July 28, 2016

Letter to a Crony Capitalist

(p. B4) . . . , an excellent read is "Dear Chairman: Boardroom Battles and the Rise of Shareholder Activism," by Jeff Gramm, owner and manager of the Bandera Partners hedge fund and an adjunct professor at Columbia Business School. This book explores the rise of activist investors like Carl C. Icahn and Daniel S. Loeb.

Mr. Gramm has collected a series of deliciously rich letters, many of which were never before published, sent to chief executives by investors by everyone from Warren Buffett to Ross Perot. They are eye-opening, often chilling and include fascinating lessons about business.

My personal favorite is this letter from Mr. Loeb to the chief executive of Star Gas Partners: "It seems that Star Gas can only serve as your personal 'honey pot' from which to extract salary for yourself and family members, fees for your cronies and to insulate you from the numerous lawsuits that you personally face due to your prior alleged fabrications, misstatements and broken promises. I have known you personally for many years and thus what I am about to say may seem harsh, but is said with some authority. It is time for you to step down from your role as C.E.O. and director so that you can do what you do best: retreat to your waterfront mansion in the Hamptons where you can play tennis and hobnob with your fellow socialites. The matter of repairing the mess you have created should be left to professional management and those that have an economic stake in the outcome."

For the full commentary, see:

Sorkin, Andrew Ross. "DEALBOOK; Tell-Alls, Strategic Plans and Cautionary Tales." The New York Times (Tues., JULY 5, 2016): B1 & B4.

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date JULY 4, 2016, and has the title "DEALBOOK; A Reading List of Tell-Alls, Strategic Plans and Cautionary Tales in Finance.")

The book praised by Sorkin in the passage quoted above, is:

Gramm, Jeff. Dear Chairman: Boardroom Battles and the Rise of Shareholder Activism. New York: HarperBusiness, 2016.

July 27, 2016

World Health Organization Praises Coffee, Reversing 1991 Warning

(p. A9) An influential panel of experts convened by the World Health Organization concluded on Wednesday [JUNE 15, 2016] that regularly drinking coffee could protect against at least two types of cancer, a decision that followed decades of research pointing to the beverage's many health benefits. The panel also said there was a lack of evidence that it might cause other types of cancer.

The announcement marked a rare reversal for the panel, which had previously described coffee as "possibly carcinogenic" in 1991 and linked it to bladder cancer. But since then a large body of research has portrayed coffee as a surprising elixir, finding lower rates of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, neurological disorders and several cancers in those who drink it regularly.

For the full story, see:

ANAHAD O'CONNOR. "Coffee May Protect Against Cancer, W.H.O. Concludes, in Reversal of a 1991 Study." The New York Times (Thurs., JUNE 16, 2016): A9.

(Note: bracketed date added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date JUNE 15, 2016, and has the title "Coffee May Protect Against Cancer, W.H.O. Concludes.")

July 26, 2016

Government Land Use Regulations Increase Income Inequality

(p. A1) . . . a growing body of economic literature suggests that anti-growth sentiment, when multiplied across countless unheralded local development battles, is a major factor in creating a stagnant and less equal American economy.

It has even to some extent changed how Americans of different incomes view opportunity. Unlike past decades, when people of different socioeconomic backgrounds tended to move to similar areas, today, less-skilled workers often go where jobs are scarcer but housing is cheap, instead of heading to places with the most promising job opportunities, according to research by Daniel Shoag, a professor of public policy at Harvard, and Peter Ganong, (p. B2 [sic]) also of Harvard.

. . .

"To most people, zoning and land-use regulations might conjure up little more than images of late-night City Council meetings full of gadflies and minutiae. But these laws go a long way toward determining some fundamental aspects of life: what American neighborhoods look like, who gets to live where and what schools their children attend.

And when zoning laws get out of hand, economists say, the damage to the American economy and society can be profound. Studies have shown that laws aimed at things like "maintaining neighborhood character" or limiting how many unrelated people can live together in the same house contribute to racial segregation and deeper class disparities. They also exacerbate inequality by restricting the housing supply in places where demand is greatest.

