August 31, 2007

Labor is not how I would choose to honor Labor Day

Today marks the beginning of Labor Day weekend, the traditional end *sob* of summer. The train was not crowded and the parking lot was empty. My usual lunch takeout place was not too busy. The financial markets are going to close early, I was told. All in all, the quiet beginning to a quiet weekend.

Except, no one told my clients and adversaries. I have not had my quiet morning to draft an operating agreement with a nifty little life insurance buy out provision like I had hoped. Nope, I have been on the phone almost without pause: conference call with a court; settlement talks; negotiations on a job offer letter for a senior executive; discussions with a valuation expert out West (boy, was he up early); emails and document review and telephone calls to get out an "urgent" cease and desist letter. Good grief, people. Stop calling me. Go to the beach. Get an ice cream. This will all keep for a weekend.

Honoring Labor Day by actually performing labor is not at all what I had in mind.

I hope you all have a lovely (and if you are driving) and safe weekend!

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August 30, 2007

Red Riding Hood: The Adult (sort of) Version

From time to time, I search Youtube for Norwegian language entertainment (mostly to show to the kids). Today, I found the following video. It is subtitled into English and is really pretty damn funny. I wish I could show it to my kids and I am quite glad I watched it all the way through before deciding it was ok to show the kids. Enjoy:

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Reading Recommendations: credit derivatives and markets

I have not shared any book recommendations for quite some time. Blame my basic indolence, if nothing else. But I want to share a couple of recommendations. If nothing else, reading these will give you some background to understand much better what is happening in the credit markets, the debt markets, and the equity markets as spreads diverge and traders (and you) are getting hammered in the markets.

First, read Richard Bookstaber's book: A Demon of Our Own Design: Markets, Hedge Funds, and the Perils of Financial Innovation. This is a very well written and accessable book dealing with how innovations in financial engineering -- more complex models leading to more complex financial products -- are leading the financial markets down the path of an eventual collapse brought about because they have become too complex to understand. He is particularly good in explaining the causes of some of the great, recent, financial collapses, like Long Term Capital in 1998. I know one or two of the LTCM guys and this helped explain their demise to me much better than they ever did.

Then, go forth and get Traders, Guns & Money: Knowns and unknowns in the dazzling world of derivatives, by S. Das. Das is a former derivatives trader and, on the buy side, consumer of derivatives. He gives very good explanations of how simple derivatives began in order to manage future risk in agricultural products and how they have mutated into Special Purpose Vehicles so that banks can take credit risk off of their books by repackaging the loans into various tranches and selling them into the SPV's who buy them by, often, exchanging government debt purchased on the open market and selling the tranches at various debt rating levels to investors who want or need to take on different kinds of risks for different levels of return. It is maybe a bit more quant orientated than I found helpful (no, even after trying, Mr. Das, I could not make the Black-Scholes model for valuing options make sense to me in terms of the math) but still a brilliant explanation. Taken together with Bookstaber's book, a very helpful read. I loved how Citron, the Orange County Treasurer, used astrological advice to decide which and how many inverse floaters to buy.

Finally, take a look at Taleb's book, Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets. His views about how we know what we know and how we don't know what we don't know are fascinating reads. Basically, luck plays a much higher role in the success of your portfolio manager than does skill. I found it not an easy read because to fully appreciate it (and I am not sure I did) requires a real basic paradigm shift in the way you conceptualize knowledge and your own ability to judge risk and even the basic way in which you filter information in terms of decision making. A very thought provoking read.

So, there you have it, want to understand why the stock market tanked when the sub-prime and collateralized debt markets tanked? Read these books. I could tell you the answer, but it is way more fun to learn it by yourself.

And by the way, I spent about an hour and a half testing my knowledge on a friend who designs bespoke credit instruments for sale to investors in private tranasctions on the over the counter market. Several months ago, I had no real idea about what this person did for a living. Now, I had zero problems in having a detailed discussion about the issues.

You owe it to yourself to read these books, in the order I have listed them.

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Too sophisticated by far

Well, the first day of school was "great!", according to the Girl Child. She loves her teacher and likes her new classroom. She even, she reported with great excitement and pride, got her own locker. At which point we had the following conversation:

Me: You realize that the Supreme Court has held that you can have no expectation of privacy with respect to your locker, don't you?

