Notes – Corporate Strategy

The following are my unedited notes from my reading of Corporate Strategy:

Corporate strategy versus business strategy

Corporate advantage versus competitive advantage

Two ways of increasing competitive advantage:

1.) raise the price customers are willing to pay

2.) lower the price suppliers are willing to sell for

Maximizing corporate advantage may or may not be consistent with maximizing the competitive advantage of each individual business

Some businesses could give up competitive advantage in their business in order to enhance the competitive advantage of other businesses in the portfolio

Corporate strategy matters at least as much as the analysis of industry competition (implication for passive investment analysis)

A natural, minimal benchmark for a corporate strategist is a passive investor

Synergy is therefore the means through which corporate advantage is created relative to a typical investor who can select the same portfolio of investments

Portfolio assembly can be a corporate advantage in cases of private/restricted capital markets

By coming into existence, the multi-business firm in effect destroys its own best benchmark

The super-rich may treat their business group as their own mutual fund

Corporate advantage is defined in terms of jointly owning businesses and synergies in terms of jointly operating them.

While an investor could create corporate advantage, an investor cannot extract synergies.

For a corporate strategist to create corporate advantage over what an investor can achieve in efficient capital markets, there must at least be some form of synergy between two businesses in the portfolio

To find synergies, construct a value chain for each business/division and look for opportunities to coordinate or economize activity

Forms of synergy

  1. Consolidation, creating value by rationalization across similar resources from similar value chain activities by eliminating redundancies, affects mostly costs and invested capital
  2. Combination, creating value by pooling similar resources from similar value chain activities, such as combining purchasing to obtain volume discounts or acquiring a competitor then raising prices for customers, impacts either costs or revenues
  3. Customization, creating value by co-specializing dissimilar resources in order to create greater joint value, results in improved value in production or consumption and involves modification of resources, the transfer of best practices can create unique value
  4. Connection, generates value by simply pooling the output of dissimilar value chain activities, for example customers may value being able to buy a bundle of different products and services together, the product development of one business is being connected to the distribution channel of another

One common negative synergy is brand dilution, ie, does the brand apply? Another is complexity. Another is market rivalry, this is a significant concern in the advertising industry, where when two firms who serve rivals merge, the chances of keeping both their clients is low

Governance costs act as taxes that eat into the potential benefits from synergies when they are attempted to be extracted

When an autonomous business becomes a division within another, the incentives of the owner and managers are necessarily diluted

Synergies are likely to generate significant transaction costs are less likely to be successfully realized in arms length relationships between independent firms than under common ownership

A management services firm is a kind of non-equity alliance

The more mature and efficient the capital markets in which a company operates, the greater the pressure on the company to engage in diversification primarily on the basis of potential synergies between existing and new businesses

The CEO should be spending the shareholders’ money on entry into new businesses only to extract value that the shareholder could not by investing directly in such a business on her own

In the absence of bargains, passing the synergy test is necessary but not sufficient to pass the diversification test

If some other corporate parent has even stronger synergies with a business than you do, you should consider divesting

An active policy of looking for divestiture opportunities is sensible

On average, a corporate parent that divests a business increases shareholder value

Imagine that, starting today, the two businesses would be moved into separate ownership and would be operated completely independently, with no communication or exchange of any kind between the two. How would the value of the businesses be effected?

Divesting when you can, and not when you have to is usually preferable

Outsourcing often carries significant transaction costs

Think about the multi-business corporation as a collection of value chain activities

One should be able to read the corporate strategy of a company in its organization chart: what kinds of activities does the top management feel are essential to integrate?

Pure forms of organization: by activity, by output, by user/customer

Grouping similar activities together emphasizes economies of scale at the expense of economies of scope, whereas grouping different activities together does exactly the opposite

Every grouping arrangement emphasizes certain interactions but excludes others, which show up as opportunity costs and bottlenecks

No structure is permanent

Don’t forget about how to integrate activities while you’re thinking about ways to partition them up

Corporate management functions:

  • Treasury
  • Risk management
  • Taxation
  • Financial reporting
  • Company secretary
  • Legal counsel
  • Government relations
  • Investor relations

The goal of resource allocation in the portfolio is thus to push businesses further away from the origin toward the top and right, away from the investment threshold (pg 212)

One low hanging fruit for multi-business firms in terms of corporate strategy is to actually give thoughtful consideration to capital allocation decisions within the portfolio

In the M&A and Post-merger Integration process, Evaluation refers to a post-transaction review of what went right and wrong

On average, acquirers do not benefit (in terms of market cap) from an acquisition; most target shareholders benefit from an acquisition

The ICSA Company Secretary’s Handbook, resource for corporate management

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Notes – Horizon Kinetics 2015 Compendium (@HorizonKinetics, #investing, #diversification, #indexing, #EMH)

For the last two years, Murray Stahl and Steve Bregman of Horizon Kinetics have published a “Compendium Compilation” of their various research pieces and market commentariesthroughout the year. I recently requested copies of the 2014 and 2015 compendiums and just completed reading through the 2015 compendium. What follows are “stitched together” quotes from several of the essays.

The Indexation Experience

An active manager always can be found to be deficient if underperformance relative to an appropriate index is discovered. In fact, a manager can be found to be deficient if a return generated is equivalent to the appropriate index… one could always purchase the index as the less expensive investment alternative.

How does one judge an index to be deficient?

Since short-term interest rates approach zero in most regions of the world, the valuation environment is very benign… most governments during this period have embarked upon grand fiscal stimulus efforts that are now becoming unsustainable.

When one measures a manager relative to an index, is one measuring investment acumen or marketing ability?

The manager… will purchase a security until the expected excess rate of return is zero. The index… is marketed until the marginal revenue from a product is zero, which is an entirely different concept.

The index is not constrained by valuation.

Most indexes, in the fullness of time, do not earn impressive rates of return.

Problems With Indexation

When indexation excludes the so-called marginal securities, two things happen. The marginal securities are the stocks where the volatility really resides, which means the index is going to lose its volatility. Second, the marginal securities are an important contributor to what would have been the return… their negative impact gets captured on the way down– but the positive return impact does not get captured on the way up.

It is the nature of a market capitalization weighted index that it is always un-diversifying.

Diversification

 

The problem with such an approach [wide diversification] is that it is quite impossible for any individual, or even a team of individuals, to have a good working knowledge of the individual investments at a security level. The portfolio can only be understood in terms of its statistical attributes… CalPERS… has about 20,349 individual investments.

If a team of 10 analysts were to work eight hours a day for three months, which is 22 business days per month, with no interruptions, the team would have at its disposal 10 x 8 x 3 x 22 man-hours to read 20,349 quarterly reports. This amounts to 5,280 man-hours available to read 20,349 quarterly reports, which equates to slightly more than 15 minutes per quarterly report… It should be obvious that success or failure in this endeavor must depend upon whether the statistical attributes of the portfolio provide the data necessary to make intelligent asset allocation decisions… it is impossible to devise a simple list of fundamental statistics to be used to comprehend a portfolio… because of differences in corporate expenditure practices, depreciation policies, tax laws in various jurisdictions, and GAAP vs. IFRS accounting.

The many diversified funds that purchase the most liquid securities must by definition generally own the same securities, since there is only one set of liquid securities. If the diversified institutions, therefore, own the same securities, when studying the price behavior of those securities, those institutions are, in reality, studying themselves.

If one believes in the Efficient Markets Hypothesis, then securities prices must reflect the beliefs of the holders of the securities. Yet, as shown above, the holders of securities do not study the securities. In fact, given diversification practices, it is not possible to study the securities. It is only possible that the investors study one another. Thus, one is confronted with a feedback loop or a huge self-reference paradox, as one may see in the paintings of M.C. Escher, such as Waterfall or Drawing Hands.

Another interesting case is the Singapore Index… returned 3.2% per annum. The mere fact that the economy of Singapore grew at over 6% per annum for more than 18 years does not correlate well with the stock market reutnr for the simple reason that the Singaporean companies in the index are global companies. These results reflect many factors apart from the economy of Singapore.

Similarly, the Swedish index does not necessarily reflect the economy of Sweden. And the UK index does not necessarily reflect the economy of the UK.

The thrust of these facts is to question, if not actually reject, the geographical form of classification as an asset allocation building block. That calls into question the entire international method of investing. The characteristics of equities have little to do with the legal place of domicile of a given firm. However, on a weekly basis the Investment Company Institute records $3 billion to $4 billion withdrawn from domestic equity funds and deposited into internaitonal equity funds in search of diversification and risk control atrributes that simply do not exist. As has been the case with many widely held investment beliefs without foundation, this will not have a good outcome.

Inefficient Markets

[Fischer Black] said that there are people who are highly knowledgeable about certain companies– the information traders– and when they trade, they are very well informed. Most others, however, are not so well informed; they are the noise traders.

