Monday, February 8, 2010

Laissez les bon temps rouler, fashion trends, going Furthur, does fist pump = dbag?

The Saints -- Great Superbowl, and congrats to the city of New Orleans... no offense to Indianapolis, but the Saints winning is a better "human interest" story.  Remember the footage from just a couple years ago when the Superdome was converted into a makeshift hospital/shelter?  A couple observations on the Superbowl spectacle itself:  As I watched the National Anthem and the requisite shots of American service-men and -women, I thought "I am 38 years old, and I am hard pressed to remember a Superbowl that did not have the America-at-war imagery associated with it.  Wow."  It's kind of true, dating back to Gulf War I in the 90s...jeez, how depressing is that?  Speaking of depressing...the frustrating part about the Saints win is that at least two starters and the defensive coordinator are Buffalo Bills cast-offs.  The Bills just need to leave Buffalo and get a fresh start already...  PS - Drew Brees just seems like one of the good guys, doesn't he?  PPS - Was it just me, or was The Who horrendous?  (See the concert "review" below for another mention of that...)
Toyota -- Am I a cynical jerk for thinking that the bigwigs at Toyota are secretly furious they ever opened plants in the U.S.? (Because that's perhaps where the quality control slippage occurred?)  I am just speculating, but I think this sounds too much like the blunders of Ford or GM to come from the Japanese directly.  Call me a Conspiracy Theorist, but I'd be willing to bet the problems came off U.S. assembly lines.  And imagine the P.R. difficulties...they can't say "it was the damn American plants with their Homer Simpson-like QC" because that defeats the whole purpose of saying their cars are "American-made" to appease the American consumer.  So maybe they have to eat humble pie while internally seething at the same time.  I dunno, this is a pure guess and it's cynical as hell, but it might explain the disjointed situation somewhat...

Fashion trends -- So I recently re-read The Odyssey, and there was a scene in which some Greek men were impressed by (and scared of) Ulysses because he pulled back his tunic to show his massive thighs, revealing his true overall strength.  It got me thinking about basketball and baggy shorts (stay with me here...) and how you never really see another man's thighs anymore.  Not that I really want to, but when did that become, I dunno...taboo?  That got me thinking about all fashion trends and their origins.  When do certain trends start?  Why?  What is the "tipping point?"  Where is Malcolm Gladwell when you need him?  Is there an app for that?  Actually, here's an open letter to all the apps makers:  There should be a Malcolm Gladwell application.  I want instant access to the tipping point of a particular fashion or fad.  Just like the Toyota ads (pre-recall fiasco) that speculated on the fictional origins (the sparks of genius, and yes America these ads are fictional) for football fads like painted faces, foam fingers, beer hats, etc., there should be an application that provides the same information for things like baggy shorts.  Or those tight jeans dudes wear now.  Or the faux-hawk hairdo.  In fact, here's an idea on how to solve these "creation mysteries."  I propose re-setting the fad clock at zero (sorry, someone has to do it) and establishing a website to record first-time events going forward.  For example, let's say you are going to a party and you decide to wear your pants on your head, stuff a tennis ball in your mouth, and tie your t-shirt around your left leg.  You would go to the site (call it or something) and announce your intentions.  Then, months later, if one or all of these things became trendy, it could be traced to you.  Therefore the moment of creation would be logged and you would "own" it.  The site would be fully searchable, so you could always check out if someone beat you to something.  And of course, if someone was more charismatic or had cooler friends, maybe fashion history would attribute the true spread of a fad to that person who was even 2nd or 3rd to post it, but was more influential in its spread.  This has real potential!  Just think...we'd be able to look back today and see that "William Johnson of Charlotte, NC forgot his game shorts and had to wear the XXXXL extra pair from the bottom of the uniform bag and dropped 45 points in a summer league game - despite tripping on his own shorts - while playing against a youngster named Michael Jordan, who (from then on) subconsciously attributed basketball success to large shorts.  Thus as soon as he was able to command his own sizing, post-UNC years, we never saw his thighs - or any other basketball player's for that matter - again..."  How cool would that be?

