technological advancement

Never the Same Normal Twice

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At the start of 2020, few people could have guessed the whiplash and lasting impact the novel coronavirus has caused. The pandemic has affected each of us in different ways, some minor and some profound.

“The return to normalcy” has been a stated goal for many individuals, leaders, and communities. And different people have different perspectives on the types of costs they are willing to pay in the interest of the return to normalcy.

But what is normal?

Some of you are reading these words on the screen of a cell phone. A few decades ago, this moment would’ve sounded absurd. Our website is available online: 50 years ago, the internet was still firmly in the realm of science fiction. Heck, a century ago, the notion of an electronic programmable computer itself was beyond imagination.

Many things that we take for granted in our lives, it turns out, are hardly “normal” at all: in the big scheme, our everyday circumstances would be new and alien to those who came before us. The routines of our daily lives, the things that feel so comfortable and natural to us, are often a product of a specific time and place in human history.

The oldest among us—just at the edge of living memory—were born in a world that would have found many of our habits and rituals unrecognizable.

Other things, however, they would recognize in an instant. Survivors of the 1918 influenza epidemic would have been keenly familiar with wearing face masks in public and witnessing the ongoing debate about their usefulness and appropriateness. Stories about overcrowded hospitals and overworked doctors and discussions about “flattening the curve” would not have been new (or surprising) to them.

It turns out that not only is our “normal” actually abnormal, but our “abnormal” is more normal than we might think.

Someday, hopefully in the not-too-distant future, we will be able to close the chapter on this pandemic and our lives will return to normal.

… Which is to say, they will be different, new, and unprecedented. Just like always.


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Portfolio Themes: Spring 2022 Updates

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In our portfolio management, we try to pick and choose our spots. We’re investing for the long term, after all. We are not indexers; we invest in individual companies for their unique characteristics and the potential behind their story. We avoid knee-jerk reactions to any day-to-day news.  

Sometimes, though, the daily news covers an issue that’s big enough to linger. Much of the news cycle lately has been dedicated to the war in Ukraine. The implications for the global economy are profound and have a direct impact on our work. 

The war may be accelerating trends that were already there, but now they are more pressing. 

OIL, ENERGY, FOOD, & BEYOND 

Maybe you’ve noticed at the gas station, but one of the big impacts is the price of oil. In the short term, we foresee great profits for oil companies, but skyrocketing oil prices and energy uncertainty have also renewed interest in the next energy revolution. Solar power and electric vehicles have been on their way for a long time, but the world needs them more urgently than ever before. 

These issues are interconnected with trends in agriculture. Ukraine and Russia are not only both food producers: they’re even bigger producers of fertilizers, supplies, and equipment. Agricultural commodities were already on the rise before war broke out, so food producers around the world were already investing heavily in new planting. The journey ahead will be interesting for even “boring” food production and distribution companies, but greater profits may be rapidly approaching. 

THE IMPACT OF INTEREST RATES 

Those rising prices have energized more interest in durable commodities such as copper and gold, which we’ve been following in our shop for a long time

But the double whammy of rising interest rates and rising materials costs has a cooling effect on the housing industry, which we have been easing out of by steps. The shortage in the nation’s housing supply persists—and probably will for a spell. For now, homebuilders are a longer-term, lower-priority investment for us. 

WHAT THE PANDEMIC MEANS FOR TECH 

In times of strife, investors tend to seek comfort and safety, so more volatile sectors such as technology are starting to come back down to earth. We believe this may create buying opportunities in software and internet companies, which are less vulnerable to high interest rates and commodity prices. (They are often light on debt and low on material costs.) 

Even as COVID-19 continues across the globe, some areas of life have become more manageable. The air is clearing a little for airlines and travel stocks, although we are more interested in another area of potential: biotech and pharmaceutical companies. While pharmacy stocks may be easing as the pandemic rally subsides, we are looking forward to new breakthroughs in the years ahead. The advances made in the pandemic, we believe, will prove to offer even more applications elsewhere in the future. 

TAKING STOCK 

The world is a complex place. As always, our thinking evolves on a weekly basis through our research process. Our vision, however, stays trained on these longer-term trends—and what they mean for our longer-term plans and planning. 

Clients, want to know what this means for your portfolio? Please email us or call. 


Content in this material is for general information only and not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.  

Stock investing includes risks, including fluctuating prices and loss of principal. 

The economic forecasts set forth in this material may not develop as predicted and there can be no guarantee that strategies promoted will be successful. 


