Thursday, January 31, 2008

Health Care: Barack vs. Hillary

My quick analysis of health care issue. I’m certainly no policy wonk, but as someone who is concerned about health care and its delivery system, I have paid attention to their competing policies. Lately it has become popular to view the two candidates as being similar ideologically and the differences are only in tenor and perceived electability. I disagree. There are fundamental differences in the two health care plans and I’ll explain why I think Clinton’s is better.

First, Hillary Clinton’s plan calls for mandatory coverage, while Barack Obama only wants to make insurance available and affordable. He feels that nobody “chooses” to go without insurance and thus no requirement to be covered is necessary. While reducing costs will enable more people to get health care insurance, a significant number will remain uninsured yet physicians will still be required to treat them when (not if) they get sick.

Clinton has famously said, "If you don't start with the goal of covering everybody, you'll never get there… Democrats should stand for universal healthcare." This is absolutely without doubt the only realistic plan. As long as doctors and hospitals are required to care for the sick and injured, then the potentially sick and injured should be required to have the ability to pay for that care. Period.

Note that neither candidate is calling for centrally controlled health care. Both see a place for private insurance companies in the process.

Second, Barack Obama has called for an expansion of State Children’s Health Insurance Program to cover middle class kids. This is a federally funded program, administered by the individual states, to provide care for indigent children.

Hillary Clinton championed SCHIP from the beginning, but she wants to keep it only for poor folks. TO expand this program to families making $74,000 is not appropriate.

Third, Obama has called for open legislative deliberations to discuss priorities for any health care plan. Bring “all the players” to the table, he says, in order to shed light on the lobbying and finagling that normally goes on behind closed doors.

While this is a popular meme, the so-called Sunshine Statutes often bring such deliberation to a screeching halt. Deals are made behind closed doors all the time and sometimes that is the only way the individual lawmakers can claim that they fought hard for their constituents and sponsors while they may have had to compromise key issues in the smoke-filled room. The practical fact is that health care entails deeply held dogmas about the right to care versus huge industry profits and open debate may stilfe a workable solution.

I give Barack Obama credit for recognizing the obvious fact that health care is a compelling issue, something the Republican Party has missed. But I agree with Hillary Clinton that universal care is a requisite, and these deals sometimes have to be ironed out with gnashing of teeth by policy wonks and not necessarily held up for grandstanding as lobbyists watch their expensive Senators pontificate.

There are distinct differences on this issue between the two candidates, and I lean heavily toward Hillary Clinton on her thoughtful plan.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Frank Rich: Tool of the Week

With all due respect to my friend the Communications professor, Frank Rich is a moron. And this current article has at least five examples of outright inaccuracy or delusional thinking. I read it yesterday and was half-tempted to write a complete blog, but demurred because I figured it didn’t matter anyway. Conservative Democrats don’t take Rich seriously, Liberal Democrats are so delirious over Obama by now that any fuel to this anti-Clinton fire is superfluous, and Republicans don’t read. But since the good professor brought it up, I’ll try to sum up my thoughts as concisely as possible. I’ll let Dr. S correct my errors.

Rich says, “Do Bill Clinton’s red-faced eruptions and fact-challenged rants enhance or diminish his wife as a woman and a candidate?” The examples of red-faced eruptions, I presume (Rich cites no specifics), are when Clinton called foul on Obama’s self-characterization as an anti-war candidate when he voted for every single war funding bill, including the supplementals. Is this not true? The only difference is that Hillary voted for the 2002 Iraqi Force resolution before Obama was in the Senate. He says he was against the war before that resolution, but we have to take him at his word how he would have voted. Remember that 2002 bill was not a declaration of war, only a consent for president to use force if necessary to carry out UN inspections. Obama was in office when the fighting started and voiced no official dissent (unlike others like Russ Feingold and Chuck Hagel.)

Clinton defends this stance in another clip and sets the record straight on Obama using the race card. I see no “red face” or hear any “rant”; watching the video is important because you can see and hear the tenor of his voice and the smile on his face. He looks like I would imagine any professor would when educating a student on a sophomoric question.

