Thursday, October 31, 2013

Movies: The Counselor

(Drivebycuriosity) - A pact with the devil comes with high rewards, but the price is way too high. The mundane version of this is a business connection with the Mexican drug cartels. Many movies dealt with this vicious topic, for instance Oliver Stones`"Savages". "The Counselor", which is now running in US cinema theaters, is the newest incarnation of this genre (imdb).

Director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Cormac McCarthy tell the story of an attorney, the nameless counselor, who does business with the cartel, neglecting warnings about their viciousness. Soon things go awry and the counselor and other people are sliding into a deep mess.

Typically for this genre "The Counselor" is violent and sometimes enthralling. The plot (if you are in spoilers you can find a synopsis here wikipedia) leaves a lot of questions open, but the weaknesses are made up by fascinating dialogues. There are a lot of smart & philosophical lines, spiced with a bit kinkiness. The movie comes with some very cynical messages. Like them or not, you have at least to think about them.

I also enjoyed Dariusz Wolski`s cinematography, especially the contrast between the rough Wild West like scenery north and south of the Mexican border and some posh places in the civilization of the cities. 
But he main strength of the movie comes from a collection of interesting characters played by actors who belong to Hollywood`s cream.

Cameron Diaz had a memorable appearance as a delicious, but kinky and hyper-emancipated woman. (Btw. the 2 Cheetahs she went hunting with were gorgeous).
Javier Bardem delivered another awesome performance, this time with a philosophical funniness.
Michael Fassbender, as the "counselor", showed why he is one of the rising stars on Hollywood´s firmament. In this role he convincingly blended coolness with tragic.
The chameleon-like Brad Pitt extended his long line of remarkable supporting actor roles as wiseass crook.
Unfortunately, super-star No. 5, Penélope Cruz,  was a bit neglected by  the script.

Résumé: Ridley Scott again couldn't ´t catch up to his strokes of genius he had in the 1980s (Blade Runner & Alien) but the director served another passable piece. "The Counselor" can at least beat the average of the action thrillers these days.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Culture: Banksy - How Mediocre Is New York´s Street Art?

(Drivebycuriosity) - Recently there is a lot of ado around Banksy (theatlantic). This month the famous British street artist has been working on New York`s streets and places. Almost every day something from Banksy appeared in one of New York's five boroughs causing a lot of attention in the media.

This morning I spotted the newest work of the mysterious artist. I found this piece on a wall at Houston Street that belongs to the Rag & Bone fashion shop. In the recent years there have been a lot of different art works commissioned by the shop.

As you can see Banksy delivered a rat holding a board with the message:
"Mediocrity killed the rat - NYC"

One bystander told me this could be Banksy´s critique on the shop policy to have every "second week or so" some new street art on their wall. Maybe so. It also could be that Banksy liked to criticize New York´s street art in general. Many restaurants, bars and shops order street artists to put their work on their walls and doors. The quality of those pieces varies a lot of course. The question is whether Banksy´s own work escapes this alleged mediocrity. You may find your own judgement (here is a link to the artist´s website banksyny)

Anyway. I indulge in New York`s street art and enjoyed Banksy´s pieces I have seen so far. My favorite is an installation which has been at Ludlow Street close to the Rag & Bone piece.


Sunday, October 27, 2013

Culture: Lou Reed, R.I.P

(Drivebycuriosity) - I am sad. Some minutes ago I found out that Lou Reed passed away.

His songs have impressed, inspired and stimulated me for decades. His compositions stand for the kind of music I love and I have been fascinated by this icon for many years.

R.I.P Lou!

Stock Market: Why All-Time Highs Are Normal And There Is No Limit

(Drivebycuriosity) - Last week stock markets in the US and Germany climbed to new all-time highs. These records got a lot of attention in the media of course. The "Los Angeles Times" claimed that stocks rose "too much" amid "euphoria" (latimes).

I don`t agree. I think that all-time highs are normal and part of the nature of stock markets. In the long run stock prices HAVE to go up - there is no limit.

Since its inauguration in the year 1896 the Dow Jones, a gauge for the US stock market, has been rising annually at least 7% on average - in spite of all the recessions and crashes investors have suffered in this period. Considering the interest compound effect of an annual 7% gain means that stock prices double every 10 years or so (calculator).

In the long run stock prices are just reflecting the rise in  global wealth that has started in Europe & US during the industrial revolution in the late 18th and early 19th century. In the recent decades Asia & Latin America joined the party. Stock prices are rising faster than GDPs (incomes of nations) because they are accompanying the company profits. Company earnings are climbing faster than the GDPs because corporation are gaining efficiency - thanks to learning processes and technological progress - and are getting more productive over time. 

