Meditation on Why We Buy

“I wish to have certainty in my life,
and outcomes in the timeframe of my choice,” She said.
Too bad 

Had the stock market been rib eye steak in 1974, grocery shoppers would have been all over it. It was selling for half the price of twelve years prior, and investors were not only not buying, they were dumping stocks at wholesale. Now, forty years later, with the market up big, extremely expensive, and far outrunning the growth in the underlying company earnings, they can’t get enough of the stuff.

A cursory look at the chart below should make the reader want answers to two questions:

1) Why is it that investors never buy cheap and always buy expensive?

2) Why must there be a bear market that erases all the gains of the last forty years.

Fed Fed

The Investor Behavior Problem

Shopping for stocks is different from shopping for socks. Socks are utilitarian, we get them at the best price we can–preferably on sale. Stocks are a bet on the future, which is uncertain, so we need to feel confident that the future is good. Without knowledge of the future, we default to the past. When stocks have been falling, we feel bad, so we hold off. When stocks have been going up, we feel good, so we are willing to buy.

At the end of a long decline, the mood is very negative and most are unwilling, at the optimal time, to bet on the future. As the market rises in a new bull phase, it gets easier to make a move. At tops, people who have not been involved at all will buy without even investigating. They are the ones who drive valuations to excess. They are the ones most vulnerable.

Buying at the bottom, or soon thereafter, requires retraining our brains to want to buy in the midst of fear. Very difficult.

Why Stocks Crash

 The stock market is driven by the regret of the naïve investor, who buys from the savvy investor at tops, regretting that he didn’t get in years ago, and finally sells out at the bottom (to the savvy investor), regretting that he held on, instead of selling out a lot sooner. If we didn’t have naïve investors, we wouldn’t have bull and bear markets. Savvy investors do not account for foolish rallies.

This process is in play at all degrees of trend, from day trading up to multi-year moves. The bear phases, or corrections, are always occurring because the emotions of the regrettors are hard wired. Can’t change our feelings.

Then we have epic advances–bull markets that last for decades. The naiveté simply expands and induces ever greater disregard for reality. Plus, and this is a biggie, a lot of it is done with borrowed money. Never in the history of markets has there been so little equity and so much debt in the stock market as there is now:


There is even more borrowing than during the Tech Bubble. Not only that, but the underlying economy, supposedly the reason we buy stocks, is also more highly leveraged than ever:

US debt worse than 1929

Debt is an essential element in economic development–until servicing the borrowings stymies growth. And every fifty years or so we realize that an ordinary advance morphed into a mania. That is when we need to read Ecclesiastes, and Tacitus, and De La Vega, and Mackay: All of the investment manias in recorded history have been fully retraced.

So, are we closer to the top or the bottom? You decide.



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Out of Left Field

 For every subtle and complicated question,
there is a perfectly simple and straightforward answer,
which is wrong

—H.L. Mencken

Cindy and I did our best. We tried to do our part to consume our fair share of gasoline to keep the only growing sector of the U.S. economy afloat. But in the end, it was too much of a hassle to keep two cars, ages 11 and 17, on the road. In the last six months we traded two vehicles getting 19 mpg for a pair that average 32 mpg. So we will use 534 fewer gallons of gas this year than last. We feel bad about this.

Since the average age of cars on the road today is ten years, it’s just a matter of time before the American auto fleet turns over, unpatriotically reducing its consumption of gas by 40%. This is calamitous! Fracking for oil has been the only bright spot in the U.S. employment picture:

employees by industry 2003-2014

But if you listen carefully, you can hear the death knell in that business. Fracking is an expensive way to extract oil. The frackers got really busy when speculators in the futures market drove the price to $140 in 2008. Since then, the commodity bubble burst and oil is down to $50 (probably headed further south), and the frickin’ frackers are in a world of hurt because they need $100 oil to be profitable.

At the present price of West Texas Intermediate, producers can’t afford to drill because bankers, observing the sudden rise of bankruptcies in the industry, have quit making loans in the oil patch (they’re no fools). So rig counts are collapsing and employment is cratering (something the government conveniently failed to include in this month’s employment report, by the way), and producers are having to pump the hell out of existing wells, selling product at a loss just to pay off their existing loans.

