Global Thoughts — 17 May 2009

Once upon a time, the focal point of our dining room buffet was a statue Karen inherited from her late grandmother that showed a woman holding a rake; this week the focal point is an  M & M chocolate dispenser with a Mr. M&M holding a rake in one hand and M&M’s in the other. I found this in a duty free shop leaving Jordan last week and it’s been an instant hit with the kids.

One thing I love about Spring is that the leaves start to come out on the trees from nothing and you don’t know where it will all end up. Each week you see more leaves and I find that whatever I thought would be the fullest tree turns out to be even more full later on. I guess it is that sense of exceeding potential that is a wonderful part of Spring.

This past month I visited our company’s Jerusalem office and took a day to visit amigos in Amman, Jordan. Haven’t been there since before we had our first child and wanted to stay in touch. 

There is obviously renewed optimism in the US; I still fear it is hyped by the media but as I have said, there will be recovery next year–I just think it will be slower than it could have been had the government did more, although I will say that in drips and drabs we are seeing various acts by the government that might add up to something interesting, such as the latest move to regulate derivatives. Karen and I are trying to see if we can afford to buy an apartment on Manhattan’s upper west side; the cost of ownership has become less than the cost of renting in enough of a comparable sense that the switch is becoming compelling.

Obamanomics — As I said last month, the stress tests were rigged and the banks look better than they really are. Obama and the unions totally screwed the secured creditors to Chrysler in rigging this bankruptcy; it will not help in the future for banks and others who think of lending money to businesses in which the US government or labor unions have an interest. This is an instance where you can get your one kick in and then suffer the consequences later…I remain bearish; the oil rally was manipulated and is already faltering under the reality of reduced demand; the market fundamentals are not good and the evidence is that the recession is off its lows but not heading toward any kind of solid recovery. I think we’ve had a month of press reports following a herd that is ignoring the bad news they want to ignore and basically bleating whatever is coming out of Washington hoping that a recovery as a whole will cause a recovery to the newspapers printing these stories that are on the verge of extinction….What is interesting to me is the reports such as the one in this weeks’ Economist that Asia will come out of this faster than the US; their history and the present is that their recovery will come from internal consumption and that it will not be a revival of US spending that causes their recovery. There is also twice as much stimulus going on in Asia as there is in America.  I am going to buy some Asian indexes and put them away….Consider that the Brazilian index is up 25% from what I paid from it in November 2008 while almost all other stocks I bought at that time are roughly worth now what they were worth at that time.

Israel Politics — a conversation with Oded, an Israeli analyst…Indians worked with Israelis in Mumbai; they stalled a week to end the operation but meanwhile killed 3,000 of the other side while nobody minded. Lieberman will be out in a few months with Silvan Shalom replacing him as foreign minister. Top 24 military leaders of Israel held a civil defense exercise just before I arrived; airplanes are training all the time viz. Iran. 7 of 30 government ministers have Iran in their portfolio. Entire civilian population will have extensive drill in June. Bibi is a fanatic on the Iran issue. The Israelis will goad in Gaza and draw the Palestinians into another invasion. Michelle Obama will not like Iran when they sooner or later start talking about black people because they despise them, and she will push her hubbie. Another friend Marc says that the new Jerusalem mayor is running the city like a business for once; he is on a city board dealing with transportation issues. 

Travel Desk / Israel & Jordan — On El Al, there are lots of Hassidic people in first and business class. Sat next to the founder of Datek Online (later sold to TD Ameritrade) who is Hassidic going to Israel. I think the airline puts out a decent service at the front of the plane and their Matmid frequent flyer program is probably one of the best in the industry — you can purchase upgrades with points and be treated as a revenue customer (meaning no blackouts) and this gives the airline a real cost and competitive advantage over other airlines if you want to fly up front; only thing I don’t like is that there is no fast-track at the Tel Aviv airport for passport control unless you pay for the VIP arrival service which costs $80; the airline oughtta offer that service to at least their first class passengers and they don’t. Ever hear of Varna, Bulgaria? I didn’t until I noticed 3 flights a day going there from Tel Aviv; the lady at the airport club said that if I didn’t know what Varna was, I obviously don’t go to casinos. Amazing what you learn at airports.  At Amman airport, those Iraqi Airways planes are still there. Flew back on Royal Jordanian business class which I thought was perfectly decent with flat seats and a lot of space between rows, very good food and separate check-in terminal at the airport and a newly renovated lounge which is excellent. I sat next to a Syrian Jew who was on his way back from Syria for business; he said that almost 100% of Syrians would be perfectly happy to have peace with Israel if their government was happy; they have no problem with Jews, he says. As we crossed the Jordanian airspace border, we saw desert and were waiting to see Israeli cities below and in the meantime started chatting about travel, discussed two different hotels, and before we knew it about 2-3 minutes later, were already over the Mediterranean Sea and missed seeing the country. That’s how small this whole place is, in the larger picture of the world.