[Fischer Black’s concept of] efficient markets was that if the bulk of investors were in an index that, as he defined it, would include every stock out there– everything– the noise traders would go there. That would eliminate the bulk of the noise traders from the active marketplace, so only the information traders would be trading. They would not go into the index, becuase they are highly informed, and the market would be much more efficient in the sense that it would reflect the judgments of informed participants.

If one reflects upon this matter [Carl Icahn’s letter to Apple], one will see that Mr. Icahn has posed an exceedingly profound question to all investors, and especially academics. Apple is the largest company in the world. It is arguably the most ubiquitous company in the world. Billions of people use Apple products daily and are very familiar with those products. If there is any equity in the world that should be priced efficiently, it should be Apple.

Yet, Apple has a lower P/E than companies such as Exxon, Coca-cola, and even Philip Morris International. One might debate the future prospects for Apple, but surely these are more robust than those of Philip Morris International. Does anyone assert that demand for cigarettes will increase?

The money manager industry is not populated by Homo Economicus, carefully and rationally evaluating different investment opportunities. The money manager can only survive by attracting assets to manage for a fee.

Modern financial theory cannot explain momentum because, if the stock market is efficient, there should be no serial correlation observed in securities… momentum investing is not a new innovation. It is a concept virtually as old as the idea of a stock market, although it has not always been called “momentum.” Technical analysis is essentially a search for securities with momentum.

It is now possible to raise substantial sums for almost any index if the rate of return is sufficiently high. It is nearly impossible to raise money for any index if the rate of return is insufficiently high, let alone if that return happens to be negative. This is not the asset allocation process. This is the momentum process. The industry makes use of a substantial marketing budget, It clearly influences the valuations not only of individual securities but of entire sectors, and it dominates, for the time being, the investment process.

 

Other Remarks

  • Is modern risk control methodology actually serving to reduce risk or is it merely convincing professional investors to accept, perhaps unwittingly, another type of risk?
  • It should be noted that the real was not always the currency of Brazil. There were cruzeiros, there were cruzadoes, and now we have the real. That in itself should tell the reader something about the stability of the currency.
  • Historically, that is what emerging market debt was: questionable claims against governments.
  • Bonds should be thought of in the following way: they offer risk with no possibility of reward, especially if you are a taxable investor.

 

Notes – Best Practices in Deal Flow Origination (#investing, @dteten)

These notes are from an article entitled “Where Are The Deals?” by David Teten. He also has resources on adding value to portfolio companies which are worth browsing. For notes on a related topic, check out the “Notes – Stanford Graduate School of Business Search Fund Primer” post.

  • the median investor in private companies had to review 80 companies in order to close one transaction
  • investments sourced through personal and professional networks have been shown to yield better results
  • in order to train your relationships, it is important that you provide them with simple, clear investing criteria, not lengthy checklists; provide them a narrowly defined niche of interest (“Retail brands with $50M in annual revenues”)
  • on average it can take 1-2 years between the first meeting with a target CEO sourced through a network and the close of the deal
  • market mapping, identifying key macro and micro drivers of an industry and creating a database of all key companies; identify those with greatest growth potential or competitive white space
  • specialization enhances deal origination through deeper knowledge base, ability to add value through enhanced network and likelihood of being top of mind to key deal sources
  •  monitor target sector for cyclical opportunities and structure shifts; M&A creates orphan divisions and downturns cause strategy refocuses; 30-46% of PE returns over last 30 years driven by EBIT arbitrage (market timing)
  • other valuable sources of deal flow:
    • regional surveys
    • “fastest growing company” lists
    • trade association membership lists
    • commercial vendors
      • Amadeus
      • Capital IQ
      • Dun & Bradstreet
      • Hoover’s
      • InfoUSA
      • Lexis-Nexis
      • Thomson-Reuters
      • OneSource
  • set up alerts in a blog reader based on key words important to your target or industry focus
  • “A large portion of my deal flow comes from people I have rejected in the past.” be kind to everyone, even those you don’t do a deal with
  • consider having a dedicated, SEO-optimized website and blog for your acquisition fund/team that explains what you’re looking for, why, what you bring to the table, etc.; many VCs and most PE investors are not using basic internet marketing techniques (competitive advantage opportunity)
  • Accel Partners and Khosla Ventures post detailed analyses of their target investment sectors; blogging and posting of internal analyses is the “VC freemium model”
  • PE investing is a relationship business and the most important relationships are with LPs, entrepreneurs, executives and intermediaries which are relatively few in number
  • blogging is the best tool for VC investing according to one experienced observer; helps investor gain information, credibility and relationships through improved visibility
  • look for access to secondary interests through directly approaching funds (particularly distressed), markets for secondary interests (SecondMarket, NYPPEX, PORTAL Alliance) and approaching ibanks specializing in secondary interests (Cogent Partners, Probitas, Triago, UBS)
  • service providers such as accountants, lawyers, etc., are typically not good sources of deal flow because they require too much education and often have a fiduciary responsibility to their client; on the other hand, connecting with service providers in a specialized domain that is being targeted can be a good source of insight
  • trawl the Q&A portion of sites such as LinkedIn to identify domain experts for further outreach
  • measure your deal origination efforts with activity measures, deal flow by source, pipeline analytics and industry benchmarking measures
  • many professional services firms do not use a global CRM system such as Salesforce.com, Act, Saleslogix, Microsoft Access or Angelsoft (angel/VC network)
  • Key data sources for CRM systems include employee networks (ContactNet Enterprise Relationship Management), business cards (Cardscan, IRIS, Neat, Presto), data from email and files (eGrabber, Gwabbit, Grab-Text, Broadlook), the “cloud” (LinkedIn, Spoke, Plaxo) and direct from target companies’ websites, media, etc.

Key attributes of top originators in order of importance

  1. persistence (every no gets you closer to a yes)
  2. personality (people do business with those they like)
  3. business and financial judgment
  4. adequate financial sophistication
  5. seniority and appropriate title (decision-maker)
  6. internal authority to get transaction executed
  7. creativity

Important deal signals when identifying targets (utilize commercial databases, social media, data mining and targeted phone research to uncover)

  • Status of the major equity owner
    • PE funds motivated to sell due to fully invested, raising next fund or current fund has aged beyond 5-7 years
    • Large corp raising cash by selling subsidiaries
    • Time limited tax incentives
    • Family in midst of succession battle
    • Death, disease and divorce (“three Ds”)
  • Status of CEO
    • retirement
    • age
    • acknowledgement of limited competence
  • Corporate performance
    • growth too rapid for self-funding
    • underperforming/distressed
  • Industry/economic trends
    • industry consolidation
      • competitive pressure
      • seeing competitors liquidating equity for large gains
    • competitors raising capital; pressure to maintain parity
    • growth sector

Top considerations for deal intermediaries in directing deal flow

  1. Possibility of future revenue
  2. Integrity
  3. Timely responses
  4. “Fair” treatment of sellers
  5. Experience with the industry or owner type
  6. High certainty to close
  7. Friendship
  8. Feedback and referrals
  9. Maintaining a single point of contact

Most valued aspects of acquiring companies by the acquired

  1. Added operational value
  2. No extra costs
  3. Fair treatment of employees post-transaction
  4. Brand
  5. Long holding periods (no buy-to-flip)

Leading databases of institutional investors (use principles of SEO to optimize your profile here)

  • Galante’s
  • Grey House
  • VentureXpert
  • PE funds
    • Eurekahedge
    • Pitchbook
  • VC funds
    • Angelsoft
    • CrunchBase
    • PWC MoneyTree
    • TheFunded
    • VentureDeal

Market Mapping steps

  1. choose industries and geographies of initial interest
  2. define your proprietary point of view
  3. translate into investment theme (industries/geographies of interest)
  4. list major players in target industry/geography
  5. improve market map with feedback from industry contacts and investment targets
  6. determine which activities offer the highest return and outsource the rest
  7. identify areas of future growth
  8. asses fit with your overall strategy
  9. regularly update the market map with additional feedback and lessons

10 Simple Steps to Improve Your Origination

  1. Analyze your network
  2. Use market mapping to develop deep, proprietary insights about your target
  3. Monitor target ecosystem for cyclical/structural opportunities
  4. Align internal interests
  5. Divide and conquer
  6. Centralize data and become an information sponge
  7. Develop a network with limited overlap
  8. Take control of your virtual presence (marketing)
  9. Join the in-person and virtual communities of your target market
  10. Take a leadership role; find a way to stand out and attract others to you

Notes – Edward Tufte’s “Presenting Data and Information” (@EdwardTufte, #display, #data, #visualization, #design, #statistics)

Edward Tufte is a Yale-connected academic who conducts several private seminars around the country each year promoting his view of visual design for the display of quantitative information and statistics. He has published multiple books through his own publishing mark such as [amazon text=The Visual Display of Quantitative Information&asin=0961392142], [amazon text=Beautiful Evidence&asin=0961392177], [amazon text=Envisioning Information&asin=0961392118] and [amazon text=Visual Explanations&asin=0961392126]. His personal website which contains articles, research papers, examples of his work and principles and other information is at EdwardTufte.com. A friend who is a fan has blogged some notes about the man and his seminar courses.

