We live in a time period where the “winner-takes-all” outcome is no longer restricted to a handful of industries. Actors and professional athletes are two classic examples of this “all-or-nothing” phenomenon, where a few elites make all of the money and the rest are waiting tables. Unfortunately, through no fault of anyone in particular, this brutal business model has now moved into a number of other industries, thanks to disruptive technology. Someone who is a competent Certified Public Accountant (CPA) in a small town preparing tax returns for various small businesses has now been displaced by an online accounting package that knows all of the tax-avoidance angles and provides tax preparation for little to nothing.
During the mating season, the male Iberian emerald lizard changes color from the neck up. This transformation from green to turquoise is a double-edged sword for this tiny reptile. On the one hand, the male lizard’s vibrant colored-headdress gives him a leg up when trying to attract female lizards, but on the other hand, his loss of camouflage amidst the green woodlands of Spain and Portugal makes it easier for birds of prey roaming the skies from above to spot him.
Imagine someone who is interested in pursuing a career as a money manager. Let’s assume he’s not a rich kid from Greenwich, Connecticut, and has no family or friends in the financial services industry to help him to establish his foot in the door. Assume further that our aspiring young money manager is passed over by all of the large investment houses for an entry-level position and, as a last resort, strikes a deal with the devil. So there’s no confusion, the devil in this tale of woe is not one of the major investment firms (an easy mistake to make). Who wouldn’t want to break into an industry that, up until now, has been blessed with the financialized wind always at its back through an endless sea of quantitative easing? The devil agrees to provide the fledgling fund manager not only startup capital for the money manager’s new financial enterprise but also an investment methodology that has historically proven effective in terms of generating above-market rates of return over the long term.
The director of research at Google, Ray Kurzweil, wrote a book a number of years ago titled The Singularity. It is a point in the not-too-distant future where the fields of genetics, nanotechnology and robotics will advance to such a level that our own biological limitations will be enhanced beyond recognition. These technologies are accelerating at an exponential rate, where each stage in the progression over a fixed time interval results in a doubling from the previous level. Leaps in technological progress are moving forward not at a linear rate (1-2-3-4-5) but at an exponential one (1-2-4-8-16-32).
When the New York Stock Exchange first set up shop, stocks traded in minimum increments of 1/8 = $0.125 dollars. This system was probably a holdover from the Spanish trading system, whose largest gold coin was valued at eight escudos. If academics in finance would break apart a universe of stocks into eight different groups and rank their performance based on some rigorous filtering criterion, it would tie in nicely with our New York Stock Exchange tradition of shares changing hands in 1/8 increments. Unfortunately, these competitive publish-or-perish types seem to prefer decile categories over pieces of eight. Any last remnants of Wall Street’s Spanish roots were given the heave-ho when the SEC mandated decimilization for stock trading on all U.S. exchanges starting in 2001. So ends the pieces-of-eight legacy.
My investment advisory firm is located within a five-minute drive of the Mississippi River here in the St. Louis metropolitan area. Not long ago, I heard a tall fishing tale from an underwater welding specialist who repairs bridges along the Mississippi River. The oversized dimensions he described of a river catfish that brushed alongside him while he was doing some repair work on an arch bridge sounded almost unbelievable. There are similarities in the way a bottom feeder catfish hunts for food and in the way an enterprising investor finds undervalued securities using a selection approach that Benjamin Graham wrote about in his book The Intelligent Investor.
The latest U.S. Census Bureau statistics show more people currently on some form of means-tested public assistance than working full-time. Fortunately, that dismal employment statistic is not evenly distributed across all industries in our economy. One industry in particular that has been relatively isolated from the jobless recovery is the oil and natural gas sector.
I’ve been running my investment advisory firm here in the St. Louis area for the last twenty years. My physical proximity to other businesses struggling to keep their doors open in Ferguson might give me a slightly different perspective than the overcrowded hashtag I’ve been following on my phone. This outer suburb of St. Louis has transitioned to a battlefield where law enforcement has moved from a theme of “protect and serve” to “engage the enemy”. On the one side, police officers dressed in camouflage are brandishing assault rifles in the faces of protestors, and on the other side, unlikely activists feel compelled to join the angry mob. This includes a ninety-year old Jewish holocaust survivor who was hauled off after protesting the deployment of National Guard troops patrolling the streets of Ferguson.
Ayn Rand’s novel, Atlas Shrugged, describes a world that was on a slow but steady path toward ever more central planning by meddling bureaucrats interfering with the entrepreneurial class who relied on one another for their production of output. A character in the novel, John Galt, tucks himself away in a secret hideaway and convinces fellow entrepreneurs to join him in dropping out of society.
Ayn Rand wrote an influential book, Atlas Shrugged, in the ’50s that seems to resurface in popularity with each new wave of government intrusion on the lives of our overregulated, overtaxed citizens. The book describes a world that was on a slow but steady path toward ever more central planning by meddling bureaucrats interfering with the entrepreneurial class who relied on one another for their production of output. As the pages of the book are turned, this “road to serfdom” (a phrase I borrow from Friedrich Hayek), reaches a peak with the last of a small subset of productive entrepreneurs dropping out of their respective professions and sealing themselves off in a secret location created by John Galt. Their isolation from government interference in Galt’s secret hideaway was designed to allow this subset of creative, hard-working individuals to pursue their dreams and live in a rational way, trading value for value with one another. The vision of Galt in his hidden refuge is consistent with the Ayn Rand objectivist philosophy that she advocated her entire life as an immigrant to America from the Soviet Union.