An Investment Idea

You know how when a private equity/hedge fund buys a company (say a pharmaceutical) they then immediately drive the prices of drugs up X times? Why can’t the same trick be done with a gun manufacturer and the price of guns/bullets? To take a cue from Chris Rock’s $5000 a bullet routine, imagine the kind of margins the new owners would get. Sure, those margins would be borne on the backs of rednecks, but hey, if you can rip off sick people, why can’t you apply the same distilled capitalism and freedom to the very people who love to defend it?

It’s a beautiful proposition on many levels. First, it will be massively profitable – as there seem to be a never-ending demand for guns and ammo in this country. Second, if guns and ammo are more expensive than it is now, the users will be more mindful about shooting rounds. Third, and I think this is the most beautiful part, a lot of hedge funders, because they consider themselves civilized and live in big cities and have children in schools, support gun control. If that support is combined with a financial incentive they will thus represent a formidable countering force to a gun lobby. Not to mention the ensuing dynamic that will further complicate the relationship with the GOP donor base (hedge funds) and grassroots (rednecks).

Where is Martin Shkreli when you need him?

 

 

 

Why there are no shootings on Wall Street?

Why have no one ever gone postal on Wall Street? Is it not a back-stabbing, competitive, survival of the fittest shark tank? How many were passed over for promotion or stiffed around the bonus time? How many untold grievances have been absorbed and internalized to never be addressed in a violent manner? Greg Smith clearly was driven to the breaking point and yet he found a legitimate, albeit an omerta breaking, way of addressing his complaints.

First of all, it takes a special pedigree to join the ranks on Wall Street. People like Alex Jones would never have passed through the interview process. He would have a hard time hiding his oozing craziness. A silent, studious type, like the Newtown shooter, would also not fare well during the interview. I’ve heard many stories from frustrated headhunters when their brilliantly credentialed PhDs in math and physics couldn’t put a sentence together during the chat with a head of the trading desk. At the point where you made it to the actual interview, the hiring manager doesn’t care about your illustrious resume; he tries to gauge if he can sit next to you for 10 hours a day. He wants to assess whether or not you’re a weirdo, a douche or a “schmuck on wheels”. To get hired on Wall Street one has to project jocularity but not disrespect, charm but not servility, acumen but not conceit, thoughtfulness but not stupor, earnestness but not wild-eye fervor. They want to see if you’re “one of us, a good fella, a wise guy”. At one once venerable but now defunct bond shop they used to say “give me a poor and hungry kid from Brooklyn with a degree from Columbia”. They were essentially looking for a guy who wants to get shit done, get paid and is secure enough to take some level of abuse. There have always been a cache of such kids.

Such screening process weeds out a large number of oddballs. Weak, insecure egos like NRA loudmouths or underappreciated geniuses, like smart quiet loners, don’t make it that far but if miraculously they do, Wall Street has a way of molding them. That is not to say there are no psychos on Wall Street. But those kinds of psychos, when crossed, are not looking to go in a postal way. They can make a more memorable statement with a click of a mouse than with a machine gun. But at any level of the food chain, from the abused new recruits to the highest ranks, all accumulated grievances – against management or against colleagues – are mitigated by the Great Expectation. The Great Expectation is, of course, either an upcoming bonus or a promotion, or an opportunity to make a spectacular trade or all of the above and it is a powerful pacifier of any violent tendencies one might otherwise unleash. The employees in most other industries do not have such a powerful release mechanism. Then there are other, more mundane factors: bankers got expenses and a certain way of life – mortgages, wives at home, kids in private schools. It’s just too much to lose. To show up with a gun at work is to suffer the deepest ignominy, to be known forever as a douchebag, an anti-Mensch; and to condemn your surviving family to a humiliating existence. That’s worse than death.

Since we can’t administer the Wall Street screening process to every citizen and since we can’t award everyone a bonus, perhaps we can consider the following measure of fitness to carry a gun. Comedian Chris Rock made a great point about having a mortgage as a requirement to owning a gun. “Every mass shooting is done by guys who live with their mother. So I believe you should need to have a mortgage to buy a gun. A mortgage is a real background check. Even if you go to jail for 30 years, you’ve still got to pay your f—king mortgage.”

