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Archive for September, 2008

Irrational Exuberance

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A few years ago, during the dot-com boom I bought a house. It was a beautiful, quirky place with two-foot-thick walls made of river stone, perched on a mountainside in the Catskills, just west of Woodstock.

Country homes, it turns out, do not come with an owner’s manual. Worse, nobody near you will own a house like yours. In fact, because country houses — especially old country houses — are often constructed to the Hey! Look What I Found! building specification, it’s generally true that there will be nobody in the entire world with a house like yours. So when something goes wrong you have nothing to which you can compare your house and no one who’s ever seen a house quite like the one you’ve got, or wiring from the days of 8 watt lightbulbs, or a plumbing arrangement quite as baroque as what you have under your floorboards, at least not one that isn’t part of an art installation.

If you live in the suburbs, your house and the house next to yours was built by the same builder, with the same materials. You and most of your neighbors have the same brand of furnace, the same shingles, the same aluminum downspouts, the same water heater, the same porchlight, the same Thermopanes. The concrete for your front walk came off the same truck as the concrete for your neighbor’s driveway. When you take apart your water heater and can’t remember how the filter bracket goes back together, you can knock on your neighbor’s door and ask to look at his water heater to see how to reassemble yours. There’s a sort of neighborliness to all those little boxes on the hillside. There’s a red one, and a green one and a pink one and a yellow one… the only thing you can’t borrow from your neighbor is a spare brick, ’cause his might be a different color.

Not in the country.

In the country every man is an island, and advice about your water heater arrives from your neighboring islanders via semaphore, if it arrives at all. There’s a sort of “well, you could try this…” aspect to home repair in the country. A lot of anecdote, but little instruction.

The other thing I learned about country homes is that any repair that you can’t do yourself will cost $2000. And most repairs you won’t be able to do yourself. So it’s not surprising that, from 1996 until 1999, while everybody else in America was becoming a dot-com billionaire, I was pulling my money out of the stock market in $2000 chunks to do home repair. My Apple stock, bought at $11.50 a share, was sold at $12.30 to reshingle the house. My EMC investment was sold at a loss to repave the driveway, making me the only person prior to the year 2000 meltdown who lost money investing in EMC. Silicon Graphics (hey, don’t laugh, it was once a good company) transformed itself, under my financial stewardship, into a water filtration system, a rebuilt septic tank and some tree work.

In the final face-off, with the score standing at House 9 / Portfolio 2, I was left with $12,000 in the market and a pending bill for furnace and ductwork repairs for $6000 (Remember the $2000 increment rule? This was a three increment job). The $12,000 still in the market was split evenly between two stocks: Sun Microsystems and Manhattan Bagel Company. The question was: which one to keep?

I could drag this out and try to rationalize what I did next, but the clever reader, noticing that Sun Microsystems is still a fairly robust presence in the tech marketplace whereas there doesn’t seem to be any stock trading on any known exchange under the name of Manhattan Bagel Company, has already guessed where my money went. That’s right: Sun Microsystems was just another computer company amongst many (okay, I am going to rationalize it). It could be destroyed at any time by IBM, DEC, Wang or any of the other tech giants (went the logic) but, BUT, people will always need to eat. More than that, who doesn’t like bagels? So I sold Sun and dumped the $6000 into the house. Manhattan Bagel Company motored along for a few more months and then, returning from vacation, where I had cleverly neglected to monitor my stock account, I logged onto National Discount Brokers to find that trading on Manhattan Bagels was discontinued, and the overall value of my stock account had fallen like a V22 Osprey from $6000 at $27, with $26 of that in cash and $1 as a courtsey placeholder for my bankrupt former holdings in Manhattan Bagel.

Looking on the bright side of things, this makes me a sort of cultural leader. Everyone else lost their shirt in March and April of 2000. I lost my shirt — it was more of a singlet, really — in 1998, years before it was the thing everyone was doing.

It was the sort of event that turns men into philosophers and, having a philosophical bent already, I’ve tried to leverage this into the sort of priceless lesson that keeps on giving.

The NASDAQpeaked on March 10, 2000 at 5132. As tech stocks melted down over the following weeks and months, savings were wiped out, retirement accounts disappeared, and a massive number of Aeron chairs were suddenly left to collect dust

, along with uncounted pinball machines and foosball tables. I watched Sun Microsystem’s stock after I sold it, and it went up 10-fold before the crash, meaning that my $6000 would have grown to $60,000 and, had I sold it at its peak I’ve have made a massive profit. But I wouldn’t have sold it. It’s easy to look back and say that I would have spotted the market peak and gotten out while the getting was good. But nobody else did, and I had already shown an eerie ability to make stumpingly bad stock decisions, so I’m sure I’d have ridden Sun into the ground like Slim Pickens riding the atomic bomb in Dr. Strangelove. Yee-Hah!

During the market crash and just afterward, everyone was looking around for where to stick their money. Real estate seemed like a pretty safe bet. What could go wrong there? Mortgages were backed by Fannie Mae, which was solid as a rock, wasn’t it? And then, the very next year a group of Muslim extremists took down the World Trade Center towers, and real estate near, but well outside, the New York City area became very attractive. I sold the country house and land for three times what I’d paid for it, and suddenly all those $2000 home improvement bills started to look like the smartest investment anyone could have made, and I began to feel like a genius again. We bought a bigger country house as we’d now given up our NYC apartment and needed a house with office space. In the new house — and now in the new century — every home improvement exercise is a $4000 bill. But of course every penny you put into a house is going to triple in value, as I’ve already proven. What could go wrong? I’m beginning to feel pretty confident again, and can see that, while a lot of my financial dealings have the appearance of the random and desperate acts of a financial novice, maybe I’m being guided by a deeper sense of what’s real in the market. In other realms of life I’ve always managed to seperate the wheat from the chaff, often intuitively, so why should I regard my financial gains in the real estate market, and my precient ability to avoid most of the problems of the dot-com crash by wisely being out of the market ahead of time?

In fact, I’m thinking it might be time to get back into the market. Most of the losses have happened already. It’s September 2008, and we must be near market bottom now. I’ve got a friend putting new cedar shakes on the house ($4000), so that’s money well invested. Maybe I’ll put a little money into stocks again. I’m thinking Whole Foods. I shop there, and I like the company. They’re stable and growing, expanding into new markets. Besides, people will always need to eat.

Written by Alan

September 17th, 2008 at 12:41 pm

Friday Haiku

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Sensitive artist
Encumbers each word with soul
Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck

Written by Alan

September 12th, 2008 at 10:03 am

Posted in Personal

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