Tuesday, October 8, 2019

My Long History with the Atlanta Braves

There is not a great deal of new information to report for the month of September 2019. Although the markets were extremely volatile during the month of September, the upward trend remains intact. It seems like every headline was filled with someone or another forecasting a recession just around the corner. Also, the headlines were full of political news due to the upcoming 2020 Presidential election. While presidential elections should, in my opinion, have absolutely no impact on financial markets, they almost always do.

Since there was not a whole lot going on financially, I would like to relay my history with the Atlanta Braves. The Atlanta Braves are currently in the playoffs and at this writing no one knows what the outcome will be. However, I became a season ticket holder in 1989, so this marks the 30th year of my participation. Over that time, as you will read later on, there have been many ups and downs throughout my attendance.

Ava's first baseball game

Before I get to the more interesting part of this posting, I must report the financial results for the month of September. For the month of September, the Standard & Poor’s Index of 500 stocks was up 1.9% for the month. For the year 2018 through September, that index is up 20.6% and the three-year performance is 13.4% and the ten-year performance is 13.2% annually. The NASDAQ Composite was barely positive, up 0.5% for the month, up 21.5% for the year 2019 and up 15.9% three-year period then ended at a 15.5% for the 10 year annual returns. The Dow Jones Industrial Average was the winner for the month at 2.1% and that index is up 17.5% for the year, 16.4% for the three-year period and 13.6% for the 10 year period. Just to form a comparison, the Barclay’s Aggregate Bond Index was down 0.6% for the month, but is up nicely for the year 2019 at 8.4%. For the three-year average it is up 2.9% and for the 10 year average it is up 3.7%. Even though bonds are having a very respectable 2019, the ten-year returns are roughly one-third of what any of the major market indexes reflect.

One of the most important components of understanding gross national product (GNP) in the United States is to realize how it is calculated. Over the last three decades the U.S. economy has shifted from a factory environment to more service-oriented. As a matter of fact, the service index greatly outweighs the manufacturing index, and more importantly, consumption or consumers themselves represent roughly two thirds of the calculation of the GDP. It seems that the U.S. was perfectly willing in the 70’s and 80’s to allow manufacturing to lead the United States overseas. China was the major benefactor of that transfer of manufacturing and since they had more favorable labor rates than the U.S., the U.S. government was perfectly willing to take that over. Now we want it back!

There is no question that the U.S. is dominant when it comes to services, and certainly dominant when it comes to technology formation, but the real challenge is trying to determine without manufacturing exactly which way the economy is going. The last several months we have seen major swings in the equity markets based on assumptions from others that the economy is either moving ahead or moving down. As I have pointed out in these writings before, the most important component by far in calculating the trend of the market is the number of actual people working. If you have a job and you support your family, you will consume. You will pay for food, transportation, and even some entertainment. The more people working the more people will add to the economy. The most important function that any government can do is to keep American workers at their jobs. It seems 2019 will be a record in every regard when it comes to employment.

Josh and Carter Roberts are engaged!
Wedding plans are underway for next

On Friday, the government announced that the jobless rate in the United States had reached 3.5%, which is the lowest unemployment rate in this country in 50 years. Just let that information sink in for a second. There are more people working in the United States now than ever in its history. Yes, the unemployment rate was lower previously, but the number of Americans has increased dramatically over the last 50 years and now more people are working than have ever worked in this country before. Given the outrageous political exclamations that you see on the news every day, do you not find it comforting that so many people now have jobs and employers are actually seeking more employees than are available?

You really have to read a report on the unemployment rate to understand how wonderful the news was. In this report for September, the unemployment for workers with less than high school diplomas dropped to 4.8%. Think about that just for a second; workers below college level now reach a rate of 4.8%, which by definition is below the perceived full-employment rate of 5%. Even more good news was that joblessness among Hispanic men declined to 3%. This level of unemployment by Hispanic men was the best on record tracing back to 2003. Therefore, the number of employed with less than a high school diploma is the best that has ever occurred since 1992, when the labor department first began reporting this index. The Hispanic rate is the best since 2003.

