“Plastics Benjamin, Plastics”

A couple years ago, I was asked to speak to a group of very bright high school juniors and seniors for career day at my high school Alma Mater. This would definitely fall into the category of “elite private school”, by any standards. The subject at hand was “a career in Finance.” Three segments consecutively, with a few minutes in between, no break. Very enlightening.

I was paired with a sharp young man who was then working 26 hours per day for Goldman Sachs, “Straight Outta Undergrad,” from Johns Hopkins which is highly unusual.  He was sharp, poised, and a delightful young man. Two years in, he said he’d had about just one year left in him to do that job before surrendering.

Career Day. There were probably 10 or 15 occupational pursuits in which students had a choice about which to learn, and each segment ran every 40 minutes. Having chosen three potential interests each, they rotated from one room to the next. Everything from film, entrepreneurship, journalism, arts, engineering, lawyering, accounting and the like. (I wish I’d kept the list of choices to see what else was…and was not on there.)

I had looked at the roster and noticed one anomaly. As such, as contrarians, we began by asking the students, “Do any of you know which occupation had the largest number of the same segments running simultaneously”? ie. There was so much demand for certain careers by kids for which they needed to add more rooms and more presenters for that field. None knew the answer.

As it turns out, the most demanded occupation for career day was? Finance, by a factor of four.

We then asked the kids, many of whose parents were in finance themselves, and this being the NY Metro area, “How many of you know anything about what is involved in various aspects of banking and finance”?

Very few hands.

Next, “How many of you came here because you were told to go to this session because your Mom or Dad told you, “go to the finance breakout”?

Almost three-quarters of the hands slowly rose, sheepishly, as they looked around at their peers.

Like in most vocational pursuits, the most important requirement is unbridled passion, that comes from within. As my Dad always said, “if you’re going to be a ditch digger, be the best damn ditch digger you can be”! But in any profession, if you’re going to do it, do it for yourself and your own motivations. Enduring the long hours, taxing nights, the heartaches, the missed this and that, the cramped flights and often the humiliation along the way is impossible to endure if you’re there because “Someone else thought it was a good idea”. Or because “You heard it was good and pays a lot of dough.”

One of my favorite expressions has always been, “The secret to a rich life is when your vocation and your avocation are the same, and you never have to work a day in your life”.

I’ve been lucky. My skills, interests, and personality fit hand in glove with my career pursuit. I often “air thank” every teacher I ever had for not recommending Ritalin. And I thank my lucky stars for somewhat successfully navigating choices that placed me in each of those “right” times and places.

But my career pursuit doesn’t exist anymore. Nor do many related careers. And therein lies the message.

Learn to learn. Search far and wide. And embrace change.
Choose wisely.

REALITY CHECK: Of AMD, and life. (It’s all about expectations)

Nicholas told me to buy AMD because he was sure their coming product was a blockbuster and the stock would “rally big”. I don’t know a thing about AMD, can’t even spell it. But I cautioned him, “Based upon where the stock currently is (highs), and the run it has taken, I bet it goes down on the news.” He told me I was wrong. Out of respect, I bought the 500 shares he asked me to buy for him.
AMD reported earnings results last night and they were “AS EXPECTED”…(hold that thought)…and the stock is looking down 13% and over 30% from “our entry price”.
it’s not the facts, it’s the REALITY vs. EXPECTATION that matters.
Remember I asked you exactly this… “What part of what you are telling me about the coming new AMD product that others don’t know? Is it going to be better than what the press and internet sites say?”
With stocks, it’s always, “What do I know that others DO NOT?”
And importantly, “What is PRICED IN?”
It’s “the edge”.
Another lesson that is equally important…the best TRADES are often SMALL LOSSES!
Nicky, no worries, I cut back 80% of the AMD almost immediately after I bought it at $15.06…because it didn’t “act right”. That means, no matter he thought good news was coming, it was reflected in the price action…and alas, it was.
So, I sold the small remainder that I had after that (the part I call, “respect for my son” amount) because it still acted poorly.  So there is zero damage from today’s sell off…except YOUR ego!
If you take this email and staple it to your forehead, take it to heart, and learn from it, it could be the single most important lesson in investing you will ever get. I mean that…and It’S FREE!!!
As once again you learn, “your dinosaur dad may not know much, but what he DOES know…” 
Oh, and even if I still owned it, and lost $$$, I’d STILL LOVE YOU just as much!
As Zedo taught me, “Lessons will keep coming… just try and keep the tuition to a minimum.”
Finally, from the “applied dad file”… it’s not just stocks, it’s life. How YOU view outcomes is often dependent upon YOUR expectations. If you maintain an even keel and keep emotions in check, your chances of “upside surprise” are greater. Measured and thoughtful are always in vogue.
And Boo Boo my son, one final VERY important question: Down at THESE prices today, is the “bad news” priced in?