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In Business to Talk All Day

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Dire need first drove us to it. Fortunate circumstances made it possible. Now, with more dedicated resources than ever, it’s clear that 21st century communications have transformed our work with you. 

Now we are striving to be available in the forms and places that suit you best. And believe it or not, we think our communications with you are an important part of our mission to try to grow your bucket. 

Clients, maybe you’ve experienced this in your own work and communities. Keeping the channels open is not an extra step you add onto your relationships: communicating is just part of it!

Our work is really a joint venture, a collaboration with you. It does not matter if we can find favorable investment opportunities and manage portfolios in advantageous ways if clients don’t understand why we are doing what we are doing. They might feel driven to sell out at what could be the wrong time. No guarantees that our views are right, but at least you will always know what they are. 

This is why our bountiful communications with you are so key. You know what we are doing; you see our principles in action. With all that, you tend to stick with the program at crucial times when it might otherwise have been difficult to do so. 

For instance, with the best clients in the world, we can take on unpopular but potentially profitable ideas. And we don’t need to jump on every fad or chase popular but overpriced concepts. Each week you hear from us—and get our take on which stories are actually news worth knowing. 

We’ve been working on improvements in our communications program across the last year. Whether you prefer to read, or listen, or watch, you can find us! Have you caught us on our website, or visited the podcast, or watched us on YouTube? Or do you like your content best on social media? 

Here is an update of where you can find us: 

  • The blog at 228Main.com now includes an audio version of every post, playable right below each story. 
  • Want audio only? It’s available as a stand-alone podcast on SpotifyGoogle, and Anchor
  • The weekly “Clients, You Know What I’m Talking About!” videos and more are available on our YouTube Channel. Subscribe or drop in anytime. 

  • The email newsletter “The Weekly Note” rounds up the best of the blog, socials, and updates—short and sweet, in your inbox just once a week. Leave your email here to get it. 
  • You can also find news and notes and commentary from us daily on socials, at FacebookTwitter, and LinkedIn

Clients, you can make it interactive any time you want, by replying to an email newsletter, calling, or stopping by 228 Main. We love to hear from you! 


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Takeovers Mean Turmoil

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Recent news in the investment industry touched close to home in Nebraska. Charles Schwab is to buy TDAmeritrade, and move the headquarters to Texas. How many of the 2250 jobs will be left in Nebraska is uncertain. A lot of things will change.

The first shares of stock I ever bought were at the discount brokerage firm Joe Ricketts founded. At the time, the place had fewer than twenty employees. It was in a second floor walkup office in a second-rate building in downtown Omaha. The lobby had a most amazing gizmo: a little Quotron machine. You could punch in a stock symbol, and it would show you the current price.

Those prices were not in dollars and cents, but dollars and fractions. XYZ might be selling at 27 ½ , ABC at 9 ¼.

Before personal computers, before the internet, stock quotes were something you got out of the newspaper or called your broker for. The afternoon paper had noon prices; the morning paper had the previous day’s closing prices.

But in the Ameritrade lobby, a dozen patrons stood in an endless loop of a line, waiting for a turn at the Quotron. They punched the symbols in, looked at the prices (some wrote them down), then went to the back of the line to wait for another turn. Daytrading took more patience then.

Later, the firm pioneered getting information to the people by making stock quotes available from any touch-tone phone. (Kids, ask your grandparents what I’m talking about.) Then the internet made a lot more things possible.

It is not for me to judge the takeover transaction; it evidently makes sense to the people who are making the decisions. We will do our best to help affected employees, of course. We will always remember the typically American story of innovation and success that Ameritrade represents.

Clients, if you would like to talk about this or anything else, please email us or call.


Content in this material is for general information only and not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

Progress Beyond Our Dreams

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In the spring of 1902, Brooklyn printers by the name of Sackett & Wilhelms had a problem. It is doubtful whether anyone realized the vast ramifications the solution would bring.

When the humidity changed, the printers found that the paper expanded and contracted, causing their four color printing process to come out misaligned. Wasted days, wasted paper–it was a pretty big problem. Fortunately, a young engineer at the Buffalo Forge had an idea.

The engineer drew plans for a device to control the humidity of the print shop, and the crew from Buffalo Forge installed it. It was the first of its kind. By the end of the summer, the device had been a success.

It took four years for someone else to come up with the name “air conditioning.” Systems spread to other commercial enterprises, and eventually to other businesses, homes, and even to automobiles. As we approach the summer months here in the 21st century, it is hard to imagine life without air conditioning!