The “fact-challenged rants” I can only imagine (again, Mr. Rich cites no specific “rant”) perhaps refer to Clinton’s assertion of voter disenfranchisement by the Democratic party in Nevada. If you listen to the exchange, Clinton was merely answering a question about a lawsuit filed by the teacher’s union against the Nevada Democratic Party. In the video I see, his face is not red and I sense no rage or even any discontent, only a little impatience, which I think is more than appropriate. [As an aside, when listening to these videos, savor the moment of a president actually speaking in complete sentences—quite a pleasant departure from what we have grown used to, no?]

Okay, Chris, here is my assertion. Jon Stewart on the Dailyshow has put this more succinctly than I could with this piece by Samantha Bee. An entire dialogue is being created here by the anti-Clintonians of an out-of-control Bill Clinton flying into purple rages and making wild accusations about the opposing candidate. Bill is characterized as “red-faced” and “fact-challenged” yet Rich supplies no references. Who’s “fact-challenged” here? But the facts don’t matter because the damage is done by the mere rhetoric of the characterization, and the liberals and Republicans lap it up. The Republicans always believe this stuff-- I can understand that-- after all they’re still eating Karl Rove’s shit sandwiches, but I have to admit that I’m a little disappointed in the Liberal Democrats—they should be smarter than this.

Frank Rich goes on to broach another meme, the so-called Clinton dirty laundry. He says, “Mrs. Clinton repeatedly talks of how she’s been ‘vetted’ and that ‘there are no surprises’ left to be mined by her opponents.” Rich goes on about the Clintons failure to provide a list of contributors to the Bill Clinton Library in Arkansas, and I can just see the glee in little Frank’s pudgy face when he concludes that this is a fatal flaw in Hillary Clinton’s campaign because the names on that list will, I suppose, sink her candidacy. Imagine if we learn that Saudi Arabia gave ten grand, or –heaven forbid!—Merck gave a hundred grand! The horrors! Rich even goes back to the Marc Rich (no relation I presume) pardon for fuel to heap on this inferno of apparent guilt and shame.

Frank Rich says with an apparent sigh, “People don’t change. Bill Clinton, having always lived on the edge, is back on the precipice. When he repeatedly complains that the press has given Mr. Obama a free ride and over-investigated the Clintons, he seems to be tempting the fates, given all the reporting still to be done on his post-presidential business. Thank God we have Frank Rich to put a fine point on the tactics of the Republican Party operatives – I’m sure most of us, especially the Clintons, were unaware.

The fact is that Barack Obama has not run through the gauntlet of Republican opposition research. After all, the only state-wide election he has won was against the vaunted Alan Keyes—not exactly a tough match. The Rovians will doubtless find all the dirt that is out there, every nickel bag of dope Obama admittedly smoked had a dealer attached. Every ex-girlfriend will have a story and every parking ticket will be investigated. Has Frank Rich already forgotten the 1992 campaign when we heard from Arkansas state troopers, Juanita Broaddrick and assorted unsubstantiated other rape charges? Does Rich already forget the lame 6-year Whitewater investigation, the “murder” of Vince Foster, Travelgate… etc, etc, ad infinitum? Why does Rich think this will be different? Have the Republicans become kinder and gentler?

Obama is a classic old-school liberal, as far as anyone can tell. This week’s endorsement by Ted Kennedy has the conservatives licking their chops—imagine all the ads that are being created as we speak. My guess is that the only way a Republican can win in November is for an inexperienced candidate like Obama to wander naively into the oncoming locomotive of the Republican pro-business juggernaut. So much is at stake in this election, I have every confidence that no stone will be left unturned and Obama may be fried alive if he makes it to the general election.

Don’t get me wrong, I like the guy. He seems smart, charismatic and honest. But my money is on Hillary Clinton for several reasons. You can read them here. Frank Rich needs to get a clue and stop buying into the clich├ęs hyped by the media concerning Bill’s “fact-challenged rants” and “eruptions.” The real fact is that Hillary Clinton does represent the middle way, the moderate problem-solver. Bill was the rare animal who was not only able to get elected, but was also a lucid, capable bureaucrat; not since FDR or (maybe) Ike have we had one of those. I have confidence that Hillary would be a capable president, but the jury is still out whether she can get elected. I wouldn’t bet against the Clintons—or as Frank Rich so cutely puts it, “Billary.” (Calling them “Billary” is just so-o-o clever that Frankie repeats it at least half a dozen times… and even puts it in the title! What a stunning intellect!)