This is good news for investors with a long term time horizon, say 10 years and longer. This is especially encouraging for building up wealth for retirement which could be decades away.

Yes, there will be new corrections, crashes and sometimes recessions. But all those events are temporary and are followed by new highs as history shows. In October 1993 for instance, the Dow Jones stood at 3,600 points, and last Friday it closed at 15,700 points - even with two sharp recessions since then.

I claim that we are still in an early phase of a long term bull market that could be comparable to the stock market rally from 1982 till 2000 when the Dow Jones jumped from just 800 points to around 10,000 points. My claim is mainly based on three arguments:

1. Company profits will continue their solid growth. During the recessions of the years 2001/02 and in 2008 companies restructured and reduced costs significantly in order to survive. Now they are much fitter and more efficient than before. I believe that this learning process will continue and translates into a long term trend of rising company profits.

2. We are experiencing a new industrial revolution.  Advances in Internet, mobile computing, 3-d-printing, robotics, nano- & biotechnology and other fields are reducing costs, raising efficiency and creating new markets.

3. We also are having strong tailwinds from the emerging markets. The catching-up process in China, India and a lot of other countries translates into high growth in large parts of the global economy that creates continuously rising revenues & profits for global companies like Starbucks, IBM, Caterpillar and other members of the S&P 500.


Saturday, October 26, 2013

Street Art: Birth Of A Mural, Houston Street, New York

(Drivebycuriosity) - New York City is a mecca for connoisseurs of street art. At many public places you can find legions of murals, graffiti, stencils and other fascinating work.

One of the most important street art spots is on East Houston Street (across from the restaurant Pullino`s). There is a large wall which has been a canvas for huge murals for years. This point is traditionally a place of pilgrimage for photographers.

This week I have witnessed the birth of the newest mural on this famous wall. This time a street artist named  "Swoon" (real name Caledonia Dance Curry) displayed her mastery.  According to Wikipedia  (wikipedia) she specializes in life-size wheatpaste prints and paper cutouts of figures. You can find more of her works on her Facebook site (facebook) and on Flickr (flickr).

Swoon`s new Houston Street creation refers to Superstorm Sandy (October 2012 the Hurricane "Sandy" merged with a severe north-east storm. Amplified by a high-tide the event flooded parts of New York City and left thousands of New Yorkers for days without electricity).


Swoon was accompanied by at least a half dozen assistants who have been painting and glueing the large wall. The event attracted a lot of photographers and other bystanders.

Congratuations "Swoon", I take a lot of pleasure seeing your mural and hope to see more of your work.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Economy: What We Can Learn From U.K

(Drivebycuriosity) - U.K is back. The British Economy is growing again (businessweek): U.K. retail sales in September rose a higher-than-forecast 2.2% from a year earlier,  jobless claims in September fell the most in 16 years, as unemployment held at 7.7% and British factories reported strengthening domestic and export demand in the third quarter.

This morning we learned that the British economy grew 0.8% in the third quarter compared with the previous quarter (bloomberg). Growth could be heading for 5% year-over-year, according to Rob Wood, chief U.K. economist at Berenberg Bank" (/marginalrevolution).

What can we learn from the comeback of the British economy?

A. Every crisis has an end - and often sooner than the pessimists believe.

B. Austerity works. The growth spurt (Financial Times marginalrevolution ) shows that the British economy is now beginning to harvest the fruits of the massive public spending cuts. "With aggressive cuts in welfare programs and other spending, Britain has pared its budget deficit to 7.4% of GDP this year from 11% in 2010", writes BloomergBusinessweek.

Yes, Austerity is painful and very unpopular. But the spending cuts led to less government influence and less bureaucracy. Public organizations are less efficient than private companies and tend to waste money, hampering private initiative and economic growth. 

The British economy is now leaner and more efficient than before. Private enterprise gained more scope which animates more private investments. Money is used more efficiently leading to higher returns which is mirrored in the rekindled economic growth.

But some commentators are trying to turn these positive news into negative. BloombergBusinessweek laments "that growth in Britain had badly lagged the U.S., where enactment of a $787 billion budget stimulus package in 2009 sent budget deficits soaring" (businessweek).

I reckon that this comparison is unfair and wrong:

1. The US is getting massive tailwinds from the shale-gas boom there. The rising American oil production creates a lot of jobs and incomes and is flushing a lot of tax money into the government`s cash boxes.

