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An observation worth considering from Vermont monks

April 9, 2021

Interviewing to be a monk would not end well for me. I can hear it now, the impassioned reasoning: "Well, you see, markets get intense and stressful, and to stay calm I was thinking about yoga, but finance people get competitive at calming down, and the monk life seems even better than yoga. And I wore a brown robe in the 6th grade Christmas pageant, so there's that too."

And you do have to apply. I know because I've been reading a monastery web site. This monastery is on the summit of Mount Equinox in Southern Vermont. My first thought, when doing some reconnaissance on Google Maps, was "how did they get an Act 250 permit for that location?" For those of you who have travelled through Manchester, VT, Mt Equinox is the big mountain that flanks the town. It's the one you think "Because someone didn't build a ski area there, I have to ski Stratton." (Or as my kids call it, "Flatten.")

Long and short is that I am disallowed from applying due to my age. I am 45, and the website sets the cutoff at 40. It says:

applicants over 40 are not often admitted as they, in general, are already "formed" and habituated to the ways of the world.

Given that monks have a lot of time to think, I assume this statement has gravitas. This is not "Bartholomew, throw something on the website to get some Google traffic, our maple syrup sales are running low."

So we should consider it. It brings up a serious question around age and open-mindedness to ideas. New ideas often come from young people, as they have no emotional connection to the past. In fact, when you are young and not part of the establishment, receptivity to new ideas is an advantage. There is a reason the founders of Apple proclaimed "it's better to be a pirate than join the Navy."

Charlie Munger, Warren Buffet's partner, at age 97, does not represent America's youth. Yet he speaks at length about the mental rigidity problem, and his solution: "invert, always invert." Or, to go to the original German, "man muss immer umkehren," which is relevant because Carl Gustav Jacob Jacobi, the German mathematician, whose parents apparently liked the name Jacob, came up with it.

If someone presents an investment idea, what is the opposite of the idea, and why is the opposite wrong? If you make a judgment on a business and sell its shares, why are you more correct than the buyer? Can you hold two opposing ideas in your head at the same time, and then decide? Are all of your ideas forever "formed?"

Dan Cunningham

1. Act 250 is a development law in Vermont that disallows almost all construction over 2,500 ft of elevation.
2. In fairness, someone did try to put a ski area on Mt Equinox. Link.
3. The story of the Carthusian Order on Mount Equinox is fascinating. The only order of its kind in the U.S., they are devoted to silence and a quest for grace. They were founded by the man who purified the uranium for the most destructive weapon in the world, the atomic bomb. Story here.



Investing lessons from bitcoin and baseball

March 19, 2021


Exponential curves tend to bring out the crazy. These unpredictable events deliver big winners, and big losers, and the media rides along. Cryptocurrencies are the exponential du jour.

Apparently not content with the Swiss Franc as a store of currency value, digital currency entrepreneurs decided to consume a massive amount of electricity building their own. From week to week the proposed need for this product changes, from distributed transaction histories, to a substitute for gold, to fodder for Elon Musk's Twitter feed and a headache for Tesla's CFO, to illicit transactions. Well, illicit transactions seems to be steady as a use case. We'll see about the rest.

There are at least two good investment lessons here.

1. It's not scientific, but an observation: many people bestowing praise on cryptocurrencies tend to own them or have some upside in their proliferation. This is different from the early days of the Internet: people used Amazon or AOL but didn't have a direct financial interest in their success. When you see this pattern, it pays to wear your skeptical hat.

2. Imagine being a professional baseball player staring down Mariano Rivera's cutter fastball. Eventually you have to swing at a qualifying pitch. You may end up off balance in the process. Your bat may end up broken. You may end up broken. But you can't just stand there.

Here in the investing world, you can. You can watch a zinger like bitcoin sail by and do nothing, feet planted firmly on the ground, balance intact, confidence building. You don't have to fall all over the place reaching to swing. This confers advantage as an investor.

We'll let someone else have the euphoria and stress of booms and busts. The general markets have enough, we don't need more. We'll just simply sit and wait for the obvious pitch.

Dan Cunningham

1. How Mariano Rivera rode one pitch to the Hall of Fame. (Btw, he broke 724 bats.).
2. The baseball analogy above is not new in finance. I'm repurposing it in light of crypto.
3. The irony of Tesla carrying bitcoin on its balance sheet.



The Segway

February 26, 2021

Near the turn of the millennium, inventor Dean Kamen promised to change the world with an invention so fascinating that even Steve Jobs and venture capitalist John Doerr had to fire up their jets to see it in person.

It turned out to be a scooter. The Segway.

In fairness, the wheels ran abreast of each other, and balancing it required a complex dance of motor and software control. But what caught my attention was Kamen's observation that the automobile was a fundamentally flawed idea. Not just because of carbon et al (imagine if your computer had a smokestack?) but because the machine spent over 90% of its energy moving the machine.

This made no sense, Kamen explained. You don't build transportation machines to move transportation machines. You build them to move people.


A similar effect exists in finance. You don't build infrastructure to support infrastructure. You build funds, software, and systems to achieve the end goal for a human being. The goal for almost everyone is not to own a Unit Investment Trust, or pay a 5% sales charge on an A share. The goal is, at least for many people, to have certainty as you travel through life that you have a financial cushion, and that cushion becomes more of a couch as you approach retirement.

It's easy for you, and it's easy for the financial industry, to lose sight of that goal. When you build a financial plan, the objective needs to be clear, and every part of the process needs to support that objective. Otherwise it's wasted energy and resource. It's like raking water uphill. Or using 4,000 lbs of automobile steel to move a 150 lb person.

In a fitting denouement to the Segway, scooters have roared back to help solve our transportation conundrum. Only this time the wheels are aligned front to back - a simpler design. But the principle hasn't changed.

Dan Cunningham

1. In that era, everyone was going to change the world, and everyone planned to run a company forever, right up to the buyout, when they suddenly didn't. So when Jobs and Doerr fired up their Gulfstreams and blazed a carbon trail from California to New Hampshire, people paid attention.
2. Dean Kamen holds over 1,000 patents. To see other inventions of his, click here.

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