If I were to summarize Tufte’s philosophy of information design into a single sentence, which is certainly a crude way to approach the nuanced and thoughtful lifework of a person, I’d say this– beautiful design means creating the highest density information display the resolution of your medium will allow. This stands in stark contrast to the reigning paradigm of “less is more” and sacrificing much of the available real estate of an information display for white/empty space, navigational or UI elements and “inference assists” (my term) such as arrows, boxes and non-data lines which are supposed to draw the viewer’s attention to what’s important or where to focus their eyes.

In Tufte’s own words, he summarized the philosophy with the pithy, “The information is the interface; maximize content reasoning time; minimize design decoding time.” [Note: on my hand-written notes written in a darkened room early in the morning at the start of his seminar, I think I mistakenly wrote “maximize design decoding time” but meant to write “minimize”.] Even more pithy, and in Tufte’s own words:

The purpose of information display is to assist thinking about its content.

I attended his seminar in San Diego, CA in February. Below I am posting my notes which may or may not be useful to a person unfamiliar with his work or the content of the seminar. Tufte, who introduces himself as “ET”, likes to circulate amongst his audience before, during and after the session and introduce himself– clearly he enjoys what he does and appreciates the people who have taken an interest in his work which is a good professional example for others to follow.

  • The information is the interface.
  • Idea: maximize content reasoning time; minimize [maximize? see above] design decoding time
    • design decode effort/time is wasteful as the pattern for design is often not repeated in the future
  • Graphics are only useful when there is a lot of data, not a little bit of data
  • Design should encourage scanning, scrolling and choosing
  • Increases in resolution allows for spatial adjacency [note: this is the idea of putting lots of information side-by-side versus having to change mediums, windows, displays, repeatedly to compare and contrast blocks of information]
  • Digital display screen resolution is finally approaching “P.A.P.E.R. technology” (paper) resolution
  • Simple, clear conventional design with rich, complex data is preferable to complicated design devoid of content; many designers invest too much effort in display relative to content quality
  • NYT, WSJ are highly trafficked websites high in information density (many links, many pieces of data and text) which demonstrate this approach is desirable for design of corporate sites
  • Names have reputations, put your name on your work
  • Reasoning on a flat surface means all viewers can go at their own pace; a slideshow makes most people wait; think “documents” not “decks”
  • Listing sources for data provides credibility and reasons to believe
  • Look at sources, start points, end points, rates of change, to examine whether a chart establishes a relationship between evidence and conclusion
  • Annotations help explain all data by providing specific information about one data point captured in the graphic
  • Look at “excellence in the wild” to contrast your own efforts against the pros
    • Use Word, not PowerPoint
    • Be web-based
  • Order data tables by performance, not by alphabet; performance often tells a story
  • ESPN.com demonstrates that even complex data can be appreciated by lesser intellects (!)
  • Dashboards are idiotic and no way to operate a business or institution
  • How to Make A Presentation, some tips:
    • show up early (head off problems, ensure equipment works, room not double-booked, etc.)
    • talk to people
    • give them a document for discussion; don’t give it in advance of the meeting, no homework
    • begin meetings with study hall, people can read faster than you talk
    • the document addresses the principles of individualism and personalization as people can take what information from it they deem important
    • PPT disappears as you go higher up an org chart, the top execs have no time for the “long and winding road” (Steve Ballmer anecdote); submit ideas to discuss as written documents
    • provide intellectual leadership about content, stop discussing production methodology
    • finish early, your audience will thank you
    • Remember “Problem, Relevance, Solution”, three necessary components of any good presentation
  • How does Jeff Bezos run a meeting? Read the Forbes article or watch this Charlie Rose interview:
  • Applied presentation tip– provide notes/documents of medical concerns for a doctor to read during your doctor visit; this is what they’re trained to do and they’ll pay more attention to the information if you give them something to read
  • Check out The Public Library of Science and its templates for ideas on content rich documents
  • You can copy the source code from EdwardTufte.com and use the CSS to apply style ideas to your own blog or website
  • Real reading entails looting and hacking the valuable materials useful for later efforts, liberating them from the text; always read with an awareness for context (what came before this, what comes after, why did the author write it?); this echoes the idea of “making the work your own” of Mortimer Adler
  • Refer to “Beautiful Evidence”, pg. 78-79, using diagram trees appropriately (annotated linking lines)
    • links need to convey causality and action
    • replace generic lines with words and numbers– annotate!
  • Turn fundamental principles of analytical thinking into design decisions
  • The purpose of information display is to assist thinking about its content
  • Don’t pre-specify a data display method, use whatever method the job requires
  • Look at Google Maps and ask IT why you can’t achieve similar design capabilities; their maps are rich, colorful, multi-dimensional, varied fonts and orientation of information, etc.
  • Refer to “Visual Explanations”, pg. 90-91
  • Refer to “Beautiful Evidence”, pgs. 82-83, 114-115; exploring words, numbers and images together
  • Today’s computer interfaces separate and segregate information based on the method of production
  • Statistical graphics can be anywhere a number or letter can be
  • Statistical graphics can have the same resolution as topography
  • Refer to “Beautiful Evidence”, pg. 46-47, “sparklines” method for creating text-sized data graphics, embedded within text (inspired by Galileo’s revelation of Saturn)
  • “Nature” magazine has some of the best data-driven graphical displays, good place to look for examples of the possible
  • Why aren’t all data displays excellent? Tufte suggests there is a profit-driven bias and the dominance of Microsoft combined with the lack of scientific rigor of many data designers results in a failure of the “public spirit” principle; color me skeptical about profit and “public spirit” being at odds!
  • Excel, Google Analytics can both produce sparklines
  • Refer to “Beautiful Evidence”, pg. 58, for the famed Swiss mountain maps, or see this video (YouTube):

  • The human eye-brain optic system operates at 20mb/s in 16-bit color, digital displays don’t come close to this much data and resolution
  • Content and credibility are the keys to presenting and spectatorship
    • have the sources been credible in the past?
    • demonstrate your understanding of detail and mastery of verbs, not nouns (not who is who, but who does what to whom?)
    • threats to credibility: lying, cherry-picking (evidence vs. evidence selection), over-polished, hidden or absent sources (“proprietary”, “legal liability”, “violate federal law”, etc.)
  • Know your content, not your audience; maintain respect for your audience
    • “know your audience” leads to pandering
    • use presentations as a teaching moment to inform people of your content
  • Scan lots of material and drill down where you see discrepancies for superior economization on large volumes of data to achieve relevance
  • Investigate how data was measured; go out, walk around, see the process producing the data
    • people can not keep their own score; the metric is gamed as soon as it becomes important
    • eg, Google words are gamed by SEO, so use Google Images to search
  • Refer to “Beautiful Evidence”, pg. 32-33 for “small multiples” concept; use the need to learn a repetitious format to get people to focus on the content
  • Universality and “forever ideas”; Galileo was the supreme data designer; why should the “best thing ever” have occurred recently versus long ago?
  • Personal curiosity– why are US internet pipelines significantly slower than other developed nations?
  • Spatial adjacency versus temporal stacking (hi-res vs. low-res)
  • Different modes of display are not competitors, they are co-operators in communicating information; no one display is optimal

[amazon asin=0961392142&template=iframe image2] [amazon asin=0961392177&template=iframe image2] [amazon asin=0961392118&template=iframe image2] [amazon asin=0961392126&template=iframe image2]

Notes – The 2014 Rothbard Graduate Seminar (#economics, #gradstudies, @mises)