One of the true indicators of a good economy is how broad the employment was. So many politicians argue that the workforce is tilted toward the rich and not the everyday workers. As you can see from this employment report, employment is strong throughout the workforce, including Hispanic workers and the less educated.

I guess I get somewhat weary about discussing the economy when you see such tremendous coverage given to unimportant economic facts. Just last month we were awakened to the realization that Iran had used drones to bomb the refining manufacturing plant in Saudi Arabia. Suddenly, the price of oil jumped up 10% despite the U.S. buying virtually no oil from Saudi Arabia. As the price of oil went higher, the equity markets went lower under the fear that the U.S. would initiate war with Iran. Many of the forecasters on television espoused the military prowess of Iran without bothering to check the facts. Surely, if the United States would enter into a prolonged war with Iran the price of oil would double, and the economic effects would be crippling.

First off, we do not buy oil from Iran, nor have we for decades. Secondly, our consumption of oil from Saudi Arabia is very low. But most importantly, the Iranian army is not much of a threat. They barely have an Air Force that flies and few Navy armaments. Do you realize that the economy of Iran is not even as big as the GDP of the state of Georgia? During this month, I heard a military assessment of the Iranian military indicating that it would take maybe one full week to take out all of their military installations. But none of us want war with anybody, including Iran. Their economy is in complete disarray, they are controlled by a dictator and their own people hate their government. Isn’t it interesting that everyone wants to come to the United States, but hate us so much?

Partner Danielle Van Lear with
Josef Martinez of Atlanta United

I read an article this month about the nuclear financial bomb that the Chinese could deploy against the United States. Not a nuclear bomb in the form of nuclear energy, but a nuclear bomb in the form of debts. Several prognosticators say that if China really wanted to hurt the United States that they could just drop all of their U.S. Treasury holdings in one fell swoop, destroying the U.S. economy in the process. Once again, do these people even do any research?

Yes, it is true that the Chinese hold roughly $1 trillion in U.S. Treasury Bonds, but do not forget that there is currently $22 trillion in U.S. government debt outstanding and, actually Japan holds more than China at a little over $1 trillion. However, 70% of the U.S. Treasury debt outstanding is actually held by the U.S. government itself. For many years the Social Security system has bought treasury bonds with its excess Social Security payments that it receives through tax withholdings. So, even if China were to sell all of their bonds in one sitting, it would hardly affect the price of U.S. Treasuries given that it represents only 4% of total outstanding bonds. Further, the Chinese realize that selling these treasury bonds would create a huge swing in their currency by strengthening it by virtue of selling U.S. dollars and buying local currency. The last thing the Chinese want to do is strengthen their currencies, making their export prices expensive and, therefore, their manufacturing less competitive in the world markets. You can forget about that fear.

Once again, the issue with Russia this month came up and what effect Russia would have if they tried to pursue further aggression in Eastern Europe. I almost laugh when people on television use this as a reason for the markets going down. I only need to remind you that Russia has GDP that is actually less than the country of Italy. I don’t think anyone is afraid of Italy and certainly no one accuses them of working too hard.

So we morph into the political arena of the potential impeachment of the President of the United States. Once again, a headline that means absolutely nothing in the whole scheme of things. While it is possible that the House of Representatives could impeach the President of the United States since the Democrats have majority, an indictment in the Senate would require a vote of two-thirds of the members and, since the majority of the Senate is held by Republicans, that is not a reality. So why are we spending all of these hours of talk and discussion over something that clearly could not possibly take place? In my mind, it has more to do with the fact that Congress is frozen with inactivity. They cannot pass even the most simplest of bills since they spend all of their time on conspiracy theories. When will Congress actually do what they were elected to do so we can move on with the country’s business rather than this silliness? Isn’t there an election next year?