Having a mortgage will make you think twice before you decide to go in a memorable way. I do not, however, advocate loosening the lending requirements in an attempt to turn potential psychos into upstanding homeowners. We all know what can happen when we give away mortgages to all kinds of delinquents. Precisely!! In the aftermath of the mortgage crisis banks are now extremely prudent in deciding whom they are extending the mortgages to. Shouldn’t we then adopt the same kind of approach when it comes to gun ownership? Our goal should not be to have as many people with mortgages as possible so that they can buy guns. Our goal should be to allow gun purchases to the people who have demonstrated that they are responsible and prudent enough to be able to own a mortgage. Mortgage and, to the delight of conservatives, I’ll throw marriage in there too, should be a criterion for getting a gun. Alec Baldwin’s character from The Departed distills it simply: “Married guys seem more stable; people see the ring they think at least someone can stand the son of a bitch.” If you insist on defending your castle from intruders, you first have to demonstrate that you have it. And this approach will be applauded by budget hawks as there will be no additional spending required by establishing background checking venues – as mortgage, in itself, is a thorough qualifier.

There’s a palpable dichotomy between the qualities one is required to possess before being allowed near spreadsheets on Wall Street vs. the loose qualifications one needs in order to get a gun. Managing money gets more gravity of consideration than acquiring a tool whose only function is to kill. Perhaps, using mortgage and/or marriage as a requirement for owning a gun offers a simple solution that even conservatives can’t object to.

So what can be done about guns?

While there’s no easy answer, here’s some reasonable thoughts on the matter from the Daily Beast’s Michael Tomasky.

I’ll summarize his points here:

2nd Amendment is here to stay. So here’s the way to leverage it and put it to good use.

1.       2nd Amendment enshrines the existence of “well-regulated militia necessary to the security of a free state”. Many gun owners fancy themselves to be protectors of freedom, so let’s enable them to become part of the state’s well-regulated militia, just like 2nd Amendment decrees.

2.       Membership is such militia group would require registration, training and certain responsibilities. For instance, militia members could be required to register their guns and keep them in locked safes in the house; they could be required to undergo certain testing; or they could be required to keep certain types of guns on the shooting ranges (the only place where those guns can be legitimately used)

3.       Hunting rifles would be explicitly excluded from such regulations, so that huntsmen and especially NRA would not be able to play that card.

4.       In return, the Federal government would leave those decisions to the states, plus could subsidize the purchase of steel safes as a deal sweetener. That would spare us the fight in Congress that would probably end in gun-control advocates’ defeat. But throwing the issue to the states enables them to solve the problem as they see fit. CT and NY would probably have very strict regulation of such a militia, while AZ and TX would have very lax one. If the shooting happens, the reins to deal with it, as well as the responsibility for it will be in the hands of local citizens and local government.

5.       The Feds could also have some mechanisms to encourage compliance – such as financial penalties in a form of cutting 10% of law-enforcement government funds. With freedom comes responsibility and to sell personal responsibility to the gun crowd whose strongest argument has always been “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” should not be very hard.

Of course, all of the above should be combined with closing gun show loopholes, where background checks are not necessary to buy a gun and require mental health testing prior to gun purchase. These solutions, while imperfect, can offer a blue print to go forward. I thought about it and argued with some gun supporters on Facebook over the weekend. There’s just no way that we can ban all guns, no matter how many more people die – because of the 2nd Amendment of the Constitution. Assault weapons (or automatic weapons) are already banned and the guns used in many recent shooting were legal and licensed. This makes the entire issue impossible to solve with yet another stroke of a pen. The mother of the shooter was a gun enthusiast with guns in the house for her own protection and in the end she couldn’t protect herself – not from the tyrannical government but from her family member. So obviously, owning a gun is not a guarantee of your safety. Many gun owners with children think “this would never happen in my family, my children know how to handle a gun” – a sentiment I ran into plenty during my Facebook discussions over the weekend. We will always have parents with this kind of mindset and no amount of regulations will change it. But we cannot write laws that will protect people from themselves; we can only install incentives for them to become more responsible.

I’m sure there are holes in these arguments, as this is the issue I don’t usually touch, but I’m genuinely trying to find a solution here without demanding a change in the Constitution.

On today’s rampage in Connecticut

Today I woke up to the news of 27 people being shot in Connecticut elementary school, including 18 children. That is 2 days after mall shooting in Portland Oregon. Just another day in America.

To be clear – I support the 2nd Amendment. Probably because I can appreciate hunting and sportsmanship, not because I’m scared of government tyranny (if government wants to be a tyrant, the kind of tyrant the far-right imagines, I doubt their 3 shotguns per household will save them; not to mention that this country has plenty of other, more civil tools to deal with tyranny). But there’s a wide gap between being a supporter of gun rights and being a supporter of NRA. I’m not quite sure why the gun lobby have such hair-trigger, explosive (pun intended) and insecure personalities. Before talking heads even open their mouths, we hear hurried and defensive calls to abstain from talking about guns right after the shootings out of respect of victims. But how the hell are we supposed to wait 48 hours, as NRA apologists advocate, if the shootings happen every freaking day?!