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Economic Stimulus is Really Just Voter Titillation

This week we get to hear another snake oil sales pitch from our Mountebank-in-Chief George W. Bush with his State of the Union address. This time he’s not selling war, fear of terrorism or abstinence. No, this time Mr. Bush is selling television sets.

Apparently the economy is “strong” but now needs an adrenaline shot to help shore up its long term sustainability, or so say administration officials. Hank Paulson, Secretary of Treasury, made the rounds on today’s talk shows to drum up support for our economic growth and the importance of consumer spending and the need for quick passage of Bush’s stimulus legislation. Paulson’s the same guy who called the sub-prime mortgage meltdown “largely contained” last August just before the feces hit the fan, so his economic chops are suspect at best.

My view is that this economy is structurally damaged and a mere spending stimulus is inadequate and counter-productive. I'm no economist, but I see consumer prices skyrocketing while our assets such as housing and retirement accounts are deteriorating. The US dollar, the currency that most of our paychecks are denominated in, has lost 30% of its value in the past few years. Something is broken and the fissure will not be resolved by more consumer spending and, in fact, it seems that without fiscal restraint (ie, quit shoveling money into Iraq for starters), the US economy will collapse and may bring the rest of the world with it.

The US Gross Domestic product is fully 70% due to consumer spending. If the GDP is faltering, the quickest way to make that number look good is to boost spending by a couple tenths of a percent. In George Bush's world, that equates to about 50 million flat-screen televisions.

The problem with this stimulus package, as hawked by the president and deliriously supported by the Democratic congress, is several-fold. First, it is done with borrowed capital. If I told my wife we should re-mortgage the house to buy a 50-inch plasma set, she would freeze our checking account and call my brother to have me committed. In 2001, Bush brokered a similar rebate scheme in order to stimulate a recessionary economy; the difference is that in 2001 we were flush with cash and the “rebate” was truly a refund on over-taxes that had been collected during the boom times.

While many economists seven years ago thought more of the surplus should have gone to re-building infrastructure and paying down the national debt, the idea of “rebate” was not altogether abhorrent in light of a recession. Today, no such budget surplus exists and the “rebate” will be coming from the largesse of the Chinese government and other sovereign banks that are willing to lend us money.

Secondly, the stimulus package that has been marketed is vastly reliant on increasing consumer spending, which already makes up a disproportionate percentage of our GDP, having grown from 66% to over 70% in the last six years. I remember Mr. Bush extolling the virtues of spending our last nickel on Disney products after the 9-11 tragedy. It seems every tough spot calls for a shopping spree.

Third, we have real needs in this country that have not been addressed due to militaristic priorities shoveling our borrowed capital into the Iraqi rat hole. Highways and bridges here are in disrepair and this definitely comes under the purview of the federal government. A Keynesian stimulus that eschews consumer spending and improves our infrastructure and adds broadband to rural areas seems more appropriate, and would lay better groundwork for sustainable future economic growth. New Asian televisions does not. I know the argument is that a Keynesian stimulus is not as immediate as tax rebates, and the appeal to the so-called conservatives is that rebates to tax payers allow the free market determine priorities instead of some behemothic central government. Following that line of irrationality, we would just put every highway engineering project up for local referendum.

Fourth, the rebates aren’t fair. We are ignoring those that have paid the most into the tax system and mailing checks to those who have not. Not that a $600 check is very significant to a couple making over $200,000, but the fact remains the stimulus package smacks of class warfare and pandering. Why would you give a tax rebate check to someone who a) has not paid much tax, and/or b) has no proven ability to properly allocate capital in the first place?

The reason that family of four is living in a single-wide and qualifies for a $2000 “rebate” is because they likely have little ability to understand personal finance from the start, so in what universe would giving them a check make sense? Give them heating oil allowance, or an educational grant, or increase their food stamps… but a check? Please.

Unlike 2001, this is an election year, which means we have a perfect storm that will certainly deplete our Treasury. Every candidate for every office from US President to Paducah County dogcatcher will be rallying for camera time espousing the propriety of cutting checks to everybody… we'll just pay it back later-- with interest.

Maybe George can include a Quick-Pick lottery ticket in each envelope, too.