2. The US economy is benefitting from Silicon Valley and other parts of the US technology  sector like Apple, Google and

3. The U.K economy is somewhat handicapped by the traditional close connections to the weak European neighbors (Italy, Spain, France).

Thursday, October 24, 2013

China Pessimism Bubble: Strong Numbers, Weak Stock Market - How Long Can This Go On?

(Drivebycuriosity) - This morning we learned that China´s economy is getting stronger. "China’s manufacturing strengthened more than anticipated this month, a sign the recovery is gaining momentum", writes Bloomberg (bloomberg). "The preliminary 50.9 reading for a Purchasing Managers’ Index released today by HSBC Holdings Plc and Markit Economics shows an acceleration compared to final reading from September (50.2). Readings above 50 indicate expansion".

But China´s stock market ignored the good news, as usual, and stocks dropped anyway. Today the Shanghai Composite Index, a benchmark for China`s stock market, declined 0.9%, the 3. negative day in a row. Bloomberg writes that the manufacturing report was overshadowed by concern that the government could tighten credit and clamp down further on the property market.

Last week the index lost 1.5% (minus 4.6% year to date), ignoring that China’s economy accelerated to an annual rate of 7.8% in the third quarter and industrial production advanced in September by 10.2 %,  while retail sales gained 13.3%.

This ignorance shows that China´ stock market is sticking in a pessimism bubble (driveby). The stock prices are reflecting the continuous pessimistic sentiment and not the fundamentals. China bashers like New York Times correspondent Paul Krugman and Jim Chanos, a hedge fund manager and notorious short seller, have been banging the "China crash drum" for years (driveby). Last week JP Morgan had cut China to underweight. According to the China crash callers, China is suffering from huge structural problems like too high debts and too huge investments into real estate which would cause a "hard landing" of the Chinese economy. The majority of fund managers and other professional portfolio managers seems to believe. 

But the pessimism bubble creates a huge opportunity for investors. As every bubble it has to pop sometime.  The gloomy sentiment has been depressing stock prices. I reckon that the extremely low valuation and the backlog compared to the US and European stock markets, which are close to all-timehigh, are an invitation to invest in Chinese stocks.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Movies: The Fifth Estate

(Drivebycuriosity) - Julian Assange is a controversial person. The Australian journalist turned his obsession with the secrets of others into a career as a hacker and started a global disclosure organization, called WikiLeaks. Their exposures have been imperiling the lives of informers and are supporting terrorist groups because they are giving them informations about countermeasures. Now Assange is hiding in the Ecuadorian embassy in London to evade an European Arrest Warrant against him because of an alleged rape.

The movie "The Fifth Estate" (imdb) shows Assange as a kind of religious leader and Wikileads as a cult. It is tedious to watch Assanges ego-trips and the almost fanatical obedience of his followers. The hectically and jittery dolly shots in many scenes make this worse. The film tries to be very cool, but it looks like a cheap European TV production, partly because of the cast, which consists predominantly of European TV actors, and partly because of the stereotype shots of Berlin´s party scene and similar pictures.

The talents of  Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays a marvelous Sherlock Holmes in the homonymous British TV series, are wasted. Stanley Tucci delivers some of the rare bright spots of the flick thanks to his humorous and balanced style.

"The Fifth Estate" is a disappointment.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Traveling: An Evening Boat Tour On The Chicago River

(Drivebycuriosity) - Traveler, if you go to Chicago you might enjoy a boat tour on the Chicago River. This is a is a system of rivers and canals that runs through the center of Chicago (wikipedia).

Last Sunday, shortly after our arrival at Chicago`s O`Hare Airport, my wife and I boarded the "The Chicago River Architecture Tour" with Wendella (wendellaboats), one of the companies that offer tours on the river (there are some competitors with similar tours). The boat ride started at 6.30 pm, around sunset.

The boat travelled through the center of the city and glided slowly  between the skyscrapers of downtown Chicago. I enjoyed the views of the more and more artificially illuminated buildings, the bridges and the streets and enjoyed the nightly beauty of the river´s environment.

The tour guide informed his audience about the history of the buildings we could see on the tour and the past of Chicago in general (wendella). We learned about the economic development of the Midwest metropolis and the impact of the great fire that destroyed downtown in the year 1871. We also were informed about the influences of several architects who have been shaping Chicago over the decades. The lecture was spiced by his funny anecdotes and other jokes.

