Wealth and Happiness

By Todd Harrison  DEC 24, 2003 3:26 PM

The warmest of holiday wishes from our family to yours!


A little more than a year ago, I made a career decision. After yet another 20 hour day, I needed to steal a couple of winks between Bloomberg TV and the Asian market wrap. Sleep had become an after-thought, a nuisance, a necessary evil that interrupted my mission of finding the next best trade at the single best price. As I stood in front of my bathroom sink and brushed my teeth, I stared into my own eyes and came to a haunting and horrible realization. I no longer liked the man in the mirror. Somewhere along the line, during my pursuit of wealth, I forgot who I was and why we work in the first place. In a business where self worth and net worth are typically one and the same, a disturbing disconnect began to crystallize.

From a timing perspective, it seemed as good a time as any to regain control and find purpose in my life. After seven years at Morgan Stanley and three more with The Galleon Group, I had built a trading desk at Cramer, Berkowitz that I remain proud of to this day. There is a kinship in our profession, a camaraderie that exists when a team digs into the daily trenches and goes to war with the Street. It's ironic, I suppose, that the source of constant stress and sleepless nights is the very thrill that keeps us coming back for more. Regardless, and with a perspective forged from the events of the prior few years, I decided that it was time to move forward and chase my dream.

With the seeds of Minyanville and The Ruby Peck Foundation already planted, I began a small fund to trade my own money and that of a few investors. I had vast experience, a solid support system and aspirations to build something both unique and revolutionary. I was so determined to succeed that I failed to notice a very simple yet obvious fact. In my efforts to find a more balanced existence, I was working even harder than I had before. It became a strangely perverse year, one in which I learned a lot about the markets and even more about myself. I will share these insights and thoughts, looking back and moving forward, with  the hope that they add value at some level. After all, everyone makes mistakes--it's our ability to learn from them that creates lessons and wisdom.

I had serendipitously become grizzly when I began writing in 2000 and it turned out to be the call of a lifetime. I wrote my column and dutifully counseled readers and friends alike as they watched their life savings evaporate. It was a difficult period for most as the pain was pervasive and relentless. Fortunes were lost, families were destroyed, egos were shattered and the very fabric of American culture was challenged. Everyone knew we lived in a capitalistic society but few had ever witnessed the other side of the coin. It was a crash course in the course of a crash and it left an indelible impression on the mindset of the masses. I luckily navigated those times and could only offer words of encouragement. This past year, as I struggled with the minxy beast, I wasn't as fortunate. It was, by most accounts, a most trying journey for yours truly.

We entered 2003 prodding and probing for a market foothold. S&P 775 was a level that had been repeatedly tested and seemed destined to give way as our troops mobilized in the Middle East. Just as the shock and awe of a virtual war broadcast to the world, crude and gold crashed as the dollar and stocks spiked violently. Some explained the action as a sharp reversal of the prevailing trade that caught players leaning the wrong way. Others argued that equities, as the single biggest thermometer of American psychology, benefited from a coordinated effort. The structural forces (including Elmer squeezing the public back into equities with low money market rates) eventually triggered technical buyers which, in turn, improved psychology and trickled down to the bottom line. Granted, the base of comparison was exceedingly low but after three years of meltage, the rate of improvement was embraced en masse.

As the year progressed, the dollar cracked, crude grinded higher, gold exploded and equities, in a world unto themselves, continued to power ahead. I had an inclination late last year that 2003 would be a "counter-trend" (positive) year for stocks but the macro backdrop, formerly trusted trading guides and scandals anew pointed to a pullback (if not an outright reversal). I let myself get emotionally attached to that thesis without adapting to the market and, as I've often written, that's a killer. Forget the fact that I was (and remain) convinced that the "interim" rally was manufactured (for lack of a better word) and a result of the collective agenda. The signs were there--we breached resistance after resistance on good volume, strong breadth and positive momentum. A basic tenet of trading is the juxtaposition of your time horizon and risk profile. Big picture thoughts have no place in day-to-day trading and active traders have no business hypothesizing on the big picture.