For What It's Worth: Let's pick a President

Hillary Clinton is my choice for president, but I am quick to say that any of the top three Democrats would get my vote in a general election against any of the current Republican nominees. If I were a dreamer, and why not (?), I would hope for a deadlocked Democratic convention and Al Gore gets drafted, picking Barack Obama as his running mate. But since all my dreams have already come true in this life, I doubt I’m due any more.

Why do I choose Hillary? This is not an emotional decision. I have friends who have expressed visceral beneficial feelings for Barack Obama, and while I do not share those feelings, I respect and understand them. I have a wife who becomes teary at the prospect of a woman president, and while I do not share that emotion, I respect and understand it.

My support for Hillary is very basic. I agree with her entirely on every single issue, and I think she has the nuts to get things done. Period. Additionally, I have to admit that I would get a certain joy in my heart just seeing the verbally abusive band of anti-Hillary varmints go batshit crazy during her Inaugural Address. I fantasize that they’d have to scrape Rush off the pavement after he wanders aimlessly out into traffic in a Vicoden-induced haze. I picture Tom DeLay putting down his bug sprayer just long enough to choke on his own DDT-laced vomit. I would get a half-chub watching Trent Lott’s plastic hair spontaneously combust in angst.

While Obama seems to support many of the same policies, I’m not sure he has the stones to stand toe-to-toe with the creatures of the Netherworld who currently call themselves Republicans. He’s a nice guy, and a smart guy. But he’s just doesn’t seem mean enough or paranoid enough to negotiate his way through the quagmire that he would certainly encounter. As Caroline Kennedy recently pointed out, Barack Obama does seem very much like her father… and unfortunately, we all remember the tragic end to that Camelot. I believe that Hillary knows when to duck.

The United States is at a critical juncture with stepwise disasters, like several slow motion train wrecks, occurring simultaneously on both the domestic and foreign fronts. The current administration has allowed so much to go wrong that it will take a generation of flawless governance to right the ship of state. While I usually do not go in for campaign rhetoric, I admit that I have fallen for Senator Clinton’s riff about experience.

Senator Clinton has been fighting for things like universal health care and fiscal restraint, “third way” Rubinomics, for at least the 15 years that I have been paying attention to her. The picture of her at Nixon’s impeachment trial (pictured at left) in 1974 speaks volumes of her long term wherewithal. While Edwards was chasing ambulances, she was taking these motherfuckers to task. If Hillary didn’t break under the inhumane treatment that she received in the 1990’s, then she is truly bionic. If she wants this job after all that shit, then she deserves it.

A few nuts and bolts. The universal health care plan that Senator Clinton has outlined is exactly the way it should be done. Everybody gets health care insurance, whether it is through an employer or purchased on the open market. Citizens get a choice and the government subsidizes those that cannot pay. People pay what they can, they get care, and doctors get paid. Perfect. Clinton is the only Democratic candidate who does not desire to “expand S-Chip”, she only promises to “protect S-Chip.” I know this is subtle, but there is an important distinction: S-Chip is welfare—a form of Medicaid—and middle class families who make $74,000 per year should not be eligible for welfare. Obama and Edwards are quick to pander on this issue.

I truly believe that Hillary Clinton in the White House will immediately re-establish the United States’ role as the arbiter of human rights in the world. Our allies would undoubtedly accept either Barack Obama or John Edwards as well, but Clinton would be able to quickly garner international support for such things as multinational forces for Iraq, regional summits in the Middle East, international climate treaties and guidance from friends to help us unwind the Guantanamo gulag in an orderly and legal way. The world remembers our commitment in the Balkans under Bill Clinton, and they remember the yeoman’s effort put forth working for peace in Palestine and the success of his expertise in Northern Ireland, a part of the world that is currently enjoying unprecedented economic growth largely due to that peace agreement.

We need an energy policy. We need to rebuild our infrastructure. We need to educate the next generation for a changing world. These have all been neglected for eight long years, and I think that Hillary has the proper balance of left and right cerebral function to formulate complex plans, get legislation written and supported, and begin to solve these problems. Could Obama or Edwards get these things done, too? Sure, I think they probably could, but I have more confidence that Hillary would.

