Page Index
October - December 2008
October 7, 2008
First off, yes - it's a new kitchen counter, in a new town. On
it lies evidence of an experience everyone should enjoy once
in their lives.
Once. Most guys would simply ask a favor of
friends or family to retrieve a pickup truck at his weekend
residence in the city of Chicago. But not me, the model of
self-sufficiency. I just had to have my beloved GMC Sonoma
here with me in Rockford. Now.

Travel options from Rockford to downtown Chicago are
somewhat limited. Greyhound was my $20 solution, and it
required a certain mindset to pull it off.  A few years of
random bus rides throughout Chicago proved that CTA bus
people are an odd lot. I expected nothing less from
Greyhound bus people.
I got pretty much what I expected. Most of the riders had
originated from somewhere besides Rockford and were on
their way to various destinations. Like most bus people,
they rarely acknowledged their surroundings. The most
interesting person on the bus was a guy two rows in front
of me reading
Hoard's Dairyman magazine. Had to be a
feed salesman.

The bus stopped in Elgin, then the Cumberland transit
station near O'Hare airport. I hopped on the Blue Line, just
like old times, and made my way to my condo (it's for
sale...inquire within). Mission accomplished.
November 3, 2008
Here's a sign your banking institution has some issues - not
necessarily financial issues,
per se, but...issues. You may
have read about National City Bank and its
loss of about
90% of its market value within a period of approximately 15
months, as well as its
pending sale to PNC Bank, with said
PNC bank using most of its $7.7 billion share of the U.S.

Government's $700 billion financial bailout money to buy
National City. That there are some financial issues.

What we have here is an issue that falls into a category
called
Utter Lack of Common Sense. Back in February, I
discussed a method of
changing one's demographic from a
30-something guy to a 65 year old retiree. Thanks to Harris
Bank, my own demographic was changed in this way after I
opened a couple of depository accounts when I began my
employment with that fine financial institution several years
ago. Harris promptly sold my personal information and that
of my father (he was the beneficiary of one of the accounts
I opened) to the highest bidder. Sometimes the mass
marketing companies got me mixed up with my dad. I'd find
AARP solicitations in my mailbox, addressed to me, as well
as tempting offers from
The Scooter Store and various
supplemental Medicare insurance companies. I grew to enjoy
my alter ego as a retired dude. Sometimes I drove no faster
than the speed limit and left on my turn signals for miles at
a time. I took longer, more frequent bathroom breaks. I
began using my blender to grind up food that was pretty
soft to begin with. When I moved to Rockford, though, the
senior solicitations ended.

Until now.

Today I received an offer from National City Bank to open
what appears to be a standard free checking account.
Nothing unusual - except my dad's name and my Rockford
address are on the envelope. Once again, Harris sold my
personal information, this time after I notified them of my
change in address (I still have an account there). Here's
where Utter Lack of Common Sense comes into play:
they
sold my personal information to a competitor
. Granted, it's
a pretty marginal competitor, but...really?
November 29, 2008
Here's what's been on my Chicago kitchen counter for the
past 2 months. Yep, the condo is still
for sale. And what a
great time to sell a property. If you ever had any doubt that
we live in a faith-based economy, doubt no more. When
people start believing things are bad, they will be. Last
week's housing numbers for October showed the lowest
number of home sales in the city of Chicago since the early
1990's, which was about the same time I graduated with
honors from the University of Illinois with no job offers. The
auto industry recorded similarly poor results in October. It's
ugly out there, folks.
December 2, 2008
Early into my 10-year career as a corporate banker, I
decided it was time to learn more about the origins and inner
workings of our financial markets. A history lesson, of sorts,
was in order. And what better way to learn, than to read
about the various financial debacles that made headlines
when I was a kid.
Den of Thieves was a pretty good primer
on 1980's insider trading, the rise of junk bonds as a way
for companies to raise capital, and the Savings & Loan crisis.
I moved on to
Monkey Business, which taught me all I ever
wanted to know about investment banking.
Barbarians at
the Gate told the story of how to buy a Fortune 500
company using massive quantities of debt.

The above two books, however, have always been my
personal favorites.
Liar's Poker is Michael Lewis' account of
his four years in the mid-1980's at Solomon Brothers, which
at the time was one of the best bond trading firms on Wall
Street.
When Genius Failed told the story of a group of
seriously intelligent guys (some had won Nobel prizes) who
came up with a great idea to make a bunch of money in the
early 1990's and, well, the book's title pretty much says how
that all turned out.

