Tuesday, September 8, 2015

“Closer look at the Stock Market Blues,” The Colorado Springs Business Journal, September 4-10, 2015, 23.

The Stock Market Blues

When I was a teenager I asked my father, a successful businessman, what he thought of a downturn in the stock market, and he calmly answered: those who bemoan a market downturn never tell you about the market upturn. They forget to tell you that their losses came after great gains.

My father was a refugee from Nazi Germany who never fulfilled his academic dreams; he was what we call an autodidact, a self-taught man, who began as a leather apprentice, brick-layer, and a truck driver; he eventually employed more than 100 people.

His words come to mind when looking at the most recent market collapse (and speedy recovery). What should we make of this financial turmoil? Whose opinion should we follow? Who on the networks and Internet is trustworthy?

There are two schools of thought when it gets to the stock market. One claims that the stock market is a reflection of the financial reality of the marketplace, a mirror through which we can clearly see the reflection of the health (or sickness) of the economy. 

This view is best articulated by the Efficient Market Theory, arguing that stock prices reflect or embody the best knowledge or information about a company and its financial prospects. 

In short, stock prices are an accurate measure of all available information of any individual company or an entire industry. In this sense, no manipulation is possible because too many hawks watch carefully every move of every company—transparency is best found in stock prices!

The second view claims that the stock-market is a side show where gullible investors waste their hard-earned money while professionals use algorithms to clean them dry. Private deals are cut behind the scenes, such as when the “prophet (or sage) of Omaha” (Warren Buffett) buys and sells companies outside of public channels. 

When he decided to “buy” some underpriced shares of Goldman Sachs after the last bubble burst that started the Great Recession in 2007/2008, he approached Goldman’s executives directly, named his conditions, and readily invested $5 billion. He “made” the market, rather than “followed” it or participated in its volatility.

Given that you may find one school of thought more appealing than the other, for whatever ideological reasons—there must be fairness! We are all equal investors, after all! My money is no different from a billionaire’s!—you still should be aware that it’s all about “framing.”

Framing is a favorite trope of behavioral economists who argue that judgments, choices, and decisions are made within specific frames of reference. Once the frame is changed, the decision will change as well. This is not “irrational,” but a reasonable reaction humans have to what appears relevant to their choice-making processes.

So, let’s frame the latest stock-market decline. On August 27, 2014 the DJIA stood at 17,122; a year later, on August 26, 2015 at 16,285; this is a 4.88% decline. Not something to cry over, is it? If someone told you that your house lost 5% of its value in one year, you might be upset a little, but not devastated.

If you look at a 5-year horizon, you find a different story. On August 27, 2010, the DJIA was 10,150, so that the same August 26, 2015 close of 16,285 represents now a 60% increase in value. Not bad for not doing much but letting your portfolio sit there, enjoying the economic recovery that was blessed by George W. Bush and implemented by Barack Obama.

For every Black Monday, August 24, 2015, with a so-called collapse of the market (588 point loss), there is Happy Wednesday, August 26, 2015, when the market rebounds (619 point gain). Do you live your life day-to-day or are you willing to look at a longer horizon? As I approach a milestone 60th birthday, I look at decades, not days.

Nutritionists and diet expert warn us not to check our weight hourly or daily, and remind us of normal body fluctuations. They do, however, look for trends of gaining or losing weight, when the cumulative difference is statistically significant. When my 94-year old mother began to lose weight rapidly, we knew she was dying; it was a unidirectional trend, not a daily fluctuation.

As under-educated as my father may have been, he had the common-sense of a refugee and a self-made businessman; he knew that when his business had a bad day, it didn’t mean he’d have a bad year, and vice versa.

The same is true of the restaurant business. It’s hard to remain optimistic when you have a bad day with few customers. But don’t forget the great night you also enjoyed. What makes the day-to-day ups and downs bearable is the optimism of a long-term horizon!

