Thoughts and Year End Predictions– 15 January 2011 Includes travel notes on Sydney Australia, Auckland New Zealand and Honolulu, Hawaii

Polynesian village in Hawaii; various Hawaii, New Zealand and Australia including Elizabeth’s 5th birthday, sketching the Sydney Opera House and the actual view from Four Seasons Hotel.

We just came back from 3 weeks in Australia, New Zealand and Hawaii. You might recall that Karen is Australian and that our kids have Australian passports. Elizabeth arrived on the date of her 5th birthday all ready to celebrate with her first visit to her grandmother in Sydney and to meet her cousins, uncle and aunt. This year has noticed a real falloff in the amount of comment by yours truly.

I feel like I’ve seen this program before and that I don’t want to fluff words if I’ve already said it. Our kids have grown a ton this year; a year ago Jeremy could hardly talk and now he says full sentences. Elizabeth is ready to fill out her law school applications and is learning a lot. She knows more world geography than the average American adult. Karen is looking forward to a year of not living an episode of Law & Order, and I am optimistic that as long as no wildcards come into play (ie. terrorism on US soil), we have a year of recovery coming up.

Economy – Most of the world is in recovery. Places like Australia and Indonesia are doing quite well. Brazil and Chile still do well. India is a funny place but it is also doing well. Even Europe has some action going on in places such as Germany. America has pent up demand; corporations are waiting for the signal to begin investing their cash. The tax cut extension was helpful in reducing uncertainty; restructuring the corporate tax code is next and a compromise is almost certain. That will help. Problem in the US right now is the housing market and there are no obvious solutions. This is a structural problem; in the past, people out of work could count on selling their homes at a decent price and moving to where there was work. Now people are trapped in homes that they can’t get out of because the mortgages exceed the value of the house. This is going to delay recovery but I think that ultimately things will come back; maybe not so fast, but when the time comes it will come on strong.  The other wildcard is $100-plus oil. Oil is creeping up again to $100; these Arab countries are fools since they control OPEC which sets the price as a cartel. They helped tip the world into recession by letting the price go too high. They said they could live with $70-80 and now they are being greedy and pushing $100. When oil goes down, it will go down below $50 because they are creating spikes again. They really don’t know how to manage their part of the world economy. I think that the banks in the US are ready to stage their comeback this year, meaning entities such as Chase and Citibank. Momentum favors leaders of indexes and that means that index funds are probably good bets.

The US only consumes 10% of its oil from the Arabian/Persian Gulf. We spend more money on armed forces to protect that 10% than the 10% we buy. It is ridiculous. We are basically policing the place so that the rest of the world which doesn’t spend the money to police it gets the benefit of a lower price on the world market. The US would be better off reducing its involvement in that part of the world. People would hate us less and frankly it is less important to the US how stable the oil flow is in that part of the world. Let the rest of the world spend resources and draw the wrath of the world’s moslems protecting their interest. Instead we are subsidizing all our competitors and drawing all the security risk onto ourselves. It all doesn’t make sense to me. I also just don’t like seeing countries like Iran, Venezuela and Russia getting all these benefits from the high price of oil. It just feeds more headache for the US around the world.

Middle East – If Netanyahu survives the next 6 months, he will be around for a good long time. Labor is on the verge of wanting out of the coalition and Ehud Barak is very unpopular. Some Labor members might just move over to Kadima, and there is a Sefardi rabbi Amsellem trying to start a new party who is getting worldwide financial support that poses a real threat to Shas. He basically wants to get all these people in Yeshivas back to work and in the army and wants to stop the Shas party which has been taken over by a bunch of Lithuanian rabbis who really are foreign to the local population. It could be a huge shift in Israeli politics and tip the balance to the left if he succeeds in this movement. It has implications for the peace process as well and potential benefits to the work force because so many able-bodied people in Israel choose study over work. Meanwhile, I expect no developments between Netanyahu and Abbas. Neither have any interest in a deal. Hizbullah could go to war with Israel to divert attention from the fact that it is about to get indicted in Lebanon; it will be a big fight; Syria will be in it, and the Israelis will use the opportunity to settle the score there. The Saudis will again see tons of money wasted in Lebanon. But I warned about this a few years ago. Nobody learned their lessons from the last cease fire which everyone knew on Day 1 would be a farce. And this time Syria deserves whatever it gets and should have gotten the last time when it was lucky to have been left out. Syria, more so than Lebanon, deserves to be hit. Hizbullah has a state in Lebanon because Syria let it be. The US has to get out of Iraq even if Iran takes it over. The US has to go and cut Iran down to size conventionally as part of hitting its nuclear installations. That war is inevitable and necessary. The Arab Gulf countries desire this and it is absolutely necessary to maintain America’s leverage in the region as well as the peace of mind for those countries which otherwise will need to appease Iran in order to have peace of mind. That is the way that region works; we’ve all seen it for the past generation. All this BS about dealing with the Palestinians first is truly BS; first solve the Iranian problem and then the Palestinian problem will get solved because the veto-meisters of Syria and Iran will be out of business. No matter what the Palestinians want, the Iranians and Syrians will never let them have it under the current circumstances. Gaza is an interesting question; the Palestinian Authority and Egypt would love for the Israelis to wipe out Hamas in Gaza. The army is concerned about the buildup of arms there. If they are going to ever deal with Lebanon and Iran, they need to secure the southern front. It seems that another campaign there is inevitable at one point or another. Living with a confident and built-up Hamas to the south is not viable in the long term and Hamas will never change unless Iran and Syria change since they are totally funded and supplied by them and sympathetic Saudis and presumably Qatar as well that seems to have their ear….Can you believe that after all these years Israel has gas and oil and presumably enough to be self-dependent in gas for the next generation?