GC: What does that me-- wait, that means that if I bring stuff in to school and put it in my locker, I can't expect that it will be private, right? People can look in it?

Me: Exactly. It is not like your night table at home where you can keep your private things.

GC: [Said with a smile] So, I shouldn't bring my night table to school.

Me: Right.

I was more than a bit surprised that she immediately grasped the concept.

I am pretty sure that she is going to be a lot smarter than I am.

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August 29, 2007

Pack your backpacks

Today is the first day of school in our little town. I took the morning off from work to stay home to take the Girl Child down to the bus stop to wait for the school bus. She's very excited about starting first grade. Even though she had a bath last night, she asked to take a shower with me this morning so she would be sparkling clean for her first day. She was, to her credit, amused when I smeared my shaving cream all over her back.

While we waited for the bus, I unclipped the hair brush she keeps on her back pack and I brushed her hair. Stroke after stroke, taking out the knots she missed, making her hair gleam in the morning sunlight, making her hair soft and pretty. I clipped the brush back on her pack as the bus came up the road, collected my kiss, and sent her on her way.

First grade. Where does the time go?

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August 24, 2007

September 11 flashback

I'm sure that even outside of New York, everyone has heard about the two firefighters killed in the recent fire at the Deutschebank building downtown. This was the building that was rendered uninhabitable as a result of the 9/11 attacks. It caught fire and two men died trying to put it out.

Today, I was walking up Fifth Avenue for lunch at a very grand private club on 5th when I started to run into groups of firemen in their dress uniforms. I knew, immediately, that today must be a funeral day at St. Patrick's Cathedral for one of the men killed downtown. The firemen milled about, in groups, smoking cigarettes, looking somber, some of them holding their children. It was very hot and not a lot of air was moving. The crowds grew thicker the closer to St. Patrick's I got. And there it was in front of the Cathedral: a firetruck hung with purple and black bunting for use as a hearse to take the coffin away for burial.

I stopped walking and, buffeted by those trying to get around me, just stood there and stared, stood there and remembered all of the 9/11 funerals when, for days and day after day, a similar truck was parked in front of the Cathedral. Some days, I would see women dressed in black holding hands with small children. Other days, just the truck, standing sentinel, waiting to carry its sometimes empty, sometimes full, coffin. It was a horrible flashback moment.

I stood, heedless of the time, and listened to the funeral remarks as they were delivered by a friend of the deceased. He was moving and the remarks touching. He even joked about the deceased's ability to spot an attractive woman from the fire truck at a thousand yards, in thick fog, and at night. I chuckled and with that little bit of laughter, the spell was broken.

As the crowd inside clapped at the conclusion, I smiled and turned to walk on.

The death was similar, the circumstances similar, but the difference I cannot express.

Thank god for our brave firemen.

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August 16, 2007

Today's lesson on aging

I attended, in my capacity as chair of the Alumni Admissions Interview thing for my college, a reception held on the Upper East Side for incoming freshmen. I took the bus up Madison Avenue and got off at my old stop -- 72nd and Madison -- from when I used to live in that neighborhood.

I miss it still. Lots of changes, many not for the better.

But, I digress.

I learned I was aging as I mingled with the matriculating students and their parents. It was not that the new stutdents looked so young, although many of them did. It was not because I thought that it was somehow wrong to find so many of the incoming freshmen girls attractive, because they were. No, ultimately what made me feel old was that I found some of the mothers of the incoming students were more attractive. That is officially old -- when you'd rather chat with the mother than the daughter.

I am aging; albeit not gracefully.

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August 14, 2007

The sugar helps get me going in the morning

On the squash court today, one guy said, "whoa, look at these wheels!", after he made a particularly good get. I said, "must be those little chocolate donuts for breakfast".

Remember that?

If not:

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August 13, 2007

Entertaining etiquette

Here's a question for all of you more socially couth people out there: how do you handle the situation where a guest to your home for a meal brings with him a bottle of wine? You've planned your menu and you have, hopefully, purchased wine that will harmonize pleasantly with what you will be serving. Your guest brings a wine that pleases him greatly and he wants to share it with you. Or, he just brings something because he doesn't want to show up empty handed. Either way, you may not know the difference. Now, what do you do? Do you open the wine, thus perhaps upsetting the balance you've tried to strike? Do you just thank the guest, and put the wine away? I never know how to handle this. I was confronted by both situations yesterday.