Rig counts are collapsing, but oil inventories are climbing:

oil rig count 

Because consumption is falling off a cliff:

oil consumption recent

So, when that blond lady in the black pantsuit strides across your flatscreen, confidently informing you that a new age of energy independence for the U.S. is at hand, she may be right. But not because the fracking industry will secure it. The source looks to be a massive disruption in all forms of energy use. And, as Cindy and I have just discovered, the automobile industry is a major disrupter.

Today, the economy is, in most sectors, just barely keeping its head out of water. Autos are the exception, having nearly recovered their losses from the Great Recession:

auto salesFor good reason. The engineering advances of autos being produced today are amazing. Fuel efficiency has dramatically improved in the last decade, and maintenance costs are down. Oil changes are now recommended at 10,000 miles, instead of the older, 3,000 mile schedule, dropping lubricant use in new vehicles by over two thirds.

As an added benefit, our insurance premiums went down as soon as we traded, something we did not expect. New cars have more safety engineering than ever, and insurers recognize it with lower premiums on new cars.

What to make of the situation?

The drop in oil prices is likely to persist, which means a big rise in unemployment in the oil patch. But the elimination of a big chunk of the use of hydrocarbons is great for the environment.

So far, there is no evidence that consumers are spending more on general consumption as a result of lower gas prices, so no net improvement in the economy–except for auto sales.

The increase in fuel efficiency and safety in new cars is a powerful good, unless you’re a mechanic. Your shop will get one visit a year from your customers instead of three.

So, with apologies to your friend in the service department, go get a new car. Nothing like the new car smell to improve your sense of well being on the way to work in the morning.



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Wanted: Uncommon Sense

We must learn to differentiate clearly
the fundamentally important, that
which is really basic, from that which
is dispensable, and turn aside from
everything else,  from the multitude of
things that clutter up the mind and
divert it from the essential.

–Albert Einstein

Walk into a bank or broker’s office today and ask them what you should do with your money. They will tell you to buy stock. Ask them why, they will say that is what their research analysts recommend. Ask them why, and they will cite one or more investment hypotheses: The Dividend Discount Model, The Efficient Market Hypothesis, Economic Forecasts, Sun Spots (you’d be surprised.)

All very well, but given the uncertainty of stock market returns, my view is to apply The Occam’s Razor Hypothesis, which says that, when considering  competing hypotheses for solving a problem, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected. I select Buy-Them-When-Nobody-Wants-Them. It’s the simplest solution, requiring only mindfulness and patience.

I was reminded of this last week. My pal, Bob was on a business trip to the West Coast. Scheduled to fly home from L. A., he hopped over to Las Vegas instead, bought a car and drove the rest of the way. I wondered why he bought the vehicle in Vegas.

“I’d been thinking about hybrids, so I went into a Ford dealer in L. A. and test drove a C-Max. Nice car, listed for $37,000. I figured, with the price of gas cut in half now, the aftermarket in hybrids might be soft. So I went online and found this one, less than a year old, for $14,500. Sweet ride!”

Turns out, Bob has been doing this sort of thing nearly all his life. “When I was a kid, I couldn’t wait to get up in the morning and run outside to see what I could find. ”

His first venture into buying unloved objects for resale was when he owned a motorcycle shop. he could sell a new bike and make 20%, but if he bought an old relic bike in salvage for a hundred dollars or so, he would have it  in the shop until a collector came along to happily take it off his hands for a thousand bucks.

While driving home from Vegas, he was chatting with an old friend about his purchase. “Knowing you, you might have it sold before you get home,” his friend said. “Never know,” he replied. I’ve known Bob for a couple of years and he’s had three cars and two motorcycles in that time span.

Whether you’re trading stocks, motorcycles or baseball cards, the key is to buy right. You don’t know what you’ll make, but if you pay attention and get the stuff for the right price, you’ve got a good chance of coming out ahead.

Carlos Helu Slim is, depending on the month, either one two or three in the list of the world’s richest men. Slim is a Mexican businessman who got rich buying great companies when the Mexican stock market was in turmoil. He learned to do this watching his father pick off properties during market panics. “Buying is a discipline,” said Slim in a recent interview. “You have to do your homework, and then wait, years if necessary, for periods of severe stress in the economy and the markets. You buy when good companies are being tossed on the garbage heap by fearful investors.”

