At the Intersection of Christmas, Technology and Finance

Lower Lights NoelNow I suppose by the title I could be talking about how Amazon has taken over Christmas and destroyed my family finances, but for a brief second I want to turn away from that smiling Cheshire Box.

One of my favorite Christmas Hymns/Carols is one that I discovered only recently. Part of the inheritance from my brother was his massive collection of Christmas CD’s. After digitizing them all I guess I picked up that tradition. This year’s addition was the new Christmas album from the Lower Lights. The new one is much like the one from a couple of years ago and if you like folk-y/acoustic settings of what I call the non-staple carols it is pretty. And you can pat yourself on the back for avoiding one more rendition of “Santa Baby”. Their version of The Holy and The Ivy, a song I never appreciated, has been on repeat recently. But their first Album included a Christmas Hymn that I had never heard that just melts my heart.

The Carol is Stars of Glory . It appears to have found a place in hymnals in around the turn of the last century but then been dropped by newer hymnal committees. I can understand why. It centers around the angels’ anthem which is well represented already by Hark the Herold Angels Sing and Angels We Have Heard on High which are both bright and cheery. And you then go into the second tier or denomination specific such as It Came upon the Midnight Clear or Angels from the Realms of Glory. There really isn’t room for an angel song that is somewhat introspective. We like our angels loud and glorious. But the first verse of Stars of Glory invites us to consider what is of true worth and to whom it is given.

Stars of glory, shine more brightly,
Purer be the moon-light’s beam,
Glide ye hours and moments lightly,
Swiftly down times deepening stream,
Bring the hour that banished sadness,
Brought redemption down to earth,
When the shepherds heard with gladness
Tidings of a Saviour’s birth.

The stars, the angels, as the gospel according to Matthew is fond of using, say “look here”. The hours and moments swell in time’s deepening stream. A stream that can seem to overwhelm us. Yet here is the hour, “look”, here is the moment of true worth.

Technology and the web have been about the stream. Our facebook feeds, our twitter lists, our blog pages and tumblr’s – all of them are newest first scrolling off the page in the endless stream. And the type-A personality is stuck with the FOMO (fear of missing out). Hence all the pictures of 20-somethings staring at their phones. It is all stream and no “look” at this moment. Here is Alex Madrigal in the Atlantic thinking about “the end of the stream”. The technologists are figuring out how to say “look”. He quotes a theory dating from 2010 (ancient!) about the flow and the stock. Which translated into a different language is the income statement/cash flow statement and the balance sheet. The income statement and the cash flow statement are two ways finance takes a snapshot of the flow. The balance sheet is “time’s deepening stream”. It is the stock. Balance sheets are often full of things that someone once said “look” but now we don’t know why. It is just there as a stock and a mystery for those interested. “$200 bequeathed in the name of Someone we might not recognize”.

For some reason God chose to send the angels to shepherds. He said “look, here is a moment not to miss, a moment to ponder and rejoice” in a way that would seem destined not to go viral. I mean how many followers or friends could a few smelly shepherds have? Time rolls on. The stream deepens. But God marked that moment with Shepherds and Angels.

See the shepherds quickly rising,
Hastening to the humble stall,
And the new-born Infant prizing,
As the mighty Lord of all,
Lowly now they bend before Him
In His helpless infant state,
Firmly, faithful they adore Him
And His greatness celebrate,

The lowly, the humble receive the message, from the great. The helpless infant is the mighty Lord of all. The virgin brings Him forth in a stall where he is worshiped. The church is the collection, the stock, the saint of all times and all places, who have “looked”. The flow, started by this child, the alpha of creation, also finds its fulfillment, the omega, in this child. Firmly, faithful they adore Him. Sometimes the flow can overwhelm. But God has sent his angels in strange places saying “look”. And he promises to gather, to keep stock. When we are lost in the stream, God remembers and gathers. The Spirit does not forget time’s deepening stream but guides it along its appointed route.

Getting Added to the Dow

If they hear about the stock market at all, most people hear the quote of the Dow – the Dow Jones Industrial Average – which is a straight-up average of 30 representative stocks. Nobody would make such a composite today. The S&P 500 is a weighted average which means the bigger companies get more weight. Also 500 stocks are more representative than 30. But those two averages correspond something like 99% of the time, so the Dow isn’t as bad as all that. Every now and then the components of the Dow get changed. A dowdy company, like this year’s Bank of America, or just plain daft ones, like Bethlehem Steel or Kodak, that lost their way and are no longer icons – they get unceremoniously dropped. And new behemoths of American greatness get added.

