The Totalitarian Reign of the Airlines

The Totalitarian Reign of the Airlines

Like many other things in the United States these days, the familiar has become less predictable and the veneer of civility far less true.

Airlines have become, clearly, a flashing red light about a crumbling civil society and a rising totalitarian state.

In fact, they had already torn at the country’s fabric well before Trump captured the presidency. 

After years of adding one new rule and attendant new cost after another, for services previously included in their single fare, they seem to be sufficiently emboldened to hit new lows and to charge more and more for less and less.  It does not seem far-fetched soon to expect coin operated toilet paper dispensers in the washrooms.  

But the legion of new costs and rules are far less disturbing than the mindset that has clearly set in in the corporate offices of each and every carrier.  That mindset of total distain and disregard for passengers now permeates all that they do in setting policy and in their behavior toward passengers.

And, most alarming, is that passengers sheepishly accept it all like lambs in pasture.

United’s recent and shocking behavior toward a passenger in Chicago who refused to give up his seat for an employee was over the top.  The thugs they sent aboard to attack and force him off the plane made great television, but their total disregard for common human dignity was absolutely in keeping with their modus operandi today.

The Chicago incident had, decidedly, the feel of Nazi Germany.  And, the indignity of what happened then for one passenger is repeated daily in lots of ways for many others at the time of booking, waiting to board, and on board.

Enjoying their power, they have for some time displayed their distain and disregard by forcing those who pay less to board only after all those who either paid more or who were frequent flyers.  We have all come to accept the indignities of standing by while the “rich and powerful” board.

Delta, United and now American Airlines have managed, quietly, to introduce a still more ugly way to express their distain for the majority of paying customers. 

Delta especially is providing a singularly horrifying visual as well as a decidedly new intimidation strategy.  Today, in many airports, it has added numbered or lettered columns behind which passengers must line up in rows before boarding.  It is visually an exceedingly ugly reminder of Nazi concentration camps where new arrivals would be forced to line up by age, gender, and physical attributes before a few were allowed to live and the majority marched off to their deaths.  It is a reminder not lost, I am sure, on Delta’s management and certainly effective in further dehumanizing its passengers. 

I would argue, in fact, that the addition of these lines dividing passengers along a continuum of elite to poor slobs is even more despicable than what was done to one passenger by United.  And, I am sure that it will not be long before all airlines adopt “lines” and even add a new line, probably out near the bathrooms, for fat people, poorly dressed people, people with colds, and people with funny names.


Dow 21,000, S&P 2400 and NASDAQ 6000: Seems Unsustainable

Dow 21,000, S&P 2400 and NASDAQ 6000: Seems Unsustainable

The stock market is at all time highs.  It has run to extraordinary levels.

Stock valuations, in the opinion of this author, are absolutely unsustainable.  The S&P now trades over 18x 2018 consensus estimates.   18x future earnings (not current year) is very aggressive in any environment, but especially when the underlying consensus estimates are based on the following assumptions that analysts at major investment banks are now taking for granted:

  1. Commerce Secretary Wibur Ross’s goal of spiking US GDP from below 1% to 4% will materialize as a result of trade policy that discourages free trade (the author believes that this policy will have the opposite effect and risks a global recession or depression).
  2. Lower tax rates on corporations and the opportunity of corporations to take advantage of 1-time accounting change will enable them to show real accounting growth from 2017 to 2018.  (the author doubts that any of this will get through Congress and questions their effectiveness even if it does).
  3. Economic, US political and global geopolitical events will not have a dampening affect on companies’ ability to grow earnings dramatically over the next year, or on the ability of US markets to continue to support an 18x PE multiple (the author doubts this too, especially as this type of valuation has never been sustainable over the long term).

I have recommended that U.S. investors maintain a heavy exposure to cash (savings and short-term CDs) to protect against unsustainable valuations and to wait for a better entry point.  Now more than even, investors need to apply some historical perspective, and keep strong positions in cash.

I have not espoused the belief that people should be completely unexposed to the stock market, and I myself have maintained a reasonable exposure to US equity markets.  Selling out completely runs the risk of being dead wrong and to missing a strong upside.


As Market Hits Extraordinary Highs, Money Managers Appear Shell Shocked

As Market Hits Extraordinary Highs, Money Managers Appear Shell Shocked

I found myself watching Consuelo Mack’s Wealthtrack show this morning.   Money managers are virtually all tremendously underperforming the Dow, the S&P and the Nasdaq.    The wealth managers on Mack’s program and programs like look out-and-out shell shocked.  You can see the same thing virtually any time of day on CNBC or on Fox Business where the message is the same, albeit less polished and full of screaming. 

Quite simply, these active managers cannot explain why they have so dramatically underperformed.  They are trying to market themselves as about to outperform equity markets, even when at 18x future earnings, just being long the market has become dramatically more risky going forward.   Money managers are so under the gun that they are resorting to positions that rely on tenuous arguments, such as the one often voiced that investors now need more exposure to US small caps.  They try to ignore the fact that small cap have also moved dramatically higher and bear risk equal to, or greater than, the broader market.  They also are playing in emerging market stocks, even though most US managers lack even a cursory knowledge of these areas and a prudent investor would avoid large exposure to emerging markets now more than ever.

Yes, a few money managers will make good calls that will cause their active portfolios to outperform the market over short or medium terms.  One or two have already been heavily and continuously exposed to Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google over the last several months and years and, thus, dramatically outperformed the market.   

Most advisors, however, will not have made the right calls.  For every manager who has invested well over the last couple of years, there is one who has bet during that time on Twitter, Tripadvisor, Verizon and CenturyLink.  Some have even made tremendously bad trades, like Bill Ackman’s trade on Valeant (or JP Penney beforehand) and doubled or tripled down.  While Ackman managed to avoid doing tremendous damage to his portfolio by countering these bets with a handful of good bets, many who are less talented will turn the super wealth into the merely wealthy and the wealthy into poor.

Money managers charge fees (and pass on transaction fees and costs) that, when compounded over any length of time, guarantee not only their own wealth accumulation, but underperformance for their clients.   Too boot, there are very few managers who are savvy as to tax implications of their transactions for their customers.   Even in a dramatically higher market like we are experiencing today, they might as well ask: “Together with our underperformance, can we interest you in a heavy tax burden and outlandish, recurring fees?”

Given that the market has performed so well for anyone using low cost index funds (and even roboadvisors), now more than ever, active manager are struggling to explain their underperformance (or, even their losses!).

Some will no doubt outperform in the years to come, but you will secure your future and your wealth by turning off Wealthtrack, CNBC and these other shows and avoiding their follies.

My advice is to stick with index funds to the extent that you require exposure to the stock market over the next year or two.