Both of these men, Bob and Mr. Slim, have the passion, talent and experience to excel at trading the things they trade. The average 401k investor trying to build a retirement does not. And, without it, he cant buy right. On the advice of a bank or broker, he lets his money slide willy-nilly into overpriced stock funds, blissfully unaware that many of the funds’ companies are run by sociopaths who extract outrageous compensation and rig the finances of the enterprise to benefit senior management rather than the shareholder, a strategy that inevitably leads to collapse.

Most 401k investors are doomed to get the picture after their account is down big. They’ll hold on until the pain is unbearable, and sell about the time Mr. Slim is buying.

The wiser man would be patiently parked in money market funds until all hope in the markets is lost. Or, forget about stocks and do something like ladder two, four and ten year Treasury Notes. That way they can sleep soundly next time Wall Street is the scene of financial carnage.



No one should consider any part of this presentation as a recommendation to buy or sell any securities whatsoever.



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Shell Game

Nasrudin stood up in the marketplace
and started to address the throng.
“O my people! Do all of you really
want knowledge without difficulty, truth
without falsehood, great attainment
without effort, progress without sacrifice?”

Very soon a very large crowd gathered,
everyone shouting, “Yes, yes!”

“Excellent!” said the mullah. “I only
wanted to know. You may rely upon me
to tell you if I ever discover any
such a thing.”

–Sufi Teaching Story

At 8:30 AM on Friday, February 6th, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released its monthly Employment Situation Report. The media hailed it as the most positive report in two years. The big feature, they said, was a massive upward revision of the reported new jobs created the month before.  Upward revision? Who gets to do this? Change numbers month to month? Only government. The private sector would be tarred and feathered if they tinkered with their earnings reporting. The other exciting fact, per the evening news anchorperson, was that the slightly higher unemployment number was great because that meant more people got off their Barcaloungers and went looking for work! Panglossian or what?

Far more realistic, but ignored by both the popular media and Wall Street analysts, was the U.S. Census Bureau’s Homeownership Quarterly, which drilled down to what the citizenry is actually experiencing:

AAA Chart

Labor Force Participation Rate is back down to 1975 levels, when there were still more households with one income than with two.
Real Median Household Income continued its decline into 2010 and has barely budged since.
Mortgage Purchase Apps were below the ’09 levels late last year
Avg. Wage Growth Year-Over-Year tanked during the recession, rallied a bit after that, and just made a new low.

Nothing to indicate meaningful recovery in these numbers. Nor does consumer activity get the blood going:

Retail Sales

Wall Street analysts were confident that retail sales would be pushed up by the big drop in gas prices. “We cannot understand…” is how Bank of America’s report on the matter began.

Finally, if the fully invested public gives a tinker’s damn about the company earnings in their mutual fund holdings, they have a weird way of showing it:

US company profits and sales

Earnings crumbling, stocks in the stratosphere. Is it possible that investors will bestir themselves from their complacent inattention to decide they may have the problem of financial ruin in their midst? You decide.



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The Market

Dow Jones Industrial Average
swinging market

My friend says, “Jeeminy, Rod, the market is crazy! Two hundred points up or down every day. What do you make of it?”

Topping action, is what I make of it. Start with the economic reports. The ones you can believe are lousy. For example, it was reported in the Challenger Job Cuts Report this morning that layoffs in January soard 17.6% year-over-year with planned job cuts at the highest level in almost 2 years… Jobless claims in Shale states continues to trend higher as oil prices collapse.

The report you can’t believe–the government unemployment number, vastly underreports the unemployment situation. Jim Clifton, CEO of Gallup, says:

“There’s no other way to say this. The official unemployment rate, which cruelly overlooks the suffering of the long-term and often permanently unemployed as well as the depressingly underemployed, amounts to a Big Lie. And it’s a lie that has consequences, because the great American dream is to have a good job, and in recent years, America has failed to deliver that dream more than it has at any time in recent memory. I hear all the time that “unemployment is greatly reduced, but the people aren’t feeling it.” When the media, talking heads, the White House and Wall Street start reporting the truth — the percent of Americans in good jobs; jobs that are full time and real — then we will quit wondering why Americans aren’t “feeling” something that doesn’t remotely reflect the reality in their lives. And we will also quit wondering what hollowed out the middle class.” –  CEO of Gallup

