Wednesday, March 30, 2005

No Glory

Imports Arrive at San Francisco Bay
Imports arrive at San Francisco Bay
Early in my senior year my postgraduate plans were set, so I was on the prowl for “gut” courses where I could earn credits without doing any work. (On the East Coast we called them “guts” while in California they were called “micks”, as in “Mickey Mouse.” In that era Mickey Mouse was an overused, consequently imprecise term; for example, “Deep Throat” was a Mickey Mouse movie.)

At some point in their college lives half the undergraduates at my college took Drama 36. The professor was a theater critic who commuted from New York City and gave weekly lectures on 20th century plays. There were no mid-terms, and it didn’t matter whether we read the plays or even attended class. The only requirement was that we turn in a five-page essay (wide margins with double-spacing) concerning any topic related to one of the plays covered by his lectures.

I happily enrolled. By senior year I could knock off a five-page paper in my sleep, which I often did to the irritation of my roommates at 4 a.m. on the day the paper was due.(My 1950-vintage manual Remington was exceptionally noisy.) The other legendary guts were Introduction to Geology (“rocks for jocks”) and the Sociology of Deviant Behavior (“nuts and sluts”), but their perfection was marred by a mid-term exam. Drama 36 stood alone.

Seeking to build on that success, I kept looking for other courses that would enable me to coast to graduation. The title had promise, so I signed up for Game Theory, thinking that it was about cards, pinball, chess, foosball, or the new computer games that had started to appear on the university mainframe. A course that offered instruction about my favorite diversions and earn quick credits….hopes were high.

Much to my disappointment, it was taught by a mathematical economist whose pedagogical method consisted of covering the blackboard with Greek letters. I retain little of his sleep-inducing disquisitions on Pareto optimality or the Prisoner’s Dilemma, but there was one insight which has stayed with me, represented by the following graph:

The correlation between great wealth and power is intuitively obvious, but what about negative wealth? If you were just an average deadbeat, you would be at the mercy of your creditors. But if you owed TEN MILLION DOLLARS (this was the Seventies, Dr. Evil), you had as much influence over the bank as if you had a ten million dollar deposit. The bank could not declare you to be in default because bankruptcy would take them down with you; the lender would bend over backwards to keep you alive.

And that is why foreigners continue to ship us TV sets, shoes, and barrels of petroleum while we send them more pieces of paper inscribed “In God We Trust” to add to the many billions they already hold. Stopping or slowing the process would disrupt their economies as much as ours. The gut economy: easy credits and the final exam that may never come. &copy 2005 Stephen Yuen

Friday, March 25, 2005

If It's Thursday, It Must Be Maundy

Return of the Prodigal
Our collegian returned for spring break last weekend, but we haven’t had a chance to bond. He’s either out or incommunicado during the evenings, and when I leave in the morning he’s still asleep. He needs to recover from the stress of school, his mother says, so leave him alone. I wonder silently why no one in the past 30 years has worried about my stress. Self-pity by a groan man.

The ants invaded our kitchen again, so I walked slowly around the house peering at the foundation. A line of them had climbed a fence connected to the living room wall, so I saturated the entry point with pesticide. That reduced the invading force from two divisions to one. Several years ago ants gained access by means invisible, probably a crack in the cement or an electric conduit, so we’re forced to use bait. I put out stakes and ant traps and after three days the infestation is subsiding. I suspect there are some colonies under the bushes outside, so next weekend I’ll strap on the old sprayer and go a-hunting. The best defense.

Good Advice
As I was getting ready to leave the office last night, T. called to pitch a structure that involved a seller of a residual interest in a lease, an intermediary entity, a lender who would eventually acquire the interest, and a residual value guarantee from the seller. It took me 20 minutes just to understand what he was talking about; the objective was to produce a good result on the income statement for all parties, coupled with minimum current tax cost.

I advised T. about some post-Enron accounting rules that he had to surmount. More importantly, CEO’s and CFO’s these days don’t want to be bothered with complicated financial structures. Business, credit, and interest-rate risks they know how to handle, but the risk of seeing their name in the news, not the business, section? That “Headline” risk they avoid like the plague. “Stick to the knitting”, said the best management book of the past quarter-century. Good advice then, good advice now.

Open House
The youngster and I went to the open house at the middle school. We looked at the posters on the wall and talked to the teachers, who I found a little disconcerting to address as “Mr. Smith” and “Ms. Jones” when they’re half my age. The science teacher showed student-produced videos on the environment, complete with snappy tunes, charts, pictures, and voice-over narration.

Flashback, Way Back
I flashed back to my second-year Latin class, when I gave a presentation on Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars [which begins Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres (all of Gaul is divided into three parts), one of ancient literature’s most famous opening lines.] I remember describing the Roman campaigns in a dreary monotone and wonder how long today’s students would sit through a lecture which didn’t have music and flashing colors.

My mother thought that Latin would help me become a doctor or lawyer, but I didn’t turn out to be either. Verbal facility in Latin--or English for that matter--isn’t required in my line of work (can’t you tell). Once in a great while I recognize a word’s Latin root, but that’s thin gruel for hours of sweating over the genitive and ablative cases.