There is no question that the President is a lightning rod for virtually all Americans. However, it must be said that he has accomplished many of the goals that he laid out in the campaign by reducing unemployment, being tough on immigration, and holding other countries accountable for their excess of unfair trade with the United States. In doing so, he has offended virtually everyone; which is okay with me. I think comedian Dennis Miller may have put it better than anyone else when explaining about current President Trump. As Dennis Miller said, “The simple fact is that if Trump was vaguely presidential, he wouldn’t be President”. I think that pretty much explains the situation. With the fabulous economy we enjoy today, the Democrats fully realize that they are not likely to beat this President at the polls so they must distract the attention of the public away from the economy.

So, my new worry is if Senator Elizabeth Warren were to win the democratic nomination and the Presidency, what effect would it have on the markets? Remember, she has openly wanted higher marginal tax rates, hikes in capital gains rates, and a higher tax on dividends. In addition to all of that, she wants a wealth tax on the richest people with a net worth more than $50 million. The net effect of higher taxes is to take money out of the pockets of consumers and turn it over to the government to allocate. Maybe that would be better, but not according to the economics books I read.

Medicare for all sounds attractive on paper, but consider how it would be run. The government does virtually nothing better than the private sector except defense. If you want your health program run by your local DMV, that’s where it ends up. I cannot even fathom that being a logical solution for most voters.

Regardless of what you hear in the financial news, the economy is still doing well. Surely there have been pockets of weakness but with the Federal Reserve now cutting interest rates and with the lower tax rates that are currently enforced, it would certainly not surprise me to see earnings actually up in the fourth quarter on a year-by-year basis. In summary the three components of higher stock prices are firmly in place. Interest rates are low and getting lower, earnings are high and stable, and the economy is strong and resilient and is likely to remain so for two years to come. Based on that trifecta of positive economic news, we expect equity prices over the next year to be higher than they are today.

I had to force you to read all of the updated financial information to get to the entertaining part of this posting. My history with the Atlanta Braves goes back, in many cases, before many of you were even born. I never started out to be a huge baseball fan; it just seemed to fall into my lap and has become an integral part of my past and hopefully future.

When I was attending Georgia State University to get one of my three graduate degrees, I did so at night after work. At that time, I was single and really had nothing else to do, so after school I would drive over to the old Atlanta Fulton County Stadium and park right outside the main entrance. In those days it was not uncommon that they would only have 3,000-4,000 people at a game. I would buy a General Admission ticket for $2, or oftentimes it would be so late when I arrived that they would not be collecting admission. You could go in the general admission part of the stadium, walk around and sit directly behind home plate since those seats were rarely used. I watched many games during the 1972-1976 Hank Aaron era. I would conservatively say I probably saw Hank Aaron hit 100 of his 755 homeruns during that time. The Braves rarely won, but I admired the ability of certain members on that team.

Josh, age 2, enjoying the Braves (1997)

Josh, age 3, at a Braves game (1998)

My real participation started in 1989. As many of you know, I had a long history with the former WTBS announcer Craig Sager. Not only did Craig and I have the majority ownership in the sports bar Jocks & Jills, we also had a long personal relationship before he died a few years ago. Craig had a difficult personality in a lot of respects. He was sure he knew everybody, and he could open doors no one else could open. In 1989 Craig agreed to buy four season tickets on the second row behind the dugout at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. The interesting part of that story is that while he agreed to buy them, he never had any intention of paying for them. When the invoice came due, he forwarded it to me since he thought maybe I would enjoy having them. At that time, four season tickets to the Atlanta Braves was outrageously expensive and clearly, I did not feel like I could afford them. However, since they were good seats and since Craig Sager had arranged them, I went on and purchased them. During those days the Braves were not very good, and I could hardly give the seats away. Who would have ever thought that in 1991 the Braves would go from last to first place and go to their first World Series game?

Due to these season tickets, I was honored to go to the World Series in 1991, 1992, 1995, 1996 and 1999. How many people can boast that they have actually attended World Series games in five years during the 1990’s decade? I was even there the night that Atlanta won the World Series in 1995. Tommy Glavine pitched a shutout and David Justice hit a homerun that won the series against the Cleveland Indians. I was there when they won 17 straight division championships; it has been a good run.