Here is the WSJ on the most recent round with a great little interactive chart of the subtractions and additions over the last three decades. This year, being let go are Alcoa, HP and Bank of America. The tech-phase is over. The Dow still contains: Cisco, Intel, IBM and Microsoft. HP? Sorry, just a second tier maker of declining gadgets. Of course looking at those 4 remaining techs, how long until Microsoft gets the boot? Alcoa is somewhat surprising, but I guess the Dow said Exxon Mobil is enough of raw materials for 30 companies. When Charles Dow put together his first list of 12 companies, 11 of 12 were in or close to the extraction and delivery business. GE was the only one that might have been a step away, but back then, it was about lighting and wires, so still rather close. The changes a century brings. And poor BoA; always a bridesmaid and never a bride. Well, they used to be groom I guess when they were gobbling up smaller banks, but you can’t help but smirk at the Wall Street sneer as they kick the country bumpkin bank out to add Goldman Sachs. I’m pretty sure that GS is the modern day incarnation of the whore of Babylon (Rev 17:5), but they do it with such NY style. Even the Devil gets his due. When St. John saw the great whore – even he marveled (Rev 17:6). Not last, at least by the name of the winged goddess victory, Nike. The old fairy tale of the cobbler and elves has the elves making such great shoes that the cobbler becomes rich. And he repays the elves with some new clothes. Does Nike at least give some nice clothes to their sweat shops? Probably not, because Nike is not sold on the quality of the shoes which wear out in about 1 year. The secret Nike elves are at work on Madison avenue turning a $2 item into something gang-bangers will kill over. And everyone knows that the MadMen are snappy dressers.

So what does a Pastor have doing commenting on the Dow? Well, I wasn’t always a pastor and the MBA in me still likes this stuff. But I guess I would say something similar to why did St. Paul use so many sports analogies (run the race, the winners crown, train the body, and more)? How we work and how we play are jumping off points to talk the spiritual life. Paul pointed at the best, the winners of the race, and said they all do the training but only one gets the crown. (1 Cor 9:24-25) They do that for something that perishes. Shouldn’t we likewise run for the imperishable? Those Dow companies work quarter by quarter, “to make the quarter” a common phrase, just to go back and do it again. And the crown is some cash and a moments notice. The gold-watches went away a long time ago. They build statues in front of buildings, that 20 years from now, if they are not Woolworth (dumped from the Dow in 1997), the people entering will pause a second and ask “Who was Thomas Watson?” In the Spiritual life our names are added to the Book of Life. We are waiting for the revealing of the eternal weight of glory and not a bronze statue. And in the case of Goldman Sachs – Jesus did say something about learning that when in the midst of wolves be as wise as serpents. (Matt 10:16).

The Old Chartist Finance Geek

My life used to revolve around putting together the one chart that either explained it all or often even better that asked the right question. I still love charts and the financial press, but it has been a while since I’ve seen a chart like this. The mind wonders. The labor force has been contracting since 2008, but that contraction has not come from the retirement of the Baby Boom. It has come from declines in every age cohort age 55 and below.



A New Business – Surprising Crossovers

Andrew Sullivan trying to go it alone as a blogger is the type of story that hits almost all of the parsons curiosity zones. First, there is a great business case drive story. Can someone who has something to say actually make a living saying it? Felix Salmon runs down some of those numbers. Within the LCMS (although he wouldn’t say it is just the LCMS), Pastor Todd Wilken was forced to do something very similar when the synod axed his radio program. Wilken runs a smaller scale, but the decisions that Sullivan will have to make are the story: mission vs. staff, salary and perks. Same decisions that every small business owner in America must make, but being made by someone who can tell the story and has a built in audience. Tyler Cowen comments, and his comment stream always worth a browse is as caustic and hyper-critical as expected.

That basically covers the finance and business curiosity, but as with the mention of Pr. Wilken, this also hits my theological and social curiosity. Why? Sullivan drifted off my list of consistent reads a short time into his stint at the Daily Beast. The man who understood conservative principles (even if not living by them) got consumed under a standard issue member of the chattering class. I think the pressure of making payroll along with not trying to please Tina Brown anymore might allow/force some of that older Sully to return. The new creatives, long allowed to live exempt from the laws of reality because of OPM (other people’s money), in Sullivan will confront having to make it themselves. A social change notorious for bringing out the Andrew Mellon/Alexander Hamilton in all of us.