So let’s talk about it now. Until the day I see a headline “Knife-wielding disgruntled employee kills 25 people”, I will be skeptical about the argument that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”. What we’re talking about here is the scale of potential harm and a gun is the tool that can command a remarkable magnitude of damage.

There are  more than 300 million guns in private hands in the US. But the gun posession is not distributed equally, as three quarters of people with guns own 2 or more.

Another scale to keep in mind is the state of gun rights advocacy. NRA supporters would like to turn the discussion on gun control into the discussion of attack on personal freedoms. They like to pretend that calls for regulating the gun industry is somehow the equivalent to banning their guns. When we have a discussion, without nuance, where only the artificially imagined options A and B exist – A being “freedom” and B being “tyranny”  – then the “freedom” argument will always win. This is how the debate, thanks to NRA and gun lobby, is framed right now. They say “cars kill people – we don’t ban cars”. That’s a false analogy. True, people with cars kill people, that’s why we regulate cars, not ban them. There’s a vast grey area between banning and allowing unfettered, unrestricted, no-questions-asked access to weapons. This is the area that I’m talking about.

Will there still be murders and rampages even if we put regulations in place? Sure! But the next time some teenager doesn’t sneak into his uncle’s attick and doesn’t get that gun – there will be a few more lives spared.

Wall Street vs. Regulators

“Herod: I’ll tell you what, I’ll be a Good Samaritan. What’s the cheapest gun you got? Not in a case. I mean the cheapest piece of worthless crap you have in the whole miserable store.

Kid: All right. (Brings out the cheapest gun and slams it on the counter). 5 bucks.

Herod: Sold!

Kid: (starts putting bullets in the gun)

Herod: What are you doing? Preacher here’s got the Lord on his side. He only needs one bullet. Just one. Otherwise he might be tempted to shoot his way out of town.”

The Quick and The Dead.

The current dynamics of the regulatory overhaul is a depressing development. While I’m normally quick  to criticize regulators, and for good reason, I also have to admit that monetary deprivation of such agencies by Republicans, as evidenced by budget cuts for CFTC, place some blame on anti-regulatory forces in Congress. Regulators that are currently entrusted with the task of policing Wall Street are facing a well-funded, well-connected and politically shrewd beast.

In essence, regulators are not writing the rules for Wall Street. Wall Street is writing the rules for regulators.

A few months ago, for example, the CFTC was given the power to oversee derivatives and the futures markets. At the same time the Congress plans to cut $25M (a 12% cut form a year before) from CFTC budget in a time when they desperately need more resources to effectively accomplish their new responsibilities. The regulators have resource allocation problem that will prevent them from properly enforcing their mandate.

It is remarkable although not surprising that the most restrictive language in the bill came from Wall Street lobbyists. What’s more amusing is to hear the authors of the bill vying for fair and effective regulation, offering suggestions on how that sort of regulation should be achieved and then cutting funding that would undermine the implementation of those very suggestions. This is schizophrenic!

The new appropriations bill carves out very specific amounts to be spent on very specific assignments. For instance, the Republican lawmakers are absolutely certain that to update the crumbling IT infrastructure at CFTC would cost $32mln. The authors of the bill also demand that before regulators implement anything they must conduct a comprehensive quantitative analysis of the impact of the rules. Shouldn’t the public, by the same logic, demand that before lawmakers make such definitive decisions about how much money the regulatory agencies will need, they, too, should conduct a thorough analysis of the needs of those agencies? I am very curious to know how they came up with the figure of $32 mln to revamp the CFTC antiquated computer systems. Do they expect regulators to hire new IT personnel, buy new equipment, write/purchase new software, not just any software, but the kind that would effectively monitor a number of important markets, including high-frequency trading (HFT), an obscure but powerful Wall Street niche that commands the brightest minds and the thickest purse? And do they also expect the CFTC to conduct a thorough analysis of the possible consequences that may harm the business, a grotesque request in itself, and report the results to Congress in 30 days? And the most curious question of all, is Wall street ready to open their books and submit their HFT trading codes to regulators in order to ensure the analysis they themselves insisted upon is truly “thorough”? Are you, like me, suspecting that no matter what kind of results the CFTC submits, the Wall Street (via Congress) will never be satisfied?

