Technology Investor 

Harry Newton's In Search of The Perfect Investment Newton's In Search Of The Perfect Investment. Technology Investor.

Previous Columns
8:30 AM EST, Friday, April 6: Take some money home. Take enough home so you can live on the average 10% each year you might earn in a mix of conservative index funds and conservative hedge funds, i.e. one which don't use leverage. I used to think it made sense to have more money in bonds as you got older. But, bonds make little sense, given the returns available long-term from equities and equity funds chosen intelligently and conservatively.

Mercedes' great investment: Daimler (i.e. Mercedes) bought Chrysler for $35 billion in 1988. Kirk Kerkorian has now offered to buy it for $4.5 billion in cash. Before his offer, Wall Street figured Daimler might get between nothing (give it away so long as someone else takes the liabilities) to between $5 billion and $7 billion. If Daimler sells it to Kerkorian. That means they will have lost 87% on that deal. I figure that's in line with what the company which bought my business has enjoyed also.

The problem with mergers and acquisitions is most don't work. There are two reasons:

1. Radically different management cultures. There's a huge difference between Mercedes and Chrysler. There's a huge difference between entrepreneurial Harry's business and the staid English public company that bought my business.

2. Huge changes in the business environment. In Chrysler's case, Americans have recently preferred fuel-efficient cars. Chrysler stayed with gas gusslers. And Mercedes forgot that Chrysler was no Mercedes. Chrysler didn't have the Mercedes brand. In my case, print died. Advertising of technology products switched to the web. There were ways of boosting revenues, but you have to be entrepreneurial. My buyer wasn't. They bought and sold media assets, a vastly different business to managing them.

The genius of Buffett. What faces the newspaper business? Writes Warren Buffett in his latest Berkshire Hathaway annual report (and quoted yesterday in the Wall Street Journal):

The economic potential of a newspaper Internet site -- given the many alternative sources of information and entertainment that are free and only a click away -- is at best a small fraction of that existing in the past for a print newspaper facing no competition. We are likely therefore to see non-economic individual buyers of newspapers emerge, just as we have seen such buyers acquire major sports franchises.

What he means is rich people buying newspapers (and magazines) as playthings. Hence Sam Zell bidding for the Tribune.

Always expect the unexpected: I've written about the unpredictability of predicting, and how diversification is the most potent weapon against unpredictability. This neat piece from the latest issue of Wired magazine:

From Wall Street to Washington we're constantly being told that the future can be forecast, that the world is knowable and that the risk can be measured and managed. Nassim Nicholas Taleb is having none of this. In his new book The Black Swan, the finance guru and author of the surprise hit, Fooled by Randomness argues that history is dominated not by the predictable but by the highly improbable - disruptive, unforeseeable events that Taleb calls Black Swans. The effects of wars, market crashes and radical technological innovations are magnified precisely because they confound our expectations of the universe as an orderly place. In a world of Black Swans, the first step is understanding just how much we will never understand. -- James Surowiecki.

Wired: If Black Swans are the crucial determining events in history, why do we think we can predict anything at all?

Taleb: After they happen, in retrospect, we think that Black Swans were predictable. We think that if we can explain why something happened in the past, we can explain what will happen in the future.

But with better models and more computational power, won't we get better at predicting Black Swans?

We know from chaos theory that even if you had a perfect model of the world, you'd need infinite precision in order to predict future events. With sociopolitical or economic phenomena, we don't have anything like that. And things are getting worse, not better, because of the growing complexity of the world dwarfs any improvement in sophistication or computational power.

So what do we do? If we can't forecast the really important things, how do we act?

You need to ask, "If the Black Swan hits me, will it help me or hurt me?" You cannot figure out the probability of a Black Swan hitting. But if you're in a business that's prone to negative Black Swans, like catastrophe insurance, I advise you not to take your forecasting seriously -- and to think about getting into a different business. You don't want to be a sucker. What you want are situations where you can have as much of the good uncertainty as possible, where nothing too bad can happen to you, and where you what I call free options. All of technology, really, is about maximizing free options. It's like venture capital. Most of the money you make is from things you weren't looking for. But you find them only if you search.

Is one of the strengths of the American system that, relatively speaking, it's more comfortable with uncertainty?

Yes. People here aren't afraid of failure. They're willing to trade the possibility of failure for the chance at a big upside. No other country is willing to do this. What America does best is produce the ability accept failure.

More than two million documents will be lost by the IRS this year. That means yours will also. Then you'll be hit with penalties and withholding tax and all sorts of horrible and nasty things. The IRS will ask for your docs again, and again. You can send your docs in by certified, return receipt, by FedEx, by DHL.... You can also drop your forms off at an IRS and have them rubber stamp each page, "Received." But nothing will do you any good until they have your return in hand and have processed it. Think glacial.

My son caught me feeding Winnie (his dog) this morning. I gave her the remains of my morning cereal. I'm forbidden to give her table food.

Winnie, begging for food, as usual.

My son was not pleased. He quipped, "There are no bad dogs, only bad owners."

The last golf joke
Last winter Fred met a woman while on vacation in the Keys and fell madly in love with her. On the last night of his vacation, the two of them went to dinner at the Ocean View and had a serious talk about how they would continue the relationship.

"It's only fair to warn you, I'm a total golf nut," Fred said to his lady friend. "I eat, sleep and breathe golf, so if that's a problem, you'd better say so now."

"Well, if we're being honest with each other, here goes," she replied. "I'm a hooker."

"I see," Fred replied, and was quiet for a moment. Then he said, "You know, it's probably because you're not keeping your wrists straight when you tee off."

The Irish Candle
Mrs. Donovan was walking down O'Connell Street in Dublin when she met up with Father Flaherty. The Father said, "Top o' the mornin' to ye! Aren't ye Mrs. Donovan and didn't I marry ye and yer husband two years ago?"

She replied, "Aye, that ye did, Father."

The Father asked, "And be there any wee little ones yet?"

She replied, "No, not yet, Father."

The Father said, "Well now, I'm going to Rome next week and I'll light a candle for ye and yer husband."

She replied, "Oh, thank ye, Father." They then parted ways.

Some years later they met again. The Father asked, "Well now, Mrs. Donovan, how are ye these days?"

She replied, "Oh, very well, Father!"

The Father asked, "And tell me, have ye any wee ones yet?"

She replied, "Oh yes, Father! Three sets of twins and 4 singles, 10 in all."

The Father said, "That's wonderful! How is yer loving husband doing?"

She replied, "E's gone to Rome to blow out yer candle!"

The Sun City Prenuptial Agreement
An elderly couple in their 80s were to marry. .

She: I want to keep my house.

He: That's fine with me.

She: And I want to keep my Cadillac.

He: That's fine with me.

She: And I want to have sex 6 times a week.

He: That's fine with me...Put me down for Fridays..

This column is about my personal search for the perfect investment. I don't give investment advice. For that you have to be registered with regulatory authorities, which I am not. I am a reporter and an investor. I make my daily column -- Monday through Friday -- freely available for three reasons: Writing is good for sorting things out in my brain. Second, the column is research for a book I'm writing called "In Search of the Perfect Investment." Third, I encourage my readers to send me their ideas, concerns and experiences. That way we can all learn together. My email address is . You can't click on my email address. You have to re-type it . This protects me from software scanning the Internet for email addresses to spam. I have no role in choosing the Google ads. Thus I cannot endorse any, though some look mighty interesting. If you click on a link, Google may send me money. Please note I'm not suggesting you do. That money, if there is any, may help pay Claire's law school tuition. Read more about Google AdSense, click here and here.
Go back.