That leaves theological curiosity, why theological? Well, a church and a popular blog have a bunch of similarities and one giant difference. All popular blog writers refer to their blogs as communities. Those communities will follow the writer from platform to platform. All of that takes place in the virtual world, but that is not the big difference I’m thinking of. Many congregations in the United States follow the same strategy as a blog. Find one interesting voice. Create a platform to attract as many curiosity seekers as possible. Get a small amount of revenue from each low commitment person while relying on a core of rabid fans to build the hype and “work the mission”. Sullivan is starting a mega-church. The big difference I think is the look at what is in the center. That is easy to identify with a blog – the blogger or Sullivan. In a mega-church? How many mega-churches to you know that have a crucifix front and center? And I mean a crucifix and not a cross, something with the Good Friday corpus. An independent Sullivan community allows one to ask the question, what is the difference between The Dish and Willow Creek or Community Church? Who is at the center?

Sanctified Freedom or how finance is a great school of the law

Biblical Text: John 17:11-19
Full Text – note, I deviated more from this text than I typically do.

Here is the question you need to ask yourself – are we bound creatures needing freedom, or largely free creatures needing strict guidelines?

How you answer that question will determine how you hear (or don’t hear) the gospel.

The stories come from the papers and the world of finance. The bottom line, the fact that everything can be reduced to a number and measured, and the relentless pressure to turn in a specific number drive home the lessons of the law and how we are all bound to unobtainable expectations. Only in Christ by the power of the Spirit are we free to produce real fruit.

Monday Afternoon Quarterbacking…

Monday is my day off, so other than errands – like hauling 38 lbs of cat litter and patching the latest David “oops” in the wall – I tend to catch up on my reading of a more secular sort.

This little article is a list of easy subtle genius. Yes, Mark Cuban, the load-mouth owner of the Dallas Mavericks, walks around in t-shirts and projects an image of doofus. But really, if you managed to sell your 3rd rate internet start-up at the top of the bubble for a couple of billion, wouldn’t you do the same thing? They don’t call it “walk away (in place of a not safe for family word) money” for nothing. Every time I’ve seen an interview with him or read something by Mr. Cuban, I’ve gone wow! that man gets it in a profound way. Only in such a strange age could practical wisdom like this be labeled as outrageous and never have a chance of happening.

Cuban’s 4 proposals to Occupy Wall Street. (If they weren’t too busy just causing a mess they’d take up this list in its entirety as as their currently non-existent platform. By the way, the current president lacking anything else to run on might promise these things and it would be real hard to vote against.)
1. Make share ownership mean something at the governance level. (i.e. no more enriching CEOs “in the best interests of the shareholders”). This is the toughest and least practical, but also the place for “community-organizers” who could do a lot more here than in a park in NYC. You’d only need to do it at the margin, get everyone on the left to buy one share in say Exxon Mobil and vote that share for shareholder movements would put the fear of God into a bunch of companies.
2. Make all financial companies partnerships. [A long time ago in a galaxy far away (about 12 years) that used to be the case. This is the ultimate way to end too big to fail and playing with other people’s money at the same time. Partnerships risk their own money and are limited in leverage by what others will loan them. If they go down, like Cuban says, the former 1% quickly become part of the 99%. They just won’t get that large and they will focus on real opportunities instead of seeking rents gaming the system.]
3. Limit student loans to $2,000 per year. [Go look at the teaching load of the University of Texas System or the growth of “administration” and tell me where the ever increasing financial aid has gone. Government backed non-bankruptable student loans are not a help designed for students.]
4. A per-share tax on trading. [Very easy way to eliminate trading focused on only short term advantage and “gaming the system” instead of financing and building good companies.]

Basically the sum of those things would add accountability to the system and adjust marginal costs just enough to push people into creating stuff instead of trying to game the system for an outsized share of the same pie.

Links – Transparency, Church Finance and being in the loop

A few quick links.

Synagogues and churches are quite different, and not just in their view of the that guy from Nazareth. This talks about how they are financed.

And here is an article on probably the major line item in each of those church budgets, the rabbi/minister. I could have a few gripes, but transparency is a virtue.

Gordon Atkinson on the dangers of the sermon to your soul.

And a profound piece of wisdom that should probably be given to every graduate or heroically ambitious person in your life.