I often opine that if we don't stay humble in our business, the market will do it for us. I was humble--or so I thought--but I'm even more so after another year of battle. I have little (if any) doubt that the big picture thesis I've subscribed to for the past four years remains in play. The one truism of a bear market--the constant thread that can't be denied--is that nobody makes money. That doesn't necessarily mean everyone suffers at once. More likely than not, it's a vicious cycle of trap doors, false hope, empty promises and harsh lessons. They got the bulls for three years, now it's bear season. Mark my words, the crosshairs will shift back to the bovine before long.

As we eye the new year, there remains a seemingly impervious bid to the market. The major indices have broken out anew, the structural forces (and electoral agendas) remain firmly in tact and the return of momentum investing has the (remaining) bears on the run. We've lived through one bubble and witnessed first hand how nutty things can get. With my newfound lessons in tow, I humbly respect the ability of this beast to feed on itself and fend off exhaustion until such time as she runs out of gas. When she does, I fear that the once salient lessons--the very lessons we promised ourselves we'd never forget--will come back to haunt us. Bubble me once, shame on you. Bubble me twice, shame on us all.

The Fed, in my opinion, has been buying time (and who knows what else) in an effort to sustain a self-fulfilling recovery. The ramifications have already began to emerge as the continual printing of dollars has eroded the value of the once precious greenback. While most are assuming a normalized recovery cycle, it's myopic to believe that the biggest bubble in history is "three and out" (especially with everyone already on board the Hoofy express). I've yet to wrap my arms around whether it'll be cancer or a car crash but, taking a step back, all of the historical warning signs are there. Massive complacency, record insider selling, lofty (peakish) valuations, leveraged holders, a maze of debt and derivatives, a housing bubble (yes), rising commodity prices, increased global risk and an eerily familiar bravado from the bulls will all seem obvious with the benefit of hindsight. As long as the screens are green, however, chances are that investors will ignore the risk and chase rewards.

Our goal in Minyanville has never been to offer advice or tell you what to do. Quite the contrary, we aim to provide perspective and provoke thought. While our focus is currently on the market and its risks and rewards, 2004 will begin our foray into additional educational arenas. We want to build a learning ladder from pre-school to old school--from the ABC's to the 401Ks--and provide families with three generations of content and a common ground for growth. You'll see the first steps in that direction in February as we roll out the elementary school (basic lessons), University (archived and sorted financial content), Minyanwood (Critters Choice Awards), Town Hall (administrative), Buzz&Banter (active trading Minyans) and a host of new writers and site modifications. The critters want to make a difference and, with your help, they will.

In many ways, this past year was a stunning success. Through The Ruby Peck Foundation for Children's Education, we've raised money for Jacob's Cure, Reading Rainbow, The East Harlem Tutorial Program, the Hollywood Education and Literacy Project (H.E.L.P.), the MENTOR/Los Angeles Mentoring Partnership and Little Kids Rock. My grandfather Ruby was my very best friend and I know that he's giving us his patented wink from above. In 2004, through the Critters Choice Awards, we plan on taking our charitable efforts to an entirely new level.

For me, this coming year offers a new beginning and a chance at redemption. Not in the market--trading should never be a personal vendetta--but in the way I live my life. I have had the good fortune of a loving family and loyal friends but I've often taken them for granted. When you devote yourself to a cause--be it trading, education, philanthropy (or all three)--something has to give and that something is usually time. Ruby used to say that time is the most precious of commodities and, as usual, he hit the nail on the head. I don't want to remember this coming year for financial gain or personal achievement, I want to remember it as one in which I was a good son, brother, friend and person. Everything else is gravy.

I will be spending the holidays sharing some face time with my father in an effort to practice what I preach. As such, please let me take this opportunity to personally thank my fellow Minyans for the friendship and support during the past year. I sincerely hope that it was a prosperous one for you and that, regardless of the bottom line, you remember that true profitability lies within. It's easier said than done--this I know-- but it's never to late to start. The goal is to enjoy the journey and appreciate each step of the way. For by the time we reach our destination, the game will have already ended.

May peace be with you.
No positions in stocks mentioned.