I have seen many interesting things and being with the Atlanta Braves has played a major part in the upbringing of my children. The first time I can recall taking Josh to a game was the September 30th, 1997 playoff game with the Houston Astros. At that time Josh was only 2 years old and as you can see from the picture, he fell asleep shortly before the first pitch. Later, when he regained some knowledge of what was going on, I thought it might be interesting if I got him a baseball from the field. I had come to know Braves shortstop Jeff Blauser quite well, so as they were coming off the field, I motioned to Jeff to throw me a ball so I could give it to Josh. When he did, I handed it to Josh to which he immediately threw it back at an unsuspecting Jeff – luckily he dodged it in time. I still have that very baseball in my office.

I was also there in July of 1993 when the press box caught on fire. As you can see from the picture I took that night, it was quite an event and the game was delayed for a couple hours before finally putting out the fire.

Press box on fire 1993 
David Justice and Deion Sanders

I was also there during the World Series in 1992 when Deion Sanders played for both the Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta Braves during the same season. Quite a media storm occurred when Deion would leave the Atlanta Falcons practice field and fly by helicopter to Atlanta Fulton County Stadium so he could play in the World Series. I was also there when they traded Deion Sanders to the Cincinnati Reds and completely destroyed the morale of the team that year. Deion was a huge fan-favorite, but not until later did we find out that behind the scenes he was very disruptive to the team and not the type of player Bobby Cox was used to coaching.

I was also there for the very last game in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, which was an eerie experience. Even though that stadium was clearly a dump by any standard, it was all I really knew when it came to professional baseball. It was pretty crazy to see the players come on the field at the end of that game, with David Justice walking around the stadium with his handheld camcorder to memorize the event for himself. As you know, in 1996 the stadium was imploded to make room for the new Turner Field which would be used in the 1996 Olympics.

Moving over to Turner Field, we had exactly the same seats and went through many memorable events there as well. I was there in 2000 when Sammy Sosa bounced homeruns off the 755 Club as he won the Home Run Derby. Looking back on the event, it should have been self-evident to everyone that steroids played a large part in his success given that those shots were well over 500 feet. The 2000s were not as successful for the Braves, but many of my clients were able to use those tickets since we have sold them to them for half-price for 30 straight years. Many interesting things happened during the 2000’s, but we never reached the success that we had in the 1990s. I even got to throw out the first pitch at Turner’s Field in 2005.

One memorable event that did happen at Turner Field was that of an unfortunate foul ball. Despite having tickets for 30 years now, I have never once actually caught a foul ball. It really could be said that I have never even been around a foul ball. They have been hit in my area, but I never really had a shot at catching one. I have been given over 100 balls by players coming off the field, but a foul ball, I have never caught.

In 2016, Dakota, Josh, and I took Ava to a Braves game. At that time Ava was about five years old. At some point during the game, a ball ricocheted off the dugout and actually hit Ava in the arm. Josh and I are both large people, above 6’4 in height, so the fact that a foul ball could find her between the two of us was quite remarkable. She was not badly hurt but, as you would expect, the medics quickly rushed to her to make sure no damage was done. It definitely made a lasting impression; her explanation when asked to go to any games after that was “Daddy, football hurts”. That led us to change seats at the new SunTrust Park. Now we have seats adjacent to the home plate on the eighth row; close enough to see the action, but behind a protective screen. Yes, we were there when Ronald Acuna, Jr. had a Grand Slam against the Dodgers in the 2018 playoffs. This team is exciting, but I guess it really makes no difference. I intend to be a season ticket holder for the next 30 years and whichever team they field, I will be there.

On that note, come visit with us and discuss your goals and financial plans. If you are interested in discussing your specific financial situation, please feel free to call or email.

As always, the foregoing includes my opinions, assumptions and forecasts. It is perfectly possible that I am wrong.

Best Regards,
Joe Rollins