In 2014 I attended the Rothbard Graduate Seminar at the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, AL as an observer. The following are notes I typed while listening to lectures and discussions between faculty and graduate students. They have been edited for clarity, organization and in some cases privacy.
Lecture 1, Praxeology, David Gordon
  • Praxeology is the science of human action, uses deductive methodology, begins with axiom of man acting, deduced with supplementary postulates (Rothbard uses action axiom, Mises never refers to “Man acts”, he refers to the concept of action)
  • Supplementary postulates: leisure is desired over work, there are a variety of economic resources
  • Economics is the best-developed branch of praxeology: Crusoe economics (isolated human action), catallactics (economics of exchange) including barter and money
  • The study of violent intervention in the market, socialism and interventionism, are also part of praxeological analysis, as well as “games”, but these have not been well-developed (no systematic treatises?)
  • Examples of praxeological reasoning— every action uses means to achieve an end; every action is a choice between alternatives; the actor always chooses his highest valued alternative
  • Methodological individualism— only individuals act, not groups or societies or nations or classes, however this doesn’t imply that nations and classes don’t exist
  • On Austrian Methodology” by Robert Nozick, an interesting article
  • Methodological Individualism has been used to deflate various ideologies such as nationalism, statism, etc.
  • Why should we do economics this way (praxeology)?
    • Popular objection: principles of praxeology are supposed to be synthetic (truth about the world) and a priori (knowable by simply thinking about them), but you can’t learn about the world just by thinking about it, the meaning of concepts is conventional, people just decide to use words a certain way, you can’t make something true about the world just by defining words, other a priori truths are logical and tautological that say nothing new about the world
    • Rothbard’s answer: concepts come from experience, action isn’t an arbitrary construction but rather an abstraction from experience, if we get the concept from experience we know action exists, then anything we deduce from that applies to the world, deduction transmits truth from premises to the conclusion, if the premises are true the conclusion is true
    • Tautology objection: rests on an equivocation
    • Rothbard’s objections to the mainstream: they construct mathematical models and then test predictions derived from the models; math substitutes functional relations for causation, also introduces the false assumption of continuity but human action occurs in discrete steps, he objects to the testing because there is no way to perform controlled experiments as all phenomena are occurring simultaneously, and there are no quantitative laws of human action, human action is the product of choice
Questions:
1.) In property rights theory, how can joint ownership (or government ownership) of a resource be explained if “only individuals act”?
2.) How do we know the experience of action is true? Don’t we need a prior theory to interpret the empirical experience of action as action?
3.) Can Austrian economics be translated into math? If not, does this suggest it is not rigorous or coherent?
4.) Why is the Austrian ERE a useful abstract tool for studying elements of reality in isolation, but the “equilibrium” economy of mainstream thought is not?
Discussion session:
Rothbard’s book (Economic Controversies) had great depth, not just covering epistemology and economic theory but historical commentary, etc., this book is also digestible, repetitive so you get the same concept dissected from different angles, straight to the point, challenges the mainstream orthodoxy, accessible to the layperson, Rothbard starts with realistic premises and deduces from there which makes this approach even more empirical (econometric models falsify the real world), his criticisms are very thorough and you want to smile after you read them which is unique in reading academic papers. Rothbard isn’t ashamed to say there is meaning and truth.
Methodological individualism applies only to the concept of action, it does not exclude the idea of something like a “cosmic consciousness”, there is a difference between ontological and methodological claims; praxeology is not a metaphysical system, it simply takes the world as we find it
Mathematical annotation is more precise than verbal logic, but one problem is how do you convert initial premises into mathematical annotation (and back when a conclusion is reached)?
“Academic choice”, public choice analysis applied to the incentive structure of academia and how this influences their search for truth
Lecture 2, Methodological Debates, Jeff Herbner
  • Every academic discipline is defined by its method and scope (boundaries).
  • Rothbard— Each subject matter has a proper method; neoclassical approach— there is only one scientific method.
  • Praxeology’s divisions:
    • Theory of Isolated Person (autistic exchange)
    • Theory of Voluntary Exchange
      •  barter
      • medium of exchange (catallactics)
        • unhampered market
        • violent intervention
        • violent abolition of market
    • Theory of Games
    • Theory of War
    • Unknown
  • Neoclassical divisions:
    • Rational choice model
      • Market participants
      • Political participants
      • Social participants
    • Behavioral economics
  • Categories of the social sciences
    • Economics— voluntary associations w/ economic calculation (UME, HME)
    • Sociology— voluntary associations w/o economic calculation (family, church)
    • History— contingent, concrete conditions of action blended w/ theory
    • Ethics— personal action, interpersonal action, voluntary and involuntary
    • Politics— involuntary associations (gangs, states)
  • Praxeology— logic of action, economizing, underneath all 5
  • Praxeology and Ethics— public policy (economic science is value free, but economic policy is value laden and requires assumptions or principles about ethics and what is desirable to make conclusions), critique of ethics, political philosophy, welfare economics
  • Misesian Economics— a.) economic theory b.) economic history (understanding economic action in the past) c.) applied economics (predicting economic effect in the future based on proposed economic cause, i.e., policy)
  • Neoclassical Economics— economic model and empirical testing
Questions:
1.) Is the division in economics between calculating and non-calculating, or financial calculation and non-financial calculation? How are non-calculating actors choosing if not by some form of calculus?
2.) Who has best developed Games and War theories of praxeology?
3.) Why aren’t Austrians trying to develop comprehensive treatises in these fields?
4.) What is the application of game theory?
5.) How do you know when a circumstance is new and requires an extension of the existing theory, or when it is “unoriginal” and can be explained by the previous body of theory? How do we know when existing theory can’t explain a new phenomenon or historical incident? How is this explanation different from the pragmatist argument about a lack of common principles?
6.) Who, if anyone, is worth reading right now outside of the Austrian tradition, and why?
7.) How can “proportionality” be administered in a judicial punishment setting without treading into utilitarianism or other non-subjectivist value systems?
Lecture 3, Austrian Microeconomics, Peter Klein
  • Price theory, production theory, the theory of the firm, some parts of capital theory, etc., constitute “Austrian micro”
  • It is not mainstream micro minus calculus and some graphs plus “spontaneous order” and “radical subjectivism”, etc.; this is a misconception of the contribution of Austrian econ
  • Mengerian economics— focused on mundane topics, not esoterica; shares subjective utility and marginal analysis of Walras and Jevons; not simply verbal version of neoclassicism, emphasized cause and effect real market behaviors and thus “causal-realist”
  • Fundamentals of Austrian micro— economics as the analysis of action (praxeology); teleology, means and ends; economic goods which are concrete (real prices of real goods, not abstract prices of conceptual entities) and are limited and desirable, split into consumer and producer goods (direct and indirect serving of human needs); time, implied by action, itself a scare means and the notion of time preference; production is rearrangement, not creation ex nihilo, takes time and uses stages
  • General insights on valuation include emphasis on discrete, marginal units, not abstract categories, as well as attention to demonstrated preference
  • Menger’s utility theory— the value of particular means, marginal utility being the value of the highest-ranked end that cannot be achieved if a unit is lost, law of diminishing marginal utility (not a psychological concept, a logical concept focused on individual use of each unit not the benefit)
  • Contrasts with neoclassical utility theory— consumers in NCM are choosing among heterogeneous bundles, choosing between total utility of each bundle; marginal rate of substitution is rate at which consumer substitutes unit of good X for unit of good Y (slope of indifference curve) vs. causal-realist where substitution occurs at the margin and demonstrates that the marginal utility of X is greater than the marginal utility of Y w/ no separate income or substitution effects; indifference can not be demonstrated in action and is therefore not a scientific concept (focus is on explaining actions, not states of being)
  • Price determination— analysis of the marginal pairs (see Greaves, paper by Egger) states that prices are set by pairs of buyers and sellers; characteristics of the equilibrium price, determined exclusively by individuals’ subjective valuations, subjective valuations of buyers and sellers matter, not set unilaterally by sellers, the real prices actually paid in market transactions
  • Prices and knowledge— buyer and seller valuations can include speculative demands (they don’t need to know in advance what equilibrium price will be), prices as signals (Hayek)
  • Factor pricing— Austrian theory of imputation, rental prices imputed backwards to the ???
  • Applications and extensions— no distinction between production and “distribution” (Piketty), wealth is “distributed” in the act of production, it is not produced and then arbitrarily distributed by capitalists, government, etc.; rent = unit price of services of any good (Fetter); production functions, but no cost curves; firm as an organization, not a productive unit
Discussion section:
Kirzner and Schumpeter restrict entrepreneur to nothing but alertness, the Misesian approach is more expansive and includes everyone in some capacity acting as an entrepreneur
Mises in Human Action talks about the entrepreneur as a leader, who is far-seeing, comes from Weiser, who also mentored Schumpeter; Mises was uncharacteristically fuzzy and unclear on his writings on the entrepreneur, occasionally he refers to the “promoter” (ideal type) involving leadership, having a quicker eye than the crowd, etc., but typically he refers to the function of entrepreneurship
Kirzner is talking about alertness to opportunities for profit, but entrepreneurs create goods, capital, companies, etc., not “opportunities for profit”, opportunity implies objective configurations of resources that allow for a decision or action or take place, but is this analogous in the business world? Or is “opportunity” a metaphor? Do we need the construct of “opportunity” to explain what entrepreneurs do?
Kirzner’s equilibrium is the condition under which no unfound profit opportunities exist
Mises vs. Knight on judgement— Mises never refers to Knight in this context, judgement is more of a black box for Mises than for Knight
Questions:
1.) If Austrian econ is not distinct, why do mainstream thinkers argue so violently with Austrians?
2.) Did the anglo-American Austrians, etc., self-consciously identify with the “Austrian school” or did we lump them in post hoc? If so, what did they refer to themselves as?
3.) When challenging Keynesianians and other mainstream opponents, Austrian critics often accuse them of “not understanding economic calculation”. Is this criticism accurate? Why or why not?
4.) Would it be better to distinguish between “offers” and “prices”, where “offers” are ratios of exchange advertised but not consummated, hypothetical, whereas “prices” represent historical data of consummated exchanges between buyers and sellers?
5.) Is Kirzner’s “capital-less entrepreneur” really a description of professional managers, and if it is, is it a legitimate analysis or does it still lack connection to reality?
6.) Is “public choice” an analysis of entrepreneurship in socialism, or in privatization within socialism?
Lecture 4, Taxation and Public Finance, Mark Thornton
  • Rothbard’s approach: nature of taxation; technical corrections to mainstream analysis; theories of “just” taxation; neutrality of taxation; approaches to tax reform
  • Interventionism: autistic (ruler tells the ruled what to do); binary (e.g., taxation, transfer of property from owner to intervener); triangular (ruler tells two ruled how they can interact with each other, e.g., prohibitions and regulations)
  • Impoverishment caused by taxation is in proportion to the amount of taxation, not the form the taxes take
  • Taxes can not be passed on to consumers because of competitive pricing of supply and demand
  • Taxation distorts market outcomes in two ways: the withdrawing of resources from the economy, and the redistribution of those resources across the economy
  • “Benefit principle”— pay taxes in accord with the benefits you receive
  • “Ability to pay principle”— pay taxes in accord with your relative wealth
  • There are no scientifically valid principles of taxation, there is no conceptually possible neutral tax
Discussion section:
How to explain countries where majority of taxes are paid by a minority of people, as Calhoun’s analysis suggests the majority bear the costs for a small minority to benefit from? The answer could be additional implicit subsidies such as protections from the State in terms of liability or regulation that they see taxation as payment for
Can the State make investments? Rothbard is writing against the idea of “social investment” such as infrastructure spending, and he is writing in terms of capital structure— they’re not integrated into economic calculation, they’re not part of the capital structure; counter-example, State-owned oil production
Questions:
1.) Why doesn’t taxation create business cycles due to mass misallocation of resources?
2.) When taxes are “shifted backward” to suppliers through lowered net revenue, aren’t consumers STILL paying the tax due to lower supply and lower quality of remaining supply versus free market outcome?
3.) Why can employers shift taxes to employees if businesses can’t shift taxes to consumers?
4.) In the marketplace, how is price discrimination explained in reference to the benefit principle?