The reasonable thing to expect, then, is for the market to be going down. Yet it has soared this week. Why, you ask? Two reasons:

1) Earlier this week, Goldman Sachs reported that 30% of their trading floor order flow was for corporate buybacks. Corporate management will tell you it is to return value to the shareholder. My take is that, seeing underlying weakness in their respective businesses, managements are ruthlessly burning company cash (and borrowing more money) to buy the company stock to try to hold prices up to protect their bonuses.

2) Speculators try to get ahead of the game when the news turns bad. They sell overpriced stocks short, expecting to buy back in later at a lower price. But, without follow through selling by investors (who are still bullish), the short sellers are prey to being squeezed by other traders who, noting the short positions, will buy heavily, forcing the market up, so they can sell into the panic short covering. An interesting game if you know how to play it. Zero Hedge, a blogger, posted this observation this morning:

“Most Shorted” stocks are now comfortably green on the year after the last 4 days have seen the biggest short squeeze in 15 months. Today alone, “most shorted” stocks are up 1.8%.”

There you have it. The economy sucks, while gambling and corporate greed paint the market tape. I don’t for one minute think this is a healthy situation for stock investors.





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Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose


 When Donald Rumsfeld, a practical imperialist
if there ever was one, took over the Pentagon,
he commissioned a study of how
ancient empires maintained their hegemony.
Might he more profitably study
how they lost all they had gained?

—Thomas Cahill

Dear Maridel, Dave, Martha and Jack,

America, by my reckoning, is fifteen years past its peak as a global hegemon. The important question is whether or not we will repeat the history of other imperial nations in other eras: The British at the end of the nineteenth century, The Spanish in the seventeenth century, Rome in antiquity, Athens, China, Persia, the Babylonians. You may argue that our nation is not an empire. Tell that to the citizens of  nations whose politics we have “managed” and whose resources we have exploited for the last hundred years.

Now, at our zenith, the comparisons with past hegemonies abound: Hyper-concentrated wealth, power and privilege. Political and corporate governance skewed with policies that magnificently enrich the elites and marginalize the rest. And the Achilles heel of all hegemonies: debt unimaginable. Without exception, our predecessors have ultimately succumbed to the burdens of empire and undergone massive restructuring and downsizing, imposing severe economic hardship on its citizens. I have no doubt that the same will happen here.

The two factors (intertwined) that guide my thinking are politics and inflation/debt:


A friend once told me she ran for student body president when she was in high school. At her dad’s suggestion, she told the students that if she were elected she would see to it that there was free pizza for all on Fridays. I don’t recall whether she won or not, but it is clear that her dad understood politics.

Government programs to improve the life of its citizens are good. They just tend to go on too long or expand too much. Eventually, they become unaffordable. I don’t know when the tipping point will be, but we are long past the day when entitlements, special interest programs and the inevitable “bridge to nowhere” political pizza parties are tolerable. The battle to eliminate these things is now joined. However it is resolved, there will be a lot of pain. Just look at Greece today. That is the direction we should expect to go in.


 Inflation, classically defined, is an extraordinary expansion of debt. The effect is to flood an economy with the wherewithal to buy stuff. This has happened in our time through the actions of our central bank-the Federal Reserve System. The U. S. Treasury issues bonds, the Fed buys them and, with the sole power to print money, pays the Treasury for them with printed dollars (deposits to the Treasury Dept.’s accounts) which then flow into the economy to pay for government expenditures. An expansion of government spending promotes a general expansion in the private economy, including private borrowing to expand businesses. Fine, if the economy is growing enough to produce growth in tax revenues to ultimately pay off the debt.

It has been a very long time since economic growth produced enough revenues to keep the government from operating at a deficit. The combination of growing government spending and growing debt, both government and private, has exploded of late (the charts are downright scary). An over indebted economy is struggling, too. To try to make things better, the Fed has lately bought bonds (mortgages) in the private sector, making deposits into the banks so that there would be liquidity to boost spending in the economy. It’s not working-businesses are too worried to expand, and are contracting instead. The result has been low interest money for speculators to run up the stock market. This is not likely to end well.