Netanyahu held a cocktail party this week in a 5 star hotel in Israel and his security services made a bunch of the visitors strip. Even people who he has invited for over 5 years. One lady was even asked to take her bra off. Her damn good quote paraphrased: Hamas keeps making women put their clothes on; the Israelis keep making women take them off. They keep apologizing to people for all these ridiculous security gaffes but it is just insane how security is making people. I keep going through the TSA lanes in airports and the whole thing is just so stupid. Any terrorist who really wants to be a terrorist can get through it. They take my wife’s salmon pate away – they can taste it and, frankly, why would my wife be suspect anyway? In Australia, they were searching her like crazy on the way to Hawaii because it was a US-bound flight. An Australian-American woman traveling with a husband and 2 little kids and we’re not exactly scary people.

Russia – It’s a dictatorship run by a mafia. Same as communism in the end and in certain ways worse because these people don’t have total control over their assets. Stay away. It is also a country without a future except for those at the top who rape its assets. Its demographic potential is also horrible with more people dying and aging than it can use.

China – I have really been of two minds about this country over the years but I think finally that America needs to have a tough economic policy on China and be ready to tighten its belt and absorb the pain if China retaliates against US sanctions for not playing fair economically and constantly undermining US foreign policies in pursuit of its own economic interests. We need to either be partners in this world or let them know that we are going to defend our interests. We can’t be pushed around by them just because they have become our biggest creditor. Ultimately, China is a growing country but has lots of weaknesses. A lot of their growth and heyday is less than it appears. They still need us more than we need them. China has its own pressures and an economy that invites inflation.

Asia – I don’t see Japan as a major player. Australia is in good shape; floods will knock down economic growth a bit but basically they’re fine.

Afghanistan – Example of where we need to leave. I said that a year ago. Pakistan is a hell-hole we can’t fix. Who cares if Bin Laden remains there? Let him age there. These are examples of drains on our budget that we can’t afford and can never fix. Besides, all the money there is being wasted and corrupted. WikiLeaks has done a real service in exposing all these details and Karzai is a guy who is against us and who is not really liked in Afghanistan who we shouldn’t be supporting. I’d like to say we should support education and stuff in these countries but I see that all the money is wasted. Private charities might do a better job than government aid. Perhaps we should do more at outsourcing foreign aid that is meant to benefit real people. Much cheaper than making war. I think we spent over a trillion dollars doing this Iraq thing….I can’t even fathom how much money that is.

Obama and 2012 outlook – He is not as big a loser as it appears. He is moving toward more centrist pro-business responsible policies and I think he is realizing that he is better off alienating his leftist base because he will never win reelection with them. They will always be disappointed; if he panders to them he loses the middle. They won’t vote for republicans anyway and he can’t win unless the middle votes for him. On foreign affairs, he hasn’t done that poorly. Look around and you’ll see that he has basically not rocked the boat and gotten a good amount of what he wanted. The big question for 2012 is who the Republicans put up as a candidate. Now that Hillary is out of the running (she’s smart enough to figure out she can be rich and on the speaker’s circuit), it really is up to the Republicans. If they run Palin, and I’m sure she and they won’t, Obama is a shoe-in. Palin also knows she can tease a run but is better off staying rich and on the TV and radio. You betcha!

North Korea – Bark exceeds its bite. I’ve been saying that we should let China just take it over. It is either going to become a province of South Korea or China sooner or later and neither want it.

