May 16

What Barack Obama and Mitt Romney’s Investments Say About Them

Obama RomneyBarack Obama and Mitt Romney both filed their Executive Branch Personnel Public Financial Disclosure Reports as required in order to seek the office of the Presidency in 2011. I have previously described the two men as Pragmatist and Opportunist, respectively, and the financial disclosures further buttress my position. Barack Obama’s investment disclosure (Schedule A) is a mere three pages in length, while Mitt Romney’s disclosure runs a staggering eight pages, with an additional four pages of detailed investments managed in tax-sheltered private accounts. Barack Obama’s investments read like the embodiment of the conservative investment strategies championed by Vanguard’s founder John C. Bogle and investment adviser and author Dan Solin, while Mitt Romney’s portfolio appears to be right at home with noted investment televangelist fraud Jim Cramer’s Lightning Round, during which the shyster offers up investment buy or sell recommendations at breakneck pace out of thin air.

Barack Obama’s largest asset is a diversified group of long term and short term treasury obligations. The bonds and notes are generally regarded as risk-free investments delivering modest returns, even more modest in the current low interest rate environment. Mr. Obama’s personal stock holdings are limited to three retirement accounts, all invested in the Vanguard 500 Index Fund. The fund is not actively managed nor speculative. It simply tracks the performance of the S&P 500 Index, nothing tricky or fancy, or creative. Mitt Romney on the other hand holds pages and pages of individual equities, individual corporate bonds, foreign securities and actively managed mutual funds, many of which are managed in so-called blind trusts. Romney does have significant assets in market tracking index funds as well, but he also has upwards of $500,000 in gold, perhaps the most speculative of all possible investments. While the two men offer very similar policies for Wall Street, the two banal baby-kissers could not be more contrasting in their handling of their own personal fortunes.

So, what does this say about the two men? It has been widely reported that President Obama harbors no adulation for Wall Street, but rather coddles and serves it out of a fear of the political consequences of not doing so. Whether Obama has made a poor political calculation in this regard is a subject for another day. However, Obama apparently views the endeavor of those who have chosen “finance” as their career as facile and uncreative, adding little of real value to society. In fact, during a meeting between Obama’s campaign director and Wall Street heavies, the executives pulled no punches, even demanding that the President apologize to Wall Street publicly.

One of the guests raised his hand; he knew how to solve the problem. The president had won plaudits for his speech on race during the last campaign, the guest noted. It was a soaring address that acknowledged white resentment and urged national unity. What if Obama gave a similarly healing speech about class and inequality? What if he urged an end to attacks on the rich? Around the table, some people shook their heads in disbelief.

“Most people in the financial world,” a top Obama donor later told me, “do not understand how most of America feels about them.” But they think they understand how the president’s inner circle feels about them. “This administration has a more contemptuous view of big money and of Wall Street than any administration in 40 years,” the donor said. “And it shows.”

Mitt Romney on the other hand embraces the myth of creative finance and wealth creation wholeheartedly. Even given his advanced age of sixty-five–by age-based investment strategies at least–he is far too heavily invested in individual equities, individual corporate bonds, and active managed mutual funds. Most responsible fee only investment advisers would counsel the GOP candidate to sell off much of his equity stake in lieu of safer fixed income investments. Mitt Romney however will apparently hear none of that. His investments evidence a heartfelt belief  in the soundness of the American financial system directly in line with his political rhetoric and hyperbole.

Most of us spend decades believing the hype surrounding individual stocks and pimply-faced mutual fund managers fresh from Harvard Business School notwithstanding the mountain of empirical data to the contrary. We call our brokers and financial advisers seeking the next hot tip. After all, they know what they’re doing, right? Study after study reports the ineffectiveness of actively managed mutual funds and investing upon the advice of brokers and commissioned advisers. It is not until we actually sit down and research the subject, or remove our head from Wall Street’s all-encompassing allegory surrounding its brilliance for long enough to pay close attention to someone who actually knows what he or she is talking about, that we adjust our strategy. President Obama, a self described pragmatist, must have undertaken this analysis years ago. He understands that no matter how rosy the claims or how flashy the public relations campaign, that those peddling financial stock-picking advice have a downright pitiful track record. He also understands that to truly reap extraordinary gains from the stock market over time, you must either risk losing your entire fortune on risky bets, or you must be privy to inside and often illegal information. Neither of the preceding two courses of action is particularly appealing to an individual aspiring to the highest office in the land, so hum drum practicality it has been for the Commander in Chief.