5.) Does the lack of scientificness of taxation principles imply the irrationality and injustice of government in general?
6.) “Over” and “under” exploitation of a government owned resource… relative to what? How do we know how much the free market would exploit it?
Lecture 5, Monetary Theory, Joe Salerno 
  • Money as a medium of exchange— trade requires barter in the absence of money, creating high search costs due to the double coincidence of wants
  • Money as unit of account— used to express prices and record debts, simplifies relative price comparisons
  • The value of money— measured as the inverse of the price level measured against an arbitrary basket of goods (i.e., 1/P), what does one unit of money buy?
  • The (neo-)classical dichotomy— the theoretical separation of nominal and real variables; Hume and classical economists suggested monetary developments affect nominal variables but not real variables; if money supply doubles, for example, all nominal variables, such as prices, will double; in the short run, supply and demand determine the value of money, in the long run cost of production determines the value of money
  • The neutrality of money— proposition that changes in the money supply do not affect real variables
  • Purchasing Power Parity (PPP)— relies on the “law of one price” which establishes that arbitrage opportunities eliminate differences in value of common goods in different markets; exchange rates are supposed to be ratios of price levels between two economies
Discussion section:
What Has Government Done To Our Money?” is Rothbard’s explanation of how an economy “progresses” from commodity to fiat money, because Mises said that a true fiat money is a historical question given that every episode in the past has been a form of “credit money” based on expectations about an eventual return to a commodity money that predated it
Questions:
1.) For a relative price to be a useful data, wouldn’t it have to be collected from a real exchange (i.e., barter exchange)?
2.) Do mainstream models explaining fiat money violate Occam’s Razor?
3.) If velocity of money is increasing, isn’t the “velocity of hoarding” increasing at the same rate because all money balances must be held by somebody at some time?
4.) If IEOR policy is causing banks to “hoard” bank balances and this is non-expansive, is this money “neutral” to the economy or what effect is it having? What role does it serve? (Compare to Jingjing’s question on corrupt Chinese official cash balances)
Lecture 6, Professional Strategies, Career Advice and Current Research Topics, Peter Klein
 [I did not take any notes during this discussion.]
Discussion section:
[I did not take any notes during this discussion.]
Questions:
1.) What about pursuing a career as a “private lecturer” by establishing yourself as an authority on Austrian economics with a crisp website?
2.) How can Austrian economist career hopefuls improve their career by thinking in terms of their “personal brand”?
Lecture 7, Monetary Policy, Jeff Herbener
  • Monetarists— micro efficiency, but macro instability caused by monetary regime; optimal monetary regime would create stability in the price level; requires an elastic money supply to offset forces causing price inflation or deflation to keep price level roughly stable; avoid trade imbalances w/ flexible exchange rates
  • Monetary Disequilibrium Theory (MDT)— micro efficiency, macro inefficiency; means of payment must accommodate changes in money demand; avoid price deflation from excess demand for money; separate unit of account from general medium of exchange, supplant general medium of exchange with means of payment; competitive issue of means of payment adjust to accommodate changes in money demand;
  • Banking school FB— micro efficiency, macro inefficiency; money stock and credit supply must accommodate the needs of trade; avoid price deflation from excess demand for money; competitive issue of fiduciary media adjust to accommodate changes in money demand
  • Currency school FB— micro efficiency, macro efficiency; production of money and money substitutes should be integrated into the social economizing process of economic calculation by entrepreneurs
  • “Free banking” in Scotland— Rothbard suggests using Vera Smith’s schema of 4 groups (free vs. central banking Banking School, free vs. central banking Currency School) rather than Larry White’s 3 groups; there was no Banking School free banking in Scotland, and the system didn’t work well, numerous bailouts, pyramiding credit on top of Bank of England notes;
  • Free Market Monetary reform— separate money from the State; abolish fFed, dollar redeemable in gold, legal enforcement of 100 percent reserve on money substitutes;
  • Ancillary roles for the State— Hayek (Sennholz), abolish all legal disabilities on private enterprise production of money and money substitutes; Yeagar (Timberlake), state defines the unit of account in terms of market-basket of goods, the general medium of exchange is eliminated, private enterprise provides means of payment
  • Central role for the State— Fisher, state defines a market-basekt of goods for the unit of base money, currency is redemption claim for base money, supply of currency managed to keep price level stable; Friedman, Fed conducts non-discretionary monetary policy to keep the price level stable
Discussion section:
 [I did not take any notes during this discussion.]
Questions:
1.) What “problem” did the MDT respond to? Similarly, did the Monetarist framework develop in response to existing statist monetary regimes or was it to address perceived problems with a theoretical free market monetary regime?
2.) Does the existence of taxation in general complicate or prevent the possibility of private production of the money supply?
3.) Is “balance of payments” thinking by mainstream economists an anachronistic way of thinking in a non-commodity standard money world?
4.) Why do socialist countries have money? How does money function in these economies?
5.) How can the crash and then explosion in the price of gold since ~2000 be explained in Austrian monetary theory?
Lecture 8, Mark Thornton, Comparative Economic Systems
  • Hoppe’s A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism (1988)— systematic, offers a theory of comparative economic systems, based on the concept of private party
  • Capitalism— based on property rights; property is the result of scarcity; provides non-violent mechanism for resource allocation; Garden of Eden, property right to your body; original appropriation; contractual exchanges; wealth; absence of systematic aggression; no unemployment (idle resources) problems
  • Russian-style socialism— socialism par excellence; State owns the means of production; equality vs. anarchy of production; aggression and democracy; less investment, appropriation (black market); calculate the structure of production = waste; Mises (1920) complete vs. relative; East vs. West Germany
  • Social democratic socialism— “reform”, taking steps at the ballot box; “commanding heights” (the sectors deemed essential by socialist planners for control such as education, utilities, transportation networks, etc.); owners remain caretakers with partial ownership; property owners taxes for redistribution; dominant form in Europe; Sweden
  • SDS vs. Russian-Style and Capitalism— solves the calculation problem; compared to Russian, less impoverishment, less over utilization of resources, more leisure, more incentive to work, save and invest; but it’s still poor compared to capitalism; both reduce production of talent and skills, increase the production of aggressive and political skills, both increase barter and black market activities
  • Conservative-style socialism— supports status quo, old order; private property, commanding heights; sin taxes, not income taxes; price controls, unions, prohibitions, not redistribution; regulations and cartels; Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Imperial Japan (Prussian social monarchy?)
  • Similarities between conservative and social-democratic socialism— both have private property and commanding heights; both infringe on private property; both have negative effects on labor, savings, investment, innovation; SDS stresses egalitarianism, CS stresses nationalism; both underperform capitalism
  • Socialism of social engineering— American pragmatism, technocracy; positivism and empiricism; reality must be verifiable or falsifiable by experience, “socialism might work”; however, empiricists must implicitly assume the existence of non-empirical as knowledge of reality, i.e., logic, math, geometry
  • Empiricism— must assume some sort of existence of cause and effect; must presume the constancy principle in order to proceed in its investigation, but the constancy principle (there are relationships to be found empirically) is not established, confirmed or falsified empirically, it is a given a priori; life proceeds on the basis of cause and effect; social engineering via empiricism is a giant contradiction
Discussion section:
Crony capitalism is the modern day equivalent of mercantilism
Old wine in new bottles, people can intellectually reject an idea like mercantilism as an historical phenomenon but if it is repackaged in a new brand they might adopt it as sensible
Are many of the distinctions of totalitarian regimes explained by the path to power? IE, Hitler came to power through the ballot box, Mao led a peasant rebellion, Lenin was elected by the army
Democracy is one of the most stable forms of the State; democracy involves participation of the population, and has a process for slowly implementing policies vs. unitary or limited participation and the ability to make drastic, sudden changes via emperor or dictatorship; democracy tends to hand out favors to large groups of people so it is hard to create an opposition coalition to overturn it
Mises’s three pre-conditions of the division of labor and economic specialization: private property in the means of production, free exchange (for price formation) and ???
Questions:
1.) There seem to be an endless variety of “socialisms” reflecting the unique cultural and historical factors of each society that has suffered them; what are some UNIVERSAL elements of socialism that must be or always are present to be declared a socialist system?
2.) Does technological innovation and economic “evolution” allow for political change or does it work in the opposite order?
Lecture 9, Property Rights and the Public Sector, David Gordon
  • Ethics and economists— one of Rothbard’s most original contributions is his criticism of the way mainstream economists deal with normative issues; economists want economics to be value free, economics is a science, normative judgments are mere subjective preferences; Rothbard agrees that economics is value free, but he doesn’t think that ethical judgments are mere subjective preferences; mainstream economists are caught in a dilemma, they want to make normative judgments that do more than express their preferences, how can they do so?
  • Concealed value judgments— some economists think that they can escape the dilemma by endorsing a value-free statement that still leads to normative recommendations; if everybody prefers something, then it should be done (strong Pareto criterion), if at least one person favors something and it makes no one worse off, it should be done (weak Pareto criterion), these principles still involve value judgments; what if everyone has wrong views about what is desirable, or the starting point involves violating someone’s rights?
  • Unanimity principle— Rothbard thinks that the unanimity principle has had bad results in practice; because unanimous agreement can’t in practice be reached, Buchanan and Tullock settle for less than full unanimity
  • Rothbard on the State— it is a fundamental mistake to view the state as a voluntary organization; it is a parasitic, predatory gang that seizes resources from the productive; Rothbard follows Oppenheimer and Nock
  • Public sector— if the State is predatory, then the productivity of the public sector is problematic; the State takes resources by force, thus, its activities cannot be considered productive; government expenditures should be subtracted from, not added to, production statistics; Rothbard’s definition of productivity is intertwined with an understanding of demonstrated consumer preference on the market
  • Statistics— Rothbard is suspicious of statistics collection; they are not value neutral but are essential to government control
  • Utilitarianism and property rights— many economists take some version of utilitarianism for granted; it’s argued that recognition of property rights makes nearly everybody better off; this isn’t a value-free claim, but it’s defended as non-controversial; Rothbard objects that this position doesn’t consider the justice of property rights, any stable system of property rights is accepted;
  • Escape from the dilemma— Rothbard believes the dilemma of the economists can be escaped by developing an objective ethics based on natural law; self-ownership, Rothbard defends the concept by rejecting alternatives, slavery and a system where everyone owns part of everyone else; if you own yourself, then by mixing your labor with unowned resources you own them as well; once you own something you can exchange it and give it to anyone you want, including the right of bequest;
  • Externalities
Discussion section:
[I did not take any notes during this section.]
Questions:
1.) Can any philosophical principle be established simply by rejecting alternatives? (Last man standing philosophy?)
2.) What criteria are sufficient for “mixing labor” and taking ownership? If mixing labor with factors of production, why doesn’t this mean workers own them? What makes “mixing labor” effective in one circumstance and not effective in another?
3.) Walter Block claims that it’s okay for libertarians to take from the State, but no one else. Is there any logic to this?
4.) Maybe there is a Coaseian solution for the dismantling of the State— it doesn’t really matter HOW it is privatized, it just matters that it IS privatized?
5.) When your money is taxed, it is stolen, and your money is fungible and spent, so what legitimate claim do you have to fungible, disposed assets that can not be traced?
6.) What about when government functionaries in “marketable” positions are part of unions or agitate for State privilege?
Lecture 10, Current Debates and Critiques, Joe Salerno
[I did not take any notes during this section.]
Discussion section:
Is the term “Austrian” valuable as a marketing concept? “Capital Based Macro”, “Causal Realism”
You don’t want to be the kid at camp who picked their own nickname, names come from the outside
Is there rhetorical value in labeling opponents in sensational ways (“Friedman is a socialist”) or does that hurt your cause more than it communicates information?
Questions:
1.) What might have happened to the Austrian school’s influence if WW2 had never occurred?
2.) What critical lessons have we learned (as a “movement”) from the Salerno/Hulsmann theory of the decline and rebirth of Austrian economics?
3.) Why aren’t there more applied economic works in the Austrian tradition? What would be some priority applications?
4.) What is “Austrian economics in a nutshell” or the Austrian elevator pitch? Why Austrian?