The lost opportunities for development may theoretically reduce the output of the United States economy by as much as $1.5 trillion a year, according to estimates in a recent paper by the economists Chang-Tai Hsieh and Enrico Moretti. Regardless of the actual gains in dollars that could be achieved if zoning laws were significantly cut back, the research on land-use restrictions highlights some of the consequences of giving local communities too much control over who is allowed to live there.

"You don't want rules made entirely for people that have something, at the expense of people who don't," said Jason Furman, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers.

For the full story, see:

CONOR DOUGHERTY. "When Cities Spurn Growth, Equality Suffers." The New York Times (Mon., July 4, 2016): A1 & B2 [sic].

(Note: the online version of the story has the date July 3, 2016, and has the title "How Anti-Growth Sentiment, Reflected in Zoning Laws, Thwarts Equality.")

The paper mentioned above by Ganong and Shoag, is:

Ganong, Peter, and Daniel Shoag. "Why Has Regional Income Convergence in the U.S. Declined?" Working Paper, Jan. 2015.

The paper mentioned above by Hsieh and Moretti, is:

Hsieh, Chang-Tai, and Enrico Moretti. "Why Do Cities Matter? Local Growth and Aggregate Growth." National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) Working Paper # 21154, May 2015.

July 25, 2016

Tesla and Google Bet on Different Paths to Driverless Cars

(p. B1) SAN FRANCISCO -- In Silicon Valley, where companies big and small are at work on self-driving cars, there have been a variety of approaches, and even some false starts.

The most divergent paths may be the ones taken by Tesla, which is already selling cars that have some rudimentary self-driving functions, and Google, which is still very much in experimental mode.

Google's initial efforts in 2010 focused on cars that would drive themselves, but with a person behind the wheel to take over at the first sign of trouble and a second technician monitoring the navigational computer.

As a general concept, Google was trying to achieve the same goal as Tesla is claiming with the Autopilot feature it has promoted with the Model S, which has hands-free technology that has come under scrutiny after a fatal accident on a Florida highway.

But Google decided to play down the vigilant-human approach after an experiment in 2013, when the company let some of its employees sit behind the wheel of the self-driving cars on their daily commutes.

Engineers using onboard video cameras to remotely monitor the results were alarmed by what (p. B5) they observed -- a range of distracted-driving behavior that included falling asleep.

"We saw stuff that made us a little nervous," Christopher Urmson, a former Carnegie Mellon University roboticist who directs the car project at Google, said at the time.

The experiment convinced the engineers that it might not be possible to have a human driver quickly snap back to "situational awareness," the reflexive response required for a person to handle a split-second crisis.

So Google engineers chose another route, taking the human driver completely out of the loop. They created a fleet of cars without brake pedals, accelerators or steering wheels, and designed to travel no faster than 25 miles an hour.

For good measure they added a heavy layer of foam to the front of their cars and a plastic windshield, should the car make a mistake. While not suitable for high-speed interstate road trips, such cars might one day be able to function as, say, robotic taxis in stop-and-go urban settings.

For the full story, see:

JOHN MARKOFF. "Tesla and Google Take Two Roads to Driverless Car." The New York Times (Tues., JULY 5, 2016): B1 & B5.

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date JULY 4, 2016, and has the title "Tesla and Google Take Different Roads to Self-Driving Car.")

July 24, 2016

Most Eventually Successful Entrepreneurs Don't Quickly Quit Their Day Jobs

(p. B4) For people who prefer an introspective read that is both inspiring and has a dash of self-help, Adam Grant's "Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World" is truly original. Mr. Grant, the youngest-ever tenured full professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, dives into what it takes to be a shoot-the-moon, Steve-Jobs-like success. Many of his conclusions are counterintuitive and based on deep research.

The biggest surprise for me was that the most successful entrepreneurs didn't quit their day jobs to pursue their ideas; instead, they stayed at work until they had worked all the kinks out of their plans and gotten them off the ground. The other head-scratcher in this book? Procrastination is a great thing. (This was a terrific revelation.)