I’m not sure I could physically cast a ballot for a malpractice attorney, but if John Edwards were the nominee, he would get my vote. This election is too important to allow a militarist like McCain in the White House. I’ll be honest, I understand the Constitution’s proscription against a religious test for office, but there is simply no way in hell I would acquiesce to an evangelical minister who eschews evolution and thinks Adam and Eve rode dinosaurs to have control of the most sophisticated military in the world. And guys who wear magic underwear? Likewise, I’m sorry but Romney doesn’t get my vote either. Giuliani? Heck, even the thick-skulled Republican voters have figured out what he’s all about.

Bottom line: we need a Democratic president. None of the candidates are perfect, but they never are. Frankly, I am heartened at the good choices we do have this time around, but I also realize that my judgment may be skewed; heck, even Homer Simpson would look pretty good after watching our current president stumble his way through the last 7 years.

I look forward to a change in the White House. I would be honored to vote for Senator Hillary Clinton for our next president. And I’ll be first in line for Barack Obama in 2016. Al Gore, if not our next president, would certainly look great as Secretary of State or Attorney General... and maybe President Obama can put him on the Supreme Court someday.

Friday, January 18, 2008

China Rising? Umm... Not this year

Under an overturned nest, can there be unbroken eggs?
-- Chinese Proverb

During the past three weeks, two of the smartest and hardest working people at the office have solicited my opinion on Chinese stocks. One wanted to put a lump sum into Baidu (BIDU) at $409 per share and the other was re-allocating an IRA from US Treasuries into an Asia mutual fund. Like me, these folks have no formal training in economics or money management. They are dedicated healthcare professionals who are trudging their way through a depressed Michigan economy and trying to figure out where to allocate their retirement funds-- not so they can have a yacht in the British Virgin Islands, only so they can avoid being a burden on their families when they cannot work any longer.

From a fundamental standpoint Chinese stocks are expensive, trading at 50X next year's earnings, and the chief consumer of China's massive manufacturing base, the US, is heading into a recession. Add to this the tightening credit markets and price controls imposed by the Chinese central bankers and I do not see much short or intermediate upside to investing in China.

From a technical standpoint, the chart looks tired at best, and downright scary at worst:

The FXI, an exchange-traded fund covering the Chinese stock index, has broken down through its 50 and 200-day moving averages and is heading toward September lows. The US market has wiped out all the meager gains from 2007, and China may do something similar.

Add to this scenario the opacity of the Chinese regulatory structure, the unknown unknowns of the political hierarchy, the increasing pollution and public health consequences and a complete lack of a sustainable economic track record, and the risks to investing in China are phenomenal. The Chinese people are great, but their government and regulatory agencies… not so much.

Whether we are trading stocks, investing retirement funds, or monitoring a laboring patient for that matter, it’s all about risk management. Does the potential upside benefit warrant taking the risk? For China, for me, the answer is no way, not today.

Today, BIDU closed at $265, a 35% drop from the solicitation on December 28th. Investment counselors may downplay such losses as “looking at the short term” when retirement is 20 or more years away. I say Bullshit. A 35% haircut is a real loss of your hard earned scratch, and it hurts. Period.

If China flounders, then the bull market case for liquid and grain commodities completely changes. Oil has been trading close to $100 per barrel partly because the continuing demand of a booming Chinese is baked in. The same goes for agricultural grains, fertilizer and equipment. If the Chinese economy rolls over, the demand structure is gone for these things. Monsanto (MON) and Deere (DE) have had great runs the past year, but their fundamental and technical analysis is changing rapidly.

The US dollar (see below) is bouncing off multi-year lows, but seems to have bottomed from a technical standpoint and may see some strengthening real soon. This does not portend well for US exporting companies that benefit from a lower dollar. Without a burgeoning Chinese middle class and a weak US dollar, Deere (DE) will not be selling as many tractors and combines.

Giving financial advice can be more difficult than giving medical advice. The losses are real and the pain can be exquisite. Always mitigate risk. Always. Sure we’ll miss some opportunities, but there will always be others. I've made some gains in Asia the past couple years, but that horse has run, my friend. Sometimes US Treasuries are okay… even if retirement is 20 years away.

The only Chinese you should even think of buying is the Moo-Goo-Gy-Pan at Chinn-Chinn’s this weekend.

Be careful out there.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Is the NAZ oversold yet?