Africa – Some of these countries are beginning to do well. But I’m not going there. Whether or not some of them have economies, the people at the top take it all off the top. The investor who goes into the index fund might have the best shot. Interesting to see the ruler of Tunisia walk away from this throne after 23 years in power amid national disgust. That never happens…Oh right, it was coup – silly me! Mubarak won’t walk away from his throne in Egypt, but he probably won’t last another 2 years.

Musings about Trends – Here are two trends to think about this year…Less choice is better. People want the appearance of choice but not too much choice. I look at the tons of choices of things to drink but yet over 95% of what I drink is tap water. Studies show that giving people choices at a point of sale gets people to come over and look at the choices but giving them too many choices leads them to walk away without buying anything. The other matter is Rent vs. Own. You can see that younger people especially are figuring that they don’t need to actually own as many things as their parents did in order to enjoy them. Things such as cars, which you can now hire by the hour, computer programs (use parts of it off the cloud rather than get your own copy); and you can enjoy a few nights in hotel suites and rent a residence rather than decorate rooms of a house you buy. My mother who is a jeweler says that young people are probably buying less jewelry. Why invest in expensive telephone equipment that keeps getting updated each quarter? As things keep getting updated, why invest in ownership when what you really want today is access to the best version? Another trend I’m noticing is that halal food is more widely available and that food producers are beginning to consider it as part of their food preparation; for example, we found halal gelatine in mainstream yogurt brands in New Zealand and Australia and that certifications are beginning to show up everywhere on food packaging.

TRAVEL NOTES — Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii

We went on a 3 week holiday involving 3 day stopovers in Auckland, New Zealand and Honolulu and 12 days in Sydney, Australia. It is summer this time of year down under and Sydney turned out to be mostly pleasant – was generally around 80 degrees during the day and cools off at night into the 60’s. Sometimes quite hot, and sometimes almost sweater weather. Auckland is about 5-10 degrees cooler, and Honolulu was also very pleasant at roughly 80 degrees as well. That’s 27 degrees Centigrade.

In Los Angeles, the Crowne Plaza is across from the Marriott Residence at the corner of Beverly and Pico in the Beverly Hills area. We were very happy with it; you can get a 6pm checkout for an extra $50 and the elevator service is good. At the Marriott, you have to be out by 2pm no matter what and the elevator service can be poor. They are both across the street from each other. We flew Air New Zealand to Auckland and the 13 hour flight was fine; we had premium economy but it is a crock. Those new couch seats they keep advertising haven’t been introduced yet and what they currently have is not worth the upgrade. But we were lucky and had an opportunity to get even; the London blizzard kept 3/4 of our 747 passengers in London so each of us had a row of 5 seats to sleep on.

On arrival, we rented a car from Avis at the airport. Fortunately, even though driving on the Left side of the road is very strange for me, there are hardly any cars on the road in suburban Auckland so I did not have to worry much about crashing into anybody or turning against traffic. In New Zealand and Australia, there is very good signage and better crossing signals for turning against traffic than there is in America and the use of roundabouts is very helpful for directing traffic. My understanding is that more municipalities in the US are beginning to use them but it is hard getting people here to understand how they work. We went to a town about an hour from Auckland called Whitford to a bed and breakfast called Seafields. It is a lovely site on the water in a rural area with beautiful scenery and lots of grass. But it offers no services aside from a swimming pool and breakfast and the rooms are nice but not luxurious. We were offered a GPS device to find our way on a 20 minute drive to the grocery store and supermarket. We noticed that yoghurt here has halal gelatine in it, in an obvious nod to the increasing Moslem population. We also noticed that observance of Christmas is less uniform now that the population is more heterogenous. The kids had to do with toasted cheese and Elizabeth was telling Jeremy that “when you travel you have to eat things you don’t like.” We did find a nice dinner in the area at a local pub, and a very pretty beach with a nearby park, all within about 20 minutes drive. A few minutes walk away from the property is a little nature reserve with picnic tables. You could drive 10 minutes to get a ferry to Auckland (30 minutes ride) or to Waiheke Island. We stayed for a night and transferred back to Auckland to a full service hotel called the Langham. And I promptly got rid of the car which I did not enjoy trying to get around in.