The fist pump and the thought that will get me kicked out of the house -- This may be an oversimplification of the Tiger Woods situation, but it's just a thought... When I realized that nothing about the Tiger drama surprised me, I was forced to think back on why.  That brought me to the fist pump.  No, not the fist punch, as demonstrated by Michael Jordan after his buzzer-beater over the Cavs' Craig Ehlo...and not the silent fist clench of staid tennis stud Roger Federer...but rather the lean-back-front-teeth-over-bottom-lip-furrowed-brow-overly-serious-maybe-leg-in-the-air-guttural-screaming-bicep-curl-doing-it-multiple-times-exaggerated-fist-pump that just says douchebag. You know, this one.  Or, this one.  Or maybe this one.  Really, Tiger?  Sorry to be harsh, but I am serious.  Give me the upward arms of post-touchdown Joe Montana...give me Barry Sanders just handing the football to the referee after a ridiculous touchdown run.  Anything but the modified "trucker-honking-his-horn" fist pump.  Have we ever seen an athlete this good be this bad at celebrating?  So I's the fist pump...that's why I don't like the guy...and that's why I could never be surprised to find out that he might be a colossal @hole who cheats on his wife all over the country.  Of course, the academic, devil's advocate side of me also thinks about ways to actually defend Tiger, which is fun simply because no one has even tried.  And before I go further, let me say that I am happily married and have no plans whatsoever to cheat on my wife, nor am I looking for an excuse to do so...and I will surely be sleeping on the couch once this is posted...but...if you watch enough Discovery channel to learn that the average mating cycle of humans is 7-8 years (thus, the "seven-year-itch") and that it is ingrained into male DNA to procreate and move on...and that marriage is basically a judeo-christian invention whose societal impact has evolved much faster than our DNA can catch up (a fact anthropologically proven out by divorce rates...nature is just telling us that marriage may not be the natural state of things and 50% rates - and growing - are showing us that science wins...)...well, couldn't you argue that Tiger's behavior is  (Pausing to duck all the stuff being thrown at me right now.)  Ah, nevermind...the Tiger-apologist stance falls apart when you realize that he could have just stayed single...and that as a willing entrant into marriage, he has agreed to forgo those urges that are probably scientifically 100% normal and natural in order to pursue the path of loyalty and commitment.  So once you make that choice, you implicitly agree to "fight the good fight" against your own DNA programming, and to do the right thing.  Thus, my attempt to defend Tiger fails...the fist-pump-indicator wins out in the end...

