Technology: Clicks and Bricks

Retail ecommerce salesLast year, online sales in America reached $188 billion, about 8% of total retail sales. Overall retail sales were flat, yet e-commerce sales are up in the double-digits. Online sales are expected to reach $275 billion by 2015.

Futurists have been predicting this shift for more than a decade. Today, people in their 20’s and 30’s do about 25% of their shopping online. Customers are buying more through their smartphones. Nearly one-third of Americans own a smartphone and fully 70% of them, according to the Economist, use the device to do searches within a store, usually to compare prices. 

Of course, the undisputed leader of online retail sales is Amazon. Last year, their sales were roughly $48 billion, fairly close to total sales at Best Buy. Yet, think how the profitability at the two compare. Amazon has no physical stores but rather a logistics network. And, it has roughly 1/6 of the employees of Best Buy. Certainly shopping online is more convenient, but it’s more than that. Amazon is truly focused on the customer. Larry Downes, writing in Forbes last month, characterized them this way: “Amazon lives and breathes the customer’s point-of-view. It completely engineers its business practices, its systems and its people to support it. When they make a mistake, they admit it and fix it.” You can’t say the same about Best Buy.

However, some bricks-and-mortar retailers do focus on customers. Macy’s, for example, says it is investing $400 million in the renovation of its flagship store on Herald Square in NYC. It will become the largest women’s shoe department in the world. The store will include 22 spots to dine and 300 extra fitting rooms. Its 130,000 sales people have received training in “MAGIC selling”, teaching them to be more helpful and friendlier with customers. Macy’s is trying to join those stores which have become more fun to visit, including Apple’s stores and the Disney stores.


Certainly, changes in retailing will continue. It is likely that physical stores will continue to shrink. However, showrooms that are fun, customer focused and feature products people want to touch, feel and taste before buying will survive. Online operations that focus on the customers will also do well. We, as customers, are certainly the beneficiaries of the new technology – both when we buy online and when we shop at the fun, customer-focused bricks-and-mortar locations.

 For more information:

Greek Rescue Approved- But Europe Not Out of the Woods

Greek rescue

Today Europe finally reached a Greek Deal. Yet, doubt remains over whether Greece will be able to meet the terms of the accord and what the future holds for the euro zone.

The finance ministers agreed to the long-awaited 130 billion euro ($170 billion) deal that would start to reduce Greece’s debt to 120.5% of GDP by 2020. Private sector creditors will take a write-down on their Greek bonds of 53.5%. In return for the new cash, Greece signed up for cuts in pensions, minimum wage, health-care and defense spending, sales of assets and layoffs of public sector employees. However, even with this latest agreement, concern exists that Greece will not be able to meet its future commitments.

The Greek economy shrank by 7% in 2011, 5% of which was in the last quarter. Analysts expect further declines of at least 4% in Greek GDP in 2012 due to the required austerity programs. These structural reform measures, on top of Greece’s already 20% unemployment, will only deepen Greece’s recession. To make matters worse, businesses are not investing in Greece’s future until the euro is secure. Suppliers are not extending Greek firms credit, which is worsening the current liquidity shortage.

Elsewhere in the euro zone there are glimmers of hope. According to the Economist, Ireland has regained competitiveness, Spain’s new government has been able to reform long rigid labor laws, and Italy has passed a pension reform and is soon to propose labor reforms of its own. Yet, austerity in the short-term causes more unemployment and reductions in spending and GDP. Italy, Spain and Portugal are all expected to see a sharp drop in GDP in 2012.

By the end of February, European leaders are expected to agree on a new, higher “firewall” for euro countries that get into financial trouble. A permanent 500 billion euro ($650 billion) fund, the European Stability Mechanism is expected in July. This could bring much-needed momentum to the euro zone.

Yes, Europe has reached a Greek deal. Yet, the road to recovery for the euro zone will still be long and hard.

For more information:

Knicks Star Jeremy Lin: Teaching Us Some Great Lessons

Last night, the Knicks won their seventh game in a row- after struggling all season. The big change has been point guard Jeremy Lin, was until ten days earlier, was sitting on the bench, waiting and hoping to get a chance to play.

Jeremy is unusual in three major ways.  He’s the first Taiwanese-American in the NBA. Only three Harvard grads have made it to the NBA before Jeremy. And, he was undrafted, unwanted and was almost shipped back to the development league two weeks ago. During the NBA holdout last fall, Lin was bunking with his brother; sleeping on the couch in his apartment and hoping for an opportunity to play in the NBA. 

Now, in the last five games, Lin has averaged 23 points, 10 assists, and 4 rebounds while playing almost 37 minutes out of each 48 minute. He is a worldwide sensation with over 200,000 followers on Twitter and 800,000 on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter and Facebook. His #17 jersey is the hottest selling item at the NBA store on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. A sports blogger, Bryan Harvey suggested that the amazing thing about Lin is that “in a world of infinite data and endless observation, Lin has now broadsided us like an unseen torpedo, fired from a submarine we didn’t know existed.”