Advanced Micro Devices, Inc. (AMD) Stock Tanks After Earnings Results

What if…

When I was growing up my Mom, Alvina Bartos Balog, owned a travel agency named Watchung Hills Travel. This was a time when a travel agency, as a business was plain lousy, in contrast to today, where it is downright abhorrent. The most outstanding benefit for me and my brothers was that we got to travel places on familiarization trips, or “fam trips” in the trade, boondoggles in most businesses, and what I came to learn about Wall Street types, rampant hedonism. If we were ever unclear as to our good fortune, we were constantly reminded of such by the neighborhood kids who asked, “SO, where are you going NOW?”

And Oh the Places We’d Go. Vail. An early Club Med in Martinique. Kingston, Jamaica. Puerto Rico. Banff Springs, Canada. And Scottsdale, Arizona. I learned “fam trips” were fab trips. And the travel bug infectious. If one ever wonders who was “patient zero” and the origin of our travel bug, it was my Mom. Since then, Stacia has grabbed the ball and run with it like OJ in a white Bronco!

To place this period of time in perspective, one of these trips was in 1965 to Vail, Colorado. Yes, that Vail. In 1965. After it had been only open one year. One. And if I recall correctly Vail at the time had only three ski lifts. The town had two hotels, the Talisman and the Valhalla. We stayed down rent of the two at the Talisman. I will never forget walking past the ‘high end’ Valhalla, and its outdoor hot tub surrounded by a pile of fresh snow thinking, ‘how odd, why would men and women want to sit in THAT, nearly naked, outside in the cold, drinking wine?’.

Skiing was a relatively new sport in America, and I stood on the ground floor. If this were The Graduate and had I had investment chops then, I might well have considered recreational skiing to be my own “plastics Benjamin, plastics”, moment.* But alas…

(Jokake Inn, Scottsdale. Today the quaint entry monument at the Phoenician.)

Around 1975, we were in Scottsdale, Arizona and my father introduced me to a colleague of his named Jean. Jean was a weathered soul, having grown up living through not one but two World Wars which devastated his native France. With no perspective of my own until much later while living in France ourselves, I have come to realize the impact of war in your own homeland, and the deep lasting scars it inflicts on the psyche of its inhabitants. I’ve also come to realize Jean had a certain je ne sais quoi about him that softly whispered ‘very well to do’.

My Dad and Jean were enjoying a glass of wine, chatting, whilst together they prepared the quintessential American staple of grilled animal flesh on the outdoor BBQ. Sirloin steaks.

(du Boeuf pour les cowboys, s’il vous plait)

I’ve since learned that the French have a super warm affinity for all things American West, or les cowboys. Jean must have enjoyed how “charmante” it was to be entertaining Americans on his own spread in Arizona, in the shadows of Pinnacle Peak.

I listened as they spoke of subjects which for the most part were out of my reach. And then I heard him say something that has stuck with me. Jean began, “Jeem…I have learned much in my life from zees wars and zee crazy times. I tell you now…build a band of wealth around zee world. You never know what ees going to ‘appen. Very important you understand zis.” **

Jean was not the type to be arguing for the caching of treasure away from tax authorities, as no Frenchman would ever do zees (cough). He spoke of those that, during the war, lost businesses, art, gold, family, everything. And how it was the smart ones, the educated ones that were able to transport their knowledge elsewhere, and not only survive, but thrive. I have since met example after example of exactly that, in the form of immigrants and survivors alike. Those that adapt, survive. People that do not adapt, perish. And it leads to a guiding mantra, a quote from Eric Hoffer:

“In a time of drastic change, it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.”