I think it’s a brilliant business model for Wall Street. First, it doesn’t get any headlines – do you expect an average person to read anything that has ‘regulatory’ and ‘appropriations bill’ in it? Second, you can pass as many as 100 tough Dodd Frank bills and placate the public, but then quietly get to work on carving loopholes, exceptions and if that isn’t enough, just starve the damn beast of the funds! Wall Street arms itself with heavy sophisticated weaponry (no amount of money and resources are spared when building a high-frequency trading desk, it’s a multi-billion dollar business; and no amount of money is spared on lobbyists), then, with the complicit help of Republicans in Congress, they deliberately put themselves into position of handing out weaponry to their watchdog, and, surprise, hand him an old 19-century pistol. And then, to add insult to the injury, they also demand the watchdog to conduct an analysis, a thorough analysis, not just and “administrative check”, of what kind of harm that 19-century pistol can wreak on fragile Wall Street “lemonade stand”.

Even during Wild West times, so revered in American mythology as the time of true rugged individualism and unfettered capitalism, not even a conniving villain had the chutzpah to demand the sensitive treatment. If you love allegories, like I do, there’s a fitting scene from The Quick and The Dead, where Gene Hackman (Herod) is buying a gun for his dueling opponent Russell Crowe (Cort). Except that Herod doesn’t demand Cort to be gentle.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6RdrYt1eFGk

Our regulators are no Cort. They have not been trained to shoot. Especially with one bullet.

Macro View on Emerging Election Dynamics

Romney seems to have settled on the emerging theme of Obama being a “nice guy generally” but who is “in over his head”. This kind of positioning is supposedly meant to attract voters who like Obama personally but are unsure about his managerial abilities to run the country. What I think is really happening is that various conservative operatives have resigned to the idea that Romney is not going to excite new voters into voting. The scenario that they have assumed in their models is that Romney is a stiff, uninspiring, polenta candidate that simply has to appear on stage, wear a suit and say dull things. That’s all that is required of Romney now. The real job of winning an election will fall onto Right-leaning Super PACs, like Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS and various political-minded billionaires.  And can we really expect them to spend their hundreds of millions of dollars on a lukewarm message that Obama is a nice guy who’s just not up to the task? I doubt it. There will be a tsunami of crazy shit coming Obama’s way the closer we get to the election.

I, of course, do not underestimate the power of slime. Just recall what happened to John Kerry in 2004. We have to expect more of the “Secret Muslim” and “Where’s the real Birth Certificate” lines of attacks to resurface again among other things. These ads, to be clear, will not be designed to make any new converts, they will be designed to rile up the paranoids to come and vote in droves. So for Republicans these sorts of ops are more of a Get out the Vote (GOTV) exercise rather than converting the undecideds.

I’m not entirely crazy about Obama’s “We Can’t Wait” message because this message is directed at the obstructionist Congress, not at Romney. Something along the lines “A fight for the Middle Class” would be more effective. Obama has to give equally compelling reasons for people to show up at the polling station. “Republican War on Workers” is a more gripping message. First, Obama is already accused of waging a class warfare, so he might as well reap the benefits by talking about decades of stagnating wages and growing inequality gap. Maybe that will bring him some votes from the white working class. Remember when was the last time a presidential candidate talked about growing inequality? Neither do I. And then we’re surprised that white working class is voting Republican every time! I think Republicans are really afraid of this kind of talk, because they have nothing to say against it but the re-recycled and tired message of “trickle-down economics”.

Obama is being accused of so many outlandish things right now that his hands are essentially untied. “If that’s what you think I am” – his campaign thinking should go – “then this is what I shall become”. It’s like buying a cheap bond that cashflows: the downside of the trade has already happened, there’s only the upside left. For instance, those who think that he will take their guns away will not change their minds when shown the facts: they will just think it’s some kind of conspiracy. How much more apoplectic and enraged can they become if Obama really does come and take their guns away?! (I do not advocate it, I merely illustrate the point). Right now those who think he’s not tough enough do not have a compelling reason to walk over to the voting booth, while the Ted Nugent crowd will crawl on broken glass to cast a vote against Obama. Pointing out that Republicans are crazy is useless – everybody knows that. Talking about what is Obama going to do about it – is what people want to hear. And this would involve saying things that will drive Republicans off their rails. This would involve some bare knuckle politics and some strong language. Politically speaking, the coming negative onslaught is a golden opportunity for Obama, a carte blanche; he should be seeking such a battle not avoiding it.

Ultimately the election will come down to GOTV, not converting the swing voters. Romney doesn’t have the skills and personality to do it, so the shadow political groups will do it for him by bringing their voters to the polls. Obama should do the same. The time to reason have passed a long time ago. The opposition is sufficiently nuts.  Now is the time to give people a reason to show up at the polls and vote for Obama. And if he does not fight back he deserves to lose.