But this story is larger than basketball. Eric Jackson in Forbes last week recapped Jeremy Lin’s earlier struggles and now successes. Mr. Jackson believes all of us can learn ten important work principles from the Jeremy Lin story:

  1. Believe in yourself when no one else does.
  2. Seize the opportunity when it arises. 
  3. Your family will always be there for you, so be there for them. 
  4. Find the system that works for you.
  5. Don’t overlook talent that might exist around you today on your team.
  6. People will love you for being an original, not trying to be someone else.
  7. Stay humble.
  8. When you make others around you look good, they will love you forever.
  9. Never forget about the importance of luck or fate in life.
  10. Work your butt off.

Kudos to Jeremy Lin. We thank him for demonstrating important work lessons. Let’s hope his success continues- except, of course, when the Knicks play the Bulls.

More information:

Mortgage Fraud Settlement: Investigations Continue

Mortgage fraud and foreclosureLast week, we all heard about the $26 billion foreclosure settlement between the big banks and federal and state officials. Some have called it a “wrist slap” compared to the hardships faced by 4 million homeowners who have lost their homes and another 3.3 million who are in or close to foreclosure.

At best, this payout will reach about two million former and current homeowners. The banks will grant some $10 billion worth of principal reduction, $3 billion in refinancing, and $7 billion in other mortgage relief. $1.5 billion will be cash payments of roughly $2,000 to some 750,000 borrowers who were treated unfairly. Lastly, $3.5 billion will go to state and federal governments to fund the aiding and counseling of borrowers facing foreclosure.

The banks did not get a blanket relief. But, it does protect them from state and federal civil lawsuits for most foreclosure abuses, excessive late fees and conflicts of interest that caused banks to favor foreclosures over modifications. Going forward, banks will be subject to tougher rules for servicing loans and executing foreclosures.

The settlement also allows further investigation into mortgage abuses which led to the financial crisis. As President Obama outlined in the State of the Union address, he intends to expand the inquiry and produce broader accountability.

Eighty years ago, the Pecora Commission actually produced results, though appointed three years after the Wall Street crash of 1929 and the subsequent Depression. Ferdinand Pecora was appointed by the Senate committee in 1932 and received broad inquiry powers in 1933. Ultimately, his commission’s report ran thousands of pages.

Congress responded to the report by passing three major pieces of legislation. First, the Glass-Steagall Banking Act, which separated commercial and investment banking. Second, the Securities Act of 1933, which established penalties for filing false information about stock offerings. And, third, the Securities Exchange Act, which created the Securities and Exchange Commission to regulate stock exchanges. Nearly fifty years of financial stability followed.

We hope the task force appointed by President Obama is more than election maneuvering and that this is not a meaningless exercise. A modern day version of the Pecora Commission might really make a difference for the future.

More information see:

Economy: Private Sector Leading the Recovery

Yes, there has been good economic news since the first of the year; stronger-than-expected employment figures and upticks in manufacturing and services data. Stock markets worldwide have responded. Most bond yields, even in Europe, are down. The Federal Reserve has made it clear that low interest rates will continue for three more years.

Will it continue? Housing seems to have hit a bottom and many households have reduced their debt. However, personal consumption continues to lag and Europe not only has its debt problems, but also many of its economies are in recession. Here in the U.S., we have a budget debacle ahead of us and tax cuts expiring at year-end. And, of course, we need to watch out for black swans that may come from places like Iran. Time will tell what the remainder of 2012 will bring.

In the meantime, it’s valuable to put our current recovery in perspective. The New York Times ran a series of great charts this weekend comparing this recovery to those started in 1991 and 2001. It’s easy to see that private enterprise is providing the bounce. Government spending and hiring is down.

Private investment, not including housing, is now 17% higher that it was at the end of the downturn. But government spending, adjusted for inflation, is nearly 3 percent smaller than it was when the economy hit bottom. Residential investment, which really boosted the two earlier recoveries, is now substantially unchanged. While the housing industry is no longer a drag, it is also not a contributor to the recovery.

Gross Domestic Product (GDP)

For more information: click here

Stock Markets in an Election Year

Stock Markets in Election YearsElection years have traditionally been good for the markets. Since 1928, there have been 21 elections and the S&P index has had a negative return during an election year only three times. Of course, 2 of those 3 negative years were 2000 and 2008. Hence, there may not be a pattern and, even if there was, the pattern may not be relevant to the decisions we are about to make.