Furthur concert -- Friday night my father and I went to see Furthur (which features two of the remaining members of the Grateful Dead) play downtown Miami.  First, let me just say that you should never underestimate the power of an outdoor show, set in warm weather, in an urban setting, and at nighttime.  It was one of the few times I have been truly thankful to live in Miami - there are not many places in the U.S. where an outdoor concert in February is possible, let alone enjoyable.  Second, from a cultural standpoint, this show was absolutely priceless.  I have honestly never seen so many completely wasted people at one place in my life.  Imagine the craziest college party you have ever been to, strip away any hint of tension/fighting/aggression, and multiply the number of people 100x, and you'll get an idea of what this was like.  Here are a few random observations from the show:  *One of the first things I noticed was the absolute lack of cells phones and Blackberrys in the crowd.  Usually - at concerts and sporting events I have recently attended - emailers and texters are ubiquitous.  Not here.  Good for the Deadheads, nary an annoying digital device among them...  *I think this was the first concert I have ever attended where 3/4ths of the band had on open-toed shoes.  I think that ratio is in-line with most all-female bands.  In other words, the joke would be something like "What does Furthur and En Vogue have in common?  At least 3 members of the group are wearing open-toed shoes."   *Next joke:  Given the levels of inebriation (or, to give it a more positive spin, call it the elevated levels of altered-reality), does any group of concert-goers rely more on ushers?  I mean, no wonder so many Dead shows are General Admission...watching people try to find their seats was straight comedy...seriously, the ushers should be paid double for Dead/Furthur shows - they clearly work twice as hard.  *Do you want to hear about the next level of the phrase "deer in the headlights?"  How about "stoned Deadheads trying to cross US1 (think "Frogger") while mostly Hispanic drivers honked and swerved around them."  It was almost something out of a Looney Tunes cartoon, or from a sleepwalking Mr. Magoo cartoon.  These guys would step into the street and - as they saw approaching headlights - Teva their way backwards to the safety of the curb, sway a little bit, Chesire-smile, and chuckle at each other while saying "whoooa."  *How's this for a mental image:  at the one end of Bayfront Park in downtown Miami there was a huge gathering of Saints fans at the Intercontinental Hotel.  At the other end, at American Airlines Arena, there was a mostly black crowd attending a rap concert, I think.  And smack in the middle of amphitheater full of Deadheads and an outdoor mall filled with shopping/eating tourists there to board their Saturday cruises out of the Port of Miami...  *I am amazed by the number of people who just seemed "checked out of society; " the people who clearly don't work and just follow the band around.  How long do you check out for?  Is it months?  Years?  And when do you re-enter?  And how do you support yourself?  Gotta give 'em credit - living the dream, living on the edge... *I think I was equally amazed by the number of part-time Deadheads who - as evidenced by contrasting levels of dress and cleanliness - were "upstanding" members of society who probably were not on the road full-time, but had jobs, paid bills, etc. and who were absolutely annihilated.  There was a 50 year old guy in front of us who was the life of the party during the opening set...but then he and his buddy must have smoked 3 joints in front of us, along with a few vodka-somethings...and next thing you know he was sitting down and puking on his own Birkenstocks.  I thought to myself - cynically - I wonder how his co-workers back in his (um, just spitballing here...) IT Department would appreciate a snapshot of that moment?  Best of all, the guy rallied midway through the second set and was suddenly and miraculously back on his feet like Michael J. Fox playing guitar at the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance... *Interesting that the police and the drinks vendors were mostly black, and mostly bemused by the crowd.  And - given the cloud of smoke over the entire place - just how do these guys enforce drug laws here?  How did that go down?  As they left the station for duty, did the Sarge just say, "look guys, no arrests tonight, ok?  There's just no point..."  *Anyway, there were a couple interesting "cultural-clash" moments for me.  One was the beer vendor that looked and sounded just like a guy from The Wire, who was using serious drug lingo to pitch his wares:  "Ice cold beer...unload and re-up y'all...unload and re-up."  Isn't that heroin-speak?  I practically expected Omar or Snoop to walk around the corner... Here's another first - the gangsta Deadhead white guy.  His whole get-up was too confusing for me...baggy, shiny bball shorts and bball sneaks...heavy tats on both arms...cutoff sleeves on his Dead t-shirt...and a doo-rag on his head.  I mean, what?  Basically, it was Eminem wearing a Grateful Dead t-shirt.  Just overload on the cultural imagery...  Didn't know what to make of that guy.  And then there's the piece de resistance...the perfect symphony of "Miami-meets-the-Dead"...the one character that Saturday Night Live is missing the boat on... Yup:  The Gay Deadhead.  Priceless.  Princely.  Awesome.  Crisp concert t-shirt, generally  tucked in.  Ironed shorts.  Brand-new "mandals."  A satchel of some kind.  Hair product.  And - this was the great one - the prescience to bring a rain coat to the show.  Believe me, your average Deadhead - and your average "guy's guy" if you use John and I as examples - did not have brains nor the foresight to check the forecast and bring rain gear.  However, when it did start to drizzle, the majority of the crowd could have cared less...warm water misting from the big deal.  But some in the crowd were obsessed with their on-again, off-again raincoat dance throughout the night.  It was amazing...the absolute second a drop of rain fell, it was a mad scramble to cover up.  Very very funny stuff.   *Another random thought...did all these Deadheads actually get hotels in Miami over Superbowl weekend?  Not possible.  I know they weren't driving home, so I can only assume there were lots of people sleeping in cars downtown Friday night...  *The first thing I saw as I approached the show, by the way, were people selling things.  I assume these are the folks paying their way from show-to-show.  To me, one young girl sounded like a true professional, working the ecstasy-fed crowd as she tried to sell water while telling people "thanks...appreciate that...and it's my birthday today so anything helps...thanks."  Call me a cynic, but I would bet $10,000 that she was a "pro" and it was not her birthday.  But the hippy crew ate it up, buying all the water they could...  *Another observation:  these shows may be the ultimate in White Guy Dancefests.  Forget the "White Man's Overbite."  We were well past that.  Dudes were prancing in the aisles....I am not kidding:  prancing.  Also, why does every White Guy Deadhead dance seem to start with the guy closing his eyes and flitting his arms like he's a bat?  And while I am in this "neighborhood" of criticism, let me ask this question:  Is Dead-wear something in the back of the closet for most of these people (like my 70s outfit that comes out on Halloween), or is it front of the closet stuff?  How does that work?   From a musical standpoint, the show was great... classic Dead songs, and - as opposed to The Who last night at the Superbowl - the band seemed incredibly tight.  Gotta give it to the surviving members - Bob Weir and Phil Lesh - of The Dead.  Much healthier-looking, much more "real" and engaged in their music than similar-era "peers" like The Who.  My only disappointment - and this is really splitting hairs, I guess - is that I remembered the legendary free-flowing form from one song to the next as this flowing musical tug of war...each instrument would take lead the for a second, like a swallow leading a pack of birds, before another would jump in front...and they would "dance" this way for a bit until one song took form.  But here, Phil Lesh had a "closed mic," meaning he was speaking into it in-between songs and the other band members would nod at him and smile so it was clearly "internal" to the group, and he used it to call out the next song, or the next progression.  I don't seemed a little "artificial," I guess.  But not a big deal.  In closing, it's important to point out that while I have poked fun of the Deadhead culture in this post, these people enjoy themselves and ease stress in the least aggressive possible way, and that's something to be both admired and applauded.  PS - for those who will surely ask...did I stick out like the Eminem guy, and what did I wear?  Jeans, pumas, and a retro Oakland Raiders t-shirt, in homage to the band's West Coast roots.  (...deep, I know ;)

