About Bob Seawright

Robert P. Seawright is the Chief Investment & Information Officer for Madison Avenue Securities, a boutique broker-dealer and investment advisory firm headquartered in San Diego, California.

When History and Finance Go Wrong

res1014coverMy October column for Research magazine is now available online. Here’s how it opens.

On a fine morning 100 summers ago in Sarajevo, an automobile driver ferrying the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand made a wrong turn off the main street into a narrow passageway and came to a stop directly in front of a teenaged activist member of the Serbian terrorist organization Black Hand. Gavrilo Princip drew his pistol and fired twice. The archduke and his wife fell dead. Within hours, World War I was well on its way to seeming inevitable (or at least necessary), all because of a wrong turn. And the idea that history is rational and sheds light on an intelligible story, much less a story of inevitable and inexorable advance, was also shot dead, as dead as the archduke himself.

I hope you’ll read it all.

When History and Finance Go Wrong

What you’re vacillatin’ between

Francis Paschal

Francis Paschal

When I was a first-year law student at Duke many years ago, my Civil Procedure professor was the delightfully named J. Francis Paschal. Professor Paschal seemed to like to portray himself as a bit of a good ol’ boy, with a protruding gut, truly dreadful sports jackets, hair slicked and parted just off-center, and a drawl as thick as molasses on a cold day (if not nearly so sweet). That image could not mask a keen mind and a sharp wit. Nor did it hide his erudition — in addition to his credentials in the law, Professor Paschal had a Princeton Ph.D. too.

The good professor led his classes using the Socratic conventions of the day. A student was called upon to answer a series of penetrating and perplexing questions supposedly designed to ferret out the nuances of some legal principle or another but which, in reality, served to demonstrate to a class full of bright and full-of-themselves college graduates that they were out of the minors and into the intellectual big leagues. If we were going to compete at that level, we needed to up our collective game considerably.

One day fairly early in the first semester Professor Paschal called on a woman in the row ahead of me (who I shall kindly refer to — using a pseudonym since she is now a Deputy Attorney General — as “Frieda Clancy”) and asked a typically impossible question. SInce Frieda was a friend, I happened to know that her extremely difficult predicament was actually utterly impossible because she was not prepared for class.  In fact, it wasn’t just that she wasn’t fully prepared (meaning that she had read the required case, all the cases cited therein, the case comments, casebook notes and citations, relevent hornbook and law review materials and anything else we could think of that might be relevant). She wasn’t prepared at all. She hadn’t even read the case at issue.

This was not likely to turn out well. Continue reading

Crash Ahead!!!

Anybody who has spent more than a few minutes on the web has seen some amazing doomsday predictions. Among my favorites are those relating to the great Yellowstone Caldera volcano, which is often described as about ready to blow and destined to create terror and mayhem even though Yellowstone is pretty calm as giant caldera systems go. For example, check out the following headline from the Toronto Sun on March 9, 2014, which provides a good representative sample of the genre.Headline

Continue reading

September 11: In Memoriam

I originally posted this on the tenth anniversary of 9.11. It remains applicable today. Please note the addendum I have included below.

September 11 is one of those “Where were you?” events which, for me, also include the Kennedy assassination (my second grade classroom), Neil Armstrong’s “giant leap for mankind” (my parents’ den) and the falling of the Berlin Wall (a New Orleans hotel room).

Ten years ago I was sitting in front of my Bloomberg terminal here in San Diego when I saw a headline scroll across the bottom of my screen about a plane crashing into the World Trade Center.  Since I had been on a trading floor in the World Financial Center in 1993 trying to do a trade with a client near the top of Tower One when it had been bombed previously and remembered the earthquake-like rumble I felt vividly, thoughts of a dreadful accident involving a small private plane quickly turned to fears of terrorism and consequences that were far, far worse. 

As it happens, I still spent a fair amount of time at the World Financial Center (which is adjacent to the WTC) back then and had a reservation at the World Trade Center Marriott for September 11, 2001.  Fortuitously, I decided not to go to New York so as to attend a Back to School Night presentation.

Much has happened since that day, obviously.  We are a different country today than we were a decade ago, and not all the changes are for the better.  To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, progress isn’t always forward. But our advances are real and important as well.

The memories of September 11, 2001 linger — as they should — and still offer lessons for those of us who remain.  But today, first and foremost, let us remember those who died that day and honor their memories.

2013 Addendum:  I have visited The National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial and the 9/11 Memorial in New York City multiple times.  Both Memorials provided experiences that were both moving and powerful.  I encourage all of you to visit them. Other personal 9.11 stories worth reading are here and here.  My 9.11 pieces relating to markets and our behavior are here and here.

Beguiled By Narrative

Thomas Hoepker (Magnum Photos)

Thomas Hoepker (Magnum Photos)

The photograph above, taken at the Brooklyn waterfront on the afternoon of September 11, 2001 by German photographer Thomas Hoepker, is now one of the iconic images of that horrible day. In fact, the Observer New Review (London) republished it in 2011 as the 9/11 photograph. In Hoepker’s words, he saw “an almost idyllic scene near a restaurant — flowers, cypress trees, a group of young people sitting in the bright sunshine of this splendid late summer day while the dark, thick plume of smoke was rising in the background.” By his reckoning, even though he had paused but for a moment and didn’t speak to anyone in the picture, Hoepker was concerned that the people in the photo “were not stirred” by the events at the World Trade Center — they “didn’t seem to care.” Hoepker published many images from that day, but he withheld this picture for over four years because, in his view, it “did not reflect at all what had transpired on that day.”

In 2006, the image was finally published in David Friend’s book, Watching the World Change. Frank Rich wrote a 9.11 fifth anniversary column in The New York Times, framed by the photo, which he called “shocking.” Continue reading

“It just feels better and safer to me”

FeelingsThe Sunday edition of The Los Angeles Times included a story about Bob Sears, an Orange County pediatrician who provides comfort to parents who doubt the efficacy of vaccinations for their children. Although he claims not to be an anti-vaxxer himself, about half of his patients forgo them entirely and he offers his own alternative and selective vaccination schedules to the others, which delay or eliminate a variety of immunizations that science strongly supports.

“We eliminated endemic measles in the U.S. in 2000. It’s now 2014 and we’re at 400 cases. Why?” Dr. Paul Offit, chief of infectious diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said in an interview in June (the number of cases has risen by another 50 percent since). “Because people listen to Bob Sears. And, frankly, I blame him far more than I do the Jenny McCarthys of this world. Because he’s a doctor. And he should know more.” As the Times reports, Sears and his ilk are having an impact. “California parents are choosing to forgo vaccinating their kindergarten-age children at twice the rate they did seven years ago, a fact public health experts said is contributing to the re-emergence of measles and could lead to outbreaks of other diseases.”

I was struck by the article’s concluding line, which was a quote from a mother anxious about vaccinations for her young children and apparently desperate for someone to tell her that delaying or avoiding them is okay. “It’s not really research-based,” she said. “It just feels better and safer to me.”

In life generally and in the investing world, avoiding the findings of careful research on account of “a feeling” is extremely dangerous business. We all tend to like to follow feelings, ideologies, herds and stories instead of good data. Doing so is in our nature. But if we want to maximize the likelihood of positive outcomes, we need to be data-driven at every level and all the time.