Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Bombs Bursting in Air? Not.

What this country needs – oh, does it need – is an issue on which liberals and conservatives can unite and on which the country can voice its approval, loudly and enthusiastically.  Here is such an issue.

It is time we should change our national anthem.  The Star Spangled Banner is hard to sing and is out of step with the national mood, which is less militaristic than it used to be.  The country, according to most polls, is tired of “bombs bursting in air” and is ready for “amber waves of grain” or “the oceans white with foam.”

You like bombs bursting in air? Then the present anthem fails on musical grounds. How many of us, hearing O, Canada sung at the hockey playoffs or the Russian national anthem sung at Sochi, sighed, “I wish we had an anthem like that.” (How many singers have had the same thought?)

If it were put to a popular vote, two candidates would probably emerge: America the Beautiful and God Bless America.  Either one, in my opinion, is better than The Star Spangled Banner.  They are both stirring melodies.  America the Beautiful was written by Samuel Ward, a choirmaster, and Katherine Lee Bates, in 1910.  God Bless America, as everyone knows, was written by Irving Berlin in 1918 and revised by him (for Kate Smith) in 1938.  Both are well known and sung often; in fact, God Bless America has become a surrogate national anthem, sung at the home half of the seventh inning at many major-league baseball games.

For more than 150 years, the United States had no national anthem.  Then, in 1931, President Herbert Hoover signed an act making The Star Spangled Banner the national anthem. It has had a long and distinguished life, but now it is time for a new national anthem, easier to sing and having more inspired lyrics. It is time to move on.  Is there a political leader around who will take up the cause?

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Buy Stocks in What You Know?

A long time ago, Peter Lynch, the Manager of Fidelity’s Magellan Fund, became a hero of investors by popularizing the idea of buying stocks in companies with which one is personally familiar, either as a customer or as an employee. Enough successful examples of that strategy were around to promote Magellan and Lynch to well deserved cult status, and investors began asking their wives and children which stores and which products they liked – and why.

All that was true then. But does it make sense today? Yes, if one doesn’t confuse notoriety with knowledge. Take, for example, Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce colossus that is about to go public in what may well be the biggest IPO in history. People are angling to buy stock in Alibaba or in Yahoo, which owns a big stake in the Chinese Company.  Other people are buying “momentum” stocks – stocks such as Tesla or Facebook or Twitter or Netflix. Some of these will make money for their buyers, but many are plunging on the basis, not of personal knowledge, but of hype. There’s a difference.

Look, with any of these momentum stocks, no matter how much you think you know, hundreds of Wall Street’s best and brightest know a thousand times more. They know more and they trade faster. You don’t have to believe the market is rigged, as one author plugged his book by charging. It’s just a fact of life, much more so now than in the golden age of Peter Lynch.

Publicity attracts crowds; that’s the idea, after all. In my stock trading, I scour the table of contents in the Journal and Barron’s, and if I find a company listed in which I am interested in trading, I cross it off my list. It is hard enough making a buck in the market without competing with the sharks. There are plenty of companies, even NYSE-listed companies, that never appear on those tables of contents.

I’m not saying that investing in what you know is a bad idea. I am saying that trading in hyped stocks is a loser. I bought some Apple several years ago because I believed in the Company, and I still own those shares. Score one for Lynch. But I trade other stocks, and those are the stocks where publicity is the kiss of death. Which ones? I’m not going to tell you, because that would be dumb.