Mr. Grant's research shows that some of the most creative thoughts develop during periods of so-called procrastination.

For the full commentary, see:

Sorkin, Andrew Ross. "DEALBOOK; Tell-Alls, Strategic Plans and Cautionary Tales." The New York Times (Tues., JULY 5, 2016): B1 & B4.

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date JULY 4, 2016, and has the title "DEALBOOK; A Reading List of Tell-Alls, Strategic Plans and Cautionary Tales in Finance.")

The book praised by Sorkin in the passage quoted above, is:

Grant, Adam. Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World. New York: Viking, 2016.

July 23, 2016

EU Regulations Frustrate Innovation

(p. A13) The EU is a supranational government run in a fundamentally undemocratic, indeed antidemocratic, way. It has four presidents, none of them elected. Power to initiate legislation rests entirely with an unelected commission. Its court can overrule our Parliament.

. . .

. . . today, Britain--the most outward-facing of the major European economies--will thrive if it leaves. . . .

This is because the EU's obsession with harmonization (of currency and rules) frustrates innovation. Using as an excuse the precautionary principle or the need to get 28 countries to agree, the EU gets in the way of the new. "Technological progress is often hindered or almost impossible in Europe," says Markus Beyrer, director general of BusinessEurope, a confederation of industry groups. Consequently, we've been left behind in digital technology: There are no digital giants in Europe to rival Amazon, Google, Apple and Facebook.

The EU is also against free trade. It says it isn't, but its actions speak louder. The EU has an external tariff that deters African farmers from exporting their produce to us, helping to perpetuate poverty there, while raising prices in Europe. The EU confiscated Britain's right to sign trade agreements--though we were the nation that pioneered the idea of unilateral free trade in the 1840s. All the trade agreements that the EU has signed are smaller, as measured by the trading partners' GDP, than the agreements made by Chile, Singapore or Switzerland. Those the EU has signed usually exclude services, Britain's strongest sector, and are more about regulations to suit big companies than the dismantling of barriers.

Even worse than in Westminster or Washington, the corridors of Brussels are crawling with lobbyists for big companies, big banks and big environmental pressure groups seeking rules that work as barriers to entry for smaller firms and newer ideas. The Volkswagen emissions scandal came from a big company bullying the EU into rules that suited it and poisoned us. The anti-vaping rules in the latest Tobacco Products Directive, which will slow the decline of smoking, came from lobbying by big pharmaceutical companies trying to defend the market share of their nicotine patches and gums. The de facto ban on genetically modified organisms is at the behest of big green groups, many of which receive huge grants from Brussels.

For the full commentary, see:

MATT RIDLEY. "The Business Case for Brexit; Britain will thrive outside the EU, free from Brussels' regulation and empowered to cut its own trade deals." The Wall Street Journal (Weds., JUNE 22, 2016): A13.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date JUNE 21, 2016.)

July 22, 2016

Iceland Project Turns 95% of Carbon Dioxide into Calcite Rock

(p. A6) For years, scientists and others concerned about climate change have been talking about the need for carbon capture and sequestration.

. . .

Among the concerns about sequestration is that carbon dioxide in gaseous or liquid form that is pumped underground might escape back to the atmosphere. So storage sites would have to be monitored, potentially for decades or centuries.

But scientists at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University and other institutions have come up with a different way to store CO2 that might eliminate that problem. Their approach involves dissolving the gas with water and pumping the resulting mixture -- soda water, essentially -- down into certain kinds of rocks, where the CO2 reacts with the rock to form a mineral called calcite. By turning the gas into stone, scientists can lock it away permanently.

One key to the approach is to find the right kind of rocks. Volcanic rocks called basalts are excellent for this process, because they are rich in calcium, magnesium and iron, which react with CO2.

Iceland is practically all basalt, so for several years the researchers and an Icelandic utility have been testing the technology on the island. The project, called CarbFix, uses carbon dioxide that bubbles up naturally with the hot magma that powers a geothermal electrical generating plant 15 miles east of the capital, Reykjavik.

. . .