President Obama’s changeable challenger is the consummate opportunist. He believes that actively managed funds offer superior returns to stock index funds and bond index funds. He believes that those Wall Street boys clad in $5,000 suits while extracting 2% or more of the wealth of their clients in return for poor advice actually enjoy some level of expertise. It is not all that surprising in that Romney himself spent much of his career surrounded by folks who made their livings bilking people of onerous fees by touting “exclusive” yet utterly perfunctory “proprietary analysis” while poorly managing their investments. The crowd in which Romney moves honestly believes its own claims of brilliance. In contrast to the con-man who knows precisely how valueless his products are, the Romney’s of the world believe their advice and knowledge has some real value. They are, in a essence, delusional borderline sociopaths. Some have opined that Romney’s portfolio is overly conservative and carefully crafted to avoid any political pitfalls. This analysis only makes sense if the author continues to himself or herself subscribe to the long-since-discredited strategy of actively managing investments. Even in 2012, those who advocate for a strategy based upon empirical data and sound experiential reports continue to swim upstream. A testament to the depth and reach of the myth of the stock-picker.

I believe that the duo’s investments speak volumes concerning each man’s approach to governance. Obama almost certainly charges his staff and advisers with the responsibility of researching each and every social issue or economic policy question inside, up, out, and down, leaving no stone unturned. It is in his nature to do so. He is then presented with each and every data set and potential effect prior to his coming to a practical and pragmatic conclusion. That very conclusion is then simmered on low heat through a Bearnaise sauce of political consequences and an ultimate decision is reached. This is precisely how Obama handled the gay marriage debate. He understands that practically speaking gay marriage is of no consequence to him, his marriage, or the orderly functioning of society or government. He has no moral objections to the idea. He has said as much in the past. However, once placed upon the hot stove of electoral politics, he made a poor decision, and his statements on the issue during the 2008 campaign were overly-complicated, forced, and disingenuous. This is almost certainly how he has approached the closing of Guantanamo Bay Prison since being elected, among a whole host of other issues and questions that have but one clear and obvious practical solution.

Mr. Romney in part still believes in  making “gut” decisions. It would be unfair to cast him among the same ilk as George W. Bush and his nearly unexpurgated lack of reliance on data and practical effect, as Romney can indeed be a thoughtful and realistic man. However, having no occasion in his life to doubt the efficacy of efficient markets, Mr. Romney is almost certain to believe much of what he spews on the campaign trail. I am unquestionably confident that he believes that tax cuts spur economic growth and lead to job creation in the face of reams of data to the contrary. He almost assuredly believes that  military power can be used to solve centuries old civil and religious conflicts and restore peace. He without question holds the position that income inequality will not eventually erode society as a whole. If he is elected it is likely that Mr. Romney will make many poor decisions based upon an honest belief that he is correct notwithstanding opposing information. However, he will also make his share of practical decisions. The question is which of the two categories will be out of balance.

In 2012 we do not have to chose between an ideologue and a pragmatist, or a true believer and a statistician–assuming a vote for either of the two mega-parties. Neither of the major candidates ultimately believes in anything strongly enough to be swayed by ideology or morality alone. Each man can be swayed from a practical common sense solution by politics, so both men are inherently dangerous. One need only look to Obama’s treatment of Wall Street and Romney’s continual conversion on policy for evidence. It is ultimately irrelevant how thoughtful and pragmatic a leader may be at his or her core if practical considerations have no place at the policy table. In analyzing the two men’s investments, it is clear that one man is a practical sound decision-maker at his essence, and one man is practical yet inclined to surrender to his belief in the advantage of risk and reward. Whether it is more desirable for a leader to make poor decisions based upon an honest yet misguided belief in the anticipated results, or to make poor decisions based upon a political calculation in the face of a deep understanding of information to the contrary is a choice that each of you will have to make on your own. I however would like a third choice.

May 01

Pragmatist or Opportunist?