In Auckland we went to the waterfront area (hotel offers a courtesy shuttle every hour) and there are a bunch of restaurants around a marina, any of which are probably good. We found a good fish restaurant called Kermadec. We took a ferry to the closest place you can go; about a 15 minute ride and just walked around the area for an hour. Somebody set up a big dome with artificial snow inside and kids were lined up to play in it. The spa in the hotel is nice; the concierge floor there is very good; they put out a nice spread and the rooms are very nice there. The buffets for breakfast and dinner in the hotel are excellent. It is a top flight hotel and a very good place to use as a stopover. Next morning we walked to the main city park and the Museum of Auckland; the kids were tired. Jeremy fell asleep on my chest while watching a Maori war dance. We went to the top of a volcano in a nearby park (Mount Eden) to get a look at the city and there is a good playground 10 minutes walk from the hotel. Next morning it was about a 30 minute taxi ride to the airport. We put a sticker on Jeremy with the flight number hoping that if he flew the coop somebody would bring him to the right gate. Our 3 hour flight to Sydney which left at 9am arrived at 10;30am because you pick up 2 time zones along the way. The kids were in good shape to start Australia after having nearly a week to get there.

We stayed at the Meriton Apartments in Bondi Junction. Bondi Junction is the perfect location outside the Central Business District (CBD). In 10 minutes you can be there on a train that stops right below the building; a bus will get you to town in 20 minutes. Several other fashionable areas such as Paddington and Double Bay are less than 10 minutes drive away. It is the perfect base for exploring the city if you don’t want to be exactly in the city. These are furnished apartments. Get the harbor view ones; they offer really great views. The apartments have air conditioning, a kitchen, an indoor balcony, and basically they are perfectly fine. Only problem is that it takes a few minutes to get into the building’s lobby which requires an elevator from the street, and then you have to get upstairs to your room and there is lots of elevator traffic if you are on a high floor with a view. Next door is the Westfield Shopping Center which is a huge mall with several supermarkets and everything you could possibly want (until you actually figure out that you want something, but that’s a problem of a different nature in Australia where selection of goods is less than it appears despite the appearance of endless shopping although groceries and eating is great). My mother in law said she felt so taken care of in Bondi that she hadn’t gone to CBD for several years. Prices are surprisingly high; groceries were same or more than Manhattan although Westfield in Bondi is about as high as it gets in Australia. So it is apples to apples on this level. There is also a large taxi rank there; a big thing since you can hardly hail taxis in Sydney and off the beaten path in a residential neighborhood you could wait half an hour for one to show up. Things we did were high tea at the Park Hyatt with a view of the Opera House; the ferry to Manly Beach (half an hour ride and a 10 minute walk to see a beach with lots of people and some surfers); fish and chips at Doyles on Watson’s Bay – you can get takeout for half the price and just sit around more informally and there is a good playground just nearby; the Aquarium at Darling Harbor and the Lindt chocolate cafe’ on the harbor (real yummy cakes and ice creams); the monorail in the central business district (15 minute loop which is fun with little kids) which takes you to Darling Harbor; the 555 free bus around the CBD (be sure and see the Queen Victoria Building and David Jones department store for the main shopping experiences and nearby Hyde Park is a delightful diversion); a day trip to Featherdale Animal Park an hour’s ride away to pet and see all kinds of Australian wildlife (although we kept giving Jeremy wipes he still managed to get diarrhea which lasted a week and included several nights of changing him every 2 hours); a night at the Four Seasons Sydney; Nick’s Fish Restaurant on Bondi Beach and a walk along the beach promenade. The CenterPoint tower in the CBD can be a real crowd; we aborted after finding a 90 minute wait. The Four Seasons has rooms at the top with great views over the Harbor and Opera House; the hotel is very good and half the price of the Hyatt which only has 3 floors and very rooms that face the opera house. Go for tea instead. Only problem with the Four Seasons is that lots of elevator traffic for those on the high floors. It is near Circular Quay and the Rocks, two touristy areas that are also fun to walk around in during the evening. And it is a 10 minute walk from the main department stores in the CBD. For kids DVD’s Dymocks had a much better selection of all the ABC store products that you would expect to buy in the ABC stores (name of the Australian TV network). You can buy an all region DVD player in the US for $100 to play all the DVD’s you buy. You can get all sorts of day passes to ride the ferries, buses and trains and there are also buses with limited stops; the only painful thing are the prepaid only buses and you have to figure out where to buy the tickets if you are not at a station. Christmas means not all that much in Sydney; it is not like London where everything shuts down. And Boxing Day everything goes back to normal. New Years Eve is the big shebang here; people camp out all over Circular Quay and points around town from 5am waiting for the big show. They have fireworks at 9pm and again at midnight. The shows are roughly the same and the first show is for kids and those who don’t want to stay awake. They have synchronized shows from 7 locations around the harbor with the same show going on so you could see it from anywhere, and lots of Sydney is built around a rather large harbor so lots of people have harbor views and there are high and low points all around town so lots of people get all sorts of views. It is a good show and lasts about 10 minutes. Elizabeth looked off the balcony and chirped “These are the best fireworks I have ever seen in my whole life.” (She’s seen one other show last Fourth of July.) Not to leave Jeremy out; when he saw the Opera House up close, he remarked about how the tiles on the building look like arrows. Australia is in a good mood; I went to the Museum of New South Wales to look at art and chat up my brother in law who is CEO of a conglomerate of companies and he basically said that the main problem in Australia is hubris among executives who feel that they don’t need to innovate and that everything is going swell. The property markets have taken a bit of a hit but not much and nobody really knows what to expect in the coming few years. Because there is forced pensions, the capital markets are oversized in Australia for what the country actually is and it has helped keep their banks strong.