Raphael Sassower is professor and chair of philosophy at UCCS. He can be reached at rsassower@gmail.com See previous articles at sassower.blogspot.com

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

“Supreme Court tries to create certainty,” The Colorado Springs Business Journal, July 10-16, 2015, 21.

Under Conditions of Certainty

As the Supreme Court ended its 2014-15 session, several of its rulings are of historical significance. But what is most important to the business community is the fact that uncertainty has been replaced with certainty.

It is certain that the Affordable Care Act is here to stay. One can love or hate it, one can find flaws with its philosophical principles or implementation, but for the second time its constitutionality has been affirmed. Congress, if you want to eliminate it, come up with an alternative. How about universal health care?

Universal health care isn’t framed in terms of fairness because the mythology of individual freedom of choice trumps it. What choice? To be without health insurance? To run up costs when the only choice is the Emergency Room?

As for the recognition that marriage is a constitutional right, and as such extends to non-heterosexual couples, recall our Proposition 2 that was approved in Colorado by a 53% majority (1992). In 1996, the Supreme Court (Romer v Evans) found that the amendment, preventing protected status based on homosexuality or bisexuality, violated the Equal Protection Clause.
Legal victories, though, don’t tell the whole story. Just because discrimination against the LGBT community is illegal doesn’t mean is has ceased to exist. Yes, the business community has overall been supportive, and yes, even critics will have to change benefit policies, but will all employees be treated equally?

Just as the abolition of slavery was both about the civil rights of African-Americans and how our cultural norms ought to change, so is the case with same-sex marriage. For those who want to wave the Bible as the final arbiter of morality, beware of what you ask for. If you haven’t read it lately, you may be surprised by instances of sanctioned immorality.

But should a very personal event—the expression of one’s love—be part of our legal system? It’s worth questioning if the only way to ensure the protection of rights associated with love is by legal means. Laws can allow for tax provisions and hospital visitations, inheritance and employment benefits without the state regulating the affairs of the heart. Should the state also tell us how to express our love?  

If something is legal, abortion after Roe v Wade of 1973, is it necessarily beyond dispute? The law, after all, is supposed to express the moral standards of society (and not the other way around). The law comes both logically and chronologically after a community agrees on its social conventions and moral norms.  

And since the Supreme Court is made up of nine life-tenured jurists, five men and four women, six Catholics and three Jews, how representative is it? Perhaps the whole point of our “checks and balances” republican system of governance is that the judicial branch shall not be representative and thereby also be above the fray of public opinion. But is it? Were the justices bending to the cultural sea of change in regards to the LGBT community? Shouldn’t their decisions be culturally “blind”? 

We are after all in the 21st century. Though women still earn less than men when performing the same jobs, though women are still under-represented among our elected officials and in corporate boardrooms (see the latest Fortune Magazine issue on the top 100 women in America), we still believe in equality. Note that the most important educational institutions in town are headed by women—Air Force Academy, Colorado College, and UCCS. 

Perhaps the question of equality still makes some people uncomfortable when juxtaposed against the question of liberty. But our commitment to freedom (of choice and religion, speech and assembly) is intimately tied to equality, as seen in the latest Supreme Court’s decision. If my choice is hindered because I’m considered different enough not to warrant equal protection of the law, my freedom is compromised. 

Our legal system has evolved. What courts allowed for in the 19th century would never be allowed today: for example, ideas about education (segregation under the principle of separate but equal, Plessy v Ferguson of 1896) have been reversed (Brown v Board of Education in 1954). Likewise, sodomy laws were eventually deemed unconstitutional (Lawrence v Texas of 2003). Supreme Court decisions take note of cultural changes.

The business world shuns the risks associated with uncertainty. It’s difficult to plan if you don’t know what to expect. As one study showed, CEOs of international conglomerates prefer to do business in China—where an authoritarian one-party system controls all activities—than in democracies, such as the USA—where regulations keep on changing.

If there was doubt about marriage equality, it has been replaced with certainty. Who knows, federal marijuana laws might be next.