Business Week had a great series of graphs in December showing how correlation and causation are often erroneously linked. They suggest that creating statistics is easy: all you need is two graphs and a leading question to “prove” whatever you already believe. For example, did you know that babies named Ava caused the U.S. housing bubble? Well, if you graph the number of newborns that were named Ava each year starting in 1991 until now and compared that graph to a graph of the housing price index over the same time, there is a significant correlation. After 2006, Ava, for whatever reason, has become a significantly less used name for newborns. Of course, this significant decline was very close in percentage terms to the decline in the housing market at the same time. Here’s another one: did you know that Facebook is driving the Greek Debt Crisis? Again, if you graph the Facebook stock price since 2005 and compare them with the yield (interest rate) on Greek debt until now, you will find a very strong correlation. There may be a correlation, but there is certainly not causation.

In a similar way, the performance of the stock and other markets has little to do with an election year. Typically, when an incumbent is doing well in the polls it is because the economy is doing well, unemployment is low and companies are generating solid earnings. These causes drive the stock market higher and make Americans feel more secure. Conversely, when economic conditions are weak and unemployment is high, the stock markets don’t perform as well and challengers have a better chance of winning. 

Mr. Market doesn’t get into politics. He’s not a Republican or a Democrat. He’s more like radio and TV detective Sgt. Friday from Dragnet who reportedly wanted “Just the facts…” Current data and expectations concerning consumer spending, unemployment, corporate profits home and abroad, housing, inflation, world events and many other data points cause the markets to move. This information does two things- impact the markets and affect who may be elected.

Election year politics  have become a huge spectacle. Yet, Mr. Market really pays little attention to all the promises, conflicts, hype and media show. He, instead, stays focused on relevant facts and moves accordingly.

Some Words of Wisdom

Hopefully the Holidays were wonderful for all of you. Ours certainly were. At some Holiday events, people would ask: “Les, what will the markets do in 2012?” My response: “I honestly don’t know.” Then, I would continue: “There’s a wide range of possibilities.” And, if they were non-clients, I would ask them: “Is your portfolio ready for what may lie ahead, good and/or bad?” It always led to an interesting conversation.

2011 wasn’t very pretty for most investors. First, there was the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, then the spring  uprisings that toppled Arab dictators, next there was the toxic debate over the debt ceiling and S&P gave the U.S. its first ratings downgrade ever. In the fall, the Europe crisis took over and grabbed everyone’s attention. The S&P 500 index ended up 2.1% for 2011 and now has been basically flat for the last five years.  The cost of living continued upward, increasing 3.3 % in 2011 and is up 2.3% annually over the last five years. Many investors who need their investment portfolio to consistently beat the CPI index were disappointed, again.

What’s ahead in 2012? The Bulls are confident the stock markets are going to do well  in 2012 because corporate earnings will continue to rise, inflation will moderate, the economy will sidestep recession, housing will be less of a drag on the economy, economic data overall is improving, and most importantly, over the long term, stocks have historically outperformed all other investments. The Bears say that the U.S. GDP growth is barely positive and unlikely to produce a decrease in the unemployment rate, and our politicians haven’t found a way to deal with our huge debt and social security and Medicare costs. In addition, the Bears say, China’s growth engines may stall and a full-scale crisis in Europe would mean trouble across the world. The truth is; no one knows the future. So, except for those who own a crystal ball, we suggest you prepare for both the ups and the downs in the world and the markets in 2012. Here’s how:

First, review your investment results for the last year, the last three years and the last five years. Compare them to your goals and the CPI (Consumer Price Index). At a minimum, your portfolio should meet (and exceed) the CPI.

Next, review your risk tolerance. Generally, people are more averse to risk today than they were a few years ago. If your risk tolerance has decreased, then your asset allocation needs to be revised to reflect that.

Next, review your financial needs. How much income do you need from your portfolio? What percentage rate of return will you need from your portfolio so you don’t outlive your portfolio? You’ll probably need to update your overall financial plan to do this accurately.  

Next, review your asset allocation. What’s your percentage of stocks? Bonds? Real Estate? Other Alternatives? What percentage is liquid? How will they likely perform in Bull markets or Bear markets?

Finally, acknowledge that the world has changed and continues to do so. In the ‘80s and ‘90s the stock market seemed to produce double-digit returns year after year. Ten years ago, our government produced a balanced budget and our national debt was less than 1/3 of what it is today. Five years ago, real estate values were regularly hitting new peaks. That has all changed. It has been almost five years since the bursting of the housing bubble and four years since the onset of recession.

Even so, there are still tremendous opportunities for those of us prepared to embrace change. Today, for example, there are more investment vehicles available, such as liquid alternatives, that are designed to excel in any market environment and protect on the downside. Hence, investors need to consider all available investment vehicles, review their risk tolerance and asset allocation, and make sure that their financial adviser embraces change, as we all must do, in order to meet our financial goals.