Early signs were encouraging: . . .

. . .

The scientists found that about 95 percent of the carbon dioxide was converted into calcite. And even more important, they wrote, the conversion happened relatively quickly -- in less than two years.

"It's beyond all our expectations," said Edda Aradottir, who manages the project for the utility, Reykjavik Energy.

. . .

. . . the researchers say that there is enough porous basaltic rock around, including in the ocean floors and along the margins of continents.

For the full story, see:

HENRY FOUNTAIN. "Project in Iceland for Storing Carbon Shows Promise." The New York Times (Fri., June 10, 2016): A6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date JUNE 9, 2016, and has the title "Iceland Carbon Dioxide Storage Project Locks Away Gas, and Fast.")

The research mentioned above was detailed in an academic paper in Science:

Matter, Juerg M., Martin Stute, Sandra Ó Snæbjörnsdottir, Eric H. Oelkers, Sigurdur R. Gislason, Edda S. Aradottir, Bergur Sigfusson, Ingvi Gunnarsson, Holmfridur Sigurdardottir, Einar Gunnlaugsson, Gudni Axelsson, Helgi A. Alfredsson, Domenik Wolff-Boenisch, Kiflom Mesfin, Diana Fernandez de la Reguera Taya, Jennifer Hall, Knud Dideriksen, and Wallace S. Broecker. "Rapid Carbon Mineralization for Permanent Disposal of Anthropogenic Carbon Dioxide Emissions." Science 352, no. 6291 (June 10, 2016): 1312-14.

July 21, 2016

Tech Support Causes Rage By Taking Away Sense of Control

(p. B4) Especially frustrating when talking to tech support is not being understood because you are trying to communicate with machines or people who have been trained to talk like machines, either for perceived quality control or because they don't speak English well enough to go off-script.

"It's utterly maddening because the thing about conversations is that when I say something to you, I believe I'm having influence on the conversation," said Art Markman, professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and co-host of the podcast "Two Guys on Your Head." "And when you say something back to me that makes no sense, now I see that all these words I spoke have had no effect whatsoever on what's happening here."

When things don't make sense and feel out of control, mental health experts say, humans instinctively feel threatened. Though you would like to think you can employ reason in this situation, you're really just a mass of neural impulses and primal reactions. Think fight or flight, but you can't do either because you are stuck on the phone, which provokes rage.

Of course, companies rated best for tech support often charge more for their products or they may charge a subscription fee for enhanced customer care so the cost of helping you is baked in, as with Apple's customer support service, AppleCare, and the Amazon Prime subscription service.

You can also find excellent tech support in competitive markets like domain name providers, where operators such as Hover and GoDaddy receive high marks. Also a good bet are hungry upstarts trying to break into markets traditionally dominated by large national companies. Take regional internet and phone service providers like Logix and WOW, which rank near the top in customer support surveys.

For the full story, see:

KATE MURPHY. "Why Help on Tech Is Unbearable." The New York Times (Mon., July 4, 2016): B1 & B4.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date July 3, 2016, and has the title "Why Tech Support Is (Purposely) Unbearable.")

July 20, 2016

The Lucky Success of the Half-Blind "Becomes the Inevitable Coup of the Assured Visionary"

(p. B1) The most fun business book I have read this year? "Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley," by a former Facebook executive, Antonio García Martinez. I was sent a galley copy several months ago and picked it up with no intention of reading more than the first couple of pages. I don't think I looked up until about three hours later.

This is a tell-all of Mr. Martinez's experience in venture capital and later at Facebook, filled with insights about Silicon Valley -- what he calls "the tech whorehouse" -- mixed with score-settling anecdotes that will occasionally make you laugh out loud. Clearly there will be people who hate this book -- which is probably one of the things that makes it such a great read.

The dedication page includes this gem: "To all my enemies: I could not have done it without you." Mr. Martinez is particularly incisive when it comes to illustrating how failed ideas that happen to work are often spun into great successes: "What was an improbable bonanza at the hands of the flailing half-blind becomes the inevitable coup of the assured visionary," he writes. "The world crowns you a genius, and you start acting like one."