This is an odd little indicator that measures how many stocks in the index are above their 50 day moving average. As negative as the market has been, the NASDAQ may be approaching oversold conditions with only 20% above their 50 MA.

This tool is extremely good in determining oversold conditions during a bull market with the 200 day moving average on the upslope, but the indicator breaks down as the market turns bearish. In other words, at the short term market lows of August and November, the indicator worked beautifully in picking the bottom at oversold levels, but now the 50 day MA line is in a sharper down slope and even though the number of stocks below this number is increasing rapidly the index is declining further.

The question remains, is the market oversold?

The short answer is yes, especially the NASDAQ, but the longer answer is that market sentiment is so lousy that picking the bottom may be very tricky. The NYSE is less clear on this issue; the financials, if this indicator were available, may be the most oversold at this juncture but the 50 day MA is in too sharp a decline to take that bet.

If stocks must be bought at this juncture, I'd stick to lower risk big cap techs: MSFT, ORCL, IGM. Big cap financials like JPM, WB and GS seem okay in anticipation of a rate cut, but that bet is more specious. Regional banks and anything having to do with consumer spending, especially restaurants, need to be sold yesterday. Take your losses now. And don't even get me going on emerging markets... US consumers are running out of credit to buy those cheap plastic doo-hickeys and tainted toys from the Far East... I'm sticking with my Ultrashort China ETF (FXP).

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Jimmy has the Answers...

I Got What America Needs Right Here

Read it here.

Yea! Movies on your Phone!!

David Lynch, three-time Academy Award nominated director, as well as creator of cult classics Eraserheads and Twin Peaks, endorses the iPhone.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Obama vs. McCain

As the primaries begin, the odds are that the race will be Barack Obama (D) vs. John McCain (R). Taking the long view, this is a beneficial development since this slate will obviate the need for me to put my house up for sale during the current Michigan economic depression. I can live with either of these guys as president. Romney or Huckabee get elected? I’m not sure I can pay taxes to a republic that could elect such people. Seriously.

For no other reason than Hugh Hewitt thinks Romney will be the next president, I now know that the Mittster is history. From the Iraq war to immigration to tax cuts, HH has been so wrong on so many opinions and prognostications that the mind boggles. Hewitt’s brand of stupid is the same that brought us 8 years of Dubya and, if you’re old enough, 6 ½ years of Nixon. It’s amazing to me that someone can actually make a living as a political pundit with such a track record of ineptitude about politics.

If you’re thinking Mitt Romney is your guy, then you probably aren’t informed about his shameless bloviating and prevarication. But then, Republican voters don’t seem to care much about such piffle.

So that leaves us Saint John McCain to win New Hampshire because there is no way those voters will go for the underlying insanity that is Mike Huckabee. An evangelical minister in the White House? Haven’t we already done the Dumb and Misinformed Guy as President thing, and isn’t it playing out as a disaster? The staid New Hampshire voters will put a stunning halt to the ersatz Huckabee juggernaut, which is proof enough that there is indeed a God.

No matter. If Iowa is any evidence, a Republican winning the Presidency in November has about as much chance as Barry Bonds being the next CEO of Pfizer. Over 70% of the votes cast in the primaries and caucuses were for Democratic candidates, so this country’s conservative heartland obviously ain’t buying the GOP’s bullshit anymore. (You may have asked, what the hell took them so long...?) This is the first time in modern history that both the Republican and Democratic primaries have been contested during the same presidential election, so history of sorts was made.

If I had to vote today with the current choices* still in the race, I’d rank them thusly:

  1. Clinton
  2. Obama
  3. McCain
  4. Paul
  5. Richardson
  6. Edwards
  7. Move to Canada, Cost Rica or Australia.

Michigan is a cross-over state, which means that voters can choose which party’s primary participate in, and may cross over to vote for any candidate in either party. Any of the Democratic presidential candidates will be fine, so just as in 2000, I may choose to vote for John McCain in the primary in order to do my part to prevent another presidential disaster (or a capital loss on my house.)

*Sadly, Dodd and Biden, either of whom would have made an excellent candidate, have pulled out of the race as of Friday.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

War. Really, What is it Good For?

Never underestimate the wisdom of Fred, especially when he is debating an imbecilic REMF.

This sums up the purpose of our military better than anything I've ever read.

[Hat tip: The Cunning Realist.]