What makes these books most interesting, aside from the
financial history lessons, is that they keep being written.
Over....and over....and over again. I didn't bother reading
any of the books about Enron-type scandals, nor will I
spend much time on what will surely be an endless release of
hardcovers delving into the sub-prime lending meltdown,
because it's the same story: a few smart guys come up with
a great idea to make themselves lots of money, they're
eventually exposed as frauds, the companies they work for
blow up, shareholders lose everything, CEO's are paraded in
front of congress, some serve jail time, and 5 years later,
rinse and repeat.

These 5-year cycles have been well documented since the
1980's. But try locating a book similar to those I've listed
above, published between the time of the Great Depression
and the start of the Reagan years...go ahead, try. It's tough
to find any financial scandals over the course of those five
decades that required more than 2 pages to describe. The
reason for this lies in a little something the investment
bankers like to call Financial Innovation.

Investment bankers, by nature, are salesmen. They sell
ideas, and financially innovative ones sell best. Before the
1980's came along, government regulation kept those ideas
within a compact set of parameters. But over time, the
salesmen sold the ultimate idea: legislate the idea-stifling
regulation out of existence. It worked, fantastically. For a
solid 25 years, investment bankers dreamed up financial
ideas that hadn't been possible since the 1920's. Huge fees
were generated from these ideas. Derivatives, junk bonds,
commodity trading, equity research, you name it. If a
scandal was associated with it, Financial Innovation was
there.

Michael Lewis wrote Liar's Poker with the idea that he was
documenting the end of days for the ridiculousness of
investment banks. And it was pretty friggin' ridiculous. At
my former employer, we routinely handed out six-figure
incomes to 23-year-olds and only asked them for 90 hours a
week designing PowerPoint presentations. Moderately
experienced investment bankers were lured away from big
Wall Street firms with 3-year contracts guarantying a cool
$500,000 paycheck each year. Youngsters fresh out of our
training program were given corporate credit cards and, on
each night they stayed in the office past 7:00, were
reimbursed for dinner and for $90 cab rides to their parents'
houses in the suburbs. Needless to say, they all stayed past
7:00 whether they were working on anything or not.
Every...single...night.

Turns out Lewis' end of days prediction was still a couple
decades off, but eventually the various financial innovations
related to sub-prime mortgage lending would bring us to
where we are today: a time when being a buyer of real
estate is much more fun than being a seller.

Follow-up note: after you read Liars Poker, check out an
article Michael Lewis wrote shortly after the financial markets
crashed in 2008. Very interesting reading, from a guy I'm
not ashamed to admit is my favorite author.
December 27, 2008
Here lies the final remnants of employment termination.
Inside this envelope is one last "goodbye" payment to make
nice for the events of June 25th, 2008. It's easy to offer up
overused, safe-sounding words for losing a job as part of a
planned staff reduction, but when the guy in the cubicle next
yourself fired. It actually worked out pretty well, all things
considered. If you're going to get canned from your job,
here's how I would recommend doing it:

  1. Get fired during the first week of summer. Race your
    dirt bike. Ride your bicycle across Iowa. Bask in
    afternoon sunshine on your deck with a cold Pacifico.
  2. Be sure to be unemployed for at least 3 months.
    That's about the minimum time needed away from
    work to figure out why you chose your profession in
    the first place.
  3. Find a new job before the financial markets implode.
  4. Live some, learn some.

I learned there's a whole subset of people roaming around
my neighborhood that I never would have known about (like
Crazy Fur Coat Lady and that guy with the shockingly large
head), if not for being out and about during weekdays
instead of nights and weekends. I turned on Comcast's
cable radio and discovered Bluegrass, Latin R&B/Hip Hop,
and some long forgotten old school Rap (remember Kool

Moe Dee?). I got to know my condo neighbors better.

But most of all, I remembered what I like about what I do for
a living. And I found that again.
December 31, 2008
Something wondrous happened in 2008. Something truly
fantastic.

I did not play golf.

The whole year, not a single swing of the driver. This hadn't
occurred since I began my banking career shortly after college.
At least once a year during the previous fifteen, I'd lugged my
Walmart clubs to golf courses in random towns across the
country for the sole purpose of entertaining my clients.

Ankeny, Iowa.

Owatonna, Minnesota.

Elkhorn, Nebraska.

Golf purists would say that all the courses I played during
those years were distinctly special in their own way, but they
all looked the same to me. I know my golfing days are far from
over, but for one glorious year - 2008 - my clubs never left
the bag. Best year ever.