Tea Partiers and the Constitution

Tea Parties have a strange love-hate relationship with the Constitution.

I think they have some sort of their own version of the Constitution, just like Conservatives have their own idealized version of the 1950s or Reagan or like any of us have our own idealized memories of childhood. Sober analysis would conclude that it’s not like times were better, but perhaps it was just that we were younger.

So I downloaded the full text of the Constitution in an attempt to see where do they get their talking points. To begin, I searched for the word “religion” in the text, given the recent demand by Tea Party darling Christine O’Donnell, delivered with an air of knowing superiority during her debate, to know where in the Constitution there’s a separation of church and state. The word “religion” did come up once in the text. In the context of “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any Office or Public Trust under the United States”. Further, in the First Amendment, is the following: “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion”. I have to give her that – she really did believe that there’s a mention of God or Jesus in the Constitution, because she looked like a child who just found out that there’s no Santa Claus. When her opponent quoted the First amendment it was like an unpleasant revelation to her. I hope that the first thing she did after the debate is to go and check the text to see it with her own eyes.

Many Tea Parties, without fully knowing what the Constitution actually contains, nonetheless like to throw weighty words around, especially when asked a practical question, for example how to balance the budget. You will be hearing words like “tyranny”, “Founding Fathers”, “Constitution”, “God-given rights” without actually getting an answer to your question. In fact many conservatives like to mock liberals for deriving their rights from the Government. Liberals, those spineless fucks, you see, take the rights mercifully granted to them by the omnipotent Government while the steel-balled conservatives themselves insist that all rights are God-given. They conveniently forget that the enforcement of God-given rights is still the job of the dreadful Government. Rights have to be protected and even though I would love to carry a gun around all the time in case I need to dispute, say, a claim from my insurer, I hire a Government to do that for me. Sure, they mostly suck, they tax you, they grow corrupt with time, but the alternative is a do-it-yourself Wild West. Don’t get me wrong, I, of all people, would succeed in a kill-or-be-killed setting like this, but the point is why not hire somebody else to do the enforcement job for you, while you can engage in, say, some money making or world saving? Besides, every 2 or 4 years you have a recourse against the Government in form of election. It’s amusing to hear all those yells of “tyranny” and calls to “violent rebellion” from middle-aged middle class nearing retirement who, for way too long, had a boot of Socialism planted firmly on their necks! But no more! Down with Socialism!

Funny, how I always digress in my writings. I do like to rant though, if you haven’t noticed.

So anyway, a Tea Party rally would not be a Tea Party rally without some dude in a tricorner hat waving the copy of the Constitution. But now I wonder whether they just like the original document or all of those amendments that came afterwards. If they just like the original then they would have to admit that they would repeal the subsequent amendments, like giving women the right to vote or abolishing slavery or granting citizenship to persons who are born here. Some brave and honest tea parties, like Rand Paul, would repeal the 14th amendment, for example. At least he’s honest and I give him kudos for that. I only wish that he went all the way – calling for repeal of all of the amendments, instead of picking and choosing only the ones he likes. That’s where I have a problem with the tea partiers supposed love of the Constitution. They love it but they want it changed. They imagine things to be in the Constitution that are not actually there. They choose to ignore some inconvenient articles. This problem can be solved if they just write their own Tea Party version of the Constitution. Just to give you a few highlights: Abolish federal income tax (Sharon Angle); Establish the presence of Christian God in state affairs (Christine O’Donnell, Sarah Palin); Abolish Department of Education and a right to citizenship for those born here (Rand Paul). And wave this document instead – that will keep you honest.

After watching that Christine O’Donnell video I thought that it would be funny if it wasn’t so sad. No matter how civil a society we’re bound to have citizens who have no idea what the Constitution is all about and have their own fantasies about what’s in it. But to have a public official who runs for office not to have a clue about one of the most important cornerstones of the current law, the establishment clause, is sad and even scary. It does not necessarily show her stupidity, although she’s pretty ignorant, unable to name even Roe v Wade – the mandatory pet peeve of any self-respecting conservative – as an example of Supreme Court decision she disagrees with (not because she agrees with it, but because she doesn’t know what the fuck that is!), it shows her inability to think. If she truly believed that government does not guarantee the separation of church and state, then what particular church does the government have in mind? And just to be on the safe side – to check with herself to make sure that she belongs to that particular brand of religion. Because, you know, she a Catholic after all, and Catholics used to be, shall we say, frowned upon, in the good ol’ days.