Non sequitur: Yesterday the church continued its celebration of Holy Week by commemorating the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday. Maundy is not a misspelling but is derived from the same word as mandate, after Jesus’ command to serve others by washing their feet.

At least Latin is becoming cool again. © 2005 Stephen Yuen

Thursday, March 24, 2005

One Too Many

Watching Terry Schiavo starve to death is one of those moments where an horrific event is happening in front of our eyes, yet there’s nothing we can do about it. Except this is not a car accident and the incident is playing itself out in days, if not weeks, of slow motion.

Perhaps all the following are true: 1) Mrs. Schiavo’s brain is so damaged it will never achieve any semblance of human functioning. 2) She did tell her husband that she wouldn’t want to live under these circumstances. 3) He is doing what he believes is best for her.

But isn’t there a smidgeon of doubt about any of these claims by even the most ardent backers of Michael Schiavo? And even if we decide to allow Terry Schiavo to die, why can’t her death be speedy and painless rather than one of prolonged suffering? The legal system that produced this worst-of-both-worlds result probably would have split the baby in one of history’s most famous legal proceedings.

Today we wrestle over weighty issues connected to life’s end and life’s beginning. Precedents are murky, as well as the morality for each course of action. President Bush has said there should be a presumption in favor of life, and that is the proper conservative position. If one chooses life, then one can always change one’s mind later. When one walks the other path, there is no going back.

If we are sincere about a “culture of life” being a first principle, then we must adhere to it when our emotions run counter to our beliefs. The position is clear when the subject is abortion. But what about capital punishment? Unquestionably there are people who we can prove with absolute certainty have committed appalling crimes, who are irredeemably evil, and who, if the law allows, deserve capital punishment.

But is this true of everyone who awaits execution? All who sit on death row have been put there by the same infallible legal system that has determined Mrs. Schiavo’s fate. And if there is one innocent man who is wrongfully put to death, he is one too many. The presumption in favor of life is a noble principle, but we have yet to face its full implications. Terry Schiavo is deserving of rescue, and so is Scott Peterson. © 2005 Stephen Yuen

Friday, March 18, 2005

Front Street, St. Patrick's Day

The St. Patrick's Day celebration outside Harrington's pre-dates cell phones and flash mobs. The police close Front Street between Sacramento and California. We are already making plans for next year's party, which will be on a Friday.

Capricious and Arbitrary

When I worked for one of the Big Eight accounting firms* in the ‘70’s, I spent two years in the Tax Department. For most problems I could generally figure out what to do without looking it up, because our income tax system was based on certain principles.

For instance, there’s the tax benefit rule, which taxes income if the taxpayer had received a benefit for deducting that item previously. The example most often cited is the treatment of State income taxes on the Federal return: if the filer had itemized deductions in the previous year, and had enjoyed a benefit from the deduction of State income taxes, then he must report the refund of those taxes on next year’s return. However, the refund should not be declared if the filer had used the standard deduction last year and therefore had not claimed a specific deduction for State income taxes.

We see the tax benefit rule applied to the host of education, medical, and retirement accounts that the government, in its wisdom, has established to encourage activities it deems worthwhile. Contributions to these accounts are either exempt from income or deductible while withdrawals are declared as income.

On the other hand, if items have already been taxed, such as the Social Security contributions which are deducted from an employee’s paycheck, the old rule was that it wouldn’t be taxed when the payment was made back to him. But now if a retiree’s other income is sufficiently high, Social Security receipts count as taxable income.

Developments like these I regard as disturbing because basic, long-standing definitions in finance and economics are being thrown out the window. In the arrangement of their personal affairs people accept that tax rates can change but not a fundamental principle such as, for example, the prohibition against taxing the same income more than once.

Returning to the example of the income taxability of Social Security, transactions are taxed when everyone makes their deposits into the Trust Fund and again on the “rich” when they receive it. (It’s no different from imposing a tax when you put money into your savings account and again when you take it out.) Furthermore, it is possible that many Social Security recipients who are not blessed with longevity will get back less than they put in, yet their losses will be magnified by the “income” taxes they pay on both ends of the transaction.

Today I don’t believe it is possible to prepare a tax return without consulting a reference guide for nearly every line. Why items are included or excluded is impossible to determine through the application of logic, leading to the conclusion that our income tax system is capricious and arbitrary. I’m glad I’m no longer in the business.

* Arthur Andersen, Arthur Young, Ernst & Ernst, Coopers & Lybrand, Deloitte Haskins & Sells, Touche Ross, Peat Marwick Mitchell, Price Waterhouse
© 2005 Stephen Yuen

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Shirtsleeve Day

It was a shirtsleeve morning, bright and warm, no fog. A couple more days like these and the Chron will shelve its homeless articles and start another series on global warming.