Notes – The Snowball, By Alice Schroeder: Part V, Chap. 43-52 (#investing, #books, #Buffettology)

The following are reading notes for [amazon text=The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life&asin=0553384619], by Alice Schroeder (buy on Amazon.com). This post covers Part V: The King of Wall Street, Chap. 43-52

The modern Buffett

In Part V of the Snowball, we see Buffett’s transformation from the early, cigar butt-picking, Grahamian value-minded Buffett, through the filter of his Fisherite partner, Charlie Munger, into the mega cap conglomerator and franchise-buyer Buffett who is popularly known to investors and the public the world round.

It is in this part that we also see Buffett make one of his biggest missteps, a stumble which almost turns into a fall and which either way appears to shock and humble the maturing Buffett. It is in this era of his investing life that we see Buffett make some of his biggest rationalizations, become entangled in numerous scandals he never would’ve tolerated in his past and dive ever deeper into the world of “elephant bumping” and gross philanthropy, partly under the tutelage of his new best friend and Microsoft-founder, Bill Gates.

The lesson

Buffett made a series of poor investments but ultimately survived them all because of MoS. There will be challenges, struggles, and stress. But after the storm, comes the calm.

The keys to the fortress

From the late seventies until the late nineties, despite numerous economic and financial cycles Buffett’s fortune grew relentlessly under a seemingly unstoppable torrent of new capital:

Much of the money used for Buffett’s late seventies spending spree came from a bonanza of float from insurance and trading stamps

This “float” (negative working capital which was paid to Buffett’s companies in advance of services rendered, which he was able to invest at a profit in the meantime) was market agnostic, meaning that its volume was not much affected by the financial market booming or crashing. For example, if you owe premiums on your homeowner’s insurance, you don’t get to suspend payment on your coverage just because the Dow Jones has sold off or the economy is officially in a recession.

The growth in Buffett’s fortune, the wilting of his family

Between 1978 and the end of 1983, the Buffetts’ net worth had increased by a stunning amount, from $89 million to $680 million

Meanwhile Buffett proves he’s ever the worthless parent:

he handed the kids their Berkshire stock without stressing how important it might be to them someday, explaining compounding, or mentioning that they could borrow against the stock without selling it

Buffett had once written to a friend when his children were toddlers that he wanted to see “what the tree has produced” before deciding what to do about giving them money

(he didn’t actively parent though)

Buffett’s private equity shop

Another tool in Buffett’s investment arsenal was to purchase small private companies with dominant franchises and little need for capital reinvestment whose excess earnings could be siphoned off and used to make other investments in the public financial markets.