What’s New in Israel —  In Tel Aviv, I stayed in the Alexander Suites hotel with a beautiful penthouse suite right by the beach. Hotel missed my wakeup call and I couldn’t get any of the TV’s or telephones to turn on or change channels without a lot of help but it was altogether a good boutique hotel about ½ mile north of the Hilton. Got a nice painting from Yaakov Haddad, a gallery owner in Safed, who brought some samples to Tel Aviv; name of the painter was Rolly Schaffer. In Jerusalem, La Guta is an excellent French restaurant in business now a long time, but at a new location near the German colony at 34 Bethlehem Road. Best kosher dinner I’ve had in a good while. Very good wood shop in Mea Shearim midway down the long narrow winding street — can personalize all sorts of gifts. Papagallos, the Brazilian restaurant with the 8 course all-you-can-eat business lunch that I had last year in Herzliyah, also has a branch in the Talpiot neighborhood of Jerusalem.

Social/Political Comment — Israel on this visit was strikingly normal; everything is busy and working just fine. The Palestinians are not on the agenda or in the newspapers really. Iran is a concern in the back of people’s minds though. I am finding more and more that the Arab World is every single day writing and talking about the Palestinian issue as if it is the most important item in the news and the Israelis are going about their lives as if they don’t exist. They have walls and borders protecting them and really don’t care. Even the war in Gaza last year did not affect normal life and the previous summer with Lebanon lasted a few days and people forgot about it a month later. Sderot took rockets from Gaza but that was one border town of 10,000 residents and that party is over. If the Arabs knew how little the Israelis cared and how little impact all their media, demonstrations and summitry are having on the Israelis, they’d probably figure out that it would be a good idea to just settle the issue and get on with their lives toward a more productive goal. It’s as if you saw this kid going crazy about how the other kid took his toy, and the other kid who took the toy walked off and was perfectly happy and oblivious to the other kid going crazy. The other kid, realizing he isn’t going to get his toy back, could either sit around and keep shouting to get his toy back or, at a certain point, realizing that the other boy isn’t paying attention to his shouting and doesn’t care, might be better off taking a payment for the toy and just going forward. That’s exactly where this issue is going, in my opinion. 

Amman still looks surprisingly the same even after almost 15 years since I first visited. The airport, road to the city, and what you see when you drive around the main streets is pretty much the same. There are new neighborhoods in Abdoum and some new 5-star hotels but otherwise it is remarkably similar and frankly disappointingly so. The new downtown Amman development is going up as is the two black towers that will have a Hilton and you can see those from the airplane as the centerpiece of the city, but I am given to understand that most of the changes in the past decade are not things the tourist sees, but rather relate to bettering the lives of people that live there.  I stayed in the Four Seasons; it is a fortress now after having been shot up years ago. There was a huge wedding going on that night and from the sounds of the band rehearsing, a great party. Driving on the roads here is dangerous; there was a triple car pileup on the way into town. My taxi driver would just come right up behind another car and wait for the other car to change lanes. You see all sorts of pictures of the new king — king with his wife and kids like a family in a living room in the airport lounge, king with sword behind the passport control, king with camouflage, king with his dad looking sporty by the auto race track, –you get the idea. Someone remarked to me that the Gaza war was enlightening to the Arabs because it was the first time the public saw the fireworks fly between the Syrians and Qataris versus the Egyptians and Saudis hearing all sorts of privately made insults and remarks being made public. Prior to this, the public was told that the Arabs were all together, never totally believed it, but never saw the evidence to the contrary.  Had dinner in Amman in a Lebanese restaurant which was really nice — I love how they put out all these platters of appetizers and deserts; in the US they’d have to charge you $50 to do that and nobody would ever order it.

NYC Getaways — This past month Karen and I spent a night at the Trump Hotel in Manhattan, a mile away from our apartment. We had a nice view of Central Park and Columbus Circle. Always fun to experience what you can’t have at home and right now in the City there are deals galore that cost half of what it would otherwise cost in a normal economy. A nice way to escape the kids for an evening and try something different without traveling too far. Dinner at Jean Georges restaurant on that property was very good and surprisingly reasonable.

This week our family is heading out to the wonderful world of Pennsylvania — a few days in the Poconos mountains, making our way through some small towns toward Sesame Place where we will spend a day getting wet with Elmo and the Cookie Monster. This is part of an effort to avoid airline travel and see some of the surrounding areas. In early June, I am to go to Paris, Versaille, Milan, Lake Garda, Copenhagen and Iceland. Then our family returns to Pennsylvania for a visit to Hershey (the chocolate city), a night at a farm in Amish country and a ride out with Thomas the Train who will be visiting the Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania railroad during mid-June. Odds are you’ll next hear from me in late June.

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