Raphael Sassower is professor of philosophy at UCCS. He can be reached at rsassower@gmail.com See previous articles at sassower.blogspot.com


Thursday, June 4, 2015

“The majority should incorporate minority’s ideas,” The Colorado Springs Business Journal, May 29-June 4, 2015, 23.

The Majority Should Incorporate Minority Ideas

Given the election results, John Suthers (63), former Attorney General for the state of Colorado, beat Mary Lou Makepeace (73), a former councilwoman and mayor, by a wide margin: 68% to 32%. What do these numbers tell us?

As the business community knows all too well, marketing hype is one thing, actual results may tell a different story. Doubling your sales sounds impressive only when you forget to disclose that you sold only two cars last month.

So, let’s dig one level deeper into the election numbers. To begin with, there are about 439,886 residents in Colorado Springs (official site, 2013). Not all residents are eligible to vote: those under the age of 18 account (about 25% of them), so that leaves about 329,914. We must deduct the number of felons and foreigners (legal or illegal), so we can assume about 300,000 in round numbers.

How many of these are both eligible and registered to vote? Without an official answer, we can estimate about 75%, which would give us 247,435. What we do know is that about 39% of those actually voted, 95,502. 

This also means that only 21.7% of the total population voted. Of that group, 68% chose Suthers (64,941 voters). If you consider all the residents of Colorado Springs whose mayor he’ll be, then about 15% actually endorsed him.

In case you think that this situation is unique to our city, the same percentages in round numbers are true of presidential elections when only about 146 million Americans are registered out of a population that exceeds 300 million.

The point, of course, is not that the new mayor or any other elected official hasn’t been properly elected; only that the rhetorical claims for public support and mandate are greatly exaggerated given our current democratic system of election.

But there is another point about the “wisdom of the crowds,” so named and popularized by James Surowiecki in 2004. According to this theory, the wisdom of the many (the majority) is greater than that of the few (however expert they may be).

This view was illustrated in a TED talk by Lior Zoref in 2012 when he asked the audience to estimate the weight of an ox. Of 500 entries, the lowest guess was 308 pounds, the highest 8,000, and the average was 1,792. The actual weight was 1,795. Pretty impressive!

This live experiment has been used to argue that if we polled lots of people, no matter the issue, their collective wisdom would exceed or be more accurate than that of a few CEOs or politicians.

Would that be true of political decisions, say, about the future of the City of Champions or the oversight of city-owned utilities? The public will always want to pay as little in taxes as possible while maintaining a high level of city services. Public officials will be the bearers of bad news: the less tax revenue, the less service.

Not only is there an inherent conflict between residents’ aversion to paying higher taxes and city officials who wish to ensure services are delivered, but there is another problem to consider. What if following the so-called wisdom of the crowd, the majority, leads us to adopt the lowest common denominator? 

Instead of making difficult choices that may upset some in order to ensure long-term viability, we follow short-term sentiments and face future disasters. Scientists and innovators, entrepreneurs and thinkers, worry less about what everyone thinks in order to forge ahead into uncharted territories. 

It was the British philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill who cautioned us in the 19th century against the tyranny of the majority. For him, it was important to listen to and account for minority voices, those whose insights may shed light on issues the majority may overlook.

A similar sentiment was expressed by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, also in the 19th century, about “herd mentality” and the ways in which crowds can be swayed in one direction or another, especially when a charismatic leader pushes an ideology.

Coming back to mayor Suthers, yes, he has a mandate, but it’s a thin one. Yes, his proposals were endorsed by more than twice as many people who endorsed Makepeace’s. But as we know from voting patterns in our city, retired voters (military and others) vote in greater proportion to young ones. What do young residents want?

Would legalizing recreation marijuana sales within city limits have the same effect as in Denver? It’s not about “pot-heads,” but about an image of open-mindedness that invites newcomers, as Denver has successfully done. If we want to balance the city military-dependency with startups, listening to minority (voting) voices might help.

Raphael Sassower is professor of philosophy at UCCS. He can be reached at rsassower@gmail.com See previous articles at sassower.blogspot.com