Allow plenty of time leaving Sydney’s airport. It takes time to walk around and actually find food and things. Especially if you are flying Jet Star, the cheapie airline subsidiary of Qantas which gives you virtually nothing on board unless you reserved and paid for it in advance. But you can reserve entertainment and food, which is highly advisable. It is a 10 hour flight to Hawaii and on arrival there was hardly anyone in the US citizens lane at customs. I didn’t realize that Australians all go on their holidays just after New Years Day and had expected the flight to be empty. It was chock-a-block full of Ozzies going on holidays. Half an hour away from the airport is the Waikeke section of Honolulu. I had been expecting a run down area from what I had been told; it is actually very upscale and the reason is that it caters to high spending luxury brand seeking Japanese tourists. The neighborhood looks a bit like a duty free shop in a Japanese airport. The hotel, the Halekulani, was full of Japanese tourists. It is a top notch independent hotel and we liked it. Definitely go for a room with a diamond head view otherwise it is the same ocean view you could see anywhere. It is an oasis in this area which is otherwise full of huge convention-like hotels from the major hotel chains. They have a hospitality suite for early arrivals; we took a trolley ride around several parts of the city (a 2 day pass lets you ride all you want and we did one hour long route per day – the Historical Tour and the Scenic Tour). A decent fish restaurant was Hula Grill at the Outrigger; we ate 3 nights in our hotel at the Orchids and La Mer restaurants (La Mer is an excellent gourmet room well worth the rather reasonable price). The beach water is freezing cold considering how close to the equator this place is, and the pool was fairly cold for me too and there is no jacuzzi. The kids loved the hula dancing at the pool every evening from 6pm onward. The hotel offers lots of grassy areas to run around and play and the hotel’s boutique has some of the most beautiful shirts around. It can be a problem getting a lounge during the day at the busy pool and sometimes it is a bit of a wait at a restaurant but we figured out after a day to make reservations and to take tables at 6pm and hold them for the evening and keep them after we fed the kids and put them to bed.

We had the amazing experience of having Jeremy run himself lost in shopping malls on two continents on the same day. First in Westfield (amazing how there was no security there; a terrorist would have a field day since many of the people working there hardly speak English – LOST BOY (WHAT?)…. Then in Hawaii, he jumped up in the middle of a restaurant, ran out the front door and wasn’t even seen by the hosts and ran into a shopping mall. Amazing how we happened to come across him later. When we touched down in Hawaii, the flight attendant announced it was 7:04 am YESTERDAY, so that’s how we accomplished this amazing feat.

The highlight of our visit was a day trip to the Dole Pineapple Plantation and the Polynesian Village, about an hour away and we drove with a rental car and it was surprisingly easy to get around. The highways and streets are good here. After a 45 minute drive, expect to spend 90 minutes at Dole; there is a big garden maze, a self-guided garden walking tour and a choo-choo train ride which is very pleasant. Between Dole and Polynesian village it is another 45 minutes. This attraction is owned by the Mormon church. It costs $50 for an adult to enter but it is actually a much better attraction than I expected. You have a theme park arranged around 7 different Polynesian villages. They have demonstrations, shows, and pageants such as the Canoe Pageant. There is an evening luau and show. Even if you can’t stay for the evening with kids, 3-4 hours here is a good amount of time to see some of the stuff. We got some great professional photos here of the kids shooting spears and what not and the shows were very entertaining. Continental Airlines has the only nonstop back to New York; it is a 9 hour flight and business class has only reclining seats and no lie-flats. We were in coach and it was fine considering that we knew it was no way worth it to be seated in upper class. Jeremy got the routine down pat; he fastened his seat belt and went to sleep as soon as the plane left the gate and got up after we pulled up to the arrival gate 9 hours later. When we arrived back in NY, we saw the snow ploughs clearing the gate and we had missed the huge blizzard the previous week. Our kids were excited to be back; that excitement of playing in the snow lasted all of 5 minutes and then they decided they preferred the summer weather. Too bad – we will be here in the north till mid February.

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