We entertained my pilates class friends at the house. Our class has shrunk to three, including me, and I invited the other two and their significant others and the instructor and her significant other, out to the house for lunch yesterday. I determined that what I really wanted to prepare, other than grilled veggies and assorted cold salads, was chili-cheese burgers and so I did. I selected a Spanish white that was from close to the French border and was 30% Gewürztraminer, a grape that can stand up to spicy food. I bought six bottles and chilled them all.

Lunch was a great success and indeed did not break up until about 5:45, thus requiring me to cancel our dinner engagement. My wife wouldn't let me throw everyone out.

I put all the wine into the fridge and served the first three bottles of my wine, which went just as well as I had hoped it would. Then, for the fourth bottle, we opened a really grand unfiltered rose that one guest brought. He had tasted it and thought we would love it. Clearly, it needed to be open. We drank that one sitting in the garden while watching the children play as some smoked cigars (I passed this time).

I didn't open any guest wine during the meal and happily we had need of more wine after lunch. If not, I am not sure what I would have done.

What would you do?

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August 10, 2007

Plans are rarely plans

I have been ruminating a bit on the credit crisis engulfing the markets. I have been reading books and academic papers of late concerning valuation of collateralized debt obligations and mortgage backed securities for a couple of months now. I have been discussing the problems faced by traders and investors in marking portfolios to market and marking portfolios to model and what happens when there is a real contradiction between the model and the market. I have been doing this because I am a geek and I find the structured finance side of the market, and the implications on leverage and the implications leverage has on liquidity, to be utterly fascinating. You should, too, by the way.

One of the issues I think is most interesting is that the models created by hedge funds or by structured financial products traders rarely actually accurately models a total melt down. The models, take Bear Stearns recent debacle, probably did include the possibility that the exotic securities they were trading could go totally south, but the humans doing the trades and making the investments in the funds would have discounted that possibility down to very little if not nothing.

That's what we humans do. We make plans but we cannot honestly confront a worst case scenario. That's why we call it a worst case. We give it that name and that assume that the probability of it taking place is not worth discussing. I think it is human nature. We don't actually assign a real probability factor to the problem posed by the worst case. I think that the only place humans do this is with regard to estate planning. We know we're going to die so we make plans for that worst case scenario. But not everyone does this, you know, and not everyone who does do it can successfully contemplate the worst case scenario posed by their own certain mortality and do it efficiently and correctly.

We don't like to think about bad endings. Or monsters, come to think of it. But I think that they both exist.

No, human beings plan for the middle and include slight deviations from the middle. Some really smart humans can plan for volatility but even that will remain within artificially set expectation bounds so that when the volatility surpasses those bounds, trouble can result.

Where am I going with this?

I'm not 100% sure. Maybe I am just going with the thought that I have to be a better planner. I have to take disaster planning more seriously, for instance. I, and many others, will discount the possibility of a catastrophic disaster down to zero and stop thinking about it even though we know that power failures, for instance, can last days.

We plan not with our intellects but with our emotions.

I think it is time to take the emotional out of the planning stage.

It is time to contemplate both the worst case downside scenario and the best case upside scenario for this family corporation I am an officer of and start to plan accordingly even if the business and financing climate has changed. This is different from lawyer think and legal analysis. It is going to be an interesting exercise.

Oh, and I really have to finalize our wills.

You should, too.

Posted by Random Penseur at 11:41 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

August 08, 2007

Protection from fright

Yesterday turned out to be an interesting day for the kids. First, the Boy Child swam in the deep end of the pool. This was a big deal for him and when I told him that I was proud of him, he gave me a very shy smile, kind of ducked his head around to hide behind a chair, and asked me very sweetly if I could leave him a note telling him how proud I was of him. Of course, I obliged.

