Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Changing Times, Aspen, and the Beta (β) Billionaires

Our story begins with the US Army’s 10th Mountain Division. Influenced by the 1939 success of Finnish troops in warfare against invading Soviet units and by concern over escalating hostilities across Europe, the Army turned their attention to the status of military preparedness for winter warfare.

The US created the Mountain Training Center at Camp Carson, Colorado, but a national search for a suitable location for winter / mountain training led to the development of a site in the Rocky Mountains close to Leadville, Colorado. That became Camp Hale, and the 10th Mountain Division became the alpine combat arm of the US military.

These soldiers learned to fight on snow and were a part of the Infantry in World War II. These soldiers trained to fight and survive under the most brutal mountain conditions, fighting with skis and snowshoes, and sleeping in the snow without tents. After the war, many of these outdoor types returned to Colorado and the Ft. Hale area. The returning soldiers and skiers were instrumental in the development of the ski industry in the former mining towns of Aspen and Vail and elsewhere in Colorado.

Times were different back then. Skis were long and made of wood. Skiing was not the industry it is today, and the Denver airport was not clogged with winter ski enthusiasts from the first snowfall to the last.

Also, in the past, there were very rich people. In those days they were called “Millionaires,” but in today’s inflated economy they are better referred to as “Billionaires.” After all, it isn’t that hard to gather up over a million in assets in our inflated economy. Most upper-middle class members have that much in their homes and retirement plans.

But something else has changed in this rich class. You see the old time rich were very conservative. They typically got their money from businesses that created, built, mined, or manufactured something – or else they inherited it from parents who did that. Today’s rich are different. First they are more likely to have amassed their fortune in the financial markets, wheeling and dealing, but not really producing anything. Second, they are far from conservative. Now I’m not referring to their politics, but rather their spending habits.

In his book, “The High-Beta Rich,” Robert Frank, he explains that the term “beta” is a measurement used in stock investing. It is a measure of a stock’s price volatility relative to the market as a whole. That can be a good thing when the market goes up. But it is a bad thing when the market goes down. Investing in high beta stocks is risky. The rewards can be high, but the losses can be pretty high too.

For those who want to learn more about beta and other metrics used in wise investing, I recommend you check out “Value Line.” That is the stock market information source I use. By the way, the last two big downturns in stock values, when others were reporting losses of 20-40%, I did much better than that because my investment strategy is to go with low beta stocks. I did loose money at times, but typically made it back in a short time due to my conservative investment strategy. That greatly improved the long-term performance of my investments even during the last ten years of declining stocks, but that is another story for another day. Today I am using the concept in the same way Mr. Frank used it in his book. Modern day Billionaires, at least a lot of them, ride a roller coaster of risk.

Which brings me to Aspen. This tiny tony town tucked up in the Colorado Rockies is a favorite destination resort for the rich. Many of these beta billionaires have invested in Aspen purchasing large homes (although mansions is a much more descriptive name than the humble term “home”). We’re talking houses with swimming pools, movie theaters, even bowling alleys – and ten bedrooms and 14 baths!

This purchasing drove house prices in Aspen to stratospheric levels. The median price of a house in Aspen was around $6 million before the recent collapse in home values. Now remember what the term median means; half of the houses in Aspen cost over $6 million prior to 2008. Also realize that most of those homes were only occupied two to four weeks out of the year. These weren’t second homes; they were fourth or sixth or tenth homes!

This created an unusual dynamic in Aspen. Fur stores were as common as t-shirt stores in most resort communities. Imported wines and world-class chefs were found in a myriad of eateries. And the people that worked in those stores and restaurants? They had to live 50 to 100 miles away in Glenwood Springs or Rifle because they couldn’t afford rents in Aspen. On the positive side, there was considerable support for charities and non-profits from these rich visitors, and the local tax base was substantial. That paid for snowplows and libraries and concerts and more.

But all that changed when the housing market collapsed. The current median price for houses in Aspen is around $1 million, still pretty pricey; but a tremendous drop in home value, a much larger decline than what the rest of the US experienced. Maybe the billionaires can afford it, but the local shops and restaurants as well as non-profits and tax base have all suffered greatly due to this precipitous loss in value.