Forty years later, our family was chatting at the dinner table on a recent February night in 2017, speaking about the kid’s school day, when 5th grade Alexander, often shy, reserved, but always thoughtful, blurts:

“What if school wasn’t school? What if the school, if life, could just be one continuous string of learning wherever you are, wherever you went?”

(Alexander, ahead of his time)

“I wish that I had been that observant and thoughtful at your age”, was all Dad could reply, with a sentient glance to Maman.

And then it hit me. “Build a band of wealth around the world”. Not wealth like “stuff” wealth, but wealth like “real” wealth. The wealth that moves with you, gets better with age, and can’t get stolen or compromised, except through diminution by time.

What if, indeed…

*In truth, skiing wasn’t the play, real estate was, and had I recognized that at the time, I would have my attache typing this missive right now from LogJam Air at 40,000 feet.]

* *And given seeming constant political volatility, and people’s normalcy bias, it makes sense. Today zees is commonly called spreading your bets, or simply, hedging.

What’s this BLOG all about?

My father, James Balog Senior, often gave me sage advice growing up. Thankfully he still does. One such nugget, delivered with his gentle grace and down-home charm steeped straight from the dirty coal fields of Vintondale, in Western Pennsylvania: “You will use every bit of knowledge that you acquire over your life, without exception **. Much of it will seem insignificant at the time. But trust me, it will all come to significance in due time.” He added with a smirk, “And for your lessons? Please do yourself a favor and try and keep the ‘tuition’ to a minimum.”

I don’t recall if this gem was conveyed while cutting the grass, raking leaves, or picking out the seeming endless rocks of the Watching Mountains that had shortly before been hacked in a spark and clank of the power mower. I was fortunate to grow up in a home with a bright yellow power mower that had a hand controlled wheel gear release, making the pushing easier. This machine replaced the whirling manual rotor blade version, like a scaled down wheat field combine, which now sadly sat alone in the tool shed.

The simplified product transition from old ‘tech’ to new ‘tech’ might be what the Finnish today would refer to as, ‘curling parenting’. This delightful term refers to the process in curling of the broom sweeping the ice before the curling granite* (in this metaphor, the kids) gets to its final resting place with greater ease. [warm respectful shout out to Rami and Katja Ahonen]. In America, this would be the precursor to the modern term – helicopter parenting. Even back in the olden days, ‘the easy life’, referred simply to our levels of manual labor. And yes, it’s true, you can take my Dad out of the Ukraine, but you can’t take the Ukrainian out of my Dad.

Regardless, I did what every rebellious teen with raging hormones would do. A grumble, an eye roll, and a gratuitous deferential smirk in reply. But here’s the crazy part. He was right. And it wasn’t the first lesson, nor the last. Learning really is everything. And as much as my kids today say, “awwww Dad, another story, another lesson?”, I smile inside at their eye roll and grumble, knowing that somewhere in there, is a future tale to someone, perhaps even their own children, should they be as fortunate as me. And they’ll tell their kids about how tedious it was to transition from the iPhone 6 to iPhone 7.

So what is this blog about?

Learning. Risk taking. And learning to take risks. It’s about hearing all too often the scornful, “WHAT are you DOING?” And realizing that scorn often represents the winds of consensus. And in life, as with investing, the hard thing to do,  and the right thing to do,  are often the same.

The anti-question, the correct question is, “WHAT are you NOT doing? And WHY not?”

Lean into the wind.

(and so it begins…)

*Not just any rock: curling stones’ special granite comes from Scotland. Curling, perhaps the oddest sport at the winter Olympics, probably originated in Scotland. The stones used to play it are made from the granite of one tiny volcanic island there. The curling stone is specified by the World Curling Federation, which requires a weight between 38 and 44 pounds (17.24 and 19.96 kg), a maximum circumference of 36 inches (914.4 mm) and a minimum height of 4.5 inches (114.3 mm).

** Don’t worry, you’ll use it, even if it’s to win a beer from your mates.