Deflation, the collapse of a debt bubble, is like a monster steamroller that flattens everything in its path. It is a fearful thing. That is why the Fed and the central banks of the world are trying so hard to stop its arrival. But, it’s too late. At this stage of the cycle, all their money printing is no more effective than pushing on a string. Deflation is coming, no matter what they do. We need to be aware of this.

What can we do? Not be surprised, for one. Be prepared to be resilient, determined to survive no matter what. The irony is that what we yearn for: certainty, security, abundance, tends to produce narcissism, entitlement and dissatisfaction. Do you know what a billionaire’s worst nightmare is? The guy that moves in next door has two billion.

Well, we don’t have that to worry about, so we should be grateful. I just want us to get through the next few years in good enough shape to leave the legacy of love to your kids.

Passing the Baton

Do you want to improve the world?
I don’t think it can be done

—Lao Tzu

All my love,


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Are We There Yet?

Who are you going to believe,
me or your lying eyes?

–Grouch Marx

Dear Maridel, Dave, Martha and Jack,

Do you remember me writing an essay with this title in January, 2003? Chuck might, since he laughed at my use of a whining kid’s car-trip lament. From a top in early 2000, the Dow Jones Industrial Average had fallen 32%, and the question was, had we reached the bottom of a bear market?

I argued no, and turned out to be right, but nothing in my studies prepared me for the notion that neither had we seen the top of the Grand Supercycle bull market. So now, eleven long years later, the question is, did we see the final top on December 29, 2014?

Yes. Maybe. Probably. Most likely (as I’ve said many times these past years, tops are damn hard to call). The Elliott Wave Principal, my most important study, says little about the amplitude of a bull move, or the time involved, forcing the analyst to make educated, probabilistic guesses about tops.

But one thing Bob Prechter and his Wave analysts have had dead on is the character of stock market tops and bottoms. And, from 2000 on, even during the crash into 2009, the market never lost the underlying weaknesses they described that get built into a bull market when it becomes an investment mania. This is extremely important because, no matter how high they go, manias are always fully retraced. The present one was initiated in 1974 with the Dow at 574. The market will eventually get below that. So, for the last fourteen years the downside risk has been much greater than the upside potential. Hence my caution.

The final phase in any economic expansion is funded by debt. The end comes when the debt is so excessive that it cannot be paid back. This has been the case for years, now. But who would ever have imagined that the central bankers of the globe would take it into another dimension. The numbers today cannot be stated in anything other than invented language. Wave analysts, along with credible analysts from other useful disciplines, just couldn’t get their arms around the magnitude of the bubble.

I began writing these essays to provide you with a perspective on markets because I’ve felt that the risks were not apparent enough to anyone just reading the news, let alone following the advice from the securities industry (they are uniformly bullish today, no surprise). If this turns out to be the end of the bull market, my purpose will also be coming to an end. I won’t need to be telling you about the disasters that are coming–you’ll see them for yourselves.

At some point, when social mood really sucks, I’ll feel it is time for us to start leaning against the crowd and getting bullish as they are getting bearish. Until then (unless I’m wrong again about the top), I don’t expect to be weighing in with my views as often as in the past.

All my love,


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On Sense and Nonsense

“The shirt is five pesos, right?
Very well. And as you can’t pay for it,
that’s five pesos. And as you remain in
my debt for the five pesos, that’s five
pesos. And as I shall never have the
money from you, that’s five pesos. So
that makes five and five and five and
five. That’s twenty pesos. Agreed?
“Yes, patron, agreed.”
The peon can get the shirt no-
where else when he needs one. He
can get credit nowhere but from his
master, for whom he works and from
whom he can never get away as long
as he owes him a centavo
–B. Traven, The Carreta

It is six am in Bandung and Aditya is up mulling whether to keep the motorbike he uses for the daily commute to his business in downtown Jakarta, or to sell it and get a small car, which will give him transportation for his family when they visit relatives. It is one of a half dozen  spending decisions he will make today, most of the others being smaller.

Two hours later it is six am in Seoul. Woojin us up and at ‘em, checking with his wife to get a shopping list, the first of his dozen or so spending decisions for the day.