I like Aspen. I go there on occasion, and I’ve been involved with the Aspen Institute since the early ‘80’s when I was the chairman of the local library board and attended meetings on literacy. The annual International Design Conference attracted everyone from Eliot Noyes, design director at IBM to George Nelson, lead designer at Herman Miller to Apple founder Steve Jobs.

I’ve even skied there, but – truth be told – it is not my favorite ski resort. I much prefer Vail as a destination resort, or Copper or Breckenridge, or even Winter Park. And I’m much more likely to be found skiing at the non-resort Loveland or Eldora or, when it was around, the old Hidden Valley (later renamed Ski Estes Park) in RMNP.

It is fun to go to Aspen because it is good skiing, and you never know whom you might run into on the slopes. (In the case of my skiing ability, I mean “run into” literally.) But when the hamburgers went over $15 each at my favorite watering hole, I said the heck with Aspen. Besides, it was about the farthest to go ski, and I started skiing closer and closer to home. In fact, these days, I typically limit my skiing to sliding down our driveway while attempting to shovel it.

I am not crying for the poor billionaires who lost their shirt and extra pair of pants in the Aspen real estate market, but I think this little story is just another sign of our times. I don’t know for sure if the rich keep getting richer, but I guarantee that the poor are getting poorer. Trust me, a million dollars just doesn’t go as far today as it used to. Why, at this rate, I’m going to be forced to buy a USED Mercedes.

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Calling

I believe everyone has a “calling,” something that completes their life, a mission, a joy, a place where they fit. It doesn’t have to have a religious connotation, although for some the calling is to the ministry. It isn’t just about a job, or a vocation, or a career, even an avocation — although it is a happy life when one’s calling is one’s vocation.

It is sort of the answer to “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I always felt lucky that I knew the answer to that question at such an early age. Some keep asking it well into middle life — and that may be the cause of the infamous “mid-life crisis.” Some figure it out half way through a career, and the brave amongst those will change their life in accordance. (I think of a long ago friend, J.D. Thorne, and the story he told me about his father.)

I suppose there can be more than one calling in life. I also assume people can be very happy with a life-long job and pursue their calling more as a hobby or a sideline or even what they do upon retirement. But I really think it is a single, primary, focused thing in most people’s lives, and the happiest people are those that have heard their “calling” and responded.

At a very early age I knew I wanted to be a scientist. I changed minds over the years on just what kind of scientist going from astronomer to geologist to electronics engineer, and I have echoed that behavior throughout my career going from technician to engineer to scientist to programmer to tester to statistician. But I don’t think that is really my calling. As I explore my path in life I think my calling is to be a teacher.

I worked in that field in a formal manner during different parts of my career teaching in the Navy, at Electronics Technical Institute, and at Metropolitan State College. I spent 14 years as an instructor in IBM’s Technical Education organization. But, in addition to that, I’ve taught as a side-line, a “second job,” a hobby, and just a way to spend time. Now that I’ve retired, I even consider my writing as “teaching.” I think of all the other things I’ve learned and done were just information and experiences for me to share with others — to teach.

I have many priorities and hold many truths to be self-evident. I’m a believer in Jesus Christ and His sacrifice on the cross. I believe in a Creator and that there is a plan for this world and my life. I believe in family and think that is the most important thing in life. To some, their calling is undoubtedly their family. I think this is especially true of mothers, and that is what makes them so special.

I think of a dear friend in New Orleans who has followed his calling in music, but also in his desire to care for others less fortunate. He shares my strong belief in our Savior. I think of my brother-in-law, also strong in the faith, who has raised a fine family of loving children with the help and support of his wife. Those children are a blessing to one another and all those that know them.

I think about my father whose love for his wife was epic in its width and depth — reminds me of lyrics to a song — and music is his love too. I think of my dear wife whose love of others drives her every day to give and care for others, even at the expense of herself.

I won’t go on listing the people in my life since it would be too long and I would forget someone.

Think about your life. Think about your family. Think about the path your life has taken. This is a time of year for all to recollect and recount their blessings, even those that don’t worship the Savior we celebrate. It is a natural and human and, I believe, God given thing to do at this time of year. God bless you all, and may your calling be clear and your path be straight. Some wander and some find their way. May you find your way and “God bless us all.” — Tiny Tim.