The Viking Bride told me that the Camp Director told her that a ghost story was making the rounds at camp and it had scared the heck out of all of the kids. The Girl Child told us about it, too. It has to do with Bloody Mary (no, not the cocktail) who has had her head chopped off and is now coming to do the same thing to you if, in a dark room, you call her name three times. The VB did not improve the mood when she told the kids to try it and they did and when they got to the third repetition of the name, she yelled, "BOO!!!"

We realized later how seriously the Girl Child took this when her bed was empty when we went to check on her before going to bed ourselves. We found her sleeping with the Boy Child. They were sharing his pillow. She was sleeping on her side, face to the wall. The Boy Child was sleeping on his back with his right arm thrown back, over the Girl Child's shoulders, as if he was comforting her or shielding her. The Viking Bride and I both said, "awwwww", at the same time. It was terribly sweet. We left them there.

This morning, the VB told me that when she spoke to the GC about it, she said:

VB: Aren't you lucky to have a brother who loves you so much and who protects you?

GC: When I am with him, I'm not scared. All he has to do is touch me and the scared goes away.

Again, awwww.

I am tempted to throw salt over my shoulder and spit at the ground in an attempt to avert the evil eye. I am clearly a lucky guy.

Where did these children come from?

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drip, drip, drip

It is now almost exactly three hours since I stepped off the train at Grand Central Terminal this morning and walked up Park Avenue to the gym.

I am still wet.

My shoes sit stuffed with paper towels and my socks are lying next to them. I am wearing borrowed socks from the gym. I hung the clothes in the sauna and they are still wet.

I have not experienced a downpour like this since I left Louisiana. The sky opened up and the streets become rivers with water so high that the gutters overflowed on to the sidewalks, sweeping all debris off the walkways. I sloshed with each step.

My briefcase, and contents, are wet. My pants are still wet and my shirt is still wet.

I sit here not quite dripping but far from dry.

Another day in paradise. You betcha.

Posted by Random Penseur at 08:28 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

August 07, 2007

Not taking no for an answer

The Girl Child has taken to the sport of equestrianism with exceptional enthusiasm. She has taken group riding lessons at camp and yesterday she experienced her first private one-hour lesson. She already sounds like quite the little pro, telling me when I got home last night that her lesson started with her "tacking up" her horse. The correct use of the insider lingo makes you sound like you know what you are doing.

She expressed great interest, it was reported to me by the Viking Bride, in acquiring her own horse. Uh huh. She had the following conversation with her riding instructor. I admire her ability to keep driving at an answer:

GC: If I wanted to buy a horse, how much do they cost?

RI: You would have to save up your pennies.

GC: How many pennies?

RI: A lot.

GC: Well, how long would I have to save them for?

RI: A long time.

GC: Ok, how about this horse? How much would it cost to buy this horse?

RI: He's not for sale.

Like a good litigator taking a deposition, she just kept on going to try to get her answer. I am really quite proud.

The instructor told the Viking Bride, by the way, that the Girl Child is absolutely fearless. I gather that this is meant to be a good thing.

The Girl Child is already speaking with great anticipation about getting to canter so she can start jumping.

Interesting aside, I have noticed that when it comes to sporting activities, the Girl Child is not so much of a team player. She has shown a marked preference for the individual sports: swimming; riding; tennis; and martial arts. Not a team sport in that entire list. She's going to have us sign her up for the local YMCA swim team for the winter. She's keen to acquire another team swim suit. I don't know quite what lessons to draw from this observation but it is clear, as it always has been, that she is quite comfortable living inside her own head and playing by herself. I guess her sport interests are an outgrowth of this.

Either way, I find her to be a creature of endless interest and boundless fascination. I am so lucky to have a daughter.

Posted by Random Penseur at 02:12 PM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

August 03, 2007

Travel for travel's sake

I was chatting today with one of my partners at work and we were discussing a dream I have long held of visiting all of the UNESCO World Heritage sites. [Political digression: the United Nations does not care to acknowledge that Jerusalem is in Israel. Israel has several sites but Jerusalem is the only city that gets listed without a country designation, other than that it was suggested by Jordan. Jordan behaved shockingly badly until the Israelis threw them out of Jerusalem. Bluntly, the United Nations is a nest of anti-semites. End digression]

So we pulled the list up together and reviewed. I have been to 48 of them. It feels like a lot but I suspect many of you will have been to many more. Check the list out and let me know how you did?

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