Random -- Saw a decent movie this weekend...Whip It! with Ellen Page (the chick from Juno) and Drew Barrymore.  Here's a question...will Ellen Page ever appear in a movie without a Dad who quaintly refers to her as "kiddo?"  On the topic of movies, here's one for all the screenwriters out there:  Why do we almost always have to have a scene in which the guy/girl calls out to his/her romantic interest...and when he/she turns around the first party says "...nevermind..." or "...n-n-n-nothing..." in a very dramatic ("you'll never understand me...downward glance...head shake...head shake...sigh") way.  What exactly is the point of this?  Is this real dialogue?  Who invented this?  Does the screenplay say "insert something dramatic here to increase sexual tension between the two love interests" and that's the throw-in?  I mean really, does anyone even talk that way?  I say fire the screenwriter who delivers you a script with one of those scenes in it...

That's all for now...

Morning Note...

Futures flat to slightly higher (+25bps) this morning as the Northeast digs out of the snow and the markets continue to digest last week’s jobs data and earnings, and investors watch Europe for signs of Greek default and China for signs of tightening.  It’s worth noting that most of the move into the bell late Friday was attributed to rumors of a Greek bailout over the weekend, which failed to materialize.  Light news day overall… CVS reported in-line earnings, L missed, cigarette-maker LO reported lower profits, and toy-maker HAS beat estimates.  Additionally, CIT named John Thain as CEO.  Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke will be on the Hill Wednesday and he’ll be grilled on the forthcoming (so they tell us…) U.S. exit strategy.  $81B of Treasuries will come for auction this week.  (Interesting to note that The High Tech Strategist pointed out that increased appetite for U.S. riskless assets is coming from the U.K. while China has been a net seller – albeit small – of Treasuries.)  Not much news came out of the G7 meeting this weekend, other than a canned statement in support of the Greek plan to reduce deficits there.  In other news, Tim Geithner claimed over the weekend that the U.S. would “never” lose its AAA rating.  Alan Greenspan was on “Meet the Press” and said a U.S. economic recovery is “going to be a slow, trudging thing,” and that he “would get very concerned” if stock prices continue to fall.  Overseas, the CEO of Cheung Kong Ltd. said on Bloomberg Television that the HK property market has risen too fast and buyers must look out for a bubble.  He added “the rise is a bit unusual…there should be a correction at some point.”  Looking ahead, we’ll get U.S. Trade Balance details Wednesday, Advance Retail Sales Thursday, and Eurozone GDP and Industrial Production Friday.  Thursday also brings Initial Jobless Claims and Continuing Claims.  Further, recall that Chinese New Year begins on February 14th this year. 

Just to shake things up on a quiet Monday, much has been made of how small Greece actually ranks on a global scale.  It’s a good point, and toward that end, it makes one wonder, whither the U.S. states like NY and CA whose economies do actually rank high on the global scale?  Whither the municipalities?  Here’s a good quote from Fred Hickey that I read over the weekend:

I don’t think that investors understand that the most fiscally irresponsible major industrialized country in the world (other than the U.K.) is the United States.  The European Central Bank (ECB) never cut short-term interest rates to zero and didn’t engage in rampant money printing (quantitative easing), as the U.S. and the U.K. did.  The current euro crisis was triggered when the ECB announced it was pulling back its emergency financing (the first to do so).  The ECB is enforcing fiscal discipline on some of its most profligate countries (PIIGS – Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, Spain).  Those countries are being forced to drastically cut spending levels and increase taxes to rein in the deficits.  No such fiscal discipline is occurring in the U.S.  California (and other states) is begging for billions of dollars more in assistance and the monster-sized Obama federal budgets for 2010 and 2011 are loaded with wasteful government spending and even more “stimulus” packages.  Even in the worst case – if Europe somehow unraveled – it would likely sink the world economy – causing the Fed to step up its printing.