Continuing on with his success in acquiring the See’s Candy company, Buffett’s next private equity-style buyout involved the Nebraska Furniture Mart, run by a devoted Russian immigrant named Rose Blumkin and her family. And, much like the department store chain he once bought for a song from an emotionally-motivated seller, Buffett beat out a German group offering Rose Blumkin over $90M for her company, instead settling with Buffett on $55M for 90% of the company, quite a discount for a “fair valuation” of practically an entire business in the private market, especially considering the competing bid.

An audit of the company after purchase showed that the store was worth $85M. According to Rose Blumkin, the store earned $15M a year, meaning Buffett got it for 4x earnings. But Rose had buyers remorse and she eventually opened up a competing shop across the street from the one she had sold, waging war on the NFM until Buffett offered to buy her out for $5M, including the use of her name and her lease.

One secret to Buffett’s success in the private equity field? Personality:

“She really liked and trusted me. She would make up her mind about people and that was that.”

Buffett’s special priveleges

On hiding Rose Blumkin’s financial privacy: Buffet had no worries about getting a waiver from the SEC

Buffett got special dispensation from the SEC to not disclose his trades until the end of the year “to avoid moving markets”

The gorilla escapes its cage

Another theme of Buffett’s investing in the late 1980s and 1990s was his continual role as a “gorilla” investor who could protect potential LBO-targets from hostile takeover bids. The first of these was his $517M investment for 15% of Tom Murphy-controlled Cap Cities/ABC, a media conglomerate. Buffett left the board of the Washington Post to join the board of his latest investment.

Another white knight scenario involved Buffett’s investment in Ohio conglomerate Scott Fetzer, which Berkshire purchased for $410M.

Then Buffett got into Salomon Brothers, a Wall Street arbitrage shop that was being hunted by private equity boss Ron Perelman. Buffett bought $700M of preferred stock w/ a 9% coupon that was convertible into common stock at $38/share, for a total return potential of about 15%. It even came with a put option to return it to Salomon and get his money back.

But Buffett had stepped outside of his circle of competence:

He seemed to understand little of the details of how the business was run, and adjusting to a business that wasn’t literally made of bricks-and-mortar or run like an assembly line was not easy for him… he had made the investment in Salomon purely because of Gutfreund

Buffett’s disgusting ignorance and hypocrisy

Buffett:

I would force you to give back a huge chunk to society, so that hospitals get built and kids get educated too

Buffett decides to sell the assets of Berkshire’s textile mills– on the books for $50M, he gets $163,122 at the auction. He refused to face his workers and then had the gall to say

“The market isn’t perfect. You can’t rely on the market to give every single person a decent living.”

Buffett on John Gutfreund:

an outstanding, honorable man of integrity

Assorted quotes

Peter Kiewit, a wealthy businessman from Omaha, on reputation:

A reputation is like fine china: expensive to acquire, and easily broken… If you’re not sure if something is right or wrong, consider whether you’d want it reported in the morning paper

Buffett on Wall St:

Wall Street is the only place people ride to in a Rolls-Royce to get advice from people who take the subway

[amazon asin=0553384619&template=iframe image2]

Review – Dressing The Man (#sartorialism, #style, #masculinity, @ArticlesOfStyle, #review, #books)

[amazon text=Dressing The Man: Mastering The Art Of Permanent Fashion&asin=0060191449]

by Alan Flusser, published 2002

Why do some men look debonair while others look disheveled or worse? What role do clothes play in making a handsome man look plain, and a plain man handsome? According to Alan Flusser, the secret lies in the man’s face itself– do his clothes direct the eye confidently and purposefully to the face, or do they beg the viewer to stare anywhere but there?

Dressing well rests on two pillars– color and proportion… Fashion should be accountable to a specific set of physical trademarks.

For Flusser, successful sartorial pursuits play within known boundaries of taste, structure and purpose, but within those broad confines the greatest spoils go to the most individual:

The best dressed men consistently demonstrate the greatest degree of self-knowledge… a superior understanding of their physical manner and appearance.

This self-aware approach to menswear starts and ends with a man’s face.

The face is the destination to which one’s attire should escort the beholder’s attention… the colors of any given ensemble should exhibit the same degree of contrast as that manifested by one’s skin and hair tones, a person’s two primary color signposts… highlighting each face by repeating one or more of its natural pigments in the colors worn below.

While there is infinite variance to men’s faces, all men happily fit into one of two primary categories of complexion:

If your hair is dark and your skin light, you have a contrast complexion. If your hair and skin tone are similar, your complexion would be considered muted, or tonal.

For example, Southern Europeans and Slavs, as well as Africans and Asians, are clear contrast-type complexions. Northern Europeans, Scandinavians, the Irish and other “norse” blooded peoples are classic muted/tonal complexions. Of special note is the “light, bright and blond”, for whom “at least one item in each ensemble reflects his gold toned complexion.”

For contrast complexions, contrasting colors help to brighten the face and draw attention to it. Conversely, tonal complexions are best shown against complementary, typically warm, colors as their complexion can be easily over-powered by a surfeit of dark tones. The idea is to find combinations that help the face to “pop”, almost as if one is walking around with a low-powered spotlight directing attention to one’s face.

If the man can master this one element of permanent style, he has accomplished at least 80% of the job. The rest of the book involves classic style recommendations on how to wear and match the different elements of mens’ formal clothing such as the suit, jacket, slacks, dress shirt (including collars and cuffs), ties, hosiery, shoes and accessories, as well as how to think about patterns and colors. As I found these sections immensely helpful, I am recreating the most essential advice in list form below:

Navigating the body

While style must be matched to the individual characteristics of each man to succeed, Flusser cautions against simply making up the rules.

Genuine innovation has always taken place with an awareness, rather than an ignorance, of restraints.

The primary restraints beyond complexion are the “five major intersections” of menswear: the neck, shoulder, waist, wrist and ankle. Each provides an opportunity to choose complementary lines, angles and colors which can either greatly enhance or greatly diminish the effect of drawing the viewer’s eye toward the man’s face.

The suit jacket

  • Since the jacket’s shoulders frame the head, if they are too narrow, the head will appear larger than actual size; conversely, if cut too wide, the head will appear disproportionately small
  • Length: long enough to cover the curvature of the buttocks while giving the leg as long a line as possible (relative to torso, divide in half the distance from the collar’s seam to the floor)
  • Bottom line: should line up with the thumb knuckle
  • Waist button: when fastened, should divide the body so that the torso and legs appear at maximum length; should be placed 1/2 inch below the natural waist (place your hands around the smallest part of your torso and then press down at the sides into the hollow above the hipbone)
  • Lapels: width should harmonize with the necktie; single-breasted should cover between 2/5 and 3/5 of the distance between the chest and shoulder line
  • Sleeve: full at the top and tapering down to the wrist bone; the converging lines should conform to the broad shoulder and narrowing waist of the jacket; the band of linen between the jacket sleeve and hand is yet another stylistic gesture associated with the well-turned out man
  • The sine qua non of tailoring sophisticiation is a suit that brackets the wearer’s head with gently sloped, natural-looking but defined shoulders
  • Side vents lead the observer’s eye up either side of the coat’s back, subliminally imbuing the wearer with an illusion of greater height
  • Four buttons (working!) on a suit jacket’s sleeve convery superior satorial breeding
  • The waistcoast adds gravitas to the single-breasted suit; it is a rememberance of things past and accessible only to those able to afford one custom-made

The suit trouser

  • Suit trousers should extend the line of the jacket; fuller-chested jackets require fuller-cut trousers, just as more fitted jackets mandate slimmer-fitting trousers
  • Trousers should be worn on the waist, not on the hip

