvement over the Taliban regime, has yet to bring law, order, and government services much beyond metropolitan Kabul.

However questionable the reason American and British forces are involved in the first place, the current problems cannot be solved by packing up our tanks and going home. That tactic will breed a generation or two of anti-western militants who grew up in harsh conditions and crushing poverty. However, somebody needs to have a Plan with more depth than awarding some construction contracts and installing a governor. Not only does there need to be a Plan, it needs to be culturally sensitive to avoid faux-pas such as imposing western banking when Islamic law strictly speaking forbids both paying and receiving interest — why not give away ham and beer in the humanitarian aid packages, sheesh! Beyond this, the Plan has to have buy-in from the people we are supposedly there to help. Failure to cooperate with people there, who aren’t necessarily fond of us, will result in failure of the Plan. And failure of the Plan will mean having to go back and crush a dozen Osamas and Saddams in a decade or two.

Dow Theory Only Slightly Oversimplified

One of the most notable figures in American economic and business news is the DJIA, or Dow Jones Industrial Average. Every newscast in the nation broadcasts this number, if only as a filler screen before a commercial break. Despite this, many Americans do not know what this simple number means.

The Dow is an average of just 30 stocks deemed to be important by the nice folks at Dow Jones, price weighted (stocks with a greater share price — adjusted for past splits — move the index more than those with a lower share price). These are 30 of the largest companies in the United States, 30 of the most influential companies, 30 of the biggest non-government employers. You have very likely heard of these companies or their subsidiaries, and you have almost certainly come in contact with a product or service from one of these companies in the last 24 hours.

As of this writing, here are the components (and their stock ticker symbols):

3M (MMM)
Alcoa (AA)
Altria (Phillip Morris, MO)
American Express (AXP)
AT&T (T)
Boeing (BA)
Caterpillar (CAT)
Citigroup (C)
Coca-Cola (KO)
Dupont (DD)
Eastman Kodak (EK)
Exxon Mobil (XOM)
General Electric (GE)
General Motors (GM)
Hewlett-Packard (HPQ)
Home Depot (HD)
Honeywell (HON)
Intel (INTC)
International Paper (IP)
JP Morgan Chase (JPM)
Johnson and Johnson (JNJ)
McDonalds (MCD)
Merck (MRK)
Microsoft (MSFT)
Procter and Gamble (PG)
SBC Communications (SBC)
United Technologies (UTX)
Wal-Mart (WMT)
Walt Disney (DIS)

Now then, lets look at what happens if the economy is good. I’ll add the ticker symbols of the companies you positively impact. For one thing, you have money in the bank or brokerage account (AXP, C, JPM). So you go and buy things (WMT). Maybe you get Happy Meals for all the kids (MCD, KO). You don’t worry about what you buy at the grocery (KO, MO). Prescription costs don’t bother you either (MRK, JNJ). Go ahead and get a new computer, just like they’re getting at work (MSFT, INTC, IBM, HPQ). Why not a new car (AA, MMM, HON, GM, XOM)? Build a new house with a state of the art kitchen (HD, UTX, GE, CAT)? Go on that Disneyworld vacation, but take plenty of pictures (DIS, EK, BA, UTX, HON, GE). Be sure to keep up with the family (SBC, T, IP). Speaking of work, not only do you have a job, but you’re pretty busy there (MMM, IP, and just about every other component, depending on your profession).

In short, when you have money, it gets funneled through your bank then you spend it. This benefits Dow component companies. They make more money. Their share prices go up, driving the DJIA up. But wait, there’s more. All that stuff the theoretical good-economy you bought had to get to you somehow. So real market geeks look for “confirmation in the Transports.” The nice folks at Dow Jones have two more indices, the Dow Jones Utilities Index and the Dow Jones Transportation Index (strictly speaking, all 3 can be put together to form the Dow Jones Composite Index). So then if the DJIA companies are doing well, they must be shipping products, and therefore the Transports must be doing well.

A missive from the Department of Making Researchers Look Busy

Some researchers have done a study which finds anyone can be a boss! What a lovely thought. This kind of thinking is what gets us Pointy Haired Bosses. Seriously, I bet you can think of a dozen people who shouldn’t be be able to delegate anything more critical than making sure the plants are watered. Yet according to university level research, these people can be a boss.

Of course what they mean to say is that anyone can be bossy and make arbitrary decisions — some might even make surprisingly good decisions. Furthermore, this “research” found that “unwilling subordinates” tended to try and be the boss in any event. Theoretically I suppose this means it is better to put the naturally bossy in charge ofsomething, anything, even if it’s those pesky plants, as long as it gets them out of the important stuff. This does however, support the writings of people like Tom Peters, whose employee empowerment theories include the idea that if you allow all employees some latitude in their decision making, they will rise to the occasion, make mostly decent decisions, and make your customers happier by not having to refer to a manager or a rule-book.

Even the researchers admit “We didn’t actually measure the quality of the performance.” Perhaps they are saving that for the next grant proposal.

Now, where did I put that Second Half Recovery?

Do you remember at the beginning of the year, all the analysts and econofolk were talking about how things would get better in the second half of 2003? They were using words like “significant challenges” and “tech replacement cycle” and “effects of tax cuts.” I remember this. I also remember that various members of this tribe have been predicting a recovery 2 quarters out since late 2000.

Thisyear’s big reason was based in the IRS depreciation schedule. A lot of companies bought computer equipment back in 1999 to avoid Y2K issues. You remember Y2K, don’t you? All the computers were supposed to freak out, thinking it was 1900 instead of 2000, causing nuclear disaster and tampon shortages? It didn’t happen. Then the dot-com bubble burst, flooding the used computer market (among other effects). Computers have gotten faster in the last 3 years, and there have been new versions of both Windows and Mac OS, but cash strapped companies have not been upgrading as much equipment as the Hewlett-Packards of the world would like. The IRS lets companies “depreciate,” or spread out the expense of computers. That means there is now a tax incentive to upgrade. Of course it is ludicrous to think the entire economy will magically heal just because a few companies buy some computers.

So then, if the recovery is about to start any minute now, why are the car dealers offering ludicrous incentives? Why is Mercedes offering 2.9% financing? Why are “if you have to ask you can’t afford it” names like Maserati and Rolex taking out print ads? Why does every apartment complex you pass have signs reading “Move In Special” and some ludicrously low number? You can’t blame that entirely on low mortgage rates, because there are lots of reasons to live in an apartment and “can’t afford a house” is the least of them. Why are the retailers with the best performance still the discounters like Target? Why are state and local governments — often dependent on sales taxes for revenue — having budget crises? California and Nevada both have entered the fiscal year without budget, in violation of their respective Constitutions, because of the untenable choice of cutting to the bone or raising taxes (negating federal tax cuts).

Don’t tell me this is a “jobless” recovery. If things are improving, there is more demand for products. The only way to sell more products is to produce them. That means hiring more people or buying equipment that makes your workers more productive. The tech sector which would provide that productivity equipment is still saying “within 2 quarters” and the government is still saying it’s a “jobless” recovery. It sounds more like a lack of recovery to me.