Fine Print - March 2008

Wisdom of the sage's
By G.D. Gearino

It’s often hard to separate fact from lore, and sometimes not even worth the trouble if you subscribe to that cynical wisdom among journalists that holds, “Facts have killed many a great story.” So I use Joseph Kennedy here only as a starting point and with no certainty that his famous utterance about the shoeshine boy was true.

Kennedy, of course, was not only the father of an American president but also a buccaneer of a businessman who thrived in the unregulated, pre-Depression stock market. After making a fortune in that lawless frontier, he later was appointed by Franklin Roosevelt to be the first chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, under the theory that no one knew better all the ways to ravage the henhouse than the fox himself.

Those are the facts. The lore is that Kennedy cashed out of the market just prior to the crash of 1929 because he heard a shoe-shine boy offering stock tips (the boot buffer allegedly suggesting “oil and rails”) and concluded that when speculation was so rampant even amateurs were involved, a fall was sure to follow. True or not — Kennedy told the story himself, but who doesn’t embellish a tale — the lesson was that economic shifts can sometimes be detected by means other than the conventional.

In that spirit, and employing ol’ Joe’s swashbuckling approach to matters of finance, here are a handful of nontraditional indicators of my own sussing. You’re a fool if you make any real investment decisions based on these. But there’s a slim chance you might wish you had.

1) I added a four-pack of compact fluorescent light bulbs to my cart while shopping at the local Wal-Mart a few weeks ago, but when I got home I found that one of the bulbs had been broken while my stuff was being bagged. I returned the four-pack to the store and was surprised to see how gingerly it was treated. A subsequent Google search turned up the fact that CF bulbs contain mercury and that a broken bulb should be treated as hazardous waste. (Some Web sites even suggested wearing protective gloves when cleaning up and giving the house a thorough airing afterward.)

The Joe Kennedy Intuitive Leap: Durham-based Cree Inc. — a leader in the development of light-emitting diodes, which are sturdier than bulbs, contain no mercury and are highly efficient and long-lasting — will be poised for a huge takeoff the first time some clumsy-fingered store clerk drops a crate of CF bulbs and the business is turned over to the moon-suit crew for a week of highly publicized decontamination.

2) One morning I read in my local paper that an obscure scholarly journal (now there’s a redundancy) in Durham called Stem Cells would be publishing a paper describing an effort by scientists in California to create cloned human embryos. The article noted that the research company specifically had sought out the Durham journal because it was confident that the editorial and peer review would be rigorous — a necessity for such highly charged research. The article also pointed out that Stem Cells is “among the most-cited journals in cell biology.”

The Joe Kennedy Intuitive Leap: Who knew that publication even existed, much less had a rep in its field? Maybe the Triangle is ready to become to biotech investors what Las Vegas is to suckers — which is to say, irresistible. (Post-intuitive leap update: A day later, my local paper reported that in the final quarter of 2007 the Triangle set a record for venture capital and that medical/biotech firms claimed 25% of it, getting $80 million of investment in just three months.)

3) For Christmas, I asked for (and received) an iTunes gift card. Until a few months ago, I had never downloaded music on my computer. I’d even discouraged my children from doing so, mostly from fear of having recording-industry storm troopers drag their underage butts into court, leaving me to cover the bills and fines. The children are grown now, liable for their own transgressions, and these days I’m a music-downloading demon.

The Joe Kennedy Intuitive Leap: When technologically impaired middle-agers have abandoned packaged music in favor of their own downloads, CDs are doomed. DVDs probably aren’t far behind. In the entertainment world, content and delivery have long been one and the same. (“Movie” was the same as “film,” and “novel” was the same as “book.”) Now content and delivery are truly severed. Be wary of companies whose fortunes ride on specific delivery systems.

4) I was watching television recently when I saw a commercial for E*Trade, the online discount brokerage that flirted with collapse late last year. The ad, which was promoting E*Trade’s new global-trading capability, featured a shaven-headed, Jeff Spicoli-sounding hipster crowing about the fact that he had bought shares of an energy company in Hong Kong. “That’s China!” he exults.

The Joe Kennedy Intuitive Leap: This is déjà vu all over again, as Yogi Berra famously said. When the shoeshine boy (or at least his 21st century incarnation) is the focus of a brokerage firm’s commercial touting the glories of global trading, can the next Great Crash be far behind?

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