The entertaining and educating river tour is highly recommended. Maybe someday we will come back to Chicago and take another trip on the river.

Friday, October 18, 2013

China Pessimism Bubble: Don´t Believe JP Morgan

(Drivebycuriosity) - This week China`s stock index (Shanghai Composite Index) dropped 1.5% (bloomberg). This is another evidence for the ongoing China pessimism bubble (driveby). On Wednesday JP Morgan had cut China to underweight (bloomberg). The US bank referred to an alleged "economic slowdown and potential policy disappointment from a Communist Party meeting in November".

The economic data don´t justify this pessimism, quite the contrary. Today we learned that China’s economy grew at an annual rate of 7.8% in the third quarter, accelerating from the second quarter's 7.5% increase (bloomberg). We also got news that China`s industrial production advanced in September by 10.2 %,  while retail sales gained 13.3%. There is no sign of any slowdown.

In spite of the solid growth economic China´s stock market is still down 3% year-to-date and around 30% below its temporary peak in July 2009. China bears like New York Times columnist Krugman and Jim Chanos, a hedge fund manager and notorious short seller, have been banging the "China crash drum" for years (driveby). JP Morgan´s downgrade is just the newest episode of this China bashing. The majority of fund managers and other professional portfolio managers seems still to believe the China bashers.

The China pessimism bubble is a chance for investors. I reckon that the low valuation and the backlog compared to US & European stock markets (S&P 500 on all-time high) are an invitation to invest in Chinese stocks.

Movies: Runner, Runner

(Drivebycuriosity) - Gambling is a gigantic business. No wonder that many try to rig this commerce.  The movie "Runner, Runner" tells the story of Richie a smart and tech savvy Princeton student (imdb).  Richie uses his Wall Street background to get rich with online gambling. He goes to Costa Rica and starts there a career in a global casino & online gambling empire, that is run by Ivan an inscrutable American entrepreneur. This relationship yields Richie a lot of Dollars, but comes with a price. Does Richie want to pay that?

"Runner, Runner" is a modern dodger tale set in a somewhat exotic country with the usual clichés about banana republics. It comes with the  usual twists and surprises and spiced with contained action & violence. The movie is primarily a vehicle for its leading actors: Justin Timberlake as Richie plays his typical role: A very easy going dude who conquers the world with brains & charm.  Ben Affleck, as counterpart Ivan, acts as known from him ("Argo", "The Town", "State of Play") as a soft spoken & reasonable guy even in the role of an outlaw. On the contrary the counterpart Gemma Arterton, as the usual trophy woman, is deplorable underemployed.

"Runner, Runner" works as a passable entertainment but will run soon out of my mind.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Traveling: Museum Of Contemporary Art, Chicago - It`s Fun Anyway

(Drivebycuriosity) - What makes it to art? This is the question I often ask myself when I spot contemporary art. Normally I don´t find an answer. But it is fun anyway.

Yesterday I visited the Museum Of Contemporary Art in Chicago (mcachicago). This is a fun place. There are a lot of interesting paintings and sculptures to explore, art or not.

I especially enjoyed the collection of photographies there. Those pictures are inspiring for me and a help for my further travails as an amateur photographer and blogger.

Here you can see my personal favorites from yesterday´s visit.


Culture: Street Art - The Chicago Section

(Drivebycuriosity) - I am a connoisseur of street art. When I am visiting a city I try to find murals, graffiti and stickers there.

Chicago, which my wife and I have seen in the recent days, has less to offer than New York City. It seems the city has a strict anti-graffiti policy. But there are exceptions of course.

The neighborhoods Wicker Park (wikipedia) and Bucktown in Chicago´s northwest remind me of Williamsburg, a neighborhood in the New York City borough of Brooklyn. There are a lot of old and abandoned factory buildings and storage depots which are now used by artists and are home to restaurants, bars and pubs. This environment seems to attract a lot of artists and other bohemians.

There we met Ken Aiken, one of the local artists who participated in the original Chicago Cow Parade. He was working on his cow sculpture which you can see here.

Street art rules.

Traveling: Art Institute Of Chicago - Something For Everybody

(Drivebycuriosity) - When I come to an unknown city I usually try to visit at least one museum there. Therefore I used my stay in Chicago to see some of the fine art collections of the Western metropolis.

The Art Institute of Chicago in the center of the city, which I saw last Tuesday, is worth the visit (

The museum hosts a nice variety of collections and offers something for everybody. As usual I picked just some tidbits according to my taste. Let the pictures speak for themselves.