For the full commentary, see:

Sorkin, Andrew Ross. "DEALBOOK; Tell-Alls, Strategic Plans and Cautionary Tales." The New York Times (Tues., JULY 5, 2016): B1 & B4.

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date JULY 4, 2016, and has the title "DEALBOOK; A Reading List of Tell-Alls, Strategic Plans and Cautionary Tales in Finance.")

The book praised by Sorkin in the passage quoted above, is:

Martinez, Antonio Garcia. Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley. New York: Harper, 2016.

July 19, 2016

Good Niche Movies Can Be More Profitable than Blockbusters

(p. 5D) "Counterprogramming is the framework to get the most
bang for the buck for movies that aren't necessarily going to be blockbusters. "

Counterprogramming has become a crazy expensive game of chicken, Dergarabedian says.

Scheduling a rom-com next to a superhero franchise or a horror movie on Valentine's Day is a classic ploy, he says, but there's no formula that's guaranteed. "You still have to be able to deliver the movie," Dergarabedian says. "People are looking for different and good. You can't just rely on being the other option."

. . .

"A lot of these are David and Goliath matchups," Dergarabedian says. "But it's about who wins the profitability derby. That can ultimately be more important than where you rank on the chart."

To determine success, look at how well the audience is served rather than money, says Erik Davis, managing editor for Movies.com and Fandango.com. The greater the disparity in the genres, the better the position to succeed, he says.

Though Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 performed modestly against BvS, Davis considers that scheduling a a win. "They (both) have potential to mine their specific audience," he says.

For the full story, see:

Heady, Chris. "Studios Think Outside the Box (Office)." USA Today (Thurs., July 7, 2016): 5D.

Eight Most Recent Comments:

Ed Rector said:

There are more than 2000 colleges in the USA offering tens of thousands of degrees/majors. Oh yes, there are also a few thousand JC's, trade schools and apprentice programs that train welders. Who should decide what any individual student wants to study?? Senator Rubio, the Mercatus Center or the individual student?? And you call yourselves 'freedom-loving Libertarians' !!

Aaron said:

You need a "like" button. Here's to enjoying bacon and eggs on an unusually warm fall day and doing so guilt free.

Aaron said:

I'd also suggest that work is just part of who some people are and a reason they got rich. A friend's dad comes to mind; he's a millionaire and in his 60s and a couple years ago I saw him cleaning one of his rental houses and wondered why he didn't pay someone to do it, but he's just one of those guys who'd rather work than golf or relax.

Jim Rose said:

It is often forgotten that the Minister for International trade and industry in the late 1960s up until 1971 was Tanaka – the most corrupt man in postwar Japanese politics. He had previously been Minister for Public Works, but to generate the necessary bribe income to pay an entire generation of Japanese politicians to step aside to allow him to become Prime Minister in the early 1970s at a young age, he thought the Ministry of International trade and industry was a better position to garner influence and donations. My professors in Japan worked in the Ministry of International trade and industry and the Ministry of Finance in the 1970s and 1960s. None of them seemed to carry over their picking winners skills into their private portfolios when they retired. see http://utopiayouarestandinginit.com/2014/03/14/if-you-are-so-smart-why-arent-you-rich/

Aaron said:

Interested to see how not only did Hamilton gain a vote, but also how Jefferson lost one.

Dave Megan said:

Merging of companies is always better when they have a better goal. It will give better service for the public.

Ed Rector said:

The 'quickened pace of production' of the early Reagan years was directly attributable to RR's massive deficit spending. The national debt almost tripled under the watch of St. Ronnie. BO will have to work overtime to even approach this record of accomplishment.

Aaron said:

The last two paragraphs comport perfectly with what Paul Tough describes in a book you posted on a few months ago, "How Children Succeed." Tough advocates that a stable, loving relationship between kids and their parents, especially in the first few years of life, produces self-assured and less anxious adults due to brain formation or chemical reactions that take place in a baby's brain (simplified summary). As always, appreciate the posts, especially the Paul Tough book.



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