The engineer, who was just a year out of college when he drew the plans, later founded and ran his own company. You might have heard of Willis Carrier’s air conditioning company.

Every day, somewhere people are working on solutions to problems the cost us money, time, health, or some other resource. Others are working on things that may improve our lives, or entertain us, or provide some other advantage. Our everyday lives contain scores of things that did not even exist twenty or forty years ago.

For most of history, this is not how things worked. Life was nasty, brutish, and short. Generations came and went, but little changed. Then modernity unleashed human creativity and potential like never before.

This may be the key factor behind the seemingly perpetual upward tendency of the equity markets, all the way back to their origins.

We have mentioned this before, but it bears repeating: stock markets are volatile. They go up and down. There are no guarantees. But they may represent a way to invest in human potential. Clients, please call or write if you would like to talk about this.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

This Will Change the World

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The human tendency is to believe that present circumstances will continue. The gap between expectations and unfolding reality is where profit potential lives. Therefore understanding unanticipated change is one of the key tasks in our quest for investment gains.

Two related trends are about to unleash massive change and opportunity. If we can puzzle out some of the ramifications, it may serve us very well.

Solar power, being a technology, is declining in cost about ten percent per year. In some applications, it is already competitive with more conventional sources. As the cost continues to decline, we may surmise that solar power will represent an increasing fraction of world energy production—and the overall cost of electricity may begin to fall.

The second trend is the declining cost of energy storage. Bloomberg recently reported on the ribbon-cutting of a power-plant size array of batteries, in California, for meeting peaks in demand. The cost of the facility is twice that of a conventional natural gas peaking plant.

Although paying double does not seem to be an economic threat to the old way of doing things, Bloomberg reports that the cost of storage on that scale has dropped 90% in a decade. Again, energy storage is a technology, and the cost of technology tends to drop over time. We know how this works, right?

Connect the dots: we soon may have ever-cheaper energy available when we need it, courtesy of what we might call the Next Energy Revolution.

Economic history is largely a story of new sources of energy. Water power and steam power launched the modern era more than two centuries ago, with the Industrial Revolution. Petroleum in all its forms was central to the astonishing change and growth in the 20th century. What changes will the next revolution bring?

• Given lower costs for energy, will households consume more of it, or spend more money on other things?

• Will less developed areas of the world modernize more rapidly, powered by the sun?

• Does this hasten the rise of electric vehicles?

• Which companies or industries will be helped by cheaper energy? Which will suffer?

• How much wealthier will the world be, as a consequence?

Change brings opportunities and threats. We have begun to identify winners and losers in the next energy revolution. Much more study and thought will be required. Please call or email us if you would like to discuss how this affects your situation.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. All performance referenced is historical and is no guarantee of future results.

What’s Next?

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Fifty years ago, comic strip hero Dick Tracy’s famous 2-way wrist radio got upgraded to a 2-way wrist TV. Forty years ago, visionaries were talking about telephones that would fit in a shirt pocket. Instead of each home having a phone number, each person would have one. In between those dates, the country’s only telephone company introduced push-button “dialing” as an alternative to the rotary dial.

You all know the rest of the story. In many respects, what seemed like science fiction or fantasy in decades past has become a routine part of everyday modern life. The same is true in many aspects of our lives.

There are constants in life, of course. We each seek to make a difference, to be happy, to provide for ourselves and others, to smile and be smiled at, to connect with our fellow human beings. Many of our most fundamental impulses remain unchanged since the dawn of time.

So the conditions of our world are a mix of unchanging things like human nature and the sun rising in the East, and rapid change in other things. All the way back in 1970, futurist Alvin Toffler wrote about “Future Shock,” a perception of too much change in too short a period of time. If anything, the pace of change has accelerated since then.

In life, we suspect that being grounded in the enduring truths help equip us to adapt to change.

In the field of investing, we believe that understanding the unchanging aspects of human nature help us understand and deal with change. The ever-evolving landscapes of the economy, markets, companies, and technology produce constant and unpredictable changes. But no matter how different the world may seem, new changes will still produce reactions and over-reactions, fads and manias, and varying amounts of fear and greed.

We will admit it. We are entranced with the conflict between simple eternal principles and the endless complexity of the world. Making sense of it to help people in their real lives—that’s why we wake up and get to work every day. If you would like to talk to us about your situation, write or email us.