Seven hours after that it’s Six am in San Bernardino and Liam is starting the day trying to decide whether to fix the lawn mower or hire a lawn maintenance company. By the time it’s six am in Bandung again seven billion people will have made some fifty billion buying decisions, and the dominant factor on what to buy, how much or little or whether to hold off on buying at all is social mood. If it is on the rise, they’ll think expansively. If it’s upbeat enough, they’ll even borrow to buy.

But after social mood peaks, people will look at their bank balances in a different way. They and their neighbors will gradually tighten up. This flat-to-down trajectory in global business puts pressure on businesses that have debt in their capital structure, resulting in employee layoffs. Layoffs affect social mood negatively and the rollover begins to accelerate, forcing bankruptcies and debt defaults, which ultimately pull healthy businesses into the vortex and depression results.

Trends in social mood show up in the economic data. The speculative stock market peak in 2000, and the real estate top in 2007 saw peaks in spending. The rally in the stock market since then has not had enthusiastic consumption to go along with it. The subtle message is that mood is beginning to trend down.

The recent slump in the price of oil is causing a lot of chatter on the airwaves. Talking heads are spewing theories about why oil is collapsing now. So much nonsense. The price of oil has been going down since the speculative peak in 2008:

crude oil 20 year

The primary driver is an underlying steady decline in consumption:

oil consumption recent

Oil’s trend will continue down as social mood accelerates its downtrend into a bottom between now and the end of the decade. No telling how low it will go, but ten bucks a barrel would not surprise me because not much driving or spending should be happening at a Grand Supercycle bear market bottom.




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2015: A New Era Arrives

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go,
we have begun our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled, is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.

—Wendell Barry

We will want less in 2015. Making do with what we have will be the Black Swan, N. N. Taleb’s term for an event which nobody predicts beforehand, has enormous impact, and, afterwards, everyone says they saw it coming. The arrival of the Grand Supercycle bear market will usher in a siege of austerity.

 With the new mood, ostentation will be unseemly. We will come to prefer, and even celebrate frugality. We’ll brag about not running out to Best Buy to get a 70 inch flat screen so we can view the Super Bowl from the next room over. We’ll smugly invite our guests to sit closer to the 40 incher we have.

The Black Swan will put a serious hurt on the seventy percent of the economy that is consumption. There will still be jobs for sales clerks–at least until robotics advance to the point where the bots can dust and rearrange the merchandise that sits on shelves in empty stores month after month. It will get down to a replacement economy. We won’t go get a new smartphone ’till the one we have is dead. And even then we might pass up the new model for the discounted old.

Newly minted college grads will have to find something to do other than bartend or serve food at Appleby’s. Pot luck dinners with neighbors will take the place of dining out three times a week. It will be a genteel austerity.

None of this is expected, of course. Tenured dismal science (economics) professors and their colleagues on Wall Street are of one mind: the economy will grow at an accelerated rate next year (you could look it up). Their clients–mutual fund managers, and their clients–hapless individual investors, have all their money on the growth horse. They will change their minds after the market has lost half of its value, but, for now, forewarned is better.

Socionomics holds that social mood drives behavior and markets. The period ahead will showcase this hypothesis. Americans have not been big savers over the last fifty years. This is about to change, just as it did in the thirties, which produced  The Greatest Generation,  a parsimonious bunch who would rather put money in the savings-and-loan than go out to eat. The credit card industry will be dead by the end of the decade.

The inflation/deflation cycle is immutable. It rises out of the ashes of the previous collapse, builds cautiously for several decades until shoppers are blithely opening the eleventh credit card account (it’s so easy), and tops when the debt can no longer be paid for. The timing of the top is tricky. I’ve called for it for years. I’m calling for it again.

The thing to do is to be in front of the pack on this new way of thinking. Be the first on your block not to fly to Paris over Spring Vacation. Keep your car a year or two longer than usual and don’t trade it for a Cadillac Escalade. Get a Chevy.



No one should consider any part of this presentation as a recommendation to buy or sell any securities whatsoever.

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At Christmas

Dear Family and Friends,

May your Holiday Season be joyful!

May you and your beloved children have food enough to eat, hope enough to thrive, and faith enough to live in the light of God’s love.





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