Here’s another mention of municipalities, from Bloomberg news late Friday afternoon:

Feb. 5 (Bloomberg) -- The $2.8 trillion municipal bond market is a bubble about to burst, as housing and technology did in the past 10 year, said Michael Aronstein, the money manager whose Marketfield Fund returned 31 percent in 2009 by betting correctly on commodity-price swings. Lulled by ready access to low-cost credit, politicians have piled up unsustainable debt service that the public will soon demand they stop paying, he said. Bankers are selling municipal bonds based on unrealistic assumptions of population and revenue, and will be held accountable when they can’t be repaid, he said in an interview. “I think we’re getting quite close,” he said of the collapse of the municipal market. “You’ll see people trying to withdraw money from the municipal bond funds. The big risk comes when you start seeing the tightening credit cycle.”  Aronstein, who manages the $102 million Marketfield Fund and is chief investment strategist at Oscar Gruss & Son Inc. in New York, recommended buying credit default swaps on debt issued by California, the U.S.’s lowest-rated state. Municipal finance faces a collapse because the public sector is relying on “unlimited access” to credit, Aronstein said. That access will dry up as the cost of debt service begins to consume unmanageable shares of government budgets, prompting taxpayers to demand cuts in bond payments. “There’s always a feature in the economy that lives off its credit,” he said, citing the technology and housing sectors. “The next phase of it is government. They’re operating under the same kind of illusion of infallibility and unlimited access to credit.” To mitigate future public excesses, Aronstein said, legislation should be enacted that would hold elected officials to the same standards of fiduciary accountability and conflict of interest restrictions as money managers, he said.

Overseas banks (AIB, BCS, ING, LYG) are all lower on potential Greece exposure.  CVS reports 78c, in-line with expectations.  HAS reports $1.09 vs. 82c.  MSCO ups HD, NWL.  HS beats by 6c.  Barron’s positive MOT.  CSFB ups PCU.  GSCO initiates TSS with Sell.  BARD ups WGO.  BMOC ups JWN.  CITI ups AZO.  CSFB ups WY.  FBRC ups WFSL.  JEFF ups ARAY, CME.  JPHQ ups TMK.  BERN cuts HK.  BMOC cuts RBA.  CSFB cuts LRN.  JPHQ cuts DNB.  BARD cuts ARG.

Asia mixed overnight.  Europe roughly 50bps higher on average.  Oil +25bps.  Gold +125bps.  USD -20bps. 

Brightpoint News: 

Brightpoint PreMarket (yest close/premkt/% change/volume):

S&P 500 PreMarket (last/% change prior close/volume): 
HASBRO INC                  33.55    +8.93% 134052
CVS CAREMARK COR      32.88    +5.83% 505411
CIT GROUP INC              32.00    +4.07% 84473
MOTOROLA INC             6.63      +3.59% 122951
NEWELL RUBBERMAI       13.84    +3.59% 17100
TORCHMARK CORP         45.38    +2.93% 2744
E*TRADE FINANCIA        1.50      +2.74% 388404
FANNIE MAE                  .996      +2.68% 3998
JDS UNIPHASE               7.75      -2.02%  20570

Today’s Trivia:  What American organization was founded on this date in 1910 and is celebrating its 100th anniversary?  (Hint…another organization that shares a variation of the iconic Fleur de Lis is also in the news today.) 

Yesterday's Answer:  According to Men’s Health Magazine, Fresno is the “drunkest” U.S. city, and – get this – Boston (!!) is the least.  (As I said Friday, my money is on Bostonians just being that much better than other cities at hiding it…)

Best Quotes:  “Cocktail Napkin Charting – As noted above, the late Friday reversal rally was primarily the result of rumors of a Greek rescue package. There were also technical contributors to the bounce. The S&P made its intra-day low at 1044. That’s its 200 day exponential moving average. Both Walter Murphy and Stock Market Cycles had listed 1043 as a probable target (darn good call). Friday’s lows will be a critical testing area on any future pullbacks. If they are violated, things could turn very ugly although some see more support at 1030/1035. For today, the napkins suggest early support in the S&P may be around 1048/1052 with the backup 1040/1043. Resistance looks like 1070/1074 and then 1080/1085. We need to be careful because the Friday bounce may have
released enough of the oversold to allow the bears another shot.”  --Art Cashin, UBS