At one o’clock I went downstairs to the new Subway and ordered the $2.49 daily special, a six-inch Italian on whole wheat. A couple of ladies from the office huffed in after their noon jog and ordered the full lunch. Well, they’re entitled. Vice-presidents, mothers, attractive, and blonde, they’ve got the world on a string. Actuarially…or is that actually?...they’re gonna outlive me by ten years. The weaker sex indeed.

Back to the office for a conference call with the boys from Chicago. They told me it was snowing and in the 20’s, and I looked at our placid, azure Bay and guiltily experienced a flash of pleasure at the contrast.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Long in the Tooth

While she was shopping at a nearby market, an out-of-town relative lost her filling. She spied a dentist’s office across the street. The young doctor replaced the filling without charge and sent her on her way. One good deed deserves recompense, and so, having put off an exam for five years, I had my teeth X-rayed and cleaned at Stan’s. That was over 20 years ago, and I’ve been going to him ever since.

From the age of eight Stan knew that he wanted to be a dentist. (I don’t know anyone else who discovered his life’s purpose at such an early age.) He went to Berkeley, then hung his shingle at an old wooden building by the freeway. He kept his offices clean, and his equipment, although not state-of-the-art, was well-maintained.

He expanded his practice and moved to an office just off El Camino Real, the north-south boulevard that runs between San Francisco and San Jose. He always bought the latest gadgets and happily responded to inquiries about them. Using a minicamera, he recorded and expounded upon close-ups of my teeth, which I thought were the epitome of grossness until another doctor showed me pictures a bit south of my mouth.

Stan’s practice has plateaued because he never gives his patients the hard sell. He’ll comment that an old filling may have to be replaced with a gold crown and that I should “keep an eye on it”. Well, I’ve been watching that filling for ten years. And he’s never broached the topic of whitening, although it’s obvious that I’ve been a coffee drinker throughout my adult life.

Finding someone like Stan, who is good at and loves what he does, and whose primary motivation isn’t money, is a pleasure. Now if I can just find an honest mechanic……

Electric Toothbrush
At my most recent check-up Stan recommended that I begin using an electric toothbrush. Having been discouraged by their messiness and expense, I hadn't used one for over ten years. At Costco we picked up a Braun mid-range model, and I was surprised by the noticeable improvement over manual brushing. The Braun scrubbed the plaque off of hard-to-reach crevices while it massaged the gums with just the right amount of pressure. Technology marches on.

Take Care of Your Teeth and Live Longer
Among health tips for baby boomers in yesterday's Wall Street Journal:
Floss your teeth: Everyone knows dental hygiene is important for healthy teeth. But it is also important for your heart. A growing body of research shows a link between periodontal disease and stroke and heart disease.

In a study published last year in the journal Stroke, for example, those with severe periodontal disease (gum disease) had a 4.3 times greater risk of stroke than those with either mild or no periodontal disease. Scientists believe that infection in the mouth increases level of inflammation in the blood, which can help create blood clots that lead to strokes and heart attacks. Periodontal disease is most common in those older than 50.

© 2005 Stephen Yuen

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Young Person's Game

Our subscription to Bloomberg Financial Services entitles us to unlimited training seminars at no additional cost. The sessions are held at Bloomberg’s capacious offices on the 35th floor at 345 California Avenue in the heart of the Financial District. Yesterday, after registering at the receptionist’s desk and affixing a photo ID to my jacket, I lingered over the large assortment of cookies, snacks and drinks outside the training room. Too bad I just had lunch.

Only ten of us had signed up for the foreign exchange class, so the room felt empty with no one sitting at most of the 50 dual-monitor state-of-the-art workstations. The instructor raced through the introduction, the help screens, and the basics on how to pull up historical and current information on any currency. He then moved to intermediate foreign exchange topics, such as forwards, futures, and options. The last 20 minutes were oriented toward currency traders—how to get real-time bid-ask (“are you a market maker or market taker?”) quotes from different firms and place an order—which (a) was not useful to me in my line of work and (b) was too esoteric for me to follow, anyway.

Currency trading is a young person’s game. One has to be able to recognize patterns on a rapidly scrolling screen and know what to do, in a matter of seconds, when the yen yield curve flattens while corporate debt spreads are rising in the U.S. The largest demographic was young, Asian, and female; their soul-sisters can be found in Bay Area multimedia and videogame companies, as well as the accounting firms, except these gals probably make (a lot) more money-an MBA from Chicago or Wharton is the price of entry to their world. There were some old guys like me, corporate treasurers and financial officers, who were just trying to learn enough lingo not to embarrass ourselves in conversation with the new generation of finance geeks.

The Bloomberg system is an admixture of 21st century information married with an interface from the dawn of the computer age. I don’t envy Bloomberg its task---receiving, sorting, and analyzing millions of pieces of financial information every hour---but Bloomberg could use some help in the area of user-friendliness. For example, to get the current price of interest-rate swaps I have to type in commands like IRSB or SWYC, not readily retrievable from long-term memory if I don’t work with the system every day.

I grabbed a bottle of cranberry juice and headed back to the office. Think I'll sign up for the fixed-income securities class next---at least it will have some relevance to my retirement. © 2005 Stephen Yuen