Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Dave-El's Financial Times

Hi there!  Welcome to I’m So Glad My Suffering Amuses You! I’m Dave-El and your lovin’ gives me thrills but lovin’ don’t pay my bills.

So for a few days now, the stock market has been a thing what with mangled margins, inverted indices, falling finances, plunging prices and other alliterative allusions to a free falling financial thing that begins with “F”.

Like everything else in life, I don’t pretend to understand the stock market. I have stocks. I think. I have money invested in something or another. I get statements from my bank’s investment division which contains lots and lots of numbers and words like “capital gains” and “return on investment” and “abandon hope all ye who enter here”. I don’t understand any of it. Am I making money? Am I losing money? Is my money caught on a merry-go-round, just going around in circles? If so, is it on one of the cool horses or sitting in one of those lame seats? Is my money having fun? Can I have fun with my money?

What I do know about the stock market is how much pain and worry is self-inflicted.

Many years ago, I worked for a company that made manufactured housing.  The company had been in business 50 years and was doing rather well. In fact, it began being traded on the New York Stock Exchange. Being a publicly traded company has its perks. All those people investing money in your company means you have money to do things with like improve products and services which in turn will result in better sales which in turn provides a nice return for the company and those that invested in it. The problems start when the line that defines the meaning of success keeps getting moved out further and further. Earning a profit, making more money than you spend, is not enough. You have to make MORE money than you did the year before.

Consider this:  Your business is making a high quality in demand product: laminated ducks. You can charge a little more for it because your buyers think its worth it. So raising prices will raise money earned and increase profits. Perhaps you’ve only just begun to tap into the market for laminated ducks; more people to sell to means more profits. Maybe you improve the process for making laminated ducks which works better than the old way but costs less money. Boom! More profits!

But this is not sustainable, at least not forever. Whatever goes up must come down. The higher you go, the further you fall. A rolling stone gathers no moss.

OK, I’m not sure what that last one has to do with anything. But…

At some point, you’re going to reach a breaking point with your consumers on the price for laminated ducks.  Eventually you will tap out any new markets to sell laminated ducks to. Sooner or later, there are only so many costs that can be cut to make laminated ducks without making them of a lesser quality which is why you can charge the prices you do. Inevitably, the ride upwards has to end.

One day the bad news hits Wall Street: Laminated Ducks International earned a profit which was 5% higher than the year before. Why is this bad news? Because the market was expecting a 10% increase in profits. Yes, you made a profit and it was 5% higher than the profit made last year  but Laminated Ducks International is so well and truly fucked because your company did not earn ENOUGH profit. So the stock prices goes down and in the boardrooms of LDI, panic sets in while old white men in suits try to figure out how to get the money train back up to full steam. 

That happened to the housing company I worked for. We had a decent product that sold at a good price and every year we did better than the year before. Until we didn’t. And then the panic set in. This company decided the best way to boost profits was to increase our market. To do that, our financing arm began approving more and more borderline applications. The good news is sales did go up and the stock price went up. But those bad loans began to bite the company in the ass with increasing defaults and a glut of repossessed homes in a market that already had too much enough new product.  Sales went down again and this time there was no bouncing back. This company no longer exists after being in business for over half a century. If we didn’t have stockholders to answer to demanding increasing profits year to year to year, the company could’ve rode out the first downturn. But no, the pressure was on to not just deliver big but deliver bigger and bigger.

But the stock market is a weird beast. One night as I was driving home during the last year of my employment with the home builder, I was listening to a local business report. A local company had made a profit but the stock price went down because the profit was not high enough. Meanwhile, the stock price for my employer had gone up because the company had lost less money than had been anticipated. Yes, Wall Street liked us because we sucked less than expected. Yay, team!  

The lesson is obvious to me: you have to take the bad with the good which is OK as long as there’s more good stuff than bad. But as I’ve said, I don’t understand the stock market where it seems everyone thinks an upward direction is an endless ride and any downward direction is nothing less than total calamity. Stockbrokers are like dogs left at home all day. Every day the dog owners come back and everyday dogs seem very surprised by that. “OMG! OMG! It’s the human person who brings the food and throws the bouncing ball thing! I thought the human person was gone forever! Wait! The human person is leaving? Where the human person go? Oh no! The human person is gone forever! OMG! OMG! The human person is back! Oh joy! Is there food?” 

Back in 2008, long after I left my job in the manufactured housing industry and wound up here at my current employer, the big financial meltdown occurred. The troubles with borderline or outright bad loans had spread from the manufactured housing sector to all of housing. It was a major blow to the economy and I remember hearing economists say, “We didn’t see this coming.” Which is bullshit. Either you’re lousy economists or you’re just willfully blind. There are only so many people in the world who can afford to buy a home; eventually you will have to sell fewer homes, give the market time to bolster back up. If you try to shore up the gravy train by expanding the market to people who cannot afford to buy a home, you’re only going to make the situation worse. And it was very bad indeed when the housing market bubble burst, nearly taking down the global economy with it.

We can see these things coming. We at least know they’re coming because they always do. It’s a cycle.

That’s all I have today. Before I go, remember to be good to one another and can I interest you in a laminated duck?


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