The dress shirt

  • The choice of the dress shirt should be guided first and foremost by the appropriateness of its collar shape to that of the wearer’s face
  • If its collar is too small, the head will appear large; if the collar sits too low on the neck, it will make the neck look longer than it is; broadly spaced points of a spread collar will counterbalance a long and narrow face; long-pointed collars that are either pinned or buttoned down will help to countermand faces with angular features and strong lines
  • With top button closed, two fingers should be able to slide comfortably between the neck and collar of a new shirt; if it fits perfectly on first wear it may strangle after repeated washings
  • It should be cut full enough to allow the wearer to sit without concern for whether its front will gape open; lengthwise, it should be such that you can raise your arms without it pulling out of the trouser top; the collar’s points ought to be able to remain in touch with the shirt’s body
  • The shirt must fit snugly around the wrist so that the additional length required to keep the cuff from pulling back when the arm is extended does not force it down the hand; if the hand can slide through the cuff opening without first unfastening it, the cuff’s circumference is too large
  • A shirt’s formality begins at the collar, its most prominent and defining feature; stiffer collars are more formal; more open points are more dressy; the cuff also contributes to the overall effect; fabric is the next indicator of formality, smoother or more lustruous materials are dressier; finally, the amount of white in the design’s ground add to dressiness
  • While pure white has been the traditional color of choice, medium-blue flatters more men’s faces; at least half a dozen or so dress shirts in one’s wardrobe should ideally be in some shade of solid blue or in a predominantly blue pattern; the trick is to find the deepest shade of blue that highlights the face without distraction
  • A mane with strong contrast in his complexion can enjoy a larger range of colors; fair-haired men with muted complexions can balance their lighter tones with soft-hued blues such as end-on-ends, oxfords and mini-checks whose weaves use white to reduce the blue’s intensity
  • Gold is frequently used as an accent color in many patterned neckties, so if a man has flecks of blond hair, echoing it under the chin is an opportune way to illuminate the face
  • While the matching french cuff is always acceptable, a button cuff has no place at the end of a sleeve attached to a shirt with a contrasting white collar
  • To fully exploit the french cuff link’s decorative potential, each side shouldbear a design and connect with a chain or link
  • Sooner or later, every well-dressed man should acquire an antique set of studs

The necktie and neckwear

  • The necktie’s correct width has always been determined by the jacket’s lapel (not what is fashionable at the time!)
  • The knot should be compressed so that it dovetails high up into the inverted “V” of the collar’s converging sides; a dimple or inverted pleat should emerge from the middle of the knot
  • Because of the move toward business casual in the professional world, the appearance of a necktie will more than ever signify the wearer’s desire to embrace a dressier, more authoritative image
  • A necktie should be agreeable to the touch, silk is undeniably the fabric of choice
  • Some standard woven types: Macclesfield, Spitalsfield, regimental stripes (proper direction is high left to low right; these ties have a slimming effect), plaid, solid (a more sophisticated look), wool (best for cool-weather); should a man want to acquire a necktie with a reasonable probability of aesthetic longevity, the woven design tie would generally be the safer bet
  • Polka-dot ties enliven all kinds of menswear ensembles but they are on particularly friendly terms with stripes
  • Bow ties can be worn on both formal and informal occassions, day or evening, and are correct with either single- or double-breasted jackets; its width should not extend beyond the outer edge of a man’s face and definitely not beyond the breadth of his collar; the hand-tied bow’s moody loops and unpredictable swirls give you that subtle insouciance; bow ties work best for the over-fifty set
  • The manner in which a tie is knotted offers the only true means of imposing one’s individual stamp on it; over time this male rite should evolve into another manifestation of one’s personal style
  • The widest point just above the tip of the tie should coincide with the belt’s upper edge
  • The tie should arch out from the collar, the dimple extending downward, projecting a subliminal authority

The pocket handkerchief/square

  • No man can consider himself an elegante without knowing how to rig out the simple white pocket square; angle the hank outward toward the shoulder, with its point irregularly arranged
  • Without some form of pocket rigging, an outside breast pocket appears superfluous and the outfit incomplete; it is the quickest and least expensive way to lend a mediocre suit a more expensive look
  • Its deportment should appear unstudied, effortlessly contributing to the overall aplomb
  • Overtly coordinating, or worse, matching a tie and handkerchief is not only a sign of an unsure dresser but also a sure way to lead the eye across the body and away from the face; solid handkerchief with patterned necktie, and should not be of the same color as the ground shade of the necktie
  • A tie’s silken luster calls for a matte pocket square like linen or cotton; wool or linen neckties with a dulled surface requires the upbeat luster of a silk foulard
  • A solid pocket hank should echo a color in the necktie, shirt or jacket

The dress belt

  • The choice should be dictated first by the shoe’s color and then by the hue of the jacket and trouser
  • Should be an equal or darker shade than the suit; darker imparts a dressier look, the more contrast between the belt and trouser, the sportier the look
  • Long enough to finish through the trouser’s first belt loop without running past the second
  • Buckles should be simple in design, in either silver or gold, depending on the color of accompanying jewelry

The tailored ankle

  • The trouser bottom should cover about two-thirds of the shoe
  • The round or slightly-square-toed oxford, or blucher lace-up with a welt-constructed sole, ranks as the ideally proportioned shoe for suit-driven attire

Hosiery

  • By reiteraing at floor level a color or pattern found near the face, the silhouette’s upper and lower zones begin to network with each other
  • Should match the trouser rather than the shoe; when shoe and hosiery are perceived as a unit, they separate themselves from the trouser which is not desirable
  • Black hose should be avoided any time one is not engaged in formal wear or swathed head to toe in black
  • The more formal the ensemble, the finer or more sheer the hose
  • The bulkier the outfit, the more one must step up the sock’s thickness
  • After the necktie, the hose’s most frequent stage partner is none other than the dress shirt

Footwear

  • A well-made and properly looked after pair of leather dress shoes can provide several decades of fine service; uppers should be made from skins no more than twelve weeks old and have a fine grain that takes a high polish; the sole can be removed and repaired repeatedly with minimal damage to the shoe’s upper; it’s impossible to spend too much on a finely crafted, perfectly fitting pair of shoes which will improve with age
  • Top quality brown leather shoes invest all fabrices with an intangible richness
  • The plain cap-toe oxford lace-up is the basic shoe style for smart, though not strictly formal, town wear
  • The wing tip takes its name from its toe cap shaped like the spread wings of a bird, pointed in the center and eztending toward the rear with heavily perforated side seams
  • The blucher is a step down in dressiness from the oxford
  • The monk-strp shoe has intermediate formality, registering somewhere between that of a slip-on and a lace-up shoe
  • The brown suede shoe happens to be suitable for all seasons
  • Crocodile leather in a dark honey tone affords versatility
  • The Weejun-style slip-on became the year-round workhorse of many men’s casual shoe wardrobe

Suit colors and patterns

  • When it comes to starter suits, the dark grey, two-piece charcoal gets the professional’s nod; it has the highest color and function versatility
  • More enriching than stark black, more ceremonial than charcoal, whether in twill or plain weave, 12 ounces or 8, a navy suit shows off the average man to best advantage
  • Of all men’s suitings, none has ever matched the glamour and popularity of the striped suit; it’s innate appeal derives from the vertical lines which lengthen the wearer
  • The window-pane is the anti-prole
  • The classic gray flannel suit remains a paragon of cool-weather stylishness
  • The brown suit provides special charisma to the chocolate-, blond-, red-, or sandy-haired man who are continually encouraged to consider brown as one of their staple wardrobe themes; the dark brown worsted jacket and the medium-blue dress shirt attract considerable acclaim
  • In medium blue, brown or gray and white oxford stripe, single- or double-breasted, worn with a necktie or polo shirt, the seersucker suit offers a heat-beater stylishness transcending both low and high fashion
  • For business casual, the easiest way to pull together unmatched separates is through the medium of color; when harmonizing three different seperates keep two pieces in the same color family
  • Accessorizing a suit in a monotone palette imbues it with instant sleekness and modernity
  • Psychologists consider black and white the most authoritarian of all color combinations
  • Darker trousers will make sport jackets appear dressier
  • For business casual, the buttons of most sport jackets often come in a complementary contrast shade, so it’s a fair guess that trousers chosen in the same tonality will match the jacket pretty well; if the jacket and trouser are in a similar hue, the shirt can be in a contrast or tonal relationship to both, dictated by complexion and personal taste; if the shirt is multi-colored, one of its colors should echo that of the jacket and trouser

Pattern matching

  • When combining two patterns of the same design, the size of each should be as different from the other as possible
  • When matching two checks, specifically, there should be a healthy dose of contrast between the scale of each player
  • When coordinating two different patterns, such as a striped suit and a check dress shirt, or a plaid jacket and a figured necktie, the patterns should be kept close in size; when in doubt, choose a larger rather than a smaller design; placing two smaller patterns near each other, whether similar or not, will wreak havoc on the eye of the beholder
  • When mixing three patterns where two are the same, separating the two like designs in size while selecting an unlike pattern that is visually compatible with both is the trick; the odd one out should take its cue from the more prominent of the similar partners; for neckties, the open-ground, large-spaced motif affords the greatest possibilities for textural harmony
  • When mixing three patterns of the same design, graduating in size from small out to large, beginning closest to the body and going up as clothing layers outward (ie, shirt smallest, jacket medium, tie or pocket square largest)
  • When mixing four patterns, the more imagination and taste one puts into his appearance, the more subtle the results should be

Conclusion

This book is an incredible resource and fun to read, to boot. It feels like having a conversation with a thoughtful but playful personal clotheshorse. The number of synonyms for different pieces of menswear and style are unbelievable and luckily there is a thorough glossary at the back of the book. There’s so much more here than what I chose to make notes about.

4/5

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