Obama-RomneyEssentially the voters in 2012 will have a very simple choice to make, whether to elect a political pragmatist or a political opportunist. On the one side is President Barack Obama, who by all accounts holds very few, if any, ideological convictions. In fairness, he does lean just left of center, but rather than having a belief system rooted in progressive ideals, it appears that his belief system has been fashioned by his personal experiences and educational training alone. He is a no nonsense analytical thinker. He looks plainly at a situation and determines what can be accomplished. He then moves further away from his original position expecting that his opponents will do likewise, and embraces a series of compromises until some agreement is reached, however distant from his original position. While this jumping-off point normally lends itself to practical common sense solutions, it has failed to hold true in his case. However polarized the other side, he is determined to come away with something. Mitt Romney on the other hand also appears to lack any foundational ideology, while leaning marginally right. His early political career appears to have been fashioned by his experience at the feet of his father, the one time chief of American Motors and Governor of Michigan. His father is widely regarded as a right-leaning moderate. He has spent much of his adult life surrounded by business elites, and will advocate on their behalf so long as in doing so he treads upon the path of least resistance. He too seeks out practical solutions to the problem at hand, but he allows the political winds rather than any firmly held position to determine what is in fact practical. So, the question is whether it is better to elect an individual who refuses to bend when the longer term practical political consequences may be deleterious, or someone who will bend facilely.

Looking at some examples from Obama’s first term we can see the limits of political pragmatism and general rigidity. The most glaring example is his reaction to the financial crisis. His policy decisions following inauguration through today are generally accepted by his progressive base, as well as most rank and file Democrats, as being far too friendly to Wall Street and the financial sector generally. Much time and effort has been spent ensuring the solvency of the banking sector, while little or no help has been offered to those most affected by the crisis. Experts have opined that it is precisely the President’s pragmatic rigidity that has contributed to his failure to move toward a more progressive fair approach in addressing the depression. Interestingly, while disappointed, neither the Democratic base or independents have been willing to take Obama to task over his  continued willingness to assist Wall Street. Even while Obama has been reported to have a great degree of contempt for Wall Street and apparently views the fruits of its labor generally valueless, he has bent over backwards to help it. Even when pushed by the public and Congress to pass some sort of financial reform package, the result was an impotent regulatory regime in the name of Dodd-Frank, and facially attractive but only marginally  protective credit card and other consumer protection reforms. Yet Wall Street still views him with extreme and venomous derision. Continue reading

Apr 26

Bill Clinton Part II – Starring Barack Obama

Obama and ClintonWe all remember the wonderful carefree days of the Clinton Administration, notably the second lame-duck term during which much was accomplished, for good and for bad. The economy was growing, unemployment was low, and the stock market performed swimmingly. Congress impeached the President, but most of the balding white men involved in the Broadway production secretly played intern with their Bill Clinton action figures. President Clinton did not embroil us in some meaningless conflict murdering innocent civilians and upending an entire civilization for no good reason. Instead, although late and saturated with poor political and policy decisions, he brought an end to the bloody and disturbing conflict in former Yugoslavia.  With this and other foreign policy successes and a humming economy, it was peaches and cream in the United States. At least we thought it was.

What was overlooked  at the time was the legislative unraveling of significant and efficacious financial regulation that took place in the final years of the Clinton Presidency. Following a decade of banking deregulation, Glass-Steagall was demolished by the Gramm–Leach–Bliley Act, the depression era law that had kept banks and investment houses separate entities, and ensured that bank deposits were not ultra-leveraged and gambled with on risky Frankensteinesque financial products cooked up by some MIT graduate using complicated algorithms. The benign sounding and exceptionally complex Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000 also passed and was signed into law by President Clinton. The law ensured that over-the-counter derivatives, you know, those adorable little weapons of mass financial destruction that helped fuel the financial crisis and sank AIG into bankruptcy, would not be regulated by the SEC or the CFTC, or by anyone else for that matter. Each of these laws was boosted by Republican lawmakers, specifically Senator Phil Gramm, and his financial backers. Unfortunately, the economic and financial markets advisers that held Clinton’s ear signed on to the right wing plan willingly as well.

Times were great, and after more than a decade of lesser financial regulation, the conventional wisdom was that more regulatory downsizing would ultimately juice the system to yet new highs, lifting all ships and dominating the world’s financial system. Nothing could go wrong, well, at least that’s what President Clinton’s advisers counseled, notably Larry Summers, Alan Greenspan, Arthur Levitt, and William J. Rainer. Each man an imbecile in his own unique way. The first signs that the The Commodity Futures Modernization Act was a flop came not one year later when Enron Corporation crashed due to the collapse of unregulated single-stock futures and over-the-counter energy futures given the stamp of approval by the act. Continue reading